JRF's #50 - A Seed Falls on Okinawa by Peter A. Hewett

A disappointing read.  I'm not sure when/how I picked this book up but a few days ago when I was flipping through my Kindle looking for short books I could read to round out my 52 books for the year, I came across this 70 page short fictional story by Mr. Hewett about the battle of Okinawa and thought it might be an interesting read, considering it took place where I live and was supposedly about a Christian who died here.

Well it does take place on Okinawa - and it does provide some interesting facts and insights into the Okinawan culture.  Unfortunately, the book's redeeming qualities end there.  The author's overly-descriptive and pretentious writing style was distracting.  But that is forgivable.  The horrid theology presented is not.  A mixture of universalism and syncretism with a thin veneer of Roman Catholicism, there is no Gospel Truth to be found here, just therapeutic contextualization.

This book won't be showing up on any top ten lists this year.

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).


JRF's #51 - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


Referred to by some as "Harry Potter and the Holocaust", this lengthy book came highly recommended from a variety of sectors, so when I found out my library had it, I picked it up.

Narrated by the personification of death, the book tells the story of Leisle, an orphan of communist parents who is taken in as a foster child by a poor German couple living outside of Munich right at the dawn of World War II.  As Liesle struggles to survive she makes many discoveries - friendship, the secret life of her loving foster father, and the wonder and power of books.  As her story progresses it inevitably intertwines with the larger narratives of what is happening around her - Kristallnacht, the Hitler Youth, the Holocaust, and the devastation of World War II.

Overall I enjoyed it.  The story is definitely compelling and the characters are rich.  I thought that telling the story of World War II from the perspective of a poor, orphaned, German girl was helpful in that it provided a portrait of World War II that is not often explored.

While the non-linear narrative told by Death was unique it sometimes got annoying and confusing.  My only other criticism would be that there was an excess of foul language, especially considering this book is from the Young Adult section.


Mark's #52 - Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

Born in Prague in 1883,  Franz Kafka's passion was literature and writing, though it was merely a pursuit on the side away from his day job working with the state insurance company.   This book is a collection of all of Kafka's writings that were published during his lifetime (there were other works published posthumously - though apparently he burned 90% of his writings).  It is a collection of mostly short stories ranging from a few paragraphs to 60 pages or so.  Kafka is credited with spearheading the existentialist writing style that would be taken up by the likes of Albert Camus a couple decades after Kafka's death from tuberculosis. Though bizarre at times, these stories are engaging in their symbolism and character interactions.  Metamorphosis is about a young man who wakes up one day as a giant bug.  His parents and his sister  discover him and keep him locked away in his room, feeding and watering him, until he eventually dies, presumably from loneliness.  Much of Kafka's writing deals with tension with father figures -  apparently Franz had daddy issues.

The Country Doctor is yet another bizarre, almost dream-like tale with nonsensical actions and characters (a man bites a woman's face as he's trying to kiss her... the doctor is stripped naked and forced to lie in bed with a dying boy with a fatal wound in his side)... After continually re-reading passages, I finally looked up the plot summary on wikipedia, only to come to find out I really was following along as well as possible.

Perhaps the most engaging and disturbing story was In the Penal Colony.  Here a visitor from a far away country is invited to witness an execution of a condemned prisoner.  The officer in charge is very proud of the torture/execution device that uses a series of needles to engrave a message repeatedly over the condemned man's entire body, slowly rotating him, and maximizing his pain until death comes at about the 12th hour.  The visitor is horrified to learn of the whole procedure.  The officer in charge knows the winds of change are coming since the new prison commandant disapproves.  Realizing this, he tries to appeal to the visitor to keep the procedure going, but when his plea is rebuffed and his cause is helpless, he frees the the prisoner and takes his place on the torture device.  After the machine begins its work, it begins to break apart, sending cogs and bolts flying everywhere, and driving the needles through the body of the officer - I know, I told you it was bizarre.

Bottom line: These stories would probably be great to discuss with english teachers like Ron Coia, or perhaps people on drugs.

One last nugget, apparently there is a Metamorphosis movie that came out this year based off of Kafka's story.  Here's the trailer:


Ron’s #36: Confess, Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald

Yes, that Fletch, the same character from the 1985 movie with Chevy Chase. After I saw that movie in high school, I read a few of the books on which it was based. Gregory Mcdonald has nine books with Irwin Maurice Fletcher as an investigative reporter sleuthing, disguising, and lying his way through the mystery. The two Fletch movies portray him as more goofy than he is in the novels, but the books are good reads before bedtime.

Confess, Fletch is the second in the series, and has Fletch fly in to Boston to find a murdered woman in his rented house. While trying to solve that murder, he is also trying to track down stolen paintings from a family heirloom from a possibly crooked art dealer.

Mcdonald’s writing style is breezy and quick, with lots of dialogue to move the story along. If you are interested in mystery novels, this could be for you. I’m not a mystery reader usually. I just like spending time with arrogant smart-alecks.

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.