Finding God in the Ordinary – Book Review

Blue-centered Daisy

I first heard about Finding God in the Ordinary by Pierce Taylor Hibbs while listening to the podcast Mortification of Spin. As the author spoke about his book, I knew that this was something I would love to read since looking for God in the small things is an activity I have long practiced.

My copy is a beautiful hard-bound book with a lovely cover and easily readable fonts. However, the treasure is in the words. Pierce Taylor Hibbs takes ordinary events like drinking coffee, shadows, dust, birds on a telephone wire, snow falling, wind, and light and shows the reader how to find God in these every day, ordinary events.

It’s not just that his prose is delightful, but his choice of words approaches poetry in many places within these essays. And his references to the Trinity, creation, language, God’s majesty and providence, and other theological subjects within his musings about “ordinary” events so enrich those events that I will never look at dust floating in the air or shadows on the grass the same again.

Let me share just a few quotes:

In the greatness of God, the smallest of things is given tremendous weight. p. 6

The beating heart of the Trinity is thumping underneath every human word, no matter how trivial or commonplace. p. 16

While darkness is an arena for the light of faith, it is the Lord of light himself that brings our feeble faith to fruition. pp. 26-27

Mistakes are not just markers of our depravity. They are more than that. They are the triune God’s spadework in the soil of the soul. They are opportunities for the great gardener to tend our lives and help us grow. p. 32

I highly recommend this book and plan to re-read these essays over and over again.

Book Review: Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy

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I finished reading Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons this afternoon and want to run out and shove this book into the hands of all of my friends. Instead, I will tell you all about this wonderful book and know that if you love it even half as much as I did, you will have a new favorite.

As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been looking at her book suggestions on her blog, listening to some of her podcasts, and thinking, “Here is a kindred spirit.” She writes about many of the books I’ve loved and the thoughts I’ve thought and the truths I believe.  Plus, she celebrates and loves Advent and Christmas even more than I do.

Let me tell you a bit about the book. Christie Purifoy, her husband, and three children (plus one on the way) move into an old farmhouse called Maplehurst in late summer. The narrative follows their first year in the house as they are dreaming dreams, planting gardens, mending broken things, inviting neighbors, and welcoming a new baby.

The memoir is full of truth, beauty, and goodness wrapped up in every day living. Christie meditates on faith and God’s promises, eternity and tomorrow, dirt and tomatoes. Other books I’ve read about homes and gardens were enjoyable, but I think that Roots and Sky hit something deep inside of me because of Christie’s constant reminder of the Lord and His work in her life and in ours. Her metaphors are lovely and get at truths that are often hard to encapsulate.

Here are just a few of the dozens of quotes I underlined:

Our lives are stories built of small moments. Ordinary experiences. It is too easy to forget that our days are adding up to something astonishing. We do not often stop to notice the signs and wonders. The writing on the wall. But some days we do.

Homecoming is a single word, and we use it to describe a single event. But true homecoming requires more time. It seems to be a process rather than a moment. Perhaps we come home the way the earth comes home to the sun. It could be that homecoming is always a return and our understanding of home deepens with each encounter.

I see how each season lies tucked up inside another. How fall’s warm yellow is hidden within summer’s cool green. How even the scented explosion of spring lies sleeping within winter branches that seem brittle with death.

What if gratitude is more about seeing the face of God? Of locking our eyes on his and remembering where our help comes from? Perhaps gratitude is not only a discipline but also a gift, one we are given in special measure just before we pass through the door to suffering.

It reminded me of three books I love all wrapped up in one: The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill, The Crosswick Journals by Madeleine L’Engle, and The Country Diary of an English Lady. Christie Purifoy has a new book coming out next month. I can hardly wait to read it.

What books have you read that touch your soul and fill your heart with singing?

Reading Challenges for 2019

coffee-2390136_1920Last week I mentioned that I often have difficulty with decision paralysis on what to read next. The problem is never that I have nothing to read. Instead, it is always that I have too many great choices, an embarrassment of riches, in fact. When I rely on my feelings, I tend to waver back and forth over what to choose.

As a result, I’ve decided to follow a couple of reading plans this year. I want to choose at least some of the titles and have them at my house by the end of January. That way when I finish one book, whether a planned or spontaneous read, I can pick up one from the plan and read it without waffling.

