Monday, December 29, 2014

Reading Goals for 2015

My goals for this year are pretty straightforward. I'll continue to "shop" my Kindle and to chip away at my Classics Club Challenge list.

But I have six specific fiction titles I want to tackle:

Paradise Lost (I read the first half TWO years ago and loved it. Why haven't I ever finished it?)
North and South  by Gaskell
To Kill a Mockingbird
Our Mutual Friend by Dickens (I'm listening to a fantastic audio version)
Two Shakespeare plays: King Henry V and The Winter's Tale

I also want to schedule in six non-fiction Christian books, but I'm not as certain about those titles. Possibly Eugenics and Other Evils by Chesterton, Art for God's Sake by Ryken, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis, Pilgrim's Progress, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright, and The Scarcity of Praying Men. (because they are already on my Kindle.)

May your new year be replete with good food, good books, good company, and God's blessing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Reading Year in Review - 2014

Considering my crazy schedule, I'm surprised at the number of books I read this year (64). It must have been due to my daily subway ride to and from school because most days I came home too tired to read anything. Here are the dozen I enjoyed the most. (Clicking on the title will take you to my review - if I wrote one).

Books that were the most demanding but worth the effort: David Copperfield by Dickens and Our Culture, What's Left of It by Dalrymple.

The books that brought the most pleasure for the least amount of workThe Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne, and Sleeping Beauty by C. S. Evans.

Favorite Children's Classics Re-reads: Charlotte's Web and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang.

Best Audiobook: Treasure Island (Narrator Adrian Pretzellis is amazing.)

Best World War II: Monuments Men

Best Christian Books: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers (the best antidote to fluffy Christianity that I know.), Preparing for Jesus (advent book by Walter Wangerin), and A Life of Obedience by Murray.

BEST OF THE YEAR: Shauna Niequist's Bread and Wine because it echoed the longing of my heart to slow down enough to be available to God and His people.

Most important podcast: Edie Wadsworth's "The Life You Love Manifesto" (same reason as above)

Most important internet article: "The Girl with the Gadget" by Arthur W. Hunt III

Also, I'm making progress on my Classics Club Challenge list. Only fifteen more titles to go! And I read two (of the intended four) Shakespeare plays, Midsummer Night's Dream and Two Gentleman of Verona.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bonhoeffer Quotes from Life Together

I read a couple of books this week and was underwhelmed with both of them. So in lieu of a book review I'll post these two fine quotes on Bible reading by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Since meditation on the scriptures, prayer, and intercession are a service we owe and because the grace of God is found in their service, we should train ourselves to set apart a regular hour for it, as we do for every other service we perform. This is not legalism; it is orderliness and fidelity. (p. 87 in Life Together.)

It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation. Often this only diverts us and feeds our vanity. (p. 83)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer

In Escape from Reason, Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) breaks down philosophy into the simplest terms. He begins with the 13th century ideas of Aquinas which separated the world into upper (grace, spiritual matters) and lower (nature, material) categories. He explains how subsequent philosphers used these distinctions to separate man completely from his Creator. This autonomy, instead of bringing freedom, brought chaos to every field of knowledge.

A Christian world view elevates man to the upper region since he is made in the image of God. The secular world view pulls him down to the lower level, since “man apart from a biblical understanding can only go down to the animals.” (p. 26)

Have you ever wondered how people who scoff at the “nonsense” of Christianity can believe in UFOs? Schaeffer explains, “Man made in the image of God cannot live as though he is nothing and thus he places in the upper story all sorts of desperate things.” (p. 53)

Another quote: “The Bible teaches that, though man is hopelessly lost, he is not nothing. Man is lost because he is separated from God, his true reference point, by true moral guilt. But he will never be nothing. Therein lies the horror of his lostness. For man to be lost, in all his uniqueness and wonder, is tragic.” (p. 90)

Escape from Reason was written in 1968 and is part of a trilogy of the philosphical basis of all Schaeffer’s writings. (The other two books are The God Who Is There, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.)

It  is very dry, but mercifully short and I am glad I made the effort to read it. I was challenged by Schaeffer’s immersion in modern-day thought (1960’s) in an effort to point his listeners to truth. He wrote that it is overwhelmingly selfish to not learn the language (world view) of the people you are trying to reach. 

May we learn to think more carefully and express more thoughtfully what we believe.

Friday, December 5, 2014

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Many reviews (and the 1975 movie) claim that Philippa is the main character in In This House of Brede, but I would disagree. The central figure in the book is Religious Life and it is shown with a gritty realism that keeps this book from being fluffy. (Why, oh why, are Catholic writers so much better at this than Protestants?)

Brede is an English benedictine monastary where 90 nuns of varying ages and social classes live, work and pray together. Most took their vows as young women, but some, like Phillipa, entered at a later age. All of them come with baggage that doesn´t just go away when they put on their habits. Godden succeeds in showing that being a nun does not exempt one from petty jealousies, baser emotions and deep longings.

Godden paints the ironies of life with a deft touch: The necessity of coming to the end of oneself in order to find oneself (Matthew 16:25), the closed-in Abbey being a more "spacious" place than the open town, and the desire of the nuns to be separate from the world yet needing to belong.

