Saturday, October 01, 2016

Book Log: September 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

41) 9/4: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
This was the September selection for my book club. Initially it was chosen to meet the "thriller" requirement. While this book was engaging to read, I wouldn't call it a thriller, even though it's classified as such; that wasn't exactly a disappointment to me, though.

The premise, disclosed very early on, is that a private plane crashes, and there are only two survivors - a painter, unexpectedly on the plane, and a young boy.

As there is uncertainty surrounding why the plane crashed, the rest of the book is filled with flashbacks for each of the individuals on the plane, building up to the crash, as well as following the painter in the present day as he faces much speculation in the media (ah, too true, as we regularly see media fixate on tragedies beyond what seems appropriate or meaningful).

The four-year-old boy who survives stops talking after the crash (although he will open up to Scott, as the two of them forged a strong bond because of the rescue). I appreciated reflecting on this excerpt from Scott, the painter who saved the boy's life, as to why he believes the boy has shut down verbally after losing his entire family:
"The day I sobered up, I stopped talking," he says. "What was there to say? You need hope to form a thought. It takes -- I don't know -- optimism to speak, to engage in conversation. Because, really, what's the point of all this communicating? What difference does it really make what we say to each other? Or what we do, for that matter?"
This made me pause, as it feels like there's a lot of truth to this. I can even channel my hormonal teenage self, wallowing in self pity about whatever issue - those were the times I went silent. When I talk with friends or loved ones, even if it's about something inconsequential, I share because I have the belief that they are interested. Even in times when I've struggled coming to terms with the loss of my brother or my daughter, I could still find those special souls to open up to or turn to writing down my thoughts. Subconsciously, there must have been some hope that these things wouldn't always hold me down and control every moment, that I would find peace and contentment again, even joy.

All that to say, the quotation above isn't an epiphany that was pivotal in the book - it's glossed over, but I appreciated it all the same as I paused to consider it.

Now back to my overall impressions. It was no surprise to learn the author has worked on screenplays and television show scripts - the movie rights have already been secured. The book is engaging, and much as a television series (and/or a movie) has individual episodes/scenes that keep interest and move the plot forward, steadily building to the overarching culmination, so the book is structured to intentionally reveal some information while still keeping the cards close until the final moments, when it all comes together. My library had such interest in this title that they limited checkouts to only 7 days to try to get it in as many hands as quickly as possible. It's a fun read, but I don't anticipate it having staying power -- it's a blip, but an entertaining one.

42) 9/11: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
My toddler and I went to Iowa for a short weekend in order to attend a reception for my youngest sister and her husband and daughter while they were all here visiting from the Czech Republic. I wanted something to entertain me during the drive, so I checked out this audiobook.

First off, the reader was exceptional. Second, the premise was interesting: a man imprisoned for murdering a girl serves his sentence without complaint, only released at the end to hospice, as he is dying from cancer. The protagonist has to write someone's biography for his college class, and he ends up paired with this dying man.

There were times I had trouble suspending my disbelief. For starters, who gets to college without knowing what an opening statement is in a trial, especially with the types of shows so often on the air these days? And there were other scenes that happened because a character jumps to a false conclusion and acts unwisely. All the same, it kept me engaged while driving, so I'll give it a pass. After all, nothing exciting happens if protagonists make wise decisions all the time ("When I learned this pivotal detail, I called the police and they took care of it, apprehending the bad guy with absolutely no drama. The End").

The title was apt - I found myself reflecting on the power of secrets to control our lives as we learn about the secrets kept by the various characters and how they have dictated their life decisions. We try to hide the parts of ourselves that cripple and control us; the darkness whispers to us that our failings make us shameful, that we would be viewed differently by loved ones if only they knew, that they wouldn't care for us the same way were they to truly saw us as we are. Kept inside, they can consume us. There is power in releasing these secrets to the world, taking back the control and realizing that we all struggle, we all fail, but in sharing our stories, we are stronger. [Sidenote: Brene Brown articulates these ideas so well in Rising Strong (reviewed in my March book log).]

43) 9/14: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
Here was another audiobook selection, listened to while cooking, baking and cleaning. I've been wanting to read Anne Lamott for a while now, and this text is a short one, only running a couple hours long in audio format.

I don't have a lot to say (some of the issue may be my distraction while multitasking), but what really touched me was the story of the two boys, the wildfire, and the town's response.

And I jotted down this gem as well:
The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in the wind and stay warm?
44) 9/20: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
In high school, I had a friend who was an exceptional singer. Truly a natural, with a wide range. Beginning as a freshman, she was regularly cast in lead roles for school productions. We were all in awe of her voice. Once in a while, she would come down with a cold, compromising her natural ability. She would attempt to sing a scale, and shake her head, disappointed with the results. Those of us who heard her, though, would scoff at her -- we told her she sounded better than us on her off days than we sounded on our best.

So now let's turn to Minding Frankie and find out why my singing friend would come to mind.

I would suggest that, while Binchy is a talented author with a skill for developing various characters and interwoven storylines, this book is akin to what was produced while having a cold. There seemed to be more characters than normal; I mostly appreciated the various story lines, but I often had to pause when transitioning to remind myself who we were now following; surely one or two could have been eliminated. I'd read what I thought was the denouement, only to be surprised to learn the book wasn't wrapped up yet. I expected a more explicit epilogue for the character that plagued me most (and yes, this tedious character might have soured my enjoyment of the storyline).

