I’ve pointed out before that Peter and I had rather different childhood experiences. When I was a kid, at Christmas time, we would go to the parking lot of John Oliver High and pick out a pre-cut Christmas tree from the Lions Club. This was often done in the rain and it often took a lot of time as we discussed the merits of Douglas Fir versus Noble Fir. Then the Lions Club volunteer would trim off the trunk and we would strap it the car and drive home. The first Christmas tree I ever remember having was a plastic one – though that was in Hong Kong where there are not so many evergreens.
Peter’s family, on the other hand, gets out a saw, gets into the car, and drives into the forest to cut down a tree. The common denominator, from what I can see, is the rain. And either way you end up with a Christmas tree so they’re both nice traditions.
This weekend I got to participate in the Great Christmas Tree Hunt for the second time.
This is as much snow as I’ve seen yet this winter.
Mostly, it’s wet.
But Peter worked hard…
…and we got our tree!
We head out of town soon for the holidays so I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to blog again before Christmas. So, a very Merry Christmas to you all!
In the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, people are, understandably, searching for answers. When something this horrific occurs, we want to know what or who to blame. We want to know what we can do differently so that nothing like this ever happens again.
There’s a video circulating online, an American politician.The gist of it is that we shouldn’t ask where God is when terrible things happen in schools because we (in this case the U.S. government but it fits in Canada too) have taken God out of schools.
Let me tell you something – God is infinite, ominipotent, and all-knowing. We do not have the power to remove Him from a closet, let alone an entire school system. To suggest that because we don’t preach the Bible in schools anymore or start our days with the Lord’s prayer and that, in response, God has allowed tragedies like Columbine and what happened last week in Connecticut to occur, turns the God of the universe into a petulant teenager. “Oh, fine, I didn’t want to be there anyway.”
That is not the God I worship and believe in.
God was at Sandy Hook on Friday.
That’s harder to deal with though, isn’t it? Because if God was there, why did people die?
I don’t know. I mean, I know the textbook “Christianese” answers as to “Why is there evil in the world?” But when I look at the photos of those sweet little kids and I read the story of the evil that occurred, I don’t have any answers.
I know that we live in a terrible and fallen world and we are terrible and fallen people. And I know that God is with us. I know that God – who has the power to stop us – allows us to make choices for evil. And I know that God is with us.
I believe that God wept to witness what took place. I believe He mourns with the families of the victims. I believe that those who mourn will be comforted but I don’t really know how right now.
God is in schools. He is there whether we want him or not. I know this because He has been in my life at times when I haven’t wanted Him. And there have been times when I’ve ached for His presence desperately and felt nothing. But He was there.
I have people I love who go into public schools every day and I tremble at the thought of them in such a situation. It makes me physically sick to think of. But I know – I know with my whole heart – that God walks into those schools with them. God does not stop at the door or wait across the street. No legislation could keep Him out.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is a passage that speaks to me this weekend, something preached in church this morning.
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. May it be to me as you have said.’
You could speculate forever and never know what was going on in Mary’s head that day as she stood in fear before the angel Gabriel. I know that she was young, likely much younger than I am. I know that she was unmarried, a virgin, but engaged to a man named Joseph. I know that she was highly favoured by the Lord. She knew, no doubt, that only shame awaited her as an unwed mother. Did it flash through her mind that Joseph would leave her? That she could face death as an adultress?
“May it be to me as you have said.”
I’ve just finished reading the gospel of Mark. It ends with what we commonly refer to as “the Easter story”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Christmas has become a much larger celebration in our society than Easter. The Christmas story is soft, dimly-lit. There are angels and shepherds and a sweet baby. We ignore the fact that the stable probably stank, that Mary was likely young and afraid and maybe cried because she had to put her new baby in a manger. It was likely terrifying to be visited by three strange men from foreign lands who brought odd and inappropriate gifts.
The thing is, it’s all one story. That baby grew up to die a criminal. To die a brutal and inhuman death. Mark tells us Jesus was scourged and mocked. John tells us that Mary was there at the foot of the cross, witnessing the horror of her son’s death (John 19:25).
Of course Mary didn’t know this when she stood in front of Gabriel. She likely knew it would be hard. It was likely much harder than she knew it could be.
Today, this weekend, in our world that seems more fallen and sinful than can really be possible, the Christmas story, the Easter story – the truth of the Gospel story – is more important than ever. Sinners that we are, our God came to earth as a baby and died for us. And today, what I strive for is the faith and hope and bravery of Mary. To step forward and to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Christmas around here!
