April 30, 2004

More Compassionate?

Lynn Sislo comments on an article about a young preacher who has been charged with heresy by his denomination. It seems that the preacher has been teaching that non-Christians might still be able to go to heaven; the denomination's position is that that's false doctrine and that he ought not be teaching it.

I don't mean to speak to which of the parties is correct (though I'll note that Holy Scripture and nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition are on the denomination's side). Nor do I intend to speak to Lynn's contention that if the preacher is really called by God that he has no reason to care what the denomination says (though I could say a few words about human frailty, as well as the fact that if God called the preacher, he equally called the preacher's superiors). Nor will I go into the various means the Church has used over the last 2000 years to determine the truth of various doctrines.

No, what I want to talk about is an interesting contention of Lynn's. She says this about the article:

I like this part:

...said the Joint College in a statement March 29. Despite "repeated, compassionate and loving overtures," it added, Bishop Pearson refused to quit preaching that doctrine.

"Compassionate and loving overtures" to force a preacher to stop preaching according to his beliefs, which are more compassionate than the official version.

It's that phrase, "more compassionate than the official version." What Lynn is saying, clearly, is that it's more compassionate to say that non-Christians can go to heaven than it is to say that they can't. And I'm trying to understand the logic here, because it purely doesn't make sense. Where does compassion come into this?

It's not as though the preacher's contention that non-Christians can be admitted to heaven actually admits them to heaven, or that the denomination's contention that they can't be actually bars them from heaven.

Either there's a heaven, or there isn't. If there isn't, it doesn't amount to a hill of beans what either the preacher or his denomination says. If there is a heaven, as Christian doctrine teaches, then either non-Christians can be admitted or they can't. This young preacher is either right or wrong. But whether he is right or wrong has no bearing on whether God admits non-Christians to heaven or not. So in what sense can he be held to be compassionate? Compassion that doesn't lead to acts of mercy is just a cheap feeling.

Now, on the other hand, let's suppose for a moment that there is a real heaven, and a real hell, eternal joy on one side, eternal torment on the other. And let's suppose for a moment that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians don't. I don't care for the moment whether you believe this or not--just, for the sake of argument, suppose that it's true. Let's think about the implications.

The preacher is saying, "It doesn't matter if you're a Christian or not, you can still go to heaven and have eternal bliss."

His denomination is saying, "That's not true. If you're not a Christian, you're subject to eternal damnation."

Now remember, we're assuming, for the moment, that his denomination is correct. In that light, which of the two is the more compassionate? Is it more compassionate to tell people what they want to hear, and make them feel good, at the possible cost of eternal suffering? Or is it more compassionate to tell them things they dislike, and make them angry at you, in the hopes that some among them will win through to eternal bliss?

I know which of those two positions has the greater personal cost.

I don't know what's in Lynn's mind. But when I hear this sort of thing, that somehow it's more compassionate to tell people that their actions do not have eternal consequences, I always feel that I'm being maligned--that the speaker assumes that I like consigning people to hell--that it's a bowl of cherries to me. That I think that the God that I believe in loves me and those like me, but hates the people whose actions I disapprove of.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't pretend to any moral superiority; God offers salvation and the hope of heaven to every man and woman. The Christian who calls people to God is like a man in a power boat, rescuing flood victims from the roofs of their houses. When he says, "If you're not a Christian, you can't go to heaven," all he's really saying is, "The waters are rising. If you don't get in the boat, you're going to drown."

Meanwhile, our popular young preacher is telling folks to stay on the roof, the flood waters aren't going to go that high. Maybe he's right. Me, I'd rather be in the boat.

And frankly, I'd rather you were in it with me, because I really don't want to watch you drown.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:07 PM | Comments(5)

April 29, 2004

Algebra 1: An Incremental Development, 3rd Edition, by John Saxon

My kids think I am the nerdiest mother ever since I began teaching, or I should say, reteaching myself basic algebra this spring. My 16 year-old son mutters things about mumblemumble mom doing mumble algebra for mumble fun and, like, mumble get a life, jeez mumblemumble. My daughter is a little less subtle. She just declares to any and all that she has the weirdest mom in the whole world. Do I care? Not in the least.

There is a story behind this. I didn't just wake up to some odd biological, midlife, menopause-related crisis with a burning desire to solve equations for x or to delve into the mysteries of the quadratic theorem.

First of all, my daughter is LD and needs mucho help with homework. She actually gets mathematical concepts quite well; it's figuring out what the problems are saying and what is the stupid question that is hard for her. Copying from one spot to another, as in copying down a problem and then recopying it as you do the work, is another difficulty. So quite often I am explaining and checking math. That's ok when we're talking long division or fractions. Percentages are a snap. So is factoring and figuring out common denominators. But you start combining letters with numbers in any equation and I start getting just a wee bit befuddled. Faking it doesn’t work either. Tried that—-she got every problem wrong. I got a snotty email from the teacher. And next year she's in high school with real algebra, not just the watered down, wussy 8th grade version. Yikes!

