Sunday, May 23, 2010

Just Finished: James & a Commentary on James

I should write lots about what I learned while I read James and the Reformed Expository Series to go with it, but I'm a little tired so it's a little or nothing.

I always loved the book of James. James is to the point, practical, pastoral, and seemingly applicable; however, I never realized how difficult it is to follow his train of thought. Upon reading the first two or three chapters (with some friends), we were all finding it a challenge to piece together James' train of thought. The topics seem to jump around all over the place from trials to prayer to taming the tongue. (In fact, James paints a pretty negative picture of mankind and our sinfulness.)

The more we read and prayed, the clearer and more organized the compact five chapters of James seemed. Themes jumped off the page along with the increasing knowledge that without the Gospel, there is literally no hope of fulfilling any of the commandments James gives us. That is a truth I need to remember daily.

As for the commentary, it is part of a series called Reformed Expository Commentary. The goal of these commentaries is for them to be clear, readable, and provide a good jumping off point for the text. Daniel Doriani wrote this one, which was pretty good. Doriani used a lot of examples from his experiences in life and ministry and approached some difficult and controversial aspects of James with an even hand.

And that was my inarticulate review of James. It's probably better if you read the whole thing for yourself (at least 5 times.)

Just Finished: Penguin Lost

I've been on a book finishing spree in preparation for my trip to the States (no way am I carrying around 3/4 finished books.) First finished was Penguin Lost, the sequel to Death and the Penguin (see review here). I don't want to spoil the story for you, so if you're planning to read the first you might not want to read this review.

The story begins where the previous book left off. Viktor has run away from his troubles and escaped to Antarctica by stealing his convalescing penguin Misha's passage to his native habitat. Feeling guilty for leaving Misha behind, as well as Sonya, the little girl in his charge, Viktor decides to head back to Kiev. Upon returning, however, he finds himself again sucked into the orbit of nefarious characters. Regardless Viktor continues to search for Misha which takes him to Russia and the outer regions of war torn Chechnya. As in the first novel, Viktor encounters a series of interesting and unusual characters who are almost parodies of themselves.

As the story progresses, Viktor ponders the course of his life--whether or not he will settle down with Sonya's nanny, if he will carve out a destiny for himself, what he will do with his melancholy penguin, and whether or not he will actually live up to any of his promises. Viktor's self-inspection is a welcome addition to this novel and makes up (somewhat) for the void left by Misha through the middle of the book.

Much like Death and the Penguin, Kurkov's magical realism and exact writing create a brilliantly absurd story, which would only be amplified if I had any clue about recent Ukrainian and Russian history.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Engagement Photo shoot: Lisa & Peter

I put Lisa and Peter in the title as though I have to quantify this engagement photo shoot amongst all the ones I've done. I don't...this is my first one. After several cancellations due to rain dates, we got a beautiful, sunny day for the photo shoot. I feel very privileged to have known Lisa since 2002 when we spent a summer together in Shanghai. Also, she was my roommate when she and Peter started dating, so I've enjoyed (this year in particular) getting to see them interact.

We spent the day going to locations around Shanghai that had special meaning to the lovebirds. I have to say Shanghai is a great city fora photo shoot, but without further ado, I present to you, my first paid photographing gig (all proceeds go to the eventual purchase of a non-stock lens.)

We found a few props along the way...I don't like cats, but kittens are tolerably cute.

No photo shoot is complete without a jump shot.

I made them jump in this little cop mobile. We left just before the fuzz caught on to us.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Witching Season

I've been kind of frustrated with myself for the past six weeks or so. I had great plans to write something for The Urbanity Project, get working on some personal essays or short stories. At least type up more pages of one of my three full Moleskins. None of that happened, but just yesterday I realized's the season of my writing block and I can date it back to my junior year of high school. I remember Mrs. D, my AP English teacher, getting mildly annoyed with me that spring of my 16th year as I chronically crossed out words and phrases on every practice essay for an entire month leading up to the big AP exam. I always blamed it on the tiredness at the end of a semester, but I'm no longer a student (except of the world, of course.)

So I pronounce it the witching season--a restless, unproductive spell that I forget about every year until it happens again, always around April/May. Ideas are uninspired, sentences don't flow, and paragraphs don't mesh. I think it's time for a trip to America for a little inspiration, visits with old friends, and internet that will load one picture in less than ten minutes.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Retail Me Not: For the Discount Junkies

First let me preface this post by saying that I'm not being endorsed by the below mentioned website...this is free info just for you and you and you and you.

