Monday, November 28, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Deception by Randy Alcorn

There are no spoilers in this review.


  Normally I do not read best sellers but after reading a review of the movie, I became intrigued.  The premise is provoking.

A young woman commutes on a train into London every day.  She passes by a row of houses with porches adjacent to the train tracks.  

Each morning she sees a couple having breakfast on their porch.  They are openly affectionate with each other and the woman, Rachel, enjoys watching them.  In a way she feels a connection to them.

She has even named them:  Jason and Jesse.  Their happiness and marital stability gives her a kind of comfort.  Because just four houses down is the house she used to live in with her husband.

Her husband still lives there, only now with his second wife.

This aspect of the novel which is pretty much all I knew about it, resonated with me because I used to live in places where I took a commuter train or a bus to and from work and home.

I also would see the same people either at the depot or along the way and one does develop a sort of imaginary connection with them.  Not that I gave anybody names or fooled myself into thinking I had any relationship with them but I did enjoy the familiarity, if that makes sense.

That is where the similarity with my life and Rachel ends.  We soon learn that nothing is as it seems, not even Rachel.

Without giving anything away, because I know a lot of you would like to read the book or see the movie, which is currently out, I'll just say that a murder occurs and Rachel has the horrible feeling that she is somehow involved, maybe as a witness, maybe something worse.  When you read the book or see the movie you'll know why.

The book is written in first person, present tense.  Normally I do not like that format but it works in this case.  Mostly we get Rachel's perspective, but there are two others who also contribute a few chapters, which is well done and effectively serves to forward the story.

Having said that, this book does not encourage me to read any more best sellers. 

It seems the unreliable narrator is in vogue these days.  No one can be trusted, not even the person telling you the story.  It was fascinating when Henry James used it, here it comes across as trendy.  I noticed in other reviews many compared the book to Gone Girl, which apparently uses the same tool.  The comparison did not persuade me to read Gone Girl.

No doubt many will enjoy this book. It is your typical murder mystery and the writing is well crafted.

I personally found the characters, all of them, sad, pathetic, empty, isolated and alienated. I felt no sense of satisfaction at the end. But maybe that's how books are written nowadays: without a moral compass or sense of purpose, only nihilism.

  Is that the norm in popular novels nowadays?  Creating characters that all suffer from Radical Attachment Disorder?  I would be very interested as to why anyone would enjoy spending time immersed in stories like that.  Isn't life bleak enough without fantasizing about it?,204,203,200_.jpg 

Deception is the third in a series of murder mysteries by Randy Alcorn and, in my opinion, this is the best written.  It came ten years after the second book and he must have really developed his writing chops during that time.

Ollie Chandler, whom we met in the first two novels, though as a background character, is the star.  He is a homicide detective, recently widowed, estranged from his daughters, and the ultimate cynical agnostic. 

A professor of Philosophy and Ethics is murdered in his home and the evidence is bizarre.  Dr. Palatine has a rope around his neck, three gun shots in his chest and several vials of blue ink injected into his veins.  

On his computer is a message:

"I, Dr. William Palatine, do not deserve to live.  I've crossed boundaries and forfeited my life.  I admit my arrogance.  I deserve judgement.  I should be cast into a deep sea with a millstone around my neck."

Ollie arrives wearing his trench coat ( like Bogart in the Maltese Falcon, not a rain coat, "that's what Columbo wears") and fedora and accompanied by an Oregon Tribune journalist (the Chief's idea of creating good rapport with the press).   He sees too many "bread crumbs", like someone was trying to leave a lot of different clues on purpose to cover up any accidental clues they might actually have left.  They were left in a way only someone familiar with homicides could accomplish.  This discovery leaves Ollie with an uncomfortable and risky conclusion.

What I liked about this book?  Just about everything.  It was a well developed mystery that left a bread crumb trail of clues that the reader could add up and arrive at a believable conclusion.

In addition to that, Ollie is just plain funny.  He's a wise guy, quick-witted, sarcastic and cynical.  The banter between him and the other characters are fun to read.  I loved reading about Ollie.  I was sorry the book was over and I hope Alcorn is going to write more about him. 

In fact I'm re-reading it to my husband and I'm enjoying it all over again, especially since I know how it ends I can appreciate all the subtle hints and clues provided throughout the story.

Probably the only thing that someone wouldn't enjoy is that Alcorn is a Pastor and even though the protagonist is a non-believer, the story is written from a Christian world-view.  

