July 26, 2016

Book review: “King Lear” by William Shakespeare

Talk about Shakespeare’s great King Lear tends to focus on the action of the play and its meaning. A self-satisfied monarch, blind to the consequences of his actions, splits his realm in two, giving half to one daughter and half to the other. To his third and dearest daughter, he gives nothing. Her sin: Failing to flatter him enough. This is a play about loyalty and disloyalty, about parents and children, about wisdom and foolishness, and about the many forms of madness — arrogance, greed, anger, ambition, dementia and pride. It is a play filled with murders and hangings and a suicide and not one but two eyes being ripped out. It is a lot like the Book of Job in the Bible in which the central character rails at the unfairness of life. It is a story about pain and stupidity and the cruelty of being a human being, prone to failure. King Lear is also a work of great literary beauty, and that’s what I want to focus on. This is, of course, Shakespeare, so we expect great poetry. Here, though, there is a concentrated fierceness to his words that make them seem like knife slashes or the […]
July 20, 2016

Meditation: Haggling with God

In the gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray the Our Father. In Genesis, Abraham shows us how to haggle with God. It’s about Sodom and Gomorrah, and, as the story is told, God is planning to wipe the place off the face of the earth because “their sin [is] so grave.” But Abraham appeals to God that the innocent might be swept away with the guilty. And then, in a routine that could have come right out of vaudeville, he asks: What if there are 50 innocent people there? Shouldn’t you protect them? Well, OK, God answers, if there are 50, “I will spare the whole place.” But what if there are only 45 innocents there? OK, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.” But what if there are only 40…only 30…only 20…only 10? Each time, God says, OK, “I will not destroy it.” The point is that God is a soft touch. God wants us to do the right thing. God wants us to live full lives, to enjoy the riches of creation. In his preaching, Jesus didn’t talk about leveling cities for their wickedness. He told us to love one […]
July 18, 2016

Book review: “A History of Loneliness” by John Boyne

John Boyne’s 2015 novel A History of Loneliness was a difficult book for me to read, mainly because it deals with the crimes of hundreds of pedophile priests who preyed on young boys and teens, but also because it is a flawed book. Given the subject, I don’t think it is inappropriate for me to start this review with an apology. I apologize to all the victims of molester-priests and their families. I am ashamed that these men corrupted their positions of trust in the Catholic Church. I am ashamed that hierarchical leaders of the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to their crimes for so long. I am ashamed that my church which teaches love, compassion, community and strength of character was the setting where these men carried out violence on innocent children. These men sinned, and, because I am a member of a church in which they operated, I am a sinner, too. These crimes, as committed by rogue priests in Ireland, are the subject of A History of Loneliness. Its central character is Father Odran Yates, He is not one of the pedophiles, but he goes through more than three decades of his priesthood ignoring all of […]
July 15, 2016

Book review: Two very different books about the history of paper — “The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention” by Alexander Monro and “Paper: Paging Through History” by Mark Kurlansky

Two new books about the history of paper — both tell the same story, right? Well, not really, and, in their differences, the books reveal much about the writing and reading of history. Consider this paragraph from Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky: It was a macabre scene on the deserted, wind-swept killing fields of the Napoleonic Wars before the burial details went to work. Ragmen picked through the dead, stripping off their bloodstained uniforms and selling the cloth to papermakers. That’s a paragraph that will grab your attention. It opens a chapter that looks at the problems that paper mills in Europe had in finding enough rags to serve as the raw material in the creation of their product, a problem ultimately solved by the use of wood pulp. Now, look at this poem from 811 A.D. by Chinese writer Bai Juyi that Alexander Monro quotes in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention. It has to do with the death of his three-year-old daughter Golden Bells: A daughter can snare your heart; And all the more when you have no sons. Her clothes still hang on the pegs, Her useless medicine lies by her […]
July 13, 2016

Book review: Two books about maps — “Cartographic Grounds,” edited by Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim, and “Mind the Map,” edited by Antonis Antoniou, Robert Klanten and Sven Ehmann

The stark white-on-black image on the cover of Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary, edited by Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim, is beautiful and mysterious. Is this Antarctica? Or somewhere within the Arctic Circle? The birthplace of icebergs perhaps? No, this map by Bureau Bas Smets has nothing to do with ice. It shows the delta that is formed by the many rivers meandering along the border between Holland and Belgium on their way to the North Sea. This is an example of a figure ground map in which everything else left out so that two elements — in this case, the black of the water and the white of the land — can be seen with hyper-clarity. Here, there is also one more piece of information displayed. There is, across the white of the land, a scattering of much less distinct splotches of gray which represent urbanized areas. This is a map that was created to help in the planning for the future development of this low-lying region where flooding has been a concern for centuries.   “Great dreams” More than 80 years ago, Gilbert Grosvenor, the longtime editor of National Geographic, said: “A map is the greatest of […]
July 11, 2016

