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Author Archives: Rob

About Rob

A 50-something guy who's not sure what he wants to be when he grows up.

A Quick Question

Two years ago I wrote a two-part review of a book by William Manchester called “A World Lit Only By Fire.” The book was a wonderfully written history of the early middle-ages and beyond. I enjoyed it so much that I had to write a long, two-part review. It got a fairly good response and I was happy at that. But over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that I’m getting a huge number of hits on those reviews. For example, over the past week “A World Lit Only By Fire, Part 1″ has had 177 views, and Part 2 has had 132 views.

So, what’s going on here?

Is there a history class out there that’s using my posts for study aids? Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with that. Flattered even. I’m just real curious about the who and what and why, etc. So, if any of you viewers have a spare moment please drop me a comment and let me know where all the views are coming from.

And thanks!

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in History, Uncategorized

 

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Another Wardrobe, A New Adventure

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I’ve begun reading a new fantasy series called The Dark is Rising Sequence, written by Susan Over Sea, Under StoneCooper. The sequence consists of five books: “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” The first book was published in 1965 and the last in 1977. So many fantasy book publishers these days try to claim their novels are in the tradition of Tolkien, but this lady is the real deal, having gone to Oxford and attended lectures by both Tolkien and Lewis.

“Over Sea, Under Stone,” starts out with a well-paid homage to C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Barney, Jane and Simon Drew arrive in the quaint seaside village of Trewissick, in Cornwall, for a vacation with their parents. The highlight for them isn’t so much the location but the person who’ll be staying with them: their Great-Uncle Merry. “Gumerry,” as they affectionately call him, has arranged for them to stay in a sea captain’s residence called the Grey House, a tall, dark-grey structure high on a steep hill overlooking the harbor. The day after they arrive it begins to rain and the children are, of course, bored. They decide to play at explorers and explore the house. Beginning to sound a tad familiar? In the boys’ bedroom there’s an alcove with a wardrobe in it. No, they don’t open it and crawl in. They pull it away from the wall and find a hidden door covered in dust. Behind the door there’s a stairway that leads up into the attic and to their adventure.

Nicely done, Ms. Cooper.

While the children don’t wind up in a parallel world such as Narnia, they do find that the world they live in has changed unalterably. In the attic, they find some kind of ancient map or chart with strange writing, Latin perhaps, on it. Simon, the oldest, claims it is a treasure map, but Barney, the youngest (and perhaps the smartest!) points out it’s not so much a map as a puzzle with lots of clues to be deciphered. And the challenge begins! Not just to find the treasure – and what a treasure! – but to keep this ancient document out of the hands of others who want it also.

It turns out that Great-Uncle Merry has been looking for it too. But that’s alright. He is, after all, one of the good guys. The rest of the players the kids encounter? Well, that’s part of the fun of this novel. Trying to figure out who the bad ones are. Some are obvious, some are not. But the kids have to weave their way around these characters on their quest to figure out what and where their treasure is. They are helped along by Great-Uncle Merry, who isn’t their uncle at all but a family friend of long-standing. The most intriguing character in this novel, Merry’s full name is Merriman Lyon and he’s described as being “old as the hills.” He’s also quite striking: “He was tall, and straight, with a lot of very thick, wild, white hair. In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark.” He helps the children by talking with them and pointing them in the right direction, but doesn’t always accompany them in their exploits. In fact, he tends to wander off periodically to see to other matters. Kind of like another tall, white-haired character we know from Middle-Earth. No, it’s not really him. A distant cousin, maybe.

Cooper has a real talent for letting us see things through the children’s eyes. As they put the clues together and grow bolder in their searching, their confidence grows. There are encounters with the dark forces, but Cooper shows us that evil doesn’t always display itself in overtly threatening ways. We also never know exactly what the ultimate goal of the dark is, which actually adds to the sense of mystery. There are touches of the supernatural in the story, but the author is wise enough to keep it brief and not overwhelming. The centerpiece of the story is the children’s quest, not someone’s magical powers. Indeed, Barney, Jane and Simon use their own wits and moxy to attain their goal. And courage. In the final chapter, Barney and Simon have theirs seriously tested in a harrowing sequence in a cave beneath some cliffs facing the sea. With the tide coming in. And matches running out. And . . . well, you’re just going to have to read this yourself.

