Book Review: Be Authentic

Be Authentic (Genesis 25-50): Exhibiting Real Faith in the Real World closes Warren Wiersbe’s trilogy of commentaries on the book of Genesis.

These chapters in Genesis focus primarily on Jacob and his sons, especially Joseph.

Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were very different personalities. They struggled with each other even in the womb (Genesis 25:22-23), and their parents’ favoritism only fueled the fire.

God had chosen the younger Jacob to be in the line of the family He would use to bless the world rather than Esau, the older. But Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, used that information to manipulate circumstances rather than trusting God to accomplish what He had proclaimed. That brought Jacob’s conflict with Esau to a head, resulting in Jacob fleeing to his mother’s relatives.

There he fell in love and got a taste of his own scheming medicine. The next twenty years were hard, but they helped develop his character. “Little by little, Jacob was learning to submit to God’s loving hand of discipline and was growing in faith and character.”

He had twelve sons, but favored Joseph. Jacob seemed not to have learned about the dangers of parental favoritism from his own situation. “The man who had grown up in a divided an competitive home (25:28) would himself create a divided and competitive family.” Joseph’s brothers, in jealousy and hatred, sold him into slavery, took his special coat that his father had made for him, spread animal’s blood over it, then let Jacob conclude that Joseph was dead.

Though a slave, Joseph seemed to have a talent for administration. But even his master saw that “The LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3). Joseph rose to prominence until he became second only to his master. But then he was lied about and sent to prison. He rose to prominence there as well, and aided two of Pharaoh’s servants. But the one who was restored to his portion forgot Joseph—until Pharaoh had a dream that troubled him, and the servant remembered Joseph had helped him with his dream. So Joseph was called for, interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, gave him sound advice, and once again rose to prominence as the second in the land.

And then one day his brothers showed up in Egypt. But they didn’t recognize him. These chapters are some of the most dramatic in the Bible, keeping me in anticipation even though I have read them before and knew how the story would turn out.

Wiesrbe’s title for this commentary comes from his conclusion that, “In short, they were authentic, real, believable, down-to-earth people. Flawed? Of course! Occasionally bad examples? Certainly! Blessed of God? Abundantly.” These people are an encouragement that God works with and accomplishes His will through flawed individuals.

There were many helpful and instructive things to observe in these chapters. I was blessed to see the changes in some people—Jacob over time, and his son, Judah, especially. But a few things in Joseph’s story particularly stood out to me this time. Because Joseph so often comes out on top even when he’s thrown into dire circumstances, I think we sometimes downplay his suffering. But when he named his sons in reference to his afflictions, it really spoke to my heart:

Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:51-52).

Wiersbe pointed out that Joseph could have become bitter, but instead he maintained his faith in God and kept a tender heart, showing compassion towards others. “Joseph’s sensitive heart was a miracle of God’s grace. For years dead Egyptian idols and the futile worship given to them had surrounded Joseph, yet he had maintained his faith in God and a heart tender toward his own people. He could have hardened his heart by nursing grudges, but he preferred to forgive and leave the past with God (41: 50–52).”

Then, as often as I have pored over the Scriptures about suffering and reconciled myself to the fact that it’s a tool God uses in wisdom and love, I find myself still asking “Why?” sometimes. I wondered why Joseph had to go through all he did when he was one of the “good guys.” But Wiesrbe pointed out that if Joseph had remained at home as the favored son, he might have grown up into a very different kind of person.

A few more quotes from the book:

Being a victorious Christian doesn’t mean escaping the difficulties of life and enjoying only carefree days. Rather, it means walking with God by faith, knowing that He is with us and trusting Him to help us for our good and His glory no matter what difficulties He permits to come our way. The maturing Christian doesn’t pray, “How can I get out of this?” but “What can I get out of this?”

In the life of a trusting Christian, there are no accidents, only appointments.

When God wants to move us, He occasionally makes us uncomfortable and “stirs up the nest” (Deut. 32:11 NIV).

A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a good ending. That’s one of the repeated lessons taught in Scripture, and it’s tragically confirmed in the lives of people like Lot, Gideon, Samson, King Saul, King Solomon, Demas, and a host of others. Let’s add Isaac to that list.

If we obey the Lord only for what we get out of it, and not because He is worthy of our love and obedience, then our hearts and motives are wrong.

With all their weaknesses and faults, the sons of Jacob will carry on the work of God on earth and fulfill the covenant promises God made to Abraham.

Years later, Jacob would lament, “All these things are against me” (v. 36), when actually all these things were working for him (Rom. 8:28).

God’s delays are not God’s denials.

Too many Christian believers today think that God can use only His own people in places of authority, but He can work His will even through unbelieving leaders like Pharaoh, Cyrus (Ezra 1: 1ff.; Isa. 44: 28), Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 25: 9; 27: 6), and Augustus Caesar (Luke 2: 1ff.). 

The only people God can forgive are those who know they’re sinners, who admit it and confess that they can’t do anything to merit or earn God’s forgiveness. Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the tax collector in the tree (Luke 19: 1–10), or the thief on the cross (23: 39–43), all sinners have to admit their guilt, abandon their proud efforts to earn salvation, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord.

