Questions > Answers = Good Book?

Saints     After watching the film, The Painted Veil, my interest has been piqued by the Boxer Rebellion era of China’s vast history.  Really, “empire” is a concept that both astounds me and invokes my curiosity.  So when I saw Gene Luen Yang’s, Saints, I couldn’t resist giving it a read.  Focusing on the time just before the Boxer Rebellion breaks out, a young woman leaves home and winds up becoming a Christian.  Ultimately this gets her into some trouble with her family and countrymen and she must make a decision to either join the rebellion, or remain faithful to her beliefs.

It was a quick read, only an hour cover to cover.  I must confess, dear reader, that not only did this book catch my attention due to its ties to historical intrigues of mine, but I’m gathering books to teach for a World Literature course.  I thought this book would make a good addition to the reading list for several reasons.  One, it’s told from the perspective of the Chinese and not the occupiers, and it has a female protagonist.  As a bonus, it brings up some religious questions as well, which is perfect for a Christian teacher who teaches in a Christian school.  But it left me with quite a few questions.  Was she sincere in her baptism?  What elements of this story come from Chinese mythology?  What are readers supposed to take away from this graphic novel?

I’m okay with being left with questions.  I’m postmodern enough to accept that sometimes we have more questions after reading a book than the author is responsible for answering.  And sometimes the beauty of a book is that it begs more questions than it answers.  But the reverse can also be true.  Some books, due to poor writing and no authorial intention, are merely confusing and have no point.  Or, the book is more for entertainment and less about the literary merit, resulting in good feelings and not good thoughts.  So that’s where I’m at with this book.

I want to say that there’s literary merit because I do believe some of the questions that this book leaves readers with are ripe for using in a classroom setting.  Teenagers hate gray areas and this would be a perfect way to have them address some of the issues (regarding gender, religion, and sincerity) that they are struggling with.  But, is that just wishful thinking on my part.  Because this is the second part of a series (however they are non sequential.  More like two halves to a coin rather than links in a chain).  So I’m hopping that by reading the other part, Boxers, I might get more of a picture here.  Or maybe while I marinate over what I just read, the brilliance of the novel and the questions it creates will solidify my desire to teach it.

I’ll keep you posted.

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What Does God Look Like?

The Shack, by William Paul Young, had a lot of buzz a little more than five years ago, but I never got around to reading it for myself.  When you’re in graduate school, you tend to focus more on surviving the books you’re required to read rather than to thrive on books you’d like to read.  Plus, the book’s subject was a guy going to a shack in the country and having an encounter with God.  As religious as I am, I didn’t find the premise appealing.

But my dad and his friend, a pastor,  had read it and discussed it and both raved about the questions it asks and the paradigms it challenged.  The opportunity to finally grab a copy and read it came when a pastor’s wife in my book club suggested the title as her pick.  With a mix of chagrin and curiosity, I downloaded an e-book version and read away.

Two things jumped out at me immediately.  The religious/spiritual side of me was engaged with the questions and philosophy the author was attempting to engage .  The English teacher/literary side of me was frustrated with blatant foreshadowing, pathos driven character development, and poor editing.  So what to make of it?  I decided that I had to tackle the book from two different angles.

On the philosophical side, I was challenged to ask myself, what is my image of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit?  And what is their relationship to each other and to me?  Growing up in a faith-based community, being educated in Christian elementary, secondary, collegiate, and graduate schools, I was somewhat shocked to realize I had never taken the time to ask myself these questions.  Embarrassingly, I can quote Bible scriptures to defend the tenets of my faith, but until I read this book, I couldn’t have described what God looks like to me.  Young describes God as a Black woman, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman who shimmers like heat waves (I’m still working to actually picture that The Shackdescription in my head).  I understand Young’s decision to describe the Trinity as such, but I’ve come to believe that the Godhead look different to each individual.  Just as we all have different relationships with each of the Trinity, so do they represent different things to each individual and, thus, look different to each one of us.

For me, I see God as either a man or woman.  It honestly could go either way.  But I see God, for some reason, as a man/woman in a business suit, who is kind and easy to be around, but who is also cool, hard to predict, and gives off an air of authority.  Jesus is Semitic in appearance, and is more avuncular in nature.  He’s the easiest for me to describe maybe because he actually became human and can be described in human terms.  The Holy Spirit is to me a breeze or a naiad/dryad sort of being.  You know he/she is there, but you feel their presence more than you actually see it.

