Book Reviews

2015: A Restored Appetite for Reading

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For the past two years, my reading accomplishments have been dismal. I didn’t have the energy or the desire to read (for the first time in my life!). Depression takes over everything when it has you in its clutches.

I started out this year strong in the fiction world—I needed an escape, more than anything. But then came #the4500 and the numerous titles recommended within the group. Here’s what I’ve been reading, listed by month (as best I can remember):

January

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain—a novel loosely based on the time Ernest Hemingway and his wife spent in Paris while he wrote what would eventually become The Sun Also Rises. A good read for what it is, but not great by any means. It’s definitely not a title I’d put into my repertoire of books I multiple times.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan—a haunting story based on a group of survivors of the Titanic tragedy. It was a little slow-going at times, but based on actual events from the shipwreck, and I’m a sucker for historical fiction, so there’s that. Overall, a good read.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline— This one was a hard read; it’s a very haunting period piece about an older girl who desperately seeks a family to settle with. She faces a lot of tragic circumstances as she is passed from family to family. The setting shifts from mid 20th century to present day as the girl tells her story as a grown woman. I’d recommend this one.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling—The first memoir I’d read in quite awhile. Kaling is witty. And real. I enjoyed this one and want to read her recently released second book.

February

The Young Merlin Trilogy by Jane Yolen—I picked this YA trilogy up five years ago at a literary festival where I met Yolen. (She signed this book for me!) Yolen is a master at weaving an artfully intriguing story—and this one doesn’t disappoint. Great for young readers who like fantasy!

Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor—A raw, interesting look at O’Connor’s life from her perspective as she struggled with her faith. The literary nerd in me ate this one up! If you’re a fan of O’Connor’s work, this is an enlightening insight into her psyche.

The House Girl by Tara Conklin—I don’t remember a lot of details about this one, but I do know I liked it. Again, it’s a historical fiction novel, this time taking place in the south.

March

The Help by Kathryn Stockett—This was a re-read. I read it when it first came out several years ago and picked it up again this year. Loved it even more the second time around!

For the Love (chapter samples) by Jen Hatmaker—Here’s where I applied to be on the FTL launch team and got rejected and then stumbled in to the crazy-awesome group that is #the4500. Jen sent all us rogue, unofficial launch team members four sample chapters to tide us over until we could actually get our hands on the book. (I’ll get to the whole book later—hang on!)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple—One of my favorite fiction reads of the year! Funny, heartbreaking, mysterious, suspenseful—all rolled into these pages. Well-written and engaging—definitely recommended.

April

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd—For all her overly feminist themes (I’m all for feminism, but SMK goes a little overboard sometimes—hello, The Mermaid Chair), Kidd delivers a riveting tale of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two early feminists and abolitionists in the Charleston, SC area. I’ll probably read it again.

May

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart—A delightful story of spies, a mysterious island-bound school, and a conspiracy to end the world geared toward older elementary readers. I have no idea where I picked this book up, but it was a nice, light read as I eased from the school year into summer.

June

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—A re-read in preparation for the release of Go Set A Watchman.

July

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee—Honestly, I was very wary of this one. Like many, I was excited to read more of Lee’s words, but apprehensive of the way it came to be published. Did she really want it published? We’ll probably never know for sure. From all the media that preceded the release, I was worried that GSAW would tarnish my respect and view of Atticus as the beloved character he’s been for so many decades. In reality, I’m glad for this new perspective of Atticus—it made him more human and approachable, I think. If you’ve read TKAM, I definitely recommend GSAW. If you haven’t read TKAM, don’t read GSAW until you have!

For The Love (additional e-book chapters) by Jen Hatmaker—Jen’s publisher gifted those of us who pre-ordered FTL with the entire e-book. (I only read a few chapters, because I just need to have an actual book in my hands!)

In The Company of Others by Jan Karon—No year is complete without revisiting Mitford! I started with this one in preparation for her new book’s September release, because I didn’t have time to go all the way back to the first Mitford book. Karon is my favorite contemporary fiction writer, hands down.

