Saturday, December 15, 2018

Hymnals

I love corporate singing. Whether it's in a church, within a group, a choir, or even old bar songs in a pub - you will find me singing along. So, yeah, I love singing in a group. 

Today I am recommending that you read an article that I've been thinking about a lot lately. It's entitled What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymals. The author is Tim Challies, a Toronto blogger, book reviewer and pastor.

I love corporate singing, but a lot of people, I guess, don't. The other night here at the community where we are staying for the winter, we had a Christmas potluck followed by an acapella Carol sing. They passed out carol sheets provided by the local newspaper. (These actually had the music and not just the words. I was impressed!)

But the carol sing soon deteriorated into people talking amongst themselves, or getting up, or pouring more glasses of wine. At the end of one song I realized that the only people actually singing were me and the woman beside me, who had a beautiful soprano voice. We ended up looking at each other and laughing.

What I miss about the hymnbooks is the actual music, but then I may be different because I have studied music - piano in my childhood, guitar and a few voice lessons. The actual musical notes are important to me. But we have also left the days when every child had piano lessons. 

Challes writes that he's not altogether sure we 'should' go back to hymnals, that somehow screens are here to stay. It would be like going back to no TVs, iPads, Kindles and Kobos (and I love reading from my Kobo!), but there is much we have lost and are losing.

There are a few takeaways here, though. I really appreciate what he says about church worship sometimes being more about 'enthusiasm', than actually worship. I love the quiet pews, the stained glass, the pipe organ. I like sitting there and not having to 'do' anything, but just to "be'' there, resting.

But then, sometimes I think I must be turning into a fuddy duddy!

I would love to know your thoughts on this. 

-The photo above is courtesy of Pixabay, a free site for artists and bloggers-


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Honoring Journalists


After almost a year's hiatus from this blog, an announcement and article has piqued my interest enough for me to pick this blog back up again. What I am recommending today is Time Magazine’s article The Guardians and War on Truth. Time Magazine is naming slain and imprisoned journalist as Persons of the Year for 2018. 


The link to the article hereRead it. Watch the video.


With this, I will be re-launching this blog of mine. Yes, I will review books and other media, but I will also draw to your attention, articles in magazines (like this one) that I think are important. I will point you to blogs, as well as podcasts.

Plus, because so many of my readers are my Facebook Friends, I plan to copy and paste the same information onto my Facebook page with posts that I will make ‘Public.’

When I was a young person all I wanted to be was a journalist. I would walk into a newsroom and salivate. When I got my first job as a news “stringer,” I remember getting down on my knees. I had been given a sacred trust and I prayed that I would never, ever forget this. To the best of my ability I would strive as best I could to be honest and truthful. My regular “beats” were city council, school board, college board, plus numerous features and light pieces. I wanted even the feature articles I wrote about craft fairs and figure skaters and track meets and art shows to bring shalom to my community.

Later on, when I went from writing articles to writing literacy materials and eventually to writing novels, my prayer has remained the same - that my writing will bring peace, health and honesty.

This is the prayer of most journalists. Contrary to what you may have heard, there isn’t this huge conspiracy of corrupt journalists seeking to bring down the government. Heavens, we don’t get paid enough for that! 

At a time when democracy is threatened all over the planet, this profession is vital. Journalists are the link between despots and the people. They bring worldwide suffering to our attention. When you see soldiers on their way to battle, there is also the PRESS not far behind, holding up their huge cameras to bring you the story.

After a gunman entered the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Washington DC this past June and shot dead Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters the editor wrote this:

“Tomorrow this page will return to its steady purpose of offering our readers informed opinion about the world around them, that they might be better citizens.”

The Capital Gazette is a local newspaper like a lot of newspapers, like the papers I wrote for, like the one you probably read. They bring you the hockey scores from the local kids’ games, the visit by Santa, the local weather, your city or town council budget, plus features of interest such as photos of that new police dog, the woman in your town who is still watercolor painting at age 90, and what roads to avoid because of construction. 

