Thursday, June 23, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Call of Earth

Orson Scott Card is one of the premier authors working in modern science fiction, largely thanks to the classic Ender's Game. He is less well known for his advocacy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- that is, Mormonism. This advocacy is especially on display in the Homecoming Saga, which is a relatively direct re-imagining of the Book of Mormon in a futuristic science-fiction setting.


The first volume in the series, The Memory of Earth, set up the setting and the primary storyline. The family of Volemak the Wetchik has been called by the Oversoul out of Basilica, but now they must wait on the outskirts of town for the rest of their party. Basilica itself is convulsing in internecine political conflicts, as the faction led by Rashgallivak threatens to overthrow the matriarchal City Council. Another storyline, from a different hemisphere of planet Harmony, concerns Vozmushalnoy Vozmoshno (called Moozh), a general of Gorayni who hates the Oversoul and seeks to conquer Basilica.

Over the course of the novel, the Oversoul's party gradually comes together. The sisters Sevet and Kokor get into a squabble over their unfaithful husbands. On the happier end of the spectrum, Nafai and the waterseer Luet fall in love and marry in a brief ceremony, alongside Elemak, Eiadh, Mebbekew and Dol. Her sister Hushidh realizes that the Oversoul has called her to marry Nafai's brother Issib, though her fate takes a brief detour via a forced marragie to Moozh.

The characterization and interactions are par excellence, as may be expected from Orson Scott Card. This is especially the case in the scenes involving Moozh, who maneuvers himself into a position of authority over Basilica underneath the nose of his own leader, the Imperator. However, this book contains surprisingly little movement in the main overarching storyline. Many of the characters receive recurring dreams of "angels" and "diggers," which set the scene for the conclusion of the series and introduce the Keeper of Earth as an actor distinct from the Oversoul. Yet for a series adapting Mormon 'Scriptures,' this particular novel contains precious few parallels to the Book of Mormon.

On the whole, this novel is an impressive instance of Orson Scott Card's skills as a world-builder. Though it fails to advance the overarching story any further than bringing the necessary characters together for the rest of the series, this book remains a highly enjoyable self-standing work as well as an installment in the Homecoming series.

To purchase, check out Amazon.com:
The Call of Earth

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Michael Flynn: Eifelheim

If any of my readers are considering a career as an Internet troll, they should first familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations. That's right: as in any respectable profession, there are standards and practices to trolling through forums and comment threads. The first rule of trolling is this: if at any moment you find yourself sparring with a man called "Ye Olde Statistician," run. Flee the scene and burn your bridges. You are profoundly outmatched.

Imagine if Bruce Wayne's alter-ego (for those of you who sprang from the womb as fully grown adults, that would be Batman) had an alter-ego of its own, even more shadowy and lethal. Meet Michael Flynn: statistician by day, well-regarded science-fiction author by night, and veteran troll-hunter in the twilight hours. I first encountered "Ye Olde Statistician" deploying his arsenal of historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge against a horde of angry trolls on a theology blog. I decided to look for more of his posts online, and that's when I discovered he was a published author.


"Eifelheim" was first published in 1987 as a novella, focusing on a pair of scientists who discover the startling truth about the medieval German village called Eifelheim, which had mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late fourteenth century. From this beginning came the novel, published in 2006. In addition to the original scenes set in the present day, Flynn wrote a parallel narrative set in medieval Eifelheim itself. It is in these sections that we find the meat of the story, and Flynn's masterful command of medieval history.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Twelve Reasons Why 2012 Will Be an Awesome Year for Movies

Article first published as Twelve Reasons Why 2012 Will Be an Awesome Year for Movies on Blogcritics.

2012 will be an awesome year in movies. I'm not sure everyone realizes just how incredible it will be. When I first started tracking cinema news, I noticed a trend almost from the start: virtually every long-term project that attracted my attention had a release date scheduled for sometime in 2012. As time went, some of these were delayed and others were fast-tracked, but 2012 is still shaping up to be one of the greatest years for movies in my lifetime. Here's why.

1: John Carter of Mars.

The Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the seminal works in science-fiction writing of the 20th century. Released between 1912 and 1943, its depiction of Mars as a frontier land comparable to the early American West served an inspiration for Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein, not to mention James Cameron (Avatar) and George Lucas (Star Wars).

Now, for the first time, the books are being adapted to screen, by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E). Stanton is a master storyteller, and this film could be one of the defining science-fiction films of the next decade. John Carter is scheduled for a March 9, 2012 release.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Like It Hot (1959)

**Article first published as Movie Review: Some Like It Hot (1959) on Blogcritics.**

"Well, nobody's perfect."

If you've seen this film, you will instantly recognize the line I'm quoting. It's one of the most famous lines in cinema history, up there with "May the Force be with you" and "You had me at 'hello'." If you don't know this film, I won't spoil the joke, but you should stop reading this review now. You need to see this movie. In 2000, "Some Like It Hot" was rated by the American Film Institute as being the funniest American comedy of all time. It doesn't disappoint.


The first scene offers an unusual spectacle: a full squadron of police cars, sirens wailing, in hot pursuit of a hearse. We soon realize that "Some Like It Hot" is set in Prohibition-era Chicago, and that the local gangs have been using funeral homes as cover for loud and raucous night-clubs. The film quickly introduces us to the main characters, Joe and Jerry, two musicians who lose their jobs, lose their money, and nearly lose their lives in rapid succession. After inadvertently witnessing the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the two musicians are forced to flee the city and cover their tracks. Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-girl's band en route to a Florida resort. This is where the comedy kicks it up a few notches.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jay Richards: Money, Greed, and God

When I was fourteen, I was hired as an intern at for a public-policy think-tank based in Seattle. I was encouraged by my supervisor to pursue policy-related work, particularly in my area of expertise: economics. This is how I eventually came to work as an assistant for Dr. Jay Richards, one of the Vice Presidents, who was looking to develop an accessible book on economics.


"Money, Greed, and God" was first developed as an autobiography. Dr. Richards originally intended to cover the course of his life and how his thinking on economics developed from a youthful Christian Marxism to a more mature pro-market paradigm. This kind of content is retained in many of the chapters, but the overarching framework (the organizing principle) of the book is slightly different. Dr. Richards organizes the material around eight myths that Christians believe about capitalism and the market system. They are, in order:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Memory of Earth

In my opinion, Orson Scott Card is one of the best storytellers of modern times. He conveys the motivations of characters, even villains, in such a convincing way that readers are able to immerse themselves fully in the dynamics of the narrative. He is also a singularly impressive world-builder, drawing us in to new worlds and universes through his story-telling. This was the case with Ender's Game, with Seventh Son, with Pathfinder and The Lost Gate. It was also the case with The Memory of Earth, which introduces the Homecoming series.


