Here, read this: The Meaning of Names

Meet The Meaning of Names, your next good read.  Karen Gettert Shoemaker has written a beautiful, poetic novel that belongs on your bedside table, in your hands, and (I think) on prize lists this year.

This is one of my top three favorite books I've read this year so far (along with All the Light We Cannot See and Love Letters of the Angels of Death, which I'll review here soon) and, as you can tell, I feel a little proselytory about it. Humor me?

Here's the set up, according to the book cover: Stuart, Nebraska is a long way from the battlefields of Western Europe, but it is not immune to the horrors of the first Great War for Peace. Like all communities, it has lost sons and daughters to the fighting, with many more giving themselves over to the hatred only war can engender.

Set in 1918 in the farm country at the heart of America, The Meaning of Names is the story of an ordinary woman trying to raise a family during extraordinary times. Estranged from her parents because she married against their will, confronted with violence and prejudice against her people, and caught up in the midst of the worst plague the world has ever seen, Gerda Vogel, an American of German descent, must find the strength to keep her family safe from the effects of a war that threatens to consume the whole world.

It's a great story, made exquisite by Shoemaker's way with words in capturing the dynamics of marriage and family and life in Nebraska in 1918, making it feel universally poignant and yet fascinatingly unique to the set of circumstances in which Gertha find herself.  Shoemaker has written a quietly brilliant gem that belongs on the shelf next to Stegner and Cather. 

A few excerpts (there were really too many to choose from):

Everyday dangers offered a new chance and a new way for her to teach them to save themselves. "I can't be everywhere," she told them. Ray, her clown, rolled his eyes at that. "Seems like it to me," he muttered.

. . .

Gannoway was not the kind of man to be biased by appearances. Still, as Father Jungels lumbered up the center aisle behind the altar boys and approached the altar, Gannoway did wish he had someone with whom he could exchange glances.

. . .

She held him even as one small part of her rose from the bed and prepared to leave. Her mind checked the list she had made the day before when the telegram came. Her sister's terse message gave her scant time to respond in any way but with movement, and she began immediately to get ready to travel to her aunt's funeral. She had no time to consider her welcome at the other end or Fritz's response to her leaving. She mentally counted out the clothes she had packed for the three boys she would bring with her and rethought the instructions she had written out for her daughter, who would stay wit Fritz. Breathing in the musky scent of him, she held the image of the train tickets in her satchel alongside the image of the food she had prepared for Katie-canned beef and corn, salt pork--easy choices an eight-year-old could handle. The boys she had bathed the night before, the trunk they would share already packed and loaded into the wagon. Sighing at the trill of pleasure that came with Fritz's lips beneath her earlobes, she remembered the lunch that still needed to be packed for the trip, the chickens that still needed to be fed, the items needed to occupy those rambunctious boys for the long hours ahead.

. . .

"You know," Gerda went on after a moment, "how most of your life if you think about how you're doing something, whatever it is, if you think about the how, a part of you is always thinking you could do it better if things were just a little different, or if the time was right, or you were stronger or better?" She looked at Margaret to gauge her expression. Her friend nodded. That's how it is with me anyway. I'm always thinking about the next thing I need to do, or the last thing I did. I'm never really--whole." She stopped to think about how to say what she meant. "But with having babies, there's this moment after each birth when I see the baby for the first time and I hear that first cry and I smell the blood and the--I don't even know what it is. That new baby smell and when I look into the baby's eyes for the first time and see...I see..." She knew words weren't enough for what she meant. She didn't know how to say how in those first moments of seeing this new life, this new soul, she felt for that one moment complete joy. She knew she would never be a better person than she was at that one moment in time. She wanted to say how all that she is goes into that moment...her touch, her breath, her eyes looking into that one tiny new being. She looked up at Margaret again, feeling a little embarrassed at what she was about to say. "For that moment I know I am as close to God as I can ever be."

p.s. A quick postcard from our nests: You may have noticed already from last week's posting pace but Sarah and I are taking a more relaxed blogging schedule for the next little while. We'll still be posting here--just not on a daily basis--as we scale back a bit to enjoy the end of August and nudge along some other projects and roles that are clamoring for our attention. I'm sure you can relate!

Book review: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

I'm somewhat reticent to write book reviews for Nest & Launch. Book reviews can be boring -- like watching someone else's vacation slides or listening to your (darling) child recount, in detail, the antics involved in an hour long television show. 

However, I enjoyed Lahiri's novel so much, that I'm breaking my own rule. Also, this isn't so much of a review as it is a hearty recommendation. And don't worry, I'll keep it short. (Well, my version of short.)

First off, Lahiri is one of a handful of contemporary writers who I recommend without reservation. I read everything new she produces, and as of this novel . . . I've never been disappointed. 

Secondly, I'm fascinated by India and Indian culture and how Indian culture works to find a space in the United States -- all things Lahiri tackles with intellect and eloquence.

Third, Lahiri writes about family relationships. These aren't 'boy meets girl, there is an obstacle to overcome, boy marries girl' kinds of stories. Her narratives are messy and complicated and disappointing and joyful, which make them believable and touching and, in an odd way, hopeful. 

What I thoroughly enjoyed about The Lowland is that the story is told from a variety of points of view. The perspective changes from older brother to younger brother, to wife, to child, to mother-in-law, which gives this slowly rounded portrait of the characters and makes you empathize -- even with the crusty mother-in-law or the troubled wife.

I will warn you that (somewhat uncharacteristically) Lahiri has a penchant for wandering into philosophical reveries in this novel (one of the characters becomes a philosophy PhD), so this is not the type of book to rush through. Typically, I like to take a good novel and gulp it down, barely taking time to breathe. But The Lowland doesn't really allow for gulping. I read a few chapters at a time. Slowly. Waiting until I was thinking and wondering about the characters to pick it up again. It was a beautiful, literary read through an entire generation of sorrow and violence and love. 

I might start it again tomorrow.

Here, read this: All the Light We Cannot See

Chances are if I time traveled back to any of the summers between the ages of 8 and 18, I'd find young Annie completely surrendered to a really good book. I'd be stretched out and nestled into the crevice of the front room sofa, tunneling through a page-turner. I miss those long languishing reading days, don't you? It's not just that adulthood has laid claim to those long stretches of unfettered time. It's also harder to find that kind of deliciously immersive read.

I had planned on posting something else for our quick Tuesday post today but I'm midway through All The Light We Cannot See and (a) all I want to do is go dive into the story again and (b) I have to spread the goodness and say: Go, friend. Read this book.* 

I don't want to overtell or oversell so I'll keep it brief and straight forward. Ten years in the writing, the novel is the story of a blind French girl and a young German orphan boy as they try to navigate the events surrounding World War 2 and beyond. Doerr's language is lyrical and rich and delicious; he kindly balances that richness with short, engaging chapters alternating perspectives and time frames. I know it's pretty risky to recommend a book I'm not completely done reading but I'm fairly confident it's going to follow through for me. And for you.  

Here, don't just take my word for it, listen to these guys (but beware the spoilers):

New York Times review 

Washington Post review

Boston Globe review

 and a Powell Books interview with author Doerr

*No, really. Go read it. I'll wait. Come back and we'll chat. I'd love to hear what you think.*

Always more books

image via

image via

I know that I've linked to several book lists recently, but really -- when it comes to books -- I can hardly help myself. A few days ago my SIL brought over a whole stack of books and set them on my coffee table. I repeated in my head, "I will not read. I will not read. I will not read." But then later that evening I picked up just one measly book. I was just going to check out the back blurb. I promise! And it was about a husband's secret. So then I just wanted to read enough to find out the SECRET. And then boom! Before I knew it, I'd read the whole book. It's a sickness. I'm sick. But I do LOVE it.

All of this to say, HERE is another great book list for your book-hoarding pleasure. I like this list because it includes a good bit of solid, contemporary fiction, which is often missing in "favorites" lists. In fact, when I went to find the link, the article was listed under "Chick-lit versus Lit-Chicks," a combination I find a fascinating. I enjoy myself some chick-lit, but I want it to be meaty and substantial and leave me thinking. Many of the books on this list fit that bill. And many I haven't read at all -- I'm filling my Amazon cart WHILE I type this.

As you read this I'm off for two days of camping with 200+ teenagers. Pray for me!

Book review: John Green's Paper Towns


I'm a tad disturbed that my blog editor won't let me italicize Paper Towns in the title of this post. The English teacher in me feels something akin to fingernails screeching down a chalkboard. But let's move on, shall we?

I bought Paper Towns way back in September while looking around for some solid teen reading for Becca. I was intrigued by The Fault in Our Stars, so decided to give Green another go. By the way, have you seen John Green and his brother Hank as the Vlogbrothers on YouTube? I've seen a few of their clips, and I'm super impressed with how fast John can talk. It's really, really fast and random, which I quite enjoy.

The story of Paper Towns is actually told from the perspective of an 18-year-old boy -- a boy who (of course) is in love with a girl, who is way out of his league. The literary critic in me needs to tell you that Green tends to beat you over the head thematically. He's leaving nothing to chance -- he's spelling out his main points. But the parent in me likes the straightforward, hopeful text about teen angst and self-discovery and the attempt to understand others. And, fear not, there is a subtext in there for us old timers as well. 

Quentin, the narrator is unbelievably mature, self-aware, and an astute reader of Walt Whitman -- all characteristics focused, of course, towards the quest for his lady love. And yes, there is a coming of age, in a very existential, intellectualized sort of way. Here's the crux of it:

Each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen--these people leave us, or don't love us, or don't get us, or we don't get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in places. And I mean, yeah, once the vessel cracks open, the end becomes inevitable. [. . .] But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open up and when we finally fall apart. And it's only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs. When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out (Green 302).

And . . . here's John Green's summary of the novel:

I'm going to have to go all fan-girl on you right now and express my love for John Green and his novel. It's timely and relevant and oddly touching. And as a mom of teens, I'm interested in his perspective and how teens respond to his work. Both Becca and Madison have copies, and as soon as I have their honest-to-goodness teen review I'll get back to you.

In the meantime I'm moving on to Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines.



Daring to (let your kids) fail

Dare to Fail print  by Lisa Mann Dirkes

Dare to Fail print by Lisa Mann Dirkes

There is a well-worn chapter in a book I love. The book automatically flips open to it, proof of the many times I have returned there for a pep talk. It's the chapter "The Blessing of Problems to Solve," from Wendy Mogel's fantastic parenting tome--drawn from both parenting research and Jewish traditional teachings--called The Blessing of a B Minus. I don't happen to be Jewish but that detail doesn't really matter here; the wisdom in the book transcends religious affiliation and speaks to the heart of parenting teens (and if you were a very early Nest & Launch reader, you might remember I also reviewed the book here).

A while back someone wrote in to us with a question about what to do when your child fails or is going through a rough patch: "I have awesome kids, but even so, sometimes they fail at something. It is bad enough when MY best isn't good enough, but I can hardly take it when their best isn't good enough for something they really want to do."  I've started to draft several responses but then I realized that this chapter nails it and applies really well to the reader's question about how we as parents can respond to our children's problems and failures.  Here are a few highlights:

"If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems, we must let them have problems to solve while they are still adolescents. Yet it's harder and harder to find parents willing to expose their children to difficulty. More often, parents keep their teens busy in adult-supervised activities so there is no time for trouble, or rush in to solve problems instead of leaving the solution in their teens' shaky hands...

"How to strike the right balance between appropriate guidance and restraint? The story of the Israelites' trip out of slavery in Egypt offers some clues.

"The book of Exodus describes the quality of God's presence during the Israelites' travels as a 'pillar of cloud by day...and a pillar of fire by night.' This beautiful image is a model for parents whose children are wandering in the wilderness of adolescence. Like God, you stand by, providing shade and light when needed, but mostly you stand give him the freedom to make mistakes, even big ones.

I love that image of parenting--cloud and fire, shade and light. Mogel gives the following strategies for parents when their kids are faced with problems or failure (and each are described further in the book):

- Give them good suffering
- Wait it out
- Be empathic, not entangled
- Normalize setbacks
- Encourage them to enlist the aid of other adults
- Demonstrate confidence in your teen's problem-solving skills
- Distinguish dramas from emergencies
- When they create their own problems, let them experience the consequences
- Be a counselor, not a servant

"Our challenge as parents is to foster a loving attachment to teenagers' large spirits and ragged souls but stand slightly apart from their daily theatrics...the rhythms of parent-teen relationships change every day, which means you will succeed today and screw up tomorrow.

"Expect to be confused. Expect your sleep to be disturbed...Remind yourself, daily if you have to, that we serve our teens best not as active protectors or problem solvers but as tender, compassionate, composed listeners..." 

Okay, friends, we're going to be trying out a MWF posting schedule for the next while so Sarah and I can each make a dent in our academic writing loads. In the meantime, we'll continue to share good finds and links on our Facebook page throughout the week.  You can follow us by liking our page there. Okay, over and out.

A few good gems

Welcome to Friday, the gateway to the weekend! It's sweltering here in Australia so we've been finding ways to keep cool, which mostly means standing in front of the air conditioner and chain eating cold grapes straight from the fridge.  And scouting out some cool things on the internet, just for you:

London-based photographer Chino Otsuka's "Imagine Finding Me" double self-portrait series (also published in a book) is delightful. She's digitally inserted herself into her own childhood photos; the result is enchanting and poignant. She says "the digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine, as I'm embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history."  (I want to do this!). 

1982 + 2005, France

1982 + 2005, France

1975 + 2009, France

1975 + 2009, France

This article on how to handle the chaos of family life as an introverted mom had some good things to say: "I'd offer the same advice to an introverted mom that I would give to an introvert in a chaotic office environment: Make sure to schedule recharge time every day."

Jauntful is launching a fantastic new idea: a site for shareable, printable guides to the cities you love. I can't wait to try it--for sharing my favorite suggestions and haunts in places I've lived and visited AND (especially!) finding others' best picks. I've just signed up for the preview when they're ready and you can, too (via Swiss Miss).

photo via Jauntful

photo via Jauntful

I  adore the huge monthly calendars and New Year's resolution posters Brittany (The House that Lars Built) created and posted for downloading (they're free!). Brilliant and big enough for all and sundry appointments, etc. I just sent the first couple of months to the printing store here.

Photo by Trisha Zemp via The House That Lars Built 

Photo by Trisha Zemp via The House That Lars Built 

Send a traditional, classic telegram! I love this idea for when you can't make it to the wedding or graduation or family reunion. Also cool for a memorable Valentine message. (They also have invitation telegrams for mass mailings for weddings and parties. Love it.) I just wish the cute little hatted delivery guy brought them still.

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I posted this on our Facebook page [insert unabashed invitation to come join our Facebook page here] yesterday but I'll repeat it here: I really liked what Glennon had to say about asking the right questions to improve our relationships. I think it's wise advice for any relationship but ESPECIALLY with big kids and teens. 

In my ears:  How Come You Don't Want Me (Tegan & Sara), Let Go (RAC & MNDR), Riptide (Vance Joy), and the Fare Thee Well cover from Inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford).

On my nightstand: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett).

Have a great weekend, all! See you back here on Monday.