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)

Traveling with Laura Ingalls Wilder

I read two short books about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s travels as an adult. They weren’t written with an eye toward publication, at least not in the form she left them. They were just travel journals, notes she made for herself along the way. Perhaps she just wanted to remember certain things about her trips, perhaps she wanted to note details for letter-writing, or perhaps she did plan on incorporating some of the information into future articles or books. But since she did not start writing for publication until seventeen years after her first trip, it seems more likely that these were just notes she kept for herself. Both were published after her death.

The first book, On the Way Home, details Laura’s move with her husband and daughter from De Smet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. Laura’s daughter, Rose, who was seven at the time, provides an introduction and ending to set the context from her vantage point as a child. Rose had had to stay with her grandparents (Ma and Pa Ingalls) while her parents had diphtheria. Dire prediction were forecast about their health, but they survived, although Almanzo walked with a limp the rest of his life and “was never as strong as he had been” (p. 8). In addition there was a worldwide “panic,” which Rose explained was different from a depression. For these and various other reasons, the Wilder family decided to move, traveling with anther family, the Cooleys. Rose shares details of some of their preparations, like Laura’s sewing to make money. Once Laura “made sixty good firm buttonholes in one hour, sixty minutes; nobody else could work so well, so fast. Every day, six days a week, she earned a dollar” (pp. 11-12). I enjoyed seeing a few glimpses of the Ingalls family through Rose’s eyes, like her “aunt Grace, a jolly big girl,” singing “Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay” (p. 9).

After the family got their covered wagon ready, packed it, and said good-bye to their loved ones, the narrative shares Laura’s notes. Often she jotted down little details like the price of crops, landscape conditions, places they found to bathe or trade, and the weather. (The first day, their thermometer showed 102 degrees inside the wagon!) Of course, as with any trip, there were various mishaps, like a horse running away, causing a later start one day.

Some of her most interesting notes involved the people they met along the way, like a Russian settlement.

Laura’s notes end just after the family’s arrival in Mansfield. Rose takes up the narrative again, describing her father going out every day to search for just the right spot. When he found it, the family dressed up to take the $100 bill they had hidden in Laura’s writing desk to the banker and buy the land. But the $100 was missing. Rose was highly offended that her parents asked her if she had told anyone about it or played with the desk. Since they could not find the money, Almanzo looked for work for a few days while still keeping an eye out for an ideal property. Finally they found the $100 and bought what they later named their Rocky Ridge farm.

To be honest, I have never been fond of Rose. I read one biography of her years ago in which she just did not seem like a likeable person. Then in more recent years I read that she played fast and loose with facts, even in biographies she wrote. So I have never really trusted her. I enjoyed her writing and the scenes from her viewpoint here, but she paints Laura rather harshly most of the time. Then again, Rose seems highly sensitive. For instance, when her father cut wood from the property to sell in town, she greeted him outside when he came back and learned he had sold the whole load. Excited by the news, she ran in to tell her mother. When she “pranced out to tell my father how glad she was . . . he said, with a sound of crying in his voice, ‘Oh, why did you tell her? I wanted to surprise her.'” Rose then writes:

You do such things, little things, horrible, cruel, without thinking, not meaning to. You have done it; nothing can undo it. This is a thing you can never forget (pp. 106-107).

She might have been referring to her father being cruel for his reaction, but I think she’s talking about herself. Somehow she magnified what would have been in the grand scheme of things a minor misunderstanding and disappointment into something “horrible” and “cruel.”

There’s one really odd sentence in Laura’s section. She described hating to leave the Russian settlement where they were camping. As she looked back on the scene:

I wished for an artist’s hand or a poet’s brain or even to be able to tell in good plain prose how beautiful it was. If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it (p. 30).

She wasn’t wishing the Russians harm, because she had enjoyed her time there. Looking at it again just now, she seems to be saying if she lived there, she would have put up a fight rather than leave the area – or perhaps she understood the Indians fighting to stay on their land in a way she had not when she was a child.

