Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Island of the Day Before

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver 
(Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2006. 528pp)

Umberto Eco was born January 5, 1932 and is a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Republic. He is the founder of the Dipartimento di Comunicazione at the University of San Marino, an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, and is best known for his novels The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery. He is also President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici at the University of Bologna, and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. In addition to fiction, he has also written both academic texts on literary theory and children's books.

William Weaver is best known for his translations of Umberto Eco and Italio Calvino. He has been translating Italian authors for over fifty years. He also works as a critic and commentator for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Weaver was a professor at Bard College in New York, and was a Bard Center Fellow. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Leicester in the UK, and Trinity College in addition to his postgraduate study at the University of Rome, and his B.A. from Princeton University. He has several original works mainly revolving around the librettos of Verdi and Puccini.


Disclaimer! My brain hurts, and I will admit that it took me a bit to get interested in The Island of the Day Before. However, after I realized that my constant companion while reading this book would be a dictionary, the book became much more intriguing. The problem, truthfully, is that not only is the writing very deep and complex, but it is also originally in Italian. So, the English translation is a little hard to grasp at times. In addition, the novel isn’t really what I thought it would be: an adventure to an island of the day before, as the title implies. Rather, it is more of a philosophical introspection.

Reading a Journal

The Island of the Day Before is Eco’s third novel, and focuses on a 17th century Italian nobleman, Roberto della Griva, who is the sole survivor of a terrible stormy gale. He becomes marooned on an island, and can see an island that is in the distance which he is convinced is on the other side of the International Date Line. Roberto wants to visit it, as he believes going to the island will fix all his woes. But, he is deathly afraid to swim to it.

Photo by John A Ryan
Shipwrecked and swept from his ship, the Amaryllis, he manages to pull himself aboard the fully provisioned ship Daphne, anchored in the bay of a beautiful island. Della Griva goes through a series of flashbacks of a metacognitive nature. The ship is eerily quiet, as if the entire crew fled some terrible specter. We, the reader, get to view Roberto’s journey through the eyes of a modern narrator who has found della Griva’s journal on board the derelict ship. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see Roberto as he questions truth, reality, and the overall meaning of life.
“From the way he recalls it on the Daphne, I tend to believe that at Casale, while he lost both his father and himself in a war of too many meanings and of no meaning at all, Roberto learned to see the universal world as a fragile tissue of enigmas, beyond which there was no longer an Author; or if there was, He seemed lost in the remaking of Himself from too many perspectives. If there Roberto had sensed a world now without any center, made up only of perimeters, here he felt himself truly in the most extreme and most lost of peripheries, because, if there was a center, it lay before him, and he was its immobile satellite” (145-146).
We can also hear of loves lost through some guile on the part of another,
“Oh Love, Love, Love, have you not punished me enough already, is this not a death undying?” (385).
The loss of love is merely one of the finer points of life that Eco gets to discuss through this novel, and he talks about it in a truly poetic way. Love can punish more than a simple death, as it is an ongoing process. Death is but once; the loss of a love is revisited time and time again in painful agony.


Umberto Eco is a big fan of semiotics – the study of signs in language. Eco seems particularly fond of the specific part of semiotics called pragmatics, the study of signs and the effects they have on the people who use them. Eco even takes the liberty within his novel to educate the reader on semiotics. He talks to the reader directly about the plot, not as the narrator, but instead as Umberto Eco himself.
“So we may assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Robert was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader chooses to insinuate that because from now on I need him on deck full-time, and finding no contradiction among his papers, I am freeing him from all illness, with authorial arrogance)” (280).
A Work in a Work

Eco seems to love blurring his fictional writing with a dialogue in reality as well. While extremely confusing at the time, his references to other works of fiction are rather refreshing. And, of course, what better fiction to reference than his own, such as the notes of Adso of Melk from The Name of the Rose (played by Christian Slater in the movie version of the novel)?
“For the captain it was obvious that the books, having belonged to a plague victim, were agents of infection. The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with a poison” (248).
Photo by Justin Kent
For those that don’t know, in The Name of the Rose, the pages of a journal were poisoned, so that those who read it, and turn the pages by licking their fingers are killed. The canadian rock group Arcade Fire even references the famed passage in the song Neon Bible.
"Take the poison of your age / Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page"
I also found references to The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers in the novel. It certainly seems like Eco wants to educate the reader in general works of fiction as he writes.

Space, Time, and Beauty

One of the larger themes in the novel is the concept of time. Is time able to be manipulated, or is it constant? Can one travel to the day before? Roberto is convinced that his troubles will end if only he could travel to the day before. He would no longer find himself marooned, and would no longer be forced to boringly reminisce about his past life. But, the island in the distance seemingly moves farther away from him.
“Indeed, as he sees it distant not only in space but also (backwards) in time, from this moment on, whenever he mentions that distance, Roberto seems to confuse space and time, and he writes, ‘The bay, alas, is too yesterday,’ and ,’How much sea separates me from the day barely ended,’ and even, ‘Threatening rainclouds are coming from the Island, whereas today it is already clear . . . . But if the Island moves ever farther away, is it still worth the effort to learn to reach it?’” (362).
This quote encapsulates for me the beauty of this novel. While there is much to be discussed in the way of academia, semiotics, and the like, his poetic writing is what makes the novel simply great to read. Eco blends his poetic hand with some terribly mind-bending concepts. The Island of the Day Before is truly beautifully written, and Eco’s expert prose makes it fly off the page. The tome is incredibly thought provoking and it forces the reader to think about the finer things in life.

