Monday, September 30, 2013

Books! Books! And More Books....

I’m missing book reviews. Not reading them, but writing them.

The platform where I’ve been a regular, active reviewer for over a decade is currently in a state of huge flux. At the moment, it’s unclear whether or not the site issues will resolve so that book reviewers can remain viable contributors to the site. I’m sad over this for several reasons, one being that I do earn a small amount of consistent income from reviewing for the site each month, and another being that I’ve met some wonderful people through the site and would miss the camaraderie and community there if I had to step away completely.

But the strangest thing of all right now is not having this one niche to place book reviews – a niche I’ve relied on since the sweet girl (now eleven years old) was a baby. In that time I’ve averaged between 2-3 reviews per week, most of them books. I had not realized how engrained the review writing habit had become until the past couple of weeks, when I’ve not been able to post reviews of several books I’ve read and enjoyed. Granted, I could write and post elsewhere – like here – but I would miss the larger readership I have there, and the sense that I’m building something that’s connected to a community and not just me.

So what books have I read lately that I’m wanting to talk about?

In children’s books, the sweet girl and I just recently finished a “team read” of an amazing book called Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. After searching for ages for mid-grade resources on the moon landing and never feeling entirely satisfied, I felt like we hit the jackpot with this gorgeous picture book. Well, it’s picture book sized, but stuffed with text as well as photos. Written by Catherine Thimmesh, Team Moon stuns you with beauty and fascinates you with “behind the scenes” information about the moon landing. Despite the fact that the Apollo 11 mission was 44 years ago, Thimmesh manages to build suspense into the telling. She also shares about a number of people, beyond the three astronauts, who had a large share in getting them there.

Also in children’s books, I’ve discovered a delightfully wacky mystery series for mid-grade readers. I’m not sure how many Wilma Tenderfoot books there are, but having just laughed my way through the first, I hope there are a lot more. The book has a winking, all-knowing narrator and a terrific way of spoofing both orphan tales and detective stories. It managed to make me think of Harry Potter, Unfortunate Events, the Benedict Society, and Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and Saturday morning cartoons. Not to mention orphan girl Wilma (who so wants to become a detective) has a delightful sidekick in a beagle named Pickle. This series is by British author Emma Kennedy.

In books for grown-ups (I do still read those!) I’ve discovered a new mystery series I’m enjoying. The author is Christobel Kent, and the novels, which feature her private investigator Sandro Cellini, are set in and around Florence, Italy. Italy has become something of a fascination for me in recent weeks as we’ve made it our first geography study this year in school. Among other things, that’s meant that we’ve watched some good travel documentaries (yay, Rick Steves!) which have given me great visuals to keep in mind as I read. I’m not sure what I’m enjoying most about the series: Kent’s atmospheric writing, her lovable detective Cellini, or the great descriptions of Italy, but the combination of all those things definitely makes these books worth reading. The mystery plots are also strong, always a plus in these days where great characters and settings abound but writers tend to clunk their way through clich├ęd mystery plots. Not the case here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Downton Abbey: Seven Reasons We'll Miss Matthew Crawley

We’ve just finished watching the third series of Downton Abbey. We’ve got months to go before we can see the fourth series (just now airing in the UK; not to air in the US till January, and even later for the DVD release we’ll need to wait for) so I figure that gives me plenty of time to muse about characters we’ll miss.

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you no doubt know that actor Dan Stevens, who has played Matthew Crawley for the first three series, decided not to renew his contract for the fourth season. I can only imagine the headache this caused series creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who somehow had to negotiate series 3 knowing what he was going to have to do at the end of it, and how unhappy that was going to make the show’s many fans. If you don’t know precisely what happened at the end of series 3 and you don’t want to be spoiled, read no further. From here out, if you’re still reading, I’ll assume you know or don’t mind knowing.

