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3 Quick review: These Shallow Graves, The Man in the Brown Suit, Isaiah

Three quick reviews for today. 

These Shallow Graves

Curiosity from seeing Jennifer Donnelly’s books on the YA shelf at the library finally prompted me to actually read one of them. These Shallow Graves is a bit more conventional than the title would suggest, but that’s what I like about it. Set during the Gilded Age in a time when feminism was actually necessary, at least in the view of some, the story is about society girl Josephine Montfort finding the life that she wants to live. 

Yes, the plot is a mystery involving her family’s company, but the point of novel is to show a young girl trying to break free from the expectations of those around her–and succeeding. This is something anyone can relate to, for we often, man or woman, young or old, chafe under the burdens placed upon by our stations in life. Sometimes our resentment is warranted, sometimes not. In this case, Jo’s wish to flee to a different simpler life is best, for the life she has is stewed in lies, her families riches built upon harming others. 

Largely atmospheric, the book is a quick read and carries Jo from one weird New York City world to the next. Many of the characters are Dickensian in nature, and much time is spent detailing just how unfortunate the “unfortunates” and poor of that time were. It’s also set in a time when some journalists were actually doing what journalists should do: hold the rich and powerful’s feet to the fire, root out corruption, and plead the case of those same unfortunates to have a chance in life. Jo’s ambition is to be just such a reporter, and by the end of the story, we’ve no doubt she’ll succeed. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and was pleased that the feminism did not, as is does today, involve the hating of men. In fact, Donnelly, is kind to all of her male characters, even the despicable ones, even the ones who don’t get the girl. Donnelly hints that they are just as trapped in society as the women are, and it is to her credit. Life is so much better if people can live in truth (even if it’s bitter) and freedom. At the end, Jo doesn’t quite get her man, but it’s clear she probably will in the future. Even couples in love have to find their way though misunderstandings and uncertainties, but I suppose that’s what makes the dance of romance something exciting and worth doing. I plan to read more of Donnelly’s work, and look forward to her future well-researched and well-crafted stories. 

The Man in the Brown Suit

My second reading of this fine novel of Agatha Christie’s left me feeling torn. I thought it was my favorite of hers, but now I’m not sure. I love the adventure of the story and the determination of Anne (with an ‘e’!) Beddingfeld to solve the mystery even if it means taking a huge risk to journey on an ocean liner to Africa at a time when she is nearly penniless. That takes guts and the certainty that one will figure things out, that one is smart enough and wily enough to do so. Few in this life have that confidence, and many of those who do find they have to “call a friend,” for they find their gamble does not pay off. I love that it takes place on a ship and I love the characters on that ship. By the time they got to South Africa, though, the story seemed to drag, and the romance was instalove that relied heavily on coincidence, especially in one key part after which Anne ends up on an island with her lover. It seemed a move unworthy of Christie, but this was written before the Poirot stories, I think, and many of her even better mysteries to come. Even Agatha Christie wasn’t Agatha Christie right away. 

The first time I read the story, the mystery part seemed a lot more intriguing; this time not as much. However, I still like the romance a lot. It is “instalove” or love at first sight, but in Christie’s defense she doesn’t pretend it’s anything else. Does this kind of love exist, we ask ourselves from time to time? How could it be possible? Doesn’t one have to know another person very well, both their flaws and their brilliance, to say that you actually love them for all of them? If we’re honest, we’d have to say no. Most of the time, sure, especially in romance, it’s good to get to know your partner thoroughly before declaring your love, but it’s completely possible that there are couples who have the ability to know each other through and through almost instantly. It doesn’t make sense and almost seems like magic, but all love is a sort of magic, really. That love should exist alongside all of the bad in the world doesn’t truly make sense–but it doesn’t have to. 

