What I'm Reading (and More): Quarantine Edition

Well, folks…we’re all hunkered down, now officially. I hope everyone is staying well. It’s also been a while since I did one of these posts, so it seemed like a good time. Feel free to share your own updates in the comments!

Reading

Silence

Finally read Silence by Shūsaku Endō! It is not a book one enjoys, but I did appreciate the challenge of deciphering the message (or losing my voice attempting to). You can watch the video review here.

TL;DR version: The book is gut-wrenching and, as I put it to another reader, “psychologically horrifying.” The writing style is masterful, from the use of silence as a motif to the mix of tenses/perspectives which create distance between the reader and the protagonist. I feel the surface message is unbiblical, but I also believe there is a second, more nuanced way to read it, where rather than view it strictly from Rodrigues’s eyes, you view the sequence of events holistically and see his flawed thinking. This gives the novel a level of depth that makes it worthwhile, especially for Christians.

What next?

I ought to read Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, because I have it on ebook from the library for eight days. However, Silence was so emotionally draining, I’m thinking I’ll take a break from fiction. I’ll probably read one of my exploration nonfiction books, like The Lost City of Z.

Watching

Gaslight

The other day I watched Gaslight (1944) with my family. This is an Ingrid Bergman film, about a young woman who marries a handsome stranger and bad things happen (ya don’t say?).

It is a verrryyy slow film. I couldn’t help wishing Alfred Hitchcock had directed it. On the other hand, it has a level of artistic restraint that I did appreciate and which Hitchcock never seems to be able to leverage. So, overall, it was an ok film. Charles Boyer’s character made me want to punch the screen, but Ingrid excels in this genre and made me stick it out. Also on the plus side, the plot reminded me of Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Fortunately (?), Gaslight is not nearly as bloodcurdling as that short story.

Listening

I started my personal blog back up, so have been journalling there about the shutdown, plus music recommendations and funny videos.

I’ll share this song now—“Vancouver Waves” by August and After, a calming song for times like this.

Listen on YouTube

Polar Exploration Books: Ernest Shackleton and Valerian Albanov

Taking a look at my small collection of polar exploration classics, mostly focused on Shackleton’s expeditions. Filming this, I realized I really need to read Amundsen and Nansen and then do a sequel.

Related:
Listen to Shackleton talk about his first trip to Antarctica and climbing Mt. Erebus: https://youtu.be/OUTHZ_9tacM?t=56
South by Ernest Shackleton – Book review: https://classicsconsidered.com/2012/0…

Five Short Stories by Shūsaku Endō

Since being haunted by The Sea and Poison a couple of years ago, I have been meaning to read more by this Japanese author. The Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Bellezza, is going on currently, and I discovered my library had several titles by him—so everything lined up this year to revisit Endō.

Five by Endo (2000) is a slim volume that contains the following:

  1. Unzen
  2. A Fifty-Year-Old Man
  3. Japanese in Warsaw
  4. The Box
  5. The Case of Isobe

These short stories are each rather depressing, but not without interest. Endō writes with refinement and restraint yet still manages to unsettle you, whether it is with the allusions to marital betrayal (implicit in “The Case of Isobe,” explicit in “Japanese in Warsaw”) or the matter-of-fact descriptions of brutality in “Unzen.” Three of the stories carry in them the motif of Christian experience in Japan, mainly the suffering. He excels at juxtaposing morality and immorality, and in many of these stories, it is the hero who precedes the anti-hero and haunts the latter with their sacrifice, which the anti-hero feels incapable of equalling.

I wouldn’t say these are “must-reads.” They are decent short stories that help you contemplate life in another era and place. They left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable…hardly the gut-punch of Flannery O’Connor, but existing in something of the same mental space.

The Painted Veil – Integrity in Writing, the Power of Conversation, and Grief

Note: This post covers the same book as my vlog review, but I wanted to share some additional thoughts in written format as well, for those not interested in watching the longish video (understandably! 🙂 ).

“Love’s Labor’s Lost” – Or Not?

