The Nesting Place // by Myquillyn Smith

//published 2014//

I have this crazy idea in the back of mind that I will finish writing reviews for books read in May and THEN do an April/May Rearview…  except it’s already June 12…  ah well.  Yesterday was my last day of my seasonal job, so I’m anticipating a better pattern of reading and reviewing (haha) in between playing with the puppy, keeping up the garden, doing laundry, running my Etsy shop, etc….

Somewhere along the line I stumbled into this book.  I’m rather drawn to home organizational books and magazines; I love looking for ideas that I can use (or tweak a little and then use), especially since we somehow seem to always be remodeling something around here.  This book had delightfully smooth and glossy pages and perfect binding; lots of photographs and beautiful font, so I was immediately attracted.  And once I started reading, Smith’s friendly and encouraging writing kept me turning the pages.

This book felt like a letter from a friend, possibly because Smith is actually a blogger.  But despite the warm tone, the book stayed focused and orderly, making it not just enjoyable for a one-time read,  but a book that can be referenced again and again.

I was expecting a typical book about organizing your home – step-by-step instructions and suggestions.  I was also hoping for some tips on home decorating, as I sometimes struggle with making things look ‘right’, especially in our small home where it is very easy to cross the line to ‘cluttered’.  What I wasn’t anticipating was an actual message that would both encourage and challenge, as Smith believes that the first step to decorating your home is getting your heart and attitude in the right place.

She starts by outlining her own house history, which involves 13 houses in 18 years of marriage – I believe this qualifies as a lot of moves by any standard.  As Smith talks about the different houses, she also talks about how, at the time, each one wasn’t ‘the one’, and so she didn’t make much of an effort to nest in.  But what she began to realize was that everyone house is ‘the one’ for the current season, and while it may not be worthwhile to throw down thousands of dollars on projects in every house, it is always worthwhile to make every house your own home.

A lot of what Smith discusses has to do with the importance of contentment.  So often we cheat ourselves out of enjoying the present because we are wishing we had something different.  I love the quote that she attributed to Epicurus – “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Smith’s message is not a complicated one; in fact, I was rather blown away by its simplicity.  Appreciate where you are now.  Work within your current means.  Be willing to try something new.  Stop worrying about what other people think and instead create something you love.  Remember that your home is a haven, and go from there.

According to Smith, perfection is overrated.  Because we set “perfection” (a somewhat vague term when it comes to home decor) as our goal, we become frozen with fear and do nothing.  “Done is better than perfect,” Smith says.  “Welcoming and comfortable do not have to equal perfection.”  She quotes Sandy Coughlin –

Excellence is working toward an attainable goal that benefits everyone, while perfection comes from a place of great need – usually the need to avoid criticism and gain praise and approval.

One of the big things that really hit me was Smith’s discussion about apologizing for things in the home.  “Sorry, it’s such a mess today,” or “I’m so embarrassed by what a disaster this kitchen is!”  These types of comments do not make people feel comfortable and welcomed.  Instead, apologizing not only broadcasts your discontentment with your current state of affairs, it sets up whomever is receiving your apology to wonder how harshly you would judge their messes if you were in their home!

After quite a bit of time on attitude and contentment (time that was not at all wasted, in my opinion), Smith gets down to some of the nitty-gritty of nesting.  She says that a big part of making decorating decisions is first of all determining the purpose of your home and of the different spaces within it.  She points out that most of us want things that are somewhat intangible for our homes.  Smith suggests taking a moment to “think about words you would use to describe the feel of the home you’ve always wanted,” and later she lists several words that she gathered from some of her blog readers.  The words were things like “restful,” “welcoming,” “comfortable,” “safe,” “fun,” and “joyful.”  Start with your words, she says, and go from there to create intentional spaces.

I’ve rambled on quite a bit about this book, but it really impacted me, and I highly recommend it.  While I’ve talked a lot about Smith’s thoughts on attitude and contentment, she also has a lot of practical advice.  A huge take-away for me was the importance of making the spaces in my home purposeful – to look at each room/area and decide what it is I want that space to do, and then only place things in that space that further the purpose.

