Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book Review: How to Write Like Tolstoy

I'm always keen to find unfamiliar books on the subject of writing. I happened to notice this on the shelves of new acquisitions at our local library. While I don't aspire to write like the greats (that seems an unrealistic goal), I did want to discover a thing or two about how they handled certain aspects of writing. The book was not only interesting, it was also very entertaining and informative.

The broad list of topics was contained within a great sense of structure. The first chapter begins, where else, but with beginnings. Then the author moves on to things like character, point-of-view, dialogue, irony, rhythm, and revision. In his final chapter, he focuses on the importance of a good ending.

I thought this advice from Edith Wharton was excellent for choosing the best point-of-view: "Who saw this thing I am going to tell about? By whom do I mean that it shall be reported? Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why?"

Richard Cohen told of a fun little game he played once with his writing students. The game is called "Consequences" and involves each student beginning with a man's name (A), then passing their paper to the next to add a woman's name (B). From there it is passed further to receive a location (C). The final four steps involve adding "he said to her ..." (D), "she said to him ..." (E), "and the consequence was..." (F), and finally, "and the world said ..." (G). In this way, they created mini-stories where one character met another in a particular setting, engaged in significant dialogue, and meandered into a denouement. I want to share that one with the leader of my library writer's group. It sounds like such fun.

Some of the humorous bits included simple stories about writers. In one, a writer wrote one word, "the," then dashed off to a party down the hall. He returned briefly to sit at his typewriter and added three more words, "hell with it" before returning to the party. I laughed out loud. Another author would begin to write and whenever he reached a place where he didn't know what to put down, he would simply type a curse word and go on. When the first draft was completed, the work was riddled with profanity. Through revision, the author would get the manuscript into a state where it was eventually squeaky clean, with not a curse word to be seen. In similar fashion, Cohen quotes Mark Twain's advice: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

I think the little stories about author habits made the whole book thoroughly entertaining. Thus, I was so busy laughing that I didn't even realize I was also learning. It did amuse me that this author mentioned a book I had just reviewed unfavorably (because she didn't manage to make the learning entertaining enough). I love it when my reading seems to follow a theme without any conscious effort on my part. I would happily read this book again for both the insights and the amusing anecdotes.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Music Camp 2016 In the Books

Another music camp has come and gone. Once again, I was asked (graciously) to be on faculty (this time in primarily assistance roles - shwew!) and once again, I had a marvelous time. We figured out that this is my 5th year on the faculty and not since my first year have I been able to attend with one of my sons as a camper. Thankfully, this year was Trevor's first year that he took any interest in going (I'm guessing this was prompted a bit by his upcoming role in the percussion section of his middle school band).

My first assignment was to administer the theory tests to all campers. I kept waiting and waiting for Trevor to make his way into the dining hall, so I could see how much theory he actually knows. Alas, he never arrived. When I checked on this at the faculty meeting, that first afternoon, I discovered that his counselor never took he or another few boys to their placement tests (not for theory or band placement). As a result, that evening he was pulled aside by the percussion instructor and simply asked a few questions. Because he didn't try out, he ended up being placed in the beginner band (a placement he felt was in error because he could perform far better than his peers in the band). Even so, he was able to shine in his track and had a good time making a friend in one of the other percussion members in that band.

At the first evening program, the faculty was introduced to the campers in a rousing game of "Would You Rather." Since the theme was based upon Star Wars, most of the questions I was asked were hard to answer because I've only seen three movies and many a moon ago.

On the evening of the second full day, Trevor wanted to go home. The heat was really taking a toll on him (most days were in the 90s with a real feel over a hundred). When he went to sign up for his afternoon elective, all the indoor games slots were filled and so they placed him in the hiking track. He's a bulky boy and hiking in the best of conditions would be a challenge for him. He gave up after ten minutes and ended up standing in the sun for the rest of the hour, waiting for the others to return. He was none too pleased to discover that the evening program required more walking in the heat as we participated in a music scavenger hunt. Still, he survived and ended up really enjoying his camp experience, despite the heat.

