Books worth reading

Confession: I haven’t posted book recommendations for a long while. I’ve been waiting for a theme to emerge, but instead of coalescing they seem to be diverging. I had better share a few titles now before we get any farther afield.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I bought this title before Jenny’s birth and tucked it away for a post-partum treat. Those early days of nursing and quiet, I savored a story that runs the gamut of human emotion and experience. All the ingredients are here: wartime, romance, classic literature, and the British Isles… An orphaned child, a secret society, laughter and tears in difficult times. It’s well-written and funny and heartbreaking, worth reading and re-reading. (And yes. After you read the book you will be able to say the title without feeling like you’re lost in Peter Piper Picked a Peck.)


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande

This is an important book. If you’re interested at all in the issues surrounding human aging, medical ethics, and end of life, it’s a must-read. (If you’re not interested in the issues now, you will be someday, I promise. So you might as well get a jumpstart.) Mr. Gawande, a surgeon, writes easily and intelligently about geriatrics and what it means to have lived a good life. Most of his material is story. He raises excellent questions, and, without making it sound like easy street, offers some good paths forward.


3 Day Potty Training
by Lora Jensen

This one wasn’t for pleasure, but for information. It’s short (44 pages) and not highly polished, but it’s practical and informative and best of all, it works. I tried it at the recommendation of my brother John—tried the book, that is, and then the method on our twins last year about this time. I’d never go back to my former method. Did I even have a method? This one is accident based, and focuses on positivity, presence, and praise. No negative vibes, and no turning back. Potty training is WORK and the three endless days are Hades, but it is worth it. I can’t tell you how much I dreaded training two kids at a time, but this instruction made it manageable—though I admit I still couldn’t have done it without The Boss. We had twenty-four accidents the first day, ten the second day, and one the third day!

Clarification: This title is available only as an e-book. You can use a Kindle app on a smartphone or view it on your computer.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig

Reminiscent of Moby Dick, with a slow story line generously interrupted by soliloquy and irrelevant perambulations, Zen is a quiet book tackling human problems in a technological world. I love it. This is my second reading, at least.

 

 

 


The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

I’m still not sure if I actually recommend this one. I found it on a Best Books of 2016 list. It is well-written and gripping, but in many ways a dirty book, full of lines I’d rather forget. The other books I’ve read on the topic have been elaborately researched, trying to convince me of the period’s evil by their factual detail and real-life gore. Instead, this author spins a dramatic novel, imagining the railroad was a literal underground transport system, hinting at layer upon layer of horrific moral darkness, and by some exaggeration and caricature making the reader feel what it was like. It’s ugly, and he means it to be ugly. But I include it here for discerning readers because it gave me two gifts: first, a gut level sense of what it meant to be human property, and second, a good look at the underbelly of the American dream, corrupt and territorial from the beginning.


News of the World
by Paulette Jiles

Another Best Book of 2016—but this one I fell in love with. Against a wild frontier backdrop spangled with lanterns, horse-drawn wagons, and a gunfight, the author skillfully crafts the story of a child torn twice out of her culture, first captured by native Americans and several years later reclaimed by white strangers. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd takes on the job of transporting this uprooted, volatile girl hundreds of miles to her kin. The Captain is quiet and graying and dignified, long on honor and short on change. His character is the best I’ve met in fiction for years. Plus I’m fascinated by the thematic undertone of how children belong…

Speaking of children, here are a few titles for them.


The One Year Bible for Kids, Challenge Edition
produced by Tyndale

My boys wanted devotional Bibles, and this one’s my favorite. It’s hard to find kids’ devotionals with enough Scripture; most seem to be inspirational thoughts written by humans, with a Scripture verse or two tucked in for good measure. I wanted to get the boys into the Word, and this layout is great. It chooses 365 “key chapters” from the Bible, so your child is reading highlights of Genesis to Revelation in one year, roughly a chapter per day.

 


Seeing Fingers: the story of Louis Braille
by Etta DeGering

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine
by Jeanne Bendick

 

 

 

If you’re in search of worthy biographies, these two are keepers, a mix of educational and delightful. Each is written in a fresh, inviting style well-suited to young readers, and captures the period, not only the man. Bendick has written companion books on Herodotus and Archimedes.


Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry

And I finally dipped into the works of Lois Lowry! Some discretion may be needed in what age of child to hand her stories to (as in The Giver, a rather dark utopia, if you can believe I stumbled upon another of those), but Lowry is a gifted author. Number the Stars is a memorable tale of courage and hope in Nazi-occupied Denmark—a story my boys enjoyed as much as I did.

 


And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong… Wait, where was I? Oh yes. It’s your turn to pass book recommendations on to me. What should I read next, please?

