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Silence: No Answer?

Silence by Shusaku Endo takes on a weighty topic: God’s apparent silence while his followers are tortured to deny their faith, sometimes even facing death as martyrs.

Set in Japan in the seventeenth century, Silence is about a time in history where a number of European countries were all trying to gain a foothold in trade and political power over Japan. It was also the same time that many Catholic missionaries were also trying to convert the Japanese to Christianity. Although fictional, the story is rooted in real events. Jesuits priests from Portugal and other countries did come to Japan, were tortured for their faith, along with Japanese Christians, and were asked to and sometimes did apostasize, or renounce their faith.

Silence follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests who come to convert the Japanese, but also to find their former priest and teacher Christovao Ferreira, who it is rumored has given into torture and apotasized. The first half is narrated first person in letter written by Sebastian Rodriguez. Rodriguez appears to be serious about his faith and looking forward to going to Japan, even though it is against the wishes of his superiors for being too dangerous. He and his companions wait on the island of Macao until they can find a ship to take them to Japan. While waiting they meet a Japanese expat named Kichijiro. Kichijiro becomes the bane of Rodriguez’s existence, a Christian who denies his faith at the first sign of trouble and even betrays the Jesuits on several occasions.

Expectations are tricky things. I am a Christian, and I expected Silence to hit me hard. In some ways it did, certainly the climactic scene (spoilers) in which Rodriguez finally steps on the icon of Christ, and in which he hears Christ telling him that’s what he came for, for men and human beings to trample him. That scene made me cry, for of course is it correct that Jesus Christ came in the world to suffer and die for sinners, which is all of humanity. He was tortured and experienced a terrible death and temporary separation from God on the cross. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate and leaves one feeling like the wallowing, helpless creature one actually is inside. This, however, is not what distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Most religions acknowledge the sin of man.

All the time reading Silence it was impossible for me to forget that these priest were Catholic missionaries. To an outsider it is easy to think that Catholicism is Christianity. And certainly for a long time Catholicism was or appeared to be the only official Christianity practiced. But it went through a huge Reformation begun by Martin Luther in Germany for a very good reason: Catholicism was at that time, and often even today, not following Christ. They were selling indulgences, ways for people to buy their way into heaven and spitting in the face of Jesus by doing so. If we can buy our way or earn our way into heaven in any way, Christ died for nothing!

Silence is a book that will certainly impact all Christians, but especially Catholics, as the focus is often on sin, death, and the law. The focus is not on God’s Grace where it should be. It is a difficult thing for humans to truly understand how sinful we really are. We are so sinful that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t even grant ourselves faith, which was the conclusion Martin Luther came to. Sometimes Christians lose our focus, we enjoy thinking about how awful we are and how much Christ had to suffer for us, all the while continuing to live in ways contrary to Jesus’s teaching and his word. It seems to me that this wallowing is where Catholicism stays, because all too often it teaches that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough, that there are still works we ourselves must do to get into heaven.

Other branches of Christianity also promote this fall doctrine. In human terms, this philosophy of doing good works isn’t so bad: it has certainly led to many christians helping out their fellow man in any way they can–orphans, the homeless, soup kitchen, disasters, etc. But while we should be doing these things in thankfulness for what Christ has done for us, all too often it is about earning points with God. Can we really earn any points with God? If so, what does Jesus’ death on the cross mean? What does His resurrection mean? Can we really atone or make up for our own sins as if they’d never happened? Do humans have that power? Can humans by their own power forgive sin?

My goal here is not to belittle Catholics, but to point out that wallowing in the truth of our sin–that we are like Kichijiro was to Rodriguez, a waffling traitorous person not even worthy of being spit on–is no virtue by itself. Many people succumb to torture and denying one’s faith is certainly awful. It’s interesting in the setup of the book that Rodriguez himself isn’t really tortured. No, he gets to watch other people tortured and other people die for their faith. And all the while he’s thinking and questioning what kind of faith they actually have. He apostatized presumably to save his fellow believers from torture, but it seems pretty clear the torture of others is going to continue no matter what he does. Why this all is not virtuous is because the focus is not where is should be, on God’s wonderful and bottomless love and grace, but on human frailty, deceit, and weakness. For me, as Christian, this story isn’t edifying as it’s mostly asking me to look at my own inadequacies and faults (of which there are many), but not pointing me to the cure for it all: God’s great love for us and how Jesus came to live perfectly in our place, yes, awfully dying on the cross, but ultimately rising to life again, symbolizing the new eternal lives we all possess in Christ. Silence largely brushes over Grace instead of wallowing there, if we are to wallow in anything.