Before we knew it, the middle of the week arrived and with it the promise of the annual faculty trek to Steak-and-Shake. We always pile into a bunch of vans and descend upon the unsuspecting restaurant, requiring two lengthy tables to fit us all. Conversation was good and it was such fun to spend time among the adults after pouring into so many kids throughout the week.

Another highlight of the encampment was the opportunity to play my horn with the faculty band. We attempted a rather difficult Star Wars arrangement and I was given the solo horn part (even though I had offered to cover 2nd Horn, not wanting to be responsible for any unexpected solo). There was a section in the music where I was supposed to play slurred triplets of E-C-E, E-C-E, ... over and over. Because the fingering is the same for both notes, it was all lip to try to get the notes out. In the end, I gave up and simply counted those measures off - ha!

I think my favorite piece that we played was a cornet solo featuring Lynda Carr Cooper. It was called "People Need the Lord." Lynda is a phenomenal musician and the piece is absolutely beautiful. Plus, my part provided a soothing harmony for the melody line.

My favorite assignment this year was a role as assistant leader for a Creative Writing Elective. All of our campers in the class were enthusiastic about writing (such a pleasure to meet young people with similar passions to my own). I had prepared about a hundred writing prompts and each camper was given a day to write up a post for a blog about camp. The girls (all girls) had a wonderful time getting thoughts down and sharing what they had written with everyone else in the class.

At the final concert of the week, the intermediate choir (the track I assisted with) did a fabulous job. They enjoyed both of the two numbers selected by the leader and I was able to direct one of the pieces (great fun). By the time the concert was over and our instruments and belongings collected, both Trevor and I were pleasantly exhausted. We stopped for a special Culver's treat on the way home to celebrate a fantastic shared camp experience.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Between You and Me

I listened to Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Perhaps I would have had different feelings for the book if I had read it in paper form, with the added plus of being able to skim and pick and choose what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to skip past. I don't know. I'm not a big fan of grammar and the picking apart of correct usage to begin with. I don't relish the chance to review and correct someone else's words. However, as a writer, I know that grammar is a necessary tool and one that I could utilize better with more instruction. Thus, my desire to pick up this book. It was an experience akin to poking oneself in the eye repeatedly with an ice pick. I'm not sure why I kept listening except that I was hoping to glean wisdom and, frankly, didn't have another audio book in reserve to turn to during my daily walk on the treadmill.

Alas, it was tiresome, tiresome, tiresome! I felt every. single. mile for the whole seven days it took to complete. Even the humor fell flat for me and I couldn't rouse myself to feel very enthusiastic about what was presented. I know that the author was attempting to provide a combined reference/humor book, but I could have done without full sections of the book (one chapter devoted to profanity - why? seriously! why would this be in a book discussing grammar? - one chapter devoted to the history of the pencil and her preference for a number one pencil). As for the profanity chapter, I was just lucky my young boys didn't enter the room during the bantering of expletives flying about through the performance.

The author comes well-recommended. She is, after all, a member of The New Yorker's copy department. If she is a lover of language, as the back cover proclaims, she didn't manage to pass her love on to this reader. Instead, my own love of language was diminished in listening to her diatribes about the various subjects she chose. While I did receive instruction on tricky things like "who" versus "whom," "that" versus "which," dangling modifiers, and compound words, it was still as boring as could be and even the injected humor failed to cheer me up. The only cheer I proclaimed was a hearty "Praise God," when the book was over and I could begin my next audio experience.

Surely there has to be someone who could make the learning of grammar a delightful experience. If you know of such a book, please enlighten me. Maybe someone will come up with a video game where the player receives prizes and advances levels when they can correctly use grammar. Just don't look to me to come up with such a game. Grammar remains a necessary evil in my book.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: The Weight of Shadows

Guilt can be a perilous thing to carry. In The Weight of Shadows, Alison Strobel crafts a sensitive novel portraying the devastation of guilt and the power of grace. Three characters in the novel are broken by their pasts and their lives intersect on a trajectory that demonstrates God's love and forgiveness.