I read all five of the Homecoming books and enjoyed every one of them. Afterwards, when I went to prepare these reviews through a bit of research, I was stunned to discover that the entire series is a thinly veiled adaptation of the Book of Mormon: a family called by God to travel from Jerusalem to the "promised land" of America. Joseph Smith may have been a false prophet extraordinaire, but he was evidently a singularly impressive story-teller (that or he simply benefited from the proximity to Card's genius). While the original setting of Homecoming, the city of Basilica on the world of Harmony, is officially a Slavic matriarchy, the feel of the place remains pretty clearly Aramaic in nature, so even such atmospheric details are preserved. More notably, many of the events are the same, and even the names are retained in something like their original form. Where events or names are parallel, I will insert the equivalent from the Book of Mormon in parentheses.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Eusebius: The Church History

Quite simply, Eusebius of Caesarea is the Father of Church History. With the obvious exception of Luke, who gave us the book of Acts, Eusebius was the first person to construct a history of the early Christian church. Though there are rough patches and legitimate criticisms to be made, Eusbeius' work is an almost unprecedented boon to modern historians.


Eusebius' method was far removed from modern historiography. Eusebius did not attempt to reconstruct history from statistical data or from interpolating between multiple competing authorities. He did not have the luxury of either option. Rather, his method was to collate any and all texts from earlier authors, and present them in a largely uncritical and unedited fashion. His ten volumes of ecclesiastical history are thus a treasure-trove of primary-source documentation, many of which would have been lost forever to the dark reaches of antiquity if not for their inclusion by Eusebius.

Modern critics often cite Eusebius for a lack of objective historiography, but they forget that such a standard is quintessentially modern, unrelated to the classical discipline of writing history. Eusebius' goal, informed by the classical tradition of rhetoric, is to educate and persuade. Thus, much of his History is informed by explicitly theological content.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rodney Stark: Cities of God

Mostly on a whim, I picked out another of his books, "Cities of God," on the urbanization of the early Christian church. The subtitle of the book reads: "The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." I'm guessing Stark wasn't responsible for the subtitle, because his thesis is 1) Christianity began as an urban movement, and 2) Christianity didn't conquer anything.


Rodney Stark is a professor of Baylor University who specializes in the history and sociology of religion. He is best known as the author of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," which is an unabashed defense of the Middle Ages as an deeply rational era. In "Cities of God," he tackles the question of Christianity's early spread, grounded in a statistical-sociological perspective.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Confess (1953)

Wow.

"I Confess" is widely regarded as a mediocre entry in the Hitchcock canon. Certainly, in terms of the artistry and technical ingenuity, this film cannot compare to the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. Even so, the film wrestles with issues of truth, morality, honor and the Catholic practice of faith in an almost unprecedented manner. "I Confess" may be my favorite out of all the films of Hitchcock.


The premise is simple enough: a man is murdered and a priest hears the murderer's confession. Under Catholic canon law, a priest is barred from revealing any information disclosed under the seal of confession. To my knowledge, this prohibition covers all confessions, even those that involve a crime... and even if the priest himself is suspected for that crime.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor (2011)

Ye gods.  Now that was a popcorn movie.  "Thor" is not a ground-breaking film: it is neither at the vanguard nor the pinnacle of a cinematic genre. It is exactly what it set out to be: an origin story for a superhero, a bridge between the science-fiction and the fantasy elements of the Marvel universe, and a film-length teaser for the coming 2012 blockbuster "The Avengers." Above all, it is an exceptionally entertaining example of sheer spectacle.


Rated PG-13 for stylized violence. This may be the mildest PG-13 I've ever seen.
 
"Thor" begins with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a film-scientist with a specialization in atmospheric astrophysics. Please, don't ask. Along with her hapless political-science intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her bemused mentor Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), Jane is in hot pursuit of an Einsten-Rosen Tornado, because apparently wormholes look like giant wind funnels. When they finally see one developing, they drive straight into the cloud and nearly run over a man.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Part courtroom drama, part horror flick, and part biopic (inspired by the true story of Anneliese Michel), "the Exorcism of Emily Rose" is one of the few demonic-possession themed films that's actually worth watching.

Ever since Linda Blair freaked the living daylights out of audiences in the 1973 film "The Exorcist," films based on demonic possession have been a staple of the horror genre. Most of these films are content to rely on cheap thrills and special effects (contorted mannequins, "pea soup" projectile vomit, creative sound editing, etc.) It is a rare film that invests itself in the ideas behind the stories and takes the underlying doctrine seriously. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is such a film.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences and disturbing images. This film is not for kids.

The story was inspired by the life of Anneliese Michel, a German Catholic woman who was believed to be demonically possessed. Her first experiences with this began in 1969, when she was 17. She continued to exhibit troubling behavior until 1975, when a close family friend noticed her behavior while on a pilgrimage to an unofficial holy site. In particular, this friend noticed that Anneliese was unable to walk past an icon of Jesus Christ or drink holy water, and began to suspect demonic involvement. She notified the local priests, who examined her and concluded (after consulting with their bishop) that it was demonic possession. The exorcism continued for nearly 70 sessions over ten months. In the end, Anneliese died of malnutrition, and the priests (along with her parents) were tried and convicted of negligent homicide.

Monday, May 2, 2011

North and South (2004)

"North and South" is a miniseries produced by the BBC, adapting the 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskett. Initially released with low expectations, it quickly won both an audience and a place in the pantheon of great costume dramas. It certainly deserves its accolades, though I can't help but feel it receives them for the wrong reasons.


As a love story, "North and South" is stellar, though it does seem to tread the same ground as "Pride and Prejudice." Margaret Hale is a clergyman's daughter, a young lady raised in the refined and insular South. But her father begins to question his faith, leaves the parish, and settles as a teacher in the industrial North. It is there that Margaret meets her One True Love: John Thorton, the owner of a cotton mill. She detests him immediately. He obliges by returning the favor. She thinks he's proud; he thinks she's prejudiced. But fate is an unscrupulous fellow, and besides, the crazy kids can hardly keep their eyes off each other.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Orson Scott Card Month

Worthy of Note is celebrating April 2011 as Orson Scott Card month. There's no particular rhyme or reason to it: I just found that I had read a number of his works recently, so there were quite a few of those reviews still in the pipeline.  At the end of the month, I will populate this list with links to their respective reviews, and continue updating this page after other reviews that might follow. Enjoy the series!

The Ender Saga
Ender's Game (13 Aug. 2010)
Ender in Exile (23 Sept. 2010)
Speaker for the Dead (8 Apr. 2011)
Xenocide (9 Apr. 2011)
Children of the Mind (11 Apr. 2011)
Ender's Shadow (15 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Hegemon (19 Apr. 2011)
Shadow Puppets (25 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Giant (29 Apr. 2011)
The Tales of Alvin Maker:
Seventh Son (14 Apr. 2011)
Red Prophet (16 Apr. 2011)
Prentice Alvin (20 Apr. 2011)
Alvin Journeyman (21 Apr. 2011)
Heartfire (26 Apr. 2011)
The Crystal City (27 Apr. 2011)
Other Works
Enchantment (17 Jan. 2011)
Pathfinder
(12 Apr. 2011)
The Lost Gate (30 Apr. 2011)
[Originally published 8 Apr. 2011]
[Updated and reposted 30 Apr. 2011]

Orson Scott Card: The Lost Gate

I'm not sure there's a more fitting conclusion to this blog's month-long celebration of Orson Scott Card than a review of his latest work, "The Lost Gate." It is more than a spectacular stand-alone story in his already impressive bibliography. It introduces the new world of Westil and Mittlegard, and launches the new "Mithermages" series. It is a story that has languished in Card's private thoughts (what Hollywood execs might call 'development hell') since 1977, the year that Card's short story "Ender's Game" was first published in the Analog Science Fact and Fiction magazine. The world of Mithermages may be the most fully realized world Card has yet crafted, and for that reason I highly recommend "The Lost Gate."


