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Books read 2016, books to read 2017

As I look through the books I read in 2016, I note a couple of themes, and I’m thinking I should move away from them. Or maybe not…

Not really meaning to, I read mostly British novels, and mostly post-war or wartime themes. Without much apology, I have had a lifelong fondness for British novels. Maybe that love affair began with AA Milne when I was very young, with the beautiful turn of the phrase, and moving on to Shakespeare and then Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–and all sorts of literature in between.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, O Jerusalem, Justice Hall, A Letter of Mary. The year began with a series of books from Laurie R. King, who takes the retired Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with a young woman. He takes Mary under his wing and trains her. It certainly helps that she is a genius in her own right–would Sherlock bother with someone who wasn’t? The books stay true to the Holmes universe, though at times they get a bit long-winded. King has quite a long series of books, and I made my way through the first five (beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) before deciding to take a break. They are quite good, and I will probably return to them at some point.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hall. Beginning in 1939, this is the story of two sisters in France whose lives take very different turns–one as a member of the Underground, and the other who works to protect her family and the children of Jews around the region. It is dark, hopeful, and devastating. Hall compelled me, all the way to the very end.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Told from the points of view of two children who grow up during World War 2, this is another beautiful and heartbreaking novel. A blind girl’s father constructs a tabletop reproduction of their village so she can learn how to find her way. An orphaned German boy who shows remarkable talent in electronics is conscripted to serve in Hitler’s Youth to detect the source of broadcasts by the Resistance.

Since I usually enjoy British detective novels, I tried the first book in three different series, sort of dipping my toe in the waters. Not every one of my attempts turns out well, but they are always worth a try. A Test of Wills by Charles Todd begins the Ian Rutledge series. Rutledge has returned from serving in the First World War, and now he is trying to settle back into his investigative work with Scotland Yard. The voice of Hamish, a Scotsman, lives in his head and mocks him. The psychological part of this novel was too dark and depressing, but it is understandable, given the darkness of the times. But as the book didn’t leave me satisfied, but rather depressed, I won’t return to the rest of his books.

On to another dismal series of British mystery books: the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Windspear. Maisie lives in the post-World War 1 era as well, and her world is just as depressing as Ian Rutledge’s. The two probably should never meet up and join forces, I’m thinking, because the end product would be simply miserable. So I only read that first book,  Maisie Dobbs, and won’t be moving on to the next.

A little gun-shy, I picked up the next British mystery novel that had been recommended to me: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson. This series begins post-World War 2 with a returning veteran named Hugo Hawksworth. Hugo has been injured in some mysterious manner (which the reader hopes will be revealed at some point–and probably will be connected to some plot or deception we will encounter in a future novel). He is  unable to resume his former position as a detective with Scotland Yard, so he is assigned a somewhat bland desk job in the countryside. But, as most novels go, this does not turn out to be bland drudge-work at all. I liked the novel enough that I picked up the next book, A Question of Inheritance, and it did not disappoint. I’ll pick up the third at some point this year.

Yet another British detective series crossed my desk this year, beginning with A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch. This is the Charles Lenox series, of which there are currently ten novels. Lenox, according to the Amazon description, is a “Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer,” who leaves his armchair to help out his lovely neighbor and good friend, who reports a mysterious death. A decent read, well done, and might be a series to which I’ll return sometime soon.

So on we go to another British mystery novel, one that never fails, is the latest installment in the Flavia DeLuce series: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley. I’ve mentioned these books before on this blog site. Flavia is a 12-year-old genius/chemist/sleuth in post-World War 2 England, who finds herself in one adventure after another. Never mind how strange it is that in a quiet town in the countryside can be visited with so many strange deaths, nor how this young prodigy is always nearby to help solve them. That’s the fun in a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I highly recommend this series (which you need to read in order!).

Another novel that disappointed me was To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It comes highly recommended, and has won awards, but it couldn’t hold my attention. This one is a time-jumping multiple-genre mystery/comedy/sci-fi. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the characters, and the mystery just didn’t interest me.