Does the instant love that parents have upon seeing their newborn child really make sense? What do they know of their baby after all and what he or she will become? Children love their parents while actually knowing very little about them as people–their hopes, dreams, desires, past wrongs and faults, and yet we don’t declare their love as being false in some way, do we? Love at first sight for another person is something we all will likely experience at least once in our lifetimes, but it’s scary, so many people run away from it–thinking it can’t possibly be true–rather than embracing it as Anne does here. Her lover is dumbfounded by her and at first fiercely pushes her and her instalove away. When they actually do get time together, he is uneasy. This love is something that is rapidly overwhelming his world. Here is a woman who with no guile declares her love for him and that she will fight for him. And, because of that love, she’s asking for the same in return, that he declare his love for her, and that he fight for her as well. For any man, I think this would be a scary situation. It’s maybe easier on men when women don’t declare their intentions quite so openly. Openness leaves no way out: A man either rises to the occasion or he does not. In this case, as a man probably would, he warns Anne that there will be no turning back, no getting out of this relationship once he’s all in. As if that would scare her. She passes all of his tests, every single one, but is no small task to accept a man’s love. His warning is a strong one that we women should take to heart, for men, once they are in, they are all in. Such love is precious and should be treated as such. 

Is this instant love realistic? For most people, no, but a few willing to take the leap find that the blessings of it far outweigh the risks. Christie muses a lot on the fact that all most women want is a man who will fight for them, who will want them and who will not say “the choice is yours,” but rather, “I want you, and I’m keeping you no matter what.” To our modern ears this sounds a bit caveman like, but it is true that there’s a bit of a turn off if the person you love tells you it doesn’t matter whether you are with them or not. They mean to be kind in giving the other person the choice, but, oh, what a blow to the soul. God’s love is never like this: He loves us and wants us completely and will always fight for us. His love is both instant and eternal. Earthly romance is supposed to be a mirror of this quality of God, but we so often lack the courage to manifest it. It’s wonderful and comforting to be able to look to a Being who has perfect love when we so often don’t. We see it is possible, that everything can be possible with Him. 

Anyway, The Man in the Brown Suit is an adequate adventure story with much food for thought on the nature of romantic love, and largely amusing even if the story doesn’t seem fully formed as Christie’s latter works do. 

Isaiah

The book of Isaiah in the Bible is one of my go-to Advent reads. At 66 chapters, it’s a bit long, but is well worth the yearly read. Handel’s Messiah uses text from it, and though it details the gravity of God’s judgement against man’s sins, it is also a beautiful declaration of the Gospel, of God’s promise to send a Savior, Jesus Christ, and His plan to save the world. (Sorry, Q, you’ve got nothing on God, and if your plans are succeeding it’s only because God wishes it at this time.) We are wholly unworthy of God’s holy love, yet we possess it in spades. He sent his Son, born as a babe, to live perfectly for us, to suffer all of our sins once and for all on the cross, and, in the ultimate pinnacle of that suffering, to die for us in our place. There can be no greater love than that. There will never be any greater love than that. 

Advent in the Christian church is a time when we look forward to remembering Christ’s birth and how God sent us the perfect gift of salvation. I look forward to reading the promises in Isaiah once again.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Isaiah 1:18 NIV

I encourage you to read through Isaiah this Advent and contemplate just how much God loves you and all the world. With Him there is true hope, love, and peace, ultimate peace between God and humanity. From that springs forth the waters of forgiveness, kindness, patience, and compassion, and the real possibility of peace among all men, women, and children in the world. 

Book Review: The Decagon House Murders

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji is a locked room murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Originally published in the 1980’s, it is about a group of university students who are in a mystery club and who go to stay on an island for a week. The appeal of the island is that four people were murdered there previously and the main residence burned to the ground. Rumors circulate that the ghost of the original owner haunts the island.

Strangely enough, I found the parts of the story that happened off-island more interesting than the one-by-one murders happening on the  island. Ayatsuji’s writing in this is purposefully simple, making each character fit their role and nothing more. There is also no speculation on the heart of man, the state of the world, and larger themes that Christie in particular often speculates on in her stories, and there’s little to no romance. Decagon is about the mystery alone. In the off-island scenes, Ayatsuji introduces an amateur detective only incidentally related to the other characters, and he was the main intrigue for me in the story. I thought if I followed his thinking I would solve the mystery. Even so, I didn’t guess who the murder was.

