Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Curtains for Three, by Rex Stout


In this collection of short stories, Wolfe and Archie learn that appearances can be deceiving and things are not always what they seem.

In 'The Gun With Wings', an opera singer with an injured throat seems to have committed suicide by eating a bullet. After all, the gun was right there next to him, and who else could have done it? But when the widow swears up and down that the gun wasn't on the floor when she discovered the body. How did it get there? And what really happened?

In 'Bullet for One', the murder victim was shot off his horse when he was out for his daily ride in Central Park. All signs point to Vic Talbot as the murderer, but he has an airtight alibi--two witnesses swear he was in his hotel room across town shortly after the victim was seen by a beat cop, alive and well. Will Wolfe be able to figure out who fired the fatal shot?

In 'Disguise for Murder', things get personal. When Wolfe opens his orchids rooms to the members of the Manhattan Flower Club, a woman winds up strangled ... in Wolfe's own office. Shortly before she died, she told Archie that she'd recognized the man who killed her friend Doris--or, at any rate, the man she saw entering Doris's apartment the day she died. She wouldn't describe him, and she didn't know his name, but she saw him in the orchid rooms, and now she's dead. Wolfe, of course, is deeply insulted that anyone would commit murder in his house, but when Inspector Cramer seals off the office where he spends most of his waking hours, Wolfe is downright incensed, and vows to catch the murderer and make Cramer pay. Which is exactly what he does, even if it means putting Archie in the path of danger.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Martin Luther: In His Own Words, by Martin Luther


A short collection of Luther's works, including the 95 Theses, Luther's Small Catechism, excerpts from Luther's 'Tower Experience', three sermons ('On Faith and Coming to Christ', 'On Confession and the Lord's Supper', and 'On the Office of Preaching'), and Luther's last written words.

I particularly appreciated the opportunity to ingest in full the 95 Theses, which I confess  I had never read. (I know, I know. I'm a terrible Protestant.) They were surprisingly uncontroversial. Which I think I knew, but it was still interesting to hear them and to reflect on how such a mundane non-event morphed into the Reformation. I also really enjoyed Luther's sermon 'On the Office of Preaching', which essentially boiled down to 'once you stop preaching the gospel, you are no longer a preacher, no matter what the Pope says your job title is.'

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sherlock (Season 2)


Sherlock is back, with more cleverly updated and well-executed mysteries. The writers pick up where they left off, with Holmes and Watson facing off against the maniacal Moriarty. Moriarty inexplicably quits the field (or seems to, anyway), and we are once again off and running with new (old) adventures.

The writers wisely selected three of the best-known (and -loved) Sherlock tales to be updated and adapted: 'The Scandal in Bohemia', 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', and 'The Final Problem', in which Holmes and Moriarty face off with disastrous consequences.

Friday, October 26, 2012

How Should Christians Vote?, by Tony Evans


Pastor Tony Evans tackles the timely question: How should Christians vote? I confess I don't know much about Evans--I know he travels in Evangelical circles (and is a chaplain for Dallas's NFL and NBA teams), but as far as I know he is neither a renowned expositor of Scripture nor a student of political theory or philosophy, so it's not terribly surprising that his answer to this question lacks nuance.

Not that he's all wrong. His main point is also his strongest--namely, that Christians should be less concerned with loyalty to any particular party and more concerned with loyalty to God and His Word.  Drawing on his love of sports, Evans compares Democrats and Republicans to the opposing teams on a football field, and exhorts Christians to identify not with either 'team', but with the referees who decide which team 'wins' on various issues at various times. It's not the greatest metaphor, to be sure, but encouraging Christians to let go of party loyalty and start thinking in terms of what God's position is on a particular issue is by no means a bad thing. So far, so good.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
For the Wachowkis, the unifying theme of the stories is a sense of community and human connectedness. I was struck, however, by the portrayal of injustice as a universal experience. In each story, an injustice is being committed, and in each story, the characters involved must decide how to respond to that injustice. Some characters choose selfishness; others engage with circumstances in an attempt to bring about justice. So the fabricant/clone, when confronted with the horrible fate inflicted en masse on others like herself, chooses to take a stand in defense of those whom society as deemed ‘less than human’ and thus undeserving of basic human rights, or even life itself. This decision proves costly, yet the film clearly embraces the sacrifice of self for the pursuit of justice as honorable and right. This idea of self-sacrifice for the sake of justice recurs across several story lines—a young lawyer helps an escaped slave; a freedom fighter saves a helpless girl; a man risks his life to help the daughter of a friend; a woman risks her life for truth and to save thousands, perhaps millions; and a man undertakes a dangerous journey in exchange for a cure for a sick girl. In two of the story lines, this theme is rather muddled, as the victim and the savior are the same person, and, in one story, the perceived solution to the injustice is apparently self-salvation through suicide. 
Regardless of whether we agree with the means used to combat injustice—or even with the filmmakers’ characterization of certain events and actions as unjust—this experience of injustice makes an excellent theme, for it is common to all. If there is any universal constant in a fallen world, it is injustice.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the Best Families, by Rex Stout


