Recent Reading: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God

Etgar Keret, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (& Other Stories)

I’m going to attempt to start writing some ‘recent reading’ posts. The goal of these posts, in the past, was to write down things from the books that I found helpful (think applications).

I was visiting Square Books in Oxford, MS and this book was on a ‘recommended reading’ shelf with a note from a staff member calling Keret ‘like Chuck Palahniuk, but better.’ I was sold. I absolutely loved this book and have already ordered another collection of Keret’s short stories to read.

Takeaways from several of the stories:

  • The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is a good picture of grace over strict legality; how compassion can impact people
  • Hole in the Wall was probably my favorite story int he collection. It involves a lonely man who wishes for a friend (more specifically an angel). His wish is answered, but the angel doesn’t live up to his expectations. The narrator calls him ‘a liar with wings.’ I’ve already used this in a sermon as an illustration of hypocrisy.
  • A Souvenir of Hell is about a town that borders an entrance of hell. Once every hundred years or so, residents of hell are allowed to visit the town. The main character is infatuated with a resident of hell, but after the hole is closed up by the government, she can only go on telling stories about what she had seen.
  • Breaking the Pig tells the story of a boy who chooses to save his friend. The friend happens to be a piggy bank. He values his friendship with the toy more than the money he would gain by breaking the bank.
  • Cocked and Locked is probably my second-favorite in the collection. It involves an Israeli military narrator patrolling the border. He is taunted every day by a Palestinian who doesn’t know that the narrator’s gun is useless. The narrator feels impotent, knowing he can’t use his weapon. The twist in the end shows us that we’re all really impotent in the end in some sense.
  • Korbi’s Girl is another good one. A young man steals another young man’s girlfriend. The other young man seeks revenge. The brother of the first young man (who stole the girlfriend) is caught in the middle. This story involves a lesson/exploration of the nature of justice.
  • Missing Kissinger is another favorite. It follows a husband as he attempts to fulfill his wife’s request to ‘prove his love’ to her.
  • Plague of the Firstborn involves the story of Exodus. It explores the idea that some mercies are actually judgement.
  • Pipes was another story in enjoyed. It involved a lonely man who found a way to heaven by building an intricate pipe. He discovered that heaven wasn’t for good people; it was “for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth.”

Recent Reading: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

I read Slaughterhouse Five a while back because it was highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and because another of my favorites authors, Douglas Coupland, is a big fan of Vonnegut. So, when I saw this book on the for-sale rack (for a quarter) at my local library, I decided to pick it up. I’m in the lull between the end of classes and final exams at seminary, so it’s high time for some fiction for the sake of sanity.

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

This book will be added to my list of recommended reading on culture and technology. Last year, I accidentally stumbled upon Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, and discovered that it was a story that dealt with scientism; it turns out the same thing has happened again with Player Piano.

In the story, another dystopia by the way, Vonnegut depicts a future for America in which the scientists and engineers rule the day. Machines have been invented to do essentially all menial labor that there is to do, which has left no work for the working class. Everything about your life is essentially predetermined by your IQ score. If you are smart enough, you go to college and become something of value and significance; if you are not, you join the army or some belittling government corps. If you really want to make it, you must become an engineer. And as an engineer, you care for the machines that essentially rule the culture. Just be careful not to invent a machine that will take your place. If you do your job well, you might climb your way up the managerial bureaucracy.

The story centers around one such engineer named Paul Proteous (a great name by the way) who happens to be the son of one of the most successful engineers in the history of the country – the engineer given primary credit for the current machine-driven system. Paul begins to consort with folks from ‘across the river’ and learns how miserable common people are in this system, a fact that he has been oblivious to all of his life heretofore. He, along with an engineer-friend that has given up on the system, meet a Protestant minister who tells them of his belief that the lower class are primed for the arrival of a messiah that will deliver them from their low estate of, basically, having nothing of any significance to do.

From this point on, Paul is caught on the threshold of two worlds and must decide what he truly thinks of the cultural system as it is. Should he continue to live his successful life without experiencing any sense of significance or purpose, or could he perhaps rebel against it.

As his name is Proteous, the name given to him by his father, the most famous name in the land, he is ultimately recruited to serve as a nominal messiah to lead to lower class in a rebellion against the bureaucracy. Still, he is torn between two worlds and must decide to which side he will pledge his ultimate allegiance, realizing that this coup may cost him everything. I won’t give away the ending, so I’ll stop there.

Vonnegut wrote this story in the 1950s, and his prescience is astounding to some degree. I am always amazed by the people that can see things coming. Personally, I find that I am good at diagnosing problems, but not so good at seeing where those problems will lead to down the road. This book belongs with Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 in relation to dystopian visions of the future. It hits upon the basic question of what man is meant to do, and what man will do when that meaning and purpose is taken away – in this case by gadgets.

