Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

Some books you read just click with you and your psyche. Others take time, and persistence, to grasp and understand. Still others you grapple with and wrestle with and sometimes force yourself to read, but you never really believe the story. And then there are those you begin to read and discover they’re lousy.

I fell in love with The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro almost from the first page.

He’s the author of several novels and others works, but I had only previously read the novel Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (I reviewed Nocturnes here in 2011). I have not read what is his best known work, The Remains of the Day, but I did see the movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (1993).

But The Buried Giant is something else entirely, a story of post-Arthurian Britain that is an unusual love story, a journey to find a son, a tale of intrigue and conspiracy, and ultimately a beautifully done essay on memory.

Axl and his wife Beatrice are elderly Britons, living what is inside a hollowed-out hill in community with other Britons. The Romans abandoned the country many years before, but locals still find their ruined country houses and other buildings. One wave of Saxons has arrived, and peace, if uneasy, exists between the Saxons and the Britons.

The couple can remember they had a son, but not much more than that. In fact, everyone’s memory seems to suffer, and it’s not a result of age for memory loss afflicts the young as well. Eventually Axl and Beatrice leave their community to find their son.

They first stop in a Saxon village, and find the villagers in great agitation. An ogre has carried off a village boy of 12 named Edwin. He’s rescued by a visiting warrior named Wistan, but the villagers discover the buy has a bite mark on his stomach, and it is not the mark of the ogre. To save the boy’s life from his own village, Wistan convinces Axl and Beatrice to take the boy with them, and Wistan joins them as well. Wistan is something of a mystery, on a quest for something he doesn’t disclose.

Along the way they encounter an aging Sir Gawain, he of Arthur’s Roundtable; they take refuge in a monastery where they find friends and enemies. They gradually learn what is causing the problem with people’s memories. And, yes, there’s even a dragon.

Kazuo Ishiguro
The relationship of Axl and Beatrice are the heart of the story, and the reason the novel hooked me from the beginning. Their love for each other is palpable; Axl refers to his wife as “Princess.” They are on a journey together, and as time passes they are remembering things about each other, not all of them good. But their love is steadfast, and of all the things “the buried giant” could refer to, I finally decided it was the love between this aging and sometimes infirm couple.

It’s a beautiful story, filled with a bit of both literal and figurative magic (Merlin hasn’t been gone that long, after all). In a culture where everything is changing – the last vestiges of Roman rule disappearing, the threat of more Saxons and other tribes coming, the breakdown of law and order before the rise of feudalism, it is the love of two elderly people that holds fast.

Top photograph: An early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon helmet from the burial ship found at Sutton Hoo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Prophet of Why, God?

She loses her hair. She gets mouth sores and receding gums. Anemia, fatigue and rashes become familiar companions, as does irritable bowel syndrome. She loses her toenails. Not to mention the pain that’s never far away.

Dealing, or perhaps simply trying to endure and outlast the side effects of chemotherapy for her breast cancer, Margaret Feinberg gets a phone call.

One hundred days after her breast cancer was confirmed, she learns her father has also been diagnosed with cancer. Her mother now has both a husband and her only child dealing with cancer.

Does this sound like Job?

Feinberg didn’t turn to Job. As she describes in Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears, she turns to the prophet Habakkuk.

Like several of his fellow prophets, Habakkuk could be called “the prophet of why, God?”

The Lord tells Habakkuk that Babylon will be used to bring judgment on Judah. And yet the book doesn’t describe all the terrible things that will happen.

Here’s what Feinberg learns: “Unlike other Old Testament prophets, Habakkuk doesn’t speak God’s Word to us as much as he speaks our words to God. He voices our doubts and disappointments. He enunciates that which leaves us puzzled and perplexed. Like us, he caves in to the temptation to tell God how to do a better job.”

Why, God?

What are you thinking here, God?

Exactly what is the point, God?

God, I’m waiting. Are you listening?

Habakkuk complains. And the Lord answers. Habakkuk complains again. And the Lord answers again. The third time, Habakkuk doesn’t complain. Instead, he prays.

As Feinberg notes in her book, the prayer is rather remarkable. It comes down to this: no matter what happens, I will rejoice. I can starve, but I will rejoice. I don’t understand Your ways, but I will rejoice. Always.

That’s the point Feinberg comes to. No matter what, she will rejoice.

And she does. She even gets reprimanded for singing a hymn while getting an MRI.

She was supposed to stay still, but rejoicing people have difficulty with that.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Fight Back with Joy. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Side of Joy No One Talks About,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Poets and Poems: Brian Felsen and “Female Figure (Possibly Venus)”

Brian Felsen was president of CD Baby, Book Baby and Host Baby. At a writer’s conference in San Francisco, he participated in a late night poetry reading for Book Baby, and read some of his own poems. The writers hearing them urged him to publish, and the eventual result was Female Figure (Possibly Venus).

It is a small volume, comprised of 22 poems. They address love, romance and relationships, but if there is an overarching theme, it is these are poems about language. And art. Playing with language. Sometimes playful language and images. Using art works as reference points. And the art of language.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, March 23, 2015

So Many Christians, So Few Lions: So Who’s Hostile?

About 12 years ago, I was hired by St. Louis Public Schools to be the director of communications. The district was in the throes of tsunami-like change, daily controversies, and protests. An outside management firm had been hired to do what no district administration could politically do on its own – downsize the district, close schools, outsource contracts, and lay a lot of people off.  

The year before this started, the communications department had 12 employees and a $1 million+ budget. When I was hired, it had one-and-a-half people (I was the “one” of the one-and-a-half) and a $20,000 budget, which had already been spent.  

What went on in my hiring process was a story by itself. I was told what went on sometime after I was hired. 

I was one of 10 candidates interviewed, the only male and the only one with corporate PR experience. I knew that, because all of the candidates were told to show up at the same time on the same day, and we sat together in a conference room until we were called out one by one. I was the last one to be interviewed. 

If that wasn’t unusual enough, it turned out that people outside the district had checked all of us out ahead of time, learning things that might have been illegal for the district to do. 

Like find out what religion we were, and what churches we attended. 

That I was a member of an evangelical Christian church turned out to be a point in my favor. The reason was that it was believed that an evangelical Christian would likely find it easier to talk with and work a school district whose administration and student body was majority African-American. Because religion and faith were very important to many of the teachers, staff and parents, someone thought that I would have an easier communications job. 

Set aside, for a moment, all the things that were wrong with that, and all of the biases and prejudices built into that assumption, not to mention the ice-cold calculation that went into it. As it turned out, the people making that assumption were largely correct.

I didn’t know any of this going into the job. I did the job the only way I knew how to do it, but something about me and what I did must have communicated, or telegraphed, something to the people I worked with. I was almost everything that employees in the district weren’t – I was white, male, and suburban, with experience working for two Fortune 500 companies. And yet we learned we had considerable common ground. 

This came to mind as I was reading So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States by George Yancey and David Williamson. The authors take a fairly in-depth look at the hostility directed toward conservative Christians, where this hostility seems to come from, and who exhibits it.  

One group that doesn’t exhibit Christianophobia is African-Americans. And it is likely because of the importance of faith and the historical role of churches in African-American communities. In fact, the authors say, the more religious faith (and related activities like church attendance) is important to you, the less likely are you to feel hostile toward conservative Christians.  

So who is who does exhibit this hostility?  

Surprisingly, this isn’t a red state / blue state thing, or a coastal-versus-flyover-country thing. This hostility is found in all regions of the United States, and the South (the Bible Belt!) is not much different that the rest of the country. 

Based on various surveys and research studies, the authors found that the people who tend to have and exhibit hostility toward conservative Christians are generally higher income, higher educated, and in positions of social influence. When they looked at what groups tended to find this pattern, they learned that at least one group was very similar in the demographics and degree of hostility – the people the authors called “cultural progressives.” 

The roots of their hostility were, or I should say are, in fears of a “takeover” by Christians, probably meaning a political takeover; the belief that Christians are “crazy” and intolerant, not to mention homophobic; a perception that the Christian Right is well organized and poised to move into government, forcing its way of life on everyone; and other factors.  

Interestingly enough, the hostility was less when those surveyed said they actually knew conservative Christians, even among the people who might be inclined to be hostile. Much like that work colleague I mentioned when I introduced this discussion. She said she was frightened by “those Christians,” but her head nearly exploded when she found out I was one of them. 

There’s a word for this behavior – objectifying. It means turn a person or a group into an object. It’s a form of stereotyping. It’s similar to me saying “all newspaper editorial writers are boneheads,” which I might conclude from reading what they write. But If I know an editorial writer, if one is a friend or neighbor, I’m less inclined to characterize them all as boneheads.  

Objectifying is not a good thing. At best, it prevents real communication. At its worst, well, consider people who’ve experienced it in its more extreme forms – the Jews in Nazi Europe, the Christians in ISIS-occupied lands, the untouchable class in India, African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, the native peoples of America and Australia. Turning people – any people – into objects is a despicable, destructive practice.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

You want to know

After Isaiah 58:1-12

You want to know
my ways
     Shout it
You seek me out
     Shout it
You ask me for justice?
     Shout it
You want me to see
your fasting to notice
your humility
     Shout it

be just
set free
be pure
feed the hungry
be light
be salt
be set free

Then you know
my ways

rebuild the ruins
repair the walls
restore the streets

he walked in the streets
armed with a broom and a heart.
Dust and debris everywhere,
filling his eyes, spilling
his heart

a small light
a flicker
rises in the darkness

     Shout it

Photograph of Ephesus by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

It was a good week for poetry (lots of poetry) and fun (The Piano Guys have a great version of “I Want You Bach!”). But nothing moved me quite as much as an audio recording by Seth Haines, who begins by talking about sitting in a church in Austin early one Sunday morning – hung over. Seth speaks to the brokenness in all of us.


The Church of Ted – Megan Hustad in The New York Times (Hat tip: Jim Schmotzer).

The Two Fasts – Seth Haines (Audio).

My Only Begotten Sin -- A.G. Harmon at Image Journal.


Be mine – Nancy Davis at Cornfields and Lightning Bugs.

The Last Café – Brendan MacOdrum at Oran’s Well.

“Lord, make me a bird…” – Jerry Barrett at Gerald the Writer.

For Troy (Childlike) – Seth Haines.

The Island – Chris Yokel.

In the City This Spring – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Those of the Broken Cross – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

Scars & Empty Vases - by Kevin Heaton at Curator Magazine

Photography and Art

Coping with the Winds – Diane Walker at Contemplative Photography.

Details of Three Ferns – Timothy Good at Photography by Tiwago.

Rembrandt is in the Wind – Russ Ramsey at The Rabbit Room.


Kites – via Ed Pilolla.

How “Christian” is Amish Fiction? – Mike Duran at deCompose.


Why Are the Humanities Deteriorating? – Mark Bauerlein at First Things.


Social Media Commitment Issues for Writers – Edie Melson at Novel Rocket.

Author Editor Insight – Travis Thrasher at The Journey is Everything.


The 1770s collide with the 1970s: I Want You Bach! - The Piano Guys:

Top photograph by Lubos Houska via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Walk the road

Walk the road at night
wilderness road
wilderness night
darkness canopied
by stars, night sky
wilderness night sky
stars emblazon without
lighting the road 

gaze upward

fingers on the stars
drops on the road
wilderness road
wilderness night 

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.