Tuesday, October 30, 2007

THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman

I had heard nothing but good things about The Golden Compass, so I was disappointed when it started off slow and got progressively worse.

Lyra is not a sympathetic character. She gets by lying to and manipulating anyone she can. Conveniently, many characters in the book are one-dimensional enough that she never has any real difficulty, despite the narrator's efforts to convince us otherwise. Can't a kid ever be a main character and be the hero by doing the right thing and not breaking the rules?

Philip Pullman is a more than competent writer, but the story fails to grab. Lyra has the Midas touch – whatever she decides to do in a given situation always works. There's no real suspense. Plus we get arbitrary, unfounded declarations like "Oh, what if, for no real reason whatsoever besides the fact that the bad guys think the Dust is bad, the Dust is really good after all?" No doubt she'll turn out to be right.

The Golden Compass has intense action and complex, adult themes. So what, exactly, makes it a children's book? Because the main character is a child? Or because children are less likely to pick up on all the book's contrived and unlikely happenings?

The combination of magic and theology has great potential, and is underused in fantasy literature in general, but it doesn't work here. This book is a theological train wreck. The neo-Catholic Church is bad. God is bad. The Church manufactures doctrine based on the latest scientific discoveries. Original sin is to be eliminated by human works (which would have to involve killing God).

Christian conservatives rant and rave about Harry Potter and its allegedly insidious messages, there's been little fuss from any Christian group besides the Catholics on Pullman's overt anti-Christianity. Why?

The Golden Compass came highly recommended, but I wasn't impressed with its story or its message. The other books in the series, with their homosexual angels and decrepit god, I will not be reading.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett

This is a review of the text of the play, not of any particular performance of it. I picked up Waiting for Godot with no knowledge of it other than having heard that it was a play in which not a whole lot happened.

Literary types have concocted political, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, biblical and homoerotic (and many other) interpretations of the play. I am not interested in any particular interpretation, for this reason: the play is extremely boring. By the middle of the second act, every last aspect of the play is tiresome. It's billed as "a tragicomedy in two acts." That's great, except it's not funny at all.

This play's influence on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is obvious, except that that play held the interest a little better and actually offered some philosophical insight on life.

Waiting for Godot goes into the category of works that people (pretentious literary snobs and pretentious literary posers) say are so deep and meaningful because they don't have the slightest idea of what it means. I'll be a man and say it's not deep and it's not interesting.


Monday, October 15, 2007

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I picked up On Writing because you can't do it much bigger than Stephen King has. Most books on writing are by grammarmongers or literary types, and I was interested to get the perspective of a writer of popular fiction. Previously, I'd only skimmed through Terry Brooks's Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, but I don't think Terry Brooks is a very good writer, so that was the end of that.

Half the book is King's autobiography, and he focuses on the points in his life that he feels helped shape him as a writer. I felt like I didn't need most of this, although it was nice to know even Stephen King worked at some terrible jobs before he made it big. Those reading this book just for the writing lesson, and who care not for Stephen King, can skip this whole section, although there are some interesting tidbits on the publishing process.

King's points are several. The two keys to good writing, he says, are mastery of the fundamentals and hard work. A good writer should write all the time and read all the time. I agree with this.

King's strategy for writing is this: to come up with a foundational situation, not worry about the plot, and make it up as you go. There certainly is something to be said for this kind of writing, and it has a very romantic ideal, but I think this also explains why quite a few of King's otherwise-amazing novels have lame, deus ex machina endings.

On Writing is written in King's distinctive, conversational, foul-mouthed style, which is just as engaging in non-fiction, although he runs a bit long-winded at times. The book is pretty short, though, and it's a fairly quick read.

I can't say I learned anything new about writing, but I did have some concepts reinforced (like don't use dialogue attributions), and it was nice to hear it from the most popular novelist of our time.

King says you can't make a good writer great, and you can't make a terrible writer competent, but you can make a competent writer good. If that's you, then to you this book might just be


Monday, October 8, 2007

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

And so we revisit the official novel of high school English, the only F. Scott Fitzgerald most people will ever read. Does it live up to the hype? It's in the highest category of literature where no book can.

The novel concerns a number of extremely rich people, all of whom feel unloved and all of whom are unfulfilled. Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, the main character, we see these characters' destruction like a slow-motion, 180-page train wreck. To a limited degree, the reader is also sucked into this amoral morass.

I also note that there are some obvious similarities in the endings between this book and Sunset Boulevard, which was of course written later.

Fitzgerald was unquestionably a talented writer, and quite often his imagery and metaphors are excellent. However, here and there the reader gets the feeling that he's trying too hard, as sentences and phrases come across as stilted or contrived.

So what does The Great Gatsby do for us today? No real redemption occurs here for any of the characters (this is different from a happy ending; I'm not complaining because it doesn't have a happy ending). Certainly it is a cautionary tale against materialism, but no hope is ever presented for any of the characters.

I wanted to bump this to 4 stars/recommended, but I couldn't in good conscience do it.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

THE CHILD HEART by Louis and Carol Gordon and Kathryn Butler Turner

Louis and Carol Gordon are the founders of a ministry called Heart Menders. Their "strength is revelation from God about unhealed 'child heart' hurts."

