Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Summer Reading: Kids, vacations, musicals

One of the best parts of summer is having more time to read. It’s never enough time, but it’s something.  Here, in no particular order, are some of my summer book highlights.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy is an utter delight for anyone who loves kids’ books. Goodnight, Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Seuss, the Beverly Clearly classics: all of them are discussed with wit and soul. I learned a great deal about these books and their authors, but what I loved most was the chance to revisit these great stories from a new perspective. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, too, such as when Handy writes about the absentee mom in The Cat and the Hat (who, you might recall, goes out and leaves her kids ALONE for hours) and observes that her house will likely be the one that all of the high school kids go to to smoke pot someday.

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. I re-read the Emily of New Moon books recently, and ensuing conversations with a friend (thank you, Viki!) made me think that I just might give this one a try, too, even though I haven’t read most of the Anne books that precede it. It was so enjoyable: the setting was lovely (as expected with Prince Edward Island!) and Rilla is a charming heroine who goes on a believable journey of maturation over the course of the book. What was most fascinating was reading about World War I from the perspective of the families waiting at home. There are a lot of “home front” books about WWII, but not about the Great War, so that was a valuable perspective and one I won’t forget.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sheriff is British novel from the thirties about a family vacation to the seaside. It’s one of those books that is impossible to summarize because “nothing happens” — it’s not a plot-driven story, but a character-driven one, and yet somehow it was unputdownable. I love it when authors can recreate the little details of daily life so faithfully and insightfully.  And the family in the book are at their core such empathetic people that I ended up loving them. There are so many moments in life when we can choose selfishness or kindness, and this family chooses kindness; it was very moving, and inspiring.

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is not a recent read, but I haven’t yet blogged about it, so here we go. I was familiar with the author from her historical classic Mara, Daughter of the Nile, which I’ve read I don’t know how many times since I was a tween (and if you’ve never read it, GO READ IT NOW).  Greensleeves, written in 1968, is technically a young adult novel — it’s about a young girl after high school, trying to figure out who she is while assuming another identity for purposes of exploring what might be a con game — but it’s sophisticated, nuanced, and so well-written. It’s also one of the first young adult novels I’ve read to address the fact that you can be totally physically attracted to someone who you don’t even like, which is a pretty confusing thing to navigate when you’re eighteen. But the book is lots more besides: funny, insightful, moving.

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum. I’m a major R & H junkie, so I  picked this up thinking it would be a great way to revisit some of my all-time favorite musicals. And it was that, but it was more besides. I was utterly fascinated to read about the process of crafting these shows.  We see them in their finished glory, but the author talks about the creative process that went into making these shows — sometimes R &H had to scrap entire musical numbers that just didn’t end up working, or had to restructure acts or scenes for maximum impact. It’s a helpful reminder that creativity is messy. But wow: it can sure result in something wonderful.

Oh, and bonus anecdote: in July we were going through some of my late mother-in-law’s things. We found piles of Broadway playbills from shows she saw in the fifties and sixties. She saw the original casts of R &H shows like Flower Drum Song and Pipe Dream (their only real flop), along with Bye Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game, and others!  How I wish I’d had the chance to ask her about those experiences.

What have you been reading (and loving) lately?

Sorry, Anne of Green Gables fans: Here’s Why I Prefer Emily of New Moon

I’ve been on a real L.M. Montgomery kick lately.  Immersing myself in the world of Prince Edward Island is a pretty nice way to usher in the summer.

And as I re-read old favorites and dive into new titles, I find myself consciously acknowledging something I’ve suspected for a long time.  It’s an inconvenient truth, one that I think verges on blasphemy to many of her fans.

I have realized that I like Emily of New Moon more than I like Anne of Green Gables.

