Why Am I Doing This?: Goals for my Forthcoming Book-baby

The aim of this post is to attempt to set forth to you, the public, my reasons for pursuing the publication of my first book. Before I tell you what goals I have, however, I think it best to strike up a list of what goals I don’t have. Somehow, those un-goals feel at least as relevant. So, what aren’t they?

Number one: I am not in pursuit of a vast audience.
Tens or hundreds of thousands of people are probably not going to be reading All The Queen’s Sons. I mean, it might be nice if they did, but it’s an unrealistic expectation. Attaining such an impressive feat is not my reason for writing, neither is it my reason for publishing.

Number two: I am not seeking any pecuniary gains
This goes hand in hand with un-goal number one. My ultimate dream is not to end up on the New York Times bestsellers list and make all kinds of money. Which is a good thing, because such a dream would be 99.8% likely to end in disappointment. A lot of money does go into self-publishing a book… I don’t expect even to make back what I put in, but if I did, I’d consider the venture an unprecedented success.

Number three: I do not hope to reap any personal recognition or acclaim
No one becomes a writer because they’re hoping to become a household name someday. This isn’t about me. It is about you, my readers. It is about the stories. And, most importantly, it is about the Giver of the stories.

So, the question remains. Why AM I doing this? Why put the blood, sweat, and tears (not to mention the cash) into writing and publishing, if not to reap something in return?
There are, in fact, several things I hope to achieve with this endeavor. They are as follows.

First, the right audience.
I would rather ten people read my book and have it mean something to them than a thousand people read it and just be like, “Meh.”
I want some random person to stumble upon it and be pleasantly surprised.
I want it to find its way into the hands of my kindred spirits, who might enjoy and appreciate it, for whatever it might be worth.

Second, the payback.
A lot of people have helped and encouraged me along the way in my journey as a writer. Bringing a project like this to its final end feels like the best possible way to express my gratitude.

Third, returning glory to my own personal author.
God made me a story-teller. The proper thing to do with such a gift is to use it. To do my utmost. Not to hide it under a bushel-basket. So this is my way of attempting to let shine the little light I’ve been given, in hopes that it will direct people to the ultimate source of all light and goodness. All I’ve been given is from Him… so let all I do be for Him.

Those are my ultimate goals. My reasons for putting this story out there. A massive thanks to everyone who has been brave enough to want to hop along on this crazy ride with me. It might be bumpy, but I think we’re going to have some fun.

“…A fold of heaven & earth across His face”

In times of trouble, people often seem fond of asking where God is. Now, I haven’t actually heard anyone pose that question in the midst of the troubled days we are presently enduring. But it is a safe bet that someone, somewhere out there, has done so.

Perhaps part of the trouble is not that God is far away… indeed, He is as close as he ever has been. The trouble is that we don’t always know where to look for Him, or how to see Him when He is right in front of us.

For the past two mornings, I have been considering Romans 1v20:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (ESV)

It reminded me of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, entitled “A Child’s Thought of God”, which goes as follows:

They say that God lives very high;
But if you look above the pines
You cannot see our God; and why?

And if you dig down in the mines,
You never see Him in the gold,
Though from Him all that’s glory shines.

God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across His face,
Like secrets kept, for love, untold.

But still I feel that His embrace
Slides down by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place;

As if my tender mother laid
On my shut lids her kisses’ pressure,
Half waking me at night, and said,
“Who kissed you through the dark, dear guesser?”

God’s closeness is so obvious, and yet we still miss it all the time. We get distracted, and our vision gets fuzzy. We need to slow down, to be still, to look around us. Right now is the perfect time to do that. For one thing, a vast majority of the population has no choice but to slow down right now. For another, it’s spring.

God is literally everywhere right now, on full display for us to behold through the things that He has made.
I took a walk in a local arboretum on Friday, and met the Creator at every turn. I saw His love for color, and texture, and movement. I saw His sense of humor. His attention to detail. His inclination for both excess, and moderation. In the endless flowers, I perceived His presence here and now. In the buds not yet ready to open, I read the promise that He isn’t going anywhere.

So, if you can, go outside and look around. Enjoy the beauty and glory of Spring. And see if you don’t feel the embrace of our Creator “through all the things made, Through sight and sound of every place”.
He IS here with us, no matter what happens. And He is so much closer than we realize.

Cabin Fever? Practical Suggestions for how to Wile Away Your Quarantine

Sing. Whether you’re alone, or with family, what better way to trim the tension than with some good old fashioned karaoke sessions?

Dance. Sometimes singing isn’t enough. You’ve gotta kick off your Sunday shoes and cut footloose, too.

Laugh. Watch some Muppets. Or old Carol Burnett sketches. Or whatever other brand of silliness floats your boat. We need nothing right now like a good laugh, a bit of a distraction.

All of the above combined. Because The Muppets have musical numbers that can be applied to literally any life situation, of course there is one that is perfect for right now:

Learn a skill. How to sew. How to make meringue. How to origami. How to actually cook using dried beans… the possibilities are endless. Or, brush up on an old skill! If I end up in quarantine, there will be a pile of sewing projects calling my name. Not to mention writing, baking, etc.,

Write everyone you know a letter. Preferably by hand, but I guess email is OK too.

Build a pillow/blanket fort. But seriously, if you haven’t already done this, what kind of quarantine are you even living? It should have been the first thing you did.

Contemplate the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. In your blanket fort. Bring a pen and paper with you. Or crayons… who is to say crayons aren’t better for such contemplation than a fancy fountain pen?

Read all the books. If you are anything like me, there are way too many books on your own bookshelf that you haven’t read. NOW IS THE TIME, YOU GUYS. Put a dent in that TBR list!

Don’t neglect fresh air. You’re allowed to go outside. And it IS spring. Hit up your back yard and make friends with all the little flowers that most people consider to be weeds. Take a brisk walk. Fly a kite. Try turning a cartwheel. Or not. But just get out and breathe a bit!

Turn off the news and social media. For serious. I am 100% sure that the level of panic any given citizen experiences is directly related to the amount of time they spend flicking through their Facebook feed and watching CNN. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be concerned, or keep informed. Just limit how much of this madness you take in. Because it is a LOT of madness.

Watch one of those insanely long movies that feels kind of like a waste of time on an ordinary day. You know… Ben Hur, or Gone With The Wind, or The Sound of Music. Or go for a miniseries. Anne of Green Gables! Or Cranford! In an age of binge-watching, this won’t be much of a revolutionary idea for some people. But for others, those of you who are a little better at living real life than the rest of us, well… now is the perfect time to catch up on time-consuming entertainment options.

Clean everything. If this time ends, and your house is not as spotless as it has ever been, what will your excuse be? There shouldn’t be one cobweb or dustbunny. There shouldn’t be a single article of clothing in your drawers or closet that you know you’ll never wear again. Is cleaning fun? Not much. But the feeling afterward is so satisfying. In any event, no one is allowed to complain that they’re bored as long as there’s still vacuuming and dusting that needs to be done. You’re not seven years old, and I’m not your mother, but somebody needed to say it.

Why Meek, God?: Reflections on a Forgotten Virtue

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “meek”? If you’re anything like me, you probably think of one of two things:

1. The meek shall inherit the earth!

2. Any number of negative qualities that have adhered themselves to the modern idea of meekness.

Meekness means a pushover. A pansy. A person who can’t or won’t stand strong in the face of adversity, instead running and hiding like a little mouse.

Right?

But if meekness means any of those pathetic things, then why would the Bible (which also says that God does not give a spirit of timidity) encourage us to pursue it?

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I was confronted by this disparity while reading in Colossians this week. Chapter 3, verse 12 says:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

We wouldn’t struggle to define the other virtues listed here. But what’s the deal with meekness? What IS it, and why is it a thing that God wants me to be?

My first step in getting to the bottom of this was to look up where else meekness is mentioned in scripture. There is, of course, the most famous usage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Psalm 37:11 similarly tells us:

“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”

According to Isaiah 29:19:

“The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord…”

And then there’s Numbers 12:3, which says that “Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”

All this is quite intriguing, but it still didn’t explain what it means to be meek. So the next step, naturally, was to consult a dictionary. That many-splendored well of information offered the following definition:

MEEK: humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others.”

Aha. Now I was getting somewhere! Or was I? The explanation still makes meekness sound like a bit of a doormat. Admirable, sure… but kind of annoying, too. A goody-two-shoes. Surely the Biblical meaning must be something more.

Now it was knuckle-cracking time. Also known as, digging up Greek roots time. I got out my trowel, and quickly discovered that the word “meek” translates from the the Greek praus (prah-oos). So what does praus mean? This, my friends, is where I was in for a surprise.

In its original context, praus was a term applied to a wild horse that been captured, tamed, and trained for war.

Think about that for a minute. A word we now associate with mice (skittish, mild, timid) originally referred to a highly trained battle stallion. How did that happen? I don’t know, but with these origins in mind, we can begin to form a better picture of Biblical meekness.

The horse in question is not without energy or vigor. His will and passion have not been extinguished. What they have been is disciplined. They have been channeled, given direction. So a person who is truly meek does not lack a spine. A person who is meek has as much feeling and fervor as anyone else. But a person who is meek does not rear and buck to unseat his or her rider. They give God the reins.

“Meekness”, in many modern Bible translations, has been substituted with “humility”. I’m all for humility, and it might be a near cousin virtue of meekness. But when I contemplate praus, I can’t help but think that the qualities of patience and self-control are nearer to the meaning.

Let me follow that up with two examples of what I think that might look like in a flesh-and-blood human being.

Jackie Robinson, you probably know, was the first African American player in the history of Major League Baseball’s modern era. He debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, facing unimaginable obstacles. Not because he wasn’t an exceptionally talented ballplayer, but because of the color of his skin. “42“, a biographical film about Jackie’s life, was released back in 2013. I don’t actually remember whether the movie was any good or not, but consider the following scene:

This exchange between Jackie (played here by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers exec Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) immediately came to mind when I began thinking about the true meaning of meekness. The guts not to fight back. The self-control, humility, patience not to lose your cool, even when provoked with the most vile, unjust treatment. That’s Jackie Robinson for you. And that’s meekness for you.

The other individual whom I consider to be a picture of praus is writer Philip Yancey. He has written many wonderful books, several of which have made certain crowds rather ferocious. Titles like, “Where Is God When It Hurts?”, “Disappointment With God”, and “What Good is God” have been known to incite fury from atheists and fundamentalist Christians alike. For some reason, people lob a lot of vitriol at Philip Yancey. And he always seems to respond with utmost calm and consideration. This attitude has always impressed me, only up to now, I never knew quite the right word for it. Now I know. It’s meekness.

As followers of Christ, we are likely to find ourselves patronized, insulted, misunderstood. Sometimes even outright attacked. Our natural inclination, most of the time, is to bite back. We want justice. An eye for an eye. But this is not the example Christ set for us. He said,

“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

That, I believe, is what it means to be meek. And, as in everything, He gave us the perfect example to follow.

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Liz Recommends: Knives Out (2019)

If my research is correct, one of the less exciting prospects of becoming a self-published author is that one must be positive about everything. Everything. So if I don’t care for a book, or a movie, or a certain brand of toothpaste, I will no longer be able to publicly declare so. It will make me look like Debbie Downer, and no one will be interested in anything else I have to say (or so the theory goes).

Which essentially means that the review posts that have been my bread and butter for the past year or so aren’t going to cut it anymore. From this point on, I’m probably only going to tell you guys about something if I really like it, and have enough reasons WHY I like it to comprise an entire post.

At first, this struck me as kind of a bummer. But it’s only the first week of January, and guess what? I already found a film I liked so much I have to tell everyone about it! See, I knew 2020 was going to be a great year.

Until I can think of a better title for my all new, all positive, all the time review posts, they’ll be filed under the heading, “Liz Recommends”. And so, without further preamble, allow me to tell you why I recommend the Rian Johnson whodunit Knives Out.

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Note: This is a spoilers free review (unless revealing that it has a positive ending is a spoiler. In that case… oops).

Knives Out is a modern-day mystery that has been lovingly crafted in the style of the classics. It takes every possible opportunity to tip its deerstalker to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Angela Lansbury… heck, even Choose Your Own Adventure. The plot is as old as the genre itself. A dead patriarch. A rambling old house in the country. A large family, all of whom had motives for murder…

I could give you a more detailed synopsis. OR, I could just show you the trailer. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be even more valuable, so let’s go with that.

Even from the trailer, it is obvious that Rian Johnson has succeeded in taking a well-worn trope and crafting it into something deliciously fresh. Knives Out obviously has a superb ensemble cast (a requirement for any whodunit worth its weight in paperbacks). The twists and turns don’t necessarily shock, but they do satisfy, and that’s better anyway. The visuals pop off the screen. The execution is slick, smart, snappy.

This flick’s got style. Not to mention humor and class.

What is all the more exceptional (especially for a critically acclaimed Hollywood production) this flick’s also got substance.

Knives Out has already generated plenty of awards buzz, and received a handful of Golden Globe nominations. How often do movies in that category leave a smile on your face as you exit the theater? Not only is the ending pleasing in a story-telling sense, it genuinely made me feel good. This wasn’t just because the mystery had been solved and all the loose ends neatly tied up. Plenty of stories and movies give viewers that and still leave a bland or bitter taste in our mouths.

Knives Out stands out, in my opinion, because truth and goodness emerge victorious over greed and enmity. It’s almost like an old wives tale or fairy story in that the virtuous are rewarded, while the wicked get their just desserts.

So what we’ve been given in Knives Out is not just cinema that looks good and feels good. By golly, is really IS good.

Further and final kudos to this splendid film for:

  • Featuring a Larry Norman song on the soundtrack
  • Very little to offend the sensitive viewer
  • Daniel Craig’s molasses-thick southern accent
  • Forever changing the way I look at the hole in a donut

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2020, Here I Come!

2019 is now in its death throes, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could not be happier to see it go. It’s a scab to flick away. A dry, dead skin to wriggle out of and leave behind. Something sleek and fresh is about to take its place. Something new is about to begin! We are embarking on a unique 365-day journey around the sun. Look at it, spread out before us like a blanket of pure, undisturbed snow glistening in the first light of dawn. I’m ready to step out and leave my trail.

So, goodbye old year. Come here, 2020… I have a bear-hug for you.

Why all the poetic enthusiasm? Well, it might have something to do with my vision for the immediate future. Here it is, in print, so I won’t be able to backtrack on it later.

After too many years of sitting on too many manuscripts, either too apprehensive or too busy to set them loose on the world, I am finally going to do it. 2020 is the year, my friends. A tentative plan has been written (in ink). A budget has been set. A list of goals has been made. And I am even now in the process of assembling a team to help me polish and shine my baby to perfection (or at least as close to perfection as a book can get).

*Pause so I can exhale, then inhale again, then let loose one small squeal of anticipation*

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I don’t want to spill all the beans at once. For one thing, my pile of beans is still on the small side. But here are a few preliminary details.

I always thought that the first novel I published would be the first one I ever completed. It seemed logical. Several months ago, however, I realized that a different choice might help the process go quicker and smoother. A shorter story would cost less time and money. A stand-alone story to which I am less emotionally attached would alleviate much of the pressure I felt to achieve absolute perfection. A story targeted at a slightly younger audience will allow whatever audience I find to grow into my more mature writings, later on. It just makes sense.

That is why I am now officially planning to release, not book one of a fantasy trilogy, but a short, stand-alone retelling of the fairy-tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”.

All The Queen’s Sons is an upside down and backwards rendition of this classic, that I hope readers will find fun and unique. I loved writing it and cannot wait to share the finished product with all of you. I can’t say yet when that will be, but it’s gonna go down in 2020. Let’s not call it a resolution, or a goal. Those are too wishy-washy. I’m calling it a plan.

Stay tuned!

Burned Out On Bing: A Classics-Free Christmas Playlist

In my previous post, I presented a list of 10 under-the-radar Christmas movies to enjoy for when you get sick of the same old things. Since the strains of Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey can become quite as tiresome as any festive flick, I wanted to share this list as well.

Here’s a collection of great NON-classic holiday tunes to get you in the Christmas spirit.

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Album / Artist

Silver & Gold, by Sufjan Stevens

Song you don’t want to miss: Lumberjack Christmas

Sufjan Stevens has put out a literal treasure trove of holiday music over the years. I had to narrow it down for this list, but if you wanna just listen to nothing else but Sufjan ’til January, that wouldn’t be wrong.

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A Christmas Cornucopia, by Annie Lennox

Song you don’t want to miss: See Amid The Winter’s Snow

At this point in life, Annie Lennox’s recording of that song is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Period. Old hymn-y type songs tend to pack a powerful punch, and the rich resonance of Lennox’s voice only multiplies the effect.

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Sing Noel, by the Lower Lights

Song you don’t want to miss: Mary’s Lullaby

For when you’ve had enough of Mary Did You Know. There are other good songs with Mary, too!

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Baby It’s Cold Outside, by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski

This is just a single, but its awesomeness is full-album sized. I’m not one of those people who is obsessed with political correctness and all that, but as a female person the original lyrics to Baby It’s Cold Outside have always bothered me. Critics may call this updated version an unnecessary product of overly PC times. But who cares about critics? This version is a billion times cuter, and I love it.

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A Christmas Together, by John Denver and the Muppets

Don’t miss: The Peace Carol

Who am I kidding? You don’t want to miss any of this album. It’s the quintessential Christmas music collection, in my book.

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Songs for Christmastime, by Lowland Hum

Don’t miss: We Are The Shepherds

When the nauseating multilayered strains of Pop classics have gotten on your last nerve, a little acoustic folk is the prescription for you. Lowland Hum’s sweet li’l Christmas offering should get you feeling sane again.

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Winter Moon, by Mindy Gledhill

Don’t Miss: Patapan / O Come O Come Emmanuel

On the other hand, if you’re still cool with a bit of a poppy sound, but you’re searching for some fresh songs, try Mindy Gledhill. I especially love her juxtaposition of these two minor-key classics.

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Christmas!, by The Sing Team

Don’t Miss: Oh Holy Night

The Sing Team covers a lot of familiar songs. But they do it so jubilantly that it’s like listening to something brand new. Be ready to clap and throw your hands up a lot.

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O Christmas, by The Eagle & Child

Don’t Miss: Once In Royal David’s City

Old songs with fresh beats. Bring it.

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The Sounding Joy, by Elizabeth Mitchell

Don’t Miss: Cradle Hymn

As sweet and gentle as the album art makes it look:

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Because there are so many great non-classic songs out there, way too many to squeeze into a manageable blog entry, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a Spotify playlist to share with my readers.

The songs listed above are all included, along with a dozen or so others. I hope you will listen, enjoy, and have a very Merry Christmas!

 

Burned Out On Rudolph: 10 Christmas Movies For When You Need A Break From The Classics

We all love White Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story. But let’s face it. We’ve seen these movies a thousand times, and every once in awhile, we want to try something fresh. Here is a countdown of 10 Christmas films that might fit the bill.

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10. While You Were Sleeping

If you’re in the mood for a festive romantic comedy that’s a notch above the average Hallmark production, While You Were Sleeping is the flick for you. Granted, if this is your preferred kind of entertainment, then you’ve already seen it, and probably consider it a classic in its own right.

Still. It’s the best kind of what is is, and you know it’s always good for a couple of giggles.

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9. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians

You may be wondering whether a movie with a title like this could actually be as bad as it sounds.

The answer is yes.

But the entertainment value is about as high as the North Pole’s annual snowfall levels. So if you’re looking for something in the so-bad-it’s-good category, give Santa Claus Conquers the Martians a try.

This polar bear encounter is my favorite part. You can watch the whole feature free of charge over at Archive.org. Hooray!

8. Nativity!

Martin Freeman stars as a teacher whose fib about Hollywood producers coming to see his school’s Nativity play snowballs into an all-out avalanche of deception, excitement, and holiday hijinx.

This is a film of great disparities. There are moments when Nativity! is tiresome, predictable, and downright obnoxious. At the same time, thanks to Freeman and a host of darling English school-children, it is also charming, funny, and (dare I say?) moving.

Check this one out with a grain of salt, and a hankie at the ready.

 

7. Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

A Jim Henson classic reminiscent of The Gift of the Magi. Though it has a strong cult following, it has slipped through the cracks of too many lives. The folksy songs range from funny (The One Bathing Suit) to touching (When The River Meets The Sea). The story is sweet without being over-the-top sappy. In other words, it’s the perfect Christmas movie.

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6. The Shop Around The Corner

Before Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, there were James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around The Corner. It may be a controversial opinion, but I prefer the original. You can tell me I’m wrong if you’d like, but you have to watch it first.

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5. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

A respectable small town church’s Christmas pageant is taken over by a set of six wild siblings (referred to as “the worst kids in the history of the world”) when they show up looking for free snacks. A whirlwind of humor, hi-jinks, and heart-string tugging ensue.

Based on the book of the same title, this low-budget made-for-TV special is surprisingly good for what it is. I found it on YouTube a couple of years back, and now it’s a seasonal staple.

Shazam!

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4. The Snowman

This is a truly magical little film. From the simplicity of the hand-drawn animation to its beautiful music to the complete absence of spoken dialogue. It is beautiful from the first frame to the last. Like a picture book come to life.

The Snowman is another one you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. Yay, technology!

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3. A Muppet Family Christmas

A Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie ever, but I’m throwing this wildcard on my list instead, as the world is less likely to regard it as one of the classics.

Another 80’s TV special, A Muppet Family Christmas has absolutely everything you could ever want from and 80’s TV special with that title. It’s wall-to-wall carol-singing, corny jokes, and running gags like only the Muppets can do them. We also get appearances from the Sesame Street gang and a couple of Fraggles. A cameo appearance from Jim Henson himself at the end is an extra special treat.

Just be careful of that icy patch…

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2. Arthur Christmas

I’m going to lead this entry with another controversial opinion, just to get your attention: Arthur Christmas, a little-spoken-of British animated feature, is better than ELF.

Gasp! I know.

I believe it, though.

After repeated viewings over the years since its release in 2011, I have come to the conclusion that this movie is very nearly flawless.

Perfect voice cast? Check.

Warm, fuzzy Christmas vibes? Check.

Clever, fresh spin on old ideas? Check.

Subtle British humor? Double check.

Layered family drama? Surprisingly, check.

An ending that satisfies your inner film-critic AND warms your cockles? *Sniff*… Check.

Why haven’t more people caught on to what should have been an instant classic? I have no clue.

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I love this movie. I love everything about it. It makes me sniff and sigh every year. And the only reason it isn’t #1 on this list is because, well…

1. Joyeux Noel

A lot of Christmas movies and specials are on the silly side. That’s perfectly alright. It’s a jolly time of year, and we can all use the extra belly-jiggles. Sometimes, though, we can use a little gravity, too. Christmas is about a lot more than escapism, after all.

Enter Joyeux Noel.

Released back in 2005, this striking film tells the story of an unsanctioned Christmas Eve cease-fire that took place on the Western front in the midst of the first world war. It is proof that you can have beautiful, moving holiday entertainment that doesn’t sugar-coat the darker aspects of our world.

Available to stream for free (with ads) on Crackle.

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That about does it for me, guys. How about you? Are there any great non-classics not on this list that I should know about?

Book Reviews For Autumn 2019

I would rather be launching into Christmassy posts, but first there’s a whole season’s worth of book reviews to dispatch. Yawn.

Here are the best and worst (not to mention everything in between) of my reads from September through November.

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See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea by Travis Jeppesen

The premise: An American man spends a month in the capital of North Korea as a student and tourist (yes, that’s possible).

I have many thoughts. None of them are too pleasant. At first, I thought the author was going to be one of those snobby intellectual adventurer types. While this did not prove to be the case (at least not the snobby part), his narrative voice still disagreed with me. Maybe it’s because the subject matter is depressing to begin with. Maybe it’s because I don’t share most (if any) of his worldviews. Whatever the case, this book was a difficult pill to swallow (and I mean, like, horse-pill difficult).

Over the past several years, having read as many books as possible on the subject of North Korea, following various aid organizations on social media, and even getting to hear a defector speak in person, I have a heart for this country. I want to have hope for it, too. Obviously, there is no easy path to freedom for these strong and noble people. But that is what I pray for. Hope. Liberty. Justice.

Elements of hope were absent in this book. I don’t say that’s unrealistic. Someone who’s been to the DPRK, even in a sheltered venture such as this, knows much more about it than I ever will. But it still made me overwhelmingly sad.

Exacerbating the sadness was something that has long troubled me in the whole non-fictional genre. How can we, as readers, determine what is accurate and what is not? Details get lost over time. People can be dishonest. So how can we know what’s true, in history and all around the world? How many non-fiction books are, in fact, the exact opposite of what they claim? We can never really know. And that makes me spectacularly uncomfortable.

Moving on now. Hopefully to something a little more uplifting…

81gavxbdtvlRomanov, by Nadine Brandes

A delicious blend of fantasy and history, Romanov re-imagines the life of Anastasia and her family.

I think that it is safe to say that Nadine Brandes has become one of my favorite living fantasy writers. After having decided to bide my time before buying a copy of her most recent masterpiece, I discovered that Romanov was available in e-book form through my local library. And just about hit the ceiling in my excitement.

I did not love Romanov quite as much as Fawkes, but don’t take that for an insult. Both books are the sort I am inclined to inhale like a line of… something illegal. But they’re also more than just addicting literature. Brandes’s work has serious backbone. It is as edifying as it is entertaining. These are qualities I will never ever be able to get enough of, and I can’t wait to find out what this amazing talent has in store for readers next.

Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose

A mostly fascinating look at the birth of espionage in America. After having watched the television series Turn, based on this book, it was nice to be able to separate dramatic fiction from historical fact. The author does lead you down a few too many rabbit trails, but overall it’s a good read.

Skavenger’s Hunt by Mike Rich

The premise, revolving around time travel, history, and a bunch of kids on an extravagant globe-trotting scavenger hunt, is a whole lot of fun. The execution, alas, is rather ho-hum. Though the protagonist is pretty well-crafted, the rest of the cast is under-developed, their flaws and virtues told more than shown. I also thought that the language went a little over the line, given that this is targeted at middle-grade readers. It might be accurate to how kids talk (both now and back on the streets of 19th century New York City), but y’know, we don’t really need to encourage that.

Overall, Skavenger’s Hunt could have been a really great story, based on the nuts and bolts. But this reader must instead condemn it to the “Just-OK” territory.

Trafficked, by Sophie Hayes

This is the personal narrative of an ordinary young British woman who got caught in the web of sex trafficking.

Sophie begins her story by relating the particulars of her life. Her family was broken by the volatility of a brutish father, but otherwise loving and close-knit. She describes the ups and downs of her teenage and early adult years in a way that makes the reader believe she really could be any girl of their own acquaintance. But the familiar disappears as fast as blinking when a man Sophie thought of as her best friend ensnares her in a web of manipulation and violence, forcing her into a life of involuntary prostitution.

To anyone who knows anything about human trafficking, it is a recognizable tale. But Sophie’s story is no less horrific, no less heartbreaking, for its predictability. Anyone desiring to learn more about this pressing issue would not err in beginning here.
Description of the things Sophie was forced to do are never gratuitous. The verbal, physical, and psychological violence she suffered at the hands of her captor are, however, incessant and intense. As a reader, scene after scene of profanity and abuse can begin to feel repetitive. But when you consider what it must have been like to actually live it… well.

This isn’t some literary masterpiece. It is, I’ll say again, simply a normal girl sharing the story of how the normalcy was so cruelly snatched from her life.

Before ending, I am compelled to address a rather affronting criticism I have seen of this book (and, more importantly, its subject). Apparently, some people do not accept that Sophie Hayes was a victim of sex trafficking, because she never tried to get away. Because she was frequently left alone, but did not consider attempting to find help, or escaping her situation. Excuse me while I try to keep my temper. But how can these critics fail to understand the true nature of slavery? This isn’t kidnapping we’re talking about. Modern-day human trafficking is a cold and calculated enterprise. Perpetrators don’t have to control victims with barred windows and locked doors. They are master manipulators. They know how to rob a person of every sense of security. They are crushers of spirit, and thieves of free will. Slavery is not a force of mere physical limitations. There is such a thing a psychological enslavement. And I’m not sure it isn’t the more evil manifestation.

screen-shot-2019-09-06-at-3.05.08-pmWhat Is A Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander

This is not a book I recommend reading all in one day (much less a single sitting, which is pretty much what I did). It is, in a word… overwhelming.

I am overwhelmed by the horror and depravity of mankind. I am overwhelmed by the grace and providence of God, and His ability to shine light into the very darkest corners of this world. It took a perfect storm to take down America’s most prolific known pedophile, along with the twisted web of institutions that supported him. But Rachael Denhollander was a perfect storm of a person.

To read Rachael’s story is to share the unimaginable pain she and hundreds of other girls were subjected to at the mercy of a man who was supposed to be healing them. It it also to share in the triumph of reclaiming the voices that were stolen from them as they turn the tables on their abuser. Not every survivor of sexual abuse gets justice. The vast majority do not. But this is a story that offers, for once, a beam of hope.

This is a story for and about survivors. But it is also for those of us who have failed to understand their struggle. Have you, or anyone you know, ever asked the “why” questions? Why didn’t she come forward earlier? Why didn’t she report it? Why didn’t she get help? This book is the best possible answer you could receive, and you must read it. It does not shy from provoking the apathetic instinct that lurks within most of us. “Why didn’t she say something?” is not the right question. Our question must be, “how would I answer, if she did?”

I sincerely pray that this case will prove a landmark, and inspire a shift in our culture. I pray for a future in which the evil Larry Nassar got away with for decades will no longer be possible. Most of all, I pray for the strength and courage to stand against such evil, as Rachael and her sister survivors have done.

Fast Into The Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail by Debbie Clarke Moderow

The Iditarod has always piqued my interest, but I’ve never actually learned much about it. From that standpoint, this book probably wasn’t the right one for me to read. It is less informational about the race, more just an account of one musher and her dogs. Which is fine. But probably more suited to readers already familiar with the Iditarod, and dog-sledding in general.

tPWKDwAAQBAJDutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

War stories in general have never been something I gravitate towards, but I enjoy learning about the average civilian’s experience during wartime. And of course it is all the more interesting when one such civilian happens to be Audrey Hepburn. The author does an excellent job of demonstrating how those early experiences formed and influenced the woman she would become. I was thoroughly engrossed.

