Four Witnesses: A Book Review

Four Witnesses | Rod Bennett
Ignatius Press (2002)

Imagine: living among the first Christians.  What must that have been like?  How must it have felt to hear the preaching of Peter or Paul or encounter a passerby who knowingly traced the symbol of a fish in the dust at their feet?  How terrifying, when the Roman persecution of those professing the name of Christ began in earnest? Continue reading “Four Witnesses: A Book Review”

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To the MOOOOOOONN! and the Official WP Photographer, F. Stop Fitzgerald

Welcome, good lords and ladies, to another edition of The Friday Review.  This week, we bring you a space shuttle of a masterpiece that will (possibly) make you cry, and a book widely revered as a classic this side of paradise.  So grab your ticket for the next bus to Princeton and a box of tissues, because it’s time for…

This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald | Scribner (1920)

F. Scott Fitzgerald is more widely known for his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, but his debut novel, This Side of Paradise is worth the price of dinner too.  If you are a fan of classic literature, you ought to give this one a go.  If contemporary fiction is more your fare, or if you find romantic protagonists who can’t seem to grow up annoying (which is understandable), look elsewhere for your next read.  This Side of Paradise definitely has its shining moments, but its lack of an actual ending, or at least a decent one, removes it from my “most loved” shelf.

A novel that could use more direction, but a classic.  7 out of 10.

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excellence-visualTo the Moon
Freebird Games | 2011

Oh, where to begin with this one…  Can video games be considered a work of art?  With the creation of To the Moon, the answer to that question has become a resounding “YES.”

Never have I played a game so firmly based on its story.  And what a story it is.  The setting: a future in which doctors can alter the memories of the dying to give them the sensation of having achieved their lifelong wishes.  But it gets so much deeper from there.  How it’s possible to connect with and care about characters rendered in 16-bit style graphics is beyond me, but it is.  I get chills just thinking about the ending.

Some have argued that To the Moon isn’t a game but an interactive movie.  I disagree.  Besides the fact that it lasts twice as long as the average film, it’s gameplay elements go beyond the mere advancement of the story.  Although, it is obvious that the most effort was put into the game’s storytelling.  It’s sparse, slightly repetitive gameplay is its only flaw.

However, the gameplay’s shortcomings detract nothing from the plot, which unfolds like a novel.  It can be played — nay, experienced is the word — in a matter of 4 hours, but it need be no longer.  Its touching story, poignant soundtrack, and multifaceted characters transcend any perceived limits of old-fashioned graphics, coalescing into an unforgettable experience that may find you reaching for that box of tissues.

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No longer need video games be ostracized from the world of art.  For that is truly what To the Moon succeeds in being.  9 out of 10.

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In Review: May

Books

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket | HarperCollins (1999-2006)
A-

Lemony Snicket’s uniquely quirky writing sets this series apart from most others.  Though its first half gets somewhat repetitive, the books’ short length and Snicket’s prose make the escalation of the plot from Book 8 onwards worth waiting for.  It even ventures to ask some Big Questions as the Baudelaire Orphans’ situation grows more desperate, such as the problem of ends justifying means, and it gradually becomes clear that the main antagonist’s motives are less cut-and-dried nefarious than was first imagined.  It definitely leaves one wanting to know more, about V.F.D., the Sugar Bowl, Beatrice, about everything.  Whether Snicket will provide any answers in the future remains to be seen…

Worth reading; Snicket writes like no one else, despite these books’ young target audience. Somewhere in between 3.5 and 4 stars out of 5.
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Music

The Suburbsexcellence-music
Arcade Fire | Merge (2010)
A

The Suburbs does a very good job of capturing a complex emotion: that inexpressible nostalgia of growing up, of feeling restless to explore the world, yet longing for the simplicity of one’s childhood.  Perhaps its success in this is what led it (quite unexpectedly) to win Best Album at the Grammy’s in 2011.  Its 16 tracks carry this theme without growing dull for over an hour, stumbling but once or twice.  It may not be as incandescent as Arcade Fire’s debut, but it is an exceptionally paced record that rewards repeat listens.

