Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Freedom of a Christian

Today is a bit different. Rather than reviewing a book, I just wanted to reflect on a shorter piece that I read recently.

"The Freedom of a Christian" (1517) by Martin Luther reflects on the place of works and of faith in the Christian life. He begins by outlining why we can never earn our salvation--we are too sinful, and God is too good. Luther then argues for the importance of works, not as a way to earn salvation, but as a way to show our obedience to God and to discipline our more sinful nature.

Luther was a powerful writer. Of course I am familiar with the idea of justification by faith (that we can never earn our salvation; rather, it is a free gift from God) which Luther expounds here, but rarely has it been so comforting and condemning at the same time. I can stop trying to be perfect, because God loves me no matter what; I can stop trying to be perfect, because I cannot earn God's love or salvation.

Luther goes on to discuss the role of good works in a Christian's life. He sees several reasons to pursue good works and virtue, and he speaks firmly of the need for works in a Christian's life. I was struck by the strength of his statements about works for others: "Individuals do not live for themselves alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but they live also for all people on earth; rather, they live only for others and not for themselves" (49). Have I ever viewed my self only as a way to help others? I somehow doubt it. It's challenging. Didn't Jesus do it? If so, we should be inspired to strive for a similar level of dedication and love to others.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I read an abridged version of "The Freedom of a Christian" that is in The Protestant Reformation, a collection of Reformation documents edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Allegiant

Book: Allegiant by Veronica Roth (Divergent, Book 3)

Description: The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered--fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she's known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris's new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature--and of herself--while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: I'll just come right out and say it: I LOVED Allegiant! Yes, there were some aspects of it that I disliked, but overall it felt like a very intense novel that stayed true to its story (more on that later).

Both Tobias and Tris struggle with their own brokenness and inner demons throughout Allegiant. They struggled so hard for what was right and struggled to figure out what that meant and made mistakes. That is probably what made me love Allegiant the most. I loved that both characters really struggled, and struggled realistically with themselves as well as with outside forces. It really focused on the day-to-day nature of all choices and of choosing who you want to be (in that you have to make choices every day and those are truly the choices that define you), which I also loved. I hate books that end with, "Well, the main character made one good choice. Everything will be okay and s/he'll be a great person now!", because that's so not how life works.

Allegiant was the first novel in the series where we get to hear from Tobias's perspective as well as from Tris's. I enjoyed seeing beneath his calm exterior and being able to see his inner demons more and how they affected his everyday life. I really enjoyed getting to see events from both Tris's perspective and Tobias's; it was very interesting. Stylistically, however, it was one of the aspects of the book that I enjoyed least. The switch between the two of them almost always happened every chapter, so that it felt almost mechanical and made it hard to keep track of who was speaking at the moment (how the two of them thought about things was sometimes different, but their style of talking/thinking wasn't at all different).

I will admit, it took me a while to get into the story. Part of that was because I hadn't read Insurgent in a while, and Allegiant jumps right back into the story where Insurgent left off--including the high energy and emotion levels, which I wasn't hyped up to when I started reading. And what they found outside Chicago wasn't at all what I was expecting, which was jarring for a while.

*The next paragraph is about the ending. It contains only minor spoilers, but it's only fair to warn you*

And the ending! It felt very true to all the characters and to the story, I thought. It was such a natural extension of what happened beforehand, and so much more realistic than most other endings.

*end of spoilers*

A great book, and a great conclusion to the Divergent trilogy. I can't wait to see what Veronica Roth will do next!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Crow

Book: The Crow by Alison Croggon (The Third Book of Pellinor)

Description: While Maerad journeys in the far north, her brother, Hem, is sent south to the golden city of Turbansk. There he learns the ways of the Bards and discovers a hidden gift when he rescues a white crow. But when the forces of darkness threaten, Hem flees with his protector, Saliman, and a young orphan girl named Zelika to join the Light's resistance forces. Soon Hem discovers that he, too, has a crucial role to play in the quest to solve the Riddle of the Treesong. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: The Crow is a hard book to review. It's beautifully, beautifully written, but also completely heart-wrenching (I cried twice last time I read it).

The Crow details Hem's journey since he left Maerad in Norloch in The Naming. As such, he begins the novel as a scared boy. Croggon did a wonderful, wonderful job at developing Hem's character as he experiences new places and cultures, sees the joys and sorrows of the world (especially a world at war), and takes part in that world himself. Hem makes a lot of choices--not always good ones, perhaps, but he learns from his mistakes and is always trying to do the right thing.

We also get to see more of the world around Annar, especially Turbansk and its surroundings. We also, for the first time, see Den Raven, the land out of which the Dark forces are coming. It is a land mostly of slaves, oppressed by the dark sorcerers and full of suffering and evil. Croggon never minimizes the suffering that occurs there or that the main characters go through there. Their journey there ends on a mixed note of hope and sadness, and there is a place in the story for the characters to begin to come to terms with what they have experienced and how that has and will change them. I never have the sense that it is a token scene of 'I feel sad because life is awful' that will be followed by the entire episode being forgotten.

Perhaps the only aspect of The Crow that I disliked was the violence and brutality, which I felt was just over the line of decency and necessity. However, it was completely necessary for the plot; it certainly wasn't gratuitous violence added just to have some violence. It was just a tad too much for me.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Outbound Flight

Book: Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

Description: It began as the ultimate voyage of discovery--only to become the stuff of lost Republic legend... and a dark chapter in Jedi history. Now, at last, acclaimed author Timothy Zahn returns to tell the whole extraordinary story of the remarkable--and doomed--Outbound Flight Project.

The Clone Wars have yet to erupt when Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth petitions the Senate for support of a singularly ambitious undertaking. Six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights, and fifty thousand men, women, and children will embark--aboard a gargantuan vessel, equipped for years of travel--on a mission to contact intelligent life and colonize undiscovered worlds beyond the known galaxy. The government bureaucracy threatens to scuttle the expedition before it can even start--until Master C'baoth foils a murderous conspiracy plot, winning him the political capital he needs to set in motion the dream of Outbound Flight.
Or so it would seem. For unknown to the famed Jedi Master, the successful launch of the mission is secretly being orchestrated by an unlikely ally: the evil Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, who has his own reasons for wanting Outbound Flight to move forward... and, ultimately, to fail.
Yet Darth Sidious is not the mission's most dangerous challenge. Once under way, the starship crosses paths at the edge of Unknown Space with the forces of the alien Chiss Ascendency and the brilliant mastermind best known as "Thrawn." Even Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, aboard Outbound Flight with his young Padawan student, Anakin Skywalker, cannot help avert disaster. Thus what begins as a peaceful Jedi mission is violently transformed into an all-out war for survival against staggering odds--and the most diabolical of adversaries.
Timothy Zahn's unique mix of espionage, political gamesmanship, and deadly interstellar combat breathes electrifying life into a Star Wars legend. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: Well... I wouldn't go so far as "breathes electrifying life."

I enjoyed reading about certain characters' stories. Thrawn is always SO much fun to read about. I love watching him figure things out and make brilliant tactical decisions (and yes, I very much enjoy the confusion of everyone around him as well!). He was much more of a free agent here than he was later. Watching Palpatine's/Sidious' machinations was also great fun. I especially enjoyed the fact that one character was working for both Palpatine and Sidious... ah, the irony!

