I Capture the Castle

If you’re looking for a well written, well plotted, interesting but not tawdry love story, I recommend you pick up I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  Set in 1930s England, the book is narrated as though part of the journal of a teenage girl living with her father, stepmother, younger brother, and older sister in a castle that is sort of falling down around them.  When an American family moves into the neighborhood, the lives of the English family get upended, mostly in good ways, with various fallings in and out of love to varying degrees, figuring out what to do with possibilities, and carrying on of intrigues.

The narrator is endearing and likeable without being treacly or unbelievable (a rare feat with teenaged protagonists, in my opinion) and the action is well-paced and satisfying without being trite.  Naturally I could not fail to enjoy the descriptions of English country houses and castles.

I will say that I thought I Capture the Castle got off to a bit of a slow start–possibly because it took a bit for me to get used to the diary format and to see past it to the story–so if you decide to read it, push through for a bit because it does get to be a really excellent book.


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Two Short Reviews of Two Short Books

Do the Work is more useful than Steven Pressfield’s similar book The War of Art.  Both books are sort of motivational/kickstart collections designed to help you break out of your inertia and actually get your Big Tasks done.  Do the Work is geared towards writing, and would be more helpful if your Big Task is to write a book or something, but the ideas could be helpful for other sorts of work.  I found the book itself mildly helpful, but the discussion with my book club was, as always, extremely helpful.  I feel like sometimes even so-so books can be great if you discuss them with the right people.

If you have already read The Fred Factor, I can’t for the life of me think of a reason you’d need to read Fred 2.0: New Ideas on How to Keep Delivering Extraordinary Results.  Subtitle notwithstanding, I didn’t really glean any new ideas.  In fact, although I liked the first book, this one didn’t sit as well with me.  The tone seemed a little self-congratulatory and the points and ideas seemed stale–you’ve read this stuff before in other books.  If you haven’t read the first book, I’d still recommend skipping this one.


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In the Midst of Life

In her last book, In the Midst of Life, Jennifer Worth tackles the subject of palliative care.  After her work in the East End (remember her previous books Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End), Worth became a nurse on a cancer ward, so her thoughts on the end of life are full of her observations and experiences with changing perspectives on and standards of care for those who are dying.

As you’d expect, the stories in this book are not as lighthearted as some in her previous work, but Worth’s thoughtful and nuanced exploration of how we think about and prepare for death, and how we care for those who are dying are moving and insightful.  I have had several conversations with people about these issues since reading the book, and am still thinking on some of the topics.

Mostly the book helped me to understand realities of issues that before I had not considered or had only seen in movies.  What is it like when someone dies at home?  What does resuscitation actually do and how effective is it?  What does hospice care mean and what is the reasoning behind it?  What happens when people die of old age or of cancer or of a heart attack?  What are the philosophical and moral and spiritual ideas behind different methods of caring for people in the last stages of life?

What the author presented her experiences and opinions, I thought she did a good job of handling the issues with grace and balance.  Worth did not hide the fact that her faith influenced her thinking on death and palliative care, but her discussion of the issues highlighted the way faith and philosophy inform the decisions rather than seeming prescriptive (in fact, I did not agree with some of her conclusions, shared faith notwithstanding, but I didn’t feel bashed).  Many subjects surrounding death are taboo or just things healthy people never think about, and in some cases the public’s lack of understanding or forethought leads to bad policy or standards.  This is the sort of book that might be helpful if you’re navigating end of life issues for a family member, but really it would be much better to read it well before you have to grapple with these things, so that you can have had time to think about them.

In the Midst of Life was an excellent finale to Worth’s memoirs about nursing.  Well written, compassionate, and packed with food for thought, In the Midst of Life is a book I’d recommend to anyone.


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Slim for Life

In Slim for Life fitness personality Jillian Michaels compiles a lot of diet, exercise and lifestyle tips without bogging the reader down in all of the science or reasoning behind them.  That could be good or bad depending on your perspective.  If you have read much of anything on diet or exercise nothing in this book will come as a surprise, but if you’re new to the topics this is a good overview.

Michaels organized the book as a series of ranked tips, and advises the reader to select which ones to implement, then analyzes your potential for success based on how many high, medium, or low priority tips you selected.  Again, if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle, this could be very helpful.

If you already know a lot about fitness and health, I’d recommend reading Michaels’ book Making the Cut instead.

As a fitness aside, I’m struggling to fit exercise in to my life these days.  On paper it should work–somewhere between the working and homeschooling and everything there should be an hour for exercise–but in reality my extra time doesn’t seem to coincide with times of day when I feel any energy.  It’s a problem, and I keep tweaking to try to figure out the best time to fit in a workout.  When I do manage it, I’m using Kickbox FastFix(very short, but super-targeted, alternating an arms, legs, and abs focus in three workouts), Hard Body (longer workouts, crazy hard), and 6 Week Six-Pack (baby weight is off but my abs missed the memo).

