Friday, February 28, 2014

Books Read in February 2014

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

"Dawn Treader" is a very different book from the first two books in the Narnia series. In "Wardrobe" and Prince Caspian, Narnia is under control of an unlawful tyrant and must be set right by Aslan and the rightful heirs to the throne. In "Dawn Treader", Narnia is at peace and remains so for the entire book - a rare thing indeed for modern fantasy. There isn't even a villain. And yet,"Dawn Treader" may well be the most well written of the first three books. Instead of saving the world, the crew of the Dawn Treader is on a quest of honour to discover what became of the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, and in the meanwhile drawing closer and closer to the World's End (the Narnian world is flat). Beyond the World's End is Aslan's Country (Aslan is Narnia's Christ-figure), a place Reepicheep the mouse has desperately longed to go to since he was in his cradle. This idea has always resonated deeply within me, because I've been haunted by a sense of longing for another place for about as long as I can remember (and apparently Lewis experienced similar longings for much of his life). The plot of Dawn Treader is episodic, each island resembling a short story, but each island also growing more and more mysterious as the ship nears the World's End. The last three chapters especially gave me a wonderful sense of numinous awe culminating in the revelation that Aslan is in our world too. In some ways "Dawn Treader" is like Paradiso for children (though of course, it would be doing "Dawn Treader" a major disservice to say that it is a book exclusively for children).

The Song of the Nibelungs (unknown author) translated by Frank G. Ryder

In all three of the 12th century epics I've read (The Songs of Roland, the Cid, and the Nibelungs), there has been an interesting interplay between past and present. Each of them portrayed events that occurred hundreds of years prior and interpreted them in light of what was then modern sensibilities (the interesting thing is that, although this fascinates me in medieval literature, modern stories "modernizing" the past is a big pet peeve of mine; I might have felt differently about these stories had I lived when they were written). "Roland" and "The Cid" were heavily influenced by the dawn of the Crusades in the late 11th-12th centuries, a foreign concept previously. "Nibelungs" tells a story that took place in ancient pre-Christian Germany but paints it with the chivalry, courtliness, and Christianity of the 12th century. The result is an interesting mix of brutality and elegance. The story itself feels more ancient than medieval. It reminded me of the Oresteia, a story of revenge and conflicting loyalty, but with medieval ideas like chivalry and vassalage. The characters and their actions were more morally ambiguous than in "Roland" and "The Cid". I had very mixed feelings on all of the main characters, liking some of their qualities but disliking others. This isn't a story of good guys and bad guys, but a realistic portrayal of humanity and the ending is very sad (I don't consider this a spoiler since the author constantly reminds you that things will end badly throughout the poem).

*SPOILER warning*

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

When I heard that this book was about a war between the ancient gods (e.g. Odin, Thoth, Anansi) and the modern "gods" (e.g. Media, Technology), I had high hopes for this book, but after reading it, I have to say it wasn't my cup of tea. I didn't care for the way the gods were portrayed. They were modernized, mundane versions of themselves and I questioned what it was about the gods, as Gaiman wrote them, that America so desperately needed. The qualities of myths that I find so interesting and unfortunately foreign to modern society were not present in Gaiman's gods. What exactly would these burned out fellows do for America if they gained more prominence in the American mind? Maybe I'm missing the point. After all, by the end, and even before then to an extent, the new gods aren't viewed as the bad guys any more than the old gods are viewed as the good guys, so it's not so much a polemic about the modern things that Americans revere, but the fickleness and lack of foundation of their reverence. I also had a hard time caring for the main character, Shadow. There have been emotionally dead, passive characters that I have really connected with in the past, but I had a hard time  connecting with Shadow. He stumbled passively through much of the story and his decisions and attitudes sometimes felt odd to me, so it was hard for me to care. Interestingly though, he reminded me quite a bit of a character I actually did like: Paul Schafer from The Fionavar Tapestry. And finally, I thought it was odd that the monotheistic God was never brought up, except in passing. Saying that America isn't religious is simply wrong (the ironic thing is that the "Old Country" is less religious than America these days), but Americans worship the Christian God, not pagan gods. It felt like a major puzzle piece was missing. The book also felt really long, like a movie that should have been an hour shorter. The last third was interesting, but I was bored through much of the first two thirds. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the last third, I was anxious to be done and didn't appreciate it as much as I could have.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Prometheus Bound"

