Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Review: Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang

Little Bao is a young Chinese boy who loves the springtime festivals, especially the outdoor operas that tell the great stories of Chinese history and myth. Things are not as peaceful as they seem in 1890s China. A foreign priest visits the town and smashes the local idol, claiming they should worship the One True God, Jesus Christ. The villagers send Little Bao's father to the local magistrate to protest. He get in a fight with foreign soldiers along the way. The father is basically incapacitated, leaving Bao and his two brothers to take care of things. A few years later, Red Lantern Chu comes to the village and starts teaching the locals, especially the boys, kung fu. Bao winds up training with Red Lantern's master on a nearby mountain, where he learns how to channel the ancient heroes of China to help him fight the foreign devils. The situation in China deteriorates and Bao becomes a leader in the Boxer Rebellion, an attempt to oust all foreign influence in China.

This book is a companion volume to Saints, which shows the "foreign devils'" side of the Boxer Rebellion. This volume vividly shows the emotional involvement and motivation of the Boxers. The good and bad actions and attitudes of both sides are shown, making the tragic ending of the story all the more heart-rending.

Highly recommended! Also, the two books, Boxers and Saints, should be read together since they overlap so much and bring out interesting facets of each other.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

The Bourne Legacy (2012) co-written and directed by Tony Gilroy

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films! 

While the last events of The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) are playing out, this side story is happening. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is on a training exercise in the Alaskan wilderness while the heads of spy-dom in Washington, D.C., are scrambling to contain the potential fallout from Jason Bourne's story going public. That means they need to shut down Treadstone, the program associated with Bourne, and any other related programs that can be traced from Treadstone. Cross's program can be linked to Treadstone, so they have to eliminate all those field agents. They fail to knock off Cross; they almost succeed in wiping out the lab that processed the agents. One doctor, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), survives. She has enough information that the spy-dom folks try again to eliminate her, but by this time Cross has made it back to the D.C. area and saves her. They go on the run. She just wants to survive. He needs the drugs they've been using to enhance his abilities. The pills are manufactured in Manilla, so a world-wide chase is on.

The movie starts off slowly. Cross is wandering through Alaska for no apparent reason other than to showcase some impressive stunts and introduce the blue and green pills that make him better. Intercut with this is Col. Byer (Edward Norton) convincing everyone to shut down Treadstone and its progeny, another slow moving process. The action picks up when they try to kill Cross with a drone strike. All of the spy plotting and behind-the-scenes machinations are less believable and less interesting than the action sequences. The final chase in Manilla is the star of the movie. Renner and Norton give good performances but their characters are not as compelling as previous heroes and villains in the Bourne films.

Good as an action film (though there isn't quite enough action to make it a great action film) and underwhelming as a spy/conspiracy thriller.

The new Bourne movie, Jason Bourne, promises lots of action...

I'm not sure there's any spy/conspiracy thriller left, but I supposed I'd watch One-Punch Man in a lot of fun action scenes (though the first part of the trailer is greatest hits (some literally) of the earlier films). He looks more like Jason Statham than Jason Bourne in this trailer.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Book Review: Paradise by Dante Aligheri

The Divine Comedy Vol. III: Paradise by Dante Aligheri, translated with an introduction, notes, and commentary by Mark Musa

See my reviews of Vol. I: Inferno and Vol. II: Purgatory!

Having ascended to the top of Mount Purgatory, Dante the Pilgrim is ready to leave Virgil behind and be led by the love of his life, Beatrice, through Heaven. Heaven is divided into concentric spheres, one each for the moon, the five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), the Sun (in between Venus and Mars in this schema), the fixed stars, the Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean. As Dante and Beatrice move upwards, they meet holier and ever holier people. The journey ends with Dante beholding the Beatific Vision, i.e. God Himself as He is.

Which is not to say that all the human souls and angels in the lower spheres do not have the Beatific Vision. They are less close in a spatial way but they still have supreme happiness and a full share in the infinite wonder. The souls repeatedly tell Dante that they are content with the level they are at, for they know that it is their proper place and they have complete fulfillment.

