Ben-Hur - A Book Journal

Jerusalem Panorama Altotting
Panorama Jerusalem in Altotting by Gebhard Fugel
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0]

Oppressed by its own government, your native city is at the edge of a crisis.  The conquering war-spirit of Mars has found its next generation of followers, and the subjugated people feel it.

Till now, your family has always managed to be safe from the conflict.  Your father's prosperous work had earned the approval of the supreme leader and left you a fortune, as well as security.  Your future seems certain.

Then, one day, an accident scars you with a terrible accusation.  Everything changes suddenly, under the power of an angry mob and betrayal by your closest friend.

"Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives" by Frederick Edwin Church
Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives by Frederick Edwin Church

While going over the beginning of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, I was trying to think about the 19th-century reader and what their perspective might have been.  This is my second time reading the book, so personally I have a little bit of vague memory to go by, as well as the movie (ever ingrained in my consciousness) and the Focus on the Family radio drama (an excellent adaptation from what I recall).  Knowing what follows in the plot, I've realized that Ben-Hur is a story for all times, which is why our ancestors loved it - it was a bestseller for decades.  They were not accustomed to the cinematic format which has us spoiled today, and though I'm partial to the Charlton Heston film, I see the descriptions in the book would not be lost on the original readers. I am sure, however, they stayed for the story.

This story remains relevant, in spite of its now-lesser literary prestige than, say, Moby-Dick.  Case in point: I've been reading The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, which is a collection of short stories written by a North Korean writer under the name "Bandi."  So far, the common theme is that even a family with strong (Communist) Party ties is not safe from the suspicions, or retaliation, of the government.  It's no perfect analogy, of course - the Hur family is not Roman or even politically aligned with them, and I am not sure if the Roman Empire was as brutal as some modern regimes.  Still, the themes of fear, paranoia, injustice, and familial love are as present today as they are in Ben-Hur; humans don't really change.

I've read the first two parts of Ben-Hur and found there was more to talk about than I can describe here succinctly.  So, consider this an introductory post, and I'll leave you with this quote.  This is from a scene where Judah's mother attempts to undo the verbal damage done by Messala, his former friend.
Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some than in others. She trembled under a perception that this might be the supreme moment come to him; that as children at birth reach out their untried hands grasping for shadows, and crying the while, so his spirit might, in temporary blindness, be struggling to take hold of its impalpable future. They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I, and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in answer may prove to the after-life what each finger-touch of the artist is to the clay he is modelling.

Please Look After Mom

A glance at my blog will tell you I rarely read fiction published recently.  "In my younger and more vulnerable years," I was unfortunate to read a lot of poorly written historical fiction and Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  I thirsted for greatness and found mediocrity.  Back then, I wasn't part of a blogging community, or maybe this wouldn't have happened.  Anyways, I developed a prejudice against modern authors, which, based on my limited reading, was not well founded.

I stumbled across this book on Goodreads; not sure how, exactly.  Like everyone else, I've been following the news on North Korea with uneasy interest, and at the same time, I've become increasingly fascinated with Korean culture, introduced to it by some of my favorite YouTubers, like Jen ChaePlease Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin, sounded like a novel I could learn from.

The focus of the story is universal.  When Chi-hon's elderly mother goes missing in a busy part of Seoul, the Park family reacts in different ways.  True, they go through similar motions of looking for her - from putting up flyers to searching the city on foot - but inside, each family member begins to mourn "Mom" as someone deeply integrated in their lives and yet ultimately an enigma.  "Mom" was strong, vulnerable, spiritual, superstitious, gentle, and violent.  "Mom" was a strange juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.  At all times, "Mom" was self-sufficient.  Somehow she had been all of those things, and yet, if that had been real, how could she be missing?

The first half of the book was truly gripping, told from the perspectives of Chi-hon and her brother Hyong-chol.  Shin's prose, translated by Chi-young Kim, moves deftly from present to past, as we discover more about Chi-hon's mother - whose first name is So-nyo - and the sometimes tumultuous relationships between her, her children, and her husband.

What impressed me here was the contrast between Chi-hon's life and her mom's.  In just one generation, the woman of the family had gone from being an illiterate yet knowledgeable farmer - working hard to get food on the table for five children - to living as a published author whose ties with tradition and the farmland are less strong.  I enjoyed learning about the Korean traditions which So-nyo held to so steadfastly, while the portrait of Chi-hon fulfilling her mom's dream was quite moving.

The second half of the book covers the perspectives of So-nyo's husband and So-nyo herself.  Here I must admit I was having to suspend some disbelief.  It was hard for me to follow that the father, self-centered his entire life, became suddenly remorseful; it just seemed a bit convenient.  Meanwhile, there are things we learn about So-nyo which sound a bit incredible, considering her life and surroundings.  Maybe I'm too critical.  In any case, I felt these were small weaknesses in the plot, and overall they didn't detract from the core of the story.

One detail about So-nyo that stood out to me was her Catholicism.  While intermingled with her traditional beliefs, So-nyo's Christian faith is a recurring emblem in her life, with allusions to charity and love, as well as sin and repentance.  The symbolism of Madonna as an inspirational figure is brief, yet effective.  The Christian themes are all very subtle in this book, and I was pleasantly surprised they were both realistic and well written.

Despite being a novel about women, social change, and Korean history, Shin's story isn't overwhelmed by a historical or pro-feminist narrative, and this is its strength.  At times, it's a brutally raw story, heavy in tone and topic, but there is beauty in Please Look After Mom, and that is that we see the characters as individuals, rather than just types.  And as in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills, history is here more of a backdrop than a centerpiece, but this approach lends a humanity to the novel that makes it a worthy read for people of many backgrounds.  4.5 stars.

Ten Books for Spring - Classics and Beyond

It's only taken me several days, but I think I've come up with a good list for this week's Top Ten Tuesday:

1. The Kill, by Émile Zola
Making an exception in my "no more reading challenges" resolution - I plan to read The Kill for Fanda's Zoladdiction event next month.  It's one of Zola's shorter novels and, from what I hear, an interesting one!

2. Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace (re-read)
I just started Book 2, so I have a ways to go yet.  :)

3. North Korea's Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, by Jieun Baek
How do people share information that's illegal, and what information would a person risk their life to access?  This topic appeals to me for both historical and universal reasons.

4. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
"Bandi" is an author in North Korea, whose short stories from the 80s and 90s were smuggled out and published recently.  Saw this while browsing my library's ebooks and thought it would be interesting.

5.  Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
Found out about this through O's review... has it been nearly a year ago?!  I like a good psychological mystery.

6.  The Castle, by Franz Kafka
Spring takes me back to college days, when I was stereotypically discovering Kafka instead of reading my textbooks.  The Castle is, I believe, the last work of fiction I haven't read by him.

7. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (re-read)
Though I read this book two or three times, many years ago, I never properly understood or reviewed it.  Perhaps it will propel me to finish the Brontë sisters' novels as well (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor are still TBR).

8. The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. Wells (re-read)
I was recently reminded how relevant this little sci-fi/horror classic is.  Need to read it again and review it in full.

9. George: A Novel of T. E. Lawrence, by E.B. Lomax
What if Lawrence's accident wasn't fatal?  From what I've seen, this is the best-rated historical fiction novel written about Ned, and the concept intrigues me.

10. (wildcard)
Lately I've stumbled across a variety of books that I want to read soon, some of them quite random.  Hopefully I'll get to at least one of them this spring!

What Should I Read Next? - April edition

April is rapidly approaching, and that means Camp Nanowrimo!  The bite-sized version of National Novel Writing Month, Camp Nanowrimo is my favorite of the two events, because you can define your own word count goal and work on any project(s) you have in mind.  I've been participating regularly since 2015, and next month I plan to continue working on my historical-fantasy saga and perhaps some fan fiction, too.

While I'll be taking a break from the podcast, I intend to continue reading through April.  Are there any books in particular you'd like to see me review, either here or on Classics Considered?  It could be a book from my lengthy TBR list, one that I've read before, or something completely new and different.  I have a few ideas in the queue, but I'd love to hear if anyone has a suggestion: fiction, nonfiction, anything goes!

If I get enough ideas, I'll see what's most easily available to help make a decision.  :)

Horror and History in A Pale View of Hills

Goto island - panoramio
Goto island by Masoud Akbari [CC BY-SA 3.0]

One day, Etsuko's quiet life is interrupted by a visit from her daughter Niki, who, though being independent and somewhat secretive, has taken time off from her London life to come visit her.  This visit prompts disturbing memories in Etsuko, from the recent suicide of her older daughter Keiko, whom she is still grieving, to her own life back in Nagasaki, Japan.

As a young, pregnant mother and married to her first husband, Jiro, Etsuko's earlier life had been a witness to sweeping changes in Japanese society, as well as to the physical and cultural presence of the Americans, post WWII.  Most troubling of all, however, is her recollection of her friendship with Sachiko, a confident, middle-aged woman who had moved in to a nearby cottage.  Sachiko had a little daughter named Mariko, who suffered trauma from the bombings of Tokyo and other scenes of the war.  No matter how much Etsuko tried to help Mariko, it seemed her mother had wished to brush it all aside.

Through her memories, Etsuko begins to have recurring dreams about the child, while attempting to find answers that will bring closure to her past acquaintance with her mysterious neighbors.

I was eager to read Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, but I did not realize when I picked it up that it's a ghost story.  I'm fairly squeamish and tend to shy away from creepy books - the last one I read was Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and that was enough for a long while.  It's as well I didn't know, because, while A Pale View of Hills (1982) is absolutely terrifying, it is so excellently written and evocative that I'm glad I read it.

As historical fiction, the book succeeds largely in its portrayal of emotional scars, both in terms of personal life and historic events.  The theme of societal changes present in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is debuted here: women's right to vote, legalization of the Japanese Communist Party, parent-child relationships, and American influence are some of the trends which, to the older generation, seemed radical.  The dark legacy of the atomic bomb is present, though in the background.  Overall, the historical elements serve to support the characters, rather than vice-versa.  With this subtle approach, Ishiguro sets up his novel to perhaps age better than other historical fiction, including his better-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), in which history may, at times, overwhelm the life of Stevens the butler.

In terms of personal impact, I feel this book is nearly up there with Till We Have Faces.  Ishiguro's fine balance of frank, polite prose and cryptic omissions make this a story where reading between the lines renders volumes of meaning, even though the book itself is scarcely novel length.  And even though I knew, from reading another review, that there was a big twist coming towards the end, the actual conclusion of the story caught me off-guard.

This is a strange, haunting tale which has the capacity to frighten you, but also to make you want to weep.  The touch of realism that permeates the plot makes it seem to be more than fiction: it's disturbing, but somehow believable.  I talked more about A Pale View of Hills in my latest podcast episode (spoiler free), as a potential contender for the next generation of classics.  I am sure I shall read it again.

Crusader Castles - A Young Lawrence of Arabia

Having resolved to read everything written by T. E. Lawrence, I inevitably picked up his college thesis, published posthumously under the title Crusader Castles.

It's a very rare book, but happily a New Year's discount made the Folio Society edition a good option, and I couldn't have been more pleased with the customer service, shipping, and, of course, the edition itself.  The FS release is a reprint of the original two-volume edition, and it includes an excellent introduction by biographer Mark Bostridge, whose interest in WWI history makes it a worthy addition.

Through the introduction, you learn that T. E. Lawrence completed his thesis just four years before the outbreak of WWI.  For his research, he had already traveled extensively in Britain and France, and even to Syria and Palestine - his first exposure to the Middle East and its climate, both in a geographical and political sense.

His topic?  In his own words, he set out to prove "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the end of the Twelfth Century."  In what became his trademark style, Lawrence was not afraid to take on an opposing viewpoint, even if it meant going against Sir Charles Oman, the Oxfordian expert on the subject at the time, whose own stance was that East had influenced West, not vice-versa.  Lawrence, not without basis, was confident he could out-research Oman and convince his examiners that the Crusaders took their own architecture to the Holy Land.
Violently controversial points are usually settled by a plain assertion, for simplicity and peace.  If they are of importance in my argument they may be discussed.
It takes a geek to know one, and certainly, readers without prior knowledge of "Ned" will find this book too niche to appreciate.  For fans, Crusader Castles is a gold mine of insights on his young adulthood, both in terms of personal development and in his relationships to his mentors, his family, and the world at large.

T. E.'s taste for physical exertion and adventure is well known; what is more interesting here is his capacity for organization and process.  The book is filled with sketches and photographs of the castles he visits; touristy postcards were, as he points out, not capable of doing justice to the edifices.  Beyond what mere observation would reveal, his drawings of castles plans show an incredible attention to scale and detail, labelled carefully and referred to in his writing with the same exactness that a mathematician might use with a graph.  T. E. clearly put the science into "social science," and his commentary on crusader strategy not only points to his own extensive reading, but also to the systematic workings of his mind, which played not a small role in the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence (left) and his brothers,
around the time he finished Crusader Castles.

What I enjoyed most about Crusader Castles was the personal side.  Luckily for us, T. E. later added margin notes to his paper, a sort of "Older Ned Reacts to Younger Ned" commentary.  His notes are two-fold: they critique his youthful research and writing style, while adding insights he gained from further thought or experience.  More than that, they showcase his sense of humor, from schoolboyish remarks on "admirable latrines" to gleeful tut-tuts on his college-aged criticisms of other writers.  Even within the original paper, there are delightful references to his castle climbing and (irresistibly) an encounter with a nest of snakes.

That Ned heartily enjoyed himself is no secret.  The second half of the book contains a selection of letters he wrote to his family while he was abroad.  Each one is fairly technical for a personal letter, suggesting he relied on his mother's care of them to supplement his notes later.  A handful of these letters come from his time in the Middle East, and here we see the very first glimpse of the legendary Lawrence.  It was still an innocent time in his life, when being shot at by a local was a great adventure, and that joy of exploration could not have been a small reason he soon returned to Syria as an archeologist.

Of all the book, maybe my favorite part was his letter from Aigues-Mortes, a medieval castle-city in the south of France. It is the oddity in the volume, because it is an emotional letter, in which Ned's enthusiasm for his trip and his research cannot be subdued.  He quotes Blake and Shelley, letting his love of poetry show through, and in a glimpse, we see the same passion for landscape that colored his description of Wadi Rum in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
You are all wrong, Mother dear, a mountain may be a great thing, a grand thing, but it is better to be peaceful, and quiet, and pure, omnia pacata posse mente tueri, if that is the best state, then a plain is the best country: the purifying influence is the paramount one in a plain, there one can sit down quietly and think of anything, or nothing which Wordsworth says is best, one feels the littleness of things, of details, and the great and unbroken level of peacefulness of the whole: no, give me a level plain, extending as far as the eye can reach, and there I have enough of beauty to satisfy me, and tranquility as well!

What I'm Reading: Alice, Castles, and a Book Journal...

Alice and kitten

If it's seemed quiet this past week, I've actually been reading (hee).  I always find this time of year to be trying, for whatever reason, and so I've been indulging myself with two re-reads and a new book that is becoming close to my heart...

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass - I've finally begun reading this sweet little hardcover that my parents got me for Christmas.  It includes both books and Tenniel's illustrations (my favorite).  This may be the topic for my next podcast episode.  I love Alice, and it's just occurred to me what a great protagonist she is, and why.  More on that to come...

Crusader Castles - After making it my unofficial mission to become a complete Lawrence nerd, I had to read his research paper about Crusader castle architecture.  It's really quite interesting, and even though I don't understand all of it, I can see the scientific side of him through his diagrams and careful eye for details.  Obviously that played into his ability to organize his campaigns so successfully.  His later margin notes, however, are the biggest gems - I keep laughing aloud in the middle of the night; it's a little embarrassing...

Ben-Hur - I am so excited to announce I am bringing back the book journal!  Basically, my "book journals" feature long books explored in a series of in-depth, cumulative reviews.  Previously, I journalled about Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Brothers Karamazov.  I can't wait to start writing about Ben-Hur, so stay tuned for those posts coming up in the following weeks.