Although The Island of the Day Before is hard to read, if you have some resilience and a dictionary, I strongly recommend you read it.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA. He holds an M.M. in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a B.M. in Music Education from the University of Washington. He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies. You can reach him via email at

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Knopf Publishers, 1998. 292 pp)

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college, writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published SuttreeBlood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.

The Border

In a Grantland piece posted this summer, column writer Brian Phillips pontificated on the U.S.-Mexican soccer rivalry through the meaning of the Border, a place where Mexico and America bleed together as a “sun-obliterated desert where law and chaos expire into each other and civilization dissolves.”

Setting aside the significance of the soccer portion of this piece, Phillips rightly defines the mythic qualities of two vastly different cultures operating in close proximity to each other.

In the mouth of a Mexican pimp, Cormac McCarthy points to the core of this conflict in Cities of the Plain when he writes,

“Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world – he passed the blade back and forth like a shuttle through a loom – your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions. And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire” (253).

In other words, Mexican and American culture clash violently in this land as both try to consume each other.

A Eulogy

Upon reading Cities of the Plain, the last installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (a series of stories set on the Mexico-Texas border featuring John Grady Cole and Billy Parham), I must amend my previous review. In it, I suggest that the Border Trilogy acts as an anti-western, that McCarthy writes of a mundane Cowboy adventure in order to dispel any romanticized notions of the great frontier.

With a big giant spoiler warning in effect, Cities of the Plain alters my viewpoint in such a way that I suggest that the Border Trilogy is not an anti-western, but rather a eulogy to the Western genre.

The days of blockbuster Westerns are long gone. With CGI and high budget action films dominating the box office, movie executives view westerns as a genre of waning popularity. Even Jon Favraeu’s big budget Cowboys & Aliens failed miserably this year barely breaking even.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham

Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Cities of the Plain specifically function as a reaction to the grim reality of the failing western. With gorgeous prose evidenced in the quotes you will read shortly, McCarthy elegantly portrays the lives of mid-nineteenth-century cowboys. From intense hunting sequences to poetic lines discussing love gained and lost, McCarthy’s pen depicts the pure beauty that the western genre provides.

With this third episode, McCarthy unites the protagonists of the previous works in the series, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. Laboring together on a cattle ranch in post-World-War-II New Mexico, John Grady and Billy develop a close-knit friendship. The duo, developing horses and living close to the land, clearly enjoy their lot in life and find the ranch owners to be generous and kind people.

Nothing New Under the Sun

At the center of the story, themes are presented from the previous books of the trilogy. Similar to All the Pretty Horses, John Grady falls in love with a woman he cannot have – this time a young prostitute named Magdalena; he engages in a knife fight with an outlaw – this time a pimp.

In fact, McCarthy cites these themes in the text itself:

“He did not know if she was awake but he told her things about his life that he had not told her. He told her about working for the hacendado at Cuatro Ciénegas and about the man’s daughter and the last time he saw her and about being in the prison in Saltillo and about the scar on his face that he had promised to tell her about and never had” (205).

Billy, on the other hand, remains centrally influenced by the history presented in The Crossing. Haunted by the death of his brother, Billy acts cautiously and considering the evils of Mexican-American border country.

The Standard McCarthian Refrain

Likewise, Cities of the Plain ponders the meaning of death – a standard McCarthian refrain. With a dark, twisted, and brutal ending, the reader sweats through violent passages. Yet, McCarthy finds value in telling the story of life and death.

He writes,

“Every man’s death is a standing in for every other. And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love that man who stands for us. We are not waiting for his history to be written. He passed here long ago. That man who is all men and who stands in the dock for us until our own time come and we must stand for him. Do you love him, that man? Will you honor the path he has taken? Will you listen to his tale” (289)?

This beautiful passage brings meaning to the story of a life; it also elegantly eulogizes the Western genre. From urban to rural, every person tells a meaningful story. Cities of the Plain is a beautiful capstone to an excellent trilogy. While Westerns are going the way of the buffalo, the book honors the genre and the lifestyle in its glory and its death. I urge you to read the Border Trilogy, and Cities of the Plain in particular.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Donovan Richards is a University of Washington undergraduate alumnus from 2008, graduating with a BA in Philosophy. He is also a graduate of the inaugural Seattle Pacific University School of Theology graduate program class of 2009 as an MA student in Business and Theology. He is a huge fan of music, books, and movies. You can reach him via email at

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Television Show Review: Grimm

Grimm: Season 1 created by Stephen Carpenter, David Greenwalt, and Jim Kouf  (Universal Television, GK Productions, Hazy Mills Productions, and Open 4 Bisiness Productions, LLC,  airs Friday nights at 9/8c on NBC)

The Grimm of Old

Historically, the Brothers Grimm collected folklore and published these stories in Grimm's Fairy Tales. With fairy tales acting as an oral tradition, the Grimm brothers met with people to write down their stories.

