How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Books

The last day of 2013 is here! As of today, a natural bookend to the year’s shelf of books, I have put 40 onto mine. Some were print, others were digital; some were old – one arguably the oldest proper novel – many were new – one then-unpublished and one or two brand-new; some were fiction, others biography and nonfiction. For the most part I’m satisfied with my shelf, though I wish I could have fit more classics on to it. But I certainly wouldn’t wish any of the books I did put there to be removed!

Fortunately for you, I’m not going to list all the books I read and what I thought of them (if you truly are interested, you can find most of them on Goodreads); but I did think a top-15 list would be fun, although it was rather difficult to make. I’ve tried to put them in some semblance of order, according to how much I enjoyed them and how much they impacted and enriched me:

Chucking College
Melanie Ellison
This book challenged me to grow as a person and define and pursue the education that will truly further my goals; it also made me glad that I made the decision to not attend college when I was younger.

Traitor's Knife
Elizabeth Kaiser
This light fantasy novel, by someone I've gotten to know online, was a wonderful read. Miss Kaiser's writing is beautiful, her settings feel tangible, and the storyline has suspense and mystery. I really entered in!

Let Go
edited letters of Fenelon
Fenelon was a 17th-century French theologian. I've seldom read in one little volume so many thought-provoking, perspective-changing words about surrendering to God.

Jane Austen
This sweet story is one of my three favorite Austen novels. I enjoyed it the second time around this year and received inspiration for my own Regency novel.

In Search of Adventure
Alicia Willis
This is a 2013 novel of the Middle Ages, also by someone I've gotten to know online. It was exciting and satisfying. I loved the historical setting and the spiritual lessons.

The Seamstress
Seren Tuvel Bernstein
Mrs. Bernstein was a Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor. Her story, like all Holocaust survivor's stories, was jaw-dropping-ly amazing, but her artistic style of narrative really captured me.

Sir Walter Scott
Ivanhoe squeezed into the very end of this year. What a book! So many satisfying adventures, details, and well-drawn characters. I owe it a thorough review. Look for that soon.

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales
Max Luthi
This intriguing book went into just what title describes: the nature of fairy tales. I learned much about the fairy tales, their history, (though, sadly, not their precise origins!) and storytelling, as well as much about the human mind.

The Baronet's Song and The Shepherd's Castle
George MacDonald; edited by Michael Phillips
I don't consider myself to have cheated here. The two books are companions and are therefore inseparable, in my mind. They contained masterful, picturesque storytelling as well as beautiful spiritual truths. Scotland as the setting was also a plus!

The Concealed Light
Tsvi Sadan
This was a unique and fascinating book. For each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Mr. Ladan chose four or five names for the Messiah from Jewish literature and explains how they fit Yeshua. There are 22 letters, so that's a lot of names that, amazingly enough, accurately describe Yeshua!

The Charity Diary Series
Elisabeth Allen
There are three sweet, affirming books in this series about a young Christian woman who lives with her homeschooling family in England. She learns many things about walking with God, and readers learn them with her. The loving sincerity of Miss Allen shines through her novels!

Jane Austen's Letters
collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye
I loved getting so many insights into one of my favorite author's life and times through her witty, personable letters. This volume is a treasure!

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
Reading this landmark of western literature was an experience I'll never forget! While it was tedious on occasion, I'm so glad I persevered. It really enriched my literary life. Six months later, I'm still learning things about it!

The Wanderer
Fanny Burney
What a ride! I loved the mystery, the characterization, the breadth and scope, the suspense, the philosophizing, and the meatiness of this early nineteenth-century novel. It was almost 900 pages long, but I never tired of it.

Drum roll, please!
Tongue of the Prophets
Robert St. John
This was the most touching book for me of 2013. Written in the mid-twentieth-century, it's a biography of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the amazing Jew who revived the Hebrew language, against all odds, in what was then called Palestine. He was an ardent Zionist and the task God used him for was just awe-inspiring.

 2013 was the best year yet in my personal life; the Lord really revealed His hand in many instances. I am thankful to the point of tears for everything He's done. He is good!

