Currently reading: Fiction

I’ve been poking around various books the last month or so looking for a novel that would really draw me in. Within a day, I found two – each quite different, but both examples of real quality and exciting futures within their respective genres.

The first, Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale, is an alternative history of the Roman Empire expanding to North America in the 13th century. Smale doesn’t really give details about how the Roman Empire lasted 800 years later than it did in reality, but don’t let that bother you. The story he’s telling is plenty entertaining even without a clear point of divergence that normally establishes the alternate history genre. Though I live only a few hours away from the site of the Mississippian city of Cahokia (near St. Louis), my knowledge of that pre-Columbian culture is next to nothing.  So there was an element of discovery and learning with each chapter. I give Smale credit for the inventive juxtaposition of Native American vs. Roman, which as far as I can tell, is genuinely different from other alternate histories. The story is pretty straight forward, but full of great battle sequences and excitement building toward two more as-yet-unwritten installments.

The second book that grabbed my attention was The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner, with its beautiful prose and interesting characters. The story is narrated by Cordelia Kings, heir to the family lobstering business, struggling to preserve her family’s way of life. I loved the story’s setting – Loosewood Island, straddling the US/Canadian border – and all it’s accompanying mythology. The island is really another character in this intense (Shakespearean, even!) family drama , which you may know, is a favorite trope of mine.

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Searching for Sunday review

Sometimes I find myself smiling when I think back 10 years ago, sitting across the table from a stern-faced Elder who told me straight up that my “eternal soul was in jeopardy” because I was questioning the role of women in the Church. Specifically, that women had a role in the Church. Say what you will, but this guy never beat around bush or left any room for ambiguity. Women couldn’t be leaders in the church. Period. Any visible role – even public reading of Scripture or passing communion trays – was de facto leadership. Period. Therefore, these actions were the exclusive, God-ordered realm of men (and select boys whose consciences were sufficiently bothered by thoughts of eternal hellfire that they got baptized at age 6.) Period. After subsequent meetings with the whole board of Elders failed to assuage my doubts, I was asked to leave, which was a bit traumatic at the time, but looking back, was in fact, a blessing.

About a year or so later, I was regularly attending an Episcopal Church, and received communion for the first time outside of the church I was raised in, and from the hand of a female priest no less. Another year or so still, and the Rt. Rev. (and awesome) Catherine Waynick, Bishop of Indianapolis, would lay hands on and pray over me, confirming me in the faith, and receiving me into the Episcopal Church. So anyway, I smile now when I think back to that Sunday afternoon.

I admit to being a little jealous of Rachel Held Evans. She and I are close in age, and faced similar crises of faith as young20150414_110347 adults. When confronted with questions and doubts about biblical inerrancy, literal readings of Genesis 1, theodicy, salvation and more, she wrote a book and started a blog, tackling these issues head-on and with more humor, grace and style than I could ever muster. Her new book, Searching for Sunday, follows in line with her other work – thoughtful, smart, candid, funny and all with her distinctive voice shining through. Like I said, I’m jealous.

My jealousy aside, the first thing I liked about Searching for Sunday was Rachel’s decision to structure this book around the sacraments. Though we usually associate talk of sacraments with the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Evans makes a good point that nearly all Christian traditions hold that God can be encountered in and through the physical. Most churches have some sacramental understanding of even if they don’t often use that word. Her vignettes at the start of each section could be should be republished as a teaching aid for catechumenate classes. When people ask why I ended up in the Episcopal Church, I say, “the sacraments, the historic liturgy and Book of Common Prayer, the sacraments, the middle way of Anglicanism, the sacraments, women in leadership, the sacraments, my questions are welcomed, have I mentioned the sacraments?  Water, bread, wine, oil, incense, bowing, kneeling, touching, saying – all become, within the community of the church, conduits of God’s grace and salvation.

When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again….[the sacraments] reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church. [p. 18]

The other thing I greatly appreciated about this book – and Rachel has taken some heat for this, which, frankly, baffles me – is the esteem she holds for the people and churches that formed her faith early in life, even as she wrestled with serious questions along the way. Some have read this book as a denominational spat, evangelical vs. mainline. This is a serious mischaracterization of the book. [Confession: I smiled and gave a little ‘Woo, TEC’ when I first read, a month or so ago, that Rachel and Dan were regulars at an Episcopal Church.] But my blithe denominationalism isn’t found in Rachel’s book. Again, my jealousy. I’ve wrestled for the last 10 years with how to honor the places and people who first taught me about Jesus and Bible, who baptized me, prayed for me, formed me in ways I likely haven’t yet processed.

I realize I can no more break up with my religious heritage than I can with my parents. I may not worship in an evangelical church anymore or even embrace evangelical theology, but as long as I have an investment in the church universal, I have an investment in the community that first introduced me to Jesus. Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the game. [p.196]

Besides being jealous, I am glad Rachel Held Evans wrote this book. As she’s discovered through her blog, her experiences of doubt are shared by many, many people. She’s brave for sharing these stories with us and working through a process of moving forward – doubts still with us, for sure – with integrity and hope.

Notable Books of 2014

Why be boring and publish a year-end list of books at the actual year’s end? Here’s a list of a few books that I read in 2014 and stuck with me into the new year.

LEGO Neighborhood Book by Brian and Jason Lyles (No Starch Press, 2014)

The good folks over at Brick City Depot have put out a lovely book full of ideas for your LEGO city. It includes great pictures and tips for making modular-style buildings to fit in with the official LEGO sets as well as all the little details, like lamposts, park benches, furniture, etc. that bring your LEGO city to life. The book also includes instructions for several townhouses, and for the old-fashioned soda fountain/pharmacy building pictured on the cover.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf, 2014)

I love a good post-apocalyptic novel and plenty of not-so-good ones too. If you’re scared off by the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic’, this book just might win you over. The apocalytpic stuff is really just a device for delivering a moving story about great characters. What more could you want from a book? Follow the Traveling Symphony (motto: Because survival is insufficient), a troupe of actors and musicians who journey around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the small pockets of humanity still around after a world-wide pandemic re-shapes civilization years earlier.

 

Pastrix: the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber (Jericho Books, 2013)

I read this book on the recommendation of two people whom I greatly admire – one a theologically conservative Christian, the other quite firmly in the liberal camp. Any book that gets a good word from both sides grabs my attention. Once I started reading Pastrix, it became clear why it was recommended.  Nadia is herself quite liberal; she pastors a Lutheran community in Denver called The House for All Sinners and Saints.  (To my great delight, she’s also an ex-Church-of-Christer!)  But unlike some theological liberals who have a tendency to downplay or dismiss our sinful nature, our brokenness, and our clear need for a Savior, Nadia lays it all out for us to see (and God to use). She shies away from nothing, and while she levels plenty of criticism at the conservative theology found in much of the Church, the truly interesting parts of this book are her blistering critique of her own liberal tradition. I found this to be a great guide for molding a humble yet progressive faith in Christ.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (Viking, 2014)

A thrilling and largely satisfying ending to a brilliant modern fantasy series (are you paying attention, George? This is how it’s done.) My favorite book in the series in still the second – the Magician King – which stands out because of the engrossing story of Julia, who is a secondary character in the first novel. Still, Magician’s Land ties together the first two and concludes Grossman’s razor sharp yet loving critique of fantasy fiction, especially C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. I realized while reading these books that I can’t wait to share the Narnia books with my daughter in a few years. I hope she always lets her dad recommend books to her.

 

The World of Ice and Fire by George Reading Rainbow Martin, et al. (Bantam, 2014)

Part of me is very pissed that George R.R. Martin is writing 10,000 words of back story for his magnum opus instead of working feverishly to FINISH THE [your choice of expletive] BOOK ALREADY. Write for me, monkey! Write! You started this epic during Bill Clinton’s first term! Finish it! *deep breath*

Another part of me is profoundly grateful for whatever scraps Westerosi-based literature that Master George deigns to throw at me, worm that I am. Naturally, I ate it up immediately and loved it. Back story aside, the artwork is fantastic and nearly worth the price of the book alone. Nearly.

LEGO Detective’s Office

pool hall

This lovely Pool Hall is part of the upcoming LEGO Detective’s Office set.

LEGO recently revealed the newest set in their Creator Expert series (often simply called “modulars” by fans for the way the buildings can snap together to form a street scene). It’s been a year since the release of the last modular building – the Parisian Restaurant – a set so wonderfully detailed, inside and out – it set the bar on future Creator sets very, very high.

As rumored, the new set is The Detective’s Office! Here is LEGO designer Jamie Berard (who has perhaps the best job in the world) explaining the new set.

The variety of actions and businesses represented here is a marked departure from earlier sets in this series, though I do not, in any way, see this as bad thing. Indeed, my first impressions of the set are great! With a pool hall, a private detective’s office, a barber shop, and two floors of that may or may not be intended as an apartment – the pattern of 32- or 16-stud wide buildings is finally broken up!

The Detective’s Office also dramatically expands on the story-telling element in the series, with significant play features not usually found in this line. The first Modular set – 2007’s Cafe Corner –  featured several mini figures, but offered no interior detail. 2009’s Fire Brigade included a fairly detailed interior, and each successive set has added interior detail and story features. With the Town Hall, we had a couple getting married, the Parisian Restaurant featured a couple getting engaged (sort of a love theme running through these). The Detective’s Office, as explained in the Designer video, really steps up the storyline however. The pool hall, barber shop, and rooms above are all part of a cookie and candy smuggling operation, which the gumshoe, Ace Brickman, must uncover. This smuggling theme fits nicely in my city and will compliment the Camoflauged Outpost-inspired MOC, as the criminal underground grows.

Wisdom from Gilead

[T]here are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

There are lovely passages of prose and important truths on nearly every page of this novel. If I tried to blog them all, it would take me months to finish it.

Franklin Park Update: it could be worse

The Town Council held a work session last Wednesday to hear proposals from the Parks Department about the future of Franklin Park.

Clay Chafin presented several proposals, which the Council then modified into one plan to present for public comment.

The first proposal, presented as Option 1, changed very little about the park. Parking was added at the north side by relocating the basketball court. The trail system was extended to loop completely around the park. The diamonds remain as they are with only minor improvements to the dugouts on the smaller diamonds.

This proposal is fantastic and directly reflects the input of the residents around Franklin Park.

Option 2 involved replacing Anderson Field and adding a road along the north side of the park (and more parking). Though the road would not hook up with North Street, it would instead run parallel, emptying onto Mill Street.

Council members were, thankfully, skeptical about removing the big diamond (Anderson Field) and instead suggested moving the fence in left field forward 10-20 feet to provide room for the road.

This modified Option 2 is what will be presented to the public for comment.

Concerning the new road, Clay Chafin and several of the Councilors seem keen on the idea that traffic in the park should flow one way, and that such an arrangement will make the park safer for the kids. I am sympathetic to the safety concerns at the park. There are ball diamonds on both sides of the road serving the park, and kids routinely run back and forth across the road. However, I am not sure how making traffic flow one way will make improve this situation. I am also concerned that, in order to re-route traffic, a new road will be added to the north side of the park, thereby introducing cars into a section of the park previously spared from this intrusion.

Generally, I was pleased with the plans Clay proposed. I felt our concerns were largely addressed and I look forward to the next phase – diving into the nitty-gritty of road and traffic planning. Fun! Meetings for public comment will be announced soon; there will be one in mid-December and one in mid-January.

 

Franklin Park

franklinparksignFranklin Park, Plainfield’s oldest park, is small in size – only 35 acres –  but full of large trees towering above the playground and providing substantial shade for the right fielder playing at Anderson Field. An iron foot bridge over the White Lick Creek connects the park to Plainfield’s great trail system. For those of us who live near the park and use it heavily, it is the quintessential neighborhood park.

Currently, the Town Council is considering changes the Director of Parks and Recreation has spilled the beans on changes he wants to see at Franklin Park, including expanding the parking lot, adding a road to the west side and replacing historic Anderson Field with two smaller Little League-sized diamonds. None of these things can be accomplished without removing mature trees and substantial acreage from this wonderful park. Furthermore, the widening of roads, the addition of a road and expansion of parking will make the park more convenient for drivers, but more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, its primary users. Fortunately, citizens are organizing to save Franklin Park and you can help! You can learn about this project by visiting this site.  Don’t forget to send a quick email to the Town Council (and copy Clay Chafin)  voicing your opposition to these proposals.

Robin Brandgard – rbrandgard@town.plainfield.in.us

Kent McPhail – kmcphail@town.plainfield.in.us

Bill Kirchoff – Tblazer64@aol.com

Renee Whicker – rwhicker@town.plainfield.in.us

Ed Gaddie – edgaddie@sbcglobal.net

Clay Chafin – Director of Parks and Recreation – cchafin@town.plainfield.in.us