Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Dirty Old London

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was fascinated by all things Victorian London, especially all things related to Dickens and Victorian London. She amassed great quantities of books on Victorian England and her shelf of works by and about Dickens was full to overflowing. She obtained a masters degree in history, focusing on the Victorian era. I think I had forgotten all about the girl I once was until I stumbled upon two recent releases about Victorian London. This was the first of the two books I eagerly grabbed from the recent acquisitions shelf at the library.

Lee Jackson is apparently a well-known Victorianist (ah, so that is what I should call myself) and author of a book which sounds similar to a small guidebook I created for my Wheaton professor to use with his travelling students, called Walking Dickens' London. I'd be interested to locate the master copy of my old walking guide and compare it with Jackson's version. Alas, I haven't seen it in years and it might take me forever to locate it among my old papers.

Jackson has written an interesting treatise on filth in Victorian London in this book entitled Dirty Old London. I thoroughly enjoyed this little jaunt into a world I used to love to immerse myself in. The author skillfully weaves the findings of his research into a readable narrative about the problems of dirt, soot, and mud. Many passages were so appalling I had to mention them to family members. The problem of sewers, the challenges of dealing with mounting dead bodies, and the difficulties of public urination (before public facilities entered the picture) all swept me into vivid images of the London I used to think about often. I cannot imagine having the job of entering houses to remove waste in the dead of night or the horrific nightmares of young chimney sweeps. The plight of the poor captured my imagination thoroughly while reading this book. It must have sparked interest in my husband as well, because I found him perusing the book one night while I was attempting to complete my book club book.

Various chapters cover all sorts of difficulties encountered: "The Golden Dustman," "Night Soil," "Vile Bodies," "The Public Convenience," and "The Veil of Soot," to mention a few. Illustrations are offered up (many of them cartoons from Punch) in two sections of the middle. Moreover the bibliography covers a full fourteen pages.

Now, I'm off to explore Lee Jackson's website and to see if any of the libraries I use carry a copy of his Walking Dickens' London. I won't get to the second book on Victorian London  (which combines my love of London and Dickens) for a little while because I have a book or two due in the coming days without the possibility of renewal. If I do find the walking guide I wrote back in college, maybe I'll also locate the fascinating paper I wrote in graduate school highlighting several well-known Victorian murder cases. Those were some interesting days of research back in the stacks of the University of Illinois' library.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

I was skeptical about this book club selection. A book narrated by a dog about a race car driver? It sounded a bit hokey. I'm not a big fan of dogs or races. I doubted I would enjoy the book. I was wrong. While it was, indeed, hokey in spots (especially where the dog perceives a crazed zebra as responsible for the destruction of several stuffed animals or where the dog imagines he gains a tongue and presents evidence during a court proceeding), I did somewhat enjoy this read.

Enzo is the beloved dog of Denny, the race car driver. He is loyal and true. He sees things and knows things, but can only communicate with gestures. Like the reader, he observes a tragic story playing out and wishes he could intervene to change the trajectory, but cannot prevent the collision and the damage. I wouldn't have believed it could work, using a dog as the narrator of a story, but it does.

Enzo explains how Denny came to claim him, then met and married his true love, and had a daughter, Zoe. He outlines the course of events as Denny's beloved wife battles a brain tumor and her parents swoop in to steal away everything Denny holds dear. But Denny is a fighter. He's a race car driver. He knows about the perils of racing in the rain and he knows how to fix his eyes on where he wants to be in the race.

The book is full of quips of wisdom gleaned from the art of racing. The racing mantras prove valuable as life lessons and observations about our humanity and the obstacles we face. The book is inspirational and uplifting (although very depressing as Denny's obstacles mount) and is truly a more tender tale because of the specific perspective from which it is told. So, if you are skeptical, give it at least fifty pages (my own personal test before I'll cast a book aside) and then see. You might find you are hooked into the story and eager to know what Enzo observes and learns.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Classroom Innovations

The boys have settled into the school year and are both enjoying the fact that they get to be around friends every day (when you live out in the middle of the country, getting together with friends is more of a production than simply walking up the street like Bryce used to when we lived in a neighborhood back in DeKalb). Two years ago, when Trevor was in 3rd grade, he was in a shared learning community, with two teachers who team-teach. The kids rotate between teachers for language arts, math, and social studies instruction and do some activities as a large group together. They have a wall which can be closed to separate for separate instruction or opened for large group instruction. This allows you to have twice the number of friends. This year, Sean is in the same shared learning community for his 3rd grade year.

Sean is loving his new classroom for more than the teachers and the friends. They also have the coolest thing yet - a new kind of desk. Apparently, Trevor's class piloted this new desk a few years ago, and then the teachers set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a whole double set of the chairs. Sean is reaping the benefits of this campaign. The chairs facilitate the transitional learning structure of this classroom.

Here is a video to demonstrate the desk Sean gets to sit in every day:

Aren't they way cool? Almost makes me want to go back to school again... almost.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: Bridge to Terabithia - Highly Recommend

I kind of find it hard to believe that I hadn't read this book until now. I have heard great things about it for years. I even began listening to it as a read-aloud in one of the classrooms where I worked as an aide (sadly, the parent/reader failed to return to complete the book - perhaps this was because she included the few curse words used in the beginning of the book, a no-no in classroom read-alouds). I knew it was a tear-jerker because one of the writing instructors at a writers conference I attended a few years back read a portion of the book aloud to illustrate a point in her lecture. I was fully aware that someone dies in the book. After all, I knew that the book was written by Katherine Paterson on the heels of her son's loss of his best friend. Still, I wasn't prepared for how deeply the sadness moved me. It is hard to walk on the treadmill when you are sobbing.

Sean and I had begun reading this together when we went away for vacation. I checked out the audio version, hoping we would listen to the book while we were at camp (and we did during one free time for a bit). I couldn't wait for Sean to finish it, so I continued listening on my own during my exercise time. Despite the sadness the story evokes, it is truly an experience you won't want to miss.

Here's the summary from the back cover:

"All summer, Jess pushes himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, running mile after mile on the family farm. When the year's first schoolyard race is run, his victory is stolen by a new girl who doesn't even know enough to stay off the boys' side of the playground.

"But instead of becoming rivals, they become friends. Jess guides Leslie, the city girl, through life in the country, and she draws him into the imaginary world of Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess are safe from bullies and ridicule. One day, however, that tranquility is shattered when tragedy forces one of them to reign in Terabithia alone.

"In this poignant, Newbery Medal-winning novel, Katherine Paterson beautifully illustrates the joy and pain of growing up."

This was a tour-de-force. It was a magnificent book. I can't wait to finish the book with Sean and see whether it moves him as much as it moved me. I can't wait to attempt to weave such emotional gold in my own novels.
In thinking of the wisdom and skill of this author, I also wanted to share a TED talk I recently discovered about children's literature. It is well worth the 16 minutes of viewing time. Mac Barnett, another skilled children's author, uses humor to illustrate the poignant truth about the power of fiction. He speaks about how children's fiction should be a door to another world, a world of truth in the midst of lies:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

What's This World (and YA Literature) Coming To?

I'm feeling outraged and have to vent. According to this August article in the New York Daily News, to make it in the YA publishing world you have to include sex in your novels. Not just sex, graphic sex. Not just graphic sex, but sex that pushes the boundaries.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:

"Want to publish a Young Adult book right now? Make sure it has a threesome.

"The shelves of books aimed at the 14-year-old to 17-year-old reader are groaning - make that moaning - under the collective weight of explicit scenes involving multiple partners or love triangles.

"'I frequently tell my clients to sex it up,' said Brianne Johnson, an agent who represents authors of Young Adult fiction. 'It helps sales.'"

The article goes on to cite statistics of young adults losing their virginity. Yet, instead of viewing the increase in sexual activity of our young people as a warning sign of moral decline, the author of this article, Allen Sarkin, chooses to use it as a justification for stirring more morally questionable images into the minds of young readers. The author states, "that's why experts aren't worried about the polyamorous literary trend." No doubt it depends on which "experts" you rely.

Indeed, this author argues that teens are mature enough to explore sex, therefore they should be able to read about sexual activities in order to find their own way in an increasingly sexualized world. He urges such books help kids "as they search for their own sexual identities." In his eyes, if they are experiencing more of it, they should therefore be reading more of it.

To further his point, he cites an author of a sexually explicit young adult novel, Sarah McCarry, author of the 2014 novel Dirty Wings. She claims, "As a writer, the moral upbringing of the young people of America is not my job."

Not my job? Really? I cannot believe an author would actually argue that they bear no responsibility for what they present to the world in their stories. When reading the Donald Miller workbook, Storyline, I read an interesting quote that causes one to think. He writes:

"Every time you hear a story, the moral compass in your mind is adjusted. Good stories help us understand love matters, integrity is important and the world doesn't revolve around us. Other stories may teach us pleasure is king or power is worth killing for. A person's moral compass can be confused as easily as it can be set straight."

Furthermore, he says, "Make no mistake, screenwriters [authors] are teachers when they tell us a story because they are telling us what they believe is worth fighting for."

That is why this article really boils my blood. As Young Adult authors, we should be trying to present messages that enrich our young people, not tear them down or encourage them to destroy their lives. As author, Jim Burns, recently reminded me from the pulpit, "there is no such thing as casual sex." There is nothing casual about sexual relations. It is an act which binds one fully to another. I firmly believe that the best use of sexual activity is within a committed marriage relationship. I will encourage any young people I encounter to save their sexuality for that most meaningful relationship they aspire to. I don't believe children need more encouragement to try out sexual activities. Quite the contrary. They need bold literature reminding them of values which will strengthen and enrich their lives. Every author who puts pen to paper bears a responsibility for the words they present to the world. Indeed, I agree with Donald Miller, that every person tells a story with their life and, as such, bears responsibility for the story they are presenting to others.

Will your story bear good fruit or bad? Will your story make lives better or more morally corrupt? Of course, this article could encourage me to despair and throw in the towel, thinking "if that is what sells Young Adult fiction these days, then I have no chance in the world of being published." I am determined not to allow it to discourage me. I am determined to continue writing wholesome, morally upstanding literature. It is truly a shame that more Christian publishing companies aren't recognizing the moral decline of secular publishing standards and therefore making more of a push to increase their sales of quality literature.

If this is where the world of Young Adult literature is headed, can we really shake our heads in wonder when our young people become parents at far too young an age to bear the immense responsibilities of parenthood? Can we look aside as they increasingly explore sexuality in a moral vacuum? Apparently that is exactly what is happening.

