Mere Motherhood

“[Parenting] is a walk of joy that often includes the tearing off of the old dragon skin one painful layer at a time, made all the worse because you didn’t even know you were wearing dragon skin. No one ever does.”

How I loved this book! It’s an odd little book–sort of a memoir and sort of a parenting book and sort of a manifesto. It’s short, and yet jam-packed with striking observations and insights. It rambles, but in the best possible way. As I read, I really felt like I was having a conversation with the author. You know those wonderful talks where no one is being superficial and you move effortlessly from topic to topic soaking up ideas and connection? This book is like that. Cindy is a reader and a thinker and a mom of lots of boys (and one girl), who are now mostly grown up. I don’t know about you, but I need that perspective right about now. Cindy has such an arresting way of putting things, and a much-needed style that both embraces the depths of motherhood and pushes back on the idea that it’s the be-all-end-all.

Mere Motherhood inspired and perplexed me, and made me cry. Twice. Highly recommended.

 

Note: Mere Motherhood is not available on Amazon, although the Circe website notes that it’s coming soon to Kindle. For now, you can get it from Circe (not an affiliate link), but shipping is high and makes the book really pricey. I happily found it at my library, and would love to own it, should it ever be offered for a lower shipping cost. 

Hodge Podge: Memoirs, middle age, and making the most of it

It’s a smallish snack this week, with only two selections. However, they go together in several ways that got me thinking.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – If you haven’t read 84, Charing Cross Road yet, you absolutely should, and then circle back to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. In the forward, the book is described as “a charming story of a midlife dream realized.” I loved the tone and writing, and the fantastic (and not generally written about) living the dream in middle age angle. In fact, I got so caught up in the book that I began to forget it was a memoir. Thus, when the ending crashed in and was emphatically NOT what you’d do in a novel, I felt bereft. I still kind of can’t stand that it ended the way it did, although I know it’s a memoir and had to end as the facts dictated. However, I think if I had been writing this memoir having lived it, I would not have been able to handle finishing the manuscript. I would have had to go rectify the situation at once. Then I have to wonder how much agency we really have in changing our stories, and if I only think about things like shifting narratives because I read and write?

If you read this one, please come back and let me know–I’m interested to hear other takes.

Also, if I’m ever planning a trip to London (and I am always planning a trip to London), I will consult this book. I found the author’s itinerary matched many of the things I would want to do.

The Guynd – Thank you, Heather, for the recommendation! I was utterly captivated and fascinated by this account of an American woman who married a down-at-the-heels Scottish laird and how they managed Scottish country house life. Hint: it was not much like Downton Abbey, and rather more like things falling down ’round their ears. The outsider-married-to-an-insider perspective was exceptionally well-suited to the book, and I found I learned a lot, although it was another melancholy ending. As with Hanff’s book above, this whole edifice (or edifices, since the theme is both the marriage and the house restoration) is attempted when the wife and husband are in mid-life, and I do think the middle age perspective is kind of interesting. It’s a whole different thing than the usual 20/30-something-trying-something-for-a-year genre. The late 40s to early 60s viewpoint lends a different flavor and I’m kind of interested in that.

Although I still think that middle age doesn’t begin until 50, which gives me a good 12 years before I hit it (my decision to scrap Proust notwithstanding), I can see that a different era is up ahead, so I’m kind of skirting around poking at it to see what it’s like. Maybe that’s just me.

What are you reading this week?

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Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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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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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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How Dante Can Save Your Life

danteWhat a title, right? I love the premise of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life–it’s a personal memoir structured around a book (well, three books actually, but part of a set) that deeply changed the way the author sees the world.

Although Dante’s Divine Comedy (note: I have the Mandelbaum translation–there are many) may not strike you as hard as it did Dreher, most readers will identify with the transforming power of literature. My aunt who recommended the book to me was also taking a class on Dante at the time, so she enjoyed the memoir alongside a deep dive into the source material. I read Dante in college and didn’t really feel the need to re-read it, so you can certainly read the memoir as a stand-alone.

On the other hand, I might suggest that you not read Dreher’s book and assume that you now know about Dante. Although the book does contain information about Dante and clips from the Divine Comedy, it’s really a book about Dreher. And whether or not you like the book may come down to whether or not you wind up liking Dreher.

I didn’t, much.

