Summer Reading

I’ve read a few really good books this summer, and I want to tell you about them before summer is over and you have excuses to not read them… So put up that hammock, make a glass of lemonade, and grab a box of tissues… (All good literature is tragedy, right?)

Heron River by Hugh Cook

Heron River is a beautifully written book. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; I read far too late in the night for the five evenings it took me to finish it. The very first sentence grabbed me: “This is how Madeline will remember it years later.”

There is a lot of darkness in this novel. There are a lot of characters’ voices too, and I loved that. Each character speaks in his or her own voice, and Hugh Cook does such a marvelous job of writing their voices and their thoughts, that most of the time he doesn’t even have to tell us who is speaking, because the reader knows who it is. Each chapter is a different narrator, and not once did I regret that the next chapter was told by someone else because each voice carried the story forward in a new way.

Madeline is perhaps the main character, but really, there are two others who are just as important: her son, Adam, who is damaged in a childhood accident and now, as a young adult, lives in a group home; and Jacob, the thirteen-year-old paper boy. Their lives weave in and out of the lives and deaths of many others in the small river town of Caithness, where the darkness of one summer’s events alters everyone’s lives.

Yet despite the murders, the break-ins, the muggings, there is always a sense of hope and possible redemption. Many of the characters are not who you think they are, and many are better than you hope. There is evil, but it does not win. And that’s not a spoiler.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This book by Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) also has a gripping first line: “Lydia is dead. But no one knows this yet.”

So begins the family drama of a mixed race couple, James (Chinese) and Marilyn (Caucasian) and their three children, Nath, Lydia, and the much younger Hannah. They live in a small Ohio college town (it’s the seventies) where James is a professor; Marilyn is a brilliant college dropout stay-at-home-mom; and the children are Asian Americans in a midwestern sea of white kids.

Ng weaves her story back and forth across time — beginning with the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Lydia, the panic, and the discovery of her body in the lake across from their house. And with her death begins Ng’s lyrical examination of family relationships: the dysfunction, the hurts, the misunderstandings, the secrets, the expectations, the love…

James has never fit in, and he puts all his dreams of being popular and well-liked on his beautiful daughter. Marilyn cut short her goal of being a doctor to marry James, so all her dreams are transferred to her smart daughter. Lydia becomes what her parents dream for her and loses herself. Only Nath, her older brother, understands, and the thought of him graduating and leaving for Harvard, sends Lydia into a tailspin.

The police believe it is suicide, though no one in the family can reconcile suicide with what they know of their beloved daughter. Or what they think they know. In the end, the secrets we keep from those we love, derail everyone of us and require forgiveness — perhaps forgiving ourselves is the hardest of all.

Before I Saw You by Amy K. Sorrells

This is small town Indiana, where the opioid crisis is rampant. Like the town where I live now, everyone knows someone who has been or is affected by drug addiction. Jaycee is a young twenty-something waitress who is raising her little brother because their mom is an addict who can barely function. Jaycee has endured embarrassment and fear and has worked at turning it all into courage with the help of her eccentric neighbor Sudie, who teaches her how to rescue injured animals and trust in the Lord.

Tragedy is never far from an addict, and Jaycee endures the worst. With her mom in prison, and her little brother gone, Jaycee finds love in the wrong place and has just discovered that she is pregnant when a handsome, nice guy starts work at the diner. Their relationship blooms until he discovers her pregnancy.

Jaycee has everything stacked against her — poverty, drug addiction in her family, an abusive relationship, pregnancy — but she has faith. Buoyed by her elderly friend, she never loses her hope, even as she considers whether to give her baby up for adoption, or keep him and love him as the replacement for the little brother she lost.

This book moved me for many reasons: Sorrells knows the hopelessness and poverty of small rust-belt towns, and yet she believably allows Jaycee to rise above it. Jaycee has friends who care for her, grit and courage, a love of the injured animals she helps, and a faith that helps her get through the struggles. You can’t help loving her and cheering for her and be moved by her strengths. Keep your box of tissues nearby.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

I first read about the cultural practice of Bacha posh (Persian for dressed like a boy) a few years ago when I read The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. It’s fascinating to me that this practice of turning a girl into a boy was/is culturally accepted. Nadia Hashimi has written this engrossing novel about two Afghani women — great grandmother and a hundred years later her great granddaughter — who lived for a time as Bacha posh, and how it affected them, their families, their lives.

