Sunday, January 22, 2012

2011: The Year of Books About Books

When I sat down to look over 2011 reading, I realized I had been better about reading books than cataloging them. My list-making was punctuated by “oh, I forgot to write that one down!”

It was, in fact, a really good reading year. Like most years, I dove in and read as my learning trails led me. And while that can provide an odd shape to some reading years, in 2011 a sort of theme emerged without my realizing it was doing so. 2011 turned out to be my year to read books about books.

Strange but true. A lot of my non-fiction reads were about the pleasures of reading. I even read one thoughtful book with that very title ~ Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Other non-fiction engaged the topic of reading through engaging one beloved author. My fiction list was clogged with books where other books featured heavily, from a mid-grade fiction series about a girls’ book club, to books in more than one mystery series where the fictional “detective” was based on an historical author. I even read one novel, David C. Downing’s Looking for the King, whose minor characters included my favorite group of English authors, the Inklings. I also read a collection of short stories, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, based on another book I’ve loved for the past twenty-plus years.

I liked almost everything I read this year, some of it enormously, some of it mildly. A few books made my “love” list and are ones I’ll go back to again and again (and in some cases, already have).

Without further ado, here’s my 2011 list of favorites. Unless otherwise noted, links are to my reviews on Epinions.

Favorite Biography: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Despite the controversy surrounding this book (see my post here ) I still found this an inspiring read. Metaxas has a gift for writing readable biographies that pull you into the person’s life. The book also inspired a lot of other learning and reading trails the rest of the year. I’m still returning to Bonhoeffer – both to read other’s work about him and to read work by him. And I mostly have this book to thank for it.

Favorite Picture Book: Ted Kooser’s Bag in the Wind. Who would have thought that a book about a plastic grocery bag could be so beautiful and inspiring? I love Ted Kooser’s poetry, and this book proves how well it works in a picture book setting. Lovely illustrations by Barry Root also make this book a delight.

Best Devotional Book: God is in the Manger, a collection of advent and Christmas readings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Best Novel I Read This Year: Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. I laughed, cried, and read it again almost as soon as I’d closed its pages. Yes, it’s a mid-grade novel (and I usually set up a separate mid-grade category, see below). It’s still the best novel I read this year. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that it wins the Newbery Medal tomorrow.

Best Novel I Re-Read This Year: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This may become an annual re-read. And it may also go down as one of the best novels ever written about the power of reading books.

Favorite Book of Literary Analysis/Criticism: A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. I posted about it here and did a longer review which can be found at the link above.

Best “pop culture” book: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure. This is really a hybrid because it engages Laura Ingalls Wilder from a literary perspective, but it does so much more by engaging “the Wilder life” as a wider cultural phenomenon. I posted about it in the same post as the Deresiewicz book.

Favorite “new to me” children’s book, mid-grade reader (8-12 year olds): Besides Okay for Now, probably The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. What a delightful third book in the series. This was a major Penderwicks year for us as the sweet girl got hooked on the audio books in the summer and we listened to all three (some chapters more than once). We’re all eagerly awaiting the fourth installment.

Favorite “new to me” young adult book (12-15 year olds): When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park. This book might be classified as mid-grade, but it had more of a YA feel to me. Brilliant and insightful historical fiction.

Best Children’s Book I Re-Read This Year: How to choose? Every year that goes by, we read more of my favorites as a family. This year I especially loved reading aloud Anne of Green Gables and The Hobbit. Doing Gollum’s voice is fun, and so is reading Anne’s breathless, almost non-stop narrative when she first arrives at Green Gables.

Classic Book I Can’t Believe I’d Never Read Before Now: “Can’t Believe I’ve Never Read” is probably too strong a designation this year, but I was really surprised that I somehow missed Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs during my childhood. I would likely have read it many times over if I’d found it at around the age of eleven.

Book I Should Have Finished (and still plan to): I’d still especially like to finish One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp and Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual.

The Book That Surprised Me The Most: Okay for Now. Runner-Up: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

The Book That Made Me Laugh the Most: Okay For Now. Runner-Up: The Wilder Life.

