Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goodreads review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume I by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That this collection of detective stories is classic fiction is beyond question. Nevertheless, never having read Sherlock Holmes before, at several points I was sorely disappointed. The literary trick of untranslated foreign language quotes almost always aggravates me, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sprinkled these quotes around using at least 3 languages that I don't comprehend. But I realize that this is a time-honored technique and so do not seriously criticize his famous work on that account.

Nor would I subtract from its rating because of some serious Mormon bashing in the very first story. I am not familiar enough with the true history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to determine whether Doyle's villainous portrayal of them is historically accurate or just an example of the trashing of a religion which one disbelieves. At any rate, let's let that pass as well.

Rather, I give only three stars to Sherlock Holmes, Volume I because of certain flaws of logic, flaws which I deem inexcusable in a work whose appeal rests almost entirely upon analytical reasoning.

For example, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Doyle has Holmes deducing a man's intellectual prowess from the size of his hat. Had Holmes never met a stupid man with a large head, or an intelligent one with a relatively small cranium?

Then, in The Adventure of the Priory School, Holmes deduces the direction that a bicycle had been ridden by observing that the rear wheel made a deeper impression in the mud and in places covered over the track of the front wheel. Brilliant. But such would be the case no matter which direction the bicycle was traveling. Duh!

The flaw that irritated me most was found in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. At the core of this story are a series of mysterious messages that I recognized immediately as simple substitution encryption, which assumption Doyle himself later confirms. As a long-time fan of encryption, I set out to decode the messages on my own without reading ahead, and would have succeeded within an hour or so had the messages been properly reproduced. But according to the text, one particular figure in the messages ended up representing two different letters: in one place a 'V' and in two other places a 'P'. Another figure represents both an 'O' and an 'M', while in another place a different figure represents an 'O'. All these are violations of the simple substitution encryption logic which Holmes asserts, and render the messages undecipherable as printed in the book. This flaw is not so much a matter of illogic as of sloppy composition and/or a failure to adequately proofread the encrypted messages.

On a positive note, Sherlock Holmes, Volume I contains plenty of other stories with plots that are both fun and logical. And with over 1000 pages, it provided me with many hours of enjoyable reading, a good buy for the price. Plus, the introduction by Loren D. Estleman is intelligent, informative and entertaining, qualities which one rarely finds in an introduction. All in all, I may very well end up shopping for Volume II as well.


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Goodreads review: The Jaguar Smile

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As a U.S. citizen residing in Nicaragua, I expected to find The Jaguar Smile interesting and insightful. But I learned next to nothing and saw little in this book that resembled Nicaragua as I've experienced it.

I must admit Salman Rushdie enjoyed certain advantages over me. I've only lived in Nicaragua for a little over 4 years, most of which time I've spent in a rustic barrio of Jinotega, rubbing elbows with my Jinotegan neighbors. Trips to other parts of the country have been via crowded buses in close quarters with common folk. I've had no guide or translator.

Mr. Rushdie, by contrast, was an invited guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. For 3 weeks he was flown and driven around Nicaragua by a select few politicians and journalists eager to impress upon him their own ideological viewpoints. He met and talked (via an interpreter usually) with local folk who were included in the planned agenda. Rushdie freely accepted or rejected at his own discretion the viewpoints he heard, and recorded his thoughts accordingly. He seems to have genuinely thought his experience to be a meaningful one.

So, if you want to learn what these Very Important Nicaraguans - and the Very Important Rushdie - were thinking and doing about 3 decades ago, you may enjoy The Jaguar Smile. I can't guarantee that you'll learn much about the real Nicaragua.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Goodreads review: Imitation of Christ

Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No accident that Imitation of Christ is, second to the Bible, the most beloved book in Christendom. Filled with sound doctrine and timeless exhortations to religious perfection, it offers no fashionable alternatives nor shortcuts nor culturally correct 'relevance'. It is a work for all seasons and all centuries. Its target audience is the serious Christian, no one else. It simply instructs the reader on the Truth and on how therefore to live. It is to be slowly absorbed, not just read.

This passage, written in the person of Christ, may be the most perfect portrayal of the Cross that I've ever found:
Of my own will did I offer up myself unto God the Father for thy sins. My hands were stretched forth on the cross, and my body laid bare, so that nothing remained in me that was not wholly turned into a sacrifice for the appeasing of the divine majesty. [4th Book, Ch.VIII,1a]

If Imitation of Christ has a flaw, it is that it was intended for monks and hermits. As such, many of its exhortations, such as
Choose therefore a secret place to thyself, love to live alone with thyself, desire the conversation of none; but rather pour out devout prayer unto God, that thou mayest keep thy soul contrite, and thy conscience pure. [3rd Book, Ch.LIII,1c]
can not be literally practiced by, say, a married person or a parish priest, whose vocation necessarily involves contact with people. This caveat, in my opinion, does not detract from the book's profound prophetic worth.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Goodreads review: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska

Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My SoulDiary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul by Faustina Kowalska

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sister Faustina writes her diary as a very frank and open disclosure of visions and locutions which she continually experienced over a period of several years. In it, she reveals her petty grievances and imperfections mixed in with an earnest and wholehearted drive for sanctity. She lived and wrote 100 years ago, having grown up in a typical Polish family, and entering religious life at about 20 years of age. Thanks to a couple of wise confessors, she was encouraged to not only follow the extraordinary visions given her but to write about them, the result being this very book.

