Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Go and Do, a Review

Go and Do, written by attorney and director of the Global Justice Program Jay Milbrandt, is an ambitious book with a simple goal in mind, to get the Reader to get up, go out, and actually do something to change the world. (Ambitious, see?) Through real life stories Milbrandt himself experienced, written with passion and potency, Go and Do is a challenging and thought-provoking book.

Go and Do is part memoir and part rally call. Milbrandt's sincerity shines on every page, and it's easy to see that his heart lies in helping others. He's very candid about his life and his plans, opening the book with a story from his college years. He reveals how his goals were to basically graduate and get into a high-profile law firm and make the big bucks. Instead, after he found himself overseas and looking into the faces of children of the red light district in a Thai city, his plans took a sudden and unexpected shift.

Jay Milbrandt, to use one of his terms, "came alive." He found that actively participating in helping out those in need was something that he enjoyed. Doing it actually made him feel alive, and he realized that this was what he wanted to be doing with his life. Yes he had a law degree, and that could be used for justice and aid, but what he found even more useful was simply being present. Time and time again he saw that his presence, just playing with kids or listening to their stories, made more of an impact than any gifts.

Soon Jay founded the Global Justice Program at Pepperdine University and set out to get students into a "go and do" lifestyle. This book is largely a collection of how going and doing affect people, both the ones going and the ones being visited. The stories are fascinating and inspiring, but the depravity of the world is also terribly eye opening. It's wonderful to know that there are people--many, many people--that are willing to go and do and help out, whether it's traveling to a faraway land or going to a homeless shelter just down the street.

Milbrandt has a true passion for helping others, and his book instills that mindset in the reader. His heart lies overseas, but he respects that other's may be in their own towns and communities. His main argument is to find whatever makes you come alive, whatever you're passionate about, and get involved. Does human trafficking stir something deep in your soul? Is water quality an issue you're interested in? Do the hungry of Uganda twist your gut a different kind of way? Whatever it is, just get involved in it and live life with a purpose of helping out people. No one is more special than anyone else and everyone is able to help.

Go and Do is an interesting book that I very much enjoyed. It's further solidifying the feeling in my soul to get more active in helping out others. I'm not entirely sure yet where my heart lies, but I do know that I need to be doing so much more. I am incredibly fortunate and blessed beyond my wildest imaginings. I help where and when I can, but I squander a lot, too. Books like Milbrandt's Go and Do and Stearns' Hole in Our Gospel stir my heart and make me want to be a better person. More than that, they make me realize that it's really quite simple to do, to change the world. And what loftier goals can a person have?
""Go and do" is not a zero-sum game. We don't have to hang our lives on one anchor in order to go and do. We certainly need individuals who are willing to make huge sacrifices to serve. I, however, don't find it realistic for the majority of us. It's more realistic to envision a properly tensioned life system." - Pg. 111
"A lifestyle is not a series of random acts, but a strategic, long-term relationship with kindness. It's intentional." - Pg. 50
" are meant to change the world by changing yourselves." - Pg. 203

FTC Thingy: I received this book free of cost from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest and open review. I was not required to write a positive review. Also, no cookies were exchanged, if you're wondering.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Farm Fresh Southern Cooking, a Review

This could be the first time I've ever reviewed a cookbook.  I'm not really even sure how to review a cookbook.  Obviously the recipes are important, but what else?  And aren't recipes prone to human error and experimentation?

I was intrigued by the premise of Farm Fresh Southern Cooking, as its subtitle promises recipes "straight from the garden to your dinner table."  I'm a bit of a gardener myself, and so I was intrigued.  Then, after reading the book description, which spoke of farmer's markets and the joys found there, I was double-plus hooked.  I requested the book from Thomas Nelson publishers, and soon it was at my home.  I've decided to review this book as two separate sections, one on the book itself, the other on a selected recipe.

The First Part: The Book

Farm Fresh Southern Cooking is printed on nice paper with gorgeous colors that really accentuate an organic and healthy lifestyle.  I'm not certain, but I believe the front and back covers are made from recycled paper, bound surprisingly strong for a paperback cookbook.  A criterion for cookbooks is that they must have pictures of the food that I will be preparing.  Thankfully, Algood has several of her recipes photographed, but there are still plenty that are not.  Another interesting bit for this cookbook is the interjected features about the different things found at farmer's markets and the farmers who brought them there.  Algood has several of these one-page essays about all types of products (hams, tomatoes, honey, etc.) and their providers, and she includes contact info. for some of her favorite providers.

The meat and potatoes (I love puns!) of a cookbook is the recipes.  True to her word, the recipes all focus on home grown garden vegetables and farmer's market crops.  Additionally, Algood seems to have included uncommon vegetables in many of her recipes, things that plenty of farmers grow but not too many people seem to eat.  The recipes are all relatively simple and seem to be presented plainly, and from the two that I tried I had no issues.*

The Second Part: A recipe review of "Skillet Chicken Thighs"

Whenever Keisha and I cook chicken we almost always buy and prepare boneless-skinless breasts.  The cost savings of legs/thighs/wings just isn't enough to lessen the things we like about breasts.  That said, when I read through the recipe for this meal, I thought the ingredient combination sounded delicious, and we pretty much had everything available but the chicken.

I picked up some thighs and prepared the meal, making a few substitutions for things that I didn't have.  (Note: Apple cider vinegar is not a good substitution for red wine.  Now I know.)

