All Over But the Shoutin’

All Over But the Shoutin’
by Rick Bragg


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Genre: Memoir

Summary:  Rick Bragg is a celebrated author and former journalist for the New York Times.  He is even a Pulitzer Prize winner.  But Bragg didn’t always live a glamorous life.  In fact, he came from a very poor area of Alabama, was a son of an alcoholic father and was raised by a hard-working mother that would often go without so he and his two brothers would have enough to eat.  This book was written to honor his mother.  “Maybe, if I tell it right, she will live again in these pages, that all the things she could have shared about who we are, who I am, will not be so badly missed.  I like to believe that.”

Bragg’s account is such a great example of why I love memoir.  His sparse language takes out all of the over-dramatization of his tough upbringing and yet gives it enough weight to feel the oppression of his poverty.  Bragg is unapologetic about his successes, but equally as resistant to self-glorification.  One of our book club member said he seemed so humble about his success, he was almost self-righteous about it.

In his words, “This is not an important book.  It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama.  Anyone could tell it, anyone with a daddy who let his finer nature slip away from him during an icebound war in Korea, who allowed the devil inside him to come grinnin’ out every time a sip of whiskey trickled in, who finally just abandoned his young wife and sons to the pity of their kin and to the well-meaning neighbors who came bearing boxes of throwaway clothes.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me was his exploration of the relationship with his father.  Though Bragg was angry to have lost his father to alcoholism, he seemed to never hold the man himself in much contempt. His analysis of what traits of his father were passed on to the three boys was also interesting.  I think it was Bragg’s very honest and transparent analysis of his own qualities that made him all the more endearing to me.

Bragg said of his brother Sam: “Sometimes I wonder what will happen if Sam and I are called to stand before Saint Peter on the same day, and my sins include everything from trifling with loose women to sleeping in church, and Sam just says, ‘Well, Pete, once I did fish on a Sunday.'”

Finally, Bragg’s use of language was fresh and almost sizzling.  His use of words and descriptions were among some of the best I have read.  Some of the people he encountered when on the job were fascinating.  I have said before (though maybe not here just yet), that a book’s rating will be decided by simply how it makes me feel.  This book was funny in the descriptions of southern life.  It was heart-wrenching as Bragg told of poverty, the loss of his father and trying to use his craft to get out of town.  He covered heart-breaking stories.  But above all these, the whole book was written to honor his “Momma,” as she was adoringly called.  His conversational style and highest regard for Momma made me fall for this beautiful, southern story.

To read other book reviews, click here.

What is your favorite memoir?  Does it matter to you how a book makes you feel?  Which book has drawn the strongest reaction from you?

 

Rhinestone Jesus

Rhinestone Jesus
Saying Yes to God when sparkly, safe faith is no longer enough
by Kristen Welch


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Genre: Nonfiction, Christian living

Summary: Kristen Welch, a native Texan and blogger at We Are THAT Family, agreed to take a trip to Kenya with Compassion International to highlight the work the organization is doing there.  It was on that trip, sitting in the slums, surrounded by raw sewage, starving children and families that Kristen’s heart shattered.  She asked God why He would allow this to happen to his people and God responded with the same question to her, “Why would you allow this, Kristen?”  In that moment she decided she must do something but had no idea what that would look like.

This book is Kristen’s story of how she, along with her family (as well as many Kenyan natives) started Mercy House, a place for pregnant girls to live, learn a trade, finish school and have a fighting chance at not only surviving but thriving in their community.  It is Kristen’s story of her struggle with learning business, starting a non-profit here and overseas, and battling her own feelings of insufficiency and lack of training.

Sharing her fears, dreams, stumbling blocks and frustrations along the way, Kristen challenged her readers to remember that many women tell her they could never do what she does because they are “just a mom”.  She used this book to show that she feels exactly the same way, it was completely God who led her and He is the One making all of the success happen.  Kristen often encouraged readers to continue to dream big because when we come to the point that we know we can’t, that is the place that God can and then He will get all the glory.

Finally, I loved the story of Kristen sharing how she is living a true deep relationship with Christ now.  She credits it to what she calls “living scared.”  It has allowed her family to trust Christ more, take more risks, live more generously, have better perspective and therefore get to see more miracles.  “Whenever I’m down in the dumps and whining about the obstacles, I’m almost always reminded that if it were easy, I wouldn’t need God.  This work wouldn’t be miraculous and dependent on God if I had all the answers.  If I made it happen nice and neatly, I would get the glory, not Him.”