The novel begins in a small compound in Virginia, where the young god Danny has begun to wonder if he's really a god at all.  Danny is a North, one of the many families that came to Earth long ago from the land of Westil and became the basis for all the legends and myths of ancient gods. But the 'Great Gate' that connected them to Westil was severed, and the blood of the families has diminished in power. Danny has no skill with animals or elements. He doesn't even have a 'clant' or 'outself' that is the basis for other Westilians' power. Danny begins to fear he may be a drekka, a magic-less child, as worthless as the human drowthers who lack any awareness of magic at all.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Shadow of the Giant

In this conclusion of the Shadow series, Card continues with the ongoing wars between the major powers of China, the Muslim League, and India, while focusing Peter’s attempt to unify the world.


It becomes clear that while the Battle School graduates remain on Earth, there will always be powers that will want them to start wars and conquer. Because of this, Graff and Rackham find these graduates and proposes a way out: ship out on your own colony and rule your own world. While this is intriguing to some, others love being in control of their home country.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Crystal City

Most historical fantasies are grounded in a mythic view of medieval Europe, involving sweeping romances with princesses and castles. In his later novel Enchantment, Orson Scott Card deliberately stepped outside this fairy-tale tradition to craft a fantasy-romance grounded in Eastern European history and culture. But this was not his first attempt. His early series, "The Tales of Alvin Maker," also sought to create a unique historical fantasy, rooted not in Europe but in America. In these novels Orson Scott Card has hybridized the fairy tale and the tall tale, and made a legitimately and uniquely American fantasy universe.


The first novel, Seventh Son, depicts the setting (an alternate-universe American frontier) and introduces the main character, Alvin Smith, who discovers in his childhood that he possesses a startling powerful 'knack' (magical ability) for Making. Its sequel, Red Prophet, constructed a broader setting and the meta-narrative for the whole series, particularly emphasizing the ongoing conflict between the white settlers and the native population and Alvin's future role in resolving it. The third novel, Prentice Alvin, depicts the 'training' phase in our hero's journey, as he learns to use his knack and starts gathering allies to help in his task. The fourth novel, Alvin Journeyman, resolves some of the residual conflicts and villains from past novels and introduces the main nemesis: Alvin's own brother, who is himself a Maker. The fifth novel, Heartfire, shows how Alvin and his wife Peggy use their knacks to effect social change in New England and the Crown Colonies, and how Alvin's brother is reintroduced into their lives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Heartfire

"Heartfire" is the fifth novel in the "Tales of Alvin Maker." As I mentioned previously, I hold the fourth entry, "Alvin Journeyman," to be the highlight of Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series. I also mentioned that I consider it superior because the story features Verily Cooper, an English barrister with the best 'knack' in the series. If this is true, then "Heartfire" is proof positive that you really can't have too much of a good thing.


"Heartfire" is my second favorite work in the "Alvin Maker" set, for the same reasons as my favorite. The primary plot features Alvin and Verily Cooper recruiting new members to their jolly band of misfits from the unlikeliest of places: New England, one of the last holdovers of the Puritan anti-witch laws that had practically outlawed the use of knacks. Along the way, they encounter the young orphan Purity, who grew up with a powerful knack for sensing others' feelings, but with an intense fear that she will suffer the same fate as her parents and condemned as a witch.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppets begin with the rescue of Achilles, done by the Hegemon army (Bean’s army from Thailand), without the consent of Bean. Peter believes that he can use Achilles to his advantage. Others, such as Bean and Petra, flee the Hegemon compound as soon as possible, in order to escape the immediate grasp of Achilles.


Bean and Petra travel in hiding together, and she finds out his deadly genetic alteration. This inspires her even more to want to marry Bean, and carry on his species of human. With hints from the last book, we find Bean and Petra in love with each other, despite Bean’s misgivings. It terrifies Bean to love someone so deeply, especially since the two women he loved and cared for before (Poke and Sister Carlotta), were murdered by Achilles. However, this fear does not stop Bean from marrying Petra, after meeting with Anton, and realizing his innate human desire to continue on his genes.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rob Bell: "Love Wins"

**One of my friends, Josh Chambers, posted a brief Facebook status on "Love Wins," a book he had recently finished reading. I asked about his opinion of the book, and he responded with a number of comments that looked for all the world like a standard-length book review. I asked and received permission to post here.  Enjoy!**

I just finished reading "Love Wins" by Rob Bell. I see why it caused a controversy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the perspective Bell brought to the whole 'heaven and hell' scene.


When the book was first publicized, "Love Wins" was portrayed by many evangelicals as a universalist tract. Indeed, Rob Bell makes some claims that are universalist-esque, mainly that all punishment is for the purpose of redemption and thus hell cannot be forever. His reasoning is chiefly based on attempting to ascertain the nature of God as loving and using that to argue that such a god would not change his nature toward an individual after death in exacting justice upon them when He has given him/her nothing but mercy and grace for the duration of his/her life. Bell argues that this trend would invariably continue, and that hell would only last as long as the individual therein continued to reject the grace God was continually offering him/her even at that point.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Alvin Journeyman

At last.  With this fourth entry in the "Tales of Alvin Maker," Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series really enters the Promised Land. "Alvin Journeyman" is, in my opinion, the best novel in the series, and is certainly one of his finest works to date.


"Alvin Journeyman" begins and ends with Calvin Smith, Alvin's younger brother. Because the eldest son had died shortly after Alvin's birth, Calvin is also born with the knack of Making, for he too is the seventh son of a seventh son. Unfortunately, he grows up resentful, angry at being overshadowed by his elder brother, and ultimately runs away from his home in Vigor Church. He makes his way to New Amsterdam (in this universe, "New York" remained in the possession of its original Dutch settlers), then to England, and then to France, working his way into the good graces of Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Prentice Alvin

"Prentice Alvin" is the third novel in Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Having established the alternate-history universe of Alvin's America, and expanded the universe to include the voices of both white settlers and "Red" natives, Card now moves to bring Alvin into maturity within the world he has created. The first novel was about Alvin's realization that he possessed a knack for Making; the second novel gave him a purpose and context in which to use that knack. Here, in the third novel, Alvin finally digs deeper into his knack -- what it is and how to use it.


The novel begins with a vignette of sorts, about a slave plantation in Apalachee. The owner, Cavil Planter, is introduced as "a godly man, a church-going man, a tithepayer." But his wife is sickly and infertile, and Cavil is tormented by the thought that God was punishing him, by denying him a wife and an heir. He goes to the Bible and reads the account of Abraham, who slept with the servant-girl Hagar to produce an heir. It takes a while, but Cavil at length succumbs to the temptation, and (encouraged by the "Unmaker" appearing as an angel of light) ultimately becomes one of those beastly owners who sleeps with every slave-girl on his plantation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Shadow of the Hegemon

"Shadow of the Hegemon" is the direct sequel to "Ender’s Shadow." Instead of taking place in space, Shadow of the Hegemon focuses on the lives of the Battle School students as they return to Earth. However, as soon as they reach Earth, their lives are in danger, as the insane Achilles is on the loose.


