Sunday, May 29, 2016

Agatha Christie: Five novels and I Should be Dead by Bob Beckel

Mozart's Sonata for Violin and Piano in F K376 is playing in the background as I review two very different books for my latest blog post.  This is going to take a little longer than normal since I sliced my ring finger while cutting vegetables.  The bulky bandage my poor finger is sporting allows me use of only the pointer finger but so far I'm getting along passably without too many mistakes.,204,203,200_.jpg

Agatha Christie's novels are different than her short stories, or any short mystery stories.  In the short story version of murder mysteries, the fatal occurrence happens almost immediately with a quick overview of clues and possible motives before sliding into home and ta da!  Mystery solved.

In Christie's novels, almost half the novel is used to develop the characters almost to where one forgets he is reading a murder mystery.  I suppose this is to give added depth to characters.  And I suppose it would if it was a murder mystery written by Tolstoy.  Agatha, bless her heart, does a fair job at plot development but other than getting murdered, acting suspicious, and solving crimes, her characters don't have a lot of inner soul.  

In short, I don't find her novels as interesting as the short stories.  In the first few novels, she succeeds in making everyone equally amoral and suspicious of the crime.  Her strategy would be to keep you guessing as to which of these emotionally detached people actually committed the crime when all of them seem capable of it. 

There's a sameness to the quality of her characters and stories so that individuals aren't worth describing because the difference is in the details: the place, names of characters, murder victim...otherwise it's the same template.

Maybe it's that I find using a human body as a stage prop around which to build a story a little disturbing, although I do like reading them so I can't be too self-righteous about it.

The story that rises above the rest is Dead Man's Folly which stars Inspector Poirot.  Because the suspects aren't respectable, it's a relief to be able to attach oneself to a lovable character with a moral compass.  He is the sun shining through the clouds and provides balance. 

Dead Man's Folly was also better developed than the other stories and had an unexpected twist that brought the whole thing to a gratifying conclusion.

  Another exception is the last story, M or N.  This story is not based on a murder and I enjoyed it better than the others.  It is about a husband and wife team, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who served in WWI and are now being called back into commission  during WWII. 

 Their job is to ferret out a German spy team, male and female, believed to be residing in a small coastal town.  We meet all the people living in a boarding house, one or two who must be the German spies.  Here Christie succeeds in meting out her clues, spaced far enough apart to maintain the reader's interest and to allow him to feel as though they lead to a logical conclusion.  She does not always do this in her other stories.

Too often she throws new information out at the end, putting everything in a different light.  I think this is a cheap trick and not satisfying.  

In M or N I was able to collect clues and successfully guess who the spies were before the end.

That was a good story.,204,203,200_.jpg

I don't have cable and rarely watch TV; however, before I got smart and started bringing my Kindle to the gym, I would idly watch one of the shows playing on one of the many TV screens as I pedaled, stepped or ellipped (what's the word for using an elliptical?)  With inane sitcoms, MMA, and talk shows (I won't say which in case I offend anyone), I would usually settle for FOX news.  The show normally on when I was working out was The Five at Five.  

This show has a semi circle of conservative hosts who comment on current events in a snarky, entertaining way (if you enjoy such).  They had one token liberal on the show, a middle-aged, overweight man in suspenders bearing a striking contrast with his younger, attractive fellow commentators.

I think it is an irony that even though I really didn't agree with much of what Bob Beckel had to say, I liked him.  He was witty and always had a quick comeback for the sarcastic remarks directed at him by his co-hosts.  He seemed kind of like the underdog and I always root for the underdog, even if I oppose his politics.

So it was with interest that I read an article in a magazine interviewing him about his Christian faith.  When I saw his autobiography at a book fair I bought it.

I'm always interested in people's journey to faith. Beckel's story is one of an alcoholic/hard substance abuser whose life was a train wreck.  He credits Jesus Christ with turning his life around.

His conversion only comes into the last fifty pages of the book.  The rest of it is how his life became such a wreck in the first place:  alcoholic parents, abusive father etc..

I was impressed with his honesty.  He sugarcoats nothing.  He spent his youth mostly stoned.  He joined the Peace Corp to dodge the draft then hid in Indonesia to avoid working for the Peace Corp.  While in Indonesia he spent his time doing what he liked best:  drinking, taking drugs and sleeping with prostitutes.

Throughout his escapades one wonders how he managed to stay alive.  Even when he checked into rehab centers he conned his way into what he wanted. 

