Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Without Opa

Currently Reading: Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Yellow House by Patricia Falvey.

Today has been a Christmas baking day, one full of cinnamon smells, wiping flour on my apron, and licking dough from bowls. My back is sore but my heart is full. Everywhere I look, I feel and see Christmas- from the carols serenading us to the lights on the Christmas tree to the bags full of Christmas goodies on the counters. (Nate playing Harry Potter Lego on the Xbox isn't exactly Christmas, but I'll take it anyway.) :) This year, we used our new Advent wreath (Adventskranz for us German folk) to celebrate the Advent season. While we got a little behind on lighting the candles, we are making sure that all four will be lit tonight as Advent ends and the Christmas celebrating begins.


I am a little nervous for Christmas this year, for it will be our first one without Opa. He won't be there to put on his obviously-fake-but-terribly-cute Santa wig and beard to pass out his "special envelopes," or to sit at the head of the table during Christmas dinner. He won't be making up his own silly lyrics to a Christmas carol and making me laugh- not at the lyrics but at the silly voice he uses. I dreamt about him several weeks ago, and he was using that silly voice again, making a joke just for me. I missed it. It was good to hear it again.


Every year, my sister, Nathan, and I put up our Oma's Christmas village after Thanksgiving. It is something my sister and I have always done; Nate has now become part of the tradition. Ever since we were little, we have lugged up boxes of porcelain houses and accessories, and proceed to perfectly design a little Christmas village in the middle of Oma's living room. We have never missed a year.


While we do this, we always listen to the same CD of Christmas carols, Oma bustles in and out with extra tablecloths and some mugs of hot cocoa, and Opa would sit in his chair, watching us and giving us pointers. Two years ago, as he watched and we admired our handiwork, he said something about how someday he wouldn't be here to see us put up the Christmas village. And then he started to cry. Real tears.

The only time I have ever seen him cry was when he would tell the dog fart story that made him laugh so hard, he was sobbing. But this time was different. Suddenly, my Opa was showing us how important our little ritual was to him, and how much he would miss it when he was gone. In shock, I went to him and laid my head in his lap and cried with him for a minute or two. Then we dried our eyes, and laughed, and I fetched him cocoa. That was really the last time he was with us for the construction of the village. Last year, he still sat and watched us, but he was more listless and a bit unaware of what was going on. This year, of course, my sister and I fought back the tears as Roger Whittaker's version of "Ding Dong Merrily On High" sailed into the room and we began to lift houses out of boxes. His chair was empty. But he and I had that moment, that good-bye to our tradition together two years ago and when I look back on it, I am so glad it happened. That is one of my favorite memories of my Opa, despite the heartache of it.

Putting up the Christmas village this year was hard, but we made it. I like to think it was our precursor to what Christmas will be like this year- hard and dreadfully sad, but still bearable. Still happy. Still celebrating.

I will celebrate the family I have, here and there. I will celebrate the 24 years I had with the greatest Opa of them all, and I will celebrate that someday I will get to see him again. And I will celebrate love, and magic, and hope, which is stronger than the pain and the heartache of loss. My soul is at peace and ready for the joy that is Christmas.

I intended to discuss my journey into Louisa May Alcott's world recently, as I finished the biography Marmee and Louisa, read several of her short stories, and started reading Little Women out loud to Nathan.... but it seems like I needed to get this out today. Thank you for listening. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Be Still

Currently Reading: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante and The Yellow House by Patricia Falvey

Nathan and I went to our church on Saturday afternoon, slipping into the quiet, darkened sanctuary for a half hour of stillness and reflection and prayer, alone with our Lord in His house. It felt so right, so necessary, to center ourselves and lift our thoughts and questions to God after a day of tragic news and horrific truths. I left the church feeling whole and restored, still shaken but sure of who He is and the good that still exists in this world.

My journal received some of my thoughts this weekend, but I want to share some of them here as well. There is so much sadness in the world, so much I want to change- not just the tragedy in Connecticut but those who struggle and hurt every day- in poverty-stricken countries in Central America or war-torn areas in the Middle East, even the homeless and hungry in our own country- people we don't often hear or talk about and are never mentioned in our Facebook statuses. We are so blessed, so lucky to be protected and well. And when our sense of security is shattered, as it was on Friday, we grapple with our feelings of vulnerability and of fear. Of our mortality. Of the potential of losing what is most dear to us. We are stripped raw and exposed as we force ourselves to re-examine what is most important in our lives, and let go of the things that don't matter. While it hurts and tears at us, it is so good to venture from our stable pillars and reassert our faith in God, in each other, and in ourselves.

Weeks from now, the events of this weekend- the pain, the fragility, the awakening- will only be an aching memory and we will return to our daily routines and worries. But this week, with Friday's events still raw in our hearts and with Christmas celebrations drawing closer, my challenge for myself- and for you- is to watch and take note of the little blessings we are given every day, savoring the joy that comes when we stop to notice them. One of my favorite Bible verses is "Be still, and know that I am God." When I am still, when I stop and slow down to fully recognize the blessings of my life, I find God. He is there- in the glow of our Christmas tree, in the dance of sunlight on snow, in the voices of my loved ones. I will seek Him, living in gratitude, despite the world of sin in which I live. And by doing so, even when I feel most helpless, I know that gratitude can lead to amazing things, that it is powerful. With thankful hearts, we can bring love and understanding and kindness to our world and the world of those around us. We can change our perspective... and make a difference in our own, unique ways.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Peek Into the Kitchen

Currently Reading: A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz

I love my kitchen.


It's a tiny galley kitchen with barely any counter space but it is one of my favorite rooms in the apartment. Cooking was never my "thing" growing up; it was my sister who helped my mother make pizza dough and chop ingredients. It was never very interesting to me until I moved out and started living on my own in college. Suddenly, cooking became exciting and I looked forward to trying new recipes.


In my kitchen, I am able to express another aspect of my creativity. I savor the act of slipping my apron over my neck and rolling up my sleeves, grabbing mixing bowls and measuring cups. And with the holidays right around the corner and the semester wrapping up, I'm looking forward to all of the days I will have to spend creating in the kitchen. Lately, I have been very interested in creating homemade pantry staples, thanks to my new favorite cookbook, The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila. (Her blog is linked here; she is a great cook and very helpful. Both times I have emailed her with questions about yogurt firmness or cleaning my Dutch oven, she has responded within days.) Thanks to her cookbook, I blanched my first batch of corn on the cob this summer and I learned a wickedly delicious butternut squash soup recipe. Best of all, we no longer buy cereal, yogurt, canned beans, hamburger buns, or vegetable stock- I now make all of these things from scratch, which is gratifying in so many ways.

Granola cereal and yogurt
Not only do I know that we are saving money on our monthly grocery bill, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that we are putting healthier food into our mouths, without preservatives or an influx of sugars or sodium. It is thrilling and deeply soul-satisfying to cook. I agree with Alana: "the thrill is what keeps me cooking and sharing."


I am far from done with my experimentation. Cheddar crackers, fruit roll-ups, Italian salad dressing, and more are on my list. I have also found another cookbook that I will be reading over Christmas break called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, which will hopefully yield even more ideas and inspire me further to grab my kitchen tools.

While I am far from the perfect cook, it is a hobby that I have come to really love. It is relaxing (as long as I'm not rushing to put dinner on the table) and it is therapeutic. Turns out, cooking itself has a pretty fascinating history as well. Yesterday I finished the book Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. I will never look at my kitchen gadgets the same way again. Turns out there was much I didn't think about when it came to what was in my kitchen and how the devices I take for granted- forks, fridge, oven- has had a profound impact on what we eat. The history of cooking is the history of humankind and a history of our cultures. Everything from ice cube trays to spatulas have a history, one that affected our ancestors and their survival for centuries. For instance, the invention of pots allowed humans to cook different foods together, instead of hanging individual pieces of meat or vegetables over an open flame. In addition, pots helped move us from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one, for we finally had the means to cook the food we grew. Wilson includes discussions of how ovens have changed our relationship with fire, how the type of knives we use have contributed to human jaw's overbites, and the fear people had of refrigeration. I feel like I have a better appreciation for and a new awareness of how my tools affect my cooking. Occasionally, while reading late at night, I found myself sneaking into the kitchen just to open the cabinets and study my kitchen tools- what they're made out of, how they're shaped, and think about how much harder it would be without these devices. I truly feel that anyone who has a passion for cooking would learn so much from this book. I know that it has increased my passion and inspired me even further.

