Read Alouds: On Shakespeare, Audubon, and Middle School in the 1960s

wednesdaywarsWe recently listened to two really terrific middle grade novels that the big kids highly recommend. The stories, which tie together in terms of themes and characters but could stand alone, follow boys in growing up in the 1960s. The approach to the moon landings, Vietnam War, and other historical events is particularly well done. At least two of the kids cried when one character’s brother came home from Vietnam in a wheelchair and was screamed at by a crowd of protestors. But the really awesome themes were the impact of art on boys at a critical age. I loved the way these books stayed totally true to boy-ness and the awkward 6th-8th grade years while setting a high view of what boys can accomplish, learn, and appreciate. Other highlights included really invested teachers, lots of baseball stats, and boys learning to appreciate and get along with difficult siblings.

In The Wednesday Wars, our main character, Holling, comes out of his shell and into his own thanks to a teacher who introduces him to Shakespeare. Holling’s family seems perfect on the outside, but he’s getting old enough to understand that there are serious cracks in the foundation. Shakespeare gives him words for what he’s going through, and opens up his ability to understand other people and stand up for himself and others. All three kids requested different Shakespeare plays for independent reading after this one, even if one kid only wanted to perfect the curses from The Tempest.

okay for nowIf anything, the sequel to The Wednesday Wars, Okay For Now, is even better. We were taken aback at first to find out that the main character of the second book is one of the bullies from the first book. Wait, we said, we don’t like Doug! We don’t want to hear a whole book about Doug! But immediately the reader’s view of Doug is challenged when we see how he loves and respects his mother, and we change our minds completely as we begin to understand the unusual reasons for Doug’s behavior and responses. Again, great teachers (and an insightful librarian) see the spark in Doug and help him overcome his (huge) barriers. In Okay For Now, Doug’s exposure to John James Audubon triggers his own artistic skills, and gives him a project to work toward as he chooses positive actions and shows good judgement even in the face of terrible circumstances. Doug also begins to understand his older brothers better, and his family pulls together in ways that would have seemed impossible in chapter one.

My one regret for these two books are the father characters. Holling’s dad is neglectful and a jerk, but Doug’s dad is outright committing physical abuse. It wasn’t detailed or adult in any way, but I still don’t know how I feel about my kids hearing that some adults punch and beat their kids. That’s a tough one. We wound up talking about it, but I feel like some of my kids were pretty upset at the idea a parent who was not parenting in any sense of the word. I guess with a target late elementary/middle school audience, you can have those discussions. But if you prefer not to get into it, you might want to pre-read the book and see if you’d rather skip parts or at least start a conversation about some issues.

I do think that both books were exceptionally well-written, nuanced, and full of important themes while still appealing to the target audience. It’s not easy to find books about boys who choose for good character and education in the face of obstacles and bullies. At least not if you want stories that also seem realistic and not twaddly or saccharine. The author, who is a professor at Calvin College, has written several other books we plan to check out.

Although this not a straightforward review, I did give The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now four stars, which is rare for me. If you’ve read them, I’d be interested to hear your take.


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Sabbath Reading: A Peculiar Glory


In A Peculiar Glory, I learned some interesting facts about extant manuscripts of the Bible. Popular opinion gives the impression that there is some question about how accurate the Bible is textually because it was copied so often by hand (and other similar arguments). However, I was fascinated to learn that there are actually 5,801 Biblical texts in Greek alone (to say nothing of other languages ancient and modern). We have, in fact, more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the New Testament than for the average Greco-Roman author. For example, there are only eight copies of Thucydides, and the oldest is dated to 1300 years after Thucydides died. By contrast, many New Testament texts are less than a generation removed from the events described.

Although that was an interesting topic, I didn’t need to read about it to believe that Scripture is true. Likewise, most skeptics are not really worried about textual analysis either–they have other reasons for not believing the veracity of Biblical texts. That’s why I’m not sure who the target audience for A Peculiar Glory is–I feel like other books do a better job of addressing common objections to the existence of God or the truth of the Bible, and people who are believers probably believe the Bible without needing to know about the 5,801 texts.

