Houston, We Have a Cover!

If you receive my email newsletter, this is old news to you. If you don’t, you should! Those folks all got entered in a drawing to win an Advance Reader Copy of the book months before it actually comes out. (Don’t worry. There will be more opportunities to enter giveaways. But if you’re on my newsletter list, you are automatically entered into every giveaway I do.)

ANYWAY, what I really want to tell you is that we have a cover!

AND the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, and CBD. Pre-ordering is an excellent way to support a new author. It helps a book gain visibility in an online marketplace of millions of titles. And it shows retailers that there is an audience waiting for your book, which encourages them to take a chance on stocking a book from an unproven author.

When you pre-order, you will not be charged until the book is shipped. It may feel silly ordering a book six months before you can actually read it! But if you know you’re going to check it out anyway, it’s a simple way to lend your support.

 

Here is what the book is about:

When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam meets James Rich, his strange request—that she look up a relative she didn’t know she had in order to deliver an old camera and a box of photos—seems like it isn’t worth her time. But when she loses her job after a botched investigation, she suddenly finds herself with nothing but time.

At her great-aunt’s 150-year-old farmhouse, Elizabeth uncovers a series of mysterious items, locked doors, and hidden graves. As she searches for answers to the riddles around her, the remarkable stories of two women who lived in this very house emerge as testaments to love, resilience, and courage in the face of war, racism, and misunderstanding. And as Elizabeth soon discovers, the past is never as past as we might like to think.

Take an emotional journey through time—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.

 

Here’s what a couple bestselling authors have said about it:

We Hope for Better Things has it all: fabulous storytelling, an emotional impact that lingers long after you turn the last page, and a setting that immerses you. I haven’t read such a powerful, moving story since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. This book will change how you look at the world we live in. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Rock Harbor series and The View From Rainshadow Bay

“A timely exploration of race in America, We Hope for Better Things is an exercise of empathy that will shape many a soul. Erin Bartels navigates this sensitive topic with compassion as she shifts her readers back and forth between past and present, nudging us to examine the secrets we keep, the grudges we hold, and the prejudices we may help create even without intention.”—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

 

Remember, you can pre-order through Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, or CBD.

I can’t thank you enough for your support!

Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

Why I Forked Over $55 for a Copy of Mein Kampf

I mentioned yesterday that the last book I found at John King Books was the one that broke my budget. It became its own post because I felt I needed to offer an explanation as to why I shelled out $55 for this 1939 printing of the first unabridged English translation of Mein Kampf.

As the introduction explains, the text is fully annotated to explain the history behind events Hitler mentions in the text and to correct false information.

Click on the picture and enlarge to read some of what the editors of the annotated edition have to say about their work.

Now, why on earth would I want such a book? I’m not a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist, though a card tucked in the pages which we discovered once we were back home certainly suggests that those people are active and looking to recruit like-minded people…

I have smudged out the contact information, but in case you’re curious, this group is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Whatever my other reasons for buying this book, at least I have prevented the possible recruitment of another racist SOB.

One of the reasons I bought this book is that I am a student of history, particularly of the 20th century, and I am deeply interested in how historical events led to the world we live in today. I am also researching Adolf Hitler and the geopolitical realities of his lifetime for a series of books I hope to write someday. Thus, it is invaluable to have this pre-WWII view of the book and the man that changed the course of history. The editors are not looking back at Hitler through the historical lens of WWII and the Holocaust, but from the standpoint of what were to them current events. The introduction to this book mentions the reasoning behind the timing of this edition, and a preface even makes note of the tremendous speed at which they felt pressured to produce it.

