The view from my window is more January than March, thanks to a late-season blizzard.
The worst of the storm hit north and west of us, but we still have more snow, and colder temperatures, than we’ve seen all winter. Yet more snow is driving hard past my window, but the wind is scouring our driveway clean. I am glad since Tuesday’s heavy, wet snowfall damaged the snowplow we attach to our tractor mower. Of course, I write “we” in the most generous sense because my contribution to clearing snow is keeping the children out of their father’s way.
It’s a strange day to browse my favorite gardening books, but this is the middle of March, and I must keep faith with the angle of the sun, no matter the peculiarities of the weather.
The literary letters Elizabeth and I have recently exchanged here on the blog have had me giving a great deal of thought to the epistolary genre. As a form of artistic creation, it is centuries old, though today’s epistolary novels are perhaps more likely to include email transcripts than handwritten letters.
It is not a form you tend to see in garden writing, but exploring the form these past few weeks has reminded me of the quality I most appreciate in my favorite gardening books: that is, the singular human voice writing from a particular time and place.
My preferred gardening books are written by gardeners who love their own plot of earth and know it well. It is tempting to think their advice might be of only local importance. The needs of my own garden will be very different from a garden with rocky New England soil near the salt-air of the ocean. Yet I find precisely the opposite to be true. This may be one more case of greater love leading to greater wisdom.
Here are a few of my favorite garden books, just in time for spring. These are not exhaustive and impersonal garden reference books. These are more like letters from a gardener, or better yet, missives from a particular plot of cultivated earth. I hope they inspire you to better love the ground beneath your own feet.
- Henry Mitchell is one of my favorite garden writers. Usually he makes me laugh out loud, but he often surprises me with eloquence and emotional insight. For many years he wrote a garden column for The Washington Post, and it is these columns that make up collections like The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden. His style, geared toward local Washington D.C. newspaper readers, probably comes the closest to the intimacy of the epistolary form.
- Tara Austen Weaver’s memoir Orchard House is a perfect example of why I prefer the personal rather than the encyclopedic approach to garden reading. I am easily overwhelmed by lists of plant varieties, but when Weaver praises a particular variety of homegrown strawberry, I find that I want to plant and taste nothing else. This is a lovely memoir of growing a garden and healing a family.
- If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s approach to food writing, you will love his gardening book: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. It is another well-researched book filtered through Pollan’s everyman voice and his particular gardening adventures. Flipping through my tattered old copy, I’ve decided it’s time for me to reread it.
- I do not recommend Katharine S. White’s book Onward and Upward in the Garden to many people. If yours is only a casual interest in garden writing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you are at all intrigued by the idea of an experienced gardener and knowledgeable writer examining seed and plant catalogs as a reviewer would study a just-released novel, then you might enjoy this book as much as I do. Here is another enticement: Katharine was the wife of E.B. White, and her descriptions of their Maine garden helped me to see Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan in a fresh light.
- The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy leans more toward the encyclopedic, but this astonishing account of the importance of native landscaping for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet is told through from the perspectives of scientists making important observations in their very own gardens. I used to think that native plants were a nice extra, but Darke and Tallamy have transformed my thinking. This may be one of the most important garden books you read.
- If you love keeping fresh flowers in your home, I highly recommend the beautiful just-released book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein. This book is practical, gorgeous, and inspiring.
I’d love to know: do you read garden books?
And if you’d like to read a little more from me, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “Sunlight, Shadows, and a Supper Club.”
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Today, this little book of mine turns one. Alas, I did not bake a cake, but I might have to do something about that later today.
For those of you who haven’t yet picked up a copy of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, it’s a love letter to an old farmhouse called Maplehurst and an invitation to discover the wonder of a God who would choose to make his home with us. You can read all about the book right here.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” is my occasional series of book recommendations. In honor of my own book’s first birthday, I thought I’d tell you about a few just-released books as well as some old favorites of mine.
In Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, Amy Peterson has written a different kind of missionary memoir. This isn’t a triumphant tale of changing the world, rather it is honest, thoughtful writing about a missionary learning to rest in her own belovedness. A great book for world-changers as well as the ones who feel a little more ordinary than that.
In Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk, Michelle DeRusha has written a biography of one of the most influential marriages in history. Compulsively readable and thoroughly researched, here is a book for those interested in history and theology as well as for those who simply love a good story, well told.
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church That Has Abandoned It is a timely new release from Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Having suffered from their own misplaced desires for relevance and influence, Goggin and Strobel go in search of a better way. A mix of storytelling, theology, and personal interviews, here is wisdom for these days from J.I. Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, John Perkins, Jean Vanier, James Houston, and Eugene Peterson.
Finally, I have two more seasonally appropriate suggestions.
Though I rarely reread fiction, I have read and reread The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder many times since I discovered it as a child. This true tale of how Laura and her pioneer family survived the historic winter of 1880-81 is the most exciting of the Little House books. I am about to begin reading this one aloud to my own kids.
The writer Laura Brown has organized an online book discussion for The Long Winter on her website MakesYouMom.com. I may even contribute an audio file of me reading aloud from the book (then you’ll know just what my children have to put up with! Wink, wink). All the information on the book club is right here.
And if reading about winter is too much for you during winter, or if you live in Texas or Australia where it’s either summer or feeling like summer, I suggest one of my favorite novels: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. This coming-of-age story set in the post-war French countryside is as delicious as the ripe plums that give the book its title. Tense, atmospheric, exciting, and intelligent, I love this story in any season. You can read my full review on Goodreads.
I love the book so much I ordered a Greengage plum tree for my own backyard. It should arrive for planting in March.
Tell me, what are you reading these days?
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Is misty and mild and not like January at all.
This is our fifth winter at Maplehurst, and we’ve never waited so long for real snow.
But it’s cold enough. The woodstove in the kitchen is pouring out heat while I study my stack of seed catalogs. I am often asked about my favorites. This year, I’ve ordered vegetable seeds from Seed Savers, Park Seed, Burpee, and Pinetree. I love the conservation work of Seed Savers as well as their highly curated collection of heirlooms, and I appreciate the very low prices at Pinetree (though, twice, my Pinetree seeds have been mislabeled).
I’ve also ordered flower seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds and dahlias from Swan Island Dahlias. In a month or two, I may order a few new David Austin roses. Last year, I planted four Lady of Shalott shrub roses. While orange has never been my favorite color, the flowers have a great deal of pink and coral, and they were so healthy and vigorous and constant in their blooming that I fell in love. Plus, the name. I care very much about names in paint and roses and crayons, though not so much in lipstick.
If you are unfamiliar with David Austin roses, they are often called “English roses.” They are bred to look and smell like old-fashioned roses, but they bloom continuously. This year, I have my eye on Munstead Wood though I don’t yet know where I might put it. However, I never let that stop me.
Now you might be wondering why anyone would choose a once-flowering antique rose if they could plant a modern English rose. Personally, I love to plant both. The modern roses give me flowers in spring and fall (and frequently in-between), but the antiques put all of their effort into one extravagant spring explosion of scent and color. There’s nothing else like it. Besides, no one ever complained that a peony only blooms in May.
Besides seed catalogs, I am consulting my favorite and most practical gardening book: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. I am reading a recently-released book called Getaway with God: The Everywoman’s Guide to Personal Retreat by Letitia Suk. This one is a great resource for any woman considering a personal spiritual retreat in the new year. I am also finishing a library copy of Phyllis Tickle’s wonderful little book What the Land Already Knows: Winter’s Sacred Days. I may have shed a few tears when I discovered that this gem is out of print and used copies cost a small fortune. Now I know what to look for at the used bookstores!
In the kitchen, we’ve been enjoying Jenny Rosenstrach’s new cookbook How to Celebrate Everything. Attention: she has a recipe for a thin crust pizza with garbanzo beans (among other toppings), and it may be the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten. I know. I was skeptical, too. Now I want to eat it every day. It’s the perfect salty, savory pizza for winter. Possibly, I will tire of it in time to resume my homemade pesto pizzas in summer. Possibly.
Speaking of the kitchen, I have a new post up today at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on the new year, how to cultivate a habit of hospitality, and includes my method for home-brewed kombucha.
What new things are you most eager to see, do, make, or grow in 2017?
Happy New Year! Thanks, as always, for reading along. I am grateful for each one of you.
(P.S. If you’d like to make more frequent virtual visits to Maplehurst, I share a photo on Instagram nearly every day. I’d love to connect with you there.)
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
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If you know me, then you’ll have guessed that the “all new” in the title of this post does not, in fact, refer to newly released books. In fact, once I went looking for links online, I realized that almost every single book I wanted to tell you about is out of print.
But don’t let that deter you! Fortunately, the internet makes searching for and purchasing used books very easy. You can follow the amazon links below, or you can search Abe Books or Powells. You could also do what I do: keep a list of authors to look for the next time you visit a used bookstore or thrift store.
So, what do I mean by all new? I mean that these are some of our favorite seasonal books, but I have never mentioned them on the blog before. You can find all of the Advent and Christmas books I have already recommended over here on one handy page.
Why so many books? Who has time for reading during this, one of the busiest months of the year? I love what Sarah Arthur has to say in Light Upon Light:
So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation.
First, lest you imagine that picture books are only for children, I recommend Lisbeth Zwerger’s version of The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Zwerger is a prize-winning illustrator from Vienna. Her art is strange but lovely and is the perfect thoughtful foil for the disturbing whimsy and intelligence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker tale. While I have shared this long picture book with my older children, I think this book would make a wonderful gift for any adult who appreciates art and literature.
The next book I’ll mention couldn’t be more different than Zwerger’s, but it is a new favorite in our house. Christmas For 10 by Cathryn Falwell is a counting Christmas book featuring multiple generations of an African-American family. My four-year-old loves it because she can count along, my older kids are drawn into it because of the bright cut-paper illustrations, and I love it for its depiction of ordinary Christmas fun like stringing popcorn and filling gift baskets. I am also grateful to have a Christmas book featuring a non-white family. Unfortunately, this is still very rare in Christmas picture books.
The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams is more than a little unexpected (a Christmas book about a family of Easter egg-painting rabbits??), but it is a thrift store gem. I had never heard of Adrienne Adams before I picked up a used copy of this book, but her illustrations are so appealing.
And though I picked this one up for the pictures, the story is wonderful, too. It’s a bit of a Christmas coming-of-age tale, as the rabbit children turn the tables on their hardworking parents by surprising them with a memorable outdoor Christmas party. Adams’ illustrations of an egg-decorated Christmas tree and rabbit families sledding a snowy hill under a full moon are equally memorable.
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant is my favorite kind of picture book. It is almost like a picture-book version of a literary memoir: Rylant’s recollection of a country Christmas from her childhood is spare and straightforward, yet the small memories seem to add up to so much more than is at first apparent. I could read this one over and over.
My children, on the other hand, much prefer The Worst Person’s Christmas by James Stevenson. I wasn’t even planning to mention this story of a truly awful Christmas curmudgeon, except that my kids have begged for it every night this week. When I refused to read it one more time, my oldest decided that she would read it out loud instead. Three pages in and my boys were howling.
Fortunately, the horrifying behavior of “the worst person in the world” can’t persist against the unrelenting cheer and kindness of his neighbors. His insults may be horrifying (to me) and hilarious (to my children), but the story has a sweet ending.
If you need a break from the picture books, I’ve been enjoying Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. These Victorian short stories offer the best of an old-fashioned British Christmas with the usual concerns of nineteenth-century literature. These are stories of roast beef, plum pudding, property, and humorous misunderstandings neatly resolved by the end of Christmas Day.
I’ve always enjoyed classic British murder mysteries from the 1930s. A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer is wickedly fun and clever. I recommend reading it near a roaring country house fire. However, I found that a small kitchen woodstove will do in a pinch.
Happy reading and blessed Advent.
Ready or not the seasons are shifting.
Of course, we know in our heads that all time moves at the same speed, but our hearts simply will go on beating to some other, more mysterious, rhythm.
Sometimes the gap between those two experiences of time feels like a chasm. We stand on the edge, our hearts out of sync with the calendar, and we fear we will tumble, head over heels, into emptiness. But there are other days. Like Advent days. Then the gap between head-time and heart-time becomes a sacred place and a welcome retreat.
In the last November chapter of Roots and Sky, I wrote this:
I believe in sacred time. We may live in a world of Sunday-morning soccer games, Sunday-afternoon birthday parties, and twenty-four-hour shopping, but I believe there are days when eternity floods our time-bound existence. Days like a cup that runneth over. I also know that without some effort on my part, all time tends to look exactly the same, whether or not it is the same. Advent is beginning, and I want to set aside the days. To mark them off and probe their depths.
The primary way I do that, alone and together with my husband and children, is through books. If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that my archives are full of book recommendations for Advent and Christmas. I recently updated the page ( These Farmhouse Bookshelves) where you can explore all those links.
However, with Advent beginning on Sunday, and the first of December only days away, I thought a little roundup was in order. Here are several new-to-me titles and a shelf-full of old favorites.
And, for those of you who can’t think of Advent until after you’ve eaten your Thanksgiving turkey, here is my latest post at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on grief and gratitude and includes a recipe for the prettiest dish I placed on my holiday table last year. Enjoy!
My friend Kris Camealy has just published a beautiful new Advent devotional, Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I read an advance copy months ago, but I am looking forward to reading it again, more slowly and prayerfully, through the month of December.
I have forgotten now who recommended to me Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Sarah Arthur. I’ve only skimmed the pages, but these words from the book jacket have me eager to dive in: “Readers are invited to experience Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment ….” Those words remind me of Madeleine L’Engle’s description of Advent as The Irrational Season (another favorite book for this season).
Two devotionals I have always appreciated in the past are God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas from Paraclete Press and Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a collection that includes selections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, and many others
During Advent, we aim to light the candles in our Advent wreath and read a special devotional each evening together. I say aim because, of course, there are nights when I call the whole thing off because all four of the kids insist on fighting over the candle snuffer. I have also learned (the hard way) not to expect my children to sit still for nightly readings without also giving them freshly-sharpened colored pencils and a Christmas coloring book like the Christmas Around the World Coloring Book by Dover.
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp has been a great companion to our Jesse Tree, but it would make an ideal daily devotional for a family even if you do not decorate a Jesse Tree. This is a substantial book with gorgeous illustrations. The language is rich and poetic enough to capture the attention of my older kids, but the readings are brief and linked to familiar Bible stories, so it works for younger children, too. If you only have very young children, I recommend using The Jesus Storybook Bible for your Advent devotions. There are exactly twenty-four stories from the beginning through to the wise men visiting the infant Jesus, making it perfect for introducing small children to the bigger story of Jesus’s birth during the month of December.
For years, I gave my children a new Advent or Christmas-themed picture book each Sunday of Advent. We now have an impressive collection, though I picked up most of the books during the year for twenty-five cents at a local thrift store. This does mean that our collection is less, well, curated than I might like. But a picture book we all love this time of year is Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in Noisy Village. This is a delightfully simple description of Christmas celebrations on three Swedish farms packed with young children.
Last year, we read a strange little novel called The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. You may know Sophie’s World, also written by this former professor of philosophy from Norway. Some of the strangeness may come from Gaarder’s philosophical bent, and some of it may simply be the little things that can be lost in translation, but the result is a curious, compelling Advent mystery that my kids and I both loved. The story follows the opening of a magical Advent calendar, and so it is already divided into chapters readymade for daily Advent reading. The central mystery involves a journey back through history to the very day and place of the Christ Child’s birth. It reads like following a thread back to that particular momentous day, and the result is that I felt much more solidly connected to the very first Christmas as an actual historical event.
This year, our readaloud chapter book is Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. We are one chapter in, and the kids are already hooked by this tale of Christmas magic on an isolated Danish farm.
Though our seasonal books have spilled over from shelves to piles on the windowsills, I have added one more new book to our Advent collection this year. It is Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season by Heidi Haverkamp. Designed for small group discussion, I think this one will also work well for families, especially if you plan to read it alongside The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I’d love to hear about your own favorite Advent and Christmas books in the comments.