Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Blog tour: Rooted in Love by Margaret Blackie

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Need some spiritual food for thought?  Check out these quotations:

“It is impossible to engage seriously in deepening your relationship with God without deepening your relationship with others.  It is also impossible to do either of those things without coming to know yourself better in the process.”

“Faith, if it is to have any impact on our lives, cannot just be intellectual; it must be visceral.”

“The whole purpose of faith is to know God’s presence right now, in and through whatever it is that we are doing.”

All of these bits of wisdom are from one terrific book. The book is Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality Into Daily Life by Margaret (Mags) Blackie.  Remember that name, because if you are looking for a book to rejuvenate your spiritual and/or prayer life, this is one of the best ones to cross my path in quite a while.

Blackie’s background is fascinating; she’s a scientist and a spiritual director (more on that later) who has spent years walking with others as they work on deepening their relationship with God.  As she explains early on in the book, she has found the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order of priests) to be particularly helpful in her own life, thus leading her to write this book to share the insights with others.

If you’ve never heard of Ignatian spirituality, that’s no barrier to reading this book. Blackie explains it in such a way that both novices and those with more experience can benefit from her insights.  Through her book you see how prayer doesn’t have to involve leaving it all behind and withdrawing from the world.  As Blackie writes, “Ignatius expected that we would find God in all of our daily activities, not just in the ones that appear to be ‘holy’ or intentionally directed towards God … Ignatian spirituality is then a spirituality designed to be lived in the midst of life.”  (On a personal note, this is what I’ve come to love about Ignatian spirituality: it trains you to recognize the touch of God in all aspects of life, not just the “churchy” moments).

I read this book slowly over the course of about a month, and my engagement with it was strong the entire time.  Blackie has a clear and elegant way of writing about spirituality.  She shares helpful personal anecdotes to illustrate the spiritual insights, with the result that nothing is airy or abstract.     I found that the book invited me to think about how I spend my time, where I find my truest joy, and which things I hold onto a little bit too tightly.    It challenged me to realize what lies underneath the things I want, and to recognize which things in my life are pulling me away from my most authentic self, and which aren’t.  It’s hard to think of any adult who wouldn’t benefit from an accessible, wise book like this one.

I had the chance to ask Mags a few follow-up questions about herself and about her recommendations on jump-starting one’s prayer life.  You can also find out more about her and her book on her blog.

DSC_0076-199x300Ginny:  You are both a scientist and a spiritual director.  Some would say that those two fields are wildly different from each other.  How does the scientific part of your life feed the spiritual, and vice-versa?

Mags: This is a question I find difficult to answer. There is no straight line to be drawn between the two, no direct causal effect. Nonetheless I have tried to live as purely scientist or purely spiritual director and neither has worked well. Somehow to be fully myself I need both. I see evidence of the glory of God deeply embedded in both, but quite why it necessary for me to straddle these two worlds remains a mystery to me.

 

Ginny:   Lots of my readers are moms.  What would you say to a mom who says, “Ignatian spirituality sounds interesting, but I just can’t think of adding one more thing to my busy life?”

 

Mags: Having just spent two months with my sister and my two sweet nephews I do understand this. Firstly, don’t feel guilty for not being able to give a chunk of time when you have little children. That phase will pass. I would suggest taking mental time while you perform a task you do every day to just ask yourself three simple questions.

1) How am I?

2) What am I most grateful for in this moment?

3) How is God looking at me?

That exercise can be done in 5 min while you are doing the dishes, or brushing your teeth. Just take a few moments to ground the whirlwind busyness by paying attention to where you are, looking for something to be grateful for and holding that before God.

That mini prayer practice will give you a tether through the years of small children and will be manageable most days.

Ginny:  What would you say to someone who says, “I try to sit down and pray, but I don’t feel like anything is happening when I do?”

Mags: Don’t worry too much about how you ‘feel’ in the time of prayer. Pay attention to the fruit. Do you have a sense that God is present and active in your life? If so, where. Take time to be consciously grateful to God for that. Having said that, it may be time to try a different prayer practice. And I would strongly recommend talking with a spiritual director or a prayer partner.

If you want to know more about Mags, check out her blog.  Rooted in Love is available on Amazon.com.  Read it!   — you’ll be glad you did.

