Friday, July 25, 2014

Blog Anniversary

This is crazy to me: today marks 8 years of blogging. Since 2006, I've created 1,917 blog posts. (This one makes for 1,918.) That's millions of words strung together in an attempt to express thought (sometimes more coherently than others). That's 8 years of developed bloggy friendships, some who came and went. but quite a few who have stuck around and become quite dear to me. That's 8 years which included stints reviewing at 5 Minutes for Books and trips across the country to do bookish things related to the reviewing of books. That's countless reading challenges which have been both successes and failures.

Mostly, that's 8 years of learning how to think and working to correct my own bad and misapplied theology. That's 8 years of documentation showing the development of a worldview. There are plenty of embarrassing moments mixed in with some proud ones. That's 8 years of writing out convictions and questioning the way I approach life and people, not just books. Of course, books are the subject matter around here but I truly do hope the center piece has been Christ. I don't know if it is that or not, but if there is less of me and more of Him than there was 8 years ago then I think it has been worth it. This has been a very interesting ride to me.

To celebrate a bit, I'd like to host a fun, book-ish contest. It's a little outside my norm, but bear with me. Usually (always and forever) when I host a contest I simply let you leave a comment for an entry. (By the way, I never intent to change that. I like things easy and simple.) But this time I'm giving up something a little bit bigger that is coming directly from me to you and so I'd like to up the ante a bit, if you'll indulge me this once.

I would like to give away a $50 Amazon Gift Certificate to one of you dear old friends (or possibly a new one?). 

In order to enter this contest, I would like to request that you do something more than just leave a comment:

Take a picture of you with your favorite book and post it to Twitter, Facebook or on your own blog, linking back to this post here at Reading to Know. (If you have privacy concerns, I do understand that. If you can come up with a creative and/or pretty original photo of just your favorite book, that is just fine. But I would like to see YOU with your book if you are willing.)

Come back here and leave a comment on this post letting me know that you did so and leave me proof in the form of a link. (If you do this via FB you can "share" the FB status discussing this contest on your own wall and I'll see your post as proof.)

My Twitter handle is @readingtoknow (easy).

Here is the Reading to Know Facebook Page.

This contest will be open through Friday, August 8th to give you some time to choose a book and create a photo that you like! It is open to U.S. residents only. The winner will be selected using to determine the winner based on the comments left on this post.

Now, it wouldn't be fair to request a photo of you unless I agreed to share one also. Here is a picture of me with one of my favorite books, translated into Korean! This photo was taken a few months back when Jonathan and I traveled to South Korea.

I truly do appreciate those of you who read along and comment. I appreciate the questioning remarks - challenging me to think differently - as well as the encouraging, kind notes you frequently leave. To me this is not just a hobby but a way of working out my thoughts and convictions on any variety of topics and I'm just glad it's included so many wonderful people and wonderful books at the same time! I feel very blessed indeed and if I could bless another just a little in return, that would be enjoyable for me.

I hope you'll play along, spread the word about Reading to Know, and keep diving into books alongside me!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis

It was with some amount of dread that I began reading The Last Battle - the final book in the Narnia series - to my children. Bookworm1 was interested to dive on in because it was the only Narnian story that he had not heard. He was ready to listen because he didn't know what was going to happen, poor thing. Not even the title tipped him off.

In the first chapter of this book we meet Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey. We get the idea that the Ape is a mischievous thing, but after all the build up over reading this title, Bookworm1 declared the story "boring." We moved along to chapter 2 and things got dicey when a couple of Calormene heads rolled. From that moment on, Bookworm1 was riveted as was Bookworm2 who loves reading about a good battle every now and again. If battles were what Bookworm2 wanted, battles were definitely what he was going to get. I can't believe Hollywood hasn't dipped their toes into this one! It has everything the modern audience wants: good guys, bad guys, not-so-sure guys, heads being lopped off and fantastic battle scenes between fantastic creatures. While it is perfect food for Hollywood though, I'm not so sure I would necessarily trust them to this!

The Last Battle has a lot of battles in it, as the title might suggest to you. It tells us of the last king of Narnia - King Tirian - who discovers the talking beast and earth men falling for a false Aslan. All of Narnia lives in fear and confusion as Shift the Ape spreads lies about Who Aslan is and what His demands are for His creatures. Shift teaches fear apart from love and places the Narnians under the heavy yoke of Calermene slavery. It is too much to bear and King Tirian is hopelessly - but bravely - fighting back with a little help from some old friends of Narnia.

