Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: The Peach Keeper

I've been in quite a reading slump lately. Apart from audio books, I haven't completed anything since our spring break trip earlier in the month. I tried to get into a well-regarded book, The Child, about infant bones unearthed in a building excavation. However, with separate focus on several different characters, I had a hard time keeping them straight and struggled with multiple tenses. I know shifting from one tense to another can be used effectively in a novel with multiple perspectives, but I'm pretty sure my reading malaise stood in the way of the necessary hook.

I might have given up on The Peach Keeper, by Sarah Addison Allen, as well, if I hadn't been held hostage with no other audio book available for my daily treadmill sessions. I didn't feel enticed by the story until well into the second disc (with only six, that means a full fourth of the way into the book). Thankfully, I did stick with it. I would say it was a fairly enjoyable story (although not as good as her other book I read, Lost Lake).

Willa Jackson has no interest in attending the gala thrown by socialite Paxton Osgood, despite Paxton's request to honor the friendship shared between their grandmothers. Paxton, and her twin brother are busy working to restore the Blue Ridge Madam, a grand home that once belonged to Willa's family. When a skeleton is unearthed beneath the property's peach tree, Willa and Paxton are thrown together on a mission to discover clues to the identity of the body and how it ended up buried there. In the midst of their sleuthing both Paxton and Willa find love.

Of course, my husband walked in during an intimate moment between two of the characters (something I could have done without) and had to ask what in the world I was listening to. Ah, well. Thankfully, the scene was over quickly. I'm hoping to find something squeaky clean to listen to next. Ha! Perhaps another middle grade novel.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Book Review: Called to Create

I was recently sucked in for a sweepstakes opportunity. When I saw the details, I couldn't hold back the glimmer of hope that I might win the coveted trip. It paired my favorite travel destination, England, with a chance to enjoy a dinner with Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis's step-son. Had I won (sob, sob - I didn't), it would have been a grand chance to reconnect. I was blessed with the opportunity of getting to know Doug Gresham when he came to Wheaton during my college days to research his autobiography, Lenten Lands, a book describing his life with C.S. Lewis. I worked transcribing C.S. Lewis's personal letters at Wheaton's Wade Center. I spent many an afternoon sitting at a table with Gresham - enough so, that we eventually made a pact to share autographed copies of our first published books with each other.

Thus, when I chanced upon an opportunity to enter the sweepstakes by virtue of the purchase of Jordan Raynor's book, Called to Create, I jumped on board. I think my initial impression was that this would be a book devoted to God's calling for artists and writers, but the word create was used in a more broad sense (and had I paid attention to the sub-title, A Biblical Invitation to Create, Innovate, and Risk, I might have recognized this). While the entrepreneurial mandate wasn't exactly up my alley, I benefited from the book nonetheless.

Raynor's book is divided into four parts. Part I explores the idea of God as the First Entrepreneur (our creativity reflects the creativity of our Maker). Part II focuses on why we create (what we hope to gain - hopefully God's glory and not our own). Part III emphasizes the challenges we face in creating for His kingdom (be it books, art, food, products, etc.), and Part IV talks about the eternal ramifications of what we do/create. The book provides an abundance of examples (albeit, primarily entrepreneurial ones) of individuals called to create and how their life's work has manifested as a ministry (perhaps different than what we generally perceive as Christian ministry).

I couldn't sum it up better than Mark Russell (author of Work as Worship and The Missional Entrepreneur) whose endorsement states:

"Whether you're a business owner, an entrepreneurial employee, a student looking to make something of the world, the founder of a non-profit, a mompreneur, a photographer, a painter, a musician, an author, or a chef, Called to Create will help you see how your creative work can be an act of worship to God.... God has called us all, and in Called to Create, Jordan ... offers Christian creators an inspiring, biblically based invitation to embrace creativity as a means of serving God and others."

While I often question whether the humble offerings of my writing really matter, this book reminded me that if God has called me to it, He will equip and make something valuable of my contribution. Moreover, what I do can bring glory to God just as much as missionaries who take the gospel to foreign lands. God calls each of us individually and has a purpose and use for our creativity. I may not have won the chance to reconnect with Doug Gresham by purchasing this book, but I certainly received a jolt of fresh motivation to continue pushing my pen across the page.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: Thunderstruck - Highly Recommend

Listening to the audio version of Erik Larsen's splendid narrative history, Thunderstruck, was like watching a master puzzler build a 3-dimensional structure. The pieces came together to form far more than a flat representation of an image. The full picture of the story was built from the foundation up until it came to life in a grand, dynamic tale that felt so real, the reader seemed to be living in historical moments and physically present at key junctures. The end result was an intriguing exploration into a true crime that intersected with the history of scientific achievements.

