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.

62. Take a Stand Against Stuff

Dear Readers, I have lots to say about too much stuff. Stuff is taking over my life, and I am taking a stand! In the last post I promised that we would talk about Richard Foster’s suggestions for simplicity. He gives ten (10!) suggestions. That is way too many to deal with in one little blog post. So what I have decided is to discuss several at a time — in no particular order, just as they come up in my life with Apple Hill Cottage. There will be other posts in between; so if you are not interested in dealing with STUFF in your life, they will be clearly titled, and you can just skip them. And please know, that I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty, ashamed, or materialistic. It’s my struggle; maybe it isn’t yours. And feel free to leave me comments.

I am sitting here in the car repair shop waiting for my car to be inspected. The TV is blaring out the game show Let’s Make a Deal, and I’m trying to write this post about how to simplify and get rid of stuff. Ironic, isn’t it?

Poor lady. She lost a trip to Belize, 2 iPhones, and $500 just because she was greedy. The host’s refrain is “How does fifty thousand dollars sound?”

Here’s the thing — We Can’t Escape It and We Can’t Avoid It. So we had better change our hearts to have Inner Simplicity and our lives to have Outward Simplicity. One does not work without the other.

Number One on Mr. Foster’s goal for outward simplicity:

1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.

Buy a car for its utility or consider a bicycle. Don’t try to impress others. Cut down on your living space. Consider your clothes. Buy comfortable and solid. In other words, don’t let fashionistas and HGTV rule your purchases. This is hard, I think. Who wants to look dowdy or left over from the eighties? And who wants seventies paneling in their living room??? Please don’t take offense if you like seventies paneling…

and we've got some paneling we'll sell you...

and we’ve got some paneling we’ll sell you…

Where I’ve succeeded: The floor at Apple Hill is VCT — one of the most inexpensive lasting floors that can be purchased;

Ugly kitchen cabinet

This is what our cabinets looked like when we dragged them out of Construction Junction…

much of the kitchen stuff we purchased at Habitat for Humanity Restores, Construction Junction, etc.

We deliberately set out to buy re-purposed items for what we needed. I generally stand over the recycle bin and just toss in the catalogs without looking at them. But there are always a few I have to look at — Pottery Barn, J.Jill…

Our beautiful new brushed stainless steel kitchen faucet

Our beautiful new brushed stainless steel kitchen faucet

Where I’ve failed: Our faucet (if you are a regular reader, you knew I was going to say that. You can read about my remorse in this post.) I also tend to obsess over color and the decorating “look” I want.  There is nothing wrong with beauty and cheerful surroundings. God obviously loves beauty; it’s just a matter of knowing when it becomes an obsession or an addiction or an idol. That will be covered in another post…

What I could do better: Throw away all my catalogs without opening them. Better yet, eliminate the catalogs altogether. (I’ve gone to catalog choice and started eliminating them–and yes, I’ve put Pottery Barn and J.Jill on the list. I highly recommend that site.) I need to stay off and Pinterest. I need to say No when people want to give me stuff.

What could you do better?

2. Develop a habit of giving things away.

This is a good time of year to give away clothing. Why store winter clothing that you haven’t worn? Why store summer clothing that you won’t wear? So that’s what I did. I went through my clothes

Lots of sweaters

Thirty-one sweaters — enough for every day in January. (That little furry thing in the top left corner is NOT a sweater…)

and I’m taking a garbage bag and a big box to St. Vincent de Paul. I’m down to one closet, one dresser and half a cedar chest. (The other half is for Mr. H.C’s sweaters–he’s got a bunch to go through as well.) And you know what? I only threw away some of that 80%.

clothes hanging in closet

My pared-down closet…

Here’s what I got rid of:

  • The clothing that I’ve been saving because I think it might fit me again next year, even though it hasn’t fit me in two years. (The ugly truth!)
  • A very stylish green sweater that I bought online (clearance) that just doesn’t look good on me.
  • Three sweaters that I haven’t worn in two years.
  • Pants and jackets that I’ve been keeping because I think I might like them next year better than I do this year.
  • Everything that I put on and then take off again because I don’t think I look good in it, even though it’s perfectly fine looking.

And here is a lovely photo:

1979 Buick Le Sabre being donated to Make a Wish Foundation

Michael’s Buick (affectionately known as Grandpappy) is being donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It was a sad day, but happy too, as we thought about the blessings it will bring to someone. It started, and Michael drove it up the driveway one last time for it to be towed.

It was two days between contacting the charity, and the tow truck arriving to tow Grandpappy away. And now it’s lovely to back out of the garage and not have to worry about smashing into him.

Mr. Foster challenges us to give away what we are attached to, to prove that things have no hold on us. What can you give away?

35. The attitude of gratitude : Hannah Coulter and I

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry has just shot up to the top of my Best Books I’ve Ever Read List. As a librarian, I’m asked a lot (mostly by kids) what my favorite book is. I always hedge. How can one pick a favorite book, when there are so many great reads, so many books, so little time…

But I hadn’t yet read Hannah Coulter.

Yes, yes, I know. This is supposed to be a blog about the cottage, but the subtitle is the circle of life; if anyone knows how to write about the circle of life, Wendell Berry does. His writing is lyrical, a pleasure to read and savor, yet so truthful as to bring pain… My fingertips ached with the beauty of his thoughts, transferred with such clarity into the thoughts of a woman, Hannah Coulter.