Second, I am unemployed right now. I have a fair amount of free, quiet time. There are only so many times you can clean the house. The dog is not a good conversationalist. Boredom sets in.

Saxon is fairly well known in the homeschool circles. He uses a simple format of 4 lessons and then a test. Each lesson teaches one small increment or concept with 5 or 6 worked examples. Then you are given a couple practice problems specifically on the concept taught. Finally, there are 30 problems that review all the material learned up to and including that lesson. There is a 20 problem test given at the end of the 4 lessons that is actually testing things learned in the prior lesson set. So on the test after lesson 80, you are questioned on the concepts taught up to lesson 76. By reading the explanations and then following along as the examples are worked, you pretty much have all the teaching you need because everything is taught in very small steps. There are no tricksy problems. All is straight forward and above board. It takes me roughly an hour to do a lesson.

The critique I've heard of the program is that there isn't enough repetition. Some kids need the 5 extra worksheets with 50 problems each to get the concepts and in a schoolroom situation, the teacher needs those resources in order to teach. It also is just straight math. No "real life" applications aside from the word problems. No hands-on learning activities demonstrating why a certain concept is important to a particular profession. Actually, I like that about the book. My daughter's book from school is so full of culturally diverse examples and cool scientific applications, it's hard to find the math problems in it. Curriculum committees might not find it so wonderful, tho.

So I ordered the next book in the series, Algebra 2, and I may take this new little passion all the way to calculus. I am finding the lack of ambiguity in math comforting somehow. There is an answer; all you have to do is correctly follow the steps. As an adolescent I found that frustrating beyond belief. As a middle-aged adult, it's kind of nice that at least in some things in life, there are concrete answers to certain questions even if they are questions like "what is the slope-intercept method for finding the equation of a line on a rectangular coordinate grid?"

Posted by Deb English at 08:20 PM | Comments(4)

April 27, 2004

Keeping Watch, by Laurie R. King

Keeping Watch is a stand-alone book, but the major character is one of the minor characters in another of her books, Folly.

It has an interesting premise. Allen Carmichael rescues children from hopeless situations. To be more exact, he kidnaps them for an organization that places them in safe homes when either their parents or social services refuse or can't keep them from abusive situations. Often he helps both a mother and the children escape. Rarely, is it just the child. And it's all completely illegal also making his life just a little abnormal.

This time his organization, headed by a Feminist With An Attitude, has been contacted by a child who claims his father is going to kill him. They call in Allen to watch the house and the child to substantiate the claim. He has all sorts of interesting skills with technology and is able to, indeed, verify that the child is in danger and that the father is extremely abusive. He takes the child, with the kid's consent, and places him in a family chosen by his organization in the wilds of Montana. And then he decides to quit. Living below the radar is too stressful, too dangerous and he's got a love interest in his life. Except the kid's father disappears under suspicious circumstances and Allen begins to wonder if the kid set them all up, taking out his father after he was safely away.

The other half of the book, the background to all this, is Allen's experiences in Vietnam. He has lived for years with post traumatic stress disorder and the residue of killing children in Nam. The risk of the rescue effort is his therapy and expiation for the past.

The whole book is fascinating. There really is an organization like the one described in it. In fact, King references it in the novel. Her descriptions of people's mental states are spot on without being over the top. The waffling that Allen goes thru, not knowing if the kid is a psycho or a victim is so believable. And it has a realistic ending. I'm thinking about rereading again soon just because I enjoyed it so much.

Posted by Deb English at 07:43 PM | Comments(0)

April 26, 2004

Sethra Lavode, by Steven Brust

At last we've reached the final volume of Brust's epic three volume novel, The Viscount of Adrilankha, and it's a doozy: all the swashbuckling, derring-do, and ridiculously long conversations you've come to expect, plus the end of the story complete with a "Where are they now?" section.

I hesitate to say too much about the plot, given that this is the final volume not just of the extended novel but also of the Khaavren series as a whole; I don't want to give anything away. I will, however, make two relatively general comments.

First, to my great joy and delight, Vlad Taltos is mentioned in this one, in the context of Morrolan's endless party at Castle Black. At least, he doesn't really appear as all of the action predates his birth; but Paarfi mentions that the party is still on-going, even at the time of writing, and that throughout its long history many of the notables of whom he has written have frequently been found there...along with, occasionally, other less savory elements. Which is to say, Vlad.

Second, we get an interesting insight into how truthful Paarfi is. In Teckla, a Teckla tells Vlad of an encounter he has with a wrathful Lyorn who can only be our old friend Aerich. In this volume we see the encounter from Aerich's point of view. Needless to say, there are discrepancies....

Anyway, you should go out and buy The Phoenix Guards, the first title in this series, if you haven't read it already.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:46 PM | Comments(3)

April 25, 2004

Half a Worm...

To paraphrase an old joke,

Q: What's worse than an earworm in your head?

A: Half an earworm.