At my most recent book club meeting, we began discussing the outrageous behaviors of parents at sporting activities. The conversation then veered to one mother expressing outrage at the information her daughters share with her about what really goes on in schools today. She proceeded to tell us that a friend of hers agreed to be a chaperone at the prom. At the beginning of the evening, the chaperones were pulled aside by the principal and told something like this: "Sex is going to happen tonight. Your job is not to keep it from happening. Your job is primarily to make sure that the girl is okay with it happening." My jaw dropped as this mother went on to say that young people are engaging in such activities right there on the dance floor and chaperones are instructed not to intervene.

So, I say again, what is this world coming to? At the moment, one of my YA manuscripts has been requested by an agent for consideration of representation. It is my only secular manuscript, yet it clearly bears evidence of what I believe is worth fighting for. There is a scene in a church, where the main character contemplates the sin condition of man. I very well may receive word any day now that the agent feels it is something too squeaky clean to be marketable. The bottom line remains the bottom line - what sells. When society gives in to the craving for morally irresponsible literature, moral decline cannot help but follow.

I fully believe that each of us will one day be called upon to answer for what we stood for in life. Our actions, our beliefs, our words will be reviewed. I don't want my life or my words to be found wanting. I want them to stand up to the light and to have accomplished good. In the fight against evil, I want to be a champion of what is good and right and wholesome, edifying and true. I want my words to move readers toward redemption. I may stand alone in that conviction, but stand I will.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: The Rosie Effect

There was a long hold list for this follow-up book to The Rosie Project (about a man with Asperger's Syndrome who uses a very methodical manner to find himself a wife) by Graeme Simsion. Thus, I used one of my little tricks to get The Rosie Effect earlier. I checked it out in the large print edition. I so loved the main character in the first book that I had to give the second one a try.

Don Tillman has snagged the lovely Rosie as his wife. All is smooth sailing until she announces that they will be bringing another person into the equation because she is expecting a baby. Don knows he is an odd bird. He recognizes his failure to catch on to social cues, his tendency to over think things, and his different way of processing information. Having a baby presents more than the standard anxieties for a person with Asperger's. And, believe me, Don approaches this new development with his classic Asperger-esque style.

I enjoyed the book up until about the middle. Once again, I found myself chuckling at the predicaments Don created for himself because of his unique manner. When a friend tells him he should observe children to familiarize himself with what he will encounter, he decides to research them at the local playground. He begins videotaping from his phone, which leads to an understandable altercation with the police, who, attempting to touch him, discover his expertise in Aikido. Now Don must convince a social worker that he is harmless and well-suited enough to be handed the responsibilities of parenthood. But, not wishing to add to Rosie's stress, he decides to pass someone else off as his wife during the interviews. Needless to say, this goes wrong as well, with humorous results.

Somehow, however, things begin to sour between Rosie and Don. I just didn't like the book as much when Rosie wasn't sympathetic to Don's peculiarities. In fact, I began to dislike her character. So for the second half of the book, I found myself liking the story less and less.

Moreover, it began to take on an over-the-top feel to the story line. At one point, Don performs a cesarean section on a pregnant woman. His attempt to convince Rosie to return leads to conflicts of epic proportions. Then, the ending seemed to quickly attempt to pull everything back together.

As much as I'd love to give it a glowing review (because I really do love Don Tillman's character and reading about his unique approach to life), I just can't bring myself to do so. I don't regret having read it. It was amusing and a delightfully quirky read, but I much preferred the first book over this one. Still, if you loved Rosie and Don in the first, chances are pretty strong that you will want to give this one a shot despite my hesitations and dissatisfactions.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians - The Lightning Thief

These books have always looked so boy-friendly, that I have acquired a few of them at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. Strangely, I have several of the later books from the series, but not the first, so I ended up checking out the audio introduction to the series with this first book The Lightning Thief. Although it was indeed boy-friendly and held my interest well enough, I still didn't like it quite as much as I expected. Moreover, when I asked my youngest if he wanted to listen to it with me, he said he had already seen the movie and didn't really care about reading the book.

Percy Jackson is a troubled twelve-year-old. He's never managed to stick it out in a boarding school without being suspended or expelled. His father has been out of the picture for as long as he can remember and his mother has remarried a belligerent, cantankerous man he has nicknamed "Smelly Gabe." After one of his teachers turns into a monster and attacks him, he learns that the Gods of Olympus are not really mythical, but real, and that he is a demi-god (half-god/half-human). What follows is the ride of his life as he attempts to figure out who his father really is and what quest he has been assigned. He must seek out and return important vessels of the gods and salvage the situation before war erupts.

I can't really articulate any criticisms. It simply didn't appeal to me as much as I had expected. It was an adventure. The pacing was good. The characters were interesting enough. I just didn't seem to latch onto it and really come to care about the outcome. Now, I'm wondering if I should merely place the paperbacks I own into our up-coming garage sale. If I wasn't bowled over by it, I doubt my sons will express an interest in reading the books.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

New Landscaping

My husband loves working outside. He had quite a vision this Spring for what he wanted to do with the outside of our humble abode. To begin with, we had a landscaping company remove the mulch, which was always a problem and something ground squirrels and other pesky critters tended to tunnel through. Once a family of skunks tunneled a hole through the mulch near the front porch and we had to call in a critter rescue company to remove the momma skunk and her five babies. Thankfully, they got them all and now those holes are more difficult to create. This is because we replaced the mulch with rocks.

