Monday, August 14, 2017

The Fault in My Stars: My Problematic Book-Rating System

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Cassius, Julius Caesar, (I, ii, 140-141)
William Shakespeare

I've been reviewing books online since 2011. In the last six years, I've read and reviewed over 1,200 books on Goodreads, writing short assessments and assigning star ratings for most of them.

I do have a system for assigning stars - though, admittedly, a subjective one. Since writing is both art and science, there's simply no way to assess a book objectively. However, I try my best to be straightforward.

Below in bold, you'll see how the star ratings are explained in the Goodreads system. Beneath is my explanation for how I assign them.

1 star - "I didn't like it." 

I don't use this rating very often, mostly because if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. If I do give one star, though, I explain why; but my reviews aren't mean or vindictive. They're an honest assessment of my reaction to the book: the story, the development, the writing, the dialogue, or some combination of those elements.

2 stars - "It was ok." 

For the most part, the books that I assign two stars aren't horrible: they're just not for me. Though some authors might be insulted by a 2-star review, I don't think they should be. Two stars means I actually read your whole book even though nothing about it particularly gripped me. So even though I clearly wasn't in the book's target demographic, you must have done something right.

3 stars - "I liked it." 

Good news! A three-star review means I stayed fully engaged the whole time. More than that, I got into it. I stressed over the characters or laughed out loud or genuinely learned new things. A three-star book is one I'll recommended - both generally online and specifically to friends and fellow readers who I know will appreciate it.

4 stars - "I really liked it." 

A four-star book offers more than just an enjoyable reading experience. It also has something that sets it apart: at least one element that the author does extremely well. Either the plot's perfect, the development exquisite, or the dialogue just killer. Whatever the reason, these books are clearly a cut above. If the writer has any other books out, I will track them down and read them. And I'll do more than just recommend these books: I'll actually pick up extra copies at used book stores and keep them on hand to loan out.

5 stars - "It was amazing."
Five-star books are better than great. They're rock-my-world amazing. Five-star reads not only do everything right and have standout elements, but they go further. They transcended genre and set a new bar for future reading experiences. I believe that any reader, regardless of taste or usual reading choices, would enjoy these. They're the books I'll come back to again and again. And I will do more than just recommend these and keep extras on hand. I'll buy multiple copies and pass them out unsolicited to friends, family, and fellow readers.

No Stars

Occasionally I don't assign a star rating. In some cases, it's because I have a personal connection to the author (we either know each other, share an editor, or write for the same publisher). In such cases, anything less than a 5-star review might offend; and yet unless those stars are truly earned, I would feel dishonest giving them (since I know that quite a few followers base their book selections around my reviews). Sidestepping the pressure, I write some honest thoughts about the book (although not all my thoughts) and post the review with no stars.

In other cases, I don't assign stars because I recognize that my personal response to the book has been unreasonably negative. Whether I take issue with the plot or the writer's underlying worldview, I dislike the book -- yet I recognize that my reaction is disproportionate, so I refrain.

My Turn's Coming

With my first books set to release this fall, I'm curious to see how my reaction to my books' online reviews will temper how I write them. Because that's bound to happen.

To keep up with my reading, feel free to follow me on Goodreads

See you over there!

* * * * *

Monday, August 7, 2017

Notes from the Back of the Pack

This past weekend, I ran a 5k with my favorite running partner, who is currently thirty-four weeks pregnant. Having decided ahead of time to let her race-day condition dictate the pace, we planned a quick 5-minute warm-up walk and then some tight little run/walk intervals for the duration of the race. We started at the very back of the pack so that we weren't immediately trampled.

As a solid middle-of-the-pack runner, I'm accustomed to a race start quickly giving way to the rhythm of slapping steps and measured breathing. At the back of the pack, however, we joined a cheery throng of good-hearted jokesters, who commenced the race calling encouragement to one another and exchanging friendly insults. Jostling and shuffling their way across the start line, they fell into no recognizable pattern or rhythm. 

These people knew themselves. They were under no illusions about what we were all doing at the back. These were the fast walkers, fast talkers, and don't-care-about-the-clock-ers. 

And let me tell you, we loved it back there.

We quickly learned the advantages of running from the back of the pack:
  1. Less overt competition! No one at the back is in it to win it.
  2. Leisurely pace! You don't feel pressure to stay out of anyone's way.
  3. Entertainment! Surrounding runners actually have wind to chat -- and so do you.
  4. Free ego boost! If you bump into people you know, it's generally because you're passing them.
Not that it's a competition. That's what this race reminded me.

While I've never been fiercely competitive with others, I sometimes feel that I'm engaged in one long war against myself. Running has been no exception, and since I picked up the habit a few years ago, I've been constantly pushing for longer runs at higher speeds. It's never just about the running for me. There's always another goal.

This race reminded me, however, that not every event needs to trigger an internal battle. 

Sometimes it's okay to lean back and enjoy the run.

* * * *

Photo Credit:

By Fit stezky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 31, 2017

10 Book Quotes Guaranteed to Make You Feel Feelings

10 Book Quotes Guaranteed to Make You Feel Feelings:

"It's not time to worry yet."
"The rain, it raineth every day."
"We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness."
"Kiss me, Hardy. Kiss me quick!"
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!” 
"I have been loved," Edward told the stars.
“In this hour, I do not believe that any darkness will endure.” 
"Hey! Unto you a child is born!"
There was the sudden heart-stopping high-pitched whine of a siren, and the entire square fell silent, listening, and then--as they realized it was the all clear--erupted into cheers.
I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.

* * * * *

If these quotes don't make you feel feelings, perhaps you haven't read the books. Or maybe you're a monster. I'm not here to judge.

Do you have lines that always give your feelings a workout? Feel free to share. It's a rainy Monday morning, and I have a mug of hot coffee and a full box of tissues. 

Ruth's Feelings-Inducing Cheat Sheet:

Photo Credit

By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Well-Edited Life

This has been a summer of edits for me. This week is no exception. As soon as I finish this post, I plan to start working my way through a manuscript fresh an editor's metaphorical red pen.

No matter how good my editor is, I'm going come up against some edits that I don't like. What I see as perfectly good phrasings will be rejected. My seemingly-logical thought progressions will be questioned. Entire chapters might disappear. (It's happened before. It could happen again.)

But I'm not wholly dreading the process. For one thing, I've learned to appreciate good editing. While I may question some suggestions in the heat of the moment, I have seen that in the long run, each of my works has benefited greatly from a strong editorial hand.

I'm also aware that editorial pain is temporary. Between the time I revise the manuscript and the time the proofs come out, a funny thing happens. Those edit suggestions that initially incensed me? I can barely remember what they were. They now blend seamlessly into a smoothly-flowing manuscript. Those missing chapters? I can hardly remember what was in them or why I thought they were so important. It's like they never existed.

In that sense, the editing process parallels my life.

As I look back, I see how clearly God has rearranged timelines, re-directed plot threads, and cut chapters (and entire characters!) that I considered essential to my story. Just like any good editor, he's less concerned with temporarily hurting my feelings and more focused on strengthening the finished product.

That doesn't mean the editing process feels good.

But it helps to remember that the pain is temporary.

Weeping endures for a night. Joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

* * * * *

Photo Attribution:

By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 17, 2017

Great Read-Aloud Recommendations for Kids [Updated!]

[Note: This was originally posted on January 23, 2015, and has since been updated for content.]

Every day I read aloud to the five Podlings in my care. This group currently ranges in age from sixteen down to six. Since more than a few people have asked how I choose the books to read aloud (or have asked for lists/recommendations), I thought I'd 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 Read-Aloud Books 

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

When the time comes to start a new book with the kids, 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. I don't care how lauded or "important" or "valuable" the book is. If you don't care for it, they won't either.
2) Will the kids understand it and like it? I balance toward the older ones. The littles get what they get -- which is a lot. 
3) What does the author do 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 book match the season? I'm all about reading the right book 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.

How You Should Choose Books

1) Take advice of the readers in your life. Take recommendations under advisement, but don't take them blindly. Not every book is for every person. 
2) Read the book first. Don't skip this step. No matter how highly the book has 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. Nothing's worse than stopping halfway through a book and not finishing it. That breaks a child's trust. 
3) Don't worry too much about whether the book is important or educational or valuable. Just pick a good read and get cracking. Reading aloud to your kids has great value in itself.

Books I've Read Aloud to the Podlings

Bear in mind that we've been at this for a few years but that I didn't start keeping a master list until partway through the venture. I'm pretty sure I've forgotten a few along the way. [Also, this list doesn't account for the books I study with each child individually. This list is read-alouds only. If you want individual book report recommendations, you'll have to message me.]
  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)
  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 (take two)
  21. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  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 Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  32. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare 
  33. A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park
  34. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck 
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  37. Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo
  38. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
  39. Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
  40. Peace Child, Don Richardson (Note: Get the updated anniversary edition. Trust me.)
  41. Legends in Sports: Babe Ruth, Matt Christopher
  42. The Velveteen Rabbit and Other Tales, Margery Williams
  43. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller
  44. The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, Book 1), T.H. White
  45. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  46. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (yes, again)
  47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  48. The Sugar Creek Gang #1: The Swamp Robber, Paul Hutchens
  49. True Stories of the Second World War, Paul Dowswell 
  50. The Force Awakens: A Junior Novel, Michael Kogge 
  51. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness, Janet & Geoff Benge
  52. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  53. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
  54. The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
  55. Bound for Oregon, Jean Van Leeuwen
Still on the 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 
  • Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
  • Once / Now / Then / After, Morris Gleitzman 
    * * * * *

    Have some great read-aloud suggestions of your own? 

    Please share in the comments here or on Facebook. 

    I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

    Monday, July 10, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 5: Oh, Say, Can You See Me Pinwheeling Through the Air?

    Once, I took a trip that broke me.


    It's sort of a long story, but I used to spend a lot of time taking jump shots, mostly with my sister Bethany.

