The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

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I had three younger sisters, so I relate hard to sister stories, especially when there is a sympathetic older sister. In The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal, we get just such a story. Edith, the older sister, has lived an ordinary life. She married Stanley, a hard-working man and her best friend, and she has worked making pies for most of her adult life–first at a nursing home and then for a bakery in a nearby town. She has not spoken to her younger sister, Helen, since Helen convinced their father that she needed the whole inheritance from the sale of the family farm to start a brewery. Helen promised that she would pay Edith back for the money she never got a chance to have, but although Helen’s fortunes rise rapidly, she can’t find a way to approach her sister, and Edith’s financial fortunes fall.

If this were simply a story of bitter sibling relations, I’m not sure I could have finished it, despite the lovely writing and interesting descriptions of brewing beer. But this is a story of character. At the heart of it is the question: Who are you? Not what do you do, or what is your passion, or what do you love. This story looks at what is at the core of people, sets that into motion, and watches it play out, making every single action feel inevitable and ring true.

Here’s my favorite quotation from the book, a review of the beer Edith makes:

“This beer doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t fill any obvious market niche, meet a known customer demand, or pursue any recognizable trend. This beer is merely the ultimate expression of its brewer, a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Edith Magnusson…What little exists about Edith online indicates that she may have worked at a nursing home in New Stockholm, where her pies were enough of a foodie fetish to turn the joint into a brutal Friday-night dinner reservation, but there was nothing to indicate any access to or even interest in brewing…hope remains in this specific bottle, because all of the chemists, focus groups, AI, and boardrooms in the world will never create a beer like Grandma Edith’s. This beer is flawed, wonderful, and strange in a way only a certain kind of individual could devise, and it renders every other beer on the shelf a faceless SKU. Grandma Edith was just making a beer that she wanted to drink, because it didn’t exist yet, and the result is not a beer in the sense you know it. It is the heart and guts and ignorance and beauty and dreams of Edith Magnusson, and that is all.”

I can’t get enough of people who just create something good because they want it to exist, or help people because the ability is there in front of them, the people who wrap their arms around their community simply because that’s what they do, and they don’t know how to be any other way, or they couldn’t live with themselves if they tried. You can be who you are in any job or lack of a job, and it’s living up to who you were created to be that is the important thing. 

As the Bible says in James 2:26, faith without deeds is dead, and if I don’t live what I say, then I don’t really believe what I say. I know I’m sliding off when I feel my actions don’t line up with my values, and I have to realign, and put my eyes back on that which is most important. For me, that is Jesus, and keeping your eyes on what you say you are actually about is essential for letting go of worry and pointing life in the right direction.

For some people, like Edith, it seems to come so easily. Others, like Helen and Diana (Edith’s granddaughter), have to figure it out, and I probably like Edith the most because I have always been more like Helen and Diana, having to figure out how little all my worries mattered. 

And that, at the end of this book, is what redeems both characters and people to me. Sometimes we hide awfully hard within the drama of our own lives. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out who we really are, and a lot of unpacking and peeling back layers. But it’s there. 

You may have a job you love or a job you hate. You may not have a job. You may be in a season of transition. You may have no idea what is coming next, and you may have never been able to identify a burning passion or anything that you like or are more good at than anyone else. None of this is the question. 

Who are you at your core–the goodness, the curiosity, the open heart with which you were born? That is the question, and how you answer it makes all the difference.

Reading in the Time of Corona

Like the rest of the country, I am currently on a hiatus from work because of COVID-19, and my kids are at home, working through their school work in a combination of paper packets, online assessments, and lots of patience and help from their teachers. I have loved getting to help them with their school work, organizing our time and computer usage every day (with all of us working from home, it has involved a fair amount of computer shuffling), and listening to them talk about what they are learning and how they learn it. 

We have had fun with this first week, with all our work and lots of movies, video games, and, of course, books. My son and I are on the last Harry Potter; my daughter raced ahead of us and finished it. She is working through the Anne of Green Gables series. He is going back through Captain Underpants. 

