Tags: book commentary, book review, books, Daniel Levitin, music, This Is Your Brain on Music
(This is the second of what will be a series of commentaries about those books a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first commentary of this series was about the book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This series has been triggered as a result of my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans” and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).
Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music brings readers a layman’s state-of-information look at how music affects the human brain physiologically. Levitin’s background as a professional musician (performer and producer) and scientist (neuroscientist) places him in a position to understand music and brain function intimately, from deep inside these diverse disciplines. Levitin draws on a broad knowledge of music, from “classical” to pop, and from his knowledge of experiments at the frontiers of brain research to bring readers this information.
Levitin starts us with a solid practical discussion of what music is. Intellectuals have played with the boundaries of this definition. But Levitin stays away from some of the overly broad definitional ideas offered by 20th Century theorists that could render a discussion of these issues impossible. He also goes into aspects of music that appear to be inherent in music no matter where it is played. The octave pervades music everywhere. This is undoubtedly universal, dictated by the physics of acoustics. (If we played an octave for an intelligent extraterrestrial with musical capabilities, it would likely be understood the way we understand it. If we encounter extraterrestrials, math and music could be the starting points for communication.) He also looks at interval ratios, showing that the simpler ratios of a bisected vibrating string are more likely to lead to a consonant interval. Rhythm also factors in, and Levitin thoroughly discusses how rhythms and accents drive music. He also discusses volume/loudness; how it can be measured and its potential effects.
After laying the groundwork of music basics, Levitin goes into specifics about how humans respond to music, based on cutting edge scientific experiments and studies.
- He maps the specific places in the brain responsible for sensing rhythm, emotional reactions to music, playing instruments and dancing (among other musical activities).
- We learn that the brain creates structure in our world and that music is a sophisticated way of ordering a sequence of sounds. He admits that the emotional power of music, of this brain mechanism for organizing sounds, is still a mystery. But the methods used by the brain to process and organize sounds are more and more clearly understood.
- He goes into how our brains have a facility for remembering music, and how we can transpose that memory to recognize a new version of a musical passage. “…without memory, there would be no music.”
- He spends time discussing what makes an expert musician. He points out is it is only very recently that human beings became divided into expert musicians and spectators. Music has, in humanity’s hunter-gatherer formative past, been a group activity. It may well be more natural for people to participate in music than to sit quietly and watch it.
- He discusses dissonance and consonance, how different people tolerate different levels of dissonance, and how consonance and dissonance are processed “via separate mechanisms in the auditory cortex.”
- In the chapter “The Music Instinct,” Levitin goes through possible evolutionary advantages music might have conferred on humans:
- An increase of sexual attractiveness for those with musical skills. (But this begs the question of why musical skills would be valued by a potential sexual partner.)
- Music brings humans together, contributing to social bonding and cohesion, favoring those humans who band together. Humans are social creatures; an aptitude for the social activity of music may have favored early humans.
- Musical activity—making music, learning music, listening to music—promoted cognitive development including speech. The rhythm of music is wired into us—a mother rocking her child to sleep with a lullaby appears to be “culturally universal.”
- He mentions birds and other musical creatures, but cautions us not to attribute to humans the same motives as animals. They may experience music completely differently—it may not even sound the same to them. Sexual selection, alerts to fellow creatures, and territory are among animal uses for what we might call music.
- As much as I love this book, and learned a lot from it, I could not help but notice a huge omission from possible evolutionary adaptions—the religious/spiritual/mystical role of music, possibly present in humanity from almost our beginnings. This is identified in Oliver Sacks book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, as a possibility. I do understand that science does not seek to become tangled in issues of religion. But we mustn’t become so scientifically tunnel-visioned that we go out of our way to exclude religion/spirituality as a possible explanation! Yes, I admit my bias in this area. I’m looking for possible connections between physics and metaphysics, and wondering if music offers humans a connection through the mind to something beyond the material world. I do not ask scientists to join me on this journey. But my reading indicates that hunter-gathering societies used music, with all those basic elements Levitin talks about—rhythm, singing melodies, communal performance—to communicate to with the God force, to access their conception of God. Could the effort to sense God, to communicate with the God force, to access the perceived spiritual world—could that effort confer some form of evolutionary advantage? Of course, the sexual aspect as pointed out by Levitin is present—now and probably in the past. But the spiritual angle may well mix into this, and offer additional understanding of the connection of human beings to music.
