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September began with a back-to-school, double-birthday, two-nights-in-hospital swirl.
Our only option, once we had emerged on the other side of all that, was to slow time down. Way down.
How does one do that, you ask?
By wasting it, of course.
Stop rushing. Sit still. Stare out of a nearby window.
Take a nap. Putter in the kitchen. Read a book. And then another one.
Procrastinate. Yes, even that.
I am not suggesting you ignore your deadlines and abandon your obligations. But if a task might take two days, and you have three, then wait.
Delay is risky. You may find you don’t have quite as much time for work as you’d like. But there is risk in productivity, too. You might discover you have accomplished so much in a day that the day has gone by in a blur.
I can think of few things more tragic than a lifetime of blurry days.
For the past two weeks, I have wasted time like a professional. I have even broken my unspoken rule and actually read a novel in the morning. Shocking, I know. But when the novel is by Barbara Pym I can hardly help myself.
Pym was a twentieth-century Jane Austen. There is less conventional romance in her novels of a post-war Britain, there is certainly more melancholy, but there is the same keenly observant eye and witty sense of humor. So far I have read Excellent Women (1952) and Quartet in Autumn (1977), and I highly recommend them both. The first is more humorous, the second more preoccupied with sorrow, but both are quietly subversive and fiercely intelligent.
When not reading, I have been cooking. I’m not baking bread or making party appetizers, I am only making dinner. These quieter, slower days have reminded me that family dinner is not the onerous obligation I have sometimes believed it to be. Instead, it is a delicious, daily treat.
Of course, if I wait until five pm to give it my attention, then it can be stressful. But why should I wait? Why not sip my morning coffee while asking what’s for dinner? Surely there are few questions so full with pleasurable possibility.
This is especially true if you own one of my favorite family cookbooks Dinner: A Love Story. Jenny Rosenstrach’s recipes are straightforward, wholesome, and tasty, and her celebration of the family dinner hour (written from the perspective of a busy, full-time working mother, no less) has been just the inspiration I needed to try new recipes.
And, I can’t wait to try her just-released cookbook How To Celebrate Everything.
I recently finished Katherine Willis Pershey’s wonderful new book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. You can find my full review on Goodreads, but here is the condensed version: Very Married is my favorite book on marriage. The personal storytelling is funny and friendly, but it is also inspiring and wise.
This book (with a foreword by Eugene Peterson!) is also that incredibly rare thing in Christian publishing: a book for all of us. No matter how your own views line up with Christian teaching on marriage, Pershey’s book is for you. Whether you consider yourself liberal or conservative, Very Married is for you. Pershey doesn’t ignore controversial or complex topics, and she doesn’t hesitate to state her own positions, but she writes with such grace and compassion. Her book reminded me not only how beautiful fidelity can be, but how beautiful Christian unity can be.
If slowing down holds appeal for you, I have one more recommendation. My dear friend Summer Gross, an ordained minister and spiritual director, has recently inaugurated a “Slow Word Movement.”
Summer offers guided Scripture meditations, or Lectio Divina, via video through her website. You can sign up to receive each new “Slow Word” in your email inbox. Summer has made it so easy for us to hit pause in order to find that still point in our spinning world. I hope you’ll visit her website to find out more and subscribe.
Finally, here is my latest post for Grace Table. It includes a recipe for our new favorite cake.
What are you reading and cooking these days?
We had our first hard freeze of the season last night. This morning, the sky is a deeper blue than I have seen in quite some time. The sky seems to respond well to freezing temperatures, as if making up for the dreariness of the earth. Though the dreariness will only come later. Right now the leaves on the ground are traced in frost, and the dahlias haven’t yet registered that they have reached their end. Their colors are still vivid.
I am grateful for our long, pleasant fall, but I am also breathing more deeply today. I recorded the date of the first freeze in my garden journal and felt a weight slide from my mind. I can close the page on this growing season. I do still have garlic to plant and a few more daffodil bulbs, but the seasons have taken a decisive turn. Around this bend lie dog-eared seed catalogs and sketches for the new flower garden. Piles of books, too.
When it is cold and dark, we read books in front of the fire like it is our job.
I recently finished a stunning new novel. I’ve never been in a book club, but when I closed this book for the last time, I wanted only to talk about this book. It’s that good. That thought-provoking. That beautiful. It’s Station Eleven: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel.
I once wrote about books I don’t know why I read but am so glad I did. Station Eleven would certainly qualify as one of these. First, I tend to avoid anything “dystopian,” and “post-apocalyptic” is even less appealing. Finally, I have never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised but violent novels, and I don’t think I ever will. When I heard Mandel likened to McCarthy, I had serious doubts about picking up this book. Yes, this is a book about the collapse of civilization after a serious flu bug kills most of the world’s population, but, I promise you, it’s really not about that at all.
