Friday, January 30, 2015

Only


Lately I've been conscious of how often I use the word only.


I only ran two miles today.
I've only published a few plays.
I've only lost a few pounds.

I'm not sure why I add the word only to statements like these, because in Ruth World, such accomplishments are to be shouted from the rooftops.

I ran two miles today!
I've published a few plays!
I've lost a few pounds!

So... I had to ask myself: why am I adding the word only?

Perhaps subconsciously, I've compared myself to my peers and found myself wanting. After all, I have a close friend who runs marathons - what are my two lousy miles when compared to her daily runs? And on the list could go through every category in my life: writing, body image, reading goals, and so forth. 

Although we all have room for improvement in many areas of our life, the fact remains that when we use the word only in this way, we're often needlessly diminishing the value of our own efforts. 

And that's just silly.

You know what? 

I may only have run two miles today, but for me, that's an accomplishment on par with Helen Keller signing W-A-T-E-R. 

I'm going to shout it to the skies. 

* * * *

Note: I'm not advocating that you throw out only entirely. It's a good word, and we need it. 

Sometimes it's highly appropriate:

I only slept four hours last night.
I only remember half of what you told me.
I only want to stay for a few minutes.

See? Situations in which something legitimately has been or will be diminished. 

But that's the only way you should use it.

Only then.

* * * *

More like this:

"My Very Favorite Word"

Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Write a Blog Post (a behind-the-scenes look)


I've been blogging for a few years now. I like to think that I'm getting better at it, but sometimes I'm not so sure.

If blogging has been good for anything, though, it's helped me learn to meet self-imposed deadlines and noodle out my writing process.

 Below you will find the twenty steps I generally follow as I prepare for my weekly posts. 

This is how the magic happens.

How to Write a Blog Post:

1. Get a good idea.

2. Forget it immediately.

3. Spend the next few days trying to remember what your good idea was.

4. Hit self in the head with a frying pan. 

5. Remember something that is similar to your original idea, only not quite as good.

6. Decide that a second-rate idea is better than nothing.

7. Brew coffee.

8. Sit down at computer; check all social media outlets; remember that you're supposed to be writing.

9. Start to write. 

10. Get interrupted 4,567 times.

11. Brew more coffee.

12. Complete the first draft of the blog post.

13. Decide to proofread it later. 

14. Accidentally hit "Publish" instead of "Save."

15. Break into a panicky sweat.

16. Rush to delete the post, then realize the futility of this, since the update has already been e-mailed
to your subscribers.

17. Begin keening softly. 

18. Click "Edit." 

19. Conduct a rushed, inefficient copyedit in which you fix a few small mistakes while somehow simultaneously creating new, staggeringly huge ones that you won't notice until after you've already sent the update.

20. Re-read the update. 

21. Feel sort of hopeless.

22. Feverishly edit the copyedit, hoping everyone slept in this morning and won't look at the monstrosity until you're done mangling it into shape.  

23. Wonder why you ever decided to start blogging in the first place.

24. Drink more coffee.

25. Shut the computer and go do something all-engrossing, hoping to forget, for a little while. 

26. Read through the blog post later and decide it's not so bad.

27. Remember your original idea. 

* * * *

More on process:


Friday, January 23, 2015

By Request: Great Read-aloud Recommendations


Every day I read aloud to the Podlings in my care: a group of five children currently covering an age spread from fourteen down to four six to nearly-sixteen. Since more than a few people have asked how I choose the books to read aloud (or have asked for lists/recommendations), I thought that the time might be right to share what we've read together so far and where I plan to take them in the future.

But first, some disclaimers. 

How I Choose Books to Read Aloud

Since I read a lot anyway, having access to an ever-expanding list of read-aloud possibilities isn't really a problem. 