According to Hebrews 11:13–16, the patriarchs confessed that they were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” A vagabond has no home; a fugitive is running from home; a stranger is away from home; but a pilgrim is heading home. They had their eyes on the future, the glorious city that God was preparing for them, and they passed that heavenly vision along to their descendants.

One of the major differences between a church and a cult is that cults turn out cookie-cutter followers on an assembly line, while churches model a variety of individual saints on a potter’s wheel.

Martin Luther said it best: This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing; not being but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified. (Edwald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says, vol. 1 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 234–35).

The book of Genesis provides for a rich study. I enjoyed Dr. Wiersbe’s aid on this trek through the book.

(Sharing with InstaEncouragment, Grace and Truth, Faith and Worship Christian Weekend)

Book Review: True Strength

I don’t read many celebrity biographies or memoirs. But we had seen Kevin Sorbo in a couple of things, then noticed he starred in Christian-based movies the last several years (he portrayed the atheist professor in God’s Not Dead). And he seems to have become more outspoken about his Christian faith on Twitter and Facebook. I became interested in his story. So when I saw his book, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal—and How Nearly Dying Saved my Life, come out on a Kindle sale, I got it.

He grew up in Mound, Minnesota, with small-town values and a strong work ethic. He got some modeling jobs to help pay bills in college, then starting acting in commercials. Soon he got the starring role in three Hercules movies, which then transitioned to a TV series, becoming one of the top shows in its day.

Just as things were going well, Kevin noticed a lump on his shoulder. It turned out to be not cancer, but an aneurysm. A chiropractic maneuver released hundreds of blood clots in his arm and a few in his brain, triggering three mini-strokes. At first, the doctors’ main concern was saving his arm. But Kevin experienced a host of symptoms, from vision loss to lack of balance to buzzing and vibrating in his brain to headaches. The only treatment seemed to be physical therapy and time. Doctors called his health crisis “one in seventy-five million.”

Both because Kevin was a private person, plus he and the producers didn’t want his Hercules persona to be tarnished, the full extent of his condition was not made public. He filmed the rest of the series with minimum camera time, creative use of a body double, and plots that worked around his situation.

Kevin talks about faith in the book, but there’s no real conversion point or switchover. It’s more like he reached back for the faith he had been brought up with and started praying and relying on God to see him through. He rejected the “hellfire and eternal flames of misery on us sinners” that his childhood pastor preached. That in the Bible, but his pastor seems to have used it as a club to beat over people’s heads rather than an invitation. Kevin did believe in a “loving, forgiving God” and acknowledged that:

Before my illness I was fully preoccupied with the material side of life. Moving at the speed of light, I ignored the spiritual side, the unseen. God created this world, but I was determined to live in it to the fullest, to get the most out of it. I figured He would want that

Through his illness, he realized:

My illness made me special—in a way that I never wanted nor expected, yes, but if I was to be special, then I was going to do something with that gift. I wasn’t a half-god or any part god. I was a mere mortal, with human limitations and problems, but I was determined not to behave like a victim anymore.

His dear wife deserves an MVP award: they were engaged when Kevin’s illness struck, and she was his main support all through it.

There are some crude spots in the book, some sexual encounters (though not explicit), and a bit of bad language (though some of it is disguised comic strip-style with keyboard characters).

Even though our situations were very different, my experience with transverse myelitis helped me identify with-some of the neurological issues and the long recovery.

It was also interesting reading about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film industry.

I appreciate Kevin’s sharing his story and wish him and his family all the best.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a thirty-year-old black wife and mother was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Unbeknownst to her, the doctor took some of her healthy and cancerous cells for research purposes. This was routinely done before informed consent was common practice.

Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment (pp. 29-30).

Researchers were trying to grow cells in culture from their samples, but the samples all died. However, Henrietta’s cancerous cells continued to divide over and over under the right conditions. Eventually the cells were used to test Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine on a large scale. They were involved in cancer and AIDS research, experiments in space, cloning, genetic mapping, and much more. The cell line became known as HeLa, using the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names.

Henrietta died at age 31 after a horrific battle with cancer. Her family knew nothing about her cells being used in research nor about whole factories being built to house and reproduce her cells. Twenty years later, the HeLa cells were so strong that they easily contaminated other cell cultures. The family began getting calls from researchers who wanted samples of their blood in order to determine the genetic markers of HeLa. Naturally, Henrietta’s family members were confused, not understanding how some part of their mother was alive. When they learned there was a whole industry that sprang up around their mother’s cells, they wondered why they  weren’t getting any of the benefits. Many of them could not even afford health insurance.

