Saturday, December 20

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Directed by Peter Jackson

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this movie that I haven’t said already in my reviews of the first two installments (An Unexpected Journey [LINK] and The Desolation of Smaug [LINK]).  Ultimately, for all its flaws, which are many, I loved this film.  For all its flaws, which are many, I love Peter Jackson’s vision of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and look forward to revisiting it from time to time.  It saddens me that there are no more new installments in the works despite a wealth of treasure that could be mined out of The Silmarillion.

Wednesday, December 10

The Child Martyrs

Today is the feast-day of St. Eulalia of Merida.  A short hagiography reads like this:

St. Eulalia of Merida, Virgin and Martyr (Feast day - December 10) Eulalia of Merida was born in Spain in the last decade of the third century. It is almost universally accepted that she suffered martyrdom for the Faith. What little else is known of her to date is based mostly on legend. It is believed that Eulalia, as a twelve year old girl, tried to remonstrate with Judge Dacian of Merida for forcing Christians to worship false gods in accord with the edict of Diocletian. Even though Dacian was at first amused and tried to flatter her, Eulalia would not deny Christ. Finally, Dacian ordered that her body be torn by iron hooks. Fire was applied to her wounds to increase her sufferings, and in the process her hair caught fire. She was asphyxiated by the smoke and flames, gaining the crown of martyrdom around the year 304.” [SOURCE]

The reason I highlight this is that as our priest was relating this story during his short homily this morning during Mass, my mind immediately leapt to the reality that although we typically think of the age of martyrs as being a feature of the early Church, almost two thousand years gone, the fact is that it is a living reality being played out in the stark horror that is engulfing the Middle East today.  Over the past several months – besides the well-publicized Youtube propaganda that has been put out by the barbaric Islamic State itself – reports have been pouring forth of the atrocities being perpetrated on the rapidly diminishing Christian minority population of that region.  Over the past several weeks, reports have emerged of Christian children being martyred for not renouncing their faith and proclaiming the false doctrine of Mohammad.  For whatever reason – a resurgence of “interest” or new reports I do not know – my Facebook feed yesterday contained a number of “shares” of news stories related to this, e.g.:

ISIS turned up and said to the children, ‘You say the words that you will follow Mohammed’. The children, all under 15, four of them, said no, we love Yeshua, we have always loved we have always followed Yeshua, Yeshua has always been with us.  They said: ‘Say the words.’ They said ‘No, we can’t.’ They chopped all their heads off. How do you respond to that? You just cry.” [Canon Andrew White, SOURCE]

… And you ask yourself:  How long are we going to tolerate this monstrosity?  And, lacking any action against them now:  When they come for you (as they will), will you have the faith and the strength to affirm that you are a follower of Jesus, that Jesus is always with you, and that you will not forsake Him?

Seriously, do you – do we, do I – have the faith of one of these children? – St. Eulalia, or the Modern Child Martyrs of Iraq?

Saturday, December 6

St. Nicholas, Smiter of Heretics

St. Nicholas of Myra striking Arius of Alexandria at the Council of Nicaea, 325
Just because today is, of course, his feast day.

I wrote more about Jolly Old St. Nick last Christmas [LINK].

Saturday, November 1

Italy 2014

I just realized that I neglected to post something important, at least to me.  Of course, part of the reason for that is that that something and preparations for it have occupied most of my attention for the past several weeks so that I haven’t really given this blog much thought.  In any case, from 20-29 October my wife and I participated in a pilgrimage to Italy sponsored by our church, the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  If you’re interested in following along, seeing what we did, albeit a little behind the times, an account can be found at my “Yeah, It’s Another” blog (more formally called The Absent-Minded Professor’s Travels) listed at right, or accessible via the link below my banner above, or directly here [LINK].

“Albeit a little behind the times” … well, so is my posting the account.  My intention was to “live-blog” the trip for the benefit of my students back home – this is, after all, the middle of a semester – but as you’ll see that did not work out.  So I’m furiously “back-filling” the travelogue, trying to get it completed this weekend.  My goal yesterday morning was to finish it off yesterday so that at least all the postings would be dated in October, but that didn’t work out either.  I’m still feeling the effects of jet-lag, and by early evening last night I conked out.  I’m hoping to finish it off today, though.

In any case, we had a wonderful time, and as a historian you can bet I incorporate some historical commentary into my narrative.  I invite you to join us – without suffering the inconvenience of jet-lag!


Monday, October 6

Third Orders and Oblates

Oblates Day of Recollection, 12 July 2014
St. Joseph Abbey, St. Benedict, Louisiana
This is lightly edited from a presentation I gave on Wednesday, 1 October:

I.                  Introduction

A while back, Fr. Ryan Humphries of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Natchitoches, Louisiana, asked if I might be interested in taking one of the Wednesday night Adult Catechesis sessions at St. Mary’s School.  After a bit of thought and prayer – in part during a day-long “Oblates’ Day” retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey down by Covington – I proposed that I talk about the ways in which Catholic laymen can associate themselves with a religious order, as I do as a “Benedictine Oblate.”  Father said that sounded good to him, so here I am.