Beckel states that there are two types of people coming out of alcoholic families: victims and survivors.  He was a survivor.  He learned early on what to say to people in order to use them.  Prostitutes were the best way to attain sexual gratification with no strings attached.

In middle age, he married and had a family and it seemed began caring about other people, mainly his children.  This was what I consider the beginning of his redemption.  He became desperate to want to change, realized he couldn't do it by himself and turned to God.
The other valuable contribution this book provides is Beckel's experience in politics.  Beckel rose in the political world becoming campaign manager and consultant for governors, senators, including Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
He reveals the inner machinations of our political system and it is eye opening.  If for no other reason, this book is worth reading to see how politicians operate, who they listen to, and how they make decisions.  Hint:  the average person has little to do with how the big boys make laws. 

 My only complaint is that Beckel's language is raunchy  and I don't know how a Christian finds it acceptable to use language that is unbecoming to a follower of Christ.  I will conclude that he is a work in progress as are the rest of us.

Finally, Beckel has a great sense of humor and the book is well written, moves at a good clip and is both heart rending and entertaining.  I read it in one sitting (I stayed up until 5 am.)

Due to a slow recovery from back surgery, Beckel resigned from his job at Fox and is now a commentator and analyst on CNN.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Christianity's Dangerous Idea by Alistair McGrath

  I bought this book a couple of years ago and have already read McGrath's The Passionate Intellect and his biography of C.S. Lewis.  McGrath is a historian, biochemist and Christian theologian from Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A one time atheist and  professor at Oxford University, he is now a Christian and holds the Chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London.

I like reading his books because he is committed to challenging Christians to use their minds and intellects to explore and affirm their faith.  While I don't agree with him in all areas, such as his stance on evolution and certain Biblical truths he seems vague on, his work is well-researched and reflects his own commitment to making reasonable and intelligent arguments concerning the Christian faith.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea is a historical account of the origins of Protestantism, its spread throughout Europe, America and eventually the world, its development and adaptation to change and its current cultural face as it exists today.

He starts with the Reformation with Luther and Calvin and meticulously traces their beliefs, comparing and contrasting it with the prevalent Catholic theology and its turbulent spread across Europe, including heretical break offs.  He also explains the separate but contemporary development of the Anglican church under Henry VIII in England and its own struggles between the state church and Puritanism, Puritanism being the branch of Reformed theology that traveled from Geneva under Calvin to Scotland via John Knox.

We travel with the Puritans to America where they were committed to setting up their own churches, free from established state churches and building our great educational institutions today such as Harvard and Princeton.  They also incorporated laws that protected citizens' rights to worship as they believed not as a state controlled religion would impose on them.  

Somehow the Puritan's laws have been twisted today to mean that citizens no longer have a right to worship as they please if it comes into conflict with state-imposed secularism.  Hence wedding caterers and bakers are forced into bankruptcy for "hate crimes" because their beliefs don't conform to state-ordained statutes of what constitutes right and wrong.  Nuns and other businesses have to go to court to defend their personal religious beliefs about birth control and abortifacients. New definitions have been created to determine what discrimination means and freedom of religious expression is being sacrificed at this alter.

Protestant movements saw this as a danger in the 17th century and came to America to freely practice their beliefs and legally protect all people's beliefs.

An interesting phenomenon occurred within the Protestant denominations and McGrath asserts that the very nature of Protestantism produced it.  Because an overhead authority in the form of the Roman church  came between the individual and the Word of God, there was unity in belief and worship.  People did not try to interpret the Bible for themselves, but rather allowed the Holy See to interpret Scripture for them.  This produced a uniformity of worship and doctrine.  Protestants said that their only authority was scripture "Sola Scriptura" and that they needed no human intermediary.

What this produced was many variants of Scripture interpretation and a fractured church as Protestants broke into many denominations, each interpreting the Bible according to their own understanding.

Or so McGrath says and this is where I disagree with him.  He seems to discount an essential phenomena to the Christian walk.  Namely, that when a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity comes to dwell with him, the Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised this in John 16:13:

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

and also:

1 John 2:27:

As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. 

 Consequently, even though there are many Protestant denominations who worship in a variety of ways the differences are secondary.  Each Protestant church will claim the same truths concerning salvation and evidence of that salvation.

The difference lies between churches who believe in the inerrant truth of the Bible and those who claim the Bible is not inerrant.  

McGrath shows the pattern of almost every denomination and how each one eventually splits into two groups:  Liberal and Conservative.  I find these names ironic because the "liberal" churches believe the Bible says whatever you want it to say and any scripture that contradicts modern culture and morals must be wrong.  Conservatives believe one of the attributes of God is that He is immutable.

