There are a number of ways of thinking about social justice issues. For example:
This is the sort of logic that builds soup kitchens and food banks. Here's another way:
Now, this is an admirable idea, on the face of it. But how do we go about building such a society? Practically speaking, we hold rallies and protests and put up posters so that everyone knows that there are people in our society that go hungry. And we lobby congressman and we circulate petitions and we try to get out the vote in an attempt to get the government to make sure that no one goes hungry. Mostly we talk a lot, and the government collects a lot of money that goes to support a massive bureaucracy that provides foodstamps to people who would otherwise go hungry.
Now, I'm not against such a safety net. We're a wealthy country, and we can afford it. But I'll point out that the logic is somewhat impersonal. We're no longer thinking of specific hungry individuals, but of hungry individuals as a class. And the action we take to serve them doesn't feed anyone directly; it's all aimed at getting someone else to do the actual work.
The real problem with this logic is that it leads to magical thinking. "We protested and lobbied and canvassed, and the hungry got fed! Wow!"
There's a third way of thinking about social justice, one of I've been noticing more and more lately, which follows from the second way:
I often detect this way of thinking in screeds about greedy multi-national corporations; it betrays a basic misunderstanding about the world. There's an implicit assumption in the above that everything would be perfect in the world if only they (You know, them. You've talked about them yourself, I'm sure.) would stop wrecking things for the rest of us. And this, of course, is nonsense.
Meanwhile, other people go on building and funding soup kitchens, food pantries, half-way houses and the like. People like the folks at Modest Needs:
Modest Needs is a tax exempt, grass-roots charitable organization dedicated to a simple proposition: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Since May 2002, the active members of the Modest Needs community have been pooling their pocket change and investing it in the future of working families.
These families have asked for our help because the burden of a small, unexpected expense has proven too great for them to bear on their own.
To date, Modest Needs has kept 1264 working families from entering the public welfare system by remitting payment for $236,215.71 worth of unexpected expenses on behalf of the families we've had the funding to assist.
Those expenses have ranged from the fee for a GED test to the bill for an auto repair to the cost of burying a stillborn child.
Modest Needs' average grant is just over $180.00 per family. But because our grants keep working families working, they've now returned more than $7.7 million in earned income to the pockets of families who have remained self-sufficient because of them.
At Modest Needs, we think our dollars make more sense when they keep families working.
I must admit that I have not researched Modest Needs extensively; they could be snake oil salesmen. But I doubt it; when I went to their web site and looked at their Giving FAQ, I discovered that they don't simply hand out money; they verify the need and they make sure the money goes where it's supposed to. More than that, all of their financial data is publicly available on their web site. That's the kind of transparency I like to see in a charitable organization.
Why don't you go take a look?
So there this guy, see, named Ian Hamet. He boldly ventures forth to Shanghai--it's the coming place, the leading edge of the Pacific Rim--where he hopes to get work in the movie business. Instead, he ends up teaching English for six months. And at the end of the six months, he still hasn't found a job in the movie industry. So they offer to hire him to teach full-time for a year, only when he begins work he discovers that he's not only the English teacher, he's the only English speaker in the entire school. Which is brand new. Which will stand or fall with him.
Good grief, he's not working in the movies, he's living one. All he needs is some troubled teenagers to turn around, and maybe a beguiling love interest, and he's all set.
Update: Apparently movie pitches should be 30 words or less. Well, that explains a few things. (For the record, Ian, it was the English division I was referring to.) Also, I'd ruled out Qili and Deliver--given how polite everyone is, I just couldn't see the need for a baseball bat.
A friend called me up last night and asked if I'd like to go shooting. Guns are a serious hobby of his--he used to do target-shooting competitively. We'd talked on a number of occasions about going out to the shooting range one weekend so that I could see what it was like, and this afternoon we did.
A digression: I do not own a gun. I do not plan to own a gun. Practically speaking, I do not need a gun, and I need another expensive hobby like I need...well, you know. But I'm a firm supporter of your right to own one, should you choose to.
We arrived at the range at about two o'clock, and signed release forms. My friend paid the range fees, and bought me a pair of cheap earplugs--whenever the range is "live and hot" you have to wear eye and hearing protection, and believe me it was welcome.
An outdoor shooting range consist mostly of a large patch of dirt with targets and target stands at various distances; there's a double row of benches along one side. You stand at the forward bench while shooting; it is a serious breach of range safety rules to have a loaded gun anywhere but at the forward bench. Meanwhile, most of your stuff sits on the back bench. You can do anything with a gun that you need to at the back bench, except load it and fire it.
Because this was my first trip to a shooting range, the emphasis was on gun safety and range etiquette. It develops that with regard to gun safety, there are four basic rules:
First, do not pick up a gun without checking whether it is loaded and chambered--and if you don't know how to check, don't pick it up.
Second, do not put your finger on or near the trigger unless you are ready to fire the weapon.
Third, do not point a gun at anything you are unwilling to shoot at. Corollary: always be able to identify your target.
Fourth, always be aware of what's around your target, that is, be aware of what you'll hit if you miss.
Consequently, the first step was to introduce me to the first gun I'd be firing, a Smith & Wesson 22-caliber double-action target pistol--a genuine six-shooter. My friend showed me how to open it, and verify that it was unloaded, and then how to carry it to the forward bench. It works like this: when you're working with a gun at the back bench, it must be pointing either straight up, or backwards, i.e., away from the shooters. When carrying it to the forward bench, you must carry it pointing straight up with the action open, so that anyone nearby can clearly see that it is not loaded. When you get to the forward bench, you can point it straight up, or forward, i.e., out into the range itself.
