Monday, December 18, 2017

Novels of the Borgias

Novels of the Borgias, Kate Quinn

I have continued reading Kate Quinn’s books recently, enjoying her ability to combine history with a great story and interesting characters.

There are two books in these novels of the Borgias – The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose.

Set in Rome in the final years of the 1400s, the story revolves around 3 main characters. Giulia Farnese is a prize bride with her gorgeous beauty and floor length hair. Excited to have her marriage arranged to a handsome young man, she is shocked to realised it’s a sham set up so that Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia can have her as his mistress. As he ascends the papacy as Alexander VI, she is installed openly by his side as his lover. Knowing that such a set up will create enemies, Leonello is hired as her cynical yet powerful bodyguard, his skills hidden because he is usually ignored or ridiculed because he is a dwarf. In the kitchens is talented cook Carmelina, a runaway from her family with a devastating secret to hide.

The Pope already has numerous children by other women, openly acknowledged as Borgias and all given positions of prominence and power in the church and throughout the Holy Roman Empire. None are checked and their ruthless and callous natures are readily apparent. Giulia and her entourage need to learn to survive and thrive in such a bed of vipers.

As a story it’s fascinating, the fact it is based in truth is somewhat terrifying. It goes to show, yet again, that truth is often much stranger than fiction. Again, Quinn explains at the end what she took liberties with and what appears to be true. There is also a murder mystery to solve along the way which I didn’t love, but did certainly add to the tension.

One of the thoughts that kept returning to my mind in this 500th year anniversary of events of the Reformation was, “no wonder!” Europe was ripe for reform; the church robbed the people, lied, stole and cheated to get what it wanted with excessive preference given to those of privilege. It's no surprise Luther had a lot to say.

Some of the quotes that prompted such thoughts:
“The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will.”

From a very stressed master of ceremonies: “Before this wedding I should have quit. Because there is no proper way to host an official wedding of the Pope’s daughter, attended by the Pope’s sons and the Pope’s concubine! None! Because by rights, none of them should exist in the first place!”
“Pope Alexander VI. I wondered if anyone else besides myself has thought it significant that he chose not an apostle’s name or a virtuous name – no Paul or John, no Innocent or Pius – but the name of a conqueror.”
One of the delights of these books is Quinn’s clear research into the cooking of the times. One of her real characters, Bartolomeo Scappi, became one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance and was Vatican chef to two popes. Many of his recipes are included in the book. The details of cooking, food preparation and how kitchens worked at that time are both intriguing and lovely.

More impressive offerings from a very gifted writer.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Eddie the Eagle

It’s always a little odd to watch a movie about a time you clearly remember. The 1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary: Husband can remember learning the anthem in school orchestra and I sang it in choir. This is part of recent history.

Even so, memories fade and while I recalled Michael Edwards (Eddie the Eagle), the British ski jumper; the details eluded me, particularly what he actually did and did not achieve. So for me there was still some tension as the story unfolded.

We all enjoyed it: the likeability of Eddie, his never doubting determination to go to the Olympics and his working-class family background with a supportive mother and frustrated father. Once he realised he could not be a summer athlete, he turns his attentions to winter sports. Losing out on the downhill skiing team, he sets his sight on being the only British ski jumper. The British Olympic Committee want nothing to do with him and set the distance to jump higher than they think he can manage, but with perseverance and the addition of a mentor Bronson Peary (greatly acted by Hugh Jackman), Eddie goes on to prove them wrong.

There is one uncomfortable moment for family viewing, as Peary vividly describes to Eddie that a ski jump should mirror the emotions of a climax. There are mild echoes of the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally: younger children won’t really get it, but teens probably will.

It was obviously a memorable Olympics with the Jamaican bobsled team providing the inspiration for the 1993 film Cool Runnings (we might turn to that soon too). Rules have been changed since and we don’t seem to have these ‘outsiders’ in the Olympics anymore. Edwards has been quoted as saying that the movie is only about 5% accurate and even Peary is a completely fictional character.

I quite liked this quote from the Huffington Post:
This movie focuses on the good times in his life. It's fun and it's inspirational. A real movie reviewer would no doubt come up with better adjectives but those are the best I've got. But so what? Fun and inspirational should never be under-valued. As I said, three generations of my family loved this film. You can't believe most of it, but you can believe in it. That's a subtle but important difference.
It was a fun one.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Empress of Rome

Empress of Rome Saga, Kate Quinn

Five years ago, I reviewed the first two of four books in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome Saga. I always meant to return to the rest of the series and have just done so, probably because I got caught up in the Ancient Roman world of Caesar reading Iggulden’s Emperor series. That was about 50BC, this series starts about 100 years later and covers about 50 years of Emperors, their families and their courts, often told from the perspective of the women, including the Empresses. Mistress of Rome was a fascinating although disturbing read of Emperor Domitian, who was vicious, cruel and probably mad; the woman who became his mistress Thea and her love, the gladiator Arius.

Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City focus on Vix (son of Thea and Arius) and Sabina, a member of the Imperial family. The first centers around beloved Emperor Trajan, who held the empire together and expanded it through large scale warfare. Vix slowly rises through the ranks of the legions, while Sabina balances the interests of her husband Hadrian, potential heir to the Emperor, while the Empress Plotina is mastermining her way through Rome. I enjoyed this one, it didn’t have same level of evil characters that many others had, although Plotina is pretty awful.

Lady of the Eternal City is darker in numerous ways. Hadrian is now Emperor, having gained the throne in suspect circumstances. His vicious side always threatens to erupt and Empress Sabina treads a careful dance trying to manage him. Hadrian’s long time enemy Vix struggles to maintain his vengeful streak when Hadrian’s love and attention turns to his son, Antinous. Quinn’s comments at the end note that much of what she has related here is confirmed in historical record, it was a passionate and long affair between two men that affected the Empire and people’s opinion of the Emperor. Numerous statues, cities and temples were erected in Antinous’ honour by Hadrian. Quinn also notes that numerous Roman Emperors lived openly homosexual lives, particularly with their attention turning to young boys and slaves. It's an acknowledged part of history. At the same time, she dwells in these details. I really enjoyed the story of Sabina, Vix and their travels around the Roman Empire. I enjoyed the explanations of the way the Empire ran, the details of the characters, both good and bad, but I didn’t need to spend that much time in the details of the relationship between Trajan and Antinous. We all have our reading preferences.

Quinn is a gifted writer, she sets a cracking pace and keeps you interested the whole way along. She has written books of other times as well, I’ll turn to them soon.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder

Four years ago, we were given a book which shot to the top of our favourites list: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I read it to each of our children when they are ten, and everyone we know who has read it has loved it. It’s the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a boy who loves his parents, his sister, his dog and Star Wars. Yet starting a new school in Year 5 presents a challenge, because Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement. It’s a book that teaches, tugs at the heart strings, and challenges and encourages children and adults alike.

So, the news that it was being turned into a movie was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Could it possibly be as good? How would they portray Auggie?

I had the treat of seeing this with a Year 6 school excursion. So, even surrounded by 50 twelve-year olds all chatting and snacking, the movie experience was undiminished. And when they all cheered at certain points, it was certainly fun to be part of a larger group experience.

It is truly an excellent adaptation. The wonder of Wonder is not only the engaging story of August himself, but the depth and range of characters. Different parts of the story are told from the perspective of other people, including his sister Via and friend Jack Will. No character is one-sided. These are fully fleshed people, each with positive and negative traits.

This a family movie and families would do well to see it together. It’s ideal for ages 10 and up. While it’s mostly appropriate for kids a few years younger, they won’t really get the nuance. It’s also a great movie for teens, who will both appreciate and understand how kids behave, but also will see their own lives reflected in Via, Auggie’s older sister at high school. She adds the insight of how siblings of kids with special needs learn to manage. (“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun ... I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff.”)

The parents are cast brilliantly with highly dedicated mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) and fun, caring father Nate (Owen Wilson) almost stealing the show, demonstrating a strong marriage and real parenting strengths. It’s no wonder even despite their family’s complications, Via’s friend Miranda wishes Auggie’s family were her own.

The teachers (including Mandy Patinkin) are just the type of teachers you want your kids to have: committed, fair, able to determine kids’ issues and be sensitive to them. The idea of the monthly precepts isn’t as strong in the movie as in the book, but the main one taught by Mr Browne is emphasised: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This has become somewhat of a motto in our home in recent years. With kids that are very black and white, and keen to point out each other’s errors, choosing to be silent at points in order to show love has been a helpful lesson. Of course, I suspect this could be taken too far by some, being interpreted that you choose to only love rather than stand up for truth—but that is never the point of the precept in the book.

It’s full of fun cultural references. Auggie is a big Star Wars fan and this is woven beautifully into the movie with Chewbacca making a few special appearances; something that greatly appealed to my own Star Wars fan (and to be honest, to me too). When Isabel decides to return to her research thesis (put on hold when Auggie was born) she tries to recover her work from a 4” floppy disk. Of course, the kids have no idea what it is.

While there is nothing overtly Christian in the movie, the themes sing out the truth that we are loved, we have value, and that it’s who we are and how we live that matters, and nothing to do with how we look. This is a truth that God has already proclaimed: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7a). We are called to love our neighbours, and that includes people that look different. There is much here that could lead to honest discussion in our homes about we treat people and how we want to be treated. The messages within are ones you want your kids to think about.

There is no swearing but some insults fly between kids, there is one kiss between teenagers, one teen finishes her mother’s wine while she is asleep/passed out and Isabel jokes with Nate about getting drunk. Nate & Isabel make a few references to enjoying each other’s company (which would go over most kids’ heads) and there are a few scenes with kids fighting and bullying each other. This is what many kids see every day in their real lives.

There is however lots and lots of emotion. Numerous children in the group I saw it with were crying by the end, and all of the adults were weeping at points throughout. Be prepared to cry, even if you usually don't. I suspect parents will find it harder emotionally than kids, but be prepared for your children to react. While throughout the movie the tears may be expressing concern, grief and pain; the tears at the end are joyful. The ending is excellent.

Few movie adaptations live up to the hype, but this one definitely does. Obviously, some details had to be jettisoned, and kids who know the book well may feel the loss of those elements. But the overall message of “choose kind” and that you need to get to know people on the inside has remained.

This is a highly-recommended movie with really only one condition—make sure you and your kids read the book too.

This was posted on TGCA yesterday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

How does your family approach Christmas? Does everyone sing happy songs, cheerfully greeting each other saying “thanks for a great year and all those lunches you made Mum & Dad!” and “Wow I love this time of year, I have so much energy and joy!”?

Perhaps your family is a little more like mine: everyone is tired, tests are on, reports are being finalised, end of year performances and concerts abound (does anyone else secretly cheer when the end of year school concert is cancelled due to bad weather!?). I often think the Northern Hemisphere does it better, as they aren’t also finishing the school year, and really, there is always something appealing about snow…

So, what to do?

Chances are, you like Christmas. You rejoice that God came to earth as a baby who would be the Saviour of the world. A well-sung carol can fill your heart with praise. Bible readings of the incarnation remind you again of the joy of the season and the reason we celebrate.

However, translating that into a positive family experience takes a bit of thought, when the pressures of finishing school, making meals, buying presents and planning for holiday leave all add up.

Christmas books abound and treasured ones can be found in both secular and Christian offerings. Spend some time in a bookstore reading before you buy and you’ll soon develop a collection your family will love re-reading as the years go on.

But without a doubt, the best thing to read in the lead up to Christmas is the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and the promises that lead to him. The Good Book Company has produced some excellent material, including Beginning with God at Christmas for pre-schoolers (designed to go with The Beginner’s Bible), XTB: Christmas Unpacked for early readers, and family advent packs such as Christmas Opened Up. I’m excited to see more high-quality material for Christmas developed in recent years. If you don’t have the energy for anything organised, just grab a kids’ Bible (or a full Bible) and read through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the days together leading to Christmas.

When our family was very young and we were trying to figure out how to do the lead into Christmas well, there was very little material available. So, we made our own. That’s why we don’t use any pre-produced material although much of it is excellent. We have three sets of Advent material that we work through in various years. They are Genesis to Jesus (covering the background of the Old Testament and the promises leading to Jesus), The Birth of Jesus (from the gospel accounts) and Who is this man? (each bringing out a different aspect of who Jesus is). They’re available free for download and you can find more details here.

Perhaps you personally would also like to read further and reflect this time of year. I always enjoy O Come Though-Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie. There are new advent materials for adults out now from both Tim Chester and Paul David Tripp. I’m going to try to get my hands on some of those for future years.

Sometimes having music playing is what makes it Christmas in your home. For fun family Christmas music, you can’t beat Colin Buchanan’s King of Christmas album – lively, funny, illustrative and instructive, it always makes the playlist this time of year. For some more mellow reflection, we all love Third Day’s Christmas Offerings and Nathan Tasker’s A Star, A Stable, A Saviour. Perhaps Handel’s Messiah is what works better for you, or a beautifully sung choral group of carols.

