Category Archives: Books

Reading, writing, authors, publishing, authonomy, inspiration.

DIY Degrees: 18 Books for a Year of Thinking Christianly

If wishes were horses, beggars could go to Denver Seminary.  Alas, my horsiest wishes have not given me a wallet of fat cash to go back to school at the moment, but if I could, I would love to take classes on Christ and culture, philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  I’d take classes on Christianity and the arts, poetry, worldview, the Inklings.  In point of fact, I have listened to master’s level classes while I do the dishes, free classes provided by Gordon Conwell or lectures on Youtube.  Ryan Reeves has posted a wealth of material, entire courses on Lewis and Tolkien, Reformation history, and historical theology, enough intellectual stimulation to make the chores fly.  But as I watch my husband buckle down and tackle a Ph.D., I’m amazed at his tenacity, his focus.  Without the accountability, I’d never make myself read the challenging stuff, the brain-stretchers.

Why not?  Why can’t I make a decision, flip a switch, go to the library?  Well, I know me.  I know how I battle laziness and perpetual distraction.  I know how deadlines and threats motivate me in a way lofty dreams never seem to do.  But I also know that it’s silly on some level, childish, really, to wait to fork over vast sums of money to study books that are available largely for free.

One of the great wonders of the internet is the availability of other people’s must-read, must-see, must-do bucket lists.  You can hop on Goodreads and find out what your mentors want to read.  You can peek at Tim Challies’s book reading resolutions, the syllabus of any class at any school.  What a treasure!  A Do-It-Yourself degree!  Well, maybe not quite.  But a good place to start.

Here’s my thought:  even though I never quite accomplish all the things I hope to do, all of the goal-setting and dreaming has a way of changing me.  It’s like those prayers that God never answers in the way I want — the act of praying still changes my heart.  Thinking through what I want to read, what I want to learn, has a way of raising my sights.  Even if I get through only half of what I hope to do, that’s still a lot more progress than I’d make watching Gilmore Girl re-runs on Netflix.

As Challies has pointed out, lots of fantastic books (usually current bestsellers and classics) are available in audio format, and I can usually find a good audio book to download from my local library.  While I was thinking through my Thinking Christianly gotta-read list, I chose the first one I found available for download to start with.  I’m halfway through Tim Keller’s Reason for God, taking it up whenever I’m in the car or scrubbing pots.  I doubt very many of my theologically-heavy books will be possible to find that way, but the good news is that most of my just-for-fun books are.  That means I can listen to novels while I sort laundry and save the seminary stuff for actual feet-up-in-the-evening paper book reading or morning quiet times.

So here’s the beginning of my list — we’ll call it Year One.  I’ll aim for about a book and a half per month.  I’ll never finish!  But that’s no reason not to start.  I tried to balance old and new, exciting and daunting, theological (by which I mean theology in the academic sense — what do I really believe about the person of God) and cultural.

  1. Reason for God, Tim Keller
  2. Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon
  3. Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves
  4. Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson
  5. How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer
  6. Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper
  7. Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr
  8. Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson
  9. This Day, Wendell Berry
  10. Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
  12. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
  13. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
  14. The Only Wise God, William Lane Craig
  15. Wisdom and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper
  16. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
  17. Valley of Vision
  18. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

What’s on your list?

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Friends and Books

Maybe you have felt that reading a book is like making a friend, or that, picking up someone else’s pages, you have made a connection across miles and time with the author.  You read someone else’s words and you think, Yes!  I feel the same.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”  For a lonely kid, that is the magic of books.

Now, as an author, I see another side of publishing, “red in tooth and claw” as it is.  Books are business, and business is not friendly.  Trying to get a manuscript published is like sucking up the courage needed to run naked across a stage while being pelted with rotten fruit and large pointy objects.  No one sane would do it at all.  But even in the muck of publishing, there is a nice side, the friendship that can bloom in unlikely ways through the pages of a book.

I have been privileged this year to make such a friend, a stranger across the country who was willing to review Thirty Thousand Days.  That it could have gone badly I am well aware.  Even as I sent off a copy, I dived under the bed to wait for tomatoes to fly.  But what I heard to my happy surprise was “What?  You too?” I am pleased to say that I have found a friend in Carolyn Litfin, and I am honored to know her.  If you should happen this week to read a book that makes you happy, find the author (she’s probably hiding under the bed) and tell her so.  We all have room for another friend.

Here’s Carolyn’s kind review.

Photo credit: krecimag via VisualHunt /  CC BY

Free is good!