    Officially, however, it was our sister Lisa who started it all one summer day when we ran out of things to do in her town and amused ourselves by jumping off stumps.

    Because we liked to Jump Off Things in public, preferably with recognizable landmarks in the background, we did some of our best work while traveling.

    If you're thinking that this looks like fun, you're right. If you're thinking that it was just a matter of time before I hurt myself, you're also right.

    Ten years ago this week, I sustained my first (and worst) Jumping Off Things injury. (And if you've been hanging around long enough to remember this actually happening, congratulations. We've come full circle.)

    Here's the story.

    Bethany and I were visiting my friend Lucy in Baltimore, and we'd made our way to Fort McHenry National Monument in order to visit the spot where Francis Scott Key penned "The Star Spangled Banner."

    We were also excited at the possibility of some historic jumps.

    These possibilities quickly became apparent at the information center as, along with a good-sized teenage tour group from Spain, we sat through the inspirational video about Francis Scott Key. The excitable young tourists oooh'd and aaaaah'd over the dramatic moment when they roll back the heavy curtains to reveal Old Glory flying high over the fort.

    You couldn't blame them, really. If you've been there, you know it's a dramatic moment.

    And that's when I had my brain wave: We would take jumping photos with the iconic flag itself. Just the flag and the sky and nothing else.

    At least, that was the theory; however, given the set-up of the fort, the crowds of other tourists, and my general ineptitude, getting the right perspective for the shot proved tricky.

    Somehow, we thought it would be a fine idea for one of us to run through a former cell block of the fort, leap over a shallow set of stone steps, and launch ourselves over the camera person--who would lie flat on her back, camera up--thereby gaining enough lift so that we would appear against a backdrop of clear blue sky and billowing American flag.

    We'd have to be careful, though, because the perfect angle to frame this shot just happened to be perilously close to a small drop-off. If we overshot the landing at all, we'd tip over a shallow ledge and land on a rough cobble-stoned walkway five feet below.

    Bethany, of course, nailed it in one jump (despite the fact that back then, I was shooting with a basic point-and-click camera that operated on a 3-second delay).

    While the results weren't exactly what I'd envisioned, they were the best we could do under the circumstances.

    Then it was my turn.

    Bethany took the camera and lay on the ground while I skipped to the back of the cell block for my own run at glory.

    But I just couldn't get it.

    After four unsuccessful attempts, I was ready to give up, but I decided for one more try. Throwing caution (and reason) to the wind, I gave it my all.

    I took a long running start through the cell block and flung myself up and out over the stone steps. In my blissful nanosecond of pure flight, I shot a crazed grin down at Bethany as I soared over her.


    (Well, sort of. I mean....look.)

    You know what comes next.

    I came down awkwardly on my left foot and stumbled, body twisting. My right toe jammed hard against the stone ledge, acting as a pivot to propel me forward. Thus I wheeled over the ledge, arms windmilling for what felt like hours, and slammed heavily against the cobblestone walkway below.

    Lucy, who'd been standing to the side observing these shenanigans, reported that the teenage group from Spain rounded the corner just in time to witness me hurtling through the air.

    "That lady fell down!" one of them cried loudly in Spanish, while others took pictures.

    Meanwhile, I lay breathless on the cobbles, uncertain as to whether or not I was dead, but pretty sure I wanted to be.

    My immediate injuries included horrible bruises along the right side of my body, brush-burns along my palms, forearms, and shins, and a broken toe on my right foot--immediately swollen and gloriously purple. Eventually, I suspected that I'd likely fractured my ribs as well. Weeks later, I was still bracing myself to stand up and sit down; and months later, it still hurt to cough or sneeze.

    We'll never know for sure, however, because I never got myself checked out.

    No need to lecture me about any of this now, Internet Moms. It all happened a decade ago, and I can assure you that the next time I fell and broke a bone, I definitely went to the hospital.

    But that's another story.

    * * * *

    This concludes Lost in Any Language, my short series

    about traveling the world and embarrassing myself.

    I hope you enjoyed it!

    Be sure to click back through the blog and catch

    any posts you may have missed.

    * * * *

    Monday, July 3, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 4: Ruth's Highland Fling

    It happens to every traveler at least once.

    In September of 2012, I visited Scotland with my friend Jodee and my sister Bethany. Our primary objectives were to attend the wedding of some good friends and do some sightseeing. We were staying down near Glasgow, but toward the end of the trip, our friend K. graciously offered to drive us into the Highlands.

    The schedule for the day included Fort William, Glencoe, and a stop near Lock Shiel to see the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard. We would also tour the 19th century chapel and climb the lookout to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct (which some of you would recognize as the "Harry Potter Bridge").

    Unbeknownst to my friends, I had a third objective while on this trip: to collect samples of different types of Scottish leaves. (I'm sure you're wondering why, but the explanation is long and boring and would detract from the current narrative. I had my reasons. That's all you need to know.) 

