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.

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.”

Commonplace Book


Gladiolus on the hearth
Trying to find places all over the house to accommodate the glads that keep tipping over outside

As my mother pointed out that I hadn’t posted in a month, here’s a quick check in while the toddler shakes seed jars on my lap. We are back in the States, attempting to tame the yard, rejuvenate my sourdough starter, and find me time to write as we settle back into our routine.

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.Read More »

Commonplace Book, 48

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

grocery score / messy floor

  • Hit me with your favorite egg dishes, please. We’ve been lucky enough to be getting local eggs delivered to our house each Friday by a family at church, but this Easter week I supplemented with this incredible deal at our local closeout grocery and now we have eggs out our ears. It’s obvious if you think about it that around Easter there would be a slump in the sales of brown eggs, and I was pleased to get high quality eggs so affordably.

Read More »

Commonplace Book, 44

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • I love a good frittata. And I’ve only ever had one bad one — for the record, even a frittata can’t resuscitate freezer-burnt turkey. We’ve talked about my template for big frittatas, so here’s what I use as a template for a small dinner frittata for me and J with a little left over.
  • I’m dabbling in sourdough with a starter gifted me by another co op mama. I think I’m in love. I have no idea what I’m doing.

What I’m reading:

Read More »

Commonplace Book, 22

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Ree Drummond’s Chicken Pot Pie, which, for better or worse, is pretty unrecognizable when I get done with it, having used frozen pie crust; a combination of roasted onions, carrots, mushrooms, potatoes and frozen peas; subbed thighs for a full chicken and milk with a couple spoonfuls of yogurt for the cream, etc., etc. But it always helps me to have a template to work off for ratios, temperatures and times. Are you a more intuitive cook?
  • Slow Cooker Vegetarian Pumpkin Chili for Pippin’s birthday party which pleased even the determined meat-eaters and pumpkin-avoiders among us.

What I’m reading:

  • All the Light We Cannot See still and again, as a combination of audiobook and hardcover. (Now I know how to pronounce “Laure,” so that’s something.) J came in while I was changing the sheets and listening to Werner solve trigonometric equations the other night and I really hoped he’d notice and be impressed but no dice.
  • Little House on the Prairie with Pippin. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read this as a kid, or if I did, I have zero memory of it, which is maybe worse. But Pippin’s way into it and keeps asking for more chapters. The descriptions are more beautifully lyrical than I somehow expected, although occasionally I get Giants in the Earth flashbacks, as below:

“It was strange and frightening to be left without the wagon on the High Prairie. The land and the sky seemed too large, and Laura felt small. She wanted to hide and be still in the tall grass, like a little prairie chicken.”

Grab me my trunk, folks. I’m going in.

  • Entirely too much election coverage. But who isn’t?

Pretzels and books to the rescue on a disastrous afternoon

Commonplace Book, 19

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Roasted garlic ciabatta. I linked to my basic ciabatta recipe here but if you add roasted garlic after the initial mixing, you get little chunks and ribbons throughout the whole loaf, and it is so good that I made it twice this week and used up all the roasted garlic in the house. (Hint: you can make a ton of roasted garlic at once with a bag of garlic bulbs from Costco and your trusty slow cooker.)
  • Beefy butternut squash chili. Still more or less like this, but this time with carrots and celery instead of zucchini, diced fine in the hopes J wouldn’t notice it was in there. (He did, but he didn’t mind.)

What I’m reading:

  • Instagram, Social Media, and Keepin’ It Real — It is fashionable to trash social media, and while Instagram is probably responsible for my relentless pursuit of good light and tidy surfaces (one succeeding more than the other), I always think back to a photo album I made a couple springs ago. The pictures were all taken during the fall and winter I was pregnant with Scout, an era that felt long and dull and monotonous, when Pip watched a lot of tv, I ate a lot of cheese (and threw up some of it), and we waited for snow to melt and life to move forward. But the album of that time is beautiful, chronicling the day I strapped on my lower back support and took Pippin to the arboretum’s bulb show with friends; the slow mornings we spent reading and wandering around the apartment; my proud and hopeful face over a blooming belly in the photos I shot in our little dated bathroom. That’s the power of photography: to wrest the good moments from the chaotic and messy and hard.
  • All the Light We Cannot SeeI read it while I was pregnant with Scout, and liked it very much, but I probably wouldn’t be re-reading it if not for Well-Read Moms. So thanks, WRM, because I’m enjoying it all over again:

Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a profession of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

  • Queen of Shadows, now that I’m done with The Raven King, which had beautiful passages but kind of a flat, tone-deaf ending, I thought: more like the strained optimism and normalcy of HP7 than the haunting LOTR-esque melancholy I would have expected. I don’t know.
  • Present Over Perfect. My least favorite of Shauna Niequist’s stuff, which is not to say I didn’t like it, because she’s wonderful. But I was discussing it with the friend who first introduced the author to me, and we agreed that the shift from primarily narrative to primarily addressed to “you” felt a little self-help-y and less rich than some of her other books.

I now leave you with a picture of Scout and fall leaves, lest you worry that I only photograph my firstborn with autumnal foliage.

The Right Book, the Wrong Time

On Instagram recently, I got into a discussion about just how much I’ve been hating Dostoevsky this time around. I’ve been reading The Brothers Karamazov literally all summer, and as I slowly whittle it away as an audiobook on my morning runs and during evening clean up, I’ve been stumped as to how I can hate it now when I loved it as a college senior.

Because it felt like a revelation when I read it as a 22-year-old, newly back from her first stint abroad, engaged to be married, living out and loving her last semester of college. And now, as a mother with two very small, very needy children, it feels like a slog. When I tried to knock out a few pages in the passenger seat of the car during vacation, frequently interrupted by small people in the backseat, I could hardly keep my place. As I tried to hold up the tiny-print tome one-handed, lying in bed, sick this summer, the sheer weight staggered me. As I wheezed my way up a hill, listening to Librivox, I choke out, “Hurry up!”

As my fellow book club member, the eloquent Abbey points out, “I understand that my dislike of it probably says more about me than about the book.” And…that’s kind of my point.

Some books you just have to be ready for — I remember starting and abandoning The Secret Garden several times before I could make anything out of the Yorkshire dialect that peppers its pages. That’s especially true for big books like Broski which represent significant commitment. The timing really has to be right, but when it is, the book can be pure magic. My friend Haley had recommended Kristin Lavransdatter to me a couple times, but I’d never really considered it, since she’s tricked me more than once into reading Evelyn Waugh, who I loathe (#unpopularopinions). So with some trepidation, I finally settled down to Kristin on my new Kindle Paperwhite when I found myself sitting around in dark rooms pretty often with my fitfully sleeping new babe. And it blew me away. I can’t imagine having easily slipped into the unfamiliar rhythms of medieval Norway before that point in my life, but I found myself seeking out more time to sneak away in the dark and read.

A Tale of Two Cities I read too young in early high school, but Great Expectations, taught with patience by my Victorianist professor, struck a chord my freshman year of college. Similarly, I read Wuthering Heights on a tiny iPod Touch screen on an Ugandan bus from Kasese to Kampala. I’d never possessed the slightest inclination to read it before —  if, as Cassandra Mortmain argues, you either prefer Bronte with a bit of Austen or Austen with a bit of Bronte, I’m Austen all the way — but I plowed right through it with real delight on that stuffy, monotonous bus ride. It was just the right book at the right time.

There are also books I think you can miss the boat on. I suspect that happened for me with both The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, although possibly I was never angsty enough for them. I suspect they have their own value and yet I don’t get it, personally. And while my love for Anne of Green Gables runs so deep from twenty years of re-reading that I can barely see it objectively, I can also understand when someone says they read it as an adult and just didn’t get Anne.

This year for the Well-Read Mom Book Club, I’ll be re-reading All the Light We Cannot See, Wuthering Heights, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces and The Fellowship of the Ring, and reading for the first time a couple classics I’ve previously missed. We’ll see if revisiting these books is like revisiting old friends, or meeting as strangers. We’ll see if it’s too late for me and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I expect to be surprised.

You have to be gentle with yourself, I guess, when you’re dealing with classics, especially. Maybe it’s not that this is an overrated book, and maybe it’s not that you’re some uncultured dummy who can’t appreciate the Finer Things. Maybe, instead, you just need to set the book aside for now and find the book that’s waiting for just such a moment.