Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Reviewed: Fortnightly and Otherwise

Brandon Watson's fortnightly reads are, like his blog in general, wide ranging and erudite.  A philosophy professor with an ability to sound like an instant expert on anything from the post office to the politics of Alexandria in late antiquity to the various Scouting movements, Brandon is worth following in general if he's not on your regular read list he should be.

Given that many of the fortnightly reads are classic books which Brandon has had sitting around for a while and is reading or re-reading as he sorts through his library, I was exceedingly flattered when he picked If You Can Get It to read over the last two weeks, and his review did not disappoint.  

Jen's world is a world in which the most real things are brands, which are stable and familiar and often genuinely handy, and the story is filled with brands, both real and fictional: AppLogix, Aspire, Mercedes-Benz, Schneider and Sons, Starbucks, Coke, Jaguar, Home Depot, and more. Her life there is a busy life, a life full of things she likes. They are the usual building blocks of our modern world, in much the way that personal reputation and family name once were. But this brand-structured world in which we live, while it provides endless opportunities to fill your life full of useful things and interesting activities, creates a strange gap between a life filled full and a fulfilled life. What we like often falls short of what we want; we can and do distract ourselves from the lack, paper the gap over by filling our time with other things, many of which are often interesting but none of which are the right kind of thing for fulfillment. Busy-ness is not the business of life. But by filling up our time we can miss seeing how much we are missing until something shakes things up.

Moving to the new location, Jen and Katie buy a nice little Sears home, updating and redecorating which gives them an extra focus in their lives, and introduces them to the handyman, Paul Burke, whose world and life is in some ways very different from Jen's, quiet and local, Catholic and focused on productive craftsmanship. Her work continues to be important to her, but everything having been unsettled through such a short stretch of time leaves her much more open to seeing the ways in which her life, busy and satisfying as it might often be, is not covering all the bases.

It was a bit interesting coming to this book after The Screwtape Letters, because I think there's a sense in which one can say that if that work is about internal temptations, this one is about the external temptations of the World. One thing that's very nice about the story is that it takes no easy roads out. It's not that the brand-structured culture of global consumerism is all hollow, or unproductive, or even always unsatisfying. It's not that the world would be better if we were all farmers or craftsmen and there were no product managers with MBAs or the endless layers of middlemen that make up the modern corporation. There are reasons why we have these things, and some of them are tied to very genuine benefits. Nor is it the case that there is any position -- any position at all, no matter how true -- to which you can convert and magically all things will thereby align with the ideal. We are all seekers, always in need of more, in this life. But the world around us can distract us from the fact that we are, in fact, in need of more; it can fill our bellies without nourishing us, fill our minds without enlightening us, and fill our time without cultivating us. What it offers is often fine in itself; it's just not everything we need. Brands and endless choices and availability are often great. They just can't replace faith or family or friendship, or any number of other things. The danger is that we can get so filled up with what is offered that we fail to get what we need -- indeed, that we sometimes fail even to realize that we aren't getting what we need. Sometimes we need a new vantage point to see some of the gaps in our life. And then we need to make the choices that start to fill them.

Do, of course, go read the whole thing. And this coming fortnight, Brandon is back to older works with a read of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Also a very erudite reader, Bruce McMenomy has a review up on Amazon:

This is being categorized in some contexts as a religious novel, and that’s probably unavoidable, given that it is published by Ignatius Press. That fact may recommend it to some who otherwise would not have noticed it; it will probably discourage others who either just don’t like religious fiction or have been fed up with heavy-handed fare one so often finds.

Yet insofar as this is a religious novel at all, it is not so much about proselytizing for anything as about unpacking the idea that people of faith (even of different faiths) incorporate their beliefs into their lives in ways that are not merely the superficial cultural identifiers one sees in pop-culture depictions of religion, but organic, personal, and hard-won. By itself, that is worth considering, absent the more tendentious baggage that typically accompanies it.

If You Can Get It, however, is not just narrative scaffolding to make that or any other point. It’s a modern comedy of manners, and it seems almost frothy until one begins to discover its thematic sinews. Some of those have to do with religious belief, but others, more persistently central, address the nature of human relationships, and especially the bittersweet tensions that beset families where the members, though they may all be of good will, are not always of like mind or disposition. The two sisters who are the principal characters of the story do not even share convergent narratives of their common past: one particularly telling piece of the plot turns on sharply inconsistent recollections of a childhood incident, and how those memories have shaped them differently.

The quietly encouraging implication of the story is that those relationships, and even the memories, are not immutable, but can, with care, continue to evolve — a process that will draw people together in some ways, and apart in others. Such evolution is part and parcel of the growth of the individuals themeselves. Hodge offers the reader no facile shortcuts: nothing obviates our need to address the each other’s humanity honestly and charitably.

The book wryly observes varied human interactions and behaviors, contradictory and absurd as they sometimes are; it also offers a somewhat dyspeptic and occasionally hilarious look at modern American and international corporate culture, and the decisions that it may lead people to make, while sparing us a gratuitous scold en route. It even quietly sketches an alternative model for how to think about our place as human agents in the economic landscape.

As a piece of storytelling, it never let me go or lost my interest: twists and turns along the way kept me engaged, and satisfied with the sense that even what I had not anticipated was, in retrospect, inevitable. With the economy of a stage play with a limited cast, it provided an amusing, thought-provoking, and generous reading experience, and left me wanting to see more. To have pulled that off in a slender premiere novel like this one is no mean achievement.
And lastly, a very brief review which appeared yesterday by a reader on Amazon, and which somehow really struck me:
[This] story is so well told, so peacefully, honestly, and morally told, that I'm inclined to believe that I'm as capable of writing of writing the sequel as is the author. I hope he does it. this is far more book than the excellent reviews led me to expect. I could have missed it -- you shouldn't.
Watching reviews and sales of the book as a data analyst must, one of the things that I've come to realize is that reviews and book sales act kind of like atoms in the lead up to a nuclear chain reaction.  When someone writes a positive review, some number of people read it.  Of those, some don't think it sounds like their kind of book, some mentally file it away as "I may want to look that up some day", some add it to a list to pick up later, some buy it right away.  Of those who buy it right away, some read it right away, and some read it later.  Of those who read it right away, some write reviews and some don't, and that new round of reviews begins the cycle again.  

With a novel like this which is difficult to classify by genre (and thus hard to advertise in a simple "If you like My Sister's Australopithecus, you'll love this moving novel of love and anthropology!" fashion) reviews are a key means of new readers finding the book, but it takes a lot of reviews (or very widely read reviews) and a lot of people telling their friends how much they enjoyed the novel to get a chain reaction going which sustains sales at a steady or growing level.

And of course, if you haven't got a copy of the book yet, but now feel like you'd like to have one, you can always pick one up yourself!

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