A Must-Read Book on Prayer

keller-prayerI’ve read several great books on prayer (A Praying Life and Praying Backwards come to mind) but Tim Keller’s latest work, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, is by far the best I’ve read so far.

In his usual style, Keller combines careful biblical scholarship with a detailed review of church and theological history, examining modern mindsets through the lens of Scripture and history to reveal blindspots and areas where our cultural framework may be less than biblical. After casting a robust vision and inspiring conviction, Keller moves into an eminently practical section of application.

Keller’s gift as a writer is in maintaining intellectual and theological rigor while using a very readable and understandable style.  His book on prayer is no exception.

What struck me most about the book was that it’s not solely about prayer.  Keller ties prayer into the broader devotional experience in such a way that after reading it I find my entire approach to reading the Bible and seeking God is richer and deeper.  Many concepts like meditation on Scripture, praying Scripture back to God, praying through the Psalms, and how prayer is a means of building our relationship with God, deepening our faith, and moving our beliefs from head knowledge into the very fiber of our lives are so well explained in this book.  The ideas aren’t new, but the exposition of them is fresh, clear, and couched in Scripture so I found my understanding grew exponentially as I read.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough as a high impact tool for deepening and strengthening your relationship with God.


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Quick Takes on Personality, Checklists, and Scurvy

SQT1) Everyone forms habits (or achieves goals, or keeps resolutions) differently.

Did you see this quiz about the four tendencies?  I love type breakdowns, and this one is particularly helpful to pinpoint how you can change.  So many books or seminars imply that there is one RIGHT way to set goals or change your habits, but maybe it’s more individual.  What works for one person might not work best for you, and why not work with your natural tendencies rather than against them?  Turns out I’m a questioner.  I read the long description (you can get the full run-down emailed to you after you do the quiz) to my husband and he agreed that was me to a T.  Super interesting.

2) My husband and I are opposite types.  And yet, we live.

I had Josh take the tendencies quiz too.  And he obliged me because…wait for it….he’s an obliger!  An obliger is the complete opposite of a questioner.  As far as Meyers-Briggs types go, we’re also opposites, and the in-depth M-B book (Please Understand Me II–highly recommended!) lists us as two types very unlikely to mesh well in a relationship.  And yet, here we are, over 11 years later, beating the odds.  It’s like that part in Chariots of Fire when the guys are running in slo-mo on the beach, right?  We’re getting there.  I chalk a lot of it up to a compatible sense of humor. We differ in many, many ways, but we can almost always laugh together, and that’s no small thing.

3) Speaking of marriage, here’s a book I’m not finishing.

I started reading Raney after seeing it recommended in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.  It’s kind of a stream-of-consciousness narrative of a small town couple’s first few years of marriage.  You know how when you get married you have to get used to not being self-absorbed and develop your own couple perspective rather than whatever family lens you had before?  It’s not always pretty.  And I found it sort of annoying to read about.  Plus I didn’t see the book as being all that illuminating about small town life or the Carolinas.  It seemed a little vapid by page 27 so I let it go.  If it’s your all-time favorite, feel free to try to convince me to pick it back up.

4) We picked school back up, and checklists are the revolution!

After a long break, we girded up our loins (metaphorically speaking) (actually now that I think about it we girded them literally too, as I tend to enforce a fairly stringent ban on public nudity) for a new term.  I read an article from Sarah Mackenzie about how she’s writing school work checklists in notebooks for her older kids.  She says it takes five minutes!  Wow!  Since my kids love checking things off lists (they get that from me) and seem to see checklists as external authorities not just stuff Mama says to do, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.  Except my bandwagon evidently has less going on under the hood than Sarah’s does, because I found that writing out the checklists for my three big kids took me a really long time and I realized I would always be writing the same things every day.  Two days of that and I was totally over it.  However, the checklists got the kids motivated to do a lot more of their school work, music practicing, and chores independently and also overcame the “golly, nobody told me I had to brush my teeth AGAIN when I just did it YESTERDAY!” syndrome that plagues various and sundry of my children, bless their hearts and unbrushed hair.

So I typed up the checklists, with big squares for checking off items, and nice, big, double-spaced fonts.  I also added in their Office Time subject order, so we could avoid time-consuming haggling over whether math or spelling should come first.  Y’all, it is magical.  The days are going much more smoothly, and even though two work-related crises truncated my teaching time last week, we still got through the assignments.  Win.


