The Bone Clocks

bone-clocks1An exceptional literary novel that combines nuanced characterization and exploration of deep themes with gripping pacing and well-crafted diction, The Bone Clocks deserved its place on the Booker Prize long list and I’m surprised it didn’t make the short list.

My attempts to summarize the story either veered too long or sounded bizarre (mostly because the story is, in fact, rather bizarre), and it was well nigh impossible to make sense without giving spoilers.  So instead I will begin with the overall themes.  The book examines the conflict between good–represented as making sacrifices to help others–and evil–represented as getting ahead or living comfortably at the expense of others.  The nuanced characters often veer between these two poles, changing over time, leaving open possibilities for change, and many making redemptive choices in the end.  In the book, the conflict plays out between characters, but is also illustrated by changing physical/environmental settings, questions of how people interact with science and technology, and different geopolitical situations in the Middle East, South America, and Great Britain.

Mitchell handled his multi-layered narrative and wide cast of characters skillfully–if you like to study writing craft, you could read this book slowly and take notes.  But if you don’t really care to know about the man behind the curtain, rest assured that his talent will not keep you from an engrossing story.

This book would make an exceptional choice for a book club discussion, if you have the sort of group that is willing to go deep on issues and structure, and if you’re willing to read books with which you may disagree.  I say that because, in my experience, some groups are more willing than others to take on complex and contested selections.  That’s fine, but you’d be missing out if you kept a conversation on the surface level for this one.

Although I did find I disagreed with the author on many points, I’m so impressed with the book overall that I am adding The Bone Clocks to my list of best books for this year.

If you like literary fiction and deep themes mixed with multiple levels of reality and a dash of dystopian future at the end, you will enjoy The Bone Clocks.  And if you read it, or have read it, let me know because I’m dying to discuss it!


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Do Your Thing.

do your thingSometimes you read something at precisely the right time–isn’t it amazing and wonderful when that happens? I realize now that it’s at least partially a personality trait for me, but periodically I grapple with questions of purpose and priorities. Am I doing the right things? Am I on track? On the heels of winding up a big work project and heading into a term break week for school, I have time and mental space to think and evaluate. And then I heard about Melissa Camara Wilkins’ book Do Your Thing (currently FREE in e-book form). I can hear my friend Ainsley saying, “Coincidence? I think not!”

Not only did I read the book (It’s 179 pages, although some of those are graphics), I took the time to do the exercises, and I think that made the book more valuable for me.  The information you’ll find is similar to what you’ve probably read elsewhere about taking control of your activities, living on purpose, and basically taking a life inventory.  But Wilkins writes about those topics with a fresh voice that is at once encouraging, realistic, and challenging.

I found the author’s realism refreshing.  Often I read books like this and the suggestions or perspectives are so pie-in-the-sky compared to the reality of my situation that it’s hard to find traction.  Wilkins, on the other hand, navigates the space between duty and possibility with aplomb.  I thought she did a wonderful job of suggesting ways to make incremental changes when you only have space on the margins of life, while also offering encouragement to really evaluate how every choice can be a choice toward your calling and purpose, rather than a step away, and how those can add up to big changes and a more grounded life.

I find this sort of life inventory helpful.  Too much can become morbid introspection, but every now and then it brings clarity and enhances my perspective.  It helps me to see how many areas are actually going right.  The squeaky wheels always get the grease, so if you never take time to notice how many things are squared away, it can skew your frame of mind.  As I took the time to answer the questions Wilkins poses throughout the book, I was pleased to see how many areas are working, and where solutions have taken hold.  I also benefitted from writing down some problem areas.  Seeing a problem summarized on one line helps me to begin thinking of solutions, or to identify root issues of which the problem is only a symptom.  You know, sometimes it’s just a messy laundry room and sometimes it’s actually an attitude or process failure.

Along the way, Wilkins challenges readers to think through their mindsets, and to explore options rather than accepting blanket prescriptions.  For example, she advises examining an activity that drains or exhausts you and considering whether the problem is your attitude–in which case reframing it will help–or if you’re trying to live up to someone else’s expectation–in which case you ask if you could do it less often, get help with it, outsource it, etc.