Throughout this book, hope is battling against despair and I have to tell you that I was becoming extremely emotional as I waded through the chapters. When Narnians began fighting Narnians my day was just about ruined. Jonathan came home from work and I told him I was really quite upset due to the fact that the Narnian dwarfs had turned against Aslan in a very violent way. The kids were wondering why I was crying. (Yes. I was pathetic. But it was really horrible and all my dread of the book was staring me straight in the face. Oh, I hated it.) I told Bookworm1 that we were going to have to speed through to the end of the book so that I could just get the inevitable over with. The kids looked at me completely mystified displaying lopsided grins of curiosity as we read on.

Then. THEN! Narnia fell. Oh, friends. It was a dark day . . . but for Aslan! Somehow, someway Lewis wrote me into the depths of despair and then wrote me out of it with hope, delight and joy. Narnia came to a close but the kings and queens of Narnia then entered Aslan's country. I turned the pages (having forgotten myself how this all played out because I avoid this book as a general rule, not caring to feel it) and was greeted by my old friend Reepicheep. I paused to cry again. This time the kids were snickering at me as I wiped tears away telling them how happy this story was. Reep! He was alive and well and whole and so were all of our friends: the Beavers, Mr. Tumnus, Puddleglum and every Narnian character that we have ever known and loved (minus one, of course).

My heart could barely contain the joy. Why? Why was this story so impacting? Because since I first read this book I have tasted the bitterness of death in losing several beloved family members. The feelings of darkness, despair and loneliness can weight so heavily on one's heart and Lewis's writing brought the pain back up to the surface where I could feel and taste it again. Oh, how I hate sin and death. The darkness of death has to be walked through, yes, but not without a promise -

He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,
And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;
For the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 25:8

O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power.
But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:55-57

Death is a villain, but Christ is the Victor. The pain of losing those we love is so very great as to be overwhelming at times. The pain makes you short of breath and has you grasping for any signs of hope. Of course, there is hope in Christ. And the picture Lewis paints of death defeated - for me - is tremendously moving. Reepicheep stood at the gate welcoming everyone in. The Old friends and warriors of Narnia ran up to greet the kings and queens newly arrived. I wept thinking about how joyful a moment it will be when I see my loved ones once again. And though I love my life here on earth very well, Lewis made me feel and begin to know that this all pales in comparison to "Aslan's country." I wept for joy; I wept for hope restored; I wept for things I haven't previously understood and still do not fully understand. I wept because death really does lose its sting and Christ really does reign victorious.

The kids, of course, didn't see this as clearly as I did. However, I had them in rapt attention as I struggled to keep my voice steady while reading the last two chapters. At the end, Bookworm2 declared that we should "read it again!" as a "Bible story book!" and Lewis' plan to write a "great supposal" which would introduce children to concepts in Christianity met with instant success in our household. I smiled some more as I wiped away a few additional tears, unashamedly. I think it is important to let your kids see you weep in despair and also for joy. Tears are just another way of sharing truth with others if we'll consent to let them fall without trying to hide or wipe them away. Life is a battle but the victory is already won. I hope my kids know this every day that they are alive. I pray they will always be moving further up and further in alongside me. This life - as depicted in part in a magical world called Narnia - is the greatest adventure.

"But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

Monday, July 21, 2014

What On Your Nightstand - August

What's On Your Nightstand

Oh, Nightstand, how I love and hate you. You remind me of all that I want to read and all that I was not able to get to. Yet I still cannot resist participating in this monthly meme, hosted by 5 Minutes for Books. Although it's almost like torture, I'll continue to plot a course and see how closely I can stick to it.

This past month I have focused almost exclusively on Narnia. I absolutely love The Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, hosted every year in July right here at Reading to Know.

This year I read The Horse and His Boy aloud to my kids and we just finished reading The Last Battle (review forthcoming). It's been a lovely month in Narnia and, if possible, I love it more than I ever have in the past.

Also in conjunction with the reading challenge, I read Live Like a Narnian (linked to review). I can't say it was my favorite or that it was completely awful. It's just not my first choice. It's worth noting.

Currently, the kids and I are reading 101 Dalmations together along with the classics book club group.

In July I also managed to read the following, all titles linked to my reviews:

I am currently in the middle of the following titles (slowly poking my way through):

How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books

Remember, Remember (The Fifth of November): Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About British History with All the Boring Bits Taken Out (Only $0.99 on the Kindle. But I am not reading it on the Kindle. I have a hard copy.)

