Saturday, January 09, 2016

Nonfiction of 2015: Miscellaneous

Today's post is the last in my annual reading roundup--after reviewing all the memoir and poetry yesterday, I'm collecting the rest of the nonfiction (from theology to biography to psychology/sociology and more) here.


My favorite "spiritual growth/theology/Christian living" book of 2015 was, without question, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. I found it phenomenally wise and helpful and lovely. I read a lot of other interesting and worthwhile nonfiction, as well as a few duds--some purely entertaining, some deeply insightful, some a strange mix of truth and nonsense. Below, from five-star on down...

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts - Joe Rigney*****
An excellent, beautiful book. It’s crammed with rich theology that will make your head spin (in a good way!), yet also full of intensely practical and down-to-earth insights and wisdom. The tone is so winsome—warm, humble, empathetic, contagiously excited about who God is and what He gives. Rigney writes in a clear, compelling way, taking aim at false guilt and casting a vision for how to live abundantly and generously. If you’ve ever feared that maybe you love your blessings too much, or if you’ve ever wondered how to navigate a healthy, godly balance between enjoying earthly pleasures and sacrificing for the sake of the gospel, or if you’ve struggled with how to respond when blessings are lost, you’ll find this book immensely helpful.

Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself - Joe Thorn*****
I don't do well with "devotional" format books (which is why it took me over two years to finish this one)...but this little book is really excellent. Pointed enough to make you squirm at times, yet brimming with joy and hope, it's a wonderful, useful collection of 48 short exhortations to remember what's true and live like it. I should immediately start back at the beginning.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory - Ben Macintyre (audio)*****
A little difficult to get into (at least as an audiobook), with so many characters to keep track of--but in the end, I enjoyed this immensely. I have read/heard/watched a fair amount about WWII, but had never before thought about the influence of espionage on the outcome of the war. It was fascinating to hear about the intelligence and counter-intelligence, the way psychological maneuvers affect battles and nations and ultimate results. The author also had some really profound statements to make about human nature and how our willingness to be deceived plays a huge role in whether we believe lies. Worthwhile story for sure.

Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg*****
I really believe Bragg is one of the greatest writers of our time. His raw talent + polished skill with words makes nearly any subject compelling. He has this way of telling a story that is understated instead of melodramatic, which serves to pierce the reader with the drama of the tale. The chapter epigraphs in this volume are a perfect example--one or two elegant, startling sentences that say so much, so simply. And he makes the most diverse characters come to life. If you haven't read any of Bragg's work, I'd start with his first memoir, All Over But the Shoutin'. But this collection of feature articles from The New York Times is wonderful too--nice to dip in and out of, savor just a small piece at a time.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God - Timothy Keller****
It's hard for me to review this because I read it over the course of the entire year--receiving it for Christmas in 2014 and finishing it in December 2015. It's immensely rich and helpful, as I almost always find Keller to be, but it's a lot "headier" than some of Keller's other work, especially in the beginning (the footnotes are slightly overwhelming). For that reason I'm not sure it would be a good introduction to prayer. I also think it can easily discourage anyone who doesn't already have much of a prayer life, despite Keller's efforts to encourage the beginner. Still, it's definitely valuable, and I expect to refer back to it to strengthen my weak prayer life, as he provides lots of practical suggestions and examples.

The Gifts of Imperfection - Brené Brown****
I finally gave Brené Brown a try after being intrigued by her work and hearing others rave about her for years. The first sentence of the introduction told me I'd have to read with a filter--yet I think there is much value in this book if read critically through a gospel lens. It is so good, and yet it falls so short of a biblical worldview. Much (most?) of what she says is absolutely fantastic. But the "you are enough, you are OK" mantra, absent of really dealing with the fundamental reality of sin and inadequacy, left much to be desired. I think the gospel provides richer and more satisfying answers to the problems she diagnoses, but if you can map that onto her work yourself, you'll find plenty to chew on. I definitely plan to go back through all my many highlights and to read more from Brené Brown. I find her style winsome and compelling, and I generally think she's brilliant--she just doesn't go far enough. As this review of her most recent book puts it: "The gospel offers a deeper hope than what she describes, yet what she offers can point the way forward—if you follow it to its logical conclusion—to our need for God’s love in Christ."

Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction - Sam Alberry****
A very short (I read it in one quick sitting) but wise and helpful little book. Only an introduction to complex and sensitive issues, but the way the author (who experiences same-sex attraction but chooses to remain celibate) answers some of the "classic" questions/objections on both sides is winsome and compelling. 

For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards - Jen Hatmaker****
I weirdly (stubbornly?) didn't want to love this because of the way everyone and her sister was fangirling over it and the way all the advance hype took it to the top of all the lists. But what can I say? There is a reason Jen Hatmaker has so many fans. She's funny and clever and has a lot of true and meaningful things to say in the midst of the hilarity. Steve even picked this up, which cracked me up. I think the subtitle is a bit misleading/overambitious, though. It mostly felt like a collection of random, unrelated essays--like basically the publishing team went, "We know we can sell a book with Jen Hatmaker's name on the cover, so we'll let her write about whatever blessed thing strikes her fancy." As this review points out, her use of the word "grace" rings a bit hollow in the end. Still, a fun read.

