March 2012

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, by Robert Greenberg (The Teaching Company Audio) ★★★★
Greenberg reviews thirty of the greatest pieces in the orchestral repertoire from Bach to Shostakovich. Each piece includes a biographical review of the composer, the nature of the composition, the compositional style, and then what makes it great. It is a whirlwind tour that covers the most relevant pieces. The last lecture on the ones that got away leaves one feeling that probably far more than thirty pieces still could have been included. Greenberg ends with a statement about how we need to support modern composers by listening to their music, noting that the very odd compositional years of the ’80s are long gone and that composers are again writing quite sensible pieces. Perhaps the best thing Greenberg could do is to do a series on contemporary classical music, giving us an argument as to why we should listen to modern pieces,  showing us what’s out there, and showing us why those pieces make them worthy of our attention.

Life Together

Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer  ★★★ 

Bonhoeffer wrote this book on returning to a Germany that was then controlled by Hitler. Through his experiences in the community at Finkenwalde in 1938, he writes of the nature of Christians living together. He describes a community that is focused on reading the Scriptures together and praying. He discusses the role of loving each other and confessing sin with each other. He develops the necessity of Christians living in the community. Though he doesn’t specifically breach the issue of “church”, it seems to be implied in all that he says, as well as what you see in Bonhoeffer’s life.

The House of the Dead

The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoevsky ★★★★
This book was written soon after Dostoevsky finished a three-year term in a Siberian prison for his alleged revolutionary activities. The story is written from the viewpoint of a nobleman for whom you are never told his crime and owes the state 10 years of hard labor. Much of the book is oriented around the first few weeks in the prison, the description of the prison hospital, the celebration of Christmas, and various prisoner stories describing events in prison or the crime that bought their prison sentence. It is a dark read, though with jocular moments, and a prelude to the even darker writings of prison life by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book does end well, with a brief description of the release of the storyteller from prison, though that was preceded by the tale of an attempted escape. Dostoevsky excels in his ability to do character descriptions.
Again, this Mobile Reference version is filled with multiple typographical errors from the scanning of the originals. Usually, one may figure out the proper intended word, but sometimes it was not possible. I would discourage anybody from purchasing this set. It might be cheap, but you get what you pay for.

Experiencing Hubble

Experiencing Hubble: Understanding the Greatest Images of the Universe, by David Meyer ★★★★
This brief Teaching Company series of 12 lectures takes one on a tour of some of the most impressive images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. In this series, David Meyer, one of the managing astronomers for the telescope, provides scientific insights and explanations as to the significance of the Hubble images. Thus, they are far more than just beautiful photographs. Meyer explains first the politics of the Hubble Telescope, and how one gets a chance as an astronomer to use this telescope. He explains how the Hubble has shown certain things such as the formation of stars, the colliding of galaxies, and even the most distant reaches of the universe. Meyers maintains a teaching level that is not too complicated, such that most could follow what he has to say, and yet maintain ones interest. In conjunction with other astronomy courses, this course serves as a fitting introduction into a small category of astronomy, that of the advances which the Hubble telescope has provided to us.

Redemption Accomplished and Applied

Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray ★★★★★
The is a wonderful little book written on the doctrine of redemption. In the first section on redemption accomplished, John Murray covers the act of God redeeming us, explaining why Christ needed to die, the nature of what it accomplished, and for whom Christ died. The second section of redemption applied covers the items in the “ordo salutis”, including calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, union with Christ, and glorification. John Murray gives brief answers to false teachings but mostly sticks with expounding on the doctrines in their positive aspects. It is not a simple read in that every sentence is loaded, but it is a book that anybody could pick up and understand. It’s one of the better summaries of the doctrines of grace that I have encountered. Murray is deeply Reformed in his thinking, and these doctrines could be summarized as the core of Reformed thinking.

The Gambler

The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoevsky ★★★★
This is one of Dostoevsky’s shorter novels and follows a young student from Russia tutoring children of a Russian General while living in a small gambling town in Germany. The student inadvertently gets the gambling bug when asked to make bets at the local casino by a lady friend of his. This leads to a disastrous episode in the students’ life, characterized by moments of extreme wealth and extreme poverty leading to a short episode in prison. The extreme wealth dissipates quickly through either inability to control the irresistible gambling urge, or by squandering the wealth rapidly on friends and careless living. Perhaps Dostoevsky was writing this partially autobiographically since he also had a period of compulsive gambling, which he managed to kick. The book generally has a dark, somber tone to it, though a middle section where rich grandmamma comes to visit and suddenly gets caught in the gambling craze offers a comic interlude.
I read this book on Kindle. I have seen the opera The Gambler (Der Spieler) by Prokofiev in the distant past, and so will have to dig the disc out of the memory vaults and watch it again. The book can easily be read in several nights and doesn’t have periods of lengthy dialogue or monologue that are typical of the longer Dostoevsky novels. This edition of the works of Dostoevsky is VERY poorly edited, with numerous spelling mistakes. They obviously quick scanned a text, and offered no proofreading. You get what you pay for. The edition itself should be only 1 star.

