Book Reviews, Existentialism, and the Meaning of Life

I got a book at the library this week and it’s kind of gotten under my skin. I finished it yesterday and it’s one of the few times where I felt like writing to the author, not to praise him, but to say, Hey, Mister, You forgot to write the ending to your book, would you mind finishing this??? 

The book is The Tourist by Robert Dickinson. I just randomly grabbed it off the library shelf and read the little blurb about the storyline. It was very tame. Tourist group goes out, they come back and one of the tourists is missing. I’m thinking, some kind of mystery. But at the very bottom of the blurb, in smaller print, it says, “…orignal conspiracy thriller…” and that sounded intriguing. So I took the book home, started reading and immediately got annoyed because the book is written in First Person, Present Tense. And was thinking, there is no way this entire novel can be written in this style. It’s going to drive me crazy. But then as I read more I realized this is a time travel book, and if you’re writing time travel, you really have to write Present Tense. And the First Person thing just seemed to be this author’s Pet Quirk. 

By the last chapter I was flying through the pages, could not wait to see how he was going to solve the mystery and tie all these loose ends together. I was pretty excited. The story was interesting, complicated, and I had all kinds of ideas in my mind of how he might end it. And then, the book just kind of dribbled to a stop. Mystery was left unsolved. I was left, still not sure how all these pieces fit together, and very upset. I think at the very end he was trying to be artistic or something and I guess I was supposed to be moved. But I wasn’t. I was annoyed. 

I have read a lot of bad books. I have stopped in the middle of a lot of bad books and just walked away. I have plowed through mediocre books. And then I have been gripped and awed by masterpieces. I think what is so aggravating was that this book had potential to be Good. Not a masterpiece, but definitely a page turner where you walked away satisfied and ready to recommend it to everyone you know. And it felt like he got lost in his story, didn’t know what to do, so he just hastily wrote a couple more paragraphs and then pasted on THE END. (Ok, I’m being harsh, maybe with more thought and analysis, I might understand how his ending is good, just not seeing it right now.)

I’m going to dive a bit into the story though, because it’s got me thinking. On the front of the cover it says “The Future is Already Written”. And that’s really a key point to the story. All these people live in a dystopian society where time travel is a regular part of life. And they have records of their own lives from the future so there are no surprises. They know when they’re going to die. They know all the major events that will happen. If something goes wrong, people already know about it and have made provisions to fix the mistakes or at least deal with the outcomes. And then at the very end (SPOILER ALERT) everything goes off script. Near death experiences, failed rescues. And it’s at this point that one of the main characters feels alive for the first time. When he’s no longer walking out his predestined life and suddenly everything is up in the air and anything could happen. 

The book has a depressing ending. But it seems to me that it’s because the story plays out perfectly the worldview that we are simply organic beings crawling around on the surface of the planet and then one day we die. The end. That is a depressing world view. I’ve read a couple other novels lately and they all seem to hold that same perspective. Our lives have no real meaning. Get as much pleasure as you can while you still exist and then die and cease to exist. (Except of couse, for the euphemism that says, you live on your loved ones’ hearts. Which I guess means, when no one remembers you anymore, then you are truly dead.) 

Interestingly enough, yesterday, my second grader was telling me this inspirational chant they do every morning to start off the day at school. One of the lines was “I have a reason for being here!” My mind instantly went existential. The meaning of life. I asked her what she thought that meant. What’s your meaning for being here? She’s very literal and said it meant that she was at school to learn things. Ah yes. Ok. And then I told her (just in case she didn’t know) that our reason for being alive (here!) was because God created us and he loves us. 

Unlike the poor characters in The Tourist, our lives do have purpose and meaning. Love God. And obey his command to Love your Neighbor.

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Westminster Catechism

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

And unlike the characters in the book who just faded away to nothing, we are eternal beings. 

 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Our death here on earth is simply the next birth that ushers us into an eternity with Jesus. 

While I didn’t expect the book to have a Christian theme, I was hoping that the character’s story arc would lead them to discover at least one or two of the important themes. Like the value of human life. The richness of serving other people. The goodness of the earth. The absolute complexity and awesomeness of the universe that we live in. But instead the book was a window to how meaningless life is when you remove God from everything. 