It starts with a seemingly simple chore: find out where a certain married man is getting his sizable income. But one package of tear gas and a dead dog later (along with a murder, of course), and Wolfe finds himself pitted against the powerful super-villain Arnold Zeck. There's no doubt about it--Wolfe is in a deep hole with only one way out. So he flees. Leaves the house, leaves the orchids, arranges for new jobs for his cook Fritz and his orchid nurse Theodore. The house is offered for sale. And Archie ... Archie is given only one instruction: 'Do not look for me.'

Monday, October 22, 2012

We the Underpeople, by Cordwainer Smith


This collection includes five short stories and one full-length novel by Cordwainer Smith, all of which take place in his Instrumentality of Mankind universe and involve 'underpeople'--humanoid creatures derived from animals for the purpose of completing various menial and/or skilled tasks. These underpeople look like human beings, more or less (some retain certain animalian features--noses, whiskers, unusual size, etc.) and have enhanced mental abilities, but at root they are still dogs, cats, bulls, birds, and so on and think accordingly. They are also treated accordingly--that is, treated like animals. And in many cases, worse than animals, for there are rules against caring for sick or injured underpeople; it is easier--and more economically sensible--to just destroy them.

This universe, then, is peopled by true humans, who now have pretty much nothing to do other than run the political worlds (and even that is done only by a few powerful individuals). The underpeople (and robots--there must always be robots) handle almost all the tasks, chores, and other jobs that need doing. Coupled with the complete victory of medical science over illness and the discovery of the life-lengthening drug 'stroon', this means that people live a standard 400 years completely free from danger, hardship, illness, or anything else that might impede their happiness. In fact, they're so consistently happy that they're dying of boredom and misery. Meanwhile, the underpeople are becoming increasingly self-aware and are uniting in an effort to establish their rights.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Champagne for One, by Rex Stout


It's just a fancy charity dinner for unwed mothers--what's the worst that could happen? Archie, roped into attending at the last minute as a favor for a sick friend, is about to find out. When one of the unwed mothers drops dead after sipping some cyanide-laced champagne, the police are ready to call it suicide. After all, the girl had cyanide with her, in her purse, and had threatened to kill herself with it in the past. But Archie saw the whole things, and he's positive the girl was murdered (much to the consternation of Inspector Cramer and company). Wolfe is dragged in when the unwed father in question (who just so happened to be at the dinner) hires the brilliant detective to catch the real killer before the police uncover his connection to the murdered girl. But who could have done it? She had no friends, no boyfriends, no social life to speak of ... yet someone cared enough about her to want her dead.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Prisoner's Base, by Rex Stout


Under normal circumstances, a woman showing up on Wolfe's door looking for a place to stay would be unceremoniously bounced. But if the woman shows up when Wolfe and Archie are in the middle of a standoff, she may end up being escorted inside so Archie can use her to antagonize his employer. The situation is complicated when someone else tries to hire Wolfe to find a missing heiress (the same young lady who just so happens to be upstairs in the South Room). Wolfe's self esteem won't let him accept a fee for finding something that he already has, so he ejects the young woman and gives her a twelve-hour head start before he'll come looking for her. Within three hours, the young woman is dead. Archie feels pretty rotten about the whole situation (having essentially sent the woman to her doom), and vows to catch the murderer, even if means working with--or even for--the police. Which leads to a rather unusual situation: Wolfe takes the case, with Archie as his client.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
[...] Both Mary and Colin start out as selfish, unpleasant children. They are rotten little beasts, in a way that the protagonists of children’s books are rarely permitted to be. It’s actually kind of refreshing. As a child, I remember identifying more strongly with the willful and autocratic Mary than I ever did with more angelic storybook children. 
The cure for this rottenness turns out to be, well, each other. [...] Until he meets Mary, Colin has never encountered anyone willing—or able—to stand up to him. Mary is impervious to his tantrums and refuses to cosset him when he’s engaged in a neurotic fit. In Colin, Mary sees what she used to be (and what, in many ways, she still is). She realizes that the things that helped her be less awful might have a similar affect on Colin, and so, for the first time in her life, she decides to do something for the benefit of another. 
In many ways, this is a rather upside-down example of ‘iron sharpening iron.’ (Proverbs 27:12) Rather than spurring one another on to good deeds, Colin’s sinful selfishness bumps into Mary’s sinful selfishness, and in order to get on together, they each learn to abandon their respective egos (at least to some degree) and become better, happier children in the bargain. And there’s certainly some practical truth to this. When we see our sins reflected in others, we get a better picture of just how awful and ugly our sins really are. And experiencing the practical consequences of our sin (like broken relationships) can certainly motivate us to behave ourselves better. 
But despite Burnett’s optimistic view of human relationships, the changes resulting from our interactions with others and with the world around us are, at best, external changes. Other people can’t change our hearts. The only way we can actually be transformed from rotten sinners into ‘good children’ is through the saving work of Jesus Christ. [...]
Full review available here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Might as Well Be Dead, by Rex Stout