I’ve chosen two plans for this year. The first is the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge. I have been reading the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog by Anne Bogel and listening to her podcast, What Should I Read Next, for several years now. Both are fun places to hear about books and book-related topics. I especially like her reading challenge this year.

When you sign up, she sends you a set of worksheets to help you decide what you want to add to your list. Interestingly, for herself, Anne chose three selections for each of her categories, which I thought was a great idea. I may even do the same. Then I will still have some choice based on availability and desire but will have some guidelines, too. The best of both worlds.

A few of the categories the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge are:

  • A book you’ve been meaning to read: The title that immediately came to mind is Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I have been meaning to read that book for years, but it’s such a commitment at 1000+ pages that I keep putting it off. 2019 is the year! Another option: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (I won it in a contest and am dying to start it!)
  • A book you chose for the cover: One possibility is I’ll be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos. It has such a pretty cover. I need to peruse my shelves and the library for other options for this category. I tend to choose books based on what I’ve heard or read about them, not their covers, so this may be the one serendipitous category.
  • A book in translation: I think I may choose The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. It’s one of my book group reads for this year, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for a while.
  • A book outside your (genre) comfort zone:  This category will be covered at some point this year at work. We are challenged to read a book a month and the genres change each month. This month’s genre is memoir, which is a favorite of mine, but I’m sure that at least one of the genres this year will be outside my comfort zone. Or I can reattempt The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which I started last year but didn’t finish. Horror is definitely outside my comfort zone. Another option would be to read a graphic novel. One title that sounds interesting is Spinning by Tillie Walden.
  • A book published before you were born:  I found a really fun site with lists of best-sellers from every year in the 20th century here. A few titles I found that would fill this category are: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, or A Passage to India by E. M. Forster.

The second reading challenge I plan to complete this year is the one at challies.com. Although it is tempting to choose something other than the light reader category, I need to keep room in my reading life for book group reads, work reads, research reads, comfort reads, rereads, and “just because it’s fun” reads. So I”m choosing the light reader category which is just twelve titles. Categories from this challenge include:

  • A biography: I love biographies so the hard part will be choosing which title to read. Some of my options are: A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Rockness,  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxes, Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Luther by Eric Metaxas, or Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden. I will probably read the Thomas Cromwell biography. I have been intrigued by him and his influence on the English Reformation since reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It is 700+ pages, but none of these are small books so that will likely be my choice. A Passion for the Impossible is the runner up, I think.
    A book about Christian living: I have several books on my shelves that will fit this category. I just need to decide between them.
    A book with at least 400 pages: This should not be difficult to attain. For some reason, the books that most attract me are the big, huge ones. I could count Kristin Lavransdatter for this category and choose something else for the “I have been meaning to read” category. Although, at 1000+ pages, it should count for more than one reading challenge don’t you think?
    A book by or about a missionary: I have Helen Roseveare’s Give Me This Mountain, which I want to read for a couple of reasons. First, I heard her speak many years ago at the Urbana missions conference, and I have never forgotten her talk. Also, after reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver last year, I have wanted to know more about the Belgian Congo during that time period. Helen Roseveare lived through the same events as Kingsolver covers in her book so I am looking forward to it.
    A book from a “Best of 2018” list: This is an easy category because I’ve just started The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which fits this category. I’ve had so many people I know rave about this book that I want to see if I think it’s as great as everyone else does. I loved her book The Nightingale, but this one is very different so we shall see. I am also reading Educated by Tara Westover, which would also count for this category.

One other guideline for my reading this year is to read 25% nonfiction. It’s not that I don’t read nonfiction, but my tendency is to read just bits and pieces and not finish nonfiction books. Since I don’t count unfinished books in my completed books list, I don’t have many nonfiction titles. So I will aim to finish at least 20-30 nonfiction books this year. That would give me the 25% (depending on whether I read my goal of 80 or go over like I did in 2018). Also, I would use my time more wisely by reading entire books rather than dipping into multiple books that I don’t finish. I don’t count books that I’m using for research since I rarely read those books cover to cover.

If you are interested in choosing one or more reading challenges for yourself this year, you will find links to more challenges in my article here.

Are you planning your reading this year? Please let me know in the comments.

My Reading Life in 2018

best journal ever

My Reading Journal

Goodreads and my reading journal have been a good way for me to track my reading for the past couple of years. I tried to catch up in each place once or twice a month so that I didn’t lose track. My goal for 2018 was 80 books. However, unlike last year where I barely squeaked by with short books at the end of the year, this year I hit the goal in October. At the end of 2018, I had read 128 books, 60% more than I had aimed for.

