the shack a novel by william p. young

A Polish friend of mine has started a book club in Baku, and I am so grateful! It’s forced me to hop back on the reading wagon. I’m also more motivated to read carefully, think about a novel’s themes and context, and underline moving passages.

I’ve also discovered that my most popular blog posts are for my book reviews. It’s funny because after reading mind-blowing book reviews from the New York Times–they are my standard–my reviews come nowhere near theirs. Mine are short, quick, shallow and almost general because I refuse to put spoilers.

Our next reading assignment is on “The Shack” by William P. Young, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in God and/or spirituality to read this book. Yes, it is a Christian book, and it is a little American-touchy-feel-good-sappy, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking. It also forces readers to ask questions.

The novel is centered around Mackenzie Allen Philips, a devout father, who loses his youngest daughter, Missy. She is brutally murdered and found in an abandoned shack. As a result, Mackenzie becomes very depressed and angry with God.

Here’s why I think you should it read it–

1. The book emotionally hooks you in. The first third of the book tells the story of how Missy is kidnapped and brutally murdered. I’m a first grade teacher and I read the book during the Sandy Hook mass murder, which happened to coincide with an internal crisis. I completely related with Mackenzie’s “great sadness” and anger. He was a good father. A hero. He always tried to do the right thing. How could something so horrid, inhuman, undeserving, happen to his daughter and family? I cried for hours as I read through the first few chapters, which means that I imagined myself in Mackenzie’s shoes. I WAS RIGHT THERE! For a reader who has a mild case of ADD, I would say that Young is an excellent writer because he was able to make me fully empathize with his protagonist through the storytelling and dialogue.

2. It asks the age-old question–How can a God that is good allow suffering? Many people, including myself, fear suffering. If I don’t get what I want, am I still loved by God? If I am going through pain, why would a God that is good allow it to happen? The book offers interesting answers that will make you think.

3. It focuses on man’s relationship with God. Many religions around the world focus on ritual and doing good deeds. In the story, we see Mackenzie questioning God. Mackenzie is allowed to be angry with God. Sometimes people want to be the good “believer”. I’m using the word “believer” because I think this book can be read by anyone from any religion. Sometimes we are afraid of questioning God and shaking our fists at Him because, at least in my case, I want to be the “good Christian”. But when God invites us into relationship with Him and we say yes, sometimes, like any human relationship, we get upset and frustrated. The awesome thing with God is He is big enough to take our anger and this is depicted in the book.

4. William P. Young depicts God in an out-of-the-box way. Most of us picture our Heavenly Father as a man who takes care of us. The way Young describes God is in some ways almost laughable. (I won’t spoil it for you!) I also experienced an inner tension because of a gender stereotype that I grew up with.

5. The book ends with hope. Mackenzie’s circumstance didn’t change but his heart did. Young quotes Oswald Chambers at the beginning of chapter 18–Faith never knows where it is being led, but it knows and loves the One who is leading.

49_above the smog

Manila, the city I grew up in, has a strong American influence. For many of us, English is our mother tongue. I learned how to read through watching Sesame Street. We love McDonald’s and KFC. And in the posh parts of the city we have a Starbucks coffeehouse after every three blocks. We even have Starbucks drive-thrus! Sometimes I think we love Starbucks more than Americans do.

In Baku, we have no Starbucks. But we do have the Baku Roasting Company.

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A couple of weeks ago, some of my American friends (surprise surprise!) took me to the BRC and I absolutely loved it!

This morning, I took the train to the Elmler metro station. Elmler reminded me of Brooklyn with its wide streets, parks, residential buildings which look like brownstones, and stores. It also has a more laid back feel compared to the Icherisheher area.

Fountain near the Elmler Metro Station

Fountain near the Elmler Metro Station

BRC’s interior looks like Starbucks, and I mean that as a compliment.

They've got dark wooden furniture and leather couches.  They have these yellow lights that make the coffeehouse feel cozy.  They've also given the place an Azerbaijani touch through patterned tapestries and carpets.  I thought that was a good idea.

They’ve got dark wooden furniture and leather couches. They have these yellow lights that make the coffeehouse feel cozy. They’ve also given the place an Azerbaijani touch through patterned tapestries and carpets. I thought that was a good idea.

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The barristas are pretty friendly and can understand basic English. BRC has a lunch special which includes a choice of any two among a variety of soups, salads and sandwiches. It’s 7 manat for a pretty big meal. I’ve also only ordered the cafe latte and it tastes the same as Starbucks’ :).

I love their chicken barbeque salad.  It's light and delicious.

I love their chicken barbeque salad. It’s light and delicious.

Today I also ordered their Thai soup.  I'm no Thai food expert but I am familiar with some of the spices,  namely lemongrass.  I think the base was made from fresh tomatoes.  It had beef, peas and corn.  It was good, but I wouldn't call it Thai soup.

