Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Skin Map

I’ve signed up for a program in which I receive free books in exchange for book reviews (see for more info or to sign up for yourself). You know me, I can’t pass up free books!

First up is Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map, the first book in his new Bright Empires series. It’s about a group of people who travel via ley lines—portals that lead to other times and places. Some people are in search of a map originally tattooed on a man’s torso, while others are looking for loved ones who have gone missing in the midst of their own inter-dimensional travel. It’s somewhat of a mix between National Treasure and The Time Travelers Wife, and I found it entertaining. Less of a sci-fi or fantasy book, it feels more like a historical novel, taking place in England, Prague and Egypt. I must say though, if you find it hard to keep up with plots that don’t follow a linear time-line, you may find The Skin Map confusing (ie, if the flash-sideways in the last season of LOST mystified you, this may not be the book for you).

The Skin Map felt as if it were merely a setup to the next books in the series. The suspense didn’t kick in until page 330, leaving 70 pages to bring up questions that won’t be answered until later. I wish we could have gotten more closure or more info on why the characters are traveling through time and searching for the skin map so frantically. I suppose the open-ended ending is there to keep you reading the series, but I think even in a series a book should have it’s own story that rests on itself. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone we don’t know everything behind Lord Voldemort’s return, but there is a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. The Skin Map seemed to only have a beginning and middle. Even so, I give the book 4 stars.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cain and Abel

For the past five years I've been on a literary journey of my own choosing. I'm reading all of Madeleine L'Engle's books in the order they were published. I don't read her books exclusively, and she was very prolific, so it's taken me awhile. Right now I'm reading her 29th book out of 63. Some books are young adult novels, some are novels for adults, some poetry, some memoir, some books of prayers, and some theology.

There are certain books that I eagerly look forward to and others that I pick up only because they are on the list and I've committed to reading them all. At least once I've made a comment like, "I'm not really looking forward to reading this one" to a friend. That friend has responded with, "Then why don't you skip it?" But reading the books that I'm not naturally drawn to is what makes this journey rewarding. It teaches me things about faith and about Madeleine L'Engle that I wouldn't know if I only stuck to the books I'm most drawn to. And each time I read one of the books I am less than excited about I find a treasure.

The book I'm reading right now is called Ladder of Angels. In it Madeleine retells familiar Bible stories, and next to each story is an illustration by a child from somewhere throughout the world. Let's just stay this was not one of the books I was desperate to read. I mean, I know these stories. I grew up in Sunday School and have read them over and over in the Bible. And really, do I want to see a bunch of pictures by kids I don't know personally? But I started reading it and was, of course, pleasantly surprised. Some of the pictures are astounding! I am so impressed by the kids' artistry. And the oh-so-familiar Bible stories are fresh with Madeleine's words. One of my favorites so far has been the story of Cain and Abel, so I thought I would share it with you here.

There had never been children before.
Eve did not know what was happening to her, with her belly swelling and movement within it and then a great ripping and tearing. There was terror and there was pain.
And then, Cain, squalling, red-faced and angry at the indignity of birth. The first child. He would have preferred simply to have been formed of dust.
When Abel was conceived Eve understood what was happening, so perhaps it was easier to hold Abel, to gentle him against her breast, knowing that the hungry lips were searching only for milk, not trying to bite and hurt and destroy.
The two children romped like lion cubs. They vied for love. They loved and hated and were jealous. But it was all easier for Abel.
So Cain hit him. There had never before been death. He did not know why Abel did not get up and hit him back.
He did not know that he had brought death into the world, and that, as he would bear its mark, so would we.
Cain resented Abel, and bequeathed us his death.

I suppose it's a little dark for me to say this has been one of my favorite stories in the book thus far. It's not that I love reading about the first murder. It's just I found this story so interesting. I've read the account in Genesis 4 so many times, but I'd never thought about how scared Eve must have been when she was pregnant with the first child ever. Or that Cain might not have realized that when he attacked his brother it would end his life. They had experienced animals' deaths, but I wonder if the first family realized the same thing could happen to them.

I've got quite a few mores stories to go in Ladder of Angles, and then I get to move on to a young adult novel! It's a fun journey. What are you reading these days?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Tropical Paradise?

I wrote a devotional for a prayer guide that a group in my church is putting together this summer. I thought I would share part of it here on the blog.

When I was in college my roommate and I had a picture of one of the tropical islands in the Maldives on our dorm room door. It had gorgeous white sand that stretched out to meet beautiful turquoise water. There was something about the picture that soothed me. Yet at the same time it gave me a deep longing.