Ender’s jeesh (or army), is captured by Achilles, all except one: Bean. Achilles has not forgotten the humiliation that Bean put him through at Battle School and attempts to murder him and his family. Eventually, Achilles also murders Sister Carlotta, and with it, Bean finds out the truth about his genetics. While his brain will keep growing, his body will as well, and likely, won’t live past the age of 20.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Red Prophet

"Red Prophet" is the second installment of Orson Scott Card's historical fiction fantasy series, "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Its immediate predecessor, "Seventh Son," established the story's setting in an alternate-reality early America in which folk magic is real. "Seventh Son" mostly focused on the frontier territories of Hio and Wobbish, as the white settlers begin to scratch out a life and a living in the new country. "Red Prophet" expands on this universe, with special emphasis on the native "Red" population.


The story begins with a sort of vignette set in Carthage City, the capital of Wobbish Territory. The river trader Hooch has returned to town with another shipment of whiskey, when he is caught in a contest of wills between the self-appointed "Governor" Bill Harrison and the self-aggrandizing Apalachee lawyer Andrew Jackson. The story also introduces us, parenthetically, to the two major Indian characters of the novel, the noble Ta-Kumsaw and his sadly drunken brother Lolla-Wossiky.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Ender's Shadow

**This post was contributed by Tessa, a new contributor to the Worthy of Note blog. In this post, she'll be reviewing Orson Scott Card's novel, "Ender's Shadow." She will also be reviewing the three other books in that series.**

Ender’s Shadow is the companion book to Ender’s Game. It follows the story of a minor character in Ender’s Game, named Bean. Instead of starting straight at Battle School, we are introduced to Bean as a four year old street kid in Rotterdam. He’s starving to death, and using a final plan to get into a “crew”- a group of street kids who stay together and help each other find food and protection. His plan works, choosing the crew lead by a girl named Poke, but not without consequences. A bully named Achilles, who joined the crew from Bean’s plan, would not forget Bean’s open desire to kill him, when he realized that Achilles was not the right bully for the plan.


Eventually, the street culture changed and Bean’s brilliance was noticed by a woman named Sister Carlotta who attempts to recruit street kids for Battle School. Sister Carlotta becomes a prominent figure in the Shadow series, first by protecting Bean when Poke was killed by Achilles and then wanted to kill him, and second, by trying to discover Bean’s heritage. A couple of years later, Bean was old enough to attend Battle School, up in space. This is where he would learn of Ender Wiggin, the main character of "Ender’s Game."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Seventh Son

Besides the science-fiction saga of the "Ender's Game" universe, Orson Scott Card is probably best known as the creator of the historical fiction fantasy, "The Tales of Alvin Maker." The series presents an alternate history of colonial and post-Revolutionary America, in the style of a vintage American "tall tale." This America is far removed from the America we know, however, though all the differences can be reduced to a single cause. In this America, folk magic is real.


In the world of Alvin Maker, each person has a unique gift, a "knack," that endows them with preternatural abilities. Sometimes these specialized talents are mundane, such as a knack for fog or a knack for beetles. Others, though, can be more useful: a dowser has a knack for finding water, while a spark can cause fire from afar. The rarest and most powerful of gifts, however, is the knack of Making: an all-encompassing gift that enables a person to 'bend' nature to their will.

"Seventh Son" begins with a young girl, Peggy, who is a torch: a rare specialization that enables her to see others' "heartfires" -- who they are, where they are, and who they will become. When a pioneer family arrives in town with a woman in labor, she is called to help the village midwife. She soon realizes this birth is different than most: for this will be the seventh son of a seventh son, an extraordinarily powerful combination often associated with extraordinarily powerful knacks. She sees that her own future is closely tied to this boy. She also sees that this boy already won himself a fearsome enemy: the Unmaker, a semi-mystical Satanic figure who is the incarnation of destruction.

The rest of the novel treats Alvin's youth, his life until he turns eleven. Peggy had saved a piece of Alvin's birth-caul, which she uses ritually to protect Alvin from the Unmaker's schemes. However, she cannot protect him from the Reverend Thrower, a fanatical minister who believes knacks are evil and sees Satan around every corner (except for when Satan actually appears as an angel of light). Thrower is seduced into a conspiracy against Alvin Jr., who is still too young to guard himself against attack.

The brief narrative of "Seventh Son" draws from a far richer back-story, of meta-politics only hinted at through this narrative. In this America, there are four semi-independent states. The "Crown Colonies" (of the original Southern colonies) is governed by a monarch, King Arthur Stuart; the "United States" (extending from Maryland to New York to the southern side of the St. Lawrence River) is a democratic republic founded by Ben Franklin, himself rumored to be a Maker; "Apalachee" is a frontier state running from eastern Tennessee to West Virginia, governed by Tom Jefferson; and "New England" is a theocracy, comprised of Puritans under governor John Adams.

At times, the novel does succumb to the laziest of historical fiction tropes, in its insistence of mentioning every remotely memorable figure from real American history. However, as an re-creation of an alternate colonial America, I still found it to be thoroughly impressive. On the whole, "Seventh Son" is a short read with a decidedly parochial focus, which points to the far greater saga that lies ahead.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1)

To read other reviews from "The Tales of Alvin Maker," check out:
Seventh Son
Red Prophet
Prentice Alvin
Alvin Journeyman
Heartfire
The Crystal City

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Pathfinder

Orson Scott Card is one of the best-known names in modern science fiction literature. This is in no small part due to the award-winning "Ender's Game" and its many sequels, though credit also belongs to his lesser-known series and sagas, such as "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Within the last year Card has created two new series, indeed two entirely new universes. The first world, "Mithermages," was launched with the publication of "The Lost Gate." The second, "Serpent World," is introduced in the novel "Pathfinder."


The boy Rigg is the titular "Pathfinder" of the novel, for he is able to see the paths of humans and animals, not by markings in the ground but by trails left by the soul suspended, as it were, in air.  The only person whose path is invisible to him is the man he calls "Father," who raised him in the wilderness around the village of Fall Ford. Father taught him not only the skills of tracking and hunting, but also skills more suited for the city, such as the art of rhetoric. When Father is struck down by a tree during a hunt, Rigg is forced to return to the village, and ultimately make his way to his real family in Aressa Sessamo, the capital city of the wallfold.

As an author, Card's craft might be better classified as technical rather than artistic. This novel is like a machine, not as though it merely grinds away, nor as though it conveys a sense of inevitability. Rather, as the broader pattern gradually comes into focus, we realize that every detail is like a cog perfectly fitted to each other and to its place in the narrative.

