Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Best of the Bunch: March 2016

Today I'm sharing the best book I read in March.

It was a good month! Of the 10 books I read this month, I had three 5-star reads:

Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?: Letters to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers

George by Alex Gino

Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondō

It's hard to pick between these! I'm going to say that the best of the bunch was...

This little book is now in my collection of favorite parenting books to reread. It's not a parenting book per se, but I learned a lot in seeing how Mister Rogers responded to the wide variety of letters he received over the years and reading some of his commentary on those responses. I genuinely appreciated his honesty and openness, and especially his sense that he didn't need to have all the answers or make things up. This is definitely worth picking up, whether you're a parent or not. Many of Mister Rogers' life lessons apply no matter how old you are.

What is the best book you read this month? Let me know in comments, or write your own post and link up below!

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Monday, March 28, 2016

My Ten Most Recent Five-Star Reads

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is "Ten of my most recent 5-star reads," but rather than debating what constitutes "recent" and trying to pick the best ones, I'm just going to straight up give you the ten books that most recently got a 5-star rating from me, starting with the most recent. I ended up having to go back about six months in total, as I had a lot of books that I'd rated 4.5 stars but that didn't quite hit the 5-star mark for me.

1. Spark Joy by Marie Kondō
I just finished this follow-up to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It was exactly the "master class" I needed to get my pared-down possessions organized as neatly as possible.

2. George by Alex Gino
I loved this children's book about a transgender 10-year-old girl. It was heartwarming and optimistic while still being relatively realistic.

3. Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? by Fred Rogers
This book of children's and parents' letters answered by Mister Rogers gave me some great insights into answering kids' questions. He is always honest and tries to encourage their own problem-solving wherever possible.

4. The Giver by Lois Lowry
I didn't love this book until I reread it as an adult, but now I understand why it's a favorite for so many. It concisely illustrates how societies can be tempted to stifle freedom/joy/truth in the name of security/peace/stability, and the unforeseen consequences of such a trend.

5. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I know this book has received a lot of criticism, but I think Sandberg was very upfront about the book's limitations and narrow audience. Within that scope, it's honest, helpful, and practical, for both men and women in the working world.

6. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
This is such a fantastically written story of one man's unbelievable WWII experience. The story itself is alternately horrifying and uplifting, but the storytelling is what makes this a top book for me.

7. Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I just mentioned this last week as a book I should talk about more. As I said there, it's funny, challenging, honest, and inspiring, and recommended for any Christian who loves God but can't seem to get along with any of God's followers.

8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In this brief but passionate work, Coates addresses racial identity (and its social and historical construction), police prejudice, and the ways in which his son's experience in today's world is both hopefully different and painfully similar to his own experience growing up black and male.

9. Positive by Paige Rawl
Another repeat from last week that needs more promotion. This memoir of HIV, bullying, and healing is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

10. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Although much of this book is ridiculous and silly, I enjoyed the read so much I couldn't help but give it 5 stars. I loved the riddles, the ridiculous plays on words, the celebration of the different ways that genius manifests itself, and the good old-fashioned save-the-world plot.

What are the best books you've read recently?

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Ten Books I Really Love But Feel Like I Haven't Talked About Enough

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week I'm talking about books I love that haven't ended up on multiple lists on the blog yet. But you should check them out! Top Ten Tuesday lists seem to lean heavily toward fiction, which may be why I haven't talked as much about many of these books that are non-fiction and memoir.

1. Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I've recommended Bolz-Weber's first book, Pastrix, a bunch of times (here, here, here, and here), but I don't think I've underscored just how good her second book was. I didn't think she could write something comparable to her first, but it was just as funny, challenging, honest, and inspiring. Either one is worth the read (preferably both!).

2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I'm very picky about fantasy and don't read a lot of it, but something about this book sucked me in and I've been trying to get my husband to read it ever since. Both the sentence-level writing and the plot kept me hooked so that the 500+ pages flew by. It has elements of mystery and an underlying question about the meaning of life. I'd recommend it to anyone who loves a well-told story.

3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I feel like I've talked about What Alice Forgot quite a bit, but I loved this one of Moriarty's just as much. Interspersed with the main linear narrative you get commentary about the investigation into some event or crime that is unknown until nearly the end, so you know everything's building toward something but what it is isn't clear.

4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
I didn't really appreciate how great this book is until I reread it for book club during the past couple years, after having read a number of other memoirs since first reading it. Walls peels back the layers of her childhood, so that we at first see her parents as merely having alternative philosophies about life (during the time that she herself is still an idolizing child), but we eventually see their sheer negligence and selfishness as their children have to take on more and more of the burdens of keeping the family going.

5. Positive by Paige Rawl
Another excellent memoir, this book is the story of a teenage girl who contracted HIV at birth and underwent terrible bullying and discrimination once her status was made known at her school. You see the lasting effects the bullying had on her even after she got out from the school, as well as the healing experiences that gave her the strength and confidence to move on. It's inspiring, heartbreaking, honest, and well written.

6. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
There's no way to describe the plot of this book that doesn't sound boring, so I'm just going to tell you to read it. It has the sweetest unreliable narrator at its heart, an English butler whose professionalism masks his deepest feelings, even from himself. I definitely recommend it on audio.

7. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
I need to go back and reread this one because it has so much valuable insight that I know I haven't retained it all. Haidt gave me a much-needed framework for understanding how people have come to such vastly different conclusions than I have about politics and morals without demonizing or ridiculing them. While I think his own atheism limited his understanding of religious people, his insights about politics are fascinating.

8. Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee
I talked about this book a ton on my previous blog when it first came out, but I don't think I've talked much about it here. Although Lee does talk about revisiting the Bible passages that are traditionally used to condemn homosexuality, it's within the framework of telling his own story, which makes the tone of this book very open and not argumentative. I'm sure that someday a book like this will seem outdated and unnecessary, but as long as there are still well-meaning Christians out there with misconceptions about sexual orientation, this book is a critical resource for starting the conversation.

9. Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfiker
I read this book in college, and it busted open the false ideas I didn't even know I had about poverty, social programs, and life in the inner city. It's a short, clearly written book that lays out the facts routinely overlooked in conversations about eliminating poverty. In particular, Hilfiker addresses head-on the notion that poor people are leeching off the government to avoid work.

10. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs
I don't love everything Jacobs has written, but this takedown of the idea of biblical literalism is pretty fantastic. Jacobs has the personality (and the spare time) to make an attempt at following every single one of the Bible's commands, even the obscure ones. The best part for me, though, was when he interviewed other "literalists," from an Orthodox Jew to a fundamentalist evangelical. The takeaway? Everyone picks and chooses; they just have different ideas of what the non-negotiables are.

What are some good books you don't mention enough?

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Monday, March 14, 2016

What I've Been Reading Lately (Quick Lit)

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit to bring you some short and sweet reviews of what I've read in the past month. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

Lots of stellar reads this month, and a wide variety of genres! There's probably a recommendation in here for just about anyone.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera: I had mixed feelings about this book. It had a page-turner of a plot, and it was nice to see a YA novel that wasn't about white kids in the suburbs for once. I had a hard time understanding any of the characters' feelings or motivations, though, and the novel makes a weird plot turn near the end that completely changes the message of the book. It's not a bad book, but I didn't connect to it the way I'd hoped.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin: I'm not a big fan of sci-fi generally, and my first impression was that there was too much to keep track of, but once I got my head around everything the story started to come together and I really enjoyed it. There's great world-building and a good balance between expository detail and narrative action, and the characters' dilemmas felt real to me.

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene: I didn't read these books as a kid, and without the nostalgia factor I found this pretty weak. Although it's a "mystery," Nancy Drew doesn't really solve anything; she just does the legwork of going to talk to people and then following up on the conveniently specific things they tell her. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and stereotypical. It's not bad for a kids' adventure story, but I won't be seeking out any more Nancy Drew books.

Song Yet Sung by James McBride: This was disappointing. In a book that should be packed with suspense and action — runaway slaves, kidnapping, knife and gun fights — the majority of the book is just people standing around having long conversations. And when there is fighting, characters who very logically should use the opportunity to run away just stand there and watch. McBride also implies via the main character and her "visions" that black people have wasted their freedom from slavery by getting fat, joining gangs, and making violent rap music, which I found problematic to say the least.

Mink River by Brian Doyle: This novel of life in a coastal Oregon town breaks a lot of conventions about structure, language, and plot development, but Doyle does this very intentionally and, I think, well. This isn't a book I'd rush to recommend to everyone, but if you're looking for a slow, immersive read with memorable characters and a beautiful setting, pick this one up.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: I'm glad I gave this a chance after so many people said it didn't "live up to the hype," because it still quite a good book. I couldn't always relate to the characters' decisions (infidelity, deception, manipulation), but the pacing was good and the use of cliff-hangers and changing narrators made it suspenseful throughout.

