Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wit's End

by Karen Joy Fowler

Not sure how I should review this book. On the one hand, it was well-written enough and addictive enough to cause me to lose all self-control and read it every free moment until I finished it. On the other, the aftertaste it left me with was mostly bleak, modern, meaningless, the impression of a world surrounded by mean people.

Besides that it was on sale at Costco, I bought it because it’s about the author of a famous mystery series and how her books were entangled with her real life. She had taken a very dear friend and made him into a character in one of her books – the murderer, in fact – and now his daughter is wondering why. The resolution isn’t as satisfying as an Agatha Christie would be, but it is realistic, true to human nature. And after all, Wit’s End is not a murder mystery and doesn’t claim to be.

I liked that the novel is interspersed with excerpts from the (fictional) book in question … and reading these helps you unravel what is going on in the novel. I didn’t like that the excerpts are written in the exact same style as the overall narrative. (Someone else noticed that too. Click here for his also-mixed review.)

The blurbs on the book say things like, “Fowler’s subtle humor glides across these pages.” True. There are lots of clever turns of phrase and a few truly funny moments. However, often it seems that you can see the author is trying to be clever. The chuckles don’t seem to arise as serendipitously as they do in an Alexander McCall Smith. Anyone who thinks Wit’s End is funny ought to read his No. 1 Ladies’ Dective Agency series or his Portugese Irregular Verbs series.

Perhaps the bad aftertaste simply came from the fact that the book is set in modern Santa Cruz, California, with all the social and spiritual bleakness that implies. Sample incident: the herione is reluctantly invited to hang out at a bar with people ten years younger than herself. She goes (reluctantly), gets drunk, and ends up bawling when something reminds her of a loved one she lost. After going home, she gets on the Internet, and finds that one of her drinking buddies has already described this humilitating incident on a blog and made some additional catty comments about her.

Another part of the bad taste, perhaps, was that cults, particularly white supremacist ones, figure big in both the plot of the book and the plots of the fictional books-within-the-book. Cults are unpleasant to think about, and when presented in isolation, instantly create a bad impression of all organized religion.

So that’s it. My takeaway impression is that the book is dark, ironic, and somehow a bit shallow … but to be fair I have to note that it is very addictive, and very true to how people behave in this dark, ironic, somewhat shallow society. According to the review I link to above, The Jane Austen Book Club is much better.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Little Gorilla

Story and pictures by Ruth Bornstein, 1976

"Once there was a little gorilla, and everybody loved him." This reassuring tale for toddlers will let them know that not only does just about everybody in the great green forest love them, but all those same animals will still love them even when they get big.

It's funny how things come back to you. Almost two years ago, in the middle of the night as I was rocking my newborn son, this story from my own childhood came back to me, slowly, almost word for word. I sat there reciting it to him with tender postpartum tears flowing down my cheeks.

