Matriarchy

The following is heavily inspired by a similar poem in Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s book Motherprayer: A Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion.
I highly recommend this exercise. Trace your mother-line. Remember their sacrifices, their mistakes, their love.

Matriarchy

I am Tara.
daughter of Marie,
teacher, planner, pianist,
mother of four.
Marie is daughter of Rose,
organist, volunteer, friend
mother of three,
grandmother of ten.
Rose is daughter of Laura,
a maker with busy hands,
mother of two.

I am Tara,
daughter of Eve,
curious, guileless
mother of pain,
mother of hope,
mother of life.

Daughter of Sarah,
barren wife turned ancient mother.
God spoke to her,
chastised her,
agreed with her.
Mother of laughter,
mother of jealousy,
mother of promise.

Daughter of Rebekah,
who traveled to a land unknown,
returned laughter to a grieving son.
When she asked why,
God answered her.
Mother of courage,
mother of joy,
mother of trickery.

Daughter of Leah,
a gift unwanted,
weak-eyed,
a pawn in her father’s game.
God saw her.
Because she was hated,
he blessed her.
It is not from Rachel
that the Messiah comes.
Leah, mother of many,
Mother of rivalry.
Mother of the royal line.

Daughter of Hannah and Mary,
whose songs we still sing.
One who begged for a child,
one who received one unasked.
Two mothers who waited and pondered,
who gave up their sons for the work of the Lord.

Marie, Rose, Laura,
Eve, Sarah, Rebekah,
Leah, Hannah, Mary,
my mothers of flesh and spirit.
Women God noticed,
women God chose.

I am Tara,
mother of Phoebe
and a child yet unknown.
Mothers of the past,
teach me.
Help me become
mother of tomorrow.

2020 Recap

Long time, no blog. WordPress looks different. Wonder how long it’s been like this.

I didn’t intentionally stop blogging. It just stopped being a priority. Here is what was keeping me busy instead.

  • C was recruited to work at a different school and decided to take the new job.
  • I unexpectedly added a second part-time job. (Fun fact: my new job is Christian’s old job.)
  • Our daughter switched preschools.
  • We bought our first house. I want to live here forever. Very thankful for my friend who patched all the holes in our living room wall and convinced me to paint the bookshelves green.
  • C had a tonic-clonic seizure in May. His driving privileges were restored in November. The gift of that seizure is that I had the wherewithal to film it. My hope was that it would help the doctors by giving some objective data. But I found that it actually helped me. Witnessing a seizure can easily send me into Trauma Land where there is no linear thinking, just vivid snatches of events. It was helpful to watch the footage later and re-live the experience from a place of safety and calm.
  • He also had a number of partial seizures (auras) throughout the year. He is currently trying out a new medication. His neurologist always hopes to double the interval between her patients’ seizures. His longest stretch is 18 months, so we’re hoping for at least 3 years without any kind of seizure activity.
  • On the same day we closed on our house, we were in a bad car accident which totaled our only car with A/C. My therapist guided me through some art therapy with my daughter to help her process. She told me “I don’t like it when cars smash into us” and she wanted us to draw me holding her while she cried. I am so thankful for my friend who picked us up from the side of the road and helped to comfort my daughter.
  • Speaking of our daughter, we got a diagnosis for her this year. We had genetic testing done at the end of November 2019. I only went through with it because one of my favorite doctors referred us. I didn’t think they’d find anything, especially because the geneticist herself told me she’d be surprised if we found anything. Then one day two months later, I saw I had a missed call + voicemail from a genetic counselor. I had to wait an excruciating hour or so before we finally got in touch. I’ll never forget that conversation. When the woman said they had a positive test result for a genetic condition, my legs turned into rubber. By the end of the call, I was crying. And as strange as it may sound to someone who hasn’t been in this kind of situation, they were happy tears. I was so glad to have an answer. What’s so crazy is that her genetic condition wasn’t even recognized in the OMIM database at the time she was born. I don’t think a single paper had been published on it until around her 1st birthday. The doctor who is currently researching the condition has emailed me. The *ONE* online community for this condition had about 60 members worldwide when I joined; now we are approaching 100 members. It is obvious from comparison with other children in the group that our daughter has a mild case. But virtually all of these children have feeding difficulties. Sometimes I screenshot posts from the group and send them to my husband with a message that just says “!!!!!!!!!!!” which he knows means “Oh my goodness, someone else experienced this too. We weren’t crazy.”

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Now onto the books! I bolded my faves in each category.

Suspense/Thriller

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart
Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Hyponotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
The Dilemma by B.A. Paris
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
The Trespasser by Tana French
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Verity by Colleen Hoover
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Juvenile Fiction/YA

Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Ruby Redfort (#1, and #2) by Lauren Child
The Simple Art of Flying by Cory Leonardo
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart
Small Steps by Louis Sachar
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor Undivided (Unwind, #4) by Neal Shusterman
New Kid by Jerry Craft

Memoirs about Leaving Cults

Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall
Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

Plays

Deathtrap by Ira Levin

Adult Fiction

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Today Will be Different by Maria Semple
The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch
The Man in the Dark by Doug Wilson

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Non-Fiction

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullaly
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi
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More later…maybe December 2021?

