Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Books for kids hit by Katrina has a post called "CDF Katrina Project Needs Books" that's worth checking out...

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools Katrina Project partners with community based organizations, service agencies and universities in the Cleveland, Columbia and Jackson, MS areas to provide after-school programming each day public schools are in session for children in families affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Dubya thinks that if we leave Iraq we will have "lost our soul as a nation" or some such thing. I think that, despite all the good work that has been done by private individuals and organizations, the mess on the Gulf Coast a year after Katrina shows that we already have.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thank you, Judge Taylor

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor is the judge who struck down the NSA wiretapping program as unconstitutional. Dubya doesn't think she and those who applaud her ruling "understand the world we live in today." Judge Taylor is a 75-year-old black woman. I think she probably understands a lot about terror and intimidation, as well as having lived through the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Find out more about her and thank her for her ruling here. This is what I wrote:

Thank you, Judge Taylor, for showing Congress the way. Too many people have allowed themselves to be intimidated because Karl Rove and his attack dogs in the right wing echo chamber might call them names or even make death threats against them, but that is not how this country got started and survived until today. Those things happened because people like you had the courage to stand up for their convictions. Even if, God forbid, your ruling is overturned or weakened on appeal, this administration's lawlessness is now on record, and history will vindicate you.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Review: Tower of Silence

Tower of Silence by Sarah Rayne *****

Mary Maskelyne, an infamous teenage murderess from the 1960s, now in her forties, is transferred to Moy, a remote Scottish institution for the criminally insane. Selina March, a colorless, proper spinster, short of money, converts her house to a B&B. Mystery writer Joanna Savile arrives in the village of Inchcape, near Moy, to do some research and specifically to interview Mary Maskelyne. The stage is now set for events that began with a shattering atrocity in the tumultuous India of the late 1940s to play out to their final conclusion.

Sarah Rayne is supposed to be a pseudonym for a writer who is already well-known in Britain for horror fiction. Remnants of this may be seen in some of the particularly gruesome events that take place in Tower of Silence, but they don't seem to be out of place or inserted just for shock value. I, for one, am glad that she decided to switch genres; her other novels may be well written but I probably would not have found them, and I would imagine that psychological suspense gives her much more scope for her talents. Her writing is superb and even poetic at times. Her characters, even the worst of them, are imagined from the inside, and are vividly drawn. The portrayal of Mary Maskelyne, manipulative, narcissistic and attention-seeking, is one of the most chilling fictional examinations of the sociopathic mind that I have ever encountered. Other, more sympathetic characters include Emily Frost, the colorful and many-faceted daughter of one of the doctors at Moy, who volunteers to work with some of the patients; the sad, traumatized and extremely dangerous patient known as Pippa; and the attractive, strangely charismatic Joanna.

Unfortunately, for the most part Rayne does not seem to portray male characters nearly as vividly or sympathetically, although I did like Joanna's husband, the half-Hungarian Krzystof Kent. Also, she may push coincidence a bit too far for some in bringing all of these people together in the same place, but if you're like me you will be too caught up in the plot and the characters' lives to care.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Book Review: Labyrinth

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse ***-1/2

Labyrinth focuses mainly on two women, Alice in the present, who finds a mysterious cave while volunteering on an archaeological dig, and her ancestress Alais in the era of the Albigensian Crusade. The link between the two is a set of three books called the Labyrinth Trilogy, which supposedly leads to the Holy Grail. I found this the weakest point in the book – it feels like the whole Holy Grail connection was thrown in to capitalize on the success of The Da Vinci Code, as was the pursuit of the heroine across southern France by (at least self-appointed) agents of the Catholic Church. I never did get quite clear on who exactly was behind the villains or if they were mainly working for themselves.

I found the medieval sections of the book to be the strongest, both in character and in plot; the modern characters seemed to be pale echoes of their prototypes. It’s too bad that the author (or her editors) seemed to be a bit too concerned with jumping on Dan Brown’s bandwagon, because I think that Mosse could have written a much better book if she had made it a straight historical novel about the persecution of the Cathars, an event which, at least as far as I know, has yet to be thoroughly explored in fiction. She would, however, need to delve a bit more into their beliefs; as it was, apart for a couple of throwaway lines about their dualistic theology, they were portrayed pretty one-dimensionally as proto-Protestants of a sort, all of whom seem to have been perfect, in more sense than one. (The Perfect was the name for the more advanced “grade” of Cathars.)