Recent Reading: Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

Harrison Bergeron (a short story), by Kurt Vonnegut

This short story depicts a dystopian world in which all men are equal (America in 2081). All men being equal, however, it turns out, is not easy to accomplish. Equality is accomplished through government-imposed handicaps.

For instance, if you are more intelligent than the average person, you are fitted with a mandatory ‘earbud’ (if you will) that pumps in random loud noises every few minutes to make sure you can’t sustain a train of thought. Or, say you’re too beautiful, then you are required to wear a mask. You can always know who’s beautiful, since they’ll be the one wearing the ugliest mask.If you’re too physically able, maybe a fast runner, then you have to constantly wear a heavy load on your back.

As with Player Piano, which I also read recently, the book ends with the promise of a messiah that will deliver the world from its bondage to equality, and the ultimate failure of that messiah.

The story turns out to be a fairly good parable for a culture still coming to grips with what equality truly means – a culture that rejects the notion that God desires unity, not uniformity – and a culture that always rejects those (him) who would save it from itself. You can read the story online HERE.

Recent Reading: The Visitor, by J.L. Pattison

The Visitor: A Short Story, by J.L. Pattison

Before I write a food words about the book, let me make a couple of notes: First, the book is available for free on Amazon for Kindle until tomorrow, September 6th. I’d encourage you to download it. Second, Mr. Pattison is a regular commentor on this blog, and has one of his own HERE.

The book itself is a short story set in the late 1800s through the mid 1900s. It blends science fiction with real history. I’m not always a fan of such, but he actually pulls it off quite well. It tells the story of how an American from some point in ‘the future’ attempts to travel back to warn the founding fathers of the United States of the future actions of the nation and the tragedies it will be involved in. The time traveler doesn’t quite make his destination of late 18th Century America, but he does manage to give his account to a former slave, now farmer, in late 19th Century Georgia. Leroy Jenkins, our Georgia farmer, has a hard time getting anyone, including a fairly well known journalist, to believe his story about the future of America. But by the end of the story, the assassination of a president makes at least one believer out of the long-dead Leroy’s story.

Pattison manages to weave some interesting themes and allusions into the story. I personally enjoyed this aspect of the narrative, though he is kind of scratching where I itch on these.  I’m not sure if the Leroy Jenkins of the story is somehow a nod to the Leroy Jenkins of viral video-game clip fame (not linking it because of questionable language), but it made me giggle upon reading the first line of the story. The Leroy of the story is actually sort of opposite to the Leroy of the video game, since he doesn’t go storming into anything, but actually remains overly passive in some sense. [Edit: Mr. Pattison tells me this was no meant to be an allusion]. There is also an allusion to the tension between the sovereignty of God and the outworking of history in relation to time travel. I find that to be an interesting thought experiment. Finally, there’s a big nod given to Neil Postman and his vision of the American future given in Amusing Ourselves to Death; Pattison even manages to give a bit of a nod to Aldous Huxley, though I know he’s not a huge fan of Brave New World. The needle-in-the-arm-sedation ending is quite Huxlean, and I thought it was a brilliant ending.

I recommend the story. It’s a very short read, but quite intriguing. The weaving of an interesting fictional narrative with theology, history, political commentary, media ecology, science fiction, and pharmaceuticals in such a short space is impressive.

Recent Reading: The Search for Delicious, by Natalie Babbitt

We liked Tuck Everlasting so much that we decided to get another book by Natalie Babbitt. We weren’t disappointed.

-Natalie Babbitt, The Search for Delicious (1969)

The Search for Delicious is a fairy tale of sorts. It involves an attempt at defining the word ‘delicious.’ Each member of the kingdom has his or her own opinion. Delicious is an apple; delicious is fried fish, etc. Needless to say, no one can agree on a way to describe what delicious is. This leads to a massive polling of the kingdom, carried out by the main character, a young man/boy named Vaungaylen.

There is  a wicked villain in the story who attempts a massive coup. There are dwarfs and mermaids. It’s a great fairy story. But the argument over what is delicious is the central running theme. Arguments break out everywhere the question is asked, until they surprisingly find something that everyone in the kingdom can agree is delicious. Many of the reviews of the book I’ve read emphasize the attention on diversity and disagreement, and how everyone can ‘find a way to get along in the end.’ But I don’t really think that’s the point at all. They really do agree in the end. There really is something delicious that all can agree on, despite their differing tastes. I won’t spoil the story, but I’ll say this: the thing they all agree is delicious is something that they do not appreciate until it is almost taken away.

This is a beautiful children’s story. It’s funny, it’s serious, and it tackles the interesting issue of objectivity and subjectivity, and how there is something that is objectively delicious, but we often fail to realize it because of our subjective situations. This one goes onto my recommended reading for children list.

