Fame, and idolatry, and Zayn Malik, and God, and me.

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Today when I got on twitter I saw that the BIG NEWS of the moment was that Zayn Malik, one of the members of the popular boy band One Direction, was quitting the band. Big deal, right? I’ve often wondered how someone with any musical integrity at all could be in a band that is only popular because the members are cute and the music is manufactured by professionals who know how to craft bubblegum pop to appeal to the masses.

If you have ever heard a sermon on modern-day idolatry, I’m sure you’ve heard celebrities mentioned. A number of people, both Christian and secular alike, are disturbed by the way people treat celebrities as gods.

As I read through the comments bemoaning Zane’s departure, however, I realized that treating celebrities like gods extends beyond mere worship.

Have you ever noticed that people often get the idea that God owes us something, whether it be a happy life, a job that we enjoy, or a romantic partner? In a similar way, people get the idea that celebrities owe them something.

Over an over I saw the same disturbing type of comment. “How dare he leave the band? How dare he not give me my favorite music? How dare he not be the person I want him to be?”

In general, I try to spend as little time as possible thinking about people like Zayn. This struck a nerve with me though, and suddenly I was having flashbacks to a year ago, at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (SMBI), when I was first struck by a large-scale feeling of not living up to what strangers expected me to be.

I don’t claim to be a celebrity by any stretch of the imagination. In Oregon, isolated from the Mennonite world at large, I rarely meet strangers who know me through my writing. But at SMBI, five out of the fifty students admitted to me that they were big fans of my blog.

Now, five might not sound like many. But that was 10% of the student body, and SMBI provides as smooth of a cross-section of Mennonites as you’re likely to get. And that scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.

Those were just my hard-core fans. Multiple other people knew who I was, similar to the eerie way Mennonites always seem to know who Hans Mast is even if they don’t know much about him. All three of my roommates later admitted to knowing who I was before they met me, and, worst of all…

I wasn’t like they expected me to be.

I am perfectly fine with being the unexpected Mennonite you’re just not quite sure about. If you’re not in my family or my community, and if you’re not my God, I never thought I owed you anything.

I never thought you expected me to owe you anything.

Let me just clarify: My roommates were all lovely ladies and we had great fun together. Sooner or later I was bound to find out that I have an audience, and that the audience has expectations, and that it is impossible for me to meet those expectations.

All the same, it was very painful, and I have had a hard time writing for an audience since then.

Recently I’ve begun to feel that God wants me to write more, and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I think it’s time to get over my fear of being idolized, and embrace the blessing of actually having an audience.

At the same time, I have a plea for you readers: Please remember that people you have never met are humans too, whether they be your favorite author, an annoying celebrity, or a little blogger with only a few hundred subscribers.

Idealizing someone, even that Christian writer who inspires you to follow Jesus with your whole heart, is very often a form of idolatry.

Failures and Triumphs for All

Some days I am just SO THANKFUL to find an inch of tea left in my travel mug.

I’m not sure if I can play the “I’m so busy!” card because I’m really not THAT busy, just stuck in a body that tends to crash into a fatigue puddle after 2:00 pm. Which is, unfortunately, the precise time of my weekly computer science lab.

My lab is located in a random building on the sciencey side of campus, deep in the basement labyrinth. Last week, my first computer science lab ever, I rushed around frantically trying to find it, eventually walking in about seven minutes late.

A GTF in an ill-fitting polo shirt stood in front of a projector screen, pointing to the code displayed and saying “infrastructure gibberish Ruby script gobbledegook.”

I sat down next to a blond guy, and tried to peek over his shoulder to see what he was doing.

“Do you need help?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay, well the first thing you need to do is download Cyberduck. There’s a link right there.”

And so, not having a clue what this Cyberduck business was, I followed the link and clicked the big blue “download” button.

Things began downloading. Then, big red McAfee warnings began popping up, and wouldn’t go away.

(And to all you computer savvy people who are just BURSTING to tell  me that McAfee isn’t a good system and there’s better open source antivirus software out there and I need to install Adblock etc etc etc, CALM DOWN! I eventually figured that all out, now pay attention to the story.)

“So, um, what do I do now?” I asked blond guy.