Funny story, I thought I would start with the little dining nook off our kitchen, and I started to write down the different things we use that space for, and realized that the one thing we don’t use it for is eating… and now we’re in the process of turning the entire area into a pantry, and there are boxes of food stacked all over the place and construction dust everywhere, so be careful whilst reading this book!

I also have to say that Smith has been a renter throughout the majority of her married life, and her book reaches out to renters as well as home-owners.  So  many of her suggestions and thoughts are inexpensive and easily changed (hanging pictures, moving furniture, painting things, etc).  I found myself wishing that I had read this book back when we were renters and I so often found myself staring at those dreadful flat-beige rental walls!

All in all, The Nesting Place was an unexpected encouragement.  Warm and thoughtful, challenging and practical, I highly recommend this book if you are feeling a smidge overwhelmed about creating a “look” for your home.

February Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg

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//published 2007//

So growing up, Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite books.  As an adult, I discovered her book The View from Saturday and loved that one, too – a lot (I even read and reviewed it again!).  But for me, The Mysterious Edge just didn’t work the way her other two books did.  The plot is disjointed and strange, the characters inconsistent and unrealistic, and the entire premise centers around a lot of coincidences.

I really wanted to like this book – two kids becoming friends while helping an elderly lady clean out her house that’s full of interesting stuff – doesn’t that sound like fun??  But the old lady, Mrs. Zender, is really weird, and so are both of the boys – and not in the realistic, quirky way of some of Konigsburg’s characters in Saturday – just weird, weird: the kind of weird that leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement.

A lot of the story centers around a picture that one of the boys finds, a drawing of a naked woman.  Now we’re informed that this is art, so this is a “nude” which is different from just someone being naked.  But…  it still felt really inappropriate for the age of the characters and the intended readers, and, once again, was just kind of weird.  Like why does the picture have to be of a naked person??

There are almost some good discussions about how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, about people who are rich and people who aren’t, about whether or not a government should be able to decide what is or isn’t art.  But none of those conversations really go anywhere, so the whole book feels awkward and stunted.

All in all, 1/5 for a book that I wanted to like but just couldn’t.  I’m still planning to read some more of Konigsburg’s books because I have enjoyed a couple of them so very much, but I don’t see myself ever revisiting this one.

American Gardening Series: Container Gardening by Suzanne Frutig Bales

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//published 1993//

This is one of those random books that I picked up for a quarter at a library book sale at some point.  It’s not a terribly thick book, but it does have a lot of photographs and plenty of good information about choosing plants for container gardens and then keeping them alive after you’ve planted them!  Bales has a lot of enthusiasm for container gardening as it is very flexible and can be done in almost any amount of space.

I’ve been working through several gardening books this month, and I always glean some new tips and ideas.  This one is well worth the shelf space as a great reference book.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on planning container gardens – I think that a lot of times people go into container gardening assuming that you just sort of jam some plants in and it will look great, but this book spends some time talking about not just the color of the plants you are planting, but texture, size, and growing requirements.  Definitely recommended if this is a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

The Princess by Lori Wick

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//published 1999//

This is a (multiple time) reread for me, and I have a more detailed review here.  Sometimes I just need some happy fluff, and this book always fits the bill.  It involves my favorite trope (marriage than love), and just is a happy, gentle little tale that I have read many times and yet always find enjoyable.  I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump here at the end of February, what with starting my new job and being super tired all the time, so The Princess helped get me through!

Terms & Conditions // by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

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//published 2016//

It occurs to me as I am writing this that this is actually the second book I have read by this title in the last few months, which seems peculiar.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with this review, as Robert Glancy’s Terms & Conditions was absolutely nothing like Graham’s!

Some of you may remember, back in the mists of time (and by that I mean in December), that I received my first issue of Slightly Foxed, an absolutely delightful literary magazine.  I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote a review of a quarterly full of reviews!  SF publishes a special edition book every quarter as well, and for this winter it was Terms & Conditions.  Everyone spoke so warmly of this volume that I felt that I had to have it – and when it comes to books, I nearly always indulge my whims!

First off, we simply must address the physical perfection of this book.  Everything about it is exactly as it should be, from grey-blue cloth-bound cover to the ideal size (perfect for slipping into a pocket or reading in bed) to the book-marker ribbon to the excellent quality binding that allows the book to lay flat no matter where it is opened.  I wish all books would be published with such care!  All this meant that reading this book was always a lovely experience.  Every time I picked it up, my spirits were lifted before I even opened the book.  It is that perfect!