That does not make the story sickly sweet and syrupy.  Alcorn does not shy away from the grittiness of life.  In fact, he is more realistic than the author of Girl on a Train because Hawkins' characters are paper thin and people in Alcorn's novel, as in real life, have more dimension.

Alcorn shows desperate people in desperate circumstances but pierces the darkness with an otherworldly light, which allows the reader to sympathize with every character as they struggle with their personal demons.

I'm glad I read both, even though I enjoyed only one because they provided a sharp contrast and provided me with the opportunity to evaluate what I value in a good read.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

I have finally finished this book containing three novels by George Orwell.  The first, Burmese Days, I reviewed last year and you can read the post here.  

I set the book aside but last month read the remaining two stories. 

Keep the Aspidistra Flying comes largely from the viewpoint of Gordon Comstock, a poet, working at a bookstore while trying to launch his career as a writer.  He is poor, lives in a lower income-but not the lowest as we later see- tenement house run by a persnickety landlady who  exacerbates Gordon's already hard life with rules such as no smoking or making tea in his room.  Not that Gordon observes any of her rules, it's just annoying to have to cover up his "crimes".

He wants to live solely as a poet but he's not rich.  The money he makes at the bookstore is barely enough to pay his bills and keep him from starving, hence his is a grinding existence.  He has a girlfriend but he can't afford to marry her.  He shakes his fist at his lot.  Yet it is his choice to live like this.

Gordon worked at a business where he wrote jingly sort of slogans for advertisement posters.  He made a decent salary and met Rosemary there.  But he felt this sort of work beneath his artistic soul, as if he were prostituting his talents.  So he quit and began working at a bookstore for dirt wages where presumably he was able to keep his philosophical integrity intact.  He smirks at the "riff raff" who came in to read best sellers and popular romances, since he himself only read literature.

Yet he despises a lot of the classic authors as well.  Why are these "literary" authors considered so high brow when they write dreck, he moans to himself. Gordon leads a frustrated existence.

He has a girlfriend, as already mentioned, her name is Rosemary, but he can't afford to take her anywhere or do anything with her, least of all marry her.  He absolutely refuses to take any money she offers although he's not above receiving funds from his sister, even though he knows she is sacrificing financially in order to help keep him out of dire straits.

His friend, Ravelston, is an ardent socialist or communist, and a firm believer in a social revolution that would equally disperse the income of the rich and spread it around to the poor.  Since he himself is rich and on some level either doesn't make the connection that he would stand to lose a portion of his own money or, more realistically, he understands all too well that such "equal distribution" doesn't impact the rich as it does the middle class who, under such a system, are punished for earning wages by having a good chunk of their income taxed away, he can afford to be so "broad minded".

This has nothing to do with anything, but I imagine Ravelston looking like Russell Brand.

Ravelston does understand this, sort of; enough to make him feel guilty.  He attempts to exorcise this guilt by befriending Gordon.  It's his "see I'm mingling with the unfortunate" statement.  Nevertheless, Ravelston enjoys life, lives in a comfortable apartment, and has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys everything that Gordon cannot.  

Interestingly, Ravelston's girlfriend, also a member of his communist group, refuses to associate with Gordon or any of the lower classes, since they dress so poorly and stink.  I think this reflects perfectly the Armchair Socialist in our day.  They feel virtuous and fashionable espousing a theory that creates "equality" while enjoying their exclusive, elitist life; which is why they live in Aspen and not Harlem.

One could sympathize with Gordon if he wasn't so arrogant or so foolish.  An American magazine pays him handsomely for a set of poems. Oh, what Gordon could do with it!  Pay his rent, groceries, a couple of pack of cigarettes!  What does he do?  Blow it all away in one extravagent night.  

He invites Ravelston and Rosemary on an evening at a restaurant but succeeds in making it a painful experience for everyone by being so wasteful with his money, refusing contributions from either his friend or girlfriend, that what could have been a nice month's salary is gone before the next day.

As if that isn't bad enough, Gordon has gotten himself so drunk that he ends up with a prostitute, assaults a police officer during a raid and wakes up to find himself in jail.  Ravelston posts bail and, because the book store owner fires him for his conduct, allows Gordon to live with him.

What has any of this got to do with an Aspidistra?  If, like me, you didn't know what an Aspisdistra is, it is a type of plant that  people keep for decorative purposes.  Gordon's apartment has one that he purposely neglects and abuses but the poor thing refuses to die.

