Friday, January 31, 2014

Things I Learned in January

It's that time again...a few little things I learned this month. Foreign words, laundry instructions, and a personal tip for playing in the snow:

1. The distress call "Mayday!" is a phonetic/anglicized spelling of the French "m'aider" = help me. I looked up the origin of the word after it was in the news recently when two Toledo firefighters were killed in the line of duty, wondering why in the world you say "mayday" when you need help. Turns out it's French, which makes so much more sense.

2. You should be careful when you flop down in the snow to make a snow angel. If it isn't deep enough, you'll bruise your tailbone. And it will still bother you several weeks later.

3. There's a word for my condition: tsundoku.

4. Whenever I read the instructions on clothing tags that say to turn the item inside out before washing, I never understood why. It's still in the same water, exposed to the same detergent. How on earth would its being inside out make any difference? Martha Stewart to the rescue: this month's issue of Martha Stewart Living explained that you turn dark colors inside out to protect the color from *abrasion*. Well, that makes a lot more sense. I don't know whether it's actually true or actually matters, but at least now I have a reasonable explanation of the logic behind the instruction.

What did you learn in January?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 313

Thanking God this week for...

5913. strawberry butter on hot biscuits
5914. wedding chats and texting with my brother and his fiancée
5915. the way toasty-warm Jude snuggles into me in the mornings
5916. the last word He speaks over His people: "It is finished."
5917. a decluttered drawer

5918. much more advanced safety features in child seats and in cars than a few decades ago
5919. the fact that Elijah actually can help, not just "help," with chores now
5920. Wednesday night dinners and fellowship with friends
5921. soup for my freezer
5922. reading in bed

5923. coupons on my phone
5924. lunch and shopping with a friend at Costco
5925. baking with Jude
5926. used bookstores
5927. friends' little girl playing with the frosting on her first birthday cake

5928. this glorious modern hymn
5929. getting to sing it at our church yesterday
5930. holding the oceans in His hands
5931. holding me in His hand

Monday, January 20, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 312

“To be bursting with thanksgiving is a true witness of the Spirit within us. For the voice of thanksgiving speaks without ceasing of the goodness of God. It claims nothing. It sees no merit in man’s receiving but only in God’s giving. It marvels at his mercy. It is the language of joy because it need look no longer to its own resources.

The Christian rejoicing in this blessing of a thankful heart will have his eyes fixed upon the right person and the right place, Christ at God’s right hand. He cannot be taken up with himself without being immediately reminded that everything he possesses is the gift of God.”

— R. C. Lucas, The Message of Colossians and Philemon
Marveling at God's mercy over the last week in giving me...

5896. boys who "help" me clean the bathroom
5897. spirit week at school = Elijah getting to wear fun clothes besides his uniform
5898. dining room table that seats 10 comfortably
5899. friends and their little ones filling it up
5900. quiet time to write

5901. Goodwill to clear junk out of my house
5902. boys (all three) geeking out over Legos
5903. confidence that even in the midst of my mess, I am held, I am His
5904. a small miracle: on the day I overslept until 7:15 (we usually leave the house around 7:30), Elijah still made it to school on time--with NO yelling on my part! (maybe not so small of a miracle!)
5905. the discovery of new kindred spirits

5906. the discovery of the top of my desk (turns out it's black)
5907. Jude, so eager to be Daddy's helper
5908. Elijah, quick to pray for Mama when she cut her finger
5909. our pastor's excellent sermon series through Galatians
5910. a successful food experiment (except, WHOA garlic...I *love* garlic but use less than this!)

5911. a day off the school routine
5912. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the countless other courageous men and women who have fought for civil rights

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Stuff of Good Stories

There's a reason I don't write fiction. Ask my favorite writing professor from college, who once called my short story "flat," "tedious," "obvious" and "corny." If she'd been Southern, she definitely would have scrawled "Bless your heart" at the bottom.

That old anecdote, and my chronic inability to create believable characters, came to mind a few weeks ago as I was reading in the Old Testament and marveling at God as Master Storyteller. I am continually amazed at how these centuries-old stories virtually shout Jesus' name, if I have eyes to see it and ears to hear!

Shortly after that, I read Matthew 17 and Acts 17 back to back for my next Pick Your Portion assignment, and the repeated references to suffering brought my mind back to storytelling again. Click over to read my reflections on how God's story is infinitely better than the one I would write, because of the way He doesn't shy away from suffering like I do.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Treasures :: A Bible with a Broken Spine

Inspired by Leigh McLeroy's book Treasured: Knowing God by the Things He Keeps, I'm asking: What tangible pieces of my spiritual history would I place carefully in my own cigar box for safekeeping? What stories have shaped my journey with this ever-faithful, treasure-keeping God? Below is part four of the "Treasures" series. 


IV. An NIV Study Bible with the spine broken somewhere in Romans, blue ink bleeding through the page margins

The Bible had been given to me on the Sunday I was welcomed as a full-fledged member of my church, a gift to each preteen who completed the confirmation class and recited vows affirming her baptism. Those vows meant nothing to me at the time; the class was just something all the sixth graders did, and the Bible merely took up space on a shelf. When I took it to camp, one of the aforementioned hot college guys remarked that it was the same Bible he had. Only his looked well-used, the cover edges worn. Mine was pristine.

