Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Great Thanksgiving books for kids

Christmas books for kids are easy to find. But Thanksgiving books?  Not so much.  In the area of children’s literature — as in so many things — Thanksgiving gets the short end of the stick.

But in our family library, we have two Thanksgiving books that help get all of us – myself included — into a proper holiday frame of mind.

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Thanksgiving is Here! by Diane Goode is a pretty simple, almost plotless picture book. Grandma and Grandpa host Thanksgiving for a huge, sprawling family, whose members arrive with frequent ringing of the doorbell and throw themselves right into the joyous celebration.  They help with the cooking, move the furniture, push tables and mismatched chairs together, clean up afterward, take a post-meal walk, and just generally enjoy each other’s company.

But even though the story is basic, the book is wonderfully compelling.  There’s a nice rhythm to the words, and Goode’s drawings are fabulous.  Each family member has so much personality, and the pictures of the family activities manage to capture the cheerful chaos of a huge family gathering.   My kids love this book, and I do too, because it reminds me of why I adore Thanksgiving: it’s a holiday that is all about loved ones gathering together around a table and enjoying each other’s company.  You don’t need more than that in life, really, and this gem of a book is a colorful reminder.

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Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlin is a classic from my era (written in 1971).   It’s about Maggie and her grandmother, who live in a house on the edge of a cranberry bog in New England.  Grandmother has a top-secret famous recipe for cranberry bread hidden behind the fireplace, and the plot starts to spin when they have two guests come over for Thanksgiving and one of them just might be trying to find and steal it (the cad!).

I won’t give away spoilers, but let’s just say that it’s a sweet story about not jumping to conclusions, and about not judging a book by its cover.  There’s a little theme of forgiveness at the end, too, which is nice.  And the illustrations are so colorful and charming, with that unique early ’70s picture book aesthetic. They are evocative, too; the drawings of the house by the bog always make me feel Thanksgiving-y and oddly nostalgic, even though this California girl would not know a cranberry bog if she fell headfirst into one.   It’s a darling book, and it even has a recipe for cranberry bread on the back cover … a nice touch.

Do you have any favorite Thanksgiving titles to share?  Please do!

The Book Pile: Willa Cather, Phryne Fisher, Ross Poldark, and more

So books!  What have I been reading lately?

Well, work has been so crazy for the last six weeks that I’ve mostly stayed away from the heavy stuff. I’ve put away some pretty mindless chicklit, the kinds of titles that I’d be embarrassed to share here.  But even among all the beachy stuff, there have been a few titles of substance that I’m happy to crow about.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather was an unusual read. It’s not so much a novel as a series of vignettes about two priests who settle in New Mexico.  It’s lyrical and beautiful; Cather doesn’t shy away from the brutal aspects of life on the frontier, but there is a vein of hope and human goodness in this story that links all of the different episodes.  It makes me want to read more Cather, and to spend more time in the Southwest.

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Apparently the Poldark series of books by Winston Graham (first written in the 1940s) were made into a popular British TV series in the 1970s.  I haven’t seen the series, but I’ve just read the first two books, and they’re terrific.  They take place in eighteenth-century Cornwall, a place I love to read about (blame Daphne DuMaurier), and they center on the young squire Ross Poldark and the various people in his world.  Love! Loss!  Family feuds!  Sassy servants!  Mining!  It’s all here, and it’s a treat. (Ross Poldark is the first one in the series, if you’re planning to start.)

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My mom is a huge fan of Gladys Taber, a mid-twentieth-century columnist/writer who lived in an old farmhouse in Southbury, Connecticut.  She wrote several books about her life in New England, and this past summer, my mom gave me the 1959 book Stillmeadow Sampler.  It’s arranged by season, and is a compendium of Taber’s musings about living in the country, about cooking, about family, about dogs, and about life in general.  It’s an utterly delightful book, the kind of book you read with a cup of tea on the table next to you.   Highly comforting.

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This past summer, Scott and I got  hooked on the Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.  It’s based on a series of books by Kerry Greenwood, and I just had to check them out.  So far I’ve read four, and they were great; the setting of 1920s Melbourne is unique, and the characters are a blast.  I can’t really call them “cozy mysteries”; the stories are a little too dark for that, and Phryne Fisher is not a cozy kind of character, though she is certainly an entertaining one.  She’s sort of the female James Bond,  adventurous both outside and inside of the boudoir (even moreso in the books than in the TV series — skip these if you can’t stomach bedroom scenes in your mysteries), and she has a fabulous cast of supporting characters.   These are very engaging mysteries that keep you guessing.

