My New Year’s Eve Plans

As an introverted cynical individual, I can think of no worse way to spend a night than surrounding myself with people, most of whom are strangers, and celebrating all the ways next year is going to be better than this year. Personally, I’d rather listen to Ann Coulter sing Shania Twain and perhaps eat fruitcake.

So, should you happen to wonder, that’s what I’ll be doing. Well, that and consume copious amounts of alcohol in the form of Nyquil. Because the flu.

See ya next year.

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14 Books for 2014

A new year means new resolutions. Hopefully one of those for you was reading more…much, much much more. Well in order to kickstart that goal and save you time cruising reading reviews and spending more time with your nose in a book, here’s a list of 14 books that should absolutely be on your reading list for 2014:

Prayer Journals; Flannery O’Connor

Nonfiction; Spiritual

My wonderful fiance got me this short collection for Christmas. Even after two months of anticipation it didn’t dissapoint. Reading O’Connor’s intimate musings between her and the Divine is a treasured experience, one that challenges the reader to look into the mirror of their own souls a prayer journal for flanner o connorand reflect. Since it’s only fifty or so pages there really is no excuse to for not reading this book. Plus she’s Catholic and we could all use a little more of that in our lives:

“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story–just like the typewriter was mine.”

For The Time Being; Annie Dillard

Nonfiction, Mind-blowing

For The Time Being

I picked this up during finals week to get a break from things and it really made my brain hurt. In this book, Annie Dillard explores the concepts of time across the ages…or at least I think that’s what she’s getting at. I haven’t finished the book yet. So join me in this one. It’s on my list for 2014:

“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.” 

Notes From A Bottle Found On The Beach At Carmel; Evan S. Connell

Poetry

notes from a bottle

After picking up Annie Dillard during finals week and realizing that was too mind-blowing, I decided to try Evan Connell (Dillard’s book opens with a quote from Connell). Seeing as it was poetry I figured it’d be a nice and relaxing break because poetry really easy to comprehend, right? Uh…wrong.

Connell’s poetry carries the intellectual weight of Dillard’s prose only in half the words. Each sentence requires whipping out the highlighter and feels like a diagnosis of one’s own soul. It’s deep, though provoking and reflective but needs to be taken like a good Scotch, slowly, by a fire and with plenty of time to digest:

“The Eskimo has twenty words

to express the conditions of snow.

The Tokelau Islander

has nine words for the ripeness of coconut.

I have not one word

to express my longing.

Da amantem et sentit quod dico; only another lover,

with love like mine, could understand.”

A Short History Of Nearly Everything; Bill Bryson

Nonfiction, Science

For those of us who quit studying science with high school physics and when they hear “big bang theory” instantly think of the TV show, Bill Bryson has come to the rescue. Bryson one of the best-selling non-fiction authors in all of British history. He is witty and brilliant a rare history everythingcombination. He can discuss scientific theory, evolution and black holes as if he’s discussing the party he was at the night before. A great read to impress anyone at a cocktail party…or just understand from whence you came. And he’ll always make you laugh:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.” 

A Prayer For Owen Meany; John Irving

Fiction

A classic Irving novel set in the foothills of New Hampshire about a raspy-voiced boy and his impeccably normal companion. The reader learns early on the Owen Meany died, though they are kept in the dark as to how exactly, and a plot unfolds on the premise that the main character believes in God because of his friendship with Owen Meany. a prayer for owen meanyUltimately it is a story of doubt, friendship, loss, and faith. An interesting read and a funny read to say the least. But when you finish, tell me what you think of the ending.

“I have learned that the consequences of our past actions are always interesting; I have learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye.”

Surprised by Hope

Nonfiction, Theology

From one of the most influential authors in theology today comes the groundbreaking book on eschatology and life after death. This book truly changed my perspective on life (and I promise I don’t say that lightly). In it Wright examines our modern perspectives on heaven and life after death and how they differ from the orthodox and scriptural basis of ages past. This isn’t something that affects just the end of our life but also our view on the environment, social justice, politics…everything.surprised-by-hope-by-nt-wright-d2a631ba6c5d2575

I’m not doing it justice here, but really…it’s mind-blowing. It’s not the lightest book in the world but totally worth it. Take a few months to work your way through it and you won’t be disappointed.

