Ben-Hur – A Book Journal

Jerusalem Panorama Altotting
Panorama Jerusalem in Altotting by Gebhard Fugel
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0]

Oppressed by its own government, your native city is at the edge of a crisis.  The conquering war-spirit of Mars has found its next generation of followers, and the subjugated people feel it.

Till now, your family has always managed to be safe from the conflict.  Your father’s prosperous work had earned the approval of the supreme leader and left you a fortune, as well as security.  Your future seems certain.

Then, one day, an accident scars you with a terrible accusation.  Everything changes suddenly, under the power of an angry mob and betrayal by your closest friend.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives by Frederick Edwin Church

While going over the beginning of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, I was trying to think about the 19th-century reader and what their perspective might have been.  This is my second time reading the book, so personally I have a little bit of vague memory to go by, as well as the movie (ever ingrained in my consciousness) and the Focus on the Family radio drama (an excellent adaptation from what I recall).  Knowing what follows in the plot, I’ve realized that Ben-Hur is a story for all times, which is why our ancestors loved it – it was a bestseller for decades.  They were not accustomed to the cinematic format which has us spoiled today, and though I’m partial to the Charlton Heston film, I see the descriptions in the book would not be lost on the original readers. I am sure, however, they stayed for the story.

This story remains relevant, in spite of its now-lesser literary prestige than, say, Moby-Dick.  Case in point: I’ve been reading The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, which is a collection of short stories written by a North Korean writer under the name “Bandi.”  So far, the common theme is that even a family with strong (Communist) Party ties is not safe from the suspicions, or retaliation, of the government.  It’s no perfect analogy, of course – the Hur family is not Roman or even politically aligned with them, and I am not sure if the Roman Empire was as brutal as some modern regimes.  Still, the themes of fear, paranoia, injustice, and familial love are as present today as they are in Ben-Hur; humans don’t really change.

I’ve read the first two parts of Ben-Hur and found there was more to talk about than I can describe here succinctly.  So, consider this an introductory post, and I’ll leave you with this quote.  This is from a scene where Judah’s mother attempts to undo the verbal damage done by Messala, his former friend.

Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some than in others. She trembled under a perception that this might be the supreme moment come to him; that as children at birth reach out their untried hands grasping for shadows, and crying the while, so his spirit might, in temporary blindness, be struggling to take hold of its impalpable future. They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I, and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in answer may prove to the after-life what each finger-touch of the artist is to the clay he is modelling.

Please Look After Mom

A glance at my blog will tell you I rarely read fiction published recently.  “In my younger and more vulnerable years,” I was unfortunate to read a lot of poorly written historical fiction and Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  I thirsted for greatness and found mediocrity.  Back then, I wasn’t part of a blogging community, or maybe this wouldn’t have happened.  Anyways, I developed a prejudice against modern authors, which, based on my limited reading, was not well founded.

I stumbled across this book on Goodreads; not sure how, exactly.  Like everyone else, I’ve been following the news on North Korea with uneasy interest, and at the same time, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with Korean culture, introduced to it by some of my favorite YouTubers, like Jen ChaePlease Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin, sounded like a novel I could learn from.

The focus of the story is universal.  When Chi-hon’s elderly mother goes missing in a busy part of Seoul, the Park family reacts in different ways.  True, they go through similar motions of looking for her – from putting up flyers to searching the city on foot – but inside, each family member begins to mourn “Mom” as someone deeply integrated in their lives and yet ultimately an enigma.  “Mom” was strong, vulnerable, spiritual, superstitious, gentle, and violent.  “Mom” was a strange juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.  At all times, “Mom” was self-sufficient.  Somehow she had been all of those things, and yet, if that had been real, how could she be missing?

The first half of the book was truly gripping, told from the perspectives of Chi-hon and her brother Hyong-chol.  Shin’s prose, translated by Chi-young Kim, moves deftly from present to past, as we discover more about Chi-hon’s mother – whose first name is So-nyo – and the sometimes tumultuous relationships between her, her children, and her husband.

What impressed me here was the contrast between Chi-hon’s life and her mom’s.  In just one generation, the woman of the family had gone from being an illiterate yet knowledgeable farmer – working hard to get food on the table for five children – to living as a published author whose ties with tradition and the farmland are less strong.  I enjoyed learning about the Korean traditions which So-nyo held to so steadfastly, while the portrait of Chi-hon fulfilling her mom’s dream was quite moving.

