Wednesday, July 31, 2013

1491 review

The more nonfiction I read, (and by that I mean I just voluntarily read a nonfiction book for about the fifth time ever) the more interested I get. My usual realm of books is fantasy, not reality. However, good fantasy must be informed by fact. So, out of curiosity, I picked up a book I thought could help me get to know an area of history I knew very little about.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann caught my eye in the library. It promised new revelations, and I did learn a lot, though I didn't retain all the names and dates I was probably intended to. I thought at times it moved a little slowly, but that may be because I was taking breaks and reading other things at the same time.

It's more interesting than that sounds, I promise. Mann is an engaging writer, and he goes between reconstructions of ancient world politics, archaeological excavations, and his own personal explorations smoothly to create a varied and interesting narrative. He explained some widely-held misconceptions about the pre-Columbian Americas and showed us how they're probably wrong, but not in a snobby, scholarly way. He takes us on a voyage of discovery. He quotes dozens and dozens of experts, and it looks like he's done his homework.

Well... most of it. Probably all the important homework. But I did catch one detail that made his credibility slip in my mind. In chapter 5, he explains one very old (and now discounted) theory that Native Americans were actually the lost tribes of Israel:
... at that time, according to scripture, the Hebrew tribes had split into two adjacent confederations, the northern kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, and the southern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. After the southern tribes took to behaving sinfully, divine retribution came in the form of Shalmaezer V.... now repenting of their wickedness, the Bible explains, the tribes resolved to "go to a distant land never yet inhabited by man, and there at last be obedient to their laws." 
Having read the Bible before (even took a Hebrew prophets class!), I noticed he had it mixed up: Israel was the northern kingdom, Judah the southern.

Is this terribly relevant to the rest of the book? Probably not. It was one tiny detail, and maybe even an accident. However, as my writing professor has often repeated, one tiny detail wrong can cast doubt on all the rest of your work. It's a pretty simple one, too. I wonder that editors didn't catch it. They're supposed to have people check these sorts of things (or he could have done a Google image search. Or something.).

This error belies the 100-some pages of bibliography, notes, and appendices, however. You be the judge.

I read this book because I like to learn. Aside from just facts and accounts, it gave me a look into the worlds of archaeology and anthropology and the fierce, still ongoing debates about what we've learned really means. It fleshed out a culture that for me still looked like the Indians I learned about in elementary school. Now, I don't imagine pictures -- I imagine people. Living, breathing cultures, rooted in humanity just as much as they are in the mysteries of the past. It was eye-opening. I guess nonfiction will do that for you.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jury of one's peers

In January, I did something I'd never done before. I asked a few people to review/edit a section of my story. It was ten whole chapters, the largest consistent chunk of my novel I'd managed to finish, and I wanted to know if it worked as well as I hoped it did.

I like to claim that I don't care what people think of me, and this is true most of the time. You don't like my clothes? All righty then. You think I'm a bit of a spaz? Justified. But when it comes to the quality of my work, I'm a little less stoic.

When the first person got back to me, I went through several flavors of emotional fluctuation. I was stressed, I was worried, I was irritated, I was hopeful -- and I hadn't even looked at her comments yet. It took me a couple of days to actually work up the courage to go over them. I told myself I didn't have time, that I wanted to be able to sit down and do it all at once. Really, I was procrastinating because I was afraid.

When my curiosity finally overwhelmed my cowardice, I found time to open the document. My stomach twisted into an anxious knot and my body tried to convince me that I should get rid of some nervous energy instead of sitting down and looking at things. I compromised by crouching on my chair. (Really.) I still had enough nervousness that I flew through the first few pages of comments, hardly registering one before I moved on to another. Everything's fine, I kept telling myself. The comments are happy. There is no judgment raining down on me.

After a few minutes of this, I started to sit more normally and read more carefully. I was able to pay attention to the comments and think about how suggested changes would affect my story. I realized that there the commenter made a good point, or that I needed to plant a detail a little earlier here. I was still uncomfortable, but anxiety had given away to excitement. She doesn't think it sucks.

No. She was quite encouraging and helpful. I realized that having other people look at my chapters had accomplished what I hoped it would: giving me new perspective and calling attention to areas that needed work.

When my second commenter got back to me, it was a little easier. And in the months since then, I've had many more opportunities for peer editing. My writing class last semester was pretty much dedicated to it. I was even able to let my mother read my completed third draft with little mortification, and she didn't hate it either (whew). The nervousness is still there, but I can get over it.

About a week ago, I asked for more feedback on a smaller section to help fine-tune viewpoint. Several people responded, and so far I've heard back from two. They helped me realize that I haven't fixed my problem yet. This brings me closer to figuring out how to actually fix it.