In some ways, producing this book is a bit like people buying The Art of the Deal or other Trump-authored books after the election to see just what kind of man had come to power. This introduction was certainly written before the invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 as it makes no mention of it. The world knew Europe was headed for conflict after Germany’s 1938 annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia, but it had no inkling of the scope of the war that would engulf the entire globe over the next six years. Seeing how they saw these events as they were unfolding rather than simply reading history from the standpoint of someone looking back in judgment — How could they have thought they could appease Hitler? How could they have turned a blind eye to what he was doing? — is vital for an honest, non-revisionist understanding of why world events happen as they do. It removes the “hindsight” glasses we are always inevitably wearing when we study history and allows us to see with the biases that the people of that time had.

When you read portions of Mein Kampf that deal with the question of race, and especially the Jewish people, you wonder how on earth anyone could believe any of it. While Hitler can even sound reasonable in some of his views of more political questions (even if you disagree with him, there are logical underpinnings to his arguments in this sphere), the logical leaps he makes when talking about race sound utterly absurd to us. How could anyone have followed this guy? We’ve all seen the newsreels. He was a raving lunatic. They must have all been brainwashed. I’ve even heard an acquaintance of mine say that she thought they must have been eating something bad or the water must have been poisoned for them to blindly follow him.

But that kind of talk removes responsibility from the real people who carry out horrific acts, and it makes those of us in the 21st century feel quite sure of our intellectual and moral superiority to those in the past. We would never do such things. No one could fool us the way Hitler fooled them.

Really?

The fact of the matter is, if you study even the century that led up to World War I, what do you find? Rampant antisemitism. What do you find after WWI? Rampant antisemitism. Leaders like Hitler cannot lead without a following. He struggled for years to gain his, but once he found the right combination of political views (including blaming the Jews for WWI and for the Marxist revolution in Germany after the war) and built the right kind of propaganda machine (which he talks about extensively in Mein Kampf) he found a very willing audience to listen to and applaud and follow him. They wanted someone to blame and they wanted someone to make Germany great again. He wasn’t a lunatic. He was a very clever man who knew how to convince people that he was going to fix everything that was wrong.

We live in a day when our president throws a lot of blame around. When it has been suggested that we register and track people of a particular religion. When the working class population is hard-pressed and suffering from long-term joblessness and wage stagnation. When we vote in someone from outside the establishment in order to shake things up. Our times are not so unlike those that led up to two of the most deadly and destructive wars in history (approximately 100 million people died as a result of WWI and WWII combined — that would be like the entire populations of California, Texas, New York, and Illinois combined…dead).

Now, I’m not equating Trump and Hitler. Trump’s a bumbling idiot muddling through a job he’s perhaps realizing he didn’t really want to do after all. Were Trump a decent orator, maybe (maybe) I’d be more concerned about him. (Aside: Imagine the crazy tweets Hitler would unleash if he’d had Twitter.) No, sir. Trump is no Hitler.

I’m simply saying that it’s important to study our history and to resist chronological snobbery, which suggests that since we live in a later time we are more enlightened or savvy or moral than those who lived in the past. We’re not. We must always be on guard against bad leadership and we must always be on guard against our own capacity to do evil…especially when we have convinced ourselves we are doing good.

Because the more pressing question, the more disturbing question is: Could we regular, everyday Americans be more like all those regular, everyday Germans in the 1930s than we think?

John King Books Is My Graceland

On Saturday, my sister and I took our first trip to John King Books in Detroit.

It was everything you want in a giant used bookstore housed in an old factory.

Full of charm and mystery.

And beautiful books.

I wanted to take all of these home with me. But I had given myself a budget. In a place like this, you kind of have to.

I brought home this book to read before, during, and after my upcoming trip to the Upper Peninsula.

I built my growing collection of fantastically lovely volumes of poetry printed in the 1800s.

I found Byron last year in a Lansing antique shop, and he is now joined by Burns and Longfellow.

I added yet another green-bound classic to my stacks (green, it seems, was the favorite color of these 1930s printings).

And I found a curiosity or two. This is a copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written in shorthand.

I have a book that teaches you how to write shorthand from my grandmother’s library and this slim volume will go along with it (uh oh…I sense another collection coming into being).

