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.

The Enchanted Island - an opera learning experience

Watching The Enchanted Island posed three firsts for me:
1) Baroque
2) English
3) Getting my brother to watch opera (!!)

The last one was a surprising success...the first two, not so much.