Welcome to The Reading Room, where I review the books I read each month. Here's May's round up: a selection of books I would put on everyone's "Must Read" list.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to eat off the land alone? To not go to grocery stores or to fast food joints, but to eat off the land you and your neighbors live on? Barbara Kingsolver and her family did just that for a full year, and this book is her chronicle of that year. The ground rules? 1. Eat only food that is in season (ie. growing in the garden). 2. Eat local (minus coffee, chocolate, and a couple other goods that they sourced from eco-friendly and fair-trade businesses).
Kingsolver takes us on a hilarious and educational tour of life on a Virginia farm: her family's farm. We learn that there are lean times when fresh fruit would be amazing, and overflowing times when looking at another tomato or squash might make one go crazy. We learn that no, bananas are not local, but cherries can be wonderfully delightful. We learn that raising chickens and turkeys brings the food chain home in a very gruesome yet satisfying way. We learn that digging potatoes can be wondrously exhilarating. We learn that vacations while farming are rare, but can happen with careful planning in the right season. We learn that making one's own cheese is not hard or time-consuming.
We also learn that the food economy in the United States is based not on the seasons, or on health, but on money. We learn about GMO and Monsanto's quest to monopolize the food economy. We learn about heirloom varieties of vegetables and livestock (did you know there is such a thing as an heirloom turkey?), and how they are better tasting and evolved, but are being replaced with generic plants and animals that can be mass-produced, often in large, unsanitary plants. We learn about the up-swing in the rate of obesity, about the large number of children with diabetes, about how the next generation is the first one expected to have a shorter life span than our own because of the effects of what we feed them.
We learn that the seasons are meant to provide balance to our lives and our cravings. There is a season for asparagus, and just as we get sick of the thin green stalks, the season is over. And we wait for the next year with anticipation as the season (after a winter of little fresh greens) approaches. We learn that this is part of a rhythm of seed, shoot, fruit, root, and each season feeds our bodies what they need when they need it most.
I can't recommend this book enough. It ingrains a longing, if not already lodged in your heart, for a seasonal life lived close to the earth, with lots of hard work, sure, but also a deeper appreciation for what feeds us, body and soul. Of especial usefulness is the series of recipes scattered throughout, which you can also find on the author's website. If they don't make your mouth water, I don't know what will.
An Altar in the World - Barbara Brown Taylor. Have you ever heard someone say they are "spiritual, but not religious?" Or have you ever left church feeling up-lifted, but immediately feel an ache for something "more?" How do you carry over the spiritual into the mundane? Barbara Brown Taylor tackles this beautifully in this little book. The answer isn't in mysticism or states of ecstasy. Neither is the answer in doing more, but in doing with more intention.
In the introduction, she writes, "What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world." Her answer to the desire for "more" is "live in your skin, and pay attention to each experience." Nothing is not sacred. Every breath, every blade of grass, every touch is an altar of worship. Our lives are living, breathing connections to God. It's the way we live them and pay attention to them that determines whether we live in communion with God or not.
Everything is holy: the dirt under our nails, going for a walk, bowing in prayer (really bowing the body, forehead to ground - feel it!), meeting someone from another culture and recognizing them as beautiful, washing the dishes - again, hanging laundry on the line. Everything is a prayer, an extension of spirituality: "Whether, then, you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31), marries, " Pray without ceasing" (I Thess. 5:17). Prayer does not have to be words. Worship does not have to be confined to a church, temple, or synagogue. They can be a way of life. This book puts it beautifully.
Goodnight June - Sarah Jio. Sarah Jio's newest release (May 27) is one of her best novels yet. Who doesn't remember growing up with the children's book Goodnight Moon? Or has been introduced to it through their own children? And how many people have wondered where the story might have originated? Jio takes on this origination story and entwines it with her trademark mystery blending the past with today.
June is a financier in New York City who is really good at what she does, which is foreclose on small businesses who can't keep up. But she's burnt out, and not being true to who she really is. Where did her heart go? When a series of panic attacks align with news of her Aunt Ruby's death in Seattle, June faces a decision to close her Aunt's bookstore for children and keep up the fast-paced life she's come to rely on or to keep the bookstore running.
When she arrives in Seattle to manage Ruby's estate, she has her mind made up: sell the bookstore, reap a profit, move on. But when she learns that Ruby has left her a series of letters between herself and the renowned children's author Margaret Wise Brown, and that there is a big secret that could impact not only the bookshop and literary circles, but also her own life, she begins to remember her love of a good story, and her true heart. But is that enough?
This story weaves literature, sisterhood, and friendship into a not-to-be-missed tale that will leave the reader's heart yearning to pull out childhood books and remember a simpler time, to go back to writing real letters to girlfriends, to call a sister to catch up - or forgive.