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?

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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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Hodge Podge: Parenting

This week’s literary trail mix features books on parenting:

Our Mothers, Ourselves – Although ostensibly more about being a daughter than being a mother, I couldn’t help reading it with an eye toward what kind of mother I am to my girls. The book has helpful insight for both relationships. I appreciated the author’s balance between honestly addressing how dysfunction in relationships can impact us and our families, while presenting a hopeful perspective that it is possible and healthy to identify generational patterns and work through them to benefit yourself and future generations. This book was different, and thought-provoking.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings – “Peaceful” is not a word often applied to my family. We just tend to run toward intensity. But I do aspire to peace and calm, and thus I appreciated the tips in this book toward that end. Most of the advice is actually directed toward the parent—and I was challenged to think about ways that I might be communicating a sense of emergency or hurry to my kids, and how to combat that. As I am reviewed my notes to write this, I was reminded how much work I still need to do in this regard. So I printed the notes and added them to my Think File. Which is now really overflowing the banks!

The Danish Way of Parenting – Or, how to hygge for family unity. Riding the whole Danish fad, this book was fine, but not ground-breaking. I appreciated the reminders to reframe situations rather than feeling bowled over by them, and we can all use more cosying around, right?

Body-confident Daughters – I like the premise of this book—having deliberate conversations with your tween daughters about life changes and how to navigate growing up in a godly way. The delivery, though, left something to be desired. It could just be me, but the whole set-up of “dates” felt forced and fake, I bristled at the implication in one section that godly girls don’t wear makeup, and the already short book felt padded by unnecessary fluff (Like a smoothie recipe—really? Who doesn’t know how to make a smoothie and/or have access to the internet?). I think the whole thing would have been stronger as a series of five blog posts. Again, good ideas, but problematic presentation. I did make some notes but will be talking to my girls in my own way and without woo-woo smoothies.

Have you read any good books on parenting lately?

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Starting “in media res”

Start in media res – in the middle of things.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of in media res lately. Specifically, about the way being in the middle of things raises the temptation to plow through rather than savor life. So often, I find myself realizing after many weeks that I have a problem. The problem was there all along, but I was so busy dealing with it in the moment that I never stepped back to call it out as an issue.

I always think I need a fresh beginning to make a change. You know, I’ll start the diet on Monday, I’ll make the resolution on January 1, I’ll really get my habits in line on the first day of school…but I like the idea of starting in media res.

When I turned 32, someone told me (only half-joking) that hopefully I had already accomplished everything I hoped to do in my life, because no one ever does anything big after the age of 32. Aside from the fact that the idea is patently false, it’s also a pretty sad conviction, don’t you think? Why not see any day or any year or any life stage as a place to start?

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach talks about how to get past the surface with your life stories, to “look for where you can crack things open” and expand and dig deeper. Apart from the obvious application to writing memoir Roorbach intended, I like the picture of cracking things open, of starting in media res. It’s not about blowing up your life, but about seeing brittle places as opportunities for growth.

What do you think?

 

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On Music

The object therefore of the instruction…should be to foster the natural good taste of the subject, and gradually to build up a fund of experience, which may serve as a standard of right and wrong, incidentally bringing him into contact with some of the great creative geniuses of the world and providing him with a treasure house of beautiful things, which will be a joy to him all his life.

infiniteA Touch of the Infinite is an excellent resource for adding music to education–in a homeschool, after kids get back from school, or for yourself. Megan Elizabeth Hoyt struck a wonderful balance between casting a vision for musical education and practical suggestions. I am so glad to own a copy of this book for frequent reference.

Hoyt includes invaluable insight into helping us understand composers and complicated music, while also explaining how simpler forms also serve a purpose. From musical instruments to singing to being an educated audience member at symphonies and other concerts, Hoyt covers so much ground in the book that there probably isn’t any way you could complete it all in a lifetime.

In that sense, I see this book as a great inspiration, a practical guide, and a lifelong handbook for growing in understanding, making, and appreciating music in many genres and forms.

Students need to know why it is important that they learn about music—what purpose it will serve for their lives. What do we expect to accomplish in providing them with a cultured existence full of art, music, architecture, and sculpture?…The benefit of learning about all aspects of the arts and sciences, mathematics and history, is that it encourages us to form relationships with people, things, and events of the past, present, and future—to understand our universe and to fully grasp our place within the broader scheme.

In compiling this resource, Hoyt drew on her own extensive background in music, as well as her review of British educator Charlotte Mason’s methods for music instruction. Even if you’re not a Charlotte Mason fan, you might be surprised to see how widely applicable the principles are in music, and Hoyt did a masterful job of discussing how CM schools handled music while also pulling in her own outside knowledge and experience.

We study a composer every school term, and often have music playing at home (classical, yes, but other genres, too). But until I read A Touch of the Infinite, I never realized how many opportunities there are for training our ears, increasing our understanding, and building our enjoyment of the music we surround ourselves with. I’m excited to put many of these tactics and suggestions into place for the new school year, and highly recommend this book.

 

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