the pencil reads

posts on articles, books and movies

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Friday, March 02, 2007

This is the memoir of a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.

It is unsettling having things you read about in the papers fifteen years ago as a child––distant, vague words like "scuds"––having a direct impact on a real girl, only eight years older than I am.

The graphics are stark and powerful. A little downturn of the eyes in one, a jagged lying mouth in another, or a pane filled in completely in black (see bottom right pane on the left) evokes the full spectrum of human emotion made raw by turbulent times.

You can find it in the library here. I think I may buy this one. It is a keeper.

The Sandman: Dream Country, Vol. 3

Sunday, January 28, 2007

I love the weekend. Today we celebrated a friend's birthday with chilli crab, awfully chocolate cake, ice cream, and wine. I got to hang out with old friends and talk with my sis on Skype. And I had enough time last night and this morning to finish reading this comic by Neil Gaiman.

At this point, I can truthfully say that I am happy.

Volume three explores where great writers get their inspiration from. The Sandman, being the source of dreams, is the source of inspiration for all the great works created by men as well. It is kinda mind-boggling 'cos if the Sandman inspired Shakespeare, did he inspire Gaiman to write the story you hold in your hand as well? It is a little like looking into a pair of parallel mirrors with images retreating into infinity.

This volume includes the original script for "Calliope" and it is interesting to see how a comic gets written. It is rather detailed work and requires a lot of cooperation between the writer and the artist. It is also congruent to include the script in this particular volume since the theme of this volume is the process of writing stories, and the script gives a backstage look at this process.

Art is the translation of memoirs, history, and human experience into stories that never die because their truth echoes through time. And The Sandman series is art.

Fables: Storybook Love, by Bill Willingham

Monday, January 22, 2007

This is the fourth comic this week. Possibly too much, considering that the first one I've read in my life was on Wednesday.

Storybook love is volume three is the series Fables. I am not used to how quickly and easily characters are done away with in this series. I'm used to story lines that take a long time to ripen, where protagonists hang around till at least the end of the novel. But graphic novels excel in the absurd. Who knows if they won't return in the next volume?

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What if my dreams came true?

It is a scary thought. I don't think I would survive it. My dreams have a pattern running through them, recurring themes that I can't shake off: love, guilt, fear... and if what I dreamed were real, I would go mad.

For that reason, Preludes and Nocturnes is a scary book. In his afterward, Gaiman describes the stories in this series:

"The Sleep of the Just" was intended to be a classical English horror story; "Imperfect Hosts" plays with some of the conventions of the old DC and EC horror comics (and the hosts thereof); "Dream a Little Dream of Me" is a slightly more contemporary British horror story; "A Hope in Hell" harks back to the kind of dark fantasy found in Unknown in the 1940s; "Passengers" was my (perhaps misguided) attempt to try to mix super-heroes into the SANDMAN world; "24 hours" is an essay on stories and authors, and also one of the very few genuinely horrific tales I've written; "Sound and Fury" wrapped up the storyline; and "The Sound of Her Wings" was the epilogue and the first story in the sequence I felt was truly mine, and in which I knew I was beginning to find my own voice.
Did you notice how many times the word "horror"appears?

I had a weird thought. There is a very thin line separating fantasy from theology. The characters of fantasy are heaven and hell, demons and angels, death and salvation, mortals and gods—well, it is the same with theology. (Theology would quibble about the plural used in "gods" but it does have father, son and holy spirit after all.)

I think I'm out of my depth here, so forget about that last paragraph.

I wonder what I'll dream about tonight.

Read more

Fables: Legends in Exile, by Bill Willingham

I bought my first graphic novel: Fables Vol 1, Legends in Exile.

It's so fun to own a comic book. It is like owning a piece of art. I hope I don't get hooked to this feeling 'cos it will prove an expensive hobby.

Fables is about a bunch of fairy tale characters who are in exile in our world, specifically New York. We have the big bad wolf, little red riding hood, the witch in the forest, bluebeard, the three little pigs, Pinocchio, Snow White, etc. going incognito among the Mundanes, i.e. the regular human folk. Volume 1 is about a crime committed in the fable community.