We had to wait for a cease-fire to hang my targets. Naturally, you can't walk out into the range while people are shooting, so every so often the range safety officers call a cease-fire. When cease-fire is called, you must stop shooting immediately, and unload your gun. Then you must place your gun on the bench, action open, and step back behind the safety line. At this point, you may not approach the forward bench or touch anything on it until the cease-fire ends and the range goes "live and hot" once again. If you do, you'll have a guy with a loud-speaker yelling at you. And if you make a habit of it, you'll be required to leave.
After everyone's behind the safety line, a range safety officer walks along the forward benches and verifies that all of the guns are unloaded. Then, and only then, you are allowed to walk out into the range to set or retrieve your targets. My friend set mine up (two pistol-shooting targets stapled to a large sheet of cardboard) on a stand about 25 feet from the forward bench.
And then we waited patiently until the cease-fire ended.
May I just say that I found all of these safety precautions inexpressibly comforting? We observed them strictly, and consequently were not yelled at, unlike a number of other fellows, including one bozo who was caught walking down the firing line with a loaded shotgun. At least he was pointing it straight up, in approved fashion.
If it seems like it was quite a long time before I actually got to fire a gun, well, it was. But none of the time was wasted.
It turns out that almost everything you've ever read about learning to fire a handgun or rifle (Shane excepted, sorry Deb) is true. You need to be relaxed; you need to hold the gun firmly; you must pull the trigger gently but firmly, without jerking it; you mustn't be afraid of the recoil (not that there's much recoil with a 22 pistol). There's more to it than that, particularly in the way you hold the gun, but being relaxed and not jerking the trigger will take you a long way. As a result, I apparently did fairly well for a beginner.
After the Smith & Wesson, my friend had me shoot three semi-automatic pistols: a 22-caliber pistol with a scope (I did the best with that one), a nine-millimeter, and a 40-caliber. As always, I began by learning how to open the action on each weapon and make sure it was unloaded before I did anything else.
In a semi-automatic a good bit of the recoil is taken up by the mechanism, so while the larger handguns bucked quite a bit it wasn't painful--surprising, the first time, but not painful. (On the other hand, neither was a 44 Magnum. A guy next to us was shooting one of those, and every time it went off I jumped.) I did tolerably well with all of these, although I kept "limp-wristing" the 40-caliber--you need to keep your arm stiff when you fire it, or your arm takes up some of the recoil. Since the gun uses the recoil to load the next round, that's a bad thing, and can cause the round to misfeed. That's not dangerous (unless someone's shooting at you) but it takes a moment to clear. Although, my friend said it might also be due to the cheap 40-caliber ammunition he'd brought with him.
After the handguns we took a break and walked up and down the line looking at what other folks were shooting. There were a couple of folks there with black-powder rifles--real muzzle-loaders. There's a special rule for them at cease-fire time, because the only way to quickly unload one is to fire it, and all guns must be unloaded during the cease-fire. So every time they called "Cease fire! Cease fire!" they followed it up "Black powder weapons, you may fire your load."
Next, my friend got out his 22-caliber target rifle, which has a scope. I like 22-caliber; there's very little recoil or noise. And instead of shooting at a target we moved down the firing line to a stretch where there are a bunch of steel silhouettes in two rows, at forty and fifty meters distance. My friend had explained how to a the scope with the target pistol earlier; now he showed me how to open and check the rifle (bolt-action with a five-round magazine) and how to "mount it", which is how you hold it to fire it. Firing it was much like firing the handguns--relax, hold it steady, and don't jerk the trigger. I was soon plinking away at the 50-meter silhouettes quite happily--and I do mean "plink", because that's exactly the noise they make when you hit them. And since they hang on a chain, they swing a little bit, too. It's a lot more fun than shooting at a paper target, except that you can't bring the silhouette home with you to show people.
Later on, my friend had me shoot a couple of rounds of bird-shot with his 12-gauge shotgun, just so that I'd know what it feels like to shoot a gun with some serious kick to it. After two shots, I called a halt to that (and at this point, I suspect, any readers who've shot a shotgun are laughing at me. Bird-shot is the lightest shotgun load; buckshot or (so help me!) solid slugs kick a great deal more. I wasn't that eager to bruise my shoulder.
After that we packed up the guns and went home.
So that was my trip to the shooting range. As I say, I don't intend to buy a gun; but it was definitely interesting, and well worth the time I spent at it. It's good to know what guns can do, and what they can't do.
Oh, about the title of this post: we didn't actually have anything to eat at the shooting range. So sue me.
Life has been interesting recently, for reasons I won't go into at the moment except to say that if you read last week's news about the three Los Angeles parishes of the Episcopal Church who chose to secede from the Diocese of Los Angeles and place themselves under the authority of an Anglican bishop in Uganda, I don't go to any of those three parishes. Quite. But my parish has close ties with them, and I'm acquainted with all three of their rectors. So I use the word "interesting" in the sense of the Chinese proverb.
If any of my readers would care to offer up a prayer for my parish (St. Luke's of the Mountains) or for our three sister parishes over the next few months, I'd be greatly obliged. (Those of you are don't believe in prayer, don't sweat it.)
Of course, then I'd have to read books that lend themselves to that kind of review...
Amazingly, I passed four decades on this Earth without ever having read [btitle "Treasure Island"] until just this month, when I read it aloud to my son, David. I tried to read it once when I was a kid, but didn't get far; when Billy Bones was given the Black Spot I got depressed and put the book down, having become quite attached to that sullen old gentleman of fortune. On top of that, given what little I remember of that first attempt, I think I might have been reading an abridgement or adaptation of some kind; either that, or I was retaining only about a third of the words.
