Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review for The Chosen by Chaim Potok

First of all, a little about Potok, he was a Rabbi and his siblings either became rabbis themselves or married one. He had an Orthodox Jewish education and, as well as having a master's degree in Hebrew literature, he also had help doing research for this book. I say this because of some I will say in the review.

The Chosen is not for everyone, you could view it as part history book, as well as being a novel. It may move too slowly for some, but I will say I have now read it three times and have enjoyed it and found it interesting each time. It is about two different sects of Judaism, psychology, a little of the modern history of the Jews, growing up, about the pain of the world, suffering, silence, the relationship between father and son, and most deeply, about friendship and learning to be a true friend.

It is a coming of age story about two unlikely friends, Reuven and Danny. Their friendship is such that one of their sister's teases them about being “David and Jonathan” (who were the most beautiful example of friendship in the Bible). Though they are both Jews, both attend Jewish schools and spend hours a day studying the Talmud (a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, considered second to the Torah), they live in different worlds. They are raised differently. One is raised is a shadowed world, with dark colors, bare walls, and silence from his father; while the other lives in a warmer world with a father who often speaks softly to him about his day, the world, and life.

This book is truly beautiful and equally fascinating. It is a coming-of-age story that is anything but typical.

I normally don't quote so much from the book, but I just wanted to share these. Some excepts that I find fascinating:
“My father doesn't write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart...He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

After the main character, Reuven, is injured near the beginning of the book he says this to his father: “I wish I was outside now,” I said. “I envy them being able to walk around like that. They don't know how lucky they are.” “No one knows he is fortunate until he becomes unfortunate,” my father said quietly. “That is the way the world is.”

Reuven's father: “Reuven, listen to me. The Talmud says that a person should do two things for himself. One is to acquire a teacher. Do you remember the other?” “Choose a friend,” I said. “Yes. You know what a friend is, Reuven? A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul.”

Reuven and his father: “It all started with a silly baseball game,” I said. “I can't believe it.” “Reuven, as you grow older you will discover that the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of silly things, as you call them – 'ordinary things' is a better expression. That is the way the world is.”

My father nodded, “It is a little cruel, Reuven. But that is the way the world is. If a person has a contribution to make, he must make it in public. If learning is not made public, it is a waste...”

Reuven's father: “...Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than a blink of an eye?” He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. “I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is a life worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Danny's father: “A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Reuven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.”

Then there is a final speech given by Danny's father that is truly intriguing, but it is too long to write and would give too much away. If, as you are reading, you grow weary during the slower parts, persevere...I promise you it's worth it.

As well as all of this, you also gain a little bit of an understanding why some Jews were so determined to establish a Jewish homeland after WW2, they felt that was the only thing which could give some meaning to the millions of Jews who were killed during the war. You will also see how some sects were vehemently against establishing a homeland, because to do so would be to try and force the hand of God (try to make the Messiah come on their time instead of God's).

Oh, the content rating, I would give it a PG-13 for slight language and mature themes (not as in sex, drugs or anything, but suffering, death, and such). Also, just because there is a “13” in my rating, does not mean a 13-year-old will like it, most will likely not. Perhaps most suitable for 15 and up.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Story of Simon the Zealot or Why I Ran From My Lord

Because almost nothing is known of Simon, there even seems to be disagreement as to what "Zealot" refers to, I feel free to tell his story, because I cannot be contradicted and cannot be told it is not true. Even so, remember this is fiction, I am merely trying to convey how he may have felt, especially if he was a part of the Zealot political group. To an extent, perhaps this is how a few of the Apostles felt and is the reason why they ran away. The time-line of events followed is from the gospel of Luke:

I know my name is not mentioned until the Lord healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, but I was with him before that. Like all of my people for hundreds of years, I hoped the Messiah would come in my lifetime. We had been oppressed for so many years that I felt certain he would soon come, that YHWH would surely raise up the King to reclaim his kingdom and set us free. So I listened to the rumors, to the scandal which arose after Jesus rose in the synagogue and read from Isaiah that he would "set at liberty those who are oppressed." I was with him that first time he healed many. It was then my heart first filled with hope, it was then I decided to follow this man who appeared to be more than a man, for I wanted to see where he would lead us.

