Must Read Masterpieces

Yesterday we had lunch at a place where you can purchase amateur oil paintings of local scenery. Anyone can run in to a craft store and pick up a canvas and some art supplies for a reasonable sum. At our zoo, you can purchase modern-esque works of art made by the zebras and giraffes.

When I go to museums, I love to examine art more closely. If anyone (including elephants) can make art, what sets a masterpiece apart? Usually the technical aspects of detail, color, structure, and concept come together as a masterpiece because of the way the artist combines them into a striking way of viewing the world.

Similar distinctions apply to literature. Books are everywhere, but sometimes you find one that truly belongs in the literary museum. Thanks to a book club, I recently stumbled upon two such novels.

life-after-lifeThe group had a great conversation about Life After Life–it’s nuanced descriptions of World War II and its aftermath as experienced by Britons at home, it’s memorable characters, it’s compelling narratives, it’s unique structure that we couldn’t quite figure out–and one attendee mentioned that she had read the author’s next book which, while not a sequel, seemed to finish out the author’s thought.

So I picked up A God in Ruins and was amazed. Life After Life is excellent, but A God in Ruins is a masterpiece. Unlike some literary fiction, the story and pacing are riveting. Unlike most standard fiction, the characters are arresting and deeply developed. And unlike almost every other novel available, the structure of these books, which you can only appreciate fully as you end the second one, is intricate and astounding. The structure of the books is not a stunt or some annoying attempt at highbrow slight of hand. Rather it’s an entire narrative structure driven by an idea that really does only become clear at the end of the second book.

a-god-in-ruinsAs I finished A God in Ruins, I actually burst into tears–an action to which I am not prone. I was that wrapped up in the main character, but somehow also, by extension, had been wound into the lives and legacies of everyone impacted by World War II, and was simultaneously staggered by the complexity and richness of what the author had achieved. I wanted to go back and reread the novels immediately with the understanding of the full scope of the stories, and then wanted to read them a third time to examine how on earth the author had pulled it off–the way that you stand back from a painting in a museum to get the full scope, then come closer to examine how the artist accomplished it.

If you have any interest in World War II at all, any affinity for great stories and characters, or any interest whatsoever in how stories are told, you should read Life After Life and A God in Ruins immediately. Put them on your Christmas list. Get them from the library. Borrow them from a friend. But do read them both–while either book would stand alone, together they are a truly excellent and thought-provoking masterpiece.

 

Side note: Life After Life has a section that I found difficult to read, and many readers might be tempted to close the book at that point. Just know that you don’t need the section to understand the story. I wish I had noted the page numbers, but do skip over it and pick back up with the next section so you don’t miss out on the rest of the book.

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To challenge your views on high school and college…

This week we transitioned Margaret to the crib in her own room. No more sleeping in the closet! I felt it would be too soon. “She’s almost a year old,” my husband gently reminded me. She still wears size 3-6 month pajamas! She’s too tiny to sleep alone! And yet, she took to the crib like it was no big thing.

Here’s what I know the fifth time around that I didn’t when my older kids were babies: this window is very, very short. As my oldest is in 5th grade and we’re starting to think through high school options, I’m negotiating the gulf between wanting to hold on to baby days and knowing that the days of their independence are fast approaching.

the-new-global-studentIn some ways, our culture encourages children to grow up too fast. “Sure, you can have your own smartphone!” “Why not dress like an adult going clubbing even though you’re only nine!” “Aren’t you too old to be playing with dolls?” And yet, in other ways, the culture infantalizes kids. Helicoptering while kids play, parents complaining on Facebook about doing their kid’s school projects for them, covering for kids’ mistakes.

Maya Frost calls foul on this tendency, and presents a counter-cultural view on high school and college-aged kids in her intriguing book The New Global Student.

Frost challenges myths about what teenagers are capable of, what really gets kids into college, and what the point of education is anyway. I found myself simultaneously saying, “Preach it, sister!” and “Whoa, I never thought of that.” In other words, it’s the best sort of book–thoughtful, insightful, and convicting.