When the time comes to start a new book, my decision process goes something like this: 

1) Have I read it and enjoyed it? I can't over-stress the importance of this step. 
2) Will the kids understand it and like it? I balance toward the older ones in the group. The little ones get what they get -- which is a lot. For example, when I read The Last Battle to them, the four-year-old looked up at me one day about halfway through the book and asked, "Where's Susan?" Up to that point, none of the other podlings had noted her absence.
3) Has the author done at least one thing very well? Humor, drama, storytelling, characterization, suspense, research, etc. I require at least one standout category, but don't expect perfection in all areas from each book. 
4) Does the read match the season? I'm all about reading the right books at the right time, which is why - as you'll see below - we sometimes take a break in the middle of a series to read something that matches the season.

Notice that I don't worry too much about asking if the book teaches a lesson or if I agree 100% with the author's point-of-view. First, I hardly ever agree 100% with anybody. Second, I'm not big on stories as morality tales. Great stories aren't written to teach lessons (although the best ones often do): great stories are written to be great stories, and those are the books I choose to read aloud. Third, one of the greatest skills children need to learn is discernment. What better hand to guide them through the process of analyzing what they're reading than yours? This, to me, is better than teaching them blind trust in books. 

How You Should Choose a Book to Read Aloud

Take advice of the readers in your life, yes -- but don't take it blindly. Remember that if you're going to read a book aloud to children, you must read it to yourself first. No matter how highly the book has already come recommended or how much your friends or their kids may have liked it, that doesn't ensure that 1) you will like it (which is so important, since your enthusiasm can make or break the enterprise), or that 2) you will find it appropriate for your bunch. So be responsible about this.  

But enough of that. 

Without further ado...

Books I've read aloud to the Podlings, in the order that we read them:
  1. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck
  2. Derwood, Inc., Jeri Massi
  3. A Dangerous Game, Jeri Massi
  4. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare 
  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
  6. Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
  7. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis 
  8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
  9. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (unabridged! woo!)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
  13. A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein 
  14. Summer of the Monkeys, Wilson Rawls
  15. Summer of Light, Dennis M. Van Wey 
  16. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle 
  17. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck (again! by request!)
  18. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  19. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  20. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (again! because Christmas!)
  21. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged this time!)
  22. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien 
  23. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
  24. The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
  25. The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
  26. C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia, Sam Wellman
  27. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, William F. Russell
  28. Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park (pairs well with the documentary On the Way to School, still on Netflix at the time of this update)
  29. Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck
  30. The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis
  31. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare 
  32. A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park
  33. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck 
  34. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  35. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  36. Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo
  37. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
  38. Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
  39. Peace Child, Don Richardson (Note: get the updated anniversary edition.)
  40. Legends in Sports: Babe Ruth, Matt Christopher
  41. The Velveteen Rabbit and Other Tales, Margery Williams
  42. The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, Book 1), T.H. White
  43. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  44. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (don't judge!)
  45. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  46. The Sugar Creek Gang #1: The Swamp Robber, Paul Hutchens
  47. True Stories of the Second World War, Paul Dowswell 
Still on my list:

Red Scarf Girl, Jiang Ji-li 
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
Hatchet, Gary Paulsen 
The Giver, Lois Lowry 
Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski 
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo  (The Tale of Desperaux also makes a great read, but the Podlings have already read it.)

Have some great read-aloud suggestions of your own? Please feel free to share. I'm always on the prowl for the next good read. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

In Defense of Failure


Sometimes I write for money. 

Now that you know that little fact, you can safely make three assumptions about me:

1) I drink a lot of coffee.
2) I occasionally talk to myself.
3) I face constant rejection.

Every time one of my articles or manuscripts isn't accepted for publication, I face a major rejection. Every time a client makes edit requests, I face mini rejections. Every time I'm passed over on a project in favor of another writer, I face rejection of another sort.

Don't get me wrong: sometimes I do something other than fail. But even considering the occasional successes, the rejections really do start to pile up after a while.

That's certainly not a bad thing. The truth is that most writers are actually terrible writers, at least to begin with. That's why the industry has this beautifully self-correcting system built in, opening the door for writers to hone their craft through ongoing rounds of trial and error. As author James Michener once famously said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Every rejection puts me a step further down that path.