With this book, Ayatsuji reinvigorated the Japanese mystery tradition called honkaku, a tradition in which the focus of the story is the mystery only and in which the characters have a blankness much like characters in a video game. Fellow mystery writer Soji Shimada writes a great introduction explaining this, and it’s well worth the read. The honkaku style is supposed to be a true game for the reader, using fair play rules and clues so that he has a chance at guessing the culprit before the story ends. Again, I wasn’t able to guess, but at some point I do plan to read it again to determine what I missed that I should have picked up on.

It is also possible translation could be an issue here. At times it didn’t seem like the English really matched the story well, and Ayatsuji’s word play is probably a lot more fun in Japanese. Many times I wasn’t sure who was speaking, and also wasn’t sure if that was purposefully confusing. That all being said, once we get the full explanation for the murders, I’m not so sure literary trickery and devices weren’t used. It didn’t seem like something a reader could glean from the information given, but I maybe just didn’t pay enough attention.  There were likely a lot of clues that I just didn’t pick up on.

The best part of The Decagon House Murders is the house on the island and the fact that all of the characters go by their mystery club names, not their actual names. The mystery club names are taken after English mystery writers: Christie, Poe, Ellery, etc. There are also a lot of good discussions not unlike those in the movie Scream in which the characters talk about the tropes and devices in horror stories, only here it’s with mysteries, specifically locked room mysteries. As in And Then There Were None the “locked room,” in this isn’t a room, but the whole island, and the Decagon house in itself is a snare both to the characters and to the reader as we are constantly focusing on it as the locked room.

I plan to read more honkaku mysteries in the future and find this idea of a more literal puzzle story for readers to figure out, a good one. My family and I are really into playing Escape Room these days, and those are also locked room mysteries. I missed having a Poirot or Sherlock or main quirky detective to follow, though.

Agatha Christie and Qanon

Agatha Christie is one of my go-to authors. Her mysteries are often second to none and great adventures to boot, as her characters often travel to exotic places. Most of her stories can be read in one sitting, and most are more than mysteries: they give us her insights into human nature as well as quiet, no frills love stories.

That being said, she has a few misses, at least in my opinion. I don’t care for her Harley Quin stories and some of her stories that are political spy thrillers. However The Man in the Brown Suit is my absolute favorite by her, and as I’m going to read that again soon, I’ll be sure to do a review later on. This week I read Passenger to Frankfurt and though I enjoy politics and spies, I found this story tedious and difficult to follow.

When this happens with an author I like, I often try to finish the book anyway and find something to enjoy about it. Strangely enough, the violent, anarchic world revolution happening in the book has similarities to the violence and anarchy happening in our world today. Christie refers to certain people of wealth being behind violent youth movements that think they are going to change the world, but really are only puppets for those with power who want more of it.

This has a lot to do with what the elusive Q or Qanon shares with followers on the 8-Chan boards. If you don’t know about Q, I highly recommend at least brushing up on it, as for good or bad, this Qanon is influencing a lot of people. We are all hoping the Q team is on the side of good and he/they appear to be working in conjunction with President Trump in order to get information out by bypassing the media. Q posts questions, phrases, codes, essentially, and asks anons (the anonymous users of 8-chan) to research people and their connections to power, trafficking, crime, and the like.

Despite the Q phenomenon being painted like a cult, the point of it seems largely to get people to think for themselves, to do their own research, and really to realize how much they are lied to and how much is purposefully kept hidden from them by the media. It is also has been a great boost for Trump and MAGA supporters, especially those who find following politics via legal moves and C-Span rather tedious and boring. Researching death and sex cults will always be more interesting. In recent weeks, some Q followers have gotten frustrated that there’s been no fantastic arrests of all the evildoers yet or that we aren’t fighting a physical war yet, or something. People are bored again, because politics, research, and the like, it’s not glamorous or exciting. It’s tedious, dogged work, and one often has to take the longer route when the shorter would be far more exciting.

