Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

The 34-Ton Bat – Review

Steve Rushin. The 34-Ton Bat. New York: Little Brown, 2013. Print.

The title refers to a baseball bat, not the nocturnal flying animals.

This is not a baseball history book, but a book about the history of baseball things. That is, the history of baseballs, gloves, bases, batting helmets, socks, uniforms, caps, concessions, souvenirs, ballpark organists, and so on.

Sports Illustrated writer Rushin has a lively style as he flits from one topic to another. The title got my attention because my work occasionally has taken me to Louisville where the 34-ton bat leaning against the Louisville Slugger Museum Factory is an icon of the city. While the book does include the story of that bat and the Louisville Slugger bats in general, it covers much more.

This also is not really a baseball trivia book. However, the author is careful to use details effectively to make his point. Louisville Slugger bats have been custom made for major leaguers for over 100 years. Once Ted Williams sent a shipment of bats back because he said the grip was not the right size. The factory measured the grip of the bats when they came back and found them five hundredths of an inch off Williams’s specifications. Things like that make a difference.

Yes, we know that early baseball players did not wear gloves, and it was not until the 1950s that even the pros had webbed gloves that really spared their hands. Before that, the flat, padded “Hamburger Helper” gloves did not help much when catching a ball being hit at over 100 m.p.h. Once Lou Gehrig’s hands were x-rayed; the x-rays reveals that he had suffered a total of seventeen fractures in his hands. Iron man indeed! Many catchers’ hands were so misshapen that they hardly looked human.

The 34-Ton Bat pretty much starts with the first major league teams in the 1870s. It rarely goes back farther than that. Even so, the book acknowledges what a historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library told the author: “Many times when you read of the ‘first’ of something, you dig a little deeper and find one that came before it.” He recommends saying something like “the earliest known record.” (91)

A great example of this which the book relates is the story of the battling glove. Ken Harrelson used a golf glove to bat in 1964 during a game because he had developed a blister while playing golf earlier in the day. People apparently acted like it was something new, and Harrelson was teased about his glove. Still, Rushin found references to batting gloves going back to 1932 and batters specifically using golf gloves by the end of that decade.

Some changes did take decades to take effect. Even though teams were occasionally using batting helmets in the 1920s, most players scorned them in spite of the obvious protection they provided. Finally in 1971 Major League Baseball required batting helmets. A few years later they required helmets for coaches on the field. Players already in the Majors in 1971 did not have to wear them, though most did. The last player to bat without one was Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery who retired in 1979. (He certainly wore plenty of gear as a catcher. Catchers were the first players to regularly wear protective cups—Rushin gives us a history of those, too.)

Another problem that baseball players and fans do not face today is the intensity of heat waves. Yes, people still occasionally pass out in the stands, but with air conditioning nearly everywhere and improved stadium sanitation, people playing baseball are not dying from heat. (Well, unless they are using the wrong kind of PED on a hot day.) At a Chicago Cubs game in the 1930s, a Cubs player took over as umpire in a game because the umpire passed out and could not be revived. He remained in the game and became an umpire for many years after that: I recall Jocko Conlan still umpiring games when I was a kid.

The Brooklyn Baseball team was first the Atlantics, then the Superbas, then the Robins, and finally the Trolley Dodgers or just Dodgers. The New York Highlanders were first nicknamed the Yankees by a Boston newspaper in 1909. The Detroit team was called the Wolverines. Their stockings had yellow and blue stripes, not unlike the University of Michigan Wolverines’ football helmets today. The striping reminded people more of tigers, and eventually that name stuck.

Rushin credits Randy Hundley with the first hinged and webbed catcher’s mitt used in the majors in 1967. I can recall seeing the padded doughnuts that passed for catcher’s mitts before. But, reminded of what the Hall of Fame librarian said, I wonder if that was really the first. I recall Pirate catcher Bob Oldis around 1960 having an unusual mitt that made him a defensive specialist. At any rate Hundley’s mitt caught on (yeah). In 1968 rookie Reds catcher Johnny Bench used it and really changed what people expected from a good catcher. Both Bench and Hundley could play in more games in a season than most catchers had up to that point.

