Archive for the 'Book Thoughts' Category

America Lite

I got a new book over the weekend. It’s by David Gelernter who is “a professor of computer science at Yale, contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, a regular contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and former board member of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

The book is called America Lite — How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats).

Professor Gelernter has been writing occasional guest posts for Power Line blog on the subjects he covers in this book, and having found them all interesting I finally decided to get the book for myself.

From the inside cover:

America-Lite (where we all live) is just like America, only turned into an amusement park or a video game or a supersized Pinkberry, where the past and the future are blank and there is only a big NOW. How come we know so little about the past, care so little about the future, and expect so little (except cynicism) from our culture, our leaders — and each other?

In this refreshingly judgmental book, David Gelernter connects the historical dots to reveal a stealth revolution carried out by post-religious globalist intellectuals who, by and large, “can’t run their own universities or scholarly fields, but are very sure they can run you.” These imperial academics have deployed their students into the top echelon of professions once monopolized by staid, steady, stately WASPs. In this simple way, they have installed themselves as the new designated drivers of American culture…”

Mere facts are disdained, “old-fashioned fact-based judgments like true are false” are no longer valid, and the teaching of actual history has been replaced by the teaching of “theories about history.”

By removing objective facts and absolute truths observable by all or arrived at by “common sense,” and inserting endless theories and tropes and feelings and gauzy visions of utopia, concepts that on the surface don’t make sense (“lead from behind,” “spend money in order to save money,”) and as such are only really understood by the most intellectual and enlightened among us, we clearly must abandon the attempt to think for ourselves and let these brilliant academicians do it for us.  And, says Gelernter, so we have.

“In fact, we have handed over the keys to the star pupil and teacher’s pet of the post-religious globalist intellectuals, whose election to the presidency of the United States constituted the ultimate global group hug.

How do we finally face the truth and get back into the driver’s seat? America-Lite ends with a one-point plan.”

And of course the jacket doesn’t say what that plan is. I’ll have to read the book to find out. I’ve already read the introduction and it generated enought thought for me to write an entire post in addition to this one (which I’ll put up probably tomorrow).

Even the back cover is fascinating (Click to enlarge):

 

What the Night Knows

 A couple of posts back, I mentioned coming upon a new Dean Koontz book in the grocery store and impulsively buying it, seeing as it filled a need I had decided I had that same morning — the need for a good book to read that would keep me from getting too active and exhausting myself in my “recovery” from surgery. That book was What the Night Knows.

I love the title. And the cover!

As I also mentioned, I read pretty much all that afternoon — not straight through the story, but skimming over all the “irrelevant” scenes to find the answers to questions I just couldn’t wait for.  AFter all, I wasn’t “officially” reading the book yet, just dipping my toe in the water. In this case, it was a good thing, because I was hoping something would happen that didn’t, was in fact, the opposite of what he was doing.

After that, other things, including continued bouts of tiredness, took up my time and I made minimal progress until this weekend. Starting from where I began skimming, I read it all the way through and finished it last night.

Koontz is, as multiple reviewers point out, a master at what he does. His characterizations, descriptions, pacing, humor, plot twists… are all top of the line. In this book I especially loved how he gave each of the protagonist’s three children a distinct voice when he was writing from their point of view. There was the 13-year-old wanna be Marine, Zachary; the 11-almost-12 diva, Naomi, who was in love with life — and hats — her perception cloaking almost everything in her periphery with an aura of magic and wonder; and 8-going-on-9 Minette, or Minnie, the wise beyond her years “baby” of the family who alone of all of them had the best grasp of the evil that stalked them. They are great kids — funny, individual, typically kids in the way they interact with each other, annoying, pestering, teasing… but also loyal and loving. Probably a bit more thoughtful and mature than the general run of kids, but seeing as they’ve been homeschooled, this was not too much of a stretch for me. They reminded me in a way of the Narnia kids…

The story begins with their father, Detective John Calvino, investigating the recent group-murder of an entire family that eerily echoes in numerous precise details the first of a string of family murders that occurred twenty years previously. John’s parents and sisters had been the fourth family to die in that previous string, before John himself, at age 14, shot the murderer dead in their home. Now he increasingly comes to suspect the ghost of the original murderer has somehow come back from the grave to start anew, and he fears his own family is on the list of new victims-to-be.

There was much to ponder as I read, and after I finished, as well. Koontz explores the depravity of man, demon possession, the intervention of God, guilt, sacrificial love, and redemption — this latter not, I’m sorry to say, through the agency of Christ, but rather a man’s willingness to lay down his life for his family as a sort of penance…  But regardless of whether I agree with Koontz’s position there, it still draws my thoughts to the subject and provides occasion for contemplation and clarification of my own understanding.

One of the things I was particularly interested in was the unfolding of what is in essence a spiritual battle against forces of evil, a battle our culture has managed to delegitimize. Battles against evil spirits and tales of possession, vampires, etc, might abound in movies, books and video games but mostly people don’t believe any of that is real. Granted the true battle is largely invisible and involves thoughts and words more than the physical attacks of a possessed psychopath, but even an invisible battle is difficult for many to swallow, perhaps because the physical battles as portrayed in the above mentioned outlets are so outside of anything they’ve ever seen in real life they can’t help but throw the baby out with the bath water.