Today I also ordered their Thai soup. I’m no Thai food expert but I am familiar with some of the spices, namely lemongrass. I think the base was made from fresh tomatoes. It had beef, peas and corn. It was good, but I wouldn’t call it Thai soup.

The best part of my meal!  Cheescake!  It was worth the 4 manat AND calories!  It was creamy, a good mix of sweet and slightly sour and tangy.  The cheesecake is enough reason for anyone to go to BRC.

The best part of my meal! Cheescake! It was worth the 4 manat AND calories! It was creamy, a good mix of sweet and slightly sour and tangy. The cheesecake is enough reason for anyone to go to BRC.

But the best part of my visit was bumping into Jim from church.

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Jim is originally from California but has taught primary school in Kazakhstan and other former USSR countries for 20 years. He’s married to a lady from Kazakhstan and has two children–Masha and Vanya. He’s been living in Baku for six years.

Jim is also a Christian writer so it was good to hear about his writing ideas and the conceptual frameworks he was developing his ideas around. Besides being blessed with good conversation over coffee and cheesecake, he ended up emailing me a dictionary of Russian and English words that are the same. This will definitely help me learn Russian more easily.

BRC also has a library where people can share books. Jim ended up gifting me with his.

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The winter weather we’ve had since the New Year has been absolutely breathtaking. We have sunny blue skies! What more can a girl ask for? I know I have to clean and do laundry but I’ll save that for the evening. I want to take in this gorgeous weather before school starts.

Icherisheher, the old walled city of Baku, is close to my heart. The first time I was here (which was last March) my hotel was inside this walled city. I promptly fell in love with this hidden jewel by the Caspian. I never suspected that I would end up working here. God is good.

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There’s a restaurant inside Icherisheher called Karvansara. Hundred of years ago, travelers from Azerbaijan’s neighboring countries would come to these Karvansaras to rest and park their horses and camels.

This Karvansara has several room that used to house weary travelers that visited Baku.  The rooms are still intact.  But they are now used s dining rooms.

This Karvansara has several room that used to house weary travelers that visited Baku. The rooms are still intact. But they are now dining rooms.

This is a well where the camels and horses used to drink from.  Locals and tourists now drop coins into it as they make a wish.

This is a well where the camels and horses used to drink from. Locals and tourists now drop coins into it as they make a wish.

This is one of the many dining rooms complete with a chandelier, fireplace and regal table setting.

This is one of the many dining rooms complete with a chandelier, fireplace and regal table setting.

My view from inside the dining room.  I love arched doorways which face more arched doorways.

My view from inside the dining room. I love doorways which face more arched doorways.

The waiters were friendly but the service was a bit slow. He recommended the mangal salad and grilled chicken. Both did not disappoint.

A mangal salad consists of grilled eggplant and tomato that is mashed up.  This mangal also had fresh and crunchy capsicum.  I had it on top of bread.  It was soooo delicious!  It's now one of my favorite Azeri dishes.

A mangal salad consists of grilled eggplant and tomato that is mashed up. This mangal also had fresh and crunchy capsicum. I had it on top of bread. It was soooo delicious! It’s now one of my favorite Azeri dishes.

The grilled chicken arrived with lemon-sprayed onions and a purple spice.  From 1 to 10 it was a 5.

The grilled chicken arrived with lemon-sprayed onions and a purple spice. From a 1 to 10 it was a 5.

My bill was 14 manat. (Gasp.) This included bread and a huge bottle of sparkling water. They also added service task, which is very unusual for Baku.

But given the experience of eating in a building which is hundreds of years old, and where secret stories are stored in its walls, where the atmosphere is semi-regal and the food, healthy and delicious, I would say that the Karvansara is well worth a visit.

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I thoroughly love museums that house modern art. I’ve had the privilege to visit some in Manila, New York City, New Haven, Philadelphia and Mumbai. After browsing through CityLife.az, my latest guide to exploring Baku, I decided to visit the city’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s my way of kicking myself out of the Icherisheher periphery, which has begun to feel like a soft comfortable cave that I rarely want to escape.

So with Google Map direction in hand plus my iphone 4S, light, multi-purposeful, I set off for Neftchilar Avenue. (On a side note, I love my Canon Ixus. It takes wonderful photos, almost like an SLR, but there’s something about Instagram. Instagram equals instant gratification. It’s got these really cool filters which make my photos look artistic and I get to share my photos with people of similar interests as well as those who live in Baku. There so many mind-blowing photos in Instagram that also inspire. It’s a great cyber-community and I have yet to explore it’s complete potential. So for now, I’ll stick to taking photos with my iphone.)

Let me start again. With Google Map directions in hand, I walked to Neftchilar Avenue and meandered around broken sidewalks as I looked for Pasha Travel. I never saw Pasha travel, but I did see Pasha Bank. I was supposed to turn left onto Yusif Safarov but I didn’t see any street sign on the road that I suspected was Yusif Safarov. I turned left anyway and around 100 meters away, I spotted copper sculptures outside the museum building.

