Monday, December 20, 2010

THE MEASURE OF A MAN by Gene A. Getz


The Measure of a Man is a 1974 book on Christian living by Gene A. Getz. Here, Getz briefly explores twenty criteria for godly character listed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Paul was writing with respect to church leaders, and Getz is specifically addressing men, but the principles here are for all Christians.

In The Measure of a Man, Getz has devoted one chapter to each of Paul’s twenty criteria. These are short chapters: three to six pages discussing the characteristic followed by a couple pages of self-evaluation questions and ways to improve. What Getz has to say is generally good, but brief; it’s enough to make the open-minded reader consider his behavior, but for serious growth in most any of these areas, the reader will want to move on to other, more in-depth resources, and perhaps, in some cases, counseling.

Theologically, The Measure of a Man is has no major red flags. Getz has obvious fundamentalist/Pentecostal beliefs, but there’s nothing discussed here that should turn off  Christians of other flavors. And since nothing here is explored in terribly great depth, the book’s ecumenical appeal is undamaged.

The Measure of a Man is a short, fast read that should, at the least, inspire some self-reflection in any Christian who’s honest with himself.

RECOMMENDED

Monday, December 13, 2010

ALAS, BABYLON by Pat Frank



Alas, Babylon is a 1959 novel by Pat Frank. Centering on the inhabitants of a small Florida town, it chronicles the events leading up to, during and following a full-scale nuclear war.

In this, one of the original nuclear apocalypse stories, Frank does a good job working through the premise, and while the novel gets off to something of a slow start, Frank keeps the pages turning. He’s primarily concerned with the requirements for immediate survival, and he does an adequate job on this front.

The biggest knock on Alas, Babylon is Frank’s writing, which often feels amateurish. Showing a distinct distrust of the reader, he regularly belabors his audience with overly-detailed descriptions of people and things, and constantly puts artificial, expository dialogue in the mouths of his characters. Frank also skips or rushes through a number of important scenes. That the 2005 Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of this novel is riddled with typos doesn’t help matters.

The second-biggest knock on Alas, Babylon is the severe degree to which Frank underestimates the effect of radiation, both in regard to population survival and post-nuclear ecology. This creates both an unusually large number of survivors and a sound reliance on fishing and agriculture only months after the war. It doesn’t ruin the book, but it’s rather jarring.

With his focus on immediate survival, Frank tends to avoid looking at the long-term ramifications altogether – his characters aren’t particularly interested in them, either. Instead he implies that over time, humanity in general and the United States in particular will recover, and even restore themselves to where they were. Frank suggests a purely secular hope for humanity that feels extremely shallow.

On the whole, Frank does a solid job of working through the apocalypse, and the story overcomes its flaws enough that Alas, Babylon is a thoroughly readable if not particularly wonderful novel.

RECOMMENDED

Thursday, December 2, 2010

MIRACLES by C. S. Lewis



Miracles, originally published in 1947 and revised in 1960, is a book on Christian apologetics by C. S. Lewis. Using philosophical and logical arguments, Lewis asserts that man’s ability to reason proves that something (God) exists beyond Nature. From here he goes on to argue that this God (he assumes it’s the Christian God) can and has in fact done miracles.

This is a short book, but it can be tough. Readers without logical or philosophical training, no matter how intelligent, may quickly become lost, especially early. The reader may at this point decide to either give up or just take Lewis’s word for it.

Lewis’s arguments aren’t always airtight – he’s always been prone to let his arguments come down to “A versus B” without allowing for the possibility of  “C” – but he always talks a good game and is usually able to get through the weak spots on wit and readability. And so, for the most part, it is here, the more inscrutable parts of the work notwithstanding.

Miracles is hardly Lewis’s most accessible work, and it seems unlikely to persuade too many atheists, but it’s worth a read for anyone interested in a logical or philosophical approach to Christian apologetics.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

STAR WARS ART: VISIONS


Star Wars Art: Visions is a 2010 collection of Star Wars-themed art. George Lucas asked a “select group of great contemporary artists, of many different genres and styles, to create interpretations of Star Wars” (p. 9), and this is the result.

In short, Star Wars Art: Visions is a diverse collection of fan art (mostly paintings) by an impressive collection of artists that includes Alex Ross, H. R. Giger, Moebius, Gene Colan, and Julie Bell and Boris Vallejo. There’s a nice range of styles here, too, from traditional dramatic paintings to anime to art deco. In total, there’s about 140 pages of art.

As this collection is really just glorified fan art, rather than concept art, it isn’t quite as interesting as it might otherwise have been. For Star Wars devotees, though, it’s a must, and it’s certainly worth a look from casual fans as well.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.



A Canticle for Leibowitz is a 1959 science fiction novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; it won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel. In the centuries after a nuclear holocaust, a monastic order works to preserve the remnants of scientific knowledge as civilization rebuilds. The book is comprised of three parts, essentially novellas, which take place in the 26th, 32nd, and 38th centuries, respectively.