Anyway, it turns out to be a fine adventure tale in the old tradition; old, in that the pirates are indisputably bad, and the good guys indisputably good, if not always entirely wise. It was rather refreshing, actually. The prose was rather over David's head, I fear, and I was continually having to explain bits to him, but once I did he enjoyed it thoroughly.
I think the bit that amazed me most was Long John Silver. I'd formed the impression of Silver as your typical pirate captain, with a cocked hat and a parrot and a pegleg, and somehow I had the notion that Silver and Jim Hawkins went off to search for the treasure together, as good comrades-in-arms--in short, that Silver was something of a hero.
The reality is somewhat different. Silver has the pegleg, and the parrot, oh yes, and he goes off to search for treasure with Jim Hawkins; and for part of the book the pirates regard him as their captain. But there's absolutely nothing of the hero about him. Instead he's a quite plausible rogue, as Jack Aubrey might say, with one eye on the main chance and the other on the door, and if he has a silver tongue he has two faces with which to wield it. A cunning fellow, indeed, but thoroughly contemptible.
How did I ever get the idea that Long John Silver was one of the good guys? I really have no idea.
When I first ran into The Da Vinci Code I knew it was nonsense; as history buff, I already had enough general historical knowledge under my belt that it smelled really bad. Nevertheless, it prompted me to go out and see what I could find on the specifics, and this book is the first fruits of that.
The History of the Church is the earliest history we have of the Christian faith in its first few centuries. Eusebius was born around 260 AD, and wrote most of the book between 315 and 325 AD. It begins with Jesus and the apostles, and traces the apostolic succession down to the early reign of Emperor Constantine. Along the way Eusebius discusses a variety of persecutions, martyrs, heresiarchs, and the like, along with a number of comments on the canon of the New Testament, and in so doing he quotes a vast number of sources at great length. Indeed, in some ways, that's the chief value of Eusebius; he wasn't an original thinker, but he had a large, well-stocked library and quoted from it liberally. Many of the passages he cites we know only from his quotations; where we have the source documents as well, he is shown to be fairly trustworthy.
So what did I learn from Eusebius?
First, that the canon of the New Testament, although still somewhat fluid even up to the end of Eusebius' life, was nevertheless pretty well thrashed out. All of the books we currently have in the New Testament were well-known to Eusebius and his sources, many of which date from the first and second centuries, and were liberally quoted by them. In Eusebius' day there was still some controversy about Revelations, Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (Eusebius maintained that it had indeed been written by Paul, but in Hebrew, and was translated into Greek by Clement of Rome), and some of the so-called "Catholic" letters. On the other hand, the various "gnostic" gospels so beloved of certain scholars these days as holding hidden knowledge--the Gospel of Thomas, for example--were also well known to Eusebius and his predecessors, and were generally dismissed as bogus. (The discussion often involves comments on the style of the various authors; it sounds quite contemporary to my ears.) In short, the New Testament was too well known and too widely quoted in earlier times to be the work of Constantine, as Dan Brown would have it.
Second, the early Christians were dedicated to (among other things) preserving the faith as they had received it from the apostles, and as a result they had a short way with heresy.
Most of you are probably now picturing witch hunts and auto-da-fés, but nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity was never spread by violence until it became married to the power of the state by Constantine, and even after that it was spread violently much less frequently than most people would suppose. But be that as it may, in the time period of which I'm writing Christianity spread from person to person without any form of coercion--the early Christians had no power, and hence no way to coerce anyone.
The way they dealt with heresy was manifold. Heretics were shunned. Books and pamphlets were written refuting their heresies; a number of these have come down to us. If a bishop should fall into heresy a synod, or council, would be convened and the matter thrashed out; if the council found that the bishop was indeed in error, he would be stripped of his position. If heretics repented, they were received back into the fellowship--but were never again given positions of responsibility. And that was the extent of it. Some heresies and their purveyors persisted for decades, but the early Christians stood firm against them, and in the end they came to nothing. It's notable that heresy was usually linked to a lust for power and wealth; even allowing for exageration, Paul of Samosata sounds like a third-century Jim Bakker.
This is yet another reason why the so-called "gnostic" gospels were abandoned--the church as a whole, which at that time was a collection of city churches united in one faith but distributed over the whole of the Roman empire, judged them false and didn't preserve them, because they didn't accord with the faith received from the apostles.
Third, the early Christians were willing to die for their faith. It was customary for Roman citizens to make certain sacrifices during the course of the year; and in many cities, especially in Asia, the emperor or his predecessors were accorded divine honors. The early Christians refused to have anything to do with such sacrifices, which led to the initial waves of persecution. Christians were accused of a variety of evil practices (including incest and baby-eating), they were imprisoned, they were flogged, they were burned at the stake, they were given to wild beasts in the arena, they were starved, they were torn apart and thrown into the sea to feed the fishes, they were tortured in various ways, periodically, all through the first three centuries of the church.
What impressed me particularly was the way most of the martyrs died. They had taken to heart Christ's saying from the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Under the torture, some certainly renounced their faith; of these, some few repented later. But most seem to have gone to their deaths rejoicing that they had been thought worthy to suffer and die as witnesses to Christ. "Witness" -- that's what the word "martyr" means.
It's not that these early Christians were so eager to die that they went looking for trouble. But if trouble came to them, they were determined to die as well as they possibly could. We're all familiar with the image of the Christians being thrown to the lions; it was even used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (Yosemite Sam, the captain of the Imperial Guard, had to find a victim for Emperor Nero.) What I didn't know is that sometimes the lions, for whatever reason, balked--so that the martyrs had to encourage them to eat. And they did.
Think about that for a moment. It seems crazy--until you remember the pearl of great price.
As a follow-on to Eusebius, I've found a book that has material written by four of his sources: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Clement and Ignatius date from the first century; Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons from the second. (As an indication of the size of Roman empire and the rapid spread of Christianity, note that Irenaeus was the head of a sizeable church in the city of Lyons, in what's now France.) It took me many months to work my way through Eusebius, so don't hold your breath.
This is the sequel to Sagan's Idlewild, and I confess I'm not sure what to make of it.
It begins about 18 years after the conclusion of its predecessor. The human race has been all but destroyed by the Black Ep virus; the only survivors are Halloween and five others, and the children they have since brought into the world. Their chief goal (indeed, their reason for being) is to find a permanent cure for Black Ep and then repopulate the world. But Halloween and his age-mates didn't have what you'd call a normal childhood with a stable home-life, and raising children is a tricky business indeed. Most of the kids are doing OK, having normal adolescent angst, but one or two of them, well...
In fact, that's probably the best way to describe this book--it's about parenting, and how to raise sociopaths. As such, I don't find it entirely convincing; the proportion of truly amoral people in this book seems to me to be a little too high.
There's an interesting note on the effect of a religious upbringing. Five of the kids are raised in the Sufi tradition (Sufi is a mystical branch of Islam). The most stable kid in the whole bunch is one of these; he's also the most devout. He's balanced by his two older brothers, who had the same upbringing; one abandons his faith for atheism and the bright lights, while the other abandons Sufism (Sufiism? Sufi-ism?) for a more literal reading of the Koran and becomes mightily annoying to all around him.
On the whole, I don't think I like this book as much as its predecessor. It takes a while to get started, and it's less convincing. Moreover, the point I draw from it--that kids need a moderate, firm level of discipline, giving them neither too much nor too little freedom of choice and experience--seems obvious to me. But then, I grew up in a functional family.
Bottom line: I dunno. I'm curious as to what happens next, though.
I just discovered an album on iTunes Music Store that I do not believe I will buy, though I confess I wouldn't mind listening to it once or twice. It's called "When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You'd Hear" and it features some very odd tracks:
And here's a piece that claims that Peter Jackson hasn't given us the authoritative The Lord of the Rings movie treatment, but only an interpretation of Tolkien's book; and that (with the cost of special effects continuing to decline, and the quality of those effects continuing to increase) there will be remakes every twenty years or so.
Considering that Jackson was not the first attempt to bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, it's hard for me to disagree.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked by a representative of Penguin Books (Penguin Books! How cool is that?) whether I'd like to review a new science fiction novel by Nick Sagan, son of the famous Carl Sagan. It sounded interesting, so I said OK. My only concern was that the book was a sequel to Sagan's first book, which I'd not read. He responded by sending me both books, for which I am truly grateful.
I admit I opened the book with some trepidation--Sagan has a famous name, sure, but can he tell a story? Turns out he can, and with style. He begins with the hoary-but-effective plot contrivance, the man with amnesia. Our hero wakes up, injured and alone, and unable to remember where he is, how he got hurt, or his own name. Bits of memory begin to creep back as he explores his surroundings--his quite remarkably outré surroundings. He lives in a house shaped like a cathedral, complete with gargoyles; he is served by nightgaunts; his name, apparently, is "Halloween." And it's almost certain that someone is trying to kill him.
Meanwhile, a global pandemic is raging, and people are dying in vast numbers. The killer is a virus called Black Ep, it's invariably fatal, and there's no known cure. Worse, it has an incubation period of years, and is highly contagious, so virtually everyone on the planet has it. A small team is working against time on a scheme to defeat the virus and preserve mankind from extinction.
And how are these two disparate plot elements related? Therein hangs the tale, which I won't spoil for you.
As I say, Sagan's a good storyteller; he kept me interested and turning pages, not an easy feat with four kids in the house and the Olympics on TV. If I have a complaint, it's that there's little here that I haven't seen before. Even if he built the story from familiar parts, though, the resulting edifice still has a number of striking features and surprises, and there are a number of absolutely images. I particularly enjoyed it when Halloween throws a luau and has nightgaunts in Hawaiian shirts passing out the drinks and canapés. And if I'm occasionally reminded of Roger Zelazny, or Greg Bear, or even Stephen King, I suppose that's no bad thing in a first novel.
August is shaping up to to be the month with the least number of books read and reviewed since I started putting reviews on-line seven-and-a-half years ago. It's partially because I've been putting a lot of time into Snit, partially because of the Olympics (remember them?), but mostly because I've been otherwise occupied.....playing video games.
Yes, it's true. If I were a member of the Truly Literary Blogosphere Establishment, I'd probably have to turn in my badge and my tie tack; fortunately, my deep and abiding love of genre fiction has saved me from such a humiliating fate.
And the game I've been playing recently is an RPG called Dark Cloud 2, which, frankly, is almost too goofy for words while remaining an enjoyable game. Computer games aren't known for having deep, complex, satisfying plots, but this one is silly beyond the conventions of the medium.
You start the game as Max, a kid who likes to build things. He's the son of the wealthiest man in town, but he prefers to spend his time doing odd-jobs for Cedric the inventor. You live in the little town of Palm Brinks, which has been completely shut off from the outside world for some years now. No one knows why, and no one really seems to care, and somehow life goes on--with a pretty good standard of living, needless to say. Heaven knows where all of the manufactured goods come from.
Anyway, a circus comes to town. A circus comes to town? But Palm Brinks has been completely shut off-- Oh, never mind. A circus comes to town, and the ringleader, an evil-looking clown with an evil-laugh, is after a red stone that Max wears on a chain around his neck. Max is forced to flee into the sewers (you knew there'd be sewers didn't you? You haven't played this kind of game much if you didn't expect sewers) where you have to fight for your life against sewer rats, frogs, evil mincing clowns, evil balloon-headed creatures, and a variety of stranger things. You're armed only with a small pistol and your trusty adjustable wrench, which by the way makes a really good club.