If you’re the sort of person who has always firmly understood your purpose and always has all of your ducks in a row and priorities set in stone, Do Your Thing is not the book for you. But if you find that your purpose and callings have changed over time, or if you’ve unwittingly allowed other people or our broader culture to dictate how you spend your time and energy, or if you are in a season of feeling distracted, overwhelmed, or pulled in too many directions, I think this book would be well worth your time.

Do you ever take a step back and take stock of your life, activities, and purpose?  

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Getting Ready for Advent

joyWe’re about a week out from Advent, so I’ve been making a list of things to do and ways to celebrate this year. I borrowed Joy to the World: Advent Activities for Your Family from a friend and it got me started thinking about activities so I could plan ahead.

The book is written from a Catholic perspective, but even if you are not Catholic (we are not) there are lots of generally applicable ideas for Advent included.  It’s a very short volume at 80 small pages, and honestly I’m not sure the $6.98 Amazon price tag is justified (the Kindle version is more affordable), but if you’re just getting started in how to celebrate Advent with your family it might be a good resource.

The second half of the book is about the Jesse Tree, which we already do in our own way (read more about our Jesse Tree tradition here, with the caveat that my Jesse Tree blog was written SEVEN years ago so our kids are older and we read the scripture passages not so much the children’s Bible storybook versions now!).  If you haven’t tried the Jesse Tree idea, I highly recommend it.  You can make ornaments out of all sorts of found items–this would be a good week to get started collecting things if you haven’t already!

What I primarily gathered from Joy to the World was the impetus to be intentional and write down what I’d like to do with the kids during Advent.  We’re wrapping up a school term this week so Thanksgiving week is a break week for us, and we’ll have a short Holiday Term of three weeks after that.  I’m going to incorporate more fun projects and crafts, while also keeping up with academics.

And of course we will be reading our favorite Christmas picture books!  I clicked on the list to put some of them on hold at the library, and am now awash in a puddle of nostalgia as I realize that when I wrote that list Hannah was not even 3 and Sarah and Eliza were not even born!  Hannah is pushing 9 now, but I still find that our favorite holiday books are an essential tradition.  We’ve had so much fun with our usual Thanksgiving books this month, and I’m looking forward to our Christmas traditions too.

What does your family do for Advent?  Are you adding or deleting anything from your list this year?


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Night Circus, Take Two

I listened to The Night Circus as an audiobook back in July (it’s an excellently done audiobook, by the way) and loved it. But with one of the book clubs I’m in discussing the book this month, I decided to read it in paper form, just for fun.

It’s not usual for me to re-read fiction, particularly in the same year, but I am glad I re-read The Night Circus. If anything, I enjoyed it more the second time around.  It’s a fantastic story with incredible descriptions.  At the book club meeting we had a book-themed spread and a good discussion.

I’m not sure if the book counts as enduring literature–hard to peg those things in advance–but it is certainly a memorable and enjoyable book, and I highly recommend it!


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To Be a Runner

runnerIn To Be a Runner: How Racing Up Mountains, Running with the Bulls, or Just Taking On a 5-K Makes You a Better Person (and the World a Better Place), author Michael Dugard develops running as a metaphor for the impetus to be your best in life.  The book really is about running–I made notes about how to train and what to look for in a running shoe–but at a deeper level it’s about finding that sweet spot of pushing yourself to be your best without crashing and burning out.

I enjoyed the book on both levels.  As I’ve recently returned to running after a 15 year hiatus, I appreciated the practical insights and examples.  Dugard is a life-long competitive runner and also a cross-country coach, so his thoughts on running are well-formed and tested.

His applications are also personal.  In describing various extreme races and running feats, Dugard is thoughtful and funny about what it means to be driven, how he’s grappled with balance, and how goals change in adulthood.

With good humor and tight writing, To Be a Runner is an engaging and interesting read, with wide applications.  It will appeal most to people who run, obviously, but if you’re the sort of person who likes to push your limits in other ways you’d probably also enjoy it.


