Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

In the realm of Christian literature, Japan does not loom large. Yet for years, I’ve seen Silence listed amongst the classics. Having finally read it, I find myself both wishing I’d read it years ago and glad that I read it now, in my thirties, with a few years of experience behind me.

The novel begins in the 16th century after Japan leadership has declared Christianity punishable by death and torture. The country is closed to missionaries, leaving those European priests and missionaries already in country stranded and endangered. Quickly realizing that putting Christians to death only creates martyrs for others to follow, the ruling powers work to force Christians to apostatize. They do so by torturing them until they will reject Jesus Christ and stomp on an image of him. (The book deals with Catholic Christianity, meaning that imagery is much more powerful and important to these believers than it may be to a modern Protestant.

The protagonist is a young Jesuit priest, who sneaks into Japan in search of his former mentor, rumoured to have betrayed the faith. We see the story almost entirely from his perspective, from his initial arrival with another priest, hiding in the mountains, to their eventual separation and his arrest. The story is intimate, horrifying, and heartbreaking.

This is a story about the silence of God. I can’t speak to how it might come across to a non-Christian but for me it was moving and, even five hundred years later, painfully familiar. While I have never been persecuted or tortured due to my faith, like most Christians, I have faced a silent God. Based on this book, I suspect Shusaku Endo has faced Him too. This is the question of Silence – what do you do in the midst of suffering when God seems to have turned His back?

The setting of medieval Japan is well-evoked; the peasants living in extreme feudal poverty, the samurais and warlords who rule over them. Endo evokes the extreme differences in these parties, from their power to their dwelling places to what they eat. On the other hand, characterization is slightly thinner. While we are deep inside our central characters mind and spiritual thought, there is almost nothing else known about him. He doesn’t seem to have ever existed before the story began. Likewise, the rest of the characters are shown briefly. Important while on page but hard to imagine otherwise.

For Christians who enjoy literature or readers wanting a fictional glimpse into a Christian experience, I highly recommend Silence.

Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.

From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.

Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world

As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.

There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.

A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book  but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.

I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.

What I Read – December 2016

Check back tomorrow for my complete 2016 reading list, including the highlights of my reading year. (If you’re into that kind of thing.)

The BellmanHeidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

The Fox at the Manger – P.L. Travers (Virago Modern Classics, 2015)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories – Leo Tolstoy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) (translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky)

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube (ECW Press, 2016)

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (An Airmont Classic, 1963)

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed – John Irving (Arcade Publishing, 1996)

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

News of the World – Paulette Jiles

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

Sometimes I read books and wonder if maybe I’m not quite smart enough for them. The Vegetarian is a short but complex novel. It’s beautiful and brutal and I was left feeling like there was a lot more to it than what I was picking up.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts – moving through time and each from the perspective of a different character but always revolving around our main character. The book begins with the seemingly innocuous decision of a young woman to stop eating meat. The first section is told from her husband’s perspective, where we learn how angry and frustrated this makes him and how her iron will and his frustration light a fuse for abuse. Some of what’s at play here is cultural – marital and family expectations, for example – though we’re certainly not expected to sympathize with the husband. Kang presents it with a flat non-emotional tone that makes it even more disturbing and we never get close enough to this young woman to fully understand her motivation.

The second section moves to the perspective of the brother-in-law and his growing obsession with this young woman. An unsuccessful artist, he sees in her an opportunity for his greatest masterpiece. But his desire to create art is twisted in his sexual desire. Here we are reminded that beautiful art can have twisted origins. Does that matter? Does that take away from having created something beautiful? Again, Kang tells the story without judgement. We hear it from the brother-in-law’s perspective and yet there is a measured distance that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

The final section is perhaps the most intimate as we move to the sister’s perspective. The surrealism of our main character’s illness only grows and (in my mind) becomes more confused, but her sister’s pain and confusion makes this section the most emotional.

I was left to wonder what was real, what was imagined, what was hallucinated, what was to be believed. Maybe I’m not smart enough for this book or maybe Kang wants her readers to finish this short novel with a myriad of questions.

Deborah Smith’s translation from Korean was truly excellent, in my mind. She maintains the formal lilt of the language while never feeling false or overdone. It’s exciting to see a new category for translations added to the Man Booker Prize and I think this one is well-deserving of that award.