It is like Columbus discovering America. There is solid concrete evidence the Norse were frequently traveling to North America in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The evidence is fairly strong that the Irish had been there, too, at one point. Thor Heyerdahl made a case even for Egyptians or Phoenecians earlier. However, Columbus’s mattered because after he landed in America, Europeans from many countries would go there, settle there, and eventually rule there. So Hundley’s glove became the model and marked the change in catchers throughout baseball.

This review just scratches the surface, but hopefully gives the reader an idea of what to expect. It is an entertaining and light read, but it is also clear that a lot of research went into The 34-Ton Bat, and a lot of love.

The Fire of Delayed Answers – Review

Bob Sorge. The Fire of Delayed Answers. Kansas City MO: Oasis House, 1996. Print.

The Fire of Delayed Answers is a powerful and potentially disruptive book. It may comfort the afflicted. It will definitely afflict the comfortable.

This book deals with that perennial problem/mystery: Why does God either not answer certain prayers or seemingly takes forever to answer them?

The answers are not fluffy or easy. They may not fit someone’s comfortable theology. The examples Bob Sorge uses are Job, Joseph and Paul in prison, and David in the cave. The unanswered or delayed prayer is often a test of our faithfulness and our understanding of who God is. They are meant to draw us closer to God.

The Lord gave significant promises to Joseph and David. Joseph thought his father’s gift was a sign of that promise. It might have been, but before the promise could be realized, Joseph was sold into slavery and, as a slave, ended up in prison. Many years passed before Joseph saw the fulfillment of God’s plan.

The prophet Samuel anointed David king. After David killed Goliath, it looked like the skids to the throne were being greased. But it took many years hiding and narrowly escaping from the unstable King Saul before David was recognized as king, first by Judah, and then, finally, by Israel.

Neither Joseph nor David took what might have appeared to be shortcuts to their destiny because those shortcuts involved going against God’s Word. Joseph avoided Potiphar’s wife, though it cost him his reputation. David refused to kill Saul, though he had the chance more than once. Ultimately, the Lord blessed both of them, but what struggles!

The second half of The Fire of Delayed Answers focuses on Isaiah 30, especially Isaiah 30:15 which says, in part, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” Sorge notes that most Christians fall on either of the “quietness” side or the “confidence” side, but God wants us to bring them both together.

Many on the “quietness” side emphasize God’s sovereignty. Life is hard, and we have to accept what happens in our lives as God’s will. It tends to passivity, sometimes even fatalism. I have heard critics of this position say that such people lack faith: If they really had faith in God, they’d be overcomers, their prayers would be answered.

Many on the “confidence” size emphasize God’s Word. God keeps his promise. He has promised believers power, love, and wisdom. God will never let us down. Sometimes this position tends to presumption or arrogance. I have heard critics of this position say that such people are heretics or teaching false doctrine.

Sorge could possibly annoy both sides—except that God’s Word wants to bring the two together. They are not mutually exclusive. Both sides need to understand God’s purposes and God’s love. The Lord does not want his people to be doormats, but neither does he want them to be proud. There is a balance—let us by God’s grace endure, but let us also delight in His promises.

I have had what I would call unanswered prayers in my life. At least two may likely remain unanswered because they appear to have timed out. One I still have hope for. But I do have to confirm Sorge’s observation that looking for answers in unanswered prayer is like being in a fire, and it can bring us closer to God. That truly is one of God’s ultimate purposes, to redeem and sanctify a people to Himself. (Titus 2:14)

Sorge shares personally. Although he is vague on the specifics, he writes that he endured a difficult physical ailment for a long time. It is not clear from the book whether the Lord eventually healed him or he has learned to live with it, but through it he saw Christ in a way that he never imagined. The author has lived this; it is not mere theological speculation.

