Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 3

More 19th-century literature!  I get chatty about Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll, and Jules Verne as we finish off this second shelf.  And oh, those wood engravings... <3   Let me know if you've read any of these!

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 3

How does one become the President of China?

If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric.  According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China "belonged more to the realm of magic than political science" (p. 92).  The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided.  This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  Please see Part I and Part II, if you'd like to read more.) photo essay 110110-F-6655M-017
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 -
by Jerry Morrison

Coincidence and Conviction

Xi's life has been filled with the unexpected - from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader.  Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?

From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu.  These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point.  It was a tight "race," to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.  
  • Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care.  His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.  
  • Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was "more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers" (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role.  In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi's term was secured for life.  Li Yuanchao's rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.
Was the Lis' ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor?  While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.
He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)
Essentially, Xi - like every compelling leader, good or bad - presents his story as part of what he brings to the table.  He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96).  This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.

The Future According to President Xi

The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating.  In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:
  • The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
  • How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
  • What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)
It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters.  What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.

Money, Corruption, and - Democracy?

As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both.  For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government's revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155)  SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.

Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care.  The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159).  How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man?  For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided.  It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.

Technology as Power

Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital.  Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.

While China maintains the "Great Firewall," blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens' opinions and wants.  Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177).  Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.

Globalism and the Two Centenaries

China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals.  By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a "moderately well-off" status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy.  By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a "modern socialist country."  Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the "Chinese Dream."

In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role.  It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.

China's interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa - see China's Second Continent by journalist Howard French.  Additionally, Xi's renaissance of the Silk Road, now called "The Belt and Road," contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries' infrastructures.  The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi's China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin's Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.

Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary.  His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China's future.

In Summary

CEO, China is not just a biography.  I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis.  It's one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I've gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one.  That said, current events and China's human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.

Elie Wiesel's Open Heart, and Thoughts on Christian Suffering

In his memoir Open Heart, Elie Wiesel takes us through his experiences surrounding his 2011 open heart surgery.  Wiesel is famous for his Night trilogy, and here some of the same themes come back in short, fleeting chapters - the dark memories of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as the perennial question: why does God allow His children to suffer evil?  What should a Jewish person's response be in times of persecution or pain?  Question marks abound in this short work, underlining the great despair we may sometimes feel when evil touches our lives.

One reason I picked up this book was to understand something of what a patient experiences during this medical procedure.  My grandma has faced a myriad of health issues, including two heart surgeries; she endured them with grace even while she was in terrible pain.  What could she have been feeling?  I have never asked her, choosing instead (as with other personal questions) to seek another avenue of understanding in Wiesel's book.

Of course, it is not an exact parallel.  For one thing, Wiesel's perceptions or imaginings of the afterlife are not identical to Christian beliefs on the same.  He describes his picture of hell as "ruled by cruel, pitiless angels" and full of physical tortures.  In this book, he does not seek to systematically explain his beliefs, offer a treatise on death, or even describe the surgery in detail.  Instead, Wiesel presents his thoughts and reactions moving from one scene to the next - a surreal, metaphysical, and ultimately personal exploration.

I've mentioned before Shūsaku Endō's book The Silence, one I've been actively avoiding (yet will ultimately read).  In Open Heart, Wiesel touches on the same theme - the apparent silence of God.
...Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also - and most of all - a theological scandal.  For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.  But then how is one to understand His silence?
For Christians, too, this question is not irrelevant.  Many of my family members in Christ are enduring persecution as I write.  Barnabas Aid is a charity I support, and every day their prayer focus features a story of the horrifying, often government-sanctioned brutalization of Christians in other parts of the world.  The Armenian Genocide - which Wiesel worked to bring awareness to - is a historic example. On a personal level, each of us has suffered his or her own tragedy, be it a physical disease, a mental health struggle, the death or loss of a loved one, or something else which we may never tell another human being. 

Wiesel's answer, in part, is as simple as the question: "Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers."  There is certainly wisdom in acknowledging mystery.  Humanity itself involves mystery, from questions such as the Creation of the world and the beginning of a human's soul, to those about the origin of evil and enduring hatred.

To add to this, it is no coincidence much of the New Testament covers the existence of persecution.  I've personally found comfort in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks to His disciples directly on this subject, with empathy:
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  (John 15:18–19, NKJV)
I wish there were words to adequately describe John 17 - epic or poetic seem trite.  But here, too, in His last prayers before death, Jesus speaks of His followers:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20–23, NKJV)
Suffering remains something of a mystery to me.  Through my own experiences, though - which, while personally crushing, were minute compared to those of others - I can affirm God was never absent.  If even small struggles matter to Him, how much more so the greater ones.