If you haven’t read the Emily books, you’re missing out.  There are three of them, starting with Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923.  They start when Emily is a young child, dealing with the death of her beloved father (which happens almost immediately in the story) and adjusting to the experience of being taken in by her late mother’s family.  She has two maiden aunts named  Elizabeth and Laura, a martinet and a sweetheart, respectively.  They share a home with Cousin Jimmy, a middle-aged man with a child’s spirit, a developmental quirk which is widely attributed to the fact that he fell into a well as a child…or was he pushed? (Anyhow, remember that about the well.  Wells play a surprisingly sinister role in this book.)  Emily immediately falls in love with their beautiful old Prince Edward Island farmhouse of New Moon, with its gardens and orchards and fields and family lore.  She suffers the typical growing pains of any sensitive child: loses a fake friend, makes a close friend, makes mistakes, deals with the inflexibility of the adult world and its often irrational demands, and reaches womanhood in the subsequent books, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest.

I first came upon these books in sixth grade.  It’s perhaps a sign of their influence on my life that I can still vividly recall the mall bookstore (long since vanished) where I bought Emily of New Moon, and I can remember that I started reading it in the car on the ride home, and didn’t look up until about half an hour later when we pulled into our driveway.

I love it when that happens.

Not too long after that, the Anne of Green Gables miniseries was first broadcast on TV.   I taped it (back in the days of VHS tapes!) and watched it countless times and adored it.  Likewise, I loved the sequel, Anne of Avonlea, which was broadcast a few years later.  And I read the book Anne of Green Gables, too, and found it just as charming as the TV series.

But I have to say, looking back, I haven’t returned to Anne too often.  I’ve read Anne of Green Gables maybe three times over the past thirty-plus years.  The Emily books?  I’ve read them at least ten times, by my best reckoning.  That tells me something.  It’s clear that when it comes to Montgomery heroines, Emily has an appeal for me that Anne somehow can’t quite match.

There are a few reasons for this.  I’ll try to explain them here in such a way that I don’t spoil anything in the Emily trilogy for those of you who have yet to read them.

1) Emily has dark hair, like mine.  I know that sounds pretty shallow, so hear me out.  I grew up in the seventies and early eighties, long before the Disney Beauty and the Beast, with its refreshingly brunette heroine.  In my childhood, every Disney fairytale heroine had blonde hair (except Snow White, but I mean, who can like Snow White?), and all throughout my tender years I was hungry for a heroine who looked like me.  If redheads can identify with Anne, I can identify with Emily, and identify I did.

Montgomery constantly writes about Emily’s appearance: her dark hair, her violet eyes, her slightly pointed ears, her tall, queenly bearing.  I have only one of these four traits, but it was enough. And unlike the Little House on the Prairie books, where we are told ad nauseum that Laura’s brown hair is really ugly compared to Mary’s blonde curls, the Emily books make dark hair part of the heroine’s unconventional, mysterious beauty.  That’s affirming for a kid.  And an adult, too.

2) Emily is a writer.  Anne is too, I know, but in Emily, it runs deep.  There’s a part in the second book where her pragmatic aunt Elizabeth, who wants to cure Emily of her scribbling habit, offers her a chance to pursue her education as long as she promises to stop writing.  Emily doesn’t even need to think about it; she immediately turns the offer down.  Writing is so much a part of her that she literally can’t give it up, not even for something she longs to do.  I can relate.

3) Emily is an introvert.  She has some close friends and is fiercely connected to her family, but she spends a great deal of time alone: wandering in the woods, thinking, pondering, and – delightfully – writing. My favorite parts of all three books are the journal entries that she writes, where she processes her feelings alone.  Anne, with her delightful garrulousness, makes a charming heroine and would be, I imagine, a fun person to hang out with (more fun than Emily, maybe).  But as an introvert myself – something that was even more pronounced when I was a child – it’s gratifying to see a heroine who is fascinating even though she isn’t the life of the party.

