Gary Larson Greatness!

Note from moderator:

Due to finals ending last Friday, I failed to notify the normal contributor for this week. I apologize for this breach in the normal rotation of writers, and we will get things back on track for the summer soon. Meanwhile, here is a short comic strip review I wrote a while back:

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Many weeks ago I wrote an article (here) about Dave Coverly’s comic strip Speed Bump, in which I mentioned another comic strip called The Far Side. While The Far Side is no longer being actively produced by its creator Gary Larson, the strip’s magnificence has been well documented in multiple book collections for those of us (like me) who are too young to have ever read it in the newspapers.

006  005Larson uses role reversals between animals and humans, science, as well as a keen knowledge of the English language to create humorous situations. I have always gotten a kick out of reading the collections of The Far Side comics, and would highly recommend them. You won’t be able to find any of The Far Side comics available on the internet, but check at your local library or buy a volume or two for your own collection.

Note to Parents: The Far Side contains an evolutionary worldview in many of the strips. However, while possibly being a negative, it could also generate good discussions about science. Also, some of the jokes can be crude and are not suitable for younger readers.

NOTE: original article can be found here.

Writing Advice

When asked in an interview about advice for writing humor, author P.G. Wodehouse replied:

I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “Which are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, “This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,” you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

You can read the whole interview (from 1975 no less!) here. Wodehouse has written some of my favorite humorous fiction–Jeeves and Wooster in particular.

I apologize for the brevity (and randomness) of this post. Though I intend to write more this summer, my time this week (finals week!) is at a premium. Once I’m out of the tunnel, expect a “what I learned” post chronicling this past year!

A Project of Two Thousand Years: Part Three

This is the third part of a research paper on the Great Wall of China.  To read the first two parts, click here and here.The Great Wall of ChinaOn account of all the horrors they had suffered working on the wall, and the famine that had terrorized the land, the Chinese abandoned the wall following Qin Shi Huangdi’s death.  The wall fell into disrepair for the next one hundred years, and northern tribes began to invade China again.

Once more, the Chinese needed protection to the north, and in 121-201 B.C., Han dynasty Emperor Wu Di began repairing and extending the Great Wall of China (DuTemple 47).  He extended the wall by 300 miles and added a chain of towers that traveled 70 miles past the end of the wall.  He decreed, according to Lesley A. DuTemple, that the wall should have “a beacon every 5 li, a tower every 10 li, a fort every 30 li, and a castle every 100 li” (47).  A li is a Chinese measurement that roughly equals 1,760 feet.  The materials for the new sections of Wu Di’s Great Wall included sand, tamarisk branches, and reeds because this part of the wall was mostly in the western desert of China (DuTemple 48).

Because of a lack of written records about the working conditions during this period of expanding the wall, historians suppose that the workers had better care and provisions under Wu Di’s reign (DuTemple 48).

Wu Di began using the Great Wall for peaceful trade in addition to manning it with soldiers.  The famous Silk Road traveled near the Great Wall because the area around the wall was far safer, on account of the soldiers guarding the wall, than the robber-infested Chinese countryside (DuTemple 49).

In 87 B.C., Emperor Wu Di died and peace prevailed in China until the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D.  Following this collapse, trade ceased along the Silk Road and 80 years later, the northern tribes had control of the Great Wall.

After the Han dynasty’s collapse, the wall deteriorated, and by the time of Genghis Khan’s invasion of China with the Mongols in 1200 A.D., it was unable to stop their advance (DuTemple 53).  Advancing south, the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty.

Emperor Hongwu
Emperor Hongwu

In 1368 A.D., the Chinese successfully ousted the Mongols and set a former monk named Hongwu on the throne of China.  The Yuan dynasty ended, and the Ming dynasty began (DuTemple 56).

This new emperor saw the threat that the Mongols still posed to China, and he decided to rebuild the Great Wall.  It had been one thousand years since the Great Wall had last been repaired and now the job that the Ming would continue until 1644 A.D. was begun.  Most of what is left of the Great Wall today is what the Ming dynasty built.   Age and the elements had destroyed almost all of the earlier walls (DuTemple 58).

Emperor Wanli, who was the last great Ming ruler and the last emperor to work on the wall, made the spectacular Great Wall that people see today (DuTemple 59).  He beautified the Great Wall, overlaying it with brick and stone.  Even the road on top of the wall was paved.  This Great Wall was 21 feet thick at the base, 19 feet thick at the top, and around 26 feet tall.  When Emperor Wanli died in 1620, the wall virtually died with him (DuTemple 59).