For those with a religious bent (Catholic or Protestant), this novel gives much to ponder. Philippa became a nun to "give herself away," but found later that she had put conditions on how that should be done. (Oswald Chambers echoes this idea in his devotional book, My Utmost, when he says that God sometimes crushes us like grapes to turn us into good wine. We don´t mind the crushing as long as we can choose the hand that does it.- from Sept 30)

In spite of the lack of action, and my disagreements with some Catholic doctrines, I found this to be a deeply compelling book.

(By the way, I have not seen the movie, but L.L. at the Catholic World Report had this to say about it: The movie is hollow and insipid compared to the novel. The novel is like good cheesecake - dense and rich; the movie is like a jello pudding mix by contrast.)

Two other Godden novels I've reviewed are China Court and Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Flesh by Hugh Halter

My teenage son saw the title of this book and almost had a conniption because he thought I was reading something akin to Fifty Shades of Gray. When I explained that the subtitle was "Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth," he breathed a sigh of relief and sauntered back into his room. I'm not sure he even knows what that means, but it sounded theological enough to convince him I hadn't gone off the deep end.

There is much to like about Flesh. Halter takes the pressure of Christians who have been taught that evangelism means counting off on your fingers how many people you have led to the Lord. He defines the concept much more broadly, inviting believers to be more actively engaged in the world by building friendships with non-believers rather than cocooning themselves in their comfy church pews.

He occasionally throws out disturbing (in a good way) ideas that cause you to rethink church norms. Take this example from page 32:[Jesus] didn´t come and take on flesh so that you would someday pray a salvation prayer, go to church, and settle for a semi-religious life. He has bigger hopes and dreams for you than that. He came so that His divine life could actually take root in you and so that you could relate to Him like humans used to before sin messed everything up.

And this from p. 58: The gospel is not news that we can accept Jesus into our lives. The gospel is news that Jesus has accepted us into His life and that we can live His life now. This echoes Galatians 2:20 -  "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..."

Another thing I liked was his emphasis on the price of living incarnationally. To a culture that practically worships comfort, I loved it that Halter says, Living the gospel costs! If you follow Jesus, you will lose energy, time, money, friends, and quite possibly even more. (p. 69)

Although I was greatly encouraged and challenged by the book, I had two major quibbles with Halter's theology. Early in the book he writes, "Here´s the deal. People are not looking for doctrine. They´re looking for a God with skin on, a God they can know, speak with, learn from, struggle with, be honest with, get straight answers from, and connect their lives to." (p. 14) I agree heartily with this statement, but at the same time I worry about the fact that Christian dogma can so cavalierly be thrown out the window.  The gospel is both incarnational (relationships) and theological (truth).

My biggest problem with Halter's book was a strange affirmation he made regarding our humanity. He boldly asserts that Christ did not come to make us more godly, but to make us more human. But nowhere in the Bible does it say, Be human as I am human. Jesus was the perfect, sinless man who came to show us what a perfect, sinless life was like. I get the feeling from Halter that humanness means wearing our warts and weaknesses as badges of honor. This is plain silliness. Our weaknesses define us as fallen sinners, but they should not define us as Christ-followers.  As Oswald Chambers puts it, "The miracle of redemption is that God turns me, the unholy one, into the standard of Himself, the Holy One. He does this by putting into me a new nature, the nature of Jesus Christ." (My Utmost, Nov 19). Even Halter admits this when he talks about how all who follow Christ are under "spiritual renovation."

Redemption cannot be limited to salvation from hell. If it doesn't include the promise of transformation, we have only a forlorn hope.

In spite of my disagreements on these points, I really enjoyed Halter's book. His ideas are nothing new, however; they have been freshly worded for a new generation. Previous bestsellers on the subject have been Lifestyle Evangelism by Aldrich (1981) and Out of the Saltshaker by Pippert (1994).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart starts out like a book lover´s dream. Each chapter begins with a delectable quote from a famous classic. The hero of the story, Mortimer Folchart (known as “Mo”), is a “book doctor” who binds up broken books. Three of the main characters are book addicts. Mo is such a gifted reader that he has the ability to read books and make the contents come true. (Years ago he read the book Inkheart out loud and it changed his life forever.) The bad guys in the book can´t read. Obviously, there is a lot here for bibliophiles to savor. So why didn´t I love this book?

For one thing, it was about a hundred pages too long. By page 450, I stopped caring very much about the outcome. (Sadly, I had seen the movie and knew how it would all turn out.)

Secondly, even with the magic qualities of literature woven into the story, Mo never comes across as an appealing protagonist. Meggie, his daughter, and Elinor, an aunt, add interest to the story, but fail to carry it.

Third, the villains are too stereotypical : Rotten to the core with no subtleties of character.

