The Color of Magic

colour of magicThe Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett

Here is a fact that baffles me, and that I cannot explain.

I am a proud second generation nerd. I played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in middle school and high school. We had the complete five-volume Hitchhiker’s Trilogy at my house, and my dad can reminisce about the first time he read Tolkein and how it changed his life. My friends and I have had standing Battlestar Gallactica and even Stargate watch parties. I have opinions on the different Star Trek iterations, and I have read most Piers Anthony books. I am not a newcomer to nerdom and geekery. This is a way of life to me. And yet. Until recently, I had never read a Terry Pratchett book in my life.

I know! I know. It’s unbelievable. How this could be the case is beyond me. I feel like my parents have failed me, and I have failed myself. But I’m trying to make up for it now.

I figured if I had to know anything about Terry Pratchett I had to know Discworld, so I started with the first book in the 236 book strong Discworld series, Color of Magic. And I loved it. I’m hooked.

Color of Magic introduces Discworld and its bizarre physics and magic, with vivid and inventive detail. Discworld is a flat world that rests on the back of a turtle, the Great A’Tuin (and there’s just the one–it’s not turtles all the way down.) Rincewind, a not-very-competent magician, is hired by Twoflower a “tourist”, a previously unknown thing on Discworld, or at least in the city of Ankh-Morpork. What follows is a series of misadventures for Rincewind and Twoflower touring Discworld, playing with many of the standards of fantasy novels. It’s style will be familiar to those who have read Douglas Adams, but Pratchett is oh-so-very good at it.

This was a breezy, easily readable book, that still had quite a lot going on. The plot is rather quickly moving, with many twists and turns. Some of the Discworld books stand on their own, from what I understand, but this one leads straight into The Light Fantastic–which I then went and checked out from the library.

For anyone else who has somehow missed out on Terry Pratchett and has been wondering whether or not he’s worth the hype, the answer is yes, he is. The book was tremendously fun and I’ll be picking up others. Get it over the holidays. This is excellent vacation reading.

 

Advertisements

Disarming Beauty

Disarming-Beauty-3D_7-1Disarming Beauty, Julián Carrón

Disarming Beauty is a series of essay by Julián Carrón, the current leader of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic organization based in Italy that started in the 1950s. These essays lay out much of the philosophy of Communion and Liberation, primarily the belief in a true encounter with Christ as the foundation of Christianity and the encounter with the perfect human of Jesus Christ as essential in letting us recognize and experience ourselves as human.

After reading some fairly glowing reviews of the book, I had high hopes. I ended up disappointed once I picked it up. For one, this collection of essays reads, well, like it is a collection of essayx. I had trouble finding the through line, how everything connected in the book. Where there was a point that was emphasized, that of the encounter with Christ, it was repeated several times, rather than built upon. The same phrases and arguments were presented again and again, rather than having a book that grew its main thesis.

My other issue is that, given the number of essays here, there were some areas that were lacking. The book hammers on the individual encounter with Christ, with Christ as the perfect human, and the idea that no institutions can be perfect (which I agree with), and that the Enlightenment’s failure was in thinking that laws could be set up to perfect humans with no other internal impetus to be better. It is very much an existential Christianity, that criticized the Western emphasis on individualism while repeatedly saying that it’s up to each individual to recognize Christ and try to be more Christlike, because no one else will do it for you.

For a Catholic organization, this seems off, though. If this is the case, where does the Church come in? Where does community and Communion come in? How do Church doctrines fit into this? I understand from my other readings that Communion and Liberation very much believes in building a community and in encountering Christ through the Church, but that did not come out in this book. It was almost, dare I say, Protestant, in its assistance that we each have an individual—which could also be described as personal—encounter—or relationship, one might say—with Christ. I do truly believe that a personal encounter and acceptance is essential, and that it does come from within, but that a key part of being a Christian is being within community as well. And especially when writing on Catholicism, this community and Church teaching is a key part of our faith, I would have liked to have read how, in his view, that interacts with the individual.