All that to say, there's something relaxing about reading a book by Maeve Binchy, so while it wasn't her strongest work, it's still better than most.

We have characters who are foils of other characters, which naturally led to comparisons of how we balance responsibility and expectations of those around us and the need for meaningful human connection.

There are plenty of questions to wrestle with in this book: What should you do when you can provide help, but doing so might sacrifice too much of yourself? How can you come alongside and encourage them to face the struggle to see if they can rise to the challenge? How do you instill confidence in those who haven't demonstrated that they are reliable? How do you find the internal strength to stop being manipulated and recognize the situation as it truly is, and to bloom in spite of the struggles? When and how do you step back and admit when you've gone too far?

45) 9/21: The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
My older sister Heather loaned me a book of Jane Hamilton's that she had read and thought I'd really enjoy. Those of you who have read even a small sampling of these book logs will notice that I default to reading e-books (they're so portable! I can read on my Paperwhite in the dark!), so you won't be surprised that I've shamefully neglected the loaned copy of The Book of Ruth. However, when I discovered that Jane Hamilton was going to be in town at a local bookstore, I put the event on my calendar.

The author was here to discuss her newest book, The Excellent Lombards. I thought it was perfect timing to pick up a signed copy for my sister's birthday.

I should note that I lost most of the month of August to a brutal sinus infection, and this book talk fell after a couple long days early on when I thought it was still a rough cold (PBS Kids was helping to raise my children for two days while I napped on the couch nearby, leading my older daughter to say, "Mom, I love when you're sick -- we get to watch SO MUCH TV!" You're welcome, kid).

Anyway. Under the false assumption that I had just turned the corner of my illness, I set out for the reading. I loved the Q&A with the author. The commentator had done her homework and asked interesting questions. I was out of my element, insofar as I hadn't yet read the book as many had and was clearly the youngest in the audience (come on, millennials, we can do better than this), and I'd even forgotten my trusty mindless knitting project, but I found Jane Hamilton engaging. She was so comfortable in her skin and, unlike other stilted readings that some authors do of their own work, Jane Hamilton had no difficulty capturing interest when reading an excerpt.

I queued up to get a book signed afterwards, sucking down lozenges so that I might have opportunity to complete an entire sentence before Jane Hamilton drew back in horror, fearing my potentially infectious state. She seemed ready to chat with me ("You're the youngest one here! How do you know about me? Where did you grow up?"), but I tried to keep it brief, knowing that the previous attendee had monopolized a fair bit of time and there were plenty more behind me.

Here's what I communicated: My older sister had initially recommended a book of hers to me (I left out the part where I hadn't yet read it). I continued to explain that when I was younger, I once gifted my older sister a book at Christmas. There happened to be a bookmark inside when she opened it. And then I did the sort of thing that only a sister would dare do...I asked if I could have it back for a little while, as that bookmark was actually marking my place. It took a moment for Heather to realize I was totally serious, and I have no doubt she was miffed at me.

I asked if Jane Hamilton could sign something like, "To Heather - Please forgive your sister for selfishly reading this book before you, yet again."

Jane Hamilton was amused and began to write. Here is what she wrote:

"For the most excellent Heather--
who is forgiven by the sister..."

Oops. She had already gotten everything switched around backwards, but it seemed ridiculous to point out Jane's error and be forced to buy TWO copies of a book so that it could be straightened out. And there was the pressing matter of the long queue behind me. So when she said, "Is this okay?", I played along, gratefully affirming the inscription, all the while wondering how to explain this to Heather.

So this is my solution. I trust Heather will get a kick out of having a signed copy of a book that suggests there has been this spat between us that is now finally forgiven, now that I have graciously forgiven HER, when truly it is I who should be begging forgiveness.

So did I read it? Indeed. Her birthday gift was delayed a couple weeks so that I could accomplish the task, but by the time you read this, the book will be happily ensconced in Heather's hands.

The Excellent Lombards has a lot of crossover to Jane Hamilton's own life (the protagonist is reminiscent of her daughter, and Jane does live on a Wisconsin apple orchard that her husband tends). The story centers around the family apple orchard and wrestles with issues of who gets to stay and who gets to leave (or, perhaps, who should stay and who should leave).

This coming-of-age piece was easy to read, and the last few chapters I finished while listening to the audiobook (I'd placed it on hold at my library once I heard of the book reading, but my copy didn't come up until recently). I wished I had avoided the audiobook - the reader has a range of voices, but after hearing Jane Hamilton read some of it, the substitute grated on me, being so different from Jane's. That likely colored my perception of the last few chapters, but I don't regret having picked up the copy to long as Heather sees fit to forgive me for my blatant disregard of protocol.

46) 9/30: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I first read this book in high school. I returned to it as it was a selected text on the CraftLit podcast. As such, my listening was spread out over months, often while multitasking with knitting, cleaning, or food prep, which means there's strong muscle memory ("Hey, when I last mowed, this is what was going on in the story..."), but it also means my attention can be distracted.

When I first encountered this book, Newland Archer annoyed me, and that impression still remained. We see a society where things are rarely spoken outright, and people fall in line so as not to rock the boat, but in enters Countess Olenska, a family member who has left a bad marriage and intends to start over. Her unconventional life and her refusal to regret her decision make her a difficult read for the family. There's melancholy, regret, and wrestling with expectations and societal conventions throughout.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Book Log: August 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

38) 8/8: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Confession: I had requested several books through interlibrary loan since my library didn't own copies. Just my luck, three came in all at once, while I was also trying to finish a couple other books with nearing due dates and long wait lists. While I had every intention of reading them in the order that they were due (three consecutive dates), I began to realize I would have to triage. Alas, Sarah Bessey's books got the boot and this took precedence (I still hope to return to Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts down the road, though).

