Read Your Own Books

If it hadn’t started by the time I began working in libraries, it started then. Some of it was good: I realized if I had enjoyed a book but probably wouldn’t need it again, I could give it away rather than hoarding it and borrow it back if necessary. But along with this swing toward (comparative) book shelf minimalism came a new problem.

My book collection started shifting toward a higher concentration of unread books. I was getting rid of more books I had read, and at the same time neglecting unopened books on my shelves less often because I was tempted by all the new books passing my way at the circ desk.

J and I are trying to tamp down our Amazon habit (cutting down on cardboard to be hauled to the curb, if nothing else!) and it seems like a good time to focus on the good I’ve got, not the next thing down the Amazon rabbit hole.

So for 2018, I’m committing to reading my own books. I can buy books for my book clubs, and books for the kids, but otherwise I’ve got to work through my own shelves. Here are some I’m looking forward to:

  • Not God’s Type
  • a Rumer Godden biography I found in a box of free books last spring
  • Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food by Wendell Berry — started at least twice before I got distracted.
  • Shirt of Flame: A Year with St Therese of Liseux
  • The Catholic Church and Conversion by GK Chesterton
  • English Lessons — a loaner from Emily.
  • The Blythes Are Quoted — started and abandoned because it’s boring, but I NEED to know and if I could get through Go Set a Watchman I can do anything.
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit — as I write this my children are playing with Legos and facetiming my parents…
  • Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life  — from my mother-in-law, and neglected for at least a year.
  • A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War

And…that’s probably only half of the neglected books lying around here, max. I don’t know that in December I’ll make myself get rid of all the ones I haven’t read, but I’d like at the end of the year to have things pared down and opinions to report back to you on most of the books above.

Do you do new years (or Advent) resolutions? What are yours?

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2017 in Books

(For 2016 and before, check out this post.)

So, I hit my goal of one book a week this year, due in large part to fetal first trimester reading holed up in my bed (shout out to my mother’s helpers to making this happen!) and lying in binge reading. I couldn’t have done it without you, crappy pregnancy!

Among the 50-ish books I read, here are notables and favorites:

Nonfiction Nominees


We’ve got a faith and vocation thing going here as it starts to look like I’ll be home full time for the foreseeable future, so I might as well figure out what that means to me, my home, and the world.

Fiction Nominees


In other trends, audiobooks are still going strong and I officially can’t read a library book without it coming overdue, so that’s the season we are in I guess. Our little free library finally got its first book from someone other than me — a Baha’i faith book — but I’m counting that a win, too. And I’m enjoying reading aloud chapter books to Pip, too, even if I’ve lost a bit of ground on my own reading.

What did your year of reading look like? What was the best book you read in 2017?

My Man In the Wing Chair

While I was spending my first (always insomniac) night postpartum in the hospital, J and Roo snoring softly on either side, I read The Awakening of Miss Primsomething I’d been meaning to read for ages. Unsurprisingly, given all the recommendations I’d received, I loved it.

Prudencia Prim is a practical modern woman looking for escape, who finds it in the eccentric job posting for a private librarian in a small French town. She soon finds herself working for the equally frustrating and charming Man in the Wing Chair, organizing his enviable private library and taking part — somewhat unwillingly — in the life of the household, where he’s raising his nieces and nephews and educating others from the village. Almost despite herself, Miss Prim is drawn in to the unusual community, challenging everything she held dear.

Along the way, she receives the wonderful advice:

“You must not aspire to finding a husband who’s your equal, but one who’s absolutely and completely better than you.”

This was something I took for granted in my parents’ marriage: it was always obvious that each believed the other had settled. My mom admired my dad; my dad admired my mom. And so I set out to find a boy who was my superior, and, like my parents before me, lucked out: John Bowers, a constant inspiration to me to be more kind, patient, energetic, creative.

(Warning: mild Awakening of Miss Prim spoilers)

Like the Man in the Wing Chair, he’s brimming with bookish ideas and convictions and cheerful rants. One of the lines in which the Man in the Wing Chair most reminded me of my husband was this one:

“He wasn’t delightful in arguments, or in debates: he wouldn’t yield an inch concerning what he believed to be true, and he had no mercy with opponents when he saw they weren’t on his level.”

J is a formidable debater who argued several friends into the Catholic Church before succumbing himself. His conviction in debate can make me nervous — I spend a lot of energy monitoring people’s feelings and worry about hurting someone. But his bravery in arguing for the truth reminds me I could stand to gain in tenacity.

One piece reveals the author’s inspirations in crafting her protagonist, exclaiming: “How could one not want to read a novel in which the male protagonist is a composite of C.S. Lewis, John Senior and Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma!” While I’m not familiar with John Senior, except by name, biographies of C. S. Lewis have often reminded me of J: intellectually fleet and tough, slightly intimidating in intensity, boisterous with joy. And while Emma isn’t my favorite Austen novel, Mr. Knightley is definitely one of my favorite Austen heroes, one who’s absolutely and completely superior to Emma.

