I suppose I should take it as ironic that after lecturing my son over and over about saving documents early and often, I should have Windows unexpectedly reboot about the time I finished writing up my review for this book.
Seriously? No autosave backup or anything? Wow. Good thing I don’t get paid for this. And also, Windows Live Writer kinds sucks.
The Toaster Project is one of those perfect collisions between book genres I enjoy: popular science and “quest” books. Thomas Thwaites decided that he’d build a toaster from raw materials. Now, this doesn’t mean he’d head down to Home Depot and Radio Shack, collect parts and assemble them. It doesn’t even mean he’d go a step further and get raw metals and hammer or extrude them into the shapes and purposes he’d need.
The book divides easily into chapters dedicated to the acquisition and refinement of the main raw materials, bookended by chapters on planning the project and assembling the toaster. It’s not a lengthy book, and it features a load of cool pictures of his various failures and successes, so it’s the kind of thing one could knock out in a weekend. Guess how I know that?
As interesting as the various chapters are, I especially liked his exploration of the meaning of the project, and how the many conveniences we have today come at a greater cost than the price we pay for them. So a ten-dollar toaster costs ten bucks, but also may result in pollution from copper mines and plastic processing. It’s an excellent thing to keep in mind, particularly when heading into the Shopping season.
My wife has always objected to Birthday Party gift bags with “stuff and junk” from the Dollar Store in them, and now we have a more salient argument against them: The enjoyment of the junk can’t possibly make up for the actual negative impact those bits and bobs cause, both in their manufacture and (inevitable) disposal.
This was another title from my 13 for ‘13 list, which is now down to three: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Nascence, and The Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical Books of the Bible. Not sure which I’ll finish first, and then there’s the issue of finishing the review copy I was sent for The Simplified Guide: Paul’s Letters to the Churches.
So naturally, I picked up Planet of the Apes. (Pick it up and read along with me…it’s really good. This is my second time reading it and the second title on our lame-brained Podcast plans. Aaand since I didn’t post this last week, I’ve finished it. Did you finish?)
Another week, another couple of ways to avoid reading anything on my 13 for ‘13 list or the book that was sent to me to review.
So this week I read Odd Thomas for the third time, and it’s still every bit as awesome. Hey, one of my running buddies hadn’t read it, and we couldn’t very well tell him to read it and not read it ourselves, right? (Now we have to wait for him to finish it. Move it, Jimmy!!!)
The three of us have a harebrained idea to launch a podcast, despite not having particularly awesome speaking voices, any knowledge of what it takes to actually create a podcast, or really any clue what we’re doing. But this is ‘Merica, so we’re forging ahead with our plans.
Okay, the idea was mine, because I’m addicted to podcasts. And nobody is quite covering an area of interest to me: cheesy old science fiction movies. Now it’s true that the “Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas” podcast covers exactly that topic, but they didn’t cover it the way I hoped they would. For instance, when they did an excellent episode about Colossus: The Forbin Project, no one on the panel had read the book it’s adapted from, Colossus. So that’s what I want to do. Cover it. All of it.
(KAMN seems to have gone off the air, too. Bummer. Great show.)
I want to read the book/story and watch every major adaptation of it. So in the case of today’s review, I read Farewell to the Master, by Harry Bates. Which was adapted into the very classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and the less classic, wait for it, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008).
I don’t actually know if we’re going to pull off a podcast. But we’re totally gonna watch the movies. Maybe I’ll write something up in collaboration with the other pavement pounders. Oooh, good name:
The Pavement Pounders Podcast
I’d previously thought Running Our Mouths would work. Running, see? Because this is the kind of stuff we’d talk about while running. Also theology and food. And all other topics. But mostly nerdy topics.
I also totally need a catchphrase or two, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s signoff “keep looking up” on StarTalk Radio. Any ideas? Maybe, “As always, we remind you that some books and movies are like some runs: better when they’re over.” Nope. That’s crap. Please help me. Full credit will be given, and your contribution could be heard by ones of people the world over!
And now I’m 400 words in and haven’t really discussed the book. Well, it’s not a book. It’s not even a novella. It’s a short story. But it’s an ePub I side-loaded into my NOOK, so that means it counts toward my (terribly disappointing) Book Total for the year.
The reason I wanted to delve into the sources for adapted sci-fi movies is that often times, the movies leave a bunch of great material out. Planet of the Apes, for instance, completely changes the premise and ending of the book, and it’s a great book. Somebody needs to tell the world about these things! I can do that, with the able help of my running buddies.
Interestingly, the most memorable scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is only referred to in passing in the book, as a reminiscence of the main character, Cliff Sutherland, a “picture reporter.” I guess that means photographer in the future. And the story is set in the far future, in which humanity has colonized other worlds in our solar system.
This would be surprising to anyone having viewed either film, because both are Message Movies. The first adaptation was a plea for nuclear disarmament, set during the Cold War, while the second was a Save the Planet (TM) movie, set during times when we fear climate change more than basically anything.
