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Books–and Movies–from 2019

I can’t talk about books I read this year without also telling you what I recommend from the list of movies of 2019. I guess since my two sons each write for movie review sites (The Next Best Picture and Ready Steady Cut),  as well as hosting podcasts (The Screeners Podcast and Geek Card Check), and because they spent Christmas time talking about their favorites, it’s fresh on my mind.

Books first:

My goal was to read a book a week. I read half of that. I have no excuses! But maybe if I have a goal of two books a week for 2020… Well, we’ll see.

Remember that I told you I am an eclectic reader. History, biography, fantasy, science fiction, mystery thriller–just give me something well written. Also it doesn’t hurt if it is also in a British setting; I’m an anglophile.

History:

  • Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. The account of the tragic lives of the last Russian tsar and his family. The royal family were victims of the Bolshevik revolution in the early 20th century, but they were also trapped by their own refusal to recognize that their people cried to be released from the feudal bondage from which the rest of Europe had departed.
  • Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury. Having just finished Nicholas and Alexandra, I wanted to take a look at the progeny of Britain’s Queen Victoria. An astounding number of her descendants sat on or near the thrones of many European countries in the 19th and 20th century, including Russia’s Alexandra. Many even found themselves on opposite sides in World War 1.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. This is the story of the development of the FBI in the US. In this department’s genesis, investigators find themselves racing to discover the killer of many members of a Native American tribe in Oklahoma because of the money they were set to inherit from property and mining rights. Since my own grandmother was born and raised in that vicinity, I was fascinated by the intrigue. This is a story well-told.
  • Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. I’ve known that this was a great story, and that it spawned a miniseries, but I never took the time to read it. So my husband and I, driving to see family, listened to this book. It’s compelling, grim, inspiring.

Theology:

  • The Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer. My Bible study uses this book for 2019-2020. It’s a small book with short, bite-sized discussions about the nature of God. If your Bible study is interested in using it, please let me know and I’ll send you the study notes.
  • Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by RC Sproul. I used this book to supplement our reading of Tozer’s book. These chapters are small–around two pages for each attribute of God. So you can imagine it can’t go terribly deep. It makes an excellent companion to Tozer’s book, though.

General Fiction:

  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This was probably the most delightful book I’ve read in quite a few years. A Russian aristocrat is “imprisoned” for life in a hotel in Moscow, never to set foot outside. This is a better alternative to what many of his social circle received at the hands of the Communists, so he makes the best of his situation. Every character is perfectly depicted; I didn’t want the book to end. Up through the very last page, this book had me entranced. It’s what prompted me to read Nicholas and Alexandra, just to get a feel of the setting and of the people.
  • Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley. If you’ve read my reviews of the past few years, you’ll know that I love this series of books. They are like dessert: delightful, funny, and sweet. This is the ongoing story of Flavia de Luce, a 12-year-old genius living in the huge but run-down ancestral home of her family in post-World War 2 England. She loves to solve mysteries and also enjoys mixing up the occasional poison in her great-great uncle’s laboratory. If you haven’t read these, drop what you’re reading and pick up the first book of the series, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. If you have to ask why the books have strange titles, you’re not as smart as Flavia, and she’d tell you that herself.
  • Tidelands by Phillipa Gregory. This is the first of a new series by the author of The Other Boleyn Girl. Her characters are portrayed beautifully, and she has researched the time period  well (Tidelands is mid-17th century). Her books can get a bit racy. This one isn’t too bad.

 

Mystery/Intrigue:

  • I needed to catch up on many of the John Grisham books I’ve not read. Each one is rewarding. How he manages to come up with fresh plots and characters, I have no idea, but he depicts his characters so well and keeps you guessing until the last. I’ll recommend all of these to you:

The Litigators
The Broker
The Last Juror
The Racketeer
The Reckoning

  • The Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci. This author is prolific. He’s got several series of books, including a fantasy series. He must never sleep! Anyway, this is the start of a new series that promises some interesting plots set in the American Southwest.
  • I binged on a TV series called Shetland (remember I love nearly anything British), so I decided to read the books on which the show is based. Ann Cleeves writes them, as well as another series on which the TV show Vera is based. Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Raven Black
White Nights
Red Bones
Blue Lightning

 

Re-reads:

  • The Lord of the Rings  trilogy by JRR Tolkien. If it’s been a few years since you read it (and DON’T tell me you’ve never read it!), I recommend it to you. Great books invite repeated readings. This is very nearly a perfect story.
  • Another series that invites frequent re-reading is Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I re-read the first two toward the end of 2019. On to the next five!