Breakfast Room/School Room ready for the next day with TYPED checklists

5) Part of the revolution is lagging, though.

One reason why it took me so long to write the checklists is that I do write out everyone’s school work in their notebooks every day.  I write their Shakespeare copywork, Bible copywork, their Latin assignments, and their writing and grammar assignments in their daily work notebooks.  I like that the notebooks keep everything together, and when we have our Office Time (one-on-one teaching), they add in spelling and Spanish and other subjects.  It’s a lot of writing for me though.  This year I finally understand why some people pony up the extra $15 for the student books for everything.  Hm.

6) However, we are not lagging due to scurvy!

I’m delighted to report that our household risk of scurvy is virtually nil!  I was telling a friend about how much produce my kids eat, but didn’t know exact numbers.  Naturally the following week I decided to keep notes.  In one seven-day period my family (two adults, four kids aged 9, 7 1/2, 6, and 20 months) consumed:

  • ten pounds of grapefruit
  • eight pounds of oranges
  • fifteen pounds of clementines
  • fifteen pounds of apples
  • six pounds of bananas
  • five bunches of celery
  • five pounds of baby carrots
  • three pounds of broccoli
  • six heads of romaine lettuce
  • two bags of spinach
  • two bags of bell pepper strips
  • four pounds of green beans

Citrus is in season (somewhere?) and the children are going hog-wild.  I suppose there are worse things.  Whenever I have a passing thought about the teenage years to come, I put my fingers in my ears and sing tra-la-la.

7) The Spirited Mind newsletter will not protect you from scurvy.

Thoughts and Tips for the Literary Life

I’m all about full disclosure.  However, while it may not impact your vitamin intake, the newsletter will give you a boost of thoughts and tips for your literary life!  This month’s issue includes resources for finding good books, a tip for reading aloud to your kids, other interesting bookish quotes and things, and a longer article about one of three topics between which I have not thus far been able to choose.  Don’t miss it!  The newsletter comes out once a month, and I don’t use the list for any spamming in between issues.  Pop over to the sidebar or click here to sign up!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum.

Disclosure: Most of the links in this post are to my longer reviews, but there is one Amazon affiliate link. Thank you for supporting A Spirited Mind!

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Oreo Fiction

I love literary fiction; it’s my favorite.  I love to sink my mind into a complicated and deep exploration of themes and cultures and characters–the kind of book that keeps me thinking for weeks and expands or strengthens my point of view.  Books of literary fiction are like the Bon Appetit recipes of reading.  They take a long time and involve ingredients you don’t already have on hand, but in the end the truffle-infused-whatever feeds you on a whole different level than standard fare.

But sometimes you just want the store-bought cookie of reading material.  Everyone needs a break sometimes.

Enter Oreo fiction!  Oreo fiction is not trash–it’s a great blend of texture and flavor–but having too much of it would be bad for your brain the way a steady diet of the cookies would be bad for your body.  However, as store-bought cookies go, and in small amounts here and there, Oreos nail it. As an occasional treat they can be just the thing.  See how that works?  Metaphors.  I love them.

scarletRecently, after putting my brain power toward a lot of deeper fiction and non-fiction, plus working on Spanish, I felt like I needed a mental break.  Having enjoyed Cinder, I got the next two books in Marissa Meyer’s best-selling YA sci-fi/fantasy/fairy-tale-retelling series.  The combination works.  This is solid Oreo fiction.

Scarlet reimagines the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, and Cress is an even more clever recasting of Rapunzel (See what she did with the title? Rapunzel is a salad herb, as is watercress, and cress is also short for crescent moon).  The books connect all of the characters into a larger narrative intertwining the storylines of all three main characters, which is a great way to propel the series.

Because I’m not a fan of YA, I definitely found plenty of eye-rolling scenes (teen romance–gag me with a spoon) but nothing more than an occasional kiss and sappy exchanges (“You’re my alpha!”).  However, because I liked the story line and really, really appreciate the world-building, I kept with it and hoped the wind wouldn’t change while I was making faces at the drippy bits.

