Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Take the survey

If you'd like to offer feedback on the cover of a new novel from Bethany House, you can take this survey. Dave Long has also posted a link to an interview with author, Ann Tatlock, too.

Fantasy and reality

Here’s a little riddle: What do American Gods, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lisey’s Story, and Relentless have in common? (Besides the fact that I really liked all of these books.) I might include Peace Like a River in the list, too. Each of these books tells a story in which an ordinary person realizes that the world is not quite what it seems. The people and places and times seem familiar, but the fantastic, the magical, the miraculous, are part of the world, too.
I’ve always liked stories in which an ordinary person is thrust into events larger than himself (think The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, or the Chronicles of Narnia). But the books I’ve named above seem to integrate the extraordinary into the fabric of everyday life in some way -- and they do it well.

Some books tell stories that are fairly predictable -- the stories adhere to certain conventions of genre and the reader knows what to expect. I’m not saying this is bad -- I’ve always loved mysteries and science fiction and a lot of novels in these genres are very well written. But when you open the latest Sue Grafton novel, you know what to expect in late 20th Century California. There will be twists and turns to the story, but they’ll be firmly rooted in what we understand as ‘the real world.’ When you read The Hobbit, you know you’re in Middle Earth. There are wizards and dwarves and dragons, and, of course, hobbits -- all of which are firmly rooted in Middle Earth, not 21st Century America.

By contrast, the world of American Gods certainly seems familiar, but it soon becomes clear that Mr. Wednesday is not who he seems to be. And the reader soon begins to suspect there is more to Shadow than meets the eye. In Lisey’s Story, it doesn’t take too long to realize that Scott Landon was not just a typical tortured novelist who died too young. The Los Angeles of Relentless seems to match what we know, but I don’t think any of us knows anyone quite like Grant Borrows. A Prayer for Owen Meany and Peace Like a River are a little different, and yet in both of these, the miraculous is almost an everyday occurrence.

When I wrote The Man Who Kept a Dragon in the Basement, I was toying with a similar approach (not as well as Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, of course): The world we know, with one little difference -- dragons are real and some people can see them. As I was writing it, I realized that the story was becoming about more than just a guy with a dragon in his basement. I probably knew this all along, but I'd never really thought about it in relation to my own writing -- fantasy offers a language for talking about realities that sometimes are hard to express any other way. Ursula LeGuin talks about this in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (which I don't have handy so I can't quote it directly). But she says something to the effect that if what she had to say could be said any other way, she wouldn't have had to write that whole novel to say it.

I've been trying to find ways to write about faith and life that don't sound contrived and false. In a fairly short stretch of time I read American Gods and then finished A Prayer for Owen Meany. They're very different types of books, and yet they both talk about faith and how what we believe motivates our lives and our actions -- and they do it without sounding hokey. Both books use fantastic elements -- exaggeration, outsize characters, surreal situations. But both books completely sucked me in and those two different pictures of America became real to me. And both books gave me a lot to think about.

The novel I started and didn't get very far on in November is a fantasy. Right now it's too much characters in search of a plot, but maybe I'll be able to do something with it. I like the possibilities it presents.

Maybe I've got fiction and reality on the brain too much, but my February column for Notes from the Windowsill is on a similar theme: A Larger Reality.

Friday, January 26, 2007

'I won't back down'

I was walking back to my office from the gym today and bemoaning the miserable state of my physical fitness -- when I take a day off between walking, it's like I'm starting all over again. And that led to thoughts of the miserable state of my writing life. OK, maybe miserable is too strong, but I've been very undisciplined. If I'm ever going to make progress, I need to be writing every day, or at least more days than I am. And then one of my favorite songs came on -- "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I tend to think of it as my theme song because it's about standing firm, sticking to what you know is right, no matter what. I'm such a wimp I need the encouragement. (Maybe it's an odd choice for a theme song, but I've always like Tom Petty's songs and they keep me moving.) So, even though my legs hurt and some days I can't get in a good walk, I'm going to keep at it. And somehow I'm going to carve out some writing time for myself.

Well I won't back down
No I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down

No I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin me down
gonna stand my ground
... and I won't back down

(I won't back down...)
Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
(and I won't back down...)
hey I will stand my ground
and I won't back down
(I Won't Back Down, by Tom Petty)

Friday reads

I'm involved in women's ministry at the conference level (in my role as coordinator for the Kansas area women ministries in our denomination). The role of women in ministry and how it is discussed is interesting to me. So I found this article from Books and Culture to be especially interesting: A review and essay about Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. This sounds like a book I might want to read. And Susan Wise Bauer's essay and review is excellent, as well.