Not that I sit here polishing my rejections like so many pearls. On the contrary. But within this framework, failure is better than nothing.

Difficult pleasures are not without merits, rejections are only final when we allow them to be so, and failure can be respected as a sign of effort.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Teddy Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic," Paris, 1910.)
I speak here not of moral failure or spiritual failure, out of which only the grace of God could bring beauty from ashes. I speak instead of professional failure. Of failed relationships in need of restoration. Of the large-scale failures of human society. Such failures as these become permanent only if we allow them to be so, and I, for one, refuse.   

Because even if full success may not be possible, there's still value in the struggle, and success is not even an option if we fail to try in the first place.



Friday, January 16, 2015

In Defense of Difficult Pleasures


Harold Bloom calls reading a "difficult pleasure." 

He's right. 

Reading is time-consuming, mentally taxing, and often intellectually unsettling. The same could be said of many other pursuits, of course: writing and running being foremost in my mind this morning. 

It takes personal commitment, persistence, and grit to complete a manuscript, to finish a run, or to push through to the end of a book. You must be focused and have good time management to accomplish these things without letting the rest of your life slip. 

Fine.

But once you complete one of these tasks, you often have nothing tangible to show for it but a manuscript that may never see the light of day, another race medal to tuck away in your room, or one more small check-mark on your reading list. 

Worse yet, you may have to contend with the people who hound you for spending so much time on a pursuit which they find pointless or unappealing. 

So why bother with these difficult pleasures?

  • Rigorous pursuits leave a lasting impression. Rewards that come easily mean much less to us than ones that come at great personal cost. Difficult pleasures, therefore, add value to our lives, since accomplishing them brings greater satisfaction. 
  • Some of the criticism is misplaced jealousy. While some friends who question our time management might actually have a point--so don't dismiss them too lightly, especially if you value their judgment--others who criticize might be feeling the sting of hours wasted in more trivial pursuits. (Note: regarding the dreaded "You have too much time on your hands," see this article.)
  • Having something to "show for it" is an overrated cultural construct. In the end, we may not have something tangible to represent our investment; but sticking with a difficult pursuit changes us at a fundamental level. Knowing that we can endure to the end without the promise of automatic reward is a realization not to be taken lightly. Personal growth trumps having something tangible to "show for it" in the end.
No matter the difficult pleasure, no matter the slim chance of success, there's still value in the struggle. 

Don't lose sight of that. 


* * *

Notes:

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Scribiner, 2000. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

In Defense of Plot Holes

Photo courtesy of Gallery Hip
If you read or write fiction, then you're no doubt aware of the Plot Hole Problem: that is, what happens when a story has a glaring inconsistency. The bad news is that most stories have them, even the great ones. The good news is that most of us don't notice plot holes, especially if we're really invested in the story.

For example, did it ever occur to you to wonder why Gandalf didn't just ask the eagles to fly the Ring to Mt. Doom?

Think about it. If the eagles had flown the Ring to Mt. Doom, Frodo, Sam, and the gang would have been saved all of the heart-wrenching struggle.

Then again, do we really want that? After all, without the struggle, there would be no story; and with no story, there's no Lord of the Rings. 

(Would any of us really want to live in a world like that?)

Interestingly, the literary world isn't the only place to find plot holes. We can find them in our own lives as well.

For example, when I was on a trip to Haiti a few years ago, I got sick. Really sick. But I had a four-day teaching clinic to run, we'd bussed in English teachers from all over Port au Prince, and I wasn't about to send them home without their promised language clinic. I prayed that God would make me well enough to teach. "Just from nine to noon," I prayed. "That's all I need."

And do you know what? God answered. Every morning around 8:45, I would start feeling better. I'd teach for a few hours, and then the minute the clock struck noon, I would collapse.

