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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

On February's Bookshelf

jenmichel@me.com

bookshelfDuring the past month, I have been working furiously to revise my second book. I turned in the first draft to my editor right before Christmas and received her editorial report at the end of January, right as I was finishing my deliberate month of "rest." Needless to say, February has been different than January, although I'm grateful for the residual grace of that New Year Sabbath. I'm feeling less hurried these days (and less irritable).  I'm choosing my no's all the more confidently, remembering that I am limited in capacity (and God is never limited in his). Perhaps most to the point: I'm laughing a lot and feeling the joy of being present. (My kids will tell you that I can be found laughing hysterically at middle-school bathroom humor, an obvious immaturity, which amuses them endlessly.) These are all unexpected gifts. I wouldn't be lying to say that I entered January's rest with a lot of reluctance - a bit like the "I'll do this because it's good for me but not because I like it" kind of attitude. But as is often proven true, God had much more goodness in store for me than I could have possibly imagined or asked. And isn't that the nature of faith: that we have to let go of our familiar before embracing God's better-than? This month, I've been busy re-writing a lot of my book. (Yes, because the first draft was so shoddy.) And I'd even tell you the title - if I had one. But I don't. At least not one that's officially confirmed. All this to say that I haven't been reading quite as much. Neverthless, here's what's been on my bookshelf for the month of February:

Quack this WayQuack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. This is probably the most important book I've read all month, and I've been recommending it to my writer friends. It's super short and conversational (and best to borrow from the library), and while it's not going to achieve the notoriety of other writing books (William Zinsser's, On Writing Well, my personal favorite), it has lots of good advice. Here's a quote that has helped guide my revision process: “One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. . . . [Your reader] will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity." In addition to good writing advice, this book will inspire you to immediately buy Bryan Garner's usage dictionary, which is now a prized possession of my personal library. (And I'll rely on Garner to tell me if it was OK to split the infinitive in my last sentence.)

Home a Short HistoryHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski. I have been reading parts of this book for my research, but I finished carefully reading it this month. I do hate that Rybcynski's name is so darn hard to spell because every time I want to cite him, I have to refer to the book for the spelling! In Home, Rybcynski traces the idea of domestic comfort: how it was born in 17th century Holland, how it's been lost in a lot of modern architecture and interior design. There are a lot of fun facts in between all that - most of all, that home as a feminine space is a relatively new idea.

gift of being yourselfThe Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner. Everywhere I turn, someone is reading and recommending this book, including my very awesome spiritual director, Beth Booram. I confess that I often get the "willies" from books that seem overly psychological to me. That said, Benner's book reminds me that as Christians, we often (to our detriment) separate knowledge of God from knowledge of self. For example, we can be great at Bible study - and yet completely ignorant when it comes to understanding our own desires and fears and vulnerabilities. It seems to make sense to me to say that in order to be transformed, we need both.

experiment in criticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis. I'm reading this book because I'm really interested in writing more book reviews - GOOD book reviews, which deal fairly with the book but also (sometimes necessary) criticism. Lewis has me fully convinced now that while I'd like to call myself "literary," I'm really just a sham of a reader. He offers lots of great definitions for "good readers," which include the willingness read, tens of times, our favorite books - something I very rarely do. This is a great book for thinking about our approach to any art. What is necessary for appreciating a beautiful painting or symphony or novel, according to Lewis? "The first demand of any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." (And by the way, that advice is applicable to reading our Bibles, too!)

acedia and meAcedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris. Acedia, which lies somewhere between sloth and indifference, is something that has also interested me in my own research. I love that Norris is bringing back language for what might be the most underrated sin of our day. (In early monastic times, it was considered to rank among the most deadly sins.) I can't help but see that our technological advances are selling us on a particular vision of the good life, one built on ease. We don't like to do things when they are not easy and convenient, and that failure of will is, at least in part, at the heart of acedia. To be honest, I don't love this book as much as I have loved some of Norris's other work (The Quotidian Mysteries and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, for example). So my advice is: read those other two titles first!

I wanted to tell you about some other interesting books that have crossed my desk, thanks to the generosity of publishers who have sent them, some even asking for an endorsement. Check these out, too! (If I've endorsed these books, I'm marking them with a *.)

The Radical Pursuit of Rest by John Koessler*
40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Mid-Life by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty