All posts by Phil W

The Litblog Co-op Pick: The Tale of a Rat

This quarter’s Read This pick from the Litblog Co-op is a curious tale of a Boston rat. No, it’s not political commentary. Ed Champion recommends it: “I was entirely unprepared to read a wry and remarkably thoughtful book about the state of imagination in American society. The book had teeth, perhaps a continuously growing set of rodent-like incisors ground to manageable size so that the teeth in question wouldn’t puncture the brain.”

Genes and Big Medical Questions

Speaking of Michael Crichton, his next book promises to have us asking some strange questions: “Could your loved one be missing some body parts? Is everyone at your dinner table of the same species? It’s 2006: do you know who all your children are? Do you know humans and chimpanzees differ in only 400 genes? Did you know one fifth of all your genes are owned by someone else? Could you and your family be pursued cross country just because you happen to have certain genes in your body?”

If we come to a point where we can define our bodies and our mental abilities while living or define them for our children (or by government mandate, one another’s children), then we will have lost our humanity or at least some of it. Mars Hill Audio has discussed this repeatedly, talking to Nigel Cameron about the ethics of current bio-technology. As C.S. Lewis said, if we gain the ability to define our attributes like we can software, we will not have conquered nature; we will have become its slave.

What do you think it means to be human? Are you and I really barely different than apes? Is your body only the vehicle for your soul or whatever is the real you inside?

Revelations by M. Scott Byrnes

Part of the appeal of Scott Byrnes‘ science fiction novel, Revelations, is the story behind it. He wrote a screenplay, probably catching a writing bug during that time, and decided to make it into a novel. He says he wanted to bring a pretty outrageous idea down to earth as an enjoyable thriller in the way he believes Michael Crichton does with stories rooted in an odd scientific observation. So Mr. Byrnes saved some money and quit his day job in order to write his first novel. That’s admirable dedication.

Does it pay off? Well, I must say I felt compelled to finish the story. The characters aren’t too round. The writing style is good enough, though a couple parts are laughably bad. One part that should hold several pounds of suspense drops it all by dwelling too long on the characters’ thoughts. The plot stretches thin a bit, the worst coming about midway when the characters tackle some language translation. But storyline is compelling.

A team of scientists are on Mars hoping to uncover something earlier exploratory results have hinted at. In the process, they discover something that radically changes scientific understanding of the red planet. About the same time, a brilliant young man, named Tim Redmond, is ushered out of an African Red Cross camp by federal spooks when his name is called out by a terrorist who has taken international hostages. The terrorist wants world leaders to make a fast decision made about the Martian discovery, saying it will destroy mankind, but how he knows about it and what he wants Tim to do are big questions.

I believe Mr. Byrnes is planning to write more, which is probably a good idea. Judging from this book, he appears to have the talent and perseverance to write strong, entertaining stories. I look forward to hearing of his success in the future.

No One is Morally Ignorant

From my notes on Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

The attack on objectivity of values is not an attack on general objectivity of values, but a rouse for the supremacy of certain values over others. Because you can get a long way in winning your argument if you don’t have to argue for it at all.

Our problem is not the disconnect between the heart and intellect. The problem is what composes our intellect. Nothing is considered moral knowledge today; consequently, no one is morally ignorant.

Detective Novels: The Best Ones Are Written by Men

Maxine is calling for suggestions on strong detective novels written by women in response to David Montgomery’s list, 10 Greatest Detective Novels, which did not have one female author. Block, Chandler, Crumley, Hammett, Stout, and others make Montgomery’s list, and he explains in the comments on Petrona that he doesn’t like P.D. James and further: “My favorite contemporary female detective writers are probably Laura Lippman and Denise Hamilton. I think they’re both great writers, but neither quite cracked the list.”

An interesting discussion has begun. One commenter notes the dominance of American writers. That seems only natural to me. We, Americans, are the best in the world at everything, except maybe soccer and automobiles, so naturally we write the best detectives novels.

We blog better than anyone else too.

And stuff.

I will be ducking and running now.

Loving Through Excellent Artwork

Your Writers Group has been talking about excellence.

[Christians] don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art. . . . [But] maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

He’s got a point.

Will Write for Food

Joe Maguire, author of Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, has lost his job as an editor for Reuters, apparently over a conflict with the news group’s principles of trust. Mr. Maguire says, “There was a difference of opinion about the approval I received to write this book.”

I’m sure he’ll get a good job elsewhere, if this is only a political pan-flash with Reuters executives; if he really is a skunk or a back-stabber, then maybe the NY Times will offer him a position.