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The Bookmarked Life, #7

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

Right now I’m:


No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.–Edmund Burke

…Furnishing my mind

photo (1)Eliza turned 18 months old and is an endless source of entertainment for us all.  She dearly loves reading books (that’s how you can tell she’s one of us!), latching and unlatching things, putting on and taking off her shoes, and dancing.

Recently, she began saying “Yam” for yes ma’am, and when asked to say “I love you” she solemnly blows a kiss and says, “It is.”

…Learning about

After readingThe Locust Effect, I was bothered by the fact that I wasn’t doing anything to help the problems of human trafficking and violence against those in poverty.  Then, just a couple of days after I finished the book, a friend invited me to hear a presentation by a lady who, finding herself an empty nester and very convicted about the problem of human trafficking, decided to start a company that partners with organizations who rescue people from human trafficking and give them meaningful work at a fair wage.  She imports the things they make and sells them here in the US, giving all of her profits back to the organizations she partners with.  I learned a lot from her talk–like the fact that chocolate and coffee are two products that are often implicated in human trafficking, and how by simply spending a dollar more at Costco and buying the fair trade chocolate chips instead of Nestle, I can do something.  It’s tempting to say “well, what difference does it make if I buy fair trade coffee or Folgers?” but even little things do make a difference (see Edmund Burke quote from earlier in the post!).  At any rate, you can learn more about the company–Accessories for Hope–online, and Sherry does travel to speak at churches and community groups if you’re interested.

…Living the Good Life

photoWe took the children to LegoFest over the weekend, and although I don’t think any of us felt it was worth the price we paid for the tickets, once viewed as a sunk cost it was a fairly fun afternoon.  We were expecting more tips and instruction on how to build better, but instead it was more of an exposition of different types of Legos, plus lots of piles of Legos for building random things.  The session we went to was sold out and very crowded, so the kids didn’t get to play any of the games and relays.  Still, it was fun to get downtown and do something random and unusual with our Saturday!


Even as I was reading about modern slavery in The Locust Effect and modern prejudice and genocide in The Sunflower, the kids have been learning about slavery in history.  They were very taken with William Wilberforce, as they all are quite sensitive to injustice.  Then we turned to the topic of slavery in America and have been having deep discussions about the Missouri Compromise, the nature of prejudice and injustice, the ways that black people were mistreated in both the North and the South, the way the Irish were mistreated in the North…the kids are drawing connections I would not have expected from their ages and our discussions have been very rewarding.


So, I’m running over 3 miles most mornings now…in the basement.  I think I need to move this party outside, but now the 5am temperatures are well below freezing and I still often have kids waking up early while I’m exercising.  I did buy a pair of running pants though (on wild clearance, but still) so I feel quite official.  I need to find a way to get my strength training back in, and have considered alternating running with a Jillian workout, but at oh-dark-thirty in the morning I’m much more motivated to run than to have Jillian admonish me to “push the up button!!!!”

…Seeking balance

By Thanksgiving I will have wrapped up the extra work project that has been taking up a lot of my time since August.  I am simultaneously looking forward to more breathing room in the schedule while also hoping that not too much time goes by before the next big project appears.

…Building the habit

The last of my fall habits (order, focus, grace, duty) is also a habit that one of the kids is struggling with right now.  That has been helpful in reminding me to give grace to this particular kid, since I have a hard time doing things I have to do as well.  Duty implies things we ought to do–that is, we have to do them, but we don’t necessarily want to.  Lots of life is this way, and it’s worth it to cultivate a habit of duty.  This is not to say that you should blindly accept everyone else’s ideas of what you should do, but in the things you know you must do, duty means cutting the whining and getting it done.  As an adult, I tend to whine internally and make excuses to avoid things I don’t want to do.  I’m tired, I’m stretched too thin, I don’t feel like it…you know.  I’m working on catching myself in those thoughts and taking time to think them through–is this a case of needing to give myself grace because I really did only get three hours of sleep, or is this a case of needing to be kind and patient even when I’m on my last nerve?  I suppose if there were easy answers I wouldn’t have to work on this habit!