Skillet Thighs (recipe appears on Page 174)**
3Tbs. Olive oil, divided
6 large chicken thighs
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3/4 lb. button or cremini mushrooms
3 c. grape tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil

Wash chicken thighs. Sprinkle with salt & pepper and add to preheated hot skillet.
Meanwhile, if you don't know the fancy mushrooms, just chop up any available.
Saute chicken 5 minutes on each side with warmed olive oil.
Transfer chicken to large bowl once finished.
Chop up fresh rosemary and basil and garlic and other things.
Add mushrooms to skillet. Saute until wilted.  Add to removed chicken.  Add the remaining oil to skillet, as well as tomatoes, wine, garlic, and rosemary.  Cover and reduce heat to medium.  Cook 5 minutes.
Crush half of the tomatoes with a potato masher. Return chicken and mushrooms to skillet.  Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.
Place chicken on platter. Stir basil into sauce. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and spoon over chicken.
The meal actually turned out pretty tasty even with my substitutions.  I do think had I used red wine instead of the vinegar the meal would have been even better, but even so, it was still succulent and different.  The thighs were very juicy and tender, though I had to cook mine slightly longer than the recipe called for.

I also did not have any fresh basil, as my plant was in its infancy at the time.  (Now its a behemoth, like all the rest of the herbs in the garden.)  Even so, the plated presentation is pretty, but would have been better with a touch more green.  The colors remind me of something Middle Eastern, especially with the tomatoes on there contrasting.

All in all, Southern Cooking is a fascinating and simple cookbook with quite a few practical recipes.  There are several pictures and interesting tidbits to read.  If you enjoy farmer's markets and like to cook and try new things, this book is a sure bet.

*The other recipe I made was "Hot Water Cornbread."  Now Keisha (and my mamaw) both make some of the world's finest iron skillet cornbread, so I was hesitant to even try this.  Nevertheless, intrigued by the simplicity and the few ingredients I did.  The result was okay, and a fan of greasy, fried goods would approve.  I personally prefer the fluffier, less deep fried stuff.

**My presentation is obviously much different than the way Algood presents.  I take no credit for the recipe.

FTC Thingy: Ironically, I did not receive cookies or anything like that, but I did receive a cookbook from the publishers, which cost me zero dollars, and a solemn oath that I would review the thing on my blog honestly. I have endeavored to do just that, and my appetite was sated thanks to the cookbook at hand.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: Something Like Midnight (Epilogue)

(Note, this comes a touch early because Friday is a busy day for me this week.)

This is the post-conclusion to the 6-part serial "Something Like Midnight."  If you've read this far, thank you very much.  If you need a refresher, follow the provided links.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.


Sometime Later.
     The shopkeeper looked out at the bustling city through the streaked glass of his tiny shop. Buildings called skyscrapers literally pierced the clouds, constructed by machines of impossible power. Automobiles clogged the saturated roadways, ubiquitous and loud. Great, flashing screens covered nearly every flat surface, displaying advertisements for various and sundry goods. It was a city like so many others, filled with modern people with modern ideas and modern values.
     The shopkeeper had spent the better part of the past century living in obscurity. His only companion had been a half-demon with a heart of gold. They would spend a few years here and there, lending a hand however they could. The full-man wanted to make amends for his past deeds; the half-man just got a thrill out of helping. But they could never stay long or the locals would notice their anomalies: neither of them aged properly.
     The citizens of the current city barely paid him any mind, and the ones that did only thought of him as the eccentric owner of the convenient store at the intersection of Fate and 15th Streets. When asked he would happily talk about life in the Old Country Across the Seas and tell stories to any open ears. But more often than not customers spared him not a word and sometimes not even a glance. All were too busy, too wrapped up in their own devices and their own stories. He didn’t blame them.
     He stepped away from the window and surveyed the store. He had not sold much merchandise, not that it mattered, but it still had been a good day. He had shared a fable with a child with sticky fingers, explaining the importance of honesty and the rewards of hard work. He told the boy that he would not call the constables as long as the boy promised to never steal again. “And by what do you promise?” he’d asked.
     “By the, uhm. I don’t know. What do you mean?”
     “Promises are very important. Making a promise is one thing, but keeping it is something else entirely. When you promise by something, then you give meaning to the promise. The stronger your words, the more powerful your promise.”
     “So, like, I should promise by the money in my billfold or the shoes on my feet?”
     The shopkeeper scowled. “Money is a temporary thing, child. It has no worth. And shoes wear out and rot. No, promise by something that means something to you. A friend, a relative, a body part, an ideal. Something with life. Then I will know that you mean it.”  The boy looked uncomfortable. “It’s either that or I call the authorities. Your choice.”
     “So like a pinkie promise?” The shopkeeper’s frown deepened.
     “That no longer has any value, either, I’m afraid. Try again. Think hard.”
     “Okay, okay. I, uh, I promise by my, uh, by my quick right hand that I will never steal from you again.” He looked sheepish.
     The shopkeeper removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “You’re a clever lad,” the shopkeeper said. “Don’t let it get to your head. Remember your words, son. Don’t you dare try and break ‘em or you’ll rue this day. Now scamper on.”
     The boy had jumped up from his seat and scurried from the shop as quick as old Jack Robinson. Ancient copper bells rang out announcing a customer, pulling the man from his reverie.
     “Hello,” he greeted, smiling wide and inviting. “Can I help you find something?”
      A young girl, perhaps thirty. Her eyes were tired and her face thin and ragged. The unmistakable look of a person searching hard for something hard to find. “You Corgan Mercy?” Her voice wavered.
     The shopkeeper dropped his smile. Few people knew that name. “I am. And you are?”
     “I’m in the business of storytelling,” she answered. “And I hear you’re one of the best in the world.”
     “Flattery is ill-becoming, dear.”
     The girl blushed, but continued. “A truth, though, surely. Least that’s what I’ve been lead to believe. Been hunting you for quite some time now.”
     Corgan raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? And how, may I ask, did you get my name?”
     Her eyes flickered around the shop. Satisfied they were alone, she licked her lips and dropped her voice. “A demon told me.” Her face darkened to an even deeper shade of red.
     “A demon, huh? And why would a young lady such as yourself be on speaking terms with a demon?”
     “I’ve got my reasons, same as you have yours for keeping your identity secret.”
     Corgan studied the deep bags under the girl’s eyes. She doesn’t look haggard, he thought. She looks haunted. “I suppose that’s true. Why are you here, miss? What sort of story you chasing?”
     “I need to know everything you can tell me about the Gyarmr,” she said, her voice now desperate. “I need to know how to escape it.”
     “Oh child. What have you done?”