One change that the Ming dynasty made to building the Great Wall was that they installed drains in it.  If the Ming dynasty had not installed this system of drains, the sections of the wall that they built would probably not be standing anymore.  The Ming drains allowed water to run off onto the north side of the wall.  When water had saturated the earlier walls, in winter the water froze and expanded, cracking the wall.  This is the main reason why the earliest parts of the Great Wall deteriorated so quickly (DuTemple 65).

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping

For many years following the fall of the Ming dynasty, the Chinese forgot about the Great Wall, but during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, attention was called to the Great Wall once again.  The government now declared that the Great Wall was to be destroyed.  This command was carried out in part, but when Deng Xiaoping came into control in China, he stopped the destruction, and began to restore the wall.  Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s quick actions, the Chinese saved the dragon of China.

Far from being an obsolete structure of a bygone age deserving only destruction, the Great Wall has been and continues to be important to China in many ways.  It protected China from the northern barbarians, displayed China’s power, and kept the Chinese secluded from the world for many years so that emperors had more control over the country (DuTemple 15).  And even though the Great Wall’s days of defending China have come to a close with the passing of time, it still serves a purpose.  The Great Wall not only stands as a wonder of the ancient world, but it also towers as a reminder of the amazing and rich creation, architecture, and history that it possesses.


Works Cited

DuTemple, Lesley A.  The Great Wall of China.  Lerner Publications Company:

Minneapolis, MN, 2003.

Landau, Elaine.  Exploring Ancient China with Elaine Landau.  Enslow Publishers,

Inc.: Berkeley Heights, NJ, 2005.

A Project of Two Thousand Years: Part Two

This is the second part of a research paper on the Great Wall of China.  To read part one, click here.Great Wall of ChinaSeparating the Great Wall from previous Chinese walls was the fact that the Great Wall was a series of towers linked by walls.  This tower system was new to the Chinese, whose previous projects had been smaller, un-manned walls.  Now, however, the wall was manned with soldiers, and along the top of the wall there ran a dirt road wide enough for four mounted riders to travel on side by side.  The famous Roman wall called Hadrian’s Wall in Britain had a similar design to the Great Wall of China, including towers, forts, gates built into the wall, and housing for soldiers.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

Watchtowers constituted an important part of the Great Wall.  They were placed two bow shots apart so that archers stationed in the towers could shoot any enemies who were between the towers.  These towers were around 40 feet square at the base, and then they narrowed to 30 feet square at the top with a height of 40 feet.  Towers were built with brick, unlike large sections of the early Great Wall which were built with packed earth (DuTemple 38).  Chinese soldiers inhabited these structures, which usually had three levels and were stocked with weaponry, food, and water.

When Chinese soldiers spotted enemies and needed reinforcements, they used signals to call for aid.  They used smoke signals during the daytime and beacon fires at night.  The Chinese even organized a special signal code.  For example, one signal meant that only one hundred soldiers were attacking, and five signals indicated that more than ten thousand enemy soldiers were attacking.  Thus, the nearby outposts and towers knew how many soldiers to send in response (DuTemple 40).

To shoot enemies, archers used ladders and climbed to the top of the tower where there was a platform and a crenellated parapet that was used not only to keep the archers hidden from the enemy, but also to keep the soldiers from falling off the tower.

In addition to the towers along the wall, there were outposts placed north of the wall.  The Chinese used these outposts to give the Chinese soldiers on the wall more warning of coming attacks.  Most of the time, the outposts had several hundred soldiers and were well-stocked with provisions in case they were cut off from the wall.  Outposts sent messages with smoke signals and beacon fires, just like the watchtowers on the Great Wall.

Of course, the Great Wall not only needed towers and outposts, but it also needed gates.  The Chinese usually placed gates near important mountain passes.  In other walls around the world, gates were often the weakest points in a wall, but in the Great Wall, the gates were so heavily fortified and well-defended that they were the hardest places to attack.

The Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert

During the eleven-year reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the first 3,000 miles of the wall were built (DuTemple 34).  Historians speculate that the Chinese built the wall from east to west, so Qin Shi Huangdi’s wall probably began near the sea and then went westward towards the Gobi Desert.

