The Tragedy of the Korosko - why some lit remains obscure

Wathen, George - Egypt sketch3

I'm afraid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Tragedy of the Korosko checks most of the bad boxes on the mainstream reader's list; to name a few: exoticism, imperialism, stereotypical females, and racist language.  I had high hopes, based on some reviews I'd read, but even accounting for the mindset of the times wasn't enough to give it more than 3 out of 5 stars on my scale.

Doyle covered a pretty vast range of subjects apart from Sherlock Holmes.  Some of his other topics include medieval knights (The White Company), Napoleonic soldiers (Brigadier Gerard), Huguenot emigrants (The Refugees), and contemporary horror (Round the Red Lamp, The Captain of the Polestar, etc).  I'd recommend any of those, even if some are dated, simply because they transcend their "datedness" and are good stories even today.

I guess that's why Korosko was disappointing - I expected more from Doyle, yet I was under the aching suspicion all the way through that he was doing what a writer should try to avoid: writing for his audience.  This is a great technique if you want to make a living's a great mistake if you want to be a great author.  It's like buying trendy furniture; you will be admired immediately, and ridiculed in the next season of House Hunters.  Korosko is, unfortunately, more trendy than timeless.

The plot follows a group of white travellers taking a Nile cruise to see the ruins of Egypt, ca. 1895.  The travellers are split by their nationalities and denominations, which gives them cause for disagreements, both friendly and heated, on the way.  Their tour takes them on the edge between British-Egyptian-held Egypt and the lands controlled by radical Islamist bedouins.  On one of their excursions, they are attacked by the Islamists, who force them to make a choice, either to convert to Islam or die.

The premise is excellent, and not dated at all.  I enjoyed the first part of the book quite a bit, and though Wikipedia says there is a "strong defence of British Imperialism," that is a blanket statement and not necessarily true.  Doyle presents both sides of the topic, in different views of his characters, including one we would empathize with today:
    "Well now," said Headingly, in his slow, thoughtful fashion, "suppose I grant you that the Dervishes could overrun Egypt, and suppose also that you English are holding them out, what I'm never done asking is, what reason have you for spending all these millions of dollars and the lives of so many of your men? What do you get out of it, more than France gets, or Germany, or any other country, that runs no risk and never lays out a cent?"
    "There are a good many Englishmen who are asking themselves that question," remarked Cecil Brown. "It's my opinion that we have been the policemen of the world long enough. We policed the seas for pirates and slavers. Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilisation. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jehad in the Soudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right. And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals. We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it? Let Europe do its own dirty work."
The opposing argument follows next - perhaps this is where Wikipedia gets its "defence of British Imperialism."  However, I was not sure which side Doyle was on, and I'm sure he gave both a fair representation.

I liked the characters quite a bit.  Colonel Cochrane Cochrane should be remembered as one of Doyle's best minor characters, if for nothing else but this commentary:
Colonel Cochrane Cochrane was one of those officers whom the British Government, acting upon a large system of averages, declares at a certain age to be incapable of further service, and who demonstrate the worth of such a system by spending their declining years in exploring Morocco, or shooting lions in Somaliland. 
Where the book begins to fall short is after the travellers are captured.  The terrorists are laughably accommodating (seriously, drawing lots to see who gets the camel?), as well as dim-witted enough to let the prisoners talk to each other throughout the journey.  Even the horrors which happen do not seem to produce the effect upon the travellers that I would have expected.  Maybe I'm quite biased, because terrorism is a much closer enemy to us today than it was in Doyle's time.  Still, for someone who so masterfully wrote about moral dilemmas in the Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle doesn't go as far in Korosko to make us, or the characters, feel a vital sense of fear and urgency, as he does in his other books.

Ordinarily, I'd recommend it as a "light" read, but the subject matter is far from light.  So if you're a Doyle completist (as I'm on my way to being), or if you are looking for a quick turn-of-the-century read, then you might want to read this one - otherwise, there are better Doyle books to read.

Minorities - the poetry collection of T. E. Lawrence

During moments in Lawrence of Arabia, or in whole passages in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you might notice T. E. Lawrence's love for the poetic, both in the actual form and in his prose.  He was, as it turns out, a serious reader and critic of poetry: he toted The Oxford Book of English Verse with him in Arabia, and collected his Minorities during and after the war.  In his own words, he defined Minorities as "Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets."  The first U.S. edition was not published until 1971.

The poems (many of which are from the Oxford Book) are fairly what you'd expect from the complex mind of T. E. Lawrence.  Some are classics by his predecessors, such as Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others are poems by his contemporaries who surpassed his honest criticisms.  I was surprised at the variety, but perhaps I shouldn't have been.  If you take into account his mental state after the war, mixed with his survivor's fighting spirit and his longing for peace, the range of the collection makes more sense: beauty and bleakness, profanity and reverence, depression and hope.  Some of the first poems are particularly ugly and sacrilegious, coming near the end of the Arab Revolt and his depression over its result.  As the book goes on, however, the poems become less dark and more reverent, suggesting that time, if not the ultimate Healer, was instrumental in the healing process.

That said, the editor warns us not to take the book as autobiographical.  Though Lawrence copied some poems in entirety, still it was sometimes only a line or two of a poem which struck home with him.  I was very impressed with the editor and introduction; it's very rare that an editor doesn't make mountains out of mole hills, and J. M. Wilson succeeds in coming across as interested, but not overblown.

I marked nine poems that really stood out to me.  Maybe the most memorable one was "The Owl" by Edward Thomas, written in 1917.

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

(Source: The Poetry Foundation)

I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars, recommended for anyone wanting to learn about Lawrence or the zeitgeist of his time.  They say these days you can learn a lot about someone by the music they listen to; think of Minorities as Lawrence's playlist. 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 9 & 10: "But for fit monument, I shattered it, unfinished..."

Seven Pillars 2008 e5
Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation in Wadi Rum, Jordan
by Tomobe03 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Some books, when you come to the end of them, leave you gaping inwardly.  Dejected and confused, you feel like you missed something critical, after "getting" everything that came before.   Seven Pillars of Wisdom ends just like Lawrence of Arabia, so I should have seen it coming. But after some whirlwind chapters, the ending came suddenly, doubly sobering as a first-person narrative.  Like so many real-life struggles, it hangs loosely together instead of being tied up neatly; you look for closure and find questions instead.
Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house,
                                              as a memory of you.
But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now
The little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
                                            in the marred shadow
                                                                     Of your gift.