When Gordon eventually leaves Ravelston and lives in an even grimier apartment, behold! another Aspisdistra is placed there by his current landlady.  The plant seems to signify a middle class existence.

I say this, because in the end, Gordon at rock bottom, admits defeat.  Not only has his life sunk to a Sartre-esque existence, Rosemary is pregnant.  They must marry as far as Gordon is concerned.  A strong pro-life statement produces this conclusion, which raises Orwell in my esteem.

Rosemary suggests she abort the baby.  His response:

Though they were feet part he felt as thought they were joined together-as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his.  He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating- a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning. 

'No fear!' he said.  'Whatever happens we're not going to do that.  It's disgusting.'

He returns to the advertising company, receives his old job and enters into a middle class existence. He marries Rosemary and they move into a nice apartment, nothing upscale but appropriate for a middle income family.

One thing is lacking and Gordon goes out to buy it, but not without a row with Rosemary.  He wants an Aspisdistra.  Rosemary doesn't want such an ugly plant in her apartment but in the end Gordon gets his way.  

The story doesn't end there.  As they walk down the stairs to the florist, Rosemary stops suddenly.

'Oh Gordon!'


'I felt it move!'

'Felt what move?'

'The baby.  I felt it move inside me.'

'But it did really move?  You're sure?  You really felt it move?'

'Oh, yes.  It moved.'

For a long time he remained kneeling there, his head pressed against the softness of her belly.  She clasped her hands behind his head and pulled it closer...Somewhere in there, in the safe, warm, cushioned darkness, it was alive and stirring.

For all the dark and dreariness of Gordon's life, the story ends on a hopeful note.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Andrew Lang

Listening to Fantasia by Ralph Vaughn Williams, one of my favorite composers.    You can listen here.

It's November 3rd and finally down to 75 degrees.  I mean here in my house with the air conditioning on.  It's still hot outside.  Clouds have finally covered up the sun and it is beginning to look a little bit like fall in Texas so maybe we can finally enjoy some cooler weather.  I'd put my guinea pigs in their pens outside but the acorns are falling pretty hard.  I'd hate for any of them to get beaned.  I had to come inside from reading on my swing for fear of getting pummeled myself.  Where's Piglet?  He needs to come to my backyard with a big basket.

The Iliad

I vaguely recall reading The Iliad in high school but all I remember is that Achilles chased Hector round and round the city of Troy before finally catching him and killing him.  I remember feeling sorry for Hector.

I believe most people know the basic theme of the Iliad but in a nutshell:

Iliad or "Ilium" is another name for Troy and this epic poem starts about ten years into the Trojan war against the Greeks.  Homer is credited with writing it but it is likely that he compiled older oral lore and put it all in poem form.  The reason I think this is because there are parts of the tale that are not included in the poem, such as Paris kidnapping Helen, or the death of Achilles.

Let me first admit that I'm not a big battle scenes fan and this is what The Iliad largely is.  My translation is by Andrew Lang and it is beautifully poetic and eloquent.  It also seems to take forever to say anything.  "Then Achilles put on his bronze shoes and his breast plate.  He put on his fine helmet, engraved with gold and many fine stones, he picked up broad shield, inlaid with beautiful designs..."  I'm paraphrasing, but couldn't we just say "Achilles got dressed and bounded out for war"?

There are long (very lovely!) descriptions of the battles, the glory of conquest, the warriors' armor, the banquets, the lamentations and the glorious funerals honoring the fallen.  There are also some pretty horrific descriptions of the merciless treatment to the victims as well as animal sacrifices, which have always bothered me.

I could not help but contrast it with animal sacrifices in the Bible mandated by God.  God's animal sacrifices were reparation for sin and consequently gave the people to understand how awful sin was and that it led to death. The innocent animal was receiving the death sentence the person deserved.  This ritual pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the one and final innocent sacrifice to make reparation for the sins of the world. 

 In Greek mythology and probably their culture,  animal and sometimes human sacrifices were to get the gods to do what the people wanted.

In The Iliad it is interesting to note that the gods took sides.  Practically all of them, led by Athena and supported by Hera, take the side of the Greeks.  Zeus, however, and also Aphrodite and Ares take the Trojan side. 

Before reading The Iliad, I never before appreciated how powerful Athena was portrayed.  She is the one most involved the war, coming down in the form of humans to advise, encourage and exonerate.  She physically overpowers and conquers Artemis, and Aphrodite and even Ares, in fact, she gives them all quite a bruising.  Aphrodite and Ares she even throws down to earth.

