Blogging from A-Z – ‘Unbroken’: the book vs. the movie

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “U.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

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UnbrokenQuoteI’m so glad I decided to read Unbroken before I saw the movie. I’m also happy that I didn’t finish reading the book before the movie left town. (The book is pretty long; then again, so is the movie.)

Now that I’ve read writing coach Kristen Lamb’s deconstruction of the story, the desire to see the movie has left me. It must have been eaten by sharks much like the ones Louie and Phil managed to evade for 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific after their plane was shot down.

Laura Hillenbrand’s reputation as a storyteller (Seabiscuit) had made reading the book especially appealing. And, by all accounts, her book Unbroken is far superior to what it was turned into for Hollywood. I agree with everyone who sings the book’s praises. Hillenbrand is a superb storyteller.

Unbroken_coverBefore I downloaded it to Kindle, I thought Unbroken was about Louis Zamperini’s running career. He was an Olympic runner (5,000 meters) in 1936 whom I had read about in Runner’s World magazine before I knew about the book or the movie. I suppose the book’s subtitle, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, should have clued me in. (Read an excerpt of the book here.)

But I was concurrently listening to The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which I reviewed here on April 2. That book was, indeed, about the University of Washington rowing team and not so much about WWII. So maybe I was just hopeful.

Louie’s Olympic feats were featured, to be sure, but they were a minor part of Unbroken.

Our critic acknowledged that the book could have been turned into an excellent movie but made key errors that left viewers in the dark about certain motivations:

  • Why did Louie turn from being a thug and a thief in his youth into an Olympic runner?

In short: Athletics saved him. The book goes into detail about how Louie tried to reform, couldn’t, got in trouble with the high school principal and was allowed to participate in school sports. (Louie’s brother, Pete, had to charm the principal into giving Louie the opportunity. Pete may have saved Louie’s life.) We learn later in the book that Japanese officials kept Louie alive for leverage because he was a famous Olympian. So, not only did running save Louie as a teenager, it ultimately saved him from being executed as a prisoner of war. It seems that God had a plan for Louie.

  • The script lacked the dramatic tension that would cause Louie’s story to arc (change).

“He’s always the one who remains calm, the one who is levelheaded, the one who does the right thing. He takes the beatings while in captivity and presses on to stay alive. He is the same when the plane crashes as the day when he walks out of the POW camp. … We get a sense that Zamperini was already a ‘hero’ before his plane was ever shot down.”

This is where the book reader has the advantage: Louie did not always remain calm. Hillenbrand has him clenching his fists in silent defiance when he’s beaten by the sadistic Japanese corporal who has a special hatred for Louie and singles him out for arbitrary punishment multiple times a day. Louie and the other POWs take risks they might not have taken under less critical circumstances. Their freedom and their dignity are at stake.

You get inside the prisoners’ heads just a little when the author details how they sabotaged goods they were assigned to ship while on work detail. How they filled socks with contraband sugar to take back to the barracks. How they urinated on the bags of rice destined to ship out. How they stole tobacco, fish and wine and smuggled the goods back to the other prisoners.

Here’s how Lamb sums up the movie’s main flaws:

“In order to make a story into a movie (even TRUE events), it must be dramatized, meaning put into three-act structure. The biography did well (I assume) because the real story was actually Zamperini’s journey of FAITH. The crash and then time as a POW developed his trust in GOD and not himself. He survived, dedicated his life to God and then later returned and made peace with his tormentors. Forgiveness was how he triumphed, not just in taking beating after beating. He traveled to Japan and forgave them. But this is reduced to an afterthought in the film.

Those weren’t the only flaws that Lamb pointed out, but some of them aren’t relevant comparisons to the book. (Too many flashbacks, for instance: “often a sign of weak writing.” Showing Louie being starved and beaten for two hours is easier than writing a better script, she said.)

Commander Worf of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'
Lt. Cmdr. Worf of the USS Enterprise. He’s a Klingon.

She thought the movie would have made a good documentary, or perhaps be helped by the addition of Klingons.

“I see other reviewers also saying it wasn’t done justice, no character development, no emotion, etc. I personally find the story dramatic, but perhaps the movie structure killed it. It’s a shame. I think there was a story there to tell.”

Lamb complained about the three-hour length, specifically mentioning nearly two hours of Louie being beaten and an hour of unnecessary flashbacks. She didn’t mention the ongoing detail of Louie and Phil’s nearly seven weeks on the raft. I kept wanting them to just get off the darned raft. And then I wanted them to just get out of the darned POW camp. If I, the book reader, had those thoughts, how much more would I have been thinking them if I had been stuck in a movie theater, needing to pee, and watching two men stranded for weeks on open water? 🙂

In my comment on Lamb’s blog, I thanked her for sparing me the three hours of torture (mine, not Louie’s).

I’m fairly certain that lots of people who didn’t read the book have enjoyed the movie and had no conscious thought about any of the critical elements Lamb mentioned. But she teaches writing, and this was a situation where she turned lemons (watching a three-hour movie she considered extremely boring) into lemonade (a writing lesson).

You may agree or disagree, but I consider myself $8 to $10 richer because I’ve skipped the movie. Thank you again, Kristen.

I forgive novice director Angelina Jolie for taking a great book and making an inferior movie out of it. After all, forgiveness is one of the main themes of Unbroken.

Have you read the book? Seen the movie? Read Lamb’s full critique here (same link as above), and give me your thoughts – good, bad or somewhere in between.

