Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm joining a challenge! The War Through the Generations 2010 Challenge: Vietnam

You all know I really dislike challenges, right? Well, I do. But, I began reading The Things They Carried and Tim O'Brien's writing is so beautiful, so moving and heart-wrenching and perfect that I ordered another of his books and put a third on my wish list. I have several of the books on the recommended reading list and was planning to read at least two of them, this year, anyway. I'm pretty much set. So, I've just signed up for the War Through the Generations 2010 (Vietnam) Reading Challenge.

I'm not going to list the books I plan to read. I'll just write about them as I read them. I have a bad feeling I'm going to end up buying some books, even though I have plenty. If I end up buying more and complete the first level early enough, I'll alter my plans. For now, though, I've signed for the 5-book "Dip" into Vietnam reading. Thanks to Anna and Serena for continuing the War Through the Generations Challenge.

I guess the way most people do this is to link back to their original post and add links to the books as they're completed, yes? I guess I'll do that, then. But, I'm not writing "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" with blank spaces. That just creeps me out.

Here's what I've read (with links to reviews):

1. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
2. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
3. A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Copyright 2004
Wendy Lamb Books - YA/Fiction/War
194 pages

How I Live Now is a book that has gotten such polarized reviews that I added it to my wish list, took it off, added it, took it off and finally decided I really did want to read the book. So, I ordered a copy and then stuck it on a shelf and ignored it. How rude.

A wonderful review at A Book Every Six Days finally convinced me to dig for my copy. A few days later, I located my copy on Grandpa's shelf (a shelf so named because my grandfather built it) and dragged the copy with me to Nashville during our Christmas break, where I opened it and read the book when Spellbinder wasn't holding my interest.

How I Live Now is a young adult novel told by Daisy in her own words. Daisy, an American, is fifteen when the story begins. She's been shipped off to England to live in the countryside with four cousins she has never met. Their mother -- apparently a single mother -- is some sort of politician or ambassador and she leaves on business within days. Then, war breaks out.

At first, as England is occupied by an unnamed enemy, the family is untouched. Power and phone lines fail, but the family lives on a farm and they're isolated enough that they're aware of what's going on, but they have better access to food and are safer than most. Those first few months of the war are almost idyllic for the cousins. Daisy falls madly in love with lanky Edmond, and they embark on a ridiculous sexual affair that everyone knows about but which makes her other cousins uncomfortable enough that they feel safe and happy in their blind love. And, then the reality of war arrives at the farm.

Daisy and her young cousin Piper are separated from the boys and an act of senseless violence brings home the reality of war. Daisy and Piper leave the house to which they were sent, determined to find Edmond and his twin, Isaac. It's been long enough that I can't recall the order of their travels, but I'm not so sure that matters. When they go off on their own, Piper and Daisy are constantly in danger. At some point, they end up in a barn with soldiers but the enemy attacks and they're helped by one young soldier they've befriended. He sends them off with a survival package.

This is the part I liked best -- when the two girls are forced to walk, hide, forage for food, deal with weather and illness and storms. It rang true to books I've read about survival during war -- constant fear, aching bellies, the feeling of having to live in the same filthy clothing for months, the insect bites and the knowledge that if they're found they could end up being raped or murdered. Daisy and Piper are already close, but become even closer as they're forced to rely upon each other.

There's a second section of the book that takes place some time after the war. Daisy hasn't seen her cousins for years. The aftermath of the war is explained in vague terms. How did Daisy end up in New York? What happened to Edmond, Isaac, Piper and Osbert? Did Aunt Penn ever make it back from Europe? The author made Daisy's thoughts a little more vague in this section and I didn't care for that. She's no longer a rambling teenager whose thoughts are read in run-on sentences. That's understandable; but, she dangles the reader a bit and the change in style reeked of "writing device" to me. I was disappointed with how that last section was written. But, I made a conscious decision to figure out what the heck had happened and fill in the rest of the blanks on my own.

In general, I loved How I Live Now.

4/5 - Immediate and visceral, sometimes painfully realistic, often uncomfortable. I loved the relationships, the characters and their idiosyncracies, the special abilities that eventually help two of the cousins to survive. While I disliked the vagueness of the latter section, it wasn't enough to totally ruin the book for me.

Woohoo! That's 6 reviews down, 4 to go. Although, actually, I finished Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott, last night, and I'm on the verge of finally finishing Veracity by Laura Bynum -- which I have found an engrossing read but dark enough that I've occasionally had to set it down and pick up something lighter to give me a break from the relentless horror of Bynum's dystopian world.

More reviews are coming, although I think I might stop to read for a bit. There's still a human behind these reviews, but I probably won't write a chatty post till I'm caught up, apart from this one tidbit:

An Update on Spellbinder: The teenager gave up on it. He said it wasn't keeping his attention. So, we're in agreement. Spellbinder is a "nyeh" book. The most recent book that truly captured Kiddo's interest? The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, a fantasy he described as "too complex to get into, but could you order me the rest of the books?" Apparently, The Demon King is the first in a series and the next has not yet been released, so he'll have to wait.

How is everyone doing? Feel free to drop by and tell me. It gets really quiet when I chug out reviews without babbling at the end of each of them. It's sunny and lovely in Vicksburg. Yesterday, I was bizarrely exhausted. Three espressos couldn't perk me up for more than 45 minutes, so I had a mostly-horizontal day. When I was up, I kept breaking things so Kiddo just kept shoving me toward the futon. It was pretty funny.

Off I go. Talk later!

Bookfool has trouble shutting up, you know.

The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs

The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs
Copyright 1992
Viking Penguin - Memoir
94 pages

My relationship with cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance.

Purring in his sleep, Fletch stretches out his little black paws to touch my hands, the claws withdrawn, just a gentle touch to assure him that I am there beside him as he sleeps. He must have a dream image of me. Cats are said to be colorblind: grainy black-and-white, a flickering silver film full of rents as I leave the room, come back, go out, pick him up, put him down. Who could harm such a creature? Train his dog to kill him! Cat hate reflects an ugly, stupid, loutish, bigoted spirit. There can be no compromise with this ugly spirit.

The time to pet a cat is when the cat is eating. That is not the time to pet a dog. It is good to pet a sleeping cat. He stretches and purrs in sleep. Better let sleeping dogs lie. I remember at the poetry festival in Rome, John Giorno and I are going down to breakfast. A big dog is sleeping on a landing.

"This is a very friendly dog," John said, and bent down to pet the beast, who growled ominously and showed his yellow teeth.

This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer's past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.

I'm being a little lazy using quotes from The Cat Inside, but you can see from that last quote that the author's intent was to write a book that wasn't just about cats but which was an allegory. In fact, I think it's only part allegory and part memoir. Some of the stories he tells (all are brief) are allegorical and those are, quite frankly, the weird ones. Cats as glowing creatures with bat-like ears, slicked back, haunting or haunted, silent and stealthy or gypsy-like. Those particular writings, which play more heavily at the beginning of the book, did not thrill me. I'd rather read true cat stories or cats as side characters in a novel than anything so bizarre as a story in which a cat represents something else entirely.

But, eventually, the author begins to focus on his cats, the companions who have come and gone from his life, but mostly those that lived with or near him while he was living in Kansas, first in a stone house and then in a second home that he liked better but which seems to have lacked a bit of the first house's elderly charm. And, this is where I believe the book shines. He has a lovely way of describing what's beautiful about a cat, why they're superior to dogs (in his opinion), their uniquely feline habits and the idiosyncracies that define the cats he's known personally.

In general, this book is a very strange little book. But, I enjoyed the autobiographical bits. I'm not sure, but I think I might have a copy of one of Burroughs' better-known books, Naked Lunch. If so, I think I'll need drugs to get through it. Just kidding. He certainly did have a rather hallucinogenic writing style when he drifted into allegory.

I'm iffy on recommending this book. Burroughs seems to have been a writer's writer. If you like allegory, enjoy digging for meaning, like a Picasso-like artistry in words, or just love cats and want to read the parts that are autobiographical, the book is probably worth checking out. I liked it. I didn't love The Cat Inside, but I liked enough of it that I don't regret reading the book. I have no idea how to rate it, but I'd say it would probably be better to check the book out from the library than purchase it. I bought my copy. I think I'd rather frame it (I really like that cat with the human head -- which is accurate to some of the text) than read it, again.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lord, I Just Want to Be Happy by Leslie Vernick (DNF)

Lord, I Just Want to Be Happy by Leslie Vernick
Copyright 2009
Harvest House Publishers - NF/Self-help/Psychology

I think this is another case of bad timing. After losing a kitty, I'm not in the mood to be told to focus on Jesus and I'll get through the storm. The truth is that I think when I've had trouble happying up, usually it's the love of friends and reading about people who've either been through the same or worse experiences (and there's certainly a lot worse that could happen to a person than losing a cat) but came through them fine . . . that's what lifts me up and gets me back on an even keel.

