Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Emily's Most Meaningful Reads of 2014

I took some time to consider which books I read this past year have most impacted my way of thinking about God, myself and the world in which I interact with him and others. Not all of these were published in 2014, but this is the year I got a hold of them. These are my top picks, with links to my blog posts about them:

Two books that most impacted my personal journal entries:
Bernadette Noll's Slow Family Living has a great list of 6 questions to help guide journal entries that I've used dozens of days in my times of reflection.Teresa A. Blythe's Fifty Ways to Pray is a treasure chest of prayer techniques from a variety of Christian traditions that has really made my quiet time feel like an adventure. Despite having this book for most of 2014, I've only mined a little of its richness and plan to keep on digging into it in 2015.

Book that fed my inner-foodie:
Hands-down, Barbara Kingsolver's memoir of her year living off local, homemade foods was enjoyable, eye-opening and motivating without being preachy. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is both intimate and journalistic, humorous and thought-provoking.

Best library find:
Kingsolver's mention of her friend and mentor Wendell Berry piqued my interest in this Kentucky author and activist. I found several volumes of his poetry in my local library, and really enjoyed the collection of poems in Given, which focus the heart God-ward through observations of God's creation.

Two books that made me a feminist:
Christians often bristle at the term feminist because it conjures up images of angry, bra-burning women who shirk domestic responsibilities and belittle those who find meaning in them. But that feminist is really a straw-woman. This year, I've come to realize that feminism is an important, even godly cause. Half the Sky by Pulitzer-winning husband and wife team Nicolas Kristof and Michelle and Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey are the two books that sealed the deal for me.

A book that gave me space to doubt without fear
I like Greg Boyd's methodical, brainy writing style, which is on full display in The Benefit of the Doubt. This book argues that doubts about the peripherals of faith don't need to undermine our core faith in Jesus. The freedom that comes with this outlook has been a balm to my heart, mind and soul. 

Best book-club read
Seeing as my friend and I only read two books this year, it might seem that my choice holds less weight. But Kisses From Katie, the memoir of an upper-middle class Nashville teen who traded her shiny future for life as an adoptive mother and relentless activist in Uganda would make my list for best reads against any odds. This is a moving book that made me reevaluate my priorities and reconsider my needs and redirect my prayer life. Best of all, Davis's love for Jesus is infectious.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What's Ahead for 2015

I've been giving my mail carrier and UPS worker a workout the last couple of days! Here's a list of books I plan to review in the next month or so:

1. What Your Body Knows About God: How We are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive, written by my friend Rob Moll

2. Mothering From Scratch: Finding the Best Parenting Style for You and Your Family by Melinda Means and Kathy Helgemo

3. Make it Happen: Surrender Your Fear, Take the Leap, Live on Purpose by Lara Casey

4. From Tablet to Table by Leonard Sweet

5. Disquiet Time edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani

How about you? What books are you planning to read this coming year?

Review of "Jotham's Journey"

I know it's not very helpful when a blogger posts a review of a book for Advent after Christmas, but I'm going to do it anyway. I had been eyeing Jotham's Journey: A Storybook for Advent, by Arnold Ytreeide, for a couple of years now, but knew my children were too young to sit through a serial story without pictures. A family tradition of reading together, an idea promoted on the back of Ytreeide's book, is something I hope to incorporate into every holiday season. Because things get really busy with all the trappings of Christmas in our consumer culture, it wasn't easy to carve out time each night to read to the boys, and only my 6-year-old stuck through to the end of the story. But he did enjoy the story of a little 10-year-old shepherd boy who gets separated from his family after an impulsive act of defiance. Throughout the nightly chapters, Jotham gets stalked by wild jackals, sold into slavery, rescued by an Essene scribe from Qumron (the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered), and chased all over Israel by a menacing villan named Decha of Megido. He also crosses paths with Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna before finding his parents in Bethlehem, where his family has returned to register for the census. I think you can guess who Jotham meets in the final chapter.

The chapters take about 10 to 15 minutes to read aloud. Both my husband and I, who took turns reading the nightly installments, modified the language of the book, which I found to be a tad too graphic for little kids in some places and too flowery in most places. The writing is geared toward children 10 and up, but the action-packed plot and closing cliff-hangers kept my son's attention. As historical fiction, the story brings the culture of the time of Christ's birth to life. As a devotional, the book includes brief passages for reflection at the end of each chapter. I didn't always read these segments, but I'm glad they were there and I can see myself including them in future years as my boys' attention spans and comprehension grow. Additionally, Jotham's Journey is the first of three books Ytreeide has written for Advent. The other two focus on other children Jotham met on his journey. We enjoyed Jotham enough that I plan to purchase the other two and rotate through these three books each Christmas season.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of "Faith Shift" by Kathy Escobar

I was attracted to the title Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart by Kathy Escobar because my own Christian beliefs have evolved significantly since I first fell in love with Jesus in high school, and I suspect I'm not quite done shifting yet. Because of my past, I related to Escobar's own unnerving journey away from a belief system that once sustained her and framed her entire life. Through her new church plant, The Refuge, and her website, Escobar has learned the stories of hundreds of Christians who, though psychologically married to a church culture that requires adherence to an extensive set of beliefs and practices, are desperate for a a change. With these stories in mind, Escobar invites readers to "consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk," as they shed those once deeply-held convictions.

Perhaps because my own shift has been gradual, I found the first half of the book difficult to really embrace. Escobar reaches out to those who began as Christians and have shifted to spiritual-but-not-Christian, agnostic or even atheist. She offers multiple examples of ex-pastors becoming atheists as they heal from an abusive church setting. I expected this book to be about a shift in faith, rather than a complete severing of one's faith; however, "Severing" is actually one of the points on Escobar's diagram depicting the process of shifting.

For example, Fiona is a former pastor's wife who has dabbled with atheism, agnosticism and Christian agnosticism since a crisis of faith. To this, Escobar asserts, "Regardless of which label she wears on a particular day, the crucial truth she has needed to embrace for her healing is that she really is okay. No matter what she believes, she is going to be all right" (113). Since Escobar doesn't qualify or explain this sentiment, I felt pretty uncomfortable and wondered where where she would finally land. I'm guessing many readers who turn to the book in an attempt to salvage their Christian faith would also be troubled by this.

Because it contains so many anecdotes of those who completely left Christianity, the first half of the book seemed to present a contradictory message: Believe what you want to believe in order to heal from abuse or legalism or burn-out. Do what you need to do to recover emotionally, physically and spiritually. Question your long-held beliefs without fear because it will lead you to a deeper faith. Except when it doesn't. Which is also OK.

I just couldn't get OK with this message. But, fortunately, I didn't have to for long. If things were completely foggy a few pages before, Escobar makes it clear, "I am not promoting walking away from God" (115). And beginning in chapter 10, which discusses "The Stage of Rebuilding," I found the much needed glimpses of hope Escobar promises in her introduction. Here, Escobar beautifully articulates many things I've longed for in my own faith journey, such as a "desire for freedom, mystery and diversity -- instead of certainty, conformity or affiliation" (127). She proposes a Christian life that sees the world through a filter of "hopeful realism," honoring to those we meet from the "fused faith" of our past, accepting of our own doubts and expectantly open to new possibilities.

Escobar also encourages shifters to consider what remains of our previous faith, because each remaining essential belief is like a "treasured gem" that can illuminate a simple path forward (143). She offers the following sentence stem as a template for hashing out the diamonds: "Despite my doubt, I still believe ____________________" (146). In chapter 12, "Finding What Works," she provides plenty of examples of ways to connect with God that might be outside readers' previous church tradition. Trying a new prayer practice or reading books or bible versions considered taboo in one's former circle can be particularly freeing, Escobar writes, because it's less likely to trigger old memories, habits and shame.

The book closes with more resources, such as tips for those who find themselves shifting while their spouse is not, those concerned about their children's nascent faith during a parent's shift and non-shifters looking for ways to connect with friends or family members who are shifting. Additionally, a nice fat reading list of memoirs, theology and spirituality had me on Amazon looking up future reads.

I would tentatively recommend Faith Shift to someone who is really at a crossroads in their faith, but feels alone in the process. Despite Escobar's emphasis on the full process of Fusing, Shifting, Unraveling, Severing and Rebuilding, I would probably recommend that readers who are disenchanted with religion but still in love with Jesus, skim the first nine chapters and jump right to the good stuff of Rebuilding.

*Thanks to Blogging For Books for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review of "Fierce Convictions"

When I saw the gorgeous cover of Fierce Convictions, with its elegantly dressed young woman storming through an English garden I couldn't help but imagine the spurned heroine of a Jane Austen novel. The biography's subtitle, The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, was even more enticing, promising a heroine whose life pursuits centered on scholarly achievement and humanitarian activism rather than securing a wealthy husband.

Though a prominent and prolific writer in her day, Hannah More has been largely forgotten by the 18th century history narratives of today. Karen Swallow Prior resurrects this key figure through extensive research of her letters, literary works and the words of her contemporaries, such as fellow abolitionist and famed orator William Wilberforce. Prior also emphasizes the source of More's extraordinary zeal as her Christian faith, which, surprisingly, grew deeper even as her worldly fame and success mounted. 

 Prior describes More as a "woman of contradictions and convictions" (87), and supports this with ample examples. The book begins by shining light on More's humble origins, her early aptitude for literature (including a witty poem she wrote at four) and her at times awkward and starry eyed rise to fashionable London society. The author also avails herself of the requisite romantic tragedy, devoting an early chapter to Hannah's on-again off-again engagement to a rich but waffling suitor.

From here, the book is largely arranged by topic rather than chronological order. This was probably the biggest detractor of the biography for me. I found myself having to calculate More's age with every mention of the date. This broke up the fluidity of her story and her evolving convictions for me. Often it felt like I was traveling back and forth through time rather than riding smoothly along through the protagonist's life.  Despite my difficulties with date crunching, I was still drawn into the book and inspired by this amazing woman.

Highlights for me included Prior's descriptions of More's abolitionist efforts, like her penchant for whipping out engravings of slave ships during high society dinner parties. Prior also included the full text of More's moving poem "Slavery." My favorite chapter describes More and her sister Patty tromping through the countryside to woo rich and poor alike for support in setting up a school for the rural poor. This project eventually produced dozens of schools and fueled the rise of public education. As a member and often host of the Clapham Sect meetings, More and some of the brightest male reformers worked late into the night hashing out strategies to turn the tide of public opinion away from slavery, cruelty to animals and oppression of the poor. 

Because she confessed and acted upon a spectrum of timeless moral convictions for improving the lives of "the least of these" and for reining in the excesses of the greatest, More certainly makes my cut for a modern day role model. Yet, though More was ahead of her time, Prior was careful to show that her convictions were tempered by the prevailing culture of her day. More assented to many conservative beliefs that seem backward in today's culture. Despite owing her own rags to riches story to the power and income of her pen, she didn't believe in teaching the poor to write, for fear that they would distribute their own revolutionary tracts. And though More was considered a shining example of female wit and strength, she hypocritically belittled the leadership qualities of women in general, writing in a letter to a friend that "there is perhaps no animal so much indebted to subordination for its good behavior as woman" (213). Ouch.

But I don't want to end on that note. Overall, Hannah More's story is one that needs to be read, and her extraordinary life emulated. She struck a delicate balance between living in the world but not of it, and Prior brings to life More's world and convictions in this comprehensive and interesting biography.

*Thanks to BookLook Bloggers for providing my copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review of "Cassie & Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design"

I’m going to partially blame myself for misunderstanding what this book was. When I saw the siblings frolicking across stones in a frog pond on the cover of Cassie & Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design, I assumed it was going to be a devotional exploring how the wonders of nature reveal our Creator’s wisdom. When I read the back cover, which states that from reading these twenty devotions, “your children will learn: The creational principle that ‘God created man in his own image…male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27) is extraordinary!” I still did not realize this devotional, written by Susan Hunt and Richie Hunt and published by Moody, focuses specifically on gender roles and the differences between boys and girls. I don’t dispute the biological, hormonal and cultural differences between the sexes, but I’m sensitive about how I approach these differences with my boys, because I don’t want to cultivate potentially harmful stereotypes in their impressionable minds.

What this book is:
Similar to the Hunts’ book My ABC Bible Verses, which my oldest son enjoyed when he was in preschool, Cassie & Caleb teaches biblical principles by following siblings through their quintessential childhood experiences. At 96 pages, Cassie & Caleb is geared toward 5- to 8-year-olds. Unlike My ABC Bible Verses, it is illustrated with dreamy-eyed children in an array of nationalities. Each chapter also contains a two-page story, discussion questions, Catechism questions to memorize and a prayer prompt.

My Two Cents:
The inescapable theme of this book is that God created males to be the adventurous, leaders and breadwinners and females to be the tender, weaker nurturer in a supporting role to men. For example, as the family discusses Genesis 2 around the dinner table in one story, Caleb comments, “It seems to me… that Adam was not acting like a man. He didn’t lead the woman by reminding her of God’s Word” (62). Boys are also portrayed as more naturally rough and tumble than their delicate counterparts.  In another story, Caleb and his buddy sneak up behind Cassie and her friend and pummel them with mud until they scream. Instead of chiding them, the older, wiser adults chuckle at the mud-slingers with a “boys will be boys” attitude until the girls eventually laugh at their mud-soaked situation too. The story is innocent enough, and I agree that none of us should take ourselves too seriously, but something about it didn’t sit right with me. My three boys get muddy and barefoot in the back yard all summer long, but I would not condone them if they ambushed unsuspecting children, be they girls or boys. 

As with any stereotype, I don’t believe the one presented here fits every man or woman, nor do I believe God even intends that it should. However, I appreciated that the Hunts were careful to avoid being heavy-handed in their presentation of a complementarian viewpoint. For example, Dad is seen washing dishes, and Cassie’s friends are presented as having a variety of interests from softball and fishing to frilly clothes and the color pink. The book emphasizes equality between men and women despite their differing roles and promotes godly character for both men and women, touching on topics such as pride, forgiveness, and gratefulness. I liked that the main characters often make decisions against the grain of peer pressure. For example, in one episode, Caleb talks his friend out of sneaking into a scary movie after they’ve purchased tickets for an age-appropriate one. I think the book also emphasizes grace and provides models for healthy conflict resolution. For example, all of the characters, including Mom and Dad, have moments of weakness and sin, and all are able to own up to their mistakes or forgive each other their failings at the end of each story. For these reasons, I thought Cassie & Caleb was a step up from My ABC Bible Verses, in which the parents were perfect, the younger sister was always the little angel and the older brother the family’s Goofus.

Because I’d like to present a more nuanced take on what makes men and women different and how every individual can uniquely serve and express their maker, I probably won’t be reading this book to my "everything is black or white" 6-year-old just yet. However, I would recommend the book to families comfortable with a complementarian view and looking for a devotional that will likely capture young children’s attention with gospel-oriented stories.

A Give-Away... Might make a good Christmas gift!
I've been very blessed to find several sources of free Christian books and am excited to keep giving them away after I've reviewed them. Moody Publishers generously sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, so I'd like to also give this book away to one lucky blog reader who answers one of following questions in the comment section below: (If you have trouble using Disqus, as some did during the last drawing, let me know on Facebook, and I'll post your comment for you.)

What kind of devotionals have you done or are you doing with your children?
What conversations have you had with your children about being a boy or girl?
What questions have your children asked you, and how have you answered?

UPDATE: The winner of this drawing is....

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review of "Furry Logic" by Jane Seabrook

Though you can probably tell I take most of my reading pretty seriously, it's fun to lighten up a little every now and then. The 10th Anniversary Edition of Jane Seabrook's Furry Logic: A Guide to Life's Little Challenges, provides me with a great opportunity to indulge my love for cute critters, expertly painted in watercolors. Each meticulous painting is paired with a playful quip that encourages readers to poke fun at themselves, take the easy road, or revel in their own misbehavior.

What this book is: 
Seabrook shares in her Artist's Note that she creates her wildlife portraits using (and wearing out) fine sable brushes with a single hair at the tip to capture the most delicate hairs and feathers. The level of detail makes each painting a visual treat. The book's diminutive size gives each image a jewel-box quality, but also belies the overstated personalities inside. Her collection of critters, often tightly framed, take on anthropomorphic sentiments when paired with humorous quotes. I especially got a kick out of a close up of a lone crested penguin who lifts a flipper to say "Always remember you are unique..." A page later, the artist zooms out to reveal the creature among a train of equally chipper crested penguins and completes the sentence: "just like everyone else."

What it isn't:
I was curious to learn more about the meerkats and pilileated woodpeckers depicted in the book, but while Seabrook employs a diverse cast characters, she doesn't provide information on the species that have inspired her paintings. While this information would have distracted from the impact of the quotes if added to each picture, I thought the Artist's Note at the end of the book would have been an ideal spot to share more about the critters in the book and whether she painted from memory, photographs or real-life models. 

My Take:
This simple little book is a perfect gift for those with a wry sense of humor and a love for animals. Science-minded readers can enjoy the level of accuracy found in each painting, though they won't find factual information to satisfy the left brain. However, visual minds will love the winsome artistry, and wordsmiths might find some new quotes to add to their repertoires.

*Thanks to Blogging for Books for a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.*

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Give-Away Winner is....

Robyn Duncan!!! Congratulations!!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of the Study Bible for Women

I own several Bible versions and have the YouVersion app on my phone, but I've never owned a women's study Bible. So when the opportunity came to review the Holman Study Bible for Women, published by B&H and edited by Dorothy Kelley Patterson and Rhonda Harrington Kelley, I jumped on it! As you can see in my photos above and below, the leather bound Bible itself is very pretty to look at, with gray and pale teal design elements throughout. I'm personally relieved that for once something designated for women isn't pink. But moving past the superficial, let's get into the meat. 

The immensity of a 2000-page study bible packed full of sidebars, charts, maps, footnotes and character profiles requires some selectivity on my part. I decided to offer my critique on one passage each from the Old Testament books of history, wisdom literature, the New Testament gospels and the epistles.

Exodus 1:15-21- Those Audacious, God-fearing Midwives
Perhaps because my second two sons were delivered by midwives, I really get into the brief story in Exodus 1:15-21 of Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who defy Pharaoh's orders to kill any baby boys they help deliver. The Study Bible for Women offers lots of extra commentary for this story, which is the context for Moses' clandestine birth. The sheer number of sidebars helps readers slow down and really consider this passage. I found the "Biblical Womanhood" segment helpful in imagining Pharoah's directive in a  human context. The editor notes that Pharaoh "apparently did not prescribe the means of killing the babies, but his order would clearly require deception, betrayal, and the denial of conscience" (69), which helped me imagine what it would be like to be in Shiprah's sandals. The footnote for 1:19-21 didn't quite ring true to me, saying that the midwives' excuse to Pharaoh was plausible. Would anyone believe that all the babies were born before the midwives could get there? I do agree that they "exploited the king's concern for the difference in strength he had observed between the Hebrews and Egyptians," but to me, it seems the midwives are mocking and insulting Pharaoh rather than trying to talk their way out of punishment.  The "Hard Question" sidebar considers how God rewarded the midwives with families of their own (v. 21) in light of modern women who pine after such a reward. It encourages singles and those struggling with infertility to invest themselves in the service of others, as midwives do, and to "delight in being a daughter of the King, a member of the family of God and the household of faith" (68). I think the advice is sound, but would have liked more exploration into the modern day role women can have in being activists for social justice, but that might be a little too progressive for this Bible. Overall, I enjoyed the Study Bible for Women's treatment of this story.

Proverbs 31- Everyone's Favorite Acrostic on Godly Women
I was pleased with the way this Bible unpacked a passage that could have the effect of making even the most capable woman feel inferior. While I do sometimes overdress my children in wintertime, and prepare ingredients from afar (bananas anyone?), and even occasionally rise while it's still dark to make pancakes for my picky children, I think most of the boxes on my Proverbs 31 to do list are still unchecked. Happily, at the very beginning of a full-page sidebar, the editors dispense with the perceived pressure to be as perfect as King Lemuel's mom, saying, "The poem provides an 'A to Z' ideal, not to prompt despair that no such woman exists but to encourage the pursuit by every woman to the highest standards of excellence" (824). On the adjacent page, another "Biblical Womanhood" feature also places this poem in context, describing its traditional use in celebratory recitations to honor and thank moms and wives at the Sabbath dinner table. Finally, I was encouraged by the editor's idea that even though nobody can match all the virtues of the Proverbs 31 Woman, her "very diversity in giftedness and skills enables every woman to reach out a touch her in some way" (825).

Matthew 19- Jesus' High View of Marriage and Wives
The half-page "Hard Question" feature in Matthew 19 caught my attention, asking "Is divorce ever okay for a follower of Jesus?" The context of this question is Jesus answering the Pharasees' "trick" question whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds. As the note indicates, the chauvinistic culture of the time allowed men to dump their wives on a whim, while women, being seen as property, had very little reciprocal power. Jesus uplifts the view of a woman's worthiness in the marriage equation with the oft-quoted, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." I like that the editors wanted to show how revolutionary Jesus was in treating woman as people (a concept beautifully explored in Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist). The sidebar also states that God intends marriage to be a life-long commitment, making the preservation of even rocky marriages a top priority for godly Christians. Having been married for a brief 13 years, I fully agree that it's worth it to press through the rough spots, personality conflicts and misunderstandings with which most marriages are fraught. A mindset of commitment and mutual submission is the mind of Christ. However, the last bullet point readers are exhorted to heed deeply troubled me: "Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in a marriage situation must be dealt with in a compassionate and firm manner within the context of church discipline." I read that sentence about four times, then discussed it with my husband, hoping I was misinterpreting what this sentence advises battered wives to do. Yes, wives and husbands in abusive situations should be ministered to by their church body, but I do not agree that the discipline of perpetrators of abuse should be dealt with solely in the context of the church. If you are in a family in which someone is abusing another member, you need to go to the police. In the editors' defense, they did not explicitly say to minimize, cover up such abuse or spiritualize the solution to such abuse. But I think some readers, especially those held in bondage to an abusive spouse, might understand this sentence to mean that they are not free to go to non-church authorities for help and that God requires they not divorce their abusive spouse. I pray not.

Philippians 4:8 - Dwell on These Things
Philippians is my favorite book of the Bible, and this has been my anthem for this particular season of my life. The Study Bible for Women does not provide specific commentary on 4:8, but I thought I would highlight the HCSB translation. The publisher calls it an accessible translation faithful to the original text. Depending on which version you've memorized scripture in as a child, you might find this version less poetic than say than the traditional King James or contemporary wording of the Message. But it is written in an easy-to-read and understand style. I liked the way Philippians 4:8 reads: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable--if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise--dwell on these things." The implication is that we should really sink into the things that reflect God. To dwell on something is to ponder it and to live it. 

In conclusion
There is plenty of commendable content to dwell on in this study bible. The full-color maps, including an especially interesting map of Jesus' ministry around the Sea of Galilee and one of The Passion Week in Jerusalem, would be excellent focal points for a personal or group study. Character Profile features sprinkled throughout give a snapshot of more than 100 women mentioned in the bible, from heroes like Esther and Priscilla to the five Marys, to lesser known or unnamed women. While the theology and doctrine on gender roles is far more conservative than my own, I found plenty of light and inspiration and would recommend it to Conservative Evangelical women hungry for scripture.

A Give-Away!!!
Since I have begun reviewing complimentary copies of books, such as this one generously provided by B&H Publishing in exchange for my honest review, I felt God leading me to bless others with these free materials. If you would like to own this very gently read bible, and if you live near enough to Hopkinsville that I can deliver it to you in person, enter my drawing to win it by commenting on this post!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reading into life: Go easy

I mentioned in a previous post that I was working my way through Teresa Blythe's 50 Ways to Pray. One of the methods Blythe guides readers through is called Luther's Four-Stranded Garland, a form of lectio divina, or prayerful reading. I gave it a go with Ecclesiastes 12:11-14 from The Message:

"The words of the wise prod us to live well. They're like nails hammered home, holding life together. They are given by God, the one shepherd. But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There's no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you're no good for anything else. The last and final word is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that's it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it's good or evil." (italics mine)

Because my bedside reading often takes the form of the Leaning Tower of Piza, I felt God was talking directly to me in these verses. Blythe explained that Luther's Four-Stranded Garland involves an initial time of silence, then a slow, deliberate reading of the verses, hunting for a word, phrase or image that sparks something in the reader.  I usually have a hard time selecting just one "word, phrase, or image" because I'm most often intrigued by the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, with which the Bible is replete. So my "phrase" was actually three phrases: Go easy.... Fear God. Do what he tells you. 

Now, onto Luther's garland, (which seems just about the most random mnemonic device ever):

For the first strand, Blythe tells readers to consider what lesson God is teaching them in the passage. That was the easy part. I love books and have a huge To Read list. And, as the verses state, there's no end to the steady stream of books being published. But if I'm just reading to get through a book or to be able to post on the blog, and I'm not giving myself the time and presence of mind to really hear God in the words of the wise, I'll wear myself out. Besides, the wise writer of Ecclesiastes gives me the Cliff Notes to all the wisdom I could ever read: "Fear God. Do what he tells you." I need to go easy by fearing God and hearing God. And doing what he tells me. It's a given God is telling me something, and that something requires action.

The second strand, Blythe writes, is to focus on giving thanksgiving to God. I'm so grateful for the access I have to so many wise writers (and a few daft ones). Living in this age and this country where books are plentiful is something I'm truly thankful for. And I'm thankful that the source of all true wisdom is the one good Shepherd. I can find God's gentle, leading voice in the books of the Bible as well as literature, poetry, biographies and other non-fiction. He's the source of every wise word. 

The third strand is confession. Blythe recommends admitting sins and shortcomings. For me, I often get sucked into what I'm reading or pursuing in a way that causes me to neglect my three children and the dishes in the sink-- a pile that rivals the tower of books on my nightstand! To make matters worse, I often bask in my personal inspiration and enlightenment without following through. Without fearing God. Without hearing. Without doing. It might seem I'm taking the easy way out, but actually this is the hard way to live because I was made to fear, hear and do. What Brene Brown calls the "cognitive dissonance" of falling short of one's calling makes going through life hard. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner who too often takes the difficult road of not fearing, hearing and doing!

The final strand, writes Blythe, is to find guidance in the passage. As you might have surmised, God showed me that I don't focus on fearing him and hearing him and doing what he tells me. But, oh, how I want to. This is what a Christian was made to do. I want to discern his heart in all that I read or hear-- wise words or simple nudges. After my time of prayer, I spent some time listening. Sure enough, He had some things to say! To make sure I was really listening, I made a short list of things I felt God was reminding me to do. I'm not proud to tell you that some were things that he asked me to do days or even weeks ago. Near my list, I wrote "Consider each task sacred." I paused for what was probably 30 seconds of contemplative silence ... I'm still working on this feature of lectio divina. Then I got going on "going easy." And let me just gush for a moment: obeying God makes my heart easy! His burden really is light in that it makes me feel light and buoyant when I do what he tells me to do. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of "In Her Kitchen" by Gabriele Galimberti

At only 22, Gabriele Galimberti's first real gig took him on a photography expedition around the world. Because he'd never traveled much beyond his small Italian hometown of Castiglion Fiorentino, Galimberti's grandmother expressed concern about his pending adventure. What would her grandson eat, and who would cook for him, she wondered aloud as she served him her homemade ravioli. Galimberti writes that this was the moment he hatched his plan to find, cook with and photograph grandmas from each place he visited, capturing their signature dishes and stories. The result was In Her Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Grandmas Around the World.

What this book is:
I first sat down with this 250-page coffee table book with my 6-year-old son, Stephen, who has a thing for maps. The inside cover is printed with a world map index pinpointing all the locations Galimberti visited. Stephen enjoyed picking a location from the map then flipping to the corresponding page to learn about cultures and food so different from his own. Each entry includes a full page portrait of the cook posing with the ingredients for her dish in her kitchen or dining room.The facing page features a close up of the finished cuisine. The following two pages provide a brief story about the cook and her family as well as the recipe for the dish. I enjoyed reading through the entire tome, trying to guess the country of origin from the photographs before flipping the the extended caption on the next page. I love that I now know a little bit about Latvian cooking and that I have a Greek grandma's recipe for making phyllo dough from scratch. There were a number of recipes I was eager to try, such as Galimberti's own grandmother's Swiss Chard and Ricotta Ravioli with Meat Sauce. And with the amusing exceptions of recipes requiring moth maggots and fresh caught iguana, most of the dishes involved easily accessible ingredients and common kitchen tools.

What it isn't:
Though it provides recipes from five of the seven continents, the book is not a definitive introduction to the world's cuisines, nor an expertly written cookbook. I tried the recipe for Empanadas Criolla from Argentina, and was surprised that the pastry crust didn't use any oil or fat. (The filling was very tasty though!) Additionally, having studied basic Chinese while living in Taiwan, I questioned the author's translation for the word "rou" as "meat cooked again in the wok," when in fact, it simply means "meat." However, considering that Galimberti cooked and ate with 60 grandmothers in nearly as many countries over a two-year stint, I can cut him some slack. Combine that with the fact that the author and his subjects often communicated in a language that was neither's native tongue, and I know that some details could have easily been lost in translation.  

This is also not award-winning photojournalism. The images are nicely composed and lit, but they follow a predictable pattern: each woman stands or sits behind a table on which the ingredients are symmetrically arranged. Because they aren't candid, the photos give the impression that each grandma had plenty of time to dress for company and stuff her clutter into the coat closet just outside the frame. Few of the photos include additional family members, which means we don't get to see the grandmothers interact or loved ones enjoying the food. At first, I thought that this detracted from the storytelling, but upon second musing, I felt that Galimberti was sending a message of solidarity and unity through his use of uniformity. Through repetition, he triggers our collective consciousness of the importance of food and family.

My take-away:
I'm more than impressed with this project because I can imagine the work that went into travelling to so many far-flung places, connecting with host homes and collecting the stories and recipes. This isn't an expert-vetted cookbook or the most poignant photo essay I've seen. But taken as a whole, these 60 grandmas and their food stories are a powerful testament that people the world over are connected by their communion over a good meal and good company. In Her Kitchen is a great way for an arm chair or kitchen table chair traveler to sample some home cooking that might not appear in typical cookbooks. Each photo story was like an appetizer; it just enough to whet my appetite for exploring more of their cultures, countries and cuisines.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Books to teach gratitude to moms

Well, I couldn't very well post some children's books on gratitude without recommending a couple of books for grown-ups. As much as I'm a fan of literature-based learning, the "book" my children read everyday is my life. I model my heart of gratitude (or greed) each day through what I say, what I spend my time doing and what expression I wear on my face. Usually what I've been reading and pondering have a big impact on the story I live.

If you're following me on this thought, here are two books I highly recommend to help put things into proper perspective:

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Vosskamp
I read this book two years ago after a dear friend gave it to me. In our current culture of always wanting more, more, more, Vosskamp turns our attention to the countless blessings we already have. The farmer's wife and mother of six takes Philippians 4:8 to heart and task, by keeping her eyes and heart wide open for what things are lovely, virtuous and pure in her everyday life. Vosskamp shares both her struggles with anxiety and the simple practice of keeping a gratitude journal that refocused her eyes on everyday miracles and freed her from pain. The opening chapter of the book does contain a very tragic memory of losing her sister at a young age, which might be a trigger for some readers who have faced similar losses. Vosskamp's poetic writing style takes a little getting used to, as she has a dreamy, stream of consciousness approach to retelling some of her story. But once you fall into the rhythm of her voice, you'll probably feel inspired to start recording your own list of daily gifts and writing poetically. I loved the way she was able to transform the most mundane moment into something holy. Her musing on nature and moments with her children resonated with me especially. You might also enjoy her beautiful blog, A Holy Experience, which incidentally, is where I learned about the author and ministry of the following book:

Kisses From Katie by Katie Davis
Cultivating gratitude goes beyond just counting our blessings and feeling good about our lives. A deep seated gratitude releases us and fuels us to live the way we were created to live in God's image. In The Message, the latter half of Romans 12:1 is translated "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." Ponder those words for a moment. What would that look like in real life? If you want to see what that counter-culture lifestyle looks like, read this book.

Born and raised in the ritzy suburbs of Nashville, Katie Davis lived a charmed American life. Homecoming queen, top of her class, she says in her introduction that she, "dated cute boys, wore cute shoes and drove a cute sports car." She was on a track to go to college, marry her sweetheart and live a comfortable life. Kisses From Katie tells the story of how she fell head-over-heals in love with Jesus and the people of an impoverished Ugandan village during a short-term missions trip. It's been more than five years, and Davis is still in Uganda. She's bid goodbye to her former life and culture. And she's so thankful for the materially spartan but busy and spiritually rich life she now lives. She's started Amazima, a ministry that sponsors children so they can attend school and stay with their birth families. More importantly, she's become adoptive mother to 14 children.

Now, when I first read about Davis adopting all these children, some of whom she nursed back to health from the brink of starvation and fatal disease, I was a little skeptical- perhaps even defensive. How could a girl in her early twenties truly be a mom to all those kids? I mean, I have trouble truly loving my tiny brood of three most days. I thought she must have been more like a teacher at an orphanage school or a den mom at a girl's home than a real mom. But by the second half of the book, I saw; no, I felt her mother's heart for her girls. And I saw what it looks like to be genuinely yielded to God, and filled to overflowing with his Spirit of love. Davis recognized what God wanted from her and quickly responded to it. In return, he brought out the best in her. I'm not going to give away more of the plot because I want you to read this book. For my fellow Hoptowners, it will be at the library this weekend after I return it :).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Picture books to teach gratitude for kids

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and I don't know about you, but I feel like the big holiday season has tip toed up on me this year. Trying to be proactive, I looked for some books to help instill the idea of thankfulness at our local library. I also asked some of my friends for their favorite children's books that promote gratitude. There are plenty of books about the first thanksgiving, but I know my boys are getting the Pilgrim and Indian history at school. So it's also important to read books that celebrate the essence of our November holiday. Here's my short list (a literal short list, not a best of the best list) of books we've been reading this season to jump start conversations about thankfulness:

The Thanksgiving Door by Debby Atwell
Empty nesters Ed and Ann are set to eat a quiet Thanksgiving supper, until Ann accidentally burns the entire meal. Though Ann feels crushed by her mistake, Ed coaxes his wife out the door to see if they can find a restaurant that's open. When they inadvertently crash a large family's party, their Thanksgiving could become even worse... but I won't spoil the story. My 3-year-old, Rockam, really got a kick out of the conga line. You'll just have to read it to see it. This colorful holiday treat gives young readers an introduction to how Thanksgiving is celebrated by a Bulgarian immigrant family while also showing that the best part of the holiday is not the feast but the people with whom you eat it. The wording is simple enough for preschoolers, but the story is interesting enough for adults to enjoy too. Sadly, the hard copy of this book is out of print. But if you live where I do, you can pick it up at the library (after I return it ;)

Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman
We got our little copy of this book in a Chik-fil-A happy meal, and I'd been carrying it around in my purse as emergency distraction for the boys. In this installation of the Bear series, our learns to be genuinely grateful for his friends, even though he frets about not having anything to feed them as they arrive, one after another, at the door to his empty cave. My 1-year-old enjoys the soft illustrations of bear and his host of woodland friends. My 3-year-old also enjoys the story of Bear, who is poor in possessions, but is rich in generous friends who love him for who he is rather than what he has. My 6-year-old was distracted by the details, wanting to know how a mouse-sized pie could be split among so many animals. Either way, this book allowed me to talk about why Bear's friends were thankful for him even though he seemed to have nothing to give them.

Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell 
When I was growing up, Mutts was my favorite cartoon strip in the Chicago Tribune comics section. I'm so glad McDonnell branched out to create several whimsical children's books, such as Hug Time, which tells the story of a little kitten's journey to show his love for all the creatures of the world. Of these three books, this is the least overtly related to thanksgiving, though the idea of appreciation, from which thankfulness can stem, is prominent. I used the book to talk about how we can be thankful to God for his wonderful creation.

What are your favorite picture books for Thanksgiving or gratitude all year round?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review of "In This House We Will Giggle" by Courtney DeFeo

I'm always looking for inspiration and encouragement as I raise three energetic and unique little boys. The title of Courtney DeFeo's book, In This House We Will Giggle: Making Virtues, Love & Laughter a Daily Part of Your Family Life, attracted me because it signaled a book full of grace rather than legalistic "training." 

Each chapter in We Will Giggle is devoted to one of 12 virtues: love, joy, forgiveness, faith, patience, perseverance, respect, responsibility, service, humility, gratitude and generosity. These chapters begin with a short kid-friendly definition of the featured virtue before flowing into Courtney and her many mentors’ and friends’ thoughts on instilling this virtue into children.

In each chapter, DeFeo also offers a memory verse, talking points, and a lesson plan with discussion questions, a big family activity, shorter optional activities and a corresponding passage to read out of Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible. There are also "60 Ways to Bring out the Giggles" sidebars sprinkled throughout the book. It was a lot to take in at first glance, and took me a couple of chapters before I settled into the rhythm of all the components. But instead of letting myself get overwhelmed, I took DeFeo’s advice from the preface to heart: “I encourage you to customize all these resources to fit the style and needs of your family, discarding anything that doesn’t work and mixing in your own creative ideas” (9).

What Spoke to Me
DeFeo’s chapters on Forgiveness, Patience, Perseverance and Humility especially resonated with me, as evidenced by the amount of my underlining, starring and scribbling in the margins. I was especially inspired by her prayer and vision for homes where “we hear their hearts and take responsibility for our part in any conflict. Homes where we never expect perfection but commit to continued growth, where we end difficult conversations with a hug, and where we always point one another back to the only perfect way: the love of Jesus” (51-52). Apologies are not just hollow niceties, but true forgiveness is a “bridge to personal freedom” with a focus on “building relationships” and “nurturing healthy hearts” (57). These are life lessons that many adults have never learned.

As a mom who often caves to every little whimper or trembling lip, I needed to hear DeFeo’s thoughts on the importance of instilling perseverance. The next time I’m tempted to rescue one of my sons from discomfort or struggle, I will have to borrow DeFeo’s line: “‘No, you cannot quit; take a break, but you must finish,’” in order to give them the “gift of character growth and a lifetime of hope” (117).

I’m also keen on her insights into the “tension between humility and confidence.” DeFeo says she never wants her girls to develop an attitude of superiority, yet she strives to raise them to be passionate in their identity in Christ and confident enough to “lead boldly from their gifts” (194). I’ve made this a part of my prayer for my sons as well.

What Didn't
I was a little disappointed that the idea of giggling as an addictive way to instill virtues and godly behavior wasn’t emphasized as much as I expected. I thought this would be the centerpiece of the book, but goofiness mostly appeared in the somewhat disjointed and distracting “60 Ways to Bring Out the Giggles” sidebars that peppered the already busy pages of the book. Having said that, I understand not every teaching moment can or should be full of raucous laughter. However, it made me think the title of the book was a ploy to set it apart from the many other great parenting books that present a similar message of grace.

Another little qualm I had stems from the fact that I’m raising three boys who love to wrestle, rough house or hole up in their rooms building with Legos for hours on end. They don’t care much about exploring their emotions or creating crafty gratitude tote bags or picture journals. (I wish they did, as that would be more fun for me!) DeFeo’s experience raising girls didn’t always translate to my own experience in the land of dirty hands and bug boxes. To her credit, DeFeo includes a few stories about her friend’s little boys. But overall, I found myself thinking, “I could never get this to work with mine.” And… regarding the book's visuals, the abundant daisy and curlicue design elements were a bit much for this minimalist designer’s taste.

My Take-Away
We Will Giggle has got my own creative juices flowing as I’m encouraged to teach virtues more deliberately in my own home. I like the idea of taking it slow, with one virtue emphasis per month, and plan to incorporate DeFeo’s simple, illuminating definitions and catch phrases into my own conversations. I would recommend this book to other moms, especially homeschooling mothers or even Sunday school teachers who are looking for interesting and generally low-budget activities and projects to help get kids thinking about and practicing the virtues Jesus exhibits.

*I received this book from Blogging ForBooks in exchange for an honest review.*

Friday, October 31, 2014

"50 Ways to Pray" by Teresa Blythe

I've been using 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times by Teresa A. Blythe to help structure my devotional time in the morning. After reading Seeing is Believing, by Greg Boyd, I was intrigued by the concept of imaginative prayer and other prayer traditions outside my range of familiarity. The book is arranged into chapters focusing on various types of prayer, including biblical reflections, contemplative practices, lectio divinas, life reflections, discernment processes, body prayers, prayers of the imagination, reflections on media and praying for others.

Each exercise begins with a short paragraph of background into the practice's origins. Blythe gives the intention for the exercise, a step-by-step description of the exercise and a tip for overcoming common difficulties or distractions.

I've only made it through the first two chapters so far.  I don't normally post about books I haven't finished yet, but since I don't use the book every day, I'm working through it at a prayerful snail's pace. So far, this book has led me to hold an imaginary conversation with the midwives in Exodus 1, create my own psalm, craft my own personal prayer of the heart, and to get comfortable with silence.

I'm still looking forward the exercises on imaginative prayer, reflecting on life, prayer walking and art as prayer. Several of the exercises in this book are meant to be done with a partner or in community, so I've had to skip over them, in hopes that I'll find someone to join me in these prayer experiments. Additionally, I read carefully, but skipped over a few of the prayer exercises, such as praying with beads or icons. I felt Blythe made a good case for why using tools while praying did not necessarily confer idol status onto them, but the thought of "not making a graven image" was too distracting for me to complete these exercises fruitfully.

Overall, I'm really grateful to have this book. It packs in so many ideas and suggestions for expanding and deepening my understanding and experience of prayer.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading into my life: Productive Praise

I learned something the other day, after reflecting on a visit to my neighbor's house, mingled with some of the wise words from books I've read in the last year or two.

My middle son, Mercy Child, needs praise and affection to flourish, and I don't naturally give it to him in an unmeasured, non-manipulative way. I'll just be honest here; often my praise has strings attached. I limit my kind speech to sing-songy praise when he does what I want him to do and expressly for the purpose of getting him to do it again. Like taking his foot off of his baby brother's face. And getting his fingers out of his nose/mouth/rear end. I can really feign enthusiastic praise when he obeys these directives. "Good Joooob, Babe! You did a great job of putting your toilet paper in the potty!" But I don't often praise him for his innate talents, his subtle progress, his growth and uniqueness. 

Last week, I took Mr. Mercy and Squeaky Pea over to my neighbor's home to see her family's many pets. He was polite, interested and a little timid, but he suppressed his trepidation so he could meet all the animals-- even a sheepdog twice his size. 

My boy was absorbed in the backyard animal kingdom, but I found myself fixated on his behavior, falling into my habit of critiquing and apologizing for his behavior-- even neutral actions like taking off his shoes just after my neighbor said we didn't have to. As if somehow speaking negatively about my son made us more agreeable guests.

Each time I uttered a negative or apologetic word on my little son's behalf, my neighbor countered it in her easy German accent:

"Oh, it's alright, you can take them off. That's the polite thing to do."

"Let him run around. That's what kids need to do."

"His vocabulary is very advanced for a 3-year-old."

I caught on to the pattern and tried to zip it. With each positive rebuttal, I choked back the words I wished to say in response, words to minimize or temper her praise. "Why do I do this?" I wondered.

When we got home, I commented to my son, "That was fun, wasn't it? Ms. Kat really liked you!"

Without skipping a best, Mercy Child did a gleeful headstand on the sofa and fired back, "Yes. I'm smart!"

My heart melted and sank. 

"Yes, you are very smart, sweetheart."

I was thankful for him to have this happy moment of contentment with himself. I was truly glad he felt admired and validated by my neighbor. But I was ashamed that my own words don't often build him up that way.

What he does get is my in attention, my over-reactive anger and nit picky criticism in constant supply. For legitimate reasons, mind you: such as peeing, sprinkler style, all over the bathroom floor. For the third time this week. Or pinching Squeaky Pea's thumb in the bedroom door, seconds after I've told him to be careful. Or insisting that I let him sit on my lap when I'm in the middle of a challenging tutoring session online. 

But these moments add up, blending together as the soundtrack to his life until the messages that he's not good enough takes root. On the flip side, my words (and others') can help him grow into the best version of himself.

Prayer: Lord! Have mercy on my Mercy Boy. Have mercy on me. I don't know the first things about raising this wonderful, messy, affectionate, smart, fun-loving, contrary, irksome, adorable boy. I pray You'd tailor my speech towards and about him. Help me to see him differently-- not as a mom in the battle trenches, but as a thoughtful observer. Help me to savor and tease out his strengths with my notice and kind words. And flood me with patience in all those other moments. The showdowns. The messes. The selective hearing. The button-pressing. Help me be firm, but not harsh.

These reflections were fueled by a couple of books:

Raising Preschoolers: Parenting for Today by Dr. Sylvia Rimm
Published in 1997 by Three Rivers Press
Psychologist and children's advocate Sylvia Rimm says that speaking positively about our kids to other adults, what she calls referential speaking, is the most powerful kind of attention we can give them because "small children believe that whatever adults say to each other is true; therefore, when adult conversation refers to them, they believe it" (75). What I speak now, helps form my son's identity for the long haul, for better or worse.

Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids! by Scott Turanksy and Joanne Miller
Published in 2000 by Waterbrook Press 
The misleading title belies the positive focus on fostering honor in your home. One of the "honor-based parenting skills" that has stuck with me since reading this book with a group of moms last summer was to be firm without being harsh, the latter behavior being one I often slide into when I blow a fuse in order to show I mean business. Turansky instructs parents to correct their children with emotions in check, using eye contact, gentle words and even a hand on their shoulder to get attention. Putting this directive into perspective, Turansky says, "children are not possessions to order around with harshness; they are treasures to treat with honor" (104).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Changing my name

So, all three people that read this blog, you might have noticed that it's no longer called "What the Parrinos are Reading." I decided to ditch my original moniker for a few reasons:

1. It was a lame name for a blog.
Actually, I chose it as placeholder until I could think of something better. And that took me a while.

2. This blog is largely what one Parrino (Emily) is reading, rather than everyone in our household. The Reflective Reader takes the pressure to  read and post off my very busy husband, emergent-reader sons and illiterate baby :)

3. The Reflective Reader matches my mission.
I try to really explore the corners of my life and experience as I read. My goal is to share my reflections as well as how I'm applying what I've read.

4. I think it has a nice ring to it.
Since my other blogs are "The Moody Foodie" and "The Daily Munchie," it seems natural to go with another three-word title.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reflections on Brene Brown's "The Gifts of Imperfection"

This little book caught my attention with its lengthy title, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life. I'd heard that Brene Brown conducts thousands of interviews to find common themes and patterns among those that lead what she calls "wholehearted" - fulfilling, happy, intentional, present lives- and those who don't.

This book presents sage advice teased out of all these interviews, tightly packed into 10 "guideposts" on the path to wholehearted living, including self-helpy suggestions like cultivating self-compassion and creativity, Christian virtues like gratitude and joy and somewhat surprising suggestions like taking time to laugh, sing and dance each day. Though it's not a parenting book, Brown uses examples from her own life and her sometimes fragile balancing act as a working mother. I found myself contemplating my parenting more than any other aspect of my life as I read, largely because I see my own worst behavior in my children on those particularly imperfect parenting days. An idea shared by many authors of parenting advice books, Brown believes "where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books."

Some additional quotes from Gifts of Imperfection I've been chewing on:
Avoid wasting time on guilty pleasures... or addictions:
"In another very unexpected discovery, my research also taught me that there’s no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light."
The trap of comparison: 
"At first it seems like conforming and competing are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. When we compare, we want to see who or what is best out of a specific collection of 'alike things.'"
"The comparison mandate becomes this crushing paradox of “fit in and stand out!” It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better."
The importance of creativity:
"There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t."
"The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity."
Getting off the hamster wheel:
"If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth."
In conclusion...
I liked the suggestions in this book. It's easily digestible, and most of the guideposts resonated with me. However, I found myself wondering "how to I actually do this? And how do I even remember to do all these things? And if I did do all these things, wouldn't I be perfect?" throughout much of it. While Brown's personal experiences were helpful and humorous, I craved some of the contents of those thousands of interviews with these mystical "wholehearted" people. I wanted to hear more of those success stories, to peer into their lives and see the guideposts in action. Obviously, this would be a different book altogether, and my craving probably couldn't be satisfied, as the contents of Brown's interviews are probably confidential. I don't doubt that she did find these patterns of behaviors and thoughts through out her careful research and analysis, but seeing some of the raw data would have been helpful to me. Perhaps I need to start collecting some stories myself.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"It's OK to be different" books for kids

It's been a little while since I've reviewed any children's books. I like to offer up a few recommendations in batches with a common theme. In this case, all four of these books use animals to teach children it's OK to be different, to go against the grain and express your truest self. And sometimes, the courage of one original helps free others from unnecessary conformity. As an added bonus, all of these books are lovely to look at, provide a good dose of humor and were enjoyable for my boys and for me even after several reads.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger lives in a Victorian-styled town of hushed, buttoned-up, social norm-abiding animals. One day, Mr. Tiger does the unthinkable and sheds his dapper suit to roam free in the wild. Onlookers gape, friends tsk and mothers cover their youngster's eyes with their paws. But the once restrained feline can't resist this taste of freedom and adventure. Will Mr. Tiger be forever banished from civilization for following his inner urging? Will any of the other townsfolk ever experience the bliss of the jungle? I won't give away the conclusion, of course.

As a side note, I really like the clean, bright, geometric style of Brown's illustrations. If you enjoy Mr. Tiger, check out My Teacher is a Monster (No, I'm Not), which promotes acceptance, and The Curious Garden, which celebrates life in the midst of urban adversity.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

The flip-side of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, the protagonist in this zany Willems tale secretly enjoys putting on clothes. As much as other naked mole rats deride Wilbur for his risque fashion statements (such as wearing a suit), he can't resist the feeling of fabric on his furless skin. Plus, he argues, when he gets dressed up he can be fancy, or cool.. or even an astronaut!  The story comes to a head when the mole rats appeal to their venerable leader, who questions poor Wilbur at a public hearing. Wilbur's simple response has a dramatic effect! This book helps open up discussions about doing things because we've always done them that way. It also allows you to discuss with children when it might be OK to buck the social norm.

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Gaston is the oddball in his refined French poodle family: Mrs. Poodle, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo and Ooh La La. Even though Gaston has trouble matching his sisters' abilities to Yip (not Yap) and to sip (Never slurp), he still enjoys the security of a loving home. One day, Gaston's identity is shaken as the Poodle family run into a Bulldog family, also with four puppies: Ricky, Rocky, Bruno and.... Antoinette, who happens to be a poodle. The moment is decidedly awkward, and without any discussion, Antoinette and Gaston trade places and families as they leave the park. Though Gaston and Antoinette look like they belong in their new arrangements, they struggle to truly fit in and miss their real families.

This story is a great opener for talking about how we can't judge others by appearances. All the characters in this canine tale come to the right conclusions at the end, making it a good book for talking about adoption.

Froodle by Antoinette Portis

Everyone knows that little brown birds are supposed to say "peep," but Little Brown Bird "didn't want to sing the same old song." When she busts out a boisterous "Froodle sproodle!" Crow tries to intimidate her back into the appropriate behavior for little brown birds. Little Brown Bird doesn't relent. In fact, she comes up with even more outlandish bird song until the entire neighborhood takes notice.

I think this is the only book of the four that I definitely enjoyed more than my boys. I've had this aspiration to become a bird watcher when I'm old and retired, and I pride myself on having a pretty good ear for bird calls, so the subject of Froodle piqued my interest immediately. But educationally, this book opens up a discussion about experimentation, facing peer pressure and perhaps even observing animal behavior in nature.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of "The 25,000 Mile Love Story" by Serge Roetheli

A friend and I recently formed a very small [read: 2-member] book club. Our first discussion was The 25,000 Mile Love Story, in which Swiss long-distance runner Serge Roetheli tells his story of growing up in the Swiss Alps, training to as an Olympic Boxer, becoming a mountain guide, and eventually running more than 25,000 miles on 6 different continents with his then-wife Nicole by his side on a motorcycle.

My fellow bookworm, Megan, who has run several marathons, chose this book because the author says he did this crazy feat in order to raise money for impoverished children. We both wanted to be inspired by someone who struck out on an amazing adventure, but the combination of philanthropy and endurance made this book seem even more promising.

While Love Story did deliver on the endurance end-- it contains vignettes of the husband and wife suffering through harsh weather conditions, culture shock, dangerous territory, accidents, snake bites and cerebral malaria-- Roetheli's philanthropic claims seemed disingenuous. At the end of the book, both Megan and I felt that Roetheli was using charitable causes as an excuse for his own personal adventure.  He complains that the Swiss charity that originally sponsored his World Tour "Run for Kids," pulled out inexplicably, leaving them without the money to continue. To me, this seemed a little backwards. Was he supposed to be running to raise awareness (and ideally, funds) for impoverished children? Shouldn't he be giving money to the charity rather than depending on the charity to fund his round-the-world adventure?

Actually, there was very little in the book referring to whatever charitable works the author and his wife had contributed to on their journey. They did take a brief hiatus in the World Tour to help an eye doctor administer vision-saving surgeries in Costa Rica. The doctor, Dr. Zamber, more than repaid them for their good deed, by footing their travel bill after the initial Swiss charity pulled out.

The tour title "Run for Kids" is equally problematic, even if the tour is geared toward raising awareness more than raising money or actually serving people in need. Roetheli's scant mention of kids were those he and Nicole met in a Middle Eastern juvenile prison, where the only connection he made was with a boy who was serving a life sentence for murdering his own father. There was no information on how to help these troubled teens. There was no mention throughout the book of specific charities or organizations that help at-risk teens or destitute children. Raising awareness involves telling stories of these children and shining light on the ways readers can help them.

The book also emphasized how much Serge and Nicole sacrificed to pursue their dream, including years away from Serge's two children from his first marriage. A scene from the book captures Serge's supposed sacrifice. Camping near the base of Mt. Sinai, Serge smoked his pipe and mused, "My daughter, Clara, turned sixteen that day. I sent up a wish for her and was reminded, once again, that there is a price we pay for our dreams. I missed my children dearly"(143). Yet, out of the book's 200 pages, this brief paragraph was the only time the author even mentions his children. I wasn't convinced that he was really the one paying the price.

Megan's insight was that Serge could have written this book more honestly, by being upfront about his intention to find a way to run the world and be known as an amazing endurance athlete. There is no doubt that Roetheli deserves praise and awe for his strength and survival skills. And his then-wife also deserves praise for sticking with him through the tour! But the author's decision to fund his travels by repackaging his run as a philanthropic endeavor cheapened the entire story.

In the end, Roetheli came off as self-centered, self-important and self-absorbed. Both Megan and I wanted to like this book, but in the end it seemed like the author's ulterior motive of making a name for himself got in the way of making this either an epic or a love story.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of "Cooked" by Michael Pollan

A busy new routine with driving two boys to and from two different schools, the start of my tutoring schedule and a couple of new hobbies have kept me away from the blog. I've still been reading, but at a more leisurely pace. So, yesterday I mentioned to a friend that I had this little blog and blogger's guilt immediately set in... so I bring you a very belated review of Michael Pollan's "Cooked."


Michael Pollan's name is well-known as a NYT food columnist (maybe even a food philosopher?), so I was a little surprised when I came upon his confession that he didn't really cook in the introduction of his newest tome, Cooked. But we journalists like to think we can teach people about things that we ourselves are just in the process of learning, so I figured I'd forge ahead with the nearly 500-page book about Pollan's adventures and experiments in barbecue, bread baking, cheese-making and fermenting. His core argument is that readers should, like he has learned, prepare their own food at home because of the way cooking connects us to our families, promotes healthful eating, supports local food producers and, well, because we're genetically wired to cook. Cooking is what makes us human, Pollan argues, using quotes from anthropologists who hypothesize that early humans distinguished themselves from the apes when they began to use fire to cook. But let's get on to the meat of the book. And the bread, cheese and pickles.

The book is organized by sections according to the four elements-- fire, water, earth and air. I didn't feel this gimmick really added to the book, so I'll avoid wasting your time going into more detail. Instead, I will organize my review by what I liked and what I didn't:

I liked:
I was surprised by how extraordinarily interesting pickles are. Real pickles, like kimchi and sauerkraut, that have marinated in their own fermenting juices, Pollan proposes, are a source of health today's Western-diet eating omnivore no longer enjoys. He quotes fermentation guru Sandor Katz to posit that humans are not the rugged individualists we assume we are. Instead, we live because of --and in symbiosis with--a vibrant microcosm of bacteria that colonize our guts, help us digest, send messages to our brains and defend us from bad intruders. His portrait of the invisible bacterial world is really brilliant. And it made me up my intake of yogurt. 

I was also entranced with Pollan's foray into ancient cheese making traditions with a forthright nun. Here, he explores the safety of unpasteurized cheeses and why humans like cheese, despite its sometimes heady (and sometimes footy) odors. The humor, history and science of this section make it an enlightening read.

There are plenty of DIY recipes at the end of the book. I liked that they were there, especially the instructions for colonizing your own bread yeast from scratch. But I must admit I did not test any of them out.

Take it or leave it:
Pollan spends a good chunk of the book microbrewing Pollan's Pale Ale with his teenage  son. I have zero interest in beer or brewing moldy batches of it in my basement. But I know it's kind of culinary craze right now, so there are probably plenty of readers who would enjoy this section of the book.

What I didn't like:
Pollan's opening chapter explores Southern pit barbecue. Here I found the author's privilege as a white, upper-middle class male came out in annoying ways. It seemed he spent a lot of time hinting that blacks were superior pit men, but didn't interview an actual black pit master until the end of the section. When he did, he made the man seem like a self-inflated, self-absorbed barbecue mascot who might have at one time been a great pit man but now cuts corners and entrusts the real work to underlings. Then Pollan exposes the dark truth: the black man uses industrial-ag pigs to produce his pulled pork sandwiches!!! So they aren't even authentic.  Maybe Pollan was just telling it like it was. But something about the subtly elitist tone of the whole bbq chapter just didn't sit well with me. A journalist of Pollan's caliber could have find a super-authentic, true to tradition, farm-raised, unpretentious pulled pork sandwich, and he could have unearthed a similarly impressive black pit master. Perhaps he needed to look into that wooden shack that all the locals (white and black) know, but hasn't made the guidebooks or yelp. 

In Sum:
Despite my quibbles, I think most foodies will like this book. But if food snobs or food agendas make you lose your appetite, just read the parts about cheese and pickles.