Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Horents' Nest

Trilogies.  We are all familiar with them.  We love them, but there is a consistent fact that is true for most trilogies we entertain ourselves with: the first and third installments are favored while the second installment is less popular and, seemingly, of a lesser quality.  Take Star Wars for example: A New Hope, a classic; Empire Strikes Back, not so good; Return of the Jedi, return to greatness.  The same can be said of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Steig Larson.  The first book was phenomonenal and is now a major motion picture in which Rooney Mara who plays Lisbeth Salander is up for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  You can read my review of that book here.  The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was also entertaining, but in my opinion was a far cry from what made the first installment a success.  It dragged in many places and while the end was exciting, it took the reader a while to get into it.  I personally felt that there was too much needless sex scenes in it was well.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it and you can read my review of that book here.  After reading the second book, I was a little skeptical of the third.  True, I did enjoy the second book; but the decline in the quality of the story telling was obvious and I feared a further decline in the third installment.  However, the second book ended with such a cliffhanger that I just HAD to read the last book, and am I ever glad that I did!

The best thing about the second installment in any trilogy is that it sets up the third installment for great success.  After reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was so excited to find out how the story would be resolved.  There were so many loose ends, so may questions to be answered, and The Girl Who Kick the Hornets' Nest fulfilled all wants and expectations.  I remember being totally engrossed in the first book; I started it while on vacation and was able to finish it in about two weeks.  While it is still my favorite book in this series, this most recent book captured me from the moment I opened the cover.  Events from the first two books were explained, connections between characters were made and further developed, and before I knew I it I had finished the book in four days time.

Lisbeth Salander continues to be one of the best heroines in modern fiction.  Larson's development of her character throughout his trilogy is nothing short of masterful.  Salander is a social misfit, the result of a lifetime of physical abuse and government conspiracy against her.  This final book is the culmination of her sociability and she begins to let more and more people into her life.  Reading the books is kind of like watching a person who has had no human contact throughout their life be suddenly shoved into the middle of New York City.  That person would not know how to act towards others, would not trust others, and would proceed with caution at every turn with every new face.  The same is true of Lisbeth Salander.  At the beginning of the series, she would talk to no one, cared for no one except her mother, and had no close friends.  At the end of this third book, she holds onto some of her previous antisocial habits, but is more accepting and more trusting of the people who say they want to help her and call her a friend.  The transformation is mind-blowing.

The story itself in the third book is very different from the stories portrayed in the previous two.  The first book was a psychological crime thriller and the second was a slow moving detective novel.  This third book is a crime drama, a courtroom novel with many scenes one would expect to find on an episode of Matlock or portrayed in a John Grisham novel.  The author obviously did a great deal of research in order to make each of his books different, and the result is incredible.  While there were fewer action scenes in this book than in the previous two, the drama was so captivating, the conspiracies so enthralling that it did not matter if nothing seemed to be going on that was of any importance.  Deep down, the reader will know that something is going to happen, something that will blow the story wide open and every turn of the page has the capability of revealing that secret.

The pace of the novel is just right.  The only time I felt it slow down a little too much was during one of the courtroom scenes.  However, as I mentioned before, I just knew that something in that courtroom was going to answer every question and address every fear I had for Salander.  That strong emotion that any reader will find is easy to build with Salander will keep the reader captivated, unable to put the book down for any long period of time.

Unlike the first two books, it did not take long to really get into the meat of this plot.  My criticism of the first two books is mainly that it takes so long for the story to really get going.  Hornets' Nest, though, grabs the reader from the very beginning.  Part of this is due to the fact that Larson does such a great job of leaving the reader hanging at the end of the second book.  The reader is not sure how things will be resolved and the resolution begins from the very beginning.  New problems also arise throughout this book and are woven into previous issues and make sense of so many unsolved mysteries and questions.

Summer will be here in less than four months, and that is a time where many people pick up books that have been sitting around because they now have time to read them.  I could not recommend this trilogy any stronger than I do.  It is captivating, emotional, and entertaining.  There are a great deal of disturbing scenes, and that is a turn-off to many readers.  Do not read these books expecting a love story or classic happy ending.  They are dark; but if you do not mind dark novels, these will certainly become some of your favorites.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Research the History of Church vs. State?

I have begun my research process into the history of the relationship between religion and government.  While I have been unable to examine any sources yet due to a busy work schedule, I have been able to write a reason for research.  This is what I have thus far; more will be added especially when I am able to go through some sources.  Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

            There is a great deal of history that modern historians do not know about prehistoric and ancient civilizations.  Cultural characteristics such as language, social morality, economic structure, and education systems are in many cases lost to the passing of time, never to be discovered until this world ends.  However, there are two basic features of all civilizations that can be found in almost every people, tribe, and nation that modern archeologists and historians have discovered: religion and government.  Sometimes it is impossible to determine the exact practices or identities of these two cultural main-stays, but it would not be false to say that some kind of religion and some form of government are present in every civilization, great or small, significant or insignificant, that has ever existed.
            Due to this truth that every people practiced some religion and was governed by some structure of government, it would also be true that religion and government have played an extremely vital role in shaping the history of the world as we know it.  One needs only to look at the influence of the Roman Empire on the regions it conquered, or the Roman Catholic Church on the countries of Europe during the Middle Ages, or the teachings of Islam on Muslim governments both past and present.  Religion and government have affected the lives of people from the beginning of time, and since they have both been in existence for as long as human records can show, it can also be argued that there has been a relationship between the two.
            This relationship has come under close observation in the United States in recent months.  The recent legislation of the Obama administration that would require the Roman Catholic Church in America to provide contraception (a practice that the Church believes to be immoral) free of charge to its employees under their insurance plans has caused many Americans to reevaluate the true meaning of their culture’s beliefs concerning the relationship of Church and State.  In America, the official relationship is one of separation: Church cannot influence government and government cannot influence the Church.  This is not an original stance that a civilization has taken: there are many instances of (and reasons for) the separation of religion and government. 
            The question that many people today are unable to answer is to why their culture implements the relationship between religion and government that they do.  The answer, of course, is found in the pages of history.  Each individual modern country is able to decide for itself what relationship religion and government should have within its borders.  The reasons for each country’s decision are based on various historical events, philosophies, and beliefs.  Whether everyday citizens realize it or not, the current relationship between religion and various governments is a result of a long conflict that has been in existence since time began.  This conflict at times was minuscule, but at other times incredibly controversial.  It is the times in which there was intense controversy between religion and government that our modern view of what the relationship should be was brought into being.
            This is why the understanding of the history between the relationship between religion and government is so vital.  How can one be expected to truly appreciate and understand their beliefs if they do not know the origin of sad beliefs?  It is important to note also that when religion is mention, it includes more than just the Christian Church.  When the relationship between religion and government is mentioned, many automatically assume that Christianity is the religion in question.  In order to understand the full magnitude of the present, global conflict between the two entities, it is important to also analyze the relationship between government and other religions, such as Judaism and Islam.  If the Western world allows its view of the history of this conflict to be narrowed, blinded even, by its own experiences and nothing else, an incomplete understanding will be the result; and if an understanding is incomplete it might as well be entirely wrong  because nothing can truly be partially right or wrong.  It must be one or the other.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

It's that time of year again: Oscar Season!  In precisely one week from the very moment millions of Americans will be sitting down in front of their television sets to see what movies and what actors will walk away with the most coveted awards in the entertainment industry.  2011 was a good year for movies, and one does not have to look farther for evidence thereof than looking at this years nominees.  One of the titles America will hear not once, not twice, but TEN times next week is a movie simply called The Artist.  Due to its high number of nominations, I just had to go and see it before the Academy Awards, and it certainly lived up to expectations.

In an era of high technology and intense special effects, it is extraordinarily rare that a movie such as The Artist receives the kind of acclamation that it has thus far.  You see, The Artist is quite simply an artful movie, a throwback to the days of silent films and family-friendly entertainment.  There is no bloody fight scene, no scandalous or controversial sex scene, and the worst word used that the audience could hear/read was "damn."  In fact, although the audience could see the brilliant chemistry and love story building between the two main characters, there wasn't even a kiss!  Any other movie today with such "lack of interesting content" would be either cast aside as an overly conservative push to bring morality back to Hollywood or a cute children's movie (which today contain much more unpleasant material than The Artist; and that says an extreme amount about the decline of moral standards in America, but that is a separate issue).

What was there not to love about this movie?  Well, if you like talking there is a lot not to love.  It's a silent movie.  Do not be like the fools in Europe who went to see it and demanded their money back because "they couldn't hear the dialogue over the music."  If you can get past the lack of voice dialogue and submit yourself to a retro attitude towards movie-watching, then there is nothing that you won't love.  While sitting in the audience, I realized that I was watching a recreation of what made Hollywood great, of what actors used to be capable of (it's a helluva lot more than today's actors), and why Americans have gone too see movies for nearly 100 years.