As for the book itself – well, conveniently, that is delightful as well!  This is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts, although not in the traditional sense as Graham has mostly collected the memories and stories of people other than herself.  So in a way it is a memoir not of a specific person, but of a type of person – of a group of people who all went through a similar experience.  And while each of them brings her own voice and memories, together they create a type: Women who attended British boarding schools between 1939 and 1979.

Before I began this book, I found myself wondering if I would really relate to anything it said.  After all, I’m an American who was home-educated and wasn’t even alive during the first seven decades of the twentieth century!  But to my delight, reading this book reminded me afresh that the simple kinship of being a woman is frequently enough of a bond to make the stories of other women relevant to me.

Graham’s book doesn’t really follow a linear story, a specific character, or even a particular location.  Instead, she has divided her book into chapters that each delve into an individual aspect of boarding school life during this period.  Throughout there are quotes from women who were students at this time, all with their own memories and stories, a rich reminder of how childhood experiences and friendships can stay with us throughout our lives.

I was a bit afraid that Graham was going to use this book as a platform to rant about the educational inequalities between girls and boys during this time.  But while she did discuss this – as it was an important aspect of boarding school life – I never felt like the book ventured into the polemic.  Instead, Graham balanced much of what she was writing with the concept that while some of the girls did suffer educationally because they were ambitious and their ambitions were dismissed merely because of their sex, other girls genuinely did want to find a nice husband and settle into their homes and raise their children, so for them an education that focused more on the social rather than the scientific was not detrimental to their future lives.

And in the end, I appreciated many of Graham’s conclusions –

These women were trained not to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others, even when it came to the method for being passed the salt.  They learned early that ‘it’s not all about me’.  This lack of self-centredness is, I think, the biggest difference between privileged childhoods fifty or sixty years ago and privileged childhoods today.  Yes, these boarding-school girls came from affluent families, but they did not go on skiing holidays every year, and they were not given the idea that things should be arranged mainly for their benefit and delight.  Their schools taught them that their duty was to be of service to the community: they learned to look outwards and away from themselves rather than to wallow in introspection.  Thus they grew into an unselfish, un-self-pitying generation.

A while back I worked for an elderly woman (born 1919) who was born rich, raised rich, married rich, and is probably going to die rich (last I checked, she was still going strong!).  But what really amazed me about this woman was how despite the fact that she definitely felt entitled to a great deal (and honestly it was kind of hilarious to work as a servant…  like if she had people come to visit I would legit bring them tea and then go hang out in the kitchen until they left haha at least I didn’t have to wear a uniform), she believed it was so important for her to give back to her community.  In her lifetime she had personally overseen the purchase and restoration of a beautiful historic home that was slated for demolition in our downtown – it’s a museum now, and it was amazing to take her there for different events and listen to her stories about how even though other people helped, she almost single-handedly had done this.  And that wasn’t the only thing – she led committees and fundraisers that benefited all sorts of different local charities and organizations.  She was wealthy and privileged (she drove a custom-made Lincoln Town Car with her name engraved on the dashboard for pity’s sake!), but like the women in this book, she was also raised with the concept that being wealthy and privileged meant that you had responsibility.  And while she – and most of the women in the book – didn’t have a career, that did not stop her from being a productive, intelligent, competent citizen who devoted hours every week of her life to bettering her community and the lives of the people who lived in it.

All that to say that I do think that it is excellent that girls are given equal educational opportunities nowadays, but it does sometimes feel as though we have sacrificed that ingrained knowledge (in both girls and boys) that if you have, you are responsible for helping the have-nots.

My only complaint about this book was that I somewhat felt that Graham did not establish context.  I mean, yes, these girls definitely had a hard time of it – but so did almost everyone in those war/post-war years.  I don’t think going to a boys’ school at that time was a bed of roses, but at times the book edges towards implication that girls had it so much worse than the boys.  I don’t think they had it worse – I think they just had it different.