In consequence the Q team, too, seems a bit down. No one’s seeing the amazing things that have already happened–the true exchanges of power happening in the USA and the world–and are only focusing on what hasn’t happened yet, and frankly, what may never happen. The “wheels of justice are slow,” Q says, and they understand the followers’ frustration.

So how does this connect with Passenger to Frankfurt and Agatha Christie? Well, the story is essentially about a group of people, spies, trying to stop a violent world movement. It is the same thing, old rich people stirring up the young. The young think they are fighting for good and that their violent overthrowing of everything will eventually bring about some kind of utopia. We have seen this in countless revolutions throughout the ages, but it is only the rich and powerful who win in these movements, for they are safe from the violence and get away with instigating crimes while the young get batoned, tear gassed, and arrested. And the utopia never comes, because it’s all about more power or new power for certain people.

At one point in the story, someone draws a diagram showing how so many things are connected or controlled by the same rich people, the same 13 families or Illuminati of conspiracy yore: finance, armament, art, the drug trade, the sex trade, slavery etc. Q research has shown many that the same groups of people (think George Soros) are pulling the strings behind, well, almost everything. It’s unsettling to find that certain people have so much power. Who do they think they are? That’s the question. Do they think they are gods or what?

Christie envisions one such person as a very old, fat woman who has every indulgence and only surrounds herself with beautiful young people all eager for the revolution. This revolution is connected largely to Hitler of WW2 fame, and its hinted that these people are yet again trying to create a “pure” human race using a supposed descendant of Adolf. Today, where anyone who doesn’t agree with anyone else is labeled as a “Nazi” or the next “Hitler,” placing him on a pedestal as the ultimate evil yet again is, well, tedious. Hitler wasn’t the first to start this kind of thing or try to rule the world, and he wasn’t even the most successful. Yet, Christie uses him, because he’s an easily identifiable evil, or was, to most people in 1970.

I saw this revolution stuff, too, in my college years. I graduated in 2000 and I can tell you my classmates were as much in love with Mao and Che Guevara as students probably are today. No eyes were batted at these people being violent mass murderers; it was enough they were not American, or against America, or against being just boring vanilla or something. That was the thing, then, and probably still is today. The young are taught that being peaceful and having a happy family, that these things are all lies of some kind because of course some families and some people are unhappy, so therefore it’s wrong for anyone else to be happy or normal or something. We see this in the LGBTQ movement, where the normal romantic loves between a man and woman are pushed aside in pursuit of being unique or troubled in some way. Why is youth so tempted by this stuff? It’s first of all a desire to fit in with one’s peers, the exact opposite of what’s professed, and also the wanting to do something special. And it is a desire for a world with no bad outcomes, no bad choices, and no bad consequences. (But it’s a lie, and as a result so many of these young people commit suicide because they know it’s a lie and they’re just waiting for someone to chastise them with the truth and no one does. It’s like seeing a brother hit his sister and the child knows he’s doing wrong, but the parents always say it’s good, what he’s doing is good. Nothing wrong, no wrong choices, and after awhile the child can’t take it anymore because he knows it’s wrong what he’s doing. It’s written on his heart. It’s written on all of our hearts.)

The trouble with the “heaven on earth” idea is that we are all humans who have only lived on earth. We don’t know what heaven is, not really, and if we are marching to another’s drum, we are trying to implement their version of a heaven, not actually Heaven. Human nature also can’t be controlled completely by other humans, and if it can, the loss of freedom would be great. We’ll stab you in the back as much as we’ll love you, and so utopian movements fail as people start to grab power only for themselves or lose faith in the movement.

Near the end of the story, Christie brings up this Benvo project or benevolence project, basically a scientific experiment to make people stop being violent and desire only other people’s good. Normal benevolence is a great thing, this would be a nightmare. By this point in the story, I honestly wasn’t sure if these people were the good guys or the bad guys at this point. They wanted to stop the violent movements by drugging people into being good, no, not being good, making them have no desires but to please others. Ella Enchanted, anyone? It would be the worst kind of slavery! Basically, the conclusion is that people who want to rule the world for whatever reason are ultimately not be trusted. They come to see themselves as gods and other people as ants. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, they think of themselves all as great Napoleons, too smart to be chained by any laws whatsoever. And they will eagerly commit murder or lobotomies for the sake of their future “heaven on earth.”

