Several backdated reviews

Author/Title: Anthony Powell. A Dance to the Music of Time (Part 1).
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 2.7

I’m trying hard to enjoy these as they come so highly recommended, and I admit there are times when the story engrosses me. But 40 pages illustrating the mechanics of greetings at a party demonstrate not only omniscience in a character which would be difficult to portray in real life without having everyone about you worried they were on camera all the time, but gets to be downright boring. I do admit though, that the interior attention to detail cannot be ignored and the story is engaging. I’m told that the second 3 volumes are better so I’m sticking it out. (Besides, I’m an INTJ — I have to stick it out no matter what anyway. It took me over a year to read Eco’s The Island of the Day Before (awful 0.5) but I made it through in the end.)

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Author/Title: Christopher Paolini. Inheritance.
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 3.1

Book four of the Eragon stories. I was definitely gripped by the story and found myself urging it forward throughout. I was also impressed that Aria managed to remain true to Aria throughout the life of the story as we have it. I suspect though, that a hundred years down the road, things might change for the two Riders and the “shippers” out there will finally get the wings to their story they’ve needed.

Paolini seems to have grown up a bit in his world view, but in a way which concerns me. The former books maintained a reverence and awe for the mystical side of alagaesia which I always admired. This one shows him tearing down walls, religions, borders, relationships. Almost with abandon. I know the tales are tough to write, and even tougher to grow into manhood while writing them … but be careful Mr Paolini, and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Worth the read.

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Author/Title: H. Richard Niebuhr. The Kingdom of God in America.
Format: Paperback.
Rating (of 5): 3.0

I’d originally read portions of this book back in Divinity School. Niebuhr was something of a small legend there when I was attending and so he tended to come up in conversation. I do like the history of the book a great deal, and I think he follows a solid thread through puritanical New England successfully. I can’t say that he really captured much of the Second Great Awakening as it reflected widely in the frontier of the United States, but then, I don’t think that was really his aim. I can’t be sure if that was a lack of awareness or of familiarity, but I definitely found it lacking.

That said, I think if for no other reason than to help modern Americans understand that there is much more depth to Jonathan Edwards than simply his fire and brimstone “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, it’s worth the read. The puritan legacy is one that is both damning and shining and he doesn’t shy away from that. It made me do a lot of reading into some of these men who carried the burden of legitimizing American theology on their shoulders and for that it’s hats off.

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Author/Title: Ann Patchett. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 1.1

This was the Audible Christmas gift this year. Meant to be a series of ruminations on family and the things which are important in life, it is really more of a justification for divorce and resettling. Now I’d never be out there saying that sometimes divorce isn’t justified, and it sounds like this is one of those cases to be sure, but I think we could do without the sadness and rehashing and concentrate on the better things. Especially around the holidays.

This is probably just me ranting though … I want the world to spend less time focusing on the negative and aim solidly for the positive all the time. Yes, the world is a tough place. Yes, bad things happen. (They’re supposed to after all!) But the takeaway is that there are may wonderful things in this world too and we need to open our eyes. To (mis)quote Captain Sisko “It’s life [people]]! If you don’t look up once in a while you’ll miss it!”. Indeed.

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Author/Title: Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus.
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 3.2

I enjoyed this book a lot. Save the one completely unnecessary curse, I think it paints an interesting, phantasmagorical picture which sets an interesting story and has likable (if a little flat) characters as well. Too much commentary will ruin the illusion, and I think that’s probably the best thing going for this one. Jim Dale as the reader for the audio version was a perfect choice as well — he brings the right amount of class and imagination to the role and I believe he brought out some of the characters even more than the printed version would have allowed. Go and read it — it’s enjoyable for sure.

Certainly all of my Harry Potter, Twilight, Inheritance, etc. readers out there will find in it things worth remembering and recommending. Fun.

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Review: The Dalai Lama’s “Beyond Religion”

Author/Title: The Dalai Lama. Beyond Religion.
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 2.7

Honestly, I think the idea behind the book has some merit: reach out to those folks to whom the very notion of religion is a turnoff and begin talking to them about behaving ethically and considering “deeper” matters when going about the world around them. The problem though is that groundless ethics are, well, groundless. I personally floundered for quite some time with the idea that morals were relative to the culture around me. To be honest, I still have problems with it — especially in the workplace and especially when I am in California. For all its good intentions, California seems to have decided not so much that “anything goes”, but that all pressure is wrong. This feels the same way to me. It’s fine to urge everyone to behave in the right way, but I think you have to give them a reason why that is the right thing. Ethics, which can certainly provide a roadmap towards better treatment of the world and those within it, can be tricked quite well when there is no base structure behind it. As Kant pointed out in his own struggles, even something as simple as “keep your promises” can be fraught with difficulties in the wrong situations.