This Is Your Brain on Music, largely because of Daniel Levitin’s unique expertise in diverse disciplines, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how precisely music affects human beings at the basic neurological and biochemical level. His wealth of musical examples cut across many music preferences, and anyone reading this book will certainly find applicable examples even if not familiar with all musical examples cited. And is quite clear Levitin has mastery over both of these subjects, a mastery required to make this such an effective book.
Flower Kings – Top Ten List March 25, 2012Posted by rwf1954 in Flower Kings, music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music, Uncategorized.
Tags: Flower Kings, music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music, Roine stolt
This is the first of what will be a series of posts offering Top-Ten lists of selections from various progressive rock bands, past and present. (When I started this blog, I said it would be mainly for writing, but with some surprises. I have now posted a number of times about music, including a few posts specifically about progressive rock: The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes, The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, Flower Kings – Top Ten list. I released my own mystic jazz CD “Issa Music” late last year.)
My first two posts will be about two more recent progressive rock groups, my favorite contemporary (within the last decade or so) groups. The first is a Top-Ten list for Flower Kings. (The next Top-Ten post will be about Spock’s Beard. Those familiar with this music know that key members of Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard, Roine Stolt and Neal Morse, combined their prodigious talents in the progressive rock super-group, Transatlantic.) I am not sure why we don’t hear a lot more about Flower Kings. I sort of stumbled on them a number of years ago when playing around at CD Universe, looking at “customers who bought this also bought this.” Flower Kings have produced album after album of fresh, dynamic material, big-themed, sophisticated development of musical themes—everything we can ask from progressive rock groups. I think their style resembles most closely the progressive rock group Yes, but also includes elements of Gentle Giant and King Crimson within their influences. And make no mistake about it, they have their own unique style!
Coming up with this list was not easy! It was mainly a challenge of narrowing things down. I’ve included a second ten as well. (I won’t do that in every post.) I limited myself to the studio albums of the 1990s and 2000s (no live cuts included). I included Roine Stolt’s “The Flower King” album which includes many of the same personnel of the Flower Kings group—it really seems like a first Flower Kings album. It was not easy comparing shorter songs with longer ones. (In the case of Flower Kings, we’re talking about songs under six or seven minutes as short.) But, all disclaimers and explanations aside, here is my list. Of course, offer your own at the comment page! Or your quibbles…
10 – “Driver’s Seat” from “Adam and Eve,” 2004, 18:22
A rock epic about taking control, getting back into the “Driver Seat’s.” The middle section brings us a really wonderful alliance of a driving harmonic and rhythmic momentum carrying vivid lyrics, dramatizing how out of control our circumstances can get. This sets us on a musical journey ending with a repossession of the “Driver’s Seat,” “a million options chiming,” but ending with an ambiguous line—“Time is such a bitch and fate its little liar”—did we get into the “Driver’s Seat,” or was that impossible from the start?
9 – “I Am the Sun” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, Part I, 15:03; Part II, 10:48
Progressive rock at its best, with motivic and thematic development, shifting moods, twisting and turning through various sonic-scapes. There is a nice section in the middle of Part I with the repeating phrase “break down doors,” which then moves into a hard-edged riff and off to some hard-driving rock guitar work. Part I ends with a haunting, utterly gorgeous section, minor key shifting to major chord cadences:
“In time our heart will open, you’ll let her in
To see we are one, this one that we are
In time your eyes will open, time will tell
‘Larger-than-life,’ ‘revolve among stars’”
Part II acts as a long coda, as if it is a few comments after the journey in Part I. This starts as a gentle, casual coda, and finishes with a final statement of the main theme, followed by an extended musical journey moving through synth, bass and guitar lines migrating over continually shifting chords.