And then there are the larger papers who bring you photos of that war torn country that you might not ever see—the children, the families, the devastation that climate change is wreaking on our northern communities, pictures of that oil spill, that forest fire, the in-depth profiles of that despot, the awful flooding. Journalists bring you the world.

 My advice has always been to never get your entire news diet from one source. That's a sure fire way to become narrow minded. (If you are, then stop immediately!) Read widely. Watch widely. Read with discernment and if someone tells you "that's Fake News," don't take their word for it. Find out for yourself. Journalists are not the enemy of the people. Journalists speak for the people.

I am proud that Time Magazine has honoured journalists this year. May we all become "better citizens."

Friday, June 22, 2018

A little bit of a change of scenery

If you are one of my faithful blog followers, you will have noticed that I’ve been absent here for quite a while. A combination of family issues and health issues have kept me from it. I am back now, but have decided on a bit of a change of scenery. I am moving all of my book reviews to my Facebook page. I discovered something over the past two years when I ran this twice-weekly blog. If I linked to it from my Facebook page, most of the discussion occurred right on my Facebook page rather than on my blog page. I often would beg - PLEASE take the discussion to my blog page, but alas it was to no avail.

So, I decided if you can’t beat ‘em…

From now on, my Facebook page is where I will include book reviews whenever I feel so inclined, as well as thoughts, opinion articles and memoir-type stuff. I will write about everything from my faith journey to kayak pictures to other thoughts.

Every time I post something on Facebook I can decide whether it goes to FRIENDS or PUBLIC. I don’t know if Facebook has always had this, or if this is something new, but I sure do like it. All of my opinion pieces and thoughts and book reviews will be PUBLIC. Everything else - my tons of kayaking pictures and vacation pictures of me and my husband will be for FRIENDS.

If you want to see pictures of my grandkids, however, you will have to come to my house. Do I trust Facebook? Sort of and sort of not. Early on I decided never to post anything online—anything—that I don’t want the whole world to see.

That said, if you want to be my Facebook FRIEND, please go to my Facebook page and ask to be my friend. Here is the link.


I have plenty of spaces left. (I think we’re allowed something like 5,000 friends before they cut you off.)

I’m also on Instagram.com/writerhall. That is a page I am devoting to my burgeoning art work. I’m a bit of an amateur (emphasis on amateur) artist and that is where I am putting up my paintings. You are invited to follow me there if you are so inclined and I will follow you back.


At some future point I may come back here. Or I may post on both sites. Or I may not. I will keep you all posted. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

How ASL Changed My Life, Part 2

Today, after three posts expounding on the benefits of reading, I’m back to recommending books that have meant a lot to me, and books you may enjoy. I begin with Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen.


If you wish to learn why I am so interested in all things ASL, I would refer you to my earlier blog post - How ASL Changed my Life. I guess today’s post could be called Part 2 of my relationship with ASL, a language which I am trying my darnedest to learn.

Train Go Sorry is an ASL idiom which roughly means - “You Missed the boat,” and recognizes the struggles that the deaf community has had in maintaining their culture and thriving in a largely hearing world.

Even though Train Go Sorry is more than twenty years old, it is a classic on deaf culture, and all of the deaf tutors and teachers and interpreters I know, recommend it and have it on their shelves.


This beautifully written book which is part memoir, part history, part story and part call-to-arms, drew me in right from the start. The author who can hear, grew up in the Lexington School for the Deaf in NYC. Her grandfather was deaf, Her childhood friends were deaf, and her father was the school’s superintendent.

Here’s the way the book begins:

That our family’s home was a school for the deaf did not seem in any way extraordinary to Reba, Andy and me. Lexington School for the Deaf was simply where we came from. Our apartment was on the third floor of the southern wing of the building, above the nursery school and adjacent to the boys’ dormitory. The walls and doors, incidental separations between our living space and the rest of the building, were routinely disregarded. We children often played down the hall with the kids from the dorm. It wasn’t until Reba, my older sister, proved at age six to be a sleepwalker—discovered one night riding the elevator in her pajamas‚ that our parents even thought to install a proper lock on the front door.

