Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Gender roles and parenting: “The Home-Maker” serves up rich food for thought

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A while back, a friend of mine posted a simple graphic on Facebook. It was a triangle, with something written at each of the three points.  One point said “A Clean House,” the second said “Happy Children,” and the third was labeled “Sanity.”  Underneath the triangle was written the slogan, “Choose Two.”

I laughed when I saw it.  It was the laughter of recognition, and no small amount of resignation.

And that little triangle flashed upon my inward eye as I was reading the novel The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

The Home-Maker is published by Persephone Books, the most excellent London publishing house dedicated to reviving the “forgotten” classics.  (I adore PB; read my thoughts about another of their titles here.)  It was first published in 1924, and I can only imagine how subversive it was for the time.  Even now, ninety years later, it somehow still feels radical in its portrayal of an unconventional family.

But when the story begins, it’s all highly conventional.  It’s small-town America, and Evangeline Knapp, mother of three, is busy scrubbing the floors.  It’s immediately apparent that though she’s a fiercely competent housewife, she’s not a happy one; little messes and disruptions to the routine bother her intensely.  She can’t relate to Stephen, her youngest son, the “problem child” with a fiercely protective love of his filthy Teddy, and her two older children receive a constant stream of criticism and commands.

Obviously, Evangeline has chosen “Clean House” and “Sanity,” though her grasp on the latter is somewhat questionable.  Her house is clean, but she’s miserable.

So too is her husband Lester, a clerk at Willing’s Emporium, a downtown department store . He loves poetry and loathes his job.  Eventually (I won’t say how — no spoilers here) he suffers a paralyzing accident.  Out of financial necessity, Evangeline enters the workforce, getting a job at Willing’s Emporium, while Lester stays home with the children.  And — unconventional though it is in 1924– it ends up being the best thing that ever happened to the family.

There’s so much that made me think in this novel.  First of all, I was struck to realize that all these years later, the roles of the Knapp family (mom working, dad keeping house and watching the kids) are still far from the norm.  At one point, contemplating re-entering the work force which he loathes, Lester muses on how much social resistance there would be were he to continue to stay home: “It would be easier for him to commit murder or rob a bank than to give his intelligence where it was most needed, in his own home with his own children.”  That statement may not be entirely true today, but it’s probably pretty close. I know exactly one family where the dad stays home and the mom works; shouldn’t I know so many more, in 2015?

And while this novel is very advanced in its treatment of women, showing that women deserve the chances to develop the parts of their potential that have long been denied to them, it also extends the same courtesy to men.  If women have traditionally suffered from “too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation” (as Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre),  perhaps men have suffered the same.  Evangeline is a smart and innovative retail clerk, one who comes to life in her job in the emporium, and her happiness rubs off on the family.  Lester is an endearing character, one who has an intuitive grasp of his children’s emotional selves;  more contact time with him is just what they need to flourish.

In fact, another reason I loved this novel is the way it highlights two contrasting ways of parenting. There’s Evangeline’s way, the don’t-put-your-shoes-there-it’ll-get-the-floor-dirty way, and then there’s Lester’s way, which is to give kids things that make messes (an egg-beater, a dog, a sandpile) and let them discover and create.  It’s pretty clear which one is better for the kids … and the novel is a reminder that if you have to sacrifice a spotless home for happy kids, that’s a great trade-off.  I’m far less obsessive about cleaning house than Evangeline is — the dust-bunnies can tell you that themselves – but I do see some of myself in her.  If I were to tally up the things I say to my kids on a daily basis, how many of them are “Don’t” statements, and how many are “Dos”?  How many are instructions geared at keeping the house neat,  and how many are invitations designed to broaden their imaginative horizons?  I know where I am in this, and where I’d like to be.

So it’s not just a novel about gender roles; it’s also a novel about parenting.  It’s a thought-provoking reminder that families work best when the parents are leading from their strengths, when they don’t routinely bring bitterness and disappointment to the evening dinner table.  And from this working mom’s point of view, it’s a call not to get so wrapped up in my to-do list that I forget the inner lives of my kids.

In fact, one of my favorite passages in the book is when the paralyzed Lester looks at Stephen, the formerly troublesome little boy, playing quietly and contentedly.  “‘I never saw one of my children just living before,’ he meditated.  As [Lester] lay in bed, a book was usually open before him, but he looked over it at the far more interesting spectacle of his undiscovered little boy.”  

Many thanks to Persephone Books for the review copy of this forgotten classic.  It deserves to be widely read, and pondered, and enjoyed.

The Home-Maker can be found through  Amazon.com, but I prefer to buy Persephone titles from their own website.  It’s so fun to get a package from overseas, and they arrive far more quickly than you think they will.  While you are there, check out their other titles — it’s a dream of mine to visit their London shop one of these years and to browse their books in person.

Love Will Steer Me True: A conversation with authors Jane and Ellen Knuth

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My pre-mom life involved two extended stays in Paris: I studied abroad for one semester in college, then returned after graduation to teach English for a year.  Both experiences were exciting, rewarding, life-changing.

But I have to admit that at the time, I gave very little thought to how my mom was handling it all.

As a parent myself now, I have a sense of how hard that separation was for her.  My kids are still young, but when I think of one of them someday doing what I did and moving to the other hemisphere,  my pulse starts to race.  Although I know from my own past that living abroad can forever enrich your life, I know from my present that it must be extremely hard for a parent to see her child go so far away.

So I could very much relate to the book Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God by Jane Knuth and her daughter Ellen Knuth.  In fact, I didn’t just relate to it; I loved it.

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Love Will Steer Me True tells the story of Ellen’s experiences teaching English in Japan, and — here’s what makes it so unique —  it’s told from the point of view of both mother and daughter, alternating narrators.  As a result, you get an insider view on the relationship between a mother and her adult child, along with two perspectives on faith and culture and letting go.  It’s  real, honest, and touching, and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to both Ellen and Jane about the book.

What is the two-sentence description of your book? 

 Jane: This is a true story about women’s spiritual journeys told from the  perspectives of a mother and daughter . The daughter, Ellen, is working and living in Japan for four years in her mid-twenties, and the mom, Jane, is back in the USA worrying about how God fits into all this.

What was it like to collaborate on a book?  What were the challenges of co-authoring, and what were the unique joys? 

 Ellen: Having never written a book before, collaborating with my mother on the manuscript was a great way to enter the writing world. I was initially concerned about being able to maintain a distinct “voice” without becoming too influenced by my mom’s writing style, but once we hit our stride it was great fun discussing how our chapters would play together.

Jane: I thought it would be more difficult than it was. It was fun to read Ellen’s chapters and remember the events together. We spent one long weekend in a motel in Kentucky in order to pull the thing together, which was exhausting, but fun.

I always find that writing about my experiences makes me understand them in a new light.  What did you learn about your own experiences as a result of writing this book? 

Ellen: Putting the stories to paper really brought into focus how all of these seemingly un-connected events that happened over the course of several years were, in many ways, a fluid progression. It helped me reflect on how far I’d come and how much my relationship with my mother had grown during my time away.

Jane: I learned that my motherly worry is often not helpful. It can stunt the growth of the child and the parent both.

Jane,  I love the scene when your husband reminds you that worry and prayer are not the same thing.  How do worries change as your kids grow up?  How has your prayer life changed as your kids have grown up?

Jane: When the kids were very young, I worried that I wasn’t doing things right, teaching them enough, spending quality time, etc. Once they were in college, I worried that they hadn’t understood all I tried to teach them, and I began to teach them over again. That’s what people commonly call nagging. My husband pointed this out in a gentle way and encouraged me to pray silently instead. Prayer of this type is a huge leap of faith because you are turning over your heart to God and  trusting that he won’t drop it.

Ellen, it  was fascinating to read how your experiences in Japan helped you see your childhood faith traditions in a new light.  What is the biggest lesson that your time abroad has taught you about faith?

Ellen: That love is truly at the core of my faith journey. Even in the hardest moments when I felt confused or lost, love anchored me.

What did you learn about each other’s experiences of this time that you  didn’t know before writing the book? 

 Jane: I didn’t know the story of Ellen’s conversation with Ayden, her agnostic friend, after the death of her friend Rodger. Ayden is a loving, whip-smart, courageous young man who verbalizes the non-faith perspective of death in a touching way.

Ellen: I talk about a lot of things with my mom, she knows all about my insecurities and fears! However, I don’t think we’d ever really discussed HER insecurities, especially where our relationship was concerned. That all came out during the book-writing process

What is one thing your daughter/mom wrote in the book that really surprised you? 

 Jane: I was surprised that Ellen yearned for her parents to be proud of her and what she was doing in Japan. We have always been proud of our kids, so this struck me . I think what she wanted was that we would give our blessing to her . Our worry, and expressing our worry, was kind of like an anti-blessing. She didn’t need that.

Ellen: Though I could objectively identify my mother’s worries as coming from a place of love and good intention, it wasn’t until I read her chapters that I understood that no anger and disappointment factored into her worry. That was a huge surprise!

What is the best thing a mother can give her daughter before she moves overseas? 

 Ellen: Her blessing! My mother and father took the time to write a series of notes for me before I left. They were labeled with titles like “For a bad day” or “For when your head feels fuzzy”, etc and having those little affirmations of their love and support to read and save on the days I felt lowest were awesome.

Jane: A rosary.  It’s a prayer, a blessing, and a link to home, all in one little package.

Thanks to Ellen and Jane for being my guests here today!   And, gentle blog reader, do yourself a favor and read Love Will Steer Me True.  It’s available from Loyola Press, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com.  

Great books for “Downton Abbey” fans (or fanatics)

At long last, “Downton Abbey”  is back.  If you’re like me, the advent of the new season was met with great rejoicing and a celebratory cup of tea.

I know this show appeals to a wide range of people, but I suspect that moms have a particular affinity for it.  I’d venture to guess that most modern moms fantasize about living like Lady Grantham, with her beautiful clothes and every-present lady’s maid and a stunning home that she doesn’t have to clean herself.  In reality, our lives are closer to that of the cook, frantically trying to keep multiple pots from burning while snapping at anyone who gets in our way (or is that just me?).

Anyhow,  if you can’t get enough of big English homes with elaborate social hierarchies, here are a few books that you might enjoy.   Save them for those rare moments of Lady Grantham-like relaxation, and see if you can convince someone to bring you breakfast in bed to make the fantasy complete!

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One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

This memoir, first published in  1939 , is a gem.  The twenty-something Dickens, unsatisfied with her life as a debutante, decided to try a new existence as a cook for the upper classes.  She hid her privileged background  and embarked on a series of jobs for various employers, both in London and the country.  The book is consistently interesting and, at moments, side-splittingly hilarious.  Dickens describes her struggles both with the cooking and with the eccentricities of her employers and fellow workers.  She has a fabulous turn of phrase (of a bad-tempered milkman, she writes, “he looked capable of watering the milk with the tears of little children”). The chapters where she works as cook for a Downton-style estate are  my favorite; her descriptions of the malevolent butler, the dim-witted scullery maid, and the handsome chauffeur (” whose name, appropriately enough, was Jim Driver”),  are brilliant.

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The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

I have a mad love for Persephone Books, the English publishing house dedicated to reviving “neglected” books.   Most of their books are by women; many of them center on home and family relationships, which is surely the reason why so many haven’t gotten the attention they deserve (insert rant about why war is taken seriously as a fictional subject and human relationships are not).

One of their most high-profile authors is Dorothy Whipple, who was a phenomenal novelist.  Her book The Priory is the story of an old country home in England, inhabited by a retired Major and his adult daughters, and the changes that ensue when he marries a much younger wife.  Whipple makes the servants into fairly major characters in their own right; there is a well-drawn and painful subplot about a bit of a “love triangle,” for lack of a better term, and she brings the character of Nanny to terrifyingly competent life.  Whipple was a sharp, sensitive novelist who excelled at describing relationships; the prose carries you along, and 530 pages feel like nothing.

Persephone’s books can be hard to find in the US, but you can order from their website and they arrive quickly.  One other cool thing: Each of their books has the same dove-gray cover, but the colorful endpapers inside are different for each book, and each is a reproduction of a textile from the year the book was published.  I love that.

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

I blogged a few years ago about The House at Tyneford, which I couldn’t put down.  I won’t repeat the review here, but suffice to say that it’s a most unusual love story.  It takes place a few decades after DA — World War II, to be precise — and it’s about social class,  the experiences of refugees, and the reinvention of self once everything familiar is gone.   And yes, it all happens in a big, beautiful country house.

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The Royal Spyness mysteries by Rhys Bowen

The Royal Spyness mysteires, set in the 1930s,  are fun and a half.  There are eight  in the series, and they tell the story of minor royal Lady Georgiana Rannoch, thirty-fourth in line to the throne of England.   Georgie is an impoverished royal with a drafty Scottish castle but little cash; luckily, she is rich in adventure as she ends up being drawn into murder mysteries wherever she goes,  from English country houses to a royal castle in Transylvania.  The books are a great blend of whodunit, humor, and social commentary, with tinges of P.G. Wodehouse.  For sheer escapist fun, these can’t be beat.

A Christmas stick and old Saint Nick: Two new holiday books for kids

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Every mom knows the experience of having her child unwrap a birthday or Christmas toy, only to find that the child has more fun playing with the box it came in.   It’s a near-universal experience, one that points to a certain truth: Kids need fewer toys than they think they do (or than we think they do).

It’s a tough truth to live by, though, especially this time of year when ads and store windows try to convince our kids that they need more.  That’s why a book like The Christmas Stick (written by Tim J. Myers, illustrated by Necdet Yilmaz) is such a welcome one.

In this colorful new picture book, a spoiled young prince receives a stick for Christmas.  He’s not sure what to do with it at first — it gets ignored as he focuses on the other, flashier toys — but then as the novelty of those toys begins to fade, he turns to the stick and finds that it’s a lot more fun than the others.

A stick can be a sword!  It can be a lute!  It can be a giant’s club!  The book shows the prince letting his imagination rip as he explores all the possibilities of a simple stick.  In the end, he also learns about kindness and giving in a lovely little twist in the plot.  It’s  an utterly charming book, with a message that we can’t get enough of this time of year.   It just may inspire you to wrap up an old broom handle as a gift for your kids and see where their imagination goes.

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A while back, my son and I thoroughly enjoyed the book Saint Francis and Brother Duck by  Jay Stoeckl, OFS .  This year, together we’re reading his new book Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra.  Like its predecessor, Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra is a graphic novel about the spiritual journey of a saint.  Like its predecessor, it also features an adorably-drawn animal sidekick to help convey the story of the saint in question.  The mouse in this book is full of personality, cheeky and smart and frequently challenging Nicholas to explain his life choices  in a way that allows for the saint’s beliefs to unfold easily throughout the story.

The book moves along at a nice pace and is a very engaging and colorful introduction to the saint upon whom Santa Claus is based;  I particularly like its message about generous giving to the poor.  It’s a great read for kids eight and up (and for their parents, too — I’m learning a lot about Saint Nicholas that I didn’t know before).

Both The Christmas Stick and  Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra were review copies courtesy of Paraclete Press, which publishes all sorts of great spiritual books for kids and adults.  Check them out — I promise you’ll find something you like.

Blog tour: “Wholehearted Living: Five-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms” by Jennifer Grant

 

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A few years ago, frustrated by my inability to add  prayer to my busy morning routine, I came up with the perfect solution.  I call it “prayer by stealth.”

It involves pouring myself a cup of coffee and taking it back to my room and closing the door.  The kids don’t bother me because they assume I’m getting dressed for the day, which I am – but before I do, I sit down with my warm mug at the prayer table and take five minutes to read something.  Sometimes I read the Mass readings for the day; sometimes I open a devotional book.  Whatever it is, those five stolen minutes restore my soul, a soul that – in the way of most modern moms – is already harried at 6:45 AM.

So when I read the introduction to Jennifer Grant’s new book Wholehearted Living: Five-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms, I thought to myself: She gets it.

Grant writes:

Wholehearted Living is a book of short, daily readings for women whose season in life affords only limited time for contemplation.  It’s a “pause” button for mothers who want to take a break from talk of juice boxes and snow pants in favor of confronting their fears or reconnecting with their dreams.

It’s for moments when you feel drawn toward the divine, as well as for those times when you feel like your frailties are holding you captive and you really just want to stand in the corner, face the wall, and scream.

Oh, yes.  She gets it.

This is a terrific book, this collection of daily meditations.  I like it for its accessible structure: there is one page-long reflection each day, with a meaningful quotation and an invitation to take the subject of the reflection into your daily routine.  I like it for its focus on real mom-life, with all the joys and challenges thereof.

Most of all, I like it because Grant – a mother of four  – doesn’t  focus every entry on the experience of motherhood.  She has entries that cover other areas of  life, including friendship, spiritual life, marriage.

This speaks to me.  We moms are more than just moms; we are women trying to honor and nurture the other roles in our lives as well.  Often, these other roles are given short-shrift, lost in the day-to-day demands of parenting.  Grant’s insightful reflections affirm that we are also dreamers, friends, aunts, sisters,  pray-ers, romantic partners.   The result is a book that is wonderfully affirming of all the many facets of a woman’s life. (And because I myself am on the other side of forty, I really appreciate that the book reflects the experiences of a mom in midlife.)

All in all, Wholehearted Living is  both inspiring and down-to-earth, a book that meets modern moms right where they are.   It’s a book that is full of heart, yes — but it’s also full of brain, and wit, and soul. Highly recommended.

Wholehearted Living is available through the Loyola Press website, on Barnes and Noble.com, and on Amazon.com.