When I came home and shared this miracle, my sister Bethany put her finger squarely on the plot hole: "Why didn't you just pray to get well, period?"

I'm embarrassed to admit that the thought had never occurred to me.

Through the experience of getting sick in Haiti, I realized that my vision of God in prayer is often too small. This lesson has influenced my prayer life ever since, and I wouldn't trade it for a few days of health.

God isn't concerned with making life easy for us any more than a writer is concerned with making the plot easy on his characters.  After all, stories are not about what happens but about what goes wrong and about how the central characters change during the struggle. 

In scripture, we don't see Jesus trying to make life easy for his disciples. We don't see God taking it easy on the early church leaders in the book of Acts. What we do see is Him lending strength and guidance through the struggle and giving grace to enable spiritual maturity.

Just as we would never wish the eagles to fly the Ring to Mordor because it would rob us of a terrific story, so we would never wish away the plot holes and struggles from our daily lives--not when those very things are often what is required to create space for growth.

* * *

NOTE:

If you're not already aware of the ongoing debate regarding why the Fellowship didn't at least try riding the eagles straight to Mt. Doom, and whether or not this was actually Gandalf's original plan, it makes for some fun reading.

Enjoy going down the rabbit hole.

Friday, January 9, 2015

You, Me, and Everyone Else in the World


It's hard enough being authentic in the internet age, but throwing spirituality into the equation can complicate matters further. 

For example, where's the line between admitting weakness (so that others can offer prayer and support) and splashing your problems all over the place so that others will feel sorry for you (whining)? Where's the line between demonstrating joy in the midst of struggles (authenticity) and pretending as if those struggles don't affect you (fakery)?

I'll be the first to admit that I'm still figuring these things out and that the line may be different for each of us. 

But I think I'm doing better at finding the line in my daily life than I am in my internet life. 

It's always been my desire to bring a sense of lightness to my internet interactions. "Fun, yet not frivolous" is what I'm going for (although there's been some frivolity along the way...).

Unfortunately, it's come to my attention that I may have inadvertently painted an inaccurate picture, leading to the the mistaken idea that I wouldn't understand and/or sympathize with problems, since I don't seem to struggle.

We all stumble in many ways, says James. He's right, of course. We all face discouragement, failure, collapsed relationships, rejection, fear, temptation, and sin. We all make mistakes and bad choices. We all misunderstand others, ourselves, and God. 

In short, we all struggle: you, me, and everyone else in the world.

Our struggles might not be identical, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist

Struggles may come to all, but the good news is that the solution is the same for all: knowing Jesus can bring light into darkness, wisdom to the simple, comfort to the weak, strength to the failing, and courage to the timid. 

When I struggle, the Spirit often reminds me of Jesus praying not my will, but yours. It's comforting to note that the Father didn't chastise Jesus for his agony any more than he chastised David for expressing his anguish in the Psalms. 

My prayer today - a prayer for you, me, and everyone else in the world - is that each of us will echo the words of another psalmist, one who experienced spiritual anguish over being exiled from Jerusalem: 

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

Send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling!

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. 
(see the full chapters here.)

These words perfectly reflect not only the depths to which our souls can sink when our circumstances fill our vision, but also the heights to which we can be lifted when we remember where our hope lies. 

I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.


Monday, January 5, 2015

That Time I Locked Myself Out


I'm a smart, well-traveled career woman with a master's degree and three published works on the market. Unfortunately, I'm also fairly awkward. Please enjoy this series chronicling some of the awkward things I've done and the lessons I've learned along the way.



These Awkward Things I've Done, Part 7: That Time I Locked Myself Out of the House

Last December, I locked myself out of my new apartment.

The particulars of how it happened are irrelevant. The only facts you need are these: it was early morning, but I’d already had my shower and gotten dressed (thank God for small mercies); my hair was still wrapped in a towel; I hadn’t had any coffee yet. 

The first of many blunders.

It was also cold. Florida cold, to be sure. But still. Cold. And I was barefoot.