Kim is a young woman who has never felt the love of family or a sense of belonging. She is drawn to her new boyfriend, Rick, because he provides that for her. His provisions are not without a price, however, and Kim is willing to pay that price because she thinks she must atone for past sins.

Joshua is a man dealing with the grief of great loss, raising his only daughter alone after losing his wife to cancer. What's more, his in-laws hold him responsible for his wife's death because he encouraged her to seek alternative treatments. Now they are trying to do everything they can to seize custody of his daughter. Because of this, he cannot risk assisting his neighbor, Kim, even though he can tell that things are desperate for her.

Debbie is determined to save the lives of women who are in bad relationships. She cannot seem to find an acceptable relationship for herself, but she is driven to meet the needs of her women at the shelter she runs. Debbie, Joshua, and Kim are on a collision course and because of God's love, it will bring a satisfying resolution.

As far as Christian fiction goes, I felt Alison Strobel did a good job of crafting a meaningful story without sinking it under the weight of the message. Indeed, I thought if a non-Christian picked this book up, they would find a gentle introduction to the power of God's grace. Then, I went to view the Amazon reviews and found that almost all of the negative reviews highlighted a discontent with the Christian aspects of the novel. These readers felt the writing was heavy-handed with Christianese. So, perhaps the message still came off as more important than the story (my chief complaint against Christian fiction).

I, personally, thought the book was good. Her characters were realistic. The situations they were in brought out subtle opportunities to shine God's light through without being overbearing. Even though the resolution was a bit too coincidental and too tidy, I found it satisfying, nonetheless. I would read more from this author.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Card Perfect for Me

My beautiful niece, Kirsten, had a bridal shower a short while ago. I was unable to attend, but still wanted to send her a monetary gift and fill out the recipe card her sister had requested. Thus, I offered up my favorite Jell-O Pudding recipe for Berry Delight (a dish that was such a hit at the last women's gathering, where I brought it, that people were fighting over seconds). Then, I tucked it away in this little card I have been hanging onto for years (because it was so perfect for me, I never wanted to part with it). By sharing it here, I can still keep it forever - ha!

And for those interested in the recipe, you can find it here at the website. One look will make you click on that link:

 (Photo from the KraftCanada website)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: The Secret of Lost Things

I love to happen upon unusual books. While visiting my mother-in-law a few months back, we popped into the local thrift store for a look around. My husband found a clever little coin counter and I discovered this book, The Secret of Lost Things. The cover, with its image of old books and declaration by The Philadelphia Inquirer as an "Altogether enchanting" book, seduced me. Moreover, it bore a sticker declaring it to be "Joanne's Pick" from its time in the Pages for All Ages bookstore. The inside cover contained over a dozen endorsements. One of the endorsements was the clincher: "Most bibliomaniacs are suckers for a novel that focuses on books, a bookstore or characters who also suffer from bibliomania. In Sheridan Hay's debut, the reader gets all three." (- Portland Tribune) Being a bibliomaniac, I handed over my buck and went home with the book, full of eager anticipation.

I can see why so many were willing to provide accolades. It is, indeed, full of "endearingly eccentric characters" (USA Today), "subtle literary threads" featuring Melville, Auden, and Shakespeare (The Charlotte Observer), and a "shadowy, at times thrilling, atmosphere" (Willamette Week). I agree with Nuala O'Falain that it is a "brilliant version of the coming-to-adulthood-in-Manhattan story with a page-turner of a plot about a lost manuscript for which the people around the charming heroine are willing to do very nasty things." Set in a bookstore and focused on a treasured missing manuscript by a famous author, the story is one with great appeal for anyone book lover. However, I still hesitate to endorse it fully, mostly because of the crudity.

While there were interesting characters (including a transexual), while the bookstore was entrancing, and while the allusions to Melville, Auden and Shakespeare filled my heart with joy, I felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of the novel. The sad thing is that this debut novel could have soared to heights with all readers had the author simply left out the unnecessary description of halting sexual encounters. Although I understand that the romantic elements were necessary in order to create the level of conflict Rosemary experiences, the actual sexual activity could have been muted or simply alluded to.

