Friday, September 30, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a Review

Perhaps the reason I've an affinity for dark & twisted art lies with a trio of books I read as a child.  Alvin Schwartz is most known for his collection of folktales marketed towards children.  His most famous books--Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones--were some of my most favorite reads as a lad, and when I recently happened upon my personal copy of SS3, I couldn't help but dive in.  I went to the library and checked out the first two volumes (not sure why I only have the third?), then promptly drove home and leafed through the pages.

It's impossible to continue without acknowledging Stephen Gammell's defining artwork.  In fact, I'm going out on a limb and saying that it's Gammell's work that makes this collection so cherished (and challenged*, for that matter).  I love the loose, spindly, flowy lines that add an ethereal feel to each work.  Everything has the tone of something horrific waiting to be loosed upon your mind.  I would love to see Gammell do some Lovecraftian illustrations.  Yes, it is Gammell's work that shines in these books, and they've no doubt affected my subconscious.  

Allow me to wax on here.  The illustrations are grotesque.  Magnetic, whereby they repulse the reader, but attract as well.  I feel as if Gammell has somehow captured the essence of a nightmare (or some hell) and then rendered it on us, and, in particular, young minds.  Frankly I'm surprised these books are read by kids, as I can easily see them getting utterly creeped out and running for Mommy in the dead hours after midnight.  Moreover, as I was rocking Avonlea to sleep the other night, I was reading the books and left them beside her crib after she went to sleep.  Keisha brought them to me later as I was brushing my teeth and said, "You can't leave those in there. If I look over there and see 'em in the middle of the night I'd be freaked out."

I guess I would, too.  I have this fleeting fear whenever I wake up during the night.  With the thick shadows and eerie softglow lights, coupled with the fact that I'm not wearing my spectacles, everything is blurred and skewed.  My mind deceives me.  My eyes tell untruths and distortions.  I see monsters and things unknown in the darkness, sinister and evil, things that would fit perfectly alongside these horrors Gammell's illustrated.

Still, there is more to these books than just the art.  Schwartz writes in an easy to understand form, especially for children.  To my understanding, the intention is for these things to be read aloud, and working with that assumption, these stories all do well.  However, if one looks too closely as the sentences, well, one gets disappointed in the simplicity.  It's anticlimactic at times, coming across as uninspired and flat out boring.  This is not prevalent, nor is it epidemic, but the way these stories are told is very weak when compared with other folktales.  (This seems fickle, as I'm comparing a children's book to adult, scholarly things, but what can I say?)  Nevertheless, I did feel like Schwartz dropped the ball several times throughout these three books, but if you're reading them aloud, it's not too bad.

If we look at the folktales and urban legends themselves, then these three books are a treasure chest of them.  Each tale spans from 1-3 pages (most falling at just over a page) in length, and because of that, there are a multitude of stories.  Many are familiar things, things we all know, things our grandparents swear are true.  But there are more than enough unfamiliar ones, too.  And to me, digesting a "new" folktale, especially one that's been around for years, is like cream cheese icing on a carrot cake.  Delicious.

I appreciate Schwartz listing a bibliography at the end of each book, as it's nice to be able to dig deeper (or see different tellings) for a story.  When things are from oral tradition, Schwartz lists people involved, too, or areas he collected from.  I also like how there are "alternate endings" or miscellany for the stories listed.

These three books are delightful little reads.  There's no doubt that they're heavily responsible for my taking to folktales, as I read these books for the first time in elementary school, but they're also probably responsible for my weakness for dark art.  I'm glad to have stumbled on my copy of SS3 the other day, and even more glad to find the library's copies were in the stacks and not checked out.  Halloween is the perfect time to read these books, and the RIP challenge just makes it more pleasant.  If you've never read the stories Schwartz tells, then you're missing out.  But even more, if you've not had your heart stopped by Stephen Gammell's horrid illustrations, you're really missing out.  I strongly recommend remedying this as soon as humanly possible.

*Not only was this series the most challenged during the 1990s, it was also the 7th most challenged between 2000-2009.  I'm assuming 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Don't Check Your Brains at the Door, a Review

Josh McDowell, like C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, had a problem with Christianity. As an agnostic, he set out writing a paper to disprove the Christian faith, which ultimately led to his inability to do so and his surrender to Christ. A renown apologist, McDowell, along with Bob Hostetler, produced a simple book of common questions for young Christians, a book titled Don't Check Your Brains at the Door. Originally released in 1992, I recently received an updated edition for a more modernized society.