December 2019 Books

JF Fiction

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Mason Buttle is an orphaned middle-schooler with synesthesia, a handful of learning disabilities, and a propensity to sweat profusely. (This sounds an awful lot like a game of MadLibs) Prior to the start of the novel, Mason’s best friend falls to his death in the Buttles’ apple orchard, and the police are sure that Mason knows more than he’s letting on.

I didn’t love this one but now that two months have passed, I can’t remember exactly why. There are a lot of quirky characters in this book but not much humor, which makes for an odd reading experience. It has a lot of similar themes to All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook which I enjoyed much more than this one. If you really love Perry T. Cook, you can circle back to this one.

Fiction

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Mystical Paths (Starbridge #5) by Susan Howatch

I described the first book in this novel (Glittering Images) as a Gothic novel. This one could be classified as a murder mystery, which is definitely more my speed.

In this book, the action begins to shift to the next generation of families (Ashworths, Aysgarths, and Darrows). The narrator is Jon Darrow’s son, Nick, who shares his father’s psychic abilities. Nick is following in his father’s footsteps and is awaiting ordination as a priest, but inwardly, he is a deeply tortured soul. He often uses his psychic powers to manipulate people and succumbs to sexual temptation on a regular basis (a sin he is unwilling to confess because of how it will hinder his career and how it reflect on his famous dad). He is stumbling along in his own crisis when he becomes obsessed in the mystery of Christian Aysgarth’s death.

This book introduces one of my favorite characters in the series (yay Lewis Hall!), and I loved the psychological themes in this novel. It’s primarily about fathers and sons. Jon Darrow is such a hero, but we see in this book how deeply he has failed the ones closest to him. Even though this book is a paranormal thriller, the psychological drama is painfully realistic.

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Absolute Truths (Starbridge #6) by Susan Howatch

The last book in the Starbridge series. This was a beautiful end to an incredible series, but so much of what makes this book good depends on having read the previous five books.

This book takes us back to the events of Glittering Images. It has been over thirty years since Charles Ashworth had his big showdown with Alex Jardine, but this book shows us how Charles is still grappling with the same issues he faced as a young man. I love how Howatch shows us that the journey of maturity and sanctification is never over.

It is hard to provide a summary without spoiling the plot. I’ll just say there is so much loss, suffering, and grief in this book. It is primarily about a pastor realizing that the truths he’s preached his whole career are not comforting when he faces his own dark night of the soul.

I consider Charles’ wife Lyle to be the real hero of this book. Charles takes great pride in his theological training, so Lyle thinks of herself as spiritually inferior. But Lyle’s relationship with God is so much more vibrant than Charles’ because she is willing to bring herself fully before God. Charles’ theological training can become a hindrance, because he’s so focused on making sure his prayers are orthodox in every respect. It is Lyle’s small faith that God uses to heal the entire community.

I was so sad to leave behind these characters that I’ve come to love. I will almost certainly read these books again.

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The High Flyer (St. Benet #2) by Susan Howatch

Immediately after finishing the Starbridge series, I jumped back into the St. Benet trilogy, which is set in the same world as Starbridge but focuses on a healing ministry in London. The ministry is run by Nick Darrow and Lewis Hall from Mystical Paths. The first book in the St. Benet trilogy (The Wonder Worker) was the first Susan Howatch I ever read. After that one, I switched over the Starbridge and then came back to the trilogy. I recommend just starting with Starbridge in the first place.

The narrator of this book is a woman named Carter Graham. Her masculine name is no accident. She is a successful career woman who has to project masculine energy to earn respect in the business world. It’s the 90’s. I’m imagining a lot of pantsuits. Carter recently married the love of her life, a man named Kim. Everything is ticking along wonderfully until her husband’s ex-wife shows up and warns Carter that Kim is not what he seems. Kim says his ex-wife is crazy. Who is telling the truth?

This book is super creepy and introduces a villain whose arc continues into the last book in the trilogy. I really enjoyed this one, but it didn’t affect me deeply like the Starbridge books.

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Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

This was a book club pick, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Low expectations helped. I have read most of the creepy-husband thrillers of the last five years and have gotten mega burned out on unreliable female narrators and cheap twists. This book feels fresh.  It is suspenseful and twisted without being gory or lurid. (It also has a fantastic side character with Down Syndrome!) Easy to read in one sitting — would make a great summer/traveling pick.

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The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

Because I liked Behind Closed Doors so much, I immediately reserved the author’s other two novels. The Breakdown was more like The Letdown. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) It is fairly obvious to everyone except the narrator who is behind the crime, which makes for a frustrating reading experience. Nothing heinous about this book, just wasn’t great.

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Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

I liked this one better than The Breakdown but less than Behind Closed Doors. The set-up is a little odd, and I found the resolution really depressing. Very noir feel to it. Most of the action of the novel could have been resolved if the protagonist had called the police when any normal person would have done so.