What does that have to do with Q? Well, we want to believe the Q team is the good guys, and I do hope they are, but the reality is that they may be, too, envisioning a world that can only succeed with careful control over everyone and everything. If the “swamp” is drained, if all corruption stamped out, and all the criminals brought to justice, even then, even then, new people will be waiting at the gates to seize power. The peace and prosperity will only be until the corruption and revolutions start again. Q says to “trust the plan” and says the followers are watching things unfold almost like a movie. It’s mostly good and it’s mostly exciting, but the truth is that it’s not a movie, it’s real life. And the truth is, all the new information people have unearthed can be just as useless as it can be useful. The strides made are largely political moves that bore the young to tears. Talk about FISA and people’s eyes glaze over (as one example).

This is not to dampen the efforts of Q, Trump, or MAGA, but this all is about exchanging the old guard of power into a new guard, hopefully better than the last, but still never quite the “power for the people” that’s always promised. We can have anarchy or we can have rulers, and anarchy only leads to stricter rulers. Peace, prosperity, freedom. These are the goals, and can only be reached for the average person by having a good strong man in power, and good, strong men are rare, rarer still if they don’t get corrupted by being in power.

The real good in the world is found in everyday life, in normalcy, in living in the truth. And so Christie’s book ends with the promise of a wedding, the man has gotten his girl, their naughty little bridesmaid says her prayers and seems back on the straight and narrow, and the world is whole again, for a time. As a Christian I know without God, we are nothing, that a world without Him would be hell. Still, it’s tempting to look to other people, like Trump, as someone who can save us from ourselves, but he’s not a savior, he’s breaking the media’s hold on us, and that’s no small thing. He’s showing us how hollow the promises of our congressmen are, and that’s no small thing. He’s showing us that good has to be fought for, and that’s a big thing, perhaps the biggest thing. We can’t have utopia, but we may be able to live in peace for a time, and this may mean embracing nationalism and discarding the globalism that is only putting the poorest of us in stricter chains.

The world is bad enough already, Q says, but there are those rich and powerful who are only fostering more hurt, manufacturing more war, and they should be relieved of their power for the sake of everyone. The Clinton’s should be in jail, shouldn’t they? It’s best to think of things in those terms, I think: Crimes and punishments for them. It does no good to dream on about utopias, Libertarian or otherwise. There may be no mass arrests or martial law, but why would we want either, really? It’s enough if there’s one significant arrest and we avoid martial law and the good strong man becoming the bad strong man. It’s good enough if we avoid being experimented on and made to love being good or love the state, like in 1984. Even God doesn’t force us to be good, even God doesn’t force us to believe in Him.

Sigh. One tries to be an insightful writer, telling truths no one else seems to get or something, but it’s all like a lecture and tedious and I got sort of bored writing it all out, just as I got bored with whatever dear Agatha was trying to say in her story. The truly profound is elusive. Politics are politics. Power is power. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Passenger to Frankfurt like Qanon, is only remarkable because today we have been so very, very steeped in lies. In a climate where the truth is mostly apparent, i.e. common sense, these kinds of stories and devices wouldn’t be needed. But humans tend to lie and be illogical, so we’ll see these stories pop up time and again to remind us we are being manipulated. We are being manipulated, but aside from knowing the truth, there’s not much the average person can do. That’s the lesson. At most one can share the truth with other people. As a Christian, this makes sense to me, for Christianity is much the same: Here is the way things are. Here is Jesus, the way to salvation. You can believe in Him or not. That’s about it. But that’s everything! Because believing in Jesus gives us the confidence to go out and do good and have that power of positive thinking that Trump was raised on. So in Christ’s name, we can have the grand plans, the grand stories, and also the everyday ones. We can have all the cake and eat it too, but that Heaven will not be on this broken earth.

