Monday, December 31, 2012

Books Like Whoa: A Bookish Year in Review

This was the first year that I made a concerted effort to keep track of what I read. In the past, I would have some vague idea of how much I had read or what types of books I was in the mode for at a given time, but no real way to quantify those feelings.

Enter Goodreads and Firefly's fantabulous spreadsheet. Why 2 sources? I really like the ease of Goodreads, especially in tracking the specific time frame of reading for each book, as well as the social aspect of the site with groups and friends. It's also great for tracking your overall reading goal for the year. But the depth of the stats that go into the Firefly spreadsheet can't be beat, especially with the year over year data.

I started using these tools in earnest at the back end of last year, but really made a focused effort to track my whole reading year for the first time in 2012. I had retrospectively completed 2011, so this is the first time I can make some kind of assessment of how my reading patterns have changed year over year. And there are graphs. People, my inner business nerd is squealing with delight. Give her a moment.

Okay, so there were two huge differences in my reading from last year to this year. Can you spot the first one?

2012 Source Graph

2012 was the year of the library for me. This was not intentional; however, when I fully embraced my library's eBook lending program, it was all but inevitable. Not having to worry about physically returning a book? Just clicking a button to get it and then give it back? Money. So easy and if you're not doing it, get thee to your library! Even if you don't have an eReader, you can use your computer to read most files. I also checked out physical books at a much higher rate when I was travelling every week, and have been checking out books for grad school at a high rate. Plus, I borrowed more books this year than I have in the past.

2012 Pile Graph*
This much higher volume of library loaning means that I didn't make much progress on my TBR this year, which was one of my goals. Only about 30% of the books I read this year were ones that I already owned. I think this is a product of me being more plugged into the book blogging and podcasting community - because so many of the books I want to read are newer, and I won't buy hardbacks generally, I used the library to read "it" books that everyone was talking about. I could really see this in my aging stats. In 2011, the average age of the books I read was ~20 years old (median: 7 years old, mode: 2 years old). In 2012, the average age of the books I read was ~10 years old (median: 6 years old, mode: 1 year old). The time pressure of the library also sped up my reading... last year, a book was on my TBR for ~310 days on average. In 2012, books were only on the TBR for an average of ~70 days.

2012 Ratings Graph
Because I was using the library books, I was more adventuresome in my reading. I tried books that I wouldn't have bought, because the risk was just a time one, not a financial one. Plus, I have fully embraced my newfound ability to abandon books if they aren't working for me. The upside is reading books that I wouldn't normally have read that I loved (see The Sisters Brothers, Moneyball, and In the Woods). The downside is that I read a more books that I was "meh" on or didn't like at all. That explains why I have fewer 6+ books and more 3/under books. My average rating last year was 4.74, with a median of 5. This year, my average rating was 4.24 and the median was 4.^^ That probably also ties into the fact that 93% of the authors I read this year were "new to me" authors. So, I read more and more adventurously, but I didn't like what I read as much as last year.

2012 Genre Graph

The second big change of my reading between 2011 and 2012 was that I read more non-fiction. I'm pretty sure this is because I was in grad school - there was a high volume of non-fiction that I was reading for class (and these totals don't reflect the 1000+ pages of course reader!). I'm also so sad to see that I didn't read ANY short story this year! How is that possible? I read less standard genres, but more memoir, YA, and unconventional genres.

2012 Special Category Graph

Finally, I was tracking a few special categories for my own reading habits. I read more books by men than women this year, which was a change from last year. I'm assuming that is because I was reading more non-fiction? Still, it's a pretty even split, which is evidently unusual, based on other blogs' stats. I read way fewer audiobooks this year, and way fewer books that pertain to the writing project that I'm working on. I read a lot more Christian books, but that makes sense, given my grad school focus.

In terms of reading challenges, I had successes and failures. I succeeded in meeting my number goal: I am at 69 books for the year, with 62 being my goal. That's 18 more than I read last year, which I think is also attributable to the time crunch factor of using the library so much. Plus, I have noticed that my reading speed has improved since starting grad school. I hope that continues! But in terms of my specific A to Z Challenge, etc., I didn't do so well. This again goes back to my zeal for the library - I designed those challenges to help me get through my TBR, but that just didn't happen the way I had hoped this year.

Whew! That was my 2012 in reading. Overall, I'm happy with some of my more adventurous moments in reading and further emboldened to keep my "drop it like it's hot" policy for books that ain't working for me.

How was your reading year in 2012?

*Read but Not Owned includes all formats; From TBR Pile is owned physical books; Audio is owned audio; and Ebook is owned Ebook

^^ See ratings scale

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Books Like Whoa: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2012 Book Countdown)

I'm wrapping up the countdown with a book that has already gotten a lot of reader and critic love...

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

Procured from a certain ginormous online retailer

Procured in October 2011

Finished on January 14, 2012

Format: A very groovy trade paperback

Why I gave it a try: This book was everywhere in 2011. Lots of love from everyone I knew who had read it and then it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - so I had to find out what all the fuss was about

Summary: Goon Squad is really more of a series of interconnected short stories than a traditional novel, which moves backwards and forwards through a span of about 60 years, following a number of characters who are loosely connected to each other. There's Bennie, the record producer, who we see from his punk teenage years in the 1970s all the way to the end of his career in the near (dystopian) future. There's his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha, and a number of other characters who end up impacting each others' lives in a myriad of different ways. Alas, all fall prey to the same goon - time.

Thoughts: What I most appreciate about this novel is that it proves that literary fiction can be "fun." That seems to be a dirty word in some intellectual circles, but I celebrate any novel that excels in making you want to continue to turn the pages. This is a book that is really enjoyable, in addition to being a fine work of art.