52 Novels: (2) The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The past drives Christians.

In Scripture, past deliverance and grace drives us to present obedience and future hope. We are called to remember what, and who, we once were. We are called to remember what Christ has done for us. We are called to remember the mighty deeds of God. We are called to remember the saints of old who set an example of perseverance and faith. We are called to remember the history of the church.

We are also called to forget the past: Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14).

The past drives everyone. It can drive us in positive ways and negative ways.

It’s said the Michael Jordan not making the varsity basketball team as an underclassmen spurred him on to greatness. How many stories have you heard of someone being driven to greatness by the ‘You can’t do it’ comments of the past?

How many men and women have forever been emotionally and romantically ruined because of lost love? Because of the inability to move on? Because of inability to move beyond the hurt and find healing? Cat Stevens said ‘the first cut is the deepest.’ All cuts hurt and take time to heal. Someone has said that there is a presence in what is missing. That’s what we see in the life of Gatsby. He is a haunted man. The presence of what is missing dominates his life, and ultimately destroys his life.

Gatsby is a man who is haunted by the past. He is a man consumed by the past. He is consumed by the idea of a woman he once knew and loved. It drives him to greatness financially, as he strives to amass a fortune that will impress his lost love. It drives him to ruin in every other way.

I wonder how different Gatsby would look in the age of social media. Would he simply anonymously stalk Daisy on Facebook? Would he flaunt his great possessions on Instagram? I wonder if his lust would last if he could see pictures of her young child in an online photo album. I wonder if his lust would have died in an age in which technology takes away the imagination. He wouldn’t have to ask, I wonder what she looks like? I wonder what she’s doing?

I wonder how many men and women are still haunted by past events to the point that those events have a determining impact on their present and future.I wonder how many folks are emotionally and spiritually crippled by memories. I wonder how many men and women hold on to past imaginary ideals instead of living in the now. It’s always easier to love an idea than a person. Ideas don’t argue or contradict the thinker. Ideas aren’t entangled in marriages that must be broken up if we are to achieve our goals.

If nothing else, Nick, Gatsby’s apostolic biographer, warns us that the ghosts of the past can destroy us if we do not exorcise them. Be careful what memories you let dominate you. Those memories may even drive you to greatness is one area or another while causing ultimate spiritual ruin.

You could pick up all sorts of themes in Gatsby. But for me, the inescapable themes involve the crippling effects of idolatry and memory. Exalt something so high, think of it so much, refuse to let it go, and it will end up possessing you, rather than you possessing it. And who knows what it will do with you? Who knows if its hold on you may be crushing?

Recent Reading: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I have been on a drought in my book choices lately, but the last two have been home runs. My daughter and I decided to read this book together, mostly owing to two things: 1) she had recently memorized a poem by Stevenson and 2) I have wanted to read it for quite some time. We’re all familiar with the ‘idea’ of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But perhaps it helps to take the time to read the book.

I knew nothing of Stevenson, other than his literary works. Then, after reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I read THIS. Stevenson had a Presbyterian pedigree, but he had spurned the covenant of his fathers. That made the book all the more interesting. I won’t try to psychoanalyze the author here, but only offer a few thoughts.

First, if you are familiar with the New Testament, you cannot escape the connection of this book with Romans 7. A quick Google search proved the point by yielding 101,000 results for ‘Romans 7 Dr. Jekyll.’ The inner battle of Dr. Jekyll is eerily reminiscent of the battle of the man of Romans 7. But, in a strange twist, Dr. Jekyll actually desires to be rid of his ‘better self.’ If he could only separate the good man from the bad man then there would be no more battling of the conscience. Through his drugs, the good Dr. become Mr. Hyde, and is wholly free from the tyranny of c0nscience.

Let me make two quick points on the story that I want to jot down for future reference.

First, in regards to the Romans 7 relationship, the ending of the story is quite interesting. Dr. Jekyll essentially ends with ‘O wretched man that I am!’ It holds out no hope. Romans 7, on the other hand, is followed by Romans 8:1-2: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of Christ has set you free, in Christ Jesus, from the law of sin and death.’

I once heard an author I like, N.D. Wilson, describe Flannery O’Connor stories like this: imagine the apostle Paul riding his horse on the way to Damascus. He is then blinded by a great light and knocked off his horse. Thus ends the story. There is no resolution. She doesn’t go on to tell us that he became the great apostle. It is only left for us to infer what happened next. There is a sense in which Dr. Jekyll’s story could have been that. Romans 8:1-2 could have been left hanging following the ‘O wretched man that I am!’ But it’s not… But in my mind it is.