Okay, enough of British mystery/detective novels for a while; on to other genres.

I was very excited to pick up JK Rowling’s newest work, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, written as a script for a stage show that is currently playing in London. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t satisfy at all. It’s a quick read, but a disappointing one. She tells an interesting story, picking up some 19 years after the final Harry Potter novel ends, but it doesn’t work for me. The Harry Potter universe needs to be magical and quirky. The story she tells here is both, but I fail to see how that can be done adequately on-stage. (On the other hand, I found the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them absolutely delightful, fitting right in to the Harry Potter Universe!)

This was also a year for re-reading, for different reasons, and all of them were worth the time.

First, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding because I taught Logic to an 8th grade nephew. If you haven’t picked them up, or have never read them before, they are both very quick reads but worth some worldview discussions around the dinner table or in a classroom.

Then Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. His allegory is rich and full of myriad points of discussion. Many of my former students had read this as young kids. Why not pick it up again and have an adult discussion about it?

Finally, Harry Potter. It never gets old. And while we are madly packing and cleaning in preparation for a cross-country move, the familiar story pulls me in with a smile.

To read and finish reading in 2017:

Worldview books such as Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey and The Cross of Christ by John Stott. I’m not done with them, but the first is the newest from Pearcey, whose Total Truth is a must-read for Christians wanting to think more “worldviewishly,” a term with which my former students and their parents should be familiar! How do we combat the subtle shift of thought in a post-modern world?  By knowing without a doubt what we believe, and by recognizing counterfeits of supposed biblical doctrine.

The Cross of Christ, our pastor told us, can be used as a devotional. Contemplating the meaning of the cross from a biblical perspective is a refreshing reminder of the central object of our faith: Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and second coming.

While in the midst of revising my textbook, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric, with my oldest son, I’ve picked up two books to study. If you are a student of Rhetoric, you might enjoy them: Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Traditions by George Kennedy, and Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth. Don’t roll your eyes at me–if you didn’t already know I am a geek, then you don’t know me at all!

Others on my to-read list (all recommended by various friends and relations):

  • Troubles by JG Farrell
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
  • Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
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I didn’t need another dad

Jim2aI didn’t need another dad. My dad died when I was 15, and I mourned that loss for years. By the time I was in college, I was doing okay–at least I said so to anyone who asked–and didn’t want another dad. One stepdad had moved in and then out of our lives, and it wasn’t the best experience for anyone concerned. That confirmed that I had been right: I didn’t need another dad.

Married, done with college, another stepdad entered the scene, and I was determined not to like his imposition into our family. But I saw how much he loved my mom, and how he took my teenage sister under his wing. She really needed a firm hand during her rebellious years, and he did a great job. He might be okay for them, I decided. But me, I’m out of the picture.

A couple more years went by, and I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly, with pre-term labor at 30 weeks, I was on bed rest. And the stepdad (who I didn’t need) came to stay with us, to bring me lunch as I lay like a beached whale on the couch. He painted, set up the baby’s room, puttered around in the yard, and made sure I had plenty to eat and drink. I could see how well he might fit into our family.

Then when our son was born, there was Jim, video camera rolling, as proud as if our son was his very own flesh and blood. And as each child was born, there he was again, beaming. He’d already had his own grandchildren, but he was pretty thrilled with the crop of step-grandchildren he was getting from my sisters and me. So maybe he was going to fit in pretty well.

We moved a lot as a young family, and there were my mom and step dad, visiting, playing with the children. Jim and my husband undertook several remodeling projects wherever we lived. He brought a crowbar and hammer and loved every minute. And my husband felt pretty sure he could use a father-in-law like that.

High school and college graduations, and a wedding in our family, would find Jim beaming again, photographing every minute, the happiest grandpa in the room.