Ninety-ish priest, forty-ish mom: We both love St. Therese

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She’s a saint whom many of us recognize, a saint of whom we have not just paintings but actual photographs.  She’s one of the four female Doctors of the Church, a woman who believed that daily life gives us thousands of little ways to practice holiness.  

She’s St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and I’m not alone in calling her one of the most compelling saints I know.

If you aren’t familiar with Thérèse, her brief life (she died of tuberculosis in 1897, at age twenty-four) is worth a look.  Much has been written about her, including her well-known autobiography The Story of a Soul.  But if you’re looking for a readable, brief but very rich introduction to her, the new book Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux: A Saint for Our Times by Patrick Ahern is a fantastic choice.

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I should add here that I’ve read a lot about her, and I still got so much out of this book.  It was published posthumously; Patrick Ahern, who was a priest and bishop, wrote it a few years before his death in 2011 at age ninety-two.   It’s a real love letter to this saint who touched his life profoundly, offering not just a rich overview of her unique spirituality but also sharing personal stories about how her “Little Way” inspired Ahern and others he knows.   These personal anecdotes really make this book sing.

One thing I’ve learned about myself: I get the most out of spiritual books when I feel like the author would be a good person to hang out with over coffee.  (Prickly or pedantic writers need not apply.)  Ahern meets my “café table” criteria; he comes across as such an honest, humble man who admits to the struggles he’s faced over his long life, and who is not afraid to show that he’s been in need of the wisdom and forgiveness of others.  (His enthusiasm for spreading the wisdom of St. Thérèse is also infectious.)

As someone who knows a thing or two about anxiety disorders,  I could especially relate to his story about facing panic attacks when going up to the pulpit to preach.  The way that Thérèse was involved in helping him with that struggle was very beautiful (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers.)  It’s a documented fact that Thérèse herself suffered from anxiety disorders — the signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder are evident in her writings  – and that part of her own spiritual journey involved learning to let herself off the hook for these intrusive thoughts that she could not control.   Hearing how Bishop Ahern was able to get a handle on his own anxiety was inspiring, and was my favorite part of the book.

I actually blogged last October about how Therese’s “Little Way” to holiness is perfect for the life of a mom of young children.  Reading Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux, written so lovingly by a priest at the very end of his life, I’m struck by how universal a saint she is.   Female or male, forty-something or ninety-something, married or celibate, mom or priest — she’s a saint for everyone, everywhere.  If you don’t know her yet, this book is a terrific place to start.

Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux is published by Image Books, who kindly sent me a review copy.  Today is also their  Day of the Little Way, encouraging those with a love of Thérèse to share their thoughts/stories about her on social media.  If you want to join the movement, check out their website!

 

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What do I remember about December?  Well, it was a mad, mad rush of wrapping up first-semester classes and doing truly epic amounts of grading (why didn’t I become a P.E. teacher?  Why?  Why?) and getting ready for that little holiday on the 25th.   In other words: it was busy.

That said, I did find some time to read.  Between early November and, well, now, here are a few of the highlights.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker intrigued me because it’s the story about Sarah,  the maid of the Bennet family (yes, THOSE Bennets), and I’m rather an Austen fan.  I loved the concept: sort of a cross between Pride and Prejudice and “Downton Abbey.”  And it was a very well-written book, no doubt about it.  But — how do I say this — it kind of tainted my beautiful little Austen fantasy.  Baker’s story plunges into the underbelly of the Regency period, including some flashback scenes of a character at war, and there’s some pretty icky stuff going on.  Back at Longbourn, there’s talk of emptying chamber pots and boiling sanitary napkins for the Bennet girls, and while that is real life, I’ve realized that I regard Austen as an escape from real life.  I will readily acknowledge grit and reality in other contexts, but P & P is  my happy retreat into a candybox world where people speak with precision and wear pelisses and there are balls and tea in the afternoons, and I don’t want it messed with (let this be a warning to you, oh aspiring writers of Austen spin-offs!)  So while I enjoyed Longbourn, I’d actually have enjoyed it more if it were the story of some random maid unconnected with my beloved Austen characters.   Does that make me shallow?  Oh well.

