Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 2014 Bookshelf

We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation  by Brian McLaren
304 pages

A book club I am part of picked this book and I don't know that any of us realized it was, as stated on the front cover, "A Year-Long Quest...."  Oops.  :) But in the introduction McLaren says that readers can go through it however they choose and hopefully still glean from it.  So we stuck with reading it straight through rather than taking a year.
McLaren takes the 52 weeks of a year and devotes it to topics that pertain on how to truly, in his opinion, be alive in Christ.  I feel iffy about McLaren but I wasn't unwillingly to read his book, I'm open to hearing different thoughts, etc about a life in Christ.  And if they differ in the things I consider the "minors" then I really don't care. It's the "majors" that matter to me.  That being said McLaren and I didn't disagree until I got to chapter 5.  :)  And even though we disagreed there we went on in following chapters to agree with each other. It is possible to agree to disagree after all.  Even when it is a "major" you disagree on. And where McLaren and I seem to part ways in beliefs is on a "major" point but I won't let that keep me from gleaning other valid and good insights that he does have. The insights I appreciated from the book and have me thinking more on are things like; "one anothering", what the purpose of judgement actually is, how to live in aliveness, living downward, and other chapters really stood out to me as well.
I have zero regrets reading the book or McLaren's differing opinions. :)  I like to think I'm grown up enough, mature enough to be okay with differing opinions and even beliefs.  I think I had been interested in another couple of his titles and I will probably still, eventually, read them.  I feel it is good to be challenged and stretched, to be made to put into words why we believe what we believe and how we came to that conclusion.  The chapters, 52 of them, are short and easy.  He includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter and then at the end of each quarter he includes some queries to prompt reflection on the past weeks thoughts.  You can read it straight through and glean from it and you could take a year to go through it.  Either way it was a worthy read, it gave me some things to think through that I appreciate.




One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern
469 pages

I enjoy Ahern's books.  This particular title showcases growth, in my opinion. It had some depth to it that I haven't picked up in any of her other books that I have read.
Katherine, Kitty, is a journalist who has gotten herself in some legal and professional trouble. In the midst of dealing with her woes, her mentor Constance passes away from cancer.  In an attempt to recover from her professional problems and to prove herself again Kitty takes on the story Constance never got to.  It is a list of one hundred names, that's it. There is no other notes, no reason given, no outline, nothing to indicate why those one hundred names and what the story was supposed to be.  Kitty has two weeks to track down all one hundred people and discover the link and write the story. As she sets out on this quest and begins to learn the stories of these people she discovers parts of her own story as well.
Ahern did a really good job with this book.  It's such an intriguing thought - track down 100 people and try and figure out what links them.  A daunting task but fascinating idea.  As I said earlier, I felt like there was a depth to this book that Ahern hasn't had before. I really enjoyed it!




Smart Money Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win with Money by Dave Ramsey and Rachel Cruz
258 pages

I'm really bad with money.  My husband is better but he is at the opposite end that I am.  He will tight fist every penny and I spend every penny.  Neither is a good, or healthy, place to be in regards to money.  And we have children that I want to be better than me.  One of our daughters has a good head on her shoulders regarding money, not sure how she does but we are grateful. The other daughter thinks money is a never ending supply available to her. Because of this, and because of my anxiety over their futures for cars and college and life, this title from Dave Ramsey and his daughter, Rachel Cruze, caught my eye.
Narrating back and forth Rachel and Dave lay out the case for teaching children to win with money. Basically teaching them to control the money and not allowing the money to control them.  I would love this for my girls.  I feel like money controls my husband and I rather than us having the power.  And I hate it.  So for my girls to have a better approach would be wonderful.  I'm tempted to think "it's too late" because my girls are 16 and 14 but in one section of the book Cruze actually says, "It's not too late, it's never too late." Okay well *that* pity party is over.  So I feel thoughtful upon finishing the book.  Wondering how my hub and I can turn things around for our children.  We are quickly approaching both car and college and it has my stomach in knots.  But as Dave and his daughter point out, it can't be just one parent making the changes or setting the standard.  It has to be both parents presenting a united front.  So maybe the hub needs to read the book and then we can discuss.
The authors give practical counsel and good tips for raising money-smart kids.  Based on Dave Ramsey's lessons for adults their ideas and counsel for teaching kids to win with money they help parents see how they can set the stage for financial success.  But warning, it requires parents to say "no" and mean it, to be firm in their decisions, to make a choice to not enable their children.  Ah, parenting.  Not for the faint of heart and financial training is certainly a piece of that.





The Returning Tide by Julia Sokota
Kindle Edition - 156 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Troubador Publishing Ltd for this advanced copy. In exchange for a pre-publish copy I am giving an honest review.  