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work - Kathleen Norris****
I really enjoyed this short little gem of a book. Lots of lovely food for thought and inspiration for the ordinariness of daily work and life.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas***(*)
Bonhoeffer was indeed an admirable and compelling man, and reading about his life as well as excerpts from his own writings made me interested in reading more of his work. However, I kind of felt like Metaxas seemed intent on canonizing him. Perhaps he really was an extraordinarily saintly man and I'm just a cynic. But it was like he had no flaws, which felt unrealistic. Anyway, the story started slow and was longer than it needed to be, and I didn't appreciate the overly obvious "foreshadowing." Still, it was a fascinating look not only at an extraordinary man, but also at 1930s Germany. I think since the victors write the history books, I had absorbed an overly simplistic view of WWII as Germany = Evil, Allies = Good Guys. So it was enlightening to read about all the Germans who despised Hitler for what he was doing to their beloved country, and it was heartbreaking to learn about foolish decisions (made by the British especially) that could have, perhaps, changed the course of events dramatically. All in all I *do* recommend it. You just have to be patient through the slow parts.

Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time - Greg Ogden***(*)
I skimmed the first half of this; it is great material, but very very familiar to me after having spent two years in college working with a ministry for whom this was the heartbeat. The second part, which promised to "take this biblical vision and translate it into a [workable] church-based model of disciple making," was the tool/model/nitty-gritty "how to" piece that has been missing for me. I feel a bit skeptical of a few of Ogden's minor points, but on the whole I think this was a good reminder of a familiar vision with some helpful added nuances/tweaks. I'm excited that our pastor is advocating this and hoping to implement it in my own life soon.

Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda - Michael Barnett***
This is by far the least-accessible book I've read on Rwanda. But while it's thoroughly awful to slog through (it reads like a dry academic dissertation), I do think it's an important analysis of the international community's role in the 1994 genocide. Other books I've read on the topic focus more closely on events in Rwanda; this one was centered on the UN and whether the Security Council, the Secretariat, and/or member states bear moral responsibility for the genocide. I thought Barnett's research and conclusions were thorough, balanced, fair yet pointed. In between the incredibly tedious writing and interminable paragraphs, he also had some profound things to say--provocative truths about the nature of bureaucracies and morality and about human nature in general. 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo***
To me this seemed like equal parts valuable tips and utter nonsense. I was torn between wanting to attack my house and get rid of lots of stuff and try to implement some of her suggestions...and throwing up my hands because the methods she insists on feel completely unattainable and unrealistic. Some of what she said made so much sense and was insightful. Some of it was downright ridiculous. Very woo-woo "your possessions have feelings, your house will talk to you" etc. Read if you have three weeks to set aside to tidy your entire house and change your life, and/or if you want a good laugh, and/or if you are concerned that your socks are sad because you fold them in a ball in your drawer. 

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think - Bryan Caplan***
Curiosity made the cat pick this up based on the title alone. (And no, my reading and reviewing it does not mean I am open to your nosy questions about whether or not I want or plan to have more children.) It was provocative for sure. Caplan makes some compelling arguments. He's also annoyingly repetitive, a bit alarming/discouraging in his treatment of adoption, and totally neglects to address some of the significant reasons people might choose not to have more children, especially from a woman's perspective.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - Erik Larson (audio)***
Did not enjoy this nearly so much as Devil in the White City. It was mildly interesting but not overly compelling.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness - Timothy Keller**(*)
I normally love Tim Keller, but this booklet (it can't really be called a book) was not really anything new if you've read C.S. Lewis. Those who have never heard his perspective ("humility isn't thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less") or who have never been exposed to the gospel third-way thinking about self-image (with low self-esteem and high self-esteem being sides of the same coin, neither desirable) might find this very helpful and revolutionary. But if those ideas are familiar to you, you probably won't find anything new here. It's a very quick read, so it can't hurt. But  I sort of felt like Keller wasn't telling me anything I hadn't heard before, and yet he didn't develop the ideas enough to help me really get a handle on HOW, practically, to get there. So I came away thinking I hadn't learned anything new and hadn't gotten any closer to applying what I already know. 

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas**(*)
I'll admit that I don't often really love "devotional" type books in general...but this one was definitely not a favorite. It sounded so promising, but in between the big-name authors on the cover were a bunch of people I didn't know whose work was not particularly wonderful to me. I really enjoyed a handful of the pieces; most of the others were very "meh" to me and several were downright awful. (Many were also much longer than I prefer in this type of daily-reading collection.) I'm rounding up to 3 stars, but I won't be keeping this for future reuse. 

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune - Bill Dedman (audio)
This book was kind of like a train wreck: gruesome, and sad, and not edifying in any way, yet you have this morbid curiosity and you can't look away. I alternated between feeling disgusted by Huguette Clark and feeling sad for her. The opulence of her and her family's lifestyle was appalling. The squandering of so many millions of dollars, unbelievable. It all just seemed like such a waste. Wasted money, wasted lives. The latter part was something like a real-life version of Grisham's Sycamore Row, with a hotly contested will, but it wasn't resolved in a satisfying way. I'm not sure how many stars to give this--not because the reporting or writing was terrible, but because in the end, the woman's life did not seem worth giving my time to learning about. I did finish; the story was fascinating at times. Just kind of morbidly so.

Other books I abandoned:
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey - Candice Millard
I was eager to pick this up after loving Millard's Destiny of the Republic, but I wasn't motivated to finish. It was mildly interesting, and I was curious how it turns out, but I just didn't care enough about the characters or the quest. When my Kindle said I had another 3.5 hours to go, I just kept thinking about all the other books I could be reading in that time. 