I’m not sure what threw me off, but I wound up rooting for the antagonists in Dreher’s narrative. I wanted to like him–he’s a writer and a deep reader and a homeschool dad and his story is actually pretty interesting–but the tone of the book kept veering toward whining and the histrionic. I’m not sure if that’s just my reading of it or if the structure rubbed me the wrong way. Dreher opens each section with a segment from Dante that applies to the next step in his own narrative, and ends each section with an abrupt text box of vague application, here’s-how-YOU-can-change-YOUR-life type of prompts. That was an odd choice, and I think it asked too much of the book–like Dreher (or his editor, maybe–they felt tacked on) was making the book do too much at once and the structure couldn’t handle it.

I don’t want to pan How Dante Can Change Your Life, because the premise is great and the story is interesting. If you’re familiar with Dante and can get past the structural hiccups you might enjoy the book. My aunt, who is a great judge of books, really liked it. Even though I had issues with the book, I might still recommend it, especially to anyone considering writing memoir–different structures are always interesting to consider. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know your thoughts!

 
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Two odes to food: a novel and a cookbook/memoir

Ruth-Reichl-My-Kitchen-YearThere is something so wonderful about reading a book written by an author who is deeply passionate about her subject. And when the author is Ruth Reichl and she’s writing a cookbook/memoir like My Kitchen Year? It’s perfect.

Reichl is my favorite foodie memoirist (Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples) because of her grace and humor, as well as her strong voice and keen sense of structure. In My Kitchen Year, Reichl covers the year following the unexpected closing of Gourmet, the iconic food magazine of which she was the editor. From shock to depression to re-evaluating her life, Reichl works through her emotions and problems in the kitchen. Drawing on her background and the freshest local ingredients, she weaves in personal memoir with excellent recipes that are unique and intriguing without being overly precious or fussy.

What I love about Reichl’s recipes is her unusual ability to drop a note where someone (ahem) might be tempted to cut a corner. Instead of just throwing out ingredients and instructions, Reichl explains why not to make a substitution if you really shouldn’t. Having been at this whole cooking-three-meals-a-day-for-a-large-family gig for years now, I have learned a lot about what can and can’t be done, but I appreciate not having to guess and check. This is how we learn and improve as cooks!

Unlike her other memoirs, My Kitchen Year is more of a cookbook. I marked so many recipes to try, and have set myself a goal to try one of them per week as seasonal ingredients allow. The few I’ve tried so far have been excellent.

REICHL_DeliciousHaving read My Kitchen Year, I was interested to see the Reichl also wrote a novel based on her experience. While there were some parts that could have been edited better, for a first novel I thought Delicious was pretty fun.

What made the book so enjoyable for me was again the clear sense of how much Reichl enjoys food! You can’t help but want to taste everything she describes. The book also conveys Reichl’s love for New York, especially NYC food culture. I considered making a list of things to search out when next I visit (I say that like I go to New York frequently, but in fact I have not been since 2001, sadly).

Delicious is a mystery of sorts, and has an interesting epistolary component, but really it’s an ode to food culture, and worth reading for that reason!

I enjoyed both books so well that I have already gifted them once! So if you have any foodies on your list, I think My Kitchen Year or Delicious (or both as a set!) would be a great choice.

 
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Mother Tongue

mother tongueIn Mother Tongue, Christine Gilbert recounts her family’s adventures while immersing themselves in three very different cultures. At first this may sound like one of those myriad “I spent a year doing thus-and-such and lo, I am changed” books, but in fact Gilbert’s memoir is thoughtful, interesting, and inspiring.

While her idea was kicked off with some research indicating being bilingual staves off dementia for an additional five years–her grandfather, who spoke Finnish and English, had recently died of Alzheimer’s and Gilbert was grateful for the last years of his life–over the course of the book you see how Gilbert and her husband are not just approaching their lives as maximizing brains-on-a-stick. Rather, they are carving out a global culture for their family.

Gilbert is not uniformly successful in her attempt to learn two level 5 languages plus Spanish and some Thai in a couple of years. Her son learns some of the languages and then seems to drop them. Geopolitical events and a new baby necessitate changes to plans. But along the way, she and her husband really lean into the family they are becoming. I was touched by how sacrificially her husband loves and cares for Gilbert, how well they work together, and how fiercely Gilbert loves her children. More than the gift of multiple mother tongues, Gilbert winds up giving her children a family culture that is admirable and inspiring.