Ok, there I go again. One tries to say something wise and it just ends up sounding like a lecture. Anyway, Passenger to Frankfurt strangely connects with the Q movement, if only in the sense that it tries to pull back the curtain, so show the people pulling the strings. Things are more interconnected than we’d like to believe. People have a staggering amount of power and wealth and hide it well. These are things to be aware of. Conspiracy theories should be researched, not scoffed at. Great wrongs are often righted in the world behind the scenes, sometimes with spies and crazy plans and people who will forever have to be anonymous. They are not important, but what they are doing is.

How to Stop Time: Love

A couple of housekeeping things to get out of the way, and then I’ll dive into the book review.

Things I’m grateful for: Friends and family I love to spend time with. Fall in Minnesota even if’s it’s cold and rainy one day and blazing hot the next. My apartment complex finally turned on the heat, a big reason I have come to love October when it rolls around. Crazy, brilliant dreams. This time of year I have these weird complex dreams I half remember in the morning. Some good story ideas in there.

The Smile Has Left Your Eyes: It’s not often that I watch Korean dramas as they are being aired each week, but I make exceptions for either stories or actors that I really like. Viki.com has gotten the license for The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (or Hundred Million Stars from the Sky). Hopefully, I will get my review of each episode out early in the week, but it just depends when the English subtitles are added. Amazingly enough, even though I’ve watched a ton of Korean TV, I am not yet fluent in Korean. The Smile is a creepy murder mystery starring my current favorite actor Seo In Guk. He finally has his dream of playing a villain. Also starring the delightful Jung So Min from Playful Kiss and D-Day. This is a remake of a Japanese show that was pretty popular awhile ago.

Book review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig isn’t so much an instruction manual as a thinking manual. Sometimes it’s fun to dream about living forever or near-forever and just having so much time to do whatever. The story is narrated by Tom Hazard, a man who has loads of time and opportunities, but just can’t get out of his old man head.

Like Tom, I am now in my forties, and it’s true the older you get, sometimes the memories from the past just come flooding in, clearer than you would have thought possible, and if your mind dwells there, you can miss the very real and awesome present. At first Tom seems only old and jaded. He has a rare medical condition in which he ages slower than the rest of humanity, so at forty, in regular years he’s hundreds of years old. As we get more into his thoughts, though, we realize–and so does he–that he’s just stuck dwelling on time instead of enjoying it.

The book also involves a bit of intrigue. There’s a shadowy society protecting others who have this condition–think passing reference to X-Men–and a couple of tight moments that get resolved a little too easily, but the book isn’t so much about the plot as about Tom finally changing his thinking.

Imagine yourself now having whatever time you think you have left, and being afraid to ask that person out or jump into a relationship or really get to know your kids, grandparents, friends, etc., because there just isn’t enough time. Or you’re afraid you’ll spend too much time with them, get attached, and fall to pieces if you ever lose anyone of them. Now magnify that fear across hundreds of years. How do people ever overcome this fear? Using the only way they can overcome it, like the way Tom overcomes it: Love. He falls in love, he finds someone who loves him back. It’s really not that complicated, but people live their whole lives standing on the brink of happiness and never, ever jumping. They have not learned how to trust the power of love.

Aside from the musings on life, time, love, etc., as an avid English reader and writer, I love the nods to Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, and the like. It makes me feel proud to be a part of this heritage, this heritage of speaking, reading, and writing English. I can speak a smattering of words and phrases in other languages, but even if I was fluent in them, they wouldn’t be my heritage.

Okay, back to love. How, you are asking me. How exactly does this stop time, Pixie? Think of the best times of your lives. You’re at your brother’s wedding, you’re hanging out with your friends, you’re babysitting your grandkids and laughing up a storm with them. You’re at a funeral, but there’s so many friends and family to see and talk to and catch up with. You’re staring into your darling’s sparkling eyes. At those times, in those moments, is it not as if TIME itself does not exist? God is LOVE and love is outside of time.

In How to Stop Time, Tom learns to enjoy the present of his days and to stop worrying over the past and the future. He learns to to put the guilt aside and marvel in the moment. He learns that the risk is worth it and he can finally let go of the albatross hanging around his neck that is telling him that falling in love is a waste of time. I felt bad for him. The guy was essentially stuck in a Groundhog Day (and if you don’t know what that is, I suggest you watch the movie, starring Bill Murray, immediately.)