8 – “The Flower King” from Roine Stolt’s 1994 album “The Flower King,” 10:28
Roine Stolt, the undoubted first among equal artists in the Flower Kings, says in the liner notes of “The Flower King” album that he recorded this song as a counterweight “to the flood of destructive, dark ‘n-evil-hard-core-death-trash-speed-black ‘n suicidal metal music’ out at the time.” Basically this is a simple anthem, with some progressive rock type development, but at its essence a simple positive statement, lyrically and musically. It can be considered nothing less than the theme song for this great progressive rock group, a group with the courage to reach out with some positivity during a time when cynicism often rules and optimism is often thought of as a synonym for naivete. This song also displays one of Roine Stolt’s big strengths as a songwriter; he creates anthems—this song would be the first of many for “Flower Kings.”
7 – “Monkey Business” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 4:20
This is the shortest song on this Top Ten list, essentially a modified blues progression song with a bridge. This made the list because the verses are catchy; it’s a tight little song. Each of the four verses starts out with a protestation of what the singer is not, followed by some clever phrases about what he is—better than a monkey, but not better than much of anything else.
6 – “Devil’s Playground” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 24:30
Here is one of those epic song/pieces characteristic of progressive rock. “Devil’s Playground” is about making a deal with the devil to survive. The Flower Kings call us out in this one:
“This is how you raise the Cain
This is what you teach our children
Back on duty, dog eat dog
Clueless in the Devil’s Playground”
The music backing this section is memorable and effective. They use it frequently within a number of musical settings. They seem to implore us to reconsider our activities on the “Devil’s Playground,” after working us through a musical journey. The 24 minutes holds together as a unified whole—provocative, evocative and musically satisfy.
5 – “In the Eyes of the World” from “Stardust We Are,” 1997, 10:38
A brilliant song about that insecurity people have all felt, that everyone watching us finds us to be ridiculous. From the driving organ ditty that starts it off, clown-like, leading to the weightier parts of the song, what makes it most effective is that the chorus starts well away from the tonic minor key and drifts toward it with a series of unresolved chords that finally payoff at the end of the line—“I’m just a clown in the eyes of the world.” There is some nice development, reminiscent of 1970s Gentle Giant. The song has an everyman allusion in it—that feeling that every mistake we make is on display for all to see.
4 – “Chicken Farmer Song” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 5:09
I admit it; this one is here because I simply love the way it sounds. I love the cascading vocal harmonies in the verses, the driving triplet-laden rhythm, and the fun chorus about being a “chicken farmer.” This is just a flawless song, gorgeously arranged, dreaming of the simpler life—no big spiritual/mystical event here, just a fun, well-crafted song!
3 – “Genie in a Bottle” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 8:10
Another catchy one from the Floral Royalty—Yes, this one has a real sticky little hook! “Look to the left, look to the right, I’m looking for a Genie in a Bottle!” But to go with that catchy hook is actually a much deeper song. It’s about that last hopeful dream when all hope seems lost—that desperate wish for a magic miracle that will solve all problems, that will lift the dreamer from the depths:
“All I need is another dream
All I need is some self-esteem
Can you take me, can you take me this time?”
Just looking for that big miracle, that “Genie in a Bottle.”
2 – “Psycedelic Postcard” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 9:50 (that’s that way they spell it on the album…)
This one starts out quirky, almost as if it is a joke song—“the world is all in the hands of a juggler.” The timbre of the vocals could be called the Munchkins Tabernacle Choir, telling us about strange, maybe even drug-induced images. But by the end, the tone is much more serious—and uplifting. It is possible to be free of the absurdity of these images–
“My Mind’s Eye can still see…..,
Can’t take that away from me
In My Mind’s Eye I’ll be free….,
Freedom believer, Freedom deliver”
The journey of the song, from absurdity to uplifting anthem, puts it near the top of the list.