Although the beginning was a bit hard to follow (weaving back and forth between the tales of Dr. Hawley Crippen and a young inventor, Guglielmo Marconi) it was worth the investment of patience because, like in a puzzle, there is a bit of confusion before the images begin to take shape more fully. Larsen is a master at this genre. He sucks readers in with his narrative style and provides just the right amount of information to flesh out the historical setting and characters.

Dr. Crippen is a mild-mannered physician from a small town in Michigan. He marries a strong-headed operatic-hopeful. When his wife's career fails to get off the ground, the two move to England where she can pursue burlesque theater. Guglielmo Marconi is a driven young man with an intense interest in scientific possibilities for wireless communication. The lives of these two different individuals converge when Marconi's wireless invention aids in the manhunt for the alleged murderer, Crippen.

Even if you are not generally drawn to historical accounts of scientific advancements, Larsen's explanations create a fascinating pull, without bogging down in minutia. Fans of Larsen's famous book, The Devil in the White City (a book about a serial killer at work during the 1893 World's Fair), will relish this book as it, once again, merges true crime with its unique place in time. The book reads like a novel while presenting meticulously-researched details of history. I should warn that the crime committed is rather gruesome and the descriptions bring it to life fairly vividly, so the squeamish might wish to experience the tale in book form, so they can skip through the pages of gory details. Still, I loved plunging into the historical time and setting. It was thrilling, towards the end, to think about the narrow escape Marconi and his wife made by not boarding the maiden voyage of the Titanic as they had intended. It was a wonderfully engaging, as well as educational, audio-book experience.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere - Highly Recommend

Celeste Ng did an outstanding job with her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. The book (my review here) tapped into the tensions that often play out in family relationships. Despite elements that normally put me off, I liked that novel. Oh, how hard it is to top a critically-acclaimed debut! But, in my opinion, Celeste Ng has done just that with Little Fires Everywhere. I marveled at the intricacies of her plotting, the vulnerability of her characters, and the depth of her insights.

The story begins with bizarre little clues - the recent hub-bub in the press about Mirabelle McCullough ("or, depending which side you were on - May Ling Chow") had been eclipsed by the astonishing act of Izzie Richardson when she burned down her family's home the morning after the Richardson's mysterious tenants fled. From these elemental first hints, three separate stories begin to slowly unveil and intertwine. The Richardson family live a picture-perfect life in a spacious house in the utopian community of Shaker Heights until Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl move into their rental duplex. As Pearl becomes more and more enmeshed with the Richardson children, Elena Richardson is desperate to discover clues to Mia's past. Meanwhile, Elena's best friend is in the throes of a public court case after attempting to adopt an abandoned baby.

As the tale progresses, the reader is introduced to a host of thought-provoking issues. What is more important for a child - love and adequate provision or the cultural identity of their biological parents? How do parents grieve the loss of a child? How does a woman hand over the child of her womb to someone else to raise? Do people always deserve a second chance after they make a mistake? What does one lose when one runs away from problems and mistakes? Does rule-following bring freedom or bondage? Are secrets dangerous? Can anything overshadow the intense pull a mother feels for her own child? Does holding a child tightly keep them safe or cause them to rebel? So many human emotions are tapped in this novel. I think mothers will feel especially drawn to its intricate dynamics.

As a writer, I want to analyze and explore Ng's craft. How does she suck the reader in so completely and so quickly? How does she write in such a way that the reader forgets there is an author? How did she plan out the plot to reach the perfect climax and resolution? I read with a critical eye the first time, but I'd love to read this book a second time to further explore these questions. I'm not surprised it won Amazon's "Best Novel of the Year" in 2017.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Spring Break Travels to Texas

We had such a good time last year, visiting my husband's sister and her husband, that when spring break rolled around again this year, we opted to fly to Texas once more. John and the boys are all creatures of habit - they love to repeat things they enjoy (for example, when we visit John's mother we almost always begin the weekend with a Friday night trip to Dairy Queen, a Saturday jaunt to the mall for food court fare and window shopping, and a Sunday activity at Skateland). They would have been happy with a repeat of all our activities from last year (well, all but the phone in the washing machine fiasco). Thankfully, Phil and Martha expanded our experiences to take in a few more interesting adventures.

Monday was, as expected, a long day of travel, but our lay-over time in Dallas was quite enjoyable because the Southwest employees hosted games for the waiting travelers. They explained that Southwest Airlines was founded in 1971 (a fact stuck in my head forever). For the first game, they offered a hundred dollar travel voucher to anyone holding a 1971-dated penny and a fifty dollar voucher for the individual with the oldest penny. I dug in my pockets to play along, but most of mine were 2000 or later. John discovered a 1956 penny in his pocket and took it up, but someone else snatched the prize with a 1940s penny. Next, they offered vouchers for people whose credit/library cards, etc. ended in 71. Then, 1971 birthdates. For the final game, they offered prizes to the three who guessed the closest to the number of gallons of blue paint required to cover a Southwest 737. Sean told Trevor to go up with a guess of 73 (I think the correct answer was 90). Then Sean went up with his own guess. When the woman called out Trevor's name for the third place prize (a $50 voucher good for one year), Trevor went nuts - "You mean I won???" He was stoked! It made for a very memorable travel experience (in a good way).

On Tuesday, Phil and Martha drove us to Carlsbad Caverns. We knew ahead of time that the elevator was not working, but figured we were young and healthy enough to take on the challenge. The orientation park ranger explained that it would be a four mile trek on a steep terrain. I don't think we grasped the magnitude of that wrinkle until we were on our climb back up and out of the cave. Talk about hard work! I was huffing and puffing like the proverbial wolf. I could feel the blood pumping in my head. The boys kept an unbelievable pace on the return (even with my daily treadmill workouts, I couldn't keep up with the youthful vigor of boys who often spend too much time sitting around playing Fortnight - their current fixation). Thankfully, we all made it back to the surface safely. The structures in the cave were magnificent and it was great fun in the midst of the giant workout.

When we returned to El Paso, we hoped to meet up with our niece, Sarah, and her husband, Saul, for dinner at the restaurant they took us to last year - Barrigas (best Mexican food I've ever eaten). Alas, we arrived to an empty parking lot and a vague sign that did nothing to explain the temporary closure. Sarah and Saul suggested a second option, but we vetoed that because it had a Mexican seafood emphasis and neither of the boys are big on seafood. Finally, we settled on Carnitas Queretaro and Saul enjoyed their Taco Tuesday deal, getting a variety of different tacos, plus treating us again to the classic Queso Fundido. The boys and I all ordered the "Golden Tacos" and John had some sort of Mexican soup. We had pleasant conversation and may have guzzled more water than usual because of our day's activity.

On Wednesday, we embarked on another trip into New Mexico - this time visiting White Sands National Monument. As we walked toward the entrance to the visitor's center, I overheard someone passing along their 3 round plastic sleds and a small cube of wax. They weren't finding any takers, so I happily took them. We marveled at our exceedingly good fortune when we discovered inside that all the sleds for purchase were sold out. It was a good thing we acquired the sleds for free because sledding down the sand dunes was rather anticlimactic. You really didn't go fast at all. Still, we had a great time climbing the white gypsum sand dunes and sitting atop them while the boys (and occasionally we grown-ups) sled down from time to time. The view was stunning with a clear blue sky above the distant mountains and an endless stretch of white before us.

Upon our return to the visitor center, I set off to pass along the sleds to someone else. When a man approached me and offered $5 for the sleds and wax, I instantly decided to take him up on the deal - he was obviously willing to expend the money and they were sold-out and inaccessible otherwise. I think everyone else in our party was appalled that I took the man's money without explaining that we had obtained them for free. I assured them that I would pass along the unexpected windfall (or in their eyes, mercenary extortion - ha) to a worthy cause (I intend to donate the money to my Bible Study Fellowship offering - they do not charge for their study materials and provide such eternal profitability).

On Thursday, in keeping with our exercise regimen, we decided to repeat last year's hike up to a cave on Franklin Mountain. This time around, John actually made it to the ground above the cave, where he said the view was even more spectacular. Although I was quite achy and sore by the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, I felt exhilarated by my accomplishments.

Our return flights home on Friday went smoothly and during the 30 minute layover window in Houston, we received the long anticipated call from Bryce with news about his job assignment (we have been waiting patiently to learn whether or not he snagged his first choice assignment in the Chicago area). Alas, instead of three openings in the Chicago area, it turned out there was only one available in Blue Island and Bryce didn't get it. He will go to his second-choice location, a plant in Marietta, Ohio. Thankfully, the assignment is a temporary one (from 18 to 30 months), so even if he doesn't exactly like the location, it will be a learning experience with a short duration. Hopefully, when the more permanent rung of placements arrive, he will not be all the way across the country. For now, I can live with a five to six hour drive to visit him. He seems thrilled and excited about the whole thing and that is all that really matters.

