“And the Unfortunate Thing…” [Randomistas – a book review]

This is the kind of mother I am: when I find something interesting, I want to share it with my kids.

In the same way, if my kids ask a question, I’m going to want to answer it.

There is a story (well-know in my former circles) of Corrie ten Boom when she was a child. She asked her father was sex is, and instead of answering he suggested little Corrie carry his work bag. She was proud to try, but it was too heavy for her young self, and Dad said something along the lines of, “That answer is also too heavy for you right now, let me carry it until you are older.”

I am always caught off-guard when I hear this story, because I both think it’s brilliant (I think most parents of any era would be looking for a way out of that conversation, and this was so gentle and respectful), and I think, What a missed opportunity.

For years now I’ve been reading my kids my favorite stories. Reading to them, because a lot of my favorite stories contain elements I’ll edit out as I read (often sex, subtext, or violence). Things that I am happy to let my kids wait to discover. These tend to be part of the larger cultural experience of being human, but an adult human, so I filter.

(And I expect I’ll talk more about these books in future.)

This summer I took up reading and writing reviews for Net Galley. It feeds my acquisitive nature and inquiring mind.

And if the books are interesting, I share with whoever’s handy. For example, one of the first books I read and reviewed was Randomistas, by Andrew Leigh. I got into it because it was about so. much. different. stuff. (The common thread being how those things were studied and measured: randomized trials.)

Leigh opens his book with a vivid section on scurvy.

Scurvy was something I knew about the way the average person knows about… let’s say tides. High tides and low tides exist, and they come at certain intervals and have these vaguely specific effects on certain professions. So: enough that a passing reference in a story usually makes sense, but nothing in depth or actually descriptive. [If you are someone who as read even one article or talked with someone who’s explained them to you, yes, you know more that me.]

The author describes the results of ships overrun with scurvy (“Few men having the strength to work, some of the warships crashed into the rocks off South America. … Some of the sailors drowned because they were too weak to swim toward shore.”).

Then I saw the answer to the question I hadn’t noticed I never asked: “Scurvy affects –”

“Hey kids!” I called, gathering the wandering brood.

Seriously, how hard is it to restrict one’s wandering to the kitchen and dining room while eating?

“You want to hear something interesting? I never knew this before.” I still didn’t know it then, but I was interested, and they were looped in by the invitation, and maybe it being new to me. I proceeded to read aloud, with minor apologies at certain points that I’d brought this up while we were all eating…

“Scurvy affects the body’s connective tissues. At first, victims feel tired and uncoordinated. They bruise easily and their legs begin to swell. Then their gums become inflamed, their breath grows fowl and their sin becomes blotchy. Sailors were shocked to see old battle wounds beginning to bleed and bones that had healed separating again.”

I offered to stop when they stopped eating, but clambering cries of “You can’t stop now!” kept me reading. Continue reading »

Defy (Reading Notes)

Fantasy and wish-fulfillment done well.

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.

— Eric Hoffer

Each book, movie and television show, we love reveals some of our own desires, hopes and fears.

Every story is a fantasy.

We don’t read fantasy (just) to escape reality. We read to experience a reality we understand to be true and can’t access as often as we wish for it.

The fantasy in this story is a girl becoming one of the Boyz while still maintaining her attractiveness and desirability, evidenced through the two good men who both honor her and value her skills.

(Full review with spoilers at Writing Hope.)


Alienated (Reading Notes)

Alienated (Alienated, #1)Laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally relatable.

Most of the time when teenagers feel alienated, it’s because they haven’t found their niche: they’re running in that in-between zone that doesn’t fit the cliques or stereotypes of their school or culture or region.

Cara, in contrast, is at the top of her game. She’s not driven by “the crowd” but she’s not self-isolated or socially inexperienced either. She’s got a workable plan for her future, and becoming a world-famous host can only help that plan.

It’s because of her personal drive and ambition, along with her killer public speaking skills (she’s captain of the debate team, too) that she’s considered the ideal host for an intergalactic exchange-student program. While her older brother goes to live on another planet, one of that planet’s young people comes to live in Cara’s home.

(Full review, with spoilers, at Writing Hope.)

The Tutor’s Daughter (Reading Notes)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Five out of five stars.

(Hmmm, I’ll have to make a legend for the ratings scale.)

This is the second book I’ve read of Julie Klassen’s, and, in the (Christian, historical) romance genre, both novels encased pounding hearts and clasped hands in a well-shaped story with a bit of mystery and much of my favorite (the list of 13) elements of romance.

I enjoyed the twist of having the male, rather than the female, lead being the strong(er) person of faith.

(Granted I’m not a voracious romance-reader, but I’ve only seen it a couple of times before. There are also Christian stories where both parties are believers, and I like those, fine, too.)

I always get cringe-y when (just) the woman endures through externally foolish roadblocks and converts/wins the desirable man in the end. Not the message I want any woman I value to take home.

In this case you have the man doing what he can, witnessing-wise, with an awkwardness than can either interrupt the story-dream as you read, or else be seen as an accurate reflection of the real-life awkwardness than can go with sharing your faith with someone you love.

It had predictable character types (orderly blustocking, carefree second son) that were not diminished by the predictable roles they filled. Relationships between women were neither all good nor all bad, and genuine friendships– of different sorts– were well-portrayed.

One of the things that troubles me in some of the novels I’ve attempted to read, is how the author seems to go out of his/her way to isolate the characters, or put them through hell.  That can work, and it can look like trying too hard.

This was a refreshing example of healthy relationships not getting in the way of creating a good story.

I’m deciding that romances like these are my “cozies.”

A friend of mine once pointed out to me there are two different kinds (there may be more) of mysteries, and by extension books in general: cozies— that people read when they want to relax/center/calm down and — lacking a more precise word– thrillers, designed to excite/energize/key up a reader.

This was a helpful distinction for me, because it helps me when I am looking for a read to know what my purpose is. When I can nail down my purpose for reading (escape, emotional connection, stimulate the imagination, get energized, be affirmed in my perception of– or desire for– reality), I am more likely to be satisfied by my choice.

In this case I was very satisfied. The world created was genuine, motivations and goals were believable, and my connection to the characters drew me back to the story (so important in a long book) and let me disappear and recharge in the midst of a stressful time.

As a bonus, something (I will need to pay better attention in the future, so I can say exactly what and when) was toe-curlingly fun, and I laughed out-loud more than once.

Add to that I guessed wrong at least three times (even with the “predictable” types).

So after two solid wins, Julie Klassen is officially one of my go-to authors.  And this is now a new experience for me– finding an author who a) already has a number of books I haven’t read (but now want to) and b) who is still writing the type of books that pleased me in the first place.

Becoming a Writer (Reading Notes)

This is the second time I’ve seen this title (*On* Becoming a writer) on a blog, and both times I thought (admit I hoped) it was Becoming a Writer, by Dorthea Brand.  That book is over 30 years old now (aka, there are really cheap used copies on Amazon), but as it was first published in 1934, I was astonished that it was the first book I remember reading (in my early days of imbibing writing books) that said things I didn’t remember getting from school.

Dorthea’s was the first place I read about morning pages, and the only place where a confident, experienced writer suggested, ‘Now, look back at what you’ve written in those pages. This is a clue to the type of writer you naturally are.’

It was my first touch of self-knowing, not as indulgence, but as a path to greater joy and effectiveness in your work.

Busy Mind, Busy Life (Reading Notes)

Image courtesy of Timo Balk via stock.xchng

Jay got home Friday after a month away.

I’m starting to feel re-stablized, and ready to pick up whole books again. But this has been an interesting month of idea collecting (along with overwhelm…).

Every now-and-then I think I might start an INFJ blog, but then I do a bit of Googling and see there’s scads out there, and they make me notice more of my ENTP side, so I refrain from publicly claiming a “type” anymore.

For the most part.

But, for all you intuitive types who find yourself stuck between the “real world” of details and the “more equal” world of your thoughts and discoveries I will give you a peek into some of what my month of (blogging) silence has been steeped in.

It always seems like a crazy-huge variety while I’m reading and collecting, but sitting down in the (relative) peace and quiet of a school-isn’t-started-yet morning, I find a few broad headings can umbrella the frequent settings of my thoughts.

Even so, rabbit-trail chasers: you’ve been warned.

Body Thoughts

Writing Thoughts

Thoughts on Story/telling

Thoughts on Being/Belief/Behavior

From Sarah Bessey: We use words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or motherhood or marriage, and I think it’s wrong to do this.