So, I’m going to say: if you’re already a moral relativist, you will like this book, but it won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. If you’re spiritual in any way, you will feel that the Dalai Lama has gone far out on a limb to extend an olive branch to a world who, let’s face it, has had ample opportunity to take it already. I don’t think this really gets us closer to having even more relativists on board.

If read for the nicety of what things could be like if folks were “ethical”, it paints a great picture though and so has value in the “what could be” even if the road to getting there has some seriously soft shoulders.

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Review: A Canticle for Liebowitz

Author/Title: Walter Miller. A Canticle for Liebowitz.
Format: Paperback.
Rating (of 5): 2.8

I think I’ve outgrown the dystopia books to some extent and so it took me a while before I really cottoned on to this one. It shaped up though as a real struggle between moral relativism and grounded, religion-based (in this case a modified Catholic Christian) ethical systems. Played on a repeating stage of holocaust and redemption with an interleaving plot through the centuries, the novel drives at hard issues and doesn’t just paint the normal bleak (or at least stark) world of the more familiar novels in the genre. I think what struck me the deepest is man’s tendency to drive towards those things which will naturally bring him down, even in the face of knowing that’s what’s going to happen. There’s a chilling scene near the end where a character realizes that his entire world is built on lies. That folks know full well what is wrong and shouldn’t happen, but at the same time realize that they will not prevent a horrible outcome, and so instead plan secretly on how to handle the “eventuality” when it comes. I see this with people around me all the time too, and it scares me just as much.

Read it. And bring a latin dictionary (or at least have babelfish nearby) when you do.

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There and Back Again

Title: The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien
Format: Audiobook (Unabridged). Rob Inglis, narrator.
Rating: 3.9

As always, revisiting the classics brings a little something new to the table and this work with Tolkien’s precursor to the Lord of the Rings is no different. This go round I was especially stuck by the idyllic ideals to which the Hobbits are meant to fasten. Admittedly, Bilbo’s Tookish side drives much of his adventure, but I think the push to look to simplicity and the small life is something I’d not seen as much before. Truly setting up the standard against which much of the action is set, I really enjoyed the Hobbit’s concentration and centering. In many ways I’d say the core function of the Hobbit generally is to provide the middle of Middle Earth and to give us a strong backdrop to hang the fear, doubt, uncertainty, and greatness of the LOTR.

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The Infancy Narratives

Review: The Birth of the Messiah. Raymond E. Brown
Format: Paperback. Doubleday, 1979.
Rating (of 5): 3.8

Ever since my first religion class at the UNC, I have been interested in the works of Fr Brown. While I definitely do not agree with everything that he has to say, you cannot argue that his exegesis of the New Testament is dedicated, well-reasoned, and impeccably researched. Right now, I am working on a talk regarding the Nativity of Jesus Christ for a series of Firesides in December and I read this to get a lot of the history and background on the Matthew and Luke gospels back fresh in my mind.

I have several thoughts which will turn into blog posts under the religion and Christianity tags in the near future, so I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that Fr Brown is an authority and his works are milestones in scholarly and catholic thought. The commentaries here are a part of the Yale Anchor Bible series and worthy of that acclaim. Not suitable for an introductory look into the New Testament, they are nevertheless definitive works.

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On George Fox

Title: The Journal of George Fox. George Fox.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 3.1

I’ve had this on my list to read ever since I read James Michener’s Chesapeake. I wanted to understand more about the Friends movement and how it has impacted the development of the nation. Certainly, this was covered in The Kingdom of God in America, but there’s a lot to be said by going to the source. Worth the read, though it gets very repetitive. Of course, it’s a journal, so the repetition is expected. I really enjoyed the travels to America and the Caribbean, but the christology is the most important part of the narrative.

Fox shrewdly understands Eve’s legacy with regards to Christian theology and calls it out succinctly many times in the narrative. I don’t know if the notion of “crushing the serpent’s head” rises in modern Quaker societies, but it was definitely a part of his teachings as Fox went about preaching in England and America. I will cover the specifics of the teachings in another blog post later, since I don’t want to blend the two here and there are some salient points I want to explain. Nevertheless, a great read, especially if Reformer history is important to you.