And the ending was a perfect, perfect Star Wars ending. It epitomized why I love Star Wars so much!! *very minor spoiler* It involved amazing self-sacrifice and beating ridiculous odds. What's not to love? *end of spoiler*

Unfortunately I had to read the rest of the book to get to the ending. A huge part of my problem with this book (actually all Star Wars novels set just before and during the Clone Wars) is that I know what's going to happen--maybe not at the end of the book (although this time I did--come on, the book flap tells you that Outbound Flight is doomed!), but certainly in a few years. Somehow, the Emperor will make whatever happens work to his advantage, even when the Jedi feel all accomplished because they've saved something or someone. It's very frustrating!!

But I was curious what happened to Outbound Flight, so I decided to check this out when I saw it at the library. (Maybe from now on I should just read the Wookieepedia page?).

My main problem with Outbound Flight was the characters. ALL of them were stupid and/or annoying!! There was one character that I liked (C'baoth's student, Lorana Jinzler), probably because she actually experienced character development, but everyone else was just frustratingly unintelligent. Obi-Wan was still an awful teacher at this point, and not a very good Jedi; Jorus C'baoth was just incredibly arrogant; the smugglers Qennto, Ferasi, and Car'das seem oddly content to be captured by Thrawn for months on end. I think I would have thrown my copy of this book multiple times if it hadn't been a library book--and I have to be very frustrated to want to throw a book!! Most characters fell flat, which made it very very hard to become invested in the story.

So I clearly didn't enjoy Outbound Flight all that much. It was meant as a light read, and that's what it was (and not a very well-done one, at that). Fans of Zahn's earlier Thrawn trilogy will probably enjoy it; many of the same players are brought in and explored further, but I didn't much enjoy that trilogy and enjoyed Outbound Flight even less.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The documentary hypothesis

Last week I mentioned the documentary hypothesis, which is about how the Bible was formed into its current form. When I was searching for a website to link my more curious readers to, I was surprised by how negatively Christianity seems to view this idea. When I searched for "Documentary Hypothesis", my first two pages of results consisted of the Wikipedia article about the hypothesis and extremely hostile refutations of the hypothesis on Christian websites. Why are Christians so hostile to this idea? And why are those Christians the ones whose websites appear first on a search? I know plenty of Christians for whom the documentary hypothesis is something they have no problem accepting, or at least considering.

Yes, I know the documentary hypothesis is not perfect. There are plenty of things about it that don't make total sense, like why the sources were put together the way they were (why so many duplicates? Did s/he/they really take sentences from two or three sources and smoosh them together?) (here is where wikipedia talks about it). But the basic idea is sound. I trust the people who've thought about it, much more knowledgeably than me. I've read enough about it and seen enough evidence that I'm willing to say that it makes sense and explains a lot (like why have two versions of creation in Genesis 1-2? Why does the same event, like Moses striking the rock to bring forth water, happen so often on the Exodus?).

So why do so many Christians argue so vehemently against the documentary hypothesis? It is jarring to think of the Bible as something written by real people, with their own culture and personalities and sins and situations, and not just as "perfect" and "one unified book". The Bible wasn't just handed down from heaven on a golden platter in its current form; God worked through broken humans to write the Bible, as He does to accomplish anything here on earth. It raises uncomfortable questions--how should I read the Bible? How do I take the original context into account? Does the Bible contain mistakes?

Yes, such questions are uncomfortable. But what is life without questions? I never want to live in a way that I stop asking questions--even when those questions are uncomfortable, even when I'm not sure that I want to know the answers, even when those questions are deeply unsettling and faith-shaking.

God is big enough for my questions.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Inkdeath

Book: Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke (Inkheart trilogy)

Description: The final book in the Inkheart Trilogy, Inkdeath describes Mo's continuing struggle to survive in the Inkworld. The Adderhead is trapped in a painful life because of the magical life-bringing book that Mo made him; Orpheus is becoming rich by using his talented tongue for others; Fenoglio has given up on life in despair; Farid is serving Orpheus in the hope that he will give him his heart's desire; and Mo, Resa, and Meggie live in the forest with the Black Prince and other outlaws as Mo continues to act as the Bluejay.

My Thoughts: As always, Funke writes masterfully. Her descriptions, especially of emotions, are beautiful and gripping. She successfully weaves together many different stories in a way that is not at all confusing (even I didn't have trouble keeping the storylines apart, and I'm awful at names); instead, the different storylines heighten the suspense and allow her to explore many different characters and settings at once.

Inkheart had a lot of elements that I felt reflected back on Christianity in some ways. All three books of the trilogy of full of characters who repeatedly try to force life to turn out how they think it should go, and these attempts always end miserably for them and for those around them. I was intrigued by the theme of authorship throughout Inkheart especially, where the story becomes dark and out-of-control without a good author to guide it in the right direction (I was, however, extremely unhappy with Funke's choice of Author).

All the characters were fully fleshed out and felt real to me, but in the end that was one of the reasons I didn't hugely enjoy Inkheart. Everyone seemed stuck in their old habits, and simply made the same bad choices over and over and over and never seemed to learn. Realistic, perhaps, but also depressing and difficult to read.

One of the few books I've read this year that I didn't particularly like. I'll admit that I read it mostly out of loyalty to the first book, Inkheart (which, by the way, is amazing!), and to Dustfinger. Inkdeath was thought-provoking but extremely difficult to get through.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Riddle

Book: The Riddle by Alison Croggon (The Second Book of Pellinor)

Description: Maerad is a girl with a tragic and bitter past, but her powers grow stronger by the day. Now she and her mentor, Cadvan, hunted by both the Light and the Dark, must unravel the Riddle of the Treesong before their fractured kingdom erupts in chaos. The quest to solve this ancient puzzle lures Maerad ever closer to the seductive Winterking--author of her sorrows and the ally of her most powerful enemy, the Nameless One. Trapped in the Winterking's icy realm, Maerad must acknowledge what she has always suspected--that she is the greatest riddle of all. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: The Riddle has always been my favorite book of the Pellinor series. I relished the chance to reread it.

In many ways The Riddle answers many of the problems I had with The Naming, especially how easily Maerad seems to adjust to her new lifestyle. The Riddle opens and closes with Maerad struggling to deal with her own fears and assumptions and way of thinking, many of which things are heavily influenced by her earlier life as a slave. She struggles against the feeling that she doesn't belong anywhere that she and Cadvan travel to as well as with her feelings of inadequacy and ill-preparedness.

Again, The Riddle is masterfully written. Maerad and Cadvan travel all over the land of Annar and beyond, so that the story has an impressive breadth. Croggon doesn't create any radically new cultures, but each feels unique and authentic. Everything they encounter is beautifully described, and it was a joy to read, as always. Maerad's emotions were described beautifully as well, in a way that truly allows you to enter into her struggles and triumphs.

I was truly struck by a moment in Maerad's lessons, when her teacher tells her, "There is no single truth [...]. But all these truths, woven together, might give us a picture of what is true. That is why it's important to know all the different stories. We can never see all the sky at once." (p. 44) My first reaction was negative--there is only one truth!--but the more I thought about it, the more I was... well, intrigued. Of course it's not the first time I've run across this idea, but I was reading the novel right after reading a similar idea in the Old Testament class. A lot of modern scholarship on the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) is based on the documentary hypothesis, which is that several sources were combined by final editors to create the Pentateuch as we know it today. Our textbook makes the point that the final editors weren't concerned with forcing each of these sources to agree; rather, they wanted to preserve the sacred tradition that each represented.* I interpreted this (quite possibly incorrectly) to mean that the final editors believed that each source contained truth, even if each source also appeared to contradict the other sources; there was a deeper truth that had to be preserved. As I write, I am also reminded of a C. S. Lewis example, of how each person ultimately experiences something of God that is different than what every other person experiences, and so knows God in a different way than any other person.** In both of these examples, I see an acknowledgement of the reality that no one single person (or book, or moment, or...) can perfectly and totally contain and represent the person of our infinite God. That is why different perspectives are so important (otherwise why have four gospels? Why not just one? Why have so many prophets preaching at the same time and the same place?). Each one contains truths--and probably also untruths. It is narrow and arrogant to assume that each person has the same experience (as you) in life, and those different experiences mean that certain truths and perspectives will resonate and make sense and seem more true to some people than they will to others--each person has different passions! But each perspective contains a unique knowledge of an uncontainable, indescribable God.