Koontz played off this reluctance to believe in supernatural battles. When John is finally forced to tell his boss not only what he suspects but why (to explain why he has been breaking regulations in the things he’s been doing) his boss immediately assumes he’s having psychological problems and gives him thirty days’ leave.

When he goes to his parish priest, he is told, “We’ve come a long way in the past hundred years, and further with every passing decade. But the full flowering of the faith in our time is delayed by medieval ideas that make the Church seem hopelessly credulous. Faith isn’t superstition, John. Superstition is a stain on faith, a perversion of the religious impulse and possibly a fatal corruption of it.”

When John attempts to clarify what he takes for a misunderstanding, the man adds, “In an age of nuclear weapons, we don’t need Hell and demons, succubi and incubi and hungry vampires on the doorstep. We need food banks…thrift shops, homeless shelters and the courage to express our faith in social action.”

He then gives John the name and number of a psychiatrist who is a “good man” and will be able to help him.

John’s partner later comes to believe the threat is real, as do all the members of John’s family who have each experienced their own encounters with the evil spirit. Naturally, the reader does as well, having been present with each viewpoint as the story unfolds and in that experience willingly suspending disbelief.

Late in the tale John speaks to another priest, a defrocked former exorcist who does believe in demons and evil. The ex-priest brings up the matter of divine interventions in delivering people from demon possession, implying that is the only real hope he can offer John in the matter. He even points out the disparity that exists between believing that a demon might actually be tormenting them, but not that God might also be present and willing to deliver them.

“Is your willingness to believe so elastic,” asks the ex-priest, “that it can stretch that far?”

 “I’ve seen the demonic,”  John replies. “If it’s real, so is its opposite.”

Yay! 

Sort of.  Because the opposite reasoning can also be applied. That is, “I don’t believe in demons — I’ve never seen any actual manifestation of demon activity — and so I don’t believe in God, either. Nothing supernatural for me. All truth resides in the mind and understanding of man and must stand up to the rigors of the scientific method, must give measurable physical proof of its existence in order to qualify as truth.”

Or, slightly less antagonistic, believing  only in a God who is impersonal, remote and primarily occupied with things other than what’s going on on earth.

Oddly, in the end  Koontz seems to buy into the latter notion, for even as he writes in some detail of the personality, motivations and nature of the demon, who is extremely up close and personal with his victims, God on the other hand is portrayed as largely uninvolved, deigning to intervene only occasionally and only in the most dire circumstances — though even in those He is not consistent.  When He does intervene, He does so by means of proxies — either “innocent” children or loyal animals or both — and apparently requires some sort of worthy action on the part of at least one party among the rescued.

In fact there is much made in this story of  innocence and purity being the protection against possession, while sin and weakness and deception are the doorways for it. By this template, any adult or adolescent male child can, almost at any time, be possessed, if a demon is about. We all have weaknesses. We all sin. We are all deceived in some way or other. Only the truly saintly, of which there are almost none, says the former exorcist, can be assured of protection.

This is the God of religion, I think. The God of the natural mind, for the natural mind always wants to make things hinge on itself, on things the creature has done, rather than celebrating what the Creator has done. On the power and integrity of the creature rather than that of the Creator.

More and more God is showing me that it is the latter that is the only thing that really matters: What He has done. Who He is.

And that is not the message of this story; instead it celebrates the basic goodness of a man, the power of human love and a man’s decision to sacrifice for his family. That is what we are to applaud.

It is a common theme in Koontz’s work, and, I’m sure, one of the reasons he has become a best-selling novelist. But ultimately, man is not basically good, human love is weak and while self-sacrifice is laudable, it’s nothing compared to the sacrifice of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, particularly when you consider that it was done for those who were at the time His enemies.

The Darkest Evening of the Year

In keeping with my theme for the week of dog related posts, I thought I’d put up my thoughts of that Dean Koontz novel I mentioned having read last week.

Published in paperback in 2007 Koontz’s The Darkest Evening of the Year is first off a paean to the Golden Retriever in particular (They sound like fabulous dogs — except for the hair) and dogs in general.

He also touched a bit on his “dogs are the way to redeem a wounded/wretched/evil soul” theology which I first encountered it in One Door Away from Heaven. That was more in passing. This is much more developed.

Not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. (Quigley is SO not a Golden Retriever!)

Since Koontz is now on his second Golden, and works with the organizations that provide service dogs to people with disabilities, I am sure he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the temperament and behavior of the breed. I mentioned in my previous post about the Wonder Dog Chancer, that 70% of Goldens, Labradors and German Shepherds pass the service dog training course, whereas only 2% of other breeds do. I doubt any hounds would ever even be considered. I cannot imagine Quigley sitting patiently on the patio deck, unleashed, waiting for “permission” to join his friends frolicking in the water as the Goldens are said to do in this book.

The only time Quigley sits patiently is at dinner time when he sits between my hubby and me watching us eat, waiting for the moment we are done and the plates will go into the dishwasher whereupon he will attempt to get in a few licks…

But I digress. I read the book mostly in one day and finished it up the second night. I was never bored, I didn’t think it took too long to get into… in fact, I loved his wordcraft. Here’s the start:

Behind the wheel of the Ford Expedition,  Amy Redwing drove as if she were immortal and therefore safe at any speed.

In the fitful breeze, a funnel of golden sycamore leaves spun along the post-midnight street. She blasted through them, crisp autumn scratching across the windshield.

I especially like the way he turned “autumn” into a thing that scratches the windshield

I wept unrestrainedly during his depiction of the euthanasia of the above-mentioned Amy Redwing’s first retriever. The whole thing was so much like what I went through with Bear, it was like living it again… Very poignant. Very well done.

And despite Koontz’s weirdness regarding the spiritual efficacy of having a relationship with a dog, there was a place where, though at first his character ridiculed the idea of the Rapture, he nevertheless got the point of God’s perfect righteousness dead on:

…if God existed, a God of pure love, then for sure there had to be a purgatory, because you would need a place of purification before you dared go upstairs for the Ultimate Hug. Even a sweet woman like Mrs. Bonnaventura, rapturing directly from this life to God’s presence, would detonate as violently as anti-matter meeting matter, like in that old episode of Star Trek.”  (pg 173-4)

Cool! Exactly why Jesus had to become a man and go to the cross and why God had to create in us a new creature at the point of salvation,  give us His righteousness, and will make for each believer a new resurrection body for eternity. Because we ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God and there is none righteous, no not one. (Ro 3: 1o;23)  I’ve thought before that sin and God are sort of like matter and anti-matter… Except that only the anti-matter (ie sinful creature) would detonate when it came into contact with God because God is immutable.

Of course that wasn’t the direction that Koontz took the matter, but it’s exciting to come across a statement of truth like that when you’re not expecting it.

The story centers around the special Golden Retriever Amy Redwing rescues from an imminent beating at the very beginning, who was…

… …

SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

… …

…I guess, possessed or indwelt by the spirits? souls? of her long-dead first dog and baby daughter. At the end this special Golden with subtle supernatural powers resuscitates the heroes who have both been killed in their attempts to stop the villains.

Readers on Amazon didn’t like this and many complained bitterly, calling it a hideous Deus ex Machina. Except technically, I don’t think it was.

As I understand it, the term comes from the Greek dramas where everything would be going wrong by the end of the play, and then the god would be lowered in on a platform to clean up the mess and restore order. But in this case, by the time of the resuscitation, the story was over, the problems solved, the villains dealt with. Yes the resuscitation definitely made for a happy ending, but I think it also played along one of the main threads he’d been weaving through the story. That is, that there are forces beyond our ken, that there is divine grace and a purpose to this life.  There are second chances.

The villains were all about living in the moment because, they thought, there was nothing else. No God, no mysteries, no meaning, only self and satisfying self.

In that it fit right in with messages I’d been receiving from my pastor shortly before and while I was reading the book. About the old man, the one that’s been crucified with Christ, and how it’s only and always about self. What’s in it for me? How do I feel? What am I going to do? What did I do wrong? How can I do better? What do I want? What did I not get? Etc.

To be sure, the villains in this piece were not that introspective, but even that was more in keeping with their in-the-moment approach. They were more like, “I want to [have sex/ eat a sandwich/ torment a child/ go to the desert/ burn down a house] right now.” So they got up and did it. Now. They also thought way more highly of themselves then they ought, but that’s typical of villains.

Anyway, I think this last quote encapsulates one of the book’s main themes and one of the things I liked most about it:

“Born in a tornado, Brian had considerable respect for the chaos that nature could spawn and for the sudden order — call it fate — that was often revealed when the apparent chaos clarified.”

Which has kind of been playing out in my life lately – especially in my writing life!

The Silver Pigs

I found this book through a recommendation in Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins): “The Falco novels by Lindsey Davis give an entertaining and well-researched look into life in the Roman world in the early empire.”

Since I was drowning in the technicalities presented in the Handbook — specifically I was struggling to understand Roman naming practices — I thought these might be just the deliverance I needed.

I found the first of Davis’s Falco novels, The Silver Pigs, at our library and just finished it last night. I really enjoyed it. Her objective in writing these books was to take the modern-day detective story and translate it into ancient Roman times. Except that her detective, Marcus Didius Falco,  has a family, and doesn’t find a new love to leave with every story. Or so says the introduction.

I enjoyed Falco, his family, and the setting. Falco even did a stint as a slave in a lead/silver mine in Britain. And there is a bit of a romance in it, as well. Quite entertaining.  And not only did reading it spark several ideas for Sky and get me out of the mental mud I was stuck in, but it pointed me to further resources when I investigated author Lindsey Davis’s website: A Falco companion filled with info on how she did her research and dealt with author problems in coming up with her various stories, which I immediately purchased from Amazon along with the next book in the series.

