About derekemerson

Derek Emerson is a father of four, husband of one, and someone who likes to write. I have a blog I update weekly on grief (afteroliver.home.blog) and another blog of book reviews (derekemerson.wordpress.com)

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

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Author: Sigrid Undset (tran. Tiina Nunnally)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 1920 (1977)

Note: This review contains spoilers.
A great book does not need to create a likable central character to attract a reader. In fact, it can be the unattractive character who appeals to us in an exploration of evil, sin, or even a failure of morals. Or, conversely, we may find a character who is flawed but appealing in their humanity. Pulp fiction is built around detectives who both appeal and repel, but are ultimately attractive due to their humanness.

In Sigrid Undset’s first volume of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, we find a young heroine who grows up to be so self-centered she is hard to like. In fact, she is quite unlikable but with none of the redeeming qualities we may find in other failed people. Instead, her life goes on and she seems to learn nothing from the damage she leaves in her wake.

This is 14th-century Norway and Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans and Rangfrid. While the mother is reclusive and depressed, Lavrans is a successful and popular farmer and close to young Kristin. They’ve lost infant sons and their youngest daughter, so Kristin is all they have. She is quick to fall in love, first falling for a farmhand who is later killed. Her father then gets her engaged to a young man she does not want to marry, but she agrees to spend time at the convent while awaiting her marriage. The convent is home not just to nuns, but young women waiting to return to life beyond the convent.

While there she meets Erlend Nikulausson in town and begins an affair with him (less than a year after losing her first love), including losing her virginity to him (the “wreath” represents her virginity). Erlend comes from a royal line but has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church and pushed aside by his family for having an open affair with a woman who is married to an elderly husband. Erlend and the woman, Eline, have two children together. While Erlend and Kristin profess their love for one another, Eline commits suicide. Kristin’s father is obviously reluctant to bless the union of Erlend and Kristin, so Kristin just acts depressed for nearly a year. Well, except when Erlend shows up again and she gets pregnant. Her father finally relents after his wife intercedes and Kristin manages to get married without people knowing her wreath is a lie.

In the end, I find her to be a self-centered young woman who forgets about her first love quickly, starts an affair she knows will tear apart her community, pushes away a father whom she has always loved, is not too upset when Erlend’s mistress conveniently kills herself, and in the end gets what she wants.

Sigrid Undset
Sigrid Undset

I don’t think I’m in the majority here. The trilogy is often cited as the reason that Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Perhaps the other two volumes redeem Kristin, but I’m not patient enough to find out. While I may not like the main character, Undset’s writing is outstanding (as is the translation) and she brings medieval Norway to life. Some of the writing is pastoral, but she balances it with thoughtful dialogue and a range of characters. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, hovers on the edge for much of the book but when she emerges more at the end we see an insightful and deeply grieved woman.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book but I also know many will read it and enjoy it. We can’t love all the classics, but classics certainly rise above a sole blogger’s opinion.

Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah

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Author: Louis Levy (Tran. by W.C. Bamberger)
Publisher: Wakefield Press
Publication Date: 1910 (2017)

“Don’t believe all the tales your soul whispers to you! Don’t take them at face value before you investigate further…
And keep constant watch on your doubt; make sure that it doesn’t disappear” (127).

Cover of book

Doubt, truth, and reason are at the center of this amazing book from the Danish writer, Louis Levy. Dr. Renard de Montpensier is conducting seances with Kzradock and realizes he holds the key to a mystery. We are then off to a mystery which contains surrealist aspects (a man who lives with his tapeworm), gothic horror (a haunting asylum and a house with faces in the attic windows), and a tough-talking American detective and a smooth French detective. The question is, what is real and what is imagined?

Dr. Renard de Montpensier (he always refers to himself by his full name) struggles as his life gets out of control, but then realizes his relationship with Kzradock “was the struggle between madness and reason” (70). Levy takes us into the mind of the insane and questions was is reasonable and not reasonable. When the patients take over the insane asylum, Dr. Renard de Montpensier goes to intercede. “I knew well the fate of these people, and I understood them. It was as if I looked out on all the worries and suffering of the world” (56).

As the story continues to unfold (and I’m hesitant to spoil the storyline) the question of what constitutes truth and reason are pushed forward. The focus is on doubt.
“Oh, the modern soul is badly in need of help and support…
And is has that help within itself.
It can doubt” (126).

While I’m giving an admittedly thumbnail view I highly recommend reading the novel. It has many elements to offer and is often described as fitting into pulp fiction because of its melodramatic episodes, although that is often part of the gothic horror tradition that I see more at work here. Regardless of how you interpret the novel, the writing is addictive and you will leave challenged on what is real and not real.

Louis Levy
Louis Levy

Although published in book form in 1910, it was not translated into English until 2017. Why is not clear, but Levy is clearly not a writer who has garnered much attention. He does not even warrant a Wikipedia page! Wakefield Press, the publisher, offers this life synopsis: “Louis Nicolai Levy (1875–1940) was a Danish author, playwright, foreign correspondent, and theater critic who experimented with a wide variety of literary genres, from prose poetry to nursery rhymes to philosophical novels. Though a central literary figure and screenwriter in Copenhagen in the early twentieth century, Levy remains little known today.”

Read the book and make some noise — more attention to him is warranted!

Silence

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Author: Shusaku Endo
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1969 (2016)

Note: This review contains spoilers since the ending is an important part of understanding the novel.

We Christians, like many of different faiths, love to play the martyr. Catholics make the martyrs saints, starting with the very first saint, St. Stephen (although the Holy Innocents are often called saints even though they knew not why there were being killed). The martyrs are those who face death instead of renouncing their faith, showing their belief in God’s word and promise of resurrection.

Shusaku Endo uses this concept as the basis for Silence, an outstanding novel that will make any Christian uncomfortable and let non-Christians in on the depth of faith for most believers. The story is set in 17th century Japan and the persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians). We follow the story, partly by letters, of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues (based on the real life Giuseppe di Chiara) who travels with another priest (Franciso Garrpe) in search of Father Ferreira. Once their beloved teacher, Ferreira is believed to have committed apostasy and the priests want to find him and serve the persecuted Christians of Japan.

For a while the two priests hide together in a hut, but eventually are taken to an island and opt to split up so they have a better chance to succeed in their mission. We follow Rodrigues as he travels a short time before being captured. Much of his time is spent in a prison where he is allowed to offer support to other Christians in jail, but all the time he is wondering when he will be taken to the “pit,” a gruesome torture that is said to have caused Ferreira to renounce his faith.

At one point Rodrigues is taken to a location where he sees Garrpe and other Christians being readied to be taken out to sea and drowned. They are wrapped up so they cannot move and will be dropped into the sea. Rodrigues is told that Garrpe can save the others if he renounces his faith. If he does not, they all die. Endo has changed the martyr narrative from one of giving your life for your faith to sacrificing others for your faith.

“‘Apostatize! Apostatize!’ He shouted out the words in his heart to Garrpe who was listening to the officials” (143). Rodrigues continues to silently encourage Garrpe to do this as all are put out to sea and drowned. Garrpe is now a martyr, but so are three others he could have saved.

Rodrigues’ faith, far from wavering, becomes stronger through this whole ordeal. He is routinely “interrogated” but only in the sense that they try to show him how his faith is either false or at least not one that will work in Japan. Instead, he begins to see Christ heading to the cross or crying tears of blood as he too felt abandoned. He realizes Christ is with him and has suffered as much as he can.

Rodrigues is at last brought to see Ferreira who indeed did apostatize and is now essentially a prisoner of the government. He has been given a house, a Japanese name, and a wife, whether he wants one or not. It is also announced that he is writing a book denouncing Christianity. The fact that he is kept under guard and not allowed to travel signals that even the Japanese believe he has not truly renounced his faith, although he is good to use as an example to others. Rodrigues does not seem to believe that Ferreira has truly renounced his faith, but he does not understand why he lives like he does.