As you learned in my June book log, Nadia struck a chord with me. Her writing style flows easily (although her language can be a bit salty, so if that will be a huge distraction for you, perhaps it's better to pass). This book is a powerful memoir of how this woman found herself a tattooed pastor of a Lutheran church. She also highlights different members of her congregation, being frank with her misgivings and judgmental attitudes and how she has been transformed by being sensitive and willing to admit her failures; through this, we see growth in the midst of her vulnerability.

I love stories like this. Here we see Nadia having emerged from addition, finding meaning and purpose, and turning around to reach out to other misfits. In her church, she creates an environment where those who are struggling to find a place where they are welcome and not judged are entering and finding community.

39) 8/20: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
This was chosen as the selection for my neighborhood book club to fulfill the classics category.

I've read Age of Innocence a couple times, so I was interested in seeing how this one would compare. Wharton likes taking on high society and examining the behavior of those members.

This book centers on Lily Bart. She is a sympathetic character to a point, insofar as we learn she is an orphan whose mother has only trained her to capitalize on her beauty - Lily has no skills or use outside of being desirable. However, while she needs to marry well in order to maintain her preferred manner of living, subconsciously she appears to be self-sabotaging relationships just when success seems imminent. We get to witness Lily's motivations and see what she's made of. This book is an interesting character study, and it led to good conversations when we met to discuss it.

40) 8/29: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This book was so tough to read, in the sense that it reveals the gritty underside of cities and I'm trying to figure out what to do now - how to process all this information and have it lead to action, in whatever small way. It's enlightening and I highly recommend it. I'll try to flesh it out more, but I'm still processing, so forgive me if it seems jumbled.

The author uses Milwaukee as an Every City, of sorts. With that city as his lens to the greater issues across the country, Desmond reveals how evictions play a huge role in the lives of lower income individuals and families.

That might make it sound dry and clinical, and while the author is a researcher with over 50 pages of notes, you get invested in individual stories. We follow several different individuals/families facing evictions as well as two different landlords interacting with and evicting various tenants. We learn what has led to the evictions, the sorts of places they're being forced to rent - properties that can have serious issues but which are essentially equivalent in rent to better kept places in other parts of town - the percentage of their income dedicated to rent, how drastically the likelihood of eviction goes up if there are children or if someone reports domestic assault, how your race and sex increase the chances of eviction as well:
"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out."
It's not surprising to see how evictions can lead other areas of your life to spiral out of control. If you're consumed with juggling an eviction, you might be more distracted on the job as you contest it or worry about what the future holds, or you might miss more work trying to find another place. Relocating farther away can lead to additional problems, especially if your transportation is unreliable. Then you lose your job, which means you lose your next home -- it's a downward spiral. While you're homeless or transitioning between places, you may also be paying high rates for your possessions in storage, only to have to weigh keeping ownership over your few belongings or making a rent or utility payment.

The book is written in third person, and as I was reading, I kept wondering how he gained access. He does answer this in the follow-up information, but I will allow you to remain in the dark until you read it for yourself.

You may recall how struck I was by Just Mercy (review in my May book log). One difference this book has is that, while Just Mercy reveals injustice, there is also hope in the accounts of some people who were released after being shown to have been wrongly convicted or finding justice when it's discovered they received harsh sentences that didn't line up with their crime; we see changes in the courts that should lessen future disparity. This book isn't as uplifting at the end, although Desmond does offer some possible solutions. And that's what this is - a rallying cry. Desmond is bringing attention to how serious evictions are, how important home security is to so many areas of our lives. He makes a strong, convicting case for universal housing vouchers, as well as other possible solutions. It's worth a read -- I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A List: Podcast Recommendations

I first discovered podcasts in the summer of 2005; the term showed up as a category in iTunes after an update, so I looked into it, intrigued by the option of downloading some favorite programs onto my iPod for free. I loaded some up before I tagged along with Eric for his three-week seminar in Boulder, Colorado, and I listened on the airplane and as I explored Boulder on foot while Eric was in class.

Since then, my podcast list has evolved, but I continue to listen while driving (now that I can plug into my car's speakers via USB or Bluetooth), exercising, gardening, cleaning, or while enjoying a quiet night of knitting or sewing.

I find myself with a mental list of favorites that I share when the topic comes up, and a friend asked if I would do a post on them. As it will be handy to link to this when someone next asks for a referral, I was happy to comply.

A disclaimer: I opt for things that will entertain more than edify me (I am trying to keep interest up while undergoing mundane tasks; I'm more likely to seek edification when reading, as heady podcasts can be hard to digest when I'm partly distracted with the task at hand).

With that note, there are two general themes that these podcasts can fall into: 1) literary, and 2) personal narratives. This is no surprise for those of you who know me. I was an English major (and briefly an English teacher), and as can be seen by my book log, I still enjoy losing myself in books. Also, it's not unusual for people to open up to me, disclosing secrets and struggles; I believe facing those things can help us to learn about ourselves and grow, and hearing personal insights on podcasts helps me to appreciate the universal struggles we face. If these themes don't interest you, my podcast recommendations will fall flat for you.

