Archive for October, 2013

The FirebirdSo I just finished reading The Firebird, Susanna Kearsley’s latest novel. This being the second book of hers I’ve read (after The Shadowy Horses), I am finding she is probably being added to my mental list of favorite writers (perhaps I should make an official list on GoodReads…).

I enjoyed The Firebird so much that I read all the back material about the history and her research and even her bio. I read that she’s been compared to Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Diana Gabaldon, all of which are on my list already! Well, there ya go. I was only in my early teens when Mary Stewart became part of my favorite-authors list: I read her amazing set about Arthur and Merlin, which begins with The Crystal Cave, and found myself transported. Almost any other book about Arthur has let me down since then. I read probably four of her other books in my teens, whatever I could find in the local library or at used-book stores. Of course, I loved du Maurier’s Rebecca, that being essentially THE classic gothic tale, as I see it. And I’ve now read half of Gabaldon’s very entertaining (but lengthy) Outlander books.

When I was a young reader, I gobbled up everything I could find by Agatha Christie (I collected probably 20 or 25 of her books and read far more from the library) and by the awe-inspiring Madeleine L’Engle. I adored Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence but never found anything else, at the time, that she had written (I’ve since seen more but haven’t tried reading any).

In between, I’ve swallowed whole most of Michael Crichton’s books (they were almost all gripping, more intelligent than many other best-sellers, and based on fascinating science), Amy Tan’s beautiful stories of Chinese mothers and daughters, and a fair number of Orson Scott Card’s novels, mostly the fantasy ones and not the sci-fi (I’m just now getting around to reading Ender’s Game, and at the halfway point, I’m just mildly interested).

Most recently, I’ve become a huge fan of Cassandra Clare (yes, her Shadowhunter books are deliciously entertaining), Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Elizabeth Knox, and Kate Morton (yep, Zafon and Morton both write what I consider to be gothic tales, or close to it). Of course, I think it goes without saying that I loved J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, but I was very disappointed by her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, and I haven’t tried her detective novel written under a pseudonym.

I think what I love most about these authors and their writing is their ability to really take me somewhere far, far away. Most have some elements of magic or something supernatural, or the hint of there being a possibility. There are deep, dark secrets and mysteries, long buried. There are thrills that keep me hooked till the very end. Many are set in other countries besides my own (I love England; the very soil seems to be soaked with layer after layer of story). The writing is beautiful and carefully crafted; the characters are ones I want to know. Ah, to be able to just open a simple book, step into it, and be completely enveloped, surrounded by other places and times!

There are always new books and new writers that impress me. Some I admire; others I adore. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

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I’ve watched the past few days as different people and media observers have discussed the backlash as well as support for the very fit mom of three boys who posted a picture of her scantily clad self with the title “What’s your excuse?” I’ve wanted to say so many things to respond to so many other people who have added their own reactions to the whole thing.

you are capableHere’s the lowdown, though: practically no one has gotten down to the nitty-gritty of the real issue here. There have been two primary reactions: “her story is inspiring, as she meant the post to be” or “it’s shaming.” The latter response has skirted it but hasn’t fully developed it. But the great ladies who started Beauty Redefined and who work tirelessly to spread their message about women have already addressed this topic on their blog and have revisited it many times: We as women are capable of more than just being objects, of just being something to look at.

They discuss the topic of “fitspiration” in a blog post they wrote almost a year and a half ago. Here’s one point: how do you (if you are a woman) feel when you look at this incredibly fit woman? Do you feel inadequate, less than worthy, embarrassed about your own body? Because I think that for the majority of us who aren’t this incredibly toned and fit, that is the real reaction we have immediately, whether or not we talk ourselves through it, even very quickly, to a place where we think the more acceptable “oh, that’s so inspirational.”

Let’s be real here: yes, many of us in the U.S. could do better to take care of our physical health. Too many of us are overweight, don’t eat enough of the healthy foods our bodies need and too much of the foods our bodies don’t need; too many of us don’t exercise regularly, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. HOWEVER, even if all of us did eat healthier and spent 30 minutes exercising four or five times a week, which is essentially what most experts on health recommend, we would not look like this woman. There’s this thing called genetics, and some bodies are just not built that way. But eating right and exercising will make those bodies healthy and strong, which is the real goal of fitness and taking care of ourselves.