Science Fiction/Fantasy:

  • The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary R. Kowal. This is Hidden Figures meets The Martian. Such good books! This is an alternate history book set in the 1960s, in which a meteor devastates the Earth and they need to rush the developing space program in order to establish a new colony of survivors on Mars before the Earth succumbs to a new Ice Age. Very well written, with a woman as the scientist who plays a key role as “calculator”–human mathematician–and also longs to be one of the astronauts who goes to Mars..
  • Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. This is the first in a new series by this prolific author. I have liked a couple of his other series, but not all of them, but this one was quite good. A young woman dreams of becoming a pilot like her father, fighting an alien race that threatens the planet from just beyond the planet’s atmosphere. The main character is brilliantly depicted, and I look forward to the next volume to come later this year.

Finally, books waiting in my queue for 2020:

  • The Guardians by John Grisham
  • The New World, Volume 2 of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People. I read the first volume a couple years ago.
  • Dead Water by Ann Cleeves
  • Star Sight by Brandon Sanderson
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (re-read)
  • Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller
  • The Gown by Jennifer Robson
  • Saving Truth by Abdu Murray
  • The 36-Hour Day by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins, a guide for those caring for people who have Alzheimer and other dementia diseases. My sisters and I are watching our mother unravel, and it’s heartbreaking, and I need to know more.
  • Also I received The Book of Common Prayer for Christmas. I will use it during my quiet times, to supplement the Scripture I read every day. I’m looking forward to reading this more than all the other books on any list!

 

And now I can give you my list of movies from 2019. My top favorites are listed first, but the rest have no particular order.

  • Yesterday: Maybe one of the top films of the year for me. Drop what you’re doing and watch it.
  • Little Women: Beautifully portrayed in a unique manner that really works. I need to re-read the book!
  • JoJo Rabbit: This was a complete surprise to me. The subject might seem off-putting: it’s about a little boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. But wait! Go see it! It is funny and sweet and emotional, very much worth your time. It sits in my top favorites list.
  • It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Such a good movie. One of my top favorites. I just re-watched it and love it even more. Sweet, honest, evocative. I hope Tom Hanks earns an Oscar for it.
  • Knives Out: This is on my favorites list. Hilarious. Well done who-dunnit film you should see.
  • Honey Boy: This is harsh and gritty, devastating and honest. Shia LeBeouf wrote this autobiographical script and plays his father. Give yourself a few minutes to digest it once the movie’s over. So well done. This makes it to my list of favorites.
  • Avengers Endgame: You have to see the Avengers movies in order, and this one follows nicely but (spoiler alert) kills off a character I will miss terribly.
  • The Farewell: Sweet and honest, could be emotional but pulls back from the edge nicely.
  • Toy Story 4: Pretty good, but the best was #1.
  • Captain Marvel: This is an Avengers movie, so read what I said above about Endgame. Well done!
  • Apollo 11: The documentary. It’s a must-watch for everyone.
  • Shazam: Nope. Waste of time.
  • Aladdin: Will Smith’s genie was great, but for the most part this was a yawner.
  • Late Night: Funny and sweet story of a talk show host facing dwindling audiences and finally decides she needs to make some changes–not just in the show, but also in herself.
  • Missing Link: Good animation but predictable story line.
  • Ford v Ferrari: Another sweet, funny movie, well done.
  • 1917: Well done. Non-stop action, gritty, depicting the horrors of that war in a new perspective.
  • The Aeronauts: Not on my favorites list but interesting.
  • They Shall Not Grow Old: On the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, this film relies solely on real film footage and old recordings of the voices of British soldiers to tell the tale. It’s not for everyone, but if you like documentaries, you should watch this.
  • Star Wars Rise of Skywalker: Honestly, my husband and I didn’t like this very much, which scandalized our kids. So we went again (yes, I know…), and on second viewing it came together better for us. Not my favorite Star Wars film, but it was okay. (Sorry guys!)