1 – “Love Supreme” from “Adam and Eve,” 2004, 19:50
“Coming up, growing up, looking for a bigger understanding
Coming up, growing up, speaking of respect for all the planet
Coming up, building up, new religion sees the light of day
Coming up, building up, changes ahead but don’t you be afraid”
For someone like me who loves progressive rock for the big themes, the ambitious song subjects, the long forms developed, forged with peaks and valleys, this is my favorite of the Flower Kings album selections. It shimmers with Steve Howe type leads and Yes-like vocal harmonies. We have the song of19:50culminating with almost a gospel-church feel—“…all my wanting is down to understanding,” “…all my longing is focused to be justified… I’m finding out just who I am.” When the musical journey charted by this epic ends, engaged listeners will feel as if they have been through a mystical experience.
The Second Ten
11 – “The Truth Will Set You Free” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 30:04
- Great chorus for the title line, well-developed in this lengthy selection.
12 – “The Merry-Go-Round” from “Stardust We Are,” 1997 8:17
- A musical whirlwind in five, shooting through changes like a fast merry-go-round! (It does move off into a more conventional four.)
13 – “Slave to Money” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 7:30
- Strong, powerful piece about the perils of being a “Slave to Money”—“God may look at what we’ve done, knowing we are the ugly ones.”
14 – “Underdog” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 5:29
- Classic Roine Stolt anthem/epic complete with bagpipe sounds.
15 – “Garden of Dreams” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 59:57 (18 parts)
- Eighteen part epic disjointed and uneven at times, but “Don’t Let the d’Evil In” and “Love is the Word” are classic Flower Kings brilliance.
16 – “Silent Inferno” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 14:25
- The “Silent Inferno” appears to be a reference to insomnia over second thoughts; the verses flow through a dark but gentle chord progression.
17 – “Deaf Dumb and Blind” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 11:09
- Poignant piece about spiritual wisdom lost, with a great litany in the middle: “gone the spirit, gone the gold; gone the justice, so we’re told…”
18 – “Paradox Hotel,” from “Paradox Hotel,” 2006, 6:30
- Hard rock riff gives this relatively simple song big energy.
19 – “Road to Sanctuary” from “The Rainmaker,” 2001. 13:50
- Big wall-of-sound theme with driving guitar riffs contrasts with gentle emotional sections in Roine Stolt’s classic anthem style.
20 – “Monsters and Men” from “Paradox Hotel,” 2006, 21:19
- Musical call for rejection of fanaticism, and for reconciliation, includes poignant vocal harmonies: “the more you look, the more you try; the more you free the inner eye; there’s a mountain we can climb.”
Tags: books, books compared to movies, books into movies, Don Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather, Mario Puzo, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, The Godfather
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Forty years ago today, “The Godfather” was released to movie audiences. It has survived as one of America’s classic films. On this occasion, here is a “Books-Into-Movies” post.
The movie “The Godfather” movie is one of the closest movies to the original book that I’ve come across in my posts on “Books-Into-Movies.” Many scenes, even lines of dialogue, are straight from the book. I started to prepare my customary synopsis of the book when I realized I was basically summarizing the movie! (So I will not post a synopsis here.) My approach to this post will be to point out differences between the book and the movie. Two considerations should be kept in mind: 1) This comparison refers to the 1972 movie, not the later “Godfather Saga” presented on television in 1977. (That production included some scenes not in the original movie.) 2) The Godfather book contains material used in “The Godfather II” movie.
- The book opens as the movie does, at Connie Corleone’s wedding, with Don Corleone granting favors. (The cat on Don Corleone’s lap is not described in the book, but is a nice touch consistent with the book’s characterization.) The wedding day ends with a most unusual request (this is dramatized in the “Godfather Saga”) not in the movie but in the book. Don Corleone’s Consigliori, his key adviser, is at the hospital with cancer, on his deathbed. He asks Don Corleone to intervene with God.
- The execution of traitor Pauli is almost exactly from the book except for the final line “leave the gun, take the cannolis” (which is not in the book).
- Luca Brasi’s murder scene is not dramatized in the book. We find out later he has been killed when the Corleone Family receives the “sleeps with fishes” message.