    My leaf collecting was unbeknownst to my friends when our journey started. By the time we climbed the hill to overlook the Glenfinnan Viaduct, they'd resigned themselves to traveling with someone who would routinely leap from the trail to pounce on unsuspecting Scottish shrubs. Which is exactly what I was doing as we climbed the hill to the overlook. 

    The view at the top was lovely, if cold, windy, and misty with rain. But that's Scotland for you.

    We snapped some pictures, chatted with some other tourists, and just generally enjoyed ourselves.

    Suddenly, I became uncomfortably aware that I was about to have a bathroom emergency. In fact, it was imminent.

    "Guys," I announced, "I HAVE TO GO."

    Based on my tone of voice (and perhaps the swirl of my eyes), they knew exactly what I meant. Doubtless, so did the rest of the tourists at the top of the hill. I didn't care. We were all travelers up there, and we all know that when faced with the rigors of international travel, digestive systems are not to be trusted. So I doubt anyone looked at me with anything other than sympathy.

    But if anyone did give me a funny look, I wouldn't have noticed.

    One problem and one problem alone occupied my full attention.

    Our friend K. mentioned that there were toilets in the visitor center near where we'd parked, which was all I needed to hear. Without checking to see if anyone was following, I bounded down the trail, heedless of the damp conditions and rocks slick with moss. 

    At the bottom of the hill, I skidded to a stop, suddenly aware that clutched in my fists like pom-poms were two bunches of Scottish leaves. 

    Not wanting to lose all the hard work I'd invested in gathering them, I turned and thrust them toward my sister, who was ambling along behind me, looking around as if this were just another ordinary tourist moment. 

    "Take the leaves," I panted, flapping the handfuls up and down.

    Jodee, who was standing nearby trying to be helpful, squinted toward the information center. "I think the toilets are just over--"

    "TAKE THE LEAVES!" I all but screamed, flapping my hands one last time and releasing my treasures to the breeze.

    Where they landed, I don't know. I had more pressing problems. Long before the leaves had fluttered to the ground, I'd sprinted up the steps of the information center and launched myself toward the hallway clearly marked TOILETS

    My trials, however, were not quite over. 

    These were paid toilets. In order to make it past the hall, I'd have to find 20p and insert it into a tiny slot.

    Hopping from foot to foot, I frantically scrabbled through the coins at the bottom of my travel bag, clawing through the mix of American and UK change and cursing the laziness that kept me from being more organized with my various monies. (A first-world problem if there ever was one.) All I knew was that if I had to detour to the gift shop to make change, I was doomed. 

    I'll spare you further details. Sufficed to say that I found the proper change in time, and all was well.

    When I emerged from the information center some time later (at a much more relaxed pace), I found Bethany, Jodee, and K. calmly chatting with yet more tourists.

    In Jodee's hands, carefully gathered and reorganized, was a neat cluster of Scottish leaves. Whether she caught them when I threw them or gathered them after they'd scattered, none of us can recall.

    "You did throw them," said Jodee when I asked her about this recently. "I can't remember much after that." 

    It says a lot that these two ladies both agreed to travel with me again after this incident.

    I'm very grateful, because more than anything else, what makes or breaks a trip is not the weather, the location, or the food. 

    It's not even the coffee.

    It's the people. 

    The people make or break the trip every time.

    Monday, June 26, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 3: City of Lights (and Late-Night Plights)

    Our long day in Paris was about to get longer.

    It was August of 2016, and I was traveling with my friends Jodee and Tim (or, as they suggested when I asked if I could use their names on my blog, "The Most Amazing Couple You Have Ever Met").

    They also brought their kids.

    We were quite a crew.

    We'd been warned against visiting France; but so far, everyone's worst fears had proven exaggerated. Despite international tensions, the city was still packed with tourists, and although the very obvious anti-terrorism security did nothing to decrease our travel stress, we'd actually been having a fairly smooth trip.

    Our time in Paris was brief, and we were trying to pack a lot in--too much, perhaps. On this particular day, we'd hit Eiffel Tower Park (a truly horrible experience) and canvassed two museums--Musee d'Orsey and Musee Rodin

    It had proven too much for the younger members of our group, who were clearly flagging. 

    They weren't the only ones.

    We'd walked too much, eaten too little, and not had nearly enough water (or coffee). Despite Jodee's daughter E. trying to talk us into staying out late enough to see the Eiffel Tower light show, the rest of us just wanted a quiet evening in.

    By the time we dragged back to our lodgings on Île Saint-Louis, we were ready to trudge up the winding stairs, break open the snacks we'd picked up at nearby mini mart, and fall into jet-lag-induced stupors.

    When we arrived at our building, however, all was dark--and I mean dark. The entire building had lost power. Which would have been a minor inconvenience, except that the glass door that opened to street was operated by electronic keypad.

    "It's fine," Tim said. He'd made the travel arrangements, and he would take care of it. Once he placed a call to the owner of the building, he told us, all would be sorted quickly. Never mind that he'd been using his cell phone for navigation all day and the battery was at 5%.  

    Of course, it wasn't just one call, and it wasn't sorted quickly.

