Thankful Thursday – Winter 17 Reading

What I’ve read so far in 2017: an odd smattering of Christian non-fiction, memoir, historical novel, Newbery Award winner, and fiction. The winner out of this bunch: hands-down it’s A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I didn’t think I would like it. In the end, I didn’t. I loved it!

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of LivingPresent Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Note: This review is longer than my usual b/c I wrote it for our church women’s group newsletter]

Shauna Niequist thought she had built her perfect life. Until she admitted the exhausted ache in her body and soul, and that she would consider handing it all over to the first person who thought they could handle it.

She wanted more, more, more out of life, and she wanted to be recognized as terrifically capable, worshipping for a time at the altars of productivity, capability, busyness, distraction. Sound familiar? We want the best life has to offer, and we want to make a contribution to the world. And yet, we also know that quite often, less is more. It’s one thing to want to make your mark and another to believe that mark proves your right to take up space on the planet.

Tired of being tired, burned out on busy and hearing others express the same complaints—longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy—Niequist began making changes. She reminds us of the simple truth, easily forgotten, that our choices determine what will fill our minutes, hours, days and years. “…you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you’re not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it.”

She practiced saying no in order to make her yeses count. She stopped should-ing on herself: “Of course I can. If I can, then I have to. They need me. They need me to be responsible, and tough. I should. Warning, warning, warning. The words tough, responsible, and should have never led me to life and wholeness” (117). She cleaned out her closet and her calendar. She spent more time playing basketball with her kids. She learned to be okay with uncomfortable silence and to rest in God’s unconditional love.

Present Over Perfect is not a how-to manual, but one woman’s story of reprioritizing her body and soul and finding love: “…the love I was looking for all along is never found in the hustle. You can’t prove it or earn it or compete for it. You can just make space for it, listen for it, travel all the way down to the depth of your soul, into the rhythmic beating of your very own heart, where the very spirit of God has made his home, and that’s where you’ll find it.”

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before this book I had read nothing by Coelho and knew nothing about Mata Hari. Well, I knew her name, and knew she was “notorious.” This is a fast read but I expected more from an author so well-respected. Maybe I need to brush up on WWI history (um, yes). The sad–and in these days, scary–thing is how this woman, for nothing more than being an independent and captivating woman at a time when that could be seen as scandalous, was betrayed to death by those who had been her friends and lovers. She was sacrificed as entertainment, a distraction from the hell the world had become. Which frankly terrifies me in this country at this moment in history. What are we needlessly sacrificing to distract ourselves from what is truly happening around us?

A quote: “Liars, what little I know of them, are people who seek popularity and recognition. Even when faced with truth, they always find a way to escape, coldly repeating what had just been said or blaming the accuser of speaking untruths.”

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and WritingHungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jennifer Weiner’s books tend to be light, funny, emotional, sharp and satisfying like a spiked cup of dark hot chocolate. This memoir in essays has some of that but not enough. She’s a good storyteller, so each story kept me reading. It was interesting to see how much of her personal life and experiences she has mined for her fiction, and to see how a “regular girl” became a novelist. But sometimes it felt like TMI; I’m not sure her half-brother will appreciate the sordid details of his birth being published before he’s even old enough to read. Overall I wish she and her editor had done another few sweeps over the content.

Britt-Marie Was HereBritt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d hear the fuss about A Man Called Ove, but a curmudgeonly old man didn’t sound like my cuppa tea. A fussy old woman doesn’t, either, but I grabbed this book nonetheless. Backman’s a master at creating character and reveals Britt-Marie’s backstory by way of explaining her eccentricities while also moving her forward, out of her comfort zone and into our hearts. This could have had several endings but the ending he landed on is perfectly satisfying. Now to go pick up Ove…!

Quotes:
“Sometimes it’s easier to go on living, not even knowing who you are, when at least you know precisely where you are while you go on not knowing” (p125).

“All passion is childish. It’s banal and naive. It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us. Overturns us. It bears us away in a flood. All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe.
“That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk. Our dignity. The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.
“Britt-Marie yells out loud when Ben scores that goal. The soles of her feet are catapulted off the floor of the sports hall. Most people are not blessed with that sort of thing in the month of January. The universe.
“You have to love soccer for that” (p262).

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my…!

Ove looks and acts like “the archetypal grumpy old sod,” which generally means I’d steer clear. But this book demonstrates once again that grumpy people may be grumpy for a reason, and likely if you can get behind that grumpy exterior, they are so much more.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise” (p 326). As does the beauty of this book, about death, life, and love. Without Sonja, Ove has lost his focus. “Every human being needs to know what she’s fighting for. That was what they said. And she fought for what was good. For the children she never had. And Ove fought for her. Because that was the only thing in this world he really knew” (p 205). Parvaneh moves her family in next door and, despite his efforts to remain aloof, she also moves them into Ove’s life and eventually his overly-large heart. Parvaneh throws open Ove’s door and restores to him a good life worth fighting for.

I read Britt-Marie first and thought I liked it better. Until I discovered my face wet with tears at an ending I knew was coming and was, of course, perfectly on target and still so loving and sad.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving FaithOut of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smart and engaging, Bessey takes us on a journey through her evolving theology. Because–truth–we all have ideas and beliefs that change over time, with experience and study and lots of prayer.

One of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t created to be used. We were not saved, set free, rescued, and redeemed to be used. We aren’t here to work and earn our way; we aren’t pew fodder or a cog. We aren’t here to prove how worthy we are for the saving. There isn’t anything left to earn. God won’t use us up….
“God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because He loves you.” (p219)

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although from p1 the writing was fine, it took a while to connect with this book. The more I read the answer presented itself: it hit a little too close to home.

Love young and old(er), and three too-entwined relationships: Andrew and Elizabeth, Zoe and Jane, and their kids, Ruby (Zoe/Jane’s daughter) and Harry (Andrew/Elizabeth’s son), all falling in and out and back in love and friendship in all life’s relational complexities. The older set are firmly mid-life, 47-55yo, while the kids are 17-18.

I, myself, am in the “pushing 50” demographic while my son is ready to take on his future at 18. Too close…

Like I said, the book is fine. Entertaining, I guess, but nothing over the moon special.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book engaged me enough to read it quickly. But in the end, I don’t know how to feel about it. I have sisters and the complicated sisterly dynamic rang true. The marriage dynamic, too, really the whole messy-and-hard-but-mostly-good family thing was right on. And the ESP twist on things made this story just interesting enough. But I absolutely hated the ‘earthquake’–unlike real earthquakes it seemed completely avoidable–and I felt like Sittenfeld threw in the race issue just to make an obvious move. I loved loved loved Eligible, but this one leaves me saying, “meh…”

The Girl Who Drank the MoonThe Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book glimmers with similarities to other greats that came before:
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Considering those all won the Newbery Medal, really, it’s no surprise that this one has, too. It sucked me in with beauty and truth. But in the end, I felt like I’d missed the key moment, the surprise, The Thing that makes good books fantastic. I truly enjoyed it and have passed it on to my family and will buy it for everyone for Christmas, but it doesn’t quite measure up to my all-time favorites.

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Heather Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nearing her death, Lucy writes the story of her family during the summer of 1935 when she, the middle of three daughters, turned twelve; the summer ended in tragedy when six-year-old Emily went missing, never to be found. Lucy leaves the journal for her grand-niece Justine, along with her family’s Minnesota lake house, the escape hatch Justine needs for herself and her daughters.

The chapters alternate between Lucy’s first person narration and third person narration of Justine’s experience, traveling back to the lake house she visited with her mother only once, when Justine was nine.

These two women transported me to a lake house summer. They carried me along in their respective dramas and didn’t give away the end until it was time. But by then the end was just too twisted, too sad. I felt sick at how characters made choices with long-reaching consequences throughout generations. I kept waking in the night with the sadness of the story weighing on my mind. I guess for some that could be a sign of a good book but, in the end, this book was not my cuppa tea.

Life and Other Near-Death ExperiencesLife and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dealt a crappy hand in childhood, Libby seemed to recover well. She is all for kittens and rainbows and looking to the bright side. People like her. She then gets, in one day, a painful one-two punch, the worst news followed by news just as devastating in different ways. What to do next? Take off for the tropics, of course.

This is not a great book but it is a highly readable and–given the serious subject matter–a surprisingly light and fun book. I truly enjoyed the story. I’d like to be friends with Libby, or at least to think I might respond with just an ounce or two of her optimism. I definitely look forward to more from Pagan.

Thankful Thursday – Books!

I read 30 books in 2015. Not a lot, but more than two a month. So far in 2016, I’ve upped the ante, closer to one a week. I may not keep it up, but it’s been fun so far. I keep my library queue updated as I hear about books I want to read, which makes it like a game of library roulette – I read what I get, and I set reading goals based on due dates and which books are more likely in demand and so unlikely to be renewable. Just last week my neighbor popped over and found me in my pj’s too late in the morning, because I just had to get to the end of a book. She loaned me the library book she’d just finished, with four days left to read it. Done! And wouldn’t you know it? The day I returned it, my queue provided my next book to take its place.

Another coincidence that made me chuckle: the first four books came in young adult-adult pairs of two, one pair on death and another on female friendships.

So here you go, the low-down on what I’ve read so far in 2016.

All the Bright PlacesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I almost stopped reading after one chapter – the subject matter is raw – and I’m so glad I didn’t. This book is beautiful, with beautifully-drawn characters, people I feel I know, struggling in the wake of tragedy and the daily tragedy called High School. For those who liked Paper Towns and Eleanor & Park, this book might be even better.

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A middle-aged man recounts his thirteen summer as son of a Methodist minister in a small Minnesota farming town, the summer death stripped him of childhood and forced him to face life as a young man. The book feels slow and almost dreamlike in its reflection but superb in capturing the superlatives that make up ordinary life: doubt, faith, friendship, family, anger, fear, joy, beauty, love. It portrays what it looks like to live faith, which necessarily includes doubt, without being preachy even during the few snippets of sermon. The story points to grace which leads to hope.

“In your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.
“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may no be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. This miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day” (195).

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Without the raving of friends I might not have picked up this book, but I’m glad I did. I know these characters, and if you’re a parent with kids in grade school, you do, too. They made me laugh and made me want to stomp on their toes and/or hug them. The bitchy, controlling parents who believe their kid can do no wrong. The meek who get trampled for listening to and believing their kid. The life of the party and the parent-organizer. And oh, the issues: gossip, manipulation, parent v. parent v. administration. It’s all real, frustratingly so.

But it’s really about friendship, family, and parenting in a cultural environment that doesn’t always prioritize the right things. And in the end, it does a good job of revealing that exteriors and reality don’t always match up. We all need more compassion. As the book says, “It could happen to any of us.”

Goodbye StrangerGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stead has mastered the thoughts and voices of middle school girls. So spot on and surprisingly smart. In fact, it’s evident that Stead loves her characters, refreshing as culture tends to look down on middle schoolers. The story broke my heart in all the right ways and handed it back fully restored. It’s not a great book, but if you like early adolescents, or if you want an inside peek into their complex inner lives, this is a good book. If you haven’t read Stead’s When You Reach Me, do so quickly. It is amazing.

I Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every DayI Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day by Lu Ann Cahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really liked this book. A wowza-successful middle aged woman decides to try something for the first time every day of the year, and in so doing “unsticks” her life. Some of her Firsts seem drastic – New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge or riding a mechanical bull; others are wacky – eating a scorpion; some are playful – hula hooping; some are ordinary – trying a new restaurant or recipe; some are life-changing – she learns new skills and takes risk that may eventually pay off in her career. The overall take-away is to open your eyes to see the invitations – and say YES! – to live a full, creative, exuberant, playful life.

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #1)The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While my guys have read just about every Rick Riordan on the market, this was my first. Tween and I needed a new read-aloud, and as this series is based on Norse mythology (my heritage), we dove in headlong. Surprise, surprise, I liked it! There may have been too many characters considering my woeful Norse myth-knowledge, but it was fun. Just right for a read-aloud with a middle grade reader boy.

Finding AudreyFinding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Different from Kinsella’s other books, while maintaining her style, makes this foray engaging in new ways. I related a little too much to the mom freaked out by her teenage son’s gaming habits. She made me feel better about myself, actually, until I realize she’s got way more on her hands than I want. Poor Audrey is making her way through her “broken” brain’s reaction to tragic events, and her family is doing their best along with her. I don’t know enough about how teenage brains heal, so this effort may be a little too romantic and unrealistic. Still, it was sweet.

Who Do You LoveWho Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a very readable down-to-earth love story, beginning with Rachel and Andy as children and following each one as they weave in and out of each other’s lives through middle age. It was good, not great. I much prefer Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, but if you’re looking for a light, don’t have to think too much love story, this is it.

When Organizing Isn't Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your LifeWhen Organizing Isn’t Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life by Julie Morgenstern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Because I constantly fight with clutter, I constantly pick up organizing books. This one is different and at first I thought it wasn’t for me, as it really has to do with people moving through life transitions: change of employment or relationship status, for example. The paradigm is this: Separate the treasures; Heave the trash; Embrace your identity; and Drive yourself forward = SHED. Of course those 4 steps can apply to anyone at any point. They’re broader than just Stuff as well, because you can apply the paradigm to mental and emotional clutter as well as physical. I mostly skimmed the book, but there’s some good stuff in there you won’t find in your average organizational book.

Three WishesThree Wishes by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book fell into my hands courtesy of my neighbor and I had four days to read it before it was due at the library. It’s an easy read, so I devoured it like birthday cake. It looks light and fluffy, but is surprisingly rich as it follows triplets from their 34th birthday celebration back in time to before their conception and through life as these look-alikes live out their individual identities.

Our families assign us roles we live out:
Lyn – driven, achiever, martyr
Cat – dramatic, funny, bitch
Gemma – forgetful, drifter, surprisingly smart but unfocused
And yet we have the power to make different decisions, ones that may seem out of character to others but drive us forward in new and better directions.