The Road Back contains Laura’s notes made some forty years later on a trip back to De Smet to visit Carrie and Grace, the only remaining family members. It was interesting reading this right after the previous book, because they covered the same ground, only going the opposite direction, in an un-air-conditioned Buick instead of a covered wagon. Laura was 64 and Almanzo was 74.

I marveled at how many times Laura remarked on the good dirt or gravel roads. Some roads were made of cement, but many were not: yet in that day they still beat the trails or prairies they had come in on.

They had not been back in the forty years they had lived in Mansfield. Laura had written Little House in the Big Woods, but it had not been published yet. So she was not well known as a writer at that point except for her columns for the Missouri Ruralist.

Once again Laura detailed road, weather, crop, and economic conditions of the places they traveled through. She also listed their travel expenses: their first night on the road, they spent $3.42 for gas, food, a night in a cabin, and paper. They got a lot of their news about different areas from filling station attendants. Once again, Laura’s humor winks in places. She described seeing a group of signs along the road that said, “For the land’s sake, eat butter.” When they stopped to eat, she wrote, “I had bacon and eggs and coffee, bread, and for the land’s sake ate the best butter I’ve tasted” (p. 305).

I enjoyed her different observations about seeing again the places and people she had know. She said of Carrie, “She had changed a great deal but I knew her.” (I guess so, after 40 years.)

She waxed a bit more philosophical in this journal. She and Almanzo and those they visited also did some sight-seeing. One interesting stop was observing the carving of Mount Rushmore in progress.

The narrative ends near the end of the trip, where they stopped to eat and call Rose to say they were nearly home. Laura noted that though she didn’t keep up very well with the accounting, the trip cost “$120 for 4 weeks and 2,530 miles” (p. 344) for the trip to De Smet and back.

TravelerThese two books have been packaged together with West From Home, Laura’s letters to Almanzo while visiting Rose in San Francisco for the World’s Fair, into one volume called A Little House Traveler. Since I had read West From Home a few years ago, I did not read that one at this time. On the Way Home and West From Home had been published as stand-alone books, but The Road Back has only been published here. Rose had On the Way Home published a few years after her mother’s death. Roger Lea MacBride, Rose’s lawyer and heir, found the notes for the other two book in Rose’s papers after her own death. He had West From Home published and wrote the introduction. Abigail MacBride, Roger’s daughter, provided the introduction for The Road Back. It’s interesting that the mode of transportation for the first trip was a covered wagon; for the second, a train; and for the third, a car.

Sprinkled throughout the book are pictures of the Ingalls and Wilder family, their homes, and some of the scenes the Wilders might have seen in their travels. At the end is a short (three-page) biography of Laura, a family tree, photographs of notes children had written to her, and a copy of her last letter to Rose.

I enjoyed visiting with Laura on her travels. Even though her notes were off the cuff and not polished, I enjoyed her powers of observation and descriptions as well as her characteristic humor.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Finding Christ in Christmas

Tozer ChristmasTozer wrote the words contained in Finding Christ in Christmas, but he didn’t actually write the book. Someone pulled together quotes relating to Christmas and the Advent season from Tozer’s other writings. Thus there’s no flow of logical thought from one entry to the next, (at least, I didn’t pick up on it if it was there). Each is taken out of context, and some leave the reader hanging a bit. Whoever compiled these did not note what writings each of the entries comes from, so there is not a way to look up the context of the entry unless you google a phrase and find a reference online.

Despite those failings, the book contains some nuggets worthy of consideration. I’ve never found Tozer to be a warm, cozy devotional speaker. Rather, he makes us think with his incisive rhetoric. And that, to me, is what gives this book value.

Here are just a few samples:

Thousands each year find their desire for salvation and holiness becoming too acute to bear, and turn to the One who was born in a manger to die on a cross. Then the fleeting beauty that is Christmas enters their hearts to dwell there forever. For who is it that imparts such beauty to the Christmas story? It is none other than Jesus, the Altogether Lovely.

He sacrificed many pure enjoyments to give Himself to the holy work of moral rescue…He pleased not Himself but lived for the emergency; and as He was so are we in this world.