Constructive Rest and the Sad History of Orchids

Since starting my 9–5 desk job a few years ago, my already poor posture has deteriorated quite a bit, due to hunching in front of two monitors all day.  The 8 hours at the desk is not the only problem...when I get home, my first instinct is to switch to my personal laptop (for blogging, etc) or curl up in a chair to read.  Neither of these activities helps my posture, of course.


I've had this problem for years but only recently became seriously concerned with the longterm effects.  While I've tried exercises/stretches in the past, I'm convinced that stretching in itself is not enough.  Breaking it down, the first problem, I feel, is simply how to give my back a rest.

The last couple of days, I've been experimenting with "constructive rest," part of the Alexander Technique (which I have not done, but probably could benefit from).  It's as simple as can be - you just lie down on a flat surface with your knees bent and your head slightly propped up.

Me, I can't just lie down and do nothing.  I have to be reading, or watching a video, or something.  So during my "constructive rest" time - about 30 minutes a day - I have been listening to a LibriVox audiobook called About Orchids, a Chat by Victorian writer Frederick Boyle, read by Peter Yearsley.

One of these days, I will talk about my love of orchids, which actually has a literary origin.  For now, suffice it to say I have recently purchased a new Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) and was happy to find a Victorian "chat" about one of my favorite flowers.  Boyle was a lawyer and journalist who had a penchant for orchids, and listening to him talk about them in an educated, yet chatty fashion is really enjoyable.

Vanda Sanderiana

A sad thing I learned was the troublesome, sometimes disturbing history of how orchids came to Europe in the 19th century.  Boyle talks of orchid importers chopping down whole, perfectly good trees for the sake of literally a few orchids clinging to the branches.  He lists a slew of orchid collectors who died on the job, while trekking through difficult terrain to find specimens.
The honest youth, not very strong perhaps in an English climate, went bravely forth into the unhealthiest parts of unhealthy lands, where food is very scarce, and very, very rough; where he was wet through day after day, for weeks at a time; where "the fever," of varied sort, comes as regularly as Sunday; where from month to month he found no one with whom to exchange a word.
Boyle explains how small the payoff was due to trouble with shipments.  The orchids had to be carefully packed and sent down from the mountains to the port on pack mules.  This was not the worst of it.  An orchid importer could lose up to 1000£ if a batch of orchids did not survive the sea voyage.  (Orchids are rather sensitive to temperature and water). 

All in all, I am left with mixed feelings about my beloved orchids.  I do not feel such risks and waste are worth transporting a tiny, inanimate creature from one part of the globe to the other.  On the other hand, now we have orchids in grocery stores, so I benefit from that history.  I'm glad I did not have to choose one way or the other, because I can understand the collectors' obsession, even if I can't condone it.

Martin Johnson Heade - Orchids and Hummingbirds (14994490788)
Martin Johnson Heade - Orchids and Hummingbirds, [CC BY 2.0 ],
via Wikimedia Commons, Irina, 2014-09-08 22:03

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 2

As president of China, Xi Jinping presides over 18% of the world's population, and he is set to do so for life.  How did Xi rise to such prominence, and what can we learn from his life that will help us understand his future?  Kerry Brown's book, CEO, China, offers some clues as to the man behind the mystery.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  You can read Part I here if you like.)

President George W. Bush with Vice President Xi Jinping
George W. Bush and Xi Jinping, August 2008 - by Eric Draper

The Young Xi: Two Sides of History

"The issue of whether Xi is a 'Maoist' is a live one in China," writes Brown (p. 10).  As he goes on to illustrate, Xi's historical and cultural relationship to Mao is not only complicated but personal, with origins that go back to Xi's childhood and his father, Xi Zhongxun.

Xi Zhongxun began his career as a distinguished communist soldier, fighting  both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists throughout the 1930s-1940s.  This was an era of terrifying violence, in which torture and brutality were used by both sides of the communist vs. anti-communist conflict (p. 17).  Xi Zhongxun survived, and his efforts won him the approbation of Mao.  In the 1950s, Xi Zhongxun pivoted to the position of deputy minister of (Maoist) propaganda.

Propaganda, however, proved to be a double-edged sword for the elder Xi.  Kang Sheng, a key leader in Mao's purges, accused Xi Zhongxun of allowing a subversive novel to be published.  It was a strong enough claim that Xi Zhongxun was dismissed from the Party; he would later be beaten and then, with his wife and children, exiled from Beijing.