But then I began digging into the Word for myself after camp—no longer relegating my Bible to a church accessory, but keeping it beside my bed, a necessary part of my life. I went crazy underlining. It had never occurred to me that you could make *marks* in such a sacred book (gasp!), but I began to see margin notes as the sign of a committed, healthy Christian. In fact, inwardly I took obnoxious pride in getting my Bible all marked up and then comparing it to others’ whose pages were still crisp, unmarred by teenage scrawls. Sigh. (At some point, thankfully, I came across a quote from Julie Ackerman Link: "What matters to God, I realized, is not how many thoughts of my own are written in my Bible, but how many of the Bible's thoughts are written in me." I copied that down on one of the front pages to remind myself.)

I was amazed to discover that this old, intimidating book was actually relevant to my life, that it could comfort and challenge me, speak exactly into my heart and circumstances. I drew blue lines under verse after verse, starring especial favorites. Later I read through the New Testament in The Message version, and when a verse particularly stood out to me, I copied the fresh paraphrase right into the study Bible margins.

Eventually you could tell which books I spent the most time in, which passages were favorites; the Bible would fall open to 1 Kings 18-19, Isaiah 40, Habbakuk 3, Galatians 5-6, 1 John 3-4. Four years later, the hardcover spine had broken completely; you could actually remove Romans through the concordance. But I couldn’t bear to replace my beloved Bible. I could see in my mind where a verse was on the page. I cherished my notes and marks. And so, as one of the best gifts I’d ever received, my best friend Julie had my Bible rebound for my high school graduation.

I had to go without it the entire summer after I graduated. But when I got it back, it was perfect: My familiar pages, their tissue-thin paper creased and crinkled, tightly bound in a stiff blue faux-leather cover. It was brand-new, and yet it was old; it was mine.

During my first awful, lonely semester of college, I filled margins in the Psalms with “Was David reading my mind or what? But God was faithful to him, and He'll be faithful to me, too!” and “God hears me, encourages and listens to my helpless sobs...I'm not alone here..." I drew music notes next to verses I couldn't read without hearing songs in my head; I jotted down quotes, sermon notes, Greek word definitions.

Somewhere along the way I learned to pray Scripture, and I taped a list of carefully chosen Scripture prayers for close friends and family members inside the front cover. Also still tucked in the front cover is a scrap of pink paper on which my mentor, Diane, scribbled in black Sharpie a few suggestions for battling pride. A crocheted cross bookmark from my grandmother has a permanent spot in Job 19:25-27.

Later on, I discovered highlighter crayons, and my Bible got color-coded a bit. A quick flip through could tell you a lot about major themes and struggles in my life: orange for forgetting and remembering, green for pride and humility, yellow for fearing God. The faux-leather cover began to wear through at the edges of the spine, so it got repaired with clear packing tape, and a couple more pride verses got taped to the front, needed reminders of how to open this precious book:
"God opposes the PROUD, but gives GRACE to the HUMBLE" (James 4:6)
"This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2)

A few years ago I switched to the English Standard Version, and my once-again-in-need-of-rebinding NIV Study Bible was once again relegated to a shelf. I pull it out every now and then to marvel at the times God spoke to me over all those years. It is an heirloom, something I hope my kids will one day cherish as a testament to His grace at work in their mama's life.

Treasures, previously:
A broken piece of cornerstone
A sharp pebble
A pastel index card

Monday, January 13, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 311

Trying to crush my righteousness today by reviewing all the undeserved gifts God gave me last week, including...

5874. "soup from bones...a very practical act of redemption"
5875. read-along audio books
5876. boys giggling like crazy over the Name Game (Jude, Jude-bo-bude, Banana-fana-fo-fude...they seriously laughed over this for a good 20 minutes)
5877. turkey panzanella
5878. fleece-lined khaki pants

5879. wool sweaters
5880. mittens
5881. new New York City wall calendar
5882. coffee with a dear friend
5883. tearing down my idols

5884. Steve's feedback on my writing, helping me be more God-centered
5885. revolutionary, mind-blowing advice about housework/clutter/cleaning
5886. an opportunity to tell Elijah the gospel story as it related to helping clean up a mess he didn't make
5887. the glorious Savior who came to earth and cleaned up our mess
5888. Words with Friends with my mom

5889. snuggles with the boys
5890. Elijah promising he will still hold my hand when he grows into a man
5891. a Saturday full of decluttering and reorganizing
5892. Steve wielding his drill, patiently hanging hooks all over the house for my new frenzy
5893. hiking at Warner Park

5894. the boys' manic enthusiasm about hiking
5895. Elijah's first loose tooth!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Nonfiction Reads of 2013 (Part 2 of 2)

The second half of my nonfiction reading in 2013. The first half posted yesterday and fiction can be found here. Again, my rating system:

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

Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life – Shauna Niequist***
Based on the title/subtitle and the back blurb, I was anticipating something vaguely One Thousand Gifts-ish. The introduction and the last essay (also titled “Cold Tangerines”) were exactly in line with what I expected, but everything in between went a totally different direction. The book is essentially memoir, set apart from your typical memoir by its format (a collection of stand-alone essays). But the essays aren’t so much about ordinary things like “cold tangerines”; many of them are about monumental life experiences.