Italian Journey - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I ordered this old book through interlibrary loan and was startled to find it was a massive, 500-page volume. So I skimmed only the parts about cities I was going to visit. I found some really poignant quotes, but also a lot that didn't interest me at all. Many of the quotes were lovely and yet melodramatic--I felt like either Goethe was over the top about Italy, or he was dead on and you really can only understand once you've experienced it yourself. After having been there...I'm inclined to say he was perhaps a bit melodramatic.


What were your favorite nonfiction reads in 2015? 

Friday, January 08, 2016

Nonfiction of 2015: Memoir and Poetry

Most of my reading each year is nonfiction, so I'm splitting the long list into two parts. Since I seemed to read quite a bit of poetry and memoir this year, I've collected those in today's post and will review the rest of the nonfiction later this week.

My favorite in this category was Amber Haines' debut, Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home. Runners-up would be Lauren Winner's Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis and Preemptive Love, Jeremy Courtney's book about humanitarian work and peacemaking in Iraq.


My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't like it
* Hated it

Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home - Amber Haines*****
Exquisite. This one earned endless underlining and dog-earing and a permanent place on my shelves. Amber's story is so very far from my own, and yet she tells my story. It pierced me and it settled my restless soul. Wise and beautiful words of hope and light and life and home. 

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis - Lauren F. Winner****
I'd forgotten how much I love Lauren Winner. I hadn't read any of her books in years, but fifty pages into this one, I had dog-eared four spots (yes, I am that kind of sinner). At the last lines of one chapter, I whispered a relieved "Oh. Yes." Winner writes beautifully and while her theology/philosophy is in some ways very different from mine, her words resonated a lot nonetheless. She is also the kind of writer who stirs up the writer in me, for which I'm always grateful.

Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time - Jeremy Courtney****
Courtney's account of moving to Iraq and pursuing life-saving, peacemaking work with his family there is powerful and timely. My only real complaints are that the chronology was confusing, and that he alluded several times to significant struggles in his marriage, the way his work caused pain to his wife or produced tension in his family, but never explained or resolved any of these references. Otherwise--a beautiful and compelling story. It made me realize how very, very little I know about Iraq and made me very interested to follow Preemptive Love and learn more. I'd probably give it 3.5 stars, but I'm rounding up because I really would recommend it. [Note: if you are local to Nashville, I saw several cheap copies of this at McKay in December!]

Every Bitter Thing is Sweet - Sara Hagerty****
Sara's story challenged and inspired me. I deeply appreciated it, yet I also struggled with parts of it. I did underline a lot of powerful, poignant lines and paragraphs. 

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion***(*)
This was on the syllabus for the creative nonfiction writing class I took in college, and I can see why. Didion's memoir opens with the death of her husband and explores her experience of grief during the first year without him. Her spare prose--so unembellished and understated--made the bare facts more haunting. It was raw, fractured, even disorienting, but in a skillful way.

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater - Frank Bruni***(*)
This memoir from a former NYTimes food critic was fascinating and sad, funny and disturbing. In between the mouthwatering descriptions of Italian food and the amusing anecdotes about his family's cooking, he made some profound and poignant observations about food, overeating, and the jacked-up way so many of us misuse and abuse food. It really is impressive that someone who struggled with bulimia and being overweight most of his life was able to settle into moderation and achieve a healthy weight when he was a professional eater, taking on extravagant dinners in restaurants 7+ nights a week.

Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer - Micha Boyett***(*)
was only recently introduced to Micha Boyett's lovely writing when a friend shared her post introducing her son, born last month with Down syndrome. I got the free Kindle sample of her memoir and after trying to underline stuff twice, decided I definitely wanted to read the rest. I kept waffling on my opinion of it. It really wasn't the most spectacular memoir, but much of it was lovely and thought-provoking, and although I often felt unimpressed, it ultimately really resonated with me and my spiritual journey.

My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City - New York Magazine***
A fun little bathroom book. (Is that TMI?) My favorite kind of bathroom book, too: short, stand-alone chapters/stories. Inaccessible and nonsensical to anyone who is not, like me, a hopeless New York romantic. Also not particularly helpful for cultivating contentment if you are 33, married to someone who inexplicably hates the world's most wonderful city, and yet unable to accept in your heart with authoritative finality the reality you will never, ever be a New Yorker. :) Otherwise, a somewhat enjoyable light read. 

A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny - Amy Julia Becker***
I always hate to give someone's personal story a negative review. But I felt pretty "meh" about this one. Neither the writing nor the story itself were particularly striking.

Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story - Ken & Joni Eareckson Tada**(*)
This was just OK. I admire Joni so much and she certainly testifies to the beauty and glory of Christ in powerful ways. But this book's style/voice struck me as kind of cheesy. I also didn't like the way it was organized--jumping all over the place in time, from their dating years to the early 2000s back to the 1980s.

This is Just to Say: A Collection by Mary Brown's Students
Full review/explanation (including my contribution) here.