August

For the Love (the actual hardcover, finally!) by Jen Hatmaker— After reading the teaser chapters, I was so happy to have this book in my hands. Jen (yeah, we’re on a first name basis now!) is hilarious, literally laugh-out-loud funny. She’ll have you giggling hysterically one moment and bawling your eyes out the next. In essay-format chapters, she covers everything from the problems with short-term missions trips, how our American Christianity callings shouldn’t differ from those of the single mom in Haiti, and living out our faith in our own communities to shouting out the loveliness of turning 40, disdaining the leggings-as-pants (LAP) trend, and tossing out witty Jimmy-Kimmel-esque thank you notes for everything under the sun. READ THIS BOOK—no regrets!

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon

September

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—This is where we veer quickly to mostly nonfiction. Anna pushed this book “like crack” in #the4500. I avoided it for months, but finally decided it was time in late July. I didn’t actually start reading it until the end of August. And it took most of September to work my way through its pages. I have so many words about this book—many of the m can be found in earlier posts here on my blog. This book literally changed the course of my year and my mindset; it’s the reason I finally connected with Anna via phone and it was the catalyst for reclaiming my mental and spiritual health. Super powerful words in this book—I cannot recommend it enough!

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon—the latest Mitford-based novel, with Dooley and Lace’s wedding as the main event. This one was tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that the focus of the storyline  has shifted away from Father Tim and Cynthia and is nearing the end. Let’s just not think about that, shall we—these characters are among those that become real to you over the course of the series.

 

 

October

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown—Tiny book, but meaty material, indeed. I’m still working my way through this one. For anyone new to Brown’s research and work, I’d recommend starting with this book as it provides a lot of helpful background for her other books.

Audacious by Beth Moore—I adore Beth Moore. I could listen to her speak for hours on end. And yet, this is the first book of hers that I’ve actually read in its entirety. I highlighted almost every word on almost every page. It was that good. Read it!

November

The Sound of Gravel (Advanced Reader Copy) by Ruth Wariner— What an absolute privilege it was to be part of the launch team that received ARCs of Ruth’s debut memoir to read and review. The story behind this one is INCREDIBLE. (And a long story [involving cousins from the same polygamist cult meeting on Twitter and bridging a family rift 40+ years in the making]—so if you really want to know, ask, and I’ll tell you all about it, well, what I know anyway!) My official review of this book will be up on the blog later this week, so you’ll find all my thoughts there!

Rising Strong by Brené Brown—A follow up to Daring Greatly, this book is weighty as well. I’ve slowly waded through the first half of it since Thanksgiving week, but am still working at it. There’s practical, worthy advice on how to apply the principles of Daring Greatly, the Gifts of Imperfection, and the Rising Strong principles introduced in the book. One of my favorites of the year.

December

Think Differently, Lead Differently by Bob Hamp—Listen, this book is literally causing me to think differently about my identity as a daughter of God, to approach my view of the intersection of the natural world vs. the spiritual world differently, and to tap into the Kingdom authority we have as believers in Christ. I’ve been listening to Bob Hamp’s Foundations of Freedom podcasts for a couple of months, and they have broken open the most walled-in places of my heart and soul. The growth I’ve experienced as a direct result of this book and the podcasts are absolutely invaluable. I’m still working through this one, too.

The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin—This was my attempt at an easy, light fiction selection during Christmas break. Ha. Rising Strong and TDLeadD have taken over. This one is slow-going and I haven’t really gotten into it, but I’ll soldier on ‘til I reach the end!

 

What’s your favorite book you read in 2015?

What are you most looking forward to reading in 2016?

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A Pearl & The Cross: A Tribute To My Friend Susan

God knows I don’t understand His plan sometimes. But he does have one—one that doesn’t hinge on our earthly desires, but on His eternal righteousness. I’ve found this to be especially true in the face of watching my dear friend Susan leave this world earlier than we’d ever wanted or imagined. Last spring, Susan left this world and entered the presence of her Savior.

We probably all know of at least one person who loves others so fiercely that it oozes from their very pores. The kind of person who makes everyone feel warm and welcomed, loved and cherished, safe and appreciated. Susan was just such a person. Her soul mirrored the love of Christ, and poured out of her. His grace and mercy was evident even as she faced the end of her battle with pancreatic-turned-lung cancer. She fought more than a good fight—she fought a courageous, inspirational fight. Just two weekends ago, her family and friends gathered to celebrate her life at the memorial service she planned before leaving us. And it was such a sweet and precious gift to know that she had selected her favorite hymns and scriptures to comfort us—because that was exactly the kind of person she was—always looking to be a light to someone else in any way she could.

I met Susan when I was a sophomore in college. My friend Elizabeth, who was a senior preparing to student teach, had been Susan’s kids’ nanny for several years, but needed to focus on her workload as she neared graduation. She suggested to Susan that I might be interested—and I was. So in August 2006, I tagged along with Elizabeth for a day of meeting and caring for Susan’s two kids. I immediately felt welcomed in Susan’s home. I immediately fell in love with her six year old daughter and her seven year old son.

Through my years of nanny-ing for the family, Susan was a constant source of encouragement as I struggled to commit to a major, decide whether to stay at NGU, and whether to pursue teaching. Burned into my memory is particular conversation we had one evening when she and her husband returned from a date night. I was sitting at the breakfast bar in her kitchen, packing up my laptop. We were chatting about the possibility of me transferring schools to pursue a Deaf Ed/Special Ed degree.  Her daughter had recently begun attending a private school dedicated to providing an inclusive environment for students with autism. Susan relentlessly told me how she could picture me working as an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist with the school’s affiliate therapy program. Before I left that night, she gave me the number of the program’s director, saying, “Call him—you’d be perfect for this kind of work.”

I left that number stuck in my planner for two years; I never called the number, but I kept it. A few weeks after I graduated from college (with an English degree), I mailed a job application to the company and told Susan to pray. Two weeks later I had an interview. The rest, as they say, is history. I’m well into my sixth year at Project Hope Foundation—now as an Assistant Teacher in a classroom at the Academy. Susan was right—I absolutely love working with these kids. I have learned and grown so much in working as both an ABA therapist and a inclusion teacher—and I have Susan’s persistent encouragement to thank for that.

Just a few weeks before she left us, I had the privilege of sitting with Susan one Sunday while her husband took a break and tried to get some rest. An image from that day is forever burned into my memory. Most of the morning, Susan slept off and on in her recliner in the living room. At one point she awoke and mumbled something to me…but the only words I caught were “His eyes are on the sparrow.” Later, she rose and shuffled to the stairs. I met her at the bottom step and told her I was going to help her. She looked at me and started to argue; I firmly, yet gently told her I was going to help her. She looked at me with the most clarity I’d seen in her eyes that day and said, “Yes. I’m sorry, I forget.” As we started up the stairs, my arm tucked around hers, our fingers intertwined, I glanced down at our hands—hers frail and fragile, mine young and strong—and saw the rings I wear on my left hand juxtaposed against her fingers:

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A cross and a pearl.

Two symbols that perfectly fit the life Susan led. She was a faithful follower of Christ, living out the freedom she found at the foot of the Cross, pouring the light of Christ on everyone around her. And she was a pearl of great price—a beautiful treasure that God created in His image, a gem that taught us more about grace and peace than many people can in the midst of great battle.

She’s not here with us on this earth anymore, but she is waiting for us at the throne of God. I can imagine her sitting at the feet of Jesus, soaking in His glory. And, in those moments, Heaven doesn’t seem all that far away.

Own Your Brave, story

Balance

Balance.

Such a loaded word for only two syllables worth of vocal real estate.

We all want it. We all strive for it. We all wish we were better at it.