What this photo does is tell us that if we don’t look like this, we’re clearly NOT doing the right things. This woman, Maria Kang, has said she spends about an hour each day working out. I don’t know what her diet plan is; it may be healthy and satisfying; it might be pared down to a small number of calories. Whichever it is doesn’t matter here; what does matter is that her eating and hour of exercise lead her to look like a model. I can honestly say that if I eat the number of calories I should (which I admit I have been overdoing a bit for some stressful months here) and continue the hour of exercise that I already do incorporate into my life five to six times per week, I WOULD NOT LOOK LIKE HER.

And that’s OK. Isn’t she saying we’re supposed to make ourselves a priority and exercise? But what the picture tells us is that the point is to LOOK a certain way, not have our own version of good health, which is often correlated with appearance but not entirely. Yes, diets lead to “looking” thinner. But if she and other “fitspiration” advocates, as well as their supporters, truly just wanted us all to be healthier, there would be no need for pictures that make women feel bad.

The truth is this: our society is still firmly entrenched in certain results, in appearances, in what we consider an ideal, which today is being very trim, with firm and hopefully large-ish breasts, not just thin but toned. (Fifty years ago the ideal was different; one hundred years ago it was very different.) Just because this is TODAY’s ideal doesn’t mean it’s some kind of eternal, absolute Truth.

I’m sure that Kang did want to inspire. But she bought right in to our culture’s damaging belief about appearance being paramount. It’s so prevalent that it’s almost invisible. We can’t see that it’s there right in front of our eyes because it’s been “taught” to all us, male and female, since we were born into this world. The only way to notice it is to start taking action, to respond in positive but strong ways that women are more than objects.

How about the radical notion that, rather than stripping down and showing off her abs and thin but toned thighs, Kang posted some information about her actual health: cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar, etc.? Because that’s what health is about, what the fitspiration posters SAY they want to promote. So stop the shaming photos of ideals that really are not possible for at least half the population (and I’m being conservative here). Talk about health and measure it.

The women who did complain about Kang’s post are experiencing shame twice now, once as they felt bad about themselves when seeing Kang’s perfect body, and a second time by being called “catty” and “jealous.” They should be supported as they remind us all that shame is not an effective motivation, not in the long run. It’s “counterproductive, … debilitating and discouraging,” according to an excellent post on shame at Beauty Redefined. Please take the time to read that post because it is absolutely crucial in understanding what’s going on in our culture. The more that we can talk about this issue, the better. All in our culture, women and men, need to change their mindset, need to totally rewire their brains when it comes to how they think about appearance. Let’s unlink “health” from “appearance.” Let’s stop thinking of our bodies, our appearances, as the most important part of our SELVES. Let’s compliment ourselves and others for more important things than how we look.

Let’s have this conversation and do it right. Be an advocate. Share these “radical” ideas. Kindly challenge and help remind others, wherever you are, whether it’s online (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram) or in person, that we are capable of being more than looked at. Start changing how YOU think, the horrible messages society has drilled into your brain for years, and help others to do so too. We can all do it if we just speak up.

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It’s no secret I love to read. I am in awe of the amazing imagination of so many writers. But some books aren’t just imaginative in and of themselves; some actually stimulate and feed imaginative thought. For some reason, I’ve found these books tend to be ones aimed at middle readers (maybe it’s because that was a time in my life I felt most free to explore and imagine: now that might be another topic to consider). A couple of cases in point:

Chasing VermeerAnything by Blue Balliett. Reading her books is like attending a class for gifted students. I can say this because I myself had the privilege of going to special “gifted and talented” classes when I was in my middle-school years, and they were fun and fascinating and inspired us to think “outside the box.” I LOVED them. Balliett’s books feature protagonists who either attend a special school that focuses on inspiring kids to think differently while learning (in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game) or whose parents inspire them to imagine and think creatively (Hold Fast). She introduces all kinds of fun and interesting concepts to young readers, many of whom might not have had the opportunity to attend these kinds of enrichment classes. Her writing truly gets those brain juices flowing and makes all of the topics come alive, whether it’s art or architecture or the rhythms of poetry or the things you can do with pentominoes. She uses puzzles and riddles and hidden messages and makes readers do a little work, though it’s too fun to really think of it as such. Reading these books makes me feel like a kid again, set loose in a gifted-classroom setting.

The other book that gave me that same wonderful feeling is one a friend reviewed for my website, Rated Reads. As soon as I read the review of Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, I knew I had to get a copy from my city library, first for my 11-year-old to read, and then for me to escape into.

