Saturday, December 31, 2011

Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well by Billy Graham

Recently, the evening news indicated that evangelist Billy Graham had been hospitalized, something that has happened several times over recent years.  Each time, reporter focus on his advanced age, as well as his influential career in Christian ministry.  In fact, Graham is 93 years old, the same age as my father. 
I have read books by his son and his daughter, but I can't remember reading an entire book by Graham himself.  I decided to obtain a copy of his newest book Nearing Home without actually finding out what the book was about.  I received an email notice the week of Christmas that a e-copy of the book was available for me to check out through WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium).  It is certainly a busy time of year, but certainly there was no more appropriate time to read this book.  I found a book that spoke directly to me and the years that lie ahead for my husband and myself.

As the subtitle Life, Faith and Finishing Well indicates, Graham has written a book about aging and the end of life.  While, this may sound depressing or even scary, Graham reminds us to embrace our faith, to again place our faith in God, and then find something to do that will glorify God.  He sort of chastises those who feel retirement is an excuse to indulge in continual self-satisfaction.  Those of us who are baby boomers need to remember that we were also seen as the me-generation in our youth, and shouldn't revert to that behavior in our senior years. (Boy, I hate putting myself in that senior group, but I guess retirement gives me full-fledged entry into the group).  Many of the practical suggestions that Graham makes fit right in with the decisions that every new retiree, including myself, need to make.  What can we do with our time that will benefit others?  Whether it is using one's experience in the business world to help nonprofits or volunteering at a shelter, Graham reminds us that we have purpose and we have the freedom to choose those activities that will let us show God's love in action.  Graham also focused on the unique and powerful place grandparents have in their grandchildren's lives.  God has given us an honor with great responsibility every time he places a new baby into our extended families.

Part of the book speaks of dealing with those inevitable hardships of aging - diminished health and loss of loved ones, both realities that Graham himself has faced with dignity.  He writes so lovingly of his wife and her passing.  He also speaks of the  difficult decisions to give up his crusade schedules and even driving, but then shares how he has found peace and strength from those decisions.

I feel this book would be a good discussion book for a church group of older people, or a multi-aged group if combined with Max Lucado's Outlive Your Life. Both strongly call us to make our faith one which daily shows God's love through our choices and actions.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Young Adult Novel Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Young adult (mature) audience or adult readers,
Contemporary fiction with historical elements

I first discovered Jennifer Donnelly when I read Northern Light the fictional sory of 16 year old Mattie who struggles to keep her own voice as she must care for her siblings in the early 1900's.  Her life and goals are forever changed when her summer job at an inn places her at the epicenter of the true-to-life Gillette murder case (the basis for the classic book An American Tragedy) Donnelly's ability to draw one story into another was superb, and although I usually avoid stories with strong "supernatural" or ghostly influences, I truly liked this book.  When I was done, I kept thinking Northern Light should be promoted as cross-over reading for adults. I believe the same can be said for her novel Revolution.

In Revolution,Andi is another teenager struggling for a voice, and her story will also collide with another girl's story - Alexandrine from the French Revolution.  Let me set the stage for both stories.  Andi is the daughter of a Nobel Prize winning geneticist (father) and a talented artist(mother), but she is trapped in a world of self-blame over the death of her younger brother.  As a result, she is flunking out of her prestigous private school.  The only beacon of hope comes during the time she spends with her music instructor, a Nazi death camp survivor. While Andi self-medicates with anti-anxiety and anti-depressants, she also shoulders the responsibility of watching over her mother who is burying her own grief in a manic frenzy of painting.  Andi's father has abandoned the family for the mysteries of science (and a new wife), but when he finds out that Andi's recent actions may lead to expulsion or the inability to get into the best ivy league school, he arrives to take control.  Within days, Andi is on a plane to France with her father.  While he undertakes a historic examination of a long stored heart to determine through DNA whether it is truly the dauphin son of Marie Antoinette, Andi is left to explore Paris and work on her senior thesis. The vehicle that brings Andi and Alex's worlds together is a small diary Andi finds in a musical instrument case pulled from the Paris catacombs. Another connecting factor is that both girls shouldered a responsibilty for a young boy's life, and both failed, or so they think.  Music, classical, rock, and today's alternative music playsuch a strong component to this book that the author has compiled a play list on her website, so that readers can acquaint themselvs with the songs.