Being an oral tradition, fairy tales obviously varied from town to town, and the stories from the Germanic origin were much darker. For instance, in the Grimm version of Cinderella, the evil step sisters chop off their toes in order to try to fit into the glass slipper. Furthermore, pigeons pecked out their eyes and they were punished with blindness for the rest of their lives.
"When the wedding with the prince was to be held, the two false sisters came, wanting to gain favor with Cinderella and to share her good fortune. When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived."
However, in versions of The Little Glass Slipper, specifically the version by Charles Perrault,  Cinderella forgives her wicked step sisters and allows them to live with her in the palace.
"And now her two sisters found her to be that fine, beautiful lady whom they had seen at the ball.  They threw themselves at her feet to beg pardon for all the ill treatment they had made her undergo. Cinderella took them up, and, as she embraced them, said that she forgave them with all her heart, and wanted them always to love her."
The Grimm of New

Similar to the Germanic sources, the television series Grimm brings this dark perspective onto the screen.  A homicide detective named Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) in the city of Portland, Oregon learns of his descendancy from the Brothers Grimm. Due to his origins, he can see what some people really are – creatures that are not fully human. One such creature (a big not-so-bad wolf named Monroe, played by Silas Weir Mitchell) reluctantly helps Burkhardt and his human police partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) to solve crimes.

Mystical Detectives

Surprisingly and with some accidental good fortune, all of Detective Burkhardt’s casework happens to coincide with the mystical realm. Despite these coincidences, the show is still very compelling.


The emergence of Harry Potter and Twilight brought the fairy tale back into the public eye. Perhaps unjustifiably, fairy tales get a bad rap. Although they are what we read to children, G.K. Chesterton says,

 “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” 
Furthermore, Chesterton also states that fairy tales are a way to escape from this world much in the same way that a prisoner seeks to escape his prison cell. Such imagination is a noble pursuit – to escape to a place where good always does triumph over evil.

Grimm provides this escape. Wonderfully and with great suspense, it paints the picture of a detective trying to rid the world of evil. If you have nothing else happening on Friday nights, I recommend that you check out Grimm.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA. He holds an M.M. in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a B.M. in Music Education from the University of Washington. He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies. You can reach him via email at

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Film Review: Visioneers

Visioneers directed by Jared Drake (Fireside Film and Mayfly Films, R, 94 minutes)

Starring Zach Galifianakis, Judy Greer, and Mía Maestro.


Since the birth of existentialism, absurdity has worked as a delightful comedic medium. In low brow settings, Monty Python (let’s not fool ourselves, the troupe is brilliant despite their silly sketches) explores absurdity when is depicts a couple of safari men performing the fish slapping dance. On the other side of the spectrum, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play that portrays two men with minute attention spans waiting for God.

In both instances, the writer finds comedy in the absurdities of life. When considered deeply, life contains many strange and downright silly aspects. In a similar vein, Jared Drake’s Visioneers explores the absurdity of the modern lifestyle.

The Jeffers Corporation and Stress Explosions

Set in the near future, Visioneers follows the life of George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis), a descendent of George Washington and a Level Three employee at the Jeffers Corporation. Led by Mr. Jeffers, the Jeffers Corporation is the largest business in the history of humanity and it effectively controls the United States.

Ever the company man, George manages a small staff to the peak of efficiency in Tayloresque fashion. One day, however, this mundane existence takes a turn for the worse when George learns that one of his employees literally exploded on his way to work. Later that evening, the news ticker announces that hundreds of thousands of Americans suffered from the same fate.

Word trickles out that these explosion victims all carried symptoms of dreams, unhappiness, overeating, and impotence. Realizing that he possesses these indicators, George worries that he might explode as well. Searching for answers to this explosion problem, the Jeffers Corporation develops a depression inhibitor that guarantees the happiness of society. With the president in the corporation’s pocket, the company requires U.S. citizens to wear the device for their own safety.

Chaos and the Middle Finger

Throughout the movie, George seeks answers to his existential problems. With clear references to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Visioneers explores the absurdity of modern life and the pursuit of happiness.

The best scenes of the movie occur in the office, where company policy and culture are ridiculously enacted. Hilariously, to politely greet someone, one must give them the middle finger. Also, society pronounces chaos as “chay-oss”. When one of George’s employees arrives at work, he gives George the middle finger greeting and then puts a gun to his head Russian-roulette-style – as ordered by his therapist – to ensure that he is still alive.