Rahima lives in a family of only daughters in modern day Kabul. The sisters (and their mother) are at the mercy of their bitter, opium-addicted father. They can attend school only when the father allows it, and his capricious personality keeps the family in a state of poverty and forced seclusion. Adopting the ancient tradition of permitting a daughter to be a son (Rahima becomes Rahim) allows her to attend school, go to market, chaperone her sisters, and live the free life of an Afghani male. That is until she reaches puberty, when she must return to being Rahima, the powerless, subjected woman/child bride.

Rahima’s unmarried aunt visits the household often and brings stories of the outside world, as well as a special story of Shekiba, the girls’ great-grandmother who lived a century before, and also spent much of her life living as a farm boy and then as a harem guard. The novel alternates between stories of Shekiba’s life and the life of Rahima, who is married off at thirteen to a modern-day Afghan warlord as his third wife.

The tragedy and powerlessness of the lives of these women is hard to read. At the mercy of every male, the lack of change in the lives of two women who lived a hundred years apart is heartbreaking. In fact, Shekiba’s story ends with a note of hopeful modernity that never comes to pass, or if it did, it was only a few decades of allowing women relative freedom.

The author’s powerful prose and the tragic lives of her finely drawn characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. The only downside is that the Afghani names are hard to follow and every character is named, no matter how small their part in the book. Their names were hard to keep straight at first, + I kept wishing for a glossary of Persian words–I read a kindle version and there was none. But persevere– you will come away richer for having read this book.

The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts

The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts is another book that caused me to stay up too late at night to read. It took several chapters before it became a just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-go-to-bed book, but don’t give up on it. The story takes place in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, yet it takes place in Sinking Creek Pennsylvania. Amish Country. Pennsylvania, the free state, where the signs that say Whites Only are unwritten, and folks just have to figure out where they are on their own.

Three narrators tell the story: Emma, an Amish woman; Delilah, a southern African-American woman who has come to Sinking Creek with her husband and family (Sinking Creek is where he grew up); and Sparrow, Delilah’s teenaged daughter. All three characters are putting one foot in front of another after tragedy, and the pain and secrets they are living with bind them together in ways that nothing else can.

One of Delilah’s twin sons, Carver, drowned in the Alabama River while Sparrow was supposedly watching him. Delilah’s pain and guilt is so huge that she cannot forgive her daughter for not watching him carefully enough, or herself for putting Sparrow in charge of him that day. Less than a month later, husband and father, Malachi moves the family from Montgomery to his old hometown in Pennsylvania, thinking that the move will help his wife and daughter heal from the tragedy. They move into a house next to the church where Malachi will be the new preacher, across the woods from an Amish farm.

Emma lives there with her husband John, a deacon, and their teenaged son, Johnny, in a house filled with secrets, pain, and deceptions. Sparrow and Emma bond immediately, for Sparrow is in desperate need of a mother and Emma needs a daughter. Delilah and Emma are cautious with each other, for they are worlds apart in culture, but, as they discover, bound together in their pain. It’s a friendship that even race troubles in the town can’t divide. “I don’t know how to fix it, but I’ll stand with you,” Emma tells Delilah. I am reminded of the verse from Ecclesiastes, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

This is powerful writing and as relevant today as it was then.

If you’ve read this far, you might see a thread, a theme in all these novels. It was completely unplanned. I just read them during June and July and loved reading every single one. The writing is powerful and intense, the themes of loss and pain resonate, and the characters’ inability to communicate their suffering prevents their healing. Only when they let go of bitterness and secrets and are able to embrace forgiveness, is redemption possible. Because of the nature of the tragedies in all these books, they are recommended for adults.

If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you thought. Happy August.

I Once Promised to Read Middlemarch…

It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I was taking one class for summer school — an Independent Study on Women’s Literature. For those unfamiliar with the concept, that meant I just read some books I wanted to read by women and wrote papers about them. I remember reading The Awakening, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Mrs. Dalloway; I’m sure I could name a few others if I really thought hard. At the end of the summer, the professor, Mrs. Constantine, told me I had done a great job, but she had slipped up in not requiring me to read Middlemarch, by George Eliot. It was one of the greatest books by any woman author ever, she said. I should really have made you read it. Promise me you will read it, and I’ll give you an A.