John Piper is an incredibly dynamic speaker in person, and I’ve enjoyed some of his other books, so I was surprised to feel so-so about A Peculiar Glory. The book is an apologetic of sorts for the veracity of the Bible, and I feel like it perhaps belabored the point for the casual reader, while not being detailed enough for a skeptic or scholar. The result was not broadly readable. That said, I could have misread the book, not be the target audience, or have come to it at the wrong time. If you read the book and have a different opinion, I’d be interested to hear it!


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The Four Tendencies

the-four-tendencies-cover1-300x445I love personality frameworks, and I think Gretchen Rubin’s idea for The Four Tendencies is helpful in the sense that the tendencies provide insight into how people are motivated–and how to motivate people who are different than you are.

Rubin says that people are motivated in four different ways:

  • Upholders meet inner and outer expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Questioners have to understand the why of everything, but once they personally own the why, they meet the expectation
  • Rebels resist inner AND outer expectations

I’m a Questioner married to a Rebel. We have at least one Questioner child and one Rebel child, with a couple of Upholders. I found these frameworks insightful. Especially since I spend my days trying to inspire the children to do schoolwork and aspire to be an encouraging spouse, the book gave me a lot of good ideas.

I’m not sure that I buy everything about this book–I don’t know if the framework holds in every case, and I looked askance at there being just four categories, and which ones could overlap. Then Rubin pointed out that Questioners were the ones who questioned the framework and I said, “oh.”

However, if you like personality insights, you would probably enjoy The Four Tendencies. If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought!


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Sabbath Reading: In Search of Ancient Roots

In-Search-of-Ancient-Roots-201x300In Search of Ancient Roots presents an interesting analysis of the perception that the protestant church is anti-intellectual, anti-historical, and unmoored from the longer tradition of the lowercase-c-catholic church. The book addresses the protestant church in relation to history and presents some ideas for how the church could appeal to the disaffected.

As someone who is attracted to liturgical worship (in a thoughtful, historical, James K.A. Smith sense, not in an empty formalism way), and someone who cringes at the “lite” parts of Christian sub-culture, I found this book very interesting. The author (who calls people like me “the liturgical fringe” which made me laugh) takes on evangelical tendencies to chase culture rather than making it, and calls the church to reclaim historical, gospel-focused worship.

The section on music was particularly helpful. Josh and I had a good talk about this quote:

And what do you sing? …our sung praises to God should include hymns and songs of the church at all times and places…What is called blended worship can easily incorporate elements both ancient and modern, provided that we are determined to identify with believers of all ages [and worldwide] when we worship God.

A few weeks ago, a family who serves as missionaries in Tokyo visited our church. They noted that one of the songs we sang was one they sing in Japan, so this family sang it in Japanese. Isn’t it amazing to think of believers all over the world worshipping in different ways? I would love to see our worship reflect “the church at all times and places.”

I hope that the evangelical church becomes more rooted and grounded in the historical church rather than whiplashed by pop culture, while preserving the theological distinctions that brought about the Reformation. I enjoyed considering the different wings of protestant church culture–it’s far from monolithic in many ways–and found a lot to think about while reading In Search of Ancient Roots. I wouldn’t call it a must-read, but if you like considering church culture, or if you’re involved in setting it in any way, I’d recommend this book.


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This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

this-is-the-story-of-a-happy-marriage-134398180If you’ve read and enjoyed Ann Patchett’s exceptional novels Bel Canto and State of Wonder, you will likely also want to read her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Patchett’s style, eye for detail, and skilled ability to write not only great prose but also great action greatly impress me, and I found myself wanting to study the way that she used everyday events as terrific essay fodder in the book.