It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that the Drew kids are successful in their quest. They find the treasure before the bad guys, but the bad guys aren’t defeated either. They disappear with the implied promise of return. But hasn’t that been the pattern for millenia? There’s also a nice surprise at the end, though perhaps not a big one for astute readers. The big surprise for me is that a story showing young people using their minds and courage to face up to evil and coming out on top isn’t more widely read.

______

As a guide, here are a few reasons I consider this one of the “good stories” for young people:

          – It shows young people using their brains and taking the initiative to solve problems.

          – It displays the virtue of courage.

          – It acknowledges the existence of evil and the need to oppose it.

          – Clever plot and likable characters.

          – Introduces young ones to aspects of the Arthurian legend and some of its themes.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Book Review

 

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Was Lost, But Now . . .

OK. I haven’t been writing much lately. Actually, I haven’t been writing anything lately. At least not here. I’ve written a couple of articles for my

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

church’s monthly bulletin, but that’s about it. Why? To be honest, I don’t really know. I guess you could call it a dry spell. I’ve been told writers get those periodically. Of course, I’m being generous considering myself a writer.

At any rate, I’ve felt a need for some new direction or purpose in this blog. That last quote I posted back in May has been rolling around in my mind. We definitely need to be more aware of what we put in our heads, especially the stories we consume. Naturally, I’m referring to the books we read, but I could just as well mean the stories we watch on TV or at the movies. The key word is “stories.” We need, all of us, to be telling ourselves better stories. And if this is true for us adults, it is even more critical that we make sure our children are hearing and seeing good stories.

Part of what has brought this into sharper focus for me is a new fantasy series I’ve started reading. It’s called “The Dark is Rising” sequence, by Susan Cooper. There are five books in the sequence; “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” What makes this series of particular interest is the author and her background. You can read a nice article and interview with Ms. Cooper here, but let me just give you an appetizer. She went to Oxford where she attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Then she worked at The Sunday Times of London where her editor was another author you may have heard of: Ian Fleming. Yes, she has the qualifications.

She also has the right story. But I’ll let Great-Uncle Merry explain that to you:

“You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small – ‘once upon a time . . . ‘ Why do you think they always began like that?”

Jane said, . . . “Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember when.”

Great-Uncle Merry turned his head and smiled at her.

“That’s right. Once upon a time . . . a long time ago . . . things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing – the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil.”

And these stories about good against evil are still the great ones, the ones that resonate inside our hearts and minds. The reason for this is pretty simple. To quote Great-Uncle Merry once again, “That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting.” Though today it can be more subtle than a knight battling a dragon, it is there none the less. We are stirred because these stories remind us there are still great things to fight for. This is something all of us need to remember in today’s secular world where the line between good and evil is constantly blurred by the pernicious idea of relativism. Yes, ideas can be evil too. And there are a lot of them out there these days.

Dean Koontz wrote in one of his books that one can spend a lifetime fighting bad ideas. This is so true, and it’s a battle all of us can and should take part in. As for me, I think I will wage my campaign by promoting the good stories, both the great classics and the newer ones that hit the mark. Let’s all of us start reading and hearing and seeing the good stories again. It will take a conscious effort, because it is so easy just to settle for what is put out by today’s culture and media. But it will be worth it.

I plan to start by reviewing the first book of The Dark is Rising sequence, “Over Sea, Under Stone,” by Susan Cooper. And, yes, I promise it won’t take me another three months!

