Friday, November 29, 2013

Book review: Assassination!

Assassination! by Brendan Powell Smith, 2013, Skyhorse Publishing

Please note that I'm posting this same review across all my blogs, but I'm appending some blog-specific information at the end of each one.

For many years now I've beein reviewing Brendan Powell Smith's work, and up till now it has all been about his LEGO take on biblical material. When I heard his newest book was on a different topic altogether, I have to admit I was disappointed. For some time now I've been hoping he would do a version of the Psalms and the Prophets - I think those texts would provide a great opportunity for imaginitive LEGO interpretations. I have to say, though, that I was very pleasantly surprised. Assassination! is, in a word, terrific. This 272 page hardcover book is filled with over 400 LEGO illustrations, detailing the history of US president assassinations and assassination attempts.

The illustrations are top-notch. Back in the early days of Brendan's Brick Testament project his landscapes were often flat and the photos fairly sparse, but a decade of LEGO illustration has changed all of that. The images are all 100% LEGO from edge to edge, and they are richly detailed. He has taken full advantage of the wide range of LEGO elements that have come out in recent years, as well as custom accessories by third party AFOL dealers (SaberScorpion's custom decals of the presidents' faces are particularly good). Brendan's building has steadily progressed over the years, and he has a keen eye for composing scenes.

But, unlike some LEGO books, this isn't just about the pictures. The text is also really good. Brendan covers the four presidential assassinations and a great number of the attempts that have happened over the past two hundred years of US history. He takes great delight into going into some of the quirky facts around these cases, often delving into the odd backstories of the perpetrators. I felt that I knew a fair amount about some of these - Licoln, due to his importance to US history, Kennedy, because you can hardly turn on the History channel without some new documentary on him, and the attempt on Reagan's life, because I remember it quite well - but I still learned quite a lot on these, not to mention some of the less prominent attempts that I didn't know anything about. I was fascinated, and sat and read it cover to cover in about three hours, pausing to pore over the pictures.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I still have several LEGO books to read through from this recent set of offerings, but I am fairly certain that the combination of great images and compelling text will make this my favorite LEGO book of 2013. Certainly all US AFOLs should get this, but I think that even non-Americans with an interest in history would find this quite enjoyable.

Blog-specific content - While Brendan's work is almost always directly relevant to this blog, this book is not, mostly. One thing I did note is that he is often quick to point out odd religious motivations of the people involved. While this is usually on point, since some of the assassins were acting on what they felt were instructions from God, in a couple of places it felt like it was kind of shoe-horned in based on Brendan's own attitudes towards religious faith.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union." - Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgivukkah

Hanukkah comes early this year. For the first time in over a century, and the last time for over 79000 years, the first full day of Hanukkah comes at the same time as Thanksgiving. The Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, that is, it is based both on the solar year and on the lunar phases, so it varies on a 19 year cycle. Many are having fun with this rare coincidence of holidays, for instance creating 'Menurkeys' (Menorah/turkey mashups). Here is Dave Kaleta's version. I hope all of my Jewish readers have a very blessed holiday.

Fuente de los Leones

BrickSur was an exhibition by LEGO builders in Granada, Spain, earlier this month. Attendees were able to purchase a commemorative kit of the Fuente de los Leones, or Fount of the Lions, a Granada landmark. This fountain can be found in the palace of Muhammed V, built during the Nasrid dynasty, when Arab Muslims ruled the southern portion of modern day Spain. The courtyard of the palace is symbolically patterned after a Muslim view of paradise, with the four portions of the world watered by four rivers, flowing from the fountain. The fountain itself is an earlier work, perhaps from the home of an important Jewish official, and the twelve lions represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 2

LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 2 by Megan Rothrock, 2013, No Starch Press

Please note that I'm posting this same review across my blogs, but I'm appending some blog-specific information at the end of each review.

'Tis the season for new LEGO books. I've got a stack of new LEGO books to review, so over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting these reviews every couple of days. Last year, Megan Rothrock's LEGO Adventure book was among those that received my highest praise, and I'm so happy that she has continued her series with a second volume (and the book ends with "The adventure continues...", so we're promised at least a third volume, presumably this time next year). This book is very much in the same style as last year's volume. Meg's sig-fig travels around, meeting AFOLs from around the world, and along the way we get to see their great builds and get instructions and tips as to how to build our own versions.

Once again, Meg has assembled a great line-up of builders - three repeats from last year, and seven newcomers. Specifically she includes builds by herself, Mark Stafford, Are Heiseldal, Arjan Oude Kotte, Barney Main, Birgitte Jonsgard, Tommy Williamson, Tyler Clites, Marco den Besten, Yvonne Doyle, and retired LEGO designer (and the guy who designed the Yellow Castle!) Daniel August Krentz. Building styles include space, pirate, town, Friends, micro, post-apoc, among others.

