Hodge Podge: Literary Casserole Edition

FullSizeRender (1)One runs out of themes for Hodge Podge reviews. So think of this round-up as that sort of casserole you make when you haven’t been to the store in eight days and all you have is half of a leftover chicken breast, 3/4 cup of taco meat, a bag of frozen green beans, a can of chickpeas, a bowl of last night’s rice, a wizened onion, and sheer determination.

But I digress. And now, the books.

Beowulf – This is a re-read for me, but Hannah is reading the Seamus Heaney translation, and it’s so terrific. “He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped in it.” If you love words, this is for you. The illustrated edition is particularly fascinating.

Man’s Search for Meaning – I liked the personal memoir narrative of the first part, but got bored with the psychological treatise of the second part. Gist: regardless of your circumstances, you can choose your response.

The Valley of Vision – I read this book of prayers in small doses, and was not sure exactly what to do with it. I found some thought-provoking and/or helpful ways of thinking about/praying about things, but I’m not sure I’d re-read it.

Teaching From Rest – This was a re-read (link is to the original review), and is a great example of a book that hits you in exactly the right way the first time, is integrated into your life and way of thinking, and then doesn’t have a lot to add the second time around. It’s a good book, but maybe not one that requires re-reading.

Time to Write – If you are just starting out in writing, and have read absolutely nothing at all on writing or time management, you might find this book helpful. Sometimes I pick up books like this, thinking, “Help! Someone tell me how to [find time to write/make a living as a writer/be creative/etc]!” and then I read the book and think, “Oh, I guess I already do that.” I guess it’s as good a cure for imposter syndrome as any.

What have you been reading lately?

Note: The picture in this post has nothing to do with casserole or books. It’s just the corner of my desk: zinnias from the garden, a picture of my great-grandmother holding a chicken, and a print from Gracelaced that reminds me to watch my words.

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Wanderlust: Read, Listen, Cook, Eat

To my dismay, my city does not offer any $59 flights to other continents. It doesn’t even offer low fares to other cities that are within a four-hour drive. Thus, my wanderlust must find other, cheaper outlets. In case you’re in the same boat, here are four suggestions for assuaging your peripatetic soul this weekend.

gemma hardy coverRead

The Flight of Gemma Hardy delivers yet another Jane Eyre retelling, but winsomely set in Scotland. In case you already live in Scotland and think that sounds tame, a good chunk of the story is set in the Orkneys, with such compelling descriptions that I had to google image search the area and even went on AirBnB to see how much it would cost to rent something for a month or so next spring. It turns out, if you were wondering, that you can get a fully furnished castle there for just shy of $36,000 per month. Cottages are a bit more economical.

Listen

Even if you read Gemma in paper form, do yourself a favor and check out the lovely audiobook read by Davina Porter. She does a superb job of rendering a wide variety of Scottish accents and you will love it.

incorrigiblesIf you’ve got the kids along, you could try listening to the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, which, apart from being UTTERLY TERRIFIC in nearly every way, also includes references to a poem titled Wanderlust–the favorite of the governess, who has never traveled anywhere in real life. Except for London, which is no small potatoes. And the series is set in 19th century England, so that’s always a win.

The audio for the series is really great, and it’s well worth however long the wait list is at your library.

paleo slow cookerCook

I stumbled upon this great crockpot cookbook (I know, groan, groan, crockpot cooking) that happens to include the sort of recipes I like to make anyway. Normally if I need to use the crockpot I just put in whatever recipe I would have made on the stove top and hope for the best. But The Paleo Slow Cooker by Arsy Vartanian breaks it all down specifically for the crockpot. I marked, and have tried, several Armenian, Indian, and Persian food recipes from this cookbook. They aren’t quite like stove cooking, but are close and decent for busy weeknights or weekend evenings when you’re going to be out all day.

Eat

On that note, if you can’t afford to take the family out for international cuisine but do get Vartanian’s book, I recommend Curry Beef, Lamb and Apricot Stew, Lamb Tagine, and Ginger Chicken. All excellent.