I've linked to the specific websites below, but the easiest way I have found to listen is to subscribe to the audio feeds via iTunes (if you have an Apple device) or Podcast Republic (for Android).

LITERARY PODCASTS in alphabetical order
CraftLit A former Enough teacher talks about what crafts she's working on, then helps listeners through a book - she chooses open domain texts so she can talk shop, then she plays the audio, either from Librovox or by enlisting some talented listeners to read; at one time she had a feed called Just the Books for those who liked literary and not crafty talk, but she couldn't keep up with both feeds; if you don't want the crafty talk but are still interested in the books, there's apparently a time stamp somewhere on the CraftLit feed so you can skip straight to the book. I appreciate this podcast because, although I was an English teacher, I didn't feel the most adept at helping students reflect on the important points. Heather Ordover switches between short stories and longer works, including Pride and Prejudice, North and South, The Count of Monte Cristo, Age of Innocence, A Tale of Two Cities, and much more.

New Yorker: Fiction In this monthly podcast, the fiction editor invites a contributor to read one of their favorite fiction pieces from the magazine's archives (not their own work), and they discuss its significance together. This can be more uneven, both in reading performance and selection, but I like more than I dislike, so I mention it here as a nice second-tier pick.

Selected Shorts If you appreciate short stories, check this one out. The creators understand authors are not always the best at reading their own work, so they get actors to perform them at public performances. Each episode centers on a specific theme.

Modern Love This is a newer podcast where actors read essays from The New York Times column of the same name. Then they interview the author of the piece to learn more. The submissions focus on some aspect of love, whether that of amorous love, parental love, or somewhere in between. This is a second-tier podcast of mine; something I'll listen to if I'm caught up with my favorites, but not an immediate download for me.

    The Moth This has become my favorite podcast. The podcasts fall into two categories: the Moth Radio Hour, where individuals have worked with coaches to polish a personal story in their lives that they will deliver without notes, and Story Slam favorites, where attendees throw their name in a hat if they want a chance to come on stage and share a five-minute story that meets that night's theme. They run the gamut of emotions, and I've been brought to tears when listening to stories. And it just reinforces my belief that everyone is so fascinating -- one of the first stories I heard was a doctor in the USA getting a call out of the blue to treat Mother Teresa (as you do).

    Radio Diaries Here's another new one for me,
    so it's relatively untested. Individuals are given tape recorders and editors put together a segment; the one I listened to was a segment from a Saudi girl who had recorded for two years, and This American Life has used episode segments in a couple of their shows.

    Reply All Here's a second-tier one for me. I believe Ira Glass (from This American Life) brought it to my attention, or used one of these segments in one of their shows. It's a similar vein to This American Life, where a story is explored in more depth, but it's more hit or miss as far as my interest is concerned and not as long.

     Serial  This podcast went viral last year when it debuted. Sarah Koenig, from This American Life -- sense a theme here? -- left the show to explore stories in more depth. In Serial, an entire season is spent on one story. The first season was about Adnan Syed, convicted of murder, although there were many questions throughout the investigation and trial. It's fascinating. There is a second season as well, but I can't speak to that one yet; I'm a couple episodes in and I'm undecided - it's nowhere near as gripping as the first season.
      StoryCorps I'm woefully behind on these, which is silly given they're relatively short, but I do enjoy them all the same. They take place in a recording booth where individuals are invited to come and share a story, and selections from some of those stories are aired -- you might have a couple family members or close friends interview each other, or you might have two near strangers come together to reflect on a pivotal moment when their lives crossed (for instance, one story had a bank robber, who served time for the robbery, interviewing someone who had been in the bank at the time). These can also bring me to tears, as people tend to dwell on monumental moments in their lives (one that stuck with me was from a doctor sharing about a family whose child died while waiting for an organ donor; the family then chose to donate their child's healthy organs so as to spare another family the grief of losing a child, and there are many moving accounts).

      This American Life In the world of podcasts/radio programs, this is one of the best in my estimation, and from my list above, it's clear they've inspired or spun-off several other programs. Each episode focuses on a single theme, with stories that fit the theme 
      (sometimes one story is consuming enough to fill an entire show, like one fascinating episode about a woman learning she had been switched at birth). They are so good at tying everything together and keeping interest, no matter the topic. It's one of my favorites (vying for first with The Moth). 

        So there you go, my current list (minus some recent recommendations that I haven't had opportunity to listen to yet). What are you listening to? Any recommendations that I should check out, even if they don't fall into the above categories?

        Saturday, July 30, 2016

        Book Log: July 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        34) 7/3: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
        This concluded the Penderwicks series. All four titles are lovely, and this provides some closure. Seven years have passed since the third book ended.

        This title spends time dwelling with Batty, who is nearly eleven and is adjusting to life without her beloved dog Hound. She discovers a gift for singing, and in hopes of nurturing that talent while not stressing her growing family's stretched finances, she devises a plan to earn money.

        Each title has a more serious topic alongside lighthearted antics, and this is no different. However, the issue in this book floors Batty - she overhears a conversation that makes her question everything, and her family struggles with their transformed Batty as she doesn't reveal the secret, believing it to be true and herself at fault. I admit I ached for Batty and I could too easily picture this being real. I can readily recall the spectrum of emotions I faced as a preteen, and the author accurately conveys those in Batty. But all is not lost - as one can expect given the books leading up to this one, there will be a tidy, welcome resolution.