Perhaps what really gets you excited is talking to people about why you love Christmas. There are usually a myriad of events to invite people to – carol services, kid’s church options, Christmas services. Perhaps even invite them into your home and show how Christmas is all about Jesus for your family.

There’s no doubt this can be a busy and hectic time of year. Yet, even in the midst of it, it can be a time of reflection, purposeful teaching, and a celebration of God’s wonderful gifts.

We want our families (and ourselves) to remember it’s not about the presents, or the food, or cleaning the house for visitors. It’s not even about time with family, or friends, or the holidays. It’s about Jesus. Jesus. God’s very precious son, sent by our Heavenly Father to fulfil all his promises to humanity. The Word made flesh who made his dwelling among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). That is indeed good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). Let’s make sure that news is the highlight in our homes this month.

This was published on Growing Faith yesterday. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Think Again

Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection, Jared Mellinger

This great new release from New Growth Press is designed for those of us who tend towards introspection, including overthinking and analysing, and self-absorption as a result.

Jared Mellinger clearly enunciated his goal from the very first page:
The goal of this book is to show how the gospel rescues us from fruitless self-examination, false guilt, discouragement, and inaccurate thoughts of ourselves. I want to offer practical counsel on battling unhealthy introspection and give hope to all of us whose minds are stuck on ourselves. Ultimately, I’m eager to draw our attention away from self and toward the glory of Jesus Christ. (p1) 
Many of us are familiar with the problem of too much introspection. Our minds wander to our responsibilities, our spiritual growth, our appearance, or some other aspect of our lives. We spend excessive amounts of time evaluating ourselves. We overanalyze the things we say and do. We constantly second-guess ourselves and fear we might be making the wrong decisions in life. (p2)
He also outlines a clear road map of where he is headed. If only more authors would do this, it’s so appreciated by reader and reviewer.

Mellinger starts with some personal reflections and the encouragement that we only truly know ourselves by looking to Christ, for in Christ we see our dignity, sin, identity, value and destiny; and that knowing Jesus is the way out of both self-hatred and self-love.
The gospel sets us free from thinking about ourselves too much. There is an outward-focused God who delights to rescue an inward-focused people. He is leading us into a better way to live. (p13)
The next chapters look at introspection in more detail – including the reasons we do look at ourselves, dealing with the despair that comes from too much introspection and how to deal with false guilt. There were very helpful things in these chapters. There were practical suggestions – sometimes we look for a spiritual solution for introspection when what we actually need is a practical solution such as more sleep, a holiday, or time with friends.

I personally found chapter 6 on fighting false guilt very instructive. Mellinger lists six distinctions for fighting false guilt. These question whether we feel guilty or are actually guilty; and whether our guilt is a false guilt. They include thinking about whether your guilt is from man’s assessment or God’s:
We spend so much of our time and energy making negative judgments, condemning ourselves, and condemning each other. But when Christ comes, human condemnation gives way to divine commendation, and all those who are in Christ will receive personal affirmation from the King. Therefore, not only is God’s assessment of us more important than all other assessments, it is often far more gracious. (p72)
He challenges us to assess whether we have accurate self-assessments; whether something is a weakness or a sin (eg. it's not a sin that you need more rest than another person, just an acknowledgement that your body is different); whether it is a temptation or a sin; whether something is an area of responsibility for you or a wider area of concern (that you are not responsible for); and finally whether you carry guilt over the principle or the practice:
For example, a principle is to treasure God’s Word; a practice is to have a plan to read through the Bible in a year. A principle is to disciple your children; a practice is to schedule weekly one-on-one time with each of your kids. A principle is to love your wife; a practice is to write her a poem. Practices that flow from biblical principles are commendable. In fact, practices are essential if we are to faithfully apply God’s Word. But specific practices are not to be confused with biblically mandated principles. (p76)
Imagine the relief of false guilt over parenting practices and comparisons this truth could bring!

Later chapters move on to addressing self-examination well – how to evaluate yourself (ch 8) was incredibly helpful including tips such as: start with Christ, choose the right time, ask for God’s help, base your evaluations on the bible, look for grace, involve others and confess sin. He goes on to encourage us both to find the grace of God in our lives, to see that there is good; and also to confess sin willingly which will lead to greater joy in Christ.