The Law was given by Moses, but that was all that Moses could do. He could only “command” righteousness. In contrast, only Jesus Christ produces righteousness. All that Moses could do was to forbid us to sin. In contrast, Jesus Christ came to save us from sin. Moses could not save anyone, but Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord.

[On Isaiah 53:2 portraying the Messiah being “a root out of dry ground] Had Israel been like a young woman at the peak of her reproductive powers, the rising of such a prodigy as Jesus from within her might have had some logic in it; but He was born of Israel when her powers had waned and her strength had withered. By no stretch of fancy could anyone who knew Israel in that day have visioned Jesus as her offspring. Israel was dry ground —politically, morally and spiritually effete.

The theology of Christmas too easily gets lost under the gay wrappings, yet apart from its theological meaning it really has none at all.

Though we are keenly aware of the abuses that have grown up around the holiday season, we are still not willing to surrender this ancient and loved Christmas Day to the enemy.

Man is lost but not abandoned. Had men not been lost, no Savior would have been required. Had they been abandoned no Savior would have come.

In our mad materialism we have turned beauty into ashes, prostituted every normal emotion and made merchandise of the holiest gift the world ever knew. Christ came to bring peace and we celebrate His coming by making peace impossible for six weeks of each year. Not peace but tension, fatigue and irritation rule the Christmas season. He came to free us of debt and many respond by going deep into debt each year to buy enervating luxuries for people who do not appreciate them. He came to help the poor and we heap gifts upon those who do not need them. The simple token given out of love has been displaced by expensive presents given because we have been caught in a squeeze and don’t know how to back out of it. Not the beauty of the Lord our God is found in such a situation, but the ugliness and deformity of human sin.

The editors ended the compilation with the last quote, which, though convicting, ends the book on a note of condemnation. I wish they had ended with a quote of hope.

There are readings for December 1 – 25, and each day’s reading ranges from just a paragraph to little more than a page. So the selections are easily readable.

Despite the frustrations I mentioned, I found the book highly beneficial.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon

SusieSusie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon is a new biography by Ray Rhodes, Jr. Susannah’s life can’t be told apart from apart from her husband’s, but Rhodes doesn’t describe her just in relation to Charles. He tells her own story fully.

Susie, as she was called because her mother and an aunt were also Susannah, “shared a lifetime” with Queen Victoria. “Susie was five when Victoria was crowned, and she died two years after Victoria’s death.” She was a city girl, living in London all her life and traveling often to Paris.

She became a Christian at about age 21, but experienced a lot of doubts for a while thereafter. She was not impressed with Pastor Spurgeon at first. He came from a rural background, and:

Charles violated her preconceived notions of what was appropriate for a polite young man in Victorian times, and a preacher at that. Susie found Charles’s hair, suit, mannerisms, and his provocative preaching style offensive. Later, reflecting on her earlier sentiments, she wrote:

Ah! How little I then thought that my eyes looked on him who was to be my life’s beloved; how little I dreamed of the honour God was preparing for me in the near future! It is a mercy that our lives are not left for us to plan, but that our Father chooses for us; else we might sometimes turn away from our best blessings and put from us the choicest and loveliest gifts of His providence.

Charles’ counsel and gift of Pilgrim’s Progress helped Susie. It wasn’t long before his pastoral concern turned romantic. The sections about their courtship are sweet, but Susie had a cold splash of reality one day. Charles was asked to preach somewhere and Susie accompanied him. They got separated in the crowd, but Charles never noticed. Lost, alone, and upset, Susie went home. Her mother “wisely reasoned that my chosen husband was no ordinary man, that his whole life was absolutely dedicated to God and His service, and that I must never, never hinder him by trying to put myself first in his heart.”