Jagged with Love - Susanna Childress
Susanna graduated from IWU a couple of years ahead of me, and she was an incredibly talented standout--hence her being selected by no less than Billy Collins to have her first manuscript published under the Brittingham Prize for Poetry. I was so in the mood to read more poetry when the Mary Brown tribute was being compiled, and after it came out, I was so blown away by Susanna's fantastic submission that I finally bought her first poetry book. She is clearly very good, and very sophisticated--to be honest, I felt dumb as many of the poems went over my head. Even her vocabulary was beyond me at points, and I think I have a relatively impressive vocabulary! Still, there were definitely poems and lines of poems that I loved and appreciated, and I could appreciate that she *is* talented even as I struggled to understand them on a deeper level.

Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth - Walter Bruggemann
I didn't find this as deeply moving and helpful as The Valley of Vision, but it does have a lot of beautiful and inspiring poem-prayers. 


I hope to read more poetry in 2016. Do you have any favorites to recommend?

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Fiction of 2015: Grown-Up Novels

Besides all the read-alouds, I did make it through some grown-up novels last year. My favorites were All the Light We Cannot See, which seemed to be popular everywhere (it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Cutting for Stone, which I listened to and loved. Otherwise...quite a few of my 2015 novels were somewhat controversial in content, I'll be honest. Here's to more discriminating choices in the coming year.

For various reasons, I didn't or couldn't rate half of the novels I read this year, but for those I did rate, my system is:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr*****
It's a rare book that keeps you in suspense up through 97% and isn't merely tying up loose ends at that point. Up until the very end, in the second week of January last year, I was ready to say, "This novel will not be beaten for my 'best of 2015' list." But. But! I couldn't decide what I thought of the ending. It seemed disappointing and abrupt. Still, even if I wasn't totally satisfied with how it ended, it enthralled me from page one and it was incredibly well done. The characters were so vivid--I especially appreciated the way the author made certain German characters human. The Nazis were still portrayed as deplorable, but I was impressed and moved by the way you saw their inner struggles and motivations. The whole book was full of sympathetic characters, the kind who stick with you. And the writing was skillful, compelling.

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (audio)*****
WOW. What a powerful book. An epic story, and so beautifully told. It stunned me at times. Compelling characters and plot twists that constantly had me going "OH MY GOODNESS I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING...but of course! How did I not see that coming?!" I really enjoyed it as an audiobook too--the narrator is not a native English speaker, and his accent seemed to make the story feel more authentic. Disclaimer for the sensitive: It does have some graphic descriptions of medical procedures, some very disturbing. It also has a few sex scenes--though I will say that while these made me uncomfortable, they bothered me a lot less than in other books that are pure fluff/chick-lit, where it's less necessary to the plot/characterization and more just titillating/mere entertainment. IMO, the literary quality and value of the book outweighed these concerns, but your mileage may vary.

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison****(*)
I tried to read a Toni Morrison novel in high school, but wasn't ready for it and couldn't get through it. I've grown up enough, and my perspective of the world/capacity for empathy has increased enough, for me to be able to appreciate her work now. I understand why people find this book offensive and don't want their kids reading it for a school assignment. It has some profoundly disturbing graphic content. Yet I also understand why it is considered a classic, important novel, and I understand why Toni Morrison has won the awards she has. The story was haunting, and masterfully told. Painful, hopeless--definitely not a beach read--but heartbreakingly "true." I was astonished, and unsettled, by how Morrison could evoke even a tiny amount of sympathy for such unsympathetic characters.

The Birth of Venus - Sarah Dunant****
I always struggle to know how to review books with R-rated content. I do think it's different than movies, but it's still a gray area. This had some content that might offend the conscience, but for me it was a fascinating, compelling story--very provocative. Set in Renaissance Florence, it definitely worked to whet my appetite for visiting Florence.

Pompeii - Robert Harris****
A gripping novel about the 79 A.D. eruption. Coarse at times, to be sure, but that aspect seemed to me to be true to the cultural history, not necessarily gratuitous. The historical details about the Roman aqueducts, Mount Vesuvius, and the culture of first-century Campania were fascinating.

What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty****
Chick-lit, but still thought-provoking. An engaging and suspenseful story with enjoyable twists and turns. 

A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham
My favorite literature professor from college recommended this to me quite some time ago. I can definitely see how reading it in her Contemporary Lit class would provoke lots of thoughtful discussion; it's full of complex relationships and themes that pushed me *way* out of my comfort zone. To that end, the content was such that I don't think it was a particularly edifying book for me to read on my own, without opportunity to discuss, analyze and think carefully about its themes. 

Home - Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I don't even know how to give this a rating. It was a troubling, depressing book--but Robinson is a gifted writer, for sure. Also I think Jack Boughton might be the most devastating character I have ever encountered in literature.

The Food of Love - Anthony Capella
Another Italy novel, this one set in modern-day Rome. It whetted my appetite in a more literal way, with its tantalizing descriptions of classic Roman foods (one of the main characters is a chef who sets out to woo a girl through his cooking). However, this was much more of a fluff read than The Birth of Venus, and while it engaged my attention, I can't recommend it based on the gratuitous sexual content, crass language, and negligible literary value. Also, I didn't love the ending, and one of the main characters was really not likable. OK, so basically its only value was educating me about Roman food.

The Wedding Officer - Anthony Capella
I gave Capella one more chance with this novel set in Naples during World War II. Maybe the content is typical for romance novels, and I was just surprised by it because I don't read that genre. This one, too, had marvelous descriptions of traditional Neapolitan foods, so it was great to read in preparation for our trip. But ultimately I don't recommend it, again based on the R-rated content (less explicit than The Food of Love, but still beyond what I am comfortable with).