Kristen’s challenges were thought-provoking and inspiring for me.  In times when women (her intended audience) are feeling like what they do everyday (doing dishes, folding laundry) isn’t enough, she reaffirms their ministry of serving their family.  “Since the family is God’s means of telling His story, our goal is to build a strong family.”  And when we are feeling afraid of dreaming because of the hurdles that make it impossible, she encourages to dream even bigger.  For God’s glory alone.

“Why are God-sized dreams so compelling?  Because we powerfully experience God’s presence in our lives through them.  It’s not about destination.  It’s not what we will get if we complete the dream.  It’s about a relationship…The pursuit of any God-sized dream is ultimately about the pursuit of the One who placed it within you.  It’s like a homing beacon for your heart.”  –Holley Gerth

Have you ever done anything out of obedience or love of God that terrified you?    When did you feel the most dependent on God?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

To see other book reviews, click here.

 

The Turquoise Table

The Turquoise Table:
Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard
by Kristin Schell

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Genre: Nonfiction

Summary: Kristin Schell agreed to host a dinner party at the last minute for a friend (the host of the party) who had an unexpected conflict.  In a moment of panic, she ordered two picnic tables for additional seating and when the delivery truck arrived, they set the tables down in the front yard.  In that moment, she had a glimpse of what those simple tables could be.
After the party, she decided to leave the table in her front yard, paint it a festive color (Nifty Turquoise to be precise) and “just show up.”  This looked a little different everyday but included coffee after getting the kids on the bus, book clubs, craft projects, homework and even meals.  She used it as a tool to get to know her neighbors and now she is starting a revolution.  She is hoping people will join her by creating their own Turquoise Table.

My wonderful friend recommended this book to me after hearing the premise.  First, it is a beautiful book just for the cover alone, but also it is beautiful for its mission.  Schell was craving community with her neighbors but felt overwhelmed with her own schedule as well as her four children and family responsibilities.  She felt encouraged to be the one to start the community but had no idea how.

You see, Schell had experienced one of those uniquely French dinners.   Imagine a rustic table, festive atmosphere, guests that weren’t rushed to get anywhere and delicious yet very simple food to keep people at the table.  Oh, and she described boisterous discussions and LOTS of laughter.

Does that sound like dinner at your house on a Tuesday??  It certainly doesn’t look dinners at my house!  You might start to say this is Thanksgiving or Christmas at your house but do you worry about breaking someone’s china or cracking the crystal?  Schell felt lured to the simple.  To the festive.  To the people.  “I was a stranger in a foreign land, yet being at the table in France fed a basic need–a need every human shares–to belong.  The experience at the table was more than a meal; it was nourishment for my soul.”

In many little ways Schell just “showed up.”  She would bring her morning coffee outside instead of drinking inside.  If she saw anyone (dog walkers, runners, moms with strollers) she would offer a hello or offer for them to join her if the mood seemed right.  Often, the brightly hued table was enough of a conversation starter.  Once a friend called her asking if she could bring someone over to the table because her friend was new in town and wanting to meet people in the area.

Schell gave up early on the idea that she needed Pinterest, Southern Living or Martha Stewart to do this.  She knew she couldn’t keep up with that.  In the end it was the people that brought her to the table everyday.  Avoiding Instagram feeds that put the best of hosts to shame, she brings back the simplicity needed to welcome everyone in the true spirit of hospitality.

This book isn’t really a how-to or step-by-step of creating your own Front Yard Group, though there are little tidbits throughout that can help you do that.  It is more of Schell’s stories that resulted in simply showing up and sharing her table.  I really loved this book and though some ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary, we needed to be reminded of them because of our hasty culture.  The Turquoise Table is a beautiful book celebrating the art of true hospitality.  I cannot wait to add this to my own personal collection and I think this would be particularly lovely as a gift.

“Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you.”   –Henri Nouwen

Who is the most hospitable person you know?  What about them makes them especially hospitable?  What is one thing you try to do to make your guests feel welcome?  Please share your thoughts below!

 

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel
by Paula McClain


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Genre: Historical fiction

Plot summary:  A fictionalized story of the real Beryl Markham, celebrated horse trainer (one of the first women recognized in Africa) as well as record-setting aviator.  Pursuing a new job opportunity, Beryl’s father brings the whole family from England to Kenya.  Not long after, her mother decides she cannot fathom staying in Kenya and returns to England with Beryl’s brother.  Though she is content in Kenya and staying with her father, she is baffled and deeply hurt over her mother’s departure.  Seeking out the motherly relationship she lacks, she finds it among the tribes that surround her father’s land.  She also finds great satisfaction in training horses with her father.
Battling loneliness and depression, her insecurities spin her into a long line of bad relationships.  Her nature seems to mirror the wildness of her surrounding Kenyan landscape.  Beryl’s refusal to be tamed makes her tough and perfect for the work and environment, but miserable in her relationships.

