“An Empty Fiesta”: The Sun Also Rises Review

“An Empty Fiesta”: The Sun Also Rises Review

 “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”

After any war in humanity’s history, there seems to appear a period of stunned, quiet disorientation. Before repercussions are fully realized, this confusion permeates culture as well as individual lives. It’s like the pause after an orchestra crescendo, or the darkness falling after the end of a play. This block of time after World War I, for both America and Europe, was the 1920s. God’s “death” in the modern age, coupled with the deaths of tens of millions of humans, shook man’s moral grounding. Other renown novels, such as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, showcase the moral degradation and personal strife that result from a society that doesn’t know what it is exactly, nor where it’s going. Not only in America did this disorientation take place; the aftermath of World War I also rocked Europe. What social effects did this situation produce in Europe during this decade?

In 1926, Ernest Hemingway published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Following narrator Jake and his expatriate friends—some from Paris, like him, others from America—the story tracks the characters’ journey from Paris to Spain for the fiesta and running of the bulls. The novel is written in a minimal, modern style that leaves quite a lot to inference. In fact, the style is a major reason Hemingway’s piece is notarized. The key thing about such a sparse style—many emotions and details are left out, and the resulting manuscript feels bare and to-the-point—seems to be the permission taken by the author, and given to students of writing, to not elaborate on everything. I found the resulting creation intriguing and original; that being said, I haven’t been exposed to this modern style much, so it’s not my favorite right now. Hemingway’s narrator keeps you wondering just enough that you (mostly) don’t slip into frustration with him; but he definitely straddles that line.

For example, here’s a sample from a chapter almost midway through the book. In it, Jake searches for bait worms near his hotel in Spain:

“Digging at the edge of the damp ground I filled two empty tobacco-tins with worms and sifted dirt onto them. The goats watched me dig.” (Pg. 90).

At least 95% of the story is communicated through this matter-of-fact language. Many scenarios, notably those of drinking and eating meals communally, are seen over and over. Hemingway’s monotony conveys a sense of the meaninglessness inherent in the characters’ current lives. That’s not to say there isn’t meaning in their universe—only that they have not maintained a hold on it. Yet, the ending and some of Hemingway’s omissions leave room for possibility.

The prose style makes a few lines stand out, too. Here are a couple of my favorites: 

Pg. 9: “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”

Pg. 117: “It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

Before Book 1, there are two excerpts; one is from the book of Ecclesiastes, and discusses the circuitous nature of life, death, and creation. It’s not the most uplifting passage, yet it describes much the tone of the novel. This time of year we’re in, the Christmas season, can be difficult for people suffering loss, depression, loneliness, sickness, or any number of things that dim the glow of those Christmas lights. Hemingway’s novel may not be the one to read if you’re feeling down—just a loving heads-up from someone who recently finished it. The Sun Also Rises is a unique piece of art: in the midst of meaninglessness, there is an implied gap. Something of foundational worth is missing. A few times, Jake and the main female character, Brett, mention God, and how they’ve never been able to really connect with Him. Here’s a conversation from near the end:

“I thought you weren’t going to ever talk about it.”

“How can I help it?”

“You’ll lose it if you talk about it.”

“I just talk around it. You know I feel rather damned good, Jake.”

“You should.”

“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”

“Yes.”

“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

“Some people have God,” I said. “Quite a lot.”

“He never worked very well with me.”

“Should we have another Martini?”

Through little such hints, Hemingway’s implied author points to a source of meaning outside the monotony. This alluded-to hope in relationship with God is suggested to be far better than the hopeless drinking in which his characters are currently engaged.

This holiday season seems an appropriate time to be transparent about the fact that following God (specifically, giving one’s life and heart to Christ) doesn’t mean we don’t get depressed, or lose people and things, or feel disoriented in the wake of a hurtful year. Yet, Jesus offers hope that ultimately transcends the mess; and if you’ve never given Him permission to be your Lord, you’d be surprised how well the God of the universe makes sense of chaos. This is just coming from a 21-year-old literature nerd who’s grappled with depression and anxiety; but on the nights it’s impossible to be “hard-boiled” any longer, reach out to Jesus Christ for help: He is Love itself.