In spite of all this, there were some marvelous quotes:

If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens; the book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it.. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it . . . yes, books are like flypapers. Memories cling to the printed page better than anything else. (p. 21)

There was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange - familiar voices, friends that never quarrelled with her, clever, powerful friends, daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventures who had travelled far and wide. (p. 21)

Books have to be heavy because the world´s inside them. (p. 25)

So, even though the story never really grabbed me, I enjoyed the great quotes and the good writing. Funke´s book was translated from German into English by Anthea Bell who hails from the U.K., which gave the book a nice British feel.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Poet's Corner by John Lithgow

The Poet’s Corner is subtitled "The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family." I suppose the word “family” is in the title because there is some nonsense poetry included and because of Lithgow’s grandfatherly tone. But if I were trying to introduce my children to poetry, this is not the selection I would choose. The inclusion of modern poetry with its clunky rhythms and obtuse meanings would surely create a distaste for poems among the very young. (If someone has to explain a poem to you before you can like it, you have already missed much of the magic, soul-touching quality of poetry.)

The positive side of this mixture of old and new poems is that you can compare them for yourself. As you listen/read, it becomes increasingly clear that the “new” is, in fact, very much like the Emperor and his new clothes, pretending to be well-dressed, but sadly naked. One poem was so awful, I laughed out loud.

If I had known how much modern poetry was in this audiobook, I probably would not have purchased it. On the other hand, I was glad to have such a painless, crash course on the “greats” of Western poetry. I even learned to appreciate the talent of several poets who I hadn’t liked before (even if their poetry still does not appeal to me).

John Lithgow introduces 50 poems and their authors in alphabetical order of author, so you get the likes of Gertrude Stein right next to Shakespeare, which can be disconcerting. But as I wrote above, it makes the modern authors look pretty silly. The poems are superbly narrated by Hollywood stars such as Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Jodie Foster, et al. 

Even though, the book did not meet my expectations, my enjoyment of the classic poems superseded my disappointment in the others. And it rekindled my desire to brush up on memorization.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

Peter Pan and Wind in the Willows are children´s classics that I revisit regularly. But I would not have read Charlotte's Web again if it had not been for the student I am tutoring. Frankly, I had forgotten what a beautifully touching book it is.

E. B. White succeeds in creating a gentle story while at the same time acknowledging some of life´s harshest realities: death, loneliness, selfishness, and the passing of time. But, thank goodness, he is never maudlin.

I´m a sucker for gorgeous language and this book offers up a rich serving of delectable words and phrases that should whet a child´s appetite for more: "Play?" said Templeton, twirling his whiskers. "Play? I hardly know the meaning of the word." "Well," said Wilbur, "it means to have fun, to frolic, to run and skip and make merry." 

Other words to savor are explained by Charlotte or understood in context. For example, Templeton tells Wilbur to be careful by saying, "I don´t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed." (p. 29) I love any book that treats children as intelligent enough to figure these words out.

The gentle philosophizing was a treat that probably only adult readers would catch, and I relished it.

When your stomach is empty and your mind full, it´s always hard to sleep. (p. 32)

Men rush, rush, rush all the time. (60). Charlotte´s philosophy is Never hurry, Never worry. (p. 65)

Life is always a rich and steady time when your are waiting for something to happen or hatch. (p. 176)

The book´s main impact comes from the unusual friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. When Charlotte determines to save his life, he declares, "Why did you do all this for me? I don´t deserve it... I´m just an ordinary pig!" "You´re terrific as far as I´m concerned," she replies. And herein is the essence of the story - sacrificial love based not on merit, but on grace.  It is a beautiful story because it echoes The Truest Story.

Its gentle jabs at human foibles, its remarkable prose and its theme of self-giving love make Charlotte`s Web a delight to read.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Profanity in Books and Culture - Part Two

Many years ago I wrote a post about profanity in books and culture. Instead of rehashing what I have already written, I want to add a few thoughts based on the book I just finished called The Exact Place by Marjorie Haack.

First of all, this book is about a young girl's hunger for a father's love. Every page is loaded with the heaviness of her stepfather's rejection, making it a ponderous read. Second, the book is about the glory of everyday things. "I loved the daily ritual of feeding a crowd of chickens who waited eagerly for you to dump their oats and mash into the feeders, of gathering eggs so fresh they were still warm in your cupped hand, of throwing slabs of hay over the fence to the horses who nickered to you as they watched..." Third, the book is about finding grace in the dark places, which is why I liked it very much.

But I didn't love it because of the author's choice to use crass language. I know it's trendy for Christians to swear, but I still found it disheartening.

Beautiful and well-chosen words edify and bring joy. Smutty words denigrate. John MacArthur, in an excellent article about how the Christian community is bending over backward to look, talk and act like non-Christians (in order to better reach them), wrote: I frankly wonder how any Christian who takes the Bible at face value could ever think that in order to be “culturally relevant” Christians should participate in society’s growing infatuation with vulgarity.

Here are two differing posts on the theme of profanity:

Why Christians Shouldn't Cuss and Why Christians Should Cuss

(We all know how wonderful it is to have friends who love us unconditionally, for whom we don't have to clean the house or put on makeup. But to use profanity to weed out your real friends from the false ones seems a trifle juvenile.)

Last of all, I disagree with profanity because the Bible is clear that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." (Luke 6:45) If we've experienced the transforming power of God in our lives, our words should be hopeful, grace-filled and life-giving.

James comments on this in chapter 3, verses 10 to 11: Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? Additional thoughts on this subject can be found in this good article over at Gospel Coalition.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Printable C.S. Lewis Quote

Bre posts a free printable on her blog each Friday and last week she quoted C.S. Lewis.

"Dear Heart" is an expression of affection that has waned in popularity, but it's so beautiful. It's the title of one of my favorite movies and the title of a classic love song. It's what the Scarlet Pimpernel calls his wife in the book El dorado. And it's lovely to know C.S. Lewis used it too.

Anyone else ever heard of or used this expression?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Saint Books by Leslie Charteris

My apologies to anyone who bought Enter the Saint based on my raves in an earlier post. This was a very early entry in the series (1930) and the writer was still developing his hero. (Initially, an adolescent James Bond type.) The only other Saint book I've read has been Follow the Saint (1938), which I enjoyed much more. The truth is that I came to love the Saint stories via movies and old radio shows long before I discovered the so-so novels.

Leslie Charteris began writing the books in 1928 and continued until 1963. The suave, wise-cracking Robin Hood figure caught the imagination of the American public, spawning movies (with the inimitable George Sanders), copycat movies (also with Sanders) , comic books, radio shows (superbly done by a young Vincent Price), and a popular T.V. series with Roger Moore. The regrettable 1997 film character (played by Val Kilmer) bears no resemblance to the original debonair protagonist.

Simon Templar (S.T. = saint) is a droll sophisticate who follows his own code. Like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel he is a "good guy" who is on the wrong side of the law. His mix of worldliness, boyishness and  good humor endeared him to gazillions of fans. Charteris describes him as a "flippant dandy with the heart of a crusader, a fighter who laughed as he fought, the reckless, smiling swashbuckler, the inspired and beloved leader of men..." (p. 123)

In the afterward to Enter the Saint, Ian Dickerson explains why the series was so popular: Aside from the charm and ability of Charteris´ storytelling, the stories, particularly those published in the first half of the ´30s are full of energy and joi de vivre. With economic depression rampant, the public at large wanted escapism. And the public got what they wanted in the chain-smoking, elegant outlaw. And in spite of the smoking and drinking (which were considered highly glamorous), there's a lot of good clean fun. Apart from Templar, my favorite character in the books is the homely, down-to-earth Inspector Teal who is a perfect foil to the reckless gallant.

(Be forewarned that the books and films contain stereotypes that were common in the '30s and '40s.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Free E-book on C.S. Lewis

Coffee, Tea, Books and Me linked to a free title that sounds really good: Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C. S. Lewis.

It is made available at and there are several other free titles (all by John Piper). Worth a look.

While I'm on the subject of Brenda's blog, I want to give a shout out to her excellent post on "Why Bother?" In it she makes a case for taking the extra time (and money and energy) to make something beautiful even when you know that beauty won't always last.

Here's one quote: We bother because every instance we have to choose between getting by and making Beauty, we choose that part of us which is in the image of God. We choose... life.

Thank you, Brenda, for always sharing your life with such grace.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Value of Fairy Tales - Part Two

When I wrote about the value of fairy tales in my last post, I was not referring to the Disney versions. I am not thrilled with the messages that most of those stories convey of ignoring your parents to follow your heart (Little Mermaid, Aladdin, etc.) and female  empowerment (Mulan and Brave). Nor do I support the Princess mentality that says girls are entitled to bling and pampering.

Which brings me back to The Sleeping Beauty. In the version by C.S. Evans, we have an antidote to the fluff mentioned above. As the fairies give their gifts to the long-awaited baby, the third fairy gives virtue. "And the queen nodded her head and smiled, for though she esteemed beauty and cleverness, she knew that neither was of any worth without goodness of heart."

The above quote is one of many examples of the story´s rich language. Here is another: The king's decree required that all spinning wheels, whether they be worked by hand or by treadle or by any other device, together with all spindles, shuttles, bobbins, and all other accessories or appurtenances, shall forthwith be rendered up to the officers of the King. (Hooray for books without dumbed-down language!)

Not only was the story well-written and slyly humorous, it was morally uplifting. It effortlessly dealt with eternal truths such as:

1) We were made for happy endings. No, this is not the same as saying life will have no problems. We live in a sinful world, but Christians are called to be hope-ers. We believe God's power is available to help us overcome struggles and that even with less-than perfect lives, life is a gift worth living. And because we have eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), no earthly pleasure will truly satisfy  us. We were made for more.

2) We were made to await a bridegroom. Not everyone will get married and live happily ever after, but the key theme of fairy tales is still a biblical one. We were created to live in intimate fellowship with God. This begins on earth when we believe in Christ for salvation, but will culminate when He comes back for his pure and spotless bride. (Revelations 19:7-9, II Corinthians 11:2)

3) We were made to be virtuous. We were created in the image of God and meant to be holy. When Adam and Eve sinned, we were robbed of our heritage. Salvation and sanctification are what God uses to slowly restore what was lost.

Who knew there could be so much theology in fairy tales!?

There are many versions of the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, but my favorite highlights goodness of heart. While the huge giant (with his enormously long legs) is chasing after the little, helpless boy, we are amazed that Jack can outrun him, but the narrator quickly explains, "Jack was not a bit afraid, for he saw the giant was so tipsy he could hardly stand, much less run; and he himself had young legs and a clear conscience, which carry a man a long way."