Jennifer's writing style is very literate and she expects her reader's to possess certain knowledge.  I am not a French history scholar, but having studied the French Revolution (albeit, years ago) certainly helped.
I like authors who expect readers to understand some world history and who portray characters who move beyond their own narrow view of the world.  Yet while, Andi certainly becomes caught up in Alex's plight, I never felt as drawn to the young actress - turned spy's story as I was to Andi's story. Jennifer definitely writes for mature readers.  In this book, the life of Andi's over indulged friends will seem a waste to many readers (her intent, I'm sure).  Personally, I tired of Andi's pill popping approach to each day, but I understand that she was "in a bad place" and the numbing effect of the self-medicating provides a believable vehicle for the intersection of the two girls' stories in the dark Paris catacombs.  Some people quickly object or reject a book when a destructive acts like Andi's overuse of her prescription is shown, but I prefer to judge a book and its message on its entirity.  In this case, Andi's ability to find a way out of her self-destruction through her immersion in Alex's story will not leave the reader disappointed.

Now that I have finished this young adult novel by Jennifer Donnelly, I checked her website to see if she had published anything new in 2011.  I found that she has - an adult novel The Wild Rose set in World War I and a companion to The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose.  Now they are on my "to read" list, a list that never gets any shorter because for every book I can cross off, I add several on.

Keep reading everyone.  I know I will be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Though Waters Roar by Lynn Austin

Strong women who do not fit the mold of their contemporaries have always been my favorite fiction characters (nonfiction, too).  Now I can add Grandma Bebe and granddaughter Harriet to that notable group.  Bebe, born Beatrice, in a family of all brothers was introduced to the unfairness of life at an early age.  First, her father wanted another son and often continued to call her "Son" despite the obvious.  When her brothers went off to fight in the Civil War when she was just a preteen, she was expected to quit school and take over their farm chores.  But the event that would most affect her lifeview was her mother's decision to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Mother never shared with the boys that slaves were being hidden in the attic because she feared that they could not keep silent, but Beatrice was introduced to the escaped slaves and even accompanied her mother on one transport.

Later Bebe's marriage would take her away from the farm and her protected life.  Her new mother-in-law found the young wife lacking in necessary social skills. As Bebe faces the harsh realities of a far-from-perfect marriage, she recalls her mother's courage and finds her own voice.  She becomes active in the temperance movement and later the fight for suffrage. 

The novel is narrated by granddaughter Harriet who for most of the book is in jail.  She keeps saying, "How did I end up here/" a literary device to keep the readers in suspense. For a while, we only learn that she had been arrested with bootleg liquour in her vehicle.  As Harriet fears what her parents and especially Grandma Bebe will think when they find out, Harriet retells the significant events of Bebe's life and also daughter Lucy's (Harriet's mother.) As for the real reason why she had bootleg booze in her car, that would be a spoiler.  Read the story and Harriet will finally explain.

Lynn Austin is one of the strongest Christian fiction writers I have read.  I stayed interested throughout the whole novel.  Actually, the Hallmark movie Hidden Places based on her novel of the same name was on television last night and I had to decide whether to read or watch her work. By staying up a little later than I should have, I was able to enjoy the movie AND finish the book.  Austin is able to create characters that have admirable strengths, but we can also see and understand their faults. Their faith or sometimes lack of it fits the story and the characters.  Too often those elements can seem to be add-ons to fit the Christian market.  To me, all aspects of Bebe seemed authentic, from her childhood to her actions as an unhappy wife, to the sage advice given to her adult granddaughter. I will be looking for more Lynn Austin historical fiction. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Amish Christmas - some light Christmas reading

The calendar dictated that our family have its Christmas get-together early this year, which meant that I had to finish up sewing projects last week.  I have a nice sewing corner but I still tend to take over the family room on our lower level.  Reluctantly, I quit sewing a week ago Saturday and straigthened the area up.  Although I did a considerable amount of baking and present wrapping after that, I still found a little time for some light reading. I got an email saying that the e-book version of An Amish Christmas that I had placed a hold on through the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium was available.  When that happens, I have three days to download it onto my Nook and then just 14 days to read it.

