December 30, 2015

The Cast of 2015

This is a moment I always enjoy: the moment at the end of the year when I get to look back, sometimes happily, sometimes with a bit of annoyance, at what I've read over the past twelve months.  It's a fun tradition that requires little brain power and no originality, and as Jenny reminded me of it by posting her 2015 book list, I decided to follow her lead in topic and style and roll out the (eclectic) literary cast of 2015.  Hope you don't get bored by the histories.

2015 book list


The Moon Spinners [Mary Stewart] - My first read of the year, this one had gorgeous prose on the one hand and a not-so-compelling story-line and romance on the other.  Light, inspiring when it came to description, but ultimately a bit frustrating.

To Change the World [James Davison Hunter] - A compelling, thought-provoking, dense work, one which probably needs to be read more than once to be "gotten."  Hunter's call for "faithful presence" and a Christian challenge to the world via "a bursting out of new creation from within it" is worth reading, considering, and realizing.


The First Crusade [T. Asbridge] - Read for a course on the Crusades I took in the spring.  Light and accessible, but heavy on the adjectives and adverbs (history can be interesting without reliance on these grammatical tools! really! it can!) and lacking, in my opinion, a good balance of historical empathy and moral discernment.

They Found Him Dead [G. Heyer] - I don't think I'll be reading any more of Heyer's mysteries - or if I do, it will only be when I really need something light, quick, and mindless.  Characters, prose, and resolution here were all pretty unremarkable; Agatha Christie has more challenging, satisfying mysteries, however cliche that opinion may be.


Much Obliged, Jeeves [P.G. Wodehouse] - Needs no commentary.  And honestly, I can never remember what happened in a given Jeeves & Wooster novel; they're all much alike, but make for fun occasional reading.
The Fourth Crusade [D. Queller & T. Madden] - Also for the Crusades course!  This one was at the opposite extreme from The First Crusade: good on analysis, a bit weak on drama.  Seriously, the crusaders breach the walls and all the authors say is that we know these particular people died.  Really? Where's the blood and gore, people?


Around the World in Eight Days [J. Verne] - Where is the hot air balloon?  I specifically signed on for a hot air balloon.
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes [A. Maalouf] - For some reason I didn't put this on my Goodreads account; I think I must not have wanted to rate it.  At any rate, while I do think it is excellent to have works that portray the Crusades from the perspective of the Arabs (the Frankish perspective gets most of the limelight), I remember finding this attempt problematic - to say the least.


The Great Plague [Moote & Moote] - Doesn't Moote & Moote sound like a law-firm out a Dickens novel?  Anyway, this was the assigned reading in the three-week course I took this past May on "Plague! In the 1660s," and it was excellent.  Cheerful?  No.  Surprisingly compelling and even inspiring?  Yes.


Jamaica Inn [D. du Maurier] - du Maurier, why did you let me down?  Your prose was beautiful as always, your depiction of Cornwall haunting and bleak - and then I got to the end and wanted to bean the characters with my life science book.  Go. To. Your. Rooms.

The Perfect Prince [A. Wroe] - I don't even know what to do with this one.  It began so intriguingly, with such attention to detail - even the detail of a signature or an illustration; aaaaand then there I was in a bog of information and names and I was alternately confused, bored, and guilty (maybe I should care how much the pews in the church cost? But I don't?).  I don't think I'm building a summer home here.

Sir Nigel [A. Conan Doyle] - This book seemed to alternate between romanticism and realism, and I liked the realism better.  Conan Doyle has some compelling descriptions and interesting side characters, but Sir Nigel himself was too ideal for me.

American Lion [J. Meacham] - Totally arbitrary read - I don't do much American history - that unfortunately didn't turn out to be a gem.  In fact I complained about the style and the use of sources all the way through.  I think my family wanted me to stop reading.

Faith and Treason [A. Fraser] - Among the top two or three books I read this year (which isn't saying much, because this year saw a lot of 2 star books).  I was going to say it blew me away, but that's kind of a bad pun for a book dealing with the 1605 Gunpowder Plot...  Drama, empathy, argument, a grasp of the sources: it has it all.  Except it was so good that when the conspirators were caught, I was disappointed.  That might not be a good thing.


She-Wolves [H. Castor] - Mini-bios of some of England's ruling ladies since the Empress Maud (who, by the way, is the coolest.  Just pointing that out).  Some were more interesting than others, but the prose is burdened (again) with melodrama.


The Ghost Map [S. Johnson] - Congratulations!  You win Worst Book of the Year!  The arrogance of it took my breath away, while the commitment to urbanization and the almost callous treatment of individuals left me angry.  
The Prince [Machiavelli] - Read for a course on political thought, this classic work was alternately funny and perplexing.  On the one hand, it seems refreshing after you've been reading Plato, because Machiavelli deals with things as they are in real life; on the other hand, he doesn't concern himself at all with larger moral truths or with how things should be.  Also, I love how he keeps saying Cesare Borgia was the very model of a modern major general...and yet Borgia got sick and failed at everything.  Score one for "Fortune."

For All the Tea in China [S. Rose] - Pretty sure this is the only book my list shares with Jenny's.  A slim read and good for any tea-drinker, if rather in need of some polishing and FOOTNOTES.  Or at least endnotes.  Please.  Please?  No?  Okay, fine.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [R. L. Stevenson] - I'd been wanting to read this for a while, but despite its atmosphere, I just didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  "I consider morals to be an admirable trait of character in a book, but they can be overdone."


The Great Influenza [J. Barry] -  Like The Ghost Map, this was read for a course on the history of Western medicine I took this past semester.  Better than The Ghost Map in that it has a far better handle on the sources and a much more nuanced reading of them, it nonetheless could have done with some slimming down.  


Great Expectations [C. Dickens] - Finished this one before Christmas.  It wasn't actually my favorite Dickens of the ones I've read thus far; the ending was...too happy.  I would have liked some more bitter in that "bittersweet."  Oops.

In Defense of History [R. Evans] - My advisor got me this for my birthday back in January, while I was taking a course on historiography, and I just finished it yesterday (no, I haven't been reading it all year).  It's both solid on its philosophy of history and funny in its treatment of other historians or historical controversies.  A gem with which to finish out the year.

what did you read this year?  was it a good year by the numbers, or did you find some new favorites?  neither? both?

August 24, 2015

Do Justice, Love Mercy

In the last few days before my classes start, my family and I have been 'catching up' on some movie-viewing time courtesy of Netflix.  (During the school year we get a disc in the mail and then it sits on our counter, unwatched, for the next four weeks or so until we either have an evening to spare or simply say "eh" and mail it back for the next impatient viewer.  We're feckless subscribers.)  Last night we finally settled down for the last installment of the Hobbit trilogy, after having seen the first two in theaters and been too severely underwhelmed by both to go watch "The Battle of the Five Armies" when it came out.  It was, I felt, somewhat better; they made a hash of Bard, but Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage were excellent as Bilbo and Thorin, and that covers some sins at least.  After having watched a few others movies in the past few weeks, though, notably Von Ryan's Express, I tended to fixate on the very minor, added, unnecessary plot point of the coward Alfrid.

Or, rather, the fact that none of the main characters seemed willing to give Alfrid the fate he deserved.

Alfrid doesn't have a whole lot of purpose in the story, except as an object for the viewer's disgust.  He isn't the horrible, 'fantastic' evil of the orcs and goblins and so forth; he is the normal, everyday evil of greed and selfishness taken to a ludicrous degree.  In the early scenes, after Alfrid (who, I might add, is basically the same character as Wormtongue with a little more screen time) has attempted to escape with the Master of Laketown and been abandoned, the townsfolk quite reasonably attempt to lynch him.  However, Bard - like Aragorn with Wormtongue in the film version of The Two Towers - stops them, insisting that enough people have died already.  Thereafter, the good characters show a curious insistence on entrusting Alfrid with important responsibilities (which, of course, he fails to perform) and refuse to make him answer for his misdeeds; Bard even allows him to go on his merry, gold-laden way when Alfrid deserts the makeshift army of Laketown.

Much the same scenario plays out in the 1965 Von Ryan's Express, in which the two protagonists, one British and one American officer, take very different views on mercy and the demands of war.  When the soldiers get out of the POW camp, the Brit, Major Fincham, insists they kill the officer in command of the camp; Von Ryan overrules him, arguing that the officer cannot simply be killed in cold blood.  The decision comes back to bite him, costing quite a few of the soldiers their lives, and yet when the protagonists encounter a similar situation later on Von Ryan again errs on the side of mercy (and it once again backfires).

Why the emphasis - perhaps the over-emphasis - on mercy?  Why can't we just hang Alfrid or shoot the evil Italian or German?  From the writer's perspective, the choice seems to have far less to do with the antagonist (we don't really care what happens to Alfrid: he's a despicable character anyway) than it does with the protagonist: viewers are uncomfortable with a 'good' character taking a life into his hands, particularly in the role of executioner, and writers don't want to wrestle with the moral ambiguities through their protagonist.  The evils the antagonist has committed aren't worth the protagonist getting his hands dirty.  Hence this pattern of having a Bard or a Von Ryan choose not to kill a (human) antagonist - or, better yet, having the protagonist stop other characters from killing the antagonist - is such a recurring element that it now seems taken for granted. "Mercy isn't a weakness" is a mantra in fiction.

common explanations
  • "too many people have died already"
  • "he's not worth the powder"
  • "he's suffered enough"
  • "if I kill him I'll be just as bad as he is"
Don't get me wrong: mercy is huge and powerful and absolutely crucial.  I think the contemporary focus on it - in literature, but also in such debates as whether or not the death penalty is acceptable - is an outgrowth of Christianity; I'm glad we have such things as the Geneva Conventions that recognize the worth of human life in a manner unheard of centuries ago.  On the other hand, I think we need to wrestle with the dynamics of "doing justice and loving mercy."  What does it mean to "do justice," anyway?  Are there times when mercy isn't ours to give?  What do we do when our protagonist is in a position of authority, holding the fates of others in his or her hands, and has to decide how to act?  Of course the answer differs from character to character, but it seems to me that we shouldn't be too flippant in having the character withhold judgment for the sake of illustrating their goodness through their clemency.  Maybe sometimes we need to let the characters (and the readers or viewers) deal with the consequences of moral decisions and the weight of responsibility, as Von Ryan eventually does. 

Mercy is huge, and because it is huge it should be illustrated thoughtfully, intentionally - not brought in carelessly because that is what the consumer 'expects,' or because justice is too messy to handle.

You tell me!  Do you think Bard should have killed Alfrid?  How have your characters wrestled with these issues?

August 18, 2015

A Close of Summer Update

"I've missed your posts in the blogosphere!"

Several people have recently, or semi-recently, brought up the lack of posts on Scribbles.  You know, seven months' worth of no posts.  Here at the end of summer, though, I thought I would write an update - and give you all some snippets of Wordcrafter.

Although I finished with the spring semester back in early May and completed a stand-alone, three-week class in early June, the last few months have still been taken up almost entirely with academic stuff.  I've been spending the summer working on a research project with one of my history professors, the goal of which is to produce a "sourcebook" of original documents from the English civil war period [Suzannah: think this Crusades reader, but probably not as big].  The specific subject?  Popular works, especially cheap eight-page pamphlets, that deal with witchcraft, comets, apparitions, monsters, and other such supernatural "prodigies."  Oh, it's very cheerful.  In fact I have really enjoyed myself - except while reading the accounts of witch-trials, which are universally depressing.

Since we made substantial headway in June and July, the work has let up a bit in the past couple of weeks as we approach the beginning of the fall semester.  In a vain attempt to fill up the excess time on my hands, I've been digging in, sometimes with relish and most times with a grim will, to that continued project that is the rewrite of Wordcrafter.  I'm not precisely sure where I was in the story at the end of the school year, but I think I've added about 20,000 words since May: not a whole lot for a story that promises to be another large one, but not too shabby, either.  We're departing faster and faster from the course of the original story, and I believe the scene I'm working on now is something of a watershed, after which the territory will be almost entirely new.  Thus, although I originally thought I could get along fine with just the structure of the first draft(s) in my head, I'm now beginning to think it would be wise to actually construct an outline.  (I write outlines for a three-page reflection essay.  I am not a pantser, people.  Outlines are gold.)

august snippets

Her clothing was rich, the nose- and mouth-covering heavy with embroidery and a layer of gold mesh, three medallions hanging from her turban across her forehead: even I, who had little acquaintance with Tera and none at all with the Gypsies, had no difficulty recognizing high rank. But my eye was drawn chiefly to her right hand and the weapon in it, for I had never yet seen a firearm here in Ethan’s world. It was no automatic; flintlock was more like it, the barrel and handle cased in wood, the hammer under her thumb fashioned, I thought, like a dragon. She had its twin buckled to her left hip, almost lost in her clothes, and it took me a moment to reconcile myself to the oddity. 

“I thought you were dead,” I said rudely. 


 ...I was too bleary-headed to pay much attention to details, but as we came down the hill between the towering pagan stones I was conscious, almost as keenly as in that moment when I came through the shack, of a change in the world around me. It was as though I had physically passed out of the Tera I had come to know, the Tera of the Horsemen and the villa and a Mediterranean summer, and come instead into the setting of a Grimm’s fairytale. 


“Well, I call that fine!” Ash cried warmly, pounding me on the back in momentary forgetfulness of my crime. “You’re not much of a fighter, but sure and you can take a hit!” 


Funny how black the night seemed, here where there were no electric lights. Silent, too: my mind strained unconsciously for the sound of a car, of a train out in the distance, of voices or music on a radio, but there was nothing. Here on the threshold of the villa the world fanned out from us in layers of darkness, and it was as imperturbable and unnerving as the ocean on a night with no moon. 


When we ducked in Threshing Floor had just backed into Sure Repulse, a big red creature with a hell of a temper, and the boys were hurrying en masse to put down the fracas. It was mayhem, and I stood against one of the empty stable boxes and squinted around me with a certain amount of smug satisfaction. 

 “I could have stayed in bed a bit longer, apparently,” I observed. 


Her talk was of Marah and Our Good Fortune, of hunts here at the waning of the summer and of legends of great hunters from millennia ago who had fought monsters rather than deer and boar: easy, uncontentious conversation, light as the yellow wine her father had served us. 


“I’d like to think Ash’s big mouth will get him into trouble one day,” he said, “but unfortunately he’s the sort of fellow who always manages to dodge trouble by the skin of his teeth."

January 5, 2015

Newsflash: You Can Honor God in a Non-Christian Setting

This blog doesn't deal a whole lot with the specifics of my college experience, despite the fact that college now takes up most of my time and mental energy.  Apart from general updates on required literature and the beginnings and ends of semesters, I think the most I've said is that a) I'm going to college (!) and b) I'm pursuing a degree in History.  A few of you - mostly those of you who happen to be friends with me on Facebook - may also be aware that, when I decided more or less at the eleventh hour to attend college, I chose a liberal arts school.  "Liberal" in a double sense: politically and ideologically.  It's local, negating the need to live on campus, and it has a great academic reputation. 

I'll be the first to admit that I was not exactly peachy-keen about the whole notion: for this sheltered pygmy person who never traveled from her fire, the university had an outsized reputation for being A Place Where People Go to Apostatize.  Like many universities, this one was originally founded by a Christian denomination but has since made haste to distance itself from that heritage.  I'm not saying I actually thought they burned crosses on the manicured lawns or anything (way too much extra work for the gardeners); I'm just saying I was leery of spending four years listening to relativism, the liberal agenda, and whatever else these unknown professors might take it into their heads to teach.

Let's admit it: I was scared.

I think many people are when it comes to making decisions like these (I'm focusing on choices of colleges, since that's the only one I've really had to wrestle with).  Especially for those of us who were or have been homeschooled, it is undeniably daunting to consider going out into the world for further education; even if we've been taught about different worldviews, it isn't the same as hearing arguments straight from the horse's mouth.  It isn't the same as having to read or watch unpleasantness firsthand (and not experience it through someone else's tidy little review).  I think we're afraid we might be convinced by the arguments, or corrupted by the wickedness.  The world is a scary place!  The Devil roves about like a roaring lion and might devour us at any moment!  And springing from and reinforcing this fear is the belief that to properly honor God and protect ourselves, we're better off either not going to college or going to one with a Christian creed. 

I don't believe this is biblical in the least.  While I think it is always good to be conscious that we and the world are fundamentally at odds, I don't think my fear was biblical.  After all, as Paul admonished Timothy, we've been given a spirit not of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  We are encouraged, not to withdraw from the world in terror at the thought of being beaten by it, but to go out into it with boldness as a witness to the power and grace and presence of God.  One of the needful things of which the Reformers reminded us is that the divide between the "sacred" and the "secular" is completely artificial and uncalled for; and yet we continually return to it, cloistering ourselves because, I believe, we fear the world.  This is a tacit rejection of our mandate as believers to be salt and light and to powerfully permeate the world, bearing witness to our God ("who is a God like unto our God?") in the midst of the nations.

My use of "non-Christian" in the title is a little disingenuous, for I do not believe there is, or should be, a divide between the Christian and secular spheres.  What I mean to say is that we can honor God in all settings - not necessarily by sharing the Gospel, per se, but by our faithful presence.  Take college again as the case in point.  I believe we have this notion that if we do attend a mainstream college - for example, my liberal arts university - then to be really honoring to God we need to engage in a rousing debate with our godless professors and convince them that We Are Right.  You know, like those super long Pinterest quote-pins where by the time you get to the end, the student has effectively convinced everyone, including the formerly-atheist professor, of the existence of God. 

...I'll tell you straight up, I feel wholly unprepared to do any such thing.  But I do know that I can bear witness to the glory of my God every day without (necessarily) having to engage specifically in debate.

1. With a solid work ethic.

Just by taking our education seriously and applying ourselves to it, we can stand out.  We of all people should never be halfhearted in our endeavors.

2. With a polite, respectful demeanor.

We don't need to be obsequious in order to show professors, even the ones who don't thrill us, that we appreciate their efforts and respect their learning.  (And for the ones who we simply can't bring ourselves to appreciate or respect, we maintain our dignity, do what is required of us, and avoid as much as possible.)

3. With a cheerful, can-do attitude.

This is the subject of my June post, The Most Beautiful Curve.  Of course we all have off days, but we should strive to not make those our regular days.

4. With the ability to choose our fights wisely.

We do not have to raise a storm about everything.  Sometimes we are required to listen to or watch things that we disagree with or even that make us uncomfortable (Katie wrote a great comment about this, but it was on Facebook months ago and I can't find it anymore, so you will simply have to imagine it.).  But sometimes, when push comes to shove, we can say no.  Not loudly; not with a grand monologue; just politely informing the person that we have boundaries.  This is not about being a Good Christian; it may just be about having some personal dignity.

5. With a willingness to listen and learn.

Too often we are so wrapped up in mentally preparing a snappy response that we don't actually listen to what the other party is saying: possibly we're afraid to.  Yes, much of what we hear will be badly mistaken.  But there is also much that we can glean, much that can convict us, much that can challenge us, much that can encourage us.  We must be willing to grow, and even to alter our opinions.

6. With a growing knowledge of what we believe.

We never just fling open our minds and accept everything: we must have a well-reasoned foundation to build upon.

7. With the ability to give an answer for the hope that is within us, when an appropriate moment comes.

...with meekness and fear and a good conscience.

I'm not saying we can't go to a college that seeks to structure itself around Christian values or doctrine.  I am saying only that we should never do so out of fear of the alternative.  We honor God through our conduct in all settings - not by shunning contact with the world or following any prescribed path.
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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