Reading: Sept-Oct 2018

I read exactly the same number of books (seven) in two months of my busy season than I did in my slow-speed summer, opposite reactions to bad news. This summer, I felt too stunned to read much. Summer came and went and, other than our trips, I’m not sure what I did. This fall, I escaped inside books. A couple were light and fluffy; a few were for young readers, though that doesn’t mean fluffy; three were written by the same author; one was exceedingly excellent.

Surprise MeSurprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Dan and Sylvie have a physical on their tenth anniversary, the doctor tells them that, due to increasing lifespans and their overall good health, they can plan to enjoy another 68 years of marriage. Which sends them into a tailspin of dread over how they will possibly maintain a marriage for so long…

This one took me a while because I’d have quite the opposite response. When I said YES to “til death do us part,” I truly hoped it would be forever and then some.

But true to Kinsella’s style, they have more than a few LOL comic moments and eventually the story becomes bigger than the immediate crisis and, in the end, they grow as individuals and as a couple. Yay, them!

I'll Be Your Blue SkyI’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clare meets an old woman, Edith, who speaks such gently piercing truth that she calls off her wedding with only hours to go. Weeks later, Clare discovers that Edith has died and left her a house, a place of her own. Thus begins Clare’s adventure into unraveling the mystery of Edith’s life even as she discovers her way back to her own true home.

de los Santos is an excellent writer, and occasionally I read and reread a beautiful turn of phrase. But I found myself working too hard to recall her characters’ relationships in her previous books, Love Walked In and Belong to Me. And then when the big reveal happened in this book, again, I slowly pieced things together although the characters made it sound obvious. Maybe if you read the trilogy altogether it would work better.

Connect the StarsConnect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book jacket explains, “Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself.” And this book beautifully illustrates that point in exquisite detail.

Audrey and Aaron are both middle school misfits. But then, just about every middle schooler I’ve ever met is a misfit during that time of life. It’s kind of the whole point. Anyway, they each find themselves on a journey through the desert and into belonging as The Fearless Foursome (alongside Kate and Louis).

They have an adventure I would never have undertaken at their age, nor would I knowingly send my kids on such an adventure. But then, that’s the point of adventure, right? If you knew, you might not go. No one intends to truly get lost. Yet that’s the very point of discovery.

I love Marisa de los Santos even more for providing me with a book I can put in the hands of my own middle school child. A book about family, friendship, the instructional power of the wilderness, forgiveness, and self-appreciation.

“‘If the four and a half billion years the Earth has existed were compressed into a single twenty-four hour day,’ said Aaron, very, very quietly, ‘humans would have appeared one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.
“All that time, without us.
“A shiver went from my heels to the top of my head.
“Who cares if people lie? I thought. This–right here–is why the word ‘awesome’ was made.” (179)

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book, like our current cultural/political climate, sits uncomfortably. While very readable, I wasn’t expecting to read a story that could have been ripped from today’s headlines.

The One-in-a-Million BoyThe One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a perfect book. It meanders like the mind of an old woman recalling her 104 years of life in the company of an unusual Boy Scout. But it is a charming book, with characters unique and human, the best and worst of themselves on display as they bump into and around one another like pin balls. In the end, it’s a reminder that life can be hard and sweet and we need others with whom to share it fully.

“But certain [people], they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan” (p199).

Saving Lucas BiggsSaving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love that books for young readers can take on serious issues and make them understandable and engaging. No smut, just great story. This one takes on corporate corruption and its effects on individuals and families over generations; fracking; murder and the death penalty; bravery and fear; love, friendship and family. All in one entertaining package.

Another one I’m passing on to my 14yo!

“…sure, the past matters–but the present? The present is here and here and here, a sky full of light, a path under your feet, your hair lifted by wind, the smell of flowers, green grass, red rocks, all of it tumbling toward summer, and all of it yours. All you have to do is set fear aside and stretch out your hand” (278).

Blood Water PaintBlood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a woman who reads, get your hands on this book. Do not let the verse intimidate you. It’s not difficult poetry, just carefully chosen words to convey the thoughtful reflections of a woman who prefers self-expression through paint over words.

This beautifully written book is art about art. The layers of women’s stories, the use of different writing styles to convey different voices, the truth it tells about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, and an extraordinary woman in anyone’s world, all compelling.

Reading: Summer 2018

Summer has come and gone and I read a measly six books, probably a new low record in my life. But, as they say, life happens while you’re making other (reading) plans.

Monterey BayMonterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book in Monterey as a gift for my mom on our annual family vacation. She read it that week and gave it back so I could read it. Two years later, I finally read it on this year’s Monterey vacation.

I rarely read a book twice because there are so many great books to read. But this book… Hatton’s subtle prose is so rich and nuanced I imagined going immediately back to page one after reading the last word.

Almost two decades of vacationing in this one place, Hatton tied together all the loose ends, the past and present, locations and landmarks, and characters real and created.

I held off on starting over immediately–the anticipation of a good read builds enjoyment, after all–and decided to save it for next year’s trip. I’ll also read Cannery Row (have I read it? If so, it’s been too long), and I expect the two books and the location will all have something to say to one another and to me.

Everything, EverythingEverything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I typically try to read the book before seeing the movie, but that didn’t happen this time. And, surprisingly, I preferred the movie, which rearranged and edited scenes for a tighter presentation. Though obviously there wouldn’t have been a movie without the book, and this is a fun and creative read with a surprising twist. The Sun is Also a Star was a better novel, though.

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one sat on my shelf for years waiting for the right moment, but once I opened it I could not put it down. I spent an entire lovely day wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, lost in its story. I cried when I finished, not because it was so sad, but because it lived up to the beauty in its title.

It always fascinates me when I read back-to-back books, entirely different yet hitting the same theme. In this case, Everything Everything and Beautiful Ruins which, from varied angles, preach the distinction between existence and living.

“I’ve been thinking about how people sit around for years waiting for their lives to being, right? Like a movie. You know what I mean?…I know I felt that way. For years. It was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start. Do you know what I mean, Pasquale?” (54)

“Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story…your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.” (62)

The Secret Zoo (The Secret Zoo, #1)The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you have an animal-loving child under eight years old, this might be a fun read-aloud. I think we got this book for my son at about that age for that purpose. But he decided to read it on his own (obviously fine), and then, years later in a coming-of-age moment, put it in my hands when he saw I was between books and the library was closed.

Mostly, it seems like a good idea poorly executed–awkward sentence structure, oddly used verbs, plot and even scene inconsistencies, and an almost irrelevant villain.

At the Water's EdgeAt the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Money and poverty; family politics; war; friendship and romance; betrayal and abuse; adventures and monsters and mythology… This book has it all. At certain points I wasn’t sure about this one, but I kept reading.

When Life Gives You Lululemons (The Devil Wears Prada, #3)When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sometimes you just want a fluff read… But I didn’t love this one. Andie is a more likeable character than Emily, so making Emily one of the main characters may have done this in for me. As chapters rotate between three main characters, I had to keep reminding myself which one was which. And while I could commiserate with each in certain ways, I didn’t love any of them. I did, however, dive in and finish the book in less than a 24 hour period.

Reading: May-June 2018

It’s the official first day of summer! My summer reading is about to commence in earnest, so I’m posting the recent round-up a little early. Two stand-outs: The Hate U Give and Educated. Completely different, both amazing.

Clara and Mr. TiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more than I did. Clara Driscoll, a woman working in the arts at the turn of the 20th century, is both a completely normal (in love with her work and struggling for recognition in a male-dominated profession) and unusual character. But the long descriptions of glass work were hard to follow (I wanted pictures) and sometimes tedious. Occasionally, the book became rapturously poetic, as one would expect from a woman so enamored with the natural world that she feels most alive as she turns the inspiration into something gloriously other. But in the end I wish there had been much tighter editing overall.

The Best Kind of PeopleThe Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF, but made it halfway before deciding life is too short for bad books (and my reading queue too long).

School shootings and sexual harassment are all too relevant, and I hoped this book might have more to add to the conversation. That, being story, it could give us access to the questions we don’t want to have to address personally: how well do I really know those I love? What secrets might anyone be hiding? How do we balance “innocence before proven guilty” with speculation, even practicality? What if…?

But I felt like I was losing my mind. How could this book have received such glowing reviews when the writing was so clunky, so poorly edited? Maybe my copy alone had all the mistakes? Seriously, a character says he’s going home for a day but will be back tomorrow at the beginning of a conversation, and at the end says he’ll see her in a few days. Elsewhere the accusers are 14yo girls, and then the alleged events took place on the “senior ski trip” where no 14yo’s would have been present. Redundant hard-to-follow dialogue kept me wondering why that (and then that one, and that one) character would spout that at this moment…? I kept thinking: This is not how mothers and daughters talk to each other. This is not how mothers of children the same age talk to each other. This is not how sisters talk to each other. And so on.

I flipped ahead enough to figure out some critical plot points and decided I’d had enough. Bad writing leading to a bad ending is just not going to work for me.

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Get your hands on this book and read it Right Now!

This book is an excellent example of the power of literature. Starr’s life is not mine; I have not, nor do I expect to, experience what she has been through. But having read her story, I have a better understanding of the world we share. My heart has grown bigger.

Passing the book to my 14yo son…

Bush (Kindle Single)Bush by Janice Y.K. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loading up my Kindle with vacation reads, I was so excited to find a new book by an author I’ve enjoyed. I had no idea it was a short story, so imagine my shock when, on the plane, shortly into our flight, this riveting tale I’d hoped to carry me through the week just…ended. Dramatically, leaving me wanting So Much More! It was unsettling in the best way short stories can be and I imagine it will stick with me for some time to come.

