Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Awards (CT; Newbery/Caldecott; CYBILS shortlist)

It's the season for book awards. This week brought two of my favorites: the Christianity Today Book Awards for 2009, and the annual Newbery and Caldecott awards.

The Christianity Today awards are being announced piecemeal this week, two at a time over the various categories. So far not many surprises. Lots of favorite, well-known authors won top honors or awards of merit, including Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, and Marva Dawn. I was delighted to see that Andy Crouch's Culture Making took top honors in the Christianity and Culture category. I loved my first read-through and will soon begin my second while helping some young people from our church navigate their way through this terrific book. Among the books on the list that I haven't read but would like to: Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne R. Snodgrass (Eerdmans); The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller (Penguin/Dutton); and Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck (Moody). And okay, the Peterson, Norris and Dawn titles all look compelling too. I actually read the intro. and first chapter to Tell It Slant (the winning Peterson title) and would love to pick it back up if I could find more reading time.

Newbery and Caldecott awards this year contained relatively few names I know. But Shannon Hale, previous Newbery Honor winner, exulted on her blog this week about the quality of the winners and the fact that three winners were fantasy, apparently not at all typical. Neil Gaiman, who won the Newbery medal for The Graveyard Book, is a highly respected writer but I've never read him. I must confess that the blurb about the book doesn't excite me much. I was happy to see Marla Frazee's name on the list of Caldecott honors: she's one of our family's favorite illustrators. The actual Caldecott medal went to The House in the Night illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson (Houghton Mifflin).

I'm still catching up with the CYBILS shortlist (Childrens & Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards). They announced them January 1st but I don't think winners have been announced yet. I'm sure there are lots of wonderful reading suggestions there as always!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Deep Breath

"If we are feeling the ill effects of being spread half an inch thick and going a million miles an hour, the solution is not to go ever faster and be spread ever thinner. The solution is to take a deep breath, identify what really matters, and do more of that and less of other things." ~Margaret Kim Peterson, Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life

Friday, January 23, 2009

Relaxed Friday: Art and Music

We're continuing our studies of Chopin and Van Gogh. Today we spent time looking at Van Gogh's painting titled Olive Trees With Yellow Sky and Sun. We enjoyed looking at it so much that we spent time looking at other Van Gogh tree paintings. Doesn't this one: Branches of an Almond Tree in Bloom, just make you crave spring? It did me!

I've come up with a good mnemonic device to help the sweet girl remember Chopin: we call him the "poet of the piano from Poland." Last week we found this beautiful version of his Polonaise Op. 53 "Heroique" on YouTube. Does anyone know what language the commentator on the video is speaking? I gather the pianist is Polish.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Presidential History

The official White House website has this marvelous slide show of all 44 American presidents. Worth viewing today (we just did!). You get a great close-up on old portraits and photographs. Notice all the incredibly different faces and expressions, especially the eyes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

2008: The Year in Books

I'm a bit late posting my list of favorite books in 2008, but there were a lot of good ones! Here's my brief take on those I loved the most in 2008. A few of them were actually published in 2008, but most of them were just new to me. Links are to my longer reviews on Epinions.

Favorite History Book of the Year: America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation, by Jim Rasenberger
-- I’m reading more history (and cultural history) than ever before. This was an excellent book, really capturing the ethos of one of my favorite eras in American history.

Children’s biography of the year: Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian
--I posted about this recently so won’t say much more other than to once again highly recommend this beautiful picture book. Azarian’s woodcut illustrations are superb and it’s packed full of good biographical information on W.A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a pioneer in micro-photography.

Favorite Biography of the year: Home, by Julie Andrews.
-- This one wins by virtue of the fact that it was the only biography I read in full in 2008 (must remedy that this year!). I did like it, however. A warm memoir, well-written, with some interesting anecdotes about war-time England.