This was a mild sentence compared to others dealt by Mao's Cultural Revolution, but it was enough to blight Xi Jinping's youth with suffering and continued persecution.  Fortunately for his later career, Xi did not join the Red Guard youth - in fact, he was barred from it, and the radicals found in him an opponent who, in spite of his regard for Mao's thought, proved to be a tough dissenter against the violence of the 1960s.

Mao Zedong rice field
Mao, the "peasant emperor," in civilian country attire

In his teenage years, Xi Jinping experienced xiaxiang - mandatory "rustication" by being "sent down" to the countryside and forced to do farm labor.  During this time of mass "poverty and loneliness" (p. 56), he was compelled to learn a number of skills, including basic medicine and mechanics.  This further toughened Xi, who had begun life as a somewhat sheltered and "bookish" child (Buckley, Tatlow, 2015).

Restoration to the Party and Beyond

Xi Jinping was granted membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1974.  Considering that Party membership was essential to upward mobility, it is no wonder he had tried for so long to gain its good graces.  (His father would not be fully reestablished until 1978).

Though Xi studied chemical engineering in college, he instead pursued a career in government jobs, spending the next three decades serving in various provinces and even attaining the governorship of Fujian (1999–2002).  Interestingly, his leadership in Zhejiang province (2002–2007) foretold his global capabilities, as he supported Chinese businesses such as Alibaba and encouraged foreign businesses such as McDonald's, Motorola, and Citibank (p. 73–74).

All of these experiences bolstered not just his resume but his clout as a man of the world and a capable, profitable leader.  Likewise - and in part by staying in the provinces and out of "central politics" - Xi managed to avoid scandals and accusations of corruption, which were the downfall of some of his Party peers (most famously, Bo Xilai).

One significant detail I had not realized about Xi was how large a role the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics played in his career.  At this point, he had become Vice President of China, and as such he was tasked with the (thankless) honor of overseeing the Olympic Games.   Brown describes some of the risks:
One terrorist Tibetan demonstration...or, perhaps, worst of all, Chinese sporting failure in the games themselves could have destroyed his ambitions.  As it was, the three weeks of the tournament were a success. (p. 86)
This international spectacle became, in appearance and truth, the pinnacle of Xi's career up to that point.  He had taken on a momentous challenge and, by talent and some luck, pulled it off without a hitch.  As we in the U.S. watched (and re-watched) the entrancing performers beating their drums in sync, we could not have been more delighted and pleased than Xi, the master behind the ceremonies.

Additional Sources:
"Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor" - NY Times article by Chris Buckley and Didi Kirsten Tatlow, 2015.

Rejection Scene from Eugene Onegin

This week I devoted an entire podcast episode to one of my favorite novels, Eugene Onegin.  Though I only mentioned it in passing, I also watched Onegin, the 1999 adaptation, after reading the book.

Liv Tyler was brilliantly cast as the bookish Tatyana; this was just before she became famous for Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.  Ralph Fiennes is a good 10 years older than the title character, but he does a decent job at the Byronic Onegin.  Personally, I found the script to be underwhelming and disappointing - too pedestrian (and stylistically British) to really capture the essence of Pushkin's Russia ca. 1830.  It's too bad, given the cast.

That said, I do like the script's translation of this scene from the book.  Tatyana, having professed her love in a letter, must sit through an awkward heart-to-heart from a disinterested Onegin.  While Tchaikovsky's opera infuses this scene with soaring melodies - leading you to think Onegin likes her after all - Fiennes's cool, polite delivery seems more realistic and makes Tatyana's nervousness all the more real.

This is the same scene in the opera, in case you didn't get enough (and because I love it so much).  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is my favorite portrayal of Onegin:

Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 2

In this second episode, we continue on with more books in my physical bookcase. On this shelf, it's mostly fairy tales and 19th-century literature, from E. T. A. Hoffmann and Mary Shelley, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Brontë sisters. Let me know if you've read any of these!

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes

Yesterday, I finished reading a selection of letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). I read some of her best poems in my latest podcast episode, but really, her letters are even more interesting, showing us a glimpse of one woman's life in mid-19th-century America. Here are some of the most memorable quotes from those letters.

Dickinson and Turner 1859 (cleaned)
This picture is unauthenticated but believed to show Emily Dickinson (left) and one of her friends, Kate Scott Turner, to whom some of the letters were addressed

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes on...

