Category: Book Reviews

Not Guilty Pleasures

I like to say that I don’t have any guilty pleasures.  From time to time I’ll even correct someone, asking why they should feel guilty about enjoying the things they love.  It goes something like this:

Friend:  You know, watching that show Dating Naked is one of my guilty pleasures.

Me:  You mean, one of your pleasures.  Why feel guilty about something you love?  Plus, that is a great show.  (I mean, it really is great, isn’t it?  You can reach out and touch the awkwardness.  And who knew so many 25-year-old virgins watched VH-1?)

But the thing is, with all of the above-quoted bravado, I really do feel a bit sheepish about admitting some of my favorite things.  I keep them to myself and really only talk about the “cool” things I do.  Which may be why this blog is sparse of late. . . Anyway, when I do reveal some of my less cool activities, I protest the “guilty” label but find myself blushing a bit or doing that awkward smiling thing where you really aren’t happy but your face is stuck in smile-mode and then suddenly you realize that your face is SO TIRED OF SMILING that it feels as if your eye-balls might pop out of their sockets.  So probably I still feel guilty about it.  However, I’m faking it until I actually achieve my desired level of enlightenment.  Like a pro.

This week, I’m right in the midst of one of my NOT GUILTY pleasures:  reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

I know, I know, it’s 850 pages of ridiculous time-traveling historical fiction that is mostly a romance novel.  And yes, it is true, there aren’t any dragons so it’s nowhere near as good as Game of Thrones.  [I did spy a 18th-century version of the Loch Ness monster in there, but it wasn’t scary, so I accept this criticism.]  But sometimes, when you spend so many hours walking the path of giant spreadsheets and the technical application of specialized jargon written by congressional staffers and interpreted by regulation and applied and defined by administrative boards, it’s nice to have a little magic in the evening.  Even if it is completely ridiculous and even if the romance parts stopped being interesting a few hundred pages ago.

And so, I just wanted to tell you:  I’ve worked two eight-hour shifts and mopped the kitchen and cooked dinner for my husband several times but also, I’ve had the first Outlander book in my possession since about 6 p.m. on Sunday and I’m already 567 pages in.  It feels good to tell the truth.

 

So, do you believe in guilty pleasures?  And have you read the Outlander books?  Am I completely insane?

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I had a dream: the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook Tour

 

I had a dream that this post would start out with photos from a beautiful recipe that I pulled together out of the cabinets using Deb Perelman’s brand new, beautiful cookbook, but let’s be real.  I worked until 6, stopped by Politics and Prose to pick up my signed copy, and then had an hour-long conference call.  We had Papa Johns and Blue Moon for dinner.

But the status of our dinner really doesn’t diminish the wonderful awesome fantastic experience that was my evening with Deb at P&P.  The place was packed — seriously, there wasn’t any standing room left anywhere — and Deb was obviously a little shocked and wowed by the crowd.  She was adorably modest and looked a little confused about why so many residents of the District had gathered in one room.  She spent as much time talking about her son, Jacob, as she did about the book and that’s one of the beautiful things about Deb’s blog and her writing — she teaches you about the food she is cooking but her recipes are more stories than instructions, wrapped up with love and family and deliciousness.

Deb told the story of SmittenKitchen.com.  When she purchased the domain name, she didn’t think her blog would last because she didn’t have what she considered a “unique voice.”  And then once she became a fabulous blogger [my words, not hers], she didn’t really want to write a cookbook either.  But, she explained, the prospects of motherhood inspired her to create something that her son could hold in his hands.  That is kind of a beautiful reason to write a book, isn’t it?  And what could be a better gift for your son than a book full of family and tradition and photos and CAKE.

Deb Perelman at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC.

Deb took questions from the audience that ranged from adorable to awkward.  When asked by a young man about her religious beliefs [she is Jewish] and her use of bacon, she politely but honestly turned the subject back to the food.  When asked about her favorite restaurant, she named a place in New York that is no longer open.  She seemed very careful not to alienate her readers, but I’m not sure that would have been possible given the huge out-pouring of love in the room.  DC loves the Smitten Kitchen.

One of my favorite parts of Deb Trivia was when she was asked about her favorite cookbooks — these cookbooks are now on my list of What I Wish I Owned if my Kitchen Wasn’t Terrible:

As you watch SmittenKitchen.com for future posts, keep an eye out for a breakfast stuffing recipe [yes, like at Thanksgiving!] that sounds delicious, and take a second to look for the chocolate peanut butter cake, one of her most popular recipes.