The actual title for tonight is, “Third Orders and Oblates.”  Those are the two most common “popular” terms for what I’m talking about.  But in reading up on them, I quickly found something that surprised me:  There is remarkably little information handy on the subject as a cohesive whole, probably because the subject is not a cohesive whole.  It’s a bit more complex than I suspected.  I’ve made up some information sheets [appended below], and the first thing I would direct you to on them is an online article that is the nearest thing I have found to an overview and is what I used as a starting point in my research:  An essay by Elizabeth Scalia entitled “Oblates, Tertiaries, Professed Laypeople” [LINK].  It’s a very good short introduction to the subject.

Friday, September 26

The Evil in Pemberley House (An Original Pat Wildman Adventure, 2009/2014)

By Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert

This is a book I knew going in I would have mixed feelings about coming out.  They are pretty much the same mixed feelings I have about Philip José Farmer as an author.  And this review is mostly going to be about that, as well as the larger context in which this novel resides.

On the one hand, Farmer is indisputably one of the grand masters of 20th-century science fiction, with a special place in my heart for his creation of the “Wold Newton Universe” in which this novel resides – the context I mentioned.  In case you don’t know, the Wold Newton Universe is a literary construct by Farmer which ties together most of the big names in literature, especially those in the genre of fantastic and heroic adventure fiction, via intricate webs of relationship that ultimately go back to a documented historical event, the fall of a meteor near the northern English village of Wold Newton in the 1790s [LINK] – according to Farmer, in close proximity to a number of members of the English upper class who happened to be riding by in a carriage at just that moment and who were affected by ionizing radiation from the meteor which caused a series of beneficial mutations among their descendants, literally creating an extended family of geniuses and supermen.  These include the “historical prototypes” of such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Doc Savage – as well as Professor Moriarty and Captain Nemo (who may or may not be the same person) – and many, many more, both heroes and villains.  Farmer’s thesis first found expression, I believe, in two extended essays and genealogical charts appended to his faux biographies Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972) and Doc Savage:  His Apocalyptic Life (1973).  At least that’s where I first encountered it.  Those two essays are truly tours des forces of literary-historical synthetic rationalization and are well worth reading on their own.  Both have been reprinted in newly edited, by Win Scott Eckert, expanded editions within the past few years (2006 and 2013).  I devoured the paperback volume on Tarzan when I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven (and for a brief time, bought the thesis – hook, line, and sinker!), and the Doc Savage book within just a few years afterward (age thirteen?), and would not hesitate to hand either of them over to any young reader interested in those specific characters and a fantastic introduction to a world of great literature and a lifetime of great reading.

Tuesday, September 23

Random thoughts inspired by the “Satanic Black Mass”….

Well, the “Satanic Black Mass” went on as anticipated a couple of days ago in the Oklahoma City Civic Center.  It was attended by a few dozen – reportedly about half the number that were expected [LINK].  About the same time, near and far, various forms of reparations were being offered for the blasphemous sacrilege that was being perpetrated on the Body of Our Lord – from protests outside the Civic Center greatly outnumbering the “Black Mass” attendees within, to Masses and Holy Hours all across the land.  Our weekly Traditional Latin Mass was lengthened somewhat by the addition of prayers of reparation; when we arrived back home afterward, EWTN was in the middle of a Holy Hour.  Which means that, however demonic was the intent of “self-proclaimed Satanist” Adam Daniels (allegedly above) and his ilk, the event became the occasion for a great many much more powerful acts of public witness to Catholics’ belief in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament – the center of our Faith.

Sunday, September 14

For the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross: The Dream of the Rood

The Ruthwell Cross, early 8th c.,
carved with lines from a
Northumbrian version of this poem
(19th-c. photograph)

[Source LINK]
Hwæt, ic swefna cyst     secgan wylle,
 hwæt me gemætte     to midre nihte
 siþþan reordberend     reste wunedon.
 þuhte me þæt ic gesawe     syllicre treow
 on lyft lædan     leohte bewunden, 
 beama beorhtost.  ….
(From The Vercelli Book, late 10th-c. West Saxon)

Although this has nothing to do specifically to do with the historical origins of the current feast [LINK], it seems appropriate….

"Lo! I will tell the dearest of dreams
That I dreamed in the midnight when mortal men
were sunk in slumber. Me-seemed I saw
A wondrous Tree towering in air,
Most shining of crosses compassed with light.