He took my computer and tried to make the bouncing red McAfee boxes go away. “Um, I don’t know…uh…” he looked towards the back of the room, where a man with a mohawk sat on a chair and watched us. “Um, can you help her out?”

Apparently mohawk man was another GTF. He came over. “Yeah,” he said, “It looks like you have a bunch of viruses on your computer.”

Tears started dribbling down my face. Oh great. That’s another thing that happens after 2:00 pm…I cry a lot easier and over dumber stuff. I reached in my pocket, found a piece of brown paper towel from a public restroom, and dabbed my eyes.

I tried to sort-of work on the project, but I had no idea what was going on.

“Are you okay?” asked blond guy.

“I’m really okay, I just cry easily when I get tired,” I managed to blubber out. I don’t think I sounded very convincing. “I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“That’s okay,” said blond guy, awkwardly patting my arm.

The lab project was to set up an infrastructure (whatever that meant) so that we would be able to submit our future project to the server (whatever that was). Mohawk guy basically did the whole thing for me in a couple minutes, stalwartly ignoring the McAfee alerts. Yay! The world was saved.

My little paper towel was a sopping mass of uselessness.

This week, as I chugged my two inches of tea before lab, I tried to figure out how to trick myself out of crying. It had already been a long hard day, and now, this.

With my tummy full of tea, my backpack full of clean, virus-free computer, and my pocket full of Kleenexes, I headed down into the mysterious subterranean passages to my lab.

It went as smoothly as butter on a baby’s bottom. I guess I’ve picked up something in the last two weeks of classes.

Hopefully things will continue to go well, but for now I’m still planning to pack extra tea and Kleenexes.

Christmas and Holiday Happenings

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day began at 1:00 am, with someone banging frantically on the balcony door. And it wasn’t Santa Clause.

My family went to the beach for Christmas this year. Amy, Jenny, and I got the master bedroom of our rental, the idea being that we could all sleep in the giant Queen-sized bed.

Well, we all fit in the bed, but I couldn’t sleep. It was very warm in the room. The hours ticked by, and my family members fell asleep one by one, but I was wide awake.

I decided to step out on the balcony for a bit to cool off. So I did. It was very nice, but all wet. I decided to go back in and get a stool to sit on.

I grasped the door handle, but it didn’t turn.

Oops.

So I knocked, and knocked, and knocked. No one came. I knocked some more. I don’t know how long I stood there knocking, but it felt like a very long time.

Finally, a tired and annoyed looking Amy opened the door for me. Later I learned that Amy and Jenny woke up in a confused haze, and Jenny didn’t want Amy to open the door for fear it was some serial killer or something.

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photo credit: Jenny Smucker

Amy came home from Thailand weeks ago, but Matt didn’t fly in until late Christmas day. That meant we didn’t open presents until Christmas Adam.

BUT…

“Mom, there is just one present you HAVE to open Christmas Day,” said Jenny. “It’s from Uncle Fred. He gave it to me last summer to give to you.”

So mom sat down and opened her gift.

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photo credit: Jenny Smucker

Wait, a doll? Why would Uncle Fred give my mother a doll for Christmas?

See, when my mom was a little girl, she always began her Christmas list the same way:

1. Big doll

2. Little doll

3. Walking doll

4. Talking doll

Uncle Fred remembered this, and when he came across a walking talking doll this summer, he bought it for Mom for Christmas.

We ate Christmas pancakes for breakfast…

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photo credit: Dorcas Smucker

…except someone ate a banana instead. I don’t know who it was, but they left the peel on the couch.

“Where’s a trash can?” said Mom, holding it up.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said.

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photo credit: Dorcas Smucker

The walking doll did not slip, but she did trip and fall on her face.

“I fell mama! Help me up!” said the doll, which I thought was funny but Jenny thought was creepy.

Matt came that evening, and my entire family was together for one day.

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photo credit: Amy Smucker

One brief and lovely day. And then Ben flew back east to visit his girlfriend.

Happy Holidays!

I just love the holiday season. Things happen. People who have moved away come home. Friends and neighbors and students and parishioners give us baskets heaping with candy and fancy cheese.

We students get off of school, but not long enough to be expected to get a job. Just a break.

