The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, isn’t my typical reading fare. Written in 1940, it tells the story of a so-called whiskey priest, one who has fallen from the Church, in Mexico during a time when the Mexican government was persecuting the Catholic Church. The story follows this priest as he tries to evade the authorities and encounters people from various walks of life in rural Mexico. These people have their own stories that intersect that of the priest to varying degrees. Most don’t end happily.

Throughout his travels, the priest struggles with his place in Mexican society. He is one of the few priests left, even if he is broken goods, so he is one of the few that can administer the faith. However, any time he does, he takes a chance that the authorities find him and execute him. Should he stay or should he go? This internal struggle is set against the backdrop of him trying to hide from those hunting him.

Greene has a powerful way with words, and the nature of his story allows him to philosophize about all nature of things:

  • “He was a mystic too, and what he had experienced was vacancy — a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”
  • “Instead of food they talk to you about heaven. Oh, everything will be fine after you are dead, they say. I tell you — everything will be fine when they are dead, and you must help.”
  • “How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice.”
  • “If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures — you had to kill yourself among the graves.”
  • “He had always been worried by the fate of pious women. As much as politicians, they fed on illusion.”
  • “Nobody really knew how long a second of pain could be. It might last a whole purgatory — or for ever.”
  • “Sweat cleaned you as effectively as water. But this was the race which had invented the proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness — cleanliness, not purity.”

The priest, in the end, isn’t the most sympathetic character. He is a bit of a coward, and he hates the people that demand he serve as a priest for them. But, despite his fear and his cowardliness, he is a good person at heart, even when his actions don’t always belie that fact. As Greene weaves the story of this fallen priest, you never know what his ultimate fate will be, either physically or spiritually, and that is what sucks you in.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

If you’ve never read William Gibson, it can be a chore to get going. He takes the adage of “show, don’t tell” to an extreme, not really describing the worlds he creates as much as throwing you in to the middle of them. He invents jargon and concepts that he throws at you as if everyone knows what they are. It is only by reading, by immersing yourself in his world, that you can learn what he is saying. But, the end is always worth it.

The Peripheral is another such story. As with all of his books, Gibson creates a near-future world, taking some of our current trends in technology and society to an extreme. Here, he creates two worlds that somehow communicate with one another through devices, through peripherals, that are essentially robots that people temporarily inhabit, giving them a new identity — a new body, a new gender, a new experience — at least for a while. Understanding the relationship between these two worlds is part of the story, so I won’t give it away, but it is another intriguing world that Gibson has built. He creates concepts that are alien but built upon our own experiences that are ingenious. For example, describing how two characters secretly talk to one another:

Whatever randomly synthetic language the one spoke, the other understood. Never the one thing long enough to provide a sufficient sample for decryption.

That is, these two characters speak in almost random sounds — now like birds, the next in grunts — that only they can understand. And they don’t speak in any one long enough for anyone to figure out what they are saying. The story is filled with these technological marvels that flesh out Gibson’s futuristic visions.

The main characters, Flynne and Nick, find themselves trying to save Flynne’s world from some truly nasty people who’s only concern is power. These people almost seem like evil incarnate, but, really, what is evil? Such people don’t view themselves as evil. Gibson touches on the nature of evil: “That evil wasn’t glamorous, but just the result of ordinary half-assed badness, high school badness, given enough room, however that might happen, to become its bigger self.” He also touches on climate change and the dangers it poses to the world, and how governments manipulate our every day lives.

I always find Gibson entertaining and thought provoking. His worlds are both alien and familiar, with technological marvels that you both covet and are repulsed by. I look forward to the next one.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is always an entertaining and often a thought-proving writer. In Anansi Boys, he tells the story of Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, a brother Fat Charlie didn’t know he had until he was well into adulthood. Their father is rather special, but Fat Charlie doesn’t know that. He only knows that his father is a good-for-nothing that seemed to abandon him and his mother when he was a child. It is only when his father dies and Spider comes into his life that he realizes who his father, and by extension he himself, really are.

Gaiman shifts the story telling from the point of view of different characters, some of which are actually quite creepy. His characters are well developed and he gives even the worst of the villains solid motivation.

As Fat Charlie learns about who he is and who is brother is, they both have to escape the plots of powerful forces aligned against them. Without revealing too much of the plot, they have to learn to work together to make it out alive.

Gaiman’s writing is always clever, and he has a number of nice lines that were memorable:

  • “The nature of parents is to embarrass merely by existing, just as it is the nature of children of a certain age to cringe with embarrassment, shame, and mortification should their parents so much as speak to them on the street.”
  • “Today, like every day, roughly five thousand people on the face of the planet will experience one-chance-in-a-million things, and not one of them will refuse to believe the evidence of their senses.”
  • “…he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold.”
  • “…as a small girl she had been unable to envision a God who disliked anyone enough to sentence them to an eternity of torture in Hell, mostly for not believing in Him properly…”
  • “The important thing about songs is that they’re just like stories. They don’t mean a damn unless there’s people listenin’ to them.”
  • “Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”

As with all of the Gaiman I have read, in Anansi Boys he deftly combines a clever plot with great characters and some deeper rumination about the world we all share. Another great story by a master storyteller.

The Hike by Drew Magary

The Hike, by Drew Magary, is an odd tale, the story of Ben, who finds himself wandering a strange world that is filled with elements from his life. He has to avoid a number of potentially deadly situations as he tries to find his way through this strange world. In the end, he both learns a bit about himself and comes to peace with some of his past.

At first, it felt like Ben just makes one random encounter after another, and it seems like there is no real point or purpose to these events as he wanders this strange world. After some time, they start to gel and there is a larger picture that emerges. However, at the end, it isn’t quite clear what the purpose of Ben’s wanderings has been. I have my guess, but it is really only that, a guess. Or, I’m dense. Probably more likely the latter. But, still, while the story of Ben’s hike is entertaining and, quite honestly, very unexpected, the reason for it left at least me guessing.

That said, I enjoyed it enough that I will for other books by Magary.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

With a title like that, how can you go wrong? Girl Waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart, is a novelization of the life of Constance Copp and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette. What starts off as a minor incident — a local man driving his fancy car runs into the Copp sisters’ horse and buggy (the story starts off in 1914) — leads to Constance becoming what Stewart calls one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs.

While Stewart takes some liberties with the facts, maybe being most liberal with the motivations of the various characters, as well as combining various historical people in different ways, she tells a riveting story. At first, it seems that this is such a trivial matter, but it escalates until the sisters are in fear for their lives. Constance takes matters into her own hands, helped by the local sheriff, and leads the charge against the man, who is a son of a powerful local businessman and a regular bully. The sisters receive death threats and, at one point, their house is almost burnt down. Not only does Constance navigate her family through this mess, she also helps out another young woman that has been badly mistreated by the same man.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this book is the fact that Constance was a real person and yet, despite her adventures (this is the first of several books detailing the adventures of Constance Copp and her sisters), is a figure that is hardly known. In what may be a first, she has no Wikipedia page. For someone who was such a trailblazer, it is almost inconceivable that someone hasn’t created a page about her.

There are times that the story is slow going. The tension builds slowly, and there is a lot of inter-sister dynamics that are explored. However, the tension is real and builds to the point that one is unclear if all of the sisters will make it to the next book alive (given there is a series of books, we know Constance makes it, but it isn’t a given her sisters do). In the end, this was a rewarding read that opened a new era and perspective for me.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.