Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Merry Christmas 2019

It's almost Christmas, and we want to wish you the very best during your holiday celebrations and in the coming year. Here's a little of what's been going on in our family's life in 2019. 

Jonathan is 17 and in grade 12 at KCVI. He is still really enjoying himself there; he is so eager to get on the bus and happy to greet his teachers, EA, and friends throughout the school. His love for garbage, recycling, brooms, and shovels continues unabated, and he spends many happy hours on his iPad looking at garbage-truck videos. 

Allison is 21 now and continuing her studies at Queen's. After taking 10 online credits, she decided she wanted to take Linguistics, which isn't offered online -- so in September she enrolled in her first on-campus course. It's gone really well and she'll continue with that course in January. She's also continuing to enjoy her study of psychology; she had Clinical Psychology in the fall and will take Developmental Psychology in the winter. We're really proud of her determination and hard work.

Richard is still working at Kingston General Hospital, volunteering, and participating in various sports. In this picture he's completing the Kingston Half-Marathon.

I (Jeannie) have continued with my online course work at Queen's and my own writing. I had a few publications this year:

My poem "Departures" (about the death of my mom) was published in Juniper Poetry. Link here.

I had two pieces published in Fathom Magazine: a short essay called "When the Time to Weep is the Time to Laugh" (link here) and a poem called "interceding" (link here).

My prose poem "Along King Street" was published on the Kingston Public Library's Poetry Blackboard, curated by Kingston Poet Laureate Jason Heroux (link here). 

"Along King Street" was also one of five poems selected as part of Kingston's Vibrant Spaces Project: in August the poem was printed on a railing along Kingston's waterfront.

In other Jeannie news, I stopped colouring my hair this spring and went back to my natural gray/silver colour. I have no regrets: it's nice not to have the hassle of colouring, and there's something really freeing about just letting my true self be seen!

Speaking of seeing, I also had eye surgery in September. I had been struggling for a few years with double vision and was finally able to have it addressed surgically. The operation -- in which the muscles at the inside of both eyes were detached, repositioned, and stitched back up again -- was successful, and although the doubling has not been completely eliminated, I now see perfectly with my glasses. I'm really happy I had it done.

2019 was a challenging year in family terms. Rich's mom fell and broke her ankle in May; she spent almost three months recovering in a convalescent unit and was able to return home in August. My uncle Charlie in PEI (Dad's brother) died in July after a lengthy illness, leaving a huge void in all our lives. And in August Dad had a fall and had to be hospitalized; he stayed in hospital seven weeks and then moved to a nursing home in Charlottetown in early October. (I went into more detail about that in this post). Overall he seems to be adjusting well to his new home. 

All these events remind us that life can change quickly, and there isn't always an instruction manual for how to respond. Sometimes we're called to step up and provide help and support in ways we didn't expect; other times we're the ones needing the help and support. In the end, though, family and relationships are the most important thing in life. Some of us may be missing absent loved ones even in the middle of our joyful holiday celebrations. May we experience peace in these bittersweet days and be strengthened by our memories and our faith. 

God bless all of you in 2020.


2019: A Year in Books

photo: unsplash

As 2019 comes to a close, it's time for my annual year-end book list. I always enjoy looking back at what I've read, and I hope that if you're looking for suggestions to add to your own t0-read pile or even for last-minute Christmas gift ideas, you'll find this list interesting.

My ratings:
5/5 = Exceptional
4/5 = Excellent
3/5 = Good
2/5 = Okay
1/5 = Poor


All He Ever Wanted (Anita Shreve). I didn't expect to love this novel as much as I did, but I found it completely captivating and so well-written. It's about Nicholas Van Tassel, a stodgy professor in New Hampshire in 1900, who becomes obsessed with a young woman named Etna Bliss whom he meets after a hotel fire. As he reflects years later on their long relationship and the things he did in his effort to win Etna's love, we come to realize that he may not be the most reliable -- or likable -- main character. If you liked The Remains of the Day, you may very well like this. (5/5) (See companion novel Stella Bain below.)

The Custom of the Country (Edith Wharton). And speaking of unlikable main characters: social-climbing society girl Undine Spragg really takes the cake. As she flits from one man and one social stratum to another, desperately trying to secure herself a life of wealth and ease, it's like watching an impending train wreck but not wanting to miss a moment of it. (5/5)

The Dutch House (Ann Patchett). This is the third Patchett novel I've read (besides Bel Canto and Commonwealth) and I love her writing more with every book. She is the kind of novelist you can trust: she gives enough (but not too much) information to keep you turning the pages, and she always takes you somewhere satisfying. This novel is about the close relationship between brother and sister Danny and Maeve, who are forced to fend for themselves when their stepmother kicks them out of the ostentatious home they've grown up in. A really moving and often funny book about family secrets, past hurts, and shared memories. (5/5)

Hannah Coulter (Wendell Berry). This beautiful novel reads like a memoir, as the aging Hannah looks back on her childhood, married life, and parenting with her husband Nathan on a farm in the small community of Port William, Kentucky. Hannah's reflections on agriculture, community, and changing times are wise and touching. (5/5)

Brooklyn (Colm Toibin). This is the novel on which the 2015 Oscar-nominated movie of the same name is based. I saw the movie earlier this year and absolutely loved it, so I wanted to read the novel too. Toibin's understated story of an Irish girl who goes to live and work in Brooklyn in the 1950's is very appealing. (4/5)

The Dearly Beloved (Cara Wall). I enjoyed this novel about the friendship between two couples: two ministers, Charles and James, who are hired to co-pastor a church, and their wives Lily and Nan. As the characters work through their journeys of faith (or lack thereof) over several decades, their lives become more and more intertwined. (4/5)

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout). In Olive Kitteridge, Strout's 2008 Pulitzer-winning book of related stories, Olive Kitteridge was the touchstone and central figure. She returns in this similarly-structured new book. Here we meet some of the same characters from Olive Kitteridge and even from Strout's other books. Olive is as irascible and odd as ever, but her impact on the people in her small Maine town is undeniable. I found some of the stories underwhelming, but as the book goes on and Olive is forced to come to terms with many of the losses and indignities of old age, I found myself once again rooting for her and admiring her. (4/5)

Washington Black (Esi Edugyan). This Giller-winning novel is the story of young Washington, a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. The eccentric scientist brother of the slave master takes Washington on as his personal assistant; then, when a family crisis occurs for which Washington may be blamed, the two of them escape. The novel takes Washington from the Arctic to Nova Scotia and to London and beyond. The first part of this novel is riveting, but I found the second half, with its many peripheral characters, less interesting -- and Washington is a somewhat opaque narrator. A wonderful book, but in my opinion it didn't totally live up to the hype. (4/5)

The Water Dancer (Ta-Nehisi Coates). This is the first novel by essayist and memoirist Coates, author of Between the World and Me. It's the story of a young Virginia plantation slave, Hiram Walker, who is the son of a white slave owner and a slave woman whom the owner sold when Hiram was young. Hiram has a mysterious power called conduction that allows him to transport across time and space and that makes him a useful worker in the Underground Railroad. The combination of history and magical undercurrents make this a very compelling novel -- and one that would also be interesting to compare with Washington Black, above. (4/5)

Stella Bain (Anita Shreve). This novel, written 13 years after Shreve's All He Ever Wanted (see above), is told from the perspective of Etna Bliss, the main female character in the earlier book. Stella Bain fills in many of the details that the earlier one (being told solely from Van Tassel's viewpoint) didn't give us, so it is worth reading, but it's not nearly as well-written as the first book. (3/5)


Becoming (Michelle Obama). I loved this memoir of Obama's journey from a working-class Chicago family to her eight years as First Lady in the White House. As Obama says, "I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it." (5/5) 

Educated (Tara Westover). This memoir tells of Westover's tough upbringing in Idaho with Mormon survivalist parents. Westover worked in her father's scrapyard, enduring abuse from him and one of her brothers, until she could leave and go to Brigham Young University and eventually Harvard. The book details her complex and painful relationships with various family members, her struggle to affirm her womanhood, and the challenge of telling one's own story in the face of others' conflicting versions. (5/5)

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Karen Swallow Prior). In this wonderful book, Prior discusses twelve virtues, each one in relation to a particular work of literature, such as Jane Austen's Persuasion and Shasuko Endo's Silence. She shows us that not only does literature contain great examples of virtue (or its absence) but that the actual reading of literature is a way of practicing the virtues. See my full-length review of this book HERE. (5/5)

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life (Henri J.M. Nouwen). Nouwen's letters to the many friends and strangers he encountered over the course of his life showcase his compassionate, pastoral heart. They return again and again to the themes on which Nouwen wrote most extensively: vocation, humility, and closeness to Jesus. (5/5)

Once We Were Strangers (Shawn Smucker). Beautiful, gentle, moving book about Smucker's friendship with a Syrian refugee. As Smucker tells us, he started out intending to write one book but ended up writing quite a different one. The one he did write focuses on the beauty and simplicity of friendship, the give-and-take of hospitality, and the universal desire to create a place of safety and security for those we love. (5/5)

The Collected Schizophrenias (Esme Meijun Wang). Wang was diagnosed with schizoaffective/bipolar disorder in her twenties; in this beautifully-written book of essays she discusses her own experiences with mental illness as well as broader topics about the depiction of mental illness in media, crimes committed by the mentally ill, and debates over diagnosis. A fascinating blend of memoir and rigorous research. (4/5)

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Chris Arnade). Arnade left a high-powered job on Wall Street to travel across the U.S., talking to people in McDonald's and coffee shops to document the lives of those in what he calls "back row America." Fascinating personal stories and striking photographs of the poor and marginalized, with commentary on race, privilege, and division in America. (4/5)

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Lori Gottlieb). Interesting and entertaining memoir by a therapist whose life falls apart when her longtime boyfriend tells her he no longer wants to get married; her decision to find a therapist of her own to work with through this crisis leads her to new insights on dealing with loss and change and coming to know oneself better. (4/5)

Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (Nadia Bolz-Weber). Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran minister and the author of two previous books of memoir, Pastrix and Accidental Saints. Drawing on her own personal story and the stories of her parishioners at the House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Shameless discusses the need for a new and more freeing way to look at sexuality. Bolz-Weber proposes a sexual ethic that is based neither on premarital abstinence nor solely on consent, but on care and concern -- and that puts the flourishing of people ahead of rules that cause them harm. Her primary metaphor is that of a crop irrigation system, whereby the traditional rules may work well for those within the irrigator's circle, but not necessarily for those in the unwatered corners of the field. Excellent book. (4/5)

White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege (Amy Julia Becker). Becker reflects on her upbringing in an upper-class North Carolina family with black staff, her experiences as a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, her realization that "answers to prayer" sometimes have more to do with personal connections than God's blessing, her exploration of how people of colour are (or aren't) depicted in children's books, and more. I love Becker's thoughtful, honest voice. (4/5)

Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (Brene Brown). This book covers some of the same ground as Brown's previous work -- vulnerability, empathy, trust, and wholeheartedness -- but with a focus on leadership. The real-life examples she shares are, for me, always some of the most memorable aspects of Brown's writing. There wasn't a lot here that was really new, but I did like the section on zeroing in on our two primary values and asking ourselves whether the way we live is reflecting those values. (3/5)

Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems (Stephanie Burt). Many people shy away from reading poetry because they find it daunting and inaccessible. Burt insists that instead we focus on poems and how they speak to one another and to us as readers. (3/5)

Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack (Alia Joy). This memoir of Joy's struggles with family poverty, mental illness, doubt, and faith is honest and moving. (3/5)

Lark Rise to Candleford (Flora Thompson). Last year Rich and I watched the TV series of this name, about a small English hamlet and town in late 1800's England. The book -- really a combination of 3 books -- goes into great detail about rural life in that period. I enjoyed seeing the background to the show and encountering some of the quirky real-life characters on whom the fictionalized series was based. (3/5)

Millenneagram: The Enneagram Guide for Discovering Your Truest, Baddest Self (Hannah Pasch). Pasch's irreverent and encouraging guide to the Enneagram system of personality types was a fun read. (3/5)

This brings us to the end of my list. Thanks for reading it! Let me know in the comments if you've read any of the titles here or if any of them otherwise spark your interest. And if you have your own year-end blog post about what you've read, feel free to link it in the comments! Happy reading in 2020!