The record of post drafts here on my blog dashboard tells me that on January 14, 2016, I was working on a new installment in my occasional series of book recommendations, These Farmhouse Bookshelves.
I never finished that post, and I didn’t read anything for a month.
I want to finish that post, but I can’t finish it seamlessly. Everything is before and after for us right now, and so much in our lives is sorting itself out around that dividing line. I feel such compassion for our before selves. They are innocent and unseeing, and it hurts to think of all that they didn’t yet know.
Still, if I could go to them and give them some message it wouldn’t be anything earth shattering or even all that original. It would be only the well-known words from Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
When I began this post, my before self was still waiting for snow to fall at Maplehurst. This has been the mildest and strangest winter anyone around here can remember. Three feet of snow fell while I was with family in Hawaii, but now I have seen the tops of the daffodils emerging a full month early.
With no snow outside, Elsa and I enjoyed Snow by Cynthia Rylant. Actually, I may have read it to myself a few times after Elsa fled my lap. It’s that good.
It captures everything I love about snow and hits that perfect blend of truth, poetry, and accessibility. I am often frustrated with the more self-consciously beautiful or poetic picture books because they aren’t concrete enough to grab my child’s attention.
If you’ve ever read a book to a three-year-old you know they can’t hear the line “the snow looks like ice cream” without interrupting, “Where’s the ice cream? Where, where?”
Poetry that doesn’t rely only on direct metaphors is a great thing in a picture book. Is the best snow the snow that comes in the night or the snow that sends you home from school? There is poetry in that question even a three-year-old can understand.
My before self had also begun reading a great new book called To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.
A book about “eating with more intention, compassion, and gratitude,” I would recommend this book to everyone who enjoys Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, or Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.
The illustrations and recipes that accompany each chapter are delightful and there are discussion questions that would make this book perfect for a book club. This book is full of rich spiritual wisdom and well-researched information, but it is a lot of fun to read, too.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about family and friendship.
I had just returned from a reunion with my parents, siblings, and our (many) children at my parent’s home in Kansas City. I wrote about how hard it is to live far from family and to see them so infrequently. I wrote about that emptiness, and I wrote about the special ways God fills that emptiness.
Now my after self knows that was the last time I would see my brother-in-law Shawn. Soon after that visit, my sister and her family moved to Hawaii.
Of course, that small blog post means so much more to me now, but I might not even have remembered it if a book had not been waiting for me when I returned home from Hawaii.
The Gift of Friendship: Stories That Celebrate the Beauty of Shared Moments, edited by writer and photographer Dawn Camp, is a collection of reflections by Christian bloggers. Dawn has gathered meditations on friendship by bloggers like Lisa-Jo Baker, Tsh Oxenreider, Jennifer Dukes Lee, and many others.
My post is there, too.
And I have yet one more reason to believe that though the future is, mercifully, hidden from us, it is never hidden from God.
You are each invited to an online book club for my book Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons.
Hosted by writer and editor extraordinaire, Laura Brown of the website Makes You Mom, the discussions will take place each Wednesday during the month of March.
Makes You Mom is a literary website that celebrates motherhood and welcomes anyone whose life has been shaped by a mom.
I will show up occasionally to answer questions, but I will not listen in or interfere in the discussion. Laura and I want everyone who participates to feel free to ask their hardest questions.
You can find more information about the book club here.
It has turned suddenly cold and windy. Cold enough that we considered firing up the woodstove in our kitchen this morning.
It has also turned dark. Thanks to a nor’easter, we’ve had rain and clouds for days. The sun rises noticeably later. It sets before any of us are at all ready.
It feels like October. Which is right on schedule, I suppose. Isn’t it comforting when nature’s patterns prove reliable?
This week I went to one of our local farm markets and filled my cart with pie pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, and Concord grapes. Now what I really need to do is stock up my nightstand with fresh books for autumn. Dark nights were made for books.
If you’d like to do the same, here are a few I’ve picked up recently.
Earth Works: Selected Essays by Scott Russell Sanders is an excellent collection of thoughtful essays by one of the best writers working in that genre. For the price of one book, these thirty essays could keep you company all winter. Like most of the best things in life, they should be appreciated slowly (however, I’m sure you will be tempted to gulp them down. But don’t! They are too wise, too lovely for that).
Sanders writes about houses and marriages. About the stars and beauty. He writes to discover, and the thing he wants to find, the question he seems most compelled to ask, is some variation on what it means to live well. How can we live in harmony with ourselves, with one another, and with this beautiful, astonishing planet that is our home?
All of us ponder our lives. … Essayists choose to do such reflecting, remembering, and imagining in public, on the page. – Scott Russell Sanders
Here is my new favorite book for little people: A Party for Pepper: A Hazelwood Forest Counting Book by Sarah Hartsig.
I discovered Hartsig, the artist behind the world of Hazelwood Forest, on Instagram, and I love her subject and style. If you enjoy Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter, you will love Hazelwood Forest, too.
I think we adults should buy picture books (and support talented artists) for ourselves, but I am fortunate to still have a small book-loving person in my life, so the choice, for me, was easy. I gave A Party for Pepper to Elsa on her third birthday in September, and I can honestly tell you it was one of her favorite gifts. Numbers are her thing right now, so while I enjoyed the depictions of sweet animals taking tea, Elsa counted and counted the gorgeous watercolor numbers.
I am already eager to see what Hartsig creates next.
Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Suzanne Woods Fisher was sent to me by a friend who read my recent blog posts on simplicity. She thought I’d like this book, and she was right. I haven’t finished it yet (this, too, is a book best absorbed slowly), but I can already recommend it.
Here are stories from Amish lives and reflections on Amish belief and practice for the rest of us. The tone is respectful but not fawning, and the author, though not Amish herself, has family roots and ongoing relationships within a plain community. In other words, she is not a voyeur, nor does she think we should all be Amish. Rather, she knows these communities well, her own life has been enriched by their wisdom, and she is interested in sharing that wisdom with us.
The book is organized for small group discussions. At first, I skimmed the discussion questions that come at the end of each brief chapter, but it finally dawned on me how much I would love to read this book with a group. I know there are some aspects of my complicated life and world I take entirely for granted or view as entirely fixed.
Reading this with a group, I wonder if we might discover just how much we are not required to live the lives of overly busy consumers that our world demands?
We non-Amish types might object to having a church choose our house paint. The Ordnung seems confining and restrictive, invasive, even. It’s true that the Amish are not free to do some things. However, they are free from many others. – Suzanne Woods Fisher
On this same theme, I shared a story at the Art of Simple this week about slowing down to the pace of a horse-drawn buggy. It’s a story about slow travel and sacred places. It’s a story about placemaking. It surprised me as I wrote, and I am still pondering the ideas that emerged. I hope you’ll read it and ponder with me.
Happy Saturday, friends.
I’m afraid it’s been too long since I wrote anything new for this, my occasional series of Saturday book recommendations.
Truthfully, I’ve been reading up a storm, but it all felt so weirdly personal. Either I was reading very particular books intended to fuel my own book writing, or I was escaping into novels that seemed either too lightweight or too well known (or both!) to be worth mentioning.
But then I realized something. The only thing really holding me back from writing another addition to this series was pride. Pride because I didn’t feel I’d been reading anything earth-shattering enough, or esoteric enough, or special enough. As if I share book recommendations in this space in order to cultivate a certain self-image.
But pride is so boring. My own pride, especially. So, I’m kicking it aside and telling you, honestly, what I’ve been reading. It’s an oddball pile of books, but I think you might just find something you like. I know I did.
(P.S. These posts contain affiliate links. Find all my book recommendations here.)
I first read A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell months ago on a good friend’s recommendation. Hubbell is a university-librarian-turned-beekeeper in rural Missouri. This book offers four seasons worth of reflections rooted in her mountain home. It’s a quiet book. A plain book. But it sticks with you. Lately, I’ve been rereading it, hoping that some of Hubbell’s no-nonsense, beautifully observant style will wear off on me.
The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is new to me, though it was released a few years ago. Wilson-Hartgrove is probably best known as one of the so-called “New Monastics.” He writes simply and straightforwardly about his choice to stay in an impoverished, urban neighborhood. The book offers an easy introduction to monastic spirituality and what that might look like for us today. That is, it’s easy to read and Wilson-Hartgrove’s storytelling is easy to enjoy, but the stability he describes is hard. The kind of hard I want and need and hope to spend the rest of my life learning.
My love for picture books is well documented in this space. I’ve told you before that I think we push chapter books too often and too early. Quality picture books are not only works of art, but they tend to aim at a higher level of storytelling and language. All the Places to Love by Patricia Maclachlan is no exception.
This one was recommended to me by another friend. It isn’t new, but I’d never encountered it until this year. The art feels slightly dated, but that is a small, small quibble with a beautiful book. This one makes me cry. Every time. It isn’t a sad story; it’s a lovely story. Reading this book you realize just how heart-breakingly beautiful are our small lives and small homes and ordinary days. This book is for anyone who has ever loved some special place, and, especially, for anyone who has ever shared that love of place with another.
I’m reading a lot of heavy, heady stuff right now, but if my own book is inspired by anything I hope it is inspired by this picture book.
Anyone ready for a big, fat, fun novel? Liane Moriarty’s novels always fit the bill. I’ve told you before how much I loved What Alice Forgot, and Moriarty’s latest, Big Little Lies, is another excellent, fun, funny, thought-provoking romp. This one tackles the heavy topic of domestic violence, but does so with such a uniquely hilarious Moriarty touch that you can’t help but be charmed even as you find your eyes being opened, your heart softened.
This isn’t high-art by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Moriarty is a genius.
Tell me, what’s sitting on your shelf these days?
Here is one last peak at my bookshelves before summer.
I think one of these might be just the thing for that afternoon in the hammock, the long car trip, those sweaty hours between events at the swim meet.
I plan to read as much as possible these next few months. I’m imagining quiet afternoons with a sleeping baby and three kids with noses-in-books, but the reality is more likely to be me on my green sofa, one eye on the so-close-to-crawling baby and one on my book, while I try desperately to tune out the shrieks of three children running circles around the room. Yes, I’m trying to be realistic.
Either way, my plan is to bring These Farmhouse Bookshelves back in September with fresh recommendations.
One of my favorite writers (she is a master of the revelatory interior monologue) has a new book. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life: A Novel is the best thing I’ve read in a long time.
I was skeptical at first. Perhaps you remember my distaste for literary gimmicks? Atkinson’s latest is structured around a stunning gimmick, but this excellent novel doesn’t deserve that pejorative term.
The book’s heroine is Ursula Todd, an Englishwoman who lives (and dies) through the Great War, the Spanish Flu epidemic, World War II and the London Blitz, and all of the upheaval of early twentieth-century European history. She lives, and she dies, and then she is born again, always and, it seems, forever on the same snowy night in 1910.
That is the novel’s literary device, and though it seems to break so many rules (most importantly, the reader’s assumption that the very worst thing cannot befall a novel’s primary character), Atkinson uses it to brilliant effect.
Ursula’s many lives and deaths, and the fascinating ways in which her story changes or does not, add up to a compulsively readable novel (after moving slowly through the first third, I couldn’t put it down) and one that gives us so much to think about: from questions of history and personal fate to the God-like role of novelists themselves.
Life After Life is the coming-of-age novel writ large. Ursula is given chance after chance to live well. We are given only one. We can learn a great deal from a character who knows the depths of the adage that “practice makes perfect.” The important question is, in that tumultuous time and now, what constitutes a well-lived life? What does “perfect” really look like?
Sylvie’s knowledge … was random yet far-ranging, ‘The sign that one has acquired one’s learning from reading novels rather than an education …’
A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays may be the best children’s book I never read as a child. I love it so much, I feel as if I have lived in its pages the way only a young child can.
Featuring Tudor’s beloved illustrations, this picture book shows us twelve months of celebration in a rural, New England family about a hundred years ago. Based on Tudor’s childhood memories, we have beautiful pictures and brief descriptions of a bonfire on New Year’s Eve, a syrup-making party in March, a dance around the Maypole, and a very special August birthday, to name just a few.
This is a book about the special rhythms of the seasons and of family life. It is sweetly nostalgic and inspiring. Enthralled by the book’s August birthday party, my daughter and I have decided that someday, somehow, we will float a candlelit birthday cake down a stream at twilight.
August brought your mother’s birthday which we celebrated at night by the river. The table was set with birch bark plates and gourd drinking cups.
I pulled this last book off my shelf last night and promised myself I’d reread it over the summer. Even the summer months deserve something of high literary value, but I find that short stories are easier to squeeze in between visits to the pool, park, and farmer’s market.
The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a collection of realist short stories by one of The New Yorker’s most gifted writers, Maeve Brennan. Out of print for decades, these stories were republished four years after Brennan’s death in 1993.
Born in Ireland, Brennan lived in New York from the age of 17, but the stories are each set in Dublin. These are stories about family and affection as well as the uglier emotions which can mar those relationships: emotions like grief, envy and even hatred.
These are stories in which each detail of a character’s dress and environment matters. They suggest that a writer’s primary task is observation. Writers, especially, appreciate Brennan’s work, but I think she has something to teach all of us. Whether we write or not, our lives are enriched when we pay close attention. To the arrangement of dishes on our kitchen shelf. To the face of a friend or child.
… you would think, looking at such an arrangement, that the boxes contained something of interest or of value. And what did they contain? Old bills marked paid thirty years before. Recipes for dinner she had never cooked, dinners so elaborate that she must have been dreaming of a vist from the king and queen of England when she cut the menus out of the magazines in which she had found them.
What do you plan to read this summer?
Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – “The Dead”
Find earlier recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.