Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book Review: London: A History

It has been slim pickin's these days for audio books to accompany my morning treadmill walks. I attempted two different thrillers, but after getting over a half hour into each, discovered they were so full of smut that I couldn't bear to continue (sob, why do authors feel a need to add sexual voyeurism and scandal to entice readers - all it does for me is make me shut the book). Thus, I thought I'd go with a safe bet and listen to A.N. Wilson's history of London, in anticipation of my fall trip.

Alas, it was a bit dry. I guess a Brit might find the political commentary and architectural explanation interesting, but I had a tough time of it. Indeed, I wondered how a historian could write such an opinionated piece (isn't the goal to remain objective and impartial?). I was expecting to be wooed into wanting to visit (of course, the ticket has already been purchased, so technically I don't need to be wooed). Sadly, it just didn't pull me in with a great desire to learn more about this cosmopolitan capital. I think I would have been even more bored with the fare, if I had no past experience with the city. Thankfully, having lived there for about six months, I was familiar with many of the locations mentioned. Nonetheless, I don't really recommend this if you are looking for a title to enchant you with dreams of London's fair city.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: Lost in the Sun

Two excellent tween reads in a row! How fortunate I was to have stumbled onto these titles. Lisa Graff''s novel, Lost in the Sun, is a sure-fire hit for boys who struggle with the intensity of emotions or who have a great love of baseball. While boys will especially relate to the main character, I believe again that this book (like the crossover appeal of The Thing About Jellyfish) will hold equal appeal to boys and girls.

The burden Trent carries threatens to crush him and he is sure the crushing will be deserved. At the end of winter in his fifth grade year, Trent agreed to play a simple game of hockey. Somehow the game ended up being not so simple, though. When he connected with the puck and sent it flying, it hit the chest of Jared Richards and, because of an unknown heart defect, Jared died. Now Trent must face the emotional fallout and the alienation he feels from everyone else in town because he is sure they hate him. As Trent deals with his guilt and pain, he finds solace in the complicated love of family, the unusual friendship of Fallon Little (a girl with a story all her own), and the unexpected support of his most disliked teacher.

This novel is sure to resonate with kids as it focuses on the troubled waters of split families, sibling rivalry, and trauma recovery. The grown-ups portrayed in the book may have their own hang-ups and weaknesses, but mostly they are solid role models and often give out sound advice. Even the bad advice (for example, the father counsels that "sometimes you only get one chance") causes the reader to think about things and reason for themselves what they believe about life and second chances. While the book never brought me to tears, I did ache inside for the pain Trent carried around and wished him all the best in his genuine friendship with Fallon. Teacher resources can be found on the author's website.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish - Highly Recommend

Despite being a book that tween girls will definitely relate to, I believe my tween sons will relate to The Thing About Jellyfish just as much. It is chock full of scientific facts and interesting things to contemplate. The very bad thing the narrator does to her best friend is the type of gesture boys will find fascinating. Moreover, boys and girls alike will find their heart strings tugged by the universal emotions of grief. I was deeply moved and wept like a baby.

Suzy Swanson cannot fathom the death of her former best friend. It is unexpected. It is tragic. It cannot be explained by her mother's statement that "sometimes things just happen." Franny deserved so much more than 412 million heart beats. She deserved better than the final gesture Suzy made to her on the last day of sixth grade. It doesn't matter that Suzy's intentions were good. The fact is, their last moment together cannot be taken back and the grief of that overwhelms Suzy so much that she stops speaking.

Her silence troubles her parents, her therapist, and her teachers, but Suzy believes she might make a breakthrough if only she could talk to the right jellyfish expert. As she researches jellyfish, she begins to believe she has found the reason behind her best friend's demise. Now she must find her voice in front of her peers and convince the others.

This book took me back to the angst of middle-school transitions, when friendships and bodies begin to shift and change. Suzy, with her frizzy hair, her intense curiosity about the world, and her determination to cling to the way things were, captured my heart thoroughly. The author's power of voice was stunning. I completely agree with the Kirkus Review's comment, "A painful story smartly told, Benjamin's first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience." I cannot recommend this book enough. The writing will suck you in, hold you fast, and break your heart all at the same time.

Indeed, I recommended the book to Sean and he read it and enjoyed it as well.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: The Garden of Small Beginnings

I have the blackest thumb in the history of mankind. Okay. Well, that's probably not true, but I do tend to kill all green things that I attempt to grow. Fact. Just finished off a plant that my oldest son's ex-girlfriend gave to him awhile back. Somehow with the camps and schedule craziness, I forgot to water it adequately and it is now a shriveled mess destined for the trash heap. But, I would like to nurture the skill. Indeed, my husband has plans for a garden (how that will work with the large critter population he attracts with his constant bird feeding, I'm not sure). Thus, this title and premise jumped out at me in the recent acquisition shelves of my library.

