Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (A Book for The 1951 Club This Week)

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I first remember hearing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from my grandmother, and my mother before her. They both spoke of him, and Henri Nouwen, with great admiration. So it was that when I stumbled upon the The 1951 Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon, and further discovered that Letters and Papers from Prison was published during that year, I knew that I would have to lay down the Man Booker International Prize long list books for just a moment. For long enough to gain new insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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The letters begin in April, 1943, although the book was first published in 1951. Dietrich was imprisoned by the Nazis in Tegel Prison, Berlin. He had just become recently engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, and his arrest was bewildering to him and his family. From the early letters, one gets the sense that they think this is all a mistake which can be sorted out. But his parents are denied visitation, and they get no reasonable response to their inquiries as to why their son has been arrested or when he will be released. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is executed on April 3, 1945 along with other key figures of the resistance.

It is timely to read this book now, not only because the letters begin (and end) in April. But, because this is Holy Week, I am reminded of the struggles, if not persecutions, encountered in life. I am only reading about fifty pages a day, more as a sort of devotional than novel, because Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are so profound to me. They remind me of the teachings I’ve had all my life; it is from him that I grew up with the mentality that if something wasn’t hard, it wasn’t good for you.

We smile to ourselves, the women in our family, as we say my grandmother’s oft repeated phrase, “Just keep marching on.” For she, too, knew how to be brave in the face of adversity and would not let evil gain any power even when it may have appeared otherwise.

A few meaningful quotes from my reading so far:

“…I’m sure that it is good for me personally to undergo all this, and I believe that no more is laid upon any man than he can receive the strength to bear.”

“For you must know that there is not even an atom of reproach or bitterness in me about what has befallen the two of us. Such things come from God and from him alone, and I know that I am one with you and Christel in believing that before him there can only be subjection, perseverance, patience and gratitude. So every question ‘Why?” falls silent, because it has found its answer.”

“The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do – there is still plenty left – and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontent. I’m sure I never realized as clearly as I do here what the Bible and Luther mean by ‘temptation.’ Quite suddenly and for no apparent physical or psychological reason, the peace and composure that were supporting one are jarred, and the heart becomes, in Jeremiah’s expressive phrase, “deceitful above all things…” It feels like an invasion from outside as if by evil powers trying to rob one of what is most vital. But no doubt these experiences are good and necessary, as they teach one to understand human life better.”

“Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Read in a steady stream, such as I have laid these quotes out here, they may seem as if he is only sermonizing. But, I believe that he is simply expressing what he feels in his heart, and in reading his thoughts I am encouraged. It is fascinating to read his thoughts, hopes, and disappointments underneath the trials he experiences in prison.

If only my faith was quite as unwavering.

Complete Guide to Bible Journaling by Joanne Fink and Regina Yoder

I have been interested in Bible Journaling as long as I have been interested in the Bullet Journal. Both ideas came to my awareness last summer, and while I was intrigued, I became a little bogged down in the implementation. (See my first Bible journal page above with Psalm 61:2 which says, “From the ends of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” It lacks polish, in my opinion.)

The good part about journaling in one’s Bible is the quiet reflection time spent doing it, as well as the way it is easy to commit a verse to memory once you have illustrated it. Or, even spent time to hand-letter it.

The hard part is getting the design to look as well executed as you would like. That is why The Complete Guide to Bible Journaling is so helpful. Within its pages are chapters including:

Getting Started

  • What is Bible Journaling?
  • How to Begin
  • Choosing a Bible

Tools and Techniques

  • Tracing, Drawing and Patterning
  • Painting Backgrounds with Stamp Pads
  • Stencils
  • Colored Pencils
  • Watercolors
  • Page Prep
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Washi Tape
  • Stickers and Die Cuts
  • Rubber Stamps
  • Lettering
  • Layout Techniques

Artist Profiles

  • Shanna Noel
  • Karla Dornacher
  • Valerie Sjodin
  • Sephra Travers
  • Valerie Wieners-Massie
  • Rebecca Rios
  • Tai Bender
  • Krista Hamrick
  • Jennifer Rydin
  • Rebekah R Jones
  • Christina Lowery

Gallery

  • Outside the Bible
  • Trust in the Lord
  • Graphic
  • Patterning
  • Watercolor Effects
  • Colored Pencils
  • Floral
  • Linework
  • Brights

Bonus Section

  • Journaling designs
  • Stickers and Tabs
  • Vellum Designs

This guide is so very helpful with its text and illustrations. The topics it covers gives beginners a way to begin, and can take those already familiar with the skill to new levels. I am renewed in my hope that what I produce will be more aesthetically pleasing, while certainly worth my time in quietness and in rest. I highly recommend this book.