UPDATE: On Thursday, April 30, I updated my “review” by talking more about Louie and the book’s author, Laura Hillenbrand. Read about it here.

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Saturday: V is for (help me out – what starts with V?).

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘Intentional Walk’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “I.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

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BerkmanGraphicCardinal red runs through my family’s veins. Well … at least most of them.

For me it’s Dodger blue.

And when I say “me,” I mean Me, Myself and I. As far as I can tell, I am the one and only Dodgers fan in my family. (It started in the mid-1970s with Steve Garvey; I was in junior high.)

A couple of years ago, when our two teams met in the playoffs, things got a little tense at Mom’s house. (Bruce and I watch games there because she’s the one with the TV.) I had to watch in frustration as yet another Dodgers team fell just short of a World Series berth. Oh, well; I’ll always have 1978 (that’s the first year they won the pennant after I switched my loyalty from the Reds).

But once the Dodgers are out of a pennant race, I become a true-blue Cardinals fan and my mother and I can be lovey-dovey again. 🙂 (Bruce just sits on the sidelines and keeps his mouth shut – mostly – because he’s a fellow who knows what’s good for him.)

IntentionalWalkCoverI knew that my favorite Cards pitcher, Adam Wainwright, team manager Mike Matheny and left fielder Matt Holliday professed to be Christians, but I hadn’t realized that the team was known for having several Christians on its roster – until I saw Intentional Walk on the BookLook Bloggers list. Although I jumped at the chance to read the book, it has taken me a couple of years to get around to writing the review. (Don’t judge me. The BookLook folks don’t; they just won’t send me another free book until I post this review!)

Written by Rob Rains, the book is subtitled “An Inside Look at the Faith that Drives the St. Louis Cardinals.” In it, I learned the faith backgrounds of several players and crew members.

It didn’t go deep, though.

The book, while interesting, is uneven in spots and at times seems to have been written by a high school student who spent a few weeks doing research and then strung some interesting facts into a book report for senior English. The writing is a bit unsophisticated, and I’d like to have gone a little deeper with some of the stories. (I probably would’ve given the student a C+ … maybe a B-.)

Each chapter is a mini-bio of a particular player and his faith walk. And each chapter begins with a Bible verse, but many times I was left scratching my head as to what the verse meant to the particular player or how it related to the summary of his faith. The author did a poor job of connecting the dots. (Did he just pick a bunch of verses that sounded good and slap them on each chapter?)

But at least one reference made sense: “Kolten Wong’s faith is with him every day – his favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 3:6, is tattooed onto his back.” This revelation is in the middle of the chapter on James Ramsey and Wong, who at the time (2012) were just team prospects – they weren’t playing in St. Louis yet.

Despite some foul balls (sorry, I can’t help myself), the book does score on some levels.

The prologue alone is worth the price of admission. It gives insights into Matheny’s character and includes a letter he wrote to parents of a Little League team he managed in the late-2000s, after he retired as a player. In it, Matheny outlines what he expects of the players and their parents. I like his honesty:

“I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. … I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans.”

He outlines his three main goals for the team, then says, “We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires, no matter what.”

And the chapter on broadcaster and former pitcher Rick Horton talks about a dark period for the team in 2002: the deaths – four days apart – of broadcaster Jack Buck, who had worked for the Cardinals nearly 50 years, and 33-year-old player Darryl Kile.

The story of Matheny’s reaction to Kile’s death is poignant. Matheny, a catcher at the time, was extremely close to pitcher Kile. I’ll let you read that story for yourself.

This is a decent book that gives an inside look into some Cardinals’ lives. I wouldn’t say Rains knocked it out of the park, but he didn’t strike out, either. (Sorry; I have a sickness.) It was a pleasant enough read, well worth the $2.99 on Kindle or, if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Cards fan, maybe the full price for a hard copy at Christianbook.com ($11.99) or Amazon (paperback starting at $7.80).

I just wish it came with a box of Cracker Jacks.

BookLook Bloggers (formerly BookSneeze) sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. If you’re interested in receiving free books for writing unbiased reviews, visit BookLook here.

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Tomorrow: J is for ‘juvenile’ (or Type 1) diabetes.

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “C.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the A-Z page here.)

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TrixieBeldenI suppose I came by my love of mystery stories honestly.

My Grandma Tressie – Dad’s mother – would pass along her Agatha Christie paperbacks after she finished reading them. And she read them all.

I’m sure she read other things – I can’t know every possible thing she liked – but Agatha Christie is what I remember sharing with her. It was our thing. (That, and her Dell crossword puzzle books that came in the mail; she had a subscription.)

For me, it was Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys … then Edgar Allan Poe and, starting in high school, Stephen King. I devoured every one of them. There was even a lesser-known girl detective, Trixie Belden, whose adventures I followed during grade school and junior high. Good thing I had a county library and school libraries to feed my habit – my parents would have gone broke keeping me in books.

Mystery, horror and crime stories were not all I read, but they’re what I remember most. Then I became an adult and turned to nonfiction as my mainstay. Forsook the love of my childhood.

So I hadn’t read a good mystery in years – forgot how much I loved them, in fact – until Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

CrookedLetterCoverSS

My monthly reading group’s March meeting coincided with bestselling author Tom Franklin’s visit to Lyon College, where he was awarded the Leila Lenore Heasley Prize. (I wrote about that evening here.) Before the event, I had nabbed Crooked Letter from the county library rather than downloading it to my Kindle app … just in case I didn’t like it.