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

C and I read this aloud on a car trip. I had seen the movie before, but the book has a completely different (and more depressing) ending. It is pretty bleak, but Christie is such a legend. Not my personal favorite, but I can see why it is considered one of Christie’s best.

Non-Fiction

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An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

One of the best books I read all year! This collection of essays about food has changed both my beliefs *and* my practices regarding food preparation. I had never willingly boiled a vegetable in my life before reading the first chapter. She cites Robert Capon’s Supper of the Lamb more than once, but I have to say that in my opinion, hers is the better book. That is probably heresy to some of my friends, but there you go. If you do the majority of food preparation in your household, buy this book.

November 2019

In November I read four books, none of which I particularly enjoyed. Three were for a book club that I haven’t been able to attend yet. Le sigh. The fourth book was, as you might expect, a Susan Howatch.

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The Leavers by Lisa Ko

When Deming is eleven years old, his undocumented immigrant mother goes to work and never comes home. He is cared for by his mother’s boyfriend and later the boyfriend’s sister, both of whom also abandon him without warning. After this, he is adopted by a WASP-y academic couple who re-name him Daniel. As Deming/Daniel grows up, his adoptive parents pressure him to follow in their footsteps. This is a parenting mistake older than the hills, but the adoption issue makes it all the more fraught. Deming feels torn between following his own path and towing the line to ensure his adopted family’s approval. The book is well-written and manages to touch on many different complex themes — immigration, cultural identity, interracial adoption, and motherhood–in under 350 pages.

Some slight spoilers follow. This was a hard book for me to read — one I might not have finished if it weren’t for a book club. I have a visceral reaction to parental abandonment, and my heart couldn’t find room for Deming’s mom. Though I could see how she was also a victim, some of her choices were incredibly selfish, and I wasn’t able to forgive her the way Deming is able to. Even though Daniel’s adoptive parents were making an utter hash of things, my sympathies were ultimately with them because they were at least doing the bare minimum.

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Another book club pick. Actually, the first pick – one I was supposed to read months ago. Interesting how this book shared so many themes with the later book club selections. Issues of identity, parental abandonment, and love of nature are at the forefront, just as in Washington Black and The Leavers. Unlike the other two, this one also bled into the genres of romance, murder mystery, and legal drama.

I didn’t have strong feelings about this book either way. I found it difficult to connect with Kya, but it was beautifully written and helped me appreciate the marshy Outer Banks.  I found the failures of her parents/community really depressing, as with the other two books. The ending was not what I expected, and I have to admit that I prefer the ending I imagined. (What cheek!)

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This was a book club pick, too — and a much quicker read than the other two. I think I read it in one sitting. This summer, I read and enjoyed Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six. As with Daisy Jones, this book mockuments (we can make that a verb, right?) a fictionalized celebrity’s rise to fame and wraps up tidily with a few twists. Jenkins Reid does a great job of making these characters seem real.

In Seven Husbands, a young reporter is contacted by Evelyn Hugo, a reclusive old Hollywood film star and inexplicably given the rights to her life story. (This set-up is reminiscent of–if not entirely stolen from—Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale). Why Evelyn chose her is a mystery that isn’t resolved until the very last chapters.

This ended up being my least favorite book club pick, even though it was the easiest to read. I felt like this book was a little too obvious in what it was trying to do. The intersectionality theme is underscored too strongly, as if she didn’t trust her readers to figure out what she was doing. The character of Evelyn Hugo represents a feminism whose only defense against male exploitation and abuse is to respond in kind. Virtually all of the relationships depicted here — even/especially the LGBTQ+ relationship that is *supposed* to stand in stark contrast to the others — are unhealthy. The twist at the end is a little far-fetched. Not the book for me.

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Scandalous Risks (Starbridge #4) by Susan Howatch

My least favorite Susan Howatch of the series. This is the only book in the series narrated by a woman and the only one narrated by a layperson. Set in the Swinging Sixties, the plot centers on an affair between clergyman Neville Aysgarth* and a young woman, Venetia Flaxton. (I found out later that this is loosely based on the relationship between British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and a socialite thirty-five years younger named Venetia Stanley.) What makes this affair worse is that Aysgarth is best friends with Venetia’s father, and Venetia is best friends with Aysgarth’s daughter. Blech.

While the book doesn’t condone the affair at all, it didn’t give me the satisfaction of seeing Neville pay for his crime. (Which, I’m sure, is intentional. Nobody in Susan Howatch is written off as unredeemable.) The book portrays accurately what it is like when a clergyman takes advantage of a young girl. Even more sinister is the fact that Venetia is a seeker, not a fellow believer. Their relationship begins when he offers to explain modern theology to her. Neville brings Venetia close to God, but he is also the one who ruins her life. The ending is realistically tragic, with only the tiniest bit of hope.