It is available in the library as well, if you would like to thumb through it without having to put up good money, but I'll appreciate it if my hordes of readers (*cough*) will leave me at least one copy. I don't like leaving the library empty-handed. ;) And I really need save myself from the addiction of buying comic books.

(Fables is written by Bill Willingham, Penciled by Lan Medina, Inked by Steve Leialoha and Criag Hamilton, colored by Sherilyn van Valkenburgh, Lettered by Todd Klein, and given covers by James Jean and Alex Maleev. Phew. What a lot of folks it takes to make a comic.)

Who wrote Fables?

Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I now know why books in this genre are known as "graphic novels".

But I think I am finally getting Neil Gaiman in his element. He is imaginative, sensual and his work is driven by plot. I love the brooding Morpheus and the Lady Delirium who makes little coloured mushrooms and frogs sprout wherever she sits. It is amazing what a picture can do. For example, Delirium is always drawn in a whimsical pose: she is sprawled on the floor, or her arm is over her head, or she is surrounded in a multi-coloured realm with frivolous and fantastic bits and pieces. Even her eyes are different coloured!

I like Barnabas too, the sarcastic talking dog. He's cool. Isn't it interesting that Barnabas means "son of encouragement"?

It is so much faster to go through a comic than a novel.

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It is a curious thing that both fictional stories I've read on Christian persecution are so unconventional. My perception of Christian persecution was first shaped by the Bible narratives -- Paul and Silas singing in the prison and the chains falling off -- and then by the historical narratives. In college, I was mesmerized by Tertullian's quote: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." I was in awe of the unshakable faith and joy of the early martyrs.

And then I read Silence by Shusuku Endo, and then Philip Yancey's article, and now The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. What is up with Endo and Graham? They are turning my world upside down.

In defense, Graham does not go as far as Endo in his scathing bitterness at the silence of God. The martyrdoms in Silence are very sad and haunting -- it makes a person tear -- but the persecution in The Power and the Glory tends towards the comic and matter-of-fact. The only scandal of the novel, really, is the portrayal of the priesthood. The church protested against the novel's portrayal of the priesthood in 1954, 14 years after the novel's publication, and rightly so, for the main character of the novel is a priest addicted to whisky, power, and various other vices.

But that is the beauty of this novel... That God does triumph despite our doubt, sin and human wretchedness; that he can make the ugly beautiful. If God saved us while we were still sinful, how much more is he still saving us now? (Rom 5:10) Surely he can save a drunken priest. Of course, this is the antithesis of what John Wesley preached. A distinctive of Methodism is the doctrine of sanctification -- that the journey after justification is one towards holiness and perfection -- towards Christ-likeness so to speak. In fact, John Wesley believed that because of the grace of God, it is possible to be perfect in this life. Christians are holy just as fig trees produce figs.

But not Greene's whiskey priest.

Silence and The Power and the Glory are rather alike in most areas. Both novels feature a Judas; both novels' main character is a flawed Christian; both novels don't attempt to second-guess God's role. Both are based on a Christian framework: while The Power and the Glory has a stronger sense of Christian duty, Silence is more sentimental and existentialist.

But there is one primary difference between the two novels: how they end. It is because of their different endings that we get their diverging titles. One title is despairing, the other, triumphant. In spite of all the foibles of the priest and the blatant sin of the virtuous Christians in The Power and the Glory, there are still many, many little graces that redeem the characters. As Greene puts it in this novel, "when you visualize a man or woman carefully, you can always begin to feel pity -- that is a quality God's image carries with it." The redemption was in the little things.

The prose in The Power and the Glory is compelling and some say that this is Graham Greene's magnum opus. It is a good book. Go read it if you have the time.

Read more!

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Frankly, if I had been given only the text of this novel and hadn't known who the authors of Good Omens were before I read it, I would have guessed Terry Pratchett in a heartbeat and completely overlooked Gaiman's contribution.

This novel screams Terry Pratchett. The style and wit is the same. Even good 'ole death WHO SPEAKETH IN CAPITALS is given a part. All through the first half of the novel, I found myself forgetting that I was not reading another novel in Pratchett's discworld series.

