Thursday, December 2, 2021

A Literary Christmas 2021

 brought to you by In the Bookcase




 

The Rules are simple – pick your Christmas reads for 2021, write a blog post about them, and link back to In the Bookcase.

 

I honor of the Magi, who brought the Christ child three gifts, I read three Christmas tales each December. This year I will be reading:

 

Papa Panov’s Special Christmas Day by Leo Tolstoy



On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity a poem by John Milton written in 1629.

 


A Christmas Inspiration by Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

 

Have a Blessed Christmas

 

The Wanderer

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World by R. C. Sproul

If there is no God, all things are permissible ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
 

Whenever the words “I think, therefore I am” by René Descartes come up, I tend to roll my eyes, and dismiss the obvious as pointless navel gazing.

 

No longer, thanks to theologian R. C. Sproul and this wonderfully accessible book, which he describes as a

 

…sketch of leading voices in the History of Western thought.

 

I am encouraged that a great mind like Sproul, also had a change of mind about philosophy

 

What I once ridiculed now absorbs me and carries me to the brink of holy apprehension, where I tremble at my own inadequacy.

 

His book is a look at the thinkers of Western history, from the first philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras; to the three pillars: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle; and those who followed: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. (not all philosophers, but all thinkers)

 

I cannot adequately review this book, and I am loathe to post excerpts, because most require pages of context to be rightly understood.

 

I will again state that is it quite accessible. I understand now that Descartes, was not navel-gazing. He quite logically concluded that before beginning an investigation of truth, he must have a building block – an indisputable, logical truth from which to start. Consequently, when starting with the undeniable “I think, therefore I am”, it led Descartes to: “I think, therefore God is”

 

Indeed, most of these thinkers came to logical conclusions of God, or the one whom Aristotle named the “unmoved mover”

 

Aristotle is chiefly responsible for two fundamental laws of logic:

 

The Law of noncontradiction – nothing can be what it is, and not be what it is at the same time and in the same relationship

 

The Law of causality – nothing can be its own cause

 

Most of the thinkers accepted these laws, and most concluded, like Aristotle, there MUST BE…an unmoved mover.

 

It should be obvious that not all these thinkers were Deists. Indeed Nietzsche declares himself the personal enemy of God. There is no doubt Sproul stands opposed to their views, but I felt he gave them fair trial by the Aristotelian laws of logic.

 

Sproul opines:

 

We live in perhaps the most anti-intellectual period of Christian history. We affirm technology and education, but we demean the role of the mind or intellect, particularly in the religious realm.

 

For me, this book was an indictment of modern thought, or in more positive terms, an admonishment to return to classical thought. We learn to do, but we are ignorant and untrained in how to think. Education is focused almost entirely on utility, ignoring virtue that Socrates asserts should be inseparable from knowledge.

 

In conclusion, Sproul writes:

 

We need to reconstruct the classical synthesis by which natural theology bridges the special revelation of Scripture and the general revelation of nature. Such a reconstruction could end the war between science and theology. The thinking person could embrace nature without embracing naturalism. All of life, in its unity and diversity could be lived coram Deo, before the face of God, under his authority and to his glory.

 

 

Attributes or quotations of some of the thinkers:

 

Whatever is; is ~ Parmenides

 

Socrates: The savior of Western Civilization. Asserted that knowledge and virtue are inseparable…

 

Plato: student of Socrates, mentor to Aristotle

 

Aristotle: posited the “unmoved mover”, that God is logically necessary.

 

Augustine: the greatest Christian philosopher-theologian of the first millennium, arguably of the entire Christian era. Achieved philosophical synthesis between Platonism and Christianity.

 

Thomas Aquinas: a giant in all the intellectual world. Produced a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, asserted that philosophy apart from the Bible, can rationally demonstrate God’s existence.

 

René Descartes: the father of modern philosophy, asserted “I think, therefore I am”

 

John Locke: The father of modern empiricism

 

To be is to be perceived ~ David Hume

 

Immanuel Kant: Theistic empiricist. Nothing could destroy his personal belief in God but he also believed that a knowledge of God cannot be demonstrated by “pure reason”

 

Søren Kierkegaard: Father of modern existentialism

 

Friedrich Nietzsche: Father of atheistic existentialism, asserted “God is Dead”

 

Jean-Paul Sartre – describes man as a “useless passion”. Declared he was not happy with his own conclusion that God does not exist.

 

Charles Darwin: Proponent of macroevolution

 

Sigmund Freud: Founder of psychoanalysis

 

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Monday, November 22, 2021

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (novel #192)

The cellist confuses her. She doesn’t know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. ~ narrative regarding Arrow

 

A beautiful, poignant, masterpiece.

