A Landscape with Dragons is about battlegrounds and books and battlegrounds that are books. In it Michael O’Brien offers a critique of contemporary children’s literature, with a goal of pushing parents to think seriously about the impact such reading can have on their children – for good or ill.
“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, you are only half a writer.”
Were I inclined to get a tattoo, I would probably have the above sentence etched into my forehead, that way every glance in the mirror might double as a piquant reminder: don’t forget to love what you do.
For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be picking out peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.
And there, in one paragraph, is The Reason Why you should read this book, Zen in the Art of Writing. It is a collection of eleven superlative essays, written by a writer who revels in his craft. Bradbury. Ray Bradbury. He of mechanical hounds and dark carnivals and wine made from dandelions. When I say he revels in what he does, you’d better believe it. Just picture, if you will, a man who throws himself into writing like a child into a freshly-raked pile of leaves. That’s Bradbury.
From “Drunk, and In Charge of a Bicycle”:
… you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.
But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.
That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration.
From “The Secret Mind”:
Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.
From “Zen in the Art of Writing”:
The artist learns what to leave out.
His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go.
The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.
Writing is hard, yes. Mr. Bradbury would be the first to tell you so. But it need not be – indeed, should not be – a bland or joyless exercise. It should not merely be a matter of dropping in one word after the other without screwing up the grammar. If that’s how it feels, it’s time to step back and take a look at what you’re missing.
Stoop down. Look low. See that? Buried beneath the pyramid of elements and style, beneath the smelly carcass of “writer’s block” and the panicky butterflies that circle it – beneath all of that you may find the body of a child. Set him loose. He knows where the leaf pile is.
Detective Roland March is a homicide cop on his way out. But when he’s the only one to notice evidence of a missing female victim at a gang-related multiple-murder scene, he finds the second chance he’s been looking for.
March connects the female victim with another case involving the disappearance of Hannah Mayhew, teenage daughter of a famous Houston evangelist. None of his superiors are convinced, but they agree to transfer March to the Hannah Mayhew task force.
From there – in the immortal words of Barney Fife – things go “kablooie.”
Back on Murder is a great book. Not a great book “for a religious book,” but a great book, period. A rare and most welcome example of contemporary Christian fiction that does not induce vomiting.
That was harsh, but I meant every word.
Mr. Betrand manages to avoid the literary potholes that plague so many Christian novelists, by which I mean… wait a sec. Forget I said anything about potholes. We’re really talking about ditches, and the fact that Christians today are generally the dumbest drivers in the writing world. We seem to have forgotten what it means to tell a good story; but we sure as heck know what a tract looks like. I hope your airbag is working.
Back on Murder is not a tract. It’s a smart, well-written, and utterly unPreachy (yes, I made that word up) piece of detective fiction. The characters aren’t cut from fiberboard, the plot is genuinely compelling – and not in a ‘waiting for the conversion scene’ way – and the dialogue is alive and kicking, even if the bodies are not.
Like I said, it’s just a great book.
Roland March himself is one of the book’s gems, mainly because he isn’t one. To adapt a line from Lemony Snicket, March is like a chef’s salad, “with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” He’s proud, petty, stubborn, brave, heroic, and broken. He’s looking for redemption, a chance to get ‘back on murder’ before he gets cut loose.
But there is more than one kind of redemption. And by the end of the story, March has caught a glimpse of the kind with a capital R.
I may as well begin by admitting that I am a rank amateur in all things Anglo-Saxon. The most dilettante of dilettante dilettantes. My favorite Anglo-Saxon word is probably merscmealuwe. Which means marshmallow. Which ought to tell you something about how many Anglo-Saxon words I know.
Having said that, I Love – yes, capital ‘L’ intended – the story of Beowulf. Read it for the first time when I was twelve. Haven’t stopped reading it since. It is the Ultimate Epic, and I began to Love it even more when I discovered Seamus Heaney’s translation. I’ve read that one four or five times now (and counting).
Yet lo and behold, my appreciation for this Saga of Sagas has been deepened further. I owe this deepening to Pastor Douglas Wilson, and to the very, very dear soul who sent me a copy of Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering.