The Canadians have done it again.  4 stars out of 5.
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In Review: March & April

Catching up on these…

Books

All the Light We Cannot Seeexcellence-lit
Anthony Doerr | Scribner (2014)
A+

In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr weaves an intricate narrative of a young girl and boy, one in France, the other in Germany at the dawn of World War II.  The depth of his characters and the way in which the two finally meet is chronicled in a spectacular series of events that never feels contrived and in which every sentence happens for a reason.  Doerr’s poetical prose and knack for detail result in a polished novel whose only flaw is a slightly unsatisfying (though, in its defense, inevitable) conclusion.

One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.  4.5 stars out of 5.
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The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality
Ronald Rolheiser | Doubleday (1999)
A+

If there’s a reason this book didn’t get this month’s Kitten of Excellence, it’s because it’s not merely another book I enjoyed.  It’s a book I press into your hands, saying, “Read this.  You won’t regret it.”  It’s not so much recommended reading as required reading for any follower of Christ.  Within its pages, Rolheiser outlines how a truly Christian spirituality should channel our inner energy and restlessness in this bustling 21st century.  And he does so in a series of ten near-perfect chapters of unassuming but pertinent insight that introduce the reader to this “search”, while pointing the way to the answers.

Just read it.  You’ll be glad you did.  5 stars out of 5.
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Music

Carrie and Lowellexcellence-music
Sufjan Stevens | Asthmatic Kitty (2015)
A

From the opening notes of Carrie and Lowell, one can tell it will be an enjoyable listen.  Stevens’ songwriting is deeply artistic, never using eccentricity as an excuse for effort, and on his latest album, deeply intimate.  It’s a record full of sadness, candidly addressing the subject of his mother’s death in 2012.  But it never feels as though Stevens is wallowing in depression or seeking the listener’s pity.  He has succeeded in the supreme act of living: of taking one’s suffering and making it into something beautiful.

The result is his best release to date.  4.5 stars out of 5.

 

Kintsugi
Death Cab for Cutie | Atlantic (2015)
B+

Kintsugi is good.  Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said to its credit.  Though it easily surpasses most of what you’ll find on the radio these days, Kintsugi lacks the genius of earlier releases, and falls few yards short of Codes and Keys in terms of stepping outside their comfort zone.  However, it is the sound of Death Cab doing what they do best, delivering a well-paced and polished record that nicely showcases Ben Gibbard’s skillful lyrics, even if it might not attract hoards of new fans.

Worth the price of dinner.  3.5 stars out of 5.
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Funeralexcellence-music
Arcade Fire | Merge (2004)
A(+)?

Arcade Fire is without doubt the darling of contemporary music critics, but their reputation as exceptional artists is not without founding.  Nor is Funeral‘s reputation as a modern classic undeserved.  From the first notes of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, to the soaring chorus of “Wake Up”, all the way to the masterpiece that is “In the Backseat”, it’s a timely record of growing up that is only the more impressive for being the band’s debut album.  It’s doesn’t always speak to the listener, and is a bit of an acquired taste, but there is nothing like turning up the volume on this puppy and driving around the city.  Which, I’ve never done, but I imagine it would be awesome.

A definite must-listen.  4.5 stars out of 5.
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The Best of October

BEHOLD, October is past, ready or not, and the year is quickly drawing to a close.  It is against a sky which has in the past week driven me alternately to t-shirts and to mittens with its sun and snow that I bring you the best of my forays into music, literature, and the arts in general from the month past.  Cue majestic drum roll.

Books

  • Who: Rainbow Rowell
  • What: Eleanor and Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
  • Why:  I’ll be honest, I have tried repeatedly and always unsuccessfully to like Young Adult literature.  I find these novels too often to be short on believable character development and enough pages to pull off anything intricate.  Enter Eleanor and Park.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s the finest book I’ve read of its genre.  For starters, yes, it’s a love story, but I found the plot of these two misfit kids in the 1980’s applaudable, and not as narrow as some.  Its subtleties could have been brought out more, but it made one think a little, and Rowell’s way of portraying each character’s perspective is interesting and effective.
  • For: Anyone remotely interested in YA lit, those looking for something not terribly intellectual but not crappy, people who read really fast.