So what have you been reading lately?

Why I love books you can hold

 

Sign in used bookstore window.

Sign in used bookstore window.

Some books arrived in the mail today and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. When I say that, I mean it quite literally: I ran my fingers over the covers, turned them over and studied the back, and flipped the pages briskly, enjoying the brief rush of paper-scented air in my face.

You just don’t get that from an ebook.

A few years back, I wrote an article about why I don’t have a Kindle.   It remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, mostly because I feel so passionately about this subject.  I don’t want to make any value judgments here; if you like e-reading and it works for you, that’s great.  But the years since have not altered my own very deeply-rooted preference for books that you can hold, pages you can turn, covers you can feel.   Reading is a full-soul experience for me; I want it to be a full-body one as well.

And as I get older, I respect the journey of a reading life all the more.  The emotional associations with books have grown stronger for me over the years, not weaker.  The volumes on my shelves are pieces of me, my history; in a great many cases, I can pick up a book and remember exactly where I was when I read it.  I can tell you where I read those final chapters of Goodbye to Berlin (Berlin, as it happens), or where I fell in love with A Room of One’s Own (the backyard of my parents’ house), or where I made the acquaintance of  Emily of New Moon (in the family car, in sixth grade, coming home from the mall).  And in many cases, I can still remember why I loved the book enough to keep it,  how it satisfied an inner restlessness or lit a fire of possibility or put words to something I was only vaguely aware I was feeling.

These books are made sacred through the reading, almost, as if they become more than texts but little tabernacles housing parts of our deepest selves.   And the mere fact of picking them up and opening them again puts us in touch with the stops we’ve made along the way, all the various stages on the pilgrimage of our emotional lives.  Books are the souvenirs of a thoughtful life, and I know this much:  I will always want them around me.

 

Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

If you like beautifully-written  books about  unconventional childhoods, put Tarn Wilson’s  The Slow Farm on your reading list.   This is a fascinating book in so many ways: as a memoir,  as a look at the hippy subculture, as a story about memory, as a reflection on what it means to grow into the realization that our parents are imperfect people.  Tarn is a friend of mine from way back, and she’s also one of my favorite writers (check out her website tarnwilson.com for a sampling of her brilliant essays), so I’m thrilled to have her here today for a Q and A.  Read on to learn more about her book,  about writing memoir, and about what happens when you let your two-year-old play in the woods without adult supervision (see what I mean about “unconventional childhood”?!?)

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Give the one-minute summary of your book.

The Slow Farm is a memoir of growing up with my hippy parents on a remote island in British Columbia in the early 1970s.  My father was an idealist, and the story explores what happens when his counterculture dreams begin to crumble.

The story is told from the point of view of a small child, but between each chapter, I include “artifacts” that reveal the larger cultural forces shaping our lives, such as letters, photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and my favorite, excerpts from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.

What are the challenges of writing a book about your early childhood?

I have vivid memories of early childhood, starting from about two years old.  Early in the writing process, I experimented with strategies to access even more memories, such as focusing on the senses, writing about photographs, and drawing memory maps. However, the memories didn’t initially organize themselves chronologically or in a traditional story arc.  It took many years of reflection to discover the themes and shape of the story. It was also a challenge to find a voice that captured the innocent perspective of childhood, but was not limited by it.

One thing I found fascinating as a parent is how “hands off” your parents were — at the age of four they let you go off and wander in the woods on your own!  That’s only one of the many things that made your childhood unique.  When you look back on it as an adult, what parts of “you today” do you attribute to your parents’ parenting styles?

Great question, Ginny.  If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my two and four year old wander in the woods or swim in the ocean without supervision! At the same time, having escaped death and major injury, I’m grateful for the gifts of my parents’ philosophy of childrearing.  I’m comfortable in silence and solitude.  I’m self-entertaining. Most of all, I think when parents give their children some unsupervised free time, they have room to develop their imaginations, to experiment with new skills and interests, to fail, and to try again—all of which develop resilience, self-sufficiency, focus, and endurance. I believe when children are constantly monitored, they focus on the reactions of their parents rather than on the pure joy of exploring or mastering a new skill.

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How did writing this book change your understanding of your parents?

