Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: Brendan

Since I named my third son after St. Brendan, and he's now two and a half, I figured I should finally get around to reading the Fredrick Buechner novel about him as well. I may have put it off a while because, while I saw the point of Godric and it had an indelible effect, I can't say I "enjoyed" Godric. Godric was just so dark and inverted that it was difficult for me to see much light in it. I know, I know that's part of the point, and I get that point, but it's just difficult for me toLIKE it. Godric came out before Brendan and was nominated for a Pulitzer, so I was worried Brendan would be the same way.

Well, it is and it isn't. I think Brendan is superior to Godric, on the simplest level because more stuff happens and it's not all darkness and sin. There's still a lot of darkness in there, even perhaps more affecting and intense than Godric's, in fact (some truly horrible characters and events), but there's also the wonder of exploration and as much healing in it as there is hurt. So I'm glad to say I named my kid after the right book three years before I knew it.

Here's a wonderful paragraph when Brendan and Finn (the narrator) enounter a pod of whales:

"It wasn't just the size of the monster froze us. It was knowing he come from another world than our entirely, a shadowy world fathoms beneath us. There's great monsters moving about lazy and soundless as clouds. Wonders are hid down there the eye of no mortal man has ever seen since time began. We all knew the sea belonged rightly to him and we was only trespassers on it. Next to him we was the size of gnats." p. 162

A 2010 Tolkien professor podcast about the role of tragedy in Tolkien's works noted how, when Aragorn is telling the hobbits a story as the Black Riders advance on Weathertop, he tells them not a happy story but a sad one, yet it warms their hearts and encourages them for the coming conflict. Tolkien knew the power of tragedy, and so did Buechner. That's what makes Buechner's "hagiographies" so powerful. The lead monks are so flawed that in a sense their flawed nature makes them holy. That is very powerful, but somewhat overwhelming in Godric. In Brendan it seems richer because there is light with the darkness. I think Godric is like one of Rothko's late paintings, mostly black, whereas Brendan is a true chiaroscuro like Caravaggio. Both are worth reading but I personally prefer the mixture. Just like my little Brendan himself.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Last Lecture on iTunesU

It's up in video and audio on iTunesU, under the title "The Sounds of New Creation," at this link.

They had to edit out the Beach Boys song at the beginning ("Our Prayer") and the Thomas Tallis "Spem et Alium" at the end. And a glitch removed Aidan's blessing! Here it is preserved:

¨ Aidan Thomas: Like your grandpa, you love numbers and order, and you have a tender heart. I pray that you will know the infinite grace from the God who knows the number of hairs on your head, and like your namesake, that your inner fire will make peace between people.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

G.K. Chesterton on Stained Glass

Once in a while GKC surprises me with his ability to turn a phrase. I'm sure a lot of it is my own unfamiliarity with 100-year old cadences. But once in a while a passage like this just nails it (from The Ball and the Cross):

All the colours were transparent. It seemed like a triumphant prophecy of some perfect world where everything being innocent will be intelligible; a world where even our bodies, so to speak, may be as of burning glass. Such a world is faintly though fiercely figured in the coloured windows of Christian architecture. The sea that lay before them was like a pavement of emerald, bright and almost brittle; the sky against which its strict horizon hung was almost absolutely white, except that close to the sky line, like scarlet braids on the hem of a garment, lay strings of flaky cloud of so gleaming and gorgeous a red that they seemed cut out of some strange blood-red celestial metal, of which the mere gold of this earth is but a drab yellow imitation.

Book Review: The Ball and the Cross

G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross is medium-rare Chesterton: there's enough of a plot and description that you could convince yourself it's a novel, but it's really a philosophical discursion, although in all actuality, it's somewhere in-between. It's not quite as well-formed a story as The Man Who Was Thursday, and I'd still recommend that one above all others, but it's a decent example of his not-quite-novels. I'd put it on the level of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, although I like Napoleon a bit more because its story is more outlandish. (That may just mean, "more happens.") But many of the quotes are quite quotable and good, which is probably the point of GKC.

The basic outline of this "novelish" tale is a conflict between two things: for most of the book, it's a constantly interrupted duel between an atheist writer and a humorless Irish Catholic, although the conflict is illustrated through other less earthbound characters. The conflict is really between the "world" (the ball) and the church (the cross). I'm divided on whether it would be better to read the juicy bits or whether the narrative really adds enough to the story to be worthwhile. But that still would involve reading about half the book, so why not the whole thing?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: On Fact and Fraud

Usually books come from the library looking a lot bigger and proving a lot harder to read than I had hoped. On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science by David Goodstein is the exact opposite: it clocks in at just over 100 pages of widely spaced text but covers as much ground as books several times as large. This book is adapted from a course about scientific fraud, and the real value of it is the personal, working connection with the field that Goodstein brings as a physics prof at Caltech. The first section of the book is the expected epistemology, but clearly done pragmatically by a working scientist. One of Goodstein's main points is that Karl Popper's ideal of the disinterested scientist is in practice unachievable because some bias is inherent in the practice of doing science. After the intro chapter, Goodstein runs through several cases of fraud or not-fraud in science: he digs into science history of 100 years ago with Millikan's oil-drop experiment (not guilty); he details two cases of biological science fraud from a couple of decades ago (guilty), mentions cold fusion (guilty (of self-delusion), but with an added scientist whom he knows and respects who just might be seeing something), high-temp superconductivity (not guilty), and semiconductor research (guilty). The superconductivity discussion is especially helpful because it's a case of an unbelievable claim that turned out to be true. The only thing I wish it could have included is pictures of more data, such as the cold fusion "neutron" peak and other bits I've seen. There's a few cases of that but not enough; I think you need to see the fraud with your own eyes. But that's a quibble and probably a restriction of copyright or something. So, accurate, iconoclastic (at least in the case of Popper), efficient and interesting writing on a subject we talk about in class -- my only question is if I should make the students buy this book or if I should just tell them about it. It's a great find, and this is a topic that really gets the students interested and thinking.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

This book has been recommended to me for at least a decade now. I finally read it because of an invited book chapter (more on that later), and I am impressed. I'd like to do something like what Brand and Yancey do here, just on a different level. One of the interesting things is to watch closely how and where Brand specifically contradicts naturalism (not science, and not technology or scientific explanation, but reductionism and methodological naturalism). I find that he picks his battles and in general doesn't overstep, so he provides a good model for how to do that. In short, it was everything I had been told to expect -- and I sense a need for more like this. We'll see.

Soda Temperance!

It's funny to think about it, but if root beer came about in part from the prohibition on real beer, then now we may need a temperance on root beer, due to its sticky, corn syrupy, calorie-adding mass. I don't trust soda every day, it's one of the reasons I switched to green tea for lunch, and I'm not regretting it. (In this case, a Lent giving up of soda turned into a longer-term temperance of soda!)

The quote that reminded me of this was in an article on how soda fountains are coming back:

“Soda should be special,” Mr. Nocito said. “Coke and Pepsi killed it for everyone, in my opinion.”* It seems that if you use fresh fruits and not mass-produced sludge to flavor sodas, you can make unique and even slightly healthy combinations. The problem is you have to go to a counter, you can't just grab a bottle off the shelf. Let me tell you, though, this is a good problem to have. It should be special, and there are benefits from having less of it!

Here is the article about the new-fangled (or should it be old-fangled?) soda shops and some of the flavors. I have a hankering for an egg cream and I've never even had one.

* However, I can attest to the power of a cold Coke on a hot summer day in the South. So we'll just say Pepsi killed it for everyone, OK?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: Graphic Novel Round-Up

Read a bunch of graphic novels over the past few months and, well, since I'm trying to put a review of every book I read on here may as well include these! But I'll try to keep these to a few short sentences.

1. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman. Starts better than it ends. Sets up a bunch of creative, conflicting stories. The resolution, unfortunately, mimicks a particular car commercial. But seeing the characters interact is great, and the idea -- Batman's funeral -- is definitely intriguing.
2. Rasl by Jeff Smith. The same magic as Smith's Bone series in a totally different realm: bleak but inventive present-day sci-fi for adults, rather than semi-fairy tales for children. Does one of the best jobs of talking about Tesla of anyone, and lots of people have tried. You're left with a nice, clear set of mysteries as you wait for the next book.
3. The Eternal Smile: Three Stories by Gene Yang. I like to see more by Yang, and these stories were good examples but not that deep. Maybe if you think about them together. Each has a nice twist.
4. Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. Feminist Chaucer in a comic book. In a good way. One of my favorite things about graphic novels is an artist who can capture a good expression and Medley is excellent at that. Celebrates some quiet, ordinary moments along with the traditional "this is a story" moments. Very, very good, just not a personal favorite.
5. Stumptown Investigations, Portland, Oregon by Greg Rucka. Successfully captures Portland and uses it as a setting for a competent and well-told crime story. I love the first scene and the way it's explained. So much better spending an hour reading this than TV!
6. Life with Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier. Story of a young woman making her way through life. Very good at capturing the alienation and distancing of modern life without wallowing in it. I never quite got the TV show angle -- it's always hard to replicate the feeling of a hit TV show if said hit TV show doesn't exist. The inner motivations of the protagonist should be stronger I think, because I didn't quite understand what took her so long or what really changed in her by the end of the book.

Of all these, #2 was best, but #4 and #5 were very very good for their genres, and #1 and #3 were always-enjoyable expressions of their always-enjoyable authors' voices. All were worth the time to read (especially from the library!).