I also hadn’t had the foresight to bring my cellphone out with me... you know, since I hadn't planned on locking myself out. I stood at the end of my driveway and looked up and down the street. What to do, what to do?

Typically, my street is crawling with retirees out for their morning walks, carrying substantial sticks to beat off stray dogs, alligators, or bands of disenfranchised youths. 

That morning? No one. Of course. I might as well have been starring in that movie with Will Smith where he's the only person living above-ground in post-apocalyptic New York City and all he has is that dog for company. (Except I live in suburban South Florida, not New York City, and I don't have a dog... or well-defined abs. But that is neither here nor there).

I decided that the best thing to do would be to start walking down the (cold, deserted) street in hopes that I would bump into someone with a cell phone. My only other alternative would have been to knock on a neighbor's door, but all of the lights were out and I really didn't want to resort to that.

That's when I spied one of my down-the-road neighbors in his driveway, a neighbor I’d seen in passing but had not yet spoken to directly. He'd picked up his newspaper and was just heading back up toward the house. Because he was almost to to his front door, I started jogging down the street in my bare feet, calling out to him.

“Hey! Hi! Um, good morning! Excuse me! Hi!!!” To ensure that he wouldn't be alarmed, I made sure to smile brightly and look as friendly as possible.

To his credit, he seemed to take the sight of a towel-headed white woman jogging barefoot up his driveway in the small hours of morning completely in stride. Still, I felt the need to smooth over any potential awkwardness with heavy doses of fake charm. 

“Hi,” I oozed. “I’m Ruth. I’m your new neighbor. I live right over there.” I pointed.

“I know who you are,” he said.

This came as a surprise. "Oh," I said. "Well, good." I smiled some more. 

He inspected me from head to foot, eyes lingering on the towel. 

My feet were very cold.

“Well, the thing is, I was wondering if I could use your phone.” 

“My phone.”

“Because I’m locked out of my place.” I pointed again, in case he had forgotten where I live.

He handed me his cell phone and watched as I stood flat-footed on the cold cement, placing several frantic calls. Finally, I determined that only poor Bethany could help me gain access to my house at that time of day.

“And I’m about to step into the saddle,” she said patiently. “So make up your mind whether you want me to come right now or whether you can wait, because once I start my ride, I’m not stopping until it’s over.”

“I need you to come now,” I said in a small voice, curling my toes under for warmth.

There followed a long silence. “Let me untack my horse, and I’ll be there.” She didn't even need to tell me how annoyed she was or that I was a raging moron. It was all implied in the pause. 

I hung up the phone and handed it back to my neighbor, feeling about as ridiculous as you can imagine. 

It was then that he said the magic words: "Would you like a cup of coffee?"

Would I ever! I shuffled into his warm house and wrapped my cold hands around a good-sized mug as he whisper-talked, telling me that his entire extended family was in town for the holidays, and that although he had to work that day, the rest of them would soon be getting up to head to Disney  World without him.

Which is how I wound up hanging out in my neighbor's kitchen after he'd left for work, introducing myself to a seemingly-endless succession of family members as each one stumbled out to have a bowl of cereal, only to confront a towel-headed apparition in the kitchen, sipping coffee and grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

"Don't mind me, I'm just the neighbor," I said. "I locked myself out."

Needless to say, they didn't invite me to join them at Disney. 

* * *

As I proofread this, the thought struck that this episode could fit not only into the Awkward Things I've Done series, but also as another fun episode in Adulting.

Such is the nature of my life. 

I'm thanking God this morning for good neighbors, helpful sisters, and coffee.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014: My Year in Books



I've always read a lot, but 2014 was a banner year.

I read 201 books.

No, I didn't read an extra book just to overachieve. I had merely lost count. I even went out of my way to read a short book on New Year's Eve just to make sure that I met my goal.

It turns out that I just could have partied instead. 

Oh, well.