The Hiding Place

Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971

Having grown up in the church, I’ve heard a lot about Corrie ten Boom. I’d heard many anecdotes from the book, seen the movie, and even read the comic book (in which the scenes and dialogue were faithfully preserved, but unfortunately Corrie and Betsey, who were in their 50’s when they were arrested by the Nazis, look like shapely young Marvel Comics heroines, Corrie with long brown hair and Betsey with a chestnut bun).
Anyway, all that to say, I felt like I knew the story – and it turns out I did know most of it – but I’d never actually read the book. So thank you to whoever dropped off their copy at the used items exchange that I recently picked it up from.
Either Corrie ten Boom or the Sherrills are very good storytellers. The book is simply told, yet so well-written that it goes very fast. The parts you usually hear the most about are those that take place in the concentration camps, but frankly those are the least enjoyable parts of the book. I enjoyed much more the chapters spent with the whole ten Boom family, in their one-room-wide house/watch shop in Haarlem. It gets very interesting when the Nazis invade Holland and the family gets involved in the underground. But if you’ve taken the trouble to read the earlier chapters, you see that their involvement in helping and hiding Jews was a natural outgrowth of the exemplary life they’d already lived for many years. Long before the invasion, Corrie’s father Casper was known as the “Grand Old Man of Haarlem” to whom all kinds of people brought their troubles as well as their broken watches. When his children grew up and two of the four married and moved out, Casper ten Boom welcomed a series of foster children into his home. And this was years before the war.
As I watched this Grand Old Man wisely parent his daughters, do quality work in his watch shop, and then eventually reach out to his entire city, it dawned on me that were it not for Casper ten Boom’s faithful service of his family and his Lord, there would be no Hiding Place. He’s one of those remarkable fathers whose character undergirds an adventure story, like Charles Ingalls in the Little House books. Among other lessons of the Hiding Place, what a difference a good father makes!
Casper ten Boom also provides some unintentional humor in the story, as he never really “gets” some of the rules of the Underground … such as that everyone in the Underground goes by the name Smit.
Those familiar with the story will remember that in the concentration camps, Betsey ten Boom achieved a level of serenity, selflessness and compassion that is truly unbelievable … unless we remember that it was not her, but Jesus giving her the strength to pray for her tormentors, love everyone, and see visions of the future. Corrie, who was also a godly woman but less mystical, with her narration provides the voice of a more “normal person” that the reader can relate to.
The most amazing thing about this story is that it’s true.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Disney's Aladdin

OK, I know the film is 20 years old … I got thinking about it again because we have a little Aladdin book that my son likes to look at. And in thinking about Disney’s Aladdin, I’ve finally been able to pinpoint what bothered me about the film.

I like many things about this film. I like the way Aladdin and Jasmine look; I like the songs; I like the chase sequences. The fact that Aladdin, the street rat, and Jasmine, the princess, both begin the movie feeling “trapped” is appropriate to the setting and the story. (Though Jasmine isn’t nearly as trapped as she should be. How does she get away with refusing suitors? And where are the sultan’s dozen or so other daughters?)

The arrival of the genie is supposed to bring the solution to the lovers’ trapped feeling. But the genie brings problems of his own, for the plot. First of all, there is the annoying pop-culture banter that might be appropriate on a talk show, but that ruins the feel and escapism of the movie. (For me, anyway. Hollywood is something I want to escape from, not to.)

But more serious are the issues with the genie’s magic. Magic, of course, always goes by strict rules, and in fact one of the themes of the film is that the genie is strictly bound by the rules of his nature. But unfortunately, the writers did not stick to this consistently.

When Aladdin asks the genie to “make me a prince!” the genie provides him with clothes, P.R., and an entourage, but Aladdin, predictably, feels like a fraud, and not up to the task of ruling as sultan, which will come with marrying Jasmine. At the end of the film, when Aladdin goes to make his third wish, the genie exclaims, “One bona-fide prince pedigree coming up!” Which raises some big questions. Is the pedigree going to be magical forgery? Or is the genie, in fact, able to change people’s past and their very identity? The latter would be a dangerous concept to introduce. But either way, forgery or changing the past, why didn’t the genie do it in the first place, when Aladdin said, “Make me a prince”?

This leads to the question of how much discretion the genie has over which wishes he grants. On their first meeting, Aladdin tricks the genie into getting him out of the Cave of Wonders, without counting it as a wish. Waiving that requirement appears to be up to the genie, who says, “All right, you baaad boy. But no more freebies!” But later, when Aladdin is unconscious at the bottom of the ocean, the genie desperately tries to get him to “make the wish” to save him, finally taking a pitiful sag of the head as a nod. These incidents seem to seriously undermine the basic premise that the genie is bound by the rules of his nature.

What do you think, fellow story hounds? Do flaws in a book or movie’s plot prevent you from really enjoying it … or can you enjoy it anyway as long as there are compensating factors like great music or action? And what do you think about showing kids movies with holes in the plot?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mourning My Lost Library

We move a lot, so in our lifestyle it's almost routine for our library to be broken up and purged every year or two. When I acquire books, I know that they'll be with me for only a while.
Still, the collection I'd gathered in our most recent house (above), had some real gems in it. Including the following:
The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and Tales of the Long Bow by G.K. Chesterton
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
Blame It On the Brain? by, I think, Ed White (ironic that I can't remember his name, huh?)
When People Are Big and God Is Small by Edward T. Welch
Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson
Figuring Foreigners Out by Craig StItalicorti
Under the Unpredictable Plant and Leap Over A Wall by Eugene Petersen
the complete Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
... as well as numerous books by P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Alexander McCall Smith, and hard copies of Credenda/Agenda.
If you meet any of my books wandering the world, be sure they are all excellent reads.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


The theme “motley crew of misfits thrown together, eventually become a family” is a staple of childrens’ movies. It can be done very poorly, especially when it’s the overtly-discussed main point of the movie (e.g. Ice Age). However, a similar thing often happens incidentally to a really great adventure (e.g. The Hobbit). In Up, this theme is strong, but it’s natural part of an exciting plot that has a lot more to offer.
The first ten minutes of the movie make the protagonist a real person, with a history, that you care about. The rest of the film is adventure – with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but lots and lots of real losses as well, including precious parts of the main character’s history. Loss, in fact, is a major theme of this film.
No plot detail is wasted. Sidekicks are not just there to be cute … they play a role. So does every detail in the setup, right down to the tennis balls on the feet of an old man’s walker. Also, look for visual spoofs of Star Wars.


Summer, by Edith Wharton, 1916

Charity Royall is the smartest, prettiest girl in her tiny Massachusets hamlet. But she can’t shake the shame of knowing that when she was a little girl, she was adopted from The Mountain, where the people “aren’t half human.” When a handsome, well-educated young architect comes to the village to look for old houses, gossip and (eventually) passion fly. By the end of the summer, things will be very different for Charity.

Because of the period in which it was written, Summer may remind modern readers of Jane Austen. However, I found the language a lot easier to understand than in Austen’s books. This might be because it was written some decades later, and because it is set in America, not Britain. It is a fairly short book and goes quickly.

One thing that makes Austen fun (and funny) is the scale of moral and social values from which she writes. Also she never comes right out and says it, it’s clear from the way Austen writes about her characters which ones are behaving well or foolishly, which are ladies and gentlemen and which are not. Often the humor comes from the way the well-bred characters respond to foolishness on the part of others.

Wharton in Summer is just the opposite. One thing that makes the book such a pleasure to read is the nonjudgementalness with which Wharton reports the thoughts, behavior and choices of her characters. Charity is not cultured or well-educated, and almost all her choices are foolish ones. Nevertheless, she is a very sympathetic character and we can always identify with her emotions and actions. Wharton portrays her characters without rosiness, indulgence or sentimentality, but (I think it is not too much to say) with a great deal of grace and love. She has nothing but realistic understanding even for Charity’s alchoholic, sometimes lecherous guardian.

This book could break your heart if you read it as a teenager, especially if you were expecting a classic romantic plot and resolution. It didn’t break mine, because Wharton gives you enough red flags that you can brace yourself for what’s coming. But it has really stayed with me. Might be an excellent book to read with teens.

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, 2008

It was in 2006 that I first heard the term “trans fats.” Returning to the U.S. after a four-year absence, we discovered that many food products now boasted they had “none” of something we had never before heard of. A new food baddie had been discovered, or perhaps made up. This constant turnover in nutritional buzzwords is one aspect of a wider phenomenon which Michael Pollan critiques in his book.

Pollan’s basic thesis is that the nutrient-by-nutrient approach to healthy eating has served to confuse consumers by taking nutrition out of the realm of common sense and putting it in the hands of the experts, those scientists who alone can detect the nutrients that are invisible to the naked eye. The same approach has been very profitable to the processed-food industry. If the experts say a nutrient is bad, manufacturers can find a way to remove it from their products. If the experts say a nutrient is good, it can be added to just about anything.

