Life is too short for Owen Meany

owenIf you’re looking for what would be a mediocre short story but which was inexplicably drawn out into a banal 600 page novel…

Or if you’re interested in a cast of flat characters joined by one bizarre and unbelievable cross between The Brain from the Animaniacs and Yoda and that little goblin in Zelinsky’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, and who is annoying in a mind numbingly boring way…

Or if you have always wanted to read a mediocre novel that purports to deal with the theme of belief but which was written by an author who admits not having had any personal religious experience, with a resulting two-dimensional, hollow presentation that winds up not being about faith or much of anything else really…

Or if you want to find out why so many Americans don’t read books after high school because they are forced to read painfully boring examples like this one…

Have I got a book for you!  

Otherwise, do yourself a favor and skip A Prayer for Owen Meany.

One critic said A Prayer for Owen Meany was the best American novel in years.  I presume that was meant as a thinly veiled insult to all American authors past and present.  Because if the critic was serious then by all means we should read foreign fiction exclusively.  Fortunately, mankind has not yet discovered the universe in which A Prayer for Owen Meany is the best of anything, so no need to flee for the hills just yet.

I fought through 300 pages of this lackluster book.  Normally I try to drop things like this by 50 pages in, because once I go beyond that point I have a hard time accepting the sunk time cost.  However, this one was a book club selection, and I desperately wanted to finish so that I could attend book club. Plus I wanted credit for the time I had already wasted!

But I resented it. Every single moment of it. Finally, I decided that life is too short and my time is too precious to keep going.  A Prayer for Owen Meany was not expanding my understanding, teaching me anything, giving me any insight, or feeding my soul with truth and beauty.  There are so many wonderful volumes much more worthy of my time.  Hopefully my book club won’t kick me out, but I can’t bring myself to finish the selection this month.

Have you ever tried to power through a book you didn’t like, only to give up after you spent a regrettably long time on it?  What strategies do you use to avoid this sort of thing?


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What IS a bookmarked life?

Bookmarked Life Sidebar ButtonIf you’ve seen the new site design (if you read in a reader or over email, click over to the full site to see what I mean), you may have wondered at the new subtitle, “Building a Bookmarked Life.”

Writing book reviews here is one way that I process the books I read, and really take the information I learn into my life–whether it’s a life tip from a non-fiction book or a better understanding of a culture or time period from a piece of fiction.  I don’t just want to read for diversion–although certainly reading is a worthy leisure activity purely on its own merits!–I want to be changed and challenged by the books I read.

As our culture becomes more and more geared toward quick hit information, I think it’s getting harder to really interact with ideas unless you’re careful to keep up your ability to interact with longer arguments and deeper stories.  I’m not satisfied with superficial “three ways to revolutionize your productivity by Tuesday” type articles or 30 second clips purporting to explain global issues.  I don’t think other people are ok with it either.  

But how can we fit in what Plato called “the examined life?”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of time to sit around contemplating my navel.  Life is full and moves at a fast pace.  I get that–I have four kids, I homeschool, I have a job, I keep this blog and a few other personal writing projects on the side…and I know some of you are way more busy–but I think that makes it even more important not to skate by on the surface of life.  I’d love to spend hours a day reading, but even though I don’t have that kind of time in this phase of my life, I pick up a book when I can and consider what I’ve learned as I go about my day.  What I make time to read has changed me and has had a profound impact on the way I do all of life.

The bookmarked life is about carving out time–whether long chunks or a few moments here and there–to read more deeply, to think about ideas more carefully, and to let what you read impact you and make your life richer.  It may seem like we can’t afford to make time for that, but I sort of think we can’t afford not to.

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Apparently Canada Doesn’t Suit Flavia

chimneyI can’t believe I’m saying this, but I didn’t love the latest Flavia de Luce novel, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust.

What happened?

This book finds Flavia sent off to boarding school in Canada and although she does solve the murder (of course), she just seems off her game throughout.  The story was less funny, Flavia was less feisty, and there was even less chemistry trivia.

Alan Bradley is such a gifted writer that I almost wonder if this off-kilter feel was on purpose.  Maybe Flavia just isn’t Flavia away from Buckshaw?

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but suffice it to say I still have hope for the next installment.

Reading this book did make me think about how much my enjoyment of the series is based on its setting (the other part is Flavia’s precocious personality–I love bright, quirky kids!).  Maybe the Canada aspect is why I didn’t love As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust like I have all of the other books in the series.