Miller’s themes are prominent, and will be obvious to even the casual reader. Primarily, there is recurrence: Miller’s novel spans so many hundreds of years because he is setting up a cyclical history for humanity, and the periods of his story reflect the focus and worldview of different historical eras. And there is the timeless issue of church versus state and faith versus reason: Miller’s future generations explore the same theological and moral issues humanity has wrestled with all along.

Many books in the postapocalyptic genre, when confronted with the issue of religion, dismiss, punt, or avoid entirely. But Miller addresses religion thoughtfully, respectfully, and satisfyingly. He focuses specifically on Catholicism, but his issues and points are applicable to Christianity broadly.  

Miller’s story unfolds rather slowly, and the casual reader may wonder what the point is, exactly, of the book’s first two sections in particular. Admittedly, they aren’t always interesting on their own (particularly part two). But they are necessary to set up the book’s finale, and they are a key part of the Miller’s bigger picture.

A Canticle for Leibowitz’s third section is superior, not only because it features the culmination of Miller’s buildup, but because it has an excellent protagonist. In part one, “Fiat Homo,” the bumbling Brother Francis is carried along by circumstances that develop the story with little force of his own. Part two, “Fiat Lux,” neglects character focus and is instead a rather obvious struggle between the church and secular science. But in “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” Abbot Zerchi is both a principal actor upon the story and a grounded, strong and well-rounded Christian figure, and he is eminently realistic. He is Miller’s best character, and gives the book’s conclusion some vital punch.

In the end, A Canticle for Leibowitz is an always thoughtful and occasionally poignant look at the history, struggles and prospects of humanity.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan



The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a 2009 young-adult zombie novel by Carrie Ryan. Generations after a zombie apocalypse, in an isolated, fortified village, Mary, a newly-orphaned teenager, strives to discover what is beyond the walls.

A good zombie story isn’t about the zombies; Ryan understands that very well. She does a good job of focusing on her characters’ feelings and emotions, and appropriately treats the horde as setting. She isn’t afraid to embrace the gory side of things, either, and she never gets carried away. The foundation is definitely here for a quality story.

The problem is the protagonist: Mary is a huge ball of hormones and self-pity. Yes, a lot of bad things happen to her, but she spends an inordinate amount of time feeling sorry for herself, pining after either her lost mother or the lost love she never had a chance with (which the reader knows is going to happen anyway), and the first-person narrative makes it worse. Whatever sympathy the reader generates for her on the death of her mother is used up in a hurry, and based on the way she acts, it’s hard to imagine that either of her love interests would want to bother with her – but of course, they do.

Religion plays an important role in Ryan’s tale, since the village is more or less a theocracy, and early on, Mary says that she has stopped believing in God. The religion of the village is strongly implied to be Christianity, but it is a knowledge-stifling, Middle Ages kind of stern and loveless Christianity. Granted, one doesn’t expect traditional beliefs to survive a zombie cataclysm (which would certainly challenge the faith of many), but it feels like Ryan has an axe to grind against religion, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The book is written in the present tense, which does nothing for it. The narrative takes a few shortcuts, and Ryan’s not afraid of some convenient developments. The zombies, for example, never bite anybody when Ryan needs them not to, and there’s really no logical reason why there would be dead ends built into the path. None of this is terribly egregious, but it just feels like the kind of shoddy plotting you can get away with in the young-adult genre.

In short, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a solid premise spoiled by an annoying and severely unsympathetic protagonist. I will be skipping the sequels.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Monday, October 25, 2010

THE WORLD SET FREE by H. G. Wells



The World Set Free (recently reissued as The Last War) is a 1914 science fiction novel by H. G. Wells. When atomic bombs are developed and the world is threatened with universal devastation, its leaders are forced to rethink war, government, and society.

The World Set Free is remarkably prophetic, as Wells forecasts both nuclear war and the capacity for mutually-assured destruction. And while Wells misses the mark on the way atomic bombs work (his atomic bombs have the same explosive power as conventional bombs, but they just keep on burning), he certainly doesn’t underestimate their destructive power.  

This book feels like a novel only in the sense that it relates a series of fictional events. What few individuals appear here are scarcely characters in the literary sense – other than Egbert, none are developed in the slightest. This simply wasn’t what Wells is trying to do – Wells is interested in the technology and its ramifications, and because that’s what he focuses on, The World Set Free reads like a fictional history book, or perhaps like an outline for a longer novel. This keeps it from ever getting too interesting, and while it’s a short book, it can be hard to get through.

In short, The World Set Free is an impressively-imagined but not very interesting piece of prophetic science fiction.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Monday, October 18, 2010

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart


Earth Abides is a 1949 science fiction novel by George R. Stewart. When a plague all but wipes out the human race, a young introverted intellectual decides to observe the way the world responds to the sudden removal of humans, and, later, works to reconstruct certain aspects of civilization while battling to keep education alive.

