Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Bookworm's Year, Part 3

This is the third and last post about the books I read in 2013 (Part 1 is about adult fiction and Part 2 is about children's fiction.)

If you read my previous two bookworm posts, and then compare them with this one, you may be struck by how much more fiction than nonfiction I read last year. On the other hand, if you know me well you might be astonished that I read enough nonfiction to even make a decent blog post. (Sarah, I hope you are proud of me!) I grew up so thoroughly saturated in good fiction that I thought most books were fiction. Why read about real things, I reasoned, when novels are so much more interesting? Thankfully, I started learning some appreciation for nonfiction when I discovered C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity in my mid-teens. Then in college I discovered creative nonfiction (and no that is not an oxymoron!) and realized that nonfiction can be just as much fun to read (and to write) as fiction.

Meredith's 2013 In Books


Nonfiction- Unclassified 
More Than Words, edited by Philip Yancey

Quiet, by Susan Cain
This was in the stack of books which my parents gave me for a graduation present (how well they know me!) My mother read it shortly after I did (after I raved about it to her) and we decided that pretty much everyone should read this book. It's about introverts– and if you're an introvert you should read it because it will affirm you and reassure you that there's nothing wrong with you, and if you're an extrovert you should read it so that you understand the introverts in your life better (trust me, they'll appreciate it!) Cain explores how American culture has become increasingly extrovert-centric and how routinely in the workplace, school, church, and community life the strengths and gifts of introverts are overlooked or even seen as weaknesses. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
I just wish Neil Postman wasn't dead so that he could write another book on the further developments of technology since 1984 (the year this book was published). If you've read a newspaper or watched television, this book is relevant to you. Postman's brilliant prose might sometimes be challenging for American brains that are used to being spoon-fed mush, but it's well worth grappling with. This book is the reason I refuse to "watch the news" on television, regardless of station or political leaning– in Postman's view they're all a waste of time. Read it to find out why– as well as why the Information Age really began in 1844 with the telegraph, and why Aldous Huxley, not George Orwell, was right.

Firoozeh Dumas- Funny in Farsi
Madeleine L'Engle- Two Part Invention

Beverly Cleary- A Girl From Yamhill
Having grown up with Henry, Ribsy, Beezus, and Ramona, not to mention scads of Cleary's other beloved child characters, I was excited to read Cleary's memoir. I knew that one of my favorites, Emily's Runaway Imagination, was loosely based on Cleary's own childhood, but I didn't realize just how many of the details were transposed almost verbatim from Cleary's life to Emily Bartlett's. The one major difference is Cleary's difficult relationship with her mother– the memoir ends on a rather sad note, since Cleary's mother tried to compensate for her own discontent with her life by micro-managing Cleary's and living vicariously through her. 

Alice Ozma- The Reading Promise
Alice was my age when she published this very sweet memoir about being raised and read to by her bibliophile father. It is a pretty quick and easy read, and if you aren't already convinced of the beauty and necessity of reading out loud to children, then you should read it! It's funny, though– I read this at the very beginning of 2013, and a year later what I remember most is not all the books they read but rather feeling so sad for Alice when she talks about her parents' divorce. :-( 
Lynne Sharon Schwartze-  Ruined By Reading
A bit of fluff for bookworms. :-)

Heather Sellers- You Don't Look Like Anyone I know
I can't decide whether "depressing" or "fascinating" better describes this look into the life of someone with prosopagnosia (face blindness). Sellers was in her forties before she realized that she had a deeper issue than just being terrible at remembering faces. In fact, she simply cannot recognize faces: she tells stories of hugging a complete stranger, thinking it was her boyfriend, and walking right past her stepsons. There are two narrative threads– one is Seller's adult journey to self-diagnose her problem, and the other is Seller's childhood with a paranoid schizophrenic mother and sort-of-absent father. This type of memoir can be useful in cultivating gratitude that no matter how weird/ depressing/ messed up your childhood and young adult life was, at least it wasn't as bad as this! It's also very well written (Sellers has her doctorate in English) and lacks the "woe is me" attitude, which messed-up-life memoirs sometimes have.
Jennifer Worth- Call the Midwife
In case you weren't aware, the hit BBC show is based on Jennifer Worth's memoirs, and they are definitely worth reading! Worth is another author skilled at bringing a particular time and place into vivid life– I now feel thoroughly acquainted with life in London's East End in the 1950s, in all its colorful, gritty, raucous, seamy reality. 

