Books of 2017

Turns out I read a little more last year than I’d thought. Guess all those 40-60 minute “I’ll just read one more chapter” nights added up.

booksAs much for my own sake as anyone’s, here’s a round-up of 2017’s good reads (in alphabetical order), along with a short quote from several (a handful of books just didn’t warrant this list).

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus revolutionized the cosmos, by Dava Sobel

The story of dear old Copernicus, who had the gall to state that the sun was the center of our cosmos, not the Earth. I completely blame my 10-year-old for my even having interest in books like this. Well-written, not quite as thorough as her bestselling Longitude (about the search for accuracy in longitude), a little bit of creative, salacious, dramatic speculation included.

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, hope, and a restaurant in Rwanda, by Josh Ruxin

In telling the story of this restaurant, A Thousand Hills to Heaven dishes out plates full of wise and insightful nuggets about aid, development, horror, heroism, healing, and hope. Even when I thought I might put it down and not pick it back up again, I found myself returning to the book like I open newsletters from friends on the mission field.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery, by Eric Metaxas

Outstanding biography of this too-little-known hero of the faith, and basis of the movie “Amazing Grace.” Metaxas weaves detail and meticulous research into a well-paced, creative narrative. Highly recommend if you like biography, and even if you don’t.

“The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.”

Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

My first read of a Gladwell book; won’t be my last. Love well-researched social scientists who can teach significant paradigm shifts through thorough and engaging story.

“A commander does not need to know the barometric pressure or the winds or even the temperature. He needs to know the forecast. If you get too caught up in the production of information, you drown in the data.”

The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan

A sweet, easy, entertaining read: Nina takes the plunge, drops the library job, converts an old bus to a mobile bookstore, and sets up shop in, of all places, Scotland. Antics and epiphanies and rural romances follow.

“There was a universe inside every human being every bit as big as the universe outside them. Books were the best way Nina knew – apart from, sometimes, music – to breach the barrier, to connect the internal universe with the external, the words acting merely as a conduit between the two worlds.”

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I’m usually averse to memoirs by celebrities, because I don’t find their lives any more riveting than the next person’s, but this was a really good one. Funny, insightful, poignant, well-written story of growing up the son of an African and a Swede (“born a crime”) in the last days of apartheid in South Africa. So good I have three pages of quotes. Here’s just one:

“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown

Love me some Brene! (Daring Greatly has pride of place on the mantel above the fireplace, like where you’d put the Oscar statue.) I’ve gotten to where I don’t want to read somebody’s opinions; give me solid research, solid data. And Brene delivers. Plus she’s snarky, shoots straight, encouraging, and above all kind. Which, as it turns out, is just about the most important trait in the world to me.

“Not enough of us know how to sit in pain with others. Worse, our discomfort shows up in ways that can hurt people and reinforce their own isolation. I have started to believe that crying with strangers in person could save the world.”

Brookwood Road: Memories of a home, by Scott Vaughan

A memoir by a friend. Norman Rockwell, meet Jerry Clower. Reading Brookwood Road is like the catching up that happens at a wedding or funeral, after all the guests have left and all the family is sitting around with ties loosened and heels off and the leftovers long left on the kitchen counter. It’s comfortable, familiar, funny, poignant, filled with both laughter and easy silence.

Heaven in the Real World, Steven Curtis Chapman

What it sounds like: Chapman’s autobiography. A good read, a little long, and also inspiring. The man has been pointing millions to Jesus through his music for nearly 30 years, and still somehow has remained clean and above the fray of contemporary Christian music; that alone inspires my respect.

If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? (My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating), by Alan Alda

Alan Alda is a communications research expert? Who knew??? Could not get his voice out of my head as I read this, which made his humor throughout the book even better. A good read.

Is God a Mathematician?, by Mario Livio

I have NEVER read a book like this without compulsion (re: as an assignment). Apparently I’m turning into an ever greater nerd than I had realized.

This book is mostly accessible to a general, albeit adult, readership. Livio does not in fact really address the title of his book. He does address various philosophical aspects of mathematics, primarily the question of whether math is “discovered” or “invented” – a dichotomy that appears to have been a vexing question for centuries. And, like many academicians, he settles firmly….somewhere in the middle.

Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh

A novel of 18-year-old Rachel, who returns home to Africa after six years of exile in an English boarding school following the sudden death of her mother. It’s 1950. Rachel’s father has a new woman in her mother’s place. And Kenya is in its genesis days of the fight for independence from England.

A very well-written, enjoyable read.

My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith

A one-off (not in a series) by one of my favourite (yes, with a “u”) authors. Entertaining, wry, witty, poignant without a touch of sentimentality, keenly observant and borderline happily cynical of human nature.

Paul Stuart’s girlfriend has left him. To soften the fallout, he goes to Tuscany for a month to finish his latest book. A series of unexpected events puts him at the wheel of a bulldozer, then in the company of a charming American woman, and a quaint crew of locals. Classic McCall Smith.