Ever since I read Wired for War (a non-fiction book, and exceptional – you should read it) I’ve been more interested in science fiction as a vehicle for exploring the ethics and philosophy of technology.  Meyer’s books, while geared for a less serious audience, do explore questions of prejudice, the boundaries of personhood, and ends versus means.  Her conclusions are nebulous (is someone less of a person if they have some mechanical replacement parts like a foot?  Is a robot a person if she has a sense of humor?) and she doesn’t get too deep into these topics, but at least it could start a discussion if you knew someone reading the books.

If you don’t read a lot, you could skip the Lunar Chronicles.  They won’t change your life or rock your world or go down in history as game changing classics.  But if you’re in the mood for some Oreo fiction, they could be just the thing.


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The Fringe Hours

fringeJessica N. Turner makes a valuable contribution to the do-it-all/balance/super mom cultural debate with her insightful and helpful book The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You.  Drawing on surveys of women in a wide variety of stages, circumstances, and walks of life, Turner notes that the key to making headway on your goals and taking time to be filled rather than running on empty means making good use of the fringe hours of your life–those tiny increments of time between the pressing demands of your job, family, community, and everything else you do.

If you have ever tracked your time (168 Hours is a great resource for that) you probably know this to be true.  While women today don’t often have huge unclaimed chunks of leisure time, the structure of modern life means that we do have spare minutes here and there, and with some deliberate choices we can create more pockets of time.  When we are deliberate with our fringe hours, making choices to do fill that time with things that are restorative and life-giving, it makes us better and more effective in all of our other roles.

I found the whole book helpful, inspiring, and encouraging.  A couple of the points I thought were particularly strong include:

  • Balance doesn’t mean being everything to everyone, pleasing everyone, or setting a lot of unrealistic expectations on yourself to be a super woman.
  • Your schedule is your own.  Don’t do things just because you feel guilty not doing them, don’t feel like your calendar has to look like anyone else’s, and don’t justify busyness as something valuable.  It’s not about doing ALL the things, but about doing the things that matter most to you and your calling.
  • It’s ok to ask for help. Turner does a great job of identifying areas where getting help might make your life less frantic, and her suggestions are broad enough to apply to women in a wide range of situations. Sometimes you just need to look at things from a different angle to have a breakthrough.

Overall, the book is not about maximizing your every second or reaching some externally-imposed idea of success.  Rather, it’s a call to live more deliberately, and to realize that running yourself ragged isn’t the life God has called you to live.  Whether you’re single or married, have children at home or not, work outside the home or from home or are a homemaker or retired, I think any woman would find The Fringe Hours a worthwhile read.

How do you spend your fringe hours?  It will come as no surprise that I spend most of mine reading.  :)


Disclosure: The publisher sent me a free advance reader copy of The Fringe Hours, but the opinions in this post are my own.  Links in the post are affiliate links – when you click through to Amazon from this blog and make a purchase, A Spirited Mind gets a small commission.  Thank you for your support!

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Don’t Miss the Spirited Mind Newsletter!

Thoughts and Tips for the Literary LifeThe first issue of the Spirited Mind newsletter comes out on January 26th!  I’m really excited about this new format as a place to put a longer article, reading tips like book sources, links to interesting articles, quotes, and reading-related whatnot.

You can sign up on the homepage, get more info about the newsletter, or type your email in below to sign up.

Have ideas for topics or types of information you’d like to see more of?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll keep it in mind for future issues!

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Using Your Brain to Master Languages

fluent foreverI’ve mentioned before how much I love to study languages. But when I say “study” I mean just that. I like to study how they work, what the structure is like, and how they sound.  Studying languages is great brain exercise, and I really, really love brain exercise.  It’s the actual speaking in these languages that I can’t seem to nail down.

And yet, I’d love to speak other languages fluently enough to actually use them with native speakers here or while traveling.  I’ve tried a variety of methods–listening to CD courses, Rosetta Stone, traditional classes–and nothing really stuck.

Enter neuroscience.  It turns out that there ARE ways you can work WITH your brain to learn a new language–no matter what your age, background, or aptitude.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, author and polyglot Gabriel Wyner explores many of these connections, and how you can leverage your brain to learn a new language.  He tackles big concepts like how to get things into your long-term memory, and then goes into great and helpful depth on how to actually put this into practice.  If you’ve heard of spaced repetition systems but don’t know how to use one, this book is for you.  I LOVED this book.  After reading it, I have a concrete plan for learning Spanish this year, and have already implemented so many of his techniques with fun and satisfying results.  This is the book for you if you like to understand how things work, and if you want a realistic game plan for how to get to what you really want to do in a language.

fluent 3 monthsIn many ways, Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World is similar to Fluent Forever, in that both authors learned multiple languages fluently in adulthood and both advocate leveraging mnemonics and memory tactics to build fluency.  However, Benny Lewis’s book focuses more on jumping in and speaking right away, with less detail on how to use the memory skills he suggests.