Spiritual Growth
The Paraclete Book of Hospitality, published by the Paraclete Press
Scotty Smith- Everyday Prayers

D.A. Carson- The God Who Is There
The Pilot and I read through this book together, going through one chapter a week and discussing them together. Carson is brainy but comprehensible and enjoyable. He's also accomplished exactly what he intended: to give his readers, Christian or not, a big picture of the Bible. He shows that, massive as the Bible is, all its individual books are still in essence part of one big Story. He also does a tidy job at dispelling the prevalent attitude that the Bible is all about us.  The chapters move chronologically from Genesis to Revelation, and in each chapter Carson shows how God and God's meta-narrative is revealed. Carson brings readers face-to-face with "The God Who Is There"– and by that he means not the god we are comfortable with nor the amorphous god of western deism nor the god we would like to exist– but God as He says He is. One of the most helpful things about this book for us was that Carson is writing with the assumption of zero to very little familiarity or understanding of the Bible. Even though I've grown up hearing the Bible from birth, Carson's thoughtful but basic approach filled in a lot of mental holes for me.
Tim Keller- The Prodigal God, The Meaning of Marriage
Keller is one of my very favorite modern Christian authors. His writing is straight-forward, down-to-earth, and unpretentious, and he shows clearly how the Gospel of Jesus applies to every single facet of life. The Prodigal God is Keller's study of Jesus' parable of the prodigal son and what that parable reveals about man and God that was radical both in Jesus' day and age and in our own. The Meaning of Marriage is probably the best practical book on marriage which anyone can ever read (I've already given it as a wedding gift to several couples). Keller simply shows how marriage, just like anything else in this fallen world, only works the way it's supposed to when it's grounded on the realities of the Gospel. Only when you understand how deeply Jesus loves you (to the extent that He willingly died for your sins!) are you able to die to your own selfishness and selflessly love your spouse. I especially appreciate Keller's vision for Christian marriage as one where spouses love each other not just for who they are now but for who God is making them to be, with marriage as a primary way in which we are sanctified and made more and more into beautiful new creations. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Two Years

Our second wedding anniversary was December 30.

Somehow I never pictured a December wedding for myself. I was all for autumn weddings, warmish days with that crisp tang to the air, the gorgeous golds and oranges of the leaves. Or summer weddings– bright colorful flowers and bridesmaids in sundresses. Or spring weddings (crab-apple blossoms, anyone?) I didn't particularly care about being a June bride, but it never occurred to me that I would be a December bride.

I suppose I thought that a December wedding had to be a Christmas wedding– bridesmaids in red, groomsmen with dark green ties or vests, decorate with poinsettias, etcetera. That a December wedding could be dark blue and silvery, with royal purple overtones and snowflake accents had not occurred to me. Nor did I ever imagine that my future Maid of Honor might loathe poinsettias and half jokingly threaten to boycott my wedding by streaking outside the chapel if poinsettias were in any way involved. 

I am female and a romantic at that, and I enjoy a wedding as much as anybody, but I’ve come to consider marriage as far more interesting. Even though weddings are generally the finale or epilogue of most romantic comedy films, in real life, a wedding is just the introduction or prologue. Marriage, that grit and grunge of living in the daily ordinary with another person (“in the bonds of holy matrimony” as the old service says), that is the story. 

 I think that is why almost no one makes movies about marriages (real marriages, I mean, not caricatured marriages). The fusing of two lives into one is simply too complex and intricate. There is no safe formula, and movies thrive on formula. Romantic comedies are safe– they are almost invariably about love happening to two people, sometimes willingly, sometimes in spite of one or the other or both. The wedding comes, everyone smiles, the credits roll. It's a safe formula and it has proved, a hundred times over, to be lucrative. But a movie about real marriage would not be lucrative, because the filmmaker would have to show what it looks like when love stops happening to a husband and wife on its own and they have to learn how to make love–I don’t mean just physical union, but how spouses have to actually make love real in the day-to-day grunge, how we have to fight for love when it stops coming by itself, how we must hunt for it when it seems hidden or even lost. The problem about movies is that most people want to be entertained by watching extraordinary things on film, but in marriage you can't love extraordinarily until you have learned how to love ordinarily, and nobody makes movies about the ordinary.


