Nonfiction, Reviews

GraceLaced: A Review

I’ve never been more excited about anything bookish than I was when I got the email saying I had been chosen to review an advanced copy of Ruth Chou Simon‘s first book, GraceLaced. Her Instagram account alone gives me more sturdy truths than many a whole published book has, and I started admiring her philosophy as a mother when I heard her on The God Centered Mom podcast over two years ago. I knew her book was going to be chock full of goodness. I also knew it would be full of beautiful images, because Ruth Simons is an artist with an eye for the beauty of every day life.

The book came in the mail one hot July day, and I took in the whole title for the first time– GraceLaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart. “Hmm,” I remember thinking, “I’m not sure that this is what I was expecting from this wise and very relevant artist-turned-writer.” I guess I thought a seasononal type devotional was an echo from an earlier Christianese era. I opened it up to begin and saw that the first season of the heart was Winter. “Winter. Weird. Why is this book starting with winter and releasing in the heat of summer?”

As I sunk into the pages morning by morning, I began to understand. The book had to start with “Winter: Resting in God’s Character” because people of God aren’t going to get anywhere in any season if they’re not rooted in who God is. After pulling readers into a place of better understanding God’s unchanging character with words and with paintings and photographs, Simons moves onto “Spring: Rehearsing Truth.” These truths move from who God is to who we are in Him. This part of the book is about removing the lies and the idols in our lives and replacing them with the truth of the gospel in our day-to-day.

From there, we go to Summer: Responding in Faith. The ideas in these devotional entries have a more action involved. For example, one is titled “Above” and addresses how we think. Another is titled “Cast” and deals with anxiety. It’s here that a person who has been around church would find the words that are usually loudest in our talk – what to do and what not to do. Too often, we put these kinds of words first, so that they are burdens for which we don’t feel strong enough. In this order, though, Simons has already refreshed us by presenting first God’s heart for us and our heart for Him. As I moved into the Summer portion of the book, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or tired out by the “we shoulds” at all but ready to respond to what had come before.

Finally, the Fall portion of the book is all about what God has given us. Light for our journey. Peace in Jesus. And after a time to focus on God and what He has made us to be and then what He has given us to do, it’s just about perfect that now we can revel in the ways He has provided for us. I started out thinking the whole seasons of the heart set up would be a little off-putting, and I ended up thinking it could not have been more perfect. I was drawn into true fellowship with God despite that young-mom feeling of being too tired and too pressed for time to fully engage in anything besides maybe a good cup of coffee.

Every one of these pages held goodness and I got so much out of the book as a whole. My very favorite one, though was the first entry titled “Dwell.” And not just because “dwell” is one of my favorite words ever. No, it’s because it piercingly addressed a lie I continue to believe almost every day. All of us have a tendency to take refuge in our surroundings, whether that be a special place on a beach or a comfortable chair in a room. Some of us take a little too much refuge in what are surroundings are like. The lie I fight believing every day is this: “I would be a happy person if only my home were clean.”

I know. It’s dumb. Seriously, that’s what you think you need to be happy?

I have operated that way as a default almost every day of my adult life. And it’s not just because as a stay-at-home/homeschool mom, one of the primary time takers in my life is keeping my domain in order. It goes even deeper than my resentment of the time I have to take from other pursuits to keep things (and people) clean. My default desire for cleanliness and orderliness tunnels back into how I have used keeping things orderly around me as a way to feel in control of life in general. I remember how when high school drama struck, I would always clean out my closet. As an adult with two kids, I was frantic about getting a contract on a specific house during a time when we briefly lived with my parents-in-law, so I dusted all their baseboards while waiting for phone calls from the realtor. When I’m at my mom’s and she’s not home, I try to express my thankfulness for all she does for me by vacuuming the corners of her living room. Wow. Maybe I should try flowers instead? Anyway, I’m not exactly a clean freak or neat freak (I mean, don’t come to my house to find sparkling kitchen counter tops or toothpaste-free sinks), but the cleanliness level that I decide is the one we need to reach takes a pretty hard hand over the rest of my life, and making dirty things clean gives me a ridiculous satisfaction. So you can imagine these words struck a pretty deep chord with me:

Any notion I have of finding comfort and satisfaction in the perfection of my surroundings has simply shown itself for what it is: an idol of the heart that can neither sustain nor deliver. A tidy home (and sometimes a calm and quiet environment) has often been my comfort–my shelter in the midst of crazy-messy seasons. It was never meant to be.

-Ruth Chou Simons

I really should have this taped on my bathroom mirror. Or better yet, the verse that the word “Dwell” comes from: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” Psalm 91: 1. If I could grab hold of that truth about God every morning, that He is my refuge and nothing else in this world is, how much different would my attitude be towards my work and my children? Much.

That and many other (much less domestic) golden truths were brought into my day-to-day life through the words and images of GraceLaced. I hope you run to get your own copy! Order your copy of GraceLaced wherever books are sold by August 31 and receive a free “You Don’t Have To Be Blooming To Be Growing” downloadable print when you register your purchase at gracelaced.com/gracelacedbook.}

Nonfiction, Reviews

Better Than Before: A Book Review

Here’s a non-fiction review for my non-frivolous book readers! Yesterday I finished Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before:  Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives. The popular author of The Happiness Project and Happier At Home once again brings readers an insightful book on her favorite topic, how to live this present life well.

Rubin starts off the book by claiming we can’t be successful in our habits without knowing our habit tendencies. I found this section of the book fascinating. She breaks these tendencies down into four groups:

  1. The Upholders – Sensitive to inner expectations for oneself and outer expectations of other people
  2. The Obliger – Very sensitive to others’ expectations, not as sensitive to one’s own expectations for one’s self
  3. The Questioner – Always questioning expectations, and has to make all expectations his or her own by evaluating and deciding whether they are reasonable and useful or not.
  4. The Rebel – Basically, this person hates expectations and has a hard time with habits.

Rubin, herself, is a strong Upholder, and finds it very easy to begin and maintain habits. I almost question why a person who finds habits so natural would write a book about harnessing the power of habits – can we learn anything from her struggle if there actually is no struggle for her? Then again, I suppose we can learn from the best, and she does an insane amount of research and includes anecdotes from other types of tendencies. (Side note: if you read the beginning part of this book and you classify yourself as a Rebel, good luck. You don’t want habits in your life, you enjoy making each decision you make, and having the freedom to decide yes or no to most everything you do each day. Habits are not your thing. And probably neither is this book).

After doing a little self exploration, Rubin decides to tackle the seven areas in which people most commonly want to improve their habits: Healthy eating, Exercise, Finances, Rest and Relaxation, Accomplishments, Clutter, and Relationships. As is her wont, Rubin sets up a specific goal for herself in each of these areas and writes about the results. This is the part where the book gets a little less interesting to me, because I already know she is going to do a great job of creating new habits. She is going to nail this. But would I?

I read this book at a great time to improve my habits, when my youngest recently turned a year old and I had the mental fortitude to improve some areas of my life that were just scraping by one sleep deprived day after another. I didn’t want to grab the whole project by the horns like Rubin did; I thought I would pick just a few areas to work on: getting up earlier and eating healthier.

So far, I have failed miserably. For about a week, I did great, but then it all fell apart. I still get woken up often at night by one of the three kids, if not all, and I still can’t seem to get a meal plan together that is consistently healthy. Snacks are a whole ‘nother battle. The upside of this experiment is that I did feel exceedingly better when I did a good job of getting up early and putting healthy food on the table. I’m excited to continue my attempts at improving my habits in these areas.

Overall, I liked this book. I find that Rubin’s books can bring me some ideas and get me thinking, but when I finish them, there’s a sense of emptiness for me.  They lack the overall purpose of life in their theories. I don’t want to be so inwardly focused on living my life well. I want to love God and love others.  Also, as a middle class American in the suburbs, her upper-middle class New York City lifestyle is very hard for me to relate to. However, if you’re interested in using the practice of habits for to empower your daily routines, I think this is a great book for you.

Now, if only Gretchen Rubin would write a book about helping kids form good habits…

Nonfiction, Reading, Reviews

Love Books: Read This, Not That

Any book worth its salt has some love in it. Friendship, romantic love, sacrificial love, usually self-love whether glorified or not…humans are made to love and they will love something or someone as a default. In the last week, the two books I read actually had “love” in the title, but they were as different as night and day.

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio is classified as literary fiction, but it’s really not. The only The Look of Loveliterary thing about it is the premise. It had potential, in an O’Henry kind of way, but it falls severely short of the mark of good literature.  And it doesn’t make me happy to say that because I loved Jio’s The Violets of March and enjoyed several of her other books. The Look of Love isn’t anywhere close to Jio’s best work. The book’s main character, Jane, has a gift: she can see true love. She’s just figuring out that she has this gift at age 29, and she also learns that she has to identify the six forms of love before her 30th birthday or she will never find true love herself.

Here’s where you start thinking, “Wuv. Twue Wove.” (Books and movies come and go, but The Princess Bride never fails). The definition of true love and the six types of love Jane defines are not love. They are chemistry, lust, the kind of stuff from songs like “Hooked On A Feeling.” In Jio’s book. people can have love and then just fall out of it, find it somewhere else, and it’s all mystical and inexplicable.  I understand that elements of romantic love are kind of inexplicable, but love has reasons and choices and true love is selfless.

Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary WorldEnter the next book of the week with love in the title: Love Does. Bob Goff writes in memoir style about the kind of love that has transformed his life. The whole idea is real love doesn’t just feel or talk but it does stuff. It is action. It is being with people or giving to people, believing in people and telling them you’re for them. Real, perfect love is loving like Jesus. Now, before you roll your eyes, make sure you’re thinking about Jesus here and not the people who claim to follow Him. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, met some amazing and incredibly loving followers of Jesus, but I’ve still never seen anyone come close to Jesus. No one can love the unlovable like Jesus. And we’re all unlovable in some way. But Goff tells stories with humor and intelligence and, his favorite word, “whimsy” about how he has experienced love in his life. For example, when he was in high school, he decided to drop out and move to Yosemite. He packed his car, headed out of town, but stopped by a mentor’s house on the way to say goodbye. And this mentor answered the door in the early morning, and a few minutes later, was in the car with Goff, going on his journey not as a chaperon or a parent figure, but a loving friend who still let Goff hold the reigns but said, “I’m with you, Bob.” These and other stories will blows to bits the love presented in pop culture. Love Does is a challenge to trade in the watered down sensation of love in our movies and books for love that is soul satisfying and deeply changing. This book is also just a plain fun read and if nothing else you will laugh (Thanks to my friend, Mary, for lending it to me!).

So if you’re looking for some summer book love, read this, not that. And feel free to chime in with the books you think give a good picture of real love.

Nonfiction, Reading, Reviews

What I Read This Fall

There are four more days left in this Autumn season, and I can guarantee you my Fall Reading List will not be completed in those five days. But that’s okay! A reading list is a starting point that morphs as time goes along. As Juliet says in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive–all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

Well, maybe there are other reasons to read. But I find the first part to be true when it comes to reading lists. I start at the top, but get totally sidetracked when I find a new favorite author or read a book that refers to another book. That being said, here is what I did manage to read this Fall:

~Fiction~

Gilead – You must read it. Best book I’ve read in a long time!

Rosie – Not a fan of this one, but I plan to try some more recent work of Lamott’s.

The Grapes of Wrath – Very raw and uncouth, and also deep and masterful. Just not my cup of tea.

The Signature of All Things – Abandoned halfway through. Eesh. If you liked it, I think we can still be friends, but let’s not talk about this book.

Listening ValleyListening Valley – This wasn’t on my list, but I needed a comfortable, reassuring read after three book busts, so I turned to my beloved D.E. Stevenson. This is a cozy sort of book to curl up with on a foul weather day. Fans of L.M. Montgomery or Jan Karon will love it.

Lila – I read this book on the heels of Gilead, and it was so totally different from what I expected! It was awesome, though. It will have its own review soon.

~Nonfiction~

Shepherding a Child’s Heart – I really enjoyed the perspective of the first half of the book, but didn’t get much out of the second half that dealt with the method this particular author employs in child rearing.

For The Children’s Sake – I loved this book. It will receive its own review soon.

The Fitting Room – This was a much lighter read than I expected, but still pretty good.  Women of all ages can glean great wisdom from it, but it would be especially perfect to study with a group of teenage girls.

Yes PleaseOrganized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional LivingI am not funny enough to appreciate this book. If you like SNL or Tina Fey’s Bossypants, you might like this one. However, I would venture to say that Poehler just isn’t a writer. She even admits in the book that she is “better in the room.” I concur.

Bread and WineA stunning book. It’s changing my entire view of hospitality. I say “changing” because I read it through and reviewed it, but I keep going back to read parts and review the recipes. I’ve made two and they were both delightful.

Organized Simplicity – I think I’ll need to come back to this book in the future, when I can handle all the very useful checklists and strategies. Right now, I just need to get through the mess that is the Holidays. It’s the best possible kind of mess! But a mess still.

Wow. I read more nonfiction than fiction in the last few months. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a first! I feel so smart and boring. Maybe I can remedy that in my Winter Reading List.

Speaking of, The Winter Reading List is shaping up and will be posted soon! What’s on your list?

Nonfiction, Reading

Fall 2014 Reading List

My Fall Reading List is formed! I’ve tried to supplement my summer reading with some weightier books. Chances are good I will add to this list as the weeks go by, but these are the books I would really like to read.

Fiction

Gilead, Marilyn Robinson

Lilith, George MacDonald

Long Man, Amy Greene

Rosie, Ann Lamott

Peace Like A River, Lief Enger

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

No Name, Wilkie Collins

Nonfiction

For The Sake of The Children, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

Bringing Up Boys, Dobson

Shepherding A Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp

The Fitting Room, Kelly Minter

To Persia, With Love, Doreen Corley

Beyond Ourselves, Catherine Marshall

Educating the Wholehearted Child, Clay Clarkson

As always, this list is subject to change. In fact, I guarantee it will change.  Unless I know it’s important that I read a certain book, I am not afraid to call a book not worth the time and quit in the middle. I realize some folks can’t handle abandoning a book, but I need that freedom or else I wouldn’t even try half the books I actually come to like.