James R. Harold is looking for his long-lost son. The Missing Persons Bureau thinks it's a hopeless case, but that doesn't stop them from referring Harold to Wolfe (mostly so they can watch Wolfe stub his toe on it). And it certainly seems like a fairly impossible task. Paul Harold is a veritable needle in the haystack that is New York City. But as it turns out, finding him is easy. Overturning his recent conviction for first-degree murder, on the other hand--that will be a challenge. But Wolfe is determined to do just that. Convinced that Paul (now known as Peter) was framed, Wolfe sets out to find the real murderer. However, his job is complicated by the fact that Paul/Peter won't lift a finger to help himself. Meanwhile, every time Wolfe unearths a hint, he runs headlong into yet another murder--and one of Wolfe's own employees winds up a victim! (Don't worry, it's not Saul. Or Fred.) Which is great news for Paul/Peter, since he's been in prison this whole time and can't very well have done it. But who is the real killer? And will Wolfe find him before he commits yet another murder?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Radical Question and A Radical Idea, by David Platt


Two books in one. Or rather, two pamphlets in one, since each 'book' is only about 50 pages long, and with dimensions of approximately 4" by 6", we're not talking big pages.

In the first 'book', The Radical Question, Platt asks his readers 'What is Jesus worth to you?' He looks at some of the hard teachings of Christ--Luke 9:57-62; John 6:53; Luke 14:26-27, 33; Luke 18:22--and uses them to illustrate how the modern Christian's devotion to Christ is, essentially, weak sauce. In contrast, he describes his experiences with the persecuted church in other countries, and the risks those Christians take for the sake of the gospel. He then looks to Christ and, using the parable of the great pearl, asks his readers if Christ isn't worth sacrificing everything for. I suspect this is, in effect, a summary version of Platt's first book, Radical.

The second 'book' is directed less at individual Christians and more at churches. Platt admonishes churches not to get wrapped up in things like fancy buildings and church-run programs and ministries, but to focus on equipping church members to do ministry in their communities. Again, Platt relies heavily on his many international experiences, but this time they are illustrations of what a church really is. A church, he argues, is not a building, but a people. And it is the Word of God, not programs or highly polished worship services, that can draw people to Christ. To Platt's way of thinking, we need to stop asking 'professionals' to do everything and instead turn things over to the laity. This will, in turn, allow the church to have a greater impact in the world (for the simple reason that having hundreds of lay 'ministers' making disciples will necessarily produce greater results than a few professional ministers doing the same). This appears to be a summary of Platt's earlier book, Radical Together.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
From the minds of geek favorite Joss Whedon and frequent Whedon (and Abrams) collaborator Drew Goddard comes this delightfully comedic (yet nonetheless horrific) send-up of the slasher genre. Whedon, fed up with the modern trend toward ‘torture porn’, describes this film as a ‘loving hate letter’ to the horror genre. The Cabin in the Woods is equal parts thrilling, horrifying, smart, gross, hilarious, visually impressive, and incisive. [...] 
Longtime Whedon fans will be pleased to see actors Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) on the big screen—Kranz in particular is a joy to watch as a perpetually stoned and, as it turns out, justifiably paranoid pothead. For me, however, the high point of the film was Bradley Whitford, who won my heart in the hilarious-but-short-lived (and, for reasons unclear to me, still unavailable on DVD) series The Good Guys, and who is utterly delightful here as a callous, arrogant technician at the forefront of the assault on the unfortunate college students.