The main character, Rosemary, is an orphan who flees her home in Tasmania hoping to begin life anew in New York City. She stumbles into The Arcade, a fascinating bookstore, and knows immediately that this is where she wants to work. (Who wouldn't want to work there?) She is surprised when they give her a job. She begins to meet all the odd and unusual characters working in the store. When the manager, an albino with failing eyesight, begs her to read a letter, which tells of a mysterious manuscript by Melville obtained illegally and up for sale, Rosemary is sucked unwittingly into a plot of mammoth proportions.

I was most impressed with the vocabulary level of the novel. I have rarely encountered as many unfamiliar words while reading. I made a short list of the words I didn't recognize: palimpsest, gimcracks, reliquary, isolatos, farouche, recherche, janissary, votary, obloquy, oenophile, limned, and enfilade. Most words were easily understood in the context of the sentence, but it was, nonetheless, fun to meet new (to me) words.

For expanding vocabulary and meeting eccentric characters, you cannot go wrong here (not that I anticipate actually using those unusual words). If you can overlook minor trashy elements, and if you love books and bookstores and the very thought of a missing manuscript, then you will probably enjoy this novel. It has much to recommend it and many speaking of its merits. For a debut novel, Sheridan Hay has done quite well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A New Welcome

One of the best decisions we ever made was to take our family up on their petition for us to move into my husband's grandmother's house in order to keep up the property. It has afforded so many blessings: the ability to focus on my writing instead of working in a job, the chance to be home with my sons full-time, the opportunity to send my sons to very fine schools, and the freedom to give them space and and a beautiful environment in which to grow. Despite our continued fondness for our old friends and stomping ground in DeKalb, Illinois, we do not look back with regret for our move to Indiana.

Nonetheless, living in an older house always brings with it the demands for continued improvements. We have really changed the way the old house looks. When we arrived, puke green carpeting paved the dining room, dark wood paneling covered the walls, and ancient furniture reigned within. Over time we scraped off the unattractive wallpaper in the halls, replaced the carpeting with wood laminate flooring, removed the paneling and put up drywall, remodeled two of the bathrooms, and exchanged old furniture for new.

Now, we have a new entryway. As usual, our efforts to improve things met with resistance when we couldn't find the right size pillar to replace the corner column. In the end, we had to simply stick with the old and provide a fresh coat of paint. Still, the new door looked so stunning that we decided against covering it with a screen door.

Here is what our new entryway looks like now:

Here's a photo from last summer:

Gone are the cat-scratched wicker pieces. The darker colors on the door simply make the entryway pop. Now, all we need are some guests to come walk through the stunning doorway. Hopefully, we will remedy that soon, as I have invited a small church women's group to gather at our house in mid-August for their monthly meeting. I'm not gifted in the realm of hospitality. I don't have a show-case home or decorate with great aplomb. I'm uncomfortable being responsible for serving up food for masses. Yet, I hope that anyone who visits will feel more welcome just by viewing this grand new door.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: The Summer Before the War - Highly Recommend

Helen Simonson has a gift for bringing characters to life and painting the picture of their lives with beautiful brush strokes of lovely prose. I adored Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and had a feeling I would enjoy her newest book, The Summer Before the War, just as much. It was stunning and sad, engrossing and entertaining.

Beatrice Nash has just arrived in the small coastal town of Rye to apply for a position as the Latin teacher. The residents hadn't expected her to be so forward-thinking (she wishes to be recognized as a writer and scholar) or quite so young and beautiful. Now she must make a place for herself or be reduced to depending on her deceased father's family for support. Her primary advocate, Agatha, introduces Beatrice to her young nephews, Daniel (a poet) and Hugh (a medical student training to become a surgeon). With the mischievous help of these two (successfully inebriating her only rival for the job), Beatrice secures a place and a small room in a cottage in the village.

