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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

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cover of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

A quick read. Read aloud with Kent and Paul on the way to our mid-year apprentice retreat. Enjoyed that, but finished on my own. Very sarcastic humor. Lots of quiet, hilarious humor if you are looking for it. Sardonic might be a good word. The Earth is destroyed, and Arthur Dent is the only human saved. His friend, Ford Prefect, who is a hitchhiker in space, saves him, and they go on adventures through space. Remembering to take their towels. Hearing about other travelers and legends and myths and some that are still true. Also have the Heart of Gold spaceship which travels really fast -- using the improbability drive, traveling through all points in the universe to get to their final destination.

Title:The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Author:Douglas Adams
Date published:1980
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:214
Notes: read some of this out loud!


Sunday, March 26, 2006

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cover of Memoris Found in a Bathtub

This is a strange book, and in some ways I almost found the introduction more interesting & engaging than the actual text. These "memoirs" are rare, preserved documents found in a future when almost all paper documents have been destroyed in the 20th century "papyralysis" that obliterated human culture and plunged humanity into dark ages of anarchy and chaos. The actual memoirs themselves tell the story of one man's experience trying to discover and accomplish his secret mission in an immense building full of spies and counter-spies.

The book is hard to engage with, because the characters and the setting are so strange; I suspect this is intentional, because then the reader is placed in roughly the same position as the protagonist: we are left to wander through a confusing structure without any real connections or reliable assistance. The main character (whose name we are never told) is given a secret mission, but never given his orders, so he wanders around the Building opening doors seemingly at random and talking to various people (spies, double- and triple-agents), trying to discover what he is supposed to do, and eventually trying to discover what is going on. At one point, roughly midway through the memoirs, he is given his instructions and when he glanced at them briefly (before they are stolen away from him), he discovers that his instructions detail what he has already done so far (in the words of the book the reader is reading).

Lem's imagination must have been incredibly fruitful, because there are so many ideas here that other writers might milk for an entire book. The code master Prandtl explains that everything is in code-- even something that has been decoded can be put through the codebreaker again, and for an example they put some lines of Shakespeare through their code machine. (Of course, what comes out seems pretty nonsensical.) It's an interesting idea that makes a certain amount of sense with language as a system of codes that keeps going down to different levels (books made up of chapters with paragraphs and sentences which are made up of words made up of this code of letters, etc.). Another time, one of the agents the protagonist runs into suggests the delightful idea that the bureaucracy in the Building has hit upon the method of randomness for delivering papers to the correct people-- eventually the right paper will get to the right person. Towards the end of the book, the main character is used in an elaborate scheme that is apparently intended to determine who is faithful to the organization-- but there are so many levels of watchers that it becomes all about who is watching whom, and who is aware they are being watched (and thus behaving differently): they get an officer so drunk he passes out (but really he's listening the whole time), and hidden in a cupboard is a priest taking notes on the whole thing, and in the next room a recording was made of the whole proceeding...

I've been meaning to read more Stanislaw Lem for a while, and finally finished this book a few days before Lem died. I've read his delightful Cyberiad, which was very engaging and entertaining; this book is quite different from that one, and I found it much harder to get into. I actually was looking for Solaris, because I was curious about it (I've seen the recent movie of it, which I understand is quite different from the book, but it was enough to pique my interest), but the only copy in my library was in the author's native Polish. So I grabbed this one instead, because I recognized the title as one that someone had recommended to me a few years ago.

It's a very interesting book, with lots of ideas, although difficult to engage with; it took me quite a while to read what is not a very long book. Ultimately, if it seems that the book gets at man's search for meaning in an absurd world-- the protagonist is told he's been chosen for an important mission, but he never discovers what that mission is, and doesn't know if he is already starting the mission, or undergoing a series of tests in preparation for his mission, or if the system has broken down and he is just lost in the building.

Title:Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
Author:Stanislaw Lem (translated from Polish by Michael Kandel & Christine Rose)
Date published:1973 (English translation)
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:188
Notes:Recommended (long ago) by E. Goss


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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cover of Gathering Blue

A companion book for The Giver, I believe. Another image of what could be in the future, depending on how the world goes. Kira lives in a community full of hardship and harshness. She is born with a defect -- a twisted leg -- that should have warranted her being left in the Field to die long ago. But she is alive thanks to the courage of her mother to stand up to the elders. When her mother dies, it is likely she will be forced to leave and taken to the Field, but the elders decide otherwise. She is given the special task of fixing the Singer's robe, which is embroidered with all the stories of the past to help the Singer remember the past when he tells the story once a year. As she lives in the Council Edifice (with another artist given the task of fixing the singer's staff), she discovers glimpses of truth which make her uncomfortable.

Numbers are often important in literature, and there are some fun numbers in this book. The ruling body of the community, called the Council of Guardians, is composed of 12 men. They have 1 Singer that is the only one who knows the history of their people. And there are 3 young children who are chosen for their skills to tell the future of the community (or were they created for that purpose with specific creative skills?) These are all Biblical numbers, which strikes me as interesting. As a Christ follower, I have eyes to see God and His work all around, but it seems wonderfully easy in Lowry's books (at least the ones I've read recently).

The community is kept in fear of going outside their close boundaries because of the beasts. Kira is told by an old woman (4 syllables! each earned with many years) that there are no beasts. She begins to wonder and ask questions of those around her -- if they have ever seen a beast, and only one person says yes. These beasts keep all the people living in fear. But what if the beasts didn't exist? What if the Council of Guardians made sure that rumor was kept alive to exercise power? Where are the places that we live in fear of things that don't exist? As humans, often we live in fear of what others will think, but that is unnecessary. It is scary to walk into that territory and trust the beasts won't kill you, but there can be deep freedom in it too.

A young boy named Matt, with his faithful dog Branch, goes on a journey to find blue so Kira can have it to add to her weaving colors (it is the hardest one to make and she doesn't have the right plant). On this journey he comes to a village similar to their own -- except that many of the people are broken. In their own village, if someone were to break their arm and it wouldn't set, they would be taken to the Field to die. Here those people are accepted, loved, safe -- it is foreign to Matt. In this 'broken' village, there is a place for everyone. That is what God is like -- He invites those who are broken and wounded to join His family. Not just to be cared for, but also to care for others. God takes what others see as ugly and finds great beauty. This is a beautiful picture of what the Kingdom of Heaven should be like.

The three children who are 'taken from' their parents are all separated because they are creative, what one might call artists. When they are working in their particular craft, designs and ideas just come to them without needing to be taught. Because of this, they have the ability to help foretell the future of their community. What power! And yet, I wonder -- do artists in our own towns and cities and countries how the power to help change the course of the future? Creativity is a piece of God that humans get to represent in some amazing ways. We all have power for good and for evil, and God longs for us to use the gifts we are given for His glory and to bring light and grace to those around us.

Title:Gathering Blue
Author: Lois Lowry
Date published:2000
Genre: Young Adult
Number of pages:215
Notes: repeat reading


Monday, March 20, 2006

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cover of The Giver

I read this book long ago in elementary or junior high, but wanted to reread it. Some books just need to be revisisted. This is the story of a young boy named Jonas who lives in a community where everything is organized and set in place with no room for questions or standing out. At age 12, everyone is assigned a role in the community. Jonas is given the special honor/privilege/burden of becoming the Receiver of Memories. To keep the community 'safe', the reader discovers that years ago the community decided to create sameness. This means taking away some tangible pieces of the lives that we now know, with many interesting questions to be asked.

Receiving memories becomes the new job of Jonas, so he must receive them from someone, who calls himself the Giver. Sometimes Jonas comes after school to receive, and the Giver is in so much pain that he can do nothing. How much are we willing to sacrifice as a community for happiness? The society in this book has created many rules and decided long ago that being safe was more important than having decisions, than seeing color, than being individual. As Jonas begins to feel emotions, see colors, understand what snow and sunshine and war are, he wishes that he had been allowed to choose. Simple choices like chosing between a red tunic or a blue tunic in the morning.

There are some interesting ways the ideas from this book relate to following Christ. When Jonas first comes to the Giver, he has no idea what to expect and no vocabulary for what he is going to experience. It is against the rules for him to share with anyone what he is learning and how he is beginning to see and to have wisdom. His best friend becomes the Giver. That is what we are called to as Christ-followers -- to step into a new relationship our definitions can't really describe, and to learn to trust God above all else, to believe what He says and what He does and follow Him.

Jonas and the Giver also question the wisdom of having taken memories from the people. Their ancestors decided to take away choices so that there would be safety and sameness. Lives are closely regulated and minor infractions are always noticed and punished. There is no room for free choice. And yet God, knowing how dangerous free will would be, gave it to all humans anyway. It makes life less safe, less predictable, less reliable to have freedom, but when you have tasted a life of freedom, slavery has no flavor. Freedom does not mean being able to do anything that I want, but instead means being able to choose what is best for me -- to choose God's will with God's strength. To do that I need memories of how God has been faithful in the past and belief that no matter what I choose I will be loved and protected.

