Friday, January 30, 2015

January Reading Recap

   Earlier this month I talked about some of the highlights from the books I read last year. Unfortunately, I missed a lot of books because I had read so many throughout the year. In order to avoid that this year I'm going to try and do a reading recap every month or so and talk about a few of my favorite reads (or listens, if they were audiobooks). Without that preface, here goes:
   1. Marvels by Kurt Busiek
   This is a graphic novel. At the beginning of the year, I read a bunch of graphic novels. I gave this one four stars. It's interesting because I gave Superman: Birthright 5 stars, and yet I'm talking about this one. Busiek writes a story of what it would be like for humans to live in the Marvel universe. He shows how humans react to those different than them and wonders how they should react. All in all it was a great read. Now that I talk about it, I'm wondering why I didn't give it five stars... Oh well, no time to think of the past!
   2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
   Some call this the greatest book ever written. I wouldn't call it the best, but its definitely up there. Karamazov is a long book and it reads like it. There's lots of plot, character development, and philosophy jammed into those many pages. It can sometimes be slow, but this book is such a fascinating read. There's so much to think about in this book. Most prominently is the issue of evil and suffering which plagues every Christian. This book smacked me in the face, and then made me wonder if maybe what I had seen as a problem was the solution in itself. I'll let you decide, which means you have to read this book!
   3. The Bacchae by Euripides
   Euripides is an author (playwright, rather) I've just started reading and he is great! I started with Alcestis and Hippolytus (both great), then tried The Bacchae. Let me tell you, this is a fascinating read. It is the story of Dionysus (the wine god) who gets mad at a King for being unkind to him, then Dionysus kills him. It makes absolute sense from a logical standpoint. The Greek gods, or Roman for that matter, were not known for being nice. However, what I found amazing was that Jesus, who was hurt twice as badly by humanity, was gracious and not spiteful. I thought this was a great read and I should probably read it again.
   4. The Nameless City by Michael Scott
   A few months ago I bought a Doctor Who collection of short stories and just now got around to listening to them. Of the five I've listened to so far, this was the best. Scott does a great job of getting into the Second Doctor's head (the narration by Frazer Hines helps a lot) and generally makes it feel like a Second Doctor story. The story itself, while not super deep, is fun and intelligent in its own right. Actually, it did make me think a little about justice and revisionist history. And there's bagpipes! How can you go wrong?
   5. King's Warrior by Jenelle Leanne Schmidt
   I got this book when it was free on Kindle around two years ago. I've been slowly reading it ever since. It is a fairly good book, if a little slow. I won't say too much about it now, since I'm probably going to do a review of it in the near future. Still, I'd recommend it if one is interested in large scale epic fantasy stories.

   Those were some of my favorite, or most interesting, reads of January. What books did you read this month? What did you think of them? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

   I have never been much of a horror fan. I was one of those kids with an overactive imagination, which caused me to imagine enough horrors lurking in the shadows so I didn't have to have others imagine them for me. Maybe that's part of the curse of being a writer. Whatever the reason, I avoided the horror genre like a plague. Now, as I get older, I've dipped my toes in the water, so to speak.
   A few years ago, I read Frankenstein in a British Literature class, so when I saw it at a book sale my family picked it up so my siblings could read it when they take the class. The version that I saw of Frankenstein had a pairing with Dracula, which gave me the excuse to read it. Interestingly, I had listened to a podcast on monsters around the same time and heard various reviews of the book. From the glowing reviews and the not so entertaining reviews, I was dreading and looking forward to Dracula. Afterwards, I feel somewhat the same, though far more skewed to one side than the other.
   The story itself is fairly simple: a solicitor from England travels to Transylvania to help a Count with a property he bought. Upon arrival there, he discovers the Count is more than he appears and finds himself in a race against time to stop the Count from spreading his nefarious ways to England.
   If you've heard the name Dracula at all, you probably know he is a vampire. As such, this book presents several fascinating ideas about the correlations between blood and life. A theme I found fascinating was the correlation between Dracula's bringing life through the offering of blood and the Eucharist. Dracula's blood brings earthly life, but results in spiritual death. Christ blood, on the other hand, usually causes Christians to risk their lives because they know that spiritual life, or eternal life, awaits them.
   What did I think of this book overall? I found it a bit slow in the middle, but it grabbed my attention at the beginning and end. The end itself, once the final showdown is revealed, is a page-turning read. However, the ideas the book presents, and the storytelling, (along with the fact that the book is a classic) are good enough reasons to read it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Prequels are Not Dumb