The ordinary is exactly what marriage vows are all about–not just I do, in this moment now when we are both the most beautiful we will ever be and loving you is easier than anything else, but also I will all those future days– days of work and play, companionship and loneliness, overwhelming joy and overwhelming sorrow. I will when neither of us are beautiful, when we have seen each other's inside-and-out ugly, when we have wounded each other more deeply and terribly than we could have dreamed possible, when it seems we can't stop arguing and our souls snap at each other, when our relationship seems best personified as the irritated, grumpy old lady next door in permanent curlers and ratty bathrobe. Even then, I still will.

Here’s the thing– if you are in it for what you can get, then the marriage will fail. That's why I like the words of the old service, calling it the “bonds” of holy matrimony. If you marry, you are bound, no matter how enlightened or progressive you consider yourself or your marriage to be. At some point or other, those bonds will assert themselves– a loss of autonomy, of certain freedoms, even of what you might consider to be certain personal rights. If you grasp after these things hard enough, marriage chokes, withers– dies. Here is the paradox, the secret pattern which God has woven into all of life– to find your life you must lose it. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Only he who lays down his life will truly live.

These past two years have been seven hundred and thirty days of revelation of just how unwilling I am to lay down my life. One hundred four weeks and not one passes in which I do not try to grasp and clutch and cling to what I want– and in that clutching joy withers and I bring death to the one man to whom I’ve promised most. The joy of intimacy with another human soul walks hand-in-hand with the ugliness of sin in the human heart. Two years have shown me how daily I need transforming grace in the very heart of me. You need look no further than your daily thoughts and attitudes, or even words and actions, towards the person you claim to love the most, to see that you are nowhere near as good as you pretend to be.

Marriage is the beautiful, fiery crucible that lays us open and lays us bare. Regardless of how we try to do it, marriage will always bring us to the end of ourselves– which is the best possible place to begin depending on Someone Else.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Bookworm's Year, Part 2

My last post was about my year as a bookworm in 2013. I published the list of all the adult fiction books I read last year (including "blurbs" about my favorites). But once a blog post gets past a certain length, people's eyes just start to glaze over, so I decided to do a second post about the children's fiction I read.

I agree whole-heartedly with C.S. Lewis that, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." That is why I make it a habit to only read good children's stories. I am also building my own collection of children's books– ostensibly for my future children, but also because I read them all myself, regularly. All the rest of my library I have gone through and donated or swapped lots of books that are good books but which I can't see myself reading over and over for the rest of my life. But a good children's book finds a permanent home on my shelves.

I owe most of my familiarity with so much children's literature to my mother, who made it a habit to go to the library, bring home vast quantities of books, and read them to see which ones were worth passing onto her children.

Meredith's 2013 In Books

Children's Books

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of the children's books I read last year. It is as many as I wrote down and/or can remember, but there were undoubtedly a few that slipped through the cracks. 

Carol Ryrie Brink- Two Are Better than One, Louly
Most children's literature fans are familiar with Brink's Newbery Medal winning novel Caddie Woodlawn. These lesser-known novels are based on Brink's early adolescence in the west at the beginning of the 1900s. I have dearly loved Two Are Better than One from the first time I read it years and years ago because the main character, 13-year-old Crystal, and her best friend Cordy write a novel called The Romantical Perils of Lester and Lynette. Crystal is a an introverted girl who makes up stories in her head– someone I could completely relate to. Louly, the sequel, explores more of Crystal's questions as she grows older while she and her friends have lots of ordinarily hilarious adventures like camping in the backyard, driving a pony cart in the Fourth-of-July parade, and entering a regional speech competition. These books always made me wish I lived at the beginning of the 1900s so I could buy new Easter hats and drive down to the ice-cream parlor in a pony card and have a masquerade ball with my Sunday school class.