I will admit, when I first saw the rocks I balked. It looked horrible. It was dusty and gray and the rock cover blended in with the color of the rocks on the house and I didn't like it one bit. My husband assured me that the landscaper said we would feel this way. He said nobody likes the looks of the rocks until the company gets a chance to blast the rocks with water, which brings out the variance of color in the rocks. He was right. They looked better once they had been wet down some.

But, the rocks were just the beginning. John went out and purchased loads of flowers to grow around the house and he has created a beautiful oasis in our front and back lawns. While we were gone at camp he added a few more touches. He put in an arbor gate on the front walkway (not sure how I feel about that one):

Then, he put in a beautiful fountain, which makes such a comforting noise whenever we sit on the front porch, waiting for the bus to come.

In the back yard, he has created a little sunflower garden. He is constantly complaining about things chomping on his flowers. They come to chomp because he puts great time, money, and effort into feeding the birds, squirrels, coons, skunk, deer - we have them all).

He had to go away for a few days to care for his mother when she had surgery on one of her eyes and he asked me to water his plants for him. I was filled with trepidation because I kill plants. I have the blackest thumb around and never know how much is enough or how much is too much. Somehow the flowers survived my few days of care and the house looks like such a peaceful kingdom, thanks to the efforts of my wonderful husband. I know my mother will enjoy seeing these photos since, due to her own health issues, they didn't manage to get up to Indiana for a visit this summer. It's not as good as a visit, Mom, but it gives you an image in your mind for what the place is looking like these days.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: Searching for Sunday

Although I had heard of the name of Rachel Held Evans, I really didn't have a clue what she stands for or believes. The subtitle drew me in - Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. I was fairly sure I could relate to the subject of the book since we, personally, have gone through a process of leaving the church and are even, to this day, fairly sporadic in our attendance.

I believe my own leaving of the church began back when my parents were Salvation Army officers and my father felt the Lord was leading him to leave officership. Although evidence now clearly indicates the Lord's intentions in this radical move, at the time many Salvationists felt that my parents (because becoming an officer entails signing a lifelong covenant, similar to marriage) were stepping out of the Lord's will and violating their covenant. It was a difficult time in many ways and I remember feeling a strong sense of alienation from people who, at one time, had presented themselves as supportive and friendly. The hostility, the judgmental attitudes, the condescension, the fickle nature of their support ... it all rankled.

My difficulties with my own denomination continued when I decided to marry a Baptist. My pastor (corps officer) pulled me aside to question how I could turn my back on the Army after all they had invested in me. It was as if God could only work through me if I were in their favored little framework of use, within their denomination. I felt very strongly that every investment made was made for the Lord and not for any particular denomination. I could serve the church, regardless of which branch I plugged into. Moreover, it seemed like Salvationists were working hard to alienate my future spouse, instead of welcoming him into our part of the fold. This was a very destructive time.

When my marriage took a turn for the worse, even the new church we had sought out (and one we both loved dearly), failed to be a sanctuary in the storm. Instead of sitting with us in the pain, many wished to simply brush the pain under the carpet and present a more polished surface. I felt alienated from my Bible study group, when I was told I shouldn't bring up any of the issues we were struggling with. Thus, I was sure, I would be able to relate to this book on many levels. I anticipated hearing similar stories and feeling a strong sense of "me, too!"

But, I had a hard time with this book. I'm guessing it is primarily because the author is much more progressive than I tend to be. It felt like so much whining and seeking out argument just to prove that deeper thought naturally leads to doubt. It felt like the author was saying, "Any reasonable thinking individual would call into question the many vagaries within the church's doctrines and belief systems. Anyone as intelligent as I am, would have problems with the church and thus seek to leave it, all the while resenting the necessity of departure." At least that is how I perceived the author's stance. This grated on me.

Moreover, it didn't seem to offer up any tangible solutions to her disillusionment. She simply left the church behind for a period of time and eventually found another one where they attend sporadically and are, by her admission, not really "plugged in" or anything. I guess I was hoping she would come to the conclusion I made, that church shouldn't really be about how others support you or encourage you. It is more about your individual relationship with your Creator and living out your faith in whatever community you find you can fit into. Are you going to agree with every little thing spoken from the pulpit? Probably not. Should you set aside those disagreements and come together anyway for the good of the body as a whole? I believe so. I just didn't feel very strongly that the author went into things with a good attitude toward the purpose of church or God's grand design for the church. The book didn't ring hopeful at all.

That is not to say I didn't connect with several of the stories. I did, indeed. The author apparently carries on conversations about dissatisfaction with the church on her blog and receives many visits and comments from others who feel her pain. I could totally relate when she wrote:

"I get a lot of e-mails from people like Claire [a woman reeling from the platitudes expressed after the stillborn birth of her child], people who fit right into the church until ... the divorce, the diagnosis, the miscarriage, the depression, someone comes out, someone asks a question, an uncomfortable truth is spoken out loud. And what they find is when they bring their pain, their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try and fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted. Assurances are given.... With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure."

This was certainly our experience in many of the difficulties we faced as a struggling married couple and later, in another difficulty life presented down the road (one of those uncomfortable truths which meet the response of others assuring you that such a thing would never happen to them because they are more spiritual, more vigilant, or walk more closely with the Lord - it is clear that they wish to distance themselves from the sullied subject and make sure nothing rubs off on them).