A nice, free source for fairy tales for Kindle is Andrew Lang´s The Blue Fairy BookThe version is only 99 cents.

Any thoughts? Comments? Story recommendations?

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Value of Fairy Tales - Part One

I just finished reading The Sleeping Beauty, which was a poignant reminder of how much I love fairy tales. Why would a 50-something, no-nonsense mom/teacher/missionary who hates sappy books and gushy movies, have a yen for this kind of thing? Aren´t fairy tales unrealistic and unhealthy?

Both G. K Chesterton and C. S. Lewis believed in the power of story to transmit eternal truths. Some would argue that fairy tales are hogwash. (In my early years as a homeschooler I read many diatribes against them.) But I tend to agree with Victorian author Juliana Ewing who wrote:

Fairy tales have positive uses in education, which no cramming of facts, and no merely domestic fiction can serve. Like Proverbs and Parables, they deal with first principles under the simplest forms. They convey knowledge of the world, shrewd lessons of virtue and vice, of common sense and sense of humor, of the seemly and the absurd, of pleasure and pain, success and failure. . . . They treat not the corner of a nursery or a playground, but the world at large, of forces visible and invisible, of Life, Death, and Immortality.

If you read my post on On The Shoulders of Hobbits, you will remember the quote on how politically correct stories have taken the place of  fairy tales. Now instead of virtues such as courage, honesty, and self-sacrifice, we are starving our children´s moral imaginations by teaching them that the highest virtues are tolerance, multiculturalism and environmentalism. Ugh.

Obviously, not all fairy tales are created equal and discerning parents must choose carefully. Hans Christian Anderson is often too dark for my tastes (even though I know the deaths in his stories mirror the self-sacrificing love of Christ). Some versions of Rapunzel have her getting pregnant out of wedlock; other stories deal with problems such as injustice (Cinderella), abandonment (Hansel and Gretel), cruelty, greed and imprisonment (Rapunzel). But it is in the context of these stories that children learn that evil can be overcome. As Chesterton so famously said, Children know that "dragons" (evil) exist. Fairy stories tell them that dragons can be killed. (paraphrase from Tremendous Trifles)

My next post will go into more detail of the lush prose and spiritual imagery of Charles Evan´s version of Sleeping Beauty.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

One of my favorite books of the year has been Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (reviewed here) so I was happy to nab one of her previous books, Bittersweet, when it went on sale for Kindle.

 Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through. . . . Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy. (p. 11)

Niequist writes of her struggles after job loss, miscarriage, moves and other challenges with a quirkiness and vulnerability that are appealing. I totally "get" her confession about standing in front of the refrigerator and inhaling cold pizza before a writing deadline. I, too, am a nervous wreck before beginning any major project.

She emphasizes the longings we all have and the grace that heals our brokenness. She mercilessly exposes the reasons why we try to "fix" our husbands ("we want the other person to grow because it suits our own needs better") and why we are always running on empty ("because of my insistence that I can do all, my lust for life crosses over into a cycle of frantic activity, without soul or connection.")

She addresses the soul-crushing load of always trying to meet other people's expectations. She does this in a funny way in the chapter on motherhood, but in a more serious way in her essay on priorities. "Deciding what I want [to be] isn't that hard. But deciding what I'm willing to give up for those things is like yoga for my superego, stretching and pushing and ultimately healing that nasty little person inside of me who exists only for what people think." (p. 57)

More favorite quotes: A full life is not the same as a full calendar. (p. 169)

We are where we are. The world is as beautiful and broken as it ever was, and if you're like me, it takes some tricks to get back to centered, whole, deep-breathing, faith-filled places. (p. 132)

And this funny one: Weddings are almost like birth experiences: something entirely new and sacred coming to life right in your midst. Of all the things I get to do, officiating weddings for people I love is my absolute favorite, because it's like. . . being a midwife, but with no blood or screaming. (p. 138)

This book didn't touch me as profoundly as B & W, but it is insightful, witty, and keeps it real. Worth a look.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Quote of the Week - The Beauty of the Ordinary

Edie Wadsworth over at Life in Grace opened her post today with this quote:

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. 
Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. 
Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. 
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, pears. 
Show them how to cry when pets and people die. 
Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand. 
And make the ordinary come alive for them. 
The extraordinary will take care of itself. 
- William Martin

Hop on over to her blog to read the rest of the article. Good stuff.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

Who am I to criticize Shakespeare? All I know is that I like some of his plays and don't like others. Strangely, I'm inclined to enjoy his tragedies since they aren't quite as silly as the comedies. Midsummer Night's Dream may be the silliest of them all.

The most famous line from this play is "The course of true love never did run smooth," and Shakespeare sets out to prove just how foolish and fickle lovers can be. Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius. Both men love Hermia. But, of course, Hermia's father wants her to marry the one she doesn't love. Oberon and Titania (fairy king and queen) have a spat and he casts a spell that causes more romantic confusion.

I'm sure it would have been much more enjoyable (and much easier to keep everybody straight) if I'd watched the play. Maybe someday. For now I have to say the most delightful part of the whole experience was reading the Arthur Rackham version. Even on the Kindle Fire the pictures were large enough to admire. Rackham perfectly captured the ethereal quality of the fairies. The only fly in the ointment (apart from the silliness) was that I could not underline favorite passages. These beautifully illustrated books are like pdf files and cannot be highlighted.

I especially enjoyed Oberon and Titania's benediction at the end of the story: "Hand in hand, with fairy grace, will we sing, and bless this place."

I'm halfway through my goal to read  four Shakespeare plays this year!

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Life of Obedience by Andrew Murray

In our anti-authoritarian culture, books about radical obedience rank up there in popularity with books on male headship. I have to admit I picked up A Life of Obedience only because it was offered for free and because I love Andrew Murray.

Murray traces the theme of obedience from Genesis to Revelation. We all know that sin was introduced into the world through Adam and Eve´s disobedience. And we know that the Israelites were given constant commands to walk in God´s ways or else suffer the consequences. 

But isn't that just for the Old Testament? Don´t we now live in a state of grace, light years away from all that legalism? Murray would say no. At every single point in Jesus´ ministry He was 100 percent obedient to his Father. We are to do nothing less than follow his example. "If you love me, keep my commandments."

Lest we fall into the trap of seeing this as salvation by rule-keeping, Murray elaborates on the blessings of living in such intimate relationship with Christ that it is our joy to live unreservedly for his honor and glory. Whereas the Jews of the Old Testament did their best to follow God´s commands and kept failing, New Testament Christians were given not only Christ´s example, but Christ´s enabling presence. The Holy Spirit changes our rebellious, stony hearts into "hearts of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26) as we yield ourselves completely to God. Some traditions call this "sanctification" or "complete surrender;" Murray contends that without it, we are doomed to a life of mediocre Christianity.

I highlighted countless passages but will share just a few:

We have imagined that more study of the Word, more faith, more prayer, or more communion with God would surely be the keys [to abiding in Christ], but we have overlooked a simple truth: "He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me." So, again, obedience is the key... obedience on earth is the key to pleasing God's heart. (p. 17)

If you accustom yourself to studying the Bible without an earnest and definite purpose to obey, you will become hardened in disobedience. (p. 49)

From the very outset of the Christian life, let us avoid the fatal mistake of calling Christ "Master" but not doing what He says. (p. 58)

Beware of seeking just enough obedience to ease your conscience, and as a result to lose the desire to do and be and give God all He is worthy of. (p. 92)

A very worthwhile book!

Friday, September 5, 2014

On the Shoulders of Hobbits by Louis Markos

I first heard of Louis Markos when The Teaching Company offered a big discount on his lectures about C.S. Lewis. Later my husband enjoyed Restoring Beauty, Markos' book on the themes of truth and beauty in Lewis' books.

While I was still reeling from the impact of The Lord of the Rings (which I read it for the first time in 2013), I heard that Markos had written a book called, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis; I knew I had to have it.

His introduction, called "Stories to Steer By," suggests that in the past morality has been taught "first and foremost through stories." But today there is a dearth of such tales. "Worse yet, we try to make up counter stories, politically correct fairy tales that are as paltry as the newfangled virtues they are meant to celebrate" [i.e.tolerance, multiculturalism and environmentalism.] (p. 12)

Markos then sets out to celebrate the traditional virtues of courage, love, self-control, etc. by highlighting how each of them is portrayed in the masterworks of Tolkien and Lewis. Although friendship is not included in common lists of virtues, Markos contends that Tolkien elevated it to new heights with his powerful depiction of the bonds between the members of the Fellowship, especially between Sam and Frodo.

Each chapter of the book deals with a specific moral quality as evidenced in Lord of the Rings and in the Narnia Chronicles. Although I loved both of them, I wasn't always able to appreciate the two of them being compared side by side. It was jarring at times to be pulled out Middle Earth and yanked into Narnia. Still, I appreciated Markos' keen observations with regard to these two masterpieces of English literature.

Fairy tales are often accused of prettifying hard truths. In the hands of masters like Lewis and Tolkien, they are more likely to strip away prettified lies. (p. 153)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Thoughts on

Audiobooks are expensive. Audible charges $14.95 per month/book and therefore, I wasn't even vaguely interested in joining. When I registered my new Kindle, I was given the option of two free Audible titles (normally it's just one) and the right to drop my membership at any time. Since I'd been wanting to buy a pricey audio Bible, the offer was too hard to resist. I decided to get my free books and hang around for a couple of months to buy a few more at the regular price.

As I cullled through the titles I discovered many favorites at rock-bottom prices. Without using either of my "expensive" credits, I bought two favorites: Jane Eyre and Persuasion. Through their summer kids' book sale I got Peter Pan. At their anniversary sale I got two Shakespeare plays for 99 cents each. Also, there are some deep discounts if you already own the book version on Kindle. Did I mention that most of these titles are done by outstanding British voices? Top that with their beyond excellent customer service, and I'm one happy camper.

The final results...