The last book I found — the one that busted my budget and ended my shopping day — is something I’ll tell you about tomorrow…

 

There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Books

You’ll find books on every floor of our house, and in nearly every room (bathrooms and laundry room excluded — reading on the john is anathema in our household). You’ll even find books in the hallway and on the landing.

Were I asked to estimate how many books the three of us own, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a number (especially since when you add in Zach’s books that are housed at his office in the church, the number likely doubles!). I can say that when we moved from Grand Rapids to Lansing more than ten years ago, the estimator for the moving company did not take seriously our warnings about the literal wall of boxes in our apartment when he was blithely counting them up to add them to his sheet.

“Those are all books, so they’re going to add a lot of weight.”

“Yeah, got it.”

No, guy, you didn’t. And when we moved, the movers had to check in the weight of the truck before they left…and had to get another truck…which they wanted us to pay for despite their mistake.

I digress.

In the decade since our move to Michigan’s capital city, we’ve accumulated more books. A lot more.

Now, I tend to be a person who likes to get rid of things that are not being used or haven’t been used in the past few years. I don’t like clutter and I (along with the two little pack rats I live with) am prone to it, so it’s a constant battle to keep my environment under control. I revel in throwing away expired food and giving away unloved clothes and even abandoning those “projects” I kept meaning to get to but never did. Get it all out of the house! Give me some breathing room.

But I have no problem with books. Books we mean to read someday, books we haven’t read for years, and everything in between. They are all welcome to stay. They just need an inch or less on a shelf somewhere.

“Why not just use a Kindle? Then you don’t have to store all those books.”

We do. Both of us. And we can read on our phones. And we also keep buying printed books. Because printed books are (I’m just going to say it) better for so many reasons. One being, hey, now we don’t have to figure out what to put on that wall for decoration; the answer is always bookshelves.

Books are not only wonderful for what lay between the covers, they’re also lovely as objects in and of themselves.

Especially old books, because back when books were not oozing out of every pore of the Internet, they were made differently.

They were sewn rather than just glued. They were bound in leather or fabric. They were gilded and embossed.

Those things still happen today, of course, and there are many beautiful books. But there is something about the old ones that is especially enchanting. Even when they’re a little worse for wear.

Maybe especially then.

Upon Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

By far, I buy and read real, physical, printed books over and above ebooks. And I love buying them at real, physical, brick-and-mortar stores. I especially love finding old used books at cramped and charming used bookstores.

Now, with all those caveats out of the way, here’s what I love about Amazon.com:

Way back when I was kid, I checked this book out of the old Bay City Library on Center Road about a hundred times.

I loved, loved, loved this book.

It kept me entertained for hours.

It taught me how to draw dogs.

It helped develop in me a love of the simple things — long walks, the seasons, and dumb (in the King James sense of the word) creatures.

It made me want to be an artist.

The only problem was, I couldn’t remember the name of the book (could it really be as simple as Dogs???) or the author/illustrator. When I checked it out of the library, I just knew where on the shelves it was. I never looked it up. And now that gorgeous, quaint library branch has been replaced by a much larger (and much more personality-less) new building. So though I’d been thinking about this book for years, wishing I could remember what it was called so I might find it again, somewhere, I wasn’t sure where to start. There are a lot of books on dogs and it was kind of difficult to describe.

It’s essentially the artist’s story of wanting to find his family’s next dog as his oldest hunting got so feeble he couldn’t do much anymore. As he considers which breed might be best, he paints them and mentions their merits and tells amusing stories.

Then suddenly I thought to myself, if I just had enough patience, I could click through every page of dog books on Amazon and somehow I would have to find it sooner or later. So I searched for “dogs, painting” in Books on Amazon. Then I clicked on the subcategory Dogs. And guess what I saw:

It was the second result in nearly 200!

