Sunday, May 29, 2016

Best and Worst Birthday Presents

I celebrated my birthday this past week. While I was away at the recent women's retreat, my roommate celebrated her birthday. I asked her if she was having a good day despite being away from her family on that day. I was surprised when she said she really doesn't like to recognize her birthday at all for a few reasons. Low expectations mean you cannot be disappointed. Moreover, she really doesn't like to draw attention to herself.

While I would feel uncomfortable with attention cast my way in front of onlookers (for instance, I did not tell our waiters that we were there to celebrate my birthday because I cannot abide the idea of having all the wait-staff surrounding me and singing a song to me in front of on-looking strangers), I do enjoy some recognition. I relish the spattering of greetings I receive on Facebook (each one brings back happy memories of times with the person writing). I love the attention of my family for one special day.

I remember a birthday that was, indeed, a complete disappointment when I was twenty or twenty-one and spent the entire day babysitting kids who were whiny. The mother had gone golfing, for lunch with a friend, and then off shopping. She brought back a gift for me of a white jogging suit (not as high up on my list of coveted objects as a book would have been) , but had dropped it in the parking lot and had to throw it in the washing machine before she could give it to me. Nobody else (apart from my mother) expressed recognition. I went to bed that night thinking it was the worst birthday I had ever had.

This birthday was certainly a good one. The best gift of all was delivered in the mail. My sister was the first beta reader for my most recent manuscript. She had printed off a copy of the manuscript (despite its length) and written comments throughout. I received her returned copy of it in the mail at the end of the day. I quickly turned to the last page because I was most concerned that she would express a dissatisfaction with the ending. Instead, her comments made me beam. She wrote: (I am leaving out chunks so as not to give away the story, but) "I cried as I read the last words. One, I'm crying because I'm just so proud of you. Great job! But two, for Kamal [the main character]. I'm glad for the heart-wrenching ending... It leaves you sad, but also ... happy, that there are good people, and strengthened - to fight against evil. I felt for a bit like the ending would be predictable or easy to figure out, but it wasn't."

If my words can move a reader to an emotional response like tears and inspiration, then that is the best gift I could imagine receiving! It made me so happy. I didn't get around to reading all the comments until a bit later, but it was good to read where things got confusing for the reader (too easy to forget that the reader doesn't hold all the clues in hand from the outset ... like I failed to inform the reader that the story takes place in 2032 until midway through the novel, and didn't provide enough background for how the world got to the place it was in at the outset of the novel). It helped me to see my characters through someone else's eyes and see places where I made them rougher than I intended.

I also received a book of poetry written by my middle son, Trevor. The poems were cute and funny (emphasizing my love of reading, writing, and dark chocolate):

My husband gave me some dark chocolate covered cherries from the cherry capital of the world, Traverse City, Michigan, and some jewelry. I had sent him emails with various options of things I would like and had included special codes he could use to save 20% off the price, but he failed to jump on it when I sent the information and thereby missed out on the savings, paying full price. Here is what he purchased:

While it was, indeed, on my list of desired pieces, once I saw them (they lacked the luster the photo presents) I realized that I liked a different set better. So, he graciously agreed to let me return the ones he had purchased for $140. I then placed an order for these sapphire items for only $82 (using special discounts offered by Kohls) and even earned $15 in Kohl's cash to be used next week (probably on dress pants for Bryce for his work as an intern this summer):

Nothing better than getting a good deal!

The worst birthday gift showed up on my birthday, but we have no idea when or how it originated. Midway through the day, I began to itch terribly. As time progressed, 16 large welt-like bites emerged on my back and shoulders, and three more on my front torso. Later in the day, John discovered this dried up dead spider next to the downstairs desk I always sit at in the morning:

But, the bites don't really seem to have two puncture marks, so we began to think they were perhaps bed bug bites acquired at the hotel in Cedar Point. We were immediately anxious that perhaps we had brought bed bugs home with us, but no one else in the family has exhibited evidence of similar bites. It sounds like bed bugs bite exposed areas, yet my bites are located mostly near my pants waistband and my bra, as if something burrowed into these constricted parts of my clothing. I eventually went to a dermatologist who said they couldn't be certain what caused the bites, but I needed two shots (yikes) in the buttocks, and a round of steroid treatment at the site of the bites.