A wonderful story of maturing, and beautifully written. As always, the Pellinor series is highly recommended!

-----------------------------------------------------------
* Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture. p. 106.
** I'm afraid I have no idea where this example is from. If I had to guess, I would say either Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Long Walk to Freedom

Book: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Country: South Africa

Description: Here Nelson Mandela recounts his life up to the time he voted for the first time (1994). He includes his childhood, time as a lawyer, and his 27 years in prison.

My Thoughts: Long Walk to Freedom was a fascinating read. Mandela was incredibly honest about his regrets, especially that he didn't spend enough time with his family. Of course the perspective is biased, but it is his memoir, after all!

Mandela wrote in a very conversational style which made Long Walk to Freedom easy to read. I'll admit that at first I found it slightly off-putting--he very much tells you what he was feeling at any given time, rather than trying to help you feel what he was feeling--but I suspect that was more of a left-over on my part from reading too many novels. The style worked very well for what he needed to do, which was tell the story of his life.

What I found most powerful was Mandela's descriptions of his childhood and young adulthood. It was during this period that he still thought that whites were superior in every way, and I loved hearing about how he fought against this perception until it was no longer the truth for him that it had once been. It was also something of a shock--I've never thought much about what it would be like to grow up utterly believing that a certain group or race or whatever was so superior. Mandela did a great job describing the process of discovering the lies he'd been told, and I especially liked the little incidents he described that showed this process: the first time he saw a black man stand up to a white man and not be reprimanded, the first time he was humiliated at being sent on an errand by a white man he didn't know (rather than agreeing that he should be sent on errands).

A fascinating book on Mandela's life and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Naming

Book: The Naming by Alison Croggon
(The First Book of Pellinor)

Description: Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child after her family is destroyed in war. She is unaware that she possesses a powerful gift, one that marks her as a member of the School of Pellinor. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true heritage and extraordinary destiny unfold. Now she and her new teacher must survive a journey through a time and place where the dark forces they battle stem from the deepest recesses of otherworldly terror.
(from the book jacket)

My Thoughts: As the description hints at, this is not a fantasy full of superficial happiness and glittery fairies. Croggon does not hesitate to grapple with the evil and cruelty in the world and in the human soul. But if the land of Annar is full of darkness, it also full of equally good, kind people who refuse to be cowed by the darkness around them.

Croggon is a masterful writer; her descriptions of the land and the people Maerad and Cadvan see are gorgeous--so easy to read, and they make everything just seem to jump off the page. She is equally skilled at describing Maerad's emotions. Maerad is one of the few characters I've read, certainly recently, that is realistic in ways that I didn't even think about until Croggon brought them up, things like Maerad having her period or not behaving consistently all the time (sometimes she's afraid and timid, at other times brave; sometimes she's mature beyond her years, at other times she sulks). She's just a person. Other characters, although of course not described in depth, are also well-developed, and in a sense that seems true to life where bits and pieces are revealed over time.

The Naming is the beginning of an epic fantasy series, in the best sense of an epic (it is actually supposedly based on an ancient Annaran epic poem). It draws heavily from Lord of the Rings in some ways, and that's certainly what it reminds me of, but I'll admit that I much prefer this series. Croggon includes multitudes of female characters performing awesome feats but also just living, there's actual character development, and it's a world that is both distant and familiar.

My one complaint against The Naming is how quickly Maerad changes after she is rescued from slavery. She's rescued... and two or three weeks later she's happily learning how to write (which she's amazingly good at) and use a sword at a School, apparently well-adjusted to her new circumstances. A bit far-fetched to me.

Overall, a fantastic fantasy novel with strong but imperfect characters and an enchanting world. Highly recommended!!!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reading quote

"If a man wants to be always in God's company, he must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us."
                      ~Isidore of Seville

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Anna Karenina

I'm so sorry for the long silence!! I hope to actually get back to regularly posting now.

Book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Description: Anna Karenina is the complex story of a group of closely-related people in high Russian society (related by blood, by marriage, and simply by acquaintance). Anna, a married woman, is wooed by Vronsky, breaking Kitty's heart. Anna's sister Dolly is heartbroken by her own husband's affairs. Levin is in love with Kitty but almost too shy to admit it. [Full confession: despite the book's name, all of these people are important! And this is a wholly inadequate description, but I'm not sure how much more I can say without giving anything away.]

My Thoughts: I loved it! Tolstoy's writing powerfully created such realistic characters that I truly felt as if they could just walk off the page. Their thoughts and decision-making processes were so realistic! What created this realism for me was Tolstoy's painstaking attention to every detail about the character: their every movement, action, and thought. At times this became tedious (like real life!), but it always expanded my understanding of the character(s). And an interesting note about Tolstoy's style: unlike the oft-quoted writing commandment to "show, don't tell", Tolstoy tells us huge amounts of information about the characters: what they're doing, what they're feeling, the complicated reasons that they're doing and feeling those things--and it worked!!

A huge part of this realism was the fact that a huge portion of the characters ended up making horrible decisions and being miserable. At times it was difficult to read! It was heart-rending to watch characters change from joyful, moral people to miserable, sinful people, often as a result of one single bad decision that they then repeated and compounded over time.

I know that there were huge parts of Anna Karenina that went over my head. It seems very grounded in a specific time and place in Russian history--a time and place that I know little to nothing about. There were references to religious movements, for instance, that ended up being important, but I didn't understand a lot of the specifics about it. This problem was compounded by the fact that I had to give the beautifully annotated version back to the library and finish with an e-book!

Ultimately, a hugely poignant but also joyful examination of human sinfulness and human strivings for more. I thoroughly enjoyed Anna Karenina, and cannot recommend it enough.


A note on the cover: unfortunately the gorgeous cover above is not the one from the version I read. It's perfect--that is exactly how I imagined Anna. I admit I can't even remember what my cover looked like (a slightly blue-tinted black-and-white photograph? Perhaps of fabric?), so it clearly didn't make a huge impression on me.

Friday, September 27, 2013

O, Jerusalem

Book: O, Jerusalem by Laurie R. King

Country: Israel



Description: O, Jerusalem is the fifth book in an ongoing series about Sherlock Holmes and his student, Mary Russell. They were forced to flee England because of a case there, and take refuge in the Holy Land, acting as spies for Holmes' brother Mycroft while disguised as native Arabs. While there, they begin to discover disturbing patterns, and must discover the mastermind behind these incidents... if they can.

My Thoughts: This should clearly be the point where I admit that I love the Mary Russell series, and that this is most definitely not my first time reading O, Jerusalem. Russell is a fascinating character, if a bit unrealistic for the time: a Jewish feminist Oxford scholar who also works with Sherlock Holmes to solve cases? Ah, well. She's great fun to read about when disbelief is suspended, and snarky to boot.