Apparently I’m not the only fan of Poortvliet’s work (aside: no wonder I couldn’t remember the artist’s name) as the book enjoys 100% five-star reviews, and his other books are equally well-loved. I was surprised to see a publication date of 1996, a full ten years after my guess, as I was sure I’d been obsessed with it long before I was 16. But a look inside confirmed I had been more right than wrong. The edition on Amazon was a 1996 reprinting. The original had been published in 1983, just in time for it to settle comfortably into its spot on the shelf in the East Branch of the Bay City Library system and wait for me to get about as old as my son is now, venture up to the grown-up nonfiction shelves, and discover it.

I ordered a copy immediately and waited with great anticipation for it to arrive, which it did today. (Sunday delivery, what is the world coming to?)

When we got home from church I started flipping through it with my son, who wanted me to read him the notes on every page. (I think he asked me to do it because they are in cursive?) I immediately recognized every page, including some drawings and paintings I had outright copied as a child as I was practicing.

There was and is something about Poorvliet’s representation of the world — realistic, gentle, and with a sense of humor that doesn’t overwhelm — that I find irresistible. I like that in a time when modern art was being touted he continued to focus on realism and sweet illustrations. In fact, I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that his most famous work, The Gnomes, was the basis for an animated series I also loved around the same time as I was checking Dogs out of the library: The World of David the Gnome. Does anyone else remember this?

I was sorry when I looked Poorvliet up for this post to find that he died in his early sixties in 1995, which I suppose is why they reissued the book in 1996.

At any rate, I’m happy as can be to have it now (and to not have to return it to the library in a month). It’s a volume I’ll keep at the ready for relaxed perusal with a cup of tea.

Why We Read Sad Books

Gracious, it’s been May for four days already! Where is my life going? Oh, that’s right–I’m reading it away. From my 9-5 (oh, and it’s catalog time too), to beta reads for fellow writers in my two writing groups, to a freelance editing gig and a work-for-hire writing job, plus making slow but satisfying progress on my own manuscript, I’m awfully busy looking at, creating, deleting, and moving around words. This includes words I’m encountering for the first time as I attempt to learn German. Ich Heiβe Erin. Ich komme aus Michigan. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

I’ve also started reading a couple new “real” books–you know, with covers and everything–after finishing up Spill Simmer Falter Wither (lovely and sad) and Lolita (anti-lovely and sad and twisted and I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on what I think of it…).

I’m still very much in the beginnings of these long books, but it’s been a while since I read a memoir (Nafisi’s is one I’ve been wanting to read for years) and Ruth Ozeki’s book is very different/unique, especially when it comes to the contrast in the two voices. One of the beta reads I did last month was also extremely unique and played with time and even the form of the main characters as they transformed from boys and girls to a bear, an eagle, a fawn, and a sage plant.

In my reading, I’ve been far afield–Japan, Iran, the Pacific Northwest, New Hampshire, Ireland, and within a 400 year old Ojibwe legend. But in my writing, I have been enclosed–in a small cabin, in a small boat, on an isolated lake, with my main character focused on one point in time, one memory she must unravel. Is that why I’m interested in traveling far and wide in my choices of books to read? Were I writing a sprawling story right now, would I be reading something that was more contained, more restrictive?

Through the magic of Facebook memories (you know, those old posts that pop up and bid you share them once more) I saw this morning a photo I took of my not-quite-two-year-old son in a spring puddle. The trees in the photo are at least a week ahead of where the trees are now during our cold and rainy spring. The trees outside my office window are still tentative, still holding back, still a bit suspicious that winter may have one last punch to throw. They don’t know that the weatherman predicts temps in the 70s next week. They just know that right now, they’re still shivering.