Lila - Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I find Marilynne Robinson's novels difficult, for reasons I'm not sure I can identify or articulate, and yet I keep coming back to them. Her characters are poignant and compelling, and she often writes beautiful, stirring sentences. This third book (also set in Gilead, Iowa, and covering roughly the same time frame as the other two but told from a different perspective) fills in a lot of background about Lila Ames. Since I was listening instead of reading, and took a big break in the middle, I struggled with the chronology a bit, especially toward the end. I still can't quite decide what I think about the book on the whole. I never manage to give her novels star ratings. They often leave me unsettled. 

Abandoned novels:
A Soldier of the Great War - Mark Helprin (audio)
This is another of the books I picked up in preparation for our Italy trip (yes, I was a bit obsessive)--though it also happened to be on my want-to-read shelf because of friends' rave recommendations. I was interested enough, but with all I had going on in the summer/fall, I just didn't listen very often. It got to the point where I'd taken too many long breaks and didn't really remember what was happening...and it's SO long...that I ended up jumping ship.

What novels did you love in 2015?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Grayscale: A Tribute to a Beloved Professor

Today is Epiphany--and the fact that Epiphany is also the birthday of a favorite professor of mine (I remember this because she wrote a poem called "Epiphany" and shared it with us one semester), combined with the fact that all this just happened to come up in conversation with a friend yesterday morning, prompts me to take a quick break from my book roundup to share about one special book in particular.


Dr. Mary Brown was one of my very favorite professors at Indiana Wesleyan University. I started off my first semester in her World Literature class, and I went on to take five more writing and literature classes plus an independent study with her. So to say she had a significant influence on me would be a massive understatement. 

Dr. Brown retired this spring, and a couple of younger alumni solicited submissions to put together a book in her honor. HOLY INTIMIDATION BATMAN. Where do you begin in composing a poem or essay worthy of the woman who profoundly shaped you as a writer? How can you possibly convey in metaphors and enjambment the honor she is due? (Not to mention, how do you deal with knowing your contribution will be placed alongside a whole host of stellar others that will likely make yours look dumb?)

When I first heard about the project, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to come up with anything. Thankfully, inspiration struck just before the deadline, and while my poem won't be winning any awards, I was relatively pleased with how it turned out. At least until I saw all the other pieces...

The editors sent out a PDF copy to all contributors, but after reading the lovely preface and the first couple of pieces, I immediately ordered a hard copy of This is Just to Say: A Collection by Mary Brown's Students. The collection is wonderful. My former classmates--and those who came before and after us--are so talented! And the editors did such a great job putting it all together. I was compelled to look up and contact several people on Facebook just to say how much I enjoyed their contributions. So much powerful, poignant writing--it is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman. I laughed out loud, I "wow"ed out loud, I cried...I can only imagine how moving it is to her. Fun stuff.

Not gonna lie, it was also fun to see my name in print. It's been a long while since I've had that privilege. 

 



My poem, "Grayscale," was an attempt to capture the way I entered college as a very black-and-white thinker and the way Dr. Mary Brown forced me to grow--in uncomfortable but necessary ways--into a more expansive way of seeing the world. I see so much more gray now (much more even than I learned to see in college). That's not to say I don't believe in absolute truth. I do. But my capacity for empathy has grown tremendously, and I am a lot more willing to hold a lot more opinions loosely. SO many of my views have changed over the years, which means I've had to admit I was wrong before (which means I could be wrong again). It would be easier to see things as black and white, for sure--but I've had to embrace the gray as I've realized how complicated and nuanced people and events and systems are, and how limited we are in our ability to see and comprehend reality and truth. When I look back on college, I see that Mary Brown was instrumental in sowing some of the seeds of that growth.

I've been vulnerable a lot of times on this blog in the past, but for some reason, sharing my poetry makes me feel extra vulnerable. Which is probably one of the reasons I haven't posted this before now, despite the fact that it came out months ago! But...without further ado [except a quick note: if you're reading on a phone, you'll want to turn it horizontally so the narrow screen doesn't mess up the line breaks]:



Grayscale


I arrived on campus secured in stripes:
bold blacks, wide swaths of white.

She spoke, and her words were thin filaments,
the spun silk of a spider,
delicate threads holding the heaviest ideas in tension--
strong enough to suspend unbelief,
expertly woven to capture poem-ghosts.

Her green pen tap tap tapped at the weak joints
between stripes, coaxing cracks across the lines,
inserting splintering questions,
scratchy ink smoothed by the curves of her letters,
the gently piercing murmur of her words.

She tapped, until the black and the white
shattered in a terrifying
and thrilling cascade of noise and shards
tinkling onto my shoes,
a thousand million shades of gray.

I was startled to discover such a world without color.
Endless gradient in the light and shadows,
how they bounced off each other, blended into one another,
highlights and lowlights so much richer
than a stark two-toned diorama.

                                Still, I sometimes wish
for the safety of those stripes,
solid lines clearly defined,
sharp contrasts far simpler than
the contours that blur into
a dizzying gray haze.