I had seen this book in several bookstores and flyers, so I had decided to read it despite not being a big fan of Amish fiction.   To me, much of it is oversimplified, but then isn't most fiction?  This book is actually a compilation of three novellas, all set in the same Lancaster County community.  Sarah and her husband are the thread that connects all three stories.  Beth Wiseman wrote "Choice to forgive" which follows the typical plot of young Amish person leaving the fold and then returning to find true love.  "Miracle for Miriam" is a very similar story, only with older characters - a second chance at love story.

I really didn't need to concentrate at all as I read those two stories- a quick skim and I was done.  Luckily I found "One Child" by Barbara Cameron a little more interesting.  Sarah and David have decided to host the local sing and First Christmas gathering, partially because they hope it will help ease the sorrow both feel as the anniversary of Sarah's miscarriage nears.  Sarah has thrown herself into the holiday preparations and her school teaching almost to the point of exhaustion.  As neighbors leave for home, hoping to beat the approaching winter storm, David encourages Sarah to finally get some rest.  A few hours later, a loud knock awakens them.  An Englisher named Jason is asking for help.  His car has slid into the ditch and his cell phone will not work.  Of course, David and Sarah have no phone and the community phone is miles away.  David and Jason set off to bring David's wife Kate to the safety of Sarah's kitchen   The young Amish couple opens their home late that night to the needy English (nonAmish) couple,  and all their lives will be changed when it becomes evident that Kate is in labor.
I liked that this story was not a formula romance.  In the other two, the world of the English was only described in terms of excessive drinking and fast living. In this story, both the relationships of both couples have strengths and weaknesses. Both couples seem to learn a little from each other. They connect in authentic ways that I hope all of us can if we look beyond surface differences. And the outcome of a young pregnant couple seeking shelter on a Christmas Eve night?  That is the end of the story and I don't reveal endings!

As I've checked online sources for this book, I see that four stories are now included in the publication.
The fourth is called Christmas Cradles by Kelly Long and is about a midwife.  I hope that it builds of the more accurate realism evident in Camerson's "One Child" and does not follow the simplistic pattern of the first two stories.

Our family Christmas is over, my entertaining is done until New Year's Eve.  We will be able to enjoy the Christmas church services later in the week.  Until then, I can pick and choose what I do.  My email has let me know that a couple more e-books are available for my reading if I want.  A good book, a warm fire in the pellet stove, a Christmas cookie or two, and a cup of tea.  What a delight!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Other Wiseman

Henry Van Dyke's story The Other Wise Man is now over 100 years old, but it is still touching at this Christmas season. I had read the story about fifteen years ago, but couldn't place my hands on our copy, so last year I downloaded a copy for my nook.  Many publications are available since this work is now considered out of copyright and in the public domain.  You can even find a much shorter version on the web to read, but don't hesitate to read the full text, even in this hectic season.  It will only take an hour or so.

Artaban, a scholar and Magi, has learned of the star and plans to join the three wisemen on their journey to locate the child whose birth the star signals.  He has sold his home and possessions to buy three jewels - a shapphire, a ruby, and a pearl as gifts for the newborn king. He sets out alone to meet Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar.  Although the journey is rough, he and his trusty stead are up to the challenge.   But when
Artaban reaches the waters of Babylon, he stumbles on a body across the road.  Obviously, the poor man is a Hebrew exile who has succumbed to a deadly fever.  For a moment, the wiseman believes the man is dead and Artaban only wishes to make a way past the body so he can continue his journey.  Then, the man faintly sighs and grasps the bottom of Artaban's garment.  Artaban is momentarily incensed.  Even an hour's delay to help and comfort this stranger may mean he will miss his sppointed meeting time with the others.  His mind wrestles with the choice.  Certainly an opportunity to witness history making greatness out ranks one insignificant life, but he prays and stays.  When the Hebrew regains strength and hears of Artaban's intended destination he shares details of the prophecies that say that the Messiah will not be born in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem.  Of course, the three wisemen have gone on ahead, unable to wait  and Artaban continues alone.  First he needs to sell one of the jewels for the man's continued care and for camels for the journey across the desert.

The story continues with Artaban always arriving too late.  When he makes it to Bethlehem, Joseph and familly have just fled to Egypt, but Artaban again has the opportunity to save a life.  So goes his life.  He continues to search for the Messiah and he continues to help others until he ends up in Jerusalem thirty-three years later.  When he hears that a preacher has been condemned to die for saying he is King of the Jews, Artaban for a moment thinks that he will be able to use his last jewel, a rare pearl, to save the Savior's life, but then a young slave girl is put in the wise man path and he again must make a decision.