Now let me hear from you! What books and movies are on your lists?

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Filed under Literature, Uncategorized

An Attack on Pro-Life Governor Aids the Pro-Life Cause

Jim Carrey on AbortionAnti-Life actor-turned-cartoonist Jim Carrey scored a major point–for his opponents. Without meaning to, his pictorial depiction of a late-term abortion is disgustingly accurate, but it doesn’t help his cause.

He depicts the governor of Alabama being suctioned out of a womb, using a late-term-abortion technique of a powerful suction that quite literally sticks a needle into the skull of an unborn baby and sucks the brain, and all living material, out of the mother’s womb.

This could be laughable if it weren’t so heinous. Did Carrey stop to think twice about the truth behind his cartoon, or was he so bent on bloodying his opponents that he just dashed the cartoon out in a moment of creative inspiration? You be the judge: does this help or harm the pro-abortion argument?

 

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Filed under Biblical Worldview, Propaganda, Rhetoric, Uncategorized

My 2018 booklist: picking up more history

…and a helpful must-read list for Christians who want to study their faith

Last year’s list of books highlighted the theme of how eclectic a reader I’ve become. This year is no different.

I’ve wanted to pick up certain genres “once I’m retired,” and finally into my third year of retirement I’m beginning to blow the dust off that list. British history fascinates me, and I’ve been reading British lit for most of my life. Heck, my degree is in British lit, so no surprises there. So in addition to sticking with my penchant for all novels British, I’ve begun to pick up history books on that subject.

Winston Churchill wrote an enormous, 4-volume History of the English-Speaking People, completed in 1956, and I’ve always been curious about it. The first volume, Birth of Britain, spans from the earliest days of Roman occupation and ends after the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century. For such a heavy subject, this is surprisingly readable and interesting. I’ll be picking up the next volumes in the coming year: Volume 2–New World, Volume 3–Age of Revolution, and Volume 4–Great Democracies. The last volume finishes right before the first World War. Churchill mostly focuses on the political and economical developments in this first volume.

Along that theme, I also read The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, documenting the royal family spanning from 1066 to the late-15th century when the Tudors rose to power. (Not coincidentally, this spans nearly the same time period as the first Churchill volume!) I had attempted a book on this same subject by Thomas Costain and couldn’t slog through it, even though I do like Costain. Jones’s book, on the other hand, was a smooth and compelling narration from beginning to end. (I’ve added a few more of his books to my to-read list.)

A  more modern British history book, Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, follows the story of a most unlikely spy during World War 2. Eddie Chapman, a con man serving a sentence for numerous petty crimes, ends up a most valuable double agent. A frustratingly narcissistic thief, always hungry for the next con and/or the next woman, leads such a complicated double life that neither side–German or Allied–can really be sure of his alliance. This reads like a James Bond novel, and I’d love to see it made into a movie.

So historical survey aside, I hope you’re ready for my seriously eclectic reading list from 2018. You are welcome to recommend more!

First, a report on the books I promised myself I would read in 2018, taken from my 2017 reading list. I just could NOT get into several of these books!

