Incurable Curiosity

In-cur-able: (adj.) Not likely to be changed. Cu-ri-os-i-ty: (n) A desire to know.


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Words on the Page: Best Reads of 2012

Christmas Lights

Dear Readers,

It’s the start of a new year. A new year means endless possibilities in the world of literature. But before I start dreaming about the books I’ll dig into this year, I need to look back on what I read in 2012. Yes, it’s time for my annual list of favorite reads. Once again, I’ll split them into the categories of Fiction and Non-Fiction and end the post with my absolute favorite. So, without further ado:

Fiction:

Wonderland Creek, by Lynn Austin. A lovely historical fiction piece set in the Great Depression, Wonderland Creek follows the adventures of Alice Ripley as she becomes – quite by mistake – a rural librarian delivering books by mule in the mountains of Kentucky. This is a delightful read by an expert storyteller.

Spider’s Web, by Agatha Christie

Spider’s Web, by Agatha Christie (novel adaptation by Charles Osborne). This play-turned-novel showcases my favorite things about Christie’s writing: her story craft and her subtle, dark humor. Perfectly outlined and perfectly paced, Bravo, indeed!

Tomorrow We Die, by Shawn Grady. When I picked this one up, I was not expecting such a level of authorship. If you’re looking for an example of the show, don’t tell rule, look no farther. This medical-mystery-action novel doesn’t need a glossary to aid readers; rather, the terminology is brought to life on the page. A strong lead character with a quirky sidekick doesn’t hurt, either.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Another on my ‘I’ve heard good things about this story, but I keep forgetting it’s on my to-read list’ that I read in 2012. My reaction was similar to when I read Jane Eyre. This story is as good as that in Pride and Prejudice, but more gritty and realistic. (The recent BBC adaptation isn’t bad, either!)

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. This one has to make the list, simply because of how much the series made me think. Granted, I still hold a grudge against the copy-editor, but I’m working past it. There are ideas in here, something most young adult literature desperately lacks. You just have to take off your Hollywood-tinted glasses before you read.

Non-Fiction:

The Vampire Defanged, by Susannah Clements. This one tickled my logic-loving, connect-the-dots imagination. Vampires are a touchy subject in literature and film. Somehow they’ve gone from fearsome reflections of depravity to the epitome of awesome. How did that happen? For such a short book, Defanged provides an extensive paper trail on the evolution of literary vampires. 5 stars.

F for Effort, by Richard Benson

Introverts in the Church, by Adam S. McHugh. Think you’re the only one sitting in church wishing for a bit of peace and quiet? Wrong. There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, Introverts argues that you have a unique connection to the foundation of the Church. (Having grown up with the oh-so-shiny evangelical church, this one struck a chord.)

Catch Me if You Can, by Frank Abagnale. I read a biography this year! Biographies aren’t usually books I get excited about, but this one – with action, travel, and a flat-out reckless author – kept my attention. I do not condone the actions of ethics of the author, but I do see a moral in his final occupation: working for the FBI in fraud detection. Cool story, and an interesting way of writing.

F for Effort, by Richard Benson. If I had traveled anywhere this year, this would have been my choice for airplane read of the year. Short, funny, and travel-sized. We all know kids say ridiculous things, but this focuses on what they write when bored or stuck in school. Two halves make a whale – didn’t you know that?

Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I confess, I have this listed because of how ridiculous it is. Try reading beyond the introduction without banging your head on the nearest hard surface, either by choice or unconsciousness. Determine whether this process is actually applicable to your life. Skim the rest, and laugh.

Top Read of 2012:

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Quiet, by Susan Cain. The highlight of my year: a reference guide to introversion. If you or someone you love is programmed to prefer solitude, reflection, and quiet, please read this book. It is not a self-help, pseudo-scientific fluff book written for a bestseller list. No, there is science and experience compiled in one place, in a reader-friendly format no less. Studies about workplace design, educational differences, and social interaction abound. Stories from real people, not case studies, illustrate each point. There’s even an answer to why some kids hate clowns and others seek adrenaline highs.

What were your favorite books of 2012?

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A Positively Negative Book Review

I don’t like the writing, the characters, or even the story – what I do like is the framework behind it all. And that might make me the only positively negative reviewer of Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy has made quite an impression in teen literary circles. Not as much as Harry Potter or Twilight, perhaps, but an impression nonetheless. I think the reason for that lies in the lack of upfront appeal: you don’t read about adorably awkward characters learning how they’ll save the world, nor do you find a story of pathetically obsessive romance starring the undead. No, readers of Hunger Games find themselves looking into a bleak future that twists past horrors into new and vile tortures.

Physical and mental deprivation at the hands of the government. Forced viewings of murder. Merciless reminders of an enslaved culture on an everyday basis. The theft of human dignity. Hope abandoned.

Not exactly a love triangle or school bully (even one with a magic wand).

And then there are the characters: you’ve got a taciturn teen with superior survival skills, yet unaware of ‘the effect she has’ on others. A blonde baker boy, shy, with a heart of gold and some stalker tendencies. An aging drunk with secrets. A slew of empty-headed but well-intentioned fashion models. And a government full of liars and demons, each one the epitome of evil.

But even they wouldn’t be so bad if they were written better. Opportunities for development as bright as a neon sign, somehow ignored. Dialogues more suited to wooden mannequins. Inner monologues to compete with soap operas. Really? And the grammar was so bad at times that I had to wonder if the editing team (or should I say prep team?) had fallen asleep.

Underneath it all, if you mentally correct the questionable writing style, wipe through the grime of dusty character stereotypes, and silence the burning question of Gale vs. Peeta, you can wander your way through a very interesting framework of imagination. There’s just enough history to set up a believable time frame for the major cultural shift, just enough similarities to our own world to make a personal connection, and enough of an idea of a political system to play with.

Inside these boundaries, hundreds of stories could be written. There are plot holes and loose strings to tie up, back stories and empty history books to fill in. Kind of like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the reader has the opportunity to supply the information. Not that that’s actually suggested by the author, publisher, or general public. But the editing team might just be nodding their heads and cheering wildly – hey, you never know. Why did the people submit to slavery after the destruction of District 13? If the people were smart enough to send phony messages by jabberjay, why couldn’t they come up with a means of secret communication among themselves? What happened to religion? Had anyone tried to infiltrate the government? Had anyone tried to escape the country? Did foreign governments know what was going on? Had the country become entirely self-sufficient? How could such small districts supply an entire nation? If Ms. Collins won’t answer these questions, I’ll have to do it myself.

Final thought: Have fun with what you’re reading. Odds are, the author didn’t think of everything. Since there’s no rule saying you have to take the book as it is, why not re-write, revise, even reinvent?

Do you agree, disagree, or have something you’d like to add? May the comment moderation be ever in your favor!


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Introverts in Church: We Exist, We Really Do!

For people who have known me for any length of time, it’s probably pretty obvious that I’m an introvert. (An expressed introvert, according to Myers-Briggs testing. Ironic, huh?) I enjoy solitude, am reserved in group interaction, and am quite singular in thought processing. I’m also a Christian. For a while now I’ve wondered about my place in ministry – it’s always seemed like the only options for introverts are child care, food service, setting up/tearing down chairs, making coffee, and being a silent part of the body count. There’s nothing wrong with those options, necessarily, but can there be more?

In his book Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, Adam McHugh examines just this question.

The Short Summary: An insider’s look at life as an introvert in ministry. Written by a pastor who struggled with extrovert expectations for a long time, Introverts looks at historical perspectives on introverted traits, breaks down ways in which introverts interact in community, highlights positive examples of introverted Christian ministry, and suggests ways of making peace with our extroverted counterparts.

The Long Version:

Historically, introverted traits have been respected (even idealized) by the Church: chiefly, contemplation of ideas, preference for solitude, the ability to concentrate for long stretches of time, and having the gift of listening. Reading the Gospels, these are traits easily identifiable in Jesus himself. Wonderful traits, but not ones that pull in large numbers of converts. And so, over time, the evangelical movement turned from the thought-based traits of introversion to the speech- and people-based traits of extroversion. I can understand that, but is there a reason why the gifts of each can’t work together?

One of the keywords of Christianity these days is Community, also called Doing Life Together and Sharing the Journey. Ideally, this would bring personalities together, but more often than not brings challenges and highlights differences. For extroverts, community is a social outlet in Christian context. For introverts, it’s a crowd of extroverted brothers and sisters in Christ to tolerate in short spurts. Where extroverts can jump right in and get involved in service opportunities, introverts tend to start on the fringe, working our way in slowly, stepping back occasionally to regroup before going deeper into social circles. That makes committing to long-term ministry difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

Turns out there are places for us reserved folks who don’t thrive in crowds and who die on the inside cringe at the thought of door-to-door witnessing. With our processing skills, introverts can make excellent teachers, either alone or as part of a team. Others have a heart for one-on-one counselling or mentoring. Some find fulfillment in administration and planning. Some introverts even find their place leading congregations as head pastors. The options are as varied as the church body. Reading about the variety got me thinking more creatively. I now see idea development, copy writing, and small group leadership as possibilities for service. If those don’t fit, there’s I can always work on my coffee-making skills. Anyone looking for a ghost-barista to serve during social hour?