In the end I have a sense of relief. Thank you Lord that my life has meaning. And sadness. Lord, what about all those people who truly believe their life is meaningless and death is the end? And I feel an urgency to tell people, there’s more. Dig deeper. Search for the truth. Life lived the way it’s meant to be, following Jesus, is exciting, purposeful, full of love and joy. 

A Story Behind Every Cookie

I just made chocolate chip cookies with my eight year old. After the cookies went into the oven to bake, she ran off to play, and I was the one who carefully watched the timer and made sure the cookies came out at the exact right time, quickly sliding them off the cooking sheet onto a cooling rack so they wouldn’t overcook on the sheet. And it suddenly brought back memories. 

My friend Alyssa taught me how to make chocolate chip cookies. My mom was not a cookie maker. No one can beat my mom’s raisin cinnamon rolls or her brownies, but cookies were not her thing. So, I moved to Bethel, Alaska just before my 16th birthday without the great life skill of knowing how to make good cookies. 

Alyssa and I met pretty soon after I moved to Bethel, and our friendship quickly grew into Best-Friend-dom. We were in the same grade at school. Being a Christian was important to both of us. And that’s about all we had in common. Well, we both got good grades in school. She was on all the sports teams, President of the Student Body, involved in every single leadership thing there was and graduated Valedictorian. I practiced piano all the time, loved to read, had a quirky sense of humor, and did not hold any positions of leadership. I ended up being Class Secretary senior year because of her interference. She also would make crazy suggestions like, Let’s Go Running! What??? But, we adapted. I went running, she watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail with me. I like to think that we were good for each other. 

But let’s get back to cookies. Alyssa’s family had the secret “Mrs Field’s Chocolate Chip Cookies” recipe (which Alyssa copied into a recipe book and gave to me for a wedding present and which I have passed down to all my children). One time I checked, very carefully, and was able to see that yes, there were some slight variations from her recipe and the recipe that comes on the chocolate chip bag.. But, I honestly think that the Key to her amazing cookies was knowing the exact amount of time to cook them. It’s a science. It’s taken me many years to figure it out perfectly, but Alyssa, you will be glad to know, I am now a master too! 

Alyssa’s house was the perfect tundra-living house. It was two stories, but all the living areas and kitchen were on the 2nd story. That way, you had a breathtaking view of snow and lights, sky, stars, going on for miles and miles. I remember long winter evenings at her house. We would bake cookies while munching on chips and salsa (also something Alyssa introduced me to). We would make the perfect cookies, play games, talk. Sometimes I’d play their piano and we would all sing together. Or we would go out and play in the snow. Alyssa and her family introduced me to the “STEAM” which is a far-north tradition. Small wooden building full of hot steam, so hot that you end up walking outside in Alaska winter in your swimsuit and it doens’t affect you. Her family also introduced me to Lefse (Norwegian potato pancakes), snowmobiling, and all the thrills of having a Dad who worked for Fish and Wildlife and was a trapper on the side. 

I get up from writing and go in the kitchen to grab a cookie. They sure are good. It’s funny how layered our lives are. We bake some cookies, but oh, all the stories and history behind that simple cookie. It’s good to take the time to remember every once in a while. 

P.S. My husband is back at work, mostly recovered from his covid, thank you for all your prayers!

Bookworm

Most of you probably know that I am a bookworm. In all senses of the word. I remember it really started in second grade. The library at the old Haldeman Elementary School in Eastern Kentucky was dark paneled, high ceilened, musty smelling, and had wonderful tall bookshelves full of old dusty books. I found a section of books called historical fiction which I had never encountered before. I found books about Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington. All of them written in story form. Long chapter books. I was hooked. 

After that I always had a book with me. I would hide it in my desk and when I finished my work before everyone else, I would pull my book out and read. I would also hide it in my lap, and if the teacher was being especially boring, I would surreptitiously glance at the book in my lap. I remember being caught every once in a while. But not often. 

By sixth grade, I was averaging a book a day. Not short books either. I remember that Little Women took me two days. It was so long! It was about that time that my English teachers started supplying me with books. Have you tried this one? Here, you should read this! When we were overseas in Haiti, with no library available, I would borrow from anyone I knew with books. And fortunately, we had a lot of book-reading friends. 

I was indiscriminate in my choice of reading. I read some really good books. I read some really bad books. I read some books that have stayed in my memory and the good things I learned from them have stayed with me for a lifetime. I’ve read some books where I still have a lingering sense of guilt that I actually read such trash. 