Granted that I am more familiar with Pratchett's style than Gaiman's, the sense of this novel being "all Pratchett" may not be so off target. Gaiman said that it was easy for him to use a ‘voice’ close to Pratchett’s own writing style in Good Omens, because he’d recently been working in a style borrowed off Douglas Adams, a style he calls “classic English humour: there’s a large chunk of P.G."

I am beginning to think that Gaiman is quite the master of styles. (The only other book I've read of his is Stardust which is written in the fairy-tale style.)

Good Omens is written from a decidedly humanistic perspective, and so it is very hard not to like. How can you not like a story that affirms humankind's quirkiness, flaws, and moral wafflings? And it is funny to boot. Just don't use it as your theology textbook.

So this means that I am still in search of Gaiman's voice.

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I studied Economics in Junior College with a certain Mrs H. Tan who overflowed with the confidence that everything can be explained if only you knew the principle behind the matter. Faced with a complicated question, for e.g. why does the price of coffee go up on the first Monday of every month after a 30-day month during a recession?, she'll waltz to the blackboard with chalk in hand, rapidly draw out three graphs in quick succession, and explain just exactly why my coffee this morning cost me $1.80. Her explanation always felt close to the miraculous, and left us mere mortals with mouths slightly gaping, wondering why we didn't see it before.

Economists have that confidence about the world: everything has an explanation; you just need the right data. Steven Levitt takes this attitude along with the tools of the trade and applies it to everyday life. He manipulates exam scores; he studies long-term crime rates; he proposes audacious claims about abortion that only an Economist will dare to propose; and with one fell swoop, he overturns our smug common-sense notions about the way life is. This book has the Mrs. H. Tan effect.

If you are like me and prefer not to know too much about a book before reading it, I'll suggest you NOT visit the book blog site 'cos it gives away too much. Just go read the book. If anything, it makes great fodder for dinner conversations.

(Find it in a library here. I actually bought this one from Popular for 20% off.)

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, October 21, 2006

This is the most imaginative story -- the most whimsical, heartlifting, funniest, well-rounded story -- that I have read in a long time.

Like the old fairytales, Stardust is about a quest -- a quest for a fallen star. Because of a hasty promise to a young lady, Tristran Thorn sets out from the quiet, secluded village of Wall in search for the star, and along the way, meets many adventures. Thematically, it is similar to the journey Odysseus takes in The Odyssey, yet it is different in one refreshing aspect: Tristran is no greek hero. He even becomes a dormouse (sic) at one point!

According to Wikipedia, Gaiman's style and tone in Stardust is very different from his other books. This is the first book I've read of his, so I can't comment. Though I have to say that even if all of his books were written in this style, there would be little loss, for there are too few old-fashioned fairytales today.

I may take that last sentence back after I read his other books though. ;)

Find it in a library here (Singapore) or here (rest of the world).

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

Monday, October 16, 2006

Elle, I gave Alexander McCall Smith another chance, and I'm sure glad I did.

I like this one a lot better than the first two I read by him. Compared to the pompous and eccentric academia in the von Igelfel series, Precious Ramotswe is a breath of fresh air. It is just so much more fun to read about characters you like.

She is everything a woman should be: warm-hearted, squeamish about snakes under the car, fat, sensible, smart, maternal, observant, brave. I want to be just like her! (Except maybe for the fat part.)

It is easy to read, yet through the traditional and lyrical story-telling, the heart of Africa shines through. McCall Smith brings to life the emptiness of the Kalahari, where lions roam and the sun beats down, the music of Botswana, dotted with acacia trees and thornbushes, goats and cattle, and the taste of edible Mopani worms.

It is a warm and light-hearted story, suitable for all ages.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Saturday, October 14, 2006
I don't think this post will do justice to this novel.

There is just too much in it. Each moment in the story is so full and rich that if I were to unpack it and try to line it out systematically, it would require three times the original number of words. How does Woolf pack so much emotion and nuance into something as ordinary as a walk in the garden or a dinner with friends? She must have been keenly attuned to life to be able to put so much into so few words.