…Listening to

The kids have been listening to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie on audio during quiet times lately.  There are a couple of words I wish had been omitted (the hazards of audio books!) but I think due to the narrator’s spectacular accent they haven’t noticed.  I need more good audio book recommendations!  Send suggestions!

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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The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

the-sunflowerHave you ever wanted to put a note into a library book and ask the next reader to contact you because you’re so desperate to discuss the topic?  I found myself in this situation after reading Simon Wiesenthal’s intriguing thought experiment about forgiveness, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

The premise is this: Wiesenthal was a Jew who spent World War II in concentration camps.  Once, when sent on a work detail to a hospital, he was pulled aside by a dying SS man who asked Wiesenthal to forgive him for a particular crime against some other Jews who Wiesenthal didn’t know.  After listening to the SS man’s confession, Wiesenthal left in silence and did not forgive the man.

The book raises questions of culpability, how people are blind to their own prejudice and inhumanity, and how–or even if–forgiveness is possible.  Wiesnethal ends with the question, what would you have done?

In the version I read, a variety of philosophers, theologians, and survivors of different genocides weighed in with short essays on what they would have done if they were in Wiesenthal’s position.  It was truly fascinating to read how other people approached the question.  As I read their reactions, I was surprised to find that I did not personally subscribe to the apparently widespread Christian reaction to the story which is to say Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man.

I don’t think he should have–or could have–forgiven him.

First of all, the crime was not committed against Wiesenthal directly or even indirectly against his family or friends.  And the things that the SS man was culpable for against Wiesenthal–his role in concentration camps, his helping keep Nazis in power, his bringing terrible risk on Wiesenthal by pulling him off his work detail with no explanation to the guards, and even his continued prejudice of treating Wiesethal as a random representative of some amorphous and not-quite-human group rather than an individual–the SS man didn’t ask for forgiveness for.  So I don’t think Wiesenthal could have forgiven him.  How can you say “Sure, I forgive you for shooting a family in cold blood as they tried to escape a burning building that you had crammed them into and then brutally set on fire.  Die in peace, my friend!”  That’s ridiculous.

Second, and most importantly, I don’t think Wiesenthal’s forgiveness would have done anything for the SS man other than give him false hope.  What that man needed was God’s forgiveness and Jesus’s substitutionary atonement.  This case is actually a pretty sound example of the need for perfect atonement–there is no way the SS man can atone for his sins himself.  Any attempt he made–and he’d have to give a whole lot more effort than finding a random person to confess to–would fall short.  Really, this is all of our position relative to God’s holiness, isn’t it?  Who of us could be the propitiation (complete, perfect atonement) for our own sins?  The SS man needed a savior, not false hope.

I was so interested to read the other takes on the question, though, particularly the differences between the Jewish and Christian ideas of atonement.  Apparently Jewish belief is that God will not forgive someone who has sinned against another human being, unless the person sinned against has forgiven the sinner. That seems to put murder in the ultimate sin category (which is counter to the Old Testament law, right?), and gives the person issuing forgiveness more power than God.  There are probably nuances to that interpretation that were missing from the short essays.  On the other hand, many of the essayists seemed to think that if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS man, the SS man would have gone to heaven, which would have put Wiesenthal in the role of God.

I could go on at some length about The Sunflower, but suffice it to say, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and would make an excellent book for discussion, especially in a mixed-faith group if you have one.

If you’ve read the book, what did you think of it?


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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A-Tree-Grows-In-BrooklynI finally got around to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  and am so glad I pulled it off the To Be Read shelf at long last.  The book is a very satisfying narrative of a little girl in late 1800s/early 1900s New York, and how she and her family overcome obstacles to build a better life.

As I read, I thought about the differences between the narrative in this book and more modern books I’ve read lately.  I’ve been disappointed several times recently with fiction that just seems unremittingly and unredeemedly bleak.  The modern formula seems to be: terrible things go wrong, more terrible things go wrong, and people respond by sinking deeper and deeper into depravity or lassitude about it.  In contrast, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also contains terrible happenings and obstacle after obstacle–prejudice and class restrictions and unfair suffering caused by other people’s choices–but every time the main character overcomes the obstacle in some way.  There is always hope, always perseverance, always determination to fight for survival.