{If you would like to check out other book reviews or other book club selections, please look here!}

Beryl Markham was unknown to me before reading Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McClain.  (You might be familiar with Beryl’s friend, Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Denisen.  Out of Africa then became an award-winning film starring Robert Redford and Kathryn Hepburn.).  McClain’s descriptions of the beautiful, exotic Kenya were breathtaking.  She certainly can offer a wonderful sense of place.  Because it is so different than where (and when) we live, it is needed to guide the reader in understanding the nature of Beryl’s home and life.

Though much more rustic than England, it is unfathomable to me that Beryl’s mother would leave behind her child regardless of her own discomfort.  This happens in the beginning of the book (as well as the beginning of Beryl’s life, she wasn’t even 5) and from that moment, Beryl became wild and opinionated and stubborn.  It felt like she was fighting to prove she didn’t need anyone while at the same time silently begging people to notice and care for her.

Beryl was fiercely independent but also struggled to manage her fear.  Her complex relationship with Karen Blixen revealed opposition (because of a love interest) but also a confidant.  She said to Beryl: “We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all–are you?  The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.”

Frustrations mounted for me throughout the book.  Clara, Beryl’s mother was among the worst.  Expecting sympathy from her daughter after being abandoned without much of an after-thought.  “She didn’t seem embarrassed to be speaking of the past with me.  She didn’t seem to remember I was a part of her past in the colony, in fact.  Though maybe that was best, when I thought about it–if we could treat each other more impartially, as if there were nothing to apologize or make amends for.  As if nothing had been lost.”  

My greatest enjoyment was the setting.  Seeing the rich landscape through Beryl’s admiring eyes, made me appreciate it so much more.  Reading a tough, independent, hard-working narrator is great though I was easily frustrated by her very poor relationship decisions.  And she never got better at it!  She knew, from the beginning, that Kenya was truly her first love.  It brought her the most joy, the most freedom and her deepest sense of peace.  Also, the native Kenyans seemed more “her people” than the transplants she befriended, married and with whom she socialized.

One final note, the jacket describes this book to be about Beryl the aviator.  If you read the book for that purpose you will be sorely disappointed.  While it is true she set records with feats in this realm, it is only discussed in the last chapter of the book (Imagine if I said Unbroken was a book about an Olympic runner.).  This book is much more about Beryl’s early years with her father and her life as an accomplished horse trainer.

What were your thoughts about Circling the Sun?  What did you learn about the real Beryl Markham?  Can you relate to her independence?

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Our June book club selection was Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis.  (If you missed last month, check it out here!)  The jacket described this as Lewis’ story of conversion to Christianity and though I see that now, it didn’t feel that way in the midst of it.  You don’t actually hear of his conversion until the last 5 pages.  So as I was reading it, I felt like it was more of a story of his childhood and the hurdles he had to overcome to find the Joy he spoke of from the beginning.

Summary: C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.  In this nonfiction book, he writes about his young life.  How the loss of his mother at a very young age had such an impact on him.  His strained relationship with his father and unique bond with his brother deeply shaped who he became.  He also explored how reading and his education led him to some of the greatest realizations of his life.

This book was quite a departure for our group.  Though a shorter book than we usually pick up, the dialogue felt headier than others.  Surprised by Joy starts with Lewis explaining a couple of instances where he experienced a moment of capital-J Joy.  He said it came quickly, left very shortly after, always leaving him wanting more.   Describing it as something completely different from Pleasure or Happiness he said, “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

Lewis was an intellectual and struggled to fit in.  He didn’t have his mother and a self-described “awkward” relationship with his father.  However, he adored his brother and cultivated his vivid and wild imagination by dreaming up imaginary lands with him.  He was not athletic at all, though he pretended just to participate in social activities with classmates.  Struggling to find friends, the ones he did find seemed to be teachers or superiors.  His greatest solace was found among books.

Some of his greatest hangups seemed to be the “intrusion” of religion on his life.  “I was also, as you may remember, one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission…It was also perhaps not unimportant that the externals of Christianity made no appeal to my sense of beauty.  Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry.  But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness.  No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word interference.  But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer.”