When I am tired and stressed out and I just want to get away from my life I think about going to a place like Maldives. Something in me aches for more than what I find in my daily life. I think that getting to a place like Maldives will make it go away. Yet I’ve been to beautiful places before and it doesn’t make the ache going away. It makes it even worse.

C.S. Lewis knew about this ache too. In Mere Christianity he writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We call tropical islands "paradise", another word for heaven. When I’m honest with myself I realize that’s what I’m looking for—a little piece of heaven on earth. But to expect heaven before our time on earth is over is setting ourselves up for disappointment. You’re not going to get the fulfillment you’re looking for in this life. Not completely. That sounds a little depressing. And if this life is all there is, it would be depressing. Thankfully we have HOPE. We have a promise that this is not all there is. Read what Paul writes in Romans 8:20-25.

"Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don't need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don't yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)”

It doesn’t matter where we are, whether it is in the suburbs of LA or a gorgeous tropical island. There are certain longings in our life that will never be fulfilled on this side of eternity. That ache will always be there until we are united with Christ in heaven. One day, as followers of Christ, we will have all our longings fulfilled. We will finally be complete.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

They Never Came Back

So there I was, on the elliptical machine at my gym, wondering if the woman two spots down could hear my quick breaths, indicating that tears could be forthcoming at any moment. I had just finished reading Caroline B. Cooney's novel They Never Came Back and I was thinking, "This is exactly the type of novel I want to write."

I found the book while I was strolling through the library's section of new novels for children and teens, and the sparse words on the back of the book caught my attention.

Cathy decided on facts. "I don't live here in Greenwich," she told him. "I live in Norwalk."

"You look like Murielle," he insisted.

She asked the logical question. "And who is Murielle?"

This caught my attention because I thought it might be similar to the novel that I'm writing. In case you don't know, my novel is about a girl who shows up at her new school and to everyone else she looks like another girl who already goes to that school. She has, in fact, replaced the girl and continues to trade places with this girl, pretending to be her, until she can figure out how to make it stop. I thought They Never Came Back might have a similar situation in it, so I checked it out. Anything that sounds like it could be remotely similar to my book gets my attention because 1) I want to see how the author handles the situations we share in our novels and 2) I find the topics interesting (that's why I'm writing my own novel about it).

As it turns out, the book's plot was nothing like mine. It's about a teenager who looks like a girl who was lost to her family when she was put into foster care years before. The question throughout the novel is whether the high school girl is really the little girl who was lost five years ago or just someone who looks like her.

I'm so glad that the book gave so little information on the back because I probably would not have read it if I knew what it was really about. I have my list of what I tend to look for in books. I like them to include one or more of the following criteria:

-Novels that mess with time and space

-Books written by Madeleine L'Engle

-Memoirs about random events in life like not buying anything unnecessary for a year

-Books written by Donald Miller

-Novels that take place in pre-modern England

-Novels that have modern day characters who turn out to be wizards or demi-gods

-Books (both fiction and non-fiction) that incorporate faith in a creative non-cheesy, non-preachy way

-Books about Amish people

-Novels with other worlds or magic

-Young Adult novels that take place in the future after most of civilization has died off and now humanity is making a new start

-Historical Fiction*

You may notice that foster care is not a part of the list. It's not something that I usually read about. Yet I'm so glad I read this novel. Along with foster care there were other fantastic themes in the book-identity, family, God, how our personal choices affect those around us, etc. The reason why I say it is the type of novel that I want to write is because it has such a wonderful mixture of entertainment, faith-filled themes (it is not a "Christian" book), lighthearted relationships (ie high school crushes) and thought provoking concepts. I think I may have found a new favorite author. I can't wait to check out Cooney's other novels.

*If any of these genres interest you and you would like some recommendations let me know. I would love to share my favorites with you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Million Miles Down a Wandering Path

Let me tell you a little bit about Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In this fantastic book Don talks about how our lives are like stories. Some stories are better than others. Good stories make us cry at the end (Some of us cry more than others. I cried at the end of The Little Mermaid in first grade. Most people don’t cry during animated films, with the exception of Pixar's Up, which will wring tears from a statue. Something that emotionally flammable is a health hazard for me. I actually stopped breathing for a few seconds when I saw it in the theater). Yet other stories don’t affect us at all. A movie about a person who really wants a Volvo and works hard to save up for one doesn’t bring tears to your eyes as the main character drives off testing out the windshield wipers. It’s not a satisfying story, because it’s not meaningful. Your life isn't going to be satisfying with that plot either.

Part of Donald Miller’s story is that he grew up without a dad. Now he is bringing meaning into his story by taking on fatherlessness in the United States with his organization The Mentoring Project. Check out this video they made:

The Mentoring Project - Rewriting the Story from The Mentoring Project on Vimeo.

As I finished reading A Million Miles I started asking myself the question, “What kind of story am I living?” Frankly, there’s a lot that I like about my life right now. On day one of this year I decided 2010 was going to be about being bold, taking risks and kicking butt. And it has been. I signed up with a personal trainer at my gym and have been loosing inches. I delved into the second draft of my novel, determined to whip it into shape. Where I used to think, “That’s not me,” or “I couldn’t do that” I now think, “Why not?” It’s been an entertaining and adventurous story.

But is it a good story? Is it a meaningful story? I’m not ending fatherlessness and shutting down 20% of prisons like Donald Miller is trying to do. I don’t have a major cause that I’m fighting for. I started thinking I needed to get myself a cause. I also started stressing myself out.

Then someone died. I didn't know the woman personally, but she was the mother of someone dear to me, and I was given the opportunity to help with some of the preparations for her memorial service. After I’d printed and folded hundreds of papers for the program, gathered food and trays for the reception, and made sure there was waterproof mascara on hand I realized what an honor it was to be able to do such practical and tangible tasks for someone during their time of loss. That is meaningful.

I thought a meaningful storyline would have a specific direction, a focused determination making a big difference in the world. It's certainly easy to see how a life like that would have lots of meaning. But couldn't it also be more of a wandering path? The journey to find meaningful bits in each day could be the storyline itself. I have to believe so, because what about all the women who are mothers, at home with their children every day, raising them in love, teaching them what life is about? That is a worthy cause, is it not? But it is not something you log your hours in for, nor something that gets recognized when filling out applications for fellowships and nominations. But it is a calling I hope to join some day. And I've heard that it is a struggle to feel like your life is meaningful when you are at home with the kids day after day. Much of my job is wrapped up in doing those motherly tasks, so I need it to be true for me right now as well. I want and I need to take the time to practice finding those meaningful moments. I need to allow myself to count the seemingly small things as important. Because it's all too easy for me to dismiss whatever it is that I'm doing with, "Well, that doesn't count."

If our lives feel meaningless, is it because they lack meaning, or that we lack trust that what it is we are doing actually is meaningful? I have a feeling that even if I were working for the greatest cause in the world I would find a way to discount it and not feel like I was doing enough. Maybe I am working for the greatest cause in the world and I don't even realize it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Road Trips to Wonderland

Today in the Daily Office we started reading Colossians. Every time I read Colossians I think of the road trip my friends and I took to Oregon during my senior year of college. It was during this trip that I fell in love with the book. From then on I've counted it as one of my favorite books of the Bible, along with Romans, John and Isaiah.

That trip also reminds me of two other books. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. I read more books than that on the trip, but that is what I remember reading.

Most of the group on that trip had just read, were in the middle of reading, or started reading Blue Like Jazz on the trip. It was perfect timing, as we were headed up to where Don lived. We even visited the famed Powell's Bookstore that he mentioned. It was perfect. Reading books that tie in with where you are visiting is the best way to do it, in my opinion. Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh. Charlotte Bronte in Haworth. Miller in Portland.

So now I'm reading Donald's new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years at the same time that I'm reading Colossians again. In a sense it's like both books were chosen for me at this time. A Million Miles because I just heard Donald speak on it last week, and Colossians because the Episcopal church said that's what I should read right now. It's one of those things that seems lined up, providential. Actually, it seems cyclical.

There are things in my life that seem to keep showing up, reminding me of who I am and who I was. Of course there are the negative things that I wish didn't come up - those insecurities that I thought I got over years ago that come back at times when I least expect them. But I'm thinking more of those things that are more nostalgic in nature. Like a beautiful, although sometimes seemingly random, theme in a movie that keeps showing up.

Take Alice in Wonderland for example. The new Tim Burton version starring Johnny Depp came out recently. I love anything those two do together, so of course I went to see it, and I started remembering all the different ways the story of Alice in Wonderland had shown up in my life over the years. There's the Disney version of the movie, which is not my favorite (although I do like the ride at Disneyland). But then there's the live action version that I watched on TV as a child. The book by Lewis Carol that I adored, especially the second half, Through the Looking Glass. The Alice in Wonderland game for our CD-i, a learning and gaming technology that my family bought that never quite caught on. There's the visit to Alice's Shop in Oxford where my parents bought me the "Drink This" mug. Also the new book series The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor that I've been reading. All of these things came up in my mind as I watched Tim Burton's version of Wonderland. It's like I was being re-introduced to that part of me that loves Alice in Wonderland. It's kind of like those people that you are friends with on Facebook. You know them, but you forget about them until they post a status update on Facebook on something you have in common with them.