“What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

East of Eden

Fiction

It’s been years since I’ve read this book so I plan on re-reading it this year. It’s a monstrous work by Steinbeck that tells the story of two family’s intertwining lives. Since I can’t remember much of it, I won’t try and scrape the barrel of my memory and tell you much. You should just join me in reading it this year. One thing I do remember, quite vividly in east of edenfact, is that Steinbeck knew some Hebrew, which, I mean…c’mon, that’s just awesome:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” 

Where Men Win Glory; Jon Krakauer

Nonfiction, Military/Biography

In 2014 we will enter another year of conflict in Afghanistan. I was in 8th grade when the war began. In this book, renowned journalist Jon Krakauer explores not only the history behind the conflict in revealing detail but also the details in one of the most publicized events in the early where men win glorydays of the war: the death of Pat Tillman, former professional football player and Army Ranger. Krakauer’s work is thorough and insightful and an important means of considering the conflict overseas as well as our nation’s foreign policy.

“…the sad end he (Tillman) met in Afghanistan was more accurately a function of his stubborn idealism–his insistence on trying to do the right thing. In which case it wasn’t a tragic flaw that brought Tillman down, but a tragic virtue.” 

Home; Marilynne Robinson

Fiction

It’s been said that you can’t go home and in her sequel the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead, Robinson addresses that concept. The novel follows Ruth, the daughter of an elderly preacher whose health is failing and whose vagabond son seems to cause no end of trouble and homeconcern for his dying father. Ruth returns home to take care of her father and try to mend a broken relationship with her brother, the prodigal son who seems to be predestined to be stained by his own sin. The novel is enticing and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, typical for Marilynne Robinson. It’s a must read.

“I think hope is the worst thing in the world. I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all . . . except what you can’t be rid of.” 

Flight Behavior; Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction, Environmental

I’m currently finishing up this novel, so I won’t tell you how this ends. Kingsolver is a skilled storyteller with a knack for twisting morals where you’d least expect them. While this can be somewhat annoying it is also convicting; funny how often those go hand in hand. This book tells the flight-behavior-pb_custom-404897bd119c14cb100aafa80924515b2b753a28-s6-c30story of Dellarobia, a down-on-her-luck woman living in the hills of southern appalachia who encounters a massive colony of butterflies living in the mountains of her family’s farm. When it turns out they’re there for reasons much bigger than she could have imagined she finds herself in the midst of a scientific endeavor that brings her into a world that-oops…I’m giving it away. Read it for yourself:

“Humans are in love with the idea of our persisting…we fetishize it, really. Our retirement funds, our genealogies. Our so-called ideas for the ages.” 

Telling the Truth; Frederick Buechner

Nonfiction, Theology

Buechner was a Princeton graduate who wrote novels, taught writing and was an ordained minister. He’s basically everything I wanted to be in life. This is a great book for anyone interested in understanding writing, fiction, the gospel and life. So it’s a great book for you. In the book, Buechner explores how the gospel presents itself as tragedy, comedy telling the truthand fairy-tale- each a separate but intertwined version and necessary way of perceiving the gospel.

“God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place. God is the eccentric host who, when the country-club crowd all turned out to have other things more important to do that come live it up with him, goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans. The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as the cars go by. They are seated at the damask-laid table in the great hall. The candles are all lit and the champagne glasses filled. At a sign from the host, the musicians in their gallery strike up ‘Amazing Grace.'”

The Brothers K; David James Duncan

Fiction

An excellent novel from a very underrated writer. This story explores the saga of a family during the sixties, focusing on the plight between a husband and wife and the strained relationship between three brothers living in rural Washington. The father was a young baseball prodigy, whose career was crippled when his thumb was crushed in a milling accident and the mother is a dedicated Seventh Day Adventist who rules the brothers kher household with a a fierce faith. It explores the strain of faith, the essence of doubt and the struggle to perceive the way to live in a world that seems to be falling apart around a family that has enough crap of its own to deal with. In the words of a friend of mine after she finished the book: “I feel like I want to laugh, cry, sing and dance all at the same time”.

“Anyone too undisciplined, too self-righteous or too self-centered to live in the world as it is has a tendency to idealize a world which ought to be. But no matter what political or religious direction such idealists choose, their visions always share one telling characteristic: in their utopias, heavens or brave new worlds, their greatest personal weakness suddenly appears to be a strength.”