For those who haven't heard the term, an "earworm" is one of those songs that gets stuck in your head and won't leave. But it's a lot worse when you can only remember half of it. If you remember the whole thing, it just goes round and round and round and you can try to ignore it. But if you only remember half of it, it goes round and crashes each time and attracts your attention.

And when one half of an earworm meets one half of a different earworm, well...I shudder to contemplate.

(Do I speak from present experience? Why, yes. Yes, I do.)

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:59 AM | Comments(2)

April 24, 2004

Ten Books -- A Cut Below

I intentionally posted my list of ten books (see the previous post) without looking at anyone else's list, and I see that I've done it a little bit differently than some other folks have. In the other lists I've looked at, folks have listed books that were important to them during the various stages of their lives, that is, books that influenced them at a particular point in time but might do so no longer.

I, on the other hand, tried to list books that not only were influential in my life, but which still are. This probably explains why I had to pad my list a little; much as I love P.G. Wodehouse, I can't claim that he's influenced my world view or personal philosophy or faith.

So...what books have influenced me in the past, but have world views I would now reject?

Off-hand, I can think of two, both of which I encountered when I was in high school and wishing (for reasons I won't go into at the moment) that the Christian faith in which I'd been raised would go away and leave me alone.

The first was Atlas Shrugged, one of the few books the very mention of which can cause any otherwise polite and well-mannered on-line forum to dissolve into rancor and ad hominem attacks in a matter of moments. I was a devoted follower of Ayn Rand for a year or so and did not abandon her until my resurgent faith and intellectual honesty made it necessary.

I do however retain one idea that has its roots in Atlas Shrugged, and so perhaps I should have included it in my list yesterday. It's not an idea that appears in Atlas Shrugged; it resulted from my reflections on Rand's gospel of selfishness and the Bible's gospel of mercy and charity. Simply put, it is the idea that moral obligations are not necessarily reciprocal.

Ayn Rand tells me that the poor, huddling masses have no right to my goods, my money, or any other fruit of the sweat of my brow. And to this I agree. No man has any right to demand that I give him anything whatsoever, simply on the grounds that he needs it. And Rand further says that it is evil to give without receiving; that economic transactions are the basis for human morality. And this I deny.

My Christian faith tells me that I must feed the poor and clothe the naked. And to this I agree--not because the poor and naked have deserve my goods, but because Christ has given me the forgiveness that I do not deserve. As he has given freely to me, so I must give freely to others, not because of their claim on me, but because of his.

And so I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Rand who the villains are in her book, but disagreeing with her about the proper response of her heroes.

The other book that comes to mind is (of all things) Harry Harrison's Deathworld Trilogy -- not because it's a particularly weighty piece of work, but because it's where I first had my nose rubbed in the fact that moral values are not universal. And, as with Rand, I find that I agree with Harrison on the facts, but not on the conclusion. It is true that moral virtues differ from place to place, and from age to age. It is not, therefore, true that all moral values are relative, as Harrison's hero would have it, or that a society's moral standards must be judged by how functional they are for that society. Rather, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, values are in fact absolute; and any society's values will differ from the absolute according to that society's besetting sins.

All this is clear enough to me now. But at the time, I found Harrison's ideas--or, rather those of his characters--shocking, subversive, and compelling. And though I would have stoutly denied being a relativist had you asked me, it's still the case that some of the habits of mind I formed then persisted for years. For example, if all morality is relative, then the standards of any group you'd care to name are as valid as my own. The problem is, it's not really possible to believe that--it's not really possible to believe that two contradictory things are both right, not when both of them are right in front of you. Not at first. And so what happens is, you start to deprecate your own values in favor of the values of everyone else. You start giving more weight to the values of other cultures and less to your own--and that makes you feel tolerant and broadminded, not like those people who claim that they know the real truth.

The trouble is, that point of view is irrational at best--for the other cultures don't agree either. In the end you're swept hither and thither by tides of opinion, for your moral compass has been swept overboard.

I'll stick with the values I grew up with, thanks. I'll undoubtedly have to fine-tune them from time to time--but at least I won't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:26 PM | Comments(3)

April 23, 2004

Ten Books

Over at Brandywine Books, we've been asked to blog the ten books that have shaped our lives. I got curious thinking about what my ten books would be, and here's what I came up with, in no particular order.

  1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
  3. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
  4. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
  5. The Bible
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
  7. The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, by P.G. Wodehouse
  8. H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian
  9. Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
  10. The Dunwich Horror, by H.P. Lovecraft

The first six are the books that formed my worldview. It might seem that C.S. Lewis is over-represented, but that's true in my head as well. I thought about tossing in something more of Tolkien's ("Leaf by Niggle" is another favorite) but decided that nothing else of his was as influential in my life.

The latter four are by the authors whose writing I'd most like to emulate; I picked a representative volume from each. I feel odd including them, because they haven't particularly shaped my thinking, but my only other options were to stop at six books or to pad the list out with four more books by Lewis.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:49 PM | Comments(0)

April 22, 2004

Hang on Snoopy!

It seems that they are going to publish a series of books containing the complete run of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip, and the first volume, spanning 1950 to 1952, has just come out. That round-headed kid sure looked different back then! Beatrice has the story.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:23 PM | Comments(0)

Folly, by Laurie R. King

I don't think I would class this book as a mystery, per se. Or, to be more specific, it does not follow the normal patterns and conventions of the genre. It isn't exactly a thriller either, though my experience with that genre is limited at best. I'd call it suspense. Hitchcock could have done wonderful things with this book.

The story revolves around Rae Newborn who moves to an island off the coast of Washington that she has inherited from her father. The island is not inhabited having been turned into wildlife sanctuary of some sort years before, but near its only navigable beach is the ruin of a log cabin flanked by stone towers originally built in the 20's or 30's by her great-uncle. Rae is a world famous woodworker/artist who also happens to suffer from severe chronic depression and suicidal ideation. She comes to the island to try to recover something of her life after losing her beloved husband and young daughter in a car accident, sparking off yet another breakdown and long path back up from the pit. She has also suffered an attempted rape while still on the mainland, leaving her shaken and paranoid and only that much more depressed. She also comes to the island to rebuild the house. The work, the fresh air and mostly the solitude are her prescription for therapy over drugs and doctor's offices. And she's doing well beating back her paranoia and fears when she finds a footprint near the spring she is piping her water from.

The book really showcases King's own interest in building and woodworking. You can tell this woman has actually worked with tools and wood and building plans before. It adds to the verisimilitude of the book. It also brings up the mysterious element in the novel since Rae's great-uncle vanished years before with no further contact with the family and the house was burned to the ground just after he left it. Rae uncovers clues about him while salvaging the wreckage. And she begins to feel the presence of someone else on the island. Ghostly, almost. Is it her paranoia or is it real? There is the footprint, but she could have left it herself without knowing. Honestly, until the end, I couldn’t figure out which. I didn't see the ending coming at all.

It's an interesting read. Very different from the humorous mysteries she normally writes. Actually, though, I found myself thinking about it, almost hoping she would write a sequel so I can find out what happens to the house and to Rae and the island.

Posted by Deb English at 05:07 PM | Comments(0)

April 21, 2004

Oh, Well

I'd meant to post a review of Steven Brust's latest, Sethra Lavode, tonight, but things are heating up on the Snit front. With luck I'll get to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, Deb, you got any more reviews to send me? I believe I've used the lot.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:53 PM | Comments(1)

April 20, 2004

Leave It To Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse

This is an interesting book on several counts. First, it's a Psmith novel, and of all Wodehouse's young men, Psmith stands alone by being both eccentric and competent. Second, it's also a Blandings novel. And third, although it's a Blandings novel it predates Lord Emsworth's interest in pigs. I have nothing against the Empress of Blandings, but a pigless Blandings makes for a nice change.

Psmith ends the book as Emsworth's secretary; it's a real pity Wodehouse didn't follow up on that, because Psmith really makes Blandings come alive. Ah, well.

Anyway, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But it's Wodehouse--so surely you expected that by now?

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:13 PM | Comments(7)

April 19, 2004

Sarah
Rebekah

by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is mostly known for his sci-fi books but he has written a trilogy about the wives of the Old Testament Patriarchs. These are the first two in the series. I haven't been able to find the third and probably will end up ordering it from the bookstore just to find out how he handles the Rachel story.

These are fiction and it's important to remember that going into them. Card takes the very bare bones of a story and extrapolates on it. He leaves things out that are repetitious from one story to the next, so that while Abraham claims Sarah as his sister in Egypt, Isaac later does not. And Card adds in elements to the stories that are not based on what is in the Bible but which are plausible based on our knowledge of the cultures of the times and of human psychology. Hagar the Egyptian is a maid that is given to Sarah by Pharaoh in Egypt when he has her in his house of women.

One of the most interesting things Card does is define the blessing given to Abraham by God as the written works of the Old Testament. The blessing then becomes a real thing, a knowledge of language and of God that is written down and kept alive by each generation. So when Jacob fools Isaac into giving him his blessing rather than his brother Esau, it is the possession of the Book that he is really getting and the privilege of continuing on with the creation of the Scripture. That's a very interesting thought.

The other interesting thing he does is create a very complex relationship between Abraham and Isaac stemming from the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac at the command of God. I've often wondered how Isaac felt about the whole thing; apparently Card did also. The father/son relationship is strained to say the least and Abraham as an old man comes across as a bit of a tyrant over his son and his son's household. The unequal love that Isaac feels for his twin sons Jacob and Esau are a reflection of the scars he carries from his relationship with his father. As I said, not biblical but certainly humanly plausible.

That was the interesting thing about these books. They took bare bones stories and made them rounded and developed. How accurate his retelling is is questionable but for sheer storytelling, they're really good. I enjoyed them.