King is adept at creating a sense of place in her novels. They are some of the few novels I've read where I felt as if I knew more about the setting, almost the feel of the place--probably because Russell and Holmes invariably abandon their high-class clothes and setting and venture out dressed as a true inhabitant would be. And so they visit the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and deserts and cities and monasteries and have entirely different experiences than they would have as tourists. Perhaps that is why I chose to review O, Jerusalem first on my newly-redesigned blog: because it was suffused with a sense of wonder for the Holy Land. Russell is a Jew, after all, and an extraordinarily knowledgeable one at that. O, Jerusalem is full of history of the land of Israel, from early Biblical events up to what was known as the Great War. That knowledge colors her, and therefore our, view of the land she travels through. And the wonder of the Holy Land is what sparked my reread of the book, since it was being covered in my Old Testament class, and I wanted to immerse myself in the land. Although the novel comes from a more secular point of view (there is really no mention of God, or of the possibility of His existence), King clearly respects the history of the land, and I find it a fascinating view of the Holy Land.

Although technically a mystery novel, solving the mystery is second to their travels for most of the book, and it is an odd mix of mystery, adventure, and travel novel. Odd, but certainly enjoyable and well-done.

A perfect novel to curl up with when one wants something light, entertaining, but also educational on the land of Israel.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why am I reading?

These first few weeks of seminary, many professors have brought up the importance of learning for the right reasons: not to know more, but to become closer to God or to know Him more.

Am I reading for that reason?

I wanted to change the focus of the blog--well, really just give it a focus at all. I was hoping to do so this week, but it's clear to me now that I need more time to reflect and pray on it. Bear with me!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Change is in the air!

Changes are coming to Thoughts of a Christian Bibliophile, rather extensive ones possibly including a new name for the blog. Certainly they will include a new posting schedule and a more focused theme. Stay tuned! The new site will premiere next Monday.

          ~Alina

Monday, September 9, 2013

Books!

No book review today. Instead I'm just going to ramble a bit.


______________________________________________________

Today I was reading a book for class about the history of Christian spiritual disciplines. The author was listing off person after person after person who had written books during the early Christian period, probably up to 4 or 5 AD. I had heard of almost none of them (except Augustine), and I was just so overwhelmed at how many books must exist in the world, in so many languages and from so many times. That is both the blessing and the curse of reading: the ability to read what was left behind by people from other places and times, but also the knowledge that it is impossible to read it all, impossible to read even a decent chunk of it.

Perhaps that is why I read so many different types of books, from so many different times. I do not want to limit myself to one time or place or person or genre. There are so many possibilities!



It's also a sobering thought. I could spend every second of my life reading and never read nearly as much as I'd like to. There would still be so much that I hadn't read! However much I try to discover and experience, there will always be more. It's both exciting and sobering.

What's truly exhilarating, however, is the fact that God knows what's in every book, because He was there when it was being written. He is infinite, He is everywhere, He is amazing and awesome and all-knowing, and it's days like this that I love Him in ways that I can't explain or describe.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A to Z Bookish Survey

I saw this on Bibliotropic (although it was originally from The Perpetual Page-Turner) and thought it looked like so much fun!

Author you've read the most books from:
Probably Agatha Christie. Since I've been keeping track, though (since fall 2011) it's been J. K. Rowling.

Best sequel ever:
Hm... this is a tough one! Probably The Riddle by Alison Croggon. It was my favorite book of the Pellinor series.

Currently reading:
The Bible, of course (always!). I just started Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I'm also working my way, very slowly, through The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and The Song of the Nibelungs.

Drink of choice while reading:
I much prefer water. So refreshing! Only if it is cold and/or dreary out (or if I'm sick) will I prefer tea.

E-reader or physical book?
Physical book! I love having a real book in my hands, and I love the physical act of turning pages. It is also so much easier to flip back and review sections you've forgotten in a physical book. Oh, I also love the smell of the paper in a book, and the different textures of the pages. The physical book, for me, shapes the feel I have going into a book. My copy of The Neverending Story, for instance, was gorgeously illustrated, and that made it so much easier to start reading it with such a sense of wonder.

The one exception is long classics. While I still prefer reading from a physical book, it's easier to read a digital copy if I don't actually own one, since reading a book like Anna Karenina in the three week loan period is not possible while I'm in school (although I gave it a good go!). I mention classics specifically since most of them are available for free on Project Gutenberg. :)

Fictional character you probably would have actually dated in high school:
I have absolutely no idea. I didn't date in high school!

Glad you gave this book a chance:
Divergent. I was feeling very anti-YA lit just then, and it seemed like just another YA book. Thankfully it wasn't!

Hidden gem book:
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. I say it's a hidden gem not because it's an obscure book (it's pretty well-known, I think) but because it doesn't sound nearly as good as it is (it's a book about exploitation and genocide in the Belgian Congo. I know it doesn't get much more depressing than that, but it was also inspiring. Hochschild told the stories of those who fought against the injustice, and always clearly condemns the horror of the regime).

Important moment in your reading life:
Definitely the moment that I realized that reading could be done for the glory of God and to know Him better. It wasn't a moment so much as a long, slow realization, however.

Just finished:
Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke. As always, she was a masterful writer, and thankfully it was much better than the second one.

Kind of book you won't read:
Most romance books. Horror novels, math books.

Longest book I've read:
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Major book hangover because of:
I'm not sure what a 'book hangover' is...

Number of bookcases you own:
Three, but such a small number is only possible because so many of my books are away from home with me at seminary.

Okay, I also prefer to get a book from the library before committing to buying it.

One book you have read multiple times:
Since it's impossible to pick only one (I love rereading good books!), I'm going to pick the ones that I've reread the most often. I've reread the first three Harry Potter novels easily twenty times each (I used to get super into them when I was eleven and twelve), especially Prisoner of Azkaban. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is probably the next closest, with probably ten rereads. For whatever reason, every spring for at least eight years I would have the very strong desire to reread it, plus I reread it a few times to write a paper on it.

Preferred place to read:
Sitting on my bed, or perhaps a couch or armchair. I love to read sitting cross-legged, which is easiest to do on my bed.

Quote that inspires/gives the feels:
"For the Lord stood by me and gave me strength" (2 Timothy 4:17) has been really inspirational for me lately.

Reading regret:
That I have read very little true science fiction (just Star Wars novels and I, Robot). I would love to read more of Isaac Asimov, and start authors like Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams.

Series you started and need to finish:
I honestly can't think of the last series that I started. I've been pretty into stand-alone novels lately.

Three of your all time favorite books:
Ahh!! Okay... The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover, and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Unapologetic fangirl for:
Star Wars, both the (original) films and the book series set in the twenty or so years after the (original) films. Star Trek (the original series and Deep Space 9, mostly). Harry Potter!

Very excited for this release:
Allegiant by Veronica Roth. The two earlier books in the series, Divergent and Insurgent, were probably my favorite YA books of the year, and Veronica Roth is probably my favorite author as a person. She is Christian without shoving it down her readers' throats and without writing anything Christian, but also a good witness.

Worst bookish habit:
Definitely my unreasonable expectations of myself. There are twenty-two books on the list I made of books I'd like to read in the next year (not including seminary readings).

X marks the spot: Start at top left and pick the 27th book on your shelf:
They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie.

Your latest book purchase:
Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality by Bradley P. Holt, but that was for school. My last purchase for myself... wow, I'm not sure I can remember (I rarely actually buy books). Oh yeah! I bought All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology by ValĂ©rie Chansigaud and A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare at an overstock sale.