But on the whole, this was a delightfully entertaining and interesting read.  Plus, it’s nonfiction, so I’m already working on my goal of reading more nonfiction in 2017 – bonus!  I definitely recommend this book that manages to take a very specific piece of societal history and place it in relevant terms.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to seeking out more of Graham’s works soon – not to mention more of Slightly Foxed’s lovely special editions!

P.G. Wodehouse – A Life in Letters // edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

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//published 2011//

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew that I wanted to not just read it, but to own it, so that I could savor it whenever I wished.  I haven’t regretted investing in this hefty tome (especially since I got it used, hardcover, for only $5!), even though it has taken me months to wade through it.

 

While, on the whole, I’m not someone who enjoys delving into the personal lives of individuals whose art I enjoy, there are some exceptions to the rule.  Agatha Christie’s autobiography was an absolute delight, with a fascinating glimpse into the age in which she lived.  More recently, John Cleese’s rambling about his early years and the various events that led up to the formation of the Pythons was fun and engaging.  A Life in Letters was a different sort of autobiography, because it isn’t exactly an autobiography as such.  Instead, it was a biography with large batches of letters in between.

In her introduction, Ratcliffe explains that while Wodehouse’s writing often seems conventional and frivolous,

beneath the mostly male upper-crust there is some radical table-turning.  Butlers bail their masters out, passion wins over reason, and girls, invariably, know more than boys.  The letters reveal the roots of this reversal.  Wodehouse was a self-made man who married a chorus-girl, spent time with Hollywood music stars, and endured Nazi imprisonment and journalistic accusations of treason.

Ratcliffe’s admiration for Wodehouse is obvious throughout her introduction and the biographical sections she writes.  She explains that she has attempted to find balance throughout her choices in which correspondence to include.  With the cooperation from the Wodehouse estate to include “freedom to publish any and every part of any Wodehouse letter,” she must have had a very hefty task in editing for this volume.  At 542 pages (plus endnotes), she has definitely included many, many letters.  She says,

Letters have been chosen for inclusion on the basis of their individual merit – either in terms of the information that they offer about Wodehouse’s life, the evolution of his style, or times in which he lived.  Cuts within individual letters have also been essential, but passages have only been removed if they are irrelevant to the main thrust of the letter, or to Wodehouse’s biographical or artistic narrative.  I have made a particular point of leaving the letters that Wodehouse sent during the war years as complete as space will allow.

As regards those “war years” letters, I admit that I had only a vague notion of some trouble Wodehouse had during that time.  I am not sure if it is my position as an American reader, or as a somewhat younger fan of his, but before I read this book I really had no notion of the extent of persecution Wodehouse suffered because of the infamous German broadcasts.  Ratcliffe makes no secret of the fact that she believes Wodehouse to be completely innocent of anything so dire as treason, and believes that Wodehouse’s letters, circumstances, and letters speak for themselves.  In some ways, I think that one of the purposes of this volume was to place that situation in the perspective of Wodehouse’s entire life.

The book is divided into sections by date.  Each chapter  begins with Ratcliffe’s biographical notes as to what was going on with Wodehouse’s life at the time.  These sections were just as interesting to me as the letters, as I really didn’t know much about his life going into this book.  After that, there is a collection of letters from the dates indicated.  Some of the letters also have editorial introductions, which actually brings me to my only complain about this book – the formatting of those introductions.  Throughout the letter section, there would be letter, letter footnotes, heavy dark line to indicate letter break, next letter.  But if a letter warranted an introduction, that introduction was placed between the footnotes and the dark line – so it always felt to me that the introduction actually belonged to the letter before it… funny how the brain works at times, and I can’t really explain why this aggravated me throughout all 500-odd pages, but it did!

The letters themselves are delightful.  There is something quite personal about correspondence, and it is obvious that Wodehouse cares a great deal of his circle of friends.

