Books / Hospitality / Ordinary Life

Margie’s 2007 Christmas Gift List

Christmas 2007 Gift Suggestions from Toad Hall

Candy-freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
by Steve Almond (non-fiction)
Totally, completely, this book is for fun and should be avoided if “language” is a problem or you don’t have good dental insurance. Almond writes, “A few years ago, my friends began urging me to write a book about candy. Their reasoning ran as follows: Maybe if Steve writes about candy, he will shut up about candy. I didn’t listen to these suggestions, of course, because I’m fairly stubborn and because, at the time, I considered candy to be a subject unworthy of my artistic consideration, meaning that I might actually enjoy writing such a book and thus automatically violate the serious young writer’s credo: Suffer at all times, preferably in such a manner as to convey to the rest of the world just how much you’re suffering.” Steve thinks about eating candy about once every hour and eats at least one piece every day. He stashes candy in the freezer, under his bed, and claims to have 14 cases of Kit Kat Limited Edition Dark stored in an undisclosed warehouse. He finally succumbed to writing a book when he couldn’t find his favorite candies from childhood. Do you remember Caravelles, Choco-Lites, Atomic Fireballs, Sugar Daddies, and Star Bars? Almond does. He set out to explore why so many favorites have disappeared and to visit the last surviving little-guy candy producers around the country.

Had A Good Time: Stories From American Postcards
by Robert Olen Butler (fiction).
For many years Robert Olen Butler’s hobby has been collecting picture postcards from the early 20th century. From among them he chose fifteen and wrote short stories based on the real messages scrawled on the backs – stories full of wit and humor. He captures souls of people living when the auto and the aeroplane are just beginning to move across the continent and yet life is still hard-scrabble and disease-ridden. They are people who find joy and sorrow in work and love.
Butler crafts perfect regional voices whether they are class-conscious and angry (“Hotel Touraine”) or anxiously in love (“Carl and I” and “Sunday”). It doesn’t matter where the characters are from, rural south, East Coast, California, male or female, I believe him. My favorite character is Hurshel Hudgens, a man from Tennessee, who has the Bible “Up By Heart” and intends to leave his job as a miner and become a preacher. If that doesn’t work out maybe he’ll get up a clown show. He talks about his wife, Beulah:
“Beulah helped me. She is my helpmeet. When I hadn’t got my abc’s, she read the Bible to me over and over, and the words of God were like sticky burrs on the pant leg of my mind. I have walked through his field, and though I stumble on the rocks in his high grass, I am covered with his burrs.” [p. 202.]

The 2008 Bunny Suicide Calendar
It is with many, many apologies to Manessah, my nine year old granddaughter who loves rabbits, that I confess I have purchased a calendar of fluffy bunnies who no longer want to live. I know it’s kinda creepy, but right now I don’t want to explore why they are so funny. I hope to be a better person one day; in the meantime, for your loved ones who might not be there yet, check this out. Order from .

No Country For Old Men
by Cormack McCarthy (fiction).
I didn’t think I could read this novel because I knew it was about a sheriff, a good, honest man who all his life had done everything possible to protect his people from crime, to make them feel safe and at home where they live, until one day he finds a pickup surrounded by dead men, a load of heroine, and two million dollars in cash missing. I have a brother who is a county sheriff and I was afraid of the reality of this man’s pain. I knew that when I read the book I would also know my brother and the pain of facing undiluted, pitiless evil. But. I picked it up one day and couldn’t put it down – I forget to breathe when I read some of McCarthy’s sentences, he’s so good. In the end, none of us are safe, none of us are really at home, and he drives it to heart like the weapon his assassin uses by writing characters so perfectly drawn and a plot so intense we cry out for relief. And yet there is a distant campfire (in the last chapter, you’ll see what I mean) that shines through the dark, and from there, if you’d care to discuss it with me, it’s a nanosecond’s journey to the hope found in Christ and his promise of eternal home where both justice and mercy agree as one, though McCarthy doesn’t mention this in those words exactly.

Caring For Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye
by Virginia Stem Owens (memoir)
In the seven years that it took for Owens’ mother to succumb to Parkinson’s and dementia she says: “it often seemed as if she were trapped under the rubble of an earthquake, her rationality, curiosity, humor, and generous spirit slowly suffocating under the wreckage of her ruined brain. Nothing had ever confronted so forcefully my faith that an ultimate graciousness dwelt at the heart of the world and cared for us.” In a way, Owens forces us to examine the place none of us want to visit. We don’t want this to happen to someone we love nor do we want it to become our own path to the next life, yet, the possibility is very real. Owens bears witness to the grief of life with a hope that doesn’t yield to pat answers or Christian sentimentality. This book isn’t so much self-help for care-givers, as it is reflections on the painful journey taken together by the dying and those who love them to their end. Her honesty in beholding the fear, anger, spiritual doubt, and all the unanswered questions about where the true seat of our being exists makes her book deeply powerful and moving.

The Trumpet Child
Over the Rhine (CD)
A singer/songwriter team, this couple’s music has long been a favorite. The Trumpet Child, with 11 new songs, has been getting rave reviews. It’s like a shout of joy after their last CD, Drunkard’s Prayer, which came out of the crucible of life and touring stress when their marriage nearly collapsed. This is one sweet album with a kind of joyful New Orleans style that weaves in sax and horn players with Detweiler’s fabulous piano. Bergquist’s swingy, jazzy voice is at its best ever. Even when the lyrics are playful they don’t lose their beauty and edge, which could otherwise make a song like “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed” merely trashy or sentimental. Rather, everything about the arrangement makes it a powerful invitation to reassess our priorities while enjoying the music.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
by Barbara Kingsolver (part memoir, part journalistic investigation).
This book chronicles the year that Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband and two daughters, made a commitment to become locavores–those who eat only locally grown foods. Moving from their home in non-food-producing Tucson to a family farm in Virginia; they got right down to the business of growing and raising their own food and supporting local farmers. The book begins as an environmental treatise–the oil consumption related to transporting foodstuffs around the world is enormous–but it ends, as the year ends, with the celebration of foods that physically nourish and hospitality found in community which nourishes heart and soul. Nice balance. Recipes are included throughout the book to help with inspiration and healthful alternatives to processed foods. Some of her humor is a bit forced and I don’t agree with everything she says about eating or politics, still, it was a fascinating read.
“August is all about the tomatoes, every year. That’s nothing new. For a serious gardener, the end of summer is when you walk into the kitchen and see red. We roast them in a slow oven, especially the sweet orange Jaune Flammes, which are just the right size to slice in half, sprinkled with salty and thyme, and bake for several hours until the y resemble cow flops. Their slow-roasted, caramelized flavor is great in pizzas and panini, so we freeze hundreds of them in plastic bags. We make salsa in huge quantity, packed and processed in canning jars. By season’s end our pantry shelves are lined with quarts of whole tomatoes, tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, chutney, and several kinds of salsa.” [p. 199]

Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things
by James Houston (nonfiction).
I’ve been quoting Houston all year so I figure if I include him here, it may reduce my incessant yammering about him. I felt gently mentored by him as I worked my way through this book at a time when being joyful was pretty scant. I learned the book was less about “JOY!” and more about reflecting on and deepening our grasp of what it means to be “in Christ.” In many ways his life and teachings are countercultural, opposing what many Americans see as evidence of success – like moving from a prestigious academic position in the U.K. to begin a small college in Vancouver (Regent) – he called that being“ downwardly mobile.” Or in the area of spiritual growth, where just like everything else in life we expect a cyber-fast solutions. So although I may be discouraged about how long it takes for certain people to become a saint, he insists that any progress God gives occurs at the slowest pace of all.
While we can speed-read theological knowledge and idealistically accept certain doctrines, faith invites us to commit our whole person in our everyday existence to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ as fully as possible. So we find that becoming Christlike progresses almost imperceptibly. For authentic integration we need to expect appropriate rates of apprehension, conversion and transformation. …we must maintain humility, gentleness, perseverance, fortitude, courage and especially patience with ourselves as we pursue the journey. As Dante experienced, the higher we climb, the rougher the way becomes. [p. 129] There is relief and even a shade of joy in hearing this.

What is the What
by Dave Eggers (based on real people and events).
What is the What has to be the most moving book I’ve read all year. First off, you should read it because, as Deirdre Donahue from USA Today summarizes, it is “beautifully written and explores all the deepest aspects of human life: grief, the existence of God, alienation, good and evil, love, friendship.” Second, you should read it because it puts a human face on the tragic conflicts happening every day in Africa. Dave Eggers, also author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, wrote this not as a strict biography or documentary nor as a political diatribe, but as a fictionalized story of Valentino Achak Deng, a real person from the Sudan, relocated to Atlanta from a Kenyan refugee camp – one of the “Lost Boys of Africa,” though that term itself hardly means anything anymore, and who told his story to Eggers over a period of years. As a little boy, Deng lost his family, his home, his people, his country. He walked hundreds of miles, witnessing genocide and atrocity, without shelter, drinking dirty water, eating dead animal carcasses, – when they were lucky – without shelter and naked much of the time, and sick in heart and body. It’s simply one man’s story subjectively told so that some characters are composite, some events are telescoped, but what remains through and through is a powerful, honest, extraordinary account of what has happened to the displaced people from Sudan. The book is written in the hope (I would say pretty futile that is) that these horrors would not be repeated again.
Read What is the What and you’ll understand more about any of the conflicts in Africa than you’d gain from a thousand reports on CNN.