Don't Check Your Brains is targeted for teens and young adults. The book is conversational and the tone is light and humorous, but it never loses its focus. Divided into six sections, the book covers myths about God, Jesus, the Bible, the Resurrection, Religion and Christianity, and Life & Happiness. There are forty-two 3-4 page chapters, and each chapter ends with a "Brain Food" application. The "Brain Food" stuff includes readings from the Bible and insights for practical living.

As an older Christian, and having read some more theological denser material (like Strobel's A Case for Christ), I wasn't blown away by anything I read. This, however, was not my intention in reading the book. I volunteer with the youth at church and I wanted to read it to see how I thought it would help high schoolers and middle schoolers. To this age group, as well as fledgling Christians, I think Don't Check Your Brains is a fantastic resource. It answers tough questions with Scripture, as well as establishes a seed to grow deeper in understanding God's Word.

I think this book is a great starting point for those that are clueless about their faith and why we believe things we believe. Many great questions/myths are addressed, such as New Age Thoughts, Wimpy Jesus, and God Grades on a Curve. These are but a few examples, and I think many of these myths will be encountered by the upcoming generations. In the end, Don't Check Your Brains at the Door is a simple and engaging book that should hold the attention of a younger audience, but also impart truth and evidence for common questions they may face. The book would fit perfectly with young and curious minds, and may just spark some thought in older ones as well.

*FTC Thingy: This book was provided for free as an ebook download from Thomas Nelson Publishers and

Monday, September 26, 2011

House of Leaves, a Review (Spoiler-Free)

Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves

moments before the wind. (p.563)"

Defining Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is like asking a five year old to describe the Riemann Hypothesis.  House of Leaves is, on its fringes, a story about the Reader.  In the Introduction by Johnny Truant, we're flat out told that what we're reading is a product from a manuscript he found in the room of a dead man named Zampanò.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is a scholarly work based on a documentary Zampanò has become obsessed with: The Navidson Record.  And if House of Leaves is about anything at all--its heart, its cornerstone, its foundation--then it's about The Navidson Record.

Will Navidson is a critically acclaimed photojournalist.  Years of life spent away from his long-time partner Karen Green, a former cover model, and his two children, Chad and Daisy, has the Navidson family barreling towards non-existence.  Will and Karen decide to purchase a quaint Virginia house and settle down and work on their family.  Will seeks to finish his career with a simple documentary on their new lives in their new home.  He installs video cameras throughout the house, motion sensors to pick up when activity is going on, and settles in for a calm retirement.

But everything does not go as planned.  The house seems odd, and one day, for no apparent reason, Will and Karen discover a new closet situated outside their bedroom door.  Baffled, Will gets the floor plans and begins going through measurements, confused.  And when he discovers that the house measures larger on the inside than it does on the outside, the groundwork is laid for the rest of the "movie."

The Navidson Record is as tantalizing as it is terrifying.  The house on Ash Tree Lane is creepy and dark.  Navidson, an explorer at heart, sets out to understand the house and its unnerving black (and apparently unending) labyrinth of hallways that appears in its center.

Zampanò's manuscript exhaustively covers the film, from its subtle and serene beginnings to its haunting and stunning conclusion.  His work is littered with footnotes, and as Truant tells us at the onset, many of these footnotes' references simply do not exist in real life.  Keeping this in mind, the remainder of the manuscript makes for a fascinating exploration of the film, sometimes mind-numbingly so.
"As I discovered, there were reams and reams of it. Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other pieces I'd come across later--on old napkins, the tattered edges of an envelope, once even on the back of a postage stamp; everything and anything but empty; each fragment completely covered with the creep of years and years of ink pronouncements; layered, crossed out, amended; handwritten, typed; legible, illegible; impenetrable, lucid; torn, stained, scotch taped; some bits crisp and clean, others faded, burnt or folded and refolded so many times the creases have obliterated whole passages of god knows what--sense? truth? deceit? a legacy of prophecy or lunacy or nothing of the kind?, and in the end achieving, designating, describing, recreating--find your own words; I have no more; or plenty more but why? and all to tell--what?" (p.xvii)
But still yet, in an even further removed frame, the Reader understands (again, at the beginning of the novel, so as to keep SPOILER-FREE) that we're also reading Johnny Truant's annotations of Zampanò's manuscript.  Truant's story begins in the Introduction, and as it unfolds throughout the footnotes, we discover how the manuscript affects him.  Truant is a mesmerizing POV, as one of the first things he tells us is that he's unreliable.  And as we read, both the manuscript and the footnotes, we're constantly left puzzling over what's been altered, if anything.  This, as the Reader will undoubtedly understand, is disorienting and intentional.  And as we come to understand Truant's background, especially concerning the Whalestoe Letters, what's real and what's not comes under even more scrutiny.

