Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien

For years I have wanted to sit in Tolkien's class on Beowulf and hear him talk about the poem and culture he knew so well. If only they had MOOCs back then! But now I feel that my wish has been granted. Christopher Tolkien put together a book of his father's translation of Beowulf and the accompanying lecture notes.

This is actual academia, so it may be an uphill battle for those without a deep interest in Tolkien. But I found an invaluable window into the mind of Tolkien between the lines of these notes. In addition, at the end is appended Tolkien's own fairy-tale version of Beowulf (without all the Geats/Swedes/Danes history stuff and actually beginning "Once upon a time ... ). I just read that to my older boys and they enjoyed the parallels with Rohan in the Lord of the Rings, although neither they nor I were expecting quite so many decapitations in a fairy-tale.

My favorite part of all this was reading Tolkien being a professor, discussing academic claims and translations and historical debates. Ultimately, academic discussions are very similar, and even if I didn't care about the debate, I did care about the debater.

Tolkien had a sharp mind and an amazing grasp of Anglo-Saxon literature. For example, he could tell you if a word was used or a name alluded to anywhere in the literature, such is his love for the field. But for all his ability to parse out the trees, what truly amazes me is Tolkien's ability to always remember the forest as well. Tolkien often solves tricky translation problems by appealing to the piece as a whole and how this part works within the entire poem.

He also spends a lot of time talking about the faith of the author and how that author applied his own Christian theology to the pre-Christian history/myth he was writing in this poem. There's some fascinating theology in there for someone interested in that to chase down with a dissertation, in how that aligns with Tolkien's Catholicism and Biblical passages on this topic like Romans 2. Most important, Tolkien never checked his faith at the door, but brought it in robustly, with academic skepticism where appropriate, but with the obvious conviction that this matters. And he's right -- those (to me) are the most interesting parts of the lecture notes.

So I'm not sure how someone else would react, but I loved the chance to sit under Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could have heard him in person declaim the opening "Hwaet!" of the poem. Some things books cannot do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I opened this book. I think that's exactly what Gaiman intended, so I won't give away too much of the story, except to tell you it's a fast-paced Doctor-Who-style* story for kids, with dinosaurs, aliens, pirates, and a volcano. It's fun and funny, and it can be read out loud in half an hour. The frequent illustrations are a nice touch too, and are nicely expressive. Get this book from the library and read it to your kids or your self.

*(The Doctor Who connections may not be obvious to non-fans, by the way, but to those with ears to hear they are unmistakeable.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Parts I and II)

Not often is Page 570 the break point in a book and one not even half through at that. This book continues on up to around 1500 in Parts III and IV. Not since I've read fantasy novels have I encountered a story this long. But, as with the previous NT Wright books, this story is worth it.

I'm struck by how NT Wright is bringing multiple stories together into a coherent narrative here. What I'm trying to do with my own manuscript is not that different. And this book feels just slightly expanded from time to time. For one thing, Wright took most of his arguments with other scholars and put them in a whole 'nother book, which I'm very grateful for, because that's what exasperates me most about other writers like Hauerwas. I want you to talk to me, not those other writers over there. I'm selfish.

Wright returns to his beloved six-part diagrams here, too, but at the end of Part II they come together in a way that, I'll begrudgingly admit, is indeed illuminating.

So far this book looks to do for Romans and 1 Corinthians what the previous book (The Resurrection of the Son of God) did for the ends of the 4 Gospels. It does tell a story, and Wright does show how that story is both continuous and discontinuous with what went before. The story makes Paul make sense in a deep and lasting way. I love that.

This book is doing what it should, and since Wright had lofty goals in writing it, to make that statement is high praise. I'm looking forward to Parts III and IV, although I may need to rest my brain first. I'm not even halfway up the mountain yet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Chemistry of "Old Book Smell"

One day I'm going to be able to teach a course entirely built around wonderful infographics like this:

Here's where I got it. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review: The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey

Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts and I go way back. But I wasn't sure that a book (albeit a short book) written by Handey in that same style would sustain the sublime silliness of those snippets. The answer is that yes he could. (Also, it's a delight to hear Handey himself reading the book to you on the audiobook.) It's a Deep Thoughts novel, and I had heard a few of these before, but they don't get old so even that's not a problem. A nice little story to cleanse the palette between other novels.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Life After Life

I tried to like this book. The premise is intruiging: a character born in England in the early 20th century lives her life repeatedly, with faint memories of her previous go-rounds. It surprised me by having her assassinate Hitler in one of the first scenes. But after that, it didn't seem to know what to do with its intriguing premise. This is not really a book about time travel or second chances -- it's a book about life as a woman in the early 20th century of Britain. Some scenes are expertly done, especially some of the deaths of the main character and some of the World War II scenes, although personally I'm getting a little bit of Blitz fatigue. The scenes (lives?) that take place in Germany are potentially intriguing windows into ordinary life under the Third Reich, but the insights are not particularly memorable. At the end the story fragments rather than coheres. Great pitch, weak follow-through.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Best Stained-Glass Pictures are Not All Glass

glory window spiral stained glass window

This link has some stunning pictures of stained glass from across the world. I've seen a few of these and hope to see more someday.

I'm struck by how the best pictures are not of the glass by itself, but also include the walls nearby. The light from the glass paints the walls in a diffuse reproduction of the original, stamping the surface with color. The real power of stained glass is in its context and how it changes the entire space, its secondary effect rather than its primary effect. The point is not the glass, the medium is not the message. The point is the light.