   Here is a non-controversial admittance (not a confession): I like Star Wars. I find the Original Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) a fun, intelligent, poignant collection of sci-fi  films. Here's a controversial admittance: I like the Star Wars prequels. I find the Prequel Trilogy (Episodes I-III) an enjoyable, intelligent, and tragic collection of sci-fi films (and I don't mean tragic in the sense that some might). I understand that the writing has faults, the dialogue delivery is cringe-worthy at times, and the action tends to crowd out the story. However, having recently watched Episode III, I must say that it is a decent, dare I say it, good tragedy. However, I'm not here to defend the acting or any of that, I'm here to propose that the prequels are not mindless and dumb. They make a very important point, specifically one that the Christian Church should keep in mind.
   What do I mean by that? The prequels start with Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi, rescuing a young slave boy from a life of misery. This boy, Anakin Skywalker, having lived his life as a slave in an uncivilized desert planet, suddenly is brought to the center of the universe. He goes from having only a relationship with his mother to having a mentor and a friend in Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi. First, Qui-Gon must receive the Jedi Council's permission to receive the boy as his apprentice. The council denies this request, for it would break their rules of only accepting young children as apprentices, and Anakin's age (10-12) was too old. Qui-Gon leaves, upset, and soon dies in a battle with the Sith.
   This introduces the main point of the Star Wars Prequels: when a religion becomes legalism, it dies. The Jedi, after years and years of existing comfortably in the Republic, have changed from being dependent on the force to being dependent on the Republic. The religion of the Jedi is reduced from a 'relationship' with the force to a focus on keeping the rules. And, as things tend to go, as the Jedi focus on the rules, they get bound with the rule makers: the Republic. Thus, the Republic becomes the important thing, and the Jedi promise to keep it running.
   The legalism of the Jedi is best seen in they're continuous admonition to resist relationships. Why? For attachment causes loss, loss leads to fear and fear leads to the dark side. Of course, without relationships people can also become lonely, lost, and depressed. The Jedi are seeking to avoid the negative sides of relationships and, in doing so, lose the positive as well. Emotions are not to be avoided, but being controlled by emotions are to be. However, due to this lack of being able to have relationships with others (and the continual distrust of the Jedi Council), Anakin eventually seeks a friendship with the only person who will listen to him: Palpatine. And that doesn't end so well.  
   Thus this legalism and dependence on the Republic leads, eventually, to the Jedi doing whatever it takes to keep the Republic in power. They never question the orders of the Republic, because they are no longer focused on what is right, but what keeps the peace. From that point on, it is only a slow slide from Republic to Dictatorship, from Democracy to Empire.
   Why is this useful to the Christian Church? Because it embodies how a religion can turn from a focus on God (or the force) to a focus on the a Kingdom. There is nothing wrong with partnering with an Earthly Kingdom to do good deeds, as long as the Church always recognizes that there is a distinction between the Earthly Kingdom and the Heavenly Kingdom. However, if the Church starts to become a part of the state, as the Jedi became the Republic's peacekeepers, then it is the Heavenly Kingdom that ends. In history we can see this happening. When the Church becomes too involved with the State, the Church is the one that suffers or spreads suffering to others.
   So why are the prequels not dumb? They show us how a religion should not behave. It should not turn away from Deity to rules, not turn away from Heavenly Kingdoms to becoming a part of Earthly Kingdoms. Instead, it should keep a separation between Church and State, for if they do not it ends in Empire. And then it will take forty years in the wilderness (or 23) before the Church can get on its feet once again.

   What do you think? Are the Star Wars Prequels a little bit better now? Or are you still disgusted with them? Comment below and tell me what you think!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Not What but How