The Man Who Was Thursday; GK Chesterton

Fiction, Mystery

I’ve been referring to this book for the past month to everyone in my office and no one caught the reference. So I threatened to fire everyone. Seeing as I’m the youngest member of the building this just resulted in the man who was thursdayme being sent to my desk with a lot of filing. But this is one of Chesterton’s greatest works; a mystery novel that will keep you intrigued and has great parallels to the spiritual life. A good short beach read, too (if you ask me).

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front–” 

The 13th Tale; Diana Sutterfield

Fiction, Mystery

Okay. Confession. I haven’t read this book in about seven years. But I remember it being really really good. So it’s on my list to re-read it in the next year.13

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” 

All My Roads Blog

Internet Sensation, Shameless Plug

“Wait a minute,” say you, “A) That’s a blog, not a book. 2) That’s fifteen, can’t you count? and D) Doncha find this a bit narcissistic?”

In response to all of these I say:

I’m a writer…what’d you expect?

Anyways, I hope you’ll join me in this list. Happy reading and happy new year!

The Grace Of Being

New Years celebrations never consist of much for me. Last year, my fiancé and I rang in the occasion with my parents and little sister, the young couple equivalent of cheap wine and a couchful of cats. We were all so pathetically tired that we put in a movie in an attempt to keep us occupied and awake until the ball dropped. This worked too well and we actually missed the ball dropping by two minutes after which we collectively said “screw it” to the whole ordeal, gulped some champagne, and slouched off to bed. Live to cheer another day.

This year wasn’t much more lively seeing as my fiancé came down with what I can only assume is food poisoning this past weekend. What startled me was how quickly she went from happily watching a movie with me to puking her sweet little guts out. Since we don’t live together, I’m not normally at her place very late and thus spent a sleepless night on the floor next to her bed. I suppose any couple on the verge of marriage should have to endure at least one of those types of nights before they sign their vows. It’s up on the list with family squabbles and untimely car trouble.

I’ve been reading a novel that grapples with the issues of climate change. The book fascinates me on several levels but it also scares me. It scares me because of how easily I’m prone to not care about things like climate change, how quickly I roll my eyes and shrug it off as a political issue, one that the church shouldn’t deal with, how rapidly I just disappear into the mountains and forests well out of the ear shot of any highways and reminders of the human footprint.

But sometimes I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I’m forced to look out my front door at a world that’s being burned, land-filled and plowed to death.

And yet we march on. It can’t be that big of a deal; another year has passed and we’re still here. It may be a bad now but my fiancé will get over this food poisoning eventually.

Humans are in love with the idea or our persisting, Barbara Kingsolver says, we fetishize it really. So I find myself looking around on New Year’s Eve wanting to yell at everyone: “what the hell are you cheering for? What on earth have we accomplished? And what’s with this confetti? Don’t you know pigeons can choke on this? Are you just totally heartless?” It’s like a general standing in front of dying soldiers and cheering: “By golly…another great day at the office, eh?”

I note this with certain hypocrisy. Hanging on the cross, Christ was able to forgive the men being tortured next to him, as well as those who drove in the nails. Me? I enjoy looking around at a New Years party and wondering which of those sinning bastards has the biggest carbon footprint. I really am the worst of these.

After a few hours my fiancé was able to fall asleep and in the morning she seemed to be feeling better though weak. Sometimes there is not an answer. As C.S. Lewis said: sometimes the complaint is the answer. The complaint is the answer for the heart of the cynic.

Because sometimes I help my weak fiancé down to the couch and I make sure she’s okay. Sometimes afterwards I take a walk outside, to get some fresh air to clear my head. And sometimes when I’m walking, when all these thoughts muddle my head and the weight of it all seems entirely suffocating, I look around at the old snow, clinching to it’s frozen territory on the ground. Then I glance at the shoes on my feet, my hands in my pockets and somehow, for just a moment, I am able to be content with that answer: the answer of my being, my being as a grace. Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? I say nothing in response; I just look at the ground.

But my complaint is an answer and my ability to make it is proof that grace is sufficient. Global warming, survival, food poisoning and New Years aside…for just a moment sometimes I can take being as a grace.

With another year underway people across the globe raised glasses, swapped kisses, picked confetti out of their hair and cheered humanity’s accomplishment of making it through another round. In the midst of it all, I stood with cynical hands in my pockets and eyes of hypocrisy cast toward my feet upon the ground. And for the briefest of moments I pondered the grace of being.

For one as cynical as me, that was something wonderful and worth celebrating.