And a fine work of art it certainly is. Egan's prose style isn't flashy but bears all the hallmarks of finely crafted workmanship that doesn't need bells and whistles to draw attention to itself. The simplicity downplays the sophistication of Egan's plotting, characterization, and settings, though she does have moments of flashier literary forms.

Enter the highly controversial powerpoint chapter. A little girl authors a powerpoint presentation, which she uses to detail her family's difficulties in communicating, especially between her autistic brother and her father. It. is. brillant. Some people hate it, but to me, it was a roundly successful experiment in storytelling through an unusual medium. I also love that it seems to be a genuine step forward in the literary form itself.

Thematically, Egan seems mostly concerned with the relationship that humanity and our environs have with time. How time changes our connections with other people, how time changes our technology, how time changes nature around us - all of these ideas are reflected in the stories. Egan also explore our relationship to music and how music affects our emotions.

This isn't just a thinker though - there is plenty of plot to keep things cracking along and Egan injects quite of a bit of genuine, unforced humor.

I highly recommend this as an entry book for folks who don't think they like literary fiction. Egan's novel exemplifies the intersection between pleasure and edification in fiction and I think that there is a little something in here for almost any reader.


6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW

What was the last literary book that you read and both appreciated and enjoyed?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (2012 Book Countdown)

We'll proceed with another book aimed at the under 18 set - my favorite YA book of the year

The Name of the Star
by Maureen Johnson

Procured from my local library

Procured on May 14, 2012

Finished on May 19, 2012

Format: Hardcover with kind of a goofy cover, though not as goofy as the sequel's

Why I gave it a try: I heard that this book included a Southern girl, a British boarding school, and a Jack the Ripper type mystery. That was enough for me.

Summary: When Rory Deveaux's parents get a job opportunity in England during her senior year of high school, Rory decides to mix things up and go to a British boarding school in the heart of London. Fitting in is somewhat of a challenge, but Rory is soon integrating into the school's rhythms, including the requisite BFF, dreamy crush, and mean girl rival. But when a Jack the Ripper copycat starts murdering women near the school, Rory finds herself the only witness to the murderer's dastardly deeds. Can she figure out how to stop the baddie before he kills again?

Thoughts: This is another book that benefited from me not knowing much about how the plot was going to turn - so again, I will not be giving you much more information.

Let's just say that with that plot turn, this book went from having most of my favorite tropes in it to having damn near all of them. Meaning, I really, really enjoyed this book. It definitely includes some wish fulfillment on my end- what this Southern girl wouldn't have given to go to a British boarding school! (BTW, why are we Americans so enchanted by British culture? I think it's some kind of weird daddy complex, but I'm not sure)

The writing is not perfect, but I found it well above average for this type of YA fiction. Johnson has a penchant for rather stereotypical character types, but she makes them interesting enough that I didn't feel resentful. She also manages to have a believable framework to address to plot points that stretch reality - this is actually where I thought her creativity and originality were best displayed and I look forward to her exploring that more in subsequent books.

This is also simply a highly satisfying Ripper mystery. There are a lot of people (including myself) who are morbidly intrigued with that most famous of all unsolved serial murders. Johnson incorporates that part of the story ably and keeps the tone appropriate for the target audience. The result is a fun mystery that was enjoyable to parse as you went along.

The criticism of this book has been interesting for me to read - it seems to be mostly adults criticizing this book for not being at an adult reading level. Well... duh. It's YA. And very well done YA. This feeds into a larger question I've been mulling over - what is the proper place for YA books in an adult's reading life? I'm not totally sure, but I definitely think that adults' perception of YA books is coloring their reception too much these days. Anyways, that's a discussion for another time...

The Name of the Star was a really enjoyable and age group appropriate thriller, and one that at least this adult really liked. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, which will be out in February 2013. Can't wait!


5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

How do you think the adult interest in YA is impacting that niche?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo (2012 Book Countdown)

Next up on the countdown, a haunting and delightful middle grade reader that won my heart

The Snow Spider
by Jenny Nimmo

Procured from my most favorite used bookstore in the world, McKay's

Procured in December 2011

Finished on January 1, 2012

Format: Audiobook, which I listened to on my way back to DC from Tennessee

Why I gave it a try: The good folks at Books You Should Read sold the hell out of this book on their inaugural book club and then I found the audio on the cheap. So I thought, why not?

Summary: Gwyn's ninth birthday doesn't get off to a great start. His father is still so devastating over his sister's disappearance the year before that he can't help but be horrible to Gwyn. Today, that means ruining his birthday party. But then, Gwyn's Gran gives him quite a gift - a test to see if he has inherited his wizard ancestors' powers. A snow spider arrives in response, confirming Gwyn's magical abilities, and giving Gwyn hope that he can heal his family. Magical shenanigans ensue. 

Thoughts: What I loved most about this book, which I believe is aimed at preteens, is the respect that the author shows for her young readers. There are some dark, scary things that happen in this book that Nimmo doesn't sugar coat at all. While I love Harry Potter inordinately, it has a rompy quality that keeps things from feeling too serious most of the time. This book is unabashedly dark. Stuff gets real and Nimmo doesn't temper things with much humor. She trusts her readers to deal with situations she sets up. In short, this is a very sophisticated emotional story, even if it is written for kids.