The reason is simple. After struggling to get in 80 books read last year, I decided to make reading more of a priority in 2018. I purposely created routines in my daily life that gave me time to read. I added books, print and digital, to every room and device in the house and at work so that I was never at a loss for material. When you have plenty to read, have books available, and set aside time to do it, reading is more likely to happen.
Here is a snapshot of my reading from the last year:

Books read – 128
Nonfiction – 18
Fiction – 110
Audiobooks – 12

I think I would have had a higher percentage of audiobooks if I didn’t also listen to podcasts. However, as that is unlikely to change because I like podcasts in the car, an audiobook a month is probably my goal again this year. My nonfiction percentage is too low. It would have been about right if I had read 80 books as I originally planned. I’d like to see if I can bump it up to 25% of my total reading this year.

I might have read even more if I had had more focus on what to read next. Often, I would be torn between several choices and be paralyzed by which one to read so that most of my reading time was gone by the time I decided what to choose. I’m hoping to forestall that problem this year by having a couple of guided reading challenges, already filled out and several of the books at hand. I should then be able to work my way through the lists and not have as much decision paralysis. More on that next week.

My favorite books of 2018:

Fiction 

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – I would never have picked this up and perhaps I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been following the Close Reads podcast as they discussed it. As I read along with them, I was overcome by the beauty of Stegner’s prose, I grew to love the characters, and I began to appreciate what he was doing in the book. This is one I will reread in the future. The library copy had a hold list so I bought a copy and I’m glad. I kept underlining beautiful phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien – a delightful book of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children every year at Christmas, telling of Father Christmas’s adventures along with his great friend, North Polar Bear. The book contains drawings Tolkien did as well. I loved every second of it. The audio was well done, but I found a copy afterward so I could see the pictures Tolkien drew to go with the letters.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – I’ve been enjoying Atkinson’s work since Life After Life and this one did not disappoint. The story of a young woman, who is asked to spy for her country during World War II. After the war she goes on with her life, but leftovers from her war years haunt her. Full of twists and turns, Atkinson kept me guessing until the very last page.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – this was my first Pym novel, but it won’t be my last. A quiet story about people but so full of truth and wit that I enjoyed every moment. The audio was excellent.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson – this was an ARC* that I picked up out of curiosity and I loved it. It’s a novel of letters between a middle-aged farm wife and a museum curator. On the surface that may sound dull, but their conversations and how those conversations affect each of their lives is so well done. This is probably a sleeper novel because it’s in the form of letters, but I have been telling everyone I think may like it to try it. It’s a beautifully written story. I look forward to more from this author in the future.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton- a debut novel that was like Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie. Full of twists and turns and unexpected events, this mystery novel/fantasy is absorbing. I couldn’t put it down until I reached the very last page.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – a delightful tribute to English country house mysteries with a twist. The audio is superb with dual narrators, one who narrates the real-life protagonist and the other who narrates the book she is reading. If you love English detective fiction, do read this up-to-date version of the classic English detective novel.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson – the story of a girl who is left a bookstore by her uncle along with a mystery about her family to solve. I enjoyed this story about family and secrets and, of course, books.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – This is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which I adored and which won the Man Booker Prize. This volume also won the Man Booker Prize, but I couldn’t believe that it could be as good as Wolf Hall. However, when I finished it, I thought, “She did it again!”. Mantel not only gets you inside Thomas Cromwell’s head so that you find yourself not just rooting for him but admiring him, but she also portrays the court of Henry VIII and all of the political machinations so that you will find yourself, like I did, being very, very thankful that you did not live and work for that man. If you like history at all, English history in particular, or even are interested in the Reformation in England, you have to read this book. It’s excellent!

A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake – set in Charlestown, which charmed me from the start, this book tells two stories—the modern-day story of a young woman and her search for the truth of her family and the story of a slave revolt in the early 19th century. I couldn’t put it down and really loved it.

Nonfiction

Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson – I borrowed this from the library but as soon as I finished it, I bought myself my own copy because this book got who I am as a person. Sarah Clarkson is definitely a kindred spirit and I have since started reading her blog and following her Instagram, loving everything she writes and shares. Full of bookish talk and lots of lovely book lists, I reveled in every word. I can see myself rereading this and going back to this book again and again until I have read every last suggestion in it.

