Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: The Light Fantastic

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
Colin Smythe, 2000 (originally published 1986); 217 pages

The Light Fantastic continues the story of Rincewind and Twoflower after they were launched off the edge of the Discworld at the end of The Colour of Magic. Because of the special spell that Rincewind carries in his mind, he can't actually die, as the other spells in the Octavo save him. So he is put back on the Disc, to carry on his adventures and meet many strange people and experience many strange things, and inadvertently defeat the bad guys.

I liked The Light Fantastic better than The Colour of Magic, although in many ways they are the same: absurdist humor, puns, general ridiculousness. I'm enjoying this series and I already have the next book out from the library.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thoughts on That Hideous Strength

I've given up on writing a proper review, since I think I'd need to read the book several more times before I could put down my thoughts coherently. There's a lot going on in this book. So here's some thoughts on various elements in the book.

I found a lot of reviews criticize Lewis for his views on women as presented in That Hideous Strength. I, on the other hand, thought his ideas were spot on. Lewis seems to understand the feminine in a way that most male writers don't. So not only does he write some really great female characters, he presents some really great ideas from the female perspective. For example, Lewis argues that women can appreciate female beauty just as well as men, while men don't seem to appreciate masculine good looks in the same way. That certainly explains why I can list any number of beautiful female celebrities, but can't come up with a single comparable actor. (Well, there's Jimmy Stewart, but he's a bit old for me.) Lewis also has gender relations figured out to an extent I've not really seen before. When Jane, one of the characters, explains to Ransom (the hero of the trilogy) that she no longer loves her husband, Ransom explains that's because Jane does not try to obey her husband. A good marriage is made to be built on a certain type of foundation, and Jane and her husband's attempt to have a "modern" marriage built on emotion and not much else, is doomed to failure. Without sacrifice, without surrender (from both, not just Jane), it's not going to work.

At several points Lewis addresses the use of birth control. These are great passages, because Lewis explores the problems that occur when we separate fertility from sexuality. Personally, I believe that birth control is fundamentally wrong because it puts man in the place of God. Besides, if we really believe that children are a gift from God, why do we tell Him not to send us more of them? I don't see anyone asking for less money, health, or wisdom. (For the record, I'm not advocating that all married women should be more or less continually pregnant for all of their childbearing years. I believe that God opens and closes the womb, and that no one will end up with one or two or five or ten or twenty children unless it is His will.)

Finally, I love the idea of St. Anne's on the Hill. It's long been a dream of mine to turn my home (when I get one) into a sort of St. Anne's/Last Homely House where people can find rest and peace and whatever they're looking for, whether "food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness." (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring), or, as M. F. K. Fisher said, "... but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world." Essentially, I want to feed people, in every sense of the word. I don't know if I'll ever be able to pull it off, as I'm not the most hospitable person, since I prefer to be alone, and I'd really need a big house to do anything useful, and I'm firmly an apartment-dweller unless I ever get married, which may or may not ever happen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read in 2012 (x2)

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

I've included here the top ten new reads and rereads (so twenty in all) of 2012. They are arranged in reverse order, 10 through 1, in ranked order, along with a quote, if I happened to write down any quotes from a book.

(Provisional) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: I haven't finished it yet, so I can't give it an actual rank, but I already know it's going to be in the top ten.

9. Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan: I love making (and eating) jams, pickles, and condiments, and one of these days I'll buy canning equipment and cook my way through this book.

8. Curtain by Agatha Christie: I actually liked Poirot in this one. Although published in the 1970s, Christie wrote this in the 1930s, and it's one of her best.

7. Kenilworth by Walter Scott: Incredibly biased in favor of Elizabeth I, who according to Scott could do no wrong, but still a very complex-yet-readable story of court intrigue and secret marriage.

6. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis: First in the Space Trilogy, and the least interesting. This is not necessary to understand the rest of the trilogy, but it is the story that came out of a deal Lewis made with Tolkien to improve the state of science fiction in the 1930s.

I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.

5. Introverts in the Church by Adam S. McHugh: The perfect book for any introverted Protestant (particularly Evangelicals), although probably useful for Catholics as well. Examines the pervasive extroverted cultural standards and how they cause introverted Christians to feel unwelcome and even unholy.

4. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim: I think I've mentioned this in every TTT thus far, so go read it already! (This is the story of four broken women who find healing in a castle in Italy. It's not nearly as dopey as it sounds.)

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: Another much-mentioned book here. This book is about absorbed cultural expectations and the perceptions of intellectuals by society.

Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warn pool of light. And with each swallow, time is sublimed.

2. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis: The second part of the Space Trilogy. Very theological and philosophical novel in which the hero tried to prevent the Fall of Man from repeating itself on another planet. Truly brilliant.

I am His beast, and all His biddings are joys.

1. That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis: I'm still working on a blog post about this book, so suffice it to say that this is one of the best books I've ever read. It's also the third part of the Space Trilogy, although it's perfectly understandable without having read the first two books.

However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven.

Top Ten Rereads of 2012

10. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde: Part of the Thursday Next series, a sort of absurdist historical-science-fiction-fantasy-comic novel. Very out of the ordinary and well worth reading.

9. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: First in the Thursday Next series, and probably my favorite. Did you know that prior to 1985, in an alternate universe, Jane Eyre actually married St. John?

8. The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes is...

7. Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: the series that got me hooked...

6. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: on mysteries as a child, and...

5. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle: I love him dearly.

4. The Apology of Socrates by Plato: Socrates (or Plato, because he liked to put words in Socrates' mouth, and since Socrates was dead, he couldn't argue about it) speaks here at his trial, defending himself against the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens. He speaks to the role of education in society and the role of public officials in relation to truth and justice.

I ask you this: when you're an Athenian, and so belong to the greatest city, the one with the highest reputation for wisdom and strength, aren't you ashamed of caring about acquiring the greatest amount of money, together with reputation and honours, while not caring about, even sparing a thought for, wisdom and truth, and making your soul as good as possible?

3. The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien: Is there really...

2. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien: anything left...

1. The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien: to say about LOTR?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Calvin's Institutes, Chapter One

I don't have any commentary on the first chapter of the Institutes, so I'll just share my chapter summary.

The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves Mutually Connected---Nature of the Connection

Section One
Human wisdom is made up of knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. The two knowledges are connected, and so it is hard to tell which comes first. Knowledge of our own pitiful existence, as well as knowledge of the good in the world, directs us to God. People tend not to seek God while they are content, but once they know their true (sinful) nature, they will seek God.

Section Two
In order to truly know themselves, people must first know God. We think we aren't really that bad, simply because those around us are more or less equally bad, until we contemplate how good God is.

Section Three
Because of this tendency to think of ourselves as less bad than we really are, people in the Bible became fearful when they were in the presence of God because they realized for the first time the extent of their sin.

Quotes from this Chapter:

Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us that in the Lord, and none but he, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: The Lost Prince

The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett
William Briggs, 1915 (originally published 1915); 216 pages

This is the story of a small fictional Eastern European country whose monarchy fell apart 500 years previous and of the people fighting to restore the crown. It centers on two boys, one an exile from the fictional country (the name of which I can't remember, even though I read the book this week) and one a street urchin from London, who travel from London to the fictional country, rallying loyalists throughout Europe.

If I had read this when I was a kid, it would have been one of my favorite books. It has everything I liked best: adventure, intrigue, a European setting, mystery, heroic children doing what adults couldn't, and long-lost royalty. Reading it as an adult, though, I saw every plot twist coming a mile away, particularly the climax of the story, which I nailed in the first or second chapter. A book like this isn't nearly as interesting when one has fairly well guessed all the answers. Also, the plot calls for almost impossible suspension of disbelief. Could two young children, not even high school age, travel from England to somewhere in the neighborhood of Poland? Even if they could, why would anyone fighting for the long-lost monarchy believe the boys? And what really made me wonder is why in every generation for 500 years, the heir to the throne wanted to return to the throne? Wouldn't it have been easier for one of the heirs somewhere along the way to become a doctor or a banker or a lawyer or something that didn't involve dedicating one's life to a cause one might never see accomplished? And how is it that every generation managed to have at least one son, all of whom were able to marry and reproduce before dying, considering the high infant mortality rates in all but the most recent century or two? And how come halfway through the book, these very European (very Victorian Male, really) people are suddenly revealed to be Buddhists? Weren't Eastern Europeans of the late 1800s/early 1900s much more likely to be Catholic or Eastern Orthodox?

Okay, so I'm probably overthinking a children's book, and I did enjoy the story when I didn't think too much. Still, if you're going to read Burnett, stick to A Little Princess or Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite New-to-Me Authors of 2012

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

It's a good thing I'm doing this for 2012 and not 2011, because I read so many new authors in 2011 that I'd never be able to narrow it down to 10. (Is this the upside of not reading as much as I'd like in 2012?)

1. Patricia C. Wrede: After I read the Magic and Malice series (Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward), Wrede joined the very short list of authors whose entire oeuvre has been added to my TBR pile, no questions asked. (Others on the list include Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Jasper Fforde, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. They're a motley bunch, but I love them all.)