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This was going to be my summer-by-the-pool read, since it is in paperback and therefore safer to take to the pool than my iPad, on which I do most of my reading. Unfortunately we didn’t have much summer by the pool, because our sky was filled with ash and smoke from early-July through November, so no pool reading. (We live in Northern California, just a few miles from where the Carr fire started. We were evacuated for 7 days, but thanks to the heroic efforts of first responders, our neighborhood still stands.) You might say that this is not an excuse, but I’m using it anyway.
  • Rooster Bar by John Grisham. A very good read, building excitement and intrigue as he tells the story of a trio of law school students who go off the reservation and try to con their school.
  • The Whistler by John Grisham. This one follows an investigator for a board of Judicial Conduct, who finds herself looking into a judge who gets wealthy off of the bribes of a Native American-run casino. Her investigation turns deadly, and the story is a fast-paced race to find the truth before the judge disappears with her fortune.
  • The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro. I just couldn’t get into this one. I was told it was beautiful, but it just didn’t capture me.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro. Tried this one as well. What’s wrong with me?
  • The Conquering Family: The Pageant of England, Volume 1 by Thomas Costain. As I said earlier, this was too dry, so I picked up Dan Jones’s history instead.
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. Another one that just didn’t capture my attention. I’ve read many delightful British mystery novels, but I couldn’t get into this.
  • Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson. I love Sanderson’s fantasy novels. His Mistborn Trilogy and Stormlight Archives held me riveted to the very last pages. And then there are some fantasy books in his collections that I just didn’t have the patience to endure. This one, I felt, needed me to go back and re-read everything else just to understand the first chapter. Too many characters, too much happening all at once.
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. Ditto.
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki. The true story from Austria-Hungary of two sisters who traveled to the palace of Emperor Franz Joseph to fulfill the betrothal of the older sister to the emperor. Unfortunately the younger sister, Elisabeth, was the one who fell in love and married him. If it hadn’t been a true story, I would not have believed the events that followed. The emperor’s shrew of a mother took every opportunity to rule the couple’s lives, including taking away their babies–literally from the birthing room–to raise them herself, claiming that Elisabeth was not a fit mother. The book was well-written (enough to make her readers angry at the dragon-lady and at the emperor’s inability to stand up to her. I’m still seeing red).

Now follows the list of also-read for 2018. (Not sure I want to tell you what’s on my 2019 list since I am embarrassed that I didn’t get through my to-read list of 2018.)

Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir, author of The Martian, which I enjoyed a couple of years ago. My one (very minor) complaint about The Martian was its exhausting use of physics, so I wondered if Artemis would be the same. Thankfully, it’s not! There’s still plenty to keep the geeks engaged, but this one was a little less…physics-focused (read: more dumbed-down for people like me). This takes place on the moon, where a city called Artemis has been established. Great protagonist, wonderfully crafted supporting cast. If you like Sci-Fi, pick it up. And listen to it on Audible if you can. The reader was absolutely perfect.
  • Skyward by Branden Sanderson. I mentioned above that I couldn’t get into a couple of Sanderson’s novels. For me, he is hit-or-miss. But this one is fantastic. Humans in a world where they escaped a devastating war, living underground and building spacecraft so they can fight the aliens who threaten to destroy them all. The protagonist is a young woman who wants to be trained as a pilot/fighter, not just because she wants to save her people, but also because her father was said to have cut and run during battle, and she is compelled to get out from under the disgrace she feels as the daughter of a coward (and really not willing to believe that he was a coward). Well done, exciting, great characters, a must-read.

Intrigue and Mystery:

  • Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci. Riveting adventure of an FBI investigator who mans a one-man (one-woman in this case) office near the Grand Canyon. She’s a compelling character with a dark history. The story is well-told (like most of Baldacci’s novels) and gripping. This looks to be a new series by Baldacci, so I’m keeping an eye on his upcoming books.
  • The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Written by the author of The Historian, a tale of Dracula, this dark, mysterious novel takes its readers to Bulgaria, where a young American woman has come to start a new life, escape her demons, and find adventure. The slow-moving book didn’t capture me at first, but the two principle characters are compelling. You will wonder about them both through the entire book. I recommend it.
  • Camino Island by John Grisham. As always, I thoroughly enjoy Grisham’s novels. For some reason I stopped reading him a few years back, so I have a treasure trove of novels to make up. This centers around a rare, expensive book heist. While the main characters are not his best, the book is still fun and satisfying.
  • The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley. This is a novella from the author I have loved for a few years now. Bradley’s main character, Flavia DeLuce, is a precocious, genius 12-year-old in post-war Britain who solves mysteries. Yes, this is probably categorized as a YA (Young Adult) novel, but don’t let that keep you from picking up Bradley’s first book in the series, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is hugely entertaining.

Theology/Bible Study

I never felt like I had the time to do some more in-depth studies while I was a teacher. I’m so grateful to have the time now. None of these books ever take the place of daily Bible-reading, which I urge you to do. These books supplement the study of the Bible. Some study books become more about me-me-me, so be careful to discern the intent of the writer.