To me, the most interesting part of the book deals with the darkness inside the house.  Danielewski a la Truant a la Zampanò paint a vivid picture of the blackness, the absence of light within the house.  
"The walls are endlessly bare. Nothing hangs on them, nothing defines them. They are without texture. Even to the keenest eye or most sentient fingertip, they remain unreadable. You will never find a mark there. No trace survives. The walls obliterate everything. They are permanently absolved of all record. Oblique, forever obscure and unwritten. Behold the perfect pantheon of absence." (p.423)
I know what dark is.  I live in the state with the largest cave system in the world.  I've been to the depths of the earth and had the lights extinguished, propelled into absolute darkness, a blackness so thick that one can't help but despair.  And yet, the darkness within the house seems darker.  This has definitely played upon my mind at night as I've roamed the halls of my own house, and I confess to a quickened pulse a time or two.

Another part that must be addressed is the bizarre formats used.  This was the primary reason I wanted to read the book, and after finishing, I enjoyed the way the book was presented.  The Reader has to flip the book, turn it sideways, and go through mental hoops to read certain passages, but it definitely adds to the story.  I read the full color edition, which is the author's preferred edition, as it includes over two-hundred pages of appendices, filled with more fascinating puzzle pieces (and if you read the book, I recommend following the instructions to see the Appendix before continuing on with the novel) and I can't imagine reading this book any other way.

So what is House of Leaves?  It's a book containing four stories, one woven story, some spelled out more than others, some flat out ignored.  It's meta.  It's contained.  It's puzzling.  It's erudite, so keep a dictionary very close.  It's compelling.  It's tedious.  It induces smiles and wicked grins, but groans and sighs.  It's beautiful.  It's art.  It's a love story.  It's disgusting and leaves one needing a bath.  It's definitely not for the faint of heart or those offended by crude sex.  It is a remarkable read, leaving the Reader satisfied and immediately ready to dive back in again to see what's missed, but at the same time worn down and betrayed.  If Danielewski intended this, then he succeeded.  I enjoyed House of Leaves immensely and would love to discuss it with someone (thankfully there are forums devoted to it).  It's easy to recommend.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Disciple, a Review

I selected Bill Clem's Disciple: Getting Your Identity from Jesus because I thought the book was about discipleship groups, mentors/mentees, etc. and practical applications for modern life. Instead, I found myself reading a book about what it means to be a Christian for the first 3/4 of the book. I almost get the feeling that Clem would prefer to use the word Disciple instead of Christian, though that is pure speculation. Nevertheless, Disciple proved to be a mostly interesting and thought provoking book. 

Divided into 12 chapters, the book alternates between the biblical ideal of the chapter's topic (such as Community), followed by a chapter with how we've distorted it. I really enjoyed the layout like this, and as I progressed through the book it was obvious how much latter chapters built off the previous ones. I also liked that each chapter ended with a "homework assignment." Clem gives the reader Scripture to read and ponder over, and often challenges us to act on these verses. 

As for the last chapters, this is really where practical thoughts on discipleship came up. I suppose a foundation must first be established before application can be described, and Clem definitely built off his groundwork. 

The art of discipleship and mentoring is neglected by many today. Too often we distort the very definition of "disciple," thinking that it's a stagnant "relationship." We replace Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28, "Go and make disciples" with "Go and make converts." It's obvious Clem has a heart for loving on people and investing in them, and he backs this imperative with plenty of Scripture. He wants the reader to make disciples (as well as be discipled), not coverts. 

All in all, I enjoyed a lot of what Bill Clem was saying in Disciple, and I think it would be especially helpful for young Christians. The first majority of the book reads as a sort of "Christian Essentials" text. I was more interested in the latter half, and indeed Clem has some worthwhile things to say there, though I wish this part were longer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Radioactive Aardvark Nationality Domesticated Onslaught Metaphysical

Are you hungry? Are you sick? Are you begging for some bread? She lived with a broken man, a cracked polystyrene man.  I'm a creep.  Apparently it's called ergodic literature, and I kind of dig it, but at the same it's rather exasperating.  Maybe not exasperating.  Maybe tedious.  And sometimes it makes for a Day of Interest if you're up for it.  But sometimes I'm not feeling it, and I'm left following the sentence as it winds its way across pages, over commas and semi-colons, but never a period, and I get lost somewhere along the way.  Maybe you will, too.

Anthropomorphism, start!

She wasn't dead, but she was terminal.  Stop whispering!  She concocted a disease, a rather nasty one, that left her essentially brain dead.  Stop shouting!  At first I held out hope that she would recover, but she didn't, not even after she was supposedly healed.  She crawled, yes, and ticked idly, but she stopped responding and turned blue then black then the lights just winked out and I left her for dead.  I stole everything I could from her carcass, thanked her for being good, and then I went Kevorkian.  I'm a wicked child.