It reminds me of something Chick Yuill brought up in one of his sermons at camp. He said "We don't eat family." And yet, too often Christians do tend to eat their own. Individuals turn away from the church because church members have treated them abominably. For many of us, our experience of the church's reaction to our difficulties/conflicts has not been in line with the lyrics of Plumb's new song, "Exhale," where she sings, "It's okay to not be okay. This is a safe place. This is a safe place. Don't be afraid. Don't be ashamed. There's still hope here. There's still hope here."

But, like the author, I have not left the church entirely. I believe in my deepest need of the body of believers, even when it is functioning as an imperfect body of believers. We were meant to walk together in unity and, even though I may not agree with the political and theological leanings of the author, I consider her a sister in Christ presenting her own take on the difficult subject of dealing with the faults and failings of the church.

So, while I could not agree with everything presented in this book, and while it often felt far too petulant and whiny (and especially vicious toward evangelicals), I did glean some useful bits from it. It was a good sounding board for my own disillusionment with the church. In the end, I came away wishing to draw nearer to the church instead of pull away further. That has to be a good thing, right?
I have labelled this memoir, in addition to non-fiction, because it really had the feel of a memoir. It was primarily the story of Evans' experience with the church. Although structured around the sacraments (a structure I didn't particularly benefit from), it was clearly her life story, rather than a proactive treatise on finding the appropriate church home.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: Six Months Later

I found it hard to stick with a book this year while at camp. I attempted to read The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. I gave up after about 35 pages. I tried a YA book, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, but found it too crude to continue while at a Bible camp. Then, I began Rachel Held Evan's book on leaving the church, called Searching for Sunday. I got almost half way through, but set it aside, only getting back to it after we returned from camp. Finally, I settled on a YA novel, Six Months Later, about a girl, Chloe, who falls asleep in study hall in the spring and wakes from this nap to find it is winter, six months later.

Here's the teaser from the back cover: "Before, she'd been a mediocre student. Now, she's on track for valedictorian and being recruited for Ivy League schools. Before she never had a chance with super jock Blake. Now he's her boyfriend. Before, she and Maggie were inseparable. Now her best friend won't speak to her. What happened to her? Remembering the truth could be more dangerous than she knows..."

I thought this was a clever plot scenario. The urge to find out what Chloe is missing in her memory is intense. Something has certainly happened to change her life and she should be happy with the way things have turned out, but somehow she's not. Chloe has the guy she always wanted, but deep inside he kind of creeps her out and she feels a strong pull to a bad guy she only knew in a peripheral way before. What could possibly explain her outstanding SAT scores, when she used to barely pass her classes? Moreover, what happened to Julien, a girl who used to be popular until she moved to California suddenly (during the six months Chloe cannot remember)? Does Julien's disappearance have anything to do with Chloe?

As you can see, the book propels several intriguing questions. The plot was well-paced and planned. The answers were believable and sufficiently sinister. The characters, while a bit two-dimensional, were interesting enough. I would probably give it three and a half stars. It boasts an endorsement from Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, and pitches Truly, Madly, Deadly, another book I've read from Sourcebooks. Moreover, the book was fairly wholesome and clean, so perhaps I should bump it up to four stars. I believe I'll be looking for another book by Natalie D. Richards (there's an intriguing one listed on Amazon called Gone Too Far).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: Storyline

I was privileged to work through this workbook during my time at camp. In the introduction to the workbook it says:

"Storyline is based on the formula screenwriters and novelists use to create stories. The eight modules that comprise Storyline will help you live a better story and as such experience a meaningful life. Once you've completed Storyline you'll have clarity about what you're doing and the courage to face life's challenges. Storyline will also provide a decision filter you can use for all important decisions...

"Thank you for wanting to live a better story. We believe your story was a blank page given to you by God and to write a great story on that page is a noble pursuit and a gift to the world."

After every class session, we were given homework. Sometimes it was simply to read the passages of writing in the workbook. Sometimes it was to work through the activities for particular modules. I did all of the reading homework, but only parts of the module work. It was a bit difficult because the only time I had to pursue the homework came during free time in the schedule and the boys were with me all the time. Thus, it was hard to give full concentration. Still, I did begin to write out some of my timeline, highlighting my positive and negative turns in my life thus far. If I had been more intentional about completing the workbook, I might have actually come up with a theme my life carries and might actually know more the purpose my life seems to be directed toward. Who knows, maybe now that the boys are back in school, I will give some time to this process.

There were several interesting thoughts presented:

"What if the positive and negative turns of your life have prepared you for something great?"

"Life is supposed to be meaningful and we can't gain a sense of meaning without conflict."

"When we find a redemptive purpose toward our suffering it ceases to be suffering and ... becomes a vessel for redemption." (this may not be a direct quote, since I took it down from the teacher's words).

"When you begin to live a better story, people will have their moral compasses adjusted and in a real way you'll be saving lives. You'll be teaching people the world is not about us, but about God and His message of love to a broken world. You'll be teaching people the beauty of sacrifice and risk and you'll play a pivotal role in waking them up from their delusions."

The workbook guides you through thinking about your own personal story in terms of theme, roles, conflict, inciting incidents, and resolution. It was an interesting process to think about the whole of my life in terms of God writing a story with it. If you are interested in finding greater clarity about your purpose or goals in life, this is bound to be a helpful exercise to work through.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

CBLI 2015 - Part Two

One of the nicest things about going to camp year after year is that there are other families who also attend consecutive years running. Thus, we have enduring friendships with other CBLI families. Plus, we make new ones and hope they will return in the coming years.

Laura and I tend to take a selfie together every year and every year she looks radiant, while my hair wilts under the camp humidity and different well water. Further evidence? Here's last year's selfie:

Wilting hair or not, it is always fun to hang out with these friends during meetings and classes and meals. Here's a shot taken at the concert with my friends, Cheryl and Linda:

Trevor had a couple of good buddies this year, as well. Here's one of his friends, Emmett, at the low ropes course during a Jr. CBLI outing:

Trevor also made a new friend this year named Jaylen. They had a blast hanging out together, watching old videos of Bryce doing dangerous things on his old You Tube channel from back when he was ten (things like lighting his hand on fire with rubbing alcohol, yikes). I think we convinced Jaylen that Bryce was a wild and crazy guy when he was Trevor's age.

Free time didn't end up playing out as I had anticipated (hours of time to myself while the boys went off on their own). Sean simply wouldn't go off on his own. He wanted to be with me every minute that was available to him. I still ended up with some reading time, because Trevor would go off on his own and Sean would simply lie in the top bunk playing on his I-pod while I read, but naps were impossible and I tried hard to limit the time they spent simply hanging out on their devices.

Trevor fell in love with one free-time activity this year - a game called Nine Square:

Even though it was in the Jr. High area, he played it alongside the big kids every chance he got.

Sadly, the air hockey equipment was once again broken and on our one trip in to Walmart, we forgot to pick up a new set of puck and paddles. But, the boys did spend a fair amount of time playing ping-pong (something they are improving at every year):

Sean and I went to the zip line three times during the week (I went down only twice because there were usually long lines of teens):

On Wednesday, during the Family Day activities, they brought in a bicycle stunt team called Real Encounters. It was an awesome show with lots of flips and tricks and air-time. I failed to take a picture, but thankfully a friend posted this shot, with a Scripture verse, on his Facebook page:

Sean was asked to fill a special role in the final awards program on Saturday night. The Jr. CBLI track performed two numbers and then Sean and one of the girls in the program presented the totals raised for the boys-against-the-girls competition to raise money for a Kindergarten in Mali:

After determining the total amount raised by the kids (some $900 - sadly, the boys lost and their leaders took a pie to the face later), Sean was asked to say a prayer over the donation:

Both boys were pleased to learn that they won a Jr. CBLI award for "the most gentlemanly brothers." I was thrilled that their head leader pulled me aside to tell me how well behaved and wonderful my boys were. Those are the kind of words a mother loves to hear.

The only sad ending to our time at camp came on Saturday morning. John called to say that he had a flat tire and wouldn't be able to come up to visit us at camp for the last bit of the weekend as he had planned. The boys were crushed, but I was thankful that he discovered the flat in the garage prior to departure, instead of somewhere on the road. Sunday morning we loaded up and after the morning service, departed for home to once again sleep in our own beds and eat familiar food.

After two lazy days at home, the boys headed off to the first day of school on Wednesday (and so begins another fall of writing, editing, querying, and dreaming).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

CBLI 2015 - Part One

Twenty years! I have attended CBLI for twenty years now. I went three years in a row during my teen years. Then, when Bryce was 3 and my husband and I were separated, I began attending again, adding seventeen more consecutive years to the tally.

This year's theme was Thrive! We are to do more than just survive. God wants us to thrive.

We had a wonderful room assignment. Despite the sizable hill up to Sandpiper, the rooms are comfortable and, this time around, even afforded Wi-fi connections. Sadly, the boys spent a portion of almost every free time on their devices. They seemed bored with the usual fare of free-time activities (go figure).

Sean was so funny. All throughout this year's encampment, he bemoaned the fact that he wanted to go home because he was homesick. Then, on the last day, he chimed in with, "I think this was our best year ever!" He certainly doesn't realize he is having fun while he is having fun. Many afternoons, they whined on and on about being bored. But, in the final analysis, they were surprised how quickly the days flew by and how much they enjoyed it.

I think my favorite part of our CBLI time this year was attending the Bible class on covenant, taught by Linda Himes. Her passion for God's word is evident and contagious. I appreciated that it was a thematic study, instead of a chapter-by-chapter study through one of the books of the Bible this time around (her usual fare). She brought in an adorable stuffed sheep to illustrate the sacrifice made to represent a blood covenant, tearing the sheep in two and walking between the two parts just as Abraham did. It was very sobering to think about the seriousness of covenant and our responsibilities to our covenant vows. She also provided an illustration for how our own failure to live up to covenant reflects badly on Christ more than simply reflecting badly on ourselves. She wore a dark jacket and then exchanged it for a white jacket and talked about getting the jacket dirty and what that does to the name of Christ in the eyes of unbelievers.

I also enjoyed my workshop class, a class where we worked through Donald Miller's book, Storyline: Finding Your Subplot in God's Story. It was refreshing to have a class so up my alley as we thought about our lives and testimonies in terms of good story. We reflected on what makes a good story and talked about how our negative and positive turns in life all serve a purpose to portray a theme God is telling through our individual stories. We were reminded that conflict serves a purpose and changes us in significant ways.