After you leave the sewers, you discover that the reason Palm Brinks has been cut off from the outside world is that the outside world is almost completely destroyed. And then you meet a red-headed girl named Monica, who wields a great big sword and a magic armband, and has a blue stone that matches your red stone. Whoa. Plus, she's from the FUTURE. Wow! Plus, she has a pony-tail that goes down to her knees, and looks really cute in pumpkin shorts. Woo-hoo!
Pumpkin shorts? That's what the game calls them. I don't see anything pumpkin-like about them, myself.
Anyway, Monica tells you that the future isn't what it used to be; somebody's been changing things in the past to destroy the future. She's come back to fix things, and she wants your help. Fixing things, it turns out, involves the restoration of "origin points". You go to the place in the Past (that is, in Max's era) that matches a place in the Future, and then you build houses, persuade people to come live in them, and so forth, so that everything that's needful is there for it to develop into what it's supposed to be in Monica's time. As you do this, you can travel to and from the Future and see how things are working out. And really, you have to do this--the reason you pick the places to restore that you do is because there are people in the future whose help you need who won't exist unless you restore their places.
In the meantime, you spend a lot of time fighting your way through dark forests, deep canyons, sea caves, and who knows what all, slaying fearsome monsters, collecting the raw materials you need to do your building, and levelling-up your weapons. That's right; the game system is a little odd. In most RPGs, your character gains endurance, strength, and so forth as he or she gains experience. In Dark Cloud 2, it's your weapons that gain experience. At the moment, for example, Max is wielding the dreaded Poison Wrench and a machine-pistol called Star Breaker, while Monica has a claymore.
Oh, and occasionally you have to go fishing. And sometimes you have to play golf. No, really. When you're not indulging your photography hobby, which is essential to completing the game.
You fight a variety of weird monsters, including Auntie Medusa, the Weird Old Spider Lady, a variety of walking skeletons and elemental spirits, vicious moles, walking plants, pirates, walking fish, tree creatures, golems, elephants, dragons, the Rainbow Butterly, weird robot things, and dog statues, among other things. You meet a variety of odd people. You go many odd places, and get to listen to lots of awful nonsense about sages.
It's a Japanese game, of course. Monica the cute redhead should have given that away; every Japanese video game I've played has a cute redhead, though usually she has pigtails that stick straight out to the sides instead of a ponytail.
It's a fun game, though, and I've been enjoying it--even if I've been fast-forwarding through some of the dialog because I don't want to try to explain it to the kids, because it's so doggone goofy.
Anyway, I'm about halfway through. I'm trying to fit in some books, though. Wish me luck.
If The Lord of the Rings is about resisting great evil in one fell swoop, the Lord of the Isles series is about coping with one damned thing after another. Through to Drake's excellent storytelling we get to come along for the ride, and a fun ride it is.
The world of the Isles consists largely of ocean, with a ring of largish islands (think England rather than Hawaii) that extends from the tropics on the south to the cold regions of the north. At one time the Isles were united under a single king, and it was in that time that civilization in the Isles reached its zenith. The united kingdom fell apart a thousand years prior to the beginning of our story, but the memory of that Golden Age is so strong that even now the lords of the island of Ornifal style themselves "King of the Isles".
The kingdom fell after the death of Carus, last King of the Isles. He was approaching the island of Yole with his warfleet (the Duke of Yole having rebelled) when the Duke's wizard sent him and his warfleet to the bottom of the ocean. The Duke of Yole was thus saved from having to fight Carus' army, but he didn't live to enjoy it; the forces raised by his wizard inadvertantly sank Yole and all its inhabitants beneath the waves.
It seems that every thousand years, the forces of magic are strengthened for a time. Hedge-wizards become strong; great wizards become strong beyond all imagining--and beyond their own understanding. The Duke of Yole's wizard saw that he could drown Carus, fleet and all, but the repercussions were (one presumes) rather a surprise to him.
This increase in magical power has two effects. First, dark-lord-wannabees come out of the woodwork. They have great ambition, and great power, but usually little experience. Second, powers dormant for a thousand years awaken, and endeavour to forward plans which might span millenia. Neither effect is particularly conducive to peace for the Isles and their inhabitants.
Enter Garric-or-Reise, the son of a tavern-keeper in a small village on the island of Haft, and the lineal descendant of King Carus. He's given a medallion by his father, a medallion that commemorates the coronation of Carus himself. And after he begins to wear it, he finds Carus speaking to him, first in his dreams, and then later in his waking moments of abstraction. Carus has knowledge of politics and warfare and royal courts and hand-to-hand combat to share with his descendant; and also the wisdom that comes from 20-20 hindsight and a millenia to reflect upon one's own failings. Garric brings his own contribution to the party; he's big and tough, full of peasant common sense, and thanks to his father, once a court functionary, he can read and is thoroughly grounded in the classic authors. He's no dummy, which is a good thing, for Garric's task is to reunite the Isles so that they can stand together against the forces of evil, whatever they might be.
That's the premise of the series, and it's a surprisingly good one. There's no single Dark Lord to defeat; Garric must deal with both the purely human troubles of courts and politics and ambition, and also the myriad magical threats to the Isles. As a result, the series is nicely open-ended--each book deals with one cosmic threat, while advancing the story of Garric and his friends. As I say, it's just one damned thing after another.