“Door Closed, Door Open”: On Writing Review

“Door Closed, Door Open”: On Writing Review

Personally, courses and literature about the writing craft get my blood pumping. Other things that get my blood pumping include:

  • A hot, fresh pizza
  • Roller coasters
  • Sci-Fi movies
  • Giving class presentations (for slightly different reasons 😉 )
  • And many other fun things

However, for the purpose of this book review, advice from the prolific Stephen King, in his book On Writing, will be the focus of excitement. Published in 2000, shortly after a dire personal injury, On Writing includes encouragement and advice both on the craft of creating and everyday life. Written in a casual, disarming tone—not condescending, but instead, relatable—the book is comprised of constant touches of honest humor and, at times, blunt instruction. King’s charming childhood anecdotes serve as illustrations and views into his unique history and writing rituals. The imagery herein is effective: there’s one day he recalls going to the doctor for an ear infection as a child; the description of the needles and pain involved are cringe-worthy. King shows honesty that sets an example for what writers reveal in their individual work, and also how they present themselves to the people in their lives.

King’s story as an author starts with humble first attempts, a stack of rejection papers nailed to his wall, and comforting, sympathetic persistence—he never gave up on submitting or crafting more stories. He and his wife had a period of time where they worked at a laundromat and a donut shop, respectively—King makes it clear that normal life, with all its minute details (even disappointing ones) is okay. One of his remarkable pieces of advice is that we shouldn’t give up on manuscripts (or other forms of art) because they are difficult: even though we may not believe in something or be making progress right now, we can come back to it later, and find the thing we love about it.

Practically, the writing advice section of the book includes concrete advice on vocabulary, grammar, theme, pacing, backstory, structure, and more. King advises writers to have a daily word goal, or a set time—a personal expectation for each session in terms of productivity. He shares his goal and the struggles in protecting that time. Additionally, On Writing contains many “next step” recommendations, whether books, other guides on the craft, agent and publishing resources, and more. The last part of the book includes advice on revision, presenting oneself professionally to people in the industry, and submission strategies.

Overall, the book doesn’t come across as a strict directive toward any set of nuts-and-bolts rules, but rather, an encouraging talk from a mentor to remember the magic in writing, to have fun, and to work dedicatedly and excellently while doing these.

As a Christian writer, I enjoyed the optimism and encouragement in King’s book. I found his honesty reassuring and uplifting. His frankness about glaring mistakes writers make also rang true to our current culture’s hunger for quality material; so many contemporary works of art are wholly pessimistic, or written in a slipshod fashion—perhaps even formula fiction designed only to be widely sold. On Writing is a refreshingly upbeat call to take the craft seriously and make sure one’s work conveys a sense of meaning, which is already inherent in the time and effort one has spent making it. In a postmodern world that scoffs at universal meaning, King infuses his book with assurance that art does matter: people need to hear our edifying messages, whether they’re wrapped in overt hope, creepiness, or anything else.

To close out, here are some of my favorite quotes (I like to do this segment for print books). What are some of the most poignant and helpful points of advice you’ve learned about writing, or art in general?

Sweet Quotes:

Pg. 28: “ I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea [of creating his own stories], as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think).”

Pg. 29: “Four stories. A quarter apiece. That was the first buck I made in this business.”

Pg. 57: “‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,’ he [John Gould] said. ‘When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’” [Later, King also relates the advice from this mentor that you should write the first draft with the door closed, and the second draft with the door open.]

Pg. 74: “And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”

Pg. 98: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Pg. 101: “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Pg. 136: “You will build a paragraph at a time, constructing these of your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar and basic style. As long as you stay level-on-the-level and shave even every door, you can build whatever you like—whole mansions, if you have the energy.”

