Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels)

After reading The Lost Symbol last week, I thought I should take a look at a book that addressed some of the religious ideas that Dan Brown mentions in the novel. I took a look at what I had on my shelf, and noticed The Gnostic Gospels, which I remembered purchasing as book #3 off the "Buy 2, Get the 3rd Free" table at Barnes & Noble a while back. Gnosticism refers to a group of religious movements that centered around the idea that God resides within the human body, which just happened to be the kind of thing I was looking to read about this week.


Back in 1945, a collection of ancient books and papers were discovered hidden in a clay jar that had been buried in the side of an Egyptian cliff. After a brief stint on the black market, the books finally found their way into the hands of the Egyptian government, who sent them to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The books were a collection of gnostic gospels, written between the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by early Christians outside of the main catholic church, that had been condemned and labeled heretical and blasphemous. Elaine Pagels was one of the first scholars given access to the texts, and The Gnostic Gospels identifies some of the findings produced from her research.

Now, I guess I can't really be upset because I didn't actually pay for this book (and even if I had, it's been sitting on my shelf so long that it wouldn't matter). I was a little disappointed, though. While Pagels definitely writes about her findings in a clear and accessible way, it's not a terribly interesting book. She briefly touches upon some of the specific teachings and "mysteries" behind the gnostic religions, but for the most part this is an analytical history book, comparing the main "orthodox" branch of the early Christian church to its gnostic counterparts. There's a lot of citation and referencing, and the book reads almost like a college dissertation. Many of the passages Pagels quotes are either repeated frequently or are very similar to other passages. From a purely academic standpoint, sure, it gets the point across quite well: the early orthodox Christians were different from the early gnostic Christians. Okay, but that's not necessarily all that interesting. Pagels fails to delve into some of the more sensational aspects of early gnosticism, or to even speculate on what the findings might mean to the church today. In her conclusion, she remarks that, had these texts been discovered before the modern era, they would have most likely been burned for being heretical. Since they were found so recently, however, scientists have been able to preserve and study them without much interference from the church, without fear of their existence having damaging implications for Christianity in general. That's about as far Pagels takes it, though. If you're someone who is interested in the scholarly pursuit of religious history, then this book might be for you. Otherwise, you can probably leave this one alone if you see it on the bargain table at your local bookstore.


The Gnostic Gospels
by Elaine Pagels

No story here. Pagels chooses to use the writings of a few contemporary philosophers and early Christian figures as repeated references, but not to the point where it doesn't still feel research-based.

This is all very important stuff if you care at all about religious history and the evolution of the church. Otherwise, it's just a research paper.

Pagels is repetitive and doesn't choose to sensationalize her findings, instead using excerpts from letters written at the time to support the idea that the gnostics were Christians not supported by the church. That's about it, though. She discusses some of the practices of these gnostics, but presents them merely as facts and addresses them as they pertain to the doctrine they were competing against. Had she put forth any notion that these gnostic practices might affect faith and the church of today, it might have been a little more interesting.


Sorry this week's book was a bummer. I was excited to continue along the religious/spiritual path that I had started from reading Dan Brown last week. Unfortunately, the real world isn't quite as absurd as Brown would like us to believe. Oh well. Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown)

Unless you don't care about books at all (in which case you most likely aren't reading this review anyway), you probably know that this week saw the publication of Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol. Hot on the heels of his last bestselling novel, 2003's The Da Vinci Code, Brown's new book has been generating a lot of buzz around the literary world. It hit the shelves on Tuesday, so I figured I would pick it up and check it out for you guys.


The Lost Symbol follows the events of a hectic 12-hour period in the life of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon as he tries to decipher ancient codes and puzzles in order to prevent the unspeakable from happening. Wait a minute, wasn't that the plot of The Da Vinci Code? And Angels & Demons before that? Hold on. The Da Vinci Code took place in Paris and London; Angels & Demons took place in Italy; The Lost Symbol takes place in Washington, D.C., and they all have different love interests. Phew, that was a close one. So anyway, Robert Langdon is called in to solve a mystery that only he can solve, because apparently no one else in the world knows anything about history, symbology, architecture, or the occult. Langdon's a middle-aged man with an academic background, but he keeps in shape by swimming laps in the Harvard pool every morning, so he can handle huge adventures like this every couple years.

