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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ten Funniest Books (In My Opinion)

Although I don’t usually seek out funny books, and therefore don’t read very many, I appreciate when I do come across one that combines humor with a good plot, great characters, and/or an interesting setting. I love when I’m reading along, absorbed in the story, and all of a sudden the narrator makes a sarcastic observation, a character says something ridiculous, or a pair banter or find themselves in a silly situation (which must be told in a humorous way, of course!), and I can’t help but laugh out loud. Some sections I’ll read with a perpetual smile that won’t be pushed down until the story sobers out. Many books have a funny line or two here and there (real life in general often does!), but this is a list of what I’ve read that made my heart light and still conjure up a smile when I reminisce about them. It’s not in order of funniest because they’re not all fresh in my memory, but each of them gave me a really good time:

1. Alyce – Sarah Scheele. This Cinderella retelling, with its many twists, is funny all the way through! Every character has their own quirk and you don’t want to miss what they (or the narrator!) has to say next.


2. Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – A. A. Milne. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this one. The characters and their childish (in the best, sweetest manner) adventures turned out to be a great commentary on life.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh

3. The Inimitable Jeeves – P. G. Wodehouse. This story about a rich young man and his butler who’s constantly helping him out of scrapes is made funnier by its British expressions.

The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2)

4. The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain. This travel memoir of a tour group going through Europe and the Holy Land is laced with witty observations of foreign cultures and self-deprecating pokes at tourist psychology. It may move slowly for some readers, but I found that makes the humor richer!

The Innocents Abroad

5. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this one, too. A mischievous boy, a Mississippi River town, lots of boyish adventures … great fun!

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

6. Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson. This is another travel memoir, by a contemporary American who lived in England. Besides being witty, Bill Bryson’s prose is strong and descriptive, too (as you’d expect from a travel book!). However, there are some off-color parts to beware of ….

Notes from a Small Island 
7. Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine. Another, somewhat longer Cinderella retelling, this book also has its serious moments, when you are sad for the heroine and wonder who will live and who will die, but overall it’s fun and lighthearted.

Ella Enchanted

8. The Princess Bride – William Goldman. Much like the movie, this book deals with serious themes in a rather comedic manner. It’s a fairy tale-love story parody and finds all the right things to joke about. (I happened to like the movie a lot more, though.)

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

9. All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot. This memoir of a vet in 1930s Yorkshire is chock full of idiosyncratic country folk and funny animal crises, with its share of seriousness.

All Creatures Great and Small

10. Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. I find many parts of Jane Austen’s novels and other writings, if not laughter-inducing, at least smile-inducing, but her humor and sarcasm were heavier in her juvenilia. While I do prefer a light touch, her youthful efforts to be funny won me over because, well, she’s the future witty, famous author.

all images from goodreads

Since these are only the ten funniest, I can think of others I could have included. A couple of other books I remember making me laugh were The Scarlet Pimpernel and Cyrano de Bergerac, but they were quite serious, too, and I remember that more. So, what are the funniest books you’ve ever read?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, written by Kate Douglas Wiggin and published in 1903, I wrote in my book journal, “This is a dear little book. It moves quickly, and the only reason it’s taking me so long to read is that I’m reading only a little at a time.” In many ways it was similar to other girls’ coming-of-age books like Anne of Green Gables–Anne of Avonlea, Emily of New Moon, and An Old-Fashioned Girl. But Rebecca stood out as a distinct person: she is as imaginative, positive, and poetic as Anne Shirley, but her family situation adds different qualities to her character.

Rebecca Rowena Randall is the second of seven children in the struggling Randall family. They live on a farm in rural Maine in the late 19th century. Her father is dead, and her mother sends Rebecca to live with her aunts Miranda, irritable, parsimonious, and extremely practical, and Jane, gentle, good at peacemaking, but still unused to children. Although they had originally wanted Rebecca’s older sister (she’s more to their taste), their heart is in the right place: they are committed to getting Rebecca an education so she can better her family’s lot. The book traces Rebecca’s years from age ten to seventeen. She is an optimistic, capable girl, a cut above all the other people in her limited world of village and farms because of her imagination and quick mind. Her prospects are promising because of her talents – writing, music, acting, public speaking, art. This combines with a sweet nature, a love for people, and a yearning for wider experiences. Her imaginative ways clash with Aunt Miranda’s insistence that she be more ordinary and down-to-earth. Rebecca excels in school, but Aunt Miranda’s heart is hard to win.