Other Books I plan/hope to read may include, but are not limited to:

Beyond that, we shall just see what happens!

Now I'm off to see what you mentioned your nightstands so that I can make my own reading list longer and more complicated.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The LEGO Adventure Book 2

If Bookworm1 had his druthers, his entire reading library would consist of books about LEGOs. He would never read anything but books about LEGOs. All of life would be LEGOs, LEGOs, LEGOs.

Now we, the parents, do like LEGOs. We prefer them to any other toy, truth be told. We even do not mind him reading books about these little things which are scattered all over the floor. However, we've found that it is rather difficult to find books that talk about LEGOs in such a way to foster creativity without having some comic-style story attached. All of the titles that we know of and like tend to come from No Starch Press. Given our love of their LEGO books, we were delighted to have a chance to poke through a copy of their new release: The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2.

Following up on Book 1 (linked to review) this new book explores how to build space ships, pirates, dragons, dock cranes, fuel tank trucks, and LEGO furniture to put into your own uniquely designed LEGO homes. The great thing about this book, aside from the plethora of building designs, is that it offers photographic step-by-step numbered instructions to help you create the items for yourself from bricks which you - (should you be a LEGO fanatic) - are quite likely to have on hand. Here is an image from the book itself to give you a feel for how the instructions are laid out:

Your guide for the The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2 is the same from Book 1, Megan H. Rothrock who is personified in a little Lego mini figure who talks you through the book. Yes, there are some comic-style stories but nothing too over-the-top or cheesy. These scenes are randomly scattered about the book and, percentage wise, there are far fewer cartoon stories than there are full color pictures and instructions for how to build any variety of things. I like the way the book is balanced out.

If you are looking for some fun, imaginative and instructive LEGO books which are suitable for younger builders (as well as older ones), the LEGO adventure books are great ones to pick up.

Other titles you might like from No Starch Press:

Many thanks to No Starch Press for sending a copy of this book our direction in order to facilitate this review. I received no additional compensation for this review and all opinions are 100% my very own!

Also, if you happen to be participating in the Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, check out this post from a few years back in which Narnia Girl from Lantern Waste shared with us some of her Narnia-themed LEGO creations.

Shasta in Tashbaan:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dancing on the Head of a Pen, by Robert Benson

I have never heard of Robert Benson before but apparently he has written a number of books. He has written and published so many that many people have asked him for advice on how to write for themselves. This book is an answer to their questions.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a very quick and easy book to read. It comes off as more of a motivational speech than anything else and motivational speeches always do tend to go down well. In other words, there are no "ouch!" revelations inside, unless you come to the realization that you are an incredibly undisciplined person (which I am going to bank on you already knowing if you know you want to write but haven't written anything yet). The short answer to the question of how to start writing is simply to do it.

Practically speaking, Benson has filled this book with suggestions based on how he writes, acknowledging that what works for him might not necessarily work for another. He referenced a variety of authors he knows, all of whom have different methods for putting pen to paper. Because all people are different I think it was wise for Benson to write this book with the idea of motivating others in mind, rather than attempting to offer a step-by-step guide to write for publication. If you read this book, you might find yourself motivated to ditch the excuses and get to work. First though, I suppose one must remove the doubts that they have that they can't write anything decent. It's hard to write anything when you assume you have nothing brilliant to offer. I chuckled over this passage:

"A day spent reading Anne Dillard or Graham Greene or John Le Carre or Thomas Merton or Doris Grumbach or Frederick Buechner can convince anyone who wants to write that the good stuff has already been written and, in fact, so marvelously written that anything else by anyone else, including me, borders on being audacious at best and pretentious the rest of the time. Last week while reading Buechner, I realized tat if I wanted to make a contribution to the literary world, I should do his laundry and mow his grass so he would have more time to write." (Chapter 3, Go to Your Room, page 35)

I have a lot of lawns to mow and laundry to do for others!

There are practical tips included in this book but, as I say, Benson is quick to note that these are things that work for him and might not necessarily work for the next person. However, there is one universal truth which stood out to me (because, of course, it would). That is?:

"Any writer should have a shelf of . . . books. He need not read the writers I read. But he should never forget that we are all going to write under the influence of someone. Better for him if those writers are better than most. At the very least they should be the ones who make him want to lie down and take deep breaths before taking up his pen. Those are the books that will make him live, and write, more intensely. Reading anything less will not help him grow as a writer.

A direct relationship exists between the caliber of the writing you read and the caliber of the writing you make."

