Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Power of One

Book: The Power of One
Author: Bryce Courteney
Read: January 2008
513 pages
Rated: 4
out of 5

Bryce Courteney writes an entertaining novel. he is a good storyteller (Gary's note: In looking at some of the recently published books, such as, The Kite Runner, Power of One, and a few others, I am thinking that the current crop of writers do a very good job of telling stories, getting to the heart of the matter. But they are not as good as some of the previous generations at using the words to bring in the memorable thoughts and phrases.) His writing is enjoyable and disturbing. A boy, a lonely boy grows up with the cream of being the welterweight champion of the world--we do not know if he does or not.

The boy, who we eventually know as PeeKay--but apparently does not have a formal name, nor even a father, is put into a South African boarding school around 1939. As a small 5 year old, English kid in an Afrikeen school, he is in for hard times. Over the year he is then bullied; he meets the Judge-a 12 year old bully and the jury--his followers. The Judge makes his life a hell. Regularly beating him up. Life with adults at the school is only better in that it is usually verbal abuse.

After his first term, he is visited by an African medicine man that cures him of bed wetting. But even more important, gives him the key to understanding himself through a form of visualization. After his second term, he is sent back to his grandfathers via train. The 36 hours he spends on the train changes his life. He mets a boxer, which even though he is small, manages to put away bigger opponents. From him, PeeKay is able to understand the power of focusing, the power of being undivided in his mission, the power of one.

The rest of the book is an exposition on this theme. Peekay goes through a series of obstacles and overcomes. He wants to be on the prison boxing team, through his determination he wins both the right to be on the team, but also the hearts and minds of the guards and other boys on the team (PeeKay is not a prisoner). PeeKay becomes an accomplished boxer. Through the association of the town librarian and a German professor of music, he develops a razor sharp mind. He is accepted into the South African equivalent of a first rate private high school. He and another friend turn a defeated team into champs.

The end of the book takes PeeKay to having a year off to earn enough money to go to Oxford, on his terms. He gets a job in the mines, a very dangerous job and survives until the last couple of days when he gets into a near death accident. After he recuperates, he meets the Judge. PeeKay out fights a much bigger Judge, and obliterates the Nazi Swastika, a symbol of hate in PeeKay's life.

As some of have noted, there should have been a language warning. But besides that, I was thinking it rated about 4 out of 5. See my beginning note. When looking at this book as a story rather than a work of literature, it has resonance with me. It struck me as probably not too plausible. But it was pretty griping. The boxing theme has a strong tie in to winning in life. While PeeKay had set backs earlier in life, Courtenay does not make it sound like there were too many disappointments later--you wonder how PeeKay would have done losing a few of the boxing matches?

The theme of self-determination making you successful is an interesting theme--one which you root for the protagonist, hiss at the villain. But one thing which PeeKay had was a lot of help. Where would he have been without Hoppie? Or the Doc? Or Miss Bornstein? Or Mrs. Boxall? Or even Rasputin? If anything, the theme is that it takes a lot of people to make someone successful. Yes the successful person needs to be focused, and should we say talented, but Courteney's portrayal is not the Atlas Shrugged image of a superman.

I was also curious on Courteney's portrayal of religious characters. Christian characters definitely do not get good representation. But the witch doctor is an undercurrent theme throughout the book. Yet the African crowds which follow PeeKay seem more of a superstition rather than something you could latch onto. Doc's view, while not anti Christian is more that it is not needed. Such as on pg 310--"the Bible to be good for matters of the heart, but hopeless for those of the head." PeeKay thinks the Marie is ok until she gets religion.

Good Quotes:
  • I have found in life that everything, no matter how bad, comes to an end. (45)
  • I was still alive, and in my book, where there's life, there's hope. (67)
  • Sometimes, very occasionally, you do your best boxing with your mouth. (89)
  • Small can beat big if you have a plan. (100)
  • It is better to be wrong than simply follow convention. If you are wrong, you have learned something and you will grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life. (157)
  • A man is only free when he is free in his heart (196)
  • When a man knows somebody cares, he keeps some small place, a corner maybe of his soul, clean and lit. (228)
  • facism is a primary force of evil designed to destroy good men. (268
  • Mystery, not logic, is what gives us hope and keeps us believing in a force greater than our own insignificance. (348)
  • Winning is a state of mind that embraces everything you do. (357)

The Golden Compass

Book: The Golden Compass
Author: Phillip Pullman
Read: December 2007
399 pages
Rated: 4
out of 5

This is book one of three. The trilogy is call His Dark Materials. Pullman is a pretty good author, who can build interesting worlds. Lyra is the heroine who believes that there is more to the world than what she sees and being told. There is this matter of Dust and the city beyond the end of the world.