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I’ve read a little bit of George Eliot over the years: liked Silas Marner, found Middlemarch really dull.  And years ago I found a nice little hardcover copy of Adam Bede in a used bookstore.  I finally read it, and I’m glad I did.  It was a slow starter, but when the plot started taking off, it took off.  ”Downton Abbey” has nothing on what happens in the last third of this book.  I actually dog-eared lots of pages because I liked the way that Eliot described certain scenes or situations; she gets philosophical and spiritual in places, and there were several really beautiful passages that I knew I’d want to read again.  A good vacation read, for sure.

 

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And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life was on the library shelf one day, and I grabbed it, because I like stories of people trying to figure out their life’s calling.  In this case, it’s a discernment story from the second half of life. Author Jane Christmas, divorced with adult children, is on the cusp of getting married again when she realizes that she has never really listened to that inner voice saying “maybe I have a calling as a nun.”  She explores various convents in Canada and England, all the while finally coming to terms with a trauma from her past.  In spite of the cover, which  makes this look like breezy religious chick-lit, the book ventures into some pretty heavy territory.  I wasn’t expecting the darker stuff, but the story is so well-told, with a combination of humor and depth of reflection, that it all worked.  I recommend it, if you like faith memoirs (it also made me realize that as much as I envy life in a convent every now and then when my boys are being loud and wild, the life of a nun is most emphatically NOT my calling).

 

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Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion by Judy Corbett (another library book — I love how our library system has British titles, too!) is about a young couple who have a dream of owning a very old house in Wales.  They find one — a castle that is in truly terrible shape — and buy it and set about making it, well, livable.  As escape lit goes, this was so fun.  I often look around my tiny cramped postwar tract home and dream about living in some castle-like manor home thingy, but this book may have cured me of it  (the author and her husband literally shared their bedroom with bats.  BATS!).  Throw in a ghost, some roaming peacocks, a visit from Prince Charles and some unhelpful flooding, and it’s quite a kick.

 

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Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter By Living Lightly by Susan V. Vogt could not have come at a better time, honestly.  Our house has way too much stuff in it (having kids will do that!), and over the last six months, I’ve been wanting to do something about it.  This book not only gives some helpful tips about downsizing, it also addresses the bigger picture and challenges me to think about my relationship to things.   Why do I have all this?  Why do I find myself buying more?  What might shift in my life if I shrug off some of these possessions?  Is there someone who could use this item more than I could?  This book blends the practical with the spiritual, and it has been a great way to kickstart my Great Purge of 2014.  (You’ll be hearing more about this in a future blog post, I promise.)

What have you been reading lately?  I love recommendations!

Get your Joyce on: Three great (and short) Epiphany reads

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Okay, off the top of your head, name three Christmas stories.  Fairly easy, right?

Now name three stories about the Epiphany.

For most of us, that’s significantly harder.

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is when Christians commemorate the visit of the three wise men (or Magi) to the infant Jesus.   It’s a lovely event to celebrate, these three very learned men going all that way to bring gifts to a baby. If you’re like me, though, this day tends to get somewhat overlooked in the transition from Christmas/New Year’s  to Life As Usual.

But it’s worth reflecting a little on this day, because the day reminds us that after Christmas, life does not go on As Usual.  Any encounter with God changes us, right?   And that personal change, that shift into a new way of being in the world, is what the Epiphany is all about.

So here I offer three great Epiphany-themed works of literature.  The three pieces are all short (ish), and they’re all available online (click on the title of each one to find the online text).  Each one, in its own way, makes January 6 — the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas — more meaningful.

So brew a cup of tea or coffee, grab a few minutes to read, and let the Magi become more than just the three most exotic-looking guys in the manger scene.

1) The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke (1895)

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My aunt gave me a paperback of this book approximately twenty-five years ago, as part of a Christmas gift.  I’m not sure why, but it took me twenty-five years to read it.  (The fact that I kept this book all that time, moving it from one home to the next, shows that I knew I’d get to it eventually).    I just finished it the other day, and oh, what a beautiful story.

It’s about a fourth Wise Man, Artaban, who sets off to find the new King.  He plans to join the other three, but is waylaid on the route by encounters with people who need his help.   And I don’t want to be too spoiler-ish, but let’s just say the journey to the King takes  longer than he’d expected, and the slender little novella (you can read it in about an hour, easily) is a reminder that the interruptions that come in life do not have to be distractions on our path to find God.  Maybe, says this beautiful little story, those distractions are where we find God.  As a mom who frequently sees her efforts to pray interrupted by a small boy needing something, this is a message I need to learn and re-learn.

2) “The Dead” from Dubliners, by James Joyce (1914)

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Yes, let’s get past the title, which sounds like a real downer.  And let me acknowledge up-front that “The Dead”  is not, strictly, speaking, a story about the wise men.  It’s about a dinner party in snowy Dublin on what appears to be the Feast of the Epiphany, and it focuses on Gabriel Conroy, who is  attending with his wife Gretta.

Joyce himself used  the word “epiphany” to refer to moments of revelation, moments  when his characters have sudden, powerful awareness about life and themselves.  And when you get to the end of this story, you realize that Gabriel has discovered certain things  – including that his wife has had a tragedy in her past that he never knew about — and that he can’t go back to the way he was before.  It’s a subtle, powerful story.

“The Dead” also has what I think is the most beautifully-written ending of anything I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot).  Anytime I see snow fall, I find myself  thinking, “Snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain …”   (There is also a very good 1987 movie adaptation by John Huston.  It’s a hard story to make a movie out of, but the film succeeds beautifully.)

3.  “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot (1927)

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The Magi Journeying by James Tissot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

...And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet….

This one is a poem, and if you’ve never read it, take five minutes and check it out.  (Then take five more minutes and re-read it.  If you’re like me, it takes several readings before you feel you know a poem.)

I blogged about the poem a few years back, so I won’t repeat what I said then.  I will say that I love this poem because it acknowledges that birth and death are sometimes so closely linked that you can’t separate them.  One experience can hold both, at the same time.  Seriously, it’s a great poem.

Do you have other good Epiphany stories to share?  Do you recognize the day with any traditions or customs? 

Tired of princess stories? Try “Women of the Bible.”

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“I have to say,” said Scott a few months ago, “as much as it would have been fun to have a daughter, I’m glad we dodged that whole princess thing.”

I know what he means.  Even if you have a fondness for the classic Disney movies, there is something about the aggressive pink-and-purple princess marketing machine that is off-putting, to say the least.  (Check out Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter for a fascinating  sociological perspective on the subject).   And yes, I know that there are modern Disney heroines who have real moxie and spunk.    But it’s also fair to say that young girls deserve a more diverse range of female role models than the ones you’ll find dancing through most animated movies.

That’s why Women of the Bible by  Margaret McAllister (illustrated by Alida Massari) is such a gem.  It’s a picture book for older readers (7-11 says the press release, though younger kids could enjoy it with their parents), and it’s a great way to get ten fascinating historical women into your child’s imaginative life.

One thing I love about this book is the range of women represented.  There are the expected figures, like Rachel and Ruth and Mary, but the book also features  Mother Noah and the wife of Pilate and Lydia from Acts of the Apostles.  The book moves chronologically through the women, telling each lady’s story in a short, first-person narrative.  These stories are detailed and imaginative, fleshing out the ones in the Bible.   Mary’s story, for example, is told through a description of five special objects she keeps in a box: a feather dropped by a dove right after the Annunciation, a stone she picked up on the journey to Bethlehem, a fleece offered by the shepherds, among others.   This creativity makes even the most well-known of the stories feel fresh and engaging.  (They are moving in places, too; the chapter told by Miriam, the sister of Moses, made me tear up a bit.)

And the illustrations?  Well, they are truly gorgeous.  They have a vaguely folk art feel about them, which suits the subject matter, but they are also wonderfully detailed and pretty to look at.  Each woman has character and beauty and dignity.  If your daughter is used to princess stories, these pictures  will capture her imagination while providing a good break from pink ballgowns and tiaras.

In fact, while the subject matter makes me think of girls (and I can think of one niece of mine who will be receiving this as a gift!), this is a book that boys can learn a lot from, too.  I intend to share it with my older son as I think it’s always good for boys to read stories about strong women.  Even I, a forty-year-old woman, thoroughly enjoyed this book and loved having a chance to ponder the lives of these women more deeply.   It’s an all-round winner, and a very welcome addition to the family bookshelf.