Woolf is a nothing less than an expert on human behaviour. She is uncannily observant and is able to decipher the motives behind what people do and say. For example, she describes how a husband goes to his wife with the benevolent intention of "doing homage to the beauty of the world" (45), but is really just demanding sympathy. This is how she describes the wife giving the husband what he wants:

"Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy....

He was a failure, he repeated. Well, look then, feel then. Flashing her needles, glancing round about her, out of the window, into the room, at James himself, she assured him, beyong a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence (as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child), that it was real; the house was full; the garden blowing. If he put implicit faith in her, nothing should hurt him; however deep he buried himself or climbed high, not for a second should he find himself without her. So boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent; and James, as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy." (44, 45)

Wow. Woolf later describes the husband as "filled with her words, like a child who drops off satisfied", while Mrs Ramsay "seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm's fairy story, while there throbbed through her, like the pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation." (45, 46)

Wow. Woolf uses so many words to describe something invisible, yet does it so perfectly that you know exactly what she means.

From the passage above, it is also apparent that one of the themes of this book is the divide between men and women. It is really quite a feminist piece of work, with one of the whiney characters declaring "women can't paint; women can't write"; yet, the entire novel is described as "a vision" of a middle-aged, single woman who struggles through her painting. It mustn't be overlooked that author herself was female.

This novel treats life as fragile and temporal. Decay, rot and change are prevalent themes too: the greenhouse needs a new roof, the boar's skull hanging by the door, wrapped in the mother's shawl, the shocking news given to the readers abruptly in brackets, the rabbits running amock in Mrs Ramsay's garden...

Woolf suffered from depression and eventually drowned herself because she was afraid of another attack of mental illness. It troubles me that such a sensitive person took her own life. It is as if the foreboding melacholy that is found in this novel won after all, and that all we have left are words, just words...

I would rather believe otherwise.

Alone in the Universe, by David Wilkinson

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I have one thing to say: QUIRKY. This book covered everything from UFO sightings to crop circles to conspiracy theories to life on Mars to Star Trek. I don't think I was in Wilkinson's target demographic group because everything was just a little too quirky for me.

What does the Carpenter's song "Calling all interplanetary craft" have to do with anything? Wilkinson starts one of his early chapters with a quote from this guy: "I am convinced there is life out there. It is only a matter of when we find it." Which made me sit up, choke a bit on my beverage of choice, and look at the cover again to check the title of what I was reading.

Wilkinson ends the book on a more sober note. He says that for now, there is very little evidence that points to life apart from earth, but that our desire to find other types of life-forms is representative of our longing NOT to be alone, and that we are in fact not alone, because Jesus came 2000-odd years ago.

I know Wilkinson isn't implying this, but the thought of Jesus as an alien form gives me the creeps.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006
This is long overdue. The day Jim posted this list, I looked up the books in the online catalogue, trooped down to the library, and got the book that made him laugh and the book that made him cry. From the sentence above, I wouldn't blame you if you thought that I was interested in him in that sensitive, new-age "who are you really, inside?" kinda way, but really, even if you were interested in him in that funky way, I don't think reading these two books will help much. You'll have probably have to read though a little library, read the bible cover-to-back at least five times, AND watch an entire series of Veggie Tales to get close to the answer. Anyway, back to the books.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin is entertaining. It is an old-fashioned story about love that doesn't say anything new, yet manages to take you by surprise with its comedy. The characters remain with you. I found myself trying to determine the most efficient way to juggle my errands when I suddenly realised that I was exactly like Ray Porter.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf came with the recommendation of Eric as well. I was afraid of crying so I read it very slowly and hesitantly, pausing frequently in the lilting story because I did not want to get too caught up.

I didn't cry after all. But I was won over by the two crusty bachelors in the novel. They were described in such an endearing and sweet way that it made me chuckle, and then melt.

Plainsong celebrates the role of community in a stark, harsh world. It manages to be both realistic yet idealistic, depressing yet optimistic. The story-telling is simple, and the flow seamless.

This is a good book. It is worth the read. :)

The Constant Gardener

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Constant Gardener
is described on the cover as a "suspense thriller" with an "unforgettable ending".