(Chapter 8, Under the Influence, pp 102-103, emphasis mine)

I agree with him whole heartedly! The people who I read definitely influence the life that I live and, frequently, the way I write. You can tell who I read - I think - if you read a few of my blog posts. Sometimes I think other authors are screaming through me in my speech and writing patterns. So, friends, let us read well so that we may be influenced by the wisest and the best!

I do envision myself writing a book someday. As my first title has flitted away, I'll have to do some additional thinking and pondering. I know that writing is an important way for me to be able to express myself and that I feel calmer and more thought through once I write something down, whether it be for public consumption or personal release. Words matter deeply to me and the order they are placed in can change a world (or, at least, a life). It's interesting for me to pick up books every now and again which talk about how one can write more effectively. For me, writing is a "future thing" but reading Dancing on the Head of a Pen did encourage me to start practicing now.

I pulled out a notebook and got started.

Many thanks to Waterbrook Press for sending a copy of this book my direction in order to facilitate this review. I did not receive any additional compensation for this review and all opinions are - forever and always - 100% my very own!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Miss Buncle Married, by D.E. Stevenson

It didn't take me long to give in a purchase a copy of Miss Buncle Married, on the heels of reading the first in this series by Stevenson. Curious to embark on the next chapter of Miss Buncle's life, I swooped on into the read.

Although this book was very fun and it was enjoyable to find out what happens to Miss Buncle after she gets married I thought this title lacked the charm that is the first story. That is not to say that it is bad at all or that I didn't enjoy it - because I did! I just liked the first title better.

The character of Mrs. Abbott (nee Buncle) is further developed in this sequel. Unlike the first book, Mrs. Abbott isn't in the process of writing books, but in establishing a household. We see her setting up house and getting to know people in her new community. She does write a little bit, but nothing for publication. This book is strictly about her development as a human being in relationship to others around her. Side plots abound, thanks to the neighbors and you meet a range of characters. There is hidden romance, children wrecking havoc through untamed mischievousness, ghosts that aunt and neurotic rich folk. My favorite character in this book is not Mrs. Abbott but I do like the way that Stevenson solidifies her as a person with a life all of their own.

Probably the thing I latched onto the most in the character of Mrs. Abbott is the fact that she is able to write down her thoughts and communicate through the written word. However, when it comes to actual, live conversation she goes a bit tongue tied. When she writes, she's a regular word smith; when she speaks she sounds simple. I so very much identify with that! Really and truly, I hate it when people ask me in person what I think about such-and-such a book. I can never string three words together when asked to answer that question audibly. (Are you surprised? My blog posts can wax eloquent at times. You might assume I'm a talk-a-holic. You would be wrong.) When I'm trying to say what I'm thinking outloud, words just fly out of my head. I very frequently use the wrong words and end up meaning something completely different than what I meant. I don't think I think fast enough to communicate deep thoughts when talking aloud. I'd rather write blog posts. (Then, sometimes when I write it out I'm able to say it with greater ease aloud.) Alas, Miss Buncle/Mrs. Abbott suffers the same and so I sympathized with her a great deal and frowned a bit when she struggled to communicate with others face-to-face. It's such a strange phenomenon (and such a frustrating one for me!) and I wonder if D.E. Stevenson suffered from the same "condition" because she describes it so well in this book.

I'm still very much engaged with Stevenson's writing. Her style is slow and easy and, next to Mitford (and Miss Read), I find her books wonderful and cozy reads. I took my time reading this one (i.e., I spent 5 days reading it instead of 2) and while I found it slower than the first book, I enjoyed it just the same in the end.

No retracting my original statements about finding D.E. Stevenson a perfect "holiday" read. Look her up! I'll look forward to another of her works shortly.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis

This is only my third time reading The Horse and His Boy, the last time being in 2008! The reason for this is that I have long held to the belief that this story is my least favorite in the Narnia series. However, I am reading through the series with my kids and this was the next title up. With a groan (truly) I pulled it from the shelves and braced myself to re-read it. And oh how glad I am that I did! This time, the story spoke loudly to me.

I am grinning at myself over my about-face when it comes to this book. As I said, the last time I read this book was in 2008. Life presented one of its hardest challenges to us in 2009 (worst year ever) and although many of the issues have resolved themselves since that time, 2009 will always be impressed upon our memories as being used by God to shake us up and shake us out of some bad situations and some bad attitudes. Enter: The Horse and His Boy.