Mellinger’s final chapters challenge us to look outside of ourselves. We can’t be too self-absorbed when looking at the wonder of the created world around us. When we are involved in community we realise that people aren’t looking at us nearly as much as we think; and we find the joy of serving makes us more outward focussed. And finally, when we look to Christ we are truly set free:
The Christian life is a life of radical extra-spection. For every look to ourselves, we should be taking ten looks to Christ. And every time we look at ourselves, what we see should lead us back to Christ. Any sin we find should drive us to the work of Christ for us. And any good we find in ourselves should reveal the work of Christ in us and through us. Any weakness we find should lead us to the power of Christ toward us. (p155) 
Sing songs that will help you consider him. Listen to sermons and read books that are full of him. Join a church that is committed more than anything to helping people look to Jesus and treasure him. Looking to Christ is not only a sight that brings joy; it is also a sight that transforms. Beholding his glory not only makes our souls happy, but it is the best and surest way to make our souls holy. (p165)
As I reflect on this book, I really only had one hesitation. I was surprised that in the ways he encouraged people to look outside themselves, in things such as worship, love, art, sport, preaching and work; there was no encouragement to prayer, particularly prayer that praises God for who he is and how he has acted. Dwelling prayerfully in praise of God will always turn our minds from ourselves to his glory.

This is a book well worth reading. It’s relevant for everyone; but especially anyone who tends to look at themselves a little more than they possibly should – either with pride or despair.  You will find it a challenge and an encouragement, but most of all, it will be a pointer to Christ.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Moana

This latest Disney release has grown on me the more I have watched it. At the first viewing I wasn’t very impressed, the themes of demi-gods, and reincarnation didn’t sit very well. But upon more viewing and reflection, I’ve realised it has some good things to offer.

Daughter of the Polynesian village chief, Moana, is destined to lead her people one day and that is what she is being raised to do. The villagers have become used to being on their island and never venture out beyond the reef, yet Moana feels the ocean call her to explore it. She struggles with her desire to discover new places, yet knows she is to fulfil the role she has to stay and lead her people. Encouraged by her elderly grandmother, she is slowly told the real story of her people and how they used to be explorers and travelers but that fear now prevents them continuing that tradition.

When dangers start to threaten the island (through the long reaching tentacles of the lava demon Te Ka), Moana knows she must travel beyond the reef to find the demigod Maui and make him restore the stolen heart of Te Fiti.

The music is pretty catchy, I do find myself humming along, probably because our very kind piano teacher has provided our girls with some of the sheet music.

Some of the positive elements in this movie:

  • Moana has a more realistic girl body than we’ve seen for a while in a Disney movie. Her clothes cover her body appropriately, her proportions are more like an actual, normal girl. With the exception, of course, of the crazy large Disney eyes.
  • Moana doesn’t need to be rescued. Of course, this is an emerging theme over the last 10 years with Disney women, especially with Tangled and Frozen 
  • There is absolutely no love interest at all. Moana is out to save her people and her island, and she co-opts Maui to help her. Boys and romance don’t even enter the equation. It’s a refreshing change.
  • She has loving, caring parents who want what is best for her and their people. Parents have not had a good rap or much presence in Disney movies with most heroines being orphans (Frozen), with evil step parents (Cinderella) or removed from parents (Tangled)
  • She knows she has a responsibility as the daughter of the village chief (“not a princess!” she claims). While she wants to explore, she acknowledges her responsibilities. Yet, once her people really are threatened, she acts in their best interests.

Moana has a lot of character traits which are admirable and we would be happy for our children to imitate.

As I pondered some the themes more, it was good to be able to talk about the ideas of demi-gods. The song “You’re welcome” by Maui is a good chance to talk about “Do we actually thank God for everything he has given us in creation and our lives?” The ideas of worshipping numerous gods and creation is a good conversation point for understanding other cultures. The concept of reincarnation and the sea being a living, active entity are all things that make kids think and if you are willing to interact with it, can be interesting conversation points.

One other major thought I had after this latest Princess movie was – has Disney gone too far? Where are the boy heroes now? They’ve essentially done away with the prince as rescuer (probably a good thing), the father as wise guide (there’s something we could have back), and any men get relegated to fun sidekick following the capable women (think Kristoff in Frozen, Flynn Rider in Tangled and now Maui). I mentioned this to my kids and Mr 14 agreed wholeheartedly, but Miss 12 and Miss 10 still thought most superheroes were men so it was fair. We might have to explore that whole idea another time!