    As Tim's phone battery rapidly depleted, however, a plan slowly developed. The building manager wasn't in the city for the weekend, but he agreed to send a workman--a workman who was currently off duty and would have to be contacted and dispatched to our location in central Paris. 

    Which meant a wait. 

    But no worries: we were in Paris. We were encouraged to enjoy the night life. Go, relax at a cafe along the Seine, have dinner and a bottle of wine--or six. Never mind that half our group was underage. Plus, we'd already eaten. 

    The children collapsed on the sidewalk.

    I joined them. 

    While Jodee and Tim conferred in low tones, I let the kids take turns telling me things--who knows what. They were just talking and talking. 

    Then I remembered the snacks. I pulled out a bag of fromage-flavored chips, flopped backward with my head resting against my bag, and stared up at the dark Parisian skies, mindlessly snacking. I offered to share my chips with the kids--half out of generosity, and half hoping that they'd talk less with their mouths full.

    So there we were, lying on the sidewalk like homeless people, sharing a bag of cheap chips while tourists and sophisticated Europeans in their on-the-town finery quick-stepped around us, heading off toward glamorous evenings while we huddled under the eaves, hard-core jet-lagging and praying for salvation.

    It was like something out Dickens, only with snacks. 

    At length, E. pointed out that if we walked to the Seine, we could catch the Eiffel Tower light show after all. While Tim stayed behind to wait for the workman, the rest of us ambled down to the river. Along the way, one member of our group was nearly run down by an irate cyclist while another had a shifty-eyed stranger try to sell her beer out of an oversized murse. 

    Marveling at these diversions, which seemed all in a night's work for Paris, we lined up along Pont Marie, watching the Eiffel Tower light up the sky.

    In a small piece of luck, we arrived back just as a workman showed up. 

    He pulled up to the curb and hopped out of his minivan, smiling and chatting in French. After the quickest assessment I've ever seen, he popped open the back of the van, and--with absolutely no warning--pulled out a buzz saw and started sawing directly through the door. 

    Photo Courtesy of Tim
    And so it was that we witnessed two light shows that night, neither part of the plan.

    I have other memories of Paris--the beauty, the grandeur, the history, the food, the lights, the architecture, the stained glass, the café au lait, the church bells, the art--and of course the Eiffel Tower, lighting up the night.

    All of that is Paris. 

    But that's everybody's Paris.

    It's not mine.

    My Paris will always be cheese-flavored chips, the sidewalk beneath me, the lights above, and the kids on either side, talking the night away.

    Monday, June 19, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 2: See Rome and Die (of Embarrassment)

    All I wanted was to see the Colosseum. 

    It was June of 2009, and I was in Italy primarily because I'd had a stressful school year and toward the end of May, I knew something drastic had to be done before I completely lost my will to live. So late one evening I came home from work, plopped in front of the laptop, googled "cheap airfare," and snapped up the first result. Knowing that I had a round-trip ticket to Europe in the offing helped me tunnel through the final weeks of the semester.

    Which is how I wound up in Rome.

    When I told my friend Lucy what I'd done, she decided to join me--thank God. Because clearly I was in no frame of mind to waltz around the world making independent decisions.

    Although I hadn't given this trip the sort of care and preparation I usually invest in overseas travel (generally there are charts, graphs, lists, timetables, and post-its), I still devised a loose plan for each day.

    As did Lucy.

    On this particular day, my plan was to see the Colosseum, while Lucy's plans involved taking photos with "Fabio," a third-rate Gladiator impersonator she'd spied the day before.

    Once she had him in her sights, there was no turning back.

    "He looks like a creep," I told her, but Lucy disagreed. She thought he was hilarious, and she gladly tipped him a couple of Euros to pose for some photos. He picked her up in his arms, nibbled her cheek, and soaked in her adulation. 

    Safely on the far side of the lens, I found the whole thing a little silly; however, given my track record in the areas of ridiculousness and public embarrassment, I was really in no position to judge.

    Then he came after me.

    Hair fluttering in the warm Italian sun, he strode over the cobbles, plucked the camera from my hands, passed it to Lucy, and wrist-dragged me across the street. Flapping my free hand and gobbling like a turkey, I found myself snapped into position and tugged forward.

    He leaned close.

    Only then did he sense how uncomfortable I was--not that it phased him.

    He leaned closer.

    "Don' worry," he murmured, "I no kees you!"

    Across the street, cackling away, Lucy snapped photos.

    Fabio eventually dropped his arms, stepped back, and studied me for a minute.

    "Ah," he said. "This."

    I'm sure he thought there was something wrong with me: this awkward, sleep-deprived female sporting the sallow skin and hollowed-out eye pits that only the tail end of a school year can produce.

    I can't say I'd blame him for worrying. I mean, look at me. I'd obviously let myself get into quite a state.

    Fortunately, there's no balm quite like ten days in Italy with Lucy. I flew home happy, tanned, well-fed, and well-rested.

    Best of all, I was ready to regale everyone with a string of mild disasters and embarrassing encounters experienced along the way.