I struggle to understand the concept of the Trinity.  Mostly because there’s no human equivalent to equate it to.  But I’ve come to understand that each one of the Godhead is a manifestation of “God” and therefore one is no more powerful than the other, but serve different purposes.  It’s this concept, and the aforementioned descriptions, that have redeemed this book from being a slog.  I’m a better Christian because of reading it.  I now feel like I have a more tenable relationship with each of the Trinity.

I won’t hate on the writing too much other than to say that I think the author over-sentimentalized a lot of the characters’ actions.  It felt like watching a Lifetime special, but with male actors and somehow trying to reach a male audience.  It wasn’t because the men were showing emotions.  It was the amount of random hugs, random crying, knee patting, and shoulder rubbing.  I’m not against man-man touching, but this seemed over the top.  Because this hasn’t been my experience with the men that I know, family and friends, either it’s because Young is from Oregon (they are different there), or because this is his imagination gone wild.

Ultimately, I give the book an A+ for concept.  It’s not an easy task to have a book about God become a bestseller and to get people to think about their relationships with God.  But the poor writing earns a C-.  I’ve had students that gave away their plot in the first paragraph just as he did in the first chapter.  The saving grace is that the book is an easy read.  I encourage you to give it a chance and ask yourself, What does God look like?

Make Something of Yourself

Marjane Satrapi’s, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, was insightful and intriguing.  Continuing the story from Persepolis 1, it begins with her life at the Viennese French school.  Having been away from home for part of my high school education, I related a lot to her experience.  Except the part where she basically has no adult supervision.  It hit home how bad things were in Iran in the late 80’s.  So bad that her parents were wiling to send her halfway around the world to live with a family friend, who sends her to live with nuns, who kick her out, to living with 8 gay men in an apartment, to finally getting her own place.  Did I mention she’s just 18 by the end of it?

Just her housing problems alone, I feel for Satrapi.  Yet, she demonstrates a tenacity that many people don’t have.  Whether it’s because of her upbringing, her personality, or the dire circumstances of what awaits her at home in Iran that makes her fight to keep pursuing her education.

But ultimately her circumstances become too much.  After graduating from the French lycee in Vienna, she returns to Iran and to her family.  Her desire to return to her social and safety network is understandable.  Unfortunately, she realizes that her time away fPersepolis 2rom home has made her a foreigner in her own country.  While she was adapting to life in Europe, her generation was adapting to life under the conservative Islamic regime.  She comes home greeted by a way of life that is foreign to her.

Once again showing her tenacious spirit, she casts off her past and embraces and embarks on her future.  This is one lesson I think we all can learn from her story.  That no matter how hard your past has been and no matter how hard it is to find that sometimes nebulous place called home, you always have the opportunity to build your future.  So forget about the rubble of your past and look to the untainted future.  I think all to often we fall into the trap of being victims and clinging to our hurt and angst.  But those feelings won’t make us successful or find us the healing we need.  Instead, we have to learn from our past, however painful it may be.  As Satrapi’s mother continually tells her, we must make something of ourselves.

Snapping, Iranian Wit

To much of my chagrin, I’m not well read in world literature nor in graphic novels. So coming across Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, I felt like I was killing two birds with one stone.

I’ve enjoyed the few graphic novels I’ve read and this one was no different. Much of it is due Persepolis 1to Satrapi’s ability to take a story with so many layers and keep it moving forward and organized while adding her own wit and sarcasm to it. I honestly started reading and lost myself in the story and time in general.

Iran has become a new area of interest to me since the protests a few years ago. I feel like I should know more about the country, but I don’t. Satrapi’s memoir gives a glimpse into the 1980’s Iran undergoing its revolution. Her childhood was chaotic with the tearing down of the Shah’s regime and the ushering in of the religious regime that is still in power. I was confused by the historical and cultural shifts and I am left wanting to understand the “why” of the events she describes. Maybe it’s because history interests me, or maybe because as a child, she didn’t understand it and wants her readers to get that same feeling. I prefer to believe it’s the latter because it wold just add to her writing credit.

Whether it’s because you like graphic novels or because you’re curious about Iran and it’s people, I recommend this work. It’s an intriguing read and the writing is something that is quality and fulfilling.

