“The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. “

dietrich_bonhoeffer-gross“It has often been said that those of the many who are not directly guilty for the crimes of the former regime in Germany must be punished for their passive attitude towards it. In a modern dictatorship, however, with its subterranean ubiquity and all-embracing instruments of oppression, a revolt means certain death to all who support it. To reproach in a modern tyranny a people as a whole for failing to revolt is as if one would reproach a prisoner for failing to escape from a heavily guarded prison. The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer* and others did cannot be expected from the many.” ~From the introduction (written by G. Leibholz) to The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer



*Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed for his role in the Resistance. Dietrich, his brother Klaus, and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi joined the Abwehr conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. When the assassination attempt failed, Hitler rounded up any who were involved in the conspiracy and executed them. Through his ecumenical connections, Dietrich Bonhoeffer served as a spy to the Allies. Many biographies have been written about his life, but I highly recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge. Bethge was one of Bonhoeffer’s closest friends and made it his life-long goal to publish everything and anything that was written by Bonhoeffer. It’s very long (940 pages) and very dense in parts, but this is the biography. Bethge had a perspective on the War and on the life of his friend that other biographers simply didn’t have. I will write a complete review for the book when I have finished it, but I am only on page 372 so it will be a while.

Reading A Pretentious Work

I occasionally select books from the research library based on their covers alone. The last time I did that was a disaster! But I am a sucker for beautiful covers and for novelty, so I recently checked out Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal, an Argentine author whom the blurb at the back of the book compares to James Joyce. That should have sounded alarm bells in my head. But it didn’t. I honestly can’t say that I dislike the book, but it is an extremely pretentious work. Allow me to give you a taste:

“(Samuel Tesler, philosopher, lectured his disciples in the Agora many times on the inanity of woman, who, being a mere fragment of the Adamic rib cage, could barely hide her naked metaphysical lack. Precisely this destitute nudity – he affirmed with abundant quotations both modern and classical – explained why women were eternally obsessed with getting dressed up at any cost and did not hesitate to strip carnivorous animals of their sleek furs, birds of their sublime plumage, reptiles of their scales, trees of their fibres and bark, worms of their glistening spit, and the earth of its precious metals and gems. Samuel Tesler, philosopher, did not censure this exploitation of the three kingdoms, meant to repair an absolutely irreparable nakedness, even though a certain cosmic pity, which never brought a tear in his eye, occasionally moved him to lament the sad lot of the lowlier creatures…”

Yeah. The whole 700 page novel is written like that. Marechal uses the most contrived language possible to get across a simple message: Samuel Tesler is a mysogynistic jerk. Marechal should be arrested for his abuse of adjectives!  In the introduction the author says that his work is more poetry than prose, but the imagery in Adam Buenosayres is not elegantly woven into the narrative. Everything is thrown forcefully at the reader.

It’s not just the imagery that causes me to roll my eyes though. The dialogue is painful to read. Nobody speaks the way Samuel Tesler and Adam speak in this novel.

[Tesler to Adam concerning a lover named Haydée]: “I mean there was no initial bedazzlement, in spite of the methodology. I’m telling you, at first Haydée was nothing more to me than a topographical feature of Saavedra; she left me completely indifferent. In a word, I didn’t notice any symptoms betraying the penetration of one of the Imp’s arrows into the third space of my rib cage…Then, in the course of my metaphysical inquiry into primordial matter, I started observing all her gestures, poses, and grimaces. As you can see, it was merely out of scientific interest.”

I will stop there. If I go any further, I will have to include words and imagery Tesler uses that are not safe for work.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf are two of my favorite works of all time. They are also considered two of the most pretentious works of the English language. So why am I so critical of Adam Buenosayres?

I appreciate poetic language in literature. The narratives of Moby-Dick and Mrs. Dalloway are non-traditional, but the styles have a purpose. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness, Woolf allows the reader to explore her characters in a way he/she couldn’t otherwise. Instead of telling everything from Clarissa’s perspective, the reader is introduced to the perspectives of many seemingly different characters. The similarities in the wants and dreams of the characters are striking. Melville uses imagery from whaling and cetology as metaphors to explore the character of Captain Ahab and human nature in general. In neither work do I get the feeling that the authors are trying to show off. In contrast, the narrative styles employed in Adam Buenosayres add nothing to the story. Here are a bunch of intellectuals experiencing metaphysical crises over beautiful women! I sincerely hope Marechal is mocking his characters.

This is just a weird book. Everything pointless is described in great detail, and the images can be extremely crude and offensive. While I probably should stop reading it and move on to something else, I just have to read on. Maybe all of it will make sense in the end. The blurb at the back of the book suggests that the work is a parody of 20th century Argentine intellectual life, so hopefully I will appreciate the parody by the end of the book. But for now, I’ve got to say that this is the most pretentious work I’ve ever read.

What is the most pretentious work you’ve ever read? Why did you feel that way?

Review of Julie of the Wolves

What was it about?

The story begins with Miyax, an Alaskan Eskimo, who is attempting to join a wolf pack. She is stranded in the wilderness and depends on the wolves to find food. Amaroq is the leader of the pack. He is naturally the most majestic of the wolves and the one with whom Miyax establishes a spiritual connection. She names another wolf Kapu because he reminds her of her father Kapugen, the person who taught Miyax so much about the natural world.

