Reading: May 2021

Ooh, have I read some good books this month! And school’s out here so now we’re on to summer, which means it’s time to stock up on summer reading. How do you pick what you’ll read next? I maintain my Goodreads “to read” queue as well as a holds list from our library. I usually pair something non-fiction alongside an engrossing novel as well as something light for just before bedtime. This month’s five books definitely fit those qualifications.

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible” (p25).

This book is so deftly nuanced and deeply insightful that it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. Wow.

I read this alongside my teenage son, who read it for his English class, so that we could discuss it. I’m so glad I did – we’ve begun ongoing conversations on many of the topics the Lee family couldn’t touch – but it also changed my reading of the book. I felt the dynamics differently in my gut knowing that my son was reading the same material. That he might identify with Lydia, or Nath, or Hannah. Am I more like Marilyn or James, or does he see me more like one or the other? This one is going to stick in my mind for a long time to come.

From the interview with the author: “Any act of writing is an act of empathy: you try to imagine yourself into another person’s mind and skin. I tried to ask myself the questions the characters would have asked themselves.”

Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A perfectly acceptable chick lit novel, though I found myself wanting to shout at the characters: “Knock it off! Stop the stupidity and just talk to each other.” Nothing earth shaking, nothing profound, but a nice, mildly entertaining story nonetheless.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…a life without art, without wonder, without beautiful things – she would go mad. …
“What she needs are stories.
“Stories are a way to preserve one’s self. To be remembered. And to forget.”

This book sings a haunting melody to the wonders and beauties of life. It is an original, part ghost story, part love story, with some extremely well-written passages. I think it needed a little tightening, though, as some of the passages read like the same conversation in a different time/place. A little shorter and it would have built even greater suspense for the surprise ending.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a fascinating book! We think breathing is automatic, that our bodies just know how to breathe. And yet, it seems we’ve all forgotten. One of the best things about reading this short book is that I grew increasingly aware of my breath. But really, it is a science story so well told, with real-life applications.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Here’s to hoping that this – not just good but – truly incredible story will change some minds. No wonder this book won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize! I’ve never read anything like it. At 500 pages and, according to Amazon, just over a pound in book weight, it’s a hefty undertaking worth every minute of your reading time. It combines ecology with the stories of nine diverse and fascinating characters who each in their own way become intertwined with trees.

One of the things likely to stick with me: there is a word, pareidolia, that means “the adaptation that makes people see people in all things. The tendency to turn two knotholes and a gash into a face.”

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Reading: April 2021

Last month I told you I would share some delicious books that I began reading but couldn’t finish in March. They wouldn’t be devoured. They insisted on being savored, slowly, bite by delicious bite. You might want to wait until next Lent to read Where the Eye Alights by Marilyn McEntyre, though you sure don’t have to. It is a book of Lenten meditations, but as Lent is also life, you will find applications whenever you have the opportunity to crack its cover. And I recognize that Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer will not be everyone’s cup of foraged mint tea – even with the gorgeous writing that helped me fall deeper in love with our Mother Earth, I still glossed over some of the scientific details – and yet I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

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Where the Eye Alights: Phrases for the Forty Days of Lent by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a lovely book of Lenten meditations based on phrases drawn from scripture and poetry and life. I expect to return to this book annually.

“When we pray, we rise or descend; we invite and ask and receive; we listen or submit; we wait; we quiet our minds; we leave behind the noise and haste; we settle into or approach with fear and trembling; we resist but are overcome. Sometimes we suddenly realize that, ‘bidden or unbidden,’ the Spirit of God has come upon us and all we have to do is say yes.” 91

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview – stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.”

This spectacular book has nudged me to fall ever deeper in love with Mother Earth. While the book is science and story, memoir and treatise, the most practical advice for me comes from the idea of The Honorable Harvest – “to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift.” Never take the first gift for it might be the only one. Humbly ask for permission. Only take half, or less if that’s what you need. Honor the gift by using it well and sharing it freely. How different life on earth could be for us now if we all heeded these simple directives.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had never heard the term “portal fantasy” until I got to the interview with the author at the end of the book, but it makes sense. Think Narnia. Also, my favorite novel of 2020 was The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, so when January encountered her first door, I thought, oh no, here we go again… But January’s door leads to different lands. This book is a fairy tale involving many quests and I was happy to tag along for the journeys.

“Doors introduce change. And from change comes all things: revolution, resistance, empowerment, upheaval, invention, collapse, reformation-all the most vital components of human history, in short.”

“I hope you will find the cracks in the world and wedge them wider, so the light of other suns shines through; I hope you will keep the world unruly, messy, full of strange magics; I hope you will run through every open Door and tell stories when you return.”

The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had some helpful conversations with this book. I had more conversations with my pastor-husband about this book. Our brains are wired for relationship – and neuroscience proves it. The gospel of Jesus centers (and recenters us) on love, and to be honest, it makes me more than a little sick that church – or at least, a lot of churches – has become so focused on ministry that we have misplaced the proper emphasis on love.

Love, joy, relationships all ought to be at the center of every interaction related to church. Instead we stress theology and structure and wonder why people don’t grow. Or walk away dissatisfied.

My biggest concern with this book, however, is the emphasis on “healthy shame,” loving correction within a relational community. I don’t think the idea is wrong, but I haven’t encountered many church communities with enough emotional health to use shame as anything but a weapon. The authors admit that our churches may not be safe, and acknowledge that the first step is to create a culture of love, joy, community, etc, but they don’t go far enough in telling the people in the pews, or even the people in low-level leadership, what to do if the top leadership isn’t already leading the way in creating that culture.

Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life by Jennifer Aaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Laughter releases many of the same neurochemicals as a good workout, resulting in a feeling akin to a ‘runner’s high.’ Beyond feeling similarly pleasurable, both also prime us for greater personal connection and resilience to stress. So in a way, Jillian Michaels and Amy Schumer have the same job.” p37

I love to laugh, though I am only ever unintentionally funny. I am funny by vulnerably being my weird self and creating safe space for others to be themselves and make mistakes, too. This book gave me permission to laugh long and hard, especially at myself, in work and life.

While it was full of practical insights, the most helpful bit for me was the distinction between levity, humor, and comedy. We can create a mindset (and workplace) of levity even if most of us will never do stand-up comedy.

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Maria Fabiola is a noticer, but also a laugher.”

I am nearly the same age as the characters in this book and, though I grew up in Southern California, I now live in the Bay Area – so much of this book is easily relatable to me. I also had a sparkling Maria life-of-the-party friend who brought me forward or left me behind on her whims, although never to the heights of this drama.

Maybe that’s why I finished the book feeling tired. I enjoyed reading the book, but I didn’t enjoy the book. It’s well written and a quick page-turner (or kindle-flicker?), but not a single character in this book is actually likeable. They create or ride the drama to no good end.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Dr. Christine tells me I am learning to deal with a life I cannot control. What she doesn’t say, what she doesn’t have to, is that I’m failing at it.”

We’re all learning that same lesson, and most of us are failing at it. Or flailing at it. The book hinges on the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s a helpful question as we clarify and work toward our goals. But it can keep us stuck if we hold on too tight.

I devoured this book. Seriously, if I could have stayed up any later reading, I would have finished it in one go. It might be the smartest book of its genre that I’ve read, thoughtfully considering the ins and outs of life and love and friendship.

“You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.”


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Reading: March 2021

Two novels and two memoirs. That’s all I have to share this month, but that is not all I read. I began reading some delicious books in March that would not be devoured, that insisted on slow savoring. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you in the April edition of this reading series.

What are you reading?

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Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The mirror exposed time’s passage, yes, but eclipsed her heart’s true mileage. The lined face, the extra pounds, the hair chemically treated to hide its gray. Each year the body was hers, but her mind was out of sync with her reflection. Always playing catch-up, trying to rearrange the scrambled pieces of her life.”

I’ve heard it said – and it’s been true in my experience – that we are always every age we’ve ever been. That, as we age, we contain within ourselves the version of who we were at every age. This book is a clever working out of that idea, a complicated story with a simple message: “Notice more. Appreciate more.”

I tried too hard to figure it out for a while, and then I let it take me for a ride. But I didn’t love it, for three reasons. First, the only hint of explanation as to WHY things happen as they do is this sentence fragment in the first chapter, which never comes up again: “…every granted wish comes with a hidden cost, every blessing shadowed with a curse.” And then there’s the HOW: how does Oona leave letters for herself in years she hasn’t yet lived? Willing suspension of disbelief, sure, but this seemed like a missed opportunity to bring readers along. And finally, Oona herself… I had compassion for her, but I didn’t like her. She’s got spunk, she had to have spunk or the story would have ended with her in bed after the first jump, but she doesn’t have much depth beyond leaving big tips and donating mightily to charities from an impersonal distance.

This bit in the acknowledgements, though, is an encouragement to writers:
“I got a lot (hundreds!) of rejections in the years I’ve been trying to make it as a writer. Sometimes they buoyed me because of a bit of nice feedback, sometimes they left me indifferent, and more than once, they plummeted me into deep despair. But the rejection gave me grit and tested how much I wanted this dream. And it made this moment so much sweeter because it didn’t come quickly or easily. So to every agent and editor who said no, thank you. And to writers still trying to get their stories out there, keep fighting the good fight.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“…the Plains have been essential not only for my growth as a writer, they have formed me spiritually. I would even say they have made me a human being.” p11

Norris undoubtedly possesses a gorgeous way with words, but at times reading this book felt sluggish… I didn’t much care for small town mentality thirty years past. Still, parts of her reflection on living on the Great Plains + monastic life were oddly comforting in a pandemic, a strange and lonely frontier of its own.

Note: Dakota might be out of print. Check your local library.

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“…the books I am writing and the words I am speaking are for the purpose of bringing peace.” p117

Curtice was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, though she was aware of her Native American heritage. As an adult, she has leaned into her identity as a member of the Potawatomi people and writes at the intersection of these two parts of herself, two traditions. She writes an important, prophetic book filled with wisdom.

And more often than not,
the hummingbirds should get
our full attention,
because they teach us what it means
to gulp the nectar of life.
They teach us to remember
that we, too, are small, thirsty things,
looking for the river to drink from,
or, at least,
a
refreshing
fountain. (p41)

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead? The one thing that defines you, that makes everything else about you fall into place? Not on the internet, but with those real people around you?”

This is a fun book about how a simple question written and answered in a green composition book winds its way through a neighborhood and pulls together the people who encounter it into a meaningful community.


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Reading: February 2021

Do you always finish reading the books you start? I read three chapters of Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane – almost word-for-word the one episode of the Netflix series I watched – and returned it to the library. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the show I’d have stuck with the book, but I didn’t want to invest hours into reading about three decades of an unhealthy friendship. Then again, I finished reading two novels this month, both of which were okay, not great.

Good thing I had two fantastic books of prayer to balance it out. Brian Doyle’s A Book of Uncommon Prayer wins my favorite for this month, just by the width of the wild hair that tickled me, causing me to laugh out loud at his respectful sense of humor in prayer. Couldn’t we all use some humor in prayer?

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

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How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My big takeaways: everyone and everything is far more connected than we take time to recognize, and antiracist policy will be the key to making a better world. I wanted to give this a higher rating, except – sometimes Kendi runs away with his words in a way that sounds overly clever, and sometimes the weaving of his personal story with his research feels forced.

“Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power of construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest)–all come together to produce solutions bound to fail.”

“The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. Treating ignorance and hate and expecting racism to shrink suddenly seemed like treating a cancer patient’s symptoms and expecting the tumors to shrink.”

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary by Brian Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend recommended this book, and I used it as my Sunday meditation readings over the last month. I appreciate that Doyle turns his lens every which way as an appropriate occasion for prayer – to people he knows, or sees, or admires, or doesn’t even like; to hot showers and little brown birds, newts and cell phones; to the Church, and nuns, and Osama bin Laden; to writers, editors, and proofreaders; to sunny and rainy days. I also really appreciated his metaphors for God: Generosity, Designer, Coherence, Breath, Light, Bus Driver, Boss, Publisher, Band Manager, Imagination.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Influenza delle stelle [means] the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed. … I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were the writing.”

Timely, for certain, given that a novel about a global pandemic came out during another pandemic (& astonishing that Donoghue submitted final edits in March 2020 and publishers rushed the publication process, often as long as 2yrs, to just 4mos). And we’re still wrestling with bias issues related to gender and class. And politics and war.

The book is well written, but I didn’t like it. I kept turning pages much like I hit “next episode” on Netflix hospital shows, reading because it’s entertaining enough and I’m in it now. The last chapter contained a sensational twist that felt unnecessary, like it was added either for shock value or for contemporary relevance – neither justification made it necessary.

The Lies That Bind by Emily Giffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Maybe all relationship journeys are messy and complicated in one way or another, products of two flawed people coming together to form a flawed but, one hopes, stronger union.”

I chose this book because I hoped for a light before-bed read. Sadly, my favorite part was the pop culture references early on – TV shows and fashion trends that set the scene. The relationship issues were long and winding, frustrating and eventually predictable. Note: many reviews I read felt that Giffin made light of the 9/11 tragedy and profited from the suffering of others. While it didn’t bother me as I read, their perspective clearly has merit.

A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal by Sarah Bessey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brave, bold, beautiful book containing prayers – leading and worshipful, gentle and prophetic – and meditations on prayer. This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will quench the spiritual thirst of anyone who wonders if prayer is still for them. Yes, prayer is for you – because God is for you, always. In the introduction Sarah prays for this book: “May it be hope for the grieving, tenderness for the hurting, challenge for the comfortable, a kick in the ass for the lethargic, a permission slip allowing rest for the overwhelmed, an anointing for the work ahead, and a sanctuary.” I finished reading the last prayer Sunday and started again from the beginning Monday…



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Lent 2021 Bookstack

As much as I love books, I don’t often post cover pictures. Partly because I’ve been reading on my Kindle, and it’s difficult to take a picture of a digital bookstack. And partly because I don’t post until I’m done reading and know what I want to say about the book(s).

However, I have no hesitation recommending these books, my spiritual reading during Lent. They’ll be my Lenten companions at least until I finish them and have to find new book friends for the journey – the three in the middle aren’t dated, so I’m plowing my way through them.

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Bottom to top:
Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne – This will be an all-year book for me. I started reading it last year when the pandemic shuttered in-person church and it’s been a welcome addition to my morning routine.

Native by Kaitlin Curtice – I heard her interviewed online and before it was over I’d ordered the book, the story of a young woman raised between Christian and Indigenous faith and culture and how she is coming to terms with all aspects of her identity.

Dakota by Kathleen Norris – I picked this book from the suggested reading list for a writing class I’m taking since I already had it in my bookcase, unread. Some chapters have been more compelling than others (I may drive through, but this book has convinced me that I have no intention of ever living in the Dakotas), but the unintentional conversation between Native and Dakota, both spiritual autobiographies tied to the land in middle America, has been interesting.

A Rhythm of Prayer, edited by Sarah Bessey – As with my choice of Common Prayer, I’m finding myself drawn to praying written prayers, sharing in “the prayers of the people” during a time when gathering with people has become fraught.

Where the Eye Alights by Marilyn McEntyre – That writing class I’m taking? Taught by this author! This lovely book offers a meditation for each day of Lent that I am savoring like one melty square of dark chocolate oozing goodness into my whole being.

Three of the stack are my morning reading, Native and Dakota are my afternoon reading, and I sip on a cup of tea and a novel before bed.

Do you have different books for different times of day? For different seasons?

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Reading: January 2021

My reading year started strong with two non-fiction books that offer important, striking social criticism, both 5 stars in my opinion. I finished out the month with four novels, the best of which was a book I hadn’t expected to read (Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld).

What books have surprised you recently?

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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…our simplistic definition of racism–as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals–engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem…”

This book is so clear, with so many applicable examples. If you’re open to self-examination, this book is a must.

Ask:
Why does this unsettle me?
What would it mean for me if this were true?
How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics?
How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making?
Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see?
Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not?

Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…alcohol is addictive to everyone. Yet we’ve created a separate disease called alcoholism and forced it upon the minority of the population who are willing to admit they can’t control their drinking, and because of that, we’ve focused on what’s wrong with those few humans rather than what’s wrong with our alcohol-centric culture or the substance itself.”

Eye-opening. Big Alcohol is guilty of marketing the way Big Tobacco is no longer allowed to because our society has fully bought into alcohol as a good thing, a proper and helpful – even healthy – way to unwind and celebrate. Society has blamed the victims rather than accepted appropriate responsibility. And AA, which obviously has helped many people, was created by and for white Protestant men; it has defined what alcohol abuse means, what those who abuse it look like, and it has become widely accepted as the only viable treatment option…even though it doesn’t take into account the real and different needs of marginalized people, including women.

This book takes on everything we think we know about alcohol and addiction recovery and turns it on its head in helpful, practical ways. It should be widely read beyond those who suspect they might have a drinking problem. Because almost everyone drinks, and many people have addiction issues in other areas – eating, bad relationships, technology, etc.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“It’s about the kind of love that doesn’t ask you to be anyone but who you are.”

That about sums up the theme of this book: love accepts us as we are. Good point, well told. But the book didn’t rock me like When You Reach Me.

Stead is a fantastic writer, so I wanted to like this book more than I did. I adore Bea, but her character also confused me. I wish the author had been clearer about the nature of Bea’s struggles – I think that would have helped readers identify with her and feel more empathy for her. Beyond her family, the adults surrounding Bea are total tools and that frustrated me. But I think this story will be helpful for young people living through anxiety, divorce, remarriage, and having a family that looks different from others.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“For the rest of her life, when asked to recall her earliest memory, Kate would remember watching [Peter] run around the side of his house with a red ball in his hand and already knowing his name.”

This multi-generational story of two families, beginning with two young men who meet in the NYC police academy, is chock-full of every family’s struggles while being completely unique. It’s pain-full and that alone took me two tries to get through. In the end it wants to tell us that we can survive most anything life throws at us. But if you’re reading for a fun, literary escape, this isn’t your book.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This gothic-styled book, haunting like a bad fever dream, is mostly just strange. The characters aren’t fully fleshed out. The events feel disjointed and like they should have meant more than they do. Even the climax, predictable as it was, I just didn’t care. All the while I kept thinking, “John got himself into this mess and he can just as easily extract himself.”

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t expect to read this, but it was available when I was looking for something to fill the gap between other books. I wasn’t sure I’d like it, as I’ve felt hit-or-miss about Sittenfeld’s books. I’ve had mixed feelings about Hillary for years – pity, confusion, ambivalence, respect.

Up to a point, we know the general outlines of the narrative (I’ll admit it felt voyeuristic to read about Hillary and Bill, yet it served the author’s purpose of humanizing Hillary…). Sittenfeld’s interpretation of what might have happened if Hillary had left Bill takes interesting twists and turns and I couldn’t put it down. Mostly, she paints Hillary in a respectful light that creates empathy – for who she is personally and politically as she faces the particular challenges a would-be glass ceiling-shattering woman must.

“But as much as I wanted to be president, I wanted a woman to be president – I wanted this because women and girls were half the population and we deserved, as a basic human right and a means of ensuring justice, to be equally represented in our government…. Some presidents cared about improving the world, and all of them had egos; but none of them had run because they hoped to gain entry to the highest office of power on behalf of an entire gender. Yes, I was me, Hillary, but I also was a vessel and a proxy.”


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2020: My Year in Books

In January I set two reading goals. In my Not 20 for 2020 list, I included an intention to read four books a month. On Goodreads I set a slightly higher goal of reading 55 books. Goodreads reports that I’ve read 80 books. That’s 145% of my 55 book goal, 24,874 pages, and 32 books more than I read last year. That doesn’t include the false starts, books I put down when I couldn’t connect, or the books I’m currently reading. Welp, the pandemic has at least been good for my reading!

While I haven’t done a reading round-up review since September, before Thanksgiving I put together a list of books that would make great gifts. I’ve read another 15 books since then, but I thought I’d end the year by compiling my 2020 5-star reviews.

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first 2020 read remained my favorite all year. Love this book, a magical (“m-word”) ode to stories, to story lovers and story tellers. She even weaves in the storytelling involved in video games, a field with which I have little experience. I rarely reread, but the stories within stories and the connections between them that eventually become apparent deserve another go.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mesmerizing. I don’t know what a singing crawdad sounds like, but my brain buzzed with the heavy-hot song of cicadas as I read this beautiful book. It was a fascinating back-to-back companion to The Giver of Stars, both about women who don’t fit in, who balk against cultural standards to live their own lives.

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God by Sarah Bessey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve now read all of Sarah’s books and this is her best. Oh-so-vulnerable, gut-wrenching, thoughtful, loving… Bravo, Sarah, for writing your journey so that we may be blessed through your suffering.

“May you be swept off your feet by the goodness and welcome of God, the ferocious love and friendship of Jesus, the delight and disruptions of the Holy Spirit. May you love because you were loved first” (211)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love! Of course I’ve seen both movies countless times (prefer the Gene Wilder version), but reading the book was so much fun. I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it.

Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life-changing! RAIN is hard, important work, learning to Recognize my feelings, Allow them to just be (rather than stuffing or numbing them), Investigating how they feel in my body, and Nurturing my inner self. As a life-long Christian, I feel like I just got a crash-course in prayer that the Church never provided.

“Simply put, RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, nurture) awakens mindfulness and compassion, applies them to the places where we are stuck, and untangles emotional suffering.”

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a white Christian, do I have a book for you! Brown has written from her heart and her head, from her experience, from her place in the shadow of hope. Sit with this one. Listen hard. Drop your defenses. Take notes. Ponder and pray. Then commit to do something to work toward change.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Book of Longings is the fictional account of Ana, a strong woman with a largeness inside her to be a voice, to fill others’ ears with the words she writes from the holy of holies inside her. She is also the wife of Jesus.

I wasn’t sure I could go there with a married Jesus; it doesn’t offend scripturally, but it sure bucks tradition. Kidd writes in the author’s notes that she recognized the audacity of the goal in writing this story. But the story is fully Ana’s, and with her, I fell in love with a human Jesus whose humanity often gets lost in the religious focus on His divinity. I wept while He died in a way that, with its familiarity, I don’t weep nearly enough when I read the Bible.

“All shall be well,” Yaltha had told me, and when I’d recoiled at how trite and superficial that sounded, she’d said, “I don’t mean that life won’t bring you tragedy. I only mean you will be well in spite of it. There’s a place in you that is inviolate. You’ll find your way there, when you need to. And you’ll know then what I speak of.”

Deacon King Kong by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some of the most uniquely vivid characters I’ve encountered in recent reads, and another mind-bending illustration of how our lives can be so incredibly intertwined even without our recognition of it.

“…and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”

“But then, she thought, every once in a while there’s a glimmer of hope. Just a blip on the horizon, a whack on the nose of the giant that set him back on his heels or to the canvas, something that said, ‘Guess what, you so-and-so, I am God’s child. And I. Am. Still. Here.”

Dear Martin by Nic Stone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book during a week of protests over another cop-involved shooting of a black man… Let’s say it was timely reading and I felt angry, sad, confused, heartbroken, challenged. I appreciate that, as the author tried to work out her own questions and feelings about the devastating state of race relations in America, she provided a well-rounded picture of its complexities.

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan D. Chittister
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So much wisdom! I first read this book more than a decade ago for a spiritual disciplines seminary class that I audited. I picked it up again since the pandemic erased my daily routines and I thought it could offer a much-needed perspective. Amazing that Benedict’s rule, written in sixth-century Italy to establish order among monastics, still has so much to say to life in 2020 (another 30 years after Sister Joan wrote this book).

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of a grad-level writing class called “Writing into the Unknown.” The professor used selections from Eliot as epigraphs to every class session since Eliot writes so eloquently about time. You can also find it read by Sir Alec Guiness on YouTube.

All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my all-time favorites, as I read it this time I paid close attention to her use of language and storytelling. Lamott’s writing is so unbelievably good. With her reverent irreverence, she makes her conversion to Christianity accessible to even the most doubtful.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My favorite Backman book yet! Life and death, loneliness and love, isolation and connection, this book about idiots, about anxious people, is truly about all of us and our greatest needs: to be seen and known and loved, and to be allowed to see and know and love in return. Backman’s storytelling style, the way he breaks in to tell his readers what’s coming, or shed new light, or change the paradigm, is fantastic. His comparison/contrasts and his humor make this book so readable I couldn’t put it down.

“…we do our best. We plant an apple tree today, even if we know the world is going to be destroyed tomorrow.”

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Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash



Grief Balms: Snow Globes & Beauty Emergencies

Grief seems to be at every corner this year. Many of us have shared occasions for grief, such as illness and death, the loss of normalcy, shuttered shops and closed schools, dwindling dollars in our bank accounts, isolation and loneliness. Most of us also have personal reasons for grief. For two weeks I haven’t left my phone out of sight as I wait for the call that my mom has gone to glory.

So when I saw an article titled, “How to deal with grief,” of course I clicked. While grief has taught me lived-and-learned lessons, I’m still up for additional advice within easy reach. For the same reason, I am a sucker for happiness research. Recently I clicked on an article with a title along the lines of, “This one trick will make you as happy as eating 20 chocolate bars.” Twenty chocolate bars would make me sick, not happy, but I appreciate the effort. The answer was: Smile. Smile more, even when you don’t feel it, and you’ll be happier. Apparently, people rate their smiling-more happiness as high as having received a gift of $25,000. Now I simply must disagree: a no-obligation gift of $25,000 would definitely make me happier than insincere smiling. Also, I’d be happy to have you try to prove me wrong.

I clicked on the grief article and found an interview with poet Maggie Smith. Smith published a volume of poetry in 2016 (Keep Moving) which included a poem called “Good Bones” that seems to go viral when the world teeters dangerously on the edge of a deep well – for example, immediately after the 2016 election. Also, 2020. Smith calls “Good Bones” a disaster barometer.

Smith offered two pieces of advice that have affected how I’m moving through these hard days. The first is to find “snow globe moments,” something you do every day that stills the world and allows you to feel like your genuine self. For her, that’s writing. I share writing as a core activity and I’ll add walking our dogs, preferably with my husband so we can spend that time connecting. He’s my best sounding board and also an encourager who gets me out of my own head. I believe author Cheryl Strayed referred to her Wild adventure as “walking back to her best self” which makes sense to me. Writing and walking have been life-giving and sanity saving this year.

Smith also discussed “beauty emergencies.” We tend to think of the word “emergency” negatively, as a problem, but it comes from the root “emergent” which means “happening now.” So a beauty emergency occurs when you pay attention and notice that something beautiful is happening this instant and you’ll miss it if you don’t drop everything and watch. Like a hummingbird flitting at the feeder or a sunset that shifts colors every second and will be over within minutes.

Poets necessarily cultivate the ability to witness to the present. To focus their micro-lens on this moment. I am not a poet, and my monkey brain leaps from past to future, future to past, bounding over this uncomfortable time. One more reason I am going to add books of poetry to my reading queue in this upcoming year, because I need the benefit of their wise and often witty reflections.

Meanwhile, I mentioned beauty emergencies to my sixteen-year-old son and, though I didn’t know it as the words spilled from my mouth, that may have been one of the best things I’ve said to him this whole year. Several times over the last two weeks, as my attention has been absorbed in writing or reading, he has yanked me outside to witness a sunset. I have done the same for him, pulling him from his bedroom desk where he counter-attacks against the never-ending onslaught of distance learning assignments.

We both carry our own foggy griefs which we have soothed side-by-side with regular applications of beauty, watching as the sky indiscernibly shifts from orangey-yellows to red-purples to dusky twilight. We’ve both tried – unsuccessfully – to capture the splendor in photos. And that, it seems, is also poetic: the call is to witness, not capture, rather to be captivated ourselves. To stay present and open to this stunning moment before our eyes. To become newly aware of life’s magnificence and brevity.

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Cover image by Meli1670 from Pixabay
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Books Make the Best Gifts – Holiday 2020

I just finished reading my 74th book in 2020. Way back in January, or what feels like eight years ago now, I set a goal to read 55 books; Goodreads tells me I’m at 135% of that goal–and I’m not done yet!

Still, it’s time to purchase holiday gifts and I have some readers on my list. I’m a firm believer that books make great gifts. I have so many Christmas memories involving books… quelling my Christmas Eve anticipation by hiding away in a book, or putting off the inevitable let-down I always felt at the end of the extra-special holiday season and the return to “normal” life by, you guessed it, sticking my nose firmly in a book.

Sure, I liked toys and gadgets as much as the next child–like my Simon game with its colorful and annoying beeping patterns, or my first eight-track cassette player with a now-embarrassing Shawn Cassidy crooning at me–but a stack of books was always my favorite.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

So here are a few of my favorites from the books I’ve read this year for your consideration…

For the bibliophile/fantasy reader: The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern

For the reader who enjoys a life-affirming story: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

For the literary fiction lover:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

For the historical fiction fan: The Exiles by Christina Baker Klein

For those who thrill to a creative reinterpretation of biblical stories:
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

For the art lover: The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

For teenagers and/or the young at heart:
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Dear Martin by Nic Stone

For the non-fiction world-changer: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

For the friend who’s worn through their walking shoes in this pandemic year: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

For the mindful reader: Radical Compassion by Tara Brach

For those who appreciate spiritually-focused memoirs:
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Reading: September 2020

I anticipated that my reading would slow down as we progressed into fall. Helping my kiddo manage his school load, plus adding a grad-level writing class of my own, has meant less time devoted to whatever strikes my fancy.

However, there were also a couple of hits-and-misses that went back to the library, one forever (The Wedding Date) and one I might pick up again at a later date (Ask Again, Yes). And you’ll notice that of the five books I read this month, three I wasn’t sure about and yet enjoyed as I hung in there for the duration.

How do you decide when to stop and when to keep reading? Is there a book you’d recommend now that took more than one start to enjoy?

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Rest in Power, RBG (3/15/33 – 9/18/20)

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cute, fun, light. Plus girl power. Easy, entertaining reading.

Edited to say: I’m glad I started with this one. I didn’t realize this was #2 in a series, so I went back to read The Wedding Date…and promptly gave up because it had no plot.

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan D. Chittister
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So much wisdom! I first read this book more than a decade ago for a spiritual disciplines I took in seminary. I picked it up again since the pandemic erased my daily routines and I thought it could offer a much-needed perspective. Amazing that Benedict’s rule, written in sixth-century Italy to establish order among monastics, and Sister Joan’s meditations on it written 30 years ago, still have so much to say to life in 2020.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The early relationship between Lillian and Madison was so gross I almost gave up, classic rich-girl // poor-girl at boarding school nonsense; poor girl takes the fall and rich girl gets the good life she hasn’t worked for or deserved. But then, wow… I didn’t want this book to end.

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What makes for a good fairy tale? And who deserves one?

This book grew on me. It’s light, fun, and culturally timely: a Black, queer girl growing into herself in a predominantly white Midwestern town. When I finished, I immediately texted the title to a friend I thought would enjoy it.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this one. It’s a fairly simple story, and the title character – at least at first glance – also seems a fairly simple guy. An Everyman, even a fool.

But it won the Pulitzer, so I suspected there had to be more to it. There is and, in the end, I loved Less – the character and the book.

Like this observation:

It is, after all, almost a miracle they are here. Not because they’ve survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It’s that they’ve survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty and to have made it here: to this frosted-cake landscape, these mountains of gold, the little table they can now see sitting on the dune, set with olives and pita and glasses and wine chilling on ice, with the sun waiting more patiently than any camel for their arrival.

And each of these descriptions:

We all recognize grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding.

He looks up at a closed-circuit television to follow the fleeting romances between flights and gates…

It was nothing like he expected, the sun flirting with him among the trees and houses; the driver speeding along a crumbling road alongside which trash was piled as if washed there (and what first looked like a beach beside a river turned out to be an accretion of a million plastic bags, as a coral reef is an accretion of a million tiny animals); the endless series of shops, as if made from one continuous concrete barrier…

The boat ride is half an hour, during which Less sees leaping dolphins and flying fish skipping like stones over the water, as well as the floating mane of a jellyfish. He recalls an aquarium he visited as a boy, where, after enjoying a sea turtle that swam breaststroke like a dotty old aunt, he encountered a jellyfish, a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water, and thought with a sob: We are not in this together.

He sees, in the lines around her mouth, the shadow of the smile all widows wear in private.

He is shown to a car as small, bland, and white as a hospital dessert…
…he takes the wheel of what basically feels like an enameled toaster…

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