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Roe v. Wade, and the lullabye my mother taught me

Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

Confession: I’m not sure if I am reading all the dark stories on purpose, or if I am being unconsciously drawn to them because of where my heart is, or if I am walking with purpose through divine literary appointments.

It is difficult to write of abortion without being either gruesome or weepy. But if anyone has a right to try, it is Norma McCorvey. You may not know her by that name—she was called Jane Roe in the famous 1970’s legal case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in all fifty states.

She wrote I Am Roe in 1994 to celebrate abortion rights and to tell her life story, stripped of the lies on which her case was built. She wrote Won By Love only three years later, to recant her earlier beliefs and give glory to Jesus for healing and forgiving her.

I just read both. They are painful books, the first full of stories of abuse and despair, and the second uncovering the horrors of the pro-choice world. But they also made things clearer to me.

  • They clarified both sides of the abortion issue—why people fight for this right, and why they fight against it.
  • They clarified my own commitment to the holiness of human life, from conception on—and my commitment to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
  • They even clarified my own childhood, and the memories I have of my mother’s concern about abortion.

Roe v. Wade was decided in the first months of my mom’s married life. In the late eighties and early nineties when the legal battle resurfaced, she listened to Tilly by Frank Peretti, with tears dripping off her face. And she taught her children to sing a song called Lullabye for the Unborn.

Reading Norma McCorvey’s story reminded me of the song, and so I searched for it. I found the lyrics, just as I remembered them, but what I really wanted was a link to someone performing the music. I could not find one anywhere online—and so I decided to sing it myself.

I was more frightened than I look.

I wanted to sing it without mistakes, but I couldn’t.

And I offer it because Mr. Johnson’s message is worth hearing, even 36 years after he wrote it, and because all babies deserve life.

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If you could say one thing to the frightened mother of an unborn child, what would it be?

Dystopias compared

I would apologize for writing about something so few of you may be interested in (although there is a method to my madness which will become apparent tomorrow), except that this is the space where I write what I need to write.

So if you enjoy it, enjoy. And if you do not enjoy it, do not come whining to me.

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Have you ever wondered how much the world could change for the worse, and still exist?

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I’ve been reading dark books of late. Some of them were meant to be dark, and some achieved it by accident.

I began with 1984, a painful and depressing dystopia by George Orwell. At the end of the book was a list of what Erich Fromm called two trilogies, one of utopias* and one of dystopias.**

*Utopia: a literary prediction of a world in which all major human problems have been solved

**Dystopia or negative utopia: a literary prediction of a world in which the solutions to human problems have horribly backfired and created a dysfunctional, sterile, or otherwise unhappy human existence.

The three utopias were Utopia by Thomas More (bet you didn’t see that coming), City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella, and Christianopolis by Johann Andreae. The three dystopias were 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. (More books of both kinds have of course been written, but Fromm pointed to these as original and formative.)

So I set myself a goal to read all six, as well as a few related works by Fromm himself. I made it through four of them so far—three dystopias and the original Utopia—and was impressed more than anything else by their striking similarities. Oddly, the story that discouraged me the most was Utopia. More on that later.

Please note: If you are squeamish of violence or intimacy in literature, consider yourself warned. There are some awfully raw sections, and I’ll be honest with you, there were parts I skipped. That’s one reason I’m summarizing for you here.

Erich Fromm pointed out the irony that the positive utopias were written hundreds of years ago (16th and 17th centuries), as mankind reached for technological advance and imagined a time when human want and inequality could be done away. The mood was hopeful, futuristic, upbeat. The negative utopias were written in the 20th century, after the industrial revolution, when gaining the power to alleviate world problems did not actually translate into doing it. The mood turned dark, and people began doubting not only human ability but human character and intention.

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Though the content of the dystopias is similar, their styles are completely different. 1984 is grim and dark and thorough, a gray dry city of utter control. It is the most believable and well-thought-out of the three, a careful and complete system of horror. In contrast, Brave New World is a chaotic explosion of visceral ideas, colors splashed on the canvas as the artist imagined them, like modern art that hints at more than meets the eye but does not explore or develop it. We I found the most dangerous and poisonous of the three, mysterious, imaginative, and almost alluring. The good sometimes looks evil and the evil good; the reader is on edge and troubled.

The emotional experience of the humans in the books ranged from happy, drugged, and brainless in Brave New World to lock-step, logical, and rational in We to desperately unhappy and despairing in 1984.

But beneath the styles, all three stories were required to answer similar questions; each had to face the problems of human conflict, human history, and human happiness. All three had to create an invincible government controlling the people, and in the end presented social structures that were surprisingly similar.