New year, fresh start.  Time to consider how to live passionately in light of eternity, to make this year one that ripples for a long, long time.  How will you spend your 30,000 days?  Y’all, we spend our days in a broken world, but not for long.  Here’s an invitation to daydream about what it will be like to finally head Home.

Head on over to Goodreads and enter for a chance to win a copy of my book!  And if you’ve already read it?  Feel free to leave an honest review — it really means a lot to me!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Thirty Thousand Days by Catherine L. Morgan

Thirty Thousand Days

by Catherine L. Morgan

Giveaway ends January 07, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

9 For Nerds: A Book Lover’s Bucket List

Last week we took the kids to a great second hand bookstore called 2nd and Charles.  It was vast.  Since they weren’t bound to recent bestsellers, we found all kinds of treasures that Barnes and Noble doesn’t stock and the library has forgotten.  I found a great copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and my sweet Abbey walked out with a stack of books — $1.50 for Emily of New Moon.  You can’t find that anywhere!

Got me thinking about my deep and insatiable love of books, the slow, sad, extinction of the indie bookstore, and the places I absolutely need to go before I die.  So here’s my Book Loving Bucket List — three author’s haunts to explore,  three experiences to plum, and three places to shop. All of the photos below are links to fuel your own daydreams.  Enjoy!

The Robert Frost Museum
9.  The Robert Frost Museum, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Vermont is one of the only states back east I’ve never visited, and Robert Frost is such a favorite.  While I’m at it, I’d love to swing over to Amherst and visit the Emily Dickinson house (and maybe Mark Twain’s, Louisa May Alcott’s… OK, maybe just a dozen or so in New England.  Why not?)  I think Frost’s words and his landscape were so wedded, you’d feel you were walking into a poem.  “A breeze discovered my open book / And began to flutter the leaves to look.”

 

Jane Austen's House
8.  Jane Austen’s House

There are scads of Jane Austen tours that take you through the countryside she knew and loved, but of course, the must-see spot is her actual house.  I can only imagine it’s packed.  All the time.  Because Mr. Darcy!  Emma!  Says Miss Austen, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  Wow, Jane.  Don’t hold back.

 

Visit Guernsey shoot at Victor Hugo's Hauteville House
7.  Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House in Guernsey

Little bit influenced by the scenery, not gonna lie.  I am loving reading Les Mis right now, but it is work in spots, for sure.  But Guernsey!  And not only would I need to pack Les Mis, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is one of my all-time favorites.  I might need to stay for a week.  Clear the calendar.

 

American Writer's Museum
6.  American Writer’s Museum, coming to Chicago in 2017

Y’all, this looks so great.  Last night when I couldn’t sleep I started daydreaming about a writer’s museum.  Why is there not one?  It was a happy thought, and when I googled it today, lo and behold, there’s one coming!  And I don’t even particularly like Chicago — but now it’s on the list.  Yippee.

 

The Rabbit Room
5.  The Rabbit Room

So The Rabbit Room is more of an online destination, and it is fantastic.  Enough distraction to derail a month of workdays.  But they actually do host really incredible events, often at the Art House in Nashville, pictured above.  They have this crazy idea that art and music and faith and stories all flow out of the same great place.  I don’t have the chutzpah to join in, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall.  From their website, “Through books, movies, theater, and other media, the magic of storytelling has the power to shape not only our minds, but the world around us. And story, like music, has the kind of magic that not only draws people closer to one another, but draws them further up and further into the great Story.”

 

The Glen Workshop
4.  The Glen Workshop

The Glen Workshop is the brainchild of Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s MFA program.  I torture myself by looking into it every year and then not going.  (Money.  Sad but true.)  Participants in the MFA go to two residencies per year, one in Whidby Island, one in Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe version is open to non-MFA students as well, and brings in an amazing assortment of artists from many disciplines, authors, and crazy respected speakers.  Someday, friends.  Someday.

 

Signs of Life
3.  Signs of Life Bookstore, Lawrence, KS

So it’s not better than Guernsey.  It doesn’t beat Santa Fe.  But it’s practically local, a mere 8 hours away.  I’ve been to Signs of Life (the only one on the list with this distinction) several times, and it’s my favorite bookstore in the world.  So very cool.  Like The Rabbit Room and The Glen, this little gem is saturated in an Art/Faith/Mystery worldview that embraces visual arts, poetry, theology, and literary fiction.  There’s a café for chatting, a gallery for contemplating, and lotsa books.

 

The Last Bookstore
2. The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles

I love the whole gutsy story of The Last Bookstore.  You have got to click on the link above and watch this beautiful little story, of a guy who was pretty broken, who nevertheless had vision and determination, who built maybe the coolest bookstore you’ll ever see.  Redeem your next visit to LA with something extraordinary.

 

Hay-on-Wye
1. Hay-on-Wye, Wales

I think I could live here forever.  It is the land of books.  An entire village of bookstores.  And where the books aren’t shelved in shops, they’re shelved up and down the streets and ruined castle walls, honor system style.  Just be sure to buy a round-trip ticket or you’ll spend all your traveling money and be stuck there forever.  Unless that’s not such a bad thing, after all.

To Die For

Shall I tell you about two of my favorite things?  One is a good mystery.  Two is to-die-for pie.  That “to-die-for” part is where they come together:  Diane Mott Davidson, who writes “culinary mysteries” set close by in Colorado, includes recipes in her books.  Her sleuth, you see, is a caterer by day.

Anyway, Davidson’s books are reliably fun and fast reads, great for a weekend when there’s not much going on.  But tucked inside are recipes.  Now, I’ve only made one of them.  I always wondered if they were any good (after all, the books aren’t really cookbooks.)  But this one looked so delish…

Oh my goodness.

I make this pie every summer.  It is seriously my favorite fruit pie of all time.  Except possibly the blueberry pie at the Camden Deli in Maine, which is ridiculous.  My sister-in-law requested it for a family get-together today, and I thought it worth sharing, so here you go.  One last strawberry grand slam of summer, then on to pumpkins.

Strawberry Super Pie

Crust:
3/4 sticks unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 Tbsp confectioners sugar
3/4 cup chopped pecans

Topping:
2 pounds strawberries, divided
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch

Filling:
1 1/4 cups whipping cream
4 oz cream cheese, softened
3/4 tsp vanilla extract (I used clear to keep the filling pure white)
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

DIRECTIONS:

Directions for crust:
Preheat oven to 375°.  Mix the butter, flour, confectioners sugar, and pecans.  Press into a buttered 10-inch pie plate.  Bake 25 minutes or until light brown.  Cool completely.

Directions for Topping:
Mash enough strawberries to equal 1 cup.  Cut the tops off the rest of the strawberries and set aside.  Place the cup of mashed strawberries and water in a saucepan.  Mix sugar and cornstarch together and add to the strawberry mixture.  Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Boil until mixture turns clear and thickened, about a minute.  Let cool completely.

Directions for Filling:
Whip the cream until stiff peaks form.  In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese with the vanilla and powdered sugar until smooth and creamy.  Carefully fold whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture.  Spread filling into cooled crusts and refrigerate.

When berry mixture is cool, the pie(s) can be assembled.  The recipe calls for whole or halved strawberries to be stood on top of the cream filling, cut side down.  When the entire filling is covered with whole strawberries, spoon cooled berry mixture over filling.  Refrigerate pie until ready to serve.  Any leftover topping can be served on toast or English muffins.

Makes 8-10 large servings

From Dying for Chocolate by Diane Mott Davidson.  Bantam Books, 1992.

Stretching my brain a few pages a day.

Ahhh… books.  Summer’s here, and for a lot of people, that means a stack of paperbacks and a beach towel.  As always, I used my summer birthday to get a small pile of wanna-read, need-to-read, and gotta-read titles; the only problem is deciding what to tackle first!  Tim Challies’ blog has a fantastic 2016 reading challenge (I know, I know, I’m a little late).  But I actually did list out a dozen books I wanted to get to this year, and slowly, I’m working my way through them.  On my list?  Les Misérables (thought it would be tough but I’m loving it!), Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (started it and lost steam), Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (really great — now I’m reading some of his poetry, which is even better), The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King (it is staring at me from the bookshelf), Tim Keller’s book on prayer.

One on my list I’ve been chipping away at on and off for a few years.  It’s called Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups,  edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith — two guys from one of those little Quaker colleges in the midwest.  Michael assigned it for a class, and I’ve been meandering through it ever since.

I LOVE this book.  When I finish it I’m going to have to go back to the beginning and do it again.  Here’s the thing.  When you find an author or a style that you like, you tend to go back again and again, and maybe, after some time, you find yourself kind of stuck in a rut.  You read people who think like you.  You start to hear all of the same conversations repeated by new voices.  Yeah?  You can relate, right?  But this book is a survey of some pretty stinking amazing people over the span of 2,000 years of history.  It’s devotional, so you can dip a toe in without committing to the diving board (hello, 1,200 pages of Les Mis).  It’s a perfect kick-start to reading the Bible, just the right length for a cup of coffee.

Some of these folks are deep end of the pool thinkers (OK, most of them are.)  Some are mystics.  Some are poets.  Some are missionaries, scholars, monks, people the world was not worthy of (and yet the world has forgotten.)  There are folks in here who strike me as flat-out crazy and others who make me weep, people who challenge my assumptions and my complacency.  I could crank through this book in a short time, but I’d rather keep going my lazy way through, because there are words in this book that float around in my mind for a week or two if I don’t rush past.

Hmm… let me give you a few quotes to chew on.

There is no Christian who does not have time to pray without ceasing.... No one can believe how powerful prayer is and what it can effect, except those who have learned it by experience.

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.

The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration...

What if a few pages a day could change your life?  What are you reading?

Zeke

Zeke ate a mouse the other day. Bit the head right off. Zeke is the name of our neighbor’s 7-year-old son, but fortunately, he does not come into this story. Zeke also happens to be the name of a very fluffy black cat that has adopted us.

I am not a cat person. I hear the old joke about the difference between cats and dogs* and think, why would anyone want to own a cat? But Zeke is a very dog-like cat in many respects, and he has charmed our family. Every morning, he waits on the windowsill to greet us. When we open the door, he flops on his back to have his tummy scratched. He follows us when we go for walks. He watches us eat dinner. It’s not that he’s hungry or neglected, quite the opposite, he just likes us.

The kids have gone bananas for this green-eyed cat. Having never been around felines much, they are amazed and delighted at everything he does. Patrick, almost 8, has been the most enamored. Until the mouse.

We had heard that Zeke likes to entertain guests up here with his feats of strength, catching small rodents and tossing them into the air, leaping up and snatching them with his paws. He’s auditioning for America’s Got Talent, I think. But the actual stalking and maiming of the little mouse was too much for our little guy, who was completely horrified. “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

It reminds me of Annie Dillard’s cat story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her cat, free to come and go from the window, I guess, would wake her every morning, returning from nighttime adventures and pouncing onto her bed. One day, pawed and pounced on by the cat, Dillard looked in the mirror and saw bloody pawprints all over her shirt. (Please forgive if I’ve mixed up the details; I don’t have my copy of the book up here at the cabin to consult.)

They say housecats are the most — what? efficient? vicious? — predators in North America, expertly, ruthlessly stalking and killing anything small and available. They haven’t lost their hunting instincts. They are carnivores. (Patrick, after the mouse incident, insisted that he would no longer be a carnivore, and pulled the turkey out of his sandwich at lunch.) Though the kids know this academically, the reality of messy death, victim and victor, was a jolt. Living in the city, we are out of touch with the wildness of nature and the heartlessness of the food chain. We are not farmers, have never slaughtered a chicken, don’t see where our food comes from, other than the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt of sticky goodness. Life is sanitized, safe.

I have been reading a biography of C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrath, and came across his famous description of Aslan this week: “The most characteristic feature of Lewis’s Aslan is that he evokes awe and wonder. Lewis develops this theme with relation to Aslan by emphasising the fact that he is wild — an awe-inspiring, magnificent creature, which has not been tamed through domestication or had his claws pulled out to ensure he is powerless. As the Beaver whispers to the children,’He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.'”

There is something about this wild place of woods and mountains, who-knows-what creatures (another kind of lion, perhaps) living in the vast expanse of untamed wilderness, that evokes to me a sense of God’s own wildness. The Bible stories that we so often declaw for children hint at a God beyond our Sunday school pictures, a God who invented carnivores.

The world is wilder than we remember, fiercer, untamed. On one hand, we participate in dark things without even pausing to consider, and on the other, we forfeit the experience of the wonder and awe all around. What if God is bigger and more unpredictable than we allow? What if there is mystery outside your window?

What if the Easter story unfolding again this week, was unfamiliar, new, permitted to shock and astound and dismay and poke us in some tender place? The White Witch has got hold of Aslan and howls in her triumph; we are Lucy and Susan crouching in terror at a distance to watch the Deep Magic work. Are we moved? Are we undone?

Who knew? Life lessons from Zeke, the terrifying cat. I miss my goofy dog.

Zeke the Cat
Zeke the Cat

*There once was a man named Bob, the proud owner of a cat and a dog. Every day, Bob took care of Rover. He fed him, scratched his tummy, brushed him, tossed a ball for him, and picked up his poop. Rover thought, “Bob is my master and I love him. He must be God.” Every day, Bob took care of Tom. He fed him, scratched his ears, groomed him, tossed his yarn ball, and picked up his poop. Tom thought, “Guess I’m God!”