9 & 10 - Balancing for a Last Effort; The House is Perfected

Emir Faisal; Lt. Colonel T.E. Lawrence - early 1918
Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence and Emir Faisal during World War I; Damascus.
Exasperated one night at G.H.Q., I had blurted out that to me 1918 seemed the last chance, and we could take Damascus, anyhow, whatever happened at Deraa or Ramleh; since it was better to have taken it and lost it, than never to have taken it at all.

Feisal...replied that he would try this autumn for Damascus though the heavens fell, and, if the British were not able to carry their share of the attack, he would save his own people by making separate peace with Turkey. (p. 571)

I begged him [Feisal] to trust not in our promises, like his father, but in his own strong performance. (p. 572)
It became a legitimate cause for care that the Arab Revolt continue to collaborate with Britain even till the last minute.  Lawrence sensed that they would fare badly - perhaps fatally - if they made motions counter to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which would split Ottoman Turkey between the European powers of England, France, and Russia.  He warned Feisal in advance of this treaty, and Feisal, hardly blind to the political deception of his "allies," listened to Lawrence's advice and went along with the British plan, which as the lesser of two evils would at least prevent his displacement altogether.  But, knowing as he did that his possession of the conquered territories was up in the air, Feisal listened to their promises with more than a grain of salt.

T. E. Lawrence, Herbert Samuel, Emir Abdullah - Amman 1921
On the Aerodrome at Amman:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935),
Sir Herbert Samuel (1870-1963),
and Emir Abdullah (Abdullah I of Jordan,
I think it is tempting, especially in the film, to view Feisal as the "king" of the Arab people, a monarch on the scale of George V or Nicholas II.  However, though he and his family were the symbolic power figures of the Revolt, it's worth remembering that throughout the effort, there was plenty of conflict between the different tribes that he and Lawrence attempted to unite, and unity in war may not have been unity in peace.  It goes back to that telling quote - "fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it" (p. 100)  Perhaps his flexibility was a kind of realism, and he may have made certain choices based on survival, rather than ideals.

At this late point, I had supposed the most gruesome scene from the movie - "No prisoners" - to be mostly a Hollywood fabrication, but I was wrong.  It makes sense that it happened near the end of his career in Arabia, when Lawrence was struggling both mentally and physically through his self-proclaimed fraud that he so hated.  He, Auda, and his men come across the remains of a village that had a personal connection to a member of their group.  They find a child bleeding to death, women sadistically raped and killed, and the bodies of dead babies on the ground.  It is not hard to imagine that this hellish sight must have provoked the hellish response from Lawrence and his men, in their revenge on the retreating enemy.  "By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war...we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony" (p. 654).

There is nothing glorious in war.  This has to be one of the major themes of Seven Pillars - mankind's most decorous and elaborate and stupendous undertakings are not unwed with devastation, even when you are on the "good" side.

Edmund Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby in 1916
Edmund Allenby, 1916.
Lawrence writes of the taking of Damascus matter-of-factly: British and Arabs are welcomed joyfully by the citizens, and, as shown in the film, there are numerous hiccups to the establishment of government, some humorous and some not.  Yet in the midst of the victory, photographs, and commendations, there is irony and sadness in the final words of his narrative.  The Syrian Government is established, albeit on shaky foundations, with Feisal and General Allenby jointly managing the city.  Lawrence's "soldiering" was no longer needed.

It is worth pointing out that Lawrence had a great and sincere respect for Allenby, summing him up as "dreamlike confidence and decision and kindness" (p. 682).  There is no suggestion that there was any bad feeling between Lawrence, Feisal, and Allenby, as portrayed in the movie.  I think the purpose of that cinematic twist was to express how Lawrence felt, in the hands of British and French politicians, but it does a large discredit to Lawrence's actual feelings about these two people at that time.

T.E. Lawrence, The dreamer whose dreams came true

Finally - for the third and last time, Lawrence asks to be let go.  For the first time, he is told yes, and feels instant pangs of regret.

Lawrence returned to England, where he wrote and published Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ultimately he returned to military service, this time as a humble aircraftman, "John Hume Ross," in the Royal Air Force.  Feisal's power in Syria was challenged by the French, and his subsequent Kingdom of Iraq was one of mixed successes and even infamy, before his early death.  They were both only in their mid-to-late 40s when they died.

World War I history always leaves me with the question - why?  Here, in this book, is another echo to that why.  I cringe to hear the words "war" or "revolution" used flippantly, as they sometimes are by our politicians.  On paper or in speeches, the concept can sound good, desirable, or necessary, but if ever it is, hopefully we have measured its worth by the testimony of those who have fought wars, and through their tortured words tell us the human cost of war, in lives of "ordinary" men, women, and children.

by nav chatterji

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 7 & 8: The Dead Sea Campaign; The Ruin of High Hope

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59157
Sherif Nasir
The Arab Revolt as led by Lawrence was not a solely independent effort.  Money and reinforcements came from Britain, and in return the Arab tribesmen and leadership collaborated with General Allenby against the common enemy.  The Dead Sea Campaign came after Allenby had taken Jerusalem, and would benefit both Arab and British objectives: 
"The Arabs were to reach the Dead Sea as soon as possible; to stop the transport of [enemy] food up it to Jericho before the middle of February; and to arrive at the Jordan before the end of March." (p. 465)
This seemingly moderate plan became a source of extreme frustration for Lawrence.  Part of this was circumstantial, playing out in the alternate taking and retaking of the town of Tafileh, a tiresome and unpleasant part of the campaign.  Some of it, too, was the challenge of working with Zeid, Feisal's younger brother, who like Feisal's older brother and father was not of one mind with Lawrence's methods.