Mark Bertrand has penned a thought-provoking tale at the Master's Artist: The More Things Change: A Pernicious Parable, Depending on Whom You Ask.

I'm reading Stephen King's new novel, Lisey's Story -- stayed up way too late last night. The only other book by him that I've read is On Writing, which I recommend to everyone who likes his books or wants to write a book themselves. It's excellent. The thought occurs to me, though, that if a writer writes a book about writing, readers are going to look at that writer's books with a sharper eye, perhaps. Lisey's Story is a good story, and King writes pretty well from a women's viewpoint, but it seems a bit uneven. I'm not far enough along in the book, though, to know for sure if it's a function of the story or not. But I like the book.

It's CFBA blog tour time again and this week's featured book is If the Shoe Fits, by Marilynn Griffith. You can find out more at the CFBA blog or Marilynn's Web site.

Monday, January 22, 2007

CSFF January Blog Tour

A few weeks ago Rebecca Miller realized I had been writing some science fiction and fantasy stories and suggested I join the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour. So I said sure. Why? Because science fiction and fantasy is an overlooked part of Christian fiction and one way to encourage writers is to give them some exposure. And the truth is, one of my favorite books last year probably falls into this category -- Relentless.

I haven't read this month's featured books (but I think I'll try to find them and read them this year), but I have to agree with Rebecca that they're beautiful books. They are the Door Within Trilogy, by Wayne Thomas Batson. To find out more about the books -- The Door Within, Rise of the Wyrm Lord, and The Final Storm -- you can follow the links to the author's Web site, the trilogy Web site or some of the fine bloggers listed below.

Jim Black
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
Tessa Edwards
April Erwin
Linda Gilmore
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Todd Michael Greene
Leathel Grody
Karen Hancock
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Joleen Howell
K. D. Kragen
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Rachel Marks
Shannon McNear
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
John Otte
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hannah Sandvig
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Daniel I. Weaver


Infuze Magazine has opened the voting for its Best of 2006 Anthology and one of my stories is on the list (Confessions of a Christian Mom). They're also taking votes for poetry. There aren't many votes yet, so you need to get over there and vote for your favorite story and favorite poem (only once for each, though -- this isn't Chicago). And tell your friends and family to vote, too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday news and views

Winter seems to be settling in finally. We haven't gotten the worst of the storms that have rolled through this month, but it's been very cold. It looks like we'll get more snow this weekend, too. Joel will be disappointed if we don't get any snow days out of it. So far we haven't had any. (Probably one of the few school districts in Kansas that hasn't!)

This is something to look forward to: Leif Enger's next book. I was beginning to wonder if he was going to pull a Harper Lee on us. But then again, if the only novel a person writes is To Kill a Mockingbird or Peace Like a River, maybe we shouldn't complain.

I like Jeanne's approach to milestone birthdays.

The Master's Artist has had some good posts this week.

I finished, at last, A Prayer for Owen Meany this week. It is an excellent book and I can't figure out why it took me so long, except maybe I just didn't want to read it at times I couldn't give it the attention it deserves. I've been thinking about the book and some others I've read recently, so maybe I'll try to get some thoughts down to share next week. But life is busy right now -- both at home and at work, so we'll see. Have a safe and blessed weekend.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

CFBA: Arms of Deliverance

This week's book is Arms of Deliverance, by Tricia Goyer (a CFBA member). This is the fourth book in a historical fiction series set against the backdrop of WWII. You can read the first chapter on Tricia's blog. You can find a review of Arms of Deliverance along with a review of Tricia's most recent nonfiction, Generation NeXt Parenting, at Bookshelf Reviews.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ah, yes, winter in Kansas

Yesterday it was in the low 60s here (it reached 70 in Wichita). Now it is 18 degrees in Manhattan and we're under a winter storm watch. We've avoided the freezing rain/sleet scenario, but we're likely to get snow this weekend. Sounds like a good weekend to make soup and curl up with a good book. (And it's a long weekend for me since I get Monday off.)