If Farewell to the Master is a Message Story, the message is too cunning to be divined. It’s just a bit of a mystery. Where did Klaatu come from? Why is Gnut (not Gort) standing perfectly still on the same spot and in the same position he was in when Klaatu was shot months ago (yeah, the shooting is there)? And why doesn’t anyone say “Klaatu barada nikto?” Better yet, why not have someone sing it to the tune of “Mele Kalikimaka?” Oh, right. Book. I’ll have to perform that song on the podcast. Aaaanyway…
Sutherland, having photographed the arrival of the visitors (not in a spaceship, but a spacetime traveler ship), and also having striven (strived?) to get better shots of the menacing robot, has noticed something: Gnut does move. But only by comparing his photos does he come to this awareness.
And here we have one of those wonderful features of classic science fiction: inability to predict things we now take for granted. Slan had a similar issue, predicting mutated humans and wonderful new technology, but not radar. Here, it’s ray guns and flying cars and space colonization, but no video surveillance or digital photography. Nobody but an intrepid reporter could have figured this out!
I kid, but the story is actually interesting, and there’s the tiniest mystery at the end that I won’t spoil, but don’t get your hopes up for a grand soliloquy from Klaatu about why the aliens visited. It’s never mentioned. Seriously.
Having seen both film adaptations, I can say that both are good adaptations, though the second essentially adapts the first film rather than going back to the source. So it’s more of a reboot. How can I say either is a good adaptation if they stray so far from the story? Well, in this case there just really isn’t much story there. The screenwriters imagined what motive could bring aliens here and kept the nature of the aliens mostly intact. I dig it.
One quick thing here: perhaps you noticed the image I linked above shows the cover of Slan, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. That’s an image of the cover of Astounding! that contained both Slan and Farewell to the Master. I’ve never seen an adaptation of Slan, but I’ve seen two of the latter story, so top-billing doesn’t mean everything, I guess.
And that’ll do for this week’s avoidance behavior. Now I’ll go read something I’m supposed to read. Probably. After a game or two of Words With Friends.
Another week, another 13 for ‘13 title off my list. Woo! Maybe next year I won’t save five books for the last couple of months. (Probably still will. More like six or seven.)
I’d call myself politically conservative, leaning libertarian, though I seem to be getting more moderate as I age. I pretty much think the government should be as small as possible, though I’m also essentially blasé about our government and have little hope of getting past a place where 50% of the country thinks the current president is the best ever and the other half thinks he’s nothing short of the antichrist. Until the next election, when the new guy comes in and the cycle is repeated, only with the opinions reversed.
I used to listen to talk radio a fair bit, but I always preferred shows that featured more than one point of view. One of the things that drives me crazy about any talk show, from either side of the aisle, is when the other side isn’t engaged at all. Which is why I like Dennis Prager, even though I haven’t listened to his show in a couple of years (podcasts took over). Prager is conservative but brings on guests who eloquently articulate another position, then lets his audience decide who was more persuasive. As he says frequently, he prefers clarity to agreement.
One topic I recall him discussing was the importance of American values, and what he termed “The American Trinity”: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum. In his book Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Survive, Prager puts American values up against the two main competing value systems: Leftism and Islamism. He presents the distinctives of each view and tries to articulate where Leftism and Islamism fall short and American values win. Or should win.
Prager has some insider knowledge of Leftism, having been raised liberal and having studied the Soviet Union extensively in university. He rightly points out that Communism was a terrible evil and was responsible for more suffering than any other system ever conceived, and yet Communism doesn’t get nearly such a bad rap as Nazism, another of the 20th Century’s Big Bads.
The case against Leftism is the longest in the book, and there’s no way I can do it justice here. Suffice it to say that essentially Leftism wants to make America look more like Europe, and that wouldn’t be a good thing. Read the book if you want Prager’s reasoning. I picked this one up for a couple of bucks on the NOOK Daily Find last year, and I may go back and re-read the section on Leftism in the near future. (I actually read that section earlier this year and only recently picked it back up.)
I don’t think anyone needs to know why Islamism is a threat to the world, though it’s worth pointing out that Prager doesn’t indict Islam, but only the virulent strain of that system as expressed in the Taliban and other militant groups.
When I first picked up the book, I thought the title was implying that the world would end unless it adopted American values, and while there’s an element of that, the emphasis is more that the world needs the values to survive instead of disappearing from the court of opinion. All in all, it’s an excellent book. I’d be curious to see how someone to my political left would view it. Probably not as positively. But that’s the way things are, I guess.
Rather than trying to articulate much about American values here, I’ll just link to a beautifully done video in which Prager himself explains The American Trinity:
I don’t have anything else particularly close to being finished, though I’ve started a re-read of Odd Thomas because it’s been like a year since I’ve read it and it’s awesome. Plus my running buddies wanted to do a read/discuss of it. And I’ve got a review copy of a book I really should finish. And Steve Gregg’s All You Want to Know About Hell finally came out for NOOK. I’ve read the introduction, and although it looks extremely awesome, I may just leave it for next year’s list.