I needn’t have worried.

Franklin’s book – a mystery about two disappearances a quarter-century apart, and the man suspected in both crimes – isn’t so much a crime story, in my opinion, as it is a story about a friendship.

“When [the investigator] left, Larry lay amid his machines, thinking of Silas, how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see.”

The friendship starts when the boys are in grade school and, despite an event that causes them to part ways when they’re young, they remain a part of each other, past, present and future.

Many mystery/horror/suspense novels are short on character development – relying on action to the detriment of the story – but that’s not the case here. Franklin weaves dialogue (inner and outer), plot, action and scenery to good effect.

A writer from the South and of the South, he may use kudzu as a metaphor once or twice too often, but, on balance, this is a tale that I enjoyed thoroughly – definitely one of those can’t-put-down kinds of books.

There is plenty of action, to be sure. This isn’t a romance novel – it’s a mystery story. Lovers of suspense won’t be disappointed.

But the inside-the-character’s-head writing is why I like it so much:

“Larry never accompanied her to the fabricated metal building they used, understanding it was easier for a congregation to accept the mother of an accused killer than the killer himself, but, hungry for God, he would abstain from food when she did. He found the first skipped meals the hardest, the hunger a hollow ache. The longer he went without eating, though, the second day, the third, the pain would subside from an ache to the memory of an ache and finally to only the memory of a memory. Until you ate you didn’t know how hungry you were, how empty you’d become. Wallace had shown him that being lonesome was its own fast, that after going unnourished for so long, even the foulest bite could remind your body how much it needed to eat. That you could be starving and not even know it.”

Yes, it’s a mystery novel.

But much more than that, it’s a book full of beautifully descriptive thoughts and scenes and characters. It’s a tale of two friends, one black, one white.

It’s a must-read.

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Tomorrow: D is for debt-proof living.

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Blogging from A-Z: Book review – ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “B.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the A-Z page here.)

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BoysInTheBoat_PocockQuote

Confession: I haven’t quite finished the book.

But I’ve finished enough to know that I can recommend, without hesitation, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

An author friend of mine, when I told him I was reading Unbroken (the story of 1936 Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini – read my review here), recommended The Boys in the Boat as my next read. Conrad specifically urged me to listen to the Audible.com version because of the wonderful narration by Edward Herrmann (God rest his soul).

I typically don’t listen to audio when I run outdoors, but lucky for me I was stuck with the treadmill for several weeks because of icy weather and short, dark days. 🙂

BoysInTheBoat_coverThis book, and Herrmann’s lovely, fluid reading of it, proves that nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and boring. A good tale, well told, is like poetry, or music, and this one has been an exciting melodic discovery for me.

While I plod along on the ’mill with the book turned up loud, the minutes sail by. I can practically hear the swish-swoosh-swish of the water as the University of Washington crews practice their craft (and art, and mental game) in hopes of beating their University of California archrivals in the next regatta, or making it to the 1936 Olympics.

I can almost hear the voice of Englishman George Yeoman Pocock, who designed and built the boats our boys rowed in, as he explains to farm boy Joe Rantz how a racing shell takes shape. It’s obvious Pocock had a love affair with his boats, and the materials that went into making them:

“As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, but the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood – as if there was something holy and sacred about it – that drew Joe in.

“ ‘The wood,’ Pocock murmured, ‘taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity. But it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place: something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here.

“ ‘Sure, I can make a boat,’ he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, ‘but only God can make a tree.’ ”

Pocock wasn’t the only poet-at-heart. Brown, the book’s author, seems to have taken the topic of rowing and made a master’s thesis out of it, but not the kind that puts you to sleep (unless the thesis is a lullaby). Maybe Brown grew up with the sport; maybe not. However he came to possess the information, he’s an expert on his subject matter, and he makes it come alive, with beautiful and rich description.

We know the boys made it to the Berlin Olympics. We know the things Hitler did as he grew in power. We know who won medals in 1936 and who didn’t. That information is all in the history books.

But when you know the outcome of an event and you’re nevertheless breathless at the telling of it – can’t wait until tomorrow night when you get to read the next installment – well, that’s good storytelling, folks.

You can Google or Wiki the tale of these working-class “boys in the boat” – find out which of them made the team and whether they brought home Olympic gold – but save the cold, hard facts for after Brown has introduced you to his Boys in the Boat.

It’s worth its weight in gold.

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Tomorrow: C is for “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” my review of another great book.

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Book review: ‘The Well-Balanced World Changer’

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

– E.M. Forster, as quoted in ‘The Well-Balanced World Changer’

WorldChangerBookCoverChristianbookCROPPED

I finished a book last night that took me a few months to read – not because I’m a slow reader (although I am) or that my life is too busy (again, guilty) but because I needed to spend time reflecting on each and every chapter. And I went back and read some chapters a second time. As I said this morning on Facebook, the book is filled with encouragement, insight and wisdom – so much so that I not only read some chapters twice but I highlighted lots of passages. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

The book – The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane while Doing Good by Sarah Cunningham (see links below) – is broken into 10 sections, with several short chapters in each. Every single chapter had something profound to say to me. The author was speaking my language.

To say that the book is strictly about “changing the world” is to do it an injustice. For me, it’s more about changing myself from within, of aligning myself with God’s purposes in the world. After all, to make a better world you have to start with yourself.