There are skills to be honed and gifts to be found, if only we look for them.

When it comes to working with extroverts (who tend to dominate most church ministries), the main idea is communication. Generally, extroverts speak where introverts think – that’s not the question. The question is how to cross the boundary and avoid all manner of stress and drama. To introverts: talk to the extroverts. Let them know what you’re thinking. Evidently our silence makes them nervous. Explain (or try to explain) the way you work through ideas and get to doing things. To extroverts: try listening sometimes. We have ideas, too – just give us some word-space to transfer our thoughts to our mouths. Then you can talk it over.

My Thoughts: This is a book I plan on sharing with a lot of people. I like the historical perspective and personal anecdotes (though they get a little repetitive). There are good ideas in here, ideas that I’d like to see explored in a lot of churches. I wonder how much more effective and authentic church ministry could be if we looked at the quieter facets of service.

My only complaint is that the book is written primarily to pastors, more to feelers than thinkers, and leans strongly in favor of intuitive personalities. A little imagination can bring in a larger audience, however.

Conclusion: This is a great resource for church libraries and ministry personnel. It raises awareness for members of the church community who want to serve but don’t know how in a world of noise.

Bonus Thought: I’m thinking about making awareness bracelets for introversion. They would have to be be invisible, though, wouldn’t they? Maybe with text that becomes visible only after time in solitude and fades as the day goes on – a reverse glow-in-the-dark kind of thing.  What do you think?


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Vampires: Not the Only Villains in the Story?

Author’s Admission: I haven’t read too many vampire-based books, but reading The Vampire Defanged  by Susannah Clements piqued my interest. Now I see why the blood suckers are so controversial as instruments of literature. Maybe vampires don’t need mirrors because they are reflected in the darkest parts of ourselves.

“Vampires represent something to us as humans. They represent our fears and desires. ….[They] are rich enough a metaphor to adapt to our culture’s changing worldview and interests. We can make a vampire mean what we want it to mean.” – Susannah Clements, The Vampire Defanged

Originally, vampires were symbols of evil incarnate. Not just ‘I-serve-the-devil-and-want-to-drink-your-blood’ evil, but evil in all of its distorted beauty, seductiveness, and temptation. Traditional vampires are revolting and alluring all at the same time, displaying all manner of immoralities while offering power, wealth, and an eternity in which to enjoy and despise it all. More recently, vampires have taken on a whole new definition: that of the tortured hero, torn between what they know of right vs. wrong and their natural inclinations. But no matter their literary context, they are tied to us in their very natures: they live on the blood of humans, live out our most base desires, and are (nearly) eternal. As such, they give rise to a myriad of questions morally, socially, and personally:

Is an eternity on earth worth giving up heaven? Why are vampires traditionally feared, and do I fear them myself? Can we judge another being’s motives/origins? What is our basis of labeling something as ‘human’? Can a being have a heart without a soul? What makes something ‘good’ or ‘evil’? Is is ok for something to survive on the lifeblood of humans?  If a bite from death can make something dead, what does it take to transfer life? 

And the ultimate question: Would I give in to the vampire’s bite?

The answers to these questions, especially that last one, can be awfully telling. If vampires are a metaphor of how we see ourselves, then they speak to our souls, our minds, and our culture. By reading about such reflective creatures, we are forced to confront the darkness in their characters. Their characters, which are based on us. And so the metaphor of the vampire reveals the monsters inside ourselves. Our fears. Our desires. Our hatred. Our lust.

And yet, that may not be a bad thing. Only light can cast a shadow. If there is darkness to be found in a vampire, somewhere a light is shining. Perhaps instead of looking only into the darkness, we should begin looking for that light – and early vampire literature is a good place to start, I think.

Just as culture has altered our view of darkness, it has also changed the way we perceive light. Looking at the same examples, good has moved from religious to social context. Originally, the evil of vampires was counterbalanced by the goodness of God. That goodness was represented symbolically, in familiar icons of the Church – priests, crosses, holy water, etc. – and was utilized to combat evil on a personal level. Over time, the good has been secularized, leaning on cultural norms and social expectations rather than religion. It is up to the individual to judge what is good, and if it is indeed preferable to ‘badness’.

