09 December 2014

Christmas Playlist 2

Last year I shared a playlist of Christmas music I was listening to at the time. I'm still enjoying all of that music (especially Downe in Yon Forrest which is officially my favorite Christmas album ever), but there is also another sort of Christmas album to consider. These are the albums you listen to, not when you're sitting and enjoying a peaceful meal or sitting in front of your lit tree, but when you're in the hustle and bustle, wrapping, laughing, decorating, cooking. The fun, bouncy music that sets the mood for the season. This year, I'm posting a list of the fun, bouncy holiday music for the boisterous parts of the season.

1. Barenaked for the Holidays
I've been a Barenaked Ladies fan for a long time, and they never do things by halves. Their Holiday album is no exception. It is jam packed with fun, happy renditions of favorite Christmas songs, and a few of their own thrown in. This is one of our family's favorites at Christmas time (or Hannukah time for that matter).

2. A Very She & Him Christmas
This is the most low-key of the selections on this list, but when She & Him sing classic pop Christmas songs, they often do them better than the original. Their gender-swapped version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is hilarious.

3. Christmas with the Chipmunks
A true Christmas classic. I remember that even ALF listened to this for Christmas. (And if you're too young to remember ALF, I feel sorry for you.)

4. Veggie Tales Holiday Pack
Okay, so I'm cheating here. I like so many songs from both of the Veggie Tales Christmas albums, that I decided to choose both. "The Incredible Singing Christmas Tree" and "A Very Veggie Christmas" are staples in the Davis house.

5. Boogie Woogie Christmas
This is new to us this year, but I predict that Brian Setzer's  swing/blues renditions of Christmas songs are going to be with us for a long time. Our kids especially love his version of Jingle Bells.

08 December 2014

The Persian Boy

Note: Whenever I review a Mary Renault book, I try to include a little disclaimer. Renault always attempted to write books that would be true to the historical culture she was illuminating. She didn’t try to sanitize or modernize her characters. This means that pagans in her books act like pagans, think like pagans, and do lots of pagan things. Which also means that her books are not for everyone. CAVEAT LECTOR.

Mary Renault writes the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. The way she brings historical characters to life in a believable, realistic way, avoiding any anachronism in their personalities and actions, is simply amazing. I have never seen another author consistently combine good writing and good scholarship as well as Renault. In this way The Persian Boy does not differ from other books I’ve read by her.

The one thing of note about this book that can be discussed, however, is her choice of narrator. The story in The Persian Boy begins several years after Fire from Heaven, her previous book about Alexander the Great, and is narrated by Bagoas, King Darius’s eunuch who becomes Alexander’s lover. This choice of narrator was a bold move on Renault’s part and has some definite advantages and disadvantages.

I’ll talk about the advantages first. Renault focuses the main conflict in the book on the ways in which Alexander attempted to integrate his Macedonian and Greek soldiers that he brought with him on his campaign with his newly acquired Persian soldiers. What better way to symbolize that conflict than to tell the story from the perspective of one who grew up in the Persian court and is shocked and confused by the customs of these Macedonians? In addition, Bagoas becomes a rival to Hephaistion for Alexander’s affection, thus creating a “love triangle” of sorts. The rivalry between the two is there, even though Alexander is too na├»ve to sense it, and this well symbolizes the tension between his Macedonian and Persian contingents that he optimistically believes he will unify in one new culture containing the best of both worlds.

This being said, there were a number of disadvantages. Bagoas as narrator didn’t really work for me, and I think it was a misstep on Renault’s part. While we do get a harrowing and exciting opening to the book that shows Bagoas being made a eunuch after his family is murdered and a great introduction to Persian politics of the day, we don’t hear from Alexander for quite some time. The opening chapters of the book drag on without him. Some of Alexander’s most iconic victories and battles are relayed briefly by messengers because Bagoas is at Susa and not present at the battles. Likewise, most all of the major battles in the book as well as many of the political conferences have to be relayed second-hand as Bagoas the eunuch is not invited to such places and occasions. As a result, we the readers spend way too much time in the bedroom with Bagoas and way too little time in the field with Alexander.

