Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Going Digital

It's official. As in a Mirror, my (first) fantasy fiction novel, is now available in Kindle (.mobi) and other e-reader (.epub) formats. See the link on the right side of this blog page to get your copy.

Thanks to Sara for setting up the PayPal link.

Happy e-reading!

~ emrys

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tin Years

 As soon as last year's anniversary was over, I looked to see what the material was for the ten-year anniversary. Tin. Tin? Other than being a poetic pun on "ten," I couldn't see why tin made an attractive material for gifts. I certainly didn't understand why it came after bronze. But in the spirit of this discipline, I obeyed the list and racked my brain to think of something I could make out of tin that would be useful for Sara.

And I came up with nothing. Less than what I dreamed up for bronze.

I discovered that I possessed something made out of tin (a large popcorn tin, in fact), but had no idea what to make.

After discarding all sorts of completely useless ideas, I settled on the prospect of wrapping something otherwise useful in tin. Since ten years has a benchmark quality about it, in our decimal society, I decided to make a photo collage and set it in a shadowbox frame wrapped in tin.

 One cheapo shadowbox frame and an hour later, I had a system down for cutting, bending, and wrapping the tin around the wood.
 The edges of tin pieces are sharp. I think I spilled more blood making this gift than the last nine put together. I hope Sara appreciates this--if she doesn't appreciate the quality of the craftsmanship.

Every one of these annual projects has a kindergarten feel to it. I sometimes feel as if I'm putting myself back in kindergarten, doing art projects that the parents will coo over because they're obliged to do so. Then three years later, when the next clay paperweight comes home from school, the old one will become a garden ornament or fodder for the trash truck. But it's the thought that counts, right?
 I beat the surface of the tin, both to hide my unintentional scratches and to reflect a momentary thought that after ten years any relationship, though it may shine, will also have its fair share of dents and divots.
Last but not least, the collage of ten representative photos, one from each year together.
This, I think, is the strangest one of my anniversary gift series. Fitting perhaps, though, as it seems strange to reflect on ten years of married life. As I imagined what photos I would want to include, I struggled to remember what major events happened in 2003, 2004, and 2007--to name a few. Funny how time collapses certain spans flat while preserving some signature moments.

I wonder what it will be like at twenty years.

~ emrys

Merry Christmas!

Dear Friends and Family:

Merry Christmas!  We hope that you are able to fully appreciate the joy and wonder of this season.  If you need a little help, take a 2-(almost 3)-year-old out to look at Christmas lights!

Gwendolyn is everything you would expect from an active two year old.  She will very proudly tell you that she’s “Two and a haff be tree” (translation: “I’m 2 1/2 and will be 3”) since she’s recently figured out she has a birthday coming up!  Christmas trees and lights are a thing of wonder and so much fun to enjoy with her! 

2011 was fast and full.  Highlights this year include  Emrys’ 5 year anniversary at Nineveh Presbyterian Church, Sara’s 6 years of remission and our 10th wedding anniversary. We are also celebrating the new little one that will be joining our family in June 2012.   Our area was hit with record-breaking flooding in September, and amidst the devastation it was amazing to watch a local community, and a larger faith community, come together to help out. 

Our lives are full, we are blessed, and the guest bed’s made up—we’d love to have you visit!

Love,   Emrys, Sara & Gwendolyn 

P.S. Our home phone number will be changing on January 1st so if you need the new number, please email us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unlikely Bedfellows

Growing up I used to watch a lot of Tom & Jerry cartoons. The implicit violence was both extreme and cartoonish: both characters fared poorly, then always came back in full health for the next episode.

Angels and demons made a frequent appearance in the show. Tom or Jerry, when faced with a decision about whether to maim, cripple, or torture his nemesis, would have a haloed figure dressed in white appear on one shoulder, bending toward mercy. On the other shoulder would appear a horned red figure, whispering cruelty into the other ear.

What a genius way to depict the struggle of conscience! Where did these guys come up with this stuff?

I just discovered that the twin angels (lofty and fallen) of Tom & Jerry have existed for at least six hundred years. As I read through Book I, Chapter XIV, section 7 of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. McNeill, trans. Battles), I found this nugget, during Calvin's discussion of guardian angels:

" . . . the common folk imagine two angels, good and bad--as it were different geniuses--attached to each person."

Calvin remains noncommittal on whether persons have their own guardian angels. But I'm sure he'd be happy to know that the commoners' speculation about them brought entertainment to so many children of my generation.

~ emrys

Monday, December 05, 2011

Much Ado About . . .