You may end up reading parts of The Fire of Delayed Answers on your knees.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience, But let patience have its perfect work that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4, NKJV)

Aah. Amen. Lacking nothing, for the Lord is my shepherd. I think I read that in a book somewhere. (Psalm 23:1)

The Case of the Lion Dance – Review

Laurence Yep. The Case of the Lion Dance. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

Laurence Yep may be the most popular Young Adult (YA) writer who features stories with Chinese-American culture and settings. The Case of the Lion Dance illustrates conflict between the traditional Chinese culture and the American culture, between Chinese purists and those who have adapted to America, and between good old-fashioned honest people and greedy bad guys. After all, greed does not discriminate among race, gender, or national origin.

The narrator of this mystery novel is a girl named Lily. The person who does most of the sleuthing is her great aunt, Auntie Tiger Lily. Tiger Lily is a delightful character—an actress pushing eighty but still looking for ingénue parts. She can still use her charm to get her way. Lily becomes impressed with how many older people recognize her aunt from old Taiwanese and Hong Kong films. Auntie knows a lot of tricks and a few stunts from all the films she has been in.

A festival lion competition between rival martial arts studios in San Francisco’s Chinatown turns ugly when the “lettuce,” an ornamental ball of hundred dollar bills, gets blown up by stray firecrackers. The two Lilies suspect a switcheroo because the fragments from the explosion are all pieces of one dollar bills.

Their friend Annie is in big trouble as she has pledged the money to a charity and can hardly afford to be out double what she pledged. Tiger Lily and Lily’s detective work takes them all over the sidewalks and slums of Chinatown to find the real thief. Yes, there a some red herrings as they encounter a variety of criminal types. Lily is despised by some as an American show can barely speak Chinese. Kung is despised by others as a dropout who could not adapt to America. Tiger Lily sees them both through.

Authentic fun from a popular YA writer.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Review

Tennessee Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New American Library, 1955. Print.

I teach Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and I am somewhat familiar with a lot of what Williams wrote, so it was time for me to read (or perhaps re-read after many years) his classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Maggie is the cat. Is her football-hero now alcoholic husband Brick a homosexual? Or is that mere innuendo made up by Brick’s brother Gooper who wants to inherit the family cotton plantation? After all, Brick and Maggie have no children and Gooper has five with another on the way. And their father Big Daddy owns 28,000 acres, the largest landholding in the Delta.

That is one of the basic conflicts. But Williams tells a good story. His dialogue is direct and at the same time borders on the poetic. The conflict comes alive. And perhaps unlike some of his other plays, there is tenderness in the telling. The ending is most moving. It reminded me of the ending of O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, another great drama featuring a tragic alcoholic and a female lead reminiscing on what was and dreaming of what might have been.

The Signet Edition here has two versions of Act III. Elia Kazan, with Williams’ blessing, rewrote some of the dialogue for the stage production which Kazan directed. This is presented as an appendix. Both versions are effective and outcome is the same. It is not like the two different endings to Dickens’ Great Expectations. However, Kazan’s “Broadway Version,” as the book names it, shows Maggie a little more nobly. Kazan wanted us to care about her, and we do.

There is more of the Southern grotesque in this play. Gooper’s “no-neck” children and snooty wife would be at home in a story by Flannery O’Connor. Although the basic plot concerns the serious question of who will get the inheritance, the family is also trying to keep Big Daddy from knowing the truth about his own medical condition. They are telling him he has a spastic colon when he is really dying from cancer. Big Daddy does figure it out: Doctors do not treat spastic colons with morphine.

Williams reveals things about himself in his introduction and stage directions. He describes a group of little girls playing dress up, and one of them begins to shout, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” (vii) Williams confesses that he and likely many other writers are in effect saying the same thing, and if they write well “not only attract observers but participants.” (viii)

One of the stage directions in Act II also tells us something about what the writer is trying to do—and if the audience or reader recognizes this, it makes for great art:

I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of a character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself.

I have only read this play, never seen it. But it is easy to imagine this being played out effectively, honestly, and, yes, tenderly. Perhaps, too, revealing something of ourselves to ourselves.

Shakespeare Alive! – Review

Joseph Papp and Elizabeth Kirkland. Shakespeare Alive! New York: Bantam, 1988. Print.