Venetia plays a part in the St. Benet’s trilogy that follows the Starbridge Quartet. I read the first book in the St. Benet’s trilogy (The Wonder Worker) before reading the Starbridge series, and I wish I hadn’t if only for the character of Venetia. I really needed to understand her backstory to appreciate where she’s at in The Wonder Worker.

One thing Scandalous Risks did spectacularly well is show how well-meaning Christians lack imagination when it comes to how God rescues people. They know how God rescued them, so they woodenly apply the same logic to everyone around them. One character, an otherwise wonderful Christian woman, strongly pressures Venetia into a “solution” that worked for a young girl in a similar situation in the first book. It is a disaster for poor Venetia, because it was hasty counsel based on past experience, not tailored to Venetia and her specific situation. This happens all the time in the church, but I’d never seen it represented quite so well in fiction before.

*NEVILLE, I THOUGHT YOU WERE BETTER THAN THIS. DID THE MINISTRATIONS OF JON DARROW IN THE LAST BOOK MEAN *NOTHING* TO YOU?!

2019 Media Memorables (Because I Don’t Want to Pick Favorites)

Television

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3. (Netflix) 

I had mixed feelings about Seasons 1 and 2 and was mainly watching it for a) nostalgic reasons and b) Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Season 3 covers the books where the story gets dark, and the TV show nailed it, especially the last episode (“The End”). It was deeply satisfying to me in a way the last book wasn’t when I first read it, though I’m not sure how much of that is due to my own internal growth. Casting is perfection — Max Greenfield is a delight in “The Penultimate Peril” and the girl who plays Carmelita Spats was made for that role. 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4 (Netflix)

Kimmy Schmidt is a weird show, one that is almost too weird for me. It starts off weird — in 8th grade, Kimmy was kidnapped and forced to live in an underground bunker with a doomsday cult leader (played by the incredible Jon Hamm). The pilot begins with Kimmy, now 29, being freed from the bunker and attempting to integrate back into society. I love Tina Fey (the creator of the show), so I watched all four seasons, even though each season felt like they were still trying to figure out where this show was going. Seasons 2 and 3 were also full of cultural references that I just didn’t get, at least not well enough to appreciate them. I was so glad they wrapped up the series instead of dragging it out indefinitely, and I almost always find TV finales satisfying. This was no exception, but the real winner here was Season 4, Episode 9, entitled “Sliding Van Doors.” 

In this episode, we get an alternate timeline, one in which Kimmy escaped being kidnapped in 8th grade. The episode shows us the life of the Kimmy-that-would-have-been. This episode is genius, because it gives the viewer what would otherwise be impossible: the ability to differentiate between what is inherent in Kimmy’s personality and what was created through the trauma of being kidnapped for fifteen years. Without romanticizing Kimmy’s trauma, the show lands on a surprisingly Christian note: Kimmy’s painful experience made her better. She is a deeper, more loving person for having been kidnapped than she would have been otherwise. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterward. It was the fictional outworking of Stephen Colbert’s comment in his interview with Anderson Cooper: “I love the thing I most wish had not happened.” (If you haven’t watched that interview yet, do it!) 

Russian Doll (Netflix)

My absolute favorite TV I saw this year. It’s short, just eight 30-minute episodes. I’ve watched it twice and just writing this makes me want to watch it a third time. Spoilers about the pilot, but nothing further. The main character Nadia is a “cockroach” (which she charmingly but inexplicably pronounces “cock-a-roach”). By this, she means that she’s a survivor. She’s tough, not delicate. She’s never met a drug she won’t try. She constantly engages in risky behavior, but it’s always worked out for her. But on the night of her 36th birthday, Nadia gets hit by a car and dies. What follows is a time-loop a la Groundhog Day in which she keeps dying and returning to the night of her 36th birthday party. This show is hilarious, sad, and achingly beautiful. This show was created start-to-finish by women, and they are women who understand trauma. Nadia’s unwillingness to own her painful past doesn’t mean that she can escape it. It will come find her. Nadia’s polar opposite is the character of Alan, a man whose coping mechanisms are repression and an obsession with order. Russian Doll shows us how both of these paths are, literally, inescapable loops. Neither path provides a way out. 

 I don’t want to say too much, because I want you to experience this for yourself. Content Warning: lots of swearing, lots of drug use, some sexual references and a one quick scene you may want to fast-forward because of butts. This is the only time I’ve ever played the “It’s still worth it” card. The show has been picked up for a second season in 2020, but I’m nervous about watching it. When something is satisfyingly perfect, you don’t really want more, y’know? 

Movie

I really didn’t watch too many movies this year. Correction: I didn’t stay awake for many movies this year. The movie I probably enjoyed the most was the 1985 movie Clue. My favorite movie I saw in the theater (and the only movie I saw in the theater in 2019) was Knives Out. Together, they make a nice movie flight of comedic murder mysteries. 

Album / Song

My most-listened-to song was “I Want to Be Delivered” from the musical The Unusual Tale of Joseph and Mary’s Baby.