What do you do when you’re seized by the desire to travel to parts unknown?

 

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The Yes Effect

yes effectI’ve looked forward to reading The Yes Effect for several years now, because the co-author, Darcy Wiley, is a real life friend of mine. Hearing about powerful interviews with missionaries from around the world, the writing process, and how the book took shape made me eager to read the final product.

And I was not disappointed. The idea for the book came from Luis Bush’s work in the 10/40 movement, a missions strategy that sought to bring the Gospel to the most unreached people groups. The Yes Effect tells the story of Bush’s lifetime of missions work, but also pulls in the stories of many other missionaries who have served around the world, from a wide variety of backgrounds. Structured around particular challenges to live and pray in a way that makes us open to doing God’s work wherever we’re called, the chapters are not only a fascinating look at modern missions history, but also a call for all of us–missionaries or not–to look for where God is working and make sure we are saying yes to the work He has for us to do.

As I mentioned in a newsletter earlier this month, one thing I really liked about this book was the way Darcy and Luis highlighted the ordinary sides of the missionaries, many of whose stories are amazing and totally outside the experience of someone living in comfortable suburbia. While not being prescriptive–how could it be, since predicting what the Holy Spirit is about to do would be foolhardy–The Yes Effect is a thoughtful invitation to pray a bit differently, think about the world a bit differently, and look for opportunities in a different way than we may be used to doing.

The Yes Effect is thought-provoking, compelling, and full of interesting stories of modern missions. I’d recommend it for believers as inspiring regardless of your current level of missions focus.

 

Disclosure: The author of this book is a friend, and I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. Book links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.

The Madwoman Upstairs

madwoman-upstairsIt has been ages since I’ve read something just for myself, so last weekend I took a pause in my pre-reading for school and reveled in TWO entire books for myself. It was marvelously restorative.

One was The Madwoman Upstairs – a wildly clever, tremendously funny, well-plotted homage to the Bronte family, Oxford, and competing modes of literary criticism. I’ve put aside several Bronte spin-offs this year (a book club I’m in is doing Jane Eyre next month) and so I didn’t have high hopes for Lowell’s take, but I found it delightful.

The book is a bit of a mystery story, borrowing bits of structure from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and a bit of a commentary on how to read a book. This is all bound up in a well-written story with characters that are interesting without being too slavish to Bronte casts. It was beautifully done, and is worth a read just to admire how Lowell pulled it off.

As a lifelong fan of Jane Eyre (I read it for the first time in second grade!), a total Anglophile, and a bookworm–to say nothing of being a person in desperate need of a stress-relieving read–I deeply enjoyed The Madwoman Upstairs and highly recommend it.

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Reading, Thinking, and Writing Effects

Over the summer, I read Stein on Writing, which was helpful from a professional development perspective since I write for my paying job, but, as with so many books, I found it spurred my thinking along several different lines, and caused me to ponder how I read, think, and communicate.

What counts is not what is said, but the effect of what is meant.

stein-on-writingI’m often frustrated by how relentlessly visual our culture is. People are so used to consuming primarily visual media that even print materials often read like a description of a TV drama. In the quote above, Stein contends that good dialogue is not about the exact words used, but the effect the words have on the story. I think the same holds true for action. This is why bedroom scenes invariably fail in novels (although, unfortunately, authors more often take this fact as a thrown gauntlet rather than a cautionary tale)–the play-by-play is not important, rather it’s the effect on the story of what the action means.

In addition to informing our writing, the idea also carries weight with spoken communication. Rather than oversharing details, we might do better to focus on communicating the effect an action or instance had on us–making it more universal and easier to understand.

There is a time and place for details. But, in our current milieu–speaking for myself, at least–a dose of restraint might be a more necessary corrective.

A writer cannot be a Pollyanna. He is in the business of writing what other people think but don’t say…the single characteristic that most makes a difference in the success of an article or nonfiction book is the author’s courage in revealing normally unspoken things about himself or his society…tell the truth in an interesting way.