Fr. Carrón is an excellent writer, and I think most of the individual essays (although not all) are quite good, and I’d probably enjoy reading one in a magazine or some such. And, as a friend put it, it’s easy to get caught up in the “loftiness of the language” in the essays and feel you’re really being pulled along towards something. In the end, though, I didn’t find the end of what I was being pulled towards, only another repetition of what I’d read earlier. Each essay on its own is fine, but for me, this book seemed less than the sum of its parts.

Strangers in a Strange Land

strangers in a strange land

Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput

The problem with any critique that compares current society to past society, from an ethical and moral perspective, is that it is indisputable that most people are not only doing better but are treated far, far better today than they were even 30 or 40 years ago, let alone 60 years ago or more. This isn’t to say that there are not critiques to be made of modern society, but that critiques lose almost all meaning when they are meant to show how progressives, or anyone else, have ruined society compared to years ago, rather than addressing these complaints as unique problems of our own time.

Chaput’s book, Strangers in a Strange Land, is full of these sort of nostalgic complaints, and joins the rank of others, such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and all of Fox news, in asserting that gay marriage is the final evidence that society and religious liberty are broken today in ways that they never have been before. This book doesn’t just assert that there are challenges in society, just as there have been in every generation. No, the issues, is that feminists, gay activists, and progressives pushing an expanding of respect to include LGBT individuals are destroying society, especially compared to how civics worked back at the founding of the country. And this attack on tradition—although he calls it religious liberty, ignoring the liberty of the United Church of Christ, Unitarians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and others who allow for LGBT inclusion—is undermining our respect for one another and for the civic glue that holds the country together, threatening the democratic underpinnings of our society.

The problem, again, is that most categories of people have far more respect today than they did at the country’s founding—Catholics included! There is not only the obvious, such as that slavery does not exist today, although this should not be glossed over lightly. In almost every category outside of Protestant White Male, there is a level of respect, inclusion, and extension of humanity that didn’t exist before. It is only 40 years ago that in the US women couldn’t even have a credit card on their own. Religious minorities are more accepted.  It is only a few decades ago that many clubs would still not allow Jews, and in the 30s the German American Bund, a Nazi sympathizer group, had great support. John F. Kennedy may have won the presidency, but his Catholicism was a point of actual debate in the country. And, a category that is far too often overlooked, those with cognitive or physical disabilities are included in society now, deemed worthy of respect. And it is the forces of progressivism that have made that possible.

It is not so long ago that anyone with a mental challenge or deviance of any kind would have been condemned to a likely horrific institution, with no health or decency standards, subject to rampant abuse and forced sterilization. Those with physical deformities would be outcast, perhaps gawked at. The Americans With Disabilities Action was only passed in 1990. Providing ways for those with learning disabilities to attend school and participate in society has only happened within the last 20-30 years. In Strangers Chaput rails against the throwaway culture that encourages the abortion of a baby shown to have Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities, which I agree is an ethical and moral outrage. But would anyone really argue that abandoning them to institutions was not throwing these people away? That there is not more respect and options for those with challenges today than a generation ago?

And instead of critiquing the attack on life represented by aborting a baby who would be a challenge in life on on its own, he wraps it into a wider critique of a progressive culture, ignoring the fact that the same progressive community that wants to see LGBT people extended rights and respect as full members of the human family and participants in society in many cases includes the same medical professionals and activists who fought for those with physical and mental disabilities.  It’s not that the progressive community has always showered itself in glory with people with disabilities (eugenics being the obvious, glaring example), or even that every aspect of the progressive community does so today. But in the last few decades extending respect and assistance to those in need, and extending the ethical concerns of society, has been a progressive pursuit.

Then, of course, there are the critiques of feminism, the assertion that somehow women are less respected due to contraception and pornography.* Plus an odd critique of an Obama era add showing how government would assist a single woman to get a college degree and a job that criticized the ad for saying a woman would then rely on government rather than a husband, rather than asserting that she should be doing such things on her own! He even includes a line about feminists fighting, “imagined boogeymen like patriarchy”, again ignoring that a short time ago a woman couldn’t by a car on her own. And until 1993, there were still states in the US where rape was legal within a marriage.