While the office sequences brilliantly portray absurdity, the main plot line is simply pedestrian. With George searching for meaning, he questions his safe and boring life pursuing opportunities that provide danger and intrigue.

Despite its flaws, Visioneers is entertaining and darkly comedic. Although it is nowhere near the quality of Waiting for Godot, I appreciated the movie’s homage to Beckett’s classic work. Zach Galifianakis performs admirably in his role and his acting supports the film in the places where the writing falls flat. All in all, I recommend Visioneers for those interested in the comedy of the absurd.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Donovan Richards is a University of Washington undergraduate alumnus from 2008, graduating with a BA in Philosophy. He is also a graduate of the inaugural Seattle Pacific University School of Theology graduate program class of 2009 as an MA student in Business and Theology. He is a huge fan of music, books, and movies. You can reach him via email at

Friday, November 25, 2011

Guest Film Review: In Time

In Time directed by Andrew Niccol (Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures, Strike Entertainment, PG-13, 109 minutes)

Starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy

Science without Morals

In Time, the newest work from writer-director Andrew Niccol, is a thoughtful addition to the genre of dystopian futuristic films. Niccol wrote and directed Gattaca, which is easily one of the best science fiction films ever created, and he returns to the theme with a film about a society that has embraced science and technology to the point where it loses its moral compass.

In Time shows us a society where genetic engineering has effectively solved the problem of aging and death — everyone is immortal and stops aging beyond their 25th birthday. Thus, we are presented with the situation where sons and daughters appear to be the exact same age as their biological parents.  

Population Control

A society that has achieved immortality must deal with the problem of finite resources for an infinitely growing population. This "near-futuristic" society has chosen, at birth, to give each person a glowing digital clock on his or her forearm. Everyone is given exactly one year to live and that year starts counting down at exactly 25 years. When the clock reaches zero, the person receives a jolt and instantly dies.

A result of this innovation is that "time" has supplanted money as the effective currency — workers are paid literally by the hour, a coffee is 4 minutes, service by a prostitute equals one hour, and a bus ride costs the time it takes to walk to your destination. Time can be transferred to others through a special handshake or collected by various portable and non-portable scanners.

Minutes before Clocking Out

Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a 28-year-old factory worker living day to day with rarely more than 24 hours on his clock. At a bar he encounters a rarity, a man with more than a century of time stored up, whom he saves from a gang of time-stealers. This rich man in return gifts all but a few minutes of his time to Will before "clocking out", content with the life that he has lived, and depressed at the inequality within his society where many involuntarily clock out each day so people like him can live forever.

Will uses his newfound time to cross "time-zones" to utopian New Greenwich where nearly all its inhabitants have centuries or even millennia of time, acquired through skimming time off the multitudes of lower classes.

In New Greenwich, Will is introduced to Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of one of the richest men in the world, but also is confronted by a Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy) who wants to pin the theft of the rich man's century on Will. Rather than go into custody, Will kidnaps Sylvia, evading the Timekeepers, and going on a journey where the couple explore the morality of a society where the deaths of millions prop up the immortality of a few.  Along the way, the characters learn the value of time, since in New Greenwich, the “time-rich” leisurely enjoy every activity, unlike in the slums where eating, drinking, and walking are done as quickly as possible. This dichotomy clearly illustrates the truth that the greatest resource one possesses is time — if it is used well.

The Morality of Redistributionism

It's easy to see this film as an allegory where time is equivalent to money and feel either vindicated or disappointed when the film explores the morality of redistributionism, similar to the folktale of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. I think this film goes deeper than that. Much like how Gattaca displayed a society whose genetic discrimination seems horrific to the audience while the characters largely did not notice the injustice right before them, we see in Will and Sylvia an awakening of senses to the injustices of the status quo.  

The deeper meaning is to remove the blinders from all our eyes, to look for the injustice that may be right before us, and to respond to the call to make society a better place. Who knows what modern practices will seem horrific to our future descendants?

In Time is a well-executed and thought-provoking sci-fi/action film that appeals to a wide audience, even those who generally don’t appreciate sci-fi. Nearly all aspects of the film’s production are good, the acting is acceptable, and it is noteworthy that Justin Timberlake has made a successful career transition from music and comedy to dramatic acting to the point that he feels quite natural in this type of role. If you are looking for a good sci-fi/action film, I recommend checking out In Time.
Robb Stankey is a graduate student in Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to his interests in genetics and science fiction, he enjoys homebrewing and cooking with his wife, Jessie. More content from Robb can be found at

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book Review: Carte Blanche

Carte Blanche: The New James Bond Novel by Jeffery Deaver (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 432 pp)

Born outside Chicago, Jeffery Deaver earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a law degree from Fordham University. Prior to becoming a bestselling author, Deaver was a journalist, folksinger and attorney. Having written thirty books, Deaver has won numerous awards. For The Bodies Left Behind, he won Novel of the Year from the International Thriller Writers Association; The Cold Moon was named Book of the Year by the Mystery Writers Association of Japan and the Grand Prix Award. Additionally, he has received the Steel Dagger and Short Story Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and the Nero Wolfe Award.