Not that this book is about grief. That's part of the problem, I suppose. Roy Nakai's book about how he lived through tragedy was helpful to me because it had the right focus -- on how important it is to keep going.

Lord, I Just Want to Be Happy is about knowing yourself, realizing that things like losing 10 pounds, being the center of attention, finding the perfect job and having a spouse who does exactly what you think a spouse should do are not necessarily the things that will make you happy. Happiness comes from inside - making right choices, changing bad habits, not beating yourself up. That's what the book is about, although it's Christian and it's Jesus-focused.

I think I might like this book another time. At the moment, it's not for me.

Lord, I Just Want to be Happy by Leslie Vernick (sneak peek)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Lord, I Just Want to Be Happy

Harvest House Publishers (October 1, 2009)

***Special thanks to David P. Bartlett of Harvest House Publishers for sending me a review copy.***


Leslie Vernick, a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice, has authored numerous books, including The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong. She completed postgraduate work in biblical counseling and cognitive therapy. Leslie and her husband, Howard, have been married more than 30 years and have two grown children.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers (October 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0736919236
ISBN-13: 978-0736919234


Stories and Scripts

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

Epictetus 2

Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.

Dennis Wholey

Janet came into my office upset, anxious to share her latest litany of what was wrong with her life. Her friend Dana hadn’t invited her over last Sunday like Janet had hoped she would, and Janet felt hurt and rejected. Over the course of our counseling, I had learned that most of Janet’s friends didn’t support or love her as faithfully as she wished they would. She hated that she wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, or popular enough to gain the attention from others that she craved. Her job didn’t satisfy her, nor did it pay enough, and the people there weren’t very friendly either.

Janet’s mother also irritated her. She described her mom as too busy living her own life to care that her daughter was a single mom and often needed help with her kids. That prompted me to ask Janet about her church family. She said she didn’t get anything out of the sermons and no one from the Bible study ever invited her out to lunch—so why bother?

Janet wasn’t clinically depressed, but she was miserable with herself, with others, and with life. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Nothing was ever the way she wanted it to be, or the way it should be. “I just want to be happy,” she moaned. “Why can’t God make it easier for me? I hate that life is so hard, so unfair.”

Perhaps your situation isn’t as extreme as Janet’s, but I think many of us can relate to her feelings. Life does disappoint us at times. Others don’t give us the love or attention we want or expect, and as a result we feel angry, hurt, gypped, and sad. We hate that we’re not perfect or popular or powerful or pretty enough to feel confident or attractive or worthy. Jesus’ promise of an abundant life seems hollow. We get stuck living in a mind-set of, If only I were more ___________________ or had more ___________________ , then I’d be happy. Or we tell ourselves, If only ___________________ would change, then I could be happier.

Take a minute and fill in the blanks for yourself. What might you put in? During one session, Janet said, “If only I were more popular and could lose ten pounds, then I’d be happy.” At another session, she said something different: “If only my mother would change and help me out more with my kids, then I’d be happier.”

What about you? Perhaps you tell yourself you’d be happy if only you were more beautiful, talented, or intelligent. Others say they’d be happy if only they had more money, more time, or more energy. You might believe you’d be happier if only you were married instead of single, or married to a different person instead of the one you’re married to. Or maybe you’d rather not be married at all. Still others think that if only they had a baby, or better-behaved children, or a more attentive spouse, or a more prestigious or powerful job, or a bigger house, then they’d finally be happy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making changes when possible and appropriate. But I’ve discovered in my own life, as well as in the lives of people I’ve worked with, that much of our misery is caused by the stories we tell ourselves about how things should be…rather than what actually is.

Unrealistic Expectations

Janet told herself that her unhappiness resulted from not being good enough, thin enough, or pretty enough. She was unhappy because she didn’t make enough money, because people let her down, and because her life was unfair.

But those things weren’t the true source of her suffering. Janet’s misery was much more a result of her unrealistic expectations of herself, life, and others than of her actual life situations. Although she wasn’t aware of it, Janet lived her life out of a mind-set, or way of thinking, that was largely false. She created an internal story line of how things should go—and when they didn’t go the way she thought they should, she felt sorry for herself. For example, she believed life should be easy and fair. When life was hard, she found it impossible to handle her disappointment without falling into self-pity because, after all, life shouldn’t be so hard.

Janet also told herself that people should be nicer to her and that they should be more willing to give of their time and efforts to help her out. She wasn’t aware she did it, but she also scripted out what other people should say, how they should say it, and what they should do for her, especially if they claimed to be Christians. When they failed to follow her script, she felt hurt, disappointed, and angry with them. Not only that, but she also clung to those negative feelings for days, nursing more resentment and hurt.

But perhaps the biggest source of Janet’s unhappiness was her own unrealistic view of herself. She regularly dwelled on her flaws and weaknesses and imagined that others did too. She fantasized she’d be more desirable, lovable, and popular if only she were thinner and more attractive.

In order for Janet to change and experience true happiness, she needs to become aware of the story line and scripts she has made up about herself, life, and others. Then she needs to reevaluate them according to what God says is true, good, and right. In addition, she must learn to handle the painful emotions that come with losses and disappointments in a different way, without falling into her habits of self-pity, resentment, or self-hatred.

You see, whether by nature we tend to look at the glass as half empty or half full, our perceptions determine our inner reality. By nature I am a pessimist, and because of that leaning, I often make up internal stories about the worst things that can happen. When my daughter started to drive, I made up all kinds of stories of dreadful accidents, carjackings, or mechanical failures. (None of which happened, I might add.) When my mammogram results came back suspicious, you can imagine where my mind went. As a result of my thinking habits, I often feel anxious, and my peace and inner sense of well-being vanish.

Optimists can make up some pretty unrealistic stories too. I once watched a man playing blackjack lose $20,000 thinking positively. He told himself (out loud) that this was his lucky day, he was the man, and tonight he’d strike it rich. He allowed his unrealistic story and script of how he wanted things to end to capture his heart, overrule his rational mind, and control his decision-making. (And in chapter 4, we’ll see how a woman named Cheryl continued to believe her fantasy story line of a perfect fiancé—despite evidence to the contrary—only to wake up to an abusive husband.)

In order to learn how to be happier, we need to recognize 1) our internal stories and scripts and then 2) how they create expectations that, when unmet, often lead to foolish decisions as well as feeling anxious, miserable, sad, angry, discouraged, and even depressed.

Core Lies We Believe

There are many story lines and scripts that lead to misery and unhappiness, but the first clue in discovering your particular one is to look for the words should, shouldn’t, ought, supposed to, and deserve and then listen to what comes next. Let’s examine three of the most powerful ones.

“I should be better than I am”

Many people suffer because they fail to live up to their own expectations of themselves. Keith worked three part-time jobs just to put himself through college. He was proud of his accomplishments, but he started getting anxious and discouraged when some of his grades slipped from A’s to B’s and he fell behind in his rent payment. He studied long into the night, often forsaking sleep. He was cranky, exhausted, and definitely not happy.

But when I challenged his schedule, he insisted, “I should be able to handle this.” He refused to accept reality. His self-concept was based on an idealized image of himself, not the truth. Keith is not a god—he is a mere mortal. He has limits. He can’t function at his best with only four hours of sleep. He isn’t able to work three jobs, study all night, sleep adequately, go to college full-time, and get straight A’s in all of his subjects. Yet his expectations that he ought to be able to do it all, and his self-hatred for failing to live up to his idealized image of himself, was great.

People who are perfectionists may have a hard time admitting they actually expect they should be perfect all of the time, but deep down that’s what they want to be. And they grieve deeply when they fail. They can never be happy, because although they might achieve a moment of perfection, it’s unsustainable. Eventually they mess up, can’t do something, aren’t all-knowing, fail, or make a mistake. The internal shame, self-hatred, and self-reproach can be lethal.

Some individuals may not recognize they have unrealistic expectations of themselves, because they don’t expect perfection in every area of their life. For example, Elle wasn’t compulsive about her home, but she obsessed over her physical appearance. Every inch of her body and clothing had to look perfect, or she would beat herself up. “I shouldn’t have eaten dinner last night” or, “I should exercise more, I’m so fat,” she’d moan. She even slept with her makeup on so she would look good in the morning. No one was allowed to see her until she was ready, including her best friend.

Terminally Unique

Cindy failed to live up to her idealized version of the perfect Christian wife and mother. In a moment of sin and passion, she committed adultery with a co-worker. Her sorrow was great, but her repentance shallow. Her grief was not because of her sin against her husband or against God, but because she became small in her own eyes for failing to live up to who she thought she was. “I can’t believe I did that,” Cindy lamented.