What was your favorite book of 2013? What was your favorite part of 2013 in general?

 a postcard from my great-grandmother's collection, postmarked 1911

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ancestry, part 2

This is my follow-up of last Friday’s post, where I determined that I would relate a few stories about my family that help inspire my WIP, The Alice Quest, a novel that explores people’s connection to their ancestors.

my great-grandparents

I know the most about my maternal grandmother’s family, since I had the privilege of writing a mini-biography for my grandma and her children. These ancestors lived in Chicago since they emigrated from Friesland, The Netherlands. Dutch ancestry factors into The Alice Quest via main character Amy Brown’s great-grandfather. Her grandparents live in Holland, MI, a lovely historical town I am somewhat familiar with. It sounds like a pleasant place to live, especially if you have Dutch ancestry! There is an event in May called the Tulip Festival that centers around Holland’s fields of tulips … though I’ve never seen it myself, I’ve heard it’s spectacular. I wish Amy’s story could have started in May, because I would love to see her at the festival which she never misses, but (you writers know how it goes) the story has to start in June.

Chicago shows up in The Alice Quest, and the lives of my ancestors who settled there filter in through that arena as well. Alice Prescott, Amy’s great-great-grandmother’s sister, was born and raised in a Chicago suburb from 1886-1906; none of the family ever knew what happened to her after a fateful summer day in 1906. Although Alice lived on the opposite side of the city from the Dutch communities my ancestors inhabited, I like the association. To me, Chicago is an ancestral city and I feel a connection to it like no other metropolis, so it fits my novel about ancestry like a glove.

My grandmother saved postcards from the first years of the 1900s with relatives’ handwriting on them. The mental image of their faint cursive was with me as I pictured Alice’s diary in The Alice Quest. I knew that there were streetcars in Chicago because a sister of my great-grandmother’s was killed in a streetcar accident in 1914, and therefore a mention of the potential dangers of streetcars finds its way into my writing. There may be a place, also, for mentioning the Pullman cars, Chicago-created luxury train cars to which my great-great-grandfather contributed his skill of marquetry, the art of making inlaid wood designs. 

Leaving my maternal family and long-ago stories, I’ve found a bit of inspiration from my dad’s brother’s house, a Victorian dwelling that I got to visit this past summer. It’s full of lovely antiques, including a phonograph that played a 1905 record for us. The history of the house and its treasures fascinated me to no end, and thus, in The Alice Quest, a Victorian mansion emerges, potentially significant to the plot of the mystery.

And as I go along building my novel, no doubt I’ll find more materials in my family’s history. Have you ever mined your family history for inspiration for your writing or even your life in general?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Literary Birthday

Jane Austen was born to write. She was writing stories by the time she was 12; they’re called the Juvenilia, and I’m reading them now. They are silly little tales that she wrote for family members, about ridiculous people doing ridiculous things, and you can almost hear the youthful author laughing behind her characters’ backs.

Miss Austen was born on December 16th, 1775, exactly five years after one of the greatest composers – Ludwig van Beethoven – was born. Last year, I celebrated her birthday with posts about her and her books during the whole month of December. Here is my ode to her that I wrote at that time:

“Miss Austen was a brilliant writer – even the greatest scholars, like C. S. Lewis and E. M. Forster, admired her. Her novels were a turning-point in the tradition of British fiction. She was devoted to portraying reality – in plot, in dialogue, in the conscience – and she translated that reality into a work of art. The earlier British novels I’ve read are melodramatic in comparison. Jane Austen sized down her situations and characters so that they were utterly believable and relatable, even to today. Her character portraits are complete, thus producing memorable characters that feel like people you’ve met – and yet they are not so complex that you can’t easily identify their types and traits. Her books are laugh-out-loud funny, pointing out the ridiculous and potentially teaching the reader to evaluate herself for damaging peccadilloes.

Miss Austen wasn’t trained at a school – her novels come from an uncommon intelligence and talent. Countless people could enjoy and study them, recognizing themselves in the pages and being enriched by the sketchbook of a culture that was quickly passing away.”