Lyra us being brought up as an orphan amongst scholars at Oxford. Life is pleasant if a bit mysterious. She has an uncle—rich and famous, who is an explorer of the North. She hears about Dust through her uncle, while secretly stashed away in a wardrobe, in a room where females are not allowed. Shortly afterwards, kids start disappearing, including her best friend. Then a Mrs. Coulter takes her under her wind and whisks her off to London. Lyra is introduced to the finery of London. But then she overhears her real purpose—to be bait to catch other children

She escapes and catches. up with the Gyptians, who adopts her. She then discovers through the Gyptians who her parents are—her Uncle and Mr. Coulter, who are now bitter rivals. The Gyptians take up her cause. That is to help free the kids held up North—including her best friend and free her father who is held by the Armored Bears for Mrs. Coulter.

Kids are freed, father is saved to continue his quest for the City in the Sky and Dust. Sort of what you expect. (There are a lot of pages which you read through—better written then this summary.)
The question, why kidnap the kids? In Pullman’s world, each person has an animal personality—their other half. The other half is not quite like a soul, but is an essential part of the human psyche. Mrs. Coulter is running experiments to see if you can split this other half from a person. By the way, there animal halves are called daemons.

According to Pullman, Dust came into the world through original sin. See the end of Genesis 3. Dust starts to attach itself to humans about the time puberty strikes; the time when the human daemons stops being able to change shapes. Mrs. Coulter’s project was to separate the daemon free from the human, to be free from the original sin. This project had the blessings of the Church. The side effect was the kids were dying a very lonely death.

Lyra’s father’s project in his exile is to bridge the gap by using Dust and Energy to get to the City. This would be done by sacrificing the boy, Lyra’s friend.

This is a beautifully written story. His descriptions makes you think you are there—snow flying around a bear fight, the evil drive of the father and the Mother. It is a book well worth reading for these.
But this is also a religious book—right from the beginning when Pullman talks about Pope John Calvin. You know he is speaking of an alternative view of religious matters. Mrs. Coulter is part of the authoritative religious group—the Magesterium.

Both Coulter and Father are oppressive people, representing authority. The authorities rule through terror and coercion, keeping things secret.

This is a book, needing to be read, and read with your eyes wide open.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Author: Madeline L’Engle 
Read: May 2008
 304 pages
 Rated: 4 out of 5

This book is the third of five books in Madeline L’Engle’s science fiction series. The first being A Wrinkle In Time. The story centers on Charles Wallace Murray as he works through time, but always staying in the same place, to affect the worlds current situation. The situation is that a dictator in Vespugia is about to start a nuclear war, destroying life as we know it. Charles Wallace is commissioned by his sister’s mother-in-law to stop this holocaust. Mrs O’Kefee is not a world leader, but a dried up old hag, who barely raised her own children. But she gives Charles Wallace a rune which allows him to call upon a higher power to aide in his quest.
Charles Wallace has not been given direction on how to stop this dictator named Mad Dog Branzillo. The step which Charles Wallace takes is to go out to the star-watching rock, where he meets Gaudior, the unicorn. Gaudior, as a unicorn, allows Charles Wallace to go through time, both forward and backward. But it is difficult for Gaudior to change location. As Charles Wallace meets the various peoples who have resided around the star-watching rock, he sees several sides of human nature, and subtlety altering the future, even in far-away Vespugia.

This altering of the past, you alter the present is one of the key themes through out the book. By corollary, our current present actions and being will affect the future. There is a sense of calling to do right and act appropriately throughout this book. To put yourself in-front of evil to stem the tide. This is not a one-time shot, but a continuing fight. Not only is it part of the big events, but in our smaller day events can change the world.

When Charles Wallace meets Gaudior, there is an exchange of names and meaning. Gaudior notes that Charles Wallace is a brave name. What makes a name brave? What difference does a name make? I suspect we tend to live up to our names, or around one. Do we transform our names?

Several times, L’Engle places the phrase, “What is real” in the mouth of Gaudior. You can understand this coming while in a Projection—a Projection is a might-have-been when the Echthroi put in place instead of the real events. But in both cases Gaudior mentions these doing events which were in the past. The question which I ponder is, what is the relationship between changing the past and personal responsibility? Would it have been possible for the Pharaoh’s past to be changed so he was not set up for Moses’ Exodus? If so, does this give ammunition to people’s argument that if God wanted to, He could change things. So we are not responsibile but God’s? It even brings in the question of what are we? Are we just pawns in some game and God is doing a “do-over”?

L’Engle shares a vision of several English authors, like Tolkien and Lewis, which envision the universe having a deeper language. A language which causes the worlds to be in a dance, not with planned steps but synchronized with a higher calling. We see this when she has Gaudior sing with the ancient melodies. When Charles Wallace weakens, he is encouraged to sing. It is then Charles Wallace sings the ancient melodies, unknown to him. He sings with the mighty orchestra called the galaxies. She ends this section with “As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy.”