The most fascinating part of the whole book for me was the last two chapters.   The focus on how his life was being interrupted by the great Interferer, was truly beautiful.  His studies in philosophy made it hard for Lewis to let go of previously held beliefs.  “Even if my own philosophy were true, how could the initiative lie on my side?  My own analogy, as I now first perceived, suggested the opposite: if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing.  Hamlet could initiate nothing.”

For those who struggle with God or Christianity, I loved what Lewis said at the very end: “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  The best part of all of his story was that it was HIS story.  He didn’t say how it should be for other people or what the conversion experience should look like.  He simply shared his experience.  I believe he wanted to share the many hindrances that he had to overcome to find his true Joy.  I also believe he would be thrilled to hear if it helped others to find theirs.

What is your favorite CS Lewis work?  What hindrances have you had to overcome in your faith journey?  What books, music, art has changed how you look at your faith?  Please leave your comments below!

Small Great Things: A Review

Small Great Things: A Novel by Jodi Picoult

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Plot summary: Ruth Jefferson is a veteran labor and delivery nurse performing a routine exam on a newborn when the husband of her patient suddenly asks to see her supervisor.  Baffled, Ruth returns with her supervisor and discovers the parents are white supremacists and are requesting a new nurse.  Ruth is reassigned.
But, the next day when staff is needed in the OR, Ruth is left alone with this new baby and goes into cardiac distress.  Does Ruth ignore orders and help the baby and risk losing her job or does she abide by the parent’s wishes and not touch the child?  Her decision in that moment will have a much greater impact on her life than she ever dreams.
Told from three different perspectives, this book will challenge you to think about what you would do in that situation, but also if you ever dared to consider yourself as guilty as you really might be.

So, I have a confession.

This is the first Jodi Picoult book I have ever read.

*Gasp*

I know!  I haven’t even seen the movie “My Sister’s Keeper.”  Of course, I knew her name and saw her books all over the place.  Though I had never opened one of her books, I put her in the same category as Mitch Albom.  You know the type: perfect beach read, emotionally draining, tough topics but easy read.

A rainy, gloomy Saturday morning gave me the opportunity to fly through the first 150 pages.  In one sitting.  From that moment the story would not stop penetrating my thoughts throughout the day.  Picoult writes in a way that is fresh and engaging.  I hesitate to say too much about the plot because it truly is something that you need to wrestle with on your own.  I’ve even heard this title recommended with the suggestion that you don’t even read the summary and jump straight in.

Book clubs will have lots to discuss about Small Great Things.  Characters decisions, upbringing, career paths and even choice of spouses offer a plethora of great discussion material.  Whether you agree with the arguments made on all three sides of this story, there is much to consider.

“It was so much easier to hate them than it was to hate myself.”

Small Great Things was a fast-paced read and very engaging.  Characters were believable and though the different perspective angle is getting overdone in fiction, I found it to be particularly interesting in this book.  It made you sympathize  with characters that you normally wouldn’t sympathize with.  The tough and controversial topic kept it from being cheesy and I was surprised on more than one occasion about the turn of events in the story.  Thus, not very predictable which is a good thing!  A great read, perfect for your beach bag and for lots of great discussion.

What have been your favorite books to read about controversial topics?  Do you enjoy the heated discussion that follows or do you avoid it?  Weigh in on your thoughts about Small Great Things in the comments!

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Review

April book club selection
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel by Helen Simonson

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Plot summary: In a small village of the English countryside, widowed and retired Major Ernest Pettigrew lives a quiet life.  Until one day when he receives the call that his younger brother has passed away.  This moment of grief suddenly brings about an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the local Pakistani shopkeeper in town.  They find companionship in their love of literature and commiserating over challenging family members.  As their relationship develops, the neighbors can’t seem to accept the long-standing member of their community befriending the “foreigner.”

This was what I like to call a quiet book.  It has beautiful descriptions of the English countryside (certainly making me check out flights to London ASAP!) and lilting prose.