Blog watch:
Read the Master's Artist -- Mark's post today is excellent.
I've just started reading Rebecca Miller's blog, a Christian Worldview of Fiction. She's a fellow Fifer and writes fantasy. There's also good and thoughtful discussion there about faith and writing. (I think I'm going to participate in the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour, too.)

On the exercise front, I walked three times this week so I feel like I'm off to a good start.

Take care and have a good weekend.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

CFBA: A Pagan's Nightmare

This week's featured book for the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is one that has intrigued me ever since I read about it at Novel Journey: A Pagan's Nightmare, by Ray Blackston. When he was interviewed at Novel Journey, he described it as a comic look at legalism, with the sharpest barbs directed at the Christian Industrial Complex (as some have called our religious consumerism). I didn't sign up for a copy, but I think I need to find this book. Check out the interview or find out more at Ray's Web site and at the CFBA blog.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Baby steps, not resolutions

Yesterday I took another step in achieving some goals (I'm avoiding the word 'resolution') for this year -- I walked to the Rec Center on campus and walked a mile on the track, then walked back to my office (which is about 1/2 mile from the Rec, so that gives me 2 miles). My plan is to get over to the Rec at least 3 times a week to walk and, maybe eventually, do some other exercises. As a K-State employee, I can join the Rec, which has excellent facilities, for a modest fee, deducted from my paycheck. And I figure by actually paying for a Rec membership, it will be added incentive to follow through on this goal.

I had my annual physical just before Christmas and it was something of an eye-opener. I realized that heredity and age were catching up with me. My bad cholesterol was high, my good cholesterol was low, and I weigh more than I've ever weighed in my life (including pregnancies). My knees hurt and my general fitness level is low. On top of that, I've had more symptoms related to my mitral valve prolapse. The only good thing was my blood pressure, which has always been low.

I don't want to be overly dramatic -- I'm certainly not at death's door or anything. It's just that I realized I needed to make some changes before it was too late. I've never been obsessive about my weight, but it's gradually crept up over the years and I can feel the difference. But weight alone was never an incentive for me. But my dad had double bypass surgery when he was 62 -- and he wasn't overweight, his cholesterol was only 140, and his blood pressure was fine. So I know heredity is probably working against me.

I know that it's hard to make big changes all at once, so I'm trying to take some baby steps. I'm taking the medication the doctor prescribed, I'm cutting way back on the soda pop (I have a major addiction to Welch's Grape Soda) and drinking more water instead, choosing low-fat foods and whole grains, and walking. I'm also drinking less coffee and cutting back on caffeine in general (which helps the mitral valve thing, as does drinking more water and eating less sugar). It's going to be hard when it gets warm and the cherry-limeades from Sonic call out to me, but I can always drink the diet version. And there's nothing wrong with a treat once in a while.

My health insurance provider has some good tools and resources on its Web site, and some of it is available to nonmembers. Here's a couple more resources:
SmallStep.gov has lots of tips and tools and encouragement to take small steps toward big changes.
Aim for a Healthy Weight is part of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It has lots of tools and information.
The same institute's TLC Diet information includes an interactive tool to help you develop a healthy eating plan.

We'll see how this goes. I'm not always good at following through with this kind of thing, but maybe writing about it on the blog will help keep me accountable. Hopefully by the time my birthday rolls around this fall, there will be less of me to turn 50!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Running the game of life, and football

I ended up having an extra day of holiday due to the national day of mourning for President Ford, so I watched the funeral on TV. It was very nice -- the ceremony was dignified and fitting a former president, but not theatrical. I've always admired President Ford. He became president just before I started my senior year of high school. It was a tough time to be president and I don't think we as a nation appreciated how helpful it was to have an honest, open man of integrity in the White House. The eulogies for him today reminded me of that.

Last night we watched the Fiesta Bowl, where Boise State defeated Oklahoma in overtime. Wow! What a game! Sure Oklahoma's in the Big 12, but I was cheering for Boise State. I was really impressed with how Boise State's quarterback handled himself under pressure.

And how about those Chiefs? I liked what Coach Edwards is reported to have said at the press conference after the Chiefs made the playoffs for the first time in a long time. He said it wasn't luck that got the Chiefs there. He said four teams played Sunday, at home, that had to win to have any chance at the playoffs. The Chiefs won their game, the others lost. So what do they get for winning? A date with the Indianapolis Colts. And I'm sure Herm Edwards will tell them to play to win.