Two years later, I was unemployed during one of the hottest summers ever, and I spent it in the air-conditioned public library. It was the summer that convinced me to go back to school and get a library science degree. It was the summer of reading. One of the first books I checked out was Middlemarch. I think I made it to about page 60, and then I put it down in favor of The Lord of the Rings.

I’ll read it some other time, I thought.

Three years later I was finished with library school, working in a public library, and a used copy of Middlemarch fell into my hands at the library’s used book sale. 25 cents.

I brought it home and started to read. I got to about page 60, and put it down in favor of The Doll Maker by Harriet Arnow.

But at least it was now on my bookshelves. Every couple of years I would pick it up again. I would always make it to about page 60 before I put it down in favor of just about any other novel — Dune, Angle of Repose, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes….

The book finally took its toll on me — every time I went to my bookshelves, the thick spine haunted me — all 850 pages. I finally gave it back to another library’s used book sale to assuage my guilt.

The last time I tried to read it was ten years ago. I got to about page 60. When I put it down for what I thought was the last time, in favor of Anna Karenina, I apologized to Mrs. Constantine for accepting that A under false pretenses; I apologized to Mary Anne Evans for not being able to read her seminal work; I apologized to the muses of great literature for failing to make it beyond 60 pages of what has been called one of the greatest novels ever written; and I apologized to the great God of all for not keeping a promise.

Last month while adding to my Netflix queue, I discovered that Middlemarch had been done as a Masterpiece Theater series in 1994 and was available on 2 discs. I moved it to Number 1 & 2 and hoped Mr. H. C. was amenable to watching it.

I admit to having always always always decried watching the filmed version of a book, any book. From Charlotte’s Web to Empire Falls. From The Hobbit to Sophie’s Choice.

But we loved watching it.

So much that I have now downloaded Middlemarch to my Kindle, and I am now on page 137.

Perhaps that A wasn’t under false pretenses after all. At least I’ve made it past page 60.

(In case you are interested, dear reader, chapter 5 begins on page 60. Before that, chapter 4 is where Dorothea meets Casaubon at their dinner party. Like Celia, I must have been bored to tears by Casaubon…)

On Mowing and Marriage and Trying to Be Like Jesus

There’s very little in this life that I like less than mowing grass. Reasons? Oh yeah, I got plenty:

    What a waste of time — I could be gardening, reading, writing, washing dishes, mopping the kitchen floor…
    What a waste of gasoline and added pollution, when we could be growing food, or flowers, or sheep instead of grass…
    Grass has no value whatsoever, unless one is playing golf…
    Why would I want to push a horribly noisy smelly machine that could easily cut off my fingers, or my toes, or throw flying sticks or rocks at my head?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

iris

Usually mowing the grass is Mr. H.C.’s job and I don’t have to think about it. But he’s busy doing the roof while the sun shines. (July in Pennsylvania makes watching the Weather Channel unnecessary; we know what the forecast will be: 90 percent humidity and scattered thunderstorms.) And the grass has to be mowed when the sun is shining too. Plus, the tractor is broken. So I’m being the selfless servant and mowing the grass with the push mower.

Right. Not quite so selfless as one might think…

Today as I started mowing, silently congratulating myself on serving my busy husband, he came down off the roof and waved at me to stop. When I stopped, he bent down and raised the mower deck on me. “You’re cutting it too short,” he said. Then he disappeared back up onto the roof.

Excuse me? If I am cutting the grass I will blimey well cut it at the height I want. The shorter the grass, the less it has to be mowed. I’d just as soon kill the wretched grass anyway. That’s the trouble with it, grass doesn’t die. Its roots live forever and come back to haunt you next year after you’ve planted a lovely flower bed there. But I digress.

I confess to being sweaty, hot, and bothered. Muttering the whole time, two passes later, I stopped the mower and lowered the deck back to where it was. But that still didn’t make me feel any better. Here I was — unselfishly mowing the grass so he wouldn’t have to — and he comes to tell me I’m doing it wrong? What kind of ungrateful man is this anyway?