I am not generally a fan of books that switch back and forth between the past and present, but at least, thank God, Mosse did not use the "time travel" gimmick, which has been done to death, except in a very oblique way. I did find the use of untranslated French and Occitan words to be distracting. Surprisingly (since I am an English major), I didn't notice the sentence fragments that annoyed another Amazon reviewer, but one thing that did jump out at me was the figurative language, some of which seemed to be a bit forced, as if the author had written these “great” similes in creative writing class and felt like she just had to use them somewhere. However, all in all I did find this book to be a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Missionaries, my dear!

Missionaries, my dear! Don't you realize that missionaries are the divinely provided food for destitute and underfed cannibals? Whenever they are on the brink of starvation, Heaven in its infinite mercy sends them a nice plump missionary.
—Oscar Wilde
A couple of them showed up at my door today, and not being desitute, underfed or a cannibal, I sent them away uneaten. They asked (or rather the one who was in charge did) if I read my Bible and I said "Yes." (Thought bubble: But not the same one you read.) So of course he started telling me about how the end was near and all these wonderful things were going to happen – nothing about the bloodbaths in the streets and all the Jews and other "infidels" who don't convert being killed and thrown into the lake of fire, of course. Then he whipped out a little book and asked if I would read it if he left it with me. I said, "Probably not," so he left me one of the cut-rate tracts – he did compliment me on at least being honest.

It's kind of ironic (and very apropos) that I was looking at an article on Darwin in an old issue of the Skeptical Inquirer earlier and found a quote that expresses my sentiments perfectly – if I'd been feeling feisty I might have tried it out on this guy. As the article points out, "Darwin was not, by anyone's standards, a believing Christian," although he "consistently denied the charge" of being an atheist – and why shouldn't he have been telling the truth, since his problem seems to have been more with Christian doctrine than with God? Anyway, here is the quote, and this has always been my sticking point as well:
"... I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine." (Barlow 1958)
I know that there are people who get around this whole idea somehow, but I can't, and a lot of others have no problem with it, but just accept that the vast majority of people who have ever lived, no matter how good a life they have led, are going to be thrown into eternal torment by a "loving, merciful" God for not believing the right thing.

"The nexus of politics and terror"

An excellent clip from 2005 - Keith Olbermann examines the curious way in which, whenever the Republicans have a spate of bad news, or the Democrats get some positive press, lo and behold, someone from the government comes out and says, "Be afraid. Be very afraid. The terrorists are going to get you!"

Note (Tuesday, 12:30 p.m.): The YouTube site appears to be doing some maintenance at the moment, so if the link is blank, please check back later. Thanks.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The threat level is up - it must be election season

Maybe I’m crazy, but I thought I read somewhere that they were going to ditch the color-coding thing because it was basically useless – didn’t give anyone a clue as to what they were supposed to do or not do – although it does, as Greg Palast points out on Buzzflash today (8/15), let the terrorists know when our guard is down. Well, there is one thing that orange or red means we’re supposed to do – vote Republican.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Nagasaki principle

I am excerpting this column liberally (and I hope not doing any violence to the context) but the whole article (please click on title) should really be read. Although to my abiding (but not everlasting, I hope) regret, I have yet to finish one of James Carroll’s book (among them Contantine’s Sword and Crusade) but I think that he is one of the most powerful writers on the scene today, as well as the only one I know of who truly writes with a prophetic spirit. (I am referring here to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, whose function was not so much to predict the future as to denounce the sins of the nation and call it back to the right path.)
The Nagasaki principle
By James Carroll | August 7, 2006
Today is the anniversary of what did not happen. Sixty-one years ago yesterday, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The scale of nuclear devastation was apparent at once. The next day, no decision was made to call off the bombing of Nagasaki. Why? Historians debate the justification of the Hiroshima attack, but there is consensus that Nagasaki, coming less than three days later, was tragically unnecessary. President Harry Truman's one order to use the atomic bomb, given on July 25, established a momentum that was not stopped.
It is commonly said that war operates by the law of unintended consequences, but another, less-noted law operates as well. War creates momentum that barrels through normally restraining barriers of moral and practical choice. Decision makers begin wars, whether aggressively or defensively, in contexts that are well understood, and with purposes that seem proportionate and able to be accomplished. When destruction and hurt follow the outbreak of violence, however, and then when that destruction and hurt become extreme, the context within which war is begun changes radically. First assumptions no longer apply, and original purposes can become impossible. When that happens, what began as destruction for a goal becomes destruction for its own sake. War generates its own force in which everyone loses. This might be called the Nagasaki principle.

