March Reviews

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: Like every good novel heroine, Eleanor Oliphant has life figured out. Her life just happens to look different than those of other heroines: As she puts a traumatic childhood behind her, she manages a functional work life and crippling loneliness with structure, frankness, and a weekend bottle of vodka. That is, until she sees a singer perform and falls for him hard. Can she overhaul her life to make it more normal, more appealing? And what about if her past insists on intruding?

I liked but didn’t love this. I liked Eleanor, and many of the characters who gradually populated her lonely life. I laughed aloud at points and cheered for Eleanor. But the ending included what felt like a superfluous bit of showmanship in a plot twist — I think a quieter ending would have suited me better.

Takeaway Passage: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life by Deniece Schofield

Another recommendation from Real Learning Revisiting — surprisingly engaging prose and weirdly nostalgic, as the author, revising her book for the 1990s, is basically chronicling the minutiae of my suburban childhood. A shocking amount of the content was outdated, things have changed so in one generation (!), but it did get me to start slowly reorganizing my cabinets and basement, making order out of chaos in this weird, still season as I waited for spring.

The Exiles by Christine Baker Kline

Synopsis: Follow Evangeline, an unworldly new governess whose missteps lead her to prison and from there to a sentence of transport to the colonies. She, and the women she meets along the way, will form a chorus that speaks of the injustices of colonial life in Tasmania.

I hated this! So much! And yet I listened to it all! I was excited to read a book set in colonial Tasmania, but the book was unremittingly and sometimes gleefully grim and while I get that Kline set out to show the harsh realities of prison transport and the powerlessness of women in the early 1800s, it was just a lot to deal with, and not worth it. Also — and, ok, I’m not that good at placing accents — I felt like some of the reader’s here were Not Good.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews)

Synopsis: Mandy lived in the orphanage all her life, but suddenly new vistas open up when she discovers a forgotten cottage just beyond the orphanage grounds. Soon she’s sneaking every spare moment to make the little cottage her own, but at what cost?

I remember reading and loving this as a tween, but found it just better than meh as an adult. As a kid, I found stories of kids striking out on their own, and especially the mundane details of their housekeeping, fascinating. (Hey, look at me now!) But rereading it as an adult, I was struck by how wobbly Edwards is in walking the very delicate psychological territory of an (obviously traumatized) orphan presented with a new home. (If you want to know what I’m talking about, think about how carefully Gertrude Chandler Warner skirts around the deaths of the Aldens’ parents in Boxcar Children. The parents have to die so the kids can have this adventures, but also the kids can’t be at all broken by the experience or the book won’t be a fun adventure!) Edwards keeps tiptoeing into Mandy’s psyche when I think it would be better to just gloss over that reality or abandon the project entirely. Still, I was reading it, a chapter or so a week, to Scout, and she LOVED it, so I guess that’s the point. Just be a kid, and think about how fun it would be to grow your own garden and decorate your own little cottage. (If only your parents would just kick it so you could go to the orphanage!!)

St Patrick’s Summer: An Adventure Catechism by Marigold Hunt

Synopsis: Cecilia and Michael are just a couple of kids in the British countryside, wiling away their days until they can make their First Communion when HOLY MOLY St. Patrick himself starts appearing sporadically to elucidate theology and church history.

This was so good, you guys. I know I made fun of it in the synopsis, but seriously, it has glimmers of a more focused, more Catholic and and more rigorous Narnia. We have been doing a very inane video-based First Reconciliation and First Communion prep the church requires, and while I think Pip learns something there and certainly enjoys the cartoon gerbil (!), I looked forward to this book to come along behind and do the heavy lifting. There’s time travel and apparitions amongst the theologizing, and concepts are broken down with helpful analogies. My kids and I particularly connected with references to the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth because of our time in York in 2019, especially at the Bar Convent Heritage Centre. A couple caveats: St Patrick’s Summer is firmly pre-Vatican II so you may have to explain some differences in the Mass to children unfamiliar with the Latin Mass, and it’s also not even a little bit ecumenical, so while there are explanations and beautiful passages that I think would still work well in a high church Anglican family read aloud, some of it is going to be a bit uncomfortable.

The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Synopsis: Stella and Desirée Vignes are identical twins, inseparable and firmly ensconced in 1960s small town Mallard, Louisiana where fair skin and “white” features are everything, even if you are, technically speaking, still classified as “colored.” Then they light out together for New Orleans, and it’s not long before they prove not so inseparable after all. The girls’ lives diverge as Stella disappears, bent on passing as white; Desirée returns to Mallard fleeing an abusive marriage — with a very dark daughter in tow.