The Junction Boys

The Junction Boys, starring Tom Berenger ★★★★
This movie was recommended to me by a doctor friend of mine, who was one of the star players for one of the winning seasons of the LSU football team. This movie presents a brief episode in the life of coach Bear Bryant, one of the winningest coaches of all time. Bear already had many successful seasons with Kentucky and was recruited to coach the Texas A&M team. He started by forming a 10-day boot camp for the players at a place just outside of Junction, Texas. During the next 10 days, he thoughtlessly drove many players to total despair, having 2/3 of the team walk out on him. He did some exceedingly foolish things, such as deprive the players of any fluid replacement in spite of 114 degree Texas heat, causing some star players to collapse of heatstroke and exhaustion. Players remained in practice with acute lumbar fractures and other serious injuries. The final toll was his only losing season of 1-9 wins-losses. The redemption of the movie was a brief 5-minute scene of the Junction Boy reunion at the practice camp, where he apologized for his total stupidity. The players who stuck with Bear had some sense that they benefited from this hell-hole experience and appreciated their time with coach Bryant. This is akin to kidnapped captives or abused children having a psychological affinity to their oppressor — in some ways, it is a sick sort of devotion to an equally sick person. Sadly, even in the year that the Junction Boys camp took place, it was quite well known that fluid replacement was imperative for best performance in heat and that over-practice can be as harmful as no practice at all. For coach Bryant to learn that at the cost of many young aspiring football players is nothing but a shame. There was a beautiful quote in the movie when coach Bryant was explaining to a parent whose son was thrown off the team because he had a heat stroke that football was “war”, the parent, who was missing his left arm and spent two years with bilateral hip fractures and recently lost an arm in a Japanese prison camp, responded, “You don’t need to tell me what war is like, as I know it all too well. Football is not war, football is a sport” (rough quote as I remember it). This quote summarizes the theme that makes the movie worth watching. It is a good movie, very well done, but also a reminder for sports players to never forget that their sport is nothing but a sport.