Picture book author of the year: Mary Ann Hoberman
--I’m saying mostly on the strength of our family’s love for the Seven Silly Eaters, which has to be one of the best rhyming picture books ever penned. It also has illustrations by the very talented Marla Frazee. We’ve also loved Hoberman’s The Two Sillies (which has nothing to do with the first book except that they both allude to silliness in the title!). Hoberman was named the United States children’s poet laureate this year.

Best Devotional Book: Water My Soul, by Luci Shaw
--Shaw’s meditations on gardening and the inner life were quieting and strengthening.

Best Novel I Read This Year: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
--This book restored my faith in contemporary fiction for adults. I read it, laughed, cried, and read it again. Just a marvelous book in every important way I judge a good book.

Best Novel I Re-Read This Year: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
--I re-read a lot a books each year so it’s actually not easy for me to assign a winner in this category. I chose P&P this year, not only because it’s one of my favorite novels of all time, but because I always forget how delicious it is until I pick it back up and lose myself in again. I didn’t even plan to re-read it this time; I picked it up to look up a quote and before I knew it, found myself eagerly turning to page one and starting the story all over again.

Favorite Book of Literary Criticism: Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward
--Just amazing in every way. I think it will be remembered as one of the most important books of Lewis scholarship every written. Its prose and presentation are completely elegant, and its thesis, that Lewis purposefully steeped each Chronicle in the ethos and literary characteristics of one of the planets of medieval cosmology, is brilliantly and cogently argued.

--I also thoroughly enjoyed John Granger’s The Deathly Hallow Lectures (longer review still forthcoming), a thought-provoking and intelligent analysis of the final book in the Harry Potter series. I especially loved the chapter on Dante’s influence on the Snape story arc and John’s further ruminations on the alchemical structuring of the final book and the epic as a whole. Sidenote: one of the literary highlights of my year came in November when I had a chance to hear John speak about this book. As much as I enjoy his written work, I think I enjoyed his intelligent, warm and witty presentation even more. It takes a great teacher to keep the attention and respect of an audience that ranges in age from 8-80, and John seriously did that!

Best "pop culture" book: Culture Making, by Andy Crouch
--I’m cheating a bit to put this book here, because it goes a lot deeper than a mere critique or engagement of popular culture or even culture in general. But Crouch offers some exciting ways to think about culture and our involvement in it: making it, responding to it, and finding God’s hand in it. Just terrific.

Favorite "new to me" children’s book, mid-grade reader (8-12 year old category): A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban
--What a marvelous novel. It almost “perfectly” captures the creative, wistful voice of an eleven year old with big dreams coming to terms with life (and people’s) imperfections. It also sensitively shows her discovery that good can still be found in spite of imperfection, and her growing awareness of the importance of courage in ways great and small.

I also loved The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
--Funny, poignant, coming of age story which ends up being an homage to a lot of things, including families, the 1960s, Shakespeare and good teachers. Think “The Wonder Years” but with more real-life kinds of quirks and less sentiment. I’ll read this one again.

Favorite "new to me" young adult book (12-15 year old): The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale
--Shannon Hale is such a gifted writer. This was her debut novel from a few years back and I’m very glad I read it. A highly creative re-telling of the old Grimm tale of the same name. Pass this on to literate young teenagers who love fantasy and fairy-tale.

Best Children’s Book I Re-Read This Year: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
--I did this as a read-aloud with the sweet girl, and discovered how impossible it is to read Reepicheep’s journey through that wall of water at the end of the world without weeping. What a beautiful book. I never grow too old for Narnia.

Classic book I Can’t Believe I’d Never Read Before Now: Heidi by Johanna Spyri
-- The classic tale of the young orphan girl who goes to live in the Alps with her curmudgeonly old grandfather. I read it, then read it aloud to the sweet girl, and we both loved it. The writing is lovely and the story steeped in themes of redemption and prayer.

