One Book Short

book-1014197_960_720Teen has a numbers quirk: they have to be even. The stereo and TV can’t be set to 9 or 11, but to 8 or 10. He’s thrilled that his birth date contains all even numbers, and irked by his rugby bag: #733.

So I won’t bother to tell him that, as of this moment, I’ve read 49 books in 2016. I might still squeeze in one more, but not in time to also blog about it. So as far we are concerned, 49 it is.

49 tops the even 30 I read in 2015, and blows away the 9-13 read by the “average” American (Pew Research Center, January 2014). I guess I could wow Teen with my page count: those 49 books contained 15,662 pages, with an average length of 326. My shortest book was also even: Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, 64 pages; my longest book, odd: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, at 531. Among Goodreads readers, the most popular book I read this year is the new Harry Potter play, The Cursed Child, while the least popular was I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn; and the highest rated book (for good reason!) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

My go-to genre: literature/fiction at 25 (favs this year: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Euphoria by Lily King, and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld). Young adult comes close at 13 (favs: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson). I read more than my usual of non-fiction (two completely different, life-changing favs: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold). Surprisingly, I only read one book on faith/religion but it’s a practical book on prayer (Fervent by Priscilla Shirer), and not surprisingly, only one book of short stories which I gave up on (What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi – smart, just not for me).

I’ve summarized my 2016 reading in four posts: March 4, March 31, May 26, and September 29. Below are the books I’ve read in the last few months.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A year ago my teenage son read Just Mercy as extra credit for his high school Social Studies class. This year he read Kafka and Camus for an English class unit on existentialism. As I took up Just Mercy this month, I thought they might be of the same genre: how can it be that we live in a country founded on freedom and still incarcerate–on death row, no less–a hard-working, well-respected man with no evidence beyond skin color and fear? He might as well have woken up a bug. That might have been a better life.

Stevenson’s passion for justice and mercy for those who have been treated with less dignity than the very least of these, combined with his gift of storytelling, has opened my eyes to an aspect of America I wish didn’t exist. In this election year, I feel a new weight of responsibility to research the candidates and measures on the ballot. The headlines and bullet points cannot reveal the whole picture. Those without a voice rely on those of us who do to sing a better, more accurate song of freedom.

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a companion piece to Life After Life, this book was not what I’d hoped. I was initially glad we weren’t flipping through lives and time again as we did in Ursula’s story, but to the contrary, Teddy’s story plods along in a rather unexciting way. Even the war scenes felt mostly, surprisingly, slow. Had I not already invested hours reading the first book, I would have given up on the several hundred pages of this one.

Until the last gut-wrenching chapter.

If you haven’t read or didn’t like Life After Life, I won’t recommend this to you. If you read/like LAL, hang in there with this one.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LOVE! After many years, I reread one of Jane Austen’s books while on vacation. Still great, of course, but I have changed and I couldn’t love it the way I had. It felt (I know, writing these words might be sacrilege to some…) trite, superficial.

This book, though…? This book made Austen’s characters and stories real in such a great way. I honestly couldn’t put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours, including time off to sleep. I loaned it to a friend who did the same thing. We both grinned goofy-ridiculous grins because the book is goofy-ridiculous grin worthy. So. Much. Fun!

Everyone Brave is ForgivenEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t particularly want to read another WW2 book, but Cleave’s Little Bee remains one of the most compelling books I’ve read. I’m so glad I gave this one a chance, as it has cemented Cleave among my favorite authors. His writing is so fresh–personal, vivid, funny, poignant. His characters become real people you’d like to know (or not). The story is so specifically focused that you almost don’t notice the war, but then, you also get new and horrifying details about the war. I’d recommend this book to just about any reader.

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One weird day, and 50 years of Eleanor’s life.

She begins the day with a set of resolutions to become a better, more productive, healthier human being. (Don’t we all do that some days, even beyond our January determination?) She doesn’t achieve most of what she sets out to do/be. It’s too pie-in-the-sky to think sheer will power can override years of dysfunctional habit. But through flashbacks, we learn some of the Big Why’s that led to Eleanor’s current state of peculiarity. And through odd events that pile up one after another, she comes to new insights and revelations.

“Today” may have been as strange as any previous day in her life, but I believe in hope that Eleanor’s tomorrow will be different.

SweetbitterSweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I worked as a restaurant hostess for one short college-years summer, and that was more than enough restaurant work for me.

It was also enough to conjure specific memories–sights, smells, personalities, stress–while reading Sweetbitter. I didn’t like restaurant work, and I didn’t like this book.

The writing was fine–specific, clever. But I am not a “bright lights, big city” kinda gal, while Tess claims the day she moved to New York was the day of her real birth. She longs for Big City adventure, and yet it seemed that her world got smaller and then smaller still. She repeatedly made stupid choices she could have avoided – ones she knew she should have avoided. That’s not very interesting.

And the Big Betrayal she experiences just didn’t seem that big to me. She chose awful “friends” who hurt her. But everyone, including Tess, is so clearly awful that it didn’t seem surprising or even all that bad.

Honestly, this book was enough to make me want to avoid going to restaurants–the facade, the pretension, the dirt. I think I’ll cook at home.

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project, #2)Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confession: I have never read Austen’s original Northanger Abbey. But this book was entirely uneven… Sometimes it felt Austen-formal, others it revealed its updating. Maybe the fault is mine, that I’m not familiar with how Brits currently view social strata, influencing their behavior/attitudes. That aside, vampires? I wasn’t sure if the author was joking or serious. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an update of Pride & Prejudice was fantastic; McDermid’s attempt at Northanger Abbey wasn’t.

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for two reasons: someone gave me a gift certificate and a recommendation, and I’ve been reading about racial injustice. Some of it was difficult to read, the violence of white supremacy, for example, but also the implication that I might be more racist than I admit. Indeed, Picoult says as much in her afterword: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because it’s a fantastic book (it’s okay, kept me guessing) but because it offered me different views on race in the US. And for the many who are more inclined to popular fiction than nonfiction sociology, this book will serve a good purpose.

Reading Crisis and Pursuit of Virtue

One of my healthier antidotes to life’s Too Much-ness is burrowing inside the covers of a good book. Preferably while also tucked tight into my bed covers at day’s end, hot cup of tea at hand, until I can’t keep my eyes open. Just one more page, just one more, just one, just…

In addition to the books that line my full shelves, and the heaps of sideways books tucked on top, I typically have a stack of To-Read’s I can’t wait to dive into.14221295618_68c5821032_n

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a few oddities:
I’m returning too many partially-read books to the library;
I’m feeling more-than-less stressed as I read;
I’m not diving under the covers with a book at night.

What happened?

I took another look at my To-Read’s and noticed something else: no fiction.

I have books on the teenage brain and sleep disorders, language and love, spirituality, and cookbooks. I have two (count ’em, two) books, pulled on different days from different shelves and both partially read, on the topic of solitude – apparently I’m feeling a little crowded these days, in more ways than one!

All fascinating studies and good reads, I’m sure, but these days I have way too many words populating my brain. I need a literary escape.

I need peace. No kidding: one afternoon as I read a chapter from The Teenage Brain, I watched Guy and Teen play out an illustration before my eyes. I could have been reading aloud while they acted out the scene. I looked back and forth between book and boys and dropped book like a nasty bug. Interesting, yes, but too close to home in an emotionally-exposed way. I look forward to reading it eventually, when I’m feeling less… Just less.

I need beauty. My “word” for 2015: Put yourself in the way of beauty. I have dropped more than one book this year because it didn’t add beauty to my life – good writing, good story mandatory.

I need a book that contributes Inward Peace to balance Life Chaos, not sleepy-zen but peaceful beauty. I want to be whisked away to new adventures in new lands, new (or old) times. Anyone want to offer a recommendation? Better yet, anyone want to dash a quick-fix fiction loaner by my doorstep?

Here are a few recent books I’ve enjoyed:

Listen, SlowlyListen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Laguna Beach girl Mia can’t wait to spend the summer at the beach with her best friend Montana and her crush, HIM. She is also Mai, Vietnamese girl, good daughter, Straight-A student, studying SAT vocabulary at Mom-Insistence. So instead of the beach, her parents ship her off to Vietnam as her grandmother’s chaperone so Ba can search for answers to the end of her husband’s life during The War. What begins as an almost prison-like sentence becomes a journey of listening, of reconciling with her heritage, of falling in love with the past, broken as it is.