In New York City the name Joseph Papp is still nearly synonymous with William Shakespeare. Mr. Papp has produced many New York musicals and plays, but his lasting contribution has been the popular Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park, that is) which got its start in the 1950s and is still going strong. It seems worthwhile to see what this Shakespeare impresario had to say about his favorite topic.

This work is very different from The Meaning of Shakespeare, a work by a Shakespeare scholar. Which is better? It depends on what you are looking for. Character analysis and poetic detail? Take Goddard. But Shakespeare as theater? Take Papp and Kirkland.

The first half of Shakespeare Alive! is cultural background to Elizabethan and Jacobean England. While some things may be obvious or overstated, this can be very helpful for someone who is looking for the background. I think especially of American students who are not as familiar with British history or who may tend to see things from their own cultural perspective. It has different and probably more specifics than Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London. It includes many quotations from Elizabethan and Jacobean sources to give us an idea of what people were thinking and what was going on then.

I found the second half more helpful to me personally because I was somewhat familiar with a lot of the background. (Besides Chute, there is also Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture). Here the writers get into theater history and theater production in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Papp and Kirkland do a nice overview of some of Shakespeare’s sources. I found their quotation from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s “Life of Marcus Antonius” and what Shakespeare did with it especially illuminating. It illustrates what an artist and wordsmith the Bard was.

That quotation was also fun because a Latin version of Plutarch is quoted in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and then “translated” by a tutor who claims to have been better than Byron in poetic expression. But the character is merely quoting those lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. You never know where Shakespeare will turn up. (The tutor’s pupil recognizes the lines and cries, “Cheat!”)

The book ends with an overview of modern Shakespeare productions from the 1920s until the time of publication. The authors bring up some famous and distinctive productions of Shakespeare plays. including some on film. I recall many years ago hearing that Sarah Bernhardt had played Hamlet. Papp says a 1920 silent film of that production exists. According to Wikipedia and YouTube, the film was made in 1900. If there is a carefully remastered version, that might be worth looking into. (There is a poor, short clip on YouTube, but it gives very little sense of the production.)

Yes, Shakespeare can come alive to those who read this book. For many, it may be even be a relief to read. Papp and Kirkland emphasize that Shakespeare was a playwright. His plays are not really meant to be read, they are meant to be performed and watched and enjoyed by people. That is when they really come alive.

The Comedy of Errors – Production Notes

William Shakespeare. The Comedy of Errors. Oct. 1998. Web. 24 Aug. 2013.

Antipholus of Ephesus is Arrested - The Comedy of Errors
Antipholus of Ephesus is Arrested - The Comedy of Errors

This is not a precisely review of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. These are production notes. Hopefully, the reader can still learn some things from this, and perhaps pick up some ideas if he or she is putting on a production of the play.

This was a production for a K-12 school. The cast was made up of students from grades seven through twelve. As with most Shakespeare productions, some speeches were trimmed. Because the audience would include elementary age students, we changed the Courtesan to a Courtier whom Antipholus of Ephesus was trying to bribe. We really had to change very few words to accomplish this.

We were somewhat inspired by an article that a colleague shared about a production of Hamlet that took advantage of the near ubiquitous use of Internet-enabled phones and PDAs in the audience. We felt we could not quite do what that college theater did for a few reasons. One was simply that we did not have the bandwidth at our school to support the potential number of Internet devices in the audience. Another was that the Hamlet version ended up being a sort of improvisational theater. As a director, my challenge was to get the kids to act out Shakespeare, without adding the extra extemporaneous work required by improv.

Our solution was to place a screen on either side of the stage which projected a video, simulated web pages, graphics, and other bits of information. Such things included the fund-raising “Free Aegeon” web site, pictures of grease lamps and iron crows, and an exchange rate table converting Ephesian Marks, Guilders, and Ducats into Dollars, Pounds, Yuan, and Reis.

Free Aegepm Web Sote
Free Aegeon Web Site

Instead of getting clowns to act out the story of Aegeon as is often done (we used clowns as entr’actes in our production of J.B. last year), a student made a cartoon video showing Aegeon’s story. That may have been the biggest challenge because the actors could not see the screen, and the actor’s delivery was not always given at the same rate as the pictures on the screen. Still, it helped the audience get into the story.