Garric isn't alone, of course. There's his friend Cashel, the shepherd. Cashel's a big guy--the sort who's so wide he looks short until you get close and realize you're looking up at him. He carries a metal-shod hickory staff, and when he starts to spin and swing it he becomes the nearest thing to an immovable object you're likely to run into--unless it's an irresistable force you're in need of. He's not too quick mentally, our Cashel, but he's got his head on straight, he always does what he thinks is right, and his instincts are usually correct. Oh, and he's only half-human. It's not entirely clear what the other half is, but it makes him almost impossible to defeat.
Then there's Cashel's twin sister Ilna, the weaver. She's smarter than Cashel, and colder than Cashel, but just as concerned with doing the right thing, as she sees it. She's a master of her craft, and thanks to a mis-step in the first book of the series she can weave patterns that'll turn your head inside out if you look at them. She's interested in Justice, is our Ilna, and she definitely makes Mercy look good.
And finally there's Garric's sister Sharina, who compared with her brother and his friends is almost refreshingly normal. She's just strong, mentally tough, able to take care of herself in any situation (you learn how to do that, growing up in a tavern), and she has the most amazing knack for making friends when she needs them. (I do not mean that salaciously; she and Cashel are a definite item.)
If the books have a fault, it's that there's a bit of a formula to them. In each book, you know that our heroes are going to be faced with both political and magical problems. You know that the magical threats are going to appear to be coming from several different sources, but they are all going to be linked together in the end. You know that several of our heroes are going to be in some way translated to other magical worlds/planes/eras, and have to find their way back home. You know the bad guys are going down, especially if Cashel is facing them.
And yet, even with all that, none of the books has repeated the pattern exactly; and the latest book, Goddess of the Ice Realm, has a truly chilling twist at the end--no pun intended. Seriously.
When I read the fourth book, I thought the series might be on the verge of becoming tedious--but I admitted at the time that I'd read it while afflicted with a bad cold, which might have affected my opinion. On re-reading it, I think that on the whole it was better than I first thought, but still a little silly. The new book is better, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Ian links to an on-line quiz on Greek Mythology on which he scored 6 out of 10. Yours truly got 10 out of 10, which I attribute to several causes.
First, as a youth I steeped myself in the myths of Ancient Greece (really, I did. I can picture the covers of the books I had even now). I haven't paid much attention to them in the last 25 years or so, but some things you never forget.
Second, it was a multiple choice quiz. Even if I didn't know the answer to a particular question, some answers just seemed more mythological than others. There's one about how a chariot race was won by a clever ruse, and one of the four just seemed a little more worthy of being remembered than the others.
Third, Ian seems to have (inadvertantly, I'm sure) saved the URL of the quiz in such a way that it preserved his answers. You might want to fix that, Ian.....
Since my initial post about the iTunes Music Store, I've bought a few more tunes. Since there was a fair amount of interest the first time, I thought I'd list them.
Jump, Jive and Wail, by Brian Setzer. Me, I like the Louis Prima version, but Jane likes this one.
Pink Cadillac, by Bruce Springsteen. This one is just fun and silly, and man, it goes.
I'll Make A Man Out Of You, from the Mu Lan soundtrack. This is another pick of Jane's, but it's a darn good scene, I have to admit.
Don't Bring Me Down and Mr. Blue Sky, by Electric Light Orchestra. The first brings back memories of high school dances; as to the latter, it's the closest Jeff Lynne ever got to recording a Beatles tune, and it's fascinating to see just how close--and how far--it was.
Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. I'm not a Fleetwood Mac fan, particularly, but this one is just so delightfully weird. And anyway, Jane spent a year-and-a-half at USC.
Bad to the Bone and Who Do You Love?, by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. There was a time when I got really tired of George Thorogood, but even then I liked these two songs. We've also got a recording of Bo Diddley singing Who Do You Love?, which is arguably more authentic, but Thorogood's is the version I heard first and know best.
The Battle of New Orleans, by Johnny Horton. I needed this to counterpoint The Battle of Camp Kookamonga, by Homer and Jethro.
Dixie Chicken and Let It Roll, by Little Feat. Let It Roll is the one I went looking for, but I ended up getting both of them.
Born To Be Wild and Magic Carpet Ride, by Steppenwolf. 'nuff said.
Something in the Air, by Thunderclap Newman. They made one album, and had one hit. I used to have the album; this is the hit. You've probably heard it, and don't know it by name.
Let's see. I've finally finished Drake's Lord of the Isles series (for the time being; there's a new volume due out in November), so I'll probably post a review of that tomorrow. In the meantime, I've been riding around in my new car, working on Snit, and watching the Olympics.
We watched about half of the opening ceremonies before we fell asleep last night (pretty cool), and I'm watching Bob Costas blather on (competently, I'll admit) as I type. The best TV commercial of the Olympics that I've seen so far was the Budweiser ad last night with the Clydesdale in the field, dreaming of pulling the Budweiser wagon--and I think I've seen it before.
They're profiling a 16-year-old swimmer named Michael Phelps at the moment; he's incredibly happy because he has a Cadillac Escalade like the ones the rappers drive. Hmmmm.
He's fast, though--he just won the Individual Medley--and set a new world record time to boot. He was ahead of everyone else for the entire race. Another American named Vendt took silver.
Update: Yet another outstanding Budweiser ad--this time, it features a donkey who dreams of being a Budweiser Clydesdale. (He even tries wearing hair extensions.) Very, very cute.
Update: The U.S. Men's Gymnastics team is turning in some really good routines all the while having some nasty problems. Apparently two of the team members were told just two days ago by the head judge that their high-bar routines weren't going to be scored the way they had thought--to get the scores they'd need to medal, they'd need to change them. This is huge, as they typically practice their Olympic routines for at least a year prior to the event. What I want to know is, why was the scoring changed at this late date? So far there has been no word on that.