The problem, says Pollan, is that foods are probably greater than the sum of their parts, and certainly greater than the sum of the very limited number of nutrients that have so far been discovered. That’s why taking a supplement that contains vitamin C, vitamin A, and folic acid is not as good for you as eating a carrot. It’s a classic case of scientific reductionism. Reductionism fails again and again, but the modern dream lives on. We keep trying to use our limited knowledge of science to make foods that are better than the plant and animal foods that God causes to grow right out of the ground for us. And of course the foods we make are always much worse than the God-given foods, though sometimes it takes us decades to figure this out. So we spent a generation eating hydrogenated vegetable oils, now known as trans fats, because the experts told us that they were better for us than lard. That's right, lard. Pollan demonstrates that they're actually much worse for us. Than - I must say it again - lard. That was the biggest surprise in the book, for me.

(An interesting side note: part of the blame for Americans’ susceptibility to the notion that basic, natural foods such as meat and cheese could be unqualifiedly bad, can be laid at the door of the church. There has been a strain of asceticism that keeps popping up in the church at various times and places that mistrusts the enjoyment of food, viewing such sensual pleasure as an indulgence of people’s “animal nature.” Its roots lie in the acceptance of the ancient Greek notion that matter is evil and spirit is good. This notion, by the way, is in defiance of the Bible which teaches us that “the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of what we eat or drink” and that “God gives us all things richly to enjoy.” This mistrust of table pleasures goes way back, but it flowered in the modern age in such characters as the Seventh-Day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, whose contributions to American food faddism Pollan briefly documents [56 – 57]. Just more proof that error in the church can have bizarre, long-term effects in the greater culture.)

Pollan closes his book with some rules of thumb that can be summarized: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” and include injunctions like “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” So: hooray for steak! Hooray for eggs and fish and chicken! Hooray for milk and yoghurt and real cheese (not “cheese food”)! And double hooray for apples and cantaloupe and peppers and tomatoes and cherries and sweet corn and mangos and squash and carrots and watermelon. And lest you think I am a food puritan, hooray for homemade cake as well.

Rabbit Hill

Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson. Viking Press, 1946

I read this as a child, really enjoyed it, and a few months ago was delighted to discover a copy of it in my mother and father in law’s library.

Little Georgie rabbit, his Mother and Father, his Uncle Anandas, Porkey the Woodchuck, Willie Fieldmouse, Phewie the Skunk, and all the rest of the animals on the Hill are delighted to hear that new Folks are coming to occupy the empty house and garden. But will they be good Folks, the kind who don’t trap or poison, and who plant lots of delicious vegetables? Will they spoil everything by bringing a dog or a cat? The animal community, not always harmonious, organizes themselves to find out.

If this book were published today, it would probably be called an environmental parable. Fortunately it was called no such thing, and I was free to enjoy it for the simple animal story that it is.

