Category Archives: book review

‘Joan of Arc: A Life from beginning to end’ by Hourly History – review

Joan of Arc: A Life From Beginning to EndJoan of Arc: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They condemned her as an irreparable heretic, apostate, idolater, and witch and then burned her at stake even though she saved them from their enemy. And yet, in spite of such egregious treachery of her own countrymen, she knew no surrender to fear with stalwart faith in the Cause she intransigently believed to be her divine mission from the greatest man above as the flame rose to her nose, and then engulfed her therein, turning her to ashes. She was no less a figure than Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, the Virgin of Lorraine, whose bravery and belief – be it ever spiritual or psychological- epitomizes existential will to meaningfulness to live a purposeful life, as is vividly and elegantly related in this book.

Each chapter draws up on the substantial aspects of Joan’s purposes, acts, and achievements rather than illustrates religious or spiritual overtones in anecdotes or legends to glow her in a halo. The narrative takes us to where Joan of Arc witnessed the English occupiers’ hectoring of her village folks, including little children by beating, and we feel her indignation at the perpetrators of such violence on her soil. We also come to know that the divine messages she received were not directly from God but through St. Michael, the archangel, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine as the messengers of God with the three divine missions. That Joan of Arc had three cardinal missions of (1) taking up arms; (2) rallying the French to defeat the English occupying army; and (3) putting the Dauphine Charles on the French throne betokens her guiding lights of her life, her purpose of life that constantly reminded her of a “why” to live for. So we follow Joan, a tall and lean girl with her raven hair cut in bob attired in shining armor that weighted about twenty pounds to the frontlines of hand-to-hand combats fighting against the English army without her helmet on to boost morale of the French soldiers and got her neck pierced by an arrow. Then the narrative puts us forward to the dark cell of Joan harassed by five lewd English guards and to the heaps of stake where her body was consumed to ashes.

The lucidly vivid descriptions of each chapter in cogently casual narrative are the elemental force of this book that brings the grist to the mill for the visualization of the whole story as though it were played on a screen. In fact, while I was reading toward the end of the book, a song called “Bigmouth Strikes Again” by the Smiths, in which Morrissey sings, “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt” was starting to being played in my mental stereo set with heightened emotions. It also illustrates the canonical facts that many of us may be unaware of: (1) that it was the French, including the dauphin who later became Charles VI wholly thanks to Joan, who sold her to the English; (2) that Joan, for none other reason than being only human, attempted at several escapes which ended in foils; and that (3) it was twenty-two years after her death on fraudulent grounds of treachery and heresy that the Trial of Rehabilitation exonerated her from such preposterously erroneous charges, thanks to the troubling conscience of Charles VI who belatedly endeavored to make it happen.

This is an excellent primer on further study on Joan of Arc with a comprehensive overview of the time as regards the relationship between the Church and the politics, the role of the Church, and its dominance over society, let alone people. It will induce you to look at Joan of Arc not as mythological French virgin whose legacy exclusively appertains to the French as their patron saint only, but as a human who tried to do what she believed was right despite any biological or social inhibitions that she had to rise above. In this regard, Joan is an emblematic figure of courage, hope, and self will to achieve her existential values as someone with purposes in life, someone whom we can identify with in one way or another in our daily struggles of contemporary life. Upon reading this book, you will come to understand what made the American humorist Mark Twain offer such approbation: “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.” Indeed, her steadfast attitude toward her firm belief is something we can deem truly inspiring and remedial to apply to our own way of fulfilling demands placed upon our daily tasks in life.

‘The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations’ by Claude Lecouteux – review

The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern ManifestationsThe Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations by Claude Lecouteux

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As someone who is keen on the stories of supernatural phenomena based on true events devoid of media-generated sensationalism, testimonies of mediums (or psychics), or narratives of parapsychologists, I was immediately hooked on this interesting book by Claude Lecouteux, a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. What distinguishes this book from other books of similar subject matters is its etymological, historical, and sociological explanations on poltergeist and other supernatural incidents as recorded in annals, newspapers, or folktales.

The word “Poltergeist” meaning a noisy spirit in German, first appeared in the dictionary by Erasmus Alberus in 1540, an era marked by turbulent religious conflicts between the Catholics and the Protestants, including Reformation. In fact, Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, was an avid believer in devils’ manifestations in the form of poltergeist and availed it of a potent means of proselytism of his new religious founding. Also, from 1550 to around 1700, many books on spirits were written mainly by scholars, men of letters, and theologians, including King James I of England (1566-1625), who wrote Demonology in form of a Dialogue, a treaty on spirits of devilish nature.