Sister Faustina's relationship with her Savior was a spousal one. Jesus was not only her Lord and God but her divine husband. She saw herself as a bride of Christ, and her notes are marked by radical intimacy, devotion, docility and obedience. She is called by Christ to a special mission, that of spreading devotion to His greatest attribute, His mercy.

In some respects, her presentation of Divine Mercy is very much like the Evangelical notion of a simple faith conversion experience. Any soul, especially a hardened sinner, need only put his trust in the Mercy of the Savior, and he can be assured of a place in heaven; all sin is instantly forgiven, obliterated by the justifying sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. But Sister Faustina's experience of Divine Mercy is wholly Catholic in its understanding. Her revelations never consciously strayed from Catholic doctrine, and everything she experienced was subjected to the discernment of her superiors, confessors and spiritual directors.

This Divine Mercy is constantly contrasted with her own unworthiness and with the wrath of God which she and every sinner rightly deserves. It is, moreover, a very costly gift. Sister Faustina's short life was marked by an extraordinary amount of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering, which she came to see as a sharing in Christ's own salvific sufferings. As Christ's bride, it was her duty and high privilege to suffer like and with Him, and for the same purpose - to bring wayward souls to salvation. So much so that she begged Jesus to allow her to drain her cup of suffering to the last dreg. She was granted this request, and, after years of intense suffering, died of tuberculosis at the Christ-like age of 33.

Two quotes from the book:

"Some day, we will know the value of suffering, but then we will no longer be able to suffer." [963]

"If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering." [1804]

Let the reader - especially the serious Catholic - beware. This book could change your life.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Goodreads review: Healing the Culture

Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life IssuesHealing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues by Robert J. Spitzer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The faculty of reason should be seen as the common denominator uniting people of various beliefs and persuasions. As rational beings, we have the privilege and obligation to use the discipline of logic and reason in addressing human difficulties and controversies.

Healing the Culture, by Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., qualifies as a work of reason. Spitzer employs a step-by-step common sense approach to construct a framework of timeless and universal principles, and applies those principles to current cultural crises, especially abortion and euthanasia.

Spitzer begins by defining four levels of happiness. The first level is characterized by immediate gratification, of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The second level is typified by the comparison mentality, of achieving competitive advantage and bolstering one's ego. The third level goes beyond self, toward seeking the good of others. The fourth and highest level of happiness is derived from giving and receiving ultimate or transcendant goodness -- Truth, Love, Justice, Beauty. These four levels move from the immediate to the enduring, from the shallow to the profound.

Next, Spitzer draws connections between one's view of happiness and one's view of other principles: success, self-worth, love, suffering, ethics, freedom, personhood, rights, and the common good. He treats each of these in depth, but perhaps personhood, when looking at abortion and euthanasia, is the critical point.

All too often, the debate over life issues such as abortion and euthanasia are typified on both sides by political posturing, anecdotal arguments, and emotional pleas. Spitzer's reasoned and methodical approach is both refreshing and extremely important. It is an example of good philosophy that is practical, rational, and engaging.

Using rigorous logic, Spitzer examines various criteria for defining who is and is not a person. Reason dictates that such a definition not be tied to accidental, temporary, or non-essential traits, but that it must depend upon inherent powers and essential attributes, regardless of whether those attributes are currently manifest, dormant, or undeveloped. Spitzer concludes, quite reasonably, that every being of human origin should be considered a person. It is important to note that Spitzer does all this in a way that even an unbeliever would find compelling, providing that said unbeliever is honest, willing to think, and is a person of basic good will. It is also important to note the legal and cultural ramifications of these simple but profound ideas.

Pope John-Paul II repeatedly called upon Christians to build a 'culture of life'. Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of using reason in our dealings with the culture. In my opinion, Healing the Culture fulfills both of these mandates, and is well worth reading, digesting, and sharing.

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Goodreads review: War Against Population

The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of Population ControlThe War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of Population Control by Jacqueline Kasun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A host of issues such as poverty, hunger, AIDS, and Global Warming have been attributed by many to the general ill effects of overpopulation. But when the particulars are looked at case by case, no causal connection can be shown. Consider a certain famine, and you find its primary cause is a civil or regional war. Examine an epidemic, and you find that it resulted from widespread sexual promiscuity. Another devastating crisis is seen to come via a combination of political greed, incompetent management, and uncontrollable natural forces. Show me, if you can, a specific, serious human problem that is demonstrably caused by Too Many People. To date, I haven't seen a single instance.

Is there something in the human psyche that demands simplistic answers? ("If we can just solve the overpopulation problem, everything will be OK.") Or do we find dark delight in news of impending doom? Or a secret self-loathing, that readily embraces the notion that we ourselves are the biggest problem? It is interesting to note that population control advocates have nearly always been members of rich, industrialized nations.

A more sinister explanation to consider is that some people are deliberately beating the overpopulation drum to further their own agenda. One extremely well-researched book that explores this possibility is Dr. Jacqueline Kasun's 1988 (later updated) book, The War Against Population. This is not some nutty 'conspiracy theory' work. It is well documented in showing that some very powerful elitists view population control as a key to their political and material interests. To really control people (and their stuff), control their numbers. One well-exposed example is the Nixon Administration's 1974 National Security Council Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), a.k.a. the "Kissinger Report", and subtitled "Implications of Worldwide Population Growth For U.S. Security and Overseas Interests". Consider just this one citation among many from NSSM 200:
Whatever may be done to guard against interruptions of supply and to develop domestic alternatives, the U.S. economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries [See National Commission on Materials Policy, Towards a National Materials Policy: Basic Data and Issues, April 1972]. That fact gives the U.S. enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Wherever a lessening of population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects for such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States. (NSSM 200, CHAPTER III - MINERALS AND FUEL)

In addition to exposing an anti-population agenda, Dr. Kasun presents a formidable quantity of evidence to debunk the myth - and groundless fear - that we humans are too many in number, or anywhere near too many. Do you find this important? Are you willing to perhaps question the scientific neutrality of many population studies? In the interest of intellectual honesty, I highly recommend The War Against Population as an excellent starting point for such questions.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Slouching Towards Savagery

Combining two earlier thoughts: The previous post "God, Husband and Father" opined that Patriarchy (and, with it, civilization)

...starts with the Woman, and it starts with raw biology. The beginning of the patriarchal order is when the woman binds herself to one man and one man only. She in effect decides to belong to that one man, most likely to the man to whom she gives her virginity.

Secondly, my early impression of Nicaragua (the "Repaso" post) contains this paragraph:
But if I expected to find the same innocent culture that I encountered in Guatemala in 1975, in that I have been disappointed. Along with money and technology, most Americans and Europeans have brought with them the corrupt morals and worldviews that threaten to completely undermine their own native cultures. And with few exceptions, Nicaraguans look up to their wealthier neighbors and want to be more like them. So the same kinds of trashy TV, political ideologies and immorality are flooding in, and folks here seem generally to be eager to emulate Americans and Europeans, even if in lemming fashion it ends with their own demise.
My sentiments have not changed much in the two years since I wrote the above. The culture of Central America (perhaps of the whole world) is slipping steadily into a dull savagery. And I think it has to do with the feminization of the culture and of women's independence.

The feminized culture isn't the Utopia promised by the feminists, especially for women. Since a 'liberated' society means sex without responsibility, its women are much more likely to attract womanizers and misogynistic woman abusers. Indeed, a feminist culture is a paradise for these irresponsible miscreants. Likewise ample accommodation is given for serial sex and the adulterous changing of partners, a sort of prostitution in slow motion. Likewise for sterile, childless or one-or-two-children households. What is increasingly not tolerated in the feminized world is the large and stable patriarchal family where an unattached man marries a virgin and where true motherhood is cherished.

Because of a lazy, feminist lack of strong fatherhood in the Church, and a resulting lack of strong fatherhood in society, any sanctions or taboos against unwed sexual activity are downplayed or completely ignored. (God forbid that we should marginalize or offend the whores or their bastards!) Socialist government programs insure that fatherless families are well tended to. As a result, young women have no fear or scruples about promiscuity, and tend to deliberately choose mates with no commitment. I guess liberated (savage) women find liberated (savage) men attractive.

When women choose savagery, there is little or nothing that men can do about it except play the same game. The typical gigolo / womanizer has several women, either in succession or at the same time, and perhaps dozens of biological offspring whom he need not support. The decent man who wants a stable relationship and who wants to be a real father is lucky to find one woman (usually one who was not his virgin) and will produce zero or one of his own offspring, while perhaps supporting one or more bastards from his wife's previous lover(s). So the gigolo's biological offspring, not the good man's, are well represented in each succeeding generation. In this game of demographic natural selection, women decide who will win, and right now the gigolo is winning big time. Civilization starts with the Woman; so does its demise.

As implied above, I have no idea whether this is a global phenomenon or an anomaly of Central American culture. I suspect the former. Nor do I have a solution to suggest. Perhaps the situation will be self-corrective. Since matriarchy / savagery is inherently unstable and backward, the whole damned house of cards may soon collapse. Globally, I suppose patriarchal Muslims will survive the collapse and effectively own the demographic future, with perhaps a few scattered pockets of traditional, large, patriarchal families keeping the Christian faith burning here and there.