Review: Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, Penguin Books, 1899/2007, 115 pages, 2 of 5 stars

This is a book about the darkness of the human heart. And while the book explores the depravity of specific social evils like colonialism and the African slave trade, this is really a work about man’s soul—the heart of darkness.

Marlow is the narrator who while resting on his steamboat in England tells his friends of his experience in “one of the dark places of the earth.” It appears he was given a job along the Congo River searching for ivory. His real task, however, was to track down an eccentric but savvy ivory trader named Kurtz.

While Marlow repairs his boat, he begins to learn the mysteries surrounding the man who dominates everyone he meets. He is powerful, influential … and evil. The suspense builds as Marlow labors to find the European genius forgotten in Africa, a man apparently near death.

Marlow discovers that it was Kurtz who ordered the natives to sabotage his steamboat. At first the reader is made to believe that Kurtz was “shamefully abandoned” (76), but soon discovers he attacked Marlow in an effort to remain in the heart of darkness as a god to the natives. Perhaps he played this game to obtain more ivory. Maybe he began to believe it. Witchcraft was involved (“it had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head… some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt”).

Continue reading

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Review: This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism

Paul Moon, Penguin, 2008, 304 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-28-29-pmExactly 130 years ago some Swiss missionaries living just a stone’s throw from our village drew attention to some particularly gruesome scenes of cannibalism in Elim.

The missionaries recorded most of these accounts in their private journals. And yet, the modern author (and revisionist) I was reading–now looking back at such claims–believes this material was most likely invented. “Missionaries embellish,” he would say cynically. “Foreign churches expect dramatic stories.” On and on. Continue reading

Review: Wordsmithy

Douglas Wilson, Canon Press, 2011, 128 pages, 3 of 5 pages

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-8-28-39-amWilson’s Blog and Mablog is the only blog I read consistently, not because we lock shields on every theological matter but because he is such a consummate writer.

So who better to publish a book on skillful scribble than a writing wiz like Wilson? The chapters divide into seven “hot tips” for writing–filled to the brim with advice like using the element of surprise, the importance of reading books on grammar, steering clear of word fussers and the goodly role of a verbal pack rat.

If you want to write well, find a model and follow him. Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy is a good place to start. It’s short, lively, and humorous.

Excerpts:

  1. “The more you know the more you can know.”
  2. “The writer’s life is a scrounger’s life.”
  3. “Interesting people are interested people.”
  4. “The mind is like a muscle, not an attic.”

Review: The New Well-Tempered Sentence

Karen Gordon, Mariner Books, 1993, 147 pages, 3 of 5 stars

51X4G9M7Q1L._SX354_BO1,204,203,200_Like flannel pajamas in a wedding march, jocularity and jest seemed out-of-place in a grammar book. But everyone stayed until the final vows and I finished the whole book!

The NWTS is a creative book on punctuation designed to make the reader gasp, guffaw, and giggle. Long on puns and short on punctiliousness, it teaches grammar with sass and verve and answers those thorny punctuation questions piercing my side.

Can an explanation point fit mid sentence? Should it go inside or outside the quotation marks? Really now. Is a verbless sentence like the former allowed? When do ellipses come in threes and when in fours?

My favorite chapter was on the comma, that curvaceous acrobat too often littering our sentences. Should the comma divide two independent sentences? What about simple items in a list? Gordon answers, then moves to colons (“forthcoming is her middle name”), italics, brackets, semicolons and more. Per the author, too many parentheses is sophomoric (we all know how annoying that can be!).

My one complaint is the nude graphics covering every other chapter or so. Intended to be whimsical, the sketches were tawdry and a deal breaker for younger audiences. Still, this little volume hit its mark, so much so that I didn’t insert an apostrophe in “its”. I like paperbacks that are not abashed to use borscht, puissance, lugubrious, chintz, and fichu on the same page. By the end of the book, I was combing for the well-turned phrase more than the well-placed comma.

Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, Amazon Digital, 1886. 82 pages. Five of Five stars

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 4.12.51 PMIn 1885 and at the age of 36, Robert Louis Stevenson published his third and most popular larger novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is a dark and complex tale about corrupt human nature.