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin – A great book about God’s attributes, how they set Him apart, and who we are in comparison. I listened to this but plan to go back with a paper copy and a pencil to underline and take copious notes. Lots to think about and appreciate about the God who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam – I’ve appreciated Vanderkam’s work since I first read 168 Hours and started reading her blog. She has helped me to think about my time differently, which has enriched my life. A small book but well worth reading if only for the idea of your past, present, and future selves when it comes to events. Several times now I have gone to things I had planned to attend even when I didn’t feel like it because of her advice. Every time I have been so thankful to have made the effort.

A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Books 1 and 2 of the Crosswicks Journals) by Madeleine L’Engle – both of these rated five stars for me and I’m stingy with my stars. If you love L’Engle or you love family or you love the idea of place and home or you are a writer wannabe, all of which I am, these books are for you.

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser – If you always wondered about the reality behind the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder then you will enjoy this book. Fraser delves into the geography, politics, and history behind those famous books. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to hearing Caroline Fraser speak about her book this winter when she comes to town.

New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp – I read this devotional throughout 2018. It was encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it if you want to grow in your understanding and growth in the gospel of Christ.

Rereads

I believe in rereading books regularly—some require rereading in order to understand them and some are so lovely that I want to experience them again and some are so comfortable that I want to sink into their embrace. So I will reread books despite my ever-growing To Be Read tower of books because a good book is always worth reading more than once.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – a reread for the 10th or 11th time, but oh how I adore this book of redemption and second chances.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – I listened to this on audio and loved it just as much as the first time. Of course, any epistolary novel wins my heart but one set in England during World War II and about books…I loved every second.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – I listened to the audio and fell in love with this book all over again. Reams have been written about it so I won’t go into detail, but this is worth reading and rereading, not only for its structure, but for the main character and his ability to adapt to his circumstances, his intelligence and humor, and his wonderful sense of honor and dignity.

Overall 2018 was a great reading year. I look forward to 2019 and all of the lovely books I will read and think about and write about and share with all of my friends. I hope your reading year is a good one, too.

Friends, Mentors, and Guides

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Child_Reading_(Enfant_lisant)_-_BF51_-_Barnes_Foundation When I think back on my growing-up years, my most cherished memories are of the books that filled my life.  I began to read in kindergarten and after I learned, it was a rare occasion I wasn’t reading a book.  Curled up in a chair, lying flat on my bed, perched on a tree branch, riding in the car, at my desk in school—every location was the perfect place to read a book. I raced through The Black Stallion books, inherited from my father, and spent countless hours poring over the volumes of Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales that had belonged to my mother. Christmas and birthday gifts always included beautiful hardcover books such as The Little Princess, Alice in WonderlandThe Wind in the Willows, and other classics. With my allowance, I bought myself the Nancy Drew mysteries that my library didn’t own and filled in the gaps in my collection of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books.

Each trip to the library resulted in a new stack of books to savor, the highlight of my week. Books by Beverly Cleary, sequels to Little Women, and The Scarlet Pimpernel were titles I borrowed over the years. Staying home sick in bed meant time to reread my favorite Narnia book. If I had to miss church, my parents would bring home Bible story books from the church library to keep me occupied for the afternoon.

Every time we moved, one of the first things I did was to set up the bookcase that my great-grandfather had built in my new bedroom. Made of dark, heavy wood and held together only by slots and pegs, the bookcase contained all of my treasured volumes and remained the focal point of my room.

However, it wasn’t merely the books that charmed me or the stories they contained. The truths they contained, the characters that became my friends, and the worlds to which they introduced me that were the real treasures.

My imagination grew as I traveled to fabulous places. I went to Wonderland with Alice and met the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Red Queen. Dorothy’s adventures in Oz drew me to a place where monkeys flew, lions talked, and terrifying tornadoes became vehicles to other worlds. I grew to love the English countryside of Mary Lennox and Rat, Mole, and Toad. The American woods and prairies, as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder, became my playground too, in my mind, while I longed to go to Narnia with Lucy and Edmund, Susan and Peter to meet Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, and the Beavers.

Also, the heroines inspired me with their character and strength . When I was feeling put upon by having to do chores around the house and yard, I would imagine myself a princess like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess.  Instead of complaining about shoveling the walk, I would do it cheerfully as I thought Sara would do.  Rather than whine about a dinner I didn’t like, I would remind myself that at least I had good food to eat. When I was embarrassed by a pair of shoes I had to wear one year, I remembered Sara’s clothes being old and shabby.  Seeing how difficult it was for Sara, without parents to love her, I learned to better appreciate my own happy childhood.

After reading Anne of Green Gables in fifth grade, I not only found a heroine to emulate but also identified with her imagination and fanciful ways. I loved to read and put myself in the place of the heroine although I fortunately never sank in a leaky boat. I, too, spent hours wandering through the woods and fields near my home, and named my favorite haunts. Violet Valley, a small depression carpeted with violets each spring, was my favorite place. I would sink down among the flowers and pick handfuls of the purple and white blooms for my mother every year.  When I read the chapter Where the Violets Grow in By the Shores of Silver Lake, I was not only reading the words, but I knew exactly what it was like to sink down into a mass of violets.

Reading opened the world to me. I learned how to be more compassionate to those in need, to understand people from different places and cultures than mine. I was inspired to make jam, bake bread, and keep a house from some books. Other books prodded me to study hard and succeed at school. Still others pushed me to continue with my writing. I learned what qualities make a good friend and wife and mother.  Poetry opened my life to a richness of emotion and put words to things in my heart that I didn’t know could be described in words.

Spending so many hours reading during my childhood and adolescence was not only helpful in my growth academically and intellectually. I grew as a human being as I encountered the experiences and relationships of fictional characters. Books have been my friends, my mentors, and my guides.  The person I am today is due to the books and stories I have absorbed and delighted in throughout my life.

Off the Clock

Now that I’m working outside my home every day, I’m having to be much more mindful of how I spend my time. I “discovered” Laura Vanderkam this past year and tracked my hours for a week while reading her book, 168 Hours. It was eye-opening to see how I really spent my time.

Yesterday, I received her new book, Off the Clock, which deals with how to use your time so that you can focus on what is important to you. That will lead to the feeling that you have more time to get your priorities accomplished. It should be good!

Penny Plain by O. Douglas

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I had another blog post planned for today, but I just finished Penny Plain by O. Douglas and had to share about this new to me author.

I had heard of O. Douglas, a pseudonym for Anna Buchan, because my boys and I have long loved John Buchan’s books. I still enjoy reading about Richard Hannay and his adventures, especially Mr. Standfast. Did you know that John Buchan is the father of spy novels? His first, The 39 Steps, was written in 1915 but set just before World War I. The first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so full of hair-raising adventures and last minutes escapes that you find that you must read one more chapter to see if Hannay escapes the current tight corner.

Anyhow, because of my enjoyment of Richard Hannay, I had read about Buchan’s sister, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and had seen her books reviewed by other middlebrow novel enthusiasts. However, until this weekend, I had never read one for myself.

I downloaded Penny Plain for free onto my kindle. (As an aside, while I still adore real books, being able to read out of print, unaccessible books is one of the definite upsides of the digital book revolution). I’ve spent the last two days in Scotland with Jean Jardine and her three brothers, whom she is bringing up by herself after the death of her parents and her aunt.

It’s a charming little story with wonderful characters and a happy ending, the best kind of book. Jean is making do with little money but lots of books and love when Pamela Reston comes to the village of Priorsford to escape the social whirl for a while. The book is set just after World War I and the sorrows of the loss of so many young men come across from time to time. In a way, it is more poignant than a modern novel about the losses because the author knew those aching gaps in a way we modern readers never will.

However, the book itself is upbeat and tells about the kind heart of Jean, her genius for helping others, and the way her life takes an unexpected turn as a result of her kindnesses. Also, there are numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and poetry, which I will have to track down to their sources one of these days for the sheer fun of it. I love books that are full of quotations.

Just a few bits to give you the flavor of the book:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances.

She was glad she lived among people who had the decency to go on caring for each other in spite of lines and wrinkles—comfortable couples whose affection for each other was a shelter in the time of storm, a shelter built of common joys, of “fireside talks and counsels in the dawn,” cemented by tears shed over common sorrows.

It wasn’t sad to be old, Jean told herself, for as the physical sight dims, the soul sees more clearly, and the light from the world to come illumines the last dark bit of the way….

The other rooms are lovely, but they are meant for crowds of people. This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

If you love books with kindness and laughter and true values and happy ever afters, even in the midst of life’s sorrows, then you will enjoy Penny Plain.