The Swiss Family Robinson v. the Lord of the Flies

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the WorldIsland of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did not read this book quickly, but not from lack of interest and excitement on its part. (I was distracted by other readings, writings, and the smallest inhabitant of my house learning to walk, which furnished him with many escape plans that necessitated thwarting.) Honestly, Druett’s work here is eminently readable and intriguing, especially for anyone interested in maritime history and survival stories.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Human ingenuity, democracy, and the triumph of the human spirit resounded from the tale of the Grafton‘s castaways, while the tale of the survivors of the Invercauld was in no small way reminiscent of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, replete with wretched selfishness and unsettling depravity. Druett’s writing really brought these issues out and made the experience more present for the reader.

I also enjoyed her author’s note in the conclusion (although I admit I skimmed it a bit), wherein she lays out her sources and justifies her choices in regard to discrepancies among those sources. She shows a dedication to research that one can only find in good historians, and it has made the book delightful.

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Discerning Boundaries

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your LifeBoundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife asked me to read this book, so that she could get my insights on it. I ended up liking the book; I think that it includes valuable information about taking ownership of your own life and divesting yourself of the notion that you can control others, or that your life somehow depends on others. At the same time, the book wasn’t without its problems.

Like (almost) everything I review, there were a few typos–mostly the sort of thing that can’t be caught by spell-check software (a B instead of an M in “my,” for example), and all of them minor (context clues provided the correct meaning easily). But I feel obligated to mention them, all the same.

I found the lack of references in the book particularly jarring. In a lot of ways, “Boundaries” purports to be a scholarly work, something focused on psychological healing and spiritual development, but it doesn’t mention any papers, or studies, or journals, or scientific inquiries. The endnotes in the book are reserved for “see also” suggestions. I gather that the authors were working from their own practice, but a few references to a little research would have gone a long way to earn my placidity.

The book contains a very large number of what I call “pastor stories.” Probably, these vignettes come from actual examples in the authors’ private practice, with the names and details changed to protect patient confidentiality… but they come across as those stories used by pastors to prove a point. You know the ones–anecdotes about people who only have first names, with no clear evidence to suggest that they are factual, but they perfectly (and conveniently) encapsulate the message that the pastor is trying to get across. I don’t trust stories like these, and while the clinical experience of the authors lends a little credence to them, I’m still not a fan.

The authors have, in my opinion, an incorrect view of both love and marriage. They assert that love is primarily a feeling, rather than an action (indeed, that action without feeling is worthless in the case of love); this may correspond with their experience, but it implies that a marriage without “that loving feeling” should end. Marriages, while I’m on the subject, are also not relationships of unconditional love, according to the authors. (I do not mean only in practice, for definitely there are countless marriages that are not based on unconditional love, but I mean the authors suggest that marriages should not be so.)

There seems to be a misapprehension of why “work” is “bad” in the modern mind. The authors insist that work existed before the Fall (in a probable misreading of the poetic structure of Genesis 1-3, but I digress), but I am reminded of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes: “It’s not work unless somebody makes you do it.” The reason “work” is unpleasant is that we define unpleasant tasks as “work.” To fill the earth and subdue it may have been a great challenge, and an enormous task, but it wasn’t “work” until the Fall. (You may find this a minor nitpick, but you get what you pay for with these reviews, and I don’t recall being paid anything.)

In the vein of their “pastor stories,” the authors also supply every story in the book with a happy ending. This strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. Even moreso, I’m surprised that doctors with clinical experience would suggest this result. It’s simply not possible that every story ends happily, but the authors imply that, no matter your circumstances, if you simply say “no,” to your spouse/friend/parent/self, that person will eventually respect your “no” and become the person you’ve always wanted them to be. “Emotionally abuse husband? Tell him ‘no’ a few times and he’ll realize what a wonderful person you are and treat you better!” Of course, because no emotionally abusive husbands become physically abusive when their victims exhibit signs of resistance. “Susie told Jack to do his own job and stop making her do it. Her boss figured out that Jack was the problem and told him to shape up. Jack did so, and everyone is happy.” Of course, because no one has ever been blamed for somebody else’s shoddy work, right?

I just don’t see it being possible in every case.

Perhaps my biggest struggle is the authors’ tendency to blame absolutely every poor character trait on the parents of the unpleasant person. No one ever made a bad decision for themselves, it seems, but everything bad about you is your parents’ fault. Only you can fix it, of course, but they’re the ones that made you this way–they didn’t teach you good boundaries, or they tried to control you with guilt or anger, or they only looked out for themselves and did not respect your needs or boundaries, or… the list goes on. As a child myself, I can recall times that I made my own bad decisions, and I cannot trace my current problems to my parents. They weren’t perfect, of course, but they aren’t to blame for all of my hardships. As a parent myself, I find it hard to believe that every bad decision my son makes will rest on my head when judgment day comes–it’s just not a reasoned position to take here.