Deb, you were a great speaker, and your cookbook is beautiful.  I look forward to improving the lives of my husband and friends with your beautiful recipes.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: The Long-Awaited Review

Well, it is finished.  Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that is.  It took me approximately one week to (finally!) finish the book and have time to share my thoughts on it, but that is on top of working full-time plus mentoring two executive board members of a sorority during officer transitions, so you could definitely finish it more quickly.  This review contains spoilers, so if you’d like to read it yourself before encountering my commentary, feel free to stop here, bookmark this page, and return in a few days once you’ve finished the book.

YBW is a journal of the experiences of a theology-focused young woman, Rachel, as she digs deeper into what the Bible says about women.  Rachel is remarkably honest about why she began this journey, noting that she wanted to write a “good story” and that she wanted to write another book before taking on the challenge of motherhood as she approaches age 30.  Reviewers have criticized Rachel for having impure or profit-based motivations when writing the book, but I find her own discussions to be much more honest than anything others have written about this.  She explains that her book publisher thought this would be a good idea, and I’ve read bits and pieces from interviews and blog posts that this wasn’t the first format she had in mind when embarking on this journey.  Either way, Rachel is an over-sharer almost to a fault, telling us almost too much about why and how this “Project” started.  She wants to dig in to the passages that are an integral part of her upbringing and faith, have fun, and write an interesting book about the process.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, each containing a “virtue” or “characteristic” sometimes considered part of a good Biblical woman.  I note good Biblical woman here because, as Rachel points out, there are quite a few characteristics of women [or men, for that matter] found inside the Bible that none of us should emulate.  Just because something is in the Bible does not mean that it is presented as an example which must be followed in every context and culture.

Rachel’s selections for subjects during the project aren’t all perfect.  She has been criticized by American evangelicals for choosing to participate in some biblical customs that “everyone knows” are not actually part of a modern American theological evangelical understanding of the Bible.  But attacking the approach of one facet of one denomination’s teachings about the roles of women isn’t the goal of the project, so these criticisms appear to be missing the point.  Instead of attacking evangelicalism, Rachel examines bits and pieces from different faith teachings to try to understand better what the Bible is really saying to Rachel as she struggles to understand it and apply it in the best way she can.  She seeks out and follows Jewish traditions, meets with members of the Amish community and Friends from within the Quaker community; she reaches out to fringe groups and looks back with fondness and (sometimes) bewilderment at some of the evangelical teachings she was exposed to as a child.  Her experience can be a bit contrived at times, and sometimes the activities she completes feel overly gimmicky.  Even so, the responses that Rachel provides to the different pieces of her project are always honest and mostly interesting.

Instead of pulling out just a few highlights, I’ve chosen a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book.  I’ve made this decision because too many reviewers have jumped to conclusions about the book without encountering the experience or explaining why the book was great or disappointing, and because leaving out any piece of Rachel’s transition might render it less effective.  It’s also a lot easier for me, and I’m guessing a lot of you won’t read the book in its entirety.  If this method becomes overly long or boring to you, please just skip down to the bolded quotation below, one of my favorite pieces of the book, and read it two or three times to make sure you are really getting the message.  That alone is enough to show the value, and the courage, of Rachel’s journey.  

Gentleness:  This was perhaps my favorite chapter of the book, and what kept me going through a few chapters of gimmicks and Martha Stewart-inspired failures.  Rachel encounters gentleness and studies its origins, noting that the Bible teaches gentleness as a characteristic of all Christians, not just the female ones.  Gentleness is the result of a combination of integrity and self-control in the face of persecution, she learns, and makes our wild hearts useful and fruitful for God.  The same word for gentleness is used to describe a wild horse that had been tamed and could now be ridden.  Still fast, but with purpose and control.

Domesticity:  My notes on this chapter were “This is kind of stupid.”  For me, Martha Stewart doesn’t really have a place in a book about Biblical womanhood.  Also, I’m great at making pies but not as great at loving others or sacrificing or being gentle, so I couldn’t identify with this line of thinking.

Obedience:  This chapter begins slow but ends with a beautiful moment that I would recommend to begin a women’s retreat or a sisterhood weekend.  Rachel and a friend take an evening to retell the dark stories of abuse [read: rape, murder, incest, torture] of women in the Bible, and light candles to remember these women and their place in our faith story.