In a Grendel-sized nutshell? This thing is amazing.
And I’m not just saying that because of the preposterously cool cover art.
You’ll notice it is called a “rendering” rather than a translation. Wilson explains why in the Introduction:
While I am limited in Old English, I do okay in New English, and know my way around, both with the regular stuff and in the reading and writing of poetry. So what I did was this. I took about five different translations of Beowulf, including my two favorites (Heaney and Chickering), got the sense of lines x, y, and/or z from them, and then cast that general sense into my own modern form of an Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative poetry. Then I did the same thing over again, and went on and on until I was done. Since I was making free to add words for the sake of the alliteration, and because I sometimes supplied my own imagery, the result is a loose paraphrase of the sense of the original and not a knock-off of any of the translations I used. At the same time, the poem can generally be followed “line by line,” give or take a couple of lines, and I am not saying I never looked at the original. What with one thing and another, this version of the poem has three more lines than respectable editions do. I don’t know. It was dark. They were big. Just think of it as more Beowulf than you would get with those other editions. But the sense of the original is there.
It seemed pretty clear to me that Wilson had more fun with this than is, strictly-speaking, legal. I believe I had the same amount in reading it. It’s stylish, it’s elegant, it’s clear, it’s bursting with cinematic moxie, and I enjoyed the heck out of every line. So much so, in fact, that at the conclusion of the story I had to be confined to a chair with zip ties until the irrepressible urge to slay something – or at least rip its arm off – had subsided.
Yes. I have my moments.
Included at the back of the book are two essays, one on Beowulf as “the unChrist” and another on the poem’s chiastic structure. The former was of particular interest to me. Wilson makes a brilliant case for seeing the poetry of Beowulf, not only as an artistic triumph, but also “as an evangelistic and apologetic tour de force.” Muchly good stuff.
So. It is with great delight that I see two versions of Beowulf – Heaney and Wilson – living side by side on my shelf. It’s like having a really awesome best friend, and then learning that he has a really awesome twin brother, and now they’re both chillin’ in your living room having a bloody good time with the pie and the Guinness and the dart board. Or something like that.
“Is God in Control, or Do We have a Choice? The seemingly endless debate between Calvinism and Arminianism continues to make its rounds throughout the Christian community. Polarized beliefs have dominated and divided the theological landscape of the twentieth century, while many observers wonder, “Does it really make a difference?” Chosen But Free answers with a resounding yes.” (more…)
One does not simply review a book like this without pausing – for one moment – to appreciate the attention-grabbing power of its title. A moment of silence, please.
Good? Good. Oh, and any pacifists who may be reading this are welcome to the smelling salts; just look in the cabinet on the left. Good? Good. You’ll need them again before I’m finished.
The Little Black Book of Violence is written by two guys who know what they’re talking about. A strange (some would say silly) observation, perhaps, but one I believe is worth making. These men have experience. (One could say they have ‘a history of violence,’ but I think that conveys the wrong idea.) This isn’t just a bunch of theory for them; it’s down-to-earth, nitty gritty, keep-your-head-from-getting-torn-off practical. And that’s Reason #1 why they deserve a hearing.
The book is divided into three sections. The first (Before Violence Occurs) details the importance of identifying and avoiding conflict to begin with. According to the authors, “fighting is what you do when you’ve totally screwed up your self-defense.” Concepts like awareness and de-escalation are given plenty of attention, with the aim of convincing you that such skills are even more vital than whatever butt-kicking skills you have or think you have.
Of course, if you are forced into a fight, you should be prepared to do just that: fight. Teddy Roosevelt’s advice comes to mind: “Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.” The second section (During a Violent Encounter) focuses on a series of self-defense tips and techniques. Nothing fancy, just no-nonsense advice on how to keep the other dude from stomping a mud-hole through your face. It’s an insightful read, but there’s only so much you can explain on paper, and it’s difficult to practice the techniques unless you’re working with a trainer. (My siblings weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of being subjected to a neck joint crush. Go figure.)
The final section (Aftermath of Violence) is probably the most sobering, as the authors make it clear that surviving a violent encounter is only the beginning. After that, you’ve got another battle to fight: legal, physical, psychological, financial, or a combination of all four. Topics like first aid, creating witnesses, and talking to the police are discussed here.