Malachi 3:6
For I, the LORD, do not change

James 1:17
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.  

Hebrews 13:8
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 

McGrath makes the argument that people misunderstand the truths of the Bible therefore, the "meaning" of Scripture can change as Christians gain greater understanding of it, but again this belies the power of God and His ability to impart truth to even the simplest of people.

He uses the argument of Christians justifying slavery using the Bible.  I counter that argument by saying that the people who use the Bible to justify slavery are the same people who would twist the meaning of Scripture today to justify acts of immorality.  They didn't rely on the truth of the Scripture but manipulated it to mean what they wanted.  This is a sure sign someone does not have the Holy Spirit with them.

One of the most interesting topics McGrath writes about is the missionary work and its consequent spread throughout the world that the majority of Christians now live in the "Global South" as it is called.  The biggest Protestant church in the world is in South Korea with a significant underground church in North Korea and China.  Africa and South America also have fertile population growths of Protestant churches.

McGrath claims that two characteristics of Protestantism is responsible:  changing the face of Christianity so that it no longer is entrenched in a European culture and the spread of the Pentecostal movement.

Because of Protestantism's ability to remain malleable, it is able to adhere to Biblical truth while embracing cultural norms of other societies.  Therefore, Africans, South Americans etc. can incorporate their own culture and worship God inside a familiar context.

Ironically, because so many American and European churches have become liberal, those churches are fast losing populations (why go to church if I can believe whatever I want?) while their Global southern counterparts are conservative in Biblical practice and are growing by leaps and bounds. 

The other phenomenon is the rapid spread of the Charismatic movement.  McGrath argues that this particular brand of Protestantism more closely adheres to African, Asian and South American beliefs in spiritualism, faith healing and casting out of demons.

He notes that in America the Pentecostal movement started on Azuza street in 1906 (although many other factors led to that movement) by Charles Parnham Fox and spread throughout America, largely through the poor underclass.  Interestingly, similar movements started in Korea, India, Chile, Venezuela and other countries, even in Norway, around the same time.  For those who are unfamiliar with Pentecostalism, it is the belief that when one becomes saved, one is "baptized" by the Holy Spirit and receives a special "prayer language" that enables the believer to speak in tongues.  This can be while praying to God or in an assembly where an interpreter will reveal to the congregation what was said, usually a message from God for the edification of the people.

There is division among conservative Protestant groups as to the validity of this belief, however, it is a secondary difference.  Pentecostals and other conservative denominations are unified in the essential core beliefs of Christianity:  saved through faith in Jesus Christ, inerrancy of the Bible et al.

Pentecostalism is one of the fastest spreading branches of Protestantism and it is estimated that around 300 million Pentecostals exist world wide (Pew Forum).

I personally found this book fascinating because I love to trace historical roots of our present culture and connect the past to the present.  It gives me a greater understanding as to the cultural context in which I live my life.  I also love to approach belief systems and how they fit in globally.   As a Christian I feel connected to my fellow believers worldwide.  McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea helped me connect our Christian past to its present and value it all the more.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations by Paul Hindemith

 Here are all the books I'm currently reading

After making such high claims in my last post of making a self-imposed deadline to publish a book review each Sunday, I have succeeded in missing the last two Sundays.  It is not that I'm not reading a boat load of books, I just had not finished  any of them until now.  Therefore, with Ralph Vaughn Williams' exquisite Mass in G minor playing in the background (I'd play Hindemith but his music is way too aggressive to concentrate by) I put pen to paper (figuratively).

I don't know how interesting this book will be unless you love the music of Paul Hindemith, something I'm quite passionate about, but maybe you will find his essays describing the process of turning sound into music worth reading.

Paul Hindemith was a German composer of the twentieth century.  He left Nazi Germany in 1940 and immigrated to the United States.  He is known for his percussive, expressionist style of musical composition.  I am most familiar with his Sonatas for piano and various brass, wind and string instruments because I have performed several of them.  This spring I played with a trumpeter and next fall I will be performing with a tubist.  My favorite, however, is the Sonata for piano and flute which I had the good fortune to play with a beautiful flutist (that describes her person and her playing)

 Hindemith's goal was to write a sonata for every instrument but he did not complete this endeavor.  My favorite performances are by Glenn Gould with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I've listed a few that I could find on youtube.  The entire set is on Spotify. Type in Hindemith Brass Sonatas. 

