Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Reading Goals for 2014

Time to look forward. What do I I want to read in 2014?

Every month:
1) Two or more good, constructive Christian books. 
This is the most important goal: to find books that nourish my soul and spirit. These can be biographies or books focused on a specific theme or issue.
On my TBR list for this category, for example: Brother Yun's Living Water, Nick Vujicic's Unstoppable, Ann Voskamp's A Thousand Gifts.

2) Two or more books to learn about specific topics.
This category will obviously be mostly non-fiction. I don't have many topics in mind yet, but interests have a way of coming up through book recommendations and conversations, blog posts and news articles. Often, books lead me to other books...
Right now, I'm in the middle of Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.

3) At least one book just for fun.
My "just for fun" can just as easily be nonfiction as fiction. Some of my favourite relaxing reads are travel stories and memoirs, for example books about moving to a new country and coping with the culture shocks, or food-related memoirs (think Julia Child in Paris etc.). 

Other overall goals:
4) Find new books for my son to read.
The rate he goes through books at the moment, he'll need plenty of new suggestions. A lot has been published since I was his age, and, besides, his interests are quite a bit different than mine. (At his age, I went through all the horse stories I found at the library...)

5) Read books we already own, not just books from the library.
We have plenty of books I haven't read yet.  My husband and I are both bookworms, and we also tend to give books as gifts. Some of the books on my TBR list are actually still in my husband's reading pile. (He likes to have many books going at the same time.) The downside of giving my husband books I want to read myself, too, is that I'll have to wait even longer than in the library queue. On the other hand: If I buy the books in good time, I can read them myself before I give them to him. :)

6) Read the Bible every day. (At least a chapter or two.)

I have deliberately made these goals fairly easy. Five books a month or more, but more focused on content than numbers.

Perhaps my overall goals also agree somewhat with Mr Darcy's definition of a truly accomplished woman: "...she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 8)

Though I must also acknowledge that the improvement of my mind, soul and spirit is not so much a question of what I read but of how I grow closer to God. That's why I'm looking for the kind of books that help me walk with and toward God, not away from Him.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Reading summary, 2013

The year is not over yet, but I'll write down the statistics anyway. They're not likely to change much.

I keep track of the books I read in a spreadsheet file. I've been keeping up the same file since 2006 - I just add a new tab for each year. It's a simple system: I write down the names of the book and the author, and whether it's from the library or our own shelves.  The last few years, I've added a column for keywords describing the book's topic, since it's not always evident from the title.

So, the statistics.

Total number of books: 125
Non-fiction: 84, of which 26 were Christian books.
Fiction: 40, of which 25 were children's or YA titles.

Finnish: 62
English: 48
Estonian: 14
Swedish: 1

I have read more books this year than in most of the previous years. The ratio of fiction and non-fiction is pretty much the same as before - or maybe I've even read more fiction than before. That's because of the Adrian Plass re-read kick and because I've written down at least most of the children's books that I've read. 

I've already posted the Best Reads of 2013 today. It's been a good year: I've read many good and interesting books in addition to the ones mentioned there. And I also have more books on my TBR list than at the beginning of this year...  8-)  #bookwormproblems
I have thought about my reading goals for 2014, and I hope to post them at some point later this week.

In the meanwhile: may God bless your New Year!

Best Reads of 2013

EDIT: Now linked up with Modern Mrs Darcy's Favorite Books of 2013 link-up!

Time to look back on this year. These are some of the best books I read in 2013. I decided to include only books that I read the first time this year - some of my re-reads were very good, too. 

Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich
This biography was quite a read. Long, but worth it. 


John Mullan: What Matters in Jane Austen
I love Jane Austen. This book delves into Austen's novels and points out her genius as a writer. There are lots of brilliant, telling details that easily escape the notice of a modern reader who is used to very different social conventions. 
If you want to read only one book about the background of Austen's novels, read this. 

Michael Meyer: 1989: The Year That Changed The World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall
The year 1989 was a memorable year for me personally: I did my matriculation exams and graduated from school, and then I went to England as an au pair. It's embarrassing, however, to recollect how little I knew and understood of the events in Europe at the time. Meyer is a journalist who was there at the time, witnessed the events himself and personally met and interviewed many of the key players, and his book gives a riveting account of what happened.

Lappalainen Elina: Syötäväksi kasvatetut: miten ruokasi eli elämänsä
The title means "Raised to be Eaten: How you food lived its life." Elina Lappalainen, a journalist, looks into how livestock are raised and butchered in Finland. She gives a matter-of-fact account of the processes, points out the problematic as well as the good, and leaves the readers to make their own ethical conclusions. She makes her own position clear (an omnivore who wants ethically produced meat and eggs) and gives a voice to all sides of the issue: the farmers, the animal rights activists, the industry. A good, thought-provoking read.

John Greene: The Fault in Our Stars
This novel was worth the recommendations. What an engaging story.

Pauliina Rauhala: Taivaslaulu
I've written about this novel here.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

One Day at a Time

I was sent back from the hospital. I'll be going back on Tuesday to show the ankle again, and I am to be prepared for a possible operation. Or maybe they won't operate.

So this is what it's like to live in Limbo Land. I don't know what to think, what to plan. 

Get housework done. Get various little jobs done. Don't plan meetings, don't take on new responsibilities, don't make promises beyond Tuesday.

I keep doing the rehab exercises. Telling myself to walk normally - because it really does not hurt worse than limping.

I'm grateful for the time I have.
I'm grateful for every little thing I get done, now that I am walking on two feet and no crutches.

Walk while you can.
Work while you can.
Pray all the while.
Pain and discomfort.
Joy and sharing.
One day, one step at a time.

So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. 
Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

Friday, 27 December 2013

Adventure I didn't choose

I'm writing this at 7 AM, on a dark morning. Soon, I'll be heading to the hospital.

Another twist came up in the tale of the broken ankle. The infection is back, and it's worse.

The infection was diagnosed at another town, where we were staying for Christmas. I've been eating antibiotics and painkillers, as well as traditional Christmas delicacies, and relaxing with relatives with my foot up as much as possible.

All with the knowledge that after Christmas, the ankle needs to be operated, again.

I'm thankful that we got the holiday.
I'm thankful that I have had some time to prepare.
I'm thankful that I'm not walking this valley alone.
I'm thankful for the pretty good (and affordable) medical care system in my country.

I didn't choose this adventure. I can't control it.

God, You're in control, aren't You? I'm relying on you.

In the meanwhile, this blog will be quiet for a while, again. I'm not going to update from the hospital, and if they send me home for the weekend and schedule the op for next week, I'm going to be here with and for my family.

And now I'll go wake up my son, who wanted me to wake him up for his morning cuddle before I go.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Adventures in Gluten-Free Baking

Gluten-free baking is an everyday adventure. I do it because I want all the members of our extended family to be able to enjoy the holiday treats when we get together next week.
I'm not a professional baker, just a fairly confident home baker - still, it's always a bit of a surprise how the results turn out. Especially with gluten-free baking.

Gingerbread houses are not everyday stuff, but they're adventure, and they're fun. I and my son have a yearly tradition to make a GF gingerbread house. Except it doesn't have to be a house. One year, it was a racing track with cars. This year's model is a gluten-free birdhouse.

We're home bakers and we don't try to attain perfection. We don't do grand big creations with lots of intricate details and piped icing.
We'll look at that kind of gingerbread houses on the Internet and go "wow".
Then we do our own thing. Small, manageable (gluten-free gingerbread breaks easily) and with plenty of sweets.

This was today's adventure. Tomorrow's will be transporting this without breaking it to my in-laws'. (Can you guess why I photograph it at home?)

Have a blessed advent time!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Books this week (14 December 2013)

Short reviews or comments on books I have finished this week. It has been an unusual week: everything I've read has been in Finnish, and only one of titles exists in English. Feels a bit funny to summarize them in English, but here goes...

Kuinka kasvattaa bébé: vanhemmuus Pariisin malliin
(Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting)
by Pamela Druckerman

Another reading suggestion found on theDeliberate Reader. Thanks, Sheila! Because I had just read Sheila's review, this book caught my eye at the local library, where the Finnish translation was on display on the Bestseller shelf (one-week loans). I seized the opportunity to check this out.

As Sheila commented, the book is mostly based on personal experience. Druckerman researches the topic of parenting the way a journalist does: observation, interviews, background reading. I liked getting this view on French and American ways of thinking (though it's really impossible to generalize 'American' parenting). I find myself somewhere in the middle, maybe.

by Pauliina Rauhala

This novel has sparked a lot of talk and a bit of controversy in Finland's literary scene this year - mostly because of its subject matter. It's a story of a young mother and father who belong to a Christian subgroup, Laestadians. One of the teachings specific to this group is to reject all kinds of birth control - even NFP is frowned upon. For this family, though, having had five pregnancies in six years and now expecting again, life is getting rather overwhelming.

With these topics, the novel could so easily have portrayed everything Christian in a negative light. It doesn't. Some issues and particular interpretations make God seem like a strict, uncaring tyrant to the woman, especially in the middle of her depression and extreme fatigue. Yet, the main characters do not reject faith altogether even though they question certain doctrines of their movement, and many of the believers around them are sympathetic. The core issues of the faith come out in positive light: relying on Jesus for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternity with God. And the relationship between the husband and wife is lovely. There's beauty in commitment and mutual forgiveness, as well as in humble everyday work. There is a lot of love in this family.

I've not been a member of this movement myself, so I can't say how accurate this is. It is very believeable, though, especially since there is so much positive to balance the negative aspects, and no bitter aftertaste. Real life is not all black, or all white. And the writing is beautiful. I'm glad I read this.

875 grammaa: Pirpanan tarina
by Tomi Takamaa

A couple expecting their first baby ends up at the hospital, their baby born prematurely because of pre-eclampsia. During the first days, the father puts up a Facebook page to tell friends and family about new developments, and he names the page '875 grammaa' for the baby's birth weight. (875 grams is a bit under 2 lbs, for those not used to the metric system.)

Within a week, the page becomes an unprecedented hit, as the number of followers and likes soar into thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Parents of preemies come to the page and tell their stories, encouraging the family and each other. The page becomes an open online community, and from there, it develops into a fundraising effort for children's hospitals.

I don't use Facebook, so I had missed the original 875 grams phenomenon apart from seeing a couple of interviews in online news services. The book was interesting: the father gives his perspective of both the personal side (what it's like to be a parent of a preemie in intensive care) and the media attention fairly candidly. Yet, he's protecting what is left of his family's privacy. Mostly, it's a look into how things go viral in social media and how that can be used for a good cause.

Vuosisadan ihme jatkuu
By Hannu Haukka ja Markku Vuorinen

The story of Hannu and Laura Haukka is amazing. They have worked faithfully for decades in Christian media ministry. First, they were making radio programmes mainly targeted to the Soviet Union, then later the work expanded to TV and other mediain many other countries as well. Even their marriage is a miracle - just imagine the paperwork needed for a Finnish-Canadian man and a Finnish-speaking Christian woman from Soviet Union to marry each other in the 1970's...

This book is actually a compilation of two books published before this, with some new material thrown in. As I had read the previous books, this was a quick read for me, yet very fascinating.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Books this week (8 December 2013)

Short reviews or comments on books I have finished this week.

Born to Believe
God, Science And Origin Of Ordinary And Extraordinary Beliefs
by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman

Dr. Newberg conducts brain research and this book focuses on how our brains form and sustain beliefs and what happens in the brain during a spiritual experience.

This was an interesting book. It actually took me a couple of weeks to read it, because there was a lot of food for thought in this book. It is well written, though; it's not too hard to read and comprehend even for someone like me who does not have a background in medicine or science.

What I take away from this book is a certain humility. We all need to have some kind of a belief system to process the information we receive through our senses. What we believe influences the way we perceive the world: we tend to interpret our perceptions in ways that reinforce our beliefs. Thus, people cannot be "totally unbiased". All the time, our brains filter what we pick up from our surroundings and how we remember it. But we can learn to recognize our biases and become more flexible thinkers, which is my goal, too.

The Story of a Reunion
by Adrian Plass

Another Adrian Plass re-read. If you are looking for light reading, comedy and/or parody, this is not it. This novel is not lacking in gentle humour, but the overall tone is serious.

The reunion collects together a number of people who knew each other in a church youth group twenty years ago. The narrator, David, has just lost his wife. Others have problems, too: divorce, loneliness, fear, hurt, rejection. Ghosts of the past, skeletons in the closet.

What I love about Plass's writing is that though he makes the pain very vivid, it's not all angst and ghosts and skeletons. God is present, God's love meets the weak and vulnerable who are honest about their weakness. Plass does not offer easy packaged solutions, either. Real life is messy. As irritants become pearls inside an oyster, God can transfigure the things that could have become ugly - but it's not likely to an quick, pain-free process. The glory is that God is with us in the mess. As the narrator says:
I truly think one of the most wonderful things God offers us is his permission to follow Jesus without becoming somebody else.

Neither Here Nor There
by Bill Bryson

I've written a long review here, so I won't repeat myself.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Revisiting Europe: Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There

I've read many glowing recommendations of Bill Bryson's books. I've also read a few comments that weren't especially enthusiastic. Myself, I have been in the "not enthusiastic" category. I remember reading A Walk in the Woods several years ago and liking it moderately. On the other hand, I retained a very negative impression of Neither Here Nor There, his book about travelling in Europe.

After reading Sheila's recommendation for In a Sunburned Country at the Deliberate Reader, I thought I'd give Bryson another go. This book about his travels in Australia has been published as Down Under in the UK, and that's the edition I got from the library.

I quite enjoyed this virtual trip to Australia. After all, it's clear that Bryson loves Australia, despite the dangerous wildlife. Even when he's making fun of people's quirks or the strange things he encounters, the overall tone of the book is positive, and he finds much to love, admire, enjoy and recommend.

After Down Under, I decided to give Neither Here Nor There another chance, too. My overriding impression of it from the previous reading was 'negativity'. As I recalled, Swedes were depressed and depressing, Norway was cold and expensive, German food atrocious, etc. I had felt that he made most of his jokes by looking for something to complain about in a funny way. But maybe I remembered wrong?

Now that I have refreshed my memory, I can perhaps write a more balanced review. There certainly are more positive comments than what I remembered. Even in the places where Bryson was not happy, for example Stockholm, he did find something good to say, something to appreciate and enjoy. And yes, there was humour, and not all the jokes were about putting something/someone down.

As for the negativity, Bryson definitely found a lot to complain about. It seems to me that Parisians cannot do right by him: when they're more polite than he remembers, he starts to feel uncomfortable, and when they're rude, he's happy because it reinforces his opinion of them. Bryson criticizes Sweden and Norway for their strict laws and orderliness; he says they're "determined to squeeze the fun out of life" because, for example, the serving and selling of alcohol is restricted...

The one thing that really bothered me in this book were the constant references to sex. Whether he's looking at foreign language TV and imagining what people say, or looking at certain type of shops in Amsterdam or Hamburg, there always seems to be innuendos - or plain, explicit comments. Call me a prude if you will, but this book has more of that than I can comfortably deal with. Down Under had some, but not quite as much and as often as Neither Here Nor There.

While reading, I had to remind myself that Bryson travelled and wrote in 1990. He went to Yugoslavia before the state dissolved into bloody and violent wars. It feels poignant now to read about a peaceful, picturesque little town called Sarajevo, known mostly for the incident that sparked World War I. The name 'Sarajevo' now brings the more recent war to my mind first.

The last 23 years must have seen many considerable changes elsewhere in Europe, too. In Neither Here Nor There, Bryson was retracing a journey he had taken in 1973 and commenting on the changes he noticed. What would Bryson make of the same places in Europe now? At the very least, he would find more restaurants open on a Sunday in Stockholm, and probably serving better food...

It's understandable that I don't always agree with Bryson's opinions about the places he visited. I'm a woman, a Finn, a Scandinavian, a European. In the 1990's, I was a twentysomething student, and when I have travelled in central Europe, I have mostly looked for very different things than Bryson. Of course our points of view and experiences differ. Our expectations, too. I'm glad I gave Neither Here Nor There another chance and revisited the Europe of my youth, seeing it from a perspective so different from my own. The second reading left me with a much more positive impression of the book, though I still would not recommend it to everyone without hesitation.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Learning to walk

Ankle update: the cast came off on Wednesday. I can put my entire body weight on the healing ankle. In fact, I have had the permission to do that for the past fortnight, but last week's infection and pain that came with it messed with my walking practice. I'm not quite 'on schedule' with the healing process yet.

Oh, it's hard to walk. The joints are stiff, the muscles weakened. I really need to work on getting my ankle's normal mobility back. I have the instructions, and with common sense and perseverance, I should be able to rehab my ankle. All in good time. I was allowed to keep the crutches for another two weeks, for walking outdoors, where surfaces are uneven and also pretty slippery at this time of year. At home, I should walk without support.

So I do. I walk like a geriatric penguin.

It's hard to believe that only two months ago I walked a marathon in challenging terrain. Yes. An entire marathon plus some: 43K (26.7 miles). The last third of it was quite hard, as my muscles were getting tired, knees and legs aching, a sharp pain in my right heel... but I did it.

I loved the challenge of that marathon, despite the pain and hardship. I did not do it to impress anyone else. I did it to go right out of my comfort zone and to see how I would handle it. My main goal was to endure hardship and persevere until the finish line - and enjoy it as much as I could. A lot of it was very enjoyable, too: the lovely autumnal nature, fantastic views from the hilltops, other participants (the trail runners) to cheer on the way as they passed me - and some even cheered and encouraged me as they went. The Marathon of Dangers is a great event.

Now, a couple of stairs to go up or down is a challenging terrain. I need to love this challenge, too. This will take longer than a day. No one will stand next to me and say "good job stretching, way to go, keep going"...The Marathon of Dangers was one kind of an adventure. This is different - more mundane, less extreme. Still, it takes the same sort of grit to get through.

Will I endure hardship and persevere until the finish line?
Yes. I have a goal, but I'm not going to rely on my own strength to get there. God is my strength and support.

And even if I never heal completely, I can still trust God. The ultimate finish line is not 'walking normally'. It's walking in His path, wherever it takes me, and even if I'm waddling like a penguin.

Psalm 94:18-19
If I should say, “My foot has slipped,”
Your lovingkindness, O Lord, will hold me up.
When my anxious thoughts multiply within me,
Your consolations delight my soul.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Lessons in Thankfulness

Just after hitting Publish for the previous post, I got a phone call. My husband had been in a car accident.
He's OK. The car is totalled.
It could have been so much worse. No one else was involved in the accident. My husband could have been hurt pretty badly. Now, all we have lost is the car. Thank God for His grace and mercy.

At some point last night, between the phone calls and arrangements, waiting for my husband to get home, I lay down on the bed and put my sore foot up. And I thought how blessed and thankful I am that I am waiting for him to come home. We had been so close to losing him.
Or he could have been in an ambulance, or in the hospital. At the same emergency ward where I had spent the previous evening.

I was actually twice at the emergency ward last week: I got an infection in my operated ankle. First round, on Thursday, the infection was diagnosed and I got antibiotics. Second round, on Saturday, I went there again because I got a fever. They had told me to come back if I got a fever, because it might indicate the infection has gone deeper, into the bone and the metal plate, and that would require surgery.

I don't know what the fever was. According to the blood tests, the infection was beginning to go away. The surgeon reassured me that the ankle looked better. So, no need for another surgery. No need to stay at the hospital. Thankfulness. Thankfulness in the middle of waiting at the ward, praying for the people there. Thankfulness for the friends whom I knew were praying for me.
Thank God for antibiotics and the prayers of friends.

We don't celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving in Finland. But I can't help reflecting that this has been a Thanksgiving weekend indeed.
Unexpected things happen. Bad things happen. 
But, thanksgiving.
I'll just quote from Ann Voskamp: "...if you let something steal your thanksgiving, you let something steal your joy, and if you let something steal your joy, you let something steal your strength. "  (Go read the rest of her beautiful parable at her website.)

I'm not as joyful and as strong in thanksgiving as I might be. I'm still learning. Could I have been thankful if my husband had got hurt? Or worse? I'm glad I did not have to find out.

Nothing, no day together, can be taken for granted.
It's Thanksgiving every day.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Books this week

Short reviews or comments on books I have finished this week.

Life Without Limits
by Nick Vujicic
Great book and an amazing guy. "If God can use a man without arms and legs to be His hands and feet, then He will certainly use any willing heart!" Go check out what Nick is doing:

Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Turn to Christ?
by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen
A vivid, gripping novel based on many true stories. It did what it was meant to do: gave me a view into the life of people following Jesus in an Islamic country. Very good. Find out more at:

Eat That Frog!
Get More of the Important Things Done Today
by Brian Tracy
No doubt these are great principles for time management at work. Not quite sure how some of these apply to my life. (My "key result areas" at the moment are along the lines of: homeschool gets done, family gets to eat, laundry gets done, home reasonably clean...) Maybe it all boils down to this: know what really needs to be done - then quit procrastinating and just do it.