2. Josephine Tey: I started the Alan Grant series earlier this year with The Man in the Queue. I'm taking Tey's mysteries slowly because she wrote so few of them and I want to make them last.

3. Joan Aiken: I think I would have enjoyed the Wolves series more when I was in late elementary school, but I still love it as an adult. It's a bit nonsensical, and deus ex machina or improbably chance figures prominently in the solutions to characters' problems, but the books are still creative and funny.

4. Elizabeth von Arnim: All you need to know is this: go read The Enchanted April. (It's free for Kindle, if you're into that sort of thing.)

5. Rex Stout: I started in on the Nero Wolfe series because I got Fer-de-Lance as a Christmas present in 2011 and because Stout is considered a Hoosier author, and I like to read books by my fellow Indiana people. However, upon further research, I don't think being born in Indiana but moving away at the age of six months and never moving back really counts as "Hoosier." But Nero Wolfe is still a great mystery series and a solid American contribution to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

6. Robert A. Heinlein: I've heard that Heinlein gets really weird in his later writings, and honestly, even his earlier stuff has this really mechanical, workman-like quality about it. But the issues and themes he addresses makes at least the earlier writings worth reading.

7. Terry Pratchett: He is one of the few authors who makes it into my commonplace book because he is funny rather than because something he wrote struck me as profound. (Not to say that Pratchett is never profound, because he is.) The Discworld series is great!

8. Muriel Barbery: Read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It's amazing!

9. Walter Scott: I put off reading Scott for a very long time, because I assumed his work would be difficult to understand. It's not. I did have to look some words up in the dictionary, but no more than usual. It helped that I read a Penguin Classics edition with footnotes to explain bits of sixteenth century English culture with which I was not familiar.

10. Margery Allingham: Not one of the absolute best crime writers I've ever read, but a good choice if you've made it through all of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers already.

Honorable Mention: Deb Perelman: I've read Perelman's blog, Smitten Kitchen, for years, so she's not really new to me, but her first cookbook came out earlier this year, and it's brilliant. If I hadn't been a reader of her blog, she would have been on this list for sure.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Calvin's Institutes, Prefatory Address


I have decided to read Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. Because it is so long and so varied in content (Calvin is setting forth systematically his theological beliefs on everything), I've decided to write a bit of commentary on each chapter, or possibly two related chapters together, rather than write a book review a year or more from now when I've finished the book.

In my edition of Institutes, the first chapter is the address Calvin wrote to Francis I of France to explain what Calvin and his followers believed. Calvin believed that if the king had correct information, he would stop the persecution of French Protestants. I'm not sure how much Calvin's writings helped the plight of the persecuted, but his short book grew over the years and the revisions into one of the foremost works of early Protestant theology and the originator of Reformed theology.

On the Dangers of Majority Rule

To make every thing yield to custom would be to do the greatest injustice. Were the judgments of mankind correct, custom would be regulated by the good. But it is often far otherwise in point of fact; for, whatever the many are seen to do, forthwith obtains the force of custom. But human affairs have scarcely ever been so happily constituted as that the better course pleased the greater number. Hence the private vices of the multitude have generally resulted in public error, or rather that common consent in vice which these worthy men would have to be law. (Institutes xxviii)

When I read this section of the address, I though Calvin's arguments sounded like something I'd read before. After a bit of thought, and the help of Google, I came up with this:

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that [...] the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. (129-130)

Any guesses as to the source? Yep, good old James Madison, writing in Federalist #10. Calvin and Madison both understood that humans by nature seek out others of similar opinion on a given subject and that groups of likeminded individuals often seek to force their likemindedness on everybody else, even at the expense of truth or justice (or possibly the American way :)). They differ on the particulars of their respective arguments, though. In Institutes, Calvin addresses the danger of letting human custom rather than God dictate religious belief and practice. Madison, in Federalist #10, addresses the dangers of factionalism in a small, democratic country.