However, that doesn't mean that this is a depressing book or not fun to read. It just makes the stakes of the story feel weightier. Gwyn isn't just trying to save his community - he is trying to heal his family. He's trying to repair his relationship with his best friend. He's trying to connect with his ancestral history. I really admire this aspect of Nimmo's story telling: she makes the stakes focused on Gwyn's relationships, not on grand gestures of saving the world, though that does happen. The emotional driver for all the action in the story is grief - that's very rare for a children's book, from what I've seen.

I also was in love with Nimmo's invocation of the setting. She creates an incredible atmosphere of wonder and natural beauty. Basically, she made me want to move to Wales. Her use of Welsh mythology gives the whole of the story a sense of depth and richness that makes the story more believable. She makes a number of allusions and direct references to the Mabinogion, especially through Gwyn's ancestors' names.

She also builds a great sense of Gwyn's community, creating rich secondary characters. I especially loved Gwyn's Gran, who is as sassy as you could hope a grandmother could be. His best friend, Allen, is also great, and the mending of Gwyn and Allen's relationship is a satisfying subplot.

This is a great story for kids filled with both magic and human drama - a rare, but extremely satisfying, combination that Nimmo executes flawlessly.


6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW

What was your favorite childhood book?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (2012 Book Countdown)

Continuing my best reads o' the year countdown, we have Jesuits in space! And literally the best book I've read in years...

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

Procured from my old independent bookstore... oh, how I miss you, One More Page!

Procured in August 2011

Finished on December 4, 2012

Format: Paperback with a trippy, New Age-y kind of bird on it

Why I gave it a try: I have heard folks from both Bookrageous and Books on the Nightstand podcasts raving about this book - and then it showed up on a list of books that I had to pick something from to read this semester at grad school. Take care of a TBR and get class credit? Yes, please!

Summary: When scientists detect broadcasted singing from a nearby galaxy in 2019, the Jesuits launch a mission to learn more about the new culture on the inhabited planet, Rakhat. A team of eight priests and scientists is sent; only Father Emilio Sandoz is found by a UN mission to rescue the crew. The rescuers find him working in a brothel and witness him murder a child; soon after, they too, go missing, after putting Emilio on a shuttle home. Returning home in 2060, Emilio becomes Earth’s most reviled man. Their reputation in shambles, the Jesuits sequester Emilio and attempt to learn what happened. Intercutting between 2019 and 2060, Russell slowly reveals the true story of the Jesuit mission on Rakhat and creates one of the most complex and sympathetic protagonists in modern literature with Emilio Sandoz.

Thoughts: I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the best novel that I have read in years. In fact, it's probably made my top five list of novels ever. And it's a literary science fiction novel - what?! Anyways...

The Sparrow has a high volume of incident, but the plot is in service to Russell’s exploration of the "risks and beauties of faith." Themes include God’s sovereignty, what is means to glorify God, the possibilities and limits of grace, faith and doubt, the pleasures and perils of encountering another culture as an outsider, God’s ability to transform lives, and the capacity for someone to love God in the midst of suffering. So not light ground for any novel to cover. 

However, Russell manages to explore those themes in the midst of super engaging, super thought provoking hard science fiction. You get descriptions of the alien world, including the anthropology, ecology, sociology, and technology. The meat of the story centers around a mission to space to make first contact. The secondary plot line is a sort of religious who-dunnit type mystery, albeit without a murder to solve. So if you're worried that this is just a novelized version of a philosophy class, think again. When I was trying to summarize the plot, I was reminded again of just how much action Russell packs in a 400 page book.

That being said, what elevates this book from a typical novel, besides its combination of beautiful writing and engaging plot, is that the framing device, in the form of a single question. Did God create Father Emilio to go on this mission? As we seek the answer, we end up asking a lot of other questions, but this is the heart of Emilio's struggle for faith, both before and after his other worldly experiences. 

The prose is really wonderful - if I have a criticism, it's probably that the dialogue can feel a little forced, especially when Russell injects humor. That being said, the humor that she does introduce is a welcome breather from the heavy subject matter, and she successfully renders convincing monologues about the nature of science, faith, and reality. That's more than I can do with my dialogue. 

Please read this book. It will make you think and cry. It's got such a wide potential audience (it was recommended to me by religious folks and atheists, by sci-fi lovers and hardcore lit fic-ers, and by readers and non-readers, alike) and it deserves to find as many readers as it can. Basically, I really love this book. And you should read it. Now.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

What was the last "new favorite" book you read?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones (2012 Book Countdown)

Kicking off my 2012 book countdown... these are the books I most enjoyed this year, besides some of the ones I've already reviewed. We'll get started with some Sadie Jones.

The Uninvited Guests
by Sadie Jones

Procured from my wonderful local library

Procured on July 12, 2012

Finished on July 14, 2012

Format: Hardback with the American cover, which isn't as fun as the British cover

Why I gave it a try: I saw it in Foyle's when I was in London in the spring. I was intrigued but not sure enough to bite for the full hardcover price (especially in pounds! US, we really gotta work on our exchange rates). When I saw it again at my local library, I decided to go for it

Summary: A genteel British family is falling on hard times and may be forced to sell off their family estate in April 1912. However, the Torringtons all try to put the unpleasantness out of their minds in order to celebrate the oldest daughter, Emerald, on her birthday. Their perfect plans with friends and family are ruined when a train crashes nearby their house and they are forced to shelter and feed a pack of lower class passengers. These "uninvited guests" soon elicit unexpected responses from the original party, and secrets emerge that could change the course of all of their lives. 

Thoughts: This books isn't perfect, but it's one of the better examples I've seen of a current writer channeling a period tone and voice. Jones was trying to write as if she were a 1910's author telling a dinner party story. It's clunky at first, but as she (and the reader) warm to the material, she hits her stride and convincingly renders the vernacular in the dialogue and narration.