  • The “Be” books by Warren W. Wiersbe. He wrote in-depth commentary on books in the Bible. If you’ve decided to study, either in a group or on your own, these are great help and insightful aides for further study. In the past year we have read Be Faithful (on 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) and Be Mature (on the book of James) in our small group study.
  • Women of the Word by Jen Wilken. If you know me well, you might see me resisting a twitch or two when considering Bible study books written just for women. I won’t get started on that rabbit trail for now. But wanting to take the women in our church’s Bible study group into examinating of books of the Bible, rather than the self-focused study books used by many other groups, a friend recommended this book as a starting point. I highly recommend it to you. This book tells us the WHY and the HOW of Bible study, then launches us out of our nest to go study books of the Bible on our own. Having finished it, we are now studying the book of Colossians–one of my favorites. If you’re interested in seeing the study questions I’ve put together, please let me know!
  • Westminster Confession of Faith. I recommend every believer to read this at least once, with a Bible open. This is from the description on Amazon:

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a Reformed confession of faith, in the Calvinist theological tradition. Although drawn up by the 1646 Westminster Assembly, largely of the Church of England, it became and remains the ‘subordinate standard’ of doctrine in the Church of Scotland, and has been influential within Presbyterian churches worldwide. In 1643, the English Parliament called upon “learned, godly and judicious Divines,” to meet at Westminster Abbey in order to provide advice on issues of worship, doctrine, government and discipline of the Church of England. Their meetings, over a period of five years, produced the confession of faith, as well as a Larger Catechism and a Shorter Catechism. For more than three centuries, various churches around the world have adopted the confession and the catechisms as their standards of doctrine, subordinate to the Bible.

This is a study of theology and doctrine. If you are a believer, you should be able to defend your faith, knowing why you believe what you believe. Find the version of the Confession that is heavily footnoted with scripture references. I say this because anyone can make a list of beliefs, but not ground them thoroughly in Scripture. I want to see what the “divines” wrote, but I want to know what the Bible says about it. Please don’t try understanding who God is, what He has done, and what your response should be, without finding it in the Bible. As the last sentence of the description above says, this Confession is “subordinate to the Bible,” as should all your Bible studies should be.

Along that note, add a few more helpful sources to your library:

  • Luther’s Small Catechism
  • The Heidelburg Catechism
  • The Book of Concord

And these brief, beautiful books by Martin Luther:

  • On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
  • The Bondage of the Will
  • Concerning Liberty

And by Augustine: Confessions 

Finally, I want to hear from you about your booklists. What did you love reading in 2018?

And would you like my classic reading list? I’ll be happy to send it to you.

Oh! And if you’d like more recommendations regarding biblical worldview and Bible study, please ask!

Now get reading!

 

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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Literature, Uncategorized

Watch your language when you write

angrymobSeveral years ago I was invited to address a group of Christian leaders in Canada, about church writing groups and the need for Christians to write in a compelling manner in whatever marketplace writers may find themselves. My aim was to teach about worldview and about including God’s word in reaching a secular audience. (Before you read further, in my defense I will say that I had previously given this same talk to several different Christian audiences.)

I began to make a point about how your harsh words and insensitive writing will polarize an audience before even reaching your main point. Using a letter to the editor I had found, I began reading it aloud so they could hear a harsh, insensitive writer spouting venom about homosexuals. My second step was to dig into the letter together with my audience so that we could find a more appropriate way to make a point.

I’ll admit to the irony of what happened next.

Before I could finish reading the offensive letter out loud, a quarter of my audience had stood, turned their backs, and exited the room.

What could I have done differently? I warned them, up front, that this would be something we could–we should–all learn to do better. Perhaps I should have brought up my main points earlier on, so they could see that I myself intended no insult. Before planning my talk, I should have asked some questions of the conference organizers, in the hope of learning more about the attendees.

It has always been my policy to remember first what Paul instructed to his readers–and what I was going to teach my audience–to do:  “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (NASB Colossians 4:5-6). In this case, my message failed to reach many people in my audience because I didn’t understand how to “respond to each person.” 

Consider, though, that you can’t always anticipate how each audience member will react. Better to hold on to the truth than to water down your message.

