Literary Links and Things

The past week has given me opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the writing side of reading. Put another way, as much as I enjoy the unfolding of plots, characters and ideas that reading provide, I am equally interested in the process of putting together ideas and characters in a way that holds the interest of the reader.

My benevolent dictator is, rather uncharacteristically I might add, actively encouraging me to dig beneath the surface and cultivate my natural talent for putting thoughts to paper. It is equal parts humbling, touching, and laughable to me, his belief that I might actually have what it takes to receive remuneration for my efforts. And so…I have spent less time reading politics and issues of late and more reading about what it takes to be more than a hobby writer.

In addition, and this is why homeschooling in community is a great thing, I was blessed with a writing curriculum for our upcoming school year which can only serve as a reminder to me along the way of details about the mechanics of writing I most certainly have forgotten. So, to the links and things:

I didn’t discover The Quintessential Editor. He in fact, stumbled into my path as a new follower of this blog. After reading a few pieces of his, I am fascinated by his writing journey; so much that I am happy to send the few bibliophiles who follow me over to his little spot on the web.

A friend recently shared this link to a 2014 article written by Anthony Esolen. Are there any homeschoolers who haven’t read his book?

Booky McBookerson left this one here when I first started this little blog, but for those who missed it the first time, it is worth repeating: The Long Winter and Reading’s Reward.

John Hope Writing is a great site. He not only features his work, but includes educational resources for instilling a love of reading into children. You’ll hear more from me about this author’s work. Not only is a he a  good writer, but it was he who encouraged my benevolent dictator to encourage me to get serious and write.

Please, feel free to include any additional links worth a look in the comments.

A Spool of Blue Thread

spool of blue thread

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. Originally published in 2015. 368 pages.

I suspect this is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever read that was written in within 20 years of the time I actually read it. I don’t like post-modern fiction, for the most part. I stumbled on this one completely by accident as we were in the book section of a local Target looking for a good book that our oldest daughter could read on an upcoming cross-country plane trip.

The cover caught my attention at first. When I read the synopsis on the inside cover and saw that this was a story about family, family relationships, and the way family members see themselves fitting within those relationships, I was intrigued just enough to put it back on the shelf, go to the library, and check out a copy. Nope, not enough to pay for it.

Red and Abby Whitshank are the head of a close knit family comprised of four grown children and 7 grandchildren.Their roots don’t go back any farther than Abby’s deceased parents, Red’s deceased parents, and Red’s younger sister. In their words, they are all they’ve got.

The gist is that behind the facade of perfection that outsiders see when they look at the Whitshank family, they are just a bunch of ordinary people with ordinary struggles and skeletons in their closet just like every other family. Abby’s realization of this truth, that her family isn’t particularly special, is a hard pill to swallow frankly. And she dies before it is fully digested.

I can relate to that feeling, that your family is special, and because of that I was able to become engrossed in a way I might not have otherwise. Despite Anne Tyler’s acclaim (she wrote The Accidental Tourist* and won the Pulitzer in 1988 for her novel Breathing Lessons*), this book sometimes felt as if it could have been better executed.

The uncertain flow wasn’t enough, however to dampen my interest in the story and I was able to follow it through to the end. The characters were engaging, and I rather enjoyed the fact that the family home functioned as a type of character itself.

One of my favorite moments in the book was when Abby, the family matriarch, died and  her husband Red contemplated where she ended up after departing this life. The Whitshanks were not particularly religious people. Despite the fact that Abby’s death was accidental and sudden, her pre-writen instructions for her home going had specified both the church and the minister she wanted to officiate. She also asked that the thing not be too overtly religious, and the minister so obliged. Afterward, it seemed to Red that something was missing. As he recalled the eulogy that had been offered for his late wife, he asked their daughter:

“Where did he say she went?”

“To a vast consciousness,” Amanda told him.

“Well that does sound like something your mother might do,” he said. “But I don’t know. I was hoping for someplace more concrete.”

Red was a master carpenter and home builder so the line did double duty in the book, while also giving me a hint of  expression for what I thought about this book. There were characters who were not quite concrete.

