All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

He’d never touched her and her hand was small and her waist so slight and she looked at him with great forthrightness and smiled and put her face against his shoulder. They turned under the lights. A long trumpet note guided the dancers on their separate and collective paths. Moths circled the paper lights aloft and the goathawks passed down the wires and flared and arced upward into the darkness again.

This is my favorite paragraph in the whole book. It’s a beautiful paragraph that inspires and taunts me. In many ways McCarthy’s style runs so counter to my own, yet I cannot help but aspire to it. Of course, it’s a hopeless aspiration, because even if I was to achieve writing on this level, it would be my own and not his. But it’s an aspiration nonetheless.

Cormac McCarthy is an author who intimidates me. He does so more than any of the other authors I admire so much. More than Hugo, Hemingway, Lewis and Rowling, Cormac McCarthy’s work seems like a towering statue on the horizon, an unmovable stone giant lording over the barren waste before him. He is who he is, and his work stands above all.

I’ve often heard that All the Pretty Horses is his most accessible work. I think that’s true, but I’m not sure that is where I would advise someone to start. It’s either this or The Road, and depending on who the recommendation is for it’s probably a coin flip.

Our focus falls upon John Grady for this book. He’s the final heir to a long line of Texas ranchers, and he longs for a way of life that is long gone. He leaves for Mexico, looking for remnants of a world that has past, and maybe never was.

In his travels and travails we find the dying cries of the Old West. McCarthy writes in a manner that suits the land, economical in pace, beautiful in language, and honest about the ugliness of the world John Grady found. It’s a powerful story of love and honor, and one that feels all to real.

This book in particular moved me in a way that I miss. It reminded me of the joy of reading a great writer at the height of his mastery. Like the best works, it makes me want to write. It drives me to create, even if I can never reach the bar it sets.

The Evolution of Podcasting: Inquisitive, The Record & Welcome to Macintosh

Serial blew up the podcasting world last fall. For many, many people Serial was their first impression of podcasting. For many others, myself included, it was a very visible step forward in a medium that has been full of less visible, but even more important, steps forward for the last 10 years.

Serial is a very different show than the one that formed my first impression of podcasting, Adam Curry’s The Daily Source Code in 2005. The public radio polish and production quality is miles ahead of those original podcasts, and of many popular shows today. Many old guard podcast folks from the tech world scoffed at Serial as nothing new, just an evolution of one of the most popular radio shows-turned-podcasts in the world, This American Life.

They might be right, but I don’t care if that’s true. In the more traditional world of tech podcasting there a few new shows who are taking their cue from public radio-style storytelling podcasts. Because these are shows without public radio budgets and they are still doing top-notch work, they are the ones really driving the medium forward. Where Serial may have been the general public’s introduction to podcasting, shows like Inquisitive, The Record and Welcome to Macintosh are podcasting’s introduction to storytelling.

I am sure that there are other shows doing similar work, but these are shows that made their appearance in my corner of the internet, in this case the Apple fanboy section. Inquisitive rebooted the show in episode #27: Behind the App #1. The show evolved from its one-on-one interview style to a story-driven format featuring multiple guests and telling one long story over the course of many episodes. By documenting the history of the iTunes App Store and the app industry up to the current moment, Myke Hurley is creating a valuable historical record while also weaving a compelling narrative. Along with Welcome to Macintosh (currently on episode #1) and last year’s The Record from Brent Simmons and Chris Parrish will document one of the most interesting aspects of the (current) world’s most valuable company.

My hope is that more and more podcast producers, and people who aren’t making shows yet, are inspired by this growing number of shows that tell compelling stories in long form. Storytelling is a powerful medium. Narrative stories connect with people in ways that nothing else can. I hope that this is the beginning of a new renaissance in storytelling, and podcasts lead the way. The podcasting world and all of us will be better off for it.

‘Culture Care’ by Makoto Fujimura

I blazed through the 104 pages of this book in just a few days. I will be urging lots of my fellow Story Teamers to read it. It is a powerful argument for the need for artists to step forward and start renewing our decaying culture.

Culture Care is a sustained argument that articulates the need for all artists, particularly Christians, to step forward into thinking generatively. It is a call to establish communities and organizations dedicated to developing what Fujimura calls ‘cultural estuaries’ that are upstream from our culture and can bring us back to beauty and truth.

It is not a call for more ‘Christian’ art, in fact Fujimura successfully shows why such a category is flawed in its most basic premise. It is a call for Christian artists, the ‘border-stalkers’ of our community, to function in a way that creates an ebb and flow between the church and the broader culture. He even outlines how this can serve to defuse some aspects of the culture wars. This book is prescriptive in nature, it does not show proven methods, rather outlines a plan for others to follow.

I am a huge fan of Fujimura’a paintings, but this book has increased my estimation of him even more. It shows solid thinking, a keen understanding of the church in America’s situation, and an inside view of the artist’s mind. He weaves these together into  well thought out approach to our culture’s biggest issues. He is a top-notch thinker on arts and culture, and with this book he has given believing artists and creative catalysts a lot to think about, and aspire to.

