06 February 2016

Coraline

 Poor Coraline. She is stuck spending her summer vacation in the old subdivided house where her family has just moved. The only other people living there are two old ladies who used to be actresses and a crazy old man who claims to have a mouse circus that he won’t let anyone see. Everyone gets her name wrong; it’s Coraline, NOT Caroline! Her parents are always busy working and don’t have time to play. And her dad is always cooking fancy “recipes” for dinner when Coraline would just prefer some good, plain food. Yes, life is pretty glum for Coraline. That is until the walled-up door to the empty neighboring flat turns into a tunnel that leads to another world. It is a world with a house just like hers, except the two old ladies are young and energetic and put on fantastic theatrical shows to a room full of dogs; her room is full of wonderful toys that come alive and play with her; and she has another mother and another father who look just like her real mother and father, except that they have buttons for eyes. Coraline’s other father always has time to play with her. Coraline’s other mother buys her all the types of clothes she really wants to wear, cooks her the most wonderful dinners made up of all the foods she most wants to eat, and wants to keep her and cherish her and love her. Forever. The other mother even has a pair of nice black buttons that would fit Coraline perfectly…

I had seen the movie Coraline a few years ago, and so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up the book. But of course, no movie could ever capture the lovely, delicious prose of Neil Gaiman. His writing is always so confident, skillful, and playful that reading anything he authors is like giving your imagination dinner at a five-star restaurant. Yes, the book is much better than the movie, and the movie was already pretty good. This is technically a children’s book, but really anyone over the age of seven with a pulse should enjoy Coraline. I also have to mention that Dave McKean’s illustrations do a great job of capturing the tone of Gaiman’s story as well.

Like most of Gaiman’s books, Coraline doesn’t follow the rules. In a conventional children’s fantasy book, the parents would realize that they’ve been neglecting their precious little snowflake and shower her with all the things she feels like she’s been missing. In this book, Coraline realizes that she needs to stop being dissatisfied and appreciate the fact that her parents love her even though they work a lot, and don’t buy her the clothes she wants, and her dad puts green pepper and pineapple on the homemade pizza. It’s a good reminder that not all love looks the same, and some things that look like love aren’t.

So do yourself a favor. If you are a parent looking for some good family out-loud reading material, or if you have kids who are looking for a good story, or if you’re a teen or adult who has a couple of hours to spend with a master storyteller, pick up a copy of Coraline.

31 January 2016

Medieval Combat by Hans Talhoffer


A Medieval fighting manual! Did you know that real medieval sword fighting did not involve clanking swords together rapidly until one hacked one’s way through the opponent’s defenses? Did you know that medieval fighting included smooth, judo-like movements, wrestling and grappling techniques, and methods of attacking with every part of the sword? Seriously, there’s a move in this book called the “murder stroke” wherein a combatant grabs the sword by the blade and swings the pommel of it like a hammer into their opponent’s face.

The aptly named "murder stroke"

The number of attacks that involve holding the sword at various points on the blade, and using the pommel as a weapon are astounding. The fighting methods described in this book often seem more like eastern martial arts than the repetitive sword-on-shield clashing or the fencing-style fighting in most movies. A combatant’s entire body becomes a weapon, and the swords, poleaxes, shields, maces, etc. function as extensions of the body.

Smacked with a pommel.
One of the more interesting parts was the combat with two shields. Death by shield seems like a bad way to go. The fighting on horseback with spears and swords was fun. The oddest part of the book was the description of a judicial duel between a man and a woman. The man was handicapped by being forced to stand waist-deep in a hole. If the man was pulled from the hole, or the woman pulled into the hole, the duel was over. This particular duel ended in the woman’s favor. As the text says, “The woman has the man locked in a hold by the neck and the groin and pulls him out of the pit.”

