Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present, by M. Lee Alexander (Modern Scholar Lectures)


Alexander isn't much of a lecturer, but I'm a big enough fan of detective fiction that I was able to overlook her lackluster delivery and less than incisive remarks. Really, she just lists the various well-known or important authors whose works fall into various categories of detective fiction--"golden age" detective fiction, hardboiled private eyes, amateur detectives, etc. I wasn't nearly as inspired to go out and read new authors as I was after listening to Michael D.C. Drout's lectures on science fiction and fantasy literature.

Also, while I appreciated her nod to more modern detective fiction developments (the television shows House, M.D., Monk, and Bones), I felt like she missed a lot of opportunities to mention other current trends--like crossover detective/sci fi/fantasy fiction. The upswing in fantasy literature (in the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies, Harry Potter, and the Twilight Saga) has led to some interesting combinations of genres (see, e.g., The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, pitting Doyle's classic detective against sci-fi or fantasy mysteries). The Southern Vampire Mysteries, for example, have been coming out for more than 10 years, and the television series True Blood,based on that series, is in its fourth season. Popular authors Dean Koontz and Stephen King also periodically combine elements of sci-fi/fantasy with detective fiction. Indeed, much fantasy/sci-fi literature involves an element of mystery and many protagonists double as sleuths.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


An extremely clever and enjoyable book. Honestly, more of a four-and-a-half star book, though I suspect at least some of the that is due to the narrator (not Neil Gaiman), who voices the characters quite well--particularly Adam and his friends, Aziraphale, and Crowley.

The book includes the necessary ingredients for modern apocalyptic literature--a creative spin on the four horsemen (Pestilence having been replaced by Pollution after the development of penicillin); angels and demons who, when it comes right down to it, aren't really that anxious for Armageddon and the world's end; an unusual hell-hound; abstruse-yet-accurate prophecies; unlikely alliances; witch hunters; and, of course, questions about the nature of God, man, good, evil, fate, and responsibility. In fact, having just finished Season Six of Supernatural (yes, the CW show--don't judge me), I was surprised to see the commonality between the two tales of the Apocalypse.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hunger games

Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? [...]

One critic said that if he found a country in which such strip-tease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. [...] I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to be would be famine.  But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country.  If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one.  [...] Starving men may think much about food, but so do glutton; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

[...] There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.  
~Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

An Open Letter to Evangelicals, by R.E.O. White


A thorough and largely reliable exposition of the book of I John. The first half of this book contains section-by-section commentary on the book of I John; the second half is essays on the book as a whole and what it says about evangelicals' interactions with various theological concepts--the cross, ecumenicism, Jesus, etc. My husband and I read the commentary portions aloud, and I read the essays on my own, so I suspect that any comparison of the two sections will be more a comparison of the reading methods than a comparison of actual substance. That being said, I think I liked the essays more than the commentary. I think I will have to go back and re-read the commentary portion to make sure, though.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs


A well-presented study on contentment, why it matters, and how to develop it. Burroughs is, I think, at his strongest when he is debunking the various common excuses for discontentment. However, I found The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel--a meditation on the many workings of Providence in our lives and the myriad ways God has blessed us--much more encouraging and more effective at dispelling discontentment in my own life. (Although I confess that may be due at least in part to my preference for Flavel's style.)

A note on this edition: Unfortunately, this is a very poorly edited edition. Typographical and spacing errors abound. If you're going to read this book, I recommend you use a different edition (like the Puritan Paperback edition pictured above).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Venema says there is no way we can be traced back to a single couple. He says with the mapping of the human genome, it's clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population — long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. And given the genetic variation of people today, he says scientists can't get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.

To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says, "You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence."
~"Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve", by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (on NPR.org)

One of my biggest issues with theistic evolution is how it affects the narrative of the Fall.  After all, if we evolved from apes, then was there ever an Adam, an Eve, an apple, a tree, and a serpent?  And if not, how do we account for original sin?  I am also troubled by the effect theistic evolution has on gender roles, but that's a discussion for another day. 

War is over?

[T]he last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years [...] Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.
Armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed. Wars between big national armies all but disappeared along with the Cold War, taking with them the most horrific kinds of mass destruction. Today's asymmetrical guerrilla wars may be intractable and nasty, but they will never produce anything like the siege of Leningrad. The last conflict between two great powers, the Korean War, effectively ended nearly 60 years ago. The last sustained territorial war between two regular armies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, ended a decade ago. Even civil wars, though a persistent evil, are less common than in the past; there were about a quarter fewer in 2007 than in 1990.
If the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that's because there's more information about wars -- not more wars themselves. [...] 'The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence,' [...] today's atrocities [are] mild by historical standards [...]
~"Think Again: War", by Joshua S. Golden

The author makes an excellent point.  I've been watching through The Complete Story of World War I (a documentary from the 1960s), and the death tolls are truly startling.  Hundreds of thousands of men died in battle over single towns.  The deadliest conflicts in history routinely claimed well over 10 million lives.  As deplorable as the casualties of war may be, it certainly seems that the death toll is much lower today than in centuries past.

I don't doubt that our relative peace and the increase in information have made us react more strongly to the deaths we hear about (and we hear about a significant portion of them), but I can't help but wonder:  a) do these figures include genocide, and b) does a decrease in hostilities and casualties now in any guarantee against an increase in the future?  I think not.  And with the technological advances made in the past 100 years, it is quite likely that a large scale conflict in the future would have a devastating effect on the world's population.  We are much more efficient about killing each other now than we ever were--if we ever decide that annihilation is our goal, there's an excellent chance we'll achieve it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke


Really more a four-and-a-half star book. And if the villain had been scarier, it would have been a five star book. The other characters--whether dragon, brownie, homunculus, rat, or human--are all well-drawn and entertaining, and the story is great. The themes of repentance, grace, and redemption run strongly throughout the book, and Twigleg's character in particular has a very compelling story arc. In addition, Funke includes the usual young adult themes of victorious underdogs (don't underestimate the contributions of the little people, or the 'David v. Goliath' trope), cooperation, perseverance, faith, and a hint of ecological responsibility. And it's a surprisingly multiracial for a fantasy story--the human lead is English, as is the professor he meets along the way, but the characters interact with, learn from, and are helped by people of other cultures as well, including Egypt, Pakistan, and the Himalayas.

In their adventures, the travelers (of course) run into all sorts of fantastic creatures--a rok, a basilisk, a djinn, a sea serpent, a sand man, etc. Unfortunately, most of these creatures were much more terrifying and unnerving than the actual villain. However, since they are all limited to specific locales, Funke has to turn elsewhere for a villain who can follow the heroes on their worldwide quest. And the resulting villain, though possessed of a few genuinely creepy attributes, is more bombast and bluster than actual threat. The best villains don't just offer the threat of death; they creep you out. And this villain . . . didn't. (I was reminded strongly of the villain in Disney's Sky High--a lot of self-important speechifying and not a lot to back it up.) Still, it's a great story, and I'm definitely going to give some of Funke's other books a try.

A note about the audiobook: I have listened to quite a few audiobooks , but I have never heard a narrator commit to a reading like Brendan Fraser did here. Many excellent narrators, like Neil Gaiman and Jim Dale, have great voices, and can read a story fairly straight. But very few narrators really jump into the story with unselfconscious glee. Brendan Fraser does just that. Each character has a unique voice, and a unique accent, and he even voices non-verbals and sound effects. I sincerely hope he read to his kids every night; if he does, they are lucky children indeed. He clearly threw himself into this narration with abandon, and it sounds like he had a great time. In fact, I suspect he made the book more amusing and entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I must say I look forward to listening to him narrate other books in the future.

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin


By far the best in the series so far. By sending the two main characters on a lonely voyage over sea, Le Guin eliminates the need for any supporting characters. Indeed, the few people the heroes encounter along the way have been transformed into mere shells of humanity, so Le Guin's tendency to produce two dimensional (or even one-dimensional) supporting characters actually works to her advantage here.

The story, too, is quite compelling--a moving allegorical tale of the danger of pursuing immortality and power and your own self-interest. It has all the elements of good fantasy: dragons, magic, a young prince, an old wizard, strange lands, friendship, loyalty, danger, courage, self-sacrifice. Once again, there are glimpses of Harry Potter, though this time Ged, the young wizard prodigy in A Wizard of Earthsea, is himself the careworn master wizard with a protegee of his own.

I'm still not as blown away by Le Guin as I expected to be, based on her reputation, but I look forward to reading more (after all, I haven't read any of her (many) Nebula and Hugo award winners).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Op Ed for beginners

I recently came across a discussion online about the merits of protecting employees' rights to refuse to perform certain tasks because of their religious beliefs.  It was surprised to see how quickly and summarily the benefits of conscientious objection were dismissed.  So I wrote a response.  This is it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Diversity has its limits

“Conservatives may be self-selecting out of graduate school, but they’re doing it on a rational basis,” he told me. “It’s become clear to them that they’re unlikely to succeed at the same level as someone going into these fields with more socially approved political convictions and attitudes.” They’re discouraged not by a letter from the director of graduate studies but rather by more subtle obstacles blocking the way to tenure, in Dr. Wood’s view. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, he criticized liberal social scientists for failing to heed their own extensive research into bias. [...]

Dr. Yancey, a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, asked more than 400 sociologists which nonacademic factors might influence their willingness to vote for hiring a new colleague. You might expect professors to at least claim to be immune to bias in academic hiring decisions.
But as Dr. Yancey reports in his new book, “Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education,” more than a quarter of the sociologists said they would be swayed favorably toward a Democrat or an A.C.L.U. member and unfavorably toward a Republican. About 40 percent said they would be less inclined to vote for hiring someone who belonged to the National Rifle Association or who was an evangelical. Similar results were obtained in a subsequent survey of professors in other social sciences and the humanities.
Dr. Yancey, who describes himself as a political independent with traditional Christian beliefs and progressive social values, advises nonliberal graduate students to be discreet during job interviews. “The information in this research,” he wrote, “indicates that revealing one’s political and religious conservatism will, on average, negatively influence about half of the search committee one is attempting to impress.”  
[...] If you were a conservative undergraduate, would you risk spending at least four years in graduate school in the hope of getting a job offer from a committee dominated by people who don’t share your views?
You might well select another career for yourself — but you wouldn’t exactly call it self-selection.
~"The Left-Leaning Tower," by John Tierney (in The New York Times)

Oft-turned phrases

Using the Oxford English Corpus, encompassing about two billion words of 21st-century English, Hargraves found peculiar patterns in simple words like the verb “brush.” Everybody talks about brushing their teeth, but other possible companions, like “hair,” “strand,” “lock” and “lip,” appear up to 150 times more frequently in fiction than in any other genre. “Brush” appears near “lips” when two characters’ lips brush against each other or one’s lips brush against another’s cheek — as happens so often in novels. For the hair-related collocations, Hargraves concludes that “fictional characters cannot stop playing with their hair.”
“Bolting upright” and “drawing one’s breath” are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus.
~"The Mechanic Muse: The Jargon of the Novel, Computed," by Ben Zimmer (in The New York Times)

Presumably the study would also reveal the myriad barking dogs in the fictional distance. 

Guilty as charged

As soon it's inevitable that a writer must begin their first word, it becomes (almost) equally and conflictingly inevitable that the writer must do something else really quickly before scribbling breaks out. Hence the kettle. Tell you what, I'll just go and make a fresh beverage, then I'll get down to things properly. Absolutely. Of course I will.
Writers can generate industrial quantities of procrastination before their first sonnet is rejected, or their first novel-outline-plus-sample-chapter is exorcised, burned and its ashes buried at sea. Are my pens facing north? Or magnetic north? What's that funny noise? Oh look, it's raining outside. My fingernails need cutting. I think my computer is going to break, better get it checked. Do I have toothache? Will I have toothache? The possibilities lend new meaning to the words eternity and purgatory.
~"Off-putting Behavior," by Al Kennedy (in the Guardian)

A woman's right to choose?

The presumption is that women pursue reduced or flexible hours because men refuse to take equal responsibility for the children and because the United States does not have “family-friendly policies.” Child care is frequently described as a burden to women, a patriarchal imposition on their ambitions, and a source of profound inequity. But is this attitude accurate? Do women want to be working more, if only the kids—and their useless husbands—would let them? And do we know that more government support would enable them to do so and close the wage gap?
Actually, there is no evidence for either of these propositions. If women work fewer hours than men do, it appears to be because they want it that way. About two-thirds of the part-time workforce in the United States is female. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, only 21 percent of working mothers with minor children want to be in the office full-time. Sixty percent say that they would prefer to work part-time, and 19 percent would like to give up their jobs altogether. For working fathers, the numbers are reversed: 72 percent want to work full-time and 12 percent part-time.
~"Why the Gender Gap Won't Go Away. Ever.", by Kay S. Hymowitz (in City Journal)

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer


Quite enjoyable, especially on audiobook. But then, I am a sucker for Irish accents.

ADDENDUM: The actual book is pretty readable, as young adult books go, but I still think the audiobook is better, if only because of the delicious accents. And really, it's a creative concept--the anti-hero is rarely seen in young adult literature. Artemis Fowl is presented as the villain, but that's really just an opportunity for the reader to watch him grow and develop in a way that a "good guy through and through" simply can't. Artemis' struggle with his own devious desires is more compelling than many an external villain. And Colfer is adept at creating amusing characters, who treat each other with annoyance undergirded by real loyalty and affection. Pretty complex relationships for a children's book, if you think about it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Witches, by Roald Dahl


Not Dahl's best, but still well worth reading. Gruesome, of course (it is Dahl, after all), and a "happy" ending that is unconventional at best. Still, I enjoyed reading it. And "Grandmamma" is one of the strongest adult characters I remember reading in Dahl (who, as a general rule, does not think too highly of grown-ups). Grandmamma is equal to anything, and knows all sorts of things about what's really important, and doesn't care a bit about less important things that so many other grown ups get bent out of shape about (like baths, for example). He writes her as the ideal grown-up, and I think he succeeds. All in all, definitely not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Green Lantern: Secret Origin, by Geoff Johns



A decent enough origin story, though not the best ever. Honestly, it's tough to convince readers that a red-faced, pencil-mustachioed alien named Sinestro, of all things, was ever going to be anything other than a bad guy. The name alone should have been enough to disqualify him from the Green Lantern Corps. Of course, most who read this origin story would already be well aware of Sinestro's destiny, so in all likelihood the unsurprising reveal in future (previous) novels would not detract from their experience.

Hal Jordan doesn't seem the most compelling of characters, at least based on this installment, but perhaps he develops more of a personality once he's been a Green Lantern for a while. In this volume, his primary relevant contribution is to personify the American tendency to challenge authority.

Overall, though, the idea behind Green Lantern mythology is intriguing. Like Superman, the writers rely on an alien race to provide the superpowers necessary for a good superhero--though this time, the weakness is yellow, instead of green. The use of aliens provides a convenient source of opponents and allies, limited only by the authors' imaginations. There is a girl (of course) and she is both strong willed and tough minded yet also tender and devoted (equally of course), and there are plenty of obstacles to keep them apart over many, many volumes.

All in all, not a bad book, and I suspect I will end up reading more about the Green Lantern in the future, which is by no means a bad thing.

The Edge, by Dick Francis


One of my favorite Francis books. Francis trades the typical setting of the English world for the Canadian countryside, as seen by rail. The hero is, as usual, quietly competent and prone to form sudden and inexplicable romantic connections. The bad guy is nefarious, to be sure, but not quite to psychopathic villain that plagues so many of Francis' other books. The mystery here is rather backwards, as well--the hero and his employers know full well who the bad guy is, and they spend the bulk of the book figuring out what exactly he is up to, how to prove it, and how to put a stop to his crimes. As is often the case with Francis' works, I find thinking that it would have made a pretty compelling movie. Definitely a worthwhile way to kill a few hours.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation, by Justo Gonzalez


A surprisingly readable history. Gonzalez is right to title his volume The Story of Christianity, as his style is closer to prose than it is to the usual dry and lifeless writing of most history texts. The organization is a bit confusing at times--not precisely chronological, but grouped by periods and then thematically within the period--but with so many moving pieces, there really isn't a better way to present the information. All in all, it's a great introduction to the history of Christianity, though I suspect it's far from comprehensive.

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. LeGuin


Not a bad book, by any means. Just not . . . amazing. The characters are a bit better drawn in this volume--Ged, Tenar, and even, to a lesser degree, Manan, Kossil, and Penthe have thoughts, feelings, and motivations that are not completely ignored. Unfortunately, the plot is a bit poorly paced. Nothing really happens for the first two-thirds of the book, and then Ged comes along and everything happens all at once . . . and then there's more nothing until the book is over. The bit where stuff is happening is actually pretty good. And it's a testament to LeGuin's writing that even when nothing is going on, the book is still readable. But I doubt it needed to be as long as it was . . . and it wasn't long. It's the second book in a series, and it felt like it--the necessary filler between two points. Still, I've read worse.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Shaking the Nickel Bush, by Ralph Moody


What a disappointing book! After four excellent entries--some of which were truly stellar--I can't believe the sudden drop-off in quality. Allow me to elaborate.


1) Lies, lies lies. Gone is the highly scrupulous Ralph Moody we came to know and love in earlier volumes. His desire to honor his father's passion for honesty, integrity, and forthrightness seems to have disappeared completely, and with no explanation whatsoever. He routinely lies to his mother throughout the book and doesn't object in the slightest when his traveling partner repeatedly steals chickens, "borrows" horses without asking, and otherwise makes free with the belongings of others. While it is certainly true that those raised to be honest sometimes waver in their devotion to the cause, Moody offers no explanation whatsoever for his sudden departure from his family's values.

2) The devil is in the details.

Monday, August 1, 2011

King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard


An excellent story, and a precursor to much of the adventure literature and film that has been so popular for the past hundred years. Although the story itself is devoid of the supernatural elements to justify placement in the fantasy genre, the story itself is reminiscent of the early fantasy stories and undoubtedly influenced the genre. For those who enjoy the adventures of Indiana Jones and his ilk, this is a must-read. Haggard dedicates the story to "all the big and little boys who read it," and he knows how to please his audience. Elephants tear people in two, men kill other men in armed combat, and women function largely to massage the male ego or to provide for man's physical and material needs. The writing is a bit dated--vestiges of racism of the time remain, though in Haggard's case it appears to be the result of foolish ignorance rather than animus. And Quatermain's big-game hunting adventures are rather unsettling in this modern era of Endangered Species Lists and wildlife preservation. Still, it's an important piece historically, and quite enjoyable to boot. Definitely worth reading.