Another passage that struck me as familiar is this one, in which a friend characterizes the Man to Miss Prim:

“And there’s a third group, to which your Man in the Wing Chair belongs, whose aim is to escape from the dragon. They want to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, recover the splendor of an ancient culture.”

Especially in this season, when J’s been able to take a lot of parental leave, I’ve seen all the big and small ways he seeks to protect our kids and “return to the purity of old customs” as he helps educate our kids, reads them books by the fire and leads them in Christmas carols on his violin.

We don’t know from the text if the Man in the Wing Chair sports a spectacular beard, like J, or if Miss Prim ends up with her Man in the Wing Chair. But today, on my Man in the Wing Chair’s birthday, I’m so glad I married mine.

 

The Man in the Wing Chair

 

Pippin’s Books of 2017 (Age 4)

This was the year of a chapter book awakening for Pip — we started with Ramona for reasons I can’t remember and from there he was insatiable. J had been working slowly through Hobbit and others since Pippin was twoish but now both adults were reading aloud to him and he was devouring audiobooks during quiet time much faster than I could source them.

We’ve only just started phonics so the only words he can read himself are “Pippin,” “police,” and “Grandpa” (!!!). We read a lot of picture books for fun, too, but I don’t track those. And his comprehension of these chapter books can vary — he regularly refers to plot details from Beverly Cleary books, but didn’t realize Beth March died until we watched a movie version of Little WomenBut he only has to listen to things that interest him, and I figure even if he doesn’t absorb all of some of the books he listens to, letting the words wash over him is still beneficial, especially if he enjoys it.

I didn’t keep perfect records but I think he “read” 40-something unique books in 2017, which doesn’t account for the frankly disturbing number of times he wan’t to re-read the Henry Huggins books and other favorites. You can see the full list on Goodreads if you’re interested.

I thought it would be fun to have him review his year in reading. You can probably tell from his answers he was less enthused!

  • What kind of books do you like?
    • “Police car ones.”
  • What was your favorite book Mama read aloud?
    • Henry Huggins
  • What was your favorite book Papa read aloud?
  • What was your favorite audiobook?
  • Who was your favorite character in a book?
    • “Captain John [from Swallows and Amazons] and also the Boxcar Children, Henry Alden.”
  • What books do you want to read next year?
    • All the same ones I did.
Reading Swallowdale last month

 


Readers’ Advisory: Policemen

Shortly after Pippin turned four, he got into policemen in a big way. (It may have been a half dozen back to back screenings of Lego City on the way to Christmas in Florida. Oops.)

Since then, his previous stockpile of truck books has simply become a source of needle-and-haystack searches for police cars and policemen. When asked why he loves police so much, he answers matter-of-fairly, “I don’t know. I’m just into right and wrong.”

We would have preferred his Next Big Thing be something like knights or animals, but it’s hard to argue with a thirst for justice. Still, with police books being at least 80% less popular than firefighter and construction books (WHY?!), we’ve been on a long quest now for the best in police books. Some suggestions for your young cadet:

  • Detective LaRuein which a dog solves the crime for which he’s been framed, with lots of irony between his letters and the illustrations.
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria. Probably my favorite. A police officer’s safety presentations become lively when a police dog begins to accompany him on his school visits. Bonus: John Lithgow reads the book aloud.
  • The Boxcar Children series for gentle mysteries — these don’t always feature police but they do feature bad guys and mysteries to solve and are unbelievably mild. The audiobooks are also often easy to come by.
  • Sergeant Murphy’s Busy Day and some other Richard Scarry titles. The Scarry spinoff show Busy Town on Amazon Prime also passes the test for extremely gentle mystery.
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This year’s school picture. Weird homeschooled kid.

Dishonorable Mentions

  • Detective Chase McCain series. These are pretty agonizing to read aloud, but I could see how they might be OK to lure a Lego- and police-loving kid into reading by himself, if he were a bit older. Total fluff, though.
  • Officer Panda: Fingerprint DetectiveA little too odd and meta for me.

Have you found any police books your kids loved? We are always on the hunt!

 

 

The Catholic Wendy’s Booth

Lately I’ve been reading Emily Stimpson Chapman’s The Catholic Table with a book club of women from my church, and while we were pretty divided over A Severe Mercy, I think it’s possible we actually all like this one. Way to go, Emily S.C.

So I’ve been thinking about what food means for our family in this season where I’m increasingly incapable of actually preparing it. (It doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure being on my feet to make a freezer batch of NOT EVEN GOOD chicken pot pies jumpstarted my last preterm labor.)

Anyway, it was a Saturday morning and J took Scout on errands. So it was just me and Pippin, and I miraculously convinced him to help me go through Roo’s closery and start getting things cleared out in there from the 1000 bins of hand me downs it’s housed since Scout’s reign. And it was actually super fun. He loved being the strong man who slid the bins into the hall for me, and he helped me pick out tiny outfits for the hospital bag, and spun around in my spiffy new glider.

Afterwards, I decided to treat him to a lunch at Wendy’s, his all-time favorite restaurant, even though it would mean a longish waddle across the park. But he’d helped me all morning! And the weather wasn’t awful. And you know what they say about 31 weeks…it’s only going to get worse from here.

So we stopped at every park bench on the way and I tried not to think dire thoughts about my fitness level as I hobbled along, pausing for him to gather leaves to toss in the creek, enjoying his chatter about the proper way to plant these things I’m not even convinced are seeds.

At Wendy’s, we ordered our usual and sat at the window so we could keep look out for police cars and fire trucks. Pip has such a fraught relationship with food that it’s just a relief to go someplace where he’ll eat his fill cheerfully and gratefully. But even though it wasn’t the kind of meal I envisioned when reading The Catholic Table, something like the meals Shauna Niequist is so good at describing, and which I occasionally succeed in producing on our own big dinner table, there did seem to be something sacred about this little treat with my firstborn.

Lunchtime, especially on weekdays, is usually a time of frenetic activity for me. We Skype my parents, I cajole people to focus and eat, I try to produce balanced meals with zero effort, I get up from the table 30 times for things I’ve forgotten or someone’s decreed essential. Or I read on my phone and encourage folks not to bother me as I eat my poorly microwaved leftovers. Or I try to start the slow cooker and change out the laundry as the kids eat their lunch painstakingly slowly. It’s not the worst part of my day, but I doubt it’s a time they’ll recall me shining as a mom.

But at this little spontaneous lunch date with my eldest, I left my phone in my purse. I didn’t cajole him to eat more because it’s all garbage, and I didn’t get mad that he wasn’t eating what I had fixed. We talked about who in our family loves fries most as we split an order. He coached me on assembling the windmill toy he got in his kids’ meal, and we spotted a fire truck with lights speed by. We said grace, we enjoyed our meal, we enjoyed each other.

What else is sharing the Catholic Table about?

The Special Kinship of Oxford

me at college.jpg

This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercy and while I have limited patience for the lovey-dovey beginning, I love the Oxford era Sheldon Vanauken describes mid-book.

It’s always an energizing, painful experience, talking to other folks who lucked into studying abroad in the city of dreaming spires. There’s so much I wish I had done, seen, explored, but it was only a single fall term, and I was only 21, on a budget, and had to, you know, actually study, too (which may have been one of the best parts). Vanauken writes evocatively,

“Coming back to Oxford, we were always, it seemed, greeted by the sound of bells: bells everywhere striking the hour or bells from some tower change-ringing, filling the air with a singing magic. We explored every cranny of this city of enchanting crannies and unexpected breathtaking views of towers and spires. We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages’: this wall was part of a great abbey; the Benedictines built the long, lovely buildings that are part of one college quad; the narrow passage where we bought tea things has been called Friars Entry for centuries; the Colleges bear names like Christ Church and Mary Magdalen and Corpus Christi; and the bells with their lovely clamor have rung through the centuries.”

Unlike trying to find someone from the tribe we lived among in Uganda (hasn’t happened, eight years and counting), it’s relatively easy to find friends who enjoyed a stint at Oxford. A friend here studied at Oxford a whole year, including the Michaelmas term when I was there, and he attended Mass at ancient churches while I vacillated lackadaisically between the union and the Oxford Oratory.  Pip’s godmother was an RA for a study abroad program there the summer before I arrived and lived near Black Friars, far from the “slightly dodgy” flat I’d call home, near Christchurch. I keep in touch to some degree with two of my three flatmates and another woman who studied in our program but lived in a different flat. My freshman college roommate studied two terms before me, and caught so much more: May Day, for instance. And so we reminisce, and I think for the umpteenth time of all the things I didn’t do, forgetting the things I did do: learn to enjoy Indian food, talk endlessly with my flatmates, take early morning walks just because, never ride a bus if I could help it.

Sometimes I regret that I only studied one term, instead of staying a full year, but I would have had to delay our wedding, which seemed like craziness after dating since 17, and I still stand, reluctantly, by that decision. What’s more, I was comforted by Vanuaken’s reflection, after spending three whole years in Oxford, that:

“[T]here we did feel that despite all that became part of us — bells and spires, C. S. Lewis and a host of friends, the face of the Warden of All Souls and the River Cherwell on a sunny day — there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough — to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.”

SV argues that this is evidence that we are out of place in time, made for eternity. Our longing that we continue to be surrounded by such beauty is natural, or rather supernatural: we are meant to be surrounded by the beauty of God, forever.

What’s more, Oxford isn’t a forever place for most of the students passing through, even if they’re lucky enough to take a degree there. It’s part of the wild, wandering freedom of college, if you’re fortunate and get to do things right, without the obligations of a family or earning an income as you go along (noble as those things are, of course). Vanauken notes,

“In a way all of us at Oxford knew, knew as an undercurrent in our minds, that it wouldn’t last for ever. Lew and Mary Ann expressed it one night by saying: ‘This, you know, is a time of taking in — taking in friendship, conversation, gaiety, wisdom, knowledge, beauty, holiness — and later, well, there’ll be a time of giving out.”

Though we might be wistful for that time of taking in as we find ourselves deep into an era of giving out, it’s a lovely thing to have the memories.

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“All this grey magic of Oxford”