If you’re a Flavia fan, what did you think of the latest book?


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Steve Jobs


I am currently signed in to my husband’s Audible account so that I can listen to the books he has listened to and we can talk about them.  We don’t always have overlapping taste in books, but we both tend to like biographies.  Josh couldn’t stop talking about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, so I decided to listen to it too.

As biographies go, this one was a compelling one to listen to – versus some that are really better reading from a page.  Jobs was such a bizarre and fascinating person that the book can’t help but be interesting.  As I listened I often asked, “why didn’t someone smack him upside the head!?!?!?” because he was such a jerk, and yet he was also a really brilliant person and came up with ideas that changed entire industries.

I don’t think that Jobs should get a pass because he was a genius.  He was often mean just for the heck of it, had a megalomaniacal streak, and hurt other people inexcusably.  The author of the biography seems to struggle with that tension though–did Jobs’ character flaws contribute to his radical abilities?  If his parents had helped him to overcome his faults rather than enabling him, would he have grown up to be such a world-changer?  In the conclusion, the author admits that not all of Jobs’ quirks were tied to his abilities, but I found myself thinking about it throughout the book.

Obviously you want your children to be creative and to have impact in their world, but my conclusion is that the desire to foster big thinking and calculated risk taking should not–and doesn’t have to–supplant basic functioning in society.  Jobs was ethical (mostly) but he wasn’t kind.  He had a rigid internal code, but it was based on his own whims, and often completely counter to reality.  I think he could have still challenged the status quo and pushed the envelope with his business endeavors without being so arbitrary and solipsistic.

I also found Jobs’ spiritual grappling interesting.  He was a brilliant man who knew there was something like God, but he could never bring himself to give up control to the point of accepting a sovereign deity.  He dabbled in eastern religions, made up what was essentially his own self-religion, and yet was always questioning and feeling unsettled about ultimate questions.  Apparently he spent a lot of time talking to the biographer about religion and the question of belief, so it was on his mind a lot.  I wonder what his final thoughts were on his death bed.

Another subject that obviously got a lot of play was technological advancement.  I remember when I was little my dad explaining that we were not getting a Mac because you couldn’t use outside software on it or make any modifications to the hardware.  After reading the history behind the Mac, I understand what he was getting at, and also how the Apple concept evolved.  Nowadays I live in an Apple-loyal house, and I found the transformation of the brand really intriguing.

From a business perspective, I loved hearing about Apple’s internal culture, and found I agreed with most of Jobs’ convictions about breaking through corporate atrophy and actually fostering creativity.  Jobs thought an environment of beauty and simplicity would lead to better thinking, so he was fanatical about the design of facilities and workspaces.  I find that I do better work when I’m not distracted by visual clutter, and I put together my entire main living space around the theme of “calm.”  If you have a primary workspace–in your house or at an office–you’ll find a lot of things to consider in Jobs’ aesthetic philosophy.  Because I work in marketing, I also loved the insights into how Apple products were launched, how the brand was built and recast over time, and what sorts of advertising worked or backfired along the way.

I should note that if you’re on the fence about reading this versus listening on Audible, the narrator had some seriously annoying verbal tics?  Like ending non-question sentences with rising inflection?  And I had a hard time getting used to that?  Eventually I tuned it out.  Also the book is pretty full of profanity, primarily in direct quotes.  Consider yourself forewarned on both counts.

If you’re interested in biographies, technology, business, or creativity, the Steve Jobs biography would be well worth your time.

What do you think about balancing creativity with social restraint?


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January 2015 Read-Alouds

At the end of every month I do a round-up of longer books (100 pages or more, non-picture books) that I read out loud to the kids or read myself for purposes of discussing with them if they read the book independently.  The older two kids often bring me books they’ve read so we can have Mama-Kid book clubs, and I’m having trouble keeping up!

The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeSarah can’t remember the last time we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out loud so she requested it for our pre-bedtime read aloud this month.  I love the book and find it so easy to read out loud.  Hannah and Jack each got their own sets of the Narnia series for Christmas, so enthusiasm for the series runs high.

If you’re looking for a read-aloud that appeals to boys and girls of multiple ages, and that is not a slog for the parent to read night after night, this would be a great pick.

despereauxJack received The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread for Christmas and loved it.  He was wild for me to read it and discuss it with him, so I obliged.  What a fun book!  After assuring Jack of the proper pronunciation of the main mouse’s name (he was SURE it was “Des-pair-ee-ooks” – perhaps we’ll add French to the To Do list), we had a great discussion about it!

