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.