While I don’t think that all of Frost’s ideas are applicable to our family, many of them bear serious consideration and I find myself thinking through options in a different light thanks to reading The New Global Student. Whether you homeschool or send your kids to public or private school, this book will give you a lot to think about as you head into teenage years and I highly recommend it for all parents.

Even though we’re several years away from high school, reading The New Global Student gave me new tools to lean in to childhood days while also preparing for what lies ahead. From crib to college is simultaneously a long time and a short time–what a privilege to do life in interesting ways!

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Margaret in her 3-6 month pajamas, pensively considering her collegiate options (no doubt)

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Burial Rites: a historical novel to challenge your views on justice

burial-rites-hannah-kentWhat does justice look like in a stratified society? Are we really as just as we think?

Can a novel in Iceland in 1829 illuminate our biases and challenge us to apply justice better in your own time and place. I think so.

In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent writes beautifully about the stark beauty and harsh way of life people of all social classes endured in 1800s Iceland. At the time, Iceland was a colony, with even the highest social levels subservient to Denmark. Perhaps because of that structure, class lines were very clearly marked–who was superior to who, who was allowed to marry and when, what sort of life you were allowed to lead–even though the top strata didn’t live so far above the lower classes.

The book’s main character, Agnes, is based on a real woman who was executed for murder. Throughout the story, the reader learns more details about who Agnes was, how her life developed, and who was involved in the crime even though only Agnes paid the price. I think the author did a great job of raising questions about justice that could easily be applied to any culture and time:

  • Does everyone receive equal justice? Or do some circumstances and traits change the verdict?
  • What role does truth play in the justice system? And who are we willing to hear from in the process?
  • How is mercy applied? Who deserves it?
  • If we aren’t part of the justice system directly, how do our responses to sensational stories and reactions to class and personal details reveal us to be just or unjust?

In our time and place, the questionable qualities might not be illegitimacy or being a servant. But there are points of prejudice in any society, and you probably know what they are for your area. Here are a few things I found to think about as I read:

  • In Burial Rites, the “good” family who initially judges Agnes lives in a tumble-down sod shanty. They are not so many rungs up the ladder themselves. We are sometimes quick to judge others when we aren’t so much on the high ground ourselves.
  • The story traces the interplay of the Icelandic sagas (old hero tales) with more recently acquired Christian beliefs. The question of how faith integrates (or fights with) national identity is a deep and fascinating one.
  • The broader community is complicit both in Agnes’ crime and her execution. As a society, our role in pursuing justice is bigger than serving on a jury every now and then. I don’t have conclusions about this, but I’m still thinking about it long after finishing the book.

Aside from adding Iceland to my travel bucket list, reading Burial Rites taught me a lot about a time and place I didn’t know much about previously, and also gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own biases and how I can better pursue justice. Although parts of the story are difficult to handle, overall I think the writing was strong, the story was compelling, and the narrative was worthwhile. I’d recommend Burial Rites for people interested in the area, the time period, historical mysteries, cultural and sociological issues, and historical fiction. It would also make an excellent book club selection due to the volume of issues ripe for discussion. Many thanks to Sheila for the recommendation–I’ve linked this post to hers.

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Bowling, bouillon, and bold living

julia-child-memoir-life-in-franceWe recently attended my husband’s 20th high school reunion. Since I didn’t know these people in the ’90s, the biggest surprise for me was the fact that the reunion was held in a bowling alley. The second biggest surprise? How few of my husband’s former classmates were fired up about their jobs.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“Oh, well, you know, I just, kind of…” A brief phrase of description, a shrug.

Maybe everyone was trying to be humble, but I guess I expected more enthusiasm. I wished more people would really let fly with what they were excited about–a job, a hobby, their monogrammed bowling ball… There is something so compelling about people who love what they do.