The story itself felt so much like Anne of Green Gables I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the two as I read it. I wish I could have stopped myself, because it impeded my enjoyment. If I had read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm first, no doubt I would have loved it more. Mostly I had trouble with the narrator/author, Kate Douglas Wiggin. She was not as lyrical or positive as L. M. Montgomery, and thus she undermined her heroine. Rebecca, I felt, would have been better handled by L. M. Montgomery. Wiggin has a tendency to be harsh on her characters (save Rebecca!), almost cautioning you not to like them too much, while Montgomery made you like almost everyone, even the unpleasant people. Aunt Miranda is mean and miserly, Emma Jane (Rebecca’s closest friend) is frightfully dull, Mr. and Mrs. Cobb (an older couple who dote on Rebecca) are sweet but simple-minded, Miss Dearborn (the schoolteacher) is ignorant. Rebecca’s vibrancy made me frown at most of the other characters, because of how Mrs. Wiggin critically contrasted them to Rebecca. But Rebecca herself would be a wonderful friend – sweet, personable, intelligent, and committed to doing right. She’s a bright light in her world.

Despite my annoyance with this negativity, I realized that there is a special strength to the author’s story and style. Because Mrs. Wiggin doesn’t paint life in shades of rose, Rebecca’s triumphs feel more remarkable. She rises above her circumstances with a mindset of hope and joy. Mrs. Wiggin writes thoughtfully and spiritually; there are life lessons she wants to impart to her readers, and a bond she wants them to form with the heroine. I loved some of her insightful messages so much that I copied them into my book journal:

The girl’s [Rebecca’s] eyes were soft and tender, and the heart within her stretched a little and grew, grew in sweetness and intuition and depth of feeling. It had looked into another heart, felt it beat, and heard it sigh, and that is how all hearts grow.

You might harness Rebecca to the heaviest plow, and while she had youth on her side, she would always remember the green earth under her feet and the blue sky over her head. Her physical eye saw the cake she was stirring and the loaf she was kneading; her physical ear heard the kitchen fire crackling and the teakettle singing, but ever and anon her fancy mounted on pinions, renewed itself, renewed it strength in the upper air. The bare little farmhouse was a fixed fact, but she had many a palace into which she now and then withdrew, palaces peopled with stirring and gallant figures belonging to the world of romance, palaces not without their heavenly apparitions, too, breathing celestial counsel. Every time she retired to her citadel of dreams she came forth radiant and refreshed, as one who has seen the evening star or heard sweet music or smelled the rose of joy.

“I look like a drudge,” said Rebecca mysteriously, with laughing eyes, “but really I am a princess; you mustn’t tell, but this is only a disguise; I wear it for reasons of state. … why, Mother, it’s enough joy just to be here in the world on a day like this, to have the chance of seeing, feeling, doing, becoming!”

Aren’t these lovely? Through Rebecca (the only one, it seems, who had it just right), Mrs. Wiggin presented a message of seeing the daylight on the far side of the night and of sacrificing for other people to make their lives brighter.

Have you ever read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another Edition of What Has Interested Me Lately

My brain has been very resistant to developing a full-bodied blog post so far this week, so I thought I’d share a few miscellaneous paragraphs about things that have recently taken up sojourn in the fiction-oriented portion of my mind. Hopefully by Friday I’ll have had time to write something more complete!

The Alice Quest isn’t a recent addition, but it has been occupying a large space of thought. I’ve been reading books about the Edwardian era and the Chicago area and am on the lookout for more; Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House has been fascinating so far. (Hull-House was a settlement house in Chicago that opened in 1889 – it helped immigrants.) I’m listening to period music on YouTube and perusing old photos and fashion plates on Pinterest. I’m in the part of The Alice Quest where my characters are seeing the old house Alice Prescott disappeared from … such fun!

Doctor Who: Winner Takes All

After hearing that several friends were fans of the BBC TV show Doctor Who, I wanted to see what it was all about. We watched the first series starring Christopher Eccleston, and while I didn’t like parts of it, overall it was a pretty entertaining ride. The Doctor was my favorite aspect … quirky characters always win out, don’t they? Although I didn’t care for his assistant, Rose, or for most of the alien-outer-space plots, I was certainly left amazed at the wild, powerful imagination of the show’s writers and developers.