Yet as I peer through the gray mirror, dimly,
I see the beauty in the blending of black ink and white paper
and know one day, when I see face to face,
as grayscale explodes into the entire spectrum of color,
all those shades will have prepared me
for what would never be merely black and white,
but an endless revelation of gray-turned-grace.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Fiction of 2015: Read-Alouds

It's that time of year again: an onslaught of book recommendations as readers reflect on the past twelve months and make their lists for the coming year. Some of you may really need ideas; others of you (like me) lament the hundreds of books already languishing on your "want-to-read" shelf at Goodreads. Either way, I'm happy to share what I enjoyed and didn't this last year. It's so much fun when my friends pick up and fall in love with books I recommended!

Because I count all the chapter books I read with my boys, my list gets lengthy, so this will be the first of four posts: read-alouds today, then grown-up novels, then two posts' worth of nonfiction.

We made our way through recommended favorites from friends and "best books" lists, plus a few classics/throwbacks to my childhood and a couple of follow-ups from authors we love. The unmatched top of the list definitely goes to The Warden and the Wolf King, Andrew Peterson's epic conclusion to his Wingfeather Saga. I recommend this series to everyone I know. You have to give it through book two, because the over-the-top quirky humor in book one calms down quite a bit and it takes a while to get the sense of the scope of the story he's telling. But oh, what a story. We will revisit these for years to come.

I think I'll break with  my usual pattern of listing them in reading order and instead organize them by ratings, with our favorites first and the duds at the end.

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Warden and the Wolf King - Andrew Peterson*****
I think the best way I can sum this up is to quote a line from one of the last chapters (no spoilers): "What [Andrew Peterson] did was magnificent." An epic finish to a series that goes on my all-time favorites list, one I will return to again and again. Albert Camus once said, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." That's exactly what AP does in this series: he is a brilliant storyteller who uses a grand and thrilling made-up tale to entertain, to inspire, and to reveal deeper truths in beautiful, glorious ways. Cannot recommend highly enough.

James Herriot's Treasury for Children - James Herriot*****
I'd been hearing good things about this for a long time; I finally got my hands on a used copy and my 4yo and I both loved it. A collection of about eight charming stories about ordinary animals (sheep, dogs, cats, horses) written by a country vet. Sweet stories and lovely illustrations. A keeper for our shelves.

The Water Horse - Dick King-Smith****
A sweet little read-aloud about the origins of the Loch Ness Monster. Relatively short, charming story; kept my boys' interest and mine too. 

Paddington on Top - Michael Bond***(*)
I'd probably give this 3.5 stars, but I'm rounding up. It was a fun little book. My almost-5yo and I enjoyed reading it after falling in love with Paddington in the first book. I didn't realize there were so many more books about this sweet, mischievous bear.  

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren****
Full of ridiculous, nonsensical whimsy, but fun.

How to Train Your Dragon - Cressida Cowell***
My boys really enjoyed this, but it was not my favorite read-aloud. I didn't *dislike* it--just not really my style. I'm also surprised that the movie was given the same title and promoted as "based on" this book, because they bear almost NO resemblance other than the setting and the characters' names. The dragons and their relationships to humans are wildly different and the plot is not remotely close. It's a wholly different premise and story. This is apparently a whole series, and I can see my boys getting into them on their own, but I probably won't read any more to them, and they won't be ready to read them for themselves for another couple of years (just because of the vocabulary level). 

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - Kate DiCamillo***
An intriguing, unusual story with gorgeous illustrations...but I seem to recall finding the ending a bit unsatisfying, and it generally just wasn't a favorite. 

The Charlatan's Boy - Jonathan Rogers***
This was pretty dark and heavy. A bit much for my kids at their ages and not particularly enjoyable for me. 

The Chalk Box Kid - Clyde Robert Bulla***
This was a quick read, and maybe would have been better to just let my 8yo read on his own. It was OK, not particularly amazing, but not bad. We finished it in just two sittings; the chapters are short and the vocabulary simple. 

Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie***
Another of those classics I had never actually read. I'm amazed that my 8yo hung with it, but he definitely did and seemed to enjoy it. Pretty sure the vast majority of it went over the 4yo's head, based on the questions he was asking in the last chapter. The language was difficult and I felt like even I had a hard time following at points. Definitely not a favorite, especially not for read-aloud. 

Treasure Island (Junior Classics for Young Readers) - Robert Louis Stevenson/Nancy Fletcher-Blume***
Not having read the original, I can't speak to how faithful an adaptation/abridgment this is, but we liked it well enough. It was definitely more accessible at this level (with illustrations as well). It did make me curious to read the full version, but in reality, there are too many other books on my list so I probably never will. 

Two Times the Fun - Beverly Cleary**
Having loved the Ramona books, I had high expectations for this and was very disappointed. The stories were repetitive, simplistic, and boring. I feel like they were on the level of a beginning reader...but what 6-7 year old beginning reader wants to read simple, relatively pointless stories about four-year-olds?

 
The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter - Beatrix Potter**
To say I didn't like Beatrix Potter feels about as sacrilegious as saying I didn't like Winnie the Pooh...but there you have it. We abandoned it 2/3 through because it was hopelessly overdue at the library, and I confess the *only* reason we checked it back out and finished it later was so I could count it in this year's book total and not have wasted all the time we spent getting through the first 280 pages. I found most of the stories tiresome, especially the long ones; I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. 