So what’s on your list this Fall?

Grammar note: I realize you’re not technically supposed to capitalize the names of seasons. I just can’t help it. 

Nonfiction, Reading, Reviews

Sharing Darkness and Shedding Light

I’ve been thinking a lot about memoirs lately. Memoirs, by definition, are simply an account of personal experience. And they are growing in popularity. Some memoirs share little known worlds, such as Frank McCourt’s Irish village in Angela’s Ashes, which was published in the 1990s and opened the flood gates for the waves of memoirs we see now. (If you’re wondering what the difference is between a memoir and an autobiography, they can be exactly the same. However, a memoir can also focus on just one aspect or phase in a person’s life). Some share unique perspectives on common life experiences, like mothering or losing a lot of weight. Some are funny, some are tragic. Actually, a lot of them are tragic.

The Glass CastleJeanette Walls started her illustrious writing career with the internationally bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle. It tells of the author’s eccentric and often negligent parents and her experiences with them. If you haven’t read it, it’s well written and quite fascinating… but I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why the memoir genre is so strong. Why is reading about a four-year-old girl who cooks her own hot dogs addicting? Of the top five nonfiction books on the NY Times Best Sellers list this week, three are memoirs. And I’m only feeding the frenzy–I’ve read more memoirs in the last couple of years than I had in the previous years of my life combined. But I’m starting to wonder: why? It may be inspiring to see a victim of abusive parents rise above and become a resilient person. I sure learned a lot about Irish poverty in Angela’s Ashes. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with the knowledge memoirs give me.  Yesterday, I finished The Silver Star, Jeanette Walls’s second novel. It was not a memoir, but it read like one and had many similarities to Walls’s own memoir. Knowing the past Walls came from as she wrote the book, this quote stands out to me:

“‘Don’t be afraid of your dark places,’ Mom told her. ‘If you can shine light on them, you’ll find treasure there.”

This idea that there is treasure in the blackest circumstances, that strength can be built into people as they struggle, that hardships are creating perfection, is a pretty darn old idea. In fact, it’s in the Bible. But I don’t think Walls was making a biblical reference. I think she was summarizing what the rush for memoirs is all about: people want something good to come out of the bad in life. Even if it’s just by reading a memoir that proves the human spirit can overcome, people have an innate desire for their experiences to be meaningful, or at least shared. Memoirs can do that. They can make the writer feel like they’re encouraging people, or bringing to light a neglected topic. Memoirs can be good.  I know there is value in honesty, shared experiences, and exposing ongoing injustices. I’ve been confused by why people are drawn to these hard stories, why I’m reading them, but I’ve come to this: I like to think that reading memoirs about hard times helps me when I find myself in a position that requires me to simply sit with someone else in the dark times and understand their need to share it with someone.

So by reading certain memoirs and just experiencing life, we know there is darkness all around and memoirs are often honest accounts of real life that can be enriching or informative. However…as I read memoirs, I start to appreciate more and more those authors that pushed away the darkness and chose to shed light. The truth is there are few authors (or people) who don’t have dark experiences lurking in their pasts. There are certain authors whose work has been so central to my development as a person since childhood, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, #1)they’re almost like patron saints in my life. (I’m not Catholic- just go with me on this). People like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. These writers wrote beautiful, rich, original works that are full of the joy of living and the magic in every day imagination. I knew their works through and through long before I learned about their lives. I was in shock when I grew up and learned that they lived stories not at all like the books they wrote. Most literature fans know Jane Austen was a poor spinster who never married, and lived under the thumb of her father. Louisa May Alcott could have written a riveting account of her eccentric father’s spartan style of living and raising children. Alcott was poor for most of her life, and at one point as an adult considered suicide. C.S. Lewis’s mother died when he was a child, he had a distant father and grew up in boarding schools, and when he finally found love in life, it was through terminal illness. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s father died when she was three and her family moved around England until they finally left for Tennessee when Burnett was age 15. During their move, Burnett’s usually sympathetic and loving mother made Burnett burn her early writings. And, most disheartening of all to me, L.M. Montgomery struggled with depression and had a mostly loveless marriage.

These authors could have chosen to write some very shocking accounts of the brutal reality in this world. But what did they choose to write? They wrote books filled with light. How did these people decide to push aside the darkness around them and bring light through their works? Are we to think that they were just extremely dishonest? That they cause their readers to lose their grip on reality? You’re entitled to that opinion if you want it, but I am extremely thankful that they created exquisite characters and settings. They wrote about older folks who adopt orphans, sisters who are best friends, friendships that turn into pure love, and a Lion who is not safe but good. Maybe their worlds are more fantastic than rFeal, but I don’t think so. I think they chose to focus on the good things. Their books put me in a frame of mind to seek out loveliness in life. God created beauty in this world, and authors can bring that to readers’ attention through words.