As I said, I eventually ended up liking the book (which may be hard to believe, at this point, but it’s true). The final few chapters, especially, have very good points that are important to internalize if you have any boundary problems at all (and most people probably do). The practical advice finally starts kicking in and the nebulous examples take a backseat to a more informative style. There are a lot of insightful directions to help you set boundaries in your life, and it really is useful.

Yet, I must admit sadly, there are even problems in these final sections. For one thing, there are a few glaring omissions from their practical advice and examples–extended family and in-laws come to mind most readily. Both extended family and a spouse’s family can be tremendous violators of boundaries, but since they had no effect on your childhood development, they don’t get their own chapters (unlike parents, friends, spouses, and self, which can all be traced back to poor parenting by your own folks). The second major problem in this section is assumptions: “Go to your support group,” they write, as if support groups were in every church, or grew on trees, and could be trustworthy and reliable wherever they may be found. Assumptions like these make the practical advice more difficult, but other, simpler advice must first be sought out (like How to Find or Develop a Support Group 101).

As I said, I did like the book. I think it’s a good resource–but you don’t have to read every page and paragraph, either. Look for the good; if you start getting bogged down in it, I don’t think you would miss much to skip ahead a few paragraphs, or a chapter. Look for what is most relevant to your situation, and I think you would do well.

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General Update

I know, it seems as though it’s been forever since I posted here. It kinda has. After I finished Zahn’s Scoundrels, I tried to take a break from reading and focus on writing The Aegipan Revolution, the sequel to my first novel. I made some good progress (I’m about 25,000 words in and maybe 1/6 through the plan, but expect the word count to go down with edits), but I lacked the perseverance to chase down an entire novel before reading anything else. So I picked up one book, then two more; one of those should get a review here within the next couple of weeks, I expect.

In case you missed it, I released another “31 Prayers” book–31 Prayers for Hope. You can learn more about this new prayerbook here.

In the meantime, I’ve also been working on creating book covers for the other two installments of the Chimaera trilogy. The first sequel, of course, is The Aegipan Revolution, and the third book in the trilogy (technically a prequel) is The Python Protocol. When I was making them, I thought, “Maybe I should just reveal these,” but I realized that would be giving everything away, and then you’d expect me to deliver soon. Instead, I’m giving you a little piece of the puzzle.

The Aegipan Revolution cover, part one

The Aegipan Revolution cover, part one

Speaking of snippets, I’m also throwing in a smidgen of text. This is Rough Draft material; it’s subject to change, but the scene likely will appear in the final product. You may recall from the end of The Chimaera Regiment that (Spoilers! Highlight to read:) Hector and Bronwyn had a son, whom they named Ronen; after he became emperor, we learn in the sequel, Ronen had son of his own, named Cadmus. In this scene, we join Cadmus on a leisurely hunt.

Cadmus followed the trail of the goat in the soft earth. The wind was fairly strong here, and the dirt thinned as he climbed higher. He feared that billowing dust would soon obscure the tracks, so he increased his pace. The reality of the world was like that, he decided: a set of prints, plain as day to some, but hidden by hardship for others. Maybe it wasn’t his job to argue that the prints were there; maybe he just had to clear away the dust and open their eyes.

He found the precipice suddenly. The hill came to an abrupt halt, dropping three hundred feet to a forest below. Cadmus kept his footing, but he wavered precariously at the edge. He sat down quickly. When his hands reached the rock beneath him, he pushed himself back a pace. A few breathless moments passed before he was confident in his stability. Leaning forward again, he surveyed the countryside. Below him, the forest stretched three miles to the south and nearly five miles to the east, neatly bordering the hills he had spent the day roaming. Studying the eastern border, he realized that his camp with Sam was among the trees there.

He paused for a moment, watching the breeze ripple the treetops; each wave cascaded with green and brown, vibrant in the early afternoon sun. This place really was peaceful. He knew that he might miss the wonders of the Library if he stayed here, but was natural wonder not so much better? That which made man–whether gods or earth–was so much greater than that which man made; it hardly bore comparison. Among the stones of Annifrea, a man could be truly powerful, wielding the implements of bygone ages–but among the greenery, a man could be truly free, released by the short memory of the wilderness. Cadmus doubted that the two could ever coexist.

The forest below waved at him again, and a silver glint caught his eye. He tried to peer closer, but to no avail–the distance and the foliage obscured his sight. Curiosity got the better of him; he stood and turned to go back the way he had come, intent on finding the mysterious object.

How he escaped being gored, Cadmus would never be quite sure. The collision of the goat’s head with his chest knocked the wind from his lungs and sent him tumbling over the precipice!

Keep an eye out for more updates, along with upcoming book reviews!

Solo’s Eleven

Star Wars: ScoundrelsStar Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I say anything spoiler-y, I want to point this out for everyone who might be interested in this book: everything makes a lot more sense if you’ve read A. C. Crispin’s “Han Solo” trilogy (which itself makes more sense if you’ve read Brian Daley’s “Han Solo Adventures” trilogy, but that’s far enough removed from this that it isn’t necessary). It’s not essential, but it is helpful, especially in light of the Han-and-Lando dynamic that comes up frequently.

Now, let me get into the spoilers. This is a “heist” book, and like a “heist” movie, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to review without mentioning at least one spoiler. So consider yourself duly warned.

I really enjoyed this book. I like stories that keep me guessing a little bit, and this one certainly delivered. (Of course, Mr. Zahn has some experience with keeping me guessing, at least as long ago as I read his non-Star Wars novel The Icarus Hunt.) I also think that Mr. Zahn did a good job writing Han, Lando, Winter, and Kell Tainer (whom he borrowed from Aaron Allston’s X-Wing books). I would need to reread books featuring the latter two characters to make sure this fits in with their backstories and style, but based on Mr. Zahn’s prior good work, I have no reason to think that it did not.

Perhaps the most frustrating, in retrospect, was the identity and purpose of Eanjer, the local that hires Han for the job. I should have guessed his identity much earlier, based on my prior knowledge of his character, but I think I figured it out, at best, a few pages before Mr. Zahn wanted me to. Ah, well–more credit to the author, I suppose.

The book wasn’t perfect, but I don’t have many complaints. As with The Icarus Hunt, I thought that the book ended too quickly, without revisiting all of the characters in enough detail. And, while I appreciate Mr. Zahn’s interest in embroiling us in the world by mentioning other names that we might remember (referencing Crispin’s trilogy, for example), there were a couple anachronisms. It made no sense, for example, for one character to refer to Revan and Malak (characters from the Knights of the Old Republic video game), who existed thousands of years prior, in the middle of a galaxy in which Jedi and the Force were all but forgotten (a point made by Lando toward the end of the book). I might as well say, “Who do you think they are, Achilles and Odysseus?” It’s theoretically believable that I would mention those people, but far from normal.

At any rate, I enjoyed the book, and I hope that Lucasfilm’s new masters will not overlook Mr. Zahn as they continue to produce fiction in the “new” Star Wars universe.

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Marian Study, Not Marian Apologetics

Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of GodHail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled with my selection of a star rating for this book; I vacillate between liking and disliking it. I liked it because it’s very forthright, very dedicated, very committed; I disliked it because Mr. Hahn allowed that dedication to surpass good judgment and good argumentation.

Before I get started with the major things, let me offer up very minor things. First, some people like puns; others don’t. If you don’t, you may not appreciate Mr. Hahn’s section titles–this is your fair warning. There are also a few typos and poor word choice that affect the flow of the prose, but nothing grammatically offensive.

Let me begin the meatier section with the good points. This is a good book for Catholics who want to know more about the history and basis of Marian devotion and Marian theology. It answers questions that Protestant objectors tend to raise, and it presents information based on Scripture and Tradition to back up those answers. It does all of this with the impassioned voice of someone who truly adheres to the teachings of the Church on these matters, which are often difficult for non-Catholics to consider.

But this is not a good apologetic book, and it should not be given to Protestants.

We (human beings) are emotional creatures. In many ways, and at many times, we allow our emotions to influence our judgment. A book that is poorly worded, or a book that chooses phrasing and imagery that is insulting from an opposing point of view, loses almost all the ground it may gain through good sourcing and effective argumentation. “Hail, Holy Queen” suffers from this problem. One main trouble is not that Mr. Hahn did not know his Bible, or that he did not know his papal documents or council documents or Augustinian writings–the trouble was that he, on more than one occasion, made statements that would be emotionally objectionable for a disagreeing reader. He also made several key errors in argumentation, which I will address as I come to them.