This is a thoughtful book: one of Stewart’s primary themes here is a philosophical take on civilization: its pros and cons, what is gained and lost through starting over, and whether parts or the whole are worth rebuilding. Stewart, with the world’s last scholar as his main character, does a wonderful job with this.

But while Earth Abides is all about ideas, Stewart mostly punts on the moral and theological ramifications, as his characters move on quickly when these themes present challenges. In a world where people can’t help but focus on death, that’s a missed opportunity.

In addition to the book’s philosophical emphasis, Stewart’s post-apocalyptic world is generally free of unrest and violence. While this allows Stewart to focus on his themes of rebuilding, his characters are rarely in much peril, and there’s never much suspense. Yet as Stewart charts the life of his protagonist through the years and decades, the reader becomes invested in and attached to the character, passive and powerless though he may be, and this is why the novel is compelling, and why the reader will not mind the book’s many philosophical detours.

On the whole, Earth Abides is an intelligent, poignant and melancholy novel, and one of the finer and more influential works in the genre. Bonus points for an interracial relationship during a hostile era.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

BEN-HUR by Lew Wallace



Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an 1880 historical novel by Lew Wallace. In the time of Christ, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is sent to the Roman galleys for an accidental “assassination attempt” on the Roman governor. The book chronicles his attempts to free himself and locate his mother and sister; along the way he has various encounters with biblical characters, including Jesus himself.

Ben-Hur is full of rich historical detail. Wallace certainly did his research, although his blond-haired and blue-eyed Mary and Jesus are rather egregious and indefensible. The works and miracles that Christ does, and their effects on the characters, give the book a significant emotional weight. Beyond that, Wallace’s characters love to sit around and discuss theology in detail, and there’s quite a bit of solid Christology to be found here.

The story in Ben-Hur is fantastic, but Wallace has written a bloated, flawed novel. Characters and dialogue are flat, the plot often advances by means of convenient developments, and the book makes great jumps through time to place Ben-Hur at so many key events in the life of Christ, which causes his own actions not to make a lot of sense. But worst of all, the novel is all over the place. Wallace is rambling and verbose, and there are too many half-baked story elements: the love triangle, such as it is, adds nothing to the story. Messala is not developed as a friend or as an enemy. A 65-page introduction that does nothing other than retell the Nativity story is unnecessary.

It is worth mentioning William Wyler’s 1959 MGM film that starred Charlton Heston and won 11 Oscars; there have been other films, but it is through that movie that the Ben-Hur story is known to the most people now. The movie distills the overlong, wandering story down to its key elements, developing them to a fulfilling degree, and the story is all the more powerful for it. It’s a great story, and the film, which is one of the greatest ever in any genre, takes full advantage of it.

The novel Ben-Hur is a powerful, moving story not at all well told. It pains me to say this, but the movie is better. Considerably.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ARROW TO THE SUN by Gerald McDermott


Arrow to the Sun is a 1974 children's book by Gerald McDermott, adapted from Pueblo Indian myth. Here, the son of the Lord of the Sun strives to find and be accepted by his father.

The story is straightforward, as these folktales go. On its own, it's largely unremarkable. But McDermott's illustrations are mind-blowing. 

Done in gouache and ink, the art features thick curves and right angles in a somewhat abstract style that's  reminiscent of Pueblo art (it's also reminiscent of Atari 2600 graphics). McDermott's judiciously limited use of color heightens the art by drawing the focus to its texture and focusing on the mood of the story.

Arrow to the Sun is a fine children's book with some of the most spectacular illustrations ever; it's certainly McDermott's best work.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Friday, September 24, 2010

AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by H. P. Lovecraft



At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror collects H. P. Lovecraft’s eponymous novella (originally published in 1936) and three short stories: “The Shunned House” (1937), “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920).

In At the Mountains of Madness, an Antarctic survey team discovers the ruins of an ancient city, whose creators have conveniently left an easily-deciphered complete history of their civilization illustrated on the walls. This is one of Lovecraft’s later works, and in it, he substantially demythologizes his Cthulhu mythos, which previously had often featured a supernatural focus but here receives a rather thorough science fiction explanation.  

If you’ve read any quantity of Lovecraft before, you’ll find this novella fairly predictable. And if you’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, you realize you can’t go anywhere in his world without stumbling over some infestation of trans-worldly evil.

This is one of Lovecraft’s longer works, and it’s a bit of a slow builder, although it does pick up nicely as it goes. Lovecraft’s strength here is the usual one: atmosphere. Because of its isolation and severe environment, Antarctica lends itself particularly well to horror, and on top of that Lovecraft does a great job of depicting the atmosphere of the lost city.

The three short stories here have considerably more in common with one another than with Mountains, and they feel like padding to make this volume book-length (Additionally, this volume’s stupid cover has nothing to do with any of the stories within). But briefly, “The Shunned House” takes too long to get going and falls somewhat flat once it does, “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” something of a thematic bridge between the other two stories, is a disjointed mess, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is a vintage second-hand account of lurking horrors.

