Saturday, July 30, 2016

Best of the Bunch: July 2016

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

I am writing this early because I'm headed out of the country where I will not have reliable Internet access, so I'm not sure how many more books I'll end up reading before the end of the month! With a little over a week left, I've read 14 books this month, and I had three 5-star reads:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life by Henri Nouwen
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

These were all good for different reasons! The best of the bunch for me was...

I'd read a couple of Nouwen books before, but nothing that struck me as powerfully as this little volume, which was recommended by a friend. I expected a book about the Eucharist to be somewhat dry and theoretical. This, however, was straightforward, honest, relatable, and invigorating. Nouwen uses the story of the travelers on the road to Emmaus to walk through the parts of the Mass and how we are invited to participate at each stage. I already want to re-read this because I know I will gain additional insights, and I could use the reminders of some of his more challenging points. Definitely recommended for fellow Catholics and anyone who wants insights into what Catholics (can) get out of the Mass.

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, July 18, 2016

Ten Books Set Outside the United States

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

I try to read a mix of books set in the United States and elsewhere, sometimes more intentionally than not. Here are ten books I've enjoyed that are set outside the U.S.

1. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Sweden and elsewhere)
The protagonist of this ridiculous and hilarious story starts off in Sweden, but the book ranges around the world as we learn about his life of getting unintentionally embroiled in major political events of the 20th century. At 100, his adventures aren't over — nor are they any less ridiculous or far-flung.

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan, France, and Greece)
Some sections of this book are set in the U.S., but most of it takes place elsewhere in the world. It's a collection of fictional, interconnected stories that together tell a sprawling story of family and opportunity across multiple decades and countries.

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (India)
Boo spent about four years living among the people in a Mumbai slum and recording their lives, and the resulting book is a heartbreaking but important read. It won't provide you with easy answers, but it will give you a thorough understanding of why the climb out of poverty isn't a simple (or sometimes even a possible) one.

4. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Australia)
I love Moriarty's writing, and this is my favorite of her books to date (though I have a hold on Truly Madly Guilty, which comes out later this month!). School politics, bullying, and domestic violence are by no means limited to the United States, as we see in this cleverly crafted and ultimately relatable mystery.

5. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (Afghanistan)
This is a well-written middle grade novel about an Afghani girl who dresses as a boy in order to support her family after her father is taken by the Taliban. Although the external threats she faces are very real, the plot is driven not by action-packed reactions to external conflict but primarily through her own internal struggles as she learns to have courage to do what she needs to do to get by and help her family.

6. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom (Netherlands and Germany)
This memoir of a Dutch woman during World War II was incredibly moving and inspiring. Her faith, and that of her sister, led them to risk everything while trusting that God would be with them, even in the midst of a concentration camp.

7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
The characters in this book are from the United States, but the book is set largely in what was then Belgian Congo. This missionary family thinks they're bringing everything they need with them, but they soon find out that neither their garden nor their Gospel can be wholly transported to another continent and left intact.

8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (England)
I'm currently reading Never Let Me Go, which reminded me of this other book by Ishiguro that I enjoyed so much. It's an incredibly sweet book told from the perspective of an English butler reflecting over his career and specifically his "strictly professional" (as he keeps insisting) relationship with the housekeeper he worked with for so long.

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (China)
This beautiful and painful story of friendship is set in rural 19th-century China. This book is powerful not just for its depictions of friendship, but for its insights into the lives of women at this time and place, something I only knew a little bit about going in.

10. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (Japan)
This memoir (written as a novel) tells of the author's experiences at a unique school in Japan in the 1940s where children were encouraged to explore their natural interests and were taught many lessons from everyday experiences. It reminded me a lot of the Ramona Quimby books I loved as a child.

What are some of your favorite books set outside the United States?

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Friday, July 15, 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.

Since my husband gets two months off work each year (and I don't), he gets to take our toddler on long vacations in the summer to visit family, while I go to work and then relish in the quiet evenings and read books. They're now home for a few days before taking off again, and I'm very happy to have them home, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that having some uninterrupted reading time has been awesome. Here's all the reading I've gotten in during the last month.

Good-Bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton: This was a sweet little book about one (fictional) schoolmaster's career at a boys' school in England. From a fearful young teacher trying to learn the art of discipline, to a doddering but wise old retiree still living across the street from the school grounds, we see how his life and the life of the school are intertwined.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: I have a hard time understanding how this book is so popular because the characters seemed to be missing personalities. I also think there's a problem if you're trying to convey the message, "Your friend's suicide is not your fault" and you do so in a way that implies, "If you're suicidal, there's literally nothing that can help you."

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley: I reread this after recommending it for my book club's LGBTQ month theme, and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. (Almost everyone at book club liked it as well.) After learning about the "bury the gays" trope common in storytelling, I'm even more impressed with how Talley managed to end this story of an interracial lesbian relationship set during school integration.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: I liked what Steinbeck was going for here, and I imagine this book is an English major's dream, but it was a little too sprawling and heavy-handed for my taste. I also wish Steinbeck could write female characters that didn't slot neatly into existing stereotypes.

The Whole Life Adoption Book: Realistic Advice for Building a Healthy Adoptive Family by Jayne E. Schooler and Thomas C. Atwood: This is one of the more comprehensive adoption books I've read; as the title suggests, it's not just about the process to adopt a child, but the lifelong process of raising an adopted child. It's geared more toward parents adopting older children with histories of abuse and neglect, but it has valuable tips for any adoptive parent.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie: This is a collection of Hercule Poirot short stories, and while it was enjoyable, I do prefer the longer format. However, I liked that there was a wide variety in the types of cases (murder, theft, blackmail) and the ways in which they unfold. Be aware that there are a number of ethnic slurs used casually by the main characters.

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien: After feeling meh about The Two Towers, I expected the trilogy to pick up again in the final book, but I had an even harder time getting into it. Between the long, boring descriptions and the weird pacing, I'm glad to finally be done with this series.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond: I had mixed feelings about this book, as the storytelling and the writing are very good, but I was continually tripped up by what felt like unnecessary supernatural elements and excessive, sometimes gratuitous abuse and violence, mostly sexual. Whether you can enjoy this book will probably depend on how much those things bother you.

Buck: A Memoir by M.K. Asante: Asante is a talented writer, and though his story (inner-city black kid with the deck stacked against him eventually finds a way out from the life of gangs and drugs) was not the first of its kind I had read, his engaging prose interspersed with his mother's diary entries made this an excellent read. I recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author.

Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters: Waters' writing isn't bad, but she could have done a lot more research to avoid the stereotypes and cringeworthy messages that made up this book. It's not enough for her Christian characters to be hypocritical, they have to be literally abusive, while the "accepting" characters are a family who collects goddesses and a Native American boy from an unspecified tribe who has a magical spiritual connection to nature and possible psychic powers. I was not impressed.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: Although I've never been in Didion's shoes (with a suddenly deceased husband and a daughter in intensive care), I found her story somehow utterly relatable. Her process of grief was a combination of logical and illogical thoughts, a search for answers among literature and research, and a constantly failed attempt to stay out of the "vortex" of memory. It was compelling and well-written.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson: Not quite as funny as Let's Pretend This Never Happened, but still excellent. Lawson goes into a lot more detail about her mental illness, which I appreciated, while still being hilarious and having unbelievable adventures.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle: This was a mixed bag of fantastic insights and overreaching generalizations. If you're willing to mine it for seeds of truth, go for it; if unsourced references to studies and events drive you up the wall, skip this one.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans: This is my favorite of Evans' books to date. A blend of memoir, reflection, and church history, it uses the seven sacraments as touchstones to take the reader on a journey through what makes church wonderful and infuriating. I haven't had the ups and downs of Evans' church experience, but I still teared up with recognition more than once while listening to this one.

With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life by Henri Nouwen: This deceptively slim book was infinitely better than I expected. Nouwen invites the reader to revisit the parts of Mass with fresh eyes, and his straightforward and relatable writing helped me reap tons from this tiny volume.

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

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Top Ten Books I've Enjoyed That Have Under 2,000 Ratings On Goodreads

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

I did a version of this week's topic last year for a freebie week, when I shared books I like that had under 1,000 ratings on Goodreads. The link-up topic this week specifies 2,000 ratings, so let's see which books I can add to the list that have between 1,000 and 2,000 ratings!

1. The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
I love the accessible way that McKnight walks the reader through the process of reading the Bible, specifically the preconceptions we have about it (it's a puzzle to solve or a to-do list) and our discomfort with things that aren't clear-cut. He shows that ultimately, it's not unreasonable for two different people to walk away from reading the Bible with two different convictions about the right course of action.

2. Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Diane Eyer
I need to reread this now that I have a child! The authors show how we have a tendency to focus on big development milestones (first step, first word), when there are so many smaller, fascinating ways that young kids learn and grow. They encourage imaginative play rather than pushing kids to be able to memorize information (even if that's what will impress the relatives).

3. It's Not You, It's the Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
This might not be the most accurate crash course in economics you can find, but it doesn't really matter — it's all about rethinking the conflict-prone areas of marriage from a less feelings-heavy point of view. By relating economic principles to things like chores, parenting, and sex, they encourage the reader to shake up their views about what's "fair" to figure out what actually works.

4. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork
Although not as popular as Stork's wonderful Marcelo in the Real World, this is a solid, enjoyable story that delves into the themes of death, life, race, revenge, and family. Be aware that it does fall somewhat into the trope of "sick person teaches healthy person about life."

5. Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz
If you start doing any research into the history of marriage, you're going to run into Stephanie Coontz's name rather quickly. This book is an overview of marriage throughout the centuries, from ancient times to the Middle Ages to the 1950s family unit so often called "traditional" today. I found it very interesting and accessible despite being heavily researched.

6. Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
I had to include this on here! This is my toddler's favorite book and one that deserves to be considered a classic picture book. As a parent I appreciate the relatability of the parent's pleas that make up the book's rhymes ("Don't eat the sand, baby, please, baby, please!" / "Now hold my hand, baby baby baby, please.") "Baby" was one of my son's first words as a way to request this book.

7. Positive by Paige Rawl
I've recommended this book several times, as a 5-star read and a book I should recommend more often. I'm surprised it has so few ratings. It's an amazing and inspiring memoir from a teenage girl who contracted HIV at birth about the bullying and discrimination she experienced and what helped her heal from those experiences.

8. Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
This is an incisive exploration of the stereotypes that affect African American women's identity, both in how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. I was relatively unfamiliar with a lot of historical context Harris-Perry shares and felt that I gained a valuable lens for viewing media representations of black women. If that's unfamiliar to you as well, this is definitely worth picking up.

9. Telling Lies by Paul Ekman
I love research like Ekman's, which turns popular beliefs on their head through research. In this book, Ekman walks the reader through the different kinds of lies people tell and what nonverbal signals really do betray lies and which are myths. If you enjoy social science research, this will be up your alley.

10. Torn by Justin Lee
Another book I don't talk about enough, this is a good introduction to the intersection of faith and sexual orientation and the related "culture wars" from someone who's lived through them. It's compassionate and not preachy, which makes it stand out among most of the discussion in this arena. If you've ever wondered how someone can be gay and Christian, Lee's story is a great one to start with.

What are some of your favorite underrated books?

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