Considering the status of women in Greek culture I find this amazing. She seems to be second in power only to Zeus, and even then, her side wins.  I would like to study this more and find out the origins of the cult of Athena and how a woman came to be so powerful as a goddess, while the human women seemed to be so helpless, especially around Zeus.

Death and war seemed to be so much a part of life back then (as opposed to now, ha, ha) and caused so much suffering.  Elaborate funerals were developed unto an art form.  

The lust for battle and conquest are given places of honor, something we can see even in Arthurian legend and Viking lore.  And what about today?  What are everyone's favorite scenes in Star Wars?  My son, when he was young, used to fast forward through the scenes with any dialogue straight to the light saber fights.  He'd fight along with his own saber.  He still does that, only now he makes movies with light saber scenes which qualifies it as a serious art form and not playing anymore (wink).

I'd be interested in reading other translations to see if they are easier to read.

Does anyone else like the Iliad and have a favorite translation?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

 Playing on youtube is a lovely rendition of Love's Sorrow by Fritz Kreisler performed by YoYo Ma and Patricia Zandler.  I hope you will enjoy it as well while you read my post.
Rosaria Champagne was a tenured professor at Syracuse University in 19th Century Romantic Literature and Cultural Studies.  Her primary field was Critical Theory which is also known as Postmodernism.  Her specialty was Queer Theory which is a postmodern form of gay and lesbian studies.

She and her lesbian partner owned a couple of homes, fostered abused dogs, and provided hospitality to gay and lesbian students at her university.  She enjoyed cooking vegetarian meals, making peached iced tea and baking bread for guests.  Champagne (I use her maiden name here since she was not Butterfield yet) was also the coordinator of the Welcoming Committee, the gay and lesbian advocacy group at a Unitarian Universalist Church where she and her partner were members.

She had spoken at numerous college Commencements, Convocations and Gay Pride rallies.  Her professorship was rigorous and had high standards.  As a result she was prolific at writing research papers in her fields.

She had written a paper on the gender politics of the Promise Keepers, an Evangelical Christian group for men.  Her next project was to write a paper on the Religious Right.  She decided she needed first hand accounts so she called up a Pastor from a local conservative Christian denomination.  His response surprised her.

Pastor Ken Smith of a local Reformed Presbyterian church invited her over for dinner with him and his wife.  This lead to several dinners together and what she describes as a "train wreck" of her life.

Ms. Butterfield is a reader.  Her routine after supper was to get in her pajamas and read in bed for the evening.  When she decided to study the Religious Right she immersed herself in the Bible spending five hours reading it daily.  If that doesn't put the average Christian to shame, nothing does.

To make a long story short, Rosaria Butterfield became a Christian but she didn't come peacefully.  

I often wonder:  God, why pick me?  I didn't ask to be a Christian convert  I didn't "seek the Lord."  Instead, I ran like the wind when I suspected someone would start peddling the gospel to me....How did a smart cookie like me end up in a place like this? (from the Acknowledgments page.)

There were things I liked about this book and, things, frankly, I did not like.

First of all this book should really be three books, each book developed to a much deeper level.  I felt as if none of the sections provided enough detail to provide the reader with adequate information to clearly understand her walk before her conversion, her struggles with conversion and her life as a Christian.

She admits that the book took her fourteen years to write because she and her husband kept adopting children and at six children, plus other foster children, the book understandably suffered several interruptions.  Nevertheless, I think after fourteen years she could have come up with more than 148 pages worth of material.

We learn a little of her life as a professor and the lesbian community she was involved in, but not enough for anyone to have individual faces.  We know they treated her conversion as a tragic betrayal over which they mourned, but other than that we know nothing of them. 

I also would have liked to have learned a little more about her upbringing.  She tells us her family was Catholic, her father died while she was still young and that's it.  She practiced a heterosexual life until the age of twenty-eight and then became a practicing lesbian.  That's a full package there and it would have been nice if she had unwrapped it for us.

We know very little about the church she joined or the people that populated it.  We don't really even know how she met her husband or why she married him.

We do know that immediately after leaving the gay lifestyle she jumped into an unhealthy relationship with a man who also struggled with same sex attraction.  This part has its value as it shows that we can't take everyone's profession of belief at their word.  

I think she included this part to explain why she left Syracuse University to teach at the college where her fiance was attending seminary.  He eventually left as it became apparent that he had not actually surrendered his life to Christ, but she stayed long enough to meet the man she is married to today.