Posted by Deb English at 07:05 PM | Comments(2)

April 18, 2004

Buster Keaton

Ian Hamet's just posted a new entry in his "Great Filmmakers" series; this one's on Buster Keaton. It's well worth your time.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:22 AM | Comments(0)

April 17, 2004

Mulliner Nights, by P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another collection of Mr. Mulliner stories. Mr. Mulliner, for those who have not met him, is a regular in the bar-parlor of the Angler's Rest, where he frequently holds forth about his vast array of remarkable relations. These stories are less well-known than the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I like them just as much.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:14 PM | Comments(0)

April 16, 2004

Bugsy Malone

I first saw this movie on Z Channel (one of the first pay-TV channels) back in the late '70's. I recorded it on to videotape, and watched it over and over; I've no idea how many times. And when I saw it on DVD at Tower Records yesterday, I grabbed it. IMDB only gives it
6.1 stars out of 10, but I'm telling you, I watched it with my two boys this afternoon, and it's everything I remembered.

And what it is, is very odd indeed. It's a gangster movie. It's a musical (with words and music by Paul Williams, of all people). All the actors are kids (including a 15-year-old Scott Baio and a 14-year-old Jodie Foster). It's the story of two rival gangs in the 1920's. Fat Sam (John Cassisi) is the town's Big Boss, and owner of the best joint in town, Fat Sam's Speakeasy. But Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) is moving in on him--and he's got an amazing new weapon. Where Fat Sam's men are armed only with cream pies, Dandy Dan's men have splurge guns--semi-automatic whip-cream cannon. It would be no contest except that Fat Sam has an ace-in-the-hole: Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio).

I'll grant you, the acting is spotty. Jodie Foster is flawless as showgirl (and Fat Sam's moll) Tallulah, not surprisingly, and Martin Lev is remarkably good as Dandy Dan. Baio is OK as Bugsy; his love interest, Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) has the required girl-next-door prettiness, but her delivery is lacking. She's got the right idea, but her timing's off. John Cassisi has a similar problem.

And of course, it's somewhat preposterous that all the male singers sound like Paul Williams.

And the ending's a little hokey--maybe a lot hokey.

But the songs are fun (I especially like "We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be", sung by Fat Sam's gang, and "So You Want To Be A Boxer"), and the sets and costumes are phenomenal.

I think what I like best about it is that it's played absolutely straight. The actors are all kids, but this isn't a kidflick. It's not goofy; it's funny precisely because it's played seriously. As an example, I'll share my favorite line. Dandy Dan has just sent men to destroy Fat Sam's illegal distillery. Sam gets a call on the phone:

"Boss, it's no good! They got the distill, the whole lot's gone!"

Sam's response: "Oh, no! Not the sarsaparilla racket as well!"

Anyway, I was afraid that the movie wouldn't hold up after all this time; frankly, I'm more impressed with it than I was way back then. It's a keeper. A note: according to IMDB it hasn't official been released on DVD in this country. The DVD I got is some kind of strange Asian import. There's Japanese writing all over it (unless it's Chinese), and the English writing says that it's from the "International Film Series Collection", whatever that is. How it came to be at our local Tower Records I've no idea. But despite the Japanese writing it started right up in English when I put it in the DVD player, and there don't appear to be any differences between it and the version I recorded all those years ago.

Now if only somebody will release American Dreamer and Rustler's Rhapsody on DVD, my joy will be complete.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:08 PM | Comments(2)

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

I have been generating a reading list for each of my kids for the summer. My daughter especially needs books that will stretch her abilities a little. She tends to read things that are too easy for her and that require no thought at all. Of course, if you are going to do this to kids, you have to find Good Books that they will enjoy reading. This book is on a lot of lists for young adults and comes highly praised by Those Who Know. I've read some real clinkers recommended by TWK however, so I bought a copy and read it myself. I can see why the library has 7 copies on their shelf. It's absolutely wonderful.

The story is told in a series of vignettes ranging from a paragraph on a page to two or three pages. They are all told by Esperanza Cordero, a young Chicano living in Chicago. Mango Street is the neighborhood she lives in. Esperanza doesn't want to live on Mango Street. She doesn't want to have a strange name and she doesn't want to be Mexican. She wants more out of life than growing up to marry early and to hope that the husband comes home in a good mood. She doesn't want to belong to the culture of Mango Street. Mostly she wants to write and tell stories. In the vignettes, she tells stories about her family and her neighbors and her life, describing them all with her fresh voice and her critical eye.

The book is so well written I sat down and reread it as soon as I finished it. It's not long but in a few short vignettes, Cisneros gave me a complete picture of the world of Esperanza and what she wants from life. The writing was breathtaking. It's one of those books you want to give people with the admonition to "Read this, you'll be amazed!"

Posted by Deb English at 06:39 PM | Comments(0)

April 15, 2004

Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another Jeeves and Wooster novel, like unto the rest for the most part, though it has its distinguishing features, and almost entirely enjoyable.

It is thanks to one of these features that I say "almost entirely", but more of that anon.

