Monday, August 27, 2012

From the Library of C.S. Lewis, a Review

From the Library of C.S. Lewis is a reference book filled with selections from C.S. Lewis’ personal library.  This book, compiled by James Stuart Bell and Anthony Dawson, is broken into eighteen sections.  The primary focus of the book is to highlight works (and writers) who influenced Lewis’ spiritual journey, as Lewis is regarded as one of the finest Christian thinkers of the 20th Century.  There are a few other sections that are not dedicated to religion (such as a section on fantasy & imagination), but these are definitely the minority of page takers.

I found the concept interesting and so I requested a review copy from the publisher.  I like Lewis (especially Mere Christianity), but I’m not fanatic about him by no means.  I’m also finding myself getting a bit more interested in biographical works as I’m getting older, and I’m a believer that you can tell a lot about a person by the types of things they read.

Unfortunately, my initial excitement quickly faded.  Page after page I read through archaic texts and dated sermon notes.  The material was interesting, but my daily dose of deep theology and introspective meditation could not handle deluge.  As such, I took to skimming things, and that’s not what I wanted to do.  So then I decided to read devotionally, just picking a page a day or something and seeing what was said.  I noticed a lot of repeated writers and works, and I suppose these were more influential on Lewis than others, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

Each selection is presented with a title, its source, the text, and then a mini author biography (Twitter-esque).  This format is perfect, and each selection spans at most three pages.   Much of the text is heavy and deep, as I’ve said, and I recommend it in small chunks to avoid duress.  This format inevitably leads to bias, as quoting out of context is wont, but I believe the intent of Bell & Dawson is to tease the Reader to dig deeper into the cited works.

From the Library of C.S. Lewis is an interesting little reference book.  It is dry and sometimes complicated, but that will fluctuate based on the Reader and the day.  There are many pearls of wisdom in this book, and it was a pleasure to think about how they affected Lewis’ works (and life).  I would have liked more descriptive correlations between works and Lewis’ life, but that was outside the scope of the book.  To a casual Lewis fan this may not be the book for you, but if you would like to find out what kind of things C.S. Lewis liked to read, then by all means check out From the Library of C.S. Lewis.

FTC Thingy: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.  Nothing more was required.  I was not coerced or bribed to review positively or negatively, nor was I offered any extra incentives for a positive review (i.e., baked goods, especially cookies).  As such, this review is reflective of my inner self's inner self.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Catch-22, a Review

Joseph Heller first published Catch-22 in 1961.  The book is a modern classic that has received universal praise.  The book directly created the eponymous “catch-22” phrase that has entered into the vernacular.  Catch-22 has been on my TBR since high school, always on the shelf to get to one day.  Thanks to the 2012 Manifesto, that day has come.

It is hard to pin down exactly what Catch-22 is all about.  On the surface it’s a biting satire of war and disillusioned life in the mid-19th century.  Yossarian, the twenty-something chief protagonist, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force serving in the 256th Squadron in the Mediterranean during World War II.  He’s hilarious and honest and completely against flying any more missions.  Again, superficially, this is the main dilemma of the book.  Colonel Cathcart wants to impress his superior officers and so he keeps increasing the number of missions the men have to fly. 

It doesn’t take much to see that Catch-22 is really something else altogether.  Absurdity abounds, often to the confusion of the characters within the pages and to the Reader without.  I scratched my head a few times trying to understand what had just happened.  It doesn’t help that Heller uses a third-person rotating POV omniscient voice, as well as a proclivity to disregard chronology periodically.  The book reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

I struggled at first with this book, wondering whether or not to abandon it.  There start is somewhat slow, and getting used to Yossarian’s (or whoever’s) mind takes some time.  But once I had the tone established my enjoyment level dramatically increased.  The characters were funny, but I was more drawn to discovering their true motivations.  Heller paints a picture of utter confusion and absolute chaos in the leadership ranks for the military, one that required a constant suspension of disbelief and several groans.  This was another struggle I had, and I can easily see how some could take issue with plausibility.  In fact, practically every character is irrational to varying degrees, which conveniently fits nicely into a major theme of Catch-22.

So what exactly is the catch?  Heller writes,
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)
This review really doesn’t give an in depth understanding of this novel.  Heller’s constant rotation of POVs is jarring but fitting.  Heller’s wit is perfect.  There is a rather bleak and fatalist view of things, but it’s World War II and that’s understandable.  The characterization (especially Major Major Major Major and the Chaplain) is brilliant.  There is much to write about with the book, but finding the appropriate words are difficult.

Ultimately I very much recommend Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of war and sanity.  It is an adult book with some coarse language and wanton sexuality, but comparatively it’s much more vanilla than contemporary mediums.  If you’ve never read Catch-22 and you’re looking for something bizarre and thought provoking, then I strongly recommend you try this book.  It’s worth its many accolades. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

About My New Job

I am working for a large, international aluminum product manufacturing plant, where we make rolled aluminum coils and sell them out to people that want to customize the stuff.  This company is not called Manuel's Mousepad Emporium (MME), but that's what I'm calling it so as to give myself one level of anonymity.  I am in the Health, Safety & Environmental department, where we have two staff environmental engineers and a handful of safety specialists.  My title is, officially, Environmental Compliance Technician.  I'm pretty sure that that is the most prestigious sounding job title I've ever had.