So anyhow, it’s unlikely you’ll see another book review from me for a week or two. Try to go on living.
Given how many times I’ve read Ender’s Game and how much I love it, it’s probably impossible that a film adaptation could have lived up to everything I would’ve liked to have seen. However, I’d distilled my list of demands down to basically three:
- Don’t suck
- Have cool effects
- Leave at least a glimmer of hope that Speaker for the Dead could get made
We’ll call it three for three. If you liked the book, you’ll probably be okay with the movie. I liked it. World’s shortest movie review!
As I said, there’s no way this movie was going to live up to my mental image of what it could be. It’s not a complicated story, but so much of it is in Ender’s head that getting it onto the screen was a tall order. The book takes Ender from being six to maybe thirteen. How are you going to do that in a two hour movie? You aren’t.
Instead, the timeline has to be shortened. EVERYTHING has to be accelerated. I found myself reading the minds of the screenwriters, and I generally approved of the way they handled things given the choices they made. And while I still maintain that it should have been a six-hour miniseries instead of a two-hour feature film, it worked reasonably well as a feature film.
By the way, SPOILER ALERT! If you’ve read the book but haven’t seen the movie, you’re probably safe unless you want to go in without any info. In which case, why’d you click through?
Still with me? If you went into this film hoping to see all of Ender’s development from launchy to soldier to commander, you’ll be bummed. The movie accelerates the pace to the point that Ender seems to only have a couple of battles in Salamander, skips over Rat altogether, and gets his own command without really showing anything of how he trained Dragon. The only battle we see Dragon engage in is the infamous Two Armies battle. It doesn’t come after the fight with Bonzo, and this is the main weak point of the adaptation. But I’ll return to that. Instead, Salamander is one of the two armies, and the battle includes Bonzo’s blunder of laying out his forces on the wall above Ender’s gate. And that was actually okay with me.
Command School is also quite accelerated, with only a couple of battles shown. Which is a shame, because the Command School simulator was the single best thing in the movie. A close second would be the Battle Room, which was also pretty stinking cool.
I actually liked the decision to have the MD device a ship rather than a standard weapon, because I think it worked in the drama of the final battle scene. And here again, the final battle was awesome. But I do wish we’d seen more of the space battles.
And now we get into the Major Spoiler section of my recap/review thingy here. Seriously, major spoilers.
I loved the live Hive Queen. I loved that she was there, I loved the effects used to create her, and I admired the way they got Ender to her. See, one of the difficult things about adapting Ender’s Game was likely that the story ends and then continues, in much the way The Lord of the Rings does. Ender wins the final battle, then travels to the Formic worlds, finds the Hive Queen, writes The Hive Queen and the Hegemon, and skips off to find a world for the Hive Queen. How, exactly, do you put that on film?
I fully expected the movie to end without Ender finding the Hive Queen’s cocoon. Because getting him to the colony world where he finds the Giant’s Corpse just looked impossible. So when the filmmakers decided to alter the Mind Game sequences and have the Formics communicating with Ender, it totally worked. And besides, it’s basically canonical, though turned around somewhat. In the book, the Formics reach out to Ender through the game, see the world of the Mind Game, and create a recognizable scene from it on the colony world. In the film, they project an image into the game that he recognizes on the Command School outpost. It’s not perfect, but it works.
Again, I loved the scene between Ender and the Queen. It was the most emotionally effective scene in the film for me.
The cast did a reasonable job, kids included. I liked the kid who played Bonzo, even though he was a foot shorter than Asa Butterfield. As for Mr. Butterfield, I found his performance a bit uneven, mostly very good, but there were a few scenes that looked mailed in. The scenes he needed to nail, he nailed (all the scenes with Bonzo rocked). But a couple of others I think the director just went, “We’ll go with it.”
Harrison Ford has done better work, but I found him quite acceptable as Graff, and I liked the choice of having Viola Davis as Major Anderson. Ben Kingsley had kind of a questionable Kiwi accent which I found unnecessary since the book establishes that only the French retain their stuffy accents. (Actually, I might be overthinking that one. Argue with me if you think I’m wrong.)
So again, I enjoyed the movie. I’ll give it a recommendation, though I figure I’ll prefer the new Thor movie. Also, I still prefer the book. Duh.
Now, a bit of griping.
First, and most importantly, the book focuses on Ender’s suffering. His army goes through a punishing schedule, and then it gets worse for Ender at Command School. The movie just doesn’t show any of that. And with the compressed schedule, there’s no way it could. So we’ll let that go. I guess.
However, the fight with Bonzo should have come before the Battle with Two Armies. Yes, I get that the movie was presenting that as the final straw for Bonzo. But the whole reason for Ender going for the enemy gate in the battle against two armies is that he stops caring about the game. And that’s mirrored in the Final Battle.
(I guess when I really think about it, the way the movie did it actually worked, but it was one thing I would have done differently.)
But I have real gripes about the ansible. Graff’s justification for traveling to the outpost world for Command School was that it got them close enough for Faster than Light communication? Umm…what? How far, exactly, did you travel? At some point in the movie, there was a display that showed the fleet’s arrival at the Formic system in like 28 days. And the Fleet had been traveling for something like thirty years. How far did you go?
I console myself on this one by convincing myself that Graff was telling untruths. Yeah, that’s it.
In reality, traveling to that outpost planet was made necessary because the screenwriters needed Ender on a planet the Formics had been on. But since the book establishes that the Formics had been on Eros, there’s no actual reason for it except to have the big rock formation thing from the Mind Game. The only thing that rescued this for me was that excellent scene with the Hive Queen, who was more compelling than many a Hollywood starlet these days.
I think I’d like to see the movie again so I’m not watching it as such a fan of the book. Having consumed the book a dozen or so times, fragments of complete dialogues from the book would have me comparing the film to the book and finding it wanting. And yet I appreciated some of the lines pulled directly from the book. I’m so conflicted!
If you recall, my #3 requirement for the movie was that they leave open the possibility of a Speaker for the Dead film. Even more than Ender’s Game, I don’t want to see a lousy adaptation of that book, but I also want to see it as a movie. And I want to voice one of the piggies. Seriously.
This movie just barely allows for Speaker for the Dead, but it’s still a bit of an uphill battle to get there from here. Maybe I’ll do a post about how to do it. Yeah, that could be good.
Year by year, I’m slowly lowering my own expectations for a Halloween-themed read Three years ago it was Frankenstein. Then I stayed in the same vein (yuk, yuk) with Dracula, but last year I lowered the standards a bit with The Strange Tale of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which isn’t really quite a novel. This year I’m totally mailing it in, going with the extremely brief The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
The first two titles I thoroughly enjoyed. Then I wasn’t overly thrilled with Jekyll. But The Legend of Sleepy Hollow brought things back around nicely even though I’m still not quite sure what to make of the ending. In many ways, the story reads like the first couple of chapters of a much longer work, taking care to introduce the town of Sleepy Hollow and its now legendary schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. After that, though, the story rushes into a conclusion that again, I’m just not sure about.
I suppose it’s that I wanted to see a protracted series of confrontations between the simple teacher and the Headless Horseman. Instead, I got one encounter. And then the story ends. With the hero apparently…<redacted because of spoilers>.
My main problem with Jekyll was that I was so familiar with the premise and twist of the story that there was no mystery left to it. And I guess since I remember seeing Disney’s adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I should have had the same problem with this book/story. But my memory was fuzzy enough that I didn’t really know where the story was heading. So that still worked, as far as it goes.
(It’s not like I was unfamiliar with Frankenstein or Dracula, and I loooved those books, so maybe I just didn’t like Jekyll because it’s not that great.)
One thing definitely sticks out in this short work, though, and that’s the beauty of Irving’s prose. Given how beautiful October was around these parts (the Portland, Oregon area), this passage spoke to me:
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was
clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery
which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests
had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the
tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes
of orange, purple, and scarlet.
So this concludes another lackluster attempt by yours truly to read a classic tale of suspense or terror around Halloween. Any suggestions for next year? I’m really not overly fond of being frightened, but I’m good with suspense and even dread.
Next up, it’s a 13 for ‘13 title, Dennis Prager’s Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Survive.
I’m also seeing Ender’s Game tonight, so maybe I’ll throw a quick review up in the near future.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time has, for reasons other than its extremely long title, been on my radar for quite a while, since I’m somewhat overly fond of popular histories, and histories of scientific endeavors in particular. When it came up as an inexpensive title on the NOOK Daily Find, I pounced. Then it sat there inert in my NOOK Library until it was added to my 13 for ‘13 list. (I think I’m down to five books now. Maybe I’ll make it.)
The book details John Harrison’s essentially lifelong quest to solve the problem of how to fix longitude at sea. Sailors have been navigating by the stars since the beginning of sailing, but they didn’t always end up where they intended. And what about overcast nights? With the sea trade such an important part of commerce in the past few centuries, being able to hit one’s target destination became not just a matter of life and death, but a matter of money gained or lost. Now THAT’S important!
The problem was so important to England that a reward of 20,000 pounds was offered for a solution. It was known, at the time, that if you could accurately keep time at sea, you could fix your position based on the difference between local time and London time. (This was essentially the basis for the establishment of the Prime Meridian.) But keeping time at sea with a clock of the 18th century was dicey. They tended to be pendulum based, and pendulum clocks don’t do well aboard ship due to the rolling of the decks. Contemporary clocks were also greatly affected by changes in ambient temperature and moisture. So even if you could compensate for the pitching of the ship, you’d still lose or gain time depending on if it was hot or cold outside.
I won’t reveal how John Harrison approached the problem, because the narrative is just completely fascinating. If I’d seen the miniseries adaptation of his story before reading it, I’d have thought parts of it were added for dramatic purposes. (I’m much more trusting of books.)
As an avid reader who always has more than enough to read (too many books, actually), I’m not overly fond of receiving books as gifts. I prefer to buy my own, since the gift of a book necessarily carries a certain implied desire for the recipient to read it in a timely manner. And NOBODY TELLS ME WHAT TO READ!!!