The war letters were quite interesting.  Wodehouse’s genuine distress over the broadcasts, and the world’s reception of them, is so very sad to read.  It is hard enough to feel judged by the relatively small circle of people normal people know – I cannot imagine the pressure of an entire world full of people treating you with such negatively and, frequently, outright hatred.  And to feel that there is no real defense that you can make – that every word you say only makes it worse…!  And saddest of all, that he never was able to go back to England!  Outcast from his home…

He wanted to write a book about his time in the internment camp, an attempt to help the public see his perspective and to understand how the broadcasts came to be made, but it was a difficult book to write.  In a letter to one of his best friends, William Townend, he writes,

My trouble has been to get the right tone …  comedy will keep creeping in at the most solemn moments.  I wrote this yesterday – ‘The global howl which went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I had experienced since the time of my boyhood when I broke the curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it. ‘

But despite all the pressure, Wodehouse still stayed strong to his own personal beliefs.  I loved when he was being pressed to declare his hatred for the Nazis and the Germans, and his response was, “I do not hate in the plural.”  Such strong words; I love them.

Throughout the letters, Wodehouse’s strong sense of humor is evident.  He is a master of taking his frustrations and difficulties and turning them into opportunities for self-depreciating humor:

A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered ‘dangereux’ to the safety of the Republic.  Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming and shouting, ‘Save yourself, boys!  Here comes Wodehouse!’, but now all is well and me and them are just like that.  I am glad of this, because I have always considered them one of the nicest Republics I have ever met, my great trouble being that I simply can’t master the language.  My instructor at the Berlitz was strong on pencils.  She would keep saying, ‘Un crayon.  Le crayon est jaune.  Le crayon est bleu’ and so on till I really got good on pencils.  But in actual conversation I found that it didn’t carry me very far.  I was sunk unless I could work the talk round to pencils, and nobody seemed really interested in them.

One of the best parts of reading books like this is to find out little snippets of commonality.  For instance, if I had to choose one character from all Wodehouse’s writing who is my favorite, it would be Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle.  I can’t really explain my fondness for him, but I really do love that fellow very much – I have a great deal of empathy for his love of quiet, country life (and pigs) and fear of formal gatherings and crowds.  So it was rather a delight to find

I love [Jeeves] and all I ask is for a constant supply of ‘Jeeves’ ideas.  Actually, I prefer my Blandings Castle stories to the Jeeves stories, but I have a very good time writing the latter.  I think Lord Emsworth is my favourite character.  But Jeeves runs him very close.

Another personal opinion of mine was bolstered as well – my least-favorite Jeeves book is most definitely The Return of Jeevespublished also as Ring for Jeeves.  This because it is Jeeves – but no Bertie!  Wodehouse says,

I was very relieved that you liked Ring for Jeeves.  But I think I made a bloomer in using Jeeves without Bertie.  It’s really Bertie whom people like.

Much of Wodehouse’s correspondence is fun because it deals with his own opinions on other people’s literature.  In one letter he is writing about various poetry he has been reading.

Why will people collect ALL a poet’s work into a volume instead of burying the bad stuff?  It’s a nasty jar, after reading ‘The Nightingale’, to come on the following little effort of Keats: –

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
In spite
Of the might
Of the maid
Nor afraid
Of his Granny-good –
He often would
Hurly burly
Get up early…

I can see Keats shoving that one away in a drawer and saying to himself ‘Thank God no one will ever see that baby!’.  And then along comes some damned fool and publishes it.

Another thing about Wodehouse’s life that was a delight to read was his genuine love and affection for his wife.  They married after only knowing each other a few weeks, and remained married for sixty years.  Throughout his letters, Wodehouse never has a negative word about his wife, and his letters to her are warm and touching.  His letters to her always begin with something like, “My darling angel Bunny whom I love so dear,” and frequently mention how lonely and empty the house is without her.  The letter he wrote to her on their 59th anniversary says,

Another anniversary!  Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!

At the end of the day, this was a fantastic book.  There is so much information about Wodehouse as an individual, about his writing, about the history through which he lived, and more.  Ratcliffe’s biographical sections are very well done, providing the reader with plenty of background information and context.  I most definitely recommend this volume to those who love Wodehouse’s writings.  Despite the length of time it took me to read it, this book was genuinely engaging, and is one that I anticipate referencing whenever I read any Wodehouse books going forward.

 

Sunsets // by Deborah Howard

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//published 2005//

This book, subtitled Reflections for Life’s Final Journey, is, in short, a book about death.  And while it wasn’t necessarily the most uplifting book to read, Howard approaches this subject with hope and encouragement.