Have a great weekend! Here is a little holiday magic to start December off right!


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Words My Windows

Currently Reading: Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes

Six months ago.....

We were driving through Ireland for the first time.


Walking its fields.


Listening to the sea. 


Finding where I belong.


Every day, my heart longs to return. I can't wait for the day when we do.

In the meantime, I escape back to Ireland through my books. I just finished the last Sevenwaters book, which was mesmerizing and exciting and a wonderful homecoming for me. And I have some good "Ireland books" planned for the coming months: Tales of the Elders of Ireland, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Corrag, I Am of Irlaunde, Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends, 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion, and The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog.

These books will be my plane tickets... their words my windows. I will return.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why I Love

Currently Reading: Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes


What is Only my newest obsession (besides experimenting with new recipes and listening to Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music). is a free website that functions as a virtual personal library. Here are some of the many reasons I have fallen in love with Goodreads:

1) In my opinion, one of the best things about Goodreads is the ability to find new books that are very similar to books I have already read and love. Here's how it works: I add and rate books that I have read and/or enjoyed throughout my life, ones that I feel best represent my reading style. In addition, I add books to my already-read list as I finish them. Based on these collections, Goodreads compiles these amazing lists based on the genres I tend to read most or my Favorites List or my Want-to-read list and provides me with recommendations for new books I can add to my Want-to-read list. And it is good. I have already discovered a huge amount of books that I had never heard of before but that seem to fit my reading styles and preferences perfectly. I feel like I am an explorer discovering new worlds, and Goodreads is my map.

2) I can see what my friends are reading. This is great because I get so many new ideas of books to read when I see my friends reading and rating them. Not to mention that it's fun to see what my friends are reading... forget Facebook statuses- I just want to see your reading updates! :) Also, think of the Christmas present potential here! I now know EXACTLY what my friends and relatives want to read! Perfect Christmas present in the bag.

3) While I already have a little journal in which I keep track of the books I read each month, Goodreads allows me to also track the books I want to read and keeps it all in such nice order.

4) The snazzy covers. I am probably the only one who would actually write about the aesthetics of Goodreads, but just like at the library and on my own bookshelves, seeing all of those colorful covers lined up next to each other makes my heart skip a beat.

5) The Christmas-morning sense of anticipation when I scroll through my "to-read" books with growing excitement for the day I will start reading them. Anticipation and potential are like my bread and butter, and looking forward to my next reading experiences is especially helping me get through the rest of this semester.

6) Best of all, I feel that my bookshelves and book recommendations are so ME. Like my bookshelves at home, my Goodreads lists reflect my personality and my interests. From The Brontes: A Life in Letters and Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer on my "To-Read" list to The Awakening and The Bean Trees on my already-read list, the books on my shelves serve as an affirmation of who I am. Looking at my book lists is like viewing little reflections of my soul. And I love that.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Trapped in Creepy Houses

Currently Reading: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England

I read a quote today that I found on BronteBlog from an interview with an author named Chloe Hooper describing a key aspect of both Jane Eyre and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (You all know how much I love the former, but the latter book is fantastic as well).

Ms. Hooper says, "I love all of those Gothic classics such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca, stories of heroines trapped in spooky houses and heroes of dubious backgrounds...But I think those stories of women trapped in houses are often linked to women's ambivalence about domesticity and marriage. And the thriller, which is a genre that works on ambivalence about our fears and desires, is also a perfect way to talk about marriage."

This especially intrigued me, not only because it is a fantastic analysis of the structure of both books, but also because it resonates with the book I am currently reading: The Turn of the Screw. All three books feature young, often naive, female protagonists who inadvertently and unintentionally find themselves in circumstances outside of their control. All with a touch of Gothic creepiness, each story takes place in a large, well-to-do country house in which dark and terrible secrets are hidden. This plot device is not, as the quote above states, coincidental. As I think about it more, I see the connections better and better. In each novel, the young woman is an inferior by status (the main female character in Rebecca is the only one who is not a governess and is in fact the lady of the house, but she is still inferior by birth, age, and (seemingly) in relation to Rebecca), and come through some means to a grand but seemingly innocuous house. The master is secretive, an enigma to the women. (In Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint replaces the master in this way). He is hiding something, but no one seems to know what. The protagonist's seemingly normal existence is soon replaced by sinister and dire circumstances within her new home that spiral out of her control. She is caught right in the thick of it all, but often without understanding or knowing the entire truth. I am fascinated by the implications of Hooper's analysis- while I have always known that each novel focuses on female social and sexual limitations, I have never made a connection between the setting (and the "trapped" aspect) and women's fears about the limitations of marriage and their personal battles against the limitations of their gender. As I see it now, the male masters represent the ways in which many males and husbands were perceived by their wives at these times: as dominant and enigmatic, while the houses- foreboding and secretive- represent the terror of women's own daily realities, shut within house and home, with no control over her life. In Jane Eyre, she escapes this; yet when she returns, it is to a different house and a changed man. A different house and a changed man! In all of my readings, I have never contemplated the implications of this. I feel as if another window has opened, revealing a different view, a different angle. This is why I read... there is always something new to discover.

Turn of the Screw has turned out to be the perfect Halloween read, as a chill-inducing ghost story and a psychological thriller. A new addition to my fall must-reads!

Give me your thoughts on all of this... I'd love to hear more!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Austen Convert

Currently Reading: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes

I have a slight confession to make: I have never really been a Jane Austen fan. (Please don't hate me. I understand this is tantamount to murder in some circles, but I must be honest here.) Of course her books are interesting and well-written, but none of them (except perhaps Sense & Sensibility) really excited or captivated me. Her characters always seemed two-dimensional and unrealistic; I couldn't identify them with anyone I had actually met in the real world. The plots, frankly, tend to be a bit boring and predictable; with some variation on characters and situations, they usually follow the same recipe.

The only Jane Austen book I ever found myself truly enjoying was Sense & Sensibility. I read it two summers ago and actually fell in love with the characters of Elinor and Marianne. For once, two Austen characters I could identify with! That summer, I found myself enthralled with an Austen, which I had never thought possible. Sense & Sensibility revived my interest in Austen and made me resolve to read and re-read more in the future. Several weeks ago, my "classics itch" set in with the onset of cooler weather and I decided on Northanger Abbey as my classic of choice. With only two more Austen's to read, I settled on Northanger because my sister, whose judgment on books I trust wholeheartedly, had enjoyed it.


Remind me to always listen to my sister. Not only was Northanger Abbey enjoyable, it literally made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Yes, the plot follows a similar thread as Austen's other works, but the difference for me lay in the character of Catherine and the tone of the writing. For the first time, I felt like Jane Austen was fully present, as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a published work. She was not invisible within the work, but right there with me, providing witty comments and often extremely humorous and even snide comments about the characters or the circumstances. I found myself thrilled to travel with her from Fullerton to Bath to Northanger, my 19th century travel companion. How could I have ever thought her boring and predictable before? Here she was, in the flesh, each tongue-in-cheek comment leaving me in a small fit of giggles.

For instance: “She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance - a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” 

Or this one:  “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another- we are an injured body.” 

And finally: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” 

These don't include the myriad of other slight "asides" slipped into a conversation or a description that caught me completely off-guard but really did delight me in the reading of them.

Because of Catherine, because of Northanger, I can now say that I really am a Jane Austen fan. In one short book, I feel as though I came to know her intimately as a writer, a woman, and a person. The plot is good and the characters interesting, but the writing is what really swept me away. I think I'm going to have to make a new spot on my shelf.

What's your favorite Jane Austen? Is anyone else a Jane Austen convert, like I am? Which book converted you? I'd love to know!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cemetery Wanderings

Currently Reading: Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes and I Am America (and So Can You) by Stephen Colbert

Today was spent at a local orchard with my mom, sister, cousins, aunt, and Nate. Spending an afternoon petting goats, drinking cider, sampling fresh apples, and indulging in hot apple pie is one of my favorite autumnal activities. Especially with my family.
Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England is turning out to be the perfect fall read. While it may sound morbid to some, it is absolutely fascinating. A dissertation on Puritan attitudes toward death, it examines the way in which the Puritan colonists viewed death, faced death, and dealt with the deaths of loved ones, especially as it related to their doctrinal beliefs. In many ways, we are blessed to be much more separated from the reality and haunt of death than our forebears were. It is not the constant presence it once was, when most families lost several children and many people succumbed to diseases that are unfamiliar to us today. Yet unlike many other things about our world and society that has changed in the intervening 300 years, we all still must face and come to terms with the reality of death at some point in our lives. It is something that connects us all, and it is quite interesting to reflect on the commonalities and differences between the ways in which we face death.
And speaking of death...... One of my favorite things: exploring cemeteries. Especially at this time of year. When one of my best friends came to visit several weeks ago, we did just that.



Besides my husband, she's my favorite person to explore cemeteries with.


She was talking to me about a symbol on one of the stones. I caught her mid-speak. Sorry, Ash!
One of the cemeteries we went to is a small cemetery for a settlement in the 1840s and 1850s that has now disappeared. It is close to our home, tucked into a small copse of trees between two farms.



A small rusted gate leads into it and the stones are all over a century old, weathered by time.


I feel my soul quieten and still every time I wander a cemetery. Images fill my mind as I walk past the stones- the mourners in black circled around freshly dug graves, prayers and Psalms spoken into the wind, families and neighbors creating a community of strength in the face of loss. So many stories are told with each stone, in each family plot. I am always humbled by the strength of memory permeating such places. And in the act of bending over to read the faded words, they are remembered again, and exist briefly once more.
Little things that are exciting me lately: squash, my "to-read" list (ooh, I've got some good ones coming up), my cat, chili in the Crock-Pot, wearing my prayer shawl as I read, finishing homework, clean laundry, and good coffee. How about you?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Birthday

Currently Reading: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

A quick post this morning, in between homework, cooking, and getting ready for work. It is simply beautiful outside- bright autumn morning sunlight glancing off of our balcony, a chill breeze blowing the leaves, and a perfect palette of blue sky against brown fields. I have never been able to get over how lovely it is outside in the fall. Driving to school on Monday mornings is a little bit dreadful (because I am so tired) but mostly amazing, as I literally watch the sun rise on the fields and barns dotting the land, transforming everything from the still, silent wakefulness that comes with the pre-dawn darkness to a world vibrant with color and light. In those moments, I feel closer to God in a way that is outside the liturgy of Church. It is difficult to explain, but I revel in the feeling of being so wholly alive. As Jane Eyre says, "We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us."

Coincidentally enough, today is the 165th anniversary of the publication of my most treasured book-friend, Jane Eyre. You can read all about my relationship with, and musings over Jane Eyre in several past posts from June. To celebrate today, I'm pulling out some more of my favorite quotes:

"It is in vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it."

"Now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fear, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."

Helen Burns to Jane: "Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it; it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."

Jane to Rochester: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you."

165 years later, they still have such a powerful meaning, such relevance, so much emotion and truth within each line. 165 years from now, I know they will still have that same hold for future readers. Happy Birthday to a fantastic book. How will you celebrate today?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Affair with Autumn

Currently Reading: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

As I knew it would, the demands of schoolwork has affected my blogging. I obviously do not write and post as often as I would like, and though it sounds silly, not being able to blog on a regular basis makes me feel guilty- like I'm not a good blogger because I participate so infrequently. While I wonder how this affects my readership, I must remind myself that I write for myself, first and foremost.

About a week ago, I finished The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, listening to it on audiobook as it accompanied me to and from school. The novel is set in the 1980s in an alternate reality, where the Crimean War is still being waged and literature is taken as seriously as religion is in this country. The story follows a Special Operative LiteraTec named Thursday Next, who must rescue Jane Eyre after she is abducted from the pages of her book. Yes, it is possible in this novel to go into other novels- Martin Chuzzlewit, a Wordsworth poem. It was a fun book- quirky and imaginative, a book one reads just for fun. I absolutely loved all of the literary references: a hotel called Finis; a reporter named Melinda Floss (say it quickly: it sounds like "Mill on the Floss"..hehe); people going door to door Jehovah-witness style to convert people into believing that Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare's plays; people stepping into poems and wandering the corridors of Thornfield Hall. The scenes at Thornfield Hall were of course the highlight of the book- (I may have squealed a bit when Mr. Rochester came on the scene)- though perhaps it was a bit irreverent to a Jane Eyre lover- key plot points are different, and anything can happen in the margins (tourists come and go, villains escape into the environs of Millcote, a certain LiteraTec lives for months hidden inside the hall-all without Jane's knowledge, so as not to disrupt the story-line.) It all adds up to a purely delightful reading experience, one that kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Annnnnnnd...... it's autumn again!


My favorite season of them all. Fall is a time of remembrance and reflection for me, a time to look back on the year and look forward to the year ahead. I think there is something within me and probably within all of us- a genetic memory of sorts- that awakes at this time of year. Something that remembers the harvest, the preparation for winter, My soul leaps at the farm fields bathed in a chill autumn sunrise, a V of geese overhead, the smell of dead leaves, butternut squash soup, slipping my apron over my head, chilly air filling my lungs. As I wrote in my "Halloween Book List" last year, my book list often reflects the time of year as well. Falltime is when I pull out my history books on the Puritans, on colonial history, on the Salem Witch Trials. I have done it for so many years that fall seems like the only backdrop now against which I can read these books. While right now, I am finishing up Northanger Abbey, which I will talk about in my next post, and just started Brooklyn as an audiobook, I have already reserved a book that I am really looking forward to: Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England. Oh yeah, baby. It may sound morbid, but I have always been fascinated by the history of our perceptions and relationship with death. "History toward the Attitudes of Death" was my favorite class in college, and I just eat up books and documentaries about cemeteries, funeral rites, beliefs about death. I think my job has something to do with it- or perhaps I have my job because of this interest I have always harbored. Either way, it gives me so much to look forward to, to ponder over, to learn.

My reading and my blogging may have taken a bit of a backseat to this thing we call grad school, but I still have it here, waiting for me and for those moments when I can stop and take a breath. That's a nice reassurance. Have a great week! Go find a fun Halloween read!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Company

Currently Reading: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Today is one of those days where I wish I had Jane with me. 

I'm sitting in a library on campus, trying to motivate myself to start my homework but actually feeling very small in all of my aloneness. This is the first time I have gone back to school since graduating from my smaller Minnesota university, and let me tell you, it is a world of difference. This campus is huge, for one thing. And there are so many people. Add to that the fact that I'm only in the city and on campus once a week, and it equals out to not many chances to get to know people. The others in my classes are very nice- and I've had some good conversation starters with some of them. I always appreciate a smile, a joke, a little aside about the project we just finished. But it feels different than socializing as an undergraduate, and it makes me miss my friends even more.

I never thought to pack some book company for school, figuring I am usually up to my head in homework readings. But today, I really crave a nice dip into familiar territory, to take the tang of "new" and "alone" out of my mouth. I am not lonely- or at least, I feel less so- when I have my nose in a book, socializing with beloved characters or meeting new faces.

I am not good with loneliness. Oh, I love being alone every once in awhile... a nice long car ride all to myself, to sort out my thoughts. Or the apartment to myself for a couple of hours, testing the quiet. But otherwise, it sorta sucks. I grew up with a little sister who was by my side constantly. I can't remember days without her up until I was 18. Don't even ask her how many times I begged her to sleep in my room because I just wanted company. It continued through college... I bravely forged my way at a university where I knew nobody, enjoying the anonymity but pretty quickly trying to make new connections. It happened fairly fast (I met most of my best friends within a month of school, and I met my future husband within two). From that time on, I always had someone there to rely on, if need be. I always knew that someone close by had my back and would be there in a heart's beat if I needed them. It is reassuring to have that. And of course, I still do, although we are now spread out across the Midwest (with two in Colorado). Nathan is there for me, every day, with encouragement and laughs. But when I'm flung into these moments, looking around, recognizing that no one in this city knows me, the world starts to close in a bit.

