Monday, September 19, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir

This young adult fiction is a great read.   It’s action and drama are based in the fictional world of The Empire.   The Martials rule this land, with the elite-trained Masks carrying out all their commands.  The Scholars live in fear and slavery, subjugated but with a small band of Resistance fighters trying to change the balance of power.    There are echoes of ancient Rome throughout with similar levels of violence, absolute obedience to the Empire and even quite Latin based names.

Leia, child of Scholars, left on her own is desperate to try to rescue her brother from the clutches of the Empire.  Elias, trained as a Mask and in the direct line of power is trying to escape the brutality of the solder’s life, knowing in his heart that what they are called to do is wrong.

As their lives slowly become interwoven, both come to see that they are part of a larger picture and sacrificing their own desires may be the way forward.   There’s an oblique reference in the acknowledgements suggesting Tahir may be Christian.  Whatever her belief system, this book raises the issue of when you choose to stand up for what is wrong, even though it may you cost you your freedom and perhaps even your life.  

I would recommend for anyone who likes young adult fiction, and these days that is definitely me!   They are quicker, more direct and as well written as adult fiction.   I might wait a few years before recommending it to Mr 13.  It is reasonably violent with a lot of implied potential sexual violence, which has a menacing feel over the whole book.   Also, we love a series and it’s clear this will be a series, and possibly a long one.  The second A Torch against the Night has just been released, and Tahir is planning books 3 & 4 as well.    May as well wait a bit longer and read them all in one go! 

Monday, September 12, 2016

The 100-year old man...

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

This lovely light-hearted book was a delight to read.  Allan Karlsson is not looking forward to his 100th birthday party in the Old Folks’ Home in his  Swedish town.   In a quick moment of action to avoid the festivities, he walks out of his window, across the grounds and boards a bus.  Unleashing a somewhat ridiculous train of events by stealing a suitcase at the bus station, he finds himself having to deal with criminals, a large pile of money, and various characters who come along for the ride.   

Woven in among the present-day adventures are flashbacks over Allan’s life.  From an early age, he developed skills in making and setting explosives, which have seen him placed in the major events of the last century, including the Spanish Civil War, the development of the Atomic Bomb and the Vietnam War.   These stories, while obviously fiction based in history, are a delightful diversion along the way.   For a man with no real convictions of his own, and an absolute aversion to any political position, he finds himself meeting and helping key people including President Truman, Chairman Mao, Stalin, and Einstein’s lesser known (fictional) brother – the very stupid Herbert.

Back in the present day, Allan gathers various companions of questionable virtue along the way, who help him to avoid both the criminals and the police who are on their trail, all of whom are wondering how this centenarian has managed to avoid them at every turn.

This is a fun romp of a book, with a very dry sense of humour throughout.  You’d have to be in the mood for it (that is, in the mood for something a bit ridiculous and farfetched), but I liked it.

Two further thoughts:

- On a more practical note, reading a book like this with google maps alongside is marvellous – I could track where they were going in Sweden to get a real feel for the distance.  I even found photos of the where the bus stop was!)
- I recognise my differing opinions with the treatment of history between this and The Secret Chord.   Here I enjoyed it, seeing it was clearly fiction and not really pretending to be anything more.  Perhaps The Secret Chord was meant to be read the same, I just felt the tension more with a biblical text.  I can’t figure out whether I should be more relaxed about it, or not.  Things to consider.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Side by Side

Side by Side, Edward T. Welch

I meet with two other ministry wives and we recently read Side by Side together.  It was time very well spent.

It is a brief, eminently helpful and practical book that helps you think about how to love other people well.  Rooted in the principle that people are needy and are also needed, Welch has created a great manual for those who want to be proactive in both sharing burdens by acknowledging we need others and also for bearing the burdens of others in our community.  

One of his overarching ideas is that normal people help normal people.  We don’t always realise it, but it is friends, family, colleagues, church family who help us through hard times much more than professionals (eg counsellors, etc)
We were meant to walk side by side, an interdependent body of weak people.  God is pleased to grow and change us through the help of people who have been re-created in Christ and empowered by the Spirit.  That’s how life in church works(p12)
 As such, he breaks the book into two parts.  Part 1: We Are Needy acknowledges that life is hard and our hearts are busy.  Sin weighs a lot and sins are often shown up in suffering.    Life can be hard and we need to ask both God and those around us for help.   One of the challenges he raised was finding ways to ask for help that links the eternal to the temporal.  So, for example, not just asking for wisdom with parenting challenges, but asking that God will remind us of his patience with us as we seek to be patient and also model patience to our children.

Part 2: We are Needed gives an almost chapter by chapter guide on how to be helpful to others.   The first of these are applicable to all situations, but seemed most appropriate to gatherings of God’s people.   So there are reminders to actually move towards people and greet them, to have thoughtful conversations, to see the good in each other, to find out people’s stories, to have compassion during hard times, and to pray.   All of these are helpful practical ideas.  Nothing new really, but a helpful reminder to many of us of the power of our words and giving people our attention.   In many ways, these chapters reminded me of “The ministry of the pew” which went round our church in the 1990s. (which I found a reference to in a 1994 Briefing Article).

Then it got a little deeper, encouraging conversations about sin.  Our reading group felt this was accurate and needed, but it signified that each chapter really represented a continuing deeper relationship with someone.  These were no longer topics generally covered over morning tea after church.  These were conversations requiring careful thought and wisdom.

He finishes with the reminder to keep the gospel story in view – knowing it is our past, our present and our future.   We have been predestined and saved, our sins are forgiven by amazing grace and we live with hope.  

This is a book well worth reading, and its value will be greatly increased if you read it and discuss it with others.   Highly recommended.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks

I have read a few of Brooks’ novels over the years and reviewed People of the Book in 2010.

Her newest offering, The Secret Chord, charts the life of King David, written from the perspective of Nathan the prophet.   As with her previous writings, she has done a lot of research and she acknowledges her main reference works in the afterword.   I started it expecting to read a usual historical fiction, but with some references to the biblical account thrown in.   However, it really is a retelling of the events of 1 Samuel through of the beginning of 1 Kings, some with almost word for word accuracy.

This is where I became a bit uncomfortable.  I struggle with the retelling of biblical accounts by Christian authors (eg Francine Rivers, see comments on this post).  I am wary of authors reading more into the accounts than we have evidence for.

Brooks is Jewish, so these are her scriptures as well.   Yet there was a modern interpretation to the story, most notably expressed in her depiction of the love between David and Jonathan as erotic.   A modern reader of those passages could easily make that conclusion, but most traditional scholarship never suggests it was anything other than a strong devout friendship between two men.   It’s a reminder that we read with our own cultural glasses on.

That was my biggest problem with the book.   I don’t mind an absolute fiction author doing whatever they want with their story, but if you are rewriting a true story, the interpretation requires care and brings responsibility.   In the end, I thought it was dangerous and potentially deceptive, which is the exact problem I have with any attempt at a biblical retelling.

However, the flip side was that I read the novel with my bible open next to it and compared the accounts as they happened in her book.  Doing this, some passages came alive through her retelling of them, and some of her interpretations were very helpful.  The charting of the years of David as a young boy through to old age to is well done and helps you picture the biblical events more clearly.  She has clearly done a lot of work to put this book together.  I should mention there are some unpleasant sex scenes as most of them are rape (eg. Absalom and Tamar).  She also makes the initial seduction of Bathsheba a rape, which considering the circumstances, it could have been. 

Somewhat confusingly for those who are used to the names as we have them in our bibles, she has used the transliteration from the Hebrew, so Shaul, Shmuel, Shlomo, Avigail, Yoav for Saul, Samuel, Solomon, Abigail, Joab (and so on).  It took a bit of getting used to.  I had to write them down to keep track and I thought I knew the story pretty well!   At least she explains it at the beginning with a list.

Would I recommend it?  Yes and no.  No, if you are going to use it as an authority on the life of David.   Read the bible for that, with some good commentaries if needed.  Yes, if you want to enjoy a book about a time of Israelite history which you might like to understand a little more, but read it with your bible open alongside it.    You’ll find that part of the bible more interesting too along the way!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Point Break

We recently watched Point Break, the new one.  The first Point Break movie (1991) was an action, robber/cop drama where Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is a new FBI recruit who breaks into an extreme surfing group led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Bodhi and his gang funded their extravagant surfing lifestyle by robbing banks.   It was a hit at the time appealing especially to teens (of which I was one!) and became a classic that my generation can quote from.  Of course it was also violent, glamorised crime, and made you want the bad guys to win and pleased when Utah compromised his job and ethics.

The new one (2015) is even worse.   In the remake the same characters are there – Johnny Utah and Bodhi, but instead of the simple story of robbing banks to complete some sort of mystical experience (and fuel your own lifestyle), now there is hashed message of environmental nihilism.   They are trying to complete the Ozaki 8 – a group of extreme challenges (rockclimbing, surfing, skydiving, etc).  These scenes are incredible – the surfing is impressive, the snowboarding is nailbiting, the rock climbing amazing, and the wingsuit flying sequence is possibly the most dangerous stunt in any movie.  Reading how they did it on Wikipedia is impressive.

Yet, their belief is that they must pay back the earth for this experience with offerings, and so are happy to rob banks and companies releasing money and diamonds to give to poor villages.  They have no problems killing people or causing mayhem to ‘free’ the earth.  So exploding gold from a mine and causing an avalanche that kills mine workers is no problem.  If they die along their path, so be it, they’ll see each other later.  What rubbish. 

The cast is unremarkable – I found it hard to remember who was who.  There is no fun in any of it, unlike the occasional light-heartedness of the first one.   And the storyline is so unbelievable we actually laughed out loud at some of the dialogue.

In hindsight, we should have checked the reviews more carefully - Rotten Tomatoes did give it only 9%!