This is particularly evident in three instances.  First, each of the main characters is revealed to have particular gifts, which complement Rigg's path-finding skill and enable them to cooperate in the grand venture, especially near the end of the novel. Second, two of these gifts working in concert actually enable time travel, and while Card is unafraid to leap headlong into paradox, he is judicious with his use of this ability and always ensures there is an underlying unity throughout the novel. Third, some of the interactions between Rigg and city-dwellers (especially the banker of O, and to a lesser extent the royal family of Aressa Sessamo) are brilliant examples of Card's native talent for depicting political strategy in conversation.

The atmosphere of the story is largely one of fantasy. However, to the beginning of each chapter is conjoined brief passages that bear little resemblance to the main narrative, and much more closely resemble classic science fiction. The human race came close to extinction when the moon was struck by a comet. The surviving remnant built two space ships to a nearby habitable planet: the one attempting a jump through hyperspace, the other cruising at a more reasonable ten-percent of light speed.

Card utilizes his standard rotating wheel of perspectives, though in this case he mainly limits himself to two: the pathfinder Rigg, surrounded by allies on his odyssey to Aressa Sessamo, and the pilot Ram, surrounded by robotic "expendables" on the voyage to a planet called Garden. It is initially unclear how the two narratives intersect, until the novel nears its end. The final resolution, however, is both complicated and compelling, and promises to make for an exceptional series. I never cease to be impressed with Card's literary craft, and "Pathfinder" is no exception.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Pathfinder

Monday, April 11, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Children of the Mind

"Children of the Mind" is the latest and last entry in the original Ender Saga, begun in 1985 with the publication of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game." I have heard reports that Orson Scott Card is writing another sequel set in the same universe, "Shadows in Flight," but from what I hear it would be grounded in the Ender's Shadow series, following the life of Bean and other secondary characters from the original novel. As it stands, "Children of the Mind" is the conclusion of the original saga, and what a ending it is!


Following the events of "Xenocide," the colonists of Lusitania have successfully neutralized the descolada virus, while their resident deus ex machina Jane has mastered the art of instantaneous locomotion, which is handy in many situations, not least when you're trying to avoid a xenocide. The formic and pequinino populations (i.e.,"buggers" and "piggies") are no longer in danger of total extermination. However, these small steps forward come with several terrible steps back. The Starways fleet continues its course towards planet, now with the crucial commission to kill.  Ender has lost his son to inter-species rioting, and lost his wife to fatalistic despair. Lastly, the citizens of Path have identified Jane, and found a way to squeeze the life out of her sentient circuitry -- eliminating in a stroke an entire species (Jane being one of a kind) and the future of space travel.

Moreover, Ender now has to deal with the presence of two newcomers to the community. Young Valentine and Young Peter were two empty bodies accidentally generated by on the first instantaneous flight: created ex nihilo out of Ender's childhood memories, filled with Ender's own aiua. Ender empties himself into the two creatures -- his dreams and altruistic nobility into the image of his sister, his desires and ambitious efficiency into that of his brother -- but at the cost of his own health and potentially his life.

With this many moving parts, it's only natural that the characters would all put their heads together and figure out the solution piecemeal, as each issue confronts them. Oh, wait, it's a Orson Scott Card novel. So, they all split up and frenetically multitask. Ender's friend Miro works with pseudo-Valentine to scout new worlds as destinations for Lusitanian colony ships, carrying humans and formics and pequininos. However, the pair soon notice that Jane is conducting her own line of research on the side, into the origins of the descolada virus itself. Meanwhile, psuedo-Peter flies off with Wang-mu (the servant girl introduced in "Xenocide") to persuade Congress to stop the fleet. Their first stop is the Japanese culture of Divine Wind, where they meet the philosopher Aimaina Hikari. Their conversation -- and the elaborate battle of wits that inform every word and action -- is one of the highlights of the book and the saga as a whole. From there, Peter and Wang-mu continue to Pacifica, a world of Samoan culture where they meet the prophet Malu. Finally, Ender himself remains on Lusitania, spending his final few days reforging his relationship with Novinha.

There are a few defining moments in the book -- the conversation between Wang-mu and Hikari being the first and perhaps the most notable. "Children of the Mind" contains the breadth of scope necessary for Card to fully develop his craft, not just in the three inter-weaving narratives, but also in the occasional glimpses into the thoughts of the Hive Queen, Rooter the father-tree, and especially Jane herself, on top of the brief passages and epigrams from Han Quin-jao (a character from "Xenocide") that open each chapter.

Moreover, this may be the first book in which the dichotomy between politics and psychology is no longer insurmountable for Card. They're still present, those near-diametric passages of emotional angst and political strategy, but the contrast is no longer so sharp, perhaps because Card is able to successfully recast both types of passages in terms of the other. Thus, that early conversation reveals high-level strategy and tactics, but is framed in the context of competing egos, while the passages that deal with Ender's three-part soul-split and Jane's final free moments on the ansible networks are reframed as puzzle pieces that must be sorted through to find a resolution.

This is a compelling book in itself, and a satisfying conclusion to the Ender Saga. I don't imagine Card is entirely done with the universe he's created, but if or when he returns I know I can look forward to even greater displays of method and ingenuity

If you're interested in purchasing this book, check out Amazon.com
Children of the Mind (Ender, Book 4)

For other reviews of the Ender's Saga and Shadow series, check out these links:

Ender's Game (13 Aug. 2010)
Ender in Exile (23 Sept. 2010)
Speaker for the Dead (8 Apr. 2011)
Xenocide (9 Apr. 2011)
Children of the Mind (11 Apr. 2011)
Ender's Shadow (15 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Hegemon (19 Apr. 2011)
Shadow Puppets (25 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Giant (29 Apr. 2011)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Xenocide

Five years after "Speaker of the Dead," Orson Scott Card continued his career-making Ender Saga with the publication of "Xenocide." As far removed as "Speaker" was from the original "Ender's Game," so too is removed "Xenocide" from either of them. The same characteristics of Card's literary knack are still present (to shamelessly mix a metaphor from his other early series, Tales of Alvin Maker), but they are directed towards very different ends.


"Xenocide" might best be described as a psychological drama, for almost the whole of the action is borne on the back of certain ethical dilemmas faced by various groups of characters. On the other hand, the narrative atmosphere itself feels like nothing so much as the atmosphere of a road movie: forced away from home by inexorable pursuers, casting hurried glances behind, sustained solely by the drive to press on. It's an almost oppressive sense of fatalism: even from the beginning of the book, you feel the pressures and the trap ahead, but find yourself draw there as though inexorably.

On the one hand, we remain with the original cast on Lusitania, a world in rebellion against the alliance of the Hundred Worlds. These characters must constantly fight against the descolada vrius, that is the center of the conflict between humans and the alien pequininos. The "piggies" rely on the virus to metabolize and survive, but the same virus is capable of annihilating any human and human biosphere it comes in contact with. Thus, the characters who live on Lusitania must find a way to remove the destructive tendencies of the virus, while simultaneously finding a way to prevent the impending xenocide at the hands of a military fleet sent by the Starways Congress.