The beautiful, extremely devout daughter-in-law who said  little, but left you wondering hoe she ended up married into an irreligious family..Red’s sister, who typified much of the spirit of discontent that was part of the Whitshank family legacy, was another.

All that said, A Spool of Blue Thread was a story told well enough to keep the reader plugged in until the end. Especially if you enjoy family dramas with their mix of the mundane, the profound and the emotional ups and downs that all families experience. The stuff that makes life interesting.

Grade: B-

Content advisory: I don’t think an advisory is warranted because Tyler is very tasteful in her presentation, but the first generation of Whitshanks that we meet in the book are Red’s 26 year-old father who had a scandalous relationship with his mother when she was 13. I hate trigger warnings, but you know it is these days.

* This is the first novel I have read of Anne Tyler’s. I might in the future be inclined to read one of her two acclaimed works.





the life-changing magic of tidying up

tidying up

The life-changing magic of tidying up, by Marie Kondo. Originally published in 2011. 226 pages.

This is a lifestyle book, but at least it is a genuinely useful one. Marie Kondo filled a need based on a post-modern trend that could really only ever exist is a culture of material excess and consumption, but it is still a real need.

In the life-changing magic of tidying up, Kondo testifies that she has been fairly well obsessed with cleaning and purging since she was  child. Clutter annoyed her. After attempting countless methods suggested by numerous “organization experts” in tens of books and magazines, she came up with a method of her own, which she calls the KonMari method.

It’s a straight forward route to a de-cluttered house, and the best part is that when you get there, you won’t have to worry about ever having to deal with clutter again. Well, so long as you stay out of Target, Old Time Pottery, Williams-Sonoma and other bastions of clutter producing products.

In a nutshell, the Konmari method is this: Go through your house, in one fell swoop, and get rid of everything that is unused, unneeded, is lacking beauty, or doesn’t bring you joy. All of it. Every piece of clothing, kitchen gadget, tech gadget, tool, shoe, sock, bra, CD, book, or brick-a-brac. All of it. Even if it means you have to rent a dumpster to put outside your house and collect it all. Because our problem really isn’t lack of cabinet space:

“I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want.”

Now let me tell you. This SPEAKS to me. I am a purger by nature who gives away or tosses as much as I can as often as I can. And this is where Marie Kondos’s method turns controversial. This tosser is married to a keeper, so we keep a lot.

I wasn’t too far into the book when I began to question: How is this supposed to work in the context of a household of people who want to keep all their stuff? It wasn’t long before she made it clear that it would be wrong to throw away other people’s things without their permission. However, the hope is that your housemates might be inspired as they see you de-clutter the spaces you are authorized to purge.

One of the light bulb moments in the book was when the author suggested we learn to make a marked shift in thinking from trying to decide what we want to get rid of to evaluating the things we truly desire to keep:

we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.

That alone cut my wardrobe significantly. In a good way.

One room I am authorized to “go konmari” in is the bedroom of our two youngest daughters, ages 8 and 9, so I did. Despite wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of our 9-year old (a keeper), the end result was so startling that even she had to admit that it was a good thing that I went through the toys with a merciless eye.

If there was thing about the book I found highly impractical, it was the details of the konmari technique. She suggests that whatever category you’re purging (clothes, shoes, books, whatever), that you take every item from all over the house, put it on the floor in the middle of a main room, and touch each item to see how it makes you feel:

the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

That felt a bit new-agey for one thing, but on top of that we have a fairly large house in which we have lived for 15 years. There’s far too much stuff in here for that to be in any way practical. Very few things are capable of bringing me joy unless they are connected in to a memory or experience with those I love most. Getting rid of things is easy. Getting everyone else to get rid of things is harder.

Overall, it’s a good book if for no other reason than it helped me to really consider the amount of useless *stuff* I keep in our home.There is just too much stuff. And even if I can’t get rid of as much of it as I’d like, I can certainly refrain from needlessly adding to what is already here.

Grade: B

Content advisory: This book’s author is Japanese, and this subject is approached from a very Eastern perspective. I had no problem at all with that, but I thought I’d make it known to those of you who would like to know it.

Creative Miscellany: Quaint Country Photos

I am not much of a photographer, but when I get in the mood for it, the camera is with me every where I go.