I'm not really sure what all these reminders come to, but they seem somehow meaningful, like no matter where I live, or how much it seems like I grow and change, it's still me hanging around.

What are some of those things that you find recurring in your life? Any thoughts on what it means?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Am I Really Going to Read The Purpose Driven Life?

I like stories. A lot. My favorite way to take them in is through books, but I also enjoy movies, TV and theater. If you’ve talked to me, I’ve almost surely said something like, “It’s like in this book I was reading yesterday…” or I will start singing you a song from a musical about what you just said. I tend to filter everything through what I read, watch and hear.

C.S. Lewis said, “If one is only to talk from first-hand experience, conversation would be a very poor business.” This blog is me talking about my second-hand experiences—what I’m reading, what I’m watching, what I’m hearing and how it shapes my life.

I thought my first blog entry would probably be about Madeleine L’Engle. I’m currently in the process of reading her books in the order they were published. I just finished her 28th book (of 63) and closed out the year 1978.

Another option would be to blog about Donald Miller. I just met and heard him speak at my church on Friday. When I say “met” I mean I stood in line with my newly purchased copy of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, handed it to him with the amazing line of “Hi,” and said “Thank you” when he handed it back. I had really hoped to sweep him off his feet with my amazing wit, but then I remembered I have no amazing wit in situations like that.

But no. What I find is that I’m blogging about The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

Really? Am I really going to read The Purpose Driven Life? It’s not exactly my type of book, mostly because it’s been so popular. I am instinctively wary of products that are all the craze in Christian circles. Plus, it seems a little formulaic. Here’s a quote from the introduction of the book:
“Today the average life span is 25,550 days. That’s how long you will live if you are typical. Don’t you think it would be a wise use of time to set aside 40 of those days to figure out what God wants you to do with the rest of them?”

Wow, so in 40 days I will know what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life? What a deal. I even get to eat, something that Jesus didn’t get to do during his 40 days that prepared him for his ministry.

I really don’t have much else to say against the book. I mean, I don’t actually know what Rick Warren says in it, so I can’t judge it. He may have some really great insights.

The whole reason I am even thinking about reading The Purpose Driven Life is that my church is doing a church-wide 40 Days of Purpose. This is where for 40 Days you read The Purpose Driven Life, sign up to join a small group where you will discuss the book and watch a DVD of Rick Warren’s teachings, and on Sundays you listen to the pastor give sermons about Purpose Driven themes. When I heard about it, I rolled my eyes. “Here we go, following the mega-churches again,” I thought. I had no plans of joining in.

And then this morning, when we were singing our praises to Jesus, before our pastor even started his first Purpose Driven Sermon, I realized what a snotty attitude I had. Who am I to scoff at this program that our church has decided they want to participate in? Do I honestly think that I understand what is spiritually better for myself and the congregation than the team of God-loving, seminary-graduated, wiser-and-more-experienced-than-I-am pastors? Wow, I must be amazing.

And then there’s this other thing that got me thinking. I am drawn to Episcopalian writers. Madeleine L’Engle. Donald Miller. Lauren Winner. C.S. Lewis (he was Anglican, which = Episcopalian in England). I love their books. I love their way of thinking about faith and life. I love getting glimpses into their churches. I’ve even attended an Episcopal church a few times, and I’ve been reading the Bible through the Daily Office. For me, the draw of the Episcopal Church is the structure. I like how they do things as a church, like the way everyone reads the same scripture passages and prays the same prayers on the same day. I like the idea of observing the holy days in a formal way, like Lent. I don’t participate in Lent myself, but that’s because no one around me participates in it, and I don’t really understand it. But I think if I did go to a church that explained it to me, and encouraged everyone to do it, and we all gave up something together I would want to do it. I would want to participate in what my faith community was doing.
This morning I realized that I was rolling my eyes at an opportunity to do something as a part of my faith community. This aspect of church life that I had been longing for was available, and I was setting myself apart from it because I didn’t really like the idea of the book we were going to read. Well, maybe not everyone likes the idea of giving up chocolate or coffee for lent (which also lasts for 40 days, incidentally), but they do it as a spiritual exercise within their church family.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to read The Purpose Driven Life. I’m going to join a Purpose Driven Small Group and watch the Purpose Driven DVDs. Maybe I won’t like everything I read. Maybe I will love it. I’m thinking either way there will be excellent conversations within the small group and in my home as my church family and I process the ideas that Rick Warren offers to us.

And fear not. I shall still be reading what Donald Miller has to say in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years about what he thinks life is all about. Maybe it will be a Warren-Miller showdown.

Well, here we go. Time to read.