Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In her eyes

(Many years ago, I wrote a simple article about my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I had written a poem in Spanish, my native language, but somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to be published in Guideposts, so I wrote the following article in English for that. I never sent it I have no idea why... maybe laziness... I don't know. Probably I didn't think it was good enough. But I thought today was a good day for it to finally see the light, mostly because I want to make sure that if you have a loved one suffering from this disease you realize that they still have much to offer, that you still have a chance to connect with them, to get to know them in a very different way, to enjoy their quirks, their wit, even their crankiness. Under your relative's thin veil of confusion there lies the person he/she was, without inhibitions.)

As my best friend dialed her grandmother’s telephone number, I stood still, amazed that she knew the number by heart. Suddenly, I felt a rush of guilt overflowing me, "How come I don’t know grandma’s phone number?"

I thought we were a very close family. We visited our grandmother every week and she would give my sisters and me a glass of Pepsi and a plate of Social Tea cookies. We talked, we watched television, shared a few memories together and then, off we went to our house until another week had passed and we would do it all over again. I never felt the need to call my grandmother, Tata, on the phone. Whatever it was we had to say, I figured, it could wait until our next visit. So my guilt found a justification and I was relieved.

However, although we may plan visits and trips and rationalizations, we can never fully plan for our unknown future, God does it for us. And His plan for our next step in life took me by surprise: Tata had Alzheimer’s and she could not live alone any longer. She misplaced her keys, she believed that she was being robbed, she argued that she wasn't receiving her retirement checks, she wasn't eating right, dressing right or behaving normally. She was sick.

So my family’s next move was for her to move in with us. "Well", I thought, "at least I will know her phone number now." But it felt strange. Pretty soon I realized that a few cookies and sodas, a few visits and talks did not provide for an understanding of who this woman sleeping in the bed next to mine really was. I did not know her.

What bothered me the most was that it was too late to start getting to know her. She had lost sight of who I was, who my mother was, where she was, what year it was, if she had eaten, if she took a shower, if the dress she had on was hers (and most of the time it was mine). Sometimes she didn't even recognize herself and had conversations with her mirror image! To me, it was funny and endearing, but, at the same time, I sadly realized that it was impossible to get to know someone that didn't even know herself anymore. The more her mind escaped her, the more irrational and erratic she acted.

On the days we went to church, however, she was on her best behavior. A woman raised with strict rules, she knew how to behave in public and she never forgot that. She was extremely ladylike and very well mannered, unlike me, and, she would say, unlike my sisters, too. To her, we had no social skills whatsoever. She knew how to sit properly, how to address someone in public, how to talk to strangers. She valued appearances, so she would put on makeup up to her ears, she would brush her hair, and always, always, pose. She would pose when talking to someone, she would pose for the camera, she would pose when laughing, she would pose when having a headache or when inventing a headache, she would pose when she wanted to dance or even when she thought no one was looking. She had class. I never knew that before.

At home, she would sit in the rocking chair, staring at herself 70 years before. She was a teenager in her eyes. She would ask to see her mother, her deceased sister Maria, her brother Milan, and her father. She wanted to be sure the cows were taken care of and the errands had been run. Then, suddenly, it was 30 years later and she was asking to see her daughters, her husband, and Juanchon, her driver. She wanted to cook dinner, tend to the pets, and make sure the clothes were washed. A very hands-on and caring person, she always wanted to be certain her family was well and taken care of.

When she came back to our reality, she would call me by name but did not recall she was my grandmother; she thought she was my aunt, that my mother was her sister, and that she was in charge of all of us. She was the matron of the house, capable of making decisions, the woman in charge who would kick visitors out if she thought it was too late or that it was the wrong time to visit. Every single time we had to explain her situation and ask our friends to please forgive her. But she was offended if her authority was questioned. In her eyes, she was responsible enough, old enough, intelligent enough, healthy enough to be respected and to be seen as the leader, as the chief. She was tough, and strong, and stern.

Tata was never more real to me than in those last years of her life. In the beginning, I was frustrated and afraid that I wouldn't know how to deal with her because I didn't know her. In the end, I realized that God really does work in unexpected ways. When I thought it was too late to get to know the woman lying in the bed next to mine, God opened a beautiful window through her eyes and I got to meet my grandmother as a child, as a teenager, as a newlywed, as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend. God knew it was not too late to get to know the funny, classy, caring and strong woman Tata was, and so He made sure I would meet her when I was old enough to know how important and valuable she really was.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fear has a Name, by Creston Mapes

Jack and Pamela Crittendon live an ideal life: great marriage, beautiful daughters, a Christian household, nice home in a nice neighborhood… But when a dangerous stalker zeros in on them, their idyllic life begins to fall apart. While little by little the stalker seems to rob them of their peace, their security and their trust in God, Jack tries to keep his family safe and protected. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of a local pastor who has gone missing after leaving a suicide note in his office. As a journalist, Jack is committed to uncovering the truth behind the pastor’s mysterious disappearance to bring closure to his family. But nothing is what it seems, people are not who they say they are, no one knows what really happened and others prefer that it stays that way. With a pastor missing, his family in danger, a stalker on the loose and a double murder, everything is out of control and Jack’s world is upside down. Learning to trust God has never been more difficult… or more crucial.

As the story opens, the first scene was so great and scary it made me think twice about reading the book. The details and descriptions, together with our own imagination made for a very entertaining and frightful beginning. But 'Fear has a Name' is more of a drama than a thriller. Although there’s action and suspense, the story is more an unraveling of the characters’ inadequacies, fears, sins, pasts, tragedies, psychological issues, greed, hypocrisies and lies. It’s more of a good look into depression, its roots and consequences.