Death by shield.
Who would benefit from reading this book? Anyone choreographing a play or film with medieval fighting would do well to learn from this book. Anyone interested in historical reenactment should definitely read it. Writers who wish to write stories set in the middle ages should benefit from it as well. So, what about someone like me who doesn’t have any of these excuses? I just enjoyed looking at the reproductions of the illustrations from this fighting manual of the 1400s and imagining the fights, duels, and battles being described by them.


This is not how I expected this day to end...

21 January 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz

I don’t remember where I first heard about A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s one of those books that had been bouncing around on my radar for years, but I had never taken the time to read it. My interest was piqued again last year when Professor Eric Rabkin highly recommended it in a lecture series on imaginative literature that I listened to. My sister also told me that I needed to read it, and then just bought me a copy for Christmas, assuming, I suppose, that I would never get to it on my own.

First of all, let me say that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great post-apocalyptic novel. It avoids many of the easy clich├ęs inherent in post-apocalyptic fiction, and it presents a story that doesn’t simply offer escapism but truly comments on the human condition and offers good food for thought. Some consider A Canticle for Leibowitz to be among the classics of 20th century literature, and having now read it myself I tend to agree.

On a slightly off topic note, I was thrilled to find that this book is the source of a spurious C.S. Lewis quotation that is ubiquitous on the internet. The quote, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body,” circulates on the internet with Lewis’s name attached, and I’ve known for years that it is a misattribution. I suppose at some point I had also read that the quote really came from Walter Miller, but I didn’t know it was from this book. It was an exciting nerd moment for me.

Plot

Anyway, the book opens on an acolyte named Francis who is fulfilling a Lenten fast in the desert in order to hopefully find his vocation and be confirmed as a full-fledged monk in the Order of Saint Leibowitz. It doesn’t take long for us to piece together that the story is taking place in the far future and that the world as we know it has been destroyed by a global nuclear war. The Church has survived however, and is the only force in a barbaric world attempting to preserve and further the learning from the previous fallen civilization. In other words, what we have is a parallel to the position of the Church in the early Middle Ages. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. The story of Francis and what happens to him makes up the first third of the book. The story then shifts hundreds of years farther into the future where we see that civilization has progressed to a time of a new Renaissance and the knowledge the Church has preserved for years is now desired by a first generation of new scientists. The final third of the book takes place in a civilization that is just ahead of us today. Many things seem familiar, but interstellar travel has also become a reality. Once again, nuclear weapons are a reality and we see the same monastery dealing with very modern political problems.

Themes

There are a few major themes that run through the book and tie all three stories together. Most of the themes are introduced in a basic form in the first part and culminate in the third part.

The first major theme is the idea that Christianity is the conscience of the world. The scientists in the book run toward new inventions and ideas, discovering many wonderful and amazing things. However, the scientists find themselves the political pawns of those in power who would use the new knowledge for destruction. And the scientists tend to make moral decisions in a utilitarian way. In this way, the book shows an interesting take on the old science vs. religion trope. The monks are not opposed to scientific knowledge and participate in scientific discovery themselves. This is, incidentally an accurate picture of the role of the Church in scientific discovery through the Middle Ages; the idea that the Church held back science is one of those popular modern myths with little grounding in reality. The main difference presented with the interest of the monks in scientific knowledge and the interest of the scientists in scientific knowledge is that the monks’ interest in science is never absolute; they always consider that there is a higher Law they must obey. Science is always considered a means rather than an end by the monks. The scientists see science as the main end of life, and the only true evil is physical pain. One of the abbots expresses it this way, “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

This leads to another major theme that runs through the book: that of the relationship between faith and suffering. The image of Job is invoked at various points in the book to discuss the perseverance of faith in the fact of suffering in a world that seems to offer only absurdity. At one point, the story inverts the Job narrative, showing how, for many people, suffering and fear lead only to the loss of faith.

A third theme is that of man’s fallenness. It was the fallenness of man that led to the first Flame Deluge (the nuclear war that wiped out civilization). The main goal of the monks in the story for the centuries afterward is to preserve knowledge, but to get it right this time. This time around a return to civilization and knowledge will not involve a drifting away from faith and a progressive secularism. And of course, it won’t involve nations threatening one another with nuclear annihilation again. But alas, man is not only fallen, but is also falling at all times. Man is ever reaching out for the forbidden fruit, and the best efforts of men still fall far short of perfection.

Conclusion

I realize that the way I’ve described this book may make it sound like a heavy-handed religious allegory. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What I’m presenting is largely my perspective on the themes of the book. However, the questions raised in the book, questions about suffering, euthanasia, progress, politics, and the like, are never treated as simple questions with pat answers. There are no outright heroes or villains in the book, and as a reader you’re going to have to experience the story for yourself to see if you come to the same conclusions that I did when reading it. As for me, this is the sort of book that I think will warrant a re-read in the future to see how it strikes me again in a few years.

A Canticle for Leibowitz certainly deserves its reputation as a classic of 20th century fiction. This is no fluffy, pop sci-fi. This is a deeply resonant, well-written story with richly- crafted, realistic characters that should be read and appreciated by all lovers of great literature.

08 January 2016

Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought

Vern Poythress’s Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought is a hefty book. If you cut out the bibliography and the indices, it still clocks in at 708 pages. As such, it’s hard to review it all in one go. I’m going to try though by listing the things I particularly liked about this book and the areas in which I felt it fell short.

Pros

  • This book gives a breathtaking picture of the breadth of Logic in ways that other Introductory texts that I have read do not.
  • It is written from a theologically Reformed, presuppositional perspective (might not be a pro for everyone)
  • The author works hard to unify all the different types of Logic (i.e. categorical logic, propositional logic, Boolean algebra, predicate logic, set theory, modal logic, etc.) and to show how they all fit together and support one another.
  • The author clearly loves his material. His excitement seeps through the pages.
  • The author continually attempts to show how logic relates to other fields of study such as philosophy, physics, computer programming, theology, and science.


Cons

  • Even though it has over 700 pages, the book moves along at a very fast pace. Sometimes the concepts are zooming by so quickly that you might miss something because it didn’t seem significant at the time only to realize a few chapters later that the earlier concept is being used to build even more theoretical structures later on in the book. This means that there was a lot of going back and reading earlier parts of the book for me in order to follow his arguments.
  • There are very few exercises for a student or reader to work through. Even thought this book was purportedly written as an introductory logic text, it doesn’t seem to have been designed with the student in mind.
  • Some of the author’s theological explanations become repetitive over the course of the book. There are only so many ways to restate the relationship of logic concepts to the problem of the many and the one or to ideas of transcendence and immanence.
  • Syllogisms are really shortchanged in this book. I guess if I want more syllogisms I need to get my hands on Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic next.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this for students just starting out with Logic. If this is your first encounter with Logic, I imagine it might be overwhelming. If you already have a grasp of basic Aristotelian Logic and you want to expand your idea of what Logic is and what it can do, this would be a good book to read through.

17 December 2015

Tek Wars 7: The Vorlons Awaken

Can't wait for this new movie!


27 November 2015

The Eternal Masculinity of God the Father

"Christian theology holds that God the Father is a Spirit (John 4:24), and one of the characteristics of spirits is hat they don't have biological anything, and this would mean (it would seem to follow) that they don't have biological sex... This means that His masculinity is not a function of Him being Male. God the Father is not male, but He is still ultimately masculine...This might seem like a trivial point, but actually a great deal rides upon it. The position that God is a biological male (as Zeus plainly was, contributing much to Hera's exasperation) is a view that theologians of another age would have called "a heresy." When we call Him Father, we are not saying (or implying) that He is male in any way. What we are saying is that He is ultimately masculine, and that every masculine office in the created order reflects that masculinity in some way, partaking in it somehow. The historic Christian position here is that God has taught us how to speak of Him because there was something we plainly needed to learn. We needed to learn it because we didn't know it yet."

Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger, p. 38

31 October 2015

The Ninety-Five Theses

On this day in history, in the year 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses in Wittenberg. George Grant has a great post about the 95 Theses over at his blog that gives a good historical background to the theses. So go over there and read it for the history.


I simply wanted to make a few comments about the theses themselves. When you read Martin Luther's theses on indulgences, you might be disappointed. The idea that such an innocuous set of discussion points written for a group of theologians by a man who clearly honored the pope and the Church could spark the Reformation is almost unbelievable. The fact that the 95 Theses produced any controversy at all is a clear indication of the sorry state of the Church at the time (if the scads of satires and criticisms floating around already at the time weren't enough).


If you've never taken the time to read the 95 Theses yourself, pop on over to this website and read them through today. Also go watch the movie with Joseph Fiennes. Because despite its Hollywoodish historical liberties, it's still a fun movie.

Luther's mad lute-playing and nun-wooing skills are actually historically spot on, though.

03 October 2015

Last Call

I think I finally realized who Tim Powers reminds me of: Charles Williams. The way in which he weaves the mystical, spiritual world with the physical, natural world is exactly like Williams's enigmatic novels. This realization came to me while reading Last Call because, in many ways, it reminded me of The Greater Trumps by Williams, another book that focuses on Tarot Cards and the archetypes they invoke.

Like the other books I've read by Tim Powers, the heroes all have some gritty, brutal physical punishment to go through before they reach the end of the story...that is if they reach the end of the story. No one is safe in a Tim Powers novel. Powers is never one to pull punches; James Bond may get into a knock-down fistfight and be just fine in the next scene, but Powers's protagonists feel every bruise, every break, and every cut.

Powers is in top form for Last Call. If the idea of a fantasy/horror book featuring Arthurian myth, Las Vegas, high stakes poker, tarot cards, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, ancient gods, vengeful ghosts, gangster Bugsy Siegel, and a cast of bizzare, broken characters that could have stepped straight out of a Flannery O'Conner story appeals to you, then you really need to read this book. If you want something less noir-ish, gut-wrenching, or bizarre, I'll understand. You'll just be missing out on one wild ride.

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Content Note:  Just a friendly warning. For those who are sensitive to it, there's a good deal of rough language in the book.

24 September 2015

The Trojan War by Barry Strauss



It’s a bold move to write a sober history of a mostly legendary war like the Trojan War, but Barry Strauss succeeds in doing just that. The Trojan War is made up of two strands of narrative interwoven throughout the book. One strand is a history of the practices of warfare in the Late Bronze Age in both Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece. Strauss pulls from recent archaeological discoveries, ancient records and letters, and ancient poetry and literature in order to reconstruct the politics and paraphernalia of war. I especially appreciated this aspect of the book. The other strand of narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of the Trojan War story, primarily that presented by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, in light of the real methods of war at the time period. This was also interesting in a “What could it have really been like?” sort of way.

The book is well written, fun, and easily accessible for any reader. It has timelines, maps, a glossary and some great resources in the back. I only have two quibbles with the book as a whole. First of all, he’s interpreting the Iliad primarily from a military history perspective rather than from a literary perspective. Because of this I think he misinterprets many character points in the Iliad; I especially thing he doesn’t “get” the character of Achilles as Homer presents him. The other problem is that because he is intertwining the two threads (the historical information and the imaginative “historical” reconstruction of the Iliad), it would be easy for readers to make the mistake of considering Agamemnon, Menelaus, Helen, Priam, et al as actual historical persons. There was a war at Troy and the city was burnt sometime between 1250 and 1180ish BC, but Strauss is not intending to say that the story of the Iliad is absolutely historically true. The way he writes can give this impression at times, though.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any person interested in classical literature or history. From teachers, to students, to the merely curious, The Trojan War is an engaging and lively read.

24 July 2015

Move Along, Sheep

(Picture Stolen from CatholicMemes)