This lopsided view also extends to the character of Alexander himself. Alexander’s sexuality was something of an enigma at the time. No, I’m not talking about the fact that Alexander had male lovers; that was pretty much commonplace in Greek culture, and no one would have thought twice about it. I’m talking about the fact that though Alexander did have his lovers, he appeared to care very little for sex and seemed to desire it little for its own sake. His self-control in this area was a marvel to those who wrote about him, especially in comparison with his soldiers and other conquerors of the time. Mary Renault showed this aspect of Alexander’s character in Fire from Heaven and makes a few perfunctory nods in that direction here, but, once again, her choice of narrator for this book forces her into an unbalanced emphasis on Alexander’s sex life rather than his character as a whole. I felt like the complex Alexander I came to know and appreciate from the first book is a bit flat and one sided in this second novel.

And speaking of characters I came to know and appreciate from the first book, I was very disappointed that Hephaistion played such a small role in this one. He was Alexander’s dearest friend, oldest ally, and lifelong comrade. He was the Patroklos to Alexander’s Achilles. And yet, because we’re getting the story from Bagoas, we, understandably, don’t see much of Hephaistion. After all, it’s not like he and Bagoas were chums or anything.

Overall, this book didn’t grip me or interest me as much as the first, mostly due to the issues named above. If Renault had continued the third person narrative style of the first book or even told the story in the first person from Alexander’s perspective, it would have done a much better job of giving the readers insight into Alexander’s character and his legendary conquest of Persia.

3/5 stars

27 November 2014

Watch out for those Turkeys!

In his Dictionary of Cuisine, Alexandre Dumas gives the reader a cautionary tale about turkeys involving the celebrated French poet Boileau.

"Boileau, when a child, was playing in a courtyard where, among other poultry, there happened to be a turkey. Suddenly the child fell, his dress went up, and the turkey...flew at him and with his beak so wounded poor Nicolas that, forever barred from becoming an erotic poet, he became a satiric one and maligned women, instead."

Ouch! So watch out for those turkeys, folks. They're more dangerous than they look. Dumas goes on to add:

"From this, no doubt, stemmed the aversion he had for the Jesuits, sharing the popular belief that they had introduced turkeys to France."
So you wanna mess with the Jesuits do you?

Alexandre Dumas' Dictionary of Cuisine  (page 250)

26 November 2014

The Curious History of the Turkey

Have you ever wondered why a turkey is a “turkey”? The name “turkey” for the gawky bird we eat on Thanksgiving has an interesting and convoluted history. The bird was first domesticated by the Aztecs, and the Spanish were the first to bring the bird to Europe from the New World. Not knowing what to call the bird, some Spanish colonials began to call it a “Peru” after the supposed place of its origin. Frenchmen, on the other hand, initially called the bird a “Jesuit,” believing that Jesuit missionaries were the first to bring the bird to Europe.

"Hans, shoot that fat Jesuit in the back yard.
We'll cook him up for our Reformation Day party.
Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. The bird we today call a “guinea fowl” was originally imported to Europe from Madagascar via Turkey. Hence the bird was called, in English, a “turkey” and, in French, ‘poulet d’inde’ (chicken of India). It received the name “guinea fowl” after Portuguese traders began widely importing them to Europe from West Africa (Guinea). For a time the birds were called both “turkeys” and “guinea fowl” interchangeably.

With all this in mind, the birds from the New World began to be brought to Spain, and it was from Spain via Turkish-controlled North Africa that most of Europe imported the birds. Hence the name “turkey” seemed to fit this bird as well. This naming was helped along by the fact that it was widely believed that turkeys were a large species of guinea fowl. When the two confusingly named birds were distinguished, the name “turkey” was taken by the new American bird and the name “guinea fowl” was reserved for the bird from Madagascar.