Pg. 167: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

Pg. 208: “But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

Pg. 269: “In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

“Jesus and the Holocaust”: The Auschwitz Escape Review (Audiobook)

“Jesus and the Holocaust”: The Auschwitz Escape Review (Audiobook)

There are circumstances in world history that are difficult to utilize in a work of fiction. No matter what an artist’s approach, the audience expects him to respect the cardinal facts, as well as the dignity, of a historical event and its constituents. When handling something as sensitive as the Holocaust, or 9/11 (Thank you, Miracle Mattress, for representing Texas so well), an artist needs to take care with his work. In his 2014 novel, The Auschwitz Escape, Joel Rosenberg balances fictional license and respect for historicity in an admirable way. Some elements of his story about the young Jacob Weisz, a Jew captured and sent to the notorious death camp, vary a bit from historical fact—several reviewers point out discrepancies with dates and names. However, Rosenberg handles the Holocaust, in respect to the Jews especially, in a fashion not nearly as insensitive as some accuse him of using.

I actually had the privilege of personally meeting Mr. Rosenberg about a month ago. He spoke at a Colorado Christian University chapel: his message was on storytelling as a Christian, and I could feel my adrenaline rushing the entire time he spoke. Jesus is a storyteller, Rosenberg told us; and it’s our responsibility as His followers to take note of the signs in our time—the life we’ve been allotted—and speak into our world with the wisdom and creativity He’s given us. Afterwards, I spent probably a little over a minute gushing to him about writing and inspiration. Mr. Rosenberg was approachable, encouraging, and authentic about struggles and joys of producing writing. It was an honor to speak with him.

In this novel, Jacob Weisz, a member of the Jewish resistance, is captured while attempting to free Auschwitz-bound train cars full of other Jews. Alone, without connections, he must learn to adapt to and rise above the circumstances in the merciless Nazi “death factory.” The historical setting was painted well—names, places, and dates are presented, not just from Germany and Poland, but even in occasional short chapters dedicated to U.S. officials. Christopher Lane did a superb job reading: each character, the majority of them possessing distinct accents, has a unique register of voice. The reading was slow, Lane’s voice is calming, and this doesn’t take away from the intense scenes at all.

Rosenberg handles the camp setting with integrity, yet also expands the world of the camp in a creative way, giving the reader inside looks at venues such as a medical clinic, storage warehouse, bakery, registrar’s office, and others one wouldn’t normally associate with such a setting. The camp’s atmosphere is not handled lightly; nor do characters get easy paths toward objectives. Normally, obstacles in the plot are believable, and rarely do characters seem to have too easy a way out of trouble.

The major problem I had with The Auschwitz Escape is the narration: there is so much blatant telling of facts, emotions, and thoughts, that it’s jarring. The lack of showing distances the reader emotionally from the story. It’s so heavy, in fact, that the protagonist didn’t end up appealing to me, because all his feelings and decisions were dryly enumerated in third person, matter-of-fact narration that, for the most part, wasn’t colorful enough to be considered free indirect discourse. Most characterization happens this way: rarely do actions reveal traits without that voice explaining unnecessarily what they’re meant to signify. One redeeming element here is that, on an inferior level, Rosenberg manages to make his characters sympathetic, and evoke emotion. However, this would have been remarkably more effective if the narrator had not been intrusive.

In terms of Jacob, the other nettling flaw is his constant sense of naivety. When conflicts or hard decisions pop up, Jacob converses with other important characters in the camp. These conversations are supposedly between a young man who’s trained for years in the rebellion, and operatives of the underground resistance movement in Auschwitz; yet, for all that training, it’s astounding how many dumb questions Jacob persists in asking throughout the novel. “What do you mean?”, “Who?”, “Do what?”, and the like are the essence of constant inquiries he poses to people who supposedly trust him. What, I wondered, do they see in a near-twenty-year-old who needs clarification on practically every subject of conversation? At one point, a man sitting with Jacob gets off the phone after explicitly speaking to someone at the White House. “They’re sending a car,” the man says (this is near the end of the book). Jacob responds, “Who?” Seriously, man? You’ve survived this long, and you can’t put two and two—no, one and one—together? I’ll step off my podium now; but the fact remains that a protagonist must live up to the strengths the author attributes to him. And Jacob Weisz, though he does develop, is decidedly not as shrewd as he is presented to be.

Other good points: Rosenberg’s pacing and utilization of time is good. He switches among characters every so often, in third person, and this is smooth. He skips years sometimes; yet it isn’t jarring. And he’s courageous enough to enumerate his faith through his characters: this is something I want to talk about, because this was the thing torn apart by the brunt of the negative reviews I read.