Sometimes it’s nice to just get a break.

Happy New Year!

In my opinion, New Years is situated at a very awkward time of the year. Time, in my head, is divided in school years, not calendar years.

Like, I will very easily recall that Stephanie Coblentz and went through a phase of extreme admiration for the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” during my freshman year of high school, but I couldn’t tell you if it was in 2004 or 2005.

I guess that’s just another reason it would be nice to live in Australia.

In general I think of September as the new year, not January. But this year I’m trying to come around to the traditional way of thinking a bit, because I’m in need of a do-over. A clean slate.

I didn’t post much this fall because I was having a hard time at college. A hard time with my health, a hard time making friends, a hard time with the materialistic and claw-your-way-to-the-top-of-the-food-chain atmosphere of my university.

But I’ve decided that it’s going to get better, and it starts with a break, and a new year, and a new term.

HAPPY 2015!

The Best Stories are Held in the Eyes of the People Who Ride the Bus

I was exhausted when I climbed onto the bus Tuesday afternoon. I sat down next to a young sophisticated college student and zoned out, lost in my own tired thoughts.

“I like your hair style.”

I looked across the college student to the woman with yellow hair on the other side of her.

“Thank you,” I said. “It’s really handy. If I need to write something down I can just pull the pen out of my hair.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t think my boss would have liked it if I had let my hair down. I worked as a waitress you see. In those days you had to have your hair up in a bun, with a hairnet over it. There aren’t very many ways to do that hairstyle, you know, so we were always looking for new ones.”

I smiled, and nodded, and then looked back at my lap. I was tired, and just wanted to get where I was going. I didn’t feel like chatting.

The woman, however, did feel like chatting. “Do you know what’s exciting?”

“What?” I asked to be polite, trying not to make eye contact. Then, suddenly, I felt guilty. I could at least listen to the women.

“This past winter I turned 52…”

“Oh wow,” I said. “Good for you. That is exciting.”

“That’s not the exciting part.”

She talked like she was a little bit crazy, with exaggerated facial expressions, saying some phrases in a stage whisper and almost yelling others. But the actual content of her words made perfect sense, once I heard her out.

“What’s the exciting part?” I asked.

“It’s raining,” she said. “And I have arthritis. But I’m not scared, this time. You wanna know why?”

The next words were whispered, as though they were too precious to be spoken out loud. “I have my own apartment.”

“Wow, congratulations,” I said.

The college student in-between us sat back as far as she could in her seat, and fiddled with her phone.

“I have two cats,” the woman continued. “They’re gonna have a more stable life than I ever had. They may walk from the kitchen to the bedroom to the living room, but their litter box is always in the same place. I saw my cats lying contentedly on the floor of my own home the other day. And I thought, ‘if this is as good as it gets, it’s enough.'”

She leaned in close, and whispered. “I’ve never thought that before, in my life.”

“I have my own room,” she added. “And I can paint! I painted my own apartment!”

“That’s awesome! What color did you paint it?”

She beamed. “Well, I went to a garage sale and got some cans of paint. I got a rose color, and I got this really beautiful butter color, and I got an ugly blue. But when I mixed some of the butter in with the blue, it made…” her voice turned reverent, “aqua.”

She described the process of choosing trim colors, and how she mixed paints to get the exact right shade of rose for her bedroom. “There’s just enough room in my bedroom for a bed and a nightstand,” she said. “But I don’t care. You wanna know why? Because I have my own room! I’ve never had my own room before.”

“I didn’t put the TV in my bedroom, though,” she continued. “I get seasonal effective disorder, you know. If I put the TV in there, I’d just lie in there all winter. So I had this voice in my mind, like a mom, saying ‘don’t you put the TV in your bedroom!’

“People say I’m crazy, you know. But the mom voice, I had to have that, because I didn’t have a mom looking out for me. I was in the foster care system when I was four, you know, and my foster parents were abusive. They put me in the swimming pool and I was gonna drown. I knew I didn’t have a mom, or anyone, to save me. That’s when the mom voice told me to swim. Since then the mom voice always told me things, like when something was a really bad idea. Because I didn’t have anyone else to tell me those things.”