Zzz-snatcher book:
Any Harry Potter book, especially the last two. Recently also God at War by Gregory Boyd and the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer. Really, anything that's well-written and gripping will keep me up, especially if I'm feeling rebellious and don't feel like sleeping.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Scribbling in the Sand

Book: Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity by Michael Card

Description: In this book Michael Card explores the biblical foundations of true Christian creativity. Whether we think of ourselves as creative or not, all of us are created in the image of our Creator God, and thus creativity is a vital expression of our discipleship. With Jesus as his model, Card shows how understanding God's creative imagination leads to a lifestyle of humility, obedience and servanthood. And he invites us to follow God's creative call through worship and community. (from michaelcard.com)

My Thoughts: What a wonderful book!

Scribbling in the Sand is meant as a book to induce thought, not necessarily as a way to encourage creativity. Card spends the first part of the book describing Biblical instances of creativity (Adam naming the animals, Jesus' creativity in his ministry, the prophets and poetry...), which I really enjoyed. He then described several traits that any Christian artist should have. This section challenged me a lot and made me think about so many things, because these traits were exactly the traits that any Christian should have: humility, servanthood, obedience, love. The fact of being an artist is not the thing that defines any Christian artist; rather, their identity as a child of God and everything that implies (humility, etc.) is what defines any Christian artist. The 'Christian' is the important part, not the 'artist.'

The other of Card's points that really, really struck me was that any art that we create, however good or bad, however many people do or don't see/read/hear it, is worship. Art, in its purest form, is a form of worship of God. Why else would we use music in worship services? Why else would the psalmists and prophets speak in poetry (and probably accompanied by music)?

As an artist (I write), I enjoyed and struggled with this book. I have always struggled with finding a proper balance between my writing and God; it is so easy for me to fantasize uncontrollably about my stories and forget the God who is the ultimate Creator and Author (I've written a lot about it on my blog A Light to My Path, especially this post from a little more than a year ago). And so I immensely enjoyed and was challenged by Scribbling in the Sand: it painted a picture of what my writing could be while highlighting all the places I've fallen short. It gave me hope.

Perhaps the section that I most enjoyed was the last one, where Card included letters from various famous Christian artists about their views of art and artists in relation to Christ and His mission. I loved their advice and wisdom.

Incredibly highly recommended to anyone who sees themselves as a Christian artist of any kind--and perhaps even to those Christians who don't see themselves that way, because Scribbling in the Sand was so much more about Christianity than it was about creativity. That was rather the point of the book--our Christianity is so much more important than our creativity, even if the two are intertwined.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Gospel of Ruth

Book: The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James

Description: Traditionally, the book of Ruth is viewed as a beautiful love story between the submissive Ruth and Boaz, the Kinsman Redeemer. But when author Carolyn Custis James began digging deeper, she found startling revelations. Three lives converge in a powerful alliance that transforms their lives and changes the world. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz discover God makes much of broken lives, that he calls men and women to serve him together, and that he's counting on his daughters to build his kingdom. (Back of the book)

My Thoughts: The Gospel of Ruth was an excellent, excellent book, written passionately, thoughtfully, and knowledgeably. As a woman, I deeply appreciated her candid, well-researched look at women and their place in God's kingdom, as examined in the book of Ruth, as well as her own honesty with the reader.

James provides excellent historical and cultural context to help readers understand what was truly going on in the book of Ruth, such as the true desperation of widowhood in Biblical times (and in many patriarchal societies today) and how little power women had in such societies. Her explanations deeply richened and changed my understanding of the book of Ruth and of the lives of all women in the Bible.

The Gospel of Ruth argues against the idea that the book of Ruth is just a romance; instead, James views it as a story of suffering and passionate seeking after God. I especially appreciated that she didn't shy away from the suffering of most of the characters in Ruth or try to minimize it in any way--Ruth having a new husband at the end if the story doesn't lessen the loss and pain of the death of her first husband, or eliminate the memory and pain of her earlier hard times in Bethlehem. James also didn't shy away from the suffering in her own life, opening up about several difficult times in her own life.

Finally, The Gospel of Ruth was a passionate cry for women to be a part of God's kingdom and God's redemption of our broken, fallen world. He loves us and calls us to be a part of His purposes just as much as any man.

A beautiful, well-written book about women and men, and their place in the Kingdom of God. I literally enjoyed The Gospel of Ruth so much that I read it in three days, and I can't wait to read more of James' books. I so highly recommend it!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Eternity Code

Once again, I would like to apologize for not posting last week. End-of-summer laziness caught up to me. I can't wait to go back to school!

Book: The Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer

Description: Artemis Fowl is going straight. As soon as he pulls off the most brilliant criminal feat of his career.

At least, that’s the plan when he attempts to sell his C Cube, a supercomputer built from stolen fairy technology. When his efforts to broker a deal for the Cube with a powerful businessman go terribly wrong, his loyal bodyguard and friend Butler is mortally injured. The only thing that will save him is fairy magic, so once again he must contact his old rival, Holly Short. (from Amazon.com)


My Thoughts: I've loved the Artemis Fowl series for a long time (although less so the last three books--the first four or five books are the best), and The Eternity Code is my favorite of the series.

The Eternity Code is the best of Artemis Fowl. There's lots of witty dialogue and narration, plus a healthy dose of satire aimed at anyone who takes him- or herself too seriously. I love... well, all the characters, actually. Holly and Butler are both kick-butt awesome, Artemis is intelligent and sarcastic, Foaly is just such a smart-aleck... ah, I love them all!

I think I also enjoy The Eternity Code because it is the first book where we see Artemis begin to become less of a robot. In the first two books he mainly wants things for himself, normally ridiculously greedy things (like a ton of gold bars), and only occasionally do we see a nicer side of him. In The Eternity Code, however, he is working entirely for the good of others throughout the book.

Also, I have such a weakness for clever thief stories, and this is a great one. The plot is intelligent and well put-together, and the villain is entertainingly evil and smart.

A fun, entertaining read with a smart plot, and fast-paced enough to keep anyone glued to the pages.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Wind in the Door

Book: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle

Published: 1973

Description: It is November. When Meg comes home from school, Charles Wallace tells her he saw dragons in the twin’s vegetable garden.  That night Meg, Calvin and C.W. go to the vegetable garden to meet the Teacher (Blajeny) who explains that what they are seeing isn’t a dragon at all, but a cherubim named Proginoskes.  It turns out that C.W. is ill and that  Blajeny and Proginoskes are there to make him well – by making him well, they will keep the balance of the universe in check and save it from the evil Echthros.  

Meg, Calvin and Mr. Jenkins (grade school principal) must travel inside C.W. to have this battle and save Charles’ life as well as the balance of the universe. (from amazon.com)

My Thoughts: I read A Wind in the Door at a point in my life when I was feeling very depressed and alone, and it was such a perfect balm for my mood that I read it through the night. It's a beautiful novel of fighting against the darkness no matter what--even when you don't understand. Obedience to what you know is right and what those above you (arguably God in this novel, although He's never explicitly mentioned) say needs to be done was a huge theme running through this book, a theme that I needed to hear.

I loved L'Engle's portrayal of science in A Wind in the Door. Science was something worth pursuing, something that could be used to further our understanding of the world (something that was portrayed as a worthy goal in and of itself). The existence of cherubim and all manner of other "supernatural" beings was never portrayed as contradictory to science, but actually complemented it and made it a more complete picture of the world. If only science was always viewed that way!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Meaningful World

Sorry for the delay on posting this! Quite honestly, summer is getting to me and I'm feeling rather lazy. 