Favorite "new to me" picture book: The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
--This is actually a new edition, with new illustrations, of a book originally published in the 1940s. A simple story about a little boy’s growing awareness of growing thing all around him and of his own growth. Oxenbury’s pictures are beautiful. Her illustrations always leave me with a true yearning to draw, and the courage to believe that maybe I can.

Book I Wish I Hadn’t Wasted My Time Reading: Harry: a History, by Melissa Anelli

Book I Should Have Finished (and still plan to): Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Book That Surprised Me Most: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. I didn’t know one could be swept off one’s feet by the beauty of a cohesive, persuasive literary argument.

The Book That Made Me Laugh the Most: I chose two this year (to make up for not being able to choose even one last year!): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and The Wednesday Wars. Both books, though completely different in subject matter and audience, had a wonderful way of reminding me how close tears and laughter can be.

Book That Challenged Me the Most: (besides the Bible): Culture-Making, by Andy Crouch

Favorite “new to me” mystery writer: Jill Paton Walsh.
--She’s been around awhile but I just “discovered” her. I’ve been enjoying her Imogene Quy mysteries and plan to read her completion of Sayers’ unfinished novel once I finish my re-reading of all the Sayers Wimsey/Vane novels. This has been a good year for mysteries and me: lots of fun time spent re-reading Agatha Christie (all the Tommy and Tuppence books) plus my beginning re-read of Sayers.

Favorite "new to me" Spiritual Resource/Bible for Children: The Jesus Storybook Bible (longer review forthcoming)
--A good companion to the book I chose in this category last year, The Big Picture Bible. Like that resource, this storybook Bible focuses on the overreaching narrative of the Scriptures, which affects its story choices and the way it retells those stories. I love this one especially for its focus on God’s unending love for his people, the way each story points the reader to Jesus, and the amazing artwork.

Favorite book of theological reflections: Culture Making, by Andy Crouch. As I said, it’s not just a book about culture and people, but about the God who made both people and culture. Deep insights into the brokenness and yet the potential goodness (and redeem-ability) of human cultural activity.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Things I Learned from Our "Painting Like Van Gogh" Morning

1. Van Gogh must have used a ton of paint. We read that he sometimes squeezed it directly from the tube onto his canvas, and I believe it. When you look at closely at how his brush strokes look like small furrows in a river of paint, you begin to realize just how much he used.

2. Which makes me understand why he'd likely have no qualms about trading paintings for more paint supplies. There's such sad irony in the fact that Van Gogh never realized much money from any of his artwork, when you consider the millions of dollars an original Van Gogh fetches now. I'd always heard he never sold a painting in his lifetime, and while that's maybe stretching it a bit (at any rate, one book we read indicated that some of his paintings were sold during his lifetime, even if he wasn't the one profiting by the sale) he certainly never received the admiration and acclaim he would later receive. Apparently he traded many paintings for more paint supplies. Given how many hundreds of paintings he did in his lifetime (and the amount of paint he used!) I would guess that was a wise arrangement.

The sweet girl's painting in Van Gogh's style

3. You can thicken acrylic paint with craft glue. I was a tiny bit skeptical when I read this idea in the Usborne Art Treasury, but they were spot on. I used just a dollop of "tacky glue" per puddle of acrylic, and it definitely thickens the paint. Since the glue is very white, it also lightens the paint color a bit.

4. "Glue doesn't belong in paint!" At least not according to my scandalized first grader. "Glue is sticky. We use it to glue things together. We don't put it in paint," she said plaintively. But she grudgingly allowed that it did work to thicken the paint, though she wasn't wild about the mild scent of the glue. She definitely preferred to work with the regular acrylics sans paint. I agreed that regular acrylics were also less messy. (I recommend putting a big sheet down on the floor underneath whatever your painting surface is...we usually do anyway, but given how much paint and glue were involved in this activity, it was doubly necessary!)

5. Van Gogh had a marvelous imagination. Just attempting to paint at all "like him" makes you realize anew what a highly imaginative man he must have been. You also begin to realize how certain simple shapes and lines recur in his paintings, the importance of circles in his work, and the way he used swirls to show movement.

6. I'm still in love with Starry Night.

My Van Gogh homage.

7. One wonders if painting helped keep Van Gogh's depression and sadness at bay. The sweet girl wanted to know why he painted so many paintings, and I told her that was my best guess. "We know he was often sad," I told her. "Perhaps painting made him feel more peaceful." An over-simplified explanation, perhaps, but I'm pretty sure it's still true.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Blogiversary

I was scrolling through the archives the other day, recalling that I first started this blog in January 2006. It turned out it was the 11th of January, which makes today my third blogiversary!

I had no idea then that I'd still be going strong three years later, nor that I would have written 500 posts, nor how much I would enjoy capturing not only my thoughts and reflections about books (my original, stated purpose for beginning a blog) but also many slices of life and ordinary days.

From time to time I've considered changing the blog name to more accurately reflect what I write about...I guess you might say that something to do with the wider category of "stories" rather than just "books" would fit the bill. But it's hard to give up on a title I've kept for three years, and that Lewis quote I've kept in my profile since the very beginning still rings true to my heart.

For any of you who have read this blog for all three of its years (thank you, Erin, and perhaps others I don't know) and to any of you who have found it somewhere along the way and discovered something here that's been in any way encouraging to your heart, mind, or reading life, thank you. Please stay around for more ordinary stories from the very ordinary life of a thankful writer and reader.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Elizabeth Goudge's "The Well of the Star"

One of my favorite things to do during the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons is to read short stories and legends from seasonal collections. We have several wonderful collections that we either own or check out of the library almost annually.

One collection I like is titled Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old. Published by Plough Publishing House in 2002, it contains a number of excellent stories from writers as diverse as Pearl Buck, Ruth Sawyer, Henry Van Dyke, and Katherine Paterson. One reason I like it is the number of good women writers represented.

One of the stories that I read for the first time this year was "The Well of the Star" by Elizabeth Goudge, perhaps best known for her children's fantasy novel The Little White Horse. That book has had a renaissance in recent years, partly because J.K. Rowling has spoken of it with such fondness. My reprint copy contains a blurb where she mentions how much she "adored" the book as a child.

Reading Goudge's beautiful Christmas tale, which follows the fortunes of a poor, ragged boy named David who comes across the wise men journeying from the east on the night of Christ's birth, was a pleasure on several levels. But I'm always interested in noticing literary echoes, or seeing literary antecedents, and it struck me that this might well be another Goudge story with which Rowling is familiar.

That's because the image of the title, "The Well of the Star," will look very familiar to readers of Harry Potter. When David, shivering, cold, and hungry, is wishing for a miracle to save his desperate family (his sick father is out of work, and the family is starving) he thinks of a legendary wishing well "far down below on the road to Bethlehem."

"It was a well of clear sparkling water and it was said that those who stood by it at midnight, and prayed to the Lord God Jehovah from a pure heart, were given their heart's desire. The difficulty, of course, was to be pure in heart. They said that if you were, and your prayer had been accepted, you saw your heart's desire mirrored in the water of the well -- the face of someone you loved, maybe, or the gold that would save your home from ruin, or even, so it was whispered, the face of God Himself."

A mirror that gives one their heart's desire...and the need to be pure in heart. Hmm. Where have I heard these themes before?

Goudge's beautiful story is worth reading for its own sake. The well first reveals the star (which the wise men have momentarily lost) to Gaspar, after David tells them how the well works. David finishes the journey with them and is so moved by the baby King that he gives him the only thing he possesses, a small shepherd's pipe. He ends up going home with the shepherds (his old friends) who have also been to pay the baby homage. Once the wonder of the stable begins to wear off, David realizes that he is still poor, needy and desperate, and now seemingly has even less than when he started out that evening...he no longer even has his pipe to comfort his family with music. He cries bitterly and then finally stumbles back to the wishing well one more time.

