Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Young Ranofer is the son of Thutra, master goldsmith. When Thutra died, poor Ranofer was left to the not-so-tender mercies of his half-brother, Gebu, a hulking brute who deals out insults and beatings with little provocation. Ranofer's life is barely tolerable working in Rekh's goldsmith shop, but until he can be apprenticed, his job is a dead-end and he must turn over all his earnings to Gebu. Worse, he has noticed that his brother has been growing rich and suspects he may be stealing. But even if Ranofer manages to get proof, who will believe a boy like him against the word of a man like Gebu? He'll need help of his quick-witted friend Heqet and the kindly one-eyed Ancient if he ever hopes to escape from Gebu's tyranny.

The Golden Goblet is a splendidly written tale meant for young readers age 10 and up. It does exactly what all good historical fiction is supposed to do--effortlessly transport the reader to another time and place. McGraw expertly paints a portrait of everyday life in ancient Egypt, focusing on the nitty-gritty of existence among the common artisans and laborers rather than the opulence of the Pharoah's court. I particularly enjoyed her use of humor and thought that the good-natured, wise-cracking character of Heqet was very well drawn. I certainly could do no better, as the monkey with a stylus said to the scribe.

So this book is a winner and should be widely read. It's a good introduction to ancient Egypt for kids who are learning about it. McGraw certainly knows her history and she presents it in a way that is easily accessible for young readers.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jumong -- or why I have given up on American TV

Recently, our cable company sent us warning letters that our service could be disrupted if our TV wasn't fitted with a special digital converter box. As football season is over, I took little notice of this, figuring that our TV was new enough that it probably didn't need the box anyway.

Well, I was wrong. Our TV did need the box and we lost our service. That was two weeks ago. Yes, we've taken steps to address the problem, but with absolutely no urgency. Why? Because American TV stinks and aside from EWTN, I don't miss it even a little bit.

Just how bad American TV stinks was brought home to me within the past couple years. During that time, my wife and I have gotten semi-addicted to the grand historical dramas produced for Korean television. We recently finished watching our most recent one, Jumong--the story of a ne'er-do-well prince who matures into the founder of the Koguryeo kingdom. It was tremendous. The writing was excellent and constantly kept us guessing. The music was lovely and evocative. The costumes were outstanding (though maybe a little over-the-top in places). The acting was generally brilliant. Jumong was loaded with tragedy, suspense, and romance, with just a touch of comic relief. One also gets a sense of the grand sweep of history and there are moments when the writers seem to use the story to address the contemporary political situation on the Korean peninsula--calls for national unity, resistance to the Chinese hegemon and the like.

Oh, and there was action--did I mention the action? From beautifully choreographed sword-fights between a pair of combatants to great battles involving hundreds or thousands, the battle scenes were convincing and very well done.

As the setting of Jumong is the far east around the time of Jesus, there is no trace of Christianity. The morality is strictly of the virtuous pagan variety. There are semi-political/semi-magical sorceresses, frequent mention of the gods, references to ancestor worship, concubinage among the rulers, and one strange relationship between two men. But the over-arching ethical tone is comfortable for most Catholics, celebrating filial piety, condemning revenge, and exalting courage, humility, and forgiveness.

If you can tolerate the subtitles and the typos that occasionally appear therein, you will be well rewarded by this series. The 80 episodes will fly by, and you will find that you actually know a little Korean afterwards--although I'm not sure the phrase: "Your favors are immeasurable, your highness" will be of much use to you if you travel to Korea these days.

And the best part is, Jumong is available for free (with commercials) on the internet at: http://www.crunchyroll.com/jumong

I compare this to anything that appears on American TV and I am left shaking my head. I am forced to admit that places like South Korea are making infinitely better entertainment products than we are in America.

Let's just face it--our entertainment industry is creatively drained, sapped, atrophied. While Jumong and similar Korean historical dramas are grand and glorious, nearly all of American network television is tawdry and crude.

What accounts for this disparity?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Real Saint Patrick

When most people think of Saint Patrick, visions of shamrocks, green beer, and yummy Irish "potatoes" spring immediately to mind. But if you want to know what sort of man the real Saint Patrick was, you should read his Confessio written by his own hand, circa AD 450. The circumstances behind the writing of the Confessio are obscure, but it certainly does give a glimpse into how Patrick's mind and spirituality worked.

Here's how it starts [as taken from the Catholic Information Network website]:
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our desserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.
To read the rest, click this link, or the one above.

If this snippet has whet your appetite for a good, short biography of St. Patrick, try Saint Patrick from the Christian Encounters series.