‘No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy

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It doesn’t matter that Cormac McCarthy lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his work makes me think of him as a West Texan. West Texas, from El Paso, to Marfa, to Lubbock and Amarillo is a hard, dry land that will take everything from you in a heartbeat. But there is also rugged beauty and some of the best people on earth. It’s a land with character,—and a murderous streak. I can’t think of a better way to describe Cormac McCarthy’s work, either.

This past weekend The Austin Stone Story Team held an artist retreat, and in many of my conversations McCarthy’s work came up. So much so, that I started re-reading No Country for Old Men while we were still there.

No Country for Old Men is not McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel, nor is it my favorite, but it’s the one I always think of when I think of his work. The characters are unforgettable. Chigurh, the psychopath. Sheriff Bell, the aging war hero and lawman. And of course Llewellyn Moss, the man who really did know better. The setting is southwest Texas, centered in Terrell County. The first pages of the novel open with violence, and it flows through the rest of the pages with a realistic, cold detachment.

My favorite thing about McCarthy’s approach to this novel is the first person narratives from Sheriff Bell that open each chapter. Paired with the third person narratives that follow, the reader can easily inhabit the skin of the Sheriff and see the world from his point-of-view, while viewing the violence of the story through the eyes of our somewhat dispassionate narrator.

I love this book. Even if it is not his best, that still puts it far above most of the other so-called literary masterpieces of our day.

‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully’ by John Piper

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield, and C.S. Lewis by John Piper is a short, powerful and inspiring shot to the heart for any lover of words and Jesus. It’s one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while, and one that left me wanting more.

Piper sews a common thread through the works of three great Christian Englishmen, namely that proclaiming the gospel of Christ beautifully helps us see him more beautifully. It’s a powerful assertion that he backs up clearly, and one that invites the reader to join these three giants.

George Herbert was a 16th century country pastor and poet, seen by scholars as an immensely pivotal figure in the history of English poetry. His works, published posthumously and published continually since, are entirely focused on his faith and devotion to Christ.

George Whitefield was an 18th century English preacher and key figure in the Great Awakening in both Britain and the American colonies. He preached an enormous number of sermons, an impossible number actually. Piper estimates that for many weeks of his life, actually preached for sixty hours a week. As Piper points out, for most of his career, Whitefield spoke more than he slept.

The most well known of these three men to readers today is of course, C.S. Lewis. Lewis was the foremost spokesman for British Christianity in the mid-20th century. He was an awe-inspiring public intellectual, taking three First Class Honors at Oxford, the top expert of Medieval English literature in the world, and a best-selling novelist.

Piper starts the book with an extended discussion of eloquence, particularly what kinds of eloquence either honor Christ or elevate the speaker and dishonor the cross. In turn, he then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of each these three mens’ autobiographies, theologies, and professional lives, then settles into a different aspect of their work, each on this common thread of proclaiming the beauties of Christ.

This book is a must read in my mind for any Christian who is a writer, speaker, pastor, poet or avid reader. Even if you do not see yourself in any of these categories, I would commend this book to you. The illustrations draw from each of these men’s work will stretch your understanding of beauty in words, and your imagination of the glories of Christ. It’s an inspiring read that prompted me to pick up the pen and expend more poetic effort myself.

‘It’s All Too Much’ by Peter Walsh

The first book I finished for my goal of 35 books in 2015 was ‘It’s All Too Much’ by Peter Walsh. I never would have chosen this book on my own. From the cheesy cover to the author’s sweet spot of helping hoarders, it strikes me as a book I just don’t need to read. Enter Merlin Mann, gentleman about the Internet.

In Back to Work episode #202, Merlin mentioned this book along with ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen as the two books that influence him greatly and he continues to recommend to everyone. Being a big fan of Merlin and the other book, I immediately ordered this one from Amazon. It was a good call.

This book could help anyone, provided you realize one thing: clutter in your life is everyone’s problem, not just the hoarders on TV. If you can open this book with an honest intent to listen, there is good stuff to be found here.

First, Walsh’s philosophy will sound very familiar to Christians. His basic premises are:

  • We all have too much stuff
  • The stuff you own, will end up owning you
  • Clutter is not about your stuff, but about how you see your stuff

This is true. Mankind is bent to love created things more than the Creator. This leads to disordered views of possessions, which is what drives the clutter in our homes. Walsh’s best contribution is giving us tools, questions and patterns to think through the emotions, thoughts and issues behind our junk.

Walsh’s recommendations for how to approach the home are good across the board, and they will benefit everyone. The chapters that walk through the average home and provide strategies for de-cluttering and organizing are helpful. But it’s the chapters that reveal how we think about our stuff, and how we need to process our emotions relating to our clutter, that really carry the water in this book.

We already had a plan in place to do some purging in the new year, and this book provided a clearer way to think through it than I had before. It honestly helped me get started on our plans, and in a more productive way than I previously had in mind. It was well worth it.

The one note of redirection I will add for my fellow Christians is simple: the control over possessions and environment that Walsh advocates is crucial for reorganizing your life, but it’s not the answer. Walsh tells us to ask ourselves “do my possessions will help me have the life I envision?”. But, instead we should ask, “do my possessions help me have a life that glorifies God and seeks to see him glorified?”

With that one minor redirection in place, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone. It’s definitely better than the cover suggests.

35 Books in 2015

I’m not happy with the amount of books I read in 2014. Oh, I read plenty, but not as many books as I’d like. Most of my reading in the last several years comes from blogs, links on Twitter and a few online magazines.  But not many books.

Since I was a little kid I’ve been an avid reader. I read tons and tons of books every year. But since the rise of the Internet, blogs and social media, more and more of my reading time has steadily shifted from books to online sources. That’s not bad necessarily, but as a man of letters, it’s not good for me.

So, this year I am making an active effort to read 35 books. I don’t have a list of which ones, my selections will be spontaneous. I will also write a brief post for each book I read. They won’t exactly be reviews, but I will post something for each.

As he often has in the last several years, Austin Kleon inspired me to set a specific goal with his list of tips for reading more. His list (and links):

  • Throw your phone in the ocean. (Or, keep it in airplane mode.)
  • Carry a book with you at all times.
  • Have another book ready before you finish the one you’re reading. (Make a stack of books to-read or load up your eReader.)
  • If you aren’t enjoying a book or learning from it, stop reading it immediately. (Flinging it across the room helps give closure.)
  • Schedule 1 hour of non-fiction reading during the day. (Commutes, lunch breaks, and any contained period of idle time work well.)
  • Go to bed 1 hour early and read fiction. (It will help you sleep.)
  • Keep a reading log and share your favorite books with others. (They will send you even more books to read.)

I love this list, and it gave me the push I needed to set a goal.

So, 35 in 2015. Here we go.

A New Year

Stability is not a given, and when we have it, it’s usually not a blessing. That might sound crazy to you, but I’ve come to believe it firmly in the last year.

When I looked forward to 2014 a year ago, I was fairly certain that I knew what our year would look like. Turns out, I was a fool for being so certain. 2014 was, on the whole, a great year. But it wasn’t stable, and it wasn’t predictable.

Creatively, this past year was mixed. Personally, it was a year of dreams but not much action. I did not finish any of my major writing projects. My goal to blog more fell flat. I did launch a tech blog, but its following is not large—which is commiserate with the amount of writing I put into it.

But all was not lost. Story Team had an amazing year, and it’s still getting better. I’m proud of the team and the work we’ve done. I love our writers and I’ to lead them. The wins we’ve had as a team definitely overshadow my personal failures, but I still want 2015 to be different.

Professionally, 2014 seemed to hold a lot of promise, and there were a lot of accomplishments. I had an amazing team that I love working with. Last year I got to work with some of the smartest colleagues in my career so far. However, not all things work out as they should, but that’s another story for another time.

Personally, 2014 was a good year. Our marriage is great, the best it’s ever been. Other than professional and creative struggles outlined above, my life was pretty dang good this year. But there have been lots of internal changes: I’m more organized about my work and my responsibilities. I overturned how I do many, basic, things. I’ve grown and matured spiritually. I’m also more unsatisfied with my creative failures. I grew unsatisfied with my professional goals. I reworked my priorities across my entire life. I intentionally refocused my vision and goals around the glory of God and a desire to see Christ exalted.

That’s a lot of turnover, and it’s not done yet. 2015 will be unstable. There will be ups and downs and surprises all along the way. But, I know it’s good for me. I know that’s what God will do to keep growing me.

We all need instability. We need change and uncertainty to force us to rethink our beliefs and actions. We need to be tested and tried. We need to learn to lean on God in our struggles, and not ourselves. None of this happens in a soft cushy life. We won’t grow if we know what every day will bring, and if we know we can handle it. We need to be pushed. We need to be tempted.

We need to be unstable. Across the board stability is not a good thing for a believer. It’s an obstacle to sanctification. I’m glad that obstacle was removed in 2014. I pray that 2015 will be just as unpredictable.

Perfect for writing

I don’t know if it makes me shallow or not a real writer or something, but my writing often depends on being in a specific mood. Right now, it’s 50-something degrees outside, and there’s a light rain. The window is open, and I have a mug of hot tea in hand. On the screen in front of me is a project that I’m excited about.

This is the perfect setting for me. I love it.

‘Serial’

The ‘This American Life’ podcast might be the best showcase of storytelling on the internet, and it’s definitely the best of public radio. I love their work and recommend the show to anyone interested in telling or consuming stories.

A few weeks ago, they upped their game. They launched a new podcast, ‘Serial.’ From the summary of the first episode:

It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.

The first three episodes have been released, and they are great. Truly great. Please subscribe, both for your benefit and in hopes that this projects success will lead to more efforts like it.