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Author: Dan

Read Some of This Book: Fantastic Stories

Abram Tertz is a name with which I was unfamiliar until Anna brought one of his short story collections home from college. For years, it’s sat on our shelves, and I’ve occasionally thought, Hmm. That could be interesting. But I’ve left it unread until now.

If you’re following my reading list progress (and you’re probably not), I had planned to read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot next. I felt relatively burned out by the process of reading through Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and so I decided to read a couple of short story collections instead. I planned on Tertz’ collection, and another of stories by Anton Chekhov.

I read Tertz and enjoyed the experience quite a lot. Some of the stories are, legitimately, fantastic. Others are so-so. But on the whole, it was a satisfying read. Chekhov, on the other hand, was miserable, and I did something I nearly never do with a book. I quit. I kept trying. I read maybe 20 stories or so. But then I was done. The last story I finished was little more than a menu–the speaker was a law clerk, and his detailed culinary description drove all the other characters out of the room. In the end, it drove me away as well. Some have called Chekhov the greatest short story writer in history. But then, some people eat snails. I respectfully reserve my right to think and do otherwise.

But back to Tertz (real name: Andrei Sinyavsky). He’s sharp. He manages to tackle human dignity, artistic integrity, and the difficult questions of life. At the end of the collection, you’re not radically transformed by the experience, but you can appreciate it. It’s a little odd–some of the tales deal with time travel (sort of) or alien life. A longer tale deals exclusively with the insane urge to be a writer (rather than to write). Pick it up, read a tale or two as they catch your interest.

Two quotes:

The classical writers—it’s them I hate the most! Before I was so much as born they stole the vacant places and I was faced with their competition without possessing one hundredth part of their inflated authority. “Read Chekhov, read Chekhov!” people kept on at me all my life, tactlessly suggesting that Chekhov wrote better than I.


But to be honest, did Tolstoy and Chekhov really write so very well? Well, that’s exactly my point! That Chekhov ought to be taken by his wretched tubercular beard and have his nose shoved in his consumptive hawkings that have unfortunately now dried up. “Stop writing, graphomaniac!” he ought to have been told. “Stop writing! Don’t spoil good paper!”

So, good. Someone else agrees.

Next up, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Until next time,
Dan J.

A Brief Update on Ministry

Just before our furlough in 2016, ECMI affirmed its commitment to four strategic priorities for ministry in Europe:
  • a focus on discipleship and church planting for all Europeans
  • making the most of partnerships at every level
  • the mobilization, training, empowering, and mentoring of younger leaders, and
  • a determination to speak boldly for the gospel in our European contexts.
We came to serve in Spain with a clear calling to equip and train new leaders for ministry, so it was particularly encouraging when our leadership strongly reaffirmed that third strategic priority.

Just after our furlough in 2016, we had a God-arranged meeting with John & Jodi Lovell, who have been developing MOCLAM-Spain, a formal theological training program. We started to see some possibilities, and we started to pray that God would open doors for a partnership with this ministry.

About two weeks ago, we received word from the ECM-Spain Field Council that we have permission to move to Valencia to work with this theological training program. As Valencia is only an hour south of us, we will be remaining a part of our wonderful regional ECM team for team meetings, oversight, pastoral care, and mutual support.

We’re very thankful for God’s provision and care for us during the last few years, and we’re very happy about these next steps. Lord willing, we will have many further stories of His work to share with you all here.

Maybe Don’t Read This Book: The Woman in the Dunes

Well, I don’t know. Maybe do. Maybe don’t. It’s a good book.

I picked up my copy of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes years ago at a library book sale, I think. Probably the Friends of the Phoenix Library book sale, because that book sale was always incredible. Abe came recommended by someone–John Gardner, I think, but I’m not sure–and I read another pair of books by Abe years ago, also purchased at a library sale. I kept one of them and tossed the other and the difference between the two is probably what makes me ambivalent about recommending this book. But I shouldn’t be ambivalent about it. Or I should. I don’t know.

This book is Ecclesiastes. At least, it’s half of Ecclesiastes. And I love the book of Ecclesiastes.

In Ecclesiastes, you have a pair of themes running hand-in-hand: Fear God and Enjoy Life. And they go together because you can’t have one without the other. You can’t live with a biblical fear of God and at the same time refuse to enjoy the good gifts He’s given you: your spouse, your work, your family, the food on your table. It’s no good saying to God, “I love You, but I hate all these things that You’ve put in my life.” That’d be like saying to your wife, “I love you, but I don’t really enjoy the many kind things you do for me.” It just doesn’t cohere. And additionally, you can’t really enjoy life if you don’t have a right relationship with God. What joy is there in suffering 18 awkward years of childhood and youth, running a miserable rat-race for another 50 years, and then spending your final decade or three (depending on your genes) watching TV and raking your lawn, if at the end of all of that, the best you can hope for is to cease existing? (Though in fact, you won’t cease existing, so even the little joy you might catch during those decades is ultimately vaporous.)

