Monday, October 28, 2013

Princessess, Shmincessess!

So I have a few issues with princesses.

Not Kate.  Never Kate.  Kate can do no wrong.
I have a mega girl-crush on Kate.
(Though technically, she's a duchess not a princess.)
But I digress.
(Photo courtesy wikipedia)
Not princesses themselves, really, but the whole construct of the pretty and passive princess, held up as a prize for the bravest/strongest/smartest/handsomest prince to claim when he defeats the dragon/outwits the wizard/climbs the tower/whatever.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel beautiful.  There's nothing wrong with looking forward to a happy and satisfying marriage relationship.  There's nothing wrong with wearing pretty ballgowns, glass slippers and bejeweled crowns.

But there is definitely something wrong with sending our girls the message that their value lies solely in their role as an object of desire for others, that it's the man's job to call the shots in a relationship, and that passive acceptance is the proper response to anything that happens in their life.

So here are a few princess books that buck those negative messages, while retaining the "good" parts of being a princess.

The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke

In The Princess Knight, after raising his daughter Violetta to be able to ride horses, sword fight, and joust as well, if not better than, his three sons, King Wilfred announces that in honor of her sixteenth birthday he will hold a tournament.  The winner, he tells her, will be offered her hand in marriage. "So put on your finest gown and practice your prettiest smile."

Violetta revolts.  "You want me to marry some dimwit in a tin suit?  Just look at your own knights!  They whip their horses and they can't even write their own names!"  Her outburst earns her imprisonment in a tall tower, until she convinces her nursemaid to pretend to be her and suits up to join the knights in the tournament.  Sir No-Name easily trounces the competition and the king is shocked when it's revealed that the stranger is none other than his own daughter.  Claiming her freedom as her prize, she "turned on her horse and rode away - far, far away.  And she didn't return for a year and a day."  Now that's a princess who quite literally refused to be someone else's prize and uses her strengths to determine her own course in life.

Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke

Another book by the author/illustrator team of Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer, Princess Pigsty highlights a princess who just doesn't fit the mold.  Unlike her two sisters, Isabella just isn't happy with thirty walk-in closets full of beautiful clothes, "footmen to blow their noses for them and ladies-in-waiting to tidy up their rooms, hang up their clothes, and polish their crowns until they shone."  She wants to - gasp! - get dirty! And blow her own nose! And climb trees!  And even - horrors! - WEAR PANTS!

Her father, the king, thinks he knows how to solve this problem.  He sends her to the kitchens to wash dishes, peel onions, and scrub ovens, certain that would cure her insolence.  But it doesn't work.  She loves it!  So he sends her to the pigsty where she feeds the pigs and cleans their pens.  She loves it so much that she beds down in the straw with the animals instead of in her royal bedroom.

Finally, the king has an epiphany.  "Oh my little daughter," he said, and he sat down next to her on the straw.  "You are dirty and your hair feels like straw, but you look happy!"  She assures him that she is.  "I'm happier than I've ever been before in my entire life."  Her happiness is more important to him than his insistence that she fit neatly into a cookie-cutter definition of what a princess should be, and do, and like.

The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

The Princess and the Pizza introduces us to Princess Paulina.  She's already a bit of an unconventional princess since her father gave up the throne to become a woodcarver, and she misses "princessing."  When the opportunity comes along to win the hand of the neighboring kingdom's Prince Drupert, she jumps at the chance to regain the life she once had.

Eleven other princesses show up for the competition, including some recognizable ones like Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.  After passing the pea-under-the-stack-of-mattresses test and writing an essay on "Why I Want to Have the Gracious and Exquisitely Beautiful Queen Zelda for My Mother-in-Law," Paulina is faced with the final test.  She and the other two princesses left must each prepare a feast for the palace.

Rapunzel trips Paulina with her long hair and while she's getting up Snow White's dwarves run off with almost all of the ingredients and kitchen tools.  Left with "some flour, yeast, water, three overripe tomatoes, and a hunk of stale cheese," Paulina gets creative, adding some garlic and herbs she happened to have brought with her for luck.  Her unique dish wins the contest, but she decides she doesn't really want to marry Drupert, and certainly doesn't want Zelda for a mother-in-law.