The suggestions that women are less respected now due to contraception are ridiculous and insulting. There is a reason women were the ones pushing for the legality of contraception, a reason women jumped at this opportunity—because they knew that controlling their own fertility was essential to controlling their own lives. And the Catholic Church acknowledges that healthy timing and spacing of children is important, or else natural family planning wouldn’t be permitted either (NFP). And his assertion, one that I’ve heard before, that anyone having sex while on contraception is destroying their experience somehow, that “contraceptive intimacy” is not intimacy is insulting. That “….their sexual contact is neither intimate nor fertile nor really mutual in any sense.” Now, listen, I actually don’t have a problem with church leaders making ethical or moral proclamations about married life, at least in the abstract, if they stick with ethical claims about contraception and reproduction. But it is simply ridiculous to assert that a priest has a better idea of what helps people be intimate and have a mutually respectful and happy marriage than the married couple themselves and there is a reason people continue to use contraception, including over 90% of Catholics. And that well over 80% of Catholics say that it shouldn’t be a moral issue. Make a better argument for natural family planning—the goal of which is to not be open to having kids at that time, by the way—don’t say that there’s no reason a married couple might want intimacy without a child *at that moment*.

This isn’t to say I disliked the book entirely. I actually really enjoyed some of the critiques of the breakdown of civics, and the importance of building a society together and respecting one another, which is part of what made some of the critiques of extending respect to LGBT individuals so jarring. I also think that Chaput does truly believe that Catholicism is meant, in part, to be part of respecting others, embracing people in the love of Jesus, which he highlights in the book. Again, though, this is part of what was surprising. I understand that people are called to different issues, but this book was written at the end of the 2016 election cycle, when Donald Trump had been calling Mexicans rapists, threatening a ban on Muslim refugees, and saying that he would murder the families of terrorist (all against Catholic teaching, by the way, with racism and murder of innocents in war being ‘intrinsic evils’), it seems odd to say that the biggest attack on Christian belief in the country is a loosening of sexual mores.

I think that Chaput is sincere in his faith, and that he does see the importance of respecting each individual. Again, many of his general statements about the importance of truly living out and embracing our faith, about the importance of a civic life, about the need for the Church to stand up for what is right and not reflexively support the state, I agree with. Some of his other criticisms of the tendency of people to go along, and not be honest with ourselves and our beliefs, and represent those to others, struck me as well—I underlined many passages in this book. And on a wider note, I greatly respect that he wants to engage in society, rather than retreating, and that he sees the essential nature of the Church being one of hope, love and joy rather than despair and anger, which I find many conservative leader retreating into. He shows an admirable willingness to engage those with whom he disagrees, to criticize hatred,  and to call out those on the right when necessary—his statement on Charlottesville was excellent. But I cannot agree with the underlying assumptions of his book, or that for the Church to be respected it means we cannot even allow the respect of those with a different belief that does not harm anyone other than possibly themselves.

What it comes down to is that I agree with a quote from Chaput, from page 210, that Christians need to love other persons as “living, unique, unrepeatable images of God’s own love, imbued with his dignity.” This is what we must try to live out in every part of our lives. And where that may challenge our moral theology, well, I defer to Jesus.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”–Matthew 22:37-40

 

 

*As an aside, I would love to one day do a side by side comparison of current Catholic critique of pornography with second wave feminist critiques of pornography. My strong suspicion is that there would be a good deal of overlap.

The City and the Stars

the city and the starsThe City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is the best writer of the “Big Three” sci-fi authors, speaking in terms of the craft of writing. Better than Asimov, far better than Heinlein. He and Bradbury are probably the best of the classics. Clarke’s interesting to read as well, though, because he foresees societies that really are different than our own, and, setting him apart from others, his future societies are often relatively free of conflict. His books are rarely violent, and barely any conflict. They slowly move forward with people more or less behaving decently, and even most of those who don’t still trying to do the right thing. They’re carried forward almost entirely by the writing and new ideas. One almost gets the sense he finds classic story elements of violence, distrust, and other conflict get in the way of the ideas he wants to pursue, with how quickly he rushes in in each book to explain, “Those silly problems of jealousy and anger weren’t a problem anymore! And no one would consider hurting someone. Now, on to the real meat of the story.”