ESV Audio Bible - Free Credit (I would not recommend this version because of navigation difficulties.)
Classics of British Literature (24 lectures) - Free Credit ($250 on The Great Courses website)
Jane Eyre - $2.99
Jane Austen's Persuasion - 69 cents
Psalms (KJV) - $2.35
Peter Pan - $2.99
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - 99 cents
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - 99 cents
Paid Credit #1 - With a Buy-One-Get-One-Free I purchased Part One of The Lord of the Rings (19 hours!) and Higher Call, a WWII title I've been wanting to read.
Paid Credit #2 - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
Wind in the Willows - $2.99
Richard Burton reading Poetry of John Donne - $4.95
Screwtape Letters - $1.95

Summing it all up: If you get your free title(s) and several deals along with a few regularly priced books, it's VERY reasonable. (For around $50 I got 13 books and 24 lectures.) Well-produced audiobooks at about $4 each are quite a bargain.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Free Kindle Titles - Christian Classics

I'm a voracious reader, but I have to remind myself to balance fiction with non-fiction. So I've intentionally scheduled six devotional books into my next 10 months of reading. Here's what I'm hoping to read: A Life of Obedience by Murray, Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan, Wisdom & Wonder by Kuyper, The Scarcity of Praying Men by Opoku, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright, and Death by Living by Wilson. Almost all of these were free at the time I downloaded them, but are now back to their original prices. Many Christian books, however, are always free for Kindle and I thought I'd highlight those this week:

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
The Pursuit of God by Tozer
Lord, Teach Us To Pray  by Andrew Murray (ANYTHING by Murray is good.)
When the Holy Ghost is Come by Samuel Logan Brengle (founder of The Salvation Army)
Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan
The Confessions of St. Augustine
The Practice of the Presence by Brother Lawrence

Free titles by D.L. Moody, and R.C. Sproul are also available.

Since the newest NIV is not a reliable translation, I'm pleased that these two good Bibles are free - HCSB and the ESV.

Do you know of any titles I missed?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Ernest Hemingway famously declared in 1935. Considered by some to be the greatest American novel, Huckleberry Finn is definitely not one of those classics you have to struggle through. Twain is a gifted story teller and there is nary a dull moment in this tale of a young boy and his struggle to live free from society's constraints. Plus, a lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Critics of the book fall into two distinct camps. The loudest group calls it racist for it's profusion of derogatory references to African Americans (This is why it has been banned in many schools). The other group insists that Twain was reflecting the language of the times BUT was making a strong case for the humane treatment of black Americans. After all, Huck grows to love and respect Jim, and refuses to return him to slavery.

This idea of allowing Jim to go free was so counter-culture that Huck decides it must be a sin: He writes, "All right, then, I'll go to hell. . . . And I never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go whole hog." (from Chapter 31)

I listened to the audio version done by Elijah Wood, which was outstanding. My only quibble is that it is easier to skim over coarse language in a physical book, but impossible to do so with an audiobook. Having been taught as a child that the "N" word was profanity, hearing it over 200 times caused a continual pang.

Friday, August 8, 2014

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None is one of Christie's most famous novels. It's not really a spoiler to tell you what's right on the back cover: Ten people are on an island and are murdered one by one. But there is no 11th person. How is it done?

There are two film versions, one made in 1945 and the other 20 years later with the title Ten Little Indians. I saw the 1965 movie version when I was a child, but luckily I'd forgotten the identity of the culprit. I did remember a key point to the plot, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the mystery. Christie writes an engaging story with fascinating characters that keeps you hooked to the end.

Note: this was not as cozy a story as Miss Marple's The Murder at the Vicarage since there was a lot more hysteria and swearing. Still, it was a satisfying, quick read.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Children of the Blitz by Robert Westall

I didn't find the Children of the Blitz; they found me. It began when I wrote The Machine Gunners in 1975; a book about kids in the Second World War who find a crashed German bomber, steal its machine-gun and set out to fight their own war against the Germans.

Thus Westall introduces his book of war-time memories. After the publication of Machine Gunners, hundreds of letters poured in from men and women who had been children during the War and had their own hair-raising adventures to share.

Stories range from how families built their own bomb shelters, to how they stretched their food budget (many through black market purchases), to how kids spent their free time looking for spies or searching through downed planes for war souvenirs. The prevailing emotion of the anecdotes is not fear, but a great sense of adventure. For many of these children the war was a time of much freedom, (Many schools were closed and parents were too worried or too busy surviving to police them.).

Westall knows that memory can be selective and that events can take on larger-than-life proportions with time. So he refers to these stories as "war myths." For every one story that is a hundred percent true, there are probably five that have been wildly exaggerated. But who can verify the facts now? Nevertheless many of the memories match up with events recorded in other books I've read such as London 1945 and The Children's War.
I especially enjoyed the stories of POWs since I recently read Morpurgo's Little Manfred, a story of a British family befriending a German prisoner after the War.  In Westall's book, a fourteen year old boy recalls: I remember practicing the piano one afternoon and seeing a German POW, who was engaged in hedge-cutting for the local farmer, spending a long time on the [bush]immediately in front of our house. When we got into a conversation with him, it turned out he had been a cathedral organist in Germany and he was delighted to listen to anyone playing Bach, even a beginner like me..."

This is just one of many astounding stories that will delight lovers of war history, especially as it pertains to life on the homefront.

Monday, July 28, 2014

E-Books vs Physical Books - Part Three

Tim Challies once again linked to a great post from The New Yorker about how our brains process printed words and the big difference between e-books and regular books. I continue to be fascinated by this discussion.

One slice of the article:

Professor Ann Mangen had her students read a short story in two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers' comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order - a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring deep analysis or critical thinking -  those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical, but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

MaryanneWolf's (author of a book on the history of reading called Proust and the Squid) concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading..."Reading is a bridge to thought," she says. "And it's that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading."

Two previous posts on this topic are here and here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

After I read a number of reviewers saying Mrs. Mike was their favorite book ever, I whipped over to PaperBackSwap and snagged a copy. A few months later (as we headed out the door for a few days of vacation) I stuffed it into my bookbag expecting a fun, fluffy read. The first few chapters have a little romance and a lot of humor, so I settled in for a cozy time of it. I did not get what I bargained for.

It's 1906 and sixteen year old Kathy O'Fallon is sent to Alberta, Canada to live with a bachelor uncle because the climate is supposed to be good for her lungs. She falls in love with Mike Flannigan, a Canadian Mountie, marries and moves even farther north. Kathy discovers that her husband not only represents the law, he's doctor, dentist, counselor and jack-of-all-trades. Not only that. Life. Is. Hard. Forest fires, vicious bears, diptheria epidemics, and sub-zero temperatures are just a few of the perils they face.

So it wasn't the light read I was expecting, but it was deeply satisfying nevertheless. Kathy and Mike start with happiness, get sidetracked by tragedies, but fight their way back to joy. I kept thinking their story would make a great movie, and sure enough a 1949 version was filmed. I didn't know till I linked this review to Amazon that there are two sequels: The Search for Joyful and Kathy Little Bird.

As much as I hate swearing, none of the cursing in this book seemed gratuitous. In fact, the funniest scene in the entire book involved a drunk man being made sober by putting his head under a water pump where "profanity and water ran down into the drain." Also, there is one reference to the Indians as "savages," but for the most part Kathy and Mike love and reach out to the Indians.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Michael O'Brien Quote on Stories

Because I appreciate a good discussion about children's literature and the value of fairy tales, I enjoyed Michael O'Brien's A Landscape With Dragons. He argues against most modern fiction for young people because it makes the macabre appealing. (This was written well before the vampire craze.) Fairy tales, says O'Brien, have bad dragons and good knights and children are very aware of the line between good and evil. Modern stories, on the other hand blur the lines between the two.

Our truest stories tell us who we are and where we should be going. They inform us about the nature of the enemy. They strengthen us for the journey. A badly flawed tale, on the other hand, can weaken and confuse it. It may even direct us into some very dangerous territory. (p. 102)

My favorite quote along this line will always be G.K. Chesterton's on dragons: Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell the children that dragons can be killed. (This is a paraphrase of the quote from Tremendous Trifles: "What fairy tales give the child is  his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.")

Friday, July 18, 2014

Faith in Literature

After my rant about substandard writing in Christian romances, I thought I'd create a list of classics that skillfully portray the intense Christian beliefs of their central characters without nauseating the reader.

The Warden  by Trollope (my review here)
The Dean's Watch by Goudge (my review here)
Gilead by Robinson (my review here)
Cry, the Beloved Country by Paton (my review here)
Middlemarch by Eliot (my review here)
Jane Eyre  by Brontë (my review here)
Silence by Endo (my review here)

Marvin Olasky (in the June 28 issue of World Magazine) listed his ten favorite Christian fiction authors: Randy Alcorn, Don Brown, Tim Downs, Brian Godawa, Steven James, Ray Keating, John K. Reed, Randy Singer, Dave Swavely and Bret Lott. (I have not read ANY of these guys, but wonder if they lean toward more guy-friendly stories.)

Do you have any recommendations for novels (new or old) that show faith in God in a positive, convincing way?

(For more suggestions on faith in literature, the list of "100 Authors of Faith" at has always intrigued me. I've only read about a dozen of them so far.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

Several writers who are remembered as children’s authors also wrote books for adults. (Dr. Seuss, Russell Hoban, Frances Hodgsen Burnett, and A.A. Milne, to name a few.) Since I’ve been in the mood for mysteries this summer, I was happy to see Milne’s The Red House Mystery was a free download for Kindle.

Mark Ablett is a rich, spoiled bachelor whose only friend is his cousin, Matthew Cayley. Cayley runs Ablett’s estate and caters to his whims. Suddenly one day Ablett’s estranged brother arrives from Australia, someone dies, and the reader is left to figure out who did it and why.

I guessed some of the answers very early on in the book, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of this British mystery. The charm of the book rests on the character of Antony Gillingham, another wealthy bachelor who arrives on the scene just as the murder has been committed. He is a man who likes to experience life and has enough money to dabble in any profession that he likes. He’s been a waiter, a journalist and a shop clerk. And after becoming involved in the investigation, he decides to play amateur detective. His friend Bill Beverly plays Watson to Gillingham’s Holmes and their banter is spot on.

There is some mild swearing.  The English use the word “ass” in a way that we Americans do not. It’s almost a term of endearment when Beverly calls Gillingham a “silly old ass.” It reminded me of the way that Christopher Robin affectionately addresses Pooh as “silly old bear.”

It’s the perfect “cozy mystery” with delightful characters, witty dialogue and a murder with no gratuitous details. A good option for summer reading.