Word Count: 827
Total Word Count: 6372

First, a sketch of the Draughters.  They look mostly humanoid, but with slightly pointed ears and diamond shaped noses.  Weseley definitely has an aged look about him, and Wenton seems to be a bit fleshy, almost like he's been eating a bit too much...

Overall I generally enjoyed this story quite a bit, especially the worldbuilding going on in my head.  Some of that made it out into the story, which was nice.  As for the epilogue, I was conflicted.  The first draft had quite a different ending, where instead of the girl responding about a demon she said something like "A man named Dillon sent me."  This twist ending was abandoned however, and I think for the better.

All in all I'm not sure that the epilogue is entirely necessary.  It does provide a little extra characterization for Corgan, as well as a "happier" ending than that of Part 6.  Like I said, I was conflicted.  Nevertheless, I figured I'd go on and put it up here.

Thanks to all who've read.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: Something Like Midnight (6)

This is (mostly) it for the tale.  Many thanks to all you that have read and given me feedback.  If you need a refresher, follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.  Tune in next week for the (relevant and possibly non-extraneous) Epilogue.

--Part Six--

     “M-m-mister Merc-mer-mercy? Ca-c-c-can you he-hear m-m-m-me? S-s-sir?”
     Corgan opened his eyes. Weseley’s face peered at him for a second before the brightness of the sun blinded him. “Gah!” Corgan coughed, flinching. His head throbbed. He felt like he’d been driven over by a steam engine. “Weseley? What happened? Where am I?”
     A cool hand rested upon Corgan’s forehead. “Y-y-you’re ou-outs-s-side, s-sir. A-a-at y-your b-b-br-brother’s-s h-house. Ar-are you a-a-alive, s-sir?”
     Normally Corgan would have laughed at such a question. “I think so. Maybe, I... I don’t know. I...” Corgan pushed himself up, his hands falling into something cold and sticky. Blood, he saw. It was everywhere, dark and syrup-like. “Is this all mine?” He asked, painting red smears on his trousers.
     “No.” Weseley pointed up to the house. Corgan followed the blood trail, from the puddle that was below him to the propped-open front door. Dillon was sitting inside, strapped to a chair and gagged by what looked like thread from the infinite spidersilk. His head was the only thing sticking out of the cocoon. A decapitated corpse kept the door ajar. Wenton. “Bo-both o-o-of th-their’s, t-t-t-too. I k-kept y-your b-br-brr-othher alive s-so y-you c-c-could fulfi-fi-fil y-your oath.”
     Corgan turned back to Weseley and raised an eyebrow. “Remind me of this oath, Weseley.”
     “Entertain me. My head is muddled from my recent... excursion.”
     The Draughter held up a solemn hand, palm outward. “I s-swear by th-the s-still blood of m-m-my b-b-beloved that I will f-f-fii-find the m-mu-murderer-er and I w-will k... k... k-kill him and his whole fa-f-family, and no p-pa-powers in heaven ab-bove or the d-d-depths below will s-s-st-s-stop m-me.”
     Corgan’s own part in the contract had been redeemed. His death had been necessary, albeit temporary. Dillon’s, on the other hand, would be as permanent as the sun. Corgan’s brother had to die, that much was certain, if only to stop the Gyarmr from taking everything. Still, it saddened him to think of his brother’s wasted life and the part he had played in it all. Had he been nicer to him things might have gone differently.
     “Thank you, Weseley. You’ve done me an unbelievable kindness with this, and I find myself in your debt.” Weseley blushed, shaking his head.
     “N-no, s-sir. You, you d-don’t owe m-me n-nothing. I was ju-just d-d-d-doing my d-d-duty.” Weseley stared at the blood on the ground.
     “Perhaps, but even so I sincerely thank you, my friend.” Corgan offered a bloodied hand, which Weseley took in his own. “I suppose I must finish this dark business, huh? No sense in dawdling.”
     Each step sent bursts of flames through Corgan’s legs and sides.  He felt like the knife was still in his flesh.  As he walked over the body in the door, the heady smell of gore overwhelmed him and he unceremoniously vomited on the dead body. Serves you right, Corgan thought.
     “Dillon."  He let the words fall, enjoying the surprised look on his brother's face.  “I know you won’t believe me when I tell you this, but I never meant for this to happen. None of it. I didn’t mean to cause you grief when we were young, and I certainly didn’t mean to perpetuate that as we grew older.” Swollen black eyes stared back at him, unflinching. “I saw my... indiscretions just a few minutes ago after poor Wenton plunged his dagger in my back. I saw all of them, too many sins to name. I saw the damage I caused, how each choice shaped you into a monster. I had no idea that I was poisoning you. I didn’t think...” Dillon held an unblinking gaze.