I often have moments, when I read really good books, of noting that an author has perfectly articulated something I’ve experienced but never mentioned. But telling the truth in an interesting way is more difficult that you’d think. Wendy pointed me to this fascinating article about how difficult it is for Christians to write redemption, because it seems to defy description. I wonder if the answer might be–as in the observation above–to leave off with attempts at play-by-play descriptions and focusing on “the effect of what is meant.”

In the end, you write what you read.

If this is not a clarion call to being judicious with my reading shelf (and my kids’), I’m not sure what is.

I read books about writing both as a writer and as a reader. I usually find tidbits to help me in my work, but invariably find food for thought that makes me more thoughtful and discerning in my literary life as well.

What do you think?

 

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Hodge Podge: Middle Ages for Kids

The Middle Ages makes for a terrific literary setting. Here are some read-alouds and read-alongs we’ve enjoyed recently:

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – Pyle’s version of the familiar Robin Hood tales is really excellent. Do yourself and your kids a favor and don’t bother with abridged versions of this one! You don’t need Classic Starts or Great Illustrated Classics EVER, in my opinion, but in this case especially you will lose almost all of the literary quality and sparkle of the language.

Black Horses for the King – This imaginative story follows King Arthur’s need for larger horses to carry armored knights. Along with a high adventure storyline, the book is a fascinating account of how different horse breeds were needed for different conditions, and how they could have been procured in the Middle Ages.

Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight – I had never previously read this story in the full verse, and it’s not an easy read. It might have been better read aloud. If you’re not QUITE used to reading poetry, this would be a tough sell. We like poetry, and read it daily, but it was still a challenge, both for me and for Hannah! We had a conversation about how and whether chivalry = morality, and where Gawaine stumbled and why it was a problem. Most of the detail had gone over Hannah’s head, but in case you’re turning this book over to a kid, be aware that you’ll want to preview and discuss the moral issues. One more note: we went with the Raffel translation, but I wonder if we would have enjoyed Tolkein’s more. If you’ve read both, tell me your thoughts!

The Knight’s Fee – I love Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and this one was particularly good. The story captures the conflict between Saxon and Norman cultures one generation after the Battle of Hastings, and gives a good picture of the process of integration there, as well as the question of old Britons and Brittany. And it’s also a great adventure story that will appeal to boys and girls (and, importantly if you’re reading aloud or listening, also to parents).

Rolf and the Viking Bow – This book does an excellent job describing Iceland in the Middle Ages, but has one of those plots that leaves you saying “oh, not ONE MORE BAD THING happening to the main character!” I got a little annoyed with that, but of course it ultimately turns out all right in the end.

The Door in the Wall – I  read this book multiple times as a child, and we’ve read it aloud at least twice. This summer we listened to it on audio during a car trip and really enjoyed the production. We got the unabridged audio, which had nice music and sound effects–not too many and very well done. We particularly enjoyed the medieval style music and felt it set the scene nicely.

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Hodge Podge: Devotional Books

This week’s literary mix is made up of a variety of books about faith, theology, and Biblestudy.

Praying With Paul – In this excellent study of how Paul prays in his epistles, D. A. Carson both illuminates scripture passages and draws out excellent teaching and applications about prayer. Highly recommended.

The Good News We Almost Forgot – Kevin DeYoung’s well-written teaching on the Heidelberg Catechism would make for interesting family Biblestudy. DeYoung structures the book on a weekly framework, because he writes that the Heidelberg Catechism was originally designed to be preached through week by week. Because we’re still working through the Westminster as a family, I wound up using this on my own, but I could see handing it off to an older kid for their devotional reading. I especially appreciated the sections on communion.

Worship by the Book – Our church is looking for a new director of worship, so Josh and I have been talking more about it than usual (since he’s very involved in that ministry, we tend to talk about it a lot anyway) and it was interesting timing to read this book on worship. Presenting different viewpoints–Anglican, Free Church, and Presbyterian–the book highlights different ways that people approach biblical worship. Tim Keller’s section was remarkable, as was editor D. A. Carson’s opening essay. This book offers lots to think about and discuss.