She is running away from an oppressive and frightening past. In a letter addressed to Miyax, her Gussaq (means ‘White’ in Eskimo) pen pal Amy had offered her a place to stay in San Francisco. But she got lost in the Alaskan wilderness, and to survive, Miyax must turn to her Eskimo heritage for guidance.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George explores the boundaries that divide the tame from the wild, the traditional from the modern, and one culture from another.

What did I think of it?

I love wolves. This should come as no surprise since this is the second book I have read this year about wolves (the first was The Call of the Wild). There are, in fact, quite a lot of similarities between the two works even though the story lines are vastly different. In Julie of the Wolves, Miyax is the protagonist but the story is just as much about her as about the wolves she lives with. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is the protagonist, but once again, the humans are important players in the narrative. The tone as well as some of the themes of the two stories are also quite similar. (Both, for example, speak about “the call” of the wild.) I was surprised by the sometimes blunt realism in Julie of the Wolves. One scene in particular has placed this work on a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books in America. Jean Craighead George offers a pretty convincing tale about a runaway Eskimo girl living with wolves. While the author clearly loves the natural world, the story is (for the most part) grounded in reality. No culture is purely good or purely evil, and the wilderness is not an idyllic paradise. My only criticism is that at times, I found it hard to believe that it was possible for a person to develop such a tight friendship with wild and fully-grown wolves. George clearly had an understanding of the “language” of wolves, but Miyax makes a lot of physical contact with the animals and doesn’t ever get injured. Despite this minor criticism, I am definitely in agreement with the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal to Julie of the Wolves in 1973.

Favorite Quote

“Julie is gone,” she said. “I am Miyax now.” 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Review of Death Comes for the Archbishop

What was it about?

Inspired by the lives of two historical French priests, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather explores the story of the mission lands of the 19th century American Southwest through the experiences of Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant. The eponymous bishop is called from his diocese in Sandusky, Ohio to start an apostolate in New Mexico. A sickly but committed priest accompanies him on the long and arduous journey to Santa Fe. The Mexicans and Indians of the region have had a complicated history with foreign missionaries. Some priests intimidated and exploited their parishioners while others brought hope and comfort to the poor and downtrodden. Throughout their ministries, Bishop Latour and Fr. Vaillant receive challenges and blessings from people so different in custom from the French. And yet, missionary work is a two-way experience. The priests, too, learn much from the people they encounter on their journey through life. Sometimes, the priests are the ones on the receiving end.

What did I think of it?

The friendship between Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Fr. Joseph Vaillant must be one of the greatest friendships in all of literature. Vaillant (which means Valiant in French) is a powerhouse of a priest. What he lacks in physical attractiveness he makes up for in zeal. At a moment’s notice, he packs up his few belongings and travels thousands of miles to minister the sacraments to Catholics in desperate need of a caring priest. While he is certainly not without his faults, Fr. Vaillant’s unwavering faith is admirable. He completes Fr. Latour (whose last name means The Tower). Much of my love for this book derived from my personal relationship with a priest who is so much like Fr. Vaillant and who ministers to people of similar demographics.This priest is Brazillian and heads a city parish. However, because he is fluent in Portuguese and Italian, he also ministers to the Brazillian and Italian communities of the city, wherever they are located. It seems as if he runs not one but three parishes. The city has become a mission.  It is rare to encounter dedicated priests in literature (or in popular culture in general), but Cather gives an honest and sympathetic portrayal of missionary life.

I have only ever read two books about the mission lands of the American Southwest (the first was Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett, which I highly recommend). I have been told that Americans who live in states such as California and New Mexico are taught Death Comes for the Archbishop at school because the foreign missionaries had a huge impact on those regions. Willa Cather does not offer a stereotyped portrayal of Mexicans and Navajo Indians. She clearly understands the struggles they face and their approaches to faith.

Lastly, the novel explores the various challenges facing missionary priests and the various roles they assume in society. Some priests are well-loved but disobedient. They are popular with their parishioners but for all the wrong reasons. Others are disliked because they exploit the people for their own personal gain. And still others, like Fr. Vaillant, are under-appreciated because they come into conflict with the worldly interests of others. The question I considered as I read Death Comes for the Archbishop was “What makes a good priest?” As the characters are depicted in their full humanity, this is a question that the reader is forced to wrestle with throughout the novel. This is certainly a Great American Novel and probably the most meaningful work I have read this year.

Favorite Quote

“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” [Fr. Vaillant] said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”


October in Review

Smileys For BlogAs you know, last month, I departed considerably from my October TBR. But although I did not read any Halloweed-themed works, I am happy with the books I read. Without further ado, here’s what I read:

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Baby by Patricia Machlachlan – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 (A beautiful but heartrending book. If you have ever experienced the death of a child I warn you that this may be unbearably painful to read.)

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Practice in Christianity by Anti-Climacus (pseudonym of Soren Kierkegaard) – 🙂 🙂 🙂

I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol II by Yves Congar- 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Hard Times by Charles Dickens – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Note #1: If you are interested in reading my reactions to the Christian works I read, feel free to follow me on Goodreads. I do not review them on this blog but I do try to write a full review of each book on Goodreads.

Note #2: I sometimes give 5 star reviews for books that I later decide should have received 4 stars. Therefore, smiley face ratings on this blog are not always consistent with my ratings on Goodreads. In general, if I give a book 4 or 5 stars/smiley faces, I highly recommend it. In contrast, I hardly ever change my mind about 2 or 3 star books.

November Plans

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (currently reading and loving)

La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge (It’s massive, so I doubt I will finish it in November).

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis (I should have read this one last month for the Dead Writer’s Society, but I didn’t.)

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf