Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Year with Great Old Books

Yes it has been.  That's partly because I don't watch much TV here, and practically no movies.  But I can order books for our department, and I did bring a bunch with me -- no, not Kindle, the heavy ones, good for the abs.  Also, since I'm writing a highly ambitious defense of the gospels, I felt obligated to read as much ancient Greek fiction and history as possible, to provide a basis for comparison and analysis. 

So I haven't read as much in Chinese as last year.  But I have found some wonderful and fascinating works -- also some solid duds. 

Here are the ones I remember:


The Resurrection of Jesus, Michael Licona  An extremely cautious, systematic, and generous work.  Also long, and pretty convincing. 

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Limbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight, Winston Groom.   Three unbelievable stories in one. 

The Right Stuff: Tom Wolfe: As great a ride as ever, second time through. 

Band of Brothers: Stephen Ambrose.  The amazing story of E Company, 101st Airborne.  The writing is not as great as that of Groom or of course Wolfe, and the characters drop out too quickly for continuity at times, but this is real war history, from the ground level, and amazing history at that. 

Mornings on Horseback: A wonderful biography of Theodore Roosevelt, by David McCullough.  Teddy's father comes across as particularly admirable. 

Herodotus: long, lively, gossipy, and entertaining, Herodotus aims to tell the story of the Persian assault on Greece, and how it was beaten off.  But he needs to give a little background, first, so he gives us the geography of Europe, "Asia" (a lot smaller than what we mean by the word) and Africa, which the ancients called "Libya."  (Along with "Ethiopia," which they thought was joined to India.)  Herodotus never fails to tell a fun story, though he disavows some of them, he clearly thinks he wouldn't be doing his job to leave some wild rumor out.  So this book is fascinating.  The invasion itself, including the battles at Marathon, Thermopylae ("300"), and off the coast of Athens, are classics. 

Polybius: This historian is more cautious, politically-focused, and deliberate.  He explains why he includes one story and not another, justifies his methods, argues for the unique sweep of his book, and his empirical care.  It's not quite as much fun as Herodotus, but Polybius seems about as good an historian as he thinks he is, which is impressive.  His story is the war between Carthage and Rome, including the famous elephant assault across the Alps, and how Rome rose to power.  He's surprisingly fair, but then, he's Greek himself, not Latin or Carthaginian.  He also relates the parallel wars in Greece. 


Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Joshua Berman:  By "the Bible" Berman means "the Torah," mainly.  (He's Jewish.)  He makes a strong case that even the much-despised earliest portion of the Bible, already began to liberate the ancient world. 

Fact vs. Faith: Why Religion and Science are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne: Well-written, but strident and derived from that form of ignorance whose mother is Stridency.  Coyne doesn't know history, or the Christian faith he is attacking.  Not at all convincing

Why There is no God: 20 Simple Answers to Arguments for God: The key word here is "simple."

Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew McCormick:  The best of these three attacks on Christianity, which isn't saying much

Miracles, Eric Metaxis: Hits the sweet spot between tons of empirical data -- stories -- like Craig Keener, and sensible thinking about miracles -- C. S. Lewis' book of the same title.  Read it on a long trip from North America to somewhere in China. 

Pensees, Blaise Pascal: Don't ever let anyone tell you Pascal advocated "blind faith."  Don't ever allow Pascal to be reduced to a foolish bet. 


The Kite Runner: The story of two boys in Afghanistan who liked to fight kites, in time and a place where innocence was precarious indeed.  Brilliant and troublingly true. 

The Great Gatsby: Prodded by one of my students, I gave in and finally read the "Great American Novel."  My biases are confirmed.  Excellent writing, decent plot, but American literature has a long ways to go to catch up with the Shakespeares and the Dickenses.  We're missing something in depth, seemingly, or is it matter?

解忧杂货店:A fascinating Japanese novel (though I read it in Chinese) about a an old goods store where people drop letters asking advice.  A gang of thieves holds up in the shop after the owner has died and it has been deserted, but then letters start to mysteriously pour in, from years earlier, and the thieves find themselves trying to offer helpful advice. 

Hard Times, Charles Dickens: My first time to read this one.  Almost to the level of his best work: one does not hear much of this work, but I found it well worth the read.  Surprising how much Christianity Dickens puts into all of these novels. 

Oliver Twist, Dickens: The story is longer and more complex than I remembered!

Great Expectations, Dickens: Fulfilled mine, again. 

Tale of Two Cities, Dickens: A masterpiece -- a Christian masterpiece, whatever Dicken's flaws may have been. 

红楼梦, "Dream of Red Mansions:"  Tried again.  Got about 40-50 pages.   Just don't catch the charm, yet. 

Ancient Greek Novels: Almost all of them.  They're contained in an 800 pages volume called Collected Ancient Greek Novels.   The story most often goes like this: boy meets girl.  Girl looks like goddess, boy like god.  They fight it, but fall madly in love.  He stops going to the gym to work out, he's so deeply in love, so all the other boys in town stop working out too, because he's their idol.  She is kidnapped and taken by pirates, but retains her virtue somehow, and he takes off in pursuit.  They travel the Mediterranean, meeting the same people, getting rescued.  Everyone finally lives happily ever after, who deserves to -- the hero and heroine, that is.  Slaves get tortured, kindling gets burned, stuff happens. 

The best of the bunch are Leucippe and Clitophon, which is often quite clever and artistic, and Daphnis and Chloe.  The latter is also a love story, but without so much mileage.  Boy and girl are abandoned by their parents at birth, raised by neighbors, herd goats and sheep, are too naïve to follow through on their romantic impulses, and then some gods or other bring them together after fending off a gay slave and other troubles. 

Two other unusual Greek biographies are the Romance of Alexandria, which sends the king across Africa to meet a variety of bizarre adventures, and True Tale.  This latter is primitive sci-fi so bizarre, with its war between the sun and the moon, spiders that spin webs across the sky, and countries in the belly of a whale, that the imagination gets a little wearied with non-stop, unbridled inventions with not even the semblance of a coherent map let alone plausibility. 

But most of the love stories, including the longest, Ethiopian Tale, are conventional works of little literary merit.  One is glad to find, at the end of the book, a number of stories of which mere pages have been preserved.  Most of them look pretty bleak: I'm glad I didn't have to read them, too. 

Life of Apollonius of Tyana: They often classify this as a biography, but I think now that's a mistake.  It's an often highly entertaining, often unintentionally so, travelogue through the ancient world, phoney as a three-dollar bill, little more plausible, except maybe in a few late passages, than Alexandrian Romance.  Lots of practical tips, too.  Tigers defeat griffins.  Making a rabid dog lick the wound cures it.  Satyrs are easier to handle when they're drunk.  Just in case. 

Even more amusing than the story itself, is that liberal scholars have been trying to peddle t off as a parallel gospel for decades -- as recently as Bart Erhman's How Jesus Became God.  They must be really desperate. 

The Voyage of the Argo, Apollonius of Rhodes: The story of how Jason sailed into the Black Sea, then sailed out again with a golden fleece, a lover named Medea (trouble ahead!), and a fleet of angry sailors on his tail.  Not great literature, but a pretty good story. 

Odysseus, Homer: Great literature AND a great story.  Lags a bit at the end. 

Harry Potter: Read through the whole lot, again.  Still loads of fun. 

Lord of the Rings:  Maybe for the tenth time?  Just about sucked the juice out of that wad of gum, talk about long-lasting flavor. 

Chronicles of Narnia: Yes, I think I reread that whole series again this year, too. 


Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare: I wouldn't like this story, if I were Jewish.  Even as a Gentile, I don't think it measures up to Hamlet.  Still great.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare: I then tried to explain some passages to my students.  Hopefully I managed to get at least a hint of the greatness of this language across to them. 

Prometheus Bound; Seven Against Thebes; The Persians, Aeschylus: I had my students memorize some of the story of Prometheus.  The titan was the great benefactor of humanity, not only giving us fire, but medicines and other elevating arts.  Zeus punished him by having Hephaestus reluctantly chain him to two mountains in the Caucasus.  (Apollonius of Tyana is said to have witnessed the chains on his visit.)  Then his liver is pecked out daily by an eagle.  This play gives the dialogue between Prometheus and his tormentors, suggesting the promise of ultimate revenge. 

The story not only resonated with the ancients, in the hands of Percy Shelley, it may also have influenced Karl Marx. 

Bacchae; Helen; The Women of Troy; Ion, Euripides:  Four amazing plays. 

Bacchae is the story that Clement of Alexander cites when he talks about how the Gospel brings the broken fragments of truth that the philosophers have torn asunder, back together again.  He's referring to the pathetic and fated tale of Pentheus, king of Thebes, who opposes worship of the god Dionysius, then peaks on the secret ceremonies in the mountains.  The god drives the crowd crazy, and they tear him from limb to limb.  It gets worse.  The story is fascinating for many reasons.  It is not rated G. 

Helen and Women of Troy tells about the aftermath of the Trojan War.  It turns out, according to the former, that the real Helen has been spirited away to Egypt, where her husband finds himself eventually.  The latter tells about the fate of some women who are taken captive after the fall of Troy: a dramatic and gripping play, with a sense of pathos. 

Medea; Children of Hercules, Euripides.  The first of these is also rather horrific.  The Medea in this play is no longer the innocent young woman of the Voyage of the Argo: she is now bitter, so bitter she enacts the unthinkable to get revenge on Jason for ditching her. 

The Frogs; The Wasps; The Poet and the Women, Aristophanes: This is comedy, burlesque, with a bit of slap-stick.  Not bad stuff.  My favorite is The Frogs, which tells how Dionysius (a much less impressive Dionysius) calls Euripides and Aeschylus to the Underworld for a contest of wit and rhetoric.  The title refers to a group of frogs who serenade, and irritate, Dionysius as he crosses a lake in Hades:

"Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax.
Oh, we are the musical frogs,
We live in the marshes and bogs!
Sweet, sweet is the hymn
That we sing as we swim
And our voices are known
For their beautiful tone . . . "

Dionysius: "Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!  Now listen you musical twerps!  I don't give a damn for your burps!"

And so on.  The translator is David Barrett: obviously he had fun, and no doubt took a few liberties. 

Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus: Sophocles.  More family troubles.  Rather makes one glad one is not a king, or relative of a king. 


舌尖上的中国:"China on the Tip of the Tongue:" A lovely, tantalizing book about Chinese food, full of pictures of bamboo and fish and local foods grown on mountains or under forests around China. 

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