Thankfully, the bites are going away and we are no longer worried about bed bugs. (John also discovered some mites around the back area of the basement near one of the window wells where a dead animal had been discovered several weeks ago, so perhaps the bites were from mites ... who knows). My day ended with a dinner out at my favorite Mexican restaurant. Bryce stayed with the two younger boys so that we could get away.

Even without the serenade from the waitstaff, the meal was delicious and a perfect end to a special day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling

Despite feeling less than thrilled with my last Bill Bryson fare, I was willing to take another stab at it with this new acquisition to our library. It helped that it was in audio form. Bill Bryson does a fabulous job of conveying his own wit, obviously. Given that I have had some of my own adventures in a few of the British towns he mentions, I was interested enough to find the commentary funny and entertaining but not enamored enough to call it a great book.

The back of the book declares, "Nothing is more entertaining than Bill Bryson on the road - and on a tear. The Road to Little Dribbling reaffirms his stature as a master of the travel narrative - and a really, really funny guy." I'd have to agree. He is, indeed, funny. Crass at times and mercilessly critical of any form of stupidity, yet equally willing to express incidents of his own. Definitely entertaining.

This book wouldn't rank as one of my favorites of his, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. I think I might take a bit of a rest from his books, but eventually pick up his lengthy tome, One Summer ... just not this summer. In any case, I've not given up entirely on the wit and whinging of Bill Bryson, despite a couple of less than enthusiastic book reviews.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cedar Point Rocks!

This year, we had to take our family vacation a bit early because Bryce begins an internship with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management this coming week. It turned out to be excellent timing. The weather was marvelous, sunny and cool.

Like last summer, we stayed at the Breakers resort right on the amusement park grounds. This affords many great perks. Your lodging is close enough to return to the room when you need a break. They have fabulous restaurants (we prefer TGIFridays and Perkins) and the rooms are spacious and comfy:

Sadly, Bryce's girlfriend couldn't come with us this year (as she did last year), but it meant we could secure one room instead of paying for two. Our room had a cute little balcony looking over the beach on Lake Erie:

Moreover, your hotel reservation provides you with the first evening admission (after 4 p.m.). Thus, by 4:30 on Wednesday evening, the boys were off riding rides and John and I were settling in. On Thursday, we purchased a Fast Pass so we could get into most of the rides (all but the top four roller coasters) quickly. Friday, when crowds were thicker, we had Fast Pass Pluses, enabling us to get into all of the rides quickly (a great blessing since the lines for our favorite rides were long).

I decided to make the most of my time with the boys and went on rides I would have never imagined attempting. They got me on Top Thrill Dragster (I was convinced I could get through the ride since it is over within less than a minute). And my favorite roller coaster turned out to be Valravn, the newest one. I think I liked it best because it feels so snug, comfortable, and secure. The harness is tight but a rubbery inner material makes it feel comfy. Even though that first drop is wicked, because they hang you there waiting to fall for a few seconds, the ride is smooth and exciting. I even survived riding in the front car for that one.

The only rides I could not bring myself to join them on? Millennium Force, because of the height and drop of the first hill (well, and because last year I saw a group of riders stuck about two thirds of the way up that first 310-foot incline and the thought of being trapped in that position terrified me) and Skyhawk, because the pendulum swing ride dangles you over the ground 125 feet in the air - yikes! But, I rode a slew of other rides I would have never thought I'd dare to experience: Gatekeeper, Rougarou, Raptor, Maverick, Wicked Twister, Magnum XL, Blue Streak, Mean Streak, Power Tower, Corkscrew, and the super high swings of Windseeker (300-foot tall).