“Why is it so hard for you to accept you’re a sinner, just like everyone else?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be like everyone else,” she replied.

“That’s part of your problem,” I gently told her. Much of Cindy’s suffering was because she expected herself to be better than everyone else.

People who believe they should be better than they are can’t be happy, because they are morbidly preoccupied with themselves. They become prideful over their perfection or filled with self-hatred at their flaws.

As with Janet, one particular variation on the I should be better than I am story line is feeling disappointed with one’s self over never being good enough, pretty enough, worthy enough, thin enough, spiritual enough, rich enough, or smart enough. You get the picture. The goal becomes I want to be enough. The question we must ask ourselves is, By whose yardstick will you measure yourself as “good enough”? Inevitably it is one’s own standard, not God’s. Even nonperfectionists like Janet become self-conscious about their limitations, weaknesses, and flaws when they tell themselves that they shouldn’t be that way, or if only they weren’t that way, then they would be happy.

When we live by these scripts, we will never feel happy. We (or someone else) will always find some flaw. Let’s be honest here. Who could ever say that he or she feels good enough in every area of his or her life? Feeling “good enough” is never the answer to lasting happiness. As soon as we feel good enough in one area, there are ten others where we feel insufficient or inadequate.

When we believe we should be better than we are, we become self-focused, self-centered, and self-absorbed. This leads to anxiety and compulsion, not joy and peace. In later chapters, we’ll learn how to accept our not being good enough so we can learn to be happier without having to be perfect.

“I deserve more than I have, and more ______________ means more happiness”

All of us have desires, longings, and wants. Much of the time these longings are legitimate, and there is nothing inherently sinful about them. In the introduction I shared about Francine who wanted a loving husband. She desired a better than average marriage. She wasn’t asking for too much.

Rhonda had different longings. She wanted more power, more impact, and more purpose in her life. These also are good desires. The problem is when they switch from desires to demands, from longings to expectations. Then whatever we get will never be enough because we deserve more. The story line becomes, It’s all about me and all for me. When our legitimate hopes, dreams, or desires move into the category of expectations, they escalate into demands—things we feel entitled to or deserving of. And when the demands aren’t met, we can feel quite miserable.

Janet had many expectations and demands of others that were unhealthy and unrealistic. Again, most of them included the words should or ought. For example, Janet believed that her mother should be a better grandmother. Her friends ought to care more about her needs and feelings than they did. Since she continued to live her internal story as if she were both the main character and the most important one, she felt entitled to other people’s attention and believed they should put her at the top of their priority list. Her needs, her rights, her wants, and her feelings should come first. Janet often told herself, If they really loved me, they would care more about my needs and my feelings. Therefore, when others failed to meet her expectations, she not only felt hurt and angry, she felt unloved.

Janet didn’t just desire her mother to be more attentive and interested in her children, she expected her to be that way. You might argue, What’s wrong with expecting your mother to be a good grandmother and to show interest and love for her grandchildren? Nothing’s wrong with it—except it didn’t line up with the way things really were. Janet’s mother was not that kind of grandmother, and as long as Janet kept expecting she should be, Janet would continue to get hurt and disappointed.

The truth is, no one ever gets everything in life that he or she wants or desires. When we live as if we deserve people’s love and attention all of the time, then we’re not living in reality. Instead of learning how to handle in a mature way the inevitable disappointment of not getting all that we want, we stay miserable.

In addition to our own internal unrealistic expectations, we also live in a culture that encourages people to demand their rights and to feel entitled. After all, we’re worth it! Because of this mind-set, people sometimes make terrible choices. They tell themselves they have the right to be happy and to pursue whatever it takes to be happy, even at the expense of others. I recall a woman I counseled telling me this very thing. She had fallen in love with her boss at work. She was a Christian, yet she believed God wanted her to be happy, and therefore he wouldn’t want her to stay married if she found her true love elsewhere. Despite my fervent warnings to think more carefully, she chose to end her marriage in order to get what she wanted.

When we are the main character of our story line and it is all about us, then we justify pursuing what we think makes us happy, even if it makes those around us (like this woman’s husband and three children) very unhappy. But we will never find true happiness at the expense of others. That will lead only to more heartache.

Whether our expectations are unrealistic, unhealthy, or just unmet, we become unhappy when we believe we’re entitled to have more than we have. Instead of feeling thankful for what we do have, we grumble and complain about what we don’t. The apostle Paul told us that he had discovered the secret of being content, whether he had a lot or a little (Philippians 4:11-12). The secret is surrendering to God’s plan—not getting all your needs, wants, desires, or expectations fulfilled.

“Life should be easy and fair”

When we pine for an easy life, we forfeit a fulfilling life. We become bored and apathetic, not happy. Author Gary Haugen tells a story of going on a trip but missing the adventure. During a camping and hiking vacation to Mount Rainier with his father and brothers, his dad wanted them all to climb the rock formation heading to the summit. Gary felt afraid and asked his father to allow him to stay behind at the visitor’s center where he could watch the videos and read about the wildlife and history of the mountain. After much pleading, his father finally relented. Here’s the rest of Gary’s story:

The visitor’s center was warm and comfortable, with lots of interesting things to watch and read. I devoured the information and explored every corner, and judging by the crowd, it was clearly the place to be. As the afternoon stretched on, however, the massive visitor’s center started to feel awfully small. The warm air felt stuffy, and the stuffed wild animals started to seem just—dead. The inspiring loop videos about extraordinary people who climbed the mountain weren’t as interesting the sixth and seventh times, and they made me wish I could be one of those actually climbing the mountain instead of reading about it. I felt bored, sleepy and small—and I missed my dad. I was totally stuck. Totally safe—but totally stuck.

After the longest afternoon of my ten-year-old life, Dad and my brothers returned flushed with their triumph. Their faces were wet from the snow; they were famished, dehydrated and nursing scrapes from the rocks and ice, but on the long drive home they had something else. They had stories and an unforgettable day with their dad on a great mountain. I, of course, revealed nothing, insisting that it was my favorite day of the whole vacation.

Truth be told—I went on the trip and missed the adventure.

When Jesus tells us that he has come to give us an abundant life, he doesn’t mean a safe and comfortable life, but a meaningful one. He calls us to a purpose beyond pleasing ourselves.

As we’ve already seen, Janet expected life to be easy and fair. She seemed mentally, emotionally, and spiritually unprepared for life’s ordinary bumps and hurdles. Yet Jesus clearly tells us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus warns us that life isn’t easy or fair, and he tells us this so that we can experience peace and find courage in the midst of life’s hardships.

How? You’ll find some specific tools in later chapters, but it starts by seeing things as they really are. Jesus tells us that if our eye is healthy, our whole body will be full of light (Matthew 6:22). Happiness, joy, peace, and an internal sense of well-being are never found in having an easy life or in a life full of possessions, power, or popularity. We only have to look at some of the Hollywood celebrities gracing the news these days to see individuals living an easy life. On the fairness quotient, they have the deck stacked in their favor. They have most of the things we tell ourselves we need to be happy. They are thin, beautiful, rich, popular, powerful, and have lots of possessions. Yet many of them appear purposeless and empty and actually look quite unhappy. These men and women may have pleasure, power, prosperity, and popularity, but they do not have happiness. Never confuse those things with a genuine inner sense of joy, peace, and well-being.

In fact, it is often when life is easy and good, plentiful and prosperous, that God warns us we are in the most danger of losing sight of what brings our soul true delight. When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God warned them,

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

The Adaptation Principle

If we want to increase our capacity for genuine inner happiness, we must begin to debunk our belief that having more _______________, or changes in our life circumstances, will make us significantly happier than we already are. The problem with this thinking is that it feels true. Losing weight, or getting a new job, home, or husband does make us feel happier for a time, but it’s only a temporary fix. After we get what we want, our mind naturally moves on to the next thing that is wrong, or what we want, or what we believe will make us happy.

When Janet finally found a new job that she liked and that paid well, she felt much better. But her newfound happiness lasted about two weeks. Then she was right back where she had been—unhappy with her life, even though she liked her new job. Psychologists have called this the adaptation principle. Over time, we become accustomed to or get used to our new life situation, whether it is better or worse, and eventually return to our normal happiness range.

I’ll Be Happy Forever, Mom!

I remember my son, Ryan, endlessly nagging me for a special toy. He was convinced that if only he had this one gadget, life would be good. He was so persuasive, I believed him. Eager to make him happy, I bought him the toy. He was thrilled. But three days later, I saw it lying under his bed. Now he was pleading for a new plaything he needed to be happy. As adults, often we’re not any different.

