Monday, October 12, 2015

The Centurians, A Practical View of Chistianity, and Lucky Jim

A gift from my baby sister for my birthday.

I am on another book fast.  Not from reading, of course.  That will happen when I'm dead.  But from buying books.  I must read one hundred books that I already own before I can buy another single book.  Josh said to me, "I guess this means your book reviews are going to be reduced to 'book good' or 'book bad'."

He's right. Which is why I decided I don't have to review all one hundred books, just read them.  Be that as it may, I am going to review three books in one pop on today's post.

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy,204,203,200_.jpg 

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy was first written in 1960 and it starts with the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  Larteguy describes in rich, colorful detail the agonizing experiences of the French prisoners of war.  He dives into the psychology of both the French and Vietnamese cultures and through his characters attempts to explain the motives of each side.  His expressive use of dialogue between the Vietnamese commander and his prisoners are especially poignant in view of the fact that this commander had been educated by the French.  It was this desire to belong to the French community but to be excluded because of his race that ultimately led him and other Vietnamese to seek dignity and equality through communism.

The book carries us through the soldiers' imprisonment, ultimate release, and continues into the battle in Algiers.  Larteguy provides the same explanation as to why the Muslims wanted liberation from French rule as the Vietnamese: a conviction that they would never be accepted as equals by the French.  Particularly sad are the Algerian soldiers who fought side by side with the French in Vietnam who now fight against those same men, even using brutal acts of terrorism to extricate their country from a people whose culture and values they consider incompatible with their own. 

While this book is worthwhile to read for its information rich storytelling, I must say I got tired of all the mindless sleeping around.  It leads me to wonder if the French only believe true love can be attained by first marrying one woman and then cheating on her with another woman.  

I can't help comparing this book on war to those written by Americans.  American war stories focus on how many lives of their compatriots they saved.  This book's thrust (no pun intended) is centered around how many women the soldiers have slept with.
Jean Larteguy (1920-2011) was a French journalist and soldier.  His stories are drawn from his personal knowledge and experience as a war correspondent for Indochina, Korea, Algeria and Vietnam.

A Practical View of Christianity by William Wilberforce

A Practical View of Christianity is William Wilberforce's treatise on what exactly makes a person a Christian and contrasting it with what many people claim to be Christianity.

His main attack is against Cultural Christianity and he spares no words describing the duplicity and hypocrisy of his day by church-going people who show no respect for the authority of God as revealed through His written Word.

His arguments are highly relevant for today since there exists a profound Biblical illiteracy among too many Christians who seem to be ignorant as to how to conduct their lives in a manner that honors God. 

While I determinedly plowed through this book with its original manuscript, I highly recommend reading a version with updated language.  Wilberforce is extremely wordy and he takes a long time expressing his ideas, as brilliant as they are.
 William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Finally, a little fun.  Kingsley Amis has to be one of the funniest writers I've ever read.  he writes about nothing at all.  There's no plot to speak of, just parodies of characters who run England's highest educational institutions such as Oxford.

Poor Jim Dixon is a first year professor who is trying very hard to please his supervisor, Professor Welch who uses Jim as his personal servant, having him, in addition to writing his own lectures, doing the professor's work and research as well.  Jim is afraid not to because he has no guarantee he will be hired for the next year.  He does all sorts of things he'd rather not, like spend a weekend at Welch's house for a silly musical gathering.  

There he meets Welch's son, Bertrand, an extremely arrogant, unpleasant person who nevertheless has an extremely pleasing girlfriend who Jim attaches himself to.

And then there's Margaret, another professor who is kinda, sorta, Jim's girlfriend, except when she's not, who thrives on romantic tension and expertly blackmails Jim emotionally so that he never can keep off edge.

The storyline weaves in and out of several characters and their back-stories like a mouse running through a maze.  What makes this story so successful his Amis' genius at wordplay and sharp comedic thrusts.

Here's an example of Amis' masterful manipulation of words and concepts:

Dixon grinned to himself at 'Uncle Julius'.  How marvelous it was that there should be somebody called that and somebody else to call him that, and that he himself should be present to hear one call the other that. 