We use these words like they are freeing or universal or helpful, but they are forging new chains for a new law.  There is no such thing as “real” woman or a “real” man. If you are a man, you are a real man. If you are a woman, you are a real woman.

In an Unspoken Voice is based on the idea that trauma is neither a disease nor a disorder, but rather an injury caused by fright, helplessness and loss that can be healed by engaging our innate capacity to self-regulate high states of arousal and intense emotions.

Such an encouraging, hope-offering thought.

Thoughts on Book-Reading

I’ve signed up for Net Galley‘s reading & reviewing program, so I’m excited to make Reading Notes a more consistent feature here at Untangling Tales. My favorite non-fiction titles are about mental and physical health, and how they intersect with every-day life. The fact that these books are being written, and that they’re available to me = lots of warm-fuzzies.

The Brain is an Amazing Thing (Reading Notes)

Leaving aside for the moment that I agree with the people who dismiss the left-brain/right-brain distinction of analysis/logic vs. creativity/innovation, the fact remains that brain scans do allow for observation of activity within the brain.

Image courtesy of Julia Freeman-Woolpert via stock.exchng

One of the things Shadow Syndromes brings up is how brain activity changes as a person moves from sadness or grief into an actual (say, clinical) depression.

In sadness, and in any normal emotion, PET scans reveal an active left-brain (I found this alone fascinating, as some proudly “right-brained” individuals straw-man “left-brainers” as dull intellectual robots).

Dr. Mark George (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist) has done PET scans on grieving and depressed individuals, and has an interesting theory about sadness becoming (morphing into) Depression.

As a person moves into depression the left-brain activity shifts from more-than-usual (in sadness) to less-than-usual.

“The overactive left brain of the sad person, he believes, eventually burns itself out, becoming the underactive left brain of the clinically depressed,” (p. 86)

This makes me think of the commonly designated role of the left-brain (thinking-workhorse) and Chesterton’s observation that it is the logician, not the poet, who goes mad, and King Solomon’s solemn warning that with increased knowledge comes increased sorrow.

It makes me think of the college worker’s observation that depression after the semester ends is attributed to mental fatigue.

But as I continued to read, and the book described the (measured) tendencies of the Right-brain, and I’m forming a new theory.

I wonder if the book will discuss this eventually.

The Right-brain, tied in public consciousness to creativity and innovation, is somewhat responsible for the negative part of our understanding.

A stroke that damages the right side of the brain, to the point of paralyzing the entire left side of the body, is taken surprisingly well, according to observation. The jaunty, we’ll get through this, and Its only temporary, override even medical advice. Continue reading »

King’s Property (Reading Notes)

This is the first book in a Trilogy called Queen of the Orcs, the title which sounds rather Spoilery right there.

This isn’t a book review, per se, but consider yourself spoiled (warned) if you choose to keep reading.

King’s Property would have been a fascinating read at any time, but as I had just shifted to a new main character within Lindorm’s cast (wanting someone with more inherent power to act and create change within the story), it was interesting to read about a powerless main character.

Dar is a branded slave, unable to escape because the brand meant she was worth more dead than alive. She allies herself with the fearsome Orcs she was recruited to serve, and displays her character through her willingness to adapt, and her compassion for those even weaker than herself.

I remember them from my own imaginations as a teenager: a pregnant woman then her newborn daughter. A young girl who needs mothering.

My gripe with this trilogy came when I got half way through the second book, Dar has fallen in love with one of her Orc friends.

No, that’s not the part I object to: if you don’t have a problem with Elf or djinn spouses, which I always rolled with up till now, there’s no reason to cry foul because the species is ugly. Their admirable character has already been established.

Being the way I am, I wanted to know if this was a ploy or a new cord to pull through the ending. (I’d gotten all three books from the library at the same time.)

Now, I should say, I gave this a bit of time. I recognized the elf/djinn fairness of letting her chose an orc, so I was riding it out to see what they did with this new arrangement.

In this world the Orc society was matriarchal the way the human society was patriarchal. That is to say, the person who held absolute power and the ultimate NO changed gender, but not inclination to wield it.

As yet this didn’t particularly bother me, and I even thought it was fairly well played, because there are benevolent patriarchies (though Dar had not experienced them) and a benevolent Matriarchy would be just as hierarchically-based.

But it started to wear on me, and my quick glance at the two-paragraph epilogue (where Dar happily embraces her daughters) was no longer enough to assure me this would end my kind of well.

