Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas

I'm taking a week or so off from blogging -- I'm going to visit family next week and probably won't be online much. So I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the whole Gilmore gang.

And if you're interested, I've posted my January Notes from the Windowsill: Lessons from the Prairie.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Topeka guitarist

Check out this guitarist from Topeka that I just found out about! His name is Andy McKee -- here's a video of him playing.

Remembering what it's all about

It's hard to keep the season in the proper perspective sometimes. Megan and Randall both have the right idea.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On books and opinions

If you peruse the links in the sidebar, you'll see I'm listed as a reviewer with the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. I've also participated in the FIRST tours. But I've been thinking about this and I've realized that I'm not real comfortable calling myself a book reviewer. This is not to disparage what the CFBA and FIRST are doing -- these are good ways to get the word out about new books. Bonnie Calhoun (CFBA) and Mimi Pearson (FIRST) put a lot of work into these efforts and deserve our appreciation. But over the last few months I've really begun to think about what it is I'm doing when I write about a book, and if it's appropriate to call it 'reviewing.' Maybe this is just semantics, except I think semantics matters. The words we use and how we use them are important -- if I didn't believe this, I wouldn't spend all this time writing and editing words.

When I think of a book review, I think of something more than a book report, or a brief synopsis, or even a strong opinion. I think of something that examines a book for what it is, what it aspires to be, and how well it accomplishes those things. A book review often places the book in question within the context of its genre and subject. This kind of reviewing seems to call for a depth of knowledge about literature that I don't possess. A reviewer should be able to express an informed opinion about the book. (A subject for a different day -- the lack of informed opinion in public discourse.) If you want examples of what I mean try such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, which I subscribe to, or The New York Times Review of Books (I'm not a regular reader of it, though).

So I've come to the conclusion that I'm not comfortable being called a book reviewer. I have opinions, sure. I can tell you if I like a book, and even why I like it. But should my opinion have weight? Probably not. I have read neither widely nor deeply. I have no training in literary criticism. I couldn't begin to do the kind of analysis that Mark Bertrand did with Ezekiel's Shadow. I'm not suggesting that all book reviewing should be like that, but I think some books deserve that level of treatment, and I know I don't have the literary chops to do it. But what about the average book that has no literary aspirations? If it's going to be reviewed, the person reviewing still needs to be able to offer an informed, and well-formed, opinion. And the person should say whether or not the book is worth reading. (Chip MacGregor goes hard about Christian book reviews in this post at The Master's Artist. He's been a publisher, an author and now he's a literary agent -- he knows what he's talking about.)

Thanks to FIRST and CFBA I have the chance to get lots of free books, and it's tempting, but I haven't requested all the books featured in the tours. Sometimes they're books I'm not likely to read and it feels dishonest to ask a publicist to go to the expense and trouble of sending me the book. And I'm discovering that I'm kind of picky about what I read. And I'm not very dedicated to blogging about every book I read, so I tend to only write about the books I really like. Just as a movie reviewer has to see a lot of movies, whether he likes them or not, a book reviewer needs to read all kinds of books, whether he likes them or not. Well, I don't. And if a book doesn't keep me interested, I'll put it down and not return to it. And I'm not likely to write about it.

This is not to say that there aren't books I'm going to be writing about. (Ah, you say, here's where she doesn't apply her own rule to herself. Please bear with me.) I'm going to differentiate between what I do when I write about a book and an actual book review. Maybe the closest I've come to a real book review was a while back, when I wrote about Relentless. But even that was more recommending a book I really enjoyed. I just don't think my opinion should carry much weight -- I haven't earned it.

But, as I said, there are books I will write about. I read, I interact with what I read, and sometimes I write about it. There are writers whose books I've enjoyed in the last year or so and I know I'll want to read their next books. There are several I'm looking forward to: Chris Well, Robin Parrish and T.L. Hines all have books coming this spring and summer. Kathleen Popa's first novel will be out this spring, too. And Athol Dickson's new novel, The Cure, will be out this summer. Oh, so many books, so little time. I hope I'll be able to get some Q & A's with some of these authors (look for one with Chris Well sometime after the new year), too.

Maybe I've shot myself in the foot here, but maybe not. Not that many people will read this. You can say I offer book impressions, or reflections, or reactions, or recommendations. Just don't call me a book reviewer.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Keeping the cliche out of Christmas

I have a suggestion: let's all try to keep the cliche out of Christmas.

