Sunday, September 24, 2017

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

I heard music on the radio from a composer I did not previously know.  His name is Simon Laks and he was a Polish composer who was sent to Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. While there he became the head of the prisoner's orchestra there.  Here is a link to his Sonata for Violincello and piano the 3rd movement.

Some of you have read so much or listened to so much music, do you feel an excitement when you come across an author or composer you've never read or listened to before?  I know as we age that becomes rarer which makes the excitement all the more acute when it happens.  Please share your personal experience and the music or author you "discovered."

That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy #3)That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first read That Hideous Strength, it was my least favorite of Lewis' Science Fiction trilogy. Now I believe it is my favorite.

Evil forces have gathered for a showdown on Earth. We have seen some of this in the first two books but now the "bent" Eldil and their minions are showing their hand in hopes of destroying Earth.

It is insightful to see how much the evil Eldil hate mankind, because, of course, they hate mankind's Maker.

They are a pragmatic sort, however, and tell whatever lies, power hungry, perverse men are willing to swallow to achieve that end.

Our story starts out with a young couple, Jane and Mark. Jane and Mark are a modern, progressive couple and they have no patience with old fashioned notions of women and men's roles. Jane's ambition is to finish her thesis and Mark's ambition is to join the "inner ring" at the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E. for short.

This starts the trouble because Mark is invited to join N.I.C.E. He thinks. They certainly have invited him and have intimated that they want him, but for what? He cannot get a definite answer as to what his occupation would be or that he is even hired. When he demands clarity, he is warned that he will offend the director. Anxious to please, Mark subsides.

Meanwhile, Jane is having some very non progressive, non modern dreams. They are strange and disturbing and it seems they have something to do with an ancient man lying in a tomb.

All is not as it seems, to coin a phrase. It turns out the institute is not interested in Mark but want Jane. Her dreams will tell them the location of this mysterious man. Why do they want him? They believe he possesses power that will help them control the world.

At least that is what the men think. In reality, it is the Eldil who want the man to help them destroy the world. They play on certain men's lust for power to achieve their ultimate goals.

Lewis creates a brilliant expose on human nature and our reality on a metaphysical level.

Each person is a type and Lewis reveals their nature by narrating their thoughts to the reader. We smile and sometimes laugh in acknowledgement because we recognize ourselves and others in the different characters. We also are filled with loathing as we recognize the perversity and arrogance that characterizes so many people in our world.

I especially appreciate his descriptions of the men at N.I.C.E. Each one wants something from the Eldil. One wants superior knowledge and scientific advancement; another seeks supernatural experiences, a third wants freedom to experiment on animals and humans for his personal increase in knowledge and biogenetic engineering. Not one cares how many people they expend to achieve their selfish goals and they see the Eldil as a means to their own ends without considering that they are actually meeting the Eldils' ends.

In the end each of them find themselves, their person, individuality, and finally their soul, absorbed by the Eldil.

Dr. Ransom, the man who traveled to the planets in the first two books, is keeping a group of people safe from N.I.C.E in his house. These are the few that have not either capitulated to N.I.C.E.'s side or been jailed. Jane, at first unwillingly, then later most willingly joins them.

Ransom informs his small group that the scientists and professors at N.I.C.E. do not realize that the Eldil hate them as much as they hate everyone else and as soon as their usefulness is gone, these "intellectual" men will find themselves deserted and finally destroyed.

There are moments of real horror. The Head of the institute turns out to be exactly that; the decapitated head of a criminal who was executed in France. One scientist obsessed with creating life from dead men, like his own Frankenstein, has invented a method to infuse the head with saliva, blood, and oxygen. The Head then speaks and gives orders.

This is scary enough but worse revelations about the Head are around the corner and I won't reveal anything else so as not to spoil it for the reader.

There are also turning points. This happens primarily in Jane and Mark who at first are against Ransom's side and his group in that they dismiss them as antiquated and backwards in their "old fashioned" thinking about morals or believing in a Spiritual world. Both come around as they personally experience undeniable evil.

Mark's conversion is the best part. He transforms from being a self-absorbed toady to seeing N.I.C.E. for what it really is and no longer fears rejection of the "inner circle" or losing his job. Once he becomes fearless, he stops thinking only of himself and the reader sees Mark become more fully a man, more fully human as though the character change fleshes him out to where previously he was merely a thin out line of a person.

I should point out that not all Eldil are evil. As we learn in the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, most Eldil are good. Only the ruling Eldil of planet Earth is "bent" as the good Eldil call it.

And we eventually learn that Earth is not completely deserted by good Eldil. They are also here on Earth. They have traveled from other planets to battle the evil Eldil, something the bent Eldil did not anticipate.

I find the whole story a perfect analogy to the battle going on Earth now between good and evil.

And, as with all of Lewis' work. The reader is never deserted. We are reassured that good and the Author of good conquers evil. And again, we learn to love Lewis' characters as much as Lewis obviously loved people and consequently made lovable reflections of humans in his stories. We love them because we see them around us.

Lewis once said of Nathaniel Hawthorne that "he shows the darkness in men without ever providing light to pierce that darkness" (I am paraphrasing because I wrote it down from memory).

Lewis succeeds in piercing the darkness with his light-suffused stories.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens


I have no voice.  The change in weather always does this to me.  I get a cold in my head, it sinks to my chest...up and down and on the way it takes my voice away.  Luckily you can't hear me. I sound like a fog horn.  A fog horn with laryngitis.  I'm just croaking my days away.

 You, however, can listen to the smooth and luxuriant sounds of Jean Sibelius' Symphony Number Five.  It will be a much more aesthetically pleasing experience.

The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess DianaThe Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana by Peter Hitchens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peter Hitchens is in a sense is a prophet. Not the type that predicts the future, but the sort that clearly looks at the world and sees what is right and what is wrong.

In his book, The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana, he traces how the culture in the UK changed dramatically from a people owning a proud nationalist identity and Christian morals, even if they weren't particularly religious, to what we have today: people who are ashamed to possess anything other than a "global" identity and accepting any sort of social more or amoral code whatever.

He explains how this happened. Mostly through ideologues who made good use of the new medium of Television to change how people think about themselves and others. They did this through sitcoms that provided a "normal" that in the fifties and sixties was not normal and in fact different than most people's lives. However, as people lost contact with their community and spent their free time in front of the TV they developed a sense of community with the characters on the shows they were watching.

Lifestyles that had historically been considered perverse or deviant were now normalized. People can only be shocked once. Then it is accepted. Which means the shows' producers have to come up with even more shocking subject matter, which is then normalized and so on. I would point out certain televisions shows that are popular today as examples of how far we have sunk, but people I know personally watch those shows and far be it from me to offend anyone.

I especially like his observation that TV doesn't really show how people live, because if it did, it would show people sitting around for hours watching television.

He describes how legislation ostensibly designed to help the downtrodden has proliferated the downtrodden population.

Making divorce no fault, even if someone is at fault and forcing the man to financially support the woman, even if it was her fault and allowing her custody of the children regardless of the reason has simply multiplied divorces, and increased the number of women and children living off the state in poverty.

The other tool used by ideologues is education. Discipline and strong lines of right and wrong were dismissed, as was classical training. The rich plethora of classical literature that should rightly be the pride of Britain has been moved aside in favor of popular literature.

This came home to me one day when I met a young woman who had moved back home after teaching literature in various European countries for several years. I asked her if she was eager to begin this fall.

She said that she did not look forward to teaching the required reading list because it was all about college entrance.

"Oh," I said. "That must be limiting. What do you have to teach?"

"Greek and European literature from the last two thousand years. It's all Western culture. It doesn't represent other parts of the world."

"What country's literature would you like to teach?"

"I like Japanese."

I personally like classical Japanese literature so I asked, "Have you read 'Tale of Genji'? Or 'Shirobamba'?

She had never heard of either the oldest novel in the world or the classic story of a young boy's life in pre WWI Japan.

"What do you want to teach then?"

She then listed a number of current best sellers by popular Japanese writers.

"The problem is," she said, "is that the parents at school are hung up over language and sex. I didn't have that objection when I taught in London."


All that to say, Hitchens acutely diagnoses England and frankly, the western world's cause of cultural deterioration.

His best point is to expose the "imaginary" Puritan. This is the mythological person that is "shocked and appalled" over the "morally reprehensible" lifestyles of anything non conforming to Victorian cultural norms.

This person, as Hitchens points out, doesn't exist. But the media needs him and her to exist to feel as if what they are doing is "cutting edge" and "revolutionary". After all, you can't be a rebel unless you are rebelling against something. That something disappeared fifty years ago.

Today's ideologues have mastered the art of shaming to perfection. No one is going to publicly admit they think that certain modes of living is wrong or, dare I say, immoral. All sorts of "deplorable" names will be attached to you.

The final thing I admire about Hitchens' book, or at least Hitchens himself is that, as opposed to most authors who only include blurbs of glowing recommendations on the flyleafs, Hitchens includes people's remarks that obviously don't agree with him. Here are a few:

"Hitchens can do what he does best: provoke."

"Some passages are almost laughable in their old fogeyness while others are just plain offensive."

And my favorite:

"He stands like a latter-day King Canute, trying to turn back a tide of progress."

I have over simplified all that Hitchens has to say. He says much more. Such as how such a development took place in the first place without any kind of fight back from Traditionalists. The reason being that tradition is not a good reason for preserving anything, only immutable design and purpose of life that has always existed since the dawn of time stands the test. You cannot have a moral code without admitting that Someone created that code in the first place. And if this is true, society will flourish under that code and it will destruct if it deviates from it.

His writing style is fluid and I personally consider this a perspicacious declaration of where society is and how it got there, even if he was only talking of Britain.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Anatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and Present by Colleen Cross

I am a huge fan of Paul Hindemith.  Not everyone is, I know.  I accept that.  But I have also learned not to apologize when I tell people I'm performing a work by Hindemith.  Everyone assumes that because the piano part is a beast to play that I must hate playing it.  No, I love playing everything by Hindemith.  I, in fact, know what I am getting into when I decide to learn a Hindemith piece.  Music that requires several hours of practice is what I signed up for when I became a professional musician.

The piece I am listening to now is Symphonic Metamorphosis.

Anatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and PresentAnatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and Present by Colleen Cross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

" My game was simple. It was the old game of robbing Peter to pay Paul." -Charles Ponzi

In anatomy of a Ponzi, Colleen Cross endeavors to expose the world of investment scams to protect future victims and also hopefully create laws that provide more than a slap on the wrist to scammers.

The first section of the book is a general overview of the sort of mind that creates Ponzi scams. They share ten characteristics with psychopaths. In fact she calls them financial psychopaths:

1. Superficial Charm.
2. Grandiose Self-worth
3. Need for Stimulation, easily bored
4. Pathological liar
5. Manipulative
6. Lack of remorse
7. No emotional depth
8. No empathy for others suffering
9. Parasitic Lifestyle- lives off others money
10. Poor self-control

Hmm...reminds me of a man I once dated...

After giving the general description of Ponzi schemers she gives us the history of several from the past century, starting with the one who gave his name to the fraud, Charles Ponzi.

In 1920, Charles Ponzi discovered that the United States would redeem stamps from around the world at the US rate, even if the stamps were purchased more cheaply in European countries, like Ponzi's home country Italy.

He sold stamps to thousands of people leading them to believe that they could get great returns. He bought the stamps from relatives, then sold them to Americans, assuring them that they could then redeem them with profit.

The problem was that there were no where near enough stamps to accommodate all the thousands that wanted in on the deal. Ponzi did not want his clients to know that so he would pay out the initial investors with the money later investors gave him and hoped nobody would ask for a redemption.

As eventually happens with Ponzi schemes, people want their returns. Often this is provoked by a financial crises that has everybody running to get their money. Of course in a Ponzi scam, there is no money because the scammer was actually spending the money on a lavish lifestyle, giving back just enough to make people believe their investments were making money.

In the end Charles Ponzi defrauded investors of 20 million dollars (225 million in today's dollars).

His prison sentence? 12 years.

Cross devotes several chapters each to other scammers ending with the biggest, Bernie Madoff who defrauded his investors of 65 billion dollars.

Each chapter is a case study of the scammer, his particular investment, how he carried out the scam and his final fate. With the exception of Madoff who got a life sentence because of the publicity, most only got a few years in prison, even though they scammed people out of their life savings.

Ms. Cross also lists the signs of a scam and how they can be avoided. To simplify, if it's too good to be true, it is not true. Any investment that promises unrealistically high returns that over shadow any other investment is probably a scam. She admonishes investors to do their research and provides resources that help to learn the integrity of professional investors and also where to turn if you suspect that you have been the victim of an investment scam.

All of the book was highly informative and if she had stopped with what she knew it would have been a highly instructive book. Unfortunately she felt she had to make her dig against the capital market, pointing out the such scams can only happen where there is free enterprise because countries where governments control business, one will be free of fraud.

Right. Because socialist governments are comprised of people with sterling morals and capitalist governments produce politicians that are greedy goons. Human nature is apparently determined by government structure.

