Friday, February 27, 2009

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A Wycliffe missionary couple lost their oldest son in a car accident a few years ago. That same year they returned to work with a Brazilian Indian tribe. The tribe had been indifferent to Christianity for 15 years, but suddenly many began to turn to God. It was astounding to hear the missionary say, “It was the worst year of my life. And the best year of my life.”

Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that comes close to describing this mysterious relationship between suffering and grace in our world. I’ve had the book for years but never cracked it open till I read Amy’s praise of it at “Hope is the Word” (I’m not linking to her post because it gives too many details). Believe me, it’s better to go into this book completely cold to gain its full impact.

If you like formulaic books with all the loose ends tied up neatly in the end, this book is not for you. It doesn’t even come close to being a “happy” book. Initially I was put off by its sad tone and the irregular language (purposely made to imitate Zulu translated into English). But it is one of the most painfully beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of an Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo, who lives in South Africa in the year 1946. He and his wife live in semi-poverty in the village of Ndotsheni. Their tribe is disintegrating as the young people go to the big city to look for jobs. In the story he goes to Johannesburg to discover what has become of his sister, his brother, and his only son. His search brings many unpleasant surprises and yet there are threads of grace running throughout the narrative. The avalanche of grace at the end of the book is countered by the most painful experience in Kumalo’s life. For the second time in a very few months I wept uncontrollably over the ending of a book. But NOT because of the suffering. I was overcome by the MERCY.

In conversation with Kumalo, one of his friends states, “This world is full of trouble, umfundisi (pastor). “Who knows better than I?” responds Kumalo. “Yet you believe?” queries the other. Kumalo looked at him under the light of the lamp. “I believe he said, but I have learned that it is a secret. Pain and suffering, they are a secret. Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering. There is my wife, and you, my friend, and these people who welcomed me, and the child who is so eager to be with us here – so in my suffering I can believe. (p.260-261)

I appreciated that men of faith were described realistically with faults and temptations. Yet they were also portrayed as men of integrity and not the dolts of popular media.

This is an amazing book that I will not soon forget!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Return from the River Kwai by Joan and Clay Blair, Jr.

A book does not have to be likeable to be worth reading. Return from the River Kwai bothered me a lot. But it made me think, and think, and think some more. As I’ve said before, I enjoy World War II history that emphasizes heroism, patriotism, courage, etc., but I don’t particularly like the gory battle details.

Return from the River Kwai is the story of two shiploads of POWs being sent to Japan for work detail. The Allies bomb the ships, not knowing they are carrying prisoners.  In the first part of the book many uninteresting facts are strung together (based on government reports?) to lead up to the main story. After the ships are torpedoed, eye-witness accounts are included in the narrative, which make the book absolutely riveting.

Most men jumped overboard without a thought to saving other lives. Many prisoners intentionally murdered their Japanese captors before jumping off the ships. Others murdered Japanese in the water as they were trying to climb aboard the rafts. A few rafts held both Japanese soldiers and POWs who held an uneasy truce. The westerners were hoping that if they were recaptured, they would receive mercy for treating their enemies with kindness. Only one man, Vic Duncan, seemed to have a thought for anybody else. He swung into action with a pre -planned evacuation scheme to get as many men out of his ship's hold as possible.

One of the two ships sank slowly enough for every man to escape. The other sank so quickly that many POW lives were lost. Drowning, dehydration, fear of sharks, madness, loss of hope and partial cannibalism were the prevailing (and horrific) themes of the next part of the book. Initially I was quick to judge the actions of the men. But then I realized that it would be normal after two and a half years of cruelty and deprivation to have a sharply-honed instinct for self-preservation. While this does not justify their actions, it does make them more understandable.

All the survivors were hailed as heroes which made me ponder what exactly makes someone a hero? On the one hand, surviving the horrors of a POW camp takes inordinate amounts of stamina and perseverance.  But on the other, were these men heroic when they spitefully murdered their Japanese guards before jumping ship, or when they fought each other for space on the rafts? Were they heroic when they got drunk at every port on their way home? Or when they stole food and bedding from the hotels and hospitals where they stayed during their trip back to England and Australia?

It is a tribute to the resilience of human nature that most of the survivors went on to live normal lives as lawyers, farmers, firemen, postmen, meat inspectors, or artists. Some men remained in the military for their careers.

8/11/12 postscript: Since reading this book I’ve read many other books about POWs and understand more clearly the behavior of the men in this account.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

William Strunk Quotes on Writing

Quotes from William Strunk, Jr.. on good writing:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

An example of “too wordy”: The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in the memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.

His solution: The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.

He continues, “Note, in the examples, that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a byproduct of vigor.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

I’m embarrassed to say that I have had the definitive book on the fundamentals of writing on my shelves for many years without opening it. After spending four weeks reading The Count of Monte Cristo, I was looking for something less hefty and was attracted to this little book for its simplicity and brevity. Though not as hilarious as Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, The Elements of Style is wryly humorous and a pleasure to read.

Originally published in 1935 and revised in 1959, Elements is the essential grammar handbook. As E.B. White writes in the intro, "The Elements of Style was Will Strunk’s attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules on the head of a pin."

In just over 70 pages he does the job well. The first part of the book reviews specific grammar rules. The second part highlights popular mistakes and the last pages deal with a writer’s specific style. Strunk argues that good writing is concise and that sentences should contain no unnecessary words. This does not mean that sentences must be short or lack detail, but that every word should count. I loved his common sense approach to writing and have used many of his suggestions to clarify my own writing. This is a book to read and re-read. Highly recommended!

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

It took a month of steady reading, but I finally made it through all 1,078 pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. Normally I’m a fast reader and take the liberty of skimming over boring bits, but Dumas’ book has no superfluous details. He is a master story teller and every incident in the book is connected with every other.

The book, though not abounding in rich insights into human character ala George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, is extremely well-written. Kudos to the translator Robin Buss for doing a modern translation that sounded as if it had been written two hundred years ago. Although I disliked his introduction which imposed 21st Century themes on the book, I appreciated his skillful use of language.

An example from p. 75: He shut himself with two bottles of cassis and tried to drown his anxiety in drunkenness. But such was his state of mind that two bottles were not enough to extinguish his thoughts; so he remained, too drunk to fetch any more wine, and not drunk enough to forget….
From p. 762: Noirtier had just sent for him… He had set out at a fair pace from the Rue Meslay and was on his way to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. He was proceeding at a jog, while poor Barrois followed on as best he could. Morrel was thirty-one, Barrois sixty; Morrel was drunk with love, Barrois faint with heat. The two men, so different in age and interests, were like two sides of a triangle: separated at the base, meeting at the apex; the apex was Noirtier.

The story is too complex for a short blog post and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who might be stouthearted enough to give it a chance. It is described as a story of revenge, but it is more subtle than that. (The 2002 movie version has none of this subtlety, by the way.) Edmond Dantés is deeply wronged by a handful of men at the book’s beginning. Yes, he does spend his years in prison planning revenge, but when his opportunity finally comes it is not by outright confrontation, but by digging up enough of their past lives so that his enemies are punished by society in general. At the end of the book Dantés looks over Paris and states, “O great city! In you I found what I was looking for; like a patient miner, I churned your entrails to expel the evil from them.” In actuality it is the sins of his enemies that come back to haunt them. Dantés only helps the ghosts along.