Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Spiritual Journey for the Secular

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs

The title of this book is a meaningful mouthful. Jacobs, a secular Jew who recently read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica for his last memoir, decides to tackle America's other foundational tome--arguably the one in ascendance of late--by attempting to follow every rule in the Bible.

Those expecting hilarity to ensue will not be disappointed; there are many humorous scenes and throughout the book Jacobs's tone is so friendly and welcoming that the urge to read just a few more pages is almost irresistible. But, while Jacobs begins his quest to make a point about fundamentalism--and, without a doubt, succeeds in making it--he also discovers, over the course of the year, the wisdom behind a great many religious teachings. In a year that has seen several books extolling the virtues of atheism, it is heartening to see someone from the secularist side examine the virtues that even we who do not follow a particular creed can find in the Bible.

Jacobs also ventures out to meet people who follow the Bible according to their own interpretation, from the Amish to a snake handler whose small church focuses on following passages literally that most consider metaphor. He goes to Jerry Falwell's church to hear the now-deceased bigot give a surprisingly tame sermon and talks with red letter Christians whose emphasis on the words of Jesus gives them a bent 180 degrees from the current Republican platform.

In short, Jacobs, while following as much of the Bible as literally as he can, learns how others pick and choose--and his book, besides being a humorous and enlightening read, is a good manual for those who would follow his lead in learning to be more grateful for life's everyday blessings. This is a wonderful work that I won't soon forget!

This review has been posted on The Year of Living Biblically will be released October 9 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Another Triumph for Ann Patchett

Run, Ann Patchett

Run tackles so many different issues so effortlessly—interracial families, adoption, the untimely death of a parent or spouse, a crisis of faith, and the question of what to do with one’s life—that one wonders whether Ann Patchett started out to write an “issue novel” and came up with this pretty meditation on an unconventional family instead.

But it is clear on reflection that her story flows from her characters rather than causes—and what intriguing characters they are! The former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle, who adopted two black sons, lost his wife Bernadette to cancer, left office under a cloud, and lost his relationship with his biological son. That son, Sullivan, who fled to Africa for reasons that only become clear late in the book. The two adopted sons, Tip and Teddy, both fortunate in their adopted circumstances but chafing under the pressure of their widowed father’s expectations. And their uncle, Father Sullivan, whose dotage as an aging priest is interrupted by those who believe he is a miraculous healer.

Their lives are changed in one night when they meet Tennessee and her daughter, Kenya. With a random accident in a snowstorm as her jumping-off point, Patchett slowly reveals one character’s secret after another, and as the characters come to terms with who they are and what they have done, the drama of decades of family life settles into a new and improved status quo.

To reveal more would spoil the numerous surprises Patchett plants throughout the novel, though even a thorough foreknowledge of the plot would not diminish the enjoyment of reading the prose. The dialogue rings true, while Patchett’s descriptions—be they of a setting, a facial expression, a memory—are lyrical and lovely.

Readers who come to this via Bel Canto will be pleased; if anything Patchett is in even better form. If she keeps up at this rate, she may well write the great American novel next—if she hasn’t already. Highly recommended.

This review has been posted on Run will be released October 1 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Big Gay Deal

YouTube - LukeVanFan

YouTube is good for many things. It taught me that Ricky Gervais is the funniest man alive, allows me to rewatch the last minutes of Six Feet Under (and cry, again) whenever I want, and made at least one of the 47 Democratic debates this year interesting.

But this week I have discovered its ultimate use. The link above leads to the video collection created by LukeVanFan, who has been painstakingly cataloging the evolving Luke/Noah storyline that's been unfolding on As the World Turns. Last Friday, that storyline took a brave leap forward, as out Luke was kissed by ostensibly straight Noah. The first gay kiss on daytime TV!

In bygone days, I'd either have to settle for reading about all of this or add another CBS soap to our DVR's task list--and I don't know if the poor thing can handle another frothy hour. But now, in the time it would have taken me to fast-forward through all the commercials and other plotlines on ATWT, I can keep up with Luke and Noah by watching their every word, their every awkward silence. Thank you, LukeVanFan!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Early Review

First Person Plural by Andrew W.M. Beierle

First Person Plural has a premise that sounds almost ridiculous. It tells the story of conjoined twins who have two heads, two hearts, two sexual orientations—and one set of sex organs. From the perspective of the narrator—Owen, the gay twin—the reader travels on a very strange, but surprisingly believable, journey as each twin comes to terms with their shared condition and they negotiate the numerous difficulties that they face.