And it’s the reality of this perspective–that without an eternal God with whom we might enjoy a right relationship for eternity–that informs the entire novel. And it’s brutally honest. It’s not as honest as Ecclesiastes, but it’s about as honest as any non-inspired literature can be on the subject.

And like the author of Ecclesiastes, Kobo Abe explores all of human existence in light of its apparent futility: he treats family, work, food, sex, learning, relationships, etc. And in each, he shows with stark clarity just how pointless they all are, how ultimately un-enjoyable all aspects of life are, if we are meaningless accidents waiting to slip over the threshold into the final null state. It’s shocking that this was so well received by the critics of the time, but yet, it’s not shocking, because this disturbing sermon is delivered with art and love and humanity.

The story is simple and absurd: A man goes out to collect bugs in the sand dunes near the ocean, and the residents of a nearby village kidnap him and dump him in a pit in the dunes to help a strange woman preserve a house at the bottom of that pit. Every day, they shovel away the sand that has collected again at the bottom of the hole. They sweep the sand off the roof of the house. They eat a gritty meal and drink the little water provided by the villagers. And he fights for his freedom.

It’s a quick read–I read it in about 4 ½ hours. And as I said above, it’s a good book–well-written, well-drawn characters, engaging storyline, etc. So why am I ambivalent? My ambivalence is strictly on account of some sexual content in the middle. And I feel a responsibility not to recommend something that would cause harm to a brother or sister in Christ. I wouldn’t call it erotic, but it was frank and I wouldn’t be happy to know that people were reading it on my recommendation. So I don’t recommend it.

It should be pointed out though, that even in his treatment of sex, Abe lays bare the total joylessness of sex from a godless perspective.

If you do decide to read this, do so with care and discernment (as with all books).

Some quotes:

One day in August a man disappeared.


Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current. Although he may tell others of his hopes, he doesn’t dream of them himself. He thinks of himself as worthless and either falls into masochistic loneliness or, failing that, ultimately becomes suspicious and pious, forever denouncing the eccentricities of others. He longs so much for freedom and action that he can only hate people.


It only happened in novels or movies that summer was filled with dazzling sun. What existed in reality were humble, small-town Sundays…a man taking his snooze under the political columns of a newspaper, enveloped in gunsmoke…canned juices and thermos jugs with magnetized caps…boats for hire, fifty cents an hour–queue up here…foaming beaches with the leaden scum of dead fish…and then, at the end, a jam-packed trolley rickety with fatigue. Everyone knows this is fact, but no one wants to make a fool of himself and be taken in; so, on the gray canvas of reality, he zestfully sketches the mere form of this illusory festival. Miserable, unshaven fathers, shaking their complaining children by the shoulder trying to make them say it has been a pleasant Sunday…little scenes everyone has seen in the corner of some trolley…people’s pathetic jealousy and impatience with others’ happiness.


“My friend, what you’re doing is consoling yourself with the means of your escape and not keeping your eye on the goal.”


Beautiful scenery need not be sympathetic to man.


(Radio and mirror…radio and mirror…) As if all of human life could be expressed in those two things alone. Radios and mirrors do have a point in common: both can connect one person with another. Maybe they reflect cravings that touch the core of our existence.


What was the use of individuality when one was on the point of death? He wanted to go on living under any circumstances, even if his life had no more individuality than a pea in a pod.

So, there you have it. On the reading list, my next book is supposed to be Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I also made a comment that I might change a couple of the books on that list out for something else. I’m considering switching out The Idiot for a collection of short stories by either Anton Chekhov or Abram Tertz. I wanted something Russian, but after several novels, I’ve been in the mood for some good short fiction. Maybe I’ll replace The Idiot with both collections.

Anyhow, happy reading,
Dan J.

 

Editing this post to add: After a couple of days of reflection, I decided to replace The Idiot with the two collections of stories I mentioned above.

You Probably Won’t Read These Books: The Mars Trilogy

So, if you check my post at the beginning of 2016, you can tell I’m pretty far behind in my reading plan. I could probably blame a number of things–my own failure to hunker down and keep reading, an extremely busy furlough from June through September, the unexpected departure of our teammates, etc. But I choose to blame it on one thing: Kim Stanley Robinson’s multi-award-winning Mars Trilogy.