W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel centers around a young woman, Kitty Fane, who is unhappily married to her devoted but awkward husband Walter. Shortly after they move to Hong Kong, she meets charismatic, controlling, man-about-town Charlie Townsend, who finds Kitty to be both attractive and desparate enough to start a year-long affair. When Walter discovers the betrayal, he relocates himself and Kitty to the cholera-stricken village of Mei-tan-fu and promptly buries himself into the effort of administering to its suffering inhabitants. Angry and frightened, Kitty tries to scheme up ways she can get back to Hong Kong (and to Charlie), while becoming unconsciously more fascinated with Walter’s colleagues: Mr Waddington, a satirical British official, and two Catholic nuns, whose compassionate strength speaks to the spiritual struggles of Kitty in a way she has never realized before.

Being True to the Story

I have been looking for the word or phrase to sum up what I am trying to say, but I can only find one word: integrity.

Maugham was not a Christian himself, so while I found many Christian themes in the book, it is hard to speak of them as demonstrating “artistic integrity” since it is unlikely they reflected his own views. Still, he writes with incredible continuity and is true to his characters’ lives. Whether they act admirably or abominably, they behave in a way that is consistent with their values—and when they don’t, it’s an intentional, obvious disruption which leads them to a new realm of self-awareness.

Kitty’s spiritual journey is rife with hazards and failures, but there is an honesty in the narrative and a continuity in the way events unfold (and in how she reacts to them) which result in her becoming a better her. She never loses her identity as a passionate young woman, but she evolves so that those characteristics of herself—once used for wrong—can be used for right. I feel this sheds some light on the question of identity which I’ve been thinking about lately, or, at least, poses as a good example of how a person may change without losing who they are.

Why We Need Conversation More Than Ever

Throughout the book, Kitty “collects” conversations like you might collect seashells on the beach. They are not always good ones, but in the moment, and upon reflection, she begins to see a larger picture than the narrow one inside her brain. Conversation paired with action eventually reveals to her the truth about her husband Walter and her former, flawed understanding of what love is.

Today we are moving more and more towards atomic, asynchronous communication. Twitter has become every person’s vehicle to emit personal propaganda. (Twitter isn’t the only culprit, of course—Tumblr, Instagram, and LinkedIn are just a few more examples.) Much of it isn’t even an original thought: just a retweet of someone else’s thought from which you are to infer what the “retweeter” agreed with (if not the whole). We so willingly take on other people’s voices as if their speech is more true to our characters than our own. We quickly redirect our readers to other speakers, resting in those voices’ “authority” and experience primarily, ours remaining always secondary. This is not conversation.

Conversation—a good conversation, anyway—is something that doesn’t quite resemble any one person’s outlook entirely. It’s something everyone present builds together, mostly in speech but also in the silence. It forces you to drop the shields of propaganda, anonymity, and time, with the end result of having to listen to someone else between stating your piece. The better you listen, the more likely you are to come away stronger, whether you agree or not.

Kitty starts to find missing pieces of the puzzle of her life in conversations with Mr. Waddington and the Catholic nuns. True to life, it’s often the most unlikely people who can teach us something new.

Let Yourself Grieve

In the spoiler section of the video, I talked a lot about the Christian parallels I found in the protagonist’s redemption and reconciliation with another character. Maugham demonstrates through a particularly shocking plot twist that there is no one tragedy or event that can, on its own, change our hearts. We need repentance, redemption, and reconciliation: all three, to be complete.

Along similar lines, one thing I will just add to that is the importance of grief in healing. I often find myself wanting to “tough it out” when I’ve been through a painful experience, thinking that the pain in itself is sufficient emotion. But there’s a difference between pain and grief. Pain is receiving a hurt; grief is releasing it.

Kitty alternates between “shrugging it off” and feeling sorry for herself throughout the book, but I do not think she ever really grieves until the end of it. I speak with some experience when I say, this delays her healing and actually prolongs her vulnerability. Peace starts to appear within sight, or at least comprehension, when you finally let yourself mourn the loss and then, as a final resolution, bury it.