I do congratulate her on her courage.  While still at Syracuse, she was elected to talk to the Graduate Student Orientation Convocation at the beginning of the year.  In her book she includes the entire speech which reveals her change of life and beliefs, and the change in her coursework as a result.  There was much disappointment and outrage.

However, interestingly enough, it also provoked a lot of curiosity.  Her new coursework centered around her new beliefs and the classes were filled to capacity, with students sitting on the floor.  She began hosting people at her house (her partner had moved out) for Bible study and it was attended just as much as her previous groups were.

Butterfield provides insight into the University culture, sometimes without intending to.  She admits that her Women's Studies syllabus went as thus:

NB (nota bene, or, "note well") Students are expected to write all papers and examination essay questions from a feminist worldview or critical (postmodern) perspective.  In Spanish class you speak and think in Spanish.  In Women's Studies you speak and think in feminist paradigms.  Examination essay questions written from critical perspectives outside of feminism will receive an automatic grade of F.  Papers written from critical perspectives outside of feminism will be allowed one revision.  Any student who is unable to write and think from a feminist critical perspective or worldview with a clear conscience should drop the class now.

How did I get away with this?  The secular academic world is bold in its protection of worldview.  

She goes on to say that all her colleagues had the same syllabus, working as a bloc.  She admits that "an interpretive community consciously and intentionally protects its way of thinking."

  So much for celebrating diversity in academic thought.

And yet, even as a Christian, Butterfield throughout the book is critical of Christians (by which she means conservative evangelicals) who, according to her all think alike and therefore, don't think at all.  She seems to have trouble coming to grips with the fact that being a tenured professor where the criteria seems to rest largely on your lifestyle choice doesn't make you an intellectual heavy weight. 

Did she forget she admits that University professors "protect their worldview?"  It's not the Christian community that creates "safe spaces" from people with opposing opinions or wants to censor classic literature due to "micro aggressive" stories that could produce "post-traumatic triggers".  

When over eighty percent of University educators are on the extreme liberal side of the  cultural spectrum, I don't believe a lot of intellectual exchange is transpiring.  

 My niece is half way through her first year at the University of North Texas.  She complained to her mother, my sister, that in her English Honors Literature class they only discuss literature in the context of sexism and racism.   What a waste of golden opportunity.  Instead of imbuing students with a love for literature they are teaching them to despise it.

Butterfield's personality seems to be one of intensity and single mindedness.  When she left the gay community and entered the Christian community she remained just as intense and single minded.  She joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church which, from what I can tell, is orthodox in its belief and solid in its faith.

However, they firmly believe, at least Butterfield does, that their form of worship is the only one that is truly Biblical.  This includes singing only Psalmody (the Psalms in the Bible) and without instruments.

She is also a hard core Calvinist.  She insists that we do not choose God, He chooses us, even against our will as in her case.

I wouldn't mind any of that, I'm probably more in the Calvinist camp than any other even though I struggle with some of its more extreme tenets, at least as they are understood by modern Reformed Scholars and Theologians.  I have been reading through Calvin's Institutes, something I recommend every Christian to do, and I don't perceive some of the harsher sounding precepts propounded on today by some Reformed Theologians, even though I have the greatest respect for them and know them to be far more informed and intelligent than me, hence my struggle.

What I do mind is how Butterfield apparently went from being an elitist Lesbian to being an elitist Christian.  She does not hide her contempt for Conservative Christians making sweeping statements about them (us) about how we hate gays (untrue!) and worship in "Disneyland Churches" with our coffee bars and Contemporary worship bands and Praise teams.

It's almost as if she wants everyone to know, "OK, I've become a Christian, but remember, it was against my will and I'm still very smart, not like all those other yahoos who call themselves Christians."  Apparently she has not been able to shed the "us and them" mentality she fostered before her conversion.

The last section concerns the growth of her family after she married Kent Butterfield.  They adopted five children from a couple of months old to teenagers, all "children of color" as she calls them.  She refers to her family as "transracial" which sounds a little pretentious to me.  Can't you just say you adopted some black kids?  

Nevertheless I do commend her for it, especially since she also home-schools them and are foster parents as well.  She includes some interesting stories about the tragic lives of some of the children they fostered and I would dearly have loved to have read more of this.  

To recap: putting her occasional pontificating aside, I really would like to see her write three books elaborating on each section she skimmed across in this one.

You can hear Ms. Butterfield on this Youtube channel.  Her speeches are worth listening to: