Saturday, March 9, 2013

Please Don't Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulus

Synopsis: A good example of American magical realism, this is the story of a factory-dependent suburb of Detroit where the jobless adult males begin disappearing one by one until they've all left. The remaining women and children refer to the men as having gone to the moon and learn to reorder their lives without husbands and fathers. The desertions have a devastating affect on the male youth who must become men much too quickly and without examples of any kind.

Analysis: I found the book depressingly accurate in its portrayal of the Michigan economy, yet too unstructured to be really captivating.

Karma Girl by Jennifer Estep

Synopsis: A romantic super-hero farce in an alternate reality of modern-day America where superheros and ubervillains are real and every town has their own yin-yang pair.  The story is from the perspective of a young female journalist who discovers her fiance and best friend in bed together AND finds out they're the superhero and ubervillain of the town.  In a most excellent revenge, she ousts them in her newspaper and goes on to make a name for herself nationwide by uncovering the true identities of super-characters.  She ends up in New York City and that's when the real fun starts.

Analysis: This book was great fun and well-written!  I promptly bought my own copy and put the next Estep book on my must-read list.

The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey

Synopsis: A Cinderella story where she becomes a fairy godmother rather than just being helped by one.  As part of a test administered to three princes, she turns the rudest one into a donkey, then takes him home to work on her farm.  One thing leads to another and he turns out to be her own Prince Charming.

Analysis: The story was very slow until the middle of the book when the princes finally make their appearance - great fun after that!

The Road to Unafraid by Jeff Streuker

Synopsis: The non-fiction account of a Christian soldier's journey past his fears and into Ranger training, the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia, and ultimately into a new career as an army chaplain, helping the men he used to fight beside find God, hope, and courage in the midst of death and destruction.

Analysis: An inspiring story of faith and the protection of God in desperate circumstances. The account of fighting in Somalia to reach the downed helicopters is seriously intense - I felt like I was right in the middle of the firefight (which he was).

This Man's Army by Andrew Exum

Synopsis: The non-fiction account of Exum's making the decision to join the army, surviving Ranger Training School, then deploying to Afghanistan as a platoon leader with the 10th Mountain Division.

Analysis: Exum is an excellent writer and uses fascinating details and anecdotes. This was a great read to learn about Ranger training, army camaraderie, and the battle experience. Crude at times, but never unbelievable.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Synopsis:  This is an account of two men, former friends, brought together by a funeral. They each make a horrific moral decision in the ensuing weeks, yet defend their choices while condemning the other.  The lead each other to Amersterdam where they've each paid to have the other euthanized, resulting in a "mutual murder".

Analysis: I didn't like either of the characters, and it wasn't until the end of the book I realized the author intended his readers to despise them - that for all their supposed bohemian-like free-thinking, they were selfish, immoral, and incredibly self-righteous. Despite the despicable characters, I enjoyed this book due to McEwan's writing style and dream-like plot development.

Words I Learned: 
acanthus = a plant with fern-like leaves, often decorating the top of Corinthian pillars
centripetal = directed or moving toward a center or axis
xenophobe = one unduly afraid or contemptuous of strangers or foreigners
punitive = inflicting or designed to inflict damages
scurrilous = vulgar, abusive
elegy = a mournful poem, especially one lamenting a\the dead
exculpate = to clear of blame
bathos = a ludicrously abrupt transition from an elevated to commonplace style

Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

Synopsis: An American chef of Iraqi heritage works at a Middle Eastern cafe and allows her cooking, friends from the cafe, and her beloved uncle to be her world until she is introduced to a handsome Iraqi professor with whom she begins a passionate love affair. Due to his influence - his longing for home and frustrations with political exile - she begins exploring her own Iraqi heritage through food, family history, the news, and Islam.

Analysis: This book made me hungry for Middle Eastern fare.  I'd love to be able to cook like the heroine.  But the heroine's sexual exploits (and not just with the professor) just never seemed to fit the tone of the rest of the story.

Something I learned: Islam uses the crescent moon to symbolize hope and the beginning of a new time.  The crescent is the first sliver of moon seen after the new moon.

Words I Learned:
mellifluous = smooth and sweet
perspicacious = having penetrating mental discernment
sough = to make a soft murmuring or rustling sound

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines

James R. Gaines is a former editor of Time and People magazines - I found his writing style captivating.

Synopsis: Frederick the Great was a music-loving warrior king who took pride in being on the cutting edge of Enlightenment philosophy - the idea that man's reason can solve all mysteries and religious faith has no role.  Bach, a Baroque musician and devout Lutheran, was in his 60's when he was summoned to Frederick's court, and his life and philosophy were in direct opposition to the king's.  Bach represented everything considered old and outdated, particularly his music style (learned counterpoint) and his faith.  In his court, the king attempted to humiliate Bach by requesting he improvise a six-part fugue on an impossibly difficult theme.  Bach wrote "A Musical Offering" as a victorious response.

Analysis:  I loved this book.  It was very interesting and entertaining.  It bogged down slightly for me in the passages on intensive musical theory.  The message of the book, to me, was this: both men had difficult, even traumatic, lives and both had the potential for genius if in different areas.  However, Beach was securely rooted in his faith and commitment to God, while Frederick was entrenched in bitterness and self-indulgence.  Arguably, nothing truly good and lasting came of Frederick's life, but Bach's music continues to inspire musicians and listeners alike.

Things I learned:
From Ch 4.: Counterpoint mathematically matched harmonies - it was supposed to duplicate the "music of the spheres" or the celestial dance of the planets orchestrated by God.  The supreme example of this music theory is the canon form - like Pachelbel's "Canon in D".  Bach was Pachelbel's apprentice from the age of 9 to 14.

From Ch. 6: Baroque used music to illustrate lyrics. For example, music soaring higher with text that says things like "He is risen" or plunging lower with concepts like death and sorrow.  The idea was to use the music to "invoke specific emotional and moral messages." (p. 85)

From Ch. 7: Due to his father's increasing abuse, Frederick attempted to run away to Paris with his best friend (and possibly gay lover) Katte.  The king discovered the plot and had Frederick thrown in jail accused of treason.  The king's generals and advisers managed to talk him out of executing Frederick, but instead the king forced F. to watch as Katte was beheaded.  F. promptly suffered a nervous breakdown.

From Ch. 8: In Bach's time, the great debate in music was intellectual purity vs. aesthetic pleasure which matched the new moral debate of community vs. individual interest.

From Ch. 13: When Hitler came to power, he held Frederick as a hero, even having a portrait of F. over his desk.  When Hitler began his Aryan crusade, he laid flowers on  F's tomb and gave the mission its inaugural speech from there.  The only lasting influence F. had on the world was the militaristic spirit of Germany.  His Enlightenment ideology, particularly his ideas about music, were ridiculed and rejected by Romanticism, the follower of Enlightenment philosophy. Bach died shortly after his meeting with the king but his music was embraced by Romanticism and influenced many important composers (including Mozart and Beethoven) for centuries.

Mythology by Edith Hamilton

Synopsis of the Introduction (even if you don't read anything else from this classic, read the introduction!):
Greek myth shows us what early Greeks were like.  The Greeks were the first to make gods in their own image - not bestial, like Egyptian and Babylonian gods, and very human in their actions and motivations rather than perfect like the Hebrew God.  Magic is practically non-existent in Greek mythology: the stars (astrology) do not influence events, there are no ghosts, and priests are never important.  Mythology is not a blueprint of Greek religion; rather they are either explanations of natural events (a form of early science) or stories told for entertainment.

The Gods (name format is Greek name/Roman name):
Greek gods didn't create the universe but vice versa.  First there were the Titans, who included Hyperion, Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), Cronus/Saturn, Atlas, and Prometheus.  Cronus brought into being Zeus/Jupiter, Poseidon/Neptune, Hades/Pluto, and more.  Zeus married Hera/Juno and has a ton of kids through her and other neat-ankled (seriously, that's one of the primary ways the hot babes are identified in mythology apparently) gals.  His kids include Ares/Mars, Apollo, Aphrodite/Venus, Artemis/Diana, and Hermes/Mercury.  Poor Hera goes around wreaking havoc on the lives of the women he cheats on her with, although often they had no idea what was happening (which in my opinion is the primary source of some serious squick factor in Greek mythology).  At some point Zeus forms a gang that includes his siblings and children, also known as the Olympians, and goes to war with the Titans.   The Olympians win and banish the Titans to various off-world hells and torments. Most of mythology centers around the exploits, affairs, and battles of these gods with each other and humans.

The Romans had many gods with practical duties, but none had personalities as developed as the Greeks.  When Rome conquered Greece, they transferred these personalities and myths to their gods with similar powers - thus the two names for everyone.

One interesting myth:  Dionysus at some point was a new god who visited a king to make him a believer.  The king refused to recognize his deity even though chains fell off Dionysus and jails wouldn't hold him.  In the book of Acts (from the Bible's New Testament), when Paul & Silas were supernaturally released from their prison, the Roman jailer would have know this story and been aware there was a new (to him at least) god at work.