     “And Veleste... What a wretch I was to her. She deserved better. Better than either of us. I poisoned her as surely as I poisoned you.” He was crying now. Crying for wasted lives and thoughtless words. Crying for the body at the door. Crying for what he had to do. “And the worst thing about it, Dill, is that I don’t have a choice in the matter. If it were up to me I would just leave you here and disappear, out of your life and out of mine. After all the hurt I’ve caused, I’d just leave and let you be. But I can’t. The Gyarmr...” He remembered its eyes, its teeth clamping shut, its hot breath on his face. “The Gyarmr’ll... I don’t have a choice! It’s either you or me, and I... I won’t face it again.”
     Corgan might as well have been practicing a monologue.  “I don’t blame you for the man that you’ve become, not really. Much of it is my fault. For that I truly am sorry. I wish that I could change things.” There were purple bruises on Valeste’s throat, he remembered. Her voice was mangled beyond the grave.  Broken.  Horrible.  Darkness came to him then, familiar and comforting. It poured into his vision, into his soul, filling him with bloodlust and thoughts of revenge.  His momentary pity for his brother vanished beneath the black.
     “I can’t take all the blame for your actions though. Each man is responsible for his own deeds, and yours are worthy of death. You murdered my wife, Dillon. In cold blood you tracked her down and killed her, and I swore that night that whoever did it would pay. I’ve paid my part, and now your’s is due.”
     Dillon narrowed his eyes. Corgan grabbed his brother by the throat, squeezing as he imagined Dillon had done to Valeste. Dillon stomped hard on the floor, but the spidersilk held strong. His brother’s tattooed face turned red then purple. Sweat beaded at his brow. A terrible wheezing sound escaped through gagged mouth and desperate nostrils. Something coughed in the corner of the room. Distracted, Corgan glanced up.
     The Gyarmr embodied the darkness beneath heavy purple curtains. It watched the brothers with idle curiosity and angry eyes. Dillon must have saw it too.  He began convulsing, trying to free himself.  His boots pounded against the floor like hammers on stones.  He screamed in muffled rage, a death wail, a curse, a confession, a plea.  Corgan held firm, wondering if Valeste would feel any sort of closure at her murderer’s death. Would her soul finally be allowed a measure of peace? Or am I just a character in her own vengeance plot, he wondered perversely. Dillon’s kicking ceased, but Corgan hardly noticed. He saw only the Gyarmr.
     It seemed to be made entirely of shadow, of a darkness born from midnight. It growled low and angry. Corgan growled back, feeling stupid and bold. “It’s finished. I’ve held up my end of the deal. Go on. We’re through, you and I. No more. I won’t be seeing you again for a long, long time.” He unconsciously clutched the necklace around his neck as if his soul had returned to it and not his own body. It might have, he thought briefly. “Leave me be, monster. You don’t belong here.” The Gyarmr bared its teeth, growled once again, and dissolved into shadow.
     The darkness lifted from his eyes and he saw clearly once again.  Corgan frowned.  He tried to think of something to say but could not focus. He closed Dillon's eyes and walked out into sunlight.

Word Count: 1210

I dunno.  I'm somewhat disappointed by the conclusion.  There are definitely questions that weren't answered (like who or what are the Draughters?), but the answers are hinted at.  It also feels like this final scene is somewhat rushed and incoherent and possibly even anticlimactic.  I easily can see it being fleshed out a little more.  Even so, it is what it is:  a tragedy.

Thanks for reading and hope you all enjoyed.  Don't forget about the epilogue next week!  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Avonlea's First Birthday

Avonlea turned one on Saturday.
Avonlea turned one on Saturday.
Avonlea turned one on Saturday.

Perhaps if I keep on writing that then I will eventually believe it.  I'll believe that I'm actually a daddy and that I have a little sixteen pound bundle of energy and charm and love and slobbers and four-five-six-almost seven-nearly eight teeth.  I'll believe that she's eating real food and has been for a few weeks now and that Keisha will soon be weaning her from the breast.  I'll believe that this little girl calls out for me "dada" as surely as she calls everything else "dada."

I cannot believe one year has passed.  It's been a whirlwind, for true.  Just a handful of weeks ago Avonlea was immobile and satisfied to remain stationary in her jumper.  Then one day she flipped over and took a few bumbling movements.  And then she was crawling at light speed and Mommy & Daddy could barely keep up.  The little rascal is part cheetah.

Perhaps I should say part dog.  Keisha and I were talking in the kitchen, watching Avonlea crawl around, and we noticed her looking up at us with a curious look in her eyes.  We noticed she was in front of Stella's food and water bowl.  Our eyes all clicked and we ran at her.  She had eight pieces of tiny dog food chunks in her mouth.