The primary difference between "Xenocide" and the previous books in the Ender Saga lies in the other half of the narrative, in the sharply Oriental setting in which this portion of the story occurs. The earlier works were largely Euro-centric, for even the planet Lusitania was populated by Portuguese settlers and Portuguese culture. Here, however, we find ourselves in rather more rarefied air, among those who inhabit the Chinese world of Path. These super-intelligent "godspoken" function as the brain-trust of the Starways Congress, who govern the Hundred Worlds. Our attention is drawn to a small familly -- widower, daughter, and servant girl -- who are tasked with finding the right ideas to fight against the Lusitania rebels.

I am a great admirer of Orson Scott Card, and I have difficulty conceiving that he could write a story I would not like to read. Card's trick of shifting perspectives between major characters has slowly made its way to the fore of his writing. True to form, his depiction of Path does not resort to lazy Orientalism, but seems to convey a genuine love of the culture.

However, even with the manifold virtues of the novel taken individually, it cannot help but suffer in contrast to what comes before and after. "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead" are both enduring classics, and "Children of the Mind" gives Card a much broader canvas (along with several new colors) for his portrait of human society. "Xenocide" appears almost as a holdover, a necessary entry in the Saga but primarily there to pave the way to its final installment. It's still a great novel and an enjoyable read, but less astonishingly good than the rest in the series.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Xenocide (Ender, Book 3)

For other reviews of the Ender's Saga and Shadow series, check out these links:

Ender's Game (13 Aug. 2010)
Ender in Exile (23 Sept. 2010)
Speaker for the Dead (8 Apr. 2011)
Xenocide (9 Apr. 2011)
Children of the Mind (11 Apr. 2011)
Ender's Shadow (15 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Hegemon (19 Apr. 2011)
Shadow Puppets (25 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Giant (29 Apr. 2011)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Speaker for the Dead

Orson Scott Card is best known as the author of "Ender's Game," winner of the 1985 Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science fiction novel.  The following year, Card published the companion novel, "Speaker for the Dead," which went on to win the same two awards for 1986. He is the only author to win both awards in consecutive years.
 

Though the novel serves, chronologically, as a sequel, "Speaker for the Dead" was originally intended as a self-standing work: it was only after developing the back-story that Card realized the need for a 'prequel' novel. Honestly, I prefer the first one. While both pieces are exemplars of the science fiction genre, not to mention ample demonstration of Card's literary talent, I found "Ender's Game" more of a political narrative, treating human interaction as a puzzle where all the pieces mesh together.

After finding the bugger queen at the end of "Ender's Game," Andrew Wiggin goes on a quest to find a new home for this alien species. He is accompanied by his sister, Valetine, as well as the sentient computer program Jane. Ultimately he finds himself on the planet Lusitania , home of a lonely human colony on a world dominated by a third alien species, the pequeninos.

"Speaker of the Dead" is pretty far removed from its prequel, at least in narrative terms. There are no battle rooms and war games, only clashes of personality. Ender is no longer a military-minded wunderkind, but a thoughtful and somewhat haunted young adult who makes his living as a Speaker, a cross between a funeral orator and a psychologist. Most of his time on Lusitania is occupied in coming to terms with the tragic history of the Ribeira family.

It's interesting enough -- a gross understatement, I admit -- but my heart fairly leapt towards the end of the book when the three aliens species finally come into contact with each other and construct a treaty to ensure mutual peace. The conflicts between species, much more than the conflicts within the family, hearkened most strongly back to the political elements in "Ender's Game" that made that novel so compelling.  All in all, "Speaker for the Dead" is a compelling read and a splendid example of science fiction, even if I wouldn't rank it as highly as its companion novel.

To purchase this book, check it out at Amazon.com
Speaker for the Dead (Ender, Book 2)

For other reviews of the Ender's Saga and Shadow series, check out these links:

Ender's Game (13 Aug. 2010)
Ender in Exile (23 Sept. 2010)
Speaker for the Dead (8 Apr. 2011)
Xenocide (9 Apr. 2011)
Children of the Mind (11 Apr. 2011)
Ender's Shadow (15 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Hegemon (19 Apr. 2011)
Shadow Puppets (25 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Giant (29 Apr. 2011)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Excursus

This blog has two primary issues, in my opinion. The first is that I'm not very concise. The second is that I'm not very consistent. Hopefully I can address both of these, by keeping myself to shorter reviews. This should also help encourage me to write the reviews soon after I read the book, and post more often.

Knowing myself, I won't always be able to resist the urge to drone on and on. So you can always look forward to at least a few unendurably long reviews. But there should be more variety in the future.

I also anticipate posting more series, in addition to the self-standing reviews.

For instance, this month (April) will be focusing on the novels of Orson Scott Card.  The first half of July will focus on reviews of the Harry Potter novels and books (honoring the July 15th release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"). And I anticipate turning the month of August into a 31-day multi-blog celebration of film adaptations of Shakespeare.

You know, maybe it's just because I'm a nerd, but that sounds like an awful lot of fun.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scott Hahn: Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace

Scott Hahn is best known a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church. One of the major influences in his transition-conversion was the Catholic organization Opus Dei.  Founded in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escrivá and approved in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, the organization was made a personal prelature of Pope John Paul II in 1982 -- a meteoric rise that fueled speculation that Opus Dei had masterfully manipulated papal court politics. This notoriety was reinforced and publicized by the grotesque caricature of Opus Dei that appeared in the 2005 bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code."


For those seeking sensationalist details about the private lives of albino monks, this book is not the place to find them. On the other hand, for those seeking factual sensationalist details, I doubt you'll find them anywhere. Scott Hahn begins by depicting his initial encounter with members of the organization , but swiftly moves to present the doctrinal underpinnings of Opus Dei (a Latin phrase, meaning "The Work of God").

Opus Dei is a global organization (the term "personal prelature" simply means that Opus Dei isn't bound to a single geographic region) with a rather simple mission: to sanctify ordinary life. While there are numeraries who live in special centers, assisted by secular priests and non-clerical assistants, the vast majority of Opus Dei members are supernumeraries, Catholic laity with families and careers outside the organization.

The theology of Opus Dei is the theology of the Catholic Church, rooted in the foundational doctrine of divine filiation: that by the grace of God, we can take part in the life of Christ and can call ourselves truly sons and daughters of God. Hahn spends some chapters discussing this very idea, and tracing its implications throughout the ordinary life of Opus Dei members.

While this brief book isn't neither as explicitly theological nor as explicitly biographical as some of Hahn's other writings, I found some of the insights to be particularly valuable. I was inspired by reading how Opus Dei sought to apply the Christian call to sanctity to their ordinary lives and careers, and found myself remarking at the parallels with Protestant organizations seeking the same active walk of faith.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at Amazon.com:
Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, A Sacramental World.

Monday, March 28, 2011

C.S. Lewis: Studies in Words

Four times I've ordered this book from the library, a year between each order.  Each time I've renewed it the maximum number of times permitted.  And each time I've returned it to the library almost completely unread.

That's not to say I haven't tried. I am a die-hard fan of C.S. Lewis.  I've read almost all of his works, including most of the obscure ones, like "Pilgrim's Regress," "Preface to Paradise Lost," and (the one I'm tempted to call it my favorite) "The Discarded Image."  But "Studies in Words" is somehow different.