My goodness, we’re going to miss Matthew. In trying to figure out why I felt so terribly disappointed and saddened by his exit, I realized it wasn’t just that he was a likable character who had been at the heart of the show since the beginning. His character and his character arc were tied up in many things. Here are seven reasons I think we’ll especially miss Matthew Crawley:

1)      The romantic chemistry he shared with Mary.  These two really did have chemistry, but it was more than chemistry that made their love for each other seem so luminous. Matthew brought out the best in Mary. Simply put, he knew how to melt the porcupine prickles around her heart. In series three, after they finally came together and wed (following plenty of ups and downs in the first two series) there was something especially sweet about the ways they realized they were good for each other. More than once, Mary alluded to the fact that Matthew was the only person who truly saw her as a good person, and more than once, Matthew alluded to the fact that it was because he knew her best – helping her gently understand that the person he saw and loved was who Mary really was deep-down. I hope that Mary’s unfolding understanding of herself will continue as she matures through grief and motherhood. I also hope she will remember the laughter and kindness she shared with Matthew and maybe try to share them more with others.

2)      The levity he brought to the table. Sometimes quite literally the table – that all-important gathering place for the aristocratic Crawley clan. Matthew was able to use his outsider status to help them thaw out a bit, but more than that, he had a sprightly way of laughing at himself and others that lightened up the family. A raised eyebrow, a slight smile, a self-deprecating remark – those were Matthew’s usual trademarks. There was one scene in an episode of series 3 that made me laugh aloud, when Matthew, alone with Mary in their room, dropped onto the bed with loud sigh over some bit of charged aristocratic drama that had just unfolded downstairs. Mary was sitting primly before her mirror, touching up her hair, and here’s Matthew flopping onto the bed like a fish, letting out a gusty sigh. It cracked me up.

3)      His partnership with Robert and Tom.  This was just starting to coalesce and I will miss seeing its development. Robert (the Earl of Grantham) has had such a hard time coming to grips with the need to modernize the management of the estate. He had come to a grudging acceptance of the fact that he needed to work with the newer generation and their ideas – his two young sons-in-law. Matthew’s outsider status, as the distant solicitor cousin set to inherit, seemed dwarfed by Tom’s outsider status as Irish nationalist chauffeur who dared to marry the Earl’s youngest daughter, but nevertheless, neither grew up an English aristocrat. That grudging acceptance was turning into real respect for what each young man could bring to the partnership.

Robert’s eye-opening conversation with his Scottish cousin Shrimpy, whom he discovered (in the final episode of series 3) was losing his estate due to mismanagement and a lack of courage regarding modernizing, was interestingly timed. I’m glad we had a chance to hear Robert tell Cora how much he had come to appreciate Matthew’s contributions, but I’m sad he never had a chance to tell Matthew himself. And I’m really curious to know how Robert and Tom will work together without Matthew there to act as the gracious but stubborn buffer between them. Once again, Matthew was really good at seeing the best in people – in his old-fashioned, sometimes stuck-in-his-ways father-in-law, and in his hotheaded, still often uncomfortable-in-this-world brother-in-law. They will miss him sorely. I have some ideas how I would move this scenario forward as a writer, but I have no idea where the writer will actually go.

4)      His long-awaited and newfound joy in fatherhood. Matthew was so excited to become a daddy at long last. He radiated that joy. It is heartbreaking that he only ever saw his child one time, and that he will not be there to see his son grow up.

5)      His close relationship to his mother. Poor Isobel. She tends to get a little overlooked amidst all the flashier characters on the show, but I really love Isobel. And one thing I know for sure is how much Isobel loved and respected her only son. She helped him navigate the unexpected inheritance by moving with him into a world that she isn’t entirely comfortable in herself, and she’s not let that world change who she is at the core, continuing on her outspoken, forthright way. I worry about how Isobel will navigate her own grief over Matthew’s passing…most likely, she will stuff it. Then again, this could be an opportunity for the writers to let her character really grow. Is it possible she might rethink Dr. Clarkson’s almost-proposal? And how will she and Mary relate now that Matthew is gone…how much will Isobel want to be involved in her grandson’s upbringing?