Rosenberg’s Gentile Christian character, a pastor, presents the gospel eventually. Many people saw this presentation as a blatant disregard for the dignity of the Holocaust—presenting Jesus as a solution, or a reason the Jews should be “grateful for surviving,” they asserted, cheapens and exploits a grave historical event. But Rosenberg doesn’t present Jesus as an insensitive, “cheer-up” solution to the horrors of the Holocaust. He doesn’t paint Christians as perfect, or even mostly in the right. Most Christians in his story do nothing. There are still German pastors preaching Reich methods. Martin Luther King Jr.’s late rantings against the Jews are candidly mentioned. The Confessing Church is the minority of believers in Germany. There still exist the irreversible, inexcusable actions of the Nazis. The Gospel presentation doesn’t attempt to negate or cheapen these elements. Rather, it offers hope in the midst of a suffering, as well as reasons to love the Jews and to keep striving.

At one point, the Christian pastor, Jean-Luc LeClerc, tells Jacob, “Good Christians—real Christians—do their best to love their neighbors and serve their Savior, even if that means being arrested; even if that means being sent to a concentration camp; even if it means death.” Rosenberg’s argument isn’t for a demotion of the existing atrocities of humanity: it is a call to Christians to present their faith through action. There’s nothing insensitive about advocating action against evil; one could say, instead, that writing a Holocaust novel without honoring the faith that many sufferers clung to is an incomplete presentation. If an author truly believes Jesus is the only true way to eternal life, then presenting the gospel of Christ in the midst of indescribable human suffering, while still respecting historicity and the Jewish people, is the most loving way to handle telling that story.

Many people treat Christian media derogatorily; sometimes, the quality of Christian productions deserves this criticism, in part. We live in a world hostile to Jesus. Does that mean we need to cloak our Gospel messages to be unrecognizable for the sake of man’s reception? Well, will we stand before man to give account for our lives? Whatever you create in the name of Jesus, do it excellently, with all your heart, and do it for Him. It’s true that considering feedback we will receive is daunting: we are promised the world will disdain us for it. Yet, there is a reason you’re here, and God knows precisely what it is. There are lives you will touch for Christ you haven’t even glimpsed yet.

“Hey, Neighbor”: Middlemarch Review

“Hey, Neighbor”: Middlemarch Review

Oh my goodness, my History of the Novel class has been doling out 800-pagers one after another. Fortunately, Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is the final significant novel we have. It’s an 838-pager—and, honestly, not my favorite we’ve read this semester. Still, it has plenty of redeeming and noteworthy aspects: here we go. 🙂

Middlemarch is a fictional English town—one of those provincial, farming communities where the elite rule and class is paramount in connections. Gossip spreads (regardless of social status) quickly around its small perimeter. The novel focuses on three main characters: Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, and Nicholas Bulstrode. Though the story centers largely around these three, their stories are intertwined with so many other figures that Eliot’s character count rivals Dickens’ in this work. All three of these figures marry, and have extended family in Middlemarch, too, so that happenings and relations pertain to the entire community. The abundance of names leads to a fair amount of narrative jumping among perspectives, which didn’t appeal to me much. However, character development through dialogue at least gives the reader something to hold onto for each one. Eventually, the narratives do loop around and link together in what is referred to as a social “web.”

Speaking of the narrator, she—I’m using that pronoun because of Mary Ann Evans—at times seems to ramble. Sometimes pages are chock-full of characterization; other times, it simply feels like there’s too much “telling” happening. By the middle, action picks up enough that this voice comes across less intrusive. Thus, the narrator is someone the reader may grow to like more with time. The positive side to this presence is that “she” aids the reader in knowing and caring about the characters, whose steady development wouldn’t be as strong otherwise.

One of the novel’s most poignant and apparent aspects is its social satire. The story explores implications of rich-poor relations, controversial marriage connections therein, financial reform, and other dynamics. There is an extensive examination of gossip throughout: the effect of words which sweep around a community on an individual reputation, whether these rumors are founded or not. The rate at which word passes allows for a drawing out of tension among members and groups of Middlemarch that I find effective. The book is dubbed by Evans as “A Study of Provincial Life,” and Evans certainly utilizes the small universe of Middlemarch (though scene setting and description mostly exist in the margins) to showcase the beauties and commonplace flaws of this lifestyle.