Helen Clare- The Five Dolls in a House, The Five Dolls and the Monkey, The Five Dolls and their Friends, the Five Dolls and the Duke 
My mom found The Five Dolls series in the library system in Colorado Springs when I was eight or nine, and my sister Maggie and I weren't the only ones who read them. My brothers read them too! They're out of print but you can find them on ABE books. The stories are about Elizabeth, an English girl who can turn herself small and visit the five dolls, Vanessa, Jane, Jacqueline, Lupin, and Amanda, who live in Elizabeth's dollhouse (not to mention the monkey who lives on the roof). The dolls call Elizabeth the landlady ("dear Mrs. Small!") and pay her cough-drops for rent (which they keep in the teapot). I have read a few other dolls-come-to-life stories and none of them come close to being as charming and whimsical (not to mention quintessentially British) as The Five Dolls series. It's because of this series that we know about Guy Fawkes Day, and that apartments in England are called flats and mailmen are postmen, and how to use the word "genteel" in a sentence. Maggie and I even went so far as to construct our own dollhouse out of shoeboxes; we made clothespin dolls of the Five Dolls characters.

Alice Dalgleish- The Silver Pencil
This novel is based on Dalgleish's own childhood to young adulthood, and one of the reasons I have always liked it is because Janet loves writing. Also because she reads books like Little Women– is there any better literary feeling when a character in a book starts reading the same books that you yourself read? Dalgleish was born in Trinidad, educated during her teenage years in England, and came to America when she was nineteen. In the book Janet does the same. Dalgleish's word-pictures create the atmosphere of the different countries well– and if the story lags a little in places, the book drifts gently but steadily forward. So if you get tired of reading about Janet's experiences at her high school in London (what do they call high schools in England? I've always been confused by that!) just keep going, she'll be back in Trinidad soon!

Edward Eager- Half Magic
When I was visiting my sister Maggie at Belhaven University for a day on the move to SC, she showed me the college library and (of course!) we went into The Juvenile Room. I saw this book on the shelf and caught it up, trying to remember if I'd read it or not. When I managed to get it on Paperback Swap, I remembered that I had. It's a cute magic story, but I enjoyed the Edith Nesbit references more than the actual story itself. So my advice– skip Edward Eager, or else consider him as merely the appetizer and go straight to the main dish– his muse, Nesbit.
Edith Nesbit- The Story of the Treasure-Seekers
Nesbit was not only Edward Eager's muse, she also inspired C.S. Lewis. I have read that she was the first writer for children to bring magic out of fantasy worlds (like Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books) and into children's every-day lives. Treasure Seekers is actually one of her non-magical books, but the adventures of the Bastable children trying to restore the fallen fortunes of their house still entertains me. I also highly recommend The Railway Children and The Five Children and It.
J.R.R. Tolkien- The Hobbit
Last Christmastime we went to the movie theater to see The Hobbit. Neither of us realized that it was going to be a trilogy of movies, and since I am intimately familiar with the story, I got rather worried when we had been sitting in the theater for two and a half hours and Bilbo and the dwarves still hadn't gotten out of the Misty Mountains. While for the most part I enjoyed the movie, I was perturbed by a few of the changes Peter Jackson made– most particularly, the way he changed the whole tone of the story and tried to make it into an epic saga instead of a light-hearted children's fairy tale. The Pilot had read The Hobbit once in his childhood but not since then, so since he couldn't sympathize properly with my concerns about the movie, I decided the only thing to do was to read it out loud to him. So that's what I did, every night that we could manage before bedtime. The Pilot gets instantaneously sleepy when something is read out loud (particularly if he is already tucked in bed) so as a result it took us several months to complete the whole book. But he liked it and I love reading out loud, so we agreed it was a good matrimonial experience.
C.S. Lewis- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian
I was slightly horrified to find out that my darling husband, so highly educated in many ways, had never read or heard The Chronicles of Narnia! I don't even remember how old I was when my mom first read them out loud to myself and my younger siblings, nor can I remember not knowing and loving the stories. So, since reading The Hobbit out loud to the Pilot worked pretty well, I decided our next great endeavor would be the Chronicles. We are reading them in the order which C.S. Lewis wrote them (which, as every Lewis fan knows, is the BEST order!) and all I had to make the Pilot understand was tell him that it was kind of like Star Wars. (Currently, we have just embarked on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)