Being a Young Lady - 1845
How do you enjoy your school this term?  Are the teachers as pleasant as our old school-teachers?  I expect you have a great many prim, starched up young ladies there, who, I doubt not, are perfect models of propriety and good behavior.  If they are, don't let your free spirit be chained by them.

Valentines - 1848
Many of the girls have received very beautiful ones; and I have not quite done hoping for one.  Surely my friend Thomas has not lost all his former affection for me!  I entreat you to tell him I am pining for a valentine.

Humor and Real Life - 1851
When I know of anything funny I am just as apt to cry, far more so than to laugh, for I know who loves jokes best, and who is not here to enjoy them.  We don't have many jokes, though, now, it is pretty much all sobriety; and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it's pretty much all real life.  Father's real life and mine sometimes come into collision but as yet escape unhurt...

Missing Friends - 1853
...I thought of you all last week, until the world grew rounder than it sometimes is, and I broke several dishes.

Dickens and Stowe - 1853
[Father] gave me quite a trimming about "Uncle Tom" and "Charles Dickens" and those "modern literati" who, he says, are nothing, compared to past generations who flourished when he was a I'm quite in disgrace at present...

Ice-Cream - 1861
We have at present on cat, and twenty-four hens, who do nothing so vulgar as lay an egg, which checks the ice-cream tendency.  

The Fourth of July Fire - 1879
And so much lighter than day was it, that I saw a caterpillar measure a leaf far down in the orchard; and Vinnie kept saying bravely, "It's only the fourth of July."...Vinnie's "only the fourth of July" I shall always remember.  I think she will tell us so when we die, to keep us from being afraid.

Her Father - 1880
The last April that father lived, lived I mean below, there were several snow-storms, and the birds were so frightened and cold, they sat by the kitchen door.  Father went to the barn in his slippers and came back with a breakfast of grain for each, and hid himself while he scattered it, lest it embarrass them.  

Sisters - 1883
Your bond to your brother reminds me of mine to my sister - early, earnest, indissoluble.

Doubt - 1883
We pray to Him, and He answers "No."  Then we pray to Him to rescind the "no," and He don't answer at all, yet "Seek and ye shall find" is the boon of faith.

Though I've read a fair bit of 19th-century literature, Emily Dickinson's letters showed me another side of it, through one woman's life challenges and her own inner struggles.  Some of it made me smile, and some of it was heartbreaking.

I'm again reminded what a blessing the internet can be and is for those of us who live more introverted lives.  The ability to communicated with like-minded people across timezones and geography is so powerful.  It staves off some of the profound loneliness which people, especially women, have endured in times past, while bringing more perspective to our own ideas of the world.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 1

"What do you know about the man who runs China?" the blurb demanded.

"Nothing," I blinked.  Well, basically nothing.

I couldn't believe it...I knew basically nothing about Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful leaders in the world today.  (I also have some Chinese heritage, which makes it even more embarrassing.)

Xi, in fact, may wield more influence than any other secular leader.  He functions not only as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) but also as their "core leader" - putting him in the same league as Mao.  In parallel, he shows the other communist nations (nominally very few) what a strong communist leader looks like.  With a GDP on track to overtake the United States' in the next decade, China's version of socialism is not to be ignored, and Xi is well placed to be more than just a figurehead.

Search Amazon for "xi jinping biography" and relatively few books come up.  Remove the word "biography" and the results are better, though apparently little read, if we go by the number of reviews.  If Xi is so important, why do we in the West talk so little about him as opposed to, say, Putin?  The mystery in my mind was growing as I picked up Kerry Brown's biography, boldly titled CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.

Politics, Ideology, and - Religion?

As a professor, writer, and former diplomat to China, Kerry Brown brings a well-rounded perspective to his biography of Xi.  This book covers a vast amount of material beyond the chronology of Xi's life, which is covered in the chapter "Xi the Man" as well as the helpful "Timeline" at the beginning of the book.  Did I mention Brown also includes a list of key players and acronyms?  By the end of the book, you still won't remember the difference between the CNPC and the CPPCC and the CDIC, but you will know where to find it.

The confusion is no fault of Brown's - every big organization serves alphabet soup.  Indeed, Brown offers an overview of the intricate workings of the CPC to start out the book, without which I would have been utterly lost.  Mingling history with his own knowledge and insights, Brown shows us the many-tiered cake that is the Communist Party in China.  Its base is the CPC at large, a political party of almost 90 million members.  From this foundation, you build up to the National People's Congress (NPC), which is the Chinese parliament (about 2-3k members); and then on up to the Central Committee (several hundred members); the Politburo (25 members); and finally, the "Olympians" - the Poliburo Standing Committee, comprised of just seven members.