That said, as a writer/reader, I found this book richly satisfying. Niequist is a gifted writer; what stood out most was her use of metaphors. She has this impressive ability to describe events and experiences and emotions in vivid, fresh ways. And yet...spiritually, I found the book less satisfying. It was full of vague references to “faith” or “the divine” or “hope,” occasionally “God,” without any specific discussion of *what* we hope in, or *who* brought “redemption” and *how*. I recognize it’s a memoir, not a systematic theology. But when a Christian’s memoir isn’t shot through with Jesus, indeed barely even mentions Him, I notice, and I wonder why. I believe with all my heart that an assumed gospel leads quickly to an abandoned/rejected/forgotten gospel. So, in the end, while the book was soaked with beauty and evocative prose, it also felt a bit lacking, a bit hollow. I didn’t want to have to fill in the blanks; I wanted the author to see *Jesus* and celebrate Him. This personal, intimately-involved God not only created this good world Niequist exults in, but He also condescended to enter it--very pointedly, very specifically, for the clear and brilliant purpose of rescuing rebellious sinners and bringing glory to His name. And that Name above all names was conspicuously absent in an otherwise lovely book. [3.5 stars...4.5 for how I felt about the writing; 3 for what it lacked spiritually]

Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton***
Whew. Lots of wonderful, provocative quotes...but his style is SO rambly and meandering that I had difficulty pressing through at times.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn****
I lost count of how many times I clapped my hand over my mouth in horror while reading this. Just stunning. Yet the authors were careful to make it not merely a litany of horrors, but to offer hope and solutions alongside the suffering. It was challenging to learn about the problems women face worldwide (never have I been so grateful to have been born in the United States) but inspiring and beautiful to hear about how women themselves are stepping up and solving those problems. I also think it's helpful to re-frame this stuff as not a women's issue or a feminism issue, but a human rights issue. I did mark some things I wasn't sure I agreed with, or things to go back and chew on. I found it ironic that the authors often highlighted the ineffectiveness of government/UN initiatives as compared with those of "social entrepreneurs," yet suggested toward the end of the book that the U.S. should throw $10+ billion at these problems. Not that I don't think that would be a better use of tax dollars than many of the ways we currently spend...but seriously, where is that money coming from, and why waste the funds by channeling them through the government when the evidence indicates private individuals and organizations can do a far better job? Whatever... At any rate, definitely a worthwhile read.

The Beautiful Ache: Finding the God Who Satisfies When Life Does Not – Leigh McLeroy***
I don't think the subtitle actually captures the heart of this book. It's less about "when life is  unsatisfying and awful" and more about "when life is wonderful but not quite enough and your heart still aches for more" or "when life is bittersweet." That said, I do enjoy the author. Her writing is appealing--vivid, warm, vulnerable, truth-telling. Probably 3.5 stars.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Champagne Butterfield***
I was sure I was going to love this—the first 25% was probably five-star. But after the account of the author's background and her conversion, I ended up disappointed. I felt like she made the leap from "former lesbian feminist professor, reluctant/resentful convert" to "homeschooling pastor's wife" too quickly in the narrative. I would have liked to read more about *how* she transitioned into this new life. How did she lose the job at Syracuse? How did her relationship with her pastor-husband develop? What became of her relationships in the gay community that were initially strained but still important to her early on? How did her faith in Jesus transform from resenting His meddling in her life, to actually embracing faith in Him and feeling joyful about it? Meanwhile, instead of really delving into these things, she spent an inordinate amount of time on peripheral matters of doctrine, which I found unhelpful, unnecessary and off-putting. The parts about her experience as a foster parent and adoptive mother were inspiring, but the story arc as a whole felt sort of jarring, with too many missing pieces. I still think she has valuable insights to offer the church, especially with regard to evangelism and community. Hers is a unique perspective as both "outsider" and "insider," and the church would do well to take seriously her sharp, poignant critiques. But in the end, I was dissatisfied that this book fell short of what it easily could have been.

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey – Fergal Keane****
This was very different from the (many) other books I have read about the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Written within a year after the fact by a BBC journalist who traveled in the country while the killings were still happening, its first-person observations and reflections have a feel of immediacy that makes the horrors palpable. The prologue also provides a valuable analysis of Rwandan history that led to this tragedy. Keane writes maddeningly about the killers and the injustice of their being sheltered and fed in refugee camps instead of prosecuted. He also gives calmly scathing indictments of the international community's both refusing to get involved and meddling in unjust ways. It's a personal and penetrating account that has a valuable place in the canon for this topic.

Practicing Affirmation: God Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God – Sam Crabtree***
This should have been about half its current length--and I say that as one who does not get easily bored with nonfiction books, though I know many people find them to be needlessly repetitive. Apparently the author has gotten a TON of resistance to this topic, because he kept repeating argument after argument about why affirmation is necessary, how it's rooted in Scripture, how to mitigate the pitfalls, etc. He has a strong case, and I was convinced early on--so the more he kept anticipating and answering objections, the more annoyed I got. "I believe you! Let's get on with it!" It took SO long to get to the practical stuff that I tossed the book aside for a while before coming back to finish.

Words of affirmation is my #1 "love language," so of course the book resonated deeply with me, but I have to say I was curious about whether those who do not share that "love language" would find it as compelling or persuasive. Of course, the "love languages" concept is not rooted in Scripture (it's not anti-biblical, per se, just not drawn from the Bible) whereas this book definitely is. Still, I found myself wondering how others would respond. In that vein, I was surprised that at the end, in the list of 100 ideas for affirming people, many tips were listed that were not verbal affirmation, but would rather fall under other "love languages" like acts of service or quality time. This felt a little surprising since I don't remember the author really defining "affirmation" that broadly earlier in the book; the rest seemed focused mainly on words, and then these non-verbal ideas for "affirming" seemed to come out of nowhere and didn't seem to fit with the main thesis, however wise and helpful they might be. After reading, I did feel challenged and inspired to notice God's grace at work in those around me and point it out to them, encourage them--which was the main goal. I don't really have any problems with what he said, just how many times he kept saying it.

The Devil in Pew Number Seven – Rebecca Nichols Alonzo*
I kept reading because I was curious what happened (the first chapter jumps right into the action, so it was pretty intriguing). But OH MY GOODNESS THE WRITING. My inner editor was doing a facepalm every other paragraph. Her example of forgiveness was admirable and inspiring, but the story was so incredibly melodramatic and poorly told.

Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project*****
I can't recommend this highly enough. I have recently become captivated with the idea that the most seemingly-ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, and personal experience is quickly teaching me that listening to people tell their stories really *is* an act of love. StoryCorps is about "the eloquence, power, grace and poetry in the words of everyday people; the notion that the lives of the people we pass walking down the street can be as compelling--even more compelling--than those of the rich and famous." I found these stories charming, deeply moving, stunning, heartbreaking, heartwarming, delightful. And I felt even more inspired to hear and preserve the beautiful stories of the not-so-ordinary people in my life.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – Malcolm Gladwell***
Fascinating at first, but I got bored with this as it went on. It was intriguing, and I did finish, but I also think it desperately needs an update. Written in 2000, it doesn't account for social media at all, which I think have had a HUGE impact on word-of-mouth "epidemics" and the interactions between Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. I'd definitely be interested in hearing Gladwell's analysis of how things like Facebook and Twitter and blogs--none of which were really around when this was published--affect the things he wrote about here.

When You Come Home: The True Love Story of a Soldier’s Heroism, His Wife’s Sacrifice and the Resilience of America’s Greatest Generation – Nancy Pitts***
If I had to describe this in one word I think I’d say “quaint.” It wasn’t particularly well-written or moving, nor was it particularly bad. A sweet, sad story about a significant American experience. I found myself frequently skeptical because of the way it was a biography written as a novel. Other narrative nonfiction (at least the stuff I’ve read) tends to use less quotations and be really scrupulous about the facts…this seemed like the author (the daughter of the main character) had to do a whole lot of embellishing given the way she described scenes with great detail, recounted conversations, etc.

Jesus Feminist – Sarah Bessey
WHEW do I ever have a lot of thoughts about this. I made scores of margin notes. Going to take a while to sort through the tangle and write a careful review (which I have to do soon because I got a copy from NetGalley). 

Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin (audiobook)****
A powerful, compelling book. I especially liked hearing this as an audiobook, because listening to the whites in the book say such appalling things out loud really drove home the impact of the discrimination the blacks experienced. It is sickening to think America was like this during my parents' lifetime--just stunning. I think the author contributed something incredibly valuable to the civil rights movement by physically bridging the chasm between blacks and whites during the late 1950s.

Families Where Grace is in Place – Jeff VanVonderen***
There was SO much great stuff to love and learn in this book. But there were also a great deal of troubling presuppositions about people's hearts and motivations. I found the author's fundamental teaching about the human heart to be deeply flawed and not rooted in Scripture. If you are willing and able to separate the wheat from the chaff, this is *absolutely* a book worth reading for marriage and for parenting. I did a lot of underlining and I definitely want to go back over it and review my notes. But I would strongly urge reading with careful discernment and an eye to what Scripture actually teaches about the sinful nature, the basic posture of the human heart, and people's "needs." Those disagreements I had with the author are what make it a 3 (3.5 probably) star book rather than the 4 or even 5 it easily could have been.

The Pleasures of God – John Piper****
Classic Piper, challenging and God-exalting and rich with beautiful truth. 

Other books read partially and worth mentioning:

When People are Big and God is Small - Ed Welch*****
I made a second pass through this penetrating book about the fear of man, skipping the theoretical/foundational part one, which I already understood and bought into, in favor of the more concrete and practical second half. It was excellent to revisit. I am consistently helped and encouraged by Welch's biblical insights.

The Original Homeschooling Series - Charlotte Mason
I was curious to learn about this philosophy of education, since so many I know speak highly of CM--but talk about overwhelming. It had more dots on my Kindle than the Bible. I set it aside as I found it mostly guilt-inducing and discouraging for how idealistic and unrealistic her assertions seemed.

Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
A book to dip in and out of more than a book to read straight through. I'll probably come back to it, but I do think I like Bragg's memoirs better.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman
BO-ring. I was expecting more analysis of the cultural/societal/governmental elements that led up to World War I...instead I got buried in detailed military strategy and analysis. Which might be your cup of tea; it just isn't mine.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Nonfiction Reads of 2013 (Part 1 of 2)

I read a lot more nonfiction than fiction, and this list doesn't break down nicely into "spiritual growth books" and "secular books," so I'll post the first half today and leave the rest for tomorrow.

The three nonfiction books that stuck with me most this year were Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project; The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, and One to One Bible Reading: A Simple Guide for Every Christian.

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

The God I Love – Joni Eareckson Tada****
I need to read more biographies/memoirs of notable Christians, and I've long been awed by Joni's faith and witness in the midst of profound, lifelong suffering. A beautiful testimony to the sustaining grace and faithfulness of God in the life of a beautiful woman.

Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage – Madeleine L’Engle****
A lovely memoir with lots of eloquent quotes. 

Thunderstruck – Erik Larson***
Meh. I didn't enjoy this nearly as much as The Devil in the White City. It was too slow, too much buildup and background. For the first half or more of the book, Larson closed every chapter (sometimes every section of a chapter) with a line like "This would prove to be very significant" or "Later events would show how much such and such mattered." It got irritating after a while--stop telling me something important is coming, and just GET THERE. I was engaged and wanted to keep reading, especially toward the end, but it took too long for the separate stories to converge, and the detailed information about Marconi and wireless telegraphy wasn't nearly as interesting (or as understandable) as the information about Burnham and architecture in The Devil in the White City. So, the book was intriguing, but not awesome.

Going Public: Your Child Can Thrive in Public School – David & Kelli Pritchard****
An encouraging, important contrast to the "public schools are of the devil!" perspective so prevalent in Christian circles. It was inspiring and helpful to hear from these parents who have sent eight kids through the public schools (and their oldest few are grown, successful, still faithful to God, and thriving).

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge – David McCullough**
Epic indeed, and sorely disappointing. McCullough is supposed to be amazing, but I wasn't impressed with his style. Dry, too many details, and yet still hard for me to visualize processes and structures he described. I just was BORED most of the time; even though I love NYC and this period of history, I had to force myself to finish this 600+ page clunker.

Christ in the Chaos – Kimm Crandall****
Full review here

Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles – Kathy Keller*****
I officially love Kathy as much as her husband after devouring this little booklet. It deserves to be widely read, especially among conservative, complementarian Christians. 

Shipwrecked in L.A. Finding Purpose in a Life Adrift – Christin Taylor
Sadly, I did not love this first memoir from a college acquaintance of mine. I disagreed with many of her interpretations of life and theology, and I also felt like it needed better editing. 

Kisses from Katie – Katie Davis***/**** (audio)
I really wanted to love this. I think the fact that I found it a bit saccharine and over-earnest says a lot more about cynical me than about Katie or the book. I do think I would have liked it better if I hadn't listened to the audio version. The narrator's voice struck me as kind of syrupy. Also, the print edition has a *hugely* important afterword. Before I read the book, I read some sharp criticism of Katie--especially regarding her devastation at one of her "daughters" being reclaimed by the birth mother. Listening to the book, I could certainly understand that criticism and found Katie's words troubling--immature at best. But in the afterword to the updated print edition, she tells "the rest of the story"--about a relationship that developed between her and the birth mother and how she came to realize that God in His goodness, wisdom and sovereignty was up to beautiful things in the whole situation and that "it is better this way." That went a long way in redeeming my view of Katie and her ministry.

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption – Kathryn Joyce****
This was so very depressing and hard to read—but as the culture of adoption continues to grow in the church, I think it’s a critical book for Christians to read and consider. Ignorance may be bliss sometimes, but we cannot continue in our misinformation and naivete. My eyes have been opened to the dark underbelly of the adoption world, its heartbreak, its unintended consequences. It's not that I'm against adoption now, but there are *massively* complicated issues to think through, and whether you agree with Joyce's every word or not (she is not a Christian, and her words about the church must be sifted) she does a masterful job exposing these problems. I've been wanting to do a whole post about this book and the topic in general...hopefully soon.

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff*****
After nearly setting it aside for lack of time (a friend had loaned it unsolicited; my to-read list is long enough without additions like this!), I picked up this charming little book on a whim and blew through it in a day and a half. Part of its charm is the way it offers just a tiny sliver of the author's life--there is so much you learn about her and her correspondents, and yet so very much that remains mysterious. You wouldn't expect a collection of letters to be suspenseful, but it is: How old is this woman? Will she ever make it to London to meet her newfound friends in person? Delightful. And it was nice to breeze through a short and light book that could be finished in just an hour or two.

Women’s Ministry in the Local Church – Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt***
I mostly agree with this extensive review. I found much to appreciate and learn from in this book, but also some frustrations/concerns. Still it was quite helpful to read through and discuss with my pastor and a couple of other women at our church.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook – Deb Perelman*****
I've never felt motivated before to read a cookbook cover-to-cover, but I had to for my favorite food blogger's debut. I adore Deb. Her writing is witty, interesting, fun; her photography is gorgeous. So it's enjoyable just to read and look at her recipes, but cooking them is enjoyable too. I've generally found her recipes easy to follow and we have loved many of them over the last several years. Ironically, I'll probably attempt less than half of the recipes in the book, and I've been less than thrilled with a couple I made--but I still look forward to many more and don't regret the purchase.

One to One Bible Reading: A Simple Guide for Every Christian – David Helm****
A great little book that left me going "DUH! *Why* are we not doing this?" It's so simple as to seem obvious, and yet (in my experience) it really isn't happening in the church at large. People--whether unbelievers, new believers, or established, committed Christians, don't primarily need events, programs and classes (though those things can certainly be helpful at times). They need to be in the Word, and they need real, deep relationships. This book and its resources (an appendix of clear, straightforward worksheets to help you think through any passage of Scripture) offer a great strategy for benefitting from God's Word and fellowship anytime, with all kinds of people. I've enjoyed putting this into practice and also teaching it to the women of our church last fall.