Dante also learns quite a bit of theology along the way. Jupiter is the sphere of the righteous rulers, including six exceptional rulers: King David, Hezekiah, Trajan, Rhipeus of Troy, Constantine, and William II of Sicily. That's two Jews from the Old Testament, two pagans, and two Christians. Their presence sparks a discussion about how they all are in Heaven even though it is only through Christ's redemptive suffering that anyone can make it there. Later on, Dante is questioned about the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) before he enters the final sphere, making clear points about theology and his personal acceptance of those virtues.

The text, like in previous volumes, is clear and straightforward. The notes are thorough and very helpful to understand the points Dante is making. The book makes for fascinating and rewarding reading.

A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast has previous commentary on Purgatory and Inferno and will be discussing this volume soon! Check their web page on or after August 9, 2016!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

G/T Camp 2016

My school-aged children went to this year's Gifted and Talented Summer Camp held in Howard County. They were in different tracks and so had different experiences.

My daughter was in "Talking Tangrams" which blended learning about folk tales with craftily creating characters out of tangrams. The folk tales came from countries all over the world and included the challenge of recreating characters in the stories.

Cuban myth

The final project was two-fold: narrating a folk tale for presentation to parents on the last day and creating an original folk tale with tangram figures. My daughter wrote the tale of a duck whose garden is attacked by a naughty rabbit. Other animals come to the rescue at the end.

Cover of my daughter's book

The villain!

One of many victims

My son was in the "Math Patterns and Problem Solving." That course included solving pre-algebra problems as well as playing a variety of mathematical games. The range of games ran from Sudoku and Kenken to the popular card games Set and Swish.

Sudoku in progress

Kenken complete

Demonstrating Swish

Playing Swish

He also worked on geometric puzzles, such as creating a mirror image.

Hand drawn

Our youngest son came on the last day and wanted to join in the fun!

Climbing to new heights in academia!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Random Annapolis Sightings

We went to Annapolis over Independence Day weekend to see some sights. For lunch, we went to the Iron Rooster, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast is served all day, so I tried the chicken and waffles. Whenever that dish is served at school, the children always brag about how great it is. They are served popcorn chicken and the sauce is maple syrup. My chicken and waffles had larger chicken portions and a yummy cream sauce.

The Iron Rooster restaurant

Chicken and waffles (with potatoes)

We visited the Historic Annapolis Museum and the Charles Carroll House (he was the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence). While walking around we saw all sorts of charming houses.

Wine store with the museum next to it (and the steeple for St. Mary's behind)

We wondered about that window sticking out the top

I always love upper story porches, so this house naturally caught my eye.

Two upper-story porches!

Most of the house are short, two-story homes packed into the streets without much in the way of yards.

Cosy but close together

Even closer

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Saints written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang

In the mid-1880s, a girl is born into a Chinese family. She was the fourth daughter, though her three older sisters are already dead. The family doesn't name her and takes to calling her "Four-Girl." "Four" is a homonym for "death," so it's sort of a joke. She's isn't well respected. Her grandfather even calls her a devil. She embraces this and starts making a devilish face. After a while, her mother can't stand it any longer and takes Four-Girl to an acupuncturist who sometimes works for free. Four-Girl is nervous about getting pins stuck in her and is all the more worried when she sees a crucifix in the doctor's office. The man has such big pins stuck in him! But the acupuncturist is gentle and kind. He makes Four-Girl laugh which breaks her devil face. He's a Christian, which to the traditional-minded Chinese means he worships a foreign devil. She's ready to adopt this new devilishness, since the doctor seems to offer the love and support that her own family has failed to give her. She studies to be a Christian, which causes her trouble, especially as she grows older. She runs away and has a vision of Joan of Arc in the forest. Joan becomes a role-model for Four-Girl, who takes the name Vibiana when she is baptized. Her Christian life starts just as the Boxer Rebellion, a nationalist uprising against the influence of foreigners in China, begins persecuting Christians.

This book is a companion volume to Boxers, which tells a story of the Boxer Rebellion from the other side. I haven't read that as of writing this review but definitely will (library, here I come!). Vibiana's story is a fine blend of realistic life and child-like fantasy and wishing. She alternates between charming and frustrating for the other characters and the reader. She's not a perfect heroine, but she has a great story.