Which is why my favorite book would be such a welcome relief right now. At last, someone I recognize and who wishes me well! I wonder if I could find a copy of Jane Eyre somewhere on this campus. I'm sure I could.

Friday, September 21, 2012

What A Full Soul Looks Like

Currently Reading: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

This is what Colorado/best friend reunion/beautiful wedding looks like:








To say it was perfect does not cover exactly how magical this weekend was. The pictures speak for themselves, I think. It was truly a feast for my soul, filling it with love and memories and purpose, giving me strength.

A link and a funny to end the night off well:

NPR Books is one of my favorite feeds to follow on Facebook; it always contains such interesting articles and interviews. This article highlighted such a neat way of experiencing a book.... and it made me a bit hungry. I love how each picture perfectly encapsulates the book itself, not just by the food, but by the table setting or the type of cutlery. The aura of the book sings from each photo.

And finally:

I had to laugh out loud at this one. This is me. Right here. My husband posted this on my Facebook wall... does he know me well, or what? Some of the fictional deaths I remember crying the most for was: Severus Snape, Marilla Cuthbert (sobbed so hard my mother had to come ask me what was wrong), Sorcha (from the Sevenwaters trilogy. I dare you to read her death scene without bawling), Beth March (who hasn't cried at this scene?), and Sidney Carton. I'm sure there have been more, but these were the first to pop into my head right away. My motto: if a book can heighten every emotion in your body, and make you cry, then that is a good book. I really think that's the only criteria. What do you think? How many of you can identify with the bereaved reader? :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Sometimes the Books Choose Me"

Currently Reading: Take This Bread by Sara Miles and homework!

Well folks, I can now officially say that I am a grad student. I always get a bit overwhelmed when I start something new, but I am looking forward to settling into my new schedule and routine, (ideally) perfectly balancing school with work with family.

Today will be a quick post since I have a lot of homework to finish before we go to Colorado for a few days. One of my best friends is getting married, which makes me happier than words could possibly express. I am honored to stand up with her as a bridesmaid, although I hope not to make a spectacle of myself, since I tend to get overly weepy at weddings. :)

 For those who don't know, I am studying Library and Information Studies, with a specialization in Archives and Records Management. It may be a mouthful but after my two classes yesterday, I couldn't stop grinning. It is a massive relief to feel in your soul, despite the overwhelming feelings or the worries about doing well, that you are in the right place. I am excited to follow this path and see where it leads me.

Speaking of readings for school, I absolutely had to share one for my Introductory class that focuses solely on reading: the act of reading, how readers read and why, and why this matters to libraries. The book is called Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals About Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the act, the purpose, and sometimes the pure magic of reading. We only had to read the first chapter for our assignment, which mostly focused on why the myth that "reading is dying" in our society is not true. It also explores libraries' role not only to provide learning materials, but also to provide entertainment, and reading for pleasure. That reading for pleasure should not be something shameful, but something embraced, because "people have a deep need not just for facts, but for story." That there are many ways of reading, whether aloud, on an e-reader, or with a group, and that all of these ways of reading are legitimate and important. Throughout the chapter, I kept finding myself mentally cheering or recognizing with a jolt a facet of my own reading experience articulated in ways I never would be able to. One of my favorite passages in the article is quoted from Sara Nelson's book So Many Books, So Little Time, "I don't always choose the books...Sometimes the books choose me." What a beautiful line.

The end of the chapter encourages us as readers and librarians to reflect on our own reading history and experiences. Nelson's quote resonated because it seems that my favorite books- the ones that touched an inner part of my soul in deep and profound ways, or spoke to me in a way that seemed to reflect my own mind- have been ones that I have stumbled onto, not sought out. I love the many ways books come into our lives, and I love that every reader is unique. I love that each book is different to each person who picks it up and I love how diverse the reading world is. I am privileged to be a part of the literary world, and to call myself a reader. It is part of my identity, part of what makes me who I am. I wouldn't want it any other way.

A couple shout-outs today: thank you to my Georgia friend, Jillian, who wrote such a beautiful review of my blog on her own wonderfully written blog, A Room of One's Own. Jillian is a kindred spirit, someone who understands me and my passions, because she shares them herself. I love following her reading journey; if there's anyone I want to spend hours with in a coffee shop someday, it's her. Also, Book Harbinger is hosting "Seven Days with Sevenwaters", in which guest bloggers write about their relationships with the Sevenwaters series. As many of you know, the Sevenwaters series is one of my favorite book series ever. They chose me when I was a lonely, insecure high school kid, and they remain precious to me today. I recommend checking both of these blogs out!

Have a great week! I probably won't be back on here until after our trip, but I'll write soon. Colorado, here we come!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Look Back

Currently Reading: Isle of the Saints by Lisa Bitel and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Yesterday was Orientation for the incoming Library Studies grad students. While I could not be more excited about starting my program, I have to admit that it was quite an intimidating and overwhelming day. However, I met a lot of nice people, which helped a lot, as well as one of my professors, so that helped me feel more comfortable. It doesn't hurt that campus is so beautiful.....and historic. One of the things I'm looking forward to the most is studying on campus- there's something inspiring and motivating about studying while surrounded by historic buildings or sequestered in a beautiful reading room. Not to mention that I love studying- reading, taking notes, crafting papers. Of course, within a few weeks, that will most likely change but for now, I have something to look forward to. Am I already panicking about the homework load? Yes. Am I worried about not making enough connections and getting enough experience in the Archives field? Heck yes. Does the commuting worry me a bit? Yup. Do I second-guess myself about my decision not to move nearer to campus and the opportunities it offers? Oh yes. But I will just do my best and see where life takes me. That's all I can do, right?

I'm mostly excited about studying here. :)

So with the dawn of school approaching, it feels as if the summer is officially at an end. The days might still be warm and the leaves still green, but my favorite season of butternut squash soup and crunchy leaves is fast approaching. It was a good summer, one filled with family get-togethers, Shakespeare plays, visits from friends, snapping home-grown tomatoes off of the vine, experiments with new recipes, and a lot of good books. Looking back at the summer reading list I posted at the beginning of June, I am pretty pleased with the progress I made. Not only did I finish eleven of the books on my list (technically fourteen, since the Sevenwaters trilogy consists of three books, not one), I also read some books that were not on my list. Nate and I ended up diving into the Little House books, and I found some books that I never expected but ended up reading immediately. Here is the final tally of the books I enjoyed this summer. (I'm including ones that I am still working on, since I hope to be done with both of them within the next week... and that's close enough for me!) In the order I read them:
Midnight in Peking
Jane Eyre
On Celtic Tides
Annie's Ghosts
Daughter of the Forest (#1 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Son of the Shadows (#2 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey
Shadow of Night
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Child of the Prophecy (#3 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Inishmurray: Island Voices
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the Prairie
People of the Book
The Homemade Pantry
The Wilder Life
Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland

As you can see, I had one very good summer. Several of these were re-reads, while some were new. Most were physical books, while a few were audiobooks. While I really didn't have a least favorite book (I thoroughly enjoyed them all... even The Wilder Life), my favorite new book was probably Inishmurray: Island Voices, since it gave me the chance to re-visit a part of Ireland that Nathan and I fell deeply in love with.

Inishmurray Island... heaven on earth

With grad school approaching, I doubt I will get as much reading done as I am accustomed to. However, with all of the commuting I will be doing, I plan on listening to as many audiobooks as I can. I've already started that list. :)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Catching a Ride into the Future

Currently Reading: Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel, The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I'll start this off with one of my favorite quotes from "Marginalia", a Billy Collins' poem: "Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria/ jotted along the borders of the Gospels/brief asides about the pains of copying,/ a bird singing near their window,/ or the sunlight that illuminated their page-/anonymous men catching a ride into the future/on a vessel more lasting than themselves."

When I first read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, in the fall of 2010, I was only a few months out of college and had just started my first real jobs at a museum and a library. I was convinced at that time the museum route was the career path I wanted to follow. The library thing... was for extra money. (Not to say I didn't love it...after all, it was a library.) Today, two years later, that has changed and I like to think that People of the Book had a tiny bit to do with it.

I picked up People of the Book because I had loved Brooks's previous novels: Year of Wonders and March. It is difficult for writers to really portray the past effectively, but Brooks does. She gives her characters such life that it is easy to forget the boundaries of time and space; I can relate to each character, whether a Jewish scribe in 15th century Spain or a young mother in a 17th century English village. Yet historical truth is never compromised; instead, she manages to keep the integrity of the historical story, while still making each character approachable and human.You can see why I would love this.

People of the Book is my favorite of all Brooks's novels. It is the story of a religious text, an old, rare book that actually exists called the Sarajevo Haggadah. (A haggadah is a Jewish holy book used in the family home for the Passover Seder). This particular haggadah is richly illuminated, much like a medieval Christian Book of Hours, which sets it apart from other early Jewish texts.

Photobucket Photobucket

It was likely created sometime in the late 15th century and has quite an amazing history. Somehow, it survived through many tragic world events,such as the Jewish expulsion from Spain, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the recent wars in Bosnia. In some ways, it is an amazing symbol of the Jewish people, and as People of the Book expresses, it is now also a symbol of Bosnia's multicultural pride. The People of the Book uses factual details about the book and its history to recreate and reimagine its story. The main protagonist is a book conservator, rebinding the haggadah after it has been saved from a bombed library in Bosnia. As she uncovers more details about the book- a butterfly's wing in the binding, salt stains on a page, a white hair tucked into a page- the narrative switches, working backward from the Holocaust to the haggadah's creation, giving the reader a glimpse of the book's past and the people behind it- creating it, using it, traveling with it, losing it, and saving it. Along the way, we discover where the wine stains came from and how to explain the salt crystals and the butterfly wing. Each chapter is a discovery, which adds up to an amazing story, one that satisfies my love for books and my fascination with people in the past.

Book-nerd that I am, I especially loved "watching" Hanna conserve the book; I fawned over the descriptions of gold-leaf and lapis lazuli, the book's quires and the binding and the fragments tucked into it. I remember thinking at the time how wonderful it would be to have a career like that, up close and personal with the remnants of people who lived and worked and worried and laughed long before my parents' or my grandparents' time, finding the clues to the past from books that acted as my only link to someone long forgotten.

Coincidentally enough, I had to clean several old books yesterday that had been donated to the Local History Room; a bit dirty, with mold spores on them, they needed a good once-over before being added to the collection. Since we don't exactly have a high-tech lab at the library, I just took them outside where the heat would help kill any extra spores (I waited for a low humidity day of course) and any mold spores were free to float away rather than into a vent, as it would if I handled them inside. There is nothing more exciting than cleaning old books. Bending over them with my brushes or handful of Absorene, I smile every time the colors of the binding or the page shines out from years of dirt and white mold residue. There was one book in particular I was excited about: a family Bible from an old family in town. The front page was beautifully inscribed; the dark ink strokes still looked as if they could be fresh and wet, despite the date of 1849. For a moment yesterday, I remembered People of the Book and I smiled. It is so fulfilling to feel like I can, in some small way, contribute to the life and story of something that, as Billy Collins said, is a vessel more lasting than myself. Long after me, that Bible will still bear testament to the people, named and unnamed, who used it, passed it down, and yes, even cleaned it. All of us "catching a ride into the future". While I still have so much to learn in this field, I am on my way. On my way and so much closer than I was when I first read about the Sarajevo Haggadah. Who knows how much closer I will be the next time I pick it up?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Searching for Laura

Currently Reading: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Isle of the Saints by Lisa Bitel (or Vilette by Charlotte Bronte- depends on the mood I'm in this afternoon).

Today, I'm in that ambiguous position where I desperately want to write but the words won't form themselves properly in my mind. This happens more often than I would like to admit. Part of the reason I could never have a writing career is because I enjoy the romance of writing far too much. Punching out a sentence here, erasing half a paragraph there, plodding and sashaying my way across the keyboard, just for the pure pleasure of hearing the keys click and watching the string of words grow. It may take me half an hour to write a paragraph, purely because I am enjoying crafting each sentence way too much. Add a mug of tea by my side, and throw in a lot of long sighs and head-on-chin, gazing-in-distance postures, and this is a typical picture of me fulfilling my romantic writing ideal. If I had to write for a living, I would most likely starve, since I never like writing when I have to and most of the time, I write slowly, savoring the act of writing just as much as I savor the end product.

But enough about that. I finished my second re-read of People of the Book today but will save my gut reactions to it for a post tomorrow. Instead, I feel like discussing briefly my new thoughts on The Wilder Life, since I am now about halfway through. If you remember my last post about this book, I was not terribly impressed. As I look back, I realize this was an instinctual reaction, rather than a logical one, but now that I have had more time to think it through, I have come to the conclusion that while I still don't really like the book, I can now better express why that is.

Namely, I think it comes down to perspective. As I see it, The Wilder Life is not really about one woman's interest in Little House- it's McClure's attempts and struggles to reconcile her childhood perspective of the book with the actual history behind it. At least, that's how I interpret it. (Another resonating theme is about people's search for a world that is no longer there, only coming up with tacky souvenirs and look-alike contests... but more on that another time). It is an interesting journey, believe me, but one that I am unfamiliar with. I find myself irritated with McClure when she looks at Laura's world with a 21st century eye and judges it accordingly. Don't get me wrong: I am in no way a "simple life" enthusiast. I am not one of those people who wistfully yearn for the "good ole' days" or imagine the past with big old rose-tinted glasses on. While the romantic, Anne Shirley side of me imagines what life was like for those who came before us- whether I'm looking at my 4th great-grandfather's land deeds or standing in a monastery in Ireland- the historical side of me not only colors the picture but keeps it from becoming too air-brushed. As a kid, I too loved reading the Little House books, and I made molasses candy and dragged my little red wagon all over my backyard. But I also loved finding out about the real Laura, the truth behind the stories. Unlike McClure, I never felt that Laura the author betrayed or deceived me, for the Little House books are, at their core, fictional children's books based on one family's experience, not an autobiography. Perhaps the main difference between McClure and I are in what we are searching for: she finds comfort in the details (she even states this in the first chapter) and follows those to find the real Laura in the book Laura. On the other hand, I find comfort in the atmosphere and spirit of the books, which isn't something you can recreate at a festival or with a replica. There's nothing wrong with either perspective.... it just means I don't always see eye to eye with McClure.

The narrator's sarcastic tone still doesn't sit well with me; in addition, McClure's tendency to mock the way in which other people interpret the Little House books continues to bother me as the book progresses (be prepared for her mini diatribe on the readers who like the books for their Christian values). Perhaps this is because one of the things I have always loved about literature is that every book is different to each of its readers. A quote by Edmund Wilson that Shelf Actualization posted recently says it all: "No two people ever read the same book." Think about that for a second. That means that each time you read a new book, it is born anew, as if it was published for the first time, for only you will ever read and interpret that book in the way you do. There is something magical in that thought.Yet I think McClure forgot that, somewhere down the line, and it makes her sound bitter and slightly caustic.

That being said, there are parts I enjoyed: all of the new biographical information about Laura and her family, and the historical details McClure shares (including a fantastic bit from a biography detailing how a historian found the plot of land the Ingalls cabin stood on in Kansas.... the researcher/history major/library geek that I am ate that one up!), her descriptions of the home sites she visited (especially when she comes across something appalling- like soft dolls of the Ingalls family at the Iowa homesite), and the humor that sneaks in when she is attempting to churn butter or analyzing the Little House TV series.