I’m pretty strict about my “The Christmas Season begins December 1st” policy. Since I have no power to enforce such a policy around me, it really only makes a difference in my own home.
I spent part of yesterday writing Christmas cards, sipping hot chocolate, and listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Yep, it was pretty Christmasy.
We won’t be on the coast for Christmas this year and most of our stuff is still in storage but I still pulled out a few Christmas things for our little space. My mother-in-law loaned us a little Christmas tree and we decorated today.
I love real Christmas trees but I know we’ll likely have them on both sides of the family this year so our personal little tabletop tree is perfect. (Even though some of our decorations might be a little too big for it!)
Peter asked me to show off this little ornament that he handmade:
Why yes, that is made from a cork, two pushpins and some festively coloured rubber bands! Believe it or not, this is the second year that this ornament has decorated our tree.
To balance that out, let me show you an ornament that my niece and nephew made for us:
I strung up some of our other Christmas decorations as well.
Those Christmas baubles are all ones I’ve picked up from thrift stores over the past few years. Other than those, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a single Christmas tree ornament.
These were handmade in Victoria. I bought them for Peter and I our first Christmas after we were married.
And our Eric Carle advent calendar makes an appearance for another year. I love advent calendars!
I also like to put a few ornaments around in less expected places.
Or my books-t0-read pile:
And, of course, Vern gets his decorations too!
Happy Christmas decorating to you! (Or Happy Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/Friday afternoon decorating if you prefer!)
Note: I try my best not to give away important plot points in my book reviews. However, since Speaker for the Dead follows the plot of Ender’s Game, there will be information in the following review that “spoils” Ender’s Game. You don’t have to read Ender’s Game before reading Speaker for the Dead but they are better together. If you don’t wish to know what happens in Ender’s Game, don’t read this review.
A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game (click that link to read my review). Despite not being a regular science fiction reader and generally not a huge fan of sequels and books series, I read Speaker for the Dead. In his introduction, Card explains that the two stories were not originally envisioned as one and that Speaker for the Dead came first in his mind. It’s hard to imagine one book without the other. There’s enough information offered in Speaker for the Dead that, strictly speaking, you don’t have to read Ender’s Game first…but you’ll have a better reading experience if you do.
Speaker for the Dead takes us three thousand years after the action of Ender’s Game. Ender Wiggin, though, is only about thirty-five years. This is accomplished by the strange technology of constant space travel, which seems to occur outside of time. (Somewhat conveniently, this is explained as something no one really understands.) We are now three thousand years since Ender Wiggin destroyed the Buggers, the only other known intelligent life in the universe. We’re three thousand years since Ender found the Hive Queen and first wrote the story of the Hive Queen and the Hegemon and became the first Speaker for the Dead. For the past three thousand years Ender and his sister, Valentine, have travelled through space and only a little bit of time. The name of Ender Wiggin has become a curse, vilified as the one who destroyed the Buggers, and the Speaker for the Dead has become something of a humanist religion.
The novel begins though, not with Ender, but on the planet Lusitania, where a Portuguese colony is beginning to interact with the first intelligent life discovered since the death of the Buggers. These are the “porquinhos” or piggies. Strict laws govern human interaction with them (even stricter than the Prime Directive) and the two humans who are allowed to even see or talk to the piggies are extremely limited in what they are able to learn.
I found the opening of the novel a bit confusing. Or perhaps overwhelming is a better word. With the introduction of not just multiple characters, but multiple species, and the Portuguese language and names, it took me a few pages to sort out where we were and who was who. It didn’t take long for the action to pick up though and for me to find myself deeply absorbed. Before we even met Ender again I was curled up with the novel and ignoring just about everything else. From that point I finished reading it in the same day.
In my opinion, this a better novel than Ender’s Game. There is a maturity to the book, as well as to Ender himself. After all, he’s had three thousand years to think about what he’s done. Having unwittingly started a new type of religion, Ender has evolved into someone with very different motivations and experiences than when we first met him. He definitely still has that “superman” quality where he’s a bit too good at everything he does and some things come too easily to him. But this book also isn’t as deeply involved with Ender. It’s not just his story but the story of Lusitania and its people, including the piggies.
Giving equal focus to the colony of Lusitania (and one family in particular) makes us really care about what happens on this planet. And, by extension, we care about what Ender’s doing.
As well,even more so than Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead raises a lot of really fascinating questions. Some – like how much should you interact with or influence a secondary intelligent species in the universe – are fascinating but not necessarily related to our current world. Others – like how do you deal with grief, abuse, and fractured families and what role can religion play in a community – most definitely are.
I’m glad I went on to read Speaker for the Dead. Even though there are more books after this in the Ender story, I felt happy with the conclusion offered here and I think I’m finished.
I’m not quite sure what I think of Jeffrey Eugenides as a writer, so it’s perhaps strange that I’ve read all three of his novels. Eugenides is a strong writer, in that once I start to read his writing, it’s hard to put down. Yet I don’t feel satisfied when I get to the end. Perhaps because he often deals with unsettling content (more so in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex than this most recent novel). Perhaps because I don’t quite enjoy his characters, however interested I may become in them.
Of the three Eugenides novels I’ve now read, I enjoyed The Marriage Plot the most. It deals with post-university life, religion, romance and marriage, and mental illness – all things I’ve had a personal interest or connection to over the years.
The novel opens on graduation day at Brown University. We meet Madeleine Hanna, hung over, broken-hearted and about to graduate. The story takes us through the summer and the first year following this post-secondary graduation. Along with Madeleine we meet her friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, and her sometimes lover, Leonard Bankhead. Personally, I found Mitchell’s storyline to be the most interesting. While the first part of the novel focuses heavily on Madeleine and is told primarily from her perspective, I had trouble being truly interested because I simply didn’t feel much sympathy for Madeleine.
I couldn’t quite pinpoint what bothered me about the character of Madeleine until this thought from Mitchell’s perspective:
In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.
Madeleine, certainly at the beginning of the novel, is the kind of upper middle class, beautiful girl, who has had everything in life handed to her. And as a result, she has very little dimension. She has nothing holding her back in life, and yet she doesn’t succeed. Finally, through the course of the novel, she makes one terrible decision that leads to a continuous series of terrible decisions. Even then, truthfully, I had trouble empathizing with her. I’m not sure there’s much excuse for an educated young woman to remain as ignorant of the life around her as Madeleine does. Does Eugenides think this is the ignorance of twentysomething girls? Is he trying to make a statement against the sheltered, moneyed, suburban upbringing Madeleine’s parents give her? I’m not sure. Certainly, Eugenides isn’t holding Madeleine up as any sort of shining example but my dissatisfaction from the novel comes partly from the fact that I’m not sure, at the end, if Madeleine has really changed. She is surrounded by safety nets and people who want to help her, which certainly isn’t the reality for every young woman who finds herself drifting through life after a university education.
I found Mitchell’s post-grad journey much more interesting. We meet a young man, in love with a girl who doesn’t feel the same way and who frustrates him greatly, looking for some greater purpose to his life. As Mitchell journeys through Europe and then India, he is also going on a personal spiritual journey. Not quite a pilgrimage, though he eventually reaches Calcutta – the spot he’s always been heading towards, in more ways than one. Mitchell goes through a real change. He returns home different and though we aren’t shown all the ways his life will be altered, we get a sense of a man who has learned something throughout the course of the novel.
Eugenides makes the interesting choice to set The Marriage Plot in the early 1980s. Part of me thinks he may simply have done this because he was born in 1960 and so likely graduated from university around the time of Madeleine and Mitchell. (Wikipedia tells me I’m right about this, as well as the fact that Eugenides also graduated from Brown.) The retro setting offers some interesting comparisons to our current era. The characters worry about recession, a lack of jobs – all concerns that graduates today face as well. It’s a timely reminder that some fears are cyclical. Part of me wished Eugenides took more advantage of his 1980s setting with more timely references. By and large, the novel could be set currently and be altered very little. But overall I was happy with his choices.
One of the strongest parts of the novel is the downward mental spiral of Leonard Bankhead. I think Eugenides did a terrific job of describing the highs and lows of Leonard’s manic-depression. And while I didn’t have much sympathy for Madeleine as she went along with Leonard, Eugenides truly made me care about a character who seemed to start out as hopelessly unlikeable.
The book’s title references the Victorian novels that Madeleine loves and studies, the ones who always seem to end with a marriage. Knowing this gives this novel a nice momentum as we read through, waiting to see how Eugenides will turn that trope around.