However, short topic science books, and popular science or history of science books are usually a safe bet. They’re my favorite non-fiction books to read, and Longitude is a fine example of the genre. So that’s a big thumbs up from me.
Next up, I think it’ll be The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as my Halloween BOOk review. I’m also working on Dennis Prager’s Still the Best Hope to get another title off my 13 for ‘13 list. I’m also reading a bit in another of those titles, a collection of the Old Testament Apocrypha (Deuterocanonical books) as part of my morning Bible reading.
Though the main title sounds like a cut-rate thriller novel, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All isn’t fiction. Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of anti-vaxxer people out there who will think it is, but I’d challenge anyone with such leanings to give this book a chance to win you back over to rationality.
Full disclosure: I was anti-vaccination. Or at least I was concerned about the HUGE CONNECTION BETWEEN VACCINATION AND AUTISM!!!!! (Which never existed.) When my son was young, we delayed some of his shots for fear of the COMBINED ULTRA-DEADLY ADDITIVES!!!! (Which aren’t deadly or even dangerous in the amounts in play.) But I can’t say that my fear of vaccine was anything like science-derived. It was an unfortunate consequence of reading sensational nonsense from the anti-vax crusaders, with nary an actual scientific study to be found.
These days, I find myself much more skeptical about most things, which is why some of my views have changed in areas of scientific controversy (usually where the actual science isn’t controversial). Vaccines are just one of the latest I’ve come around on, and I guess I should credit the Rationally Speaking Podcast for putting me onto Dr. Paul A. Offit.
The really interesting thing about this book, for me, was the history of anti-vaccine sentiment. If you somehow think that the new paranoia is due to Big Pharma’s Deadly Agenda or any actual problems with vaccines, you’d find the history interesting. Particularly interesting to me was the history of the Autism/Vaccine controversy and how it refuses to go away even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.
Offit also takes the reader back through history to a time of epidemics, when early vaccines made a huge difference but were greeted with suspicion by ignorant (being frank here) and anti-science people. He looks at the history of vaccines and their ability to take diseases from potentially civilization threatening to essentially non-existent, and the efforts of governments to compel people to get immunized. It’s not very pretty history. I found the story of Typhoid Mary particularly fascinating.
The concept of Herd Immunity is big in this book, and I know the anti-vaxxers think the whole idea is BS. I’ve seen a Philosopraptor meme floating around saying “If vaccines work so well, why is my unvaccinated child a threat?” This looks almost rational on the face of it, but the fact is that vaccines don’t always work. Some percentage of vaccinated people are still able to become infected. Still others are immune-compromised and can’t receive vaccinations at all (for instance, people undergoing chemotherapy or with immune disorders). By getting most people vaccinated, and the percentage varies depending on how contagious a given bug is, we can protect those who can’t be vaccinated or aren’t immunized. It’s not a hard concept. Not everyone can be vaccinated. Those who can be, should be, for the sake of the others. Why be Typhoid Mary if you can avoid it?
Of course, the fear of vaccines isn’t completely unfounded. Offit doesn’t gloss over the fact that there have been some real problems with vaccines, genuine side effects that were alarming and sometimes deadly. But the crucial thing here is that the side effects were noticed and action was taken. In the case of the general paranoia of the anti-vax people today, there’s a reason nothing is being done about their fears: because the things being feared are imaginary. There is no connection between vaccines and chronic diseases like MS and Autism. We have science, and it has consistently exonerated vaccines.
I’d definitely recommend this book, certainly for anyone with anti-vaccine leanings, but also for anyone who, like me, was misinformed into that position. And if you’re just kind of pro-science, you’d probably enjoy it, too.
BTW, I got a flu shot this week. Doing my part for the herd.
Next up, it’s a 13 for ‘13 title, Dava Sobel’s terrific Longitude. I’ve also received a book to review, so I’ll be working through that one as I try to clear the rest of my 2013 reading list.
I have to say that I wasn’t optimistic about Dan Brown’s latest thriller, Inferno. The Lost Symbol was a fairly disappointing read compared to the very enjoyable Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Not that either of those other novels were what you’d call Great Fiction, but as mysteries that kept the pages turning, they worked just fine. I also enjoyed Deception Point and rather hated Digital Fortress.
Not being optimistic about the book, then, I went in with very low expectations. Much to my surprise, I found the book extremely entertaining and engaging. There was even a twist in the book that had me turning back to an earlier chapter trying to figure out how I’d been fooled. I was just certain that Brown had contradicted himself, but when I re-read it, I found he’d skillfully pulled me into the deception. Nicely done, that.
Character development has never been Brown’s strong suit, as Robert Langdon is essentially a Mary Sue, an idealized academic with perfect hair and impeccable style, not to mention being tall and deep-voiced. Oh, and he’s a super genius with eidetic memory.
