Tag Archives: nonfiction

A Grief Observed – Thoughts

C. S. Lewis married his one and only wife, Joy Gresham, when he was 57 years old. Shortly afterwards, Joy was diagnosed with cancer—just four years later, she passed away. A Grief Observed is a collection of Lewis’s notes from the time of his mourning.

As another reviewer mentioned on Goodreads, you don’t pick up this book for fun but out of some personal need. Both death and loss arrived in my life suddenly this past spring, and I knew I should pick it up this year. I read it through last night and came away feeling… well, not comforted exactly but at least understood, in part.

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Quoting Kierkegaard – Works of Love, Fear and Trembling, and More

For nonfiction books, I’ll be going over specific topics, starting with my beloved Soren Kierkegaard collection. These are just some first impressions of his writing, without any in-depth analysis or philosophical/theological context. Later down the road I’d like to give a better overview, but since I appreciate his writing so much already, I couldn’t resist talking about him. 😉

OLD REVIEWS:
Fear and Trembling
The Concept of Anxiety

OTHER BOOKS MENTIONED:
The Present Age
Works of Love
Spiritual Writings

The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank lacht naar de schoolfotograaf

…I seem to have everything, except my one true friend.  All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time.  I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things.  We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem.

As I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, two things really struck me.  The first was that humans, ordinary humans, can turn cruel so quickly and completely.  The second was that, even as an adult, I could see pieces of my own life in Anne’s, because her writing, in so many ways, is ageless.

It’s one of the most famous memoirs of all time, so many people know the story: a Jewish family in Holland is compelled to go into hiding after the Nazi takeover, and the youngest daughter records their experiences in her diary.  I had heard much about the book but put off reading it, due to my emotional experience with similar memoirs (The Hiding Place, Night, and From the Ashes of Sobibor).  Though different in scope and perspective from those other books, The Diary is every bit as emotional and, while difficult to put down, cannot be read lightly.

Anne’s first entries show the Frank family before they went into hiding, making the best life they could under an increasingly oppressive police state.  When she was about twelve, Anne and her sister were forced to transfer to the Jewish Lyceum school due to segregation by Nazi mandate.  Always intent to be cheerful, she writes joyfully of her friends and admirers at the new school.  Of the discrimination against Jews – from harsh curfews to exclusion from public transportation – she writes very matter-of-factly, in a bluntness that carries through the rest of the diary.

Even at thirteen, when she began writing, Anne seemed to have a sense for what was important to record; later, she told her imaginary friend “Kitty” that she wanted to become a writer or journalist when she grew up.  What results is a fascinating combination of personal (even intimate) anecdotes and journalistic writing about the family’s day-to-day activities and the progress of the war. 

The Frank family was not alone; they shared the “Secret Annex” with the van Daan family and a middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Dussel.  For two years, the eight people were cooped up together in the tiny hidden rooms, fearful of making noise or being seen by the outside world.  Understandably, tempers often ran high.  Much of the book covers the conflict between Anne and everyone else, as it seems (at least from her perspective) she was frequently the target of the grown-ups’ frustrations.  In the Definitive Edition which I read, even the arguments between Anne and her mother are included.  The whole dynamic is extremely believable, and I would imagine the situation caused the majority of the friction between people who would otherwise have got along pretty well.

What is most enduring to me about Anne’s diary is just that: its honesty.  There’s the day-to-day dramas, traumas, and bathroom jokes, which make the characterizations so real.  Then there’s the introspection, self-analysis, and over-analysis which ring true for a girl in her early teens.  Anne’s desire to be taken seriously and understood is something I could so well relate to at that age, and reading it now was like a flashback to my own diary.  Less relatable for me was her enthusiasm about puberty and “growing up,” but I think a lot of other readers would be able to relate to that.

There were many great quotes, but I wanted to end with one that I found especially insightful, as well as chilling:

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists.  Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago!  There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.  And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

The Frank family, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel were eventually captured on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and, within about six months, had been murdered through the terrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor.

As I remember Anne Frank and her family, I also pray for those who are suffering persecution today, such as Pastor Wang Yi.  We shouldn’t forget that history is repeating itself, even today, all over the world.

The Congo and the Cameroons – Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley’s memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary’s climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Mont-Cameroun
Normand Roy [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary – like her fellow solo traveler Isabella Bird – was a tough cookie.  She was only about 33 years old when she decided to become “the third Englishman to ascend the Peak [of Mount Cameroon] and the first to have ascended it from the southeast face” (p. 33–34).  With her trusty umbrella, some German camping gear, and a small group of native assistants, she set off into the jungle.  Surviving rain, mud, tornadoes, and a range of minor accidents, Mary was determined nothing, even her own moments of discouragement, would keep her from achieving her mission.

Apart from bravely facing the elements and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, Mary was also quite a character.  She writes much in the style of a male British officer of the day, referring to her assistants as “the men” or “my boys.”  Natives and Germans alike feature heavily in her jokes, so it is hard to tell whether she was racially prejudiced, misandrist, or simply impatient with anyone less committed to her goal than herself.  Either way, I really didn’t care for her sense of humor.

While I may not read the full memoir, I’ll probably seek out a biography on Mary Kingsley, because it sounds like she had a very interesting life.  (I was particularly interested to learn on Wikipedia that she met Mary Slessor, a missionary whose story fascinated me as a child.)  Sadly, she died when she was only 37, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Second Boer War.  I can imagine how many more adventures she would have gone on had she lived a longer life, but it’s amazing what she accomplished in the years she had.