When my buddy recited that to me from memory, I burst out laughing because it sounded so strange. An `unforgettable ending' is the kind of phrase that doesn't say very much. Why was it unforgettable? Was it poignant? Was it hilarious? Was there a twist? Was it impacting? The phrase is also not effective because it negates a negative term, making it only neutral at best, apologetic at worst. So it was not forgettable, is that really something worth mentioning?

Anyway, The Constant Gardener was a suspense thriller in the British-kinda way, i.e. without the Hollywood adrenaline-pumping car chases and spectacular explosions we've all become used to. The suspense in this movie is pulled forward only by its plot, slowly and persistently towards its "unforgettable ending".

It is an alright show. A lot of it is set in Africa, so the backdrop is colourful and the music full of drums. In any case, it rescued me from the tedium of a weekday night.

blogging big fish

Monday, July 31, 2006
I've had "blog big fish" on my to-do list for possibly two weeks now. This makes blogging too much like work, but I'm going to suck it in and "blog big fish" even though what I really want to blog about is this really spiffy new free programme I found recently, just so I can finally check "blog big fish" off from my list.

(As a side note, it is interesting how the different personality types think about to-do lists. If you are familiar with the Myer-Briggs test, `J' types see to do lists as an agenda, `P' types see to do lists as a reminder of things they have to do in the future. Guess which I am.)

I think I've been putting it off because I don't really know what to say about this book except to say that it is about myth and myth-making. This guy (see I can't even remember the guy's name!) makes his dad into this giant of a hero to compensate for the lack of communication between them.

Myth-making is not something that comes to me easily. When I tell a story, it is usually fairly factual like this: "Never cycle over bougainvillea because you will puncture your tyres," rather than something fantastic like this: "Man, you should see those thorns on that bougainvillea that ripped a huge gash in my tyres.. they were longer than my index finger and sharper than a steak knife.." You get the idea.

I had a wonderfully eccentric friend in school who was like that. She told a damn good story because of her ability to make a myth out of real life. Of course you never know how much is true and how much is exaggeration, but does it matter?

That's what `Big Fish' suggests, that life is a blend of story and fact.

Remember that friend who tells a great story? She now works in Chicago as a journalist.

And now I have blogged big fish. :)

Read more, or not

why i'm thinking abt maps in the first place

Saturday, July 29, 2006
An intriguing passage from Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry:


The earth is round and flat at the same time. This is obvious. That it is round appears indisputable; that it is flat is our common experience, also indisputable. The globe does not supercede the map; the map does not distort the globe.

Maps are magic. In the bottom corner are whales; at the top, cormorants carrying pop-eyed fish. In between is a subjective account of the lie of the land. Rough shapes of countries that may or may not exist, broken red lines marking paths that are at best hazardous, at worse already gone. Maps are constantly being re-made as knowledge appears to increase. But is knowledge increasing or is detail accumulating?

A map can tell me how to find a place I have not seen but have often imagined. When I get there, following the map faithfully, the place is not the place of my imagination. Maps, growing ever more real, are much less true.

And now, swarming over the earth with our tiny insect bodies and putting up flags and building houses, it seems that all the journeys are done.

Not so. Fold up the maps and put away the globe. If someone else had charted it, let them. Start another drawing with whales at the bottom and cormorants at the top, and in between identify, if you can, the places you have not found yet on those other maps, the connections obvious only to you. Round and flat, only a very little has been discovered.

Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson, 87-88

The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

tinkertailor wrote about this book in February this year, and it has been on my "to read" list ever since.

Richard Nisbett sets out in this book to show how Asians and Westerners think in completely different ways. For example, take this seemingly simple question: which two of the following three words should be grouped together?

panda, monkey, banana

If you're Asian, you'll probably chose monkey and banana; if you're Western, you'll probably choose panda and monkey. When I read this teaser on tinkertailor's blog, I was intrigued and so asked all of my Asian friends this question. All of them chose monkey and banana. Why?

Tinkertailor doesn't tell you, but I will. The reason why this is so is because Asians tend to see the world in terms of relationships (monkey eats banana), while Westerners tend to see the world in categories (pandas and monkeys are animals).