Not the Religious Type: confessions of a turncoat atheist, by Dave Schmelzer

An atheist-turned-pastor offers a non-angry apologetic for the Christian faith. Refreshing! And a really good read.

“…the religious response to modernity has felt so unsatisfying for so many. It puts faith into the category of ‘being right’ about something, about proving or disproving something. And as we’ve said, being right has fewer rewards than we might have supposed.”

Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton

Re-read this this year, with a friend, which made it way more fun. Chesterton is an absolute master at snark, wit, lyrical prose, and extraordinary philosophical, intellectual, & theological depth. This book, a well-deserved classic of Christian theology, is as rich and dense as a chocolate torte, and this time around I digested it right: slowly, deliberately, in the company of a friend.

“Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves.”

 The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, by Larry Alex Taunton

Provocative title, considering Christopher Hitchens was one of the bad hombres known as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism. But apparently Christian apologist Taunton was friends with Hitchens, and offers this well-written, engaging, lively, and above all very personal biography of Hitchens. He shares a brief background of Hitchens’ journey to atheism, his change of at least some major thinking following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and especially their growing, deepening friendship – a thing that left Hitchens’ comrades in utter disbelief and dismay.

Did Hitchens go to meet his Maker a believer, or did he stand firm to the end in his disbelief? (Well I’m certainly not giving the book away.)

The Life & Times of Persimmon Wilson, by Nancy Peacock

Hands-down the best novel I read all year. The story of the life of one enslaved yet literate Persimmon Wilson, from antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation to post-Civil War Texas and life as a black Comanche warrior. Outstanding writing, historical accuracy, rich, nuanced, morally complex characters, a perfect blend of reflection and action throughout the plot.

“When we docked at New Orleans we were loaded off the ship and chained at the ankles. The air smelt of fried fish and was thick and heavy, like something that needed to be spooned instead of breathed.”

Why Won’t You Apologize?, by Harriet Lerner

Like many self-help titles, Why Won’t You Apologize is full of truths we already know but forget, or wish weren’t true, or just don’t feel like dealing with. But it articulates them in fresh, relatable, easily readable stories and counsel.

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened well to the hurt party’s anger and pain.”


Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 4:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Leopard at the Door

Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh

A Review

Reading a novel of eastern Africa is different after you’ve been to eastern Africa. Of course that’s obvious, but that doesn’t mean it was any less startling to me, these lines:

“…The smell of a city whose people live life outdoors under hot sun” – and I can smell it, too, the cooking fires of Rwanda.

“…This other side of Kenya: a raw physicality that has no shame in the inevitability of pain.” Yes. No whitewashing of life’s harshness like the too-feel-good culture of America.

I can see this, too: “Two Africans are dragging branches across the lawn, building fires in the pits that sit beyond the veranda. From the window I can see the last of the sun’s light, reflecting like flames on the surface of the dam. A line of white birds flutters over the golden waters.” I can see those flames, those pits, that sun and those birds.

Leopard at the Door is the story of 18-year-old Rachel, who returns home to Africa after six years of exiled in an English boarding school following the sudden death of her mother. It’s 1950. Rachel’s father has a new woman in her mother’s place. Kenya is in its genesis days of the fight for independence from England. The lines between whites and Africans, master and servant, ally and enemy, are drawn ever clearer and often in blood, while Rachel is grieving, confused, harassed, and, inconveniently, falling in love.

McVeigh’s descriptions of the land and culture are transporting; her pace of alternate action and setting are impeccable; her characters are for the most part believable and complex; and the story is well grounded in historical fact and research. Above all – as is needed for any story to work – Young Rachel drew me into her world from the first page, and I was breathless to reach the last page.

A very good read. Highly recommend.leopard at the door




Notable passages:

“I haven’t been in the presence of someone like this before. It is as though all the people I have known up until now have been like toy soldiers with their feet set apart on a lead base, and he is real; in movement; on a course that I am compelled to follow.

“‘Authority is not a substitute for truth.’” – p. 101

“‘It wouldn’t suit him for a minute to admit that it might be a political movement, the inevitable economic hangover of British rule in Kenya, land hunger, a rootless proletariat, and a government build on discrimination. We have seen these things the world over and there are still men who look at the fight against injustice and call it savagery.’” – p. 153

How timely. Or, as the cliché goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

“‘Men have legitimate voices, even if they are not sanctioned by your press.’” – p. 230

“Sara [is] peeling an apple with a small knife, so that the skin separates in one long curl…She is still working the little knife. There is something unlikable in her determination to peel the whole apple without breaking the curling strip of shiny green skin.” – p. 238 (Okay, that’s just sharp use of symbolism.)

“‘There is a Kikuyu proverb,’ Michael says. ‘Njita murume. When you knock someone about – if you ask him to call you God, he will do so; but the truth is still that you are not God.’” – p. 302



Published in: on August 2, 2017 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  

A Thousand Hills to Heaven

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, hope, and a restaurant in Rwanda

by Josh Ruxin1000 hills to heaven

a book review

Word to the wise: don’t read books about Rwanda before bed. (It only took me two reads to realize this.) Even if the book isn’t “about” the genocide of 1994, it’s still “about” the genocide. That is, most unfortunately, as much the defining event of modern-day Rwanda as 9/11 is for contemporary America.

Still, A Thousand Hills to Heaven is the most genocide-light book I’ve read yet about this east central African nation, in preparation for my mission trip there in June. (Other reads: Broken Memory and Left to Tell: Finding God in the Midst of the Rwandan Holocaust.) The title is a double entendre – Rwanda’s geography has earned it the nickname “land of a thousand hills,” and Heaven is the name of the restaurant this author and his wife operate in the capital city of Kigali.

It’s a steady, interesting, heartwarming, heartbreaking, insightful, educational read. Josh Ruxin is an accomplished, successful veteran of the development world; his wife Alissa is a wellness expert and coach; both are foodies who’ve managed to birth and maintain a Michelin-star restaurant in a landlocked African capital.

In telling the story of this restaurant, A Thousand Hills to Heaven dishes out plates full of wise and insightful nuggets about aid, development, horror, heroism, healing, and hope. Even when I thought I might put it down and not pick it back up again, I found myself returning to the book like I open newsletters from friends on the mission field.

Some of the nuggets:

  • Josh’s “five finger rules of development”:
    • Rule one (the thumb): people who are starving cannot be asked to do more than eat. Translation: do the hunger relief first, then pursue development.
    • Rule two (the pointer finger): demand high standards where they improve performance and upgrade the institutions that serve people and help them have better lives.
      • “To see poor sanitation in a newborn nursery and to say, ‘Well, we’re not in the U.S., after all, and this is their way,’ is soft bigotry of the worst sort….We should not demand that developing nations find their own Louis Pasteurs and Jonas Salks. Our first charitable instinct should be to share what we know from our own history, and we should share it with confident determination, pushing aside unhealthy and cruel traditions where we find them….To equate [female genital mutilation] with our own culture’s male circumcision…is a failure of critical thinking and true helpfulness.” (p. 123)
      • “The most important reason to demand high performance standards in development work is that you should be able to leave someday…If you give out too many things for free, it is hard to make people feel industrious and entrepreneurial.” (p. 124)
    • Rule three (the middle finger – yes that one): you can’t do successful, sustainable development in hopelessly corrupt countries.
    • Rule four (the ring/wedding finger): we (the developing agencies, etc.) are not here as a lifelong commitment, not married to our programs.
      • “We should ultimately never be the essential party, even though we do have leadership responsibilities at the beginning. The better NGOs would nurture Rwandans to lead their efforts, and they would find ways to make the improvements sustainable, then they would leave.” (p. 174)
    • Rule five (the pinky finger): trust the market as the biggest player, even if the power of the market looks small now.
      • “Never be afraid of the profit model, as it can carry the heaviest load of long-term development. Profit brings sustainability, not to mention dignity.” (p. 202)
    • “Don’t start anything that won’t be sustainable after you leave – and do leave: that is the rule. There were no signs [on our health centers] announcing ‘Brought to you by foreign donors.’ When foreigners stay too long, they become a reason for people to doubt their own abilities. When foreigners come with unsustainable projects, they are often doing it for their own pleasure or as an excuse for fundraising and salaries, not for love.” (p. 175)
    • “Rwandans have a funny relationship with God, which they convey through a story anyone can tell you: ‘God worked very hard for six days creating the heavens and the earth. But on the seventh day, he needed a break, so he picked Rwanda as the place to take a much-needed sleep. God sleeps in Rwanda, then keeps busy at work everywhere else.” (p. 169) The negative takeaway from this is that God only shows up in Rwanda to take a nap, so you can’t count on Him to hear you there. The positive is that Rwanda is so cool and beautiful that naturally God comes here, when he’s not punching the clock, to rest.
    • “Rwanda may have its share of bureaucracy, but it is not a kleptocracy. It’s a place where a good program doesn’t die the death of a thousand bribes, a thousand misallocations, a thousand brothers-in-law who must have a piece of every pie.” (p. 156)
    • “If your town ran out of food, would you want someone from another nation handing out the food, or would you want your longtime neighbor to hand it to you?” (Take that, Operation Christmas Child!) “That way, your dignity would be intact. Your children would see neighbors doing something together to feed their families – they would not see their parents looking like helpless victims.” (p. 109)

And two last quotes, one for laughs:

“There is such a thing, by the way, as an Africanized vehicle. Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and a few other makes come to Africa with big running boards, safari-style cargo racks atop, tougher and higher suspensions, supplemental fuel tanks, and, most visibly, snorkel pipes that come from the engine, up alongside the passenger side of the window. That pipe allows the engine to keep going in waist-deep water, and it allows the engine to stay cleaner, gulping its air a few feet higher up from the surface of the roads, which are often traveled in fast, close, dusty caravans. I think the main reason you see such vehicles, however, is that they look very cool, and many of the charities operating them want badass vehicles pictured in their brochures and websites. Our vehicles were picked up on the cheap, however – no sexy snorkels.” (p. 96)

And this one which feels prophetic:

“When people leave here they perhaps want some sushi and Ben & Jerry’s first, but then they want to continue with meaningful endeavors. You cannot leave Africa and then expect to be satisfied in ordinary living. You will have to continue doing extraordinary things, because you know what can be done in the world, and you know what you are capable of doing, and you know that, wherever you go, many lives will depend on your willingness to exercise your privileges and skills on their behalf.” (p. 207)

Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

“Why won’t you apologize?”

apologize-coverWhy Won’t You Apologize?   by Harriet Lerner

A review

Confession: Half the reason I gave this book a second look is because of the cover shout-out from my sociology heroine Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, one of the best books I’ve ever read. So, authors and would-be authors, take note: the cover endorsement makes a difference.

Like many self-help titles, Why Won’t You Apologize is full of truths we already know but forget, or wish weren’t true, or just don’t feel like dealing with. But it articulates them in fresh, relatable, easily readable stories and counsel.

Lerner, a therapist and “apology researcher” for 20-plus years, discusses what a meaningful apology is and isn’t, how to deliver one even when you’re the wronged party, how to receive one, how to live without one when you need it, and the role of forgiveness.

We all know when someone’s apology is sincere and when it isn’t, even if we can’t articulate why; Lerner breaks it down. She also explains why some people over-apologize and why some won’t apologize under any circumstance. She delves into trickier territory in a chapter about apologizing “under fire” – when you’re being criticized, fairly or not. She then offers tips on apologizing to those “defensive” people.

The last third of the book deals with the topic of forgiveness, and here I had to demur, because our definitions of forgiveness are rather different. Lerner seems to believe that forgiveness is the equivalent of absolution; I do not. I can forgive someone but still hold him or her to consequences. I do this on a regular basis as a parent: I forgive Samuel for the red Sharpie on the piano keys, but he is still going to lose Minecraft privileges! Forgiveness is a gift; it’s trust that must be earned.

Lerner also teaches that forgiveness must be earned. If the wrongdoer does not apologize and change, forgiveness is impossible. But that’s a prison I’m unwilling to call home. I must have a means to get free of the wrongdoer’s hold on my life, and forgiveness is the tool. Forgiveness means I no longer dwell in the wrong done to me.

Lerner takes serious issue with those who tell the victim that he or she has to forgive the wrongdoer, thereby adding pressure and shame to the victim. I concede her point there. While forgiveness is always needed eventually, there is no prescribed timeline or even method for getting there. I would never tell my friends who’ve been abused that “it’s time to forgive now”; that would be unconscionably insensitive. What I will do is pray and be a friend and be a listener, and encourage them in the acts of forgiveness when their hearts are strong enough to start on that path. No whitewashing allowed, only real healing.

Notable passages:

“With my husband, Steve, for example, I like to apologize for exactly my share of the problem – as I calculate it, of course – and I expect him to apologize for his share, also as I calculate it. Needless to say, we don’t always do the same math.” – p. 2

Ouch. Painfully true.

“The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.” – p. 15

“The higher the anxiety in any system, the more individuals are held responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior (‘Apologize to your dad for giving him a headache’) rather than for their own (‘Apologize to your dad for not turning the music down when you knew he had a headache’).” – p. 19

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened well to the hurt party’s anger and pain.” – p. 51

“Say it shorter. If you’re trying to get through to a non-apologizer – or any difficult or defensive person – keep in mind that overtalking on your part will lead to underlistening from the other. This is true whether the offense you’re addressing is large or small.” – p. 76

“We want change but don’t want to change first – a great recipe for relationship failure.” – p. 109

“The best apologies are offered by people who understand that it is important to be oneself, but equally as important to choose the self we want to be.” – p. 125

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 1:37 am  Leave a Comment  

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens,” by Larry Taunton

A review

hitchensFew biographies are bona fide page-turners. This one is. Hitchens had a faith?? Really? Must read….

Confession: I never read the late celebrated atheist’s 2007 bestseller, god Is Not Great, much less his memoir, Hitch-22, which was published three years later.

More significant confession: It’s super-hard for me to pray for the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (bad hombres known as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism). Like, it’s easier for me to pray for the militants of ISIS, because, you know, everybody outside of ISIS knows that ISIS is nuts. Pure-tee evil. They’re horrid, but they’re hardly subtle, and they’re not exactly winning hundreds of thousands to their cause. Whereas these “Four Horsemen” and their ilk use more formidable weapons against the cause of Christ – words, intellectualism (okay, pseudo, usually), bestselling books, debates and lectures to sold-out venues. They swing their sword of militant unbelief at any shadow of faith from any follower of any religion, but they do it behind shields of warped data and philosophical argument and sophisticated debate skills – and this makes them subtly appealing. They sound so….reasonable, often, and therein lies their danger.

And so, I’ve always had a hard time loving these particular enemies (their term for themselves, not mine).

Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s well-written, engaging, lively, and above all very personal biography of Hitchens has turned me completely around. He shares a brief background of Hitchens’ journey to atheism, his change of at least some major thinking following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and especially their growing, deepening friendship – a thing that left Hitchens’ comrades in utter disbelief and dismay.

Here is a reminder that the “evangelical” part of my evangelical faith is about sharing my personal relationship with Jesus through a personal relationship.

People matter. Even arrogant atheists. Before reading this book, I’d give easy lip service to this sentiment. Now, I mean it. Even the “Four Horsemen” are, at the end of every day, still human. Still important to God. Still able to be redeemed, however far gone from him they are, however many people they have led from him.

I found myself genuinely caring for Christopher Hitchens, Public Enemy Number One to Christians for decades…because Larry Taunton genuinely cared for him. Despite Hitchens’ arrogance, despite Hitchens’ public persona of unfiltered hatred for people of faith.

This book was a reminder to me that it always comes down to the person – the one sitting across the table from you with “enough Johnny Walker for a battalion,” the one who knows his diagnosis of esophageal cancer is “a death sentence,” the one who, after a lifetime of bashing believers, answers the question, “Believest thou this?” (re: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life) with, “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”

I found myself cheering inside for this man I’d previously found it difficult even to lift up a cursory prayer for.

Thank you, Larry Taunton, for making at least this one atheistic horseman human to me again. I needed the reminder, and it will hopefully stick with me and inform my current and future relationships with those who most assuredly do not believe.

A few noteworthy passages:

“Atheism does nothing to restrain our darker impulses. It does everything to exacerbate them…One is reminded of novelist Evelyn Waugh’s famous quip, made in response to someone pointing out his all-too-obvious faults, ‘You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.’” – p. 64

“[Hitchens] found himself liking evangelicals. they were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterward. That’s what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped in the warmth of ‘the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality.’ Declared Hitchens, ‘I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.’” – p. 88

Ouch on the waffles! Score one for the sincerely convicted!

“I cannot count the number of times that people have given me a note to pass on to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens thinking that their argument would surely be the one to overcome their unbelief. The arrogance of this is astonishing. More than arrogant, however, this is also bad theology because it fails to understand the workings of the Holy Spirit and God’s sovereign role in salvation. It reduces evangelism to cheap Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People techniques. ‘It does not depend on us that [the Gospel] be believed,’ wrote the late theologian Etienne Gilson, ‘but there is very much we can do toward making it respected.’ Indeed.” – p. 132

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” on Amazon

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 2:25 am  Leave a Comment  

“The Gift of Failure”

The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

A review

Last April during spring break I took the kids to Sesquicentennial State Park to spend the afternoon – feeding ducks & geese, climbing trees, playing on the playground, having a picnic followed by an Easter egg hunt…and some paddle boating on the quiet lake.

We got in the boat, I installed one child at each pedal, I sat on the back bench, and then I was hands off and the kids were instruction free.

I told them nothing – not how to pedal, or how to use the “steering wheel,” or where to paddle us, or how to go backwards, or how fast or slow to go. I didn’t even make suggestions. I just sat there and let them figure it all out. I mean, it was a paddle boat, people, and my children were wearing life jackets – the risks were pretty darn low.

Why not let them figure out how to maneuver a paddle boat? It isn’t rocket science and there aren’t any dangerous parts (unlike a boat with oars or, heavens, a motor).

Why not let them have total control over where we went and how fast or slow we got there? What did I care, really? Why not be content to simply ride and enjoy the sunshine and the water and my beautiful healthy children in such bliss? Why ruin that with helicopter parenting?

And when they disagree, but have not yet come to blows, must I referee? Could I just pay attention and only intercede when truly necessary? Could I keep my mouth shut long enough for them to figure out how to give & take, how to compromise, or how to persuade the other?

I must say, both they and I had a stupendous time on that paddle boat ride. I intervened twice – once because the geese on the island where we’d stopped appeared to be getting feisty and territorial, and a second time when the kids’ disagreement threatened to get physical.

Otherwise, they just explored.

I was consciously following the advice of author Jessica Lahey in this book The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.

Lahey, a middle school teacher, journalist, and parent, submits that modern parents “helicopter parent” at unprecedented levels. The result: stressed out parents raising stressed out kids who lack independence, competence, motivation, and the ability to persevere.

So, she says, “LET. GO.”

Let your children fail while the stakes are only as high as an untied shoelace or a sandbox disagreement. This can create in your children the resilience to overcome higher obstacles like failing to turn in homework or dealing with the “mean girls.” This in turn gives them the ability to persevere through ever more significant challenges: college roommates, ex-boyfriends, job interviews.

She addresses, practically, homework, report cards, social dynamics, sports, and household chores – viewing them all through the lenses of the long-term goal: well-adjusted, capable, independent adults.

It was an excellent read.

And now Samuel (9) and Hannah (7) do their own laundry. Okay, okay, I still measure out the detergent, and do the folding (their folding is of the sort a pupgift-of-failure-coverpy might do).

Some passages I dog-eared:

“Despite the wealth of evidence revealing the folly of these methods [rewards and incentives], we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well….Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.” – p. xix

Well Jesus may not give me a regular performance review, per se, but he definitely qualifies as MY higher authority.

And I would submit that we appropriate our children’s successes or failures as our own because we are a society of adults with an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth. We cannot stand comfortably in our own skin. How our children do is indeed how we do. We are not our own person.

Also, we’re a culture that judges by the externals. And we reward externals, whether they took great character or not. Modern-day parenting is not immune to this.

“History is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventers and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amid the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans….the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.” – p. xxi

I once heard of a female CEO, daughter of Indian immigrants to America, say that every single night at the dinner table her father would ask his children, one by one, to name something they had failed at that day.

A failure, not a success.

His theory was that if you had not failed at trying something, you weren’t trying enough. He wasn’t celebrating failure so much as he was promoting effort and resilience.

“When a teacher moves around the room, praising each kid, ‘Great job! You are so smart!’ the students figure out pretty quickly that someone is being lied to. They know they can’t all be geniuses, and they begin to doubt our honesty – or at the very least, our judgment…The truth I try to impart to every single one of my students is this: it all gets hard eventually, even the stuff you have a talent for.” – pp. 64-65

Yes, Samuel, my little mathematical brain, it will get hard for you too.

So my kids get a lot less help from me these days on things that, honestly, kids their age should know (and things that I have taught them already) – how to tie a shoelace, how to make a PB&J, how to pack their own clothes (last spring they learned the hard way that when Mom says “pack some socks” they should pack some socks – those were cold feet on that camping trip!), how to remember what’s needed at a dance rehearsal or a Cub Scout meeting or a road trip.

I’m always there to kiss boo-boos. But I’m going to stop trying to prevent them all.

Let these failures teach them now, while the stakes are low, in hopes and prayers and practice of competence, motivation, resilience, and grit when the stakes are high.

Lord willing.


Published in: on January 8, 2017 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

a review

Until about five years ago, I could count on one hand – maybe on one finger! – the number of people I knew from the Midwest (unless you count Missouri, which I don’t think you do?). My knowledge of the Midwest was limited to Garrison Keillor (Saturday night) and Packers fans (fall Sunday afternoons). But now, though I live in the Southeast, they seem to be swarming all around me like an invasive species.

kitchens-book-coverBut they’re a pretty neat lot. Some of them are even pretty good friends…so when I saw this title at the library I was more intrigued than I would have been five years ago.

The novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the story of how Eva Thorvald (honestly, how more Midwestern a name could you have??) became the most celebrated and sought-after chef in just about the whole world.

Stradal relates Eva’s development in creative and unique ways. Each chapter is devoted to the tale of how a particular ingredient came to be part of Eva’s palate. She makes at least a cameo appearance in each chapter, but is rarely the focus of it – and yet the story climaxes with a feast that brings all the people and ingredients together in a surprisingly sweet way.

Stradal explores just about every family relationship, Lutheran church suppers and chili cook-offs, deer season and farmer’s markets, high school garage bands and world-class sommeliers, rich and poor – all scattered across the American Midwest from the early 1980s to the foodie culture of today.

Some dog-eared passages:

“When Lars [her father] first held [Eva], his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread, and he would never get it back. When mother and baby were asleep in the hospital room, he went out to the parking lot, sat in his Dodge Omri, and cried like a man who had never wanted anything in his life until now.” – p. 7

What a sweet description of the fierce love of a new parent! (Alas, things do not go well for Lars, but, no spoilers!)

Eva the teenager on a date:

“When, after at least ten seconds, they let go of each other – him first – Prager looked at her. She now looked older, like a woman, a woman whose hand he could take and stride into the darkness with, because she was a woman whose darkness matched his own, and they could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” – p. 111

And isn’t this how new love feels, and isn’t this the lie our culture perpetuates daily? “They could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” Of course we would never say this outright, because it’s so naïve, but it’s precisely how we think love should work – “without trying,” without having “to talk about it.” From money to sex to in-laws to parents to those secrets from the past, we all too often believe that “love conquers all” means we don’t have to work at it. Sigh.

“Women look their stupidest when they have a crush on a guy who’s out of their league.” – p. 145

Just a good funny line.

“The thought of seeing her…again pruned every competing impulse, and the priorities of what now felt like a former life, once so bright and heavy, had fallen away. This commingling of obsession and simplicity was a surprisingly satisfying way to get by.” – pp. 274-275

And isn’t that the truth? I think of a life lived wholeheartedly for Jesus, and in it, there is obsession (to live in him and for him and pursue the things of his heart), and simplicity (not striving, not a seeking to fill an emptiness, not consumed by the temporal). Sweet!

Also in the book: a recipe for peanut butter bars that will turn you diabetic just reading it.

It’s a great read.

Published in: on December 16, 2016 at 3:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Bird by Bird

A review

Only Anne Lamott can unveil the sacredness of walking, writing, eating, and dying with such irreverence. Time and again, it’s unclear whether you’re catching your breath because it’s so freaking funny – or because it’s so creatively insightful. Because she does both in the same paragraph, on just about every page.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life gives some excellent guidance on writing, but so much more, and does so in a riveting, creative, encouraging – and marvelously irreverent – manner.

She’s realistic without being harsh, telling us over and over how hard this writing life is. And she’s unfailingly kind, constantly reassuring us we’re not alone and the creative endeavor is worthwhile.

A few dog-eared passages (there are SO MANY!):

“I spent as much time as I could outdoors while I waited for my unconscious to open a door and beckon. It finally did. I did not have some beautiful Hallmark moment when I threw back my shoulders with a big smile, dusted off my old hands, and got back to work. Rather, it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my business, and then the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.” – p. 180

This happened to me just last night. Scrolling that ultimate time waster, Facebook, and saw a video that got me thinking, and I just had to immediately sit down and write. Three single-spaced pages and one hour later, I have something to work on that I think could really be something.

Of course this doesn’t happen often. Mostly, I sit with this laptop burning my thighs and wonder if I will fill up even one page of dribble in the next 30 minutes. But I carry on. What else am I gonna do? Binge on Downton again? (Maybe.)

“There is an ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation.” – p. 100

Yes and yes.

“You write a shitty first draft of it and you sound it out, and you leave in those lines that ring true and take out the rest. I wish there were an easier, softer way, a shortcut, but this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along. Then you go back and rewrite. Remember: no one is reading your first drafts.” – p. 71

This also is true. I often get to page 2 before I get to what I really want to get to. Only I didn’t know that when I started. Hm.

“In any case, the bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism. You set out to tell a story of some sort, to tell the truth as you feel it, because something is calling you to do so. It calls you like the beckoning finger of smoke in cartoons that rises off the pie cooling on the windowsill, slides under doors and into mouse holes or into the nostrils of the sleeping man or woman in the easy chair. Then the aromatic smoke crooks its finger, and the mouse or the man or woman rises and follows, nose in the air. But some days the smoke is faint and you just have to follow it as best you can, sniffing away. Still, even on those days, you might notice how great perseverance feels. And the next day the scent may seem stronger – or it may just be that you are developing a quiet doggedness. This is priceless. Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad.” – p. 31

It’s possible I’m developing a quiet doggedness in this writing project.

This. Is. Priceless.

Thanks, Anne, again.

Published in: on October 22, 2016 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Way Down Dead in Dixie

a book review

I don’t know how three women successfully collaborate on one novel, much less three. This has baffled and impressed me ever since Caroline Cousins (which is actually three women, one of whom is a dear family friend) came out with their first S.C. island contemporary whodunit.

And all three novels are absolutely and delightfully entertaining. Sherlock Holmes was never so genteel; Hercule Poirot was never so adroit; heck, neither the Hardy Boys nor Nancy Drew was ever so innocently persistent. How could they be? Only Southerners understand Southerners. And not even all of them, all the time. I mean seriously. Not even we can fully explain ourselves.

But Mrs. Meg (as I have always referred to said family friend), her sister, and her cousin have written three mysteries that are a perfect blend of sweet, snappy, and South Carolina island Southern.

There’s a little romance with the local sheriff….a plantation-turned-tourist-attraction that is, after all, still home to Miss Augusta…three cousins who have a penchant for finding dead bodies and a bulldog perseverance at their own methods of amateur sleuthing…eccentric characters the likes of which you simply cannot find outside of the South…a past that is never truly past (thanks for that line, Faulkner)…and intricacies of acceptable social behavior that could never be explained to outsiders. One (much better) reviewer called it “a sprightly saga of skullduggery and Southern manners.” Perfect.

To read Mrs. Meg’s books (as I can’t help but think of them) is to sit on the bow of the boat next to her, cruising the marshes of the North Edisto. It’s to lounge on the couch of their old house in Ehrhardt and exchange exaggerated stories of driving slowly down the supposedly haunted Cry Baby Lane. To read her books is to sit around a table picking out crab meat, or assembling pb&js on white sandwich bread for a picnic later.

In this South Carolina island community, Coke is for breakfast, white shoes are for the summer, everybody knows their family tree, and sometimes people have “more money than taste.”

And to me…It just feels like home. Thank you, Mrs. Meg.

A couple of choice passages:

Lindsey and Margaret Ann talking about their cousin, all three of them middle-aged:

“‘She just wants some male attention, and he’s giving it, and he is a looker.’

‘He’s twenty years older than she is!’

‘Age doesn’t seem to matter. She thinks Stephen is hot, and he’s in college. Hormones. Could be she’s going coastal.’


‘Coastal! It happens all the time in Key West. People come there to escape, and the freedom goes to their heads, and they do crazy things. Bonnie’s not working this summer, she’s down here without Tim, and now even the parents are gone. She’s feeling flighty. Gone coastal.’” (p. 75) (rofl)

“We found the plantation owner sitting in her favorite recliner ‘resting her eyes,’ as she put it. The Miss Augustas of the world do not nap. Her best friend, Miss Maudie, who was snoozing in another recliner, made no apologies for ‘dropping off’ in the afternoon, but Miss Augusta seemed to regard a need for extra shuteye as a moral weakness.” (p. 84) I’m looking at you, Mom!

Note: the first two books in this series are no less delightful: Fiddle Dee Death, and Marsh Madness. Way Down Dead in Dixie on Amazon


Published in: on October 13, 2016 at 2:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Books, a 2013 Review

Books I read in 2013 (though not in this order), rated:

  • Say Nice Things About Detroit, by Scott Lasser. Fiction. Not my usual fare, but it was intriguing and made me almost want to go to Detroit. Or at least look at my own hometown in a new way. * * *
  • Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. Nonfiction. One of the greatest classics for Christians of the 20th century, hands down, and beyond. Original, insightful, and yet built on a few thousand years of transformative spiritual practices. Going through one chapter per month this year for some intentional spiritual growth.  * * * * *
  • When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. Nonfiction. The subtitle is a summary: “how to help alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…or yourself.” A thorough, mind-altering primer on what poverty really does and doesn’t mean, and how to minister in holistic, sustaining ways. Changed my thinking on many, many approaches to ministry. * * * * *
  • The Meeting of the Waters, by Fritz Kling. Nonfiction. Another self-explanatory subtitle: “7 global currents that will propel the future church.” Insightful, lots of juicy anecdotes, nice extended use of the metaphor. Probably spot-on in his predictions, but only time will tell. A very good read for the mission-minded. * * * *
  • Down and Out in Bugtussle, by Stephanie McAfee. Fiction. Cute light read. Only sort of my usual fare. Good for the beach or the mountain cabin. Have to admit I enjoyed all the 80s allusions. * * *
  • The Madonna on the Moon, by Rolf Bauerdick. Fiction. Picked this novel up out of curiosity: it’s written by a preeminent German journalist. Learned a lot about Communist Romania in its birth and downfall, through the vantage point of a teenager with some eccentric relatives and Gypsy friends. A little slow at some points, but overall interesting, enjoyable. * * *
  • The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin, by Chris Ewan. Fiction. Been a long time since I’ve read a whodunit, and one set in Berlin and told by a “good” thief – well, it was quite entertaining. Another good beach/mountain cabin read. Apparently this is a series; I’ll check out some more I’m sure. * * * *
  • The Best American Travel Writing of 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert. Nonfiction (compilation). I didn’t read Gilbert’s runaway bestseller (Eat Pray Love) and don’t really want to, but she did a fine job culling these travel articles. The writing is as excellent as the topics are varied (from the running of the bulls to “the 1,900 miles I didn’t walk” to the gold mines of Peru). Very enjoyable. * * * *
  • Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown. Nonfiction. Again a helpful subtitle: “how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead.” Who knew a book about “wholehearted living” by a “shame researcher” would be so mind-altering? Scholarly, well-written, accessible, and I had to put the book down every two or three pages just to absorb the nuggets. Yet another confirmation that the way of Jesus is the best way. Outstanding read. * * * * *
  • Quiet, by Susan Cain. Nonfiction. Subtitle: “the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” Hallelujah! The introverts get their day, and long overdue and undervalued it is. Finally, someone understands, and isn’t asking me to change, but to walk it out. The manifesto is magneted to my refrigerator right now. Excellent read. * * * * *
  • Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Nonfiction. I know, I know, it’s a surprise – and an embarrassment – that I haven’t read this already. Read it this year as part of a small group study, and will definitely return to it in the near future for a slower, more appreciative read. The definitive classic apologetic by the Oxford don who also wrote those wondrous Chronicles of Narnia. A book that deserves a long and honest look. * * * * *
  • Love & War, by John & Stasi Eldredge. Nonfiction. Nice subtitle: “find your way to something beautiful in your marriage.” Those Eldredges have done it again – this time focusing their “ransomed heart” worldview on marriage. Marriage is hard; marriage is worth it. Very good read. * * * *
  • And you??? Please share!
Published in: on January 9, 2014 at 2:59 am  Leave a Comment