A Blog of Book Reviews

These book reviews are also featured on my blog, Scorpion Stalking Duck. Here they are distilled out of the rest of the posts, kind of like that scum at the top of a pot full of boiled potatoes. The title of this blog - and the quote above - come from the forward of Hillaire Belloc's book, The Path to Rome.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Edited by Jason Fisher

McFarland & Company, 2011

I finally broke down and let one of the children buy Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.  I did insist that only those who have read the books would be allowed to watch the movie, though.  So on a lazy afternoon, with popcorn and drinks at hand, two of my sons and I settled in to watch the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Although the movie was good, it still left out so much of the book that I finished watching it with a feeling of disappointment, and a desire to go back and read the books again.  I also had to admire the beauty and complexity of Tolkien's work, and not for the first time I had to ask myself, 'what was he thinking when he wrote this book?'

Jason Fisher's book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, answers this question by looking at where he received the inspiration for his epic tales.  While I personally see it as a story influenced heavily by Tolkien’s Catholic Faith, many of the contributors to this book indicate that there are other, some older, sources which were used in his writings.  The Old Testament, Greek mythology, Barbarian tribes which conquered Europe, and even more recent authors such as George MacDonald are all implicated as sources of inspiration for the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.       I found it curious that Tolkien himself discouraged the very discipline which makes up this fascinating book.  Several of the contributors acknowledged this while making a good argument for this literary endeavor.  Tom Shippey said it best with this rationalization:

“It is true, as they say, that you do not have to have the recipe to appreciate a cake: (sic) but it is also true that you can learn a lot from seeing what a great cook has in his kitchen.”

J.R.R. Tolkien is a fascinating man in so many ways.  This book sheds light on just one aspect of this man’s life.  For those who are true enthusiasts of literature, and particularly Tolkien, this book is indeed a treasure.  In this day where the greatest literary works appear to be stories of vampires and werewolves, it is sad to think that there are not more authors around who will tackle such subjects as the burden shouldered by Frodo at the end of the book The Return of the King:

“Alas!  there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,” said Gandalf.

“I fear it may be so with mine,” said Frodo.  “There is no real going back.  Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.  I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden.  Where shall I find rest?”

Gandalf did not answer.

One comment I would have to make about this book is that it is extremely esoteric at times.  I had to constantly refer to online sources (that is a nice way to say Wikipedia) to understand what the author was talking about in each chapter.  Still, this book is an excellent starting point for those interested in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then there is this aberration, which is also part of the fascination with all things Tolkien:

Consider that all of these pretty young women are probably grandmothers now:

"Grandma, tell us again how you danced around with Leonard Nimoy, singing about a Hobbit?"

"Not now, dear. Grannie is tired."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lifting the Wheel of Karma, by Paul H. Magid

Lifting the Wheel of Karma: A Profound Spiritual Journey of Extraordinary Healing and Redemption, by Paul H. Magid

Point Dume Press, 2012

"Ergo silebo."  -  J.R.R. Tolkien

"I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues."

-  C.S. Lewis

I seem to always be in the minority.  I did not care for this book, and would not recommend it.  I looked in vain for anyone who shared my opinion.  When I keep finding objectionable things as I read a book, I finally get to the point where I have to reject the whole thing.  And now, meditating on the words of Tolkien and Lewis up above, I shall make this review as constructive as possible.

I should start by saying that I do not reject this book because it presents Eastern religion or mysticism.  I actually enjoyed the part of the book which discussed the various aspects of the Indian religions.  As a reader, knowing this to be fiction, there were certain things which happened in this book (spoilers) which I took as plausible because they were consistent with the eastern mysticism presented in this book.  In short, I went ahead and, for argument's sake, assumed some things to be true which I know to be not true.  I would be more specific, but I would have to mention a spoiler.

I'll start with the things I did liked about the book.  I think Mr. Magid described the settings very well, especially those of the scenes in India. I especially thought that he did a good job describing Lahiri's village and environs. Perhaps it's just reminded me of the time I spent in the mountains of Switzerland when I was a little boy.  Either way, I felt as if I were in India, in the mountains.

Now onto the negatives........