Anthropomorphism stop!

First degree murder is premeditated and planned and done willfully.  Second degree murder is not planned in advance.  Voluntary manslaughter is murder by accident, maybe, possibly, if your lawyer's good enough or you're sincere enough.  Involuntary manslaughter is purely unintentional.  Do not cry out or hit the alarm, you know we're friends 'til we die.  Suicide is self-murder, and can be rendered first degree, second, or manslaughter.  Either way you turn, I'll be there.  Open up your skull, I'll be there.

.wen sa doog sa (ylraen) s'ehs won dna ,yriaf doog a fo ecnatsissa eht htiw efil ot kcab thguorb saw ehS

See what I'm saying?  It's tedious, but once you throw in a mystery, a monster, a thing, a hope, a promise, a chance, a sanatorium, a disaster, an eleven-year old, a foray into foreign language, then you start seeing that there is a purpose to it all, that the ergos one does to understand is intentional and disorienting and disemboweling (okay, I just made up that last bit), and the format is important, as much as a format can be.

As per Demitri Martin, saying I'm sorry and I apologize is pretty much the same thing.  Unless you're at a funeral.  I love the cold snap.  I actually had to close the window last night and throw a quilt over us.  Even the curs were lazy from the cold.  Not-so-subtle-but-profoundly-strong-suggestion: Go to (here) and read Kij Johnson's astonishing ultra-short story (like it's totally less than a thousand words, probably more like 500[edit: according to MSWord it's 1,254 {that's MCCLIV to any of you Ancient Romans that are roaming the Nets here, or wayward seventh graders for that matter}]) called "Ponies."  Sit down.  Stand up.  Like, zomg that story was so gooood, and it's so fitting for the RIP challenge, and I really think you should read it and tell me what you think about it.  Reckoner, take me with you.

Life rolls like a Bob Dylan, o'er choppy seas and serene lakes.  All around me winds blow hard, but I myself am fine.  It sucks seeing others maltreated.  Anyone can play guitar.  (Nice Dream)  So I saw that Stephen King is releasing another Dark Tower book, this one called The Wind Through the Keyhole and set between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla.  I can't decide how I feel about this one.  Mostly indifference.  I quite enjoyed that series, but at the same time it was also lacking in parts, especially there as the ka-tet drew near the Tower.  Oy was one of my favorite characters.  Myxomatosis.  I may return to Mid-World, and I mayn't.

Anthropomorphism spoiler!
(It was the computer.  Being dead and now quickened.)

I'm the kind of person that pretty much always sits on my left leg whenever I fold one up beneath my bottom to sit.  For that matter, I almost always cross my left leg over my right.  It just feels wrong going the other way.  Remyxomatoxis.

The Well, it comes.  And with it renewal and hope, but not in us, but in He who made us.  A trip to the orchard tomorrow, where we'll steal apples from the trees and then pay for them, though probably the other way around, cause I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart, and I don't really wanna get arrested, either, and I don't wanna wait for our lives to be over, and U don't have 2 be cool 2 rule my world.  I'm pretty sure someone has replaced my coffee creamer with another creamer of the same design and bottle; instead of the flavor I was expecting this morning (white mocha), I got something oddly reminiscent of banana, a flavor that's universally acknowledged to be deplorable and loathsome to God and man.  But I drink it, eyes darting, waiting to ensnare my assailant.  Ever vigilant!  Ex loganus.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Way of Kings, a Review

Beginning a ten book series can be daunting.  It takes a kind of commitment that many of us just don't have the time for.  It takes effort to stick with a single story for a decade, gobbling up installments every year or so.  We're an impatient people, by and large, and waiting is something we loathe.  Just look at the vitriol surrounding GRRM's prolonged release of A Dance with Dragons.

Nevertheless, Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, Book One of The Stormlight Archive, delivers such an impressive story that it's impossible to resist.  The hardcover spans over one thousand pages, but it's populated with beautiful internal artwork that goes right along with the story, not to mention the mesmerizing cover art.  
TWoK is difficult to summarize succinctly.  Roshar is a land wracked and ravaged by storms.  These storms are ferocious and lethal, with winds and rain strong enough that to be caught out in them is to die.  In part, these storms have shaped the geography, ecology, and sociology of the ten countries that make up Roshar.  Some animals have developed rock-shells for protection.  In some lands, the grass even recedes.  The creatures and places of Roshar are as much a story as the main characters.  It's obvious Sanderson has labored and put thought into his grand epic, and the thrill of experiencing these unusual settings is absolutely delightful.