As we learn about the stalker, we can’t help but feel sorry for him and at the same time despise him. His depression has its roots in his parents, their Christian hypocrisy and their hate towards him. He feels unloved, unwanted and alone. He has his reasons for being who he is, for becoming that person, but nothing can justify his behavior. On the other hand, we have Pastor Evan. He has clinical depression and we can’t help but feel for him and at the same time be irritated by him. He is a great pastor, a great counselor who loves people and is genuinely interested in them. But the selfishness of his decisions, the disregard for his family and his self-centeredness was almost shocking.

The parallelisms between these two stories were nicely written: one with a good Christian home, the other from a hypocritical Christian household; both battling with depression, both on the run trying to escape their problems and their futures. A kidnapping of a person and a kidnapping of a soul.

However, as conflicted and as full of contradictions as these two characters are, Jack and Pamela are, well, bland. They are the main characters, but they just don’t grab our attention and interest as the others. Their actions are expected and their decisions, predictable.

Although the first few pages set the stage for what promised to be a great suspenseful ride, the drama overcomes the thriller and suspense and the story became more of an introspective look into the characters’ lives, their thoughts and feelings. We are privy to how they analyze their circumstances and to their internal reactions to everything, and it’s not good. Since most of the main characters are Christian, the story turns into a semi-sermon at almost every page, becoming too preachy and sometimes boring. Talking about God, his faithfulness, salvation, mercy, love and grace is wonderful; these are good news. But in a work of fiction, the repetition is unnecessary and makes the story monotonous.

We can still see glimpses of the author’s great ability to create tension and suspense, but they are fleeting. In a suspense/thriller the not knowing and guessing and discovering are the best parts, but here the stalker’s identity is revealed too soon and in an almost prosaic way. The same thing happens with Pastor Evan’s story, which made the story feel like running out of steam too early.

A wonderful beginning that gave way to an introspective drama that ended with a less than remarkable ending, 'Fear has a Name' does one thing very, very right: it gets to the core of our fears and the real solution for them: God. Through each struggle and problem, the characters, much like us, questioned God, His will and His reasoning. And as they learn and see God’s reassuring hand in everything, the reader ends up doing the same.

3 (or maybe 2.5) stars out of 5

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, David C. Cook, in exchange of an honest review.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Plain Disappearance, by Amanda Flower

On her first date with Timothy Troyer, Chloe Humphrey couldn’t be happier. A beautiful place, a romantic setting, soft snow, a sweet gift, and… a dead girl? And not just any girl: she’s a beautiful Amish teenager. Chloe is, once again, in the middle of a mystery: was she murdered? If she was murdered, by whom? How? Why? And when the evidence starts to point towards Timothy’s friend, Billy Thorpe, he joins forces with Chloe to try to prove his friend’s innocence. But Billy is nowhere to be found and when they discover that he is not who he says he is and that he is far more dangerous than he has let on, Chloe and Timothy set out to find him to confront him and bring him to justice, or prove his innocence.

This is a very entertaining book; a very light read with really well developed characters that make the book fun and interesting. Chloe is bright, bold and a risk taker. Her roommate (and Timothy’s sister) Becky is vivacious, fun but conflicted. Chief Rose is very unique in her own way, tough, brash and strong. Tanisha, Chloe’s best friend, is funny and smart. Grandpa Zook (Timothy’s grandfather) is a wonderfully colorful character, as well as most of the family. Chloe as the lead and these secondary characters make the series and this book in particular a great read.

However, Timothy, the male lead, stands in contrast with the rest: he is calmer, a little bit of a pushover and somewhat bland. He is very romantic and sweet, but with so many interesting characters in the book, Timothy stands apart lacking the depth and intriguing factor that the rest have. Even the troublemaker, Brock, who in the past and along with his best friend has made Chloe’s and Becky’s life miserable, has a great side story that was a nice, unexpected twist in the story.

As well as in the first two books of this series, we have a murder and Chloe in the right place at the right time for the murder’s discovery. The way the author writes, the mystery is always fun to unravel and intriguing. It does have some slight suspense, but this is not a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat. However, that does not take away from the book and your enjoyment of it. The fact that the action develops too slowly is what can frustrate you. Since it is a simple murder mystery, with a couple of red herrings, a few side stories are to be expected and welcomed. And here we have a very endearing one, very unexpected and surprisingly sweet showing God’s mercy in using us to impact others with our example even with the people we least expect it. That side story alone is worth reading through parts that just seem to drag the main story. But, even though some of the narration reads as if the author was just trying to lengthen the story, no side story here is a filler. Each one complements the main story nicely.

Also nice, at least in the beginning, is the romance between Chloe and Timothy and the charming attraction between Becky and Aaron. It is very evident that Timothy is very much in love with Chloe, and he is so sweet to her. But that relationship has been developing since the first book and by now it’s just moving painfully slow. The attraction between Becky and Aaron, Timothy’s best friend, is much more interesting and would make a great main story for another book.

Although the author follows the same line as before, casting a dark shadow over some Amish characters, this time around the Amish are presented in a better, more flattering light. It is not common to find an author willing to explore the unfriendly side of the Amish, at least not to the extend author Amanda Flower has, so it is a different, interesting take.

This is the third book in the Appleseed Creek Mystery series, and it is pretty evident, but it can be read alone. However, I would highly recommend to read them all and in order, not only because they are quite good, but also because the reader can best appreciate the characters’ growth and development that way.

'A Plain Disappearance' is a very enjoyable murder mystery, with a very nice message of God’s work in us and through us.

3.5 stars out of 5

*I received a copy of this book from B&H Books through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review.