Enjoy Every Sandwich

Enjoy Every Sandwich; Living each day as if it were your last, by Lee Lipsenthal, MD ★
I read books or watch movies given to me by friends with great reluctance. Unless I’ve known you a long time, I typically find that the differences in world-view or likes tend to not mesh. This is an example of a book given to me by a friend who felt that it was most significant in his life. He felt this to be a great gift as well as source for meaningful conversation the next time we meet. It was a great gift, though I truly found that I could not connect with the book. Here is why.
Enjoy Every Sandwich is the autobiography of Dr. Lipsenthal, focusing mostly on the last two years of his life, when, at age 51, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, went through typical cancer treatment with the addition of some New-age medicine, only to die slightly more than two years later. Lipsenthal candidly expresses his thoughts from the last two years of life, and his desire to enjoy life to its fullest is appreciated.
Where Lipsenthal fails is in his ability to understand fully the nature of his experience. He describes his “battle” against cancer as his war on cancer, and his dying as simply fulfilling the Kübler-Ross stages of dying. The war metaphor for cancer I find especially troubling. We never speak of the war on flu, or appendicitis, or diabetes, or dental caries, and when the war metaphor is used, such as in political campaigns or the war on drugs, it is usually by a government entity trying to dupe the public into cooperating with their silly nonsense of creating a straw enemy that trillions of dollars could be wasted in order to “fight”. It’s as though Adolph Hitler and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus were comparable entities. Regarding the Kübler-Ross stages, that is total nonsense. The emotions that a person experiences when dying are multiple and far more expansive that Kübler-Ross describes, and the variability in the order of progression (stages) is as multiple as the Betz cells in her brain, though they might be few.
What I found even more disturbing with this book is the authors’ absolute obsession with himself. He is one of the most self-absorbed narcissists that I have ever read. There is no dimensionality in his life, and the cancer doesn’t make him progress as a person. Such moments as when he threatens to leave his wife if she didn’t start connecting with his alternative medicine – New age medicine thinking was typical of his overwhelming self-importance. All that really mattered was himself. Lipsenthal doesn’t end life with notions of higher aspirations, or the feeling that the impact of his life gave others a fuller meaning, other than dragging his family and friends into the inexorable hell-hole spiral where he was headed. Following Buddhist thinking, he could give no meaning to his pain and suffering, and thus had to form a “universe” in which the pain he was experiencing was not actually real or of value. Then I think about the person Lipsenthal, he is exactly the person I would avoid, and choose not to befriend. His inspiration comes from rock music, sports, and himself. His world had no meaning and had no dimension outside of himself.
Yet, it is his advice on health care alternatives which are the most disturbing to me. Lipsenthal generates an amalgam of native American spiritism, Buddhism and spiritism, new-Age thought, mysticism, and Wiccan thought into a form of “spirituality”. True, Christian religion was mentioned, but his thoughts on Jesus and advice from scripture were most in line with what the Scripture uses to describe Satan and his lies. Indeed, Lipsenthals paranormal mystical experiences prove only that there is something out there beyond what science itself can discover. It fails to show that there are contesting “spirits” in this spiritual world, good and evil, and that evil is a true oncologic entity, not just something that the Buddhist can wish away into non-existence. Lipsenthal is most worried about happiness, which only makes sense if you conclude that there is no such thing as truth, true meaning, redemption, or morality. His second to last chapter is on love describes a love that is alien to my thought on true self-sacrificial love, as well-described in I Corinthians 13. His love is a narcissistic love, a love for self, and the warm fuzzy feeling that perhaps others also love him, and that he loves them in return.
I remain at a total loss as to how mankind can give up the eternal truths of the Holy Scriptures, and buy the rubbish of the new spirituality. In a sense it is no wonder, because Scriptures remove your focus from yourself and places it on God alone. Christ makes impossible demands on you, yet gives you the strength to live right, and forgiveness through his death (substitutionary atonement) to allow the triune God to treat you as though you did nothing wrong in His eyes. All that you must do is believe in Him. So simple. So true. But, it is so contrary to our very human nature that wishes to do the work for our personal salvation, to merit God, to become intrinsically good, to be a “self-made” person, and to honor ones self as god. For the Christian, our duty is to glorify God and enjoy Him. We give Him glory in our health and also in our sickness, as we trust Him as an all-loving God, the embodiment and ontological definition of true love. Though He has ordained all that comes to pass, we find meaning in our lives by orienting our lives, and the lives of those we come into contact with, in a worshipful relationship with our creator God. Sickness and death are a great evil, but God uses the evil that comes upon us in a meaningful way. Life in its totality becomes a joyous experience  as we live it coram deo. I  offer only one alternative author, C.S. Lewis, in his two books A Grief Observed and Surprised by Joy, autobiographical accounts that give an alternative view of the world, our existence in it, and suffering. As a cancer doctor, I can give countless examples of seeing both miserable deaths and meaningful deaths. Of the meaningful deaths, the death of a Christian holding fast remains the most overwhelming. Lipsenthal has offered a cheap imitation to the truly significant life. I pray that readers would find the shallowness of his thinking and discover the true riches of life and death as found in Christ alone.

Odds and Ends 10MAR2012

Odds and Ends (February to March 2012) Mostly trip reports…
The year actually started out with a bicycle ride with me and Patrick. Look at the kid. He’s awesome!

Betsy and I celebrated her birthday in early February with a trip to the Oregon Coast. We dropped by Portland on the way, and when visiting brother Gaylon, noted some highly suspicious activity around Gaylon’s pad. We suspect that they were looking for space aliens. Oder? The photo is above.

We then headed to the coast. Betsy got a surprise in the hotel room, where she had balloons, cake and champagne waiting…

The coast photography didn’t turn out the best, but I’ve included a few shots…

Sea Lion cavesTillamook Cheese Factory
Making and Packaging the Cheese
Getting photographs

Last Thursday (08MAR2012) I finally decided to do an outside ride since the weather was fantastic. I rode from home up to the Rainier National Park entrance at Carbon River, about 112 km and 985 meters of climbing. It took about 5 hours. It was very windy, and I was in snow at the end of the ride…
Carbon River entrance of Mt. Rainier National Park 08MAR2012
So, I bid you auf Wiedersehen.

Dostoevsky Biography

Fyodor Dostoevsky, by Peter Leithart ★★★
Fyodor Dostoevsky was read on Kindle. This book is a biography written as a fictional novel. Peter Leithart desired to hold relative historical accuracy and did this by including numerous references to particular  Dostoevsky quotes. The style of historical presentation is through a fictitious dialogue, and this one wasn’t sure exactly what was fiction and what was the truth about Dostoevsky may have actually said and did. It is not a bad way to present a complex historical character, yet one was always left wondering where Leithart was actually quoting Dostoevsky, and where he was taking artistic license. This book works best if one is quite familiar with the life and writings of Dostoevsky. Since I have just started reading his works (Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov so far), I can grasp stories taken from those novels, but left clueless during the book dialogues that reflect other works. Leithart leaves Dostoevsky as a most fascinating, and in ways most admirable character in spite of his numerous flaws. This book is best read after the reader has gained moderate familiarity with the works of Dostoevsky. The dialogues will explain the thinking and philosophy of Dostoevsky, and this is most interesting because that is how Dostoevsky presents concepts in his novels–through the dialogue of different characters.