At one point, for example, Zeid spends a large quantity of the money apportioned for the campaign.  He spent it in payments to recruits, but it was prematurely paid, and not all of it went to the right people.  This is the breaking point for Lawrence - without the money, he is unable to back up Allenby as promised.  He sees nothing but failure and himself as part of the problem.  Once again, Lawrence returns to his superiors and begs for reassignment:
I complained that since landing in Arabia I had had options and requests, never an order: that I was tired to death of free-will, and of many things beside free-will.  For a year and a half I had been in motion, riding a thousand miles each month upon camels: with added nervous hours in crazy aeroplanes, or rushing across country in powerful cars. (p. 514)
But his release was not to be.  Lawrence was once more requested to stay: Jericho was taken without his help, yet British Headquarters still wanted his leadership, in the final push for Damascus that would wrest it from Ottoman Turkey decisively.
"There was no escape for me.  I must take up again my mantle of fraud in the East.  With my certain contempt for half-measures I took it up quickly and wrapped myself in it completely.  It might be fraud or it might be farce: no one could say that I could not play it." (p. 515)
Jericho P1190715
Jericho - City of the Moon, City of Palms - in a rainy day 
by Deror_avi [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that makes Seven Pillars of Wisdom an extraordinary memoir is how the themes, political and personal, are countered by the intricate, sometimes poetic, "travelogue" side of the story.  Though his self-deprecation and cynicism continue to increase, Lawrence still recounts these other moments of his journey, when he is fighting against time or the elements, not human strength or weakness.  It is really a memoir of survival, sometimes of wits and sometimes of body.  My favorite part of these two books was when he was riding his camel, Wodheiha, in the snow, and, weighed down by both gold and fatigue, she got stuck in heavy drifts.
So I carved her a beautiful little road, a foot wide, three deep, and eighteen paces long, using my bare feet and hands as tools.  The snow was so frozen on the surface that it took all my weight, first to break it down, and then to scoop it out.  The crust was sharp, and cut my wrists and ankles till they bled freely, and the roadside became lined with pink crystals, looking like pale, very pale, water-melon flesh.

Afterwards, I went back to Wodheiha, patiently standing there, and climbed into the saddle.  She started easily.  We went running at it, and such was her speed that the rush carried her right over the shallow stuff, back to the proper road. (p. 509)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 5 & 6: Marking Time; The Raid upon the Bridges

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III, Book IV

After the capture of Akaba, the Arab Revolt was again able to re-focus on its core strategy: destroying the Turkish railway in Hejaz.  This followed Lawrence's philosophy of undermining Turkish resources instead of targeting their forces directly, following the priority of utilizing the Arab advantage - mobility and knowledge of terrain - and preserving Arab lives.

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59674
The Hejaz Railway, 1908

With the help of British expertise and the leadership of Arab sherifs, Lawrence set this plan into reality, both leading and training the Arab fighters in a series of bomb attacks on the railway.  The most materially valuable points were the stations, full of loot for the men to take back to their tribes...the most vulnerable points were the bridges.

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59627

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59640

These two parts were rich with Lawrence's insights on not only his own actions, thoughts, and struggles during this time, but also the geographical features he saw, the behavior and attitudes of other British officers (and the British Empire in general), and the behavior and attitudes of the Arab tribes and their leaders.  He wrote an entire section upon "Syria in 1915" - could he have known that so much of it is still relevant 100 years later?  His remarks on Western intervention in Middle Eastern politics are candid, self-reviling, and far from outdated.  It is both depressing and fascinating, one of the best parts in the entire book.
Arab Government in Syria, though buttressed on Arabic prejudices, would be as much 'imposed' as the Turkish Government, or a foreign protectorate, or the historic Caliphate.  Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic.  Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parcelled thing, ungrateful to a people whose instincts ever returned towards parochial home rule. (p. 344–345)
As I sit here, the West is still trying to "stabilize" the Middle East and still experiencing - yet hardly learning? - the lessons of a century ago.  Lawrence could have told us what to expect.
The fraudulence of my business stung me.  Here were more fruits, bitter fruits, of my decision, in front of Akaba, to become a principal of the Revolt.  I was raising the Arabs on false pretences, and exercising a false authority over my dupes...  In such conditions the war seemed as great a folly as my sham leadership a crime... (p. 387) 
It always came back to the War.  The War was Lawrence's one justification, and even that at times left him cold and cynical of its priority, which was one of the elements - though perhaps not the only one - that set his conscience in a cruel balance.  Was he British first, or was he his own, undefinable self above all?  Were his actions reestablishing his character in a way he did not like or want?
There were Englishmen whom, individually, the Arabs preferred to any Turk, or foreigner; but, on the strength of this, to have generalized and called the Arabs pro-English, would have been a folly.  Each stranger made his own poor bed among them.
Though fluent in Arabic and living nearly as one of them, he still felt like a stranger.

At the end of book 6, Lawrence goes to the town of Deraa to investigate its layout prior to an attack.  Something that had confused me in the film was his confidence that he could pass for Arab, yet in the book this is supported, in several places, by instances when he successfully disguised himself, at least from a distance.  He succeeds in Deraa, but is apprehended by the Turks and conscripted into the infantry.

The film shows nothing as disturbing as what Lawrence describes.  The Turkish soldiers take him to the Bey (governor), who, in his position of power, satisfies his lusts using the most attractive officers.  He tries to rape Lawrence, and when Lawrence defends himself, the Bey orders him to be beaten.  The horrific flogging leaves him undesirable to the Bey, and he is finally released and sent to the soldiers' quarters.

There he finds a suicide drug from the dispensary, takes it with him in case of recapture, and escapes without notice.  But the physical torture by the Turks becomes linked with his mental torture of guilt, and he writes that from that point "the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost" (p. 456).

Reading England 2016: London challenge

The Reading England challenge is coming back next year, and I'm pretty excited for it!  I'll be committing to Level 1 (13 books), though I haven't decided if I'll focus on one county or read from multiple.  So far, I know I want to read The Mint by T. E. Lawrence, which is a London book...after that, anything goes (though I'm reserving a spot for Conrad on the list :)).

1/2/16 update: at the risk of excluding Conrad, I've decided on multiple counties, since I feel most of my British reading so far has been London-centric

8/6/16 update: Leaning back towards London now, since I've read two London books this year.
  1. London: The Mint (T. E. Lawrence)
  2. London: The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton)
  3. London: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 4: Extending to Akaba

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III

20100927 aqaba025
La forteresse d'Aqaba by Jean Housen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


This name, uttered by Peter O'Toole as a sleepless T. E. Lawrence, rings out as a revelation, the password to a quandary that only he can see.  In the fit of inspiration, he prevails upon his frenemy, Sherif Ali, to help him lead an attack on the Port of Akaba, without orders or consultation with his British superiors.  The script is not far from the truth - as soon as he decided to take Akaba, the real-life Lawrence was on his way, leaving his commander with a note and relying chiefly on the strength of Feisal's men and his other Arab followers.
The Arabs needed Akaba: firstly, to extend their front, which was their tactical principle; and, secondly, to link up with the British.  If they took it the act gave them Sinai, and made positive junction between them and Sir Archibald Murray.  Thus having become really useful, they would obtain material help.  The human frailty of Murray's Staff was such that nothing but physical contact with our success would persuade them of our importance.  (p. 281)
Akaba had guns facing the sea, but was more or less open on the land side, from which Lawrence proposed to attack.  First, before any chance of victory, they faced a long and dreary toil of a march.

It was in this part of the book that the dual nature of T. E. Lawrence really started to emerge.  He became, at once, both hero and anti-hero, and torn between the two he settles into a very real, human character.  The interesting thing is that this humanness is just as troubling as the film portrayal, yet in different ways.

In the movie, Lawrence turns back during the march to search for Gasim, whose empty camel saddle showed the man had gone missing.  Lawrence writes of his outright reluctance, "I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue" (p. 261).    When he does ride back, he feels angry with Gasim, who, as hinted in the movie, was apparently a troublesome character.

Lawrence is self-deprecating in this passage, but his actions aren't devoid of heroism.  No one else in his party was particularly concerned about the missing man.  Lawrence went of his own initiative, with one compass, which was no small risk on a terrain that, so often windswept, left few camel tracks.  The rescue of Gasim is also contrasted by another disappearance, a slave who was later found dead of dehydration and heat.  Gasim would have lost his life in the same way if Lawrence had not gone back.

Auda ibu Tayi colorized
Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe
Another theme that shows itself in Book IV is Lawrence's self-consciousness of his differences, which oftentimes he considers to be weaknesses.  In the snake-riddled land of Sirhan, he is honest when he says he had "a shuddering horror of all reptiles" (p. 277).  When he joins up with the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi, Lawrence is pushed far out of his comfort zone, as honor from the Bedouins comes to him in the form of enormous, greasy, communal meals of lamb and rice, for days on end.  He lives in a strange, yet truly realistic struggle, feeling both his foreignness and his hybrid identity: an Englishman who treats the Arabs like equals, speaks their language, and lives much like a Sheikh.  He earns their trust and respect.

This trust haunts Lawrence, for he is still torn.  He is British by birth, serving the British government during wartime.  He draws on connections, rhetoric, resources, and his own blood to lead the Arab Revolt.  Already, however, he feels like a traitor, using the Arabs to aid the British against the Turks (and, thereby, also Germany).
So the Arabs...asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British Government.  I had had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which were both framed by war-time branches of the Foreign Office.  But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. (p. 282283)
Lawrence was one of the mouths that spoke those dead promises, and it began to torment him.  He could see not only Arab independence on the line, but the lives of the ordinary Arab people whom he was rousing to fight beside him. 
In revenge I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success...vowed to lead it so madly in the final victory that expediency should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs' moral claims. (p. 283)
Was Lawrence a born leader, or too "unlike a soldier"...would he accomplish anything more for the Arabs than another British "advisor" might have done?

It remains to be seen.  But he, Auda, and the others of his force did succeed in capturing Akaba, and he still held his ideal of a free Arab nation.

Aqaba Beaches by Wolljuergen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2016 Mount TBR Challenge

Despite my truly abysmal record at reading challenges (basically, I failed every one I ever tried), I still haven't got the sense to give up.  ;)  One popular challenge that comes around every year is the Mount TBR Challenge.  Essentially the goal is to read books that have been on the stack for a while, especially ones you own and have never read before.  This is kind of ideal...I own an embarrassing number of unread books.   But I do own them, which means I do want to read them eventually.

In customary fashion, my goal is the tiniest mountain, Pike's Peak (12 books).  (That's factoring in real life and Camp Nanowrimo and possibly other reading challenges, so not quite as sad as it looks!) These are my current ideas: 
  1. Pinocchio - Collodi
  2. Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker - Hoffmann, Dumas
  3. Memories of the Future - Krzhizhanovsky
  4. Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
  5. The Silent World - Cousteau (another to-finish)
  6. Dracula's Guest - Stoker
  7. An Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
  8. Tales of Unrest - Conrad
  9. Works of Love - Kierkegaard
  10. In the Land of White Death - Albanov
  11. The Red Badge of Courage - Crane
  12. Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron - Fraser, Navarro
I think I'll be off to a good start, if I manage to finish Seven Pillars before the new year.  :)

Wishing you all...

Caspar David Friedrich 056

a safe & happy Thanksgiving!

In so many ways, Thanksgiving feels like the end of a year.  Harvest foods are put on the table, a long summer leaves behind shivery nights and frosty mornings, and Advent, the Christian New Year, is right around the corner.  I know I'll be cozying up with the second half of Seven Pillars this weekend...I hope you all have a great one, too, with books, loved ones, and autumny goodness!  ^_^

"It's highly technical!", not quite - The Imitation Game

Last year, my family and I went to see an exhibit in Seattle called "SPY: The Secret World of Espionage."  It was an intriguing collection spanning historical, military, and technological history, focused mainly on the twentieth century - far back enough to not be secret anymore, yet still close enough to feel recent.  Among other interesting, sometimes diabolical machines, the exhibit had an Enigma encryption device.

"An Enigma code could have 150 quintillion possible solutions."

This ominous typewriter became Alan Turing's personal nemesis, when he got a job at the not-so-subtly named Government Code and Cypher School.  A Cambridge academic, Turing put his brilliant mathematical-logical abilities to the task of improving the "bombe" (from the Polish bomba): a machine that would consistently decrypt the Nazis' Engima messages.  This, if achieved, would gain the Allied Powers an incredible strategic advantage, at a time when they desperately needed it.  The Imitation Game follows this period of Turing's life at Bletchley Park, the friends and enemies he made there, and the events that led up to his early death.

Being a computer science major, I had heard of Alan Turing before, and so came into this film with some prior knowledge.  The film is full of Hollywood cliches, it can't be denied - I won't enumerate all of them here, but certainly, the glamorous production choices, glossing over of the science, and greatly black-and-white personality portrayals were somewhat off-putting, though not unexpected.  It is a movie that borders on "tell" rather than "show."  Mostly this manifested itself in the portrayal of the computer science.  I don't expect a full-out documentary info dump, but why not depict, even in layman terms:
  1. The basics of the Enigma encryption scheme
  2. The basics of how a Turing machine works
  3. What the Turing Test is
These are really not very complicated things to put into film.  And yet, I would imagine most viewers coming out of The Imitation Game could not explain any of these three concepts, which have made Turing such an influential figure in the history of computers.  This is a discredit to the man the film tries to honor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing - a role not dissimilar to BBC's Sherlock.

In spite of these ironies in the screenplay, the film manages to hone in on the social atmosphere of the time, which in itself provokes plenty of thought.  Cumberbatch's performance is excellent, so much so that he even succeeds in separating this character from Sherlock, though there are striking similarities between the two (again, not necessarily historically correct).  His portrayal is convincing - Turing becomes simultaneously a contrast of strengths and weaknesses, a genius hiding under the guise of a reclusive mathematician.

I had just rewatched Lawrence of Arabia, and can't help but see parallels between that and The Imitation Game.  Lawrence, after all the suffering he had undergone for the Arabs and the Allies, would see his goal of Arab independence swiftly undermined by the hands of European politicians.  Turing, after the war, was arrested for homosexual behavior and forced to choose between a prison sentence or a "corrective" drug"You are a very small cog in a very large system," Turing's boss tells him.  True to the words, Turing's historic contribution became obscured by military secrecy, his trial, and his sudden death.  It's a sobering fact which the most glorified history book cannot hide from us, that great heroes, after their victories, are sometimes forgotten, or worse.

Content: Rated PG-13 "for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking."  There was some risque dialogue and quite a bit of profanity. 

Disclaimer: I don't own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use).

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 3: A Railway Diversion

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II
My precioussss paperback.  Fun fact: the cover art has seven layers of hills. 

In the previous part, T. E. Lawrence acquiesced to his general's request and returned to the field, where he and Feisal took the port city of Wejh, a key victory on the western side of Arabia.  For most military men, this would have been a credit to their resume, but hardly the foundation for legend.  Lawrence, on the other hand, was just getting started - he was not a military man so much as he was a strategic thinker, and how he would build upon this success was, perhaps, no less important than the success itself.

Though the movie streamlines this part of the story quite a bit, in reality, a rather intricate thread of politics directed Lawrence's next movements after Wejh.  Already he had his eye on Akaba, but his idea of attack - strictly from land and not sea, leading Arabs rather than French or English - was another point of contention between him and the French commander, Colonel Bremond.  Additionally, the British wanted to be at Medina, a city southeast of Wejh, from which the Turks were said to be evacuating and would apparently fall easy prey.  Lawrence, to be diplomatic, agreed to go to Abdulla, Feisal's older brother, and try to recruit his support for this effort.

During this journey, Lawrence contracts a bad fever, and two significant things happen during this time.  First, one man in his group murders another, and Lawrence, as the only tribally neutral person, finds no ultimate alternative than to serve as the executioner.  In the film, he later confesses he "enjoyed" shooting the man, but in the book, he describes the scene somberly, and with little comment, except that in the page title (there is a "summary" title for each page in the book), he calls it "Another Murder."  I'm not sure he didn't think of himself as an executioner, doing what the situation called for, but his general tone implies he was bothered by it - there's certainly no suggestion he enjoyed it.

"As I have shown, I was unfortunately as much in command of the campaign as I pleased, and was untrained" (p. 193).  The second thing that Lawrence did in his illness was perhaps one of the most important of his career.  While lying in his tent, miserable and immobile, he reexamined the Brits' current plans more critically, using what he remembered from military books he had read in college.  He concluded Medina was not the best objective, and, in general, the slower and more cumbersome European style of fighting was not going to be the Arabs' strength.  They must instead work with mobility, knowledge, and calculation, using the vast and hilly terrain to their chief advantage.
In Turkey things were scarce and precious, men less esteemed than equipment...  Ours should be a war of detachment.  We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked.  The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff...  (p. 199, 200)
This was the light-bulb moment that started his campaign to dismantle the Turkish railways.  He started work upon this soon afterwards, intent upon striking the Turks by taking away their resources, while attempting always to preserve Arab lives.

During the midst of this, Lawrence was becoming even more educated in the Bedouin culture, especially since meeting Abdulla.  Lawrence seemed less comfortable in Abdulla's camp than he was in Feisal's; personality-wise, they were much less alike than he and Feisal.  It was also difficult for him to appreciate the older brother's hospitality - Lawrence was a self-professed loner, and, though patiently gracious, got tired of some of the highly social customs and having to live closely with others.  I could write a whole post on this part, but it was just an interesting piece of the whole, and, once again, something that was not really touched upon by the film.

In the end, his better judgment could not confine himself to the "official" plan of taking Medina.  So, with "a letter full of apologies" (p. 233) to General Clayton, Lawrence returned to his former scheme of focusing the attack on Akaba, and set off on his own initiative to make it happen.

Blog name changing! And Ishiguro.

Hi all,

I've been so remiss in my blogging this year, it hardly seems like a big announcement - still, if I don't explain it, it may be confusing, yes, it's worth announcing.  After five years of being Tanglewood - from Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales - this blog is (soon) going to be

Since the time I split out my book reviews into their own blog, I've always felt 1), glad I organized it that way, and 2) still wistful my book reviews were partitioned off from my main blogging.  Recently I've concluded that changing the name and URL is probably the easiest solution to this quandry.  By naming it similar to my non-book blogs (e.g. noonlightsonata on Tumblr), the blog can still be its own "thing," but it'll make it easier for me to link content across all three blogs, as sometimes I'd like to.

I did a bad thing this weekend, and that was to buy another book.  Actually, what I did next was worse: I started reading it.

When I think about it, Ishiguro is probably my #1 writer's inspiration - not in terms of style, but as regards his actual ability to write about topics he would supposedly not "know about," yet write about them with plausible conviction and extraordinary insight.  Granted, I base my impressions of him on the only book I've read through, The Remains of the Day.  That alone is enough to impress, but, as I flipped through An Artist of the Floating World, I became even more interested in seeing how this Japanese immigrant had approached a topic close to his roots, post-WWII Japan.  To me, as a biracial American, the most intimidating subject would be to tackle one's own ethnic heritages.  I'm reading An Artist with that thought in the background - how would you go about writing this?

100th Anniversary

Cover of a 1916 edition.  The book was first published in October 1915.

of the publication of The Metamorphosis!  (I would link to the article I saw about it, but won’t because spoilers (sigh)).

You know, it is on my list of top 10 favorites, but I’ve yet to read it on paper.  I first listened to the excellent LibriVox audiobook by David Barnes, then later I listened to a partly-abridged audiobook read by Cumberbatch.  I have it in my “Complete Short Stories” - I really should read it before the month’s up.

It’s stunning to realize that, after 100 years, Kafka's insights are still very applicable.  Undoubtedly The Metamorphosis can mean different things to different people...  To me, at its most basic, it’s a concise analogy of the facade many people consider to be “love.”  In other words, when love is defined in materialistic, give-and-take terms, it means a “normal” family like the Samsas can turn into a dysfunctional one, when their “normal” life is interrupted by the unexpected.  The morphing is, perhaps, not the appearance of the "monstrous vermin," but the actual reaction to the creature.

I think I'll try to read it sometime this week and post my thoughts.  If you've read it recently or will be reading it soon, feel free to share a link to your review!

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 2: Opening the Arab Offensive

Previously: Introduction, Book I
Soldiers in the Arab Army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, carrying the Arab Flag of the Arab
Revolt and pictured in the Arabian Desert.
Against his adamant protests and self-doubt, Lawrence is sent back to Arabia by his superior officer, General Clayton, who believes the bookish journalist-cartographer will be an excellent substitute until the professional military advisors arrive. "I was unlike a soldier: hated soldiering" writes Lawrence point-blank (p. 114).  Having no alternative, he surrenders to necessity and returns to Feisal's base, finding the Arab leader no less resolute for suffering early betrayals and mixed successes.  Together, and with the aid of diverse allies, they endeavor to unify the contentious Arabic tribes into an anti-Turkish force, with the immediate objective of taking Wejh, a port city in the north under control of the Turks.  Lawrence is impressed with Feisal's ability to gain a following, learns more of the psychology of the Arab people, and becomes increasingly wary of the maneuverings of some of their European, military "supporters."

There was a lot packed into this part, even though, plot-wise, it mostly covered their trip to Wejh.  I think what I took from it was the human element: all the striking details, changing behaviors, and cultural mores.

For instance, early on, Lawrence was asked to adopt the Arab attire instead of his British uniform; this was both to facilitate desert travel and also to prevent his khaki from being mistook for Turkish.  Feisal happened to have brand-new, white-and-gold clothes sent to him by his great-aunt; it was actually a wedding outfit he had never needed to wear.  So he gave it to Lawrence, who at that time - little did he know - was being drawn in, "wedded" if you will, to the Arab Revolt.  I thought it was strangely appropriate (and would have been an interesting point to make in the movie).

Another recurring human theme is, a little surprisingly, slavery.  On the one hand, it was culturally expected to treat slaves fairly "decently," to the point some even lived in a kind of community.  On the other, they were still slaves, and fared probably the worst of anyone on a camel trip.  Lawrence writes about these things matter-of-factly, in more or less journalistic style.  At this time, he appeared to adopt the practice of accepting the Arab culture as-was and did not attempt to intervene, except in cases where the bickering of various tribes would weaken their fighting strength as a whole.

This "whole," was, indeed, composed of men from many tribes.  The effect was greatly a psychological one: Lawrence did not anticipate heavy fighting at Wejh; the point was, rather, to gain popular support for Feisal as a unifying figure, as well as to send a formidable message to the Turkish opponents.  Once again, Lawrence's self-professed lack of "soldiering" seems to have been his strength.  He had the gift of empathy, and through it, his tactical vision acquired a clarity and creativity that other outsiders could not quite achieve.  

"In sum...the Arab Movement would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm of it did not carry the Arabs into Damascus" (p. 131).  There were some in the Allies' military leadership who were not eager for a definitive, serious force of Arab nationalists.  Part of this attitude was genuine doubt, and part of it was political self-interest.  It was still early in the Revolt, but Lawrence looked forward to seeing the Arabs reach Damascus, disproving the misgivings of both enemies and allies.

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 1: The Discovery of Feisal

Previously: Introduction

Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence,
Faisal's slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri

I had believed these misfortunes of the Revolt to be due mainly to faulty leadership, or rather to the lack of leadership, Arab and English.  So I went down to Arabia to see and consider its great men.
Unlike his film counterpart, who comes across as a little awkward and almost passive, T. E. Lawrence had specific goals in mind when he undertook his investigation of the "Arab affair" - that is, the struggling Arab Revolt.  On this journey, he must gain months' worth of information in the matter of weeks, make connections on behalf of the British military, and, in any way he can, put his best talents to the cause of planning the Arabs' freedom from the Turks.  He also experiences his first heavy camel rides through the desert and meets two of the sons of Hussein bin Ali - one of these sons is Feisal.  This meeting proves to be the turning point in Lawrence's early efforts.

This was a slow, yet intricate group of chapters.  It summarized a lot of the themes I saw in the movie, meaning that, at least from Lawrence's perspective, those aspects of the story were real.  I won't go through all of them, but I'll try to hit the highlights.

For example, according to his observations, the Arabs were not interested in a religious war, nor, necessarily, in creating an Arab state. Rather, their objective was to regain independence of their tribes - "They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it" (p. 100). 

Was Britain considering becoming that second, replacement empire?  The idea, even at this point, was not unknown to Lawrence.  When he joins Feisal at his camp, Lawrence's probing form of discussion is returned to him by the shrewd, young leader, who already holds the expectation that the British will eventually settle in their lands, and not leave:
They [the British] hunger for desolate lands, to build them up...  Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain.  Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it?   There is no reason for offence, but a people too weak are clamant over their little own. (p. 100)
Earlier Lawrence describes Britain's foreign involvement as "vicarious policemanship" (p. 92), which shows something of his own thoughts.  I'll be interested to watch where this theme goes throughout the rest of the book.