Dogs, Fog, and Moors. Oh, My!

The Hound of the Baskerville was first introduced to me by Wishbone.  When I got to college I picked up the novel to read it but never got to finishing it.  Finally, in an effort to see if I would teach the novel, I decided to finish it, once and for all.  I’m glad I did.

It’s not a novel of any specific depth or significance, but it’s good writing.  If you like thrillers than this is a good one to get through on lonely, cold winter nights.  What I appreciated about it is that even though it was written over a century ago, Doyle is able to draw the reader in and make us just as anxious, nervous, and scared as Sir Henry Baskerville and Dr. Watson out on the cold, foggy moor.  For me, a novel that doesn’t have much depth is fine as long as the writing is good.  And if I can feel like I’m right there with the characters, that’s a mark of good writing.

I appreciated that Doyle also utilizes different techniques to tell his story.  He uses traditional prose, letters, and journals to tell the story from different points of view.  What’s interesting is that it’s all narrated from Watson’s perspective, but by using his letters and diary entries, I feel like I can experience different angles of the story.  Angles I wouldn’t have seen had it been narrated like usual.

What I didn’t appreciate is that all of the build up leads to a let down in the end.  I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader, but I will say, enjoy the suspense and mystery because the climax and resolution aren’t that great.  Partly I think this is due to characterization.  Sherlock always seems to be able to come off as bored when he solves a mystery and this translates the same to the reader.  I think one down fall of Sherlock’s popularity is that whenever he enters the plot, Doyle must surrender the narration over to Sherlock and his perpetual ennui makes me feel like I shouldn’t care either.  Sherlock’s explanations in this novel are hard to follow because he makes it seem like Watson (and the readers) should have seen the signs as well.  But because we don’t see the story from his perspective, I feel like I’m being punished for seeing something that wasn’t right in front of me.

One thing I did notice, thanks to the help of the BBC’s Sherlock, is that I’m able to spot the villain in Sherlock’s cases like nobody’s business.  So against my better judgment, I found myself yelling (in my head, of course) at Watson for not seeing that the creepy guy is probably guilty!  Sheesh.  You’d think after all of this time, he’d finally solve a crime or two.

All in all, it was good, entertaining writing that didn’t string readers along but was, as a colleague puts it, like a mini-skirt.  Short enough to keep it interesting, long enough to cover the important parts.

Emma, Or Why Guys Can Read Jane Austen Too

Jane Austen. Most guys, upon hearing this name, usually have two reactions. They roll their eyes and mutter something about chick lit or they stare back at you blankly and say, “Jane Who?”. I didn’t have any experience with Austen until the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie was released. And then, later, I met my future wife who was as in love with Austen as Darcy was with Elizabeth. So needless to say, I started reading Austen’s oeuvre to see what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, I like most of her works. Pride & Prejudice is my favorite but Emma has become my second. As I was reading Emma, I began to wonder what it was that drew me into Austen’s longest, and what some call her best, work. Some say that because it’s a female protagonist, who’s foibles include matchmaking and misreading romantic intentions, guys can’t relate.  I disagree.

I believe that guys can still read a novel with a female protagonist, who deals with “female issues”. We men may not be able to relate, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t sympathize. Men know what it’s like to feel like you have your life planned out only to realize it’s falling apart. We know what it’s like to think you won’t be loved only to find the love of your life was in front of you all along. And this is how Austen opens the door for male readers to relate to Emma.

Austen brilliantly crafts Emma as a character whose struggles, trials, and tribulations are universal. She’s a round, dynamic character, who is relatable or, at least, comparable to women you have known. Plus, Austen includes such an array of characters that it’s easy to relate to the male characters in the cast of Emma. They play as much of an integral role in the plot as the protagonist. And what I appreciate is that neither the women or the men are stereotypical. Unless they are the villains. (I’m talking to you Mr. and Mrs. Elton!).

Ultimately, I think Austen is a true feminist in that she presents a story that is equal opportunity for men and women to enjoy, her characters are deep and complex, and the vast array of protagonists and supporting characters allows for a rich view of the society in which she wrote and connections to the society in which we live.

So guys, if you’ve ever wondered about Austen or are looking to enter the conversation, I highly recommend Emma. You won’t be disappointed. And hey, it just might get you noticed by the ladies.