But more than this, tWoK is a tight focused tale centering on a trio of characters.  Kaladin, this novel's major POV character, has wanted to fight in the war on the Shattered Plains for years, and he's finally found himself there, though as a branded member of a bridge crew.  Bridgemen are lower than slaves, especially the bridgemen of Sadeas' warcamp.  To be a bridgeman is to have a death sentence.  Dalinar Kholin, brother to the murdered king that started the war and uncle to the reigning king, is a man of honor and does thing the Old Ways.  He will not let himself get entangled in the squabble of politics and quests for power, much to the chagrin of the other generals, and insists on doing things Right.  But when Dalinar begins having vicious dreams during the highstorms, rumors circulate the warcamps that the Blackthorn is  losing his mind.  And Dalinar can't help but wonder the same.  The third major player is Shallan, a girl who's family is plunged into impossible debt after the patriarch dies.  Shallan decides to seek out Jasnah, the king's heretic sister, and steal her Soulcaster.  She'll use the money to free her family, and possibly survive the quarreling houses.  But the more Shallan learns about Jasnah, the more she begins to question her motives.

These three characters are the major players of tWoK, but they are by far not the only ones.  Sanderson has crafted a dramatis personae filled with memorable characters, from the enigmatic Szeth-son-son-Vallano, a Truthless Shin and an angst-driven assassin, to the equally enigmatic Wit, who I'll keep silent about, to Adolin, Dalinar's up-and-coming heir apparent and established warrior on the Plains.  Each person has a wealth of information and life in them, and I eagerly look forward to seeing them all develop over the course of the series.

Brandon Sanderson is widely known for his unique magic systems, and tWoK does not fail here.  In fact, if you've read any other Sanderson, you'll certainly notice some similarities between the magic systems, but also some very original concepts, too.  As this is Book One, there was a lot introduced, but also a lot of mystery left behind the magics waiting to be revealed.

I could go on and on about this book, and I really haven't scratched the surface.  The Way of Kings is a solid first novel for a series.  It wraps up a lot of things, not leaving too many cliff hangers, but not enough to lull the excitement, either.  The stories about these characters--all of them, not just the three primaries--are amazing.  Sanderson knows how to turn a phrase, as well as keep the reader turning pages, and the plot never dies down during this massive read.  If you want a completely different epic fantasy, one that leaves you eager for the next volume and filled with a sense of wonder and awe, then I heartily recommend The Way of Kings.  I'm invested for the duration of the series, and I cannot wait to see where Sanderson takes us.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Buried, a (film) Review

I've watched the cursor blink several times now, waiting for me to somehow begin this post.  And yet, after watching Rodrigo Cortés' 2010 thriller Buried, I don't know how to begin.  A brief synopsis:
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is an American truck driver working as a private contractor in Iraq.  After one convoy trip goes wrong, Paul wakes up to discover that he's been buried alive in a wooden coffin.  Armed with only a cell phone and a lighter, Paul begins a desperate struggle to have himself located and freed.
I wanted to watch Buried back when I first heard about it, primarily because of the risky gimmick.  See, the entire film is really one long scene.  The camera never leaves the coffin.  This gives the audience a somewhat claustrophobic effect, though certainly nowhere near as strong as Conroy's.  So when I settled in to watch Buried last night, I was expecting to be on the edge of my seat, and Rodrigo Cortés went well beyond my expectations.

Honestly I'm still struggling on how to come to grips with this film.  I classify it as a suspense/horror movie, and of the worst possible kind.  To me, scary isn't some ethereal monster lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and devour.  It's not demons and goblins boiling young children and feeding them in pies to trolls.  No, to me, true horror is the possibility that an unsettling event could actually happen, and that's definitely the case with Buried.  (That's also the reason why I detest torture-porn movies, because some psycho could actually watch, find inspiration, and act on what they've just seen, but that's tangential.)

What makes Buried even more frightening is that I personally have friends and family that are serving our country overseas.  Some are military, but some are private contractors, working in war zones, just as Paul Conroy was.  And that's part of why this film affected me so strongly.

So how to discuss the movie without spoiling anything?  I've decided on a list of adjectives I felt throughout the film.

  • Emotional, of the heart-wrenching kind.  
  • Disturbing, of the "what the heck's wrong with humanity?" kind.  
  • Pulse-gripping, of the kind that grabs and doesn't let go.  
  • Bleak, of the "help, I'm buried alive in a coffin somewhere in the Iraqi desert and I'm suffocating" kind.
  • Infuriating, of the "surely this kind of thing doesn't really happen but it probably does" kind.
  • Dreadful, of the full-of-dread kind.
  • Suspense, of the "how is this going to end?" kind.
  • Melancholy, of the "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" kind.
Truly, this movie kept me in full attention.  As the film progresses, watching the character development has a staggering affect on the Viewer, and Reynolds performs superbly.  The acting was convincing, the lighting believable, and the sounds as I would imagine.  There was one part that was remarkably creepy, and another that was remarkably tear-jerking. The restrictions of filming solely in the coffin are smartly handled and felt by all, and I think the risk taken by Cortés paid off.