 

The Cellist of Sarajevo is set during the siege of Sarajevo (April 1992 –

February 1996). The cellist refers to Vedran Smailović who played Albinoni’s Adagio, in the streets of Sarajevo for 22 days, in homage to 22 civilians who were killed while waiting in line to buy bread.

 

But the novel is fiction, and the cellist is never named, for the story is not truly about the cellist. It is about three souls, who like the cellist try to find normalcy in their desperate fight for survival.

 

Kenan is a family man, simply trying to keep his family alive. Kenan loves his city, and grieves for what it has become.

 

He knows that if he wants to be one of the people who rebuild the city, one of the people who have the right even to speak about how Sarajevo should repair itself, then he has to go outside and face the men on the hills. His family needs water, and he will get it for them.

 

Every fourth day or so, unless there is merciful rain, he must make a dangerous journey, within mortar range, and sniper range of the “men on the hills” simply to get water. When he closes the apartment door behind him, he pauses…

 

What he wants is to go back inside, crawl into bed, and sleep until this war is over. He wants to take his younger daughter to a carnival. He wants to sit up, anxious, waiting for his older daughter to return from a movie with a boy he doesn’t really like. He wants his son, the middle child, only ten years old, to think about anything other than how long it will be before he can join the army and fight.

 

 

Dragan is older, his wife and adult child, thank God, got out and are safe in Italy, but Dragan…

 

He doesn’t want to live under siege for the rest of this life, but to abandon the city to the men on the hills would mean that he would be forever homeless.

 

Before the tale is told, Dragan will risk his life to save a dead man.

 

All that matters is what he thinks. In the Sarajevo of his memory, it was completely unacceptable to have a dead man lying in the street. In the Sarajevo of today it’s normal.

 

And then there is Arrow who used to be someone else. She is only Arrow now, a weapon, a sniper – the best sniper – of the besieged forces within the city.

 

…she’s different from the snipers on the hills. She shoots only soldiers, they shoot unarmed men, women, children. When they kill a person, they seek a result that is far greater than the elimination of that individual. They are trying to kill the city.

 

When asked, she does not give her true name. She is not that person. She hopes she will be again one day.

 

She knows that in the city of her memory she wasn’t hungry, and she wasn’t bruised, and her shoulder didn’t bear the weight of a gun.

 

Arrow is sent by her commander to defend the cellist. They know an enemy sniper has been dispatched to kill the cellist. Arrow must stop him.

 

The cellist confuses her. She doesn’t know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. He can’t believe he will stop the war. He can’t believe he will save lives. Perhaps he has gone insane, but she doesn’t think so.

 

The fateful moment comes, she has the enemy sniper in her sights…

 

…she is, at once, sure of two things. The first is that she does not want to kill this man, and the second is that she must.

 

More would be a spoiler. It is powerful, poignant, bittersweet. It brought tears to my eyes.

 

My rating 4 ½ out of 5 stars



 

Other excerpts about the main characters

 

Kenan

 

What he wants is to go back inside, crawl into bed, and sleep until this war is over. He wants to take his younger daughter to a carnival. He wants to sit up, anxious, waiting for his older daughter to return from a movie with a boy he doesn’t really like. He wants his son, the middle child, only ten years old, to think about anything other than how long it will be before he can join the army and fight.

 

It isn’t clear to him how the world will think of the city now that thousands have been murdered. He suspects that what the world wants most is not to think of it at all.

 

They will rebuild the city without knowing whether this is the last time it will be done. They will earn the right to do this, any way they can, and when it is done, they’ll rest.

 

He knows that if he wants to be one of the people who rebuild the city, one of the people who have the right even to speak about how Sarajevo should repair itself, then he has to go outside and face the men on the hills. His family needs water, and he will get it for them.

 

Dragan

 

All that matters is what he thinks. In the Sarajevo of his memory, it was completely unacceptable to have a dead man lying in the street. In the Sarajevo of today it’s normal.

 

He doesn’t want to live under siege for the rest of this life, but to abandon the city to the men on the hills would mean that he would be forever homeless.

 

Arrow

 

It’s a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won’t last forever. ~ Arrow

 

She knows that in the city of her memory she wasn’t hungry, and she wasn’t bruised, and her shoulder didn’t bear the weight of a gun.

The cellist confuses her. She doesn’t know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. He can’t believe he will stop the war. He can’t believe he will save lives. Perhaps he has gone insane, but she doesn’t think so.

 

…she is, at once, sure of two things. The first is that she does not want to kill this man, and the second is that she must.