Hello, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle - Betty MacDonald**
I have NO IDEA why these are popular or why I remember enjoying them as a kid. So formulaic and pointless. The children are insufferable, the parents ridiculous, and you get no insight whatsoever into the character of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Granted, this wasn't the first in the series as I originally thought, so maybe that one is better--but this one doesn't motivate me to pick up any others in the series.


What read-alouds have you and your kids enjoyed that we should check out in 2016?

Monday, November 30, 2015

NaBloPoMo Wrap-Up

Amazingly enough, I have made it. NaBloPoMo triumph, for the first time in three years.

Unfortunately November 30 falls on Cyber Monday this year, and I've been consumed today with starting my Christmas shopping and decluttering/decorating my house instead of blogging. I was going to conclude the month with a "Things I Learned" post, but I'm just not feeling it. And I could put up a traditional Monday gratitude post...but I just did a 100-item gratitude list less than a week ago.

So...the anticlimactic ending to my month of blogging is, I'm afraid, one of those cheater "I did it" posts, without much substance. I'm going to add a lovely coffee photo, because it doesn't really fit with any of my Italy posts and doesn't merit a post all its own, but it needs to be shared:

 

On the day we left Naples, we checked out of our B&B too early to get breakfast there, so we grabbed coffee and pastries at the train station. I learned that gianduia basically means Nutella (chocolate + hazelnut) and is *delicious* as a cappuccino flavor. Yes please.


I have no idea who out there is enjoying my Italy posts and who is just wishing I would shut up about it already...but I was kidding myself to think 31 posts would suffice. I haven't even gotten to Florence yet, and we spent the most time there!

So the pace is about to slow up quite a bit with the usual December craziness, but I hope to finish up the Italy travelogue in the next month. Still to come: the typical Florence highlights (Galleria degli Uffizi, the Duomo, the Accademia, Piazzale Michelangelo, Palazzo Vecchio) and a wine and food tour in the Chianti region--plus lots more gorgeous churches and some reflections on that. Thanks for reading along--and if you're sick to death of Italy, check back in January :)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Return to La Tradizione

Having spent all day Saturday hiking on the Amalfi Coast, we had planned to eat dinner in Sorrento. But we were tired and nothing particularly struck our fancy, so Steve suggested we take the train back to Portici and go to La Tradizione again, since our first time had been so great. Best idea ever.

This time we arrived around 9:00PM, and the place was packed--we didn't even know if we'd be able to get a table, and we certainly didn't expect extra attention. But we were seated right away, and as the host led us to our table, Luigi passed us and gave us an enthusiastic "Welcome back! Welcome back!"

Steve decided to order a bottle of wine instead of the usual quarter-liter or half-liter, and when Luigi himself came to take our order, his response to Steve's wine choice was, "Wow." After we finished ordering and he walked away, I said, "What did you just order?!" I was so afraid that somehow, with the language barrier, he had just accidentally selected a 100€ bottle or something.

So when Luigi returned with the bottle of wine, Steve asked him how much it cost. Luigi was a bit confused ("Don't you know? You ordered it...") but got a menu and showed Steve: 24€. Steve asked why he had said "Wow!", and Luigi explained that it was a very good choice, an excellent wine. He then poured just a tiny drop in each of our glasses, and said he had to take the bottle back to the kitchen for ten minutes.

In the meantime, we enjoyed our appetizer: bruschetta con pomodorini. I basically could not get enough bruschetta. 


We also had our pasta course: bucatini alla Don Salvatore. It was the hollow spaghetti (which are so hard to eat!) with sausage, provolone, parmesan, tomatoes, and something else listed as pendolo on the menu, which Google Translate helpfully says is "pendulum." Right, thanks. Anyway, it was SO good. 

Luigi eventually came back with our wine, and Steve asked what he'd done with it back in the kitchen. After rephrasing (his English was very good, but we still struggled a bit here and there), he understood the question and explained that he'd had to decant it. He spent time telling us all about the wine, where it came from, the type of grapes, why he doesn't mark it up as much as other restaurants, etc. Then somewhere in the midst of all that, the power went out in the restaurant. Total darkness.

We didn't expect to hear from Luigi after that; clearly he had more pressing things to attend to than a conversation about wine with us. His restaurant was packed and had no light or air conditioning. Yet incredibly, the kitchen continued bringing out food as normal. Our meat course was misto di carne alla brace (mixed grilled meats--four kinds of grilled beef and pork), which honestly wasn't fabulous. Not bad, just a little lacking in flavor. And we also had misto di verdure alla griglia (mixed grilled vegetables)--also OK.


The power wasn't coming back on, so we propped up my phone with its flashlight on in order to be able to see what we were eating:


The infamous bottle of wine
Much to our surprise, a while later, Luigi returned. Even though the power was still out and the restaurant was packed, he came back to finish his conversation with us! He chatted with us about wine and then explained why the power had gone out (Italian politics--fascinating). 

And then he sent us a complimentary dessert! I don't know what it was called, but I think it was essentially a deconstructed cannoli--fried pastry and sweet cream, stacked instead of rolled and filled. Terrible picture, of course, because I had to use my flash in the darkness of the restaurant!


The price for all that--an appetizer, a bottle of good wine, two entrees, a vegetable side dish (and dessert!)--was 59€ (about $65). Total. That included a cover charge, and tipping isn't a thing in Italy, so that was it. What in the world?! We easily would have paid $100 for a comparable restaurant meal here. And Luigi actually knocked it down to 55€ because of the power outage.