I saw my job as director to largely explain what was happening and what the lines meant. Once the student actors got that, as much as I could, I let them go. As a result, they came up with lots of appropriate actions to go along with the language themselves. I encouraged them to think Three Stooges, not Laurence Olivier. So the final production was able to reach our broad audience pretty well, from older Shakespeare scholars to elementary age kids who enjoyed the action and silliness. Hey, even older scholars enjoys silliness sometimes.

Timing is important in comedy, and the student actors were able to keep on top of their cues. We had no intermission because the action is fast and the whole play lasted about 80 minutes. We chose modern costumes and a somewhat modern, perhaps timeless, setting. The costumes were virtually all bright primary or Crayola eight colors. This added to the festive, if not specifically comic, tone of the play. The Duke had a black suit, but even he had a fairly bright blue shirt with his black tie. Pinch and her assistant had black robes, but they were unbuttoned to show bright multicolors underneath.

Following many other productions of the play, we included a number of pedestrians who would cross from time to time. So Antipholus of Syracuse says, “None but witches do inhabit here” to a female pedestrian walking by. When Antipholus of Ephesus agrees with Balthazar not to break down his door with a crowbar, the Abbess walks by thus confirming his conscience. Two or three times—always when none of the Antipholi or Dromios are on stage—Aegeon crosses with the jailer in tow begging people for money. He even begs in the audience. Once he goes by while Adriana is railing that her husband “is deformed, crooked, old, and sere,” so she yells at him and he quickly ambles offstage. And at one point as most productions do, we had the two Dromios pass by on either side of an empty frame and act as if they are looking into a mirror. The last two got laughs each performance.

Having said all that, let me share the production notes I wrote for the program. I like to think that this gets to one of the themes of the play. Even in his silliest comedies, Shakespeare had themes. This was more than just a cute entertainment like Menaechmi, the Roman play that inspired Shakespeare. There is a foundation that continues to make it funny today. As Thoreau would say, “Only truth wears well.”

Director’s Note

“He is stark mad!”

“There’s none but witches do inhabit here.”

With all the unusual activity going on in Ephesus, it is no wonder that some citizens think certain people are out of their minds or given over to evil supernatural activity. In The Comedy of Errors, though, it turns out there are no madmen or ghosts. Eventually, the Duke, the Abbess, and everyone else discovers the truth about Antipholus.

Jesus of Nazareth also made pretty extravagant claims about himself. Was he crazy? Some people thought so. Thanks to Freud, many people today are taught that religion is a mental illness. Was he evil? There is a whole body of testimonies saying that miracles done in his name were diabolical. Or was he the One whom he said he was? The historical testimony says that he certainly might have been. After all, rising form the dead is not an ordinary occurrence.

Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) We see in our play how the truth set Antipholus and Aegeon free. So learning about and embracing the truth about Jesus can set you free. Examine his claims for yourself, and ask him to show you the truth.

Menaechmi – Review

Plautus. Menaechmi, or the Twin Brothers. Trans. Thomas Henry Riley. 2009. Ebook.

Menaechmi is the play which inspired Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Now Menaechmi is a clever play. There are the mixups—in this case there is just one set of twins, both name Menaechmus and separated at age seven. (The one from Syracuse thought the other dead, so he took on his brother’s name as a memorial.) Menaechmus of Syracuse has traveled to Epidamnum where the other one now lives, and the confusion ensues.

There is potential for a lot of fun here. For Plautus, the local twin is a regular customer of a prostitute named Erotium. Both Erotium and the local twin’s wife confuse the two brothers. In this case the women claim a mantle instead of a chain, and Erotium entertains the visitor. The local twin’s father-in-law encourages his wife to refuse him until he returns the mantle, which, as you can guess, ends up in the hands of the wrong twin. The father-in-law begins to think his son-in-law is bewitched, so he hires an exorcist. That adds to the confusion, just as Pinch does to Shakespeare’s Comedy.

Finally, both twins appear together and the errors are resolved. One source of humor is that the visiting twin’s slave also confuses the two men. His master sends him on an errand for some money which he gives to the other twin who gratefully grants him his freedom.

Much of what would become the conversation between Antipholus of Syracuse and Adriana is done between the visiting Menaechmus and Erotium in this play. The wife has a much smaller part. In fact, she is not even named. There is a single servant. The confusion continues after he has been set free because the other twin still treats him as a slave. Part of the happy ending of Menaechmi is that the slave will be set free by his real master and both twins leave Epidamnum and return to Syracuse together.

The play has its humor, but Shakespeare really made the story much funnier in his telling. One could say that he made it more sophisticated, but it is hard to call any farce sophisticated. Shakespeare has the servants twins as well, and the wife of the local twin is the person most confused over the identity of her husband. The prostitute is less significant. Antipholus resorts to her more out of revenge than anything else. (Since the production of The Comedy of Errors I recently directed was for a K-12 school, we altered about a dozen words and turned the Courtesan into a Courtier whom Antipholus of Ephesus was trying to bribe.)

The Comedy of Errors also has really humorous dialogues. The two men from Syracuse come across as a sixteenth century Abbott and Costello in a few scenes as they joke about Father Time or when Dromio explains how fat the kitchen wench Nell is.

Shakespeare also ties things up in a theatrically more tidy manner. The Twins’ father is also present and reunited with his wife and sons. The single Antipholus of Syracuse looks like he will end up with his sister-in-law’s sister, thus adding a rom-com element to the story. The two servants, both named Dromio, have some real personality.

Compared to Shakespeare’s play, one would conclude that women were treated far worse in Roman times than in Elizabethan England. Not only is the wife in the play nameless, but when her husband leaves for his native Syracuse, he sells his house, his goods, and his wife. Chattel, indeed.

Shakespeare’s women may have had to respect their husbands as their masters, as the single Luciana says. But her married sister tells her that this belief of hers is one reason why she is still single. And the single Antipholus of Syracuse clearly treats Luciana with respect, and his Ephesian twin, according to his wife, used to treat her with respect until his current bout of “madness.” She notes that a smart wife “bears some sway” in the family.

Thanks to The Comedy of Errors, Menaechmi is today more of a historical curiosity. It does stand as a funny piece in its own right, but when compared to The Comedy of Errors, we are reminded that Shakespeare deserves his reputation as a genius.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria – Review

Lauren Willig. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

All that glisters is not gold…

The Merchant of Venice

The cover of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria looked like a typical historical romance story—and it was. But the title and prologue suggested this tale might be might be more like The Scarlet Pimpernel, a boyhood favorite of mine. Well, it was, sort of.

Gwen and Jane are English spies in France during the Napoleonic Wars. The older Gwen’s cover is as a chaperone to the wealthy Jane. They return to England to learn that Jane’s younger sister Agnes and her roommate Lizzy have disappeared form their boarding school in Bath. Lizzy’s father, a widower and recently retired army colonel, arrives at the same time.

Gwen proves her ability as a spy when she uses her parasol with an embedded sword blade to fight off three hoodlums who attack the colonel and her. Then, nearly half the book puts the intrigue and espionage on hold as it develops the Gwen-colonel relationship. Think Lancelot-Elaine as Gwen finds herself ministering to the injured colonel. If you like romances, this will keep you interested. If not, you will just have to be patient until Gwen and the colonel infiltrate a secret society of opium eaters and finally track down the missing teenagers.

Except for the romance, the story is really more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, another boyhood favorite. There is a rumor of a mysterious cache of jewels from India, an overwritten gothic novel, and some history sleuths from 2004 who appear in a few chapters. This is a potentially lively tale if you are rooting for the older couple to get together.

The author’s epilogue, which gives some historical background to the story, is the most interesting part of the book. The epilogue does give a sense of Regency England, war diplomacy including Talleyrand and the Turkish Sultan, and the rule of England in India at the turn of the nineteenth century.

In Memoriam Tom Clancy (1947-2013)

The Big Boss wasn’t entirely comfortable with what he was doing, Henriksen saw. Well, that was conscience for you. Shakespeare had written about the phenomenon.

—Tom Clancy, Rainbow Six, p. 582

…baseball, women, and family—the important things in the world.

—Tom Clancy, Threat Vector, p. 835

We technodudes and technodudesses at English Plus just want to take a moment to remember Mr. Clancy and the enjoyment he has given us over the years. Not only did he write entertaining stories, but he “got it.” He knew the military life and what the life of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coasties was like. He also saw the big picture in global conflict and international rivalry. For over 25 years we have become used to reading his tales every year or two. It will be a different America without him.

Mr. Clancy, may you find your eternal rest.

Recent reviews:
Threat Vector
Locked On

Divergent and Insurgent – Review

Veronica Roth. Divergent. New York: Harper, 2012. Print. [The 2012 paperback has some extra materials in an appendix.]

———. Insurgent. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

A week ago I spoke briefly with popular youth author Tony Abbott. He said that right now about sixty percent of manuscript submissions to publishers are about some kind of dystopia. I guess that could mean with or without vampires or zombies. So I just finished one of the latest popular dystopian series, the Divergent trilogy. Well, the first two-thirds anyhow. Part three is not being released until next month.

Before really analyzing the novels, I have to say that the story is very entertaining. There is some kind of conflict in every chapter, so the story keeps moving. The only criticism I had is that about halfway through the second volume, Insurgent, it was becoming a little difficult to keep track of all the characters. Many editions of long Russian novels come with a list of characters at the beginning or end to help the reader. I was beginning to look for one of those.

In some kind of post-catastrophe Chicago, Divergent finds Beatrice Prior, or Tris, going through the initiation into the Dauntless faction. That initiation is a kind of boot camp. While some of the tests are different, and many of the recruits try to sabotage other recruits rather than work together (unity is a major goal in most military indoctrination), the story brought back memories of basic training to this reader.

It appears that the Chicago area has become its own little country. At least no one seems to know what is beyond the “perimeter” of their homeland. Society in this future Cook County is organized into five “factions,” each one representing a certain personality trait or inclination. In theory anyhow, the factions work together to form a harmonious society.

When citizens turn sixteen, they take an aptitude test to determine their personality type. This then points them to one of the five factions. They are under probation, and if they pass their initiation, they become citizens of that faction. While many teens remain with the faction they grew up with, about half are diverted to another faction.

There are a few problems individuals can encounter. If they do not pass the initiation, the faction disqualifies them, and they live in slums outside the cities controlled by the factions. They are known as the factionless and have menial jobs. Often they are unemployed. They are not unlike the Dalits of India.

If the aptitude test shows that a person have inclinations toward more than one faction, that individual is labeled divergent. Divergents are considered freaks and also become factionless. However, some sympathetic test administrators alter the test results to allow a divergent to enter one of the factions. Tris is a divergent, and she encounters some others who have managed to survive in one faction or another.

Theoretically, the five factions are to work together to bring harmony among all the people. The Abnegation faction enjoys helping and serving others. They are selfless and probably tend to the phlegmatic. The government is made up of them because they are not self-seeking, so they would consider the common good above any self-interest.

The Candor faction loves truth above everything. Their frankness can be harsh at times, but they discern truth from falsehood. The Erudite faction is made up of the intellectuals. They are the readers and researchers. Most of the medical and computer technologies come from them. The Amity faction is made up of the agreeable ones. They are motivated to keep everyone happy and at peace. And finally, there are the Dauntless, the athletic and physical risk-takers who provide police and military protection. And so Tris’s initiation into Dauntless is a Darwinian boot camp.

Much of Divergent tells about Tris’s boot camp experience. She grew up as a selfless Abnegation girl, but she longs for challenges and freedom, so she chooses Dauntless. Her sympathetic test proctor was also Dauntless, so Tris encounters her from time to time in both books.

Insurgent focuses on Tris and some of her Dauntless friends as the Erudite leader tries to take over the government by brainwashing Dauntless fighters to stage a coup and eliminate the people who stand in their way (Abnegation) or those who are useless to society (the factionless).

Because Tris wonders about what lies beyond the perimeter a few times in Insurgent, I would not be surprised if the third book in the series, Allegiant, deals with what is beyond their Chicago state. We shall see.