Due to the fact that it is a silent film, the actors were required to do much more facial and physical acting than they normally do.  Sound and voice can add a great deal to a character, but when that is unavailable actors must make up for it in other ways.  There are a select few actors out there than can do this, but the majority of actors today rely on physical appearance or their voices to help create their characters.  In The Artist, the actors displayed perfectly their characters' feelings, emotions, and even thoughts without the audience being able to hear them.  This is no small feat, making Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo most deserving of their nominations as Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role respectively.

Also due to the fact that it is a silent film (and in black and white), there needed to be great cinematography and directing in order to make The Artist a success.  The camera work and transitions between scenes were superb throwbacks to the way silent movies of the past used to be made.  It would have been easy for a modern movie-goer to become bored with the lack of special effects, but the camera work helped keep the attention of the audience and created a most entertaining production.  This is perhaps why nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Director are among the 10 Oscar nominations this movie has received.

The Artist has also been nominated for Best Picture, and it certainly deserves the nomination.  Whether it will win or not, or for that matter whether it should win or not, I cannot say because I have only seen one other movie that is up for Best Picture.  I can say, however, that it is one of the most original and creative movies that I have seen in a long time and that I do hope it does well.  I am of the opinion that Hollywood has become stuck in its ways and that there is not much originality being produced.  While The Artist is a throwback to an earlier film style, it is at least something different for today's generation of movie-watchers and there is something to be said for that. Hopefully this movie's success will influence movie makers to "return to the basics," as it were, to create a movie-going experience that is new and different for today's viewers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: The Problem of Pain

C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and also one of the great Christian apologists in the modern era, wrote The Problem of Pain in a time and place where nearly everyone around him was dealing with a considerable amount of pain (of some kind or another).  Lewis, writing in London as the Nazi bombs fell from the sky, makes an incredible stance in the defense of how pain and suffering do not disprove God, but rather are proof of Him.  The question of how a good God can allow for so many bad things to occur is one that was asked frequently during Lewis's life and, perhaps, more so (though less deservedly) today.

While I cannot claim to understand everything that Lewis was trying to convey to his readers (it may take several years and several re-reads for that to happen), I can say, with conviction, that The Problem of Pain is a great resource for any person (Christian or otherwise) who wonders why pain and suffering exist in a world that is ruled by a supposedly good God.  As mentioned above, Lewis takes the position that instead of being evidence against a good God or the goodness of God, pain and suffering are in fact evidences of a good God, so abounding in love that we cannot begin to understand the level of such a love.  As a former atheist, Lewis understands how unbelievers think because he himself used to think that way.  He uses his past beliefs to identify with non-Christians and his current beliefs to reach out to practicing Christians.

In order to grasp the basic thesis of the book, one would have to read it several times.  This is not a detriment to talent or presentation of the author, but rather a testament to the complexity of the subject.  As sinful human beings, it is incredibly hard to grasp the perfection of God, and because we cannot understand perfection we cannot understand how there can be a perfect being who allows imperfection to exist.  In so many words, Lewis answers this dilemma by pointing to God's love.  God created man with free will; He made man not to love Himself, but so that He could love them.  Because He loves man, He gave man free will.  With this free will came the option to not love God.  When Adam and Eve sinned, they chose not to love God.  This first sin marked the entrance of pain into the world.

I cannot begin to explain as well as Lewis the logic behind his arguments, but he basically argues that because of the goodness of God, because of his presence, we are also aware of the opposite of goodness; which is, of course, evil.  One cannot have good without evil or evil without good.  That is just the way it is.  If you are confused, I don't blame you; it is a very difficult question and a very difficult thing to understand.

What it all comes down to is faith.  As sinful beings, we cannot begin to grasp the knowledge of God or the motivations that guide His thoughts.  Faith, though, creates in us a trust that God knows what is best for us.  If this is not a good enough explanation, I strongly urge you to read The Problem of Pain.  C.S. Lewis is much more intelligent than I and can explain things in a way that I can only hope to be able to.  If it doesn't change your thinking, it will certainly make you think some more.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Getting Back Into History

I can only take so much Science before I can't take not immersing myself in History again.  Don't get me wrong, I love teaching and I actually am having fun teaching Science.  However, History is what I am passionate about and after spending 5 years of my life studying it on a high level, it is a hard subject to just drop.  Unfortunately, it does not seem like I will be able to teach History for a while; unfortunate because I miss it, not for any other reason.  Therefore, I have decided to undertake my own research project to keep my research skills sharp and my appetite for History fulfilled.