Deborah Howard has worked as a hospice nurse for many years, and eventually felt compelled to write this book as an aid to guide people through the process of having a loved one die, or even knowing that the reader is facing death himself.  Howard is a Christian, and this book is unapologetically so.  While there is a great deal of emphasis on God, eternal life, and the perspective towards death that that mindset brings, Howard also provides much information about hospice that is useful even if you are not in agreement with the tenents of Christian faith.

I actually only had a vague notion of what hospice does before I read this book, so I found those parts of the book extremely interesting and informative.  Howard talks about how hospice was founded with the idea that people who are dying deserve to do so with dignity, with as little pain as possible, in their own homes, and surrounded by those they love.  She says that the founder of hospice was horrified by the way that those who were dying in hospitals were more or less considered failures of the medical profession.  (Granted, this was decades ago when hospitals were quite a bit different from what they are now.)

Having recently watched a loved one suffer through the final stages of cancer, I sincerely wish that I had been more familiar with hospice and the alternative that they offered.  While we were comfortable and cared for in hospital, there will always be something impersonal and vaguely routine about the care there.  Looking forward, with another relative diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was encouraging to understand that for someone like him, who hates hospitals and strangers, there is another option for him, and that he can spend his final weeks in his own home.

Howard emphasizes hospice as an alternative to the growing movement of assisted suicide.  Because patients who are enrolled in hospice have a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live, and all potentially life-saving options have been exhausted, the goal of hospice is not to help the patient “get better.”  Instead, their goal is stated as helping the patient “remain comfortable and free of suffering for the rest of his/her life.”  This is done, not by putting the person to sleep as though they are worth no more than a dog, but by providing them with equipment and medication that they need to make their final days as comfortable as possible.  Enabling someone to be in their own home, surrounded by their own family and loved ones, creates a situation where the focus can be on the joy of the patient’s life.

Throughout the book, Howard opens each chapter with the next part of a story of a hospice patient and his family.  She uses this story to illustrate the various stages of dying, from diagnosis onward.  Howard is realistic in her portrayal of human response to dying: we don’t want to!  But as she discusses the different stages and puts them into an eternal perspective, the reader is shown how death is inevitable but does not have to be viewed with terror.

She reminds the reader that preparation for death can (and should!) take place at any time in one’s life, not just when a life-threatening prognosis is given.  We do not know when our last moment will be – it can happen at any time.  I greatly liked the line she quoted from Dr. Charles Hodge:  “It is important that when we come to die we have nothing to do but die.”  In another place she tells a story of St. Francis –

It has been said that someone found St. Francis working his garden and asked him, “What would you do if you knew that you would die in ten minutes?”  St. Francis replied, “I’d try to finish this row.”

Howard discusses what happens after death, as well.  She believes in the Biblical definition of eternity, obviously, so although she examines other beliefs, she mostly does so to show how she does not believe that they logically fit into the real world.  I can see where a non-Christian may be greatly offended by much of this book, but I also think that it is a book that can put forth a challenge to that non-Christian’s beliefs.  If nothing else, it gives the reader much to consider, as so often we prefer to pretend that we will never die, when in fact we all will.

As I said at the beginning of my review, Sunsets wasn’t a super cheerful read.  But I still came away from it encouraged and informed.  I feel like I have a lot more information about hospice, and some clarified thoughts about death and the afterlife.  Howard’s book is written in a gentle and loving way.  It is never harsh or disparaging, even when she is discussing beliefs that she does not believe are true.  I would strongly recommend her book to anyway who is facing the challenge of becoming a caregiver for a loved one who is terminally ill.  This book is full of practical and helpful information to guide people through this most difficult of times.

So, Anyway // by John Cleese

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//published 2014//

While I cannot say that I am a passionate Monty Python fan, it has still been a strong influence in my life.  So much of my family’s vernacular traces back to a Python sketch, and I think I may have fell in love with my husband at the point in our relationship that he told me that he could have been an aeronautical engineer, except he spent most of high school memorizing Monty Python instead.

So when I stumbled across John Cleese’s autobiography, I thought that I would give it a whirl.  About 2/3 of the way through the book, however, I realized that Cleese wasn’t just taking a long time to get to the Python years – he wasn’t going to get there at all!  Closer perusal of the jacket summary does say that he tells his story “to the founding of the landmark comedy troupe”…guess I missed that “founding” when I first read it!  Truthfully, I was much more interested in reading more about Fawlty Towers, which is also a long-time favorite (my family legit quotes from the episode with the Germans all the time), but we didn’t even get to that point in life.  Ah well.