Now since most of us are going to be enjoying some turkey tomorrow for Thanksgiving, here's one last bit of information just for fun. By the 1570s, turkey was the standard main course for an English Christmas dinner, and well-loved in England. Ironically, though the American turkey enjoyed such popularity in England during the time of the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims did not actually have turkey at their first Thanksgiving.

"Well, that was a glorious turkey dinner. I wonder what my
Separatist cousins in the New World are eating right now."
"Heh, probably wild venison or something silly like that."
"Yes, let's all give thanks for our traditional English dinner!"

The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages vol. II (Wendy Buehr, ed.)

23 November 2014

A Thought on Patriotism and Nationalism

Everyone should be a patriot, by all means. Patriotism is natural to humanity, and loving your patria is as natural and virtuous as loving your pater. But don't make the mistake of confusing your patria with the political nation-state under whose power you happen to find yourself. That is called nationalism and nationalism has run roughshod over patriotism for the last 200 years. It was nationalism that told Occitanians that they had to become Frenchmen, Tuscans that they had to become Italians, Bavarians that they had to become Germans, Navarrans that they had to become Spaniards, and Virginians that they had to become Americans. Nationalism always and everywhere attempts to subsume a healthy patriotism under a love for a vast political state, and in the process turns what is primarily a peaceful appreciation of one's culture and people into a militant hunger for dominance and control on the world stage.

04 November 2014

Seek Him Out

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in our quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out.

-from Proslogion by Anselm of Canterbury

25 September 2014

Do You Wanna Kill Some Trojans?

I wrote this for my Omnibus students at school. We're reading the Iliad right now, and I realized that no one has really explored the musical possibilities for this book.

So, as a step in that direction, I present to you a scene from ILIAD: The Musical! This is the part of the book where Odysseus, Phoinix, and Aias come to Achileus's tent to persuade him to rejoin the fight:

Odysseus: Achilleus?
(Knocking: Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock)
Do you wanna kill some Trojans?
Or chase Hektor ‘round the walls?
I think some aristeia’s overdue;
 Some tripods wait for you
 And gold and girls and all-
 We’re getting pretty battered;
It’s quite apparent that Zeus is on your side.
 Do you wanna kill some Trojans?
 We really wish you’d kill some Trojans.

 Achilleus: Go away, Odysseus

 Odysseus: Okay, bye...

 Phoinix: (Knocking) Do you wanna kill some Trojans?
 Come on lets go out and slay.
 We never see you in the field;
 Pull out your shield
 Without you it’s not the same-
We both grew up together
 Come on do a favor
 For an old friend…

 Aias: (Knocking) Achilleus?
 Please, I know you're in there,
 People are asking where you've been
 They say to put your courage to the test;
 We know that you’re the best, just let me in.
 We used to be unbeatable;
 Now it’s clear
 That we all need you back.
 Do you wanna kill some Trojans?
 We really wish you’d kill some Trojans.

31 August 2014

The Edge of Evolution

Science is both a philosophical and rhetorical activity. This must be understood first. In order to do science one must first be a philosopher, and in order to successfully participate in scientific discourse, one must be a rhetor. That many scientists today would deny this does not mean that they are free from philosophical assumptions or that they their discourse is free from rhetoric; it simply means that they are unconscious of their uses of philosophy and rhetoric. The sooner that we can strip the residual Victorian veneer of pristine objectivity from the natural sciences, the sooner we can come to better understand why we as a society find scientific arguments to be persuasive and the better we can evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of our science and make it more useful as a tool for discovering truth. In this area at least, the despised and maligned creationists are ahead of the curve compared to most institutional scientists in that they recognize the huge role that personal worldview and philosophy play in the interpretation of scientific data.

To see this in action, we only need to look at the advancement of science from the Middle Ages to today. The story we often tell is one of steady uphill progress from one new objective fact to another, as humanity pulls itself from the dark ages and into the splendor of the intellectual light of our modern times. However, when we look at the history we get a different picture. Most of what we call the advancement of science came not because of irrefutable, objective arguments compelling men to climb from their darkened caves, but because certain theories arose at the precise moments that philosophical paradigms in society were changing and eager audiences were creating the perfect rhetorical situations for persuasion.