Rodriguez often thinks of Judas betraying Jesus just like Kichijiro keeps betraying him. I’m no theologian, but I always had thought that Judas was not “saved” because he didn’t believe God could or would forgive his sin. Add suicide on top of that, and there’s no time for one repent of that unbelief, which is why suicide is something to be avoided at all costs. That disbelief that Christ’s sacrifice covers “even me,” that’s the crime against the Holy Spirit that damns one, because if you’re only looking at what you’ve done, the judgement will always be for hell. For believers, though, the judgement is always heaven, for we are trusting in Jesus, his holy, perfect life, and the fact that he paid for all sins, no matter how small, and no matter how great. And as long as one is still living, there’s time to repent, there’s time to believe in Jesus.

As to the “silence” the book refers to: God often does appear to be silent, often when we are having a hard time. But we were never promised a problem free life on this earth. Thats what heaven is for. Sometimes it’s clear that God steps in and rights some wrongs and make things better for awhile, but just as often He lets us go through the suffering. It often seems as if He doesn’t care, but that’ not true. He cares very much, and His desire is that through the suffering we would turn to Him and become closer to Him, trusting in His Grace ever more firmly. He is not silent. Everything in His creation shouts out to us every day how much He loves us, His Word in the Bible tells us that, the life and death of His Son Jesus tells us that, the love of our family tells us that, the love of our fellow man tells us that, it’s just that when we are focused on ourselves and our own troubles, we aren’t getting the message.

Think of your disagreements or problems with the people in your life. Sometimes, they too, are silent. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t saying anything, especially in their actions. An answer is always there, it’s just that we often, purposefully or not, don’t see it. Our imaginations take hold of us and we think the answer must be the worst thing we can think of: They don’t care, they don’t love us, they don’t want to do whatever it is we need them to do. Later, we are surprised to find just how much they do care for us, love us, and want to do what we need, it’s just that we refused to take their gift, or their help, and were even actively pushing them away, with no understanding that that’s what we were doing. How even more this happens with God! We assume the worst: He hates us, He loves watching us suffer, He enjoys not giving us easy answers or solutions, etc.

While it is true that God’s justice and holiness does hate sin and sinners, His Love of Jesus overcomes that wrath. Jesus led a perfect life in our place!!! This is not talked about enough. We talk of his suffering, death, and resurrection, but now about the reason Jesus was able to pay for our sins: He was perfect as God would have all of us be! Because of Jesus, God sees his perfection and loves us, He wants us to turn to the comfort of our salvation and promises of new life in Christ in the face of all suffering. In the book of Romans it says:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” and: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and finally: “For am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8, selected verses (NIV)

Does God often appear to be silent in the face of His followers’ sufferings? Sure. But that doesn’t mean He isn’t communicating with us with every part of his being. He communicates His love to us each and every day. Faith allows us to take the blinders off and see it, but we in our weakness keep trying to put the blinders back up. Did Jesus come to be “trampled” on by mankind? Yes. He came to make the payment for all sin so that we wouldn’t have to. Separation from the love of God is the ultimate torture and Christ experienced that on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to. We think Japanese torture sounds awful, but we have no clue what the abandonment of God would be like and we can’t even imagine it. As bad as this world is, it and we haven’t been abandoned by God. God calls his abandonment Hell, and we often just throw it around as a cuss word as if it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal, and Jesus experienced hell on the cross.

The world silence, isn’t really accurate, is it? If we give someone the “silent treatment,” we may not be speaking, but we’re definitely communicating. Sadly, for humans, it’s often anger, that we’re communicating, but it’s other things, too: hurt that we’ve been misunderstood or that the other person can’t see how much we do care for them and are trying to do the best thing for them. Fear of burdening others with our own troubles and feelings, and the list goes on and on. But we really aren’t “silent” in the sense of no communication. This is why we often say: “Actions speak louder than words.” Because they do. A human can say anything and not mean it. This is not the same with God. God’s words have powers beyond ours, and not only has He created us with His Word, in the Bible, He’s already told us everything we need to know. His silence is not the same as our silence. The world goes on and on in suffering in the hope that over time there will be more and more believers in Christ, and more people in heaven. That is the ultimate goal of God, to get us to stop looking inward for salvation, but to Him. It’s a paradox: We are accountable for our sins, but we can’t save ourselves. Jesus was innocent and led a perfect life, but took on the punishment of hell for all the sins of all people of all time for all time, simultaneously granting us eternal life and bliss. That is not silence, that is an overwhelming display of LOVE.

I might read this book again, but for literature purposes only. It just did not connect with me faith-wise in the sense that it truly pointed me to Christ. That is not to say that Endo is not a fine writer and very brave to take on this topic. There is much food for thought in the story, whether one is a Christian or not, and it is complex portrayal of Japan and that time in history.

The Tales from Ivy Hill Series

Tales from Ivy Hill – Book 3

The Tales from Ivy Hill series isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who are fans of or enjoy the regency era novels of Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Elizabeth Gaskell (ok, she’s probably post-Regency, but, anyway). Most fans of Regency romances are likely women, and it is curious to me that although both sexes are part of romances, it is women who seem, well, obsessed with them. Just in our nature, I guess. I’m not as insane at the main character in Austenland, but I’ve done some Regency memorabilia shopping and have even been to the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England. Tea there was lovely.

This series may also not be for everyone because it is slow almost to a fault. This is also true for Regency novels written at the time, but Ivy Hill has the benefit of multiple romances to keep one’s interest and doesn’t go on for chapters describing scenery–yes, I’m looking at you, Ann Radcliffe of Udolpho. The series is also nominally Christian lit, but not heavily so; still, it might turn some readers off. That being said, I love, love, love! this series and Julie Klassen, why are there only three books?!? Where is my fainting couch? A little to the right? Ah, there we go. One of the endpapers in the last book does advertise an Ivy Hill Christmas novella coming in the future, so that’s at least something.

So, what on earth is so great about this series? For me, the characters are all very realized and very well-rounded, and even though in real life not everyone gets a happy ending, in this book world the characters work out everything by faith, trust, honesty, and love, and the happy endings fit. It’s a cheery, fantasy world where nothing super bad really happens. Also, for some of the romances it’s a question of who the women will choose, so there’s a little suspense in that. The men are pretty much all dreamy, which is just as they should be. The one thing I’d say the series lacks is more humor, but not every author can make me laugh out loud like Fanny Burney, not even “dear Jane.” Tales from Ivy Hill would be a perfect book series for, say, the BBC to adapt into a TV series with several seasons–I mean series, because in Britain a show season is called a series–which is series-ly confusing.

Anyway, this is Julie Klassen at the peak of her skill, and I do hope she will keep on writing.

Book review: Jackaroo

The Kingdom series of books by Cynthia Voigt was a favorite of mine in my teen years and I’ve decided to revisit them to see if they are still as great as I remember. The four stories, Jackaroo, On Fortune’s Wheel, The Wings of a Falcon, and Elske (sadly, many of the names have now been changed when they were reissued with new covers, but stories are the same, I hope) are loosely connected, being set in and around a kingdom somewhat like a medieval English or European kingdom. Jackaroo stood out to me at the time I read it, because there’s not any magic in it, yet there’s something magically remote about the Kingdom.

Jackaroo is actually my least favorite in the series. My favorite was always On Fortune’s Wheel as it’s an adventure/romance, but The Wings of a Falcon is a very close second, and I always think of that book being the masterpiece of her series. Elske I’ve only read a couple of times and don’t remember much about it. It never seemed to fit as well with the original trilogy of stories, but as I read through them again, that view may change.

With this recent rereading of Jackaroo, I understand now why although I liked the world, I didn’t like the story as much as the second book: Teenage girls tend to crave romances, and although there is a love story in the book, it’s far from the focal point. But I realize now that the love story, quiet as it is, is actually fantastic, but something my teen self was just not into at the time. Burl seemed so unsuited for the heroine, Gwyn, being a servant and often described from her point of view as someone who is just always there and pining away for her sister who won’t have him. Plus, he didn’t talk much. Now, firmly an adult, I can see the quiet strength he gives her, helping Gwyn to be Gwyn. And, isn’t that often what people want in a romantic partner? Just someone who will have their back and be invested in them? Gwyn eventually realizes this and is happy to be with him in the end.