        35) 7/25: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
        Eric mentioned this book to me when it was published, since he thought it would be of interest to me. I liked the Kindle sample, but I have this issue with paying $13 for an e-book, which is my preferred reading medium, and my library didn't have an electronic copy. I eventually got my hands on a paperback and read it that way. (Sidenote: I certainly do purchase books, but when I read just enough to make purchasing every book cost prohibitive, I try to use my library unless the author is a favorite of mine or I have reasonable expectations of revisiting it.)

        I really should jump on Eric's recommendations sooner - another book I put off for the longest time was The Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. It sat on my bedside table undisturbed for months until I grabbed it for airplane reading on our NYC anniversary trip. Again, my only hesitation was that it wasn't an e-book, and I wasn't interested in starting a book right before bed when I was already going to bed too late. But I devoured it on that trip, even having to restrain myself from weeping while I sat next to a stranger on a plane when reading a poignant passage detailing the significance of Jesus' healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. I can still get emotional when I discuss that part in particular with friends; the entire book greatly impacted me and made the rounds of friends as I regularly pushed it on them. Naturally, I bought the Kindle version, in case I wanted to revisit it while our copy was loaned out.

        So back to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. This book is thoughtfully written. Dreher is a journalist who writes this beautiful account of his sister's life. She is diagnosed with cancer, and through watching her face it, and her consequent death, Dreher is wrestling with the value of family and place. He left his small town at a young age and never intended to return, whereas Ruthie never left and the community came together spectacularly to support the family. Dreher wonders what he has sacrificed by leaving behind people who know him and where he came from in order to pursue his career.

        Here in Wisconsin, we love much about finding ourselves here. Eric enjoys his students and colleagues, we found a home perfect for us that allows us to be welcoming, and we have found a community of good friends. However, we do regret our distance from family (we live around 5 and 7 hours away from family, respectively), especially with our young daughters not getting to interact with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents on a more regular basis. We even admit we feel a loss when we compare ourselves to those friends fortunate enough to have family in the area, and we've had this conversation with others in a similar boat. However, this is where we find ourselves, as we have deemed the sacrifice meaningful. So we work to establish ties here.

        I can understand Dreher's point, though. When Jon committed suicide, although I had gotten involved with the church in my college town, there was no doubt that I would seek comfort in my home church ten miles away. Indeed, when walking up to the church, I was met at the door with loving arms and shared tears. These people loved and knew us and loved and knew Jon. My college church would have been sympathetic, had they known, but my home church was shaken and grieved alongside us.

        We lived in Indiana, over 7 hours from family, when we lost our daughter Katherine. And yet, even with the distance, and even though we had only been in Indiana two years at that point, we felt completely surrounded and cared for. In fact, I remember some faculty members from my department confessing to me, as they looked around at all the people that had filled our church for the memorial service, they had no idea if they had that kind of support structure should they face tragedy, and they had been around much longer.

        Dreher shares an account from his mother that resonated with me:

        "We were surrounded by so much love," Mam recalls. "[When Ruthie was diagnosed with a malignant tumor] It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn't done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there."
        This struck me as similar to what we experienced after Katherine's death, especially. We were volunteering with the high school ministry, and they coordinated all the details of the memorial service when we were in shock, knowing we wanted to mark her short life but having no concept of where to begin. One student left directly from the service to mow our lawn. My knitting friends remembered my original due date and took us to dinner then. And on the anniversary of Katherine's death, they pooled together money to treat us to a nice meal, knowing we would be fragile and would want to be alone. It was a brutiful time, but we were surrounded with people who were supporting us, as I expounded on in even more detail here.

        Having community is so important, and Dreher felt that he and his wife lacked that, given that they never stayed in one place long enough to establish such connections. For us, when we lost Katherine, while I'd never considered cremation before then, it was no question what we were going to proceed with for our daughter - we couldn't handle burying her in a place where we wouldn't be long term.

        This might be reading as a censure of those of us who are away from home and family. Dreher does say this, though:
        There has to be balance. Not everyone is meant to stay -- or to stay away -- forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given -- and to give each other grace.
        He did have some tension with family, particularly with his father and sister, issues that they all ignored and tiptoed around when he made trips home. However, Ruthie's diagnosis made him realize they needed to try to regain peace and he worked to reestablish wholeness with his family and anyone he could think of where there was brokenness.

        While I could continue to expound on the book and share more quotations, I'll leave it at that. This book struck me, and I did find myself brought to tears at times. Some of that might be me being overly sensitive, as I finished the book on the eve of the anniversary of my brother's death, and it brought up so many memories of loss and generosity that I will forever hold close. But I don't believe I'd be alone in appreciating this story of his beloved sister's impact on those around her and lessons we can learn.

        36) 7/27: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
        Paul Kalanithi was led into medicine and literature as he contemplated what makes life meaningful. He was a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

        This book is an account of choices he made leading to his vocation and how he faced the reality of death derailing his plans and suddenly re-prioritizing his goals and his relationships.

        I had begun this book alongside Dreher's, but it was set aside until I finished The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It is a solid book, and I wonder if my impression would have been more passionate if I had finished it before Dreher's; this is the problem with reading well-written books on similar topics too close together, much as I experienced with reading Code Name Verity on the coattails of The Nightingale.

        37) 7/30: Eggs by Jerry Spinelli
        Jerry Spinelli is a young adult author I've enjoyed for years; my favorite of his is Stargirl.

        This is a decent story (that sounds like such an underwhelming response; I think compared to other YA lit, it's strong, but I don't feel that it's Spinelli's strongest work).

        In Eggs, we read of the unlikely friendship of 9-year-old David and 13-year-old Primrose. They are both faced with loss and longing and they develop what is essentially a sibling relationship that vacillates from friendly to antagonistic as they struggle to come to terms with what life has handed them. Refrigerator John fills a parental role when the children are unwilling to open up to the family they do have in their lives.

        Friday, July 15, 2016

        Book Log: June 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        31) 6/7: Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy
        After countless recommendations, I finally read this book. I'm not sure why I hadn't gotten around to it before now; while it does cover his time as a football coach, it's more about what makes Dungy tick. As people had shared, you need not like/follow football to appreciate this book. I do actually enjoy football in moderation, and we lived in Indiana while Dungy was coaching the Colts, so there wasn't any reason for me to have it on the back burner; I just kept finding other books at the top of my reading list.

        I'd long respected what I knew of him, so reading more about his life and what has shaped his decisions and his responses was interesting. I had known one detail about his private life that I thought occurred after this book's publication (to remain relatively vague, a close family member dies by suicide); in fact, the death happened before Dungy published this book, so I had added interest in reading how he processed that loss.

        32) 6/17: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
        I am partway through another Bryson work after having heard an NPR interview with him after its publication (At Home: A Short History of Private Life), but I haven't yet finished it; the man has an encyclopedic mind so I find myself reading a section, then setting it aside to digest, and I don't see that routine changing. A Walk in the Woods was read for a neighborhood book group I joined.

        I can't decide what to make of Bryson, whether he would be the perfect dinner companion, filled with witty anecdotes and fascinating details on everything, or whether he's egotistical, the type to dominate because he could talk on any topic. However, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

        This was an entertaining, well-written read (our book group was split as to how uproariously funny it was - I landed on the at-times-amusing-but-never-laugh-out-loud side, whereas others were more of the hysterical-giggles-while-reading camp). Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, so this book covers the history of the Trail, his preparations for it and his experiences on it, details on the Park Service, and how flora and fauna have changed.

        I couldn't shake the feeling as to how unprepared he seemed physically when he began (logistically, he had done his research and was prepared with gear and maps). And let's not get started on his hiking companion Katz. But I learned a lot about the Trail and find myself regularly checking the blog of a local woman currently hiking the entirety of the AT (I met her husband at the neighborhood block party, and her plans to hike the Trail influenced our book group to read this account).

        33) 6/29: Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
        This was a timely read. I knew of Nadia initially through a book review on Rachel Held Evans' blog, and then by chance I listened to Nadia share an incident on The Moth podcast that happens to be a chapter in this book. Side note: if you don't already listen, go subscribe to that podcast now - it's at the top of my listening list (yes, even ahead of This American Life most weeks).

        Nadia is a progressive Christian and a Lutheran pastor. She previously published Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, but my library doesn't carry that title, so as is the norm, I didn't have any issues jumping to a later work.

        In this work, she is vulnerable in sharing her faults. That was the aspect I appreciated most. It's easy to talk ourselves up to try to appear impressive, it is so difficult to willingly share our negative thoughts or our mistakes, and yet acknowledging them can transform us and others. She is also gifted at "finding God in all the wrong people," as the subtitle states. If we believe that we are all made in the image of God, it behooves us to recognize that essence in everyone, even if their actions are off-putting or even repulsive to us.

        In addition to Nadia's transparency and frankness, I resonated with her mentions of the liturgy. We recently started attending a small local church that practices liturgy and have found it refreshing. Finding a tradition mindful of the church calendar and intentional in the words spoken in chorus has been a welcome fit.

        I clearly enjoyed this book, and I only regret that I was finishing it under deadline (I try to avoid library fines and angering those next on the hold list...), as there were some passages I would have highlighted or earmarked had the copy been my own. I have every expectation this book will be added to my library.

        Wednesday, June 01, 2016

        Book Log: May 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        This month we hosted a near-constant stream of friends and family, so my reading was infrequent and limited. Towards the end of the month, as we entertained less and I was able to indulge in more reading time, it picked up.

        26) 5/16: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
        I have to admit this was an uneven book for me. I nearly abandoned it, but my lack of reading time for the month was starting to get to me, and as I was so close to finishing this one, it seemed a shame not to know how it resolved.

        Major Pettigrew is the protagonist, and we see how his focus changes (from valuing things to people) as the book progresses. We see him process his brother's death, gain a new friend, and wrestle with family tensions.

        Given the title, I was expecting the "last stand" to come sooner, or for the book to feel more intentional, with a specific aim, but instead there was a gradual, meandering tone. When the book shifted, it didn't seem natural. There are important themes addressed, including racial acceptance, but I could have easily dropped it midway and not missed out. It is well written, though, and I'm clearly in the minority with my impressions of the book, if you take a look at Amazon reviews.

        27) 5/22: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
        This was recommended to me by a friend and was a pleasant read. The concept was interesting: imagine a reclusive author who published one novel that took the world by storm (a la Harper Lee), and then decades later found herself nearly penniless after falling victim to a Ponzi scheme. She must publish again to survive.