Highly recommended!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek III (1984)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock directed by Leonard Nimoy.

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films! 

The story of this movie follows directly from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, so if you haven't seen that (which you really should) be warned that spoilers are ahead. I'll blather on about why I chose this to provide a little buffer between this spoiler warning and the actual spoiler.

After reviewing Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and Ghostbusters, both from 1984, I had to decide which Star Trek movie to watch. Seeing Stark Trek III was made in 1984, making it sync up both with two other 1984 movies and with this week's number three Star Trek reboot movie, I could not resist revisiting this film I haven't seen probably since the 1980s.

Admiral James T. Kirk and crew are headed back to Earth after their harrowing encounter with Khan. All are still grieving the loss of Spock, who sacrificed himself to fix the warp drive, letting the Enterprise escape the blast radius of the Genesis Device. The Device was designed to be used on a lifeless planet to make it habitable. The explosion has indeed created an Earth-like planet. Spock's coffin, a torpedo tube fired from the Enterprise, was caught in the planet's gravity and landed on the planet. A science vessel with Kirk's son David and the Vulcan Saavik investigate the planet. They discover life form reading right by Spock's coffin! David and Saavik beam down to investigate.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise are informed the Genesis Device is is a political hot-potato--they shouldn't discuss it with anybody and travel there is restricted. The only problem is McCoy. He has been acting very Spock-like. After talking with Spock's father, Kirk realizes that Spock has transferred is katra or soul to McCoy and that should be brought to Vulcan along with Spock's body. If not, Spock will truly be gone. Realizing how desperate the situation is, Kirk and his main crew members steal the Enterprise and head off to the Genesis planet, where more complication ensue, because the Klingons have shown up and want their own doomsday device.

So the plot is rather busy and does look contrived at points (stealing the Enterprise by jury-rigging an automation system to run the whole ship from the bridge has so many problems with it). The Klingons are one dimensional but still fun (the Klingon commander is played by Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Brown in Back to the Future!). The story serves to get Spock back from the dead and sets up the light-hearted Star Trek IV. So it's a good transition film but not a great film by any means. Watching it once or twice is plenty.

As for Star Trek Beyond, it looks action-packed and exciting...

This movie looks like it shares the Enterprise in peril and dealing with death elements from The Search for Spock. On the other hand, this movie looks to have tons of action (which I guess is natural considering the director is from the Fast and Furious franchise), which should be fun in a summer blockbuster way. I'm a little worried that it will lack depth (which I guess is natural considering the director is from the Fast and Furious franchise). Star Trek Beyond probably will be a more entertaining film, maybe even a better film that Star Trek III. If I set my expectations to low, maybe I'll have a stunning experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by M. Mignola and C. Golden

Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

World War II Sicily is home to much hardship. The church of San Domenico has just lost its priest so young Father Gaetano is assigned. The parish rectory has been converted to an orphanage that is supported by nuns from the next-door convent. The children (a mixture of boys and girls) are taught by the nuns but catechism class falls to Father Gaetano. He has trouble connecting to the children until he discovers a puppet theater with plenty of puppets. A former caretaker left them behind. Most children are delighted to see them again, especially Sebastiano, who keeps the clown Pagliaccio as his favorite. He talks to the puppet at night when his roommates are asleep. The puppet talks back, but naturally only when children are around. While the clown is benign, the other puppets take to their roles a bit too literally. Father Gaetano transforms the puppets into biblical characters. Noah worries about the ark, David and Goliath fight. Things take a disastrous and macabre turn when Father Gaetano changes a puppet into Lucifer, who takes his role too seriously.

The "puppets come alive" trope in horror has been done many times before. Even though it is familiar, the authors do a good job building tension and crafting a great finale to the story. I enjoyed that part very much.

On the other hand, the theology is distractingly sketchy. The authors get some details wrong, like the scene where Father Gaetano is surprised by one of the puppets and takes the Lord's name in vain. Then he feels humiliated "at his breaking the Third Commandment." [p. 91] While different denominations in the Judeo-Christian tradition divide up Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 differently, in the Catholic tradition, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" is the second commandment, not the third. The nuns are called "Domenicans," which at first I thought was a made up order, though perhaps they are named after the Orphanage of San Domenico or the authors just don't know how to spell Dominicans. Father and the children have many discussions about free will but they are all superficial and unsatisfying. Worse yet, the discussions are barely connected to the puppet horror story, a missed opportunity.

Mignola's occasional drawings (mostly of the puppets) are fun and do give a boost to the puppet horror theme. The ultimate fate of the characters (both human and mannequin) is exciting and satisfying. Some judicious editing and rewriting could have made this a great, rather than an average, book.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

The Charles Carroll House in Annapolis is the birthplace of the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll. He was born on September 19, 1737. His father (also Charles Carroll) built the home in the 1720s. The younger Charles left in 1748 to study abroad. He came back in 1765 and married Mary Darnall in 1768. The couple used the home as their "city residence." Many of their seven children were born (and died) at the house. He enlarged the house and improved the gardens in the early 1770s. In April 1783 they held a large, outdoor celebration of the end of the American War for Independence. Carroll lived here while he served in the Maryland Senate (1777-1800) and in the U. S. Senate (1789-1792). He rented the property in the 1820s, staying either with his daughter in Baltimore or at the family plantation, Doughoregan Manor, in current day Howard County. He died in 1832, last of the signers of the Declaration to pass away.

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

Local seal of historic approval

In 1852, his granddaughters gave the house and grounds to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). They added a west wing to the house, as well as building St. Mary's church and a school. The property is still owned by the Redemptorists and is available for touring on weekends.

We visited on the Fourth of July weekend, figuring it was an appropriately patriotic time to visit. We entered the side of the house where the volunteers gave us a brief overview of the property. The first room is the kitchen area with the usual grand fireplace for cooking all sorts of goodies.

My daughter ready to cook

Nearby was a storage room or wine cellar with only one lonely table inside.

Cold storage/wine cellar

Nearby was a window into another basement room that was locked. Peeking in by holding my camera up to the window, I found it was also a storage room.

The storage room that's still a storage room

A windy staircase brought us to the front room with a small fireplace and a bricked up doorway. Originally, the door led out of the house to the east yard but in the 1790s younger Charles expanded the house and made the library larger (we approved).

Current decor of the entrance

Just beyond the entrance hall is a large room where they did their entertaining (George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette visited on separate occasions).

The great hall

Not sure what this is in the fireplace

View of the other end of the great hall

View from the great hall windows

Just behind one end of the great hall is a passageway that led to another house. According to the sign, the hole in the wall was for a chair rail in the room!

Chair rail mounting

The room includes an antique chair on loan from the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore.

Loaner chair

Hallway fireplace, not as interesting as...

...a writing table! If only I could write.

The hall also has a replica of a famous painting of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull and a photo of the estate from the early Redemptorist days.

Presentation of the Declaration (not the actual signing!)

Students rowing circa 1864

My children discovered a secret door between the hallway and the great room!

A secret door!

Looking from the great room into the hallway

The door hidden in an alcove!

The house has hardly any furnishings and the upstairs was off-limits for us, so we went outside to enjoy the gardens.

House seen from the back lawn

Back lawn seen from the house

Part of the gardens had a theatrical troupe who were preparing for a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream later in the week. Entertaining still happens at the house!

Lawn with actors on it

After the house was given to the Redemptorists, they used part of the garden as a cemetery.

Cemetery with view of the water

More of the cemetery

In the back of the cemetery is a pieta that has been a bit overgrown. Just below the pieta are relics of Saint Justin, a martyr who died during Maximinus's persecutions in the early 300s. Some of the remains were transferred to Annapolis in 1873 from an abbey in Subiaco. The remains were buried here in 1989.

Pieta almost inaccessible

The pieta

Marker for the relics

View from the pieta

Further down in the garden is the final resting place of Charles Carroll of Homewood, son of the man who signed the Declaration.

Charles Carroll of Homewood, one of the many Charleses

We tried to visit the church but a wedding was going on, so we'll have to come back another day!