- The Michael Corleone events with police Captain McCluskey are almost completely the same as in the book. In the book, Puzo is able to go into the interior of the characters. We find out Sonny Corleone never doubts Michael can accomplish the murders of Mark McCluskey and Virgil Solozzo. (He is a war hero, after all.) He just wants to make sure Michael knows what he’s getting into. The movie implies Michael needs to convince Sonny. Also, in the movie, Don Corleone seems to want Michael uninvolved in the family business, maybe kept pure for future high office or title. In the book, Don Corleone and Michael Corleone are at odds with each other at the beginning because Michael seems so hostile to the family business and his father’s efforts to help him.
- The book offers a lot more about Don Corleone’s godson/celebrity singer, Johnny Fontaine. We learn more about Johnny Fontaine’s family life—his first wife, second wife, his iffy love life. And Don Corleone sets up Johnny Fontaine as a movie producer, bankrolling his productions. This also involves Johnny Fontaine bringing out fromNew Yorkhis childhood friend, also godson to Don Coreleone, to record as a singer and act in movies.
- Book III concerns Don Corleone’s early days. This is material used with little change in the movie “Godfather II.”
- In the book, Michael comes home fromSicilyafter Don Corleone arranges for a Sicilian man, from another Sicilian family, to confess to the murder of Virgil Solozzo and most importantly, Captain Mark McCluskey. (The man has already been sentenced to death for another murder.) This Sicilian family, the Bocchiccios, specialize in supplying hostages during negotiations between criminal organizations.
- More details of Lucy Mancini’s (Sonny’s mistress, shown just a few times in the movie) sexual functioning, including intimate details of an operation she has inLas Vegasafter Sonny’s death, are in the book—not in the movie. This also involves a storyline with Johnny Fontaine getting his hoarse voice corrected with the help of Lucy Mancini’s doctor/”boyfriend,” who discovers warts on the singer’s vocal cords.
- Michael’s stay inItalyis also directly from the book. Added in the book is a rivetingly disturbing story from a widow inSicilyabout how Don Corleone and Luca Brasi started their association. In the book, we get a little more information on Appollonia. While she’s walking with Michael during their courtship, chaperoned by a parade of family members, she stumbles and Michael has to catch her. In the book we learn that as a child she was a “mountain goat and had not stumble on this path since she was an infant in diapers.”
- In the book, Kay initiates getting back in touch with Michael. Michael does not surprise her while she is teaching school as in the movie. Kay calls Michael’s mother six months after he returns to theUnited Statesand Michael’s mother invites her out to the family mall/compound to surprise him.
- The plans for the Corleone Family’s move toLas Vegasare in place, with Don Corleone’s advice and collaboration with Michael, before Don Corleone’s death. Don Corleone’s death is unanticipated (the death scene is less dramatic in the book—no Don Corleone running around with an orange peel in his mouth) and causes Michael to start his actions before he really wants to.
- In the movie, during the confirmation ceremony for Michael’s nephew, son of Connie and Carlo, all of the murders “settling Corleone Family business” are committed, intercut cleverly with the religious ceremony of Michael standing as his nephew’s godfather. The scene is backed by slow, reverent music. In the book, Moe Greene is killed inLas Vegasbefore the other murders. And the other murders take place after the confirmation ceremony. The book also contains a chilling back-story for the man dressed as a policeman who kills Don Barzini.
- In the book, Tom Hagen asks Michael Corleone ahead of time if Michael can let Tessio off the hook for his attempted betrayal. Michael says no. So when Tessio asks Tom Hagen,Hagenalready has Michael Corleone’s answer.
- In the book, it is implied Michael has just a smidgen of doubt that Carlo was involved in setting Sonny up for murder. When Carlo admits Don Barzini came to him to set up the murder, Carlo seals his fate.
- Don Corleone’s wife attends mass every morning to pray for the soul of her husband. The book ends with Kay Adams Corleone joining Michael’s mother for this ritual. Michael has begrudgingly discussed the “family business” with Kay long enough to lie to her about what he has done. And she clearly knows it is a lie.
- In the book, Connie rants hysterically against Michael, accusing him of killing Carlo, much of the dialogue directly from the book. But in the book, at the closing narrative, we find out Connie reconciles with Michael pretty quickly. Those who have seen “Godfather II” (probably just about anyone reading this blog) know that Connie takes much longer to reconcile with Michael in the Godfather movies.