At the Mountains of Madness is hardly Lovecraft’s best story, but it may be some of the best atmosphere he’s ever done. I recommend the novella, whether you get it with extra mediocre stories or not.

RECOMMENDED

Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE STONECUTTER by Gerald McDermott

 
The Stonecutter is a 1975 retelling of a Japanese folk tale by Gerald McDermott. The story, which features themes of being content with one’s situation in life and being careful what one wishes for is simple, yet deeply profound.

But what makes this book amazing is McDermott’s art, which is nothing short of phenomenal. Here, McDermott has formed his illustrations as collages made from paper colored with gouache; this gives them a rich visual texture. The characters and environments are done in the blocky, somewhat abstract style McDermott excels at, and which spark the imagination. In all, the art is similar to his prior work on the outstanding Arrow to the Sun.

McDermott is a king of illustration, and his art is rarely more spectacular than it is here. It makes The Stonecutter a wonder.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

JAPANESE CHILDREN’S STORIES FROM SILVER BELLS



Japanese Children’s Stories from Silver Bells is a 1952 collection of stories from Tomikazu Matsui’s Hiroshima-based children’s magazine Silver Bells, which was exported to the United States, and which featured stories from around the world. Most of the stories here are adapted from Japanese folktales; all are by Japanese authors and illustrators.

The book’s target audience is children between the ages of four and nine, and that seems about right. The stories are all short and simple, although there will be some words you’ll have to define for your kid (and maybe for yourself) – “wen,” for example.

All the stories are fully illustrated (most in full color), in a variety of media, including watercolors and oil pastels. The introduction declares these illustrations to be “noteworthy for their Japanese flavor, serving as an introduction to the remarkable knack the Japanese artist has always possessed in the realms of line, color and form” (p. 3). That may be overstating things a bit, but most of them are definitively Japanese in style, and they are a strength of this book.

Japanese Children’s Stories from Silver Bells is an endearing little book, with quality stories and illustrations.  

RECOMMENDED

P.S. You can learn more about Tomikazu Matsui and the impressive work he did with Silver Bells here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ANANSI THE SPIDER MAN by Philip M. Sherlock



Anansi the Spider Man is a 1954 collection of folk tales by Philip M. Sherlock, who gathered them in Jamaica. They all feature the spider Anansi, a trickster of West African and West Indian folklore, and his dealings with the other animals.

Not surprisingly, then, every story features somebody trying to trick somebody else. Since Anansi gets conned nearly as much as he gets over on others, the reader never gets too fed up with him, and, on the whole, these stories are rather charming.

Marcia Brown provides the illustrations, which are simple pen-and-ink affairs. They’re a little bit rough, and are reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s work on The Phantom Tollbooth.

On the whole, Anansi the Spider Man is a solid and entertaining collection of folktales.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WEMBI, THE SINGER OF STORIES by Alice D. Cobble



Wembi, the Singer of Stories is a 1959 collection of twenty-five African folktales gathered by Alice D. Cobble during the twenty-five years she was a missionary in the Belgian Congo. It is illustrated by Doris Hallas.

The stories here mostly center around animals, and they’re always decent but never amazing. Many of these stories feature shockingly bizarre turns of events, which I can only chalk up to a cultural divide between African and Western culture. In some of these stories, the protagonist does something horrible to somebody else, and is lauded for it; in one, the protagonist, having committed no transgression, gets eaten, and that’s the end.

Cobble’s Wembi frame is in many cases more interesting than the tales Wembi tells. Here the reader will learn about many of the practices and traditions of the native Congolese, and about the concerns and issues of a shift toward Western culture.

Halas’s illustrations are relatively few; they are best described as adequate and unremarkable. I found the cover design, which is not by Halas, considerably more impressive.

Wembi, the Singer of Stories is a nice little look into Central African culture, even if its stories are just so-so.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday, September 11, 2010

AESOP’S FABLES



Aesop’s Fables is a collection of well over a hundred fables (at least), most featuring animals, attributed to the ancient Greek slave and storyteller Aesop (it is doubtful that he wrote them all, and some people question whether he existed at all, but we really aren’t here to debate authorship). There are dozens of English collections and versions of these stories, and, as the ancient, “profusely illustrated” version I have doesn’t include full publication information, I will be reviewing generally.

Adults who were once well-read children will be familiar with the best-known fables: “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs,” “Belling the Cat,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” “The Milkmaid and Her Pail,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” and so on. These fables teach common-sense lessons like “one good turn deserves another” and “a friend in need is a friend in deed” (rather than “indeed,” which is a separate moral). It’s worth mentioning that if you analyze large numbers of these fables, you’ll find they often offer contradictory advice (a solid argument for Aesop being a content aggregator rather than the sole independent author, by the way).