The writer of Ecclesiastes discovered this truth much earlier than the psychologists did. This book is written by a king who had an easy life. Most believe it was written by King Solomon, King David’s son with Bathsheba. Solomon had everything he wanted and enjoyed the things our culture promotes as giving us a satisfying life. He had enormous power, whatever pleasure his heart desired, plenty of possessions, a productive life, popularity, and over 700 wives and 300 concubines. Yet in the end, when he looked over everything in his life, it felt empty. Power, possessions, popularity, and prosperity weren’t enough to bring him true happiness.

The king discovered, as we all must if we want to find authentic happiness, that he had wrongly depended on something other than God to give him what only God could give.

Dismantling Our Story Line

To begin the process of learning how to be a happier person, we must see the deception of our internal story line and replace it with the truth. Most of us feel powerless to do this without some outside help. God already knows our weaknesses, and so what he often does to free us of our illusions and delusions is allow disappointment, pain, and suffering into our lives. This gives us the chance to wake up and see what matters most.

Recently, I was talking with Beth, who, like Francine, has been chronically disappointed and unhappy in her marriage. Her expectations for a loving and intimate relationship with her husband have never been met, and her years of heartache over such disappointment were laced with resentment and anger. But through some unexpected health problems, she has begun to wake up to her life and to a deeper walk with God. As a result, she’s appreciating the smaller things and noticing what’s good in her marriage instead of what’s wrong. She has learned to let go of her expectations without deadening her desires for a better relationship. And that’s an important distinction. It’s not that we don’t desire certain things, but we don’t demand them anymore!

“It hasn’t been easy finding this path of joy and contentment,” Beth said. “I can easily slip back into my old resentment and depression. This new road feels as thin as a thread’s width. But I want to learn to stay on it.”

Jesus tells us that the road that leads to life is narrow (Matthew 7:14). I don’t think he is referring merely to eternal life; he’s speaking about the abundant life. The king in Ecclesiastes pursued what he thought was the abundant life in all of his accomplishments, power, possessions, and pleasures. But through the disappointment of success, he realized that even those wonderful things didn’t offer him all he thought they would. He left these final words for us so we might glean understanding into what brings the heart true joy:

Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning.

When people live to be very old, let them rejoice in every day of life. But let them also remember there will be many dark days. Everything still to come is meaningless.

Young people, it is wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do. So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless.

Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky…

Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10; 12:1,2,6,7 nlt)

The book of Ecclesiastes teaches us a powerful lesson. We will always be disappointed with life (or others) when we ask it to do something it wasn’t designed to do. If we can learn to appreciate our life, our marriage, our job, or our family for what they are, then we can experience joy, wonder, and gratitude more readily.

Through Janet’s disappointment with herself, other people, and life, she began to ask some important questions as well as gain some new insights that led her to see Christ, herself, and her life through a new lens. She finally began to grasp that it was her expectations that were causing much of her pain. She realized that when she expected so much from others, life, or even herself, then even the good things she did have or receive, were never good enough. As she surrendered her internal story line, Janet was surprised to discover some peace and happiness even in the midst of painful situations.

The psalmist also felt sad and perplexed over life’s disappointments. But he came to understand through his suffering, that he needed to put his hope in God, not in other things (Psalm 42). Jesus loves us too much to leave us thinking or believing that a rich and meaningful life is found in anything other than loving and serving him. He tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). Another way of saying this is, where our pleasure is, our treasure is also.

Jesus has come to set the captives free. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are captive to the lie that something other than God will bring us happiness and fulfill our longings. When we put our hope in or expect something or someone other than him to fill us and make us happy, he will surely frustrate us. But he doesn’t do it to punish us. He does it to rescue us from our disordered attachments and delusions, and from ourselves. God promises to meet our needs—but what we feel we need, and what we truly need, may be very different.

Our disappointments and sorrows in life are gifts given to help us see things correctly. C.S. Lewis writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  Disappointment can lead us out of illusion and into truth and reality. Sorrow teaches us to let go of our attachments to false or lesser things and to seek after God. True prosperity is never acquired through worldly accomplishments or possessions, but rather through the awareness and ability to live in God’s loving presence.

Peter tells us that suffering teaches us to be done with sin and to live for God’s purposes rather than our own pleasures and evil desires (1 Peter 4:1-5). Why? Because suffering helps us surrender our illusions, desires, and expectations of what life should be so we’re freed to live as God designed us to be (1 Peter 1:6).

Can you begin to let go by surrendering these lies to God, trusting him that he knows what you need to be happy? If you can’t just yet, don’t despair. He will help you. He wants to give you a new script to help you live a new story—a story that will bring more peace, more joy, more love, and more hope to your life.

Questions for

Thought and Discussion

1. How did you relate to Janet? Have you considered that some of your unhappiness may come from unmet expectations of God, others, or life?
2. If you haven’t already, fill in the blanks: “If only I had more __________________ or a better _________________, I’d be happy.” Recall a time when you got what you wanted. How long did your happiness last?
3. What do you think of this observation: “Expectations are longings and desires that have become demands”? What are your demands of God, others, or yourself?
4. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated,
All striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s condition, and is therefore suffering so long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it is always merely the starting point of fresh striving.

How have you experienced this in your own life?

5. Which core lie do you struggle with? How has it affected your happiness levels?
I ought to be more than I am
I deserve to have more than God gave me
Life should be fair

6. Reflect on the author’s statement, “When we believe we should be better than we are, we become self-focused, self-centered, and self-absorbed. This leads to anxiety and compulsion, not joy and peace.” How have you found this to be true in your own life?
7. Read Psalm 73:12-14. Listen to Asaph’s unspoken expectations of God as he surveyed his life and what was going on around him. Why did he feel he deserved better?
8. Discuss the difference between acknowledging the truth and emotionally accepting it. (For example, I know I’m in a difficult marriage, but I’m not okay with it.) Next, review each core lie:
I ought to be more than I am
I deserve to have more than God gave me
Life should be fair

In what ways do you acknowledge the truth throughout this chapter, but still resist emotionally accepting it? How does your refusal to emotionally embrace God’s truth contribute to your unhappiness?

9. Read Acts 14:15. How has disappointment and suffering helped you turn from vain things and turn toward God?
10. Read Psalm 63. What steps can you take to be more satisfied with God and less hungry for other things?
11. Jesus came to set the captives free. How have you been trapped in your stories and scripts? What do you need to surrender in order to experience greater happiness in your life?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Making of the African Queen by Katharine Hepburn

The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind
By Katharine Hepburn
Copyright 1987
Plume - Nonfiction/Memoir
129 pages

I've read the book, by C. S. Forester, and I love the movie. So, when I happened across a tattered copy of The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN by Katharine Hepburn in my local library sale, I snatched it up.

I have Katharine Hepburn's autobiography, Me, and have read bits and pieces of it. Her writing style was oddly fragmented, very stream-of-consciousness if the stream is coming from someone who frequently interrupts her own thoughts. So, it's a little bit of a pain to read, at times, but the book is still quite interesting. Near as I can tell, it was John Huston who went the farthest towards causing Hepburn to "almost lose" her mind. He evaded her questions about the script, costumes, filming, location . . . you name it. The man seems to have been so wrapped up in his own little world that he didn't have time for his stars.

Humphrey Bogart reassured Katharine Hepburn that John Huston was always that way; she might as well just get used to it. And, she seems to have easily gotten into the swing of things, once Hepburn was settled into her little hut on a hill in the jungle. She wasn't happy that the Bogarts' hut was decorated in her favorite colors, but her hut location was perfect and that's what counted. Yes, she was quite picky that way -- a bit on the arrogant side, certainly, but dedicated to her craft.

The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN was a fun, quick read and the book is packed with photographs that give you a good visual of the anecdotes she shares. There's a photo of her lounging on the porch of her jungle hut and another of her washing her hair in a bucket. You get to see how they had to cross the river on rafts in order to reach the set and how she had to change clothing pretty much in view of the entire crew. The book was a fun diversion on a day when nothing else was grabbing my interest.

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
Copyright 2009
Feiwel and Friends - YA/Paranormal/Fantasy
372 pages

Belladonna can see ghosts, which is rather handy since both of her parents are dead. They're still at home and their daily routine is pretty much the same as it was when they were alive. Then, one day, something dreadful happens. The doors to the other side are closing. Before her parents are sucked away with the rest of the ghosts, they make some cryptic remarks about what's happening. And, then they're gone.

It's up to Belladonna to find out what's going on, not only to save her parents but for the sake of every other trapped ghost. With the help of a classmate named Steve, Belladonna goes in search of some answers.

The storyline of Spellbinder is rather complex -- needlessly complex, in my opinion, but I'm not the average fantasy reader and might be a little biased. Ghosts are responsible for preventing accidents and all sorts of other things in this story. There was a lot I liked about it, but it did seem at times that ghosts have more purpose than living people.