Anyway, I’m not going to do a summary — you can find that on Amazon here and here – nor much of a review — you can find many on Amazon as well. But what I thought was especially cool and want to talk about here is the triumphal march of Vespasian and Titus. As it happens, the first Falco story takes place in 70 AD which is the year that Titus destroyed Jerusalem. I’d already done a bit of reading on that subject for Sky, so the fact the story is set in the same time frame was an extra plus. I don’t think Davis is a Christian; I seem to recall reading she is an atheist, but I’m not certain.

In any case, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she put a description of the procession into the book, toward the end, and I thought immediately of our Lord, who led His own triumphal procession after the Cross, “when He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, [and] made a public display of them (fallen angels), having triumphed over them through [the Cross].” (Col 2:15)

Paul was referring here to the Roman practice of the triumphal procession, something I doubt any of us have seen, but Davis’s description really made it take on shape and substance for me. It runs for several pages, and to try to reduce it to a paragraph or two completely guts the impact.  Not wanting to commit copyright infringement I’ll have to recommend you find the book itself to read the full description

One of the things I was surprised to learn from her portrayal was that the Emperor had the role of Chief Priest, another parallel to our Lord who is our High Priest. Then there was the Crown of Jupiter which was held over the Emperor’s head as he rode in his chariot  – the crown of a god, which no mortal man can wear. And our Lord being the God-Man, but crowned as a man, king of the Jews, Lord and Head and Husband of the Church. And she even had the slave whispering sic transit gloria mundi — “the glory of the world passes away.” I first learned about that slave from Colonel Thieme years ago, so it was a kick to see him presented here.

As an interesting side note, I noticed in a timeline in my Handbook that not long after this procession, which occurred 71 AD – a year after Jerusalem’s fall — Rome was hit with both plague and fire. I do not think that is coincidental. Nor the fact that 10 years after Titus, under Vespasian’s command, destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, another fire in Rome destroyed Vespasian’s newly completed temple to Jupitor.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Marcus Didius Falco and his world. Perhaps the next book will even reference the above mentioned plague and fire…

A Book I Am Supposed to Read

Some time ago, maybe March or April (I’ve forgotten)  I reserved a book from the Library. I’d seen the title somewhere — I’ve forgotten that now, too. I’m thinking maybe PowerLine Blog. They often do reviews of current books, and I recall thinking this book might be interesting. It’s a #1 bestseller from this year, and had a gazillion holds on it, which is why I didn’t get it until last week.

It’s called In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, and it’s about an American family in Hitler’s Berlin. I thought it was fiction, and by the time I got the notice that it had arrived at the library and was waiting for me to pick it up, I had no idea why I’d even reserved it. Did I really have time to read it? After all, I’ve just come to the conclusion that I need to start pruning things out of my slate of activities to give more time to writing.  Well I’d give it a look at least.

Shortly after that notice arrived came another telling me the Brad Thor novel I’d reserved had also arrived. I’d just finished rereading The Last Patriot (my previously posted review of it is here) and was eager to start the next one in the series. I figured that would likely be the first of the two books I’d read. So Friday I picked up both of them around lunch time.

Also at this time, as many of you know, I’m in the middle of writing a novel about an embassy and Ambassadors to an evil empire. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I can really make this analogy work, and have been seeking the Lord’s counsel on this matter repeatedly.  I’ve also been listening to Pastor John Farley’s series on discernment in the spiritual life, particularly about how people and organizations who are energized by evil are compelled to hide it, thus they do everything they can to appear good, right down to being in the church itself. The Bible says they may even come as pastors (disguised as “ministers of righteousness”) teaching false doctrine to the unwary (2 Co 11). It’s been a fascinating study.

Anyway, I got home with my books and started looking at In the Garden of Beasts.

It’s not fiction, it’s nonfiction that reads like fiction. So says the material on the cover flaps. It’s about a real man and his daughter. The man, William E. Dodd becomes America’s first AMBASSADOR(!) to Hitler, “in a year that proved to be a turning point in history!”  What? An ambassador? Did I know this when I reserved it? I might have, but I had completely forgotten if I had.

He’s there with his wife, son and 24-year-old daughter Martha. The tale is told from his and his daughter’s perspectives. It’s a story about an ambassador and embassies and all the things they do. I found out in the very first chapter that he was born October 21, 1869. The date I had picked up the book and was examining it? Friday, October 21, 2011.  Weird.

It’s about “Hitler’s ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant.”  Which is more or less the story path my villain is to take in Sky.

More… the prologue from the author reads like an illustration of recent Bible lessons. Here’s an excerpt:

I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler’s rule. How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them? Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time, the course of history could so easily have changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?

<snip>

Every morning [my two main protagonists] moved through a city hung with immense banners of red, white and black; they sat at the same outdoor cafés as did the lean, black-suited members of Hitler’s SS, and now and then they also caught sight of Hitler himself… But they also walked each day past homes with balconies lush with red geraniums; they shopped in the city’s vast department stores, held tea parties, and breathed deep the spring fragrances of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s main park. They knew Goebbels and Göring as social acquaintances with whom they dined, danced and joked — until, as their first year reached its end, an event occurred that proved to be one of the most significant in revealing the true character of Hitler…

<snip>

There are no heroes here… but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know — now — to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it.