Think about who your audience is: who reads your discourse or sits in your audience? Think about them and write so that they can understand.

This means you need to evaluate–or maybe anticipate–your audience before you write. Now, if you are a Rhetoric student, your audience is not so vast:

  • Your teacher
  • Your parents, who will proofread
  • Your classmates

Or maybe you have a larger audience:

  • Readers of your blog or other social media
  • Readers of your letter to an editor
  • Your youth group
  • Classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents at your school–perhaps in a graduation assembly or thesis defense

Perhaps you have a passionate response to something in the news, or you want to join a demonstration and make your voice heard. Who will be that audience?

Most importantly, you want to craft a speech or discourse in the best light so that your audience will be moved to take action. And alongside of that, you must keep in mind WHO your audience is, and be sure to write so that they understand what you’ve said.

In the situation above, what could I have done differently? Before I read aloud that offensive letter to the editor, I DID tell them what they were going to hear and that I wanted to work with them on less strident language. What can I conclude from their hasty departure? Either they didn’t hear my introduction, or they just couldn’t stomach what I was reading out loud. It’s hard to know now. Something about the subject caused them to shut down and walk off.

This is bound to happen sometimes. If we’re speaking the truth in love, at times it won’t matter that you have the best intentions. Truth offends. Often, though, we need to:

  1. Observe who we are trying to reach,
  2. Review what we’re going to say, and
  3. Commit our words and our presentation to the Lord, asking him for wisdom.

In his instructions to the faithful in Colossae, Paul writes a beautiful passage on how to speak with others both inside and outside of the church:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV Colossians 3:12-17, emphasis added)
Be that salt and light to your audience, whoever they are. Speak the truth in love. Have compassion for the lost. Put on love.

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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Rhetoric, Uncategorized, Writing

The Style of Good Rhetoric

Aristotle classified five “canons” of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Our own course of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is also divided in the same manner.

Style arrives midway through our course with good reason. Invention–the method of discovering what to write about and how to prove our point, and Arrangement–deciding how to argue and in what order it will happen, provide us with a strong foundation. We might call it the “bones” of an argument.

Once we have 1) arrived at our arguments and 2) arranged them effectively, then we must 3) skillfully and artfully weave our words together in a pleasing, clear, compelling manner. Consider this the clothing that covers the flesh and bones of your argument.

Skillful writing:

  • Uses proper grammar.
  • Chooses the right word for the right meaning. Vague writing will inevitably confuse the audience.
  • Finds compelling ways to paint a word picture in the mind of the audience. One homeschool writing curriculum calls it “dressing up” your writing.
  • Is not redundant: it does not repeat itself retelling in a repetitious manner. (Got it?)

Aristotle uses a bit of sarcasm when discussing what seems to be common sense: if you want to persuade, do not be ambiguous “unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something” (Rhetoric Book 3). Your audience might be momentarily charmed by clever words, but they can detect specious reasoning and a thin façade of argumentation.

Think about your favorite writers. Why do you love to read what they write? They probably weave together a great story that keeps you engaged, make characters come to life, hold you in suspense, make you love the protagonist and hate his enemy. I agree with all of that, and I’ll add another quality, because I love words: the best authors paint an engaging word picture that might make me pause and admire how that was done.

I just finished reading another book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Seriously, go pick up the first book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  and tell me what you think. Bradley goes into the mind of a genius 11-year-old girl, Flavia (rhymes with “gravy-a”, and she insists that you pronounce it correctly), in post-World War 2 Britain. She is funny, terribly clever, dreams of concocting poisons in the chemistry lab on her estate, and solves crimes.