Joseph's brother Bill accompanies him all the way to the other side of the world, traveling by airplane, rail, taxi, and finally even by ox-cart to reach their final destination in the Himalayas.  Then, once Joseph meets up with Lahiri, Bill turns around and leaves.  Just like that. He doesn't rest overnight before starting on the long journey home.  He doesn't eat.  Heck, he doesn't even go to the bathroom before leaving his brother.  What about his return ticket?  Did he know how long it would take to escort his brother to the mountains?  These are the kind of inconsistencies which bother me about books.  I finished the book still fretting over Bill leaving so abruptly.
Then there is the question of the wheelchair.  Unless I misunderstood, the main character needs a wheelchair to get around.  Not only does he need a wheelchair, but I think he also had use of only one hand, which would make an electric wheelchair an absolute necessity.  I have a little experience with wheelchairs, from assisting my brother with his wheelchair, to transporting patients throughout a hospital while I was a college student, to spending an arduous day in one as part of our training in medical school.  So it seemed a bit farfetched to have a character who relies on an electric wheelchair go off to a village so remote that he had to reach it riding in an ox cart.  Every rock, carpeting, any slight pitch or camber in the sidewalk - not to mention curbs - were like insurmountable obstructions to my patients and I as we traveled along; just imagine that same wheelchair in a village without any 'advanced' amenities.

Don't get me started on things which were snuck through airport security......

Finally, there is the question of what constitutes a novel.  Reading this book, I suddenly realized that I was halfway through it when I reached page ninety-five.  Around the same time, I noticed the phrase 'A Novel' on the front cover.  While the definition of a novel does not stipulate a certain number of pages to qualify, it does suggest that a novel should encompass a span of time completely, not sketchily.  This book covers about fifty-five years in less than two hundred pages, leaving a lot of questions as to what happened in the gaps in the story.  I figure that there could have been a lot of friendships made and broken, loves found and lost, and mayhem created which the author could have included in his book.  This was the ultimate disappointment.

I suspect that most readers will disagree with me, but thats how it goes sometimes.  I welcome you to read this book and make your own judgement on the merits of this book.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WW II's CBI

The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WW II's CBI

by William M. Behrns, with Kenneth Moore

The San Joaquin Siren, by William Behrns, with Kenneth Moore, is the story of Mr. Behrns' service during the Second World War.  Mr. Behrns served in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying the P-38 Lightning in the China/Burma/India theatre of operations; this little known part of the conflict with Japan was better known by its initials, CBI.

The story begins with his childhood, and how he was born prematurely and was always smaller than all his peers as he grew up.  This never stopped him from achieving his goals in life, and one of them was to some day fly fighter planes for the military.  He describes how determination, hard work, and a bit of Divine Providence got him into flight school.  He describes the thrill of flying solo for the first time, and the excitement as he heads off to the CBI to face the enemy in combat.

The portion of the book in which he describes his time in combat is presented in diary form, with the days when he flew missions reported, including the objective, the success of the mission, and any aircraft he shot down on each mission.  One of the most harrowing parts of the book doesn't even take place in combat.  He describes crash-landing along the Burma road, and spending the night in the jungle, waiting for rescue.

Mr. Behrns mentions a few things which struck me as rather disturbing.  One was that he observed that none of his fellow airmen were from the same city or state.  He suggests in the book that this was done to minimize the reaction by the American people when the casualties from the CBI theatre started to increase.  The number of pilots who died in the CBI were rather high, and this was a way to avoid any kind of public outcry over the loss of so many from one part of the United States.  It seems rather hard to believe that our military could execute such a subtle and devious plan, but Mr. Behrns does make a good case for it.

Another thing that I found disappointing was that Mr. Behrns described his attempts to get credit for one 'kill' which he could only count as a 'probable.'  Briefly, whenever an enemy aircraft was shot down, there had to be evidence to corroborate the pilot's report.  That evidence could be from eyewitnesses, such as other pilots or personnel on the ground, or from enemy records, or from gun cameras which would start filming while an aircraft's guns were firing.  If these means confirmed that an aircraft were shot down, the pilot was awarded a 'kill' for it; if not, he would be assigned what is known as a 'probable.'  If one had more than 5 confirmed 'kills' one could be called an 'Ace.'  In Mr. Behrns' case, one of his 'kills' was witnessed by one of his comrades who unfortunately disappeared shortly afterwards.  The 'kill' ended up being credited to that pilot rather than to Mr. Behrns. 

Recently, Mr. Behrns started doing some research into this 'kill' which he never got credit for.  Eventually he did enough research, and with the help of his local State Representative, was able to add that additional victory to his military record.  This is what I found to be rather sad.  At the end of his life, Mr. Behrns wanted to be sure to add another life to the list of people he had killed during the war.  Granted, this was a combatant, an enemy fighter pilot determined to kill as many American soldiers and airmen.  But it seems as if desiring such an ephemeral honor when one is so close to death would only be a hollow victory.  I do not mean to derogate Mr. Behrns' service to our country in any way; I thank him and all of his generation who served our country during such a tumultuous period of the past century.

Mr. Moore apparently died shortly before the completion of the book, and I did get the impression that the book seemed to wrap up rather abruptly.  Still, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed reading this book which described another part of a war which truly did involve every part of the world.

Bonus:  Here is the picture of the San Joaquin Siren itself.  Unfortunately it crashed while another pilot was flying it.  The story behind that crash is in the book.