Along the way, I learned quite a few interesting things about learning languages that will be helpful to me as I dabble and as I consider languages for my children. Reading the book really made me wish I could pick everyone up and move abroad for a while!  Having lived all over the US and in Asia and Europe growing up, it bothers me that my kids are parked in one location. But reading Mother Tongue reminded me that even though our jobs are not as mobile as the author’s and her husband’s, we can still work towards building a family culture that is more global and adventurous.

I enjoyed Mother Tongue and would recommend it to anyone interested in languages, family travel, or memoirs in general.

Have you learned a language while living abroad? Do you think it was easier or stuck better than learning it at home?

 

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May Hodge-Podge

the-best-yes-bookIn The Best Yes, Lysa Terkeurst writes about how we can be better decision makers. Breaking past the usual “don’t let the good be the enemy of the best” one-liners, Terkeurst explores the relationships between wisdom, discernment, and prudence and how we can apply them in our own modern lives.

While I wouldn’t say that there was a lot of brand new information in the book, it was certainly a refreshingly different way of framing the topics of time management, prioritization, and purpose. I’d recommend it as food for thought.

a walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods made me want to go hiking. At least during the day.  Bryson’s descriptions of all day hikes sounded wonderful, but sleeping in freezing, wet, rodent-infested lean-tos…not my cup of tea.

In any case, the book is Bryson’s memoir of sort-of-kind-of-not-really hiking the Appalachian Trail. He and his friend put in a lot of time, then gave up, did some random stabs at day hikes, and another semi-serious hike at the end, during which they also gave up.  This being Bill Bryson there were some funny parts, some super interesting parts, and some annoyingly whingey parts. Overall I don’t regret reading it, but might not recommend it unless you just love hiking memoirs.

edge of lostThe Edge of Lost was fine, as predictable novels go. You have an Irish kid (with a…wait for it…alcoholic uncle!), an Italian family (with a son who…wait for it…gets tangled up with the Mafia!), and it all wraps up seamlessly at the end.  The author all but skated past the really interesting facet of her premise–the civilian families who lived on Alcatraz–which was too bad.  If you don’t mind plot points you can see a mile away and too-easy solutions, you might enjoy this novel.  Otherwise, you could really skip it.

 

Have you read any great books lately? Or any we should skip? 

 

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Read-alouds for China, Afghanistan, and Grammar

red scarf girlRed Scarf Girl is a memoir of a young girl growing up under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. There are some difficult parts and some profanity, so I’d recommend reading it aloud so you can skip over what you need to, or stop to discuss it with your kids. We had good discussions on how you can know if your government is just or tyrannical, when and why it might be advisable to resist tyranny, and why people don’t speak out or flee when they are persecuted or see others persecuted. Because we study history chronologically, we could also contrast the book with other similar cultural moments. If you’re studying this time period, I think Red Scarf Girl is a good choice, but it might not be one I’d pick up just for fun bedtime reading. If you do pick it up, be aware that you’ll probably want to talk over the themes and issues with your kids–that can be really fruitful, even with younger elementary kids!

breadwinnerSet in Afghanistan just as the Taliban took over, The Breadwinner follows an eleven-year-old girl who must resort to a disguise when her family is devastated by loss. While the subject matter is difficult–Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, her mother struggles with debilitating depression, the family is in constant danger of starvation or worse–the tone stays hopeful and the setting emphasizes the resilience and humanity of the Afghan people.

The Breadwinner is the first book in a series, but Hannah read the second one and from talking to her I think it might be thematically too much for a ten-year-old, so we skipped the other books.  Again, if you use this as a read-aloud you’ll have more insight into whether your kids are ready for it or if it might be too much.

Book-Cover-the-phantom-tollbooth-1342828-311-475And now for some lighter fare! The Phantom Tollbooth is a funny story built around the humor of language. If your kids are familiar with homophones and can appreciate the hilarity of misused turns of phrase, this book will be a hit.  We used it as a read-aloud, but at times I thought it might have been better as a read-alone, because I had to stop and make a note of it when the jokes were based on spelling. Then again, I also reformatted some words as I read (no real reason to interchange the terms “demon” and “monster” in my mind, so we went with monster, etc).

Still, The Phantom Tollbooth was a fun and silly book that we all liked very much. It would be a good one to put on your summer reading list if you haven’t read it already!

Are you starting your summer reading lists yet? If so, what are you planning to read with or to your kids this summer?

 

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