These are complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature. “

Could it be any clearer that I was supposed to read this book?

Yes.

After looking through it and reading a couple of chapters and marveling at all the above, I picked up the Brad Thor book, just for a peek. This is a dangerous practice that all too often leads to six or seven hour reading marathons as I delude myself with the assurance that I’ll read just one more chapter and then I’ll put it down. Besides, I’d already read its first chapter at the end of the Thor book I’d just finished and I wanted to find out… Wait… what’s this after page 6? Someone’s ripped out page 7/8?  And here’s another:  page 51/52, also missing. And 53/54 practically gone as well. I could just go ahead and read it, but I’ll be frank. I want to read ALL the pages of the book as it was written and the very idea of just skipping over them grates.

Better to bring it back and get a new one and not let someone else get this rude surprise. So I took the Thor book back, the person at the library threw it away, took it out of their catalogue and reserved a new book for me. Temptation removed.  “Read this one now,” God says to me, in reference to In the Garden of Beasts.

Very well then. I will. And I have started it. It is fascinating, definitely “addictively readable.” I’m learning many things. One that stood out: they didn’t call it a swastika at the embassy, but the Hakenkreuz or “broken cross.”

Willing to Be Bad

I’m reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In fact, I first read it years ago. Maybe you’ve heard of it, if you’ve been involved with the artsy community in any way. I think I bought and read it maybe fifteen years ago.  The book’s subtitle is “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” and its tagline is A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self.

It has some good stuff in it, but also lots of weird stuff, for though she talks about God and seeking out the “Great Creator” to find one’s own creativity, this is not a Christian book. And years ago, I only made it  about halfway through before I got too annoyed by all the New Age gunk and put it aside. Later I took it to the used bookstore.

About a month ago, I got down the journal I’d kept during that time, one that goes with the “course.”  Part of that course is to do morning pages — three pages of handwritten, stream of consciousness material, done first thing upon rising every day – and this journal had some of those morning pages, plus a lot of quotes from the book as page decorations. I was surprised by how doctrinal they were. Here’s a couple, in italics, with the verses that say the same thing (not italicized).

“I am a channel for God’s creativity and my work comes to good.”

“I am the Vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

“For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to execute for His good pleasure.” Phil 2:13

“My dreams come from God and God has the power to accomplish them.”

“Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.” Ps 37:4,5

“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything you may have an abundance for every good deed.” 2 Co 9:8

“There is a divine plan of goodness for my work.”

“I am willing to let God create through me.”

“Faithful is He who calls you and He will bring it to pass.” I Th 5:24

You get the idea. Having recently been shown that God is able to use evil priests (like Caiaphas) and donkeys (Balaam’s ass) to communicate truth, and having experienced His ability in using unlikely sources to speak to me personally, I decided to buy a second copy of the book and give it another shot.

And today, in reading an early part of it, I found this:

“Remember that in order to recover as an artist, you must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.”

Whoa!  Did that bring back memories! I know this. I know it from painting and I know it from writing.

Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird :

“Why I encourage really, really awful first drafts is because this is how every single real writer I know writes. My students have this illusion that good writers sit there as if they’re just taking dictation and it’s coming out fully formed. I believe that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor and the enemy of the people. It makes it impossible for us to get anything down. As soon as you can break through that need, and just let yourself write whatever comes out, knowing that no one’s reading over your shoulder, knowing you can go through and start to shape, cut stuff out, save it for other projects… winnow out what the real structure and the real story is that you’re attempting to capture, then you’re home free. Sort of.”

I saved this quote in a special book along with a number of others from other writers, all advocating the same thing. You must be willing to let it be bad.

In that vein of thought I realized that by trying to get everything in the story and the world and the characters worked out and logical and ready before I could move on in Chapter 1, I had hamstrung myself. That’s not even how I work. The moment I gave myself the permission to just go forward, letting it be awful, illogical, with stupid dialogue, lame characterization, inscrutable or nonexistant motivations, inconsistent, arbitrary world building elements… something seemed to release inside me. My interest perked up. Is this the key? Is this what I needed to see?

I don’t know. I’ll know better in the morning. But things suddenly seem hopeful. I am SOOO sick of laboring over the first three pages of Chapter 1, the whole of which is already written, albeit, ahem, badly. The thought of just leaving it and moving on is rather exciting.