This leads into joy. Joy is not just happiness. Joy is when we are united with the dance and music of spheres. We fulfill the grand purpose of our lives, our calling. The name L’Engle gives to the unicorn is Gaudior—a derivative from Latin of joy, meaning a joy without the universe will fall apart and collapse. Joy plays a part as Charles Wallace struggles inside of each person, pushing each person to fulfill this calling. There is a choice to go astray, be greedy, be hateful, plot vengeance. Or to keep to the path of joy and love and calling. There is this struggle portrayed in the book between lust and greed of the evil characters to the peace and quiet of the good. Once of the reasons she gives for the chaos in the work is the lack of joy in people’s lives. We ask are we happy? She asks do we have joy?

As a side note, my tag line for the day I wrote this was from Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:
Happiness turns up more or less where you'd expect it to--a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.

One of the native tribes is called the People of the Wind. This is L’Engle’s picture of perfection. Each person knows their place and accepts it. No rank, but purpose, position and place. They are content to know this and not strive against each other. This has a tendency to mellow their neighbors and those who live with them. But it also infuriates those who strive for power. This leads to asking of the question, how do people of peace respond to force and brutality in this world? How do we respond? In kind? Passively? At several points, brother wrestles brother—one to kill; other to resist. In another place, L’Engle notes that the Civil War would have brother fighting brother. But there was no quarter given then.
The idea of a scry pool—a puddle of water or for that matter any reflective surface—where the looker can find reflection is something woven in her story. When the various figures throughout this history looks into the scry, they seen things they do not understand. Reflections of a time-to-be. But in a reoccurring sub-theme, the scry is broken, not be revealing again. Both JRR Tolken and Lloyd Alexander—Taran Wanderer- use this as a metaphor. Once this pondering of the future is broken, it cannot be reclaimed. This is the same with us. Once we lose that reflective thought, it is not something we can grab back onto at a later date. We have change, others have passed us by. The sight is no longer there. That is the importance of retaining innocence and cleanliness of spirit.

The biggest theme in Madelene L’Engle’s work is the use of Patrick’s Rune. We are so used to saying words. Pondering their meanings. But at one time, and indeed, in certain parts of our time, words have power. Do they? And if so what power? Obviously, spoken by a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, there is enormous power to move people. Or the saying, the pen is mightier than the sword. But that is not the kind of power which Patrick’s Rune or Breastplate purports to. As a prayer and plea, it is oriented towards a higher source. And that is the key, in my thinking. They are not magical in that when we speak them with a certain hand motion, the universe does not change. But when we speak them, and our hearts match with the will of God, the world is turned upside down.

While not her best work, it is a good thoughtful work. It is a book to enjoy and let her thoughts linger with us. Oh yeah. The world does not end and everyone could have a good Thanksgiving day dinner.

Couple of notes from my book group:
  • - You could tell this is written to a 14 year old. Since when does the President call a scientist to say the world will end, unless the scientist can change things?
  • - Shows how fragile family relations can be. There is a need to break the cycle.

New Words:
  • - Tesseract: the four dimensional analog of a square
  • - Taciturn: temporary, disinclined to talk
  • - Kythe/kithe: to make known
  • - Echthroi: the enemy in Greek
  • - Scabrous: rough to the touch, difficult on dealing with scandalous themes
  • - Suppurating: form or discharge of pus
  • - Scry: to see or predict the future
Good Quotes:
  • Has the world lost its joy? Is that why we're in such a mess? (50
  • I am not some kind of computer. Only machines have glib answers for everything. (61)
  • Everything that happens in within the created order, no matter how small, has its effect. If you are angry, that anger is added to all the hate... When you are loving, that lovingness joins the music of the spheres. (65)
  • To joy, nothing is surprising. (65)

Patrick’s Rune
"All heaven with its power
and the sun with its brightness and,
and the snow with its whiteness,
and the fire with all the strength it hath-
and lightning with its rapid wrath
and the winds with their swiftness along their path.
And the sea with its deepness,
and the rocks with their steepness
and the earth with its starkness-
all these I place
by God almighty help and grace
between myself and
the powers of darkness!"
Patrick’s Breastplate:

I arise today
through a mighty strength, be invocation of the Trinity ,
through belief in the threeness
through confession of the Oneness
toward the Creator.
I arise today
through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial,
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His dissent for the Judgement of Doom.
I arise today
through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
in obedience of Angels,
in the service of Archangel,
and hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
and prayers of the Prophets,
in preaching of Apostles,
and faith of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins,
in deeds of righteous men.
I arise today
through the strength of Heaven:
the light of the Sun,
brilliance of the Moon,
splendor of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind
depth of Sea,
Stability of Earth,
Firmness of Rock.
I arise today
through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me
against snares of devils,
against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature,
against everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near,
alone and in a crowd.
Christ protect me today
against poison, against burning
against drowning, against wounding
so that there may come abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in Threeness,
through confession of Oneness
towards the Creator.

Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of the Lord.
May Thy salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.