Eloise Jarvis McGraw- Sawdust In His Shoes
I re-read this favorite when I was visiting my parents, because unfortunately it is severely out of print– there are only two copies on ABE books and the cheaper one is $450. (I am requesting my mother to leave her copy to me in her will.) Lots of people know about McGraw's more popular book, Moccasin Trail, which is easy to find. Sawdust is just as good a story– about fifteen-year-old Joe, who is a bareback rider in a small circus somewhere around the mid 1900s. My mother did most of the reading of bed-time stories and chapter books to us kids, but my father was the one who read Sawdust In His Shoes. So when I read it to myself I hear his voice narrating it. The story is heart-warming and touching, so if you can ever find a copy that isn't in the 100s of dollars, snatch it up! (Unless I get to it first!)

This post has gotten quite long enough, so I shall have to expand to a third post for my nonfiction reads! To be continued!

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Bookworm's Year In Review

Last month I posted on Facebook how insulted I felt when Goodreads sent me a jubilant email informing me that I'd read six books in 2013.

Six books!!


 Goodreads is a website that's sort of like a combination Facebook/Netflix for readers. I started using it this past year to help me expand my reading list, as well as keep track of all the children's books I want to own someday. I'm supposed to "update my reading status" with the books I'm currently reading, but I preferred to skip the constant updating and read more books instead.

Last January I started a document on my laptop that's a long list of every book I read in 2013. There are over 50 titles, which doesn't count all the children's books I squeeze in on the side; not to mention the fact that C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy is really three separate books. So really, when Goodreads claims that I read six whole books last year, I can smile smugly and think, "More like ten times that!" Because, as we all know, the ability to feel smug is a very important part of having a reading list.

Vanity aside, however, the list helped me be far more intentional about what I read last year. I'm fond of the familiar, which means that before I started this list I was more likely to pull a tried-and-true book off my own bookshelf than to read a new one. Keeping track made it easier for me to mix new books in with the old (especially since I made a note, with each title I added to the list, of whether the book was new to me, or whether I'd read it before).

I also joined Since I now live in a town with a very small library, Paperback Swap has been a fantastic way for me to find new books (to read at my leisure) while also passing on books that I knew I didn't really need to own any longer. (And believe me, arriving at the point where I could admit I didn't need to own a book any longer shows significant growth in my book-hoarder soul!)

People use the new year to take stock of their past year in a number of ways– places travelled, goals accomplished, big events. But I would rather talk about books. I have read too many to discuss in a single post, so I'm going to divide and conquer- this first list is the fiction I read with my blurbs about select books.  I'll write another post with the list children's books and nonfiction. So without further preface, here is part one of my recap of 2013 as a bookworm.

Meredith's 2013 in Books


Jane Austen- Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility
I am one of those Austen fans who actually reads all her books regularly (as opposed to the fans who just watch the movies) so the fact that I only read two this year is a Big Fat Deal. I have a dear friend who loves books and has her master's and h.a.t.e.s. Austen, so I hope she will be very proud of me that I tried Toni Morrison instead of reading Pride and Prejudice for the thirty-eighth (or somewhere thereabouts) time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald- The Great Gatsby
I majored in English, but I managed to get out of reading most American literature. My favorite authors are all British; I've been reading British books my whole life, and I think if my bookworm soul was to be personified it would have a Cockney accent. However, as a writer I understand the value of reading authors outside one's comfort zone, so I made myself read The Great Gatsby. It was interesting, but it didn't change my mind about loving British books the best.
Rumer Godden- In This House of Brede
I picked this up off the shelf at the library on base here in Sumter– rather astonished to find anything by Rumer Godden, who is a kind of obscure British author. The novel is about an English convent in the 1950s– an order of nuns who are "cloistered", which means they don't ever leave the convent. Godden's portrayal of the cloistered life is the exact opposite of the escape which Americans tend to imagine is the primary purpose of the monastic life. The nuns in the book have vivid personalities, strengths, vulnerabilities, and sins, and their life in the convent forces them into constant community– with God but also with each other. I left the novel feeling like the typical American life is downright secluded compared to the hard work of living up close and personal with everyone in a cloistered community.
Elizabeth Goudge- Gentian Hill, The Dean's Watch, A City of Bells, Island Magic
Elizabeth Goudge was another obscure (in America anyway) British author, and I've been collecting her books for years now. She is the first author I discovered who could make very long descriptions of scenery poetic, unclichéd, and thoroughly absorbing. Most of her books are historical fiction; she has a particular affection for setting her stories on the Channel Islands (which is the location of Island Magic) and for subtly weaving images of the Christian faith into her plots. 
Kenneth Grahame- The Wind in the Willows
If you think that Wind in the Willows is only for children then you are very wrong, and you should buy a copy immediately and read it once a year for the next five years. I don't know much about Kenneth Grahame (other than that he was, of course, British) but I suspect he was really a poet who decided to write a novel. Wind in the Willows is another book where reading the descriptive paragraphs is pure pleasure– a sort of ice cream shop for sentence lovers, except you will never get brain freeze from savoring Grahame's treats over and over again.