        Enter Alice, who works for Mimi's publisher. She is sent to the author's home, by request, to help out so the author can focus solely on writing. These duties revolve around taking care of Frank, Mimi's young son. He's a charming character, and although it isn't spelled out, he seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum (obsessive with fashion and movies, regularly acts out when touched, and so on).

        I won't reveal anything that will give away plot, but it was engaging and was quickly finished (and that's saying something, given that it was a hardcover book and not on my Kindle; anymore, e-books are more quickly read since it's easier to tote around my Kindle in my purse than actual books crowding out everything else).

        28) 5/22: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
        I'm not sure when I began seeing mention of this, but it has only crossed my radar in the last few years. Three years ago, my husband and I were in NYC celebrating our ten-year anniversary. We were trying to find out what to bring home for our daughter, who was then not quite three. I remember picking up a copy of this book to consider - it was an elaborate pop-up book - but I rejected it since I was trying to find a NYC-themed gift, if possible, and I hadn't even read it yet to know if it was something I wanted to own.

        It's a lovely book with simple illustrations, and at one point Brennan climbed on my lap and asked me to read a few pages to her. It's not long, but it is poetic and I see myself returning to it again. I rushed reading it; there are some good nuggets in here that I'd like to savor next time.

        29) 5/24: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
        Last month I read the first couple books in this series. I'm continuing on, as it's a pleasant break from other heavier works I might find myself tackling.

        This book had the sisters in two locations while their father and stepmother take their honeymoon - Rosalind, the oldest, was invited to vacation with her best friend's family. Other than at the bookends of the story, she doesn't appear for any significant length. The story centers on the three younger sisters' adventures in Maine for a couple weeks with their aunt. Skye is thrust into the OAP role (oldest acting Penderwick), and we watch her struggle with the role, as she's convinced she will be a huge failure, but as we all suspect, she rises to the occasion.

        Their good friend from the first book, Jeffrey, joins them for the time, and there's a big plot point that involves him, quite a convenient revelation, nothing of the sort that tends to happen in real life. That doesn't detract from the story, but as an adult reading a book aimed for a younger audience, I found myself not completely buying into how smoothly it unrolled. All the same, I plan on reading the fourth book to conclude the series.

        30) 5/29: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
        Friends, this book is one of the most important books I've read in a long while. But it was excruciatingly hard to read at times.

        Bryan Stevenson shares how he ended up getting involved in representing individuals on death row, and he's also made huge inroads with the treatment of juveniles. (For those of you with a pulse on other recent publications, you might find this reminiscent of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - I am patiently waiting my turn at the library to read it.)

        My heart ached and I would get so upset at some of the accounts in here (for instance, the account of the psychiatrist who faked his credentials and practiced for eight years, and yet gave testimonies about the competence of defendants that carried great weight; the case we learn about is when this "psychiatrist" failed to properly diagnose a defendant's recent brain damage after a severe car accident that led to the events that put him on trial).

        Stevenson shares from many cases, but the one he spends the most time on is that of Walter McMillan, a man who was sentenced to death row even though there are so many issues with his case, not the least of which is the fact that he had numerous alibis during the time of the crime.

        As these cases could feel so overwhelming and hopeless, I began to wonder how Stevenson could continue doing this, year after year. At one point, he shares how he nearly gave up and what he realized was the point of it all. It was poignant, and I found myself highlighting large passages; here's one excerpt from a large section I found powerful:
        Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
        Several times I had to pause, maybe vent to my husband about how these things could be happening. But I would calm down and return to the book. The work done by the Equal Justice Initiative is meaningful, important, challenging work. And this book is a meaningful, important, challenging piece.

        Sunday, May 01, 2016

        Book Log: April 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        19) 4/3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
        Here's a book I kept seeing mentioned. I could understand why people were enjoying it. It's a fun read (although the middle third was slower to get through, and the cultural references felt tedious at times).

        First off, I need to give the disclaimer that I am not a video game aficionado; we didn't own a console growing up, so my only experience was when I was at friends' houses. I don't play online games, either, but I certainly knew a little about World of Warcraft. However, this lack of information didn't lesson my enjoyment. Also, the summary I give below is introduced quite early to set up the premise of the book - don't feel that these are spoilers, as you'd learn these details in the prologue.

        Imagine the world in 2044. Many people are very into playing the massively multi-player online game OASIS. It's quite realistic and allows people to escape the drudgery of their daily lives, all the more important as recession is rampant; the real world's infrastructure is crumbling, so people avoid reality and retreat to OASIS. Interest is increased when the creator dies and, since he has no family, he reveals that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in OASIS. The one who discovers it wins his fortune. First, they must discover three keys that lead through three gates, at the end of which is the Easter egg. The creator was a huge 80's fan, so interest is revived in music, culture, and games from that decade, as many suspect they will help discover useful hints.

        Five years pass, and no progress is made for the hunt. Then the protagonist, a senior in a virtual high school, discovers the first key. Interest is again revived, and this story covers the hunt for the fortune.

        I was pretty good at suspending my disbelief, although periodically I felt like Wade had magical epiphanies to aid in his success that likely would have been found out sooner by the lackeys at IOI, the token evil corporation, with their limitless resources. All the same, the author does a decent job sharing the history of the hunt as well as realistically explaining how the world has changed. Certainly there are questions that arise regarding what is real and could hint at our own tech addictions.

        It's not a must read, nor an important read, but it's an entertaining one if you need something light.

        20) 4/4: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
        I'd read this book when I was young, but I can't recall if I'd ever revisited it as an adult. My interest was revived when I realized how limited my memories of it were when I was reading When You Reach Me last month.