What I Read – July 2016

Revolutionary RoadRichard Yates (Vintage Contemporaries, 2008)

A Tangled Web – L.M. Montgomery (Bantam Books, 1989)

The Painted Kiss – Elizabeth Hickey (Atria Books, 2005)

The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers – Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw Hill, 2005)

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco (Harvard University Press, 1994)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be – Farley Mowat (Pyramid Books, 1968)

Currently Reading:

Rumours of Another World – Philip Yancey

The Nest – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Don’t forget! You can follow along with what I’m reading in real time on Instagram @karissareadsbooks.

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Don Quixote – Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Well, I finished it. I took my sweet time but I finished reading Don Quixote. I made my first attempt at Don Quixote in 2008, on the recommendation of someone whose book taste I usually agree with. I think I read most of the Part I before I sheepishly returned his copy and promptly left the country.

Yet since it is such a classic – and tops a few lists as the BEST BOOK EVER! – it’s remained on my To Read list ever since. My secret this time? I read most of the book aloud to Pearl. And I ended up enjoying it much more. Do I think it’s the best book ever. No, I do not. But I do see now why so many people love it and why it has remained so popular, even more than 400 years later.

Don Quixote is a hidalgo (a Spanish nobleman) who loses his mind after reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that knights errant exist and that he is the greatest knight of all, he sets off on a series of adventures, accompanied by his foolish and chatty squire, Sancho Panza. Some of those adventures – the windmills, for example – are famous and others were unknown for me. Don Quixote is a comic figure and Sancho, who isn’t mad yet goes along with his master’s thoughts and schemes, is an excellent foil for him.

Don Quixote’s friends and family are horrified and frustrated by Don Quixote’s insistence on being a knight and a good portion of Part I involves their attempts to force him to stay or return home. (There’s a long and boring section where they go through Don Quixote’s books and decide which to keep and which to burn and I couldn’t help but think I’d be better off organizing my own house than reading about someone else’s organization.)

Part I also features a lot of other stories and digressions – going into great details of the histories of people that Don Quixote meets along his adventures. A large chunk involves a lot of them at an inn (that Don Quixote, in his madness, is convinced is a castle) and more people keep arriving and finding connections to each other as they share their tales. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of it reads as Cervantes simply wanting to tell an otherwise unrelated story. It gets tiresome reading about yet another beautiful but tragic maiden and as every young woman Don Quixote meets is apparently unbelievably beautiful, the descriptor starts to lose all meaning. (As an aside, it likely comes as no surprise that the depictions of women here are super sexist and problematic.)

I enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off on their latest adventure. They’ve become rather famous now, due to a book being published on their exploits in Part I. They’re known as comic figures and yet remain as oblivious as ever. This allows several people they meet to play tricks and elaborate hoaxes on them – pretendi(ng to hail Don Quixote as a great knight errant and playing along with his belief that he is constantly pursued by enchanters. I found this section to be funnier and more engaging than Part I.

The book is long (almost a thousand pages) but, in the end, I do think it’s worth it. Four hundred years later, it’s still amusing and engaging and a goofy story about a loveable insane man and his loveable and foolish squire.

(The version I read was translated from Spanish by John Rutherford.)

What I Read – December 2015

No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

…however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Ru – Kim Thúy (Vintage Canada, 2015)

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud (Vintage Books, 2007)

Emberton – Peter Norman (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014)

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965)

Dreamtigers – Jorge Luis Borges (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970) (translated from the Spanish by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland)

White Teeth – Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2001)

Samad watches it all and finds himself, to his surprise, unwilling to silence her. Partly because he is tired. Partly because he is old. But mostly because he would do the same, though in a different name. He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.

The Quick – Lauren Owen (McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Cervantes

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

What I Read – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

Book Review: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War, Riverhead Books, 1993

After reading The Lotus Eaters (read my review here), it seemed fitting to read something about the Vietnam War from a North Vietnam perspective. The Sorrow of War was written by Bao Ninh, who served as a teenager for North Vietnam. While the book is fictional, it’s easy to imagine that it’s based on a lot of Bao Ninh’s personal experiences.

Blurbs for the novel compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front and I understand that impulse but it’s not quite accurate. Yes, it’s a novel offering a perspective from “the other side” but other than that it bears little resemblance to Remarque’s novel. Actually, it reminded me more of Remarque’s sequel, The Road Back, which I read earlier this year. The Sorrow of War details the experience of a young man named Kien during the war and in the years after it. Kien joins up as a teenager, fresh out of school and parted from his childhood sweetheart, Phuong.