Thirty years later, we all gathered to wish Jim a happy 90th birthday. And suddenly I realized that I had needed a dad all along. He had been there, with a hug and a kiss, ready for adventure with the kids, for remodeling with my husband, for a raucous game of cards every evening, with a strong shoulder to lean on in joy or pain. He had been there all along, strong and steady.

He had been the only grandpa our children remembered. He had been the dad my teenage sister needed, and he did it well. He had been a dad to my older sister and me, in ways we didn’t anticipate. He was a father-in-law to Kyle, who loved thinking through home improvement projects while wandering with him through the Home Depot. He’d been our dad.

And on his 90th birthday, with all the family gathered together, we found that we were losing him. He was slipping away. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, to my husband, to our children, and to thank him for every loving thing he did for us. We were thankful that he heard us and responded with a hug, a hand squeeze, a little pat on the arm. We moved him into hospice at home and said goodbye to him, one child and grandchild at a time. What a miraculous gift, that most of us could gather together at the right moment.

I realized why I hadn’t wanted another dad. The pain of losing my own father was so great, it left a huge hole in my heart. No attachment to another dad meant no more great holes in my heart. But Jim snuck in there anyway. And I realized, in spite of myself, that the memory of all those loving years was even worth this sharp, momentary pain of loss right now. We are all the more rich now, because he was our dad. Our grandpa and father-in-law. Mom’s husband.

I love you, Jim. Thanks for being my dad.

James Eitel: husband, father, stepfather, grandpa. 1926-2016

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Moving away from mediocre: Read good books

Kids-sitting-on-booksThe only time I watched “19 Kids and Counting,” that TV show about the Duggars, I nearly choked. My daughter was interested in it, so I sat down with her and turned it on. They are a home school family, and they are Christians, and I will not criticize them too much for any of their choices, because–God bless them–they are doing what they believe God has called them to do, raising that big bunch of kids.

But (you knew there would be a “but, didn’t you?) this one episode had the family visiting a public elementary school and talking to kids about their big family. Essentially they had become ambassadors for homeschooling. A student asked one of the older girls about her favorite book of all time. She smiled and named something that made me groan. Honestly, I don’t remember which book she named, but it was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. When I had looked it up, I found it was some sort of Christian fiction novel that oozes romance, bonnets, and formulaic simplicity. (See my blog on those silly books here.) I had SO wanted to see someone stand up and tell the world that she was a well-read homeschooler by announcing that her favorite book of all time was something like Les Miserables or The Scarlet Letter. Instead, she showed the shallowness of so many parents who just don’t reach beyond their comfort level and challenge their children with excellent literature.

So why the groan? Need you ask? (Please read my post on the need for excellence in home education here.) Let’s think of good literature like we think about food for just a moment. And in many ways, we can do that because literature is food for the brain. Consider what happens when you consume a steady diet of junk food for very long.

fat-kits-eating-mcdonalds

Not very attractive, is it? (Poor kids.) The same can be said about literature. Consuming mushy, senseless literature creates mushy thinking. There is no challenge for the mind to hang on to, no deep thinking to draw upon, no great themes to puzzle over. Mindless reading may be good for a day at the beach, but a steady diet of it will stultify the brain just like empty calories and high sugar content will create sluggish little bodies.

Challenge  your child to read great literature. I have all sorts of good suggestions here. Give your child the wonderful struggle of good over evil, the theme that every conscience dwells on daily. Give them deep subjects to wrestle with, reaching slightly over their age level once in a while. Read to them from the non-abridged versions of classic literature and let their little imaginations soar. Once they get accustomed to a diet of rich literature, that junky, formulaic romance will no longer hold any sway.

Just like a good diet, though, you certainly don’t want to slip into old habits of sugary, fatty nonsense. Fill your bookshelf with classics that fire the imagination. Start them early with great selections from AA Milne, Shel Silverstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lucy Maud Montgomery, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more. Keep them going on that once they can read on their own. When they’re older, tantalize them with JK Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters. And once they have consumed all of this, they are ready for the really big guns: Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and more.

