Tag Archives: books

Pooh, Books, and Dads

If I think back to fond memories of being with my dad during my childhood, there’s one thing that always comes back first. It’s those late summer evenings outside. Dad often had outdoor projects going on of some sort. I’d go out there hanging around, maybe chatting, maybe playing with cats, or maybe doing something of my own.

Dad often had an old AM radio sitting around and would be listening to a baseball game while working. As it got darker, lights would come on, and the bugs would start flying near them. Sometimes dad would be working just inside the barn, and the bugs would start flying in there, while some light poured out the big front door. There’s something about that scratchy AM signal, the evening slowly getting darker, the slow pace of the baseball game, and just being around dad and a peripheral part of whatever he was doing that stirs a wonderfully fond recollection in me.

I don’t remember the specifics of any one of those times, nor do I really remember how often it happened, but it does stick with me.

We’ve had a routine in our house, starting early enough that neither of our boys know anything different, where right before bed, I read a book and sing a song to each of them individually.

Last November, I was looking for some books to challenge Jacob a little more than what we had been reading. I found The Complete Winnie the Pooh used for $4 on Amazon. This contains the original A. A. Milne stories, not the Disney series. It had a few line drawings, but there were many pages without any. It’s 352 pages and written in a rather dated form of British English. So for all these reasons, I wasn’t sure if Jacob would like it. But it was $4 so I bought it.

And Jacob was hooked. Each evening, we start bedtime with looking at the “map” of the 100-acre forest, just inside the cover. He gets to pick out 4 things for me to describe, and then we turn to our story. We usually read somewhere between 2 and 5 pages at bedtime, depending on how well he got ready without wasting time. And then we sing.

A. A. Milne has his Pooh character make up songs throughout the book. They are printed with words only, no tune, so I make up a tune for them as we go. Jacob has taken to requesting these songs for his bedtime song as well.

Jacob always gets to choose his bedtime story, and sometimes he chooses a different one — but about 75% of the time, it’s been Pooh.

A few weeks ago, he started noticing that we were almost to the end. He got very concerned, asking what we’d do next. I suggested a different book, which he didn’t like. Then I pointed out that we could restart the Pooh stories from the beginning, which was exciting for him.

Last night, we finished the book. The very last story was an interesting one, suggesting Christopher Robin growing up and no longer having imaginary adventures with the animals, but making Pooh promise to always be there for him. I don’t think Jacob caught onto that meaning, though. When we finished it, we had this conversation:

Jacob: “Dad, is that the end?”

Me: “Yes.”

Jacob, getting a big smile: “Yay! So can we start back at the beginning tomorrow?”

Me: “Sure!”

Jacob then gave a clap, shouted “Yay!” again, and was a very happy boy.

Sometimes I wonder what our boys will remember in 25 years of their fun times with me. I don’t know if Jacob will remember all the days reading about the animals in the 100-acre wood when he was 4, or maybe he’ll remember watching train and combine videos, or playing radio hide-and-seek, or maybe something entirely different.

But I have no doubt that I will remember sitting on the couch in his room, holding him on my lap, and reading a 350-page book to a loving 4-year-old. As Pooh aptly put it, “Sometimes, the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

Looking back at 2010: reading

A year ago, I posted my reading list for 2010. I listed a few highlights, and a link to my Goodreads page, pointing out that this wasn’t necessarily a goal, just a list of things that sounded interesting.

I started off with Homer’s Iliad, which I tremendously enjoyed and found parallels to modern life surprisingly common in that ancient tale. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I quickly jumped to a book that wasn’t on my 2010 list: The Odyssey. I made a somewhat controversial post suggesting that the Old Testament of the Bible can be read similar to how we read The Odyssey. Homer turned out to be much more exciting than I’d expected.

Jordan’s Fires of Heaven (WoT #5) was a good read, though it is one of those books that sometimes is action-packed and interesting, and other times slow-moving and almost depressing. I do plan to continue with the series but I’m not enjoying it as much as I did at first.

War and Peace is something I started late last year. I’m about 400 pages into it, which means I’ve not even read a third of it yet. It has some moving scenes, and is a fun read overall, but the work it takes to keep all the many characters straight can be a bit frustrating at times.

Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith was one of the highlights of the year. A thought-provoking read by someone that embraces both science and religion, and shows a vision of religion that returns to its earlier roots, less concerned about what particular truths a person believes in than it is about more fundamental issues.