Twenty years ago, when this book was released, the deaf community was on the cusp of change. Up until then, being deaf was considered being “hearing impaired,” a label the deaf community fought against. (And still fight against.) Their teachers were all hearing, and routinely taught English and lip reading, and made the children speak and use their voices. Sometimes signing was even forbidden and Cohen recounts that in those early days, children who signed had their hands struck with rulers, or tied behind their backs. 


In her beautiful book, Cohen recounts the personal stories of deaf students one at a time, one per chapter. I fell in love with the students she wrote about. I met James and Sofia and Oscar. I read about meetings where the students demanded that at least one person on the school's board be deaf. I read about the time they set up the chairs so that they all could see the interpreter. The staff, all hearing, had not even thought of that. There was so much that I learned. 


To give you a bit more of an understanding of the time, this is from Wikipedia:


In 1994, Lexington School for the deaf was subject to a community protest following the appointment of a hearing chairman of the board without what protesters felt was adequate representation of the deaf community in the selection process. Following picket lines and other protest measures, Phil Bravin was placed in the position; Bravin had become the first deaf chair of the Gallaudet University Board following a similar protest in 1988.



If you are interested in this piece of our history, I highly recommend Train Go Sorry.

Next Time: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Friday, November 3, 2017

We Need to Read Fiction Now More Than Ever

You’ve met them, I’ve met them, people who simply don’t read novels. They “don’t have time,” they say. Or, “Reading fiction is a waste of time," or “There are enough real problems in the world without having to concentrate something that’s not true.”

This kind of thinking shows a real misunderstanding of what fiction is and even who we are as human beings. It is precisely because there are so many problems in the real world that we need fiction now more than ever.

Imagine, if you will, a world without fiction, a world with no stories. The vast shelves of novels in bookstores and libraries would sit there  empty. When you sat down to read your child a book at bedtime, it would be a science book, or a self-help book about why we shouldn’t bully, or how to get better grades, for example. The only movies we would watch would be documentaries or science movies, and maybe the odd cooking or reality show.

There would be no Dr. Seuss, no Harry Potter, no Narnia, no Handmaid’s Tale, no IT, no Hercule Poirot, no James Bond. In other words, if we rid our world of fiction, we would rid ourselves of one of the very thing that makes us human—our love of story.

What makes us who we are is our ability to create and make things beautiful. We have the ability to make beauty out of ashes. Art out of nothing. We do that through art and design and story—made-up fiction stories.

If you google “the importance of reading fiction,” you will be rewarded with many, many links. 
Reading fiction is not a waste of time. It’s never a waste of time. It can turn us into healthier and better people according to many scientific studies.

If you are interested in scientific studies about what fiction reading does to the brain, here are a few important links to click on:

 - Why You Should Read Every Day

 - The Benefits of Reading Fiction 


 - The Benefits of Reading Novels 

Here are several of the points I gleaned:

• I was surprised to learn that reading fiction reduces stress. I had to read this several times. Really? But, apparently sitting back in your easy chair with a good novel reduces stress more than even going outside for a walk.

• Fiction gives us an understanding of others.


CS Lewis who wrote prolifically on the subject of creativity and fiction said:

We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows…


And boy, don’t we need this today! As I write this seven people have died in NYC in a Halloween terrorist attack. This comes on the heels of the recent terrorist attack in Las Vegas in which 58 people died, and many more are still in hospital, which comes on the heels of 500 in a bomb attack in Somali. It goes on and on.


So, yes, “seeing through other eyes” would be of great benefit! One way of doing that is through fiction. Currently I’m reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Through that novel I am gaining a new understanding of what it’s like to be an illegal immigrant from Limbe, Cameroon in the city of New York during the fall of the stock market in 2009. Walking in another's shoes—even through the pages of a novel—can turn us into more understanding people.


• Reading novels before bed improves sleep. Sleep is important to me. It’s something I crave, and yet so often it eludes me. Some studies say that immersing yourself in a bit of fiction for 15 minutes before you nod off can help. 