The WoodcutterThe Woodcutter by Kate Danley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m picky about vacation reading and this one fit the bill. The writing was solid. The plot was fun–mash up a bunch of fairy tale characters with some odd characters from mythology and Shakespeare, and let them play together in new ways. It had nothing to do with everyday life and whisked me away to the Wood and the Twelve Kingdoms in which the Woodcutter maintains peaceful balance. It wasn’t life-changing, but I didn’t need that, just a good story to read by the pool.

The Wendy ProjectThe Wendy Project by Melissa Jane Osborne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful book! This modern retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is well-written and gorgeously illustrated. A quick read, this is worth your while.

Miranda and CalibanMiranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A creative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I wish the play were in production somewhere local right now so I could see it again through a different lens. It’s one of my favorite plays and this book did a good job filling out the characters. There were some repetitive paragraphs towards the beginning, but it gathered steam as it went.

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish this book was a work of fiction. I shuddered throughout, imagining the violence wrought against a family because of a parent’s insanity under the guise of “faith.” Even though the story gripped me from the preface, I could only read a chapter or two at a time because of its intensity. I am so grateful that, as the author puts it, she found her way out of the junk heap, into school, and eventually into writing down her story.

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.” (304)

Reading: March-April 2018

It always sounds cliche, but I simply cannot fathom how we are almost to May. One-third of this year has slid out from under my feet. The good news: summer is coming up fast, with slower days and more time for reading. Not that I’m wishing the days away, hardly, just wishing for more leisure time to read! (Note: I did not intentionally choose to read back-to-back two books with PB&J cover art. That’s just the comedy my life dishes up!)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.” (227)

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. At least she thinks she is. Until she realizes she is not, not at all. And then she is.

Through all of it, Eleanor is a complete character (in every sense of the word). She is unlike anyone you’ve ever met. She talks (mostly to herself) so much like a cantankerous old woman that you have to remind yourself that she is just thirty. She is one thousand percent practical. She has no social skills whatsoever. She is searingly honest to the point of being rude, though she has no idea. Which makes her endearingly funny to boot.

Above all, Eleanor is a survivor and a testament to the human drive to survive.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer–a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” (227)

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” (182)

Sputnik's Guide to Life on EarthSputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Home isn’t a building. People leave buildings. Buildings fall down….Home isn’t a place on a map. Home isn’t the place you come from. It’s the place you’re heading to. All the times you’ve ever felt at home–they’re just marks on the map, helping you to find your way there.” (308)

What an original book! I actually don’t want to say too much, because it should be read and enjoyed for all its originality, humor, and poignancy. Prez and Sputnik–and the Blythes, especially Jessie–plus Granddad have an adventure that doesn’t lead them home so much as to a new understanding of it.

The Serpent KingThe Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gutted! It’s been a long time since I have openly sobbed while reading a book and not just at its conclusion. To be honest, a few chapters in I wanted to hate this book–I hate when people use God or the Bible or faith to hurt others, especially kids. But, too bad, I already liked the kids (almost like they needed me to stick it out for their sake, to be there to stick up for them). Zentner handled sensitive matters gently. He calls this book, his first novel, a love letter to young people who struggle, and the reader feels his love for the young people he portrays.

“…if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things” (327).

Take This Bread: A Radical ConversionTake This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book based on a recommendation by another author I respect. I started, and stopped, and started again several times before committing to read it all the way through. Sara and I aren’t on the same theological page, and yet (or because of that) I learned so much from her. Her memoir challenged my faith and strengthened my determination to listen to people with whom I may not agree, or with whom I would anticipate more disagreement.

And, at my core, it caused me to remember: God can use any and all things to bring people to Himself.

A few quotes:

“Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow.” (274)

“To say that communion means we are ‘eating Jesus’ reminds me of how risky—and how thoroughly physical—the encounter with God is.” (287)

“First, do something. Feed, heal, help. Don’t just argue about ideology. Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that they become different, or start doing what you want them to do. Just pray for them.
“You don’t get to practice Christianity by hanging out with people who are like you and believe what you believe. You have to rub up against strangers and people who frighten you and people you think are misguided, dangerous, or just plain wrong.” (289)

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday LifeLiturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Warren takes the ordinary–waking up in the morning, brushing teeth, searching for lost keys, fighting with my spouse–and reminds us of how very sacred those ordinary events truly are. Now, when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I remember that God looks at me as lovingly as I looked at my tousle-haired, warm-sleep-smelling babies. Now, as I make my bed, I remember that God cares about the small, simple moments of each day. Overall, I appreciated the simple and profound nature of this book and anticipate returning to it time and again.

Everything is Perfect When You're a LiarEverything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF.

I cannot remember where I heard about this book. It’s rare for me to get halfway through before ditching a book. I kept trying to give her one more chapter, one more chance. But I just can’t!