How did the new system start?

Each book pointed back to some kind of revolution or overthrow that led to the current state of affairs. There were dark hints at world war, and nuclear or technological conflict that lead to chaos and new management of the earth. Brave New World did this most cheekily, with its date system centered around The Year of Our Ford, and the years surrounding it labelled BF or AF.

Did it control the whole earth?

Each book had to describe the extent of domination. We imagined perfect cities surrounded by a Green Wall shutting out the wild, into which no living person had ever gone. Brave New World described reservations for the savages; normal people visited these places only for rustic holidays and sight-seeing of the crazies. 1984 imagined the whole earth dominated by three super-states at perpetual war with each other.

(Incidentally, perpetual war was deliberate, intended to use up all extra resources—food, money, technology, human energy—so as to keep the social strata of wealth and poverty in place. Otherwise society would have had enough resources, heaven forbid, to meet the needs of the poor!)

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Why was it invincible?

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the dystopias was the obvious fear of the authors that someday human initiative and autonomy would be taken away—by brainwashing (1984), subliminal messaging (Brave New World), growing specially-conditioned babies in test tubes (BNW), replacing human names with human numbers (the main characters in We are D-503 and I-330), cultivating hatred and fear (regularly scheduled Two Minutes Hate, 1984), and removing all possibility of private life or thought (Big Brother was watching on the telescreen, 1984).

What was left to think, imagine, or create? Science, imagination, and discovery were all removed or banned, except to serve the state. History was rewritten or blotted out. People responded to new ideas with fear and revulsion. Anyone who opposed the system was tortured (1984), treated with the feel-good miracle drug called soma (BNW), or operated on to remove the troublesome part of the brain (We). There was no escape. Defectors were summarily dealt with.

The omnipotent power might be kindly or malignant, but it was omnipotent.

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How was human intimacy viewed?

Stranger still to me was how human intimacy was reimagined. I wonder why all three books hinged so much on this facet.

Perhaps the authors wanted reader-bait, but I think they also wanted to emphasize the reality that sex is our truest encounter with other humans; alongside worship, it’s at the core of what makes us who we are. The writers could not change human nature without changing human experience of sexuality.

In 1984, human desire was eradicated as much as possible. The act of procreation was framed as a slightly disagreeable duty to the party. Permission to marry had to be obtained, and would only be granted if there was absolutely no attraction between the parties. The Junior Anti-Sex League marched in the streets, and wore red sashes atop their uniforms to proclaim their virgin status.

In Brave New World, deep passion was wiped out by the new norm of petty play, indulgently encouraged by the management. Promiscuity was cute in children and required in adults. You mustn’t deny yourself anything, and you mustn’t spend all your time with one partner; that would be strange and antisocial. With babies grown in bottles, mother and father were embarrassing, dirty words.

In We, pink tickets were needed for spending nights together by mutual consent. There was no marriage. Most women were sterilized, with a few preserved intact for creating the next generation. Children were raised by the state.

In all three books—is this not ironic?—the most effective way to thwart the oppressive power system was via human intimacy. Temporary escape was achieved through passionate love-making (1984), committed devotion that refused to touch and waited for marriage (BNW), or exclusive love between two people and none other (We). Is that not ironic?

How does this contrast with the Utopia of Thomas More?

Speaking of irony, consider this. Some of the greatest horrors of the dystopias were imagined by More hundreds of years before as part of his paradise—such as enforced training sessions to better yourself, perfect structure of all your hours as pre-established by the state, potential loss of your children, and all things belonging to all people—nothing, in short, to call your own.

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That’s why the “positive” book discouraged me most of all. It tried to find answers (some scriptural, some novel, some undoubtedly a great improvement over the current state of affairs in Britain)—but it fell short. If you take his ideas to their logical conclusions, you get more than a whiff of Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin: an awful system of policing and uniformity.

Thomas More described humans as essentially good, and proposed that heaven could come to earth if people were given adequate training and no negative influences. He addressed war, slavery, government, marriage, extended family life, population, economics, and much more, but concluded that our biggest problem was money. He believed if we could just share everything between everyone, eliminate social strata, and get rid of our obsession with gold and prestige, most of our problems would go away. The Utopians’ great wealth was forged into golden chamber pots and prisoners’ chains, so that no one would desire to possess it or stockpile it.

There’s some truth there.

But golden chamber pots?

Well, I might have more to say on that tomorrow.

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What do you think? Is money the problem? Is true love the answer? 🙂

This post contains affiliate links. Several of the books I referenced are inexpensive or free on Kindle. The one most worth reading, in my opinion, is Orwell’s 1984. Don’t forget I warned you.

April book recommendations

While we’re talking of books, here are a few I’ve fallen in love with recently.


jayber crowJayber Crow
by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is one part farmer and one part poet. I love his writing—slow, earthen, and timeless. He writes about small town America, and the land, and love, and prayer, and what it means to be human. This is his best book, of the ones I’ve read to date. When I finished I wanted to turn back to page one and start all over again. Ryan says I should warn you that there’s occasional language.


mysterious benedict society

The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart

I’m endlessly indebted to my friends Travis and Wendy Zook for introducing me to the Mysterious Benedict Society. My 9-year-old son Aarick and I raced through it, and were equally charmed. It’s witty and puzzling and exciting and clean, with likeable characters, great words, and surprising twists.

Now we get to start on the sequels…!


lord and prayer

The Lord and His Prayer
by N. T. Wright

I bet you can’t guess why I’m reading this one!

I came to a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that utterly baffled me, so I asked three good men (Bible scholars) (including my husband) what in the world to make of it. The next week at church, one of them handed me this book. I’m loving it!

Mr. Wright is direct and insightful. I enjoy his high church backdrop, his gentle language, and his passion for Jesus and truth.


stopping at lemonade

Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand
by James Vollbracht

I stumbled on this book at our local library. The subtitle caught my eye, both as a mother and as a pastor’s wife—“How to create a culture that cares for kids.” Mr. Vollbracht lectures across the country on community life and the positive development of teens. He believes there are six interconnected circles of culture (the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the community, business and government, and our elders), and if we’re going to do well with our young people we must find ways to connect them into each one. We value their contributions, listen to their voices, and maximize their strengths. Wow! Now I want to start a campaign.

“Our kids are a very important barometer of how we all are doing, and if they are in crisis, we as a culture and community are in crisis as well.” —Vollbracht


this is not my hat

This is Not My Hat and
I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen’s books are amazing! He builds a perfect interplay between words (only a few of them) and illustrations (understated and hilarious). He leaves lots of room for childish imagination and problem solving to figure out exactly what happened. These two stories make me laugh out loud.


The strangest thing happened to me while reading this collection of books. On Sunday I finished Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand and picked up The Lord and His Prayer to begin reading. In chapter one, I came to a full stop at this quote from T. S. Eliot: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Whoa. Major déjà vu. I just read that somewhere!

Sure enough—in the final chapter of Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand. Now how weird is that?


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What have you been reading lately? I’m always up for more suggestions!

Giveaway: Silent Grief

Update: As of Monday, April 27, this giveaway is closed.

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Hi there, ladies.

Today I’m helping introduce a new e-book, just released by Kendra Graber. It’s called Silent Grief: Hope for Surviving Early Miscarriage.

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Kendra has six children in her home, and four more who are awaiting her with Jesus. Some of you will recognize her from her blog, Living in the Shoe.

In her new e-book, she starts by sharing her own story of miscarriage, then takes us through a Biblical look at life within the womb, our feelings of loss and grief, stories from other moms who miscarried, and tips for walking alongside a friend who is experiencing this pain.

kendra's family

Kendra shares symptoms of early miscarriage, some reassuring advice for the medical side of things, and tips for finding closure after losing an unborn child. She’s gentle, sympathetic, and down-to-earth. Throughout the book, she calls women to seek the Lord and trust His hand in all of life’s experiences.

If there is one thing I’m taking from the book, it is permission to grieve.

I find some books on miscarriage or grief too heavy to carry. Silent Grief is short (less than sixty pages) and simple—largely story-based, with some poetry, bright pictures, and a spirit of faith.

Here is a photo where you can see Kendra’s face. This is important to me, to see the eyes of the person I’m listening to. She’s not only a smiling mom lying on the grass surrounded by her healthy children.

kendra and husband

Kendra gave me a review copy of the e-book, and wants to give another copy to one of my readers. Please note my two disclaimers here:

  1. You don’t have to have a Kindle to read this. It is available on Kindle, or simply as a PDF document, able to be opened and read on any computer.
  2. You also don’t have to have miscarried. This book can help you understand miscarriage in order to encourage friends who have experienced it—Or perhaps your copy will become a special gift for a close friend who has recently walked through pain. Entering the giveaway is not an admission of miscarriage. I have to add this disclaimer not only for those of you who haven’t miscarried—but also for those who have, and will feel too exposed to talk about it here. You don’t have to share your story or use your real name. But you are loved.

Silent Grief is not an expensive e-book—only $2.99, available here on Kindle or here on PDF. Please consider sharing with someone you love. Leave a comment to enter!

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Giveaway closes in one week, on April 27, 2015. Winner will be chosen by the Lord Jesus this time. Now what do you think of that?

Giveaway is now closed.

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