Here are some brilliant uses of the language that continue to endear Flavia to me:

  • “I could see at a glance that sunlight was not welcome here.” Bradley could have said simply, “This was a gloomy room.” No, he wanted to use this room to create a setting for his reader.
  • “I raised an eyebrow at Dogger, who had told me that the word [‘momentarily’] meant ‘briefly’ rather than ‘soon,’ and was best avoided if one didn’t want to be mistaken for an American. But Dogger was wearing his unreadable poker face, and I was left to feel superior all by myself.” Flavia is smart and knows it. And she’s a bit disdainful about Americans. But notice how Bradley’s words don’t insult Americans outright; they are a soft nudge, tongue-in-cheek. Besides, Bradley himself is Canadian, so he doesn’t get it right every time either.
  • “When I woke up, the shadows of late afternoon had subtly rearranged my room.” Could Bradley have just said “When I awoke, I noticed that the sun was going down”? Sure, but his choice is much more evocative.
  • “The conversation was becoming like one of those absurd French dramas in which the characters stand about swapping nonsense dialogue while the audience pretend they know what’s going on.” I am certain Bradley meant Waiting for Godot. The icy, vague shadow of a nightmare rises up, along with memories of a sadistic professor who tried to convince us that it was a brilliant work of art. Bradley transported me back to a decade of frustrated reading (that was probably actually only a week long, but I can never get that time back), trying to discern any deep meaning in that play. It’s not worth your time, folks.

The third Canon of Rhetoric, Style, puts the icing on the cake, the jewels on the crown, the gold filigree on the tapestry… You see what I mean. And the more you pay attention to excellent writing, the more ways you will arrive at beautiful, compelling Style to prove your point and convince your audience.

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Rhetoric: Not as Negative as You Might Think

angry politicianGetting to know a new dental hygienist, she asked about my career. I told her I’ve retired from teaching, among other things, Rhetoric. “Rhetoric?” she paused. “What is that, anyway?” That’s the question I get a lot. I opened my mouth to answer, and couldn’t get the words out for the dental torture devices she shoved in my mouth.

So what is Rhetoric, anyway? Isn’t it just a lot of negative political double-talk? I get a lot of puzzled looks from people who have only heard Rhetoric referred to in a negative light–especially in our politically-charged atmosphere today.

Way back when Aristotle (384-322 BC) was writing and postulating on the nature of the world, he observed how people tried to persuade one another. He didn’t invent the art of persuasion; he observed and organized the concept and gave it a name: Rhetoric.

Aristotle’s lifelong pursuit seems to have been organizing, categorizing, labeling,  commenting upon, and teaching different aspects of the world as he knew it.  Scholars assembled his body of works, known as the Corpus Aristotelicum. Most scholars today dispute the inclusion of quite a few lesser works and argue that what is contained in the Corpus may actually be written in the style of Aristotle by students in his schools. Much of the Corpus, though, is indisputably his, and is classified in five categories: Logic; Metaphysics; Physics; Ethics and Politics; and Rhetoric and Poetics.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we are all engineered to argue; spend one day with a three-year-old or a middle school student and see what I mean.  Aristotle, far from wanting to encourage a child to argue, instead directs the more mature student “to discern the real and the apparent means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric Book 1).

In the classical tradition, the student of Rhetoric will have had an education in Logic, which sets a solid foundation on which to build his persuasive discourse. Aristotle’s thoughts on Logic confirm that fact: Aristotelian logic centers on the syllogism, which is (in very simple terms) an argument composed of two premises and a conclusion.

How do we get from Aristotle’s Logic to the definition of Rhetoric? If we, like him, consider it in terms of a scientific approach, then Rhetoric is the science of persuasion. He breaks down persuasive discourse in order to analyze it.

Similarly, our course of Rhetoric today does break down the component parts of Rhetoric in order to analyze its effectiveness. And the study of it, as detailed in Biblical Worldview Rhetoric (Second Edition coming soon), also explores and imitates the artful side of Rhetoric. We’ll look at the art of persuasion in another post.

But going back to one of our original questions: isn’t Rhetoric just a lot of negativity? It can be, most definitely. Sometimes it accuses, other times it defends, and very often it celebrates or remembers. For every angry, accusatory political discourse, I can show you several poignant, uplifting, inspirational ones. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be negative; it must always be persuasive.

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An Eclectic Stack of Books Read in 2017

My library gives evidence to the type of reader I have become: eclectic. I have always thought (rather snobbishly) that I only love classic literature (spoken with a decidedly British accent, nose in the air: lit-ra-toor). The people I love, though, have pushed me toward other books they have loved, and I am much richer for it. So in addition to the beloved classic novels I read and re-read with pleasure, I also enjoy mystery, intrigue, historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy novels. I know that when my grown children or husband say “You’ve got to read this,” nine times out of ten I totally agree.