For example, Galileo’s arguments about cosmology weren't irrefutably airtight. However, his science of mechanics was attractive to the rising mercantile interests of his day and he pitched his ideas in the direction of the rising class of merchants and entrepreneurs who were more open to the new science because it boosted their ability to turn a profit. Likewise rulers were often resistant to the new science for the very same reason; they wanted to maintain the hierarchy of society. Later when the Puritans with their postmillennial hopes were looking for the means of taking dominion and remaking the world, Newtonian physics came along and gave them a mechanical world and the means of pulling all the right levers to control it. As society became more secular in the Enlightenment, man became very lonely sitting at the steering wheel of nature and with the advent of the Romantic period began to want to locate himself as part of nature rather than as lord over nature. This is an essential background to understanding why Charles Darwin’s theories were so readily accepted in their time. It wasn’t because everyone saw in them objective and irrefutable truth. Erasmus Darwin wrote erotic poetry about plants, and his grandson Charles formulated a theory that placed man firmly in place as a part of nature and cousin to the other creatures. Both were products of their time and the spirit of Romanticism inspired them both. Later Darwin’s theory gained strength because the idea of optimistic onward and upward evolution lent strength to British imperialism. Still later Darwin’s theory was used to support ideas of eugenics and racial purity. Today Darwin’s theories are a symbol of cultural optimism, and, in the absence of a belief in a biblical Adam and Eve, a basis for the brotherhood of all mankind.

Now, why have I spent so much time on this background for what could have been a very simple book review? It’s because I believe it is important to see how science is made persuasive and how scientific thought is even shaped by prevailing cultural commonplaces and philosophies. The natural sciences, especially the scientific method with its combination of abduction, induction and deduction, have proved extremely useful heuristic devices. However, we live in an era of scientific imperialism in which the claims of science are seen to be objective, absolute and totally separate from the type of discourse that goes on in the realm of the humanities, ordinary rhetorical persuasion. Science is seen to be authoritative without the need to persuade and this lack of self-awareness among scientists often creates a dangerous calcification of scientific dogma as scientists lock ranks against any dissenters from the orthodox position and use coercion rather than persuasion to police the bounds of the discipline.

Nobody expects the Dawkins Inquisition!

A great case in point is the reaction to Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution. In this book Behe uses case studies of malaria to attempt to find the limits of Darwinian evolution in the real world. This book has been mercilessly pounded by many in the scientific community, and a number of those responses show a strange level of emotional vitriol. To be clear, Behe is not a Young Earth Creationist. He is also not an Old Earth Creationist. He is a theistic evolutionist and a proponent of intelligent design. He lays out his position at the very beginning of the book. He states that Darwinian evolution consists of three interlocking theories:

1) Common Descent: the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor.

2) Natural Selection: the idea that evolution proceeds because those organisms with traits more conducive to survival thrive and pass on their genetic information while those organisms with traits less conducive to survival die out and fail to pass on their genetic information.

3) Random Mutation: the idea that new genetic traits that make an organism more fit for survival arise from random genetic mutations which are then selected because of their survival value.

So what does Behe believe? Well he uncritically accepts 1) Common Descent and 2) Natural Selection. He also accepts random mutation as a mechanism of evolution but also wants to say that many mutations in the history of species have not been wholly random but have been directed for a purpose by a higher power or designer.

What does this mean for Behe as a scientist? Well, practically speaking, nothing. Wholly accepting everything evolutionary theory teaches while making the caveat that one believes some mutations to happen by design rather than chance would not practically affect the way one does science at all. Reading some of the reviews for this book ahead of time though, and noting the level of anger many in the scientific community had towards the book, I fully expected to see pictures of Michael Behe and Ken Ham (of Creation Museum fame) wearing friendship bracelets and illustrations of Noah and his sons riding on dinosaurs on the deck of the ark.