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Children's Books, What I'm Reading, Worries

 

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Feed Your Head

There is a modern mania about purity in foods, an obsession with weight, cholesterol,sodium, vitamins, exercise – all of them legitimate issues, to be sure. But while there is high energy spent on what goes into our mouths, where is the concern for what goes into our eyes and ears, for what feeds the spirit? There is so much that is lovely to see, hear, read, behold: why are we so often indifferent to the violence and ugliness that assault and diminish us, often in the name of news or entertainment? In the name of freedom, perhaps something of our humanity is chipped away when we claim so proudly that nothing offends us. A very great deal ought to.

 

- Donald Spoto, from “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life” (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2014 in Quotations

 

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Supercalifragilistic . . . Um . . . Oh, To Heck With It!

I remember the day I went from being a book lover to an actual reader. No, I don’t remember the exact day or date, just the experience. It was Mary Poppins Bookson a weekend and I was at my grandparents’ house in Santa Ana, California. I was sitting in my grandfather’s big, comfy chair totally absorbed in a beautiful, hard bound edition of the complete Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. I sat in that chair for hours and devoured page after page about that magical nanny. It was the first large hardback book I ever read all the way through and, being only 9 or 10 years old at the time, I was quite proud of myself.

I bring this up because the other day at my favorite thrift store I came across three Mary Poppins books, in paperback, conveniently banded together. I think I paid fifty cents for all three. It’s been over 40 years since I read Mary Poppins, and with the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (you DO know who Mr. Banks is, don’t you?) out on DVD now, I’m really looking forward to revisiting these stories.

By the way, P.L. Travers wasn’t your run of the mill children’s writer. She was what you might call an intellectual adventuress (among other things). She had a fascination with the world’s mythologies and traveled extensively.  Back in the 80’s she was a regular contributor to the quarterly publication Parabola, which explored various myths and legends and their effects on culture and religion. Though she is no longer with us, she definitely left her own mark on our culture.

Keep your eyes on the East Wind!

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Book Hunting, Children's Books, Favorite Books

 

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The Good, The Bad, and the Orc-ly

OK. I apologize for the above title. Really. It was the best I could come up with at the time. I needed to get your attention so you’d check out middle_earth_according_to_mordor-460x307this post. I mean, this is important. We’ve all been mislead.

It seems that Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was nothing but Western propaganda. Did you know that Gandalf was actually a bad guy out to destroy technology and science? And that the elves were out to rule the world? Further, Mordor was a progressive center of science and rationality, the very essence of enlightenment as compared to the pie-in-the-sky West. That is evidently the premise of a book newly available in English. “The Last Ringbearer,” by Kirill Yeskof, was originally published in Russia back in 1999, but an English translation has just become available (via a FREE download, no less!). It tells the story of the War of the Ring through the eyes of Mordor.

I haven’t read it yet, but Laura Miller over at Salon.com has and I’m linking to her review here so you can check it out. Viewing things from the bad side’s perspective isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, though it has become even more prevalent these days in books and in television. What strikes me about this book is that it seems to want not only to make the bad guys sympathetic, but to present the good guys as the ones who are evil. Is this taking things a step further?

I don’t know yet, but I’d be interested in  hearing your opinions on this. Whatever your view, it looks like a fascinating read.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Coming Soon to a Kindergarten Near You?

One of my weekly pleasures is reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an excellent paper and one of the few left in the country that has a conservative opinion section. (There, I’ve outed myself.) But while the Journal may be a conservative publication, it is most definitely a secular one as well. Witness Alison Gopnik’s Mind & Matter column from this past weekend.

It seems that some scientists think that evolution, particularly the natural selection component, is too difficult for young children to understand. I’ve provided a link to the article above so I won’t go into all their reasoning for this seemingly obvious insight, however the upshot is that they recommend that children should be exposed to picture books that help them understand natural selection. As early as kindergarten. They’re afraid that these young minds may actually come to think that our earth and the life on it was created somehow by, gasp!, some transcendent, intelligent being.

These proposed natural selection “story books” are characterized in the article as “powerful intellectual tools.” I think it’s just a blatant attempt at indoctrination dressed-up in lab coats, clip boards and plastic pocket protectors.

What do you think?

 
 

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