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    GREGORY WOLFE in Christianity Today, March 2008


  • The Master's Artist is a group blog for writers united by the blood of Christ and a love for language. We come from different backgrounds, have different theological outlooks, and are interested in a wide variety of genres and artforms. The opinions expressed belong to their authors alone -- and you're welcome to share yours.

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November 25, 2008


Michelle Pendergrass

A friend recommended Hey Nostradamus! (audiobook because there's actually a cast of characters reading) and I feel the same as you. I probably don't do literary criticism well, I'm a hack at best, but I tend to judge books by the after-effect of the characters and the story.

There are books I read and think, oh. Okay. Nice story, but not that great. But there are others (like Hey Nostradamus!) that stay with you. As I was reading the lines of each character, I heard again the voices of the actors from the audiobook and the emotion came back, like I was there, like I was part of it. To me, that marks a good book. :) So I guess I'm with Mike in his view of fiction. This is definitely in the like category.

Nicole Petrino-Salter

Good reviews. One reason is because you establish your preferences which makes it easier for a potential reader to decide if your tastes are the same as or similar to his/hers, and you reveal just enough of the story not to spoil it. Giving examples of the writing shows you either approved of the voice or style or did not by giving brief excerpts to demonstrate your tastes.

I would agree Ms. Brown's herky-jerky prose would grow wearying after awhile, but I wouldn't want her to alter it since obviously it's who she is as a writer. Puzzling thing is how does she get away with it?

Madison Richards

Nice reviews, Chris! I didn't feel overly manipulated by your personal preferences, which seems to be a habit of many reviewers. Nor did I feel as if you read each book just trying to find mistakes that you could zero in on and critique ad nauseum. (Is my general distaste for the review process as a means of establishing a false sense of superiority showing? Sorry - I'll try to be more subtle.)


Seriously, though I wouldn't normally pick up a book with a premise like Hey Nostradamus! after reading this I'm intrigued enough to look it up! Your thoughts about Ms. Brown's book (also one I've not read) raise a question I've had for a long time concerning literary fiction:

Why are so many books like that praised for cumbersome prose and convoluted sentence structure? It seems as if the more complicated the sentence structure, the higher a book is exalted, even if it is to the point of being laborious. I like a powerful, thought-provoking read as much as the next guy but much of what gets hailed as "almighty" in the lit fiction world leaves me either yawning or frustrated.

All that to say, thanks for a couple of balanced, readable reviews that I can sink my teeth into.


michael snyder

Hey Nostradamus! usually hovers around my top 2 or 3 faves of all time. Mine is a revolving and inconsistent list, but this title never strays far from the top.

Excellent reviews, Chris.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


sally apokedak

Very good reviews. Thank you. They were well worth the wait.

Nathan Knapp

Kudos on Hey Nostradamus! I'm with Mike, this one's always at the top two or three books on my list. :)


Rosellen was one of my favorite teachers in grad school, so I have to chime in here. When they made the film of Before and After, she let us listen to a tape of Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson reading through the script. I was starstruck. All that to say, I'm biased.

But I think there's something to be said for complex styles. Writing doesn't have to be straightforward, any more than conversation is. Sometimes it's more interesting when it isn't. "Constructions like this risk throwing off the reader's concentration" -- you could say the same thing for, say, Proust, or in retrospect the whole of late nineteenth century lit. Henry James certainly. As a reader, I like those demands.

I was up late last night reading a story of Lovecraft's.I kept saying out loud, "I can't believe anyone likes this stuff." My wife asked, "Then why are you reading it?" Because I actually do like it, when I'm in a certain mood, when I have the energy to concentrate. Nobody can hide the simplest action behind layers of vague vocabulary words like Lovecraft, and yet, if you look at it a certain way, it works. It's a feat of language.

Not that I'm trying to argue you into liking Rosellen's book, Chris. You'd probably have a hard time arguing me into liking Douglas Coupland post-Generation X.

Christopher Fisher


I knew you'd disagree with me, since we've spoken before about the Brown book. In fact, your inevitable dissent was part of my reason for deciding to post this particular review. It's not that I was baiting you, exactly, but I thought it would be good for folks to see that critics do have certain biases (me too) and will often disagree with each other. Is one right and the other wrong? I don't think the question can be answered definitively. It's not caluculus or economics, after all.

I am willng, however, to give Brown a little more credit now than I did in that review, written almost two years ago. Today, as I think back on the story of Before and After, I can still visualize so much (setting, characters, those bloody gloves in the trash bin and the car jack in the trunk), and that is to me one mark of a very good storyteller. Unfortunately, though, it's after that first third or so of the novel, after the father decides to cover for his son, that I start to lose all recollection of what happened. And I believe it was at about that point in the book that Brown lost the tension/conflict and slipped into what I described as extended character sketches. In short (too late), it wasn't just the language; there were also a number of things on the story level that kept the tension from building and then finishing well. And this was made even more disappointing by the promise those opening chapters seemed to have given.

BTW, I haven't read Generation X yet, but I did read Eleanor Rigby and was not impressed. It wasn't really a bad book. It's just that I had high expectations for the author after reading Hey, Nostradamus! I guess this is not unlike my disappointment with the last half to two-thirds of Before and After, which brings up an interesting question: To what extent do our expectations for a work affect our response to it?


I knew you were baiting me in some sense, but like a good fish I didn't want to swim past the hook.

I liked Generation X -- especially the cartoons. But now I'd feel pretentious reading Coupland. Or, to put it another way, I am pretentious, and I feel I'd be outing myself. Not that I'm keeping it on the down low or anything.

Expectations seem to play a big part in reception. How many times have you caught yourself saying, "It was good, but not as good as everybody was saying"?

The challenge is setting aside preconceived notions to receive the work for what it is. In a different context, I run into this a lot at I'll write something nice about a particular Bible, and someone will shoot me an e-mail complaining that he bought in on my recommendation only to discover it wasn't perfect. I feel the same way recommending books sometime. You convince someone to read Gilead, and they come back disappointed: "I've read better chase scenes in Dan Brown!" Well, true, it doesn't shine when it comes to suspense, but there are other virtues.

Not that you can ever really set aside your interpretative grid and experience things objectively. That's why we have this antiquated, controversial notion of cultivating taste -- i.e., since you can't eliminate bias, it's worthwhile to cultivate better biases. As solutions go, this one stirs up plenty of trouble, which is maybe why I like it.

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