A few years ago my family experienced a Christmas miracle: for once we all agreed on something. My parents, my siblings, and our spouses all found the commercial frenzy surrounding Christmas depressing. We were tired of a season that started around noon on Halloween, peaked the day after Thanksgiving, and ended with a sale-induced flurry on New Year’s Eve. We wanted to experience the wonderful anticipation of Advent without setting foot in a mall.
As a result, we redefined our shopping parameters. We would avoid the mall as much as possible. Instead, we would try to purchase family gifts from locally owned stores, craft fairs, or from stores and websites that promote social justice efforts. In other words, we would shop in a way that supported local and developing economies.
A few of us were intimidated by the prospect of Christmas shopping without the help of Amazon.com, but we did it and were surprised by the unique and thoughtful gifts that resulted.
The gifts were simple, ranging from the Simply in Season cookbook (Herald Press) purchased from the local farmers’ market, to a birdhouse that was handmade by one of my sister’s clients who has a brain injury. My mother bought goats through CRWRC and named them after her grandchildren. A hand-stitched monogrammed purse was a huge hit with my daughter—and made up for the fact that there was a goat named after her somewhere in the Dominican Republic.
There was some cheating—as evidenced by the purchase of a few trendy items for the kids—but overall our new approach to Christmas shopping was a success. Shopping from a local and global perspective felt right, and we will try it again this year.
It’s good to know that we can give meaningful gifts that make the giver and the receiver happy. It’s even better to know that, in a small way, our new tradition is helping to maintain a healthy economy within our city limits and within the global village.
by Marilynne Robinsonreviewed by Phil Christman Jr.
America’s great essayist and novelist revisits the soil she cultivated so fruitfully in 2004’s Gilead. In her new novel, the return of ne’er-do-well Jack Boughton to his Iowa hometown is examined through the eyes of his sister, Glory, who is nursing disappointments of her own. Their ailing father, Rev. Robert Boughton, superintends the two, or tries to. The scenes between Jack and his father are as heartbreaking as anything I’ve read, and Robinson’s sentences, as always, have the radiant simplicity of an old stone church. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
reviewed by Sandy Swartzentruber
When this magazine arrives, you’ll want to grab the three items listed in its title and clear your schedule. Cloth, Paper, Scissors is a beautiful magazine for the serious crafter. Its colorful, well-written articles feature a broad spectrum of mixed-media projects like altered books, collage, art quilts, and much more. Some articles show readers how to recreate a particular piece, while others focus on the creative process or on artists’ tips. A subscription would make a wonderful gift. (www.quiltingarts.com)
by Richard Fosterreviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema
This stimulating book encourages Christians to read the Bible not for information but for spiritual transformation. Foster shows how biblical characters are assured of God’s presence— “I am with you!”—and are invited to answer God’s question, “Are you willing to be with me?” Foster also challenges readers with his own question: “Do we truly want life with God?” He then spells out how to move in that holy direction through attentive, expectant Bible reading with the heart, with the mind, and with the people of God. (HarperCollins)
reviewed by Ron VandenBurg
Once tells the tale of a friendship between an Irish busker and a Czech woman who surprises him with her quiet demeanor, strong will, and musical talent. With the feel of a documentary, Once is a modern musical with haunting song lyrics and vocals. Watching the film is like watching a live performance. The story becomes a study of the ripple effect that occurs when one person affects the life of another. Winner of the 2008 Academy Award for best original song, this movie is rated R for language. (20th Century Fox)
by Katherine Patersonreviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema
Paterson frames her retelling of the story of Jesus’ life with the themes of light and darkness. Her simple picture book narrative includes glimpses of Jesus’ birth, childhood in Nazareth, ministry, death, and resurrection. In his illustrations, François Roca masterfully uses light to manifest Jesus’ holiness and the people’s obedient response to him, and darkness to convey the people’s rebellion against the Light of the World. (Arthur A. Levine)
by Sam Phillipsreviewed by Robert N. Hosack
CCM refugee Sam Phillips offers her first new CD since her divorce from husband T-Bone Burnett. After working with Burnett as her producer since 1987, Phillips here takes up those duties with exquisite musical results—driving, uneven guitars and hollow, big box percussion provide a barren backbeat throughout. The album paints a painful confessional canvas of longing and unrequited love, but also recounts more hopeful heavenly resolutions. For example, “Watching Out of This World” praises “the splendor, the holiness of life, that reveals itself.” (Nonesuch)
reviewed by Steph DeBoer
Hollywood actor Michael Steele (Randy Travis) is a devoted Christian struggling to keep his faith in a secular industry. Nominated for an Academy Award, all eyes in the media are on him. Between problems in his personal life and pressure at work to compromise his morals, Michael struggles to live the teachings of the “sermon on the mountain.” Attempting to interpret and answer God’s signs along the way, Michael’s faith is tested in a very public manner, and it will have viewers considering theirs as well. (Genius Products)
reviewed by Ron DeBoer
Christmas finds itself in trouble when Stiller the Elf’s magical Christmas Counter-Downer goes on the fritz. Elmo embarks on a journey with Abby Cadabby to find the missing parts to get the official countdown to Christmas going again. As with every Muppet special since the invention of the furry little monsters, this Muppet musical will appeal to all ages. Adults will especially enjoy the guest stars, including Ben Stiller, Alicia Keys, Sheryl Crow, and Jamie Foxx. (Sesame Street)
edited by Bret Lottreviewed by Otto Selles
Could reading actually improve your vision? According to novelist Bret Lott, good stories “pierce” our superficial knowledge of the world and ourselves. This spiritual “precision,” in turn, allows us to re-examine our lives and see God better. In this short story collection, Lott favors literary short stories by celebrated authors (Buechner, Chesterton, Dickens, Tolstoy), but he also highlights a number of perhaps lesser-known writers such as Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Gina Ochsner. (Thomas Nelson)
by Kathi Appeltreviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema
In this magnificently plotted juvenile novel, an unlikely character, scarred by the abuses of his childhood, finally shuns evil and chooses to love instead. Meanwhile, a dog and two kittens forge a familial bond that overcomes extraordinary obstacles. Appelt’s beautifully crafted tale, an intriguing combination of fantasy and reality, explores universal themes—love and hate, freedom and control, hope and despair—in a way that young readers will understand and appreciate. (Atheneum)
by Paul Willisreviewed by Otto Selles
In this poetry collection, Willis initially visits “home” by recounting engaging stories based on his childhood and family history. The majority of his poems, however, describe the trails and trees of the Sierras and San Rafael Mountain. With his clear and musical style, he asks us to consider how nature brings us closer to our spiritual home in God—and so to peace from our worldly worries. “You wake at dawn, / the small creek filling your ears with news / that you have belonged here all this time.” (Pecan Grove Press)