Reading Roundup

The summer has been sweltering, goopy heat simmering in the subway stations, the stench of garbage piles permeating. I’ve tried to keep up with my reading (with the help of a 300-volume e-book torrent), despite wanting most of the time to pass out in a cold shower.

Children of Hurin

J.R.R’s son Christopher compiled a bunch of his father’s notes into this volume, a telling of Hurin and his son Turin. The tale is told in the ye-olde-legend style, which at times can detract from any dramatic urgency. However, the story itself is rich (and tragic) enough that it ends up being a solid novel.

Back in the first age of the world (3k years before Bilbo Baggins), Hurin was a great warrior, an elf-friend and soldier in the battle against Morgoth (Sauron’s boss). There are lots of battles and adventures, elves and men with cool names die, and Hurin is finally captured. Instead of slaying him, Morgoth forces him to sit in a stone throne and see the world with his own eyes. It’s a torture fit for Greek mythology, and Children of Hurin follows much of the same format.

Hurin’s son Turin grows to be a great warrior as well, wearer of the Dragon-helm of Dor-lomin, wielder of the black-iron sword Gurthang. He’s a slayer of orcs (and eventually dragons), but because he’s single-minded in his urge to kill, tragedy follows him throughout his life. Friends die by his own hand. Entire nations are destroyed by his recklessness. It’s a far-cry from the optimism of Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien despised allegory, but Children of Hurin says much about the nature of evil, power and the hearts of men. As Morgoth explains to Hurin: “The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda…and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will.” Evil is a corruption of the world. Turin was gifted with the talents and valor of a hero, but cursed by Morgoth, those skills only wrought misery. Are those with great power always doomed to comit evil (whether intentional or not)? I think Gandalf and Aragorn stand in stark contrast to that.

Overall – if you find Tolkien’s world interesting, enjoyed Hobbit / LoTR, but don’t know where to dive deeper, check out Children of Hurin.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneThe week the final HP book was released I was traveling. Never have I seen so many strangers, all with their heads buried in the same thick orange tome. In the terminals, planes and subways, both kids and adults, intently reading hundreds of pages. I had to figure out what the fuss was about.

The first in the series is noticeably slimmer, large print, shy of 300 pages. It opens with a good bit of flair (flying motorcycles, shapeshifting cats) and cliche (fabled child orphaned on doorstep). From there it develops its own unique style that’s obviously captured so many fans. Rowling tells her tale with both motherly love and english humor. She has a solid sense of pacing and plot. Plus, who doesn’t have a boarding school fantasy or want to fly on a broomstick?

At times, I was reminded of the book Ender’s Game. Secret school for training young warriors/wizards – check. Competitive teams vie for points in a violent arena-like sport (battle room / quidditch) – check. Young hero’s destiny inevitably determines fate of everyone else – check. Even the mirror and Dumbledore’s fortune-cookie wisdom reminded me of Ender’s video game.

The flaws – silly accents by the lovable sidekick (Hagrid), ALL CAPS in times of tension, and the cliched 100% reveal by villain in closing pages (just before his plan is foiled and he melts into goo).

But overall I can understand the reason for its appeal. It’s doubtful the Harry Potter phenomenon will ever be replicated. It was the perfect storm of pop-culture, media frenzy and decent writing that produced such a monster franchise. Let’s hope the young readers turned on by Hogwarts will continue their enthusiasm and find what other worlds await them.

The God DelusionRichard Dawkins is an influential evolutionary biologist who coined the term ‘meme’. Nowadays, he’s at the forefront of radical (some would say malicious) atheism. In the God Delusion, not only does he refute God’s existence, he goes a step further and states that all religion is a blight on human society.

Right off the bat, however, Dawkins gives a caveat. The God’s he’s refuting in the book isn’t Einstein’s God, the “force behind the order of the universe”. This disclaimer is his first cop-out. I’d be willing be bet lots of people think of God in that way, so essentially Dawkins is straw-manning God.

He starts off with an overview of monotheistic religions (relying heavily on the whacko fundamentalist anecdotes), and the arguments that have been used throughout modern time to prove God’s existence (Aquinas, ontological, Pascal’s wager, etc). Many of these he writes off with a wave of his hand, saying they’re “silly”. Strangely missing is C.S. Lewis’s argument from Mere Christianity.

After that, he delves into evolutionary theory (which certainly doesn’t disprove God, only close-minded 6-day creationists), and his explanation of why he thinks religion exists (an evolutionary by-product). He clarifies his world-view in the later chapters: Where do morals come from if not from God? (product of evolution, exists in animals as well). What about moderate religions? (They validate fundamentalists). What’s the alternative to religion, don’t people have a psychological “hole”? (Secular humanism + scientific awe).

Granted, Dawkins is a smart guy and has some valid points. Fundamentalist religion is one of our most wretched constructions. More human suffering has been incited by religion hatred than anything else (although it may be tied with…hmmm…imperialism, totalitarianism, racism, communism, capitalism, and lots of other ‘isms). Dawkins also has this strange view that religion and science are mutually exclusive, and he just can’t come to grips with the various peers he’s met who espouse any sort of spirituality.

If anything, the book fails because it won’t accomplish what Dawkins sets out to do – namely convert believers into atheists. Worse, he makes a straw-man out of God, religion and adherents of faith, and for that his hypothesis is invalidated. We are, however, at a social crossroads. Fundamentalists increasingly polarize people, splitting the spectrum of faith into monochrome worlds. As secularism continues to press on their worldview, they will become increasingly violent and irrational. It’s up to the moderate, rational majority of those with faith to present an alternative, something that isn’t discounted with a wave of the hand by Dawkins and his pals.

The Dark Tower II: Drawing of the ThreeEarlier this year I picked up Stephen King’s Gunslinger, the first of a seven-volume series of weird-fantasy. I was intrigued by the prose (harsh, wild and untamed) and the constructed world (Spaghetti western with inter-dimensional portals). If anything, Drawing of the Three just gets weirder.

Following the revelations of the man-in-black (including some brilliant imagery of the universe), Roland – the Gunslinger – shambles down to the beach at the western edge of the world. Exhausted, he passes out in the surf, only to drench his precious shells and get bitten by an aptly-named Lobstrosity. Missing some fingers and suffering a growing infection, he finds a strange door, labeled The Prisoner. Looking in, he peers through the eyes of another at a strange world (New York City, 20th century).

When he steps through the door, he leaves his Clint Eastwood body behind, suddenly in the head of Eddie Dean, a junkie drug-smuggler trapped between the feds and a card-stacking mob boss. Together, with the Gunslinger’s unyielding perseverance and Eddie’s street smarts, he/they grab some antibiotics, blast their way out, and return to Roland’s grey beach. Two more doors remain: The Lady of the Shadows (a handicapped black woman with multiple personalities in the 1960s), and The Pusher (a Patrick-Bateman-esque businessman in the 1970s). Each time Roland steps through the door, his “ka” (spirit) inhabits the mind of the other. Each time he must wrestle the cries of their protesting minds, bring them through whatever tribulation avails them in NYC, and return them to his world on the beach. All the while, there’s the danger of Lobstrosities, starvation and dehydration to his unconscious body.

Being Stephen King, the book is chock full of violence and cursing and despicable characters. The prose itself sometimes feels patched together, unedited (even moreso than his original Gunslinger). Often, it feels like he’s making everything up as he goes along (not surprising, given the method he describes in On Writing). But there’s richness to the ideas here, a stunning originality in structure. King himself admits there was something about the story that stuck with him for 17 years (which is how long it took to get around to writing the final tome).

In a way, this is fantasy more true than Middle Earth or Hogwarts. Those are conventional worlds with rules, firmly locked into a genre. But the Dark Tower series is truly strange, wondrous, fantastical. For that, I think I’ll stick with Roland for the rest of the journey.

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