What makes Brown’s novels work, when they work, is his ability to craft a mystery around art and culture. When he strays from this pattern, as in Deception Point and Digital Fortress (veering into his evidently shaky understanding of science or scientists), the results are fairly uneven. Though, to be fair, The Lost Symbol was art-focused and still stunk. But there it was a problem of a lousy antagonist.
Inferno takes Dante’s famous work as its backdrop, both the literature itself and the art inspired by it, and uses it to great effect. I’m not sure it’d work so well for someone completely unfamiliar with Dante, but it worked for me since I read it in Masterpieces of World Lit back in my college days. (Just realized that was twenty years ago. Wow.)
I won’t reveal too much of the plot, because I’d end up spoiling the twists, which were the most enjoyable part of the book. The main idea is that a shadowy figure is planning to do something dreadful, and only Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon can track him down in time to stop the plot. Or something like that. The other thing that works is that the reader is never quite sure who the antagonist is, and it shifts more than once.
There’s even a thought-provoking discussion of world population that dovetailed nicely with the Lierre Keith’s discussion of “carrying capacity” in The Vegetarian Myth. Agree or disagree, it’s at least work thinking about.
Anyhow, color me pleasantly surprised in this case. Maybe I’ll go in with unreasonable expectations when Brown’s next book comes out.
I’m not particularly close to finishing anything else, so I guess I’ve got to step on it. But I’ve picked up a couple of Paul A. Offit’s books about pseudoscience, so maybe I’ll tear through one of those. I’m also starting to compile my 2014 reading list, modeled after my 13 for ‘13 list, which actually I need to get cracking on. So maybe I’ll finish up Longitude next.
I haven’t done this in a while, not that anyone’s noticed. We took a vacation for essentially the whole month of August, hitting six states (CA, NV, AZ, UT, NM, CO) and ten National Parks. Our major stops were:
- Roseville, California for the Western Zone Age Group Swimming Championships. Team Oregon took third place!
- Joshua Tree National Park, which is like stepping onto a different planet. A quiet, very hot planet.
- Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ, for a DBacks game, the end of which (walkoff homer in the 11th by Paul Goldschmidt) had us showing up on SportsCenter. Here's the link to the MLB.com video. (I’m wearing a bright green shirt, and my son is in blue, both of us with hands raised as the ball clears the fence.)
- The Grand Canyon, which was the lone repeated Park for us, but still breathtaking. Literally, because of the altitude.
- Monument Valley, which is amazing.
- Four Corners Monument, where we spent several seconds in New Mexico. Totally counts.
- Mesa Verde National Park, which is very cool.
- Canyonlands National Park (Needles), in which we were pursued by a thunderstorm but managed to complete a two hour hike in 40 minutes or so.
- Arches National Park, my favorite of the parks we hit.
- Capitol Reef National Park, enjoyed the scenic drive.
- Bryce Canyon National Park, highly recommended.
- Zion National Park (Zion Canyon), where we hiked The Narrows and Angel’s Landing.
- Death Valley National Park, where it was a paltry 117 degrees at the Visitor’s Center.
- Yosemite National Park, where we were not eaten by bears. Also, Mariposa Grove is really cool.
- Zip Yosemite, which was a complete blast.
I don’t actually get much reading done while on vacation, because most of my reading is done before anyone else in my house is up. So when I’m sleeping in, 90% of my reading time vanishes. I’m just now starting to get back into a routine.
I picked up Death Trap (Robot Wars #1) when it was a Free Fridays on the NOOK Blog, because I’d previous read (and enjoyed) Sigmund Brouwer’s Last Disciple series, though I generally found it a bit too Christian. Which probably sounds strange since I’m a Christian and I knew the book was Christian Fiction. But I don’t really care for Christian Fiction, so there it is. In fact, I’d like to see Christian Fiction disappear as a genre. I’d rather see Fiction or Science Fiction or Other Fiction, written by Christians or non-Christians. But I want it to be excellent. Much Christian Fiction just isn’t.
However, Death Trap is a serviceable enough story, or actually two stories taken from his previously published Mars Journals. It’s targeted at a fairly young audience, so I used it as a read-aloud to help my sixth grader get to sleep on time. The story revolves around a wheelchair-bound boy named Tyce who is learning to control robots for use in terraforming Mars. The first “journal” is a tense mystery about the base running out of oxygen, while the second journal involves the possibility of life on Mars.
I don’t have anything terribly negative to say, other than there was rather more frank and churchy talk about God than I care for in a novel. The protagonist is likeable enough, and the story moves briskly along, so I’d recommend it as a safe choice for middle graders. The book also included some discussion of the intersection of science and faith, which is right up my alley, so that was cool.
It may seem like I’m damning the book with faint praise, but that’s not my intent. My son is interested in picking up the rest of the series, so I’ll check my local booklender. I’m not rushing out to buy the rest of the series, but if my son enjoys it, that’s a win.
Next up, it’s the new Dan Brown “thriller,” Inferno. (It’s actually halfway decent.) I need to get back to my 13 for ‘13 list, because I’ve fallen off the pace. I read more than half of Longitude on the train to Sacramento, but did some shift-reading with that one and Hope Beyond Hell, which looks a bit like a lame-ish argument for Universalism. I’ve also started reading The Red Badge of Courage and am contemplating The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for my Halloween read.
