JRF's # 48 - Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad's classic novel tells the tale of Marlow, a sailor who travels up river into the dense Congolese rainforest on an expedition to retrieve a legendary ivory hunter, Mr. Kurtz, who has not been heard from in some time.  The further into the jungle Marlow travels, and the further away from civilization, the more savage the world becomes.  When they finally find Mr. Kurtz...well things get weird.  They find evil.  But they also bring evil.

Conrad supplies an interesting look at how humans view each other and ourselves and provides a beautifully written commentary on the forces that both fence in and reveal our depravity.  This exploration into the meaning of and potential for savagery within all of us is filled with powerful symbolism and enigmatic prose (a lot of which went over my head, I must admit).


Ron’s #34: Candide by Voltaire

I reread this novel before teaching it again in my 10th grade class. I love this unit, as it allows for discussions on the problem of evil and the nature of God. Here’s my past review.

In a satire against the optimism of Leibniz, Candide has its young philosopher traveling the world searching for his love and attempting to see if his tutor Pangloss is correct in that this world is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created.

The story begins as Candide is expelled from the Edenic castle in Westphalia for his scandalous kiss to the baroness, the fair Cunegonde. He travels across continents meeting a variety of common people and royalty; priests and sinners; wealthy and poor. Candide continues to struggle with the question of whether Pangloss (and ultimately Leibniz) is correct that this world, the one filled with greed and murder and hypocrisy and cruelty, is the best possible one out of the mind of God. He fights with what he believes and what he sees, and cannot justify the two. Candide is left to “cultivate his garden” rather than waste any more time thinking through these issues.

For the Christian, this book explores one of the key objections to a theistic faith: how can a good God allow suffering in this world? While that question is not specifically addressed, is it at the heart of Candide’s uneasiness. What happens when our world is filled with pain, disappointment, and horror? Can we reconcile a God with our life experience? This is a topic that Christians must not only address to those around who question the claims of Christianity, but we must also have an answer for ourselves when the horrors come.

It would be the height of hubris to state a simple answer to this issue, but we must begin our search for one in the gospel itself. We must remember that God the Father knows suffering and murder, as his Son hung on the cross to die for the sins of the world. He watched as Jesus was tortured and killed to become the payment for sins that we not his own. When we are trying to justify a good God with suffering, our question must begin with God himself. Candide met a cast of characters spewed from the bowels of humanity, but never discussed sin.

Christian doctrine teaches that Adam’s sin brought this world from perfection to the wastelands with people corrupted in the downward spiral. Leibniz’s optimism is wrong: this world is depraved and men have the capability to act like animals to one another. Candide’s observations should bring us back to the God who has provided his Son as a sacrifice to restore humanity to our true image-bearer state. The murderers, the rapists, the thieves in Candide’s journey point us back to a God, one who is perfect because we see that man is not. Corrupt men in the world show a moral structure beyond us that defines what corrupt men act like.

Candide’s decision to focus only on his own garden shows a hopelessness that Christians ought not have. Even in the light of pain and difficulty, we should see our “gardens” in light of the larger garden, the only that has the Tree of Life swaying. Because of this, we can have hope in that other world that is the best of all possible worlds.

Ron’s #33: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.  Jonathan Swift

Swift’s quotation describes Ignatius J. Reilly better than you could possible imagine. The entire world is filled with idiots interfering, cheating, manipulated the misunderstood genius, or so it seems in Ignatius’s mind. Ignatius is over-educated, under-motivated, overweight, and socially deformed in his quest to, well, to do nothing. His mother is over-bearing yet sympathetic, but she is running out of patience with her TV-watching son. The story begins with a small car accident in New Orleans, forcing Ignatius to seek employment to pay help pay for the damages. The results are pure comedy.

Ignatius hops from a clerk in a failing clothing company to a hot dog vendor to a political organizer in an effort to bring his intelligence to a much lower element of society. Lucky them. The story is filled with flawed characters: a hapless police office, a detached business owner and his condescendingly liberal wife, a busybody neighbor, a stripper with a heart of gold, a flamboyant party organizer, a cruel strip bar owner, an elderly clerk with dementia, and female college activist with a penchant for bad screenplays and petty antics. And, of course, is Jones, a Black janitor for the less-than-reputable Night of Joy strip club. Jones is the least educated yet the sharpest character in the bunch.