The second half of the book covers the perspectives of So-nyo’s husband and So-nyo herself.  Here I must admit I was having to suspend some disbelief.  It was hard for me to follow that the father, self-centered his entire life, became suddenly remorseful; it just seemed a bit convenient.  Meanwhile, there are things we learn about So-nyo which sound a bit incredible, considering her life and surroundings.  Maybe I’m too critical.  In any case, I felt these were small weaknesses in the plot, and overall they didn’t detract from the core of the story.

One detail about So-nyo that stood out to me was her Catholicism.  While intermingled with her traditional beliefs, So-nyo’s Christian faith is a recurring emblem in her life, with allusions to charity and love, as well as sin and repentance.  The symbolism of Madonna as an inspirational figure is brief, yet effective.  The Christian themes are all very subtle in this book, and I was pleasantly surprised they were both realistic and well written.

Despite being a novel about women, social change, and Korean history, Shin’s story isn’t overwhelmed by a historical or pro-feminist narrative, and this is its strength.  At times, it’s a brutally raw story, heavy in tone and topic, but there is beauty in Please Look After Mom, and that is that we see the characters as individuals, rather than just types.  And as in Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, history is here more of a backdrop than a centerpiece, but this approach lends a humanity to the novel that makes it a worthy read for people of many backgrounds.  4.5 stars.

End of Season 1 – Taking a Short Break

Hi all!  This is just a note to announce I am wrapping up Season 1 of Classics Considered and taking a little break.

Over three months, our auditory “voyage” has spanned a variety of topics, from dystopia to historical fiction and from reviews to not-so-rhetorical questions.  Thanks to all who have been listening along the way!  I’ve enjoyed sharing books I like and some I didn’t, and it’s been lots of good fun, technical difficulties included.

In April, I plan to release one or two special episodes, so please stay tuned for that.  Otherwise, watch for Season 2 the first Monday in May, which will hopefully – like every good TV series – exceed Season 1 in quality and entertainment educational value.

Рыбаки на берегу моря Айвазовский

Ten Books for Spring – Classics and Beyond

It’s only taken me several days, but I think I’ve come up with a good list for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday:

1. The Kill, by Émile Zola
Making an exception in my “no more reading challenges” resolution – I plan to read The Kill for Fanda’s Zoladdiction event next month.  It’s one of Zola‘s shorter novels and, from what I hear, an interesting one!
2. Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace (re-read)
I just started Book 2, so I have a ways to go yet.  🙂
3. North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, by Jieun Baek
How do people share information that’s illegal, and what information would a person risk their life to access?  This topic appeals to me for both historical and universal reasons.

4. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
“Bandi” is an author in North Korea, whose short stories from the 80s and 90s were smuggled out and published recently.  Saw this while browsing my library’s ebooks and thought it would be interesting.
5.  Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
Found out about this through O’s review… has it been nearly a year ago?!  I like a good psychological mystery.

6.  The Castle, by Franz Kafka
Spring takes me back to college days, when I was stereotypically discovering Kafka instead of reading my textbooks.  The Castle is, I believe, the last work of fiction I haven’t read by him.
7. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (re-read)
Though I read this book two or three times, many years ago, I never properly understood or reviewed it.  Perhaps it will propel me to finish the Brontë sisters’ novels as well (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor are still TBR).

8. The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. Wells (re-read)
I was recently reminded how relevant this little sci-fi/horror classic is.  Need to read it again and review it in full.

9. George: A Novel of T. E. Lawrence, by E.B. Lomax
What if Lawrence’s accident wasn’t fatal?  From what I’ve seen, this is the best-rated historical fiction novel written about Ned, and the concept intrigues me.

10. (wildcard)
Lately I’ve stumbled across a variety of books that I want to read soon, some of them quite random.  Hopefully I’ll get to at least one of them this spring!

What Should I Read Next? – April edition

April is rapidly approaching, and that means Camp Nanowrimo!  The bite-sized version of National Novel Writing Month, Camp Nanowrimo is my favorite of the two events, because you can define your own word count goal and work on any project(s) you have in mind.  I’ve been participating regularly since 2015, and next month I plan to continue working on my historical-fantasy saga and perhaps some fan fiction, too.

While I’ll be taking a break from the podcast, I intend to continue reading through April.  Are there any books in particular you’d like to see me review, either here or on Classics Considered?  It could be a book from my lengthy TBR list, one that I’ve read before, or something completely new and different.  I have a few ideas in the queue, but I’d love to hear if anyone has a suggestion: fiction, nonfiction, anything goes!

If I get enough ideas, I’ll see what’s most easily available to help make a decision.  🙂