In the end, this story just didn't do much for me. I liked the ending. I liked the fact that it's set in Great Britain and I loved the characters -- particularly Steve and Elsie, an Edwardian ghost. But, I found the book an average read. My teenager is currently reading this book, so I'll let you know if he likes it any better than I did.

3/5 - Average storyline, a bit too complex and often confusing. Great characters were what I enjoyed the most. I wouldn't advise anyone not to read Spellbinder. It just wasn't for me.

My thanks to MacMillan for the review copy.

Fidelity (poems) by Grace Paley

Fidelity by Grace Paley
Copyright 2008
Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Poetry
83 pages

I got Fidelity as a Christmas gift from my future daughter-in-law (hence, the ribbon, which I put back on the book after discarding the wrapping paper). Future DIL says it's one of her favorite books and she's given many copies away.

It took me approximately 8-10 poems' worth to become accustomed to Paley's writing style, but then I began to really understand why my future DIL loves her. Paley's reflective at times and sounds a little tired, a bit resigned.

The book was published posthumously, the poems written not long before her death. There's a bit of sharp reality in many of her words; she didn't have long and she knew it. But, at the same time, she managed to inject plenty of humor, wisdom, thoughts about family and friends and how we're tied together, reminiscences about art and creation. She talks about her home territory, which is so far removed from the places I've lived that it seemed a little foreign to me, but I would imagine my future daughter-in-law finds those references homey because she's also from the East Coast.

There's a quote on the back of the book that I think describes the book well:

These poems mark [Paley's] passage (heels dug in, sure she should be more gracious about the whole thing) closer to death. 'I had put my days behind me . . . ,' she writes: 'future was my intention.' So she tries (still learning, still trying to get it right in her eighties) to savor the days. Fidelity is a record of that savoring." --Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

That's such a lovely description. I think there's an elegance to Paley's writing, and yet she's not one to pretty the truth if she has something negative to say about being lonely or old. Fidelity is a thought-provoking wonder and just one more reason I can't wait till my son marries. It will be such fun adding an avid reader to the family.

My thanks to Sarah for a lovely gift that will go on the good shelves.

Elephant a la Mode by T. Roy Nakai

Elephant à la Mode: An Epicurean Guide to Life
By T. Roy Nakai
Copyright 2009
Outskirts Press - Memoir/Personal Growth
222 pages
Link to Amazon that doesn't benefit me

Roy Nakai was born at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during WWII, an American concentration camp. When I read the promo for Elephant à la Mode, which was sent to me by the author, I thought there would be more information in the book about what his family experienced living as American citizens in what amounted to a prison colony. There was actually very little about the camp itself. Of course, Nakai was young enough not to have any memory of his birthplace. But, the theme of the book starts with the camp and continues through the memoir and, indeed, his entire life.

While imprisoned, Roy's parents and those who were with them put their focus on a phrase and a word. "Shikata na gai" means "It cannot be helped." They reminded each other of this fact in the camp, and later Roy's family raised him with that phrase as a reminder that things happen and you just have to live with them or "gaman", which means "to persevere".

I picked up this book thinking I'd take my time with it, the way I usually do because I balance so many books. Instead, I had a bit of trouble putting it down. This particular memoir is about the author's personal challenges and how he's survived them. It's written in a really annoying format, as conversations between Roy and his daughter or Roy and his therapist, but I felt like it was worth working a little to read the book.

You know something awfully traumatic must have occurred for him to end up with the therapist, but he takes his time describing his life. In spite of the fact that the book is awkwardly written, his life story is really quite fascinating and his family history puts a unique spin on what can be a slightly tired genre. He seems like a likable guy, the kind who remains a friend for life but has a tendency to ignore the spouse (he's been married three times), devoted to his child and fond enough of children that he chose to become a pediatric dentist because he liked working with youngsters.

Roy Nakai had been working as a pediatric dentist for 25 years when tragedy ended his career as a dentist and he was forced to reinvent himself in order to survive. And, then an even worse tragedy struck. I'm not sure it's a spoiler, although it's left out of the publicity material, so I'll treat this bit as a spoiler.

Oh, no, not the red letters, again. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT!!!! Read at your own risk! You have been warned.

The second tragedy was the death of his only daughter. I think it would have actually been helpful to know about his daughter's death, simply because the "conversation" format is so clunky. You have to really want to read his story to continue, if you happen to find his choice of presentation uncomfortable or just flat annoying. I really wanted to read his story, so I chose to gaman through the rough writing. And, when I got to the death of his daughter, I must admit I sucked in my breath and cried a little. It was a shock. I think he wanted you to be a little stunned because the point is that, all along, part of his method of getting through tragedy has been to keep a conversation going with his daughter about how important it is to keep on living.

END SPOILER ALERT!!!! You may now run around in circles shouting, "I'm free! I'm free!"

This book was seriously in need of some editing. There are misused and misspelled words and it's not a smooth read because of the conversational format. In general, I tend to avoid reviewing books by Outskirts Press (a self-pub) because of the lack of editing and frequently-poor writing. But, I couldn't bear to pass this one up. And the roughness didn't stop the book from being a really good story with a wonderful theme -- bad things happen and it's your job to keep going, transform yourself if necessary, and move on.

4/5 - I feel obligated to take a point off for the awkward writing and poor editing, but I loved this book. It was just what I needed. The author's tragedies helped me put the loss of my fur buddy into perspective and gave me a mental boost; it helped me get up off the couch. In the end, I understood the reason he chose to write the book as a conversation with his daughter (less so, the bits in which he conversed with his therapist --although she was a part of his healing process) and felt that it was still a bad choice, but the book is so meaningful and poignant that I recommend it.

Just don't come running to me to complain about the format. It's really annoying, but if you're struggling with loss or wondering whether it's worth going on, Roy's story might help you. It helped me. Thank you, Roy. And, my thanks for the review copy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Things I forgot to remember - I do that a lot, actually

A little irony, here, I think. Note the book No More Clutter in the midst of one of my crammed bookshelves:

The sheer quantity of books (not those pictured) that I haven't reviewed is starting to get insane, so I'm going to go ahead and go crazy writing mini-reviews, then I hope I will finally, finally get back to blog-hopping. I've missed reading other folks' posts, but when I did manage to read a few, last week, I found myself utterly speechless. I had nothing whatsoever to say. I'm not so sure I ever make brilliant comments anyway, but at least I can usually manage to type something.

This weekend, I bought a little pile. I'm allegedly on a book-buying ban, but . . . okay, forget it. There's no excuse. I bought the following:

Stealing Heaven - Elizabeth Scott

How Green Was My Valley - Richard Llewellyn (the spacing gods are out to get me, again)

Armageddon in Retrospect - Kurt Vonnegut
If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period - Gennifer Choldenko
I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You - Ally Carter
The Cat Inside - William S. Burroughs
The Printer's Devil - Paul Bajoria

I'm going to remove some of the images of books I've read and need to review from the sidebar, because it's looking a little heavy. But, here's what I have read and not reviewed in recent weeks (for my sanity, I think I'll cross them off as I review):

Custer Survivor - John Koster

Elephant a la Mode - T. Roy Nakai
They Were Just People - Tammeus & Cukierkorn
Fidelity - Grace Paley
First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria - Eve Brown Waite
The Making of the African Queen - Katharine Hepburn
The Cat Inside - William S. Burroughs
I'd Tell You I Love You, etc. - Ally Carter (see list above)
Spellbinder - Helen Stringer
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff

I don't believe I've ever fallen quite so far behind. Oh, well. Things happen. C'est la vie.

My wonderful friend Cindi has asked me to post info about a contest that includes blog columnists and since it's relevant, I agreed. I'm copying her release verbatim, with the exception of the part where I substituted a link for the URL, so write to Cindi at the address noted, if you have any questions:

2010 NATIONAL SOCIETY NEWSPAPER COLUMNISTS CONTEST Print, Online and Blog-Columnists it is Win, Place or Show Time! Dust off your columns from 2009, find the ones that shine and enter the 2010 annual contest. Make this YOUR year for recognition. Submit with the best of the best and go for the gold. Entry forms and contest guidelines are an easy click away at the NSNC web page. You may just have the winning article...but you can't win if you don't play. It's that simple...GOOD LUCK!

For additional information contact: Cynthia Borris, National Society Newspaper Columnist Contest Chair

Yes, Cindi, I really did dream God told me I'm fat. It was not my happiest moment.

I've had very few comments to approve for the last few days, probably because everyone's afraid that I'll regale them with stories of my dearly departed cat (don't worry; if I write about my cats, I'll just write stories about their lives as blog posts and I'll entitle them accordingly, although I don't plan to do so).