The memoir is composed of essays Patchett originally published elsewhere (she made her living freelancing for a long time) and some new works. She beautifully ties together thoughts on all sorts of things from writing to marriage to her friendship with some old nuns who used to be her teachers. It’s amazing how she fits all of this together and writes with so much poise and feeling.

Writers of all stripes will get something fromThis Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (memoirists, you definitely ought to read it), but I think it would appeal to a wider range of readers, even those who aren’t writers or particular fans of memoir. Patchett’s way of seeing life is interesting and thought-provoking. And if you haven’t read her novels yet, you are missing out!


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Sabbath Reading: The Songs of Jesus

songs of jesusI realized in my recent post on Kidner’s Psalms books that I had forgotten to review Tim Keller’s The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms. That’s unfortunate, because I loved the book and would highly recommend it.

Keller writes in a very accessible and yet deep way, and the short expositions in this book are uniformly thought-provoking while still being easy to read in a short sitting. Designed as a daily devotional, the book covers a passage from the Psalms each day, with many Psalms taking more than one day to fill the year.

I got so much from this volume, and felt like it really jump started my practice of reading/praying through the Psalms each year. The book makes a particularly great companion to Keller’s book on prayer, in which he goes into more detail about how and why to pray with the Psalms. In fact, I think you’d get more out of either book by reading them together.

If you’re looking for a great daily devotional, I’d recommend The Songs of Jesus. It has a great balance of depth and readability that make it a solid choice for all sorts of readers.

What are you reading this Sunday?


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Smitten Kitchen Everyday

smitten kitchen everydayIf cookbooks are your major book jam, you should read Smitten Kitchen Every Day. If you only have time to read one cookbook this year, you should read Smitten Kitchen Every Day. Even if you aren’t big on cookbooks, you should read Smitten Kitchen Every Day.

Because it’s truly that good.

I love Deb Perelman’s recipe style – very precise and no unnecessary steps added in just to make it look harder – and the food style in this book matches our tastes very closely. I love Middle Eastern flavors, and this book is full of them. I found all sorts of new ways to use my favorite spices, and liked some new-to-us options so well that I have already invested in restaurant-kitchen-sized versions.

Deb does come from a vegetarian background, so there are a lot of meat-free dishes, but I find that I am comfortable making a vegetarian meal with meat, or replacing meat to make a meal vegetarian when it wasn’t originally. The recipes in this book work very well for that approach.

And the real joy is in the vegetable side dishes (which you could easily make more of and call a full meal). We used two of her recipes–cauliflower wedges and a squash and Brussels sprouts version of fattoush salad–at Christmas dinner to grand acclaim.

I love that the recipes I’ve tried from the book (around 15 and counting) are pretty easy and yet feel special. I love that they are simple to fit into my eating plan of bright lines and primarily vegetables and protein. You could integrate this food into pretty much any plan without much fuss. Of additional note, if you’re a reader of Deb’s blog, you won’t find recipe overlap in this book. These are all new recipes. I find that impressive in this era of blog-to-book publishing.

And then there are the pictures and anecdotes. I do love to read a cookbook that is well-written on its own merits as a book and that is visually interesting. This book does it all.

So there you have it, my best cookbook recommendation in a long time and my latest favorite. I hope Smitten Kitchen Every Day becomes yours, too!

What’s cooking at your house these days?


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Sabbath Reading: Acts for Everyone

ActsN.T. Wright had so much to say about the book of Acts that it required two volumes. And both are well worth reading.

I thought volume one was great, but the real strength in the books lies in the whole picture. Wright’s combination of cultural and historical knowledge combined with theological insight make these books a really insightful way to study the book of Acts.

The books are broken down for small chunks of reading, with one Scripture passage and then Wright’s thoughts on it following another. I read these as daily study helps, but you could easily space them out differently if you were so inclined.

