Saturday, December 19, 2015

Our 2015 Christmas letter

Dear Friends and Family, 

We want to wish you a blessed Christmas and New Year. Here is a brief update of what's been going on with our family this year. 

Jonathan is now a teenager and is in grade 8 at Rideau Public School.  This will be his last year at Rideau -- truly the end  of an era.  This school -- in large part because of Jonathan's awesome EA, "Mr. O," who's been with him full-time since grade 2 -- has been a wonderful place for Jonathan to grow and learn.  Jonathan's main interests are doing puzzles, playing with balls, taking out the recycling, observing seagulls in the sky, watching DVDs, going to Extend-a-Family day programs, and taking walks by the waterfront and at Lemoine's Point.

 (Jonathan at Canoe Cove, PEI - photo by Richard Prinsen, August 2015)

(Jonathan with BFF, Nick, at Extend-a-Family summer camp, 2015 - photo courtesy of EAF)

Allison is 17 and in grade 12, so the coming year will be one of transition for her, too. She is hoping to study at Queen's next fall, perhaps focusing on English and/or Psychology. She is still an excellent student and an avid writer and reader, and she enjoys her youth group and social club each week.
 (Allison at Camp Iawah - photo by Allicia Bankuti May 2015)

Richard recently received his 25-year service award from Kingston General Hospital; he has been working there on the Orthopedic floor since 1990. He is still active in volunteer work and sports. In fact, he received a prize from the Kingston Road-Runners' Association for coming third in the Men's 50-59 age group.
 (photo courtesy of KGH, November 2015)

I (Jeannie) am still working at Queen's University as an online instructor for the course Fundamentals of Academic Essay Writing. This year our team undertook a full revision of our online course and spent many, many, MANY hours on this project.  Besides that, I've continued to work on my creative writing, with the help of my writing-group members Ann, Pam, Delina, and Deb; I also attend my book study group as well as 2 women's groups at Bethel Church.
 (photo by Ray Vos, July 2015)

We went for our usual trip to PEI in August, but it really didn't feel usual at all. With my mom having died in 2014, and our family home up for sale, we struggled to establish a "new normal" for our vacation. This was the first time in 30 years that I traveled to PEI and did not stay in the farmhouse. Instead we stayed at my aunt Elaine's house in Charlottetown, which we very much appreciated, and visited Dad daily at his apartment. It was so different, and the changes stressed Jonathan out quite a bit; he's used to walking into the farmhouse, finding the buckets of Lego, and sitting down to play with them for the next five hours. But a trip to Canoe Cove shore to swim with Daddy or play on the sandbars always calmed him down.  We went for drives and walks, went to the Gold Cup Parade (a must-do for our family), went to the Exhibition, visited with some relatives and friends. We went over a lot of old memories and made some new ones, too.

 (MacEachern farmhouse, winter - photo Alan MacEachern, date unknown)

 (MacEachern farm - photo by 
Alycia Adams-MacEachern, October 2014)

A highlight of our year was having my brother Errol, his wife Alycia, and their two lovable dogs, Abby and Nola, move to Kingston in June. Errol is posted here with the Canadian military and we are so happy to have them living just a few minutes away.

With two graduations at the end of this school year, 2016 promises to be a year of change for our family. And who knows what else the year will bring?  Whatever 2015 has brought your way and whatever the new year holds, we pray that you experience peace, joy, and hope.

Love from Jeannie, Richard, Allison and Jonathan

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My 2015 book list

As 2015 comes to a close, it's time to post my annual list of books I've read in the past year.  I've divided them into fiction and nonfiction categories and rated each book out of five stars.

Once again the number of nonfiction books I read is double the number of fiction books. I used to be surprised by that when I was making up my list, but not anymore; I just really enjoy reading nonfiction, I guess.  But while my fiction list may be comparatively short, it's high in quality. The one novel I started and couldn't finish (what am I talking about? I could barely get through two chapters!) was the much-touted Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill.  (If you want to see the lambasting gentle criticism I gave it in an earlier blog post, click here.)

I hope this post gives you some ideas of books to add to your own to-read list.  And please let me know in the comments if you've read some of these yourself:  I'd love to know what you thought of them.