The Nagasaki principle comes in two parts. It can operate at the level of close combat, driving fighters to commit atrocities that, in normal conditions, they would abhor. It operates equally at the level of the commanders, leading them to order strikes out of desperation, frustration, or merely for the sake of ``doing something." Such strikes draw equivalent responses from the other side until the destruction is complete. After the fact, massive carnage can seem to have been an act for which no one is responsible, like the result of a natural disaster.

That's when a second aspect of the Nagasaki principle comes into play -- the refusal to undertake a moral reckoning with what has been done.
This may seem like airy theorizing, but the psychologically unfinished business of the Nuclear Age, dating to the day after Hiroshima, defined the American response to the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. The nation had lived for two generations with the subliminal but powerfully felt dread of a coming nuclear war.

Unconsciously ashamed of our own action in using the bomb, we were waiting for pay-back, and on that beautiful morning it seemed to come. The smoke rising up from the twin towers hit us like a mushroom cloud, and we instantly dubbed the ruined site as Ground Zero, when, as historian John Dower observes, the only true Ground Zeros are the two in Japan.

Our unconscious shame was superseded by an overt sense of victimhood. We launched a war whose momentum has carried the world into the unwilled and unforeseen catastrophe that unfolds today. Our denial of nuclear responsibility, meanwhile, embodied in our permanent nuclear arsenal, licenses other nations that aim to match us -- notably Iran. Momentum and denial combined to destroy Nagasaki, which was, alas, not the end, but the beginning.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Those lazy crazy hazy days of summer...

Or however it goes. It certainly has been hazy – up in the 90’s last week, which probably is no excuse for my being lazy. And here I’d meant to try to put something up here every day, since going for days on end with nothing new is no way to get regular visitors – not something I need to worry about too much right now.

Anyway, things seem to be, if not going from bad to worse, at the very least staying very very bad over in Israel, Lebanon and Iraq. Condi (and yes, Secretary Rice would be more respectful but her boss leads the way) is energetically exerting herself, making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows and issuing demands to Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah via interview and press conference. As people are continually pointing out, diplomacy means talking to the people you disagree with, not just the ones who hang on your every word.

Rummy is starting (starting?) to sound like a parody of himself with his “my goodness!” and rhetorical questions in front of the committee last week – sorry, I forget which one but I know Hillary slapped him down good. “Am I a delusional old coot who should be doing nothing more demanding than sitting out on the porch playing checkers, Senator Clinton? Heavens to betsy, I don’t think so.”

I’ve finished a couple of good books (The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry), and although I’m not sure whether I’ll review them I definitely have a rant waiting to be spewed about the people who go around whining that the authors of “religious thrillers” like The Da Vinci Code and The Templar Legacy are being mean to Christianity, hate it, “have an ax to grind,” etc.

Finally, today is Judgment Day for Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. I’m sorry, I liked Joe in the 2000 race although I did think he was a bit too collegial with Dick Cheney in their “debate,” but I have to hope now that he loses. As I’m reading all over in the blogs and in other articles on the Internet, and as his own constituents were calling in to On Point last week to say, he’s out of touch with them, he’s enabling and providing cover for the disastrous policies of this administration, and he’s acting as if he’s somehow entitled to his seat in the Senate and it’s the height of presumption for anyone to mount a serious challenge. I found it interesting that as far as I could tell, not a single “real” person called in to On Point to express their support of him, and I know from listening to them in the past that they always try to get people expressing different points of view. He may still pull it off, and I hope that if he does he comes down off his high horse and considers what brought him to the point of almost losing a primary that he should have walked away with, but I don’t have much hope.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A different take on Qana

From Naomi Ragen, an author living in Jerusalem (sent on Sunday night so more information may be available):

1. Tonight, an IDF spokesman showed aerial photos of rockets being fired from residential areas in Qana. It showed the portable rocket launchers being parked beneath residential buildings. The spokesman said that the bombs dropped on Qana were dropped at 1 a.m. The reports of the building collapse took place at 7 a.m. Also, no bombs actually hit the building. So, who was responsible for the collapse of that building? Could Hezbollah weapons have exploded, destroying the building? Was it deliberate, a way to pressure Israel into a ceasefire the same way they did last time, in exactly the same spot? And why is no one in the media picking up on this time gap and asking questions?

2. The number of those injured is being supplied by Lebanese sources, and being quoted by all the news stations. So far, only 26 bodies have been recovered. But news reports are saying the number was twice that, and half are children. That too is supplied by unknown sources and repeated by the major media.

3. At 7 a.m. a barrage of Hezbollah rockets hit the shopping center and buildings of Kiryat Shmona, unlike anything else the town has experienced. Altogether 1500 kilograms of bombs have hit the area's approximately 25,000 residents remaining in their homes. Where is the outrage over that?

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