That’s why I loved reading My Life in France. Of course I’m familiar with Julia Child–albeit primarily through my dad’s hilarious comedy bit about her nipping at the cooking sherry–but reading My Life in France gave me wonderful insight into how Child found her life’s passion in her late 30s and lived from there on out with great gusto.

Even the most devoted foodies probably don’t spend days devoted to the nuances of scrambled eggs or pinpointing a precise flavor in a sauce, but Child’s enthusiasm for cooking is contagious. She managed to make descriptions of ingredients and endless rounds of testing recipes fascinating, funny, and compelling. I couldn’t help but feel happy each time I picked the book up to read a little bit, whether because of the clear love and respect Child and her husband had for each other, the tales of kitchen mishaps, or the sheer joy Child took in her life.

After reading My Life in France I did not attempt a single new recipe–my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking sits forlorn on my pantry shelf to this day)–but I did feel inspired to live life with more gusto, and boldly go after the work I love even if (and perhaps especially if) it seems ridiculous to everyone else.

After all, it’s not every day that you stand around at a bowling alley having to explain your life thus far. But every day you get to write that story, so you might as well live it for all it’s worth.

 

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Stuck: thoughts on risk and faithfulness

Stuck: How to Balance Risk & ResponsibilityIn The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau advises those who are not chasing their dreams to ask themselves “what’s the worst thing that could happen if something goes wrong.” The tacit implication is that you should not be afraid to chuck your comfortable life to do something risky/different/awesome.

And depending on your stage of life, it could be terrible advice.

Sure, in some situations, the risk is not great. If you’re 24 and single and your business idea fails, you sell your car and go live with your parents for a few months and there you are–ready to start another venture having learned a lot, but having lost very little.

But if you’re 34 with three kids and a mortgage and your business idea fails, you’ll run through your savings pretty fast. If your idea fails, “the worst thing that could happen” is going to involve homelessness, being unable to feed your children and pay their medical bills, crippling debt that will follow you for years, and debilitating stress.

Worth it? Maybe not.

So, if you have dependents and responsibilities, are you stuck? Do you have to give up all of your dreams and plod wearily along for the duration? Should you give up on the follow-your-dream genre entirely?

Not necessarily. I think the key is to balance risk and faithfulness and keep a positive mindset. The Art of Non-Conformity also says to “Begin with a clear understanding of what you want to get out of life.” When you have a family, what you want to get out of life begins with them. Sure, you may hanker for adventure, but ultimately you’re choosing to prioritize your family’s flourishing. In some seasons, your family may flourish as you pursue your dreams. Sometimes, the bold choice is to do the faithful thing. To take the boring job that puts food on the table. To put others’ needs before your own desires.

But remember, this is something you are actively choosing, not something that is just happening to you. The circumstances may look the same, but the radically different attitudes make the difference.

The stuck attitude starts out feeling resigned, then spirals into negativity and winds up in bitterness. The attitude of personal agency is positive, able to see chances for small changes, and leaves room for joy.

Maybe you can’t chuck it all and move to Thailand to start a record label right now. But The Art of Non-Conformity and Guillebeau’s more recent Born For This could still help you:

  • Test out big steps with small experiments. If you don’t have capital to try your business idea, maybe you could do it as a hobby, with the option to scale up later.
  • Start living a fuller life. Begin by saying no to one thing you only do out of obligation and saying yes to one thing that feeds your soul. Just one thing could make a big difference, or start a snowball effect.
  • Avoid the glory days trap. Look for ways that your current situation can be formative and learning intensive. Can’t swing grad school right now? Make your own syllabus and read on your own time.
  • Lose the all-or-nothing approach. Think about what you love to do and what you’re really good at, and move toward those things in small increments. Your joy, money, and flow don’t all have to come from the same source.
  • Beware of false choices. You don’t have to choose between being responsible and being fulfilled. Or between exercising or playing with your kids. Or whatever. Test your assumptions. Many either/or problems can be reframed to both/and lifestyles.