"He did not pray to be a rich man, he did not look into it for his heart's desire, he simply went to it to wash himself..."

And in that moment comes blessing, joy, and a true answer to his prayers. The King to whom he gave everything does not leave him empty-handed. He never does.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Oh What a Lovely, Gaudy Night

This afternoon I finished reading Dorothy Sayers' novel Gaudy Night. My excuse for lots of extra reading time today (after school with the sweet girl this morning and early afternoon) was the miserably cold and rainy weather outside and my returning congestion, sore throat and cough. But all physical misery and the need to be pulling together primary readings sources for my spring course aside, I really just couldn't make myself put the book down.

What an amazing novel this is. I've read Gaudy Night before -- in fact, I read all of Sayers' Wimsey novels about a decade ago, not just the Wimsey/Vane ones -- but I don't remember being so deeply moved by this one last time. It's a mystery, yes, but much more concerned with the mystery of human relationships than with any external kind of "who-dunit" (though of course there's still a puzzle to solve). It's also one of the most beautiful, authentic and unusual romances ever written. I found myself emotionally moved but also impressed by its craftmanship. I think sometimes you're just in the right, receptive place to read a certain book. For me, this was the absolute right time to re-read Gaudy Night.

What struck me with such great force this time, having just read in chronological order Strong Poison and Have His Carcase, was the progressive deepening of Harriet Vane's character as you moved from book to book. It's remarkable how the character changes and grows and how Sayers reveals more of the inner character to us as we go along.

In Strong Poison, Harriet is the center of the plot, meaning everything swirls around her. But that's pretty much all she is. She's almost, though not quite, a token character: you could almost label her "love interest" and see her primarily as a plot device. The case turns on her guilt or innocence -- or rather on Peter's ability to prove the latter, as her innocence is never really in doubt. What's interesting about Harriet is SP is her affect on Wimsey. We never expected the aristocratic old boy to fall so hard for any woman. And we don't entirely understand why he does here, though it's clear he's legitimately lost his heart to Harriet. It's not so much his dogged pursuit of justice -- Lord Peter Wimsey would be dedicated to that pursuit no matter what innocent person had been injustly imprisoned -- but the fact that he loses his emotional equilibrium and seems to flounder in this case. His usual humor and efficiency almost fail him at points, though of course he triumphs in the end.

Harriet is a difficult character to make out in Strong Poison, not only because so much happens around her, but because we see little interior or exterior movement. She's in jail the entire time; we only see her interact with Lord Peter during his visits or as a silent, suffering woman being tried before the judges' bench and the inquisitive eyes of curious spectators in the courtroom. We're also meeting her at a very difficult time and place in her life: she has moments of despair when (despite Wimsey's encouragement and continued show of bravado) she clearly thinks no one can save her from the gallows.

Harriet's also been deeply wounded in love and is practically drowning in bitterness over her own foolishness in having gotten involved with Philip Boyes (her late lover, whom she's accused of poisoning) in the first place. She feels like "damaged goods" and it's difficult for her to imagine that anyone will ever be interested in her again as a human being and not merely a news headline. It occurs to me that the "strong poison" of the title has a double meaning: not just the arsenic in Philip's soup, but the slow-acting poison of bitterness in the soul of the wrongly accused Harriet. Small wonder she's a bit put-off by Peter's honest declarations of devotion. Even here, however, we see glimmers of the much more complex relationship to come. One gets the sense that Harriet would love to put Lord Peter off as a glory-seeker or an eccentric whose passions have been aroused by pity and a sense of magnanimity toward a damsel in distress, but Peter really doesn't fit either of those profiles. Even from the depths of her deepest despair, one gets the sense that Harriet can't help but like Peter and take his declarations at face value, though she's in no position to respond to his overtures.