The author’s words of wisdom resonate on so many levels. She talks about relationships, motivations, disillusionment (a good thing!), compassion, commitment, vision, juggling stuff, setting priorities, being vulnerable, being confident, taking risks, making lemonade out of lemons – or peaches (she tells a story about a professor applying to colleges who sent out his resume with a typo: War and Peach). About perseverance, putting criticism in perspective, figuring out what matters (“If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago.” – E. Joseph Cossman) – too many topics to name here.

Each section and each chapter starts with an inspirational or thought-provoking quote. The author found some really awesome quotes – with ideas I’ve been trying to incorporate as I work on gaining confidence in my writing (and other areas of life). Like this one:

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

And this:

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams

And these two:

“Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.” – Richard Bach

“It’s always too early to quit.” – Norman Vincent Peale

Yes, yes, YES!

These are the section titles, followed by the opening quotes:

  1. Worth & Success. “The world has not seen what God will do through one man who is totally yielded to God” (D.L. Moody).
  2. Health & Balance. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer” (Harriet Tubman).
  3. Peace & Perseverance. “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world” (Robin Williams).
  4. Risk & Control.  “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” (Archimedes).
  5. Alignment & Relationships. “You realize you can’t change the world but it shouldn’t stop you from trying” (Kevin Johnson).
  6. Plans & Priorities. “It is more rewarding to watch money change the world than watch it accumulate” (Gloria Steinem).
  7. Passion & Identity. “I wanted to change the world but I have found the only thing one can be sure of is changing oneself” (Aldous Huxley).
  8. Desires & Frustrations. “Anger is like gasoline. If you spray it around and somebody lights a match, you’ve got an inferno. But if we can put our anger inside an engine it can drive us forward” (Scilla Elworthy).
  9. Faith & Expectations. “Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, ‘We kept charity overhead low.’ We want it to read that we changed the world” (Dan Pallotta).
  10. Humility & Perspective. “A neighbor is a far better and cheaper alternative to government services” (Jennifer Pahlka).

Those section titles alone won’t make you want to rush out and buy the book – they’re a bit prosaic. But the chapters’ contents flesh out the ideas in such a way that you’ll want to keep reading once you start.

This book, plus a sermon my pastor preached in late January, prompted me to get off my duff and enroll in a certification program to become a wellness coach. That sermon sealed the deal for me. It was the day I realized that all my “research and prayer” about whether to do it had reached fruition. That I needed to “paint or get off the ladder,” as my former pastor would say. So I enrolled in the program the next day.

I take my last online course this Tuesday, and in three weeks Bruce and I will head to Colorado, where I’ll finish my training on-site. After that, a final exam and I’ll be one step closer to my version of changing the world.

As I told my co-worker last week, at 51 I’m in the second half of my life. I don’t want to waste any time on things that aren’t of eternal significance. The field is ripe for the harvest. Slowly but surely, I’m being transformed into what I hope is a useful servant in God’s kingdom work – His mission for us as Christ followers.

Good preaching by my pastor plus the excellent book The Well-Balanced World Changer are helping me be bold, have confidence in my dreams and in my almighty God, and work toward my life’s purpose.

If you are similarly called (and I believe we all are), read this book. I purchased the Amazon Kindle version for $8.09, but you can order hard copies starting at $6.84 at Amazon.com or an ebook for $7.99 at Christianbook.com.

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Book review: ‘Altar Ego’ by Craig Groeschel

As books tend to do, Altar Ego: Becoming Who God Says You Are by Craig Groeschel came at just the right time for me. When I received an email from the publisher describing the book, I had begun a time of seeking: God, what do you have in store for me? How are you looking to mold and shape me so that I can carry out Your mission? What is my part in Your plan to make Your name great among the nations?

In part, the publisher’s blurb said: “Discover how to trade in your broken ego and unleash your altar ego to become a living sacrifice. Once we know our true identity and are growing in our Christ-like character, then we can behave accordingly, with bold behavior, bold prayers, bold words, and bold obedience.”

My ego (pride, holier-than-thou attitude, judgmental spirit) tends to get in the way of a lot of things, but fortunately God has been working on it through the years. (He has a big job!) So this book was one more step toward my being molded in His image.

The book has three parts:

  • Part 1: Sacrificing Your False Self for Your Sacred Identity in Christ.
  • Part 2: Sacrificing Cultural Relativity for Eternal Values.
  • Part 3: Sacrificing Self-Justification for Passionate Obedience.

Part 1, while completely relevant, seemed like yet one more recitation of things I already knew: “You are God’s masterpiece,” “You are God’s ambassador,” etc. I appreciated the lessons but didn’t get as much out of it as I did the two other parts.

Even Part 2 was more or less a rehash of a lesson on proper living (things my ego tells me I already have a handle on!). So, again, relevant but not as compelling as Part 3.

I highlighted many passages in all three parts of the book, so it would be unfair to say that only the last section spoke to me.

But finally, in Part 3, the author gets to the meat I’m interested in chewing on: “Bold Behavior,” “Bold prayers,” “Bold words,” “Bold obedience.”

And, while I’ve heard over and over that we are to be bold for Christ (if you don’t believe me, read the Book of Acts – 28 chapters of boldness), it’s a lesson I can hear every day and not get enough of.

By nature, I’m an introvert, and I used to be excruciatingly, painfully, embarrassingly shy. I would beg God silently to send people to me – rather than me to them – to be my friends, to pay attention to me (even though I hated being in the spotlight!). I had a screwed-up idea of how human interaction is supposed to work, especially for one who claims Christ as Lord and Savior, someone who’s supposed to share the Good News with everyone.