Lawrence based a great deal of his strategy on psychology, both of the situations he was faced with and of the men he was trying to mobilize.  He felt the terrain and a use of stealth would be their best assets against the Turks, but to their minds, it was the Turks' modern artillery they must best, and it increased their morale to have that kind of weaponry.  He understood, too, that the men of the desert tribes fought best on their own, defensively and independently, while Arab officers, formerly of the Turkish military, could lead the "towns-folk" recruits under more of a traditional militia setting.

He evaluated Feisal, too, from a psychological standpoint.  Feisal impressed Lawrence as having leadership qualities - not simply in terms of hierarchy (he had an older brother, whom Lawrence also met), but by merit of his charisma, the admiration his followers had for him, and his commitment to the Revolt.  He was the key figure who gave Lawrence confidence that the Revolt might succeed.  I do think there is something to that - any great movement in history is signified by an individual, even if it involved thousands or millions of followers (or victims).

Something that is fascinating to me about this book is how he writes as if the things just happened - in the sense that you barely get the impression (if at all) that subsequent events or experiences changed his perceptions as they were at the time.  He lost most of the first draft to the book, so it is even more impressive that he could go back, write it again, and still write with that fresh, almost first perspective.  Just amazing... 

By the way, the photo above is from the end of the war, but I thought it was an interesting picture (a preview, if you will).

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I didn't "click" with

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
Saw this over at Hamlette's blog, and thought it would be a fun trip down memory lane.  Here goes - and hope I don't tread on any toes.  ;)

  1. Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther.  
  2. Everyone from A Passage to India.  (Sorry, Forster.)
  3. Irene Adler from "A Scandal in Bohemia". 
  4. Erik from The Phantom of the Opera.  In all fairness, I am meaning to re-read this.  During my first read, I definitely found book!Erik to be less likeable than Webber's version.
  5. Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.  I get the impression one is supposed to like him, but I was left unimpressed.  (I was also shocked that his undisguised racist commentary never gets mentioned in mainstream circles).
  6. Everyone from Dragonwyck.  When I was in middle school, a friend recommended it to me, on the basis it was similar to Jane Eyre.  My mother cautioned me that it sounded like a romance novel, but in my blissful ignorance I wasn't quite aware what that meant.  (Hint: think Edward and Bella in 1800s Dutch New York...)
  7. Mary Russell from the Mary Russell series. 
  8. Aragorn from The Return of the King.  Specifically ROTK, and maybe TTT, because I thought he was pretty cool in The Fellowship of the Ring, but less interesting as the story progressed.
  9. Ahab from Moby-Dick.  I'm not sure antagonists are supposed to "click" with you.  I do know that Gregory Peck's portrayal brought a much-needed human/charismatic element to the character, whereas Starbuck, though different in the book from the movie, is still compelling apart from his film version. So with that in mind, I'd say book!Ahab didn't "click".
  10. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.  *gasp*  Don't click away!  ;) She is probably the best-loved heroine in literature.  I just can't honestly say I found her more interesting than many others. 
I'm sure I've listed someone's favorites...well, the good news is, after six (and not necessarily in the above order), I found it super hard to list the last four!

Guest review ~ Five Weeks in a Balloon

Africa Map from 1870sFive Weeks in a Balloon is a Victorian book that takes place in 1862 and was written by Jules Verne.  It is about three individuals, Dr. Samuel Ferguson, his servant Joseph Wilson, and a hunter, Richard Kennedy, who set off in a balloon off the coast of Zanzibar to cross the African continent.

I liked this book a lot because it is very detailed and adventurous and has some science and physics in it (nothing too complex), and since I am interested in the Victorian and Edwardian times, the British Empire, and its exploration and expanse, this was quite satisfying and intriguing.

I would give this book 5/5 stars.

Thanks to Barnabas, my brother (and fellow Jules Verne fan), for this review! 

Mini summer book haul

Yesterday my family and I had another chance to visit Powell's City of Books, which, as I raved last year, is the coolest bookstore you'll ever get lost in.  I naively assumed it would be fairly quiet in the middle of a Monday...that was a very, very wrong assumption.  The place was absurdly busy - summer has not ended at Powell's!

I felt kind of overwhelmed and exhausted after twenty minutes, so I didn't really spend as much time as could have been spent, easily, looking at all the classics and polar exploration books (sigh).  This was my list:

In the end, my timid heart decided not to spend a lot of money, so I got two Conrads and The Scarlet Letter, all three for under $10:

I don't know how I possibly could have missed it, but The Scarlet Letter has some bad pen marks in the middle of the book.  It was only $3.50, and though I love Hawthorne, there is a chance I'll be underwhelmed.  If I love it, I'll get a clean copy; if not, I don't have to keep it.

Under Western Eyes is one of my favorites, so I couldn't resist it.  And I've been meaning for the longest time to get Nostromo, because I find Conrad is best read in hard copy (I get kind of lost reading him in e-book form).  They also had The Shadow-Line, which, if I had been feeling more energetic and spendy, I'm sure I would have bought as well...

And I almost bought Kierkegaard's Works of Love, which I'd just got from the library and can hardly put down.  It was a brand-new copy but had a tear in the cover, so happily(?) that decided it for me.  ;)

So...I managed to make it in and out of Oregon with just three books and a Peach Green Tea Lemonade (with plenty of peach!).  If I could get down to Powell's more often, it's be a different story, I'm sure. 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - The Foundations of Arab Revolt

Lawrence of Arabia's map, presented to the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet in November 1918
map by T. E. Lawrence

What draws you into Lawrence's narrative from the start is its setting.  As Westerners, we often view history in a binary perspective.  There is the past - epitomized frequently in our culture by the World Wars, and the still living generations who remember them - and there is the present, the de facto global war with terrorism, physical and psychological.  Though the terrorism of today operates on an international battlefield, we associate its geography with the origins of its ideology (and the ideologies of its opponents), and that location, generically speaking, is the Middle East.   T. E. Lawrence's account originates in a familiar setting, blurring the border between notions of past and present.

