Saturday, May 1, 2021

What I Read and Watched in April

I started teaching an online class on April 19, so I worked hard to finish three hefty books before that deadline, knowing I wouldn't have much time after that. 

I finished Anna Karenina and was greatly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. (review forthcoming) I finished up two books for my theology class: The Transforming Power of Grace by Methodist theologian Thomas Oden and John Wesley in Theological Debate by Allan Coppedge (who was my advisor when I did my masters 30 years ago). I loved both books but they are definitely for theology nerds.  

In between the heavy reading, I watched lighter fare: nine episodes of "Julia," a TV series I enjoyed as a child, which is available on YouTube. I also watched two Hallmark mysteries (Murder 101: Killer Timing, and Crossword Mysteries: Riddle Me Dead) which were just okay. Dan and I also watched the first two episodes of the second season of The Chosen

Once my class started, I had much less time for reading or movie watching. Our son let us log into his Netflix account to watch the new Tom Hank's western, News of the World last weekend. I loved the book and love Hanks, but felt this movie didn't come up to the quality of storytelling that True Grit had.

Did you watch or read anything wonderful in April?


Friday, April 23, 2021

Audiobooks are Amazing! (Except When They're Not)

I am a huge fan of audiobooks. They helped me get through intimidating books like Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and Nicholas Nickleby. And literary classics are twice the fun when heard in a British accent. Occasionally I abandon an audiobook if the narrator isn't that great. Sometimes I'm frustrated at having to "rewind" the book in order to capture a choice quote. But these are small quibbles. Audiobooks are what got me out of my slump last year so I shouldn't criticize them, right? 

This year I've discovered a few additional reasons why they are not always ideal. 

(1) Sometimes listening to a book makes the story come to life in a bad way. That happened when I tackled Kristin Lavransdatter earlier this year; I became so emotionally immersed in the story that I had to revert to the written page to manage the stress. 

(2) Sometimes they come dangerously close to sounding like bad preaching. Recently my small group began reading the book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Scazzero. It has some good ideas mixed in with pop psychology. Listening to it often made me angry. But when I read the actual page, I was able to overlook the flimsy reasoning and sift out the good stuff.

(3) Sometimes you miss important details. I listened to several Dorothy Sayers' mysteries in February. When I went back through the written text to find favorite quotes, I discovered some essential clues that I'd missed while listening. This is not the fault of the audiobook as much as it is the fact that I usually listen while doing something else (cooking or exercising) so my mind is less engaged.

Still, I'm a huge fan because there's something scrumptious about being read to. Yet I'm aware that it has its limits. What about you? Did you ever find that listening to a certain book was a bad way to "read" it?


Friday, April 9, 2021

Eating Together as a Basis for Culture - quote from Sean Fitzpatrick

Breaking bread together is a deep sign of cultural togetherness, for it bestows both natural and supernatural nourishment. What’s more, a meal is a ritual. It’s a manifestation of living together in harmony and health—an enactment of human civility and civilization. Food provides a happy occasion for gathering and collective enjoyment, which is one of the pillars of friendship and a healthy culture. As an essentially life-giving activity, the meal is a sacrament of family and friends; it is a sign and a strengthening of the life that flows from those labors of love that bind people together....

Today the idea and ethics of dining are deteriorating into a hurried, harried, pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. The very expression “fast food” is inimical to the most essential reason for meals, which arises not out of speed but out of care, consideration, and conversation. Just as Mass and prayer are not for hastening through, neither are meals. The current tendency, however, is not only to eat in a rush, which prevents the enjoyment of a meal and demeans the dignity of food, but also to eat alone, which diminishes the sense of community. When meals are sacred, the labor and leisure of communities will be sacred—and that sanctity is the basis of culture.

Food for Thought by Sean Fitzpatrick (from Crisis Magazine)


Friday, April 2, 2021

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch is not a "how to" as much as a "why to" book on limiting technology. This book is about much more than just social media, or even screens. It's about how to live as full, flourishing human beings. Maybe it will even turn out that in that quest for flourishing, technology in its proper place can actually help. Crouch's definition of a family, and what it takes to make a family healthy, made this a strong four-star read for me. Technology must serve the needs of the family, and not be its master. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, etc.) When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

I appreciated his many insights into the false promises of technology to make life easier. Easier and flashier platforms, games, and programs often encourage us to opt out of activities that take more mental and emotional energy. These harder activities are the ones that enrich us and help us grow. The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy. Difficulty and resistance, as long as they are age appropriate and not too discouraging, are actually what press our brains and bodies to adapt and learn.

I was completely taken aback by the last chapter on how Christians must live in incarnational community, including the dignity of "low-tech" dying. This probably wouldn't have hit me so hard if it hadn't been for the families I know who suffered the loss of a loved one due to COVID and could not be with them at the moment of their passing. Crouch writes, We are meant not just for thin, virtual connections but for visceral, real connections to one another in this fleeting, temporary, and infinitely beautiful and worthwhile life. We are meant to die in one another's arms, surrounded by prayer and song, knowing beyond a doubt that we are loved.

Crouch wrote so winsomely of his daily, weekly, and yearly fasts from his devices, that I decided to get on board by making Sunday a no-screen day. I had no idea how hard that would be. Ignoring my TV and computer was a cinch, but because I use my cell phone as a kitchen timer and podcast source, and my Kindle's white noise app for taking naps, the temptation was always there to  mindlessly scroll through social media when I picked up these tools. This is a fast that I'm still determined to learn how to do.

I never dreamed that a little book on the dangers of technology overload would be so inspiring. Definitely another of my favorite books of 2021.


Friday, March 26, 2021

What I Read and Watched in March

I continue to be amazed at the deep pleasure I am experiencing through books this year. After last year's slump, this is such a relief. I read/finished nine books this month and am listing them in the order of how much I enjoyed them.

1) Most fun was Dorothy Sayer's Unnatural Death (Book #3 in Lord Peter Wimsey novels) because of the the great writing and intricate plot.
2) Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch was surprisingly theological. Instead of giving points on how to limit technology, he writes winsomely of what it means to be a family and how technology can help or hinder that. (review next week)
3) Silas Marner by George Eliot is a beautiful story of redemption, which I read with the Literary Life podcast group.
4) Down to Bedrock by Eric Cordingly - P.O.W. memoir (review here)
5) Clouds of Witness by Sayers (Book #2 Lord Peter)
6) The Changi Cross - a short book following the history of a hand-made cross during WWII
7) Your God is too Small by J.B. Phillips. Somehow this classic did not resonate with me. I loved the concluding thoughts. 
8) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey was good but not as amazing as expected.
9) Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a well-written coming of age story, but with too much teenage angst for me. (To be fair, teens are the intended audience so I should not have been surprised.)

We haven't had much time for TV lately, but have been able to squeeze in an episode of the new PBS version of All Creatures Great and Small once a week. The recordings were sometimes too garbled to watch so we missed a few episodes, but the final episode was so delightful that I watched it twice.

What about you? Did you read or watch anything great in March?


Friday, March 19, 2021

Pink Sugar by O. Douglas

Pink Sugar
 is the third book in the Priorsford series by O. Douglas (pseudonym of Anna Masterson Buchan). Although I didn't like the second book very much, this one harkened back to the style and charm of Book One (Penny Plain) because of its rich vocabulary and many literary references (Shakespeare, the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, the Bront√ęs, Chesterton, Dickens, etc.)

I was enchanted with this light novel of Kirsty Gilmour and her bravery in tackling new goals and projects after the death of her stepmother. At thirty she considers herself a spinster and plans to spend her life investing in other people. 

Having lived only in hotels as she traveled the world, Kirsty wants life at its simplest: a little plain house in an old-fashioned garden with plain meals and no smart servants. On hearing her desire to buy a small cottage and "live for others," her friend Blanche responds drily: My dear, I'm afraid you think now that you are free and in Scotland that the millennium has come. It hasn't. People can be just as selfish and tiresome and ungrateful in Muirburn as in any other place. [Your cottage], charming as it is, won't be a serpentless Eden. Don't expect too much and don't try to do too much for people... I don't believe, she said darkly, 'that people like being lived for.'

Previously Kirsty had served a demanding and spoiled parent, but in her new life she gladly gives of herself to take care of an elderly aunt and three motherless children. Her desire to help others (her "pink sugar" attitude is that everyone should be happy) occasionally gets her into trouble. These troubles keep the book from becoming too saccharine. The well-to-do vicar and his wife who care too much about keeping up appearances, the handsome poor vicar with his unhappy sister, the darling governess, the down-to-earth author of "pleasant fiction" and the surly landlord are just a few of the characters who keep the story interesting.

The Scottish brogue can be a challenge, but it's delightful when you make the effort to decipher it. "Gleg as a hawk" means alert. To "fash oneself" is to trouble yourself. "She was sweir to gang' an' blythe to come back," means she was disinclined to go, but eager to return.

Charming from start to finish.


Friday, March 12, 2021

The Ministry of Intercession by Andrew Murray

We all know we should pray more, but why are we so reluctant? Andrew Murray deals with this question head on in his book The Ministry of Intercession. And he does not waste any time mollycoddling his readers. We may complain of lack of time or lack of motivation, but Murray writes,

Feebleness and failure in prayer is a sign of feebleness in the spiritual life. If we lack in this area, we lack in many others. Prayer is meant to be as simple and natural as breathing to a healthy person. The reluctance we feel, and the failure to confess, are God’s own voice calling us to acknowledge our disease, and to come to Him for the healing He has promised…. To pray aright, the life of the Spirit must be right in us. For praying the effectual, much-availing prayer of the righteous man, everything depends on being full of the Spirit…. Beware of grieving him by sin, by unbelief, by selfishness, by unfaithfulness to His voice in your conscience. You can count on him to do in your heart all that ought to be done there.

That last sentence is crucial. Instead of loading us with guilt for not praying enough, Murray emphasizes over and over that when Christ calls us to do something, He also enables it. Rest assured that if Christ is calling you to prayer, he will heal your reluctance and your lethargy. You can trust Him to restore your spiritual strength. Pray with humility and yet with confidence that He will teach you.

I appreciated Murray’s thorough explanations of several key Bible passages on prayer, especially the one in Luke 11 that appears to teach that if we nag God long enough, He has to give in to us. I also appreciated his emphasis on the privilege of prayer: Christ has taken believers up into partnership with himself; He has honored them, and bound Himself, by making their prayers one of the standard measures of the working of His power.

The appendix of the book is a thirty-day plan for taking baby steps toward a deeper prayer life. I highly recommend this book if you want to grow in the area of intercession. I have one caveat though. If you are not familiar with Murray’s other books, which emphasize complete surrender to God and to His will, you could misconstrue several statements in this book that seem to reflect the “name it, claim it” mentality of the prosperity gospel.

This title was free at the time of posting. If you have never read Murray, I would suggest these other (more accessible) titles first. The True Vine (99 cents) and Humility (free) are two of my favorites.