For Avonlea's birthday we rented a shelter at a local park and invited some friends and family.  It was hot, but we had a nice breeze.  Peggy (Keisha's mom) made the cakes.  Keisha and I started Avonlea a savings account for her birthday.  Keisha also made her a quilt, a milestone, as it was Keisha's first.  I'm insanely proud of her feat and how beautiful it is.  Next task is to make one for our bed. (You can kind of make out the quit in the picture below.)

And my mind is distracted, thinking of the infinite possibilities of the future, of my relationship with my little baby girl.  She's taken a strong liking to me of late.  I've always been the one to rock her at night after Keisha finishes nursing, but within the last week or two she's really wanted me.  I take her and she nuzzles right up against my chest, listening to my heart, hearing the words I sing to her as she gets sleepy.  I typically alternate between "You Are My Sunshine", "Come Thou Fount", or an original-Daddy-penned lullaby that goes something like "Avonlea, Avonlea, you are my sweet baby."  (Brilliant, no?)  But my favorite one is Andrew Peterson's "Beautiful Girl."  Turns me into a bubbling fool almost every time.

Wow this is a random post.  What's happening to my stoic, staunch control of emotions?  My clear headed engineer's logic?  I'm not certain, but my heart definitely beats to the tune of a one-year old now.

And yes, my day began with a beard but ended without one.  First time smooth-faced in months.  Feels odd.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: Something Like Midnight (5)

This is Part 5 of a still undecided 6 or 7 part story.  Maybe it'll be considered a 6 part story with the 7th being the epilogue.  I'm not sure yet.  Anyway, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 if you'd like to catch up or re-read.  Thank you!

--Part 5--

     The darkness enveloped him, choking him as it pushed down his throat and into his nostrils. Cold tendrils wriggled inside his stomach and the man retched a silent spew. The darkness was infinite. It was longing. Light did not exist here; it never would. The man knew this with certainty, but he could not explain how or why.
     In addition to the palpable darkness there was absolute quiet. The man called out but he could not make himself heard, and when he opened his mouth the darkness rushed in, an open hand down his throat. Sound did not exist and its absence was maddening. Voices screamed within his mind in languages he did not understand. The man did not need a translation to know what anguish sounded like.
     The man began to walk, pushing his way through the black as if he were walking in neck-deep water. Each step sent tremendous pain down his back, but he could not cry out. He stumbled and fell, plunging forward blindly. He did not hit ground, but continued to fall, moving deeper and deeper into the abyss. As he descended the darkness grew thicker. Pressure built up around him, swallowing, crushing him.
     Eternity passed and still he fell. He sank into despair, recalling names of people and faces of the living and the dead. Countless faces passed before him, each one bringing with it a piece of some grand story. He saw the kindly schoolmaster reading mythologies to a classful of pupils, instilling a lifelong desire for storytelling. There he sat, cross-legged and eyes wide, while his brother sat a few feet behind him staring longingly at the teacher. He saw the poxed faces of his mother and father frowning their displeasure, never satisfied with their children, never praising them. He saw his brother crying beneath a bed and knew that he was the reason for it. The face of the first woman he’d ever loved appeared, pure and porcelain, and she gave him the gift of heartache as she left him for another. He saw a gaunt, hollow-eyed child reaching to him for food, and he winced as he brushed by her, sparing not even a backwards glance. His brother trailed behind, a silent witness to the act. Another woman appeared--Valeste, he thought--her eyes dark and stained.
     It was his story he was seeing, his life he was watching unfold. He had thought himself the hero, out for justice and possibly a little vengeance, but he had been blinded. He was no hero, but the villain. It was his apathy and his absence from his home that had led to the suffering in his wife’s heart. It was his stubbornness sewing seeds of malice. Each of his actions had led to her transformation and ultimately to her eternal punishment. -the boon of the grave is knowledge-, a voice whispered in his head, silencing all others. The face of his brother darkened with age and filled with tattoos, mutating from a soft-faced boy to an unrecognizable stranger, changed by years of neglect and scorn. There was a smug look of satisfaction about him. The mental picture focused sharp and the man remembered everything.
     Corgan was suddenly on his feet. The weight of the darkness evaporated. Washed out whites and spectral greys blossomed into view. The light blinded him, and as his vision cleared he noticed one color among the grayscale. Red, in the form of two burning eyes. The Gyarmr had arrived. The monster exhaled, a sonorous breath reeking of death and rot. The creature seemed to smile, slightly opening its mouth as if in ridicule.
     Corgan stepped backwards, dread now filling him. His plan had failed. Wenton had betrayed him and ensured that. The grave was insurmountable and he had been a fool to trust the Draughter. The Gyarmr cocked its head appraisingly. It sniffed, no doubt smelling Corgan’s fear. Running was futile. He supposed he’d known that for five years now, but he had tried nonetheless. Time had finally stopped. Corgan resigned himself to his second death, unable to comprehend the infinite pain that the Gyarmr would momentarily inflict upon him.
     A loud, tinny sound reverberated all around them. It echoed within his head, louder than anything he had ever heard before. Like a child, Corgan put his hands up to his ears, but it made no difference. The Gyarmr growled and shook its head. The greys around them swirled, color spilling in. The Gyarmr lunged at Corgan, barking as it did, mouth wide and fangs bared. It was the sound of pure and fury. Corgan winced and closed his eyes as the teeth snapped shut around him.