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Review Catchup

Somehow I’ve amassed a lot of books recently that need reviews posted. Normally I do those in individual blog postings, but something about that seems rather wasteful since I’m writing them all at once anyway. So … I’m just going to catch up in one big post. Call me lazy. Call me cut-n-paster. Doesn’t matter … that’s still the plan.

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Title: Prince Caspian. C.S. Lewis.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 3.8

While I am a fan of all the Narnia series, I admit that Prince Caspian lies lower on my overall list. That said, I re-read them specifically to find things I’ve missed in the past and to look for the nuances missed in previous readings. This time, I was not disappointed. I had not paid as much attention to the interaction between Edmund and Peter previously, but I like that the respect between the brothers and kings of Narnia does not diminish. The duel and parley scenes demonstrate the order of the house of Man and I enjoy the very “orderliness” of it all. I have long been a fan of the way in which Heavenly design makes quick work of chaos — so long as the chaos is viewed from proper distances and this is no exception. Wound brilliantly into the many storylines, the parley and duel demonstrates that divine nature can and will conquer in even the most desire and removed situations.

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Title: The Silver Chair. C.S. Lewis.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 3.9

I like Eustace the best. There, I’ve said it and I’ll probably suffer for it and change my opinion many more times over the next millennia, but for right now, on this go-round, I like Eustace best. I think it’s the way in which repentance works in and through him that attracts me to his character most of all. And I like that he still has his moments of grumbling. It makes me feel like more of a human, or maybe it makes me feel like there’s a good indication that repentance and forgiveness are there to work wonders on us.

On a side note, I really dig the changes brought about on Jill and Eustace’s school. Serves ‘em right.

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Title: The Last Battle. C.S. Lewis.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 4.1

In the last reading, this was lower on my list. I think because I didn’t pay it enough attention. This time I found it striking in both its ferocity and terror and in its capacity to convey the love and understanding of the Lord. It must have been difficult for Lewis to pen the lines and name of Tashlan — as much as it is difficult for me to write them. But I admire that he understood the treachery and true decayed depths to which mortality will sink and to which the adversary will take us if we let him.

The final chapter, even the final pages are something I’d consider having read at my funeral. That should indicate how important I think they are.

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Title: Superior Saturday. Garth Nix.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 2.6

I’ve grown tired of the House and the Architect and even Arthur at this point. Plowing through however, I was surprised to find myself engaged in the story and upset when Nix leaves us in a cliffhanger. Enough to download the next chapter and jump it up in the rotation of books. For that, I must rank it higher than I had expected. Not the best, but a good penultimate book in the series.

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Title: Lord Sunday. Garth Nix.
Format: Audiobook, Unabridged.
Rating (out of 5): 3.2

Meh. I think the story wrapped up too quickly, and while Nix spent some time making Sunday out to be a more interesting character than some of the other trustees of the House, it still fell flat. Not without its charm, but I’m not sure the series couldn’t have done with some more revision. In the end, it was worth the read and it did wrap the story up succinctly and with some characteristic style. The plot was good enough to keep you moving through it, and I found myself wanting more at the end. So, a mediocre score overall.

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Job and the Tree of Life

Review: The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick.
Format: Film.
Viewing: Aircraft. UA963 (FRA->IAD). Thanks United.
Rating (of 5): 3.0

This is my first Malick film and as I sit here typing this out, about half an hour after having watched it, I think it’s something that I’ll be thinking on for some time. That means it’s a good one. What bothers me, or maybe bothers is the wrong term, “worries” is better. What worries me is that there must be a lot of folks out there despairing much like Jack (Sean Penn) in the film. And the question, posed at the start of the film from Job serves to upset and cause further turmoil in those people. I think Malick is trying to make some sense of it through the wonder of creation itself, but might be missing the point of the quote. The sermon in the film also seems to misunderstand Job and his role as well. So let me see if I can try and explain it as I see it.

Let’s start with the quote:

Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
–Job 38:4,7

Malick follows this up with the first sequence of natural scenes ranging from Hubble telescope shots, to super-close-ups of volcanoes and submerged vegetation. He opens with a close shot of a candle in the darkness. Mrs. O’Brien then explains that life is a choice between grace and nature, with a choice between them. The path of grace is humble and the path of nature is direct and self-serving, wanting “its own way” and “finds reasons to be unhappy … when love is shining through all things”. Malick sets up the tension between Mr O’Brien and Mrs O’Brien and between the brothers by following these two paths. He uses nature scenes ranging from Hubble closeups to submerged vegetation to illustrate the awesome power of creation, as if to say that no amount of human suffering or joy can match the power that brought this world into existence. The sermon on Job in the middle act of the film points to the same: that the Lord points out Job’s insignificance to help him understand where he sits in relation to the heavens. He uses animals (and Mr O’Brien is an animal in this sense) to illustrate the passions of the natural man.