It's a good book, but not what I expected. I still have some more to go on it, so there will most likely be another post on this topic! It has definitely given me a lot to ponder: about our reactions to what we read; how the books we read as a child affect our "growing-up"; how those books change for us when we have already grown. Much to muse over, as always. Have a great Wednesday!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Library Soul Moments

Currently Reading: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Voyage by Sterling Hayden, annnnd.... my textbook for grad school. Because I am suddenly seven years old again and can't wait for school to start. :)

A quiet Sunday.. the first in a long time. And you better believe we've been enjoying it. The morning started out at church, which is all decked out for VBS next week. (I'm hoping I'll be able to help out on Tuesday or Thursday morning.) From there, we proceeded to the farmer's market in Janesville, which never fails to disappoint. The counter of our kitchen bears testament to our spoils: two pounds of green beans, twelve sweet-smelling peaches, four tomatoes (I have TWELVE on the vine, but none are ready to be picked yet), three huge cucumbers and three peppers. We stopped at Walgreens to get some school supplies (woohoo!) and a cute travel mug for my upcoming commutes. Add in the fact that I got to pet a husky dog, and it all adds up to a great morning. I meant to clean and spruce up this afternoon but after a load of laundry and two loaves of sourdough bread, I was ready to kick back with some books. I am definitely going to be refreshed and ready for work tomorrow.

Speaking of work....

I don't talk about it very often, but my job is a huge part of who I am. Every index I create, every project I finish, every research request I field, and every grateful patron I get to meet, makes my job one of the best there is. (In my humble opinion.) I am proud of my work and my workplace; Ida Public Library may be a small-town library but I love it immensely. To be fair, I love basically all libraries because, let's face it, they are buildings full of BOOKS. But my real love for libraries comes in that moment when I'm searching the stacks or studying at a table or even just walking through the sections- and I pause. I take a moment to look around me and notice the sweet silence of low voices and the swish of turning pages, the gleam of light on wooden shelves, the scent of new paper and old books commingling perfectly in the air around me. Every library possesses this calming quality to some degree and Ida Library has this essence in droves. Downstairs, in the Local History Room, it is less beautiful than it is upstairs, but I am still often hit with a sense of coziness and peace when I survey the shelves crammed with books and indexes, or the symmetrical microfilm readers at the ready for the next patron to walk in the door.

Several days ago, I was walking through the original upstairs section (the section that was built in 1912) when I stopped for a second to soak in the sight of raindrops falling like a curtain past the windows. The rain always makes the library feel even more comfortable than it already is, muting the light outside and enhancing the yellow glow of the lamps overhead, that I always find myself stopping to notice it, however briefly. It was such a soul-fulfilling moment, to watch the rain fall past these windows as it has done for almost 100 years, transforming the room inside just as it altered the world outside. I felt so utterly at peace in that moment, one of those in which I knew with certainty that God exists and that I am right where I should be. In those moments, I lose my doubts and my worries because I know there is nothing more important than this: to stand at a library window and watch the rain.

Hope your Sunday was just as enjoyable... have a great week!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Little House Is All About

Currently Reading: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Summer has been good to us this year. Check out the balcony garden:


Which so far has yielded several delicious tomatoes:


This being the first year I have attempted to grow anything, I am pretty pleased. I daydream about the day when I have a large yard, complete with clothesline and extensive garden. But until then, at least I can still practice honing my greenish thumb.

This week, as I mentioned in my last post, I have accidentally become saturated with the world of Little House. I say "accidentally" because while I did want to read Wendy McClure's memoir on her forays into Laura's real-life world, it was purely coincidence that Nathan and I started reading through the Little House series together at about the same time. I love introducing Nathan to these books, knowing that someday we will both be sharing them with our own children.

As a kid, my sister and I loved the Little House books. Actually, loved is probably not an accurate word. Exchange the "o" for an "i". We lived the Little House books. Making molasses candy on snow? Did it. Playing with our own corncob dolls? Check! Tying on sunbonnets and putting on prairie dresses to drag our little red wagon through our yard and woods? Every summer. So we were Little House girls, plain and simple.

When I was 14, my family and I went on a "Laura trip," hitting many of the sites where Laura lived in the books. We did not make it down to Kansas or Missouri, but we started the journey in Pepin, WI and drove over the Mississippi (while I imagined how on earth the Ingalls' managed to make it across.... on the ice.... in a WAGON). We explored the banks of Plum Creek near the town of Walnut Grove, MN and from there, drove on into DeSmet, South Dakota where we stayed in a cabin right on the shores of one of the lakes Laura and Almanzo drove by during their buggy courting outings. It was really the epitome of a book coming to life. Wendy McClure makes an observation that most of the worlds children love cannot be reached in real life- we don't have the option of visiting Narnia or Hogwarts or many other literary locations. But Little House is different, because it existed. It was real. It may not be a 100% accurate portrayal of Laura's childhood, but the places and the people are not very separated from us at all. Even at a young age, I was completely fascinated by how the history and the story in the books intertwined and separated to create a reality just as compelling as the stories in the books. Walking through Dakota prairie grass, under the trees that Pa planted, I realized that the books would always be different now, enhanced somewhat, since I could now see them through a clearer, sharper lens.

Which brings me to why I'm slightly upset with Ms. McClure. I loved the first chapter, which explained McClure's fascination with Laura as a child. I could identify with this chapter, for I too had imagined what it would be like to be Laura and to live where she did. As an adult, McClure rediscovers the books and becomes obsessed with finding out more. She decides to immerse herself in the Little House world, trying recipes (I can relate to this), going on a road trip to the Little House sights (a girl after my own heart), and discovering more about the facts of Laura's life. Up until now, I was mentally doing cartwheels as she makes these plans. But when she starts learning more about Laura's real life, and begins telling her readers the differences between reality and the world Laura created in her books, my patience began to wear thin. Perhaps it's the narrator's voice. Audiobooks can ruin a good book based on the narrator alone. But I have a feeling the negative, sarcastic tone would jump off of the page as well.

Unlike me, McClure is not a historian. Historical facts do not give her the same thrill. This is apparent within the first twelve seconds of sharing her new-found "discoveries." While I was excited to find out the truth about Laura's life, reading biographies and gazing at pictures, she seems to be appalled by the fact that the children's books were different than real life. Cue sarcastic tone. How could Laura not have mentioned that she had a baby brother? The Ingalls family actually had to live with their in-laws for a short time? What do you mean they had to work at a hotel in Iowa? These facts cause McClure to make erroneous and sarcastic statements, like stating that Pa obviously wasn't able to provide for his family all of the time, or it seems the Ingalls family weren't the Western-moving people they seem, or criticizing Laura's family tree because Pa's brother married Ma's sister. She is critical about the family's photographs too, as if she cannot believe these people were not made for the covers of magazines. The truth disillusions her, which is something I cannot understand or sympathize with at all. In addition, as an adult, she starts reading the books with a very anachronistic eye. She dubs Pa a racist and calls Ma a jerk because of their attitude toward the Indians in Little House on the Prairie. Instead of thinking about why Pa and Ma had the reactions they did based on the context of that era, McClure judges them by present-day standards. A big no-no in the historical world.

What it comes down to is that she has missed the point of Laura's books. They are not about whether every intricate detail is truth or fiction; they capture an essence, rather than act as a memoir. They focus on the love and commitment of family, on one girl's adventurous spirit, and on a way of life that was slowly becoming nothing but a memory. They are comforting and they are special for the simple reason that they engage our imagination and cause us to notice the life around us. One of my favorite quotes from Little House in the Big Woods sums up the poignancy of this series:
"She thought to herself, 'This is now.' She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."

I still have a ways to go in the book, and I'm hoping McClure's trips to the Little House sites will change her attitude. Perhaps she, like Charlie Brown discovering the meaning of Christmas, will figure out what the Little House books are all about.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Currently Reading: Inishmurray: Island Voices by Joe McGowan, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Although it is illogical, I feel such guilt when I fail to blog on a regular basis. Why that is I do not know, since I am not being graded or paid to do this but I still sigh every time I realize another day has gone by without a blog post. Of course, I am having a wonderful summer, complete with cousin sleepovers, Great River Shakespeare Fest, Seinfeld marathons, and farmer's markets. It's just that I love to write here- journaling and poems are not enough. But time and life always seem to get in the way. I think my struggle lately with this blog has been trying (and failing) to remember that even a quick post about nothing is OK. For some reason, I never want to blog unless I know I have hours ahead of me to write and re-write and hem and haw and reflect and muse. Since my life does not allow that very often, my blog posts become fewer and farther between. Maybe the lesson I must learn (and SOON, since grad school is creeping ever closer), is that writing is writing, and I must not be so hard on myself to write epic essays every time I feel the urge to write.