At some point, I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and do some work. I started allowing God to put me in situations where I was uncomfortable, where I would be forced to put myself out there, meeting people, talking to them, actually interacting. In other words, being vulnerable. To be honest, I still don’t like it, but I’ve gotten used to it and now seek out situations where my human-interaction muscle can stretch and grow stronger, little by little. It’s a circle: As I step out, my faith grows. As my faith grows, I’m more willing to step out.

So the section of Altar Ego on boldness really hit home with me. Like I said, nothing too new – although said in a new way with illustrations unique to the author – but a challenge to continue building on the foundation God has laid for my life.

My life is not my own. I want to lay it on God’s altar, and I must – every day, every hour, every minute. Only He knows the perfect plan for my life, and yours. Let’s allow Him to lay it out for us, and then grab His hand as He leads us on the great adventure.

Let us be bold.

“ ‘And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness” (Acts 3:29-31, NLT).

This review is part of my agreement with Thomas Nelson through its BookSneeze project. It allows me to get free books in exchange for my honest review, whether I like the books or not. To learn more, click here.

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Book review: ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ by Mark Horne

I must have been tired, busy, distracted or just cranky when I started reading the biography J.R.R. Tolkien last year. I just couldn’t get into it. And when I picked it up a few weeks ago to try again, it still seemed dry and uninteresting.

But I had to finish it, because I had agreed to review it (more on that below). And I’m happy to say that, in the end, I liked this book.

Part of my interest in this fantasy writer and poet stems from the fact that my husband reads Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy about once a year; and my brother, who usually is too busy living life to read much, read The Hobbit once upon a time – one of the few books he has ever read – and loved it.

Also, when I heard that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (my favorite author) were friends (wow!), that sealed it for me. I had planned to read the Hobbit books for years (even before the movies of the early 2000s) but never had gotten around to it. And when I ordered the biography last year, I debated about whether to read it first or read the fantasy novels first. Will the biography help me enjoy the novels more, or will starting with the novels help me appreciate the bio more? The debate lasted so long, it took me months to get around to reading the bio (I finally decided to read it first, and I think I chose correctly).

So here we are at long last: I’m ready to share my thoughts on the biography.

The prosaically titled (and, at times, prosaically written) volume, written by Mark Horne as part of Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series, begins with a tale of a 3-year-old John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (or, simply, Ronald), a tarantula bite and a quick-thinking nanny to the rescue. Giant scary spiders would figure into stories he wrote for his children, and longtime Tolkien fans will recall their presence in the Hobbit stories. But not because he remembered the tarantula – this was not a case of art imitating life. He later said he didn’t recall the tarantula bite as part of the incident – he simply remembered the heat of the day and running in fear through the tall, dead grass.

In other ways, though, the difficulties of his life did inform his writing. While he was still a child, he endured the deaths of both parents, and several resulting moves because of financial necessity and educational needs. His mother’s family ostracized her because of her Catholic faith – a factor that contributed to her death, in her older son’s opinion, and which may have strengthened his resolve to remain true to the faith.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his parents had relocated from England for financial reasons. When he was 3, his mother took him and his younger brother to England for a visit. The plan was for the boys’ father to join them later, but it was not to be; he developed a brain hemorrhage and was buried before his wife even received word that he had died.

Ronald’s diabetic mother died when he was 12. She made arrangements in her will for her friend and spiritual helper, Father Francis Morgan, to be her two boys’ legal guardian. Tolkien’s faith played an important role in his writing, even though he at one time said he preferred not to write overtly Christian stories but “to let readers make their own choices.” Still, his faith in God was communicated throughout his works of fiction. “Having written an epic of good versus evil, Tolkien left readers free to make up their own minds how to apply his fiction,” Horne writes.

Although his works portray the battle of good vs. evil, they also portray a world in which there is much beauty “and where there was true courage to do what is right even at great cost.” Even though I haven’t delved into his books yet, I’ve seen the first two movies in the LOTR trilogy and can attest to that point. “Tolkien portrayed a fantasy world that could not only entertain us but could also challenge and inspire us.”

Entertaining and inspiring stories aside, the area where I most identified with Tolkien – besides his love of languages and linguistics – was his perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering” perfectionist, but, oh, how I understood his extreme difficulty in letting go of a manuscript. He kept revising, changing, modifying and tweaking his stories. He never thought one was good enough to be published and was surprised at his novels’ success. (Similarly, it takes me forever to write a blog post, and once I’ve published it, I’m still not finished with it!) One theory for his procrastination problem was that Tolkien avoided completing a project “because doing so would mean that he was no longer being creative.” Maybe. But as a fellow sufferer of the disease of perfectionism, I doubt that was the main reason.

And then there was his obsession with The Silmarillion, which gives background and history to some of the people, places and things in his Hobbit books. The Sil seemed to be his pet story – or, as his biographer put it, “his life’s work” – but it’s one I have been advised by fans of his to save until later because of its dense history and similarity to the Old Testament! And, even though I rather like the OT, I’m taking the advice of my husband and my friend’s Facebook friend, with whom I got into a conversation about Tolkien and his works. I’ll start with The Hobbit.

I am leaving out major pieces of Tolkien’s history in this already-long post: his friendship and, later, break with fellow Oxford professor and fantasy/sci-fi writer C.S. Lewis; his service in World War I; his marriage; his children; his death; and so much more.