In Which I Revisit Acetamine Codeine

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At our house, the Easter Bunny has been delivering things that are not traditional. Or, crunchy. I have four ice packs on rotation, and a lovely bottle of pain killers, for a rear molar which was yanked on Friday.

“Not yanked,” said my oral surgeon who once was a Marine. “Gently extracted.”

Be that as it may, my neck is swollen, my eyes are swollen, and my jaw throbs. My son teases me about my favorite lipstick shade. “Are you wearing ‘Cherries in the Hole?’ ” he asked, (rather than Cherries in the Snow in case you’re not familiar with the famous Revlon lippie.)

So I decided it was time for a personal whining post instead of a Man Booker long list review, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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But, my beautiful niece has come up from Florida to visit the family, and that is a welcome event. We had lunch together as a family yesterday, such as I could swallow, and hugs are ever welcome.

And I messed around with my blog layout, trying this Spun theme, which has advantages and disadvantages like everything. Perhaps I’ll keep it, perhaps I’ll return to the reclining woman of whom I am so fond.

The books surrounding me are a great comfort.  I am completely absorbed by each Man Booker, and last night I reached for an old favorite, Anna Karenina, on my new nook. So, I’ll spend one more day in a codeine haze, and then off to teach the children tomorrow.

I miss dear Siddarth, who every time I call on him when he raises his hand says, “I got two stuff.” And the class groans because he does indeed always have two things to say.

Judas by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange, Man Booker Prize 2017 long list)

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“The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend…Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for awhile.” (p. 106)

I don’t suppose it matters if I agree with what Shmuel Ash writes in his notebook, with what he comes up with for his thesis, that Judas was “the first Christian. The last Christian. The only Christian.” My job is not to agree or disagree with Shmuel’s reasoning, or Oz’ writing, it is to absorb what he is saying and like Mary, to ponder it in my heart. For the concepts about Christianity (and Judaism) presented in Judas are fascinating to me, as I have been a Christian all my life and read the Bible all the way through for more years than I can remember.

It is not my understanding that the disciples “were hungry for power, and in the end, like all those who are hungry for power, they became shedders of blood.” (p. 137)

But, this novel is not a religious treatise, and we do need to look at some of the characters.

Shmuel Ash, who lived in Tel Azra, has come to live in Rabbi Elbaz Lane in Sha’arei Hesed in order to be a caretaker for Gershom Wald. Shmuel first steps into the meticulously kept home over a rickety stair which seems to symbolize much that is unsettling to him, and the home’s inhabitants, throughout the novel. For each has quite a story which is disclosed bit by bit as we read on.

Shmuel is attracted to Atalia, a woman in her forties who also lives there. She was married to Gershom Wald’s only son, Micha, who was killed during an assault on a mountainside on April 2, 1948 when he was only 37 years old. Now she lives with her father-in-law, hiring caretakers for him as they seem to fall in love with her then move on when they encounter her resistance.

The traitor in this novel is her deceased father, Shealtiel Abravanel, a man who was disgraced by being thrown out of both the Zionist Executive Committee and the Council of the Jewish Agency because he believed that they had “all deviated from the path,” and were carried away by David Ben-Gurion’s “lunacy”. (p. 205)

He was firm in his belief that Zionism could not be achieved through confrontation with the Arabs, whereas I had understood by the end of the forties that it could not be achieved without some such confontration. (p. 206, Gershom Wald speaking to Shmuel about Abravanel)

How easy it is for any of us to become a traitor, especially when we follow today’s rhetoric to follow you heart. For “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (a quote sprinkled throughout the text.) How easy it is to be blind to any truth but our own, to betray the ones we love.

The themes of Arab opposition, Jewish denial of Jesus as savior, and the intricacies of a family in the Land of Israel make this an extremely powerful book. It is as pertinent to us today as it was in the 40s, indeed as it was in the times of the New Testament. Surely this is a most worthy contender for the Man Booker International Prize; it is one of my favorites on the long list.

Find more reviews at Winstonsdad’s Blog, David’s Book World, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List.

Judas by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pages

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

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I shouldn’t be so intolerant of Sonja, a woman in her forties who just wants to learn to drive. Or, more specifically, to properly shift.