Our special guest was Chick Yuill, an officer with a Scottish lilt, who taught with amazing clarity and insight. I wish I had taken notes. His wife blessed us with several recitations of memorized Scripture passages. I didn't get a chance to speak with them personally, but really appreciated their words and encouragement.

Again, this year, I was blessed by the corporate worship. I rarely get a chance to sing in large groups otherwise. I so enjoy blending in with a harmony part and hearing the voices swell together in praise. It really blesses me to the core.

Of course, one of the highlights of the week was the highly anticipated concert presented by the Christian group, For King and Country. My worries about seating dissolved when I learned that they would seat campers with a wristband prior to allowing visiting guests in for the concert. I managed to snag a seat by the back (my intention because of the anticipated volume levels) with my friends the Westbergs and the Barkers. They even parcelled out front row tickets in exchange for a donation for the Mali missions project.

It was an amazing show full of spectacular lighting and outstanding musicianship. I heard that all seven band members play percussion instruments, so Bryce would have really enjoyed their performance.

I had two favorite moments during the concert. The first was their performance of the song "Shoulders." The second involved the lead singer coming down into the audience. He walked along rows high-fiving and shaking hands with people. But the sweetest moment of all came when he approached Alynn (a girl who has been in the Jr. CBLI track since back in the day, when Bryce was in that track - she is in her twenties, but because of her mental disabilities, she has continued to enjoy the kids' track). He hugged her and allowed her to sing along with him for a few measures. Thankfully, a camp photographer captured the moment:

Trevor noticed that one of his friends had purchased a penny necklace from the stand outside the concert, so he begged for one, too. It is really quite a cool thing. The back tells the reasoning behind their promotion of the necklace. It reads: "On each necklace hangs an Australian one cent coin. This penny signifies that a woman is worth more than all the money in the world! It also stands as a reminder to men that ladies are priceless and deserve to be treated with respect and honor."

We were so blessed to have the opportunity to attend CBLI again this year. It is always such a great time of spiritual growth and renewal. All three of us benefit from it greatly. In my Part II post, I will highlight some of the recreational activities we enjoyed and friends we encountered.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

25th Wedding Anniversary

Today marks our 25th wedding anniversary. 25 years. How is that possible? No, really! How IS that POSSIBLE?

Ours has not been an easy relationship. We have had our share of winding roads and conflict. For a year and a half prior to our tenth anniversary, we were separated. I can honestly say that I would have been doubtful if someone had assured me then that we would make it to our 25th. But, God is good. He has been so very gracious. He has drawn us back together in ways we couldn't even begin to anticipate or fathom.

Of course, I would love to be able to write some post offering 25 words of wisdom gleaned from 25 years of marriage, but I fully realize that I have no business writing such a piece. Not that I haven't learned a ton from my marriage, but I don't feel qualified to offer advice to others. Ours has been a hard-won victory and I am still clinging to the Lord for the strength to remain in this covenant relationship.

Any time you take two people and put them together to join as one, you will bump up against warring backgrounds, values, assumptions, expectations, and dysfunctions. In looking for a cite-worthy post on lessons from marriage, I read one blogger who stated that if you had to work at a relationship, then it probably wasn't really a great relationship to pursue. While this might be true when approaching marriage, it is potential dynamite to a couple who have already made a commitment to one another. Don't ever believe someone who tells you that marriage isn't or shouldn't be hard work. It is HARD. There is no way around that. But, it IS worth it!

So, here's the very best article I found on the Internet offering up 25 lessons from 25 years of marriage. Written by Cindi McMenamin, it highlights several concepts I have learned and many I need to put into daily practice. I'm so thankful that we continue to fight for our relationship. I'm grateful for my husband's enduring love and patience. If anything, my wish for the next 25 years is that I would be a better wife than I have been and that I would turn to the Lord to meet needs I think my spouse should be filling. Trite, but true: I do not know what the future holds, but I do know Who holds my future!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell is a popular name in YA fiction circles. The author of the highly-acclaimed novel, Eleanor and Park, she captures a significant number of readers. Personally, even though I thought Eleanor and Park was well-written, I didn't care for it as much as the masses. I recall it was full of expletives and teens behaving badly (similar to John Green's characters in his highly-acclaimed novel, Paper Towns). It feels like today's YA authors feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator and present teens in what they view to be "realistic" scenarios. I find it thoroughly discouraging.

Thus, when I selected this audio version of Rowell's novel Fangirl, I was unsure whether I would like the novel or not. For the first half of the novel, I was still skeptical, but by the end, I was sold and decided it is, indeed, well-worth the read. There were still things I didn't care for, but the writing was solid and the characters fully engaging. Mostly, I was impressed with the way Rowell manages to evoke such intense emotion and empathy in the reader. I felt the agony of abandonment right alongside Cath. I wanted desperately to reach into the novel and fix the relationship with her twin sister. And, since the novel is focused entirely on a girl who wishes to reach inside someone else's novel and manipulate the characters within it, it felt totally appropriate.

Cath Avery and her twin sister, Wren, are thoroughly caught up in the world of Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque series). Cath is so caught up that she writes fan fiction, creating her own alternate world with the author's characters. Plus, she's really good at it. She has a following of tens of thousands of readers (pretty impressive for a girl who is geeky and shy and just starting out timidly in her freshman year of college). But now, Cath has a new obstacle in her way: getting through her first year of school. While Wren is anxious to walk into the brave new world alone for a change (insisting that they not even room together), Cath is fearful and apprehensive of leaving their father alone in their absence. The girl's mother left the scene many years ago, when the girls were eight, saying that she just wasn't cut out for the mothering gig.

