Three More Books

My Front Deck–Favorite Summer Reading Spot–Photo by Katie Winkler

17 or so years ago, John planted a Japanese Maple in our front yard–one of my favorite gifts from him. About ten years ago we had the front deck rebuilt, expanded it, and added a cute bistro set. When John plants flowers every year, he creates the perfect spot for my summer reading.

One of the things I cherish about my work is having the summer’s off so I can spend more time reading and writing. I haven’t done as much writing as I had planned yet (I’m determined to get caught up before summer’s end), but I have done what is for me (I am a slow reader) a great deal of reading. Since last post I have read three more–one non-fiction, one German young adult fiction, and one popular suspense/sci-fi/horror/just for funsies fiction.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dusk, Light, Dawn, Anne Lamott’s collection of essays about dealing with difficult times and emotions, about growing older yet continuing to learn and grow. I’ve always enjoyed Lamott’s self-deprecating humor and often beautiful prose.

From the chapter “Lunch-Money Faith,” for example, Lamott discusses the importance of listening: “Here Elijah meets God, not in the usual special effects of the Exodus tradition not the roar of hurricane or flames, but in a still small voice. Jewish and Christian writers have seen in this a reminder of the importance of contemplation, of quietness, of listening….Growing up, learning. I am slowly making my way from a hypnotized engine of delusion and self-obsession to being a bit more real, a smidge more alive more often. I’ll take it. I am learning to live more often in reckless love” (106).

I like how open Lamott is about her failings, both past and present, not to dismiss them, but to demonstrate how living through dark times has shaped her for better or worse. She writes of learning to forgive herself and others, of the importance of loving and caring for people for no reason other than they are people, how that includes loving herself–Maybe it sounds Pollyannaish the way I’m describing it, but the book is definitely worth a read. It encouraged me, which is something I always need during my summer-reading-on-the-front-deck therapy sessions.

Photo by Katie Winkler

My sister-in-law Bettina loves to read. She frequently gifts me with books in German. My German is not very good I’m afraid, and I often give up pretty quickly on the books she gives me. She gifted me Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s lovely, bittersweet little book Oskar und die Dame in Rosa years ago, and this summer, determined to work on my rusty German, I finished reading it for real this time.

I’m so glad I did.

It is an epistolary novel made up of letters to God written by Oskar, a ten-year-old boy with a terminal illness. Die Dame in Rosa (The Lady in Pink) is a very old woman who is a volunteer nurse at the hospital, the oldest one, although I suspect that she may be an angel because she appears almost magically just when Oskar needs her most and brings comfort to the boy by suggesting that he write the letters, even though he, at first, does not believe in God.

His letters take us through the reality of life in the hospital but also through Oskar’s imagined life, one that he will never be able to live. It is a lovely book and not difficult for a rusty reader of German to practice on before moving on to a more difficult gift book from my thoughtful sister-in-law.

Reading on the front deck again–John’s gift tree, the Japanese maple, is in the background.–Photo by Katie Winkler

I took a break on the meatier books and read a fun popular thriller for my latest, another sci fi/thriller/horror book by Dean Koontz. I have enjoyed Koontz’ books since I read his first big blockbuster novel Watchers. I especially liked the genius golden retriever in that book. They made a movie of it, but don’t bother with that. The book is so much better. My good teacher friend once gave me a coaster that I still have on my desk at the school that says “Don’t judge a book by its movie.” Very true. Very true.

I have read many Koontz books since then, and although Watchers is still my favorite, I almost always enjoy a Koontz thriller, and I enjoyed The Other Emily as well, despite occasional gratuitous scenes of detailed meal descriptions–those irritate the heck out of me.

The author returns to his common theme of a basically decent person who is struggling with his past and is caught up in extraordinary, often supernatural, situations, battling his own demons as well as horrendous evil in a dark world.

Pure, horrific fun in many ways with terrific suspenseful passages and lively action, The Other Emily has its moments of deep insight and poignancy as most Koontz’ books do. At one point David quotes one of the most famous lines of Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn”–Beauty is truth, truth beauty”–then goes on to say “Love without truth isn’t beautiful. It’s not even love” (336).

Then there’s more action and the usual twists and turns of a good Koontz suspense thriller. A fun summer read.