Buried is one of those movies that leaves you pondering well into the night, and then on into the next day.  My only solace is knowing that the film is fiction.  That's a comforting thought, and possibly the only one I have.  Buried is not an easy film to watch, and the feeling after finishing is truly horrifying.  This minimalist movie had a maximum affect on me, and I'd love to discuss it with someone.  It's available now on Netflix Instant Streaming for those with a stout heart.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Picture-Blog Story, Being of the Kind Not Generally Recommended for Children and/or Strictly Carnivores

Once upon a time there was a plot of land.  That's not the same thing as saying that the land had its own agenda and that it was full of scheming.  There are plots of land like that, but this is not that kind of story.  So if you want that kind of story, just pack your things and find yourself a different Source, cause this one ain't gonna yield to you, Mr.-Evil-Soils Person.

Anyway, it was a dark and stormy night one day and there was a plot of land 'neath the clouded, clear skies.  Now the skies aren't duplicates, they just are.  Jive?  And on this land a man worked the ground and planted crops.  He took his hoe and brutalized the faithless dirt.  He garnered his seeds and spread them in the ground.  He tapped into the vast reservoir beneath his property and watered the now victimized land, and in the end he saw that it was good.  And when he finished there, he was so pleased with himself that he found another victim and assaulted it, too.

As los dias passed, the man watched his creation gingerly.  The man was especially good at watching things gingerly, as his glorious mane atop his smooth head once was a radiant rojo.  Alas, now only a beard of ruddy brown and auburn exists.  But he watched his plots develop, exposition pouring out into conflicts, lecherous invaders fighting to overthrow the planted seeds and tended ground, the rising action cascading into a calamitous climax of angry fingers and wicked instruments, strewn dirt and black compost, an angry sol and a bitter, cloudless, rainless cielo.

An event so important to the story of the man, so life changing that it deserves to be boldfaced and underlined, happened upon him quite expectantly, though somehow altogether unexpected when it did.  This event is intertwined with the plot of land, as it drew the man away from his plots for a time.  Where once he cared (gingerly) and tended, his presence was suddenly gone, leaving the lone crops unprotected from the wretched invaders.  And when he returned, his precious plots were overran and nigh vanquished.  The invaders had won.  In fury, the man threw himself at the plots, greedy fingers pulling anew, rending many of the new inhabitants to pieces for their sins.  He fought valiantly, but the war had been decided and he had been defeated.

His heart left the plots then and he went off to spend his time with the aftermath of the aforementioned event.  And the plots of land grew lonely.  The sun burned fiercer.  The clouds scoffed in their stingy pride.  From time to time the man would remember his plots and tend to them with water and a fleeting, uninterested attempt of ousting.

And anon came the day of betrayal, when the man decided to once again victimize his subdued plots.  He stole from their weakness great bulbs of onions, crooked limbs of carrots, balls of tomatoes, noses of squash, bells of peppers, and handfuls of herbs.  The time of reckoning was at hand, and they were found in need.  The man prepared his crops, baptizing them gently in the cool waters of Faucet.  He lay them on the altar and then picked up the CutToTheBonePamperedChef Knife.  And without a second thought, he began his slaughter.  Ruthlessly, he also sacrificed the captured prisoners of potato and celery alongside his own beloved.

When the sacrifice was finished, the man coated the pieces with oil and pepper, a bit of salt, and a dab of butter.  He then threw them in the wok and gave them over to the god of StoveTop Heat.  Time passed, steam rose, the foreigner named Arroz was added, and the crops died again at this third betrayal.

After it was all over, the man partitioned out pieces of the sacrifice and filled two bowls.  He then gave thanks to God for the food, handed one to his wife, and commenced the final betrayal.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Bloodlines, a Review

Racism is not dead. Despite what you may think about the issue--from those that see our modern day America as a glorious fondue of ethnic delights to those that see through the smokescreen a bit too readily--racism is certainly not dead. For many of us, though, it is. We live in our content bubbles, satisfied with the status of ethnic diversity in America. Look at how far we've come, we say. Slavery abolished. Equal rights for all. Amen, and I'm thankful to God that we've come at least that far. But the question I raise, and one that John Piper points to in his latest book Bloodlines, is look how far we've still got to go.

