I've had a busy last few months, and I confess I've fallen behind on my book reviews. (If you're not familiar with these posts from the old site, I sometimes get free advance copies of books from authors and publicists to read and review. I don't accept any payment or other compensation for this, other than the book itself. See my review policy for more detailed explanation.)
I've got three books that have been awaiting review, and since I'm behind, I'm going to combine them into one post. Up first:
Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist by Hank Fox
Some of you may know Hank Fox as the author of the Blue Collar Atheist blog on FTB. In this book, he definitively puts to rest the oft-heard stereotype that atheism is a worldview solely for egghead ivory-tower intellectuals, not for heartland salt-of-the-earth folks. As he writes in the intro, "I've been a ranch hand, mule packer, wilderness guide, carpenter, truck driver, meat cutter, roofer, and a lot of other stuff besides... This is how I see the world."
The book is divided into sets of short essays, each revolving around a common theme - almost like a collection of blog posts. For that reason, I felt it rewards dabbling, frequent short stretches of reading, rather than long sessions of straight-through reading. (I read it on the train going to and from work each day.) There are sections on the origins of religion, on non-supernatural morality, on the importance of forming true beliefs, on the importance of speaking out, on atheist views of death... and for all the author's humble origins, it seems suspiciously erudite and clearly argued to me.
The selections were well-chosen, especially in that the author chose to begin and end with his strongest material. The first few introductory essays, in which Fox explains his own life's journey, tells a wrenching story about the death of his dog, and describes the experience of deconversion - "a moment of brilliant light" - were excellent. And one of the last essays, "The Village", is an atheist parable that's one of the best essays in the book, starting slowly but building to unexpected intensity near the end. Check out Hank Fox's blog; if you like it, you'll definitely enjoy this book.
A Lost Argument by Therese Doucet
Therese Doucet's A Lost Argument is a novel about a most unlikely romance: a faithful daughter of a Mormon family from Arizona, who finds herself unexpectedly attracted to an atheist philosophy student over the course of a tumultuous summer. Her quest for truth leads her away from Mormonism, but along the way, she learns that "there are things even atheists can have faith in".
I have to say at the outset that this isn't usually the kind of book I would read, being neither a habitual consumer of romance novels nor a member of the ex-Mormon community. But the author writes that a good argument can be very sexy, and I'm inclined to agree. Just think of the sparks that could fly when an atheist and a believer go at it hammer and tongs!
With all that said, the main romance in this book unfolds more in subtle allusions and coy glances than wild frenzies of lust - an almost Victorian style, which makes sense given the motivations of the main character. Throughout the book, the character development was plausible and compelling, the philosophical exchanges were well-written, and the slow creep of doubt on the main character's mind happened in a very realistic way. However, I didn't find the ending entirely satisfying. Without giving too much away, I'll say that the narrative tone suddenly shifts after a crucial scene around the middle of the book, and a major plot thread is never really resolved. Again, since I have little experience with the genre, this may be a common narrative practice I'm not familiar with, so take my opinion for what it's worth.
The Last Testament by God (with David Javerbaum)
I once wrote a post asking which of the many Twitter accounts claiming to be God really contained the sacred tweets of the creator. I thought that debate had been settled, but now comes a new piece of evidence from one of the contenders.
In this book, God, the well-known author, unleashes the long-awaited sequel to his two smash bestsellers, the Bible and the Qur'an (as well as his lesser-known comedic work, the Book of Mormon). And for God fans, it was worth the wait! In it, he retells the story of the Old Testament, adding some vital background that wasn't mentioned in the first telling. He reveals, once and for all, why the Holocaust happened and gives the true reason for why Islam is so touchy about depictions of Mohammed. He dishes on celebrity gossip (and, being omniscient, he's got some juicy bits to offer that even the tabloids didn't know), and explains why he caused the Irish potato famine: he wasn't angry at the Irish, he was angry at the potatoes ("They know why"). And for the first time ever, he gives readers access to some intimate details of his own family: his wife, Ruth, and his children, Zach, Jesus ("a classic middle child"), and Kathy.
But what I found most interesting was that, in this book, God has the courage to admit something many of us had long suspected: he may be an omni-everything deity possessing all ontological perfections, but that doesn't mean he's perfect. He blew his line when closing up the Red Sea and drowning thousands of Egyptians. He destroyed the Titanic in a fit of temper which he later came to regret. He tends to be more than a little sloppy with the smiting. And even he has dark nights of despair and self-doubt.
All in all, The Last Testament was a touching, often hilarious, and always revealing autobiographical glimpse into the heart and soul of our one supreme and eternal creator. And the best part is that if it sells enough copies, the apocalypse (currently scheduled for December 21, 2012) just might be delayed a bit. If you've been one of God's devoted fans ever since his early days in 4004 B.C., this is definitely the book for you.