Then I saw how people listened to Jesus, how he could not only heal but inspire followers by his words. How he was not scared to challenge authority, how, in claiming he could forgive the paralyzed man his sins and also claiming he was "Lord of the Sabbath," he was claiming to be much more than a man. So he appeared to be more and claimed to be more and I continued to follow him.

Imagine my delight when he called me by name to be one of his 12. I was a little confused by some of his choices, if you are going to be a King reclaiming the kingdom, it seems odd to include traitors like Matthew. I supposed he had his reasons.

I saw a multitude gather and hang on every word, I saw many healed and a smile played on my lips, I saw that even demons obeyed my Lord's voice and was awed. I have heard some tell the stories of those times, how they say the Spirit blinded our eyes, covered our ears, and shielded our hearts so we would not fully understand some of the things which Jesus spoke, but as for me, I know I did my share of purposely misunderstanding and hearing only want I wanted to hear. What kind of Warrior King speaks of loving your enemies, of doing good to them, of blessing them instead of praying for their demise?

I was near Jesus' side when a centurion came to ask him to heal his servant, I heard Jesus say he healed the servant from afar and later heard the confirmation that, indeed, the servant had been healed. A part of me wondered why the Lord would consent to do anything for a centurion, a soldier of the Oppressor, but a larger part of me was elated to learn the one I served could heal even at a distance.

Then, then I saw that Jesus had power even over death! The Lord spoke and, by his touch, gave back the widow's only son. This is when I knew, I knew that with this more than man we had a chance, we had a real fighting chance of casting off our oppressors. Also, I was there when the Lord answered John's disciples, and noticed that he did not encourage them to look for another Messiah, but rather to look at what he was doing.

I remember it had been a long day, filled with Jesus' teaching in parables and explaining their meanings to us. We were all tired, but especially our Lord, for he had been standing before the crowd from that morning. Then he asked us to cast out in a boat and cross to the other side of Galilee. The wind was behind us, so we all dozed for awhile but then the wind became stronger and the waves came crashing over the sides of our boat. We were all wide-awake then, well, at least for Jesus, who was still somehow asleep amongst the storm. We thought we would drown, we thought the boat would capsize at any minute, so we cried for him to wake up and save us. The Lord awoke and rebuked the wind and the waves and they listened to his voice. The very elements obeyed his commands! And we wondered, what man is this that even the wind and rain obey him!

After seeing other amazing things, Jesus gave us some of his power and sent us out. So we were able to heal the sick and broken, we were able to cast out demons by the very power of His name. And I was beginning to feel we were invincible, with this much power on our side, how could we fail.

We then returned to our Lord to be with him more, to learn from him and to walk in his shadow. Soon after this I saw the last piece of the puzzle fall into place, I saw the thing which convinced me that the Lord would indeed be the one who brought our people salvation. There were more than five thousand men gathered, who had been there all day, so they had eaten all they had brought with them. When we suggested to Jesus that he send the people away so that they might get food, he told us to feed them, but among all those people we could find only five loafs and two fish. Despite the lack of food, the Lord had us sit the people down, said a blessing over the little food we had, and told us to pass it around. The food began to multiply, every time we passed the baskets, there was more food to be had, until everyone had had their fill.

I had now seen how our Lord commanded the attention of those around him, how when he wanted them to, they would hang on every word. I had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast down evil. I had seen him command elements, with the power of his words. And in this last miracle, I had seen him feed thousands with food which did not even fill one basket. I saw all barriers to our victory stripped away and saw the certainty of our enemy's defeat.

What matter that my countrymen were small in number? If we were injured or even slain, the Lord would simply heal us and raise us up. Rome is evil, but I had seen the Lord command an even greater evil to bend to his will. I imagined battles where the rain would fall in our enemies eyes, the wind would be at our backs giving us strength, and the very earth would tremble beneath the feet of our enemy as we charged toward them with a yell of certain triumph on our lips. I envisioned an army with no need of a supply line, for the provisions we could carry would last for the duration of any war. I saw in our Lord the perfect Commander, the perfect General, the Jewish people's secret weapon, I saw before me the promised Warrior King.

Once I had decided on Jesus' destiny, is it any wonder I did not hear his foretelling of his death? My heart and mind had shaped him into what I wanted him to be and I refused to hear anything else, to see anything else. From then on I twisted Jesus' every word to my liking, chose to hear such sayings as, "I came to cast fire on the earth..." and nothing else, nothing about loving my enemy or how all who followed him would suffer, for he was the Warrior King. David risen again, but greater. I chose not to see when Jesus forgave another traitor, another tax collector, to listen to his talk of forgiveness, to further tellings of his eminent death, and I did not heed his tears when he wept for the city of Jerusalem because her walls would someday be tore down by the very enemy I thought we would crush.

Knowing all this, do you see why I ran? Why we all ran? First our Warrior King tells us merely two swords are enough and then when clumsy Peter swings his sword, the Lord tells us to put them away and he heals the enemy! Even though the mob who came to arrest him falls to the ground because of the power of his words, he surrenders to them willingly! Our Warrior King allows himself to be seized and begins to walk meekly out of the garden; so our dreams were crushed, our hopes and prayers were trampled on, our courage left us and we fled.

So after his death we gathered together, wondering what we would do now, regretting all we had given up, and feeling helpless, scared, and lost. Our leader had failed us, our King had given up his power, our Messiah had died. Some of the truest and strongest whispered about him saying he would rise, but what would that really accomplish? Jesus had made it clear by his death that he would not fight, would not be the King we wanted and the Savior we thought we needed.

Then some of the women came running to the room where we were gathered and told us angels had told of the Lord's rising, but we were hopeless and so did not believe them. The evening of that same day, two of our number came banging on the door to the room where we were gathered and also told of his rising, so we began to wonder. Then, as they were telling their story, Jesus himself appeared in our midst, and everything changed. He opened our eyes and our hearts to understand the prophecies concerning him, he removed my self-imposed blindness and deafness, he made us see a New Kingdom of which he was the foundation and that we would help to build. He gave us life and hope and joy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review for the movie Now Is Good with Dakota Fanning and Jeremy Irvine

I do not remember exactly what was said which brought about the comment, but recently my brother told me, “I think Dakota Fanning is under-appreciated” and I would have to agree. I think she was amazing in I Am Sam, Man On Fire, Hide and Seek, and The Runaways. Now, I will add this one to the list. First of all, her British accent was so convincing, I looked her up to see if she was British, and she's actually from down south in Georgia. But enough about her and on to the movie.

Near the beginning, this movie reminded me of A Walk To Remember, except without a lot of its innocence. Later on I started to enjoy it for its own sake, and forgot about comparing it.

On IMDB the storyline/plot synopsis simply says, “A girl dying of leukemia compiles a list of things she'd like to do before passing away. Topping the list is her desire to lose her virginity” and while this is partially true, throughout the movie Dakota's character, Tessa, realizes that some of her list is a little silly, as she falls in love she adds things she knows she will never accomplish, “...a joint bank account, listening to you snore for years and years, to go to a parent's evening and [find out] our child's a genius, actually all three of our kids...”

As well as having a good script, the cinematography is wonderful, the music is well done, and it is, overall a very beautiful movie. To someone who isn't a hopeless romantic (which I am a most hopeless romantic) some of it may seem a little unbelievable, I mean, what late teen/early 20-year-old guy would really fall in love and be so committed to a girl he's newly met and soon finds out is dying? But besides that, much of it is very “real:” the mother just can't handle it, has moved out and doesn't really deal with any of her daughter's sickness; and the father, though he's doing his best, most of all just feels utterly helpless. Some people may think Tessa's little brother is quite heartless how he talks about her inevitable death, but it's just something he's grown up with, knowing that his sister is going to die. I like how the father is always slightly horrified by his remarks, but Tessa is always just a little amused.

Here is a quote involving Tessa and her love interest that I really like, because, as we die, isn't this what most of us want:
“Stay with me, stay the nights.” “What do you want from me, Tess?” “Night time, sleeping together, waking up together, breakfast.” “What do you really want?” “I want you to be with me in the dark, to hold me, to keep loving me. To help me when I get scared, to go right to the edge and see what's there.”

In summary, I think this is a movie which is beautiful and heartbreaking. Though it leaves you feeling sad, it is a sweet and warm sadness. If you like romantic dramas, I encourage you to check it out.

Instead of giving it a content rating myself, I will just put the MPAA rating. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving illness, sexuality, and drugs, and for brief strong language.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Review for On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck

I think this would be a wonderful book for middle schoolers to read while they are learning about WW2 because it teaches them about how things were for those who were left at home and how greatly the war effected even them. The main character, Davy, and his friend collect scrap metal for the war effort, cat tail fluff to be used in life jackets for soldiers, people are asked to save their fat drippings, flatten their tin cans, turn in extra tires, and many things are rationed.

This book is about what war costs, even if you are far from the battlefield. It's about all that people gave up willingly during those days to help win the war. It's about some people being selfless, doing what they feel is their duty, going beyond the call of duty, and others trying to take advantage of the situation. It is about loss, fun, waiting, making a game of scavenging, and fear. Davy's brother goes to war, his best friend leaves because of war, his Dad is coiled up inside because of war (he fought and was injured in the First World War), things change because of war. It's how people thought the First World War would mean there wouldn't be anymore, at least not as big as that, and wondering, if that other war didn't end wars, what were all the sacrifices for?

I would rate it PG for a little violence and dealing with some tough issues. I know this is a fairly short review, but it was a fairly short book. It's worth reading, best if you have a middle school kid in your life you can talk about it with, but also just if you want an easy read about how things were here at home during that time period.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Amazing Dream and From Which Inspiration Comes for Great Literary Works

I had the most amazing dream a few nights ago. I awoke around 2 in the morning for no apparent reason with a dream fresh in my mind, I wrote down a sentence concerning the dream so I would not forget it, and was able to go back to sleep. Within the dream I was not a participant, did not feel I had a body even, but was rather an observer floating in the sky. I was shown a world of floating cities and, without any words being spoken to me, was made to understand that the world below was covered in water, so hot that humans could not live there, and what made the floating cities possible was the continual rising hot air. You see, the cities, were suspended from giant sails, which caught the rising hot air, enabling them to float. I was given the feeling that this place had a very stable atmosphere, another reason the cities were possible, for there were no strong winds or storms to destroy the sails. As far as architecture, if you imagine something along the lines of Tolkien's elvish cities, you will be fairly close. I was given a glimpse into another world and, once shown, was permitted to leave.

I have made comments in the past to people and often wished it to myself, that I wish there was a machine which could directly and accurately extract images from people's minds. I wish this again so that you could see the world I saw, rather than me attempting to explain it in a few fumbling words.

Now onto inspiration. I have felt different times, when I am reading a book that is especially good, that the events contained therein actually happened. I am sure this is a far from original idea, though I do not remember hearing or reading about it anywhere, but at such times a part of me wonders if great authors are given glimpses into alternate realities and other dimensions and are merely conveying the events which there transpired or have transpired in those pasts. A part of this wondering arises from the fact that the believability of the world which I am reading has nothing to do with how fantastical or mundane the said world is. Tolkien so exhaustively creates a world, one cannot help but feel you are simply reading a history of Middle-earth, a history which may be an alternate history to our own world. C.S. Lewis manages to do create the believability of Narnia, Perelanda other worlds in far fewer words, which is one of the reasons I love him. Within the works of Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, and many others, you are sure if you could time travel and glimpse behind the veil that you could catch the Hunchback in his tower ringing the bell or Mr. Knightly walking his estate. This is not to demean great authors and their abilities, for whether they are peering across dimensions or not, it takes a great writer to convincingly convey what they have seen.

My Dad shared a link to a talk done by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) having to do with "You Elusive Creative Genius" and within it she talks about how, in the past artistic geniuses were viewed to be mediums of beings who inspired/conveyed masterpieces to them. Perhaps these beings are great travelers, crossing time and space and reporting the significant or interesting happenings which occur in the places they have been.

Here is a link to the talk which I mentioned. It is quite interesting. If you have a few minutes, take a look.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review for Neverwhere by Neil Gaimen

I have now read this twice and listened to it once. Neverwhere is about the magical world which is next to our own; in the gaps, underneath us in the sewers and subways and up above us on the rooftops. It is inhabited by people we do not notice, that our eyes wander over without really seeing, people who have fallen between the cracks or who have always been there. There is a hunter who has lived a hundred years and is still young, a girl named Door who is quite appropriately named, a Marquis de Carabas who views the world as a joke which waits to be deceived, and a man, Richard, from London Above (the “real” London) who finds everything in London Below a little hard to believe.

Neverwhere is entertaining, original, exciting, and has fascinating characters. The hero can get a little annoying at times, Richard is so determined he does not belong in the adventure in which he finds himself that he is a little surprised at himself when he does anything useful. He has a hard time accepting everything and consistently wants to get back to his old, normal life. I suppose Richard particularly annoys me because, were I in his situation (not having any family or really even good friends to tie him to the “real” world) and I stumbled into a magical, mysterious world, I wouldn't look back, wouldn't question, but would wholeheartedly plunge in.

I very much enjoyed this each time I read it and the time I listened to it as well, but it does not teach any great lessons, it is not as profound as even some of the children's books I have reviewed. I suppose the lessons which can be learned are to have an opened mind, that our destinies (if you believe in such things) are sometimes hard for us to accept and very different than we think they should be, and that honor is sometimes hard to see.

I would rate it PG-13 for violence, some torture, disturbing situations, suggestiveness, and language. There are some very unsavory characters whose profession is dispatch of people, or to torture them, or both and they delight in it.

If anyone is interested, this was also a mini-series which Neil Gaimen was very involved in the production of. It was made in the early 90's. I tried to watch it but it was too 90's-ish and the characters were far from matching up to my mind's eye ideas of them.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jealously and What I am Jealous Of

Now, I would really like a good job, a dog, a girlfriend/someday wife, and a baby (hopefully in that order, though if a girlfriend comes before a dog, that's fine); but when I see a person contentedly walking their dog, or a happy couple, or parents doting over their children, I am not jealous, but happy for them.

So what am I jealous of? Whether you know me or not, you may be able to tell from my posts I am a somewhat odd soul, here is further proof of that. When I go hiking, overlook a cliff and see birds lazily circling on the wind, I am jealous of them. When I look out of a window and see squirrels agilely chasing after one another, up and down a tree, I am jealous of them. When I see how gracefully a dolphin or seal cuts through the water and how long they can hold their breath, I am jealous of them. I know man, through his ingenuity, can soar even higher, climb even further, and stay underwater even longer but that is with the use of artifice and not entirely on our “own steam.”

You know, I say I'm odd to be jealous of those things, but I think others were, too. I think humans looked at the birds and longed for the freedom of the sky, so they strove to fly. I guess sailors saw how long whales went under, wondered what they saw, and determined to follow them. Someone looked at a lemur climbing up a rock face and said, I can do that too, so they developed spikes, harnesses, and ropes.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” but so is jealously, so is the desire for man to be able to do everything he sees the creatures around him doing. Jealously, rightly, has a negative connotation, so perhaps this is an unfair word to attach to the desire for humankind to physically better themselves, but I will leave it be. Perhaps this desire streams from God's command for man to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Too bad we haven't been better stewards of our charge, I guess we're still learning how much influence we have over everything, that, through our actions and numbers we can alter the world and all that is in it.

In very many ways, humankind is “too big for our britches,” in some ways think we are gods, but in others we have always thought ourselves too small. We looked at our resources and thought they were inexhaustible, we looked at our oceans and thought they were too big for little old us to affect, and so on and so forth.