- There is no material in The Godfather about Michael Corleone’s activities inLas Vegas after he “settles the family business inNew York,” about half the story depicted in “Godfather II.”
The bottom line of this post is that if you loved “The Godfather” movie, you’ll love the book as offering more depth and character interiors to what will be a very familiar story.
The Sultan and the Khan – A Progress Report July 19, 2011Posted by rwf1954 in Uncategorized.
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The Sultan and the Khan is the follow-up novel to my award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith. The Sultan and the Khan takes place about seventy years after what history now calls the “Third Crusade” (the setting of The Swords of Faith). It is another novel about a confrontation. In The Swords of Faith, we had Richard the Lionheart against Saladin, two highly celebrated figures of their times. In The Sultan and the Khan, it is the Mongols against the Mamluks. The sultan of the title is the future Sultan Baybars. The khan of the title is Il-Khan Hulegu, grandson of Genghis Khan.
These may be lesser-known men, but the confrontation between their forces was a more pivotal event for the history of eastern Mediterranean—and the world—than the “Third Crusade,” which ended with a stalemate. (See my blog post about the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Ayn Jalut.) The events of The Sultan and the Khan take place between 1258, starting with the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, and 1260, the decisive battle between Mongols and Mamluks at Ayn Jalut. Crusaders figure in the confrontation. They are a fading presence, factionalized, indecisive—but positioned where their actions have importance to the confrontation.
Christianity inserts itself in strange ways. The wife of Hulegu (and many high-ranking Mongol leaders’ wives) called herself a Christian. We have Nestorian Christians in the region, branded as heretics by the western Christian Catholic Church. All of this mixes together to supply material for a rich story.
So where does The Sultan and the Khan stand now?
I have completed the first draft. The Baybars story-line seems separate from the Hulegu story-line, but they also seemed destined to intertwine. A thin character thread connects The Swords of Faith and The Sultan and the Khan with fictional Dawud, son of Pierre and Atiya from The Swords of Faith. Dawud is now a seventy-year-old Muslim scholar in Baghdad as the Mongols arrive. I mix in a fictional Nestorian Christian adventurer, caught up with a pretty novice in Acre, and tangled with western Christian concerns as the Mongols approach.
The story is basically set. But the next draft will be a sharpening process. The complexity of the period brings complexity to the story—fun complexity, complexity that keeps characters and readers jumping. But with a story like this, I need to make sure it all ties together from beginning to end.
Also, though the basic Baybars story is in place, I need to enrich his story with more about those around him. I bought a book about Qalawun, future Mamluk sultan and undoubtedly with Baybars throughout this period. I will flesh him out and insert him into the Baybars story.
For The Swords of Faith, there was a huge amount of material to draw from. I’ll admit, though I went through a lot of material about the period (over ten books about the Crusades, two biographies of Richard the Lionheart, three biographies of Saladin), I did not go through everything available. For The Sultan and the Khan, there is much less material. If Richard the Lionheart and Saladin were “A-list” historical figures, then Baybars and Hulegu are “C-list,” maybe even “D-list.” (Baybars in particular should rank higher for his impact on history, and I suspect he does in other traditions and cultures.) Because there is less available to draw on, there is more room for creativity for a novelist. But I want to make sure that what I do invent is plausible. And as in The Swords of Faith, I do not alter major events, or the chronology of events.
I have finished reading the Qalawun book. I will review my sources and my notes to get the basics fresh in my mind again. Then, I will review and revise this first draft. I hope to have a polished manuscript ready by late this year.
Book Commentary/Review – Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson June 16, 2011Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Jeri Westerson, mystery, Uncategorized.
Tags: historical fiction, Jeri Westerson, medieval history, mystery, Veil of Lies
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Veil of Lies, written by Jeri Westerson, is a clever, engaging combination of mystery and history, set far enough in the past to deliver readers to an exotic location, while replete with the suspense-filled twists and turns we would expect from a mystery set during the 21st Century. Crispin Guest, “the Tracker,” is a disgraced knight, stripped of this title after taking the wrong side of the conflict over Richard II of England’s accession to the throne. He plainly retains a moral connection to the chivalric code of knights. He also retains the attitudes of his class, though he no longer has the privileges and resources that go with the attitude. These elements of his character create a constant internal tension for him, coloring his approach to the world around him and his relationships, making him a deep, sometimes troubled, and therefore constantly intriguing character to follow through the entire Crispin Guest series.
Veil of Lies starts with murder and adultery, with “the Tracker” hired as sort of a 14th Century private detective by the beautiful widow of the murder victim (also the main suspect through much of the book). But like any good mystery, the truth is not at all what it seems to be at first. Westerson drips out the solution with an eyedropper, offering readers tantalizing little bits at a time. Every chapter concludes with some form of cliff-hanger, with “the Tracker” teetering on the precipice of destruction more than once. Two huge plot twists slam readers before all is resolved at the end. But all is not necessarily tied up in a nice neat little happy-ending bow. What we want for Crispin Guest, and what his character will allow for himself, are two different things. Westerson is uncompromising as she stays true to the character she has created.
Veil of Lies is the first of a series—Westerson is now up to three, with a fourth on the way. The craft demonstrated by Westerson, showing both a command of the history of the period, and a command of the mystery, story-telling genre, guarantees future books in the series will provide wonderful entertainment, with a seamless blend of history and mystery for story after story.
More Than One Path to God—A Controversial Idea? May 19, 2011Posted by rwf1954 in Christianity, God, Islam, religious fanaticism, religious tolerance, spirituality, Uncategorized.
Tags: Christianity, God, Islam, Jesus, Koran, Mohammed, New Testament, religious fanaticism, religious fanatics, religious tolerance, spirituality
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The key to religious tolerance is the recognition that there may be more than one path to God, more than one route to the Divine for the righteous, spiritual human being—that is one of the major themes of my novel about the “Third Crusade,” The Swords of Faith. True, two of the major religions of the world, Christianity and Islam, are proselytizing religions, professing only one legitimate route to God. But except for fanatics, haven’t we all grown to recognize the “more than one path to God” idea, not withstanding less tolerant tenets expressed by those faiths? Recent experience indicates to me that this is not as obvious to others as it is to me. This is an issue we need to face to establish peace in our times.
Let’s start by recognizing a little history. In the movie “Ben Hur” (recently compared to the original book in this blog, Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”), Balthasar, one of the three “wise men” of Christian tradition, turns to Ben Hur and says “there are many paths to God—I hope yours will not be too difficult.” This struck me as an extraordinary statement for a character who would become one of the first followers of the Jesus teachings. But this isn’t extraordinary at all. At that time, Jesus was preaching about a relationship with God. Christianity—its scriptures and tenets—did not exist. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. In fact, there were no major proselytizing religions at this time. Conquerors in the ancient world simply adopted the gods from the peoples they absorbed and added them to their own gods. So Balthasar’s statement to Ben Hur, given with a tone of benevolence, of fatherly concern and love, makes complete sense.
Balthasar’s hope for Ben Hur still makes complete sense as a simple prayer for all of us to offer each other. But it is not so easy to offer now.
In my essay “Demonizing Islam is Both Wrong and Foolish” (published in Opposing Viewpoints: Islam), I touched on this obliquely, suggesting scriptures, especially those ripped out of context, should not be used to demonize any religion. I heard from angry detractors accusing me of moral equivalence among all religions. One stated to me that Christian scriptures appearing to be fanatic and extreme have been taken out of context, but that Muslim scriptures appearing to be fanatic and extreme were actually meant seriously and should be considered as entirely in context. His implication was that Islam truly is a “bad religion,” an unworthy path to God.
I am not arguing for moral equivalence among all religions. I have no trouble making the judgment that the Aztec priests tearing the hearts out of live human beings were practicing an evil religion. I’ll add to that the judgment that a Muslim fanatic who sends a Downs-Syndrome child strapped with bombs into a crowded area to kill as many innocent people as possible is committing evil in the name of his religion.
The question becomes how to judge these acts. I think this is not difficult at all. We can use a principle found in cultures from ancient Greece and ancient China to the Buddhist faith to Christianity and Islam—what is often called the “Golden Rule.” If you wouldn’t want your heart torn from your living body in front of masses of people staring at your final agony, don’t do it to someone else. If you wouldn’t want to be blown up, or sent unwittingly to blow up others, don’t do it to someone else.
For those who have touched the spiritual force, there is a feeling—I’ll call it love, but we’re talking about an inner glow beyond the love of a book, or a movie, or chocolate, or even a spouse or child. While under the influence of that feeling of spiritual glow, that love, we are not capable of tearing hearts from live victims, or scheming to use one innocent person to kill others.
I also believe another key to applying this concept is to judge humans and their spiritualities by their behaviors, not by their scriptures. This eliminates the debates over which religion has the most righteous tenets.
I also ran into resistance to this idea when a publicist I contacted left a polite voicemail indicating that because their firm is a “Judeo-Christian” company, they could not work on behalf of someone who advocates this idea. I deleted this voicemail too quickly—I should have called back to discuss this. I’m not sure this idea is so contrary to Judeo-Christian principles. The very phrase “Judeo-Christian” implies more than one path to God. But the reaction from this publicist has been part of my learning experience that this idea is more controversial than I believed it would be.
It was also surprising to me that I caught resistance from people I would consider to be on the other side of this argument when I argued that some people acting for religions needed to be resisted. I argued that violent fanaticism is the true danger in our world. I ran into real moral equivalence arguments as a result of this assertion. On a recent radio show appearance, I pointed out that Muslim fanatics, misappropriating their religion as they killed innocents, needed to be fought—by Christians, and by moderate Muslims who find this fanatic behavior as abhorrent as those of other faiths. I was told I needed to acknowledge that Christian fanatics were just as responsible for terrorism in our modern world. (I acknowledge that Christians have engaged in brutal activities in the past. That was not the argument. They were saying Christian fanatic terrorists are just as dangerous as Muslim terrorist today.) I asked for an example of a Christian terror network around the world trying to take as many innocent lives as possible. I was referred to the Illuminati and the Rothschild family (I think the Rothchilds were Jewish), and the “terrorism” of Proposition Eight in California against defining marriage to include same-sex unions. (I voted against Proposition Eight. I have written about this in one of my internet columns. I disagree with the state’s voters on this, but this is hardly terrorism!) They also mentioned fanatic Christian killings of abortionists. I wholeheartedly condemned that behavior; most Christians do too. But this activity hardly rises to the level of the worldwide assaults on innocents by Al Qaeda.
A blogger listened to my appearance, during which I repeatedly argued for more than one path to God and exalted moderate Muslims who have condemned fanatics, naming Muslim writer Kamran Pasha as an example of a man to be praised. The blogger condemned me as an anti-Islamic bigot, as a person who spreads “anti-Muslim propaganda.” Now, I have to say, this person ended her post by stating I was out of line to blame fanatic Muslims for the Nine-Eleven attacks—it was really the United States government that perpetrated the whole event. Okay. Consider the source. But it is a further illustration that this idea, seeming so obvious to me, comes with nuance and unforeseen ramifications in our modern world.
Still, I strongly believe by recognizing there may be more than one path to the spiritual force, to God, to whatever we call it, we find the key to ending religious wars. It is historical fact that Jesus and Mohammed, so-called “founders” of the two major proselytizing religions in our world today, were not focused on founding new organized religions. They were focused on assisting fellow human beings with finding the path to God. The scriptures, the formal tenets of these religions, did not form until decades after the deaths of these men. It is not in dispute that the New Testament of Christianity and the Koran of Islam were written down decades after these spiritual sages completed their time on earth. Both men were inclusive; they wanted to help humans from inside and outside their ethnic groups, traditions and birth religions to find God through their teachings. It can be argued that the “only one path to God” idea formed and developed through the efforts of later adherents to the original message, efforts directed at forming new organized religions. I believe Jesus and Mohammed would have been unhappy with the violent fanaticism generated by the “only one path to God” idea. We can honor them by embracing the idea of “more than one path to God.”