Now, what’s next?

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It’s not too late to submit your work to my literary journal Teach. Write. I love to get the work of retired or currently working English composition teachers, but I accept work of all kinds from anybody. Submissions are open until September 1, so you have plenty of time. See the submission guidelines for complete information. I would love to hear from you.

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Also, check out my podel (podcasted novel) CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical. I have ten episodes so far and another is coming soon!

Conviction and Renewal

My favorite summer place

This summer continues to be a time of renewal for my spirit, but it hasn’t been easy. My reading adventures, working on this crazy satirical novel , and being alone so much have led me to confront many uncomfortable realities about myself–I have lacked resilience and settled for mediocrity much of my life. I’m often petty, self-absorbed and self-righteous, easily angered, hypocritical, thoughtless, vain, jealous, etc., etc.

Oh, don’t worry, I continue to love myself. That’s kind of the problem. I think of myself more highly than I ought, methinks.

Many of the books I’ve chosen to read this summer have helped me to see some of my many weaknesses, and also, thankfully, validated some of my strengths. As always, the two are inextricably bound to one another. But the book I just finished has not only convicted but also bolstered my spirit and renewed my resolve.

The book is Real Christianity, a paraphrase (by Bob Beltz) of William Wilberforce’s A Practical view of the prevailing religious system of Professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity written in 1797. The title alone explains why I read the paraphrase, but someday I will read the original.

William Wilberforce was an abolitionist and member of parliament who helped to end slavery in England. His book, however, never explicitly mentions the battle to abolish slavery, and it addresses, as the original title suggests, the middle and upper classes of the British Empire.

But it didn’t take long at all for me to see myself and my country in the pages of this modern paraphrase, written in 2006 by the man who was one of the producers of the very good biopic Amazing Grace, that tells the story of Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight. More about the movie later.

Many dog-eared pages

For example, here is a quote from early in the book:

“We must remember that almost any ideology can be distorted and misused to bring misery to multitudes or justification to the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is more dangerous. That which is intended to motivate goodness and restrain evil actually can become the instrument of that which it intended to restrain. History is full of examples of how virtues such as liberty or patriotism become twisted when separated from a healthy and authentic faith. Twisted men in every generation and occupation have twisted whatever they must twist to get what they want. Why should we expect that some within the Church would not be guilty of the same actions?” (46).

Wow! See what I mean? And it was written in the 18th Century! Wilberforce himself struggled with the same issues he writes about. He is remembered for being a force for good, for valid reasons, but, of course, he struggled and failed miserably at times, especially in allowing slave labor, thinly veiled by the concept of “apprentices,” to continue in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. See this interesting article on the subject in The Guardian.

See what I mean? Conviction and renewal. Convicted by Wilberforce’s words and renewed by the knowledge that his failure was, and mine is, inevitable. Renewed? How does being reminded of failure possibly revive my soul? Another paradox of my faith, I suppose. I see that the answer is not abandoning my faith or ceasing to struggle to do good, but knowing that I can ask for and WILL receive forgiveness, I can continue striving to do some good in the world.

Not a bad lesson to pass on to my students, is it?

Here’s another one:

“Money and ambition have become idols in our time, especially for individuals in the business and professional worlds. Disguised as common business practice, these forces are allowed to gather great momentum in our lives. Arguments about being diligent at what we do, becoming successful in our profession or providing for our families seduce us so that we no longer have a clear sense of judgment about these issues. Our work consumes us” (73).

It is important to keep in mind that he is addressing Christians here, not people who do not claim to be believers. Knowing that, these words strike me to the core. I have let my work consume me. I have become as data-driven as the rest of the world. What is my retention rate? How many students passed that essay with a C or better? Let me check how many hours I spent working on the LMS. Look at those FTE’s, will you?

I am convicted, but I am renewed because, since March, I have been working from home, so thankful that I have been forced to concentrate my efforts on the people who need me–my family, my friends, and, my students.

It’s about time.

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If you want to know more about Wilberforce and the battle to end slavery in the British Empire, I highly recommend the film Amazing Grace. Strong performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as England’s youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who was a great friend of Wilberforce’s.

Work Cited

Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity. Revised and edited by Bob Beltz, Regal, 2006.