But before you go running out to recapture that childhood wonder, know that the version you get makes all the difference. Some renditions of these fables are so brief and spare (yes, fables are succinct by nature, but my copy reads like it’s full of fable summaries) that you might as well just be reading a list of morals (and depending on where you read a given fable, it may have different morals; this makes more sense if you know the morals were tacked on later).

In my experience, the best versions of Aesopica have been created when other authors have taken these fables and fleshed them out a bit, and in doing so, breathed some life and personality into them (in other words, I prefer stories to fables). This has largely occurred in illustrated versions for  smaller children. No matter what you’ve got, though, every fable is short: nearly all of them are less than a page no matter how you format, and some are only one paragraph, so they’re quite easy to get through regardless.

So much from these fables is clich├ęd, tired, and worn out, and it’s even more so if you watch a lot of TV and film, where writers crib liberally from Aesop to try to get cheap significance and a feel-good moment at the ending. Well, shame on them, but even so, it’s hard to call yourself well-read if you don’t have at least a basic knowledge of Aesop’s better-known fables, particularly since many of their hackneyed principles have filtered into our language as idioms (e.g. “wolf in sheep’s clothing”).

The moral of the story is this: a good version of Aesop’s Fables is a worthy addition to any library; a poor one might not be worth bothering with.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

GROVER AND THE EVERYTHING IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD MUSEUM


Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum is a Sesame Street-themed 1974 Random House Book for Young Readers written by Norman Stiles and Daniel Wilcox and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. The title gives you a pretty good idea of the plot, as Grover visits galleries like “The Things You See in the Sky Room” and the “Things That Can Make You Fall Hall,” and a great deal of silliness ensues.

Not only have the book’s creators made the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum an immersive place (which is pretty impressive for a book with only thirty-two pages), they’ve also worked in a number of delightfully clever gags in keeping with the wit that the Sesame Street TV program displayed in the seventies and eighties, before it got dumbed down and Elmo-fied.

This is a great book for little kids, whether they’ve been exposed to Sesame Street (or good Sesame Street) or not. Grover speaks in word balloons, and his dialogue plus the museum’s signs comprise nearly all the text in the book (there’s still plenty, though, since Grover, being Grover, never shuts up). And every scene on every page is loaded with visuals.

Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum was one of my favorite books when I was a little kid, and I still love it. If you have small children, or if you miss those halcyon days when Sesame Street was good, you’re going to have a hard time doing better than this.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SELECTED SHORT STORIES OF FRANZ KAFKA


Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1936), translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir, collects fifteen of Kafka’s stories, including his most famous, “The Metamorphosis.”

Kafka is, for the most part, doing his own thing with his writing. In other words, he wrote for himself rather than for any particular reader or audience; this is why he’s often considered one of the more influential writers of the twentieth century, but it may also be why many of his stories weren’t published during his lifetime.

Kafka’s absurdist, existentialist style demands analysis and begs interpretation. Kafka’s work offers an astounding depth of opportunity for critical interpretation, but if you can’t be bothered to put in the effort, you aren’t going to get much of anything out of his stories (a highlight here for the read-for-enjoyment crowd is “The Hunger Artist,” one of Kafka’s more coherent tales).  

Many of Kafka’s tales are little more than  philosophical essays dressed up as stories, and the reader who is not of an academically literary mindset should be readily forgiven for finding many of these stories horribly boring and.

If you’re looking for unique, groundbreaking writing full of potential for academic analysis and literary interpretation, Kafka is exactly what you want. If you’re reading for enjoyment, you could scarcely do worse. In short, Kafka’s not for everybody, and he’s not for me.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Saturday, August 28, 2010

INVITATION TO ARCHAEOLOGY by James Deetz



Invitation to Archaeology is a 1967 book by James Deetz, who was an anthropologist and university professor. Here, Deetz briefly discusses the principles and methods of archaeology, and covers excavation, dating, and analysis.

Deetz’s information is solid, but Invitation to Archaeology is incredibly dry. It reads like a textbook, and Deetz inundates the reader with terminology and jargon. The book feels more like a survey than an introduction, and any reader without at least a basic working knowledge of archaeology may be quickly lost or bored or both. It doesn’t help that there aren’t usually enough illustrations to enable the reader to envision the elaborate scenes and diagrams Deetz describes.

If you’re already into archaeology, you’ll probably want to go with something more in-depth than this 150-page book. If you’re looking for something to spark your interest in the subject, Invitation to Archaeology probably isn’t going to do it.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Thursday, August 26, 2010

THE RICHEST MAN IN BABYLON by George S. Clason

 

The Richest Man in Babylon is a 1926 financial self-help book by George S. Clason. Here, Clason presents a number of short stories, set in ancient Babylon, that communicate basic wealth-building principles.

Clason’s principles are sound and timeless: work hard, live within your means, save, and invest wisely. Clason also presents a get-out-of-debt plan whereby the debtor lives on seventy percent of his income, saves ten, and pays his debts with twenty. All these concepts are offered so simply that just about any reader should be able to grasp them.