Besides the charms of her period prose, Jones excels at painting the scene and setting the mood - a lot of the fun of this book is enjoying the world she created. I also managed to avoid spoilers on the plot (which I will also spare you), which meant that I found the direction that the story went genuinely surprising and satisfying. From what I've read since, some of the major reviews of this book do give away a key part of the plot, so I would warn you away from those. It's more satisfying to guess at what's happening.

More than anything, though, I found this to be a compassionate view of the changing relationships between parents and children as children become adults. The family dynamics of dealing with the somewhat difficult matriarch ring true to life and reminded me of what it means to be a kind daughter. It means seeing your parents as human beings with human motivations and human failings, and still treating them with love and understanding. And if you're lucky, that kindness will run both ways.

I'm not sure that this is a book for everyone - but it was right in my wheel house of theme, setting, and plot, so I tore through it in one night.


5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

Do you have any weaknesses when it comes to time period or themes? 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas! And Let The Countdown Begin...

Merry Christmas, interwebs! I hope you have all had a day as filled as with warmth and joy as I have. Days like this remind me of just how blessed I truly am. And convict me that I don't do nearly enough to pay that blessing forward.

Anyways, while you are enjoying the last few moments of yuletide cheer with you and yours, just wanted to pop in and say that - the countdown begins tomorrow! The best books I read this year (besides the ones I've already reviewed, of course).

Get pumped!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Music - Sufjan Style

In the words of the strange Charlie Brown children, Christmas time is here again!

Actually, Christmas time has been here for me for awhile. Since I didn't head back to the ole USA for Thanksgiving, I have been in the Christmas spirit since early November. I was bopping along to my standard Christmas ditties: Cole Porter, Bing Crosby, Alvin and the Chipmunks... and Sufjan Stevens.

Oh Sufjan. His Christmas music has been the cornerstone of my yuletide listening. His album, Songs for Christmas, was folksy and awesome and made me re-love so many of my favorite carols. His cover is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is just the best.

And then November 13th came. And he released his second Christmas album, Silver and Gold.

Y'all. Seriously. This is awesome! It's a different sound, because Sufjan has moved to a more electronic-y kind of sound in the last few years. It is still great and even the more techno-tastic tracks, like "Good King Wenceslas." You can sample a lot of the tracks for free here.

But my very favorite part of this album are the three versions of "Ah Holy Jesus." Haunting. Beautiful. New Christmas classic.

Seriously people, let's start a petition that Sufjan be sequestered until he has covered every hymn and carol known to man. This needs to happen.

What is your favorite Christmas music?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Freaking Out About Paul McCartney

So I believe I am on record as being a Paul McCartney nut, yes? Yes. I am. Have been since age 6 - my dad did not permit modern music in his vehicle, so I was not party to the Spice Girl craze or the early days of boy band mania. Instead, I had the Dave Clark 5 and the Who to crush on... but most importantly, I had the Beatles. Specifically Paul. Basically, I feel about Paul McCartney now the way that teeny-boppers will feel about Justin Bieber in 13 years.

Thus, we come to one of the best presents I've ever received: I saw Paul live in Vancouver just a few weeks ago! I can't even talk about how great he was... he played for 3 hours without a break, used 12+ different instruments, and sounded amazing. Dude is 70! How is this possible?

I won't babble on and on... I'll just share one of the seminal moments of this concert (pardon my wahooing in the background):

Adele, I love you... but the bar has been set by a 70 year old man on stage production for a Bond theme song. Can you dig it?

What is your "bucket list" concert?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Ms. Rowling's long awaiting foray into the world of adult fiction! How did it go?

The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling

Procured from a certain ginormous online retailer

Procured in September 2012

Finished on December 16, 2012

Format: Hardback with the big bold lettering - not sure what's up with this current trend in book covers

Why I gave it a try: Really? Is there a question about this? If J.K. Rowling publishes a urban fantasy football novel with a duck-billed platypus as a detective on the trail of a alien super villan, I will read it. That's just how things are between us

Summary: Pagford is a quiet English village that is being split in two behind the scenes. On one side is the Mollisons and other villagers who don't want to continue to support low income housing on the boarder of the towns. On the other side, Barry Fairbrother and his supporters have been rallying around continuing to include these lower class citizens in the Pagford communities, with the better opportunities that Pagford residency includes. When Fairbrother unexpectedly dies, we see the impact on the community and individual lives through the eyes of a dozen different POV characters. 

Thoughts: Oh, Jo. I wanted to love this book. I was excited. I missed you. I obsessed over the release date and made my mom send the package to me in Canada, because I couldn't wait for the Christmas break to start on it. 

Then I started to read. And lingered on the first 75 pages over 3 months. Part of that is that "leisure reading" is kind of a joke in the middle of the semester. But if this book was a home-run, I would be sacrificing my sleep without complaint. 

So why am I not in love? Three reasons: 

1) This book is 150 pages too long. Rowling takes 200 pages to set up the plot before she gets cooking when she only needed 50. For no other author would I sit through the drudgery of the first 200 pages. That's the real shame of it, because once she launches into the meat of the story, it really is a page turner. Her typical prose that reads so effortlessly kicks in and you are willing to forgive more of the books flaws. 

2) Rowling gets so focused on conveying her message (which I don't even disagree with, but this is one of the more didactic novels I've read in a while) that her characters are rather stale. I don't mean that they aren't interesting or well described - they just don't really change. The bad guys are bad from the beginning. The good guys are good with failings from the beginning. She needs them to play their roles so specifically that it robs us from really wondering what is going to happen to these people. 