The final mistake Cross made was to predict the next big Ponzi scheme. She asserts that a 100-plus billion dollar Ponzi scam will take place during the next presidential election, on a Monday to be exact, November 14, 2016 to be even more exact in a New York hedge fund. It will be exposed by a rival hedge fund. He will be a highly respected man in his fifties, a lawyer or an accountant. And he'll be driving a Bentley.

Most of her prediction is unimpressive because with the exception of one woman, all the Ponzi scammers in her book meet her description so all she has done is create an amalgamation. The same goes for the type of investment fund.

Ms. Cross took her own gamble and lost. She wrote this book in 2013, and 2016 has come and gone. But hey, it could still happen.

At least I learned a lot about hedge funds, reverse engineering, and how former communist countries are the most vunurable to scams. Ioan Stoica defrauded 4 million Romanians out of 1 billion dollars in 1994 with his Caritas Company, mutual aid scheme. He even had commercials on TV promoting his wonderful "investment". One out of every five Romanians were greedy for high returns on their newly acquired money.

If one doesn't quibble over Ms. Cross' presumption over economic systems or her own fortune telling; if you are interested in the design of a Ponzi scheme and the sort of criminal minds that create them or if you'd like to understand how to avoid them, I would recommend this book.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Take A Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Schubert's Trout Quintet is playing.  You should really wait for the last movement with the piano bubbling all over  the place like a trout swimming through a frothy river.

 My birthday month is August and Josh gave me a generous Amazon gift card.  I kind of went berserk.  These are the complete collections of the museum and cities I visited in Italy a couple of summers ago.  I am so excited to dig into these!!

 Take a Girl Like YouTake a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hardly know what to say about this book. I do not know whether Kingsley Amis is approving of his characters' life choices or trying to come to grips with the abruptly changing moral landscape of England in 1960. Does he really believe the moral paradigm that traditional relationships grounded in Christian principles to be outdated and incapable? Or is he simply calling it as he sees it?

He certainly does not glamorize what he sees as traditional morals' replacement. His characters lead quite dreary lives. But to sum:

Jenny Bunn is a twenty year old girl from the North of England who has traveled south to a town near London to work as a teacher. She lives with Dick and Martha Torkington who rent a room to her and a French girl named Anna.

Jenny is very pretty and she is conscious of that without being particularly concerned, and even if she was unconscious she is constantly reminded of her looks by the wolfish and lustful gazes of every single man she comes into contact with. Even Anna is attracted to her.

Amis' male characters are all lechers who cannot stop themselves from groping, leering, propositioning and otherwise sexually harrassing women. Not that any of the women mind, not even Jenny, who, though a good girl, does not seem to possess any kind of discernment as to the quality of men she should associate with. She doesn't even appear to mind when Anna sexually harasses her, although she makes it clear she's not interested.

Jenny is old-fashioned. She's not particularly religious, but she does believe she should remain a virgin until she's marries because that's how she feels and she's quite firm about it.

Patrick Standish is a young headmaster who teaches at a nearby secondary school and happened to be at the Torkington's when he meets Jenny. He immediately goes about trying to seduce her. Jenny likes Patrick and wants to pursue a relationship with him but makes it clear that they will marry before any sex happens.

Patrick makes it equally clear that marriage is not a goal of his, only sex. And he doesn't have any intention of being monogamous either. He does not hide his opinions from Jenny in either word or deed.

One asks oneself why Jenny would remain interested in someone whose quality of character is laid out so clearly before her. But Jenny seems to live in kind of a somnambulic state as she passively watches her world go by.

Patrick is determined to have her and sleep with her. He gets himself quite worked up to the point where he sleeps with a divorcee while dead drunk (he was dead drunk not she and I'm not quite sure how he accomplished that) and also with an underage girl for whom he "magnanimously" finances an abortion.

As the story progresses we wonder who is going to win? Jenny or Patrick? Jenny never compromises. She gets roofied at a party and Patrick takes advantage of her. Hence he gets what he wants but without her permission.

One then wonders what is going to happen. Is Jenny going to wake up? At first she seems to. She gives Patrick a telling off and asserts she is never going to see him again. I gather that women did not report date rape to the police back then or statutory rape or consider that someone like Patrick is a repulsive sleazeball. Patrick however does not give up and she finally relents.

Her conclusion is that it was unrealistic of her to believe in commitment and marriage and all that. In fact, it was selfish of her to expect more than to be one of Patrick's many amours.

As I read the book, aside from the brilliant and witty writing at which Amis is a master, I wondered if Amis' real point was to show how modern (at the time) life had emptied out all real meaning as regards relationships. That the Church had rendered itself obsolete but had left a moral vacuum into which the young generation had climbed. What was left?