In the end, what Kane and Wilder manage to do – very effectively, I might add – is deglamorize violence and make it seem very uncool. Necessary in certain cases? Yes. Something to be engaged in lightly? Not on your life.
– Corey p.
Postscript: It’s worth noting that this book does contain a smattering of language and some graphic images (most of these are related to the aftermath of violent encounters, but there is one partial nude shot). This isn’t a book for youngsters by any stretch of the imagination.
Old Man’s War introduces itself with some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a novel: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
So simple, so compelling. Further, it points us to the two great themes that dominate this tale – that of love and that of war. Far from being a lightweight interstellar shoot ‘em up, Old Man’s War has the heart and brain of a modern classic. It’s not just a good read – it’s a great one.
In Scalzi’s futuristic world, the good news is that mankind finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets suitable for human habitation are few – and our claim to those few is violently challenged by other alien races. So we hit back: for the sake of the old world, Earth, and for the sake of new ones. This war has been going on for decades, and signs of a reprieve are nowhere to be seen.
Back on Earth itself, most of our resources are in the hands of the CDF (Colonial Defense Force). Once you reach retirement age, you can join up with the CDF. Youngsters aren’t wanted; people who carry a lifetime worth of experience are. If you sign up, you’ll be whisked off Earth and never permitted to return. You’ll serve at least two years on the front. If you survive, you’ll be given a homestead of your own, on one of the newly colonized planets you helped fight for. If you survive.
“In this room right now there are 1,022 recruits,” Lieutenant Colonal Higges said. “Two year from today, 400 of you will be dead.”
Higgee stood in the front of the theater, again. “In the third year,” he continued, “another 100 of you will die. Another 150 in years four and five. After ten years – and yes, recruits, you will most likely be required to serve a full ten years – 750 of you will have been killed in the line of duty. Three-quarters of you, gone. These have been the survival statistics – not just for the last ten or twenty years, but for the over two hundred years the Colonial Defense Force has been active.”
There was dead silence.
“I know what you’re thinking right now, because I was thinking it when I was in your place,” Lieutenant Colonel Higgee said. “You’re thinking – what the hell am I doing here? This guy is telling me I’m going to be dead in ten years! But remember that back home, you most likely would have been dead in ten years, too – frail and old, dying a useless death. You may die in the Colonial Defense Forces. You probably will die in the Colonial Defense Forces. But your death will not be a useless one. You’ll have died to keep humanity alive in our universe.” (p. 107-108)
John Perry (the old man of the title) is signing up – survival statistics be darned. Of what awaits him he has only a vague idea. As he soon discovers, fighting the real fight, light-years from his home planet, is far more brutal and life-altering than he could ever have imagined. So…
… who wants to kill some aliens?
While casting about for a punchy way to describe this book, the first thing that sprang to mind was a comparison to Pixar’s UP. No joke. Think about it. In UP, the elderly Carl Fredericksen mourns the death of his beloved wife, Ellie, and thereafter embarks on an adventure. In Old Man’s War, John Perry (also elderly and also a widower) sets out on his own adventure in the aftermath of his wife’s passing.
Obviously, we’re talking about two different kinds of adventuring here – rescuing exotic birds vs. blowing away alien beasties – but the situational similarity is neat to consider, amiright?
(Don’t take that the wrong way, by the by: Old Man’s War is intended for adults. It is most emphatically not a candidate for family read-aloud time.)
Lovers of military sci-fi, take note: Old Man’s War is a ripping yarn that pays homage to the likes of Starship Troopers and The Forever War. This isn’t to say it’s a recycling of those works (quite the contrary), but the influence is clear. What raises this story above many of its peers is the deeply human element. The soldiers here aren’t just so much cannon-fodder, and Scalzi refuses to let the action – as thrilling as it is – get in the way of good old fashioned character development.
The story itself is brilliantly wrought, giving a tip of the space helmet to greats such as Heinlein while firmly establishing its own uniqueness. As a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, “This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”
This is what I call a triumph.
