Advent (Day 21): These Farmhouse Bookshelves

I finished the Christmas grocery shopping today.

That means I have nothing to do for days but read and read and read by the tree. Well, that and wrap presents. I do tend to put that chore off till the last possible minute. And, I suppose the children will still demand to be fed. Strange how they expect regular meals even while on holiday.

But, still, rest assured, there will be a great deal of reading in the days ahead. I hope that proves true for you as well.

Here are a few more favorites from our stack of Christmas stories.


(You can find all my book recommendations here along with a disclaimer about the affiliate links I use.)





Today, I’m recommending three picture books, but wait … these books aren’t really meant for small children. My second-grader and fourth-grader enjoy these, but I would share these books with anyone from an older child to an adult.

This first book would make an especially nice gift for a poetry or art-lover.

It is Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening with gorgeous illustrations by Susan Jeffers.

With its intricately detailed illustrations of snowy landscapes, this is a book that demands we slow down. My children love to search out the forest animals hidden in each image, and Jeffers gives this familiar poem a lovely, new twist of an ending through her designs.

But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep

Christmas Day in the Morning was originally published by Pearl Buck in 1955. This picture-book version features full-color artwork by Mark Buehner.

If you don’t know the story already, I won’t spoil the surprise. I’ll only say that this one inspired my daughter to shovel the driveway as a Christmas gift to her Dad.

Buck’s classic story always makes me tear up a little. Okay, I have trouble not breaking down whenever I read it out loud.

The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I’ll remember it, son, every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live.

Winter’s Gift is another sentimental favorite (but what’s Christmas without a little sentimentality?). It is written and illustrated by Jane Monroe Donovan and tells the story of an old man spending his first Christmas alone. He is without hope until a horse, lost in the woods, brings with her a very special gift.

‘The star is the most important part of the tree,’ she would always say. ‘It’s a symbol of hope, and no matter how bad things get, you should always have hope.’


These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.

Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert




A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).

This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.

This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.

How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton

Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.

We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.

Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.

What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.

God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children

I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.

The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.

I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.

It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..

This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.

This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.

It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.

To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman


These Farmhouse Bookshelves



I began this Saturday series, this weekly glimpse of my over-stuffed bookshelves, because it seemed like fun. Just fun.

But now I’ve read House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home by Mark Richard, and the word fun doesn’t come close. To share a book like this is something far beyond fun. It is serious. It is sacred. It almost feels like worship, and what can I possibly say to convince you to read this book? I don’t know what to say, but I feel desperate to say it.

This is a writer’s memoir. It is the story of a life, of a boy sinned against and sinning, and it is the story of God’s grace for this broken world. It is a work of art.

Unlike almost every other memoir you will read, Richard never uses the first person singular, never writes the word I. He refers to himself as you, and that choice draws his reader in and propels us through the pages.

It is as if a drowning man has lured us into the chaos of deep water. With him we are nearly overcome by the Southern Gothic horrors of his childhood, the wandering waste of his young adulthood, and, with him, we are saved. We are pulled from the water just as his father once pulled him from a swirling stream, and we see God.

By the end of this book we, like Richard, have long stopped believing in coincidence.  Instead, through the words of an artist we are able to see the work of that Artist who takes the broken pieces of our lives, our bodies, our stories and fits them perfectly together. The result is something beautiful.

Richard’s memoir reminds me of the memoir trilogy by the poet Mary Karr, a series that began with The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. These are not easy books to read. Karr’s story takes Richard’s horrific Southern Gothic childhood and kicks it up a few notches. However, like Richard’s, this is memoir as poetry. Both books make me think that maybe the surest path to God is to run as hard and fast as you can in the opposite direction. Just maybe.

Next to memoirs by writers, I most enjoy memoirs by midwives. Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent is the best I’ve found. Each birth story she shares could stand alone, but there’s an overarching narrative that will make you catch your breath. Organized with brief quotations from The Book of Common Prayer, Vincent’s story prompts me to believe there may be no work more holy than that of a midwife.

I only wish we had a memoir from those heroic Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, women brave enough to deliver babies and tell tales to Pharaoh himself.

If books get written in heaven (and why not?), then no doubt we’ll read their stories someday. I, for one, can’t wait.


Find earlier book recommendations here, here, and here.


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