The effortless artistry with which Kingsly Amis allows his story to flow along an oily river of silly people saying absurd things in a delightfully witty way makes up for any lack of "profound plot".
 Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)

I have now completed thirteen books.  Only eighty-seven to go.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Survivor's Story


Heather Von St. James has shared her survivor story on her web site.  Please visit her blog to read her story.

My name is Heather Von St. James and I am approaching my 10 year cancer free anniversary (yay!) after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.

I never thought I'd see this day. The doctors gave me 15 months to live shortly after giving birth to my daughter Lily. I was determined not to let that stop me from watching my little girl grow up, so here I am today!!

Anyway, I am using my story to raise awareness in hopes that I can prevent this from happening to another family. I'm asking a select few bloggers to share some eye-opening facts to help bring a voice to those who were silenced by this disease. 

Many people, including my mother, have cancer.  It's good to become involved with others who have also experienced this sickness.  I hope that visiting Heather's blog will encourage others to network and reach out and receive encouragement from each others' stories.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

My God and My All: The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Elizabeth Goudge,204,203,200_.jpg

 I enjoy biographies and even though I have already read a couple of biographies about St. Francis I accepted the offer by Handlebar Publishers to review this book as well. (Full disclosure:  I received this book free in exchange for my honest review.)

That Elizabeth Goudge is an eloquent writer I cannot deny.  That she adores her subject I cannot deny either. 

While not an extensive bibliography, she has definitely read a number of books about St. Francis' life and, based on other sources I've read, gives an accurate account of where he was born, who his parents were, how and when he gave up a life of wealth and prestige to become a pauper and founded his order of Franciscan brothers.

 Her writing style is rather flowery and fawning which is not appealing to me, however, based on other Amazon reviews, other people enjoy it.  

My biggest reason for not enjoying the book is I simply disagree with the doctrine of sainthood.  Saint simply means "sanctified" which is what happens to all believers at the point of salvation.  Christ's grace covers our sins and we are made clean.

I know this is not compatible with Catholic doctrine that states that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross only saved us from original sin.  According to Rome, each person must complete their salvation through good works, the confessing of sins and continually  re-crucifying Christ by partaking of the Eucharist over and over again until last rites are given.  In other words people are in partnership with Christ in saving their souls.

Some people perform more good works than others by sacrificing their lives to help the poor and giving up their own wealth.  Francis did this.  He and his brotherhood gave everything they had to the impoverished.  They ate side by side with lepers.  Francis so focused on God and performing good works that, according to this book (and the Catholic church)  he was able to perform miracles, which is a qualification for Sainthood. Through his own efforts at continual worship, prayer, and good works, Francis made himself holy enough to be venerated.

Because of this he joined a hierarchy of "Holy people" created by the Catholic church that allows people to pray to Canonized humans that have already died to mediate on their behalf as a means of increasing their own atonement. A Catholic friend of mine explained that "God is too big for us and we are too unworthy so it helps to pray to saints as a mediator."

I read an article where the writer argued that Jim Elliot and the other missionaries who went to share the Gospel to the Auca Indians in South America and were killed could not be considered martyrs because they did not meet the criteria the Roman Church required to qualify.

These Indians became Christian and said that Jim Elliot and the others saved them because it put a stop to their blood feuds.  These same Indians later baptized Elliot's children in the river where they murdered him.  According to Rome, this accounts for nothing.  Not that Protestant missionaries care where they stand with the Pope but I simply point out the perversity of a system that discounts sharing the gospel and saving others because it didn't go through the proper channels of the Church.

In this biography so much adulation and glory is given to St. Francis that God seems pushed to the side.  The focus is very much on Francis and all his wonderful works and this is what makes him worthy of worship and not God's great mercy and forgiveness of sins, which is what makes God worthy of worship.

When I read the Bible I see people who were not so good.  They were adulterers, murderers, liars and cheats.  Yes I'm talking about Abraham, Samson, David and even Peter and the disciples.  They did not make themselves good they were sanctified by Jesus Christ's crucifixion and were saved from death by His resurrection.  Focusing on humans, no matter how great their brotherhood and legacy may be is a distraction and strikes me as a form of idolatry. And, sorry to be offensive, praying to dead people strikes me as a form of necromancy.

Goudge's book seems to be an attempt to perform a good work as if writing such a fawning biography about a saint will get her a few years out of purgatory.  She died in 1984 so she should know by now.

Having made what I'm sure will  be viewed as an anti-Catholic rant I will say that one of my favorite authors, the very Catholic G.K. Chesterton has also written a biography of St. Francis.  I have actually broken my book buying fast and ordered a copy because I wish to get another perspective by a writer I greatly respect.  Stay tuned.

Marsha Randolph's review of My God and My All

Sunday, September 27, 2015

First day on our boat. Koblenz to Mainz

This church is unusual in that it contains beautiful art for the worshiper to enjoy and contemplate.  Most modern churches, at least Protestant ones, are spare in their design and decoration.

We visited this church in Koblenz before getting on our boat.

The following photos are of our boat ride along the river.  You can see many churches and medieval castles or forts along the way.  From what I was told these small castles were like early toll booths.  Each local baron had to get paid in order for the traveler to pass through his domain.

As you can see the Rhine is not only the heartland of Germany but also where they cultivate their famous wine.  See how hilly it is.  Some of the villages are built into such steep hills that their back doors are on the second floor of their houses.

I would have liked to have gotten off the boat and explored this castle.  I did get to walk through others.
Does not this castle nestled in the hills make you think of fairy tales?

This is the second day of our boat and bike trip.  Next stop is Mainz to see the original printing press and St. Stephen's Church with Chagall's stained glass paintings.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser

  One thing teaching in a Title One public school taught me was that people are interesting.  Each person I encountered was a story unto themselves and after teaching almost a decade, I encountered a lot of people.  As the years accumulated,  I felt a desire in me to preserve these personalities the way others want to capture moments with a camera.

So I set myself to the task of writing.  I learned a lot about writing simply from the practice of it.  One thing I learned is that real life doesn't run along the smooth lines of a story:  conflict, plot, suspense, action leading to a climax, resolution.  Thus, I decided that to make my stories interesting to both myself and to the reader, they needed to fit the story formula.

This, of course, changed my memoir to fiction.  But I think that everyone who has read my stories would agree that the stories flow more cohesively and are a lot more fun to read.

Upon reading Inventing the Truth:  The Art and Craft of Memoir, I was happy to discover that many writers of memoir stumbled upon the same conclusion.

In this anthology of writers' memoirs, we meet many different sort of writers, journalists, novelists, professors at universities who teach all sorts of things not necessarily related to writing but have all written a memoir of some type or other.

Each writer discusses why they wrote from the angle they chose. Russell Bake decided to narrow his memoir to his relationship with his mother and her impact on his life.  This meant leaving out most of his life,  but allowed a straight line to take the reader from A to B without getting side tracked.

Some writers had interesting childhoods.  Jill Ker Conway, a professor, wrote about growing up in Australia.  She shares what motivated her to write about her complicated, personal relationships and the challenges of rising through the echelons of a University as a woman.

Alfred Kazin writes of growing up inside the Jewish culture in Brooklyn.  His objective is to get the reader to see every stoop, traffic sign and the smells coming from the restaurants and see the people brushing by on the crowded streets.

 Toni Morrison believes everyone should look at their historical self, the actual history and the perceptual as a minority.  She believes black writers have two objectives: to say this is my personal history, but also the history of my race.

Annie Dillard doesn't believe in memoirs but rather that we should use our personal experiences to write our stories, so, according to her, it follows that every story a writer pens is really a memoir on some level.

Each writer offers their own perspective and insight in how to write about one's life or at least aspects of it.

Ironically, when I read samples of some of these writers' books on commercial sites, I didn't find their writing very interesting.  Which goes to show that one can write well about a topic without necessarily living up to another person's expectations of that topic.

This book however will be of interest to anyone interested in writing and receiving the ideas and thoughts of successful, published writers.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Koblenz to Mainz boat and bike trip along the Rhine day one

A few more scenes of Koblenz:  A church and a fountain.

After embarking at Koblenz we proceeded down the river to Mainz, our first stop.  The following pictures are of the scenery along the river.  There were many castles.  Apparently each town had their own Baron who exacted tolls from all who floated by.  They also demanded property, work and crops from the people who lived in the surrounding towns and country in return for protection. 

 Isn't it nice to have a military force to keep us safe rather being extorted by a robber Baron who strong-armed people for secure borders?  I'm glad I didn't live back then.  There's a few people today (I'm thinking of smug, white people demonstrating against the police in certain parts of our country) that I think should be sent back to that time or be forced to live anywhere that doesn't have an effective police force to fight against crime.

BUT....I digress.  These photos show how picturesque the landscape along Germany's heartland is.

Every town had a Baron but also a church.  You can see plenty of both along the river.

This shows typical German weather, grey and cloudy. However, it got rather hot during the day.

You may notice all the vineyards.  The Rhine is known for its wine:  Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Ahr, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen

Some history books assert that European civilization started with the enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries.  I must say the "unenlightened men"of the previous centuries certainly constructed some incredible feats of architecture.

My next post will be our trip around Mainz.  See you then.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Golem by Gustav Meyrink

I can't remember how I ended up with this book....ah yes... I went a searching for one book and found another.  It went like this (I'm sorry this tale doesn't have much of an arc but I want to tell it anyway):

My husband, Josh and I have become addicted to the seventies'  TV show Columbo.  I could devote a whole post to the brilliance of that show but suffice to say, I was looking up background information on the show and discovered that the creator, William Link, who said that his idea for his seemingly bumbling, polite, "obtuse", but actually shrewd detective came from two other fictional characters:  Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Crime and Punishment, and Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton's priest detective.  Other sources say that he was also inspired by a French Detective, Inspector Fichet in the suspense/thriller Les Diaboliques.

That last novel I had never hear of so off I went hunting it down.  It brought me to a nineteenth century Victorian porn writer, Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, which brought me to The Golem. (On Amazon, it was one of those, "if you like this you will also like this").

Ironically, I went after the wrong book.  The book that was actually being referred to was Diabolique  by Pierre Boilleau.

But it did bring me to a number of other books that are known for their intense psychological drama.

The Golem was one of them.

The Golem takes place in the Jewish Ghetto in Prague two centuries ago.  The story traces the life of a jeweler, Athanasius Pernath. Everything that happens is through the filter of his minds' lens.  He feels as though he is being spiritually kidnapped by someone or something that is taking over his body and making him perform deeds against his will. 

Naturally his friends think he is crazy and he becomes very ill.  There are different characters, who enter into his life, usually coming to his shabby apartment and speaking to him.  They all have pretty strange stories to tell.

One man, Innocence Charousek, tells him how he and another man manipulated a local Doctor into  committing suicide.  They did this because the doctor was falsely diagnosing patients with glaucoma and operating on them for the money.  His test to prove they needed it involved a procedure that often left the patients blind or with  permanently damage vision.

There is another man who lives across the street, Aaron Wassertrum, who is a slimy, conniving cheat and also a murderer.  He has a doll of the Golem and it is suggested that it is he who is kidnapping Pernath's body to do what he wants.  Wassertrum's daughter, Rosina, is a depraved flirt, that drives some men mad with desire, leading to the murder of one of the men by her father.

Or at least Pernath believes so.  Everything we know of is happening inside his mind so it's not definite what has actually happened.

There is a sense of desperation in all the characters.  They are all severely poor and even starving.

One man seems to serve as a beacon of light, Rabbi Schemajah Hillel who is learned in the Talmud and Torah but also heavily ensconced in the Kabbalah.

This book is heavily ensconced in the Kabbalah. A mysticism permeates throughout its storyline.  Pernath ends up going to jail for the murder that probably Wassertrum committed.  While there he meets another man, Amadeus Laponder, who has achieved some kind of mystical union with others while he sleeps and becomes those people.  He has committed murder under this trance like state.

The strangest part of the story is that all of it is really being narrated by an unnamed third party who is living almost one hundred years after all the events take place.  Somehow he accidentally exchanged hats with the elderly Pernath in a bar and had an out of body experience where he was living inside the mind of Pernath during the story.  At the end, the narrator finally comes to himself and seeks to return the hat  to its now very old owner.

Every character, with the exception of Charousek, live in despair and moral lostness.  Meyrink spent his life seeking some otherworldly spiritual existence and this is reflected in his literature. Two silent films at the turn of the twentieth century were made based on Meyrink's book.

What does the story have to do with Columbo?  Absolutely nothing, thank goodness.  I'll stick to loveable self-effacing detectives next time.

However, I plan to read Boileau's  Diabolique as soon as I get the chance.