Category Archives: book reviews
Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked on the video before reading, I’m not invoking, nor am I exemplifying, Godwin’s Law. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
I began writing about Philip Pullman’s series of novels His Dark Materials with a discussion of what I believe to be the wrong reasons for dismissing, criticizing, or derogating it. Many, especially in Christian circles, have dismissed it as a piece of atheist propaganda meant to destroy children’s belief in God. Pullman, in essays about C. S. Lewis, has made the counter claim that Lewis, in his Narnia books, was propagandizing to bring children into the Christian fold. My contention was that whether or not either one of them was right was beside the point in terms of the literary merit of either series of books. What I want to do briefly here is to explore that blurry boundary between writing with a passionate aim and propagandizing, and how these relate to art.
To some extent art is about technique and skill. The very word “technique” comes from the Greek technēs, very inadequately translated as “art”. It is better translated as “skill” or “craft” or “art” in the sense of the “art” of doing something. The word for builder or carpenter, tektōn (the word, by the way, which describes the professions of Joseph, wife of Mary, and Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, and which doesn’t necessarily imply what we call carpentry), is related to technēs. Without skill or craftsmanship, without having mastery of one’s craft and doing a good job at it, one cannot create art, be it painting a picture, carving a statue, building a good house, building a stone wall, writing a novel, singing a song, or making a movie. Read the rest of this entry
A few years ago I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, one of the most talked-about–and controversial–series of books for children and young adults. As a prolegomena to actually writing about the series directly, I want to start with some of the philosophical issues that surrounded and still surround it. The reason I do so is that much of the discourse on this series of books hinged on issues that were not really literary at all.
It is well known that Pullman is an avowed atheist and that His Dark Materials was, in part, at least, conceived as a “response” to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The latter information is especially interesting, since J. K. Rowling is known as a great fan of Lewis’s work, and partly conceived the Harry Potter series (especially its length of seven volumes) as a homage to Lewis. It is fascinating that the two most prominent authors of children’s books in the late 20th and early 21st centuries both wrote their major works in light of their reactions to and feelings about C. S. Lewis and Narnia. Read the rest of this entry
I noticed on my stats page that someone had read my review of Gladiator, which I posted a long time ago. I’ve got some other movie, book, and other reviews that I’ve got planned (some written years ago, some that I’m planning to write), so I thought I’d make a central index for them as I get them written and posted. Within genres, reviews are alphabetized by the title of the work reviewed. Enjoy!
A Double Shadow (this goes to the index for it, since I wrote several essays on it, none of them a traditional review–but, oh well)
Once more British author David Gemmell has triumphed with a brilliant piece of historical fiction/fantasy, Lion of Macedon. Gemmell made his name with the Drenai series, novels set in a world roughly similar to late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages. These follow the fortunes of the Greek-like people known as the Drenai over a period of many centuries. Gemmell has also written the Jerusalem Man series, which deals with Arthurian themes and spans from the Middle Ages to the post-apocalyptic future. With Lion of Macedon, Gemmell has entered new territory, basing his story on actual historical people and events.
Lion of Macedon deals with a period of history which changed the world and whose effects are with us still: the rise of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. The conquests first of Philip and then his son set the stage for the wide diffusion of Hellenistic culture. It was out of this matrix that the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, and thus ultimately our own, arose. This fascinating period has been little dealt with in fiction, and it is good to see Gemmell do so. He does this by concentrating on an extremely important but “forgotten” character: Parmenion, the chief general under Philip and Alexander, and the “Lion of Macedon” of the book’s title. Although Parmenion helped develop the strategies that Philip and Alexander used to conquer the largest empire the world had seen to that point, and served as Alexander’s right-hand man, little is known of him. Thus, he serves as an excellent window through whom to present the events of the novel.