The Fluent in 3 Months approach will appeal to extreme extroverts, especially those who aren’t very self-conscious.  It will also work if you’ve got a lot of extra time on your hands (Benny suggests a minimum of two hours per day).  I think some of his ideas are great, and made notes on them to try out once I get some basic vocabulary down.

However, for my personality, I think the Fluent Foreverapproach will work better.  Wyner suggests starting with language sounds (what I’ve learned about sounds and how we make them so far is fascinating even if it never led to language progress!) and then using Anki to nail the top 625 words in your target language.  Then you move into speaking and use sentences and phrases to learn grammar patterns.  You add in the rest of the top 1000 words, then start doing things like reading books in your target language with the audio book at the same time (brilliant!) to build fluency and comprehension, watching TV shows and movies dubbed (not subtitled) in your target language to pick up usage and how people speak colloquially, and then has suggestions for how to direct your language learning based on what you want to do with it.

In my opinion, Fluent Forever is the more broadly applicable choice here, but certainly both books would be a good reference if you’re interested in learning languages.

Do you like learning languages?  Which language would you learn first if you got to pick?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

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On Being a Writer

writerOn Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts explores the concept of writing in a refreshingly inclusive fashion, and offers ideas and tips for building and strengthening helpful writing habits.

As someone who writes daily, but who spends more time on corporate writing than on fiction, I appreciated that the authors of this book took a wide view of what it means to be a writer.  Often I get the feeling from writing books that only novelists need apply, although my experience has been that the writing I do in different genres only serves to improve my writing in other formats. On Being a Writer invites the reader to explore what a writing identity means to him or her, and the ideas found throughout the book could be usefully applied to fiction, nonfiction, blogging, or any other sort of writing you do.

On Being a Writer is not a book on writing craft, but rather a manual for building the sort of habits that foster a strong writing life.  The habits covered in the book will serve you well if you’re just beginning to build a writing life or if you’ve been a writer for a long time.  No matter what sort of writing you do, if you identify yourself as a writer, I’d recommend this book.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.



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The Bookmarked Life #9

The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


A childhood friend of mine recently took her daughters to New York City.  As I read about their adventures on her blog, I was amazed at the things they did that wouldn’t have crossed my mind.  I’d love to take my girls to NY, but I’d do completely different things.  It struck me how differently people can view the same city–the things that mean New York to me are different than for my friend.

It made me wonder about my own city. I have an internal narrative about Indianapolis based on my experiences here, but other people view it through a totally different lense.  It is interesting to consider what might be right here within reach that I’ve just overlooked.

…Furnishing my mind

sarahIt’s such a cliche, but I have this sense that time is slipping very quickly.  Sarah lost one of her front teeth and all of a sudden she really looks six years old (which she is, having had a birthday last month).  It makes me panic that I haven’t taken enough video, and I actually printed pictures from our Christmas trip to try to catch hold of what the kids look like now.  One of my deliverables for 2015 (yeah, I business-ize my goals like that) is to hug everybody in the family before breakfast is over.  It’s bizarre that I don’t do that anyway, but life spins madly on otherwise.

…Learning about

I’m reading an incredible book on language learning (review coming soon).  I love to study languages, mostly because I like to understand and unravel systems and how they work, but I’ve never been overly successful at actually speaking a language.  I feel like Fluent Forever might change that, but even if not I am learning a ton about memory and language and how brains work, which is a win in and of itself!

…Living the Good Life

readingWe had a great Christmas with my parents, brother, and aunt in South Carolina.  Although the kids all got a stomach virus (barf is my parenting nemesis) fortunately no one was sick on Christmas Eve OR Christmas Day.  Blessings.


