Category Archives: book reviews

The Alice Books

The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England.  Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood.  Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.

Dodgson never married nor had children of his own.  However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls.  One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous.  Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years).  Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith.  They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories.  He was always happy to comply.  On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.

As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories.  This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down.  Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell.  Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication.  The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since.  In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno.  Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work.  The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.

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The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart–a Review

There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems.  There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes.  To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.

Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things.  Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down.  Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.

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His Dark Materials, Part 2: Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

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 in the New Testament describes the professions of Joseph, husband of Mary, and of Jesus of Nazareth, 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

His Dark Materials, Part 1: Literary Agendas

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

Reviews, Views, and Culture, Pop and Otherwise: Index

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.  Some essays will be not traditional reviews, but may look at themes in one or more works.  Within genres, reviews are alphabetized by the title of the work reviewed.  Enjoy!

Update (6 August 2018):  I have a number of posts on various topics which, while not quite (or not at all) reviews as such, still touch on various pop-culture (and sometimes mainstream culture) topics.  Rather than making a separate index for such posts, I’m renaming this page “Reviews, Views, and Culture, Pop and Otherwise” and putting in a separate section for the other posts I’ve written.  Enjoy!

Reviews

Books

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)

His Dark Materials, Part 1:  Literary Agendas

His Dark Materials, Part 2:  Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

Lion of Macedon

Movies

Gladiator

Star Trek (reboot), Part 1:  How to Do It Pretty Much Right

Star Trek (reboot), Part 2:  How to Do It Pretty Much Right

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture:  A Reconsideration (this is the index page, since this is an ongoing series on the movie)

The War Lord

Television

Space:  1999–A Brief Appreciation

Pop Culture

A Little Romance

The Most Evil Song of All Time!

The Second Most Evil Song of All Time!

Aliens, Robots, and Perpetual Motion

What is Needed for Good Science Fiction

Star Trek or Star Wars?

The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

Space:  Stars, Solar Systems, Galaxies, and Such

Einstein and the Millennium Falcon–The Timeline of The Empire Strikes Back

Too Much Meta!

Book Review: Lion of Macedon

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

A Double Shadow: Index

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 re-reading it 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!

A Double Shadow, Part 1

A Double Shadow, Part 2:  Ethics

A Double Shadow, Part 3

A Double Shadow, Part 4

A Double Shadow, Part 5:  Finale

A Double Shadow V: Finale

I have finally come to the last post I want to do inspired by A Double Shadow.  I thank everyone for the indulgence they’ve shown in following a rather lengthy series which I’ve posted here, here, here, and here.  The last thing I want to discuss is the issue of the “simple life” from the point of view of an advanced society.

Over the years I’ve been a regular habitué of Rod Dreher’s blogs in their various incarnations at Beliefnet, later, for a brief time, at Big Questions Online, the website of the Templeton Foundation, and now at The American Conservative.  I was and am a fan of much of his work, and am sympathetic to the “crunchy” outlook (though I’m not a “crunchy conservative”).  Over time, though, I’ve decided that there is much that is problematic both in some of Rod’s ideas in particular and in much of ideas regarding environment, self-sufficiency, going back to the land, and so on that are prevalent both on the Left and in some segments of the Right these days.  Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow, Part IV

I’ve used a discussion of the novel A Double Shadow (which you really should read, if you have a chance) as a jumping-off point for discussing various issues in contemporary society–previous installments are herehere, and here.  In this post (the penultimate, by the way), I’d like to bring the discussion to an element of the post’s title:  postmodernism.

“Postmodernism” is one of those terms that is overused and abused, and which often becomes a bugaboo or a reflexive way of showing disapproval or even approval.  Nevertheless, I think it is a useful term, particularly in this context.  Thus, as long as we recall that the term covers a lot of (often conflicting) phenomena, I think we can give a rough definition that will guide our discussion here. Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow, Part III

Not long ago I discussed the novel A Double Shadow, and then I discussed the moral ramifications of the ethical system described therein.  The question then arises, what is the relevance? 

To recap briefly, the novel describes a terraformed Mars over a millennium and a quarter in the future, in which human technology has made practically anything possible.  Death is strictly optional, and reversible, practically infinite resources are available, travel across space, time, and dimensions is instantly and easily possible, and no desires need go unfulfilled.  The result is a society in which there is no concept of morality.  Instead, the main values are aesthetic.  Individuals are judged not as “good” or “bad” people, but in terms of how artistic their lives are and how fully they follow their own individual aesthetic choices in living their lives.  The choices themselves are arbitrary, since there is no transcendent standard involved. 

I would submit that such an ethos is not fictional, and that it has in fact been actualized (to a much lesser degree, of course) many times right here on Earth, and still is in places and degrees.  Any class of any society that has sufficient power and resources tends to live by such values as described of the Martians in A Double Shadow.  That is, wealth and power make anything possible, within the limitations of a society’s technology, and they also shield one to a large extent from undesired consequences of one’s actions.  Members of such a class may not be able to teleport to the Andromeda Galaxy or to cheat death, but they can live their lives pretty much as they see fit.  If problems occur in the process, money and power can sweep the pieces under the rug, and life goes on. Read the rest of this entry