Irrational and Ignorant

Lynn Vincent, the managing editor of World Magazine’s blog, defines propaganda in the context of those who comment on the posts there. One contributor notes:

I’ve found the arguments used here (at Worldmagblog) so poor that I actually have my rhetoric class read the blog to find common fallacies. The most common is definitely Ad Hominem, but the readers here also love the False Dilemma, the False Cause and the Hasty Generalization. I also tell my students (at this Christian school) that they need to realize how ignorant Christians look in the real world of discourse.

Simplistic Literary Biographies

The great Terry Teachout addresses literary biographies:

Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah.

Also, note his list of “first-rate” biographies, none of which he wrote himself.

Buy or Download Piper’s Latest Book

John Piper’s latest book, What Jesus Demands from the World, is available for $12.49 in print through Crossway Books or for free in PDF. In an audio file, Piper explains the need for the book. He says the Lord charges us to teach everyone in the world to observe his commands, not just teach them the commands. We can teach parrots all of Christ’s commands, but they can’t observe them.

So what does it mean to observe the things the Lord instructed us to do? Take up your cross. Always pray without losing heart. Avoid all anxiety. What God has joined together let no man separate. We know the words; do we understand and obey the meaning?

I’m looking forward to it.

Pass on Gory, Here’s Cute and Fluffy

Since we’re writing movie reviews, let me offer a few thoughts on those movies you’ve probably seen in the video store or in the online rental categories and thought to yourself, “Is it time for these movies? Are they any good? Will they hold my daughters’ attention?” Of course, I’m talking about the Barbie Princess animations.

I have four daughters. One has yet to be delivered, but she’s here nonetheless. All of them love the movies they’ve seen, which for the ones out of the womb is all of the movies. I have seen all but one, and in short they aren’t bad.

Last night, we watched the most recent fairy tale, Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses. Of course, it barely resembles the original story of twelve dancing princesses who use a magic drink to enslave men in their nighttime enchantment so that they want nothing but to dance with the women all night, every night. That’s a pretty interesting story, and the illustrations in my Portland House collection are beautifully intricate, if a bit weird. The story doesn’t have that gap in cultural understanding which many traditional or foreign fairy tales present to me, that moment in the story when something is explained or done which seems unnatural to me or maybe just gruesome, like when a man stops to help a woman and kills her after a few minutes. He goes on to live happily ever after. Nonsense.

The Barbie version has a pleasant musical theme, which becomes a pop song during the closing credits. It’s one of those catchy melodies which needs to go with a more complicated composition to make it really good, but Barbie has an audience of young girls who don’t care about that. Apparently, they do care about talking animals, because every movie has more-or-less irritating pets who usually talk to other animals and occasionally talk to the people. In Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses, there’s a cat, monkey, and parrot—cute, annoying, and funny respectively. (My sweet wife doesn’t give them that much credit.)

Positive messages, classic music, and dancing patterned after live ballet dancers are the strengths of these movies; occasionally lame dialogue, mediocre animation, overuse of magic are the weaknesses. I say lame dialogue instead of depictions of popular childishness which kids are supposed to relate too. The mean, selfish, whiney daughter of the villain in Barbie in Swan Lake was the very type of character my eldest daughter didn’t need to see in action. At the beginning of The Magic of Pegasus, the story looks as if it will go in a bad direction with a handful of pop references, but it ends well. All of them end pretty well, I suppose.

The 12 Dancing Princesses focuses on a family sticking together to protect their father, noting that everyone in the family has something to contribute. There’s a lot of dancing too. Swan Lake deals with inspiring individual aspirations and certain ballet moves. The Magic of Pegasus is about second chances and ice skating. This one shows Barbie disobeying her parents in the beginning and repenting without excuses in the end. The Nutcracker focuses on Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet. I forget the message–courage, maybe.

The best one is the only musical. The Princess and the Pauper is about twins separated at birth—stop me if you’ve heard this one. At the beginning, the two women sing about wanting their freedom from social obligations or poverty, but they end the song with words on their duty to their families, not the usual follow-your-heart line. The music is good, and the talking cats, dog, and horse don’t ruin the story.

Another plus overall: Barbie doesn’t marry whatever man shows up at the end of every story. There is occasional talk on the man’s cuteness, but I manage to stomach it.

Forgive me if you still can’t believe I’m blogging long on Barbie movies, but the best may be yet to come. I hear the next animation will be Barbie and The Merry Wives of Winsor. They may even tackle Romeo and Juliet. That way they can sell Barbie-sized coffins. Maybe the talking pets will draw first blood.