Rebecca Skloot first heard Henrietta’s name in a college class, but not much more was said about her. Rebecca wondered about the woman behind the HeLa cells. Ten years of research resulted in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

There are several threads to the book. Part of it in Henrietta’s story: what’s known of her background, personality, family. Another thread is the development of the cell line, the scientists involved, the industry that sprang up. Yet another involves the ethics and arguments swirling about research, consent, and compensation. Another tells the story of Henrietta’s children and what became of them. And the final thread is the author’s journey to research the cells and to talk to the family who were, understandably, skittish about reporters by that time. Eventually, Rebecca became very close to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

One of the most touching scenes in the book was when a scientist invited Henrietta’s two youngest children to a lab to see their mother’s cells. Deborah looked in wonder through the microscope and on the screen where the scientists enlarged the cells. She got to hold  vial of her mother’s cells and witness one of the cells on screen dividing.

In the history of cell culture development and cancer research, it was astonishing to read how some researchers would get caught up in the science and forget the human factor. One injected Henrietta’s cancerous cells into other patients without telling them to see if they “caught” cancer that way and to test how healthy and cancer patients fought off the cells differently. Guidelines had been set up after the Nazi experimentation during WWII, but the guidelines weren’t law then.

One patient caught on that something unusual was going on when his doctor kept calling him back for blood work even after the patient had moved away. He learned that his blood produced a unique protein, and the doctor was experimenting and hoping to patent a cell line. Unlike Henrietta, this man had the means to sue the doctor. The case went through several courts and appeals, but the patient finally lost. It was deemed that once your tissue leaves your body, it’s not yours any more. In an afterword, Rebecca said that there are storehouses for tissues and organs removed from patients. Most, I think, would not object to their cells and removed organs being used in study. But when money is being made off their parts, they naturally feel entitled to a portion of the proceeds. Rebecca’s afterword details the latest (at the time the book went to press in 2009) complicated considerations of the different sides of cell research, ownership, and profitability.

Objectionable elements: unfortunately, there are 4 instances of the “f” word and one graphic scene when Deborah, was being pursued by a cousin.

I had first heard of this book several years ago, but figured it would be too “science-y,” too much like a documentary. Then it came up on an audiobook sale, nicely read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m glad Henrietta’s story was finally brought to light, and the medical and ethical discussions were detailed clearly.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: None Like Him

The subtitle of None Like Him by Jen Wilkin is 10 Ways God is Different From Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing).

God has some attributes that we’re supposed to emulate: kindness, love, compassion, etc. He possesses those characteristics in perfection. We never will this side of heaven, but we should be growing in them as we read God’s Word.

Some of God’s attributes, however, are unique to Him: omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (everywhere at the same time), immutability (unchangeableness), eternality, etc. Jen devotes one chapter each to these and five more characteristics of God. A subject like this could easily be filled with ivory-tower theologicalese, but Jen doesn’t let it. Her treatment of God’s attributes is both understandable and practical while still invoking awe.

At first it might seem more practical to study the attributes of God that we’re supposed to grow in (and Jen’s next book, In His Image, does just that). But there’s good reason to ponder these unattainable attributes. Studying these characteristics helps us get to know our God better, contributes to our worship of Him, and reminds us of our limitations.

Wait—do we want to be reminded of our limitations? Well, we need to be. Sometimes our overreaching is due to pride. And it’s immensely restful to leave to God the things only He can do.

Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out (p. 25).

For instance, it never occurred to me before reading this book that our constant efforts to be in more than one place (with one person, on the phone with another, with one eye on the news) might be grasping for omnipresence. Subject ourselves to information overload might be reaching towards omniscience. We don’t want to stagnate: we want to keep learning and growing. But we do have limits.

No, we cannot be in more than one place at one time. When we reach for omnipresence ourselves, we guarantee that we will be fully present nowhere, spread thin, people of divided attentions, affections, efforts, and loyalties. Better to trust that these bodies which tether us to one location are good limits given by a good God. Better to marvel that, wherever we are tethered, his spirit surrounds us and fills us. Aware that he is witness to all we think, speak, and do, we learn to live circumspectly. Aware that he views his children through the lens of grace, we learn to choose frank confession over futile concealment. Aware that we cannot outrun his presence, we cease running, and abide. We learn to savor his nearness. No more virtual Twister. When we trust him as fully present everywhere, we are finally free to be fully present wherever he has placed us (pp. 104-105).

Here are just a few of the quotes I marked:

The thought that there might be a way to cast off at least some of these perpetual needs for perpetual needlessness is an enticing one, indeed. Take, for example, our current cultural obsession with caffeinated drinks as evidence of our desire to be sleep-optional creatures (p. 58).

Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependency, not autonomy (p. 63).

Like Samson, when we view a particular strength as the product of our obedience to God, we will use that strength to serve ourselves rather than to serve God and others. All strength, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, can be used either to serve or to self-elevate (p. 127).

The truth of God’s limitless power would be absolutely terrifying were it not paired with the truth of his limitless goodness (p. 135).

Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance. It’s that we lack awe (p. 154).

We too often approach the Bible in a self-serving way: we want to be comforted, affirmed, or assured in some way. The Bible does minister to us, but we need to approach it to learn about God.

God is incomprehensible. This does not mean he is unknowable, but that he is unable to be fully known. It is the joyful duty, the delightful task of his children to spend their lives, both this one and the next, discovering who he is. According to Jesus, knowing God is the fundamental aim of life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We take pleasure in working to grow in our knowledge of him (p. 33).