What really caught my attention the first time around, though, was the possibility of adventure, because Jackaroo is a hero of the people, much like Robin Hood or Zorro. Like Zorro. Although Jackaroo’s past and rumored deeds are mentioned in the book, it’s not a rousing tale of adventure like I had wanted: The book offers more than that. Gwyn is an innkeeper’s daughter, a spirited girl and a hard worker, capable in a way the rest of her family are not, and determined never to marry. Because her family is better off than some, they have to endure constant mutterings against them, something that I’m sure any successful person will recognize. And no matter how much the successful people give back to those poorer than them, it’s never enough. Ruling over everyone is the king, the earls, and the lords. Gwyn has a heart for the people and how especially the lords’ boots press heavily upon them. The laws the lords have put in place aren’t really to serve justice, but merely to serve the desires of the lords. It’s a situation common as mud, which is why tales like Robin Hood and Zorro resonate so much. Won’t someone give the people a break, already?

When a lord and his son require a party to join them for a mapmaking excursion north in the dead of winter, Gwen and Burl end up being their guides. In a blizzard, they get separated and Gwen and the “lordling” as she calls him, end up snowbound for weeks in a hut not very far from the inn. Gwen is at first resolved to keep up appearances and treat the boy as if he were her master and she his servant, but as time passes and boredom ensues, the pair become friends and both are able to see the opposite class as human. The lordling even teaches her to read, something that is forbidden to regular people.

After the winter, the injustice in the Kingdom eats away at Gwen, and when she finds a set of clothes that seem exactly like something Jackaroo would wear, she takes up his mask and pretends to be him, doing good deeds as she can, not fully realizing how much danger she is in by her actions. Burl sorts it out and she falls for him largely because he, too, sees the injustice and wants to change it, but it’s enough for her that he merely sees it, really sees it. In fact, Gwen discovers quite a lot of people admire and even want to be Jackaroo, because Jackaroo is outside society and can be a catalyst for positive change.

Although Jackaroo doesn’t feel dated in a bad way, there’s a distinct 1980s feel about the story and the writing. It was published mid-decade and the world is sometimes akin to The Princess Bride or Willow (minus the magic), and a little connected to Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club (class differences, rich and poor). It’s a classic in a similar way that those movies are classic. There’s nostalgia for those who lived in the 80s, but also something new to learn upon subsequent readings. I’m so glad that I reread Jackaroo and gained a new appreciation for the many layers of the story, Gwen’s concerns, the love story, the politics, the history, the keen insight into human nature, and so on, and I can’t wait to get started reading On Fortune’s Wheel. The world of the Kingdom would be fairly easy to adapt to screen if anyone every got the notion. Cynthia Voigt is a gem of a writer.

The Keys to the Kingdom: book review

Happy 2019, everyone! I think it’s going to be a great year! Ok, I think that about every year, but every year does turn out to be great in its own ways. Even the hard years–and 2018 was a very hard year for me–have their own greatness. Difficult times challenge us and help us learn so much about ourselves–and, boy, did I learn a lot!

One of the biggest things I have learned in 2019 so far is that if I’m not ready to hear something or learn something or really see something, I won’t. It’s quite literally, impossible. 2018 was a struggle because I finally admitted to myself just how bad I was at relationships, especially romantic ones. This is hard to admit because–and maybe it’s a woman thing–but I also thought “there’s no way I can change. It would be too difficult and I just am who I am.”

It’s funny, though, how God works. We say these things to ourselves and then He puts a person or people in our way as if to say, “You can’t change for the better? You can’t do it? Not even for this person?” It’s a friendly test, if you will. So that’s what happened to me and why I was in such distress. You meet a person that is so special that you want to change for them. You would do anything for them, but you just don’t know how to begin, and then your brain becomes open to new information, like: “Am I actually seeing things or people as they are? If not, that means I may be the problem.” But now that thought isn’t so scary because perspective is something we can change, totally change.

This past weekend I read two books. (Don’t be too shocked, they’re not very long and I read quickly when I’m interested). I often enjoy reading comments on blog and articles on the internet. People often share video links, music, and books that inspired them. Well, someone mentioned this amazing book about women understanding men called Keys to the Kingdom by Alison Armstrong. Something about the enthusiasm of the commenter nudged me to give it a chance.

Keys to the Kingdom is primarily written for women, but I think men can get a lot out of it, too. With most self-help or relationship advice books, the information is written in a nonfiction, rather bland way. Although we may agree with what the writer is saying, we often struggle in how to apply that in real life. This book (and its sequel, The Queen’s Code) are different. While they are still instruction manuals, they are told completely in story format, with somewhat cringey dialogue at times and goofy people to boot. At first, I was irritated–“just give me the information, already!”–but then I started reading, and I couldn’t put it down for two reasons:

  • 1) Much of the information resonated as being true about both men and women. It seemed so true that I was surprised I didn’t know it already–but the reason I didn’t know or haven’t known was because I wasn’t ready to see it, to register it, and to act on it.
  • 2) I love stories. They are both the joy of my life and the bane of my existence. If I get obsessed with a story I often lose track of everything and everyone else. Want to win my heart? Tell me awesome stories! (Yikes, that’s scary to learn about oneself, right?) By the second chapter I realized that I was understanding the information and thinking how it applied to real life because it was given to me in a story. A list of bullet points, or notes like were listed at the end of each lesson really did nothing for me, as I was still focused on the story and eager to read what happens next.