In reading the book, it’s impossible not to start thinking about time and how we spend our time. Most of my best times are spent with my family, friends, and fellow Christians, and I know that people are really the only things we can take with us to heaven, and that God has put us all together on this rock to be blessings for each other and to love each other. Everything else becomes so unimportant in comparison.

At the beginning of time, humans did live for hundreds of years and they probably got as downhearted and depressed as Tom did, but unlike Tom, they had a Creator and Savior who loves them to look to for comfort and strength. And I think that’s why some leap so easily into love instead of dithering on the precipice. They know that even if their fellow humans fail them, God never will. Some days I think my faith is that strong, other days not so much. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live forever and with a start have to remember I will live forever, just in a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus’s love made it possible. Anyway, I don’t want to get too religious about it, but that’s what I thought of at the end. I will live forever in love and with those that I love. It’s pretty amazing. It’s like having a secret super power.

We Die Alone: Book Review

Cold is something one doesn’t forget. Cold burns with slow patience, settling into your bones quietly, but persistently. The coldest I’ve ever been was living in a huge house in Shorewood, WI, a few blocks up from Lake Michigan. For a few months I lived there with a group of eccentric college classmates who had passions for pizza, cooking, and saving money. It was a snowy winter that year and although the old house would have still been drafty had the heat been turned on full blast, the temp was kept at arctic temperatures–as least, that’s what it felt like to me. At work and out and about I seemed like a normal person dressed in winter wear. In the house, I became an abominable snowman. Never ever ever, do I want to be that cold again.

Since that time, I have found it fun to occasionally read about the trials and adventures of those others who must venture into cold temperatures. Once such book that riveted me was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It is about a climb of Mt. Everest that ended in disaster for many of the climbers. Another great one is In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides that tells the tragic story of the Jeannette expedition to the Arctic.

This past month I have read another great story to add to the ice-encrusted list: We Die Alone by David Howarth. Not only is it an amazing tale of survival under the coldest of circumstances, but is a another of the great stories coming out of the WW2 era. During the war, a group of Norwegians based in the Shetland islands were commissioned to go help with the Norwegian resistance against the Nazis occupying Norway. A fated voyage, the trip was not a success, save as an amazing story of one man surviving against incredible odds with the aid of hardy, dedicated locals.

Set in the world of fjords in winter, this story had me hooked right away. I am half Norwegian (5th generation immigrants to America), but don’t have a lot of connection with that heritage, except through religion. My family are diehard Lutherans and probably consider ourselves more Minnesotans than Norwegians most of the time, so it’s fun to delve into Norwegian history and culture sometimes. Stories like this help explain part of that stoic, unemotional Scandinavian spirit. Living in that area of the world (at least at that time), if you dissolved into tears and despair, you would die. You had to keep your wits about you and possess bottomless persistence to beat all of that cold and climbing and avalanches, and who knows what else.

Jan Baalsrud is one of those men I’m not even sure they make anymore. How he went from one calamity to the next, cheerfully and determinedly, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand. If the environment wasn’t to do him in, the Nazis certainly would have, had he been caught. The same risks were taken by all of those who helped him, especially Marius from Lyngenfjord and those from Mandal.

There’s really only one woman of note in the story, and I can only wish I had her strength and stamina to withstand the cold and climbing up a thousand feet to be moral support for Marius, the man she loved. People have a different perspective and different abilities, too, growing up skiing on snow and ice. In Minnesota, though we have the cold, our skiing is mostly on the water in the summer, and though we are all hardy in our way due to the crazy winters we often have, these people were and likely still are in a league of their own.

The best parts of We Die Alone are the bits just talking about the culture, the culture of northern Norway and Scandinavia, the culture of the war and occupation, the environment and climate of the place–all of these things add depth to an already heart-stopping tale. The best part is that the story is true and a testament that life continues on even after the toughest of experiences.

This book made me cold just reading it, so I recommend a warm fire and a cup of hot cocoa if possible while devouring the tale.