    Because this was just the first of many.

    * * * *

    Monday, June 12, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 1: The Collapse of My Hindenburg of Hubris

    Please enjoy this short series curated from years of travel and stupidity. 

    During my twenties, I spent a year living in Shanghai, China.

    Initially, I found daily life overwhelming; and though I eventually adjusted enough to get by, even after I felt "settled," I still often had no idea what was going on. I really missed my family, but because of the steep learning curve, I told my sister to hold off on visiting until I had at least a toehold in the language and culture.

    Having lived in Shanghai for nearly six months by the time she planned her trip, and feeling quite the expert, I couldn’t wait to showcase the ease with which I had adjusted to the city. As soon as she booked the tickets, I hatched my plans. I'd breeze through public transit, flaunt my fresh Mandarin skills, and wow her with my fierce chopstickery.

    Though we could easily have taken a taxi on our first day downtown, I didn't want to drop the cash. What's more, I was proud of my ability to navigate Shanghai's labyrinthine public transit system.

    After a few stops on the subway, I directed us to a bus route I’d only taken a few times before. Unfortunately, I missed our intended stop, but hopped off a short while later (when the bus attendant started yelling at us for riding past our fare) and attempted what should have been a simple backtrack on foot.

    How it’s possible to go so utterly astray within a few city blocks is still mind-boggling. 

    But facts are facts.

    Right on cue, a cold rain began to fall.

    I had no idea where we were. Nothing looked familiar. We could have been on the moon for all I knew (assuming, of course, that the moon is a maze of noodle stalls, knockoff shoe stores, hole-in-the-wall tea shops, massage parlors, and fake-Rolex dealers).

    I trotted out my Mandarin, asking passersby for directions, but nobody understood me. Even worse, I couldn't understand them. 

    I had no idea why my language skills weren't working. (Maybe they don't speak Mandarin on the moon.)

    Perhaps if we had ducked out of the rain and had a cup of tea and a plate of dumplings, I could have regrouped; but this was more than a decade ago, and what I lacked in wisdom, I made up for with a pig-headed determination to stick with Plan A.

    So I stood in the cold drizzle listening to Bethany helpfully suggest that the next day, we pin our destination on the outsides of our coats, like children sent out into the countryside by rail during the London Blitz. 

    My Hindenburg of Hubris was on its way down, imploding in a glorious ball of flame.

    Knowing that enough was enough, I swallowed my pride and hailed a taxi. 

    But the day’s humiliations weren't over.

    The first taxi driver we flagged down refused us service. Though he understood my doubtful Chinese, he still shook his head, flapped his hands, and sped off into the rain, looking annoyed.

    The next driver was more charitable, taking the time to explain something to me in slow, measured tones—tones that I couldn’t grasp no matter how clearly he spoke.

    Eventually, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck, he waved us into the cab, popped it into gear, drove around one corner, and immediately I understood.

    We’d been only a few hundred feet from our destination.

    Oh, the humanity.

    I shelled out the cash, tipped our driver generously, and shuffled out of the cab behind Bethany, making a mental note to set aside scraps of paper and safety pins for the next day's outing.

    Just in case.

    Monday, June 5, 2017

    Fitting the Fragments Together

    You're no doubt familiar with the type of artwork known as mosaic. Artists attempting this expression arrange bits of stone, tile, colored glass, or other fragmented materials in order to create a pattern. Often, these patterns create a larger picture--but only when viewed from a distance.

    What a metaphor for life. 

    We can rarely accomplish big-picture goals in single blocks of time. Instead, we find little bits here and there, fit them together, and arrange them in hopes that one day our efforts will construct a larger reality.

    A few years ago, someone told me that if I were going to make it as a writer, I was looking at between three and five years to see a return on my investment--possibly longer. The odds weren't encouraging, but I buckled down and started fitting pieces into place.

    I wrote two hours a day, five days a week. 

    That was it. 

    Some days I wrote a little. Some days I wrote a lot. Some days I did nothing but delete the previous day's work. Some days I felt inspired. Most days I didn't. 

    But on all days, I put in time. 

    These two-hour sessions were my little mosaic pieces, dropping into place. It was tedious work; and up close, it was hard to imagine what might come of it, if anything.

    Fast-forward four years later, and it's exciting to step back and see those little pieces coming together.

    The same principles hold true in many aspects of life, and I'm not just talking about career or creative endeavors. In almost every area, it's the small, daily steps -- the tedious, fragmented little bits -- that create the big picture.

    * * * * *

    By José Luis Filpo Cabana (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Tuesday, May 30, 2017

    Overcoming Fear of Creative Failure, Part 3: Putting the Work In Its Place

    We spend so much time developing our projects that it's hard not to see them as extensions of ourselves. That's why the fear of creative failure can be so crippling.

    If my work is misunderstood, then I'm misunderstood. If it's a flop, I'm a flop. 

    Perhaps even more damaging, I may believe that if my work's valued, I'm valued. If it's worthy, I'm worthy. If it's beloved, I'm beloved.

