Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Mini book reviews: Snowdrops and Seeing Stars

Snowdrops (Atlantic Books), a novel by A D Miller, is an intriguing tale about the modern Moscow, with all the wonder of young love and high-class establishments and the snow and the sense of making it through - plus the corruption and the excess and the smut and property crime. I quite liked it as a tale of a naive man becoming corrupted, and in an odd way seeing that he does not care what a fool he's been, which is at least honest. Basically he meets and spends time in Moscow with a beautiful woman called Masha and a businessman in a cowboy hat, and he just goes with it. Not the best crime/love story I've read, but the descriptions of the snow are pretty fantastic, and give the whole thing a sense of mysterious symbolism. What can be lost or buried in the snow - is it, somehow, your own self?

Seeing Stars (Faber) is a fun trip: a collection of story-like poems from Simon Armitage covering the uncertainties or fanciful hopes of life. It's had me chuckling at the sperm whale who wants to stand up for its rights to an opinion in politics or the man who thinks he can pilot a plane because of the sheer romantic magic of the thing while the pilot is on strike. It's had me pausing to think about the life-forms that matter to a pharmacist who is knocked out by some customers. It's had me thinking about the way we live as contradictions to our own desires and how what we imagine or what we dream of lies under the surface. Definitely recommended to you to enjoy, read and re-read, and ponder on!

On watching House and living life

One thing I realy like about House is that the man himself (and the script-writers) realise we rarely just do something. There's more to us than that, we either want something out of it or we want to achieve things and succeed or we do it out of a desire for purpose - or with an ounce of care and compassion. But only an ounce. Sadly Dr Gregory House is often too right about the human heart. As he says "everybody lies" and he has to work out the truth going on in people.

House has a way of exploding situations until their practically unbearable for his colleagues in order to expose to themselves what the new selfish or dumb thing they are really doing is. He won't let anything go.* It's pretty fascinating.

House says things like this - isn't he a charmer?
I find I get drawn in by this construction of what human life is. And I find that I can be fooled into thinking the pleasingly complex psychology/drama amongst the characters is worth feeling for (I guess this shows it is well-made). It's pleasing as there is depth to the characters and they are going for more than simple cliche motivations at times, which is great - but here's the reason this isn't realistic: (Get ready, it's obvious) At the end of the show you turn it off.

Living real life

As a Christian I've recently been challenged in a number of ways that the life we have been given is the important thing, and it is exciting! It goes on beyond 45-minute-manageable-sessions, and its problems are bigger and more protracted. The life we have matters, the people in it matter and their vastly different situations matter. This life is significant.

Sometimes we can find things mundane, and I know I can even feel like everything is worthless after a really bad day. But this is a lie. God has given us all things to enjoy and responsibility to use our abilities to do good and make an impact on other people's lives and the world. How is this not significant? Even producing things for others to enjoy is significant, as we develop his world and we can invest in that some of the value that we ought to place on good things in his good creation.

Going back to watching TV for a minute - I'm not knocking it, as it is good to enjoy as a gift from God. But as Christians should we not be more hooked on God as the beautiful and glorious and pure and wise one from whom all these good things come? (Phillippians 3:7-11.) Shouldn't he fundamentally change the way we enjoy and engage with everything (see eg Philippians 4:11-13.) Let's wholeheartedly enjoy living and receiving from him with a knowledge of him as the giver and him as the source. When God brings his restoration to humanity and makes the world new, all will see that he is the most significant anything in the universe, he is far above anything and anyone.* All else really is second-rate!

And let's see other people in our town and their lives as significant, as they are not only a creation of God, not only do they bless us and enrich our lives in many ways when you think about it, but also they are made in God's image: They really are here because he dreamed them up and wanted them here, and he made them to shine out a little of God's character or nature, no matter how corrupted that might have become. When we are engaging with real people in the real world, we engage with complex and wonderful beings, and we can make a difference. And that's exciting.
**See for instance Revelation 7:9-12 where huge worship is going on all in honour of the "Lamb". This is Jesus who is described in the New Testament to be the ultimate sacrifice, the lamb of God, fulfilling the passover lamb role from the Old Testament. The point I'm making is he's shown to be worthy of all the honour the universe can give. May many begin to honour him first gladly now and be able to enter into that worship of him in heaven.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Batman: The Long Halloween - the best and most unsettling whodunit in comics?

What makes a good whodunit? At the least, strong characters, clues and a clever twist. But also: interesting psychology, defective personalities or madness and multiple points of view, an ominous danger at large, and something that challenges justice itself, provoking us to speculate on wider societal issues or ills or the very human heart itself.

On my recent holiday I finally got to read Batman: The Long Halloween, which provides all of these. Best of all, it has a final chapter that keeps its secrets until the very last pages, as well as managing to subvert not only Bruce Wayne's mindset and mission as the Batman, but also perhaps the way we imagine our lives to be: secure and incorruptible and wholesome, while we set up structures and people as idols we will follow at all costs.

This graphic novel, originally published as a 13-issue comic series in 1996-7, stands by itself, while using some of the characters from Frank Miller's amazing character-piece Batman: Year One, notably the mafia family of the Falcones (with shades of The Godfather). The story is set across a year with each chapter themed after a different holiday, like Valentines Day and Fathers Day and so on. At this point Bruce Wayne is growing into the Batman role and working more closely with the "dream team" Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, who is the "Apollo" District Attorney and very much the last public light against corruption for Gotham (you remember him from The Dark Knight?). Imagine the public and private pressure setting in as Harvey must find a way to bring down the criminal families, while the Batman tries to solve an increasingly unstoppable series of murders while being led in all the wrong directions but some of his usual enemies: The Scarecrow, the Joker, Poison Ivy.

All of which ends up, I think, brilliantly, making the Batman into a valiant failure. How could he have let the murders keep happening, and why didn't he do more, sooner? Perhaps we should see it the other way: how could one man, limited by his own point of view and frustrated and distracted by his enemies, ever hope to redeem a city anyway? What does he have to lean on after all? The help of a few friends in Gotham? The hope of a better future? His brain, or being able to infiltrate and be there to stop crime at the right time? I think the way the ending comes about and the last words "I believe in Harvey Dent" mirror his own words "I believe in Gotham city" at the start show a world in crisis and a world where individuals act out of their own belief systems, at odds with each other. What a place of despair Gotham would really be - it's a bit like the repeated refrain of the book of Judges "everyone did as they saw fit" and great wickedness reigns because of it (17:6, 19:1, 21:25).

There's more going on here beneath the chaotic criminal goings-on and the beautifully dream-like noir-style of art (by Tim Sale, who drew art for and designed the look of TV series Heroes). This art adds to the whole by detailing the characters' expressions so we can believe in the characters feeling what they are doing - from the desperation of the crime-lords to the toughness of Jim Gordon. They only want to see things through...

For another good Batman story which acts as a whodunit, try Face the Face which is set much later, after Batman has been away from Gotham for a year. He comes back with perhaps a bit more humanity (which was cool to see) as he re-teams with Robin and tries again to work with Harvey Dent to uncover a murderer, but can he trust Harvey?

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Metronomy - the beat of the wierd

If I've given you a lift in my car lately, chances are you might have heard some of the new Metronomy album I've been playing a lot: The English Riveria.

Typically known for their remixes of other work (eg Goldfrapp's Happiness) this seems to be a kind of breakthrough album for the odd outfit, who use mostly electronic instruments and percussion but also use voice and other stuff (nice bit of flute near the end of the album). 

I like the quirkiness and catchiness of the beat, and the slightly chaotic way of mixing all this with the lyrics and riffs and short keyboard melodies. It's superior synth nonsense that achieves something more - try tracks like the well-balanced "The Bay" the addictive "The Look" and the pop-like "Everything Goes My Way". Then delve into the rest of the album and be surprised by the cool restraint of "Loving Arm" or the expanding upbeat guitar/synth sound of "Corinne" that slowly fills out the room with the chorus (of sorts): "I got my heart tied up, I got my heart in a bind, she just wants to dance all the time".

Recommended as something a bit different to everyday pop.

Picture by Платонова Алина ( [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sunflower

A poem I wrote a few months ago:

The Sunflower

We hold up and gaze at
The head as big as our own,
It scours the earth below,
We cradle it in child’s arms.

Let’s prise out seeds
Over the earth to watch
And listen to their flat sides bed down
In secret;
A molten dew-shower.

Here lies our treasure,
X marks the spot,
Let the place not be forgot.

Dreamily it asks why
We cut off its head –
“we were young”
We stammer,
“You seemed dead”;
We saw the plunder,
The wealth we hoped for;
We went for broke.

© Richard Townrow

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Sparrows, living and reading Small Gods

In the thirteenth and very funny Discworld novel Small Gods, Om says the difference between being a small god and human is that humans are uncertain about what lies beyond death, but gods really know that when they come to the end of their lives/reigns there is nothing more for them, that is the end of their real existence - all that's left is longing for what was. At the end of their magic and belief-fuelled "lives", small gods go into darkness after just a moment of "warmth and light", like a sparrow that flies through a room and out into the black night - and he asks "can't you imagine what it's like to be that sparrow, and know about the darkness? To know that afterwards there will be nothing to remember, ever, except that one moment of the light?" (p277). Enter the debate about whether waiting for death is torture and whether the end is really the end.

In Pratchett's fantasy world gods exist if they have believers, otherwise they fade to barely a whisper, their minds fractured, barely keeping themselves together. Some start there but manage to work their way up to real power through accumulating believers. This means that they have to work out how to manipulate people into following them, which doesn't bode well for the cause of truth, love and justice. Indeed through the course of Small Gods it's a human who teaches the small god Om ethics, a way of leading a people to treat others more fairly and with respect.

Interestingly as with a lot of Pratchett books, the stupidity of humanity is brought out here, because despite the ethical way being the one way free of bloodshed, the people still want war, because of honour, duty, hurt pride, impatient zeal for change, and revenge. Pratchett shows how lucky we have to be for good leadership to win out, when people's hearts are bent like this, and when people are preoccupied by things that don't really matter. The small god points out that people will believe anything, even in the power of an army or god, or in the revolutionary spirit or human philosophy, if it suits them - if they think it will allow them to gain something in the world, if it promises them something they feel they need. Both the religious who hold on to a system and the militant atheists have ambitions and values at fault in this in the book - rushing into their cause without thinking of the consequences in terms of their responsibilities to seek peace for their fellow man. Knowledge is co-opted into making machinery of war. Only one or two characters have the eyes to see the folly of the people.

The hypocrisy of the harsh religious system in Omnia is plain and some are brimming to just escape from the rules, while others find meaning in enforcing them. But when it comes down to it, what do the religious sacrifices they make or the battles fought in the name of honour or revenge gain them?* If this is a kind of bargaining with the gods, it’s a poor deal. I think we need this sort of clarity in thinking about why we do the things we do. Our culture is tied up in pursuits, whether of influence, reputation on- or offline, expertise, deeper relational links, a hoard of commercial products we feel we need, the avoidance of any pain or suffering, the best holidays, and constructed meaning in other ways. What does all of this gain us in the long run? Is the key not to obsess and just find balance? And what does it gain us in the face of death and beyond that eternity? When we realise we are going somewhere next and that we can't take anything with us, why do we get so caught up in so many pursuits which seemingly can continue all our lives?
But going back to the way in this book a "god" can fear the absolution of a pseudo-non-existence: It's very interesting how this is portrayed as happening to one small god who is found as a bodyless voice in the desert that has been roaming there for years and can't even remember it's name. Even Om is lucky to remember who he is after amusingly getting trapped in the body of a tortoise.

If our ultimate destination is to be a kind of wimpy non-physical confused and hopeless half-life, I'd hate it too. Maybe this is what people fear most today: being insignificant, being unfulfilled in this life and withering away. They want to live fully and die young and happy. I can relate to this. But as a Christian I want to challenge the assumptions here - I want to say that living into old age, disability, or insignificance in the eyes of the world and living even in weakness and illness can be real living if it's done in relationship with God. If real love is experienced. If you are getting to know him and trust him better, if you are awaiting his promise to bring a kingdom where you can fully be with him, if you see his goodness no matter your situation, weakness can be a time of blessing. Furthermore if we have a hope beyond this life in the one man who came back from death, Jesus-Christ, the God-man, we do not have to have a fear of death and can get on with living for what really matters.

All in all, a thought-provoking entry into the Discworld series that I could relate to a lot. People are cowardly and create systems that don't work, and forget the value of true liberties in society. Luckily our God is large and will never lose the plot. He cares about us more than many sparrows. Like Om he listens to us, but unlike Om he loves us and knows what is good, and will never get trapped in the body of a tortoise.

*You wonder if there was this kind of hotchpotch of mixed motives in the recent march on Tripoli. There must be stories to be found there both of altruism and, sadly, brutish steamrolling over the ones in the way.

Cover image uploaded from Wikipedia to illustrate the book I'm discussing. It's originally derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Summer 2011 sketches and photos

There's been so much to enjoy this summer! Highlights have been: a holiday in Deal, seeing some action movies with friends, eating out (tapas) with some international students and attempting to teach them English phrases, catching up with my older brother and school-friends, and going to some great weddings, which have felt like big happy celebrations.

With all this going on, it's no wonder this blog has been looking a little neglected. Please check out this small collection of photos and sketches I've produced and stay tuned for proper updates.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Thor & debts to one another in a kingdom

Personally I found X-men: First Class a slightly more polished and enjoyable film, and an absolute blast, with good new characters and 1960s spy-film influenced plot, and action beating X2 – but I think Thor was more ambitious, and despite being a tad too silly and “summer blockbuster” in the bits set on Earth, it had more interesting themes. May his return in the Avengers film next year continue the fun!

So here's my take on some of the themes of Thor:

Often in action films you get a kind of brother-in-arms camaraderie, but in Thor comics there is a sense that the gods of Asgard are connected. Each has their role and without one of them fulfilling it they are lacking. Thor has a responsibility to lead his people well – and they have a responsibility to be the noble people they are meant to be in service of their brother-in-arms, the mighty Odin-son Thor.

Which is why a recent Thor story got my attention.* It reminds us of how people can be trapped by their own desires and pulled away from what is really good for them. In it Loki skilfully manipulates Thor, managing to shame him so he is not worthy to be seen and followed as leader. Unlike in the film, Odin is no longer about, and the throne is taken by Balder, who, with Loki at his ear, makes the decision to find a new home for the Asgardians. He believes the restlessness of the fearless Asgardians is due to them being trapped in their re-born realm which is floating in the sky above earth, and that they should move to the wild land of mountains and forests that belongs to Marvel arch-villain, Doctor Doom.

It’s a classic case of trying to solve a correctly identified problem with an answer that isn’t going to fit. This race of people live larger than life and have a real longing for the open air and the pursuit of games and hunting. They want to live life! But living under a wise and good King is the key to their security and hope and anything less is a compromise. Yes, their king Thor should have heeded their restlessness and provided for them – that would have been wise. But to have been corrupted by Loki and end up being led into a land ruled with an iron fist by Doom is the worst kind of deception and is likely to lead to needless difficulties or war. It certainly divides them against their King. And it’s a knee-jerk response to the deeper problem of wanting Asgard and life back in its fuller glory. It’s going after a temporary solution that isn’t really one at all.

I love how the corruption is depicted as working – very subtly. Loki, manages to frame truth in a way that accuses Thor stopping him in his tracks and making others lose confidence in him. (Doesn’t evil tend to do this? Evil takes our worst actions and hits us with it – and then it isolates us if it can.) Loki’s apparent honesty in exposing Thor leads to a loss of discernment as people begin to trust the perverted power-mad Loki. Yes, Thor has failed them, but the worst result of this is them sitting under the wrong king. They have lost their purpose and think it is to be found solely in the exciting new realm Balder offers them. May we not lose sight of how we owe each other to act rightly to build each other up in our purposes in life. It’s how we were created – to live life to the full**, in freedom, and “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

A couple more points on the film before I sign off. I generally liked the way Thor interacted with humanity and the idea of him aspiring to be something more, and inspiring others, was pretty neat - and, in a way, so was the linking of ideas about there being amazing truth out there to be discovered with the "gods". The spin on Loki and his relationship to the wise King Odin was very interesting, and challenges us – what would you do if suddenly lots of power was thrust upon you in your darkest hour? Would you be responsible and shoulder the responsibility well or try to cut others out or try to impress others? How do you react to how people judge you – are you paranoid, getting hurt easily when people fail you, taking the love you can get and hiding away, or do you listen to others and love others generously, from a place of gratefulness at all you have?

*Thor 601 “Defining Moments” written by J. Michael Straczynski
**See, for example, John chapter 7 v37-8, chapter 8 v12, 31-2, and chapter 15 v11.

Check back for more on comics and books later in the month.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Dark Knight Rises - will it include a Lazarus pit?

If you haven't heard already, The Dark Knight Rises (the next Batman flick) is filming and all over the internet you can see a leaked photo of some green liquid on one of the sets. This isn't pointless slime - it's bright green so it can be picked up from footage easily and altered or animated somehow. So what?

It suggests a Lazarus pit* could be involved. If you don't know the comics the Lazarus pits of Ra's Al Ghul are able to sustain/strengthen life or even bring someone back from death. It also seems to bring on a form of madness, although this isn't totally consistent in the comics.

The fun of having this supernatural thing happening in Batman's adventures was knowing this just does not fit with his view of the world. He works all the angles and needs to know how all the mechanisms work. But what of souls? And if they come back into lifeless bodies, where did they go in the meantime - what science could he use to deduce this? He can investigate but not get to the bottom of it: in the end it is more that he has to accept it.**

Where could director Christopher Nolan and his increasingly impressive cast take this? Here are a few possibilities:
1) Surely this means that Ra's Al Ghul is returning - or possibly a successor like his daughter Talia, who was unseen in Batman Begins. The ninjas Bruce faced in his mansion were from a long line, and that line is bound to have continued somewhere. And Ra's could be resurrected through use of the pit, or perhaps Batman will stop him just in time?

2) It's not very likely, but Bruce and Gordon could try and resurrect Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) in one of the pits to try to re-create the white knight who fell in The Dark Knight.
3) The new film is called The Dark Knight Rises - so could Batmen die and someone resurrect him in one of the pits? This would fit with the previous film's theme of the city of Gotham needing someone like the Dark Knight, and be a nice counterpoint to the start of the film which I imagine will be about the police and/or army hunting Batman for the murders everyone thinks he committed in The Dark Knight. Could be quite cool, and a related idea was used in the recent comic Batman and Robin issue 7 and 8: Blackest Knight, with the question being - is the Batman who emerges from the pit going to be the right one, and in his right mind? (Batman and Robin stars a new Batman, as Bruce Wayne apparently died in the comics recently***)

4) It could be a new evil using the pit endlessly to stay alive. The evil has surely got to be something that affects the whole city, like the Joker did, and a villain who seems to have power over death could inspire horror and even submission in the populace.

On a related note, the villian Bane is set to be in new movie I hear - and I hope this is done well. In the comics he is often used very poorly and has little or no character. He is just famous for a dark epic story from the early nineties where he broke Batman's back and totally defeated him.... wonder if this could be where the film goes? 

Either way I'm sure the writers will love to play with the idea of questioning whether it's possible to rise from death and live in a kind of mad power-mad immortality that many villains in comics seem to want to achieve. What messages might come through about what real living is, I wonder? Or about relinquishing power and serving a city of other people? Furthermore there was always something Satanic about the pits, which are in the belly of the earth and perpetuate the life of a centuries-old manipulater and murderer whose legacy is a cult of warriors who obey his every word. Perhaps the film will bring out the horror of this monstrous and unnatural battle for supremacy over the world from below.

With Marvel taking another step in the right direction with Thor and then Thor, Iron Man and Hulk joining the Avengers film next year****, Batman faces stiff competition in the superhero movie department. But I have confidence The Dark Knight Rises will prove to be more thought-provoking and mature than the others (much as I like them)!

*Presumably named after the biblical Lazarus, an ordinary man Jesus publically raised from death.
**Over the years Batman has been forced to accept there are some supernatural things in the universe, although even in Neil Gaiman's excellent recent story "Whatever happened to the caped crusader?" Batman states that he does not believe in a god, and the story still emphasises his own role in carving his own meaning in his physical existence - while portraying him as a kind of unstoppable force against evil in an eternal battle against evil (Yes, wierd huh?)
***I'm quite behind with Batman, as I have a pile of UK-produced Batman Legends comics to read, and the UK comics are way behind the US ones. The death of Batman is shown within Final Crisis, which you should read alongside the main Batman storyline right through from Batman and Son to the Black Casebook and Batman RIP.
****Directed by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, Firefly and Serenity and writer of the first four volumes of Astonishing X-men!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Hooray for trusting in the cross

Friends, hear these brilliant words, which my soul also needs to hear.

In the run-up to this passage John Stott has been talking about wrong ways to approach hard times and God, by self-accusing, self-pitying or self-asserting. But then he starts talking about the best way of all – to see Him afresh spiritually, and trust in Him:

If it was reasonable for Job to trust in the God whose wisdom and power have been revealed in creation, how much more reasonable is it for us to trust the God whose love and justice have been revealed in the cross? The reasonableness of trust lies in the known trustworthiness of its object. And no one is more trustworthy than the God of the cross. The cross does not solve the problem of suffering, but it gives us the right perspective from which to view it.

We need to learn to climb the hill called Calvary and from that vantage point to survey all life’s tragedies. Since God has demonstrated his holy love in a historical event (the cross), no other historical event (whether personal or global) can override or disprove it. 
from Through the Bible Through the Year, p.88

Praise God for the truth of these words!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

New Word Alive is nearly here.....

On a completely different subject, how shall I blog about New Word Alive this year? I don't think I will be blogging there (although I could tweet there), but I will update this site when I get back.

I've previously tried video interviews - shall I do more of these, and see if I can catch one of the speakers/some of the punters? Shall I try something creative and new? What do you want to hear about? I can't promise too much, but let me know!

Specifically what would you ask the speakers? It looks as though we have prominent Nigerian, English and Australians speaking this year. And of course it's always good to pick the brains of someone as God-happy as Mike Reeves (UCCF theology guy), who'll be there as usual.

Looking forward to seeing you there, if you are planning to go!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Graphic novel review: Persepolis I

A couple of months ago I had the chance to read part one of “Persepolis” an autobiographical tale of Marjane Satrapi growing up in Iran as a girl and a young teenager. It's worth a read, as we consider the price of freedom for the Libyans and others in the Middle East. Marjane's unique upbringing was a strange learning experience for a young girl and she clearly has many lively memories of her parents talking enthusiastically of “revolution” late into the night, and taking an active part in protests in the late 1970s. The true story is portrayed in this graphic novel with a style that exudes charm and manages to capture through stark black and white pictures some of the emotions of frustration, resolute fervour and desperate loss.

I’m not good with the facts of history, but I love details that bring home what was happening. Marjane remembers what she was doing the day the neighbouring family’s house was bombed during the war with Iraq which began in 1980. She tells how she rushed home fearing the worst, and managed to glimpse a painful sign that her neighbours had been buried when the house came down. It’s moving to think of this really happening to such an ordinary family.

Interestingly we are also introduced to those figures Marjane looked up to as a girl, some imprisoned for many years because of their outspoken views and the longings of people of shrewd minds and hospitable natures as they longed for an end to political injustice. Others with less courage or less wisdom are shown to be inconsistent in their views, and stirred up by a crowd – we get a realistic view of human nature here.

As Marjane tries to comprehend things like the torture of Communists and the changing regimes, she aspires to be a revolutionary herself and imagines herself debating these things with both God and Karl Marx in some light-hearted dream-like sections. Ultimately she feels that the big-bearded God of her dreams is no use to her cause, or perhaps he is supposed to be impotent in her view, an imaginary being made up by children. Either way, she moves on from him fairly quickly.*

She also shows us what it was like to grow up as a child in those times, and the fun and hurt caused between classmates as they discussed or acted out their parent’s differences (somewhat like the children in The Book Thief). The influence of the West on Satrapi is evident, leading her to rebel – although maybe this was more to do with her sharp mind and sense of passionate outrage at what was happening. One amusing section tells of how she was caught by local women wearing a Michael Jackson badge she’d acquired from the black market, and how she lied that the badge showed Malcolm X (MJ was still black then), an important “historical figure” – and they believed her! Another time her parents managed to bring back some trendy posters from (I think) Turkey, by sewing them into the back of a coat.

The obvious love in the family also shines through as they seek to bring up their girl as best they can – eventually sending her away from the country, which as you will have gathered was going through some worrying changes. The glimpse we get here is not only a good mix of the optimism of childhood and the down-to-earth facts of what was happening, it is also a refreshingly individual personal history, where the price of living for one’s conscience and against the current regime is clear.

* As an aside, I hope the way I live and work and stand for causes and pray and trust in God has the opposite effect – that people do not dismiss him as unnecessary, but see the true God of reality as the means by which it is possible to fully and rightly and passionately engage with all the rest of life. 

Click here to find a list of more graphic novels/comics I recommend.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Graphic novel review: Usagi Hojimbo ("rabbit samurai") vol 1

It’s rare to find a series of stories which manages to capture your imagination, stories that seem fresh even while working within a genre that has definite traditions, stories whose range of characters show a breadth and colour that seems to cover several levels of society. I’m happy to say that this first collection of stories about the lone wandering samurai called Miyamoto Usagi pulls off these feats with a certain irresistible charm.

OK, so the samurai Usagi is drawn as a rabbit, and there are plenty of other creatures around – but this is isn’t a jokey book and fight-scenes are action-packed and deadly. The stories in the first volume "Ronin" are interesting in their variety, from epic quests as Usagi defends the vulnerable people he meets on the road, to a memorable couple of encounters with a mercenary (a rhino) and less-content packed tales of Usagi meeting people, for instance when he is attacked by a brash and arrogant gang at a local place to eat and drink. (Amusingly, Usagi calmly finishes eating his meal while the intruders have turn everything upside-down except his table. When they insult him personally, he takes this as his cue to show them a lesson. Can’t fault his manners, I suppose.)

We come to understand the precarious nature of local politics in the 17th century Japan setting, as Usagi comes across outcast governors and one nefarious villain (cue cackling). One beautifully-formed story shows Usagi making a pilgrimage to his home town – and it shows us how we can still be attached to something or someone we thought we’d left behind. The author deserves credit for including sneaky moles in this tale as well whose deadly ninja training means they can appear out of nowhere by burying through the earth in huge numbers. The series usually has quite a serious and reflective tone, but the “ninja moles” show that author/artist Stan Akai can have some fun!

Finally, the art is quite detailed, showing some influence of Japanese manga, films and history. This Eisner-award winning series which has now been going since 1987 has drawn attention internationally and Empire magazine has named Usagi as the thirty-first greatest comic book character (see the list here) - it’s not hard to see why.

Click here to find a list of graphic novels/comics I recommend - or check back next week for my thoughts on an autobiographical graphic novel about Iran which was published in France - intriguing, no?