There is always beauty and ugliness coexisting here. We can ignore the ugly, but we shouldn’t belittle the beauty or scoff at it as if it’s not real. It is real. Sometimes the beauty and the ugly are so tangled, it’s hard to really see. The memoirs I’ve been reading lately do a lot of focusing on the ugly. That can tend to get me down. I’m learning to be thankful for the reminder to share in someone’s darkness and help him or her through hard times, but to keep striving to stand in the light.  Some memoirs make it easy to wade around over and over again in our deep and murky waters. Other books are the literary equivalent of  keeping the lights on all night and shying away from any trace of shadow. As readers, we are able to take in both kinds of books and all the ones in between. We read, and we are able to see both the beauty and pain, light and darkness, funny and tragic, and accept that it is all real and present around us.

Acknowledge the darkness, but shed light. That’s what memoirs and are teaching me.

Read any good memoirs lately? Here are the ones I’ve liked in the last couple of years:

One Thousand Gifts – Awesome book for everyone. Five stars, and then five more.

Kisses from KatieHighly recommend if you want to change the world, or if you enjoyed Three Cups of Tea

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess – a real life changer for me

Sparkly Green EarringsLighthearted, laugh out loud mom-memoir with some deep thoughts mixed in

DesperateSo good for mothers of young children

Surprised by OxfordTold by an atheist intellectual who found Jesus when she didn’t want to

The Hiding Place – Timeless

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels – Just girly and funny

 

31 Days, Children's Books, Nonfiction, Reading

Stretching 31 Days Into Forever

Our 31 Days of Picture Books have come to an end. Honestly, I thought posting every day would be more of a challenge, but this topic has been one that I live in every day. While there have been some days when I felt like I didn’t have time to write, it turns out I did have time to write at least something. I hope you’ve been able to add some good books to your reading lists for young children, and maybe even add to your knowledge of the value of reading with children.

Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through StoriesThere are some great resources written by actual experts (not just some blogger like me). My current favorite is Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories, by William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanna M. Wolfe. While this title may sound a bit preachy, it’s actually a great place to find books for young people of any stage. It has a list of picture books for young readers and then lists of different genres that are divided by reading level. Every time I look at this book to find good picture books for my family, I find myself turning to the older readers section and adding new books to my own reading list. I highly recommend this book.

Honey for a Child's Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family LifeHoney for A Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life by Gladys Hunt is on my to-read list. It focuses on books for children 0-12. I’ve only skimmed it, but I can tell you that there are many illustrations and that Hunt’s reading tastes are broader than Kilpatrick, et al’s. Hunt includes classics as well as more modern books on her reading lists. As I haven’t read over the lists in detail, I can’t tell you if I agree with them as much as I do with the lists in Books That Build Character. I will still be giving these books a try, and hoping some of them are short enough for very young listeners. Many of the books listed in Books That Build Character are more for ages five and up.

And since I’m planning on homeschooling my children when they reach school age, I’ll definitely be Books to Build On: A Grade-By-Grade Resource Guide for Parents and Teachersreading Books to Build On: A Grade By Grade Resource Guide For Parents and Teachers. I don’t buy into the core curriculum idea–that every child should be taught the same thing decided by the government–but the idea for core knowledge stems from a sensible thought that there are just some things everyone needs to know. One of the reasons we choose to start out homeschooling is because we know all children are different: some children will enjoy math, some children will want to spend lots of time on music, and we will have the freedom to develop their areas of interest and talents. We will still want to make sure their minds are grasping concepts in all areas of education, and I think this book will help me think of ways to focus on subjects that aren’t my children’s favorite (or maybe not my favorite, either! I’m looking at you, Math.).

These are some books I plan to use as tools now and in the coming years, but mostly, I’m going to keep letting my children pick out some of their own books and indulging their developing tastes and interests. Reading is pure fun right now, and I want to keep the fun in it for our whole lives. I’ve seen parent-directed reading bring joy and build relationships, and I’ve seen it squash any interest in books. I’m hoping my style of reading with my children brings joy.

Thanks for joining me for 31 Days of Picture Books. I plan to continue reviewing picture books and mixing them in with my regular reviews on this blog. The words and the images of picture books have taught me so much over the years. It took this 31 Days topic to make me fully realize how much impact reading in the early years had on my mind. I’m encouraged to keep reading, and I hope you are, too.

Nonfiction, Reading, Reviews, Young Adult

October Reading

Apparently, I haven’t taken my own good advice lately, because what I’ve read in the past month has equaled not much. My blogging time has been taken up with the 31 Days of Picture Books and I’ve had a blast with it. I have managed to squeeze in a few adult reads, though.