Book review: “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

I finish C.S. Lewis’ 1952 book Mere Christianity with great sadness, respect and hope. Across more than six decades, Lewis is talking to me and anyone else who will listen about his Christian faith. Those many years, nearly as long as my lifetime, seem a great chasm between Lewis and me — between his experience of the world and mine, between his experience of his faith and mine. That’s where the sadness comes in. Lewis writes, for instance, that “Selfishness has never been admired.” Yet, I live in a world in which, for a little more than $4, you can order a bumper sticker for your car to proclaim to the world your belief that “He who dies with the most toys wins.” He writes that “the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ ” While I affirm the need for faithfulness in marriage, I cannot agree that, outside of marriage, total abstinence is the only choice. He writes that “Christian wives promise to obey their husbands. In Christian marriage, the man is said to be the ‘head,’ ” and then goes on to argue that this is only logical. I can’t […]
July 7, 2016

Book review: “Shaking Hands with Death” by Terry Pratchett

Shaking Hands with Death is a very small book, only 59 pages in length, and only 41 of those pages are the words of Terry Pratchett. The rest is taken up with an introduction in which Pratchett’s personal assistant Rob Wilkins explains how the book came to be. It is a sad story, lightened by Pratchett’s great humor and infused with his passion. Pratchett was the author of more than 50 comical fantasy novels, most centering on his imagined Discworld. He sold more than 85 million copies worldwide in 37 languages — or as he says in Shaking Hands with Death, “a very large number of inexplicably popular fantasy novels.” Then, in 2007, he learned that he was suffering from Post Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare version of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 59, and he was very angry. Over the next eight years, he wrote and published eight major books, six of which were centered on Discworld. He died on March 12, 2015 at the age of 66.   “His fury” Shaking Hands with Death is the text of a televised address that, with the help of a friend, he gave on February 1, 2010, in which he described his […]
July 5, 2016

Trumpy McTrumpface by Thomas Pace and Patrick T. Reardon — Parts 1 and 2

PART ONE You’ve probably heard about how, in the United Kingdom, a joke got out of hand. The very prim and proper British Natural Environment Research Council came up with a stunt to get people interested in science, asking them to suggest names for a new, $288 million, state-of-the-art polar research vessel and then to vote on those names. It worked, and people started talking about names, including BBC radio personality James Hand who quipped that the vessel should be called “Boaty McBoatface.” Cue the laugh track. Except that the joke caught on, and the name was the top vote-getter. That’s the way it is with jokes. Sometimes, they get out of hand.   Egregious and embarrassing Like now, here, in the United States. You’ve heard the one, I’m sure, about the reality television star who becomes the Republican candidate for President of the United States? And they say conservatives don’t have a sense of humor. When Trumpy McTrumpface first suggested himself as a presidential nominee, the joke was obvious. In his inaugural campaign speech, McTrumpface made a number of comments that would automatically disqualify any serious presidential candidate. He has since made this his core strategy — spouting racist […]
July 1, 2016

Book review: “The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” by Christopher Moore

“No! Bad dragon!” Molly, wielding a broadsword, has just saved two clueless church ladies from being eaten by Steve, a Sea Beast who, at the moment, looks like a mobile home. (Shape-changing is just one of Steve’s many talents.) Now, she’s chewing him out while trying to shoo the spacey women away. Yes, Christopher Moore’s The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove isn’t Moby Dick. Like Herman Melville’s masterpiece, this piece of merriment is centered around a largish fish. But, in Moore’s case, the fish is a huge, 5,000-year-old remnant of prehistory who eats whales for breakfast. Not only can he can swim in the sea and crawl on the land, but when the mood hits, he can become a she. Indeed, relatively recent, while he was a she, one of her (his?) babies — very ugly, even for a baby — was hooked by a couple of black blues singers. This resulted in one (who later, not surprisingly, was given the nickname Catfish) watching the other, Smiley (who, it must be admitted, wasn’t very good at channeling the blues, hence, the nickname), get eaten by the Sea Beast who, many decades later, was given the nickname Steve by Molly. Got […]