I wanted to love this more than I did, as it came highly recommended. The beginning was compelling — as an audiobook, the variations of tone and accent are stupendous — but something about the pacing felt off. We abruptly veered from Desirée’s story and by the time we looped back to her head (only a few days later in my reading!), I’d lost the thread of who she was, having seen her from so many other perspectives. I wanted more on the men in the novel, especially Early. And while I get that the book was about all kinds of loneliness, alienation, and not belonging, I thought Bennett cast her net a bit wide and drew some false equivalences that clouded what she was trying to say. Beautiful prose and lovely characters, though, prickly and broken and loving.

Takeaway Passage: “When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.”

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier

A book out of Holyoke, where I cut my teeth in librarianship! It was so cozy to read about references to all the landscapes that hosted my grad school years, and it made me wish the book had come out while I was still working in Holyoke, as it would have helped me to understand the city better. I’m skeptical of the low-effort claims of permaculture — it’s cool they don’t have to weed, but they’re also out hand-pollinating some of their trees, so I suspect it’s at the very least a wash. Still, much more approachable than my other recent library checkout, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach, which will forever live in my memory as “the book about peeing on plants,” but most of which I didn’t understand. (I’m not reviewing that one as I only spent about two hours skimming it and refusing to try to understand its weird charts.)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: Vida Winter is the world’s most famous author, a cross between Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling. But here’s the thing: she famously never tells the truth about herself interviews. That is, until she summons reclusive bookseller Margaret Lea to her spooky manor, inviting Margaret to write Winter’s biography. But is the fantastic story Margaret is hearing real? And if so, what is she supposed to do with Vida Winter’s story?

People I know who’ve read this adore it and prefer it very much to Once Upon a River, so I was surprised at how much I disliked it! But maybe the explanation is in that eternal question from I Capture the Castle — “Which would be better – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?” For me, the answer is obvious and unequivocal: Jane all the way, and down with the Brontës. And this, dear reader, is a Brontë book. Still lovely prose and a mystery that kept me reading even as it exasperated me, though.

Takeaway Passage: “People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

Synopsis:

This is a book I was probably supposed to read between the ages of 15 and 21 but somehow didn’t. And it was worth the wait! For a lifelong Christian, I feel like I have a pretty low tolerance for earnest Christianese in books (…and conversation), but Corrie never made me roll my eyes with her gentle faith and her family’s. The story was staggering (I didn’t know it), especially, and unfairly, in the context of a nice, dumpy late middle-age spinster. (Can anyone else think of another conventionally unattractive heroine in the same vein?) Just a truly uplifting read and a very good Holy Week pick.

Takeaway Passage: “Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street—and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”

St Margaret Clitherow and the Demands of Motherhood

We all have natural affinities for certain saints. As a mother of three young kids, I’m a big fan of that line St Mother Teresa of Calcutta may or may not have uttered — “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” It’s a cozy idea, and encourages me to embrace my current season of life, to dig deep into the small daily sacrifices required by comfy suburban motherhood, saving the heroics for someone else.

But what about those other saints? The ones we tend to relegate to the cobwebs of our liturgical year? The ones who suggest that sometimes, loving our family is not the highest good?

St. Margaret Clitherow, who is celebrated March 26, is one such of these challenging saints. I came across her on a trip to York, where she lived and died in the sixteenth century, martyred at the age I am now, the mother of as many children.

Her story can be stated in brief. Margaret suffered the misfortune of living during the upheaval as Elizabethan England abandoned Catholicism. There’s a theory that her brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, may have led her into the Catholic faith, but like many present-day former Protestants, Margaret seemed to clutch her faith more dearly than many cradle Catholics. At a time when Catholics would often attend Anglican worship to meet their legal obligations, satisfying themselves with abstaining from communion or just grumbling, Margaret was uncompromising in her refusal to attend Anglican services. Her husband remained Anglican but allowed their children to be raised as Catholics, and so Margaret stubbornly went about her business as a committed recusant, harboring Catholic priests in her home and sending her son abroad for a Catholic education. And, as you’d expect, eventually she got caught.

St. Margaret Clitherow did not hide behind motherhood as an excuse to be careful, but rather raged against the forces of evil, modeling brave faith to her children. She was just a lady with some babies who didn’t think that fact exempted her from standing up to injustice. Members of Margaret’s community repeatedly urged her to change her mind by invoking her duty to her family — one contemporary report states that “others also came to her at divers times, and said she died desperately, and had no care on her husband and children, but would spoil them, and make all people to exclaim against her.”