Women of the Bible by Margaret McAllister, illustrated by Alida Massari.  Many thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy.

“Daily Inspiration for Women” is here!

The book has arrived — and oh, it looks luverly!

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The UPS guy rang the doorbell  just as I was getting ready to go give a presentation to the moms’ group at my childhood parish.  I heard the door open and close and then Scott came into the back of the house, box in hand, with the boys trailing excitedly behind him.

I put down the makeup, sat on the bed, opened the box and pulled out a book.  Oh, it’s so pretty! — the photo doesn’t do it justice.  And it smells so good, too … I could get seriously drunk on that new-book scent.

The boys, catching my enthusiasm, each grabbed a copy and began rifling through it.   After a moment, five-year-old Luke handed it back with the best line of the night.  “I forgot I can’t read,” he said apologetically.

But I can, and what’s cool about this book is that only one-fourth of it is already known to me.  I can’t wait to read what the other three authors wrote, and to make their wisdom a part of my daily prayer routine.

Want to make it a part of your routine?  Daily Inspiration for Women is available at the Loyola Press website, Barnes and Noble.com, and Amazon.com.  It also makes a great holiday gift for the women in your life!

What I’ve been reading (all over the map!)

Fasten your seatbelts; this is one eclectic list.  I guess I could try really hard to find some common thematic thread that binds all the titles together … but nah.  I think I’ll just toss these wildly diverse books out there and you can see if there is any larger meta-narrative that I’m missing.

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Paraclete Press sent me a review copy of Centering Prayers: A One-Year Daily Companion for Going Deeper into the Love of God by Peter Traben Haas.  In the preface, the author (who is a pastor, and the founder of ContemplativeChristians.com) talks about his hopes that these brief daily prayers will “nourish a deepening experience of God’s love, especially when read as a prelude or postlude to periods of contemplative prayer.”  They’re beautifully-written prayers, most of them just a few sentences long, that use evocative language for God (the prayers are addressed to “Eternal Love,” “Source of the Creation,” “Beloved Comforter.”)  The language is immensely soothing; it’s astonishing how some well-chosen words like these can actually calm my heartbeat and my breathing.    I’ve been reading the prayers daily at my prayer desk, either in the morning or (even better) in the evening, when I have the time to ponder each word slowly.Wherever you are in your prayer life — beginner, or seasoned veteran — this book has something to offer you.

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I’ve read several of Brian Doyle’s books over the years, and I was more than eager to get a review copy of The Thorny Grace of It And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics.  If you’ve never read Doyle, you’re in for a treat.  He’s a master of the run-on sentence, which may sound like odd praise coming from an English teacher, but trust me: the man knows what he’s doing.  Whether he’s writing about marriage or a basketball game in the park or a cherished rosary, his vivid prose carries you along for an unforgettable ride.  His essays can make you laugh out loud (as I did while riding BART a few weeks ago ) and can make you cry in recognition of the very beautiful human experiences and faith stories he shares.    Every little essay is a complete and perfect world in and of itself.  (And really, how great is that tattoo-inspired cover?).

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On the fiction side of things, I recently read The Sisters Weiss by Naomi Ragen.  It’s a very readable story of a young Orthodox Jewish girl in Brooklyn in the 1960s, who realizes that her artistic ambitions (she’s intrigued by photography) don’t have any place in the strict culture in which she was raised.  I won’t give away plot points, but I will say that it spans two generations and teaches a great deal about the Orthodox culture and keeps you turning pages trying to see how the female characters overcome their various familial and social obstacles in their individual quests for personal freedom.  The second half of the book wasn’t quite as compelling to me as the first, but it’s still a very enjoyable read, and one that I definitely recommend.

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I’m not sure how exactly I first heard about Amanda DeWees’ novel Sea of Secrets, but when I heard that it was heavily inspired by Hamlet, I had to read it. Though it takes place in Victorian England rather than medieval Denmark,  the general plot points are the same (prominent man dies, widow quickly marries his brother, brooding son can’t get over it all and suspects foul play).  What’s different is that this story is told from the point of view of Oriel, an intelligent and perceptive young woman who has come to live at the seaside estate of the family.   The writing is descriptive but not distracting, the plot is suspenseful, and the dialogue is natural (one big beef I have with historical novels is when they either veer too much towards Ye Olde Formal English or sound far too contemporary).  It’s a highly enjoyable ride, and is a good title to add to my list of  Escape Reading for Moms.