The first group of chapters were the most interesting.  He got a bit cranky towards the end of the book and I didn't entirely agree with his perspective.

His first chapter, The Philosophical Approach discusses various scholars throughout the ages, such as Boethius and Augustine and how they defined music.  I found quite a few thought-provoking gems through out this chapter.

Hindemith describes Augustine's philosophy of music thus:  "Musical impressions are by no means simple reactions to external stimuli but rather a complex mixture of sound and though sound can exist independent of a listener, one must hear before they can perceive and mentally absorb what took place.  This in turn releases reactions in the brain's center of hearing.  Then we must imagine music mentally.  Furthermore, music conjurs up mental images from prior experiences and adds to these experiences."

Boethius insists that "music is a part of our human nature" with the "power to improve or debase our character.  Our mind is a passive receiver and is impressed and influenced by the power music exerts."

He also believes, as did Keplar, that our planetary spheres are moved by music, causing the "cohesion of the entire universe".

The next chapter delves into how a listener perceives music intellectually.  How the listener constructs the music depends (according to Hindemith) on his musical literacy.  How can a listener with no prior experience in music accomplish such a "seemingly complicated task of music construction?" he asks.   After all, there "must have been in each human being's life a moment when a first conscious apperception of a musical impression did not permit any reference to former ones."

Hindemith attempts to explain this by asserting that we first respond to music through our own "acts of motility". That their "organization according to space, duration, and intensity," already "well established in his emotional experience, serves as measurement for these penetrating audible impressions." 

He then proceeds to explain how we perceive music emotionally in his next chapter.  We've heard that music is a universal language, but Hindemith declares that our emotional response is cultural.  He supports this by stating that a Western listener listening to Asian music for the first time would not detect in musical significance in it. 

His following chapter theorizes on how music is a vehicle for inspiration.  He makes the interesting comments that "the emotions released by music are no real emotions" but rather "images of emotion that have been experienced before".  He says that musical space is felt by our experience in real space. 

Chapter 5 and 8 describes the means of musical production.  Here he gets a bit technical, developing the concept of tones, overtones, and intervalic structure which, if one is not a musician, or a literate one ( can read and write music) won't make a lot of sense.  But I find his discourse on how music travels through space and the means by which to make this happen (instrument choice, what kind of material to use etc..) very interesting.

In Chapter 6,  7, and 9 Hindemith's tone takes a turn.  He becomes negative about composers who concern themselves more with form rather than substance.  He derides those who wish to dazzle with technique and style instead of quality musical communication.  He has the same criticisms for performers who would rather impress with their ability rather than "lose themselves" in the expression of sound so that the listener forgets the interpreter and only concentrates on the music. 

He also criticizes music being performed in space it wasn't written for.  He believes that most musical compositions were written for small areas and not large concert halls, which he asserts distorts the sound.  It also forces the performers to play on a scale (loudly, fast) contrary to the intentions of the composer.  He finds this especially true when large orchestras play Bach, Handel and Mozart on contemporary instruments rather than in small ensembles and on period instruments these composers' works were originally performed on. He rightly states that modern, versions of instruments can't possibly replicate the sound those composers intended.  However, he also concedes that it is presumptuous to say modern instruments are not equally effective in musical expression perhaps more so in some instances.

His final chapters lambast education and educators.  He believes far less people should choose a career in music and none should choose it for the sole purpose of teaching without developing a love a mastery of a particular instrument.

The last chapter deals with the music industry and again he thinks that there is a glut of mediocre musicians produced from universities because the schools want students to pay tuition rather than a sincere desire to cultivate first rate musicians and mercilessly cull out the rest.

Frankly, I think he is too harsh in this last instance and it really isn't his business who chooses to major in music and seek a career as a performer or teacher.  No one was forcing him to listen to anyone he didn't want to.

Still, all in all, I found this book to be enlightening and a rare opportunity to read the inner machinations of a great man's mind.

He will always be a favorite composer, even if I don't entirely agree with his music philosophy. 
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

I hope you will take time to hear these beautiful compositions.  I am not the pianist but I have performed all three with various instrumentalists.

Hindemith Sonata for piano and flute
Hindemith Sonata for piano and trumpet

Hindemith Sonata for piano and tuba

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why Call Them Back from Heaven by Clifford D.Simak; Mozart by Marcia Davenport; The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

It is 11:42  at night and I have yet to write any book reviews and the books are just piling up.  I'm starting to feel overwhelmed.  I probably will not be giving the most lucid reviews but am determined to maintain my self-imposed deadlines.  So with Ernest Chausson's beautiful song, Hebe, playing on Spotify I begin:

Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak,jpg.jpg/220px-WhyCallThemAce,jpg.jpg

Simak writes a strange tale of an America that has discovered how to bring bodies back to life.  At least a private company claims to have unlatched this secret.  As a result people are pouring all their resources and savings into a place to store their frozen body in order to be "resurrected" in a better future.  The problem is that they are destroying their present one for the sake of what may or may not be.