After a very chilly cross-country move to California last January, my mother-in-law, excited to have us live close to her, told me that she and I just had to take a Jane Austen class at a nearby college. The class was offered as part of a program for seniors who want to expand their knowledge. After protesting that it was for seniors (and I am not yet a senior, thank you very much!), I admitted that rereading and talking about my favorite author might, after all, be fun. So off we launched into Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. Then I just needed to read a few more, so just like greeting an old friend, I also enjoyed Emma and Persuasion as well, listening to them on Audible while unpacking boxes.

Sticking with British novels a while longer, I picked up a book that I had received as a gift: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneel. This was book one of the Maggie Hope mysteries taking place during World War Two. Light, interesting, and well-written, her story drew me in, so I curled up with the next two:  His Majesty’s Hope and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. After taking a break from them, I will probably read a couple more.

The adjustment to dry and hot Northern California from the grey, cold, humid Midwest meant I had to study up on gardening (and raising chickens and tending vineyards) in our new environment. That has not been much of a chore! You might find me adding a few more of those to my list just for fun.

My husband and I like to listen to audiobooks when on a long drive, so we listened to John Grisham’s Camino Island and Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island (no, we weren’t on a nautical theme; it was just coincidental). Grisham is always a good read, and he never disappoints. Though DeMille’s book was peppered throughout with pretty bad language, the story was good and captivating. We also read Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly, a fascinating retelling of Japan’s brutal role in World War Two.

My son finished reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb and left it with me. In this fantasy, the main character is a young boy raised as the illegitimate son of a prince. The boy has a couple of skills: the empathic ability to communicate with animals and with people, even perhaps to alter people’s perception in order to change events. It’s an interesting premise, and the book, though slow-moving, was good. I picked up the second novel of that series, Royal Assassin, and was disappointed with the pace. It wasn’t simply slow, like the first book; this one churned around and around so sluggishly,  I just couldn’t stay with it (Have you ever watched cement dry? That slowly). I have a feeling that it might have ended up a good novel, but I didn’t have the patience to stick around long enough to find out.

One book on my to-read list from a year ago was Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants. Long ago I had loved his Pillars of the Earth, and since then I have optimistically tried others he has written. I think I am done trying now; his books are full of gratuitous sex, unnecessary to the plot or the characters’ development. It seems he just likes including the sordid details, but I don’t want to pollute my mind with those pictures. I set the book down (well, actually I deleted it from my reader, which is often rather satisfying) after about 25% into the book.

On the subject of books I couldn’t finish, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowall was enthusiastically recommended to me by the same son who told me to read Robin Hobbs. He said it would be a great complement to Pride and Prejudice. Now I begin to question his taste. It’s supposedly a fantasy-world-version of the beloved Jane Austen novel. Nope. I guess I’m a purist. This one didn’t even last as long as the latest Follett book before deleting it.

On a happier note, The Width of the World is the third book in the Vega Jane fantasy series by David Baldacci. He created a wonderful world replete with magical abilities, frightening creatures, and believable and endearing protagonists. It leaves me wanting more, so I will wait impatiently for book four. I highly recommend this series.

Next up was Belgravia by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey), a quick and easy read, but not as deep and rich as his successful television series.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck tells the story of women who survived World War Two and began putting their lives back together, trying to overcome the crushing blows they’d suffered, having lost everything. The book, while depressing and slow, was well-told. If you’re given to depression and dark moods, though, this book will not help brighten your outlook!

Since the movie will be coming out early this year, I have begun reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (from my to-read list a year ago). It’s a dystopian world, set in the future, of a contest reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps set in The Matrix. This contest takes place in the virtual reality of an online universe, designed by a man who had grown up in the 1980s. So far it’s a very good read, super-geeky and adventurous.

What a short list! I need to read more, and I need more to read, so I always enjoy seeing what my readers recommend! What’s on your list?

To read in 2018:

  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Rooster Bar by John Grisham
  • The Whistler by John Grisham
  • The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro
  • Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro
  • The Conquering Family: The Pageant of England, Volume 1 by Thomas Costain
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
  • Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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