Sunday, July 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Harry!

I've lived for almost fourteen years in the same very small town. I've walked countless miles on the streets and sidewalks. Every block has multiple memories attached to it.

Would you believe I actually have a literary memory rooted here? It has to do with the drugstore about 3 blocks from our house. It's a chain store that's changed names over the years but still looks much as it did when we moved to town. It's not the drugstore where we have our pharmacy so I'm not there too often, but since it's so close, I do pop in from time to time.

When the sweet girl was an infant, I was going through a difficult season. I was filled with joy over becoming a mom and loving our precious baby, but I was also struggling with postpartum depression. Several family members and friends passed away in the first eleven months of our daughter's life. It was a season tempered by high joys and deep griefs, often tumbling close together.

In the midst of all this, I was not always getting much sleep. Sometimes I just needed a break. My dear husband would say "take an hour" and shoo me out the door, often encouraging me to pick up my favorite Chinese food a few blocks away. I was working part-time at the seminary then and had my own office, and I would often take a book and the Chinese food and go hole up in the office (with the door locked) for about an hour, just to have some alone time.

And it was during that season that I fell in love with the Harry Potter books.

I'd read Sorcerer's Stone several months before. And I enjoyed it. D. and I agreed it was highly creative, especially the final chapters (with that eerie and interesting end we hadn't foreseen). I liked the characters, the humor, the plays on words.

But it was a busy season of life. And while I knew I wanted to go on to book two, I didn't feel compelled to read it immediately, the way you sometimes feel when you finish a story.

All of that changed the day I wandered into that little drugstore down the road, worn out and in need of some reading material. It's such a laugh to think I was looking for reading material in a drugstore, of all places. Our shelves at home are crammed with books. The library's about two blocks in the other direction. I was actually looking for a glossy magazine with pretty pictures, preferably of houses and gardens (I was so very tired right then that I'd discovered home and garden type magazines with pretty pictures were my best bet for reading material during the many hours I was nursing my baby).

What I found was a paperback copy of Chamber of Secrets. Oh, I thought, that's the second Harry Potter book. I've been meaning to read that. I picked it up, made sure I had enough money on me to purchase it, and took it to the counter. And I'm pretty sure I started it that afternoon, quite possibly holed up in my office with a carton of chicken and broccoli and a fortune cookie.

The rest, as they say, is history. I loved Chamber of Secrets. It made me laugh, it kept me on the edge of my seat, and I fell in love with Harry and his friends. It was the book that compelled me -- almost immediately -- to go find the third and fourth books (the only ones out at that time) and to wait with eager anticipation for the fifth. And reading that book propelled me into some of the best communal, literary discussion I've ever been privileged to enjoy, discussion that kept going for years.

So here at the end of July 31st, I tip my hat to the local drugstore, a strange literary landmark if there ever was one. I remain inordinately fond of their magazine and book aisle, though I'm not sure I've ever purchased anything else from it. And I also tip my hat to Harry and to his author, J.K. Rowling, and wish them both the happiest of birthdays.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Brave Writer

I've been working on homeschool plans for the fall and am having entirely too much fun exploring the Brave Writer website. Although I plan to continuing using Writing With Ease for our main writing curriculum this year, I'm looking forward to supplementing with some of the Brave Writer materials. I've also been mining the site and its accompanying blog for ideas (Friday Free Writes, complete with prompts! Poetry Teatimes!) and enjoying some of the posts there.

And I must say I love this saying from what they term the Brave Writer lifestyle, which feels so appropriate for how I'm trying to shape our whole lifestyle of learning that I think I should write it with a gold metallic marker and put it somewhere near my desk: "Remember: depth over breadth, enjoyment over struggle, commitment over clutter."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Little Princess: Book and Film

The sweet girl and I have both been feeling a little under the weather the past few days. Nothing terrible, but extra tired (probably the heat).

Last night her Daddy had to work late, and we decided that we needed a girl's movie night, even though it was just Monday -- movie nights in our household tend to be on Fridays. But hey, it's summer! And it felt good to loll around for a bit!

So during dinner we watched Little Princess, the Alfonso Cuaron directed version from 1995. It was the sweet girl's pick: she's been interested in seeing it ever since we finished our second read-through of the book, which is one of her absolute favorites.

I'd seen the movie before, and remembered a lot of the changes made to the plot, but I'd forgotten how much they seem to miss the heart of the book. I know I'm biased because the book is so beloved. And I continue to struggle with the idea of whether or not faithfulness to the source material is a valid criteria for judging the ultimate success of a film. I'm torn between reviewing a film on its own merits as a film, and providing contrasts with the book. I usually end up trying to find a balance.

At least that's what I tried in this review I posted at Epinions earlier today. If you know the book or the movie, or if you know both, what do you think? Would you agree with my assessment that "striving to act like a princess in terribly degraded circumstances is a real and moving struggle for Sarah Crewe, and that struggle is mostly lost in translation"?

Because sometimes films can have beautiful artistry in their own right and yet retain the heart of the source material. D. and I recently finished re-watching To Kill a Mockingbird, and once again I'm in awe at how well that movie captures the essence of the book. The book makes me weep, but then so does the film. Different sorts of weeping maybe, but tapping the same stream.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Reading and Writing Biography and History: What Matters Most

A friend of mine recently emailed me an article entitled "So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers" by Richard Weikart. Within the context of his wider agenda of discussing the ways in which Bonhoeffer has been made over in the image of various liberal and conservative thinkers, Weikart takes Eric Metaxas' recent biography of Bonhoeffer to task for this very practice. He castigates Metaxas for actual historic errors, a lack of deep understanding of historical and theological context, and finally, for presenting a portrait of Bonhoeffer that is far too evangelical.

I found myself at sixes and sevens when I read this piece. First of all, I should note that I read Metaxas' Bonhoeffer biography this past February. To be more honest, I should say I tumbled headfirst inside it and devoured it. Laying aside, just for a moment, any or all qualms about its historical accuracy or the worth of its interpretive lens (we'll come back to those things) the book was crafted so well from a stylistic standpoint that it was hard to put down. Metaxas, whose book on Wilberforce I truly loved, has a way of warmly inviting readers into the story of his subject. He has a knack of making you feel as though you are in the person's presence. He is also artful in his use of quotes. In other words, he can tell a good story (something I am coming to prize in the world of biography) and his tales go down easy.

But when it comes to writing biography, is spinning a good story enough if one isn't historically accurate? And how much does one's own context come into play in the way one spins a tale?

Although I devoured the Bonhoeffer book, I did not feel the full-hearted love for it that I had for the Wilberforce volume. It left me feeling a little unsatisfied and ragged. In fact, I never reviewed the book, as I normally would such a large volume I'd spent so much time with. It took me a while to muddle through to why, and my reflections helped me to think through how much the shape of a subject's life also affects the shape of a biography.

One reason the Bonhoeffer biography felt untidy and somehow incomplete is that Bonhoeffer's life felt that way. I don't mean to speculate on how Bonhoeffer himself felt when he died. Indeed, the accounts we have of his death seem to indicate that he died peacefully, a man at rest with God. But the fact remains that he was a victim of war; his life came to a tragic and sudden end when he was only 39, and when the war was almost over. Presumably, had the government not discovered Canaris' diaries, it would not have gone after the conspirators. With the war so close to its end, he would likely have been liberated and perhaps gone on to live a long life, thinking, writing, and teaching more. And had he done so, probably many of the questions people raise about his theology would have become much more clear.

The fact that Bonhoeffer was in prison for almost two years before he died also seems to complicate things for Metaxas, and (I would imagine) for any biographer. There's only so much we know about those final two years, most of it from letters and poems Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, or from the memories of loved ones who visited him during that time. The last three months, when he was being moved often and in secrecy, are almost a complete blank. Here is where I really struggled with Metaxas' biography, because he had to rely almost completely on the reminisces of people who just happened to share prison transports and cells with Bonhoeffer. Their perspective can make you feel as though you're viewing blurred snapshots from the final months, and those only taken every few days.

But back to my original musings about what makes good history and biography. Weikart certainly isn't the only critic to call Metaxas' work into question. Fellow evangelicals, though more sympathetic in tone, have also called him on his scholarship. There's a really good article from Christianity Today back in February (yes, I'm late to this party) that rounds up early reactions and responses to the book. Even the author of this article, who lauds Metaxas for his vivid writing (and doesn't dismiss the worth the book still has, which I appreciate) admits that the book is "agenda-driven." But of course he does so within the context of admitting that all history/biography (and even all book reviews!) are agenda-driven to some extent.

To some extent. I repeat that, because it seems to me that sometimes our writing is not so much agenda-driven (which implies we've consciously got our agenda in the front seat, calling the shots) as worldview soaked.

It's true that it helps us to clearly know from what perspective/lens (and potential bias) we're writing from, but writing from one is a given. We can't perch on an imaginary objective pedestal when we write: we write from a given place, time, and culture colored by our own unique personal history and understanding.

I also think there are times when writing from a clearly inhabited perspective is helpful. It's true that there are times when our given perspective distorts what we see and how we report it. But there may also be times when our given perspective sharpens what we see and how we write about it. In this particular case, I'm thinking that, while it seems to be true that Metaxas' understanding of Bonhoeffer's theological context doesn't go very deep, his perspective as an evangelical does help him to ferret out those places where Bonhoeffer manages to get past his own potential biases to critique theological liberalism -- in American seminaries of the period, for instance, or even in the work of his teacher Harnack. Doesn't it seem worth noting the places where Bonhoeffer steps outside the box you assume he would fit most comfortably inside, given the theological training he was steeped in? Does it take evangelical eyes to see those places?

So what, beyond in-depth research and artful telling, matters most when writing good biography and history? I'm still thinking this through. It seems that much biographical writing would be helped by a candid acknowledgment of our own context (with its potential strengths and drawbacks), a willingness to wrestle with at least some key sources that interpret a subject from a different perspective of our own, and a steeping (as much as possible) in the voice of our biographical subject. One reason I love using primary sources when I teach history is that nothing seems to take the place of hearing the actual voice of someone from the time period under discussion. Yes, sometimes those texts will be in translation (and that raises the issue of perspective in translation work!) and we still have to interpret what we read, but a thoughtful wrestling with primary sources can still go a long way toward insuring that we have a thorough understanding of a biographical subject.

More on this another time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Poetry Units for Modern History

I'm knee-dip in curriculum planning for the fourth grade this fall and loving it. Yes, I know, I'm a bit of a geek that way.

So tell me...if you were planning to introduce/study 4-6 English speaking poets to and with a 4th grader, poets that would correlate with the modern history time period we're also studying (1850 to the present) which poets would you choose? I've already decided on 3, but am hoping to choose another 1-3 poets, and I'm genuinely curious to know who comes to mind for other readers/teachers/poetry lovers. (I'll post more about my selections soon.)

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Literary Mice (Or "I think mice are rather nice.")

When the sweet girl was younger, we seemed to read an awful lot of books about bears and bunnies. Come to think of it, we still do (some old favorites, some new). But lately it feels like everywhere we turn, we're running into literary mice.

I've blogged about literary dragons, so it seems only fitting that I move to the opposite end of the spectrum, at least size-wise, and post a bit about some of our favorite literary rodents. There certainly are a lot of them...

My thoughts started moving in this direction several weeks ago when our family enjoyed a read-aloud of Margery Sharp's The Rescuers. This tale about three brave mice, Miss Bianca, Bernard, and Nils, was the inspiration for a Disney film of the same name which is nevertheless an entirely different story. As much as I like the Disney film, I prefer the book, especially with its wonderful pictures by Garth Williams.

My favorite literary mouse, bar none, is the incomparable Reepicheep. First introduced in Prince Caspian, the second of the Chronicles of Narnia, he absolutely steals your heart in the third volume, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (That I have only reviewed the film version of this story I've loved my whole life is something of a travesty...though it's perhaps understandable. I have a hard time reviewing books I love as deeply as VDT, books that have become part of my heart's terrain.) Maybe I can redeem my shortcoming a bit with this post from the archives about Reep as an Anglo-Saxon warrior.

Kate DiCamillo has certainly added to the prestige of literary mice with her Tale of Despereaux. And who can forget Beverly Cleary's Mouse and the Motorcycle (and subsequent volumes) or E.B. White's Stuart Little?

Perhaps because they're small and unobtrusive, mice often make great observers of history. I'm thinking, of course, of Amos, the inventive mouse of Ben Franklin in Robert Lawson's Ben and Me; the tiny white mouse-poet who befriends Emily Dickinson in The Mouse of Amherst; and Celeste, the mouse with a window on Audubon's world in Henry Cole's gorgeously illustrated A Nest for Celeste.

We've known so many picture book mice I know I can't possibly remember them all. One of our recent favorites is Bella and Bean, by poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich, creative pictures by Aileen Leijten. We also enjoyed Two Christmas Mice by Corrine Demas, illustrated by Stephanie Roth. One of my oldest literary mouse friends is Frederick, in Leo Lionni's book of the same name, about a mouse who stores colors for the bleak winter while all the other mice are scurrying about storing food.

When I think of books for littles, several mice come to mind. Although I'm not a huge fan of the television tie-in versions, during the preschool years we did enjoy the whimsical pictures of the original Angelina Ballerina by Katharine Holabird. Two of my favorite illustrations of books for very young children, John Butler and Jane Dyer, both do themselves proud with mice pictures in While You Were Sleeping and Time for Bed. Mice make gentle bedtime book companions!

Rose Fyleman's poem that begins "I think mice are rather nice..." has long been a favorite in our household. Melissa Wiley features Scottish Robert Burns' poem To a Mouse in The Far Side of the Loch, her second book in the Martha series. (My review of that book is forthcoming; meanwhile here's my review of the first Martha Book, Little House in the Highlands.)

Humorous Kenn Nesbitt gives us the poem "If You Give a Mouse a Motorcycle", a title which manages to pay clever tribute both to Beverly Cleary and to the popular If You Give a Mouse... series of books by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

I know I'm forgetting numerous poems, picture books, and longer fact, I feel sure I've overlooked some obviously epic mouse. I'd edit as I think of more. (I decided to save literary rats for another post.) And if you have favorite mouse poems, stories, or books, please drop me a comment! I'll be glad to add to the ongoing list.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Here is the only place I can love Him."

I didn't mean to disappear from the blog. A few days of travel, a moving fully into summer rhythm, and I have found myself needing to take a hiatus from journaling here. I've savored time to do other sorts of writing, reading, thinking.

I've been reading Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts, a book it's a special delight to hold and read since I've spent many a moment on Ann's blog over the past few years, and because I entered into her gratitude exercise a long while ago. I've been keeping more of those blessing lists in my physical, hand-held journal (which has suddenly felt deeply important to me again) but have yet to transfer any of the lists to the blog. Maybe this evening, or tomorrow.

One of the blessings of Ann's book is her meditation on time, especially the need for us to live in the present moment -- a pearl of wisdom it seems to me so many people have spoken to my heart over the years, but which I continually need to be called back to and to heed again. Her sparse, poetic language flows so beautifully, and I find that once in a while, a line just jumps off the page and straight into my heart. "Here is the only place I can love Him," was one such line this morning. She's referring to her love for God. And here -- this moment, this today. How true this is. We cannot love him in the past because it's gone. We cannot love him in the future yet because it's not here. HERE is the only place I can love Him -- wherever our HERE happens to be.

I say this during a week where I have thought a lot about the past. Time spent at my sister's unearthed old journals and letters I'd left in boxes in her attic two decades and a little bit more ago. Two decades does not seem like a lot of time, but oh the younger self that spilled from those dog-eared notebooks and tattered envelopes. How much I needed to sit with that younger self for a while and laugh and cry and laugh some more and remember her passions and mistakes and bad poetry and surprising snippets of stories. It was good to sit with her, like meeting an old friend.

I say "Here is the only place I can love Him," during a week in which the 95 year old woman who first led me to Jesus is in the hospital in my old hometown. Mrs. B. suffered a heart attack a few days ago; she's weak and frail but peaceful. The same night she suffered her attack, her 67 year old pastor son also suffered a heart attack (how connected are our hearts, I wonder?) and though frail Mrs. B. survived, the robust son did not. I am thankful indeed that my mother and father, who love Mrs. B. as they would their own mothers (she has truly been a spiritual mentor, friend, mother, grandmother, to our whole family) are there with her now. They're able to feed her and pray with her and just be with her, especially in this time when much of the immediate family must be away from her bedside to travel the few hours for the son's funeral. They're able to return a cupful of blessings to a woman who has waterfalled blessings on our family for so many years. And they're doing it in the hospital where my own dad spent a week fourteen months ago, which means they're getting a chance to see doctors, nurses, maintenance people who blessed them then.

I did say maintenance people. The head maintenance man was a tremendous gift to my parents when my father was in hospital. When my mother first met him, my dad was so ill we didn't think he would recover. My mother was at her lowest ebb and had been all alone, praying. She literally thought he was an angel sent to minister to her, his words were so encouraging, his countenance so loving. It turns out he has the voice of an angel, a beautiful gospel-singing voice that he uses to minister to patients. He sang for my dad over a year ago. He sang for Mrs. B. yesterday. "Because He lives, you can face tomorrow."

God will be in all our tomorrows. He is in all our yesterdays (a wonderful thing to know as I meander down this street called memory). But the only place I can love him. Right now.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Meditation for July

"He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights." ~ Psalm 18:33

I set this verse to a tune this evening so the sweet girl and I can sing it together. We're at the beginning of our third or fourth read through of Hinds' Feet on High Places (an adapted version for children). This lovely book about a character named "Much-Afraid" and the Chief Shepherd who leads her out of the valley of her fears and into the heights of the kingdom of love really seems to speak to my daughter's heart. It speaks to mine too. And so this is the verse on which we'll meditate this month.