Example of the pit torture
Example of the pit torture

Finally, Rodriques is taken to a urine-soaked cell where his willingness to die for his faith only increases. Indeed, he looks forward to the opportunity and refuses to renounce his faith to his interrogators. Finally, Ferreira is sent to talk with him and Rodrigues discovers the noise he is hearing outside his cell are the moans of those hanging in the pit where they are slowly bled to death. “Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God — he does nothing either” Ferreira tells him (179).

It is the silence of the title. The silence of God when his followers suffer, the silence of a God who does not answer prayers. Should Rodrigues match this silence and suffer a martyr’s death at the expense of three other people suffering? Finally, like Ferreira, he chooses not to let them suffer for his faith and he apostatizes.

He will continue to wrestle with if he made the right choice. “Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith…I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved…I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness”(186).

Or, perhaps, God is not so silent. It reminds me of the old joke about the man who was on the roof of his house during a flood and when a boat came to save him he sent them off saying God would save him. He sends away another boat and then a helicopter — and then drowns. When he gets to heaven he asks God why he didn’t save him. God responds that he sent him two boats and a helicopter, so what more could he do?

Ferreira's tombstone
Ferreira’s tombstone

Perhaps Ferreira and Rodrigues have been truer to their faith then Garrpe, who died a martyr’s death. They now live as an embarrassment to their faith, rejected by their own faith community, and forever imprisoned to serve as an example of the weakness of their faith to the Japanese. But what Rodrigues does learn as he continues to see the suffering Christ is that God may not relieve suffering, but we do not suffer alone. Endo does not provide any easy answers but he challenges those who follow his faith, as he was a Catholic in a modern Japanese culture where his faith was at time persecuted.

The novel has been made into a film three times. First, Masahiro Shinoda Masahiro Shinoda made Silence in 1971. Director Joao Mario Griolo’s Os Olhos da Ásia in 1996 used the novel as a starting point. Finally, Martin Scorsese made a version of the film, also titled Silence, in 2016. I have not seen any of the films, so I offer no recommendations on them. But I highly recommend this incredible novel for everyone.

The Keys of the Kingdom

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Authors: A.J. Cronin
Publisher: Rosetta Books
Publication Date: 1941 (2015)

The Keys of the Kingdom book cover

A. J. Cronin wrote books well positioned in the Catholic tradition, but he does not present a sanitized view of the Christian faith and the challenges it presents to its followers. As a result, this excellent novel manages to delve into the depths of Christianity, show it sins, and still present the reader with hope. And this from a writer who does not fit into the traditional Christian framework.

The novel is set in the late in the 19th and early 20th century and tells the story of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest who discovers that his plans and God’s plans for him are not the same. He finds himself a curate who quietly does God’s work when others do not seem to like it. So, while his childhood playmate (friend would be too strong of a term) finds himself heading off to a glorious priestly career, Chisholm finds himself being sent off to rural China.

Even there he cannot follow the path set for him. While the Church prides itself of the number of converts, Chisholm loses his first converts when he finds out they are Christian because it provides them employment. He then turns down the conversion of a powerful village member who is converting because of medical help Chisholm offered to his family but Chisholm only accepts a conversion that is authentic.

Instead of seeking converts Chisholm decides to serve the village. With the help of some nuns sent to support him, Chisholm builds a mission that offers children an education, takes in the orphans, and feeds the village in times of need. But when a new warlord comes into the area and battles with village forces, Chisholm finds himself in a quandary. He rescues the wounded from the village and the new warlord demands compensation that will destroy the mission and the children and people within it. As a Christian, he is faced with the idea of entering the battle to save his people or to offer no harm, as his faith teaches him, and allow others to be hurt, raped, and/or killed. Either decision means death for others — not to decide is to decide.