Westerners love to categorise. A dog is a mammal and so is warm blooded and produces milk. Asians are less curious about categories than in how things are related to one another. For example, the Chinese once thought that the movement of the stars affected important events on earth and so they studied the movement intently. Yet when they realised that the stars moved in predictable ways, they completely lost interest, and thus failed to produce a model. While the Westerners were the first to model the stars, the Chinese were the first to realise that the moon affected the tides on earth, a relationship that the Westerners overlooked.

How Asians and Westerners view the individual is different too. While the Westerner thinks that being distinctive and unique is very important, and that the personal agency of an individual is pivotal to happiness (take for example John F Kennedy's paraphrase of the Greek definition of happiness: “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence”), Asians prefer the collective. An early primer in America starts with "See Dick. See Dick run. See Dick run and play.", while an early primer for the Chinese starts with "Little brother is sitting on big brother's shoulders. Big brother loves little brother."

Nisbett concludes that no one is completely Asian or completely Western. He does experiments where he manages to succesfully "prime" those from Hong Kong to a Asian or a Western view either by showing them pictures or by reading them passages. I suspect that this is true for me too. After a fairly long visit to the US, I come home frustrated about having to live at home, and with an itch to "grab hold of life by its horns". When I first step on US soil after living in Singapore, I get boiling mad when I perceive US officers being rude to my parents.

If you are dating someone from the other side of the world, or have friends, family, or business there, it would be good to read this book. It explains a lot of misunderstandings, and as tinkertailor says, I wish I had read this earlier.

Find it in the library here (Singapore) or here (the rest of the world).

The history of the siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I don't have very much to say about this book because I didn't have the patience for all that history so I leafed through it and read only the choicest parts, and I'm not telling which I consider the choicest parts, but the choicest parts were really good.

The Ministry of Reconciliation, by Robert J. Schreiter

Monday, May 15, 2006

This is nothing short of an astounding book.

Sometimes when I look at the state of the world, I want to bury my head into a hole and say: "Sorry, things are too messed up. Nothing I do or say or believe can possibly help in your horrible situation." History shows the worst of human nature: during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, up to a million people were killed in 100 days. Did you know that in the 1930s, Rwanda experienced a great Christian revival, sweeping great numbers of the Tutsi aristocracy into Christiandom, so much so that Rwanda became known as the "Christian kingdom"? In 1994, the year of the genocide, 90% of the population belonged to one Christian denomination or another. How could something like this happen in such a context? What did we do wrong? What can we do now?

This slim book by Schreiter gives a person hope. I can't begin to describe the impact of this book. He uses the resurrection stories in the Bible to forge a way of reconciliation for us in the 21st century, with the understanding that when Jesus died on the cross, it was to reconcile man to God. Through the resurrection appearances, Jesus gently and wonderfully initiates reconciliation to a people truamatised by guilt and despair, thus showing for us a way of reconciliation today. He appeared first to the women, then to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Thomas, to Peter and the disciples, and to many others, and then he went away.

What Schreiter says sometimes takes you completely by surprise, the same way Jesus takes us by surprise in the gospels. You would think that the wrongdoer would have to repent first before there can be forgiveness and reconciliation; Schreiter says instead that reconciliation is the beginning: a point of transformation by God's grace, equivalent to the fall of the Berlin wall, or the release of Nelson Mandela. Reconciliation begins with the victim! It actually makes sense.

Schreiter emphasises that reconciliation is first and foremost a "spirituality" rather than a "strategy", yet in the stories he uses in this book, you can catch a glimpse of how to be a peacemaker in today's divided world. The two disicples who were on their way to Emmaus were trying to escape from Jerusalem, but no matter far they went, they carried their burdensome story with them, re-telling to each other the terrible things that happened. Jesus came by to listen to them tell the story, then he retold the story within the larger context of God's work in Israel. Schreiter points out that in reconciliation, stories need to be listened to, and then retold in the larger context. Jesus pointed out that his death was not the end of the road! It was the beginning of a remarkable transformation. Jesus was so transformed that nobody, not even his closest disciples, recognised his face.

Reconciliation is about making things new, not about going back to the way things were, which is why it is so difficult to imagine its possibility. It is 2 Cor 5:17: "The old has gone, the new has come!" It is a process driven by God, but tasked to men.