Chart found on Global Macro Monitor.  The source page appears to be offline.

According to Brown, the Politburo is "one of the best known, and least understood, of modern political bodies."
More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything. (p. 24)
Understanding how the CPC works is crucial to understanding how Xi came to power.  He did, after all, become the 151st alternate member of the Central Committee in 1997, when at the time, the limit was 150 (p. 72).  Brown illustrates through this, and other examples, that the CPC is something of a flexible network, not a science with hard-and-fast rules, as we tend to envision one-party states (China allows multiple "minor parties," but is de facto one party).

This interdisciplinary leadership, paired with the well-established hierarchy and culture, are part of the reason Brown likens the CPC's structure to that of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the same vein, he compares the influence and challenges of Xi to those of Pope Francis.  Xi, by nature of his role, must offer spiritual inspiration as well as political impetus - this he does in many ways, from speeches about the Chinese Dream to his own installment in the Chinese constitution.

The latter accomplishment, confirmed in March 2018, means that Xi, like the Pope, can stay in office until his death, if he likes.  At just 65 (and if he follows in Castro's footsteps), Xi could easily lead China for another 20 years.

[Well - this review is turning out to be a long one, but it was such an interesting book!  Part 2 to come...]

Jurassic World 2: Dinos and Russians and Clones, Oh My!

Yesterday my sister, brother, and I hit the local movie theater for a viewing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  We're relatively new fans - Jurassic World 1 (2015) was a first for us - but having since enjoyed the rest of the franchise, we were excited for the next installment of prehistoric monsters chasing after the indestructible Chris Pratt.  After enduring 20 minutes of inanity - er, previews - we sat up in our seats with zeal, watching a very tiny, obviously illegal submarine descend the watery coast of Isla Nublar.

Submarine?  Skeletons?  Count me in!

This tremendous opener was, alas, the beginning of a tremendous letdown.  Let me break it down into some coherent chunks of thought.

But First, Science

The movie begins with glimpses of the "Fallen Kingdom": Isla Nublar in decay after the disastrous failure of its Jurassic World theme park.  Cut to a shot of a well-dressed Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) with some actually sound advice - Let it goooo, Let it gooo - which not everyone, including Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is ready to do.  Actually, Claire is now head of a conservation effort to get the surviving dinosaurs off the island, before the active volcano destroys everything.  She is assisted by two new characters: Zia, a passionate paleo-veterinarian, and Franklin, the (properly terrified) IT guy.

Claire, rockin' a ponytail, and the new guy, Franklin

Claire's 180-degree change of heart (this was the woman who shrugged off the "assets" in the first film) can be seen as a sort of redemption attempt, though some, including former researcher Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), share Dr. Malcolm's opinion.  Unbeknownst to either of them, sinister forces are working behind the scenes to sabotage the whole operation.  What starts out as a rescue mission becomes a survival story - for dinos and humans - with our feisty quartet pitted against evil businessmen looking to make millions.  Money, money, money.

Anyone watching a Jurassic movie must suspend disbelief.  However, and as much as we love the dinosaurs, are we really to believe Claire's conservation efforts are worthwhile?  The plan which she agrees to involves moving 11 species to another island, where they'll be allowed to live free.  However, it is unclear how big this new island is, and whether enough of each species will be transported for them to actually be preserved - "for the children."  In fact, if you've ever researched the amount of space required for mere lions to roam comfortably, as well as maintain enough numbers to avoid inbreeding, you'll start to question this scheme.

All that said, let us assume those details have been ironed out off-screen.  After all, they decided not to listen to the mathematician this time... 

Dinos (and Chris Pratt) Just Get Cooler and Cooler

Those looking to get their monster-movie fix will not be disappointed in that department.  Fallen Kingdom features not only our old favorites - "Blue" the velociraptor and the mosasaurus lurking under the sea - but a new hybrid creature, concocted by none other than Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) himself.

Owen's strength is knowing when to fight, but also when to hide

Without giving too much away, I found the new dinosaur to be appropriately scary (even chilling), and that is saying a lot, considering this plotline is a rehash from Jurassic World 1.  (Much of the movie - from plot to characters - repeats former Jurassic elements, something reviewers have been quick to point out.)  Couple this unnatural creature with the natural disaster on Isla Nublar, and you have some pretty awesome scenes throughout the film, where the CGI becomes standalone art in itself.