Although we had great visits in 2017 and 2018 for our spring breaks in El Paso, I'm hoping John will choose a different location for next year (I think we've milked their kindness and hospitality enough - you wouldn't believe how much bacon Martha cooked up for the boys during our five day visit). Perhaps we will venture to Florida and include a brief visit with my parents (we cannot impose on them too much due to the limited size of their home and limited patience of my mother, whose dementia makes visits far more tricky these days). I wouldn't mind a mother-son trip to London (as one of Sean's classmates enjoyed for his spring break). Doubt I could get my travel-averse husband to jump on board for that one, even though we already possess the necessary passports. In my dreams, anyway. Too bad Southwest doesn't fly to London - after all, Trevor has a $50 voucher to offset the expense!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection

Who hasn't heard the buzz surrounding Brene' Brown? As the back cover proclaims, "Her TED talks have been viewed by millions, and her work has been featured on PBS, NPR, CNN, and OWN's 'Super Soul Sunday' with Oprah Winfrey." I think I've avoided her books because of the hype (This was selected for my on-line book club, but I failed to secure a copy of the book in time). Plus, with The Gifts of Imperfection, the subtitle (Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are) made me suspicious from the outset that it would be another encouragement to "love yourself" more.

I'm very skeptical of this movement to embrace self. I believe it is a far better practice to focus on others and diminish attention to oneself. What seems like an inability to love yourself often stems from loving yourself too much and thereby thinking you should have more or be more or gain more attention. I just don't buy the whole argument that you cannot love others unless you first love yourself. Perhaps it is because I was raised on the JOY chorus: Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in-between. When individuals are driven to be themselves more, love themselves more, and prove to the world how worthy they are of love and recognition, it seems to me that everyone around them suffers from their imbalanced emphasis on self.

True to my expectations, within the first few pages the argument begins for tossing aside our feelings of unworthiness so that we will "discover the infinite power of our light," and "cultivate worthiness." Brown attempts to encourage her readers to live wholeheartedly, to be their authentic selves, and to accept their imperfections. While those goals are noble (who wants to befriend someone who is ingenuine? or for that matter, perfect?), I keep coming back to the idea that our worth is not found in ourselves but in living for God and for others. We cannot measure our worth by what we accomplish or what we've accumulated. Moreover, I don't want to be striving for self-worth. I'm sure I would do well to have more of God and less of me.

Brown does mention faith and prayer, but in a very general way. Still, I felt the structure was sound. In each chapter, she focuses on something to cultivate and something to let go. I cannot fault her for stressing the need to cultivate authenticity, resilience, gratitude, creativity, and meaningful work and play. I thoroughly agree with her assertion that "our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together. Imperfectly, but together." And, in my writing, I'm always practicing the mantra she prescribes, "Today, I'm going to believe that showing up is enough."

I loved the vowel checklist she mentioned from a Twelve Step meeting: A- Have I been Abstinant? E- Have I Exercised? I- What have I done for myself today? O- What have I done for Others? U- Am I carrying Unexpressed emotions? Y- Yeah! What is something good that's happened today? Reflection is good for the soul.

I appreciated the bit on the importance of play and rest. I live with someone who was raised to think the measure of a person's worth is tied up in their productivity. Wholehearted living certainly demands time to simply enjoy life. Just like in one of my favorite books, The Gift of Pain, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, imperfection is also a gift. We tend to want to avoid it or explain it away, yet it can and should be embraced. So, I do think Brene' Brown hit the nail on the head with the title of this book and there is certainly value in exploring and embracing our imperfections.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book Review: Nights of Rain and Stars

Maeve Binchy is one of the few authors whose books I will snatch up at thrift stores and willingly invest shelf space for. I've had this one, Nights of Rain and Stars, for several years now, just waiting for the right time to come along. Since I like to bring my own books for travel (I dread losing or damaging a library book), I packed this one for our spring break trip. It lived up to the Binchy name, but perhaps wasn't one of my favorite of her books. As always, Binchy managed to people an interesting landscape (this time a Greek village) with well-developed characters experiencing relational tensions.

A hodge-podge of tourists are gathered in the village taverna when bright lights from the harbor attract their attention. They helplessly watch as a tourist vessel burns, taking the lives of both villagers and tourists. Bound by the shared intensity of observing the tragedy, the vacationers become friends and linger to learn more about each other and the sad event. Elsa, a reporter from Germany, is attempting to get away from a soured relationship. David is fleeing persistent expectations to take over the family business. Thomas, a professor on sabbatical, is attempting to keep his relationship with his young son alive in spite of the distance and the threat of a new father-figure for the boy. Fiona is convinced that she and her boyfriend could make it in the tiny Greek village despite the misgivings of her friends and family.

While each character had an intriguing story, the plot seemed to amble at too slow a pace. Still, I think it was worth the time invested. I just wouldn't recommend it as a first introduction to Maeve Binchy's writing. I'd rather recommend Tara Road, or Quentins, or Minding Frankie. She excels far more when she writes with an Irish setting. She is a masterful storyteller and knows how to weave the lives of characters together to form a beautiful tapestry.