When we’re feeling held tight or held back in life (by life?), we sometimes let our imaginations take us to all the new places we can’t quite reach. For some, that’s why they read at all–to travel to someplace new and be someone else for a while. I’m not sure I have ever had that exact feeling when choosing what to read next–I think I’d like to spend some time as a pedophile or I think I’d like to be a social outcast with a dog that brutally attacks other dogs while their owners look on, horrified. That’s Lolita and Spill Simmer Falter Wither. I didn’t choose to read those books because I wanted to be those people in those places. I chose Lolita because it was a classic I hadn’t yet read and I was curious about it since I knew it was controversial. I chose Spill Simmer Falter Wither because I heard the author, Sara Baume, interviewed on NPR while I was dropping my son off at school. It was a paragraph she read on air that made me buy the book immediately upon returning home, simply because I wanted to “listen” to her voice more.

In both cases, I knew enough to know these books would be downers. Already I know that Ozeki’s and Nafisi’s books could be downers. In Ozeki’s, the teenage diary writer alludes to the fact that she won’t be around long, hinting at suicide, and its clear that the diary washing up in the Pacific NW where Ruth finds it hints at the Fukushima disaster after the tsunami. In Nafisi’s, every one of these women is repressed, oppressed, or persecuted, prisoners of a regime that restricts them in every way possible. It cannot end all bright and happy and rainbows. At best it will be bittersweet. (No spoilers in the comments if you’ve already read it, please.)

So why do we read books like this? (And I realize not everyone does, but I do…Why?)

Maybe it’s because we know what it’s like to wait for a summer that is slow in coming, to look at bare trees, knowing they will leaf out sooner or later–they must, they always have–but with the knowledge there is nothing we can do to make it happen on our own timeline.

Maybe it’s because the fluffy book we read for an escape ends neatly, and what we really need is for someone else to acknowledge that life can be painful and beautiful and inexplicable all at the same time–and that it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Maybe it’s because our most enduring feelings are those of loss, regret, confusion, and anger–those things we cannot reconcile with how we feel the world ought to be: peaceful, whole, healthy, loving.

Maybe it’s because we live in the in-between time, the already-but-not-yet, somewhere in the middle of the story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Deep down we know all things will be made right. We just wish it was now. And so we read books that acknowledge that longing, that grapple with all those unanswerable questions, that show us the darkness–but that also present to us at least one character who endures, who makes it through the long night, who lives on illuminated by a ray of hope.

I like sad books and sad movies. I like happy ones too. But there’s something about the ones that cause you pain that lasts in my memory while the happy ones fade quickly away.

What about you? Do you want your books to be a pure escape? Or do you like a little (or a lot) of reality thrown in, even if it’s a harsh reality? What’s the saddest book you’ve read? Would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Storytelling, Books, and Bookstores

My agent’s blog is full of links to great content about writing, books, and creativity. And in the past couple weeks, she’s shared two items I want to share with you today — partly because they’re simply interesting and edifying, but also because once I’m done with revisions to The Bone Garden (the manuscript we intend to submit to editors first), I’ll be picking up I Hold the Wind again. And it so happens that I Hold the Wind is about books. Physical, printed, paper and ink books. And it’s about a bookstore. So I love reading things like Why the Printed Book Will Last Another 500 Years and listening to things like this:

Both give me the warm, fuzzy feeling of curling up on the couch under a blanket to enjoy a foray into another place and time. And both assure me that I’m not crazy.

When Life Hands You Synergy…

There was a semester in college when I had three classes that all lined up nicely in my brain and enhanced each other. I can’t remember now their exact names, but I know there was at least one history course, one English course, and something else. The stars aligned and nearly everything we talked about in one class helped my understanding in another. I felt very well-rounded during those few months.