4) The Emily books have a certain intensity and darkness to them.  Not that the Anne books are all sunshine and rainbows (sniff*Matthew*sniff), but the Emily books venture a little further into topics that are not comfortable.  There is a mysticism to Emily as a character that is fascinating and, at times, a little unsettling (for her as well as the reader).  In the third book, she ends up in what we today might call a toxic relationship – all the more unsettling because it is in some ways an affirming friendship that gets warped into something that the astute reader can tell is not going to end well for her.  It’s a far cry from Anne and Gilbert.  And though I like sunny happy stories as well as the next girl, there is something in the Emily trilogy that has always struck me as being more … substantial.  More like real life, maybe.

I should add that there are things about the Emily books I don’t like.  The character of Dean Priest is one that absolutely NO editor would allow in a child’s book today; there are troubling aspects to him that escaped me as a tween but make me blanch as an adult.  I also think the third book, Emily’s Quest, is not entirely successful as a finish to the series.

And I should come clean and admit that, if we’re talking about series, I’ve never read past the third book in the Anne of Green Gables series.  I’ve tried, more than once in fact, but I always get bored and abandon it.  I used to feel bad about this, but then I read Nancy McCabe’s book From Little Houses to Little Women and realized why I don’t keep reading: Anne grows more conventional as she ages, and therefore less interesting as a character.  The conflicts become less about her struggles to define herself against a society that doesn’t understand her, and more about her involvement in the lives of the people she knows.  Emily, by contrast, is always the center of struggle in her books.  Though she does grow and change throughout the books, her fascinating self – creative, mystical, a little prickly, stubborn – remains mostly intact throughout the series.  I’d rather read about her inner life than about Davy and Dora.

So I remain resolute in my affinity for Emily over Anne.  Maybe you agree, or maybe you disagree; either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  But though Anne may be, as Mark Twain once said, “the dearest, most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice,” I get something from Emily that I don’t get from Anne.  And even at age forty-five, it keeps me coming back.

An Interview with Kate Wicker, author of “Getting Past Perfect”

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I’ve read a lot of books about motherhood and spirituality, and I have to say that the new book Getting Past Perfect: How to Find Joy and Grace in the Messiness of Motherhood  by Kate Wicker is in my top three.   It’s that good.

What I love about this book is how real Kate is.  Just as the title says, she wrote this book to help moms get past the pressure that we can feel about, well, every aspect of motherhood.  As a recovering perfectionist, Kate knows what she’s talking about, and she writes with honesty, humor, and the wisdom that comes from experience.

So it’s a pleasure to share my interview with Kate.  And if you like what you read here, by all means check out her book.

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Give a little snapshot of what the book is all about.

As I grew into my mothering shoes and faced my share of joys and challenges as a mom, I felt called to write a book of this nature – one that would encourage parents differently than a lot of standard mom books do. I had personally read through stacks of parenting books – many with gurus telling me to do this or don’t do this to be a happier, better mom, and others that emphasized what a worthy calling motherhood is Yet, what I craved as a mom was a book that didn’t tell me how to be a better mom or one that told me how important motherhood is (which I already knew – duh) but rather a book that presented an encouraging yet honest view of motherhood and all the fears that come along with it.

 Moms want to know they’re not alone – that there are other moms out there who struggle, who sometimes find their kids ridiculously annoying, who grapple with things like feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and fears. I wanted to create a book that reassured moms they weren’t the only ones who sometimes didn’t love every minute of motherhood or who didn’t feel like they lived up to what we already know is a worthy calling.

Just as my previous book Weightless sought to free women from being slaves to food, scales, unrealistic beauty standards, and unhealthy body image, I felt a real calling to help moms from all walks of life to overcome Pinterest-perfectionism by replacing their deepest fears and anxieties with an unwavering trust in God and the freedom to love and mother their children authentically – and imperfectly.

 Why do you think we moms tend to be so hard on ourselves?

First off, social media definitely plays a big role in promoting perfectionism. Our social media feeds are frequently filled with moms who craft or piece together chic fashion ensembles, cook gourmet meals, and then run half marathons in their spare time. We used to only being comparing ourselves to those women in our immediate circles. Now the grass doesn’t only seem greener in the neighbor’s yard but in thousands of strangers’ “yards,” too. Truth is, the only grass that’s really greener is God’s grass. What does He want from us? It’s a question we should ask ourselves each and every day.