Saturday, September 13

A Generation of Terrorism

The other night, after I had posted my thirteenth-anniversary comments regarding 09/11 [LINK], my wife and I were talking to our son, who is now in his first term of college, living away from home for the first time.  And I realized something:  It was during my own first term at the same university, 35 years ago, that the Iranians treacherously invaded our embassy in Teheran and the Iran Hostage Crisis began, bringing the issue of Islamic terrorism home to the United States in a whole new way.  A “generation” is a very unspecific measure of time, of course, but the fact is that by the measure of my lifetime, with jihad now raging across the Middle East and acts of terror being perpetrated around the world, and although the 1990s seemed a lull that proved to be false, the world has endured a long, third-of-a-century-and-more, generation of Islamic aggression that shows no signs of abating, only escalating.  We are in a war, and have been since before 09/11, which at present We Are Not Winning.  I pray that a generation hence the world which my son has inherited and passed on to his children has not fallen before “the cruel children of the lonely God … who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 8).

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 11

09/11 plus Thirteen

1683:  The Battle of Lepanto
This the thirteenth anniversary of the World Trade Center/Pentagon Terrorist Attacks of 2001.  At no time in the past ten years has there been such danger of a repeat of that horrific day as there is today, I believe.  The reason is that any gains in the “War against Terror” that were made during the Bush years – however imperfectly, at least he realized that we are at war – have been thrown away by his unworthy successor.  All the tough talk that came out of Obama’s mouth last night cannot change the fact that the current mess in the world – domestically, yes, and internationally in more places than just the Middle East, but that is the most demonic and existentially threatening – is largely of his own making.  The so-called “Islamic State” – I refuse to call it “ISIS” or “ISIL” (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant”) because the geographical limitation implied by either is not in accord with Islamic ambitions, and anyone who thinks that Islam will be content with either and not total world submission is a fool; better to recognize it for what it is, Dar al’Islam, the “House of Islam,” that conceives itself in a neverending war with Dar al’Harb, the “House of War,” i.e., anything outside Dar al’Islam – has exploded onto the scene in the past few months largely due to the Obama administration’s criminous inaction.  The threat was predictable – and predicted [LINK] – and ignored.  And I believe darker days are ahead, because I see little evidence that Western Civilization realizes its true danger  or has the resolve to do what it will take to survive. 

That does not mean I have no hope – despair is a sin – but my hope is in the True Faith, feeble though it seems in today’s world.  In times past, when the West was so threatened by the very same enemy in the darkest of days, miraculous aid turned the tide (1571, the Battle of Lepanto [LINK]) – but that was when the West could still be called “Christendom.”  The concept of “Christendom” seems laughable today, and is in fact offensive to many, but without its revival I fear we stand no chance.  And so today, as every day, I pray for the Revival of Christendom and the Confounding of Her Enemies.  Deus vult!

Thanks for reading.

Note:  As you may know, I have been reading a lot of G. K. Chesterton lately.  Among his voluminous writings is a poem, Lepanto [LINK].
If you would like to read my thoughts from the tenth and eleventh anniversaries, follow the respective links.  [2011] [2012]

ADDENDUM:  Bill S. at expresses the far more precarious state of the world today, and its cause, very well [LINK].

Sunday, September 7

Some Comparative Comments on the First Look at the Didache Bible

I’ve always lamented that there does not seem to exist a good one-volume study edition of my favorite (because I think it’s the most accurate) translation of the Bible, the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSV-CE).  There are, of course, the multivolume series of the Navarre Bible (with their inclusion of the Vulgate Latin and annotations based on the Fathers, Doctors, and Magisterium of the Church) as well as the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (similar to the Navarre Bible, but no Vulgate and annotations based more on modern scholarship).  Compilation volumes comprising various individual volumes of both Navarre and ICSB have appeared (in the latter case, mainly a one-volume New Testament which I have in the Kindle ebook edition), but neither is published in a one-volume full Old and New Testament edition.  All existing one-volume RSV-CEs have hitherto kept annotations to a bare minimum, mainly an occasional translation note and cross-references on the same page with some not very extensive “Explanatory Notes” relegated to a few pages at the end of the Old and New Testaments respectively.  That’s the case with both of the RSV-CEs that I own:

Tuesday, August 26

My conflicted feelings about the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge

I feel the need to say something about this newest Internet/Facebook sensation.  I’m really quite conflicted about it.  And my wife is even more so.

We have some “history” with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  In early 1998, my wife’s father was diagnosed with it.  It was heartbreaking to watch him decline, fairly quickly, over the next year and a bit more – he died in the summer of 1999, a wasted shell of a once-robust man.  My mother-in-law never really got over it, and his absence has been a hole in my wife’s – our – family ever since.  The first “Ice-Bucket Challenge” I remember seeing, just a couple weeks ago, was of my wife’s niece, who was only two years old or so when her “Poppa” died, taking up the challenge explicitly in his memory:  [LINK – but I don’t know if Facebook videos will show up].