All Creatures Great and Small
Another, older BBC show we had been watching I’m now anxious to get back to: the more down-to-earth All Creatures Great and Small, an adaptation of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs in Yorkshire. It has rather endearing characters, not to mention animals, and was very relaxing.

Little Women 
My mom has been reading Little Women for the first time! That’s one of my favorite books, and seeing as I read it when I was around 12, I and it are due for another rendezvous. My 95-year-old grandma remembers reading it when she was 10 or 11. Truly, a story that lasts and has found a place on many favorites-shelves!

Lastly, something that may prove practical: This is a dialect quiz I took that asks you 25 questions about your vocabulary and pronunciation; at the end it locates your origin to any three major American cities. It’s pretty accurate – it pinpointed my dad’s hometown to Grand Rapids, MI, and two other nearby cities. He was born in Grand Rapids! It narrowed my mom’s down to a city right outside Chicago – she was born in a Chicago suburb. I fooled it, however. It pinned me as being from either Madison, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis. Perhaps the fact that I borrow some dialect from the south, way more from my parents’ origins in the north, and formed some on my own through paying attention to the news, accounts for this. : ) I also found the list where the questions were taken from on a different site; clicking on a question here will take you to a map of the U.S. that shows where certain words or phrases are used in people’s everyday lingo. I found this helpful because I wanted to know what words my characters from different parts of the country would use. Unfortunately, when I was looking it up for this post I couldn't find it ... but, if you're interested in that sort of thing, it's out there. (I sure hope I can find it again.) Dialect is certainly an interesting study!

Feel free to comment about anything at all that I mentioned today!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Purim: For Such a Time as This

This is, I admit, an (edited) re-post from last year, but I’m sure none of you mind – maybe you didn’t even read it before. If you did, rereading is usually a good thing!

image credit: prayers for special help

Ever since I can remember, Esther has been my favorite Bible story. She was so brave! So beautiful! So good! The Perfect Heroine … and she had a book of the Bible named after her. What an honor!

Later I learned about the holiday of Purim, which is the joyous festival established in Esther 9:26-28 to celebrate the victory of God over the Persian enemies of the Jews. This year, Sunday, March 16th, marks the special day. My family likes to observe it because we’re very glad, too, that the Lord delivered His people all those centuries ago in Persia … it’s one more in the long list of His faithful rescues of Israel. Because Israel is God’s chosen people, the ones who have been God’s witnesses throughout the millennia, they have always been persecuted by the enemy of God, whether he tempted them into idolatry (which brought punishment on them) or just tried to destroy them, period. (Usually, it went hand-in-hand.) So their victory is God’s victory, and vice versa.

You may have realized that neither “the Lord” nor any of His other names/designations are written in the book of Esther. This shouldn’t bother us, because there’s a profound message to this: the main way we see God today, since He is not walking among us or doing grand-scale miracles, is through the way things work out for His children’s benefit or follow the laws of nature that He ordered from the beginning, or through any other natural event – but we must have the eyes to see. It is so clear in the book of Esther that He was the one who delivered the Jews … what Mordecai said to Esther is just one indication the players in that historical drama believed so: “And who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14b)

An interesting thing to note from the Hebrew is the very name of Esther. It is a Persian name, but spelled in Hebrew it is almost identical to the word Astir, which means “I hide.” The plot of the book of Esther revolves around concealment: The name of God is concealed, even though you can spot His handiwork. He conceals Esther in the court of the king, “for such a time as this.”

This just goes to show that the Bible’s real-life stories are the best stories out there!

The holiday Purim is all about the book of Esther. It is read as part of the celebrations, punctuated by sometimes chaotic cheers or boos whenever the heroes, Mordecai and Esther, or the villain, Haman, are mentioned. Although throughout the centuries the holiday has taken on a Mardi Gras flavor, through partying, costumes, and masks, it is most importantly a time to rejoice in the Lord because of all His victories against Persian Empire-sized odds.

I like to think about how, if we’re children of God, each of our lives is one of His victories. We’ve been rescued from destruction – so let us rejoice!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Holland Mania

Last week I finished a very unique book called Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art and Culture, written by Annette Stott. I borrowed it from a friend, and what attracted me first was the cover: I am obsessed with blue and white.

Holland Mania

And then, not only is my grandmother Dutch-American (hence my interest in this heritage), but this book specifically covered the years from 1880-1920 which is right during the lifetime of the historical character in my novel The Alice Quest, Alice herself. I figured I could glean helpful information and I was not disappointed!

Why is it important to know about this attraction for all things Dutch that many Americans possessed within these forty years? I wondered that, too, before I began, but the book explains itself. It taught me about everything from the American ideals and mindset of that era to the origin of Dutch Boy paint and Old Dutch cleanser. (It also made me quite pleased that I have Dutch blood in me!) Knowing as much as you can about your nation’s history is profitable, and it’s a shame to think that something so many people once valued is overlooked today.

During the 19th century, especially as its centennial approached, the United States was searching for its own identity. Immigrants were streaming in from all sides and Americans wanted to define what “America” was. It was tired of the credit England got for its origin, and so it looked to other early immigrant groups – most notably the Dutch, who colonized New York in the 17th century. As they looked here, they found many similarities and many things to admire. At the peak of Holland Mania, an editor of Ladies’ Home Journal wrote in a 1903 issue that Holland was “The Mother of America.”

There was the Old Dutch Republic, for one thing, which beat off bully Spain in the 16th century, much like the American colonies beat off England in the 18th. The Dutch instituted such liberties as freedom of religion and freedom of the press in their country, liberties that Americans cherished. The Pilgrims spent twelve years in Holland to find refuge for their beliefs right before they sailed to America in 1620. During the last quarter century of the 1800s, several historians began to trace back U.S. values and culture directly to Holland.

As more Americans learned about historical Holland, this mixed with a nostalgia for the simple, rural lifestyle from which the nation was beginning to drift. A larger number of Americans were becoming rich from big business and they spent their money on paintings by Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, or as close as they could come to it, depending on their resources. Artists took note, studied Dutch art, and traveled to Holland to search for the subject matter of the Old Masters. Although Holland was modernizing, too, these artists looked only for the old, country scenes that the Masters had painted, because that was the height of Dutch art – and it just so happened to roughly coincide with the Dutch founding of New Netherland. (Henry Hudson claimed the New York area for the Dutch in 1609; England annexed it in 1664. Rembrandt was born in 1606 and died in 1669.) This older image was what Americans wanted.

Wooden shoes, windmills, tulips, Holstein cows, and the Dutch folk costume entered the American mainstream and became the rage. Holland got to be a popular vacation destination and a charming theme for parties. Everyone wanted to learn about it – or at least its stereotype, what they thought was the “real” Holland. And there was so much to admire about the Dutch character: industry, independence, cleanliness, strength, modesty, piety … these were all things Americans extolled.

Holland Mania began dying toward 1920, with WWI making the Netherlands unsafe to visit and changed at the end; Americans had changed, too. The culture was oversaturated with Dutch things and the stereotype became cliché. Only pockets of people, particularly where there was a Dutch-American community, continued to really appreciate them. They are still appreciated today, most ostensibly with festivals, like the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan.

Now, all this is not to say Holland Mania defined America and we just didn’t know it; we all know life is too complex for that. But it’s fascinating to discover what gripped the minds of a portion of our nation’s population, and to see a foreign country from America’s historical perspective.

The book Holland Mania taught me a lot about history and was an enjoyable read; Annette Stott is a skilled writer. I’ve only scratched the surface in this report! Perhaps in another post I’ll write about a few more things I learned from it, if anyone’s interested!

I’m extremely curious! Have you ever heard about America’s penchant for Dutch things?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Snippets of February/March

This month my story snippets for Snippets of Story are mostly from The Alice Quest. And, speaking of that, I’m so thrilled right now: I just hit 30,000 words!

Downstairs, Nora’s inherited china “set” reposed on a single shelf in the cabinet. There was little of it left – two teacups, three saucers, three dinner plates, a platter, and a sauce boat – but it was dainty, decorated with pink roses, and made more irresistible by age.
“Humph. Is that all Grandma Nora’s mother saw fit to part with?” Grandma remarked.
“I don’t know how much there was originally, but I think some of it got broken up after Grandma Nora got it.” [replied Aunt Millicent.]
“An all-too-common tragedy, unfortunately,” Amy said, then smiled to show she was joking. “Do you know what year it’s from?”
“No, not at all.” Aunt Millicent hesitated. “My best guess would be after 1900.”
Alice would have known this set, Amy thought. I wonder what she’d have gotten from her parents if she had still been with them when they died.

The Alice Quest

Unlike some sisters, only a man could separate Alice and Nora. Amy clung to their devotion to each other and any evidence of an Achilles’ heel saddened her. She thirsted for closeness with Lisa; in fact, it would be lovely if every pair or group of sisters in her life were … best friends. Grandma and Aunt Millicent. Mom and her sister, Aunt Hannah. Amy, Lisa, Katelyn, and Kristia. Amy’s friends. Yet not even Alice and Nora’s bond had been unconquerable. What was the secret?
The Alice Quest

“I’m going to get pictures. Good ones.” Lisa reached inside her shoulder bag to finger her camera. She did that so many times when she mentioned her baby that it had to be an unconscious habit. “You can say, ‘Thank you, Lisa’ once they’re uploaded, Amy.”
The Alice Quest

The maps put ground at Alice’s feet; the photos built three-dimensional images around her; the newspapers breathed life into her community.
Looking at historical documents at a research center, The Alice Quest

File:Alice boughton two women under a tree.jpg 

Now he simply wished he could make her enjoy herself more, but he felt oppressed himself. She was the one who created sunshine.
Some heartache happening in The Wise- and Light-Hearted

“The sea calms me so,” Lucy said from her reclining position in the grass. “I believe that from now on, whenever I am troubled in mind or weary in spirit, thinking of it shall make me calm and peaceful. Do you think that reasonable of me, Mr. Chapman?”
Lucy’s verdict on the sea, The Wise- and Light-Hearted. Remember last month’s snippets?

How has your writing been going lately?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fine Sentences

I love all aspects of writing and reading … using imagination, building new worlds, watching human drama, studying psychology, living beyond your experiences, learning new things. But what captivates me most of all about the written word is beautiful writing.

More often than not, what makes a book sink into me is powerful and beautiful writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Words have a power to create images, and the stronger and more graceful the sentence, the clearer and more satisfying the image in my mind. If a book contains artistic writing – sharp, precise, clever, or descriptive – it will rank high in my regard, even if the plot or subject matter is not as exciting as others. The writing makes it compelling. That is why my favorite books are slower-paced, thoughtful classics that make me linger over and copy down phrases and sentences, even a single word now and then.

I love a word that defines something no other word can, words like atavistic, circumlocution, ironic, reciprocate, and xenophobe. I also love lyrical words that sound like poetry: gossamer, evanescent, felicity, mellifluous. Consistently use these types of words well, mix them with strong writing, and I’ll love your work. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a fast-paced adventure … my reading has to range wide or else I feel dull … but the beautiful prose wins the day in my heart. But it can’t be fluff – it has to say something important, something that will make me think in a new way about what’s being described.

Mark Twain did this: “The Shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant garment was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.” (Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, describing the scene where the angel visits Joan)

And L. M. Montgomery: “November – with its uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes – days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake.” (The Blue Castle)

Calvin Miller: “I have no way to prove this, but I have the feeling that they live the longest who know why they are alive in the first place. We not only find out who we are when we move into the depths but we also find out what God has for us to do.    Then, glory of glories! We discover they are one and the same. What God has for us to do is who we are.” (Into the Depths of God)

Alain de Botton: “The present might be compared to a long-winded film from which memory and anticipation select photographic highlights. Of my nine-and-a-half-hour flight to the island, active memory retained only six or seven static images.” (The Art of Travel)

These fine sentences make me contemplate life. They fill thought, action, and image with meaning, and the more meaning you put into moments, the richer your life is. (Hence, be careful not to put too much meaning in the small things or life will be indigestible!)

Besides these older writers, I’ve read young authors, especially homeschool graduates, who are expressive and have great precision in word choice, description, and sentence structure, and I love it! They will only improve, so I can just imagine how good they’ll be after years and years of writing.

This is what I tell myself: Carefully-crafted sentences make writing shine. Have something to say and take pains to say it well, word by word. It will impact readers like nothing else will.

Tell me some authors that you think have a beautiful style of writing!