The great hope we have is that we can turn our eyes and our minds away from our wretched selves to the Lord Jesus Christ. The struggle of flesh against Spirit, of the sinful nature against the regenerate heart can be great. It can thoroughly beat you down and make you want to give up. Robert Louis Stevenson captures that psychological element masterfully. But he has no hope to offer in the end. The only way hope could come is if the end would have been left hanging – if Jekyll remained on life support. But he doesn’t.

Second, I want to think for a moment about Dr. Jekyll’s ‘tincture. He is a Dr., and his means of transformation is drugs. I’m sure there are lessons in this. For starters, one recognizes in this story that the line between medicine and magic is very thin. What is a ‘draft’ or a ‘syrup’ for one could be a potion for another. A physiological condition for one could be an enchantment or demon possession for another. It all depends on how the story is told and which view you are inclined to take. The character of Dr. Jekyll alludes to this himself in some ways, calling Mr. Hyde a ‘familiar spirit.’ As one who works in the pharmacy industry, I always try to keep in mind that things aren’t always as mechanical as they seem. You can read another cautionary tale, this time non-fiction, HERE.

The takeaways for me are simple: 1) this story is very instructive for giving insight into parts of Romans 7 (but not Romans 8; we have to get there ourselves), and therefore into the human psyche. 2) It is a cautionary tale for us today about messing with our physiology through chemicals. 3) It is a startling picture of a man left without the grace of God – common (Mr. Hyde) and saving (Dr. Jekyll).

Recent Reading: Feeding the Mind, by Lewis Carroll

I was browsing free Kindle books on logic when I came across this little treasure. It was a balm for my soul today.

In this short book, Carroll likens reading to eating and the life of the mind to the life of the body. And so, he gives practical advice for how to properly feed the mind.

His three basic rules are that our mental intake should include the right kind, amount, and variety of reading to support a well-nourished mind.

From there we must (1) be careful to provide the right amount of time between meals (giving the mind an opportunity to rest) and (2) make sure that we properly chew and digest our food (he calls it ‘mastication’ and sums it up with Cranmer’s famous words that we are to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest‘).

Here are a few of my favorite quotes with a brief introduction to each:

1. You know what foods don’t sit well with your body; shouldn’t you know what kinds of books don’t sit well with your mind?

First, then, we should set ourselves to provide for our mind its proper kind of food. We very soon learn what will, and what will not, agree with the body, and find little difficulty in refusing a piece of the tempting pudding or pie which is associated in our memory with that terrible attack of indigestion, and whose very name irresistibly recalls rhubarb and magnesia; but it takes a great many lessons to convince us how indigestible some of our favourite lines of reading are, and again and again we make a meal of the unwholesome novel, sure to be followed by its usual train of low spirits, unwillingness to work, weariness of existence—in fact, by mental nightmare.

2. Don’t be a mental glutton. Over-reading is probably not a danger for most people today, but I myself went through a period in my life where I experienced it and needed a break.

Then we should be careful to provide this wholesome food in proper amount. Mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite…

3. Take short breaks

Having settled the proper kind, amount, and variety of our mental food, it remains that we should be careful to allow proper intervals between meal and meal, and not swallow the food hastily without mastication, so that it may be thoroughly digested; both which rules, for the body, are also applicable at once to the mind. First, as to the intervals: these are as really necessary as they are for the body, with this difference only, that while the body requires three or four hours’ rest before it is ready for another meal, the mind will in many cases do with three or four minutes. I believe that the interval required is much shorter than is generally supposed, and from personal experience, I would recommend anyone, who has to devote several hours together to one subject of thought, to try the effect of such a break, say once an hour, leaving off for five minutes only each time, but taking care to throw the mind absolutely ‘out of gear’ for those five minutes, and to turn it entirely to other subjects. It is astonishing what an amount of impetus and elasticity the mind recovers during those short periods of rest.

4. Chew your food; digest your food. Don’t eat any more until you’ve digested your last meal. This may be the best advice, and the advice I will take most to heart, of this book.

And then, as to the mastication of the food, the mental process answering to this is simply thinking over what we read. This is a very much greater exertion of mind than the mere passive taking in the contents of our Author. So much greater an exertion is it, that, as Coleridge says, the mind often ‘angrily refuses’ to put itself to such trouble—so much greater, that we are far too apt to neglect it altogether, and go on pouring in fresh food on the top of the undigested masses already lying there, till the unfortunate mind is fairly swamped under the flood. But the greater the exertion the more valuable, we may be sure, is the effect. One hour of steady thinking over a subject (a solitary walk is as good an opportunity for the process as any other) is worth two or three of reading only.

All in all it is a book that is as delightful as it is short, serving as a practical guide to get the most out of your reading. You can get the book for free for Kindle HERE, for free on the web HERE, and you can buy a paper copy HERE.