• It improves memory. Several studies suggest that novel reading has been proved to decline Alzeimers and memory problems. Novel readers have less mental decline as they age.

• It improves our understanding of difficult concepts—scientific and otherwise. Yes, fiction does this. Ten non-fiction books on the subject of hell, have not had the impression on me as CS Lewis’s short novel, The Great Divorce has had. It caused me to rethink just about everything I ever thought or believed or was taught about the subject of hell. It sent me on a faith journey that I still am on to this day.

What about television?


I need to mention here that I’m talking about reading novels and not “watching” novels on TV. No, I’m not one of those avid anti-TV watchers. I enjoy Netflix binging with the best of them, but I also know in my heart that better things happen to me when I’m reading a novel as opposed to watching one on television. It looks like scientific studies bear me out.

Here’s a fascinating link on the difference. It turns out that 
long hours in front of the television can decrease verbal IQ whereas reading a novel can increase brain activity and function. in other words, watching television is a passive activity and reading novels is an active activity. (Maybe it even burns more calories. Someone should do a study on that!)

And about fiction not being the truth? 


I’ve learned in my 25 years as a fiction author that fiction often has to be more truthful than nonfiction. 

One example: when I wrote Sadie’s Song, about a woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her up-standing, church-going Christian husband, my editors wanted the two to work out their differences, get counselling and get together at the end in a happily ever after. I said no. Yes, that sometimes happens. But more often than not, wives leave, and must leave, and should leave. I needed to write that story, the real story. I needed to make it truthful.

Should you read just any old novel?

No. Not really. Not unless you want to be bored out of your head. Yes, there are some pretty crappy novels out there. Picking up a novel that is boring or not well-written, or doesn't capture you from beginning to end, isn't going to provide all of those benefits. More than two years ago 
I started this blog because I was sick of crappy books. I wanted to make a list of all the good books I could recommend. Scroll back through more than two years of book recommends here to find a novel you might enjoy. And, how to tell if a novel is going to do you any good? It's the one you can't put down. If the novel isn't "grabbing" you after three chapters, put it down.

Author Densi Donaghue in The Practice of Reading writes:


The purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite ones imagination: specifically one’s ability to imagine being different.

Oh man, would that we could have a day where everyone in the entire world would stay home from work and read a novel. 


Next time: a look at deaf culture in Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen

Friday, October 6, 2017

We Need to Read Even More Now

Today I continue my thoughts on reading and how today, in light of every sad and scary and awful thing going on in the world, we need to be reading more, not less. We need to be reading critically and thoughtfully. We need to be reading widely. We need to read for escape and we need to read for knowledge. We need to read to keep our minds sharp and focused. We need to read so we can decipher the truth from the lies (without anyone calling certain things ‘fake news’ and thus putting a kind of censorship on the written word.) If we’re smart, critical thinkers we can figure out “fake news” for ourselves. We need this today, even more.

I am devoting today’s column to the importance of nonfiction in our daily reading. Nonfiction is a broad category which includes everything from magazines and news articles, to books about travel, politics, memoirs, biography, self-help, history, cooking, gardening and on and on the category goes. It includes the large majority of magazines (There are very few fiction magazines these days.) and newspapers (I can only think of a few fiction newspapers.).

A daily dose of nonfiction improves critical thinking, increases your vocabulary, improves your focus, makes you smarter and some studies have even shown it can stave off Alzheimers.

If you study this linked article I’m sure, like me, you will set aside some time to read every day. It will be as important to you as getting in your physical exercise. (Or maybe you could combine the two, by listening to an audio book while you get in that constitutional.)

If you want actual proof - here’s a peer-reviewed scientific study. 

Back in 1990, I was the International Literacy Year coordinator for the province of Alberta. The motto we adopted and printed on coffee mugs and tee-shirts and bookmarks and bags was “We Need to Read.” 
The photo at the lower right is a large poster of the International Literacy Year stamp which I was privileged to receive from Canada Post, who was a major sponsor that year. (Remember when people used to write letters?) 

 Yes, We Need to Read, but twenty-seven years later, I might change it to, “We Need to Read Even More Now.”