That being said, if you read too many of his books in a short period of time they can start to get a bit tedious. The first time you read a book where nothing much happens and humans have become exceptionally advanced and everyone more or less gets along it’s rather refreshing, and it seems like such a brave choice from the author. After three or four you kind of want something to happen.

The City and the Stars is much farther in the future than most of Clarke’s books, an incomprehensible one billion years in the future. The main character, Alvin, lives in the self-contained city of Diaspar, where all decisions have been outsourced to artificial intelligence and humans study, produce art, wander the city, talk with one another, and whatever else they would like to do, with no concern for money or need until they decide they’d like to have their intelligence returned to the central computer and returned at a later date. Interesting to consider the way science fiction authors of the past considered automation–Clarke would have been all for a universal basic income and incredibly productive robots. I believe Asimov and many old “what does the future hold!” Disney cartoons thought that was the goal, as well.

The artificial intelligence for Diaspar controls everything, including the mix of personalities in the city, and every now and then they throw in a “unique” such as Alvin, someone who is a brand new personality mix rather than an old one retrieved from the archives. As a “unique” Alvin isn’t terrified of leaving the city of Diaspar, which all others are afraid to do. No one ever travels outside the city walls. He does, finding a new city, Lys, which limited their use of robots and instead perfected the human mind and telepathy. Two paths for humanity. There’s more that comes after explaining why most humans left earth, why some stayed behind and created the only two cities left on earth, Diaspar and Lys, and something about a galactic intelligence-another Clarke staple-but honestly the first half of the book was the most interesting.

I enjoy Clarke. I am heartened by the obvious hope he has for humanity, and it’s rather curious to read Utopian rather than dystopian science fiction these days. His writing, as I mentioned, really is excellent. I find myself hoping he’s right that we can make a good future for ourselves. It usually puts me in a better mood. Plus, this is also a fairly slim volume, so it was a quick read. For future reading, though, I just think every now and then I need some action.

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

the_martian_2x

So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.

                                     

The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

Lost in a Good Book

lost-in-a-good-bookLost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book is one of those books that would be bad if it weren’t so good.  It runs the risk of being too clever by half, but it’s just clever enough, and the risk of being too convoluted, and too gimicky, but in the end it’s none of those.  Just an incredibly fun read and especially wonderful for literary nerds who can get all of the references.

The second book of the Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book takes place in 1985 Britain in a world that is very similar to ours, but is different in a few very big ways.  For instance, genetic engineering can occur through at-home cloning kits-our hero has a pet dodo.  And because of that Neanderthals were cloned but are not allowed to breed and are fighting for their rights.  Most long distance travel occurs through pneumatic tubes.  Vampires and werewolves are real, but are mostly just a nuisance.  Time travel is real, and the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years.  And the most important difference: literature is important.  Really, really important.  Like, people get trampled at book sales and there’s an entire police agency dedicated to book forgeries and keeping books the same important.  Oh, and also some people-although not all-can jump back and forth between the fictional world and the real world and interact with the characters.  That’s kind of important, too.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is on the hunt for her former literature professor turned master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has kidnapped Jane from Jane Eyre for blackmailing purposes.  Next tracks him down and saves the novel-making a slight adjustment to the ending-but also traps someone from Goliath Corporation (if you can’t tell from the name, they’re bad guys) in the text of The Raven.

Lost in a Good Book picks up after the events of The Eyre Affair have settled down somewhat.  Thursday is married to her childhood sweetheart and expecting, she’s a minor celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and back at work.  Unfortunately, others have demands on her time as well.  Her time-traveling father, a former Chronoguard officer who now officially doesn’t exist, is warning her that the world is about to be destroyed under pink goo, and JurisFiction, a secret department made up primarily of fictional characters hopping between worlds, is both arresting her for meddling in Jane Eyre (which results in a great trial á la Kafka) and making her an agent, and the Goliath Corporation wants help bringing their employee back from The Raven.

It can all get a bit confusing.  Fforde’s books definitely keep you on their toes.  But they move along briskly, and they’re clever enough, witty enough, and fun enough to keep the reader involved.  For a ridiculously pretentious read, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And the messiness of the plot recalls other British authors as well.  It’s a bit of Douglas Adams via a tour through the classics section of the library.