Book: A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt

Description: Meaningful or meaningless? Purposeful or pointless? When we look at nature, whether at our living earth or into deepest space, what do we find? In stark contrast to contemporary claims that the world is meaningless, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt reveal a cosmos charged with both meaning and purpose. Their journey begins with Shakespeare and ranges through Euclid's geometry, the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, the periodic table of the elements, the artistry of ordinary substances like carbon and water, the intricacy of biological organisms, and the irreducible drama of scientific exploration itself. Along the way, Wiker and Witt fashion a robust argument from evidence in nature, one that rests neither on religious presuppositions nor on a simplistic view of nature as the best of all possible worlds. In their exploration of the cosmos, Wiker and Witt find all the challenges and surprises, all of the mystery and elegance one expects from a work of genius. (from Amazon.com)

My Thoughts: I loved this book. In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I love reading books about creation and evolution and the natural world, and this is one of the best that I've read, both in terms of content and in terms of the quality of writing.

Wiker and Witt took a unique approach to the problem of creationism vs. naturalism, one that is based less on science but is nonetheless perfectly valid: if the universe was created, it must have been created by a genius, and the universe would therefore have the marks of genius just like any other great work of art. Most people can agree, I think, that the universe is beautiful and intricate, at the very least; most would consider it a work of art even if they don't believe in a Creator.

What a beautiful approach!

Wiker and Witt began by examining genius in human art, namely Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Tempest, and then examined several aspects of our universe to show how they exhibit markers of genius just as the plays Hamlet and The Tempest do as well. It would be ridiculous to think that Shakespeare created each of his plays by randomly putting one letter in front of another for a hundred plus pages; how much more ridiculous is it to think of our universe, then life coming together one molecule at a time? Perhaps the most interesting argument made in favor of design was the existence of science as it does: in each discipline, the matter under study is simple enough for the first scientists to eventually discover the basics of that discipline, but the farther they delve into the subject, the more complex it becomes. If the universe was random, wouldn't at least some disciplines have complex basic rules, making it difficult to impossible for scientists to understand?

Wiker and Witt also spent a great deal of time discussing postmodernism (and to a lesser degree naturalism), drawing it out to its logical conclusion of utter meaninglessness for everything in the universe. I thought that they pounded this topic too much; it may be the logical conclusion of these philosophies, but few if any scientists (or people, for that matter) think them through so coherently. Few scientists (or people) believe in utter meaninglessness. On the other hand, it is important to realize that it is what they ultimately point to.

Perhaps my only other criticism was that Wiker and Witt dissed Charles Darwin way too much for my tastes--but then, I like Darwin. I thought they treated Darwin as if he had purposefully created a theory that argued that the world was meaningless and random, and I don't think that's true. He simply argued for a theory that does not, after a shallow examination, appear to require a Creator.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Book: Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

Description: Imagine that all fantasy novels—the ones featuring dragons, knights, wizards, and magic—are set in the same place. That place is called Fantasyland. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is your travel guide, a handbook to everything you might find: Evil, the Dark Lord, Stew, Boots (but not Socks), and what passes for Economics and Ecology. (from amazon.com)

My Thoughts: I thought it would be fun to continue the theme of last Monday's post (that is, books that poke fun at fantasy/fairy tale cliches) with Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Rather than satirizing simply fairy tale tendencies, however, it satirizes the cliches of the fantasy genre.

Jones exposes many of the cliches of fantasy writing, and many of its flaws. She points out a lot of common plot holes (or just illogical but accepted conventions) of fantasy. This book is often recommended to potential authors, so they don't fall into many of the common plot holes and cliches in their books.

I'll admit that I don't actually read that much fantasy literature, and I still thought Tough Guide to Fantasyland was hilarious. I've read enough to know that Jones's characterization is pretty accurate.

I'll also admit that I read Tough Guide to Fantasyland is almost one sitting, and wished that I hadn't. In small doses, it's a hilarious book; in large doses, I was reminded of C. S. Lewis's words on laughter and jokes (I believe in The Screwtape Letters), where some builds up and some tears down. In small chunks, Jones's writing comes across as playful and well-meaning ribbing at a genre that Jones knows and loves; in larger chunks, it came across much more as humor that was simply jaded and trying to tear everything down.

One final warning: there are a fair number of references to sex and demons/gods, in a very light, witty manner that grated after a while. Recommended, but with caution.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dealing with Dragons

Book: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Description: Cimorene is everything a princess is not supposed to be: headstrong, tomboyish, smart. . . .

And bored. So bored that she runs away to live with a dragon . . . and finds the family and excitement she's been looking for. (from amazon.com)

My Thoughts: Dealing with Dragons was a super-fun book! Quite honestly, I loved it. It had a quiet sense of humor; Wrede pokes quite a lot of fun at what "should" happen in fairy tales, and often how ridiculous it is (or can be, when taken literally). Wrede also does a good job at creating a world where the rules of fairy tales are the rules of life; things like fairy godmothers, beautiful but empty-headed princesses, talking frogs, quests, and the youngest son being the sensible and honest one of the family are simply accepted facts of life.

The other aspect of Dealing with Dragons that I absolutely loved was Princess Cimorene herself: she was an intelligent and sensible heroine, a joy to read about--it was a relief to not spend a book waiting anxiously for the main character to learn some common sense. The other characters were also great to read about. There was a nice mix of the quirky, the normal, and the very obtuse. My only complaint was that all the "good" characters had no faults, and all the "bad" characters had no redeeming or even vaguely nice traits.

A fun book to read when you're looking for some light afternoon or summer reading.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Life of Galileo

Play: Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht

Description: Arguably Brecht's greatest play, A Life of Galileo charts the seventeenth century scientist's extraordinary fight with the church over his assertion that the earth orbits the sun.The figure of Galileo, whose ‘heretical’ discoveries about the solar system brought him to the attention of the Inquisition, is one of Brecht’s more human and complex creations. Temporarily silenced by the Inquisition’s threat of torture, and forced to abjure his theories publicly, Galileo continues to work in private, eventually smuggling his work out of the country. (from Amazon.com)


My Thoughts: This was an interesting, thought-provoking play. I'm not sure how many of the ideas within I agreed with, but it was an excellent play for forcing me to think about what I believed about what was happening. 


My first thoughts about Galileo: he was a scientist who wanted to discover things about the world, full of optimism but also impracticality. Galileo didn't care at all that no one really wanted to know about what he was trying to discover. He refused to design useful things or take on students, and yet he somehow expected to live a lavish, comfortable lifestyle full of wine, good food, and good clothes. Oh, and he was consistently a jerk to his daughter. So I had mixed feelings about Galileo (although he did seem incredibly human).



Part of what made this play so interesting was that I could sympathize with everyone to some extent. Galilei was portrayed as a genius who ultimately just couldn't stop thinking about his discoveries (which is something I can relate to); the women around Galilei were loyal and kind; Galileo's students had a great desire for scientific truth and discovery that they refused to compromise. Even the Church men, who wanted Galilei to not publish or discover, came across as understandable to me. I'm not even sure why--they refused to even begin to think of their faith in a different way, and they ultimately force Galileo, on pain of torture and death, to recant (i.e. lie) just so they can feel better. It was like I could understand why they did it and their struggle to reconcile this new fact and their beliefs, even if I disagree with their solution. Being so closed-minded that you would rather kill than consider that you might be even slightly wrong is evil and wrong. Was Galileo right to look into the structure of the solar system? How does that knowledge help us?

What is the point of scientific discovery? It helps us discover more about God's world, which tells us more about God--but it ultimately leads to awful inventions like the atom bomb. It leads to people questioning God and unable to see Him. And yet God calls us to search for truth. The world is broken and fallen; is it any wonder that anything we discover, however good it may be, becomes twisted and used for evil?


Life of Galileo really made me think, and for that reason I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Harry Potter conclusion

I wanted to conclude Harry Potter month by making some observations about the Harry Potter series and its Christian content.