When I started struggling with anxiety, I had to take a break from reading. I found that books too easily messed with my emotions and when I was feeling fragile, I couldn’t risk letting a book tip me into anxiety again. 

When I struggled with depression, I found the same thing. Books became something I had to be cautious with. And this is when I started just reading fluff books. Or re-reading old books that I knew were calm and peaceful. Kind of like watching silly sticoms instead of watching artsy films from film festivals. Every once in a while I would slip up and read something new, that looked pretty innocent, and then it would take me down an unexpected path of self-awareness on issues I didn’t feel like being self-aware of. One book series I accidentally picked up, managed to jump up and down on all my old wounds and I ended up having to do a lot of soul-searching, talking, therapy, prayer, etc before I recovered from that. (Though I do not regret it. I came out the other side, a much healthier person.)

All of this to say, I am rather careful about what I read these days. Which makes my decision, this past week, to get a book from the library, rather surprising. I went to the library with only one child, and I actually spent time perusing the shelves and finding something that looked enjoyable. I thought I was up to reading something new. I ended up reading A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr. Very good book. Very depressing book. Very uplifting book (but only if you really think about it and analyse it a bit). It took me two days to read, and by the end I was waving my kids away, Just a minute! I’m on the last chapter! Hold on a second! And then I read the last line, slammed the book down and stomped off. Mad at myself for getting all emotionally involved in a book again. Unable to stop thinking about it. 

And then, during our bible study this morning, I found myself thinking about the book again, and realizing that the author was pretty in tune with the book of Romans. And I was glad that I had read the book. Even though it took me a couple days to really process it. In a nutshell the book is about the unrelenting sinfulness of man and the unrelenting hope of the cross. If you are up for an emotional roller coaster, I would highly recommend it. 

I am now comforting myself with Venetia by Georgette Heyer. A book I have read before, a most wonderful piece of amusing, clean fluff. (As long as you can overlook the latent sexism that seeps through any romance written in the 50s.)

My end conclusion is, reading is dangerous, proceed with caution. But it’s also stimulating, exciting, and can lead you on amazing adventures of learning and growth. Also proceed with caution. I know that reading has shaped me, good and bad, into who I am today. And I will always proudly wear the title of Bookworm. 

Nerd Rant

The other day my cousin posted pictures on FB where she and her husband were recreating famous artwork at their home with everyday objects. Somehow they managed to make a decent impression of “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. It was fun. You could definitely look at it and say, Yes, I can see that..”Starry Night”..it’s there…

 

This is how I feel about the movie Ender’s Game. You can watch it and say, hmm…yes, I can see how that is a little bit like the book. Same character names. There’s a battle station. Kind of the same plot. A bit. I can see it. I guess. But, that’s about it. 

 

It is rather painful when you have a favorite book and then they try to make a movie out of it. 

 

Very painful. 

 

Ender’s Game is one of those books that I have kept with me since I was an early teenager. I loved it. The understanding that children have a thought life, they are fully human…and they are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. The idea that a child could shape history. These things resonated with me when I was young. 

 

This is one of those books that I just pull out every couple years. It’s sitting on my shelf and I glance at it when I’m trying to find something to read…and I think, no, not yet, it’s too soon since I last read it. And then, one day, I look at it and I just know, It’s time. Time to read the book again. And somehow I’ve waited just the right amount of time so that when I read it, I’m still surprised, I’m still emotionally connected. It’s still deeply enjoyable. 

 

So, I just re-read Ender’s Game, and now I’m reading the companion book, Ender’s Shadow, which retells the story from a different character’s point of view. And in the middle of all that, I thought, hey, let’s watch the movie. So, Andy and I watched it after the kids were in bed. And I felt like screaming the whole time. WHAT??? What are you doing??? Did you even read the book before you wrote the script??? How did you get this character so WRONG!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE??? 

 

I mean, I understand, it’s a long, complicated book. Some things were going to have to be sacrificed. But you would think that they would at least capture the personality and character traits of the main character. They took a compassionate, wise leader who ends the book at only eleven years old, and they turned him into a whiny, emotional teenager. ??????????? They turned a book about CHILDREN into a book about older TEENAGERS. 

 

If you can’t tell by now, I was not impressed with the movie. 

 

There is a definite correlation between how much you enjoy and know a book, and how well you are going to enjoy the movie. For instance, Lord of the Rings. I read the book series once. I never felt the need to read it again. I loved the movies. I had no problem with them at all, even though some of the diehard LOTR fans in my life had some strong opinions. But, the Narnia movies grate on my nerves. The first one, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is close enough that I can mostly enjoy it, but the other two movies just went off into their own little story lines, completely ignoring the fact that the book was already perfect just as it was, no need to mess with it. 

 

What is the deal with script-writers anyway? 

 

Ok. Rant over. Mostly. 

 

If you happen to be looking for a good Sci-fi, I recommend Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. I’m not as in-love with the rest of the series that both those books are connected to, but they are still good. 

 

And I definitely don’t recommend watching the movie. 

 

(And yes, this movie came out years ago, I’m late on the rant trail…but it’s never too late to try and save people from a bad experience!) 

Elliptical Machines and the Kindle App

About two years ago our family got a membership at the YMCA. It was during a time when I was really struggling with depression. The gym became a life-saver for me. It was only a five minute drive away. I would tell my older kids they were babysitting, drive down to the gym, get on the elliptical machine for 30 minutes then quickly come back home, usually only being gone for 45 minutes. I felt better from the exercise and from having a short break from the house. I went as much as six times a week, usually no less than four.

Well, after we decided to stop homeschooling and my kids started going to public school, I no longer had a “big kid” to babysit, which meant I had to load up my little ones (there were three at home at the time) and take them to the gym with me and leave them at the daycare room. My trips to the gym now became long, drawn-out hassles that involved dressing little children, finding missing shoes, loading kids in and out of car seats, and then abandoning screaming children to a daycare worker. Just so I could get a 30 minutes workout. My trips to the gym quickly decreased. We were also still getting accustomed to everyone being gone all day at school and by the time the kids got home and I had a babysitter available again, I did not want to leave them to go do my own thing. I started only going on weekends. This past summer I finally pointed out to my husband that we simply were not using the gym to its full potential anymore and should probably cancel our membership. He asked me when I was going to exercise and I said something like, I’ll take a walk, or get a video workout or something.

So, around the time of my birthday, this fall, my husband informed me that he was going to buy me an elliptical machine with his bonus he had received. WOW! I was surprised, excited, and a little nervous. Elliptical machines have been my go-to because they have been the only form of exercise that has worked consistently with my various back problems. Having my very own at home would be a dream come true. Having my husband fork out a chunk of money so that I can exercise at home felt a little more dangerous. Especially when he calculated the cost of the machine (we found one on sale!) versus the cost of a gym membership and said I would need to exercise diligently for two years before having a machine at home could be considered cheaper than the gym. Yikes. To say I felt a bit of pressure to use my new machine would be putting it lightly.  

I am proud to say that I have, until Christmas time, been very faithful with using my machine. Christmas really threw me off, but I started back yesterday and I feel a renewed desire to keep exercising. Since I am not a particularly athletic or disciplined person, you may be surprised at this. So, here’s my little secret. I read when I exercise. I have a kindle app on my phone and I have a book at the ready, put it on the little shelf and just incorporate finger swipes to turn the page as part of my exercise routine. This is proof that if I am reading I can endure almost anything. The nice part about reading is if you get to a particularly intense part of the story, you automatically speed up and get an even better workout! 🙂 I guess this probably points to the fact that I am a bookworm, have been since second grade, and probably will be all my life. I average 4 books a week. Sometimes more. Rarely less. The library and I are good friends. All this to say, it is very exciting to find out I can make exercise (which can be boring!) into a time when I can read a book without any guilt. Long live elliptical machines, and long live the kindle app!

(Ok, I’m aware that people often watch TV or listen to podcasts while working out. I have found that I really don’t enjoy TV much, it doesn’t hold my attention, and I am not an auditory kind of person, so listening to someone speak into my ears through headphones is kind of stressful for me.) (Yes. I’m weird.)(Maybe there are more weird people out there like me though, so I’m sharing this amazing discovery with them!) (Ok, I also understand this is not exercise-guru type advice, I know, I need to do some other types of exercise as well, but, hey, something is better than nothing!)(I love parenthesis, they are so handy!) (And fun.) (I might just possibly over-use them.) (Maybe.) (Perhaps I should take a poll.)