Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: The Power of Different

I've often wondered why so many creative individuals struggle with the demon of depression. Is it the very capacity to feel so deeply that causes them to be pulled so low by emotion while also enabling them to soar so high with their creativity? This book, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, by Gail Saltz, M.D., highlights a variety of supposed disabilities that often open up a world of creative endeavor. Given my own experience with clinical depression and intense anxiety episodes, I eagerly devoured the pages of this book for insights into making the most of my personal weaknesses.

The book is structured in an unusual way. Instead of highlighting famous individuals who have battled various mental disorders yet found a measure of success, the author has organized the book around the symptoms of disorder and focuses on each symptom separately, using examples within each of the seven different chapters highlighting learning differences, distractibility, anxiety, melancholy, cycling mood, divergent thinking, and relatedness. I was surprised that the examples were often unknown individuals the author encountered in her research. I expected to learn more about a wide array of famous individuals (I can think of quite a few examples off the top of my head), but really only encountered a few, like Hemingway and Darwin.

I appreciated how the author dissects the various disorders, revealing the intensity of the struggle each causes, while also offering up suggestions for working around the problems and focusing on the strengths as opposed to the weaknesses. In the end, the author really champions the benefit of even the most devastating disorders. She writes, "I am convinced that there is something special about the brains of those struggling with mental illness that also yields some of the most astounding and beautiful achievements. I think this is an enormously positive and encouraging message for the nearly 50 percent of Americans who will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime."

Moreover, I agree wholeheartedly with her goal of removing the stigma of mental incapacity and pushing to emphasize the positive aspects of such illnesses. As she observes, "Every brain and every life holds potential. Squashing that potential by dismissing those outside some standard mold is not only cruel on an individual level, it is a sad waste on a societal level. Armed with the knowledge of how to treat and manage the differences that cause suffering and knowing how to best mine the potential that accompanies those differences, we can not only increase the genius output of many but also enhance the quality of life for many millions."

Although I expected a bit more out of the book, it was still an interesting topic to explore. It is sure to appeal to anyone who is fascinated by the correlation between disorder and creative genius. For those who struggle with these disorders, it is a primer for how best to work around the disadvantages and glean the many hidden advantages.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Poetry: Starting from Scratch

Once again, summer has arrived and with it, an invitation to volunteer my time on the faculty of The Salvation Army's Indiana Music Camp. I'm grateful for this opportunity to be involved in the music programming, but this year I have the added plus of being in charge of a Creative Writing elective. This fills me with such joy. I don't often miss my old teaching days, but when I do, it is usually a longing for a place to live out my passion and nurture young people with a love of reading and writing. Because it has been so long since I was in charge of a high school Creative Writing class, I decided to seek out some reference material on the subject. The best my library had to offer was this book on teaching poetry by Michael A. Carey.

Even though this text was written in the 1980's, the subject is timeless and the author provides excellent suggestions for opening kids up to a love of writing. Carey emphasizes the importance of communicating your own passion in order to stir up a passion within your students. That sounds easy enough! The first two lessons seek to encourage kids to make their readers feel what they feel and think what they think by the age-old adage, "Show, don't tell" and to do more with less by encouraging them to "say the most you can in the fewest words." Then, Carey moves on to the basic tools, which are not rhyme and rhythm, as some would assume, but are instead metaphor and simile.

I loved several of the suggested exercises like "What If" poems and riddles (taking an ordinary object and comparing it to something so the reader must guess what you are referring to). My favorite exercise? "I'm So Sorry" poems. The author encourages kids to think about making a tongue-in-cheek apology for something they are really not that sorry about. He provides examples of actual poems by kids in his program. One such poem apologized for putting a mouse in his mother's bed but delighting in the shock on her face that "was like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July." Carey also provides lessons for letter poems and first time experience poems.

I'm pretty sure I will use many of his suggested exercises as we work on short works of art in the few sessions we have (I think there are probably only four 40 minute elective sessions, so it is not a lot of time to work with). I will bring in music and pictures to serve as writing prompts and will also bring along the short story prompts I made up for last year's class, when I served as an assistant instructor. Hopefully, the kids will go home with at least a few pieces they can be proud of and I will relish the chance to pass along my passion for writing.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: Chase the Lion - Highly Recommend

One of my favorite reads from last year was Levi Lusko's Through the Eyes of a Lion. In his book, Lusko talks about how the male lion's roar is intended to send the prey running right into the lair of the lioness. It is only natural to run from the roar. Just as Lusko urged readers to fight that urge to run, Mark Batterson encourages his readers to not only fight the urge, but instead turn around and Chase the Lion. The subtitle to his book says it all: If Your Dream Doesn't Scare You, It's Too Small. Batterson's favorite verse of Scripture tells of one small act by a seemingly inconsequential player, a moment when Benaiah chased a lion into a pit on a snowy day (hence the title of Batterson's prequel to this book, In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day, reviewed previously here).

As much as I loved Batterson's previous book, a book I highly recommend, Chase the Lion fell into my lap at just the right moment. My personal dreams and goals feel very much like a gigantic lion and fear has me running into the jaws of the lioness. Reading this book felt a bit like being in a football locker room when the coach comes in and gives an inspirational pep talk to build the players up in preparation for the game. Batterson makes an excellent coach. He gets the reader fired up and ready to face whatever dream God has given. Instead of running from a terrifying, overwhelming task, the reader is encouraged to reflect on the depth of meaning behind our hopes, dreams, and goals.

Within the first ten pages, Batterson begins to work his magic. When talking of the Wright brothers and the importance of their minor interaction with a book by Louis Pierre Mouillard that nurtured their curiosity about flight, he called that author "a prophet crying in the wilderness, exhorting the world to repent of its unbelief in the possibility of human flight." Within sentences, he fires back at the reader with this powerful question: "What impossibility do you need to repent of?" Batterson is determined to encourage his readers to have God-sized dreams and to rely on God's provision to make those dreams come true.

I wished I owned a copy of this book because I found so many pages with quotes I wanted to highlight. Here are a few:

"At the end of our lives, our greatest regrets will be the God-ordained opportunities we left on the table, the God-given passions we didn't pursue, and the God-sized dreams we didn't go after because we let fear dictate our decisions." (p. 4)

"We tend to avoid situations where the odds are against us, but when we do, we rob God of the opportunity to do something supernatural." (p. 35)

"Sometimes you need to stop praying for something and start praising God as if it has already happened." (p. 85)

"The hardest part of any dream journey is the holding pattern." (p. 92)

"God doesn't always call us to win. Sometimes He just calls us to try. Either way, it's obedience that glorifies God." (p. 101)

In speaking of the ripple effect of our dreams, he writes, "Whether you're aware of it or not, your dream is contingent upon someone else having the courage to pursue his or her dream. And someone else's dream is contingent upon you pursuing yours!" (p. 140)

Urging the importance of others alongside you, he observes, "Whether it's a Holy Club, a literary club like the Inklings, or a band of brothers like David's mighty men, you will ultimately reflect those with whom you surround yourself. And they will reflect you. Bad company corrupts good character, but good company helps you go from good to great." - a worthy lesson to share with my boys! (p. 171)

This book was so inspiring that I often found myself tearing up with conviction and renewed motivation. His message is simple, really. You are important. Your dreams are important. What you do to pursue those dreams has a ripple effect that will carry down through future generations. So, don't shrink back in fear. Like Benaiah, pursue the lion in front of you. Chase whatever dream God has laid on your heart. Win or lose, He wants you to give your all and never give up.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: What I Was

While looking at the alternative audio selections at a library in a town a bit further off, I happened upon this YA novel by Meg Rosoff, What I Was. I have read a few other Meg Rosoff novels and although she tends to hold a more liberal perspective than I do, I've somewhat enjoyed her novels. The best thing about this novel? The stunning prose. The writing was absolutely beautiful, from the first lines to the closing one.

Here's the enticing book blurb from the back cover of the audio version:

"In this beautifully crafted and heartbreakingly poignant coming-of-age tale, an older man recounts the story of his most significant friendship - that with the nearly feral and completely parentless Finn, who lived alone in a hut by the sea,

"As a boy suffering the constrictions and loneliness of boarding school in East Anglia, the young narrator idolizes Finn and spends as much time at his beachside hut as possible, hoping to become self-reliant and free. But the contrast between their lives becomes ever more painful, until one day, the tables turn and everything our hero believes to be true explodes - with dire consequences."

I enjoyed listening to this novel. Ralph Cosham, the British narrator, did an excellent job of conveying the intense emotions and communicating the rich language. If I had been reading the novel in paper form, I would have wanted to jot down especially beautiful passages. The ending took me by surprise and was a delightful conclusion to a tale of longing and desire. Although this novel wouldn't appeal to everyone, I am glad to have read it for the exposure to such fine writing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Book Review: All Things New

After a quick look through the A's in the audio books section at the library, I landed on this excellent inspirational historical novel by Lynn Austin. You cannot go wrong with her historical fiction. She sets the stage well and peoples it with authentic characters. I was sucked into the plot quickly and enjoyed the pacing as troubles intensified leading to the climax.

All Things New is a post-Civil War novel set on a Virginia plantation. With their slaves newly living as freed men, Josephine Weatherly's family must confront the chaos from the wake of the war. Her father and brother are dead and her brother, Daniel, has returned a fractured man, intent upon scaring his former slaves into submission. Josephine's mother has her own worries. Unsure whether her son is up to the challenge of running a plantation his brother was groomed to run, and troubled by some distressing heart issues, she must regain the control she wielded during the war.

In the face of her intense losses, Josephine has cast off her belief in God. Then, she meets a Yankee who has been sent to help the freed slaves establish working relationships with their former plantations. Despite her family's distrust of the Yankee, Josephine desperately clings to his friendship and contemplates the deeper issues he draws to light. But, her mother has other plans for her daughter. She wants Josephine to marry Harrison, the son of her best friend, a man who returned from the war a legless, bitter shell of his former self. He is sure that God is punishing him for his sins. Josephine tries to reach out to Harrison as the Yankee reaches out to her.

I thought the story was very engaging and realistic. The spiritual applications offered up in the novel arose naturally from the story, without being forced upon the reader in a heavy-handed way. The trials highlighted God's ability to work blessing from unbearable burdens and triumph from seeming tragedy. The book reminded me that "God will make a way where there seems to be no way."

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

While the title of this book is a mouthful, I think it is well-suited. It is, perhaps, my favorite E. Lockhart book yet. Even though it took me a while to be fully hooked into the story (well over a hundred pages, but I was interested in learning what the antics would be, so I kept reading), I ended up devouring the last half in one sitting.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is about boarding schools and secret societies, about language and love, about wanting to be on the inside and longing to make a mark. Frankie, who has blossomed from a gangly, geeky girl of 14 into a buxom, boisterous girl of 15, is tired of being invisible. She no longer wants to be known as "Bunny Rabbit" to her family. When she acquires a senior boyfriend who is involved in a secret society, she decides she absolutely must find a way to infiltrate their all-male ranks. What better way to do that than to outsmart them in their own pranks?

I loved Frankie's gutsy, feisty character. Her voice was distinct and vulnerable. I enjoyed thinking about the use of words. The pranks were magnificent and expertly maneuvered. I couldn't help but fly through the pages wanting to know what would finally topple Frankie from the intricate web of intrigue and mystique she had created. The reader knows from the very first page that Frankie is called on the carpet for her misdeeds. The set-up to those misdeeds took a little while in coming, but once they arrived, I couldn't put the book down.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Book Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code is the second book in the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I always feel sorry for an author who hits it big with a book meant to be the first in a series, because they face enormous odds against them for creating a book that will rival, or even equal, the first. I would certainly feel pressured in their shoes. Although this was a valiant effort, I do think I enjoyed the first book more than the second (gave it a "highly recommend"). Of course, I had my own pressure from a hold list requiring me to read the book when I might not have been in quite the right mood for it. It was very similar to the first because it held puzzles and codes and a mystery tying them all together.

This time around Emily and James, neighboring kids who love cracking codes and solving puzzles, are curious about their teacher's strange behaviors. They catch Mr. Quisling reaching into someone's purse to retrieve a clue to his own puzzle. When he drops the clue, they are pulled into his quest to solve Mark Twain's "unbreakable code." As the two seek out the hidden Twain books in their beloved Book Scavenger game, an arsonist begins setting fires. They are not only driven to solve the unbreakable code but also to figure out who is responsible for the various fires.

I do tend to think I was just not quite in the mood for a tween mystery book because the book has received all five star reviews so far on Amazon. Everyone else has overwhelmingly argued that Bertman has done it again. She has written a book sure to delight tweens and families who love puzzles, ciphers, codes, and treasure hunts. Fans of the Mr. Lemoncello's Library books will also be thrilled with this series. I'm not giving up on this series, but I will time my future reads to fit my mood better. Who knows, maybe I'll recommend the series to Sean for some riveting summer reading.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: My Anxious Mind

Mostly, I read My Anxious Mind: A Teen's Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic to further understand the main character in one of my YA novels. That character suffers from severe social anxiety and I wanted to read more about the strategies for combating the intense discomfort and panic she experiences in the novel. However, I must admit, I hoped to glean strategies for myself, as well. While I never used to experience anxiety at all (not even for speaking in front of others), ever since my third child was born, I have battled various episodes of extreme anxiety (including a few full-blown panic attacks). Indeed, as I think of my upcoming Europe trip, I'm overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy for handling the anxieties travel will no doubt stir in me.

Although the book is geared toward teenagers, the steps for managing anxiety and panic are helpful across the board. If you have a teen battling anxiety issues, I would highly recommend this resource. The book breaks down the complexities of such disorders into simple terms, with ample illustrations, and highlights various ways to retrain self-talk and calm agitated nerves.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: The Monogram Murders

Although I've heard of Sophie Hannah before (knew she is a mystery writer), I had never read one of her books. This is billed as an Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot novel. Thus, this modern writer takes Agatha Christie's well-known character and places him into a mystery of her own making. I suppose it is a glorified fan fiction, in a way (something I've never been fond of). Although the author's writing skills are sufficient, I still ended up feeling like I would have rather read an actual Agatha Christie novel.

One of the subtle sub-plots involves Poirot's partner, a police officer by the name of Catchpool, working on crafting a cross-word puzzle. It was a fitting device for this novel because the novel felt very much like the belabored effort of such an endeavor. Clues were tediously drawn out and repeatedly referenced. The names of the characters were read out in full time and time again so that Harriet Sipple, Ida Gransbury, and Richard Meekus are etched into my memory forever. The nine CDs did not exactly fly by for me. Although I remained interested in solving the mystery, I wasn't thoroughly riveted.

The Monogram Murders tells of a case where three guests at the same hotel have been murdered. Each body is found on the floor, neatly facing the door, with a monogrammed cufflink tucked in the mouth. To add to the mystery, Poirot encounters a woman who rushes into his regular coffee shop in fear for her life, then dashes out again. Poirot must determine if the woman is, indeed, about to become a fourth murder victim. In his search for the distressed woman, Poirot parses out the meticulously plotted clues and solves the crime with his astute observational skills.

Although the author did create a somewhat compelling mystery, it was so drawn out that it lost some of its intensity.  I grew weary of the repeating of clues and Poirot's arrogance in dealing with his partner (constantly treating him as if his intellectual skills were severely lacking). I cannot really recommend this as a good Christie knock-off. Indeed, the above cover presents Agatha Christie's name with such prominence that readers might mistakenly believe they are getting the real thing. I prefer this British cover where Sophie Hannah's name is larger than Christie's, so that the reader knows full well what they are getting. If you are interested in a tightly-wound plot, where the murderer turns out to be the very last person you suspect, pick up an original Agatha Christie book. She was the master, after all.