The Silver StarAt the beginning of the month I  read The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls. This novel was an interesting combination of To Kill A Mockingbird and The Glass Castle, Walls’s first book, a bestselling memoir. Here’s the plot summary of The Silver Star from goodreads.com:

It is 1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister, Liz, is fifteen when their artistic mother, Charlotte, a woman who “found something wrong with every place she ever lived,” takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.

An impetuous optimist, Bean soon discovers who her father was, and hears many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Because money is tight, Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town—a big man who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister—inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, nonconformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz.

Jeannette Walls, supremely alert to abuse of adult power, has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.

The Silver Star reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird because of two child characters, Bean and her cousin, and because of the unfairness of the small town’s judicial system. Though the issues brought up don’t have much to do with race, they have a lot to do with gender and social status equality. I enjoyed the characters, though I thought them a bit to reminiscent of the main characters in The Glass Castle. The book also had that run down mill town feel that is so poignantly portrayed in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. It’s as if you get a peek into what Empire Falls looked like before everything shut down. Walls does a good job of drawing a reader into her writing by putting flesh on her characters. However, this book was my least favorite of hers because the plot was a tad too predictable. Still, I read it cover to cover in three days and I think most people who like Walls’s work will enjoy The Silver Star.

Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and RedemptionI also read Kisses From Katie as part of my 7 Challenge to learn more about poverty stricken countries. Katie Davis writes about her experiences as a very young woman who goes to Uganda for a few months after graduating from high school and cannot see herself staying away ever again. The book is both heartbreaking and heart-swelling. It’s heartbreaking to not just suspect or vaguely hear about Ugandans’ hardships but to really know what life is like for them. It’s important to know, but it’s heartbreaking.  It is heart-swelling to see that one young woman can make so much of a difference if she will stop saying “someone else” and start saying “Me. I will love one person and one more person and bandage one person and one more person and do what I can. Even if it’s never enough, I will do what I can because that’s all I can do and that’s what I must do.” (paraphrase). You must read it, not as a fine piece of literature, but as a bolster for your belief in what one person (read: you) can change if you try. I am so challenged and changed by this book.

Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness, #1)Finally, I just finished the Young Adult favorite, Alanna: The First AdventureThis book was written in 1983 by Tamora Pierce, but somehow it didn’t show up on my wide book radar until I started this blog and saw it on so many Top Ten Tuesday lists. I quickly learned that Alanna is a favorite heroine of many book loving girls. And since my real life name is only one letter away from Alanna, I had to read it for myself. (If your curious about why I go by Mia on this blog, check out the About Me page). I put it on my to-read list and then October came. October is historically a month when I crave a good fantasy adventure book. Last October, I discovered The Hero and The Crown and thoroughly enjoyed it. The year before that, it was Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. I think I can trace this feeling that Fall means fantasy adventure books back to when I read the Lord of The Rings trilogy in the fall lo those many years ago. But that would be way to nerdy to admit. Anyway, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t love Alanna. I liked it okay, but I’m afraid I missed the boat when I was twelve or thirteen that would have sailed me into Tamora Pierce fandom. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be reading the rest of the series! Because it’s October, and adventurous fantasy stories are akin to October (write that down).

Now I’m reading Rump: The True Story of RumpelstiltskinSo far, it’s much grimmer than I thought it would be. We all know how the fairy tale ends, so I’m hoping there’s some kind of twist that will make this poor boy Rump into a hero after all. Rumpelstiltskin as a character has always unnerved me. I think the writing style of Liesl Shurtlief is very similar to Shannon Hale’s–pointed and carries the story along at a good pace–but I wish it were a wee bit more descriptive. I’m interested to see how the author weaves the brief mentions of other fairy tales into Rumpelstiltskin’s story. Expect a full review soon.

How’s your October reading going?

7 Challenge, Nonfiction, Reading, Reviews

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, And My Own 7 Challenge

I should have read this book a long time ago.

Any book with a number in the title scares me. I try not to be too limited in my thinking, but I must admit that math gives me a panicky feeling. I know this is illogical. I try to talk myself out of it: I got an A in Algebra 2, for crying out loud! Apparently, the 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excesseffort that A took left its scars. Big ones. I would rather give a speech to 2,000 Nobel Prize geniuses than repeat a single week of college Pre-calculus. Maybe it was due to my aversion to numbers that I hadn’t really considered reading Jen Hatmaker’s book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, though I’d heard a lot about it. Then some of my friends started sharing her blog posts on Facebook. I read them, and that was all it took for me to say, “Okay, I have got to read this woman’s book.” I’m really glad I did.

I love Jen Hatmaker for making a thought provoking, challenging book that is so hilarious. I laughed out loud right in the midst of my musings on how catastrophically out of whack consumerism and starvation is in the world. (Okay, to be honest, I would have laughed, but my heart has been heavy due to a tragic event in our church family. That I kind of laughed should be a testament to how funny Jen Hatmaker is, because I was having trouble reading through my swollen eyes, and that is not an exaggeration).

Note: From here on out, I’m going to call Jen Hatmaker just Jen, because she’s that personable and I don’t think she’d mind.

7 is a challenge that Jen gave herself to live with less in several different areas of life.  The challenge areas are: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, stress. Each challenge lasted for 4 weeks. Her main premise is that our culture as a whole is “trapped in the machine of excess.” Her desire was to “fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.” I’m in agreement with Jen. The American Dream has gone from a desire for freedom to a desire for way more than we need. And it happens to be sucking the life out of us, one overworked, overeaten, over stimulated hour at a time. What’s worse, it’s sucking the life out of entire nations who aren’t getting any relief from their suffering because we’re too fat and happy to notice them. I’m talking about me, not you. Or maybe that is you, too. Whatever the case, this book was life changing for me. So much so, that I am beyond thinking about this stuff and ready to take actions. For each of Jen’s challenges, I’ve come up with a version of my own.

Food

Jen’s challenge:  Limiting herself to 7 foods.

Yes, just 7. My first reaction to this was, “WHY?” I came to see that she wanted a concrete way to discard the burden and the blindness that her love of food was putting on her life. I was more drawn to the challenge that several of her friends gave themselves for the first month: to pick seven of the world’s most poverty stricken countries and eat like an average person from that country for three days. They picked Haiti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cambodia, and Sudan. Jen and her friends came to understand more about their misuse of the food abundance in America and came away from it with a desire to do more for those who don’t have enough. Jen also realized what an idol food can become.

My challenge: Pick my own impoverished countries that I feel particularly burdened for, research their average food intake, and eat like them for one day each. I wish I could do three days, but I’m a mom of littles, and I don’t want my family to suffer a grumpy, malnourished mother. (Who am I kidding, they suffer the grumpy mother regularly). I’m still working on fleshing out this challenge, because I’d like it to include a way to transfer my eating less to some hungry person eating more. Also, I’d like to add a book to my reading list about each impoverished country I choose. If you have any ideas, please tell me!

Clothing

Jen’s challenge: Wear 7 pieces of clothing for four weeks.  Her discoveries about how she views clothing and how she expects other women to view her clothing were enlightening. Her honest evaluation of her excess clothing made me think twice, for sure.

My challenge: Part 1 — Clean out my closet and give the excess to refugees. Part 2 — No clothes shopping for myself for 3 months. I think this will be an easy challenge, because I don’t really like to shop. I ignore clothes to a fault sometimes. You know, that moment when you realize you have nothing that fits the bill for the event you’re attending in, oh, less than half an hour. I don’t think about what clothes I need. Except for those new boots I promised myself last winter…. However, I think it will be an interesting challenge to share with my four-year-old daughter, who is a budding Fashionista. (Help.) I need to think through ways I can show her how abundant her clothing is and how some little girls have next to nothing.

Possessions

Jen’s challenge: give seven things away every day for a month. And not just to Goodwill, but to tangible people who will benefit from Jen’s entire family’s acknowledgement that they have way more than enough.

My challenge: Same as Jen’s this time. I’ll be honest–I’m a little worried. I keep our house at a minimum of stuff to begin with.  We get rid of things all the time. My husband hears “Hey, can we get rid of this?” on a regular basis. Still, our house feels cluttered. But the point isn’t to de-clutter the house. The point is to find good things we don’t truly need and give them to people who do really need them. I’m hoping to connect with a ministry that supplies refugees with basic household items for this month’s challenge and the clothing challenge.

Media

Jen’s challenge was a good old-fashioned media fast from everything not work related. I always think this type of challenge would be a no-brainer challenge for me. I don’t watch TV, what’s the big deal? But her challenge included blogs, Facebook, sports news, and everything else not work related. Yikes. No sports news! There would be troubles. However, I’m going to try it.

My challenge: Limit my media to certain times during the day. I will allow myself to read blog posts from 6-7am. I will check/post to Facebook at 10am, 2pm, 9pm, or not at all. No internet surfing at all until after the kids go to bed. Otherwise, my media will only involve work-related or research related usage. My e-mail will have to be a continuous thing because it’s my main form of communication, but I think I can limit it to checking it every hour to two hours. And it’s football season, so…sports can’t completely go unless I want to spend hours away from family and friends on the weekends. Football is king in South Carolina, people. But I do plan to seriously limit it.

Waste

Jen’s challenge: seven habits for a greener life.  I’m summarizing it as a serious cutback on waste and use of natural resources. Before you roll your eyes at the liberal tree hugger, please know that I happen to be a conservative tree hugger. I was totally convicted by this chapter. Give yourself a chance and you will be, too. It’s sad to me that people who believe God doesn’t exist are so often the only ones concerned about God’s creation. I can’t put it as well as Jen does, but I hope you read this part if no other part of 7.