Beatrice encounters many of Rye's most colorful characters and fights for scholarly recognition both for herself and for one of her young students, Snout, a gypsy boy with an impressive grasp for Latin. Before life can grow too comfortable, the unthinkable happens and they are all thrust into a state of war. Hugh, Daniel, and Snout all head to the front lines in different capacities, leaving Agatha and Beatrice to worry over their safety.

The novel highlights prejudice and progress. Beatrice can sympathize with the plight of the poorly reputed gypsies because her own personality is perceived as too progressive (she is more highly educated than most women her age, she rides a bicycle, and she yearns for a chance to prove her own literary chops). Class wars and cozy village scenarios abound.

This piece of historical fiction captures so well the climate of war and its influence on the lives of the people. Moreover the writing is elegant and beautiful. Here is an excerpt that reveals the flavor of Simonson's prose and the altered attitudes war creates:

"Hugh had quickly found he hated playing the surgeon, making the morning rounds of the rows of the injured and indicating with a crook of his finger which cases he would take for the day. After a few weeks, he had instructed his nurses that he would choose only 3 head trauma cases a day. For the rest of his shift, he was to be sent any case that was considered most pressing. Hugh often lost track of his hours as he stood on a brick floor, slick with blood, and worked through an endless train of stretchers heaved on and off his operating table. He rubbed his hands together, slowly, his fingers dry and sore from hot water, carbolic soap, and the brush with which he cleaned his hands between patients. He never skimped on his hand-washing even when the nurses were holding together ripped arteries, even when he could hear the patients breathing blood. He was deliberate in his movements, moderate in the tone of his commands, and calm in the face of the most appalling injuries. This had earned him notice from his superiors such as he had long sought in his medical school years, but he took no interest in their praise now the dream of acclaim and fortune as a surgeon with a prosperous practice and a tall house in Harley Street had been rendered insignificant and empty in the face of the daily carnage. His calm was merely the numbness that saved him from insanity."

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the British accent of the narrator, Fiona Hardingham, as she read these stunning passages. Despite the length of the book (16 hours of listening pleasure), I remained fully engrossed in the tale and wept in spots toward the end when the harsh realities of war were most pronounced. I fell in love with the characters and thrilled at the triumph of love and despaired at the destruction of lives. I will happily keep my eye out for more from this talented author (and will seek the books out in audio form because the listening brings such satisfaction).

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: The Daniel Prayer

The journal I purchased for this year (sadly, I'm not doing well at all in keeping it up), has a wonderful feature in the back with a year-long Bible reading plan. It works through the entire Bible in the space of a year, so the portions of daily reading are never too overwhelming, but significant enough to glean something each day. Moreover, after stumbling upon the Sweet Blessings website, I have taken to writing out Scripture using her monthly plans (although, if July's topic doesn't suit me, I might simply find verses I wish to cement in my brain).

Like my intentions to better journal my days, my intentions for prayer have gone by the wayside, as well. When I used to walk along the high school track, I would spend the time praying. But now that I walk on the treadmill more frequently and listen to books on CD instead of praying, I have found that my prayer life has suffered. Sure, I pray throughout the day for various things and offer up instant thanks when He answers frantic petitions (like when I left my cell phone in a shopping cart at the store a few weeks ago and thanked Him repeatedly when it was found still in the cart), but I'm sorely lacking in concentrated prayer time.

Anne Graham Lotz, daughter to evangelist Billy Graham, writes in The Daniel Prayer: Prayer That Moves Heaven and Changes Nations about the importance of concentrated, intentional prayer time. Following the life and prayers of Daniel, the author recommends diligent, fervent prayer for our lives and our nation. We cannot afford to be lackluster in our prayer life and God is waiting for us to step up to the plate and petition Him boldly on behalf of our nation.

As the inside cover proclaims, "The Daniel Prayer is not an everyday type of prayer. It's a prayer birthed under pressure. Heartache. Grief. Desperation. Or it can be triggered by a sudden revelation of hope. And answer to prayer. A promise freshly received. A miracle that lies just over the horizon. But whether you pray out of triumph or tragedy, The Daniel Prayer works!"