Meditating on His attributes leads us to worship and increases our faith. The more we know Him, the more we love Him, the more we trust Him.

My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD (Psalm 104:34).

(Sharing with Senior Salon, InstaEncouragament,
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Book Review: Breaking Anxiety’s Grip

Dr. Michelle Bengston writes from her own experience as an anxiety sufferer, a neuropsychologist, and most of all, as a Christian, in Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises.

Everyone experiences worry, anxiety, and fear on occasion to some degree. But for some, they are regular companions.

After defining terms, Dr. Bengston discusses what contributes to anxiety, etc., brain chemistry, heredity, example, our own thoughts and heart, and Satanic influence. Interestingly, “While brain chemistry can impact mood and behavior, thoughts (e.g., ‘This place isn’t safe,’ ‘I can’t handle this any more,’ ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ etc.) actually impact brain chemistry” (p. 35).

The author spends the rest of the book explaining “the tools to effectively exchange our worry, anxiety, and fear for his peace” (p. 28). She doesn’t spout empty platitudes: she has put these principles to work in response to cancer diagnoses for herself and her husband, problems in her practice, a son’s major obstacles in his career path, as well as “everyday” problems and concerns. Her tools are based on the sure foundation of Scripture.

I had read a few of Michelle’s posts when she participated in some of the same of the same blog link-ups I participate in. I always enjoyed what she had to say, so when I saw she had written this book, I got it. It sat on my shelf for a while, then I picked it up, then set it aside for another book. When I finally delved into it in earnest, I knew God had led me to read it at just the perfect time. The coronavirus pandemic began just after I started this book, and the chapters I read then helped me immensely in the uncertainty and anxiety of that unprecedented situation.

Here are just a few of the principles that most helped me:

Dealing with worry, anxiety, and fear isn’t a one-time event: it’s a process.

I’m not in control. God is. He knows best and knows the big picture. What He allows may not be what I would have chosen, but He has a purpose in it for my good.

“When concern about the future comes, we can recognize it and then refuse to entertain it. We can determine to stay in the present and in God’s presence, trusting in his perfect plan” (pp. 70-71).

We can reframe our worried thoughts to focus on God’s provision: “Instead of saying, ‘I’m worried I won’t be able to make ends meet,’ exert your trust in God and declare, ‘God, I’m trusting you to provide because you promised to supply all my needs according to your glorious riches.’ Or instead of saying, ‘I’m afraid to be alone,’ look to his promises and declare your trust in him: ‘Thank you, God, that you promise you will never leave me and will always be with me so I won’t be alone'” (p. 119).

“God’s peace is not the calm after the storm. It is the steadfastness during the storm. It is in his presence that we can find peace in the midst of the storm” (p. 140).

“When self-protection is our goal, there’s no room for trusting God’s protective love. That self-protective stance leaves us lonely and unwilling to invite others in, including God. Fear is not from God. It is a direct attack from the one who wants to prevent us from drawing close to God or knowing his trustworthy love. In reality, we are powerless to protect ourselves. Fear doesn’t protect. So self-protection is futile. What we really need is a sure protector—and only a trustworthy God can be that for us” (pp. 171-172).

“Emotions are the outward manifestations of the thoughts we believe. So when we feel anxious, it’s because we’ve believe the thoughts that prompt anxiety. Instead of acting on our feelings, we must speak out against the thoughts that caused them. We must recognize that the thoughts are from the enemy, refute them, and speak back to them” (p. 186).

2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (the KJV and NKJV says “sound mind”). Michelle spends a lot of time unpacking and applying those verses.

There were just a couple of places in the book where I had a question mark or maybe would have had a somewhat different view. And I wish she would have said a little more about anxiety that seems to come out of nowhere, not triggered by worry, as described here. But whatever the cause, the solution of taking our thoughts captive and applying God’s truth would be the same.

Overall, however, I found this book a great encouragement to my faith. Much of it was truth I already knew, but as was said earlier, fighting against anxiety is an ongoing process rather than a once-for-all victory. This book is an excellent tool and help in the fight.

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, Literary Musing Monday, Hearth and Soul,
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Book Review: The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40

The Wonder Years 40 Women over 40 The Wonder Years: 40 Women over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength is a collection of essays compiled by Leslie Leyland Fields .

Many of the authors are well known (Elisabeth Elliot, Joni Eareckson Tada, Madeleine L’Engle, Ann Voscamp, Brene´ Brown). A few have passed on. Some are bloggers. Most have published a book.

They come from a variety of faith communities. I wouldn’t agree with every theological point or endorse every person or ministry represented, but I appreciated the perspective of each writer on midlife and aging.

Some of the entries came from published books; others appear to be written for this collection.

The essays cover just about every topic one could think of in connection with aging as a Christian woman. Physical issues. Changes in marriage, new marriage, new singleness. New challenges. Attitude adjustments. The empty nest. Care-giving. Preparing for our inevitable end.

As I read the first entries, I found several instances of “doing new big things.” I appreciated the emphasis that life doesn’t end at 40—or 50 or 60. But I hoped all the essays weren’t going to be like this. I didn’t particularly want to learn to ride a horse, row a canoe for ten hours, climb a mountain, move to a different country, or start a major ministry any more at this stage of life than I did when I was thirty. Or twenty. Some of us like more sedate lifestyles. I looked back at the table of contents and saw that this beginning sections was appropriately labeled “Firsts.”

The next section is labeled “Lasts.” This stage of life brings some things to an end. Some are laid aside gratefully, other regretfully.

The last section’s title and theme is “Always”—things that ring true at any age but perhaps became more poignant or are brought more into focus the older we get.

To give you just a sampling, here are some of the quotes I highlighted:

But maybe all this is more than the universal human hunt for the fountain of youth and innocence. Maybe it’s something more modest, more possible. Maybe we older women just want to be seen again. Leslie Leyland Fields, Introduction

It takes courage to stop and take stock of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It takes strength to keep our hearts open. It takes fearlessness to keep questing after the good, the beautiful, the true. We’ll do exactly that in these pages, knowing that no matter our age, it’s never too late to keep becoming the women God wants us to be. Leslie Leyland Fields, Introduction

I want to maintain the balance between foolish risk and boring safety. I dread growing stale, losing energy. I know my senses need awakening. Luci Shaw, “Rowing into the Wild”

At fifty-one, I was learning that maturity involves living with unmet needs and unanswered questions. I began to realize that in beauty or in tragedy, God alone is in control. He is the source of my real security. Sheila Wise Rowe, “Awakened to Adventure”

Unresolved regret is a leech that steals from our present in order to feed the pain of our past, hindering our future in the process. Michelle Van Loon, “The Gift of Regret”

As the Creator of years and time, he advises us to “number our days,” not to count down to retirement, but to “gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90: 12). Patricia Raybon, “Answer the Phone”

When we get old, in many situations we must either act foolishly or look foolish. It may be wise to walk more slowly, carry a cane, whatever else is needed. Even if it looks foolish to onlookers, to be prudent, we must change our ways to match our season. We needed grace to be diminished. Win Couchman, “The Grace to Be Diminished”

If you’ve read or listened to Elisabeth Elliot much, you’ve heard her talk about offering whatever happens to us up as an offering to God. Her entry here talks about the origin of that concept for her, something I had not heard before. I found that was because this entry was from the only book of hers that I had not read: A Path Through Loneliness.

Many of the entries are humorous, many are challenging. I found myself nodding along in several places, and tucking away thoughts for the future in others.

Despite my light-hearted (but true!) comment about not wanting to face certain kinds of challenges at this stage of life, I agree with Luci Shaw that I don’t want to become stale. I want to keep growing, learning, being useful.

I loved that the title proclaims this season a time of wonder. There’s still a lot of life left in us “women of a certain age,” a lot to learn, a lot to do. We become more settled in some areas, but we can always find new areas to serve and show love to others.

My blog friend Michele also reviewed this book here. I don’t remember for sure, but her post may have been what prompted me to put this book on my TBR list.

(Sharing with Booknificent, Grace and Truth, Hearth and Home, Global Blogging,
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Book Review: The Last Castle

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan is about the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, and the people involved with it. I wanted this book first of all because the Biltmore has been a favorite place to visit. But Denise’s previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, about the rising up of the Secret City of Oak Ridge, TN during WWII, was so well done and enjoyable, I knew she would do an equally good job with the Biltmore’s history.

George Washington Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius, made his fortune in the railroads. He also had Grand Central Station built. I was thankful I had read Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age last year, because that book covers this era. The old-family-money folks, the Four Hundred, as they were called, looked down on the new-money people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Cornelius himself was rather rough around the edges.

But by George’s time, the family members were accepted in society. His two older brothers took over the family business, but George had no interest in it. He was introverted and liked reading, travel, and art. He kept record of the books he read and, as an adult, “averaged eighty-one books a year” (p. 126).

Diary entries from when George was thirteen years old reveal him to be a penitent, thoughtful young man: “I read my Bible this morning and began Isaiah and I think that was what made me feel so happy through the day. . . I have been reading a book this afternoon from which I ought to learn a very useful lesson of truth and gaining control over my temper, but I can do nothing without God’s help because if I rely on my own resolution I am sure to fail. . . . I don’t think I have spent today as I should have done. I have trusted too much in my own ability and not enough in Jesus (p. 12).

At age twenty-five, George visited the Asheville, NC, area with his mother, who was recovering from malaria. George himself did not have a robust constitution, and tuberculosis was a feared disease at the time. Asheville had several “breathing porches” for those wanting fresh mountain air. When George saw Mt. Pisgah, he fell in love with the area. It was common for prominent NY families to have summer homes, and George decided this was the place for his. He began quietly buying tracts of land.

Construction began in 1889. George hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to construct a home out of Indiana limestone to look like a French chateau. Frederick Law Olmsted , who constructed Central Park in NY, supervised the grounds. The land had been severely depleted, and Olmsted “was not impressed.” But he did a masterful job, considering not only what the landscape needed at the time, but how it would grow in the next hundred years.

George opened the home to family and friends in 1895, but it was far from finished. Construction went on for anther five years, but some parts of the house were still unfinished when George died.

George was still a bachelor until age thirty-five. I enjoyed hearing how George’s sisters encouraged one of his friends to arrange time for George and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser to have time alone together while on a ship to Paris. Edith was from one of the “four hundred” families, but both her parents had died and the family’s funds had greatly dwindled.

George and Edith were married in 1898. Their only child, Cornelia, was born in 1900.

Edith was the perfect choice for George’s wife and the lady of Biltmore. She “strode deftly between these two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity. She may have appeared to live the life of the elite, but to those beyond the iron gates of the estate, Edith quickly emerged as one who was decidedly of the people” (p. 156).

George had plans for the estate to become self-sustaining. That didn’t happen for decades, but he started a dairy, was responsible for the first forestry school, and had several other plans for a working estate.

George and Edith were both involved in numerous charitable endeavors. George built a village for estate workers and funded the building, upkeep, and personnel of All Souls Episcopal Church. Edith not only provided funds but actively participated in several endeavors in the area.

Though George Vanderbilt was not a statesman, his contributions to history, culture, and forestry cannot be denied as he employed some of the greatest minds behind America’s civic, private, and untamed places. Though Edith was not the wife of a president, her tireless efforts in the community changed many a life; ensured the education of those with limited access to school, books, and teachers; and fostered craftsmanship and self-sufficiency (p. 302).

Sadly, George died fairly young, at age 51, after an appendectomy. The estate cost a great deal of money to keep up. Edith sold land to create the Pisgah National Forest, eventually sold off Biltmore Industries, and took various measures to preserve George’s dream.

In 1930, Cornelia and her then husband, John Cecil, opened the house to the public. It still took several years before the estate became truly self-sufficient and then started turning a profit. The Cecils divorced, with John staying in the bachelor’s wing of the estate and Cornelia selling out her portion. The house eventually came to George’s youngest grandson, William Cecil. George’s great-grandson was the current CEO at the time the book was written. Over time, the Cecil family added new features (a winery, inn, Antler Village, etc.).

The Biltmore is still privately owned. “Private ownership means that the estate receives no government grants, nor is it eligible for any associated not-for-profit tax breaks. Property and inheritance taxes remain a financial hurdle to be cleared” (p. 298).

The book goes on to tell what happened with each of the family members and many of their friends, the effects of the Depression, WWII (the Biltmore secretly stored art from Washington, DC, in case of attack on the capital), a record-setting destructive flood, and changes of times and tastes. If you’re familiar with Downton Abbey, one of the overarching themes of the show was the family’s adjustment to the major changes of the times. Those associated with the Biltmore faced these changes, too, from Gilded Age opulence to the Progressive Era and Arts and Crafts movement. “The artificial would soon give way to the natural; that which was of the elite, would soon be of the people” (p. 156). A caption under one picture of the house says, “No home in the United States has ever come close to beating the size of the 175,000-square-foot Biltmore House. But its greatest achievement may well be the fact that it has survived into the twenty-first century while other Gilded Age masterpieces have long since disappeared.”

There are so many other tidbits from the book I’d love to share (the effects of the estate on the area, a number of authors associated with Asheville, Cornelia’s life, the associations with the Grove Park Inn, which we have visited several times, and so much more.) But this post is quite long already.

I wish we could have gotten to know a bit more about the Vanderbilt family member’s personalities: Denise wished that, too, but there were not many diaries or personal letters to draw from.

My only small disappointment with the book is the cover. While the Biltmore is glorious at night, a daytime shot with the hills behind, the esplanade in front, and the grounds is so much prettier.

Denise has done tremendous amounts of research—there are over 50 pages of end notes. Yet she has managed to weave all this detail into a flowing and fascinating story.

One of the things I love about the Biltmore is that the whole house is a work of art. Every aspect was crafted with thought and taste. And, as Denise says:

Though it may be necessary to look past a sea of Bermuda shorts and ball caps and navigate legions of audio-tour zombies, a walk through the house today can transport you. . . . Walking the halls of Biltmore House for a day is a journey back in time (p. 297).

If you have an interest in the Biltmore House, the Vanderbilts, or this time in history, you’ll love The Last Castle.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

Book Review: Off the Clock

Laura Vanderkam’s subtitle for her book, Off the Clock, aptly sums up the book’s takeaway: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.

The title comes from that euphoric feeling we get when we clock out from work.

Laura’s curiosity was piqued when she started a phone interview with a busy executive with the promise that she wouldn’t take much of her time. Her interviewee responded that she had all the time in the world. Most people aren’t so open-ended or relaxed about other people’s requests for their time.

Laura conducted a time-perception study, asking people to keep records of how they spend their time and then asking them questions about how they felt about the time in question. The book refers back to these studies, pulls from other time management experts, and shares examples from the lives of everyday people “with full lives who nonetheless see time as abundant” (p. 16). Laura has not filled the pages with excessive, minute, rigid rules for a particular system: she groups her findings under seven broad categories.

The first is “Tend your garden.” Here she does ask readers to keep track of their time for two weeks (which I confess I have not done yet…).

Being off the clock implies time freedom, yet time freedom stems from time discipline. You must know where the time goes in order to transcend the ceaseless ticking (p. 4).

Such a record opens our eyes up how we really use our time as opposed to how we think we do. Laura thought she worked 50 hours a week. Her records showed that her work week was closer to 40 hours most of the time. So she had to figure out what happened to that other ten hours. Some tasks, like loading the dishwasher, seemed to take great chunks of time but actually only took a few minutes, relieving her dread of that task. As the title of this chapter implies, once we’re aware of how we actually use our time, we can make decisions and weed out anything not useful.

A second principle is “Make life memorable.” The days that feel lost are those where we do the same routines over and over. Vacations or special days make time seem fuller. We can’t vacation every day, so Laura encourages small steps to make memorable moments in our days: taking a different route to work, visiting an anticipated exhibit, talking to a new coworker or neighbor, etc. One interesting fact here is that our “anticipating self” and “remembering self” focus on the memorable aspects of our plans. The “experiencing self” in the present is the one to see the obstacles and talk itself out of anything new: It’s raining; The kids are fighting; I’d rather go home and watch TV.

Conscious fun takes effort. This seeming paradox—Why should fun be work?—stops us in our tracks. So we overindulge in effortless fun (scrolling through Instagram . . .) It is the effortful fun that makes today different, and makes today land in memory. You don’t say “Where did the time go?” when you remember where the time went (p. 75).

Principle three is “Don’t fill time.” Allow for some white space. “With every activity ask this question: What is my purpose here?” (p. 96). See what you can eliminate or consolidate.

Strategizing boosts efficiency; planning your toughest work for the time when you have the most energy means a task might take one hour instead of two (p. 93).

Four: “Linger.” “Find ways to savor the savor of time where [you] currently are” (p. 119). “Consciously lingering in a pleasurable downtime reminds us that we have downtime. And that can make us feel like we have more time than when we let it slip through our hands” (p. 134).

Five: “Invest in your happiness,” time, resources, and when possible, finances. That may mean moving closer to work to avoid a commute you hate, hiring a lawn service (or neighbor boy) if you don’t like yard work, etc. Treat yourself—not extravagantly, but with a few set-side moments to read a book, savoring your favorite beverage while watching the sunrise, etc. Do what’s most important first.

Feeling harried and rushed is associated with feeling like you lack the time for the things you want to do. Doing what matters first opens up the time (p. 150).

I’ll just mention the last two: “Let it go”—when your schedule doesn’t work out like you want, just do the best with what you have (neat story about an artist here) and “People are a good use of time.” That last statement is what attracted me most to the book and made me want to read it.

Laura expands on and illustrates these principles from real life. Besides benefiting from the quotes and principles mentioned, I appreciated that Laura dealt in common-sense broad principles rather than a rigid system and that her examples came from home and family as well as work and career. This is a great book for learning how to “feel less busy while getting more done.” Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Booknificent, Grace and Truth, Global Blogging, Senior Salon,
Hearth and Home, Literary Musing Monday, Happy Now, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

 84, Charing Cross Road is made up of a series of letters between Helene Hanff and Marks & Co., a used-book shop in London, from 1949-1969. Helene’s main correspondent was Frank Doel.

Helene first contacted Marks & Co. from a magazine advertising their out-of-print and antiquarian books. Helene was looking for a list of such books which she couldn’t find at a decent price here. Someone signing himself FPD answered her queries and sent what he could find.

As Helene asked for more books and commented on the ones she received, eventually the correspondence became less formal. She and Frank called each other by their first names. When an English neighbor told Helene that Londoners were under rations (“2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month”) she was “simply appalled” and sent them a small Christmas parcel (p. 7). That led to numerous packages being sent to the Marks & Co. store and divided up among the employees. Some of them even wrote Helene back personally.

The relationship between Helene and Frank was purely platonic: Frank’s wife even wrote to Helene sometimes.

Helene occasionally came across as somewhat brash and even a bit curmudgeonly, but Frank and the rest took her in good humor.

“Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. Where is [a list of books she had asked for]. NOTHING do you send me. you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away” (p. 10).

Some of her writing is just like that–iffy capitalization, etc.

She had plans to visit England sometime, but finances and circumstances never worked out (at least during the timing of this book: I read elsewhere that she did go years later after Frank had passed away and the store went out of business. She wrote of this trip in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and did get to meet Frank’s wife and daughter).

My thoughts:

When I first heard of this book, I thought it was fiction and set longer ago than it was. I was expecting it to be “charming.” Once I put my expectations aside, I was able to enjoy the book for what it was. It was nice to watch the friendship unfold over the years. I am amazed that Helene could buy books and send food and nylons overseas at reasonable prices.

I enjoyed some of Helene’s observations:

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me” (p. 7).

“I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to)” (p. 27).

For those who would want to know, there are a few “damns” and “hells” and a couple of crude expressions.

Helene had started out writing plays and scripts and eventually wrote articles and books. Wikipedia says she’s most well-known for this book, her first. A later book, Q’s Legacy, tells the background of how she started looking for the particular books which led her to write Marks & Co.

A 1987 film based on this book starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (whom I can just picture as Frank). Part of me would like to see it; part of me is afraid too much stuff would be added in to flesh out the story. This book is only 97 pages, but perhaps they added in details from Helene’s other books.

Although the book wasn’t “charming” in the way I originally thought it would be, it does have a charm all its own. I’d love to read the other books some day.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

Book Review: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, she shares how books taught and influenced her throughout her life.

Books have formed the soul of me. I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that there are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth (p. 10).

In commenting on her parents being pretty free in what they allowed her to read, Karen says:

It seems to be to be an entirely negative, not to mention ineffective, strategy to shield children from reality rather than actively expose them to the sort of truth that merges organically from the give-and-take of weighing and reckoning competing ideas against one another (p. 14).

That sounds a lot like Hebrews 5:14 (ESV): “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Karen goes on to say:

Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important–or perhaps more important than–whether a book contains questionable themes like sex or violence or drugs or witchcraft or candy is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences? Are dangerous actions, characters, or ideas glamorized in such a way that makes them enticing? (pp. 14-15).

Karen came to these conclusions not only from her own experience, but also from John Milton’s Areopagitica, a tract against censorship. Milton’s fellow Puritans wanted to ban books that they deemed unworthy. Milton argued instead that books should be “promiscuously read.” “Promiscuous” did not have the sexual connotations then that it does today: it just meant “indiscriminate mixing” (p. 22).

The essence of Milton’s argument is that truth is stronger than falsehood; falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine (p. 10).

Milton goes on to argue that “our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise,” that “Moses, Daniel, and Paul . . . were steeped in the writings of their surrounding pagan cultures,” and even bad books “to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, to illustrate”(pp. 22-23). He asserts, “Truth is strong . . . Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” (pp. 23-24).

I don’t think either Milton or Karen are saying that “anything goes.” But we don’t have to restrict our reading to just that with which we already agree. Karen quotes 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “Test all things and hold fast that which is good” (p. 22).

I’ve spent the most time on this first chapter because I found it so fascinating. I don’t remember exactly when I started to come to some of these same conclusions– I think maybe during or not long after college. I realized that the Bible itself contains what many would consider objectionable elements, but it handles them in a way that does not glorify sin but exposes truth.

Karen goes on to discuss several different literary works and how they influenced her thinking. Charlotte’s Web had much in common with her own childhood and her grandparents’ farm (though her pet rooster wasn’t granted the same reprieve as Wilbur). Gerald Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” revealed the unexpected beauty found in surprising places. Jane Eyre’s quest to become her own person rather than Rochester’s mistress or St. John’s missionary wife gave insight to Karen’s emerging self between eighth-grade cliques. Vocation, sexuality, faith, doubt, love, and marriage were likewise informed by Karen’s reading.

I greatly enjoyed Karen’s discussion of books I was familiar with. Her chapter on Gulliver’s Travels helped clear up aspects of the book I had been confused about. Her discussion of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Madame Bovary made me want to read both of those books. I knew the former was about a girl in Victorian times who got pregnant and the latter was about an adulteress, and I had figured both would be somewhat risque.  But Tess has to do with purity of heart. Either due to naivete or rape, she had gotten pregnant, which at that time meant she was “ruined.” Yet Hardy presents her purer of heart than the society that so harshly judged her. And Madame Bovary shows Emma’s struggle between the idealized life she longed for that would never be true while she missed the joys of everyday reality.

Madame Bovary changed my worldview. It made me realize that happiness is in here, not out there. That the imperfect love of a real person is far greater than the perfect love that exists only in fairy tales or movies. That living happily-ever-after begins with embracing life–not fleeing to fantasies–today (pp. 176-177).

Karen mentions throughout the book that she grew up in a home with believing parents and regular church attendance. Though she “asked Jesus into her heart” at a young age, she led a double life of sex, drugs, and drinking. She realized as an adult that she had never asked Jesus into her mind, and the Bible tells us to love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. Furthermore, she realized that repentance involves a change of mind that results in a change of actions. While much of the book tells how God brought her to this place step by step, I wish she had included a little more about how this change came about from professing faith to really embracing it for herself.

I will warn some readers that Karen is quite frank about some of her thinking and activities in this split part of her life. But I think it’s important to realize that many young people (and even older people) are the same way, and hearing their stories will help us understand them better.

A few more quotes that stood out to me:

In focusing my attention on things much bigger than myself, ironically, I learned who I was. It’s the lesson, once again, that beholding is becoming (p. 142).

[Jonathan] Swift’s orthodox theology led him to a realistic understanding that all of man is fallen, and this includes man’s reason . . . His method was to expose the errors of rationalism by taking it to its logical extreme (p. 129).

I wanted not only to comfort the young woman, but also to get her to see that talking about such an event in a book was a safe, constructive way of dealing with these issues (pp. 101-102).

I’d love to audit Karen’s classes. I enjoyed the insights she brought out from the various works she cited and how they influenced her own growth.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)