My challenge: get Ella out of pull ups at night, buy less prepackaged food, recycle everything possible.

Spending

Jen only allowed herself and her family (her husband was on board for all of this, by the way)  to pay money out to seven vendors, two of which were online bill pay and her children’s school. This translates into no eating out, no shopping for fun, no family outings that cost money, etc.

My challenge: Don’t buy stuff.

No, seriously. I’m not shopping for anything outside of basic food and household needs like toilet paper. No home goods, no clothes, no potentially life changing organizational tools, no the-neighborhood-needs-my-flower-beds-to-be-beautiful plants. I’m going to have to choose this month wisely. We’re coming up on Christmas…this will have to be an after Christmas month. Which brings my grand total of months I’m not shopping for clothes in this challenge to four. This is going to be interesting…

Stress

Jen’s challenge: Keep Sunday as a true day of rest and pause seven times a day for prayer and reflection.

My challenge: Stop clothes shopping.

Oh, I kid. My challenge will be to (1) Become a planner and (2) Set daily goals for my gratitude journal.

Much of my stress is caused by not planning ahead for things. Just this morning, I totally stressed my kids out with trying to get to MOPS on time (didn’t happen). I didn’t have anything prepared. It’s no coincidence that all the moms got a nice little reminder email about labeling sippy cups and bags this afternoon from the childcare workers–see, I’m spreading stress to everyone by my lack of planning! Those poor childcare workers. Anyway, the goal is to plan for the next day the night before.

The other part of the stress challenge is based on Ann Voskamp’s Joy Dare. I have kept a gratitude journal for a long time, but I’m too sporadic for thankfulness to truly take root in my heart. Thankfulness isn’t thriving in me yet. I think stress would be obsolete if I could be grateful in my waking moments. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly stressed person, but then I think about the discontentment, the insomnia, the way I get fed up with the mess I live in, the inexplicable nightmares I’ve had since childhood, and I think there’s definitely proof of stress. The beauty is I truly believe it doesn’t have to be there. I’m going to strive during the Stress month of this challenge for peace that I know is attainable.

So there are the challenges for the next seven months. I’m eagerly looking forward to tackling (most) of these challenges. My overarching desire is to find ways to positively help those who really need it. I don’t want to just simplify and clarify my life. I want to relieve pain in others’ lives, even oceans away. I hope you will cheer me on and give me ideas on how to do this when my brain is too consumed with the self control to not…buy…another…book!

If you have the wherewithal to read this droning dribble about my 7 Challenge, then I guarantee you will enjoy the book 7 so much more. It will make you laugh and remind you that you have the power to make a difference in this world. And if you want to join me on my own journey, you’re more than welcome.

Nonfiction, Parenting, Reading, Reviews

The Artist’s Daughter

If you’re a part of a Mother of Preschoolers (MOPS) group, chances are good you’ll be hearing about The Artist’s Daughter in the coming months. I am helping to start a MOPS group this Fall and so I had the privilege of reading the copy that came with our coordinator’s welcome package. I thought it was a great book, and I can’t wait to discuss it this spring with our MOPS group. (MOPS Plug: If you’re in South Carolina and interested in a MOPS group, let me know!)

The Artist's DaughterThe Artist’s Daughter is a memoir by Alexandra Kuykendall. Here’s the description from Goodreads.com:

“When Alexandra Kuykendall became a mother it was the beginning of a soul-searching journey that took her into her past and made her question everything she’d experienced–and a lot of what she hadn’t. The only daughter of a single, world-traveling mother and an absent artist father, Alexandra shares her unique quest to answer universal questions: Am I lovable? Am I loved? Am I loving?

In short, moving episodes, Alexandra transports readers into a life that included a childhood in Europe, a spiritual conversion marked more by questions than answers, a courtship in the midst of a call to be with troubled teens, marriage and motherhood–and always, always, the question of identity. Through her personal journey, women will discover their own path to understanding the shape of their lives and a deeper sense of God’s intimate presence within it.”

I was surprised at what a page turner this book turned out to be for me. Kuykendall writes with such honesty and infuses a desire to change and help others change in her writing. I related to her as a person, even though her family situation is nothing like mine. The importance of accepting yourself, embracing your identity, and relying on God in parenting is a key component to the memoir. Kuykendall also writes about how important her support system (a MOPS group) is to her parenting journey. I don’t want to say too much because I hope you’ll read this one for yourself! If you liked Jeanette Walls’s memoirs The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, you’ll like this one, too. It doesn’t contain the stunning situations or details Walls’s memoirs include, but it is a well-written memoir about a daughter coming to terms with a parent as she becomes a parent herself.