The stories themselves hold the reader’s attention most of the time, although the Babylon shtick gets a little wearisome toward the end (and this isn’t a long book). The characters all speak in King James-style English, but it doesn’t always sound right (recent revised editions of the book, I understand, have updated the English). But it’s never too big a problem, and even so, a lot of people are going to find The Richest Man in Babylon a lot more appealing than a dry, straightforward book on finance.

In short, The Richest Man in Babylon is a readable, accessible introduction to wealth-building principles and financial responsibility.

RECOMMENDED

Monday, August 23, 2010

AND GOD CHOSE DREAMS by Michael L. Mathews



And God Chose Dreams is a 2008 Christian living book on dreams and dream interpretation by Michael L. Mathews. “More and more people are dreaming more frequently,” Mathews says (p. 14), and at “an alarming rate” (why the rate is “alarming” is never addressed). Mathews stated goal here is to inform the reader why dreams are significant, and why God communicates through dreams.

Mathews’ premise is highly suspect. He says more and more people are dreaming more frequently – who are these people? They’re people he knows, and they’re dreaming more frequently “lately,” and yet Mathews has extrapolated a pan-global phenomenon based on this infinitesimal sample size. Mathews talks as though things are so different in this generation, as though a special dispensationalist period began in, say, 2005. And the biblically-savvy reader must ask how the author can write an entire book on the topic without even addressing Peter’s announcement of the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 and the beginning of the “last days” at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) with regard either to dispensation or the concept of the “last days.”

Mathews goes on to give four reasons why people are dreaming more: “our minds and thoughts are completely saturated,” “dreams and visions allow us to better align our thoughts with God’s thoughts,” “God stated that dreams would increase in the last days,” and “dreams are God’s personification of the gospel” (p. 15). The astute reader will note that regardless of one’s position on the “last days,” three of these four “reasons” have nothing to do with an increase in dreaming or dreaming in one time period versus dreaming in another.

God, at certain times, communicates with people through special dreams and visions – that I accept; the Bible is full of examples. But Mathews wants the reader to believe that God is speaking to each person in every dream – in essence, that dreams are inherently a form of supernatural communication. So, then, one of Abraham’s dreams where God shows up and has a back-and-forth conversation with him is equal to the one you had where you were running away from a vampire but couldn’t scream, and then all of a sudden you were jumping out of an airplane somehow, and then the guy from the Old Spice commercials was there (on a horse).  Insert Inception joke here.  It’s ludicrous. And the examples Mathews gives of interpretations of such nonsensical dreams are hardly compelling.

Mathews also inserts a lot of quotes about dreams from various famous people. Which is fine, except that he can’t seem to differentiate between a dream (a series of thoughts, images or emotions occurring during sleep) and a dream (a strongly desired goal or purpose).

And God Chose Dreams is self-published (AuthorHouse), and it shows. The book looks and reads like a first draft: the formatting is a disaster, and there are all the grammatical and typographical errors you’d expect to find in a book that’s never seen an editor. I will say that the cover design is well done, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

Mathews’ writing is often rambling and his sentences are sometimes peculiar, in part due to his style and in part due to the obvious lack of revision. Nobody should ever have to read a sentence like, “The New Testament is combined with numerous dreams and visions” (p. 92). Mathews uses “and/or” like it’s one legitimate word – you can play an and/or drinking game with this book. Most bizarre, And God Chose Dreams is full of block quotes, with citations, from Mathews himself. There’s no indication that these quotes are from other works; this is seemingly used just as a new and/or stupid way to highlight certain points.

Mathews holds to a Left Behind-style premillennialist eschatology – he’s one of those people who uses “rapture” as a verb and talks like the “end times” began during his lifetime – and since he spends so much time on the topic, if you don’t share his viewpoint, you’re going to be doing a lot of skimming and/or eye-rolling (even if you do share it, you may still wonder at some of Mathews’ bafflingly incoherent points – his assertion that Daniel 12:4 says that “time would speed up,” for example (p. 130)).

In the end and/or on the whole, And God Chose Dreams is poorly written, poorly reasoned, and poorly presented. I would recommend anyone and/or everyone to skip it.

RECOMMENDED AGAINST

Sunday, August 22, 2010

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly is an 1852 anti-slavery sentimental novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which she wrote as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This novel is sometimes considered a contributing factor to the start of the American Civil War, as it brought many unpleasant aspects of slave life and the slave trade into the public awareness.  

The novel’s events center around two slaves: Eliza, who attempts to flee to Canada with her son, who has just been sold, and Tom, who has also been sold, but who goes along subserviently. And while Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly is about Tom, it is much less about Eliza than it is about the responses of the other characters she comes in contact with.

One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s main themes is the triumph of Christian love over evil, and for overtness, power and sincerity, the novel’s Christian message can scarcely be topped. Eva is an obvious Christ figure, and Tom becomes one as well, but Tom is particularly noteworthy because he’s one of the most eternity-minded characters in all of literature. He endures everything, as Saint Paul said, for the sake of the gospel (which he is always quick to share) – his stated reason for remaining in cruel bondage when presented with a chance of escape is to minister to the other slaves. Because of his selfless love and inner strength, he is the book’s most admirable character.