One of the amazing and unique aspects of the Harry Potter series is how the novels change with Harry and his friends. The series begins with a ten-year-old Harry who is innocent and in many ways ignorant (in the best sense of the word) and ends with a mature seventeen-year-old Harry who is knowledgeable of the ways of the world without being influenced by what he knows, as Christians are called to be ("wily as a serpent, innocent as a dove"), and knowledgeable about greater truths such as love and sacrifice. Rowling's writing style changes and develops with Harry, as does the structure of the books. As Harry grows, the novels become longer and more mature in content. They begin as relatively simple school stories with a few interesting twists (magic, Voldemort's lurking presence) and end as complex, mature stories of the true nature of reality and of the struggle of good versus evil, with a sensible progression from one extreme to the other.

Rowling's writing style changes as Harry does. She improves tremendously as a writer through the series, becoming much less dependent on simply telling the reader what each character appears to be feeling (although this style worked extremely well for the more satirical nature of the earlier books). She tells the reader outright less and less what Harry and his friends are feeling, with the result that it is easier and easier to sympathize with their feelings, become engaged in them, and feel their emotions yourself. As Harry and his readers mature, Rowling also moves away from simply satirizing human nature to attempting to understand why characters behave the way they do. In earlier books, the Dursleys, the Malfoys, Snape, and others are portrayed simply as hilariously awful people whose antics are entertaining; by later books, the motives of these characters have been discovered and explored. While this of course does not excuse their abhorrent behavior, it does create a certain amount of compassion for what they have gone through and why they have become the people they have become.

Something that Rowling does strongly throughout the series has to do with the morals of her stories. These morals are rarely verbalized (and normally by Dumbledore); rather, the reader is left to infer for him- or herself that it is wrong to bully, oppress, torture, hate, and so on. Prejudice and oppression are strongly condemned through despised characters such as Dolores Umbridge, as well as through acquaintance with those who are oppressed even before Voldemort returns, such as Remus Lupin, Rubeus Hagrid, Dobby, Kreacher, and perhaps even Hermione. Hagrid especially may not have had much formal schooling, but he has a huge heart that is in the right place. He is always determined to see the best in everyone and every creature (no matter how spiny, scaly, toothy, hairy, or blood-thirsty), so trusting and generous with his time, and so determined to do what he wants no matter what others think in a way that is so reminiscent of God and His best warriors here on earth. Judgments based on worldly values such as appearance or societal status are invariably wrong. This rule (show rather than tell) applies to Harry's behavior as well; he often makes bad choices that are not outright condemned, but often these behaviors are subtly punished. They are not always punished, however, and sometimes his morally wrong choices are portrayed as 'right given the situation'--a weakness of the series.

Another strength of the series, which I have touched on before, is how well Rowling builds the wizarding world around us through the years. She includes incredible amounts of detail throughout the books about both the world itself and its characters, details that weren't strictly necessary but make the world much richer and easier to imagine. She also includes an incredible amount of detail that is mentioned briefly but ends up being important later (this especially comes together in Deathly Hallows), and the amount of plotting that must have gone on before writing began is impressive.

Magic per se may not be Christian, but the Harry Potter series is. It's full of Christian symbols and symbolism, such as phoenixes and unicorns and symbolic (or actual) deaths and resurrections. Harry always receives help in his final battles--he is never able to achieve anything alone. Only with help (always from either Dumbledore or a proxy of Dumbledore) is Harry able to survive and succeed, and he is only ever able to reach the end of the book well-prepared through the help of friends. It's a wonderful representation of the Church and Christian life--no one can prevail against sin without help from both God and others.

Finally, I would like to point out how impressive a feat the Harry Potter series is. I love almost every character, and I cry every time I read Deathly Hallows--something I can say of no other book or movie. I cannot recommend this series enough, perhaps especially to Christians.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Description: WE NOW PRESENT THE SEVENTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT IN THE EPIC TALE OF HARRY POTTER. (book flap)

My Thoughts: Wow. Just wow.

Deathly Hallows is such a well-written, beautiful story. It is the story of Harry and his friends changing from school-aged young adults to true adults as they are forced to deal with the horror and cruelty of Voldemort's rule while racing to destroy him. It is the story of a people faced with unimaginable darkness that chooses to fight back no matter the cost. It is a story of hope and hopelessness, trust and friendship and love, good and evil. It is a masterpiece.

You may think I'm being dramatic. Well, maybe I am. But this is by far the best-written Harry Potter book, the most complex and beautiful. It's the only book I've ever read where I cried, not only the first time I read it, but every single time I have read it. In fact, every time I cry more rather than less. It is one of those amazing books that improves and expands with rereads rather than becoming flattened and boring.

Deathly Hallows is a complex novel. As I mentioned, it is much more adult in theme than any previous Harry Potter novel. The themes are similar to those dealt with throughout the series-- friendship, love, trust, good and evil, hope, family--but they are dealt with in much more depth and maturity than ever before. Harry discovers more about his family, Voldemort, and Dumbledore (an aspect of the novel that I especially enjoyed).

Deathly Hallows is also the most overtly Christian novel of the series. Most discussions of this aspect of the novel focus on the end, where Harry willingly dies to save everyone at Hogwarts and his sacrifice prevents Voldemort from being able to enchant them in any way. Yes, it is very Christian, but what really struck me as Christian were two other aspects of Deathly Hallows. The first was the emphasis on doing what was right, no matter what, without losing hope and without fearing death. The second was Harry's struggle to come to terms with Dumbledore's mission for him (destroying Voldemort). Harry doubts Dumbledore and what he has asked him to do, despite everything that Dumbledore has done for him and shared with him in the past. Harry struggles especially after the true reality of the situation sinks in: the seeming impossibility of his task, difficulties getting along with his friends, loneliness, the reality of Voldemort's regime, worry about friends and family left behind, and physical discomforts. The first time I realized how much like it was like my relationship was God--its difficulties, my struggles, God's trust--was when Harry makes the irrevocable decision to trust Dumbledore's judgement despite his doubts and despite the many logical reasons to go against Dumbledore's wishes. It's a truly beautiful scene when he makes the final decision to trust, especially because it comes after an emotional episode where the ultimate trust and loyalty were shown by multiple people. It truly seemed as if their courage inspired Harry to make the final step of faith.

This is a book with a very stark portrayal of the results of evil, especially the emotional results. Again, Rowling shows her mastery of writing emotions that can be truly felt by the reader. There is very little graphic violence, although much is alluded to; this is the first Harry Potter novel to contain swearing, but still few, far between, and choice. However, Deathly Hallows is stark and realistic without being hopeless; in fact, I'm not sure I've ever read a more hopeful novel. Rowling acknowledges that defying evil can be difficult and painful, but shows that it is absolutely the right choice and that one should never lose hope. She does an excellent job at showing that death is not what should be feared; rather, evil and its results should be.

The final scenes of the novel are beautiful, beautiful and tragic. Almost everyone we know fights in the final battle against Voldemort and his forces, and it is one of the best battle scenes I've ever read. The sense of hopelessness, the courage of everyone who fights, everyone's determination to do what is right no matter the consequences, the losses suffered, the tragedy, the evil against which they fight--all are palpable and combine to create a truly wonderful battle scene. I cry every time.

As the conclusion of the series, many questions from earlier books are answered. Many characters who were previously seen as evil or at least unpleasant receive grace and redemption. A few of these characters have their motives and actions explained without making them more acceptable. Rowling strives for understanding of the humanity of many characters. Harry rises to the occasion every time and reaches out to offer kindness and another chance. He has truly grown into a loving human being. Although he makes mistakes, he continues to learn from his mistakes. Ron and Hermione grow much more noticeably as well, learning to trust and offer kindness and forgiveness as well.