The addition to our first floor, completed in August, brought about eighty new square feet to our kitchen, making it a real potential "eat-in" kitchen (which it was billed when we bought it, but never actually could serve that way). As a result, however, most of our kitchen is sea-foam green tile, with eighty square feet of unfinished concrete pad.

And the concrete pad is not level.

We have dreams of installing hardwood laminate (bamboo, to be specific), and are nearing our savings goal to pay for the stuff. Before it can be installed, however, the "new" section of floor needs to be level. To ascertain just what might be needed, I conscripted my HandyGirl to do some assessment (note sunglasses to protect eyes from concrete chips I was chiseling):

With a one-and-one-quarter-inch drop over forty-eight inches, the length of the new kitchen area would require a significant volume of concrete. I have worked with just enough concrete to know that screeting and troweling are not my thing--especially in confined spaces. So I spent a lot of time comparing "self-levelling" concrete. Several suppliers make it, but it turns out that no weekend warrior homeowner buys the stuff, because the DYI retailers don't carry it. (This should have tipped me off early; but it didn't.) So I had quite a runaround with the commercial sales departments of Lowe's, Home Depot, and our brilliant local guys to find out how much this part of the job would cost me.

The short ending: $700 to be able to pour a level floor without troweling. Yikes.

About a week before I was to suck it up and take the plunge, I spoke with my brother on the phone. Chris has done a whole lot of random construction and remodeling work on homes. I floated some questions to him about concrete applications. After kindly indulging my plan for a while, he asked, "Why don't you just use wood?"


From that conversation, a new plan was hatched which would involve no troweling, no mixing, no warning labels about caustic lime. From leftover wood already in my possession, I am now laying down strips and screwing them to the concrete. Each strip is one-sixteenth of an inch thicker than the one before, gradually raising the finished floor surface to accommodate the concrete's bias.

In case I wondered whether my work would hold up under the soon-to-be-installed new flooring, HandyGirl Quality Control was on the job, testing every run.

It seems that trying to run twenty-two feet along the same two slats is great fun when you're two and a half years old.

Total cost of leveling: $50 for concrete anchors, a big Thank You to Russ for allowing me to borrow his hammer drill, and one home-printed sign for the front door that says "Uneven Pavement"--at least until the new floor is in.

~ emrys

Sex and Death Warmed Over

Dracula: The Un-Dead, published in 2009, is the self-proclaimed sequel to Bram Stoker's original Victorian horror story. Bram Stoker's great-grand-nephew Dacre Stoker and "Dracula documentarian" Ian Holt teamed up to co-author the definitive continuation of Bram's classic tale.

Readers seeking to gorge themselves on the Victorian twin taboos of carnal relations and blood-soaked death will not be disappointed. Four of the original characters from Bram's novel reappear, twenty-five years after the Transylvanian Count is defeated--or so we thought--in the Carpathian mountains. The English heroes of the first novel are still alive and kicking; but between alcoholism, depression, and drug addictions, they have been reduced to pale shadows of their former selves. They find themselves--with Quincey Harker, the Hamlet-like non-hero--sucked into more battles with the vampiric realm. This time they fight not only the Count but also a greater demon: the sadistic and sexually weird Countess Bathory.

The deep darkness of the first Dracula, told through the intriguing lens of correspondence written between characters was enough to draw this reader well into this new book. One comes expecting the same horrific battle between terrified good and mysterious evil; the greatest fear in Bram's telling grows from one's not knowing how vast and formless is the shadow of the vampire. The Un-Dead, however, surrenders the sharpest weapon of the horror story by revealing too much. The narration attempts to inform the reader about too much of the inner lives of the characters, rather than allowing the mind of the reader--which is often darker than any author's pen--to infer from the action. In writer's club parlance, The Un-Dead "tells when it should just show." The revelations are so numerous, varied, and at times long, that the reader gets distracted from the movement of the plot, which would otherwise keep readers turning the pages late into the night.

(Full disclosure: this reviewer admits that these faults often arise in the work of freshmen novelists, of which he is one.)

Perhaps the overindulgence of words stems from the intent of the authors, as described in an extended authors' note at the end of the book. The young Stoker and Holt composed this piece in order to "reclaim Dracula" from its use by so many other authors and screenwriters in the last hundred years. At the same time, Stoker and Holt sought not to alienate the Dracula fans who have come to the realm through the other (admittedly bastardized) versions of the Count's story. As a result, the thick blood of Vlad the Impaler gets diluted in The Un-Dead until the dreaded nemesis of Bram's novel seems a hobbling hodge-podge of motivations, desires, and choices. The authors' goal of exhaustive historical accuracy does not rescue the book, as descriptions of people and places often come across as professorial name-dropping that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

The real bite of a horror story like Dracula, un-dead or otherwise, is the power of a simple narrative simply told. The insight of the great Aristotle is as instructive here as it was thousands of years ago: a story has a beginning, middle, and end. In a horror story, those parts ought to be just long enough to inflict the wound of fear. Then the story vanishes in the night, leaving the reader with an insatiable desire for more. In its attempt to reclaim the name of Dracula for the Stoker family, The Un-Dead may well have put the nail in the coffin of other would-be heirs. And Dracula-geeks will likely find saliva dripping from the fangs at all the insider information buried in the text. As frightening tale destined to become a classic, however, The Un-Dead is too anemic to bring Bram's popular legacy back from the grave again.