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs, 2007, 332 pages

I surprised myself: I liked this book.
Judged by its cover – and, OK, its premise – it’s the last book I would want to pick up. An Esquire editor decides he’s going to obey the Bible as literally as possible for a year. And then write a book about it. The cover of the book features a picture of him posing in front of the NYC skyline, dressed in a Moseslike costume, two small stone tablets in one hand and a latte in the other, eyes rolled crazily skyward. Since I bought the 2008 edition, there are five pages of promotional blurbs in the front, in which the most common word is “funny.” Great. A “funny” book about the Bible, written by a secular journalist as a career stunt. It will surely be annoying and repellant, consisting of mockery, misunderstanding, and boring secularist clich├ęs.
But I was wrong. Jacobs, while he doesn’t become a believer, takes the Bible much more seriously than I expected him to. The following passage is a good example of his attitude:
Day 91 … One of the reasons that I embarked on this experiment was to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person. I still believe that. And I still plan on making a complete fool of myself to get this point across. But as with everything involving religion, my project has become much more complicated. The spiritual journey now takes up far more of my time. My friend Roger was right. It’s not like studying Sumo wrestling in Japan. It’s more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can’t get a handle on it. (page 119)
Jacobs doesn’t believe in the creation, the flood, the inspiration of the Bible, or the deity of Christ. But he displays none of the dismissive contempt that we’ve come to expect from secularist unbelievers. He is actually interested in the Bible – interested enough to spend a year not just researching it, but, well, doing it.
Most things are best understood when you actually live them. Some things are only understood this way, and this is particularly true of virtue. Jacobs recognizes that behavior can influence feelings and even beliefs. He is willing to be transformed by his experiment, even to the point of believing in God, though he recognizes that the transformation will be limited by his prior beliefs and values. He may be willing to grow a beard, wear a robe, and “stone” strangers in the park, but he will not spank his two-year-old, except once with a Nerf bat. (His son laughs, grabs the bat, and whacks him back with it.)
As Christians, our prior loyalty to Christ severely limits our ability to learn about other belief systems by “living” them. I cannot offer incense to Vishnu, or say “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet.” I cannot spend a year working for Planned Parenthood. Due to the respective natures of secularism and Judeo-Christianity, Jacobs has more freedom to participate on an experimental basis. It’s fun – and informative – to watch him dive in.

The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker

“Go me to the bathroom before you go to bed.” “The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during a storm scene in a play.” “To take a simple case, one can throw a cat into the room but one cannot throw the room with a cat …”
These three delightful lines are just a tiny sample of the chuckles that await anyone who opens Stuff of Thought. Pinker loves jokes, and he keeps them coming. As a linguist, he has a warehouseful.
It was Steve Pinker’s book The Language Instinct that first got me interested in linguistics, and though my memory of that book has faded a bit over the years, I think this book is even more delightful. Pinker loves words (especially verbs), and funny phrases, and he shares this enthusiasm with his readers, making even the most complex linguistic theories and concepts accessible – at least most of the time. (He did lose me a few times.)
Pinker draws examples from arenas in which words matter – “There is nothing ‘mere’ about semantics!” (page 2). By my estimate, his examples are drawn from the following fields (in order of decreasing frequency):
everyday life (including jokes)
Conspicuous by its absence is theology, another field of study in which words matter a great deal and people have killed and died over their meaning. There’s a reason for this. Pinker is concerned with “the relation of words to reality” (page 3), and God is just not real to him. He is hardly mentioned except in the chapter on cursing. God not being real, statements about Him can have little importance.
What is real to Pinker is science. This becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses. Pinker’s – ‘faith in science’ is too weak a phrase – worship of science first rears its head in the otherwise excellent chapter on metaphor. Pinker writes, “Most practitioners before the modern scientific era, and most purveyors of pseudoscience today, rambunctiously mix their metaphors … Loose and overlapping analogies are also a mark of bad science writing and teaching” (255 – 256). True, but this is also true of bad philosophy and theology, and even, in a different sense, of bad poetry and literature.
Pinker tips his hand when he writes at the top of page 257 that “[the existence of] Legitimate scientific analogies … raise the question of why metaphors should be so useful in the sphere of knowledge where we feel we have the surest grip on the truth.” Later in the same paragraph, he approvingly quotes Richard Boyd: “use of metaphor is one of many devices available to the scientific community to accomplish the task of accommodation of language to the casual structure of the world.” In other words, to accurately describe reality. As if the scientific community were the only people who make a serious effort to do this.
Another consequence of Pinker’s worship of science makes itself felt in the chapter on indirectness and politeness, where Pinker interrupts himself every few paragraphs to speculate on how or why this or that social use of language could have evolved. This becomes quite tedious after a while.
In the last few pages of his book, Pinker addresses the fear of determinism … the fear that the type of thoughts we can think are limited, even prescribed, by language itself. He disagrees with this view – language does not only block us from reality, he says, it can also allow us access to it. I agree with him, because I believe that God designed language as a way for human beings to apprehend truth. Pinker believes it because Science will save the day:
“Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of a liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science. … In higher education, people can be disabused of their fallacies in statistics or evolution … Or they can unlearn their faulty folk economics … In science and engineering, people can dream up analogies to understand their subjects … In the governance of institutions, openness and accountability can be reinforced … This underscores the importance of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it. The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.” (435 – 439)
Ironically, Pinker has just spent the previous four or so chapters making a convincing case for our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. Through examining our language, he has shown that the way people think about the physical world does not match Newtonian physics, let alone the more recent kinds. The way people think about truth does not match formal logic. And social factors make people say and think things they wouldn’t if truth were their only concern. And furthermore, all these ways of thinking about the world are astonishingly, even delightfully, persistent. Pinker clearly enjoys these discussions of the way the human mind works, and after reading them, one expects him to say, “This is apparently the way people were designed to think. Instead of fighting it, we should accept this as the nature of humanity and see what we can learn from it about man and God.” That is what G.K. Chesterton would say. But Pinker backs off from this and simply asserts that, though it will be hard, we can change these faulty ways of thinking with good scientific education. Good luck, Mr. Pinker. People have been trying that project for about 250 years now, and it has been failing. But I still enjoyed your book.

