Here are two books I’ve been reading this month:
And the fact that I’ve been reading them both in the same month is a complete coincidence. I promise.
Here are two books I’ve been reading this month:
And the fact that I’ve been reading them both in the same month is a complete coincidence. I promise.
Reader response is a wonderful style of literary criticism which allows the reviewer to just note down their personal reactions, even if those reactions occurred while watching the show at midnight, when we get sleepy and our inner five-year-old emerges.
This post doesn’t explain the plot step by step, but it does contain all the spoilers and all the sarcasm.
So, my reactions to the movie version of Angels and Demons, in order …
1. Oooh, these Catholics are so mysterious and sinister!
2. Science-y stuff is happening inside the big collider. The people are speaking French. They think the collider might blow everything up, but they press on anyway because it’s Science.
3. Now they have made antimatter.
4. The messenger from the Vatican speaks English with a cool, ominous accent. He seems to be perfectly fluent, but he can’t remember the word formídable. The closest he can get is for-mi-dá-blay. The professor has to translate for him.
5. The professor is really smart. He knows more about Catholic history than the Catholics themselves. Seems legit.
6. The Illuminati were a bunch of honest truth seekers who were absolutely, positively not into the occult. They were just rationalists and scientists who were persecuted by the Catholic Church. Now they want to use the antimatter to blow up a small country (Vatican City), but that is totally justified because the Catholics branded a cross on the chests of five Illuminati back in the 1500s.
7. The Illuminati have kidnapped the four preferiti, a.k.a. Cardinals who are being considered to become the next Pope. The other Cardinals are in conclave. The Great Elector, the leader of these, is obviously the bad guy. He doesn’t want to evacuate St. Peter’s Square, even though it clearly might be a good idea. He has “I WANT TO BE POPE” written on his forehead, and it’s possible he is behind this whole scheme. He either works for the Illuminati, or is more likely using them.
8. The Illuminati assassin is torturing the preferiti one by one and leaving them around Vatican City for the Professor to find.
9. VATICAN CITY SCAVENGER HUNT!!!
10. Wow, I am just learning so much from this movie. I had NO IDEA that the church adopted the symbols and holidays of previous pagan religions, or that Dec. 25 was originally … oh, wait. Yes I did. I wrote an article about it here.
11. Also, English was the language of rebels and mavericks, like Shakespeare and Chaucer. (Chaucer????)
12. Honestly. There are no admirable characters in this movie. Not the Great Elector, not the Komandant of the Swiss guard, not the Illuminati assassin because torture, not the Professor because he always looks like everyone is getting on his last nerve with all this religion stuff … The only admirable character is a young priest who was the Pope’s protégé and who confusingly still loves the church as a place of simple people full of compassion even though he admits the church has “always sought to impede progress.” I’ll bet he apostatizes before the end. Either that or he becomes the next Pope.
13. The Pope was murdered, by the way. Turns out he didn’t really have a stroke. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him (or for the protégé), but the scene when they open his coffin displays a black, swollen tongue protruding from his mouth and spreading a stain over the rest of his face. Clearly super symbolic.
14. Speaking of symbolism, in one scene the Professor gets trapped in the Vatican Archives. To preserve the ancient books there, oxygen is kept to a low level and the walls are lined with lead. When the power goes off, the electronic doors lock. The professor has to break out of this hall of old books where he cannot breathe or communicate with the outside world, or he will literally die from being stifled. The only way he can break out is to push a heavy bookcase full of priceless artifacts into the re-enforced glass, destroying these precious objects.
Hmm, what ever could all of this symbolize? Let me think …
15. OK, they have saved the one remaining preferitus. And they have found the antimatter. But – oh no! – they can’t replace the battery that will prevent an explosion, without possibly causing an explosion.
16. The protégé is taking the antimatter up in a helicopter so the explosion doesn’t kill anyone! He’s going to be martyred and made a saint!
17. Oh wait, he parachuted out!
18. But the explosion high over St. Peter’s Square is blowing his parachute all around! He’s going to die after all.
19. He survived! Now the cardinals are finding an obscure bylaw that allows them to make him Pope.
20. But the Professor has just found a hidden video that shows the protégé was the one who hired the assassin! He just made it look like an Illuminati plot! It was him all along!
I did not see that coming.
21. But the reasons he did it were the same old tired reasons we have been told all along. He killed the Pope because the Pope was OK with the scientists making antimatter and the protégé thought it was blasphemous.
22. In other words, he did all this in order to impede progress because he thought it might diminish the power of the church.