6)      His encouragement of Edith. This one feels tiny in comparison to the others, but I’ll still miss it. Matthew has been a stalwart champion and a real confidante for Edith. (Among other things, I’m pretty sure he was the only member of the family who knows that Edith is in love with a married man with a mad wife in the attic. OK, not the attic, but you get what I mean.) Edith doesn’t get close to many people, but Matthew was someone she really trusted.

7)      The way his presence on the show constantly reminded us of the story’s beginnings. It was the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir on board, that drove Matthew to Downton in the very first episode, and it was his coming that “unsettled” this aristocratic little hamlet from the start. You could say that Matthew dropping into their lives was like a rock thrown into a puddle, and the ripples have been moving out ever since. I’ll miss seeing those ripples continue to expand, and I’ll miss the ways the show might have been able to do some neat “full-circle” kind of writing if he’d stayed with it.

And I could have added an eighth: he can’t come back. I really wonder, did his exit have to be so entirely final? Could they not have talked the actor into the possibility of occasional appearances and worked creatively around the absences? Maybe not, but oh, I wish they’d tried.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Peter "Before and After"

 In our morning Bible reading, the sweet girl and I recently completed the gospels and moved into the book of Acts.

It's been a while since I've spent a good length of time in Acts, and I'm finding myself swept up into the excitement of the early church as they experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and began to preach and heal with boldness.

That boldness looks especially amazing when you've just stepped from the pages of the gospels. The "before and after" glimpses of Peter are astounding when you stop to ponder them. The power of the Spirit at work in Peter truly made him a new man. It must have astonished everyone around him. It must have astonished Peter himself!

I always think it's interesting that Jesus focused on the "Peter" part of Simon Peter's name. In Acts, we see the rock solidness of Peter's surrendered heart and the fruit of that surrendered heart and of all the years he spent apprenticed to Jesus.

When the sweet girl was very little, she used to say "mean man Saul" and "nice man Paul" whenever we read about Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus in her story Bible. The dramatic movement represented by Saul's change to Paul is so evident. The dramatic movement of Simon into Peter (Rocky, if you will) is more gradual, but nonetheless breathtaking.

If God can so radically transform the hearts and minds of Simon and of Saul, he can transform us too.

Monday, September 09, 2013

"New" Van Gogh Painting Authenticated: Hooray for Beauty and Story!

Exciting news in the art world today: they've identified a "new" Van Gogh. You can read about the discovery and see the painting, "Sunset at Montmajour," in the NYT article here.

I found this news fascinating, and not just because Van Gogh is one of the artists of my heart. It seems amazing to me that a painting done in 1888 and hidden from view for many years could suddenly be unearthed from an attic, a little bit like finding buried treasure or something surprising and wonderful in an archaeological excavation.

It's making me muse about beauty. It's also fun to speculate on the details of the story of the painting's journey, just briefly sketched in the article.

The painting, with its incredible light-filled brush stroked sky, was beautiful from the moment Van Gogh painted it, and that beauty has never ceased to be, but it was hidden for years. It was sold from Vincent's brother Theo's collection in 1901, they think, when Theo's widow sold it to an art dealer in Paris. The dealer sold it to a collector in Norway. In 1908, someone told that collector it wasn't authentic and he stuck it in an attic where it was apparently rediscovered several years ago by the people who now own the house. The Van Gogh museum recently authenticated it, saying that techniques for authenticating paintings have improved greatly in the past century.

It makes me many things! Story brain in high gear this morning. Why was the painting considered inauthentic in 1908, just twenty years after it was painted? Had Van Gogh's work recently come into vogue? Was there a rush of Van Gogh look-alike fakes? Did the person who claimed it wasn't authentic really believe it to be the work of someone else (probably) or did he or she have an agenda (fanciful fiction brain...)

And if you had a painting this gorgeous, would you stick it in the attic even if you believed it to be a fake? That's the part that really pulls me up short. If I had this painting in my possession, I can easily see being disappointed if I was told it wasn't an authentic Van Gogh. While it would change my perspective on the painting's ultimate collectible value, why would it necessarily change my view of the painting's enduring aesthetic value? I would never have stashed a painting like this in a dark attic, even in a fit of pique or melancholy (or so I hope).

