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

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.

Howards End (2020) – Mini-Rant About Character Arcs and the Meaning of Self

My family and I just finished watching Howards End (2020), a 4-part TV series based on the novel by E. M. Forster. I haven’t read the book – I disliked A Passage to India and A Room with a View – so I don’t know if it’s a good adaptation. From what I could tell, it was a beautifully produced and tastefully filmed series, with lovely costumes and first-rate performances by Matthew Macfadyen (aka Arthur Clennam from Little Dorrit) and Hayley Atwell (Mansfield Park). Fans of costume dramas will definitely relish the lush English countryside and sensitive character portrayals.

HOWEVER.

I hated the story. HATED IT. I officially give up on Forster.

Howards End in a Nutshell (spoiler free)

Howards End follows the lives of the Schlegel siblings – Margaret, Helen, and “Tibby” – after they meet the enigmatic Wilcox family on a trip to Germany. The Wilcoxes live on a beautiful property called Howards End, which Helen first goes to visit on her own. They are a pretty conservative family: Mr. Wilcox taking a pragmatic view of the world that doesn’t concern itself too much with social works and Mrs. Wilcox having no part in the feminist ideals espoused by Helen. In spite of their differences, Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret form an unlikely friendship, which has far-reaching consequences after disaster strikes both families.

Without giving too much away – the gist of the story is that, by the end of massive circumstantial and manufactured ordeals, nearly every character in the movie does a complete 180 in their core principles and values. (The ending is horribly tidy as a result.) The characters’ actions were, from what I could tell, all for the sake of staving off loneliness. It bothered me greatly – and I do not think this is what a character arc should be. Am I wrong?

Who Are We, Though?

Lately I’ve had several great discussions with fellow readers and family on the nature of self, identity, and what it means to be “you.” What metaphysical and/or physical elements constitute a person? Is there anything about us that is unchangeable throughout our lives?

Now obviously a person’s values can change as they get older and mature. It’s likely cause for concern if someone doesn’t change at all. But how much of that is part of our unique identity? Or is none of it?

So the alternative is that the essence of ourselves exists, somehow, outside of our principles and values. But if that is true, then we can’t be held personally, morally responsible for anything, right? That can’t be right, because “a tree is known by its fruit.” What we do is an extension of ourselves. If we do something (or as especially, don’t do something) on principle, it is a reflection of ourselves.

I don’t know what to think, TBH.

So…

Bringing it back to Howards End, I feel like Forster committed a literary crime by cutting his characters’ feet out from under them Because Reasons and then making them do things they wouldn’t have done before Because Everyone Abandoned Me. In other words, I think a character arc should end up on higher ground, not some inverse parallel universe.

On the other hand, maybe that is the point? Maybe our principles and values are only as good as the support we get from the collective. But in that case, I would say they aren’t principles and values at all if you don’t live by them personally (and if they aren’t ever tested).

So maybe the characters of Howards End are just a bunch of spineless people spitting out platitudes. WHY would I want to read or watch a story about people that are like that?!!

Anyways… I try to keep my reviews fairly positive but this show left me Upset as you can see. Let me know your thoughts on Howards End and/or this topic. No worries, I got my rant out of my system and won’t argue. 😆

Thoughts on Christian Suffering – Conclusion

This is a personal post to share something important to me. It is not intended as a sermon / instructional essay. I just pray it brings help to anyone going through a similar journey.


Back in 2018, I reviewed Open Heart by Elie Wiesel and, in the same post, expressed my frustration to understand the purpose of suffering, especially Christian suffering. Why would God allow people who are following Him with all their hearts to be burdened with ongoing pain and unhappiness? It’s a deeply personal question, not only regarding myself but also the lives of people I love dearly.

Since then, I’ve battled the question internally and at times sought out other perspectives. I found some interesting insights (specifically from Catholic and Orthodox priests), but nothing I heard truly satisfied or convinced me. I’ll be honest: I’ve been at times alternately unhappy and even angry. I have 3–4 pages of notes and half-rants which I’d been planning to share as an update this month, in hopes that at least writing it out would be some sort of progress.

Then yesterday happened.

Yesterday was one of the worst days in recent memory—in recent years, in fact. Let’s just say, I have recurring Personal Issues that can make even “good” days miserable… On the surface, everything was great, but inside I felt utterly awful, fighting back tears even at my grandparents’ house. Yeah, it was a certified Bad Day.

I woke up this morning still feeling icky and almost skipped my Bible reading. But it’s pretty much a habit now, so rather numbly, I opened it up to where I left off, hoping it was a short chapter. It was Hebrews 5.

So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him:

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.”

As He also says in another place:

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”;

who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek,” of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.


—Hebrews 5:5-11 (emphasis added), BibleGateway

I’ve read Hebrews before but this was like reading it for the first time. It felt like the fog in my brain was clearing.

Wanting to make sure “it wasn’t just me,” I searched around for some commentary on this passage. I found this incredible video by John Piper, whose perspectives have been helpful to me in the past (obligatory disclaimer: this is not a blanket endorsement of Piper):

In a nutshell: what Piper highlights contextually is that Jesus, who was sinless, nevertheless had His obedience tested—proven—through the endurance of suffering. And my takeway was that if even Jesus’ obedience was tested, how much more necessary is it for mine to be tested.

I cannot describe how much peace and, strangely, joy this gave me. See, I had thought for a long time that life’s struggles would get easier, or at least plateau, once I had aligned myself fully with God’s will. But rather, I have realized today that that is not so. In fact, suffering has and will only increase, not merely because the world is a cruddy place (it is) but because God allows me to struggle in more incrementally challenging situations, for my own sake.

To make a silly analogy (but the first that came to mind): it’s like a game. When you pass a level, you are getting closer and closer to maximum excellence. But the levels get increasingly harder and harder. There is no easy sailing after you make it past beginner level. Feeling frustrated or discouraged with the harder levels doesn’t mean you’re a bad player—in fact, the opposite! Your skills are being stretched so you will get even better.

Bringing it back to faith…the endurance of suffering—as I understand the verses in Hebrews and Piper’s analysis—is our proof that we are loyal, obedient, and trusting in God and in the salvation Christ gave us. It does not earn us salvation; rather, it is “walking the walk” which is our time to demonstrate that, when push comes to shove, we choose God over idolatry, over lust, over despair, over anything that tempts us. And He promises never to allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). But He does allow us to be tempted, often via suffering, so our untested obedience may be tested and proven true. It’s tangible evidence of our vow of faith. This is important for us personally and for those around us to see.

At the end of the day, Hebrews 5 brings me relief, because, while suffering continues, it isn’t purposeless, like some wretched Kafka novel. It is actually fully intentional, so what I’ve fought through so far, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is no longer a nightmare, but has become a blessing.