The novel moves around a lot in time and place. It jumps from Kien’s earliest days in the army to his experience post-war, recovering bodies, to his tortured days following the end of the war. It’s a chaos that takes some getting used to and I never really felt grounded. This bothered me at first and I was left wondering whether or not to blame translation issues, but by the end of the novel I realized it was a deliberate technique. Kien’s life is chaos. War has thrown everything he experienced, everything he knows, everything about himself, into chaos. Even when the war is over, he is haunted by it; he can never forget it. Everyone he sees and everywhere he goes, he is reminded of it. This story is a tragic one.

As such, there’s really no plot here. Toward the end of the novel, a key scene between Kien and Phuong is slowly revealed that tells a lot about how Kien has been shaped and this section is where I would say there is the most character development. But it’s certainly not a traditional novel in any sense. It’s a beaten-down tale of a beaten-down life from a perspective that North American audiences have not heard enough.

From  critical point of view, I can’t say this book is particularly well-written. It’s hard to follow and it feels like the author is writing for a specific audience, of which I am not a part. However, it is truly compelling. It’s heart-breaking, and tragic, and important and the sections where that really comes across trump the confusing ones.

Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure, and very sincere.

*This edition of The Sorrow of War was translated from Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao

What I Read – August 2015

August was a good reading month. Two things helped. 1) Having no internet for the first twenty days and 2) Long periods of wakefulness with a baby for the first half of the month. (The way I get through nighttime feedings is with a soft light and a good book.) Here’s what I read:

Half of a Yellow Sun –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage Canada, 2007)

I really like Adichie’s writing.This is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The rest of her writing is on my List.

I knew very little of the Biafran/Nigerian civil war going into this and I think Adichie does a great job of telling the reader this history through the story. Both of my parents had childhood memories of hearing about Biafra and I was surprised that this was where our idea of “starving Africans” comes from. This is a sad, hard story to read but a wonderful example of the power of storytelling and how important it can be.

The Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown & Company, 2008)

This book series has been a popular one among pre-teen readers for the past few years so I was eager to read it. Reynie Muldoon responds to an ad in the newspaper, takes a few strange tests, and is swept into a secretive world full of mystery and a little bit of espionage. This is a fun book and easy to read (even for its target audience, I think). The characters are likeable and interesting. The illustrations by Carson Ellis add nicely to the story.

Where the book struggles is in background information. Is this story set in our world? Our future? An alternate version of our world? We are told that there is an “Emergency” but we’re never told what this really entails. As a result, stopping the Emergency doesn’t feel that high stakes. You might want the characters to succeed but it doesn’t much feel like it matters.

The Joys of Love – Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2008)

It is my opinion that most books published posthumously were not published by the author for good reasons. Unfortunately, as much as I like so much of L’Engle’s work, this is true of The Joys of Love. (Also, a terrible title.) It’s a book about theatre and young adulthood and first love, set in the late 1940s. It’s a harmless story but it doesn’t make much of a case for its own value.

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001)

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

Somehow I made it through high school and university without reading this one (is it a short story? a novella?) It had been on my list for a long time; surely, I thought, a story so famous was worthy of reading. I was hugely disappointed and, honestly, disgusted by this one. While I can understand much of its racism has to do with the time in which it was written, that certainly doesn’t excuse its popularity in the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Frankly, I found it hard to read the descriptions of Africa and the African people.

Almost as bad is the fact that the story is mostly narrative and very little action. I never felt like we were given much example of Kurtz’s behaviour but simply told that we should be shocked. There was potential in parts but the long-winded explanations and the heavy-handed racism make this a poor read.

A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot (Plume, 1994)

translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

While I might wonder why some books are so famous, I also wonder why others are not more famous. A Very Long Engagement is one of those books. I was hugely impressed with this one. It’s sad and funny and endearing. Beautifully detailed and a story wonderfully told.

Set primarily in the aftermath of World War I in France, Mathilde is searching for the truth of what happened to her fiancé. Official reports say that he was killed in action but as Mathilde traces the last days of his life and meets the men who were there, it turns out that there is much more to the story, and that there are those who don’t want the truth told. The reader is told the truth early on but Japrisot does a magnificent job of unfolding the events as various characters tell their versions and as Mathilde learns the truth.

Japrisot’s characters are really where the book shines. Each one, no matter how minor, is given depth and reality. Some we only meet through letters, some show up steadily throughout the story and Mathilde’s life, but each one feels like a real person.

Rapture Practice – Aaron Hartzler (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This is a memoir of a young man’s journey from unquestioning faith in a particularly conservative brand of Christianity to what I think turns out to be agnosticism.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home and I went to Christian school for six years of my childhood education. I’m familiar with much of what Hartzler describes and I’m pretty sure I read the same Dr. Dobson book on adolescence and puberty that he does. Overall though, my upbringing was far less conservative and more forgiving than his was. The Christianity he describes is a rule-based one, with very little grace, and it makes me sad when people view that as what Christianity is.

So while I think it’s healthy when young people question the faith (whatever faith that may be) that they grow up in and decide whether or not they want to claim it for their own, it also makes me sad when people think this is what Christianity is.

Honestly, the book stops just as it gets interesting. We don’t get to learn about where Hartzler’s faith is at now or how his adult relationship with his family is. (Mostly, he portrays his parents in a pretty forgiving light. His father is the closest thing the book has to an antagonist but I got the sense that Hartzler stopped short in his re-telling because his parents are alive to read this memoir.)

The book mostly focuses on Hartzler’s teen years and there was a lot of teen boy stuff that I just couldn’t relate to or find all that interesting. Overall, I think this one falls short of what it could have been

Dancer – Colum McCann (Phoenix, 2003)

They built roads through drifts with horses, pitching them forward into the snow until the horses died, and then they ate the horsemeat with great sadness.

I love Colum McCann’s writing (check out that opening line!). He does historical fiction well. In Dancer, he tackles the subject of Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union in the 1960s (and someone I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this novel).

McCann tells the story through other people’s experiences with Nureyev – his parents, his sister, his teacher, his classmates, his servant. Only briefly and as a child do we get into Nureyev’s own head. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story. In general, it’s not one that flatters Nureyev. We read a portrait of a man who is flamboyant, headstrong, stubborn, immensely talented, and rather heartless. Here and there are glimpses of someone softer, someone more sympathetic but we are meeting a man whose fame and childhood hardship stand continously in contrast and keep the rest of the world at bay. It’s a sad story about art, about a country of suffering, about human relationships and how hard they are. It’s beautifully told.

“And I will tell you this, since it is all I want to say: Anna, the sound of your name still opens the windows of this room.”

The Cougar Lady – Rosella Leslie (Caitlin Press, 2014)

This is a very Sechelt book. A memoir of a uniquely Sechelt character, written by a Sechelt author and published by a publishing house based here on the Sunshine Coast. I’d heard of Bergie and her sister Minnie before I ever moved here since my husband remembers seeing them in town occasionally when he was a child. Most locals who were around while the sisters were alive have a story or two.

Bergie lived in a remote area of the Sechelt Inlet, hunting and fishing and mostly following her own rules. Reading about her life and story, I got the impression that she was a person who outlived her time. The Sunshine Coast was a remote, forested village for a long time but Bergie was still alive as it became a town. One with hunting licenses and fishing regulations. It’s hard to say if Bergie would have chosen the life she lived had any other options ever been presented to her. Rosella Leslie offers up the facts of Bergie’s life but they mostly serve as a sad picture of a woman with a rough childhood and who subsequently had difficulty building relationships and adapting to the world as it changed around her.

A Northern Light – Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt, 2003)

“Lots of things are true. Doesn’t mean you can go around saying them.”

This young adult novel is based on a true crime in the early 20th century (the same crime that An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is based on). Donnelly creates a fictional young woman, Mattie Gokey, to parallel the real life victim of Grace Brown. It’s an interesting way to demonstrate the narrow options of a young girl in that era. The book is an easy read though it doesn’t always explain itself as well as it could. My biggest question was with Mattie’s relationship with Royal. It’s hard to see why she would ever agree to marry him (and their engagement is an important plot factor) and the story would have had a lot more tension if it ever seemed at all likely that she might actually go through with the marriage.

The Sword in the Stone – T.H. White (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939)

I remember reading this story in elementary school but as I began to re-read it, I found I didn’t remember it at all. This isn’t a historically accurate or factual telling of the Arthur legend (if such a thing can even exist). It’s full of anachronisms and it’s set in entirely the wrong time. White offers up the reasoning of Merlin living backwards through time but he isn’t trying to defend his inaccuracies really. The point is the story and the idea of what Arthur’s (or The Wart as he is known here) childhood might have been like before he pulled that sword out of the stone. I remembered really enjoying this book years ago, which is good because I didn’t much enjoy the re-read. It went on rather long and I kept waiting for more action and adventure. Much of the story reads more like a biology or philosophy lesson.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies – Raziel Reid (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014)

(If you can read that title without getting Iris by the Googoo Dolls stuck in your head, you are a stronger person than I am.)

