Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Reviews: Harry Potter 1 and 4

Not only is it a new experience to read the Harry Potter books aloud to a child, it adds a new dimension to be reading two of them at the same time. I read Sam book 4 (Goblet of Fire) as I was reading Aidan book 1 (The Philosopher's Stone, because we get the British versions). Of course, the length of the books is vastly different, and the vocabulary much more advanced for the later book. Side by side it becomes apparent that not much happens at Hogwarts itself in book 1, because it takes half the book just to get there. It may take as long in book 4, but there's still 3/4 of the book left by that point. Book 4 has some annoying padding that repeats stuff from previous books and feels like an editor asked to have that in, you know, for kids. But underneath it all is the same amazingly (and at times needlessly) intricate plot, there in nascent form in book 1 but fully realized in book 4. Another funny thing about book 4 is the tweenage romance stuff just flies on past Sam (he's as dense as Ron), but one thing made him tear up: when Mrs. Weasley sends Hermione a tiny candy egg for Easter because of the nasty and untrue articles circulating about her in the wizard's press. Apparently Sam has a deep sense of candy justice. At last, the books have several elements of quite subtle foreshadowing that make rereading them that much more valuable.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: The Hemlock Cup

Once again the quest for vivid historical scholarship turns up a good book. The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes is about the life and death of Socrates and the democratic Athenians he walked among. Hughes has researched the latest artifacts dug up from the ground and has traveled to most of the sites in the book -- she'll often tell you what a battlefield or ancient town is like today. Her portrait of Socrates is illuminating, especially for the big question of how could a city like Athens kill a man like Socrates? I didn't think I could understand why but after reading this book I can finally see how it happened. This book is even more useful for its portrait of Athens than of Socrates: Socrates stands out from history so much that most people have some idea of what he was like, but Hughes is able to detail some of what must have been going on in the average Athenian's mind, which is harder to do. The detail of why and how they believed in the gods that they believed in is fascinating and certainly colors any wrongly over-rationalized pictures of the Golden Age of Greece one might have. In fact, if a person was walking around Athens 500 years later the first thing he'd probably notice was how many statues to how many gods they had scattered around (see Acts 17 for more). This was a very theistic city, and also very troubled by war with Sparta and the inherent insecurity of democracy. If I was a student of history and had time for it, I could write a whole book comparing and constrasting Jesus and Socrates, and this would be the main source for Socrates. It's that good.