Word Count: 777

Question: Is this just a giant info dump?  Should it be heavily trimmed?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Hole in Our Gospel, a Review+

Please read this review.  Do not discard it simply because you are unfamiliar with the book or with the message it might have.  If you're reading this sentence, then please read this review.  A life literally depends on it.  Thank you.

The words "life changing" are pretty much cliched now, their meaning no longer to be taken at face value. Perhaps that's endemic of our American tendencies to abuse hyperbole? But when I think back on Richard Stearns' oh-so-relevant book The Hole in Our Gospel, those two overused words immediately rise to the top. 
"If Jesus was willing to die for this troubled planet, maybe I need to care about it too." (Pg. 2)
Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization with the goals of "working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God." I've had a relationship with World Vision for five years now through the child sponsorship program. (I liked how 86% of donations went directly to the mission.) Stearns has served at this post for fourteen years now. Prior to that he lived a life of luxury, working as the CEO for luxury kitchen company Lenox, making six-figures and achieving the "American Dream," overcoming his relatively poor childhood and finding success through hard work and perseverance. 

The Hole in Our Gospel is part autobiographical, part field guide to get involved and help change the world. Stearns writes candidly of his struggle to uproot and take on the new position at World Vision. He admitted several times that he had no interest in doing anything like that, that he was comfortable with his life and was satisfied. But what really shines is Stearns' passion to motivate others--people like you and me--to get involved in the world, to plug in and help those who are so desperately in need of assistance. His appeal is from a Christ-like attitude, but I suspect that even non-believers support Stearns opinions.
"If we are to be part of this coming kingdom, God expects our lives--our churches and faith communities too--to be characterized by these authentic signs of our own transformations: compassion, mercy, justice, and love--demonstrated tangibly." (Pg. 57)
There is so much that I could talk about from this book that I don't know where to begin.  On one hand I fear that I would cheapen the experience of reading the book, as Stearns takes twenty-six chapters to expound the various issues raised.  My single weblog post would be nothing.  On the other hand I so want to share this book with you.  I made so many highlights and underlines that my book looks rather abused, and picking out what to share was not the easiest task.  Additionally, removing a quote from its context loses some meaning.

The Hole in Our Gospel was published in 2009.  As such, the statistics are slightly out of date, but still very close to true, I'd wager.  I'm thankful Stearns includes a comprehensive index for footnotes, giving sources to the statistics he shares.  Many times I would flip to the back to see where the data came from.  Unfortunately, most of the statistics are punches to the gut.  Just think, 3.6 billion people, 55% of the world's population, live on less than $2 per day. Americans, approximately 4.5% of the world's people, live on $105 per day.  I'm blinded to how much I actually have, how much I actually waste.  It's sickening.
  • "More than 26,500 children died yesterday of preventable causes related to their poverty, and it will happen again today and tomorrow and the day after that." (Pg. 107)
  • "It is estimated that a child dies every five seconds from hunger-related causes." (Pg. 135)
  • "A child dies every fifteen seconds of a waterborne disease." (Pg. 138)
  • "93% of the world's people don't own a car" (Pg. 216)
I don't know about you, but reading stuff like that is truly devastating.  Stearns presents a lot of this information in a chapter titled "One Hundred Crashing Jetliners."  In short, if one hundred jetliners crashed today, killing 26,500 people, imagine the chaos that would ensue.  People would be in pure pandemonium, afraid to fly and fervent in fixing the problem.  Stearns then asks the question why 26,500 kids can (and do) die every day and receive little to no media coverage, no public outrage, no government interference.  His conclusion, 
"If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we simply have less empathy for people of other cultures living in faraway countries than we do for Americans." (Pg. 107)
That hurts.  A few pages later, at the end of the chapter, I wrote in my margin "is my sadness enough to drive me to do something about this?"  I'm wrestling with that thought right now.  How can I live with myself knowing how much I'm doing to combat this kind of thing?
"Here is the bottom line: if we are aware of the suffering of our distant neighbors--and we are--if we have access to these neighbors, either personally or through aid organizations and charities--and we do--and if we have the ability to make a difference through programs and technologies that work--which is also the case--then we should no more turn our backs on these neighbors of ours than the priest and the Levite should have walked by the bleeding man." (Pg. 104)
The beauty and uplifting news of The Hole in Our Gospel is that there is hope, that the problems of the world are not insurmountable.  It's easy to see the massive problem that exists, and thinking of it as one large mountain makes the task impossible.  Stearns argument, though, is that the world changes through each individual.  We're not called to change the world, but to love our neighbors.  Jesus invested in people to institute His church and the Kingdom; we, his followers, should do likewise.  With this mindset, changing a person in order to change the world, things become more manageable.
"Christ is an all-or-nothing proposition, and one way or another, every one of us has already made a choice about Him. We have either committed our lives to Him whole-heartedly, or we have not." (Pg. 83)
"This has always been a problem with God's people; we tend to drift away from God's bold vision, replacing it with a safer, tamer version of our own." (Pg. 183)
Richard Stearns book is powerful.  The Hole in Our Gospel sheds light on global issues of suffering that I was not even aware existed.  I once was oblivious, but now I'm enlightened.  Now there is something burning within me that's longing to do something, longing to take a stand against the status quo and the American Dream, to rise from my stupor and my good life and actually make a difference.  I began mapping out my next step, thinking of ways to spread awareness and also do a little good.  (You can see the current plan here if you're interested.)  I won't change the world, no, but to the ones I do help, I will change their's.  And you can too.
"If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito." -African proverb (Pg. 250)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Neverwhere, a Review