There is SO MUCH I want to write: about how my trip to Ireland has greatly changed the way I read my Irish history books and re-read my favorite novels; about how my life has suddenly become infused with childhood memories since I started listening to Wendy McClure discuss her love of Laura while simultaneously re-reading the Little House series with my husband, who has *gasp* never read them before but is loving them as much as I hoped he would. Coupled with updates on life (I have tomatoes!) and such, I am itching to write and write and write.

It will happen. Just not today. Bear with me, friends. Today I am practicing the art of a quick blog post and to be honest, it feels pretty darn good. I'll be back soon!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"When I waked, I cried to dream again"

Currently Reading: Child of the Prophecy by Juliet Marillier and Inishmurray: Island Voices by Joe McGowan

So who else loved the ode to children’s literature that appeared in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics last night?

Besides the opening montage of scenes and vistas from England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, the literature segment was by far my favorite. What can be better than a performance that starts with J.K. Rowling reading a passage from Peter Pan? Clip here: 

As she reads, literary villains including Captain Hook and Lord Voldemort (as a terrifyingly huge statue, complete with wand that shoots sparks) come to life to frighten the young girl reading in bed. She and the other children are finally saved by the appearance of a slew of Mary Poppins’ flying down with their umbrellas to chase the baddies away. (To dance with Mary Poppins is every kid’s dream, I should think.) The only thing that would have made it better was if Aslan the Lion appeared with Mary Poppins, and the kids fell back asleep clutching stuffed Winnie the Pooh bears.

I just love that at a ceremony celebrating the start of the world’s biggest athletic competitions, tribute is paid to England’s cultural contributions in history, music, film… and literature. By doing so, it emphasized the importance of the arts alongside the focus on athleticism, which is a crucial message to today’s society, in my opinion. In a world where education budgets are tight, and music and theater programs are usually cut in favor of athletic programs, this was a subtle reminder of the importance of all areas in a child’s education. I also find it interesting that children’s literature was emphasized. From a country whose literary heritage includes works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so many others, the Ceremonies focused instead on England’s contributions to children’s literature. Perhaps I am reading too much into this (catch the pun?), but I see it as a reflection of the idea that children’s literature is the most important kind of all, for that is where a person’s future begins. I am passionate about the importance of books in a child’s life, for I know how reading influenced who I am today and I have seen the difference between children who are encouraged to read and those who are not. So of course I watched this highlight of some of England’s most beloved children’s books (although really, where was Narnia?) with delight and have been mulling it over ever since.

I think the message inherent in this segment was that these beloved children’s books, like many others, are timeless. They endure because they are real to the children who read them and because they continue to exist for us when we are older. The power inside books like these triumph over the dark things in life and provide children with worlds never before imagined. It is children who grow up to inherit our world and exposure to great children’s literature does nothing but benefit them as they grow and learn. We were once children too. We once fell in love with Neverland, Narnia, and Mr. McGregor’s garden. Each generation will continue to do so, just as the one before them did. Whatever the future may hold, this alone will endure. And that is a comforting thought.

So those are my musings on the Opening Ceremonies. Final thoughts: bravo to Rowan Atkinson for bringing back Mr. Bean so flawlessly, and thank you Kenneth Branagh for giving life to a great passage from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” His performance was so moving that I did not even recognize it as Shakespeare until he was finished because he performed it in such a way that it seemed as if the words had never been spoken before, that they just materialized out of air in the seconds before he spoke them. I tried posting a clip of the performance, but it didn't work. Try Googling it, if you can! It always gives me chills! (The background hymn "Jerusalem" doesn't hurt the effect either.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ireland, Vampires, and Grad School

Currently Reading: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness and Child of the Prophecy by Juliet Marillier

It seems that I am unintentionally on a fantasy genre kick right now... and as you can tell from my lack of posts this month, I am enjoying every minute of it. In high school, I read fantasy books voraciously, and although I have scaled back on them in this stage of my life, I still get a thrill out of well-written, clever, and thought-provoking fantasy. Child of the Prophecy is the final installment in the beautiful Sevenwaters trilogy, which takes place in the forests of Ireland during the 10th century. It is the perfect mix of mythology and history, which is what any fantasy book I read needs to have in it. I have read this series several times since my high school days and love it more each time. It was the Sevenwaters Trilogy that actually caused me to fall in love with Ireland, its rich mythology and deep history. Without this series, who knows how my life would have been different.


Deborah Harkness's newest book takes the cake on mixing fantasy with history; I get a little glow of pleasure every time I pick it up. Her first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, came out last February and was phenomenal; I have been waiting impatiently for this new installment for months. I like to call it: Twilight for grownups. Unlike many other women I know, I do not have a lingering love affair with fanged glittering men who rescue the mortal damsel in distress. I find it highly derogatory in one sense and very disturbing in another. (In one scene, Shadow of Night actually pokes fun at this bizarre craze that has recently taken over the literary world and the disturbing female infatuation with manly, domineering vampires that has caused it... it made me giggle.) Harkness's series is entirely different. First of all, her main character is an adult witch who has determined to deny her magical side and devote herself entirely to her work (she is a professor at Oxford who specializes in the history of alchemy). That alone sets her apart, for she is a strong, determined, and intelligent woman- a character I can actually like and respect. The plot centers around a medieval manuscript that Diana unwittingly calls up from the Bodleian Library that supposedly contains answers about the creation and future of the four races of the world: humans, witches, vampires, and daemons. The book is riddled with historical references and deep philosophical and scientific debates. (The author is a history professor... enough said.) A book has to be amazing when it can switch from quoting Herodotus to discussing the implications of Darwinian theory in ten seconds flat. And while Diana does end up falling in love with a vampire, he is as different from the pretty-boy vampires as I am from the old guy who lives several apartments down. Their relationship is one of equals, which is refreshing and gives the book some good tension. Matthew is not a harmless, glittering boy but a dangerous, intelligent man- one who has had many lives and hundreds of years to live through. Matthew's back stories give the novel a complexity and depth that many others lack. Especially fascinating is the constant references to the other lives, careers, and historical figures Matthew has known and worked with throughout the many centuries of his life. As a historian, I really enjoyed this, although there were some references I had to ask my husband about- he's the medieval scholar, not me. Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Gerbert d'Aurillac, and many more make appearances, in some way or another. I suppose I especially like Shadow of Night and its predecessor because I'm drawn to books that focus on academia. Perhaps it's my scholarly side, the part of me that loves rummaging through the library stacks or sitting at a table, surrounded by old books and their musty smell, digging for clues as the hours of research tick by. Diana's research, and their search for the mystery Ashmole 782, is enough to make me want to either make cup after cup of tea or sit down to my own research projects. Ultimately, while I do have criticisms of the book, I love the feeling it gives me as I immerse myself into its world.

Obviously, I have been spending all of my extra moments lately with my nose in a book. Other things, such as this blog, have taken second priority to my deep desire to read as much as I can before the summer ends. A slight panic has set in recently, as I count down the days until graduate school starts and my life of relaxing evenings full of blogging, baking, and reading comes to a close. This has actually been bothering me more than one would think. While I love school and am so excited for starting my program, I still can't help but hope that it won't take over my entire life. Having been in college before, however, I know that this is wishful thinking. My blog posts will be fewer and farther between, the only books I'm likely to finish are audiobooks while I commute to school, and I may only get the chance to bake once every couple of weeks. For someone who finds comfort in routine, this monumental change is no doubt going to rock my world for a while. But with change comes new potential, new adventures, and new opportunities. Life can't only be lived in books.

In the meantime, after weeks of drought and blistering heat, I am enjoying the lullaby of thunder and raindrops that is enveloping the evening. A perfect night to stretch out with some lemonade and a good book. If you'll excuse me......

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

21 Questions

Currently Reading: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier and Lady Almina & the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

Let me start this post with saying:

Nate and I are BIG "Downton Abbey" fans.


If you're not familiar with this amazing PBS series, I won't describe it here. Wikipedia can do that for me. Let me just say, it is one of the best TV shows I have seen in a long time- a perfect mix of drama, humor, suspense, and history. Due to the great interest I now have in Edwardian England thanks to this show, as well as the need to immerse myself in that world while waiting desperately for the third season, I am now listening to an audiobook written by the Countess of Carnarvon, whose home, Highclere Castle, is the setting for the show. The book is a history of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's wife, Lady Almina, whose life provided inspiration for the plot of the show. So far, it is a fascinating read and I look forward to learning more about her and the times she lived in.

For a change of pace today, I have decided to fill out a "Get to Know You" survey, mostly concerning literature, created by my friend Jillian at A Room of One's Own for her blog readers. Here we go!
  1. Sum yourself up in twenty-five words or less. Passionate, obstinate, dreamy, a Christian, a reader, a writer, a wife, daughter, sister, a friend, compassionate, helpful, smart, hopeful, inspired, determined, stubborn, funny, emotional, dramatic, and a seeker of beauty. (Oops, that was more than 25!)
  2. Do you read? If so, why, what, and how often? Absolutely! I also breathe, eat, and sleep, which are also necessary parts of keeping me alive. Without a book, I am lost, a ship without a rudder. I read anything I can, though I'm drawn to history, the classics, some fantasy, some contemporary, and some memoirs. I am not really interested in slasher/horror/thriller books, and have never been captivated by the Western or Mystery genres. How often do I read? Every day. I have a purse that is big enough for most normal-sized books and I usually pack one with me wherever I go.
  3. Do you blog? If so, your blog’s name & focus (classic books? YA? art? college? writing? movies? miscellaneous? etc?) – if you don’t have a blog, what would most likely be your focus if you did have one)? I do blog, and you are reading it right now. While I blog about what I read, it is not a book review blog, for I like to write about my perceptions in my reading journey. I also use my blog as a way to write about my life and my thoughts outside of books as well.
  4. Your favorite adult book(s) &/or children’s book(s)? My favorite adult book is Jane Eyre, while my favorite children's book has to be either the Laura Ingalls Wilder series (although I argue that counts as adult fiction too) and Caddie Woodlawn. Maybe those count as Young Adult fiction?
  5. Your favorite movie(s)? Little Women, the 1994 version. I love it not only because of the acting, the plot, the beautiful way in which it was made and kept true to the story, but also because it is something I share with my sister, and watching it with her is a beautiful tradition that I cherish immensely.
  6. Your favorite quote(s) from literature? I have a quote book filled with quotes that move me or inspire me, but my favorite is from Jane Eyre: "I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils." Inspiring, isn't it? It always gives me chills.
  7. Most challenging book you’ve read in your life? A book I read for one of Dr. Byman's classes, whose title I cannot remember but which I never enjoyed the entire time we read it. I wish I could remember the name! I'm sure it will come to me while I'm sleeping tonight. Mary, Jenn? Help me out here...what was it called?!
  8. Book(s) you’re currently reading, if any? Daughter of the Forest, which is one of my favorite fantasy reads, part of a trilogy, set in Ireland. (Reading it at the age of 14 actually sparked my initial interest in Irish mythology). And the Lady Almina audiobook, which I have already described above.
  9. Book(s) you’re most looking forward to reading? I am looking forward to all of the books on my current list, but I am really excited for a new one I just found and ordered called Inishmurray Voices. It is a history of Inishmurray Island, which was the most sacred and amazing spot we visited in Ireland. I can't wait to learn more about it and the people who lived there.
  10. Author whose works you’re curious to explore soon? Maybe Charlotte Bronte- I have never read a work of hers beside Jane Eyre, so I'm curious to read more of her writings. However, I have also put it off, because I am scared of being disappointed in her other works, since I love Jane Eyre so profusely.
  11. Book you’re most scared to read but might read eventually, anyway? War and Peace. My dad and sister loved it and want me to read it, but so far I have never had good luck with Russian writers. Eventually though, I would love to say I have read it.
  12. Book you have re-read the most times in your life (or if you hate re-reading, just write that!) Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows the answer to that question is Jane Eyre. :)
  13. If you could spend a day in any era, where would you go (including “I would not go anywhere! I LOVE the 21st century!”)? Oh gosh. Medieval Ireland maybe, to visit a monastery and learn first-hand about life in that era. Or perhaps go back to the 1800s or 1700s and visit some of my ancestors. There are so many times and events that I would love to have a front-seat viewing of, like a fly on the wall. As a historian, I have asked myself this question many times, but it always comes back to the answer that while there are so many time periods I would love to visit, I would never want to permanently live in any of them. I believe we were all put where we were meant to be, even if it doesn't feel that way.
  14. If you could be any character in literature, who would you be (and why)? Wow, hard one. Probably Anne of Green Gables, because we have such a similar personality and because she has such a beautiful world. I would love to dream in the Dryad's Bubble with Diana, or explore Green Gables, or sail in a boat, pretending to be the Lady of Shallott. Anne is a pure spirit, one I would like to be friends with, or perhaps learn to exemplify.
  15. Do you love Jane Austen or want to “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”? (Phrase borrowed from Mark Twain).
    1. Why? (for either answer)? While I think Jane Austen doesn't deserve all of the hype she gets (not because it's unwarranted but because there are so many other wonderful female writers of her age that are overlooked by a majority of Austen fans), I think she was a brilliant writer with a great talent for expressing herself through her characters. So no, I wouldn't beat her over the skull. Wow, Mark.... that was a bit harsh!
    2. Favorite and/or least favorite Austen novel? Favorite: Sense & Sensibility. Her other novels never drew me in the way this one did, nor did I really like any of her other characters as much as I liked Elinor and Marianne. (Except Fanny from Mansfield Park. I did like her). Least Favorite: Emma. I didn't enjoy the plot and I found myself annoyed with Emma herself. When I don't like the main character, I usually don't enjoy the book.
  16. Your favorite season? Autumn. The smell and feel of the air, the crunch of leaves, the bright colors, and the array of fruits and veggies available make it the perfect time of year.
  17. Do you prefer dawn or twilight? Dawn- the start of a new day, with new possibilities. Although I do love driving home, watching the sun set.
  18. Your favorite memory from childhood? I had a wonderful childhood, with many good memories. Most of my favorite memories revolve around playing with my sister- we were very imaginative and invented many worlds to play in, from the Oregon Trail to Hogwarts. (We were both avid readers, even then). Other great memories center around spending time at Oma's house next door, watching her cook, helping Opa in the garden, or playing in the back room. I have great memories of my dad's farm, where I learned that cows are the most amazing creatures you'll ever find. And finally, I have lovely memories of life at home, being supported by my mom who made sure to encourage and support our passions and interests. I wouldn't be me without all of the people who played such large roles in my life.
  19. Some of your interests beyond books? Spending time with Nathan, cuddling with my cat Hobbes, genealogy, baking bread and cooking/experimenting with new recipes, singing, writing/blogging,  and I just started gardening this year, which I now love to do.
  20. Added after I posted, thanks to Payton’s suggestion: “Who is hands-down the best literary hero, in your opinion? Likewise, who is the best heroine?” Again, another hard question! I don't think I can answer these, because there are so many wonderful characters in the books I have read and to choose just one is nigh impossible. Of course, I believe the best heroine would be Jane Eyre, but how can I make that decision, for what about Anne Shirley or Jo March or Hermione Granger? What about Marianne Dashwood or Honora Kelly or Sorcha? I don't have an answer, although it is a great question.
  21. What question do you wish I had asked? (Ask and answer it!) I don't know, these were good questions. Perhaps the question: what inspires you? Inspiration is the key to happiness, in my opinion, and I strive to find inspiration in any of my passions and hobbies. I am inspired by the creation I see around me: my tomato plants, a sunrise, rainstorms. I am inspired by others: my family, my husband, my Savior, my friends, and my literary companions. I am inspired by stacks of books sitting on my end table, a perfect cup of tea, kneading bread, folding laundry, decorating my apartment. I am inspired to learn, to dream, to hope, to remember, and to create by noticing the little things around me and appreciating them for the blessings they are.
 That was fun! Thanks for the great questions, Jillian. My book is calling my name, so off I go. :)

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