Whoops, sorry. Wrong guy. This middle-aged academic:

Oh wow, this is so embarrassing.

There we go, sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yeah, so Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, is amazing. It's like nothing he's ever written before. Robert Langdon gets called in to help solve this mystery that only he can solve, that revolves around ancient symbols and legends that only he knows of somehow. There's a family secret that gets revealed towards the end (that doesn't happen in his other books, right?), and hidden chambers beneath famous landmarks, and what else? Oh yeah, there's a no-nonsense investigator and a really bizarre, larger-than-life villain who's determined to make sure that Robert Langdon does not survive the night. How does Dan Brown come up with this stuff?

Seriously, though, folks. Despite the fact that The Lost Symbol is almost the exact same book, with the exact same plot, and a lead character who is extremely boring and seems to have lost a lot of personality since the last book and is now virtually a walking encyclopedia instead of the main focus of the story, it's actually very suspenseful and fun to read. It's a little too long, though, and slightly anti-climactic, and he uses italics at least sixteen times on every single page.

Somehow, despite all of that, I still enjoyed reading this book. Like I said, it's suspenseful. Brown never enters a scene without teasing a new mystery, and never answers a question without posing another. The chapters are short, which keeps the book moving along at a decent pace, and there's a ton of action to keep things interesting. I'm also a fan of the whole idea of this pseudo-factual historical puzzle genre, so I like seeing the characters figure things out. Sometimes I knew what was coming, but at other times I was completely wrong, and that's always a good thing. The book is a little too long, though. Towards the end, Brown gets really repetitive and his final summation of what the reader should have learned from the book is heavy handed—almost Ayn Rand-ish. He doesn't over-reference his other books, which is good, but on the flip side I feel like maybe the events of the previous two adventures would have had a more lasting effect on Langdon. Everything is tidied up nicely at the end, but if you're looking for a huge "OMGSHE'SRELATEDTOJESUSWTF" moment in this one, you're gonna be disappointed. I liked the book, I don't think it was a waste of my time because it was fun and kept me guessing, but it definitely could have been a lot better.


The Lost Symbol
by Dan Brown

Brown needed to go above and beyond what he's already done in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but he sticks with the formula instead. It's good, but the puzzles aren't necessarily more shocking or exciting than in his previous books.

He's very good at writing this novel—considering he's done it three times now—and I'm sure on its own it would be much more exciting, but looking at this book in comparison to the other two... it's just formula at this point.

It's easy to read, easy to get through, keeps the reader engaged and guessing: theoretically this a great book. I doubt anyone would read this book and hate it. It just lacks the spark of a really good novel. Robert Langdon is not a very interesting character anymore. He hasn't grown or evolved, and could honestly be substituted for a good Wikipedia page in this one.


I can see why people might enjoy this book, but I doubt I'll ever pick up another one of Dan Brown's novels unprovoked ever again. Until next Friday, keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters)

Remember a few months ago when I reviewed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Remember how much I absolutely loved that book? Well, this Tuesday, September 15, Quirk Books, the publisher of P&P&Z, is releasing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the next installment of its "literary monster-mash ups" series. Lucky for all you Genoshans out there, I was able to get my hands on an advance copy of S&S&SM, and it is with tremendous pleasure that I am able to review it for you now.


Similar to its predecessor, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters adapts a classic Jane Austen work and introduces an element of supernatural gore to feast on the unsuspecting British elite. In this story, the Dashwood sisters—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—and their mother are forced from their home upon the death of their father (who was devoured by a hammerhead shark, by the way). They are invited to stay in a cottage on the property of a relation of theirs, the adventure-seeking Sir John Middleton, and adapt to their new lives quickly. All is not how it seems, however. Hideous sea monsters plague the shores of their island home, often sinking ships or interrupting beach bonfires to gorge on fashionable young ladies. All of these dangers, however, take a back seat to the most pressing problem in the young Miss Dashwoods' lives—finding a husband.