But any good writer should know when it’s time to shut up, and that time is now. I’ll leave you with this:

     “Not all those who wander are lost.”
            – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Excuse me now – I have some Hobbits to get acquainted with.

I’ve been a part of Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze project for nearly three years. It allows me to get free books in exchange for giving my honest opinion, whether I like the books or not. If you’d like to get in on this sweet deal, click the link above.

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Books, books and more books

I’m ready to admit it.

I suffer from attention deficit disorder. If I wasn’t certain of it before, I am now. Technology has propelled me toward this official self-diagnosis.

Evidence?

My book collection not only clutters my house; it’s beginning to clutter my electronic bookshelf.

When we finally sold our house in North Little Rock a year ago, we made a small profit and indulged in some techy stuff. Two days before my birthday, I got a smart phone. A few weeks later we got an iPad, and a couple of months after that we got a new laptop. All Apple products (yes, we’re “Mac snobs” and have been for years).

All these electronic devices now “sync” with one another. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.

One good thing is apps.

Another good thing is the Cloud.

When you have three complementary electronic gadgets, all from the same brand, apps and clouds can be a lovely thing.

It means you can load up with BOOKS. And read them anywhere.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE BOOKS? Not lately, but, yes, I have mentioned it. Unfortunately a bunch of Suzy & Spice got wiped out a few months ago, so some of my book-loving references have gone away. Poor you. Because some of them were book reviews. About books I got FREE just for writing reviews about them. (One really cool thing about that is that a couple of these books’ authors posted thank-you comments at Suzy & Spice. And another one saw my previous reviews and wrote me a letter asking me to review her new book. So I did.)

But back to the book clutter.

Bruce Oakley and I (I’ve begun calling him “Bruce Oakley” since he got his own Facebook page; if you FB much, you’ll understand) … well, we love books.

This can be a dangerous thing.

Our house in North Little Rock, the one we sold because we moved to Batesville, had wall-to-wall built-in bookcases in three rooms. It’s basically what sold us on the house 13 years ago, especially for Bruce Oakley, who never met a book he wanted to give away.

That’s not entirely true; he has managed to part with several items from our vast collection before and since we moved from a 2,600-square-foot house to a 1,740-square-foot house.

But, golly, do we still have lots of books! We even have boxes of them that we still haven’t unpacked 2½ years after moving.

I’m working on that. Got it down to just a couple of boxes now. Cookbooks, classic books, running books, gardening books, financial stewardship books, you name it. Books, books, books.

If you’re a true book lover, you understand how hard it is to part with a book – or to pass up a free book on a give-away table. (Many of our books were acquired when we worked for “the state’s largest newspaper” – books from the food editor’s table, or the religion editor’s table, sometimes even the travel editor’s table [even though I don’t really enjoy reading “travel” books]. Heck, we even got some of the books from the book editor’s table! Imagine that.)

We’ve acquired a couple more bookcases in the past several months. We have one still in the box – we’re still trying to decide where to squeeze it in (we bought the bookcase for my mom, but she changed her mind and we decided to keep it). We recently hung shelves in the office/sewing room to store non-book items so we could be a little more organized. This has meant some of the boxes on the floor under the table in that room have been emptied onto the bookshelves and other things have taken their place. (Sounds contradictory and counterproductive, but organizing clutter is a process, people!)

A work in progress. Still working on unpacking, sorting … and reading.

Nevertheless, we have given away a few dozen books in the past couple of years. I’ve donated several to our “church library,” which doesn’t really exist except for a small collection of books that I donated in the hopes of someday having a real church library. Our church here Batesville is a lot smaller than our church in North Little Rock, and I realize that when and if I decide to push for a “real church library,” I no doubt will be elected its first librarian. (Be careful what you wish for.) And we sent a bunch to a friend’s son who’s in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. He lives in a house with no electricity and has to read books with a headlamp. Does that make you more fully appreciate your books, your good lighting and your ability to read? I hope so. It does me.

But back to the electronic techno-gadget-thingie stuff.

Paring down our collection of physical books has been a good thing, spacewise, but now … I have discovered ebook readers! (Discovered is not so much the word as now have access to, on all my cool electronic devices.)

And what’s even better (or worse, depending on your perspective) is that you can obtain books with “1-Click” ordering, and many of these ebooks are FREE!

Did I mention that I love FREE?

And here’s where the ADD admission comes in: Just like with my physical stack of books and magazines on the nightstand, and on the floor by the bed (and in the tote bag I carry to work every day), I have a virtual stack of books that is beginning to pile up in my electronic cloud. (A cloud means you can access the same stuff from different devices by being signed in using the same username and password. It even remembers where you are in your book, magazine or newspaper so that when you’re on a road trip with your iPad, say, you can pick up where you left off reading on your laptop back home in your cozy chair. A virtual bookmark.)

But here’s the really embarrassing part: The reason there’s such a pile is that I start a book and don’t necessarily finish it right away. Right away meaning within the next couple of years. And then I pick up a different kind of book and don’t finish it, either.

Here’s an example, and why it can be so embarrassing: A friend and former colleague of mine from 20 years ago wrote a novel that has been quite well received. It has gotten some really, really good reviews. Right after (or maybe right before) it hit bookstores two years ago, I mentioned it to Bruce, who emailed my author friend and said he’d like to buy an autographed copy for me for our anniversary.