Interestingly, the two men also differ on the solution to the problem. Madison argues that even religious beliefs will not prevent power from going to people's heads, and so the people of New York need to ratify the Constitution. No ulterior motive in castigating majority rule here, folks! Still, I agree with Madison that even committed Christians can be corrupted by power, particularly since majority peer pressure is so strong. (Federalist 133)

Calvin, on the other hand, argues that by turning to the Word of God and by standing up for what it says, the worst of majority rule may be averted. He says that a true belief in God does influence how those in the majority lead others. (Institutes xxviii)

Works Cited:
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist: The Famous Papers on the Principles of American Government. Edited by Benjamin F. Wright. New York: MetroBooks, 2002.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: The Man in Lower Ten

The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart
unknown publication info (free e-book) (originally published 1906); 204 pages

In the early-to-mid-twentieth century, American author Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote numerous mystery stories and novels, inventing the idea behind "the butler did it," creating a character who partially inspired the creation of Batman, and earning the title "the American Agatha Christie." In her first novel, The Man in Lower Ten, lawyer Lawrence Blakeley travels home by train after taking a deposition pertaining to a fraud case. When Blakeley goes to his berth (lower ten) on the Pullman sleeping car, he finds a drunk sleeping there and at the recommendation of the porter, sleeps in unoccupied lower nine instead. When Blakeley awakens the next morning, he finds the vital documents in his fraud case stolen and the man in lower ten murdered. Blakeley assumes that the murderer intended to kill him, since he was supposed to be in lower ten, and that the murder has something to do with the fraud case. However, because of circumstantial evidence, the police accuse Blakeley of the murder. He spends the rest of the book attempting to prove his innocence and to discover who the man in lower ten was and if he (the victim) was connected to any of the other passengers on the train.

I found The Man in Lower Ten to be a fun book, if somewhat implausible. Every time I thought I could see where the plot was going, Rinehart threw in another twist. Every time I thought nothing else could go wrong in Blakeley's attempts to prove his innocence, something else did go wrong. Also, because Blakeley narrates the book in first person as if he is telling the story to a friend, he sometimes gets ahead of himself and reveals facts too early. However, this happens only with facts pertaining to subplots. Rinehart uses this "first-person narrator who tells too much too soon" device in other of her books, so it may be typical of her work. However, this is the first detective novel to earn a spot on American bestseller lists, and despite its flaws, it is worth reading both as a piece of detective fiction history and on its own merits.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Bringing Me

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

There are so many books I want to own, although right now the question of what to get for Christmas is purely theoretical, because I haven't really got room for any more books. Still, here's the shortlist:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Everyman's Library edition): I read AK two years ago, and I think it's time for a reread. Everyman's Library editions are particularly lovely.

2. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim: This is such a delightful book about four women who rent a castle in Italy. It technically falls under the "woman goes to Europe and finds herself" genre that I despise, but The Enchanted April isn't particularly dopey.

3 & 4. Persuasion and Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen (Everyman's Library editions): These will complete my collection of the works of Jane Austen, all in Everyman's Library editions.

5, 6, & 7. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis: I love these books so much (okay, so I haven't finished That Hideous Strength, but I love what I've read so far), and the set I borrowed from my parents has such tiny print and cheap paper.

8. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman: I got this from my library right when it came out and loved it, but I never can afford brand new cookbooks, because they're so expensive.

9. Kenilworth by Walter Scott: Just such a great book, and now I've got some Kenilworth Gardens tea to drink while I read it.

10. The OED: One of my life's ambitions is not only to own a complete OED, but to read the thing as well. I've already read several one-volume dictionaries, but I'm not getting any younger, so I probably need to get started on this soon.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story, MGM, 1940
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
(^^This is me impersonating Remington Steele.)

Publicity-shy socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is just a few days away from beginning her second marriage. Desperate for a story on the wedding, a celebrity gossip magazine editor contacts Tracy's first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) to try to gain access to the Lord household. Dexter shows up with a reporter, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart), who blackmails his way into being able to do a piece on Tracy's wedding. Mayhem and madness ensue, fueled by too much Champagne and too little rational thought. Eventually even the future of Tracy's marriage is in jeopardy.

The first half to three-quarters of The Philadelphia Story are incredibly screwball and I didn't much enjoy it. Hepburn and Grant engage in faster and furiouser verbal sparring, but they don't present much of the superbly witty repartee from similar movies of the period, such as His Girl Friday, starring Grant and Rosalind Russell. But as the plot progresses and Tracy begins to examine for the first time the way she chose to live her life, the movie develops into a bit of a commentary on the nature of love and honor. One particularly excellent scene occurs when a hungover Tracy is debating on marriage with her first husband on the morning of her wedding to her second husband. Unfortunately, just as the characters begin to develop, the movie ends.

One of the points made in The Philadelphia Story is that partners in a marriage must lay aside the idea their spouse will always be the ideal spouse if the marriage is to work over the long term. Tracy had impossibly high standards for Dexter, Dexter took up drinking because he couldn't live up to those standards, and Tracy filed for divorce because Dexter's drinking just proved that he was unworthy of her. Their reactions to one another made their situation worse because neither addressed the problems with their underlying expectations.