There are questions:  Is it true?  How do we know?  And even if it is true, what is this future world going to do with all these bodies?  How about the millions of bodies stored in third world countries who face hunger, poverty, and other deprivation?  Will they not simply reawake to another lifetime of the same predicament?

Then there are the Religious Ones.  Why continue in a sinful, corrupt world when one can die and live forever in Paradise with God?  Who wants to spend eternity in a fallen world?

With this backdrop we have a mystery.  One man, Daniel Frost, is on the run.  He worked for the Forever Center (the company that freezes the bodies) but somehow received a letter containing information that is crucial to Marcus Appleton, another employee.  Even though Frost has seen the letter, he doesn't understand what's in it, but he knows that Appleton is trying to kill him for it.  As Frost loses his identity, his right to be a citizen, or even provide a living for himself, he must also stay in hiding until he can find out how to expose the letter to the right people.

The ending, which I won't give away, poses another philosophical question and yes, it has to do with the secret that is uncovered in the letter.  This book deserves better commentary than I'm giving it here.  I read it to please my husband who loves this author and science fiction in general.  However, I'm glad I read it.  Thank you, Josh, for expanding my tastes in literature.

Mozart by Marcia Davenport,204,203,200_.jpg

Davenport wrote this biography in 1931 when the style was to dramatize rather than simply supply information.  I understand the thinking behind this method of biography.  It is an attempt to make the subject real to the reader.  So we have descriptions of Mozart smirking here, stamping his foot impatiently there, as well as several imagined conversations that might have taken place with his friends and family.

Like the movie, Amadeus, which I enjoyed, it creates a life like image of a historical figure so we can see him for ourselves.  The problem is, is that the image is largely a figment of the writer's imagination and consequently a false one.  I'd much rather the biographer write what actually happened.  I have read Mozart's letters so I have already experienced his "voice." 

That aversion aside, Davenport does supply us with information that gives us a greater familiarity with arguably the greatest composer whoever lived.  Her book gave me insight into his life and surroundings that I did not previously possess.

The thing from reading Mozart that strikes me most was how small he was in the eyes of his contemporaries.  The aristocracy were lukewarm to him and those who knew better were jealous and successfully sabotaged his career.  Still, slowly, Mozart began to make a name for himself, especially in Eastern Europe where they loved his operas.  If he had chosen to stay there he would have become financially successful. 

But he insisted on returning to his beloved Vienna, where they couldn't care less. If Mozart had lived longer than his thirty-five years he would have seen himself turn into the great legend he now is.  He was on the cusp as his music was gaining greater renown, even in Austria where his enemies retired or, realizing Mozart was on the way up, became his supporters.

One woman in old age was asked how she could be so blase about knowing Mozart.  Her reply was, "But he was such a little man!"

This book did succeed in making Mozart a real person who actually walked on this earth as a regular mortal.  It opened a window into his era and so I conclude that this book is worth reading.  I am now on a quest to find the perfect Mozart biography.  I have already started reading Mozart:  A Cultural Biography by Robert W. Gutman.  It is very different in its scope but I will write more when I finish it.

And finally....

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

It's past midnight and I'm going to be brief.  Ghost Stories contains eleven stories, each about twenty pages long, that deal largely with the same themes that Wharton covers in all her books:  Unhappily married women, beautiful descriptions about New England and British countryside and old manors and clever turns of phrases.  I enjoyed that last two attributes best.

The added element in these stories is that they also include ghosts.  None of them are alike.  Some deal with dead people from the family, others of people who were cheated and have returned for revenge.  Sometimes the person is an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of supernatural transactions that have nothing to do with them.  One, my favorite, is more psychological in nature in a Dorian Grayesque kind of way. 

Wharton had a traumatic, metaphysical experience when she was young which she said inspired these stories.  A small autobiographical explanation is included in the back as a small epilogue.

It is 12:20 AM, Eric Satie's Premier Gymnopedie for solo piano has just finished playing and I have given my two-cents worth on the last three books I've read. I hope you have the opportunity to read and enjoy them for yourselves.  Have a wonderful week!