I read this book aloud with my Tween and we related it to our cross-cultural experience spending a summer in Costa Rica: humidity, odd creatures, jungle, foreign food and language. And we related, too, to the experience of falling in love with a completely different way of life set in a different place.

As a reader, I am thoroughly impressed with Lai’s ability to capture a SoCal girl’s speech and culture and so gracefully walk with her through this amazing cross-cultural journey.

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman, #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few chapters in to The Rosie Project I learned it had a sequel, which I immediately put on hold at the library. Fortunately, The Rosie Effect came up on my queue just days after finishing The Rosie Project. Despite having a stack of To-Read books, it took priority.

My first response: this book contained too much stress, whereas the first had been an odd fairy tale. And yet, isn’t that just like life? What starts with wine and roses, or for Don and Rosie, jackets and balconies and so many misunderstandings, eventually has to work through some strife. Honeymoons end and the hard work of marriage begins, complicated in this case by an international move and an unintentional pregnancy.

Before I realized, I was halfway done. Today I am all done, and I’m mourning the end of this fun read. I sure hope there’s a Book 3 in the works.

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An incredible true story of a young woman’s descent into madness. That Susannah Cahalan is alive and able to write a book is nothing short of a miracle – right place, time and doctors on the case. Cahalan weaves her own story along with the science to explain what was happening as she lost control of her body and her mind. Occasionally a little too smart, the science provides a counterpoint to a story that sounds unbelievable, like something out of a horror movie (The Exorcist, in fact, as so many of her symptoms were identical to the demon-possessed little girl). And yet it is a story of hope, as Cahalan’s story has provided answers to so many desperate patients and their families.

Summer Reading – Non-fiction

Sustain Summer!

That’s my theme over here. So what if school started Weeks Ago? So what if it’s Raining in Cali today (yippee! SO happy it’s raining, and yet, I still maintain… It. Is. Summertime)?

Fall officially begins September 23rd, which means No Matter What the activity calendars have decided, summer reigns until September 22nd.

And that means my reading still counts as Summer Reading.

I read ten books this summer, five fiction and five non-fiction. Last summer, our Costa Rica sabbatical summer, I read twelve books. HOW is it that I read only two books more? Last summer felt much more leisurely and book-indulgent. Does a heart good to know that I’m just as much a Book Nerd at home.

So here ya go, friends, my non-fiction book-miracle reads of Summer 2015!

Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of GodAwaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God by J. Brent Bill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been my ongoing spiritual retreat all year. As a contemplative, I live most naturally in my head and heart; this book grounds the spiritual experience in the five physical senses. With short essays and exercises to practice, I have looked forward to reading it when I have pockets of time to engage with God on a deeper level. I anticipate coming back to it again and again.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship ExpertThe Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are married, go right now and get this book! Easy to read and practical, including exercises, there is something to help every relationship. I’ve been married 20+ years (and still going strong!) and we had some fantastic discussions using the questions in this book.

The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt OutThe Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out by Brennan Manning
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written 25 years old, this is an Important Book for those who would be Jesus-followers. While most Christians give lip service to grace, too many of us don’t live grace-fully. We act like what we do matters most rather than what God has done and continues to do. We try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, only to discover that we don’t even know what bootstraps are, or at best they’re torn and ineffective. God loves us anyway. He loved us first. His love is the defining characteristic of who we are and who we will become, by His grace.

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life UnarmedCarry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed by Glennon Doyle Melton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love! Life is *brutiful*, brutal and beautiful in turns not always graceful. But we can be grace-filled, living into and offering grace one to another.

“I’d found my thing: openness. I decided, based on firsthand experience, that it was more fun to say things that made other women feel hopeful about themselves and God than it was to say or omit things to make people feel jealous of me.” Yes! Openness is hard as most of us want people to think the best of us. But we’re not always our best, and pretense keeps people at arm’s length. Let’s drop the curtain, people, and just be real. And kind. Let’s always be kind.

And this: “The more fiercely I believe what Love says and the more boldly I live out her promises, the healthier and stronger and realer I become. So, for me, it’s not a question of better. It’s about a daily choice: the constant battle to listen to Love and silence Fear.” Listen to love and silence Fear. Let’s help one another get there.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodAll Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after hearing Jennifer Senior on NPR’s TedRadio Hour during an episode on childhood. This fascinating sociological and historical look at parenting, or more accurately, how children affect their parents’ lives, makes so much sense. Page after page I had “aha” moments – “Others experience that, too?” or “Oh, that explains the stress I and my friends feel!” In the end, the act of parenting (“to parent” has only been a verb since the 1970’s) is qualitatively different than the experience of parenting, which explains the book’s title: being a parent creates joy, whereas doing the mundane acts of parenting is not so much fun. My only complaint is that not enough parents in the trenches will have the brainpower or time to read the book.

Books – The Recent Round-Up

Even though May might just be my favorite month – days slightly brighter and longer and birds and flowers singing and springing – the end of school year seems always to twist me up and set me spinning. Not enough time! Too much to do! You have a what project that requires what supplies and you left it to now? Yeesh!

So I’ve been reading but not posting about reading – one too many steps in a busy season. And I’ve picked up a few books and set them back down again, trying to maintain my year’s goal to put myself in the way of beauty; some books create worlds I can’t inhabit right now, though another time, perhaps.

Let’s start with the novels:

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ishiguro’s voice reads like a graceful whisper, punctuated by the secrets his characters tell, overhear, and discern, dropped like bombs. The full-bodied characters are people you know: the energetic and sensitive boy with a big temper, the every-girl who knows how to calm the boy, the ring leader who manipulates them all. This book is simultaneously a beautiful homage to the human being and a cautionary tale against scientific progress that cares for some at the painful expense of others.

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m not sure why I read it – it wasn’t assigned for school, but maybe it was in the classroom? Maybe a teacher or librarian recommended it? Fantasy/sci fi have never been my standard fair. Still, scenes and themes from this book have continued to resonate in my mind and heart throughout my lifetime: an honorable, hard-earned quest, companionship, Bilbo and Gollum and Precious, power and humility…

As an adult I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy – before the brilliant movies were released. The Hobbit movies are a great disappointment in comparison, but I enjoyed rereading the book with my own child, now just past the age I was when I first read it.

I relate to Bilbo’s reaction to Gandalf’s suggestion of an adventure: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Though he reluctantly agrees to leave the comforts of home, he often longs to be back in his cozy hobbit hole; except that adventure as a whole changes him so that when he eventually returns, he doesn’t mind that the townspeople consider him odd.

My own adventures, however reluctantly undertaken, have changed me enough that I might somewhat-less-reluctantly venture forth again.

And now for non-fiction:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings (Genesis, #1)And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At least my second reading of this book, I am taken by her descriptions of the world – the wild and beautiful and dangerous natural world; and the world occupied by humans so full of both good and evil and still image their Creator God. L’Engle reminds me to maintain wonder, in spite of the so prevalent brokenness that is our context, and to let wonder move me to prayer.

“When I look at the galaxies on a clear night—when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, then, instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged—I rejoice that I am part of it, I, you, all of us—part of this glory” (82).

Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive FunctioningLate, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading an article on twice-exceptional kids that referenced the book. Two twice-exceptional kids and no educator or doctor had mentioned the term “executive functioning”: “…a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.” The executive functions include inhibition, mental/emotional flexibility, emotional control, initiation, working memory, planning/organization, and self-monitoring.

The book is clearly laid out, explaining challenges and providing real-life examples and practical how-to-help tips. Reading as a parent of two very different kids with different strengths and weaknesses, I have lots to digest; reading at the end of school year was not the best timing and I’ll need to review it all again in August as we begin a new year’s regimen.

The gift of this book lies in its practicality and hope: “…we believe that our children’s best hope for the future may lay in the discovery of some strength that blossoms into an island of competence, and perhaps even becomes a continent of possibilities for personal satisfaction and job success. After all, people thrive when they build a life around their strengths. There are many different paths to success, even though this is sometimes hard to keep in perspective during the school years” (202).