We felt especially blessed when we woke to rain on Saturday morning (our departure day). We had two and half days of excellent weather, delectable food (especially the boneless chicken wings at TGIFridays and amazing ice cream in the hotel's little ice cream shop), and memory-making fun. This trip will definitely be remembered as one of our best vacations ever. Thanks, Cedar Point, for a rocking-good time!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Life at the Moment

Normally, my life feels pretty boring. Life goes along day by day and nothing much of note happens. However, lately, there's been a flurry of activity both physically and emotionally.

Emotionally, I've been somewhat of a basket-case, filled with excitement and anxiety at the same time. I have sent my most recent manuscript out to six individuals (beta readers) seeking their feedback. This is always both a good and bad thing. While it provides an opportunity to see how my writing is received, it opens the door to criticism and when it comes to writing, that can be a sensitive topic. I've asked them to be absolutely honest and to identify the moment they no longer wish to read, if they decide not to read it (I had to warn them because the manuscript is still over 100 thousand words long, despite efforts to pare it back a bit).

So far, the only one I've heard back from is my sister, who says she is loving it. Of course, the members of my current writer's group (a group that meets now at my local library) question the validity of having a family member as a beta reader because they are sure to simply give glowing reviews. Still, my sister volunteered and I value her opinion. She did, indeed, give me some negative feedback on the only other manuscript she read (she didn't feel drawn to the main character, possibly even disliked her). At my most recent writer's group meeting, I had a chance to read the first few pages of my If Bones Could Speak novel and was quite pleased with the positive response I received.

I am also besieged with anxiety about my parents. I have mentioned before that my mother is battling some onset of dementia. Normalcy in routine is quite important. Alas, their routines (their very lives) have been disrupted in a most unsettling way. A short time before Mother's Day, they discovered extensive mold in their home and they have had workmen there ever since, attempting to determine the source of the moisture or leak. Their house (even chaotic normally due to years of accumulating books, videos, knick-knacks, and photos) is in a state of total disarray as they have had to move boxes and belongings out of the way so the men can dig up flooring beneath the laundry room and kitchen. They are running loud machines to draw the moisture out of the air. My father is sick as a result of exposure and my mother is distraught, to say the least.

Of course, my father feels led to remain there while the workmen excavate the home, but that leaves my mother there in the midst of all the chaos as well. My sister and I have tried to get him to ask someone else to take my mother (perhaps down to their church to help out or even just be away from it all), but he believes she would be distressed by that even more. Dawn and I have talked about going down to help (she could assist my father in clearing away more junk and making decisions about the remodeling that will have to take place, while I could take my mother out somewhere to get her away from the mayhem). The whole business has been weighing heavily on my heart and mind and I feel horrible to be so far away and of so little use to them.

Physically, I've been busy as well. I had joined Bible Study Fellowship back in January and it just wound down to the end with the final sharing day last week. Then, I attended a women's retreat this past weekend. My BSF leader had invited me to a women's retreat, but it required staying in a large room with hosts of other women I did not know. I turned that opportunity down, but felt led to accept another when my Salvation Army corps officer invited me to the divisional women's retreat, held this past weekend.

It was a good time. The guest speaker was Chrystal Evans Hurst (Tony Evans' daughter) and she gave two inspiring talks on Saturday.

I paid a bit extra to stay in a lodge room instead of a cabin and was thrilled to room with an old friend from a past music camp staff. Even though at times I felt a bit like a fish out of water because I'm not really close to any of the women there, it was still a very refreshing weekend and I felt blessed by the opportunity to gather for spiritual nourishment and a break from my mothering routines. My roommate even offered to read my manuscript, so I have sent it off again for review.

Another flurry of activity is approaching. We are leaving soon for a family vacation to Cedar Point. We had to schedule it for mid-May because Bryce begins his internship with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and it goes clear to the time he returns to Purdue in the fall. After we return, we will have Trevor's 5th grade graduation and Bryce's girlfriend Madisyn's high school graduation open house and possibly that trip with my sister to assist my parents. So things feel much more harried than usual. In addition, my mind is bracing for another music camp leadership position and I am wondering what I will be called upon to do.