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the recommendation of Eric and Jim, I got the book from the library and buckled down to read it in one obsessive swallow. This is a frightening book, in more ways than one.

Personally, it is frightening because I can imagine all of it coming true. My buddy lost her hearing suddenly and inexplicably in October 2004. She simply turned to me and said, "I can't hear out of my left ear." I only raised my eyebrow and said, "Oh?" The vertigo and the puking and the sickness and the ambulance will come later, but when silence first falls, it falls quietly.

So why should an epidemic of blindess be so unbelievable? Human beings have been at the mercy of plagues, rats, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and eruptions to great and terrible devastation. Why shouldn't we become like animals, each for each's own? If the bird flu mutates into a human flu, God forbid, it will spread faster than SARS ever did, but not as fast as terror can infect.

I didn't need any convincing of the believability of the story. Yet Saramago was conscious of his narrative voice, at times trying to justify to the reader the omniscience of the narrator:
From this point onward, apart from a few inevitable comments, the story of the old man with the black eyepatch will no longer be followed to the letter, being replaced by a reorgainsed version of his discourse, re-evaulated in the light of a correct and more appropriate vocabulary. The reason for this previously unforeseen change is the rather formal controlled language, used by the narrator, which almost disqualifies him as a complementary reporter, however important he may be, because without him we would have no way of knowing what happened in the outside world, as a complementary reporter, as we were saying, of these extraordinary events, when as we know the description of any facts can only gain with the rigour and suitability of the terms used. (120)

I found it strange that Saramago was so conscious of being an omniscient narrator when his prose was, how to put it, so fluid. You don't even know where one sentence ends and where one starts, where one person stop talking and another starts, let alone worry about an omniscient narrator. Perhaps his writing style is a metaphor for the common type blindness in society today -- where you see everything, but you never notice anything real; just as the doctor lamented that he spent his career looking into eyes, but never what was behind them. Perhaps the blindness of an entire city was simply to show them what was in their hearts.

Which brings me to the next point. Blindness is also frightening in what it is trying to say about human society. In a way, blindness should not be so terribly delibitating. As Saramago puts it, in the words of the doctor, why should anyone die of blindness alone? One dies of blindness and AIDS, blindness and cancer, blindness and accidents, but should never die of blindness alone! Yet, without sight, with the external world still remaining the same, society falls apart. When you take away our names, our learned habits, our methods of navigating this life, what is underneath? If the chickens scratch away at the dirt in the yard of the "old witch", would they find a decomposing body? When words are lost, all we have is the indent left by the ballpoint pen on paper.

Blindness is a penetrating and blinding gaze into the soul of man, and the celebration of what treasures that can be found within. Definitely worth the read.

Orient Express, by Graham Greene

Friday, March 03, 2006

The cover of this book is so pretty! And the pages have rough jagged edges. That is reason enough to read this.

Published in 1933, this is the first and last time Greene "set out deliberately to write a book to please". And it is quite a pleasing novel. All the action happens on a train rushing towards Constaninople:

In the rushing reverberating express, noise was so regular that it was the equivalent of silence, movement was so continuous that after a while the mind accepted it as stillness. Only outside the train was violence of action possible, and the train would contain him safely with his plans for three days...

The novel is full of such lovely detail and description. The characters are distinct and well-formed for a short novel; the plot substantial.

While pleasing, Orient Express isn't frivolous. It is about class, race, and political differences: yet it is never didactic or forlorn. It simply describes. Greene describes a self-conscious and rich Jew in this novel: it is troubling to read of the safety this Jew felt in Western Europe and to think that this was written in 1931, just a few years before the horrors of the Holocaust. Chilling.

Never let me go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I've read more novels by Japanese authors this last six months than I have in my entire life. The last time I was at Borders, I noticed that it had an entire section dedicated to Japanese authors, including works by Shusaku Endo. I was surprised to find Endo's work so prominently displayed actually, considering he wrote in the 60s and with a predominantly Catholic perspective. Well, as they say, every dog has it's day.