This book is a call to repentance and a plea for revival. Lotz doesn't mince words when she addresses the ills of our present national crisis spiritually. But, she doesn't dwell on despair either. She focuses her energies on the powerful, living God as the answer to every problem in our lives and in our world. She speaks Scripture boldly: "Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing." (Joel 2:13-14)

If you feel a growing sense of disillusionment with our society and our governmental structure, if you crave a deeper prayer life, if you wish to bend the Lord's ear in a mighty and powerful way, you cannot go wrong by starting with this book and following it up with dedication to spend time in the Lord's Word and in communication with your Maker. You will not regret the time spent in these pages for they will inspire you to take action. Truly, "the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." (James 5:16 - KJV)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Book Review: The Letter from Penobscot Mills

From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. In my grade school years, I would sneak my journal out from under my pillow and creep to the dim light shining from the hallway beneath my closed bedroom door at night. There, lying on my stomach, I would compose poems and stories long after my bedtime. While my parents might not have lauded this disobedience, they certainly encouraged me to write. In addition, I was blessed with some good teachers who also stood on the sidelines, nurturing my enthusiasm and, perhaps, my abilities. One such teacher was my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Philip Bouchard. When I discovered recently that he had published his own novel, I was determined to not only read it, but also own an autographed copy.

The Letter from Penobscot Mills takes a fresh approach for a novel. It is written in nine short stories about the inhabitants of the small paper mill town, Penobscot Mills. These stories culminate in a final one that reveals the truth of the interwoven tales and solves the murder mystery. Bouchard has done an excellent job of weaving the details together, much like the pieces of a kaleidoscope merging together to create a colorful image. Each chapter provides snippets of varying perspectives. With excellent pacing, the conflict steadily intensifies. The villain is despicably evil and the reader cannot wait to see him brought to justice.

While the writing was very good, there were times when I might have put the book down if I hadn't known the author, but this was primarily because it wasn't quite as clean as the books I tend to pick up. Thus, I wouldn't recommend it to my Christian readers or my minister parents. Still, I have to say, apart from a few unsavory bits, it was a good read, full of suspense and intrigue. I wanted to know what really happened. I wish Mr. Bouchard the best of success with his endeavors and many satisfied readers for any future books he might write. Maybe one day, I'll be able to send him an autographed copy of one of my own novels. One day.

Friday, July 1, 2016

More Than Corn in Indiana

Indiana Beach's famous theme song says, "There's more than corn in Indiana, at Indiana Beach." Well, there's not a whole lot more than corn, but we still find ourselves going back year after year for old time's sake. Frankly, after you've been to Cedar Point, it is hard to get very worked up about a simple trip to the Indiana Beach Amusement Park. Moreover, the park just isn't what it once was. The boys are almost too big for the appeal of a family-friendly park (i.e., the rides are very basic and instead of improving, the park tends to decline year after year). It used to be run and manned by local folk and things were fairly inexpensive. While you can still pay to simply walk around the park (something we always appreciated in years when I was pregnant), lots of things have increased in price (you now have to pay $7 for a locker to store things for the water area, whereas it was always only 50 cents before).

The one thing in its favor, (which cannot really be a good thing, if you think about it) is that you don't have to fight off crowds. We went on a Wednesday and barely waited for a single ride. Plus, we do have a few things we like to do in a ritualistic way. For example, the boys always want to have money for the arcades and insist on spending some of it in the Ghouls Shooting Gallery:

They always beg to ride the Sky Coaster (even though it adds further expense):

We have a few favorite rides (The Falling Star, The Cornball Express, The Tig'rr, Double Shot, and The Steel Hawg). You can clearly see the lack of a line:

Plus, this year we rode the Shafer Queen around Lake Shafer:

The boys rode the one new ride (new as in it had never been there before, but old as in it still has the FireBall sign on one side, while Indiana Beach has named it ZeroG - must be some other amusement park's castoff). We pined away for the taste of a fruit smoothie (because they have removed that particular booth, along with the Noble Roman's pizza and the booth where we once purchased wire name sculptures - too many cherished memories deflated). We were still able to finish the day with a delicious elephant ear, so all was not lost.