Yesterday, I took advantage of not having to reply and updated my sidebar a bit. I've removed the tribute to Dewey, but that doesn't mean I'll ever forget her. I simply felt like my heart needed me to put something even more personal in the sidebar. Yes, of course. The cats. Well, they were great pets.

After I added my kitties, I moved all links that smacked of advertising to the bottom of the sidebar. They're not advertisements. I'm not paid to put them in my sidebar; I added them by choice. But, my blog is meant to be a homey, chatty place and books aren't the only thing it's about. So, I decided to keep my tour group -blog directory - media links but move them to a less prominent position.

My third accomplishment was to finally list and link to the books I've read since 2005 in my sidebar. This is something several people have asked me to do. I don't know how to create tabs, so I decided to just go ahead and set up links. Easy peasy. They're lists by month - title and author only. Just for the heck of it, I tossed in my reads from 2000, as well. Typing up all that info was surprisingly fun. Now, I know when I first read Paul Auster, which year I read that Faulkner "with" my eldest (he pretended to read it), and how the variety of books I've read has changed in recent years. Well, I think it's interesting.

Coming up next: A Brevity Test. I usually fail. This time, I'm determined. We'll see how that works out.

Happy Monday!

Bookfool, only cringing a little at the task before her

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kitty Stuff . . . Cause Nothing Else is Working

I've been wrestling with the same review for two three days and my options at this point seem to be:

1. Print it out and shoot it (with nerf darts, obviously), or
2. Try writing something else and then go back to that uncooperative review, later.

I've decided to go with the latter because I'm not sure where the nerf guns have gone. So . . .

Let's Talk About Important Stuff - Kitty love:

Jason of Moored at Sea has come up with a lovely fund-raising project, the Poor Kitties Memorial Fund. Apparently, Neil Gaiman and I have something in common beyond our love of books. Read that 50 times as this is likely the only time you'll see "Neil Gaiman and I have something in common." And what, you ask, might we have in common? He has a dying, blind kitty. Well, okay, mine has already perished but there have been some grieving cat lovers in Jason's sphere and this spurned him to action. Gaiman's cat is named Zoe.
Update: Neil Gaiman has posted a blog entry about the death of Zoe. She died last night, Sunday, January 24. My condolences to Mr. Gaiman.

What a crap thing to have in common with a fabulous author -- dying/dead blind kitties. But let's just try not to think about that and focus on the good.

Jason decided to hold a charity drive "in memoriam of poor kitties" and Mr. Gaiman suggested The Great Lakes Bengal Rescue as the recipient of said charity for kitties. Alternately, one can donate locally, of course. The idea is to do a kindness for kitties. This is a fundraiser I can get behind. Both our dearly departed kitties, Spooky and Sunshine, were rescues.

Spooky and Sunshine taught me a great deal about life and love. I truly believe our pets give back as much love as they're given and then some. At this point, I still get teary when I look at kittens online, so I think I need to give myself a little time to grieve before we adopt again, but a house without any fur kids just sucks. It's way too quiet. No crunching cereal noises, no meow of hunger, no purring. I'm going to donate. I hope you will, too.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories by Roald Dahl

The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
Copyright 1996
Puffin Books - Fiction/Short Stories
264 pages

The Great Automatic Grammatizator is a collection of Roald Dahl's adult stories specifically gathered to market to young adults. To be honest, I doubt I realized it was marketed to the YA crowd when I bought it because it was one of those books I snatched up at such a bargain price that the manner in which it was classified surely didn't matter. But, I thought the Young Adult classification was rather interesting given the fact that some of the stories seemed awfully adult -- not in a rude way but in the manner of events or situations.

"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat", for example, is a horror story involving a married woman, a lover, and a mink coat. The story tells what happens when Mrs. Bixby, who has had a lengthy affair with a wealthy colonel, gets a beautiful mink coat as a parting gift when he decides to end the affair. You get into Mrs. Bixby's head a bit, which is part of the adultness and creepy factor. She considers her husband a dull man, not exciting or particularly handsome, and certainly less demanding in the bedroom as the years of her marriage and affair have gone by.

There's no way she can justify the acquisition of a fancy mink coat, so she decides to pawn the coat without giving the shop her personal information. She then informs her husband that she's found a pawn ticket with no name on it. He agrees to collect the pawned item for the $50 disbursement listed on the ticket because it must be something of great value -- whatever some unknown person pawned, he assumes it's worth paying $50 for. There's a clever, awful twist that I probably shouldn't mention but . . . here, I'll save you with a spoiler alert, so you can decide whether or not to read on:

SPOILER ALERT - Don't read this spoiler if you plan to read the short story, "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" right away (or you just don't want to know the ending because that would be cheating)!!!! You have been warned!

It turns out Mrs. Bixby's husband, a dentist of moderate means (who certainly couldn't afford such a deliriously high-quality mink coat) has been having an affair of his own. His wife eagerly shows up at his dental practice expecting to find that he's retrieved the coat. Instead, he hands her a hideous mink collar with two little mink heads grasping each other's jaws. And, then the dentist's secretary walks by in a glossy mink coat.

END SPOILER!!! It's safe, you can come out, now.

The situation in that story seems pretty adult to me but, then again, I suppose affairs are just run-of-the-mill to the younger crowd, these days, given what's on TV.

The way Roald Dahl takes ordinary situations and turns them into horror reminds me a bit of Richard Matheson's short stories, such as "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Like Matheson, Dahl's stories begin with a completely ordinary person or situation. Something minor but ominous or telling occurs and then the author keeps ramping up the suspense until the story ends on a truly awful note or with a surprising twist. His stories are creepy, but at the same time Dahl maintains his sense of humor. I do love Dahl's sense of humor. My favorite of his works by far was Going Solo, one of two memoirs he wrote -- at least in part because his real-life anecdotes tend to be really funny. The creepy factor is missing entirely from Going Solo.

I enjoyed The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories, but there was only one story that I considered knock-your-socks-off amazing writing and that was "Katina", the story of a young Greek girl who is adopted by RAF fighters "in the last days of the Greek campaign" of WWII, after her family is killed in the bombing. "Katina" is an incredibly vivid, moving story, unquestionably realistic because Dahl served in the RAF and experienced WWII first-hand. The brutal honesty of the story and its tragic ending combine to make "Katina" both believable and poignant. I think "Katina" is worth the price of the book. It's truly a beautiful piece of writing.

Rating an anthology or collection is so rough. I'd give "Katina" a 5/5, but I think the endings of most of the stories are a little abrupt, if apropos, and people who don't like short stories would tend to dislike this collection. I'm a little more tolerant with short stories than a lot of people and I like Dahl's writing enough that I'd rate it a 3.75/5, overall. The writing is solid, but I didn't enjoy it as much as some collections.

I had to look up anthology vs. collection to figure out if I was using the word "collection" correctly and I happened across the concept of the "omnibus", a word that is totally new to me in the literary sense. Here's the definition I found for the word "omnibus": A volume of reprinted works of a single author or of works related in interest or theme.

And, the definition of "collection": A book of selected writings from various books by an author of the same theme or various themes. e.g. a book of selected short stories from various books by the same author.

Since I don't think the works in The Great Automatic Grammatizator are all thematically related (certainly, there is only one WWII story) and they came from various books by the same author, I'm going with "collection" as the descriptor. Never say I don't keep you informed.

I found a wonderful article written by one of Dahl's daughters in 2005, reminiscing about her father upon the release of a new movie version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was reading a little bit about Dahl and searching for photos when I happened across that article -- probably for a really ridiculous reason: I wanted to see a photo of him standing because I knew he was tall, but I didn't realize he was that tall -- Dahl was 6'6". I never did find a standing photo, partly because I got sidetracked.

While I was bopping around the internet, I also happened across an article about measles written by Roald Dahl. The story was connected to a modern story about a woman in Great Britain who chose not to have her daughter given the "jab" to protect her from measles and whose daughter then ended up in a hospital with a bad case of measles, gasping for breath and unable to have visitors. The article was linked up to Dahl's own story about the death of one of his daughters before measles innoculations became available. Dahl's 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, was recovering from a long battle with the illness, he said, when he handed her some pipe cleaners to play with. Her mind, however, was not connecting with her hands and he became concerned. Within an hour, he said, she was comatose. Within 12 hours, she was dead. The doctors could do nothing to stop the measles-induced version of encephalitis that killed her.

My childhood innoculation against measles "didn't take" and I was very, very sick for several weeks but I had no idea the disease could be deadly, so I found that essay fascinating. Dahl's objective was to encourage British parents to get their children innoculated because the vaccination was not mandatory in Great Britain. The United States had made it mandatory some years prior to the time he wrote the article.

Anyway . . . babble, babble. Look up Roald Dahl and you'll learn all sorts of fascinating things. I'm convinced I would have loved to meet him and, of course, we would have ended up friends for life and la-di-da.