Well … my friend wouldn’t let Bruce pay for the book, promptly shipping us a copy along with a note saying it was good to reconnect after losing touch.

I emailed him to say thanks, and that since he wouldn’t let Bruce pay for the book, we donated $25 to Heifer International in his honor. And then we got to talking about the past few years.

Some history: He and I worked together at a newspaper in California. He was my supervisor, and I was the first babysitter of his first child. I really liked his wife, and in fact I still have a photo on my wall of her standing next to me, both of us smiling as I proudly hold their new baby girl. I house-sat for him and his wife for a week (someday I’ll tell you about having to crawl through their doggie door when the garage-door key wouldn’t work). I swam in their pool, loved on their pets and ate dinner with them once or twice. That was pretty much the extent of our socializing. (It’s hard to socialize with someone you work with when you’re both on the evening shift and have different nights off.) We were friends but not BFF’s, you know what I mean?

So when I moved away, and then he moved back to Seattle, we gradually became the kind of friends who only exchange Christmas cards, except that I am terrible at sending Christmas cards. It was kind of one-sided. I enjoyed seeing the kids age as the years passed, but it wasn’t enough to prompt me to get off my duff and actually send them a card.

One year I noticed that the Christmas cards were signed with only his and the kids’ names. No wife’s name. And since it’s not the sort of thing you write back about and say, “What, did you get divorced or something?” I simply wondered what had happened.

A few years later the cards stopped coming. Can’t say I blame him, I thought. I never send them a card.

So it was one of those wish we hadn’t lost touch kinds of things. Someone you really like and admire but no longer know much about.

And when we started emailing two years ago, my friend shared some of what had happened in the intervening years. Yes, they had split up. She moved away, and later was killed. To honor his privacy, and since I haven’t read all the book-publicity interviews to know how much he has shared publicly, I won’t say more than that.

But he told me that’s where the book came from. This experience of losing this woman he had loved, the mother of his children.

The book’s main character is a teenage boy who has lost his twin brother, so the circumstances are different, but you can still feel the pain and grief as my friend fictionalizes this horrific and life-altering thing that happened to his family.

The book is really, really good (except for the occasional foul language, which offends me on one level but remains true to the teenage character).

And two years later, I still have not finished reading it.

Yes, embarrassing.

But let me defend myself just a little. For the past four years, I’ve been in school at night while working full time during the day. Because of Bruce’s disease, I’m now the main breadwinner. I was trying to get a second degree because of my midlife career change, which happened out of necessity (it allowed us to move to Batesville, where the job opportunities are far fewer).

I was crazy half the time, trying to keep up with it all. This past spring, I decided not to return to school in the fall. I regret that I couldn’t finish what I started, but it was the right decision for my family.

And I’m just now catching up with my life. And my books.

In the spirit of decluttering our house, I was overjoyed to be able to start obtaining virtual books. I have a couple of snob friends – or really just one snob friend who has several snob Facebook friends – who wouldn’t be caught dead with an electronic book reader. They are old-school when it comes to books. They prefer to read them the old-fashioned way – on paper.

Too bad for them. There are so many advantages to ebooks. (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the list today.)

And then, a few weeks ago, while I was jogging with a couple of friends, one of them mentioned a book she got from Inspired Reads, a service that offers free (did I mention I love free?) and very inexpensive books for your Kindle. Well, I was all over that. I found the website, signed up for the daily emails and began amassing my collection of books for Kindle. (Did you know you can download a free Kindle app and not have to purchase the actual Kindle device? So then you can download free Kindle books! I also have iBooks, but the Inspired Reads selections are for the Kindle.)

And the books you can download (free!) aren’t just stupid, crappy books that no one wants to read. There are some good, thoughtful reads out there. They’re “the best Christian Kindle Books on a Budget.”

In the Inspired Reads daily email, you first have to wade through the list of Christian fiction, most of which doesn’t really light my fire, but then you get to the non-fiction, which has some good titles. You should check it out. Most days I just skim the list and delete the email because, even though they’re free, I simply don’t need to download every single free book out there. When I said I had begun “amassing my collection,” I didn’t mean that quite as literally as it sounds. I’m building my electronic library slowly, trying to be selective while also taking advantage of some of the books I otherwise would pass up. Because they’re FREE.

And I know of another great way to get free books.

If you’re a blogger, check out BookSneeze, another site with Christian books. BookSneeze will send you a book (physical or electronic) just for agreeing to review it on your blog and post the review on a book-related website (such as Christianbook.com or Amazon.com). I’ve obtained several free books from BookSneeze, and most of them are really good. Book Sneeze doesn’t require you to write a positive review – just your honest opinion.

So … back to the ADD thing again. (See what I mean?) I start reading a book, life gets busy, I stop reading the book, and I pick up a different book and start reading that one. Then life gets busy and the cycle starts all over. I have several unread books, just waiting to be loved.

But I’m turning over a new leaf, so to speak. I’m not going to start reading any new ones until the previous pile is finished.

Notice I didn’t say I would stop obtaining new books, just reading new ones. After all, who can pass up a free ebook?

I should be finished with Adios Nirvana within the next week.

Or so.

What books are on your nightstand and piled next to the bed? What books do you need to finish before adding more to your stash? Tell me, tell me!

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Book review: ‘How Shall We Feed Them?’

I have been told by more than one person that I’m “very practical.” I take it as a compliment (although sometimes it’s not intended as such).

Being so practical, I was pleased to spend 90 minutes this evening reading Marty Girardier’s How Shall We Feed Them? A Practical Guide for Organizing a Food Pantry.

Not only did it touch the practical side of my brain, it spoke to my spirit.

Girardier, who reorganized her church’s food pantry before moving to a smaller church and partnering with the larger church’s pantry, has learned by experience and dedication what it takes to make a success out of feeding the hungry, the poor, the disabled, the unemployed and the down-and-out – one bag of groceries at a time.

She knows it takes a hands-on approach to the practical matters of stocking the pantry, distributing bags of food, organizing volunteers and the 101 other things involved in such an undertaking. But there’s another hands-on task we’re called to. It starts by realizing that we, the church body, are the hands and arms of Jesus in the world. We have been called to take a very hands-on approach to ministering to a person’s spirit as well as his stomach.

An effective and spirit-filled food pantry volunteer is not merely someone who fills a bag with canned goods and ramen noodles; it is someone who isn’t afraid to stop what he’s doing and ask the unemployed dad or the woman with crying babies if she can pray with them. It’s someone who not only prays with that desperate person on the spot but remembers to pray for him long after the brief encounter is over. We are Jesus to a hurting world. Jesus didn’t just fill stomachs with food – he served as the Bread of Life so that we would never hunger again, and Living Water so that we would never thirst. In fact, He’s still doing that – to us and through us.

But back to the “practical” stuff (as if Bread and Water aren’t the most practical things in the world!).

Girardier offers all kinds of tips on organizing and maintaining a food pantry. I was minimally involved years ago with the food pantry at my previous church, and I hadn’t heard of some of these great ideas – ones that take the ministry to another level of caring. They even caused me to come up with a few of my own ideas.

  • The ministry included encouraging cards in the bags of food that were prepared ahead of time. Sometimes the bags also included Christian magazines or other materials.
  • At holiday time, the Sunday school children made Christmas, Easter or Valentine’s cards to include in the bags.

Each chapter ends with a “Stop and Pray!” section, followed by a segment called “A Storehouse Blessing” – a story shared by someone who was blessed by receiving from and/or giving to the food pantry.

The back of the book includes checklists, forms, a sample reminder postcard and other aids to getting and staying organized.

Scripture and biblical principals are abundant in this book, thus the part that “spoke to my spirit.” My two main spiritual gifts are giving and serving, and it seems that Girardier may share those God-bestowed gifts. This book blesses the giving and serving parts of my brain, not to mention my heart.

“Organizing the food pantry, distributing food, collecting food, writing encouraging cards, and stocking the shelves are pieces of a bigger plan God will use to show His love to those in need. Meeting a food recipient’s physical need is just the first step to showing God’s love.”

It’s not the government’s job to feed the needy. That job belongs to the body of Christ. He calls us to feed His sheep. Let’s do it.

If your church is thinking about starting or revitalizing a food pantry, please get a copy of How Shall We Feed Them? You might even want to buy a copy for every member of your team. It is available from the publisher, Pleasant Word (a division of WinePress), for $8.75.

Girardier also has a blog called Pantry of Praise. Check it out. You’ll be blessed.

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Book review: ‘Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me’

I don’t know where to start.

I just finished reading Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir … of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron.

Maybe the jacket blurb from the archbishop of Canterbury (!) will help: “This is neither a simple memoir of hurt endured, nor a tidy story of reconciliation and resolution. It is – rather like Augustine’s Confessions – a testimony to the unfinished business of grace.”

Ian Cron grew up with an alcoholic father, a reality that shapes his life to this day. At age 16, he discovered the surreal truth that his father was a member of the CIA. When he wasn’t unemployed.

This is not a typical memoir.

Having grown up in a family of teetotalers, I can’t exactly relate to Cron’s harrowing, sometimes bizarre tales, but he has a way of telling the story that puts the reader in his shoes. Each sentence puts us closer to understanding – and feeling – his pain.

Ever since I began reading the book, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe his writing style. Understated hilarity. Reverently irreverent. Dry witted. Brutally honest, no doubt, but in a gentle way. (Can you be brutal and gentle in the same breath?)

Cron is Anne Lamott for the clean-mouthed crowd. No F-bombs, no I-hate-Republicans rants. Just honest – and real.

Cron finds grace in the simple yet profound truths of life and makes them, yes, hilarious in an understated way (maybe that’s the definition of a dry wit). At times I laughed out loud, many times I chuckled, sometimes I merely smiled.

“The music at St. Paul’s [Episcopal Church] won me over as well. I’d never been in a church where people sang with so much enthusiasm. Catholics don’t sing – we murmur, then look surprised if a melody emerges.”

The simple. And the profound:

“I can see the couch from the kitchen. I stop cutting parsley and remember that [my mother] taught me how to ride the Dragon Coaster and what to do when you’re flung into the mouth of whatever it is you think will kill you. Throw up your arms and laugh until you come out the other side. That lesson has saved my life once or twice.”

I’m no good at writing book reviews. I just know when I like a book, or when I love a book – this one, for example – and I enthusiastically tell my friends they should read it. Some books fit into a niche, useful for a particular segment of the population; this one doesn’t fit into a neat category. It is for everyone looking for grace.

Aren’t we all?

This review is part of my agreement with BookSneeze. The publisher sends me a free book, and I agree to post a review of it on my blog and one other online publication. No pressure is put on me to write a positive review – just an honest one. (Click here to learn how you can get in on this sweet deal.)

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