Update: Back to swimming, and it's nearly 11PM. Time for bed.
Update (Sunday): Interesting. The high bar judge who devalued moves performed by three American gymnasts three days prior to the competition is Japanese. The team that's in first place after the first rotation (just ahead of the American team) is...Japanese. I don't say that the judge's ruling was motivated by a desire to see his country's team beat the Americans--but to date, I haven't heard any explanation for the change, either. Apparently, the three gymnasts affected by the ruling used the moves at the last two World Championships without comment from anyone.
About 3 or 4 weeks ago, my husband and I made the decision to pull our 14-year-old daughter out of school and teach her at home. Not lightly or easily either, I might add. We made up long pro and con lists, talked to homeschoolers in the area, looked at the local school's curriculum for high school and counted the cost, literally. We debated, argued and reasoned with each other. Then we gulped and decided to give it a shot. That's when the discussions really began in earnest. Then we had to think about exactly how do you homeschool a kid in high school and do a good job. And what is good job anyway? Are grades important? What is important? Yikes!
Fortunately, homeschooling has been around for a long time and going really strong the last 20 years or so. There are a plethora of books out on the market, most of which I either own or have read. Many are tales of happy homeschoolers blissfully teaching their kids the love of learning. Bleh. Most espouse their own favorite "approach" to homeschooling. They range from a "unschooling" with no defined structure at all to classical schooling with a prescribed 4 year cycle of learning. None of them is a perfect fit for my daughter. So I am picking and choosing.
One book that is incredibly helpful in some sort of method is the mother/daughter collaboration, [btitle "A Well Trained Mind"]. They outline a Classical Approach based upon the grammar/logic/rhetoric sequence outlined in an essay by Dorothy Sayers on education. The premise is that you start children out learning about history/science/literature with the ancients and move in a 4 year sequence thru modern times, repeating it for the entire 12 years of school. Each stage of the cycle has its own learning objectives; facts come first, then logical analysis, then synthesis into a personal opinion. Latin is begun early on, in 2nd or 3rd grade, with modern languages added in after the basics of Latin are learned. Readings become progressively more advanced as the child grows and matures. Writing progresses until the child is doing a long thesis in the senior year of high school. There is a great deal of emphasis on writing to learn and independent study on the child's part in the later grades. Especially helpful, the authors outline books to use if you choose or programs that are well-written with homeschooling or school resources listed as suppliers of materials. If begun early on, this whole book would have been my guide to teaching my daughter.
Unfortunately, I have gaps to fill and skills that need teaching before I could begin this method as written. I have, however, gleaned a few useful items. We'll be studying Latin rather than a modern language for now. With my daughter's language deficits from her learning disabilities, having a solid base of word roots will help her enormously and the program I found teaches English grammar very well. I will follow the general idea of a history cycle with Western Civ, American History, 20th Century History and Civics/Government. She'll be doing the note-taking and-book outlining they suggest, keeping notebooks by subject and reading many of the works outlined in the text, if in an abridged version. I am using the math program they suggest, published by Saxon and based upon an incremental direct-instruction method of learning math.
We did have one hurdle to get over mentally before we made the decision. It's the big question that homeschoolers get about socialization of the children. Will a kid learning at home be as well socialized as a peer in school? My husband and I struggled with this. It's a tough one.
On the one hand, being around other kids may teach them valuable skills for getting along with people. I am a little dubious about that one, especially after my son came home from kindergarten proud as a peacock because he learned to play "smear the queer" on the playground that day. It's a form of dodge ball, in case you are wondering. But there are some useful skills learned about give and take in having friends your own age whom you see daily. On the other, there is peer dependency and "the looking glass self" mentality where kids define who they are based upon who they are with. In high school, that gets really scary with things like drugs, sex and rock-and-roll out there.
In the final analysis, I agree with the authors when they say "in this age of endemic family breakup, teaching your high schooler to live peacefully in a family is probably the most important feat of socialization you can accomplish." That made a huge amount of sense. Family life is the heart of life as I see it and living well in the family is almost a key to a fulfilling life no matter what your occupation or work is. And my sister, ever good with the advice, pointed out that the last time she was in a room full of people exactly her own age was at her last class reunion. She also reminded me, the wretch, that neither of us went to prom so my daughter won't be missing anything there either.
It's going to be a journey for all of us. I am frantically reading books trying to put together a Western Civ course that will challenge her and still teach very basic skills. I realize that this won't always be rosy. There will be times when I want to chuck the whole thing and send her off on the bus to let someone else deal with because I want to wring her wretched little neck. There will be times when I want some time just to myself without having to go into the bathroom to get it. There will also be times when we get to giggling together over something or decide to take a break and go for a walk. We plan on taking good weather days off rather than snow days. Why not stay home and learn when the weather is yucky and go for a horse ride or to town on a nice day. We'll see.
-- Seneca (One learns by teaching)
My first car was a four-door Chevrolet Chevette, the four-door model. It was a sparkly red color. I was grateful to have it, and excited to have a car to drive, but honestly there wasn't much about the car to be excited about. It was ugly; it was underpowered; it had an AM radio. We called it the Grunt. And anyway, I wanted a blue car. I'm hazy on the details, but either it didn't come in blue or there weren't any available. My parents picked the Chevette because it was the kind of car the driving school used.
My second car was a snazzy Mazda 626 sports coupe. It had power windows and a nice stereo pre-installed; you controlled the balance and fade using this silly little joystick on the center console. Plus, it had oscillating vents--they went back and forth all by themselves if the ventilation fan was running. It had an all-digital dashboard (this was the in-thing in 1985), and I called it the Starship. It was a lot of fun to drive, and I spent a lot of time looking for fun places to drive it.