While much of the moral/lesson aspect was more overt than I usually like, the story’s funny style and narrator’s clever asides to the reader made these more palatable.

The Tale of Despereaux would be an excellent choice if you’re just moving into chapter book read-alouds.  The chapters are VERY short (good if you’re building up your read-aloud voice stamina and easier to keep kids listening), there are some illustrations, and the story is funny and fast-paced enough to bridge the gap from picture book to chapter book very well.

mocassin trailWe are moving West in our history studies, and are completely wrapped up in the pioneers and the Oregon Trail.  This era appeals to all of my kids and they are loving the adventure of it.  Because I am a sucker for educational experiences I even found myself agreeing to make pemmican (Easy recipe: mix equal parts buffalo grease and powdered buffalo jerky, allow to congeal into bars.  Yum!).  I draw the line at starting fires with buffalo chips though.  I have some standards.

In all of our reading on this fascinating topic, we have most enjoyed Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.  The story centers around a boy who was adopted into the Crow tribe after running away from his family’s farm back east.  Providentially reunited with his siblings who were orphaned on the Oregon Trail, Jim/Talks Alone makes a decision about his role in the booming West and in his family.

This book generated many interesting discussions about the Native American way of life versus the pioneers, because it came at the distinction from a very unusual perspective.  I did have a serious issue with the conclusion of the book though, in which [spoiler alert!] Jim chooses Christianity (of a sort) over his Crow “medicine.”  His brother says that Jim was “white all along” because of the parallels between Jim’s medicine dream and Psalm 23.  Many of the pioneer characters imply that to be a Christian Jim would need to cut off his Crow braids and act like the settlers rather than like an “injun.”  Super cringe.  It did lead to a very good talk with the kids about how that attitude was prevalent back then, but that the Bible says Christ is for all the nations, with no mention of having to dress, act, or look like a Western believer to be saved.  The kids got it, but I’m glad we talked about it.

In any case, Moccasin Trail was a rip-roaring adventure tale and we all enjoyed it.  Hannah and Jack are actively trading each other Lego sets for the privilege of reading it again right away.

boundfororegonBound for Oregon is another pioneer tale, this one about a girl on the trip with her father, stepmother, and siblings.  It’s based on a true story, and mentions many of the same locations and trials we read about in Mocassin Trail, but Hannah was not as into it as I expected.  I think if she had read it prior to starting Mocassin Trail she would have loved it, but as it stands she tells me that she didn’t think it was as exciting.  Plus it had very little information about Native American tribes and Hannah has decided that on the Oregon Trail she would prefer to be a tribal maiden rather than a girl forced to wear a sunbonnet.  (Her favorite Little House character is Laura–betcha didn’t see that coming.)

That said, if you have a girl who prefers tamer adventures, or a girl who still needs to understand the pioneer perspective of the Oregon Trail as Hannah did, I thought Bound for Oregon was pretty good and quite interesting.


What did your family read aloud this month?


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Gift From the Sea

gift2I was talking to a friend about some of the tensions of motherhood and the creative life and she quoted from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea.  I remembered having a copy on my shelf at home and resolved to re-read it (having also received a copy for high school graduation, but that was the wrong time of life to read the book so it didn’t make an impact then!)

Lindbergh was a mother of five in addition to being a writer, and Gift from the Sea is a collection of her thoughts from a time she got away to the beach alone for a few days.  Published in 1955, the book sounds remarkably like the work/life balance conversations women still have today.

Morrow struggled to balance her responsibilities as a wife and mother (which she doesn’t apologize for–that’s the 1950s voice!), with her desire to have focus and awareness in her creative and spiritual life.  She writes about finding space for “significance and beauty” without having to sacrifice the considerable time she wants to devote to building significant relationships with her family and friends.

I appreciated the book for its honesty and the way that Lindbergh gave voice to the idea that the same woman can desire to spend out fully on her family while also desiring to cultivate her own life of the mind and have her own creative outlets.  In Lindbergh’s day, perhaps the latter was harder to justify, while in our own maybe the former is what we have to explain.  Gift from the Sea doesn’t hold an abundance of practical advice–if it did it might seem dated or not widely applicable–but the author’s understanding and thoughtfulness, as well as her ability to articulate the importance of both living in relationship with others and finding space for nourishing your spiritual and intellectual life make the book an excellent resource.

I’d recommend this book highly to mothers, but also to any woman who struggles to carve out creative time from the busyness of modern life.


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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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