All I can say is to forget everything I just wrote and go read this book. It isn’t violent, so we sensitive-flower types need not fret, but it is disturbing. It is disturbing in the way of excellent art. It gives you new eyes to see your life, your family, our world. It’s a book to wake up your soul. I don’t think it’s possible to read a book like this and stay just the same as you were.
But if that doesn’t convince you, it’s a compelling story. A pager-turner. The writing is beautiful, the characters are rich. And days after finishing it, I am still haunted by a single image. There is a moment when we come upon a group of survivors who have made their home in a building that was once a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. This new world has no fast-food (and, on the flip side, no antibiotics), but humans still flourish. The old restaurant door must have worn out and needed replacing because the door on this former Wendy’s is hand-cut from heavy wood. Also, someone has carved the front with delicate flowers and vines. A work of art in a place once devoted to everything fast, cheap, and plastic.
Because survival is insufficient. – Emily St. John Mandel
Another recently finished, dearly loved book is Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy Bass.
It’s a lovely, wise book. You’ll find a mixture of accessible scholarship and personal storytelling. You’ll find a bit about Sabbath and a bit about the Christian church calendar. But, mostly, you’ll find lost wisdom. Time is not our enemy. And each day is a gift. Live in it, and be glad. It isn’t always an easy or intuitive way to live, especially in our harried culture. But this book will help. It is helping me.
Preparing and eating is a major component of our days, isn’t it? As much as I love food, I struggle with that. I struggle with the time required to plan and shop and cook and clean. I resent the hard work, and I resent the time it asks. I’m praying to let go of resentment. I’m praying to grow in gratitude for the daily gift of food.
A good cookbook helps. I know one reason I have struggled with preparing meals for my family is the challenge of my son’s many food allergies. Anaphylaxis really takes the fun out of things.
Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great by Danielle Walker is saving my life in the kitchen. Paleo recipes don’t all work for us (my son can eat almonds but no other tree nuts or peanuts), but most of these recipes are for foods we can and want to eat. I’m recommending this book to anyone with allergies or food sensitivities, but I also think this is a great cookbook for anyone who thinks they should cut back on wheat and dairy and refined sugar. Which, if we’re honest, is probably most of us.
There is a lot I could tell you about these recipes, but I will only share one story: I have tried and failed to make or purchase a dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free birthday cake for my son for eights years. They have all been disappointments, some bigger than others. This past summer, I made the chocolate layer cake from this book. It was easy, used ingredients we already had on hand (though mine is the sort of kitchen where coconut oil and almond flour are always on hand), looked beautiful, and … well, my husband took one bite and looked at me with huge eyes.
“This actually tastes good.” I nodded in agreement. “No. I mean it. I would serve this to people! This tastes real.”
So. It’s good. You should check it out.
Tell me, what’s on your reading list for the dark days ahead?
There never is enough time for reading, is there?
I’ve heard the same thing from so many of you. Something like Oh no! More recommendations! I’ll never catch up! Of course, I know you’re winking. I know you’re dropping everything to read that novel though there are so many more important things to do.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?
When I’m honest with myself, I am never truly afraid that I won’t make it to the bottom of my must-read list. When I’m honest with myself, I know that my real fear is this: I am afraid I will run out of good books. I am afraid I’ll be caught waiting for a child somewhere and I won’t have a good book in my car. I’m afraid the baby will fall asleep at the exact same moment when the kids busy themselves with a game and I won’t have a good book on my desk.
I know. This is crazy talk. But let’s just make sure shall we? Let’s keep those bookshelves and nightstands and library order queues nice and full.
As always, I am here to help.
(P.S. This post includes affiliate links. You can find more info about those right here.)
Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. – Lemony Snicket
This was my recent stop-everything-must-read-to-the-very-last-page reading event: The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaimon.
I’ve mentioned before my weakness where fairytales for grownups are concerned. Gaimon’s newest book makes an excellent addition to this list. It is the book I want to write when I grow up.
This is a slim novel about a young boy living in an old house on a country lane in England. On the surface of the story, you’ll find a fairy ring, three generations of mysterious, ageless women, and an evil housekeeper/creature. Beneath the surface, you’ll find a boy growing into a man, a family breaking apart, and all the big questions about life and death and loss and the meaning of it all.
This is what I love about fairytales: something small and simple like the death of a beloved kitten is at the same time something big and meaningful and important. It is both. This is a novel exactly like the ocean at the end of the lane: it is so much bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside.
‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.’
‘Oh, monsters are scared,’ said Lettie. ‘That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups …’
– Neil Gaimon
My love for books about food (a category not to be confused with actual cookbooks) is well documented on this blog. A new-to-me classic of this genre is Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries).
These essays are part memoir, part hilarious confession, part cookbook, and, well, I’m sure a few other secret ingredients have been added to the mix, but the result is delightful.
Colwin was a writer and a home cook. Her book is funny, informative, and mouth-watering. Most of all, it’s a book that makes me just that much happier in my kitchen and at my table. Good things happen at the table, whether we’ve cooked our meal on a hot plate or a community center’s professional oven. Colwin knows this and celebrates it. And I love her for it.
The ultimate nursery food is beef tea; I have not had it since I was a child, and although I could easily have brewed myself a batch, I never have yet. I am afraid that my childhood will overwhelm me with the first sip or that I will be compelled to sit down at once and write a novel in many volumes. – Laurie Colwin
Here’s a book I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about, but maybe you have yet to pick it up? It’s Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books), the first in the series begun in 1940 by Maud Hart Lovelace.
I somehow missed this one as a child. My firstborn (recently turned ten) nearly missed it. But, thank heavens, we rectified that error in time. This may be a book well suited for little girls (ages four to eight, perhaps?), but, really, we are never too old to snuggle on the couch and read about childhood through the eyes of best friends Betsy and Tacy.
This is an old-fashioned book full of old-fashioned pleasures. Playing paperdolls. Building a backyard house out of a piano crate. Filling old bottles with rainbows of colored sand. It isn’t a life without hardship or sorrow, but it is a life made beautiful by friendship and imagination.
I’m not sure we’ll make it to the end of the series (Betsy’s Wedding? Maybe not). But this first book is a treasure.
Besides the little glass pitcher, she got colored cups and saucers, a small silk handkerchief embroidered with forget-me-nots, pencils and puzzles and balls. But the nicest present she received was not the usual kind of present. It was the present of a friend. It was Tacy.
Reading is a solitary activity.
Or, is it?
When we give books (whether tangibly or through a recommendation) a solitary pleasure is transformed into a shared joy.
This is what I thought as I put together these recommendations for you. I remembered the special friend who knew I would love this book of poetry. I remembered how she flew all the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania to stay with me, and I remembered when she put this book in my hand. She was right. I do love it, and it’s the fact of being so well known, as much as the book itself, that I am grateful for.
I also remembered the blogger who posted her love for this novel on facebook. I remembered the Chicago preschool teacher who kept copies of this writer’s books in her classroom. I know that the right books have a way of finding us at just the right time, and I hope I will always be a conduit for that magic.
I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book. – J.K. Rowling
At the risk of sounding foolishly repetitious, I want you to know that this is a magical book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. It’s a quiet book. Even simplistic at times. It flirts with sentimentality. And I loved it so much. This is a book that goes on working its magic in your mind and heart long after you’ve turned the last page.
This is a novel about an accidental pilgrimage. Harold Fry steps out of his front door believing he will go only as far as the mailbox at the end of his street. Whether personal demons come out to chase him or some invisible force pulls him along, the result is that Harold puts one foot in front of the other until he has walked from his southern coastal English village 600 miles to the Scottish seaside.
Though I guessed the plot twist from the beginning, I still found this to be a beautiful, quietly devastating novel. It looks squarely at failure (Harold’s failures, his wife’s failures, our many, human failings) without losing hope. Harold’s story is sweet, clever, enjoyable, and profound.
‘If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.’ He smiled. ‘Why else would we have feet?’ – Rachel Joyce
I was introduced to the picture books of Elsa Beskow eight years ago in my daughter’s Waldorf classroom. Waldorf education places a high value on fairy tale and the natural world, and I don’t think you can find that combination more clearly, or more beautifully, expressed anywhere but Beskow’s books.
Beskow was Swedish, and she wrote and illustrated dozens of titles between the 1890s and 1950s. One of my favorites, Peter in Blueberry Land, first appeared in 1901.
This is a story about a little boy searching for wild blueberries and cranberries for his mother’s birthday. Unable to find any berries, he sits forlorn on a stump in the forest until the tiny King of Blueberry Land takes pity on him. By the King’s magic, Peter shrinks in size and enjoys a day of pint-sized adventure with the many sons of the blueberry king and the red-capped daughters of Mrs. Cranberry.
We read this story over and over this summer because, well, blueberries! It’s one of those books that quickly becomes a kind of imaginative shorthand for the whole family. Wouldn’t that fern over there be a giant tree for the blueberry boys? we say. Or, Do you think Mrs. Cranberry shelters under a giant mushroom like that one?
The large format books are beautifully bound, but they can be hard to find. I discovered my copy of Peter sitting next to a display of butterfly-patterned china in a London department store. Last week, I spotted a large format copy of Children of the Forest in the gift shop of our local botanical gardens. The smaller, gift book editions are readily available on Amazon. We own a mini gift edition of The Sun Egg, and we return to it frequently even though it’s small. The baby seems especially enamored of its size, but I won’t let her play with these.
His mother was very pleased and said it was one of the nicest presents she had ever had. ‘Where did you find all those berries?’ she asked. But Peter smiled and shook his head. It was a secret between him and the King of Blueberry Land.
Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite was a gift from a friend last spring. I’ve spent the summer reading and rereading these “seventy sonnets for the Christian year.”
Guite is a poet, priest, and musician from Cambridge, England. His sonnet sequence strongly reminds me of the seventeenth-century devotional poetry of George Herbert (a poet I’ve recommended here before), but it is also modern, cutting right to the heart of our contemporary preoccupations.
These poems stand alone as poems, but they are also beautiful accompaniments to the church calendar and to daily worship. By rights, I shouldn’t even include this title when claiming to give you “a peek at my farmhouse bookshelves,” because this book hasn’t seen a shelf since it arrived. It lives on my coffee table, on my bedside table, and stacked with my Bible on my desk. I carry it around with me, and I read it, at least a little bit, every day.
Some of you may have seen the sonnet I shared yesterday. Here’s one more:
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream …
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling:
‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’
Friends, a confession: I read some books this summer.
The bad news is that I forgot to start dinner, I never noticed when the baby ate cat food, and I forced all four children to endure 90 minutes of daily “quiet time.”
The good news is that I have so many books to tell you about. Let’s talk books, again, shall we?
(If you’re new to this Saturday series you can browse my previous recommendations right here and read more about my use of affiliate links.)
Summer, for me, was over the top in every way. Heat, humidity, rain, noise, activity, zucchini. Just Over The Top. I survived by reading novels.
One of my favorites was Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple.
After reading the first few pages, my expectations were not high. The storytelling is unconventional. Rather than a seamless narrative, you’ll find fragments of communication: emails, texts, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. I worried the book would be some sort of postmodern experiment, more taken with its construction than the story it tells. I have nothing against experiments (Joyce’s Ulysses is one of my favorite books), but, this summer, I wanted something thoughtful and enjoyable.
If Semple’s book is an experiment, it succeeds beautifully. Yes, the form is unusual, but it turns out to be integral to a story that is deeply, warmly human. This is a fun, funny novel, but it makes a serious point: first impressions, even second impressions, might give us entirely flawed ideas about other people.
I loved the hope inherent in this story. I loved knowing that even villains might turn out to be lovable.
Hovering over me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them. – Maria Semple
Over the summer, I spent more time gardening than reading, a first for me. Of course, when I wasn’t gardening I was often reading about gardening. I’d read this memoir years ago, but when I found it on the shelf of my local used bookstore, I was happy to read it again.
William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden is funny, self-deprecating, and surprisingly informative. Reading about battles with garden pests and plagues should be discouraging, but Alexander’s honesty (and his recipes!) allow us to see just how rewarding life in the garden can be, whether we’re winning those battles or not.
With the kitchen garden established, I decided – in an act of horticultural hubris perhaps not seen since, well, since Yahweh designed the Garden of Eden – to Build a Meadow. – William Alexander
This new book by award-winning memoirist Beth Kephart was one of my great finds of the summer: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. If you have even the tiniest dream to write memoir (or even a blog post based on personal experience) this book will be your Bible. It is inspiring, it is instructive, and it is beautifully written.
I think this book deserves a much wider audience than only writers and writers-in-the-making, however. First, Kephart offers lists of must-read memoirs. Some were familiar to me, but many were not. Her descriptions of what makes each memoir valuable would make this book worth its purchase price even if that’s all it offered. But it offers a great deal more.
This is a book to wake us up to our own lives. This is a book to reveal the treasure that is our own experience. This is a book to help us shape the stories that must be shared.
If all your memoir does is deliver story – no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity – readers have no reason to return. If you cannot embrace the messy tug of yourself, the inescapable contradictions, the ugly and the lovely, then you are not ready yet. If you can’t make room for us, then please don’t expect us to start making room for you. – Beth Kephart
And you? Read any good books this summer?