Maybe you’re in a position where the awesome travel hacks and inspiration for big leaps in Guillebeau’s books are doable for you. If so, I’d definitely recommend The Art of Non-Conformity and Born For This. But if you are feeling tied down and stuck and foiled at every turn, I might recommend them even more. Rather than seeing books like this as not practical for my stage of life, I think of them as sources of ideas I can customize to my situation. It all depends on your mindset.

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If you only have time for one book this fall…

present-over-perfect-book-niequist

Several years ago, when I was in a newer social circle and lonely, a friend said I should wear fewer cardigans because people thought I was too put together to be approachable. I checked this with a college chum. “Yeah,” she agreed, “People are intimidated by cardigans.”

 

My early 30s self worried over that a great deal. But now, at 37, I’m ready to say “to heck with what other people think. I’m going to wear what I like.” I’ve heard that this is what happens when you come up on 40, and although I have a ways to go on this journey, I was interested to find Shauna Niequist’s new bookPresent Over Perfect, in which she chronicles her own reassessment of life at the crossroads of midlife.

As an aside: why do so many people insist that 40 is middle aged? I feel like 50 is the gateway. But no matter what your stage of life,  I think Shauna’s broader theme of evaluation and recentering are widely applicable and valuable for consideration.

At first, I wondered if the book was for me. The inciting incidents that got Shauna started thinking about these things were mostly about being too busy and being hyper-successful. I’ve made a lot of conscious decisions to avoid busy-ness and no one could accuse me of being overly successful! But the more I thought about it, I realized that even in my less busy life, I have a tendency to become overwhelmed by various things, to give in to stress, to push and push and push through exhaustion because it’s expected…and the results are not that far off from what Shauna experienced.

“There we were, women in our thirties. Educated, married, mothers, women who have careers, who manage homes and oversee companies. And there we were, utterly resigned to lives that feel overly busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted.”

Reading this book made me more mindful of all the times that I power through. Only four hours of sleep? Oh well, power through! Fussy baby, toddler tantrum, angry siblings, work deadline and dinner isn’t made? Power through! It’s been a long week and I’m exhausted and just want to read a book? Someone has to buy the groceries, power through! Once I began evaluating whether or not I am “utterly resigned” to the “busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted” parts of life, I found plenty of examples.

“That’s part of the challenge of stewarding a calling, for all of us…we have more authority, and therefore, more responsibility than we think. We decide where the time goes. There’s so much freedom in that, and so much responsibility.”

Not only did I find plenty of examples of powering through, I also found plenty of space to back off of some things. A wise friend advised me to relax about some homeschooling issues. I decided that no one is going to mind if I sleep until 7 and start school late one morning. I’ve simplified some meals, owned up to the fact that I absolutely HATE Twitter (even if it’s supposedly critical for small business marketing) and started to just say no to some standards I’ve internalized that aren’t really true to who I am and what God has called me to do. It has been pretty freeing.

I appreciated the way that Shauna wrote candidly about her own life and struggles, and welcomed the invitation to think about my own life and choices, even if they differ from hers, so I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of Present Over Perfect come up on Amazon. Many of them were of the “this author is too privileged” variety, which is funny since one of Shauna’s essays talked about what to do to when you find yourself saying, “Must be nice…” about someone else’s life. Rather than a simple discourse on envy, Shauna wrote about how to turn away from it by owning your feeling, thinking about what you’re really saying, bearing other people’s burdens, and owning your own choices.

Present Over Perfect gave me a lot to think about. I read it slowly, then went back and did some deeper thinking and writing about my responses. I get the sense that Shauna is coming out of the season I’m just entering, and for that reason I found the book incredibly helpful and ultimately encouraging. 

I am often asked for a book recommendation by people who don’t have a lot of time to read. In my view, if you’re only going to read one book per season (or so), you should make it one that has the potential to change your thinking and perspective on life. Present Over Perfect is that sort of book. I highly recommend it.