Building the first wall was far from easy.  Working conditions during Qin Shi’s reign were inhumane, and historians estimate that over a million workers died while building the first wall (DuTemple 6).  So many workers died on the project that the Emperor ran out of men, and he forced Chinese women and children to take the men’s place (DuTemple 32).

Workers lived in shelters beside the wall.  They were lucky if they received any food, and their clothes turned to tatters because they didn’t have anything to replace them with.  Most of the workers on the wall were peasants, farmers, and criminals.  Many Chinese who resisted the emperor were sent to work on the wall as punishment.

While the Chinese were busy building the wall, General Meng Tien and an army of 300,000 men were busy trying to fight off thieves who ambushed the supply trains and northern barbarians who attacked the workers on the wall.  Because there were so many robbers in China and so few soldiers to protect supplies, supply routes were often cut.  When supplies trains did survive the rough travel and thieves, they delivered their provisions to base camps where there was temporary housing for soldiers.  During the wall’s construction under Qin Shi Huangdi’s reign, General Meng Tien established thirty-four base camps along the wall’s course.

Great WallSurprisingly, the Chinese actually had a reason for why they built the Great Wall in such a wandering course.  According to a Chinese belief called Feng Shui, veins which carry earth’s wind and water run underneath the earth’s surface.  When these veins were cut, the Chinese believed that calamities and disasters would occur, such as earthquakes and floods (DuTemple 36).  This belief led General Meng Tien to choose the Great Wall’s course with extreme care so that it did not cross any veins.

All construction on the wall stopped for a long time following Qin Shi Huangdi’s death in 210 B.C.  Four years later, the Qin dynasty ended and a group of Chinese from the Han region took control of China (DuTemple 46).

To be continued…

A Project of Two Thousand Years: Part One

Far in the east there lies a sleeping dragon, or at least that is what some call it.  This ancient dragon has guarded China’s northern border for over two thousand years.  It is a silent stone sentinel, stretching over four thousand miles across deserts, mountains, forests, and plains.  Although most of the world only recognizes the Great Wall of China for being the longest man-made structure ever built, the creation, architecture, and history of the Great Wall are impressive and beautiful as well.

Though many people think of the Great Wall as one building project that many dynasties participated in, they would find themselves wrong.  When Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, began his monolithic building project, walls already existed along the northern Chinese border (Landau 11).  Villages and towns had built these walls for protection.  Despite not being the first wall-builder, however, Emperor Huangdi was the first to unify the northern walls into one gigantic wall.

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi
Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi

Around 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huangdi began work on his Great Wall of China.  His most trusted advisor, General Meng Tien, whose father had helped the emperor to take control of China, oversaw the wall’s construction (DuTemple 28).

From the very start, the Great Wall accomplished its primary purpose: keeping the barbarians out.  According to historians, the barbarian tribes wouldn’t pasture their sheep within ten miles of the daunting structure.

Not just in size, but also in structure and creation, the Great Wall of China was daunting and an architectural feat.  It is around four thousand miles long and took more than two thousand years to build.  In addition to this, the Great Wall was made with very few tools.  During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese workers had wheelbarrows and pulley systems, but earlier wall-building was mostly by hand with the aid of baskets and small shovels (DuTemple 60).

An interesting feature of the architecture of the Great Wall of China is the building-method that the Chinese utilized.  From the very beginning, a method called hang-tu was employed for building the wall.   These words in Chinese mean “beaten-down earth.”  This translation is a good explanation of how this method worked.

BambooFirst, the Chinese built a form for the wall out of bamboo (although the Ming dynasty and later dynasties used brick and stone) and dumped a mixture of whatever water, dirt, gravel, bricks, stone, or sand could be found nearby – into the form.  Then workers stamped these materials down into a hard layer and repeated the process.  In early parts of the wall, the bamboo and logs were removed after a section was complete, but the Ming dynasty left the brick and stone wall forms as part of the wall.  Because the Ming builders left the stone and brick wall forms, on the outside their wall appears to have been built differently than older sections; however, underneath the façade lie layers of beaten earth and rock.  The hang-tu construction continued in use with some modifications throughout the entire construction of the Great Wall.

One factor that contributed to the changing materials in the wall was that it passed over incredibly rough terrain which supply shipments oftentimes could not reach.  Thus, workers resorted to using whatever materials the nearby land provided.