As aforesaid, etymologically, the word “poltergeist” denotes a primarily acoustic phenomenon that has also been termed as “knocking spirits,” which Lecourteux uses as a neutral term without academic snobbery. He categorizes the activities of poltergeists as follows: (1) Casting stones/filth; (2) Vague noises; (3) Banging of windows; (4) Mischievous/Malicious acts; (5) Broken dishes; (6) Destruction of houses by fire; and/or (7) Attacks on specific individuals. He further illustrates the historical accounts of poltergeist incidents in the cases of a certain Greek philosopher named Athenodorous as narrated by Pliny the Younger (62-113) in his letter to his friend Sura in which a story of a specter of an old man who appeared to the philosopher to show him where he had been buried and a man named Gilles Bolacre who rented a haunted house in Tours that disturbed him every night with knocking sounds and went to court to have the lease successfully rescinded on the ground of the landowner’s violation of caveat emptor.

Lecourteux also proffers a reasonably plausible connection between some of the supernatural phenomena and human synchronicity, which includes telesthetic power. He provides the reader with the concept of “Place Memories,” a telesthetic phenomenon in which the cries of the victims and various noises accompanying the violent scenes are imprinted on the walls or at the places where acts of violence were committed as if upon a magnetic tape recording. He elucidates that inanimate objects could be endowed with human properties by means of the telestehtic faculties of the subconscious that have the ability to find and interpret such uncommon vibrations and emanations, just as mnemonic faculties have the ability to discern the latent vibrations of thought.

In light of the above, Lecourteux addresses our human nature that has hardly evolved at all in the domain of supernatural despite the dominant influence of Enlightenment rationality in the recent historical and social landscapes. That is, science has failed to deprecate ancient beliefs in spiritual entities variable in accordance with religious and cultural climates throughout our human civilizations. Also, the veritable records of supernatural incidents betoken different mental attitudes of the times. After all, our ancient predilection for anything supernatural have survived and will survive change of time and political, social ethos because it is linked to man’s fundamental questions about a realm inhibited by the dead and spirits.

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two fellows – short story

So there he was. You could always find him there at the same time, at the same place regardless of a change of four seasons, like it was his duty to do. Looking over the fence smartly seated on a rock on one balmy afternoon, Toto was calm and steady. His big brown eyes full of yearnings and visions glanced at the dancing leaves on the quince tree outside the fence where there were only a few fruits left because Grandma, being of generous and affable nature, had given the well ripe ones to the neighbors. However, such intermittently displayed quinces surrounded by the abundant leaves appealed to Toto’s inquisitive eyes: the way the leaves swayed to the tune of the breeze was a part of the nature’s orchestra that stimulated all of his senses, which ultimately led him to the outburst of his exhilaration in long howling like a wolf pup in the wild.

Toto was a Jindo mix, aged 9 weeks or so. Toto came to Joe’s home on a cold winter afternoon a year ago with Pa who brought him in his jacket. He was a white puppy looking healthy but a bit apprehensive about the new surrounding. But mind you that there was no sign of fear in his eyes but intelligence. Joe named him Toto after a legendary dog that returned to his owner, an old woman who had given the dog to her nephew in a city miles away from her home in Jindo. So he wanted to have a dog whose faithfulness and loyalty would be equivalent of those of the legendary namesake. Joe wanted to keep his new puppy till the end of the world because he had lost Lana, a Samoyed mix puppy of 9 weeks old, to distemper 2 years ago. This time, Joe thought, would be the last time to let such thing happen to him and the dog. It was his new bound duty, a duty that suddenly appeared sacred and fateful to his destiny. Boy as he was, Joe was resolute in his new pledge to the life and protection of Toto as his guardian. Looking at Toto who was napping beside him on the rock by the quince tree, Joe could hear the whisper of the breeze that blessed his guardianship and fellowship of the human and the canine. What a nice afternoon it was to both the boy and the dog.

“Joe, can you come here quickly?” It was Joe’s sister Judy. She was 16 years old, 2 years senior to him. Judy also loved Toto and dogs, although her favorite breeds were Labs, Border Collies, Shiba Inus, and Bichon Frises. She had been secretly entertained having a Bichon Frise until Pa brought Toto home. She had a soft spot for this particular breed since she had read about a homeless elderly man who sailed through the tribulations with his Bichon Frise dog named Willow; the image of the small, curly haired dog with large soulful eyes in the arms of the man still lingered in her mind. But it’s not that she did not their Toto. Toto was their another sibling, the youngest brother whom Ma had lost by miscarriage 6 years ago. Judy’s love of Toto was not to be confused with anthropomorphism because she loved Toto the way he was, the way Toto was the closest natural wonder. He was Judy and Joe’s guide to the natural world like Virgil to Dante in his journey to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Through Toto, Judy and Joe could see the wonder of Nature in which all creatures existed and made the human existence all the more conspicuous by appreciating the pristine beauty which were to be beheld in the eyes of the innocent.

A reader lives a thousand lives

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Seraphina Rabbite, the habitual reader, believes in the power of reading. It generates pleasure peculiar to the literary medium of communication, the magical realm of make-believe reality, the alchemy of imaginativeness and sensuousness, all in the artistry of the literary cunning folk called writers, casting spells on the readers to pass over to the minds of the creators and of the characters. She believes that writer and reader engage in a magical ritual of connectedness through vicarious experience in the moments of empathy, the epiphany of the Eureka moments when the third-dimensional wall between the writer and the reader tumbles down. That is why Sally thinks that all writers, professional and amateur, are in one way or another possessed of certain supernatural feats of spurring their restless spirits on writing.