Although that would have
been pretty cool...
Not that I'm personally ragging on Ken Ham here. I'm just pointing out that one would not expect secular scientists to treat Behe, who agrees with 99.9% of their program, exactly the same as they treat Ken Ham, who agrees with maybe 10% of their program, but they do. Apparently nothing less than 100% agreement will suffice.What this seems to mean is that the scientific method as a heuristic device is not enough for many scientists today. In order to be a “true scientist” you must also sign on to the philosophical assumptions of materialism and naturalism. The sad thing is that many in the field of science can’t see this hidden assumption and simply believe that they are being realistic and commonsensical. Which brings be back to my original point that we need to see how the personal worldview philosophies of individual scientists affect their use of the scientific method and how rhetorical language and cultural climate affect the acceptance of scientific theories.

All right, I’m stepping off of my soap box now to actually review this book. In The Edge of Evolution, Michael Behe accepts all three tenets of evolution as outlined above, but wishes to see how far random mutation can actually go in the process of evolution. For most of the book, he is focused on malaria: how humans have evolved over the years to combat malaria but more importantly how malaria has evolved rapidly over recent years to resist the drugs used against it. He points out that organisms like the parasite that causes malaria are excellent ways to study evolution because they reproduce so rapidly and thus the possibility for mutations, both harmful and helpful, are much greater than in the human gene pool. In fact at any given moment, there are more malaria parasites in the world than the total number of humans who have ever lived. He goes on to show exactly what types of mutations do and do not occur in malaria and what limits this might tentatively put on pure, unguided Darwinian evolution. Along the way he also discusses the HIV virus and bacterial flagella to illustrate the limits and possibilities for random mutation.

I found the book to be fascinating and enjoyed reading it very much. I found the last two chapters in which he fleshes out his Intelligent Design views and talks about the nature of the designer to be pretty weak, but this could be because I’m not a huge fan of ID to begin with. I believe in a God “in whom we live and move and have our being” rather than in a quasi-deistic tinkerer who pops in every now and then to make adjustments to the machine. As a reader your mileage on these last two chapters may vary, but overall the book was an educational and fascinating look into a world I don’t normally explore in my reading.

16 August 2014

Good Pies

A good pie is hard to find. Today's world is plagued by the sorts of pies that you get from the grocery store bakery or the type you get by using pre-made crust and canned filling. And yet, a truly well made pie is a thing of terrible and awesome beauty. Obviously one way to guarantee that you get a homemade pie is to, well, make it yourself at home. However, sometimes you want to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor, and so I've decided to share some great places to get good pie near Lynchburg, VA.

Montana Plains Bakery
in Lynchburg, VA
First, we'll start with a place in Lynchburg. Montana Plains bakery has been open for years and serving great baked goods. If you go there for breakfast you can get a sweet, yeasty brioche roll stuffed with your choice of ham and gouda, spinach and swiss, or cinnamon and cream cheese. A few years ago, though, Montana Plains opened a new location in another part of town with the atmosphere geared more toward being a place where you would sit down to eat; the original location is just a walk up bakery with no seating. And with the change of atmosphere also came a change of menu. Montana Plains started offering pies! You can buy them whole or by the slice. If you're in Lynchburg, this is the place you want to stop and get a pie!

The pies of Montana Plains
All right, let's move on to a different place with a slightly different type of pie. Mountain Fruit and Produce is in Bedford, VA, about a 30 minute drive from Lynchburg. For those familiar with the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is located off the parkway, just down the mountain from the Peaks of Otter. At Mountain Fruit and Produce, you can, as the name suggests, buy fresh fruit and produce from farms nearby, as well as a host of other homemade items like jams, jellies, preserves, and sauces. But there is a sweet alchemy going on in the bakery at Mountain Fruit and Produce every day that eclipses the rest: fried apple pies. Now before you say, "Meh. I can get a fried apple pie cold at the truck stop or for 50 cents in McDonald's drive thru..." Oh, reader! Could you only know the blasphemy you speak! At Mountain Fruit and Produce, the crusts are made by hand each day, the apples are cooked and sliced right there, and if you're lucky you can get them hot from the fryer. For the pie-lover on the go, there is nothing to beat it.