According to the book, the way this works is this: pretty much absolutely everyone has wounds that have not healed from things they have suffered in the past: feelings of inferiority, insecurity, stubbornness, fear, self-pity, pride, negativity, and so forth. One of the areas of emphasis for Heart Menders is dysfunctional families, where these feelings can occur prevalently. The message is that people can be healed through forgiveness, repentance, becoming "child-like", and "redefining ourselves through the Word."
For more information, visit www.heartmenders.org.

At its core, it seems to me that the underlying issue here is sanctification. Each Christian has different aspects of himself that he has issues with. Some areas are submitted fully to the Lord; others are problematic. Taking Jesus' metaphor from John 15, these areas are the ones that not only do not produce fruit, they cause us all manner of pain and difficulty. As we allow Jesus to take over these areas, and as we become higher-quality Christians, we are freed from hurts that, while not self-inflicted at the start, become so because we are unable to let them go and move on. In other words, if somebody stabs me with a knife, that's one thing, but it's quite another if I never take it out. So we have here an emphasis on sanctification's earthly, immediate purpose, which is a relatively neglected aspect of it, I think. In essence, this book advocates sanctification for quality of life. Which is absolutely fine.

This book comes to us from deep within Charismaticland. Which is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. At any rate, there are some very questionable and eyebrow-raising theological points made, which I will not go into because they are, for the most part, beside the point of the book. The baby to bathwater ratio here is well within acceptable parameters.

This is not a particularly well-written book. These people are in ministry; they are not professional writers. That's fine. I understand that. But this is the kind of book where someone like me has to push past all the excessive and unnecessary bolds, capitalizations, exclamation points, and use of the King James.

The principles in this book are, for the most part, sound. Unfortunately, the quality of the book is not.


Saturday, October 6, 2007

LOOK BACK IN ANGER by John Osborne

Look Back in Anger is an autobiographical play by John Osborne. The main character is Jimmy, a miserable young man. He rants and raves through the entire play, verbally abusing everyone he comes in contact with and taking delight in making them miserable as well. He has no redeeming characteristics at all (unless one wants to say he is "honest" with his feelings), and ranges from detestable to pathetic (his lame attempts at "bears and squirrels" cutesy talk with his wife, for example).

Why is he so angry? How is it that such a person has not one but two women fall in love with him and leave all for his sake? What is the point of people sitting through this? Apparently, none of these questions require more than superficial explanation.

A number of elements in the play feel contrived. I understand that for the stage you have limitations, but here we have a friend of the family hooking it up with Jimmy not five minutes after his wife leaves him. Sure, okay.

Contrary to what many reviewers of Osborne's day claimed, The dialogue is sub-par and stilted. Every character continually shares his innermost feelings in a hostile environment where they are constantly belittled.

Every character in the book is miserable on some level. No doubt this was extremely cathartic for Osborne, but it's just unpleasant for everybody else.


Friday, October 5, 2007


Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and I did not get off on the right foot. He was in my doghouse immediately with his "Rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. Hence music of this type must be excluded from the Church on principle."

From there he started to work his way back a little with his iron-fisted unwillingness to pander to other religions and to the spiritually relativistic. I kind of liked the last pope (the friendly one), and I'm warming up to this pope (the mean one).

JESUS OF NAZARETH is, in his own words, Benedict's "personal search for the face of the Lord." This is part one, and covers Jesus' life from his Baptism to the Transfiguration; part two will cover the infancy narratives and post-Transfiguration. Benedict wanted to get this out in case he died in the meantime, and says as much in his foreword.

The book, seventy years in the making, is part commentary, part exegesis. While it is not ponderous or dry, it does assume a certain degree of scholarship and familiarity with the Gospels on the part of the reader. Something I particularly appreciate is how Benedict picks out certain nuances from different Evangelists, focusing on their unique themes. Benedict is, as one might expect, a fairly conservative theologian; there is not a whiff of liberal scholarship here. Nor is there more than token Catholic theology to which a Protestant such as I might take offense, and it does not detract at all.

The book covers Jesus' baptism, the temptations of Jesus, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the disciples, parables, the principal images of John's gospel, Peter's confession and the Transfiguration, and the identity of Jesus.

In the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount, Benedict discusses the Beatitudes, the Torah of the Messiah ("You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…, the dispute concerning the Sabbath, the Fourth Commandment, and compromise and prophetic radicalism). Interesting insight here on Jesus as the new Moses. The Lord's Prayer he breaks down line by line. In his discussion of parables, he discusses their nature and purpose, and covers the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son (which he re-terms "The parable of the two brothers (the prodigal son and the son who remained at home) and the good father"), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In his chapter on John, he focuses on the imagery of water, vine/wine, bread, and the shepherd. In his chapter on Jesus' identity, Benedict covers "Son of Man", "Son", and "I Am".

I did not get far into this book before I started to get excited about it. There is interesting, insightful commentary on every page. It should go without saying, I suppose, since he's the pope, but the expertise here is refreshing, as are the solid hermeneutics and the utter lack of anything stupid. The reader gets the sense that this is personal for Benedict, not just for scholarship's sake, but because he is as deeply interested as we in what he finds.