Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

You may have noticed I frequently will read a book after I've seen a movie or vice versa.  Frequently there's some disappointment one way or the other.  Rarely will you see a movie as faithfully drawn from a book as The Reader.  I watched the movie a few weeks ago (review here) and was sufficiently impressed as to want to read the book on which it was based.  I found that the tone and content of the book are quite well preserved in the movie version.  Rather than repeat my comments on the story from the movie review, I'll just mention a couple of things that jumped out at me.

Michael first met Hanna when he became ill walking home, when she aided him.  After a prolonged illness he returned to express his gratitude.  At that visit, he became enamored with her, and caught a glimpse of her changing clothes.  He became obsessed with her and fantasized about returning to visit her.  He doesn't explicitly quote Jesus' admonition that if you look with lust on a woman you have committed adultery, but he refers to it in a classic justification for premeditated sin.  When struggling with whether to visit Hanna again, he asks,
Did my moral upbringing somehow turn against itself?  If looking at someone with desire was as bad as satisfying the desire, if having an active fantasy was as bad as the act you were fantasizing--then why not the satisfaction and the act itself?  As the days went on, I discovered that I couldn't stop thinking sinful thoughts.  In which case I also wanted the sin itself.
Granted, lust and the act of adultery are both sins, but there is certainly a qualitative difference between imagining the act and actually doing it.  Still, many Christians can relate to his quandary.

In a later passage, as he observes Hanna's trial, he reflects on his generation's rejection of his parents' generation's moral authority.  Every generation has a sense of rebellion against their parents, but in their case, they see the manifest moral failure of the Germans during World War 2 and the years leading up to it. Whether they were active participants, passive approvers, or silent observers, Michael considers the atrocities of that era to reflect a lack of morality for all of their generation, so who can blame young people for wanting to distance themselves from the culture and mores of the previous generation?

As I mentioned in the movie review, the age gap between Michael and Hanna is unnerving, but is essential to the story.  If such a thing can be looked past, once you do look past it, The Reader is a terrific read and brings up questions of moral culpability and ethical decision making in very interesting ways.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Stars, Like Dust, by Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, I read Asimov's Pebble in the Sky.  The Stars, Like Dust, second in the Galactic Empire series, carries on in the same universe, but there's no story or character continuity, just the same historical events and political and social structures.  We continue to see Asimov's ground-breaking influences on the genre: warp travel, the pre-history of the galactic empire, and technological and cultural trends.

The cover of the first edition.

Even though The Stars, Like Dust was published a year after Pebble in the Sky, it takes place many years before.  The story follows Biron Farril, a young man who has been studying on Earth.  His father, a nobleman on the planet Widernos, has been killed as a suspect in the rebellion against the aptly named Tyranni.  The Tyranni rule a large sector of the galaxy with an iron fist.  Brion gets caught up as a suspect as well and falls in love along the way.

There's action, deception, betrayal, romance, adventure; it would make a fun movie.  This is probably not one of Asimov's best efforts.  It lacks the depth and complexity of the Foundation novels, and is not as compelling as the Robot novels.  But fans of rollicking space adventures will enjoy it, and certainly fans of Asimov will want to pick it up.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Money, Greed, and God, by Jay W. Richards

The discerning thinker should make a habit of reading books written from perspectives other than his own, with which he or she is sure to disagree, and which will challenge his thinking by presenting views contrary to those he holds dear.  For me, this is not that book.  For me, this is a book I wish I had written, with which I could find nary a word with which to disagree. 

Jay Richards is or has been affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, the Discovery Institute, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, for whom I worked for 4 years.

Richards spends a chapter tearing apart each of these myths about capitalism:

1. The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism iwth an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives)
2. The Piety Myth (focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions)
3. The Zero-Sum Game Myth (believing that trade requires a winner and a loser)
4. The Materialist Myth (believing that wealth isn't created, it's simply transferred)
5. The Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed)
6. The Usury Myth (believing that working with money is inherently immoral or that charging interest on money is always exploitative)
7. The Artsy Myth (confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments)
8. The Freeze-Frame Myth (believing that things always stay the same--for example, assuming that population trends will continue indefinitely, or treating a current "natural resource" as if it will always be needed)

The basic point of Money, Greed, and God, as the subtitle ("Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem") suggests, is that capitalism, more so than collectivist or socialist solutions touted by many Christians, offers a structure which can foster prosperity and virtue, and, more importantly, is not by its nature in conflict with the Gospel and teachings of the Bible.

What he writes is controversial to some, and he does name names, but his tone is friendly, engaging and sympathetic.  I get the impression that when he debates people, even people with who he heartily disagrees, at the end of the debate he and his foe can be buddies.

Some might argue that Christians who defend capitalism have no regard for the poor.  Richards debunks that perspective while providing a thorough, readable defense of capitalism.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion, by Michael Ramirez

As William Bennett says in the introduction to Michael Ramirez's collection of editorial cartoons, "editorial cartoons stir controversy, spark debate and discussion, and move minds to think thoughts not thought before."  They can succinctly and clearly express a point that would take a lengthy essay to make.  The Pulitzer Prize committee has twice agreed that not only is Ramirez a fantastic artist, but he's a brilliant commentator as well.  I don't believe there is a better political cartoonist in the country.

This collection includes his Pulitzer collections from 1994 and from 2008, plus many more.  Each one calls to mind political events and figures and debates brilliantly.  I remember when I was a kid my dad had a book, a cartoon history of the United States, but I was too historically ignorant at the time to get the humor. The cartoons in Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion cover the last 15-20 years, well within my memory.

Ramirez is definitely a conservative, and conservatives will be nodding and laughing in agreement at almost every frame.  On a few occasions he does stray from the party line, notably his balanced treatment of the Middle East.  One of my favorites clearly illustrates a pet peeve of mine: the use of biofuels, driving up the price of food and taking up arable land.  The cartoon speaks for itself:
As one who talks with self-proclaimed investing experts on a regular basis in my professional capacity, I saw another favorite:
There are too many great ones to reproduce here.  His post-9/11 pieces are moving and well worth taking a look at.  Do a google search on his name, or watch for his work on the editorial page of the Investor's Business Daily.

One more thing: when I was attending the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome, I paused for a moment to watch Ramirez at work; he was sketching the convention platform.  It wasn't until years later that I saw his work somewhere and remembered that.  I wish I had taken a moment then to shake his talented hand.