The intro is poorly written, but includes cute kid-quotes from her own babies who don’t want to be in the book. So I kinda thought it would be a fluffy/snarky mommy book.

Halfway through and she’s only seventeen years old. And she’s not nice. Adventurous? Yes. Crazy? Probably. Funny? Well, she tries…

She’s also mean–obviously smart, and she can (at least mostly) write–and I just don’t like her. At All. And I like most people.

Maybe I just don’t get her sense of humor. But God bless her kiddos having to grow up with this sense of snark!

Reading: January-February 2018

Two memoirs + two books on how to live your best life + three novels = my 2018 reading so far.

Sometimes it cracks me up how books come to me in relationship to each other and how they seem to reveal to me the state of my own heart. Two books about how to live: I desire to live intentionally and I’m willing to shake things up to get better at my own life. Two memoirs: well, I am a blogger, after all; I write and regularly publish memoir. In addition, one of the memoirs is by a young woman who wrestles in her relationship with the Church (my own struggles take different forms and reach different temperatures, but I relate) and the other is by a Bay Area wife and mom learning to live well after death steals some of her beloveds (I live here and I’ve been there).

Nine weeks of 2018, and I’ve read seven books, several with 5/5 ratings. Not a bad start!

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to SayTell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kelly Corrigan lost two precious people to cancer. So have I. She’s raising teen girls in the San Francisco Bay Area; I’m raising teen boys, also in the Bay Area. She works and volunteers and balances all that family life holds and I can relate to the whole big, beautiful mess.

Fav quotes:
“Minds don’t rest; they reel and wander and fixate and roll back and reconsider because it’s like this, having a mind. Hearts don’t idle; they swell and constrict and break and forgive and behold because it’s like this, having a heart. Lives don’t last; they thrill and confound and circle and overflow and disappear because it’s like this, having a life.” (25)

“…we can be damaged and heavy-hearted but still buoyant and insightful, still essential and useful, just by saying I know.” (102)

“This abstract performance art called Family Life is our one run at the ultimate improve. Our chance to be great for someone, to give another person enough of what they need to be happy. Ours to overlook or lose track of or bemoan, ours to recommit to, to apologize for, to try again for. Ours to watch disappear into their next self—toddler to tyke, tween to teen—ours to drop off somewhere and miss forever.
“It’s happening right now, whether we attend to it or not.” (220)

How to Be Alive: A Guide To The Kind of Happiness That Helps The WorldHow to Be Alive: A Guide To The Kind of Happiness That Helps The World by Colin Beavan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The standard life approach doesn’t work for most people: get good grades, go to a good college, land the perfect career that makes enough money to live well, marry the love of your life, live happily ever after. That might have worked at one time, but the world has changed. So why not take responsibility and develop the life you want? Live in line with what matters to you. Ask “How can I help?” in each situation, and see what happens.

I read the first section, then started skimming (it is long…), then read sections that interested me. Some good stuff but, funny, not all that truly life-changing. I picked up Designing Your Life (Burnett & Evans) at the same time – though they’re different, they are variations on a theme and that one is shorter and better.

The Snow ChildThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book captivated and entranced me. It moved me and eventually broke my heart. One lonely couple hard-scrabbling to establish a life in 1920’s Alaska provides the landscape for the most wonderful ‘real-life’ fairy tale. This book has found a place on my forever-favorites list.

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believe as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” (251)

“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” (258)

“When [joy] stands before you with her long, naked limbs and her mysterious smile, you must embrace her while you can.” (336)

Still Me (Me Before You, #3)Still Me by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good book for binge reading while sick. It’s not as heavy/thought-provoking as Me Before You and I like it better than After You.

“There are so many versions of ourselves we can choose to be. Once, my life was destined to be measured out in the most ordinary of steps. I learned differently from a man who refused to accept the version of himself he’d been left with, and an old lady who saw, conversely, that she could transform herself, right up to a point when many people would have said there was nothing left to be done.
“I had a choice….The key was making sure that anyone you allowed to walk beside you didn’t get to decide which you were, and pin you down like a butterfly in a case. The key was to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again.” (386)

RefugeeRefugee by Alan Gratz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book while looking for historical fiction suggestions for my 8th grade son. As he finished another book, I devoured this one. I will now pass it on.

Chapters go back and forth between three stories, three young people and families fleeing their homes: Josef, a Jew, fleeing Nazi Germany; Isabel fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud fleeing war in Aleppo, Syria, in 2015.

The chapters are short and compelling, which keeps you flipping pages even when the stories are heart-rending. This book holds in tension the horrors humans inflict on each other with the hope of those who seek refuge, who hang on desperately to hope and one another. Occasionally we see genuine human kindness break through like light in darkness.

Honestly, I’m more than a little wrecked at this wretched reality. And I’m concerned about my 13yo reading about these atrocities. Except this is the world we live in. When we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it–and repeat it we do, as these characters spread out over almost a century could attest.

“I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of manana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: it didn’t. Because I didn’t change it. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.” (277) –Lito, Isabel’s grandfather

Designing Your Life: Build a Life that Works for YouDesigning Your Life: Build a Life that Works for You by William Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great book to encourage intentional decision making and action to becoming your best version of yourself. For anyone looking for a job, or even just wanting to tweak their current job, this book holds so much practical wisdom. But for anyone looking to live more fully into their best self, this book contains practical tools to urge you onward.

“A well-designed life is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.” (xvi)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” becomes “Who or what do you want to grow into?” (xxi)

“…follow the joy; follow what engages and excites you, what brings you alive.” (49)

“Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.” (49)

“…if a problem isn’t actionable, then it’s not solvable.” (82)

“It’s important to think of ourselves as life designers who are curious and action-oriented, and who like to make prototypes and ‘build our way forward’ into the future. But when you take this approach to designing your life, you are going to experience failure. In fact, you are going to ‘fail by design’ more with this approach than with any other.” (182)

“We are always growing from the present into the future, and therefore always changing. With each change comes a new design. Life is not an outcome; it’s more like a dance. Life design is just a really good set of dance moves.” (184)

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud…” (187)

There is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about this book, as Held Evans whispers aloud her many doubts and questions, inviting us in to hear, to honor the silent pause, to nod in recognition, to receive graciously her vulnerability and there find that we are not alone. As she wrestles with God, we find that we are all held by God.

This book isn’t for the faint of heart, Christians easily offended who don’t doubt or at least admit to their questions (not me). It also probably makes most sense to those raised in evangelical churches in the US, those who speak “youth group” and “quiet time” and “contemporary Christian music” as a first language (yes, me). Some won’t like it at all; however, I found grace here, and grace to me always indicates the presence of Jesus.

“This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe it’s time to embrace her, flawed as she is.” (250)

Books: end-2017 reading

Goodreads (jokingly) tells me there are two reasons to read a book: to enjoy it, and to boast about it. But Goodreads stats page isn’t working, so I can’t boast about my year-end reading results. I know I read 44 books, less than last year but enough considering the year it was. I think I’ve now read most of Fredrik Backman’s books (there may be a short story I haven’t seen). I’ve read a good balance of fiction and non-fiction, books for adults and books ‘for’ teens. I’ve always enjoyed fiction that takes me places I’ve never been and introduces me to people in situations I’ve never encountered, so little surprise that I’ve found my way to a few books about immigrants, especially given our world situation.

Below are the books I read October-December 2017. What are you reading?

Behold the DreamersBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This. Book…!

Dreaming of a better life, a family struggles and saves to move from Cameroon, where they have no prospect of bettering their lives, to New York. To America, the land of opportunity. There they encounter other dreamers, Americans by birth, each of whom live out the American dream differently.

I have no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant, but this book helped me to imagine it, to see their perspective and my own privilege with new eyes and insight.

High school teachers and college professors: find a way to incorporate this book into your curriculum now! It deserves a place alongside American classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.

My Not So Perfect LifeMy Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Light, fluffy, funny–just the kind of simple-sweet escapist book I was looking for. Not perfect, but that’s fine by this not-so-perfect me!

 

The Art of Creative ThinkingThe Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book offers lots to chew on, 89 different ways to see things, in fact. I kept googling artists and art pieces because I had to see for myself the amazing work he described. I underlined so many quotes that I have four typed pages of notes! Some of the entries seem to contradict each other, but that’s okay, too, since creativity can be different each hour for each artist…

A few quotes:

“Creativity is not about creating a painting, novel or house but about creating yourself…” (vii)
“A creative mindset can be applied to everything you do and enrich every aspect of your life” (3).
“Put your personality before practicality and your individuality into everything” (32).

The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure when I’ve read a novel about such sad and pathetic characters that held so much hope. Trev can’t help himself physically; Ben can’t pull himself out of life’s biggest emotional pit; together, they take a trip that changes both their lives. I didn’t always love this book–it was slow at times–but by the end I enjoyed it. The author tells more than one story, back and forth between short chapters; sometimes it gets confusing, but not overly. And it works to keep you turning pages.

“Listen to me: everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible” (236).

“Because I still care deeply… I’ll never stop caring. But the thing about caring is, it’s inconvenient. Sometimes you’ve got to give when it makes no sense at all. Sometimes you’ve got to give until it hurts. It’s not easy, and it can be downright thankless…” (275).

Tomorrow There Will Be ApricotsTomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two women at opposite ends of life, both grieving from losses of different kinds, come together through cooking. A familiar premise, and the end was also a bit predictable, yet satisfying. This was one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time, and I thought about putting it aside. I’m glad I didn’t. The heavy descriptions of grief, the ways people hurt one another intentionally and inadvertently, and the power we have to help one another heal even as we move ourselves toward healing–powerful.