This title is all about challenges and how God uses things, people, and situations (which might look awful to us) to bring about good. He uses the "bad" in our lives to change us and to make us into the people He wants us to be and that is what all of the characters in this particular Narnian story happen to learn.

The premise, if you are unfamiliar with it, is as follows:

Fourteen years into the Pevansies' reign as kings and queens in Narnia, in the southern land of Calormen, a boy named Shasta lives with an old fisherman whom he believes to be his father. Shasta and his "father" take in a nobleman (a Tarkaan) for a night's stay and in eavesdropping on a conversation between the fisherman and Tarkaan, Shasta discovers that the fisherman is not really his father. Shasta discovers two additional things: 1. the nobleman's horse is a talking Narnian horse; and 2. Shasta himself is of northern descent. The horse, Bree, and Shasta agree to run away together, "To Narnia and the north!" Along the way they meet up with the high-spirited Aravis and her talking horse, Hwin. The four join forces and commit to traveling to Narnia together. To get there, they must cross a huge dessert and high mountains. The foursome also must outrun their enemies and give warning to Archenland and Narnia of an impending attack by the Calormens. It is quite the adventure story, full of difficulties which must be overcome.

The book starts out quite slow though, with Lewis trying to incorporate archaic language. There is (in my ever so humble estimation) an overuse of the words "thee" and "thou" which I could do without. The vocabulary was a bit confusing and I think the first few chapters of the story rather flew over the heads of my kids. I honestly don't know that they got anything out of the first part of the book. All the while, I was regretting the read and wishing that I was entering the wardrobe again instead of crossing the desert. But a book series is a book series and you can't skip parts or you'll miss important things. So we pressed on!

When we'd reached the middle of the book things started to pick up for all of us. Lewis fell into his "usual" Narnia writing style and began using words and language patterns which make sense to our modern ears. That allowed us all to begin engaging with the story a bit more. By the end of the book I found myself in a flood of tears, just as I usually do when I'm in Narnia. I realized that I loved this book just as much as the others. I might even appreciate it more than some of the others in the series for the message which combines struggle and hope for the victory.

Here are some passages which I marked as being particularly meaningful to me:

Shasta and Bree are conversing and Bree fails to show verbal honor to the leader of the Calormen.

"I say," put in Shasta in a rather shocked voice, "oughtn't you to say 'May he live forever'?"
"Why?" asked the Horse. "I'm a free Narnian. And why should I talk slaves' and fools' talk? I don't want him to live forever, and I know he's not going to live forever whether I want him to or not. And I can see you're from the free north too. No more of this southern jargon between you and me!"

This passage from the Bible popped into my head:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Ephesians 4:17-25

When we become Christians, we are to "put off" the old man and his sinful ways and habits. Our actions should change and so should our speech. Why should we talk foolish talk? We are to be made holy, as He is holy. (Lev. 20:26)

Switching to a different subject entirely, there is a different passage which talks about how Hwin and Bree were running to stay ahead of the enemy. Bree was slacking off and being lazy about pushing himself to keep on keeping on. Lewis writes of Bree's condition:

". . . [I]f Bree had had a Tarkaan on his back at that moment to make him go on, he would have found that he was good for several hours hard going. But one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no-one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself."

I made mental note to apply this idea of training a person to disciple themselves (as opposed to training them to obey you always) to parenting. You, as a parent, have an obligation to train your child to be a disciplined, hard working sort. However, you can't and shouldn't have to stand by for their entire lives making sure they keep getting out of bed in the morning, keep putting their feet on the floor and keep committing to do right. We, as parents, don't want to raise slaves. I want free-thinkers who are self-disciplined and ready to throw themselves joyfully into whatever God has for them. This passage was a good reminder to me to focus on teaching my kids to self-manage and do right whether I am looking their direction or not.

Lastly (for this post), Aslan appears to the horses. They do not know who he is, but Hwin, the gentle mare, approaches Aslan and says to him:

“Please,' she said, 'You're so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I'd rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

Every time I read that my heart swells and I'm not yet sure how to put my thoughts and feelings into words. All I know to say is, "My sentiments exactly." Whether I live or die, I am the Lord's. In rich or in want, I am the Lord's. Everything I have is His and He can eat me if He wants. Every year of my life could be a repeat of 2009 and I would still be the Lord's. He has never left me or forsaken me. He has changed me with lion claw scratches on my back, but He did it for my good. I can run a little faster now, thanks to those scratches. Any scars are alright. They are His motivating gift to me.

To put that another way, I'm most definitely for Aslan, even if there isn't any Aslan.

But there is!

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge
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