23. The lady scientist feels guilty about having made antimatter because it was stolen by the assassin and almost used to kill thousands of people. She wonders if they should go on making antimatter.
The professor encourages her to make some more. That’s good advice. After all, what are the odds of something like this happening again?
24. The Great Elector is now allowing the remaining preferitus to become Pope and is acting all nice & humble towards the Professor. “Religion is flawed, but that’s because people are flawed.”
OK, I was wrong about the Great Elector. Still, this feels like Dan Brown is trying to have it both ways. He’s just spent an entire movie showing us that religious zeal is really really bad and destructive, but now he wants to say that it’s also not, with no reasons given.
Verdict: I ended up really enjoying this movie because it was so twisty. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a hatchet job. Even the twists serve its purpose, because the person behind the evil plot turned out to be the character who seemed the most saintly and was certainly the most zealous. He ends up setting himself on fire, murmuring, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit” and then screaming and writhing like a demon as he burns. If that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.
When I think about The End of the World as We Know It, one thing I worry about is the availability of coffee.
I am sure this is a concern of yours as well. Assuming that you get through the Zombie Apocalypse, the EMP, the Rising Sea Levels, or whatever your personal big fear is, and find yourself among a group of scrappy survivors, I guarantee you some of them are going to want coffee. It might even become a hot commodity. Worth its weight in gold.
The project documented in this post was inspired by S.M. Stirling’s The Change series. In the first book, Dies the Fire, the world of the 1990s is interrupted when all electronics, engines, and gunpowder suddenly cease to function. At that point the series becomes alternate history. The series migrates toward Game of Thrones style fantasy the longer it goes on, but the first few books especially are more in the post-apocalyptic genre, about people surviving and starting to rebuild society in the Northwest and in Northern California. And once they get a steady food supply going, their coffee substitute is “roasted, ground chicory roots.”
I could probably find chicory coffee at a co-op type food store, but I want to try to make it myself. That’s the only way I can learn about the process and find out if such a thing would be feasible.
Chicory is a wildflower that grows all along the highways in our region at certain times of year. Though there is an abundant supply of it on the medians, that’s not the safest place to gather it in this pre-apocalyptic world where vehicles of all kinds are still whizzing by. So I had to seek chicory on a back road. In this picture, the plants with lavender colored flowers are chicory and the ones with white flowers are Queen Anne’s Lace.
Today’s weather is very humid, and it’s so hot that there is a heat advisory. Also, it turns out that chicory grows surrounded by thistles and extremely sharp-bladed grass.
Lesson 1: Gather chicory in the early morning, before the day gets hot. Wear cowboy boots, not flip flops.
I assumed that chicory would have a taproot similar to a dandelion’s, so I brought a small trowel. I couldn’t find my dandelion picking tool, so I brought a large screwdriver, which is almost as good for digging down beside the taproot to loosen the soil.
It turns out that chicory roots are similar to dandelion’s, but much larger, deeper, and woodier.
Lesson 2: I probably could have brought a regular garden shovel instead.
Here is the chicory I gathered. I have no idea how much “coffee” this quantity will make, but I’m hoping it will be enough for one cup. Finding out is part of the purpose of this experiment. I don’t have the time or energy to dig more due to having come at the wrong time of day. Clearly, I have a lot to learn as a hunter/gatherer.
Next step. Google the process just to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself by skipping a step. (We won’t be able to Google stuff after the apocalypse, which is all the more reason to do it now.) The search takes me here. Hank Shaw is a “hunter, angler, gardener, forager, and cook” and he seems to know what he’s talking about. Uh-oh, he says you need to harvest chicory in the fall. But he seems to have harvested some in the summer with no ill effects. Onward.
Here are the roots after being washed. I need to cut them into thin slices, dry them for two or three days in the sunshine, and then roast them as directed. Cutting them yields mixed results. Some have a woody core so tough that I have to saw it, with dirt trapped between this core and the outer, soft layer. Others are softer, solid and cuttable all the way through, more like cutting a carrot. My guess is that Hank’s nice, plump “root chicory” is more like this.
Lesson 3: Wild chicory might not be the way to go. It might be smarter to cultivate it.
My roots have yielded this measly tray of chicory slices. Following the expert, I sun them on the back of my vehicle. They dry out for a few hours, and then promptly get rained on. I sop them up with a paper towel and move the tray to our sun porch.
Lesson 4: Obvious.
After two days of drying on our sun porch, the chicory slices had visibly shrunk and felt dry. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. During this time, the house filled with a curious warm malty smell, as predicted on Hank Shaw’s web site. This was reassuring, because it meant that I was in fact roasting the right kind of root. On the other hand, my family complained about the smell.
Lesson 5: There is going to be a lot of complaining around our house after the apocalypse. But I kind of knew that already.
This is what the chicory roots looked like after about 90 minutes. They look done.
Next, I ground the chicory in a food processor …
… And put it in a one-cup coffee filter. As I had hoped, it was just the right amount for one mug.
As you can see, the roots don’t grind up nice and even like coffee grounds. There are some bigger chunks, and then there’s some powder that’s as fine as French Press coffee or even baking powder or something. Perhaps I could have gotten the chunks chopped up further if I’d been willing to grind them for longer, but as I was grinding, fine dust kept escaping from the food processor and coating the surrounding counter. I stopped when I figured the grounds would be sufficient. If you were grinding roast chicory in large quantities, there’d be certain to be a lot of dust.
If there were no electricity, I guess I’d be forced to crush it in my marble mortar:
I poured hot water over the grounds, and it worked great! A very creditable cup of something that looks exactly like coffee.
The wet grounds, and the liquid itself, smell very smoky. I’m going to try it black first, because after the apocalypse there is unlikely to be spare milk, let alone hazelnut creamer.
It tastes exactly as Hank Shaw describes it: “a brighter acidity than coffee and … ‘earthy.'”
I give a sip of it to my trucker husband, who ought to know about mediocre coffee.
Me: Does it taste like truck stop coffee?
Him: Truck stops couldn’t sell coffee if it tasted like this.
Well, it tastes OK to me. But I might be slightly invested, seeing as how I made it.
I add milk and continue to drink. It tastes most coffee-like when hot. As it cools, it begins to taste more and more like … smoke. Now I realize I’ve had this before. I think it was called “smoke tea.” It must have been chicory. I like the flavor, but I realize it wouldn’t be for everybody.
But the bottom line is: I did it! I did it! I dug up a common wildflower and forced it to yield a coffeelike substance. It was a bit of a project, but not hugely inconvenient and actually took less processing than I’ve heard real coffee takes.
Lesson 6: It is possible to make a coffee substitute from chicory, even if you have little previous knowledge or skills.
We got all the fools in town on our side, and that’s more than a big enough majority in any town.The scoundrels in Huckleberry Finn
Shout out to all the dads out there! Happy Father’s Day!
Great dads are everywhere. You might be one yourself. But they are often invisible. No one notices the person who does the job right. If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults. They won’t become notorious for anything. They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad. They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below). They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.
This is why we so seldom hear about the great dads.
Here are three dads who, through accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded. One was the father to a daughter who wrote about him. Another was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the third wrote novels with his son.
Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.” He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer. He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier. (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)
Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them. And wherever they went, he took his fiddle. He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.
Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands. The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop. Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type. He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman. It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill. He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”
He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still living in the Haarlem watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie. Because the ten Boom family had so many connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually became a hub for the resistance. Its crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.
The ten Boom family were eventually betrayed and arrested. A Nazi guard, seeing Casper’s age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior. Casper responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the first person in need who knocks.” He was arrested and died of a fever in prison.
Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place. It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community. He was truly a great dad. Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.
Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing. Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels. Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great. “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.”
Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s. Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity. They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.
In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix. The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”
Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.
I admit it: I get “culture crushes.”
My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture. This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five. By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover. That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it.
Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and then later, as an adult.
This is an incomplete list on two counts. First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read. Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic. I can think of at least
six seven eight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down.
I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.
He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?
On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.
No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.
Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.
The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.
But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)
Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.
It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.
Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.
In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito
But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work. …
Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …
And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.
In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.
I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.
So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her. As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
‘Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do. But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at their beliefs with a critical eye. That’s what I try to do in my books. Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
If you read the back of the book, you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the girl he loves. His long, slow upward trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful omniscient narrator.
This book was first published in 1678. The language, therefore, is more modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s spiritual journey. It is anything but boring!
Take the incident where Giant Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them they will never get out. It is Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to Hopeful. The giant encourages the two men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do so. He also shows them the skulls of past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
Hercule Poirot is the more famous of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British, consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village all her life. They think she is likely to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of human nature in her 60+ years of life. As she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people that she has once known. She can recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they will do based on these past people’s behavior. She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present situation. Her method of thinking about crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s. Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and Marple a pantser. But they both get their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her fantastic British manners. She is an amazingly good listener. She is excellent at drawing people out. People cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old lady, but she is dangerous to criminals. In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up.