Marcus Borg’s Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary began with a surprisingly engaging history lesson on how agriculture caused the formation of domination societies. It also described in a lot of detail how historians analyze ancient texts — their drafting, copying, etc. It paints a vivid portrait of Jewish society in the time that Jesus would have lived, and follows the same lines of thought as Cox regarding religion finally moving past the importance of intellectual assent to a set of statements.

Among books that weren’t on my 2010 list, I also read — and here I’m not listing all of them, just some highlights:

The Cricket on the Hearth in something of a Christmastime tradition of reading one of the shorter Dickens works. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed A Christmas Carol last year. Perhaps I made up for that by watching Patrick Stewart as Scrooge instead.

How to Disappear Completely was a fun short humorous read, with a very well-developed first-person narrative.

Paralleling my interest in amateur radio, I read and studied three books in order to prepare myself for the different exams.

In something of a surprise, I laughed a lot at Sh*t My Dad Says, which was more interesting and funny than I expected it to be. All I can say is that Justin’s got quite the dad and quite the interesting childhood.

I even read two other recent releases: The Politician (about John Edwards) and Game Change (about the 2008 presidential race). Both were interesting, vibrant, and mostly unsourced — so hard to know exactly how much to take from them.

And finally, reflecting on and travel before my first trip to Europe, Travel as a Political Act, which encourages us to find the fun in “my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.” And that was fun.

Now to make up the 2011 list…

Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.

I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.

And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.

Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?

This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.

I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”

Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.

It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.

A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?

The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.

I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.

I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.

Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.

Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.

Sing to Me, Muse

(a review of Homer’s Iliad)

Here, therefore, huge and mighty warrior though you be, here shall you die.

– Homer (The Iliad)

And with that formidable quote, I begin my review of The Iliad. I shall not exhaust you with a rehashing of the plot; that you can find on Wikipedia. Nor shall I be spending page upon page of analyzing the beautiful imagery, the implications of our understanding of fate and destiny, or all the other things that compel English majors to write page after page on the topic. Nor even shall I try to decipher whether it is a piece of history or a piece of legend.

Rather, I intend to talk about why I read it: it’s a really good story.

Sing to me, O goddess Muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, which brought countless ills upon the Acheans.

As I’d be reading it, I’d think to myself: “Ah ha! Now here we finally have a section of the story that doesn’t speak to modern life.” Perhaps it was a section the fear of being enslaved or butchered by conquerors, or about pride leading both sides to fight a war they need not have, or a graphic description of a spear going clear through someone’s head or neck.

And then, I’d have to sit and think. Are we really so far removed from that? Here we are, in a supposedly civilized world. We use remotely-operated drones to drop bombs on people, and think it naught but regrettable “collateral damage” when the brains and intestines of dozens of innocent victims are scattered about, killing them, all for the chance of killing one enemy. But we aren’t the only ones to blame; we live in a world in which killing the innocent is often the goal. People fly airplanes into skyscrapers, drop atomic weapons to flatten entire cities, and kill noncombatants in terrible numbers. And for what? A little power, some prestige, some riches, some vengeance, some wounded pride?

Slavery is not dead, either. We that can happily afford Internet access most likely abhor the thought. What, though, can we make of the fact that people are starving in this world in record numbers? That our actions may literally wipe some nations off the map? Are those people as free as we are? Do our actions repress them?

I suspect you can’t read the Iliad without being at least a bit introspective.

Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable

One of the great things about reading the Iliad is that I can learn about the culture of the ancient civilizations. Now, of course, one can read about this in history books and Wikipedia. But reading some dry sentence is different from reading a powerful story written by and for them. I know that the Iliad isn’t exactly a work of history, but it sure shows what made people tick: their religion, their morals, their behavior, and what they valued. I feel that I finally have some sort of insight into their society, and I am glad of it.

The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words.

There are gory battle scenes in the Iliad, but then there are also heart-wrenching tender moments: when Hector leaves his wife to go fight, for instance, and worries about the future of his child if he should die.

That’s not to say I found the entire story riveting. I would have liked it to be 1/3 shorter. The battle just dragged on and on. And yet, I will grant that there was some purpose served by that: it fatigued me as a reader, which perhaps gave me a small sense of the fatigue felt by the participants in the story.

Why, pray, must the Argives needs fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the host and bring them?

A question that was never answered, for either side: why are we so foolish that we must go to war? One tragedy among many is that neither side got smart about it until way too late, if ever they did at all.

I read The Illiad in the Butler translation, which overall I liked. Some of these quotes, however, use the Lattimore one. This completes the first item on my 2010 reading list.

I leave you with this powerful hope for the future, written almost three thousand years ago. Despite my criticisms above, we have made a lot of progress, haven’t we? What a beautiful ideal it is, and what a long ways we have yet to walk.

