Midyear Reading Review

I had so much fun writing a previous book review post, Summer Reading, that I think I’ll write a similar one at the onset of the new year.  Perhaps this will become a semi-annual tradition.

Since summer ended, I’ve had a bit of a struggle finding both books that excite me and time to read them.  In review, however, it does not seem quite as sparse as it felt. Here are some of my most notable reads:

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  I’d heard good things about this book for quite some time, so I finally had to read it for myself.  It is the story of a boy named Santiago who goes in search of his “personal legend,” learning about himself along the way.  There are many words of wisdom embedded into the tale (one of which led to my post, Beyond Sameness.) However, it seemed to me that way too much effort was put into adding deep meaning to the simple story.  I enjoyed it on a light level and then donated my copy to the little lending library at my favorite hotel at the beach.

The Cry of the Peacock by V.R. Christensen.  I’d never heard anything about this book or author before. Frankly, I chose it from a discount e-book site because I liked the picture of the peacock on the cover and I love the sound of peacocks crying.  It was also free.

The story is about two sisters in Victorian times who have fallen on hard times.  One gets the chance to redeem herself and the noble family her father worked for if she will just marry the oldest son. The plot is very Jane Austin, with the characters all fumbling around to find their correct niches, not to mention spouses.  It is a relaxing read and a good escape when stressed.  Maybe sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Incidentally, in a preface, the author mentions a companion book, Of Moths and Butterflies, written prior to this one.  She says it shows a heroine who makes different choices than Abby in The Cry of the Peacock.  It sounded familiar to me and when I checked my Kindle, I realized I had downloaded it from the same discount site. I had chosen this one because of the beautiful blue butterfly on the cover.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  This reflective book was written while the author spent her summer alone in an isolated cottage at the beach.  Her writing somehow takes on a cadence that feels like the gentle rolling of waves.  She writes about the different phases of development as a woman, choosing a symbolic shell for each stage.  It’s a great read for a slow summer day when you have time for pondering womanhood and human nature.  Her philosophizing lost me for a while in the middle of the book, but caught me back up in the next chapter.  I will need to buy a copy for my bookshelf as this was unfortunately a digital loan from my library.

The Lake House by Kate Morton.  This is a mystery about a baby that goes missing after World War I, on an enchanting estate in Cornwall.  The case goes unsolved and is revisited by a modern-day (2003)  detective on leave from her job as a police officer.  I found it engaging and enjoyed following the threads of plot as the new and the old weaved themselves together.

This is my second book by this author.  She definitely seems to have a formula to her writing.  One of her characters is a writer and even alludes to formula and writing process. However, the complex plot and delicious setting make it a page-turner.  At times there is a comfortable predictability, and sometimes that prediction leads to a dead-end.  I also appreciated Morton’s impeccable vocabulary.

Up next on my reading list:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (a reread from childhood!)

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray

The Lineage of Grace by Francine Rivers (a reread)

The Lady in the Van by Allen Bennett

These should keep me busy for a while.  Please leave a response if you read any of my recommendations, or if you have any books to recommend.

The Spirit of Christmas

It’s that time of year when the magical spirit of Christmas is supposed to make everyone merry, loving and peaceful.  When I was young, the lights, the presents and the family traditions worked their magic and made me believe.  Now that I’m an adult, it’s different. Christmas can easily become a list of responsibilities and crowds of stressed out people.

Recently, my family was planning ahead for how we would celebrate Christmas this year. When would dinner be?  Who would be there?  What time was the Christmas Eve service? As we looked at the calendar, we noticed that the holiday falls on a Sunday this year.  Our usual service is early in the morning.  I stopped myself just before stating, “Oh no!  Church on Christmas will ruin the morning!”

I fear that I have become so jaded that I perform the rote trappings of Christmas without experiencing or spreading the Joy that the day celebrates. Having to decorate, provide the family’s presents and plan the menu become the focus of this time originally set aside for remembrance of the sacred event of Christ’s entry into our world.

I’m not the only one who may be struggling to focus on the true meaning of Christmas. This year I know so many hurting people-the couple at church whose beautiful, twenty-three year old daughter is spending this December in a coma because a drunk driver hit her tiny vehicle, the coworker whose husband is battling cancer while she is beside herself trying to coordinate his health care services, many families who trying to provide the basics, much less the extras, to their children after a job layoff, and Ronnie, my student who is homeless this school year.  It will take more than lights and decorations and Christmas carols to cheer these people.

Ironically, it is these situations that draw me back to the true meaning of Christmas. These remind me that Christ loved us enough to leave His realm and humbly enter ours as a helpless baby.  He spent His life creating a way for people to relate to a once remote God. Now we may appeal directly to God, and the intangible Spirit causes tangible experiences in our lives.

Ronnie, my student who has been homeless this year, will soon be taken off my list of hurting people. Her story exemplifies one of the greatest gifts of Christmas-our invitation to approach the God of the universe with our requests.  It gives an example of the intangible Spirit tangibly working.

At the beginning of this school year, the school staff was told that Ronnie’s family had become homeless.  The family of six had lived for a while in their car, and now they were in a hotel room.  We did whatever little things we could to help her settle into the school year.

By the end of the month, my husband received a phone call from Ronnie’s dad.  They know each other from years earlier.  This call was a desperate plea for just one hundred dollars. That was all the dad needed to meet his rent at the hotel.  However, his resources were depleted, and if he didn’t pay by 1:00 that afternoon, the family would be evicted.  My husband made a quick call to me to make sure we had the money and then a trip to the atm. The rent was paid with barely an hour to spare.  (A side note: We had the money because I’d been squirreling a bit away and was looking for the right way to give it to this family.  One hundred dollars was the exact amount I’d saved up.)

I was happy we had this small amount of money to spare, but I was left with an empathetic feeling of frustration for Ronnie’s family.  They had been so close to having the amount they needed, and yet they were so far from being secure.  Even with continued gifts from my family and other school staff, coming up short was a cycle that would happen every month as the family’s need was greater than their income.  It was a vicious, unsolvable cycle.

I could not shake this feeling of frustration at the impossible situation this family was in. So, I did what I always do when problems seem impossible; I prayed.  I found myself praying often for this family.  As I did, I found my request becoming specific and focused.  I didn’t want them to survive just day to day.  I wanted their impossible situation to be resolved.  I began to ask specifically that their income would increase and that their expensive housing cost would become lower.  I prayed that their income would become larger than their expenses, all the time feeling more frustrated at the seeming impossibility.

For a few months, it seemed my prayers were going unheard.  Nothing changed.  Then in November, Ronnie reported that her father had gotten a job.  I thanked God for answering half of my prayer, but continued to ask for less expensive housing.

The latter request was just answered a few weeks ago when both Ronnie and her father reported that the family had found an apartment that would cost far less than the hotel.  They are now moving in, and I am left once again reassured by the power of prayer and the working of God’s Spirit.

It’s true I no longer feel the child-like wonder of the Christmas season.  It has been replaced instead by something more lasting and real. And this Spirit is with me year-round.