 Before writing this book, I was stuck in my child perspective, which is narrow and limited. Early in the process, as an exercise to broaden my view, I wrote every scene from the point of view of each family member.  It was a revelation to realize how young my parents were. (When I was born, my mother was 20 and my father was 25.)  That alone explains many of their choices. I also saw more clearly how my parents were formed by their own childhoods and roles in their families. Most importantly, I realized how profoundly my parents were shaped by their times—how much we all are.  I researched the historical events that shaped their generation, read the counterculture books and essays my father loved, and listened to my parent’s favorite musicians. I saw the ways in which my parents’ decisions were in dialogue with powerful cultural forces. I began to understand, not just where I fit in my family, but where my family fit in the flow of history.

A major theme of your book is the theme of idealism giving way to reality.  Can you say a little bit more about that as it played out in the lives of your family?

 I have a theory that most of us all come into this world hardwired to worship our parents.  It’s a survival-of-the-species strategy.  As infants and children, we need to learn so much, quickly and efficiently, in order to navigate our new, complicated world, so we absorb without question everything our parents say or believe.  Slowly, as we mature, we become part of a larger universe, develop our reasoning skills, and begin to see our parents’ weaknesses.  This can be a painful process, which we all do with different degrees of graciousness.  If our parents have many faults, we may go through periods of anger.

Becoming a mature adult means, eventually, seeing our parents in their fullness:  understanding the forces that shaped them, accepting their limitations, and acknowledging their strengths and the gifts they have given us. Some people do this naturally—most of us have to go through the process again and again as we fall in love, make a new friends, or learn to see ourselves clearly.

In that sense, my story is everyone’s story.  But my memoir has an extra layer.  The counterculture was highly idealistic: hippies believed they had the power to create heaven on earth, to live in love and harmony with each other and the land, to eradicate war, to bring equality to all.  When the dream didn’t materialize, they had choices to make.  Some hippies I knew changed with the times and become successful business people, albeit with an eco-groovy bent.  Some turned to drugs to escape disappointment or to maintain the feeling of love, connectedness, and meaning—and got lost there. Some tried to continue the lifestyle and lived on the shrinking margins. Most had to find some kind of balance between noble social ideals and the necessary practicalities of day-to-day living.

For the rest of his life, my father seemed pulled between his hippy ideals and his desire to be a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two, so he’d pendulum between the extremes. Both my sister and I are in fields that serve the community (city planning and teaching) but like having a regular paycheck.  The students I teach today seem to have reached a perfect balance: they are neither as naïve as the hippies, nor as materialistic and self-serving as those I graduated with in the 80s.  They hunger to make a difference in the world, seem to have a realistic sense of difficulties, and are committed to the work.  It’s inspiring!

One unique aspect of your book are the “artifacts” that are included throughout — bits of letters, photos, the books that shaped your parents’ philosophies, etc.  Say more about those.

The artifacts allow me to keep the child voice while still providing adult context.  I thought very carefully about where to place the artifacts; however, I don’t analyze or interpret them.  I hope that leaves room for readers to engage with the story and develop their own conclusions.  For example, I place quotes from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (such as ones that advise parents to avoid the enforcement of table matters, let children swear, and expose them to adult sexuality) next to scenes that show that philosophy in practice. I hope readers will arrive at their own complex conclusions about the counterculture lifestyle.

What advice do you have for other aspiring memoir writers?

There are wonderful resources for memoir writers: local courses, online courses, and shelves of useful and inspiring books to encourage and guide.  But, usually the biggest obstacle for anyone hoping to write a memoir is a sabotaging interior voice. It will tailor its message to your favorite insecurities, but will usually sound something like this: Your story isn’t important enough to write. You don’t have time. You don’t have skill. You don’t have a story. Writing your memoir is self-indulgent and narcissistic. You will upset your family. If you have trauma in your life, the message might argue your story is too dark to share.

All these messages are self-sabotaging distractions.  If you have a persistent desire to tell your story (through memoir, poetry, painting, performance, storytelling etc.), honor it. I believe it is a divine impulse, and that impulse is leading you to healing, to understanding, to a greater sense of your own wholeness. If you are like most writers, your process will be challenging: you will have to fight your own self-doubts, wrestle with the language, learn new skills, perhaps re-live uncomfortable memories, and be willing to see yourself and your past with fresh eyes.

Although everyone’s process is different, most new memoir writers benefit from a regular writing practice, in which you generate new material—quickly, without judgment, and without a too defined sense of where you are going. (If you solidify your story too early in the process, you may miss important discoveries.) Once you have a mass of material and, hopefully, some themes which have surprised you, you can begin to discover the organization of your story and refine your language. (A book I recommend to help you craft your raw material is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.)  Whether or not your work is ever traditionally published, your story will polish and transform you, and that will be worth the effort.

 The Slow Farm is available from Ovenbird Books and from Amazon.com.  Be sure to check out tarnwilson.com for a look at Tarn’s essays.

Q and A with Deacon Jim Knipper of Homilists for the Homeless

If you’ve ever attended church, you know the power of a really good sermon.  Well-chosen words can change lives, in ways both subtle and profound.

Someone who knows this firsthand is Deacon Jim Knipper.  A deacon in the diocese of Trenton, NJ, he decided to harness the power of good preaching and use it as a vehicle for helping the homeless.  This vision has resulted in two terrific books: Hungry, And You Fed Me and  Naked, and You Clothed Me, both compilations of sermons for the liturgical year (Cycles C and A respectively).

It’s a pleasure to welcome Deacon Jim back to this blog (you can see my interview about his first book here) and to get his take on spiritual writing, encouraging social justice, and taking kids to church (as a deacon and the father of four, he knows a thing or two about that!).

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For those who arent familiar with Homilists for the Homeless, whats the soundbite description?

Homilists for the Homeless is a moniker used by a group of Christians who are dedicated to spreading the Good News through their ministries, especially in their preaching.  Each Contributor has donated their works to be published in a compilation of homilies that cover the Liturgical Years.  Proceeds from each book go to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.  So far we have published the books for Cycle C and A and will release this October  Sick, And You Visited Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B.

Who is the intended audience for this book? 

These books speak to a wide audience – not only those who preach each weekend  but also to the faithful who wish to enrich their understanding of the Sunday readings.  We are hearing of many who use our books for their weekly meditation as well as those who are using it for their prayer groups.

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What is one unexpected gift youve received from this project?

There have been many gifts that I have received with this project that have been unexpected – but one of those at the top has to be the outpouring of appreciation and love from the contributors as well as the readers.

Homilists for the Homeless combines two important things: social justice, and writing about spirituality.  Who are some of your own personal heroes in these two areas?

Wow – hard to limit this to identifying just a few, but when it comes to social justice both Fr. Michael Doyle in Camden and Fr. Greg Boyle in Los Angles have to be two people who have truly lived lives that show all of us what it means to be there for our sisters and brothers.

When it comes to writing about spirituality…the best?  This one is easy: Fr. Richard Rohr.  Over the past 40 years his books, his talks, his conferences have opened the eyes of so many.  He reminds us that we are not humans learning to be spiritual…rather, we are all spiritual trying to learn to be human.  If one listens to Pope Francis it would be hard to believe that he has not read the books of Richard Rohr, as should you!

What can parents do to encourage their kids to care about social justice?

When parents are present at the baptism of their children, they may be distracted with all that is going on and may miss the prayer that is said over them at the end of the liturgy….when they are reminded that they are the first and best teachers of their children by what they say and do.  You want your children to care about social justice?  Pick a cause and be passionate about it and bring your children into early on in their lives.

Do you have any advice for how to make Mass meaningful for kids?  (the $64,000 question!)

Better asked – how do we make mass meaningful for everyone?!  But to your question in particular, the answer varies from region to region, diocese to diocese, parish to parish, and within each individual.  When I was growing up in the 60′s and 70′s, Mass or Church was a place where people gathered as a community.  There was no internet, social media, email, etc.  While technology is great,  we need to see what is taking place in the building up or the decay of ‘community’.  There is no doubt that many kids do not see benefit in going to mass.  Why?  Mass is longer that 140 characters and requires 60 minutes of attention…..many times the priest/deacon have not given enough time or lack the talent to provide an enriching homily…in some places liturgy is weak….some parishes do not serve the youth well…and so on.

So what to do?  As we heard in Matthew’s gospel on July 13th (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time) the seed falls on the different types of ground but only yields harvest in fertile ground.  So see what you can do to enrich the ‘ground,’ i.e. the liturgies  for kids in your own parish.  If impossible, then go looking for a parish/church that nourishes your child, yourself, and allows the feeding of your body and soul and empowers you to do the same to others.  That is where you will find Christ.

Whats one thing that your own kids have taught you about faith? 

Faith comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors. And in the words of our beloved Pope, “Whom am I to judge?”  Amen!

Naked, And You Clothed Me and Hungry, And You Fed Me are both available at Clear Faith Publishing.  These books are a marvelous way to support the homeless, with the added benefit of providing rich spiritual food for thought.  Thanks to Deacon Jim for being my guest today!