Perhaps the most touching illustration of grace comes in the cgi-rendered dinosaur scene, where one raptor comes across a suffering compatriot and chooses the path of mercy instead of attacking as the scene and score lead us to suspect. What’s important to see in this scene, is that choice is given to the dinosaurs … as if creation itself echoes Mrs O’Brien’s dualistic world.

I think the point of choice is crucial to understanding the quote and creation generally, but I want to try and explain a bit about the plan of salvation which Job understood and the Lord is explaining. The Lord is asking Job literally where he was during these events. And the answer is given in the same quote: Job, as a son of God, was present at the foundation of the earth and joined in the chorus of the morning stars. The Lord is saying that Job chose the path of mortality as a natural stage in his progression. One that would require him to come to earth and experience everything that the natural world could give him: pleasure, pain, joy, despair, love, heartbreak, good, and evil. The Lord wisely points out the same power that created the awesome world we live in — the world that blurs between natural and man-made by the end of the film — is the same power that gives him the power to choose any path at all. This means that life is not an end to itself, but merely a stage in a much longer eternal progression. The Lord reminds Job throughout that suffering is precisely what was chosen in the pre-existence in order that we might prove ourselves (Abr 3:24-27). But what Malick is missing, and Jack illustrates well throughout the film, is the second piece of the promise made to Job, that by choosing to follow the direction of the Lord, especially through the troubled times of this life, Job would be “accepted” of the Lord. Job is privileged to see the Lord with his own eyes, and is restored “more than his beginning” (Job 40).

The Tree of Life is not two-branched, with humilty and love on one side, reaching ever toward the sun, and rigid, gnarled on the other, holding tight the tree to the earth. Rather it is many branched, where each and every choice we make serves to bring us along the path of progression that our Father in Heave set out before us. Malick is right that we have the right to choose. God would “cease to be God” (Alma 42:22) were that not the case. Indeed, choice, itself helps us to learn and grow and branch and continue on past this life, past despair and sadness, into acceptance and salvation in the mansions of our Father.

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Folding Time Along the Path

Review: Pathfinder. Orson Scott Card.
Format: Audio (Unabridged). Props to Audible
Rating (of 5): 3.4

On the book:

Card’s got another interesting series brewing in Pathfinder. His departure from the normal take on time travel creates a baffling, but enrapturing tale. It’s hard to say just what the toughest piece of the puzzle is to sort out, but suffice it to say that you’ll find yourself thinking and rethinking passages to get it all sorted in the end. Oddly though, the Audible version has an additional commentary from Card at the end to try and explain what really happens in a single timeline. I thought he’d done a pretty good job of that in the text though, so I found that piece unnecessary. The characters are flat-ish as per the usual faire in Card stories — characters being set up not for their complexity but as foils for one another in advancing the plot and symbolism of the novel. It’s a cliffhanger, I warn from the beginning. A good story, but definitely lacks the moral and political and philosophical underpinnings that the more famous works have. There are some familiar themes around colonization and human preservation here, and the timeline leaves it open for “Garden” to appear in the EnderVerse at some point, but I’m not really counting on it. Worth a shot.

On the Audio:

Normally I don’t comment on the audio aspects of the work, but as I’ve long been a fan of Stefan Rudnicki in the audiobook craft, I thought it worth a mention here. Stefan is a great reader, with a flare not only for voice acting, but also for the timing and delivery of dialog in a believable and easy manner. As with most of Card’s novels, dialogue makes the novel what it is, and this is no different. It requires the hand, er voice, of a master to pull it off. Well done.

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Eustace and the Dragon

Review: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. C.S. Lewis
Format: Audio (Unabridged)
Rating (of 5): 4.5

Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite Narnia stories. The redemptive power of the Savior as seen through the changes of Eustace Scrubb (so named because he “almost deserved it”) is perhaps the best illustration of how we change for the better through the power of the Atonement I can think of. The book is too perfectly constructed for me to elucidate without ruining it for you. Go read it.

Right now.

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