I loved the first book, and even though Quirk pulled in a different author for this one, it's definitely got the same basic feel to it. In both books, the inciting incident that produces such dreadful monsters—be it of the undead or aquatic variety—is never explained, although characters often have their own theories. It isn't necessary, though. In this one in particular, Winters just drops us in the middle of a world where humans have to constantly cope with the idea that any body of water could at any time hold creatures that want to devour them. S&S&SM differs from P&P&Z somewhat in its commitment to the ridiculousness of it's premise. The synergy between the new text and the Austen original isn't as clean, but I don't think that it really loses anything. There are a few story points that could possibly be a little clearer, but every time Winters strays from the original story he tends to do it in a way that enhances the sea monsterness of the whole book, so overall I'm okay with it. Instead of going to London, for example, Elinor and Marianne spend several months in Sub-Marine Station Beta (don't even ask what happened to Sub-Marine Station Alpha, tsk tsk tsk). Winters takes many more liberties with the text than his predecessor, and while he sacrifices that feeling of seamless integration that I loved in P&P&Z, I think he makes up for in giant-octopus-just-attached-his-sucker-to-my-face awesomeness.

Now, if you weren't a fan of the first book, chances are you aren't going to like this one very much. While they differ—in some cases for the better, in other cases not so much—, the general tone and feel of the book is almost identical. Death is treated as a natural occurrence that most of the characters are completely indifferent to (unless it's their own). Usually people die in hilarious ways, like being speared by an angry narwhal or swallowed whole by a massive jellyfish, and that's great, but maybe some people aren't into that kind of thing. Other absurd elements include: an orangutan valet named Monsieur Pierre, dolphin riding, an entire set of characters married to the men who abducted them from their aboriginal home, a 35-year-old man with a crush on a teenager, and an octopus whistle. An octopus whistle! Come on, how is that not amazing?

P.S. You should definitely check out the book trailer that Quirk made. It'll give you a good idea of what to expect if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.


Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

It is an extremely enjoyable book, and the adaptation into a monstrous world is probably handled better in this book than in P&P&Z. However, on the whole I enjoy the original Pride and Prejudice more than the original Sense and Sensibility, so it suffers some points there. That's Jane Austen's fault, though, don't blame the sea monsters.

I obviously have to dock some points off of originality since it's basically a sequel, but those points come right back on considering this could have easily been another trendy vampire book, and instead they use sea monsters. Hilarious sea monsters, too. Like giant dancing lobsters and turtles that can be used to ferry around old ladies.

This book is brilliantly executed, and I highly recommend it. It's engaging, funny, and at times even suspenseful. I seriously couldn't put it down. Plus, most of the truly ridiculous moments include illustrations, which helps when trying to visualize what it would look like if a sea scorpion ever got into someone's diving suit. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot more of these published in the future.


Remember, Genoshans, you can pick up Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters in bookstores or online starting September 15, and that includes the audiobook and Kindle versions. I suggest you check it out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Year in Review

Now, most of these reflection-type posts happen around New Year's Day, but Wednesday was my 24th birthday, and I always associate September with the beginning of the new year anyway, so I'm gonna take this opportunity to look back on 23 and see what kind of year it was for my career, my writing, and my academic life in general.


This time last year I was just beginning my second semester in the University of Southern California's Master of Professional Writing Program. After a bust of a first semester, I was determined to get the most out of my money. My goals were fairly straightforward, but very important if I ever hoped to realistically consider a career in writing:

1) Continue to perfect my craft.
2) Develop more disciplined writing habits.
3) Meet more people who were interested/working in the industries I was hoping to break into (comic books and poetry, mostly, but writing is writing).