3) This really surprised me about the book, because Rowling is on the record as being very conscious about these kinds of things: all but one of the main female characters is more or less defined by her sexual identity. Some are man eaters, some are deluded about being used for sex, some are pejoratively labelled as lesbians, some are lesbians, some are prostitutes, some are known as the school sluts... but all these signifiers are based on their sexual relationships. The women are so sexualized that it starts to be cartoonish - I'm not sure if she's trying to make a point? That women are so often viewed as sexual objects in modern culture? I don't know. But I fount it disheartened that she chose to have that be such a prominent part of the women's plots. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

But you know? I will still buy whatever this woman puts out. That's just how things are between us. I hope that this was a book that she had burning within her, that she had to write - and now that it's out, she can move onto something else. And perhaps allow someone to edit her.


First 200 pages:
2 - It's bad, y'all, with tantalizing glimpses of something worthwhile sprinkled in
Last 300 pages:
4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering 

What do you do when a favorite author puts out a book that doesn't connect for you? 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reflection Sunday 12.2.12 (Jesus Corner)

This week I'm thinking about Greek. It's been on my brain. So much so that I dreamt that I was doing a translation from the New Testament and I got "he is an idiot, he who despises Narnia." Pretty sure this missed the final edition of the text...

Either way, I guess this week was the first time I have tried to connect verses in Greek to my own devotional life. It's like, even though I've heard passages a bunch of times before, by meditating on the Greek, I can find the meaning anew for myself. It's been enhancing my prayer life, but it is also forcing me to think about the role of language in communication. It's not that I think that all Christians should learn Greek to be able to study the Bible (though I would encourage it for those so inclined). But I do think that looking at a text in a language not your own let's you "get around" your own presuppositions about the passage. I found the same thing with French in looking at the Bible and other texts, but it's been all the stronger with Greek. 

The passage I've specifically been meditating on is John 1... the poetry of the language in the Greek is wonderful and it has been challenging but devotionally rewarding to think about these very familiar verses in a new way.

Anyways, I thought people might want to see what the Greek looks like - even if you can't read it, you can see the parallel structuring of some of these verses, and see the repetition. I've provided my own (very rough!) literal translation below. I've bolded where the world placement indicates emphasis. I've only had one semester of Greek, so those of you with more skillz, please be gracious! :)  

1Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν  λόγος, καὶ  λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν  λόγος. 2οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. 3πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν 4ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ  ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων: 5καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ  σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.... 9Ήν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν,  φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον,ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον. 10ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν, καὶ  κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω. 11εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν, καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον... 14Καὶ  λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας. 

1. In [the] beginning was the word, and the word was to/towards God, and God was the word. 2. This one was in [the] beginning to/towards God. 3. All through him became, and apart from him became not one [thing] 4. that became[.] In him life was, and the life was the light of mankind: 5. and the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness is not overtaking it... 9. It was the true light, that gave light to all mankind, coming into the the world. 10. In the world he was, and the world through him became, and the world did not know him. 11. Into the same he came, and those ones did not receive him... 14. And the word became flesh and lived in/among us, and we saw the glory of him, glory which only [is] from [the] Father, full of grace and of truth.

(John 1:1-5; 9-11;14)

How do you think about the relationship between meaning and language? Does this change the way you think about communication, either day-to-day or in prayer?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Christmas Shopping Guide 2012

Happy Black Friday!

That beautiful time of consumerism is upon us again, folks. The time when neighbors punch each other over a deeply discounted BluRay player at Walmart, and shopkeepers are reduced to tears by customers arguing about how their coupons should be combined.

Ah, magic.

For those of you who have a book worm on your list, or, more likely based on statistics, you are buying someone their one or two books for the next year, I have a little reference to help get you started. (I've linked to reviews where I have them, to give you more info)

For Movie-Lovers:
Here are books that are the basis for some of the season's biggest blockbusters...

  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein (related: The Lord of the Rings series) --> basis for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin --> basis for Lincoln
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy --> basis for Anna Karenina
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel --> basis for Life of Pi
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo --> basis for Les Miserables

For TV-Lovers:
A few books that are either the basis for, or in the same spirit as, some of the tube's biggest hits:

  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin --> basis for A Game of Thrones miniseries
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie --> This is not the basis for Downton Abbey, but it is in the same universe. The first Poirot story, it takes place on a British estate during WWI. Mystery ensues. 
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle --> basis for the fantabulous BBC modern adaptation Sherlock
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey --> This is not the basis for Grimm, but it scratches the same itch. It is a modern retelling of a Russian folk tale and the prose is haunting. 

For Dad:
It seems like dear ol' Dad is always one of the hardest people to buy for. You ask him what he wants and he says... nothing. Thank you very much. So here's a few reads that have cracked a smile from my dad (though I can't tell you what I'm actually getting him, since he pops over here sometimes):
  • The Big Short by Michael Lewis --> For the dad who is still pissed off about the 2008 meltdown
  • An autobiography from one of his political party's bigwigs (my dad enjoyed Bill & Hilary's respective tomes) --> For the dad still smarting from or glorying in the election
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg --> For the efficient dad who wants to be more efficient
  • Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner --> For the dad who wants to be the fountain of random facts at his New Year's party

For History Nerds:
There are just so many of us history geeks out there (me, your uncle Sal, your great aunt Sissy...) that I thought I'd call out some options for that contingent...