I got through the first fairly quickly–it took me about three weeks. The second took me about two months. And the third took me a full six months. It was a brutal experience. Here’s a quote to give you a taste of what the last 1,957 pages of reading have been like:

Later experiments clarified things; it became obvious that all the actions of consciousness were taking place on a level far smaller even than that of neurons; this was associated in Sax’s mind with the general miniaturization of scientific attention through the twenty-second century. In that finer-grained appraisal they had begin investigating the cytoskeletons of neuron cells, which were internal arrays of microtubules, with protein bridges between the microtubules. The microtubules’ structure consisted of hollow tubes made of thirteen columns of tubulin dimers, peanut-shaped globular protein pairs, each about eight-by-four-by-four nanometers, existing in two different configurations, depending on their electrical polarization. So the dimers represented a possible on-off switch of the hoped-for engram; but they were so small that the electrical state of each dimer was influenced by the dimers around it, because of the van der Waals interactions between them.

Yep. Or this:

Certainly the trough predated the chaos and the outbreak channels, which were no doubt located there because of the trough. The Tharsis bulge had been a tremendous source of outgassing from the hot center of the planet, all the radial and concentric fractures around it leaking volatiles out of the hot center of the planet. Water in the regolith had run downhill, into the depressions on each side of the bulge. It could be that the depressions were the direct result of the bulge, simply a matter of the lithosphere bent down on the outskirts of where it had been pushed up. Or it could be that the mantle had sunk underneath the depressions, as it had plumed under the bulge. Standard convection models would support such an idea–the upswelling of the plume had to go back down somewhere, after all, rolling at its sides and pulling the lithosphere down after it.

Mm-hm.

So, my guess is you’re probably not going to read these. My copies are hilariously representative of what I imagine is common among people who pick up this trilogy. I bought them in a used bookstore in Phoenix several years ago. The first title, Red Mars, is well-worn. The spine is cracked in several places. The pages show the marks of greasy fingers. The second title, Green Mars, looks read as well, but less so. The spine is clearly cracked at about the 20% mark. The pages after that look much cleaner. The third title, when I first opened it, was as if it were brand new.

Why did I read these? Well, Robinson’s not a bad author. I had read Red Mars once before and enjoyed it. In spite of the critical tone in this post, I’d say that it’s a fantastic work of science fiction. On the strength of Red Mars, I picked up a collection of his short stories, and found a fair number of them to be enjoyable as well.

Also, the Mars Trilogy is genre-defining. It won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards. Green Mars won the Primo Ignotus Award for the best sci-fi novel in Spain. It is often listed among the most important works of science fiction ever written. And I think this is right. This is science fiction. It’s not a fairy tale in space. It’s not a mystery novel with a robot in the cast. It’s fiction about science. The entirety of the trilogy concerns itself wholly with science, with inquiry, with the consequences of technological progress, with the ethical questions that spin out of all of these, and with the place of mankind in the universe.

There are genuine high points in all three of the books–portions of the narrative that ripped along and kept me transfixed, or portions of engrossing digression into political theory or the scientific endeavor. I found myself highlighting several interesting comments or even whole passages, which I’ll drop into my files for later review. At the end of the journey, I feel like some of the characters (particularly Nadia Chernyshevski or Nirgal or Sax Russell) will stick with me for years. And, as I found during our furlough, I’ll be incapable of driving through the incredible landscape of the American west without thinking about erosion models or soil attrition or some other aspect of the geological forces that have shaped the landscape. But still, I found myself less and less enchanted the further Robinson went with this trilogy. Some chapters were just a chore. Some characters were miserable people to spend any length of time with.

If you’re interested in checking it out, maybe limit yourself to Red Mars. And maybe I don’t even have to say that, because it’s most likely that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing anyway.

In the end, I’m glad I read this trilogy. Or I’m glad I’m done reading this trilogy, at least.

I alluded to it at the top, but for clarity: I’m still sticking with the reading list I drafted at the beginning of 2016, but I’ll just aim to wrap it up this year. I’ve been doing a fair amount of other reading as well. I just finished reading a Spanish novel–the first I’ve completed–and I’m slowly clearing the backlog of interesting articles that have piled up in Pocket since this past summer. So, my next book is Abe’s Woman in the Dunes. We’ll see. Until then,

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

Read This Book: Wuthering Heights

Back when I posted about Pride & Prejudice, I mentioned that Anna had also added Wuthering Heights to my list for 2016. I’m glad she did. It’s excellent. If you have not yet read it, you should. The copy to which I’ve linked here is one that I put together when I was learning how to format books for Kindle and how to design a suitable book cover. There are dozens of fine, free copies available on Amazon as well.

A Few Thoughts:

One of our friends divides the world into two groups: Jane Eyre people or Wuthering Heights people. I knew going into this book that I am definitely not a Jane Eyre person. The recent film adaptation was excellent, but when I read the book back in college, I was irritated with the characters, the voice, the plot, etc. I mean, seriously. A crazy woman in the attic? An idiot missionary? She still marries the dude?

Anyhow, it irritated me. So, given my friend’s opinion, and given Anna’s description of the book as “excellent and dark and broody,” I was keen to check it out.

It’s great. Seriously great.

There’s a fun stack of narrative voices. The book opens with the primary narrator, Lockwood. It then jumps into housekeeper Nelly’s history of the families of Wuthering Heights. And throughout her tale, several other narrators recount their own experiences to her, which she is then recounting to Lockwood, who is then recounting them to us. This is more than mere experimentation, however. The layers of narrative bring layers of reliability, of judgment, of interpretation, etc. And Brontë uses all of this to great effect. By the end, I was convinced that Nelly is responsible in some way for a great number of the ills suffered by the various participants in this tragic tale. She basically admits as much at one point, stating:

“I seated myself in a chair, and rocked to and fro, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of my employers sprang.”

Yep. She’s not wrong.

This reminds me. The relationships are confusing. It took me several tries to understand who was cousin or sibling or otherwise connected to whom. Finally, I had to resort to Wikipedia’s “relationships map” to figure it out. I think I kind of understand it, but if you were to ask me to explain it, I’d be in trouble.

Additionally, the book deals with the selfishness of human evil in a way that few books do. I lost count of how many times a character declared their willingness to suffer eternal condemnation if only they could have some measure of vengeance on another, or if only they could avoid some unpleasant outcome. I’m not entirely sure, but I think Heathcliff digs up a grave twice. And at least twice, characters hang dogs for sport or pleasure. Anna wasn’t joking when she said it was “dark and broody.”

Brontë does something interesting in her treatment of human depravity, however. It’s there, on full display, but it’s also clear just how unsatisfying it really is. For example, when Heathcliff could have his final revenge, he states that he no longer has the will to see it through. He simply can’t find joy in destroying his enemies, so he refrains from doing so. Not because he has repented, but because he can no longer be bothered. There’s a quote from this section below. It’s an impressive turn. Most authors would either have the villain see his villainy through, or the protagonists accomplish some escape. Brontë makes the unusual but gratifying choice to have Heathcliff simply wander away from the conflict in disinterest. Given the supreme selfishness of his life, it’s a fitting resolution.

Oh, and I could hardly understand a word he said, but Joseph is by far the most amusing character.

A Few Quotes:

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling.  ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.


“Joseph, the servant: you saw him, I daresay, up yonder.  He was, and is yet most likely, the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours.”


“You have been compelled to cultivate your reflective faculties for want of occasions for frittering your life away in silly trifles.”


Joseph remained to hector over tenants and labourers; and because it was his vocation to be where he had plenty of wickedness to reprove.


“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”


“I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness. It ended.  Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering; and it ended when circumstances caused each to feel that the one’s interest was not the chief consideration in the other’s thoughts.”


“I wish you had sincerity enough to tell me whether Catherine would suffer greatly from his loss: the fear that she would restrains me.  And there you see the distinction between our feelings: had he been in my place, and I in his, though I hated him with a hatred that turned my life to gall, I never would have raised a hand against him.  You may look incredulous, if you please!  I never would have banished him from her society as long as she desired his.  The moment her regard ceased, I would have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!  But, till then—if you don’t believe me, you don’t know me—till then, I would have died by inches before I touched a single hair of his head!”


“I’d be glad of a retaliation that wouldn’t recoil on myself; but treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends; they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies.”


” In my flight through the kitchen I bid Joseph speed to his master; I knocked over Hareton, who was hanging a litter of puppies from a chair-back in the doorway; and, blessed as a soul escaped from purgatory, I bounded, leaped, and flew down the steep road; then, quitting its windings, shot direct across the moor, rolling over banks, and wading through marshes: precipitating myself, in fact, towards the beacon-light of the Grange.  And far rather would I be condemned to a perpetual dwelling in the infernal regions than, even for one night, abide beneath the roof of Wuthering Heights again.”


“It is a poor conclusion, is it not?’ he observed, having brooded awhile on the scene he had just witnessed: “an absurd termination to my violent exertions?  I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!  My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me.  But where is the use?  I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand!  That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity.  It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.”

So, that’s that. Read Wuthering Heights.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.