Good to be back. I promise I’ll do this more often.
(Warning: theology post. Long one. Also, sentence fragments.)
For the first half of this book, I was considering titling this review "This Book is Real (But I Hate That I Read It)," but the latter half of the book brought it back around to being basically a worthwhile read. So I'll start with the positives, I guess. Kind of a good news/bad news thing.
The good news is that Brian Jones is a decent writer, and he clearly communicates his passion for evangelism, and the second half (maybe the last third) is all about that topic. His advice on loving people, chilling out, and winning people not through bouncing Bibles off them but by being normal and engaging with them genuinely, was top notch. The kind of common sense that's not so common. If that's what the book consisted of, I'd probably give it very high marks.
In addition, the autobiographical parts of the book were interesting and engaging and generally drove the narrative of the book. So that's good, too.
Lastly, it's a short book. A couple of hours would be sufficient to read it cover to cover. Me likee short books.
(One more thing: it was free from the NOOK store. Now it's something like three bucks.)
Unfortunately, there was also the main topic of the book. Now, I've undergone something of a conversion on the topic of hell over the last decade or so, essentially since I started reading through the Bible every year. As I read and re-read the Bible, I didn't find the Eternal Conscious Torment view (hereafter called the Traditional view) there. I found the passages I'd always assumed taught it, but when I started to realize how the language of the Bible worked, I found I couldn't stick with the Traditional view.
This didn't mean I rejected hell altogether, of course. The Bible is pretty clear on hell's existence, but what exactly it involves is harder to pin down. Is it a fiery furnace? There are passages that seem to indicate so. But then there are the passages that refer to it as darkness. Fire. Darkness. Not generally considered synonymous. And what about all that language about perishing and destruction?
I eventually realized that the Traditional view is probably wrong, but wasn't sure which other view is correct (also, I discovered that other views existed). I read a bit about Annihilationism/Conditionalism (I'll stick with Conditionalism hereafter) and found it pretty much explained all the relevant passages, and then I read about Christian Universalism (Universalism for short). I didn't find that latter view quite so convincing, but I still found it persuasive (and still do). I haven't really settled on which one I take, but I lean toward Conditionalism on my pessimistic days and Universalism on my optimistic ones. But the Traditional view is just gone. I understand why people believe it, but I just don't see it taught in scripture.
Again, a Conditionalist can believe in hell. They believe the lost go there. They believe the lost suffer and then cease to exist. Universalists can believe in hell. They believe that the lost go there. They believe the lost suffer there and can eventually be saved and brought to repentance. But they can both believe in hell.
Brian Jones doesn't think either group believes in hell. For him, apparently, if you don't accept all of the Traditional view, you're not only disbelieving what is an essential tenet of the faith, you're actually sinning.
At its core, believing in hell is an obedience issue, not a theological issue.
Okay then. For me, it's basically theological (I'll acknowledge some philosophical reasons, too, but they're minor). I have a Bible, I read it, and I don't find the Traditional view. I don't believe this is a sin. And I'm really not sure there's such a thing as a sin of disbelief.
The problem here is that if you're going to assert that it's a sin to not believe the Traditional view, you need to actually show that it's true. Jones takes a few pages and lays out his case. It's essentially this:
Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what hell is like: fire; eternal fire; destruction; away from his presence; thrown outside; blazing furnace; darkness; eternal punishment; weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I omitted the scripture references for the sake of brevity here, but let me just say this: I'm not disputing any of these sayings, though I'd point out that many of them are teaching about Gehenna, which can be understood as referring to hell. It can also be understood as the language of judgment and death. There's also this: even if every one of these sayings refers to the nature of hell, they can all be understood in a Conditionalist way. There's nothing about any of them that is incompatible with that view. And perhaps only one or two of them could be a challenge to a Universalist interpretation.
But Jones brushes aside Conditionalism by taking a poke at Clark Pinnock, asserting that he'd veered from clear Biblical teaching. (Again here, I keep looking and not finding the Traditional view taught clearly.) He apparently doesn't consider a hell that will one day be empty (after either the damned are annihilated or redeemed) as "real hell."
Worse than his lack of honest dealing with Conditionalism is his dismissal of Universalism by way of a straw man argument:
(In discussing something he asks a friend who doesn't believe in hell:)
…I always ask him a simple question for which he has no answer: "If everyone goes to heaven after they die, and the point of Christianity is to do good on earth, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?"
He's never provided an answer.
Because there isn't one.
Really he's kind of begging the question here. Universalists (I assume his friend is one) don't necessarily believe that "the point of Christianity is to do good on earth. Instead, the idea might be that the point of Christianity is to enter God's Kingdom now and live in it forever. One can't join it now if they wait until after death. That's how time works.
I could have enjoyed a book that tackled the topic of hell from a Traditionalist angle if either ignored the other views held by evangelicals or dealt with them in a straightforward way. No, actually, I'd have insisted on the latter. I think the attempt to write a brief book resulted in a worse one than it might've been.