While Mr. Hahn’s knowledge of Scripture and Tradition seems well-established, so far as I can tell, his Roman history is somewhat lacking. It seems a crucial point, for example, that he interpret the beast of the sea (in Revelation) as the Roman dynasty that empowered the Herodian dynasty to oppress the Christians–but he says that there were “10 Caesars” from Julius Caesar to Vespasian. It should be pointed out that the dynastic view of the Roman emperors does not run from Julius to Vespasian, but from Julius to Nero, and from Galba to Domitian, and from Nerva to Commodus, and so on. Furthermore, the name “Caesar” truly belonged to Julius Caesar, but in classic Roman style, it was applied to nearly every emperor until the 4th century (to the point where “Caesar” became synonymous with “emperor,” which is why the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called the Kaiser and the emperor of Russia the Czar). It only stopped in the 4th century because, by then, it was the job title instead of a name. One of the exceptions to this naming custom, of course, was Vitellius–the emperor immediately preceding Vespasian. Nevermind that Octavian (“Caesar Augustus”) was, at best, adopted by Julius Caesar, but still had to win a civil war to become emperor himself.

From time to time, Mr. Hahn also made statements that eroded his own position. He quoted Tertullian, for example, to summarize Catholic Mariology–and immediately pointed out that Tertullian’s Mariology is mostly flawed and erroneous. This almost nullifies the quote, and one must wonder: could there not have been a better quote, from a more reputable source?

Chapter 5 is something of a turning point in the book. In the first four chapters, Mr. Hahn is focused on establishing Mary as the culmination of a number of Old Testament types. In Chapter 5, he finally addresses, in so many words, the Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church (the perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption). Yet it is here that he begins to struggle with clear argumentation. He proposes that Mary (as a person) be the focus of this study, since she is not merely a collection of ideas–yet the ideas are what must be discussed, because there is no serious historian who denies the existence of the person of Mary. More than once, Mr. Hahn makes blanket statements and broad assumptions, declaring as fact things that are not in evidence and have not been established earlier in the book, ostensibly to establish Mary as a “person”–an establishment which no one will controvert, though they will certainly controvert the assumptions.

He first makes bold claims, and asks his reader (who may have doubts about Mary and Marian doctrine) to establish Mary (as taught by the Catholic Church) as the goal of the discussion–not to discuss the doctrines and how she might fit them, but to run towards those doctrines as though towards a finish line. This is counterproductive to the discussion, because the opposing mind will simply refuse, and no ground will be gained. He uses the earlier chapters of the book to justify his assumptions, but those earlier chapters have not yet been proved to the doubtful reader–making these new statements all the more dubious. He even uses emotional arguments from popular belief and popular historical opinion.

None of these arguments are effective, but rather, they are counterproductive to the intended goal of increased understanding of Marian doctrine and greater devotion to Mary as our exemplar.

At one point, Mr. Hahn seems to suggest that the doctrine of perpetual virginity arose, not from fact or historical understanding or theological necessity, but from an oversimplification caused by creedal speech (i.e., that “born of the Virgin Mary” equivocates Mary with Virginity). He uses the more ambiguous term “brethren” to translate adelphoi–probably because it sounds more gender inclusive, but it comes across as intentionally avoiding the “from the [same] womb” literal translation that Mr. Hahn insists upon in later chapters.

Perhaps Mr. Hahn’s most egregious mistake is to use language and arguments that would be emotionally charged for a Protestant reader–especially a reader looking for any reason to discount this book, and all it contains, as hogwash. He uses terms like “unfamiliar,” “non-issue,” and “amateur” to describe anyone who would disagree with the interpretation of Scripture that he posits. He oversimplifies the nature of sin by equating it to an auto mechanic overcharging for services. He says outright in two different places that one’s acceptance of the Gospel can be measured by one’s acceptance of Marian doctrine. He engages in poor word choice, talking about the “union” of Mary’s human will with God’s divine will–clear enough to a theologian that understands the distinctions between that “union” and, say, the hypostatic union of Christ, but unclear to someone who may think Mr. Hahn is again trying to deify Mary. At one point, he seems to say that the Church is only the spouse of Christ and the mother of the faithful (a common point of agreement between Catholics and Protestants) only because Mary was those things first (and so Mr. Hahn removes the common ground he might otherwise have had). He frames Mary and the Church in opposition, saying that Mary is over there with God, and the Church is over here, trying (in vain) to emulate her. This, indeed, seems to be the only case of genuine overreach on Mr. Hahn’s part–going beyond the Mariology that seems acceptable to suggest that Mary is exterior to the Church, rather than an exemplary part of it, and that the Church is merely a type of Mary.

He closes the argumentative portion of the book (prior to the final chapter, which advocates caution and love in the face of opposition, and the appendix, which is, in many ways, a redeeming passage) with the declaration that the Church should not put ecumenism before Mariology; he surely did not mean it as such, but at this point in the book, it almost sounds like justification for his occasionally uncharitable tone.

All that to say, I vacillated between liking and disliking this book. Clearly, I had more negative things to say than positive, but that usually happens when I take notes. This book is very good for Catholics who want to know more about Mary, but I maintain that it is not a good work of Marian apologetics.

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