So what kind of dystopian books are these?

Well, there are some superficial resemblances to The Hunger Games. The main character is a teen girl in both books. North America’s population appears to be reduced from same major disaster and the survivors experiment with some kind of new government. Because of the fast pace and military style action in both series, the stories appeal to boys as well as girls. Neither is “chick lit,” though Tris because of her Abnegation background comes across as more vulnerable than the huntress Katniss.

While there is no Marxist dictatorship like 1984, there is one element Roth borrowed from that book or Darkness at Noon. To qualify for the Dauntless faction, the recruits have to go through a kind of live action psychological test to face their fears. This is done with futuristic technology and truth serums. Still, the test is not unlike Winston Smith’s face in a rat cage. Of course, the purpose in 1984 is to terrorize Smith so he submits to Big Brother. In the Divergent books it is part of the initiation to see how much they can handle.

The Divergent books are pretty much apolitical, at least so far, so they are not dark political satires like 1984, Darkness at Noon, or The Journal of David Q. Little. While it does not have the explicit religious themes of A Canticle for Liebowitz, the Divergent books have characters who pray. Without giving too much away, one character does give up her life to save someone she loves (see John 15:13). Members of the Candor faction do not flirt because charm is deceitful, an echo of Proverbs 31:30.

Divergent is different from Fahrenheit 451 in that the Erudite faction keeps libraries and attracts many readers. Some of the other factions do not have as much use for books, but there appears to be no censorship. Still, there is great pressure to conform within each faction. While there are no “firemen” as in the Bradbury novel, the Dauntless traitors (whoso readeth let him understand) are convinced that they must get rid of the Abnegation faction for the good of society at large. They are internal “firemen” or “brain police” in that sense.

society is more like Brave New World than any of the others. Brave New World has its society ordered by physical and intellectual capability inbred by creating “test tube babies.” It is a dictatorship, except that everyone fits in because they are genetically created to fit in. John, the novel’s tragic hero, is different because he has a natural mother. (Mother is a naughty word there.)

Interestingly, I was told by Huxley expert David Bradshaw of Oxford that when Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in the 1930’s, he was not writing it as a dystopia. Like many Europeans and Americans in the early part of the last century (think Woodrow Wilson along with the usual suspects like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Ho), Huxley was fascinated by the idea of a planned society. He was also interested in the potential of mind-altering drugs. Only after the Stalinist purges and World War II did he write his famous preface to the novel.

Rather than genetic planning as in Brave New World or Nazi Germany, and rather than economic class planning as in socialist or communist countries, the Chicagoland of Divergent is reminiscent of current educational systems. Standardized tests in most countries with higher education systems today are meant to show a student’s aptitude for various skills or interests. It easy for readers in most places today to imagine such tests becoming a means to socially and politically pigeonhole people and make them conform to a certain type. Scary. The story makes a good case for avoiding schools operated by the government.

Still, Divergent‘s potential dystopia is most like the scariest dystopia of them all. Like the Huxley of 1933, its author of this dystopia did not mean for it to be one. The Insurgent novel raises questions about elitism. Abnegation people are selected to make laws because they are supposed to be selfless. The Erudite leader wants to take over because she sees herself as being more intelligent and understanding better what people want than they do themselves. What is that but one more iteration of the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic? (Why not English-teacher-kings?) As longtime Governor of Plymouth Colony William Bradford noted about Plymouth’s own communal experiment:

The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some in later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community in a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. (On Plymouth Plantation 1623)

Though with an idealistic Abnegation background, Tris loves the freedom of the wild Dauntless faction. Though selfish and brutal, it is the closest she can be to free in her planned society. For planned societies are never free. Communism and fascism are both brutal. No “top-down” social order fully recognizes humanity’s gifts from God. Such governments force man to go against his nature and conscience—his “better angels” as Lincoln called them.

Since book three has not yet been released, no reader knows what is beyond Roth’s Chicagoland society, but pigeonholing everyone into a mere five categories is tyrannical, a caste system. There are always “divergents.” God is a creator of infinite variety. And the Kingdom of God is where we all were meant to belong.