So what do I do?  To answer that would require a small understanding of the rolled product manufacturing facility itself and how the processes work.  In extreme brevity, MME buys recycled aluminum and melts it down to a certain level.  This molten aluminum goes through a casthouse until eventually it is poured into molds and cast as large (~22 feet long) ingots.  The ingots make their way through the mills, getting chopped and scalped and cut along the way.  Eventually they go through a machine that smashes the ingot down over and over, kind of like rolling a piece of clay in your hand until it is a long and thin snake, except the aluminum stays rectangular in shape and not round.  One the aluminum is flattened into a sheet it is then rolled up into a coil (~20,000 lbs.) and hauled off on a crate to sit and await shipping.  That's the short version.

MME also does customized sheets with embossed designs.  There's also a paint process if customers want colored aluminum (and many of them do).

So what do I do?  I basically make sure that all the water that we're pushing out of the property is within the acceptable limits for a variety of things (coliform, chlorine, pH, oil & grease, etc.)  To do this requires a daily visible inspection of our main outfall and the waste water treatment outfall.  In addition to the regulations surrounding a WWTP, MME also has its own drinking water supply.  I am responsible for all the routine inspections of these areas.

Next I work with the waste side of environmental engineering.  There are a few hazardous byproducts left over and I have to make sure that they are properly labeled and disposed of correctly.  Non-hazardous and universal waste regulations also fall into this realm.  MME doesn't generate a lot of varieties hazardous waste, most of it being from paints and solvents.

The last piece of environmental that I deal with is the air side.  Air regulations are some of the most difficult things to understand and regulate.  I have several binders in my office on Air Regulations due to the Clean Air Act from the EPA and I have wracked my mind over the billion+ acronyms and numbers.  There's a lot of stuff that I don't understand right now, but eventually I'm going to have to know everything that pertains to the aluminum industry, or at least a portion of it.  I've not really got into this much yet, but it's coming so very soon.

The EPA has the authority to wage some monstrous fines on violations, so I'm employed to do the routine checks (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.) to make sure that we catch any problems and get them corrected before anything major happens.  It's a job that keeps me away from my desk for much of the day, and I'm loving it.  The casthouses are awesome, but I'll have to get into those again some other day.

Until then, I must retire.  I get up earlier now and I have an incredible amount of things going on that I can't disclose currently.  Rest assured, though, that I have not forgotten this blog or the Readers of it.  Perchance once Stewartland is out of my hands things'll swing back closer to normalcy.  Here's to hoping.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Children of Odin, a Review

I grew up a fan of Greek mythology, amazed by the esoteric worldviews of long ago. This love crossed over into a few other cultures—Egyptian and Roman mostly—but nothing compared to Greek. As I grew up I began looking to related things: fairy tales, urban legends, and folklore. I loved the language and mood these stories had, and to this day I still enjoy reading these kinds of things. When a friend suggested I read the free Kindle book The Children of Odin I dismissed it, chiefly because it was not on my 2012 Book Manifesto. But the seeds were sewn and soon I was swept away by unfamiliar tales.

The Children of Odin: The Book of Northern Myths (by Padraic Colum) is a collection of Norse mythology. This collection is composed of thirty-six myths and broken down into four parts. This review will discuss each part and what the tales are about as opposed to individually reviewing each story.

The Dwellers in Asgard: Any self-respecting book on mythology will begin at the beginning, and The Children of Odin makes no exception. Here the Reader learns of the Gods of Asgard, of Odin All-Father, Thor, Baldur, Tyr, Freya, Loki, and many more. We learn of the ever-waging war between the Gods and the Giants and the building of the Wall. Many of these names were very familiar (especially to the Final Fantasy gamer, comic book reader, and Neil Gaiman fan), but I knew very little about the Norse Gods. These histories were both fascinating and funny and a great way to start the book.

Odin the Wanderer: At the end of Part One Odin decides to leave Asgard and roam the world. This section deals with Odin's wanderings and the things he sees there. Additionally there are a few very important stories ("The Dwarf's Hoard, and the Curse that It Brought" chiefly) that set up a lot of things for the eventual Ragnarok.

The Witch's Heart: This is the last main section that deals with the Gods. Here we really get into the cunning and deception of Loki, the dreaded fate of Baldur, and all of the implications of these things for Asgard. I really liked this section a lot, especially the stuff concerning Loki's children. This was probably my favorite section of the book.

The Sword of the Volsungs and the Twilight of the Gods: There is a sudden (and unexplained) shift in the focus of the myths here. While the first three parts deal with the Gods of Asgard and mentions little of Man (of Midgard), Part Four deals almost exclusively with Men. This section is basically a life story of Sigurd, the most fearsome and noblest of all warriors. Sigurd is a man of legend and brawn, equipped with a fierce flame sword and a steed from Odin's stock. There are several stories about Sigurd, and I enjoyed them all. They reminded me of medieval knight's tales. This section also finishes the book with "Twilight of the Gods," an eschatological story of death and rebirth.

One thing that stood out to me throughout this book was Colum's propensity to fall into Old English with his characters. There were several times I chuckled due to a particular word choice or phrase structure. I don't think too many people talked in Old English in 1920, though I suppose contemporary literature at the time was a bit dated. Nevertheless, I found these instances funny whenever Colum would drop into Old English. I could just imagine larger than life Norse Gods speaking like Hamlet.

The Children of Odin is a wonderful collection to introduce the Reader to Norse mythology. Some tales could have been better flushed out, but all really fit the mold of classical myths. I very much enjoyed some of the ideas in the mythos (like the serpent that's wrapped around the world) and am interested in pursuing more Norse mythology.  If you've never read any Norse mythology and you've an e-reader then you should definitely check out this free collection. Quite enjoyable and easily recommended.