Old History and New Beginnings

When James Bond first stepped onto the pop-culture stage, the Cold War was in full effect. Ian Flemming created the character in 1953, and 007 stopped a speeding Serbian train loaded with hazardous chemicals. No tricky gadgets, no iphone app. Bond was a man’s man and a predecessor to MacGyver, without the cheesy mullet.

However, as the Cold War drew to an end, James Bond’s enemies fell from view. With no clear enemy in sight, the Bond series fell into disrepair. But, with the dawn of the insurmountable enemy that is global terrorism, James Bond came upon the scene again. Jeffrey Deaver, an American, tells a new tale of the technically supreme James Bond.


Perhaps in homage to the 1953 James Bond, Deaver starts the novel by having James Bond stop a train with hazardous chemicals on board.  
“His hand on the dead-man throttle, the driver of the Serbian Rail diesel felt the thrill he always did on this particular stretch of railway, heading north from Belgrade and approaching Novi Sad...his imagination told him the noise was the metal containers of the deadly chemical in car number three, jostling against one another, at risk of spewing forth their poison. Nonsense, he told himself and concentrated on keeping the speed steady. Then, for no reason at all, except that it made him feel better, he tugged at the air horn” (3-4).
With trains hauling deadly chemicals, this novel starts the way every other bond tome begins. Not until later in the novel do we meet the new James Bond.

The Villain

Severan Hydt (Severan seems to always be a name indicative of evil – Harry Potter’s Severan Snape certainly alludes to this fact as well) is not your typical villain – he’s concerned about the environment, and also has a penchant for photographing dead bodies. Hydt is also responsible for spreading fear by threatening to inflict the Gehenna attacks, an unknown event that will place thousands of British lives in danger. The trick is that this threat is unknown; Bond and MI5 are trying to find both the details and the location of the attack.
“Estimated initial casualties in the thousands, British interests adversely affected, funds transfers as discussed” (156).
As the novel unfolds, the message becomes clearer,
“Confirm incident friday night, 20th, estimated initial casualties in the thousands” (366).
Using a typical spy cover as an arms dealer, Bond is able to infiltrate Hydt’s base of operations in South Africa in order to ascertain more about the scenario. While undercover, he forms a relationship with a policewoman named Bheka Jordaan in order to try to investigate the work of Hydt.


James Bond is a knight – simply driven by the knight’s code of right versus wrong and honor versus dishonor. He is willing to sacrifice himself, and to exercise his “carte blanche” when he needs to. “Carte blanche”, or the ability to operate outside of the law is something that Bond always struggles with in light of his knightly values. He always is curious:  “at what point do I become just like the enemy if I continue operating outside of the law?”

Fast Food

All in all, Carte Blanche is a good book. I’ll liken it to fast food; it’s amazing, and you know it. But, you really don’t want (or at the very least shouldn’t want) a quarter pounder with cheese every day. If you do, I strongly urge you to seek medical attention soon, as your heart may have already stopped several times. 

So, read it. Aside from the current global events that provide an intriguing setting for our hero, don’t expect any life changing revelations, or some moralistic platitudes. But, you can expect a novel that delivers James Bond, and with the lack of Double-Oh-Seven films lately, no one can really blame you. If some good, indulgent fast food interests you, read Carte Blanche.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA. He holds an M.M. in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a B.M. in Music Education from the University of Washington. He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies. You can reach him via email at

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? the Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World by Richard Stearns (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 352 pp)

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision (US) and former chief executive officer of Lenox Corporation, a luxury tableware company. He attended Cornell University as an undergraduate and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for his MBA. The Hole in Our Gospel won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year.

The World versus the Pulpit

A few years ago, my theological convictions about the world shifted. Born and raised in a conservative evangelical church, I found the things I observed in the world to differ from the things I heard from the pulpit.

A defining quality of the church I attended during my youth as well as the evangelical church as a whole is the ability to focus seemingly on salvation exclusively. One is supposed to first worry about his or her own salvation, then immediately begin converting everyone else.

This emphasis on securing a place in the afterlife resulted in the neglect of obligations in the current life. Of course, if pressed, anyone attending the church would assuredly affirm missions, charitable giving, and assisting the poor as a good thing. But, the fear of liberal theology and social justice led them to an individualistic ethos. Put simply, one must do good things for others but should not expect to hear any communal decrees on the issue.

The Preferential Option for the Poor

The more I read the gospels, the more I found a Jesus not mentioned during the Sundays of my youth. While Jesus certainly discussed the Kingdom of God in future terms, he also continuously urged his disciples to understand the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Stated differently, Jesus focused an inordinate amount of his little time on earth serving the poor.

Right at the crossroads of this debate between the Kingdom of God in the present and the Kingdom of God in the future resides The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.

The president of World Vision – one of the largest relief and development organization in the world – Stearns gives testimony of his journey from influential CEO to the leader of an NGO seeking to make a difference in the lives of the poor around the world.