Bloodlines is an engaging and provocative book. Piper, respected globally as a passionate man of God, sets out to show how racial harmony and embracing ethnic diversity are Biblically sound doctrines and ultimately glorifying to God. He takes on several of the modern controversies surrounding race and addresses everything with the Bible. Indeed, he steps up and writes with blunt passion, even when it's difficult to do so. But as he says,

This deeply felt sense of race as a continuing, painful, and pervasive issue in America means that talking about race continues to be difficult. The feelings run very deep and very high. If your skin is thin...hold your tongue. But holding our tongues does not usually advance understanding, deepen respect, warm the affections, or motivate action.
Yes, if we want change, if we want a greater respect of our fellow man, then we cannot hold our tongues, and thankfully Piper doesn't.

I think Bloodlines is an easy read, in that Piper is honest in his desire. He writes of growing up in South Carolina and of the racial sins he had to overcome, and only so by the blood of Jesus. And when he went into ministry he intentionally chose a region (Twin Cities area in Minnesota) that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. He has lived there for over thirty years, passionate about diversity and harmony and exalting God. These things give credence to the points Piper raises, and hopefully many see his words as truth.

The book begins with Piper telling why he's wrote Bloodlines, and then he follows with several statistics and the current shape of racism in America. One of the most staggering statistics:
  • Homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age and has been for decades.
After the statistical dump, Piper then dives into many of the current theories and resources surrounding racism. I was ignorant of many of these names and sources, but Piper definitely was not. I found this bit fascinating, reading what many leading minds think about the "Whys" and "Hows" of racism.

The remainder of the book focuses on why a united people celebrating diversity and living peaceably is glorifying to God. Most of us are ignorant of our racism, and I suspect many of us would be appalled at ourselves if our secret thoughts were revealed. The blame is ours, but it's also the many generations before us. America has a dark history, one that misused Scripture to propel a false agenda that led to many sins, and we've still not recovered from this.

It's important to note that throughout everything, Piper never strays from the gospel of Jesus Christ. With a multitude of verses to back up his thesis, it's eye opening to see how uninvolved so many of us are. Racial harmony is not the most important issue for a person, but it is an issue that should be pursued by some. Piper feels this way, as do many members and staff at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Just read this article (How and Why Bethlehem Pursues Ethnic Diversity) to understand that.

Bloodlines is a thought-stirring book that brings up many strong arguments for why the fight against racism should be faced.  While most of us don't feel like race is an issue to concern ourselves with, consider the following.

Since majority people don't think of themselves in terms of race, none of our dysfunctions is viewed as a racial dysfunction. When you are the majority ethnicity, nothing you do is ethnic. It's just the way it's done. When you are a minority, everything you do has color.
The words are true, and the implications staggering.  We are all creatures of race.  Whether majority or minority, we all share a common earthly bloodline, and that makes us all brothers and sisters.  Praise God that we can all share a common heavenly bloodline, too, that of Jesus Christ, and it's only through His blood can we hope to have unity.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Way of Kings Group Read: Conclusion

Here we are at the end of the group read.  Well, the relative end.  This was my first experience with a group read, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though it also caused some undue stress, too.  Perhaps if the tome wasn't so massive that stress part wouldn't be there.  With a twelve-week old daughter in the house, reading was often pushed aside to bedtime throughout the week and a two/three hour stint on the weekend.  Even so, I felt like I was spending too much time in Sanderson's world and not enough in my own, and I think the pace of this group read was too rigorous for me, though honestly the natural breaks in the book made for perfect discussion sections.

Anyway, this week's questions are brought by Suey of It's All About Books.  Like every week, you can also check the main read along page for other blog links.

In addition to the supplied questions, I've thrown up a few of my own at the end, musing aloud.  There are also some supplemental links for any that are interested in such things.


