Saturday, January 23, 2010

THISTLE by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Thistle is a 1983 children’s novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr. I am reviewing the original version, which features illustrations by Marcia Sewall (the 1995 version, which is easier to find, has illustrations by Bryna Waldman). Here, Thistle, the youngest and plainest of her family, must somehow save them all from a ravenous potato monster.

Wangerin has created a very competent fairy tale here. Thistle prominently features the age-old fairy tale meme of repetition that we’re all familiar with from stories like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Wangerin has a somewhat lyrical, vaguely poetic writing style, and it serves him well here. The story, structured as it is, isn’t going to keep anybody guessing, but it’s well told, and it’s intense enough (that is, enough people get eaten) that small children may find it a little scary.

Sewall’s simple, folksy, sometimes angular pencil sketches create a fitting ambience for the book. Her attention to body language and facial expression is impressive. In my mind, her illustrations are superior to Waldman’s new version, where everyone looks like tree elves.

Wangerin is known as a Christian author, and Thistle certainly isn’t short on positive morals: it doesn’t matter how you look, it doesn’t matter if you’re prone to crying, and in the end, what matters most is how much you love.

Thistle’s never going to be enshrined in the fairy tale pantheon, but it is a quality positive children’s book.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MARX & SATAN by Richard Wurmbrand

Marx & Satan (1986) is a spiritual biography (of sorts) of Karl Marx by Richard Wurmbrand, erstwhile victim of Soviet persecution and founder of The Voice of the Martyrs, a nonprofit international Christian anti-persecution organization. Here, Wurmbrand suggests that Marx, the founder of modern Communism, converted from Christianity to Satanism at a young age and then used Communism as a tool to spread hatred and destruction.

Some of the facts in this matter appear to be beyond reasonable question, both from historical record and Marx’s own writings. Obviously Marx hated God vehemently, and his writings do give the impression of belief rather than atheism. Wurmbrand suggests, based on Marx’s own writings, that Marx was a hater rather than a lover of humanity (and that Marx’s supposed love for the proletariat was a fiction created by the Communists), and all things considered that seems quite reasonable. But to say that Marx’s primary goal was to promote Satanism, as Wurmbrand suggests, moves squarely into the realm of speculation (and Wurmbrand has, at least, the good grace to acknowledge that much of what he asserts is circumstantial, although he seems quite sure of his evidence).

Beyond the basics of Marx’s upbringing, writings, and relationships with other Communist fathers like Engels, Wurmbrand is all over the place with poor reasoning, wanton speculation, and straw man arguments: Karl Marx turned to Satanism and wanted to use it to destroy humanity because nobody appreciated his poetry. Darwin is to blame for the millions of murders committed by the Communists. Led Zeppelin backmasked satanic lyrics into “Stairway to Heaven.” Ludicrous assertions like these make Wurmbrand look foolish.

It doesn’t help that Wurmbrand seems to have no sense of irony or metaphor when he interprets the writings of others. Much of what he analyzes is poetry, and yet he takes every line about demons and such to be disturbingly literal. His inability to apply even the most basic critical reading skills neuters a number of his arguments.

It’s important to remember that because of Wurmbrand’s own horrific experiences with the Communists, he’s about as anti-Communism as they come, and it’s somewhat understandable that he swings too far the other way (for more information, see Wurmbrand’s superior work, Tortured for Christ). Even so, some of the places Wurmbrand goes in this book are flat-out ridiculous.

I don’t want to suggest that Marx & Satan might not be worth a read, but be prepared to wade through a whole lot of bathwater in order to find the baby.


Monday, January 18, 2010

HEAVEN IS REAL by Don Piper and Cecil Murphey

Heaven Is Real is Don Piper and Cecil Murphey’s 2007 follow-up to Piper’s 2004 book 90 Minutes in Heaven, wherein Piper recounted his death, experience in heaven, resuscitation, and arduous recovery.

In this book, the authors share many stories of other people who have faced traumatic adversity – deaths, suicides, divorces, cripplings, and so forth. Piper encourages such people to seek out the “new normal” – that is, to accept that the old life is gone and to accept the new paradigm and to move forward. A key biblical text, one that Piper quotes, is Job 2:10: “Should we accept the good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?”

Heaven Is Real, like 90 Minutes in Heaven, is mistitled (why they didn’t go ahead and title it The New Normal is beyond me). The book’s subtitle – “Lessons on earthly joy” – is more to the point. Piper’s primary focus is on overcoming adversity in order to have a better life here, and about putting aside the bitterness and despair that accompany suffering.

Piper is humble, practical, and understanding, which does wonders for the book’s accessibility. Unfortunately, the book is verbose and repetitive. Worse, it’s often redundant with 90 Minutes in Heaven, and readers who have that book fresh in their minds may well find themselves doing quite a bit of skimming here.

If you’ve already read 90 Minutes in Heaven and you aren’t suffering from despair or a horrific lifestyle change, Heaven Is Real isn’t going to bring much to the table that you haven’t seen before. But this book was written for those who have experienced great adversity, like Piper did, and to them this book is recommended.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by Peter S. Beagle. The eponymous unicorn sets out with several human companions to find the rest of her kind and to confront numerous obstacles, including the monstrous Red Bull.

Beagle writes beautifully and charmingly, almost poetically, and The Last Unicorn is worth reading for that reason alone. The novel is humorously anachronistic in places, and it’s sprinkled profusely with little literary delights: a turn of phrase here, a choice of word there. It’s delightful just to read Beagle’s sentences.

But the story itself is less than compelling, which can make the novel too easy to put down. While The Last Unicorn is filled with emotion and imagination and post-modernistic self-discovery, the events that transpire aren’t particularly remarkable. They’re the kinds of things that fantasy storytellers make up as they go along. It does seem that Beagle is more interested in raising what he obviously feels are important questions about existence and self than with engaging the reader on the basis of plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the kind of thing a lot people like to read, nor is it something that many readers often come to fantasy fiction for.

The Last Unicorn is not for everyone. People who think of it as Beagle himself does are likely to find it profound; others may find it shallow. But anyone who appreciates excellent writing will find it well worth his or her time.