I'm happy to be in this state of agitation. It's good for me. I need times of stress in addition to times of boredom. It does make reading a bit more challenging, but it fills a need for a different kind of stimulation.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review: The Dream Giver

I've been contemplating a new option for volunteer ministry. Several weeks back, I noticed a newspaper article about a new chapter of the Threshold Singers. This is an organization of individuals who come together in small groups to provide the gift of song to the dying. In my eagerness, I arrived a good fifteen minutes before their rehearsal was set to begin. To kill time, I stood in the hall of the church where the rehearsal took place and happened upon a cart of books and videos being cleared from the church library and offered up for free. "Free books" is all I need to hear to draw my attention. I selected only one book to take home and that was this book, The Dream Giver, by Bruce Wilkinson (author of The Prayer of Jabez and founder of the Walk Through the Bible ministries).

I have fond memories of experiencing the Walk Through the Bible curriculum as a teen at our well-loved CBLI Bible camp years ago. It is an audience-participatory lesson designed to aid in memorizing the progression of action in and throughout the Bible. You memorize phrases together with accompanying hand motions. I believe I still remember the first four phrases: "Creation, Fall, Flood, Nations," although I could be wrong on the fourth word, ha! It has been ages since I thought of that activity and fun time of learning.

I've never been drawn to read Wilkinson's book, The Prayer of Jabez. I suppose it sounds too much like treating God like a magic genie in a lamp that you rub. Then again, as I said, I've never really read it. I even found myself taking this book rather loosely. The ideas presented within its pages lean toward a belief that every individual on earth was created to be somebody special and do something outstanding. While I don't doubt that there are people who need encouragement to follow hard after a dream they envision, I always fear that the focus will be placed on the self and the internal desire to achieve celebrity or significance. For the most part, the book remained focused on the Dream Giver.

The book is broken into two parts. The first part tells a parable of Ordinary's journey to achieve his dream. (This was a bit smarmy at times - full of insights and lessons). The second part provides further application for the lessons and examples of people who have raced after their dream. The final pages provide a glimpse of the author's own dreams, but I was rather sad to discover that those dreams of caring for the orphans in South Africa ended with his withdrawal from the dream only a few years after this book was published.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and God does want every single person to pursue greatness, but I tend to believe that God holds just as much favor for those who quietly do the little tasks God places in their pathway. Still, the book was motivational and did spur me on to continue pursuing my goals for my writing. I'm not destined for greatness, but if even one piece of my writing draws an individual closer to God or gives them a glimpse of something they need to learn, then I will count myself fortunate to have been a vessel used for His glory.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review: Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot

Years ago, I happened upon Richard Restak's intriguing book, Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber. I remember listening to it in audio form and absolutely loving it. It was full of information about the brain and anxiety. I was riveted. I wrote a glowing review here. Indeed, after writing a novel about a girl suffering from an anxiety disorder, I should probably reread the book.

I knew he had another similarly titled book, Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot, but I could not find it in any local libraries and never bothered to seek it out through interlibrary loan. Then, my mother-in-law decided to come for a visit and since her library has the book, I requested she bring it along. As much as I believe books come into our hands at particular moments for a purpose, I also believe that sometimes we're just not in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate a book. This may have been the case with Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot.

Unlike the previously read book by Restak, this book provides 28 suggestions for enhancing your brain's performance. It is more a manual-style book. Although the exercises sounded interesting, I did not attempt even one. Some of them were ridiculously out of my league. For example, to train memory skills, the author suggests that you complete crossword puzzles without writing any of the answers in but merely remembering, visually, where they belong and how they intersect. I am not a crossword puzzle kind of person. I have trouble enough with them when I can write the words down. The thought of attempting one simply by visualizing the answers is out of the question.

The suggestions encompassed improving memory skills, powers of logic and metacognition, sensory capacities, fine-motor skills, and various other facets of brain usage. I wasn't exactly bored, but I wasn't entirely engaged during the reading either. I'm not sure my brain power will be any stronger (since I didn't attempt any of the recommended exercises). The suggestions were reasonable, just not terribly earth-shattering or new.

Of the two books I've encountered by this neuropsychiatrist, I would definitely recommend Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber over this one. Do realize, though, that the titles are clever, but not a great indication of what is inside the cover. The first book is not really about mountain climbing or even much about Poe. The second book did focus on Mozart (recommending frequent moments listening to his music) in passing, but never once explained the significance of the brain of a supposed fighter pilot. I'm guessing he used this phrase to be clever and to indicate that fighter pilots require intense mental acuity. I will continue to do the things I already actively pursue for brain stimulation (writing, reading, and working puzzles).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Book Review: Did You Ever Have a Family

I knew nothing of this New York Times bestselling author, Bill Clegg, prior to picking up this audio book, Did You Ever Have a Family. Apparently, this is his fiction debut. He is a literary agent and has previously written two memoirs about his addiction to crack cocaine. While the book was more liberal than most writing I seek out, I was blown away by the evocative, poetic language. The writing was really stellar. Clegg has created realistic characters in the cross-hairs of a significant life-altering event.

June Reid is preparing for the day of her daughter's wedding, when an unexpected tragedy takes the lives of her daughter and fiance, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke. June is left reeling in the wake of the disaster and drives off, numb and alone, headed for an oasis on the Pacific Ocean that had held beauty and personal meaning for her daughter. The book unfolds with narrator after narrator responding to their lives up to that moment and after the dreadful incident. This was confusing at times in the beginning - especially so since I was listening instead of reading. But, it felt like watching a painter drop spots of paint onto a canvas until eventually the full picture is rendered and the tiny dots hold greater meaning. It was the words that fully sucked me in. As Darin Strauss writes of the book: "Like the question it poses, Did You Ever Have a Family is brutally direct yet it's got an enormous symbolic power. [It is] a great book of kindness - every restrained, exquisite sentence comes loaded for bear." Truly Clegg has packed a potent punch with every word and drawn images with beauty and devastation combined.

I was especially moved by this passage in the final chapter:

"Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from cigarettes, or being blown up young in a house with your mother watching. And even if it's to be that mother. Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won't see coming will need you. Like a kid who asks you to let him help clean motel rooms. Or some ghost who drifts your way, hungry. And good people might even ask you to marry them. And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way."

Indeed, when life is rough, others are watching and are often blessed and encouraged by the sheer bravery and humanity expressed in our reactions to difficulties. I think of my blogging friend, Amy, and her recent terrifying experience almost losing her husband to heart failure. She wrote so eloquently about the experience that I wept along with her and marveled at her fortitude and courage. Or I think of my friend, Lisa, who lost her ten year old son to an undetected birth defect twenty years ago (the day after my oldest son was born) and has maintained her faith in God and is such a powerful witness and tool in His hands, all the more because of what she has endured and experienced. As Bret Lott expressed in Letters and Life (reviewed here), we are "blessed to be a blessing," even when that blessing shows up disguised as a tragedy or intense difficulty we would rather not endure. Maybe, especially when we go through challenges. We are supposed to play our part and in enduring, help someone else to endure.

Despite coming from a different perspective on life, I could relate to much of what Clegg presents. The story reveals humanity at its rawest moment. The words transport the reader into an experience foreign and yet familiar. Kudos to Bill Clegg on a moving novel of hope in the midst of tragedy and grief.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Any book lover welcomes a book about books. This title caught my eye and I was a goner. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was, indeed, a book glorifying the commodity and consumption of books and contained just enough mystery to keep me reading. I found myself wondering whether details were pulled from real life (obviously Google is real, but were the Google projects and details real - I had to Google them to find out most were fictional elements in this curious book about books).

Clay Jannon is a night-shift clerk at Mr. Penumbra's mysterious bookstore. It is mysterious because it contains two sections. The front of the store sells actual books (although Clay's favorite series, The Dragon-Song Chronicles is a made-up fantasy series), while the back of the store is full-to-the-brim with books written entirely in code. These coded books rotate out of the store to various odd individuals who own a membership to this mysterious lending library. Clay is determined to find out what is really going on. What's the deal with these books full of codes? Is there a pattern to their use? Who are the novices? What is the organization known as the Unbroken Spine? These are the curiosities that kept me reading. In some ways it was an enjoyable romp through books, puzzles, fonts, and hidden meanings, but in other ways it was a bit tiresome.

While I didn't hate the book, I do agree with many of the observations of one irate reviewer who angrily gave it one star. Click here for her scathing Good Reads review (warning: spoilers abound). It was a curious book, but not really a satisfying conclusion for the mystery. I think the value of the book lies entirely in its ability to cause the reader to think about books and how books allow authors to achieve a semblance of immortality. It did, indeed, seem like the author was overly fond of Google. The characters weren't really all that engaging. So, while I did follow along running after the solution to the mystery, in the end, I would rate the book as so-so or fair-to-middling. It was good enough to wet my appetite for a book praising books, but not note-worthy enough to earn the great praises many people sing.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: Letters and Life

Bret Lott's Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian offers a valuable study of what it means to be an artist while being a Christian. After thoroughly enjoying his memoir, Before We Get Started, I was eager to seek out this other book of his on writing. I still haven't managed to take time to read his novel, Jewel, but it is definitely on my radar.

I appreciated many of Lott's observations about the Christian publishing world. I have stated before that I often am hesitant to pick up Christian fiction because so many times the message overshadows the story. But, I also agree with the things Lott plucked up the courage to articulate here. He writes, "Christian publishing ... is by and large uninterested in the supernatural, save in the bankability of the supernatural's ability to comfort the already convicted." At an awards ceremony for best Christian novels of the year, Lott charged the audience with these convicting words: "I fear we live in a day when we are feeding on Christian fiction as a child feeds on milk.... Unless we create fiction that does more than simply entertain the troops - unless we make room within the Christian writing industrial complex for writers to create worthy work - art - that in its craftsmanship and vision challenges the heart and soul and mind of our readers - then we will be nothing more than happy clowns juggling for one another." And, for me, that is often what Christian fiction feels like ... "clowns juggling for one another."

What a powerful gift to be able to write a story that stirs the reader to be better without hammering the attempt to proselytize. Lott quotes the gifted writer, Flannery O'Connor, who wrote: "Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists."

In thinking of the life of a writer who is also a Christian, Lott spends time pondering the craftsmen God ordained to create the tabernacle in the Old Testament. He declares we are "blessed to be a blessing." God places things in our lives in order to pass those blessings, that wisdom, the depth of insight on to our readers. Lott speaks of the importance of a wound in the life of an author. Thus, he points out John Gardner's powerful short story "Redemption" (a story I'd like to get my hands on) taken from the pain of his own wound after accidentally killing his younger brother.

He goes on to mention Francis Schaeffer's idea that "art in harmony with our creator God is art that must encompass the whole of man's experience, its depravity and triumph both." Sometimes that is messy. Not a sterilized experience recounted in words, but a real, heart-wrenching struggle that produces the fruit God works in our lives through such ordeals.

In reflecting on all the thought-provoking words of this book, I want to be a better writer than I am. I want my Christianity to so infuse my life and consciousness that the words I offer up, the words God places within me to share, might impact another life for His purposes. I recently watched this happen as Davey Blackburn, the Indianapolis minister who returned home to find his young wife murdered, wrote on his blog about the impact of Levi Lusko's words in his powerful book Through the Eyes of a Lion, a book I highly recommended in my review here. Lusko's words on running toward the roar gave Blackburn the strength he needed to walk back into his house and lie down on the very floor where he found his wife and push through the grief of that moment (talk about a wound!).

This book about writing stretches a writer in the same way. It causes the reader to press on into personal pain and woundedness, in order to reach for all that God desires from our words. Lott puts it this way: "As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know."