Most of Lewis' writings tend towards the apologetic or theological, and that is how most people know him. "Studies in Words," on the other hand, was drawn from Lewis' field of professional expertise (he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford) and from his extensive readings in historical literature. It is relentlessly dry, staggeringly rigorous, and unimaginably rewarding for those who venture through its pages.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joseph Ratzinger: The Ratzinger Report

Since the publication of Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses in the early fifteen century, the "war" between Protestantism and Catholicism has raged. It is interesting to note, however, that beneath this layer of open schism there are strata of internal disputes and borders disputes that complicate the matter considerably.
 

Joseph Ratzinger was a lecturer on church dogmatics when, in 1962, he was invited to participate in Vatican II as a theological consultant. He quickly won a reputation among the so-called "progressive" caucus, for his openness to adapt church practice and discipline to modern times. This bloc found itself in a particularly vexing dispute with the more "traditionalist" conference, who favored the older traditions, especially the Latin Mass. Ratzinger's reputation was secured when he became one of the founders of the progressive periodical "Concilium," that became one of the primary dogmatic disputants with the official Catholic organ of dogma: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office, formerly the Roman and Universal Inquisition.

However, some years later Ratzinger separated from this caucus and this periodical. He would maintain his openness to adaptation and "the modern times," but Ratzinger insisted that any progressive caucus must recognize the authority of Catholic Tradition (and not seek to reinvent everything anew) and the true spirit of Vatican II (without regard for some hypothetical Vatican III that would trump it). The Church must "remain true to Vatican III, to this today of the Church, without any longing for a yesterday irretrievably gone with the wind and without any impatient thrust toward a tomorrow that is not ours" (pg. 19).

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the rank of Cardinal and Archbishop of Munich. Four years later, in 1981, he was selected by Pope John Paul II to be the head and Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, Cardinal Ratzinger often found himself butting heads with his former progressive colleagues, as he sought to establish the post-Vatican II identity of the Catholic Church. Indeed, Ratzinger can be directly credited with moderating these divergent influences, and for reining in some of the more liberal doctrines that were promulgated (perhaps most notably by the liberation theology movement). By the time he was elected to the papal seat, succeeding Pope John Paul II and taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger was already the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and the most highly regarded theologian in the Catholic Church.

All of this should tell you just how important Cardinal Ratzinger was, even before his election as Pope. It should also give you some idea how significant it was when Ratzinger agreed to be interviewed by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist with a focus on religious issues. This interview was doubly significant because it would last for several days, and would wind up not just as an article but as an entire book, from the most important theologian in the Church besides the Pope himself, speaking from a privileged position about the state of the Church. The interview was trebly significant because of the historical secrecy associated with the Holy Office, and the Cardinal's own reticence about interviews.

The book is fantastic.  The introduction, written by Messori, is in my opinion an exemplar of journalistic integrity and honesty. However, the content is the far more impressive aspect of the work. The text, taken almost entirely from Ratzinger's words in the interview, ranges a whole gamut of issues, from the very notion of the Church to the doctrine of sexual ethics, to the conflicts within the Catholic Church and their presumed resolutions.  Though it was published in 1985, it remains entirely relevant today, even in the wake of the debilitating crisis wrought by the child abuses scandal among American Catholic clergy and the far different circumstances faced by the now-Pope Benedict XVI.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Catholicism. The clarity and mental dexterity displayed by Cardinal Ratzinger is a genuine delight.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at Amazon.com
Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church

This was cross-posted at A Sacramental World.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scott Hahn: Reasons to Believe

Scott Hahn is a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church and is now Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Franciscan University of Stuebenville. He has written upwards of a dozen books, on topics ranging from his conversion ("Rome Sweet Home") and his experiences in Opus Dei ("Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace"), to his appreciation of the Eucharist ("The Lamb's Supper") and the Sacraments ("Swear to God"), of the liturgy ("Letter and Spirit"), of the family ("First Comes Love"), and of Marian dogma ("Hail, Holy Queen").


Hahn addresses much of his writing for a Protestant audience, so he is perhaps best known as an apologist, a reputation reinforced by the stellar short work, "Reasons to Believe." The book is divided into three part: the first part addressed to non-Christians, the second part addressed to Protestants and non-Catholic Christians, and the third addressed primarily to his fellow Catholics.

The first part is fairly unoriginal, though I can hardly fault it for being so, as it covers most of the historically recognized and developed arguments for the existence of God, the legitimacy of faith, and the foundations of Christian Scripture and revelation. Hahn's prose is thorough and clear without getting bogged down in a philosophical mire, which is a credit to his craftsmanship. However, while most of the arguments are ostensibly geared towards a non-Christian audience, I suspect it was actually written for Catholic audiences trying to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their faith.

The second part is easily the best aspect of the work. Coming from a Protestant background, Hahn instinctively knows the rhetoric of Protestantism, and is able to present Catholic dogma in a way that makes intuitive sense to his audience. His five chapters delve into issues of Scripture and tradition, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, and the papacy. While he covers similar material in greater depth in many of his other works, this is a brilliant summary of the major points of contention.

I found the third part of the book less compelling, if only in comparison to the second. He introduces his own area of expertise -- covenant theology, the subject of his doctoral dissertation -- and examines the Catholic doctrine of the church through that lens: as the kingdom of God. The conclusion, however, is another high point. Hahn directly addresses Catholics and exhorts them to re-examine the dogma promulgated by the Council of Trent, which directly responded to the claims of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than identify justification on legalistic grounds of imputed righteousness (as Luther asserted) or the merit of works (as many Catholic chose to respond), the Council of Trent advocated a more relational understanding, sometimes called "imparted righteousness" or "divine filiation."

By faith and by the grace of God, we become heirs of the kingdom and can call ourselves truly sons of God. It is this righteousness, ours through inheritance, that is the basis of our justification, as well as our sanctification and future glorification.  It's a doctrine that all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, could stand to understand and put into practice.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at Amazon.com
Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, A Sacramental World.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Larry Schweikart: What Would The Founders Say?

"What Would the Founders Say" is the most recent entry in a string of works by politically-minded historians in defense of a conservative ideal. Written by Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton professor and Fox News commentator, this book argues strongly for an "original intent" approach to modern political issues.


To the extent this work is defined by its title, it largely succeeds. With few exceptions, it conveys the common understanding of the Founding Fathers with impressive clarity.  If, however, this book were meant to be anything more -- if it were meant to argue against liberal or progressive policies, or meant to be a template for such arguments -- it would unfortunately fail before it could even get out of the gate.

The crux of the matter appears in the last two paragraphs of the introduction:
The best way for America to find its way again is to return to the ideas and principles of the Founders.... The Founders owed it to us to make their positions plain and understandable, and they succeeded.  We owe it to them to embrace and apply them (pp. 9-10).
Unfortunately, this argument from "original intent" assumes perhaps the most important point of contention in debates over political philosophy. An equally notable stream of conservative thought argues that the intent of the Founding generation should have no hold over Constitutional law, and that only the original meaning of the Constitution, treaties and laws of the United States should be applied to modern governance. This position, "textualism," is most notably espoused by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and is widely considered (even among liberals) as the most formidable legal argument for conservative policies.

On the other end of the spectrum is the "Living Constitution" arguments from latter-day progressives such as Laurence Tribe.  This argument points out (courtesy of post-modernist epistemology) that the meaning of words is often conditioned on cultures and social environments, and that any attempt to apply an "original intent" or "original meaning" will therefore apply a stringent if arbitrary standard of interpretation. This thesis is quite common among scholars and legal professionals.

Most importantly for our purposes, however, this "Living Constitution" thesis rejects from the beginning any effort to bind modern policy-making to Founding-era values. Thus, "What Would the Founders Say?" is at its heart a book preaching to its own choir. There's nothing wrong with this.  Indeed, as Schweikart points out in the same introduction, the Founding Fathers "are far more than 'dead white men.' They were geniuses..." (pg. 9). The Founding generation lived under a tyranny and studied history extensively, and in the end they crafted a government more free and more stable than anything that had been created before in history. It's an impressive achievement, and we would do well to listen to their advice and guidance. But, unfortunately, that is a premise not always shared among modern progressives, and therefore persuasive appeals must find other grounds for argument.

As for the substantive chapters, I found the seventh chapter on banking and monetary issues to be the most effectively written and argued. While I lack the knowledge of early monetary history to confirm or dispute his statistical arguments, the principles of economic theory were clearly outlined and applied, and the pivotal historical events were presented with clarity and meaning.

There was one aggravating error regarding my own field, the history of economic thought, but Schweikart is hardly responsible for the mistake.  He wrote on pg. 127 that "capitalism as [Adam Smith] outlined it was little known as a theory (though it was already a widespread practice)" -- relying on the common misunderstanding that Adam Smith was the father of classical economics and not reliant on the work of prior economists, notably the French Physiocrats. Likewise, while I wanted to sing from rooftops when Schweikart mentioned the appallingly under-appreciated Jean-Baptiste Say (pg. 155), it appeared that he misunderstood the importance and meaning of Say's contribution to economic thought.

This last point regarding Say is actually part of a broader theme in Schweikart's book. One of main thrusts of the book is a rehabilitation of Hamilton's reputation among conservative audiences. The author's slight misunderstanding of Say is ironically appended to an apologia for Hamilton's misunderstanding of Say. Schweikart is also dismissive of John Adams for the same reason. At one point he notes Adams' tendency to "congratulat[e] himself with characteristic hyperbole" when relaying Adams' opinion late in life that "save for me, [Hamilton] would have involved us in a foreign war with France and a civil war with ourselves" (pg. 165). In all honesty, I'm pretty confident Adams was right, and that his self-congratulation was earned: he did manage to keep us out of the wars raging in Europe at the time, even though it cost him his own prospects for re-election, most of his ties in the Federalist Party, and his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson.

The first two chapters were impressively detailed summaries of the Founder's opinions on religion and education.  I had already read most of the quotes in other works, so it didn't affect me as strongly, but it serves as a decidedly useful antidote to any assertion that the Founding Fathers were generally deists or apathetic to religion, when that is quite possibly the furthest thing from the truth.  The third and fourth chapters, ostensibly on environmentalism and health care, mostly focused on the history of property rights in America -- useful in its own right, but tangential to the question at hand.  I found the ninth chapter on foreign policy to be of particular interest. Where most writers in my experience treat the Founders as non-interventionists, Schweikart argued that the Founders would have preferred a neoconservative approach to foreign policy, but were stymied by the lack of organization that characterized the early republic. I wasn't entirely convinced, but his arguments were well developed, and I will be giving the subject more thought.

On the whole, "What Would the Founders Say?" is a valuable overview of the opinions of the Founding Generation on issues affecting modern America. Some of the issues are developed in a superficial manner, but given the breadth of issues covered and this book's intended popular audience, I'm less surprised by that and more surprised that Schweikart managed to cover issues in as much depth as he did.

If you're interested in purchasing this book, check it out at Amazon.com: What Would the Founders Say?: A Patriot's Answers to America's Most Pressing Problems

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

I don't consider myself much of a connoisseur of Hitchcock films.  I've seen my fair share -- "The 39 Steps" was my first, and "Rope" may be my favorite --  but my personal preference is for more recent films.  On the other hand, whenever I discover a new Hitchcock film I know for a fact that I'm in for a treat, so occasionally I carve out to time to watch one.  Thus I found myself watching "The Lady Vanishes," one of Hitchcock's last works before he moved to produce for American studios, and the film that firmly established his early reputation.


The first half-hour or so of the film is quite slow.  A large number of passengers are waiting for a train that has been snowed in, and must stay overnight at an already crowded inn.  We first see the events of the film through the eyes of two British gentlemen, Charters and Coldicott, utterly enraptured by the sport of cricket and utterly enraged at their inability to learn the score. They meet a young happy couple on their honeymoon -- a secret kept from both their real spouses -- and a chatterbox of an English governess, Ms. Froy (played by the inimitable Dame May Whitty).  At length we shift perspectives to Iris, a beautiful but rather spoiled young lady vacationing in Europe on her distant fiance's money. She bribes the innkeeper to stop the noise coming from the room above her, and meets the charming and worldly Gilbert, who was trying to transcribe a local country dance. Finally, as the night concludes, we return to Ms. Froy, listening in raptures to the trilling melody of a serenading guitarist.

As the music ends, the guitarist is strangled.

Events quickly accelerate. As they board the train, Iris is hit on the head with large flower-pot intended for Ms. Froy.  She manages to get on board, but suffers a concussion, and when she awakes, Ms. Froy has vanished, and none of the other passengers remember seeing her.  Only Gilbert believes her, and it takes him some time for that as well.  They search high and low for Ms. Froy, but to little avail.

The great joy of the film is in Hitchcock's ability to construct a compelling 'conspiracy,' for each person in the compartment must have a compelling reason for forgetting Ms. Froy.  Either they are all in on the conspiracy, or each is lying for reasons of their own.  That slow half-hour at the beginning of the film establishes those independent reasons, such that the final effect doesn't feel nearly as artificial or hodge-podge as it might have otherwise seemed.

There are a few sequences in this film that stand out to me. The fight in the baggage compartment between Gilbert and Doppo the Magnificent (a magician famous for his "vanishing woman" act...) is somewhat suspenseful but mostly uproarious, as Gilbert invites the fish-out-of-water Iris to help him fight.  Likewise, the climactic scene has moments of hilarity as the several English gentlemen find themselves (to their chagrin and disbelief) engaging in a gun battle.  The plot pressed onward, and the suspense is constantly maintained, but such moments and little asides are a genuine delight.

Unlike some of his bleaker works, the conclusion of the film is pretty unambiguously happy -- though Charters and Coldicott are disappointed when the fourth match of their cricket team is canceled due to flooding.  The MacGuffin is satisfactorily revealed, and there is a moment of romantic bliss in the penultimate scene involving Gilbert, Iris, and her fiance -- and no, I won't say more than that. There's nothing terrible profound about this film, but it is decidedly entertaining, and that's good enough for me