For some reason I had always thought Prometheus was human, so it surprised me, while reading Prometheus Bound, to discover that Prometheus was a Titan, because it really does make a difference. The story of Prometheus is beloved by scientists because Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity, similar to how scientists intrude into the realm of the sacred to give knowledge and power to humanity. If Prometheus is a human, then it's a story about humanity outsmarting and flaunting the gods, but if Prometheus is a Titan, then humanity still owes the gods (or the Titans, I suppose) for their success in the long run. Either way, it's a story about the arbitrariness of authority. Not long before the story begins, Zeus had arbitrarily dethroned his father Cronus (who had earlier dethroned his father Uranus) in an example of might makes right. This makes Zeus a tyrant and a hypocrite. Prometheus is being punished by Zeus for flaunting his authority, yet Zeus himself treasonously overthrew Cronus. 

Another surprise was that Prometheus had not only given fire to humanity, he had given them the gift of reason, the attribute that separates men from beasts. Before men had been "senseless as beasts."

Prometheus Bound also reminded me quite a bit of Paradise Lost, although Prometheus was naturally more sympathetic then Satan. I'm sure this play influenced John Milton and I'm sure it's no surprise that Prometheus Bound and Paradise Lost are listed in the same year in the Great Books reading list.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Random Number Survey

I got this idea from the blog, "A Great Book Study"
and I thought it sounded like fun.

Here's how the Random Number Survey works.

1) Pick a number in your head (I picked five).

2) Count that number across your bookshelf (so, I picked the fifth book on my bookshelf). Answer the first question with that book.

3) Count the same number of books from where you left off and answer the second question.

4) Continue until the questions are complete. There are 15 questions.

Here we go...

1. What do you think of the cover?

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

I rather like the simplicity of the C. S. Lewis signature classics, which is why I choose to collect that particular set. The weigh scales seem like a good fit for The Abolition of Man, because it deals with objective value and our judgment of it. Thumbs up.

2. Write a review in 140 characters or less

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

First book of LOTR "trilogy". Tolkien's classic remains the standard for modern fantasy. Brilliant storytelling and world-builiding. In one word: epic.

3. How or where did you get this book?

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

I bought this book at Chapters a few months ago.

4. Who's your favourite character in this book and why?

Guardians of Ga'Hoole: The Rescue by Kathryn Lasky

OTULISSA! Otulissa is my favourite character in the entire series. For some weird reason, I tend to be partial towards somewhat snobby, aristocratic characters and Otulissa is one of them. Otulissa's love of books and knowledge, pretentiousness, blood thirsty warrior mentality, bravery, and principles combine to make Otulissa the most well developed character in the series and one of my favourite characters of all time.

5. Recommend this book to a fellow blogger you think would like it

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Well... I can't really recommend this because... I haven't actually read it yet. *cough*

I will say that my literature teacher told the few boys in our class (I being one of them), that reading this book is a great way to win a girl's heart. So, I recommend this book to anyone interested in that end.

6. How long ago did you read this book?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

*checks previous blog entries*

August 2013.

7. Name a favourite scene from this book (no SPOILERS)

Akiko and the Intergalactic Zoo by Mark Crilley

Man, I haven't read this book in years, so it's hard to remember which scenes were my favourite. I'll say any scene where Spuckler and Mr. Beeba are arguing, because it's hilarious.

8. Open to page 87 and pick a random quote to share

Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances

"Then I can truly say to you that the flower that buds from such a graft should be very beautiful and attractive, and the fruit from it all the better to pick; for the product of excellence has a sweet fragrance. Enide is beautiful, and it is right and proper she should be so; for her mother is a most beautiful lady, and in her father one sees a handsome knight. She does not fail to live up to them in any respects, for she closely follows and takes after them both in many ways."

9. How did you hear about or discover this book?

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

Long story. When I was about 11 or 12, I was a huge fan of LOTR (I had only seen the movies at that point) when I read a description of "The Chronicles of Narnia". I thought it sounded a lot like LOTR (silly me) and I decided to read it. I picked up The Magician's Nephew, because it looked like it was Book One (once again, silly me). I didn't like it and didn't continue reading the series. I blame this partly on reading The Magician's Nephew as Book One a la chronological order when I should have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first a la publication order and partly on my bad taste back then (I now love The Magician's Nephew). About a year later, I randomly watched the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, expecting to dislike it. I laugh at the BBC movies nowadays, but the original story shone through enough to make me LOVE it the first time I saw it. I soon rediscovered the book series and the rest is history. I don't like telling this story, because it's long and somewhat embarrassing in hindsight, but there you have it.

10. If you could redesign the cover, what would you do?

The Dark Sea Annals: The Errant King by Wayne Thomas Batson

I actually really like the overall design of this cover. All I would do is try to make it look a little more professional. Something about it looks a little cheap to me, but I'm not sure what exactly.

11. Name your least favourite character in this book and why

Watchmen by Alan Moore

This is a hard question, because not many of the characters in this graphic novel are that likeable, but they are all very interesting (much like the graphic novel itself), so... I'm not sure if the question is which character is the least likeable or the least interesting. Of the main characters, I will say that Edward Blake aka the Comedian is the least likeable to me because he is a rapist and I'll say that Laurie Juspeczyk aka the Silk Spectre is the least interesting to me, because... she is (though that isn't saying much because all of the main characters are very interesting).

12. Fill in the blank. If you like _____ then you should try (your book)

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snickett

If you like the previous books in the series, then you should try The Grim Grotto. Not very imaginative, I know, but this is another book I haven't read in years and, from what I remember from my re-read the biggest flaw in these books is how similar they are to each other. The first so many books follow essentially the same plot structure, just in a different setting. Snickett also uses continuing phrases in each book (I'm not saying this as a complaint necessarily, it's actually kind of charming, but it doesn't help the similarity of each book).

13. Name one cool thing about this book (under the dust jacket, map, font, photograph, etc.)

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter

Potter's illustrations, especially the ones coloured with water colours. They remind me of my childhood.

14. Where is it set and would you ever want to visit that world/place?

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (graphic novel) 

A long time ago in a galaxy far,
far away...

Would I want to visit it? Not particularly. It would be cool to be a Jedi, but if I wasn't endowed with the correct Midichlorian count, I'd probably take a pass.

15. Who is it dedicated to?

Greek Realities: Life and Thought In Ancient Greece by Finley Hooper (one of my nonfiction books got mixed in with my fiction)

Finley Hooper dedicates this book to his mother, Lola Allison Hooper.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"On Liberty"

Scool has been keeping me busy, so it took me a while to finish On Liberty. It certainly wasn't from lack of enjoyment. Although political philosophy isn't my favourite topic (it also isn't my least favourite topic), On Liberty was my favourite political philosophy Great Book. I said mental "amens" many a time while reading.

After the introduction in Chapter One, Mill presents an argument for freedom of speech and of the press that was similar to Milton's argument in Areopagitica. One idea I found interesting was Mill's assertion that, even if 99.9% of the population actually want opinions suppressed, the government still shouldn't suppress ideas. This raises an interesting question about democratic government. If Mill is correct, and I agree with him whole-heartedly, then the government is answerable to something other than the voice of the people (because, in Mill's scenario, the voice of the people would have opinions suppressed). 

Mill mentioned another scenario that got me thinking: what if Marcus Aurelius had adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire instead of Constantine? Even before now, I had gotten the sense that Constantine used Christianity for political convenience. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was deeply concerned with philosophy and his own philosophy, Stoicism, had many similarities with Christianity, such as their moralities and the idea of aligning your will with God or the Logos. How would the history of Christianity have gone if it had been adopted into the state by a man with real philosophical convictions like Marcus Aurelius? I don't think mixing Christianity with the secular state is a good idea either way, but it's interesting to think about.

Chapter Three was my favourite. In it, Mill explained the importance of the individual and how, in modern democratic society, it is easy for the individual to get lost in the masses. Innovations propel society forward and most innovations are discovered/created by eccentric people. However modern i.e. 19th century society seems to want all made equal, not only in intelligence but in interests (i.e. we must like what everyone else likes) and the few who dare to be original feel alienated. 

Mill says that it was men of a different sort (i.e. individuals, not the sheep of modern society) that made England great and it would take men of a different sort to keep England from declining. This principle could be applied to the West in general or any other great civilization. Mill said that the stagnation of society in the East is due to lack of individuality, while in the past individuality is what made the West strong. I would suggest that, here in the 21st century, the tables have turned and it is the West, through lack of individuality that is declining and the East, perhaps through rediscovering individuality, is ascending.

Chapter Four discusses the limits of authority society has over the individual. Mill's conclusions, again ones I agree with, is that only actions that directly harm others should be illegal. Otherwise, people should be left to do as they please, even if it brings harm to themselves. Mill also advocates for the separation of Church and State, yet another concept I agree with, by quoting Tacitus: "Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods".