Like the three wiseman, Artaban is not Jewish.  His religion is a desire to know truth and because of that he is able to put aside the preconceived ideas he had of God and accept the challenge to find the Messiah.  He believes he has failed, until Jesus speaks to him, letting him know that his life has been a demonstration of belief and knowing.

Van Dykes writing brings much more wonder and emotion to the story than my retelling.  Find a copy and read it for yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Still not too late for Advent preparation

In preparation for Advent, I purchased Max Lucado's Advent Devotional for my Nook reader.  I believe it cost less than $3.  I saw the same devotional in hard copy at the ReachOut bookstore in Fond du Lac, WI for $2.99, so this is definitely a reasonably priced.  Each day there is a reading from the Gospel, detailing an event in Christ's life and ministry, followed by a short commentary by Max Lucado.  These commentaries are all excerpts from some of his more popular books.  If you are unfamiliar with Lucado's style, he has the knack of being able to pack a punch into a few simple words as he eliminates that gap between reader of the scripture and Christ.  Lucado pulls you away from your comfortable reading corner and makes you a member of Christ's contemporaries, whether the tax collector or the woman at the well. I've been known to chuckle as I read his writings and often I just have to read passages outloud so others can hear Lucado's descriptions.

Here's an example of the commentaries that follow a scripture reading. This one will NOT make you chuckle, but you may see yourself walking away from the needy at the pool, like so many others.

Scripture reading- John 5:1-8, Jesus Heals a Man at the Pool of Bethesda
"Picture a battleground strewn with wounded bodies, and you see Betheseda.  Imagine a nursing home overcrowded and understaffed and you see the pool.  Call to mind the orphans in Bangladesh or the abandoned in New Delhi, and you will see what people saw when they passed Bethseda.  As they passed, what did they hear>  An endless wave of groans.  What did they witness?  A faceless field of need.  What did they do?  Most walked past, ignoring the people. 
But not Jesus."
                       from day 12, Celebrating Christmas with Jesus

You know it's not too late to start a devotional for this Christmas season.  You can always read two devotions per night.  They are short you know.  In fact, I need to catch up on a couple day's reading myself.
Or you could purchase the book and just read the remaining days.  You can always read the whole book next year (remember this is a short book).  And if you're out shopping in a Christian bookstore, I'd recommend picking up a few copies to share with friends next Advent.  Or you could order them through for under $2.  Just remember where you put them!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas musings and sharing

As I unwrapped our creche scene last year, I was shocked to find that Baby Jesus was missing.  How could that be?  I always wrap each piece and put them away in the same box each year.  For several days, my husband and I both searched Christmas decoration boxes, desk drawers and those odd junk corners where one puts stuff intending to be get better organized later.  No manger to be found.  As I told co-workers about the loss and then began yet another search for a replacement, the phrase "Baby Jesus is missing," began to take on a larger meaning.  Most of the chains and big box stores did not even have anything remotely resembling a creche scene.  I had hoped to find a set which could be purchased by piece so I wouldn't have to replace our whole set.  What we have is not an expensive set, but our daughter purchased it for me when she was a teenager and it has sentimental value.  My husband made the stable, one of his first forays into construction, so I wanted to keep what we had.  After inquiring at several stores, I tried a Christian bookstore/gift shop.  Alas, no luck there either.  It appears that single statue which encompasses the whole Holy Family is what is popular.  No mangers alone to be bought except very large sized sets.  Next we tried Hobby Lobby where I had hoped we could get an unpainted ceramic baby and manger.  I would get a friend to do the painting.  No luck, but a clerk there did tell us that Baby Jesus is one of the most shoplifted ornaments from their decoration area.  I guess I was not the only one who was missing the Christ child.  Finally we made a stop at Steins, a garden center.  There we found a creche scene on display - just the right size, painted a little different than ours, but the right size.  Like I always do, I lifted the ceramic piece to see a price tag.  $12.  Not bad.
I would certainly pay $12 to have a manger and baby, but as I searched the shelves I could not find a box marked with that piece.  I called a clerk over, only to find out that the whole nativity scene was on clearance for $12.  Of course, I took it.  We now have those pieces in our stable, along with some extra animals from the original set.  The remaining pieces are packed away, just incase I someday find that first manger piece. 