The Greener Grass Conspiracy – Stephen Altrogge***
On the whole, a helpful book. I didn't love the author's style/sense of humor; it came across a bit cheesy, like he was trying too hard to be conversational and funny. Still, he had valuable things to say. I copied/underlined several quotes and passages. Very God-centered and hope-filled--I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to someone who was struggling with contentment, dissatisfaction, jealousy, etc.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality – Wesley Hill****
A powerful, compelling testimony of courage, humility, and hope in the gospel. Hill identifies himself in the unique position of a gay Christian who believes acting on his homosexual desires would be wrong. He did not choose his orientation and has not been "healed," nor does he seek to interpret Scripture in such a way as to justify or embrace homosexuality. Instead he chooses the painful and rare path of celibacy as he seeks to walk with Jesus through this broken world. It's a beneficial book not only for thinking through the issue of homosexuality, but also for gleaning truth and glimpsing grace as a fellow sinner writes candidly about his struggles. (In other words, while I don't struggle in the same ways as the author, I was easily able to apply things he said to my own life and struggles.) This is a book that makes much of God and His glory and mercy.

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices – Thomas Brooks***/****
The first third of this was probably 4.5-5 stars. I underlined lots and lots of passages--really insightful, penetrating thoughts about fighting against sin and walking faithfully with Christ. But it got so, so repetitive that I had a hard time finishing. The middle-to-latter parts seemed less relevant/helpful. At any rate, I think it's good for me to read old books like this instead of exclusively immersing myself in relatively current books. I'd definitely recommend this one, just not necessarily *all* of it.

More tomorrow. Meanwhile, what nonfiction did you read and love in 2013? 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Fiction Reads of 2013

This was the year of venturing back into the glorious world of juvenile fiction. Elijah and I have transitioned into mostly chapter books with a few picture books sprinkled in--and it is so fun to both revisit childhood classics with him and discover new favorites together. So most of my fiction reading this year was for the younger crowd, but I did have a couple of fantastic adult reads sprinkled in. I hope to read more adult novels (including at least one classic, argh!) in 2014.

My favorite novel in 2013 was The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Tied for a close second were two novels by an author whom friends of mine have recommended for years, but I just now discovered: Kate Morton. I absolutely adored The Secret Keeper and The Forgotten Garden. To quote another writer I discovered this year, I am treating Morton's books like chocolate: "I am always greedy for more, but I’m desperately concerned I’ll run out."

Here's the rundown of the fiction I read in 2013. My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery*****
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne of Windy Poplars
Anne’s House of Dreams
Is there anyone who doesn't adore Anne Shirley? If so, I don't want to know her. These books are perhaps my most beloved ever--they are certainly my most-read. I returned to them when I had the flu last January, and despite the fact that I have been through them so many times I practically have the stories memorized, I still can't bear to put them down once I've picked them up. Anne is an old friend that I find more endearing the more familiar she becomes.

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White****
An endearing story. I had fun attempting different voices for all the different animals.

Stuart Little – E.B. White**
The first half was kind of quirky and charming. Stuart is not a member of a mouse family, as I assumed; he is a mouse inexplicably born to a human family. Each of the early chapters is sort of a stand-alone story about his adventures as a mouse living in a human world, and Elijah and I enjoyed these. But then it changes to one extended plot about Stuart on a quest. The chapters got too long to read in one sitting at bedtime, and bogged down with description. And the ending was terrible--unresolved, unsatisfying; it didn't seem apropos for a children's book.

Henry and Ribsy – Beverly Cleary***
Elijah really enjoyed this. A sweet, entertaining story with likable characters (including Beezus and Ramona Quimby).

James and the Giant Peach – Roald Dahl***
This was the first Roald Dahl I've read since I was a kid...I didn't love it as much as I remembered. Fun, fantastical, an engaging story (and the short chapters make it perfect for a read-aloud) and Elijah liked it...but not a favorite, and not one we'll bother reading a second time.

Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary (audiobooks)****
Ramona and Her Father
Ramona the Pest 
Charming stories, and Stockard Channing's performances are really excellent. I remember reading the stories as a child, but I'd never heard the audio version and hadn't read/heard the stories as an adult. I found myself smiling a lot and even laughing out loud, and Elijah was totally enthralled (four hours of total silence in the car). I discovered upon picking up the printed copy of Ramona the Pest that the chapters are a bit long for read-aloud times with my young boys, and I much prefer Stockard Channing's voices over my own (how can she come up with SO many distinct human female voices?!)--so I definitely recommend the audiobook versions for long road trips vs. sitting down with the books.

The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton*****
WOW. Brilliant. Did not see the ending coming at all! The writing was lovely and wonderful and the story had one intriguing, enthralling twist after another.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins – Richard & Florence lionAtwater***
A fun read. Not my favorite ever, but Elijah (and Jude) and I enjoyed it. The marriage/family dynamics were definitely odd...but whatever.

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton*****
Man, I love Kate Morton! Could not put this down. It was very similar in style to The Secret Keeper--an old woman's mystery, unraveled over the course of more than a century, solved in the end by one of her descendants. Lots of twists and turns on the way to an unexpected but satisfying ending. And the writing is vivid, lovely--I absolutely loved it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis (audio)***/*****
The story, which I’ve heard/read several times, is five stars, but the audio version gets about three. The volume fluctuated WAY too much, making it really annoying for in-car listening: You'd have to turn the speakers up as high as they go while the narrator was mumbling quietly through narration, then all of a sudden someone talks excitedly and your eardrums get blasted. I also just wasn't overly impressed by the reader--though maybe I am just biased because I've heard the Radio Theatre version of this, which is more enjoyable. At any rate, this was Elijah's first trip through Narnia, and he was enthralled.

Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne**
It feels heretical to admit this, but I really did not enjoy this classic.  Elijah seemed to enjoy it, but I'm not entirely sure why. You know how some books are written for kids, but also written with adults' enjoyment in mind, with jokes that go over the kids' heads? This felt like it was written mainly for adults' amusement, with almost everything going over the kids' heads. And I wasn't even amused, not like I am with other children's books. It just felt too...smug, or something. It's hard to describe, but suffice to say I wasn't a fan.

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I tried to read this years ago and couldn't get into it. Then I saw Tim Challies recommend the audio version, so I gave it another shot. I was definitely better able to enjoy listening. The narrator is an older man with a soothing, pleasant voice, and that helps it feel more like a letter an elderly father is writing to his young son (which is what the novel is). For a while the book was just meandering—lovely, but meandering—then it got surprisingly suspenseful in the middle. A few times I had to pause it to scribble down a really beautiful or profound quote. In the end I did enjoy it, but it wasn't my favorite. I think mainly it's a case of "not really my style."

Prince Caspian – C.S. Lewis (audio)****
I liked the narrator for this much better than for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And we all enjoyed the story.

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh*****
This book absolutely wrecked me. I don't know when I have ever so desperately pleaded for a happy ending. The intimate look inside the mind and heart of Victoria, a girl who is "emancipated" from the foster care system on her 18th birthday, is gripping and devastating. Victoria sabotages every good thing that happens to her, and I found myself gasping, clapping my hand over my mouth, crying, shaking my head...yet totally seeing why she would think and feel the way she did. Oh, it was heart wrenching. The "hook" of the hidden meanings of flowers adds such richness and depth to the story, and the chapters alternate powerfully between Victoria's past experiences in foster care and her present struggle to establish a life for herself. The characters are believable people you want to root for. A masterpiece.

Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder***
I didn’t love this as a read-aloud. I remember enjoying the series as a kid, but this one, at least, is SO very descriptive that I think it is probably more enjoyable to read to myself because I can read so much faster silently than I can read aloud. Still, Elijah enjoyed it--enough to want to move immediately into book two.

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder****
I enjoyed this as a read-aloud much more than Little House in the Big Woods. I have to say, though, that as a parent reading this to my child, I have a very different perspective than when I read these books as a child. The time and culture in which they were written are so very different from our own, and two main things I found repeatedly troubling: the parents' shaming attitude toward any display of emotion whatsoever, and the racism. To be fair, Pa is repeatedly painted as a sympathetic character to the Indians, drawn in sharp contrast to Ma and the neighbors. But still, it is so sad to see and hear the white settlers' thinking and treatment of the Native Americans whose land they forcibly took--I had a lot of explaining to do, so that my son wouldn't come away thinking the events and conversations the book described were OK. And say what you will in nostalgic remembrance of "a better time" when children were taught obedience and respect...I do *not* want my children to learn that crying is shameful, that adults are more important than children, etc. The book was peppered with little comments that conveyed these lessons and others like them. Despite these hang-ups, I still think it's an engaging story and an important firsthand account of American history.

The Horse and His Boy – C.S. Lewis (audiobook)***
I think this one is my least favorite of the Narnia books. I found it hard to listen and focus--zoned out/fell asleep more than once. And Elijah wasn't interested at all, surprisingly. Not terrible—I’m always deeply moved by the profound spiritual truths Lewis can weave into fantastical fiction—it just wasn’t as delightful as the others.

Abandoned fiction:
The Complete Stories - Flannery O'Connor
The first story left me with that familiar but uncomfortable "I feel like this was super profound but most of it must have gone over my head" sensation. Then I found out you're not supposed to start with her most famous stories. At the advice of an O'Connor scholar I skipped to "Revelation," which was OK, and then "The Enduring Chill," which I can't say I enjoyed. After one more, I gave up. I like Flannery's nonfiction *way* better than her fiction, which I won't be reading any more of unless I first get my hands on one of the books that explains it (which I'm not highly motivated to do).

New York Stories - Diana Secker Tesdell (editor)
I think I'm just not really a short-story kind of girl. The first three in this collection left me totally nonplussed (and feeling slightly stupid). I hung in there for one more story and it ended with the character committing suicide! I don't think I've ever found a short story or a collection of short stories I really loved. Just not my genre.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 310

Doing all things without grumbling is humanly impossible. But thankfully not with God (Mark 10:27). What it requires is getting our eyes off ourselves and onto Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and all God promises to be for us in him. It requires seeing grace. Being different comes from seeing differently.
Yes it is hard. It’s a fight. God told us it would be that way (1 Timothy 6:12). But we will grow in the gracious habit of cultivating gratitude through the rigorous exercise of constant practice (Hebrews 5:14) of seeing grace. Lord, help us speak more in the accent of heaven!
Prone to grumbling, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to scorn the God I love;
Here’s my eye, O take and peel it
Till I see the grace above.
--Jon Bloom, "We Are Far Too Easily Displeased"
So much grace to see these last couple of weeks. A few highlights I am thanking God for:

5927. the way our Kroger is always prepared for big crowds--even when the parking lot is jammed, all the checkout lanes are open and it's a pleasant shopping experience
5928. smoked turkey and chicken
5929. Advent wreath ablaze, Mary at the very center