Last Fall I was retaking an intro class that I was forced to drop the previous semester for work reasons, as well as a Children's Literature class. At the time, I felt that the Children's Lit class was helping me make headway on goals 1 & 2, but when I look back on that semester, the idea of writing children's books was more of a sidetrack that took me away from the writing I should have been doing. I didn't take it very seriously, and never followed through on any of the projects that I hoped to send out to publishers. If I look at my "craft" as comic book and/or poetry writing, then I wasn't doing much to perfect my craft, and I don't consider finishing homework assignments to necessarily be developing more disciplined writing habits. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot, but what I learned wasn't immediately applicable to my career goals. The intro class that I was retaking, however, turned out to be much more exciting than I could have hoped. Having gone through much of the class the previous semester, I was initially dreading the course, but I hadn't considered the fact that the Fall semester meant new students, most of whom were in very similar places with their own writing as I was with mine. I was able to meet a ton of new writers, many of whom I expect to view as my peers and competition in the writing world for many years to come.

So 2008 ended in a strange place. I was working in the film industry for a company that I'd then been with for over a year, but which didn't have any direct relationship to my writing goals. I finished the semester with group of new contemporaries, but without any real progress made towards my writing itself. When the time came to make a New Year's resolution, goals 1 & 2 were way up there.

Enter The Daily Genoshan.

Over the Christmas break, I had read the Gabriel García Márquez masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, but knew few others that ever had. Having loved the book more than almost every other book I'd read up until that point, I needed an outlet for my overflowing praise. None of the literary forums I had found felt like the place to just be really excited about a book, so I decided to come up with a place of my own. I started The Daily Genoshan hoping that every week I would have a new book to review, honing my writing skills while simultaneously developing good habits. It didn't take right away, though. The first few months were inconsistent at best. Weeks would go by without a review. What had been set up as an outlet for my reactions to books I'd read was slowly turning into another idea on the "someday" pile.

Around April that began to change, though. I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my day job, and knew that, if I were to leave for any reason, I wouldn't want to jump into something else that wasn't writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't being a writer. So I started writing more proactively, instead of the reactive way that I'd been doing it for years. I started up another website, fivebyfivehundred, which I began writing for every Tuesday. I began taking TDG more seriously, making sure that I had something to review every Friday. I was also taking classes that helped me with all three of my goals. Things started really picking up.

And then I lost my job. At the end of May, I stopped working for the company that I had been with for almost two years. Instead of freaking out and rushing around to try to find a new job that I didn't want, though, I took a breath. I examined my finances, the money I had been saving while I was working, my expenses, what things I could do without, and I dove into the world of writing as a career. I began writing articles and reviews for local newspapers while I looked for other writing jobs or assignments. I started disciplining myself to the point where I now keep strict office hours for my writing, to make sure that I keep up my level of productivity. When the decision came up, I opted not to continue my cable service so that I wouldn't have the unnecessary daytime distraction. Most importantly, I kept writing.

Now, I don't make any pretenses about the fact that, were I not still a student, this would absolutely not be possible. But I am a student, and, for now, it is possible. When I graduate in May and have to begin paying back my loans every month, it's going to be a lot different. Luckily I have an amazing support system and have people around me who are proud of my accomplishments and don't discourage me from following this dream. As long as I can pay my own rent and don't have to move back in with my mom, my family understands that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. My friends, most of whom are lucky enough to be on their own way to careers they can be proud of, have been incredibly enthusiastic about my writing, which is always helpful. I'm also lucky enough to have an amazing girlfriend who helps keep me motivated and isn't afraid to let me know if I'm being less than responsible with my time or money.

As far as my goals? This summer I had a poem published in a magazine called Phantom Lips, which isn't the largest publication in the world, but it's something. I've also been recently named Poetry Editor of the Southern California Review, which isn't too shabby. I'm still writing articles and reviews for local newspapers (one of which can be found here), but am now working on my thesis and several other projects as well. One of my new goals is to be published more in the coming year. Another is to clean up and finish some of the projects that I would like to be shopping around and showing to people. Monday it will be 8 months since my first Daily Genoshan post, and I'm glad that I've stuck with it. By my 25th birthday, I'd like to be able to look back like this again and say that I've continued to meet my goals, so I can continue to set new ones. Hopefully all of you will still be reading my humble little book review blog.

Keep reading, Genoshans,

Brian McGackin

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