Mountain Fruit and Produce

Crossroad Store
An unassuming gas station
harboring a delicious secret!
Okay, leaving Bedford, let's head north from Lynchburg on Rt. 29 toward Charlottesville. Many Lynchburgians (Lynchburgers?) make regular trips to Charlottesville and drive right past the old gas station called Crossroad Store about 10 minutes past the little town of Lovingston. I always had previously. However, on a recent trip down Rt. 29, I was driven by the need for a bathroom to stop there and go inside. It's a fairly large place with all the novelty stuff and convenience items you would find in a gas station. Also, like many gas stations there was a place to sit and eat and a cooking area. But as I approached the counter, my breath caught in my throat. Surely this is not the sort of thing one would find at a gas station! And yet, there it was, a case of fresh baked goods, calling to me in their plaintive little doughy voices, begging me to take them home. So, of course, I had to buy a pie and take it home to share with the family. And wow, was it good! The crust was dense, but flaky, and the filling was perfectly set, not goopy and syrupy like store bought filling and not disjointed and loose like many homemade attempts. If you're ever driving to Charlottesville on Rt. 29, don't forget this most unlikely of places to find an amazing pie.

Inside Crossroad Store

Finally, we come to the end of our pie journey. I've saved this one for last because it is, without question, the best pie on the list. But also it is the farthest flung location from Lynchburg. If you're driving north on Interstate 81 through Virginia, you will go past the town of Staunton. Now Staunton isn't a huge place, but it's got some neat things there. You'll find the American Shakespeare Center (which is the world's only replica of Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse), you'll see the Frontier Culture Museum, and, if you're interested, you can also visit Edelweiss, the best German Restaurant ever. But none of these places are the reason for your visit, oh no. You are stopping in Staunton for one reason and one reason only. Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant.

Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant
Open since 1947, Mrs. Rowe's sells good country food cooked the old fashioned way. It's kind of like what Cracker Barrel restaurants would be if they got rid of all the kitsch, and if they actually lived up to expectations, and if they were a lot cheaper. Mrs. Rowe's is a quiet, unassuming place just off the interstate, but once inside you feel like you're in Mayberry. The food is good, you can feed a family for less than you could at many sit-down places travelers frequent (like the aforementioned Cracker Barrel), and the people there are invariably friendly. But this isn't a blog post about restaurants, so let's get back to our main subject.

Pie Heaven at Mrs. Rowe's
Mildred Craft Rowe was known in her day as "the pie lady," and her restaurant has kept up that reputation admirably. Their pies are, really, the best you're going to find anywhere. Imagine a cherry pie, but rather than the oversweet, runny filling that cherry pies often have, you get the piquant taste of fresh dark cherries cooked in a homemade sauce and poured into a rich, buttery crust. Your taste buds will think they've died and gone to heaven.

Of course you could buy
Mrs. Rowe's Little Book ofSouthern Pies and make
your own. But it's not going
to be the same.
So there you go, four places within an hour or so drive from Lynchburg where you can get good pie. Enjoy!

15 August 2014

Good Eats Gospel Grains

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle of Jesus (aside from the Resurrection) related in all four gospels. It's one of those stories that you hear again and again in Sunday school. But have you ever wondered, "Hey, just what are barley loaves anyway, and how did first century people make them?"

Okay, I'll admit, I'd never wondered that before... But I am a big fan of Alton Brown on the Food Network! And a few years ago Alton Brown put together this little segment on barley loaves for his pastor as an introduction to a sermon. It's in the style of his hit show Good Eats. Enjoy!

Gospel Grains - Sermon Intro from Johnson Ferry on Vimeo.