When we see her next in Have His Carcase, she's still a wounded soul, but at least she's a free woman, completely exonerated of all charges. Sayers first presents her on a solitary walking tour of the south-west coast of England. Basically she's running away: from her past mistakes, from the notorious reputation of the case, and from her own inability to cope with relationships. She's sure she's given up on love -- she's not going to let herself be open and vulnerable again, because where did it get her last time? She's thrown herself with a vengeance into her work: she's a detective novelist whose sales have ironically gone up since she's been tried for murder (another reason for cynicism and bitterness). In his ultra-gentlemanly way, Lord Peter has been persistent in his attentions, but she doesn't want to have anything to do with him if she can help it, partly because he reminds her of the time spent on trial for her life. She knows she should be grateful to him for saving her life, and deep down somewhere she is, but the need for such gratitude galls her and makes her feel awkward around him, as though there's some sort of debt she can't pay. I'll admit I found this characteristic odd at first, and slightly unbelievable, but as time and the books wore on, I came to understand it. Harriet has lost her joy, and with that loss genuine gratitude morphs into a mere feeling of servitude or inadequacy. At this point she doesn't seem able to accept anything gracefully.

She and Peter do work together on that case, and though many of their conversations are uncomfortable because of the very different places of their emotions, at least we do see that they can work together well. The best times they have together are the times when they forget their feelings toward one another and throw themselves unselfconsciously into the work of detecting, an interest they share. Harriet still feels like a half-developed character to me here, standing in Peter's shadow, unsure of herself and her abilities, and I find the ending of the novel far too abrupt.

But then comes Gaudy Night: and with it, the return of joy. This is the book where Harriet comes into her own. She ceases to be a plot device, a mere "love interest," someone whose main purpose is to affect the main character. She's not just a fictional extension of Dorothy Sayers' own autobiography (which based on what I read, one could argue is where she starts). She becomes a full-fledged protagonist, a woman who still has some unraveled edges but has at last begun to knit together her soul, or allow it be knit. She's still confused, still wary, still unsure, but she's become again a woman of decisive action, one who can let herself begin to consider how she will -- and should -- live the rest of her life. Part of her dilemma is that Peter still hovers in the background. He comes to represent "heart," and the academic life of Oxford, newly reopened to her, represents "mind." It's a false dichotomy, of course, but for much of the book, it's how the dilemma presents itself to Harriet. If she chooses to love let Peter love let someone in again...then she chooses danger. If she chooses the simple, quiet life of academic research, she chooses safety.

Of course the irony is that all the mess and mayhem of this particular case (no murder this time out, though it's a near thing a few times) comes in the hallowed halls and quads of her former college at Oxford. The very place and life that Harriet imbues with the characteristics of safety and peace is now under threat. It's a threat Harriet is asked to help overcome. She tries her best, but begins to realize she's in need of help. And the one person she realizes she can trust, not only for his expertise as a detective, but as the thoroughly decent and consistently loving human being he is, is Peter.

Well. I've waxed long enough. There's so much more I could say, but this will suffice: Harriet Vane is one of the more astonishing fictional characters I know, and it's her authentically real and gradual growth as a person that makes her so. I not only came to understand and like her, but to care deeply about what happened to her, with or without Peter -- that lovable, eccentric and utterly fallible hero. Though in the end, it's so incredibly clear that she needs to be with him, I don't see how Sayers could have taken the narrative any other way. I love it when a book feels so true to itself and to its characters and the story it needs to tell. What a rare gift.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Eve of Epiphany Book Recommendations

Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Booknotes, one of my favorite book blogs, has posted a list of some wonderful looking children's books, most of them on the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons. He's even having a 12 days of Christmas sale (happy 12th day, everyone!). As he says, it's never too late to stock up for wonderful books for next year!

No Two Snowflakes Exactly Alike

A few weeks ago the sweet girl and I re-read the wonderful Caldecott-award winning Snowflake Bentley, a picture book written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian. This is a book we loved last winter, but this year it's captured the sweet girl's imagination even more.