It is these types of dilemmas that add such depth to this book. Chisholm is friends with the Presbyterian mission in town, refusing to see them as competition. He also peppers his conversations with quotes from Confucius. His openness to other faiths and denominations raises concerns among the institutional church. Even his greatly simple way of living, although very Christian, is viewed with suspicion.

In the midst of this Chisholm’s childhood “friend” is now his supervisor. While Cronin takes some easy shots at the priest who follows the company line to gain more power, he avoids a weak caricature that is easy to knock over. His characters have depth and he does a great job of creating a complex characters (in other words, realistic) such as Mother Maria-Veronica with whom he has a tempestuous relationship that develops into one of great friendship. No one is perfect in the book but Chisholm’s humility is born out of true faith.

The main story is held together between bookends of Chisholm’s time in Scotland which opens with him as an old priest who shares his story. At the end it returns to Chisholm as an old priest, but now we see him with new eyes.

A great book for Christians to read as it offers a realistic picture of the challenges and joys of faith, and a great book for non-Christians looking for an honest picture of the stumbling followers of Jesus.

A. J. Cronin

A.J. Cronin
Cronin was a Scottish physician who was sent to the countryside for six months to recover from an ulcer. During that time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was such a success he spent the rest of his life writing. He wrote over 30 novels, many of which were made into movies, including the influential The Citadel in 1937 which won the National Book Award in the U.S. Although many of his books deal with the Christian faith, he was for a time agnostic and later came to appreciate the mixed marriage of his Presbyterian father and Catholic mother. You can read more about him here.

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

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Authors: Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2006

Parish Priest book cover

“His life, however, was not described by great occasions or grand gestures. His was the humility of moments, and the power beheld in the lightest of touches” (202). These lines at the end of this great book describe the life of Father Michael McGivney but may make some wonder why there is a biography of him. McGivney is the founder of the Knights of Columbus, a group for men in the Catholic Church which today numbers nearly 2 million men. But the authors don’t focus so much on that aspect as they use McGivney as an example of American Catholicism in the 19th century. More importantly, they give us insight in the role of the parish priest.

They bring alive the Connecticut atmosphere and connect it with the overall status of priests at the time to give a sense of what life would be like for these servants of God. While it makes no claims to be an overview of all American Catholicism during that time period, the book shows what it was like in the established East Coast and, surprisingly, recognizes the demands that parish priests face today.

McGivney becomes a priest after some of the more violent actions toward Catholics have subsided in the U.S., but prejudice against him because of his faith is something he shares with all his parishioners. In addition, we see how the Irish Catholics supplement the shortage of priests by importing priests from their homeland. McGivney is American born and goes through an educational process similar to today when a diocese directs their future priests to certain seminaries. It is this mix of Irish priests trying to connect with a more diverse parish that pushes McGivney from a quiet priest to one determined to meet people where they live. Before this priests were expected to spend most of their time on church grounds, but McGivney and others realize they need to reach out to people.

Father McGivney
Father McGivney (not looking as friendly as everyone says he was!)

Right out of seminary he is put into a church with an ailing head priest and a mountain of debt, which he works at reducing but will never fully succeed at doing. The ailing priest is not an old priest, just another worn-out priest. The authors note that over a 12-year span the Hartford diocese had 83 priests. During the same time, 70 priests died, creating an 85% turnover rate. Why? While priests were exposed to more disease than most, they were also greatly overworked and had little, if any, time off. The authors note that most priests knew they would not live to be 50 years old, but to be fair we have to realize the average lifespan at that time was around 42 years. McGivney had just turned 38 when he died. Yet in the midst of all that, McGivney started yet another project with the Knights of Columbus.

Men’s groups were very popular during this time and many of them contributed funds in an early version of life insurance for widows and children. McGivney saw that many Catholic men were becoming more involved in these groups than the church, so he created the Knights as a way to offer a group that followed Catholic teaching yet created the same benefits for its members. In this, he was more successful than he would ever realize. Here I would like the authors to spend more time on this history because what is presented is so negative it is a surprise the Knights survived. Clearly, we are missing something.