The basic plot is familiar. One of Bertie's chums and one of his ex-fiancees wish to marry, but are prevented by Members of the Older Generation with their Hands on the Purse Strings. Bertie wishes to do all he can to help. However, Bertie and Jeeves have fallen out due to some innovation of Bertie's. Jeeves will naturally save the day, and Bertie will abandon his innovation in gratitude.

The first unique feature of this particular volume is that the innovation has nothing to do with Bertie's dress or appearance. He is not wearing clocked socks; he does not have a brightly-colored cummerbund; he has not grown a mustache. Instead, he has taken to playing the banjolele, an instrument so vile that he is evicted from his London flat when he refuses to give it up. More--when Bertie proposes to retire to a small cottage in the country where he will devote himself heart and soul to the pursuit of excellence with the banjolele, Jeeves refuses to go with him! The horror! In fact, Jeeves leaves Bertie's service altogether. It seems that Jeeves has developed a horror of the banjolele, and the thought of being incarcerated with one in the confines of a small cottage is simply too much.

The banjolele, incidentally, is a real instrument; it's a banjo body with a ukelele neck. It has four strings like a ukelele, and is tuned like a ukelele, and is intended to allow ukelele players to sound something sort of like banjo players. Apparently back in the 1920's or so there was a fad for this sort of thing, and every combination of mandolin, banjo, and ukelele bodies and necks were available. I found this out by Googling on "banjolele"; the number page not only answered the question, but quoted this particular book.

The distinguishing feature that mars the book is a distressing bit of racial foolishness. In the vicinity of Bertie's cottage is a troupe of what are described as "nigger minstrels". We never meet them, and it's never entirely clear whether they really are black, or whether they simply perform in black-face, though (since sometimes the phrase "negro minstrels" is used) I suspect the former. Either way, the "N-word" appears multiple times. And a good bit of the plot depends on Bertie being in black-face, and therefore being both unrecognizeable and indistinguishable from one of the minstrels.

Now, Wodehouse had no intention of being racist. When this book was written there really were minstrel troupes, and they really were named as I've described, and were undoubtedly so-called even by the minstrels themselves. And you can't accuse him of presenting blacks in a bad way, as they do not in fact actually appear. And the whole thing with black-face wasn't intended to be anything but entirely silly.

In short, this is not a racist book. And yet one of the effects of forty years of advances in civil rights in this country is that I can't read a period book that uses the "N-word" with no intent to offend without feeling dirty. There's something wrong with that. On the one hand, I'd never call anyone a "nigger"; it's impossible to use the word today without offending. But why should that offense be allowed to work its way backward to taint a book with no harm in it, that doesn't perpetuate racial stereotypes, that simply uses the word as it was once commonly used?

In short, I'm less annoyed that the book uses a term that some find offensive, and more annoyed that I can't read the book without thinking about how some other people might be offended by it.

Sigh.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:23 PM | Comments(2)

April 14, 2004

The Game, by Laurie R. King

This is the next installment of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries that King writes. Holmes and Russell are called in by Mycroft, Holmes' brother, to investigate the whereabouts of a missing English spy in the highlands of India. The spy just happens to be Kim O'Hara from Kipling's novel Kim. Apparently, Holmes made his acquaintance 30 years before, just after the novel about him ends. Off they go to India, Russell learning Hindi and the local dialects along the way in preparation to go undercover in an unstable India.

The book is good but problematic. First, much of the richness of the plot depends on having a working knowledge of Kim. I hadn't read it beforehand and missed many of the references that would have made it more amusing. Second, King splits up Holmes and Russell about halfway thru the book and I realized that without the interplay between their personalities, the books lose something. It went flat at that point.

I'm glad I read the book but would really recommend going back and reading Kim first. I realized this after I read Kim and discovered what some of the jokes and story puns were about. This isn't the strongest in the series but still amusing and worth reading.

Posted by Deb English at 04:36 PM | Comments(0)

April 13, 2004

March to the Stars, by David Weber and John Ringo

This is the third book in the series that began with March Upcountry. To recap, Prince Roger MacClintock is the Heir Tertius to the throne of the Empire of Man, which is your typical garden-variety interstellar empire. Thanks to a botched attempt on his life, he and the company of Imperial Marines who form his bodyguard are stranded on a low-tech backwater planet. The local food doesn't supply sufficient nutrition, the jungles are rife with really nasty creatures, and though the locals have four arms and are covered with a coating of slime, they are a lot like humans--dangerous as all get out. Some how, Roger and his troops are going to have to fight their way half-way around the planet to the single starport. And when they get there, they are going to have to capture the starport, because the Imperial Governor is collaborating with the Empire's enemies. And then they are going to have to capture a ship.

The marines are going to have their hands full, because Roger is pretty much a useless fop.

At least, he starts out that way...

What follows is a saga of personal growth chock-full of military-SF goodness, and it's really pretty good if that's your cup of tea. As the name implies, this is the book in which Roger and company finally get to the starport, but if you think that's the end of the story you're gravely mistaken.