Hannah is in her seventies, a widow who has lost two husbands; she has lived her life on a farm in rural Kentucky, her children have grown up, gone to University, and gone from the farm. This is her memoir, but it is more. It is a mourning of the rural life, lost to modernity; it is a mourning of the loss of community that modernity brings; yet, it is also a celebration of love, faith, trust, and the hopes of the human heart.

I’ve been scraping the paint off the cottage this weekend, and that has given me time to ponder the circle of life. The paint was peeling terribly on this weather-beaten, sun-scorched side of the house, yet the warmth of the autumn sun made it lovely weather for scraping — scraping old paint from siding that was probably put on and painted originally by my grandfather. And then re-sided and rearranged by Michael’s dad, Joe. Yet they never knew that this place made by their hands would someday be also lovingly touched by their children’s and grandchildren’s hands… Here is what Hannah says about that…

“As I went about my work then as a young woman, and still now when I am old, Grandmam has been often close to me in my thoughts. And again I come to the difficulty of finding words. It is hard to say what it means to be at work and thinking of a person you loved and love still who did that same work before you and who taught you to do it. It is a comfort, ever and always, like hearing the rhyme come when you are singing a song.” Chapter 14, The Room of Love

I remember making applesauce with Nanny, my grandmother, in her kitchen. She was peeling the apples with a perfect stroke so that the peel dangled in one long piece from the apple. I was awkwardly scraping the apple and only getting little bits of peel to fall into the sink. “It’s all in learning how,” she told me gently. “I couldn’t do it when I was young either. You’ll be able to do it with practice.” I think about that every time I peel an apple in one piece.

Education was important in our family. My grandfather and his brother both left the family farm together to go college and become teachers. But Pa was always a farmer; even while working as a principal, and later, as the superintendent, he farmed. Cows first, then apples, then peaches. Here is what Hannah has to say about education…

“The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for awhile after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance

Yet most of us have gone from our home places to the Great Away, and we are inclined to think (or be taught) that it is just the nature of growing up and moving on. Life ever changes and if we are to get on in this world, that’s just the way of it. I know very few who stayed. And now that I am back in my home place, I envy the rootedness of those who stayed. I envy them their place in the community — not their standing or their accomplishments — but their place. Their membership. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

This was our membership. Burley called it that. He loved to call it that… The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come…The membership includes the dead… The members, I guess you could say, are born into it, they stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it. Or they leave it, as my children have done… And so an old woman, sitting by the fire, waiting for sleep, makes her reckoning, naming over the names of the dead and the living, which also are the names of her gratitude.” Chapter 11, The Membership

I have given up my membership once, twice, three times maybe, and now I am about to give it up again and move back where I started. A circle. A wandering circle. And though I will miss friendships and those left behind, there is also an excitement. And herein, I think, is part of the problem. We are always searching for the new, the exciting, the next big thing. Eve probably picked that first apple and gave it to Adam because she was bored with the same old grapes every day for breakfast. What we know, we know, and it has become the routine, the boring. What has become of steadfastness, neighborliness, rootedness to a place, community? Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

“The old neighborliness has about gone from it now. The old harvest crews and their talk and laughter at kitchen tables loaded with food have been replaced by machines, and by migrant laborers who eat at the store. The old thrift has been replaced by extravagance and waste. People are living as if they think they are in a movie. They are all looking in one direction, toward ‘a better place’ and what they see is no thicker than a screen. The houses in Port William and even on some of the farms are more and more being used as temporary lodgings by people who temporarily, as they think, can do no better.” Chapter 22, Next?

When I was finished scraping the paint from one small section, I found an old brush and began to paint primer over the bare wood. As I was covering over the ugly, patchy, half-scraped wood, I wondered what are the differences between those of us who leave and those of us who stay?
Mr. Berry believes that to our detriment, and perhaps our demise, rural life has never been seen as desirable in society, in education, in culture. Indeed, when one of my good city friends discovered I was originally from Greene County, she shouted, “You’re a Hoopie!” Indeed, when I was in high school, the ultimate insult was to call someone a Farmer. Indeed, when my kids were in high school they shook their heads (as did I) over the kids who were choosing to stay. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

Oftentimes after it no longer matters whether things are clear or not, they become clear. After not liking school at all, Caleb had got to liking it too much… He liked knowing the things he was learning… He was, maybe you could say, tempted by it. And I know, I can almost hear, the voices that were speaking to him, voices of people he had learned to respect, and they were saying, ‘Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, why should you be a farmer yourself when you can do so much for farmers?’… These were the voices of farm-raised people who were saying, ‘Caleb, why go home and work your ass off for what you’ll earn? Things are going to get worse for farmers.’ And they were true prophets.” Chapter 17, Caleb.

We leave for so many reasons — a new chance, new friends, a better job, a better place, marriage, escape — for good reasons and for bad ones. But sometimes we expect that someplace else will be better or different, when we really just need to see in a new way. Expectations, Hannah says, are most often a bucket of smoke…

Life may surprise us, it may not turn out how we expect, but always we are asked to see what is and call it good. And until we stop breathing, there will always be surprises. Here is what Hannah says about that…

“Life without expectations was still life, and life was still good…The world that so often had disappointed us and made us sorrowful sometimes made us happy by surprise. You think winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light. Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can’t walk without stepping on them. The pastures turn green and the leaves come.” Chapter 19, The Branches.

And as I was scraping away years of dried paint, I was thinking how can I write these things without those who know me thinking that I am being regretful, or feeling guilty, or making them feel guilty? But there is no guilt — just thankful thoughts about what was and what is. And here is what Hannah says about that:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance.

Yes, indeed, those are the right instructions…