Matthew for Everyone (Part 1 and Part 2), Mark for Everyone – I’ve enjoyed reading through N.T. Wright’s commentaries on the Gospels. He has a way of making the books come alive in a fresh way while sticking close to the text that I really appreciate. The books are written in an accessible voice (hence the “for everyone” moniker) but are a great way to facilitate slow, careful reading of familiar passages.

Gospel Identity – Our small group did this study over the last semester and it was fine. I wanted to love the book, but honestly, it wasn’t my favorite. Fortunately, we like our group and we’ll start something new this fall!

Have you read any good books of theology or Biblestudy lately?

readmore

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The Middle Ages Meet Sci-Fi–a series for kids that adults will love, too

tripods booksI pre-read John Christopher’s excellent Tripod Series for Hannah (it’s a free read for Ambleside Online Year 7) and loved it. The premise is right up my alley: a dystopian future in which modern life reverts back to a medieval-like era after people fail to fight for their freedom. A small pocket of hold-outs struggle to regain freedom and restore what was lost. The narrative is compelling and prescient, and maintains a feeling of high adventure and great pacing while also reveling in details of medieval life and customs.

I can’t believe I missed this series as a kid, but as with most great children’s literature, it still works for adults.

Hannah tore through these books in a matter of hours, and highly recommends them. I’m trying to hold Jack and Sarah off until they get to AO7, but we’ll see.

This series would be great as a gift for a middle grade/middle school reader, but I could also see it being terrific as a family read-aloud or an audio book choice for long car trips. While you can get a boxed set, the individual books are actually cheaper on Amazon:

The White Mountains

The City of Gold and Lead

The Pool of Fire

When the Tripods Came (Note: this is a prequel. I accidentally read it first, but would recommend reading it last)

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Swim Team Fiction

I find myself ambivalent both about summer swim team and the hodge podge of novels I read poolside as I waited for my big kids to hurl themselves headlong into a the chlorinated fields of glory.

Once I figured out that a babysitter was non-negotiable for the epic, seven-hour-long meets, I had leisure to read here and there between events. I usually only had one book along, so wound up finishing a few books I would otherwise have jettisoned, but also finished several I enjoyed. And then, hodge-podgily,  I threw in a couple of other fiction books I’ve been meaning to review.

The Shadow Land – I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Kostova’s writing. Her style is lovely without being obtrusive, and she always makes me desperate to travel to Eastern Europe. This novel is no exception, and now I want to go to Bulgaria. Aside from her noteworthy grasp of culture and ability to weave historical context into a story without sacrificing pacing, Kostova always structures her stories along the lines of a folk tale from the region she’s chosen for the setting. It’s not heavy-handed or YA-ish at all, just a faint but fascinating echo, as when you’re reading something written by someone who is very well-read. I love it.

Dark Matter – The published descriptions of this book make it sound fantastic, but, in reality, I found it only so-so. The writing was a little off, the pacing and plotting struggled, and the ending was only OK. Because I was so distracted by the writing problems, I didn’t enjoy the premise as much as I expected to. At times like these, I wish another writer could take over a premise and do right by it.

Uprooted – Uprooted won a lot of awards, so it surprised me that it was written in such a no-man’s land of genre and audience. That is to say, I found it too adult to be YA, yet too Princess Academy-ish to be an adult book, and not very satisfying overall. I had thought to pre-read this for Hannah, who likes fairy tale retellings, but there were too many adult themes. Oh well. It passed the time between relays.

A Wild Sheep Chase – Having loved Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I tried one of his novels. To sum it up, it’s super, super weird. I can’t even really add to that, because of the weirdness. I did keep reading in hopes that it would have a breakthrough moment, but, no, just weird. If not for swimming, I’d have bailed.

***Midnight Riot – Starred for excellence and high recommendation! Midnight Riot is like a combination of Harry Potter grown up plus a Connie Willis novel plus a detective story plus scifi plus set in London. So many wins in one tidy package. It was immensely entertaining, funny, and happily turns out to be part of a series, which I plan to continue. Thank you, Sheila, for your recommendation!

Where the Light Falls – I got a review copy for this book, thinking I would love it because it’s historical fiction set in the time of the French Revolution. Sadly, the writing was poor, the plot was derivative, and it suffered mightily in comparison to basically everything else I have read about that time period, both fiction and non-fiction. It was a struggle to continue past the first few pages, and it never got better. If you have not read ANYTHING else about the time period, and if you aren’t picky about anachronism and writing style, this book might be ok, but even so I think you could do better.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – Friends raved about this book, and I think I might have liked it more had I read it all in one sitting. However, unlike many other novels this summer, I had this one by the rocking chair so only read it in snips and snaps while feeding Margaret. Perhaps because of that, I found it a bit tiresome. There was a gigantic cast of characters, most of whom flitted in for a chapter and then were cursorily drawn back into the pat ending. Without much chance to grow to like them or care, I was left thinking, “blah blah blah foodies, blah blah blah artisanal this and that, blah blah blah hipsters…” etc. I like foodies, artisanal people, and hipsters (ok, sometimes I make fun of the hipsters, especially if they have man-buns or if I catch them stomp dancing, but I still like them as people), but I didn’t wind up liking them much in this book. It was ok. Just not my thing.

The Mothers – I’m sorry that I missed the book club discussion of this book, because it was full of things to talk about. While the writing was excellent and the author was, for the most part, highly respectful of her characters, I didn’t wind up buying the way the novel ended.

First, though, the strengths. The book provides an exceptionally nuanced view of an African-American church community dealing with crises with, through, and in spite of each other. I think maybe troubled communities can deal with issues differently than congregations that are able to hide behind privilege, and so the choice of the church was a good window into the author’s main ideas. The theme of motherhood–how characters related to their mothers, were mothers or mother-like figures themselves, and how communities are shaped generationally through those relationships–was handled with depth and care, especially considering the fact that in America, black communities have to grapple with so many cultural and generational issues.

Depicting this through the lens of a faith community was an interesting choice and probably the best frame for the story, but ultimately the church was where the book broke down for me. I felt like the members of the congregation lacked authenticity. I thought about this a lot–because people of faith can and do commit terrible sins, make dreadful choices, and turn on each other, but I think the way they do that is a little bit different than how the author wrote it. I thought about whether that was because I’m from a different background, but concluded that what was missing was not some way of thinking particular to my race or class, but rather something characteristic of Christians I have known from all sorts of backgrounds all over the world. Ultimately, I think what was missing was a sense of hope and redemption even amidst horrible mistakes and terrible circumstances. It’s not that Christians do life neat and easy and wrapped up with a bow, but I think hope and redemption are the things that keep even troubled communities afloat–and perhaps are even more in evidence in those churches. That’s what I expected to see emerging at the end of the book, but instead there was only coldness, hypocrisy, hate, and viciousness. It was more like a caricature of what an unbeliever says about Christians than representative of actual people. It took otherwise well drawn characters and smashed them flat into two-dimensions. I was sorry the book ended that way, since as I mentioned the writing is otherwise so great. I will certainly look for other books by this author and will be interested to see how her style develops.

I would have loved to get book club feedback on my take. If you’ve read the book, let me know your thoughts. (And to caveat, please be aware that The Mothers deals with many difficult issues. Although they are written tastefully, if you’re coming from a background that makes you sensitive to violence and abuse, this may not be the book for you.)

What have been your favorite fiction reads of the summer so far?

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Hodge Podge: Eating (Or Not)

I promised I wasn’t going to read more books about health and fitness. So I only read five more. In last weekend’s newsletter, I wrote about needing to give up some genres for a while so that I can focus my reading more productively. This is another genre that is going to the back of the line for the time being. For real, this time. So, if you’re in need of some diet/nutrition reading, consider this 2017’s last gasp on that topic!