In the stage performance, this song is what “causes” the Annunciation. After Joseph returns home from work having been beat up by the Romans, Mary is spurred to action. She climbs up onto a box and demands that God fulfill his promises to Israel. She half-jokingly says, “What do you need, God? You need someone to volunteer? I’ll do it.” Throughout this scene, Mary’s arms are spread wide, cruciform, one of the many times in this musical that you see a whole lot of Jesus in his mother (and then wonder if it may be the other way around). 

I want to be delivered.
I want to be set free.
I want to get across those waters;
That’s what was promised to me.
Wandering the desert,
A wilderness of shame,
Drunk on worries of everyday life,
We’ve almost forgotten our name.
I’m half afraid this is the story
Someone will tell
Of how we fell ill, but our former glory
Would not make us well.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.

What does it take to wake you,
To see you raise your hand?
To hear your justice roll,
Your thundering command?
‘Cause hoping and never receiving,
It wears a heart out.
I used to feel full of believing;
Now I’m emptied by doubt.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.
Let your people go.
Just let your people go,
And say goodbye.

One thing I love about this song is how jam-packed it is with allusions to the Hebrew Bible. Mary is a good Hebrew. She knows the stories. She knows what God did for Moses. She knows what happens to God’s reputation when He doesn’t come through. She knows what God did for Naomi when she was “emptied by doubt.” She sounds like Amos, asking for justice to roll down like waters. I got chills the first time I heard her telling God to “let your people go,” this time not meaning “free us from Pharoah,” but “let us depart from you, God, unless you’re planning to fulfill your promises.” 

And then, of course, there’s the delightful pun on “deliverance.” Mary delivers the deliverer. SO GOOD. 

Stage Musical

Matilda

As a fellow early reader (though sadly lacking in telekinetic powers), I loved Roald Dahls book Matilda from a young age. I heard about the musical when it came out in 2013 but I had never listened to it prior to watching the show this year when we realized it was our anniversary and quickly Googled things to do in our town. It was a total last-minute decision, but it was an incredible production. The girl who played Matilda, the woman who played Miss Honey,  and the man (yes, man) who played Mrs. Trunchbull were astounding. It was Broadway quality but in Birmingham, Alabama for ~$30 a ticket.

I was amused to realize that this time through, I related to Miss Honey far more than Matilda. The musical highlights her psychological growth, especially through reprises of songs like “When I Grow Up.” In a strange twist, it is really Miss Honey that is the stereotypical abused, neglected child. Matilda still has the spunk to fight back. She is the one who rescues Miss Honey.

The opening song “Miracle” is hilarious, showing two kinds of bad parenting — the neglectful Wormwoods and their smothering, overprotective, my-child-can-do-no-wrong neighbors. Also hysterical is Mr. Wormwood’s song “Telly” about why TV is better than books. “Somewhere on a show I heard / That a picture tells a thousand words / So telly, if you bothered to take a look / Is the equivalent of, like, lots of books!

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

I already gushed about this earlier, but seeing this stage production was really a dream come true for me. I cried through the entire first act. The actors who played Mary and Joseph were even better than the ones on the recorded album. The show only shows in Knoxville, TN, so if you’re ever there around Christmastime, I highly recommend it. Unlike most Nativity scenes you’ll experience, this one places the birth of Jesus not at the end but in the middle, right before the intermission. The second half of the musical is about the flight to Egypt. I move that we all include that part of the story in our Nativity scenes from now on.

Books 

Non-Fiction

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Rethinking School by Susan Wise Bauer

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry

What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

Fiction

The Dry by Jane Harper

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths, all by Susan Howatch

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

October 2019

Fiction

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Glamorous Powers (Starbridge #2) by Susan Howatch

In the first book, Charles Ashworth is saved from a spiritual breakdown through the ministrations of Jon Darrow, a Fordite* monk. Gifted with psychic abilities, Darrow knows exactly what to say and do to guide Ashworth back to safety. 

Glamorous Powers covers Darrow’s journey after the events of Book #1, and in it, we discover that although Darrow has keen insight into the psyches of others, he is blind to his own shortcomings. (Painfully true of so many spiritual leaders…) 

The book opens with Darrow having what appears to be a mid-life crisis. After living as a monk for decades, he is convinced that a vision he receives is instructing him to abandon his vows and re-enter the secular world. Unfortunately, the man he needs permission from is his arch-nemesis and someone who is deeply skeptical of psychic powers.

One Goodreads reviewer summed up the message of this book as “spiritual directors need spiritual directors.” (See also: pastors need pastors.) Darrow has to learn humility, and in the end is saved by some rather ordinary Christians. His “glamorous powers” were a gift in Book #1, but they are something of a burden in Book #2.

Less illicit sex in this one, but lots of awkward newlywed negotiations. Howatch seems to have a thing for marriages with a large age difference — don’t love that. And her pregnant women are SO DELICATE. They can’t even sleep in the same bed as their husbands and more than once, emotional distress causes a miscarriage. It’s…strange. This series is such a mix of good and bad. (Like life itself, Howatch would say.)

