Reading, Reviews

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

I recently picked up Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and was stunned by the artistry of it. Robinson can weave together a tale and truth, grace and reality, love and hardship so well! I force myself to read her work slowly, to take in each word and try to truly Lila (Gilead, #3)realize what she means. She is that kind of writer. This year she released a new book, Lila. It is a different perspective of the marriage detailed in Gilead. Lila is the wife of John Ames, the main character of Gilead, and this book named for her is about her back story and how she came to the town of Gilead and proposed to the elderly pastor. Lila faces lots of hardships before coming to Gilead, none told in too much detail but the full weight of them is there between the lines. The theme of homelessness returns in this book, which seems to be a topic that’s on Robinson’s mind a lot. Lila starts reading a Bible when she comes to Gilead. She grapples with the fact of what happens on earth coexisting with the truths about a good and just God. I wouldn’t say she draws very clear conclusions, but she makes progress as the book goes along. The story line is amazing, and the way it weaves perfectly with Gilead is mind blowing, kind of like the 2nd and 3rd Bourne Trilogy movies, when you realize it’s all happening at the same time.

Beyond the plot and all its nuances and important themes, there are passages that stay with me for their beauty. Maybe it’s because I’m a sleep deprived mom of three children age 5 and under, but this one was my favorite:

That sound of settling into the sheets and the covers has to be one of the best things in the world. Sleep is a mercy. You can feel it coming on, like being swept up in something…You had to trust sleep when it came or it would just leave you there, waiting.

Well, isn’t that the truth.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, start with Gilead.  I haven’t read Home, but I plan to very soon!

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:


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.


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?

Reading, Reviews


When friends ask me if I have read any good books lately, I drop everything, look them straight in the eye, and fervently say one word: “Gilead.”

Seriously. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is my new favorite book. It’s taken me forever to discover it, I think because when it first came to my attention the year it was published (2006), I read the plot synopsis and wasn’t immediately drawn to it. Add the quiet plot to the fact that Housekeeping by Robinson had left me feeling blue, even if it was insightful and poignant, and you have a moment when I put Gilead back on the shelf and though, “Maybe another day.”

GileadI could call that moment a mistake, but I think it probably wasn’t. I probably wasn’t ready for this book at age twenty. While I’m still not much older than I was and certainly not much wiser, I adore this book now in a way I don’t think I could have then. It’s written as a letter to the son of the narrator. The narrator is an elderly pastor in the small town of Gilead who has married late in life and has a little boy. The pastor’s health is not good, and he knows he won’t be there when his boy reaches adulthood, so he writes him a letter that contains some background of his family history (fascinating), and some lessons learned (deeply insightful), and even the unraveling of a scandal that happens during the writing of the letter. This plot may not draw you, but I’m begging you, read it anyway. It is masterful.

Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, when the narrator speaks of a hardship in his life and concludes:

” I don’t know what to say except that the worst misfortune isn’t only misfortune–and even as I write these words, I have that infant Rebecca [his daughter who died in infancy] in my mind, the way she looked while I held her, which I seem to remember, because every single time I have christened a baby I have thought of her again. That feeling of a baby brow against the palm of your hand — how I have loved this life. Boughton had christened her, as I said, but I laid my hand on her just to bless her, and I could feel her pulse, her warmth, the damp of her hair.”

I choke up even now when I think of how exactly true these words are, how that is just what the forehead of a baby feels like against my hand. The whole book is a tribute to how achingly beautiful this earthly life is, and how pain can be redeemed. It is written from the firm viewpoint that Heaven and eternity are absolute and God is good and His goodness is here even on this broken earth. Even so, it is not preachy. (It won a Pulitzer, so you know it’s not preachy!) But it is wonderful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’m so thankful that Edie at Life in Grace put it on her reading list for the year, which reminded me that I had always meant to read it. It’s definitely the best book on My Fall Reading List so far.

See other favorite books here!

Reading, Reviews

A Glimpse Into Pain and Why It Matters

There are times when I feel I’m not fit to claim the label “intellectual” because I honestly want every book I read to end happily. Books that end tragically, that make me cry, they are often strangely beautiful and stirring, but I don’t go in for “tear jerkers” as a rule. I live a very happy life and I am so thankful for this moment in which I can honestly say that. But I know that books or movies that open a window into someone else’s life and pain also open windows in my heart to simply feel, whether its through my own story or someone else’s. We all can attest to the fact that days pass by and string into apathy if we let them, if we don’t actively seek out the joy existing inside or the pain that needs healing in the people around us.

HousekeepingThe truth is, I can easily become the person who will judge instead of try to understand. I first realized that about myself when I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, whose mother is gone and who are raised by various family members in a rather haphazard fashion. They finally end up with their Aunt Sylvie, who has a history of transience. I had to look up “transience,” but I learned through the book it basically means that she often chose to be homeless. The book was a hard read for me, a woman who was raised in a cheery and loving home and who is very much a homebody. How much I learned, though! I saw into the struggle of “housekeeping” in a person’s mind who is unsettled about so many things. I learned that when I see a homeless person in my city, it’s not a given that they are suffering from addictions or poverty, but that they could be suffering something much harder to define. Kindness of heart and of actions should not be so hard to muster for people I don’t understand, yet it’s true that’s easier now I have some understanding of a mindset totally foreign to me. Someone once told my husband “There’s plenty of work to be had if you want it. No one has to be homeless if they don’t want to.” I had no idea how he could say that until I read Housekeeping. On top of the amount of insight I gained, the novel is a classic in its stark beauty and detail. It was bleak, it was at times depressing, but it is an important book to me.

The Language of FlowersI found the same insights in the more recent The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I wasn’t expecting to be so confronted with a person’s inner turmoil in a book about flowers. The book is centered on Victoria Jones, an orphan who has aged out of the foster care system and is thrust into the world utterly alone. Her past is all pain that she doesn’t want to confront, but the future demands it. The wording of each chapter and the acute descriptions of childhood pain and loss and the pangs that never seem to end afterwards completely engrossed me even when I wanted to stop reading. My heart was broken for children born to mothers with the capacity to love who haven’t the capacity to act on that love due to the wounds still unhealed on their hearts. I know I’m bordering on gushy metaphysical hodgepodge, but I’m not sure how to explain this book without telling too much. The Language of the Flowers is one of the many books and experiences that led me to reflect on the blessings I have and what I’m supposed to do with them. I can’t say I’ve gotten very far with that question, but it’s one that I’m still working on and that was brought to the forefront of my mind by this book.

The Light Between OceansAnd just today, I finished The Light Between Oceans. The premise of the book is that a couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who live on a lonely lighthouse island off the coast of Western Australia, are longing for the family they can’t seem to have when one day a baby blows up onto their shore. They keep her, and their decision that they think will bring healing only adds links in a long chain of devastation. That description sounds totally hopeless, but there is a hopeful tone in the book, just as you would expect in a story centered on a lighthouse. I was conflicted about who to relate to in this book the whole time I was reading it. Of course, I’d never sympathize with kidnappers. Never, ever. But can I try to understand a mind unhinged by pain? Well, I guess I can try. The hero of the book, Tom, certainly did. His ability to forgive is humbling. In the end, I can and can’t relate to everyone in this book. But I can say that the words of Plato (or Ian MacLaren? The jury is still out), “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle” came to mind many times as I read the book. I enjoyed this book more than the other two I’ve mentioned in this post. It was more adventurous and less focused on the psychology of the characters, though that did make up a good part of the book. Stedman’s characters go through hard times, and I found them to be often infuriating and always endearing.  She created a world on Janus Rock, the lighthouse post, that will be alive in my mind for a long time yet. I want to visit there, if it actually does exist. =)

There are some books that aren’t entirely “fun” to read but that grip you with ideas and the people the book creates and make you cry or laugh or just sit and contemplate “What if? What if that were me?” I want everyone to be happy (hang being intellectual!) and I would choose all books to end at least mostly happy, but there are some books who mix the bitter and the sweet to show the reality of what life is for some people. I wish that I had the courage or even the awareness to look people in the face and try to understand what life is like for them more often. These books I’ve mentioned are a few of the books that, though fiction, have pushed me into attempting to put myself in the shoes of people who seem wholly different from me. I could think of more, but I’d love to hear which books have done the same for you.

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