Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review Friday: Townie by Andre Dubus III

Well into his memoir of life in a rough-and-tumble mill town in Massachusetts, Andre Dubus III offers up this gem of writing wisdom discovered through observing a master, "[he wrote] in a simple, naked style that drew the reader's eye not to him, but to them [the characters in the book]."  Although there are parts of this narrative that don't work at all, I will take this line away with me for a very long time.  It is tempting as a writer to be an ultimate egotist, to draw unceasing attention to myself.  I once knew a lady who proclaimed that "everyone loved to hear her read" at church.  And I sometimes think of this as I write.  Am I writing as an egotist who believes that "everyone loves to hear me talk"?  Or do I have a wider, more important mission than myself?  Do I have a mission that is for others and for God?

For Dubus, the author of this week's featured book, Townie: A Memoir (W. W. Norton & Company), writing was almost a spiritual salvation experience, a deliverance from his wild efforts to prove himself through muscle and brawn in the hardscrabble life of a hard-living townie in Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts.  It is ultimately a book about a young man's efforts to find himself and become a man in the absence of strong fatherly guidance.  It is a book that brings to mind the oft-repeated line from The Incredible Hulk, "I don't know if we can control it, but we can aim it."

Dubus's father was a celebrated author and he grew up in that shadow.  His father also left his mother for another woman when he was a child, leaving Dubus without much male guidance, in poverty, with a family facing great obstacles such as hunger and the eventual rape of his sister.  Dubus suffered greatly at the hands of town bullies and developed a goal in life of never being beaten up or dominated by another.  He idolized body builders and paid homage to their photos in magazines.  He worked long and hard to build himself up as an indomitable neighborhood warrior.  The first 3/4 of this book detail fight after fight after fight in which Dubus was engaged.  This is not a book for those offended by strong language; the language is some of the most fierce I have ever read.  There are also times when I felt Dubus was abandoning his stated mission to let us see the characters in his world, instead yielding to the temptation to prove to us all how very hardcore he was "back in the day."  There was also nearly constant foreshadowing of doom, but there was not always doom in store.  Perhaps this reflects Dubus' mood in life in general, but I felt it told me more about him than about his story.

There were other times I felt like I was sitting at a MFA workshop table with the material in this book.  Dubus drops into scenes without letting us really know where we are until pages later.  He does this again and again, leading to a bit of disorientation.  Rather than paring away extraneous details, he subjects us to an overly detailed account of his fights and developing sexuality as a teen.  I appreciate the fact that he wanted to show us how driven by brawn and the frontal lobe of the brain he was as a young man, thereby giving us a hard-won transformation that we would appreciate all the more for the journey.  I think some of the hard-edged content is warranted but I would appreciate a lot more of it being summarized.  There is a feeling amongst writers that in order for writing to be good, one must be entirely vulnerable and reveal every little embarrassing detail; I disagree with this notion and feel that it simply leads to ego-centered writing in which the writer battles to be seen.  We're all prone to this as writers--in one way or another--but it's still a failing when it happens.

All that said, Dubus comes into real strength in the final 1/4 of his book.  Having tried to prove himself as a man through his fists and through never running away from a fight, one day he simply picks up a pen as if fate has led him to it.  He begins to write, at first badly, and then better and better.  He begins to find success.  And when it dawns on him that he needs to see people and not seek to be seen, it transforms his life.  He becomes empathetic towards the criminals that he supervises in a halfway house and even, in a penultimate scene close to the end of the book, becomes empathetic toward bullies who try to intimidate a group of children on a train which leads to the defusing of the situation (much to his surprise).  This scene takes place shortly after Dubus on a sleepless, anxiety-filled night picks up his girlfriend's Bible and reads the words, "Love one another."  Through love instead of violence (the latter of which he points out only begets more violence), Dubus begins to find a way to make a positive impact on his world.

Can I be too impatient with Dubus for engaging in some of the ego-centric writing that he is trying to avoid?  No, I can't because he is simply a person in transition, striving to become a better man though handicapped through an upbringing that included much abandonment and poverty.  I appreciate what he has overcome and that he is trying to walk a better way.  I appreciated his words of wisdom and insight about writing and underlined many of them.  I appreciated his attempts, at times, to engage a bit with faith.  Most of all, I appreciate his effort to lay aside his violent impulses and take up a more intentional and empathetic style of living.  This could be a useful corrective to the thousands and thousands of young men (I could add "women," but this is ultimately a book about manhood) who are chained to the harsh taskmaster of anger and rage.  There is a way out. 

With all this said, however, it was a difficult ride through the first 3/4 of this book and I can only recommend it with hesitancy to the most mature of readers.  You will have to slog through a lot of messy humanity before you find a ray of light. 

3.5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from W.W. Norton & Company.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

the hunger games is coming!

I'm super excited for the release of The Hunger Games in theaters this week (although I won't get to see the movie until next week)!  I included The Hunger Games in my list of top books read in 2011.  I highly recommend it as a great read for older teens and adults.

I also want to alert you to two awesome promotions on right now.  You can buy The Hunger Games book in print for $5.01 and the e-book edition for only $5.00.  There's no better time to catch up on your reading!  The Hunger Games will make you think about the slippery slope of reality TV, the erosion of empathy, and how compassion and love can still endure even in a heartless, cold, dehumanized world. 

Note: Always double-check Amazon prices before ordering as they can suddenly change.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review Friday: The Maid of Fairbourne Hall

Down about the wait for Downton Abbey's third season?  Well, today's featured book review title, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen, will help to fill the gap.

I first became aware of Julie Klassen when I read her first book, Lady of Milkweed Manor, a captivating Regency tale about a young woman's fall from and restoration to grace.  There are twists and turns reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte, and some fascinating historical detail about nursing and caring for the babies of unwed mothers from this period in history.  This was an area of history of which I had absolutely no knowledge and I found it captivating.  I also appreciated that our heroine was no saint.  She was a very real sinner who was able to find her way back in the end.  I am often frustrated with Christian novels in their unreality, goopy sentimentality, and poor form, but Klassen impressed me enough with this novel--and helped to restore my love of reading for pleasure--so much that I have continued to look with anticipation toward each new release that she has published (these include The Apothecary's Daughter, The Silent Governess, and The Girl in the Gatehouse--the latter two of which are currently available in print editions for only $6 currently at  I never felt that any of the other books lived up to the unique subject matter and impressiveness of Lady of Milkweed Manor, but each one had interesting historical detail about certain cultural elements of Regency England.  In addition, each book is a solid read, if sometimes a bit derivative from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte (not always a bad thing for those of us who are lovers of Austen and Bronte).  Whereas, I would give the first book 4.5 stars, I would give all of the successive books 3 or 4 stars. 

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is a book I also would rate well.  It tells the tale of Margaret Macy, a wealthy and beautiful young woman who escapes her stepfather's evil intentions to marry her off to a morally degenerate nephew.  She escapes with her maid, takes on a disguise, and goes to a service "job fair" of sorts where she is hired to be a maid in a household that, unbeknownst to her, is run by two of her former suitors, brothers named Lewis and Nathaniel Upchurch.  In keeping with a theme that I have frequently found in Julie Klassen's books, a prideful young woman thus experiences a humbling.  Margaret comes to realize that she was not very appreciative of the efforts of her own servants but sometimes was prideful and treated their efforts dismissively.  She also comes to see that some of her taste in young men was not always best directed and that perhaps in one particular example, she has sorely underestimated the character and desirability of a certain suitor.

The intricacies of servant life recorded during Margaret's time at Fairbourne Hall easily called to mind Downton Abbey for me, and I felt more prepared to read this book for having watched the series.  I did find myself taking a bit of time to get into the book, but about midway through, I found myself really becoming engaged with the characters and with some intriguing mysteries along the way.  This book is shot through with compassion; there are even parallel attempts to humanize the struggles of both servants and slaves in this time in history.  In addition, Klassen does not beat the reader over the head with spiritual lessons; rather, they seem a bit more organic to the story.  This is another aspect of Klassen's writing that I have really come to appreciate.  Nothing is more predictable that every Christian novel ending with a "sinner's prayer."  Yes, Klassen's characters do always go through a transformation that is at least partially spiritual, but it is a somewhat journey-oriented transformation, by which I mean that they get well on their way to a new life with more distance yet to cover.

All-in-all, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is a solid pick for lovers of Christian fiction and/or Regency England.  Recommended.  3.5 stars out of 5.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Bethany House Publishers.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

dinner tonight: chicken pasta salad is fresh for spring

Here's a very simple recipe that you can throw together quickly for dinner or lunch.  It's fresh and savory: a perfect combination for Spring!  I've gotten great compliments on it.


For the salad:
1/2 pound of uncooked rotini
1 cup frozen peas
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1-2 breasts of chicken, cooked and chopped (or use Rotisserie or canned chicken)

For the dressing:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the noodles according to package instructions.  During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the frozen peas to the cooking water.  Meanwhile, mix the dressing in a separate bowl until well-combined.  Drain pasta and peas and run cold water over them for a couple of minutes until they are sufficiently cooled.  Pour into a large bowl.  Add chicken, celery, and onion.  Toss with the dressing and serve!

Note: this salad may be served immediately but it tastes even better if allowed to chill for at least a few hours.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

creative process

I don't work the same as other people.  As a creative person and a "thinker," I've found that my creative process necessarily requires dry spells, periods of writer's block, and other "breaks" from producing content.  Don't get me wrong; I can spit out some content if I need to, but if I've not allowed myself creative space, I'll know well and good that it isn't high quality. 

The downside to this creative process is that if I have to fit into somebody else's mold, I become depleted, leading to less quality in what I do (this is not to say there are not times to just "get it done").  There may be time periods when I appear to be doing little to nothing.  But it's like letting my fields lie fallow.  If it isn't done, the land becomes depleted and exhausted and cannot bear fruit.  I must let my mind lie fallow from time to time.

The upside to this creative process is that intriguing thoughts come into this empty space and fill it up. In the midst of a current dry spell, I found myself interacting with people who believe very differently from me on a Huffington Post column.  The commenters were aggressive though I tried to be respectful.  I finally came to realize that they were coming to the table with lots of wounds and assumptions that simply come from their experience, just as I was probably assuming things about them.  I decided not to be offended.  But I did find myself intrigued by one theological/Biblical issue raised by one of these commenters.  I suddenly didn't want to know the answer in order to convince them anymore; I wanted to know the answer to the quandary in order to enhance my own understanding.  And then I found myself being forcefully pushed into reading Scripture intently with a mind to really hear what was being said.  I was curious again (the key to creativity, growth and knowledge).  I was on the edge of my seat--and still am.  The theological question is not one I have fully resolved yet, but I am well on my way.

Questions make life exciting.  Not knowing all the answers and yet having something to discover makes life meaningful.  If I could wish anything for people in general--and people of faith in particular--it is that we maintain a curiosity about the world.  But this curiosity cannot come to us as easily in the drudgery of daily life.  We must come aside, in whatever way--even if it is simply in a dry period of doubt or lack of inspiration.  And we must trust that inspiration will come again.

This is the only way I have found to write, to create.  Endure the time of fallow ground, for the bloom will come again.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review Friday: God Gave Us Love and Ballet Stars

God Gave Us Love by Lisa Tawn Bergren, with pictures by Laura J. Bryant (WaterBrook Press) is a solid pick in children's literature.  The artwork is outstanding and captivating for little ones.  The story focuses around a fishing trip taken by Little Cub and his Grampa.  Little Cub finds himself annoyed by the playful otters who scare away the good fish.  Grampa uses this experience as a jumping off point for teaching Little Cub about how God wants us to show love even to those who do things that annoy us.  Grampa explains the difference between the kinds of love that moms and dads have for each other and other kinds of love too.  Most of all, he explains that love is a gift of God.  The story uses simple, easy-to-understand words to explain love.  However, I found the pictures to be a bit more concrete than the story itself.  Although the story is told in dialogue, I found myself wanting there to be a little more action in the story (not just in the pictures).  I think that more action-oriented stories tend to draw the attention of little ones a little better.

For some reason, I've found it hard to find good Christian picture books.  This one is a solid pick, with excellent illustrations.  I liked the sturdy board book format as well.  Recommended.  3 stars out of 5.

 Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group .  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Ballet Stars (Step into Reading) by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas (Random House Books for Young Readers) is sure to be a hit with the 3-6 age range of little girls.  The book releases in June of this year, but I had a chance to preview it as a book blogger.  I was delighted with the beautiful pictures of a typical ballet class (something every girl I know in this age range is dying to get into, including my daughter).  The text utilizes rhyming beautifully and even adds some unexpectedly creative lines ("Twirl like snowflakes.  Sway like trees") to describe the movements of ballet.  This one is a definite winner that your little girl will enjoy again and again.  Great for early readers as well.  Highly recommended.  4 stars out of 5.

 Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Random House Books for Young Readers.  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, March 8, 2012

be careful that you do not forget...

I got my fresh start in the Flathead Valley over a year ago now.  I moved here in late December of 2010, exhausted, depleted, disheartened, sad, and lonely.  Since then, so many wonderful things have happened.  I returned to my writing roots (which I had had almost no time to devote to during my time in ministry).  I started my blog.  I started doing some copywriting and copyediting.  I got to stay home with my daughter and enjoy making countless wonderful memories with her.  I made friends--wonderful, honest, authentic, welcoming, caring, Jesus-centered friends.  I had great opportunities to use my spiritual gift of teaching through MOPS and Bible studies at church.  I got to connect with members of my church who are just as excited about Jesus' mission on earth as I am and brainstorm ways to live that mission out.  I got to enjoy the beauty of this area--snow-covered mountains and tamaracks and sparkling lakes.  I felt myself coming alive again.  I started to heal from some hurts of the past.

But it's amazing how a person starts to get used to God's blessings.  I think that I do this with my husband as well.  I so easily forget how lonely I was as a single person, how I prayed on my knees with tears, asking God to send me a husband.  I so easily forget worrying that I would die alone.  I so easily forget wondering if I was destined to be single forever.  And now I have a tremendously wonderful husband, who consistently shows me God's love, who is compassionate and kind, who helps me in so many ways around the house, who listens to me without judgment, who understands me better than perhaps anyone...and I easily forget how that is not a normal thing.  That this is a given thing.  That this is a gift.  I so easily pass him by and think he gives me my due.  But in truth, he gives me much more than I deserve.  I pass him by so often like a woman who's gotten used to living by the Grand Canyon.

I get used to God's other blessings too.  God wants me to stop, pay attention, and remember what tremendous gifts He has given me in my life.  Rather than get annoyed with the ways my daughter gets in the way of my plans, God wants me to stop and contemplate the mystery that is an entire human being that one day was not and then one day was.  God wants me to be reverent and joyful and watch as He continues to fashion her, His masterpiece.  I am on the cusp of the flower unfolding.

I have my husband, my daughter, Montana, my friends.  There was a time when I did not have any of these things.  I am thankful.  I am thankful for what I have been given. 

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you--a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant--then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."--Deuteronomy 6:10-12 (NIV)

Monday, March 5, 2012

multitudes on monday (126-130)

Today I am thankful for:

126. A beautiful day yesterday and the chance to enjoy a drive to Glacier National Park.

127. Belly laughs with my husband and daughter.

128. People who don't know me--and sometimes don't agree with me--who are finding my blog, leading to wonderful, meaningful conversations.

129. That God's grace is big enough for any sin, if we will but turn to Him in repentance.

130. That I can still type on my computer even if a couple of keys are broken (and that we were able to order replacement keys!).

What are YOU thankful for today?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

5 Great Free/Cheap Kindle Books for Kids

Since buying my first Kindle in November, I've been a regular visitor to Amazon's list of the current top 100 free e-books.  Routinely, I find free children's picture books and I pick up quite a few of them.  Some of these free books are "worth every penny"--none!  These poor quality books repeat the same old themes, sometimes make no sense, are hackneyed and even have poor illustrations.  But I also find the occasional gem.  I want to share 5 nice finds with you.  All of these were originally free when I picked them up, but double-check before purchasing.  Some of them may now a cheap buy.

My reviewing is based on navigating my black and white screen Kindle with keyboard and 3G.  Undoubtedly, I would get more out of picture books using a Kindle Fire, but it's not in the budget numbers right now.

Without further ado, here are 5 solid picks in free/cheap Kindle books for kids:
1. Don't Juggle Bees! And Other Useless Advice For Silly Children by Gerald Hawksley.  This is a really funny, silly book that will make your toddler giggle.  There are a couple of "rhyme-fillers" but most of them make splendid absurdity.  Really cute pictures too!  This is my personal favorite of any free kids' books I have downloaded.

2. Is It Nice? Manners For Kids by Casey Chapman is a very simple book with simple print and illustrations.  But I like how it asks kids directly if different behaviors are nice.  My daughter answered the questions and got actively engaged in it!  Because there weren't too many words, the book gave us a great chance to talk through a few "manners scenarios" too.

3.  My Little Pet Dragon (A fun picture book for children 3-6!) by Scott Gordon.  I must confess that I don't like most of Scott Gordon's picture books that I found online but I do like this one.  It has pretty simple illustrations, but they're cute and the text has a few silly jokes that will get a giggle.  It's one we've read not just once, but re-read.

4. Pookie and Tushka Find a Little Piano by Jorge.  This one is a Burrito pick.  For some reason, this somewhat random story of little polar bear and penguin find a frozen piano is becoming one of her favorites.  The pictures are engaging and the book ends with some facts about the Icelands and about polar bears and penguins.  The book also talks the timid little polar bear out of some of his fears through the power of friendship.  There some amusing pictures of monsters too.

5. Hana Rescues Misty by Azra Z. Mehdi.  This is probably the best illustrated children's book I have found.  The pictures are really beautiful.  The story is a bit old-hat, but still touching and sweet.  Kids who love animals will love the story of the little girl who rescued the cat caught in the tree.

I hope you and your little ones enjoy these as much as we did!
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