Toni Morrison- Tar Baby
My other American Lit. book for the year. I think there is just something I don't understand about American literature... like why it has to be so weird, and so full of descriptions that are obviously symbolic of something because otherwise there's no point to them. Someone needs to write a book called American Lit. explained to Brit. Lit. lovers.
Richard Pratt- As One Devil to Another
I was very excited to read this book because I love C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, and I had read a review of this novel as being the most brilliant sequel (out of many attempts) to be written. Walter Hooper, the world's expert on C.S. Lewis, says in the foreward, "As One Devil To Another is a stunning achievement, the finest example of the genre of diabolical correspondence to appear since this genre was popularized by C. S. Lewis. While the tone is sharper than anything from Lewis' pen, it is surely the tone he would have used had he lived to see the abyss of moral relativism we endure today." Among the demon Slashreap's letters to his nephew Scardagger (Slashreap is the older brother of Screwtape) is a scathing, brilliant, and entertaining criticism of the modern study of English Literature in western universities. Unfortunately I was sitting on a plane while reading that part, so I couldn't jump up and down shouting, "Yes! Yes! Thank you!"
Barbara Pym- An Unsuitable Attachment, Some Tame Gazelle, Jane and Prudence, A Few Green 
Leaves, Excellent Women
Some people call Barbara Pym the Jane Austen of the 1950s. I wouldn't go that far, but if you like Austen, you might like Pym. Her books are delightfully dull– and by dull I mean nothing happens in them that might not happen in real life, and yet she has a wry sense of humor and a matter-of-fact way of observing ordinary human absurdity. I recommend reading her while drinking tea and eating scones. 
Betty Smith- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Probably my favorite new discovery of this year. I debated about whether to put this book in the fiction list or under memoir, since it is simply a fictionalized account of Betty Smith's own childhood in Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century, but since it's marketed as fiction I kept it here. Once I started reading it, I just kept reading and reading, annoyed by things like eating and sleeping which got in the way of reading. I have all the typical book reviewer clichés running through my head, such as "a fascinating glimpse into the world of Smith's childhood..." But it wasn't a glimpse. It was like Betty Smith set a chair down in the middle of the stage and voila, I was in the story too! Little details of their everyday lives are still in my memory, like how Francie's mother would brew a cup of coffee for each person and they could do whatever they liked with it, and Francie, who didn't like coffee, dumped hers down the drain every day because it made her feel rich to waste food just like the rich people did.

The Rest of the Fiction

Nick Hornby- About a Boy
Irene Hunt- Up A Road Slowly
Kazuo Ishiguro- The Remains of the Day
Barbara Kingsolver- The Poisonwood Bible
C. S. Lewis- Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters
Penelope Lively- Family Album
Yoko Ogawa- The Housekeeper and the Professor
R.J. Palacio- Wonder
Chaim Potok- The Chosen
Dorothy Sayers- Murder Must Advertise
Robin Sloan- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore 
Evelyn Waugh- Brideshead Revisited

To be continued...