We took the week of Christmas off because we were visiting my parents in South Carolina, but we did go on a field trip to Biltmore Estates one day.  It was great timing since we had just finished studying about daily life in a Victorian house!  Since all of the kids also got a stomach virus that week and came home with some terrible respiratory sickness, we took the week of New Years off too, and then I got the stomach bug, and with one thing after another we took the first week of January off too.  Now, after a three week vacation, I think we’re ready to start a new term on Monday!  One of the good things about homeschooling is that as long as we get in 180 days of instruction I don’t have to adhere to any particular calendar and we can take time off as we need it.  I’m grateful for that flexibility!


One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I need to have an articulable reason for goals I’m setting – and it needs to be my “why” not the general “right answer.”  So I spent some time thinking about exercising.  I’d like to get to my post-Sarah weight by the time Eliza turns two, but mostly I think running in the morning is a good thinking time, and Jillian workouts are good for my muscles and post-workout endorphins.  So I’m trying out a new schedule of five minute warmup, 20 minute run, 30 minute Jillian (on a loop, since none of my DVDs are that length, I’ll just go until the time is up and then pick up the next day where I left off), five minute stretch.  If that doesn’t take, I might need a new why.

…Seeking balance

We are having a big push-and-pull between a need for schedule and routine and the need to be flexible.  Some work/life gurus advocate having very clear boundaries between roles, while others take a more blended approach.  As someone who tends to choose D) All of the Above, I just tend to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other.  It’s not ideal, but it might be the trade-off for having the freedom to homeschool and also to work from home.

…Building the habit

After reading The Fringe Hours (review forthcoming, but it’s excellent, and available for pre-order!) I started thinking about how gratitude and thankfulness are really the antidotes for complaining and whining.  So we’re starting a new habit training for the kids (and parents!) such that when caught complaining or whining, the perpetrator has to write three sentences about things he or she is grateful for.  If nothing else, it puts us in a better frame of mind and improves our handwriting!

…Listening to

Between our long car trip and children lying around on the floor dealing with a stomach bug, we’ve listened to nearly all of The Fellowship of the Ringon audio. Then, when I fell victim to the stomach bug, I listened to hours of the Steve Jobs biography.  Audio books do help to redeem time you’d otherwise spend unable to read actual books, don’t they?

What are you bookmarking this week?


Note: Most of the links in this post are to my longer reviews, but one is to Amazon, and it’s an affiliate link, just so you know! 

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cinderI usually prefer literary fiction to YA, but recently I picked up a copy of Marissa Meyer’s wildly popular re-telling of the Cinderella fairy tale, Cinder, and I really enjoyed it.

The story uses Cinderella as a framework, but sets it in a dystopian future and makes it about technology and what it means to be human.  I thought the recasting of the familiar tale and the world-building were really well done.

Because you know the basic storyline already, and because it’s YA not adult lit, you’ll probably figure out the plot twists pretty early.  I had the major points nailed down by page 27, but I still enjoyed the story.

I’m probably not going to switch over to being a YA fan, but I’m glad I made an exception for Cinder.  It’s a light, fun, and well-conceived book, and I plan to read the rest of the series now!

Do you tend to stick with one type of fiction, or do you branch out into a lot of different sub-types (literary, mystery, YA, middle grade, steam punk, fantasy, sci-fi…)?  I tend to branch out more when a book overlaps two different genres.  The fact that Cinder combines YA with science fiction made me more interested than I might otherwise have been.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


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Drowning Ruth

DrowningRuthIn Drowning Ruth, author Christina Schwarz uses narrative voices whose perspectives are limited by distance, age, and madness to unravel a mystery about family, love, and sanity set in the World War I era.

I’m almost positive I read this book when it first came out about 15 years ago, but I think if you weren’t already familiar with the story it would be layered enough to keep you guessing.  The author did a great job of using different voices that were all unable to see a full view to augment and support each other both as part of the story and as a narrative technique.

If you like mysteries and don’t mind unreliable narrators (and multiple points of view), Drowning Ruth is a well-told story and engaging without being the sort of fiction you have to drop everything to finish.  Those are good to have on hand from time to time, especially early in the year when you want to get some of your resolutions underway!

Do you ever start reading a book and then realize you probably already read it?  Usually I can tell quickly that I have already read something, but this book was long ago enough that I really wondered for a long time.  And then by the time I firmly decided that I had in fact read it before, I was so far into the book (and was on a long car trip) that I decided to finish it anyway.  I don’t regret it!


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

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