Here’s the second installment of mini-reviews of the books I read on vacation last week.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose: What do you do when you’re a 19-year-old Brown University student with a great gig working as an assistant to writer A.J. Jacobs, and you find yourself fascinated by the evangelical Christian community but shut out of conversations with its members as soon as they realize you’re not “saved”? Why, you go undercover and enroll for a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, of course. And then you live, study, pray, and date (or not) as if you really were a believer, so you can get to know the people behind and beyond the stereotypes.
This book chronicles Roose’s semester at Liberty, and despite the fact that his interaction with his research subjects makes him incapable of being totally objective, he presents a relatively balanced picture of the students and their lives. Sure, some of his new peers are violently homophobic and anti-feminist, and sure, some of them are way too nosy or pushy or judgmental. But they all have such damn good intentions. (Except, maybe, for the ones who want him to give up masturbation. That’s asking a lot, don’tcha think?)
Liberty’s students turn out to be not as universally pure and wholesome as Roose thought they would be, and his exploration of what lies beneath their clean, shiny surfaces gives the book real depth and human interest. This is a funny, insightful example of immersion journalism at its best that will be interesting and accesible to readers religious and unbelieving alike.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe: Once I got over the weird title, I really enjoyed this academic mystery about a young woman who sets out looking for a unique and undiscovered primary source for her doctoral research in New England history and finds something that hits much closer to home than she expected. Well-researched and chock full of arcane facts about American history and the Salem witch trials—the author is a descendant of two women who were accused of being witches, after all—this story moves along at a steady pace and takes a few twists that are only slightly predictable.
There’s a little romance, a little mother-daughter tension, and a healthy dose of grad student angst that will resonate with anyone who has spent time in academia, with all its attendant competitions and ambiguities. I liked this book much more than I expected to, but I didn’t quite love it. There were just a few too many elements that didn’t work for me.
That said, I would definitely recommend The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane to readers who enjoy historical fiction, are interested in the Salem witch trials, or who liked The Historian and other academic mysteries.
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: Hubby and I listened to this on audio as we drove back from vacation last week, and we couldn’t get enough of it. This is a modern thriller that begins when a plane that has just landed at JFK airport goes dark and all on board are found dead and evolves into an edge-of-your-seat vampire hunt. The cast of characters is somewhat formulaic—there’s the skeptical scientist, the seemingly crazy old man who claims to know what’s going on, the titan of industry with dark motives, and more than a few innocent bystanders who get swept up into something they’re only beginning to understand—but the collaboration between del Toro, a film director with grand visions and a keen eye for detail, and Hogan, a skilled writer who knows how to keep a story moving, makes the story interesting, suspenseful, and satisfying in all the right places.
I loved Ron Perlman’s reading of this book, but I think I’m going to have to read it for myself so I can savor the awesomely vivid descriptions. As we listened, hubby and I agreed that del Toro and Hogan were able to give the reader (or listener) a clear, vivid picture of what was happening without being verbose or resorting to flowery language. They consistently found a few perfect words that got the job done, and I know that if I had been reading this instead of listening to it, I would have been underlining their descriptions left and right.
I also would have been staying up into the wee hours to finish it. It’s just that good.
Filed under: Book Reviews Tagged: | Book Reviews, books, chuck hogan, guillermo del toro, katherine howe, kevin roose, reading, the physick book of deliverance dane, the strain, the unlikely disciple, vacation reading