What workouts or other health resources are you loving (or maybe not loving, but using) now?


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Bernard Cornwell’s Latest

Bernard Cornwell never disappoints, and his latest historical fiction, The Pagan Lord, is no exception.  Part of his excellent Saxon Tales series, the book covers the lead up and importance of the battle of Tettenhall in 910.  The Saxon Tales series is set during a very interesting time in British history when the Saxons and Danes were struggling to achieve dominance over the island and Christianity was making inroads against pagan beliefs on both sides.  I find it fascinating to read about how cultures clash and change, and how those changes are usually layered and iterative rather than something that happens all at once.

Because it’s part of an ongoing series, readers will be familiar with the main characters in the book, and setting those familiar faces in the context of an otherwise little remembered battle helps to give a sense of perspective and a flavor for how war and politics affected real people in those days.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction (especially if you like battle scenes, because Cornwell is a master of those) I’d highly recommend this book, but start at the beginning of the series if you haven’t read those first.


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I Thought It Was Just Me

In I Thought It Was Just Me, sociology researcher Brene Brown examines the concept of shame–both how it impacts us and how we can develop resilience to it.

Shame, as Brown defines it, is different from guilt or indignation.  When you hold up something you did against your values and you think, “that was wrong, I need to work on that or change that” you have guilt.  When someone else says, “you are wrong!” and you think, “that’s a false accusation, I didn’t do that” you have indignation.  But when you or someone else accuse you of being wrong and you think, “yes, I’m a bad person, I’m a person who always does ____” and it defines you, that’s shame.

Shame causes feelings of confusion, fear and disconnection, like you want to hide or escape.  Reactions to shame are lashing out in anger, being silent and hiding your real self, or seeking to appease and please the person who shamed you. Understanding how to recognize shame was helpful for me both personally and in thinking of how to relate to other people and to my children.

Most people have certain shame triggers, and it was interesting to me to read about the common reactions to shame so I could identify what some of those are for me.  I found it helpful to think of shame as the concept of someone (either someone else or me) giving me an unwanted identity.

For example, in reading this book I realized that the first time I can remember having this shame reaction was on my 4th birthday.  I had gotten a new outfit and told my preschool teacher, “This is my birthday suit!”  She laughed and explained what birthday suit meant.  I’m sure she wasn’t unkind, but what I heard was, “You think you’re smart but really you’re clueless and a fool.”  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  This is still a shame trigger for me three decades later.  It was really helpful to me to identify a few major triggers–things that cause me to lash out or have that feeling of wanting to hide–because once you identify the feeling you can start getting through it in a rational and healthy way.

Another helpful distinction Brown draws is between empathy and sympathy.  When someone is experiencing shame, it’s most helpful to offer empathy.  Shame is a shared experience, even if our triggers are different.  In contrast, sympathy makes the person feel even more isolated.  As Brown puts it, sympathy says, “I’m over here and you’re over there.  I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you, but let’s be clear: I’m over here.”  I definitely know people who give sympathy rather than empathy, and I avoid them when I’m having a problem.  It’s awful to go to someone with a problem and hear the equivalent of “wow, you really ARE a weird and bad person.  I’m nothing like that.”  Thinking through this distinction helped me to think about the ways that I respond to people who are hurting or dealing with problems, and also helped me to identify people in my life who offer more support and empathy.

In the course of her research, Brown noticed trends of how some people can successfully cope with shame and are resilient to it.  She compiled these strategies and writes about them in the book.  Some of these include having the belief that you can always change or improve, being grounded in who you are and what you believe, not pinning self-worth to things you can’t control, and building a support network of people who offer you empathy.

I thought the concepts in I Thought It Was Just Me  were interesting and offered excellent insight into relationships.  It was not only helpful to me in thinking through how I respond to certain triggers, but also influenced my perspective on how I relate and respond to other people.  If you’re interested in these sorts of issues, I’d recommend the book.


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Surprised by Oxford

I was deluged with recommendations for Surprised by Oxford, which is a memoir and conversion story written by a Canadian academic.  I loved the book’s descriptions of life at Oxford, and was again amazed at how God reaches people precisely in the mode and under the terms that they need.

The book was well-paced for a memoir, although there were a few points that dragged out a little or where I wondered if the novelistic tension was present in the real events or played up for the sake of the book.  That’s sort of always a thing with memoirs though–how to pace them and tell the story without getting bogged down.  Overall, I think Weber did a great job, and I found the memoir highly readable and compelling.

I enjoyed seeing how Weber wove in quotations and passages from literature that spurred her on in her thinking.  I remember once telling someone that I had been reading Marcus Aurelius and had found it a source of conviction on a couple of points.  The person was aghast at the idea that I could have found any conviction in a source other than the Bible.  That’s not to say that the Bible isn’t our foundational source, but there is truth in lots of places, and I think God can use what we’re studying to spur our thinking to spiritual things.  Anyway, it was interesting to see how God had used literature that way in Weber’s life as well.