"I don't love you, you don't love me; I am using you but that's all right because you are using me as well and that is the most anyone can expect while they are alive."

If Amis was intending to create a scene of hopelessness and despair, he succeeded.

Luckily, I don't mistake his book for the Gospel.

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

I had a growing collection of books that I decided to get rid of and I thought, since they're in good condition, I'll sell them on ebay.  What I earn would help feed my little book habit, while clearing the house of books whose only future was to collect dust and take up valuable shelf space.

It took three hours to photograph the books from every angle, inside and out, decide on a decent price and post.  That was three days ago and so far, nobody is nibbling.

I'm trying not to check the status on my account every hour. Ebay is supposed to notify me if anyone orders a book.

Do people really make money selling off ebay?  Maybe not with books unless you have a warehouse full.  Oh well.  It seemed like a good idea.  Live and learn.

I am listening to some gorgeous music by Anton Bruckner  Symphony No. 2 in C minor, conducted by George Solti

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Around the turn of the last century and a little before, a number of 19th century writers turned their hand to a brand new genre. Nowadays we call it Steampunk, which is just a hipster name for Science Fiction written during the late Victorian and pre WWI years.

Most of them painted a bleakish picture of our future. Maybe they were afraid of change or had a pessimistic view of man's ability to rein in the technological age the industrial age was ushering in. There were many unknown factors. Would the power received from all sorts of wonderful inventions make life easier for the general populace? Or would it make it easier for power mongers to destroy the world as it was known and create an enslaved class of proportions never before seen in the history of mankind?

H.G. Wells is our best known Science Fiction writer of the time and he certainly expressed in stark descriptions the sort of world we would all be living in if man learned how to become invisible or create giants or time travel.

Even E.M. Forster provides a provocative possibility in his short story "The Machine Stops" of how alienated humans could become to each other thanks to modern inventions "taking care" of our every need.

As much as I enjoy Wells, Forster, as well as any number of Steampunk authors, the fact is none of them inspire hope. The landscape is gray, desolate and godless.

Which brings me to why I love C.S. Lewis's Science Fiction trilogy so, so much.

Lewis has the ability to give the reader a clear-sighted view of man's heart (which is desperately wicked) while showing that there is a Power higher than that desperate wickedness that is ultimately going to triumph.

As a result, one finishes Lewis' Science Fiction heartened, encouraged, and ironically feeling greater love for humankind and hope for the future and the human race, at least a portion of us. Some of Lewis characters willfully rush towards eternal destruction.

Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in a trilogy. I have read the first and last and will soon start on the middle. There is a reason I read it out of order that I won't get in here, but this is the third time reading it so it doesn't really matter.

Our hero is Dr. Elwin Ransom, and the inset of the dustcover informs us that Lewis based this memorable character after his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ransom is a philologist. Like Lewis and Tolkien were fond of doing, Ransom is on a walking tour through the countryside. Soon he is tired, hungry, and hopelessly lost. He approaches a house where he hopes for a little hospitality.

What he finds there, to his surprise, is an old schoolmate named Devine, the least favorite of his old schoolmates and with good reason as we'll see, and another man, Weston, who turns out to be a megalomaniac scientist. Of course Ransom doesn't initially know Weston is megalomaniac but he soon discovers it as he realizes the two man have nefarious plans for him.

Those plans consist of kidnapping him and taking him to another planet. The planet is called Malacandra and I won't tell you which planet that is so as not to ruin the surprise.

I also won't tell you too much of Ransom's adventures there for the same reason. However, being Lewis, the creatures are of such a sort as to inspire awe, fear, dread and respect and also love.

There are certain beings that exist there that are unknown to humans but actually exist on Earth as well. Because of humankind's fallen nature and the "bent" Oyarsa that rules the planet, these beings are invisible to the human eye. Man's corrupted eye cannot see them although originally they were supposed to.

Ransom learns all of this while he is on Malacandra after talking with the Oyarsa of the planet, but we meet him only later in the novel. We first meet the physical beings that Ransom can see and gets to know.

Eventually, Ransom discovers why Devine and Weston have brought him to Malacandra. But even they do not realize that they are merely tools unwittingly carrying out the evil intent of Earth's bent Oyarsa.

This final revelation is a prelude to the second and third novels in the trilogy.

This story is adventurous and suspenseful but most of all, it inspires the reader to care about all of the characters, even the bent humans, because Lewis is able to project his own unconditional love onto each person, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, and in turn make them lovable to us.

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