Commonplace: The Quotidian Mysteries

The subtitle to this tiny but thoughtful volume is “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.'” How is that for provocative?

This book, about a worshipful posture toward everyday living, was a timely read for me as I gear back up for a new school year and a plate full of quotidian opportunities!


Here were some of my favorite nuggets:

On being too busy for daily worship:

“Workaholism is the opposite of humility…when evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greedy, and too foolish, to surrender it to God…

“I have come to believe that ween we despair of praise, when the owner of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it’s often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures–we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sigh too God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.”

On the connection between liturgy and housework:

“Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically called ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.”

On holiness in everyday life:

“I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…

“If they are wise, [the busy saint] will treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.”

In summary:

“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down…

“Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means ‘to get through with,’ and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry, and what has traditionally been conceived as ‘women’s work’ can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany of the motions of vacuuming a floor. What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

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The Girl You Left Behind (JoJoMoyes)

In a word: Feel-good

The Girl You Left Behind

If you follow us on Instagram you may remember that I almost didn’t even finish this one. But I am so glad I did!

The first quarter of the book set up the back story in this enjoyable past/present mystery. The story of two sisters holding down the home front in German-occupied France felt SO reminiscent of The Nightingale that I thought it might be better to try it again later. But as I kept reading, I found myself caught up in the other half of the narrative: the modern-day story of sweet and sad Liv, stumbling into a new love four years after the tragic death of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Moyes is a good storyteller, and her writing is clear and uncomplicated. For bluffer history nerds like myself, the historical setting was interesting. And while I am in the minority, at least according to Goodreads and Amazon reviews, I also enjoyed the modern-day story, which revolves around the mystery of a painting: a portrait by a lesser-known Impressionist, once hung in a French hotel, taken to France after the war, now in the possession of a British architect who bought it on a sidewalk in Spain.

Now, I said that this book will appeal to history bluffs, not serious scholars, and I kind of think the same is true of semi-literary readers as well. The plot and characters would not hold up under intense scrutiny, and I suspect the historical details would not fare much better. So if you have high standards in either of these areas, you may pooh-pooh this selection. But if you’re able to enjoy a story without asking too many questions, this may be right up your alley.

Many of the issues in the story are serious– World War I in the past and a tragic widow in the present, not to mention morally complex themes like wartime infidelity and post-war reparations. Nevertheless, I’m categorizing this as a beach read– somehow it just doesn’t feel that heavy when it’s all said and done, thanks in part to a very satisfying ending. (A bit too neat? Perhaps. But like I said before, don’t ask too many questions.)

Marriage Pairs

Soon after we started blogging, our friend and fellow book nerd Julie suggested that we begin to recommend book pairings.

It would be super cool if my knowledge of wine was extensive enough to recommend a special drink to accompany the books we review. Unfortunately, even when Leslie and I put our heads together, we couldn’t come up with anything beyond a sincere but somewhat general conviction that every book is better with a cup of coffee (unless, of course, you’re reading at the beach).

So we’re sticking with what we know: books on books. Julie’s actual suggestion was for fiction/nonfiction pairings, which we’ll do as often we have good ideas. But this idea of pairing books might just turn out to be so much fun that we may not want to restrict ourselves to any kind of formula, so stay tuned, and see how this category develops!

Onward:

The past three books I’ve reviewed have had strong themes related to marriage.

Pilgrim’s Inn addressed the following questions: What do you do if you are in love with someone who is not your spouse? Can an unhappy couple become happy? What is a good reason to get married?

Light of the World was a lovely memoir of a marriage that can lead you to think: What makes a happy marriage? How do differences between spouses actually strengthen a marriage? How is a marriage enhanced by being part of a larger community of friends and family?

Morningside Heights portrayed characters in various marital statuses. You might ponder: What made the existing marriages strong (or weak)? How did poor communication undermine marriage relationships? Why do the unmarried people desire marriage (or not)? What makes two people compatible? Is there such a thing as a good match made for bad reasons?

Alongside these many portraits of marriage, I recommend one or both of these excellent books, both theological but accessible to non theologians:

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The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller. I read this book most recently with a group of ladies from church, and we found it insightful and challenging. Rooted in the text of Ephesians 5, this book addresses the purpose of marriage, gender roles within marriage (spoiler alert: complementarian), and casts a vision of marriage as a means to sanctification.

Living in a Godly Marriage by Joel R. Beeke and James A. LaBelle. These men have read everything that the Puritans ever wrote about marriage, and they’ve distilled all that wisdom into one readable volume. I’m just a few chapters into this one, but so far I have found it to be singular among all the other marriage books I’ve encountered. It is exceptionally thought-provoking, and is both challenging and inspiring in its lofty portrayal of God’s design for marriage. (Spoiler alert: complementarian AND assumes covenant theology, but there’s plenty of content to appreciate even if you don’t totally subscribe to either of these camps.)

 

Morningside Heights (Cheryl Mendelson)

In a word: charming

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An artsy New York City neighborhood. A cast of characters: a husband and wife trying to maintain their standard of living as their family grows and expenses rise. Their friend, a socially awkward biologist in need of a career breakthrough. Their other friend, a successful scholar and writer worried she’s missed her chance for marriage and children. A neighborhood priest, good-intentioned but full of his own doubts.

Mostly this book just pulls back the curtain and lets you watch these people as they go about their lives. There’s a plot, of sorts, but it’s only a gentle velvet rope, nudging the meandering story along toward the inevitable happy ending.

Although this is a modern novel about liberal, urban characters, this book has an old-fashioned feel. The writing is pleasant and un-ironic, without any harshness or snark. The characters are funny and quirky, but portrayed sympathetically and gently. At the center of the story is the character Anne Braithwaite, who personifies the novel itself with her sometimes naive, but ultimately vindicated optimism.

Throughout the novel, you’ll encounter clever characterization and wry cultural commentary. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, written from the perspective of one of the many minor characters populating the novel:

Jonathan had few romantic aspirations. He only wished that in the ordinary cyclical course of things life would turn more Victorian, with the bachelorhood or spinsterhood of anyone over the age of thirty accepted as a permanent state unless or until the spinster or bachelor chose to surprise the world and take a mate. As things were, people who were unmated but middle-aged, or nearly so, were still in the game. There was no repose, no ease available to someone like him, who would always have ended up a bachelor. Women who had turned forty, as Jonathan himself had, were always looking him up and down as if he were some prime pig, trying to gauge his marital potential and hoping for an invitation to the movies, insisting that he carry the ball in some unduly prolonged version of the mating game. Dating and getting fixed up, dieting, people over fifty still sucking in their stomachs and wearing come-on clothes–it was all insanity. It had been far better when women past their twenties were simply not marriageable, and left men like him alone.

Reading plot-driven books is like hopping on a roller coaster or a race car; this is much more like people watching from a cafe table on a busy New York street.* But if you’re a reader who finds a leisurely pace appealing, grab a cup of coffee and snuggle up with this one.

(I realize that sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe is more Paris than New York City, but work with me here. Just imagine that such an opportunity exists, complete with the ability to hear the inner thoughts of the colorful cast of characters who chance to pass by.)