The biggest takeaway of the story for me was that as women we are continually not giving men the “benefit of the doubt,” that is, we automatically assume the worst about them and their intentions instead of the best. In fact, we probably do this a lot with women, too, and people in general. Our modern society has a great disdain for the two sexes, but especially for men. The fight for more equality of opportunities for women is and has often been accomplished by denigrating and pushing men down. We all know this, but it’s quite different to finally see it in action, especially if you’re suddenly given new information about men, what they think, how they act, and what their intentions towards women truly are. Oh, also women really suck at communication. We are so wordy yet don’t say the important things, like what we need, or what we need even looks like.

Well, I don’t want to give too many details of either book as it’s much more fun to discover the information for yourself, but I recommend reading Keys to the Kingdom first and then The Queen’s Code. Although they can be read separately or out of order, you won’t get the full “story.” I can tell you these books made me laugh and cry, and the crying came mostly because: They give women hope. Men, too, but mostly women. Men don’t have to be women and women don’t have to be men and we can still be partners in life. It’s a great, breathtaking, life-altering thing. After reading Keys, the next day at church I was glowing and grinning from ear to ear. I felt different and I wanted to tell all the women I know to read this book. And I can tell you people noticed and some even asked what was up. It’s amazing what hope does to the soul.

As a Christian, one of the most exciting things I took away from the books were that God said He created man in his “own image.” After reading all the positive, amazing things about men, it struck me that God is this way, too. And in the same way that women often misunderstand men or think the worst of them, this is how we, too, often misunderstand and think the worst of God. “Life-changing” doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the difference. It a time when we are now quite literally trying to turn men into women and women into men, these books and ideas are truly revolutionary. What a great gift it can be to see people as they truly are. How exciting life can be when we really see and get people. What an impact we can have on another’s life and also appreciate and be thankful for their impact on our lives.

In her work, Alison Armstrong has tapped into something wonderful. You can tell by how enthusiastic the reviews for her books are that they resonate with women in a way other books of this topic do not and have not. The jaw dropping thing is that Armstrong herself was once the harshest of man haters and transformed into one of their biggest advocates, truly loving and understanding men in a way few other women bother to do. Armstrong has a few of her talks on Youtube, and I highly recommend watching them if you can, especially about asking for what you need. She says she feels she would cry out this information from the street corners if that was the only way to tell people. When people feel like that, I think they have truly tapped into the truth. Good news is something you automatically want to share with everyone around you.

Happy reading!

House of Silk: book review

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, I highly recommend House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. I am a little over halfway and am enjoying immensely–much, much more than his disappointing Moriarty. In fact, I am enjoying it so much that I want to go back and read all of Doyle’s original stories again, and the two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., as well as the fun BBC Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch (still the best name ever). Holmes and Watson are simply the best detective duo ever written. Although I adore Agatha Christie’s Poirot, there’s something about these two characters. They are such men of action and really funny as well. House of Silk has a seal of approve from the Conan Doyle Estate, so Horowitz is certainly on the right track with this tale as far as they are concerned. Can’t wait to see how the story turns out.

Additional review: Kdrama Encounter (Boyfriend) is a unique Noona (older woman, younger man) romance starting out in Cuba of all places, and then, of course continuing back in Seoul. Not sure what to make of all these Noona romances they seem to be making lately. Here, Park Bo Gum’s Jin Hyeok is very sweet and naive, but is supposed to be twenty-nine or thirty, and because the actor himself is only twenty-five or so, he just comes across as very young. Add to that Jin Hyeok’s place as–shall we say not a chaebol (rich elite)–and you have a recipe for him simply bringing his older lady love (played by the beautiful Song Hye Kyo) more stress and trouble than she has already, as she will have to protect him continually. Now, the writers probably have something in store for him or the couple together to outwit the bad guys, but so far I’m skeptical. Loved the Cuba setting, though, and kinda hope they escape back there or something.

Happy reading and watching! –Pixie

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.