I've spent way too much time goofing around, going on tangential Roald Dahl-related journeys, today, so I'll stop here. I'm not writing my reviews in any sort of order. Maybe next time I'll shoot for brevity and succeed. I don't even know what I'll be writing about. Someone shake me.

Off to do the housework I ignored all day. Happy Thursday!

Bookfool who really should get up off the chair, for crying out loud

Monday, January 18, 2010

Beyond the Night by Joss Ware

Beyond the Night by Joss Ware
Copyright 2010
Avon - Romance/Paranormal
357 pages
Author's website

The cover blurb describes Beyond the Night as paranormal, but I would call it a futuristic/dystopian novel with some paranormal elements. I'm not sure if that's technically a correct description, but Beyond the Night is definitely set in the opposite of a utopian world.

Elliott Drake and several of his friends have awakened from a 50-year nap. They haven't aged; they just mysteriously bypassed 50 years. Elliott and his friends were exploring in a cave when disaster struck. After awakening, they emerged from the cave to find their world had been utterly destroyed. Now, they must survive in a world controlled by dangerous people who have discovered the secret to immortality and who use zombie-like creatures to do their dirty work.

Jade was captured by the immortals but managed to escape. Since her escape, she has changed her identity to protect herself and those she works with. Jade risks her life regularly as she and her cohorts seek to understand their insane new world and find a way to overcome their enemies. When she meets Dr. Drake, she initially distrusts him, but there's something that draws her to him and slowly he gains her confidence.

Elliott has developed a mysterious ability to cure illness or injury, but there's a catch. Not quite the miracle he originally thought it was, Elliott has to take care not to end up inadvertantly hurting people, as well.

Stuck in this new world together, Jade leads Elliott and friends to the town of Envy. Envy has such an interesting background that I don't think I'll share it; it was awfully fun reading the explanation for the name and the city's history. Once they get to Envy, things really start to happen. They've already had to defend themselves from the zombies or gangas. Now, in Envy, they happen across a secretive plot that could destroy what little the people sheltering in Envy have left. As they set out to find answers, they'll face new dangers and discover the secret that led to the world's destruction.

The secret is weird. I'm not sure how else to describe it and I don't want to give anything away. I enjoyed Beyond the Night because of the story's complexities and uniqueness. Joss Ware is a pen name for Colleen Gleason. In Beyond the Night, I recognized Colleen's hallmark - her ability to create a unique world in spite of the fact that she's entered highly-marketable (often "ditto") writing territory. That's what I loved about the book most, the uniqueness of her world.

What I didn't like was the bad language. There is much more truly nasty language than I expected; the author used a few words that I consider completely taboo, parental-advisory terms. I don't like reading them and I wouldn't hand a book that I know contains those words to my kid. The book is also definitely heavier on romance than what I became accustomed to in Colleen's Victoria Gardella vampire series, which might explain the pen name -- to distinguish the two distinctly different styles, one heavier on romance and the other heavier on action.

It's really totally unfair to compare the two series, but it's also difficult not to. I absolutely loved Colleen Gleason's vampire series and found I had to really work to shut off my expectations. In general, I liked Beyond the Night more the further I got into it. A lot happens, although I thought it was a little slow to crank up and there were times I thought the usual miraculous escape from danger was a little bit of a stretch, but I do like action scenes.

I'm not a typical romance reader in that I dislike graphic sex and bad language, so I'm not going to rate Beyond the Night. Instead, I'll say I enjoyed the fact that there was plenty of complexity to Joss Ware's futuristic world; but, since it's heavier on romance, I'd particularly recommend this book to the romance crowd. If you don't mind more emphasis on romance or are willing to overlook that and the bad language, go for it. Having said that, I do want to continue the series.

In other news: I am now so far behind myself that I'm not sure I'll ever catch up with me. Didn't I say I was going to write some mini reviews? I wonder what ever happened to those. Maybe they'll still appear. I make no promises. A few of the books I've read were sent by either a publisher or publicist and they have top priority. If I do write mini-reviews, it'll probably be a good thing, anyway. I've always thought my posts are way too long.

My eldest son helped divert my mind from the cat to other matters, this weekend. Note to son: I'll mail the Dave Ramsey book, tomorrow, and will be happy to generously offer you some excellent hints about how to stretch your grocery money. You can go a long way on a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut-butter, some raw veggies and fruit, for example. Skip the beer and drink tap water. Don't buy frozen or canned food. There. Don't say your mother never does anything for you.

Back to the rest of you . . . What was I saying? Oh, bookish stuff. A lot of us are trying to read more deliberately, this year. I haven't actually read all that much, but it sure seems like I'm enjoying my reading a bit more. Over the weekend, I read The Making of the African Queen by Katherine Hepburn. I love the movie, so I enjoyed reading about the experience. I also finished They Were Just People: Stories of Rescues in Poland During the Holocaust by Tammeus and Cukierkorn. I have a feeling I'll have a lot to say about that book. If you're a fan of WWII books, grab a copy of They Were Just People. It is excellent.

Gotta go. I haven't used that nifty new treadmill for a few days. Enough moping around. It just makes the butt bigger, you know.

Bookfool, who will be watching old Chuck episodes but has watched some of the new season on Hulu and thinks, "Yes! Chuck still rocks!"

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Veracity by Laura Bynum - review delayed and thanks

I was supposed to read and review Veracity by today (Monday, that is), but this was a tear-filled weekend and I sat in front of the TV like a mindless mushroom instead of reading, so the review will be delayed. I've read a whopping 16 pages; I simply couldn't concentrate. However, they were a rocking fine 16 pages, I must say. Veracity is a novel about a dystopian future world in which a pandemic has occurred some 33 years in the past. The time period is around 2045.

There's a new government in the U.S. and all citizens have a "slate" -- a small chip -- imbedded in their necks in such a way that to remove it will slash the carotid artery. Speech is controlled by the slate and the only way to disable it is apparently by forcing oneself to speak a red-listed word. I don't know the name of the heroine, yet (the book is not near me, so I'm just relating what I've read) but she has been "recruited" by some organization outside the city walls in which she lives.

So far, I've really enjoyed what little I've read. I'll try to review Veracity as soon as possible but it's probably going to take me a few days to get back in the swing of things. I had no idea the loss of my sweet Spooky would so thoroughly rock me to my knees. I am grateful beyond measure to those of you who stopped by with hugs and kind words. You sustained me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Love to all,

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rest in Peace, Miss Spooky

You were the sweetest, gentlest cat that ever owned a us. Thanks for many years of love and affection.

Your family

Letters to Darcy by Tracy Ramos (sneak peek)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Letters to Darcy: a mother’s heartfelt letters to her unborn child

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (November 9, 2009)

***Special thanks to Maggie Rowe of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for sending me a review copy.***


Tracy Frisbie Ramos is the mother and home educator of six living children, ages two to eighteen, and is joyfully expecting a new child to join their family in November. Tracy’s mission in life is to serve God by raising godly children who will make a different for His Kingdom on earth. It is Tracy’s hope that the legacy of her seventh child, Darcy Anne, will continue to spread the message that children are a gift from God and that the life of the unborn is sacred and should be protected. She and her husband, Jason, currently live in Magnolia, Texas.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (November 9, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414333846
ISBN-13: 978-1414333847


There comes a time in one’s life when a single decision changes everything. For Tracy and Jason Ramos, that decision was to allow their unborn daughter Darcy Anne to live. Faced with the reality that she was carrying a baby with trisomy 18, Tracy was given the option of ending the pregnancy early, after being assured that her baby was not compatible with life. The Ramoses chose life over death because of their faith in a sovereign God who does all things for His glory. Darcy Anne arrived a few months later as a beautiful bundle of joy, just like the Ramoses’ previous six children.

Although Darcy Anne’s life expectancy was only a few hours, God kept her alive for fifteen amazing days to teach each of us some valuable lessons about life. This gift from God reminded us that life is measured not in days but in daily experiences. Tracy and Jason knew that because their time with Darcy Anne would be short, their memories would have to be long. And so, each hour of Darcy’s life was filled with the joys that most girls have years to enjoy: birthday parties, hugs and kisses, painted toenails, and even a ride on her daddy’s motorcycle. Tracy and Jason treasured each memory with Darcy Anne as if it would be the last.

You are about to read Tracy’s thoughts that were captured in her Web diary. Hundreds were reading about the daily emotions the Ramoses experienced. People who did not know Tracy and Jason began watching a fragile life change the world, one heart at a time. As it turns out, this little four-pound-seven-ounce bundle of joy provided an international audience with a message that should never be forgotten: Each day we live should be for God’s glory, and each of us brings glory to God by the way we live each day.