This short young adult novel won the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award in its category. Shortly thereafter, a petition was started to get the award rescinded and to keep this book out of schools.

Loosely based on the real life and murder of Larry Fobes King, this is the story of Jude. Jude lives in a small, cold, unnamed Canadian town. He is flamboyantly, unashamedly gay and he enjoys wearing make-up and dressing up in his mother’s – who works as a stripper – clothes and shoes. He longs equally to leave his small town and to be famous. He narrates his own life as if he’s the star of his own reality TV show, referring to his classmates as fans or paparazzi. He’s infatuated with Luke, a popular classmate, whose friends bully Jude mercilessly.

Jude is the star of his own show and it’s a sad, sad show to watch. His father makes only sporadic appearances, his mother clearly loves him but is caught up in her own tragedies, his stepfather is abusive and hateful. Jude’s best friend betrays him and the one person willing to be physically intimate with Jude won’t admit it even to himself. Jude relies heavily on drugs to deal with his own life. He’s strong, cocky, often funny; in subtle ways Reid shows us that this is a character who might have been someone if every circumstance in his life was entirely different.

Jude certainly isn’t a character to be admired or to draw inspiration from. He’s a fictional portrayal of the ways real life kids fall through the cracks. And this is a story of learning to deal with emotions, with love, with pain. It’s a sad story.

I’m anti-censorship so I’m glad to see schools and libraries keep this on their shelves. I think it’s important for teenagers to read all kinds of books and I think it’s equally important for the adults in their lives to talk with them about those books. This is definitely a book that should be accompanied by a lot of conversation. Jude isn’t someone I’d want my teenager to be but, sadly, he’s a realistic portrayal of the life many teens live.

Jesus Among Other Gods – Ravi Zacharias (Thomas Nelson, 2000)

…truth cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a pretended tolerance.

This is a controversial statement in our world today. Zacharias, one of my favourite Christian theologians, doesn’t shy away from controversy in this book where he explores what makes Christianity unique among other religions. Raised in India – a land of many gods – Zacharias delves into the other major religions of the world and addresses some of the big issues and questions that people have when comparing Christianity to other belief systems.

I would describe Zacharias’ writing as fairly academic. I don’t find him as readable as someone like Philip Yancey, but his insights are equally valuable and compared to some of his other books, Jesus Among Other Gods is not a difficult read. For anyone interested in comparative religion and Christianity in particular, I think this is a great place to start.

Those who smirk at His walking on water have forgotten the miracle He has already performed in the very composition of water.

The Giver – Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)

Like so many other people my age, I read this years ago but I don’t remember much. While up late with Pearl one night, I finished the book I was reading and pulled this off our shelf. We meet Jonas who seems to live in some sort of future utopian society. At least, utopian if you consider a society where no one has strong emotions and every aspect of your life – from where you work to who your children are – is dictated by the authorities to be a utopia. Jonas is nearly twelve, the age when his future career will be decided upon by the Elders. He’s nervous and excited but he has no idea what’s in store for him when he is assigned the unique job of Receiver.

On the off chance there are people out there who haven’t read this one, I won’t say anything further because I think the book is better left as a surprise. It’s a great young adult book; it’s full of concepts that raise questions and conversation. If I were judging it from an adult perspective, I think it does fall short in really establishing its own world and how this society can actually work. Some more backstory would probably aid it but it’s an easy and fascinating read just the way it is.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Previous to this novel I’d only read Smith’s novella, The Embassy of Cambodia. I enjoyed that one though so was eager to read On Beauty. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a story of race, of class, of education. The characters are (mostly) well-fleshed out and interesting, though only a few of them are very likeable. It’s the story of two feuding families – the Belseys and the Kipps – and it starts off with the son from one family falling in love with the daughter from the other family. It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story at all though; it’s much more complicated than that.

Set mostly in a university town outside of Boston, the novel focuses heavily on the power and effects of education. The patriarchs of each family are professors and rivals (unfortunately the character of Monty Kipps is never much more than a caricature) and their children’s lives become more and more entwined as time progresses. There are lots of unexpected turns in the plot and Smith handles them well, with realistic characters reacting in ways that feel honest and true.

Currently Reading:

The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton

Art is the signature of man.

Beijing Confidential –  Jan Wong

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey