Monday, September 26, 2005

Princess Sadie Visits the Magic Kingdom

We're off tonight to Anaheim for Sadie's first trip to Disneyland! She has met the three requirements for being able to go that we devised when she was two months old:

1) She's no longer nursing.
2) She can walk for hours at a time.
3) She's potty-trained!

So, as promised, off we go!

I'm actually pretty excited. I haven't been in years, though, as a kid growing up in Southern California, I was always rather blasé about the whole Disneyland thing. Now, as a parent, I'm giddy to think of the wonder that Sadie will experience in a few more hours. Everything of this sort is more fun with kids. Her South Dakota grandparents even came out to experience this magical trip with us.

So, this is all a lengthy explanation in advance for an absence from posting this week. I didn't want anyone out there to think that Hewie II kicked the bucket so soon. Your prayers for safe travel and health (think here of the Mad Teacups ride) would be much appreciated.

Peace to all!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany

**I'm no longer calling these "Summer Reading Reviews" since, alas, summer is just about gone. Okay, I say "alas," but I really mean "hooray," because, at least in the Pacific Northwest, summer is my least favorite season.**

Title: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving
Publisher: Ballantine

It will not surprise anyone who has ever traveled down the sidebar of this blog that I am a big fan of singer/songwriter Carolyn Arends. There is no musical artist in my opinion who combines musical virtuosity with lyrics of such depth, intelligence, gentle humor and relevance. Seriously, if you have not had the pleasure of experiencing her songs and stories, visit her site, listen to some clips, read her blog, drink it up -- she is a Providence-given oasis in the desert of hokiness and banality that unfortunately encompasses much of the genre of Christian music.

So, back in 2000, Carolyn Arends wrote an incredible book called Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life. You should buy this book. Okay, the Carolyn Arends commercial is now finished, and the review of the A Prayer for Owen Meany commences.

In her book, in Chapter 16, The Donation, Carolyn writes the following passage:

As I write this, I consider for the first time the slightly eerie significance of Rich's [Rich Mullins -- a singer/songwriter of almost equal power as Carolyn Arends -- who died in 1997] great love for John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany -- the funny and ultimately heartbreaking story of a boy who had a premonition in which he saw his tombstone and some of the tragic details of his eventual death. When Rich was encouraging me (ordering me, really) to read the book, he told me that anyone who did was instantly inducted into a secret Owen Meany Society. He claimed a simple recitation of the novel's last sentence could bring tears to the eyes of any club member. He was right, and the tears come now as I remember the prayer that ends the story. O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking you. (pg. 174)

Any club that includes Carolyn Arends and Rich Mullins, for whom I have unreserved respect, is a club in which I would like to be. So after reading LTQ, I went to my local Barnes & Noble (not a difficult task, since I worked there at the time) and purchased A Prayer for Owen Meany. I sat down to read it, made it almost through the first chapter, then put the book down in boredom, filed it with the novels on my bookshelves, and mostly forgot about it. Every once in a while, when I would be re-reading LTQ or simply walking by my novels, I would see it wink at me from its granite-green spine.

So, the years went by. In the meantime, I had a wee bookclub with my dear friend, Kadie, and we picked as a selection Irving's most famous novel, The World According to Garp. I hated The World According to Garp. With purple passion. Extremely. Even remembering it now, I'm disgusted that I wasted so many hours on that lame book. Also, the movie, The Cider House Rules, clouded my view of John Irving beyond redemption. I consigned him to the outer rings of authorial hell and went on with my life. I even thought about selling off A Prayer for Owen Meany, should my hypothetical garage sale ever become reality.

Then, then, then . . . I went to a week-long Christian family retreat up in British Columbia, Canada. One of the main presenters at that retreat was Carolyn Arends (not by coincidence). We ended up on a hike together through the beautiful woods that cover most of the Pacific Northwest, and I finally got to "talk books" with someone whose breadth and scope of literary knowledge inspires me and whose ability to cull from that knowledge and add to it in creative output humbles me. So, of course, what is the first novel she brings up? Yep. A Prayer for Owen Meany. Oy!

So, I set my jaw and gritted my teeth and picked up the durned thing. And I read it through -- every single word. And now I have done. And the worst part is that I suffered through the 617 pages, and I still don't get to belong to The Club. My eyes will never well up with tears when I hear that last sentence: O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking you. Here's my prayer: O God, I shall keep asking You to make John Irving stop writing books. Trees have better reasons to give their lives.

That said, the last third of this book was not a horrible as the first two. That's the most positive part of my review. No, wait, I also must say that John Irving does not lack imagination. His premise is interesting. I just guess that I hate the way he writes. I must admit, though, that none of my favorite novelists are men (excepting writers of children's literature, which is split between the sexes). Almost all of my favorite non-fiction writers in every genre are men. But, for tales woven from imagination, I turn to those of the feminine kind. Isabel Paterson, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Sandra Dallas, Isabel Allende, Agatha Christie -- all chicks. P.J. O'Rourke, Bill Bryson, C.S. Lewis, Jim Powell, Stephen Cox, Thomas Sowell -- all dudes. So, maybe, John Irving was working with a handicap from the get-go. Also, I had previous prejudices based upon his other works to deal with. So, out of the gate it wasn't looking too good for ol' Irving.

My main quarrel with this book was that there wasn't a single character in it for whom I cared a lick. Good novelists, in my opinion, will make you care deeply about the characters and what happens to them, but I didn't care at all what happened to any of the people in Owen Meany. Maybe John Irving's voice is a little too detached for me -- his directions for the characters are a little too obscure and schizophrenic. He delights in making his characters do or say things that just do not ring true to me as ways for people to behave or talk. I know that in life, in the make-up of a human soul, there is no set definition for "normal," but the whole scope of the novel seems so disjointed and off-kilter, that you wonder if John Irving actually interacts with humans in the course of his life. People do weird things, but, even in their idiosyncrasies, there are consistencies. No one acts like the people that John Irving writes about. And so, since you never really get to know these people, you end up not caring about them.

Here's the novel in a nutshell: In New Hampshire ("Live free or die!" -- best state motto ever, but I digress) there are two families, the Wheelwrights and the Meanys. The Wheelwrights are the oldest family in Gravesend, NH, with the gentility and wealth that comes with established names and distinctive bloodlines. The Meanys are no-names, poor strange folks on the margins of Gravesend, owners of a granite quarry that encapsulates the reality of long, hard work with little financial return. Owen Meany and John Wheelwright are best friends -- Owen is small in stature, but towering in spirit. John is Mr. Average with a mysterious past. Owen inadvertantly kills John's mom, Tabitha Wheelwright, with an errantly hit baseball. Owen inadvertantly kills John's neighbor's dog with an errantly thrown football. John doesn't kill anybody. Instead of a city ordinance's being issued to bar Owen Meany from participating in any recreational sports, life goes on without any indignant commentary. There's a bunch of weird stuff with Owen being all spooky about Angels of Death, Catholics, Christmas pageants, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, his own death, and John's unknown father, and also a rather disgusting depiction of a stuffed armadillo. Oh, and Owen Meany also has a very eerie, distinctive voice, which the author reminds us of constantly by putting all of Owen's dialogue and writings into CAPITAL letters (which will give the reader a headache when Owen goes on a prolonged rant). This, of course, all ties in with that bogeyman of the Annoying Generation (Baby Boomers): The Vietnam War.

An aside: Personally, from the little I know, I think that the Vietnam War was ultimately a tragic, yet inevitable given U.S. foreign policy since World War I, mistake. Nine times out of ten, war is a terrible solution to any problem. It lends legitimacy to the enemy. It destroys more lives than it saves. But, I hate to think of people suffering anywhere. Was the cure in Vietnam worse than the disease? I do not know. Either way, many people were destined to die by the evil man does to man. It sickens me to think that Vietnam veterans were treated so shamefully by many in America. And, since a lot of the anti-war prostesters seem to have been motivated by a love of communism rather than respect for human life, I do not admire them. I do admire Christian conscientious objectors, and those who worked for peace without degrading American ideals. Nothing killed more people in the Twentieth Century than that curse of communism. Abortion got close. My two cents.

As Carolyn Arends wrote, Owen Meany did have a premonition of his death and a vision of his tombstone. I know that this was supposed to be creepy and spine-tingling and deep and riveting. I just couldn't get into it, at least not until the last third. Around page 200, when I realized I was only 1/3 of the way through, I almost wept. I suppose I could have abandoned the reading for the second time, but I was determined to read through a book that affected so deeply two amazing artists like Rich Mullins and Carolyn Arends.

Probably the most creepy contrivance that Irving intended was one I had been expecting. I don't want to write more, in case this review does not dissuade you from pursuing this tome. Suffice it to say, it was a climactic moment that only made me go, "Well, duh." One of the plot turns that wholly surprised me was another I do not want to reveal, so I'll just say that the finger thing caught me by surprise. Although, again, the finger thing does not jibe with the way Irving presents Owen Meany's well-established belief in fate and predestination -- it just seems so inconsistent with his character, which is why I was surprised. E-mail me if your interest is piqued and you need to know more but wish to avoid this ponderous novel. I'll clue you in on all of it.

Carolyn Arends and the back of my mass-market edition of Owen Meany both talk about how "funny" or "comic" this novel is. Yeah, if you find train wrecks funny. Except that Carolyn has a great sense of humor, so there's another mystery of Owen Meany.

I think that what I disliked the most about this book is that, in the first paragraph, the character, John Wheelwright, asserts that "I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." If anything, by the end of the novel, it is confirmed that John Wheelwright may believe in a supernatural power because of Owen Meany, but that what he seems to believe most is that that supernatural power is Owen himself. I guess that I was looking for more. Not a Christian novel, perhaps, but a novel about Christianity. If anything, this is a novel about discipleship to a prophet, not to the Son of God. His faith is based upon the things he sees, not the revelation of the heart that only comes from the Creator. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe. John's faith is the kind given by man to man. His last prayer is one requesting the resurrection of his own messiah, not professed faith in the resurrected Messiah. If Christianity were left out of it, I would have a more charitable attitude toward this book. Maybe.

I can see why this book became an "International Bestseller." John Irving is obviously disgusted with the country of the United States of America, and, since so much of the world loves to read Americans bashing their country, the international audience probably ate it up. He has his insipid character, John Wheelwright, complain about Ronald Reagan (dating this book forever at its 1989 publication date) every time the novel journeys out of the past and takes up a contemporary narrative. It jarred me to read such vitriol from the "mouth" of a character who seems so emotionally disengaged throughout the book. Plus, his complete obsession with a country he no longer calls his own doesn't fit with a man living life by the decree of predestination. You ask: why should he care? Does he dislike America because of Owen Meany's death? If he believes that Owen knew when he was going to die, that he was going to die a hero, and Owen made peace with that, then why does he get so worked up over the affairs of man? Did Owen's death set him on fire? If so, why is his life so unobtrusive? It's this uneasy mixture of anger and resignation that makes it so hard to care about John Wheelwright. You mostly just want him to shut up.

The last third of the novel finds the narrative picking up considerable speed. The ending is interesting, even if, by that point, you've come to dislike the characters so much you are just racing to the end. It wraps up with all of the mysteries solved and the fervent prayer offered up. Even so, one burning question still remains: why in the world does Carolyn Arends like this book?

Theory the First: Carolyn likes this book because it is tied in her memory to Rich Mullins, her mentor and friend, whom, I am sure, she misses terribly. It connects her to him, since he had a love for this book. Any reservations she had about the book's awfulness have faded away in time because of her affectionate association of it with Rich.

Theory the Second: Carolyn is Canadian, and the novel is very kind to Canadians. In a burst of patriotism, she decided to eradicate the obvious awfulness of this novel from her mind, and focus instead on the loving descriptions of Toronto and the niceness and decency (which are very real) of Canadians.

Theory the Third: Carolyn read through this book after an unfortunate encounter with saki at a Japanese restaurant and does not to this day realize that this book is awash in awfulness.

Theory the Fourth: Carolyn really does actually like this novel, and she and I just have extremely different views about what constitutes a "good novel." She also secretly hates Jane Austen.

Jason said, "What if Theory the Fourth is correct and she really does just love this book? Does that change anything for you?"

My answer: No, not at all. Nothing she likes or dislikes could ever take away from the amazing art she has produced that has enriched my life and my journey of faith incredibly. What revelation about Carolyn could change my opinion of her character, if not of her genius? If she ceased to love and worship the Lord. That's about it. Even if she secretly (or not so secretly) hates Jane Austen, even that wouldn't change a whit my admiration. And that says a lot.

Read Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life. It is really good. Right up there with The Jesus I Never Knew (which Carolyn Arends recommended to me also). As for A Prayer for Owen Meany, well . . .

Overall Grade: C-
Readability: D
Subject Interest: C+
Illustrations: N/A
Recommended? No! We've got to stop John Irving! Trees are dying needlessly! Seriously - A BIG BOOOOO-HISSSSS (to use Owen Meany's voice).
Next up: FDR's Folly by Jim Powell

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

This Just In: A Camel Goes Through the Eye of a Needle!

I found this wonderful link from Michael Medved's website, so I stole it:
Billionaire Traded Materialism for True Happiness.

Pizza, anyone?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hooray for Bollywood!

I have always appreciated Indian culture. Their cuisine is so yummy -- spicy and delectable. Their clothing is a model for the world -- what could be more lovely than the beautiful sarees (saris) the women wear or more comfortable than the men's garments? Every Indian immigrant I have ever met has been just a warm and wonderful person. I even love the way patchouli smells. Now, to this appreciation, I can add the most visible element of their popular culture: the films.

So, I have four words for you:
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (or DDLJ for those in the know)

If you have never seen an Indian movie, I heartily recommend this one as a starting point. This splashy, flashy, wonderfully romantic tale is ripe with humor and drama and big musical numbers that would make Busby Berkeley smile. Apparently this 1995 release is the longest continually running movie to play in India's theaters. It is not hard to see why.

First of all, you have two extremely likable protagonists, the romantic leads. Simran, played by Kajol, is so beautiful and intense, and yet funny too, that she fills the screen with radiance. Raj, our hero, played by Shahrukh Kahn, is such a scene-stealer, with such an affable and easy presence, that it takes all of Kajol's considerable charisma to hold her own in their shared scenes. There is chemistry here -- real chemistry.

Secondly, the movie is filled with an incredible array of supporting characters. Simran's family, with her delightful mother, traditional (rather scary) father, and quirky sister, are very real. Raj's dad was one of my favorite characters -- so warm and loving and funny. The auxiliary characters from the scenes in India keep the energy up in this long film. I especially appreciated the little gem of a role that was the aunt on Simran's mother's side.

Thirdly, the movie is exciting to watch. There is a lot of action - with scenes in such locations as London, Paris, Switzerland, and, of course, India. The cinematography is very straight-forward -- the director lets the action speak for itself. The characters are constantly moving and speaking, which makes the rare scenes of reflection or still conversation more dramatic. And, without apology or even trying to make it remotely plausible, the characters often break into song and dance numbers, many times with painstakingly coreographed background dancers, in a way that will astonish and beguile you.

Lastly, this picture is funny! I laughed so hard at some of the scenes -- mostly because the actors are very skilled at conveying humor in their facial expressions. It was so light-hearted, and yet, there was an earnest streak too. When the film took dramatic turns, there were tears in my eyes. But, overall, this movie left me walking on air -- brimming over with happy thoughts.

To an American, this film had a slightly less polished look than what we've grown used to. Sometimes the picture had that grainy quality you see in earlier technicolor movies -- or, as Jason put it, this film looks a lot older than 1995. Some of the situations seemed contrived or hackneyed -- this movie was not perfect. But there is so much to delight the eyes and the ears and the soul, that its faults just fade into the background as you become enchanted with the story.

For a Christian there might be some discomfort with prayers to and discussions of the multiple gods and goddesses that constitute the Hindu faith. Hopefully this will not distract from your enjoyment of the film. One lovely scene that nods respectfully to Christianity is in the middle of the first half of the movie during the tour of Europe. Raj and Simran come across a beautiful church in, I believe, Switzerland, and Simran prompts a visit inside to take a look. As Raj goofs off in the church, he looks over and sees Simran kneeling at the altar, praying while facing a painting of Jesus. At the end of her prayer, she makes the sign of the cross. Raj stares at her in wonder, and it is a profoundly moving religious moment. It is a nice gesture toward respecting Christianity made by a filmmaker who, I am guessing, is not a Christian, nor has a Christian audience in mind for his film. How many times do we see earnest portrayals of prayer to Jesus in American movies, wherein the intended audience is almost 90% Christian? Not often. Also, in a much appreciated by this viewer decision by the person who subtitled this film, the English subtitles when, after the prayer, Raj and Simran are talking of God, capitalize the "g" in God, whereas when they refer to Hindu dieties the "g" remains in lower-case. It is just refreshing to see that kind consideration for the faith of others.

This movie is romantic without any cynicism in a way that you do not often see in American films anymore. It evokes the golden age of Hollywood. The hero is dashing and bold, a problem-solver, and an honorable man. The heroine is gorgeous and feisty, with a pure mind and courageous heart. The problems they overcome are mostly external (after getting over their initial dislike of each other), not those pesky post-modern internal demons. It is so nice to see something so unabashedly optimistic and gloriously hopeful. I dare you to rent this movie and not fall in love with it. Heck, one billion Indians cannot be wrong!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Terrible Apathy

"The opposite of love is not hate; it is apathy."

I have no idea who originally said the above, but it struck me when I first heard it over 15 years ago, and it rings true today.

Apathy, terrible apathy. The emotion that Jesus never seems to have felt is one I feel too often. I've been ashamed even to write about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, because I have felt little other than apathy. And that is not a Christian response.

Maybe it was the fact that people continued to live in an area below sea level, where no private insurer would provide flood insurance. Maybe it was people who could wade through the muck to loot abandoned buildings but didn't proceed to wade their way out of the city. Maybe it was the immediate whining and finger-pointing, from local governments, advocacy groups and displaced citizens. Maybe it was knowing always in the back of my mind that the majority of these people were going to be just fine -- the government was going to step in a provide generously, no matter how much money private relief offered. Maybe knowing that either way my family was going to be paying for the multiple human follies that escalated this natural disaster to such an extreme level -- in taxes, higher fuel prices, raised insurance premiums -- that made me reluctant to step forward and answer the call to avail myself of the opportunity to serve my fellow man. It was probably a combination of all these things, but also this: there is only so much heartache and horror the human spirit can withstand before the soul callouses and terrible apathy comes to dwell in a tender heart.

The first casualty of the War Against Terror, that first serviceman to be killed in Afghanistan, he was mourned by the country. He was local to Washington, and a public funeral was held up here, drawing scores people touched by someone who would offer his life for others. Banks set up funds in his name to help his family. He was talked about on news shows and radio shows and had a write-up of his life in the local paper -- and probably nationally too. Now, the news casually reports such-and-such number of lost troops per attack. We rarely even hear their names anymore. The bodybags have become too numerous for us to count -- so we close our eyes to them. The loss of a serviceman or servicewoman has retreated back to a private loss for their family or, at most, community. The nation no longer mourns -- it sets its jaw and proceeds on.

If terror ever becomes as common on our soil as it has become in Israel, we will learn to harden ourselves to it as they have. It is a survival tactic -- you cannot live your life if every day is 9/11. And as we continue forward in this insane age, as we fix our eyes on the horizon, we forget sometimes that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem still. He weeps and feels everything that we cannot, for His infinite nature contains all of the pain of the world, as well as all the true joy.

So, in the United States, this nation blessed beyond all reason with material wealth and a generous spirit -- it is difficult to conceive of real human need in this rich land. The vast majority of those people, victims of circumstance and poor planning, will be okay -- there is nothing holding them back but a misplaced sense of despair. I tend to reserve my compassion for cases of oppression wherein the sufferers really haven't any control of their destinies. Cases like political oppression, economic oppression, and, most of all, the depravity of abortion are the ones that tie my soul into knots -- not a bunch of people who will, essentially, after a modicum of discomfort, be as before -- or maybe even, refined by hardship, better off than before.

But, still, as a Christian, I cannot rest on my apathy. Christ was not apathetic to my plight, brought on by my all-too-human condition of sin, so I cannot be apathetic to my fellow man. I have been at work for the past few weeks trying to overcome this burden of nothingness. To whom am I a neighbor? Despite the behavior of too many folks in New Orleans (in particular) that infuriates me -- they are my neighbors. I will be a good neighbor, dammit. Lord, help me be a good neighbor and show Your love, as You will.

My wonderful husband gave to the fund that our church was collecting to send to Calvary Chapels in Louisiana. Today, I gave a little to Caring To Love Ministries, to help support crisis pregnancy centers in that area that are needed now more than ever. Those most at risk now in Louisiana are those who are most at risk even outside a state of emergency -- the unborn. Crisis pregnancy compounds in desperation when the crisis is external as well as internal. This Sunday, we will donate more to our church's relief efforts -- I'd far rather see people receiving compassion from the Church, receiving Living Water with bottles of water, than from Government's misguided largesse.

Your prayers would be appreciated as I continue to battle this apathy. And, of course, prayers to those who suffer -- in the U.S. and around the world.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Summer Reading Review: Ten Big Ones and The Undomestic Goddess

Title: Ten Big Ones
Author: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks (2004)

Title: The Undomestic Goddess
Author: Sophie Kinsella
Publisher: The Dial Press (2005)

I know that someday I will stand before the throne of the Lord and give an accounting of my life. I know that, in this world, my days should be spent in diligence, working for His kingdom, redeeming the time for the days are evil. I know that when Jesus walked the earth He did not, at least as far as the Gospel accounts reveal, spend any time on the beach of the Salt Sea, reading novels and drinking margaritas.

I know all these things, and yet I cannot resist a funny, frothy, silly novel now and then (or an occasional margarita -- but that's another post for another time). Especially dear to me are the novels of Janet Evanovich (The Stephanie Plum mysteries) and Sophie Kinsella (the Shopaholic books and other funny chick-lit). They are very much like cotton candy in book form - airy nothingness that give momentary satisfaction, but quickly fade from memory. It takes only a few hours to read them through, and then it's back to diligent work for the kingdom of heaven (or, at least, slightly more serious reading fare).

So, I'll review them both together, since neither offers the weight alone to merit a solitary review. Of these two, I enjoyed The Undomestic Goddess a little more. Here is why: Janet Evanovich has written about the character Stephanie Plum, comically inept bounty hunter and Trenton, NJ native, in more than ten volumes of numerically-titled pulp mystery (Eleven on Top is currently in trade cloth, and I only read the Stephanie Plum series in mass market format). This character is very appealing, but I think that the premise is starting to wear thin. It's difficult to watch a character in book after book not growing or changing. I'm beginning to get frustrated with her and her inability to commit in a relationship or improve in her profession or hold onto a particular vehicle for more than a week. I did not do much more than crack a smile or two when reading this latest paperback offering. I need a little more from my escape-lit than that.

The Undomestic Goddess, on the other hand, was so delightfully preposterous and the heroine so uniquely endearing (and yet, for Kinsella fans, reassuringly familiar), that I laughed out loud several times in the reading. Sophie Kinsella is one of the most gifted humorists of modern novels. I fell in love with Becky Bloomwood -- self-professed shopaholic -- in Kinsella's first novel, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and have remained enchanted with every subsequent book. What I especially like is the lightness of her touch. Too many women authors take themselves and their characters too seriously -- they have to inject dark themes or miserable secrets even into essentially comic novels. I'm thinking of authors such as Marian Keyes and Lorna Landvik. Kinsella carries her plots and characters along on the wings of levity and benevolence. Even the "villains" never get the upper hand, and the reader never doubts that the end will bring smiles and not tears.

In Ten Big Ones, Stephanie Plum gets unwittingly wound up in crime and depravity by being, as she so often is, in the wrong place at the worst possible time. After witnessing a robbery and inadvertantly seeing the perpetrator without his mask, she learns that she has become an execution target for a local New Jersey gang. In the meantime, she quarrels with her cop boyfriend, Joe Morelli, finds out more about the mysterious über-bounty hunter Ranger, deals with her crazy Trenton family, including Grandma Mazur (who, some fans will be disappointed to learn, does not meet her end and vanish from the series) and her whiny sister, Valerie, puts up with her ineffective side-kick, Lula, and feeds inappropriate food to her pet hamster, Rex. She also loses a car or two in the course of the novel, as happens in every Stephanie Plum book. Rest assured, Stephanie comes out all right in the end and Joe Morelli still loves her (for reasons unfathomable to me) though she refuses to settle down and get married. Same old, same old Stephanie. Janet Evanovich needs to breathe some new life into this series by allowing Stephanie to grow as a character.

The Undomestic Goddess introduces a new character to the Kinsella roster: Samantha Sweeting -- super-stressed, Type-A, London power attorney whose life goal is a partnership in the prestigious firm, Carter Spink. Her hopes for that partnership come crashing down as she discovers a mistake she made that spells doom for her career. In a daze, a "total meltdown," Samantha gets on a train to "anywhere" and ends up in Gloucestershire. Through a series of mistaken notions and mishaps that could only flow plausibly from Kinsella's pen, Samantha ends up as the housekeeper (cook, laundress, maid-of-all-work) at the country estate of Trish and Eddie Geiger. The funny thing is, this MENSA-qualified big-city lawyer has no idea how to cook, do laundry, or clean anything -- she fakes it with aplomb for the first day, hoping to escape back to London when the furor over her error dies down. It's worse than she had anticipated, though, so she deems it best to stay in the country. No fear -- with the help of the sexy, horitculturalist groundskeeper and his sympathetic mum, Samantha learns all that she needs to pass herself off as a "domestic goddess." In the course of "scrubbing the loos" and baking cakes from scratch, she learns a bit about community, family, herself, and the pleasure of having weekends off. The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, but all ends well, with Samantha Sweeting de-stressed, in love, and, for the first time, truly happy.

I think that the reason that these fluffy concoctions appeal to me so greatly is the same reason I love "screwball comedies" from 1930's filmdom: they are light-hearted and reassuring in a world too often black with sin and sorrow. I love to laugh, and it's nice to laugh without a hint of mean-spiritedness. These goofy heroines of Evanovich's and Kinsella's evoke the silly antics of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne from seventy years ago. If you need a vacation from reality once in a while, pick up either of these (any Sophie Kinsella, really) and have a chuckle.

My work in this world has been built, I believe, of unequal parts of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw -- with far too much destined to burn in the fire, but with hopefully some left to stand the test and endure forever. Because my foundation is on Christ, my hope in Him transcends my failing always to be a serious sort of person. He will, I trust, hold harmless my diversion by trivialities that helps a little to mitigate the evil of this fallen world. Heaven will be a place full of laughter, don't you think? Laughter without guilt, pain or smallness of mind. Laughter with the Creator of the universe.

Happy thought indeed!

Your passion is consuming, Your holiness is fire, Your spirit is a hunter that no runner can tire. Your light shines through the darkness to the corners of the earth -- Your laughter is the music of the universe. -- Carolyn Arends, "Not a Tame Lion," from the album Under the Gaze (2004)

Overall Grade: Ten Big Ones - B-; The Undomestic Goddess - B+
Readability: Ten Big Ones - B; The Undomestic Goddess - A-
Subject Interest: Ten Big Ones - B-; The Undomestic Goddess - B+
Illustrations: Ten Big Ones - N/A; The Undomestic Goddess (cover) - B+
Recommended? Ten Big Ones - Read the first few in the series before this one -- they are fresher and more interesting. The Undomestic Goddess - Yes, I would recommend this as an excellent example of escapist literature. You'll probably get some smiles, maybe some chuckles, and, perhaps, a guffaw or two.
Next Up: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Summer Reading Review: The Jesus I Never Knew

Book: The Jesus I Never Knew
Author: Philip Yancey
Publisher: Zondervan (Harpercollins) (1995)

One of the best depictions of the infinite nature of the Creator that I have ever read is from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle. The last battle of Narnia is over, the stable door looks out onto the desolation of that old land, and Aslan's own are standing on the edges of eternity. They look about them, rather unsure of what to do. Suddenly, Roonwit, a centaur who had previously been killed in Narnia cries out, "Further in and higher up!" and gallops off into the West. Then, Aslan, the Great Lion, turns from the cold, dead darkness beyond the stable door, commands Peter to lock it, and, with laughter in his eyes, runs off, crying, "Come further in! Come further up!" One after another, the other characters come to echo his cry. Further up! Further in! From the limits of the finite, they run into the boundlessness of eternity. Always further up, always further in.

Sometimes I get too complacent in my walk with the Lord. It is not so much that I think that I have Him all figured out, but more that I have become comfortable with a certain level of discomfort with His unfathomable ways. So, in knowing that I can never understand Him, I spend more time on the things that I think I can understand. Because of this, I tend to hesitate before reading the genre known as "Christian Living." What more, I wonder, can I really know about Jesus?

Philip Yancey felt that there was so much that he had not known about Jesus that he needed to write a book exploring the Nazarene almost two thousand years after He "put on flesh and dwelt with us." I am so glad that he did. In reading The Jesus I Never Knew, I realized afresh that in walking with Him I have only been on the edges of eternity. This book has helped inspire me again to go "further up and further in." It is a testament to the infinite nature of God that so much wisdom is yet to be reaped two thousand years after John the Beloved was gifted with The Revelation.

To the woman at the well, Jesus identified Himself as "Living Water." No wonder, then, that reading The Jesus I Never Knew was like taking a long drink from a cool, deep well. In other words, it was refreshing. I almost do not know where to start in reviewing this book, except to say that I loved everything about it. It's been a while since I have had such unreserved admiration for words put on paper, bound and sold, but I cannot remember one thing about this book that struck a false note. Certainly, there were many moments of discomfort, of particular poignancy and application that did not sit well on my sense of self-satisfication, but I have come to expect that from any encounter I have with the Most High. He's not here to make me feel comfortable, to stroke my ego, to fatten my rounded belly of conceit -- He's here to save my sorry, sinful soul in spite of myself, through His unconquerable, unshakable, undeniable love.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, I would probably go with Chapter 6, Beatitudes: Lucky are the Unlucky. I had the amazing privilege to attend a week-long retreat in Canada this past July with sessions led by the finest singer/songwriter of any genre, Carolyn Arends. The theme of the retreat was "What Love Looks Like," which is also the title of a song she wrote a few years ago (and if you have never heard any of Carolyn Arends' songs, please treat yourself to a to visit her site and listen to a few clips). Anyway, one of the best sessions was a discussion that she led on the Beatitudes. It ended way too quickly, but it was really an eye-opener for me.

I had not spent too much time really thinking about the Beatitudes in my previous readings of the gospels. I skimmed them with each read-through, nodding in agreement without putting much effort into comprehension. After all, the Beatitudes have almost become clichéd nowadays. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn . . . We've heard them all a thousand times. And I who loved and cherished all that Jesus said, reading His words time and again, why had I never stopped to consider exactly what He was communicating? Certainly it was important -- Jesus never did or said anything that wasn't. Most likely, though I did not have enough inner-reflection to consider it, I was made slightly uneasy by the proclamations so boldly, yet enigmatically, put forth by Jesus.

Carolyn Arends used Chapter 6 of The Jesus I Never Knew as a springboard for discussion. In this chapter, Yancey puts forth three ideas about the applications of the Beatitudes. The first idea is that of "dangled promises." The message was "to the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted, the poor in heart," a specific assertion that "their service would not go unrecognized. They would receive ample reward" (pg. 111). "To people who are trapped in pain, in broken homes, in economic chaos, in hatred and fear, in violence -- Jesus offers a promise of a time, far longer and more substantial than this time on earth, of health and wholeness and pleasure and peace. A time of reward" (pg. 113).

The second possible application of the Beatitudes that he offers is "the great reversal." That idea that the Beatitudes also "describe the present as well as the future. They neatly contrast how to succeed in the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of this world" (pg. 113). An interesting addition to this theme is Yancey's dwelling upon what Catholics have termed "God's preferential option for the poor." In examining this preference, he includes a list compiled by Monica Hellwig of the "advantages of being poor." The one that she listed that stopped me in mid-breath was number nine on a list of ten, which was: "When the poor have the Gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding" (pg. 115). Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with number ten: "The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything" (pg 115). Too often has my own response to the Good News been tinged with guilt instead of filled with gratitude!

The third contemplated reading of the Beatitudes is that of "psycholigical reality;" Jesus "set forth a plain formula of psychological truth, the deepest level of truth that we can know on earth" (pg. 117). This idea is the one that has helped me the most in re-reading the Beatitudes. Jesus seems to be saying that those who are broken will be the ones most filled, those who are the most beaten down will be the ones most restored. Blessed are the poor in spirit -- for they are the ones who realize that the are completely dependent upon God. Blessed are those who mourn -- for they have learned not to place their hopes in the things of the world. Blessed are the meek -- for they will not get hurt by being knocked from their pedestals. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- for they will never hunger again once they have been filled. Blessed are the merciful -- for they will reap what they have sown. Blessed are the pure in heart -- for a divided heart will not keep them from God. Blessed are the peacemakers -- for they understand the value and necessity of reconciliation. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake -- for these are the ones who learn the holy refinement that occurs during suffering. Are these not things that believers learn to be true, over and over and over again? Isn't the first step toward the Lord the one wherein you know without a doubt that you are "poor in spirit," absolutely dependent upon grace? To me, more than anything, these describe the realities of believers -- and Jesus assures us that we are blessed to experience these realities. Not many people of faith have come through horrible, devastating life-experience without having their faith strengthened. It is not that we ask for these trials by fire, but they are part of human reality in the finite, and, in grace, we are blessed.

This paperback is now striped through with flourescent yellow. I had a field day, highlighting passages that cried out for future reference. Here is a sampling of a few that I found pertinent:

I believe God insists on such restraint [of using His mighty power for swift retribution and puppetry] because no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve the response he desires. Although power can force obedience, only love can summon a response of love, which is the one thing God wants from us and the reason He created us. (pg. 78)

People liked being with Jesus; where He was, joy was. (pg. 89)

"Indeed," wrote C.S. Lewis, "if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he can not imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." (pg. 111)

From the movie Ghandi:
Ghandi stops [a Presbyterian missionary running from thugs]. [He asks] "Doesn't the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek you should offer him the left?" [The missionary] mumbles that he thought the phrase was used metaphorically. "I'm not so sure," Ghandi replies. "I suspect He meant you must show courage -- be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work." (pg. 121)

Thuderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. (pg. 144)

Faith is not an insurance policy. Or, as Eddie Askew suggests, maybe it is: insurance does not prevent accidents, but rather gives a secure base from which to face their consequences. (pg. 181)

In many respects I would find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes Him dangerous. Because of Easter I have to listen to His extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from His sayings. Moreover, Easter means He must be loose out there somewhere. Like the disciples, I never know where Jesus might turn up, how He might speak to me, what He might ask of me. As Frederick Buechner says, Easter means "we can never nail Him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail Him to is a cross." (pg. 226)

As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "The bird on the branch, the lily in the meadow, the stag in the forest, the fish in the sea, and countless joyful people sing: God is love! But, under all these sopranos, as if it were a sustained bass part, sounds the de profundis of the sacrificed: God is love." (pg. 268)

In one of the final chapters, Chapter 12, Ascension: A Blank Blue Sky, Yancey considers a crucial question, especially in this late age: Why don't we look more like the church Jesus described? Why does the body of Christ so little resemble Him? Yancey then goes on to offer three observations that help him "come to terms with what has transpired" in the Church since Jesus' ascension.

The first, which too often gets overlooked in our collective conciousness of having fallen short of His example, is that the Church has "brought light as well as darkness." I often shudder to think what this evil world would look like if there were not Christians out there being salt and light -- living, at least on our best days, His word and His love. Also, the most beautiful art and music that has been created by man is for His glory.

The second observation is that "Jesus takes full responsibility for the constituent parts of His body." He told His disciples, "You did not choose Me -- I have chosen you." Jesus chose "rocks" like Simon Peter who, in his "bluster, love, hot-headedness, misdirected passion, and faithless betrayal," Yancey sees as previewing "in embryo form nineteen centuries of Church history" (pg 235), and, it might be added, also previews every single believer who has dared to utter aloud the name of Jesus since the dawn of the Church Age. Which, of course, brings us to observation the third:

"The problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question: How can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other" (pg 235-236). Truly we must be the Bride of Christ -- He sticks with us "for better or for worse, in sickness or in health," in faith or in disbelief. We fail because, on this side of the curtain at least, we cannot totally break free from sin. But, whenever the Church is willing to recognize its mistakes and fall back on its knees, it rises stronger, more holy. That is the nature of the Foundation upon which it is built, the Rejected Stone our Cornerstone.

One last bit from The Jesus I Never Knew: Philip Yancey writes, "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (pg 268). The Father wants us back, and He wants us whole again -- not stuck dead in our sin or unfulfilled in a one-dimensional faith. He calls so consistently, urgently, joyously to His own: Come from the edges of eternity! Come! Further up! Further in! Books such as this invigorate the soul to answer that call.

Overall Grade: A+
Readability: A+
Subject Interest: A+
Illustrations: N/A
Recommended? Absolutely! Unreservedly! I wish I could get a copy of this book into the hands of every believer and seeker in the world. Fantastic book -- well researched, thoughtfully considered, beautifully written.
Next Up: Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella and Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hewie The HP: 2002-2005. R.I.P.

Well, as many of you may have guessed, my cyber-hiccups turned into cyber-strokes and eventually led to the ultimate demise of my little laptop HP, Hewie. I haven't been on-line for weeks. I have a lot of catching up to do on all of your blogs, and I'm so excited to be able to do so with alacrity. It's almost like Christmas in the secular sense - a whole bunch of blog-post presents out there, under the Internet tree, just waiting to be read. I'll be haunting all of your blogs like a persistent cyber-spirit until I'm all up-to-date on the pithy and brilliant comments and observations I've come to relish so from my virtual community. God bless you all!

Now I have Hewie II, bigger, faster, and much more protected than his forefather (Jason always said that I would catch something bad with all of my Internet slutting around). I have so much to write about -- not a lot of sleep on my horizon, but I wouldn't want it any other way. Thanks so much for continuing to stop by this long-neglected blog o' mine. Your concerned comments have warmed my heart and spurred my desire to write to a whole new level. Peace to you!