  • The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes --> Science + the tropics + Romantic era England
  • The Body and Society by Peter Brown --> Romans + Christians + bodily functions + sex + philosophy
  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson --> Chicago + serial killer + World's Fair
  • Death in the City of Light by --> Paris + serial killer + Nazis
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kosova -->  (this is fiction, but still delightful historically nerdery) Letters + Istanbul + vampires + Commies

For Jesus People:
Since I'm studying theology, it would be wrong if I didn't include a few of these...

  • The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old Testament by Brendan Powell Smith --> This might be the perfect Christmas gift... it's not something people would normally buy for themselves, but it is awesome. It's the Old Testament acted out in legos. It doesn't gloss over some of the more graphic scenes (Dinah, anyone?) but makes them more interesting. Because they are acted out in legos. Which is awesome. On my list!
  • The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark --> A great sociological survey that provides many insights into the great question: How did Christianity go from being a persecuted cult to a major world religion in 300 years?
  • Prayer by Richard Foster --> I'm working through this devotional gem right now - it's an amazing walkthrough of many different kinds of prayer and is a great companion to his classic Celebration of Discipline
  • Hind's Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard --> This is Pilgrim's Progress but with a girl and so much better. Sentimental perhaps, but if weeping over Christ's love for me is wrong, I don't want to be right.
  • Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --> Deep and inspiring - what else do you expect from Herr Bonhoeffer? A great introduction to his works

For Book People:
I'm a book person. You may have other book people in your life. And there's nothing that book people love more than books about books.
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane --> This is one on my Christmas list... Books + mysteries + secret society + techno fun
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon --> Books + mysteries + secret society + post-World War II Spain
  • The Book Thief by Mark Zusak --> Books + mysteries + death + World War II

For Young'uns:
I believe the children are our future- thank you, thank you very much.* So let's give them lots of fun things to read!

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead --> For the child who has read The Wrinkle in Time and is ready for the next book in the same vein
  • The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo --> For the child who loves fantasy and beautiful, mysterious settings
  • The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson --> For the child who loves England, serial murderers, and boarding school (this was me- drawing what conclusions you will)
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart --> For the child who has read The Westing Game and is ready for the next book in the same vein (this was recommended to me by my friend in her 30's and my cousin's sharp as a tack daughter - so there is wide appeal)... this is another one on my Christmas list

For Funsies:
If you're just looking for a fun, well written fiction book, here are a few titles that I think have pretty broad appeal across taste, age, and gender...

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell --> Jesuits + space + mind boggling Big Questions
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern --> Victoriana + magicians + circuses + gorgeous prose
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt --> Cowboys + family drama + philosophical introspection on the frontier
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt --> Fancy college + clique drama + Greek + death
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan --> Interconnected short stories + music industry + broken time stream + Pulitzer Prize 
  • In the Woods by Tana French --> Ireland + procedural cop drama + childhood trauma + unreliable narrator
  • Johannes Cabal: The Detective by Jonathan L. Howard --> Mystery + pithy prose + steampunk + blimps

For White Elephant:
Or Yankee Swap, or Dirty Santa, or whatever you call it...
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James --> Harlequin romance + bondage + Twilight + mega bestseller 
That was fun! If you have a hard-to-shop for reader in your life, just holler and I'd be glad to take a crack at a recommendation

Who is the hardest person on your list to shop for?

*Name that movie!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

I hope everyone is enjoying Thanksgiving, either with their family or friends. I will be celebrating American Thanksgiving, Canadian style. Looking forward to potluck good times and THIS is what I will be listening to today. It is the original and best Thanksgiving song.

Happy Turkey Day!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat (2012 Book Challenge) (Jesus Corner)

Ready to have your mind hole exploded? I've been threatening to review this for weeks now, and the time has at last come...

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat

Procured from the Regent College bookstore when I was visiting in the spring

Procured on June 3, 2012

Finished on June 5, 2012

Format: Good ol' hardback edition (I read so few hardbacks, it always feels like a treat)

Why I gave it a try: I read a fascinating conversation on Slate with the author that intrigued me

Summary: The public political and cultural life of American Christianity has drastically morphed from the early 20th century to now. Douthat argues that Christians should not feel so embattled against secularism - just against aggressive secularism (which grows as Christians become more extreme). Rather, internal fracturing is the greatest threat to Christianity in our times... Douthat labels many of these streams as heretical, hence the title. His thesis is that we are not living in a Christian or post-Christian age, but that we are living in an age of heresy, where cultural forces want to reshape Jesus in the image of our own preoccupations.

Thoughts: As far as genre goes, I think would classify Bad Religion as prophetic history. He paints the recent past with the brush of the current cultural situation, allowing us to draw comparisons and differences from those "golden eras" of American religious life. Douthat asserts that while religious institutions have declined, religious belief has actually grown (he points out that more people believed in an afterlife in the 1990's than in the 1940's). His history of American religious life is illuminating precisely because it is not strictly objective (then again, what history is?)- he allows the reader to extrapolate lessons from his version of the past that apply to our current context.

Douthat highlights several themes throughout his historical accounts. First and foremost, he illustrates how the political polarization of the Church came to be. He views this as a negative development, as it causes the faith to be firmly identified with a political platform that may or may not align with Christian belief. It also creates an ethos of "all or nothing" within the church, with conservative churches convinced that the Republican ticket is the ONLY Christian choice, and liberal churches convinced that the Democratic candidate is the ONLY moral choice. Spirituality and politics become conflated and lead to the savior/apocalypse cycle that we see on both sides. "If Obama/Romney loses, the world is over. If Obama/Romney wins, we are saved." When I saw Douthat talk, my favorite quote of the night from him was about the damage that this conflation does to Christian witness: "People look at the church's politics and think, if you don't like Republicans, you probably don't like Christians."