Tracy and Jason chose life over death for their daughter, and she brought great glory to God as a missionary for life. Those of us who lived this journey with the Ramos family will be forever changed. For those of you who will read of this journey, my hope is that you will see how God has a plan for everything He creates. Darcy Anne is a testimony that life is precious from the moment of conception and that it is given to humankind to fulfill a purpose. Darcy Anne’s purpose was to bring a family together, to unite a church, to remind all of us of how we are to live our lives, regardless of their length.

—Ted Seago

Honored pastor of Darcy Anne Ramos

Grace Community Church

Magnolia, Texas

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

This was one of the most beautiful days of my life. I just found out that I am pregnant. Even though we were not planning on having any more children, God had other plans. I always said that you were our first surprise baby and that you were special because God chose for you to become part of our family. Inside, I was leaping with joy. I saw the plus sign on the pregnancy test, and joy filled my heart. I had felt a void from the decision we made to not have another baby. But God intervened and filled that void. I was overwhelmed with gladness. I waited a week to tell your daddy because I knew he would be shocked. I actually first told your aunt Nekita and then your big sister Ate Brittany.1 I wanted to explode with excitement and tell everyone, but for the first time in your mommy’s life, I showed self-control.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Today was our church’s Valentine’s Day party. We had a great time. I was mostly excited about telling everyone that I was pregnant with you. Darcy, our church really loves babies and got so excited to hear about you. They really were so happy. Daddy even sang me a special song. He forgot the words, but it was still really pretty. He sang “And I Love You So.” Now whenever I hear that song, I will think of you.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

This was my first real scare. I started having crippling pains and bleeding. I just knew that I was going to lose you. I was devastated. I knew that I was given this seventh chance and now it was over. I gave up all hope.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The bleeding continued all night. I decided to stay home from church and rest. The bleeding finally stopped at noon. I was so relieved. I was glad but still very anxious.

Monday, February 25, 2008: First Sonogram

Today, I decided to go to the doctor and have an exam. I wasn’t scheduled for my visit till next week, but since I was having problems, they went ahead and saw me. They did a sonogram and said everything looked good. I even got to see and hear your heartbeat. Never was I happier. You were a fighter from the very beginning, just like Mommy!

I love you, Darcy. I love you so much.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Well, the bleeding started back up. It seems like this is happening again. It only lasts for about twelve hours and stops. This time isn’t as bad as the last. It sure does scare Mommy when this happens. I hope you are okay.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

I decided to stay home again from church. I am very nervous about doing anything strenuous. I want to make sure you are okay.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Today was my first legitimate doctor’s appointment. I got so sick that I threw up everywhere. Don’t worry, Darcy. I think it was food poisoning and not morning sickness (even though I’ve had a lot of that, too). Dr. Ritter was very nice and did not make me endure the exam but rather just talked to me about what to expect and the extra tests I could get if I wanted them. I also had Daddy pull over along the side of the road on our way home to throw up some more. I was very sick.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The bleeding started up again. This seems to be happening once a week, on Saturdays. Maybe it is because I tend to do more on the weekends. I hope that I am not overdoing it. I will try to be more careful on weekends. I have continued to have crippling pains, and they seem to be getting worse. It affects my arms and legs. I love you. I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday. I will ask him what is going on then.

I love you and hope you are all right.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I missed church two Sundays in a row and thought I would go today. I talked to some ladies at church about my symptoms and asked if they could be a sign that something is wrong. But they gave me some advice, and I am going to take it. When I got home, my symptoms got really bad. I got a rash all over my belly, and it itched so much. I am going to my regular doctor tomorrow to see what he says. I hope this is not a result of something being wrong with you. I will pray.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I went to my doctor to see what is wrong with me. He didn’t want to diagnose me and referred me back to my ob-gyn. I guess I will see what he wants me to do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Remember when Mommy said that I was a fighter? Well, I am stubborn, too. I waited till today to go see Dr. Ritter. The pain is too bad to endure anymore. So I went after I had Well, the bleeding started back up. It seems like this is happening again. It only lasts for about twelve hours and stops. This time isn’t as bad as the last. It sure does scare Mommy when this happens. I hope you are okay.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

I decided to stay home again from church. I am very nervous about doing anything strenuous. I want to make sure you are okay.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Today was my first legitimate doctor’s appointment. I got so sick that I threw up everywhere. Don’t worry, Darcy. I think it was food poisoning and not morning sickness (even though I’ve had a lot of that, too). Dr. Ritter was very nice and did not make me endure the exam but rather just talked to me about what to expect and the extra tests I could get if I wanted them. I also had Daddy pull over along the side of the road on our way home to throw up some more. I was very sick.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The bleeding started up again. This seems to be happening once a week, on Saturdays. Maybe it is because I tend to do more on the weekends. I hope that I am not overdoing it. I will try to be more careful on weekends. I have continued to have crippling pains, and they seem to be getting worse. It affects my arms and legs. I love you. I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday. I will ask him what is going on then.

I love you and hope you are all right.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I missed church two Sundays in a row and thought I would go today. I talked to some ladies at church about my symptoms and asked if they could be a sign that something is wrong. But they gave me some advice, and I am going to take it. When I got home, my symptoms got really bad. I got a rash all over my belly, and it itched so much. I am going to my regular doctor tomorrow to see what he says. I hope this is not a result of something being wrong with you. I will pray.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I went to my doctor to see what is wrong with me. He didn’t want to diagnose me and referred me back to my ob-gyn. I guess I will see what he wants me to do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Remember when Mommy said that I was a fighter? Well, I am stubborn, too. I waited till today to go see Dr. Ritter. The pain is too bad to endure anymore. So I went after I had lunch with Daddy. Dr. Ritter prescribed some steroids, and I need to take them. He didn’t want to refer me to an allergist yet, just in case my symptoms cleared up. He did say that it has nothing to do with you and that you are not experiencing any bad side effects from the steroids or my symptoms.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dr. Ritter has cured me. Steroids took all of my symptoms away. I must have been allergic to something. I’ve stopped eating all weird stuff. I hope I stay well and you are okay.

I love you, Darcy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

All of my symptoms have come back with a vengeance. I went back to Dr. Ritter. He is sending me to an allergist. I went to see her, and she gave me more steroids. She said to be careful with them because of the risk of getting gestational diabetes and having a big baby. She also referred me to a rheumatologist. The allergist wants me to make the earliest appointment with the rheumatologist, which is the middle of April. She ordered some blood tests. I will go tomorrow to have blood drawn.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I went to have my blood drawn. Daddy and I have our regular lunch date since it is Thursday.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It is Easter! And Bella gets to share Easter with her birthday. We were going to go to Incredible Pizza, but they were closed. We took her to CiCi’s instead. We will have to go to Incredible Pizza some other time. Isabella’s little secret sis made a special cake for her. It was so pretty and yummy!


Although life at the Ramoses is starting to resemble a somewhat routine pace, life after Darcy has felt as if we are suspended in another reality. Darcy shook our complacency by causing us to reevaluate many of the ways we viewed circumstances and treated people. She compelled us to rely fully on God and to trust in His providence.

It’s true that we experienced new depths of pain and anguish, but as is the case with any life-changing experience, we are forever changed because Darcy accomplished the purpose God had for her coming. Little Darcy led us to love more deeply, to forgive, to have faith, to never limit God’s power, to accept His grace and pass it on, to seek more closeness with God, and to abandon our sinful pasts and move ahead to new beginnings.

Our children Brittany, Isabella, Alexys, Mallorie, Roman, and Bryson learned that living the abundant life is about making the right choices and that the choices they make have temporal and eternal consequences.

God sent Darcy to us to help us heal. This is our new normal.

As for the thousands of family members, friends, and caring strangers from all over the world who visited the Web site, Darcy’s impact on them was profound too. Perhaps the greatest change occurred in the hearts of those who, before reading about Darcy, had already made the choice (and had even set up appointments) to have abortions but later changed their plans. Many have renewed their relationships, not just with the Lord but with their loved ones, especially their children.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.

Isaiah 11:6

I read Letters to Darcy in December. It's extraordinarily poignant. While I think I would have opted to abort a child I'd been told wouldn't survive to birth, there are several cases that Tracy Ramos quotes regarding children who were allegedly not going to survive but who came out just fine. That was Tracy's hope -- maybe she the baby would be all right or they'd find a miracle cure before Darcy arrived. As it was, Darcy's 15 days on earth were a genuine miracle. I admired the author for sticking to her guns, doing what she felt was right, in the face of some pretty strong opposition. The book is a tender portrait of her pregnancy, her fears and hopes, and the baby's short time on earth. It will make you cry. And, maybe it will make you rethink the concept of life and death -- when it begins, when it ends, whether abortion is right or wrong. It's thought-provoking and exhausting, tender and beautiful. Highly recommended.