A wonderful conclusion to the Harry Potter series that is masterfully written and plotted. It was a joy to watch Harry and his friends complete their metamorphosis into strong, caring people and their quest to destroy Voldemort. A strong call to stand against the darkness, no matter the cost, because there is always hope.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Book: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

Description: The war against Voldemort is not going well; even Muggle governments are noticing. Ron scans the obituary pages of the Daily Prophet, looking for familiar names. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses.

And yet...

As in all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate--and lose a few eyebrows in the process. The Weasley twins expand their business. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Classes are never straightforward, though Harry receives some extraordinary help from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince.

So it's the home front that takes center stage in the multilayered sixth installment of the story of Harry Potter. Here at Hogwarts, Harry will search for the full and complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort--and thereby find what may be his only vulnerability. (book flap)

My Thoughts: An incredible improvement over Order of the Phoenix. Harry has learned from the mistakes he made then and developed into a more mature person; although he continues to become angry and make mistakes, he also makes much more of an effort to control his emotions and to learn from what has happened to him in the past. One of the first things he says in the book, for instance, is about how he has dealt with the events at the end of Order of the Phoenix: rather than moping and fuming, as he did after the events of the fourth book, he says that he has realized that he cannot allow himself to drown in his sorrow, but must get on with his life. (Obviously this is a rough paraphrase) This is not merely something Harry says, but also something Harry acts upon on his own life, and the fact that he can talk about and have such mature attitudes shows how he has grown.

Half-Blood Prince is a fascinating book. Dumbledore plays a much larger role (and he's back to his normal self!), and he and Harry spend a lot of time exploring Voldemort's past. These journeys into the past are some of the best scenes of the book, and some of the few times where Rowling exercises her sharp wit against any particular person; as the series has become more serious and nuanced, so have her portrayals of individual characters. Perhaps the only exception to this trend is Voldemort (although he was never an object of ridicule); Voldemort's past shows him to have been consistently evil. I suppose it's in keeping with his role in the story of personifying evil. Is there ever anyone who has absolutely no glimmer of goodness inside them?

Both the beginning and end of Half-Blood Prince are great. It begins with the Muggle (non-magical) prime minister meeting with the Minister of Magic, and was a wonderful return to Rowling's satirical style. And not to give anything away about the ending, but it was fantastic. The creepiness is just palpable, the final conclusion tragic, and all is masterfully written. I cry literally every time I read it.

There's also a few really interesting side-stories. The first is about trust: Harry discovers a book that has been written in by a previous owner and begins to trust what is written in the book. As in Chamber of Secrets, the idea of trust in a book is brought up. How should we decide what books we trust? When should we stop trusting a book? The second is about Malfoy: Harry becomes obsessed with discovering what Malfoy may or may not be up to. Everyone around him tells him that it's fine, but Harry refuses to believe them. Yet his obsession accomplishes nothing, and Dumbledore had the situation under control. There were better ways for Harry to have been spending his time, but he refuses to trust Dumbledore (who tells him, several times, that it's nothing that Harry needs to worry about). How often do people do that to each other? It's also an interesting twist on earlier plots: in the first four books of the series, Harry's desire to know what was going on always led him to greater knowledge and helped save the day. However, in each of these books Harry was encouraged and supported by Dumbledore, although he often didn't know it until the end of the year.

The beginning of Rowling's wonderfully written and more mature books in the Harry Potter series. One of my favorites.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Book: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Description: There is a door at the end of a silent corridor. And it's haunting Harry Potter's dreams. Why else would he be waking in the middle of the night, screaming in terror?

Harry has a lot on his mind for this, his fifth year at Hogwarts: a Defense against the Dark Arts teacher with a personality like poisoned honey; a big surprise on the Gryffindor Quidditch team; and the looming terror of the Ordinary Wizarding Level exams. But all these things pale next to the growing threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named--a threat that neither the magical government nor the authorities at Hogwarts can stop.

As the grasp of darkness tightens, Harry must discover the true depth and strength of his friends, the importance of boundless loyalty, and the shocking price of unbearable sacrifice.

His fate depends on them all. (book flap)

My Thoughts: Order of the Phoenix is a long litany of Harry's poor choices. He is angry, impatient, and entitled, which is mostly a result of his horrific experiences at the end of the fourth book and his knowledge that Voldemort has returned (although the fact that he is now fifteen probably doesn't help, either). While I would have been disappointed in Rowling if Harry hadn't reacted at all to what happened in Goblet of Fire, the reaction she chose makes Harry into a character that it is almost impossible to like (to be fair, however, this was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager. I think then I had a lot more anger than I realized, and I enjoyed reading about Harry's anger and how he actually expressed it (even if it wasn't in good ways). Perhaps I just find Harry unbearable now because I'm sick of the endless emotions in myself and find antagonism of authorities much less amusing).

I don't think Harry ever learns to control his anger in this book; he just continues to allow it to rule his emotions and his decisions, despite a series of wrong choices that he makes because of his anger. Harry absolutely has good reasons to be angry: Voldemort has returned to power and Harry saw it happen, the wizarding world has decided that it doesn't believe him and that he is unbalanced and possibly insane, and he is surrounded by cruel and unfair teachers who continue to gain power through the book despite their cruelty and/or complete lack of teaching ability. Although Harry is often punished by teachers for those decisions based on anger, it is always by the extraordinarily unlikable teachers mentioned above, and they always assign punishments that are completely out of proportion with Harry's actions. Harry's bad decisions often don't seem that bad because they're so funny and we as readers so hate those he is acting against. By the end of the book he has learned the consequence of his anger to a certain extent, as Harry's inability to control his emotions and thoughts leads to some truly awful consequences, but he has not learned control.

Order of the Phoenix does showcase Rowling's ability to write emotions well, in a way that comes across to the reader. Harry's anger is palpable, especially at the beginning of the book and a few choice events at Hogwarts where Harry becomes especially angry and various other characters become especially antagonistic. Harry's grief at various events is also palpable (I cried).

Order of the Phoenix is the longest Harry Potter book, and it would have improved significantly with more editing. Although there are some truly fantastic scenes (*spoiler alert* I am especially fond of the scene where Fudge tries to arrest Dumbledore and the scene where Dumbledore and Voldemort duel *end spoilers*) as well as some interesting ones (most of Harry's time at the Dursley's, the visit to St. Mungo's Hospital), there are also plenty of boring and pointless ones. It is the only Harry Potter book that was not that enjoyable to reread.

Finally, Dumbledore was written completely out of character for the entire book. I understand that Rowling is trying to make Dumbledore seem more human, but in Order of the Phoenix all his "human" behavior is very unintelligent, very short-sighted, and very unlike Dumbledore.

You may have noticed that this is the first Harry Potter book that I've classified as a young adult book rather than a children's book. Of course the line between the two can get fuzzy, and the entire series is always to be found in the children's section of a bookstore or library (something I think is a mistake--books six and seven especially are way too mature for a child of, say, 10 to find interesting or to understand). However, I think Order of the Phoenix is the first to touch on themes that tend to be more young adult (especially romance, but also inept governments and angry/emotional teenagers). Goblet of Fire is a close runner-up, though; the graveyard scene at the end, especially, is pretty mature (I spent about a week thinking Voldemort was lurking outside my house in the dark after I read it the first time), and it's the first book that touches on romance.

Definitely a book that tends to be either hated or loved. It has some great scenes, and although I'm not a huge fan, it's a vital chapter in Harry's development into an adult and in his story.