Other than wondering when we were going to get around to Python stuff, the book was an interesting read.  Cleese is a little too fond of self-analysis for my taste (things like, “As an adult, I was talking with a therapist when I realized that this episode of my childhood caused me to blah blah blah”), but that was mostly in the early chapters.  The early chapters also included a lot of slightly crude humor, with jokes involving things like penises, but thankfully that also wasn’t as prevalent for the entire book.

There were multiple things that caused me to laugh while reading the book.  For instance, I loved when he was talking about the bombing, during World War II, of his hometown, Weston-super-Mare, and how the people there were, in a weird way, proud that they were bombed on multiple occasions.

The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it?  That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.

Cleese spends several chapters describing not just his early years, but also how his parents met.  His parents actually eloped since, Cleese tells us, the social gap between them was too great:

You see, Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class.  Whereas Muriel Cross came from the great auctioneering house of Marwood Cross, who were almost middle-middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle-class.

Throughout his book, Cleese actually returns to this concept of class on multiple occasions.

He was the epitome of the Oxonian code of “effortless superiority,” whereby to be seen trying really hard to achieve something was in many ways worse than actually failing at it.

As Cleese’s history continues, he goes to school and then to college, and then is a teacher, and then works for the BBC…throughout, there is this sense of randomness that Cleese admits is real.  He didn’t have much of a plan, and things just sort of seemed to come together.  Once he reaches adulthood in his story, the book gains in interest (for me, anyway), as he talks about stumbling into the drama group at college and how things grew from there.

One tidbit that he mentions is how none of the Pythons considered themselves actors – they were all writers who also acted.  And so what you see as you read about Cleese’s life is how writing became more and more important as he began to find his place.

A final thing that really struck me was when Cleese was talking about one of the things that made so many Python sketches work –

…no matter how wacky the premise of a sketch was, once it had been established, its rules had to be followed, or else the sketch would lose coherence and, thus, “believability.”  It may seem bizarre to use the word “believability” about a Python sketch, but in some mysterious way the audience will accept any premise, no matter how weird, and then allow it to set the rules for what is, and what is not, believable in that piece.

I think this really stuck out to me because this is an issue that I have with a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read, or even just a piece of regular fiction where the characters don’t make sense – any story has its own rules.  The important thing isn’t that you have make “believable” rules, or rules that are real-life rules, but you have have consistent rules.  The same goes for a character – I can accept any crazy character if that person stays true to the character as established.  It’s so frustrating to read a book and feel like it is floating around wherever the author wants to go because the author hasn’t bothered to tighten up his rules.  That’s a big reason that I stopped reading the Pern books once they were being written by Todd McCaffrey – he just never seemed to understand the world of Pern, and all of his books felt so discordant, not just with the series as a whole, but even within each story.

Anyway, this was an overall entertaining read, worthwhile if you are interested in Cleese or in learning about how someone becomes a successful comedy writer, but it isn’t particularly one of those autobiographies where you get a real scope of the times or anything like that.  Overall recommended.

Living as a Christian // by A.W. Tozer // compiled & edited by James L. Snyder

A.W. Tozer was a minister who lived, wrote, and preached in the early-to-mid 1900’s.  Known for his soundly and unapolgetically Biblical teaching, his most famous book, The Pursuit of God, has been in print constantly since it was written in 1948, and is still as insightful and challenging today as it was when it was first published.

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//published 2009//

In the early 2000’s, James L. Snyder received rights from Tozer’s estate to sift through Tozer’s many recorded sermons and compile them into books.  Thus, in the last ten years, several “new” Tozer books have appeared, even though Tozer himself died in the 1960’s.  Living as a Christian is one of these books.  Challenging and gritty, Tozer’s writing isn’t afraid to make the reader examine her life.  Reading Tozer is like opening the curtains of a dark room to let the sunshine in so you can really, really get down to the cleaning the room needs.