(It’s interesting (and too bad) how the term “Uncle Tom” – now used to negatively describe a black who is subservient to whites – has become so pejorative. Stowe’s Tom is a loving, strong-willed, eternity-minded character. But lax copyright laws in the nineteenth century allowed for unauthorized diluted and altered stage versions of the story (called “Tom shows,” some of which were even pro­-slavery), and many people came to know Tom as a stereotypical minstrel buffoon – certainly a great number more people saw the stage dramas than read the books.)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sentimental novel (in the literary sense), and Stowe goes for the heartstrings at every opportunity. Though the reader may not at any time, many of Stowe’s characters burst into tears at the slightest provocation. Stowe herself is a preachily-involved narrator, and nothing the author has to say is handled subtlely. While Stowe’s many characters debate various “biblical” perspectives on slavery, the narrator’s (and the author’s) views are never in doubt, and she laments to an even greater extent America’s burgeoning disregard for the Bible.

From a literary standpoint, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely unimpressive, and sometimes it’s a downright mess. If the novel wasn’t so socially and politically relevant, it would have been lost in the mists of time with countless other sappy, mediocre novels.

In the first place, there are about twice as many characters as there need to be, far too many of whom are named Tom, Henry, or George. And it isn’t always easy to pin down just who the main characters are, because conscientiously-developed characters leave after a few chapters, others arrive, and some characters who are obviously key to Stowe’s tale (Eliza, in particular), vanish for a hundred pages at a time, while others don’t debut until halfway through the book. Many characters are flat, one-dimensional caricatures, present only to offer a particular point of view on a topic. In doing so, Stowe brings the reader into contact with every conceivable position on slavery and human rights, but it doesn’t make for a particularly believable story.

Secondly, the book’s goings-on are equally contrived. The reader can see the hand of Stowe on every major plot point, particularly at the end, where she attempts to tie up matters with a series of heartwarming but preposterous coincidences.     

But this doesn’t mean that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is horribly written; that’s simply not the case. Sometimes Stowe produces a very fine turn of phrase, and certain scenes are well done and do produce the intended emotional response. And many of the book’s moral and philosophical debates hold the reader’s interest because Stowe has clearly thought through the issues and educated herself on the various arguments and viewpoints.

So while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not very impressive as literature, it remains important (and worth reading) because of its message and the role it played in a key era of American history.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott



Ivanhoe is an 1820 historical novel by Sir Walter Scott. In 1194, in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, Prince John and Robin Hood, disinherited Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe returns from the Crusades and seeks revenge against his Norman nemesis Brian de Bois-Guilbert.

But the story is so much more than that. Ivanhoe features an ensemble cast with perhaps a dozen noteworthy characters, and of these, Ivanhoe himself plays a supporting role at best, as he’s absent from massive portions of the novel. Yet it is he who ties all the characters together.

The modern reader may be put off by a number of things, particularly Scott’s tendency to devote entire pages to the descriptions of his characters’ garb, and the unnaturally expository dialogue he puts in their mouths. But Ivanhoe is nearly two hundred years old, and some of these things we just have to get over. More just criticisms might target the book’s sometimes too leisurely pace, the somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, and the unquestionably contrived and hackneyed, silly and pointless return of Athelstane, which is so literarily amateurish that Scott felt compelled to insert a footnote to acknowledge this fact, but that he was doing it anyway.

Ivanhoe is a three-act quest/reward adventure, and in spite of the book’s more plodding characteristics, Scott usually keeps the pages turning in an impressive manner. His writing is clever as well as verbose, and quite frankly, there are a lot of exciting things going on here.  

As far as the narrative, Scott sometimes has difficulty juggling all his characters, as he has to jump around chronologically, impeding the novel’s flow. Neither does Scott feel compelled to wrap up all his many plot threads; some prominent characters, notably Prince John, are dropped by the wayside as the novel progresses and then only mentioned in passing later on.

Ivanhoe features an astounding degree of anti-Semitism from virtually every character, whether hero or villain (in addition to a historically accurate depiction of medieval persecution, this is also a political commentary contemporary to Scott’s day, as England was moving toward the emancipation of its Jews). Yet for the point Scott is trying to make, Isaac of York fits very well the stereotype of the miserly Jew. But his daughter Rebecca is the noblest character in the novel.

Of similar historicity is the frustrating level of ignorance and superstition displayed by so many characters – it makes something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s witch/duck scene seem hardly a bit farcical. And saddest of all is the time’s horrendous misunderstanding of Christianity – the finding of virtue in unvirtuous acts, particularly the slaughter of any and all unbelievers.