But the real story is Ignatius himself. His “Oh my God!” gasps, complaints about his heart valve, and his sophisticated turnings of a phrase make this a funny, funny book. As readers we both love and despise Ignatius. Either way, we watch him with car wreck-like wonder.

The story behind the book is interesting: the book was published posthumously after his mother nagged Walker Percy to read it. Toole committed suicide in 1969, and the novel was published in 1980. It won the Pulizer Prize the following year.

I’ve wanted to read this book for years now. Mark read it this year, and his review nudged me to start it. I alternated reading the book with listening to the audio book. I’m glad I listened to it, because this is the best production of any audio book I’ve ever heard. The performance of Ignatius and Jones is unbelievable.

JRF's #38 - The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When knights of the realm take breaks from writing detective mysteries, they write genre defining adventure stories - stories like the Lost World.

The Lost World introduces one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's lesser known protagonists, Professor Challenger.  Challenger is an eccentric academic who claims to have evidence that deep in the South American Rainforest exists a land isolated from time, a land where dinosaurs and other unknown beasts still roam.  To defend his honor and prove his claim he assembles a team of hunters, skeptics and colleagues.  What follows is a classic adventure of the first order.

Now if any of that sounds cliche or familiar (including the title) it is simply because Sir A.C.D. has influenced, inspired, and been borrowed from by many generations of writers since, not least of which is Michael Crichton who admits as much in the forward to this edition.

This book is a classic for a reason.  Highly enjoyable epic in the vein of L. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Buchan.

Ron’s #31: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This review is a repost from last year, but I read this again to teach it. I loved it more than ever before. This book is moving up on my all-time list to the top ten. It’s an excellent reminder of the damaging power of unconfessed sin. I know that Mark gave his stamp of disapproval earlier this year, but he is wrong.

I was surprised that most of my 50-ish students loved reading this book this year. Our discussions were better than they’ve been for most novels last year. I was pleased.

Here is my former review:

While I read and taught The Scarlet Letter before, I never had the appreciation for it as I did in this reading. I was captivated by the story, but the language and style of its writing was preeminent for me. Hawthorne crafts a beautifully written story that tells the familiar tale of Hester Prynne’s public shame and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale’s private tormented guilt after an adulterous affair set in the backdrop of Puritan Boston. The story is simple, as Hester faces a judgmental crowd in the town, and Dimmesdale suffers from a burning conscience as he does not admit to his sin. One man, Roger Chillingworth—Hester’s husband—knows the secret and is bent on revenge against them both.

While The Scarlet Letter is often used to criticize and demonize the Puritan era, it rather shows the importance of what the consequences of sin lead to within our hearts. The public consequences are temporary, but the private consequences are far longer reaching as the “Hound of Heaven” chases after us to confess and repent. While Hawthorne does not condemn adultery as a sin, we see the destruction causes by infidelity with the Prynne family. Hester Prynne is indeed a model of feminine strength and virtue in accepting responsibility and guilt, but she also provides us a picture of the results of our sin and the need for redemption in a Savior.

The book begins with this excellent sentence, showing the coldness of the scene and the tone of the entire novel:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

In our first picture of Hester, Hawthorne contrasts the ugliness of sin with the beauty of the woman:

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

If you are looking to read novels that you should have read in high school but didn’t, I heartily recommend starting with this one.

Ron’s #29: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

This one is not new to me, but I seemed to enjoy it more for some reason. I liked the protective relationship that Prospero has with his daughter Miranda, and the focus on possible criticism on New World colonization that Shakespeare could be proposing. While the plot is overly complicated and some parts unnecessary (the wedding Masque is dull, dull, dull), it’s an easy entry point into Shakespeare’s plays.

I’ll take this play any day over Romeo and Juliet.


Here's my previous review