Archive for Book Reviews

Book Review: A Lantern in Her Hand

Have you heard of Bess Streeter Aldrich?  I hadn’t until my book club found out we’re moving to Iowa for the fall semester.  Suddenly I was told about this Iowa native writer and promised to read A Lantern in Her Hand for our next book club.  I’ve been raving about it to every mother I meet.

A Lantern in Her Hand is a pioneer book, not a historical romance, as the current Amazon cover might indicate.  Think Little House, but from Ma’s perspective.  Abbie grows up on a farm in Iowa, dreaming of a life like her elegant, aristocratic Scottish grandmother.  Instead of a life of riches and ease, she marries a good, hardworking man and becomes a Nebraska farmer’s wife.  Her husband Will promises her that as soon as they get some extra money, she’ll get those music and art lessons she’s always wanted, but if you’ve read the Little House books, you know how the 1870’s were for farmers–droughts, grasshopper infestations, years of broken dreams.  And if you’ve read any realistic fiction about pioneer life, you know that women miscarry, children die of snakebites, husbands die before their time.  Abbie and Will face a host of challenges as they raise their young family on the untamed Nebraska prairie.  By the time they have financial stability, their children are grown and need the music and art lessons and college tuition.  Abbie sacrifices for her family again, and again, and again.  Every time it seems life might be getting a bit easier, she’s called to do something hard, and the tragedy is that her children don’t even seem to notice all that she has done for them.

It may sound like a real downer of a book.  But the beauty of this novel is not in the events (although they are so realistic as to make you wonder how much was based on the author’s own family) but rather the way that Abbie responds to them.  Again and again, she has to choose not to be bitter and resentful but to have joy.  And as a young mom who is definitely sacrificing a lot in order to be home with my children, it’s encouraging to see a picture of what a life poured out in love can produce.  Aldrich’s message is that there is purpose in the sacrifice of a mother for her children, building something better for the next generation.  Abbie leads an undistinguished life, yet the influence of her faithful motherhood ripples out through her children, grandchildren, and community. Interestingly, this book does not talk about what could cause the human heart to do something so unnatural as choose to humble oneself for others.  There is very little mention of faith, and Abby’s death scene (this isn’t a spoiler; the book begins with her death and is all a flash-back) owes more to American theistic folk religion than to any explicitly Christian understanding.  But…all in all, A Lantern in Her Hand made me so proud of my Midwestern heritage, so grateful for the women in my family who came before me, and so thankful to be given the opportunity to impact lives as a mother.

I gushed so much about this book to my mom that she went out and read it, and I had to laugh when she texted me back to say she’d finished it.  “Sort of a strange little book, but thought provoking,” she said.  I’d been telling her I was moved almost as much as I was from Lila, which is a true American classic and will be read and studied a hundred years from now, and she was expecting something that profound.  Lest I confuse you as I did my mom, this is a five star book to me because of my emotional response to it, not because of its prose.  Aldrich is no Marilynne Robinson; her writing is a bit old-fashioned, and while I think reading about the early days of Middle-America are fascinating, the life story of a farmer is not what the cool kids are reading these days.  That’s okay.  Abbie herself defends the scope of her lifestyle when her adult daughter accuses her of having lived a narrow life:

You know Grace, it’s queer, but I don’t feel narrow.  I feel broad.  How can I explain it to you, so you would understand?  I’ve seen everything…and I’ve hardly been away from this yard.  I’ve seen cathedrals in the snow on the Lombardy poplars.  I’ve seen the sun set behind the Alps over there when the clouds have been piled up on the edge of the prairie.  I’ve seen the ocean billows in the rise and the fall of the prairie grass.  I’ve seen history in the making…three ugly wars flare up and die down.  I’ve sent a lover and two brothers to one, a son and son-in-law to another, and two grandsons to the other.  I’ve seen the feeble beginnings of a raw state and the civilization that developed there, and I’ve been part of the beginning and part of the growth.  I’ve married…and borne children and looked into the face of death.  Is childbirth narrow, Grace?  Or marriage?  Or death?  When you’ve experienced all those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined.  I think travel is a rare privilege and I’m glad you can have it.  But not everyone who stays at home is narrow and not everyone who travels is broad.  I think if you can understand humanity…can sympathize with every creature…can put yourself into the personality of every one…you’re not narrow…you’re broad.

Sounds a bit like G.K. Chesterton on mothers being everything to someone, right?  Near the end of Abbie’s life, a granddaughter asks her about her happiest memories.  Her answer hit me hard as I read it:

There are many memories. but I’ll tell you the one I like to think of best of all. It’s just a homely everyday thing, but to me it is the happiest of them all. It is evening time here in the old house and the supper is cooking and the table is set for the whole family. It hurts a mother, Laura, when the plates begin to be taken away one by one. First there are seven and then six and then five…and on down to a single plate. So I like to think of the table set for the whole family at supper time. The robins are singing in the cottonwoods and the late afternoon sun is shining across the floor, Will, your grandfather, is coming in to supper… and the children are playing out in the yard. I can hear their voices and happy laughter. There isn’t much to that memory is there? Out of a lifetime of experiences you would hardly expect that to be the one I would choose as the happiest, would you? But it is.