 

She kills them because she hates them. Does the fact that she has good reason to hate them absolve her?

 


My name is Alisa ~ (you may guess whose words these are)

 

 



I understand there is some drama in the personal life of the author. I am not informed enough to offer commentary. This review is only my opinion of this marvelous work of fiction.


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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (novel #191)

And with that anger, he [Ender] decided he was strong enough to defeat them –
the teachers, his enemies.

 

Ender’s Game is a Sci-Fi fantasy set in Earth’s future. Ender is a child prodigy and at age six is in training, along with other gifted children, to assess their suitability to be Earth’s hero and the savior of the human race. 

 

Some decades earlier, Earth was attacked by a superior insect-like alien force, un-affectionately known as the Buggers. Humanity was on the verge of annihilation, when one pilot saved the world in a miraculous and bold maneuver.

 

The powers that be believe it is only a matter of time before a new and larger invasion force returns. They intend to pre-empt the attack, by bringing the fight to the Buggers. They also believe that children, with their aptitude for multi-tasking video games are humanity’s best hope. 

 

And in test after test, Ender rises to the top, as the best of the best. After he clears Battle School in record time, he is sent to Command School in deep space. Some of his fellow students are part of his command team. They practice and drill, and practice and drill against the computer simulation – the game – of Ender's Game.

 

But there is a dark and carefully guarded secret about the game, that neither Ender, his team, nor the reader can guess – until an amazing climax.

 

(I have to smugly boast that I caught on to the big reveal, a few paragraphs before Ender. It was staggering).

 

There is a slightly anti-climactic chapter, which is prologue to successive books in the Ender-Verse.

 

My rating 3 ½ out of 5 stars



 

This was a reread, but nearly as good the second time, and in some ways better when I knew the secret all along, though it lacked the same WOW! If you don’t like Sci-Fi, you might still like Ender’s Game. The human drama drives the plot more than the technology or aliens. I’ll read more in the Ender-Verse. Have you read Ender’s Game? What did you think.


My version: I have a leather bound Easton Press edition, signed by Orson Scott Card - a gift from my daughter.




 

Film rendition: The 2013 film with Asa Butterfield as Ender and Harrison Ford is decent, though it can hardly do it well in two hours. In the book, Ender’s training takes six years, but the child actors in the film don’t age, so it seems like all the training is done in a few months. But the biggest flaw in the film was the moment of the reveal about the game. They dumbed it down to make sure the audience got it, and it wasn’t as powerful.



 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Recap of Novels 181 - 190

Average rating of novels 181 – 190:  3.3 stars (out of 5)

 


 

181.  ★★★                     The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

182.  ★★★ ½                Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

183.  ★★★ ½               The Loved One

184.  ★★★ ½               Murder on the Orient Express

185.  ★★★                     The Corrections
186.  
★★★ ½                The Worm Ouroboros
187.  
★★★ ½                Rebecca

188.  ★★ ½                   The Collector

189.  ★★★ ½                The Haunting of Hill House

190.  ★★★ ½                At Play in the Fields of the Lord

 

 

Favorite: Murder on the Orient Express

 

Least Favorite: The Collector

 

Best Hero: Hercule Poirot from Murder on the Orient Express


Best Heroine: Lady Mevrian from The Worm Ouroboros

     I gotta back this up with a quotation from her: 

You men do say that women’s hearts be faint and feeble, but I shall show thee the contrary is in me. Study to satisfy me. Else will I assuredly smite thee to death with thine own sword.

 

Best Villain: Frederick Clegg from The Collector

 

Most interesting/Complex character: Lewis Moon from At Play in the Fields of the Lord

 

Best Quotation: "…boredom is a pleasing antidote to fear." ~ Maximlian de Winter from Rebecca

 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen (novel #190)

For every soul that has been truly saved we have made thousands of Yoyos, thousands of ‘rice Christians,’ thousands of beggars and hypocrites, with no place and no voice in a strange world which holds them in contempt, with neither hope nor grace! ~ Martin Quarrier to fellow missionary Leslie Huben 

 

Much earlier in my reading quest, I read a novel subtitled: A Tale Without a Hero, and though I didn’t really think it appropriate for Vanity Fair

 

It would have been perfect for At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

 

That might sound like a criticism; it is not. Neither is there a villain.

 

The drama is set in South America, somewhere along the Amazon river basin, probably in the 1960s. The cast includes American evangelical missionaries; a Spanish Catholic priest; a pair of American bush-pilots and ne’er-do-wells; the local despot el Commandante, and the real problem, the natives – the Niaruna. 