By this time she was crying, and my eyes were tearing up as well. But it was my stop, and I had to get off. “It was very nice to meet you,” I said. Then I exited the bus, my heart feeling hollow and heavy at the same time.

What sort of world do we live in, when a 52-year-old mentally ill woman with arthritis wanders the rain-soaked world, never even having a room to call her own?

She had said words which trampled my ungrateful spirit to dust and shame.

“I think I’ve made it,” she had whispered to me. “I’m scared to say that out loud, but I think…I think I’ve made it.”

Short Bites of Thailand Life

The Bathroom

I love Thai food, but unfortunately Thai food does not always love me. At a restaurant the other day, while sampling a delicious concoction of liver, cilantro, and mint, my insides began protesting, and I knew that I had to find a bathroom.

Now.

Making hasty excuses to my dinner companions, I dashed out the door of the restaurant and around the corner to the public restroom. Alas and alack, when I opened the door of the blessed bathroom stall, I saw a troubling sight: no toilet paper.

I checked all the stalls. None of them contained TP. Many Thai bathrooms have little sprayers to use in lieu of toilet paper, but this bathroom didn’t even have those.

I looked by the sinks, in the doorway, everywhere. No TP. Not even paper towels. Nothing that could reasonably substitute for toilet paper.

I was desperate.

And then I saw that the supply closet was unlocked.

Joyfully, I thrust open the doors and went inside. But unlike other supply closets I’ve peeped into in my life, there were no neatly stacked rolls of toilet paper and paper towels. There was, instead, a couple shelves full of junk. Paint cans. Scraps of wood. There was a plastic TP dispenser, which gave me a brief moment of hope, but there was nothing inside it.

I pawed through the shelves desperately as my insides rumbled and shook. And then, buried amidst the junk, I found something.

A tiny packet of napkins.

“That’ll do,” I said to myself. And it did.

The College

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Amy’s house is North Chiang Mai University, the college where she teaches. I love hanging out there, because, well, you know. I love college, and I love Thailand, so obviously I am going to love a Thai college.

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English majors studying in the breezeway

Thai culture affects the college life in such an interesting way. Uniforms, for instance, are a big deal. Every college student, no matter what college they go to, wears the same uniform. Even the college staff are told what to wear, though Wednesdays, according to Amy, are “freestyle days.”

Amy teaches English to some staff ladies. It is Tuesday, so they all wear pink polos.

Amy teaches English to some staff ladies. It is Tuesday, so they all wear pink polos.

Another interesting thing: Thai students go to college a couple weeks before semester starts. They do a lot of activities, including learning dances and chants that correspond with their major.

(I keep imagining what these kind of activities would look like at LBCC. The mental picture of the engineering students dancing around chanting “E-E-ENG-I-N-E-E-R-I-N-G-engineering-BOOM!” just really amuses me.)

Studentdance

English majors practicing their dance. I saw them dancing and snapped a pic through the window

One evening, Amy, Kim, and I were just leaving the university when we met a group of English majors on the landing. We started chatting about this and that, and then we began to ask them about their dances and chants.

“It goes like this,” said one of them. “E-E-ENG-E-N-G-L-I-S-H.” (Only the “H” was pronounced “esh,” which made me think about the fact that “H” is a really weird word. It doesn’t even have the “h” sound in it.)

“That’s not nearly long enough,” said Kim. “You guys were chanting for a long time.”

So they went through the whole chant, which as far as I can recall went like…

“Are you ready?”

“Yes”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes yes! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Boom! E-E-ENG-ENGLISH!” And on in a similar fashion.

We laughed, and tried to repeat it. “Are you ready?” “Yes!” “Are you ready” “Yes yes boom!”

They laughed. We laughed. Everybody laughed.

Amy and I hadn’t eaten supper yet. “Are you hungry?” Amy chanted.

“Yes yes boom!” I said.

For some reason we all found that really funny.

The Sink Hole

One morning, Amy and her roommate Kim were at a staff meeting, so I decided to be helpful and do some housecleaning.

Preparing to clean the bathroom sink, I took the glass of toothbrushes off of the sink and placed it on the shelf below the mirror. Then, just as I was about to wet my rag I thought, “Oh, I should clean the mirror first, before my rag is wet.”

I sprayed the mirror and began to wipe it. Unfortunately, the mirror pivoted at my touch, and knocked the glass of toothbrushes off the little shelf, and into the sink.

I braced myself as I heard the sound of something breaking. I was afraid I had shattered the glass completely. But no, it was no worse off than it had been before.

But.

There was a hole in the sink.

sinkhole

It struck me as comical. Just a hole, poking straight through the sink. Then I sobered up. What would Amy and her roommate Kim think of me breaking their sink? Oh dear.

I took the chunk that had broken off, and put it on the table. Then I waited for them to get home.

A bit later I heard someone, so I went into the living room and saw that Kim had returned. She was studying the chunk of ceramic.

“Yes, I broke the sink,” I confessed.

“You broke the sink?”

I led her into the bathroom and showed her the damage. She took one look at the hole in the sink, and began to laugh.

She laughed and laughed, wild gales of laughter.

I laughed too. I couldn’t help it.

The Food

Going to restaurants—even some place like Taco Bell—is a treat for me. You can save a lot of money by packing your own lunch. But here in Thailand it isn’t like that. There are little restaurants here, there, everywhere, selling meals for $0.78, or $0.93, or sometimes $1.09 if you are eating a more expensive kind of meat.

We often eat out twice a day.

The food is a wondrous array of flavors. It usually consists of some kind of savory meat over rice or noodles. And vegetables. Oh my! Carrots and green beans and onions and cabbage and many others I don’t recognize, all fried up with the rest of the dish.

“You never know exactly what vegetables you’ll get,” says Amy. “It depends on what they picked up at the market that day.”

But they don’t put sweet corn in the dishes. That, Amy tells me, is a desert around here. We passed a Dairy Queen and she showed me the sign. They were selling a corn sundae.

Right down the street from Amy’s house is the restaurant we visit most often. “Kitchen at the Edge of the North,” it is called. (The “North” bit refers to North Chiang Mai University, where Amy teaches.) We frequently run into people we know, there. Neighbors and college kids.

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The cooks in the Kitchen at the Edge of the North.

It is an open-air restaurant and the stray cats of the village wander in and out. One day, two of them got in a cat fight. It was a real doozy. The fur was literally flying-gray tufts floating in the air.

The cook whirled around in surprise and charged at them, trying to break up the fight. Chunks of meat flew off of her spoon. Amy and I laughed and laughed.

I am going to miss this when I go home. I am tasting flavors I never even dreamed of.

Today I am in Thailand

My sister Amy has a life that is far more exotic than mine. Her home has a tile roof and tile floors and tropical flowers dripping into her yard from the tree next door.

She lives in Thailand, teaching English at a hole-in-the-wall university at the edge of Chiang Mai.

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The lush garden of the house across from Amy’s.

Since travel for me takes a back seat to getting through college debt free, I had never experienced zipping through a foreign city on a motorbike or eating cheap stir-fry at an outdoor restaurant while stray cats twined around my feet–things Amy did every day.

But then things began to fall into place for me. I finally got college financial aid (yay for being 24!) and I got a harvest job that provided me with work up until about a month before school was to start.

I emailed Amy. “Hey, can I come visit you? Like, this September?”

“Sure!” she said.

So I did.

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A thick layer of cloud covered the Willamette Valley as I left.

I brought Mom’s camera along specifically so that I could take pictures specifically for my blog. Unfortunately…

A. I feel stupid taking pictures

B. I’m not very good at taking pictures, and

C. I don’t like carrying stuff around with me.

So you’ll just have to make due with the random conglomeration I have.

Amy gets gas for her bike.  How cute she looks in her helmet!

Amy gets gas for her bike. How cute she looks in her helmet!

Someone's bike cover. I like the little cartoon characters.

Someone’s bike cover. I like the little cartoon characters.

Friday Amy dropped me off at an old Mall while she went to her Thai class. “Go exploring!” she said. “It’s really cool. Parts of it are abandoned.”

The mall's entrance.

The mall’s entrance.

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How come America doesn't have lush mall courtyards?

How come America doesn’t have lush mall courtyards?

I got sufficiently lost in the place, but it was a good sort of lost. Lots of stores were jammed together at odd angles, and then suddenly I’d round a corner and see empty halls and rooms.

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I tried to take pictures of funny signs and t-shirts.

I asked them what they sold here, but they were a little vague.

I asked them what they sold here, but they were a little vague.

I found this shirt slightly disturbing.

I found this shirt slightly disturbing.

The picture on this shirt was of fashion model-ey ladies, covered in these words...

The picture on this shirt was of fashion model-ey ladies, covered in these words…

After I found my way out of the labyrinth that was the mall, Amy and I went to a coffee shop and took pictures of people we saw out the windows.

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This lady twisted the faucet around so she could wash her giant pot outside the window.

This man bought cardboard to recycle. The ladies weighed it, and then he tossed it onto the back of his truck.

This man bought cardboard to recycle. The ladies weighed it, and then he tossed it onto the back of his truck.

People keep saying, “so how do you like Thailand so far?”

I like it very much. I don’t know why I wouldn’t, or how I couldn’t. 

Ten Books that have Stayed With Me in Some Way

In no particular order, the 10 that popped into my head are:

1. Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

Peter_Pan_And_Wendy_3_by_GiacobinoPicture credit: http://giacobino.deviantart.com/

2. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

It was a bit of a serendipity, the way I came to read and love this book. It happened like this:

I was 19 years old and living in Virginia when I decided to take my SAT. I signed up to go through the four-hour ordeal on a Saturday, the day before a big trip I had planned.

The most interesting section of the SAT (and of course the part I did best at) was the reading comprehension bit. I opened the little booklet, and there was a full-page excerpt of a book called The Moonstone. I read the little blurb at the top, which went something like:

This is the story of a stolen diamond that was inherited by Rachael Verinder, a young English woman. The night of her 18’th birthday, the diamond was stolen from her.

A little thrill went through me at the words “stolen diamond.”

Then I read the excerpt. It was narrated by a man named Gabriel Betteredge, who was Miss Verinder’s butler. He was such a funny character, and had a strange obsession with the book Robinson Crusoe. He said, in essence, “I’m going to write down how the diamond was stolen.” And then, having come to that conclusion, the excerpt ended.

I hurriedly tried to remember the name of the author, Wilkie Collins Wilkie Collins Wilkie Collins, and got on with the test. The thing is timed, see, so you have to be careful about dawdling over fascinating excerpts.

By the time the test was over I had forgotten both the author’s name and the title of the book. Not that I had time to think about it much. I was too busy getting ready to leave on my trip, sleeping, boarding a plane, and flying to Colorado.

When I got to Colorado Dad and Ben met me at the airport with our van. They had driven out to help me gather all the belongs I had left in the area from when I lived there, and then we were all going to drive to Oregon together for Ben’s graduation.

That evening we got a motel in Canon City, the town I used to live in, and settled down for a bit of a rest. I sat in a chair. Dad relaxed on one of the beds and opened a book.

“What’s that you’re reading?” I asked.

“It’s a book Amy picked up somewhere,” said Dad. “It’s called The Moonstone.”

3. Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

 stargirl_by_inkyfridays-d4oj5n7Picture credit: http://inkyfridays.deviantart.com/

4. Howl’s moving castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

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Picture credit: http://yenefer.deviantart.com/

5. The blue castle, by L.M. Montgomery

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Picture credit: twogranniesandanaxe.tumblr.com

6. I capture the castle, by Dodie Smith

I guess I’m just really drawn to books with “castle” in the title. This book is about a dirt-poor family of fascinating characters that lived in a castle in 1920’s England. The cleverness and humor of this book astounds me.

7. Love of Seven Dolls, by Paul Gallico

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8. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

I can’t even explain why I like this book. It is dark and weird but absolutely enthralling. I think it stuck with me because it was so different from anything I had ever read before.

9. The Personality of a House, by Emily Post

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I found this book in the library at Bridgewater College, and couldn’t put it down. It’s somewhat outdated (it advises that you decorate in colors that complement your skin tone) but also the most timeless book on decorating I have ever discovered.

I ended up buying my own copy for more money than I have ever spent on a book before.

10. Once on a Time, by A.A. Milne

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Picture credit: http://odelialeaf.com/

What books have stuck with you?