My wife’s family’s story is not unique, by any means.  ALS is a devastating affliction, that seems to be on the rise for whatever reason.  My wife and her siblings have supported ALS research in many different ways through the years – ALS Walk-a-Thons, fundraisers, donations, and so forth.  And that support has pretty much all been channeled through the ALS Association, the organization that has been the major beneficiary of the Ice-Bucket Challenge. 

Friday, August 15

The Great Martian War: 1913-1917 (2013)

Directed by Mike Slee

As you may have gathered, I’m sometimes ‘way behind the times in watching things, even things I want to see, sometimes things I have queued up to see – such as this, which has been sitting on my TiVo for at least a couple of weeks since it aired on BBC-America.  Turns out, however, I’m even further behind than that, seeing as I discover now that this movie actually debuted last year on The History Channel.  Actually, the fact that I missed it there is not that surprising to me.  Even though – more probably, because – I’m a historian, I actually watch very little of The History Channel.  Yes, there’s some good stuff on there.  There’s also some very bad stuff.  (That’s besides the ridiculous stuff like Ancient Aliens and the uh-why-is-this-on-The-History-Channel? stuff like Ice Road Truckers.)  And of course, it seems that the closer the subject matter is to something of scholarly historical interest to me, the more superficial and downright mangled their treatment of it is.  So I just don’t watch very much.  And hence The Great Martian War flew entirely beneath my radar last year.

Saturday, August 2

Library-Bound Comics: 1960s and New 52 Legion of Super-Heroes; 1970-1971 Aquaman; New 52 Wonder Woman; and New 52 Action Comics correction

A couple of weeks ago I got the much-anticipated email from Herring and Robinson Bookbinders out in California that my most recent batch of library-bound comics were ready, and about a week after that I received the books. The turnaround from shipping the books out to getting them back this time was about seven weeks, I think, which pleased me mightily. It also pleased a colleague of mine who dipped his toe into the wild world of comic-book binding by sending along three volumes of his own comics, to whom I had high-balled the estimated turnaround so he had a nice surprise. This post is, of course, only about my own books, but it sounds like he will do at least some more volumes, when he can piggy-back onto one of my orders.

Thursday, July 31

Heretics (1905)

By G. K. Chesterton

I am even more convinced that this is absolutely required reading as an introduction preceding Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Of course, Chesterton himself says as much in calling the latter book “a companion to 'Heretics,' […] put[ting] the positive side in addition to the negative” (Orthodoxy, “Preface”). I would not, however, characterize Heretics as “negative” in the sense that we usually thing of it, as simply an unrelenting attack on ideologies with which Chesterton disagreed. Rather he presents carefully reasoned and always clever refutations of those ideologies, eloquently demonstrating the limitations and implications of disordered moralities and philosophies that erupted into the 20th century as traditional notions were increasingly turned on their head, old certainties being questioned and rejected, in favor or … what, exactly? – more or less, nothing. Presciently, Chesterton realized the deleterious effects on society that would be wrought by the current advent of relativism, the abolition of the absolute or any accepted societal consensus of right and wrong, of good and evil:

Sunday, July 20

20 July 1969 … From the Earth to the Moon (HBO, 1998)

Produced by Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and others.

Today is the 45th anniversary, to the day of the week, of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, and – although few really recognize it as such, given how little fanfare it receives each year – one of the most important events of the 20th century, even of human history: When Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle and planted his boot on the ground of another world, the Earth's moon, mankind left his infancy and became a toddler in the perspective of the universe. It's tragic that we barely followed up on that event and, realistically, do not look like we will be taking any further steps any time soon, possibly not even within my lifetime. I hope I'm wrong. I am grateful, however, that I did witness that event with my own eyes, late in the evening of Sunday, 20 July 1969. [LINK]

For my own celebration of this year's “Moon Landing Day,” I finally started watching earlier in the week the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. In 1998, of course, as a recently minted Ph.D. struggling to secure a tenure-track university position while cobbling together teaching assignments at several different institutions in and around Baton Rouge, I did not have HBO. I still don't, but I picked the DVD set up a couple of years ago. I was actually under the misimpression that From the Earth to the Moon was another product of collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, done after Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It's obviously not, but it matters not. It is of similarly outstanding quality, telling the story in a docudrama format, varying the storytelling style and perspective in an interesting fashion from episode to episode. I am particularly impressed by the special effects, although I guess if I think about it by the late 1990s CGI had indeed advanced very far. Honestly, they look entirely modern, 2010s-era quality, to me.  My son says I don't have a very discerning eye, though.

Actually, since I typically limit myself to an hour of “summer series” watching, whether via Netflix or DVD, per day – working my way through various series that I've either never seen or not seen in a long time (I set aside my first viewing of HBO's Rome since its initial airing, and for which I benefited from a generous colleague who taped them for me then, after its first season in order to take up with this) – I'm only a few episodes in at this point. I'm hoping that this evening I can monopolize the TV and watch the few episodes I need, back to back, to get to their depiction of Apollo 11 at approximately the right time.

Cheers! – and Ad Astra!

Thursday, June 26

Son of Batman (DC Universe Original Movie, 2014)

Directed by Ethan Spaulding

Although the outer sleeve of the Blu-Ray packaging sports a sticker touting this as “Based on the Graphic Novel Batman and Son,” that is only very loosely the case and in its broadest strokes. And if Grant Morrison, who wrote that story arc at the beginning of his seven-year epic run metatextually de-/re-/a-constructing the very definition of the Dark Knight Detective (for more on which, see the just-published Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker, see below), is actually acknowledged in the credits, I missed it. There's not much Morrison here anyway.  For all intents and purposes this movie takes the basic idea of Batman unexpectedly being presented with the fact that he has a son by Talia al Ghul in the context of a struggle for power within and over the League of Assassins and leaches it of any of Morrison's quirky psychological brilliance. I would have hoped for more, given it is now credited as “a story” by James Robinson, who can himself be awesome – but who can also be pretty uninspired. We get the latter Robinson here, depending on how much of his story passes into the final script by Joe R. Lansdale.

Friday, June 13

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by Mel Gibson

This is a movie I've long wanted to see but never got around to for whatever reason. Thanks to TiVo and a BBC-America showing a couple weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched it yesterday. I do not believe it was edited in any way except cutting away to commercials.

It has a fairly simple plot (SPOILERS AHEAD): A Mayan forest village is raided and destroyed by city-dwellers, the majority of its adults being led away to be sold into slavery or sacrificed to Kukulkan. Desperate to save his wife and son, whom he had secreted in a deep pit at the beginning of the raid, one captive escapes the bloody altar and leads his captors on a running chase, picking them off one by one, until he and the last two pursuers emerge from the jungle-line to the stunning sight of Spanish ships landing conquistadores on the beach. He does save his family from drowning as rain fills the pit, and the little family, all that's left of their tribe, retreat further into the forest, “seeking a new beginning.”

Wednesday, June 11

Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel (2010)

By David C. Downing

I found this novel, also published by Ignatius Press, via Amazon's suggestions based on the fact that I'd read Toward the Gleam [LINK]. This is not Toward the Gleam. Although I found the description enticing – American graduate students in England in 1940, interacting with the Inklings, on a quest for an Arthurian relic – and was immediately hooked by the first chapter or so in the Kindle preview so that I immediately purchased it, I ended up being disappointed by it. There are elements of this novel I really liked. It opens at one of my favorite places in the world, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in southwestern England, the reputed resting place of King Arthur, and much of the story takes place at other significant medieval sites that I'm familiar with or are on my list of places I would like to get familiar with (two trips are not nearly enough!) As the narrative progressed it takes an unexpected turn in that the object of the quest becomes ultimately less King Arthur than one of my subjects of historical interest, King Athelstan (r. 924-939), probably the most important of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England, a true “Christian King and Hero” [LINK] who may well have come into possession of one of the most powerful relics of the Crucifixion.  Frankly, for all his importance, Athelstan is largely forgotten in the memory of later ages, overshadowed by his grandfather Alfred the Great, and it is cool beyond words to find his legend at the heart of a modern novel.  Looking for the King is suffused with the early medieval England that I love, and seems well researched as evidenced by a good set of historical notes and a bibliography at the end. (The mistaken identification of the foes defeated by Otto of Saxony at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955 as “Mongols” rather than Magyars I'm willing to dismiss as a literary slip of the tongue.)

Tuesday, June 10

Green Arrow (New 52), Volume 4: The Kill Machine (DC Comics, 2014)

Reprinted from issues #17-24 and 23.1 (2013) by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino

Green Arrow has never been a character I really followed. I liked him well enough in the context of Green Lantern's “hard travellin'” partner in the classic Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams stories of ca. 1970 (which I didn't really read many of or appreciate at all until much later, but I was only eight years old), in the context of the Justice League (especially as Hawkman's political opposite – although I was always far more on Hawkman's conservative side than Green Arrow's liberal side), even occasionally in his own stories (e.g, The Longbow Hunters), but beyond that, not so much. It was mainly as a second-tier character that he worked best for me. I had no interest in the new, beardless, younger Green Arrow of the series which came in with the New 52 in 2011, and frankly found him an uninteresting character those times he did appear in titles I did get. Green Arrow can be interesting – I particularly liked him in the Smallville TV series, and when I first heard that the CW was developing a [Green] Arrow follow-up, I was quite disappointed that it would be an entirely new reimagining of the character with no connection to Smallville. I've written elsewhere of my revulsion at the debut of Arrow in 2012 [LINK], but in the same place of my giving it a second chance at the end of the first season such that it became one of my most highly anticipated shows through the second season. It's surprisingly good, with a rather broad appeal. I was surprised along the way to find that my parish priest watches it, as well as our parish liturgical director and his wife (who are avid archers themselves); my wife doesn't actually follow it, but she will watch it with me if she happens to be in the room; the show is a runaway success by CW standards.

Monday, June 9

Batman Eternal #1-4 (DC Comics, June 2014)

By Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Jason Fabok, and others

DC Comics are trying to recapture the magic they inadvertently stumbled on back in 2006 (eight years ago?!) in the year-long weekly 52. As usual these days, it seems they are blundering right in with little thought – in the next few months no less than three (is that all? – this one plus Future's End and Earth 2: World's End) new weeklies will be going. Hey! – If one is a good idea, three must be a better idea, right? – Throw 'em at the wall and see what sticks!  Whether they will “stick” and be going “strong” is another matter, but I am happy to say that this first one out the gate is a winner in my book. I'm not going to say a whole lot about it, except that this is the kind of Batman story I like – characterization and action, fast-paced, an intriguing mystery, involving both the full range of primary Bat-family characters (including the New 52 debut of Stephanie Brown!) and secondary (sometimes new, sometimes just New 52 reintroduced) characters including the Gotham City Police – all graced by dark, moody, but cleanly realistic art. Makes me wish I had a local comic shop so I could be there every Wednesday for the newest chapter rather than waiting until the end of the month for my mail-order subscription service to dump them all on me at once. Which is part of the strategy of the weekly model in the first place – to encourage that weekly compulsion to get thee to a comic shop! I'll make do, but at the moment, just four weeks into the story, Batman Eternal has catapulted to the top of my short list of titles I'm really looking forward to each month. It sets a very high bar for those to come.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

Reviews [LINK]

Sunday, June 8

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Dark Horse, 2009)

Reprinted from three six-issue comic-book miniseries (1995, 1998, and 1999) based on the prose novels by Timothy Zahn (1991-1993), adapted by scripter Mike Baron and various artists

I was there, nigh on two and a half decades past, when Star Wars seemed a fad of the past after a dearth of several years in the late 1980s after the completion of the “trilogy” with the appearance of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Little if any merchandising was being published when suddenly there appeared in 1991 a new novel, Heir to the Empire. I was there … but I didn't actually pick it up until it appeared in paperback the next summer, and read it during that bit of a lull in my graduate studies between finishing up my M.A. thesis and beginning my doctoral studies. I thoroughly enjoyed it, of course, picked up the paperbacks of the sequels – Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – as they appeared in paperback the next two summers. Together, they told one long, fast paced, intricate story that basically created what came to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Characters, worlds, concepts, a history spanning millennia would be elaborated by many other creators in both prose and comics – some even being “canonized” by incorporation into the revived film series, most notably the Imperial Capital of Coruscant, which was first named and described in Heir to the Empire.

Saturday, June 7

Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (1993)

By Scott and Kimberly Hahn

I actually read this book back during Lent, so a couple of months ago at this point. I had been saying I would read it for several months before that, ever since my wife read it late last year. Not only did things she said about it intrigue me, but I've been familiar with Dr. Scott Hahn for many years as a great Catholic convert, theologian, and apologist. I'd only read a couple of books by him, however. Then, a couple of months ago, a friend approached me for help in dealing with a barrage of half-baked attacks from her sister, a convert from Catholicism to Baptist fundamentalism. Not really having delved into apologetics that much in recent years, her questions inspired me to deeper reading on a number of matters I'd gotten a bit rusty on – and I took up this book as well.

Here we have a deeply personal story, written in alternating chapters from the perspective of Scott Hahn and his wife, Kimberly, of what began as his but ultimately became their conversion from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. Making the journey much more rocky for them was the fact that they had met and married while in Presbyterian seminary – Scott was training to become a minister, Kimberly was herself the daughter of a minister and envisioned herself as the spouse, partner, and helpmate of an ordained Presbyterian minister. Which worked out well … for a short time. Scott was ordained and they began their career and a family. But then Scott's theological and Biblical studies increasingly convinced him that just about everything he had ever known about the Catholic Church and its teachings were not true, but rather that it is the most Biblical of all churches. Objection after objection fell before his willingness to put aside his preconceived notions and to follow the Biblical evidence where it leads, especially with regard to his own specialty of study, Covenant Theology. He was at last convicted of the Truth and must become Catholic. Which he did … on Holy Saturday, 29 March 1986. My jaw dropped at that point in my reading and I exclaimed, “Wow!” – because that was the very same evening, a thousand miles away, that I was accepted into the Catholic Church!

Thursday, June 5

Orthodoxy (1908)

Not the edition I read; this book
is in the public domain and
is available in many forms,

including e-book
By G. K. Chesterton

How can I possibly epitomize this wonderful book in a short blog-entry review? Better men than I have summarized it to varying lengths and effect, none of which except where they directly quote the author capture a smidgen of the magic, wit, and – above all – wisdom that is the hallmark of this giant of early 20th -century thought. Such attempts to provide a short aide-mémoire may be useful, and I did consult them (three in particular, by A. Freddoso [LINK], J. Grabowski [LINK], and K. D. Rapinchuk [LINK]), but I can't say they really helped me process what I read. Really, I can't say I have truly processed it at all, despite what I figure at this point must be from two to four readings through – two visual, and two aural via a wonderful audio version on Podiobooks, read by David “Grizzly” Smith [LINK] (whose voice is perfectly suited to the material although he sounds nothing like Chesterton himself [LINK]); I have read and reread, listened to and relistened to parts multiple times, and “two to four” is just a wild guess. I feel like I have barely started to grasp what Chesterton has to offer. Sure, I've been charmed by his wit and audacity – and astonished at how many passages and turns of phrase sound vaguely familiar simply because they have contributed quotations and turns of phrase that I have heard in the past but never in context (I previously [LINK] cited my memory of hearing tradition described as “the democracy of the dead” without being aware it was Chesterton) – but I am absolutely inadequate to taking on the task of distilling his arguments into a short essay. In different ways, the three attempts I linked above do it much better than could I, with Rapinchuk's being the most readable prose summary; Grabowski's being the most analytical, virtually an expanded outline; and Freddoso's incorporating extensive quotations. All I can do is state baldly how life-changing I consider my belated “discovery” of Chesterton to be (I previously described [LINK] my earlier flirtations with his writings), make a couple of observations, and then offer my feeble best.

Saturday, May 24

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Directed by Bryan Singer

I remember as if it were yesterday reading my subscription copies of the original Uncanny X-Men #141 and 142, 'way back in 1980, only a few months after the shocking conclusion of The Dark Phoenix Saga in issue #137 and, unbeknownst to me, only an issue away from the break-up of the very best creative team ever to grace those pages. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne were at the top of their respective games at that point – in sharing co-plotting duties they created a whole that was considerably more than the sum of its parts – and I remained what I had been for the previous four or five years, a rabid “X-fan” during the only period of my life when I may well have been buying more Marvel comics than DC. My devotion to the franchise would slowly wane over the half-dozen or so years after the departure of John Byrne (his last issue was the tour-de-force #143), arrested only briefly during the tenure of Paul Smith (#165-175). Glee at the return of the “New” X-Men's inaugural artist from the mid-late 1970s, Dave Cockrum, with issue #145 quickly gave way to dismay that the artist whom I had long regarded as my absolute favorite had lost something in the interim – I found Cockrum's art much cruder this second go 'round, especially in contrast to the incredibly smooth, expressive draftsmanship of John Byrne.

One of the most homaged
covers ever
But as so often happens, I ramble on. The point is this: “Days of Future Past” (Uncanny X-Men #141) and “Mind Out of Time” (#142) – yes, it was a mere two issues, but in those days a typical issue of a comic book packed in as much story as a modern-day five- or six-issue story arc! – had an incredible impact on my late-teen-year-old self, and (I suspect) on others as well. Let's just say that in my opinion the commentary implicitly or explicitly attributing this new movie's time-travel plot – heroes in a dystopian future dominated by giant robots send one of their number into the past to change history and prevent the apocalypse (errr... Can I use that word?) – to Terminator have things as incredibly backward as those who ignorantly called John Carter [of Mars] a rip-off of a century of science-fiction cinema! I have believed that James Cameron had to have read Uncanny X-Men ever since I first saw Terminator in 1984. I've never seen that discussed, and I figure it's about as likely to be admitted as that Gladiator was a turn-of-the-century retread of 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Another of the most homaged
covers ever
… And there I go again....

Anyway, I have read and reread the original story many times – I have owned it in at least five different printings from the original issues (which I still have) to the most recent deluxe hardcover of the same title (X-Men: Days of Future Past) compiling the original story with thirty years of follow-up stories as Marvel could not resist going back to the “DOFP” well over and over again! I have been looking forward to this movie with my typical mix of anticipation and dread (my default attitude regarding upcoming comic-book movies) ever since it was announced during the unexpected success of X-Men: First Class several years ago. I began getting more excited about it a year ago almost exactly when I had the pleasure of hearing both Chris Claremont and Patrick Stewart express their own enthusiasm (which seemed genuine, but you can never tell how much is real and how much is just wanting to make sure their own paycheck is as big as possible) for the movie at Comicpalooza 2013 (LINK). As usual, the barrage of trailers and clips leading up to the big release this weekend looked good, but it's almost impossible to tell from those whether the final product will be an incomprehensible mess (a real danger with this type of movie compounded with the huge cast of characters brought into the story) or not. Nonetheless, this was a movie I had to see as quickly as possible.

And so, on its first day of release I was there for the very first afternoon showing. To cut to the chase, I really liked it. I don't consider it the best super-hero movie ever made, and probably not the best of the year, but it is without a doubt the best non-Marvel Studios effort at a Marvel Comics movie (don't get me started on the licensing issues) … and Marvel Studios is going to have a tough time living up to this film's achievement in one hilarious sequence where there is a unique licensing overlap between Marvel itself and 20th-Century Fox!  they have been thoroughly one-upped in advance, I feel.  It is, of course, the best X-Men movie, and reconciles (for the most part) the differences between Bryan Singer's first two offerings and the reboot/prequel First Class, while simultaneously wiping the slate of the unfortunate story consequences of X-Men: The Last Stand and in no way invalidating that film – time travel and alternate universes can be extremely useful! I think the X-Men franchise is perfectly poised to go forward from here.

(And going forward from here there may well be SPOILERS...)

Thursday, May 15

Toward the Gleam (2011)

A Novel by T. M. Doran

I have a fondness for novels featuring historical characters experiencing fantastic but fictional adventures. By this I mean not “historical novels” retelling historical events in the form of a novel, where the author strives to adhere as closely as possible to events as they actually happened while necessarily supplying dialogue, minor incidents, and even peripheral characters as necessary to create a dramatic narrative out of the facts as we know them (examples abound, but springing first to mind are Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series), or even fundamentally fictional stories featuring a fictional character set firmly within a historical context and events, interacting with historical persons (e.g., Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller Mysteries [LINK]). No, I mean something more akin to Paul Malmont's novels, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown [LINK], the former placing the 1930s writers of hero pulps in their own hair-raisingly pulpish adventures complete with reanimated corpses and the Yellow Peril, the latter similarly focusing on the 1940s pioneers of science fiction in a fantastic war-time plot to recover a Death Ray defense against the Axis. In fact, as I write this I realize that those latter two novels exemplify what I really find compelling, imagining the writers of fantastic fiction plunged into the midst of their own fantastic adventures.

A couple of months ago, I read (and reviewed) No Dawn For Men: A Novel of Ian Fleming, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Nazi Germany [LINK]. My assessment of it was somewhat mixed, both because of a rather pedestrian writing style that did not successfully emulate that of either author and because it did not succeed in imparting a necessary suspension of disbelief that these could indeed be “the real story” behind the authors and the creation of the the literary monuments for which they are known. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book, however, which was recommended to me by our parish priest, with whom I share a love for all things Tolkien, around the same time I had heard of and already ordered No Dawn For Men. The intriguing prospect of a mash-up of Tolkien and Fleming in a spy adventure on the eve of World War II had me read that book first, inadvertently saving the better for later. If No Dawn For Men is a simple pot-boiler thriller, Toward the Gleam rises to the level of literature – while remaining an edge-of-your seat thriller. Which is no mean accomplishment given how much discourse and dialogue is contained in these pages, working in a great deal of the changing philosophy and world-view of the early twentieth century. That latter feature, as well as the characters and literary connections posited, make it obvious why Ignatius Press, a relatively small Catholic publishing house specializing in orthodox theology and philosophy as well as fiction picked up this book [LINK]. (As with many other of its books, Ignatius' page for this book [LINK] site hosts a reading guide [LINK] as well as a great embedded Youtube “book trailer” [LINK].)

Before I get to a more spoiler-filled discussion of some particular elements of this book that struck me as noteworthy, here's a general overview of the plot: A young English scholar, recuperating from injuries suffered on the front-lines of the World War I, discovers a mysterious box containing an ancient manuscript bound in red, written in an unknown language. His linguistics training allows him to laboriously decipher over a decade and a half or so the lost tales of a long-departed age – but his obsessive quest to understand the historical context whence came the book brings him to the attention of a great enemy who demands the knowledge contained within the book for himself, toward the end of world domination. Much of this tale is a tense cat-and-mouse game in which we experience along with the scholar the dread of an approaching doom that seems almost a force of nature, tempered with the support of a close fellowship of academic colleagues as well as a loving family and clear-headed, eminently practical and down-to-earth wife, climaxing in a one-on-one confrontation within the hallowed halls of Oxford University itself.

The rest of this review contains spoilers which, while not giving away the overall story itself beyond the brief summary above, may well ruin a lot of the reading experience; if you've not yet read the book for yourself, I would suggest you do so before going any further....