For the first 75 pages or so of the book, I found myself flipping to the author photo in the back, wondering if he was hiding a second head somewhere in the shadows. The story felt that real! The book does require a certain suspension of disbelief, though; the straight twin, Porter, plays quarterback for the high school football team and dates a cheerleader. The pair become semicelebrities, forming a rock band and touring the country. They encounter people fascinated by their condition and surprisingly few who find them out-and-out revolting. They each explore their sexuality—the one who’s trying to check out of the action mentally often wears headphones.

All of that is compelling, and indeed when I turned the last page I found myself wondering how things would work out for Porter and Owen. But toward the end of the novel one of the characters goes from heart warmer to harridan in a quick turn of events that threatens the pair’s carefully organized life. Obviously a plot needs some sort of conflict to carry on, but this particular upset, and the consequences it has for all of the characters, seemed to come a bit late in the game.

Nevertheless, First Person Plural is easily one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time; the oddity of having two heads creates a sort of hyper-reality through which Owen views life’s ups and downs more clearly and philosophically than the typical one-headed person. A quick and engrossing read, and definitely worth checking out.

This review will be posted on when this book is released on August 28. The publisher provided an early review copy.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Seeing Double

Los Angeles Times: Top of the Ticket: Politics, coast to coast, with the L.A. Times

I know I just said I didn't need to comment on politics anymore, but I do have my niche, and this falls into it:
It is a perennial complaint, heard election after election: Too many Americans don't vote. But based on a massive new survey, one segment of the population surely must be excluded from this rebuke --- gays.

The study this spring by San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. found that an eye-popping 92.5% of gay men reported that they voted in the 2004 presidential race, and almost 84% said they cast ballots in the 2006 midterm election. Among lesbians, the results were almost as impressive; nearly 91% said they voted in 2004; for the midterm, the figure was 78%.

By comparison, the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate put the turnout for all Americans eligible to vote at about 61% in 2004 and roughly 40% in 2006.

I can't imagine better news. But this must make the Republicans crazy. "No wonder we lost in 2006," they should be thinking. "We spent a decade demonizing people who vote at twice the rate of most people." Of course, they're not thinking that. But until they do, I'm sure I'm not the only gay man committed to maintaining our stratospheric rate of democratic (and Democratic) participation.

Let Freedom Reign!

TIMESSELECT CONTENT FREED | By HOLLY M. SANDERS | Business News | Financial | Business and Money

Putting all of the opinion columnists behind a for-pay firewall wasn't a mistake on the order of invading Iraq (the reference in my header above is to Bush's note on a napkin on hearing of the invasion's so-called success), but the New York Times certainly damaged its online presence by doing so. Let's face it, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman and Frank Rich are good, but worth paying $50 a year? The Times should be able to make enough from online ad revenue to avoid that kind of audience-limiting fee.

And it looks like they will. I'm sure Dowd and co. are thrilled to be on the verge of regaining their wider audience. The question is, will people come back? It's been a while since I laughed out loud at Dowd; will I and others like me get back in the habit? We'll know soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Four More Years

While I was flying home from New York on Sunday, this blog turned four. As the "Blogiversary" appointment on my calendar popped up that morning before I shut down my laptop for my trip home, I wondered: Do I still have something to say?

I do, of course, though I find myself less inclined to write about each upheaval in the political world. I didn't even write last week about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis--and I took that bridge to and from work every day for two years.

Two interesting things happened in the last two days. The first was my tryout for Jeopardy. I went downtown yesterday and joined 22 other people who had passed an online contestant test earlier this year in taking another test, playing a mock game, and being interviewed by the contestant-finding team. They didn't give any indication of who had done well or poorly, but I felt good walking out. At some point in the next 18-24 months, my phone may ring, and it may be Jeopardy calling to invite me to appear on the show. Anyone who knows how nervous I am by nature can imagine how I will be reacting to a ringing phone from now on...

The other interesting thing, which has more to do with the blog, is that I was invited this morning into Amazon's Vine program, which is starting soon. The program has a lengthy description, but it boils down to this sentence from my invitation: "As a member of this exclusive community, you will have free access to pre-release and new products, as well as the opportunity to be among the very first to review them."

I'm also allowed--encouraged, in fact--to post these early reviews on my blog. So, expect to see more reviews of new books, movies, and music in the future, and less political commentary. (I think you've figured it out by now, right? Gay marriage? Yes. Stay in Iraq forever? No. Democrats? Good, mostly. Republicans? Bad, mostly. Religious Right? Bane of my existence.) And, of course, you'll still see discussion of the plethora of TV shows I'll be watching again come fall. Though the jury is still out on watching the next season of Idol come January...