Book That Challenged Me the Most: Bonhoeffer

Favorite “new to me” mystery writer: Susan Wittig Albert

Favorite “new to me” fantasy writer: Hardly read any fantasy this year (though Albert’s mysteries have elements of gentle fantasy)

Favorite “new to me” Spiritual Resource or Bible for Children: Was Bob Hartman’s Angels, Angels All Around new to us this past year? I’m not sure. But oh, we love it.

Favorite Book of Theological Reflections: King's Cross by Tim Keller. Beautiful and insightful reflections on the Gospel of Mark.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"50 Years, 50 Days, 50 Blogs" Celebrating A Wrinkle in Time

50 years! Does it seem possible that Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time could really be 50 years old?

I was delighted when I heard about the 50 Years, 50 Days, 50 Blogs celebration in honor of Wrinkle's publication. I only wish I had heard about it sooner, because I would have loved to contribute to the blog tour. (Alas, you had to be asked by the publisher, Macmillan, who initiated the tour to celebrate their new anniversary edition of Wrinkle. Which is chock full of goodies and looks way cool, a phrase I don't often use.)

As it is, I'll enjoy taking the tour and reading what others have to say about a classic book I've loved since I first devoured it at the age of eleven.

You can go to this Facebook page for the full list of the blogs participating in the 50 day celebration tour. At first I thought it was set up as a separate page on FB, but it's actually a part of the the general Wrinkle in Time page. So you can "like" the Wrinkle page and get to it that way, or just bookmark it. The tour starts today: you can find the great kick-off post here, along with a photo of the way cool (yes, twice in one post!) commemorative edition.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Little Bits of the Writing Life

It's feeling like a writing life again.

My life has always been a writing life, but there have been days -- seasons, weeks, months, years -- when I've had to fight so hard to get the writing in there, somehow shoe-horned into the cracks and crevices of everything else that's more urgent, more practical, more necessary, that I tend to forget just how deep the writing heart goes.

All those other practical things still exist, but in the last few weeks I inexplicably feel I've made peace with two facts:

1) I may never have a season where I don't write in the cracks and crevices, so it's time to embrace that rather than complain about it and

2) I will always write.

And with the hugging to my chest of those two little truths: Bam! Suddenly I am writing and loving it, loving every drop of it, even on days when there are only drops.

Here are some things I've loved about the writing life lately:

* New notebooks.

I got four of them for Christmas. The three composition books from my friend Erin have turned into what I call my "everyday" books. Not journals exactly, but the notebooks I go to for first-moments-in-the-morning writing. I'm writing something every morning. Snippets, lists, lines. Bits of scenes. Poetry. Lots of poetry right now.

* Yes, poetry! Lots of it coming in ways big and small. Some of the best poems are the small ones. Suddenly everything seems to be food for poetry. The Duke Ellington music we're dancing to in the kitchen. The onions I'm cutting up for dinner. (Okay, lots of kitchen inspiration right now.)

* A writing friend who not only gives me composition books, but cheers me on in my writing endeavors...even in the wee small hours when I should be sleeping. So thankful for Erin, who is also committing to writing more this year (and also getting off to a wonderfully creative start). I love the ways we encourage each other in the endeavor.

* Finding a note my emerging writer-daughter had left herself on the dining room table. A scrap of paper which read something like "A good title for a Christmas story -- The Baby is the Star of the Show."

* Teaching poetry and loving how it gives me new eyes on old poems. The sweet girl is memorizing "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats. She seems surprised by how easily she's learning it, but considering it's been on our living room wall her whole life and I used to sing it to her when she was a baby, somehow I'm not. What is surprising me...the little things that have jumped out at me as I thoughtfully peruse the lines on the lookout for things to point out to a nine year old. I've always loved the music of this poem (the reason I set it to a tune) but though I've loved it for more than twenty years, it had never dawned on me until this past week how wonderful its assonance is and just how many double-lettered words are contained in the poem, which also makes it a visual delight. Take a look: "Innisfree" itself has two n's and two e's, but there's also small, wattles, will, bee, dropping, glimmer, noon, linnet's, lapping, deep. There may be more ~ that's just off the top of my head. It's really an amazing feat, how he chooses those words and how they make music.

* Writing prompt sites. I am especially enjoying oneword and the One-Minute Writer, both perfect places to land when you're just looking for a quick burst of playful inspiration.

But best of all, I'm writing again, every day. Not just work-related things or reviews, though still doing those too. I'm working on fiction again (dare I call it a novel)? I'm writing poetry. And last week I started fleshing out what I think and hope could be a very promising non-fiction project.

Do I have any more time to write than before? Nope. But I've decided the burning in my bones and the stories calling out to me both deserve a response. Nothing in my life has really changed but me. Time, work, circumstances, stresses, joys, schedules, ministry, family life, ups and downs, laughter, tears, not enough sleep...yep, they're all still there. The only thing that's changed is that I've decided this is my year to stop wistfully wishing I could spend more time writing and instead actually do it. Even in the cracks and crevices.

And so far, I'm loving this decision.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Unique Walk of Grief

For the past few years, I've contemplated writing a January post about grief. I don't know what's made me feel more unsure -- knowing I'd need to find the courage to be vulnerable in what I say, or not wanting to unintentionally intrude on someone else's experience of grief. But...deep breath...this is the year I've decided to write the post.

Today is the 10th of January. It's an ordinary day and date and it may not have special significance to everyone, but to me, it marks a day that always has a special place in my heart. It was the due date of our first baby, a baby we lost a number of years ago when I miscarried at around week eleven of my first pregnancy.

Miscarriages are strange things. They are incredibly difficult to talk about in our culture. When they first happen, people don't know what to say to comfort you in your loss. Perhaps because the life that has been lost was so small and hidden still. After a miscarriage has happened, especially if any significant amount of time has passed, people expect you not to talk about the experience, as though it's been over so long ago that it should be well shelved in your memory and not need airing. I still sometimes feel embarrassment -- though I know I shouldn't -- when I feel a deep need to bring it up, and when tears form in my eyes when I talk about it.

Even the name is strange: to "miscarry" always sounds to me as though you just accidentally slipped or somehow made a mistake. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. When my miscarriage occurred, I remember feeling more powerless than I had ever felt in my life. Everything in me longed to change what was happening in my body, what was happening to the new little life that was developing inside me. I desperately wanted to find a way to stop it from happening, and after it was over, I went through a period of time when I kept wanting to turn back time.

I think there is also a sense, on the part of many people, that the pain of a miscarriage, once it's over and done, ceases to hurt very much. Especially if you've gone on to have another baby. There's an expectation that the gift of the new child somehow completely heals over the sore places in your heart and empty hands. And there is, of course, a deep element of truth to that. Time plus grace does help heal wounds (of all sorts, not just this particular grief) and holding a whole, healthy baby assuages the maternal ache. Assuages and comforts, but never erases it. Because the life you carried was a different life, a different person. And though you never held that little one in your arms, you did carry him or her in your body...for days, weeks, sometimes months.

And you felt that person's presence. It's different for different women, of course, depending on when the miscarriage occurs. For some, a heartbeat has already been heard, and the worst moment may come when that rhythm ceases to beat its steady pulse. For others (like me) we didn't even get to hear that wonderful music. But still, the changes that occurred in my body, as it made room for that little one to grow, were palpably real. I prayed prayers for that little one. And the physical and emotional journey of the miscarriage, essentially a small labor ending in huge loss, are etched in my memory forever. Truly one of the hardest days and nights of my life, with the prayer of Psalm 121 (sent by a friend) and the prayerful songs of St. Brendan my lifeline in the wee small hours.

The grief never goes away entirely. And that too is unique for each person. The grief tends to wash over me every year in January, right around this time. I feel it coming, sometimes like a tidal wave (in hard, darker years) other years a more manageable wave but still strong and sure. I've realized that there's nothing I can do to stop its coming...that it's a natural part of who I am now, like my hair and eye color. This grief is a piece of me and preparing for the wave is a part of what I have to do every year as the calendar turns. Some years I weather it with grace. Some years not so much. (This is, thankfully, a grace year...hence the strength to write this post.) Some years the grief is more palpable than others. I find myself thinking about the fact that I could be planning a birthday party right now, wondering how our little one would be enjoying the after-Christmas season leading up to the birthday. I find myself wondering if he (or she, but we've always had a strong feeling the baby was a he) would be like his sister.

We conceived the sweet girl just months after the loss. In the present, physical world, these two children could not have both existed -- they were too close in time. There is an absurd feeling to that for my heart sometimes, a strangeness, because I am the physical link that connects them both, and I hold them in my heart in unique ways. I cannot imagine our lives without the sweet girl, now a precious and amazingly creative 9 and 1/2. But I cannot imagine my life without the weeks I carried our other little one, who would now be turning 10. (One day, when she's ready -- she's not yet -- I'll share about all this with her. And I hope that will be a blessing to us both.)

My husband's grief still comes too. It hits him at a different time, around the time of the actual miscarriage itself, which came in June, right around Father's Day. Just a little more than a year or so after we lost our first little one on Father's Day, he held his daughter in his arms, and then three months later lost his own father. It all combines in a tangled web of love and loss, joy and sorrow.

There were people, even at the time of the miscarriage, who treated the loss as an ephemeral one -- as though the only real loss was the loss of our dreams about this tiny precious one (as if that wasn't crushing enough). That hurt, undeniably. I found myself not knowing how to answer their well-meaning statements. (Word to the wise: "these things happen" almost never comforts.) There were people who perhaps didn't understand my need to cry, journal, bawl my questions at God. But there were also people who awed me with their love and understanding, and who -- like the experience of the love and loss itself -- changed me forever, helped me grow in my own tenderness toward others walking this road or other kinds of grief roads. There was the dear friend who sent me the large, thick creamy white candle I still light in the baby's honor every year. There were the people who hugged me without saying anything at all. There was the friend who let me know, tentatively but truly, that he had dreamed I was expecting again (not long before I really was, a sign of hope). There was the woman at church I barely knew who almost brought me to my knees when she let me know, months down the road, that she had prayed for me every single day of the original pregnancy, even after we lost the baby.

The love of those people is one of the main reasons I've wanted to write this post for the past decade. They are the ones who showed me, through God's grace and through very simple acts of kindness, that we really can respect one another's unique roads of grief and walk each other through them. They were the ones who helped me to accept that my own grief is just a part of who I am, and will stay with me in some form for the rest of my life. But that the grief doesn't have to be an enemy, or something I need feel ashamed of. It's helped shape who I am. And it's not the only thing that shapes me. There were the very real eleven weeks of joy I experienced in carrying that tiny, hidden little one inside me, the privilege of carrying my baby for the very short season of that little one's earthly life.

Joy and grief both shape us. And they never fully leave us.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Wise Men by G.K. Chesterton

It's been a while since I've been able to participate in Poetry Friday, but Epiphany has me inspired today. I wrote an Epiphany poem this morning (still very much in rough draft) that I felt pretty good about until I read this stunning masterpiece by G.K. Chesterton.

Actually I'm kidding about how the Chesterton poem made me feel. Great art, while it may make our own art look a little pale and wobbly in contrast, does not diminish us. It expands and enriches and nourishes us -- all words I would definitely apply to how this poem affected me this morning. And in the end, a great poem that inspires me so deeply when I read it can only have a good influence on my own poetry-making. I know when I go back to that rough draft, I will have a whole other layer of imaginative humus to grow the poem in.

I do love this poem.

The Wise Men
~by G.K. Chesterton

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all the labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but truth.

...The rest of the poem can be found here. And the Poetry Friday roundup today is at Teaching Authors .

Monday, January 02, 2012

"Temper My Intemperance" (Madeleine L'Engle)

The new year finds me reading old poetry, especially poetry that's been part of my heart for a long while. I recently picked up a library copy of The Ordering of Love, the 2005 collection of Madeleine L'Engle's poetry that included some of her best poems from volumes ranging from the 1960s through the 1980s, with new poems from both the 1960s and the 1990s. While I have some of the original L'Engle poetry books on my shelves, it's been lovely to read at this compact, beautiful volume, to discover the new poems, and to realize anew what a deep part of my life most of the old ones already are.

Today I needed this one, an old favorite from her book The Weather of the Heart, originally published in 1978:

Temper my intemperance, O Lord,
O hallowed, O adored,
My heart's creator, mighty, wild,
Temper Thy bewildered child.
Blaze my eye and blast my ear,
Let me never fear to fear
Nor forget what I have heard,
Even your voice, my Lord,
Even your Word.


New Year Blessings!