I don't know what the name of the next book is, but I'll surely buy it when it comes out in paperback.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:29 PM | Comments(0)

April 12, 2004

A Grave Talent
To Play the Fool
With Child
Night Work

by Laurie R. King

Aside from her amusing series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, I had not previously read any other books by Laurie King. She has this series about Kate Martinelli, two linked novels and a complete stand-alone as well. I like the Mary Russell series very much and decided to give Kate Martinelli a shot to see if King's story telling is as good in a modern series as it is in early 20 century England.

The main character is Kate Martinelli, a young detective newly transferred to San Francisco from San Jose with a good reputation and little experience. On her first assignment she is assigned to work on a child kidnapping/murder case with Inspector Al Hawkin, a seasoned veteran who slightly resents being saddled with a primadonna just to keep the media happy. Women look good on cases with kids, more compassionate and all.

A Grave Talent is the story of that case. All the little girls are about the same age, look very similar and, unmolested, are dumped after death on a specific road in hills, coincidentally in the middle of a closed community of old hippies and hermit types. The access in and out of the community is locked. Cars are only allowed on specific days, phone lines are limited and everyone knows everyone. Plus the terrain makes transporting a dead child cross country from elsewhere next to impossible. And then they discover that one of the community's residents has spent time in jail for killing a child she was babysitting. A child who looks very much like the murder victims. And she is also a world famous artist whose paintings are faintly disturbing in light of recent events.

The first book is as much about discovering who Kate is and the development of her partnership with Hawkin as it is about the murder. There is much to learn about Kate. She's had some hard knocks up til this point and has learned to keep her private life separate from her work life, to the point of using the nickname Casey at work and Kate with her friends. Watching her relationship with Hawkin grow is interesting also. He has a disturbing tendency to call at all hours and not sleep til a case is solved. He also doesn't pry.

The next three books continue with Martinelli and Hawkin working together. To Play the Fool has them investigating the lives of the homeless after a man has been murdered and then partially cremated in a park. This book's prime suspect is Brother Erasmus, a man who speaks only in quotations and ministers to the homeless and the poor. Conversations with him are interesting, to say the least, especially if you aren't extremely well versed in the Bible and Shakespeare. King is exploring the role of the Fool and how human interactions depend on language in this story. It was interesting.

With Child is about a bad patch in Martinelli's home life. She has taken a leave of absence for medical reasons. Hawkin is getting married so Martinelli offers to care for his new stepdaughter during his honeymoon. The child is way too bright for her own good and when she disappears from their motel room in the same vicinity as a serial murderer, things get even worse.

Night Work was the least straightforward and most problematic of the four. Kate continues to have domestic issues and at the same time is investigating murders of men who have abused or beaten their wives in some way. They all have the same markers, especially the candy left in their pockets. Plus a good friend of Kate's is a suspect or at least complicit in the crime somehow. This one wasn't as tightly plotted as the previous three, however, and I kept wondering how she was going to tie all the loose ends together at the end. She manages it, but just barely. And there were some plot points that were just a little too over the top to be believable.

These books aren't the amusing mysteries that Kings other series is but the character of Kate is compelling. And King uses the books to explore themes that are fascinating. Her background in Old Testament theology and religion keeps showing up deepening the novels and toning down much of the feminist angst that other women authors play up. I liked that about them. Good stories, well told.

Posted by Deb English at 07:44 PM | Comments(0)

April 11, 2004

Regarding Easter...

...go see what Dawn said.
Posted by Will Duquette at 10:00 PM | Comments(0)

Christ Is Risen Indeed!

Posting has been light over the last week, due in equal parts to fatigue and Holy Week, but I expect things to pick up now that Easter is here. A Happy Easter to all of you! May God bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you! Will
Posted by Will Duquette at 01:54 PM | Comments(0)

Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton

This is a simply amazing book, and one that I'm having great difficulty reviewing. When reviewing a non-fiction book, I like to summarize the book's argument. That's absurdly difficult in this case, because the book is almost embarassingly rich--is almost bigger on the inside than on the outside. I think I'm going to need to re-read it every couple of months for the indefinite future if I'm to do it justice.

Anyway, here's what it's about (as opposed to what's in it). Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics in which he described several of the prominent thinkers of his day and the world-views they espoused, and pointed out the weaknesses and failings of the latter. A critic of the book declared that it was unfair for Chesterton to deal so with his subjects without giving them the opportunity to criticize his own world-view. Chesterton was always willing to plunge cheerfully into battle, and wrote the current book in answer.

Just as Surprised by Joy describes C.S. Lewis's personal journey of faith so this book describes Chesterton's, and with great humor. Indeed, the whole book can be described as an enormous joke on Chesterton himself. As a young man he rejected Christian orthodoxy, and became a freethinker. And as he examined each school of thought proposed by the freethinkers before him, he found that it wouldn't answer. Rejecting each of them, he boldly struck out on his own, and attempted to devise his own system of thought that commended itself to his reason and his common sense. And when he had completed it, and saw that it was good, he discovered that he had reinvented Christian orthodoxy.

There now, I think I've adequately described the premise of and occasion for the book; it's the content that's hard to summarize. I'll have to read it again.