All too often writers try to get into the heads of major figures in historical fiction. This is hard to do well, as it throws the reader into the situation of seeing events from the insider point of view before understanding the context. The device Gemmell uses allows us to watch the rise of Macedon develop from the viewpoint of an outsider. We learn along with Parmenion. Meanwhile, we see the wonderful character development given to him and to the other characters. When we come to Philip finally, we feel comfortable in the ancient world on the eve of the Hellenistic period. Read the rest of this entry
Recently I wrote a long series of posts about the Fall of Man, which I entitled, “Legends of the Fall”. Since it was long, spanning 22 posts over three months, I provided an index at the end so that readers who are interested (especially those who might have come in in medias res) could follow the whole series from beginning to end.
About this time last year I re-read a book which I’d first read in high school, circa 1979, the science fiction novel of ideas A Double Shadow. I found the re-read after over thirty years truly interesting, and many of the ideas in the novel were connected to things I was thinking and blogging about. I ended up writing a series of posts on the book–which, by the way, I’d recommend to all.
Anyway, I’m in the middle of another series now, and it occurred to me that some of the earlier series that I’ve done ought to have index pages for ready access as well, especially for newer readers who may have missed some of the posts from awhile back. Therefore, I am posting here the links to my series on A Double Shadow. Enjoy the posts, and if you’re intrigued, enjoy the book!
Having laid the groundwork on A Double Shadow, I want to discuss why I think it’s worth reading and why I think it deals with issues that are significant, especially in today’s cultural milieu.
I’ve mentioned before that any conceivable ethical system must, at some level, make certain postulates or assume certain moral axioms. The analogy to mathematics is deliberate. In math, especially in geometry, there are certain basic definitions that are not considered to be definable—they simple “are”. One either understands them (for the purposes of mathematics) or one doesn’t. A “line”, for example, though we think we know by common sense what it is, is one such thing. Mathematically, one could say it is “an infinite locus of points extending infinitely through one dimension and having no endpoint”; but no one but a mathematician would understand this. Even the terms in the definition can’t be “defined”. “Infinite” means not finite, and is thus defined not in terms of what it is, but what it’s not. A “point” is not a dot you make on paper, but a “unique geographical location having no dimensions”. And so on. Thus, you couldn’t even see, let alone draw, a true point, line, plane, etc.
Likewise, basic postulates simply are. You can’t prove that opposite interior angles along the transversal cutting parallel lines are equal—they just are. Likewise with the postulate that for a given line and point not on that line, in a plane, exactly one line passes through the point that is parallel to the given line. It’s easy to “see” that it’s true, but there’s no proof for it. Read the rest of this entry
I recently re-read a book that I first encountered in 1978 or 1979, at the age of fifteen. It is the science fiction novel A Double Shadow, by Frederick Turner. I had got to thinking about it for some reason or other, and decided to see if I could find it, which I did on Amazon. It is often instructive to come back to something one originally has read long ago, and this was certainly the case here. I remembered a few vague images and the ending of the book only, and upon re-reading it I realized that I must have understood very little of the book—almost nothing, in fact—when I read it at fifteen. At forty-eight, I find it fascinating and even important, and I will try to describe why. There’s a lot to discuss, and so I don’t want to cram it all into one single post. This discussion, therefore, will continue over one or more posts beyond this. I think the novel is easily worth a more extended discussion of this sort.
I don’t expect many readers will be familiar with it (although I could be wrong), so without giving too many details of the plot away, I’ll first describe it. The novel takes place on a terraformed Mars of the distant future. The narrative takes place within the framing device of narration by the book’s unnamed “author”. This author is a poet living on Mars in the 24th Century during the early stages of the terraforming of the red planet. He describes the envy and jealousy he has of the tough, manly, hyper-competent terraformers themselves, particularly one named Raphael Mendel. The narrator learns that he has in fact been cuckolded by Mendel and that his wife is pregnant with Mendel’s child, who will be the first human born on Mars. Bitterly describing this and declaiming his hatred for Mars and everything on it, the narrator proceeds to write the narrative that follows this prologue, declaring it his gift to Mars as the planet’s first work of art. At points throughout the rest of the novel, the “author”, in much the manner of omniscient narrators in 19th Century novels, pops in to comment on the action. Read the rest of this entry