The Hole in Our Gospel

Having seen poverty firsthand, Stearns uses strong language in order to shake the American church out of its stupor.

“[God] is sick of churches and people who just ‘go through the motions.’ And he is weary of seeing a shiny veneer of faith but no depth of commitment. That is the hole in our gospel, and until we fill it, ours is an empty religion, one that God despises” (184-185).

Similar to my own observations about the American church, Stearns recognizes the schism between those that believe in meeting the needs of the poor and those who find it necessary to convert the world to Christianity. 
Discussing the source of the split in the 1920s, Stearns writes,

“And so began a kind of war between faith and works. It continues to be played out today. The ‘works’ proponents downplayed the importance of soul-winning and instead emphasized the works of caring for the poor and fighting injustice wherever it is found. The ‘faith-only’ proponents, on the other hand, considered this view worldly. They focused solely on efforts to get the world to accept God’s redeeming grace – a salvation by faith alone” (201).

In my mind, this split is a false dichotomy. In the gospels, Jesus speaks both about the present and the future. 
Similarly, Christians ought not to focus on merely the here or merely the not yet, it is their imperative to hold them in unison, to be concerned both with the immediate needs of humanity but also their spiritual state.

A Bunch of Rich People Doing Nothing

For this reason, The Hole in Our Gospel must be mandatory reading for those in the American church. In a clear and convicting fashion, Stearns outlines the grim statistics:

“It is important to put the American Church in perspective. Simply stated, it is the wealthiest community of Christians in the history of Christendom. How wealthy? The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. (That’s more than five thousand billion dollars.) It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty. Said another way, American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christian wealth; a lack of money is not our problem” (216).

One of many examples, this quote functions as a wakeup call. If Christians are to follow Scripture, they must rethink charitable giving.

One Dollar per Year

Luckily, Stearns mixes these shocking statistics with statements of hope:

“The lack of clean water causes millions of needless child deaths each year. Yet the cost to bring clean water to one person costs only one dollar per year! When you realize that a gift as small as a dollar can save a life, it is hard to argue that you’re not wealthy enough to make a difference” (267).

Can you part with one dollar per year? If all Christians could rethink the gospel and accept the present and the future ramifications, could we end poverty? Stearns believes we can even if it is much more difficult than his previous statement paints the issue. All it takes is mending The Hole in Our Gospel.

Read this book.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Donovan Richards is a University of Washington undergraduate alumnus from 2008, graduating with a BA in Philosophy. He is also a graduate of the inaugural Seattle Pacific University School of Theology graduate program class of 2009 as an MA student in Business and Theology. He is a huge fan of music, books, and movies. You can reach him via email at

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Concert Review: Bon Iver and Other Lives

Concert at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle. September 26, 2011

The Opener

I’ve been to three concerts lately where the opening act is just as good, if not better, than what I came to see. This phenomenon certainly rang true when Bon Iver came to town. His opening act was Other Lives. Like most opening acts, I was incredibly skeptical at first. But, soon a voice akin to Brandon Summers (frontman of Helio Sequence), with complex instrumental melodic lines intertwined with atmospheric bliss changed my mind. 

The band is a Sigur Ros LP and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album all rolled up in one. Unlike Sigur Ros (or Bon Iver for that matter), the lyrics are actually aurally intelligible. 

I immediately swam through the crowd and bought the album the second they ended their set. I strongly suggest you do the same.

Bon Iver Has Arrived!

Jutsin Vernon (the principle songwriter for Bon Iver) has hit the big time with a crazy light show combined with an amazing sound engineer – props to whoever mixed the house and whoever designed the lights.

Coming from such an intimate first album, the highly produced sophomore release has somewhat shocked me. The band has quickly evolved into production for the masses, and I think that this new album (self-titled  Bon Iver) is perhaps better than the first. It is difficult to not be better with the amazing musicians and talent with which Vernon has surrounded himself.

Don’t Rush!

When playing music, don’t rush. Please. It is my simple plea; lay off the coffee, or grab a glass of wine before the concert. Do whatever it takes to move every song down at least 10 BPM. Sadly, Bon Iver often rushed its songs. I know concerts are exciting, and it must be a thrill to play for a packed Paramount Theatre, but I want something I can bob my head to. I want something I can tap my feet to. On record, Bon Iver provides that; live, it should do the same. 

Music is wonderfully articulated melodic lines; it’s relaxing nuanced introversion. When I can feel whiplash when I bob my head, I think it’s sped up too far. However, if rushing is my only complaint, I think a concert can be a success.


And it was a success! Bon Iver played the hits. Vernon played the crowd. You could feel the electric energy back in the nose-bleeds, where, sad to say, I resided. The last concert I went to at the Paramount, I couldn’t say I felt the energy. But, Vernon and friends put on an absolutely amazing show. I sincerely hope they come to town again – and I get better seats. But, it is my fear that as this band gets more popular by the day, my dream for a seat up close may be a lost cause. If Bon Iver tours in your town, I recommend that you buy a ticket and enjoy the show!