In real life, Stevenson experienced a grim story of his own. Always tormented by poor health, Stevenson dropped out of his law profession, married a divorcée against his parent’s wishes and died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 44.

The protagonist is Dr. Jekyll, an elderly scientist who has discovered how to change himself into the grotesque form of Mr. Hyde. It began as an innocent experiment by which Hyde could indulge in carnal delight by night and Jekyll could maintain his high social standard by day. It was the perfect life of two identities.

The doctor made systematic provisions for his evil nature, including his own quarters, wardrobe and bank account. Though Jekyll was confident that he could control Hyde, he soon found that his evil nature was gaining strength.

If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure…

But Hyde had energy and the will to be alive. One morning, Jekyll awoke to discover that he had transformed into Hyde without taking the potion. “My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring.” He then realized that a choice had to be made between the two. Continue reading

Book Review: The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce, A Public Domain Book, 144 pages

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.11.45 AMHumorist Ambrose Bierce began writing this book of satire at the end of the 19th century. Douglas Wilson is a modern theologian who makes heavy use of satire and argues that Jesus used it often. Satire helps us to take ourselves less seriously.

Flannery O’Conner said: “Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.” Satire also is one of the ways Christians can attack false teaching—or at least blind spots of the guy in the pew next to us.

Keep this in mind as I list a few of my favorite definitions.

  1. Christian, one who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.
  2. Exhort, in religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.
  3. Hospitality, the virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.
  4. Logic, the basic of logic is the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion—thus: Major Premise: sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man. Minor Premise: One man can dig a posthole in sixty seconds; therefore—Conclusion: sixty men can dig a posthole in one second.
  5. Mouth, in a man, the gateway to the soul; in a woman, the outlet of the heart.
  6. Non-combatant, a dead Quaker
  7. Overwork, a dangerous disorder affecting high public functionaries who want to go fishing.
  8. Plagiarize, to take the thought or style of another writer whom one has never, never read.
  9. Politeness, the most acceptable hypocrisy.
  10. Positive, mistaken at the top of one’s voice.
  11. Saint, a dead sinner revised and edited.

Book Review: Culture Counts

Roger Scruton, Encounter Books, 2007, 117 pages

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 9.57.04 AMThis book is a good exercise of “pulling myself up to understanding,” as Mortimer Adler has defined reading, since much of what Scruton says is difficult to understand. I took fifteen minutes to finish some pages. It felt like mental chin ups.

Scruton defines culture as the accumulation of a civilization’s elements that have stood the test of time, though these reach different heights. Civilization, therefore, must constantly choose what it thinks is best, including customs and traditions. If we agree with him here, then we are set up for the politically incorrect conclusion that has been hiding around the corner: all cultures are not equally good.

If a society consistently chooses, for example, that the best way to appease the gods is by sacrificing children to Molech, then that culture is inferior (at least in that particular matter) to other cultures that, say, preserve their children at all costs. And if that same society continues to add checkmarks in the “evil” column, then we should not feel bad at all about saying that culture A is superior to culture B. No one is arguing that inferior cultures have only checkmarks in the wickedness column and that superior cultures only have checkmarks in the virtuous column, just that the when everything is added up, we shouldn’t expect a tie. Scruton gives the reader seven chapters of tools to judge the virtues of culture.

The chapter that struck me most was the fourth: “The Uses of Criticism.” Scruton jumps right into an insightful philosophical analysis of humor. “Comedy is a fundamental ingredient in every serious culture” (45). Humor has value because it unites people and philosophies, for aren’t our closest friends the ones with whom we can laugh about the same things? To agree in our laughter is to agree in our judgments.

My colleague Seth and I laugh about the kiosks in our villages, the materialism of America, the administration of the Zimbabwean government, and the missionaries from Wheaton that double as Abercrombie models because in laughing together we are concluding together.

But laugher should be inward too, meaning we should chuckle at our own American accents. “When you and I laugh together, we reveal to each other that we see the world in the same light, that we understand its shortcomings and find them bearable. We are jointly ‘making light of’ our burdens by vicariously sharing them.”

I doubt you have ever heard a Muslim laugh at his own civilization? Scruton says this is dangerous because the one who cannot laugh at himself lacks “the principal way in which people come to terms with their own imperfection” (48).

Short book, long read, but worth it.