Watchmen by Alan Moore: A graphic novel about superheroes is definitely not my usual fare, but I enjoyed it, and it's no wonder it's a classic in this genre. Set against a backdrop of the Cold War, it raises important questions about good and evil, power, how we justify our own actions, and how those in power make the decision to sacrifice the lives of others for (what they perceive to be) a greater good.

Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?: Letters to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers: This little book is going in my collection of favorite parenting books to reread. It's not a parenting book per se, but I learned a lot in seeing how Mister Rogers responded to the wide variety of letters he received over the years and reading some of his commentary on those responses. This is definitely worth picking up, whether you're a parent or not. Many of Mister Rogers' life lessons apply no matter how old you are.

Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: There was a lot I liked about this book, even if it dragged at times and I couldn't always relate to the main character's decisions. The ending was strong and emotionally powerful. I would say it's worth a read, especially if you like books about family relationships or about not fitting in, or you're just looking for a book that might make you cry.

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions by Rachel Held Evans: I've been a fan of Rachel Held Evans for a long time and finally picked up her first book. (She's published three.) While it's definitely not as polished and organized as some of her later writing, it's still a good read and I highlighted a ton of passages. She talks about making room for doubt and questions in her faith after growing up thinking Christians had to have all the answers or else lose their faith in God.

George by Alex Gino: I found this story of a transgender girl in elementary school heartwarming and very well done. The conflicts are realistic without being too heavy, and the ending is optimistic without being naïvely so. I enjoyed the read and would happily share the book with my kids.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal: Beal shows how publishers are reinventing the Bible in new formats that give people more of what they think they want from the Bible — clear answers. He then takes us back through the long and complicated history of how the books of the Bible came to be put together the way that they are now. Although he doesn't ultimately tell you what you should "do" with the Bible, Beal provides a new framework for accepting the Bible as it is while still seeing it a rich resource of faith.

What have you been reading this month? Share over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Top Ten Characters Everyone Loves But Me

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is characters that everyone else seems to LOVE, but you don't feel as strongly about. Some of these are characters I genuinely don't like, and some I just don't understand the obsession with.

1. Don Tillman (The Rosie Project)
I think people are like, "Oh, it's so cute how awkward he is and then this woman turns his life upside-down." But he's a pretty rigid stereotype of someone with Asperger's (who hasn't figured out he has it, despite doing research on Asperger's in others — hilarious) and could have been written as a more realistic human being.

2. & 3. Eleanor & Park (Eleanor & Park)
I feel like it's sacrilege to say I didn't love this book to pieces, but I did not enjoy reliving the experience of being in a high school relationship where you're constantly fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing and driving the other person away. I did not relate to Eleanor trying to hide everything about her life from Park, nor did I relate to Park's awkward methods of self-expression for which he didn't have a clear reason.

4. Étienne St. Clair (Anna and the French Kiss)
This was a cute enough book, but I could not get over Étienne being a big weenie who wanted to keep dating one girl while stringing along another one. This made it hard for me to swoon over him the way everyone else seems to have done.

5. Flavia de Luce (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)
I normally love mysteries, but I could not understand this girl's motivations for practically anything she did. She constantly lies to people and hide things for no apparent reason, and then she put herself in an isolated, dangerous position (again, for no apparent reason) when she knew there was someone dangerous on the loose. I did not understand or like her.

6. Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
I'm sure Holden is a great character if you enjoy analyzing symbolism in literature, or if you're an angsty, angry teenager. Otherwise, inside his head is a very uncomfortable place to be.

7. Jace Wayland (City of Bones)
I'm not really attracted to "mysterious bad boy" characters, and I particularly don't appreciate characters who decide to show they're interested in someone by suddenly kissing her without first having established if she's even interested.

8. The March sisters (Little Women)
I've said before that I enjoyed Little Women but don't really understand the deep love that so many people have for the book. That's probably in part because I didn't personally connect with any of the sisters.

9. Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Longstocking)
I thought I loved this character until I read the book again as an adult. I guess maybe she's a hero to little kids because she represents what they think they wish their life was — no responsibilities, never having to go to school, eating as many sweets as you want all the time, and just having fun all the time. It's hard for me as an adult to jump on the same bandwagon.

10. Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind)
I actually liked the book Gone with the Wind quite a bit for its historical context and larger themes about life, but I really couldn't stand Scarlett (or Rhett for that matter) for the majority of the book. She's overly self-centered and stubborn, to her own detriment.

Which characters feel the love from everyone but you?

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