It seems like every main character had a little wrap up chapter in this section, with each section ending on a bit of a cliff hanger. What do you think? Do you appreciate these cliff hangers or do they make you crazy? Did you predict some of them, or have no idea they were coming? Did one of them stand out as most surprising?
There were enough conclusions to leave me satisfied, and enough cliffhangers to leave me eager.  Cliffhangers don't bother me, and even less so when I think on how productive and meticulous Sanderson is.  
I loved Dalinar's ending to his visions.  He learned that God had been killed, for crying out loud!  What does this mean to the religious people?  And as for the Voidbringers being parshmen and Parshendi... holy cow.  I knew there was something about the parshmen, but I couldn't quite figure out what.  The King's horrible acts were also surprising, though his motivation uninspired.  I did love how it was his notes we'd been reading.  Out of everything, I'm surprised Dalinar is still alive, though there was no doubt that he was on a collision course with Szeth.
Did the book leave you with an overall satisfied feeling, or are you left with too many unanswered questions? If so, what are some of the questions bothering you the most?
I guess I kind of answered this above.  What are the implications of God being dead?  Does that mean that Jasnah's atheism is correct, but also incorrect, too?  And what's the deal with Shadesmar?  (See my thoughts on this at the bottom.)  I'm also wondering why Syl dislikes the Shardblades and how the blades differ from the Dawnshards/Honorblades.  And where the heck is Gaz?
After I finished the book, I immediately re-read the Prelude, and everything made more sense this time around. 
What did you think of the book ending with a Wit chapter? Did you understand what he was trying to say? What does this chapter mean in relation to the rest of the series?
As I've mentioned before, the Hoid phenomenon is of particular fascination.  Thus, I was on edge throughout the entire chapter.  He basically seemed to be speaking in prophecy, telling the men to be ready for the Everstorm (or whatever it's called).  I did find his speech slightly confusing, though, and I'm not sure I fully understand his logical conclusion.  I'm sure he'll show up in latter books.
If someone asked you what this book is about... how would you answer them? In just two or three sentences!
The Way of Kings is a Brandon Sanderson novel.  If you read a lot of fantasy, then you know who Sanderson is.  If not, then you need to get your hands on everything this man's written.  Then I would punch the person in the face for their ignorance...
The Way of Kings is an epic tale that's unlike any epic fantasy you've ever read.  Magic is returning to the world, but with it comes terrible dangers that threaten the very existence of everyone in Roshar.  If you want a story with realistic characters in an unforgettable setting, then this book is for you.
And finally (even though I suspect I know everyone’s answer) will you be reading the rest of this series? Will you be there the day it comes out? Or just whenever? Will you be recommending this to others?
Absolutely.  I'll probably pre-order the Kindle edition and dive in as soon as I can.  Then I'll likely pick up the beautiful hardcovers (when they're cheaper) throw them on the shelf just for completionist's sake.
Brandon Sanderson has just uploaded the images from the books onto his website.  Looking at these images makes me wonder the significance of the maps, as well as the grids of glyphpairs.  There's no doubt Sanderson has painstakingly crafted a purposeful geography for Roshar, so I've been thinking about them.  What do you all make of the maps/grids?
I'm guessing Shadesmar is the mirror opposite of Roshar.  This makes sense considering symmetry is such an important part (and holy attribute) of Vorinism.  If Roshar exists, then there must be an opposite realm, too, so maybe Shadesmar is un-Roshar?  I'm particularly interested in the names on the Shadesmar map.  The Seas of "Regret, Souls, and Lost Lights."  (Notice that the physical location of these Seas directly correlate to the landmasses of Roshar.  So where there's land in Roshar, there's water in Shadesmar, and we keep the balance.)
I'm equally intrigued about the Nexuses of Truth, Transition, and Imagination.  A nexus is "A connection or series of connections linking two or more things."  Considering what happened with Shallan, she told a Truth and then boom, she was in Shadesmar.  Maybe these three nexuses are the ways into Shadesmar and the ways to Soulcasting.
As for the grids, they must represent the magic system somehow.  Certain glyphpairs stand for certain powers, such as Lashing.  We don't know which ones are what.  What I'm wondering is how the two grids (assuming there are two distinct grids) are related.
Keeping symmetry in mind, I find the existence of a safehand being covered oddly disturbing.  If every woman must keep her safehand covered (look at the illustration of the woman surrounding the maps), then no woman dresses symmetrically.  Does this strike you as peculiar?
I think I may be reading too much into this one, but it still seems odd.  I mean, for the most part, I assume nearly everybody dresses symmetrically (including us!), and throwing on one glove just throws the whole thing out of balance.  It probably doesn't mean anything, but it's just odd considering the Alethi culture.
Brandon did a Q&A session on Goodreads back last year after the book was released.  Reading through the questions generate some avenues of discussion.  Some of my favorites:

  • Does the scene where Shallan is counting heartbeats mean what I think it means?
    • "It means what you think it means."
  • What happened to Gaz? After some character development he just vanishes in chapter 59 without further explanation. Will he be back on the next books?
    • "I'm planning for you to find out what happened to Gaz. There are sufficient clues that you can guess."
  • Will there be flashbacks for a different character in this next book?
    • "Yes.  Each book will explore a different character in flashbacks, though Kaladin will also end up getting another book with flashbacks of his sometime down the line." 

Final thoughts.  If you've not read the Mistborn series, then I think you are missing out here.  There are events of such magnitude that happen between the books that I cannot help but see their relation to one another.  Any of you read the Mistborn trilogy?  If not, I think you should before then next installment comes out for the Stormlight Archive.  Sanderson's not worldbuilding, he's universebuilding...