We recently spent a few days in the country. I mean the real country, not the outskirts of suburbia where people have a couple acres, a few chickens and a garden box. I don’t mean to denigrate that lifestyle (I’ll take it over this concrete jungle), but when you spend some time in the real back woods, you see the difference in ways you wouldn’t otherwise.

Anyways, while there I couldn’t help but find myself taking pictures of the scenery before our return to real life of suburban sprawl. There’s plenty I love about our life, but the difference between roosters, goats, and crickets in the morning compared to car doors, garbage trucks, and planes flying overhead is pretty startling.

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Hand made by my uncle (in-law), as was the cabin we stayed in

Going outside in the early AM to calm, quiet, and a breeze rustling the trees is pretty exhilarating.

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Little touches outside the front door to remind you of the glory of God give me the warm fuzzies:

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The decor in our house is pretty contemporary, but I loved this lamp:

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Spending a few days in a log cabin, built by the hands of a loved one, with wood from trees he cut and harvested-with his wife!- made it all the more special:

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It was sublime really, but there still is no place like home, and the very next evening after we arrived home my husband pulled over to the side of the road to snap this picture of the dusk sunset:

stormy sunset


These are truly times which try men’s souls, to borrow from Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, there is always beauty to be found for those who dare to look.There is always something to be thankful for.

 Finally… whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. ~Philippians 4:8


Iconic Characters: Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram

Last night our older girls decided to put on the big box office adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As I joined them about 1/4 way through the film I was again reminded of the honesty and candor with which Jane Austen treated her characters, but especially her female characters.


BBC’s Maria Bertram

As we watched the the feral and impulsive Lydia Bennett, I was reminded of the equally unsavory Maria Bertram from one of Austen’s lesser acclaimed novels, Mansfield Park.  Maria was certainly the more offensive of the two, having married one man for security:

Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could.

And later running off with another man -Henry Crawford- for lust. Simple propriety, not to mention social reprisals, should have dictated that Maria could never behave so shamelessly. She did however, and Austen set the stage earlier for what was to come:

When they came within the influence of Sotherton associations, it was better for Miss Bertram, who might be said to have two strings to her bow. She had Rushworth-feelings, and Crawford-feelings, and in the vicinity of Sotherton, the former had considerable effect.

Needless to say, Maria’s tale does not end well.

With Lydia Bennett, however, Austen writes a softer landing after she runs off with a handsome and caddish soldier who has no intention of making an honest woman of her. She however is wholly oblivious to this pertinent imformation:

You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham.

She is rescued by none other than Mr. Darcy*, who pays Wickham to marry her, and the family is spared even greater embarrassment than they already endure.


Lydia- 2005 Pride and Prejudice

Perhaps because she was much younger (15), more impressionable, and less well raised than the character in Mansfield Park, Lydia is spared the full brunt of the natural consequences of her deplorable stunt. Her mother was loud, ill-mannered, and nosy. He father, having awakened to the reality that the woman he married in his youth was foolish and insufferable beneath her beauty,  had largely retreated from the life of the family. Lydia was certainly her mother’s daughter.

Maria and Lydia as presented by Austen, are achingly familiar and in 2016, and all too common.  Austen, like several authors of her era, effectively exposes the motivations, nature, and moral crises of her characters, male and female alike, head on. No cover is given for “extenuating circumstances” or “childhood hurts”. When her female characters do horrid things it is because they are women of horrible character. Period.

Lydia and Maria remind us that despite the seeming proliferation of wanton behavior in this post modern era, there really is nothing new under the sun.

*I realize that Mr. Darcy is the most popular male lead of all Jane Austen’s male characters, but he is not mine. Far from it in fact, as I noted before.


Mrs. Piggle Wiggle

mrs piggle wiggle

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald, originally published in 1957. 128 pages.

I’d been meaning to get acquainted with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle for the past couple of years but she kept dropping off of my radar screen. In anticipation of a recent family road trip I ventured out to the library to find books on CD. There on the shelf, was Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

Before I continue the review, a brief aside. Despite the fact that we are a house full of avid book lovers, our 9-year-old shows very little interest in reading. She occasionally runs across a book that holds her interest to the very end, but without some gentle prodding from one of us, rarely will she pick up a book for the pure pleasure of it.