Thoughts from Black Hawk Down

I was going through some papers in my office the other day and found the following, which I pulled from the Afterward of the book Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, which I read many years ago. I remember this section surprising me at the time; now it seems profound in its truth , a very clear elucidation of the human condition with respect to volition and something worth recalling and reflecting on from time to time:

“It was a watershed,” says one State Department official . . . “The idea used to be that terrible countries were terrible because good, decent, innocent people were being oppressed by evil, thuggish leaders. Somalia changed that. Here you have a country where just about everybody is caught up in hatred and fighting. You stop an old lady on the street and ask her if she wants peace, and she’ll say, yes, of course, I pray for it daily. All the things you’d expect her to say. Then ask her if she would be willing for her clan to share power with another in order to have that peace, and she’ll say, ‘With those murderers and thieves? I’d die first.’ People in these countries — Bosnia is a more recent example — don’t want peace. They want victory. They want power. Men, women, old and young. Somalia was the experience that taught us that people in these places bear much of the responsibility for things being the way they are. The hatred and the killing continues because they want it to. Or because they don’t want peace enough to stop it.” (pg 334-335)

And then a little later, this from p 345:

“Every battle is a drama played out apart from broader issues. Soldiers cannot concern themselves with the forces that bring them to a fight, or its aftermath. They trust their leaders not to risk their lives for too little. Once the battle is joined, they fight to survive as much as to win, to kill before they are killed. The story of combat is timeless. It is about the same things whether in Troy or Gettysburg, Normandy or the Ia Drang. It is about soldiers, most of them young, trapped in a fight to the death. The extreme and terrible nature of war touches something essential about being human, and soldiers do not always like what they learn. For those who survive, the victors and the defeated, the battle lives on in their memories and nightmares and in the dull ache of old wounds. It survives as hundreds of searing private memories of loss and triumph, shame and pride, struggles each veteran must refight every day of his life.

[snip]

“Many of the young Americans who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu are civilians again . . . They are creatures of pop culture . . . Their experience of battle, unlike that of any other generation of American soldiers was colored by a lifetime of watching the vivid gore of Hollywood action movies. In my interviews with those who were in the thick of the battle, they remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the deaths, was real. They describe feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal. This cannot be real . . . To look at them today, few show any outward sign that one day not too long ago, they risked their lives in an ancient African city, killed for their country, took a bullet or saw their best friend shot dead. They returned to a country that didn’t care or remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat; it just didn’t matter. It’s as thought their firefight was a bizarre two-day adventure, like some extreme Outward Bound experience where things got out of hand and some of the guys got killed.

I wrote this book for them. “

The Andromeda Strain

Recently I reread Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. I first read it not too long after it came out in 1969 (at least the paperback), which would have put me in high school or college. I kind of think high school because 1) I had no time to read any novels during the 4 years I was in college and 2) I remember not really having much of an idea what was going on in it.

As a result I did not read Crichton again until Jurassic Park came along in 1990. I had no problems understanding what was going on in Jurassic Park, in fact, I loved it and went on to read almost all of Crichton’s novels until his death. Now I’m going back to catch up on his early work.

Re-reading The Andromeda Strain I certainly understood why I might not have grasped what was going on the first time, since it’s heavy on the science/medical stuff which I had no frame of reference for in high school. This time I had no problem with any of it, because almost all of it was familiar.  The funny part was how outdated it was combined with the pervading tone of  “Wow! isn’t this new computer technology mind-blowing?!”  Now days all that stuff is clunky and slow, and the “weird” new technologies are commonplace.

What was even more interesting to me, and what I now see runs through almost all his work, is the idea that science is fallible and subject to the effects of ignorance, stupidity, naivite, arrogance and thus — my conclusion here — not to be worshipped.

He starts in the “Acknowledgements” which is actually part of the story, and says:

“This book recounts the 5-day history of a major American scientific crisis. As in most crises, the events surrounding the Andromeda Strain were a compound of foresight and foolishness, innocence and brilliance. Nearly everyone involved had moments of great brilliance and moments of unaccountable stupidity.

To the list he adds fatigue, minor but not uncommon malfunctions of machinery, and incorrect but logical assumptions born out of pre-existing mindsets that affected the investigator’s perspective and direction of inquiry. All these combined in the story to hinder and dangerously delay their arrival at the truth of what the Andromeda strain was and what it did.

I found it a treatise on the fact that man is not and never will be omniscient. There will always be vast areas of truth he will never comprehend. In fact, I believe there are some things we will never be capable of figuring out — or of truly understanding even if God flat-out tells us. After all, He’s already flat-out told us He is three persons in one essence and we don’t really understand that. Nor how Jesus Christ could have borne all the sins of all time in His body on the Cross in just three hours. Nor how He can be God and Man in one person forever, the two natures separate but inseparably united…

But I digress from the book. Because it seemed that these conclusions were everywhere. Case in Point:

“Biology… was a unique science because it could not define its subject matter. Nobody had a definition for life. Nobody knew what it was, really. The old definitions — an organism that showed ingestion, excretion, metabolism, reproduction and so on — were worthless. One could always find exceptions.

The group had finally concluded that energy conversion was the hallmark of life. All living organisms in some way took in energy — as food, or sunlight — and converted it to another form of energy and put it to use.”  [Emphasis mine]

One of the characters then presented three objects as rebuttal to this definition: a black cloth that absorbs heat, a watch with a radium dial, and a piece of granite which he challenged the other team members to prove were not living.

The cloth absorbed heat, seemingly to no purpose, but how can we say that for sure?  The watch showed decay in process, and the production of light, but again how could it be said for sure there was no purpose in it? Finally the granite, which he claimed was living, breathing and walking, only at such an infinitesimally slow rate we can’t see it. To the granite we are like flashes in the light. I loved this. Made me think of God, though of course He does see us, and has revealed Himself to us. He has not left us at the mercy of our limitations of sensation and rationalization, only of our volition.

The scientists finally conceded

That it was possible they might not be able to analyze certain life forms should they arrive…might not be able to make the slightest headway, the least beginning in such an analysis.

I loved this for the elemental humility that is in it, for showing the limits of science and man and drawing parallels (though not explicitly) to God, who is not only an “alien” life form, but the source of life.  And we cannot analyze Him, not in full, even with His word. Delving into questions like these should make us sit back and realize that.

As a culture and a civilization, we’ve spent so much time and energy and man-hours of effort trying to analyze our world, trying to figure out how the Lego pieces fit together, as it were. We’ve “invented” and produced a lot of things that supposedly make life easier and safer and healthier and cleaner. But… I do not believe we are any happier than any other generation of people. Because the only one who’s really worth all that time and effort to understand is God who is the only source of true happiness.

Early Warning

Over the weekend I started reading a book called Early Warning by Michael Walsh, who used to be music critic for Time magazine. (It shows – he sneaks in all sorts of musical references, like naming a character after a character in the opera Turandot or using Elgar’s Enigma Variations to introduce a discussion about cryptology). The biographical material at the back of the books says Walsh was born on the US Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, comes from a long line of American servicemen dating back to the Spanish-American War, and grew up among veterans and intelligence officers in duty stations around the world. Which grants him a degree of credibility for what he’s writing about.

Early Warning is a “Jack Bauer novel”… that is, its set-up is very much the same as that of 24 — the hero, supersecret operative “Devlin” is part of a supersecret security agency buried in the National Security Agency, a man who pretty much answers to no one but himself and has direct access to the president whenever he wishes. I’m only about a third of the way through, and the story is apparently a continuation of earlier tales, but it seems Devlin may have as traumatic a history as Bauer has ended up with. Anyway, I’ve been enjoying it.

And then on p100 I came to a part about wiretapping, which is no longer about faux telephone servicemen connecting wires in boxes, but is in fact, more like the Kraken released from its lair (we saw Clash of the Titans recently)… a many tentacled beast far beyond our ability to control. I knew we were on our way to this situation; I did not realize we were there.

Here’s what Walsh says, writing in the thoughts of one of his characters, the director of the NSA:

“The Black Widow was the in-house nickname fo the NSA’s Cray supercomputer at Fort Meade. Forget privacy — no matter what the sideshow arguments in Congress were about the FISA laws or civil liberties, the Black Widow continued to go remorselessly about her job, which was to listen in on, and read, all telephonic and written electronic communication, in any language, anywhere in the world. It was the old Clinton-era “Echelon” project writ large, able to perform trillions of calculations per second as it sifted and sorted in its never-ending quest for key words, code words, patterns…

[snip]

“…The Black Widow not only heard all and read all, she could sense all: the technology had advanced to such an extent that the Widow and other Cray supercomputers like her — including the Cray XT4, known as the Jaguar, and the MPP (Massively Parallel Processor) housed at the University of Tennessee– could read the keystrokes of a given computer through the electrical current serving the machine. And all linkable.”

Well at that point I put down the book and went Googling. I’d thought the Black Widow might have been made up but what about the Cray XT4 Jaguar?

Real. Even has its own Wiki article here.

The Massively Parallel Processor?

Also real.

And so, to my surprise, is the Black Widow. Here. And here.

Note in both of these  latter references, one of which is the Cray Press Release, there’s nothing directly said about spying, other than the fact that these highly advanced supercomputers are provided to the government… presumably for research, since that’s all that’s mentioned in the release.

I did find some references to spying in a book review in the Baltimore Sun by David Wood. Reviewing The Shadow Factory by James Bamford, Wood says,

“Most convincingly, Bamford guides the reader through the NSA’s greatest challenge: staying ahead of the explosive growth in volume and types of communications.

“Voice traffic alone increases 20 percent a year. Digital cell phones and fiber-optic cables vastly complicate the eavesdroppers’ job. Today, the NSA’s colossal Cray supercomputer, code-named the “Black Widow,” scans millions of domestic and international phone calls and e-mails every hour. That’s harder than it sounds: For purposes of speed and encryption, many of these communications are transmitted in fragments. The Black Widow, performing hundreds of trillions of calculations per second, searches through and reassembles key words and patterns, across many languages. Storing all this data, Bamford reports, is already an enormous headache for the NSA.”

Full article here.

Since this was not an article on the NSA but a review of a book about the NSA, and since it seemed these words were only here reported as having been written by Bamford in the book, which I’ve not read, I went looking for corroborating information.