It was also a sparkly red, though somewhat darker than the Grunt was. I'd wanted a blue one, but I also wanted a manual transmission. Plus, I was buying it in the middle of the summer of 1985; the 1986s were coming soon, and there wasn't a large selection to choose from. If I recall correctly, the only blue they had was a very, very pale silvery blue, which wasn't what I was looking for anyway.
Well, somewhere around 1991 or 1992 the poor Starship was showing signs of age, and Jane and I decided it was time to replace it. We'd bought our first home a couple of years before, and money was tight, so I ended up with a Ford Escort. It was nicer than the Grunt but not nearly so nice as the Starship in its prime, but it was affordable--partially because it was, once again, mid-summer, and they were trying to clear out the old models to make room for the new ones. I don't know why, but I've always bought cars in mid-summer. So the selection was, naturally, limited, and the only Escort that met our other requirements was, naturally, a sparkly red color. I didn't call the Escort anything but "my car"; it was just transportation.
Our eldest son was born early in 1997. Later that year my mother got too sick to drive any more, and my dad offered to sell us her car, a 1995 Buick Le Sabre with low mileage and all the options. It was easily twice as big as my Escort, and the suspension was so soft it was rather like driving a sofa, which is what Jane called it--the Sofa. I enjoyed the Buick; it had a thermostatically controlled climate system, a huge trunk, big comfortable seats, and oodles of power. It wasn't the sort of car I'd have picked out for myself, but the price was right, and the Escort was beginning to give us trouble.
The Sofa wasn't sparkly red, for a wonder; it was sort of a sparkly golden beige. But then, it wasn't new, either, so it doesn't really count.
Anyway, it started needing repairs a little too often over the last six months or so, and we decided it was time to replace it. So last weekend, Jane and I went out car shopping. And after looking at all sorts of cars and taking a test drive, we decided on the PT Cruiser. I wanted a blue one, of course, and they had one--a beautiful sparkly midnight blue. It was gorgeous. Just walking up to it made me happy. It was just what I wanted.
And then I opened the driver's door, and sat down.
And hated the interior. Just absolutely hated it.
One of the neat things about the PT Cruiser's styling is the dashboard, which has metal inserts which match the color of the car. It's a classy look, and makes the instruments really stand out. But in the blue Cruiser the upholstery was a light gray, and except for the nifty dark-blue inserts the dash was light gray above and off-white beneath. It was a color scheme calculated to get scuffed and dirty in about two minutes, and so far from standing out, the nifty dark-blue metal inserts might as well have not been there--what drew the eye was the off-white glove box.
The Cruiser we test drove, on the other hand, had nearly identical features. And the interior was much nicer--those dash inserts positively glowed. And it was, of course, a bright sparkly red--"Inferno Red" is the name in the brochure.
I thought it about for while, and decided that I was going to be spending more time sitting in the car than standing around admiring it...and it was such a nice bright sparkly red.
There was a certain inevitability about it, I suppose.
I've now started the fifth book in David Drake's Lord of the Isles series; once I finish it, I'll be writing a review of the whole series to date. I'd probably have finished it by now, except that Jane and I spent yesterday afternoon car-shopping; and then we spent a couple of hours today car-buying. So things have been a little busy around the Foothills.
Anyway, here's more or less what my new ride looks like:
This open thread at Making Light has a bunch of science fiction and fantasy book recommendations by a bunch of people. (Thanks to Mark D. for pointing this one out.)
As always with this sort of thing, your mileage may vary; but there are some good suggestions in there.
Yes, it has been quiet around here. It's not that I'm not reading; it's just that I've been re-reading David Drake's Lord of the Isles series in preparation for reading the fifth installment, which is just out in paperback. And as each of the volumes is over 600 pages long, it's been taking me a while.
Ah, well. Normal reviews will resume shortly.
Q: What did the Scottish bear say when he discovered his porridge pot empty and a little girl named Goldilocks asleep in his bed?
This is a book intended for sale in museum gift shops, for people to buy and give to small children under the illusion that they are bringing culture to said children, when all they are really doing is parting with their hard-earned money to no good purpose. This stinker of a book was published by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, by people who really should have known better. I hasten to add that none of the fault lies with the illustrator, Lisa Canney Chesaux; the illustrations are fine, and suit the story.
The story, now, the story might be salvageable; I'm not sure. But the telling of the story is surely awful.
The story is straightforward. Philippe is a frog with unusually large legs. And as he lives in France, he is in constant danger of having his legs eaten. Indeed, two frogs of his acquaintance, shortly after having mocked his unusually large legs, are captured and whisked off to the kitchen right before his eyes. But lucky Philippe! He wanders into Monet's garden, where Monet is pleased to see him; he adds a dash of green. Philippe is safe forever.
Not a bad plot, I suppose; it has definite humorous possibilities; but as it's executed there's no rising action, no tension, no sense that Philippe is ever actually in danger--despite having his two acquaintances captured before his eyes. But it's the words that are the real problem.
The book is written in rhyming prose. I assume it was intended to be in some kind of verse, but the rhythm changes from line to line so that the rhymes don't come when you'd expect them to. There's no discernable rhyme scheme. And the rhymes are often horribly strained. "Fried" doesn't rhyme with "good-bye", nor "escape" with "fate", nor "Philippe" with "bleat", nor a dozen other hopeful combinations.
In short, reading this book aloud is almost physically painful. Since it seems unlikely that everyone connected with the project has a tin ear, I can only conclude that none of them cared much about the words, or about reading the book to real, live children.
Note to museum-goers--read the book, before you buy it for your niece, nephew, or grand-child. Thank you.