To bring this birthday post to a close, I’ll relate how Austen has influenced my own writing. In my novel, Adventure in England (due, Lord willing, next year), Jane Austen is a prominent feature of the tour my characters take. They visit her home in Chawton, Hampshire, where she lived the last seven years of her life; her tomb in Winchester Cathedral; and her townhouse in Bath, where she also dwelt for several years. They even stop in Southampton, another place she lived for a time. Steventon, where she was born, however, did not make the tour – the rectory she called home for more than twenty-five years, alas, no longer stands.

I am co-writing a Regency novel with a friend, and if there had been no Jane Austen, The Wise- and Light-Hearted would not exist … but it’s been endlessly fun and enriching! I wonder how many other books would not have been written if not for her?

If you’ve read any Jane Austen books or watched any related movies, how have they affected you?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Things That Inspire in Me a Story: Ancestry

What is it about our ancestors that we find endlessly fascinating? Though not everyone cares about their long-dead relatives whom they’ve never met, many of us do … we take as much pride in the fact that our great-great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, that a lost-track-of-greats-grandmother sailed on the Mayflower, that our infinity-greats-ancestors were royalty, as they or their immediate children did. Although it may not have any practical bearing on our lives, I think it’s healthy to love our ancestors (within reason) and feel that they are our connection to the past, whether it’s world-changing history or life-sustaining homemaking. Learning their stories is the only way we can honor and respect them now that they are gone from this earth.

one of my great-grandmothers (center) and two of her sisters

That’s why I enjoyed Rebekah Jones’s novel Grandmother’s Letters so much – she illustrated the direct and helpful effect even the long-ago past can have on our lives today. I hypothesize that our far-away ancestors’ choices are largely responsible – on the human side of things – for where we end up in our lives, be it where we live or what our interests are. I like thinking about the possibilities, such as, what if my great-great-grandparents hadn’t chosen to immigrate? and then praising God for the way things turned out.

I also like studying my ancestors because I get to place them in the events of history, and in a way it makes me feel that I was there. We have a right to the glories of the past through the participation of our ancestors.

Beyond that, though, all of us can find inspiration from our ancestors’ lives for our stories! My work-in-progress The Alice Quest explores ancestry and how we interact with it, and I draw from my own experiences and love of ancestral history as I delve into Amy's, my MC.

So what fascinates me from my family history? First of all, where my ancestors came from.

My dad’s dad’s family has been in America for a good long while. Before ending up in Michigan, where my dad, grandparents, great-grandparents, and most of my great-great-grandparents were born, they lived in New York and Massachusetts, and their ancestors came from southern England in the 1600s. I find it exciting that they pioneered America and saw or even fought in the Revolutionary War. My dad’s mom’s family emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s and settled in Michigan; my great-grandmother spoke only Swedish until she went to school.

My mom’s mom’s family also came over in the 1880s, only they emigrated from Holland and put down roots in Chicago. My mom’s dad’s family came from Germany around the same time.

my great-great-grandmother who came from Holland (her daughters are in the previous photograph)

Because of my ancestry I feel a connection to and special fascination for the cultures of England, Sweden, Holland, and Germany – as opposed to, say, Italy, Spain, Russia, and the Native Americans. Is that exclusively conscious, i.e., I take more interest in them because I know it’s in my blood? Or is there something in my genetics? I don’t know if I can ever know for sure.

In part two of this post (which will emerge next Friday if I can manage it) I’ll tell you a few things about my family that inspire The Alice Quest. On Tuesday, however I’ll be doing a special Jane Austen post in honor of her birthday, December 16th.

What is your family’s ancestry?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: Grandmother's Letters

Grandmother's Letters

“Louise’s friend is dragging her along on a dubious treasure hunt. She, however, would rather be reading the recently discovered letters written by her great-great-grandmother, Georgiana Donahue.

Meanwhile, Xavier, a young law student, is facing struggles of his own. He can’t find a job, his uncle is constantly belittling his late father, and he can hardly stand his seemingly perfect cousin.

In the next town, an old man’s reclusive ways are disturbed when he agrees to let Malcolm Moore do his yard work. Although he desires to return to his seclusion, he is perplexed by the Moores’ willingness to welcome him into their lives.