    Oddly, I never felt this way when I worked in a commercial kitchen. If I turned out a bad batch of something, I didn't feel like a failure. I just felt annoyed. If I had a good shift, I didn't feel that my personal worth had increased. I just felt thankful for a good day. Either way, I'd earned my paycheck. 

    Those were simpler times.

    Sometimes I miss them.

    But I'm grateful for those experiences. They're reminders that at the end of the day, it's all just work. 

    Work is hard and tedious and challenging and rewarding and annoying and deeply satisfying. 

    But my work isn't me. It's not the sum of my worth or value or identity. 

    Only Christ is strong enough to serve as the anchor for my soul.

    If I idolize my creative projects, I will crush them under the weight of my expectations. If I put them in their proper place - as work done in faith and obedience - then neither the successes nor the failures will wreck me.

    * * * * *

    Photo Credit:

    By Niklas Bildhauer (who also is User gerolsteiner91. (originally posted to Flickr as folder) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Monday, May 22, 2017

    Overcoming Fear of Creative Failure, Part 2: Obedience

    A surprising number of well-known professionals suffer from imposter syndrome: a condition that leads them to believe that their successes are flukes, that they're actually not very good at what they do, and that the next project they take on will be the one to reveal their fraud to the world.

    I know how they feel. I often wonder if I'm cut out to be a writer, and why I don't just settle down and do something sensible and productive with my life. Ironically, I wondered this much less before I started getting published. I know that it makes no sense. I'm not pretending that it does. I'm just trying to be honest.

    Fortunately, these feelings are just feelings, and understanding that my feelings don't rule me is a productive step toward overcoming them. 

    Also, as a Christian, I have further remedies to combat the madness.

    Of primary importance is that I acknowledge that my work (and all work, really) is an act of obedience based on my trust in the Father's sovereign care.

    Recently, I was encouraged to note that in Jesus' parable of the stewards, the master gave "each according to his ability." He gave the stewards individual levels of responsibility that he knew would not crush them. 

    That means he doesn't hold a one-talent steward to five-talent work. 

    What a comfort.

    In the parable, however, the one-talent steward doesn't trust this. He is so afraid of failure (even low-level failure) that he does nothing. His fear cripples him. He buries his talent in the ground and robs the surrounding community of the benefits that the master's investment would bring.

    But there's something the steward didn't consider: "While the steward was afraid of failing, his master wasn't afraid of giving him the chance to try. Even if the steward's fears told him otherwise, he should have placed his confidence in the truth that his master knew best and had actually taken his abilities into consideration" (Moser, 15-16).

    This was a very freeing realization for me. I don't know if I'm a five-talent steward, a three-talent steward, or a one-talent steward; but I do know that God won't expect a level of work from me that he hasn't equipped me to produce. Therefore, if I'm willing to work in obedience, doing the best I can with the skills and abilities that I actually have, then I'll know I'm fulfilling my role as a steward of his grace.

    * * * * *


    Moser, Phil. 2014. Taking Back Time: Biblical Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination. Biblical Strategies, 16.

    Photo Attribution:

    By User Gflores on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    * * * * *

    Overcoming Fear of Creative Failure, Part 1: Managing Expectations

    Monday, May 15, 2017

    Publication Announcement: The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles

    I'm happy to announce that I've signed a traditional publication contract for The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles. This non-fiction ministry guide is designed to help pastors, church leaders, and marrieds more effectively provide soul care for long-term Christian singles. As marriage rates continue to decline among Millennials in the United States, this issue will gain increasing prominence.

    Over a nine month period, I surveyed many singles, marrieds, pastors, elders, and church leaders. I asked them all the same basic questions about their perceptions of singleness in the church and then compared the data. After analyzing the results, I was able to highlight areas of divergence and recommend positive steps to addressing the underlying issues. 

    A deep thank-you to everyone who took and/or shared the online survey during 2015-2016. Your input was very much appreciated! Also, thank you to everyone in my life who has been so amazing and supportive about this project, and to my pastors and beta team for reading early drafts of the manuscript and offering patient and helpful critiques. 

    Although official release dates have not yet been nailed down, the book will hit the market within a year. My prayer is that the right books make it to the right hands so that the body of Christ is strengthened. 

    Praise the Lord and pass the first editions!

    * * * * *

    Photo Credit: 

    Eduard von Grützner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Monday, May 8, 2017

    Overcoming Fear of Creative Failure, Part 1: Managing Expectations

    Here's a confession: the closer I inch to release dates for professional writing projects, the more I suffer from senseless eleventh-hour panic spirals.

    Along with the more garden-variety worries (that I'll disappoint people by not living up to my last project or by not producing something "good enough" or by writing something that not everyone likes -- imagine!), one of my more persistent concerns is the irrational fear that I'll never have another good idea.

    Now, this fear is silly for a number of reasons; and identifying its roots has helped me push past it.

