Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon - Hourly Updates, April 2018 edition

Hour 19
The good news - I finished The Castle!

The bad news...I wasn't expecting it to be such a struggle.  Can you believe, I was ready to give up on it, with just 10% or less left?  It was pretty terrible.

However, The Castle was on my to-finish backlog since freshman or sophomore year in college, so I am very excited to have read it all the way through, even if it was painful.

Anyways, after that, I found myself looking around for something "lighter" to read.  Only I could choose Eugene Onegin as "lighter" fare.  But I love this story - you might remember my Eugene Onegin Read-Along from a few years back.  Roger Clarke's translation is new to me, and it's already proving to be interesting.

This might be my last blog check-in for the night... I may post some more on Instagram later, though, depending how long I can keep my eyes open.  Thanks to all who've stopped by and offered encouragement - it's been fun!

Hour 13

After a scrumptious lunch (Teriyaki!), I took a short nap to offset the effects of getting up earlier and having to work today.  I also read some more of The Castle... as I mentioned on my Instagram, it's kind of a "meh" read.  I'll be happy to get to the end of it.  

I have about 17% left and fully intend to finish The Castle before the end of this Readathon, but I'm taking a break now and looking at picking up either The Island of Dr. Moreau (yes, unplanned) or CEO, China.

Hope it's going well for everyone else still - hang in there!  :)

Hour 10

Due to an emergency at work, I lost about 4 hours of reading time while working from home...

On the bright side, I had already done a decent bit of reading, with both The Kill and The Castle.
  • I am getting major creepy vibes from The Kill (so many creepers in this story), but also enjoying the history lesson as I learn about the Second Empire, of which I knew basically nothing before this book.
  • The Castle is also starting to get more interesting with the side-plot of Amalia standing up to Klamm (also a creeper). 
I'm going to back to The Castle now - I think I have a good chance of actually finishing it!

Hour 3

Joining in already 2 hours into the event... hey, that's better than last year.  :)

I'll be updating this post throughout the event, so stay tuned... Also, please check out for more updates!

Opening Meme
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
At home in the PNW, listening to the rain fall lightly on the roof.  <3

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Pretty much all of them!  Ok, ok, that's not the answer you were looking for... if I had to pick one, then it's CEO, China, because I've missed reading it, while trying to finish The Castle.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
I made some Peach Green Tea Lemonade yesterday, the first of the season!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I wrote about the time I first got a library card - well, I still have that library card.  The plastic coating is starting to flake off and it looks incredibly sad, but I refuse to part with it.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
Today I'm going "all in" (or at least, my version of it)...I have the entire day set aside for reading, woke up 2 hours earlier, and intend to stay up later.  More importantly, I plan to switch books frequently if I'm not having fun.  :)

My Blog's Name in Books - TBR!

Saw this neat meme/tag on O's blog, On Bookes:

The rules:
1. Spell out your blog’s name.
2. Find a book from your TBR that begins with each letter. (Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your Goodread’s TBR)
3. Have fun! 

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee
The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The Inheritors by William Golding
Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic
Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

With 500+ TBR books, this was easier than perhaps it should be.  I tried to choose a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and ended up surprising myself with a few titles I'd forgotten about (whoops!).

And now the moment of truth... have any of you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?!

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon: TBR stack, April 2018

Carl Spitzweg 021
It's that happy time of year again, the biannual Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon!  I am somewhat of a casual participant, in that I don't get up at 5am and I do let myself take long breaks.  Even so, it's still great fun!

As ever, I'll be posting updates to Instagram and Goodreads.

The lineup:
Finish The Kill / Emile Zola
Finish The Castle / Franz Kafka - library ebook & can't renew!
CEO, China / Kerry Brown
Ben-Hur / Lew Wallace
The Undead / Dick Teresi

Stretch goals:
Something off my "short books" list
Little Women / Louisa May Alcott - reread
The Sickness Unto Death / Soren Kierkegaard
Philosophy 101 / Paul Kleinman
Various books for work

In other news, I am gearing up for Season 2 of Classics Considered.  April has been far, far too busy and short... I'd meant to release at least one episode this month but could not make it happen.  Anyways, from this list you can see a sneak peek of things to come.  I am finally going to be talking about Kafka and am way too excited about that...

A King, a Boy, and a Sailor's Wife - Three Films of WWII

The past couple of weeks, I've enjoyed three very interesting, yet vastly different, films which take place during or leading up to World War II.  I haven't shared a movie review in a while, so I thought I'd just mention these before I forgot about them.

First up is The King's Choice, a Norwegian film released in 2016.  This historical drama begins with the disturbing attack on Norway by the Nazis, who justify the invasion by claiming to offer "protection" against the British.  From there, the movie centers on the response of its government and, more especially, the role of the aging King Haakon VII in what became the resistance movement.

I can't speak for historical accuracy, since I came into this knowing nearly nothing about Norway during WWII.  As a drama, it kept my family and me glued to the screen for its whole 2+ hours, and that's with (somewhat poorly formatted) subtitles.  The acting (including the extras') is some of the very best I have seen in recent historical dramas.  The score is also incredible, and the emotive script takes you through the events with a sort of "real-time" effect.  This film cost a mere fraction of Spielberg's Lincoln, yet I felt the production values were stronger here.

The King's Choice is a well-made movie, but more than that, it's a good story.  Haakon's choice is easier for the viewer to "make" in hindsight; in spite of that, the movie avoids too much glorification of the king and instead focuses on his dilemma, which is far from straightforward.  We see the suffering of the Norwegians through the soldier Fredrik Seeberg, barely a man when the war begins.  On the other side, there is the diplomat Curt Bräuer, whose good intentions succumb to his Nazi loyalties as he pressures the king to work with Germany.  Should Haakon surrender Norway to the Germans, or should he refuse, knowing the alternative is the death of boys like Frederik?  There is really no good choice, and even by the end of the film, the viewer is left debating what s/he would do in the situation.

For history buffs, this is an enthralling epic, with a mature screenplay that avoids gratuitous violence or other unnecessary scenes.  I highly recommend The King's Choice to anyone looking for this kind of movie, and it is free right now on Amazon Prime.

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, I just watched his Empire of the Sun (1987) for the second time the other day.  At 2.5 hours, this is one of those meaty films you'll want to re-watch in order to digest it.

This film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by James G. Ballard, who spent his early childhood as a British foreigner in Shanghai.  Young Christian Bale stars as the protagonist Jamie Graham, a privileged and somewhat spoiled child whose life is turned inside-out when the Japanese invade the city.  Separated from his parents, Jamie begins his new struggle for survival, from the miserable hazards of the Shanghai streets to the hunger and brutality of the internment camp.  Through it all, he never loses the one thing which he still keeps from his past: his fascination with flight.

This is the ultimate historical drama, simply because you can analyze it from many different angles.  On the surface, there is the coming-of-age story, where Jamie finds a more powerful version of himself through an endless string of heartaches and hardships.  Upon re-watch, however, I felt there were many nuances in the film which made it more ambiguous and disturbing the second time.

To be clear, there is little or nothing graphic in Empire of the Sun, beyond some brief violence.  But the script does not really force a conclusion upon you, and instead it leaves psychological layers in the plot which lend more grim reality to the circumstances, even when they seem surrealistic.  There are glimpses of Peter Pan and even Lord of the Flies here, among an assortment of cultural and social contrasts.  I found it, even the second time, to be really fascinating.

Lastly, if you are looking for an interesting documentary, PBS's recent American Experience episode, "The Island Murder," is worth checking out.  (It's actually a re-release of an older episode called "The Massie Affair," retitled for obvious reasons.)  This documentary covers events that happened in 1931–32, the interwar period where political and social conflicts were fraught with hints of the impending conflict.

"The Island Murder" is about a young Navy wife, Thalia Massie, who claimed she had been gang raped by some Honoluluan men.  It's not a spoiler to say this is basically "To Kill a Mockingbird with a bad ending," as that's only the beginning - things get worse from there. Massie's mother, Grace Fortescue, plots to take revenge on her daughter's behalf, and from that point on, the lives of the five accused men are at the mercy of Mrs. Fortescue and the due process which is supposed to bring them justice.

Despite having visited Honolulu and read pieces of its history in the museums, I had never heard of this case.  It offers a concrete glimpse at some of the injustices Hawaiians have suffered, in ways both direct and unintended.  As far as pertains to WWII, the film seemed to imply that some of the figures of the day might have tolerated such injustices for the sake of reducing Japanese influence.  It is sickening to think what crimes have been supposedly "justified" by wartime (or interwartime) decisions.

It is not an easy film to watch, but watch "The Island Murder" for some perspective and thought-provoking material.  There is also a book by one of the interviewees - Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case - which appears may provide the sources for much of the information.

Xi Jinping and the Addictive Quality of Biographies

Apologies for my two weeks' radio silence...  Work has been intense, so I haven't mustered up the energy to blog until this weekend.  Happily, I've been reading, and there is plenty to catch up on!

My current obsession reading focus is an unlikely one: CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016) by Kerry Brown.  I picked this up last Saturday and just ordered my own hard copy - yes, it's that interesting.

Brown is a professor at King's College, as well as a contributor to The Diplomat.  This combination of academia and journalism means his writing carries the best of both worlds and is well annotated, particularly for a book geared towards the general public.  (One or two reviewers complained he is too challenging to read... from my perspective, Brown's prose is more digestible than Michael Korda's, no offense to Korda.)

To be sure, the well-written biography is my favorite way to consume history.  There's several reasons for this:
  1. Certain individuals influence history (obviously).  Therefore, we should know about them.
  2. An individual's life puts a human face on what can be dry historical information.
  3. A biography typically employs the natural narrative structure - birth, life, and death.  This means you have clear pacing in a history book which otherwise could (arguably) begin and end anywhere.
  4. For me, it is easier to retain information absorbed in the context of a personal timeline vs. an impersonal timeline.
My current gold standard of biographies is A Prince of Our Disorder by John E. Mack, which I reviewed in some detail a couple of years ago.  Mack's documentation and tone proved to be a harmonious combination for tackling one of the most enigmatic figures in recent history.

Another one worth mentioning is Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron.  I gave it a low rating for the sparse sources and so-so writing; nevertheless, I still own the book because it offers chilling insights on the power of mass media in tandem with cult-like political personalities.  Of course, one could read about that in a number of history books, but through the lens of Eva's tumultuous life, I could remember much I might otherwise have forgotten.

CEO, China is perhaps the first biography I've read that is in present tense.  Brown's thesis is that Xi runs China like the CEO of a corporation, and part of the (somewhat unsettling) thrill of reading this book is the fact we are watching his career unfold in real-time.  Only time can tell the end result of all these happenings; in the meantime, I'm hoping to gain some background insight from biographies like this.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, [CC BY-SA 3.0]

A man with a wife and family, Bandi risked all he had to publish this book. When his relative offered to help smuggle the manuscript out of the country, he chose to accept, ultimately trusting his and his family's lives to the success of the plan.  Handing the secret pages over to the liaison must have been agonizing, but his gamble paid off: the book survived the journey out.

Bandi, much like Jang Jin-Sung, held a position of literary eminence in North Korea.  Disillusioned by what he saw in the Kim Il-Sung regime, Bandi decided to start writing the truth in secret, placing himself in potentially fatal danger.  The Accusation is a collection of short stories penned in the early-to-mid 90s, in which Bandi exposed Communist abuses through fiction and the lives of characters who feel more real than imagined.  The book was first published in English hardcover edition in 2017, and the spare yet vivid writing suggests Bandi could have shared more, had he had the ability to do so.

After finishing The Accusation, I did not find there was really one story that stood out greatly above the others.  Instead, read together they make a cohesive volume, really a single tale told from seven perspectives.  Familial love, suffering, and terror are the common threads running throughout the book.  In this you find the reality faced by Bandi and many others - a reality horrible even in at its simplest moments. 

For example, he emphasizes that even people supposedly in good standing with the Communist Party can be found guilty of disloyalty.  "Crimes" sometimes originate in the most innocuous circumstances, such failure to succeed with Party-dictated farming methods:
Using greenhouses to raise rice seedlings was utterly alien to those who worked the land... And that was how my father came to make his terrible mistake, the mistake that was to see him branded an "anti-Party, antirevolutionary element," a black mark that appeared overnight but that would dog our family for generations.
The shame pronounced by the Party upon such a family is not just a label - it becomes a social stigma enforced by the community (perhaps out of fear for themselves).  In "Record of a Defection," the female narrator experiences this horror in several different forms, leading her to desperation.  The same fear colors the angry outburst from father to son in "On Stage," a story about how North Koreans are compelled to fake it and "act" in their everyday lives.

From the treachery of a neighbor to the destructive power of a hungry mob, these stories show the layer-by-layer presence of propaganda and terror throughout North Korean society.  There is nothing really explicit in this book, which is what makes it chilling.  You can see easily how a radical ideology transformed a nation, bestowing both monolithic fear and energetic evil.  Those two elements feed off of each other until someone takes a stand, choosing freedom of conviction over survival itself. 

Some of Bandi's poems, which were part of the manuscript, have yet to be published in English.  I hope that will happen soon; I was very moved by the two poems which bookend this collection.  Particularly haunting is this description of Marx in the first:
That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
In 2004, Jang completed his escape from the DPRK.  "Bandi," however - whose real identity we may never know - is still living there, and, possibly, still writing stories and poetry of what he knows, not just of what he is told.  His book alone escaped and tragically remains as relevant in 2018 as it was when he wrote the stories over two decades ago.

Ben-Hur - 1: "The happiness of love is in action..."

Previously: Introduction

Lew Wallace age 21
The happiness of love is in action; its test is what one is willing to do for others.

Lawyer, soldier, governor, and diplomat, Lew Wallace seems the unlikely writer of one of the most successful Christian-themed novels of Western literature.  It may help to realize that Wallace did not consider himself religious at the time he began the book, though he was open to further learning and particularly fascinated by the story of the three wise men.  While the internet was nonexistent and foreign travel not as easily done in the 1870s, Wallace's education as a law student must have helped him in his extensive, careful research, just as it may have aided Jules Verne in crafting his stories of travel and adventure.

With this interesting mix of experience and self-admitted ignorance, Wallace begins Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ with what intrigued him from the beginning: the birth of Jesus.  Book I covers the meeting of the wise men, the coming of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and the events of the first Christmas night, where Jesus as the Messiah is born and His arrival is revealed to the shepherds.

Three Wise Men 06286u original

Like many historical fiction writers, Wallace takes some liberties by providing a backstory for each wise man.  For instance, two out of three of them do not originate from the East, but rather a bit westward, Greece and Egypt.  To compensate, he has all three wise men meeting for the first time in the East, presumably Arabia, where the two are joined by Melchior, who is a former Hindu in this telling.  I found this to be an interesting approach, not because I believe it occurred in this way (it seems unlikely), but because Wallace uses the three cultures to make a point.  Each man relates his philosophical or religious beliefs to the others, then explains what his lacked and how he responded to God's calling.

In this way, we may be seeing a glimpse of Wallace himself at this point in his life.  Like him, the wise men are yet imperfect in their understanding - in one scene, Balthasar the Egyptian describes salvation to Herod as to be brought about by "the divine agencies - Faith, Love, and Good Works," not knowing, perhaps, of the Crucifixion to come.  As Balthasar is a recurring character, it remains to be seen whether he comes to that realization later on.

In any case, the wise men here are portrayed as real and down-to-earth characters, and this possible backstory is, if not probable, at least a thought-provoking one.  I have always wondered about the wise men myself, and it's inspiring to remember that they, in spite of their Gentile backgrounds, were among the first to know of Jesus' birth.

The remainder of Book I is focused on world-building, showing the reader Jerusalem under Roman occupation.  Though it was a bit slow at times, I found myself nonetheless amazed by the immensity of detail.

StJohnsAshfield StainedGlass GoodShepherd Portrait
Stained glass: Alfred Handel, d. 1946[2],
photo:Toby Hudson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

My very favorite description, I think, is that of the shepherds.  Here Wallace illustrates the "Good Shepherd," the imagery which is significant at Jesus's birth and throughout His life.

Such were the shepherds of Judea! In appearance, rough and savage as the gaunt dogs sitting with them around the blaze; in fact, simple-minded, tender-hearted; effects due, in part, to the primitive life they led, but chiefly to their constant care of things lovable and helpless.

They rested and talked, and their talk was all about their flocks, a dull theme to the world, yet a theme which was all the world to them. If in narrative they dwelt long upon affairs of trifling moment; if one of them omitted nothing of detail in recounting the loss of a lamb, the relation between him and the unfortunate should be remembered: at birth it became his charge, his to keep all its days, to help over the floods, to carry down the hollows, to name and train; it was to be his companion, his object of thought and interest, the subject of his will; it was to enliven and share his wanderings; in its defense he might be called on to face the lion or robber - to die.
Though perhaps unconventional in its scope, Book I establishes a strong foundation for the rest of Ben-Hur.