Oh, and Santa – if you’re reading this, pay real close attention to this next bit: I want a CDF MP-35 for Christmas. Seriously. Get me one, and I’ll let you live.
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house…”
When young Coraline Jones finds a mysterious passageway in her family’s home, she crawls into a world exactly like her own – only better. Here, nobody says her name wrong (“It’s Coraline, not Caroline”), the toys are marvelous, her bedroom is delightfully pink and green, and the food is actually edible (unlike her father’s “recipes”).
But of course, there’s a catch.
Her parents in this alternate world look exactly like her real parents, but with shiny black button eyes and ghastly paper-white skin and a fervent desire to keep Coraline on their side of the door. Coraline can have everything she’s ever wanted – so long as she’s willing to allow her own eyes to be replaced with buttons.
Did I mention this couple is just a tad bit creepy?
Clearly, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline isn’t your typical Disneyfied fairy tale. It’s dark, whimsical, sinister, smart, and funny – frequently all at once. You will recall it was Lewis who once said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” If this is true (as I believe it is), then Coraline is a very good children’s story indeed.
I haven’t read any of his other novels, but judging from this one, Gaiman is a firm believer in the “short and sweet” method of writing. His style is spare yet colorful, fraught with crisp dialogue and fantastically bizarre images that flicker out of the gloom like candles in a haunted house. It is precisely this restraint that keeps the story from becoming overly dreary or morbid, while still maintaining a keenly creepy edge.
Like all the best fairy tales, this one isn’t without a moral or two tucked slyly up its sleeve. Be careful what you wish for is one; be thankful for what you have, however imperfect it may be is another.
The world on the other side of the door looks like a lot more fun than the one on this side; but like a child’s version of the Matrix, its “betterness” is merely illusory. When the curtain is pulled back, and the masks come off, we see monsters have been running the show all along.
Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said. “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
It seems getting everything you want can be an exceedingly ugly business after all. Who’d’ve thought?
On the playground of ideas, twenty-first century Christians seem to get the worst of it. The bloody noses. The stolen milk money. The utter lack of confidence that comes with being unable to defend yourself from the bullies occupying swing, slide, and sandbox.
And little wonder, with cranky atheists like Sam Harris running around. Rather than get in a scuffle, many believers look for the nearest gopher hole and stuff themselves into it. They’ve been told the Christian faith is irrational, naive, and even dangerous – and judging from the way they react when challenged to “give an answer”, they almost believe it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if I told you (while doing my best Morpheus impression) that Christianity is neither irrational, naive, nor dangerous? What if I told you that atheists are the irrational ones? What if I told you their beliefs can’t withstand the keen examination they demand from others?
Well, after telling you, I’d hand you a copy of Mitch Stokes’ book, A Shot of Faith (to the Head). Then I’d say, Go get ‘em, Tiger. And you’d waltz right back onto the playground equipped with your very own bully-proof vest.
A Shot of Faith is a great book that does three things extremely well. First, it engages with the reader in a challenging yet accessible way; second, it stresses the practical over the theoretical; third, it takes the offensive against atheism.
Accessible. Dr. Stokes is a wonderful teacher. Instead of indulging in a massive info-dump, he takes time to clearly and patiently articulate each point, neither coddling the reader nor overwhelming him. It’s a fine line to walk, but he does it beautifully.
Practical. The concepts and arguments you study in this book are meant to be used, not merely toyed with in the privacy of your own mind. These are weapons you’re dealing with, soldier. They are not intended to be collected like stamps and then shelved, to be admired another day. Grasp them tightly and get them dirty. You want to know these things, not just be familiar with them.
Taking the Offensive. That the Christian faith is utterly defensible is something Stokes’ demonstrates repeatedly; but what he also makes clear is the fact that the atheist’s “faith” cannot be defended, and he equips readers to take advantage of that in several ways. This is an important aspect of apologetics which I think is often overlooked in our day. Believers shouldn’t rest content with dodging and parrying attacks – they should be attacking, too. The “pulling down of strongholds” mentioned in II Cor. 10:4 sounds like an offensive maneuver, wouldn’t you agree?
In conclusion, therefore: do yourself favor, buy this book, and let Dr. Stokes shoot you in the head. It’s really quite invigorating.