And came across ECHELON : ” a term associated with a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched. The processors in the network are known as the ECHELON Dictionaries. ECHELON connects all these computers and allows the individual stations to function as distributed elements an integrated system. An ECHELON station’s Dictionary contains not only its parent agency’s chosen keywords, but also lists for each of the other four agencies in the UKUSA system [NSA, GCHQ, DSD, GCSB and CSE]“

So it does seem to be credible. I found the above link through Elizabeth Pratt’s blog The End Time where in one post she writes about Echelon and the computers and how easy it will be for a one world dictator to force everyone to carry the mark of the beast. With GPS and satellite surveillance, with the government having the ability sift through all electronic communication…they will be – maybe already are — able to keep tabs on everyone, and I would even guess using satellite surveillance and/or infrared they could find those without the mark (since they’d show up as a warm body without the proper signal from their implanted microchip”) so they can round them up for “beheading”. Elizabeth quoted from Rev 20:4 “…And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand…”and when I read it, I thought, Does it really say beheaded? Indeed, it does.

Well, I can see how a preference for caves and paper communication might develop in such times!

In any case Ms. Pratt has a lot of interesting thoughts and information, charts, maps, etc, so if you’re interested in seeing how close we are to being able to keep track of absolutely everyone as well as everything they are saying to each other, electronically, at any rate, I recommend her post

Thankfully, all who’ve believed in Christ won’t be here for the actual Tribulation where they’ll be forcing everyone to get a Mark, but it’s amazing to see things that 50 years ago were unheard of, developing right in line with Biblical prophecy.

The Last Patriot and Abrogation

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading The Last Patriot by Brad Thor over the weekend and finished it today. I enjoyed it. Kind of like reading about Jack Bauer.  Plus I learned some interesting things.

Part of the plot hinged on Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Wars against muslim pirates in the early 1800′s and Jefferson’s search for Mohammed’s supposed last word/revelation from God which, according to the principle of abrogation would supersede all preceding text.

This was the first I’d heard of abrogation (at least under that term and that I can recall!) which is a concept in Islamic scholarship dictating that since the Koran was written by one man over the period of his own lifetime, documenting a series of visitations and revelations from the angel Gabriel, when any contradictory verses come up, the later verses abrogate the earlier. Thus a last word urging muslims to abandon violence and embrace peace, would nullify all those verses about violent jihad in Sura 9 and supposedly do away from Islamic fundamentalism as we know it today.

As far as I know there was no last word — the author admitted devising that part as a plot device — and really, I would expect there not to be. In fact, I had a bit of trouble suspending my disbelief on that one count, though it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story. Rather it provided food for thought, and I always especially enjoy books that do that.

Abrogation seems like a weird idea to be applied to something that is supposedly the pure word of Allah, and a “perfect” book. Allah must not be eternal, immutable and omniscient like Jehovah if he kept changing his mind, or didn’t know how his commands were going to turn out and needed to refine them. This quibble is especially true  in the context of The Last Patriot, where we were supposed to believe that once it came out that Mohammed’s last words were about living in peace, everyone would just throw out the stuff in Sura 9 and the jihadists would be without a route to martyrdom. But … what kind of god is that? Either the infidel is evil and must be killed or he is not. How can Allah not know?

Well, that part was made up by the author, so I can’t fault Islam. But my opinion is that Mohammed was not met by Gabriel but more likely Beelzebub or someone of his ilk, and that Islam, like all religions (true Christianity is a relationship, not a religion), is yet another device of Satan to deceive and to counterfeit what God has done.

In doing some reading on Roman religion recently, I was struck with the fact that prior to the coming of Christ the dominant religions all involved idol worship. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans all worshipped many gods. Only the Jews were monotheistic (which quite ticked off the Romans since they thought everyone should be nice to everyone else’s god… sound familiar?) Then came Christianity, also monotheistic and eventually coming to power and superseding the old idol worship of the Romans. Some six hundred plus years after the birth of Christianity, Mohammed had his visitation and Islam was born. And to me the whole thing looks like a rip off and distortion of Christianity and Judaism combined into a new religion to distract people from the others. 

I find it interesting that at first Mohammed approached both Jews and Christians in friendship, wanting to join together with them, wanting them to help confirm his claims of being visited by God. When they rejected him, I don’t suppose it’s surprising he’d eventually receive word that they were now the enemy and worthy of destruction. Which so echoes Satan’s view on the matter, it’s clear to me Mohammed was only a pawn. (If Satan can destroy the Jews, then God will not be able to fulfill His promises to them, and will be made a liar, impotent and not-God. Which gives Satan a chance; and of course he just hates Christians outright since each of them is a member of Christ. He likes nothing better than to trip them up, make them look like fools, make them “curse God and die”, and get them sidetracked from the true plan of God for their lives. But if he could, I have no doubt he’d just wipe us all out…

Anyway, that wasn’t much about The Last Patriot  I guess, but it was an example of one of the thought trips its premise took me on. It was a fun and engaging read and, as you can perhaps tell from my trip, very informative and relevant to today. In fact, having first learned of ‘abrogation’ only last week, today I received an email on the three important things about Islam that most people don’t know. The first was abrogation!  (the second was sharia law and the fact that while the word “islam” does mean “peace,” it also means submission and thus is the perfect word for the religion – because when all others have been forced by its devotees to submit to it, by conversion or death, and it is finally is the only religion in the world, there will be peace.  But no freedom.

And the third important thing about Islam most people don’t know? That for muslims, deception is okay. In other words, taqiyya.

(I felt rather well-informed today!)


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