While Scott took a number of liberties with other historical matters in Ivanhoe, no offense is egregious, and because of the degree of detail Scott provides, most everything is believable enough to the uninitiated. Ivanhoe is also noteworthy for its lasting influence. It sparked a renewed interest in the Middle Ages. And every single Robin Hood tale or film I’ve ever seen has used it in some way as source material, as have a large number of other medieval and fantasy stories.  

In spite of its flaws, Ivanhoe remains a pillar of medieval historical fiction, and is a must for fans of that period.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NORSE STORIES by Hamilton Wright Mabie



Norse Stories, Retold from the Eddas, also known as Norse Mythology: Great Stories from the Eddas, is an 1882 book on Norse mythology by Hamilton Wright Mabie. While never explicitly stated, this book is obviously geared toward a young adult audience.

Norse Stories reads like something of a greatest hits of Norse mythology. There’s so much missing: many of the mythos’s best-known tales are here, but ripped from the context needed to fully understand them. What is here, though, is well done. Mabie tells the stories well, and he provides some wonderfully rich descriptions. But feels like Mabie went through the Eddas and just ripped out whole pages without making the slightest effort to link things together. He was sloppy, too; an example: here we get “Odin’s eyes began to flash” six pages after he trades one for wisdom at Mimir’s Well.

In its degree of violence and pessimism, Norse mythology is unmatched throughout the world. Yet Norse Stories has a distinctly positive tone, perhaps due to the book’s younger audience. Whatever the reason, this book doesn’t really provide the true mood or tone of Norse mythology.

Ultimately, Norse Stories is a collection of well-told stories severely hampered by their lack of context and other limitations. If you’re well-versed in Norse mythology, you may enjoy what Mabie does with the stories here. If not, you aren’t going to get a coherent understanding of it from Norse Stories. But it shouldn’t be difficult to find half a dozen better books on the topic.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday, July 26, 2010

TALES OF SECRET EGYPT by Sax Rohmer

Tales of Secret Egypt is a 1918 collection of stories by Sax Rohmer, who is best known as the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu. There are twelve tales here; the first six concern mercenary relic hunter Neville Kernaby and his dealings with the mysterious Egyptian agent Abu Tabah, who always seems to be one step ahead of him. The last six stories are also Cairo-based but otherwise unrelated, and feature repeated themes of native myth and magic and the immediate and complete infatuation of Western men with Egyptian women.

Rohmer’s love of all things Egyptian is obvious, and his depictions of the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo make that city come alive. And Rohmer is a fully competent writer; once in a while he will drop a delightfully clever sentence on the reader. But his problem is the stories themselves. Nearly every story ends with a twist or revelation in the final sentence, but most of these are not surprising or interesting, and some are painfully obvious. He also uses too much Arabic – there are far too many words whose definitions cannot remotely be guessed at from the context.

Tales of Secret Egypt contains throughout a matter-of-fact racism not unlike the racism Rohmer has taken flak for in his Fu Manchu stories. The reader can, without much effort, construct something of a hierarchy of races, according to Rohmer: whites, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and, at the bottom, blacks (every black in every story in this volume is a massive, stupid goon).

In the end, it’s really just too bad that so many of the stories in Tales of Secret Egypt just sit there, because it would otherwise be a fine collection of exotic crime and mystery stories.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Friday, July 23, 2010

THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is the first of L. Frank Baum’s fourteen Oz books, and is the inspiration for the 1939 film you almost certainly have seen: a tornado picks up young Dorothy and her dog Toto and carries them to Oz, where they meet numerous fantastical characters, including, of course, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who are all seeking to correct self-perceived character flaws.

One hates to discuss a book in terms of its succeeding film, but here it can scarcely be helped. Suffice it to say that on the whole, the movie follows the book wherever possible, barring omissions that would not have been possible with thirties special effects, and a tidier ending.

Baum’s stated purpose with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was to create “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” He has largely succeeded, although the book features a distinct flatness, particularly when compared with contemporary works that were purposely more clever, like Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Dorothy is flat – she’s a stubborn and determined girl, but Baum doesn’t dwell on her personality. The story is also flat – it’s imaginative, but it isn’t clever simply because it isn’t trying to be; it has little ambition to be anything more than a regular old fairy tale, with one episode of deus ex machina after another. The film is better because it adds style and personality to the work. But then, Baum was writing for kids, not for us grown folk, and the book’s enduring appeal is a testament to his success with that audience.

Baum’s writing is often inconsistent. An obvious example of this is the “heartless” Tin Woodman, who is inconsolable after inadvertently crushing an insect, but later hacks up wild beasts without a qualm. But none of these incidences are unforgivable (they’re certainly more forgivable than Baum’s many awful puns).

W. W. Denslow’s illustrations are iconic, although perhaps not as iconic as the imagery from the film, which is what most people think of nowadays when they think of the Wizard of Oz. But it’s hard to imagine this book being illustrated by anyone else.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fast-reading, simplistic fairy tale worth reading for its own sake and for the sake of its remarkable legacy.

RECOMMENDED