~ emrys

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dark and Deep

Any book with a series head "Studies in Dogmatics" ought to fill the reader with trepidation. Not so this reader, who dove into Holy Scripture by G. C. Berkouwer like a freshie into the Loch Ness. Much like the waters of that ancient lake, the text of Berkouwer's work (translated from Dutch by Jack B. Rogers, 1975) proves to be deep, dark, and cold.

But even the dream of tackling a textbook plumbing the mysterious--even murky--depths of such a subject as "holy scripture" must fill the reader with awe. After all, the relationship of holy scripture to faith, ethics, the Church, and the Holy Spirit presents such a tangled web of ovular logic and philosophical crenelations; I would accept the challenge to write a textbook on the Trinity instead. Yet Berkouwer took up the pen to follow each thread in the Gordian knot of holy scripture, the essential and overflowing witness upon which so much of the life of the Church depends. For such courage, at very least, Berkouwer's work ought to be praised.

Holy Scripture possesses a density of thought and logic which forces the reader's mind either to slide over large pieces of thought or to creep slowly through each piece of terrain. A fifteen-hundred page work might have brought his readers to the same heights of erudition and wisdom; instead Berkouwer (edited slightly by Rogers) makes us scale the sheer wall of nearly four hundred pages to reach the crown. Reading this work is work. With almost non-existent use of metaphor or illustrative narrative, Holy Scripture calls for a constant upward climb toward complete analysis of the subject at hand. When logical purity requires the use of numerous negatives rather than the blanket assertion of a positive, Berkouwer does not shy away, but demands that the reader's mind follow the circuitous route to the precise goal of understanding.

For all the challenge in its reading, however, Holy Scripture delivers the package promised by its table of contents: a comprehensive study of scripture and its relationship to certainty, canon, authority, interpretation, the "God-breathed character," reliability, clarity, sufficiency, and ("But wait! There's more!") preaching and criticism. Like an inchworm plodding its way along every nook and cranny of an oak leaf, Berkouwer leaves no boundary, no contour, no edge unexplored. Holy Scripture is a master work for those in the Protestant and Reformed traditions of Christianity.

Before taking the header "Studies in Dogmatics" to heart, this reader anticipated some new insight into the nature of scripture and its relationship to the Spirit or the Church. I craved some spice which would take the pottage of dogmatical analysis and produce something flavorful and new. About one-third of the way through the book I realized I would not find it here. This conclusion reflects no ill of the text, however, only of the errant assumptions of the reader. Taken for what it is--a grand survey of the intersection of the bible with all these different topics--Holy Scripture offers a breathtaking view of the landscape. Berkouwer serves as a guide who, from the top of Pike's Peak, can point your telescope to central Iowa and tell you what variety of corn is grown in that farmer's fields. The book reveals several lifetimes' worth of education and reflection on the most important texts the world has ever known. A more solid work on orthodox, Reformed dogmatics no one could desire.

After the climb has brought us to the summit, however, we are still unable to gaze through the rock on which we stand. At the center of scripture is a mystery rather than a logical syllogism. In Berkouwer's words, "the unique authority [of holy scripture] can only be acknowledged and experienced on the way; it is not acknowledged on the grounds of a preceding consideration, and the way then followed as a conclusion" (p348). More to the point--and more in keeping with the Reformed tradition of which I find myself a part--scripture is nothing without the Person to whom it points and who speaks through it: the person of Jesus Christ. The faithful struggles of those wrestling with scripture occur within the context of faith in the Spirit of Christ calling us from behind the text. Far from being either a scientific or a magic book in possession of which we might find ourselves, scripture is one vehicle by which we find ourselves in the possession of another--then swimming in a grandiose mystery as dark and deep as life itself. This is the life, the challenge, and the joy of all who follow the Lord Jesus Christ: to live in and through, and to struggle with, holy scripture. Kudos to Holy Scripture for braving the depths of this struggle.

Thanks to my colleague Mark who passed his copy to me.

~ emrys