   What we say is important. Having a point behind my words or a point behind my stories is important. That means that I am not just blowing steam, but actually spending my time for a purpose. However, just because I have a good point, does not mean that I should sacrifice storytelling. How I tell a story or how I make a point is sometimes as important as the point itself.
   Take, for example, the Star Wars prequels. I think they have a fabulous point to make about a pitfall of institutional religion (more on that in a different post). The problem is that the way the story was told is not that great. The acting is poor in spots, the dialogue is not that strong, and some characters can be annoying. Also, the point itself can sometimes be lost in frivolous battles.
    Why is it important in how a point is conveyed? How a point is conveyed can say a lot about how people think of the point itself. For example, a teacher can have wonderful grammatical principles to give to his students, but if he cannot give teach them well then the students will not learn them. If the teacher does not properly teach the principles, then what importance will those principles hold in the students' minds?
   Here's another analogy: a Jacksonville Jaguars fan is really excited that their football team had a winning season. This is a legitimate reason to celebrate and to tell to others. However, if the fan tells all her friends that her team is way better than theirs and, ergo, their teams suck, that message will be soured by the means. If, however, the football fan excitedly mentions to her friends that her team has a winning record after however-many-seasons, then she gives her friends a chance to celebrate with her, rather than be defensive about their teams.
   This also applies to giving movie reviews. Last year, I reviewed God's Not Dead and had a few critical things to say about it. I opened with the critical remarks, and then the rest of the review was nitpicked by fans thinking I was criticizing the entire thing. The way I worded my review and how I presented it caused people to make assumptions about my thoughts. It was not just what I said about the film which represented my views, but how I said them.
   I also listened to a podcast recently which reviewed The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. They opened negatively, waxed on eloquently about the pitfalls of the film, and then squeezed in a few things they liked about it. Of course, most of what they said was with good reason. The film has many shortcomings, I acknowledge that. However, the way the statements were made (stating that this was obviously bad or nobody could keep from laughing at this part) discredits those people, belittles even, those who may have liked the film. Perhaps this is just me being thin-skinned, but I think that even when criticizing, there must be some measure of tact.
   Of course, most of humor nowadays entails belittling and making fun of stuff. Some stuff well deserves it, some doesn't, but it gets funnies made about it all the same. Maybe this is me just being ridiculous, but I think, to some extent, respect should be the first thought. Then, in relationship, loving jokes can be made. I don't know how that really works in an age were media can be thrown up on the internet where anybody can see it, but I'd like to challenge myself to be more respectful, even with things, or people, I dislike.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Reading Highlights from 2014

   I know, I know, I'm a little late in doing this. I've been toying with a reading post for about a month now. I thought it would be interesting to sit down every once in a while and just talk about stuff I've been reading. Yet, whenever I had a chance to sit down, I never really knew what to talk about. Then I figured the end of the year would be the optimal time to test such a post. That came and went. Now I'm a week late, and I'm going to force myself to do it. Therefore, here are some of my reading highlights: books that I either really enjoyed, thought were powerful, or just have something to say about.

   1. Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler
   I got the idea to read this book on a whim. I was looking for another book in the library, and having a bit of difficulty in finding it, when I stumbled upon this. I hadn't read Hitler's magnum opus before, though I had not heard good things (it's Hitler, what do you expect?). I decided, after finding my other book, to give Hitler a chance. This is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. It is racist, sexist, crazy, and yet thoughtful. Hitler definitely had his philosophy well worked out, as disturbing as it was. This is an important historical work of literature, even though its not very well written and it is full of bad, bad ideas. I'm not sure why this is first on my list, other than that it is the most recent book I've read so it is fresh on my mind.

   2. On Writing by Stephen King
   This is a great book. It's a fun read, it's full of good material, and King is a great writer. He entertains even when talking about grammar, and he makes you think about how to better the writing craft. If you are a writer, you should probably read this book.

   3. A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd
   This is a great book. It's the story of a Pastor's Journey toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. With that said, this is a non-fiction book, but it is still gripping. Zahnd challenged me to look at my life and look at the way I view the Bible to see if they match up with Jesus. A great book.

   4. Unwritten by Charles Martin
   My mom read this book first, then gave it to me saying I would enjoy it. It's the story of a celebrity who gets so messed up she tries to kill herself, but is rescued by a hermit. The hermit, who used to be something of a celebrity himself, offers to help her disappear of the radar. She accepts. The rest of the book involves the story of how she tries to sort her life out (with the reluctant help of the hermit, of course). This book tells a great story and contains some powerful philosophy. I would advise this one to writers as well.

   5. The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket
   I really did not like this book. It is the ninth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events and the rest of the books, as expected, are quite sad. The ending of this one, I felt, was just unnecessarily bleak. However, I know wonder if that was the point. Snicket seems to be pointing at our entertainment and our view of others. We quibble over mindless differences, then turn to entertainment full of violence and messy eating. Disgusting.

   6. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
   I read/listened-to a lot of classics through the year, but I think this was one of the best. Its the story of Pinocchio, the little wooden marionette who wants to be a real boy. Interestingly, the story is comprised of short stories, with each chapter forming a story all on its own, more or less. The chapters fit together to tell an overall story as well, making it fascinating experience for the reader. After finishing this story, I think I had stumbled upon a essential-read among the children's literature genre.

There, those are some of my reading highlights from last year. What about yours? What books did you read last year? Any good ones? Any bad ones? Comment below and tell me about it!