To be honest, the goal of 200 books in a year was a little ridiculous, and I really didn't think that I would meet it. I'm proud to have done it, but I'll never set my goal that high again. An awareness of the challenge drove me to finish reading books that I didn't like and probably would have abandoned otherwise. I also had to read just a little bit more than I found enjoyable (which, given my  reading threshold, really says something). 

So here's to 2015, a year in which I fall back on an achievable goal of 175 books. 

Without further ado, let's look at the numbers.

2014: My Year in Books

Total number of books read: 201
Total number of pages: 54,350 
Average book length by pages: 270 
Average pages read per day: 149 
Average books read per week: 4 
Longest book of 2014: Gregg Allison's Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (A Companion to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology), 778 pages

Breakdown by Category:

Young Adult Fiction: 52 books

Every year I resolve that I'm going to read less YAF, and then every year I wind up reading even more than the previous year. Although I bear a love-hate relationship with this category, and although it's often a lot of fluff, it's also afforded me some of my most intense reads ever. So I persevere.  

Witness Elizabeth Wein's Black Dove, White Raven, which (as her books generally do) managed to turn my feelings completely inside out. For sheer intensity, Lauren Oliver's Panic couldn't be outdone - I read it in two feverish sittings. Cress, the third installment in Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, earns a hat tip for being the type of sheer, frothy fun that I could read all day; it also earns points because each book in the series gets its own individual plot arc. 

Juvenile Fiction: 32 books

Because of the nature of the work I do, I'm reading more JF than ever. I can't say that I've enjoyed all of it (or even most of it), but it has been fun revisiting some of the books I loved when I was young--such as Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, which haven't lost one bit of their charm--as well as stumbling across some new gems. Morris Gleitzman's four-part holocaust series (Once/Now/Then/After) is well worth picking up, and for those who like to be pleasantly creeped out, Holly Black's Doll Bones will raise the hairs on the back of your neck in the most delightful way. I found Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane surprisingly moving and laughed aloud while reading Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder.

Miscellaneous Fiction: 20 books

Sadly, most of the adult fiction that I read this year turned out to be duds. I'm not sure why. Two glaring exceptions would be Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter, which I can't recommend highly enough, and Alan Bradley's latest, The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6). It also bears mentioning that since I didn't know what to do with Kerry Netiz's Amish Vampires in Space, I stuck it into this category. This astoundingly ridiculous book bears the distinctions of being both unclassifiable and a breathtaking waste of time. Save yourselves. 

Miscellaneous Nonfiction: 14 books

Despite high expectations regarding some hopelessly-disappointing reads related to the Tesla/Edison feud and the Current Wars, I can really only recommend a few books in this category. Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is one of them. As well as being both informative and compulsively readable, this book held special insights for me, since I fit into several of the categories under discussion. (I will let you guess which ones.) 2014 was also the year that (for various reasons) I began reading up on prostate cancer. Most books were sadly dry and shockingly unhelpful, with the happy exception of Craig T. Pynn's Navigating the Realities of Prostate Cancer. Make note to save yourself some time: if any of your friends or loved ones receive a diagnosis in the next year, this is the book to pick up.

Scifi/Fantasy: 12 books

I had trouble getting into it at first, but by the third chapter, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane hooked me. It hooked me hard. I respect Gaiman's ability to tell a complicated and emotionally-textured story through the eyes of a child while simultaneously creeping me out in fine style.  The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (aka Catherine Webb, aka Kate Griffin) is an intricately-plotted, multifaceted, all-consuming juggernaut that sucked me in and kept me guessing until the very last page. If you're into history, conceptual time travel, and/or intellectual thrillers, pick it up. Because I've been looking forward so keenly to the continuation of Robin Hobb's Fitz/Fool arc, I read her massive Fool's Assassin in under twenty-four hours. Taken on its own merits, it's really not that great (the pacing is weird), but I believe that when read in conjunction with the books that are to follow, it'll be worth the time investment. Can't wait for the story to really kick off! 