And we all beat ourselves up over the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t attain it.There’s always something that gets left undone, forgotten, or given less than our best efforts.

In  For the Love,  Jen Hatmaker speaks to the theory that our society is hinged on comparison culture:

“we have up-close access to women who excel in each individual sphere. With social media and its carefully selected messaging, we see career women killing it, craft moms slaying it, chef moms nailing it, Christian leaders working it […] Then we combine the best of everything we see, every woman we admire in every genre, and conclude: I should be all of that.”

That is so absurd. Yet, we’re ALL guilty of it.

We waste SO much energy trying to be good at everything, when we aren’t necessarily called to be.We live in a constant state of judging ourselves against the polished lives of those around us.We fill our plates with far more activities, responsibilities, and “shoulds” than we can realistically balance.

Jen H. likens this phenomenon to a balance beam. Of the impulse to weigh our lives down with as many hobbies, jobs, activities, projects, etc as we possibly can, she says:

 “meanwhile we have beautiful lives begging to be really lived, really enjoyed, really applauded—and it is simpler than we dare hope: we gotta unload that beam […] Decide which parts are draining you dry. What do you dread? What are you including for all the wrong reasons? Which parts are for approval? […] Throw out every should or should not and make ruthless cuts. Go ahead. Your beam is much too crowded.”

And while Jen (we’re [practically] BFF’s and she’s also part of #the4500, so I can call her that) speaks to the mostly physical aspects of a loaded beam, I wager that it can apply to our mental well-being just as much.

Because our minds get just as mired in the debate of who we are vs. who we “should” be. I know I spend a lot of time listening to the thoughts that constantly play in my mind. (Maybe it’s an introvert thing, but I’m always talking down the “gremlins” that Brenè Brown refers to in Daring Greatly.) In Brown’s research she uses the term “gremlin” as a synonym for “shame tapes.” She found that:

“shame derives its power from being unspeakable […] it loves perfectionists [hello, introvert!]—it’s so easy to keep us quiet […] Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for [Spielberg’s] gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”

I have struggled with this for decades. I don’t remember having a mind clear of the shame tapes rolling. All the fears, anxiety, approval-seeking thoughts that have occupied my brain for so long are exhausting. And YOU cannot balance them. There is no balance when it comes to these thoughts. They become too powerful, drowning out the positive attributes we have, the messages of hope, and courage and “you are enough” that we all need to hear ourselves say to our actual selves.

And over the last two years, they roared in my ears, every minute of every day.

“You’ve made a huge mistake.”

“You weren’t brave enough.”

“You’re invisible; no one sees you.”

“What if…?”

“You don’t have what it takes to make a difference.”

“Wasted—that’s all that opportunity was.”

“You missed your chance. You blew it.”

Those words in your head every day for two years will drive you insane. You can hide it well behind the mask of “I’ve got it together,” you can numb it, you can push it down deep and build a wall around it—but it will not go away.

I’d settled into this way of living. Ignoring all the feelings, the emotions, the reality of my pain and became a shell of myself. Presenting my happy self to the world around me, but inside I was miserable.

I could not see my way out.

I’m so thrilled to say it’s not like that today.

Over the past month, a series of events, connections, and words have been set into motion that have broken through that wall that held all those thoughts captive. My heart is free again. The Light has come and destroyed those thoughts, leaving them shriveled and whimpering.

As I was pondering the change in my mind and heart over this time, I realized that I had forgotten a key point.

In early September, I attended a gathering of my church and our sister church in Indiana. On the last evening of services, the pastors called for prayer for healing.

I’ll be honest—I was in a funk that night. I was 900 miles from home, I’d spent nearly three straight days in a car with an extrovert; I wanted quiet, I wanted to be by myself. And the “gremlins” were roaring in my head. But I stood up; I tried to pray, but all I could say was, “Jesus.”

After a few minutes, someone approached and prayed over me—for balance: “Jesus, bring balance to the mind, body, and spirit. Bring them into alignment with you.”

The person who prayed those words was a stranger. Someone who had no idea of the struggle I was facing. But God knew and He has made sure I know that He knows in a hundred ways over the past three weeks. And He has brought balance.  I FEEL ALIVE again. Fear and anxiety aren’t ruling me anymore. There’s so much joy in my heart, I feel like I could jump out of my skin.

By the grace of God, I have regained my balance after years of teetering on the edge.

Those “gremlins” we carry around? OFF THE BEAM

Those things we fill our lives with to keep up with all the “perfect people”? OFF THE BEAM

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it isn’t the way God created us to live.

We aren’t called to live under that kind of pressure.

But if we’re so caught up in trying to attain goals that aren’t meant for us to attain or listening to the gremlins that drown out our thoughts, we waste the beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary lives we were given.

 

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#the4500: An Introduction

First things first: just over two years ago I hit a wall. A declaration over and rejection of what I perceived to be my calling/my ambition/my whatever-you-want-to-call-it and a wasted/missed opportunity resulted in my disengagement with almost everything around me. It’s all water under the bridge now, and a long, hard story that doesn’t need to be told here (yet). But the reality that it happened is important in preceding this post.

Before this period, I wrote a lot. I read a lot. After this, I stopped—reading voraciously, stopped blogging, stopped journaling.  My last blog was posted in December of 2013. I haven’t really written since then. Until earlier this year, the emotion was too raw, the rejection too near, the questions too unresolved. But I began to feel the bubble of the unwritten words that filled my heart. The stories I needed to tell, the declaration I needed to put forth. For a writer, the burden of an untold story is heavy. Add an ISFJ personality into the mix, and it’s a nightmare. Too many thoughts in one’s head at once are overwhelming—and writing has always been my processing outlet.

November 2014-March 2015 were hard months for me because I was faced with a dear friend’s second battle with pancreatic cancer. In ways that were far beyond my capacity, I was called to come alongside her and her family during that time. For the first time in those two years, I began to let myself show up and feel life again.

In early March, as I felt the stir to begin recording my story again, I stumbled upon a launch team application for Jen Hatmaker‘s  forthcoming book, For the Love. Initially, I dismissed it, but it kept hanging around the edges of my mind. So, on the day before the application deadline,  I applied. An excuse to write regularly by reviewing the book and putting the word out? Sure, why not?

But I wasn’t the only one jumping in that boat—there were 5,000 people (mostly women and a few brave men). Yes. 5,000. Jen’s team issued an email to the 4500 of us who didn’t make the cut and included four chapters of the book to preview.

So here were the rest of us: the un-chosen, the rejected, and the unpicked. But not for long.

There was this tweet:

Then a hashtag robbery that turned into a Facebook group.
Thus, #the4500 was born.

What began as a “no” from the launch team application became a redemption story in the making, even today. One woman (Anna) created a #hashtag and another woman (Tracy) created a Facebook group for those of us who didn’t make the cut.

I must say, when I stumbled across Anna’s tweet on Twitter, I was amused. When I found the FB group and dared to request to join, I was wary. An online community of strangers? And they were pouring their hearts out to one another—about EVERYTHING under the sun??? They were creating new ministries, writers groups, organizing meet-ups around the country??? Umm, thanks, but no—I’ll just be over here on the fringes, writing a book review or two, tweeting about the book—but that’s it.

And so, I lurked. For months. Posting a comment here and there, but never really committing myself to these strangers. Until last week. I dreamed of a #the4500 conference, of meeting the faces behind the names in the group, of having heartfelt conversations. So I posted about it the group, and it set off a series of connections that blows my mind a week later. It’s a story for its own post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

This apparent rejection from the launch team in March has morphed into something so rare in today’s comparison culture: a group of 1300 women sharing struggles, celebrating successes, laughing together, praying over one another—without judgment, without comparison, without exclusion. It has been such a blessing.

I’m proud to be a part of this ever-evolving sisterhood.

~*~