Oh wretch that I am…

I’ve heard enough sermons in my life to know that this is not what Jesus would do. And I’ve also heard enough John Dorean sermons to know that the goal of every Jesus lover is to grow and be more like him every day. Of course, we fail all the time, but that is the goal…

So when I stopped to take a break and get a cool drink of water, I sat down on  the couch and picked up the book I’ve been reading. Sacred Marriage. (If you know this book, please don’t laugh.)

I had a copy of this book once, but we were newly married and I ended up giving it away to someone before I read it, and I never got it back. Since then I’ve read sections of it, and heard sermons from it, and I know the subtitle by heart — What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More than to Make Us Happy?; but I’ve never read it cover to cover.

Turns out, maybe I should have.

I always thought, yeah, yeah, I know what Gary Thomas is going to say. Die to your self. Respect your spouse. Love unconditionally.

And yes, that’s what he says. And yes, it’s hard. And as Thomas says — none of that comes naturally to us.

But as I sat there reading Chapter Six,  “The Cleansing of Marriage: How Marriage Exposes Our Sin” I knew. I knew that those words needed to penetrate my soul. Just as I need to die to my Self a hundred, no, a thousand times a day, I also need to desire humility a hundred, no, a thousand times a day.

Of course, we always see our spouse’s sin — it’s so much easier to see other’s sins, isn’t it? Yes, this specifically refers to taking the log out of our own eye before we take the speck out of someone else’s eye (Matthew  7:3-5). Listen to this:

View marriage as an entryway into sanctification — as a relationship that will reveal your sinful behaviors and attitudes and give you the opportunity to address them before the Lord. But here’s the challenge: Don’t give in to the temptation to resent your partner as your own weaknesses are revealed. Correspondingly give them the freedom and acceptance they need in order to face their own weaknesses as well. In this way, we can use marriage as a leg up, a piercing spiritual mirror, designed for our sanctification and growth in holiness.

I needed to re-read that sentence Don’t give in to the temptation to resent your partner as your own weaknesses are revealed. There it is: the basic sin of all sins — Pride. Lack of humility. Thinking that I know best, yet knowing in my heart and soul that I do not. It’s ugly, pride is. Later Gary Thomas quotes François  Fenélon who wrote: “…all the saints are convinced that sincere humility is the foundation of all virtues.”

To grow in holiness marriage must be understood as a spiritual discipline, Thomas says. “To do this,” he writes, “we must not enter marriage predominantly to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ.”

There it is again…to become more like Jesus; and to do that we must put on our robe of humility, and not throw it off each time we get hot and bothered. And not only do I agree with Fenélon that humility is the foundation of all virtues, but can I suggest that pride just might be the foundation of all sin?

Today as I was reading an article about the need for us to feel awe before our holy God, I came across the term self-forgetfulness. How I longed for it. The author, Jen Wilkin, cited research that suggests when humans feel awe they are better able to forget themselves and reach out to other people. And I started wondering — what else makes me put on self-forgetfulness?
Blue sky behind gray cloudsDoing something for someone else with no expectations. (Remember mowing the lawn? It went wrong because of my own expectations.)
Praying — talking to the Holy God of the Universe — yes, that’s one that definitely gets the mind off oneself.
Thinking about Jesus — whether it is reading the Bible, listening to worship music, or just meditating on how weak and incompetent I am, and how strong and competent Jesus is for me.
So here we have: Go watch a sunset or the clouds or stand on a beach or a mountain; Make dinner for your neighbor; Read your favorite passage in God’s word and thank Him for it; Meditate on the strength of Jesus and your own shortcomings and feel awe that you are so loved.

As I read further in Sacred Marriage, this paragraph jumped out at me:

Don’t run from the struggles of marriage. Embrace them. Grow in them. Draw near to God because of them. Through them you will reflect more of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And thank God that he has placed you in a situation where your spirit can be perfected.

And today, in the sermon I heard this: He loves us where we are at any given moment. Certainly He invites, encourages, challenges us to become more like Christ, but that becoming is not a prerequisite of His love. Can I get an Amen?

It’s time to mow the grass again…

white clover

The tractor is fixed. As Mr. H.C. took it for a mowing spin to see how it was running, he said, “I’m not going to mow the grass very short, because there are lots of bees on the clover, and I don’t want to mow the flowers away.” Yeah, he knows how much I like bees and clover…

I smiled to myself. Thank you God that you have placed me in a situation where my spirit can be perfected.

And thank you God, that the tractor is fixed.