Neil Gaiman is arguably one of the finest story tellers of the modern age.  Neverwhere, written in 1996, is one of Gaiman's earlier fiction books.  The book's gimmick is simple: what if there was another city below the city of London, a city found between cracks and filled with a colorful cast of characters and magic?  And what if a Londoner accidentally found himself in London Below?  This may not seem like an entirely original idea, but in the hands of Gaiman, even tropes seem original.

Richard Mayhew lives a life of simplicity and unexcitement.  He spends all his time trailing around behind his fiancée touring various museums throughout the city or working at his dull job.  His ambitions are relatively low.  One night, while out on a date with his betrothed, a young woman stumbles out onto the sidewalk, bleeding and obviously injured.  Richard stops to help her, and his world forever changes.  This happenstance plummets Richard's otherwise plain life into something altogether alien, and Richard yearns desperately to return to normalcy.

What follows can only be described as a travelogue through a parallel universe.  London Below is a town eerily similar to regular London, but oh so different.  For magic, or something like it, exists here.  The rats are in a hierarchy of their own, having Speakers that do their talking for them.  The Floating Market literally changes places regularly.  The people are all varied, some with special knacks or skills, others with with childlike simplicity.  And it is this, the people of London Below, that makes Neverwhere such an exciting and wonderful read.

There are several memorable characters from the book.  Perhaps the best of all are the villains, Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup.  The two are presented from Page One as such wicked and vile creatures, gentlemen with not an ounce of pity in their bodies, that I couldn't help but despise them.  The two have some of the best scenes in the book, enhanced by brilliant dialogue.  Consider this brief scene:
"To be magnificently frank, Mister Mayhew--and I'm sure you want me to be frank, don't you?--were I you I would no longer worry about the young lady. Her days are numbered, and the number in question isn't even in the double digits."
"Why are you calling me?"
"Mister Mayhew," said Mr. Croup, helpfully, "do you know what your own liver tastes like?" Richard was silent. "Because Mister Vandemar has promised me that he's personally going to cut it out and stuff it into your mouth before he slits your sad little throat. So you'll find out, won't you?"
I mean, sheesh.  What wretched people.  And these are just the villains!  The rest of the characters are equally mesmerizing, and I could go on and on about each of them.  But to remain spoiler-free, I'll stop there.

In addition to the delightful dramatis personæ, the general plot of the book is outstanding.  Gaiman paces the thing to where I was hardly able to put the book down.  There was so much going on that I had to keep turning pages to find out what would happen.  Couple this with a relatively short book and you've got a very quick and very tight read.  Pages aren't wasted, not at all.

Why am I reviewing a sixteen year old book?  I'm not saying anything new or different from what so many others have said.  Why?  Because the book tells a fascinating story about so many different things that I would be remiss to not recommend it.  And believe me, Neverwhere is boldly recommended.  For anyone looking for a fun story to fall into, look no further than Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.  Truly remarkable.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Neverwhere Group Read Conclusion

"Mr. Vandemar's voice was a night wind blowing over a desert of bones."

Indeed, there we have it. Neverwhere, gone just like that. No more Door or Richard or de Carabas or Hunter or any other of the bizarre and surreal things one might encounter in the world of London Below. The mystery has been solved, the enemies have been relatively vanquished, and the world has been put back to its correct tilt. Mostly.

What am I to say about this fascinating book? What stood out to me? The fact that the book was a non-stop, action-filled, page turner goes without saying. The cast of characters is brilliant. Door maintained her aura of mystical powers, as well as her righteous anger at her families massacre. Hunter--poor, poor Hunter--was the betrayer, unexpected, and her demise was terrible. It left me wanting to know so much more of her past exploits to better understand her desire to slay the Beast. The marquis de Carabas died and came back through machinations I didn't entirely understand to fulfill a favor and take on another. Wow. Islington being a horrible monster was also a surprise.

But what of Richard? Did his life change? Did he grow and develop? Yes, through the Ordeal, and then again at the slaying of the Beast. He saw what his life was and how meaningless it was. Gaiman kept me confused and intrigued, wondering if perhaps Richard really was cracked in the head and London Below was simply imaginary. I honestly did not know, and I suppose if I thought hard enough I could argue either way. Perhaps he really is a loon and has made it all up, but I don't think so. And after leaving London Below he could no longer live with himself and his dull and unexciting life.

This part reminds me a lot of a person that plugs in and does missions/humanitarian aid in our world. Often the people that do this literally have life changing experiences and it's hard for them to return to their normal life unchanged. This mindset is exactly how I imagined Richard's.

I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It was thought-provoking and entertaining. Gaiman kept me in the dark through much of the novel (and in parts after), and I'm once again glad that such a writer exists. Thanks, Mr. Gaiman, for giving us the tale. And thanks Carl for finally giving me the nudge to pick the book up off my shelf and dive in.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: Something Like Midnight (4)

Being the 4th Act of a 6 or 7 Act quasi-fantasy/horror short story.  Thanks so much for the Readers and the feedback.  You can catch up with Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 if you're behind.