“Happiness is an act of faith. But you can’t let it in and be done with it. Emotions come at you from all directions. I forgot to cover my head. It had been a while” (122).

The Sun Is Also a StarThe Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I almost never reread books, simply because there are too many books to be read. But I liked this book so much I could imagine rereading it–even as I was reading it!

Do you follow your head or your heart?
Do you move with the wind or follow a plan?
Do you live to fulfill someone else’s desires for you, or your own?

Daniel and Natasha couldn’t be more different, and maybe that’s exactly what makes them good for each other. They represent different values, different cultures, a different way of moving through life.

I liked this book for so many reasons: short chapters kept me turning pages. Characters who obviously represent ideology, but passionately so. Daniel and Natasha come from different cultures (he’s Korean, she’s Jamaican), and their American-ness stands in contrast to their immigrant parents. The book read almost like a play, with bit parts fleshed out in significant ways to add nuance to the story. And I enjoyed the diversionary chapters that provided information on science, culture, back or future story, or fairy tales.

What Alice ForgotWhat Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As we’ve passed books back and forth, my friend has been on me for some time to read this book. She was right (as always): my fav of all Moriarty’s books so far, better than Big Little Lies.

If you woke up and ‘forgot’ ten years of your life, what would you have missed? Who were you then, and who might you have become, and which would be preferable? What relationships would you miss, want to re-cultivate, to let go or rediscover? Even if you regained all those lost memories, what would you do differently going forward?

I’ve read a few amnesia books, but this was the best. The most thoughtful. The one about which I want to wonder, ponder, journal. Who was I? Who am I? Who would I like to be?

And entertaining read (thick book, quickly digested), with lots to consider.

“She had always thought that exquisitely happy time at the beginning of her relationship with Nick was the ultimate, the feeling they’d always be trying to replicate, to get back, but now she realized that she was wrong. That was like comparing sparkling mineral water to French champagne. Early love is exciting and exhilarating. It’s light and bubbly. Anyone can love like that. But love after three children, after a separation and a near-divorce, after you’ve hurt each other and forgiven each other, bored each other and surprised each other, after you’ve seen the worst and the best–well, that sort of a love is ineffable. It deserves its own word” (421).

Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious LifeOf Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life by Jen Hatmaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked For the Love, but I love Of Mess & Moxie! I’m convinced that Jen is my Southern, funnier, sarcastic personality doppelganger. We both write; we both married pastors; we both come from 3-sister/1-baby brother families; she is also an introvert who uses her phone as a phone never and married a verbal processor; and really, I think I’ve written less funny versions of so many of these chapters. She is just so real, so vulnerable, so the kinda gal I want to hang out with or, TBH, be.

Fav quotes:

“We have important memories from every house—some painful, some instructive, some delightful, some necessary. But how thrilling to realize that even now God is designing a new blueprint, tailor-made, and His creativity extends to the very trajectory of our lives” (9).

“…fear is a liar. It cannot be relied upon to lead well, to lead out, or to lead forward. It is an untrustworthy emotion, not of God, and it never leads to health, wholeness, wisdom, or resurrection….The truth is, God created us with resiliency. Mankind is incredibly able to heal, to rise back up, to stare down pain with moxie….Rather than cower under its weight, we force pain into a partnership, using it to grow, to learn, to catapult us into a deeper, wider, sturdier life” (39, 41).

“Love is a genuine solution. It breaks down barriers and repairs relationships. It invites in the lonely and defeats shame. It provides the lighted path to forgiveness, which sets everyone free. Love makes us brave, pulls up seats to the table, defuses bigotry, and attacks injustice. It is our most powerful spiritual tool. Do not underestimate it as the solution to almost everything that is broken” (82).

“I, too, just want to make beautiful things. Don’t you? Don’t we want our lives to be lovely and creative and productive and meaningful? Don’t we want to offer exquisite, sacred things to the world? This draw toward creation is important, worthy of our time and attention and nurture. We have these magnificent minds and hands and ideas and visions, and they beg us to pay attention, give them permission, give them life.
“I sincerely believe we are created by a Creator to be creative. This is part of His image we bear, this bringing forth of beauty, life, newness….That thing in you that wants to make something beautiful? It is holy” (94).

“…creators create and creating is work and work takes time” (97).

“I cannot write a good story if I am not living one” (99).

“Send kindness out in big, generous waves, send it near and far, send it through texts and emails and calls and words and hugs, send it by showing up, send it by proximity, send it in casseroles, send it with a well-timed ‘me too,’ send it with abandon. Put out exactly what you hoop to draw in, and expect it back in kind and in equal measure” (211).

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a phenomenal book! Blending the world’s current volatile and distressing dystopian reality with just enough sci fi to allow us to enter in without risking too much, this book provides a personal and insightful look at the refugee/immigrant crisis.

Favorite quotes:
“…to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you” (165).

“…in Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayed linked him to, and it was so important to express it, and somehow he was able to express it to the preacher’s daughter, the first time they had a proper conversation, at a small ceremony he happened upon after work, which turned out to be a remembrance for her mother, who had been from Saeed’s country, and was prayed for communally on each anniversary of her death, and her daughter, who was also the preacher’s daughter, said to Saeed, who was standing near her, so tell me about my mother’s country, and when Saeed spoke he did not mean to but he spoke of his own mother, and he spoke for a long time, and the preacher’s daughter spoke for a long time, and when they finished speaking it was already late at night” (202).

“We are all migrants through time” (209).

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Great book! A widowed bookstore owner, depressed and a little snobby, adopts a baby girl and falls for a publishing rep. Love changes his life, unsurprisingly. The book takes shape as A.J. recommends to his daughter his favorite short stories, like the “book talker” recommendations you see attached to bookstore shelves. Very readable, an easy recommendation to most readers, and a great way to stave off the post-Christmas blues.

Favorite quotes:

“No man is an island; every book is a world” (8).

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone” (249).

“We are not quite novels…We are not quite short stories…In the end, we are collected works” (249).

“…we are what we love. We are that we love….We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on” (251).

“…we tell stories to understand the world. All stories–anecdotes, cave paintings, blog posts, book reviews, news articles, songs, poems–are attempts to explain the world to one another and for ourselves” –Conversation with the Author (266).

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and LongerAnd Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novella is imperfect, patchy and broken, and so lovely because of it. The author comments that he wrote it to personally process life’s big questions, never intending to send it forth in the world. The world is better for his having chosen to send it out.

As Grandpa comes to the end of his life, as his brain stops working, son Ted and grandson Noah (or “Noahnoah”–because Grandpa “likes his grandson’s name twice as much as everyone else’s”) look for ways to help Grandpa ease into Space. Meanwhile, we see Grandpa and Noah, and Grandpa and Grandma (who has preceded her husband into Heaven), enjoying time together inside Grandpa’s Square, the place of memories inside his brain. The Square gets smaller every day, while the road home gets longer. Ted and Noah have the sweet privilege of walking the long road home with Grandpa.

I don’t often reread books, since there are So Many Books, but I can foresee myself rereading this short gem. So many insights into life, love, and death. A sweet, perfectly imperfect last read of the year.

One bit of Grandpa’s wisdom: “The only time you’ve failed is if you don’t try once more” (29).

Books: June-July 2017

Eight books in two months. Six fiction (including one YA), one creative/motivational, and one feminist manifesto. Seven female authors, one male; one Nigerian and one Swede.

What are you reading?

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Backman’s fans will come to Beartown expecting Ove and Britt-Marie, but they will not be found here. Beartown itself will remind readers of Borg, the town in which Britt-Marie discovered a love for soccer through her unexpected affection for those who played it, but in Beartown Backman has diverged from his old, odd characters to focus on a youth hockey team coming of age under pressure of a town that has all its hopes pinned to them.

Despite Backman’s clever writing and insight into human nature at its worst (and occasionally, best) I almost put this one down. Be warned: for those sensitive to the politics that rage around the issue of rape, this is not the book for you. The story is nuanced but for me the end didn’t justify the means.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
“So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe–comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her” (273).

The Pull of The MoonThe Pull of The Moon by Elizabeth Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 50-year-old woman leaves husband and grown daughter behind as she drives away from her life. Except, she doesn’t. Oh, she drives. But she keeps her loved ones with her as she writes letters to him and journals for herself. She calls her daughter once, and writes about that, too. As she moves forward in the present, she reflects on the past, another way of moving into the future. And while it may outwardly look like she’s running (driving) away from her life, she’s truly reconnecting with herself in order to return to it, renewed, more fully whole than ever before.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed hiked herself into the woman her mother raised her to be. In Moon, Nan drives herself into the woman she wants to be. I wonder if any woman of a certain age could read this book and not recognize something of herself.

It’s so humiliating, she told me. It’s like you’re being punished for something and you’ve no idea what you’ve done wrong except age. She didn’t really hear what she said, she didn’t hear the natural acceptance in her voice of the idea that aging is a crime. But I did. And when I heard it in her, I saw it in me” (104-105).

“And now, in my own stillness, I hear something. ‘Where have you been?’ my inside body whispers to my outside one. Its sense of outrage is present, but dulled by the grief of abandonment. ‘I had ideas. There were things to do. Where did you go?’
“What can I answer? Oh, I had some errands to run. I had a few things to do. I needed to get married and have a child and go underground for twenty-five years, be pleasantly suffocated. I meant to come back. But the bread crumbs got blown away.” (125)

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“I hate careless people,” declares Jordan in The Great Gatsby, quoted by Calista in her first paper for Miss Nicoll’s Mill Valley High School junior English class.

Every character in this novel is careless. All of them: students, parents, teachers, administrators. Even the ones who begin with a care deal with them carelessly: drugs, alcohol, parties, escapism, suicide.

Johnson’s writing style is crisp, with clearly-developed characters. Set in an affluent San Francisco Bay neighborhood, anyone who lives in an affluent neighborhood knows people just like these: the sporty pretty boy; the beautiful and introverted loner; the too-smart-for-school kid who takes his smarts to the street; the too-sensitive special needs kid; the popular A-student who can’t scratch the surface; the parents (all of them), abusive in their attention and neglect; the idealistic young teacher; the jaded administrator.

The problem is, her characters are all stereotypes, and Johnson puts each into worst-case scenarios. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because they are recognizable. I so wanted this book to take a new look, a different angle, provide new insight. Sadly, no. And here’s the real catch: in any one class, in one mesh of overlapping friend-groups in one high school graduating class, you won’t have this many significant tragedies.

By the last few chapters, I just felt depressed. Who wants to spend novel-length time with careless, contemptible people? I’m certain that was to Johnson’s point, that money has the power to hide the warts and sins, but she took it too far. Her writing style commends her (hence the two stars), but this story doesn’t.

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A unique take on the “Haves and Have Nots: Wealth, Power, Talent” theme, set alternately in London in the late-60’s and Spain in the late-30’s. Odelle, a young woman from the Caribbean, moves with her best friend to London. She has no wealth or power, but she has talent, makes some good decisions, and in the process makes life-changing connections. Her friend shows her a spectacular painting which belonged to his late mother that he might want to sell at auction, and this moment connects them to the story set in Spain in the 30’s. Teresa has nothing but her wits; her brother Isaac wields some power but lacks talent; the daughter of their new employer, Olive, has wealth and talent but no power beyond the relationship she dangerously winds around the siblings.

Initially this book felt a little slow, but then I read the entire second half in a day. I just wish I could also have seen the paintings, because Burton did such a beautiful job describing them that I know they would be breathtaking.

“This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play” (p5).

Writers may relate: “I knew it was true that I had stalled again on my writing. For once, I was too caught up with actually living my life to stop and turn it into words. People like Lawrie–who never wrote a single line of prose, as far as I knew–seemed to want those who did to walk around with a pad and pencil hanging round their neck, jotting down the whole thing, turning it into a book for their own pleasure” (364-365).

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the last year, The Nest kept popping into view. I’d pick it up, reread the book jacket, and put it back down. Dysfunctional family? I have my own, which is more than enough. Thanks, but no thanks. But when my neighbor shoved it in my hands, saying she’d just finished and really enjoyed it, and I had to read it before returning it to the library, I gave in.

So glad I did! This is not my family. Thankfully. But I totally relate to each one in all their mess and love them the more for it. Start to finish, I found this a completely satisfying–and entirely too quick–read. One of my favorite things about it was its structure, batting back and forth between the four siblings, but then also between everyone who over the period of this year intersects with them: spouses and children, of course, but also coworkers and friends and neighbors and enemies. What seemed at first like diversions actually intensified my desire to keep reading, because who knew what would happen next?

The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your PassionThe Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my new favorite book for anyone creative, anyone who longs to tap into their creativity, or anyone feeling at a crossroad in life. Through words written and painted, through paintings and photographs, through quotes from some of history’s greats, Luna nudges us to find our unique Must, to dialogue with the Shoulds holding us back, face our fears, and take one new action to honor our calling TODAY.

“All too often, we feel that we are not living the fullness of our lives because we are not expressing the fullness of our gifts” (ix).

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What could go wrong?” the characters ask each other, repeatedly.

When careless people rush in, without honest and caring communication, a lot can go terribly wrong. Several lives filled to the brim with heartache can be the consequences.

Fuller’s writing is precise and beautiful. She gives us a story in which not a lot happens while emotions seethe beneath the surface as each character moves forward through the mistakes they and those before them have made.

So much can go wrong. And yet, life does goes on.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen SuggestionsDear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick, thought-provoking read. To me, most of it seems common sense, except I know her fifteen suggestions are not ‘common’ enough. I wish all new parents, all middle schoolers, and all high school seniors (three critically life-changing junctures) could read and discuss this book–how society could be different!

Suggestion #1: Be a full person. How many women lose themselves in motherhood, signing their kids up and carting them from one activity to another while forgetting that their own life is worth something, too.
Suggestion #5: Teach her to read. Parents, teach all your kids to read, and help them read widely. If you don’t like to read, find something you will like to read. Reading is essential!

And so many of the other suggestions stem from here: reading gives one words, language, and ability to question, to consider the significance of assumptions that show up in our language, to communicate with ourselves, others, the world.

Words matter. They help shape our worldview. We need to talk with our children, to help them understand their lives and their place in the world. This book can help to lead the discussion.

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