Without a standard source, the light has dimmed as society’s definition of good as opposed to evil has changed, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. If the light isn’t too bright, then maybe our darkness isn’t so dark after all. And if culture is wrong, the metaphor changes again.

So how will future authors and readers interpret the vampire metaphor? Add your thoughts and opinions in a comment below!


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I Wish They Had Fallen Off that Cliff: A Review of Wuthering Heights

Dreary weather, a house full of mystery, and enough messed up relationships to support a full practice of therapists. It’s a recipe for classic melodrama, so why didn’t it work?

Title: Wuthering Heights. Author: Emily Bronte. Date of Original Publishing: 1847. Genre: Romance.

Summary: The history of a dysfunctional, passionate family is told through the narrative of a loyal servant and the perspective of an out-of-town visitor.

My Thoughts: I wanted to like this book. I really did. But I just couldn’t get into the story. Characters are held at arm’s length, motives are questionable, and the narrator doesn’t seem trustworthy. The whole thing felt very distant, almost like I was reading a case study for a psychology class – one where each subject was left to their passions, with tragic results. Instead of identifying with characters, I pitied them. I’ll probably give this novel another try in the future, but it will be with some hesitation.

Conclusion: This is no light read: Prepare to second-guess your literature interpretation skills.

If you have a different opinion of Emily Bronte’s novel, please share your thoughts in a comment. Like I said, I really wanted to like this  story.


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Getting Things Done: A Review

My thoughts on a very popular time management book. For some reason the above picture of farming equipment seemed to fit. That and I didn’t want to assault my readers with a picture of the overly-smug book cover.

Title: Getting Things Done. Author: David Allen. Year of Original Publishing: 2002. Genre: Self-Help.

Full Disclosure: I only read half the book and skimmed the rest, but I’m still writing a review. Read on to find out why.

Summary: A system of filing and list-making to better manage time and decision-making. Essentially: Figure out what you’ve got to do, write down every action associated with each task, file that list according to when the task must be done, do the task, and feel good about having done the task.

My Thoughts: I’m sure there are some good ideas in there. Unfortunately, the author failed to include a flowchart on how to get through the cluttered and repetitive writing to those good ideas. How can a book so little be cluttered and repetitive? I don’t know, but I’ve never read a book that accomplished such a thing so successfully. Everything promised on the back cover is contained in the first two chapters. Beyond that is fluff. Don’t take this review the wrong way; I’m not discounting the value of the system as a whole, I just think it could be presented more concisely.

Conclusion: Evidently the author didn’t have an action plan for evaluating the attention span of his audience. Or maybe that was delegated?


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Top Reads of 2011

It’s the end of the year; a time for reflection, planning, and making lists. Since I’m such a bookworm, I thought I’d write down my favorite page turners of the year.

Fiction:

  • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. The style of writing, the imagery, the characters – I loved it all. You can read my review of it here.
  • Absent in the Spring, by Agatha Christie. Having established herself as the creator of detective Hercule Poirot, the Queen of Crime took the pen name Mary Westmacott to write this psychological reflection.
  • Forbidden, by Ted Dekker. Teamed up with Tosca Lee, Dekker created an intriguing story that competes with his Circle Trilogy.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. High comedy at its best.
  • Fossil Hunter, by John B. Olson. A good action-adventure novel with lots of science and a nearly-tolerable romance thread.
Non-Fiction:
  • Sun Stand Still, by Steven Furtick. This challenge to live with audacious faith came right when I needed it. Read and share.
  • Quitter, by Jon Acuff. I greatly enjoyed the humor and challenge of Acuff’s take on employment.
  • The Coldest War, by James Brady. I was assigned this memoir as part of a history class, and I was struck by what I didn’t know about the Korean War.
  • Horseradish, by Lemony Snicket. How could I not add this to my list?
  • The Book of Awesome, by Neil Pasricha. A book of the little things that make life awesome.
Top Read of the Year:
  • The Opposite of Art, by Athol Dickson. This is hands-down the best book I read all year. The characters are realistic and vivid, the story is intriguing, and the author’s writing style is completely unique. I’m not sure what genre this falls into, but I’ll be looking for more like it. Reading this novel was like finally finding that word that’s been on the tip of my tongue for a while.

Fellow bookworms, speak up! What were your favorite reads of 2011?