I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.

Sing to me, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, that one day his story may speak less to our hearts, for then will we have outgrown it.

Review: A Christmas Carol

I guess you can say that A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has been a success. It was published in 1843 and has never been out of print since then. It’s spawned all manner of plays, films, adaptations, and spoofs. It’s been adapted at least twice by Disney, once featuring Mickey Mouse and another time featuring Jim Carey. We’re almost inundated with the story — I’m not sure how many ways I’ve seen it. Yet I had never read the original story by Dickens until just now.

And I must say, what a treat it was. Despite knowing the plot in advance, it was a very good read. The 19th century London setting was done well. It wasn’t some idealized London as is often portrayed in film adaptations. It had depth, as did the characters. Dickens’ Scrooge had a troubled childhood, the son of poor and apparently abusive parents. He turned to business, with which he was successful. Along the way, he lost sight of family, and really of his humanity in general, striving to be a richer and more successful businessman at the cost of all else.

How apropos this story is for us in the 21st century. Our large banks define success in terms of profits made for their shareholders, while adding more gotchas to the terms of the credit cards held by their customers. Our governments play geopolitical games over weapons, oil, and gas, while unwilling to sacrifice anything to prevent a climate disaster. Our politicians, even in the season of Christmas, turn a blind eye and a cold heart to the suffering of those that can’t afford health care for naught but political reasons, rather than trying their hardest to make a plan that will help them reality as soon as possible.

And what of us, the citizens of the 21st century? We consume ever flashier cars, houses, computers, and cellphones with data plans, while poverty intensifies across the globe in this economic downturn.

Well, count me among those many inspired and reminded by Dickens to be a more empathetic person, to remember how good even many of the poor in the West have it compared to other parts of the world, and to try to do more for others.

And that, perhaps, is part of the genius of Dickens. He inspired a complete change of how people looked at Christmas in his time. And his work is no less relevant today; perhaps it hits even closer to home these days. He invites us to carefully consider the question: what does it mean to achieve success in life? And he deftly illustrates that “wealth” is wrong answer. Here’s hoping that many others will also learn a small bit about life from Dickens.

How to find it:

A Christmas Carol is available for free from Project Gutenberg for reading online, printing, or reading on an ebook reader such as the Kindle.

Be careful when buying printed editions. Many have been abridged or “improved for a modern audience”, and thus lose a lot of the quality of the original. I found at least one edition that looks true to the original; I’m sure there are others.

[This review also posted to Goodreads]

Review: David Copperfield

I finished reading David Copperfield on the Kindle a few days ago. This is a review of the novel, not the Kindle.

I’m not an English major, and so I’m not going to pretend to be one. I’m not going to discuss what themes the book touches on, what category it fits in, or generally dissect it to the point where it’s more monotonous than fun.

I read the book because I wanted to, not because I had to write a paper about it.

I must say, first of all, that this has got to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. The vivid descriptions of the characters were just fun to read. One particularly meek man was described like this: “He was so extremely conciliatory in his manner that he seemed to apologize to the very newspaper for taking the liberty of reading it.”

Some of the scenes in the novel are amazingly vivid and memorable. The hilarious and tense scene towards the end where one of the main villains is taken down was one, and of course just about every scene involving David’s aunt is too.

Dickens is a master of suspense. He does it through subtle premonitions in the book. You might not even really notice them as you’re reading. But it sure had an effect on me: I had trouble putting the book down, and stayed up later than I should have on more than one night to keep reading another chapter or three.

Like any good book, this one left me to think even after I was done reading it, and left me wanting to read it again. Right now.

There are some practical downsides to it, though. It was written in the 1850s, and some of the vocabulary and British legal, business, and monetary discussions are strange to a modern American audience. Nevertheless, with the exception of the particularly verbose Mr. Micawber, you can probably make it through without a dictionary, though one will be handy. I read it on the Kindle, which integrates a dictionary and makes it very easy to look up words. I learned that a nosegay is a bouquet of showy flowers. And that Mr. Micawber was fond of using words obsolete since the 17th century, according to the Kindle. If you remember that “pecuniary emoluments” refers to a salary, you’ll be doing OK.

The other thing that occasionally bugged me was that the narrator (David) would comment on some sort of gesture, or comment that wasn’t very direct, and then say something like, “But she didn’t need to be more explicit, because I understood the meaning perfectly.” Well, sometimes I didn’t. Though I usually figured it out after a bit. I was never quite sure if Dickens was being intentionally needling to the reader, or if an 1850s British reader would have figured out the meaning perfectly well. But that was part of the fun of it, I think.