Douthat also shows how the sexual revolution and economic prosperity have changed the religious landscape. Christian sexual ethics used to be socially acceptable because, pre-birth control, they were accepted common sense. It wasn't that America was more Christian - it was that the spiritual principles of chastity intersected with the pragmatic principles of family planning. He's saying that sexual ethics have never been popular, but they used to seem more practical to nominal Christians or non-Christians. Likewise, he argues that the Christian ethics of economic simplicity or asceticism were never popular, but before the economic boom years, they weren't as problematic.

He discusses several "heresies," which in his definition seems to be the incorrect attempts to make Jesus /God culturally relevant (see Joel Osteen, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dan Brown, etc.). What fascinated me was his diagnosis of these phenomenon as religious energies being diverted from formal religion as those structures weaken. Our religious impulses aren't gone - they have been funneled into our politics, our social causes, or our media.

Though Douthat is a self-identified conservative, his relentless moderation between the religionists who say secularism is the root of all our problems and the secularists who say religion is the root of all our problems compelled me most in the book. He is saying that everyone is wrong - that's my kind of argument! His critique of some religionists' theocratic rhetoric would hopefully inspire that camp to ask themselves... what do we really want? Do we really want a state like Saudi Arabia where religion is "enforced"? Douthat is calling them on the carpet to really think through what their idealism would look like practically. Likewise, his critique of the secularists would hopefully inspire them to ask themselves... what are our notions of freedom and equality predicated on? What is supporting our ideology when we've hollowed out all the religious underpinnings? Douthat is calling them on the carpet to confront the fact that they are wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.

I find this book very hopeful, especially after hearing Douthat speak. Basically, he sees that Christians dominating politics is not the primary way that we should declare Jesus' lordship. He's advocating for sanctity in the church ("letting the church be the church") - the outpouring of sanctification should be culturally and politically manifested, but we shouldn't confuse the method with the result. I was especially inclined to agree with him on the dire need for good art being made by Christians - not Amish romances or low budget didactic movies, but the great art in the tradition of our fore-bearers that appeals to the society as a whole.

This has been a really nasty election cycle. Both sides have been unnecessarily harsh and uncharitable to each other. For Christians who are trying to reorient themselves in the new landscape, I would challenge you to read this book prayerfully and to look at where our cultural affiliations have significantly tarnished the message of our True King. For non-Christians who are baffled by why Christians are so (fill in the negative adjective here), I would challenge you to read this book with an open mind and to try to understand why cultural Christianity has taken the shape that it has.

Bad Religion has been immensely helpful for me in articulating my thoughts on politics and culture. I don't always agree with Douthat's conclusions (he's a conservative who has made me more liberal - oh, sweet irony). I, however, am very grateful for how clearly (and relatively fairly) he lays out the terms and stakes of the current situation.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Do you ever feel frustrated with the cultural manifestations of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reflection Sunday 11.18.12 (Jesus Corner)

I officially survived the nutso part of my semester with only minor scars. Whew. I do still have my history paper to write, but considering it's about the female body in patristic leaders' writings, I am relishing getting up on my hobby horse for that one. Anyways... I'm back! Thanks for all the encouragement, everyone, via Facebook and texts. I sometimes forget that a big part of why I blog in the first place is to let my loved ones who are scattered everywhere know that I'm alive. And I always love hearing from you in return (aka Facebook stalking you and/or finding out what you're doing from mutual friends).

This week is Thanksgiving. Not Canadian Thanksgiving - real Thanksgiving. Though, now having experience both, I do think that we could stand to push ours up a few weeks, America. Everyone is already itchy for Christmas music this late in November, and it would give retailers a few more weeks to pelt us with candy canes and obscure techno carols. Just some constructive feedback, Mr. Lincoln.

Anyways, since I'm not heading back east for the official holiday, I thought I would reflect on what I am most thankful for this year: to be in Vancouver, at Regent, studying theology and, soon, the arts.

I am thankful for the job I spent three years at prior to coming to Regent. I learned the value of patience, hard work, and continuous improvement, as well as how to endure in a hard season. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from many brilliant, fun people who taught me innumerable job skills that I could not have acquired without them. I also would not have the financial resources to be here without that job.

I am thankful for the financial and emotional support of my family, who always told me I could be anything, and really meant it. I am thankful for their consistency and just the fact that I know I can always go home to Knoxville, no matter how far away I roam.

I am thankful to live in a safe city that is clean and truly beautiful, and that has made me exponentially more thankful for days without rain. I am thankful to see the snow-capped mountains from my window. I am thankful for how gracious and kind the Canadian nation is - they are consistently positive and helpful as a people, and I will be lucky if I leave more like them.

I am thankful for the community I continue to establish here and continue to be humbled by how intelligent and compassionate everyone I meet seems to be. I am thankful for the supportive atmosphere that makes even a grim day in the library more fun and more "doable."

I am thankful for the intellectual environment that Regent has cultivated. I am thankful to be in a place that is neither antagonistic towards childlike faith nor towards challenging questions. I am thankful for the value that Regent places on acknowledging Jesus as Lord over all, while challenging the places that our assumptions are cultural and not Biblical. I am thankful to feel the freedom to find new answers to questions I have long asked and to feel the security that my faith is growing, not dying, in that process.

But most of all, I am thankful that this is the path God has for me right now. I don't think I realized how much I needed it until I got here, but I am so thankful that He has carved out these years for me to focus on Him and the imagination that He has given to mankind. I am thankful that I already know and love Him better for being here and am thankful that I will know and love Him more by the time I leave.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving season? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Candy Trading Advice

Okay, I couldn't resist breaking the break to share this extremely helpful how-to on trading your Halloween candy to maximize the amount of your preferred candy and to get rid of the weird candy that no one likes:

What does it say about me that I'm a oral-fixation candy fiend?

Happy Halloween/beginning of November!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Brief Blogging Hiatus

So... it turns out that I'm not as good of a juggler as I thought I was :/. I have two mid-terms this week, as well as a few papers I'm working on, plus lots o' regularly scheduled programming.

The result? I need to take a blogging break for a couple of weeks. Hopefully I will get back to a normal level of business in the next 2-3 weeks.

See you then!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reflection Sunday 10.21.12 (Jesus Corner)

Howdy-do, y'all! Classes are back in session this week and I feel a little bit like a steam engine sputtering back into motion after stopping at a station. Now that I've got a week back under my belt, I feel like I'm chugging along, but it definitely took the whole week. The bright spot was acing my Greek exam- the first exam I've taken in grad school. In addition to feeding into my general grade mongering, it was an affirmation that I can handle the work here. Which is a relief. Now I just need to keep my nose to the grindstone.

This week the theme of my own contemplation is "the law." Appropos, as it is election season and two of my classes addressed ideas of legal/political entities and their relationship to the church in history. First, we talked about the law in the Old Testament, going into the relationship and hierarchy of the moral vs. legal directives that God gave to Israel. I really appreciated our professor's distinction between the hierarchy of how the law is structured in the Old Testament. It starts with the highest moral imperatives: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Then there are overall principles from which the "case laws" spring from... for instance, the 10 Commandments are overall principles and then all the subsequent laws are case studies of how to live out the principles.

There are a couple of things that come from this structuring that I never fully considered. First, the case laws are not the entirety of the ancient Israeli legal code. Not that the Bible ever says it is, but it had always been implied by my teachers. There are things that aren't in the Bible that would have applied to the Jewish nation's justice system. Second, the case studies are not immutable - we can see that situations are handled differently at different points of time throughout the Old Testament. That is because the case studies are the practical working out of moral imperatives and principles... meaning that depending on the cultural context, practical outworkings of those imperatives and principles will change. For instance, an Ancient Near Eastern cultural context would necessitate case law about "high places" and fertility gods. In our context, we might not need those specific case laws, but the overall principle of having no other gods before God would still stand. Third, the practical outworkings are exactly that: practical. The case laws make allowances for human sinfulness and culture. Jesus alludes to this when He speaks of divorce: the case law allows for divorce in as principled way as possible, but the moral principle would say that there should not be divorce at all. This is hugely liberating in reading the case studies - it means they are not all high moral aspirations, but rather a loving attempt to mediate holiness in broken situations. As a whole, I am so taken with this way of looking at Old Testament law. It affirms, in the awesome words of my professor, that "negatives do not exhaust the moral vision of the Bible."

A couple thousand years down the line, we considered the "identification of the church with the whole of organized society" (R.W. Southern) after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. So here's the two pictures that had always been painted for me as to why "Christendom" came to be. On the secular end, it was portrayed as the church's final success in seizing power for itself and controlling the political world, as had always been it's goal. On the church end, it was portrayed as the culmination of God's will for the church to drive the secular world. Neither of these assessments seemed 100% satisfying to me. Sure, there are people who are power-seekers by nature in any organization. And I don't have a problem believing that the confluence of events that led to Christianity becoming the dominant religion in 250 years flat was divine in some sense.

But how did the church and the state end up in bed together so thoroughly in the west? Why would the secular authorities let that happen? People aren't generally keen on sharing their own institutional power  with another institution. Why did the church go along with being kingmakers? Just a couple generations before, monks were being dragged by their ears from their monasteries to take on bishop seats, pouting and angry all the way to have to give up their simple life of reflection. Looking at things through the role that the Roman Empire had played in the secular and ecclesiastical life, however, it starts to make more sense. Both my history class and the superlative History of Rome podcast have illuminated the cultural milieu for me in a much clearer way. Maybe this is obvious but... the Roman Empire was a big deal. It had been a unifying force for a huge part of the world for hundreds of years. And it had started to play "referee" for church affairs. When there were two areas that had a disagreement, the emperor would host a big get together for everyone to work things out. With the invasion of northern tribes and the fall of the west, that stability for the western part of the church was gone. They didn't have a referee and they also didn't have the stability of knowing that the same group would be in power from one day to the next. They tried to continue to have the Eastern emperor and church help stabilize things, but over time, that became decreasingly effective.

Meanwhile, it's not like these northern tribes were organized to hold large areas of land. They were regionally oriented and suffered from the same instability as the church did. Thus, a mutually beneficial (and problematic) symbiosis was born that lasted for a long, long time, providing the stability that everyone was trying to achieve. Viewed in this light, we don't have to think of Christendom as a completely evil, nefarious, and wrongly motivated force, nor do we have to think about it as a holy kingdom on earth that can't be criticized. It's a result of understandable political and social forces that had both positive and negative effects on the lives of people under its rule.

What does all of this have to do with the elections? Maybe nothing. Or maybe it's just a good reminder to me that in the midst of an election season that has been full of exultations, demonizations, magic bullets, and inexcusable blunders, maybe it's okay to think of things as layered rather than a clear cut directive. Maybe it's a reminder to treat "the other" (whoever that other is for you) with some grace, because we don't yet have the hindsight to know how things are going to shake out.

Or maybe that's just my take... anyways, I'll be reviewing Bad Religion later this week, which has been a super helpful framing book for me in the way we should think about politics in America.

How has this year's election season impacted your thoughts on government or law?