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If you write about spiritual topics and you’re looking to get a book published, The Art of Spiritual Writing: How to Craft Prose that Engages and Inspires Your Readers is the book for you.    Okay, I’ll admit that maybe I’m a little predisposed to like this book because it was written by Vinita Hampton Wright, who edited Random MOMents of Grace.  Being objective, though, the reason I like her so much is because she is phenomenal editor, and a fabulous writer to boot (as well as a very cool person).   In this handy book, she offers frank and hugely practical advice on how to produce a spiritual book that is ready for prime-time.  Some of the insights are “Save teaching for the classroom and preaching for the pulpit,” “Demand something of the reader,” and “Include your audience,” as well as specific suggestions about craft and about how to approach editors.  If you’ve ever wondered, “Geez, what does a religious editor want, anyway?”, this book is your answer.

So what are you reading these days?

What I did on my summer vacation

I wrote a book  (or, to be more precise, one-fourth of a book)!

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Daily Inspirations for Women: Seasons of a Woman’s Life is the title.  It’s a daily devotional for women, arranged by season (as you see reflected in the very clever cover design above).  Each day offers a quotation, a short reflection, and a related action — all geared towards helping women work a little spiritual nourishment into daily life.   You can pick it up and start it on any day of the year, any year.

What makes this book super-cool is that there are four authors, each focusing on one season.  Back when I first heard who the other three authors would be, I immediately started doing my happy dance, because they are Jessica Mesman Griffith, Vinita Hampton Wright, and Margaret Silf – all amazing women and beautiful writers.  I felt like a groupie who had just been asked to perform with her favorite band.

And what’s also unique is that the book takes its daily quotations from a variety of sources: the Bible and other spiritual writings, but also poetry, novels, proverbs, and other famous quotations.  (English teacher nerd that I am, I worked a little Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Austen, and Christina Rossetti into the Spring section.)   There are spiritual insights to be found all around us, even in ostensibly secular writings, and the book celebrates that.

Anyhow, I’m really excited and honored to have been a part of this project.  If you want to read more, check out the Loyola Press site about the book.  It’ll be available in November; I’ll let you know when it’s here!

Book review: Walking with Mary by Edward Sri

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It’s my personal belief that you can never have too many books about Mary.  My  own bookshelves are proof of how fully I embrace this philosophy; I’ve got everything from 1950s kids’ books to reference tomes to Marian-themed poetry.

But I’ve never come across a book exactly like Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross, by Dr. Edward Sri.  It’s a fascinating  book that feeds both the intellect and the soul.

This book, as the title indicates, follows Mary’s experiences throughout the Gospels, unpacking the significance of each story.  Other books have done this, but the strength of Sri’s book is the level of contextual analysis he provides.  He goes in for a close look at the details of the Gospels, and brings his own hefty academic knowledge to offer a context to the story that the average reader wouldn’t know.

To cite an example, when the angel appears to Mary in the Gospel of Luke and greets her by saying “The Lord is with you,” (1:28), Sri talks about how this phrasing — the Lord is with you — shows up also in the stories of Jacob, Moses,  and David, among others. In other words, as Sri explains, Mary “is being called to stand in the tradition of Israelite heroes like Moses, Joshua, David, and Jeremiah — people who suffered, sacrificed, and gave themselves radically for the Lord.  She is now being called to a daunting mission that will involve many challenges and hardships, and the future of God’s people will depend on how she responds.”

One of my favorite lines in the whole Bible is when Luke writes that  Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  (Luke 2:18).  Sri unpacks this verse as well, explaining that the Greek word “to keep” (synterein) is used in the Old Testament in contexts where an individual is reflecting on the meaning of profound events, especially concerning divine revelation.  He also explains that in the Wisdom tradition of the old Testament, the verb “describes someone seeking not only to interpret the message correctly, but also to observe it — to live it out.”  (italics mine).   As Sri writes, “Mary reminds us that God is always trying to teach us something, even through the difficultes and sufferings we face in life.  Her example teaches us that we should keep all these things and ponder them in our heart.”

As detailed and analytical as the book is, it’s far from dry.  Sri writes in a very accessible style that invites full participation in Mary’s story.  And, as we see in the paragraph above, Sri always connects the dots of his analysis to real life, showing how a richer understanding of Mary can transform our own lives.  If you’re looking for a model of radical faith and true discipleship, read this book.  It shows how the young girl from Galilee is all that, and more.

Many thanks to Image Books for the review copy.

Escape reading: My list of “unputdownables” for moms

When the laundry piles are threatening to avalanche and the kids are asking you for a zillion things at once and your schedule is crammed to the max with all the things that make up the life of a modern woman, sometimes you just want to get away.  And — Calgon ads notwithstanding — my preferred method of escape is a good book.

And not just any good book, by the way.  I’m talking about a good novel, the kind of book with a twisty-turny plot and a heap of suspense and a splash of mystery and maybe even a spot of romance.   It’s the kind of book that is, to use a marvelous word, unputdownable.

And I have a few titles to share, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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1)  The novels of Mary Stewart.  This gal could write, and write she did, penning a great many suspense novels from the 1950s to 197os and beyond (her earlier ones are the best, if you ask me).   Think of her books as  James Bond for women:  there are exotic settings (Greece, the Middle East, the Alps), lots of  action and cliffhangers, smart heroines who can think on their feet, and romance, too.   Her books are being reissued slowly but surely in fabulous new editions, and I’ve found that libraries are pretty good at carrying them, too.  If you’ve never read her books, I’d start with The Ivy Tree (the first one I ever read –it had me in its thrall for an entire weekend) or Nine Coaches Waiting or This Rough Magic.  And if you’ve never read her books, let me also say this: I envy you, because I wish I could discover them all over again.

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2.  The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins.   Collins was a hugely popular Victorian novelist who wrote lots of classics in the mystery genre, including The Woman in White and The Moonstone (both excellent).   Last summer I re-read The Dead Secret, and loved its marvelous spine-tingliness.  Think old crumbling English estates, carriages and crinolines, assorted characters of a variety of social classes who harbor potentially earth-blowing secrets, and you’ve got Collins.   He was a master of the suspenseful scene, too, so be warned: you’ll have a hard time stopping to make dinner.

 

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3.   If you’ve never read Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, stop reading this blog and go get a copy.  (And line up a babysitter for the next two days.)  It’s the reigning queen of romantic suspense, and for good reason.  DuMaurier evokes a sense of place so perfectly; you really feel you’re there at this grand old coastal estate in Cornwall.  The book is also a brilliant example of perfectly-pitched first person narration.   And then there’s the wonderfully creepy Mrs. Danvers … aw, seriously, just read it now.  (And the Hitchcock movie, good as it is, simply  isn’t a substitute for the real thing.)

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4.  Anya Seton wrote a whole slew of historical novels, many of which I’ve read, and her books are marvelous at immersing you in a different time and place.  For overall impact, I’d start with her book Katherine; for Gothic suspense, go with Dragonwyck.   Either way, you can count on rich historical detail and descriptions that make your current reality recede for a bit.

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5.  I have the uncomfortable feeling that if I admit to having read and liked some Victoria Holt novels, my college will come and take back my English degree.   But hey: I have, and I did.   Sure, they are not “great literature,” but they will keep you turning pages, and if you like stories set in big rambling English estates and featuring brooding Byronic men and all kinds of creepy happenings, check out  Bride of Pendorric or The Mistress of Mellyn.

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6.  Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of those books that was oh-so-scandalous back when it was first published back in 1862.  (In fact, I first heard of it as a child in the book Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown, when it is mentioned as one of those racy novels that Betsy and Tacy know their parents don’t want them to read.)   From a modern perspective, it’s hardly going to offend anyone, and it’s a darn good story too.  It’s very similar to Wilkie Collins, and I can’t say much more without giving away spoilers.  Fun and then some.

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7.  Kate Morton is the modern successor to all the writers above, and she’s great at spinning a compelling and mysterious plot.  I’ve read all four of her novels, and loved The Forgotten Garden and The Secret-Keeper in particular.

I’m sure other titles will occur to me later, but this is a good first pass.   So what’s your favorite unputdownable novel?  I’m always looking for suggestions!