Why now? Well, social media is making it so that we can streamline our feeds to only include our own narrow political views. This is called Confirmation Bias and it is very real and it is crippling us and contributing to what divides us.

This didn’t use to exist when we all got our basically non-partisan news from the same two or three television or radio stations at the same time every day. I was a journalist back in the 1980s and my editor was very strict about getting  “both sides” of the story. If I didn’t, if I couldn’t get the other side of the story, he wouldn’t run it. It was as simple as that.

I fear those days are long gone. I was casually looking through a friend’s Facebook postings where she had expressed an opinion about President Trump. The arguments went on and on, maybe 40 comments of people chiming in until finally someone simply wrote, “You’re an idiot.”

Really? That’s what we’ve come to? Calling people idiots and morons who happen to disagree with us?

Today with confirmation bias all around us, it becomes ever more important to read widely. When someone tells you not to read something, calling it “fake news,” that is when you need to challenge that statement with your own critical reading of the issue. Figure out these things for yourself. In the age of Google and Youtube, it’s really not that hard.

As most of you who know me know, I lean a certain way politically, and yet, I try to read smart articles from both sides of the spectrum. I read the articles in Slate and listen to their many podcasts, as well as NPR. Both of these might lean a bit to the left. I listen to CBC on a pretty regular basis (even though here in Canada I don’t find that partisan divide as heated as it is in the US). I try to balance that with news from The Nation, The National Post and I’m a regular listener to The Daily Standard which is a conservative podcast from The Weekly Standard.

I also need to mention The Politics Guys, one of my favorite "both sides" podcasts. Everyone should try to emulate these guys, two long time friends on opposite sides of the political spectrum discuss the news in detail, without resorting to the “You’re a moron” type of discourse.

Short articles are one thing, but longer nonfiction can be quite informative and interesting. Bookmark these sites: Longform and Longreads.

I have both these on my regular reading rotation and have gotten in-depth looks at the latest in nutrition, a question and answer with Stephen King, and the newest science on brain concussions and the NFL.

I mentioned my love for my Kobo eReader in my last column, and especially my new Kobo Aura H20. I can add these articles to my Kobo with an app called Pocket.  Again, I love that I’m not trying to read on my phone. And if you have children? 
Here’s an article on the importance of reading nonfiction to them. 

Don't forget the many nonfiction books out there. Here’s a list of the nonfiction books I am currently reading and which will be reviewed here in the coming months: The Day the Revolution Began by NT Wright, Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen and Does Jesus Really Love me? By Jeff Chu.

What nonfiction are you reading?


NEXT TIME: Part three - The importance of daily—and I do mean daily—fiction reading (Yes, in case you’re wondering. I have saved the best for last)

Friday, September 22, 2017

How to Read More in an Age of Technology: Part One

Reading less these days? 

The impetus for this blog comes from a recent post by author Philip Yancey, that went pretty much much viral. This once prolifically reading author has bookshelves that are now languishing as he finds his brain becoming re-wired by technology. The comments are telling, too, as many share their own stories and most agree. 


Smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, games, Pinterest and iPads are demanding our attention. Walk through any mall and three-quarters of the shoppers will be staring down at phones. And okay, I'm not anti-technology. I’m just as guilty. I mean I even sleep with my iPhone right beside me. (I know I know. Shoot me now!) But when insomnia hits, what better way to fall asleep than to listen to some droning book being read to me, or some podcast, or some soothing music? (I’m even thinking of getting a pair of those sleeping type headphones. (Okay, now you can really shoot me.)

But, as I was reading Yancey’s post it came to me that probably a lot of people are finding that their reading is diminishing these days. How can we get it back? How can we become absorbed in a novel once again? There should be a Fitbit for reading, I'm thinking, something that will keep track of how many pages we have read that day, and remind us when our reading is falling off.


To counteract this - here are a few of my own random thoughts and ideas:

1. You can’t read a book on a phone or an iPad or a tablet. Please bear with me one this one, don’t put your hands over your eyes just yet. To read a novel, I think you need a real book or a dedicated eReader. 