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Ultimate Prizes (Starbridge #3) by Susan Howatch

This and Book #4 are my least favorite in the series, because these are the Neville books. Neville Aysgarth is a liberal Modernist clergyman who is a terrible husband and an even worse father. He is obsessed with worldly success and uses the pursuits of various “prizes” to anesthetize his pain because he’s never allowed himself to feel a single negative emotion in his life. (He’s the most repressed character in the Howatchian universe, and also the one I hate the most. Let us draw NO CONCLUSIONS here.)

But Jon Darrow swoops in to save the day again! Under his guidance, Neville learns to face his past, grieve his childhood, repent of his cruelty, and forge a new life for himself. His sin still has painful consequences, but even that suffering becomes a gift, a way for him to work out his salvation.

But Neville’s story isn’t completed yet. He’s about to make an utter hash of his life in Book #4. Oh, Neville.

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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This was a book club pick, and I really didn’t like it, though I’m humble enough to admit that I may not have appreciated what Edugyan was doing.

A young slave (Wash) is working on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Life is hellish. One day, his master’s brother (Titch), a wannabe scientist and amateur balloonist, plucks Wash from the fields to be his lab assistant. It turns out that Titch only chose Wash because he was the right size for his hot-air balloon, but Wash doesn’t realize that initially. Wash feels chosen, special — which he interprets as love. He and Titch end up traveling together to a bunch of random places (yawn from me) and there are a lot of  dysfunctional family dynamics. There isn’t a single good father figure in this entire novel. It caught my interest initially, but I got bored with the travels, and I found the entire world terribly bleak.

Non-Fiction

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What is a Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander

An incredible account of an extraordinarily brave woman. Rachael was the first woman to speak out publicly against Larry Nassar. She was abused by him in her teens, but by the time she helps put him behind bars, she is a lawyer, a wife, and a mom to three daughters. It is impossible not to root for her.

What’s so tragic about this book is that Rachael experienced sexual abuse even though her parents were trying to protect her. Her parents were aware of the dangers of the gymnastics world and talked to their daughter frequently about the destructive behaviors they witnessed — competing while injured, eating disorders, etc.  They were also frank about the possibility of sexual abuse. Rachael’s mom had been a sexual abuse victim herself, and Rachael and her mom were comfortable discussing difficult and awkward things together. Her mom never left the room when Dr. Nassar was examining Rachael. Her parents did so many things right.

So it is not a story about how repression and ignorance create an environment where sexual abuse can occur. Instead, it is a story about how someone’s fame and expertise can cloud your judgment. Larry Nassar worked for the Olympic gymnastic team. He was the guy everyone in the gymnastics world went to. He was charismatic, fatherly. He was the first doctor who was actually able to treat some of Rachael’s issues. The fact that his “treatment” was occasionally painful was easy to explain away, especially for a young teenage girl. But as Nassar got bolder in his abuse, Rachael was able to spot it for what it really was.

This book is sad-but-satisfying in the same way the movie Spotlight was. Once you know the evil is there, you want it brought to the light. But when it’s out there, it’s almost too terrible to look at.

Thankful for Rachael’s courage and for the incredible judge who sentenced Nassar. I hope the church listens to her story. The church has failed her in ways that the legal system hasn’t — and that’s very backward.

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Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

The story of an Episcopalian priest who gives it up to live on a farm.

I loved the parts about compassion fatigue. Taylor is–well, was– a priest, but her words will ring true to anyone in a role that involves helping people in rough circumstances (teachers, social workers, counselors).

Where Taylor has settled in how she practices Christianity is too far away from me to connect with her. Once Taylor quit her job and stopped attending church, I lost interest. I had to force myself to finish this one.

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American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton

The Dark Web is equal parts freaky and fascinating to me. This is the story of the founding of the Silk Road, basically the Amazon of illegal items. Started by a libertarian who believed he was doing something good for society by creating a truly free market, you could buy anything from legal prescription drugs to very illegal street drugs to kidneys on the site.

There were a bunch of government agencies involved in tracking down the founder. These agencies bungled so many things, and there was so much corruption on the side of the “good guys” that it is truly astounding they ever caught the guy.

This book felt like it was written for people who don’t read books very often. The chapters are short and details are repeated frequently. Dialogue can be cringy (although sometimes it’s taken verbatim from the chat histories, so maybe it’s not the author’s fault!). This would be a great movie.

September 2019 Books

In September, C and I traveled without Ph for the first time. It was very strange to be without her, but our already-long itinerary was delayed and rerouted so many times that we were very grateful she wasn’t suffering along with us. We ended up taking a red-eye to a different airport, renting a car, and driving straight to our respective schools to work. As soon as he’d gotten a good night’s sleep, C had to drive a total of six hours to get our car at the original airport. I decided I am officially too old for that kind of traveling chaos, but it was worth it to be guests at a beautiful wedding of two fantastic people and to catch up with some solid-gold friends who came through for me in the biggest ways last year.

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

This is the first book I read in Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, which consists of six books centered around the fictional diocese of Starbridge and a trilogy about the fictional St. Benet’s Healing Center in London. 