I mentioned Blue is back, and that is where Owen comes back in.  It's not hard to see why the gruff, outdoorsy, Coca-Cola-sipping Owen has a soft spot for Blue.  The raptor is like a favorite dog, raised from puppy to full-grown bloodhound.  In true animal-character style, Blue has her own important part to play in the unfolding drama.

What's with Those Russians and Cowboys?

While the Jurassic movie series has always borne its share of social commentary, this is perhaps (and I'm going solely by memory) the first installment which goes a step further, into political territory.  Personally, I sit down to a dinosaur movie to escape politics, but from the beginning, Fallen Kingdom refuses to allow me escape.

We very soon see a "BBC" clip about Isla Nublar, where the news ticker text reports that the current U. S. president doubts the existence of the Jurassic World dinosaurs (after they have injured hundreds of visitors).  We can debate whether he would actually disbelieve this, but it's obviously a jab at Trump.  One of the villains uses Trump's "nasty woman" quote in reference to Zia, the (awkwardly stereotyped) feminist character.  The apparently Republican U. S. Congress is also posed as an initial antagonist, because they, like Dr. Malcolm, find it pragmatic to allow nature to take its course.

Dr. Malcolm speaking to the U.S. Senate

It gets even better after the setting switches from the Fallen Kingdom to - an old manor house.  Yes, Jurassic World 2 features the haunted house trope.  To be fair, it is effective, especially from the eyes of the little girl Maisie (Isabella Sermon).  What is she to think when she sees that sinister-looking Russian gentleman walk up the drive?  And...those cowboys!

The appeal of owning a dinosaur is international, but according to the screenwriters, we have to be especially careful of Russians, plus ranchers from the Southwest.  Out of all the diverse people who are interested in these powerful creatures, the camera lingers on those two groups - the former with their glowering stares, and the latter with their bright white hats and shiny bolo ties.  (Convince me I'm reading too much into it.  I would like to think it's just me.)

"Genetic power has now been unleashed..."

The ending surprised me...not in a good way.  In spite of opportunities to tie up loose ends, the screenwriters chose to leave a lot of things open.  I hear they are planning a third film, to be released in 2021.

Can anything save what I fear is a fallen franchise?  Possibly, though if Jurassic World 2 is any indication, I won't get my hopes up.  Apart from a weak plot and a heavy-handed political bent, Fallen Kingdom disappointed where it could have excelled, in its characters (more cliches), plot (mostly rehash), and vision (lack thereof).  At best, it is a visual treat, while the story leaves you feeling a bit sickly afterwards.

Is Fallen Kingdom horrible?  No.  It's just mediocre, the kind of thing you save for a long plane ride.  Collectively, my siblings and I settled on 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Hound of Heaven - From Tow'rs to Francis Thompson

Lately, I've been enjoying the music of a little-known band called Tow'rs, whose style comes under the "indie folk" genre.  (Indie folk is a wonderful invention of old time instruments - fiddle, banjo, guitar, cello - combined with new lyrics and melodies.)  Tow'rs is from Arizona, and their specialty is infusing their songs with thoughtful meaning, while keeping the instrumentation and vocals gentle.  They also apply Christian themes to some of their songs, with subtlety which fits the music well.

"Two Sparrows" is a song which makes a recognizable biblical reference in its title.  The line that really grabbed my attention, however, was an unfamiliar one:
If Corina sail's stand still
The fields shake and flowers shrill
And the trees, your mother's arms
The hound of Zion seek your heart
And calls for you
Admittedly, I'm rusty in my Bible memory, but I could not place this phrase - "the hound of Zion."  Where did that come from?

A mere Google search away, I discovered there is a poem - a rather famous poem - called The Hound of Heaven, by a poet named Francis Thompson.  (Apparently Chesterton and Tolkien were impressed by it; now I do feel bad I hadn't heard of it.)  It is a quick read and well-worth it if you have never encountered it before.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;   
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;   
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways   
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears   
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

I can only surmise Tow'rs was making reference to that poem in their own lyrics.  The imagery is certainly stunning, in spite of Thompson's dense word choice.  First I had my brother read it to me; then I read it myself...twice was necessary for basic understanding.

It is best maybe to read it as a memoir.  Francis Thompson's life involved a time of homelessness and opioid addiction, so for him to write this poem out of all of that is significant, but also personal.  I would like to read more of his writing at some point.