Lilian Girvan is still reeling from the recent death of her beloved husband when her textbook illustration job sends her out to a gardening class to prepare her for an assignment. She brings along her sister, Rachel (instrumental in helping Lili over the hump of mental breakdown), and her two young daughters, Clare and Annabel. There, the three meet a host of interesting characters who begin to nurture Lili and woo her out into the world again through the intervention of gardening.

I loved the brief snippets before each chapter, instructing how to grow various vegetables and herbs. These passages were brief enough not to interrupt the flow of the narrative, yet insightful enough to be helpful. Although I would probably benefit from copying out those particular pages, I figured my husband has sufficient books and I'd be better off following his lead.

Word of warning: A great deal of the humor in this book centers around sexual innuendos and double entendres. Morally speaking, the characters approach sexuality with very loose standards (Rachel seems to bed any man she holds the slightest interest in and is more hesitant when she feels there might be more significant relationship - this was rather perplexing to me, from my perspective). This isn't exactly a book I feel good about recommending to my Christian friends, since the worldview is quite different.

Moreover, it felt like the story ambled along without really getting anywhere. I suppose at the end of the book, Lili does finally get to the place where she is ready to seek out her own happiness, but the journey to that point seemed winding and, at times, unsatisfying. While I never really fell in love with the characters, I did enjoy thinking about and vicariously experiencing the grief process. It kept me reading, but more for the gardening elements than for the story line or humor.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review: The View from Saturday

Although I didn't select this audio book for its brevity, I was short on time for perusing the shelves and knew I could trust E. L. Konigsburg for a decent tween read. The characters were delightful, the story engaging, and the plot pace steady.  With a kid-friendly feel of "Slum Dog Millionaire," The View from Saturday would make an excellent read-aloud for 3rd to 6th grade classrooms.

Mrs. Olinski doesn't know why she selected the particular four individuals who make up the sixth grade Academic Bowl team, but she knows that they have the potential to sweep the competition beneath their feet. Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian become fast friends as they prepare and get to know one another better. Each has a particular story fitting them for particular questions presented and when they come together, they establish a friendship that is both enduring and profitable.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book Review: Quality of Care

Whenever I go away I try to bring along books from my own coffers, rather than carrying library materials, on the off chance they might get lost. Moreover, as I was contemplating my time at CBLI, I wanted to bring books that were small enough to fit easily in my bag and not take up too much space. I brought along two books, but the first one, The Road from Coorain, proved too heady to hold my interest while at camp (full of pages and pages of descriptions of Australian countryside). Thankfully, this second one, Quality of Care by Elizabeth Letts, managed to hold my attention and would be sure to appeal to anyone who loves horses.

Clara Raymond is a dedicated obstetrician who insists on providing the best possible quality of care for her patients. When a pregnant woman turns up one night, events are triggered that will test Clara's perspective and self-assessment. That woman is Lydia Benson, a former friend who once saved her life. She arrives on the arm of her husband, Gordon Robinson, a man Clara once loved. Given their shared histories, one would expect this to be a fortuitous night, but instead, when things go wrong, Clara flees and attempts to confront many demons from her past.

Of course, given that I was reading this book in the midst of a course on God's sovereignty, I couldn't help but smile at the author's attempt to handle the grand ideas of fate and chance. At one point, the narrator observes that Gordon was the one "who tried so hard to teach me to accept the fact that there doesn't have to be a reason, that sometimes bad things just happen." Moreover, another doctor remarks to Clara, "Every day, I show up to work and I try to do the best I can. Just one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, you do what you can and it doesn't turn out to be enough. I feel quite sure in the end that the balance [of harm to good] is in my favor.... If you show up every day with your game clothes on, you may win some and you may lose some, but I'm pretty sure you're right with yourself and with the patients - right enough with God, the way I reckon it."