Charles and Susie married and enjoyed home life, travel, and togetherness. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. But both Charles and Susie developed health problems. He suffered from gout, kidney problems, and depression. It’s not known exactly what Susie’s health issues were, but severe endometriosis is suspected. She had surgery at one point but spent much of her life in pain. Sadly, she usually could not accompany Charles to places he was advised to go for his health. But he wrote to her every day, and their letters to each other are often delightful. In one of his letters from before they were married, Charles wrote:

I shall feel deeply indebted to you if you will pray very earnestly for me. I fear I am not so full of love to God as I used to be. I lament my sad decline in spiritual things. You and others have not observed it but I am now conscious of it; and a sense thereof has put bitterness in my cup of joy. Oh! what is it to be popular, to be successful, to have abundance, even to have love so sweet as yours, if I should be left of God to fall and to depart from His ways? I tremble at the giddy height on which I stand, and could wish myself unknown, for indeed, I am unworthy of all my honors and my fame. I trust I shall now commence anew and wear no longer the linsey-woolsey garment; but, I beseech you, blend your hearty prayers with mine, that two of us may be agreed, and thus will you promote the usefulness and holiness and happiness of one whom you love.

Once Susie wished aloud that one of Charles’s books could be sent to poor pastors who could not afford a much-needed library. Charles said, not in these words but to this effect, “What are you going to do about it?” That was the beginning of Susie’s book fund, which grew far beyond what she envisioned at the beginning. In one particular month, Feb. 1883, Susie received 657 letters. In 1886 she distributed 9,941 volumes. Correspondence as well as packaging, sending books, and seeking donations was a blessed ministry yet took time and energy. This ministry spawned others, like a pastor’s aid society for sending money and clothes, an auxiliary book club for lay preachers, and the Home and Foreign Sermon distribution. She said, “It is the joy of my life thus to serve the servants of my master.” She felt that the confinement necessitated by her illness enabled her to minister in these ways.

Though Susie knew some congregations were themselves poor and could not provide for their pastors, she encouraged those who could to do so in her book Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund:

Keep your minister’s table well provided, and you shall be fed with the finest of the wheat; see that his earthly cares do not press on him painfully, and your own hearts’ burdens will be lifted by his heavenly teachings; supply him with this world’s needful comforts, and he will not fail to bring you solace and consolation in the time of your extremity. If he has sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if he shall reap your carnal things?

Susie did a fair amount of her own writing, and, after Charles’s death, was instrumental in planting a church and edited The Sword and the Trowel magazine.

I’ve read Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray several times, and this book draws heavily from that one. But Ray’s book was written in 1903, not long after Susie’s death. I’m sure more resources were available to Rhodes than Ray might have had, plus over 100 years of perspective adds to Rhodes’ book.

I did get just a bit frustrated at times with how the book was laid out. Though Susie’s life is covered chronologically, at each point Rhodes goes backward and forward in time to pull details about that point. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth and repetition. It helped to think of the book as a documentary. I listened to the audiobook, but I think this book would be better read than listened to.

Nonetheless, this is a great resource. I enjoyed so much hearing again the parts of Susie’s life that I knew and learning what I did not know. I appreciated the historical context, something Ray’s book could not have given as effectively since it was written in the same era. I especially enjoyed both Charles and Susie’s letters. And I was blessed by her heart and her walk with God. One phrase that stood out in many of her writings was “the glory of God.” Everything she did was ultimately for His glory.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Reclaim Your Life From IBS

I hadn’t planned to review this book at first, but then I thought it might be helpful to others.

IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. I’ll let you look up the symptoms elsewhere if you don’t know them. But the bathroom-related issues of IBS can cause anxiety (about being able to find a bathroom when you need one, having issues at an inopportune time, etc.) That anxiety can in turn exacerbate IBS symptoms. It’s not that IBS is a disease of the mind, but our thoughts and anxieties can make it worse, creating more anxiety which creates worse symptoms, creating a vicious cycle.

IBSReclaim Your Life from IBS: A Scientifically Proven Plan for Relief without Restrictive Diets by Melissa G. Hunt deals primarily with the cognitive aspect of IBS, the way we think about it.