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA. He holds an M.M. in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a B.M. in Music Education from the University of Washington. He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies. You can reach him at

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Wise Blood

Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962. 248 pp)

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor attended Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University) graduating in 1945 with a degree in Social Sciences. A year later, she enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she studied journalism. While at the Workshop, O’Connor first drafted her seminal novel, Wise Blood. Later, she published the novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Her writing is informed, often paradoxically, by her devout Catholicism and the grotesque. She died in 1963, at the age of 39, of complications from lupus. Posthumously, the University of Georgia Press honored O’Connor with an award in her name: the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

An Association Instead of a Lifestyle

Christianity in its American context has promoted a rather individualistic system. In opposition to Catholic and Orthodox traditions that value the Church community and centuries of tradition, the church in the United States often elevates the preacher to a centralized role. Christianity, then, becomes an association instead of a lifestyle.

In Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, her characters react to this cult of personality. The book’s central character, Hazel Motes, is a family-less World War II veteran living on a government pension. He travels to Taulkinham, Tennessee to begin life anew.

The Church of Christ without Christ

As the grandson of a preacher, Motes translates his war experiences into an atheism that vehemently denies Jesus, sin, and redemption.

While in Taulkinham, Hazel meets a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath Lily. Since the preacher discerns that Hazel needs religion, Motes decides to respond by forming a new ministry named the Church of Christ without Christ.

He preaches,

“’Church of Christ!” Haze repeated. ‘Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption’” (101).

A Disciple that Nobody Loves

Hazel’s first disciple is a teenage zookeeper named Enoch Emery who has “wise blood” – an instinctive ability to discern when to act. A tragic character, Enoch moved to the city after his father kicked him out of the house. The town considers Enoch an annoyance at best and a person worth ignoring at worst.

At one point when Enoch has the opportunity to meet a character from a movie, O’Connor writes,

“There were only two children in front of him now. The first one shook hands and stepped aside. Enoch’s heart was beating violently. The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion.
It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.
For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. ‘My name is Enoch Emery,’  he mumbled. ‘I attended the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I’m only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com…’ and his voice cracked.
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. ‘You go to hell,’ a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand jerked away” (181-182).

The Sacred and the Macabre

Wise Blood is brutally macabre. O’Connor’s themes are dark and disturbing. And yet, she uses her characters as theological arguments. Even though Hazel proclaims himself an atheist, he has a nagging sense of piety. Always in love with utilizing animals as a metaphor, O’Connor writes,

“’It’s empty!’ he shouted. ‘What you have to look in that ole empty cage for? You come on!’ He stood there, sweating and purple. ‘It’s empty!’ he shouted. And then he saw it wasn’t empty. Over in one corner on the floor of the cage, there was an eye. The eye was in the middle of something that looked like a piece of mop sitting on an old rag. He squinted close to the wire and saw that the piece of mop was an owl with one eye open. It was looking directly at Hazel Motes. ‘That ain’t nothing but a ole hoot owl,’ he moaned. ‘You seen them things before.’
‘I AM clean,’ Haze said to the eye” (91).

In what is originally perceived as an empty cage, Motes finds it necessary to justify his existence to an owl. While slightly absurd, the passage expands on the very thing that influences Hazel. Running away from his family and the church, Motes returns to religion through preaching and an insistence of piety despite his unbelief. Negatively influenced by the cult of personality that defines the protestant preacher, Hazel becomes the cult of personality protestant preacher.

The Altar Call

Although I appreciate the book, Wise Blood feels scattered. Digging into O’Connor’s background, it makes sense that Wise Blood is a compilation of multiple short stories. With the length of a novella, her characters have little depth. Yet, she uses them to build her theological cases. As a devout Catholic living in the South, she certainly draws from firsthand experience. Since it’s a quick read, I recommend Wise Blood to anyone interested in a provocative theological novel.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Television Show Review: Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-3 created by Vince Gilligan (High Bridge Productions, Gran Via Productions, and Sony Pictures Television)

Starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul.

Dexter Morgan vs. Walter White

As I watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix, I couldn’t help but compare the series to Dexter, television’s other critically acclaimed series featuring a protagonist with dark secrets. Where Dexter Morgan is a serial killer vigilante, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher who utilizes his scientific expertise to cook methamphetamines.

Although it may sound astonishing, I argue that Dexter functions as a more likeable character than Walt. In spite of its dark content, Dexter carries an air of levity. In between murders, the viewer sees the lighter side of Dexter’s relationships with his peers. Murder, of course, is awful. But the vigilante nature of Dexter’s killing coupled with his quirky mannerism renders a likeable character.

In contrast, Walt is a difficult character to root for. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Walt faces the unenviable situation of laying plans for his family once he passes. With a dead-end job for which he has always been overqualified, Walt realizes that he will never leave a monetary legacy for his expecting wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and teenage son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte).