This is the first book in the trilogy, and *if* you choose to read some Susan Howatch, I strongly recommend starting with the original six books. Don’t be like me and start here; you really need to read Starbridge to have a frame of reference for the characters in The Wonder Worker. 

I’m not even going to review this here.

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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I love therapy. But I love it the way some people love exercise — i.e. for the results, not the process. It has made a big difference in my life, especially after I found the right person. I think virtually everyone should go to therapy — even if only for an annual visit. Chances are good that something overwhelming is going to happen to you at some point; far better to have care already established.

Because I love therapy, I loved parts of this book. But I just didn’t click with Gottlieb. She came across a bit whiny, a bit arrogant (shades of early Gretchen Rubin!) and something about the book didn’t quite ring true. She admits that for ethical reasons she had to change stories and combine events, and sometimes I wondered how far she went in smoothing out the truth. One example concerns her client John, a successful TV producer in LA who works on a very popular unnamed show that Gottlieb watches. His therapeutic transformation is one of the main threads in the book, and Gottlieb claims that after seeing her in therapy, his show introduced a kind, wise female therapist character. If true, how is it not giving away identifying information? If not true, what was the point of including it? There are a lot of coincidences and happy endings, and I felt like this book cared more about being shiny and marketable than actually getting to the heart of therapy.

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

So far, this has been my longest read of the year at nearly 700 pages. I was helped out by the audiobook, superbly narrated by Robertson Dean. It is a book about baseball, family, fatherhood, religion, and Vietnam, which means it has strong A Prayer for Owen Meany vibes. And just like Owen Meany, this book would have been better if it were shorter, though it contained some beautiful writing that made it worth it to me (but maybe not to you).  I will remember these characters for a long time, as well as the concept of “harelip prayers.”

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Glittering Images (Starbridge #1) by Susan Howatch

This is where you should start, if you’re going to read Howatch.

The series begins in the 1930s and centers on Charles Ashworth, an Anglican priest who has been sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to spy on Alex Jardine, the Bishop of Starbridge. Jardine’s family situation is a little odd — he and his wife never go anywhere without his wife’s companion, a beautiful, capable, frosty young woman named Lyle.  They make a suspiciously close-knit threesome, and the Archbishop wants to make sure nothing…untoward is going on. And let me tell you, what is going on turns out to be very, very untoward indeed.

This book is Gothic with a capital G-O-T-H-I-C. We’ve got an unreliable narrator, a mansion with forbidden wings, scores of scandalous family secrets, handsome rakes, and lots of obsessive love. It’s also a Christian novel, which means the Gothic past can be dealt with. All things are brought to the light, and God’s grace has the power to set the characters on the right path. Surprisingly, Howatch is able to pull off the Christian part without it feeling facile or fake — most of the time, at least. 

The change is brought about by spiritual direction — which in this book is basically secular therapy + the supernatural. The spiritual director who swoops in to take care of the situation is gifted with psychic abilities, though in this book, this shakes out as simply a keen intuition about people. There is one scene at the end that I wish had been left out where Howatch overplays her hand, adding in a demon-possession situation that was over-the-top even for this already super melodramatic novel.

I can’t end this review without commenting on the sex scenes in this book and the rest of the series. If you are a sensitive reader, you should probably stay away. If you aren’t a sensitive reader, you should be aware that it is not merely the presence of sex, but the uniquely Howatchian way of describing it — the absolute worst combination of too graphic and yet too clinical. Some of her sentences are so bad, so cringe-inducing that I truly believe they could win awards. Read at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

August 2019

School started in August, but I managed to read two books. I had put Recursion on hold back when it came out in June, and I knew there were many people waiting in line for it after I was done, so I tried to read it quickly, ‘cuz I’m nice like that.

Fiction

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Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

As with the last Joshilyn Jackson book I read, there was a lot going on here. Arlene, the narrator, is living in Chicago where she fled immediately after graduating high school in rural Alabama. Alabama holds a lot of painful memories for her, not least of which is the fact that she first-degree murdered the high-school quarterback. Now she’s all grown up and in a very chaste relationship with a funny, smart black man—chaste, because she struck a deal with God that she’d remain celibate as long as the body stayed hidden. In addition to the murder and the fact that neither family approves of the interracial relationship, the book also deals with rape, trauma, parental death, mental breakdowns, and southern evangelical churchianity. Like I said, there’s a lot going on here. For me, it was too much. It felt a little manic and a little too—is there a Southern version of twee? She writes very vivid characters, and like Liane Moriarty, her books are deeper than your average beach read. But having read two of her books, I think I can safely say that barring a stellar review from someone I respect, I’m done with these for now. 

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Recursion by Blake Crouch

I loved Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and have recommended it to a ton of people, so I was really excited to read this one, especially because it deals with time travel and the Mandela effect. As with Dark Matter, Crouch plots like the TV writer that he is–fast-paced and twisty–but in this case, the plot made it very difficult to connect with any of the characters. His main characters were a bit flat to begin with and when they start living through so many different timelines, it is difficult to have any sense of continuity. By the end of the novel, I didn’t care if anyone lived or died. I have more to say, but I try to keep these spoiler-free. Talk to me if you’ve read this one! 