A little while back I was in the process of purchasing books and I thought how much better it would be if I didn't have to pay the whole price for them (even though they were used.) A brief search on Yahoo! brought me to this site called Retail Me Not, where people post discounts for online companies. It is brilliant. Many of the discounts are from email promotions, which you'll not hear about unless you're on the email blast list of every company from here to .com. I really love not paying full price for anything, so this is awesome. Why am I telling you all this now? Because I just saved $13.00 on a much needed new swimsuit from I think you'll agree that that is a pretty stinking good deal.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Just Purchased...Lots O' Books

A few books anyway. When one is carrying them across continents in one's backpack, a baker's dozen of books can feel like a ton of bricks, but who cares? Pages of wisdom, knowledge, hilarity, and stories are worth bruised shoulders. Why am I telling you all this??? Because, I will be heading to the great States of America in a few weeks and I have to get started now on my buying. (I've got a Feed-Me-Seymour type plant standing guard at my door, so don't try and break into my apartment to steal my collection of used shoes while I'm away.)

I know it's old news, but I only discovered a few years ago. It has since been very beneficial for this poor writer/editor/baker/amateur photographer. Don't worry, I still prefer bookstores and used bookstores--however you have to admit that $12-15 compared to $5 (with shipping) is a good deal and also terribly responsible for the environment and my wallet. So here is what I've just purchased, which will be on their way to my mom's cafe maybe by the time you're reading this.

  1. An Infinity of Little Hours: A writer follows 5 wanna-be Catholic monks as they enter the ranks of the quiet and holy. Who will make it? Who won't?
  2. On Writing Well: For the nonfiction all I need to do is have interesting things happen in my life that I can write about (besides, of course, the birth of Baby Gray.)
  3. Journey Without Maps: Graham Greene's travelogue of his travels through Africa in the 1930s. I can't wait to read this one. Greene is awesome and who doesn't love the name Graham (I do prefer the spelling Graeme, though.)
  4. Secrets in the Dark: Frederick Buechner comes up on all kinds of list as a must read theologian; therefore, I must read him.
  5. The Woodlanders: Freaking awesome title. I want to be a woodlander (perhaps that's what I am; however, I am temporarily stuck in a concrete jungle.) My last and only other Thomas Hardy read was the very good, but extremely depressing classic Jude the Obscure. Hoping this one is not quite so tragic. Plus, I think it's my red headed friends favorite novel, which is a good enough reason for me to read it.
  6. The Usual Suspects: No, not a book, but a movie I've been wanting for a long time. An ending not to be beaten.
Any other books I have to pick up while amongst my fellow red, white and bluers?

Questions for the Ages

Why did the canned audience always clap when Steve Urkel appeared on Family Matters?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Just Finished: Shanghai--The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City

Nearly 5 years into my Shanghai habitation, and I'm just reading this book. No excuse whatsoever either as a copy has been on my shelf for the better part of 3 or 4 years. But now I have read it and I am labeling myself an official expert of Shanghai between the years of 1842 and 1949, which I'm sure you'll agree, is quite the accomplishment after having completed this 294 page book.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I'd give this book a 3. The author, Stella Dong, seems to have done her research and provided a good view of the formation of Shanghai; however, I sometimes felt like her writing was trying a little too hard and some of the intrigue and rapid changes (that make Shanghai Shanghai) were hard to follow--there were so many Chens and Chiangs. I live here and I couldn't keep them all straight. I admit that this is not totally Dong's fault, but still, the names piled up like bodies on the shore of the Huangpu (or Whangpu has it was then called.)

As I read the annals of the city--the rise of foreign powers, the corruption, the urbanity, the alliances, and betrayals--I was consistently struck by how similar old Shanghai is with the present day version. The elite foreigners, impoverished "outsiders" (i.e. non-Shanghainese), rickshaws, the Shanghai attitude and aesthetic, debauchery, smelly creeks, working conditions, and red lights are all aspects of the city that are alive and well today. I got to wondering, is there a foundation built here in this city that continues to be built upon today? Sure, the negative things are a part of many, if not all, cities--yet this city seems to me to be unique in the way it flaunts itself and often turns a blind eye to its flaws. Foundations can be undone though and perhaps change is coming. It is up to the people in the city to do it. As the Expo ushers in myriad Chinese and foreign visitors, perhaps the concept of a Better City, Better Life will be a tiny spark that encourages the people of this metropolis to examine the things on which they put importance. Will it be things or people? Will it only be people like you or people in need? Whatever the case, it will certainly be passed down to the generations to come.