Reading and Listening – November 2020

October was a busy month. My son got married in another state, which required planning, travelling, and quarantining afterward. Then, a few days ago, I was in charge of a virtual conference that has taken a lot of time and work this past month to plan and coordinate all the moving parts.

Added to those two big things, a third big event was the reopening of library access to the public, which requires a lot more time in the library branches. I’m so happy to see and help our community again in person, albeit masked and socially distanced.

However, I have still carved out to read and listen to various articles and podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:

Reading:

Feed the Better Hunger – I used to tell my boys that taking in too much “junk food of the mind” is as bad for your brain as eating too much junk food is for your body. Glenna Marshall writes about what we should be hungering for in this article. We need to intentionally learn to love what is good for us and this article points us in the right direction.

6 Tips to Help You Tackle the Classic Novel – Anne Bogel gives six great ideas on how to read that classic from high school that you skipped. I 100% agree about trying it on audio. I finally managed to read Moby Dick several years ago by listening to the audio, and Heart of Darkness was much more manageable when read by Kenneth Branagh.

Your Devotional is Not Your Bible – As usual, Jen Wilkin encourages the reading and study of God’s Word over everything else: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.”

The Hidden Discipline of John Stott – This is an inspiring, convicting article. If I was half as disciplined in my reading and writing as John Stott was, I’d be a first class scholar. Definitely something to aspire to!

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It? – A longish article on the need for fact checking nonfiction books and the lack of industry standards. This was interesting to me as I’m currently working on a nonfiction book and anyone who is also writing nonfiction might want to give it a read. Fact checking and copy editing are not the same thing, and I had been thinking about how to make sure my facts were correct (important when you work in research for a living!) when I saw this article.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped to finish Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell by the end of October and I did. I think this was my favorite fiction book in 2020. The combination of historical detail, rich characterization, an inventive plot, magical realism, and deep, deep emotions left me with a huge book hangover and food for thought for weeks. If you like Shakespeare or you like historical fiction, you will like this book.

Listening:

A podcast on the three stages of creative work: friction, flow, and finalization – At the beginning of episode 37, Cal Newport talks about how all creative work has these three stages, what each stage entails, and how to push through to complete your project. I’ve often said that writing is 25% thought, 25% drafting, and 50% editing/polishing. Even if my percentages are a bit off, it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the majority of the project is not the fun drafting part.

The last Help Me Teach the Bible podcast – After years of talking to Bible teachers all over the world, Nancy Guthrie is (mostly) wrapping up this podcast. She does reserve the right to do an occasional new one if she’s able to do a great interview in the future. Here’s a list of episodes by Scripture: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/help-me-teach-the-bible-episodes-by-scripture/

Now that I’m back to commuting on a regular basis, I should have more listening suggestions next month. What are you reading or listening to right now? Please share in the comments.

My Reading in 2019

Image by Sofia Iivarinen from Pixabay

Every year I look forward to seeing a snapshot of my reading year in Goodreads. I don’t add every book I read to my Goodreads account, but I add most of them. I always begin the year with good intentions about what I’m going to read, and I like to see how close I get to my starting goals.

In 2019, I set a goal to read 80 books, and I recorded 85 books read as of December 31, 2019. 69 of those books were fiction and 16 nonfiction or poetry. Eight were children’s books and only one was on audio. 34% of the books were rereads, which is a higher percentage than usual.

It was not quite as rich a reading year as 2018, but there are several titles that stand out as well worth my reading time

Fiction:

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner – I read this for my book club, but I had wanted to read it ever since finishing Crossing to Safety last year. This is the book that Stegner won the Pulitzer for and I can see why he did. Stegner tells the story of an artistic young woman who marries a mining engineer and moves to California and other western locations with him. At its heart is the story of a marriage, and I was fascinated by how this couple dealt with all of the difficulties they faced. Apparently they were real people and Stegner used family papers to tell their story in this excellent historical novel.

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth – I picked this up on a whim and enjoyed reading the story of a woman and her relationship with her mother-in-law. When it began, I thought the author was going to take it in a typical direction, but I was wrong and the end result was excellent. A thriller with a meaty twist.

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos – A feel good novel about a difficult topic. Modern Mrs. Darcy suggested this as part of her 2018 Summer Reading. I never regret reading her suggestions, even the ones that I’m not sure are my type of books.

Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict – I’ve enjoyed the many books about lesser known women in history that I have come out over the last several years. This book about Clementine Churchill helped me better understand Prime Minister Winston Churchill and was a interesting look at their marriage and how much stronger the two of them were together than either of them were on their own.

Kindred by Octavia Butler – another book group read and one I’ve had on my to-read list for several years. Butler uses time travel as a medium for a modern African American woman to go back to pre-Civil War Maryland. It was a horrifying look at slavery and the system that she had only read about in history books. I’m glad I read it although I had to put it down a few times to recover from the events in the book. I recommend this for anyone who wants to have a better idea of what slavery was really like for many people in this country.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple – I’m a sucker for books written in letters and this hilarious book tells the story of Bernadette, an anti-social wife and mother in Seattle, who disappears and how her teen daughter tracks her down through her emails and texts she left behind. It was fun book that kept me up far too late because I wanted to know where Bernadette had gone and why she did what she did.

Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher – I’ve had this on my shelf since my mother’s death (it was her copy), but I kept putting it off because once I read it, I would have read all of Pilcher’s major novels, which I loved. However, after listening to a respected author recommend it, I picked it up to read this Christmas, and it did not disappoint. Wonderful characters, lovely domestic descriptions, and an uplifting but not saccharine story of second chances at love. Each of Pilcher’s major books goes with a season in my mind although I don’t know if she meant for that to be true. This one is obviously a winter book and I know I will pull it out again in the next couple of years to read on a snowy week.

Nonfiction –

My top two nonfiction reads are by the same author, Christie Purifoy: Roots and Sky and Placemaker. I don’t remember how I first heard of Roots and Sky but I read it last winter and fell in love with the author’s beautiful prose. I found her blog and podcast soon after and they tided me over until her second book came out last spring. She writes about making a home, no matter what your job or sex or time of life as well as discussing gardens, books, and more. I love her books and recommend them to anyone who wants to read beautiful prose about beauty, plants, and community.

I reread Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin for the fourth time as part of a women’s study last summer and in preparation to teaching a Bible study in 2020. What a convicting, inspiring, helpful book. Every Christian woman should try to pick this book up to learn the reasons why we should be studying God’s Word as part of our daily lives.

Finding God in the Ordinary by Pierce Taylor Hibbs is a book of essays about how theology and God can be seen in the most ordinary of daily happenings.

Other:

Last, but not least, are two children’s books that I loved and recommend. Last summer I had the privilege of hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor speak at a library conference. Like many of us, I had heard many things about Justice Sotomayor but didn’t have any idea what she was really like. Well, she was amazing—smart, funny, wise, and loving. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her speak and went right back home to start reading her books. I started with her children’s books, Turning Pages and Just Ask, both of which are worth reading. I plan to read her adult memoir this year to find out more about this interesting woman.

What great books did you read in 2019? Was it a good reading year for you or less than your best? Tell me about it in the comments!

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?

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.