 Another factor is that as American women today, we’re blessed to have so many freedoms and choices. But with these choices comes the pressure to juggle multiple balls in the air all at once – to be a great mom, a humanitarian, career woman, etc. Instead of liberating us, we feel a crushing sense of pressure to do it all at once, which is not humanly possible. I really encourage moms to recognize that we may be able to do it “all” (if that’s what God wants of us and what we want of ourselves), but we won’t be able to do it ALL at the SAME TIME. There’s a season for everything.

 Also, without making too sweeping of generalizations, I think many women are just programmed to be people-pleasers. Perfectionism is rooted in a need for affirmation and approval from others. It’s not the same thing as striving for excellence or balanced self-improvement. Brene Brown, the author of The Gifts of Imperfection – which, by the way, not one but three friends bought me copies of if that tells you something about me– says that perfectionism is other-focused whereas healthy striving is self-focused. Women, because we have an innate desire to please and minister to others, too often fall into the trap of trying to do good and be good in order to win the approval of others or even to earn a spot in Heaven. But God’s approval is what we want and His grace and love is not earned. It is given freely and unconditionally.

 What’s one thing in your parenting life that you used to feel guilty about, but don’t anymore? What helped you get past the guilt?

 Several years ago I decided – after much agonizing and discernment – to send my children to our local parochial school after eight years of homeschooling. I had so much guilt over this decision. I spent many sleepless nights wondering why I couldn’t pull myself together and homeschool like so many other moms I admired were able to do. My husband was a rock (as he frequently is) during this difficult time and encouraged me to stop beating myself up and to just focus on what’s best for our family.

 Still, I suffered from awful anxiety for the first year my kids were in school, wondering if we’d made the right choice while feeling like a big failure. I missed certain aspects of homeschooling as well (reading lots of books together, staying in our PJs all day), but I began to slowly see that sending my older two children to school was the right decision for us at that time.

 I open up in Getting Past Perfect about a severe bout of clinical depression. This was something only my husband and a few very close friends knew about before the book was published. I even had to warn my mom (whom I’m very close to) about how it might be painful to read since she didn’t know the extent that I was suffering. As the roar of depression grew progressively louder, I knew it was time to make some changes, which included quitting homeschooling everyone. Still, I felt weak and experienced shame about a mental illness I had no control over. I had previously submersed myself into the Catholic blogging world where so many moms of many children seemed to effortlessly homeschool. Some of them even briefly mentioned depression and how they overcame it, and here I was unable to cope. My husband encouraged me to stop blogging for awhile and also to just shut out all aspects of social media (he’s rather a social media recluse and definitely reaps benefits from being off the Facebook, etc. grid). There wasn’t anything wrong with what other moms were posting, but they made me feel like an outsider who had failed to be as “Catholic” and as “holy” as they were.

 It was a difficult time. I would cry after I dropped my kids off at school. At the same time, I was dealing with some chronic pain issues and I just felt so useless. The guilt was intense for about a year after “failing” as a homeschooling mom. But slowly I began to see how my kids were thriving, how I was getting the help I needed and emerging from the darkness. I was becoming a more joyful mother once again. I finally could return to social media and celebrate other moms’ homeschooling or other happy moments without suffering pangs of regret, guilt, or even envy. This experience gave me the final impetus I needed to write Getting Past Perfect in order to help moms realize that they have to “keep their eyes on their own work” and pay attention to God’s calling for them.

 Within Christian mothering circles, I’ve witnessed a temptation to moralize certain aspects of parenting such as homeschooling or even breastfeeding and then when moms struggle, they don’t just feel sad or guilty, they feel morally inferior. I have a friend who desperately tried to nurse her first two babies, but they howled out of hunger because she just wasn’t producing enough milk. She sought help through lactation consultants and other nursing moms, but she just couldn’t make the milk her babies needed. Finally, she stopped nursing but not without shame and guilt. She told me she would hide the formula behind other groceries at the store. With her third baby, she had no problem with milk supply and that’s when she finally realized her inability to nurse was not her fault. It was no indication of her worth as a mom or as a Christian. These kind of stories must be shared. We must build one another up. Enough of the shame and mom-guilt.