I can imagine myself arguing the same thing. “Meg,” I’d say. (She’d definitely go by Meg, I’ve decided.) “Isn’t it more important to care for your children? Motherhood is your vocation! God wouldn’t want you to leave them motherless.”

No doubt she’d ignore me, too. And that would be why she’s a saint and I have a long way to go. In 1586 she was arrested and never saw her children again. It’s not that she didn’t think of her family — in fact, by not entering a plea she saved her husband and children from being forced to testify against her. And in prison, where she gave birth to her third child, William, she also learned to read and write so that she might pass on the faith to her children.

It’s true that her actions did ultimately leave Anne, Henry and William without an earthly mother when, that Good Friday, she was martyred horribly by being crushed to death under her own front door. Further increasing the brutality, some accounts report she was pregnant with her fourth child at the time. But in so dying, she gave her children a heavenly mother, and her living sons went on to become priests, her daughter a nun.

It’s easy to idolize family. Though we are called to die to self and love our family, the obligations of small children can sometimes transform into an excuse we hide behind. How many times have I passed up the opportunity for confession or daily Mass because it would inconvenience my children? Personal holiness can be forged through the family but not solely. With what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “Christ-ed beauty of her mind,” Margaret understood this, keeping aflame her unflinching love of the sacraments.

What I Learned Wearing the Same Dress 100 Days in a Row

I was having a jeans problem. This is my longest stretch in a decade where I haven’t been pregnant or nursing, and it’s also been a long stretch where brick-and-mortar shopping hasn’t been practical. Add that limbo to my long-standing and probably bizarre love of wool and my next sartorial move was obvious. In November, I used birthday money to get myself one of Wool&’s merino dresses, and in December, I started their 100 Day Dress Challenge. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • No one notices if you wear the same thing everyday. No one is paying attention to you, seriously.
  • I had suspended accessorizing during the baby era. Wearing the same dress everyday reminded me I could actually safely wear a necklace without someone wrenching it off, a scarf without suffocating my nursling. I’ve spent quite a lot of the last eight years partially undressing several times a day, but I don’t have to do that right now, and that spells freedom.
  • Tying the bottom of a loose shirt is my favorite way to create a waist on a baggy dress—not belts. Maybe it would be different if there were little loops on the Rowena to hold the belt in place on the dress, but inevitably my belts, even elastic ones, would shift and annoy me, or I’d find myself slouching to try to hold them on, and I definitely don’t need another reason to slouch. (On a related fabric-tying note, wadding up the dress into a little bun so I could wear it with jeans was easier than trying to tuck it in and fluff it up, even though the Internet says you can do this with dresses.)
  • I actually really like a baggy dress, though. I had never worn a shapeless dress before because I’m a pretty scrawny person and always felt lost without some tailored curves, but it really is incredibly comfortable to just hang out in a sack, and if it’s a pretty sack, what’s the big deal? People still know I have a waist even if it’s obscured in merino.
  • You can do anything in a dress. Granted, I wore leggings underneath nearly always, or else (wool) tights or jeans, but in my 100 days I biked and hiked, baked and cooked, taught and kept house, gardened and attended Mass. Many of these are activities that would ordinarily have had me changing out of the Dress either to protect the wool, or for more range of movement, or to keep me warmer, but I was able to work around it, and mostly enjoyed the challenge.
  • My girls are camera junkies. Endless photobombs, plus a lot of odd shots taken by my willing camerawomen.
  • I, on the other hand, am not. I used to be fairly comfortable in front of the camera in college when we were all just figuring out digital cameras and racking up tons of shots, but during this challenge, it was hard not to be embarrassed, especially on whole body photos, not because I’m self-conscious about the way my body looks but because I don’t know how to hold myself at all. (Also our house is really cluttered, I have found!) I’m hoping we’ll like looking back on all these ridiculous photos later, though, and remembering what I was like at 35.
  • There are things I can do to feel more comfortable in front of a camera. And with many of us still doing most of our socializing via Zoom and FaceTime, those things are worth thinking about. I can wear lipstick if I’m not about to don a mask. I can try to embrace my long hair, the legacy of the pandemic. I can replace my janky, cracking glasses. I can bleach my teeth, for heaven’s sake!

I don’t think you have to go the Wool& route to enjoy some of the benefits of simplifying your wardrobe and/or putting more thought into how you present yourself, but it was truly a fun project this long, dull, hard winter. And after 100 days wearing the Rowena dress? I’m not ready to trash it or burn it, and I think that’s a testament to its quality and versatility.