--Part Four--

     “I swear by the still blood of my beloved that I will find the murderer and I will kill him and his whole family, and no powers in heaven above or the depths below will stop me.” Corgan’s words haunted him as much as the Gyarmr did. He had not slept in weeks, not fully. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the creature’s own stare back at him, watching him, waiting for him.
     The weight of stolen necklace had grown heavier about his neck, and each night Corgan refused to remove it. He had uttered the proper words and paid the required offering, and now all that remained was to see if the charm would work. The necklace had to remain on him at all times. Without it, his plan would definitely fail, and even with it Corgan barely held hope for success. He stared out the window to the place his brother called home. The house was an ancient thing, held together by clay and blood and prayers, built in an era when Gothic arches were just coming into style. Blackened with soot and stained with sin there was no wonder that the townsfolk called the house “a bit haunted” and its proprietor “a bit odd.” Dillon had been a lifelong recluse, most comfortable with his paint brushes and oils, spurning even his brother’s company from childhood. Corgan had not seen him since the funeral.
     The coach stopped. It was time. Time to confront his brother, time to fulfill his inane vows, time to gamble with things he did not understand. The side door opened and Weseley’s lined face appeared.
     “Wha-what wou-would you ha-have m-m-m-me, what would y-you have me do, Mister Me-mercy?”
     Corgan studied the half-man. Ever since the appearance of the Draughters, Corgan had always taken to Weseley. The boy showed respect and genuine care, and coming from a half-demon, that was saying something. Wenton, on the other hand, had always been a wildling. “Just keep an eye on the car for me, Weseley. That should be enough.”
     “V-very good s-s-sir.”
     Corgan stepped from the vehicle and stopped, staring the chauffeur in the eyes. “Thank you for everything, Weseley. It’s been an honor.” Weseley’s face flushed rosy beneath the noonday sun, but before he could reply Corgan was gone, walking up the steps. Wenton was talking to a half-naked man at the door. Intricate tattoos decorated his flesh, swirls and lines accentuating a lean and muscular body.
     “Ah, the prodigal brother returns,” said the man, and only then did Corgan realize that it was his brother. “What brings you back?”
     “Dillon? I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed.” Corgan stalled, unsure how to proceed. “The tattoos are... interesting.”
     Dillon smiled, white teeth pearlescent against tattooed lips. “I was tired of my abnormal life, Corg. I think I should fit in better with the locals, no?” The man laughed, an unnatural sound that belonged confined to a sanatorium. “But I figured you’d be impressed. You inspired them, after all. I went on a bit of a vision quest after you left, looking to transcend this life, find a bit of meaning. Found them both it so happens.”
     Wenton nodded to the brothers and disappeared down the steps. Corgan ignored the Draughter, his mind working through scenarios, changing his planned method of attack. He had expected to find Dillon sickly and aloof, not a healthy man ready for a fight. But as far as Corgan could tell, Dillon was unarmed, and that at least gave Corgan a slight advantage.
     “Seems we’ve both done a fair bit of traveling then. Been all the way to the Indian Ocean and down to Cape Town looking for my answers. Threw myself in with everything I had after Valeste died.” Corgan kept his voice casual, but he saw his brother’s eyes darken at Valeste’s name.
     “Must have been some mighty tall questions to travel so far.”
     “Yes, questions I never wanted to ask and answers I never wanted to hear.”
     The smile dropped from Dillon’s face. “Like what?”
     “The only question that anyone ever really asks. Do you know what happens to a person when they die, Dillon?” Corgan stepped gently forward, keeping his eyes on his brother’s.  He did not have time for idle talk and was eager to wield the blade.
     “Depends on the religion, I suppose. Christians say you go to meet God and be judged for your deeds. If you have a relationship with Jesus then you go to heaven. If you don’t, you burn in hell for eternity. Mahāyānans and Theravadans believe in karma and rebirth, that we keep trying until we get it right. Atheists say that this is all there is. There is nothing after but darkness. There are plenty more, but my guess is that it’s somewhere in between these three.”
     “What of the Gyarmr?” Corgan stepped closer; Dillon didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Most religions speak of it. It is a monster created solely to inflict torment upon the wicked and give a proper welcome to the netherworld. It brokers deals with men and then devours their souls when they can’t pay. They--”
     “They tell me you’ve seen it,” Dillon interrupted. “They tell me its been after you for nigh on five years now.”
     Corgan narrowed his eyes, suddenly suspicious. “Who tells you this?” The brothers were within striking distance now, separated by naught but an open doorway. Dillon had not yet moved from his post.
     “The Sons of the Draughters, of course. Who else?”
     And something as cold as a winter’s morning plunged into Corgan’s back--once, twice-- biting through flesh and muscle with ease. The storyteller staggered forward, landing at his brother’s feet. Darkness flooded his vision. Unimaginable pain clutched his body. Footsteps thundered up to him and Wenton appeared, staring down at him with a hungry look on his face. Red specks dotted the darkness, tiny pinpricks against the consuming black. Corgan tried to talk but could not form words. The specks grew larger, washing the black away with a crimson tide. Something snarled, menacing, powerful, ancient. Corgan knew an irrational and hopeless fear and then nothing.

Word Count: 1023