 

  • Who: Peter Kreeft
  • What: Three Philosophies of Life (Ignatius Press, 1989)
  • Why: For anyone who has never read Peter Kreeft, you must.  He is an outstanding contemporary philosopher.  In this book, Kreeft sets forth three main possible philosophies of life, as demonstrated by what Kreeft says are the most profound books of philosophy he has ever read.  These three are the biblical books of EcclesiastesJob, and Song of Songs.  What follows is a wonderful examination of life as vanity, life as suffering, and life as love, and the connections and pathways between these ideas through the lens of biblical Christianity.  An insightful and yes, enjoyable read.
  • For: Philosophers, Christians, people who have never heard of this Kreeft character but want to see if he lives up to my claims of his awesomeness.

 

Film

  • Who: Nancy Oliver (writer), Craig Gillespie (director), starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider
  • What: Lars and the Real Girl (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2007)
  • Why:  I have something of an affinity for quirky independent films, and this film most definitely fits that description.  The story of a socially inept young man who purchases a life-size mannequin to be his girlfriend, Lars and the Real Girl is at times funny, at others touching, and throughout, a very interesting character study.  The way that “Bianca” helps change Lars’ way of interacting with the world and the way in which his family and friends react to her makes for a memorable hour and a half.
  • For:  Those looking for something both thought-provoking and enjoyable to watch, appreciators of film as an art form, lovers of the quirky and slightly bizarre.

 

Music

  • Who: Death Cab for Cutie
  • What: We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000)
  • Why:  We Have the Facts is a strong entry in Death Cab’s discography.  It’s style is a bit of an acquired taste though.  For those who don’t mind the almost lo-fi instrumentation, the dynamic and emotional ebb and flow, especially on the second half of the album, make for some beautiful moments in music.
  • For: Professed Death Cab fans, lovers of independent bands, those who want something different from most contemporary music.

 

  • Who: The Postal Service
  • What: Give Up (Sub Pop, 2003)
  • Why: Give Up is an interesting portrait of a surprisingly successful side project.  I’ve never encountered another album with quite the same feel, at times introspective and dreamy, at others optimistic and extroverted, and always an interesting blend of Ben Gibbard’s expression and Dntel’s eccentricity.  Quite an enjoyable album, and unique.
  • For: Fans of Death Cab or Dntel, folks who need cheering up, those who are willing to try something new.

Songs of the Month

Jumping back to music real quick for October’s picks:

A Movie Script Ending – Death Cab for Cutie

A fine song, not their most polished, but neat tune and lyrics.  Was horribly stuck in my head at one point, and we were out of town, so it kind of reminds me of Gainesville, VA now.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me – Randy Newman (from Toy Story)

How can one not love this song?  To all my dear readers, this song is for you.  I love you guys.  ❤

o.0  heh,

I almost wrote “dead readers” instead of dear.  *creepy music*  Maybe I’ve been thinking about Halloween too much.  If I do have any dead readers out there, I’d love to hear from you!  That would be freaking creepy actually.  Maybe I don’t want to hear from you.  Tom, have you been reading my blog?

“R”, left index finger, we type “R”, not “D”.

Oh boy…  It’s been a long weekend.

The Paradox of Selfish Moments

Today is a lovely day in my hometown.  Sunny, temperature in the low 70’s.  The sounds of the small town wilderness wafted around the backyard as I sat, reading quietly.  Quite idyllic.

I was absorbed in my book, when two cardinals, Mr. Cardinal and Cardinal Junior, flitted down from the sky and perched on the fence not 15 feet away.  The two chirruped back and forth for a while before Mr. Cardinal hopped down onto the back porch.  I watched as he eyed a small patch of tall sunflowers, shooting glances at one that drooped and faced the ground.  Bracing himself, he leaped up and hovered long enough to grasp a sunflower seed in his beak and wrench it away from the flower before landing again on the porch.  Rather than eat the seed immediately he took flight, and alighting on the fence, proceeded to feed the prize to Cardinal Junior, whose mouth was opened wide in expectation.

It was one of those small miracles that nature grants to us on occasion.  My book forgotten, I took in the spectacle as it was repeated several times.  Then I found myself wishing I had my camera, to record the event for others to witness too.  “Why is that?” I wondered.  Why do I feel the need to capture this moment that has been given to me in high, yet imperfect definition? Continue reading “The Paradox of Selfish Moments”