In the meantime, I suggest you take a look at this essay, which undoubtedly does a better job of introducing the book than I have.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:49 PM | Comments(0)

April 06, 2004

The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back

I've just posted an update for that epic tribute to Doctors Tolkien and Seuss, The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back. You can find it on our original fiction page.

This is a major update; I've actually got our heroes all the way to Rivendell.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:05 PM | Comments(0)

April 05, 2004

Overheard

Little Anne, my two-year-old, often talks to herself in her crib for quite a while before she falls asleep. My study is right downstairs from her room, so I can usually hear what she says. The other night it was this:

"One! Two! One! Two! One! Two! One! Two! One! BLAST OFF!"

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:55 PM | Comments(0)

Children of the Storm, by Elizabeth Peters

This is the umpteenth Amelia Peabody mystery; it's just been released in paperback. The umpteenth+1 has, accordingly, just been released in hardback, and no doubt we'll be hearing from Deb about it in a few weeks.

The first thing I have to say about this book (which I devoured) is that Elizabeth Peters is utterly shameless. I won't go into details, because that would spoil things; all I'll say is that someday I expect Amelia and her intrepid husband to run into a completely new adversary, and die of shock on the spot. I'm no longer sure whether this is a mystery series, or a soap opera.

Anyway, if you're not familiar with the series by now, go click on the author's name, above, to go to our Elizabeth Peters page; there you'll find a list of the earlier books in the series. That's important, because you won't want to start with this one.

If you are familiar with the series, then all you need to know is that it's much like its predecessors. The Emerson clan arrives in Egypt, Emerson wants everyone to help excavate, Amelia wants to organize everyone, there are mysterious happenings, Amelia wants to investigate, Emerson and Amelia quarrel and make up repeatedly, scandalizing Ramses and Nefret, who quarrel and make up occasionally, amusing Emerson and Amelia, while diverse members of the extended (and growing) Emerson family wander in and out and about, still more mysterious happenings happen, Amelia succeeds in organizing everyone and has to make up with Emerson (again), and Ramses and David investigate this and that and occasionally get injured, until miraculously at the end we find out who the villains are and how they are related to the Emersons, who probably can't wait to make up again.

I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:26 PM | Comments(1)

April 03, 2004

The Tongue in the Sink, by Dennis Fried, Ph.D.

Fair warning--this is another book I read only because I was offered a free review copy.

Subtitled "The Harrowing Adventures of a Baby Boomer Childhood," this book is further labeled, "Warning: This book contains heavy doses of humor. Do not read while driving or operating heavy equipment. Standard adult dose is one chapter per day. In case of overdose, discontinue reading immediately, lie quietly, and watch the news." I suspect that this is adequately expresses how funny Fried wishes he were; alas, it's an overestimate.

The first chapter is particularly bad; in it, Fried explains how he moved to Florida, and what he found there. It's got all the usual tired digs about development and elderly drivers, and is punctuated with lots of little gags that mostly fall flat. It short, it's trying far too hard to be funny, and not managing.

The remaining chapters are much better, and include many anecdotes of Fried's childhood that are genuinely funny, if not quite the laugh riot the cover bids you expect. And, unsurprisingly, the funniest bits are those in which Fried stops trying to be a comic and just tells the story. I enjoyed hearing about his dog Sardo, and the varied population of his hometown, the more so as he grew up in a time and place that I know little about (Upstate New York, in the 1950's).

I suppose what fascinates me the most about the book is the moral dimension, which is almost completely lacking. There are a handful of passages infused with PC-piety on animal rights and the environment, but in all of the tales of his youthful exploits there's no sense of shame or contrition or sheepishness, but only the concern then (and pleasure now) that he didn't get caught at the time. He relates an incident concerning one of his childhood friends, who inadvertently ate some candy after giving up candy for Lent. The friend was absolutely mortified about it. Fried comforts him, but clearly doesn't understand the problem.

Now I'm not looking for heavy-handed moralizing; it's meant to be funny, after all. But somehow Garrison Keillor manages to acknowledge his own moral frailty without ceasing to be funny. Fried's parents were Jewish, so he tells us, but were apparently not particularly observant, and left him to make up his own mind about religion; which is to say he got no religious instruction whatsoever. Keillor, on the other hand, was raised in the Church. Fried's book has no real moral dimension; Keillor's books, on the other hand, do. It makes you wonder.

So anyway, I read the book, and enjoyed most of it--except for the first chapter--well enough, but I didn't have to pay for it. Would I have paid money for it? Well, honestly, I probably wouldn't even be looking in that part of the bookstore. But if someone called it to my attention, and I leafed through it....well, probably I would have left it in the store. Still, if you have a particular interest in mid-1950's Americana you might take a look.

Update: Given Ian's comment (see the comments sections), I want to make it clear that I'm not accusing Fried of being a man of no morals. It's his book I'm talking about, and it's what he chose to put in it, and what he chose to leave out, that I find interesting.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:33 PM | Comments(2)