I back tracked a few pages (in the end of the last book– yes. I’m that sort of a reader), and found where she brokenheartedly but firmly tells her lover that there’s no way they could live a meaningful life together (on the outskirts of Orc society) even if he was willing to be “invisible” with her. No one would want to marry their daughters, etc.

It struck me that the story opened with her being pulled ambivalently from her crap-sack family, and now were ending with her walking away from the new family she had, with great difficulty, built for herself.

After the blow-off-for-his-own-good, Dar then talks with the lover’s cousin about how there’s a quite-pretty orc that will make the rejected lover a fine wife, and he’ll be well taken care of, etc.

I was willing to see the rejection as a legitimate (if misdirected) effort to prevent their future children from rejection, but this last bit of conversation killed it for me.

You see, my measure of appropriateness in a ‘role reversal’ (such as this where females assume the lead/dominance normally attributed to males, or where whites are the minority rather than the default skin tone), is to flip it back around.

So in this case, I saw a Shane-like figure (as I disclaimer I’ve never read the book or seen the movie, I just know he leaves at the end) who graciously but firmly turns down the lovely, wispy blond he’s given marked attention to his whole time in town. He cites whatever reasonable reasons he has and tells her to go home to daddy.

Which she does, bravely hiding her tears as she walks away.

‘Shane’ then turns to her cousin, milking the cow and they proceed to talk about how some other good-looking guy’s been trying to get her attention all this time, and if she’ll just let him fix her broken heart everything will be hunky-dory.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find both scenarios equally distasteful.

As it comes down to it, I really expected that, having been the bottom of the pile under the old system, Dar would have recognized the flawedness of such systems and tried to do something about it. And maybe she did in the beginning of the book-3 I didn’t read. The problem is that it didn’t last to the end.

She held all the power, and he was the good little male and did what his superior told him to do. Because she was higher than him, and he knew it was his job to submit.

I really liked Dar in the first book for her persistence and creativity in doing what she could to live the best life she could, but this ending felt like a type of giving up, and I was really disappointed.

Chose not to finish the trilogy, but I’d probably read the first book again.

Recommended for ages 17 and up:
General mistreatment and violence of both the sword and the sexual kinds. Not hugely graphic, but more than just hints at what’s going on.

Kids Reading (Reading Notes)

Natasha has been reading for a long time now, and definitely prefers the series I consider “fluff.”

Light reading that is not particularly meaningful, but harmless.

The fairy books by “Daisy Meadows” are currently the Doritos books of choice for all three of my kids.  And I’m pretty much okay with them as library books.  They’re so generic, formulaic and predictable I don’t feel the need to read them before letting the kids.

Mostly, I’m a selfish reader: I want to read my stuff (the stuff I’m interested in reading for myself).

But I’m also a protective mom, all too aware of gateway books (those books that are unobjectionable themselves, but tie directly into material that I don’t consider appropriate for the child who’s just finished book-1).

Alanna is my textbook example of this. Wonderful story, exciting and well-told. Any girl who’d read #1 would burn through #s 2-4 ASAP. But those all involve premarital sex, and as something light and experimental.

Perhaps I’ll do a post someday on what will make me tolerate sex in a story rather than be done with that book (and maybe the author) altogether.

Like swearing or violence, it has to need to be there. And it doesn’t need to be in middle grade books. Ever.

Anyway, my mom never let me read Doritos books. At least, she leaned really hard on me when I picked up, say, a Sweet Valley High paperback from a garage sale, and while it lived on the lavender shelves in my room, I never read it.

I read loads of Jim Kjelgaard (mostly dog stories), Walter Farley and Margarette Henry (mostly horse stories), and nearly everything Brian Jaques wrote before I left high school.

I read other stuff too (I *hated* A Wrinkle in Time with a fearful passion), and had a Hermione-like reputation in my family for being full of random facts that I would pull out at various applicable and inapplicable times. I read enough non-fiction (including the 1960s encyclopedias my mom brought from home) that they just assumed I’d read it somewhere.

All that to say, I know I’ve read loads of kid books, but that was 25 years ago, and there are loads of books (many of them awesome) that I haven’t read.

So I’ve begun taking a principles approach with Natasha. I’ll skim a book for author philosophy, and let her pick out her own, mostly, and I won’t even insist she read the stuff I read at her age because I want her to discover what she likes.

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, a man said I should read Banner in the Sky.  I tried, he was very special to me, but the book bored me silly. Adventure and survival genres have never been my thing.

So I’ve been letting her pick out her own books, but I have begun insisting that at least half the books she chooses be older than her. And at least one older than me.


What I told Natasha is that every author is stuck in their own time, the way each culture is stuck in their own skin. You are a product of your time, and have to stretch to see more. There are ideas and angles you will not see if you always look from where you sit.

And so I think it is important to cast your reading net broadly.

At the same time, as a modern writer, I think it’s also important to support authors who are putting out good works now.  Two main reasons:

  1. You don’t get stuck in the false (*cough*lazy*cough*) assumption that old is always better. (Really it means someone else has already done the vetting. A fair starting place, but no need to be stuck there.)
  2. There’s really nothing like falling in love with a story, and getting to meet the person who wrote it, or being able to write a thank you note to the giver of a wonderful experience (something I heartily I recommend).

Default Matters (Reading Notes)

I am in the early chapters of a book called Shadow Syndromes, and currently am fascinated by the concept the authors put forward that they label Noise.

In the same way, they say, as all sick people are going to have a baseline of feeling cruddy (tired, confused, unmotivated, general yuck) all brain issues also have a baseline of some general, indeterminate but distinctly distracting busy-ness that gets in the way of our brains doing exactly what we want them to do.

Just as literal noise (the neighbor’s music, nearby traffic, baby crying can be alternately ignorable and maddening, so can this brain-noise. It’s something extra to process, and so an additional draw on our physical/intellectual resources.


There’s this (thank God, happily married) researcher named Gottman who’s been studying relationships and marriage for decades. This book describes Gottman’s observation of the direct correlation between heart rate and the capacity to argue like adults.

Before Gottman puts his study-subjects “under glass,” and tells them to pick a subject of conflict, he hooks up monitors to measure a variety of physical markers– including “general somatic activity” (how active is the nervous system).

The correlation is consistent with what we’ve all experienced: the more active all these markers get, the less functional the communication becomes. Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal,” and it’s a reasonable summary of what Shadow Syndrome‘s authors call noise.

“Gottman actually advises troubled couples to take their pulses in the midst of battle. In his experience, when a man’s pulse reaches eighty beats per minute, on average, and a woman’s pulse ninety, there is little point in going on.”


“To put it bluntly, once in a noisy state, people are simply not as smart as they are when calm.”

The heart rate is just the at-home check anybody can do: the fact is the entire body of a combative individual is getting worked up.

Intensifying the noise.

It is a collection of extra demands on the brain, diverting energy from the “higher processes” of reasoning, empathy, the reading of body language, and subtext.

What warring partners are left with is the dubiously termed, overlearned behaviors.

These are the patterns we have repeated so many times we have burned their processes into our neural pathways. They were learned and practiced in childhood, and so have had the most time to entrench themselves as the default position.

You don’t have to think about them and that is the point.

When you are too tired (or busy) to think, these are your go-to behaviors.

Which, really, explains a lot for me. In real-life and in writing.

I’m an over-thinker already, so when I’m mapping out a scene, I really have a hard time, in good conscience, making a character do something stupid.

I mean, I know people do stupid things all the time and in a story that’s often how you get interesting things to happen. Character-A does something stupid, and we get to spend a chapter (or half the book) getting him out of it.

Other than writing by the seat of my pants (and not seeing the trouble myself, so I’ll believe the character wouldn’t) the best advice I ever got about getting characters to act stupid was Have them make decisions in a hurry.

Another option, according to this research, is to have them act in anger, or some other intense emotion, or while there’s enough other stuff going on that the decision-maker is not functioning at full capacity.

The point is– well, two points.

a) We really do deteriorate as an argument stresses us. So if progress (or relationship improvement) is our goal, taking breaks really is the best policy.

This might even be why discussing the issue in front of someone you both respect (even if s/he offers no direct input) can have value: it might be easier to maintain self-control with an audience, and you could get farther before hitting critical mass.

Maybe this is even the point of talk-therapy: the counselee is “forced” to move linearly and may be less-likely to perseverate or deteriorate to “overlearned processes” like anxiety.

b) What you were like as a kid still affects who you are now.

The subset of this being: teach your kids processing/communication skills NOW. And take every opportunity to practice with them.