Sharif Husayn
Hussein bin Ali
Whether we are thinking of the legacy of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, or the aggression of ISIS today, the spirit of sadism and violence requires no effort to remember.  In his introductory part, "The Foundations of Arab Revolt," Lawrence writes of the oppression by the Turks over the Arabic peoples, and of the Turks' failed attempt to persuade Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to join them in "their 'Jehad', the Holy War of all Moslems against Christianity" (p. 50).  From Hussein's perspective, this was both illogical and intolerable; he was under the impression that Imperial Germany, the Turks' own ally, was a Christian nation.  Furthermore, the Jihad he believed in was "doctrinally incompatible with an aggressive war" (p. 50).  The practical meaning of this term is, today, still a controversy among Muslims and non-Muslims, and the totalitarianism of the extremist interpretation has not decreased with time.

Lawrence only touches briefly upon his own doings during the pre-Revolt period, instead focusing on the political climate and the Arabs' attempts to organize themselves under the heavy watch of the Turks.  He best describes the atmosphere under Djemal Pasha, one-third ruler of the Ottoman Empire, by a reference to the Armenian Genocide:

Ahmed Djemal at desk, 1915
Djemal Pasha
[the Arab nationalists'] deportations, exiles and executions . . . taught the Arabs of the Fetah [society of freedom] that if they did not profit by their lesson, the fate of the Armenians would be upon them.  The Armenians had been well armed and organized; but their leaders had failed them.  They had been disarmed and destroyed piecemeal, the men by massacre, the women and children by being driven and overdriven along the wintry roads into the desert, naked and hungry, the common prey of any passer-by, until death took them . . . Jemal Pasha united all classes, conditions, and creeds in Syria, under pressure of common misery and peril, and so made a concerted revolt possible. (p. 48)

The introductory part ends with a description of the Brits' ongoing military efforts, disappointed in many ways, and analyses of the situation, as well as Lawrence maneuvering to get himself assigned to the Arab Bureau (intelligence group).  He leaves Cairo with Ronald Storrs, "Oriental Secretary of the Residency," for Arabia.  In the next part, he will meet Feisal, a promising leader and the son of Hussein bin Ali - this is about where the film Lawrence of Arabia begins.

So far, the book is very interesting, and Lawrence is an incredible writer.  He has the gift of intertwining the objective and the subjective, the impersonal and the personal, with just a touch of wry humor; this makes for the best possible primary source reading.  I felt it was helpful to know something already about World War I and Middle East history and ethnic groups (thanks to my college professor).  Watching the film first also gave me good bearings on the British side of things, though I feel this book, in spite of the hints of forthcoming cynicism, already shows the key British figures to be more human, and less two-dimensional, than their film counterparts.

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

Fear and Trembling - Abraham revisited

For he who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all. 

I gave this books 5 stars on Goodreads, but I almost gave it none.  By that, I mean it is an almost impossible book to rate in a generic sense.  I don't know where you are in your spiritual beliefs and growth, and so as a reviewer I can't possibly say what this book will be to you.  On the other hand, to me it was a five-star book - the caveat is that my rating is inherently personal.  Because of that, it may not be of much use here whether it has five stars or no rating.

To quote the first sentences of his biography, in this Penguin edition:
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the youngest of seven children.  His mother, his sisters and two of his brothers all died before he reached his twenty-first birthday.
For context, Fear and Trembling was published in 1843 - he was only about thirty at the time.  He had already lost these loved ones, and broken off his relationship with his fiancee, by the time this book entered the world.  It's hard to imagine what he was feeling as he wrote it; maybe it helped him through these losses, to turn to philosophy and self-examination.

I wish I could say Kierkegaard is easy to read.  He makes Chesterton seem tidy and concise - Kierkegaard reads like a person trying to think their way through a difficult problem, sometimes taking detours and rabbit trails, but always coming back to the main point.  I was frustrated and utterly at sea at times; still, he makes you care so much about his main point that you keep going.  In this sense, I love his writing: he is a real person thinking real thoughts, sacrificing tidiness and even "perfection" for a hammering-out, if you will, of all the things that he is trying to reconcile in his mind.

In a nutshell, Fear and Trembling is about the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.  I counted, and in this tiny book I have fifteen sticky notes for each quote that really struck me; I've never thought about Abraham and Isaac so much, which is exactly Kierkegaard's issue.  "There were countless generations that knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word.  How many did it make sleepless?"  (p. 58)  He is right.  The Old Testament has many challenging stories in it, but sometimes we are so used to them, we take them somewhat for granted (I know I have).  Abraham preparing to sacrifice his promised son to God is one of the very hardest stories, when you look at it as with new eyes.

The key phrase Kierkegaard refers to throughout the book is, as the translator puts it, "the strength of the absurd."  Faith is outside of, apart from, and higher than mere human logic and understanding, to the point it may appear foolish to the world - " the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him" (I Cor. 2:14).  To relate this to Abraham, Kierkegaard writes:
...he further makes, and at every moment is making, the movement of faith.  This is his comfort.  For he says, 'Nevertheless it won't happen, or if it does the Lord will give me a new Isaac on the strength of the absurd.'
It compels you to slow down and see the reality of a man, who waited all his life to have a son, who was promised to have generations and generations of descendants, be told to kill that same son - then, through faith, to follow through unfalteringly until the very last moment when God stops him.  Finally, as if for the first time, you see Abraham as the "knight of faith" which Kierkegaard reminds you he was.

There is much more I could say, but I'll leave it there.  It's a short book, but takes some time to process.  I still don't understand half of it, but he showed me something familiar in a new way, and that is a worthwhile read.  

Lawrence of Arabia

I grew up watching two of those long, epic-historical pictures...Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments.  My attention span was pretty good back then.  I wonder what the younger me would have thought of Lawrence of Arabia.  For sure, I would have sat down and watched it straight through, unlike the me of today, who watched it in three parts over three days.  ;)

My brother recommended it.  I was always under the impression it was a boring film, and to be sure, on the face of it, there's nothing to indicate what a fascinating, frightening, and overall amazing movie Lawrence of Arabia is.  My brother was right - it was well worth the nearly 4-hr commitment.