It occurred to me that in addition to the books on CD, I should also check out hard copies of the books so that our youngest girls could read along while they listened to the books during the long road trip. We checked out several books and CD sets according to this plan.

In the car the girls decided to start out with The Whipping Boy, even though they’d read it before. They like the story and read their books while the CD played. It was such an enjoyable experience for our 9-year-old that she said it “didn’t even feel like I was reading.” Of course I filed this strategy into the mental Rolodex, and decided to pass it along to any readers who have a child who is a fine reader but just doesn’t particularly enjoy it as a pastime. While they read The Whipping Boy, I decided to preview Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a delightful woman who lives in an upside-down house, smells like fresh-baked sugar cookies, and welcomes all the children in the neighborhood into her home where they can play, be creative, and of course, have tea and cookies. She also knows what makes children tick, and because of this parents often call on her to provide fun and creative, if a bit wacky, solutions to the behavior problem they encounter in their children.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle reminded me of a cross between Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins, but without actually living with the children she helps, which means she could help lots more children and parents.

One of the interesting notes about the book were the way Betty MacDonald had the mothers of the children call on their friends to ask for suggestions to deal with their child’s sassiness, messiness, or selfishness. Of course after several phone calls someone always refers her to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, who is sure to have a fix for hat ails the child.

With tricks to cure everything from impudence (The Answer-Backer Cure) to sibling fighting (The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure, to messiness (The Wont-Pick-Up-Toys Cure), there is very little related to the proper care and training of children that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t know about. This magical neighborhood nanny always gives instructions to the parents for them to execute, and with patient endurance and sticking to the plan, they always get results.

With plenty of humor that only an adult could appreciate, Betty MacDonald weaves a tale and creates a character in Mrs. Piggle Wiggle that is good fun for adults  as well as the children who are her target audience.

I would suggest that this book is appropriate for children ages 8-10.

Grade: B+

Content advisory: In Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, spanking is mentioned as a normal and perfectly legitimate for parent to use as a disciplinary measure. It didn’t bother me, but I thought I should offer this information for those who are reluctant to allow their children to read it for that reason.

The Problem of Pain

problem of pain The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. Orignaly published in 1940.

It’s a question as old as time and religion themselves: How do we reconcile the truth that God is good with the counter truth that life is often filled with pain?

“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.- p.26

With this statement at the beginning of the second chapter of his short book, C. S. Lewis begins to take his readers on a mental exercise in which we arrive at the ultimate conclusion that God is good, even when life doesn’t appear good. Good that is, from the context of what the human creature defines as good.

Lewis makes it clear that any acknowledgement of God as all knowing, all loving and all powerful must necessarily coexist with an acknowledgement that we can’t possibly be so arrogant as to assume our definitions of good, bad, right or wrong can ever perfectly match God’s. Selah.

Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that greater men and Biblical writers before him have reached, and anyone who reads here certainly knows the answer.

However, Lewis does -in contemporary language- offer many notable thoughts we can take with us as we round out our journey with him through the “problem” of pain. Pain serves a purpose and a loving one at that:

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.

He points out the inherent problem with assuming that God’s allowance of pain speaks to some limitation of His goodness or power:

If you choose to say, “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do  not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix them with the two other words “God can”.

On the nature of pain Lewis writes:

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.
In the end we all have a choice to make whether to glorify God in the midst of this seeming paradox which is not. The conclusion of the matter remains the same regardless of our choice:
A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.
The Screwtape Letters has no been supplanted as my favorite C.C. Lewis work on the nature of the relationship between human frailty  and the Divine.
 I always appreciate the opportunity Lewis affords me to think about things from vantage points and in ways I hadn’t considered.* Even if I had considered them, Lewis expressed it so much more eloquently.
Grade: B+
* Speaking of eloquently expressed questions of life and faith, I will leave y’all  with the question my husband asked me today on the nature of pain and grief:
“How much more time would any one of us need with our  loved ones where we would say was ‘long enough’ before they leave us? How much more would we be satisfied with?”