Steve and I sat there staring at the receipt, marveling at the price, and when Luigi spotted us studying it, he immediately came over to ask if there was a problem. We explained that we were just pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive it was, and he chatted with us all about his philosophy of pricing and said something like, "I don't have a nice view. I don't have parking. I realize you can go to places that have these things." I said to him, "Well, the hospitality and the food more than make up for that."

Clearly that made his day :) He walked away with a big grin saying, "Thank you! Thank you!"

Of course we had to get a picture with Luigi before we left. I for sure look like a hot mess in this photo--it was nearly 11PM after a day of hiking, a windy boat ride, a long train ride and then sitting in a hot restaurant--but it still makes me smile so much because this man was just the epitome of Italian hospitality. So, so fun.


I wish we could drive more traffic to his restaurant, but the reality is, it's in Portici. Very few tourists have any reason to go there. Gosh they are missing out though! My only regret is that we didn't even try the pizza, which was being made up front in this oven:  


Kicking myself for that missed opportunity. Alas. La Tradizione! Totally worth a special stop if you ever find yourself on the Circumvesuviana train between Naples and Sorrento. It's only a couple of blocks from the Portici via Libertà station and you won't regret the detour. Tell Luigi we sent you :) 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Campania Day 6: Positano and Sorrento

After finishing our hike on Sentiero Degli Dei, our main goal was to get to Sorrento by ferry in time to explore Sorrento a bit and then catch one of the last Circumvesuviana trains back to our B&B. We bought tickets for the 5:00 ferry and then had a couple of hours to relax in Positano.


We were pretty hungry after all that hiking, so we wandered into a waterfront hotel called Covo dei Saraceni for a late lunch.
Steve ordered a limoncello, the famous liquor of the region. It is supposed to be served ice-cold, but this one wasn't. Whew, was it ever strong.

We ordered focaccia caprese--definitely one of the most beautiful meals we ate in Italy. It was refreshing and delicious.

And of course I had to have some gelato :)

A view of Covo dei Saraceni from the water:

I wanted to wade in the Mediterranean just to say I had...

But the beach was awful! There was no sand, just tiny rocks, and they were so painful to walk on barefoot!
Looking up at Positano from the water

Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta

The water had so many brilliant shades of turquoise and blue:

I would have loved to see more of Positano, but we had to get to Sorrento and eat dinner early enough to make sure we didn't miss our train to Portici. The ferry was a great way to travel--we got seats on the top deck and enjoyed sitting, relaxing, and cooling off with the sea breeze while taking in the coast. Here's Positano as seen from the water:

After Positano, the rest of the coastline around the Sorrentine peninsula is pretty barren. The water was a stunning inky blue-black:


The Isle of Capri


Finally we reached Sorrento, high on the cliff overlooking the water:

The main thing I wanted to see in Sorrento was intarsia, a woodworking technique the city is famous for. We wandered around looking for a place I'd read about and also just taking in the sights...

After we'd seen a couple of shops, we found the main cathedral of Sorrento, whose wooden doors were created by some of the artisan families. It was some of the most beautiful, impressive artwork we saw in Italy. Unfortunately I was unable to take photos inside and could not find any on Flickr; you can see some on the cathedral's official website

The restaurant Lonely Planet had talked about in Sorrento didn't seem to be an actual restaurant, only a shop, so we wandered around aimlessly, not sure where to eat dinner. 


Finally Steve suggested we just head back to Portici early and eat dinner at La Tradizione again--and that turned out to be the best possible idea. More on that in my next post :) But first, we had to take the Circumvesuviana train back. I thought this artwork on one of the trains was fun:


And that was the end of our time on the Amalfi Coast/Sorrentine peninsula. One more meal in Campania and then off to Tuscany!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Sentiero Degli Dei: Nocelle to Montepertuso to Positano

Once we finished the main part of the Sentiero Degli Dei hike, we continued on paved roads and through villages for about two more miles from Nocelle to Positano.


In between is the village of Montepertuso:

Montepertuso is Italian for "hole in the mountain"--you can just barely see where the name comes from on the left side of this photo:

Here's a better close-up I found on Flickr:
photo: flickr/the-consortium

In Montepertuso, we stopped at a charming little restaurant along the route called Il Ritrovo. One of the great things about hiking with Gabriella was that she has lived in Positano her whole life, and between that and all the hikes she leads, she has developed relationships with people all along the trail.

This restaurant is owned by friends of her family, so Gabriella popped in to get some free biscotti for us to try!

Then the owner offered us little samples of granita limone--lemon slush, so refreshing:

And as if that weren't enough, they gave us complimentary snacks: sauteed zucchini and onions, bruschetta, and a fresh fig!

After that fun, delicious break, we continued on toward Positano. Here's one more view of Montepertuso, from the other side of the village:


The rest of the hike was perhaps the most difficult part--the only walking of all the miles we walked in Italy that gave me a (small) blister. Down, down, down hundreds of steps...



Here you can see SS163, the famous Amalfi Coast road we had driven on in the disastrous taxi ride:


Positano, closer now:


Gabriella, our lovely guide who was so full of interesting information:


At the edge of Positano, Gabriella helped us get oriented, gave us a few of the cookies to try, and then said goodbye. We continued on down to find lunch and dip our toes in the Mediterranean before catching a ferry to Sorrento.
Just a few more stairs. Whew.