And I have made a huge stack of books to read, mostly checked out from the library, some that I had that I’ve been holding for a while, and some gorgeous re-reads that I can’t wait to go through again. 

It might seem like it’s even more difficult to read while trying to work from home and help the kids work from home, when everyone is in the same house and tired of each other. But while our basic scenery is not changing, our books are taking us to places we can’t go, and bringing a much-needed escape. For us, reading is taking us out of ourselves, and giving us something to think about beyond the present circumstances, and while it may not work for everyone, it definitely does for us.

So here’s what I’ve got (full disclosure: I have already finished some of these).

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Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery–This is the Anne story that my daughter is reading. I remember that this was possibly my least favorite of the series, but there are no bad Anne books. I thought she might hang with it if I read it too.

The Rome of Fall by Chad Alan Gibbs–This is a brand new book by a really fun author. Released on the Ides of March, it echoes the story of Caesar in a 90s era high school. I have loved nonfiction by this author, and this is my first of his fiction.

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson–A reread that I posted about in January. I can’t wait to work through it again.

Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna by Mario Giordano-This series was recommended as being really fun mysteries, and this is the second in the series. I bought the first one on my Kindle, but as I am not big on electronic reading, I never finished it. I’m excited to give this one a shot in print.

The Bronte Plot and The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay–I read this author electronically and thought she was clever, but as I said, the magic of any book is hard for me to maintain electronically. I read her last book, Printed Letter Bookshop, in hard copy and loved it, so I’m looking forward to these two.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte–I love C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and this is a book about their friendship. 

The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer–I love the critical approach to reading classic literature, and the way of thinking that really helps dig in to these books and understand their places in the canon. The novels are my main interest, so I thought I might not finish–but I ended the section on novels and enjoyed it so much I am still going.

Whatever you are reading during this very different sort of time, I hope it’s taking you wherever you want to go. I hope you’ve found some good ones.

“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith

I don’t read a ton of poetry, although poems like “Good Bones,” by Maggie Smith, make me want to read more. If you haven’t read it, please click the link and check it out. I still remember the first time this poem spoke to me, maybe the first time I ever read it, in St. Louis in a workshop led by Tom Romano at the annual conference of the National Council for Teachers of English. The poem went up on a slide, and we were asked to write in response to it. I was floored, and then I couldn’t stop writing. 

I wish I still had those pages.

This poem moves me first because I’m a mom, and it speaks to what I want for my inspiring, brilliant, creative, and kind kids. They are full of hope and full of ideas to make the world a better place, and I can’t bear the thought of anything disillusioning them.

But at the same time, this poem also speaks of actively deceiving children, of hiding who we are from them, and of concealing our part in making the world terrible. Whatever shape the world is in, it had its share from me, and as I show the world with all its possibilities and wonders to my children, I don’t want them to make the same mistakes that I did. I have to show them what I did wrong too.

I believe in the good bones the world has, shaped by the hands of the good God who made us all, but I also believe it will take all of us, and not just the bright-eyed innocence of our children. Social distancing is mandated now, and in my forty years of life, I have never experienced anything quite like what society is struggling with today, and yet I am seeing beauty pop up in all kinds of places: teachers going above and beyond to remind students that they are loved and how to get help; retirees begging the elderly to let them know if they need help; people asking when they meet online if you have food. For the first time, when people ask how you’re doing, it’s not just a pleasantry.

I’ve never seen technology be such a beautiful thing as it is right now as it connects isolated people, and yet I find myself unable to figure out how to use it effectively, how to offer anything to a hurting and lonely world. That may be the thing that makes our world the most terrible–people just hiding out and watching, not contributing, not helping, just living, breathing in and out and not adding to the world creatively or lovingly, outside the walls of their own homes.

This hiding may be one of the worst things about our world. It’s not how I was created to be, and it lets me know that these bones are not just for the kids to consider–I have to figure out how to be part of the solution.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

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“What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I’ve been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful, I tell them. The place where I am most myself. Maybe some of you, I tell them, have found this place already. Maybe some of you will find it years from now. My hope is that some of you will find it for the first time today by writing.” —Writers and Lovers, by Lily King

I have written for my whole life, ever since I could hold a pencil, ever since I realized it was something you could do. It is, most definitely, one of the places I find home, although writing for an audience sometimes feels like someone ripped the side of the house off, and now everyone can see me standing at the stove in my pajamas, scrambling eggs. Still, writing is the place that I return to, the home I carry with me, and one of the ways I try to find truth. 

I found this book through the recommendation of Annie B. Jones, owner of the Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia, and I couldn’t wait to read it. Yet it took me a while to find my place in this book, because in the beginning, everything felt so bleak for the first person narrator, Casey. But the thing about life is that it doesn’t stay bleak for long, if you’re willing to look for the hope in unusual places. Friends show up to her doctor’s appointment. A friend reads her book and recommends agents. Sweet little boys capture her heart and make her remember what it is to be human. Geese help her mourn her mother. Her brother comes to save her, but Casey ends up saving him. 

This is a quiet book, but at the end of the day, I prefer a quiet book, because I live a quiet life, and while I am not a novelist (yet), or a waitress, I recognize myself in the ordinariness of Casey’s days, in her pain and in her joy. We don’t need fireworks to recognize what is human in other people. We just need to be willing to open our eyes. When we do, we may find that what we’re looking for has been right in front of us, in crazy places, in all kinds of different people. In writing. In books.

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

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I really like people, and I love a good party. The problem is that my idea of a good party differs sharply from that of most of the rest of the world. I like small crowds where I know pretty much everyone, short time frames, and good food and conversation. Large crowds of strangers backed by thumping bass so that you can’t hear anyone is the opposite of my idea of a good time, unless, of course, all this takes place at a concert, in which case I am probably wearing ear plugs to preserve what’s left of my failing hearing. 

I am not what you might call a party animal.

And while I love to have people in my home, it often leads to aggravation between Joe and me as we clean our house to the standards that I never have unless I know someone is coming over. Our normal patterns involve a style called “Four People Live Here, and It’s Really a Little Too Small for All of Us,” but when company is coming, our house suddenly needs to look like everything fits just fine, and also like I pull the couch out from the wall and vacuum behind it way more than I do. 

Cooking for other people often stresses me out. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve gotten more confident in my cooking, and I’ve started to enjoy it more. But even with my new confidence, I never feel like I have a good enough perspective on how things really tasted, whether my side dishes work with the main course, or when I should serve desert.

So even before the social distancing everyone is supposed to be cultivating, inviting people over became something that we pretty much stopped doing. But everyone everywhere–church, home, online, in books–is talking about hospitality lately, and as having people over and cooking for them is something I would like to do better, I figured that this was something I needed to take a second glance at. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker seemed to show up just in time.

When I first started looking at this book, I was thinking along the lines of Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine, or Bri McKoy’s Come and Eat–something that was encouraging and pushed me in the right direction. While this book was both of those things, it bore little relation to anything I had read about hospitality before. The Art of Gathering examines every kind of gathering, from a standard dinner party to the ordinary Monday morning meeting at work to a huge conference, and looks at ways to transform them into something outstanding and meaningful.

To do this, Parker looks at the way we begin gatherings, going all the way back to how we issue the invitation, to the way we signal a strong closing. She uses examples from her own parties and meetings she has led and the labs she runs in her own work. As I read, I thought of all the events I have been involved with and how I could have led them more effectively. I identified ways I could have structured my classes better. I wondered if maybe the lack of a strong closing is part of what makes me dread having people over, because I don’t know how long they will stay, and having no clear plan that feels polite makes me feel nervous. 

I am a planner, so reading this book really appealed to the side of me that loves organizing, especially since her ideas seemed so doable and made sense. But what I really appreciated about this book was the deep understanding of how people work, of what people need, and of what connects us to each other. In the end, that connection is the whole point of getting people together, and approaching it like the art it is gives us all a better chance of achieving that connection.  It’s less about the number of dust bunnies under my coffee table and more about the way I make guests feel when they are in my home, or in my office. People are what’s important, and The Art of Gathering gives us a blueprint for how to reach them.

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

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I’ve noticed that over the past year or so, my reading habits have leaned heavily toward the lighter side. At one time I might have felt bad that my bookshelf didn’t reflect more Serious Literature (whatever that means), but now, I’ve started to think that any book I’m enjoying qualifies as serious literature, because it is filling a strong and important purpose in my life, and lately, I have gravitated toward books that I once might have relegated to the escape stacks. I’ve said before that I can enjoy reading almost anything as long as it leaves me with hope, but I’m finding that right now, my very favorite books also contain characters I can root for. I don’t have to want to be friends with them; I don’t have to agree with their decisions. I just really have to find them good people and want them to succeed, and to find some evidence in the book that they will…which also gives me hope that I will.

All this leads me to Jenny Colgan, an author who for years I would have overlooked…and I did. But a recommendation from a friend led me to start picking up copies of her books at McKay’s, and finally over the weekend, I started reading one. Little Beach Street Bakery combines some of my favorite literary things: Britain, food, and love, and this book delighted me during a nasty bout of bronchitis. I finished the last two hundred pages today while lying on the couch, dizzy every time I got up, but I didn’t really want to get up because I enjoyed Polly and Neil and Tarnie and Huckle so much. I immediately started Colgan’s The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, and had just as much fun reading it.

It’s funny that I’m listing this under lighter reading, because both books deal pretty heavily with loss: loss of job, of home, of lifestyle, of friends, of lovers. But they also reflect the resiliency of the human spirit, the constant desire to create, the ability and the need to reach out even when at the very lowest points. They subtly guide readers to art, and to the idea that the things we create can change everything for us. Our art may change everything for other people too, or maybe not. But the important thing is to make it, and to let it change us.

I will never be a baker in a little shop on the British coast, or a chocolatier in Paris, so these books are an escape in that sense, but reading books like this is also like coming home, because they remind me of the joy in living this great big fabulous messy life in the specific ways I have been given to do so.

I still do want to read all kinds of books, even some of the ones that leave me feeling bleak and unsure, because it is important to stretch yourself, to lean in beyond the things that make you feel in control. But it will always be immensely satisfying to open a book and slide easily into a dream of your own life, and that’s what reading Jenny Colgan’s books feels like to me. Now to track down more.

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

Winters with no snow are sad, but books are one of the things making the gray days shine. One of my book highlights over the last few months has been Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle.

I bought this book of comics for Joe for Christmas, after months of reading the work that Pyle posted online. His work is a hilarious concept–aliens adapt to life on earth, discussing ordinary, everyday life here in extremely formal language and bringing a sense of wonder and humor to things as normal as petting a cat, getting a sunburn, and ordering pizza. The aliens themselves, apparently at least partially inspired by his wife’s expressions, are simple drawings, but their simplicity combined with their sophisticated language makes them hilarious.

My whole family loves Strange Planet. My daughter stole the book before Joe had a chance to read it, and I don’t know how many times she has gone through it now. I snapped a picture in the school drop-off line last week of her reading it to my son as he leaned across the seat to follow along. While they don’t get all the jokes, they get enough of them, and they find it all hysterical.

These comics are wise, generous, funny, and truthful, and they rarely fail to brighten my day. You can check them out on Facebook and Instagram, and definitely by picking up a copy of Strange Planet. I hope they bring you some light as we wait for the rain to end.

February Learning

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Each quarter, Emily P. Freeman reflects and writes about the things she’s learned and shares them on her blog and in her newsletter. I enjoy reading what she’s learned and her thoughts behind it, and because reflection is something I want to increase in my own life, I’m working on keeping my own list monthly, although I may not always share it.

This month is February, which I have for a long time found to be a difficult month. This year, it’s gray and wet, without the typical wonder of snow, and despite the mid-month leap of joy that is Valentine’s Day, which I love, there is so much about this month that is a struggle. But looking back over what I’m learning this month, much of it comes from the writing of others, which has lighted my life considerably in this drab month.

So here are things I’ve learned or am learning.

  1. I used to say that I read a little in every genre, but I’m ready to admit that’s not true. I’m reading a relatively new science fiction book, because of how much everyone talked about it. Reading the book has been engrossing at times, yet all the science and strange events make it sort of like being at the zoo, watching people and places from behind glass, totally separate from me. I’m about halfway through, and the story is fast and interesting, but some of the science and philosophy are just on another level from me, and I’m finding it hard to get involved. Science fiction is just not my thing, and I am finally okay with that.
  2. The Lazy Genius said two things this month in her podcasts that resonated strongly with me. The first was, “Maybe bravery isn’t the answer. Maybe being a person is.” I could be wrong, but I think this was in a podcast about living without food rules, which would make it from the end of January. I love the Lazy Genius and her brand of common sense, no-nonsense, incredibly wise and kind approaches to the everyday things we all face. Another of her episodes that was important to me was called “Your Body Is Not Flawed,” which I probably need to listen to a dozen more times. I learn from this woman every month, and even when I don’t agree, she gives me something to think about and to discuss with my sister.
  3. I’m also reading Jessica Connolly’s book, You Are the Girl for the Job, in which she keeps reminding that we are not meant to be the hero; Jesus is, so we can give that role up, which I find incredibly freeing. I’m 40% finished with it (thanks for that update, Kindle), but I’m finding it to be thoughtful and truthful. I may update again when I’m done. 
  4. Last–I really miss snow. We barely had any this winter, but I have treasured each little flurry. I love winter. But brief peeks of sunshine hint that spring is coming, and I love that too. I’m learning to find contentment in each season, and that feels really good.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer

I’m a type 1 n the enneagram, and I live by a schedule. Even on a day off, I make a list of things to do–write, journal, do yoga, read my Bible. With no list, I drift into sloth-like behavior. With no list, I read a book all day, and no one gets fed.

But the list also means that often I feel a constant pressure to go, move, hurry. My list can turn even pleasurable activities into items to check, and if I’m not making progress, those items can weigh on my conscience. I rush through things, and I get impatient when my family doesn’t keep pace. In the mornings before school, my kids eat breakfast on a timer, because without it, they–but especially my daughter–would talk and laugh aimlessly all morning.

What is so wrong with talking and laughing?

Yes, a schedule is important, and yes, my kids actually do have to eat breakfast and move on with life before we’re all late to school, but my emphasis on hurrying through can be detrimental to relationships. I’ve caught myself stopping in a mad dash of cleaning because Joe wanted to read me something he loved, or one of the kids had a funny story, but I raised my eyebrows and tapped my toe until they were done, and then I immediately swirled back into my tornado of hurry, without acknowledging the part of themselves they were trying to share. I’m ashamed of this behavior, but sometimes it feels like the only way to live, the only way to get things done.

So when I heard of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, I avoided reading it at first because I did not think I could eliminate hurry from my life. I, like the rest of the world, have places to go and people to see. There is no way to eliminate hurry, not if you want to be a productive member of society, like to eat, or are a mom.

I don’t think this way anymore. 

John Mark Comer is a pastor in Portland, Oregon. He wrote this book after realizing the devastation hurry was causing in his life, and he discusses why hurry is such an epidemic, and what it is doing to us. Then he invites us to look at the life of Jesus as our model–he calls it apprenticing ourselves to Jesus. Finally, he breaks down the acting on our apprenticeship into specific action steps. 

None of this sounds like rocket science, but I found this book to be both revolutionary and inspiring. I am a child of the WWJD movement, to which I ascribed and which also kind of scared me. Who can actually do what Jesus would do? I find it impossible to carry my cross every day unless He is holding most of the weight. 

But in John Mark Comer’s book, he shows specific actions Jesus took repeatedly in the Gospels, and showed how they connect to this time and place, to my very own life. As it turns out, there are practices of Jesus’s that I was already trying to follow: Sabbath, simplicity, silence and solitude. This book gave me better ideas for how to do these things, and gave me more concrete reasons to try.

Joe loved this book too, and while we checked this one out from the library, this is a book we will buy, and I’ll be looking for extra copies to give. This book is encouragement and help to shake off the shackles of culture, to release the frantic pace, and to let Christ change your life. It’s one I see myself returning to again and again as I seek that change for myself.