“The dense hedges of privet, hawthorn, and beech swelled together as fat and complacent as medieval burghers.  The air was scented with their spicy dry fragrance overlaid with the tang of animals in the fields behind their cottages.  Garden gates and driveways gave glimpses of well-stocked gardens and thick lawns studded with clover clumps and dandelions.  He liked the clover, evidence of the country always pressing in close, quietly sabotaging anyone who tried to manicure nature into suburban submission.” (p. 36)

The plot sort of bobs along quietly.  I adore reading exchanges between people who have deep respect for each other and the conversations between Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew were charming.  There are also some very funny moments.  For example, this exchange between Major Pettigrew and his only, self-absorbed and work-obsessed son Roger:

“You sound as if you’re calling from a submarine, Roger,” he said chuckling.  “I expect the squirrels have been chewing on the lines again.”
“Actually, it may also be that I have you on speaker,” said Roger.  “My chiropractor doesn’t want me holding the phone under my chin anymore, but my barber says a headset encourages oily buildup and miniaturization of my follicles.” (p. 101)

After reading a few other curmudgeon-type books recently (A Man Called Ove and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), I find what I enjoy most is reading about people’s thoughts and reflections as they look over the span of their lives.  What do they miss the most?  Isn’t it always the little things?  They miss the way their children looked at the breakfast table in their nightgown and socks.  Or the way their wives looked they day they met them.  I feel like those memories are what make a person.  The things that brought them such joy and sometimes regret.

“He was sorry now for the many times he had rebuked Roger and his friends-he had underrated the joy in their rowdiness.” (p. 200)

The last 75 pages did move along at a quicker pace than the first 275 pages, though I was never bored.  It was a charming, sweet and delightful read.  I found the relationship between Mrs. Ali and the Major very interesting simply because of the native/foreigner relationship as well as the cultural and spiritual differences between them.  Ms. Simonson is an exquisite writer and I look forward to seeing what else she has in store.  The way she crafts a sentence and describes people is quite enjoyable to read.  Highly recommended.

“Life does often get in the way of one’s reading,” agreed the Major. (p. 200)

Have you read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand?  What do you feel about people’s reflections at the end of their lives?  What does it say about them?

Stories

The love of stories has been deeply rooted for as long as I can remember.  I received books as gifts for birthdays and Christmases and I remember seeing them swallow up the small space of the nightstand next to my father’s side of the bed.  My mother often read to us, but one particularly strong memory is of her reading The Secret Garden to us when we were young in preparation for a wonderful treat: seeing the stage production as a family with my beloved grandmother.  Later when we were older, we didn’t have television in the summer so I had to find something to pass the time on rainy summer days, and books were a great way to do that.Image result for photos of booksI don’t remember reading much for fun during high school and college (as many people don’t). When traveling I would pick up a random book here or there and read on the beach or some airport.  Reading was a hobby, but sporadic and completely random.  I didn’t keep track of what I read and I certainly had no direction or purpose for it.  But my love of reading was truly reignited when I moved to a new town not knowing a soul.  A few weeks after moving, my husband and I had our first child.  Now it makes no sense that I would start reading again within months of becoming a mother for the first time (you mothers can understand my thoughts here), but another discovery was quick to come: for those of us extroverts, motherhood for me could be exceptionally lonely.  

Oh, please do not misunderstand me.  I’ve known my whole life I wanted to be a mother.  I love to hold them, cuddle them, snuggle and play with them.  I loved teaching them new things (yes, I became a teacher because of it).  During high school and college I taught dance classes to all ages at three different dance studios and babysat for any family that would hire me.  When my husband and I got married, I couldn’t wait to stay at home with my kids.  But, as I mentioned before, we moved to a new place and motherhood is wonderful and amazing and fun.  And exhausting and worrisome and nerve-wracking.  I am in charge of this little soul who is truly now mine.  I was elated!  I am doing what I was born to do!!  But I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

I am thankful that I found a moms group that supported women in just our situation: veteran moms teaming up with new moms to help navigate the joys, trials and concerns of motherhood. From that group, I began to hear that other women we’re missing some of their old hobbies, one of which was reading. So, I decided to stick my neck out and ask if anyone would like to join a short-term book club.  I was so thankful there were quite a few interested and I decided to launch our group.  Be sure to check back, I’ll be telling you how I started my group!

There are many different ways to create your own Comfort Table, but I have found that one of the best ways is for you to start it yourself.  I know, I know, some of you are already getting anxious and nervous and sweaty because you aren’t like me and you hate being the initiator.  I get that.  I can hear a particular friend of mine yelling at me right now, ” That is SO not something I could do!  I hate initiating that kind of thing!”  BUT, consider what you might gain.  It might just be the thing you have been desiring for a very long time.  It might just become one of the best parts of your story.

Have you ever created a group of people that you enjoy being around?  If you haven’t yet, what would you like to be the focus of your group (i.e. books, dinner club, jewelry making, writing, etc.)?