LemoncelloThis one centered around the amazing resource that is a library, and it incorporated similar mind-expanding elements: riddles, puzzles, mysteries and clues to piece together. It featured the most amazing library that any kid (or kid at heart) could pretty much just live in, if given the opportunity. Just reading about the cool gadgets and state-of-the-art electronics incorporated into this fictional library made me almost drool with jealousy for the kids in the book who got to use it. And it features a rich, eccentric game-manufacturing benefactor who makes it all possible, á la Willy Wonka. Only this is better — as much as I love chocolate, this library sounds far more like a dream come true to me. Games, prizes, and a night spent locked in an amazing library? Yes, yes!

If you want to reawaken the creative kid in yourself, read these books. If you want to do so for your child, hand the book over to him or her.

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I have for a long time considered myself an “intellectual.” I enjoy learning about various topics, researching them, learning different viewpoints, and forming opinions. I like to be able to use my mind to consider the facts as I know them and draw rational, reasonable and considered conclusions based on what I do know (which is always going to be limited given my capacity for understanding and the limitations on my time and energy and even priorities). I still do appreciate listening to others’ own conclusions and having some respectful discussions, even disagreements, about the various topics.

I also am a person of faith. I have come to realize and appreciate just how much faith informs my life, my opinions, my decisions, my goals and entire worldview. It provides me a solid foundation, an inner compass, that keeps me grounded and at peace. I firmly disagree with any ideas that this is just because it “fills some void” or that religion is something made up by weak people to comfort ourselves. I have had too many personal, private, sacred experiences to confirm to myself that faith is real, although sometimes a little elusive or hard to understand. At the same time, I definitely appreciate just how different my faith can make me from others who either do not have faith in religious beliefs or do not share a similar religious belief system as I have.

Lately, it has struck me that sometimes it is impossible to form what other intellectuals will consider a reasonable argument to discuss matters that are truly based “on faith.” Religion and religious beliefs can often actually be reasoned in some way, based on some information. But on some beliefs and principles, we “of faith” truly go pretty much entirely “on faith.” And it can be frustrating as at least a “part-time intellectual,” maybe, to not be able to express clearly to others of that like mind what goes on in the chambers of the soul.

Generally, I have not found these two aspects of my being to clash; rather, I believe they complement each other, work together, to make me the person I am, to make me better, to make me take the time to thoughtfully consider issues in my mind but also in my heart. I like the conclusions that I come to using these parts of myself.

But sometimes, as I said, I simply cannot use both parts equally. Sometimes, the reason part is honestly a much lower portion of the process, and the issue goes almost entirely through the heart, through the faith “processor” inside. And with some really big, even very divisive, issues that are current in today’s society, it is impossible for me to be able to have a rational, reasoned discussion with someone else who is processing their thoughts and ideas through an entirely different section of themselves.

That’s faith. I am a writer, a wordsmith; I value language and all it can express. But there are a few things that I find very difficult to put into words. And then there are others that I just KNOW, through that “gut” part of me, that I have to let go of my need to have an explanation. I have to accept that some things we may never know, at least not as mortals living in this brief life (which, again, given my worldview, is just a tiny fraction of an eternal existence). And I’m actually OK with that. I’m OK with believing that some things are either not for us to know now, or not possible for us to understand now, for any number of reasons because we are eternal beings essentially in embryo, barely grasping the Big Truths from our limited understanding at this stage of our lives. Someday we’ll have enough understanding, wisdom, knowledge, faith, experience — what have you — to finally be able to get “it” … whatever “it” is that seems to confound us right now (fill in the blank with Big Issues).

I do have strong opinions about certain moral and societal issues right now. I know that others will definitely disagree with me. I try to disagree respectfully and hope they do the same.  But some issues have progressed even to divide people within my own faith community, and I have found that particularly perplexing. Though we share faith, religious tenets, and some ideals, somehow we are processing our ideas through very different “processors” or at least in very different ratios. I would like very much to have a great discussion about one or two of these really important issues with these friends who share my religious belief, but I find I simply cannot bring together a rational argument that will stand up to theirs. It is simply because I am using my faith “processor” more.

All I can say is this: I disagree, but I can’t possibly have a reasoned discussion. Too much of my ideas are tied to my faith, to my “gut,” to my feelings. Perhaps some come from adherence to tradition; perhaps I am just very orthodox. Either way, I wish I could say with words just what I want to say. But I’ve been racking my brain, and I just CAN’T. I fear that I will be derided a bit because I’m relying so strongly on feelings, on my faith. Either way, I simply cannot turn away from what I feel.

I will be curious to see how these issues resolve themselves. In the meantime, I’ll continue to exercise both my intellect and my faith in all matters that matter to me and to the world around me.

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