Chapter Five applies Mill's ideas to various scenarios. Mill accuses state education of both casting people into the same mold. The mold in question creates citizens without individuality and in whatever form the state wishes. Mill understood the need for the state to enforce education, but he didn't think the state should conduct education. In other words, Mill thought education should be an entity, separate from, though required by, the state. I thought this was an excellent idea! Schools would focus more on real education and less about creating "good little citizens" and it just might get the West back on track.

Speaking of which, reading On Liberty made me realize that Libertarianism might just be the political philosophy for me. Although I'm not sure I agree with separating the healthcare system from the state in Canada (and, thus, stopping free healthcare), many of the ideas of the Liberterians speak closely to my heart.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Books Read in January 2014

Knights: In History and Legend edited by Constance Bouchard

The back of this book promises that it is the "most comprehensive book on knights and knighthood available" and it certainly delivers. Although, other books will go into more depth in specific areas of knighthood (e.g. armour, tournaments), this book has the widest scope, while still having impressive depth, of any book on knighthood I have seen. This book is divided into five parts and subdivided into smaller sections. Part One gives a basic introduction to knights, their place in society, an overview of chivalry, the horses they rode, and their impact on the arts. Part Two deals with how knights lived, their training and education, knighting ceremonies, it goes further into chivalry (a nebulous concept and one that never ceases to fascinate me), what knights did when they weren't fighting, where they lived, castles, armour, weapons, warhorses, tournaments, how medieval wars were fought, heraldry, knightly orders (e.g. the Templars, the Order of the Garter), and finally warriors similar to knights in non-European countries (e.g. the Samurai). Part Three outlines the period of history that knights were involved in. It goes from approximately Charlemagne's reign in the 8th Century to the decline of knighthood and covers many important events and wars in between (e.g. the Battle of Hastings, the Crusades). Part Four deals with the cultural legacy of knights and how their influence continues to be felt up until the present: knights in literature, film, television, games, medieval reenactments and festivals, sports teams, brand names, and modern knightly orders (spoiler: they aren't nearly as cool as their medieval counterparts). I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in knighthood and chivalry. It's one of the books that I'm most proud to own.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (re-read)

For Christmas, I got the 50th Anniversary, full-colour box set of my favourite books in the world, "The Chronicles of Narnia", and I am now in the process of re-reading them. It is amazing how much Lewis put into these little fairy tales. I'm always finding more and more layers to them, the more I read them and this time was no exception. I had heard some complaints about Aslan's resurrection being cheap and deus ex machina, so this time I really focused on that and how it fit with the rest of the story. A lot has been said on the Deep and Deeper Magic and what that means for the resurrection, but what I really noticed this time is that the idea of resurrection is built into the very fabric of the story. Narnia is a country frozen in winter and therefore frozen in death, but Aslan's return brings Narnia back to life. The cycle of seasons and their relationship to life and death have been part of myth-making and storytelling pretty much since its inception (e.g. Persephone). I love how the villain's colour is white in this book. It takes you off guard at first, because you think the villain's colour is always black, but it makes sense if you think about it. White is a lack of colour, and therefore a lack of life. Aslan, by contrast, is not black, but vibrant gold. Another classic mythical archetype relating to life and death that Lewis utilized is the cycle of the sun, another cycle of death and rebirth (e.g. Re). Aslan's resurrection occurs during the sunrise. Aslan breathing on the statues and "reviving" them is another example of rebirth as is Edmund's redemption and transformation ( we are told that by the end of the story, Edmund looks like himself again before he "began to go wrong"). All of these examples of rebirth are related to Aslan, so it's only fitting that Aslan himself should go through a rebirth of his own.

Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis (re-read)

I also read the second book of the Narnia series last month. What I really took from Prince Caspian this time around was how it related to ideas in one of Lewis's non-fiction books The Abolition of Man. This time Narnia has been conquered by the Telmarines, the trees and streams have become silent, the mythical creatures live in hiding, and the Talking Animals have started to go dumb. It reminded me of what Lewis and others have said in nonfiction. The trees and streams have become silent, because the Telmarines have made them silent through lack of mythology and poetic expression. Part of a tree's reality is lost when we cease to think of it as a Dryad or a beautiful object. We quantify it into what it's made of or what it can be used for rather than what  it is. The same goes for animals, stars etc.