Fast forward to this year.  Our youngest granddaughter's mom (the mom is the same lady who gave me the creche set as a teenagaer) told us that she's like a boardbook about the First Christmas for Lizzie.
Little Lizzie will be 14 months old at Christmastime, so we wanted something simple.  Of course, I looked online to see what books were out there, and found a couple titles that seemed possible. 
However, that guilt to support local businesses kicked in and I postponed ordering anything until I could check locally.  For a few weeks everytime I was in a store I checked the book section, the toy section, and the Christmas sections for a board book about Christmas.  Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!  Not at the chain stores, not at Fleet Farm, not even at the big box store that begins with W  I could buy a book about Spongebob's Christmas, but I couldn't find anything that was the least bit religious.  I really think that the only thing you can find religious is possibly a box of cards.  I went again to a small Christian bookstore/gift shop.  There I did find 1 copy of 1 book, but it just wasn't suitable for a one year old.  I'm sure they would have ordered something else for me, but by now I didn't have time for ordering books  Another day, another town.  This time I went into a small bookstore chain, Bookworld.  When I was still a school librarian, I always tried to give this store one or two book orders each year just because I want to see bookstores still exist.  I spent a half hour looking over all their books for prechoolers and made a great selection for two year old Ethan. He loves trucks and I found a nice selection of truck books. And yes, I did find a Christmas nativity board book for Lizzie.  I almost hugged it when I found it, and I can say that I actually had two different books to choose from.

I think back to days when I was a kid (okay that was a long, long time ago), but I also remember when my kids were little.  It was easy to find a coloring book, sticker book, or children's book about the real Christmas.  I always purchased them as stocking stuffers and I never needed to go to a speciality store.  And back to those oldee days when I was a kid.  I can remember getting as a gift, a punch-out nativity set ( published by Whitman or Golden books) probably purchased at the local dime store.  In fact, I saw a similar one on Antiques Roadshow in mint condition and it had a nice collector's value.  Mine, on the other hand, was assembled and re-assembled until it fell apart. Point it, I think Baby Jesus is missing from more than our creche scene and we should do something about it.  Maybe we need to make sure that we are including Christian literature and such in our shopping, and we should be asking regular stores to stock what we want.

Thank you to SmartKidz Media for publishing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and thank you Ripon Bookworld for stocking it!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Obreht 's Tiger's Wife is National book finalist; book is challenging read

Tea Obreht has written a challenging book which takes the reader to an unidentified Balkan country devastated by decades of war.  At times I felt that the villagers who populate the stories were plucked directly from old dark folktales.  The narration bounces back and forth among Natalie and her friend's medical trip to care for orphans and Natalie's remembering of stories her grandfather had told her about the tiger's wife and the deathless man.  Natalie's grandfather has just died in a small village away from family, and his granddaughter tries to make sense of his actions by retelling the stories, a mixtures of myth and truth.
Obreht definitely shows her talent for creating characters and stories in this book.  As the stories/myths of the deathless man and the tiger's wife unraveled throughout the book, I was caught up in the back stories of the characters such as the waiter and the apothecary.  The story telling itself reminded me of The Life of Pi.  Natalie, the young doctor and granddaughter to the old doctor who has died, makes a strong narrator.  However, I just wasn't interested in what was happening around her as she goes to the monastery to inoculate children.  I've read other reviews which describe a better connection between the present day action of the book and the grandfather's stories than what i felt.  I see the book's literary merit; I just am not a fan of stories that are so heavily laden with character's whose lives are molded by superstition and myth.  Whether, the story is European, African, Indian, or Eastern, I am too much of a realist to be strongly attracted to such stories.  I do believe that Tiger's Wife is a title worthy of book club discussions, especially since I've seen a wide range of reactions to it.   I've heard that movies usually have at least one memorable line of dialogue.  Maybe books are that way.  For me, I will always remember the grandfather's comment to young Natalie, that there are moments that you keep to yourself, meaning that some moments have a significance and specialness that they should be treasured without any attempt to make someone else experience what you've just experienced.  Well written moments such as that one make me glad that I tackled The Tiger's Wife.
Clearly, if you want a challenge, this is one to consider.  If you expect a linear novel with defined plot and action, this will not meet your expectations.  I received an e-copy of this book with the expectation that I would write an honest review.  This reaction is my own.