I wonder if the difference actually speaks to something in our culture?  In older books you do see characters who give up, sink down, and accept decline (for example, the main character’s father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but these characters are by and large portrayed as sad and either pitied or denounced.  Whereas in some of the modern fiction I’ve read, that reaction is portrayed as the only realistic one, as though no one has anything more to hope for, and no one can be expected to rise above his or her circumstances.  What does it say about our culture that these books are best sellers?

What a sad perspective!  Personally, I’ll stick with main characters who have fortitude and pluck and books that treat realism with hope and redemption.  This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them.  They went out and happened to things.

What do you think?


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Comedy in book form?

dad-is-fatJosh and I are big fans of Jim Gaffigan’s comedy. We’ve watched a lot of his stuff (we were fans in the hot pocket days, even before he had five kids in a two bedroom New York apartment and started being hilarious about parenting) and so I was interested to see what his book would be like.  I haven’t actually read any other books by comedians that I can remember, so I don’t know how I feel about the genre in general.  A friend recommended the audio version of Gaffigan’s book Dad Is Fat, so I checked it out from our library.

As an aside, you should check to see if your local public library has an app for listening to audio books.  It’s so convenient to be able to listen from your phone!

Anyway, Gaffigan himself reads the audio book, but weirdly I found it was much, much less funny than his comedy routines are.  I guess that makes sense–comedians probably take a lot of energy and timing from their audience, and if your’e sitting in a studio reading something it would be hard to be just as funny.  A lot of the material was similar to stuff we’ve seen in his performances, so I was also comparing the written (read) material to live comedy.  If you haven’t seen Gaffigan’s shows, the jokes might be funnier in the book since you wouldn’t have that comparison.

The book was still funny–I texted a lot of quotes to Josh as I listened–but overall I prefer the shows.  Still, Gaffigan is a very funny person, and his family humor is spot on and awesome.  I like the way he can be funny about having a big family and honest about parenting while also clearly loving his kids and adoring his wife.

If you’re looking for a book that is light and funny and don’t mind that it’s not AS funny as live performances, Dad Is Fat might be a good bet.


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Guide to Savoring Slow

SavoringSlowCover-187x300The Abundant Mama’s Guide to Savoring Slow is an encouraging book about being intentional, slowing down, and making time for the things that are most important to you and to your family.  If you’re feeling harried, overwhelmed, or like you want to cut things back but don’t know how, this book would probably be helpful for you.

The theme is increasingly common–our world is fast-paced, our lives are busy, we are inundated with information all the time, and it’s easy to lose your focus and direction.  In this book, Shawn Fink describes some tactics for getting back on track.  The information is not all that different from things I’ve read in other books, but I appreciated the reminders to take control of worries, keep track of whether we really need or want to do everything we feel obligated to do, and do the important things first.

Fink gets the descriptions of overwhelm and stress right, and while some of her prescriptions were not really my speed, sometimes I find that reading an apt description of a problem reminds me that it is indeed a problem, and I can apply solutions that work for me instead of things that don’t (I’m not much for the whole empty-your-mind-lie-in-the-grass thing).

I made two notes for my work space (I keep a rotating set of little notes of things to think about around my desk) from this book: “Busy is not the story I want to tell people.” and “There is no rush.”  I made a lot of other notes as I read, but those two quotes are the ones I decided I needed to see more often.

I got The Abundant Mama’s Guide to Savoring Slow when it was free for Kindle.  The price today is listed at $9.99.  I’m not sure I’d recommend it at that price–there are so many books out there on how to slow down, savor life, make time for first things first, and so on.  But if you have Kindle Unlimited, find another sale, or grabbed this one while it was free, I’d say it’s worth your time.

When people ask me “How’s life?” my first impulse is to say “Busy!” because it is.  But I’m trying to be better about telling a different story.  What do you say instead of “busy?”


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