I gave up most Christmas specials a long time ago. I prefer traditional Christmas carols, or Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, to endless versions of "The Christmas Song" or "I'll Be Home for Christmas." I'm not a Scrooge or a Grinch -- I've just seen enough Christmases to recognize the variations on a theme. A few years ago I helped put together a sort of hybrid cantata for our choir. We used songs from different previously performed cantatas and I wrote the narration. I realized it's hard to come up with a compelling, somewhat original take on the Greatest Story Ever Told. (My version was called "The Unexpected Messiah." It was a bit too long, but it seemed to go over well.)

So last night my mom called and told me about the children's Christmas program at their church. She said it was a touching story and she really enjoyed it. I suppose I shouldn't be critical of something I haven't even seen, but when she described the storyline I couldn't help but think it was a story built up of one stereotype after another. There was the grumpy, grinchy mayor, the adorable children, the wealthy and busy couple with no grasp of the meaning of Christmas, and the sweet young Christian mother. Of course, these things are always more enjoyable when you know the people involved.

Here's what bugs me -- too often we frame the Christian understanding of Christmas as an us-versus-them story. We're the ones who know the truth and the ones who don't are the enemy. We get irate about businesses and organizations that go with the generic "Happy Holidays," instead of "Merry Christmas." We agitate for the public display of nativity scenes. I'm afraid that sometimes in the midst of all this activism, we lose sight of the real gift of Christmas: Jesus came to earth to live and die and rise again, so that all the world might be saved -- even those people who don't "get it."

I'd like to see a Christmas program that operated from that premise, instead of going with the ready cliche. It might be a less simplistic story, but it also might be more satisfying, and closer to the truth. Maybe I'll write it myself.

Monday, December 11, 2006

You can't make this stuff up ...

A gentleman called 911 to report a theft -- of marijuana. (from the Associated Press)

I have personality

Your Personality Profile

You are dependable, popular, and observant.
Deep and thoughtful, you are prone to moodiness.
In fact, your emotions tend to influence everything you do.

You are unique, creative, and expressive.
You don't mind waving your freak flag every once and a while.
And lucky for you, most people find your weird ways charming!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The popularity of small towns

I use StatCounter (it's free) for blog statistics and it's kind of fun to see what pages bring people to my blogs. This post about living in small towns brings a lot of searchers. And on my writing blog, the story I wrote a few years ago about community journalism is by far the most popular. Not sure why, except a lot of people are looking for ideas of what life is like in small towns.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Lazy and critical

Yes, that's me. I've been a lazy blogger, which should be obvious from my lack of serious posting. Not that I haven't been thinking, but I haven't been writing much and I certainly haven't been blogging.

And do I actually have anything to say today? Not much, except I've been re-reading the Lord of the Rings. A couple of weeks ago, we watched The Fellowship of the Ring. The other day Bob was watching The Two Towers. We liked the movies a lot, but reading the books reminds me of some things about the movies that bother me. Some of it is the little details -- no Tom Bombadil, the compression of the storyline so that Frodo is heading out on his journey only weeks after Bilbo's party, some things like that. But what is bothering me more, which becomes more clear when I read the books again, is some fundamental issues. Such as, Aragorn was not that conflicted about returning to Gondor. He'd been waiting and watching for years -- decades -- for the time to be right for him to reclaim the throne. And Merry and Pippin are not nearly as inept and buffoonish as they are in the movies. Sure, they're young and somewhat foolish, but they're also a lot more capable (especially Merry) than the movies portray them.

OK, so who am I to criticize Peter Jackson? He got a lot about the Lord of the Rings right, especially the bond between Frodo and Sam. (But even that is hard to portray well in our day and age and in America, because we don't seem to understand the kind of loyalty and close friendship that men in a different age and a different place were able to express.) And I think the movies introduced a lot of people to the books who might not have read them before. It's hard to convey some of the nuances of the books in film, but there's an attitude, a way of looking at the world, that is present in the books that is missing from the movies.

Reading the books again is a good reminder to me of what a fantasy story can do -- how much depth of human experience it can explore, the kind of metaphors that are possible in fantasy. And walking with Frodo and Sam and the Fellowship reminds me of why I fell in love with the stories in the first place -- Middle Earth is a wonderful place to spend some time and I love hobbits.