Once in the attic, it sounds like it was forgotten (sort of like Old Bear) and sold off when the house was. Can you imagine the current owners' astonishment when they found it? I picture a rainy day, the kind good for exploring attics, and a canvas wrapped up in an quilt and tied with twine. (Yes, story brain in overdrive today, folks...hang with me...)

All of which again begs the question of how we think of beauty and value. Sometimes we recognize and celebrate such things, but sometimes we hide them or ignore them or can't see their true worth because of what we've been told is important or what we choose to believe about their worth. Sometimes beauty stays in plain sight and we still overlook it. If this is true of crafted artifacts, how true is it of the natural beauty in creation or the beauty of our fellow human beings? 

Story starter ideas:
Create a character who has come into possession of what he thinks is a rare and valuable painting, only to discover it's not by the famous artist he hoped painted it. What does he do next? (And how many possibilities could you spin from that?)

Create a dialogue between two people arguing over the authenticity of a certain painting. Make each one very vested in his or her position. Write the dialogue once where they reach an impasse. Write it again and have one of them persuade the other of his or her position.

Imagine the attic exploration that leads to the discovery of a rare and famous painting. Who discovers it and how? How does it make them feel? How might it change their life and circumstances?

Friday, September 06, 2013

A Prayer of the Heart (An Original Poem)

Lord ~
make a way
where there is no way.
I ask this, Lord,
I ask today ~
though I fumble
to find the words
to pray,
I ask you, Jesus,
make a way.

Lord ~
do something new
in all that's old. 
I ask you, Lord,
with words so bold ~
though it's hard
to imagine
just what you will do,
I ask you, Jesus,
do something new.

give me a song
to warm your heart.
I ask you, Lord,
for a brand new part ~
a tune's not come
in ever so long.
I ask you, Jesus,
give me a song.

(~EMP, 9/13)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Revisiting a Classic (Richard Foster's "Celebration of Discipline")

It was in college over twenty years ago where I first encountered Richard Foster. I read his book Celebration of Discipline cover to cover, and it was one of my main "go-to" books on the spiritual life for several years. I would return to it whenever I needed to remember the importance of certain daily disciplines or when I felt like I had ceased to remember the purpose of the classical spiritual disciplines.

Over the years, I would go back to Celebration -- and to other books by Foster, especially on prayer and on different devotional traditions/streams -- at different seasons in my life. I would sometimes pull on Foster when I was teaching a class or leading a group. But it had been a long time since I'd picked up Celebration of Discipline and opened it to read it straight through, instead of giving myself a quick, refreshing dip.

This week I started a full re-read because it turns out to be one of the books I will be teaching from this fall. Ironically, I couldn't find my well-worn and much marked up copy from years ago -- I think I must have taken it off the shelf to reference it a while back, and somehow it didn't make its way back to the proper place. So I had to borrow a copy from the library, which I worried would put me at a disadvantage because all my markings would be missing. What I've discovered instead is that:

a) I think I can hear it fresher without reading it alongside the notes made by my younger self and
b) Certain lines or passages are so emblazoned in my memory and heart that I almost see the underlines that aren't there.

Here are a few of my permanent mental underlines from the first chapter, entitled "The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation."

"God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns."

"Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines. The purpose of the Disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear."

"Beginners are welcome."

"Inwardly you long to launch out into the deep."

"The life that is pleasing to God is not a series of religious duties. We have only one thing to do, namely, to experience a life of relationship and intimacy with God..."

"Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin."

"When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received...The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside."

"We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness. God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us."

" would be proper to speak of 'the path of disciplined grace.' It is 'grace' because it is free; it is 'disciplined' because there is something for us to do."

"We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur. This is the path of disciplined grace."

"When we genuinely believe that inner transformation is God's work and not ours, we can put to rest our passion to set others straight."

"Our world is hungry for genuinely changed people."