Tozer thoroughly understands the strange balance that is the Christian life: that our good deeds do not save us or make us better.  Only Christ’s sacrifice, and our acceptance of it, allows us to eternal life.  But that very acceptance is only the first step in our pursuit of God and holiness.  Our good works stem from this.  Tozer preaches a strong line of no-compromise holiness to those who have agreed to follow God.  Not only does he not expect non-Christians to live up to these standards of holiness, he doesn’t really expect them to understand why anyone would.  Tozer’s writings are, for the most part, directed to Christians, to strengthen, challenge, and encourage them.

Someone may say, ‘Mr. Tozer, how can a man cleanse his own heart?  How can a man purge his own soul?’  I might ask you how can a man wash his own hands?  He cannot; he can only subject his hands to water and detergents and they do the washing.  If he does not subject himself to water and detergent, he will not be cleansed.  Just as a man is clean by washing his hands and yet cannot wash his hands, so a man’s heart is cleansed when he cleanses himself, yet he cannot cleanse himself.

Living as a Christian is a collection of writing based on the book of 1 Peter, which is actually one of my favorite epistles.  Peter wrote to a group of Christians who were being persecuted for their faith following the burning of Rome.  Peter encourages his readers to stand firm in their faith, and helps them to understand why trials and trouble are a part of our lives even after we have come to Christ.  Tozer expands on Peter’s writing, show how what he said then is just as applicable to our lives today.

Snyder has given us seventeen chapters, most only about 10-15 pages long, making them very accessible chunks to digest.  Tozer is never condescending or superior, but he is also never soft and never compromises.  Some people may have trouble with his hard-line approach, especially in our day of universal acceptance and the constant fear of – gasp! – offending someone, but I don’t think that anyone who genuinely reads Scripture can deny its overall hard-line approach.  It is not called the Sword for nothing.

One of the things that I love (LOVE) about Tozer is his insistence that Scripture is not inaccessible or difficult to understand.  He believes that God has given us a letter that is very clear in its terms and conditions, and that our efforts to make it muddy or complicated are because we don’t like what it says, not because it is actually hard to understand.

You can throw your flesh into the effort, and with strong religious determination break your teeth and batter your own head black and blue but never get anywhere.  You can do that in theology too.  The simplest explanation of any text it just what it says.  you read it, get on your knees and take it at its plainest meaning.  As Mark Twain quipped: ‘Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don’t understand, but for me I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.’  You will have time enough following the text you understand without seeking piously underneath the surface to bring up some esoteric meaning that God never put there.

Tozer’s emphasis is always that God intends us to start where we are and work towards Him, and that the best way to get anywhere is to start on the path you can see and follow it, rather than worrying about where the path is a few miles away from where we’ve begun.  Those parts of the path will be clear when you get there.  So many people refuse to accept any Scripture unless they can understand all of it, rather than beginning with what they do understand, accepting that, and building from there.

A heresy always hunts obscurity, and false teaching always hunts the difficult text.  You see, it is as if I were to take you to my farm and say to you, ‘Here you will find apples and peaches and grapes and watermelons and cantaloupes and sweet potatoes … now, this is all yours, take over.’  And then I came back a month later and found my guests half starved, and said to them, ‘What’s the matter?  You look undernourished.’

They would say, ‘We are undernourished because we have found a plant we cannot identify.  There is a plant behind  the old oak stump back there in the near end of the far field, just over the hill, and we have stayed one month trying to identify this plant.’

‘But you’re starving!  You’ve got so many other plants around you, but you look sick.  What’s the matter with you?’

And they would reply, ‘We’re worried about this one plant.’

That is exactly what many of God’s children do.  They starve themselves to death knee-deep in clover because there is one little old plant … that they cannot identify.  Heretics are always starving to death while they worry about that one passage of Scripture.

While this is an excellent book and one that I definitely recommend to anyone wanting to know what the Christian’s life ought to look like, it is, at times, obvious that this book was mostly transcribed from sermons.  There are sections that are a bit repetitive, as Tozer reviews something he covered in last week’s sermon – which would make sense if you were listening to him and it had been a week since you heard the last lesson, but can bog down the book a bit when you read the last lesson just yesterday.

Still a challenging and insightful book that is a really wonderful contrast to the lazy compromises so prevalent in our churches today.