Here’s my story: I had one of the original Kobo eReaders. It was light. I could adjust the font to suit my old eyes, and I didn’t have that weird page turning balance thing that I have when I'm lying on my side in bed and trying to read a hard-back book. I loved it, but then after seven years the battery didn’t hold a charge. But surely I didn’t need another one, right? I have one of those big-screen iPhones. I’ll just use it. It’s got a reading app, right?

Well, I couldn’t. First of all, the screen was too bright. Even after dimming the light, it was too shiny. I couldn’t read it out in the sunshine, and what’s the point of a book that you can’t read on the beach?

But, the main thing was that I was distracted by it. I would be reading along and—oh wait! A new Facebook message! Oh wait! I got a new email! Oh wait! A text message just came in! So, I went in turned off all of those notifications. Now, I’ll just settle back and read. And yet in the back of my mind there was this little ping—Hey, maybe I should check Instagram. See if there are any new pics of the grandkids. It won’t take two seconds. Or, I’ll just zip over here and play a quick game of solitaire before I get into chapter four.

Nope, maybe it works for you, but the iPhone simply didn’t work for me as a reading device.

So, I bought another dedicated eReader, and I love, love my new Kobo Aura H2O.

I know that there are also Kindles that compare.

All I can do is read on it. It looks like a book, and it's gently front lit, so, I can read it in bed at night. I can take it out in the sunshine. It's completely waterproof so I can even read it out on the water. Or in the rain, if I wanted to.

Studies say these e-ink screens are better for the brain at night than shiny, backlit screens.

If your reading has fallen off, put away the phone and the brightly lit tablet and get either a real book, or invest in an eReader. They’re not very expensive.

2. Blame the book, not yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I have opened up a novel to read, even a beloved mystery novel, and then after about four pages my mind is wandering. After chapter two I’m blaming myself—it must be happening—I’m getting too old—I can’t concentrate—I can’t read books anymore—There's something wrong with my brain.

No. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s the book.

That's why I began this blog. Maybe it was a survival thing. I wanted to prove that there are still books out there which are unputdownable. If you find your mind wandering, keep looking. Feel free to scroll back and use this blog as a guide. I have more than two and a half years worth of books that my mind didn't wander inside of.

3. Join a book club. Not only is this fun, but you will end up reading completely out of your comfort zone. It might just be wonderful. Left to my own devices I would end up with nothing but mystery fiction on my Kobo. My book club expands me. I’m devouring and discussing books I never would have chosen. 

If you don’t know where to find a club, go and ask at your local library. If they don’t have one, give them your name and offer to start one. Another place to look is your local independent bookstore. Many have bookclubs. Also, you might want to try meetup.com and do a search for “bookclubs.”

4. Talk about books with your friends. I know, you might get some strange looks when the first thing you say when you sit down for coffee is, “Read any good books lately?” But you might come away with some good and interesting suggestions. And a reading partner.

5. Write book reviews. Recommend a good book on your Facebook page. Do a search for book review blogs. Many are joint efforts and are always wanting new book reviewers. (I know. I've been asked.) This blog of mine, this labor of love, has forced me to read, even when I wanted to zip over and play solitaire.

6. Devote an hour a day to reading. Really? Is that too much? You’ll go for a walk for an hour, or spend an hour at the gym, or watch TV for an hour. Make it a priority to read every single day. Okay, half an hour. But schedule it in.

7. I mentioned how cool it would be to have a Fitbit for reading, well, there sort of is one. It’s called the Goodreads reading challenge. I do this every year. Here is my own link. 


When 2017 began I decided that I would read 30 books this year. In past years I’ve aimed for 24. Because I easily managed that, I decided that this year I would up it to 30. Not sure I'm going to make it. While you’re at it, have a look around Goodreads which is like a Facebook for readers. I find book recommendations there and often find myself scouring the book reviews for books I might like.

How do you keep reading when bright screens, click bait and five second sound bites keep tempting you? I'd love for you to share your ideas in the comments.  

NEXT TIME: Part two: More on reading books in an age of technology.