That said, Sally has scribed the effects of reading in a form of her self-professed credo as follows:

  1. Reading is both entertainment and stimulation of mind.
  2. It is in their appeal and in their power to bestow pleasure, self-satisfaction and the joy of mental growth to readers.
  3. It takes readers from the humdrum existence, the rut of life, to stimulate the minds to fresh endeavor, to give them a new viewpoint upon existential problems, to enable them to get a fresh hold upon themselves.
  4. It intends to show the progress of the human race within the historical times as depicted in books.
  5. It is an active force toward the sound mental equipment of reading people.
  6. It takes readers out of the rut of life in the town they live and makes them citizens of the world.
  7. Readers understand the minds of the writers by passing over to the inner world of the writers.

Shakespeare said of reading thus: “This is true; there’s magic in the web of it.” If writing is akin to a literary witchcraft, reading is a voluntary intoxication of the witchery elixir in expectation of crossing over to the liminal zones, the in-between zones of our reality and imaginary world. The best summation on books and its effects comes from our contemporary Stephen King: “Books are a uniquely portable magic. You experience magic every time you read without knowing its influence on you. Go for it.

‘Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling’ by Ross King – review

Michelangelo and the Pope's CeilingMichelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Pope Julius II saw the Pieta installed for the tomb of a French cardinal, he wanted the same awe-inspiring adornment for his tomb. Hence, Michelangelo Buonarroti from Florence was summoned for the work. That’s how Michelangelo at age thirty-three reluctantly embarked on his Herculean task of frescoing the vault of the Sistine Chapel. This book by Ross King recounts such background stories of the making of the Sistine Chapel frescoes and descriptions of the personal traits of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s work on the frescoes resulted from part Divine Providence of endowing the humanity with an awe-inspiring masterpiece of art to delight the senses of mankind throughout the ages, and part secular ambitions to mark the names of both the commissioner and the artist themselves. Pope Julius II also wanted to renovate the Sistine Chapel that had been used as a living quarter for the guards, a fortress against papal enemies, and a jail. As no one pours new wine into old wineskins as said in the bible, the pope’s plan to revert the chapel to its original place of worship, which made him drop his tomb project, was met by his idea of frescoing the vault in its entirety. Michelangelo, who was a breadwinner of his family, accepted the commission with good amount of salary and commenced four-year of labor of woes and dramas on the vault of the chapel.

There are revealing truths that should be known concerning the process of frescoing the Sistine Chapel as follows: Contrary to popular belief that Michelangelo did the work while lying prone on his back, he worked with his upper body bent backward like a bow. Also, it wasn’t done by Michelangelo alone but by a team of his assistants chosen by Francesco Granacci, a close friend of Michelangelo, even though he was innately a solitary worker who had a strong distrust of others who worked with him.

Michelangelo was said to be a man of  homely appearance without sociability in comparison with his contemporary and rival Raphael Santi whose beautiful look, even-tempered, and sweet character topped with artistic ingeniousness endeared him to the many. Also, Michelangelo’s direct altercation with Leonardo da Vinci as described in this book was amusing to discover. Both of the masters of the arts did not like each other publicly, but it was on the part of da Vinci who instigated such heated feud. He disregarded sculptors, including Michelangelo, as mechanics in the appearance of unkempt bakers.

It is also interesting to pay special notes on the figures Michelangelo used for the frescoes, which shows his ingenuity of selecting unique subject matters distinguished from his contemporaries. To illustrate, he used 7 prophets from the Old Testament and 5 sibyls from pagan myth to decorate the Sistine vaults. He was fascinated with prophetic knowledge of the sibyls who had dwelt in sacred shrines and predicted the future in fits of inspired madness. This offered a riveting link between the sacred and the profane, the church and the esoteric pagan culture by reconciling pagan mythology with orthodox Christian teachings.

Readers will find that the position of a painter/sculptor was not esteemed highly; he was more of a skilled laborer, a craftsman given exact orders how to produce his work by his commissioner or patron. In fact, he image of a solitary genius who would wield his brush and pallets to portray his world of imagination from the fathoms of his soul was a romantic fable. In Michelangelo’s time, an artist’s creativity was fettered by the demands of marketplace or his patron. Nevertheless, Michelangelo often disagreed to the pope’s own artistic direction and even had a temerity of broaching the shipping charges incurred in transporting the marbles from Carrara for the aborted tomb project at a dinner table with the pope .

All in all, this book has its magical way of transporting readers to Italy in the early 16th century and invites readers to meet with Michelangelo as he was without sprucing up his personal character. Upon reading this book, I avert that Michelangelo is an artist bizarre fantastico whose magnum opuses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have both the beauty and the sublime that produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder so formidable and so fantastic transcendent of time and place.