Side note: Apparently Audrey Hepburn, one of the most lovely and beautiful women in the history of the world, never saw herself as being attractive and was always puzzled by her own popularity. My boggled mind is still processing this.

Out Of Darkness (The Light, Book 5) by Jacqueline Brown

This, the last book of Brown’s dystopian Light series, offers a natural and satisfactory conclusion to the story of Bria and her friends. The conflict and drama is mostly over, but that’s OK. These books have never been about the drama. Their beating heart is the characters and relationships within them. The dystopia is just window-dressing for deeper themes of faith and humanity.

Brown has her priorities straight. I wish the world had more stories and characters like these.

 

Hiding in Plain Sight: C.S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Pop Culture

C.S. Lewis. We all know him. We all love him. But did you ever think about how far Lewis’s influence actually goes? Did you ever realize how he’s influenced the entertainment we enjoy today? How he’s still influencing it? Science-fiction and pop-culture owe Lewis a debt. And sometimes, they even acknowledge it.

Today, I want to take a look at three contemporary TV series that have taken the trouble of offering that acknowledgment, in one way or another.

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1. Doctor Who

To be fair, connections to C.S. Lewis in this long-long-running British series are not exactly hidden. In BBC’s TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time, which documents the creation of Doctor Who, the show is even described as “C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas”. Interestingly enough, the Doctor made his first appearance on television the very day that Lewis died.

Doctor Who’s TARDIS (a space-ship/time-machine in the shape of a police telephone box, for the uninitiated), has always shared certain parallels with Lewis’s wardrobe. Both are bigger on the inside, after all.

The series’s most marked embrace of C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia came with its 2011 Christmas special, significantly titled The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe.

The plot of said special centers around two children in World War II era England, who are spending Christmas in a rambling old house in the country and (thanks to the Doctor) pass through a magical door into another wintry world. In one of the better scenes in the special, the Doctor even throws a bone to old Professor Kirk by way of the line, “What do they teach you in schools these days?”

The similarities to The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe pretty much end there. But it’s still great fun, and more than worth calling attention to.

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2. Lost

ABC’s Lost was known throughout its 6-season run for paying homage to famous historical philosophers, scientists, literature, and the like. The show certainly never shied away from exploring themes closely related to faith, either. It took them head on.

With this in mind, it probably is not much of a surprise that they chose to honor someone like C.S. Lewis. That didn’t make me squeal any less when it happened, though.

Season four of Lost introduced viewers to Charlotte, played by actress Rebecca Mader. She is a young, British, red-headed cultural anthropologist who has made her way onto the mysterious island in the name of science (I think… it’s been a while since I’ve watched Lost). Apart from the fact that she’s British, one would not expect to find a connection to C.S. Lewis in this character.

Eventually, however, we are given Charlotte’s complete name! And that name is Charlotte Staples Lewis. Lost was always naming characters after people, but this is easily my favorite example of that practice.

Producer Damon Lindeloff said that the name offered a hint as to the direction the show would be taking in its fourth season. I guess I’ll have to revisit Lost if I want to remember where that was.

In the meantime, I haven’t forgotten this reference. And probably never will.

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3. Stranger Things

I saved the inspiration for this post until last.

Like Lost, the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things is known for its homage-paying. The main difference is, most of ST‘s referential glory is heaped upon the altar of the 1980’s, and horror/sci-fi icons like Stephen King. There is some pretty obvious love for Tolkien present from the first episode, but even so, I was more surprised to notice a nod to my favorite author here than in my previous two examples.

Admittedly, it’s a very slight nod. And yet, somehow, the subtlety and unexpectedness made this discovery all the more delightful.

It happens it the following scene:

Didja catch it? I will be very impressed if you did. The clip slices off a little of the top part of the shot, which I think is where I saw this nod to begin with. The whole screen is smaller than watching on Netflix. And the Slurpee debate is an amusing distraction.

Check out these screenshots, though:

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See now???

Here we have three Lewis books, in plain sight. That Hideous Strength, Perelandra, and (a bit oddly) The Letters Of C.S. Lewis. Maybe the set decorators couldn’t find a pre-1984 copy of Out Of The Silent Planet. But that’s OK, because this is still a pretty sweet little wink in Lewis’s direction.

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It’s always cool to find evidence that literary genius is appreciated by the world at large.
These are just three examples. If you know of more, I’d love to be enlightened!