Theology/Devotional: 11 books

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading Randy Alcorn's Heaven. I like the clear biblical basis for his major points, and I like that when he's speculating, he says so. Best of all, even his speculations are not mere speculations: they're rooted in overarching principles observable in Scripture. In D.A. Carson's The Cross and Christian Ministry, I found both challenge and comfort. Tim Keller's Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions turned out to be balm for my heart during a week that I sorely needed its message. God always knows. 

Memoir: 11 books

2014 turned out to be quite the year for spiritual memoirs. Far and away, the most memorable have been the ones set in/around Oxford: Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy; Douglas Gresham's In Lenten Lands; and Carolyn Weber's Surprised by Oxford. While reading Weber's book, I also became wholly invested in her personal relationships and was fully prepared to throw my Kindle out the window if she didn't marry the person that I thought she should (which is so not the point of the book, but what can I say? I am who I am). Regarding non-Oxford memoirs, I found Nabeel Qureshi's Seeking Islam, Finding Jesus an enlightening read. 

Classics: 10 books

Most of the classics I read this year were read with my young charges. Podling 1 and I took turns reading LM Montgomery's Emily trilogy aloud (with very different reactions from the Adult Me than I remember the Teenage Me having), while Podling 3 and I tackled Wilson Rawl's Where the Red Fern Grows together (Adult Me producing the same reaction this time around as the last). 

Writing: 9 books

Apparently 2014 was the year in which I would read every book of writing advice known to man. Especially fruitful were Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Stephen James's Story Trumps Structure, and John Dufresne's wonderfully-helpful The Lie That Tells a Truth. Much more constructive than I anticipated is Stephen King's On Writing, and though it's not technically a book on writing, per se, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey helped to shore up some of my ideas about method. Overall, the most helpful book on the creative process was Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. If you are engaged in creative work in any way, this is essential reading.

History: 7 books

In the middle of the year, I had a little "Chairman Mao's the Worst" party after reading in quick succession Mao's Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter, and Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History, by various authors. Then I sat and stared at a wall for two hours after finishing an English translation of Ellen Newbold La Motte's The Backwash of War, a collection of WWI essays. Perhaps in 2015 I will attempt to focus on aspects of history that don't make me want to curl up in a corner and rock back and forth, keening. 

Biography: 6 books

It's not exactly the most well-written biography ever, but my strong interest levels ensured that I enjoyed Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. In contrast, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas is both well-written and gripping. 

Poetry: 6 books

It was an Edna St. Vincent Millay sort of year. I probably read A Few Figs from Thistles four times (although I only counted it as one read). Also in the mix were healthy doses of Frost, TS Eliot, and Dickinson. No new ground covered, however. 

Travel: 5 books

Sadly, no standouts in this category. After all, I've already read the entirety of Peter Hessler, Bill Bryson, and Paul Theroux. Someone please tell me who's next.

Literary Criticism: 3 books

Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage is an absolute gem, providing the perfect backdrop for Bryson's wit and rage of expression, both of which are on delightful display. (Technically this could also be classified under biography; however, since we know practically nothing about Shakespeare himself, and since I found Bryson's comments on the plays themselves to be especially cogent, here we are.) Also unbelievably good is Michael Ward's Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis. Even though I'm nearly always skeptical of literary critics who find hidden meanings in classic works, by the end of this read, I was pretty well on board with Ward's thesis. Even if I hadn't bought into the thesis, I still would have enjoyed Planet Narnia for the writing alone. Recommended for anyone who enjoys C.S. Lewis, literary criticism, theology, and big words. 

True Crime: 2 books

Both of them highly forgettable, alas. Please publish something new soon, Ann Rule! 

* * * *

So there you have it: the best of the 201 books that I read in 2014.

Incidentally, I love giving book recommendations and reading advice. If you're looking to read more in 2015 and would like to know where to start, feel free to drop me a message via Facebook, email, text, or whatever method you normally use to contact me. I love hooking people up with good books!

Likewise, if you see something that I missed, please drop me some recommendations. I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.