A Student of Weather (Elizabeth Hay) - Nine-year-old misfit Norma Joyce, her perfect older sister Lucinda, and their widowed father all have their lives overturned by a handsome young researcher, Maurice, who appears on their doorstep. Norma Joyce's tumultuous long-term relationship with Maurice is the focus of the novel.  Hay's writing is beautiful (if a little pretentious at times), and the book just gets better as it goes along. 
* * *  

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) - This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about two young people: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who must flee with her father to St. Malo, France, to avoid Nazi occupation; and Werner, an orphaned German boy whose mechanical skills earn him a spot in a brutal training school for Hitler youth.  Their parallel stories are told in short, alternating chapters that slowly come closer together and converge in 1944 when they meet in a moment of crisis and courage.  This book is absolutely awesome: it has amazing detail, beautiful writing, memorable characters, and an overall sense of magic that persists even through the tough scenes. 
* * * * * +

At the Water's Edge (Sara Gruen) - American society girl Madeline, her husband Ellis, and his friend Hank travel to a small Scottish village in hopes of sighting the Loch Ness Monster and getting Ellis back in his parents' good graces. As Madeline befriends the locals -- ordinary people whom her husband looks down on -- she comes to realize the truth about her husband, her marriage, and herself.  This is fairly light fiction but a much better book than the odd premise might suggest.  I enjoyed it.  
* * *  

Longbourn (Jo Baker) - This novel is told from the point-of-view of the servants in Pride and Prejudice, primarily the housemaid Sarah.  Not a sequel and not written in Austen style -- just a really good stand-alone novel that imagines what might be happening behind the scenes in the lives of 19th-century domestic servants. 
* * *

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) - This novel consists of narrator Kathy's recollections of her time in an ominous English boarding school called Hailsham, and particularly of her relationships with two friends, Ruth and Tommy.  Like the narrator in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (which is one of my favourite novels), Kathy works back and forth through old memories, trying to explain and understand them.  But the technique that worked so well in Remains doesn't translate here: Kathy is too bland and faceless, and it takes too long to figure out the truth -- which lacks emotional impact when we do finally discover it. I didn't care for this book at all. 

The Book of Negroes (Lawrence Hill) - This novel focuses on Aminata, a West African girl in the 1700's who is taken from her family and put on a slave ship to America. Her intelligence and usefulness to her captors (she can read and write as her father taught her and can "catch babies" as her midwife mother did) help her survive the brutality of slavery and racism; but she suffers separation from her children and from her husband Chekura, who was one of her original captors.  After years in South Carolina, Manhattan, and Nova Scotia, she eventually revisits her African homeland and even travels to London to assist the abolitionist movement. Triumphant novel with an inspiring main character. 
* * * *

The Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman) - This is one of those novels I'd heard about for a few years but hadn't got around to; after finishing it, I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It tells the story of a young couple in post-WWI England who live an idyllic life as lighthouse keepers on a remote island.  When a boat containing a dead man and a living baby washes up on shore, the couple's decisions about how to respond cause lifelong repercussions for an entire community.  This excellent page-turner of a novel explores themes of guilt and forgiveness in a thoughtful, satisfying way. 
* * * * *

The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton) - Sixteen-year-old Laurel witnesses a crime involving her mother Dorothy and a stranger, but it is hushed up and she doesn't begin to untangle the mystery until 50 years later when her mother is dying. Laurel comes to learn the truth about her mother, who lived in London during WWII; Dorothy's photographer boyfriend Jimmy; and Vivien, the mysterious and beautiful woman who gets caught up in their lives.  This book has unique characters, great description and atmosphere, and an intricate plot with a truly stunning twist at the end.  
* * * * * 

The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) - Middle-aged narrator Tony looks back on his youthful friendship with schoolmate Adrian and on his romance with the enigmatic Veronica. Years later, when Adrian is dead and Veronica is out of his life, Tony receives a surprising inheritance that forces him to confront the past and realize that his version of events may be all wrong.  Fascinating short novel that raises many questions about time, guilt, remorse, and memory. 
* * * 


10% Happier (Dan Harris) - The subtitle,
How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, pretty much tells you the whole book. Harris is a news anchor and reporter who was relying on drugs and denial to cope with stress, until an on-air panic attack showed him he needed to make some significant changes.  He was initially skeptical about meditation but is now a staunch advocate of its physical and emotional benefits.  Interesting and fairly entertaining book chronicling Harris's personal journey. 
* *

A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey (Jessica Fellowes) - This just-for-pleasure book is one of several companion books about the popular TV show. Each chapter focuses on one month of the year and has a different theme, such as The London Season, Farming, The House Party, The Sporting Season, etc.  The book combines photos and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the show with information about the time period, including recipes. 
* * * *

Accidental Saints:  Discovering God in All the Wrong People (Nadia Bolz-Weber) - Bolz-Weber (whose book Pastrix I read and reviewed last year) is a tattooed, foul-mouthed former alchoholic who is now the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.  (It is so hard to describe people in one sentence without caricaturing them.) She writes with honesty, humour, and vulnerability about her encounters with people inside and outside her church, and how she is changed by the grace she receives from the unlikeliest people and from the God who continues to use her even when she feels most inadequate. 
* * * *

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Eric Metaxas) - Accessible, inspiring biography of the British MP and activist William Wilberforce, whose fight against slavery and the slave trade changed the world.
* * * *

An Altar in the World (Barbara Brown Taylor) - A book of lovely essays reflecting on how the sacred is found not just in church but in the mundane things of life. 
* * *

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) is about Bryson's adventures walking the Appalachian Trail with his eccentric friend Katz.  Full of interesting historical and natural detail and social commentary -- and so funny
* * * * 

Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) -  Excellent book exploring the the aging process and the tension between what medicine can do and what it should do -- using case studies including Gawande's own father. Argues that when dying people are told the truth and invited to share their fears, goals, and hopes, it is much easier for them to make wise and brave decisions about end-of-life care and treatment.  
* * * * *

Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet) - Tammet is an English man who has Asperger Syndrome and is a savant with amazing math and memory skills.  Very interesting autobiography told in a clear, engaging style. 
* * *

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More - Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Karen Swallow Prior) -  In the 18th and 19th centuries More was an influential writer, teacher, and social reformer who moved in elite political and social circles, counting Samuel Johnson, John Newton, and William Wilberforce among her friends.  It's impressive to read how More and her friends mentored and exhorted each other in their tireless efforts to teach the poor, write literature encouraging good living, advocate for animal rights, protest the slave trade, and engage in other activist pursuits.  Prior strikes the perfect balance of scholarship and storytelling, bringing to life a woman whose life and influence may not be familiar to many readers.
* * * *

Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers
(Leslie Leyland Fields) - Drawing on her own experience with an emotionally (and often physically) absent father, Fields explores the process of forgiving parents and moving into healing and freedom.  Fields acknowledges that the resolution of relationships is not always tidy like the movies; yet the book is very empowering because it shows us that even if "they didn't" or "he can't" or "she won't" -- maybe we can
* * * * 

Friends for the Journey (Madeleine L'Engle and Luci Shaw) - A collection of reflections, interviews, and poems on the theme of friendship by writers and longtime friends Shaw and (the late) L'Engle.  This book felt a little dated and over-polished, but I enjoyed the poetry, especially Shaw's. 
* *

Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey) - This book is neither a militant diatribe about the evils of patriarchy, nor a dry treatise on how to correctly translate every Bible verse that mentions women. Rather, it's a call to women to bravely follow the Jesus who knows and loves them, and a call to Christians to participate in God's "redemptive movement" by which He is moving His people forward toward justice and freedom. In her warm, intimate style, Bessey tells her own faith story and those of other women she's encountered in North America and elsewhere. And with the intensity of a prophet, she urges the church to drop the pointless debates about gender roles and instead focus on the work of God's Kingdom, a work which includes men and women as equal partners. 
* * * *

Rising Strong (Brene Brown) - Brown's newest book continues to explore the themes of shame, vulnerability, and courage which her previous ones  -- I Thought It Was Just Me, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly -- addressed.  This book is specifically about how people pick themselves up and move on after failure. Brown encourages us to walk into our story, own it, and use it to practice a new truthful, wholehearted way of living.  One of the concepts I found especially helpful was her discussion of what she calls BIG -- Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity -- and how balancing those three in a healthy way can help us in many situations where we struggle to know what to do.  I loved this book and, upon finishing it, would have immediately re-read it if I hadn't had to return it to the library (oh, the trials and tribulations of the avid reader).  
* * * * *

Rumours of Glory (Bruce Cockburn) - Huge, detailed memoir of Cockburn's life as a musician, social activist, and spiritual explorer.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of his trips to many different parts of the world, where he observed various conflicts and atrocities and composed songs to bear witness to what he'd seen. The book focuses quite a bit on Cockburn's spiritual journey. The fact that he no longer embraces orthodox Christianity (but instead sees Jesus as "compassionate activist" and "portal to the cosmos" and such) might be unsettling to some people -- but I was actually more bothered by the depiction of his relationships with women, who often appear more as a means to his spiritual development than as equals.  Yet overall this book gave me a fresh admiration for Cockburn's skill as a poet and visionary. It's a must-read for any Bruce Cockburn fan. 
* * * *

The Center Cannot Hold (Elyn Saks) - Saks, a successful law and psychiatry professor, has lived with schizophrenia since she was 8 years old. This fascinating memoir deals with her determination to achieve professional success, her love-hate relationship with medication and "talk therapy," and her social and personal struggles. A tough book, but triumphant. 
* * * *

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (eds. Jay Allison and Dan Gediman) - This book, originally based on a 1950's radio program, presents several dozen short essays on the theme "This I Believe." It includes many well-known figures such as Helen Keller and Bill Gates, and many people who are not at all famous. It has an "America is great" undertone that I found off-putting at times, but it's thought-provoking.  
* * *
What Remains (Carole Radziwill) - The author, a journalist, was married to Prince Anthony Radziwill, who was a nephew of Jacqueline Kennedy; Anthony developed terminal cancer just before he and Carole married, and he lived only five more years.  This fascinating but sad book chronicles the couple's relationship and battle with the cancer, as well as the tragedy of the plane crash that killed John Kennedy Jr. (Anthony's cousin and best friend), his wife, and her sister.  
* * * 

When We Were On Fire (Addie Zierman) - Zierman grew up immersed in 90's Christian culture: chastity vows, mission trips, and desperate attempts to live the way she thought God (and her boyfriend) wanted her to. After marrying and searching in vain for a true church home, she battled depression, alcoholism, and disillusionment with the version of Christianity she'd been raised in.  An honest, grace-filled memoir. 
* * * *

Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing (Julie Brown) - Brown, a professor of literature, discusses several famous authors -- including Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Lewis Carroll -- giving convincing evidence for the possibility that the writer was on the autism spectrum. She then explores how that fact affected the writer's genre choices, subject matter, themes, and style. In a final chapter she discusses several autobiographies by well-known or lesser-known people with autism or Asperger's (including Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day, which appears earlier in my list).
* * *


Note: I'm linking this books-of-the-year post (which I'm posting a little earlier than usual) with Modern Mrs. Darcy's December "Quick Lit" linkup.  Every month on the 15th MMD posts short reviews of books she's read and invites others to link up their own blog posts on the same subject.  This is partly where I get so many great ideas of books to read.

Dec. 30/15: I'm also linking this post up with Kate Motaung's end-of-year blog post.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"Ascending" (from my archives)

Today I'm linking up with Bronwyn Lea for the conclusion of her November poem-a-day series.  She's asked us to share some of our own poems and/or poems we love written by other people.  So I've decided to share one of my own poems, "Ascending," which appeared at Adriana's blog, Classical Quest, a couple of years ago.  Adriana supplied the photos to accompany the poem. 

Please CLICK HERE to read it.  (Sorry for the extra step, but I want to make sure you see it at Adriana's site with all of her pictures).

Monday, November 23, 2015

"The Right Teacher at the Right Time": guest post at Tim Fall's blog

Today I have a guest post at Tim Fall's blog, Just One Train Wreck After Another.  The motto Tim has chosen for his blog is "Honouring God, Encouraging People," and it fits. (Actually, he spells it "Honoring." I don't know what that's all about; you'll have to ask him.) I visit Tim's blog regularly because he always has an interesting, inspiring, and often funny angle on his subject matter -- and because his comments section is one of the best!  So I'm really happy to be his guest today.

Here's the start of my post: 

When I graduated from university in 1985 with a B.A. in English, I was 21 years old. I had no real career plan, but I did get a part-time job as a research assistant for one of my former English professors. This job was perfect for me ...