You totally should pick this little forgotten gem up this summer and read it while your kids are running through the sprinkler.  But even if you don’t, can you join me in aspiring to find joy in the little, homely, everyday things of motherhood?  Like Abbie, can we savor the moment when our husband comes in from a hard day of work, the little people are playing, and we’re putting dinner on the table?  I’ll be the first to admit that the dinner prep hour is usually my least favorite time of day, but this book has challenged me to look at the mundane moments of my life as a mother with new eyes.

 

Note: The links in this post are amazon affiliate links.  If you decide to buy this book and order it (or anything else from amazon) through our link, we’ll get a tiny percentage back, which we’ll use to pay the hosting fees for this blog.

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Book Review: Eve in Exile

I haven’t blogged much this spring because all my free time has been spent reading, but now I have some really good books to recommend to you guys!  First up, Eve in Exile, by Bekah Merkle, sister of Rachel Jankovic, whom you already know we love.  Unsurprisingly, this book on femininity delighted and challenged me.

Eve in Exile has two main points.  First of all, both the radical feminists and those who long for the “good old days when women knew their place” have it wrong when they talk about what it means to be a woman.  The former insist that we’re just like men, and the latter seem to think the Victorian mother or the 50’s housewife embody the perfect, “merely decorative” little woman.  In following the radical feminists, women have been discovering that the myth of having it all is impossible and exhausting to attempt, just as countless bored housewives have discovered that sitting around in pretty clothes while their husbands do all the real work is pretty depressing, too.  But God actually had a better idea.  He created us to be beautifully different from men and gave us hard and important work to do. Merkle spends the second half of her book giving a brief overview of what feminine work includes, under the general headings of Subdue, Fill, Help, and Glorify.  She argues, “God did not create women to lounge around in picturesque poses, occasionally embroidering a handkerchief.”  We’re to be working to build things (family, culture, community), “to make holiness beautiful, to make it taste,” to help our husbands (if we have them) and “our people” (family, friends, those who God has put in our immediate sphere of influence).  I really could have quoted about half the book, but I’ll just give you this one beautiful passage about the work of a homemaker:

Our jobs are not important because they keep us just as busy as if we had “real” careers.  They’re not important because we can come up with important sounding words to describe them.  Our jobs are important because they are poetry.  Because they shape loves and they shape loyalties, they teach and they convict.  They’re important because they take glorious truths and make them incarnate, make them visible, and weave them into the souls of the people around us.        (Ch. 14)

One thing I most appreciated about this book was its focus on our attitude.  Do I see my work in the home as poetry?  A woman can be a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her children, cooks fresh meals from scratch three times a day, reads the Bible to them every night, and resents them every minute of every day.  Such a mom doesn’t get a pass over her mom friend who went back to work full-time and put the kids in public school after her husband developed a debilitating illness that prevents him working (but does it all with a cheerful spirit).  In our efforts here at E2S to encourage moms to embrace full-time motherhood in the early years, we have tried to make clear that this is a lifestyle we must commit to do joyfully, not resentfully.

The book doesn’t get into too many specifics of what a Godly woman’s life might be like, because Merkle rightly acknowledges that every situation is different.  Although Anna and I do manage to live on a single income with large families in two of the most expensive places in the United States, we’re both very much aware that staying at home full-time is financially easier in the good old Midwest (where we both come from!), for example.  And the author herself works now at the school where her (teenage) children attend, so while she acknowledges the need that young children have for their mothers, she definitely is not saying women can not ever work outside the home.  Rather, she urges that we make decisions about commitments and employment based on the needs of “our people” and not our own desires for personal fulfillment or praise.

While a book on Biblical femininity can often make the single and/or childless women among us feel left out, Merkle’s call applies to all women. If the focus is ministering to “our people,” our vision for ministry as women needn’t just be limited to young mothers who should be staying home with their kids.  My youngest daughter’s namesakes are my favorite author (who never married) and a single woman from my church growing up who became an honorary member of our family (she and my mom and I even road tripped together in my teens) who worked hard in her profession and served faithfully in our church for many years before taking her very ill mother in to live with her for the last years of her mother’s life.  This Godly friend of mine did not get to marry until her 50s and never had children of her own, but her entire life has been centered around service, much of which was explicitly feminine.  Since this blog is written for young mothers, we don’t talk much about other groups of women, but I so appreciate a robust philosophy of womanhood that can challenge women in any stage of life.

I came away from the book feeling excited and challenged to step up my game.  All too often, I act like an employee in my home, doing the bare minimum in housework and cooking to get by.  Instead, Bekah Merkle reminds me, I need to see my home with the eyes of a business owner.  I don’t just want to clock in and out; I want us to thrive!  I want us as a family to do great, glorious things for God.  I want to pursue excellence.  Some weeks, that might mean coaching my children as they clean house before the social workers come out to do another home study foster family interview (side note: I realize that a year from now, frazzled with my five or six kiddos bouncing off the walls, I will laugh at the thought of cleaning up for these social workers, but I’m still in the wanting to make a good impression phase.).  Some weeks, that might mean ignoring the state of the house and snuggling on the couch together all morning to read a really good book.  Some weeks, that might mean spending all afternoon in the kitchen together in preparation for hosting another group for dinner.  Some weeks, that might mean running my kids to four different activities as they develop the skills and talents God has given them.  Regardless of the agenda for the day, I’m re-inspired to tackle it with joy and a sense of purpose!

As always, I would love to talk more about Eve in Exile with any dear readers who have read it, too.  Email me! emily@everythingtosomeone.com  And is anyone else enjoying Bekah and Rachel’s What Have You podcast as much as I am?

 

Note: The links in this post are amazon affiliate links.  If you decide to buy this book and order it (or anything else from amazon) through our link, we’ll get a tiny percentage back, which we’ll use to pay the hosting fees for this blog. =)

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Summer Reading

I must admit, I love summer reading week at the blog. Emily and I rarely discuss what we’re reading before we put it up, and I love seeing what she’s working on for the summer, and getting inspired to add a few new things to my pile from hers. We actually have fairly different literary tastes (as I’ll explain in a minute…), and seeing her stack inspires me to get out of my comfort zone a little bit.

Anna's Books

Lila, read together with Emily for our week vacationing together this summer: This is a completely new read for me. I am not a Marilynne Robinson fan, for reasons that are way too lengthy to get into here. I read Home several years ago and really had a hard time with it. I started Lila this summer very biased against it. After e-mailing Emily half-way through telling her I hated it, she gave me some helpful pointers that really did help me slow down and enjoy the rest of the novel. While it’s still not my favorite, having somebody who loves it to bounce ideas off of has immensely helped.

Side note: John Piper did a review of the book here. I haven’t read it yet, but am hoping to bring a copy to our reunion for further discussion. 

Also for our vacation together: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles.  Having read the Chronicles to my kids multiple times now, I’m really enjoying this look at some of the different themes. Life Under Compulsion by Anthony Esolen. Who doesn’t love Esolen? My husband and I will be reading this one aloud as we drive across the country over the next few weeks.

The other books in my pile have one central theme: my goal is to get back to enjoying reading again. So this summer I’ve tried to pick books that I’m pretty sure I’ll absolutely love, just to get back into the reading habit.

Bunker Hill and Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick is so easy to read, and I love history. I re-read his Mayflower this year, so when I saw Valiant Ambition at Costco, I grabbed it. I don’t always agree with his take on the Pilgrims, but I enjoy reading the history and then discussing the ways I think he gets the Pilgrims wrong with my husband and a history buff colleague of his.

Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton. I started this this spring after finding it in a used bookstore. The book is nice short chapters about the author’s travels through Europe after college. It is well written and easy to read. If you frequent Ambelside Online at all, you know that his children’s works are recommended geography reading there. Reading this one, aimed at adults, has made me want to read the kid’s version.

Pioneer Girl. I am absolutely dying to read this one, but am making myself wait until we leave for vacation. It’s an annotated biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The rumor I’ve heard is that it’s how she originally wrote the Little House books, but couldn’t get published in that form. Apparently it’s a lot grittier, portraying some of the reality of frontier life that doesn’t show up in the children’s books. Can’t wait.

And, to finish up, I thought I’d give you a couple books that I’ve been enjoying with my kids. I’ve Lost My Hippopotamus by Jack Prelutsky. Such a fun book of poetry. In the same vein as Shel Silverstein, but I enjoy them much, much more. I keep it next to my bed, and my son climbs up in the morning and we read a few pages together. Classic Fairy Tales by Scott Gustafson. I love the illustrations of Scott Gustafson, and my little kids and I have been obsessed with fairy tales the past few months. Someday I’ll do a post with our favorites :).

I’d love to hear what books you’re loving this summer!

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Book Review: The Mommy Brain

mommy brainWhen I asked you all for book suggestions at the beginning of the year, Catherine requested that we read/review The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter by Katherine Ellison.  It’s a fascinating read.  The author, a highly successful professional woman, bristled at the implication that becoming a mother had dumbed her down.  As she delved into the research on motherhood and intelligence, Ellison found that science tells a very different story than the stereotypical “my kids have drained all my brain cells” mentality expressed by so many mothers.

Ellison gathers an impressive array of studies to support her thesis that motherhood improves our perception, efficiency, resilience, motivation, and “emotional intelligence.”  It’s the last phrase that I find especially interesting, especially since she had claims early in the book that “more mothers of young children than ever before [are] involved in mentally demanding work…” (ch 2).  (As you can imagine, my hackles always rise whenever a working mom brushes off the “simple” act of raising a child as mentally undemanding.)  Too often, women (and for that matter, men) are deemed successful only if they rise to prominence in an “intellectually demanding” field.  So I appreciate Ellison’s endeavors to point out that motherhood trains us to have strong empathy, nonverbal communication (her fancy way of explaining a mother’s intuition), and optimism (the “spin control” she says we need to cope with all the little frustrations of parenting young children, reminding us that it will all be worth it someday).  These are life skills, she argues, which make us happier and more successful in every endeavor (and better employees in the workforce, of which she assumes we all want to be a part).  Those of us who have learned to discern the baby’s cry or who have a pretty good idea of what that look in the preschooler’s eye means are flexing the emotional IQ muscles we honed in the all-day-every-day business of childraising.  I appreciate this defense of the precious expertise of motherhood, and it’s supported by a good chunk of research to send to a frustrated first-time sahm who is worrying that her brain is turning to mush just because she’s not earning any money.

Unfortunately for the cause of full-time motherhood, Ellison is more cagey on the question of why, if all this time with little ones is so great for our brains, we should chuck them in daycare and head back out to the workplace.  She’s very concerned about our earning potential (in later chapters, she bemoans the mommy track and pushes for universal preschool to free us up to work), but comes short of really examining what lifestyle can give us the most emotional potential.  She praises women who are juggling work and home life, mentions bored sahms who have thrown themselves into charitable volunteer work, and cheerfully concludes that multitasking forces us to be more efficient, which must be a good thing, right?  Efficiency has its place, but where is there room in efficiency for taking your moody kindergartner out for a walk so that you can get at the heart of what’s been making her so crabby all weekend?  Where is there room for listening to your grade schooler ramble on in excruciating detail about a cool technological innovation he read about that morning?  Where is the time to sit and read the same three board books over and over and over to the toddler who is in the midst of a language explosion and is actively incorporating every word of Gossie and Gertie into her rapidly-increasing vocabulary?  Where is the time to sit the preschooler down on the potty chair and sing her song after song until she finally has success?  Even Ellison admits in her final pages that multitasking needs to be done in moderation, and she wouldn’t advocate spending every waking minute on your smartphone.

The latter chapters earned a few more eye rolls from me.  There’s a one-sided chapter on moms in politics, in which every liberal woman politician in the past 150 years seems to get a mention, and there’s the obligatory dig at President George W. Bush.  Motherhood needn’t be a politically divisive issue, but Ellison has to grind her ax, despite the topic being disjointed from the rest of the book.  There’s a section on how we need to ask for help, because motherhood doesn’t have to be as draining as it’s portrayed (this help, in the author’s mind, comes in the form of paid childcare, or the affable coworkers who agree to shoulder some of your responsibilities while you work from home because obviously single people don’t have as much of a life as a mother who is Having It All!).  Ellison doesn’t mention a lot of ideas for help for stay-at-home moms because we’re not her target audience; she doesn’t seem to remember consistently that we exist, except when we’re bored, financially crippled, or depressed.  Kudos to her for caring that working moms can be run ragged, but her proposed solutions fall short.

I don’t want to be unfair to Ellison; her book is not meant to be a philosophy of family culture or full-time motherhood.  She does touch on many of the questions I raise here, she just doesn’t find a satisfactory answer.  It’s as if she accumulated all of the research and statistics she could find on working moms and just got lost in the details by the end.  While I take issue with her assumption that “physical work” like cooking dinner and washing clothes isn’t as challenging as “cerebral work” like second-guessing our doctor’s advice with the help of google (yes, really), Ellison does a good job of pointing out that intelligence has many facets, and motherhood enhances and utilizes many of them differently than the workforce.  She has certainly done her homework when it comes to the scientifically measurable effects of motherhood on a woman’s brain and psyche.  The Mommy Brain is worth the read for those who enjoy behavioral studies and for those who are asking what motherhood has done to our brains.  But I’d point you in other directions if you’re seeking more of a philosophy of motherhood.

 

Has anyone else read The Mommy Brain?  I’d love to have further discussion in the comments!  And are there any other books on motherhood any of you want us to review?  It might take me another two or three months, but I’m up for the challenge!

 

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Posted in Book Reviews, Having It All, Importance of Mothers, Reading, Using Our Minds | 1 Comment
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