June Books

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Synopsis: Raskolnikov is going through something major. In the midst of his melancholia (?) / funk (?) / morbid obsession (?) he convinces himself that murdering an unlovable old pawnbroker is justifiable. But can he live with himself?

Let me just say you can’t really discuss a major work like this, at least not in the same way I’ll discuss and dismiss the books below. All I’ll say is that I’m glad I tackled it, despite dreading it; that it read easier and I brought more to the story than when I first read it at 18; and that it made me think all over again about this ten-year old murder committed by one of my Great Books classmates. How do any of us pry apart pathology and sin and fatal philosophy? How do any of us determine culpability? And yet, of course, we must. (The translation I read this time, though it had a cover that freaked out the kids, probably also helped make this reading less impenetrable.)

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Synopsis: New to the Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family are not new to difficult frontier living. But an unremitting series of severe blizzards will test them, and their community, in ways they never imagined.

As it was for most of you, 2020 was our own personal long winter, summed up hilariously (and with lots of profanity, be warned) in this piece from McSweeney’s. Reading The Long Winter aloud to my kids during our stir-crazy months of isolation helped us keep perspective, but naturally wasn’t an entirely delightful experience, not funny like some of our favorite read-alouds, which is probably why it took us long past wintertime to finish, but profitable nonetheless. As a bonus, it also made me deeply glad all over again we didn’t take that position in the Midwest.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: Claire Waverley is the contented if somewhat aloof spinster of her small North Carolina town, where her popular catering, featuring edible flowers from her grandmother’s garden, earns her a reputation as more than a little magical. She’s the Waverley sister who stayed, but soon she’ll have to contend with the arrival of her little sister Sydney in “the year where everything changed.”

There is a particular category of books I really enjoy but rarely come across. Like romantic comedy films, too often the books I pick up thinking they might fit this elusive designation are too frothy or frivolous or explicit. Garden Spells might gain entry into the category, though — the “light and bright and sparkling” woman’s fiction (?) / literary fiction (?) — the sort of thing you want to read when you have a cold and plan to read for hours and hours. (Marisa de los Santos, and particularly her Love Walked In are the gold standard for what I’m talking about.) I listened to this as an audiobook and it lit up the time I spent hand-washing dishes at our Airbnb. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s baking and gardening and sisterhood and romance and a little frisson of magic and just undemanding.

The Light Invisible by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: An old priest relates to the narrator, a young priest, a series of visions and spiritual experiences from his life.

Last month I loved None Other Gods and this was my other RHB haul. And this one I…nothinged. It was OK. Very short, with some spiritual insight but many parts that felt heavy-handed. Unfortunately the vision that stands out most vividly to me a few weeks after reading is a part I hated, about the spiritual consolation of the death of a child. I couldn’t help thinking that in the ranks of Plotless Books About Old Clergymen Reflecting On Their Lives, this was no Gilead.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Synopsis: In the world of high-prestige butlers, Stevens has dedicated his life to a dying profession, sacrificing love, self-knowledge, everything to his trade. (Stevens is such a professional that we never even learn his first name.) But over the course of a long drive across a countryside where servants are leaving big houses, as Stevens himself grows old, he must confront his choices and weigh whether they were the right ones.

A beautiful, fairly shattering exploration of how we actually think, remember, and understand our lives, and especially vivid after we’ve all thought about upstairs-downstairs dynamics through the prism of Downton Abbey. Sobering, even when it’s funny, and always lovely.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Synopsis: Think King Lear, but pitch it among a successful Midwestern farm dynasty.

Oh gosh, I guess I liked this, but it was brutal! King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare, so I snatched this from a pile of books my grandmother-in-law was giving away and didn’t really think about what “modern adaptation of Lear” would mean, but even Pippin knows about Shakespearean tragedies: EVERYBODY DIES. My GIL Judy didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic, but I did, at least at first, and as the book is told from Goneril’s perspective, this definitely fell into “of the devil’s party” territory. I thought the application of the old plot to Smiley’s setting worked well without feeling forced to perfectly correspond, and was pleasantly surprised to find the critique of industrial agriculture running throughout.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: More Waverleys! It’s ten years since the events of Garden Spells and here we follow the angst currently surrounding Claire, Sydney, and Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay.

Did we need more Waverleys? Not necessarily. Is the plot, as in Garden Spells, a not especially satisfying afterthought? Yes. Is the characterization of the small town charming? Sure. Was it fun? Yes. Bonus points for a sympathetic not-quite villain and the unconventional teen love story. Boo for a very deus-ex-machina adoption storyline.

Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience by Amanda Hope Haley

I don’t know whether it was reading First Frost and A Thousand Acres, both of which feature infertility plots, or answering so many questions about our family size while we were back home this month, or just coming up on the due date again of our lost little one, but I finally felt ready to read this little book, loaned to me years ago by a friend who’d struggled with infertility so I could better understand another friend’s struggle (who I’m pleased to say now has a toddler and a second baby on the way). While a lot of this I couldn’t relate to — written from a Protestant perspective, it left all fertility technology on the table — and because I do, in fact, have three living children, it did help me to understand what God could be doing in the lives of all of us with fewer children than we’d hoped for.

7 Read-Aloud Classics for When You’re Over Zoom Happy Hours

An image by Peter H. Reynolds for World Read Aloud Day via

At this point in the quarantine, I think we’ve probably all found ourselves there, overwhelmed and frustrated in the sea of familiar faces of a Zoom or FaceTime call with friends. Something that was supposed to be fun, to remind you of normal life IRL, has somehow managed to make you feel even lonelier. You clutch your glass of wine as you prepare to repeat a canned summary of how you’re hanging in there for the sixth person to join the call.

It turns out, it’s hard to replicate the spontaneity and side conversations of in-person social gatherings on a video conferencing platform. And one remedy for this awkwardness might surprise you, because at first it sounds even more awkward: gathering a group of friends online to read something out loud. Still, reading aloud together eliminates some of the stilted quality of large-group Zoom conversation, with its lags and embarrassed interruptions. You know when it’s your turn, and things move mostly smoothly, but you’re still getting to share something together. 

J and I had hosted a read-aloud party once before the pandemic because I’m a librarian super nerd — and it’s certainly more fun with your friend’s beer and your other friend’s cheese plate — but when we hosted another read-aloud party, this time online, I was surprised to discover how satisfying the gathering still was.

The guest list portion is easy: suddenly it doesn’t matter that that friend moved six months ago, or that that other friend is in the sleep-deprived newborn phase, because everyone is in this together. I would recommend, however, making sure most of the participants know each other, to help eliminate some of the self-consciousness of trying something new together.

If you’re looking to dip a toe into reading aloud with friends, I’d suggest you start by revisiting the classics. They’re free or cheap to acquire, and probably something you’ve always meant to get back to. Below, I’m linking in with Seven Quick Takes to share a few ideas to get you thinking about how to host your own read-aloud party.

  1. A lengthy and complex poem like The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot works well and can easily be found online. (This was our recent read-aloud party choice.) Encourage people to call themselves out and yell “NEXT!” when overwhelmed by particularly tricky bits of language— everyone will be equally over their heads with a poem like this, but it offers up treasures when read slowly together, especially in the current crisis. Is this wisdom for a quarantine or what? “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
  2. You can’t go wrong with Shakespeare when you have a large crowd. Conventional wisdom is that the tragedies (like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello) are easier to understand because tragedy is tragedy no matter what, while comedy sometimes requires context to be funny. Not up for more tragedy in the present climate? A recent pre-pandemic Epiphany read through of Twelfth Night with a group of friends showed how much can become clearer just by reading it aloud, even when you’re not entirely sure what you’re reading. Goofy costumes optional!
  3. Intimidated by poetic language? C.S. Lewis couldn’t be clearer and some of his shorter works, such as the sermon “The Weight of Glory” can be found reproduced online for free. You could also try the Victorian-era sermons of recently canonized St. Cardinal John Henry Newman.
  4. For a slightly more expensive option, read aloud a couple pivotal chapters from an old, free work like Emma or Little Women, then each partygoer can rent the new film adaptation and discuss.
  5. Hold a poetry reading where each attendee can read aloud (or recite!) a favorite poem, talent-show style. It can be surprising to find out what poems and passages your friends know by heart.
  6. Try Treasure Island for rollicking pirate adventures with an unexpected edge of moral complexity that can lead to fun discussions. Committing to this read aloud will take you three or four hours.
  7. G.K. Chesterton — just about any G.K. Chesterton, honestly. And there’s Chesterton for any taste: detective stories (The Father Brown short stories), apologetics (Orthodoxy), essays (What’s Wrong with the World), a “metaphysical thriller” (what even is that? The Man Who Was Thursday) and more. 

Seven More Tiny Book Reviews

I’m linking up with This Ain’t The Lyceum to take a tiny tiptoe back into blogging after our loss last month. January was a deeply strange month, and my reading reflects that.

  1. The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the ReformationI…am not sure what I thought about this. The most beautiful passages were when nothing was happening, but I got lost or bogged down or made to feel stupid in some of the theological reflections. I also often didn’t understand why the main character did the things he did. But I was made to imagine in much greater detail just how terrible the Reformation years must have been in England, with all that flipping back and forth, adding emotional heft to the framework I gleaned from Alan Jacobs’s Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Bonus: it was especially interesting to read after visiting York and its amazing Bar Convent last summer.)
  2. 10 Blind DatesThis was very silly. I liked the big, roly-poly Louisianan family, but I couldn’t keep track of the family members themselves and a lot of it was just kind of zany without the delightful cringiness of Waiting for Tom HanksIt wasn’t awful enough to stop but never improved like I hoped.
  3. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Warthrust upon me by friends whose opinion I trust very much. Parts of it I really loved — especially the parts about reconstruction, as I’m always a sucker for a whole Rebuilding of Society motif (see my thoughts on Alas, Babylon,etc. here), but parts were just too gory or coarse for me, and I got lost in technological or geopolitical stuff sometimes, where I don’t have a strong enough background to differentiate the tweaks from the the reality. Some images were so striking, sad or ironic or beautiful, but a lot of it was just gross. I read it lying around with a cold and loved how fast it moved, but it’s not a world I feel like I’ll ever want to revisit — afterwards I had a nightmare about having to mercy kill Roo after she became infected.
  4. The BFG: I had read this as a kid but not in probably 25 years. The kids had watched part of the movie on a hotel TV in Kendal this summer, so we gave it a go as a read aloud, and it’s the only chapter book that’s ever held a toddler of mine in raptures. I think it was the BFG’s topsy-turvy way of speaking (I used a terrible Yorkshire accent) paired with Quentin Blake’s delightfully weird illustrations, but definitely a win for our family.
  5. 84, Charing Cross RoadI had bought this for a friend a couple years back, and when she moved, she gifted me a copy of its sequel (reviewed below). It is just the most charming, effervescent little book, a bit of You’ve Got Mail paired with something more determinedly refined in its literary tastes. Plus, epistolary!! I do love a story told in letters, though aside from C.S. Lewis’s correspondence, I can’t think of anyone else’s real-life letters I’ve read.
  6. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street: Using Google Maps, I was able to work out that Helene Hanff stayed at a London hotel only a couple blocks from our haunts last summer abroad. It added a poignancy to her journals of her dream trip to England, even if I occasionally confused the many bright characters she encountered.
  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThis is a favorite of a dear friend, but my reading was completely overshadowed by IRL happenings, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake the association. But it kept me eagerly turning pages when I didn’t want to think about my own life, and it was just what I needed then.

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


A day in books


21 was a special summer for me. I got engaged. I was leaving for study abroad in September. And I got a job through my parents where sometimes I did administrative work on septic tank variances (WOOHOO) and sometimes I got paid to read my Oxford reading list holed up in my cubicle. And it was kind of the life.

At the time, I knew it was unlikely i would ever get paid even $10/hour again to read classical literature. And it’s been true. While I made minimum wage at a secretary job reading Wendell Berry and doing library school homework, and later snuck an occasional YA novel at the desk as a librarian, it’s never really happened again in the ten year since.

I don’t always love being a stay at home parent, but man, is it a fine career for reading. For fun, I tracked what we read on a slow winter weekday recently:

  • Away in the Manger — Scout’s current favorite, on repeat. (I’m not going to link to this one, because the point is: song, pictures of baby, pictures of animals. Pretty generic.)
  • Scout’s Little Book of Names and Faces — requested by both kids. I made it for Scout’s Christmas this year through this service.
  • I Can FlyRuth Krauss — Scout’s nap time choice.
  • Day Dreamers, Emily Winfield Martin — a Scout request. The illustrations are so lovely.
  • Paw Patrol: Puppy Birthday to You — Ugh.
  • Boxcar Children 1 (audiobook) — I didn’t read this one. Pippin has taken to listening to audiobooks while I cook dinner.
  • Boxcar Children 10 (paperback) — It makes me batty that he wants to read more than one book in the same series at the same time, but pfffft.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit — P’s first time.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — just me, during nap time, for bookclub.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — J’s reading this one chapter a night to the kids while I clean up from dinner.
  • Swallows and Amazons — J’s bedtime book for Pip which he reads beside the fire while I do more straightening up.

Sitting in a little over-air conditioned cubicle, I didn’t imagine this future for myself as a reader, but it’s one I’m grateful for (Paw Patrol aside).

And dear new mother Katherine, circa 2013 — you will read again, and something other than books that label truck parts. And it will be all you hoped for.