Friday, 25 February 2011

Excellent poems from Simon Armitage

If you like poetry, here's treat - Simon Armitage at his most awfully sad and moving and then following this - in a more inventive and funny mode, touching on huge subjects of 20th/21st century life (I prefer the latter one).

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Book Review: Real Lives in North Korea - nothing to envy

Since interning at Granta Books last year I’ve been enjoying articles and books that bring across the story of how people are living in tough places. One such book is Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea – which won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2010 and which I highly recommend.
Based on accounts of those who managed to escape North Korea, the book gives a sense of what it was like living during different stages of the rigidly controlled Communist regime which continues there to this day. It is incredible to read how fully indoctrinated people were (and I guess, still are) into at times ludicrously harsh or downright unhealthy rules and routines, and the “informing” culture, believed to be essential to “North Korean security”, as well as the personality cult around the leader Kim Il-sung, which had men and women finding their worth in the leader more than in any other relationship. It’s revealing to read about the impact of Kim Il-sung’s death on different groups of people – a patriotic house-wife, broken by the news, whose husband descends into deep depression, a teacher from a lower-class background, a student struggling to bear the weight of the mourning which was expected of him.

This is a well-written history of the last 2 decades, as much as the author, a reporter based in South Korea, has been able to find out, containing surprising detail of the way people saw the world outside through a veil of widely accepted lies, as well as how they saw each other and how they provided for each other in tougher times.

Particularly touching in the midst of all the carefully recorded information about rations and hardworking routines is the story of a young couple, Mi-ran and Jun-sung, secretly visiting each other at night to go walking and talk. A complex and highly restrictive class system prevented them meeting in daylight. It’s revealing and rather sad that despite these episodes one fled the country without trusting the secret to the other.

Another moving episode tells of how Mi-ran, at this point a teacher, watches her children coming to classes exhausted due to starvation in the famine which lasted for many long years in the nineties there. As she notes the missing pupils in her class, she sees her favourite pupil stops coming in and she presumes this is because the child is now dead.

In fact some of the details here and about the hospital in the province made me so sad I stopped reading this book for a while. When I returned, my outrage only increased as I learned of a 16-year-old whose home was taken by other occupants when his father became a beggar, and who was caught trading across the border for food and tortured and imprisoned along with adult inmates! The details here reveal a world of injustice, courage and despair, and above all left me feeling: something must be done.

If like me you feel this way – find out more. Today I was reading a shocking magazine from Release International which talks about the problems facing Christians in North Korea. When it is discovered there is a Christian or a Bible in a household, it’s not unknown for the whole family to be taken to away to brutal labour camps. One man who was in a camp for 5 years tells of how he was treated, at one point tortured by being made to sit on burning coals. Even fleeing North Korea can cause new problems as you are then illegal members of China. Escaping women particularly are preyed on and sold into prostitution and trafficked illegally – your heart just breaks to hear of things like this.

Release International are just at the beginning of their campaign to call for justice and release for imprisoned Christians in the country. Sadly there isn’t that much to read on their website yet – but you can sign their petition at this link. Do it! And do more than this. Find some way of telling someone who could make a difference. Ask leaders. Ask God. Seek more for the people there.

Painting - finished

So this post is waaaay overdue as I finished this painting without much trouble in December. But anyway, finally here it is - so what do you think? It's ok I think, considering I haven't painted for a while. Keep tuned for more creative stuff later this year, once I've settled into my new job a bit.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Ode to a stranger

The story behind the following poem is that it is based on a wierd picture that I don't know the back-story to. Up until my recent move I'd been going to a writer's group in Gosport, and group organisers Jo and Marie brought some pictures to inspire us in the month ahead. The one I picked is below, photographed on my phone. I just don't know what to make of it. The poem came out of this idea of perception without understanding.

Here lie I
Dead as a dormouse.

There is the angle of the wall,
The bench,
The way the ground falls away,
And a ragged line of people.

There is a lunchbox,
Limp arms,
A lime green handbag hanging
With its half-sunken mobile phone.

While I lie
The wooden slats form a rim
Of each story’s edge,
Tall tower blocks framing me
From the eagle’s eye

And in my eyes
Life does not eke out
Or brim up or linger.
It is too late to be sorry.
Tilt your wings;
Fly on.

© Richard Townrow

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Persecution and breakfast

After a week of taking in lots of information from various staff at my new workplace, I spent part of the morning lying in, finally getting to making a lazy man’s breakfast, mainly involving toast – and picked up the Open Doors magazine I was sent recently. I was quickly struck by the gap between my relaxed Saturday morning existence and the people who are living in danger and difficulty because of their faith in Christ and the political or societal situations around them, so I thought I’d share some details.

For instance, a Pakistani Christian woman is the first woman in the country to be sentenced to death for a charge of “blasphemy” – an observer says this verdict was given under pressure from a “mob outside the courtroom”. Outrageously, the woman, Asia Bibi, held in isolation since June 2009, and her family, who are in hiding, are in danger for their lives from hard-line Islamic groups, who want to take the law into their own hands.

Another article talks about some young boys in Orisso, India, who Open Doors have provided beds for at Ladruma Boys Home. Many of these abandoned children are traumatised from anti-Christian violence in the area in 2008, when the home became a target – during which time the caregivers were taken away because of the danger! So different to the UK where a lack of sufficient care for vulnerable kids will rightly cause an uproar.

What conditions to be trying to live in, to be trying to learn in or grow in or form relationships or work and earn a living. What a poor situation many fellow believers are in!