Why challenge their sweet little minds? Why not let them just read what they want? Because, left to their own devices, they will slink away to a corner and eat french fries and chocolate bars all day long. Left to their own devices, they will read Captain Underpants until their minds turn to fat, sweaty mush. Left to their own devices, they are suddenly age 17, wondering why they can’t pass their SAT tests.

Some moms have sweetly told me that while challenging their kids to work hard and well on their schoolwork is a good thing, raising them to be good people in a loving environment is much more important. I will always look those parents in the eye (figuratively, since I am speaking to them from the blogosphere) and remind them that one of the most loving things they can do is to teach their children hard work done well–a skill that will last them a lifetime, no matter what they do in their lives.

See related posts here and here.

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Turning “never” into “whatever”

Can “whatever” really mean “never”? In my case, sadly, it did.

I have always said that I wasn’t meant to do overseas mission trips. That was for someone else. Knowing I had a choice in the matter, I just continued to avoid the topic, happily putting up the funds for other people to serve God in other countries. My health wouldn’t do well “over there,” I said. I have to manage my diet so carefully; it just wouldn’t work.

Yet I made the happy mistake of telling God I would serve him in “whatever.” Beware the whatever, because God will force you to face the real meaning of that word.

If you’re not serious about “whatever,” don’t say it. There’s no place for footnotes or small-print contracts in God’s economy.

I learned the meaning of “whatever” when all my objections got met head-on. Every last protestation was answered, leaving me with nothing more to say than yes. Yes, the meals would be fine. Yes, the expenses will be met. Yes, we have something specific for you to do, that meets your training and education. Yes, we’ve all gone on this trip before and know the ins and outs very well.

My last line of defense, I thought, would be my husband. Surely he would say no; my health couldn’t take the challenge. His words to me were “Well, I guess you’d better get packing then.”

Darn.

So, my heart in my throat, I boarded a plane and joined 40 others–adults and teens–on a trip to Thailand. There we served faith workers and their children, taught workshops in education issues, brought supplies to a village of refugees, and spent time with elementary school children in a Buddhist school, forging relationships.

At the same time we watched a large handful of American teens learn about serving God in all circumstances, learn about leadership, about unity under pressure, and about their own faith. In a foreign country, away from all things familiar, sick and well, in chaos and in peace their limitations were stretched, and so were mine.

God’s “whatever” is bigger than mine. I’ve learned that my fears and protests were focused on myself, while I had continued to say that I wanted to do whatever he asked me to. Finally, I think, he got tired of me saying “whatever” on my own terms. (Some of us take longer to learn lessons than others.)

In a few short, exciting days, God has changed my focus from a small ministry here at home, to a larger sphere of people. Now I have met some of the families we serve at The Potter’s School, who live all over the world, and my heart is moved. These people live in all sorts of circumstances, reaching out to countless people-groups around the world. Yet they have everyday needs, such as wondering how to educate their growing children where they live.

Yes, Lord, I can serve you by serving them. Whatever.

So while I am back home recovering from jet lag and catching up on ungraded homework, I recall the faces of families overseas, and I know this will not be my last trip–if God will let me do “whatever” again sometime.

My willingness to tell God my own limitations reminds me of a passage in Romans, which tells me that God alone is the One who knows what’s best, and why: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (ASV Romans 11:33-36).

Do I know the mind of God, that I can give him counsel on what’s best for me? I just learned that I cannot, and that’s all the better.

If you’re going to say it, let your “whatever” really mean “whatever,” not “never.”

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Cartoon nonsense: non sequitur begs a question

Pooh and Piglet
Pooh and Piglet

 As fallacies go, non sequiturs are pretty well-known. This fallacy, which literally means “does not follow,” leaps from the premise to the conclusion without any substantiation. Thus we draw a conclusion that does not follow from the above premises.