I did see some differences between volume 1 and volume 2. It seems that the building directions are more detailed in this volume, which is nice. All of the builds have lists of what bricks you will need, which were missing from some of the directions in volume 1. There are fewer builders for the same number of pages, and I think this can be explained by the greater number of pages devoted to detailed building instructions, and also more additional models for those builders who were included. Also, this book has more of a story than volume 1. In the previous book Meg was simply visiting other builders. Here she is chasing the "Destructor" through these different LEGO lands. Whereever he goes, the Destructor destroys MOCs. This, then, gives Meg's sig fig the opportunity to help rebuild them. It's a nice device that then gives the excuse to include building instructions as part of the narrative. One suggestion would be to have shown the original MOCs before the Destructor came along, and then show the rebuilding. Since in a couple of places they note that the rebuild was not exactly the same as the original, this might be a good way to show that you can use LEGO to build in different ways. I liked that there was some inclusion of microscale, though the one model was still in a fig-scale world as a movie prop.

As I noted in my review of volume 1, this series is a celebration of the AFOL community. There are some nice inclusions that you pick up on if you know the community references or the people involved. For instance, Meg and Mark come across as partners in the book, reflecting their real-life relationship. Meg also includes a MOC of their dog, Bandit, who passed away this year (probably after the book went to print, now that I think of it). Tommy's MOCs are based around a movie set, reflecting his real-life profession. We get a reference to the Guilds of Historica project on Eurobricks. I was wondering if the reference to the CCC, the Council of Creative Constructionists, was a veiled reference to the Colossal Castle Contest or just a coincidence of acronyms. Other nods include the inclusion of post-apoc as a fan theme, a reference to online contests, and a micro rendition of the fan-favorite Galaxy Explorer. The community reference that most warmed my heart, though, was the inclusion of Vic Vipers. I know that Mark has previously worked a reference to the late Nnenn into an official set, and it was great to see these included, particularly in a book that came out during Novvember. I love these little peeks into the AFOL community, which are still subtle enough that people from outside the community can equally enjoy the book without feeling somehow out of the loop.

As with volume 1, I would give my highest recommendation for LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 2. The audience could range from a kid on up to a long-time AFOL; model difficulties range from intermediate to challenging; the variety of themes will have something for everyone. I'm very much looking forward to volume 3. One suggestion, if Meg happens to read this, is that in future volumes we should see Western and Ancient, two building areas that haven't been covered yet, and also some more exploration of scale, such as additional micro building and also things like miniland scale. I'd also love to see some licensed themes (Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Tolkien), but I completely understand how that might run into additional IP headaches when producing a book like this.

Blog-specific content: There is none.

Friday, November 22, 2013

C.S. Lewis

While all the news outlets are remembering the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago today, we should not forget another great man that died on the same day - C.S. Lewis.* The author is known for his many works, ranging from professional writing about literature, to philosophical defenses for the Christian faith, to his rich fictional worlds. He will probably always be most associated with the magical world of Narnia, where several English children got to know Jesus, as he was incarnated in that world as a lion named Aslan. Here Allen reproduced Peter's shield, bearing the emblem of Aslan. As Lewis described it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "The shield was the colour of silver and across it there ramped a red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it."

*I should also note that Aldous Huxley died on the same day as well. Christian philosopher and Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft wrote a book, Between Heaven and Hell, in which he imagines Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley meeting in a sort of limbo after their deaths and debating their various world views.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tiger's Nest

Taktsang Palphug Monastery (translated as "Tiger's Nest") sits precariously on a cliffside overlooking the Paro Valley in Bhutan. This monastery was built three hundred years ago, on the site of a cave in the cliff face where where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. This figure was key in bringing Bhuddhism to Bhutan, and is revered throughout the country. Anu Pehrson built this beautiful LEGO rendition of the Tiger's Nest.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I've been meaning to post Brick.Spartan's beautiful Tabernacle. This, of course, was the tent form of a temple built at God's direction that the Israelites carried with them on their wanderings through the desert, and later it had a more permanent home in the promised land (though it was moved a couple of times) until Solomon built the Temple and the focus of worship moved to Jerusalem. Brick.Spartan was careful to include a lot of details, including all of the furnishings that were built for the Tabernacle interior.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dia de Los Muertos

In some Christian traditions, Halloween is simply the opening of a three-day holiday, the Hallowmas. All Hallows' Eve leads to All Hallows', or All Saints' Day. This is a day to remember and celebrate all of those dead who have entered Heaven. At least in the Catholic tradition, the next day, All Souls' Day, is a day to remember and pray for those who died in the faith but have not yet entered Heave (i.e. they are still in Purgatory). In Mexico and some other nations, Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has become a major holiday. Families will often bring favorite foods or other remembrances to loved ones' graves, or they will build small shrines in their homes. There are ceremonies and prayers in the churches, and there is also a generally festive atmosphere with parades, music, and parties. Seaotter71 built a number of scenes for a stop-motion video of Dia de Los Muertos traditions.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Post Tenebras Lux

Continuing with the theme of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, I've previously noted this depiction of the Diet of Worms, the assembly where Luther defended his views, built by Chris Wunz. I feature it here again because he apparently had a LEGO brick engraved with the slogan Post Tenebras Lux. This Latin phrase, which is translated as Light after Darkness, is roughly drawn from Job 17:12, and was adopted first by Calvin's followers, and later by the early Reformers as a whole. They saw Luther and colleagues' teachings on justification as a new light after (what they saw as) the darkness of the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reformation Day

Argh, I've been bad about blogging for the last month, and I totally missed posting this. October 31 is, of course, Halloween, which is related to both the Hallowmas in many Christian traditions and the pagan Samhain. Many Protestants, though, recognize this as Reformation Day, the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg (as shown here by Champics16).