The Giver looks much older than he is, and most of this is that he has to bear all the pain of the past. He can feel joy and love and happiness much more deeply than anyone else, but he also knows pain more deeply. All different varieties of pain -- sunburn, breaking a leg, starving, watching an elephant die, war, loneliness -- as humans we get to experience pain in many circumstances. The idea of one person bearing the weight of all that pain from centuries before seems impossible to me. Personally, I am highly aware of the pain of others, and I don't even know that many people. The only way I can bear to hear stories of sin and brokenness and pain is because I have a God who suffers, and who hears the pain right along with me. I need a Being who cannot be defined because the suffering of the world is overwhelming to me but not to Him. Through Him I can know a small piece of the pain in the world, but would never desire to be the 'rememory' for a whole community and thus the wisdom. I'm so grateful that we have an 'elsewhere' that is waiting ahead of us -- a place of family, love, celebration, and coming home.

Title:The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Date published:1993
Genre: Young Adult
Number of pages: 179
Notes: repeat reading


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

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cover of The Christian Imagination

A collection of essays on literature, reading, writing, and creativity. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the essays. It also includes short pieces by several of the authors whose work Sapphire and I read already-- such people as Annie Dillard, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Madeleine L'Engle, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and many others. The book was very thought-provoking, although it was sometimes more enlightening by the ways I reacted against the opinions in the book and the things I disagreed with.

Each section is comprised of two or three longer essays and sometimes one or two very short (2-3 pages) "viewpoints", usually excerpted from other works; certain sections also include an introduction or statement from the editor. Some of the sections also include "reflections" on the topic of the section, in the form of quotes from many different people on the topic at hand (for instance, on the joy of reading). Interspersed throughout the essays are also relevant quotations from a wide variety of sources. The sections are as follows: A Christian Philosophy of Literature; Imagination, Beauty, & Creativity; To Teach and Delight; The Christian Writer; The Christian Reader; State of the Art: Success and Failure in Current Christian Fiction and Poetry; Realism; Myth & Fantasy; Poetry; Narrative.

Lots of food for thought and for the imagination here. New authors that I'd like to read, familiar authors that I'd like to read more of. One thing I particularly liked & remember: I felt like I "fit" C. S. Lewis' description of the "good reader"-- among other things, good readers re-read books (because you get different things out of them at different times in your life).

Title:The Christian Imagination
Author:Leland Ryken (editor)
Date published:2002
Number of pages:464
Notes:Christmas present from Mom a couple of years ago.


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cover of A New Kind of Christian

Been wanting to read this for a while, and so it was nice to finally read it. McLaren takes ideas and some situations and characters from his own life, fictionalizes them, and then tells a story that is basically about ideas. Modern worldview is normal for us, and we need to realize that it is not the only right view, but simply the one that is most comfortable and known. Lots of challenging ideas (many of which I have already heard in some context or other) that were connected to each other so they make more sense.

Some interesting thoughts about what postmodern Christianity might look like -- more emphasis on story, liturgy, ritual, the arts, community, mission. One idea is that the postmodern church will look like a triangle, with points & energy going in three directions -- community, spirituality, and mission. That seems like a healthy church. Exciting to think about the ways I am already seeing this and ways I am participating in some communities where these are some of the values. Change is coming. And it will be exciting to see what God's going to do to intersect this new culture. He is present and working. Change may be hard, but it is necessary and will help us as individuals and communities to relate to God on a new, different level. Well worth reading, this book is.

Title:A New Kind of Christian
Author: Brian D. McLaren
Date published:2001
Genre:Spiritual Nonfiction??
Number of pages: 164
Notes: Got to hear the author speak earlier this year!


Friday, March 10, 2006

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cover of The Lathe of Heaven

A man named George Orr has dreams. So he takes pills to stop the dreams from being intense. From being effective. His dreams change the world. Not simply the future, but they change the way the world has been previously. As he ages, he begins to have many memories of the past -- the ones that might have been, that were, that contain people he knew... Too many memories of the past, present, and future to keep straight. Because of the drugs, he gets sent to a psychotherapist, who decides to make the world better by controlling these dreams. But it doesn't work quite the way he wants it to...

Dreams are uncontrollable. In the past, George went to sleep thinking some vague thought, and woke up with his unconscious taking that thought to some place he wouldn't have thought possible. Things have to make sense. At one point, he explains to someone that if he dreamed that a pink dog walked into the room, there would be a reasonable explanation. Perhaps someone dyed their dog's hair. Or perhaps dogs have always come in various colors including pink. Things that wouldn't make sense to us force things to change both backward and forward (like ripples).

Dr. Haber, the psychotherapist seems nice, but likes power. He has found a way to induce dream state, so tries to control George's dreams. He cannot be specific enough to get exactly what he wants. The world slowly becomes a completely different place. Dr. Haber asks for peace in the world, and that peace is achieved by creating aliens that forced the humans to unify. So, he gets what he wants, but without thoroughly thinking through possible consequences. Our actions are powerful and do have effects, but sometimes we choose not to be aware of what might happen. Sometimes I wish that nobody watched me. But that is definitely not true. Little kids watch me. Other adults watch to see how I react and what I believe and if I act in accordance with those ideals. What a challenge -- to live in such a way that we aren't trying to play God, but to be simply human.

I really like the stuff this woman writes. Her images, her thoughts, her way of expressing. Beautiful. In this book there are a few references to God and the Bible. Just a couple of sentences here and there. But placed wisely to have deep meaning for those who know the references and ideas well. Interesting.. wonder where she is on her journey toward God. Haven't read all of her stuff, but would like to slowly make my way through her many books (at least 19, in something I read recently.) So far, I think I've read 7. It's a start..

Title:The Lathe of Heaven
Author:Ursula K. Le Guin
Date published:1971
Genre: Science Fiction, Futuristic
Number of pages: 175
Notes: recommended by lark


Sunday, March 05, 2006

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cover of Life Before Man

Another Atwood book. Full of women who are not perfect, and men who are even less perfect. Elizabeth and Nate are married, but have affairs on the side and both are okay with that (messed up!). Elizabeth's lover commits suicide, and Nate ends up moving in with Lesje (pronounced Lashia?). Each chapter is the date and the name of one of these three invididuals, telling things from their perspective with their particular ideas and ways of speaking.

Each main character has their own ways of trying to escape life. None really work, but it is interesting how natural it is for humans to try and live through someone else or to at least not live as themselves for a while. There are two children, who are almost always identified together instead of as inviduals. Each adult relates to them differently, but the kids are usually seen as a nuisance and not a gift.

Elizabeth had a hard life growing up, so has become hard. Very good at getting what she wants, however it takes to get it. This means she is good at controlling men (including her husband). And able to pretty much set her own life as she pleases. But, things don't always turn out as she wants. The book ends with her wishing to be someplace else, to have a perfect life, to have someone to talk with. She is basically alone in this world that she has created, and she realizes that's not what she wanted. But -- can she get anything else? Raises questions about the futility of life, why we live the way we do, etc. Interesting but I'm not gonna read it again.

Title:Life Before Man
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date published:1979
Number of pages: 368


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cover of Marvel 1602: New World

Greg Pak picks up where Neil Gaiman left off, with Marvel superheroes in an earlier age. Where the first Marvel 1602 seemed to include almost too many Marvel characters (including X-men, the fantastic four, and many others), this one limits it almost too much. From the former book, we only carry over the characters of Peter Parquagh, David Bruce Banner, and the fascinating Virginia Dare. Of course, there are new characters, too, including Sir Iron (Iron Man), and a insidious Norman Osborne, trying to instigate trouble between the Indians and the settlers of Roanoke, and looking for the "treasure" of the rift in time that gave Banner his powers (and which was resolved in the last book).

Generally the art and the writing were fine. At times, I found the written dialects a bit annoying. I didn't enjoy the cover art (by Sergio Toppi) quite as well as the previous set, although I have to admit that the style is appropriate to the new world in contrast to the earlier, more Elizabethen covers. I have to say, I did enjoy the "period costumes" for Spiderman and the Hulk.

This installment was a little bit disappointing. It is pretty short, collecting only issues 1-5; but the first one was only 8 issues, and seemed much more substantial than three issues would account for. And there are so many characters in the first one, it might be disappointing no matter who the focus was on. Maybe the real reason this one doesn't live up to the first is that there is no major catastrophe or problem that requires all of the heroes to come together and resolve. G. commented that, after this, we might be "marvel sixteen-oh-done".

Title:Marvel 1602: New World
Author:Greg Pak, artwork by Greg Tocchini
Date published:2006
Genre:Graphic Novel
Series:Marvel 1602
Number of pages:120


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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cover of Tears of the Giraffe

Mma Ramotswe, a woman in Botswana, runs a detective agency. She is engaged to a man named Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who has good morals and a good heart. There are two cases that come into the agency with some interesting questions that are asked of characters and the reader. The main case is that of a woman who lost her son in Africa many years ago and wants to discover what happened. She expects nothing, but wants to search once more for the reason he disappeared and died.

The reader gets to know a comfortable woman who is self-assured, intelligent, and knows her country and its customs well. The best part about the book is how the Botswanan culture is mixed in so thoroughly with all that happens, so in reading a novel one gets to discover a bit more about another culture. A light read, with not too much substance, but enough for a good read.

Title:Tears of the Giraffe
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Date published:2000
Genre: Mystery
Series: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Number of pages: 227
Notes: Repeat reading


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