Your Child's Health

Your Child’s Health, by Barton D. Schmitt. A friend gave us this. It is a reference book, not only about common childhood illnesses and injuries, but also about behavior problems.
As a health reference book, I prefer it to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Guide to Your Child’s Symptoms, which we also have. GCS organizes its information in a chart, with symptoms in the left column, a one-sentence description of the possible cause in the middle column, and a short “Action to Take” in the right column. The “Possible Cause” is often a list of different things, and the action to take is often simply “consult your pediatrician.” Whereas YCH is organized according to common diseases and injuries. For each disease, there is a description of the symptoms and characteristics, a cross-reference to similar conditions, an explanation of the cause and of the expected course. It then says under what conditions to call the pediatrician, and gives helpful suggestions for home care. Net result: reading GCS you feel like a blindfolded person being told, “Take two steps ahead. Now one to the left,” whereas YCH lifts the blindfold or at least allows you peek out from underneath it. To be fair I should mention that GCS has illustrations and YCH does not.
On the subject of behavior, I mostly read YCH with fascination, imagining the day when Little D will be going through these stages (for example, toilet training). Many of the methods that are so well explained in YCH sound pretty good, especially in the realm of things such as toilet training that are merely training and do not involve sin in the child. In cases like this, it is nice to have a detailed description of one method of dealing with a certain kind of challenge. If I didn’t have that, I would again feel in the dark, not knowing what to do and terrified that it would be wrong. There is also a method for time-outs described in helpful detail.
However, as with any book, you cannot always trust YCH when it comes to heart issues. For example, one discipline method it recommends is withholding eye contact. According to How to Really Love Your Child, eye contact should never be withheld to communicate disapproval, and I agree.
Another example: its says you should ignore whining, and even certain mild kinds of tantrums. Of course how seriously you take these things depends on the child’s age, but in general I think whining should be addressed. In Don’t Make Me Count To Three, it’s recommended that you treat it as an issue of self-control. “Come back in five minutes and ask for juice with self-control in your voice.”
A third example: it recommends that you not make an issue of it if your teenager rebels in “minor areas” such as: clothing, hairstyle, music, interests (so far so pretty good), friends (!), religion (!!), and philosophy (!!!). On the other hand, what YCH considers “major areas” is: experimentation with drugs, truancy, or stealing. Truly, truancy is much more serious than religion. How can a parent expect to influence the child away from drugs, truancy, and stealing if they cannot teach them a religion and philosophy adequate to it?