As I’ve said, this movie is smart, fun, and totally worth checking out; but be warned, it is a horror flick. Awful, gory, disturbing things happen to each and every one of the college students (among others), so if you’re squeamish and/or prefer to avoid excessively violent films, then this is likely not the movie for you. That being said, I do think the film provides some (likely unintentional) commentary on the gospel.
Full review available here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Black Orchids, by Rex Stout


This one's actually a twofer. In the first novella ('Black Orchids'), an obnoxious young gardener is murdered at a flower show, where Nero Wolfe just happens to be on hand, having made one of his once-in-a-blue-moon excursions out of doors to ogle the world's only black orchids, which are on display at the show. Fortunately, the owner of these precious plants--fellow orchid aficionado and millionaire Lewis Hewitt, a familiar face to Wolfe fans--wants Wolfe to solve the murder (and keep Hewitt's name out of the papers). Wolfe is, of course, happy to oblige, provided Hewitt pays him a handsome fee. And in this case, the only fee that will satisfy our corpulent genius detective is three extremely rare flowers. But if he wants to keep them, he has to earn them, and that means figuring out who killed the gardener, and fast.

The second story ('Cordially Invited to Meet Death') involves the black orchids only tangentially. A prominent-but-eccentric party-planner hires Wolfe to figure out who's been sending nasty anonymous letters about her. However, before Wolfe can really dive into the case, his client dies of tetanus poisoning, and her brother is certain she was murdered. Wolfe sends flowers to the funeral--black orchids, no less--but claims to be both uninvolved and uninterested in the death of his client. But when Inspector Cramer commits an egregious (and insulting) blunder--at least according to Wolfe's standards--Wolfe decides that it is on, and is bound and determined to solve the case before Cramer. That'll learn him.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

And Be a Villain, by Rex Stout


Wolfe needs money. After all, those orchids don't pay for themselves. So, in a virtually unprecedented move, he actually solicits a job. Well-known radio host Madeline Fraser is in a pickle. During each broadcast of her hugely successful radio show, she and her various guests indulge in a bottle of Hi-Spot (a show sponsor). It's a big hit with the sponsor and the public. Until, that is, radio guest Cyril Orchard winds up drinking a big ol' glass of cyanide . . . on the air. The police are at a loss. Not only do they not know who killed Mr. Orchard; they don't even know if he was the intended victim or was just the inadvertent victim of a plot to kill Ms. Fraser herself! Now Wolfe's financial needs have landed him in the middle of it all--radio broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors, and the New York City Police Department. Will he be able to unravel this unholy tangle and earn his fee?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

If Death Ever Slept, by Rex Stout


A clash of wills between Wolfe and Archie (compounded by mutual fits of stubbornness) results in Archie masquerading as a secretary in the home of millionaire Otis Jarrell-- a situation that neither Wolfe nor Archie relishes overmuch. Officially, Jarrell hired them to prove that his daughter-in-law stole (and sold) business secrets. But when Jarrell's gun turns up missing and his previous secretary winds up with a hole in the back of his head, the case rapidly escalates into a full-fledged murder investigation. But who done it? And with a house full of suspects with ample motive, means, and opportunity, how will Wolfe ever find the culprit?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South Before You Die (and the Recipes That Made Them Famous), by Chris Chamberlain


One glance at the rather unwieldy subtitle of this book will tell you precisely what it is.  Nashville food writer Chris Chamberlain presents a collection of short write-ups of, well, 100 noteworthy restaurants scattered across 13 Southern states. Chamberlain doesn't limit himself to the pricey, big name, world-famous establishments--in fact, there are precious few such restaurants included here. Instead, he focuses on the relatively unknown gems; there's many a locally famous dive or inexpensive diner tucked into these pages. Or at least, I assume they're inexpensive. Chamberlain doesn't really include information about prices--not even a $, $$, $$$, and $$$$ designation to help out those of us who might have to adjust our dining plans to fit our budgets. He does provide website information, where applicable, which may include a more detailed menu complete with prices. Still, it seems a shame to force readers to consult outside sources in order to ascertain something that would be quite simple to include, especially since it's by no means unheard of to provide such information in a book like this.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Murder by the Book, by Rex Stout