When One Breaks Bad

Riding along with his brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walt observes first-hand the rewards and penalties of cooking meth. Operating under the assumption that he has, at best, a couple of years left in his life, Walt “breaks bad”. He teams up with high school dropout and former student, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to cook meth.

On the surface, Walt’s decision to become a criminal possesses a certain sense of honor. Walt cooks meth not to selfishly reap high profits, but to maximize the amount of money he can make for his family with the time he has left.

The “Ethics” of Drug Dealing

Yet, Walt’s gruff demeanor, his isolated suffering, and his ruthless anger make him a difficult character to like. Moreover, Walt’s dark side supplies grim consequences for innocent people around him. While Dexter makes Miami a better place by executing the murderers of the city, Walt sources high quantities of an addictive drug that diminishes the quality of life in New Mexico.

The Little Things that Make Brilliant Television

Despite the fact that Walt’s character is in many ways irredeemable, I believe Breaking Bad is a better show than Dexter. First and foremost, the meticulous and artful writing and production of Breaking Bad is brilliant. From excellent foreshadowing, beautiful opening scenes, unique camera angles, and time-lapse cinematography, every detail of Breaking Bad offers high quality for the viewing public.

Additionally, Breaking Bad’s character feel realistic, with flaws and all. Haven’t we all at least considered some of the actions Walt completes? As a member of the 99%, Walt takes fate into his own hands repercussions be damned. With excellent and creative writing anchoring the show, I look forward to continuing this story.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 535 pp)

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to England in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and continued his education at the University of East Anglia obtaining a master’s degree in creative writing in 1980. A celebrated novelist, Ishiguro has been nominated four times for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for his work, The Remains of the Day. Recently, Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, was adapted to a full-length film featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Ishiguro resides in London with his wife and daughter.

The Unconsoled as Broccoli

You know how some things are good for you in the long-run though unpleasant at the moment of? Well, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled feels like green vegetables to me. As an overall work, the novel carries immense depth; reading it, on the other hand, was a chore.

Where Were We?

Set in an unnamed Central European city, Mr. Ryder, the tome’s protagonist, is a prestigious pianist that will give a performance he cannot remember agreeing to give.

Over the course of his three-day visit, Mr. Ryder encounters many strangers with a vague recollection of close relationship to these people. Moreover, Ryder wanders from task to task ignoring the tight schedule his handlers supposedly had given him.

An Apprehensive Narrative

In truth, this somnambulant narrative is extremely frustrating. As a punctual person acutely aware of my schedule, Ryder’s vague disregard for every appointment causes apprehension. I continuously wanted to remind him of his obligations.

Ishiguro elaborates on this confusion,

“For the truth was that my forthcoming address to this city was not only far from ready, I had yet to complete even the background research. I could not understand how with all my experience I had arrived at such a state of affairs. I remembered how that very afternoon in the hotel’s elegant atrium, I had sat sipping the strong bitter coffee, reiterating to myself the importance of planning the rest of the day with care so as to make the best use of the very limited time” (115).

On top of Ryder’s clouded recollections, his wanderings leave him unprepared for his many social functions. Forgetting to attend a banquet, Ryder is rushed to the proceedings while wearing his pajamas:

“I cleared my throat a second time and was about to embark on my talk when I suddenly became aware that my dressing gown was hanging open, displaying the entire naked front of my body. Thrown into confusion, I hesitated for a second then sat back down again” (143).

Additionally, in an almost frustrating way, Ryder always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time without any sort of foresight.

As an example, Ishiguro writes,

“As I approached the latter stages of the third movement I became conscious again of the digging noise. I was not sure whether it had ceased for a while then started up again or if it had been going on all the time, but in any case it now seemed much more conspicuous than before. The thought then suddenly occurred to me that the noise was being made by none other than Brodsky in the process of burying his dog. Indeed, I recollected his having declared on more than one occasion this morning his intention to bury his dog later in the day, and I even had a vague memory of having agreed to some arrangement whereby I played the piano while he performed the burial ceremony” (358).

A Surrealist Interpretation

As I read, The Unconsoled, its dream-like style encouraged me to comprehend it in a surrealist manner. Ryder encounters many people during his visit who resemble him in many ways. While the novel says nothing conclusive, I chose to view these interweaving characters as projections of Ryder’s psyche.

Stephan, the talented son of never-satisfied-with-anything parents; Brodsky, the alcoholic composer loved by many for his talent and simultaneously hated for his vices; and Mr. Hoffman, the man always in search of perfection. I truly find Ryder in each. Of course, Ryder interacts with these characters making my claim rather tenuous, but I believe there is room for this interpretation.

Art Culture and the Cult of Personality

At a deeper level, The Unconsoled functions as critique of art culture and a condemnation of the cult of personality. With a world renowned pianist in town, the citizens fawn over Ryder at his every move and expect him to cater to their every whim.

Although infuriating to read, The Unconsoled possesses literary merit. Kazuo Ishiguro writes with depth and clarity. If you need some vegetables, I recommend this book. If, however, you require easier reading, I suggest you look for your literature needs elsewhere.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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