    First, I must bear in mind that no one has ever demanded that I produce anything. God gifted me with skill and desire, and I love developing my gifts; but if I quit writing today, the world would continue spinning. Let's face it: there's already an overwhelming avalanche of content available. No one will ever get to it all, even without me adding to the pile.

    Second, I've never not had a new idea. Sometimes the ideas have come quickly, and other times slowly - but they've always come. As Stevenson reminds us, "The world is full of a number of things." As long as I'm alive and active in the world, something will eventually spark.

    Third, my underlying trust in the sovereignty of God means that I don't rely on myself to keep the plates spinning. He is the ultimate source of every good and perfect thing - including good ideas. 

    It's all grace.

    Dorothy L. Sayers is excellent on these points, and if you haven't read her book The Mind of the MakerI commend it to you. It's worth picking up for her robust treatment of the creative process as an outworking of the Imago Dei alone; but specific to our discussion at hand, it's also in that book that she pens this heart-warming admission: "No one is more insecure than the creative artist; in daring to dedicate himself to his work, he takes his life in his hands."


    She gets it.

    Creativity is a risk.

    Risks can engender fear.

    Fear doesn't have to win.

    * * * * *

    Image Attribution:

    By Tellmeimok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Monday, May 1, 2017

    10 Great Literary Mashup Ideas

    • Animal Farm-to-Table: The Art of Triggering Local Socialist Movements
    • Alice's Adventures in a Land Remembered
    • Romeo and Julie of the Wolves
    • Lord Jim of the Flies
    • Ender's Hunger Games
    • The Time Traveler's Stepford Wives
    • The Devil in the Woman in White City
    • The Princess Bride Collector
    • The Man Who Mistook His Wife for the Red Hat Club
    • Eats, Shoots, and Leaves of Grass: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Individualism

    Somebody please make these happen.

    * * *

    Image Attribution:

    Carl von Bergen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Monday, April 24, 2017

    A Reader's Guide to Husband Hunting

    If classic literature has taught us anything, it's that we should ask our prospective spouses some very specific questions. Because you just never know about people. 

    Might I suggest you start with the following:
    • Have you ever dressed as a gypsy to trick a confession out of your crush?
    • Have you ever donned a mask and spent a significant amount of time living under the Paris opera house?
    • Have you ever, in case of misdirected rage, used a handkerchief to hang your girlfriend's dog?
    • Have you ever received ₤3,000 in exchange for the curacy at Kympton (and then lied about it)?
    • Have you ever, under the influence of secret guilt, carved the first letter of the alphabet into your chest?
    • Did you end your last relationship by taking your crush on an unfortunate sled ride?
    • To what extent are you committed to finishing The Key to All Mythologies?
    • To what extent do you blame your problems on Grace Poole?
    • If interrogated by agents of the Thought Police, would you betray me to Big Brother?
    • Where do you stand on the subject of attic wives?

    * * * * *

    Bad Boyfriend Roll Call:
    Erik (the Phantom of the Opera)
    Mr. Wickham
    Reverend Dimmesdale
    Ethan Frome
    Winston Smith

    Art attribution:
    John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Monday, April 17, 2017

    Weeping Among Hobbit Holes

    A few years ago, my sister Bethany and I visited New Zealand. We spent several weeks on the North Island: hiking, sightseeing, visiting with friends, drinking coffee, and stuffing ourselves with fresh butter and cheese. It was awesome. (The scenery, the coffee, the butter, the friends, the cheese. All of it.)

    During the course of our trip, we also visited Hobbiton.

    Nestled in the center of a 1,250-acre sheep farm in the lush hills of Waikato, Hobbiton was built for the filming of The Hobbit movies, and it's The Shire brought to life.

    If only the author could have seen this.

    Writing didn't come easily to Tolkien. His creative process was a struggle from beginning to end, and although The Hobbit had worked out well enough, he often despaired of finishing the publisher-requested "sequel"--a sprawling saga encompassing both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

    Contacting his publisher mid-project, he said, "My work has escaped from my control, and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody)..."

    Standing in the center of Hobbiton, I was struck that while Tolkien didn't exactly create Middle Earth ex nihilo--out of nothing, as God created the universe--he certainly came close. Middle Earth, after all, came complete with its own history, creatures, topography, mythology, and fully-articulated languages.

    Tolkien had created Middle Earth. 

    He'd created it out of words.

    And here it was.

    In this way, Tolkien reflects something of what it means to be made in the image of God.

    Our God is a Creator, and he's stamped creativity into our DNA; therefore when we create, we reflect him. Of course, we cannot create exactly as he creates; and we are no more the source of creativity than the moon is the source of sunlight. But though moonlight is dim, it's still light.

    So we create, reflecting light into darkness.

    That's what Tolkien did. 

    He poured himself into his work, telling a version of the oldest and most important story: the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

    In this way, Tolkien reflects the Imago Dei.

    These reflections, on a bright April day in the middle of a sheep farm, left me wanting to weep among the Hobbit holes.

    * * * * *


    Zaleski, Philip and Carol Zaleski. 2015. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. New York: Farrarr, Straus and Giroux, 398.