Other notes: While the book is long, Eliot utilizes the space well—though it isn’t my favorite, it’s an engaging novel that one won’t regret having explored afterwards. Plus, the achievement of reading that many pages will be a point of pride, too. 😉 The chapters and eight books are fairly concise, which helps that motivating sense that the reader is moving faster than perhaps is the case.

Before the wrap-up, here are some of my favorite quotes:

“The man was still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding. The faults will not, I hope, be a reason for the withdrawal of your interest in him.” (149).

“‘I call it improper pride to let fools’ notions hinder you from doing a good action. There’s no sort of work,’ said Caleb, with fervour, putting out his hand and moving it up and down to mark his emphasis, ‘that could ever be done well, if you minded what fools say. You must have it inside you that your plan is right, and that plan you must follow.’” (410).

“It was a fine night, the sky was thick with stars, and Mr. Farebrother proposed that they should make a circuit to the old church by the London road.” (674).

“‘But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,’ said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, ‘character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.’” (734-735).

“Mr. Brooke was evidently in a state of nervous perturbation. When he had something painful to tell, it was usually his way to introduce it among a number of disjointed particulars, as if it were a medicine that would get a milder flavour by mixing.” (814).

A strong, faith-centered attribute of Middlemarch is its presentation of Christians—especially pastors—in the flawed light we have found to be valid in our own lives. While reputation casts falsely-negative (or –positive) light on people, the narrator introduces us to characters’ true integrities. Eventually, consequences of actions in the novel do come to fruition. It’s important to note, still, that the destinies of Eliot’s characters don’t always line up with their “dues.” This frankness is at the same time a reminder and a kind of admonition towards righteous living, because many of the righteous acts do end up receiving their earthly rewards. In all cases, eternal fairness is implied as a final result in the lives of everyone.

Why I’m Dropping out of NaNoWriMo (But Still Writing)

Why I’m Dropping out of NaNoWriMo (But Still Writing)

My adrenaline rushes at the approach of a writing competition. For years, creativity through words and story craft has been my passion. I believe God implanted it in me, and I look forward to seeing what He’ll do with it. NaNoWriMo is a communal venue, outlet, for me; and as many summers as I’ve done the month-long challenge, I’ve enjoyed it more than any other non-class writing endeavor.

So, you’re probably wondering why I’m quitting. Yes, that’s the word. ‘Fess up time: I thought I had more availability, and ability, than I ended up having. But there’s a more important reason, or else I don’t think I would write a blog post about dropping out of what could be extremely beneficial…

I’ve been realizing something lately: That I don’t make time for God. Not the penciled-in, I-know-I-need-to-do-this time (because that’s been my mindset lately), but the I-love-and-need-and-am-learning-to-trust-You time. Less legalism and more easy, restful communion. With almost three hours of drive time daily, and more homework than I think I’ve ever had, I’ve gotten caught up in doing work for God instead of making Him my first priority, and building my personal relationship with Him. Maybe you can relate. I forget constantly that relationship and heart is more important to Jesus than works and results. I realize I need to re-prioritize my time.

So, I’ll still be working on my beloved story. I’ll still hopefully be finding and protecting creative spheres of time. I just need to lay off one burden, focus on school, and put God above school, for now.

Psalm 52 contrasts the wicked’s reliance on their own riches (and efforts) with the child of God, who finds refuge and safety in Him. Verse 9 says, “I will give You thanks forever, because you have done it, and I will wait on Your name, for it is good, in the presence of Your godly ones” (ESV).

I want to make room for Jesus, not just for Him to do things with my life, but to be the top of it. So many people, myself included, work from a place of not fully realizing their acceptance, sanctified position, and loving intimacy with Christ. For me, being in that posture requires taking a couple steps back, and NaNoWriMo and its word counts is one of them this time.

Have you ever had to come to a hard realization, or give something up for your own mental, emotional, and/or spiritual health? I love you guys—thanks for your support. Leave me a comment, and have a great day. 🙂