There is so much going on inside Cath's little world. Estrangement from her sister (who has always been her best friend). Loss of a comfortable boyfriend as he moves on at another college. A hostile roommate, Reagan, who really doesn't want a roommate at all and is constantly hosting her boyfriend, Levi, in their room. A highly demanding upper level fiction writing course. An attractive boy who wants to work on co-writing fiction together. A manic-depressive father who is on the verge of relapse into madness. A mother who wants to insinuate herself back into their lives.

I'll start with the things I didn't care for. I was not a big fan of the world of Simon Snow. It was too similar to Harry Potter. Moreover, the Simon Snow story wasn't even interesting. It just felt like a Harry Potter rip-off.  The real heart of the book was interrupted by the alternating passages from the official Simon Snow novels and from Cath's own fan fiction excerpts. In some ways the story did, indeed, mirror Cath's world, but this could have been accomplished with something other than a Harry Potter-wannabe story.

The whole fan fiction scenario rankled me. Cath takes Simon Snow's character and creates a homosexual relationship between Snow and his nemesis, Baz. I get why the author chose to do this. She really wanted to show that fan fiction moves into the world of real fiction and alters that reality from its own perspective. But, it felt so overly-manipulative. It felt all wrong to take someone else's fictional world and alter it to fit a separate vision. I had to nod in agreement when Cath turns in an assignment featuring her version of Simon and Baz and receives the chastisement of her professor, who labels it "plagiarism." Cath feels that it is the only thing she does really well and that attempting to build her own world would be too hard. So, here's my dilemma. You couldn't really remove the whole fan fiction element from the novel, since that is the heart of the story, but it was the fan fiction element I struggled with the most in attempting to appreciate the novel.

My second big beef was with the casual approach to teenage sexuality. Even though the author has Cath struggle with the idea of becoming sexually involved with her boyfriend (mainly out of nervousness over her perceived performance), her final conclusion is that she should pursue sexual activity with him now because who knows whether or not she will end up with him in a marriage situation and she might overlook the one chance she has to experience that with him now. Say what? I can just see this reasoning taking hold of a whole generation of young readers who look to these YA authors for answers to life's questions and have now been reinforced to plunge into the world of sexuality so that they will not miss life's grand opportunities, instead of clarifying that taking a relationship into the sexual plane intensifies everything and should not be entered into in such a frivolous, I-might-miss-out manner.

The funny thing is that the author actually presented a valid argument but focused it on smiles instead of sexuality. Cath argues that her boyfriend hands out smiles to just anyone, so how is she to know that the smile he shares with her is really anything of significance. If only the author had continued that train of thought with regard to teenage sexuality, teens might have heard a message about the importance of spending their sexual currency wisely and saving it for the one you are sure you want to invest in with the whole of your life. Instead, the reader is left with the paradoxical idea that smiles shouldn't be handed out willy nilly, but sex should be indulged in so you don't miss out on opportunities for exploring an individual you like pretty well. Sex, in this world, promises the chance to bond with both the boyfriend and the twin sister when Wren begs Cath to share any info about her first sexual experience with the boyfriend.

Now, what did I like so much? I loved the characters. Cath and Wren, although identical in many ways and equally struggling with the abandonment of their mother, approach life in such diverse ways and struggle so genuinely to establish their own identity. I thought Reagan presented the perfect blend of feistiness and compassion. I liked the dad and his struggle with very realistic problems.

I loved the boyfriend relationship. I swooned when he looked at Cath and said, "I chose you over everyone else." Who wouldn't want to hear that from someone you deeply love? Even though they did end up in bed together, I appreciated his reluctance to pressure her for any form of physical manifestation of their feelings. He was so into her and they were so good for one another.

What writer doesn't love reading about a character who loves writing and reading? It was just up my alley! The bits about writing angst rang so true. The points about just spitting the words out and editing and refining later were dead on. It reinforced the tested and true method of writing every day as a way to stand grounded and rooted in the alternate world so thoroughly that you don't lose your train of thought or purpose in the writing. I loved embracing the world Cath lived in and the struggles she faced.

The writing was very well done. As I said, the author manages to evoke such an emotional response in the reader. I cried when the mother showed up at the hospital. I cried when Cath pushed her away. I cried when Cath and her boyfriend fought over her decision to pass up the opportunity to turn in her final project for the fiction writing class. I felt every sting of injustice with the writing partner situation.

In the end, after I got a good ways in, I really enjoyed this novel. Yes, it had some bad language. I even listened to it in the kitchen while washing dishes and the boys overheard and were shocked that I didn't turn it off. I think they were feeling giddy that I allowed such foulness to reach their ears. Yes, it had some teens behaving badly, but for the most part it didn't glorify those examples (if anything Wren serves as a cautionary tale and Cath was at least hesitant about entering into a sexual relationship). No, I didn't embrace the fan fiction or the casual attitude toward sex (I made sure to listen to the sex bits out of the boys' earshot), but it all moved me so significantly and I found myself sucked into the alternate reality to such an extent that I wanted the very best for these characters and I even wanted the story to go on at the end. That is a sure mark of success. Well done, Rainbow Rowell, well done!