Surprised by Oxford is a thought-provoking and highly interesting memoir, and I’d especially recommend it if you’re interested in different conversion stories.


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Notes From a Blue Bike

In Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World, author Tsh Oxenrider (who you might know from the blog Simple Mom, which is now The Art of Simple) writes about how to make the everyday liturgy of our lives line up with how we really want to live.  The book is primarily a memoir, but woven in to Tsh’s experiences are numerous invitations to think through the little ways that our decisions add up to a life–either one lived in contentment, knowing that you’re in line with your purpose, or one lived in vague malaise of missed moments and dreams deferred.

Tsh and her husband have worked for international non-profits and run their own business, so their commitment to lots of travel and living in other cultures works for them.  Perhaps because of living all over the US, Asia, and Europe as a child, travel and living in new places is my bent too, but my husband’s preference is for roots so I often struggle with how to balance my goals with his.  In Notes from a Blue Bike, Tsh addresses the problem of how to fit your dreams in when they seem to depend on other people or a different cultural setup.  I really appreciated her thoughts on how to identify your core values (it might not work for us to move to Turkey, but what is it about the thought of living in a different country that appeals to me, and how can I apply that to the life I have?) and how to, as she puts it, live life rather than life living you.

I also got a lot out of Tsh’s experiences balancing work with family, thinking through educational options (they have gone back and forth between homeschool and traditional school), and her honest descriptions of the struggle to live fully and deliberately without burning out.  The tension between living with intention and also holding plans loosely to allow for God’s leading is one that I share, and Tsh’s insights were helpful for me.

Notes from a Blue Bike resonated with me in part because of the great writing and inclusion of issues relevant to my own experience, but also because Tsh avoids canned prescriptions, instead taking a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to guiding the reader into considering ideas and possibilities in a personal way.  Because of this feature, I think this book would be a worthwhile read for anyone who desires to live a deliberate, well-considered life, no matter what that includes.


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In her helpful book Balanced: Finding Center as a Work-at-Home Mom, author and homeschool mom Tricia Goyer offers encouraging and practical tips for creating a life that leaves space for all of your callings.

Goyer is a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, a homeschooler, and mother to six children, so you can probably imagine that her insights carry weight!  While the book is practical, you won’t find a bunch of schedules and rules.  Rather, Goyer’s tips focus on how to figure out what God has for you to do, how to tie your life’s themes to goals for your family and work, and how to keep first things first and avoid busyness even while living a full and productive life.

I appreciated Goyer’s decision to keep this book open and applicable by focusing on principles rather than too many techniques.  Each family situation is different, and if you’re a working mom (or a working, homeschooling mom) your schedule and priorities are probably even more unique.  I loved how Goyer returned again and again to the need to offer our lives, our gifts, and our schedules to God.  The ideas of cutting out things we only do for other people’s approval, prioritizing gifts and opportunities, and relying on God’s strength rather than our own make this book applicable to all moms, no matter what your work looks like–whether you self-identify as working or WAHM or SAHM or PTHSJOATMON M(What?  You haven’t heard of Part-Time, Home Schooling, Jack Of All Trades Master Of None Mom? I’m pretty sure it’s a thing.).

As someone who also balances writing for a living with mothering and homeschooling, I found Balanced inspiring and encouraging.  However, even if you do something entirely different for your job, don’t homeschool, or consider yourself a full-time mom who pursues dreams on the side, I think this book would be helpful.  Surely all mothers can relate to feeling pulled in many directions, and surely we can all use help in prioritizing.  I’d recommend Goyer’s book to mothers in all sorts of different situations.

If you’re interested in these topics, you might want to check out Tricia Goyer’s Balance Challenge based on the book.  


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What’s Happening to Home?

Since I work mostly from home, the problem of establishing boundaries between work and life is one I frequently contemplate. I thought What’s Happening to Home?: Balancing Work, Life, and Refuge in the Information Age might have some helpful insights, however I found that the book was geared more to diagnosing and defining the problem than to improving it.

The book was published in 2002, which explains why some of the arrangements seemed so novel to the author (like everyone having cell phones and internet, using phones as alarm clocks, and the like).  Nowadays I feel like working from home and blurring lines between work and home are more ubiquitous and documented.

Perhaps because these ideas were new at the time of the book’s publication, the author avoids many conclusions.  The ideas she floats seem a little arbitrary (she’s ok with nannies and housecleaners, but outsourcing cooking makes her uncomfortable) and I didn’t think there was ever a very satisfactory explanation of why having a home matters.

The book raises lots of concepts and conflicts to think over, and contains interesting information about workplace evolution.  You won’t find many tips or suggestions to help you define your boundaries, but What’s Happening to Home could help spur your thinking as you navigate your own solutions.


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