Back at home, she opens "Princess Paulina's Pizza Palace" and finds satisfaction in creating unusual combinations like popcorn-pineapple, butterscotch-broccoli, and avocado-apricot pizzas.  Way to not settle, Paulina!

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye

M.M. Kaye's The Ordinary Princess is a light, fun read about a princess who doesn't fit the mold. Blessed with "ordinariness" by a cantankerous fairy godmother at her christening, Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne - who goes by Amy - is plain next to her six glamorous older sisters. But other fairies had given her other gifts including health, wit, courage, charm, and cheerfulness. In a pointed bit of social commentary, Ms. Kaye adds "But because she was not beautiful, no one ever seemed to notice these other qualities, which is so often the way of the world."

These qualities come in very handy when, about to be boxed into a marriage she doesn't want, Amy runs away and lives happily in the woods until she discovers that her clothes are wearing out and she needs new ones. She is counseled by the same cantankerous fairy godmother who blessed her to be ordinary to travel to the nearest city and work to earn money for new clothes. "'Oh, work,' said the Ordinary Princess thoughtfully. 'I'm not sure I should like that.' 'Neither do most ordinary people--but they have to,' said the old fairy." After finding work as a kitchen maid at the palace in the city of Amber earning two pfennigs a week, Amy declares "there is nothing that gives you a feeling of such proud satisfaction as drawing a weekly wage that you have earned all by yourself. Even if it is only two pfennigs!"

Maybe this sounds silly, but I really appreciated that even after running away, Amy sent her parents letters - albeit with no postmarks - to let them know she was safe and happy. As a mother myself, I always worry about the parents in stories where kids run away and I'm glad that Amy did, too. Very thoughtful of her.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 37


Every story I read about Elizabeth Smart makes me admire her more.  With her new book out, she has been speaking to the media quite a bit.  Here's her interview with NPR, talking about how her faith helped her through the nightmare she experiences and how victims of sexual assault and rape should be treated.
Smart says that one lesson she wants people to take from her story is the importance of treating sexual assault victims with compassion. "After being raped, I felt completely worthless. I didn't even feel like I was human anymore," she says. "And it is just so important to let these survivors know that they are not any less of a person. You don't love them any less. And that to pretend like it never happened, or to pretend like rape doesn't exist or that it only happens in the wrong parts of town — you're doing that survivor a disservice."
Here's the latest from the New Yorker.
Although Smart will never escape being associated with the lurid captivity she endured, she has chosen to remain a public figure and has been unusually successful at doing so on her own terms. She is a full-time advocate for the prevention of child abuse who lobbies for legislation and heads a foundation. She delivers some eighty speeches a year, and they reliably end on a note of quiet resilience. She told the teen-agers in Washington, “Never be afraid to speak out. Never be afraid to live your life. Never let your past dictate your future.”

And this article summarizes several of her appearances and statements.
Smart told me, “I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who say, ‘When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z.’ And I just want to pull my hair out.”
I just got an email from the library notifying me that my turn has finally come up and the book is waiting on hold for me there, so I'll go pick it up today.


I was really touched by the story of another admirable woman, Mother Antonia Brenner, who passed away last week.  Originally from Beverly Hills, California, she chose to leave her comfortable lifestyle to volunteer among the poor in Mexico, eventually finding her calling serving those in the maximum security prison in Tijuana, La Mesa.  She voluntarily chose to live in the prison with those she served, in a cell just like theirs.  She convinced jail administrators to discontinue some inhumane practices.  She walked into the middle of a prison riot, and the inmates stopped fighting.

After raising eight children from two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, she felt called to a prison ministry and dove in, taking her own private vows. She didn't become a sister until the age of 50.  In 1997 she founded a new order, Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, which was formally accepted by the Catholic Church in 2003. Her life truly exemplified the words of Christ: "I was in prison and ye came unto me" (Matthew 25:36) as well as the counsel to "be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness" (D&C 58:27).


I found this interesting listing of the most famous books set in each state, though I was a bit chagrined to see which book got top billing in my current state of residence.  Twilight?  Really?  Kansas gets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Alabama gets To Kill a Mockingbird.  And Washington gets Twilight.  (Nothing against vampires, werewolves, and all, but is that the best we can do in the Evergreen State? Meyer set her books in Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, after a google search told her it had the fewest sunny days of any place in the continental United States, all the better for her characters who sparkle in the sun.)

What about Snow Falling on Cedars? Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Jack Kerouac set his semi-autobiographical Desolation Angels in the north Cascades, and anything by Sherman Alexie counts for sure.  The action of last year's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? happens mostly in Seattle.  The Orchardist takes place in central Washington, and The Last Town on Earth is set in a small town in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, I know if we're talking about the "most famous book" set in Washington it'd probably have to be Twilight, since hundreds of millions of copies have been sold of the books and the movies grossed kajillions of dollars.  But still...step it up, Washington authors!


This interesting study shows the benefits of "bibliotherapy" - yes, it's a real thing!  Two researchers at a university in Sweden followed eight women who were "sick-listed" and recovering at home.  They discovered that reading fiction had positive effects on their rehabilitation. "Fiction reading is a meaningful activity that the sick-listed women initiated on their own, and it strengthened their ability to take part in everyday activities," said one of the researchers. "The study shows that the reading relates to an outer, concrete reality and to an inner, more subjectively perceived experience. At a concrete level, the reading helped the women regain their capacity and structure in everyday life. The reading also contributed to a positive self-image and self-understanding via the subjective experience, as well as provided a private space for recovery."

Reading is good for you!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

I've read the Book of Mormon literally dozens of times over my life and while I always find value in the practice, I'll freely admit to falling into a rut occasionally, too.  It's refreshing and exciting to discover a new way of look at the stories that are so familiar.  Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide offers just that, a fresh perspective on this sacred text.

First of all, Hardy explains that while he is a faithful Latter-day Saint, he wanted to write a book that would be readable by both believers and those who don't accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. His approach, which began to take shape in his mind while he was working on The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, is one that analyzes the Book of Mormon as literature, specifically through the lens of the three main narrators: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.  When the Book of Mormon is read and analyzed from the inside out - as a narrative on its own terms - instead of from the outside in - whether as a nineteenth-century text written by Joseph Smith or as a scripture to be mined for religious aphorisms - we can gain new insights on this significant book.

It seems that Hardy expects both believers and nonbelievers to be somewhat skeptical of his unique and novel approach, so he repeatedly offers assurances throughout the book, bolstering his point of view with examples from both historical and fictional texts.  "An approach suitable for fiction is not necessarily inappropriate for history.  Both genres are representations of reality, and consequently, readers come to know all of the characters they meet in books in much the same way."  He urges nonbelievers to adopt a "willing suspension of disbelief" but also suggests that believers will benefit from a "willing suspension of belief", allowing them to "becom[e] more aware of how the book appears to outsiders."  "For both insiders and outsiders, reading the Book of Mormon from the perspective of the narrators will reveal that there is more to this engaging book than first meets the eye."

I heartily agree with Hardy that the Book of Mormon is a thoroughly human book.  He explains: "Strangely enough, both believers and nonbelievers agree on this point.  Outsiders generally view the Book of Mormon as a product of Joseph Smith's imagination, while Mormons hold that it is the work of inspired, but quite human, ancient American prophets.  In either scenario, choices were made by someone as to what to include and what to omit, and how to represent characters and situations."  Using the same tools of literary analysis that you learned in your high school English class makes this all the more apparent:
The Book of Mormon draws on the same set of narrative tools used by both novelists and historians, including direct and indirect speech, digressions, framing narratives, quoted documents, metaphors, allusions, juxtapositions, explicit commentary, variations in duration, chronological disruptions, repetitions, contrasts, motifs, and themes.  Causation can be specified or implied, details can be revealed or withheld at critical junctures, and some time periods receive much more attention than others...the word of God is articulated by very human narrators who continually draw attention to the editorial choices they have made.
Looking at the narrators, Hardy of course starts with Nephi.  Hardy describes how Nephi wrote his record as a middle-aged man, looking back over his life, which was "one of general disappointment."  In many ways, "the mature Nephi is something of a tragic figure, cut off from his culture, despairing of his descendants, and alienated from his own society (even though he is the king)."
Imagine, for a moment, his situation. He was educated in Jerusalem and literate at a time when such training was rare.  He seems to have been fascinated by books and records.  And then in his teenage years he was suddenly taken from the culturally rich and intellectually stimulating environment of Judah's capital to live in a distant land, in the company of only his relatives, with a single text (the Brass Plates) to read for the rest of his life. No one else in Nephi's family seems much interested in close reading and creative interpretations.  Lehi and Jacob receive revelations, but they appear to be primarily oral prophets rather than reading-and-writing prophets.  In fact, Jacob was born after the family left Jerusalem; he had no firsthand knowledge whatsoever about the traditions and culture of the Jews.
Hardy also presents Laman and Lemuel as far more sympathetic characters than we Mormons are used to seeing them portrayed.
Imagine the scene again.  Lehi dreams of a death threat and quickly packs up his family, who assume that they will be away just long enough for things to cool down.  God had commanded Lehi to take nothing other than the most basic provisions, and indeed it would not have made sense to leave money behind if they knew they were embarking on a lengthy, one-way trip; after all, provisions are quickly depleted, and as long as there is any chance of contact with other people, gold is worth its weight.  After a breathless flight, the family sets up camp and various members start thinking and questioning.
...suddenly the brothers find themselves refugees in the wilderness, cut off from all property, resources, friends, and whatever personal or business dealings had been occupying them. But the anger of one's neighbors is not the same thing as an impending murder attempt, and Lehi believed his life was in immediate danger only because of a dream.  That was perhaps the first problem. Although dreams could be a legitimate means of divine communications, they were also subject to considerable skepticism and in Lehi's time they were regarded as the least reliable form of prophecy...
Whatever else they may have been, Laman and Lemuel appear to have been orthodox, observant Jews.  Nephi--who has a vested interest in revealing their moral shortcomings--never accuses them of idolatry, false swearing, Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, adultery, or ritual uncleanness...
And I have to admit that in some of Nephi's interactions with his older brothers, my sympathies have always been with Laman and Lemuel.  I know from personal experience just how insufferable younger brothers can be, particularly when they are pointing out how right they are and how wrong I am, or how they know sooo much better than I do.  (Not that that has happened at all recently.  Love you, Richard! :) )  Not saying that older siblings are always perfect or in the right, but it certainly can put a strain on relationships.  Hardy acknowledges in an understated way, "Laman and Lemuel's rough treatment of their younger brother is difficult to justify, but it is understandable.  Nephi apparently had a speaking style that was less than diplomatic..."

Similarly, Hardy shows the text reveals Mormon and Moroni to be individual characters as well, with their own messages to convey and distinct methods and skills.

Grant Hardy succeeds in making these narrators, as well as other characters in the Book of Mormon, far more real to me than they had been previously.  He never asserts that his ideas or interpretations are the only correct ones, just that they are possibilities, and that it is worth looking deeper into the text for what we may be missing.

Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide
by Grant Hardy
ISBN: 9780199731701
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 36


It's been a little quiet around the blog lately because we had a massive invasion of family this past weekend.  My second oldest turned 8 last week and was baptized on Saturday, so we had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins coming out of our ears and filling every room of our not-so-big house.  We even had to pull the camp trailer out of its temporary winter retirement to house a few.  (The cousins loved that!)

It was a great weekend, both getting to spend time with family and celebrating Josh's special day.  Even if it meant I was a little short on time to read and write.


Photo courtesy wikipedia
Malala Yousafzai has been all over the news this week.  A year ago, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban soldiers for daring to speak out regarding her desire for an education. She has made a miraculous recovery and has continued her advocacy of education for all. At the age of 16, she is the youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and even though it was ultimately awarded to someone else last week, her inspirational influence is expanding.

Because of her example, I try to be a little more courageous in speaking out and standing up for what I believe.

Watch her great interview with Jon Stewart here.


Neil Gaiman is a brilliant author.  I love The Graveyard Book and Coraline.  He creates deliciously spooky worlds for his quirky and substantial characters to inhabit, and articulates Truth beautifully.

A few days ago he spoke to The Reading Agency in London about the importance of libraries and, well, reading.  You can read the whole text of his address here, but I've included a few of my favorite excerpts below:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

"Delicatessen with love" is a project by Gabriele Galimberti. He photographed dozens of grandmas around the world, pairing a portrait of each of them in their kitchen or dining room surrounded by the necessary ingredients for their "best" dish with a picture of the completed meal.  It's not only food photography at its best, it portraiture at its best.  The differences between the women and their situations are fascinating; the commonalities are striking.  I love looking at their faces.  These women are beautiful!

And the food.  Oh my goodness, I want to gobble it all up!  (Except maybe the caterpillars in tomato and onion sauce from Malawi, though the Malawian grandmother's smile is delightful.)  Gabriele also includes cooking instructions, so if you're interested in trying to replicate grandma's chicken vindaloo from India, or tolma from Armenia, or inkokt lax a from Sweden, or Honduran iguana with rice and beans from the Cayman Islands, you're in luck!

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 35 ~ The Bon Jovi Edition


Last summer I bought tickets to a Bon Jovi concert for my husband for Fathers' Day and his birthday (both in June), for my oldest son's birthday in July and my other sons' birthdays in October.  (Yes, it counted for a lot of birthdays and holidays, but hey - they were not cheap tickets!)  Gene has been educating his children in the ways of 80s and 90s rock - the good stuff - and has managed to raise three of the biggest Bon Jovi fans the world has ever seen.  The big day finally came this past weekend and we had a blast!

Waiting for the show to start...
We got there at about 7:00 and the show didn't start until 8:00, which is the boys' normal bedtime, so I was really impressed at how well they did at waiting patiently for Bon Jovi to appear.


There was no opening act and the show went from 8:00 to 10:30.  Jon Bon Jovi literally sang for two and a half hours straight!  While dancing and running all over the stage.  I'm seriously impressed with that man's stamina.

And he mixed it up with a slower acoustic set out in the middle of the audience, too:

Bon Jovi puts on a really great show.

We even got to do a good deed!  About halfway through the concert, a woman sitting behind us tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we had any extra earplugs she could buy off us.  The volume was making her seven-year-old daughter miserable and she hadn't thought to bring any.  Luckily we had several sets to spare, so we just handed one back and wished her well.

Stylin' with the ear plugs!


Evan fell asleep about halfway through - it was way past his bedtime, after all - though he did wake up for the four-song encore which included "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and "Living on a Prayer", two of his favorites.

Josh was fading by the end, but he humored me by getting up and dancing with me for a while until he finally announced in my ear, "Mom, gravity's hit me.  I gotta sit down."

Will didn't like the bright lights that kept shining in our eyes, and by the end he was definitely ready to go home to bed, but he knew every word to almost every song JBJ sang.

The bright lights shining in our eyes wasn't my favorite either...
They all had a great time, and so did their parents.  Making (somewhat unconventional) family memories... :)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

With The Cuckoo's Calling, J.K. Rowling (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) demonstrates that her writing talent extends beyond creating wonderfully inventive fantasy worlds aimed at the younger set.  To be honest, The Cuckoo's Calling is fairly standard as contemporary mysteries go - clever plot with inventive twists, red herrings, and minor details that are revealed to be the lynch pin in catching the murderer - but Rowling definitely brings her trademark flare for creating interesting and unique characters into play. And her gift for creating the perfect names for her characters is evident, too.

Cormoran Strike is a private investigator, a military police veteran who lost his lower leg to an IED in Afghanistan. Strike's personal life is falling apart - his on-again-off-again fiancee finally called it quits for the last time - leaving him living out of his office.  His sister Lucy does not approve of anything he does. He is deeply in debt to his estranged famous father.  His business is struggling with only a single client, suspicious that her husband is having an affair, and a receptionist he can't really afford from a temp service.  When John Bristow, the brother of Cormoran's childhood friend who died as a boy, shows up asking for help investigating his adopted sister's death, ruled a suicide by police, Cormoran reluctantly takes the apparently hopeless case. In doing so, he demonstrates both an admirable empathy for others and the pain he still feels for losses in his past.

Robin Ellacott, the aforementioned temp, is newly engaged and looking for a permanent position, but is fascinated by detective work and shows ingenuity, adaptability, and creativity in assisting Cormoran.  Her fiance does not approve of the work, but Robin persists in spite of opportunities to work elsewhere.

Lula Landry, Bristow's adopted sister, is a glamorous and in-demand fashion model.  She had recently started searching for her birth parents before her death. One of Rowling's greatest accomplishments in The Cuckoo's Calling is the life she breathes into this dead girl who we learn about only through the recollections of her friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. Reading the novel, Lula becomes just as real as any of the other characters.

And Cormoran has a softer side than his personae would initially suggest. Through the course of the investigation, Cormoran discovers that Lula's death isn't the open-and-shut suicide that it appeared to be, and ghosts from his past make the case hit home. As one of Lula's friends, a homeless girl named Rochelle, winds up dead after meeting with him, he feels the loss personally, sensing a kinship between her, Lula, and his own mother, Leda, who died under suspicious circumstances when he was a teenager:
Tonight, though, he could not help seeing his mother as a spiritual sister to the beautiful, needy and depressive girl who had broken apart on a frozen road, and to the plain, homeless outsider now lying in the chilly morgue. Leda, Lula, and Rochelle had not been women like Lucy, or his Aunt Joan; they had not taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance; they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages and voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependents: their deaths, therefore, were not classed as "tragic," in the same way as those of staid and respectable housewives.
How easy it was to capitalize on a person's own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.
It's difficult to review a mystery novel without giving away too much of the plot, so I'll end here with a quick language warning. There are a lot of f-bombs in The Cuckoo's Calling. There's other foul language, too, but mostly f-words. Maybe not quite as many as in Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, but still, an awful lot. Definitely not a book for kids.

The Cuckoo's Calling
by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)
ISBN: 9780316206846
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 34


This harvest season we've, of necessity, tried a few new things.  We were buried in jalapenos, beets, and pears, so we hit google, dug through my recipe files, and found some different ways to preserve our bounteous harvest.  Jalapeno jelly is a huge hit (and amazing on plain tortilla chips!), as is pear butter (which makes the house smell soooooo good). Even the pickled beets made a few fans (after an hour or so of refusing to try them, my middle child held his nose and force-fed himself the teensiest bite possible and then declared, "Well, that wasn't that bad!").  But I think my new favorite is:

Delicioso pear bread! (photo courtesy joyosity via flickr)
Pear Bread
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (I usually only use a 1/2 teaspoon)
4 cups finely chopped peeled ripe pears (this part is insanely time consuming!!!!!)
1 teaspoon lemon juice (to keep the pears from browning, though I've omitted this and they've been fine)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional, of course)

In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla; mix well.  Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt; stir into the egg mixture just until moistened. (It's actually really dry at this point, it's almost more kneading than stirring!) Toss pears with lemon juice. Stir pears and walnuts, if desired, into batter.

Spoon into two greased 9-in. x 5-in. loaf pans. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks.

Oh my goodness, so delicious!!!


One of my favorite LDS doctrines is that we have a Heavenly Father AND a Heavenly Mother. It's always been disappointing to me that we don't know much about her, and I absolutely despise the "folk doctrine" that has cropped up which insists that we don't talk about her out of "respect".


An enterprising person put together this Youtube video of dozens of times that She has been mentioned by Church leaders in General Conference, often in conjunction with Heavenly Father as our Heavenly Parents.  It brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face the first time I watched it, and every time since.

Also, not too long ago, BYU Studies (about as conservative and orthodox a publication as you can get) published an article entitled "'A Mother There': A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven" which debunks some of the myths surrounding Her (including the "respect" one) and lays out exactly what Church leaders have taught about her.  The download costs $2, but it's well worth it, in my opinion.


This was a fun link. I already knew most of these "girl power" songs, but I found a few new ones to add to my pump-me-up soundtrack.  Ani DiFranco, Aretha Franklin, Carrie Underwood, Alicia Keys, Pink, Mama Cass...there's something for everyone here! Here's a taste:


One of my book clubs met last night and another one meets next week.  I look forward to these two evenings every month! The amount of discussion about the book itself varies depending on if anyone (besides me) actually read it, but it's always a good time to catch up with old friends and get to know new ones better.  If you're not in a book club, I highly recommend finding one and trying it out!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

I was so enthralled and took so many notes while reading this book I hardly know where to begin!

Let's try this: It's a natural human tendency to assume that we in the present day are more advanced, more aware, more "with it" than those of previous generations. With a "presentist" prism, we sometimes view everything in the past with a slightly condescending air of "those poor dears just didn't know any better and now, thank goodness, we do!" It's also very easy to assume that the way our religion has been practiced or the way we use certain words has remained constant throughout history, when that is often not the case at all.  "We cannot, perhaps, ever become fully aware of our own cultural mood precisely because we are in that mood, and as a result we tend to absolutize it.  Today was assume that because we rationalize faith and regard its truths as factual, this is how it was always done. But this involves a double standard...We tend to assume that 'modern' means 'superior,' and while this is certainly true in such fields as mathematics, science, and technology, is is not necessarily true of the more intuitive disciplines--especially, perhaps, theology."

And on that note, Karen Armstrong offers a view of the sweeping expanse of human history and the perpetual change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, inherent in it.  Our understanding of who or what "God" is, the way we worship, even the definitions of common words, has altered dramatically and affects our practices today.

For example, the original Greek word translated as "believe" in the King James Bible was pistis, which denotes commitment. Pistis was translated into the Latin fides or "loyalty" in the 4th century A.D. It wasn't until the late seventeenth century that "our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, [and] the word 'belief' started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical...proposition." Early on, "religion was not a notional matter." Instead, religion "was not primarily something that people thought but something they did.  Its truth was acquired by practical action." And faith "was purely a matter of commitment and practical living." Orthopraxy or "right doing" was more important than orthodoxy or "right thinking."  Armstrong suggests that this was not a bad approach: "Today, when science itself is becoming less determinate, it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing."

Over and over again, Armstrong hits the theme of action and practical application of religion, rather than passive thought. We often hear about all the bad that has happened because of religion: the wars, the hatred, the violence.  Armstrong balances a recognition of those tragedies with a positive view of religion and its effect on both individuals and the world, if its practitioners are willing to put forth the effort:
Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage...Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent. Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without such practice, it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.
I'm with Armstrong.  No matter what we believe, if we don't put it into practice and allow that concerted effort to change who we are and make us better for it, what good does it do us or anyone else?

Making a similar point to the one Rachel Held Evans made repeatedly in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Armstrong points out that "the Bible consists of many contradictory texts, so our reading is always selective" and warns against "a selective reading of scripture to enforce a particular point of view or marginalize others." I especially appreciated her treatment of the Rabbinic Jewish approach to scripture. Drawing from Ezra's writings in the Old Testament, Armstrong explains that to Jews "scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a distant historical event. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation." Living scripture, indeed!

Even though the book is not a lightweight - it clocks in at 330 pages of fine print, not including an additional 70 pages of notes, bibliography and index - Armstrong acknowledges the limitations of space and time in addressing such a complex and multi-faceted subject. "At the same time as Christians were slaughtering Muslims in the Near East, others were traveling to Spain to study under Muslim scholars in Cordoba and Toledo." This is but one indication that "in any age, the religious life is always multifarious, varied, and contradictory--even within a single individual."

One more example: Armstrong's reframing of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than as "an archaic attempt to preserve a bygone religious world" which is how I'd always heard it explained, it was "a modernizing institution devised by the monarchs to create national unity." Ferdinand and Isabella were "creating the kind of absolute government that was essential to the economy of early modern Europe" and that required a hardline on conformity and control.  "All ideas and attitudes...were indelibly influenced by historical and cultural conditions. Current norms could never be absolute." Religious history cannot be considered in a vacuum without the political, cultural and social influences of the time as well. 

In addition, Armstrong addresses Luther and his 95 Theses, Galileo and his heliocentric universe, the Deism of the American Founding Fathers, the unprecedented literalism with which modern evangelicals interpret the scriptures, the development of agnosticism and atheism in modern times, and fundamentalist movements of all stripes including Christian, Muslim, and even atheist. Whew! And that's just scratching the surface!

I'll end with a long quote, an excerpt from the book's epilogue that captures for me the core of religion:
"From almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity.  They evolved mythologies, rituals, and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity.  They were not religious simply because their myths and doctrines were scientifically or historically sound, because they sought information about the origins of the cosmos, or merely because they wanted a better life in the hereafter.  They were not bludgeoned into faith by power-hungry priests or kings: indeed, religion often helped people to oppose tyranny and oppression of this king.  The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now.  Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to them in dreams, in the contemplation of nature, and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world.  Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-heartedly, and justly, and to inhabit every single part of their humanity...They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed. Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally. But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that is was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves."
What a beautiful vision of what religion has done and can do for humankind!

The Case for God
by Karen Armstrong (watch her TED talk and read her Charter for Compassion)
ISBN: 9780307269188
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: 1491 by Charles C. Mann

There is so much that we don't know about ancient American civilizations, and so much that we thought we knew that has been shown to be inaccurate or incomplete or just flat out wrong once more information surfaced. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann takes us through several of these myths and deconstructs them with the latest archaeological and anthropological evidence, describing what he's doing as "re-revisionism," with tongue firmly in cheek.

Much of our earlier understandings were rooted in what Mann calls "Holmberg's Mistake," or "the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state" before their interactions with Europeans.  This, Mann claims, explains "the colonists' view of most Indians as incurably vicious barbarians" as well as its "mirror image...the dreamy stereotype of the Indian as a Noble Savage." Both of these viewpoints deny Native Americans agency, assuming that "they were not actors in their own right, but passive recipient of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way."  This line of thinking draws from European prejudices and "white privilege" and is demonstrably false.

For generations, European civilizations were assumed to be superior to anything in the ancient New World. Then scientists began making startling discoveries.  For example, the Maya invented the concept of zero long before European civilizations, to the tune of almost 1000 years prior. They also used a sophisticated system of three interlocking calendars, based on their observations of the stars. In fact, Mann says, "the Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy."

On the other hand, the only use they found for the wheel was on children's toys.  Mann suggests this could be due to a lack of beasts of burden in the Americas, as well as what he terms "wheel-blindness."  Mann explains, "Although Mesopotamia had the wheel in about 4000 B.C., nearby Egypt did not use the wheel until two thousand years later, despite being in close contact." And it wasn't only ancient american civilizations that showed this kind of blindness.  Another example is the moldboard plow, invented by the Chinese, in which the plowshare is shaped like a V, reducing friction and more effectively plowing the soil. "Until the Chinese-style plow was imported in the seventeenth century, farmers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and other states labored to shove what amounted to a narrow slab of metal through the earth." Two thousand years of walking behind the inefficient models of plows and not one European came up with a better design!

Did you know that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation around the world? Tomatoes, peppers, squashes, most of the beans, even potatoes, all came from the New World. Maize is a particularly interesting subject because it would have required intense and deliberate genetic engineering in order to become the useful crop it is.  The Colombian Exchange, or the cross-pollination of the Old World with the New, yielded an "ecological explosion" as plant and animal species were introduced into completely new environments that literally changed the face of the world.

Of course, Mann discusses the devastating effect of Europeans diseases on Native Americans, as well as the various estimations of how many people were killed by smallpox and other infectious diseases. He describes the results of a series of outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, and measles on the Inkan culture, estimating that as many as nine out of ten inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu, a major center of the Inkan empire, died over the course of a few decades. "Disease turned whole societies to ash."  There is a fascinating section on genetic homogeneity among Native American populations, which may have contributed to their susceptibility to these diseases, though he is careful to explain that homogeneity does not necessarily mean genetic inferiority.

One of the most intriguing legacies from ancient American cultures that Mann highlights comes as a postscript to this fascinating book.  In the last section he describes the Haudenosaunee, a loose military alliance among a handful of Native tribes in what became New York. Colonists in the area frequently had close, personal experience with Indian cultures and noted how they were "characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe," "antiauthoritarian attitudes," and an "insistence on personal liberty [which] was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality." The insubordinate attitudes displayed by the colonists during such events as the Boston Tea Party, may well have been inspired by Native cultures.  "In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance.  Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members--surrounded by examples of free life--always had the option to vote with their feet" and go live with the Indians, and many did.

Mann has collected a stunning amount of information that will challenge the notions of Native American cultures you were spoon fed in elementary school, and open your mind to the rich diversity of ancient American civilizations as well as how much more we have to learn.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
ISBN: 9781400040063
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).