        It was pleasant to reread. You get good versus evil, freedom versus conformity. You also see bravery in Meg, the flawed but faithful protagonist, as she travels to rescue her father with her human and otherworldly companions.

        I enjoyed it, but I think I was expecting more, perhaps because I've read a lot of good literature influenced by L'Engle's transformative work - it's hard to hold up under such a legacy. Perhaps I expected it to be longer? It's certainly not a bad thing to be able to tell a story succinctly, though.

        21) 4/11: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

        As a teenager, I once attended a presentation where the speaker shared about different levels of communication: the most general is casual, superficial talk, and at the pinnacle is deeply personal information. He shared how infrequently people spend time at the deepest level; even within marriage, it's easy to get stuck with figuring out practical details, especially when children are present -- transportation logistics, schedules, house upkeep, work and school commitments, extracurricular activities. It's often a luxury to have deeply meaningful conversations.

        In Tara Road, we see how the various characters get stuck in their routines and become blind to the reality around them. Binchy examines relationships and the lies we tell ourselves and others.  The focus is on friendships, both platonic and within marriage. If you're not taking the time to reflect or have honest conversations, you settle into believing everything is as you see it. This can lead to misunderstandings that grow into something that can no longer be ignored.

        Like the first book of hers I read (in January), this one was a pleasant read; she crafts a good story. I don't often need or want a lot of excitement in my books. This one is a longer read (648 pages), but that allows much to be done with the characters. We get to see what drives them and what their faults are, and then when their world is unsettled, how they respond, either uncovering unknown strength and abilities or losing themselves as they realize they were never truly in control.

        22) 4/18: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
        A friend's daughter was devouring this audiobook series, so I looked into it. Reviews were strong, and it was a National Book Award winner, so I added it to my list. Such a charming read! It is a sweet and innocent story of four sisters and a widowed father. The father is loving but very much a peripheral character in this book. This book covers their time at a summer home for three weeks and their adventures there; each girl gets some attention from the author (their ages range from 4 to 12, and their personalities are distinct enough to tell them apart). I feel like it won't be much longer before I start reading this aloud to Brennan.

        The children aren't perfect (which would make for a boring read), but while they can get into trouble, their hearts are in the right place and there is eventually resolution. Their relationships with each other is sweet as well; the sisters hold family meetings, either emergency or planned, to discuss events and make plans, and they swear each other to secrecy, citing Penderwick Family Honor (unless it seems harm could come to someone, then they are released from their bond).

        23) 4/24: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
        This was the second in the Penderwicks series. The family lives on Gardam Street, and this book picks up soon after their summer adventures conclude. School is in session and their Aunt Claire delivers a letter to their father that had been written by his wife shortly before her death four years earlier. The contents - that her husband should begin dating again - frame the storyline; the sisters decide to orchestrate horrible partners for him to date so that he will give up on the venture. There are also other plot lines taking place - Jane's deception surrounding a school play is a primary one, but the other sisters have their own issues they wrestle with.

        This was published in 2008, but it has a timeless feel to it; I could easily see it becoming a classic. It doesn't quite seem contemporary given the freedom the girls have to wander on their own, but it embodies the innocence of childhood and I can just see my daughter getting caught up in the story and discussing all the details at length.

        24) 4/25: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

        I taught for two years in Minnesota in a suburb of the Twin Cities, beginning in the fall of 2004. This book, published in 2002, was already part of the curriculum in the ninth-grade class I taught. That was my initial introduction to the book; first I read it that summer to get a feel for it, then I re-read it when the unit came up.

        I'm not sure that I had read it since then, but it is a powerful, thoughtful book, and I have found myself revisiting some old favorites again.

        One reason I don't go into much plot detail for these accounts is that I worry I won't do the books justice - a list of some of the highlights might take away the power of the actual book, or it may make you avoid reading it if my description isn't your typical reading style. Plus, I'd rather go into a book or movie with little understanding of what to expect. This is one I went into blind, and after more than a decade had passed, the details had dimmed considerably. It was a pleasure to read this one again.

        The narrator is Reuben, and the story takes place when he is eleven. It is clear he is reflecting on this account as an adult, but the foreshadowing hints at tragedy to come and uncertainty as to who else reaches adulthood with him. It is well done - Reuben doesn't sugarcoat events, even when the truth paints him in a poor light. My freshmen loved this book, as did I. Seriously a great read with great themes to reflect on.

        25) 4/28: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
        I first read this as a young student (possibly sixth grade?). It's another Newbery Award winner.

        I noticed I've been reading a lot of children's literature this month - I like to read YA lit, but this has been more than normal. It's due to the fact that we've been reading chapter books to our oldest for a while now; as she is growing as a reader and as we work our way through other books, I'm keeping an eye out for what might be on the horizon.

        The protagonist is a young boy who writes fan letters to his favorite author. It takes a while for the author to initially respond, but Mr Henshaw, through his responses, pushes Leigh, an aspiring author himself, to develop the skills that would help him to reach that end.

        I found myself invested in Leigh. Here's a young boy coming to terms with his parents' divorce and the new home and school that results from it. Through writing (both to Mr Henshaw and the journal he begins to keep), he matures as a writer and as a person. All of the accounts are epistolary, and I'm a sucker for a well-done book in letters (for two great books in that style, see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Where'd You Go, Bernadette).