Bright Line Eating – I had heard Susan Peirce Thompson’s video series and was familiar with her premise: as a scientist, she is interested in how people’s brains respond to food. Her hypothesis is that many people are susceptible to food addition and most of us are negatively impacted by the addictive nature of sugar and flour whether we tend towards extremes or not. Her plan draws on the legal concept of bright lines—hard and fast rules you must not cross under any circumstances—and will resonate particularly well with abstainers.

I have some disagreements with SPT on nutritional grounds. She’s about breaking the addiction and her research is not primarily concerned with trendy food topics like low-carb/paleo/keto/whatever. This means that her diet is strictly no sugar, no flour, but otherwise low-fat and low-calorie—but she does allow for differences in opinion or preference as long as you define your rules up front. I do like the idea of bright lines because I’m the sort of person who needs things like that, and yet I find adhering to SPT’s plan as written leaves me hangry (hungry + angry). A nursing mama of five who is working and homeschooling does not have time for that. So I’m experimenting with an amended version of the diet that allows more vegetables (the diet already calls for about two pounds of produce a day), cuts the grain and fruit, and adds a little more fat. I do value what I learned from the book, and have put several of the suggestions in place in my life, apart from the diet.

Perfect Health Diet – While this book had some good information about circadian rhythms and how to get your minerals and whatnot into balance, I have to admit it sort of threw me that the authors allow starch when eating high fat. Pretty much, for me anyway, when I’m eating high fat I can’t eat starch without dire consequences. But I really like sweet potatoes… And I love rice. Love, love, love it. So I took their advice and added rice back into my diet and promptly regained the 10 pounds I had lost this year plus five extra. Egads. As with most nutrition information, you sort of have to take what works for you and be prepared to personalize if it doesn’t. Read at your own risk.

Bulletproof Diet – This book is by the guy who invented Bulletproof Coffee. And he is selling something. Always. I do think the intermittent fasting idea is interesting, so I tried Bulletproof coffee for a couple of months and used the ideas in the book to skew my diet more ketogenic. After the first week, when I spent a lot of time having blood sugar crashes and nearly passing out (not kidding), I managed to get through the morning with only the coffee. Except I was always starving. The entire time. Even while eating lots of fat. I did not ever get past it. Then I read that sometimes women can’t hack intermittent fasting. At that point, the whole thing was overwhelming me and the intense salesiness of the Bulletproof Media Machine also got to me, so I stopped. But I do like the switch to only grass-fed Kerrygold butter, so we stuck with that.

Head Strong – I read Head Strong because if you pre-ordered it on Kindle you got $25 in free Bulletproof credit, which I used to buy the MCT oil they sell, and that wound up being a good deal. Plus their customer service department was OUTSTANDING when I had an ordering issue. So I don’t regret the purchase, although the book has a major bro science feel. I decided that I really can’t stand Asprey’s writing style, plus I was reading the book on my phone. So…maybe it was me. Anyway, the book is all about mitochondria. Lots of people are into mitochondria these days, and it’s all been said on many podcasts and in lots of blog posts. If you follow many health and fitness people, you probably already know this stuff. Or could get it from other sources.

Fat For Fuel – Not one to be left out of the party, Dr. Mercola wrote a book on the whole ketogenic thing, too. And he also included everything there is to know about…wait for it…MITOCHONDRIA. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I skimmed the first part of the book. However, the second part would be helpful if you want to go all-in with the ketogenic diet. Mercola recommends WICKED low carbs and also low protein. Like, as low as five grams per day, but possibly up to 45 grams of protein IF you are breast-feeding. Honestly, after 12 years of being pregnant and/or nursing, I am not used to eating that little protein. It’s actually really hard to keep protein that low if you’re eating a whole food diet and don’t eat legumes. But it was interesting to consider.

After all this, I really keep coming back to Jonathan Baylor’s simplicity about eating lots of vegetables, moderate protein, and whole food fats. And I think the key for me might be bright lines (although a lower-carb, slightly higher fat version). Because, as Susan points out, when I spend my life thinking about food and diet and when/if I’m going to taste/eat/try/read about some food/diet/hack or not, I’m living enslaved to food. And it’s better to be free.

 

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