Which leads me to think, when I finally write a novel, my pen name shall be Sukiyaki Go, or perhaps Wasabi Tei. Look out for me okay? :)

Anyway, back to the book. I'm not sure how to write about this book without giving it all away. Mystery is probably the most compelling aspect of this novel, and if I take it away by telling too much, the novel simply does not work.

So I'll simply leave a quote that moved me:

"a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go."

And a gripe that Ishiguro does not address religion in this story.

Read just a little more

Wonderful Fool, by Shusaku Endo

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The wonderful fool of this novel is an ungainly, horse-faced Frenchman called Gaston Boanparte who comes to Japan for the first time with a love and trust in people is as simple-minded and foolish as a child’s. The foreigner, as he is often referred to, sticks out like a sore thumb; physically, he constantly has to bend his head low to walk through tiny Japanese-sized corridors, squeeze through fences, and manoeuvre his longs legs to fit in Japanese-styled trains, sleeping and eating mats, as if his brand of large expansive love and trust just does not quite fit in shrewd and uptight Japan.

But he is determined to remain in Japan, and just as inexplicably, he changes the people around him, either aiding or thwarting the plans of those he comes into contact with. A pragmatic professional, an irresponsible care-free bachelor, a fortune teller, a prostitute and thief, a murderer, even a lame old dog — all these characters are somehow changed by coming into his wandering path.

He is dull-witted, barely grasping the nuances of what people say; he thinks himself a failure; he is ridiculously dressed; he does not command respect. In a way, he is practically the opposite of John Irving’s intelligent, dominating and opinionated Owen Meany, yet both Owen and Gaston have a spark of the divine.

The style of writing in this novel is more descriptive and rich compared with the bleak, stark writing in Silence. As in Silence, Shusaku Endo uses a lot of dialogue, but the dialogue in Wonderful Fool is wittier and more textured. It is a humorous novel and very enjoyable to read.

I am dying to compare this novel with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but I can’t remember The Idiot well enough, shucks. I’m going to have to read The Idiot again, but it is such a thick and difficult-to-read book!

Silence, by Shusaku Endo

Sunday, February 12, 2006
In this postmodern day, when words signify nothing and faith is only between you and your God, can anyone understand why a person should refuse to save himself from certain torture and death, just by saying the words, “I apostatize”?

Silence, by Shusaku Endo, is based on the story of a real-life priest who goes to Japan in the midst of one of the worst persecution eras in Christian history. The history of Christianity in Japan is incredibly bitter. Can you believe this? When Francis Xavier landed in Japan in 1549, he actually called it the Asian country “most suited to Christianity,” “the delight of his heart.” Within a generation, there were 300,000 Japanese Christians!

Yet, just as quickly, the priests lost their favour with the Japanese governors. The officials grew tired of foreign intervention in domestic issues, and banned Christianity from the country, executing those who refused to apostatize. While the West has their rousing stories of “the blood the martyrs’ [being] the seed of Christianity”, in Japan, this era of torture practically killed the church. (See Philip Yancey’s review)

The Japanese Christians were hung upside down for days, beheaded, put on stakes in the ocean, thrown into the sea to sink, hung over pits of shit, made to step on the image of Jesus Christ. Today, the bronze trampled image of the Madonna and Child, known as the fumie, is displayed in the museum, and it was while entralled with this exhibit that Endo became inspired to write this book.

Silence — can you guess whose silence? Endo grapples with the silence of God in the midst of this horrific torture, and entertains thoughts that Christianity and Japanese are not suited for one another — Christianity, like a badly made suit — Japan, like a swamp that kills every young sapling, mutating it into a form where it isn’t even Christianity anymore, making all the Japanese Christians who died for their mutated unauthentic faith, a ludicrous absurdity.

Yet, the church survived, somehow. In Nagasaki, pockets of Christians known as the Kakure, or crypto-Christians, hide Christian relics in Buddhist altars and worship the God of the Christians. They use snatches of Latin in their prayers, observe the feast days, and call themselves Christians.

But you know what is ironic? When the atomic bomb fell in Nagasaki, ground zero was the largest Christian church in Japan. While Christians made up less than one percent of the entire population, Christians comprised ten percent of the victims of the bombing.

Ten percent.