Steps to Sainthood infographic

There is now an official process underway for McGivney to be considered for sainthood. Since the book was published in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI declared McGivney “Venerable” in 2008. Catholics may now seek his intercession in prayers and if a miracle is attributed to him, he moves on to be called “Blessed.” This can be a long process, but if it occurs he would be the first American-born parish priest to be canonized.

Whether he is canonized or not (and the book takes no stand on that) McGivney is a priest worth reading about and this book is an excellent look into his life and American Catholicism in the late 19th century. If you are interested, you can visit the Knights of Columbus site to learn more about the group McGivney founded.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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It seems obvious that a writer will love books, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is one that celebrates books. It opens with a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where father and son go for the passing on of a tradition. The young boy is our main character, Daniel, and he learns that in this hidden library “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul” (5). He is to choose one book that he will ensure will live forever and he takes a book he has never heard of, “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax. And then the story takes off.

Daniel has unwittingly entered a mystery as someone is determined to destroy all the books Carax wrote, even though hardly any of his books were sold. He is confronted by a man disfigured by fire who threatens him to turn over the book, but Daniel refuses. He also refuses to sell it to a rare book seller. Instead, Daniel is determined to find out what happened to Julian Carax and why someone wants all the books destroyed.

As the mystery continues, Daniel finds himself questioning his own choices, which begin to look like parts of Carax’s life story. He tries to explain all this to one of the people whose life intersects with Carax and Daniel. While it explains his involvement in this story, it also explains why so many people seek out novels. “I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger” (179).

…I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel…

Zafon

The mystery takes Daniel into another world where sanity is lost, revenge is sought, and evil has power. Zafon takes the reader deep into the world, but loses the thread as some of the mystery becomes obvious. Toward the end of the book he drops in a long letter (over 80 pages) from one of the characters which basically ties up on the loose ends in a way too convenient for a book this well written. Zafon is a great writer and his characters speak in an other-worldly fashion that helps create a nearly magic-realist novel. Even if the mystery is wrapped up too neatly, the shadowy world he creates is an attractive place to spend time.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The novel, published in 2001, is one of the best-selling books of all time and Zafon has followed it up with three novels connected to this one as well as young adult novels. You can learn more about him and his writings at his website.

The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last by Azra Raza

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The First Cell book cover

Azra Raza makes a bold claim in The First Cell and backs it up. “The art of medicine, once based purely on experience and observation, a hostage to tradition, gradually evolved into a practice increasingly driven by scientific evidence. More recently, it has undergone an unexpected transition by morphing into a monstrous business enterprise” (144). Raza is not against funding for cancer research as she has made this her profession and knows the personal costs as her husband died because of cancer.

Her frustration revolves around how funds are distributed and how research is separated from treatment. “The funding agencies continue to reward basic research in petri dishes and mouse models that bear little relevance for humans” (143). She is not alone in this as she quotes another critic, oncologist Vinay Prasad, who claims that the $700 billion spent on health care still leaves practiced medicine occurring based on scant evidence.

Raza has a solution. “The two immediate steps should be a shift from studying animals to studying humans and a shift from chasing after the last cancer cell to developing the means to detect the first cancer cell” (48). She is after the causes for cancer instead for treating it after cancer has been diagnosed.

Azra Raza — Learn more about her work here.

The books tries to add a personal side with stories, but many go on too long and Raza is very good at quoting other people saying how incredible she is. “Call Azar, mom. She is on the cutting edge of cancer. I want her involved in my care” (199) is an example that happens often and her “aw, shucks” at all this praise is thin since she puts it in the book so often. Plus, she does not need this type of support as she makes a strong argument on her own.

Having watched my six-year-old die from neuroblastoma cancer, this is personal for me. We had the opportunity to have a researcher who was a practitioner work with him after his first relapse and he made good progress for a year before succumbing. That connection between research and practice is what Raza wants, and I think she is right. My son lived a happy year because of it and from what she learned, this doctor may help other children live much longer lives.