It's important to give useful feedback. I love to edit other people's work, but I wonder if some people feel just as nervous as me when they get my comments. Because of the good feedback I've received, I try to keep my edits kind and helpful, but I can think of times where maybe I went overboard, or I had too much to say (which causes sneaky guilt and suspicions of hypocrisy). I can only hope I've kept others' editing experiences as positive as mine have been.

Peer reviewing is tough. The things you say can wreak havoc with others' confidence and creativity. The only rule I've come up with for coping? Relax. You're not on trial.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Forgotten God review

I haven't read too many of the books I put on my to-read list this summer. I want to blame my small-town library that doesn't have the books I planned to read (and charges money for an inter-library loan; I'm still grumbling about that), but I already had some of them. I took one of them home with me from school: Forgotten God, by Francis Chan.

This was assigned reading for the discipleship program I'm in for my second year. (Last year's book was With by Skye Jethani; I recommend all Christians go read it now. Or you can read this one first, if you like.) I'm glad there are people who make disciples of Jesus for a living so they can point me at good books, among other things. I have not read Chan's Crazy Love, but I've heard good things about it. If it's as good as this one, I'll put Crazy Love close to the top of my reading list.

Forgotten God is subtitled "Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit." This intrigued me, because for a while I've had the sneaking suspicion that I was doing just that. How was I supposed to interact with the Holy Spirit? Where was the warm, fuzzy feeling I'd hoped for, expected? Why didn't I feel like I hadn't learned anything about Him in church?

Maybe I didn't get direct answers to those questions, but Chan, in clear, effective language, described what a relationship with the Holy Spirit looks like and why we need it. He put in useful terms things I needed to hear and refreshed my enthusiasm for spiritual discipline.

This is not a book to be read without study or reflection. I know, because I feel like I missed a ton when I read it in bits and pieces over the summer. I'm going to give it another go before I head back to school because I want to absorb everything. Some of the lessons that stood out to me, though this is far from the sum of the book, were these:
  • You can pray to the Holy Spirit. This was something I'd never thought of before.
  • This quote from near the end of the book: "We often choose to face life's issues and circumstances in exactly the same way as someone without the Spirit of God." Food for thought.
  • TRUST the Holy Spirit. This one's really come into play for me the last few days.
Give it a look yourself. There is no Church without the Spirit of God. We shouldn't neglect that.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spirit half empty

Last semester, I was given a devotional/Bible study called Ask to Listen. I went through it because being attuned to the Holy Spirit sounded wonderful, and I hadn't much experienced it at that point. I'm currently reading Francis Chan's Forgotten God, partially because it's required reading and the rest because being attuned to the Holy Spirit sounds wonderful, and I haven't much experienced it at this point.

In my mind's eye, listening to the Holy Spirit looks like receiving a constant stream of messages, little nudges and reminders throughout the day that help me do this, point me in that direction, keep me spiritually "in line." Looking at this picture, though, I'm not sure I should categorize it as mere wishful thinking or just willful misunderstanding. The more I read about being filled with the Spirit, the less it seems to be about the messages we're given.

I'm looking for guidance, but maybe that's not the point. The people I read about don't seem to be seeking words, but seeking to be filled. Take Brother Lawrence, for example, a humble monk who constantly practiced the presence of God:
"My day-to-day life consists of giving God my simple, loving attention. If I am distracted, he calls me back in tones that are supernaturally beautiful.... Sometimes I imagine that I'm a piece of stone, waiting for the sculptor. When I give myself to God this way, He begins sculpting my soul into the perfect image of His beloved Son. At other times, I feel my whole mind and heart being raised up into God's presence, as if, without effort, they had always belonged there.... I want Him to do whatever He pleases with me; all I want is to be completely His."
- Fifth letter of Brother Lawrence
This is what I'm missing. I don't really want to complain about how much I suck, because I did that last week. But I want the Spirit to be evident in my life. I want to do better than just slipping in that I'm Christian in casual conversation with my coworkers. I want to cure my sudden onset of ADD while I'm praying. I want the peace that comes with fully and completely trusting God, or so I've heard. I want more of the Spirit.

I know He's here. He's worked miracles of providence before my eyes. But I still think I'm living with my spiritual glass half empty. Thinking of it as "half full" instead doesn't help.

I want to be Spirit-filled.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

American Gods review

As a writer, reader, and consumer of media, there are certain things I've come to expect from a story. Starts, stops, turning points in specific places, character decisions, final showdowns. Many stories are, to some extent, predictable. That's okay -- these are the things that orient us in the story's world, and within that framework there is room for surprise and intrigue.

And then there are books where I don't have any idea when any of that is coming, but it's seamless and stimulating anyway. Maybe I just need to read more Neil Gaiman and I'll get used to it.

American Gods was gripping, original, and fascinating. To give a basic premise, imagine that all the gods of all the people who ever came to America followed them over. And further imagine that they stayed here, fading, when people stopped believing.

It's not that simple, though. We follow a man named Shadow who travels across the country working for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. We meet the new American gods, beings of information and efficiency, who know that they're just as temporary as the gods who came before them. We feel the tension rising in a country that is undoubtedly America -- but an America in which the dark imaginings of our forebears still live.

Like I said, I could never say what was coming next, even when some of the mysteries began to be revealed. There are even a few mysteries left unanswered, which I liked. However, this book is not for all readers. There's plenty of disturbing, sexual, and violent content. For the most part I think it made sense in context, but it's strong.

I was glad to read a story that didn't play to my expectations. I have previously read Gaiman's Stardust and Coraline, and those are fascinating reads as well. If you're looking for a storyteller who can take you places, Gaiman's your man. But watch out for the gods.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I suck at loving people

I guess the title of this post isn't completely true. I don't suck at loving everybody. Some people make it easy. There are a few people who make it very, very hard. Most people, though, are in the middle, which means I can't blame everything on them -- how I feel about them is up to me.

I've heard many people say that love is an action, not just a feeling. But if you love somebody in deed while at the same time you really wish you could just poke their eyes out, shove them off a cliff, and sprinkle them with shark bait, what does that mean?

I really don't know. I suppose it would be an exercise in self-control, which is a good thing. But that's not really the point.

At college, I don't have a problem getting along with others. There are so many people filled with the love of God I feel that if the world could just see them all at work, every heart would belong to Him. I am drawn to all the people who look like Jesus. Among those people, I feel at my best. With their influence, I have an easier time loving others.

When I was in high school, though, I pretty much kept to myself because I didn't want to talk to anybody. By the time I graduated, I had a few close friends, but often I would hang by myself at social events I had to go to and avoid the ones I didn't. I could be friendly on an individual basis, but on the whole I did not exhibit any sort of love, Godly or no.

I maintain that there's a difference between being introverted and not loving. A few days ago, when I told my younger brother I didn't want to go hang out with people, he actually said, "Read your Bible. We're supposed to love others."

(I used self-control and no shark bait on my brother that day.)

Extroverts can suck at loving others as much as I do. At least I hope so. It just seems unfair otherwise.

There's verse upon verse that tells us to love each other -- each other being Christians, I believe. But we're also supposed to love as Jesus loved, and Jesus loved everybody, in heart and in deed. Even when he wasn't surrounded by people who made it easy for him. Even when he was tired. Even when what's-his-face was being loud and annoying.

What this means for me is that I've got problems when it comes to being like Jesus. Because trying to love someone I don't is like having my eyes poked out, being shoved over a cliff, and sprinkled with shark bait.

And that really sucks.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court review

This was my first experience with Mark Twain. Through what's probably egregious neglect as a reader, I've never read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, and so his style was new to me. It was, to say the least, interesting.

It took me a while to get into A Connecticut Yankee, I think because the story picked up more toward the end. There isn't too much in the way of plot events, problems to overcome, hidden mysteries that become revealed. Rather, our narrator simply tells us things as they come, or advises us of things he set in motion earlier.

Hank Morgan, a factory supervisor from 1890s Connecticut, is suddenly transported to Arthurian England. In a few years, he goes from being a prisoner to be executed to chief minister of the land. He explains this convoluted process as if it's the most natural thing in the world, a plan put into motion through sheer American know-how and ingenuity. It gives you a feel for the man, and that was part of my problem with it -- I couldn't quite tell if I liked Hank Morgan or hated him. I always have a hard time getting through a book if I don't like the protagonist, but in the end he proved to be interesting, entertaining, and very sharp.

There's satire aplenty, and themes of freedom and independence. But it's dark. Twain's wit is through Morgan directed mercilessly against an era we're not used to looking at with such spite. I have a deep fondness for stories of knights and castles and such things; maybe the story was written for people like me, to slap us out of such sentimental nonsense into what, after some thought, appears to be much more like reality. Of course it would be a huge pain to go galloping across the country in full plate armor. And the nobles probably were that terrible to the common people in those days. But then, we're given an image like a knight with a sandwichboard sign advertising ovens, or soap, or a newfangled sewing machine, and we have to laugh.

Whether you like this book or not is really going to depend on what kind of book you usually enjoy. If you do like somewhat older-fashioned books, if you do like satire, if you can handle a fair amount of descriptive noodling before getting down to the meat and bones of the plot -- have at it. From A Connecticut Yankee alone, I can definitely say Twain is a must for any serious reader.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Making Time

I haven't posted about writing much lately. That's because there hasn't been much to tell. Apart from marking up some manuscript pages with red pen and listing some changes for the first few chapters, I haven't done much. This has been gnawing at the back of my mind, and I've been wondering how to be more productive.

The question is, why is that a problem when I only have a part-time job?

When I first went to college, I had a hard time sleeping. Insomnia was really starting to mess with me before I figured out the cure: exhaustion. At school, I got to be busy enough that sleeping as soon as I went to bed wasn't a problem. Now, however, it doesn't seem like enough. I clean hotel rooms during the day. When I get home, my body is tired and sore from kneeling and scrubbing and carrying things. I'm usually tired enough that I don't want to even think about writing. Planning a chapter sounds exhausting. Still, it's a part-time job. There are lots of hours left in the day. And the troubles sleeping still sometimes come creeping back.

That restlessness is starting to bother me. And my lack of progress has been bothering me for a while. So I've decided I'm going to change to make time for my story.

I've claimed to be a morning person before, and now I'm going to prove it. My new goal is to go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at 6. And in the hour and a half before I need to get ready for work, I will write.

Maybe it doesn't sound like much, especially to those who have to wake up that early to work. But it's the act of prioritizing and changing that matters. I'm going to show my body and my mind that I'm serious.

I've often prided myself on being a hard worker. But priding yourself on your abilities should be a red flag for a Christian. I've thought and I've struggled and I've procrastinated, and the only thing I can figure is that I'm supposed to finish my story. If God's given me the ability to write and work, I can finish my novel. And I think I'm supposed to finish it.

And since I've chosen that, it's time to make a change. It's time to cheat my internal clock. It's time to make time.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Same Kind of Different As Me review

This was a random find in the library, though I'd been meaning to read it for a while based on the cool title alone. I was expecting a clever story carefully following the title's theme. It turned out that it wasn't the book I thought it would be -- it was better.

Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (with Lynn Vincent) is a story so good you'd think it's fiction, but it's not. It actually happened that a homeless guy would be best friends with a millionaire art dealer. And the art dealer's wife saw it in a dream. And had a dream bigger than that -- that they would change the city and reach out to the homeless.

Before that, it's about a struggling marriage that God turned around. It's about a sharecropper who stumbled though life until finding peace. We see the broken world that made them both, and then we see how they changed it.

In the whole story, God shines through. He's not plastered on top, like some Christian books try to do. You can see that the events were the work of His hands.

Writing-wise, it's engaging throughout. A strong dialect is used for Denver's point of view, but it doesn't detract from the story. Especially towards the beginning, I was even more eager to read his chapters than Ron's, maybe because his story was so foreign to me.

In retrospect, the only thing I would criticize is the title. The phrase is dropped toward the end of the book, but I didn't see a thematic reason why it would be picked up and put on the cover. The people in the story are very different from each other, but they still connected. Manipulating the words into the title seemed kind of forced. In any case, it got me to pick up the book, so I'll stop complaining.

It's inspiring, engaging, and beautiful. I heartily recommend it to everyone.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Faking it

Internet at my house is being weird, so Sunday's post is a Monday post this week. Sorry, all.

Soon after I turned eighteen, I remember lying on the couch with my head in my mom's lap. I said that I didn't think most adults did that sort of thing. Mom told me that that was okay, and I could put my head on her lap any time. I felt reassured, but for the two and a half years since then, I've had the sneaking feeling that I'm actually not a real adult at all.

My terms for what constitutes a "real adult" are vague, but I know I'm not it. They're responsible and have real jobs and make lots of payments on things. They're good at telling other people what to do. They don't skip places or get excited about seeing bunnies or enjoy coloring (like I do).
But the fact remains that I'm 20 years old. I don't have a car or a house or an apartment. I live with my parents, and will continue to do so until some unknown point after I graduate. I have a job, but it's only part-time, and all I'm doing with it is scraping up the money to go back to school.

I feel like real adults are supposed to be secure. They have a place in the world they've made for themselves. When I think about the future, imagine where I might live or might do, I feel like I can be content anywhere, because those choices about where I was or what I was doing would be mine. But right now, I feel like almost everything I do is to fulfill some requirement of circumstances that are around me. And the things I do that are just me aren't very grown-up at all.

But I like those things. Maybe being me is more important than being an adult right now.

I should figure it all out sometime. Until then, I'm just faking it.