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley was a pioneer in micro-photography. Simply put, he spent most of his life perfecting the technique of photographing incredibly tiny things. His special love was snowflakes.

A few weeks ago, not long after we read the book, S. and I were taking a walk together one afternoon in the midst of a gentle snowfall. The flakes were falling fast enough to thrill us, but slow enough that they left only a gentle dusting on my black coat. The coat turned out to be a perfect backdrop for the flakes, and we found that by looking...really, really looking with attention...we could see some of the amazing shapes of the individual snow crystals. We marveled over their exquisite, extravagant quick-melting uniqueness.

We love the artwork in Snowflake Bentley, but S. was disappointed this time around that there weren't more actual photographs by Bentley himself. I confess I wanted to see more too. So for Christmas, I decided to give her a copy of Snowflakes in Photographs by W.A. Bentley (Dover Publications). It's filled with page after page of nothing but his beautifully photographed snowflakes. 72 plates of over 850 snowflakes -- not his whole collection (the man was clearly in love with snow!) -- but still a huge and beautiful sampling.

I wondered if this was an odd present to get my six year old. I also thought it might get lost among the glitzier presents of toys, arts and crafts. It did get a bit lost on present-opening day, but since then she's gone back to it several times. And last night, when the high school senior I'm mentoring was over to discuss her senior project, S. kept running into the living room to show off some of her favorite gifts. Imagine my delight when she brought out the Snowflake book and turned through page after page, enjoying the admiring comments of the very kind and thoughtful high school student. "There are no two exactly alike!" the sweet girl proclaimed with joy. And of course she keeps wanting to play the "what's your favorite?" game, having us each choose our favorite design per page.

The images are copyright free so can actually be used for artwork. I've already got some ideas brewing. I find myself wanting to get out sketch pad and pencils in an attempt to capture some of these amazing designs. How good of God to bless the world with such gorgeousness. How good of Wilson Bentley to spend his life capturing bits of that gorgeousness for posterity...and for my little girl and me.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Calendar of the Heart: J.R.R. Tolkien, January 3, 1892

It's the 117th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien's birth today. I try to keep what I think of as my own heart's calendar, which includes the birthdays of loved ones, but also the birthdays (or feast days) of saints, poets, writers, artists and musicians who have gone before, leaving the world a much more beautiful place.

To celebrate Tolkien today I turned to this paragraph near the end of The Return of the King. If you've read and loved Lord of the Rings, then you know this moment. It's the place in the narrative I can hardly ever see clearly for tears:

"Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long gray firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

Do you ever stop to think how Tolkien and Lewis must have felt when they entered into glory? Both seemed to peek past the veil while still here. Both had such a wondrous, numinous sense of "the other side." You can feel the awe and wonder in their descriptions of light, water, fragrance. More real, you can practically hear them murmur, more real than anything we've ever known, even on our most real days.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Peaceful Rest at the Beginning of 2009

We had a lovely start to the new year yesterday when we finally did our family Christmas present opening. Then we spent the rest of the day visiting with friends, shopping for the new kitchen calendar (it's tradition that the sweet girl picks that each year: this year we've got 12 months of baby dachshunds!) and coming home to work on a big family jigsaw puzzle. That last has been wonderful fun and just may turn out to be a new annual new year's tradition.

I guess 2008 wore the sweet girl out: a little while ago I went into her room to get her up from her usual afternoon rest. Typically that means sitting quietly with books or small dolls on the bed while she listens to music or a book on CD. She hardly ever actually sleeps any kind of nap. But I found her curled in a swirled up nest of fleece blankets, fast asleep, her pigtails peeking out from beneath the blankets, her breathing deep and even. And in the background, the soothing British voice of Jim Broadbent, cheerily announcing that he was a bear of little brain.

Off to see if I can truly get her awake this time. Ratatouille is simmering in the crockpot, filling the house with good smells. I'm working my way through my final set of fall papers (grades due Monday!) and prepping homeschool lesson plans for January.

Happy New Year!