Tuesday, July 12, 2016

21st Century Fairy Tales?


Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams


Some book reviews are harder to write than others are, and this is going to be one of those. As I noted in another review I wrote for the website Book Browse (review coming soon), I'm not a fan of religious fiction, including Jewish religious fiction books. Furthermore, I've never believed in an anthropomorphic god or even a force somewhere out there in the universe with extraordinary powers. If there is something godly in this world, I believe it is the power within us to be good people. That internal goodness is what motivates us to help others and make the world a better place. Yes, I do believe that most of the prophets and characters in the Bible might have existed in real life; but I can't be sure of that. Even so, I do believe that the stories in the Bible (or at least those in the Old Testament) hold lessons that can teach us how to live our lives (including some that seem negative or invalid for today's world).

That said, I'm sure you're wondering why I would even bother to read a book called "99 Stories of God." The truth is this didn't sound like anything religious. The blurb I read that intrigued me was this "This series of short, fictional vignettes explores our day-to-day interactions with an ever-elusive and arbitrary God. It's the Book of Common Prayer as seen through a looking glass - a powerfully vivid collection of seemingly random life moments." While I initially balked at the "common prayer" bit, it still seemed to me that there might be something interesting here, something different from the usual religious fiction. As I read, I realized that this had absolutely nothing to do with prayer or religion at all. In fact, these little bits of prose were far more allegorical than devotional or even spiritual. In other words, they seemed like little fairy tales, that just happened to have one often-recurring character called "the Lord," and even he doesn't show up in all of the pieces.

Williams certainly surprised me with this book. For example, instead of entitling each chapter, she numbered them from one to 99 (of course). Giving titles to these would have probably defeated the purpose of these stories, since they might have given away the element that Williams was trying to emphasize in each one. Instead, Williams added a few words at the end of each vignette (all in caps, so we don't miss them), which allows the reader to take in the text itself first, so that the closing addition is something upon which we can ponder. I have to admit that I didn't understand the relationships between all of these additions, but it did make me realize that we (or at least I) often pay little to no attention to entitled chapter headings.

Another thing that I didn't expect from this book was how funny some of these stories were. No, they aren't the "laughing out loud" type of funny, but I certainly giggled and guffawed many times while reading this book. This element also gave give me some pause when I recalled the blurb calling this a type of Book of Common Prayer. Every time I found something humorous, I found myself hoping this misleading description doesn't stick too much, which might lead readers to declare this book as blasphemous.

By the way, I had no idea what the Book of Common Prayer was, so I looked it up. Apparently, it is collection of non-denominational Christian prayers. As I already said, I don't think these vignettes are prayers at all, but they are non-denominational, at least for the most part, and only seem somewhat Christian. That didn't bother me too much, nor did the rare of references to Jesus. However, I should note that I didn't much care for the fact that Williams was consistent in portraying "the Lord" as male, including with the clich├ęd white beard, but at least she didn't specify that he was white. I mean, if this is supposed to be how we perceive the "almighty" in today's world, why not have "the Lord" appear as female in at least a few of these stories?

Despite these drawbacks, overall, I did enjoy this book. Some of the scenes that Williams portrays are very complex, while some are so short and telegraphic that they deserve several readings and lots of thought. Since this book is such a quick read (it took me less than a week from start to finish, and remember, I'm a slow reader because of my dyslexia), that shouldn't be a problem. I think I can give this book a solid four out of five stars and recommend it for people looking for something unusual, which is both poignant and funny, but mostly thought provoking.



"99 Stories of God" by Joy Williams published (actually re-released) July 12, 2016 by Tin House Books is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.