Dr. Hunt begins with other diseases of what she calls the “gut” which have to be ruled out before an IBS diagnosis can be made. Someone who thinks they might have IBS might actually have something else which has a specific treatment, so it’s important to be checked out. Then she describes the processes involved in digestive issues, from the nervous system to gut bacteria.

Dr. Hunt shares some relaxation techniques to help us dial back from panic mode. Then she explains the “cognitive model of stress management.” Basically, what and how we believe and think influences us one way or another. She gives the example of seeing a friend across the street and waving at her, but receiving no response. Our minds can take off imagining scenarios – that our friend is mad at us for something, that she’s snubbing us., etc., when probably she just didn’t see us. Applying that to IBS, when we experience gut twinges or gurgles when we’re out or preparing to go out, we can panic, thinking we need to get to a bathroom fast. But every twinge and gurgle doesn’t mean an attack is coming on. Or we can panic about the possibility of needing to step out to go to the bathroom during a work meeting, thinking everyone will think less of us and we might even be jeopardizing future promotions, when in reality no one will think anything of it (plus everyone probably has to do that at some time).

Dr Hunt also shares ways to eliminate avoidance: people with IBS can become experts in avoiding situations where they think they might have problems. Some of what Dr. Hunt shares here is the same process as overcoming phobias: exposing ourselves to whatever we’re fearful of a little bit at a time as we become more comfortable. One example she gives is that of someone who avoids commuter trains because they don’t have bathrooms.  First she suggests just visiting the train station for a while until that nervousness we get just from being there subsides (which might take multiple attempts). Then, we might get on the train just until the next stop. Once we can do that without nervousness, then we might go two stops, etc.

Finally she discusses some of the dietary and medicinal approaches to IBS. She stresses that there is no one IBS diet that works for everyone or particular foods that everyone must avoid. She discusses some of the most common foods that might give IBS patients trouble.

I hope I never have to see a therapist, but I hope that if I do, I can find one as practical and down to earth as Dr. Hunt rather the ethereal and New Age-y kinds I have read elsewhere. Much of what she has to say, especially about our thoughts, can be applied to many situations beyond IBS:

Cognitive interventions are not about “pretending” that things are going well if they’re not. In fact, this wouldn’t help even if you tried it, because you wouldn’t believe it. Rather, cognitive interventions are about helping you see the world as accurately and objectively as possible. The problem is that many, many people do have negative biases or filters that they use to interpret situations in their lives. If you do this routinely and without realizing it, you will be a lot more stressed than you need to be. If you have been entertaining lots of negatively biased automatic thoughts, then seeing the world more accurately should bring about a great deal of relief. In other words: Don’t believe everything you think (p. 66).

Dr. Hunt’s style is easy to read and understand. I am happy to recommend this book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

 

Book Review: Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ

Conscience  Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley is a fairly short book at 149 pages (not including indexes), but it’s packed full.

They begin with a brief explanation about what got each of them thinking and then studying about the conscience. Then they explore what the conscience is and does and look briefly at every verse in the New Testament that mentions conscience. They bring out several principles, more than I can reiterate here, but a few stand out: conscience has been given to us by God; no two people have exactly the same conscience; “no one’s conscience perfectly matches God’s will”; conscience can be damaged in a number of ways; we should listen to it and not violate it so that we don’t damage it; once God shows us clearly that an issue our conscience troubles us about is not an issue in God’s Word, we yield to God as Lord over our consciences (e.g., Peter submitting to God’s rule about eating certain kinds of meat even though at first his conscience condemned them as unclean in Acts 10).

Our consciences might misregister due to being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” – if we keep doing something that we feel is wrong and ignore conscience. “Feeding excuses to your conscience is like feeding sleeping pills to a watchdog” (p. 64). Our consciences are also affected by “the standards of other people such as your culture, family, or spiritual leaders. You simply go with the flow without thinking through the issues” (p. 64).

Since Christians are (or should be) continually reading God’s Word and growing spiritually, our consciences will change over the years as we realize some scruples are not Biblically based and as we become convicted of some issues that we had not previously realized were sin. We continually calibrate our consciences to align with God’s Word.

But since we’re all in different stages of growth and come from different cultures and have been taught different things about right and wrong, all our consciences are not going to be on the same page at the same time. How then do we interact with each other?

We should not sin against our conscience by thinking, “Well, Mr. A and Miss B. do this and they are strong Christians, so it must be ok.” No, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:2), we should do everything we do as unto the Lord (Romans 14:6), and we shouldn’t do anything that we can’t do with the full faith that it is okay (Romans 14:22-23) (“Don’t forget that ‘faith’ here refers not to saving faith in Christ [14:22a makes that clear] but to the confidence a person has in their heart or conscience to do a particular activity” [p. 97]). One whose conscience is strong in a certain area shouldn’t despise someone whose conscience bothers them on that issue, and the person whose conscience bothers them shouldn’t judge the person whose conscience has no scruples about issues which are not clearly defined in Scripture (Romans 14:3-4). Bringing up a specific matter, the authors write:

Don’t roll your eyes. This question may make you “face palm” in amazement at how strange someone else’s conscience might be. That’s typically how someone with a strong conscience reacts when they hear about the scruples of the weak. But to the weak of conscience, these are life-and-death matters. Conscience is always a life-and-death matter since sinning against it is always a sin, and getting used to sinning against conscience in one area will make it easier to sin against conscience in other areas. The strong must not look down on the weak but bear with them (Romans 15:1) and, if opportunity arises, gently help them calibrate their conscience (p. 79).

A few of the many quotes I have marked:

We should expect disagreements with fellow Christians about third-level matters [disputable matters where the Bible allows for differences], and we should learn to live with those differences. Christians don’t always need to eliminate differences, but they should always seek to glorify God by loving each other in their differences (p. 87).

Mature Christians should help other Christians train their consciences, but no one should force others to change their conscience (p. 92).

Our ultimate goal is not simply to stop judging those who are free or to stop looking down on those who are strict. Our ultimate goal is to follow the example of our Lord Jesus, who gave up his rights for others. He joyfully renounced his unbelievable freedom in heaven to come to earth and become an obedient Jew in order to save his people (Rom. 15:3-9) (pp. 95-96).

Have the right proportion. Keep disputable matters in their place as third-level issues. Don’t treat them like first- or second-level issues. And don’t become preoccupied with them or divisive about them. They shouldn’t be so important to you that it’s all you want to talk about. They shouldn’t be the main reason that you choose what church to join. They shouldn’t be issues that you are the most passionate about such that you are constantly trying to win people over to your position and then looking down on them if they decide not to join your side (p. 101).

Unfortunately I have seen this far too often. We spend a disproportionate amount of time on these issues, and let them distract us from the main issues.

Notice how generous Paul is to both sides. He assumes that both sides are exercising their freedoms or restrictions for the glory of God. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be in a church where everyone gave each other the benefit of the doubt on these differences, instead of putting the worst possible spin on everything? Paul says that both the weak and the strong can please the Lord even while holding different views on disputable matters. They have different positions but the same motivation: to honor God. They both do what they do for the glory of God (p. 106).

Christ gave up his life for that brother or sister; are you unwilling to give up your freedom [to do something your conscience is free about] if that would help your fellow believer avoid sinning against conscience? That’s what this passage is talking about when it refers to putting “a stumblingblock or hindrance” (Rom. 14:13) in another’s way (p. 109).

Christian freedom is not “I always do what I want.” Nor is it “I always do whatever the other person wants.” It is “I do what brings glory to God. I do what brings others under the influence of the gospel. I do what leads to peace in the church (p. 115).

One of the authors is a missionary to Cambodia, and they discuss dealing with cross-cultural issues of conscience as well. For instance, the author had a fledgling mango tree that finally produced three pieces of fruit. A friend doing some concrete work at his house ate the fruit. In the US, we’d consider that at least thoughtless and selfish, at worst, thievery. But in that culture, eating fruit while on or passing through someone else’s property was not a problem at all (there is even Biblical precedent for that in Deut. 23:24-25 and Luke 6:1). Reacting negatively to that would be seen as stingy. Preaching against it as “sin” would have either confused the hearers or caused them to dismiss the missionary’s message. They cite another case in another country where the people had no qualms about a women’s chest being uncovered, as they associated breasts with feeding babies, but to them “the sight of a woman’s thighs stimulates lustful desires” (p. 125). So a lady missionary thought the bare-chested women were highly immodest, but they thought she was immodest for wearing clothes that showed her thighs. The authors devote a whole chapter to dealing with these kinds of issues, pointing out especially that when we discuss sin, we need to major on what the Bible clearly says is sin, not sin in our cultural contexts, and we need to be careful that we’re not reproducing churches or Christians that mirror the culture that we came from, but rather we need to help them reflect Christ in their own culture.

There is so much more that I’d like to share, but I am in danger of reproducing the book as it is. Much of this was not new to me, as once when we moved to a different area and could not find a church “just” like the one we came from, I had to study through Romans 14 and related passages to come to terms with differences in preferences among the folks in our new area.  But this is a much more thorough exploration than mine had been. I appreciated not only the study but also the practicality, balance, and accessibility (easy to understand without a lot of theological-ese) of the book. Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carol’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet

Salty Boomama is a popular blog by Sophie Hudson that I’ve read off and on through the years, so I was happy to find a book of hers on sale for the Kindle a while back: A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet: Southern Stories of Faith, Family, and Fifteen Pounds of Bacon.

The book mainly is anecdotes about Sophie’s real life extended family and their quirks, interactions, and funny moments, undergirded with faith and life lessons.

As she says in her introduction:

We’re no strangers to the drama. I will say, however, that my grandparents set a high standard in terms of how they expected us to treat each other, so even when we’re aggravated, we’re much more apt to talk about it than to storm out of a room. On top of that, this book is not meant to be An Airing of the Grievances; it’s meant to be a celebration of family.”

The best way to express the flavor of the book is to give you a few excerpts. Some of her chapter titles are:

Not to Mention That Her Apple Tarts Would Change Your Whole Life

The Saga of the Homemade Biscuits

A Denominational Showdown in the Frozen Foods Aisle

For Better, For Worse, and in the Increasingly Likely Chance of Heatstroke

Because Nothing Says “Welcome” Like Rifling Through a Handbag

Saturday Lunch and the Fine Art of Funeral Planning

Because Nothing Says “Happy Anniversary” like Eight Pounds of Bacon

Some other sections I particularly enjoyed:

As we share our stories with those people God has specifically ordained to walk with us on this side of eternity—and as they share their stories with us—we see the sacred in the ordinary. We see the profound in the mundane. We see the joy in the day to day. We see the hand of God writing a much bigger story—a story of rescue and redemption and hope and glory. Right here in the middle of the hilarious and the tragic and the sublime and the sad.

Watching and learning from Mama and the other women in my family gave me a deep love for home and hearth and taking care of people. I knew from a young age that there was eternal value in those things.

Like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw the effortless grace and elegance of the women around me and realized that “there was some skill involved in being a girl,” and I knew I didn’t just want to grow up and be a woman. I wanted to grow up and be a lady.

I think it’s safe to say that I spent a significant portion of third grade standing at the intersection of Nerdy and Oblivious.

I loaded two carts to overflowing before you could say, “This celebratory meal appears to be somewhat high in trans fats.”

Family life isn’t always easy, and complications are inevitable, and whether you like it or not, sometimes you’re going to get your feelings hurt. Sometimes you may even be the one who does the hurting. But you stay with it, and you get after it, and you love each other, and you forgive each other, and you keep coming back to the table. No matter what. You keep coming back to the table. And once you’re there, you sit down, and you settle in, and you remember. You share your stories.

I’m glad the editors let Sophie’s penchant for ALL CAPS and multiple parentheses remain, because they’re just so characteristically her.

I’ll admit that every now and then I felt a little like a guest at someone else’s family reunion, but that quickly faded as I got into the stories. Overall a very pleasant read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)