July 2019

In the month of July, I read one book.

Technically, I didn’t even read it. A lovely Australian woman read it to me, courtesy of Hoopla.

Here’s what I remember about July. An entire week was spent taking care of medical stuff for Phoebe. She had six appointments in five days. It was nuts. Two of the appointments spawned multiple referrals. I was reminded of the Hydra.

As soon as that was over, I tried desperately to rally for the next school year. It was the first time (EVER) that I had job continuity from one year to the next. I realize that makes me sound like a terrible employee, but no, I just decided to spend my twenties moving around the country at the frequency of a snake-oil salesman.

During this, my first summer of prepping, I discovered that planning tasks without  knowing the kids yet is incredibly soul-sucking to me. My enthusiasm about work always comes from the relationships, not the subject area, and summer prep is all about subject area and housekeeping tasks. I did get to go nuts with Bitmojis during this time, and that helped.

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Oh, and Christian got a job this month too.

I was pretty sure I’d never read again.

Fiction

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The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

I picked this book up because it was recommended by someone, somewhere and more importantly, because it was available on audiobook when I needed an audiobook. In many ways, this book reminded me of Liane Moriarty — a gentle thriller, lots of family drama, alternating viewpoints, Austrialian. I won’t give spoilers, but a significant part of the plot is nearly identical to a major subplot of a Moriarty book that came out three years earlier. Turns out that particular issue is a big deal in Australia right now–and not in the U.S.–which probably made the repetition more noticeable to me. One area where it diverges from Moriarty is that this book is not funny in the least. For me, half the fun of reading Moriarty is the Aussie sarcastic wit. Don’t expect that here. If you read this one, do it for the subtle family drama and the nuances of mother-/daughter-in-law relationships. 

June 2019

Fiction

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Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison

A boilerplate domestic thriller, a genre that isn’t really my thing, so take my dismissiveness with a grain of salt. On the surface, this one seems happier than, say, The Girl on the Train, but not when you think about it for longer than, like, thirty seconds. So many of the descriptions read like bad parodies of the male gaze that I was surprised the author was female. Turns out women can write women badly too! #equality 

My favorite domestic thriller — if it qualifies? — is Big, Little Lies, I think in part because the relationship between the husband and wife was grounded in actual research about abusive partners. Books like Lie to Me prioritize twists over verisimilitude, and verisimilitude is kinda my jam. Will I keep reading these domestic thrillers? PROBABLY. 

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The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

After reading so much fluff, I needed something deep and depressing to give my reading life some weight again. Loved this one, although I think I might prefer The End of the Affair. Loved listening to the Close Reads episodes, as always. 

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Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout

I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Fair warning: her novels are bleak. That is what I love about them—they are incredibly depressing, but always leave you with just a speck of hope. In Abide with Me, a Congregationalist pastor struggles to raise his young daughter after the death of his wife, while dealing with an overbearing mother and a petty, hypocritical congregation. Add in a whole lot of repressed grief and his impossibly high standards for himself (Bonhoeffer is his idol), and you have a very slow train wreck. Very character-driven, not much plot here. 

 I do remember that there was a subplot about one parishioner that I disliked, and I remember not being as enthused about the book when I finished it as when I was halfway through. I would definitely read it again though. This is why I have to be better about updating my blog, because after three months, my memory is failing me! 

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John LeCarre

I think this may have been my first spy novel ever. I’m still getting used to the genre, so I appreciated that Close Reads was there for me, as always.

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Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Totally read this book because of Instagram, so I guess marketing works! So many people loved the oral history format, but to me it felt like reading the script of a documentary. But wow, the author did an amazing job creating documents, lyrics, press releases, and conversations that all cohered. I’m amazed by the creativity to even think of this book. I am not at all surprised that this has been picked up for TV–I think it’d translate to that medium almost effortlessly. I enjoyed this one, but it wasn’t life-changing. 

Non-Fiction

 

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I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller 

I did this one on audiobook because I wanted something light and easy to follow while I sewed five pairs of PJs and I don’t know how many pairs of underwear. (I got a little obsessed there.) I am not really a Friends fan, but I do love reading about the cultural impact of television. Crazy how much it continues to impact people. I regularly see current high schoolers (born in 2004, the year the show ended!) wearing Friends apparel. I’m proud that I can finally identify the six main characters. Also, is Paris Geller from Gilmore girls (sic/ it’s actually the proper capitalization) related to Monica and Ross? Now that’s the real question.

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After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search by Sarah Perry

Wow, this book was heart-wrenching. Almost too hard for me to read at times. But it is beautifully written and brings a much needed humane voice to the era of true crime we’re living in. This is a book that ultimately honors her mom, not one that glamorizes her murderer. Perhaps the biggest testament to her mother’s love is the author herself, a woman who must have been loved so well as a young child to be able to endure so much trauma as a young adult.