There was a time when I could drive a stick shift on any autobahn in Germany, but ever since having a small panic attack on 294 outside of Chicago a few years ago, I’ve been reluctant to go on any toll road whatsoever. So you’d think I’d be patient with this character’s weaknesses.

But, as I made my way through the book I just wanted to slap her.

She translates the fictional Swedish author Gösta Svensson’s crime novels, all the time wincing about the blood and semen descriptions, and nursing her aching wrists.

She complains about her driving instructor, Jytte, who seems boorish enough to make anyone nervous. But when Folke, the owner of the driving school, hears Sonja’s complaint and offers to teach her himself, she worries that he’ll attack her in the backseat.

She wears unpopular yellow clogs because the red are sold out. She has positional vertigo. She likes to sit in a field of rye. And, she doesn’t get along with her sister, Kate.

“In a lot of ways, thinks Sonja, Mom did me a disservice in believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom knows that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.” (p. 107)

Mirror, Shoulders, Signal is interesting enough in its own way, if you feel like reading a big long whine until you come to the last fifteen pages, but how it managed to be on the Man Booker International Prize long list surprises me.

Find more reviews at Messenger’s Booker, Winston’sDad’s Blog1st Reading’s Blog and Tony’s Reading List

Mirror, Shoulders, Signal by Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra
published by Pushkin Press
188 pages

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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How fresh is the voice of a young girl, especially in the hands of Wioletta Greg. It is as if I am listening to one of my students telling me a story; there is a mixture of the bizarre within truth such that you can hardly separate the facts from the imagination. Both are equally important to the story teller, and in this case, to me, the reader.

In chapters which could stand alone, but together contribute to the overall story, we see what it is like to pass from childhood to adulthood in a Polish rural community during the 1970s and ’80s. Often the chapters will hold luminous description and then end suddenly, jarringly, with a revelation about adults which they have tried to keep secret. It’s as though the girl speaking to us, Wiola, has an omniscient eye. She tells us everything, with no agenda or shame.

What is behind the locked door at the dressmaker’s house? Why does Wiola swallow mercury after coming back from the doctor’s? How does the (fictional) town of Hektary prepare for the visiting portrait of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica? How does a small group of students, organized by the student council to search for scrap metal, turn into a game of spin the bottle in an old woman’s basement?

Wiola will not bend to the expectations of authority around her (much like her father who deserted the army and became a taxidermist). She would rather burn her collection of matchbook labels than acquiesce to the demands of a bachelor who catches her reaching for his box of Orbis travel agency matches featuring Krakow’s famous Lajkonik horsemen.

As she grows up, the political events of Poland during this time period are gently referred to. Familiar names to me, such as Lech Wałęsa, make the briefest of appearances to remind us that this is more than a coming of age story. It is also a finger pointing to the realities of daily life in Poland at the end of the communist era.

Find more reviews at 1st Reading’s Blog, Winstonsdad’s Blog, Messenger’s  Booker and David’s Book World.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Published by Portobello, January 5, 2017
160 pages

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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I have rarely reviewed the books I hold the most dearly on this blog. I am afraid that my words will tarnish them, that my words and their author’s words have no business being on the same page.

So it is with Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. If I tell you that I read breathlessly, turning the pages without being aware of the paper, or the light, or the time, or my chair, you might say, “I’ve heard all that before.”

You might even be unconvinced of its power if I told you there was a line on nearly every page that I wanted to record in my commonplace book, write down to record exactly what Jon said so that I can read it again and again at my leisure.

Even though he writes a family history with some of the hopelessness of a secular viewpoint, he brings to mind questions that I often battle, feelings which I claim to have owned. A few examples:

“Question: What travels faster than the speed of light?

Answer: Time itself.

It whizzes like an arrow straight through us. First the sharp point penetrates the flesh, organs and bones, that’s life, followed shortly by the feathers, that’s death.” p. 51

“…how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out-when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we choose?” p. 73

“Memories are heavy stones that I drag behind me. Is it heavy to remember? asked Ari. No, only what you regret or long to forget – regret is the heaviest stone.” p. 86

“Nothing but eternity matches up to God’s terrible implacability.” p. 91

“…we constantly try to suppress the feeling, the certainty, the fact, that humanity is ephemeral, our lives birds’ songs, seagull’s cries, then silence.” p. 84

“At some point, this thought assails us all. Why have I lived? Why am I living? Because if we never ask, never doubt, and pass our days and nights thoughtlessly, or dash through them so quickly that little stays with us but the newest mobile phone, the most popular song, it’s not unlikely that sooner or later, we’ll run into a wall.” p. 107

“It’s impossible to measure longing, nor is it possible to understand it, describe it, explain it, those who miss someone always have something dark in their hearts, a string of sorrow that time plays, strums, plucks.” p. 312

And the title? Fish have no feet, what does that mean?!

“The silly girl neither stops nor hesitates but steps into the sea, despite no-one having been able to walk on water since Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago to charm a few fishermen. The girl from the north steps down from the rocks and one foot immediately enters the sea, as does the other a nano-second later. No-one, you see, can walk on water, and that’s why fish have no feet.” p. 331

Have you ever searched for something and then perhaps compromised, making do with what comes close enough to what you had in mind? And then have you ever had the rare experience of knowing, as surely as anything you ever knew, that you have found what you were looking for?

That is me holding this book right now. I’m not saying it will win the Man Booker International Prize 2017, or even that my fellow shadow jury panelists will feel that it should.

But I know, in my heart of hearts, that no book on the long list will surpass this one for me.

Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Routman
Published on August 25, 2016 by Quercus
384 pages

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw): Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list

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However, one afternoon something strange happened to the sky, and when the sky not only goes dark but also strange and is low and hard to read, this is a sign in itself, a sign of the worst.

The people on the island do not make the rules. The weather makes it for them, and they must cope accordingly.

Young Ingrid has an infectious laugh. She laughs all the time, until she goes away from the island to school. There, the first thing she learns is to swim; she also learns her alphabet and her numbers and sees herself in a big mirror for the first time.

You are not allowed to laugh in the classroom, for three reasons, the teacher counts on his long, thin fingers: it is disruptive, it is infectious and it looks stupid…Ingrid doesn’t understand what he means. Not being allowed to laugh when you need to is like being deprived of a leg. But life is hell, she does learn that at least, so she stops laughing and starts crying instead.

I am learning about a country of which I am ill aware: Norway. The open space must be wonderful, the sea’s power terrible, and the work arduous beyond belief. Just staying alive, and warm in the Winter, takes every day’s efforts. But, there is a certain beauty in a job well done, as only experienced,  wind-chapped hands know how to do.

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photo credit here

A correctly constructed peat stack is not only beautiful, like a man-made eye-catching attraction in the countryside, it is a work of art. A slapdash, hastily built stack, on the other hand, is a tragedy, which reveals its true nature at the worst possible moment, in January, when they wade through the snow with hand-woven baskets on their backs and discover the peat to be encrusted with ice, frozen rock solid.

I loved reading about this family on their island, catching and salting the fish, rowing the færing into the Trading Post on the mainland, caring for one another, as well as unexpected children who come their way. Jacobsen gives us a magnificent picture of life in Norway, but even better, to me, is the portrayal of family. Which need not be related by blood.

He also includes themes of dreams and regret, courage in the face of adversity, and how to survive the loss of something you aren’t even aware is being taken away from you.

This is yet another splendid book in what is proving to be a very powerful long list.

Find another review at 1st Reading’s Blog and David’s Book World.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Published by Quercus on August 16, 2017
272 pages

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

Find more reviews at Tony’s Reading List, Messenger’s Booker, and ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages

The Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

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“Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.”

I have had a strong desire to know more about Rome’s emperors and history ever since I read Captivity in January, for not only am I entranced by all things Italian, I like to have a reference point for the New Testament. (Which I read regularly.)

Margaret George is a new author to me. I have not read any of her previous novels: Elizabeth 1; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Autobiography of Henry VIII. But, in reading The Confessions of a Young Nero, I find her research to be as exhaustive as I could imagine it to be.

She paints a portrait of Nero which is compassionate and sympathetic to what must have been a truly anxious life. From the very first chapter, his uncle (Caligula) attempts to murder him by throwing him overboard at the age of three. His mother, Agrippina, is no better. She is a manipulative, conceited woman whose allegiance lies with whomever can give her the most power. It is a wonder Nero grew up to be emperor at all, with such attempts on his life and enemies within his own family.

We catch a glimpse of his sorrows and disappointments, his life and achievements, his hunger for music and affection through Margaret George’s eyes. The novel is easy to read, filled with historical research, and fascinating in its portrayal of Nero’s life.