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“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering as denial stomps with one-hundred-pound boots. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled within a soporific. Few are the individuals who explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday:” it reveals the paradox of progress from circular stairs that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding. It became the lens through which she viewed her God, inherent within all religions.

So she took to her writing desk and produced A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993). Its publication changed her life. Her clipped voice, heard in lecture halls and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring for God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

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Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

Imagine the terror of a ten-year-old boy suddenly facing the nozzle of a submachine gun held by an SS soldier, after having been slammed against the courtyard wall with its butt. It was Jo Joffo, waiting for his older brother on the Rue de Russie in Nazi-occupied Nice, France. It was summer, 1942. For over a month nasty inspectors interrogated him and his brother at the Excelsior Hotel until they were finally released. This experience ripped Jo Joffo from his childhood with its games of marbles and jacks, with ringing doorbells and other pranks.

This boy would later become a French author whose 1974 memoir A Bag of Marbles narrates this gripping flight to freedom, a hair-breath away from the enemy. So deep was the memoir’s appeal that it was translated into eighteen languages.

Such stories of survival still speak. From a safe distance, we observe and learn from others who have suffered heart-wrenching losses and survived murderous occupations of their countries. Yet, our times are not that different. Subtle forms of “occupation” still abound: social media, fake news, and addictive substances that manipulate attitudes, thoughts, and choices and keep spirits in bondage to Evil. Indeed, Jesus cautions us whenever we step outside our homes: “Be like sheep among wolves, cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The Plaza Frontenac Theater in St. Louis, Missouri, is currently showing the second film adaption of this memoir A Bag of Marbles; Christian Duguy directed it with English sub-titles.

Available on Amazon

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