Almost 100 years in the past, Georgiana Donahue’s life was turned upside down in the course of one eventful year, and she was inclined to blame God for all of her troubles. Little did she realize that the searching letters she wrote to her brother and his wife would end up touching so many lives, so long after they were written…” [The synopsis.]

This book was a joy to read. Miss Jones draws readers in through many different ways: a mystery about a lost treasure, questions about the old trunk, a fun and interesting cast of characters, heartfelt spiritual lessons, and a cozy story-telling style.

The mystery kept me guessing until its conclusion – a satisfying “who-would-have-thought!” solution. Louise’s rich and overly-bold friend Priscilla, who was wrapped up in solving this mystery, was hilarious.

The old trunk full of family heirlooms represented where the past and present intersected. I loved how history touched and changed modern-day lives through Louise’s great-great-grandmother’s letters.

You’ll need a web to connect all the characters – watching their stories gradually weave together was a delight! Miss Jones portrayed their deep struggles clearly but with an economy of words, and their resolutions were perfectly paced. Almost every person’s story was moving – Mr. Centenarian’s story was probably my favorite, but I liked Louise’s and Xavier’s as well. As an author myself, I was also intrigued by Xavier’s “perfect” cousin Adrian Terrence, who was an author.

Everything fit together like the lovely book cover with its assortment of objects. I would have perhaps liked more character depth, but not every book has to have that, and this one came off well without it because of its large cast of unique and equally-important characters. There were funny moments and touching moments and one that even made me tear up. I see it as a book that explores community – how people from the past can directly and deeply affect those in the present, and how people nowadays can help and care for each other.

There were a few flaws and an inconsistency here and there that another round of editing could have caught. Several of the younger characters calling their parents “Mother and Father” felt unrealistic to me. But basically those are my only criticisms.

Since most or all of the younger characters were homeschooled, Grandmother’s Letters probably holds special interest for homeschooled students, but it is by no means limited in its audience!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thanksgiving + Hanukkah

I hope you had a beautiful Thanksgiving! I know it’s over, but special days like that linger in our thoughts longer than tasty leftovers do in our fridge. I didn’t do a proper Thanksgiving post last week, nor did I comment on Hanukkah, which began on Thanksgiving eve. Jewish days begin in the evening, so the first day of Hanukkah commenced with the setting of the sun last Wednesday. This convergence is once in a lifetime. The last time it happened, since Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, was 1888; the next time will be about 79,000 years in the future. I do wonder how this could happen twice within 130 years and then never again for 79,000 years, but that’s what they say.

This convergence brought a connection to my attention, one that I never saw in all my years of celebrating both. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah – how could they relate? One is American and Christian, one is Jewish. Thanksgiving is distinctly associated with fall, Hanukkah is distinctly associated with winter. (That they overlapped this year was very strange – Hanukkah was about the earliest it could be and Thanksgiving was about the latest.) One was birthed in 1621 CE, one in 165 BCE. One focuses on thankfulness, one on dedication. But with all of these differences, there is a similarity: that of the people’s hearts.

The Pilgrims separated from the established Church of England in order to worship God in a more biblical manner. They were so devoted to God, He encompassed their lives so much, that they left their country and laid down earthly security to settle a new country where they could build up His Kingdom in the way that they weren’t allowed to in England. They gave up their all to serve God. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have what we have today – our America.

Likewise the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story took a stand and separated from the Greek culture that was overwhelming the biblical faith. They were so devoted to God that they refused to assimilate and instead fought to retake their country and their Temple, God’s Kingdom, laying down their lives in the struggle. They gave up their all to serve God. Yeshua hadn’t yet come, and although God would have raised up another deliverance to keep His chosen people intact so that He could come, the Maccabees and their followers are still inspiring because they resolved to be that deliverance.

The example of these two people groups gives me a lot to ponder. It makes me ask: Am I laying down my life in such a way? Am I dying to myself and saying, “Only You, my God”? Am I determined to let nothing separate me from the Lord? Am I being the “City on the Hill” that describes both groups?

This is a blessed and dynamic time of year where these two celebrations converge like a mighty river, causing their truths to flood our lives.

What are your thoughts?