If this is the best you can do in engaging those who disagree with you, it's a real shame:
If there is no hell, then giving less than our best to our faith makes perfect sense.
Right, and since the homework isn't graded, there's no reason to do it, is there? Mastering the material would make no sense. And if my dad won't spank me, disobedience makes perfect sense. Because he's certainly not worthy of my respect and obedience if he's not going to beat the tar out of me.
Using hell as a disincentive to a sinful life is appealing to the lowest common denominator. The fact is that Christians should be motivated to live godly lives not out of fear of hell but in gratitude for, well, everything else. Just as a son should obey his Father out of respect and love, and not merely out of fear of getting whipped. This is obvious, isn't it?
When the disciples started preaching in the Book of Acts, they didn't call people to repent and avoid hell. Instead, they told them Jesus had risen from the dead, was the Lord of All and commanded them to follow him. They didn't threaten the crowds with hell, they promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even going back to Matthew's mention of the name Jesus (Joshua), it's said that he was so named because he would "save his people from their sins." Notice no mention of saving them from hell there.
I'm not going to dissect the rest of the book. I wrote down a ton of notes, but I'm tiring of this now. But I have to mention something else, because it's disturbing.
As I mentioned, I have some philosophical reasons for rejecting the Traditional view. I don't believe it matches with the character of God as revealed in the Bible.
Exodus 34:6-7 (ESV)
6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."
Now, I get that the whole third and fourth generation thing looks nasty, but it has a fairly obvious interpretation, namely that Israel disobeyed and was booted out of the land, which affected several generations. And it's worth pointing out that when they repented, God brought them back. So the punishment wasn't without a positive outcome. It showed that God's justice and mercy are both in play. Contrast that with this:
The real God, the Deity we only catch a quick glimpse of in the pages of Scripture, is infinitely more bloodthirsty, vindictive, genocidal, pestilential, sadomasochistic, and capriciously malevolent than human language could begin to express.
I don't even really know where to start here. I wouldn't actually consider any of these words as apt descriptors of God, though I guess an argument could be made for genocidal. I guess, depending on how you view the historical narratives about the conquest of Canaan. And I must assume Jones meant "sadistic" instead of "sadomasochistic" here. Otherwise, ick. Capricious is another word I'm not sure means what he thinks it means. ("Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.") And malevolent means evil. This is a thesaurus fail of the highest measure.
But maybe this was just a random brain dropping or free association gone wrong. Or, maybe not:
…until you understand how violent and inhumane God really is, how utterly wrathful the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can become, you'll never feel the urgency to help your non-Christian friends escape his detestable clutches.
We're going with detestable and inhumane, are we? I'm not suggesting we never talk about the wrath of God, but inhumane? Really? Detestable? And this is someone we're supposed to love?
I don't subscribe to the idea that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament. I know there's some rough stuff in the OT, and I definitely wrestle with understanding some of it, but I look to Jesus to see God. As the writer of Hebrews says:
Hebrews 1:3 (ESV)
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Exact. Imprint. Jesus isn't inhumane or detestable, and certainly not capricious or sadistic. Neither is God the Father.
Jones was using this brutally inappropriate argument about how horrid God is to encourage what he calls "apocalyptic urgency," or the overwhelming desire of Christians to see non-Christians saved. In his view:
Christianity is about helping people get to Heaven.
I'm afraid I couldn't disagree with this more. Find me this in the Bible. Christianity is about bringing people into the Kingdom now, giving God his due glory, and making "his Kingdom come, his will be done" here. Getting to Heaven, or more appropriately, the resurrection from the dead, is certainly the hope of the Christian, but if it's all about getting to Heaven, what's the purpose of converting now rather than on our death beds? (This kind of turns around his argument against Universalism.)
I'm no scholar. I'm a guy who reads his Bible and tries to understand it. I also read other books. I've never read a pro-Traditionalist book, and I probably should. I've also not read a pro-Conditionalist one, so my tentative acceptance of that position can't be blamed on my being the easily-suggestible type. I'm looking forward to Steve Gregg's forthcoming book on the Three Views of Hell, because I think it will help me clarify my own position on this topic. But I have no doubt that there are good Christians out there who hold all three positions. Some of them are wrong. I might be wrong. But the fact that I reject the Traditional view doesn't make me less likely to try to reach people.
Ultimately, I'll take the good advice on evangelism Jones included in this book, and leave the rest.
Did I go on long enough, do you think? I deleted several paragraphs, too. Enjoy it while you can, because I'm about to do a three week hiatus from basically all online pursuits except Words with Friends. Road trip!
In the meantime, I'll hopefully be finishing Longitude, another 13 in '13 title, and I've got a couple of other titles (150 or so) on my NOOK to keep me company on our trip. Maybe I'll queue up a few or scrawl a capsule review using my NOOK Color's brutal web interface. That'd be worth seeing.
I also solemnly swear not to be this verbose all the time.