 

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“Ride Icelandic ponies”

schulte-quote-ponies

I love this quote from Brigid Schulte’s great book Overwhelmed. I have it on my desk as a reminder to be present in the moment. Whatever I’m doing, I should really DO that thing. If I’m riding Icelandic ponies, I should RIDE ICELANDIC PONIES and let the rest go.

You can read more about Overwhelmed in my longer review from last summer.

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A solid historical fiction audio book

new-york-book-rutherfurdAfter finding his novel Sarum exceptionally overlong, I didn’t think I’d give Edward Rutherfurd another chance. However, I think I’ve found a better way to deal with the crushing length of his saga style–audio books.

The things that bothered me about reading Rutherfurd were his not giving me enough story where I wanted it but too much boggy detail where I didn’t want it, and also his penchant for tying multi-generational characters together by giving them shared characteristics (as in “oh yes, this is the family who is stingy”). These factors probably were present in his novel New York too, but since I listened to it instead of reading it, they didn’t bother me at all.

As is Rutherfurd’s way, New York traces the intertwining stories of several families from the earliest settlements in New York City through roughly the present day. I listened to the book while exercising or when I was in the car by myself, and although it was something like 37 hours of audio (less for me, since I listened at 1.75 speed), I managed to follow the story line pretty well and stayed interested.

Audio books are tricky to choose. For many non-fiction books I prefer a physical volume so that I can mark places and take notes. Most of the time I prefer fiction in hard copy so that I can savor the words and structure. But in the case of New York, I think the audio version worked well because it’s not a work of fantastic literature, and hearing it helped me to avoid being annoyed by the pacing so I could enjoy the story.

To find New York (or another audio book), check if your library has OverDrive–I love this app for free audio books I can play through my phone. Or, you can sign up for a free trial of Audible and get two free audio books. Just remember to cancel if you don’t want to keep adding to your audio book library!

What books have you listened to lately?

 

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Pros and cons of reading books about books

Pros & cons of reading books about books

Perhaps, like me, your childhood experience with books about books leaves you cold to the idea. In general, and even (perhaps especially) for children, I prefer to read the actual thing. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Truly great books are part of a conversation about ideas, so in order to be worthwhile, a book about a book can’t be didactic–it has to draw you into the conversation in a deeper or more accessible way.

And that can be a great experience. Here’s one example (followed by some tips):

This summer I purposed to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor presents important insights and cultural analysis, but this work of philosophy clocks in at 896 pages and if you aren’t used to reading the genre you might get bogged down. I love reading philosophy, and greatly enjoyed the book, but even so it’s length made it difficult for me to keep track of all of the threads of the argument.

And so I was delighted to find that James K. A. Smith wrote a book based on a class he teaches on A Secular Age. So it’s a book about a book, but in the best possible way. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular, engages with Taylor’s work in a succinct but comprehensive way. Smith brings his own (slightly different) perspective to the work and ties the arguments a little more closely to applications from our current cultural moment.

So, how do you know if it’s worth your time to read a book about a book? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Can you read the books together? I’d generally avoid a summary or a book that attempts to replace the original with a watered-down version. However, if you can read the two together (as I did with Taylor’s and Smith’s books) and it forms more of a conversation, that’s a great thing.
  • Does reading the second book enrich your experience or understanding? Well-done books about books help you read more deeply and interact with original ideas more completely.
  • Is the second book a must-read on its own merit? In my example above, Smith added enough of his own spin and insight to make his book able to stand on its own. So while I’d wholeheartedly recommend both of the books I mentioned if you are interested in philosophy, history, or culture, I also think that for those who don’t have time for Taylor’s monumental tomeSmith’s book would still be a worthwhile read that would expose you to Taylor’s ideas and pull you into the conversation.

What do you think about books about books? (And is there a better way of saying that phrase without resorting to so much repetition?!) I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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