To be continued…

Apart from You I’m nothing, but You can give me worth

In my last article on TMW I reviewed the graphic novel Cardboard by Doug TenNapel. I mentioned how TenNapel appears to be breathing fresh air into comic books created by Christians (not that he is the only Christian making good comic books). However, in keeping with the theme that my last article started, I want to review another Christian artist –this time a musician –who has been gaining a good bit of media attention recently: Lecrae.

Lecrae_1Lecrae, for those who may not have heard of him, is a Christian musician based out of Atlanta, Georgia. He actually grew up on the south side of Houston (for an in-depth bio see here), where he was raised by his mother. He idolized the street life that he found around him during his early life, but came to know Christ at a conference at age 19. Since becoming a Christian he has released several albums, and even started his own record label and nonprofit.

So, what about his music? Lecrae is a rap artist. I realize this might turn some people off of his music. However, being myself someone who was not a big rap fan before listening to Lecrae (and I only like very select artists even now), I would encourage even skeptics to check out his work. His lyrics are filled with themes of forgiveness, hope, grace, man’s sinfulness, and the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Many of Lecrae’s songs draw from his past, and his target audience: people who have lived life on the street. However, his focus on the core of the Scriptures means that even though not all the specific scenarios he sings about may be common experiences to all listeners, the Christian view is something that all Christians’ should be able to understand fully: our own sin, God’s unfathomable love and patience, and Christ’s sacrifice. Part of what makes Lecrae’s music so powerful is that his imagery is vivid, and also -just like in the psalms of David -the words are expressions of the same desires and feelings that many Christians have on a day to day basis. When speaking of our own sin, and Christ’s sacrifice, Lecrae raps:

You were stabbed, You were murdered
And for me is why You bled
But I spit on your bloody face as if I never cared
Lord, how dare I compare my pain?
Your father turned his back
And You were left to hang
I don’t know why You did it, that I can’t explain
How can You love this sinner who’s desecrated your name?
Lord, I deserve the flames

and when speaking of God’s love:

Your love’s so deep you suffered and took pain, you died on the cross to give me a new name
Ain’t nothing like I’ve seen before, I got a beaming glow
I was low, down, and dirty, but you cleaned me, Lord
You adopted me, you keep rocking me
I’mma tell the world, and ain’t nobody stopping me!

I’m not much of a music critic/expert, but I hope you have found this short blurb interesting, and I would encourage giving Lecrae’s music a try. He is a musician using a medium known for its profaneness, hedonism, and misogyny, and turning it on it’s head to reach an audience that may not otherwise hear the gospel message –and he is doing it well. On that note, I would like to close with my favorite Lecrae song from his album Gravity, enjoy:

NOTE: There are other excellent rap artists who can also be found with Lecrae on the Reach Records website.

Reflections on Newbery Books of 2014

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Newbery Medalist

  • Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures: Recommended.  A damaged girl and an odd squirrel fight the establishment. I enjoyed Flora’s biting sense of humor. She’s smart and cynical but still feels like a child. I also appreciated the inclusion of a somewhat present, redeemable mother. In most of DiCamillo’s other novels, the mothers are dead, missing, not well characterized, or useless.

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Newbery Honors

  • Kevin Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller: Recommended.  Henkes’ characterization of seven-year-old Billy and his family could not have been more perfect. He makes adult readers remember all the little thing about being an “average” grade school kid growing up in a “average” family. And he give children a relatable and sweet story without becoming saccharine or didactic. I look forward to reading this one aloud in a few years.
  • Holly Black’s Doll Bones: Recommended.  I tried Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe and felt underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, just not particularly memorable. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by Doll Bones. Despite the supernatural overtones, the characters and relationships feel true and grounded.
  • Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home: Recommended.  My favorite of the bunch, this historical mystery manages to be both grim and humorous. I genuinely could not predict where Timberlake would take Georgie and Agatha’s story of family discord – and loved her choice of ending.
  • Vince Vawter’s Paperboy: Recommended.  Even before reading the biographical blurb or internet information, I could feel Vawter drawing on his own experiences growing up with a disability in the segregated South. All the relationships (if not all the plot points) feel so believable. Particularly refreshing is the protagonist’s honest questioning of religion and parental responsibilities – and his fairness in his assessments. He does not make snap judgments one way or the other and sees people as people. There may be hypocrisy or disappointment, but he is still charitable and open to learning. Most children’s novels would use grown-ups’ flaws as an impetus for total hostility or rebellion or emo-cry-black-eye-liner-pity-parties, and Paperboy doesn’t. Kudos.

May next year’s list be just as good!