The best insights from the book are Wright’s explanations of what certain words and concepts would have meant to first century audiences. Having grown up in the Christian sub-culture, I have fixed ideas about terms like “eternal life” and “heaven” that Wright shows as being somewhat lacking. I found my viewpoints expanding toward finding those ideas even more exciting and challenging as I read Wright’s explanations.

I also loved the way Wright put Jesus and the early Christians into context. What did it actually look like and mean for them to act as they did? What sort of impact did this really have on their culture? And how could we/should we have that same sort of impact in our culture today? You’ll find a lot of challenging food for thought in these books.

Wright’s style is elegant and persuasive–deep yet so compellingly written that it feels easier than it is. While I have some reservations about certain areas of his theology, his commentaries on the gospels and Acts did not strike me as problematic (and my husband has read one and agrees, as does our pastor, who we talked to about it as well).

I’d recommend Acts for Everyone: Part One and Part Two, and would be interested to know your thoughts if you read them.

What are you reading this Sunday?


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The Cultivated Life

I like Lara Casey because she’s a driven, ambitious woman who’s living an unconventional balance of work/life/parenting. Her frameworks for goal setting are right on, and I’ve used her PowerSheets product for the past several years.

Casey’s first book, Make it Happen, is terrific, and would give you a good overview of her approach. Her more recent book, Cultivate, looks at how to apply that framework when you’re at the point of not being able to do it all.

Throughout the book, Casey uses a gardening metaphor. Yes, it’s a little bit of a stretch to extend a metaphor throughout an entire book, but it’s short and worthwhile if you like motivational reading. I liked the idea of looking at life like cultivating your garden, though. Different people like different styles of gardens–from very formal to wildflowers–and we can choose the types of growth we want to cultivate in our lives as long as we’re being purposeful and owning our choices.

Casey doesn’t go into this in the book, but the garden idea reminded me that I get to choose where I say yes. Just because other people like ornamental cabbages doesn’t mean I have to have them in my flowerbeds. And just because most people think Queen Anne’s Lace is a weed doesn’t mean I couldn’t have it in my wildflower mix (assuming I were able to get anything to grow in my flower beds, which is sadly not often the case. I can even kill zucchini and mint.) It’s a helpful idea to remember that we curate according to our own gifts and callings, not just what everyone else does.

I particularly appreciated the section of Cultivate that talks about complaining as clues. I hadn’t previously considered how the things I complain about might be revealing areas where I’m lacking faith or trying to be too self-reliant. Lots to think about there.

If you’re into productivity literature, Cultivate is a solid choice worth your time. If you’ve read Make It Happen, you won’t find Cultivate life-altering, but it’s a good reminder to be thoughtful about your time.


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Sabbath Reading: Psalms

Kidner 2If you’re looking for a fruitful book to study, you can’t go wrong with the Psalms. Pretty much anything you’re going through is probably a topic, and there is so much depth and richness and insight for who God is and what He’s like, how to worship, and how to live. This is probably my favorite book of the Bible, and I study it on repeat every year.

In 2017 and the first part of January 2018, I used Derek Kidner’s commentaries on the Psalms (Volume 1 and Volume 2to aid my study. I got a lot from the two-volume set. Although at times the style is a bit more academic than some people like (I don’t mind, and didn’t find it dry), Kidner’s insights are so piercing and insightful that I would recommend them to anyone.

The books are best read in small portions, which made them ideal for daily reading and study. I initially planned to do one Psalm per day, and then launch into another book on the Psalms, but so many of the Psalms wound up taking me more than one day to work through that I wound up going over the year a bit. You could easily space this out even more with Kidner–the entries for each Psalm are meaty. Or you could study one Psalm per Sunday if you have other devotional reading going throughout the week.

If you’re new to studying the Psalms, I’d recommend you read Songs of Jesus first, as it’s a lighter (albeit still excellent) overview, but then you could transition easily to Kidner’s books.

I’d highly recommend Kidner’s two-volume commentary on the Psalms, and plan to check out some of this other books.

Do you have a favorite book about the Psalms?


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