Thursday, April 10, 2014

Books Read In March 2014

I've been frantically finishing up summative assignments and prepping for tests, so my blog has been low on my priority list of late, but better late than never.

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis (re-read)

While re-reading The Silver Chair this time around, my focus was on the future movie adaptation announced last October. My thoughts were on things like how Puddleglum would be portrayed on screen (CGI? Make-up? Both?), how the Prince Rilian flashback would be handled, whether or not the film-makers should re-imagine the scene where Aslan blows Jill and Eustace down to Narnia (which has the potential to look ridiculous on-screen) etc. I also made sure to understand the most important themes, so I could criticize any changes made accordingly. I would say The Silver Chair is about doing your duty even when its hard, even when it leads to death. To find the lost Prince Rilian, Jill is given four signs to follow by Aslan. The signs serve as a metaphor for morality and the climax of the story is when the characters choose to trust Aslan and stick to the signs even though it will probably be the death of them. Puddleglum's steadfastness is the heart of the book. Even though he's sure the worst is going to happen, he is going to do the right thing. The Silver Chair is one of the gloomiest books, but also one of the funniest, with a couple laugh-out-loud moments. Assuming the movie gets off the ground, I have a few years of geeky fun ahead of me.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

After reading Brave New World, I have now read the "Big 3" of dystopias, the other two being 1984 and Farenheit 451. Farenheit 451 is still my favourite by far, but I liked Brave New World better than 1984. Brave New World pictures a world where sex is firmly separated from procreation, promiscuity is the new social norm (with monogamy being the new taboo), and eugenics rule. Every generation is grown in test tubes and carefully conditioned to fit neatly into a societal niche. For example the working class babies are given a dislike of books and flowers to keep them from having a desire to read or move to the country. The people in this society are slaves to their predestined roles in society. The book has a lot to do with the suppression of the individual in society, hedonism, and worship of science, though in this society "science" has ceased to be science. Innovations and discoveries are rejected in favour of maintaining the status quo. The society in Brave New World champions stability and happiness. There is the sense that part of our humanity is lost when we no longer have conflict or adversity. We stagnate and cease to really liveThe two main characters are John, a "savage" who lives with a tribe outside of modern society, and Bernard, a dissatisfied member of one of the higher castes. I highly value individuality and I could empathize with Bernard's odd wish to not be so darn useful to the social body, but to be independent, to be me. This may well be a foolish wish, but I can't help but have it. 

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (re-read)

This was a very rewarding re-read. I had been feeling a bit of a spiritual cramp and, while this book wasn't the only thing that got me out of it, it did a great deal. It really reaffirmed a lot of what I believe. Going back to the basics is never outdated. Another thing that hit me was what Lewis said about evil always coming in pairs - an excess and a defect like in Aristotle (and by the way, I saw a lot of philosophical influences in this book from Aristotle, Plato, Kant etc. that I hadn't picked up on before). The point Lewis was making is that politically, we're divided between totalitarianism and individualism, but both will lead to ruin if followed to extremes and what we really need, like usual, is a balance between extremes. This hit me hard, because recently I've been all about individualism as a political theory, but I see now that individualism can't be an end in itself because it would lead to isolation in the same way that totalitarianism as an end in itself would lead to the abolition of the individual. Thank you, Mr. Lewis. I don't know where I'd be without you.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"The History" [Book IX: Caliope]: The Persians Defeated

The final book in Herodotus' History, Calliope, is about Persia's final defeat in the Second Persian War. The Persian army, now under the command of Mardonius, are defeated during the battle of Plataea and, with that, the Persian invasion is repelled and Greece remained free. There are events before and after Plataea, of course, but I'm going to keep this post brief. I've talked about Herodotus in four previous posts and Book 9 didn't really give me anything to add to what I've already said.

My reading through the Great Books has slowed almost to a grinding halt due to the demands of school. I fully expect things to pick back up once the semester is over and I have more free time and mental energy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"The History" [Book VIII: Urania]: The Battle of Salamis

My reading of Book VIII of Herodotus' History coincided conveniently with the release of 300: Rise of an Empire. Both are about the Battle of Salamis and the events preceding and following it. Though I likely won't be seeing the movie in theatres, I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

The collective Greek fleet was led by Eurybiades, a Spartan, thought Herodotus devotes more of his writing to Themistocles, the Greek captain. Themistocles is an interesting figure. While he did the Greeks, and by extension Western civilization, a great service by his actions during the Persian Wars, his actions were often done under the table, unbeknownst to his allies. Themistocles took me back to Machiavelli's The Prince - whether the ends justify the means - and Plato's Republic - whether society should be led by enlightened individuals rather than the voice of the people.

I learned about Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis at school, but what I didn't learn was that, after Persia's defeat at Salamis and Xerxes' retreat, Mardonius remained with a force of 300,000 soldiers in a last ditch effort to conquer Greece. Mardonius' fate will presumably be dealt with in Book IX.

Book VIII ended with a Persian envoy trying to entice the Athenians to join in an alliance with Persia and a Spartan envoy trying to keep the Athenians from joining the Persians. The Athenians said to the Persians, "So long as the sun keeps his present course, we will never join alliance with Xerxes. Nay, we shall oppose him unceasingly, trusting in the aid of those gods and heroes whom he has lightly esteemed, whose houses and images he has burnt with fire", and assured the Spartans the needn't have even bothered coming to convince them not to join the Persians.

Ah, I love the Athenians.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"The History" [Book VII: Polymnia]: Xerxes Invades Greece

The seventh book of The History dealt with Xerxes' accession to the Persian throne and his invasion of Greece, culminating in the Battle of Thermopylae. I remember loving learning about the Persian Wars in history class and have been meaning to delve deeper into them for a while now. What's not to love? Greece was the perfect underdog: a relatively small, but free country versus the massive Persian Empire. The vastly outnumbered Greeks withstood the Persian invasion with their minds, through clever battle tactics.

The reading selection (Books 7-9) picks up after Xerxes' father, Darius's invasion of Greece and the famous Battle of Marathon. I'll have to read The History in its entirety some day, because I love Herodotus.

One thing that surprised me was the diversity in Persia's army. Xerxes enlisted soldiers from across his empire, including Assyrians, Indians, Arabians, Ethiopians, Lydians, Egyptians etc. It makes sense, but I guess I never thought about it. It's a pretty cool image and makes the Persian Wars seem even more like they were Greece vs. The World.

Much of the narrative follows Xerxes and his army on their journey to Greece, including an odd but amusing incident along the way. After Xerxes' army built a bridge across the Hellespont, connecting Asia with Europe, the tides rolled in and swept away the bridge. A new bridge was soon built, but not before Xerxes "punished" the Hellespont by whipping it's waters.

When Xerxes approaches Thessaly, Thessaly chooses to side with Xerxes because of insufficient military aid from the southern city-states. Xerxes, then passes through Thessaly, but before his army can reach southern Greece they most pass through Thermopylae, a narrow pass with water on one side and cliffs on the other. Famously King Leonidas led 300 Spartans (plus a few thousand other Greeks) to delay the Persian army at Thermopylae. They were eventually slaughtered of course, but they will live forever in legend. Even though I'm not generally a fan of war-obsessed Sparta (go Athens go!), I have to salute Sparta's inspiring example at Thermopylae.

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.