Clara struggles with her part in the fate of Lydia's life and Lydia's part in the fate of her own life. In the end, she sides with her colleague's assessment of her responsibilities. She concludes, "So I pray - little accidental prayers that are just small blossoms of my inherent hope for goodness. Watch out for the little one - watch out for the ones who are small and need assistance, and are defenseless. Please protect those who cannot protect themselves. And me? I just get up every morning and put my shoes on, and try to do the very best I can that day, and every other single day that follows." While it wasn't a book that affirmed by belief in God, it was a well-written debut novel that held my attention and furthered my thoughts about personal responsibility and God's hand.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Book Review: Trusting God Even When Life Hurts

Given the original date of publication (1988), I'm surprised I never encountered Jerry Bridges' book, Trusting God Even When Life Hurts, before. What a powerful little gem! I'm so thankful that I selected this elective course at CBLI. Moreover, I'm especially glad that the teacher didn't allow discussions to boil down into political debates, but focused instead on the opportunity to express times when God's providence has seemed in contrast to what we would expect God to want for our lives.

The sovereignty of God is a difficult subject to wrestle with, yet it is key to surviving adversity and maintaining faith. Every one of us will face trials and tribulations that will cause us to scratch our heads in wonder and say, "Where is God in all of this? How could a good God allow this? Doesn't God want better for me than this?" Adversity can make us bitter. It can sap the faith right out of us. I know. I've been there before.

For me, at least, the author achieved his stated purpose: "to glorify God by acknowledging His sovereignty and His goodness [and] to encourage God's people by demonstrating from Scripture that God is in control of their lives, that He does indeed love them, and that He works out all the circumstances of their lives for their ultimate good." I was struck by my own past failures when he emphasized that "it is just as important to trust God as it is to obey Him. When we disobey God we defy His authority and despise His holiness. But when we fail to trust God we doubt His sovereignty and question His goodness. In both cases we cast aspersions upon His majesty and His character."

Bridges teaches three essential truths in this book: "1) God is completely sovereign; 2) God is infinite in wisdom; and 3) God is perfect in love." First we have to ask if it is God or chance governing our circumstances. As Bridges clearly states: "His love may be infinite, but if His power is limited and His purpose can be thwarted, we cannot trust Him." Thus, the sovereignty of God becomes the foundation on which we build our faith. This sentence resonated with me: "God has not looked the other way or been caught by surprise when adversity strikes us."

I'm guessing the biggest struggle for people centers on the balance of God's sovereignty with man's free will. Bridges argues, "just as we must not construe God's sovereignty so as to make people mere puppets, so we must not press man's freedom to the point of limiting God's sovereignty." He points out God's sovereignty over people, nations, and nature. God can move the hearts of men in our favor or against us. He allows everything we encounter for the purpose of His eventual glory.

One of my favorite chapters was "Trusting God for Who You Are." God, in His sovereignty, designed each one of us in the womb. He allowed both our strengths and our weaknesses. He rules over who we are, what we are, and where we go in life. In thinking of my recent reading of Through the Eyes of Hope, I fully believe that God allowed that little boy to be born with his disabilities for a grander purpose than we may ever know.

Who better demonstrates God's glory through trial than Joni Eareckson Tada? She recently wrote an article reflecting on the 50 year anniversary of her tragic diving accident that left her a quadriplegic. She mentioned ten words from a friend that strengthened her in her trial: "God permits what He hates to accomplish what he loves."

God allows adversity in our lives to grow us deeper in Him, to glorify Him, and to allow us to share in His sufferings. He can and will use our distress. Nothing is wasted. It is all gain, even in the trial and the pain. Oh, how I needed that reminder!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Central Bible & Leadership Institute 2017

One of the most significant blessings in my life over the years has been our involvement in The Salvation Army's Central Bible & Leadership Institute. My sons and I have been attending every summer since my oldest was three; that's nineteen consecutive years! I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for all that has been poured into us over the years through this camp. This year was slightly different, in that only one of my sons accompanied me, but we both came away with a feeling of great fellowship and intense spiritual nourishment.

(Photo courtesy of Emily Southfield)

(an annual selfie taken by my dear friend, Laura Allen)

Thanks to the dates being bumped up a week, we were able to attend without driving back and forth to accommodate the start of school (we proved the level of our devotion by doing just that last year).

We received a housing assignment that gave me some pause, but we've had plenty of years of excellent assignments, so I felt it was certainly our turn. Beech provides a long hallway of tiny rooms (four on either side) with two twin beds in each. The room itself, despite being small, was perfectly sufficient for our minimal needs. I was most anxious about the bathroom dilemma, since there are sixteen people sharing one male toilet/shower and one female toilet/shower. Amazingly, Trevor only had to wait occasionally for access (there were more men than women billeted there), and I only had to wait once (primarily because I'm such an early riser that nobody else was ever up when I began my morning routine). It was cozy and a comfortable distance from the dining hall.

I am always blessed by the opportunity to join such a large group singing praises to God. The times of worship, in both the general meetings and in our smaller adult track Bible study, thrilled my soul. I think my very favorite worship tune this year was the song "Let Nothing Be Wasted" (especially poignant on the heels of writing a redemptive women's inspirational novel this past November).

(photo courtesy of Jared Collins)

The spirit really moved distinctly in the adult Bible study this year (once again taught by the excellent Bible teacher, Linda Himes). We studied the tabernacle/temple and focused on the idea of the meaning of worship. I think, in general, people tend to view worship as the singing of praises to the Lord, but Linda encouraged us to delve deeper into God's original intention for worship and the significance of his provision of a pattern for redemption drawn in the specific instructions for the tabernacle and temple. We began with Old Testament passages where the words "love," "obey" and "worship" were first used, in the story of Abraham's testing when God asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac. God clearly chose the place where this act of worship should take place. We then shifted to Old Testament passages containing God's specifications for the act of atoning for the sins of His people. Linda brought along a model of the tabernacle pieces and we were able to visualize exactly what such worship would have felt like.

 (photo courtesy of David Tooley)
 (photo courtesy of David Tooley)
(photo courtesy of David Tooley)

In the midst of these discussions, we thought about David's insistence on paying full price for the land God selected for the temple, not wanting to give a sacrifice to God that cost him nothing. Linda emphasized God's desire to dwell with His people and His presence filling the temple. Of course, the temporary (tabernacle) was merely a pattern for the permanent (temple), which was a pattern for the eternal (Christ's sacrifice tearing the veil, destroying the temple, and raising from the dead to provide eternal life for all believers). Finally, we focused on the priesthood of believers and our ability to approach God with boldness directly (the external becoming internal and the letter of the law shifting to heart change). With new eyes, we studied the importance of worshiping in spirit and in truth through full obedience and devotion. There were several moments during the class where the spirit of the Lord was tangible and real.

For my workshop, I selected a class on Trusting God Even When Life Hurts (based on the book by Jerry Bridges), led by Major Ruth Fay. I will review the book separately, but gained new insights into the purpose and meaning of suffering through this class. I don't think I had ever thought so intensely about the sovereignty of God (something I have personally questioned when faced with trials in life). I appreciated that the discussions never dissolved into arguments about what and why God allows tragedies to play out in the sphere of our world. The homework pages helped me work through the ideas presented in the book.

When we were not in classes, our free times were primarily taken up with Trevor's focus on fishing. He entered the longest fish competition and ended up taking first place. I think everyone was at a disadvantage this year because of the recent flooding in the area. The pier we normally fish from had broken off and floated to the middle of the lake. It had been retrieved and was wheeled up onto the side of the lake, but without the pier's availability, everyone had to fish where the weeds were thick and the fish less plentiful. Still, Trevor managed to catch a ten inch fish. We were able to determine the length because he took this photo against the square portion of his t-shirt (next year, we'll have to remember to bring a ruler or yard stick).

Several times, we ventured into town to buy lures and live bait. During one of those trips, Trevor purchased a pair of alien sunglasses that became his trademark accessory for the week. He had a blast fishing and hanging out with his friends.

(photo courtesy of Kim Suydam)

(photo courtesy of Christina Joy)

As we drove home from camp (quite a feat since we were hindered by a stopped train, causing us to get lost, an accident diverting traffic, and then the standard slow movement on the highways home), we both reflected on God's rich blessings this year. Now that Trevor is joining the junior high football team, I'm not sure we will manage next year again. If we do, it will be our 20th year, Sean's first in the tween track, and Trevor's last in the tween track.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: Death of a Travelling Man

Some of my reasons for selecting books run shallow. For this book, M.C. Beaton's Death of a Travelling Man, I selected the audio book simply for the minimal length. At only four CDs long, I was able to complete the listening experience in the five short days I had of treadmill walking between my time at music camp and my departure for CBLI. Even though it will not rank as a favorite mystery, it was enjoyable enough and the Scottish accent of the narrator, Davina Porter, was delightful.

This is book number nine in Beaton's 33-book-long Hamish Macbeth series. Police constable Hamish Macbeth traces much mischief back to the arrival of traveller Sean Gourlay, yet he cannot pin any tangible crimes on the man. When Gourlay turns up murdered, Hamish must sort through air-tight alibis, tangled webs of intrigue, and neighborly naughtiness.

While it did indeed hold my attention and provide an interesting enough tale, I don't feel compelled to seek out the other books (although my library has six others available in audio form and if they are also short, might show up on my list when circumstances dictate my listening window again). But, if you are seeking short mysteries set in the Scottish highlands or prefer to listen to books narrated with a Scottish accent, this series might be right up your alley.