(This is a reflection, not a paid promotion. For interested parties, the dress did spring one tiny hole around Day 75. I washed it about once a week on gentle with Woolite and air dried overnight — I couldn’t do the recommended smell test for obvious reasons.)

February Books

Real Learning Revisited by Elizabeth Foss

Synopsis: More or less a tour through the Foss family homeschool, both at the time of the book’s original publication and now (thus the “revisited”). Foss’s whole-life approach is Catholic, Charlotte Mason-inspired, and, as a wry friend noted, very “NoVA.”

I struggled a bit with the tone of this for some reason. Maybe if I had read it earlier in my homeschooling research I would have found her a little less superwoman and smug in some sections — it really seemed like she was able to spin all the plates effortlessly most of the time. This is a critique of the book’s voice, rather than the actual content, or, heaven forbid, poor Elizabeth Foss’s actual character. (Maybe if I were a longtime blog reader I’d cut Foss more slack — Kendra Tierney is similarly super-capable and she doesn’t annoy me.) Still, this was the first book-length synthesis of Charlotte Mason philosophy and Catholic educational theory I’ve read, and valuable for those early philosophical sections, as well as for some of the closing sections. (I especially liked “What I’m Not Going to Tell You.”) Also, she may have softened my heart just slightly toward team sports. (But seriously, ugh.)

Takeaway Passage: “[P]arenting will always be more about self-discipline than it is about bending or shaping a child’s will.”

On to Oregon by Honoré Willsie Morrow

Synopsis: When his parents both die suddenly along the Oregon Trail, 13-year-old John Sager takes responsibility for his six younger siblings, including a newborn, as they press on to Oregon despite many obstacles.

A book recommendation I got from Real Learning Revisiting, so there’s value right there. We worked through this as an audiobook whenever I needed to run errands and everyone was enthralled to varying degrees, with Pip being the most enthusiastic. (Foss had mentioned it appealed most to her eldest son and improved his attitude to his younger siblings — my initial reason for trying it!) I found the historical detail interesting and it tied in well with our current work with Classically Catholic Memory — as a librarian, I also appreciated how the author cited diaries and letters from her research so my kids could see research in action. On the other hand, I found the constant peril of the newborn baby sister painful (probably a legacy from my miscarriage) and the attitude toward Native Americans required a lot of conversations — probably good to have those, but also a little painful. (Then again, original publication date: 1926.)

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Synopsis: Explores the lives of the Mirabal sisters and the enormous impact their lives and deaths held on the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic.

I know nothing about the Dominican Republic! Except that maybe some good baseball players come from there (?) and also that it’s on the same island as Haiti! (I mean, I think?) Still, In the Time of the Butterflies completely engrossed me, though: the political intrigue, the nuances of four very different sisters, the question of what we owe our families, our faith and our nation. Lovely prose, lovely book.

Takeaway Passage: “‘Dictatorships,’ he was saying, ‘are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.'”

The Half-Acre Homestead; 46 Years of Building and Gardening by Lloyd Kahn and Lesley Creed

Very aspirational hippie stuff about a couple out in California who built their own home in the 1960s and have been tweaking and modifying it as a self-sustaining tiny piece of land for the last four and a half decades. J would panic if he leafed through it — lots of sections on greywater (maybe someday) and roadkill taxidermy (never), but it has some clever solutions and inspiration for living a frugal and handmade non-Instagram life. It is more like a magazine, a glancing and wide-reaching overview, than a how-to manual on any particular subject, but with a lot to interest in the breadth it covers and the life it describes.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: On the winter solstice, at a merry pub on the banks of the Thames, a badly beaten man comes to the door bearing a dead little girl. But is she dead? And to whom does she belong?

I can’t begin to say how much I loved this one. Such a lovely surprise — I didn’t go into it with any kind of recommendation, just happened upon it in the library e-audiobooks, and, having loved Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Middlemarch, decided to give it a go. Well, Juliet didn’t point me wrong. The book just felt old-fashioned, even a little Dickensian, with any character who cropped up once appearing before the end, and its strict and merciful distribution of satisfying justice, but also peppered with very of-the-moment discussions of what parenthood and children call forth from a person.

Takeaway Passage: “A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” (Also, Robert Armstrong may be one of my favorite literary creations of recent memory.)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

This was a struggle. I listened to it as an audiobook and it just felt like a complete assault of information, coming too fast for me to process it. Massacre, treaty, migration, massacre, massacre. I could’ve gone slower, of course, if I’d read it as a book, but I’m skeptical I would have made it through. The last section, about the repatriation of artifacts and remains, was the most interesting to me, probably because I was best able to understand it, with less hopping around geographically, historically, and culturally, and with my limited knowledge of the subject from my sister-in-law’s work. I’m hoping this is a step in the right direction of correcting my woeful ignorance, and that more fiction like Even as We Breathe and heck, even counterexamples like On to Oregon, will populate my imagination and give me a better framework to build on.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Synopsis: Nora has nothing to live for. So when the last few threads holding her to other humans finally fray, she makes a rash decision at midnight and awakens in the Midnight Library, where she will live different variations on her life until she finds the one that makes her want to keep on living.

Despite the macabre start, a really charming, life-affirming little novel with shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, and Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Very cinematic, and full of humor and pathos. Enough philosophy to not make it completely superficial, and honestly a little too much physics for me, but maybe that’s your thing.

Takeaway Passage: “You’re overthinking.” “I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.”

The Best Gift I’ve Given My Kids This Entire Pandemic

I mean, the baby Yoda winter hat was a real winner and I’m pretty unerring with my book picks, but the absolute best thing I’ve gotten my kids during this pandemic, the one thing that has helped to pass time wholesomely and been a bright spot in our lives is —

the dog I adopted in 2009.

It’s a pretty common story: Bonnie was our baby, and then we had a baby, and then she became this thing that lives with us.

Since 2012, my attitude toward Bonnie has fluctuated between apathy and active antipathy, spiking when Scout was a baby and occasionally since we’ve lived in this house, where her border collie wiles periodically liberate her from the fenced backyard and allow her a truly infuriating neighborhood meet-and-greet.

She also, and I cannot overstate this, sheds appallingly.

Pippin, meanwhile, has gradually progressed from a furrowed-brow toddler pronouncing DOG HAIR IN MOUF to exhibiting a growing affection born of too many repetitions of the Henry and Ribsy series on audiobook. But the real turning point was this winter when we made the world-reordering discovery that now, finally, Pip is big enough to just about control her on the leash.

Game changer, friends.

Now the kids are Bonnie’s inseparable and barely tolerated entourage. They stroke her and follow her around the house and lure her upstairs to their bedroom with a purloined bag of treats. They take a very lively interest in her well-being and fight over who feeds her, or lets her out, or, crowning honor above all others, doles out her old-lady joint supplement.

And they want to walk her everyday.

Without the lure of friends to keep the kids playing outside in cold temperatures, it’s been hard this winter to convince the kids to get fresh air and exercise, but they never, ever say no to walking Bonnie, even though she is The Absolute Worst™ on leash, lunging at other dogs and gurgling luridly, then dragging you to an abrupt and poorly placed poop stop. She has pulled out of Pippin’s grasp once so far (bless you, stranger you caught her trailing leash), not counting the other time that he outsmarted her by clipping her to his belt loop, only for Bonnie to then rip the belt loop right off. But she and Pippin dart up and down the hill near our house, the girls trailing behind, and it’s unclear who’s exercising who, but it’s clear who’s saving our afternoon.

I have had this dog for a dozen years, and I have often regretted the expense and responsibility, but during this long, dark winter, I find myself inordinately grateful that she’s still here with us, after all these years and moves and babies. When I spotted her at a Petsmart adoption event, I was 23 and desperate for something small and cute to love me, still scared silly by babies. I couldn’t have imagined the life she and I live now, my three, poor stir-crazy children writing her valentines as we pass another long, pandemic winter day. I count down to vaccines, to warmer temperatures, and I count my lucky stars for this exhausting, enduring stray of ours.

January Books

By the Book (Amanda Sellet)

Synopsis: A teenager raised in a large, literary family finds herself thrust into the deep end when she’s unexpectedly sent for the first time to the big public school in town. She leans on the nineteenth century novels she loves to understand her new world, but mistakes ensue. (YA)

Lots of fun quipping, a bit like Love Walked In. As an adult I enjoyed this for likable, smart young characters, but the group I’d recommend it to skewed a little older than I expected.

Takeaway passage: “There was something highly literary in the idea of succumbing to a fateful solitary misery, like working myself to death making hats.”

The Little Duke (Charlotte Yonge)

A read-aloud for Pippin’s school about a little boy who becomes duke when his father is unexpectedly murdered in medieval Normandy. Good balance of compelling action and thoughtful practice of Christian virtues in this medieval middle grade novel — Pip enjoyed it and I didn’t find it gratingly moralistic or at all tedious.

The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)

Can you tell we finished term two for Pippin’s second grade? This is at least my third time through WW and I still love it so incredibly much. This podcast was a delightful romp in that world.

Takeaway passage: “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

What can I say about this? It was a massive audiobook, close to a day long, and kept me fascinated even as I got more and more uneasy about the direction of the plot. This is the first book I’ve read by Mitchell (and admittedly may be the last) but what kept me going was the depth and nuance of the characterization. Most of the narrators are at least somewhat and sometimes appallingly morally reprehensible, but very deep and real-feeling. Still, I was left hating quite a lot:

  • While the opening section with Holly’s narration tiptoed through the delightfully unworldly, creepy area covered by Graham Joyce in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, later in the novel a LOT of explication goes into the true mechanics of the universe and they are stupid.
  • There’s a narrator near the end who is very deus ex machina and the sort of omniscient hero who drives me crazy in later Harry Potter (Dumbledore), the last Traveling Pants (Tibby), when Sherlock suddenly has martial arts skills, basically any superhero movie…
  • The very last narrator or two are very angry with religious people, especially Catholics, and the whole thing feels like the long, beautiful set-up of the His Dark Materials series, just to trash God.
  • I have tried to avoid post-apocalyptic stuff during our latter-day plague and I was not counting on this book veering that direction, so be warned.

Takeaway passage: “People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”

and also: “Civilization’s like the economy or Tinkerbell: If people stop believing it’s real, it dies.”

Even As We Breathe (Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle)

Nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoia is desperate to escape from his small town, and relieved to snag a job as a groundskeeper at an Asheville hotel serving as an internment camp for Axis diplomats in World War II. But it’s not easy to enter the white world as a Cherokee, and new discoveries about his past shake him further.

I heard about this one on an NPR piece and immediately bought copies for myself, my mom and my sister, because the little town of Cherokee, NC, lies near the mountains where my mom spent all her childhood summers. The book is touted as the first published novel of a registered Cherokee, and as introduction to a time and people of which I’m ignorant it was valuable, but I found Clapsaddle’s writing too snarly and fever dreamlike, moving between past and present, imagination and reality, without firmly established transitions. Cowney’s first person narration is often delivered in a lyrical style that doesn’t fit his spoken speech or interests and…I just didn’t like it very much.

Green Dolphin Street (Elizabeth Goudge)

Synopsis: Two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, fall in love with the same boy. When he sends a letter from the New Zealand frontier years later, he accidentally requests the wrong sister, but the bonds the three share will grow and endure from childhood to old age and across oceans.

While this was beautiful, I found it difficult to make myself read — the pace, the sometimes disappointing behavior of the protagonists. Still the story, if occasionally a bit dated (holy moly Maoris), was so rewarding — one of the most thoughtful and inspiring explorations of prayer I’ve ever come across. Worth struggling through on and off for over a year.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

My first re-read since I had my own Scout, and so warm and welcome. A whole year gone without a trip through the Deep South, and I miss those landscapes and cadences. Certainly Mockingbird isn’t meant to be a comforting book, or at least not mostly a comforting book, and our WRM discussion fell during our chaotic January, but still, the book made me laugh at an unsettling time.

Running: Better than Grass-filled Jellybeans

(If you’re here from my piece on anosmia at Scary Mommy, welcome! I’m glad you’re here.)

A thing you know about me if you know me IRL, but may not if we haven’t met, is that for the past eleven years I’ve owned a dog named Bonnie, who is, according to our best guesses — and the sure-if-that’s-what-you-want people at the pound — a border collie mix.

Bonnie, approximately 77 dog years ago. Leave your breed guesses in the comment box.

Many years and three babies ago, when Bonnie was young, she and I would go running together. (If J and I were dogs, he would be a border collie like Bonnie, and I would be something sedate, like a basset hound.) I do not like running and so for the first three quarters of the run I would plod along while Bonnie dragged desperately, and then she’d lag and meander the last quarter.

When lockdown started, I buckled down with running and got more regular. I found myself with more anxiety to manage, so I was going to need to put in more time in my extra-narrow Brooks Ghosts. Because Bonnie is now approximately 129 in dog years, I ran alone, and these little runs became my lonely communes with the pre-dawn — not exactly fun, but something that made my day better once I was in sipping tea and warming up.

But then deep winter came to our valley, and SOMEONE got restless — no, not Bonnie. I don’t know if it’s a boy/girl thing or a Katherine/J thing, but my girls’ behavior doesn’t nosedive with a decrease in exercise, but my boy’s sure does. In December we’d settled back into pretty complete isolation as local numbers climbed, and so I wasn’t able to kick Pip out with friends anymore and for some unknown reason, he wasn’t keen to go wander our suburban yard by himself in sub-freezing temperatures.

And so he started joining me on runs.

Peregrine in his trail-running Saucony Peregrines

It was so completely and utterly like running with my border collie all those years ago — straining to race ahead at the beginning, with a smattering of good natured trash talk, followed by whining and trailing in the last quarter. (On our first run, he actually claimed that it was possible for your kneecaps to fall off and that he’d seen it happen in a cyclocross race.)

But with important differences: no constant pausing (ok, only for really irresistible ice puddles), no leash aggression, and with a breathless constant stream of mostly one-sided conversation.

Before Pippin started running with me, I would not have claimed I was in need of any more time with my children. It’s the middle of a pandemic and I homeschool, so they have been with me approximately 98% of the last year.

It is a family joke that I hate running and am given to snorting in derision when someone wishes me a good run. But then the other day, Pippin added to the recorded list of interests I keep for his homeschool report “runing with Mama.” And I was so flattered I brought it up, wheezily, on our next run.

“It’s a little bit fun, isn’t it, Mama?” he prodded.

Grudgingly, I admitted that it was better with him, at least.

“Better than lots of things!” he encouraged. “Better than jellybeans. Filled with grass!”

And it is, dear reader. I don’t love running, but I don’t hate it anymore, and it is better with this tiny companion, not so tiny anymore, full of ideas and fun, excited for a frosty sunrise run with his mom, even if she goes entirely too slow.

The most improbable alliance: running buddies

Packing and Preparedness

Very glamorous silicone laundry line in our London flat

I don’t think it would be an overstatement (though it could be an embarrassment) to say that one of my greatest accomplishments of 2019 was packing for six weeks abroad as a family of five in just two checked bags. But it’s true! I researched, and tested out scenarios on a week-long spring break trip to Alabama, and revised. We ended up with tiny wardrobes that saw us happily through London, Kendal, Edinburgh, York, and London again, with only occasional muttered profanity when the complicated luggage arrangements we hauled toppled over while we wrangled three kids in crowded public transportation.

I’m just going to be honest here; this stroller is amazing but we overloaded it enough that it tipped over with a child inside it more than once.

I have always been a methodical packer. As a newlywed, I spent a whole summer putting things into and out of suitcases ahead of our trip to Uganda; J packed his share during a single conference call. I spend so much time thinking about packing that I’ve written a post about it before. My whole adult life, packing has seeped into many of my most boring and stressful dreams. (Whatever, I’m a cool mom.)

Brilliant packing move: one coloring book per kid, even in our very minimalist luggage. Pictured here rolling along en route to Oxford.

In 2019, we spent a full quarter of the year traveling. In 2020, we, like many of you, went exactly nowhere. We arrived back from our annual tour of the South on New Year’s Eve. The next day I found out I was pregnant. I canceled our plans, waited to start puking, then miscarried. By the time I’d scraped myself up off the floor, the world immediately fell apart. So yeah. I was in my very own bed every night of 2020, excepting the one I slept in a tent in the backyard with the kids.

Between the miscarriage and stay-at-home orders, almost half the year passed before I had to pack more than a diaper bag. But when we finally started to venture out on day trips again, I realized that none of my previous packing experience was all that relevant.

The rules had changed. Now we needed hand sanitizer and masks — and should we bring some disposable gloves just in case? We needed a plan for the bathroom, because now, when it was least convenient, everyone was finally potty trained. (I mean, mostly.)

The water fountains are turned off and the bathrooms are closed. PLAN ACCORDINGLY AND BRING A MASK.

What was worse, we had changed. We were rusty, accustomed to never having the things we needed — the extra layer, the change of pants, the spare snack — out of reach, having spent months on end confined to our immediate neighborhood. We’d lost the make-do attitude we’d cultivated traveling so much the previous year, and at the same time we’d lost the freedom to easily run into a store for a replacement if a forgotten item proved essential.

Most of all, we’d lost the confidence that the future is knowable, something that can be planned for. (Given the average weather of London in May and Edinburgh in June, it follows you should pack the lightweight merino leggings and the sundress.) Instead we were faced with the uncertainty that had always been there: maybe you pack all the right things, but it doesn’t end up mattering, because the unpredicted occurs. You can plan for what you might need on that trail, given hungry little bellies and a boy who will wade regardless of the temperature, but you can’t game out what you’ll need if that trail is too people-y and you have to go someplace else, if your kid needs to pee and it’s still densely populated and you don’t want to set foot in the sketchy gas station bathroom in the middle of a pandemic.

Packing has become a lot more like those monotonous dreams that plague me at night — a shifting and uncertain task, without any real guarantee that hard work and forethought will pay off. It’s also probably socked me with some violent grace, though, reminding me that perfection isn’t achievable, that we have always lived at the mercy of outside forces and that the perfectly packed picnic is no guarantor of a pleasant outing. We travel through life, trying to hang on to the things we think we need, but in the end, so little of it is about our own striving.

Still, it never hurts to pack an extra snack.

Melting her brain with Frozen on the way back to the States

2020 in Books

Total: 64. That’s significantly more than in any year since I started tracking. Thanks, pandemic??? (Past lists linked to here.)

Fiction Favorites:

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler: knocked me on my butt and kept me completely horrified and obsessed through early fall as I drove to physical therapy.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: I’m always interested in speculative fiction that explores what our lives mean and how changes in their trajectory might affect the wider world (My Other Children is another good one) and yet I couldn’t get through the bleak sequel to this at all.
  • These Nameless Things by Shawn Smucker: a fascinating contemporary companion to The Inferno and The Great Divorce.
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her (Station Eleven and The Lola Quartet so far); the nuanced characters with haunting backstories, the unexpected overlaps, and the events and characters that resist overlaps. I don’t always know why she’s doing what she’s doing, but I’m along for the ride.

Nonfiction Favorites:

  • Drawn To Nature: Through the Journals of Clare Walker Leslie: completely inspirational without being intimidating. Should be required Charlotte Mason reading — teaches how to keep a nature journal in a very casual, approachable way.
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry: read to me in the dulcet tones of Ron Swanson, no less. Seriously, though, 2020 was the time to really think about the disservices our global, consumerist economy has rendered and consider how we might build a more robust and loving local community.
  • A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy by Steven W. Mosher: fascinating and horrifying. I can’t believe I read this in the aftermath of the miscarriage, but it helped reinforce the tragedy of any life lost, somehow, and completely pulled me out of myself when I desperately needed it.
  • Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (of All the Light We Cannot See fame): just eclectic and beautiful and uncategorizable.

Notes & Trends:

  • % digital (audiobook/ebook): about 55%, across platforms: Librivox, Scribd (audiobook and ebook), Libby (audiobook and ebook).
  • % reread: 24% I re-read most of Jane Austen this year, which makes sense — comfort and wisdom and escape all rolled into one. Some Anne, no Harry.

What were your reading habits like in 2020? Did you find yourself unable to focus in the face of the headlines, or diving into more books than ever?

Obscure Advent Recommendation #3: Family Man

Watch The Family Man | Prime Video

This one is for my dad, who loves to watch this movie each year on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Family Man is a sweet and under-appreciated movie from 2000 starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. You can watch the trailer, but the basic premise is: Jack is a highly successful businessman, basically decent if superficial, living the high life until an unthinking moment of heroism on Christmas Eve launches him into a “glimpse” — a vision of what life might have been if he had passed up a career opportunity as a young man to marry his first love. Waking up as a family man in the New Jersey suburbs that Christmas morning, Jack initially panics and tries to escape the glimpse, but gradually settles into the alternate world. But, given the choice, would he choose to stay? And can he?

If it sounds a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life, good for you, you’ve clearly had a much more cultured childhood, because I didn’t watch that until just last year. But it’s a cozy Christmas movie that celebrates the life of quiet sanctification of a man who lays down his life for his wife, his children, his community of friends, setting aside the path where talent and ambition might have led. It’s the life my dad chose, the life I struggle each day to choose for myself.

That said, our family is the only people I know who have seen/liked this movie. By and large the internet has forgotten and/or actively hates it — the New York Times called it “a piece of moldy wax fruit,” which is a charming but perplexing insult. This 2019 piece argues the movie is making a comeback, but offers absolutely no evidence except that the author likes it.

Family-friendly? We haven’t let our kids see it. There’s a suggestion of an affair, some mild bedroom talk, some obscured nudity, etc.

Where to get it: Rent from Amazon for $3.99

Obscurity level: 8/10 — I guess they made another movie with the name Family Man in 2016 and that makes finding this particular Family Man even harder.