This post then, is a kind of research proposal.  The last research paper I wrote was about the development of chivalry during the Middle Ages.  This research project is going to be a little different.  For some time now I have been fascinated with the relationship between religion and government.  In America, we have a separation of church and state, which leads us to assume that religious thought has no impact of government policy and vise versa.  However, recently President Obama has made a law that will make Catholic medical groups (hospitals, clinics, health care providers) provide insurance for abortions, contraception, and other controversial practices part of their health insurance plans, even though they do not believe those practices to be morally acceptable.  This is an interesting development because most people are more weary of the church affecting government; here we are seeing the opposite.  Elsewhere in the world, Islamic governments enforce laws that are in line with fundamental Muslim beliefs.

The relationship between religion and government is as old as religion and government themselves.  I would like to take a look at how the relationship developed over time and how they affected each other.  I do not yet know what my thesis will be, but I am hoping that one will make itself known to me as I start my research.  I plan on taking a look at ancient governments and religions (including those in the Old Testament), the power struggle between the Catholic Church and European monarchs during the Middle Ages, the separation of church and state in America, and the relationship between Islam and the Middle Eastern governments.

The purpose of this was to get some of my thoughts out, and I have done so.  I realize I am all over the map on some ideas, but I have just begun thinking about it.  Look for a more organized proposal in the upcoming days/weeks.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: The Five Pearls

After spending the better part of the first month of 2012 reading classical literature and two certain Swedish books that have become popular as of late, I decided to read something different.  Unlike the previous books I have read this year, The Five Pearls was a.) American, b.) easy to understand, and c.) something I could relate to.  As a matter of fact, any teacher, or parent for that matter, would be able to identify with at least one of the characters in this book.  Furthermore, any young teenager who is searching for an identity would find hope in this book and, hopefully, a renewed sense of inspiration.

Barry James Hickey, a relatively new author who has worked as a screenwriter, tells the story of five young teenagers that society has given up on.  Amber is an expecting mother who refuses to tell anyone who the father is and lives in a half-way house of sorts for troubled young women.  Marie is a fun-loving (and boy-loving) young girl who flaunts her looks and acts promiscuous (but never really does anything all that bad; as she says, "nothing below the waste").  Julio is 20, overweight, has a huge chip on his shoulder, and likes to make everyone else feel bad; don't let him fool you though, he's a giant teddy bear way down deep.  Toby is ashamed; not of himself or anything he has done; his parents are deaf and no one can know about it.  It would make him uncool, or so he thinks.  Matt is a great athlete, but he can never join any teams because he's too busy babysitting his mom and step-dad's other three children... in their trailer.  Five different kids, five different broken homes; the only thing that they have in common is that they distrust authority, and all their authority figures give them no reason to trust them.  As a result, they ditch school, commit petty thefts, and find themselves on step away from a prison sentence.

Enter John "Battle," a man recently released from prison.  His crime: killing his wife and two of his children by driving them home drunk.  Only he and his infant daughter survived.  After 15 years and a brain cancer diagnosis, he is released from prison.  Having only a few months (if that) to live, he first sells one of his kidneys in Mexico to score some quick cash and makes his way back to Colorado to make things right.

The character of John Battle is an endearing one.  As a matured, dying man he has made peace with God and looks to make sure that his daughter will be provided for after he is gone.  He becomes the after school teach for the five troubled teens (nicknamed the Tadpoles) and he challenges them not to accept the verdict that society has handed down to them.  He tells them they are not tadpoles, but instead five pearls.  Pearls because they are not beautiful at first, but need to be polished and cut for many years before they can reach their full potential.

This book is certainly a must read for young adults and educators alike.  In many of the classroom scenes, Battle presents an interesting teaching philosophy and style that is a rarity in many classrooms.  He is a throwback to Socrates, answering questions with questions and helping his students find answers on their own; he teaches them how to think and challenges them to achieve things that they never thought they could, like their high school diplomas.

I will not ruin the book for you, nor will I tell you who Battle's child is, but it is one of the pearls.  It is a sad book at times (Battle is dying of cancer after all), but it does end well.  Within its pages are messages of hope, both for young adults and those they look up to.  Life does not have to be what society deems it to be; a person does not have to give in to social stereotypes.  Everyone has a purpose, a soul, a something that makes them special and priceless.