Who is Baird Archer? The police can't find anyone who's ever met him, talked to him, or seen him. As far as anyone can figure, he doesn't exist. The police--and Nero Wolfe--only know two things: (1) a manuscript ostensibly written by Baird Archer was submitted to and rejected by a New York publisher, and (2) everyone who's ever read the manuscript is now dead. First, there was Leonard Dikes, a clerk at a law firm, who had the name 'Baird Archer' written on a scrap of paper in his apartment. He washed up drowned. Then there was Joan Wellman, who worked for the publishing company and who read and rejected the novel. She was run over by a car. Then there was Rachel Abrams, who was hired to type up the manuscript. She was choked and thrown out a window.  But who did it? And why? And what was in that manuscript that was worth killing for? Wolfe is determined to find out, if he has to spend every last penny of his client's money to do it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
For Lovecraft, the world is a horrible place, full of hidden knowledge and dark forces. The human race stands on the brink of disaster, and the only thing keeping us all from panic and despair is ignorance of our true circumstances. [...] 
For Christians, there is a kernel of truth hidden among the nihilistic weeds of Lovecraft’s worldview. We know that there is a powerful enemy set on the destruction and domination of mankind. [...] “His craft and power are great, / and, armed with cruel hate on earth is not his equal.”  [...] If we truly understood our predicament, we would cower in hopeless terror before the forces of darkness, as millions before us have done.

Lovecraft is not wrong about our situation. He sees something that we all too often miss. He understands the problem—we are opposed by ancient, malevolent beings who want nothing more than to completely enslave and obliterate the human race, and we are powerless to defend ourselves. 
But for Christians, that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, by Jonathan Leeman


Jonathan Leeman is back (well, not back, exactly--Church Discipline and this book were published on the same day), and this time he's making the case for formal church membership. Of course, he's on shakier ground here; discipline is commanded in a way that membership simply ... isn't. And Leeman admits as much. Instead, he uses Scripture to define the church and then uses that definition to support his claim that formal membership is a functional requirement. Not that membership looks the same everywhere; Leeman freely acknowledges that in some places (most notably where the church is actively persecuted), written membership rolls may be unwise, even dangerous. But membership still exists and is, according to Leeman, still necessary.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer


Things have come to a pretty pass at Darracott Place. Following the unexpected death of Lord Darracott's eldest son and grandson in 1817, the family is horrified to learn that the title and the (admittedly ill-funded and rather run-down) estate will pass to a previously unknown cousin, Hugo--a Darracott, in a manner of speaking, but also a former soldier, and the son of a Yorkshire weaver's daughter. Still, Lord Darracott hasn't given up completely. He's counting on his spinster granddaughter Anthea (she is twenty-two, after all) to teach the commoner a thing or too ... and if the low-born imbecile can be bullied into marrying her, thereby preserving some measure of the Darracott line, so much the better. But when the rather enormous Hugo (hence the Ajax reference) arrives on the scene, the family doesn't know what to make of him. He is unfailingly good-natured and amiable in the face of his cousin Vincent's cutting remarks, and he genially resists his cousin Claud's attempts to improve his fashion and eradicate his appalling Yorkshire dialect (much to the chagrin of both). But there may be more to the seemingly stolid Hugo than meets the eye. Meanwhile, the local Riding Officer is closing in on a band of smugglers, and he suspects some of the local gentry may be aiding and abetting their activities. Lord Darracott, outraged by the extortionate tax rates, is certainly sympathetic to the smugglers. But Hugo suspects that young Richmond--Anthea's brother, whose desire to join the army has been repeatedly thwarted by his grandfather--may be doing more than just sympathizing. Will the Darracott heir be able to win Anthea's heart and save the family from ruin?

In other words, it's a sort of Downton Abbey redux. Except this was published in 1959, so I guess that makes Downton Abbey an Unknown Ajax redux. (The commoner-becomes-heir part, not the smuggling part.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Expendables 2 (2012)


[NOTE: For purposes of this review, all characters will be referred to by the actor's name. Because come on. Who are we kidding?]

Stallone, Statham, and company are back for another round of bloody, high-octane adventures. This time, Bruce Willis is calling in a favor and sending the team off to Albania to retrieve the super-secret contents of a safe in a downed plane. Sounds easy, right? Well, it would be ... if JCVD and his team of baddies weren't poised to snatch the goods from Our Intrepid Heroes. And, to make sure we get the 'villain' message loud and clear, he kicks a puppy, punches a kitten, and mercilessly--and unnecessarily--murders the New Guy, thereby ensuring that the Expendables must Make Him Pay. It turns out that the super-secret safe contained the location of massive Cold War stores of plutonium. Which means JCVD and his Delorean can now terrorize both the past AND future to his heart's content. Just kidding--but he can sell serious nuclear power to some shady characters. Oh, and terrorize and enslave a bunch of poor Albanian villagers (of course). Unless Stallone and his posse (and the obligatory Hot Chick) can save the day, that is. Can they?