 

You might also call this, "When Worlds Collide".

 

The Evangélicos and Catalicós compete for the lost souls of the Niaruna. The government cooperates and confounds, the pilots try, and never quite manage, to keep clear of el Commandante’s control, and the Niaruna contest with the jungle, with rival tribes, with the 20th Century, with the white man’s germs, and with one another.

 

They are all fragile human souls, pitiable at times, admirable at others, and always struggling.

 

If there is a single main character, it is Lewis Moon, one of the American pilots, known to everyone simply as Moon. He is a Native-American, Cheyenne to be precise.

 

So long as he kept moving he would be all right. For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day.

 

But Moon is lost.

 

He felt bereft, though of what he did not know. He was neither white nor Indian, man nor animal, but some mute, naked strand of protoplasm. 

 

Gradually, he begins to identify with the Niaruna, and then suddenly with the help of a natural hallucinogenic he joins them. He flies his plane into the jungle until it runs out of fuel and he parachutes out, and attempts to assimilate.

 

And then the real struggle begins.

 

My rating 3 ½ out of 5 stars



 


As I’ve stated, it is a tale without a hero, but a compelling tale nonetheless. The characters are all believable, and apart from el Commandante, not overly stereotyped. Each struggling to find meaning and purpose. I’ll probably read more by Matthiessen.

 

I began this with trepidation for how Matthiessen would treat the Christian missionaries. But Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist, treated them as flawed human beings – that’s fair enough – but never as villains. I believe his greatest indictment was not of their sanctity nor sincerity, but rather their system: their failure to attempt to understand the culture of the souls they were trying to reach – also certainly fair in some contexts. He did seem to treat the Priest with a bit more respect than the evangelicals, and even though the Catholics were losing ground, Father Xantes was always calm, always courteous. There was one scene I found amusing. The two evangelicals, Martin Quarrier and Leslie Huben, along with the priest try and stop a native from making off with a motored canoe:

 

For one wild ecumenical moment the three holy men, grunting and thrashing in the mud and water, did violent battle with their maddened convert and his outraged machine.

 

Other excerpts:

 

“Why do you hate and fear us so,” the padre said, “when all we feel towards you is mild astonishment?” ~ Father Xantes to Martin Quarrier

 

“Why, I’m a missionary.” Moon said. “I’m at work in the fields of the Lord.” ~ Moon derisively to Martin Quarrier

 

And then in his last radio transmission from his plane, and not in his right mind…

 

“I’m at play in the fields of the Lord,” Moon said; he removed his earphones. “Repeat, at play in the fields of the Lord.”


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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (novel #189)

The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

 

The Haunting of Hill House is of course, a horror story. 

 

Or is it? It is often called a gothic horror story. I certainly agree with the gothic part, but horror? I’m not so sure. 

 

Hill House has a sinister reputation, and it comes to the attention of Dr. John Mantague, an investigator of the supernatural. He’s probably not taken very serious by his academic colleagues, and he sets out to occupy Hill House one summer to document its – peculiarities? – with the assistance of volunteers, Theodora and Eleanor, who are to take notes and be corroborating witnesses. Both have had alleged experience with the paranormal. The party is completed by Luke Sanderson, skeptic, nephew of the owner, and apparent heir to Hill House.

 

The story is told primarily from Eleanor’s perspective, which casts an uncertain light on the mysteries of Hill House. I thought Eleanor was a flake from nearly the first minute she is introduced, and not because she believes in the supernatural. As the story unfolds, I realize she isn’t just a bit flakey, she’s rather nuts, and in the end, quite mad.

 

Which makes her entire perspective unreliable. I’m certain this was Jackson’s intent. Vague sort of SPOILER ALERT ahead.

 

I’m not sure if Hill House was haunted, or if Eleanor is just mad. Or something in between. Perhaps Hill House drove her mad, or perhaps it possessed her. 

 

Is there a term for that author’s device of intentional ambiguity? Especially of the climactic ending? If there is, Jackson uses it well, coupled with her beautiful prose.

 

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

 

I wanted to love this, or at least be terrified by it…but neither. It isn’t terribly scary, and I was a bit disappointed in the ambiguous ending. It's still very much worth the read. I’ll definitely read more by Shirley Jackson.

 

And don’t take my word for it. Stephen King listed it among the finest horror novels of the late 20thCentury, and Neil Gaiman named it as the scariest book of fiction he’d ever read. (From this I conclude Gaiman never read Ulysses.)

 

 

My rating 3 ½ out of 5 stars



 

 

I read this for R.I.P. XVI, and The Classics Club spin #28

 

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