I need to grasp just how much opposition to Jesus and his people is out there in the world, and recognise that some people are paying a high price to be identified with the Lord Jesus – because they know what a privilege they have to know Him.

If you do, how do you remember to read about and pray for less fortunate people?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Time machines are not the answer

In this sad and telling passage from the quirky novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe we hear how Charles sees his position living inside a time machine as living “at the origin, at zero, neither present nor absent, a denial of self- and creature-hood to an arbitrarily small epsilon-delta limit.”

Then we get this interesting passage as to why Charles’ missing father created the time machine to have this function:

“Can you live your whole life at zero? Can you live your entire life in the exact point between comfort and discomfort? You can in this device. My father designed it that way. Don’t ask me why. If I knew the answer to that, I would know a whole lot of other things too. Things like why he left, where he is, what he’s doing, when he’s coming back, if he’s coming back.

I don’t miss him anymore. Most of the time, anyway. I want to. I wish I could but unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine; it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.” (All quotes from p.54, Atlantic Books Ltd, 2010)

Aside from this being an interestingly written (though morbid) paragraph of complex prose, what are some of the underlying ideas of the viewpoint portrayed and how might we interact with these?

Charles has made himself unknowable, a kind of island from reality. From this we see the dangers of empowering people with technology like time machines, and how people can be self-destructive due to trauma or depression.

His position is described as being “between comfort and discomfort”. This is where he chooses to live, avoiding living his life in the present. Do we not see people around us doing this psychologically, or practically – avoiding responsibility, or perhaps unable to cope with what is really happening? Or out of a sense of directionless-ness keeping on in the same dead-end situation, rather than making any changes in their lives? And doing all this as they see no end or outcome to their pain or life situation?

I love how the book’s author plays with tenses and scientific terminology and uses it as imagery in this book, but here it adds up to some quite bare truths. Here we see a mathematical methodical explanation of the pain of human experience, just laid out for us to stagger under the weight of it. Charles describes well the paradox of suffering, that we want people to matter to us and yet this could well bring us more pain, so that some suffering, even emotional turmoil, is desired as we seek to maintain our humanity and increase our love for others.

In the Christian faith, the way that pain is taken away is thankfully not for it to become trivialised or merely converted into data. No, instead, when God returns to remake the world it will be seen that all the pain of this world was an aching anguish for him to come. Pain is a profound and deep part of our experience as we wait for the God-man, Jesus Christ, to come again. And he will come and reward suffering people with his presence, wiping away the tears of pain with his love for us (Revelation 21).

Charles loses track of the days through his half- or non-living in the machine, but the experience for the Christian in eternity will be real living. God, who is outside time, promises to wrap up this world and its time, and create a new time, where things grow better and better for believers, every day, as we are eternally blessed by and get to know the depths of an eternal God. This view of time, exclusive to those in Christ’s lasting kingdom, is mind-blowing, purpose-giving and satisfying.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Comic Review of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

An excellent purchase, this graphic novel seems to draw on a whole culture created by Stephen King in his fantasy series, including a specific Wild West-inspired dialect and weapon set, an interesting approach to honour, a sense of legacy and supernatural mystery about the evil John Farson’s men.

It opens within some apprentices seeking to become “gunslingers” to follow their missing fathers into war, seeking to "remember the face of their fathers" (brilliant enigmantic phrases like this abound). Beyond that we find a tale of growth and hope and dark brooding despair, inked in gorgeous gothic detail by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove.

It’s particularly the mix of courage and doom that got me excited, and that strange narrator spinning us the story, provoking us with “what ifs” and lamenting the strange bents of the unfortunate characters and their destinies – it’s unlike any other graphic novel in this respect. By the end, writer Peter David gives us a sense that we have witnessed something truly significant, a fate that will have great implications for this world and the future.

Has anyone read the whole series of Dark Tower novels, which this was inspired by? Apparently, as part of his desire to include many different realities, the books incorporate elements (and characters) from Stephen King’s other works – how does this work I wonder? I wonder is John Farson is supposed to be Satan? And how you feel about meta-narratives, with many levels – do you like them, or do they just create too many complications?

Click here for a list of other graphic novels I recommend.

Evidence for God

On the right I have added a page with some evidence for God - adapted from a talk I heard back at New Word Alive 2010. Yes, this is long overdue! A snippet I liked is below. This is from a portion where we are talking about how the accounts of the New Testament of the Bible are good historical evidence to show us the amazing events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who came from God to show Him to us.
The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability. For instance, take Luke, who wrote both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (or “the Acts of the Apostles”) in the New Testament. The opening to the gospel of Luke, where he explains he intends to write an accurate history based on eyewitness accounts, is written in Greek, which was the language used by learned historians of the time. By doing this Luke is straight-away pinning his reputation on the work as a work of history.
But was Luke reliable in getting his facts straight? Looking closely at the book of Acts, which overlaps significantly with the history of the ancient world, classical scholar Colin Hemer has found a wealth of historical detail, from political to local knowledge, that all matches up with what we know eg about trade routes in particular years and areas and the peculiar titles of local officials. Professor Sherwin-White says “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming… even in matters of detail”. According to world-famous archaeologist Sir William Ramsey “Luke is a historian of the first-rank … This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Click on the page on the right entitled "Evidence for God - a few examples" for more. Thanks to Amy Orr-Ewing who didn't have time for me to interview her as she had to go pick up her kids - but she gave me some of her notes :) Check out her book But is it Real?, which I wrote about here.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Anime: Review of interesting action/drama "Tekkonkinkreet"

This Japanese animated film isn’t going to be for everyone, but you will probably like it if you liked the weirdness and the action of The Matrix or Akira and the colour of Slumdog Millionaire. Starring two brothers, Black and White, known as the Cats, who roam the streets and stamp their authority over the area, much of the drama comes from the fact that they are both children, making their way on their own, carrying out death-defying street-running stunts; but, because of how young they are, the violence they get into is quite disturbing, the measures they take to protect one another necessarily lethal.

Why are they being attacked by Terminator-like, unstoppable blue figures, silent figures who appear with little explanation, as if from some advanced alien future? They have been set on the Cats by Snake who wants to modernise Treasure Town and bring in more money for the Yakuza. The gangsters are trying to change, despite growing pains, and the brutal tactics they take mirror Black’s journey, who, as the older and more canny brother, becomes wilder in defending their street lifestyle.

There are mysteries a-plenty in the town, especially the bond between Black and the childishly playful White, with her strange, probably psychic, insights. And the theme of loss of innocence as the city changes pervades the story, including a brief scene depicting the two cops (whose empty threats are ignored by the gangsters) visiting a strip club for the first time to meet an older Yakuza. Perhaps the blue men are figures of an unstoppable amoral future, or show how the city is being taken over by a modern alien world outside.

With a shocking climax that takes us further away from the reality of the colourful city, it’s clear that in this town the price of safety is corruption, but what kind of safety does it buy? And can corruption be undone? These are questions left ambivalent despite a satisfying end to the brothers’ story. Maybe too disturbing or weird for some, I found this action-packed and interesting story highly entertaining.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Rescuing Hyrule and the Twilight Princess

As I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii lately, I just want to share how awesome the Lakebed/Water Temple is. OK, the previous temple in the Goron Mines had some brilliant sections as you worked out how to magnetise parts of the wall to get to different areas. But the Water Temple I loved because the whole area was one big puzzle. There must be some Japanese riddle-maker behind this entire area, to keep you from the darkly powerful “fused shadow” which the boss guards inside. Perhaps the idea is that, even as you unlock the rooms, you are proving your worthiness of the prize, as a persistent and wise hero.

If I drew a diagram of the Temple and marked how you get to the boss it would involve lots of circles around a central point. The central island contains the exit to the boss, but to reach it you need to release water from the lake above you out of the right surrounding rooms to raise the water level in the centre. But even within this puzzle there’s more – as you need to release some of it so it is funnelled in the right directions to access particular doors in the central room in order to release more water. And you need the right keys along the way.

I guess the layout is similar to the ugly but ingenius Goron temple in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game I sadly never finished.

Rarely am I inspired enough by a computer game to want to write about it, but this was one of those moments. I also like the anime-inspired story of the game, which is fuller than in previous instalments of Zelda. Weirdly though, the game is almost too similar to previous games. It makes a change when you get to swordfight a band of goblins on horseback through Hyrule, scare the townspeople in your cursed wolf form, or find a new item to exploit. The music should be better too. I hope Nintendo can continue to keep the series true to its epic and heroic roots while taking into some more unexpected directions as well.

When I move next week I’m going to miss having the family Wii around, to play this, Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition, Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports Resort, and Super Smash Bros Brawl – all great games.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

2011 - a year where I hope God is more and more my joy

Happy New Year! In the next week or so, expect a few posts from me on everything from anime film to reasons for believing in God's existence. But for today, here are some of the things I've been learning about God and his ways in the last few weeks and months.

  • There are two paths in life, God's one and the way of fools, the latter of which will be attractive to the eye, but only the former both offering and giving things of lasting value and excellence (see Proverbs, where Wisdom calls out offers us true life, prefiguring Jesus and his role in preaching the kingdom of God).
  • The Christian life is about responding to God’s goodness and undeserved love towards us by doing God’s will here on earth as part of his family, identifying ourselves with him while we wait for the fullness of the salvation that has been won for us (Romans 12, Mark 3:34-5).
  • The end of all history is God’s end, planned from long ago with a special place for us who know and love him (Ephesians 1:4-6, Romans 15:8-13, or read When I Don’t Desire God).
  • The call to love others in the church is God’s heart goal for us, that through this love we would show him to the world. Plus there is a great need to pray earnestly for the lost (from a talk on humility by Francis Chan).
  • It's been amazing to understand over Christmas the way Jesus came to live on earth ultimately to die for our benefit, to do a work of God for the glory of God. What gets me is how this precious anointed one of God, loved from eternity by the Father in heaven with the Father and Spirit, this one, the Christ, lived through the daily hard knocks of a life of poverty and frustration and pain and disappointment - and he did it joyfully obeying his Father, he did it to rescue us and be our light and the way to God for all who take up their cross and follow him. He lived this normal life for us, growing up like us, coming under men and women who taught him and berated him. And this life he lived came with all its hurt, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, striving for more, seeing only less; with being treated evil-ly in many ways and by many people; with being shown barely any love in return in comparison to the infinite love and worship he is due. He was committed to us and to God's glory in us with his whole self. He loves us!
  • It's no good trying to do something - anything - for God, or for love, without asking God's help. It's an arrogance to try to go it alone. It's a folly not to seek his help with any goal or meeting or event or time with family or with church or time to relax. It's a folly not to seek him for assurance that he cares for us, because he does. It's dumb to not ask to grow in Him. It's silly to not seek his help to become like Christ and to have a good relationship with God.
I hope you find this helpful. See you I hope during the year, and perhaps we can talk about how God is to shape our lives.