Valor:  Rachel’s chapter on Proverbs 31 begins feeling a little false – I mean, when you take on so many tasks at once everyone knows that you are going to fail, so pretending like you don’t already know that too isn’t very convincing.  Rachel’s message and her experiences could have been woven together seamlessly, but the set-up was a little too long for the subject at hand.  However, Rachel’s explanation of the Jewish tradition of using the Proverbs 31 passages as a blessing instead of an impossible measuring stick is beautiful.  Eshet Chayil, women of the church.  Live your lives with valor.

Beauty:  This chapter focuses on how evangelicals are weird and have messed up expectations about sexuality.  And I agree, evangelicals are weird and have messed up expectations about sexuality – both before and after marriage.  Rachel gets a little overly personal for my Southern Sensibilities here but a quote from her last few lines stands alone and is important enough to share:  If  Christians have learned anything from our rocky two-thousand-year theological history, it’s that we make the most beautiful things ugly when we try to systematize mystery.

Modesty:  Wow, this chapter should be read by every youth pastor and every father of young girls everywhere.  It is moving and funny and not overly serious.  Rachel studies the use of “modesty” in the scripture and explains that modesty is a warning against materialism, not sexuality, and that we seem to have missed the message here.  Which, to be honest, kind of reinforces that point about evangelicals being weird and messed up in this department, doesn’t it?  I want to print this on every church bulletin in America.

“. . . [T]rue modesty has little to do with clothing or jewelry or makeup.  The virtue that is celebrated in Scripture is so elusive we struggle to find words to capture its spirit — humility, self-control, plainness, tznuit, Gelassenheit.  And so we codify.  We legislate.  We pull little girls to the front of the class and slap rulers against their bare legs and try to measure modesty in inches.  Then we grow so attached to our rules that they long outlive their purpose, and the next thing we know, we’re adding leaves to our tables and cutting the ends off our roasts.  We cling to the letter because the spirit is so much harder to master.” 

Purity:  This chapter is about menstruation so basically it just made me feel awkward.  But, when Rachel describes how lonely she felt and then projects that loneliness on the lifetime of the untouchable hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5, it is a really nice moment.

Fertility:  “No role is too confining or too grand for a woman of valor.”  The rest was weird.

Submission:  Rachel’s discussion of the Greco-Roman household codes and Jesus’s pattern of turning hierarchy on its head is interesting.  But just that.  No goosebumps.

Justice:  Rachel spends some time here discussing the perils and torture faced by women in Bolivia today, and those in other places around the world.  Here we see how man’s misuse of “submission” can withhold justice from the women of the world, and also how women can change the worlds in which they live.  How really, we all need each other.

Silence:  Rachel visits a monastery in Alabama [wait, what?! I know, how unexpected] and a Quaker meeting and engages with a dialogue on Silence that is really getting back to the heart of the matter.  She explains the context surrounding sentences from Paul’s letters that are often used to silence women in church and in the home, and she finds her voice to advocate for the women who are silenced while also finding a quiet place for God to speak to her.  This is really wonderfully done here.

Grace:  This is more of a summary chapter, and the pieces of the book come together well.  Rachel concludes that there is no such thing as Biblical womanhood, in the check-the-box, don’t-do-this sort of way.  There is no one-size-fits-all formula for Biblical womanhood.  Instead, each of us encounter different circumstances and situations in which we must choose, as women of God, to live with faith and act with valor.

In encountering these passages, making new friends, and writing her book, Rachel has found that a deep, careful look at the scriptures – even the silly ones – has liberated her and called her to speak out for righteousness and to use her gifts with valor.  Personally, I can’t think of a better use of a godly woman’s time.

Domesticity in YBW and a Kitchen Disaster

I’m about half-way through with Rachel Held Evans’ recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  I’m reading YBW this week and blogging about my experience.  This may actually bleed into next week, but I’m hoping to finish up this weekend… 

I finished the chapter on domesticity yesterday, and was feeling pretty amazing.  Not only am I a quite capable baker, but I can cook a mean ham and throw together a pot roast in no time.  If Rachel really wanted to be domestic instead of just make a ruckus for her book, I thought, she would have picked something easier than a homemade pie and she wouldn’t have baked it on Thanksgiving Eve.  She’s probably a fine cook under normal circumstances, I continued — she’s just choosing something hard where any number of things can go wrong as a gimmick, setting herself up for disaster.  I was feeling a little condescending about the whole process, until…

Today.  Today I decided to make a cake to celebrate a friend’s very exciting and wonderful good news.  She requested strawberry, so I found a recipe and headed to the store.  I needed a 15-ounce package and a 10-ounce package of frozen strawberries in syrup, but there was nothing even CLOSE to this.  I ended up buying the only berries in syrup they had.

Well, whoa.  Let me just tell you that whatever Paula Deen was asking for when she wrote this recipe, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a frozen red rock covered in freezer burn.  By the time it was defrosted even a little, it was more soup than fruit.  I tried stirring in some extra flour to thicken up the very wet batter, but who can really tell how that will turn out.  I’ve never been a huge believer in the philosophy that baking required “exact measurements” . . . but I’m not feeling incredibly optimistic.

So I’m eating a little crow and hoping for the best in the kitchen tonight (and thanking the Lord that H is out of town this weekend and won’t see the strawberry-cake-disaster that may or may not be coming out of my oven in the next two minutes.  And I’m also feeling a little guilty for jumping to conclusions half-way through the story of a woman’s experience with God and cooking and cleaning and righteousness.  It’s her story, not mine.

First Thoughts on YBW

I’m reading through A Year of Biblical Womanhood this week, and will be dialoguing with the book in this space.  I hope that you will join me and engage with it honestly. 

I’m up e-a-r-l-y this morning.  [And I’m using punctuation in an ironic, Emily Dickinson-esque throwback, not in a thirteen-year-old-girl-with-hearts-dotting her i’s kind of way.]  It wasn’t on purpose exactly, the early wake-time, but I’m glad that I am here, writing to you.  You see, Rachel too began waking up early when she started seeking to understand Biblical Womanhood.  (I’m calling her Rachel now, even though we aren’t exactly friends or anything.  After reading the first little bit of her book last night, I feel like we are starting to know each other.)

At this point I’m still struggling a bit to pin-point a genre here, bit I’m leaning toward a diary with religious undertones.  There has been a lot of online “discussion” about whether her book is satirical or tongue-in-cheek or literal hermeneutical instructions [or heretical bible attacking], but so far I’m not really seeing these things.  I mean, I am still only on page 21.  There could be plenty of blasphemy in Chapter 2.  Certainly, there are pieces of satire, personal stories, self-deprecation and football references woven into the fabric, pushing the story forward.  But, for at least the Introduction and the First Chapter, the book is just a story — a story about the experience of a woman grappling with the difficulties of her faith, with the difficulties of being “the thing that they all talk about.” A self-reflective, often jolly, honest re-telling of an experience.

Did you know, dear reader, that Christians often struggle with doctrine, with theology, with the concept of inerrancy, with ethics and interpretation and truth?  Did you know that, even when we know Jesus so assuredly, sometimes the things said by others about us [insert: me] can separate us from the church itself?  Did you know that in every conservative evangelical community there is a little girl who is taught to grow up to be a great Deacon’s wife or — if she is so very blessed — a great Pastor’s wife who wonders: is this all God made me for?  And if it is, but my heart and my brain and my body crave more, maybe this isn’t the religion for me? 

Well, if you didn’t know it, now you do.  Reading Rachel’s book, so far, is like having a conversation with a stranger who ends up being quite like you.  And according to a few reviews I’ve read, this probably means that I am “already sympathetic to her undermining of the truthfulness and sufficiency and relevance of the Bible, . . . already suspicious of Christianity, and . . .  already prone to deny that God has designed a special and beautiful role for women in marriage.”  But I say: No.  You are missing the point.  There are thousands of women just like me who desperately want to fall back in love with the Church, with their faith — to come out of isolation and join a community of believers again — and if Rachel can still love the Church and desperately seek after truth, [even after the harsh reviews of her beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,] maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Will you join me in reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood?

First things first: I’m sorry about the lame-o post I put online late last night so that I had “blogged” for the day. Since the moment I decided to try blogging every day in November [called NoBloPoMo by the BlogHer team], I’ve had the weirdest blogger’s block. And, I mean, I was just thinking that November will be an easy month for daily postings: it started with hurricane recovery, next week will be a presidential election, then veteran’s day, followed almost immediately by Thanksgiving and a trip to Tennessee and then Christmas preparations and decorating. But those are “BIG” thoughts, and none of the blogging ideas coming to mind for the past few days seemed to pass the threshold test of “November Things.” So I guess we’ve already learned one thing by the third day of NoBloPoMo — [interesting] blogging is hard, and once you commit to doing it regularly, it gets harder to do it well.

I will try my hardest not to post lame-o tiny posts in the future, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Okay, back to your regularly scheduled update on our silly lives…

Today was a different sort of day. We woke up late with a serious case of donut deprivation syndrome (DDS for short) and chose to avoid dressing, showering, brushing our teeth, etc. until the DDS was cured. We drove over to Takoma Park’s Dunkin Donuts because it had a drive-thru. Let me tell you — such a disappointment. This Dunkin Donuts had none of the good donuts (they were out of blueberry! Blueberry is the best kind!), and since we couldn’t actually see what donuts they had in stock because we were in the car, it was a little awkward. Also, there were some communication issues with the guy taking our order, as in he couldn’t understand that when we said “Glazed” we meant “not cake covered in powdered sugar.” Maybe the difference here isn’t important to you, dear reader, but holy jeepers is it important to us! So, we just couldn’t eat these dry powdery donuts. H took the plunge and went into Shoppers in his Holiday Polar Bear Pants (the polar bears have on red scarves!) and bought us real donuts. And honestly, they were DELICIOUS. So much better.

From top to bottom: Raspberry Filled (Glazed!), Chocolate iced cake, and … BLUEBERRY!!!!

Dunkin Donuts, pay attention to this — powdered donuts make a mess all over your car and make your mouth feel dry and pasty. Glazed blueberry donuts with real blueberries inside? AH-mazing.

We spent the day hanging out, running errands, and watching football. [I actually didn’t watch football — I watched a Yale Open Course lecture and caught up on my Google Reader and a little Patheos reading. I had 2/3 of a french baguette that was going bad, so I chopped it into little pieces and made a quick cranberry-pecan bread pudding so it wouldn’t go to waste. Delicious. H was not disappointed.

During my reading, I kept coming across more and more negative reviews of Rachel Held Evans‘ most recent book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. And while I did notice that a lot of the reviews were just plain mean, one of the recurring themes most shocking to me was that the reviews were often from individuals who had not actually read the book. And I hadn’t read the book either, so I couldn’t really say anything in response with credibility, but seriously America? Christian leaders will overlook surprisingly racist and ridiculous statements* by conservative evangelicals, but when someone steps outside and offers a more progressive criticism or point of view, our own people start questioning the devoutness of their Christian brothers and sisters? I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

I mean wait, let’s be real: I too grew up in a conservative denomination so I actually was not “shocked” at what I was reading or the repulsive tenor of the comments on many of the posts, but I did feel like I needed to say something in response.

So, we went to Barnes and Noble and I bought the only copy of the book. I’ll be reading it over the next few days, and would love if you would join me in doing so. It’s the bright yellow one.

*Need an example? Here’s one off the top of my head: Chairman of the Deacons leads entire congregation in an offertory prayer requesting that God please protect the Boy Scouts of America from “the gays.” True story.

Prince Caspian and Precious: where we come from

Cover of "Precious: Based on the Novel &q...

Cover via Amazon

Being my last week of “break” before school begins next Monday, I’ve been doing a bit more reading and movie watching than usual.  Yesterday, I finished re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian and finished the day by watching Precious on Netflix.  Wow. 

C.S. Lewis concludes Prince Caspian with a simple and true picture of the best and worst of humanity: 

“I was wishing that I came of a more honorable lineage,” Caspian says. 

Aslan replies:  “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. . . And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.  Be content.” *

Watching Precious with this paradoxical conceptualization of what it means to be created in the image of God was a powerful experience.  If you haven’t yet seen the film, I recommend it — the film is dark, and sad, but shows the situations into which innocent children are born and struggle to survive.  It is so easy to forget about true suffering, and this film is a stark reminder that it happens.  And not just in little doses.  Some of us are plagued with unrelenting circumstances, including the protagonist of this film.   

And when we see the shame and misfortune heaped upon the shoulders of Precious, as Christians we simultaneously know that she is a child of God, created in his image.  Is this perhaps one of the hardest issues to reconcile, that anyone created with love and in the image of God could be held to lifelong and unrelenting suffering?  That this kind of suffering takes place all around our world, with the Creator standing by?  

Furthermore, do we too often forget that this same shame and misfortune are equally placed on the shoulders of our pastors and beauty queens and celebrities because they, too, are devastatingly marred by original sin?  We share the burdens and blessings of our creation equally.  And this is definitely something to think about. 

  • Quoted language from C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia:  Prince Caspian, 218 (Scholastic 1995).