A String in the Harp: Welsh Tourism

Sometimes novels are more than just stories. Sometimes they double as travelogues, where the author was so completely immersed in the place they were living that the descriptions in the story act almost as an advertisement for that country or city. The very long and epic Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, set in India, is a bit like that, as is my current read, A String in the Harp, which is set in Wales.

Wales is a bit of a mystery to many Americans. Is it its own country? Is it part of England? What can you even do there? And so on. Thus has been my own view of Wales added with a vague notion that Merlin lived there or King Arthur, or someone from that legend.

A String in the Harp (at least halfway through) doesn’t have anything to do with Arthurian legend. It is a story about a broken family mourning the loss of their wife and mother. The younger kids and dad have fled to Wales where Dad can be immersed in his university work. The oldest, Jen, flies over on her high school Christmas break to spend a few weeks with them. Wales is alternately cold, windy, rainy, mucky harsh, and in glimpses for her, beautiful.

Written the the 1970s when author Nancy Bond was attending school there, the plot is very slow, but it’s almost like a day by day travelogue of what Jen and her siblings are experiencing being in this wild and lonely country.  In this country tour inside a story, readers learn a bit of the culture, history, language, and meet a few of the locals. Jen’s brother Peter finds a key on the beach and soon realizes that this key open a window into ancient Wales. Things really start taking off when his sisters realize that something very odd is going on. This adventure may be what they all need to become content with each other again. I’m excited to see where the story goes.

A String in the Harp is a great book to read with a hot drink on a rainy night.

 

Arc of a Scythe: Playing God

Thunderhead coverWhat happens when humans are in charge of dealing out death? The Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman takes on this question. In a world where humanity has conquered death and is ruled by a collective consciousness called the Thunderhead (think of our modern internet “Cloud” on steroids), utopia still has not been reached. It has been deemed necessary that people still die, keeping to the natural order of things. And so a Scythedom was formed, a collection of humans chosen to be the grim reapers of mankind. The second installment of the series, Thunderhead, digs deeper into questions surrounding Scythes, namely, the biggie: Are they playing God?

As a nearly all-seeing, all-knowing artificial intelligence, the Thunderhead, is far more godlike, but is not allowed to deal out death or bring about life. There is a separation between Thunderhead and Scythedom in this futuristic America, much like separation fo church and state in what the series refers to as the “Age of Mortality.” Despite that separation, the Thunderhead finds a way around its own rules to alter the course of human history.

Thunderhead is one of those books you know is going to be great and it’s going to end on a cliffhanger and so you don’t want to finish it until the next book in the series is out. I was on a deadline to finish reading Thunderhead before returning it to the library, and I did return it a day late, but left the last third to read when book three is out. Thankfully, Shusterman will likely have the next book out in short order, not like, ahem, me.

The Arc of a Scythe series isn’t so much a plot-driven story as it is a philosophical debate. What is mortality, really? What would life be like if we never died? What would bring us to a state in which we allocated our fellow humans to periodically execute certain numbers of mankind? Is our technology merely an advanced way of building our own god? The rules and organization of Shusterman’s world are built and defined well. It has some similarities to The Hunger Games series, but, thankfully, leaves out most of the angst and hints at a more satisfying ending.

Arc of a Scythe seems at first a simpler tale than other teen series, but it has layers and layers of ideas, themes and concepts all building on each other and as a reader, you just know there’s going to be some big reveal (or maybe just hope there will be) like in The Giver, that just turns everything on its head. I really like the highlighting of autonomous or charter regions in Thunderhead, as it reminds me of my time in China and their similar setup. The idea of a sort of “planned community” type of freedom intrigues me. So many good stories are based off of this idea, The Truman Show, The 13th Floor, The Giver, and so on, and it’s a relatable concept for today as we have so much “freedom” and simultaneously so many, many laws to follow.

I can’t wait to read book three of this series and also to finish Thunderhead, and I really hope the series will be more than a trilogy, but Shusterman’s writing and world are great, so I think I’ll be happy with it either way. And I have to also add, his book covers are outstanding.