New Release Review: Walking with Our Children

Nancy Blanning, Walking with Our Children (2017)

Purchase Walking with Our Children from the WECAN bookstore, and you’ll benefit a wonderful organization. The book is also available on Amazon.

During the ten years I served as managing editor for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN), I had the privilege of working with and learning from many amazing early childhood educators. One of these was Nancy Blanning, a longtime member of the WECAN board and for the last several years editor of the journal Gateways. I worked closely with Nancy on realizing her vision of making the journal a richer and more useful resource for Waldorf educators, and was blessed to experience her humor, her knowledge, her humility, and her deep, compassionate concern for the healthy development of the young child.

In order to fully address this concern, we must go beyond the child to the family, and indeed to our entire world, which is so tragically confused about the very question of who we are as human beings, and thus can hardly be expected to provide healthy learning experiences for our most tender and vulnerable members. But how to meet this confusion with knowledge that enlivens and inspires, rather than creating more confusion and defensiveness? How to connect the spiritual principles that alone can bring healing, with the practical needs of everyday life? It became a wish for us in the WECAN publication program to move in this direction, expanding our mission from that of purely supporting Waldorf educators, in order to reach out to a wider audience of parents, families, and others who shared a concern for young children as representatives of our human future.

It was with this goal in mind that Nancy took on the task of writing a series of articles for LILIPOH magazine, very short, practically oriented essays that were yet grounded in her deep spiritual practice and years of experience. We didn’t at the time necessarily intend to compile them into a book, not knowing how long the series would last or what direction it would go in, but after several years it became clear that this was a treasure which needed to be made even more widely available.

Walking With Our Children: The Parent as Companion and Guide is a slim volume collecting all of Nancy’s articles, accompanied by beautiful monotone illustrations by Sheila Harrington. Arranged in four thematic sections — Quality Time with Young Children, Work and Play, Supporting Healthy Development, and Guiding Childhood’s Inner Life — it covers a wide range of topics including storytelling, transitions, discipline, practical work, touch and boundaries, technology, addiction, gender identity, and much more, including the question many harried parents never feel able to ask: “What about me?”

Each of these themes is touched on with incisive brevity, not superficially, but with a penetrating understanding of the central core of the matter. Each one can become a springboard for further pondering and exploration, and the many examples from Nancy’s life as a teacher, therapist, mother, and grandmother give living pictures that can help readers find ways to apply her experience in their own lives. There are occasional references to Waldorf education in particular, but it is not necessary to be a Waldorf parent to benefit from the ideas presented, which arise from closely observing and learning from the nature of the young child rather than from any dogma or ‚Äúsystem.”

Nancy seeks to inspire in us a vital sense of the challenge presented to us by our children, who ask us to wake up to a new sense of responsibility, and to be willing to change ourselves in order to care for them. And to our surprise, when we do change ourselves — taking the time to do a few things well rather than many things quickly; learning to read subtle, nonverbal cues; becoming conscious of the importance of transitions and rhythm; filling ourselves with warmth, positivity, and joy — we may find that it is we who are being healed and transformed by these small messengers, who remind us of what is truly important in life.

This book is itself a companion and guide that can help us as parents to undertake our mighty, incredibly challenging task, for which almost none of us has any training or support. There’s nothing we need more than a wise, empathetic friend, who can point out our mistakes without blame and give us the courage to try again. Thank you, Nancy, for putting yourself into this book, which I hope will become a such a friend to many.

(Note that I am no longer an employee of WECAN, was not involved with the production of this book, and receive no compensation for this review, or for purchases via the link above.)

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New Release Review: The Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (2016)

Perhaps because the nineteenth century saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, giving us an unprecedented number of imagined narratives about daily life and relationships, there’s a particular fascination in trying to go “behind the curtain” of the period and discern what the Victorians did NOT say in their fiction. Due to societal expectations and conventions, there were many things they could not talk about directly (at least in English — perhaps Continental fiction was more frank). What would Victorian novelists write if this secret history could be revealed, and what would we learn about their real thoughts and feelings?

In more recent times, this question has given rise to compelling novels by the likes of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters, among others. They try to embody aspects of the narrative voice of a bygone age, while retaining a modern sensibility that illuminates the past in a new light. A new entry in this seductive sub-genre is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which takes on the clash of science, faith, and superstition that erupted in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Symbol and focus of this cultural turmoil is the mysterious Essex Serpent, which had reputedly been sighted in a seaside town centuries ago, and now seems to be appearing again. Is it a judgment? A scientific marvel? A relic from ancient times? A supernatural warning, or wonder? Or something far more banal and ordinary, given fantastic clothing by the ever-active human imagination?

This is a novel of many characters, switching back and forth between different points of view: a young widow with an abusive past and a yen for paleontology; her son, who baffles her with his strange rituals and emotional distance; their working-class radical nurse-companion; a twisted genius of a surgeon; his less-brilliant, but extremely kind friend; a brisk country vicar struggling to conquer superstition in his parish and unholy longings in himself; his tubercular wife, beset by visions; and many others.

The premise sounded irresistible to me, yet even though The Essex Serpent had all the ingredients for a book I ought to love, I had a hard time warming to it somehow. Perhaps this was partly because the constant switching of perspective also made it hard for me to settle into the story. Certain threads and relationships were not developed as much as I would have liked, as the zigzagging plot kept dropping one to pick up another. I remained oddly distant from the characters, and sometimes had the sensation of being told rather than shown about their characteristics; they felt intellectually constructed out of era-appropriate ingredients (paleontology, advances in medical science, religious doubt, consumption, sexual repression, etc.) rather than spontaneously living.

Unsettling is definitely what The Essex Serpent is all about, though, so perhaps this is an appropriate effect. And at the end, suddenly, the characters came together in a way that surprised me, bringing them to life more vividly. If the book had gone on from there for another hundred pages or so, I might have felt more connected to it.

I don’t know why the alchemy of this book did not quite work for me, and you may have a completely different reaction. I hope you will read it to find out for yourself, and please let me know what you thought.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this book. For more information, visit the tour page or click on the links below.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Jamie Drew

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.

Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter.

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New Release Review: May Cause Love

Kassi Underwood, May Cause Love (2017)

At the age of nineteen, Kassi Underwood had an abortion. She was a directionless college student, drinking too much and pursuing a road-to-nowhere relationship with a drug dealer in the absence of her childhood sweetheart from her Kentucky home town. Abortion seemed the only logical, the only compassionate option, yet she could not let go and move on. Her choice continued to haunt her, especially after her ex had a child with another woman. How could she find peace, go through the grief and pain that the world told her she either shouldn’t be feeling or was feeling for the wrong reasons? How would she get through to the other side without losing her mind?

One problem was that it was so difficult to find other women who were willing to talk honestly about their abortion experiences, even though according to statistics they should be walking around everywhere. Kassi desperately needed to feel she was not alone, that she was not the only person who had terminated a pregnancy without wanting to either subsume herself in religious shame or toe a feminist party line. But those voices seemed to be silent, including her own.

I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d made the wrong choice, but because other voices had been so loud that I hadn’t been able to hear my own. Nineteen years of listening to the schizophrenic collective conscience about girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled my head with opinions that did not belong to me.

It took years and much searching and soul-work for Kassi to find her voice, but through many small steps she has come there — and in the process created the community she was looking for. Her account of her “unexpected journey of enlightenment” is woven of her learning from therapists and healers and religious leaders, from protesters and haters as well as listeners and supporters. It’s also an account of her life and love and work journey during this time, of her own growing confidence in writing and speaking about her abortion, of encouraging others to do the same, and of her evolving relationship with God. It moved me to tears at times, but also made me laugh at the ridiculous antics we go through in running away from who we were meant to be. With honesty and trust, Kassi lays it all out before us, and may help us to look at some of the buried truths that lurk in our own pasts.

Some will complain that most women don’t have the resources or the opportunities that Kassi did, that not everyone can attend multiple retreats or have personal rituals created for them or fly across the country looking for answers to their questions. But that doesn’t mean that Kassi shouldn’t have done those things. The fact that she needed to take extraordinary and sometimes expensive measures in search of healing simply indicates that finding our one true self is worth everything we can give, whether that everything be much or little. For Kassi to share her story lays her open to attack and misunderstanding, and may even endanger her life. She does it not as an act of self-aggrandizement or pride, but in the hope that it will empower and strengthen others, and for that I personally can only be grateful.

Not everyone will want to read a book like this. You’ll need to be willing to read at length about abortion, and to consider it not as a fixed, immutable watershed of moral virtue or political values, but as a gateway to the complex, unstable, confusing business of what it means to be a human being in this world. You’ll also need to be willing to contemplate the contributions of many different religious traditions to the journey, along with psychics, energy healers, and a “midwife of the soul.” There are swear words (even if some of them are disguised with asterisks). There are drinking and drugs and addiction and infidelity. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, as Kassi so beautifully does, you may find that it’s all part of the quest to disentangle the mixed-up mess of joy and pain and ecstasy and suffering that is this earthly life, and find the thread of love.

Why was I here? Because I had quit running. Because you can run from grief and sorrow and responsibility and rush headlong into a new relationship or a new city or stalwart friends who will love you while you run, but if you want happiness, if you want love, if you want to become the figure you see in the distance, the future self calling your name, if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it — scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.

Like Jacob with the angel, Kassi has wrestled her torment to the ground and extracted from it a blessing of untold value. May her story inspire each one of us to do the same, knowing that truly, we are not alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review May Cause Love. For more stops on the tour, click here.

For information from the publisher, HarperCollins, click here.

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New Release Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.

Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.

Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.

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