 On a far lighter note, I used to feel guilty about not wanting to create elaborate crafts with my kids, but hands sticky with glue and big messes give me the hives so I’m totally over that. We’ll go play outside or just color together, and that’s absolutely fine by me (and by my children!).

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Kate and her family

I love how you write, “Children don’t just want mothers who are excited to have them in their lives; they want and benefit from having moms who are excited about their own lives. Don’t our children deserve to witness us using our gifts and doing what we do best?” Say more about that. How might you encourage a mom to develop her own gifts?

 I had an a-ha! moment when I was invited to a “Meet the Author” event for my first book at my children’s school. There was a reception in my honor, which I honestly felt rather sheepish about, and one of my daughter’s teachers came up to me and told me how proud Madeline was of me and my writing and how she talked about “my mom, the writer.” Another child of mine always talks about how she wants to major in journalism (and marine biology and creative writing and maybe be an animal trainer) and be a writer like her mommy. I realized my girls were watching what I did with my gifts and passions and wanted to do the same some day. This was a big turning point for me. I’d actually been discerning writing another book (which ultimately ended up being Getting Past Perfect), but I thought it wouldn’t be fair to my children. I realized at that moment, though, that my children need to see me using my gifts and talents. I never have to do anything outside of the wife and mothering realm to prove myself, to seek affirmation, to escape the ennui of domestic drudgery, or because I think that being “just” a mom isn’t enough. However, if I have gifts I am yearning to share or passions that long to be cultivated, then I should do more than just dream about doing it or reserve those things for someday. I’ve learned, too, that you’ll know when something you’re pursuing is united with God’s plan for you. His yoke is light. This doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy, but it will get done and you’ll feel at peace with what you’re doing.

 In Getting Past Perfect, I encourage moms to realize that that while mothering is a sublime vocation, it’s actually not the highest calling pressed upon their lives. Being a daughter of God is, and our relationship with him and others can’t become obsolete once we become mothers.

 We can’t make our only identity MOTHER SHIP because the mother ship will lose its direction once the kids are gone. Secular society warns women against losing their identity in their children, but our children aren’t the real identity thefts. They’re the blessings, not soul-sucking leeches. The real identity thief isn’t the children themselves but how we may start to view motherhood. If it’s your end-all, then you better believe it’s going to rob you of some of your self. But if it’s a mighty calling but not the only calling pressed upon you, you will not become a “non-person.” You were God’s daughter first, and you’ll always be His beloved. That won’t ever change no matter what season of life you find yourself in.

 God invites us to lose ourselves in Christ’s life, not in our children’s lives

 Tell us about your greatest parenting challenge. What have you learned from it?

 Oh, I’ve had so many parenting challenges that I’ve learned from, but one of the first tough lessons I was forced to learn had to do with potty training. My oldest daughter – who, yes, has given me permission to openly share about her bowel woes – refused to poop on the potty once she was out of diapers. The pediatrician we were seeing at the time recommended I put her on a daily adult dosage of Miralax and then have regular potty time throughout the day. “She won’t be able to hold it in,” the doctor reassured me.

 Clearly, this “expert” did not know my spirited child. My tenacious daughter held her poop in for 15 days despite our regular potty time and her Miralax consumption. My efforts as a poop doula had utterly failed, and I realized I was not in control – over my child’s bowel movements or much of anything else. And the more I tried to be the one in charge, the more stressed, disillusioned, and frustrated I became. It was time to turn to God and rely on Him for grace in everything from potty training to bigger things.

 This season also reminded me to always hold close the mantra “this too shall pass.” I’m happy to report that my 12-year-old regularly takes care of her business these days and that same tenacity that used to drive me bezerk when she wouldn’t poop or sleep now shines through when she stands up for a classmate or when she plays with her a big, unstoppable heart for her school’s sports teams.

 Who are your role models of women who have learned to “get past perfect”?

 My mom is one of my greatest “getting past perfect” role models. She has taught me so much about relinquishing control, loving God, and not blaming yourself or your mothering for anything that happens to go wrong. My older brother suffered from a drug addiction, and she admits that for too long she blamed herself and asked what she could have done differently. But God has helped to reveal to her that her children – and all of our children were not created to fulfill her will or even their own wills – but His will. We can do everything “right,” and they may stumble, leave the Church, face addiction, and hurt others, themselves, or us. As mothers, we never give up on our children, but sometimes we do have to give them up to God just as St. Monica did with St. Augustine. My mom says she did the best she could and that she loves all of her children dearly and relies on God’s mercy and grace to make up for anything she lacked. That’s all any of us can do.

A huge thank you to Kate for sharing her wisdom here … and, of course, in the book.  Getting Past Perfect is available from Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, and from Ave Maria Press.  You can find out more about Kate on her blog KateWicker.com.

The vulnerability of being a parent

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“It was a few months after the birth of Matthew that I kept thinking of a well-known quotation from Elizabeth Stone, one I’d heard years before becoming a mom: ‘Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.’ Bingo, I thought as I toted Matthew around in his infant seat.  That’s exactly how it feels.  Matthew is outside of me now, in that big scary world, and that is a very vulnerable place for a heart to be.

One day I thought back to those pictures of Mary’s immaculate heart.  For the first time ever, that image made perfect sense to me.  Like me, Mary was a mom.  Like me, she had a beloved child who was out there in the world, where any number of things could assail him.  Like me, she must have felt as though the dearest, most vital part of her — her very heart — was exposed and vulnerable.

Once I made that connection, I could no longer dismiss those images as creepy or perplexing.  I realized they were, in fact, a perfect way of showing how visceral this maternal-love thing really is.  It’s not just something you feel in your head or in your soul.  It’s in your very organs, in every cell of your body, in the mechanisms that make you tick. Like any other mom, Mary felt that love, in all its exhilarating and terrifying depth.”

— from Random MOMents of Grace: Experiencing God in the Adventures of Motherhood (Loyola Press, 2013)

 

Angels in words, pictures, and music

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Along with Santas, elves, and reindeer, angels make a big appearance this time of year.  And yet unlike many of the other characters associated with the holidays, angels aren’t Christmas-specific.  In fact, as a new book points out, they  are fascinating beings whose presence in the Bible can point us toward a fuller understanding of God’s work.

All God’s Angels: Loving and Learning from Angelic Messengers (Paraclete Press)  is one of the loveliest books to cross my path this year.  Each short chapter focuses on an angel story from the Bible, everything from Genesis to Revelation.  In pithy, wise reflections, author Martin Shannon meditates on each story and what it reveals about angels, about God, and — ultimately — about our human selves.  I love the approach; I’ve never before read these Bible stories and thought about the angels as anything other than peripheral figures, so I found the new perspective fascinating.

Each chapter is illustrated by a colorful reproduction of a work of art, everything from a Byzantine mosaic of the angel guarding Eden to Eugene Delacroix’s famous picture of Jacob wrestling the angel.

Delacroix's classic image

Delacroix’s classic image

These pictures are powerful complements to the chapters, particularly because Shannon also comments on the artwork, pointing out little details that help emphasize the mood and meaning of the story.

Between the words and the art, this book is a glorious celebration of these mysterious beings who end up on our Christmas trees and coffee mugs but whose history and involvement in salvation is so much more rich than it seems.  It’s a lovely, inspiring little book and would be a great Christmas gift for anyone looking for a dose of inspiration.

And if you want to fully immerse yourself in all things angelic, read the book to the strains of this lovely song.  It’s one of my favorite carols of all time, courtesy of John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers.

Enjoy!