5930. the humbling experience of recipe failures
5931. coffee cinnamon rolls Steve makes on Christmas morning

5932. the familiar yet still thrilling cadences of Luke 2
5933. our boys don't require extra potty stops on long roadtrips
5934. playing the alphabet game in the car to keep the boys occupied on the home stretch
5935. boys in sleeping bags in front of my parents' Christmas tree
5936. our families' generosity

5937. boys more grateful than greedy
5938. Steve's understanding and compassion when their grumpies are likely blood-sugar-related
5939. my mom and aunt loving the photobooks I made from our NYC girls' weekend
5940. my mom's older brother delighting in my boys
5941. the way post-Christmas letdown points to the hope of eternity with Jesus

5942. brilliant writers like Jon Bloom who help me see that
5943. a book I wanted for Christmas (N.D. Wilson's Death by Living) on Kindle-sale for $3.99 - and Amazon gift cards to pay for it!
5944. Aldi's knockoff of Candy Cane Joe-Joes
5945. cookie decorating tradition
5946. a lunch date with Steve while my parents babysat

5947. new games played with family and friends
5948. Honeybaked ham
5949. an evening workout with my mom and *sister-in-law-to-be*...
5950. my brother getting engaged!
5951. matching Christmas outfits

5952. Steve spending hours hashing through hard issues with his brother
5953. new PJs all around
5954. pizza subs with a dear friend from high school
5955. laughter with friends and family on New Year's Eve
5956. my BIL and SIL's hospitality

5957. a kiss at midnight
5958. getting to carry sleeping boys next door rather than having to load them into carseats
5959. Steve taking care of me when I'm sick
5960. Elijah praying for Mama to feel better
5961. my sickness was short-lived

5962. snuggles with my baby niece
5963. maple cheesecake
5964. family dinners
5965. the fact that I feel safe, never afraid, when Steve drives
5966. sky at sunset--no showy clouds, just a striking gradient from yellow to deep blue

5967. sliver of moon hanging low in the sky
5968. Jude's delight in being reunited with Clifford
5969. playtime in the snow
5970. home sweet home after a long trip
5971. a weekend to recover and settle back in

5972. frost crystals on windowpanes
5873. washing our stained and filthy hearts whiter than snow

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Things I Learned in December

Whew...the blog has been too quiet the last couple of weeks! Now that the holiday madness is behind us, I've got high hopes for the writing I want to do in this space this year. Meanwhile, I'm linking up with Chatting at the Sky for my monthly list of lessons learned...

1. I am a little bit obsessed with the Reminder function on my iPhone. I am a list girl, and I *love* that I can not only jot down a note to remind myself, but I can actually have my phone ding to remind me on the day or at the time when I need to do it!

2. Four words: Cranberry Cinnamon Honey Butter

3. If you don't know what an acronym stands for, don't make an assumption or disregard it as irrelevant. ASK. If you see "Science Fair and PTF" on your kindergartner's school calendar at the beginning of the year, and you don't bother to ask the teacher for clarification, you might end up making plans on the night of your son's Christmas program. Because apparently "PTF" means "Christmas concert," and you won't get any other notice that a Christmas program is in the works until about ten days before the fact. Related lessons: Don't be afraid to call and ask people for undeserved favors (the Nashville Symphony was kind enough to let us trade our Messiah tickets for another night). And if you are the one distributing information, avoid acronyms unless they are obvious and make your info as clear as possible. Sure, you've always done it this way every year and everyone knows that...everyone, that is, but the new parents/new members/new kids.

4.  A Christmas gift for teachers that will be extremely well received, if you can pull off the logistics, is a container of homemade soup and a loaf of bread. Every December, I always want to do a bunch of Christmas baking, but the problem is, EVERYONE does a bunch of Christmas baking. Often that means people end up with piles and piles of cookie plates, candy tins, and other assorted goodies they definitely don't need and may not even want. This year it occurred to me--why not give the boys' teachers a meal, like I would take to a new mom? They're busy women with families and I'm sure it would be a blessing to have a night off from cooking after a long day at work (especially after the exhausting last-day-before-Christmas-vacation). I made this soup and a loaf of artisan bread to go with the small gift we got for them; both the boys' teachers seemed really appreciative.

5. Speaking of teachers and Christmas break...kindergarten teachers do NOT get paid enough. I went to Elijah's school for an hour and a half to help with his Christmas party and when I got home I needed a nap. Those kids were higher than kites on sugar and holiday excitement. I already knew teachers worked really hard, but this reinforced my respect and gratitude.

6. Sephora is a great place to shop for new makeup. I went in (there's one inside our JCPenney now) to find a good shade of lipstick to wear with a new red dress, and the saleswoman was incredibly helpful. She picked out a few shades for me to try, cheerfully started over with a different brand when I cringed at the price of the first one, and then sent me home with a free sample of my choice of moisturizer. (For the record, I ended up with No. 36 - Diva. I really love the color!)

7. The reindeer names "Donner" and "Blitzen" are German for "Thunder" and "Lightning." That one was a bit of New Year's Eve trivia courtesy of my brother-in-law's German-major girlfriend.

8. Gin is made from juniper berries. Another random, useless piece of NYE trivia.

9. For all my husband's love for strategy games and claiming he's not a words guy, he's awfully good at Taboo.

How about you--what did you learn last month?