One popular logic textbook by James Nance and Douglas Wilson offers the following example: “God is love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore, Ray Charles is God.” Though perhaps the form of the syllogism looks valid, the conclusion cannot be drawn from these premises.

Here’s a real-life example that just came across my computer screen late last night, and it has me twitching.

This weekend on the popular social network FaceBook, members encourage one another to replace their profile picture with a picture of their favorite cartoon character. Here’s what members tell one another: “Change your profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday (Dec 6) there should be no human faces on FaceBook, but an invasion of memories. This is a campaign to stop violence against children.”

Not only is this a non sequitur, it also evinces a fallacy called “Begging the Question,” or petitio principii. Putting a cartoon character in my FaceBook profile picture, joining the masses who currently follow suit, will stop violence against children? Another faulty logical maneuver is implication: by NOT changing my profile picture to a cartoon character, I have (gasp!) said I condone violence against children.

Grumpy Bear, such a downer

Grumpy Bear, such a downer

While you make faces and accuse me, like Grumpy Bear, of popping that wonderful little red balloon Love Bear holds in his sweet, fuzzy paw, I will challenge you to think carefully how lemmings on a social website will end violence against children by changing their profile picture. It makes me wonder whether I could begin a new campaign to bring the moon closer to earth if we change our profile picture to our favorite snack food. It does not follow!

Remember those chain mail letters you got when you were younger (back before email took over and we were inundated with similar missives promising $50,000 to everyone who added their name to the email and sent it on)? If we just sent out ten letters to friends, then we’d receive some sort of promised benefit. If we broke the chain, bad luck would soon follow.

Even as a child, I knew that was a bunch of hot air and waste of good money on stamps. It was superstitious nonsense. Yet here we are, on the internet, still purveying the same kind of silliness. There’s nothing new under the sun.

It simply does not follow. No social change will come about from posting a picture of my favorite character, not even if 350,000 of my closest friends do the same. “But,” someone argued when a friend bravely pointed out the façade, “we need to consider those less fortunate than ourselves and do something! Raising awareness of an important issue prompts some people to take action. Some may adopt a better parenting style. Others may support an organization that supports kids in distress.”

Really? From changing your profile picture, this will come about? My friend defined the real meat of this fallacy:

What will REALLY help __________? (Insert whatever cause you want to ‘raise awareness’ of.) Is it a color of ribbon that I wear? or changing a picture on a public forum? Those things smack of blowing my own horn for my self-righteousness — to my glory, not to God’s. I need to speak the Law (to convict people of sin) and the Gospel (to tell of Christ’s atoning work on the cross to pay for and forgive sin). That is the ONLY thing that will not only change people’s bad behavior, but give eternal hope and peace with God to both the abused and the abuser.

I agree that there are actions to be taken, love to show, money to be raised, but in the end (and I mean THE END), the One who will help/love/provide/change this world won’t be me.

Truly, what brings about social change? Not some action of my own devising, but the saving act of Jesus Christ. Not some new program by government or in my community or in my church, but the Gospel. It is my great joy in the knowledge of my salvation—unearned through no act of mine but solely through the grace of God—that compels me to step outside and help others, carrying out the Great Commission.

One more thought comes to mind, about acts done publicly “to make our world a better place,” like stopping violence against children. Such boasting is a form of self-righteousness. Matthew 6:1-4 reads, 

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

Lest you argue that I’ve gone off the deep end in searching for such profound meaning in a cartoon character, I will remind you that following a trend such as this is just that: a trend, not a promise to end world hunger or AIDS or violence against children. It has no meaning; it is mere symbol.

 Change your FaceBook profile picture—go ahead! Just don’t try to tell yourself your act is doing anything but making people smile when they associate a cartoon character with your name. It just does not follow that this will cause great social change in this world—don’t fool yourself.

Here’s an interesting commentary on the above passage from Matthew 6: http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Sermon/sermon_22.htm

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