This kind of synergy can happen in work, home, the books you’re reading, the news cycle. You can arrange it or let it be serendipitous, as it was for me just recently. It began with this book, which I read in April:

9780801049651

I’ve been an amateur naturalist, a conservationist, and an environmentalist since childhood, probably due to the large numbers of National Geographic nature documentaries I watched…

Yes, I still own all of these VHS tapes. And there are at least two missing from this photo.
Yes, I still own all of these VHS tapes. And there are at least two missing from this photo.

and the books I read, which all heavily featured animals, environments under pressure, or simply a deep connection to a particular place…

KidBooks

I’ve been keenly interested in the Christian environmental movement, which bases its conservation philosophy on the understanding that the Earth was placed in humankind’s care and stewardship and that we have a mandate to protect it and utilize its resources thoughtfully. I’ve always been troubled by the disconnect in the secular outlook toward environmentalism because it is fundamentally illogical. If evolution and natural selection are simply natural processes disconnected from morality, there’s no real reason for humans, the most evolved, to protect the weaker species or the endangered species because that’s simply the way the world is evolving. But if everything we see in the natural world was created, declared good, and given into our care, environmentalism and conservation make sense — and must be taken seriously by those who would call themselves Christians.

What’s helpful about Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is that the authors root their arguments not just in Genesis but in many other parts of Scripture, in systematic theology, and in history, and then they follow through into the very practical implications of praxis. They do not take up the evolution debate at all. They do not pit science and religion against one another. They don’t waste time arguing about things that, while they matter, cause division that leads to inaction. While I didn’t always agree with everything the authors said, they didn’t always agree with each other either. And yet, disagreement in some matters should not cause us to sit in our corners and not act on one of the fundamental crises of our time.

I thought the most important part of this book was the distinction the authors made between talking about the natural world as a subject and talking about it as an object. Making that little semantic shift in our thinking and speaking about our environment has enormous implications. Seeing trees and animals and wetlands and resources as subjects rather than objects puts them not simply at our disposal, to do with what we will, but in our care, which is where they should be. It means they matter in and of themselves, not just in relation to humans. So a tree is good as a tree itself, not just in how we can use it for our own convenience. A bird or a snake or a bee is valuable in and of itself, not just in relation to us. And every thing in the natural world can point us toward the One who designed it. It’s not just there for us to use, it’s there to instruct us and cause us to glorify its Creator.

They also presented the ecological crisis as a moral issue, which it is but which many Christians sweep under the rug as they debate about other things that have less to do with their everyday actions (in other words, it’s easier and more fun to argue about others’ morality rather than face one’s own role in the destruction of God’s creation).

As I was finishing up Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology in May, I began reading Madeline L’Engle’s first book in her Crosswicks Journal series, A Circle of Quiet.

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I had never read her nonfiction before and I was experiencing a period of mild despair over where my work was going (or not going) and so I picked this up to read about another writer’s struggles and insights. I’m so glad I did. In L’Engle’s need for nature and solitude, I saw my own. In her struggles to reconcile with a culture that was changing and a world that was under duress, I saw some of my own struggles. In her dark times as a writer with something to say but no platform from which to say it, I felt comforted.

In the pages of A Circle of Quiet was the personal end of some of the ideas I found in Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. Simplicity. Family. Domesticity. Introspection. And as I was reading both books I was busy planting my vegetable garden, weeding the flowerbeds, trimming the dead wood off trees and shrubs — doing my part to keep my corner of the world clean and beautiful and productive and chemical-free.

This spring has felt good. And it’s beyond the combination of beautiful weather and almost no mosquitoes. It’s slowing down, lightening up, centering myself on what matters, trusting God to bring me through my small frustrations, considering others — other people, other living things — and doing what I can to lighten their burden. It’s puzzle pieces interlocking. It’s divine synergy. And I like it.

Me on the Radio

I finally got up the courage to listen to a radio show that I was on back in…oh, was it last year? Yes. Yes it was. I was sure I sounded like kind of an idiot, but as it turns out, I don’t. I shared this interview time with Alyssa Alexander, a Lansing area author and a fellow member of the Capital City Writers Association. Alyssa also does not sound like an idiot (so kudos to the both of us).

So if you want to hear more about me, what I do for a living as a publishing professional, and a bit about why I still read and prefer printed books to ebooks, please give it a listen.