The entrance fee is five manat and it is well worth it. Baku’s Museum of Modern Art is a beautifully designed space.

The museum is all white, shiny with interesting doorways, pillars and lighting.  There were also only around five visitors when I came in, so I pretty much had the whole museum to myself.

The museum is all white, shiny with interesting doorways, pillars and lighting. There were also only around five visitors when I came in, so I pretty much had the whole museum to myself.

I absolutely loooved these couches.  You could literally almost lie down on them as you soaked in the art.

I absolutely loooved these couches. You could literally almost lie down on them as you soaked in the art.

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The lighting from the ceiling added to the breath-taking space. That's also a wheeled installation hanging from the ceiling by the way.

The lighting from the ceiling added to the breath-taking space.

But, of course, I went to the museum, not just for its space but for its art. I felt blase and disconnected as I browsed the paintings, and I had to ask myself why.

Perhaps, I’m tired of modern art. I don’t care much anymore for deformed bodies, splintered souls. Images of monsters. These days I prefer the simplicity of open blue skies and the Caspian.

Perhaps, I was looking for something Azerbaijani. I’ve only lived here since August, and I am no expert on Azerbaijan culture. But I didn’t sense the warmth or beauty of the people within these paintings. Instead, I saw copycats. I don’t mean this in an offensive way. Perhaps a better of saying it is–maybe these artists were in the process of learning about modern art from the masters, so many of the paintings looked very similar to those of the masters’.

Picasso?  Sorry, I somehow can't make this photo turn upright.

Picasso? Sorry, I somehow can’t make this photo turn upright.

Action Jackson?

Action Jackson?

And my favorite.  The red-orange Matisse.

And my favorite. The red-orange Matisse.

The saving grace of the exhibit was Melik Agamalov’s work. Alas. I found a familiar face. Something unique. Beautiful. Something Azeri.

The painting is simply entitled "Lady".  It felt good to look into the eyes of a confident Azeri woman clothed in traditional garb.  There are gold splotches on the painting, which to me, signify a fading traditional culture.  Vintage.

The painting is simply entitled “Lady”. It felt good to look into the eyes of a confident Azeri woman clothed in traditional garb. There are gold splotches on the painting, which to me, signify a fading traditional culture. Vintage.

I ended my visit with a trip to the library and the coffee shop. The library housed Azeri, Russian and English books on famous modern artists. Unfortunately, there was no one manning the library when I dropped by.

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All in all, it was a good experience. I would definitely recommend this museum to people who visit Baku. It’s an amazing space.

But still, I would like to see something Azeri.

A type of chicken kebab with couscous.

A type of chicken kebab with couscous.

I’ve started to find some “comfort” places in Baku (which means it’s time for me to explore again :)). When I’m really hungry I love going to a restaurant called Sultan’s in Park Bulvar. They have a pretty good salad bar and I loooove their kebabs. They have various types of chicken and beef kebabs. Their couscous is pretty scrumptious too!

Unfortunately, the food in Baku is much more expensive than in Manila or Mumbai. The salad costs 4 manat. The kebabs are either 3 or 4 manat, depending on which one you order. The couscous is 3 manat.

Photo taken from www.amazon.com

Photo taken from http://www.amazon.com

We’ve been using Stepping Up: A Journey through the Psalms of Ascent for the past few weeks in bible study. I highly highly recommend this book to any Christian woman who desires a deeper relationship with God. I also recommend that it be used as a bible study guide.

The workbook takes us through Psalms 120 to 134. It is an interactive book which asks you to read and study the bible, as well as discern how you can apply God’s word in your life. The book comes with a DVD where Beth Moore shares her insights into the Psalms of Ascent. Her talks are full of substance. You can tell that she studied God’s Word within its historical context.

Here is why I think you should read this book:

1. Beth Moore’s writing reads like a conversation. Her language is simple and engaging. I feel like I’m sitting right next to her as I read the book.

2. In spite of the simple language, the book is full of substance. I learned a lot about the historical context of the psalms of ascent, which made me understand God’s word in a deeper way.

3. It’s led me into a deeper relationship with God. I learned how to pray on my knees, face down, to my King of Kings. Somehow, this made me realize how awesome God is, and how worthy He is. I can’t explain in this in any rational manner. It’s an intimacy that you can only experience when you try it out. Once you see God s the King of Kings, everything, problems, negative emotions, all of it, shrink.

4. If you’re thinking of putting structure into your daily bible reading, this is the perfect guide. I’m the type of woman who needs structure to keep motivated and get things done. This book helped me read my bible everyday.

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I can’t get enough of Baku’s beautiful blue winter skies. I walked through the park on my way to work and just breathed in this sky. Had to drop my groceries and take this shot which doesn’t do justice to this beautiful day. I love Baku.