Our narrator is Claire Bentley, recently widowed and baring a secret for some 30 years.  Her children, Krystina and James, convince her to holiday in Cornwall with them and she agrees, with great reluctance and a sense of foreboding.  30 years ago she left Cornwall and vowed to never return.  But the secret she keeps prohibits her from sharing that vow with her children so she goes.  Her holiday in Cornwall leads her to reminisce and reveal the secret she's held on to for so long.  As the reader we are privvy to thoughts and such that she has but nobody else knows about.  As secrets always do it eventually becomes exposed but to what cost?
I had a difficult time getting engaged in this book and its story as well as the characters.  There was a slight disconnection between the characters and story and that colored my read of it.  In an attempt to draw out the story and the mystery of Claire's secret I felt like the author was detailed in places she didn't need to be and not detailed in places where it would have helped.  I also feel like she kept the secret too vague, too mysterious.  At times I wanted to say, "Just tell us already!"  The end was not one at all.  It felt to me like the story cut off right before the climax and conclusion. It felt like the reader, at least this one, was left hanging.  I don't mind cliff-hanger endings but this one was much too abrupt. The potential is there, in the story and characters, to be a much more in-depth story.  This felt a little too much like a first draft of the first attempt at a novel.




Come Dancing by Leslie Wells
Kindle Edition - 261 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Allium Press for this free copy. In exchange for a copy I am giving an honest review.  

SIGH.  I had high hopes for this title, I confess mostly because of the cover. But they were dashed.  By chapter 8 I was contemplating abandoning the book but I stuck it out for the sake of a full honest review.  I haven't read any of Leslie Wells books before so she was a new-to-me author.  I'm not sure if I would pick her up again, based off of this title alone I wouldn't.
Julia Nash is a twenty-four year old living in New York City and working as an assistant editor for a publishing house.  She meets Jack, the opposite of everything she is.  As their relationship progresses they each have baggage and issues from the past the pop up and threaten to ruin what may be a good thing between them.
SIGH.  Where to start?  I suppose with setting, mostly the timeline.  Wells doesn't specify what years this book is supposed to take place but certain clues like typewriters, a new channel coming called MTV, someone developing a phone you carry with you all of the time, and the fashion described eventually lead the reader to understand that it is the early 1980's.  But I didn't pick up on that until a few chapters in.  And even then when it occurred to me what year she was writing the story in I wasn't 100% sure until the MTV channel was commented on.  The second problem I had with the storyline was the amount of sex Wells included.  Wells included so many scenes that it felt like a smut book.  In fact, it kind of was a smut book. All Julia and Jack do is have sex.  A lot of sex.  There wasn't much focus on developing a real relationship between them, it was just a bunch of booty calls. Yuck.  You can only read too many of those scenes before you feel worn out and slightly dirty.  Julia had really shallow people in her life, as did Jack.  There wasn't substance to any relationship mentioned in the book.  That's disappointing and fairly unrealistic I would say. All the sex was definitely unrealistic. Because of the time period Wells set the story in the fashion was very outdated for today. And it made the entire book feel outdated.  I found myself double checking the copyright date on this a few times.  The title doesn't really explain or summarize or hint at all what the book is about. All in all I unfortunately felt like I was dragging myself through a sand pit trying to finish this book.




The Disambiguation of Susan by Sarah Sarnoff
Kindle Edition

Thank you to NetGalley and Saint Gaudens Press for this free copy. In exchange for a copy I am giving an honest review.  

The title is a mouthful for sure but the story is easy to read and enjoyable. Sarah Sarnoff has written a coming-of-age story with a character that isn't entering the teenage years.  Instead, her main character is coming out of her teenage years and entering into young adulthood.  In life I believe we go through many "coming-of-age" seasons.
Susan, Susy, Fisher is 20 years old and has just experienced the old wives myth that death comes in threes. It did for Susy.  First her father died, then her mother shortly after him, and finally her last blood relative dies, Aunt Rachel.  Called to New York City for Rachel's memorial service from her small hometown of Moline, Illinois Susy finds herself thrown into a situation she never anticipated.  It challenges her young maturity, her schooling, her whole life.  As she begins to understand the depth and breadth of this new life she has fallen into she is also challenged in the matters of religion and faith.  Raised by two non-practicing Jews Rachel has no connection, interest, or knowledge of the Jewish faith that she has by birth.  But Aunt Rachel was a practicing Jew and Susy has to learn how to navigate and potentially incorporate the customs and beliefs of the Jewish faith into her own life.  As Susy sheds another layer of the past in order to move forward into the present and future she learns the kinds of life lessons that can only be learned at the hand of experience.
I had a general idea of what "disambiguation" meant but looked it up to make sure.  I had the right idea and I can see what Sarnoff was aiming for in the title but I disagree with the decision to use such a word in the title of a book.  Were it a textbook or some book for academia then it would be spot on, but this is a novel.  I liked Sarnoff's Jewish lessons through the characters and the romantic interest story was a little less mushy gushy and a little more reality based, I appreciated that as well.  The one problem I had with the book, actually the character Susy, was that she was only 20 and on the verge of 21 but yet spoke as if she were 50 and had the life experiences and understanding of an aged, seasoned person.  One could argue, as Susan did, that it was because she was raised an only child and therefore was more mature.  Eh.  Maybe.  I found it to be unrealistic and instead very idealistic.  I couldn't buy into the scenarios where Susan sounds like an elderly matron.  I did like, a lot, the lesson of forgiveness Sarnoff had in the book and how she tied it to a very popular Broadway Show and movie. It was very thought provoking for me.  All in all not a bad read, I enjoyed it quite a bit!




Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews by Lynn Davidman
Kindle Edition - Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy

Thank you to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for this advanced copy. In exchange for a pre-publish copy I am giving an honest review. 


What an interesting read.  I am always intrigued by people who make a choice to take off their old skin and put on new skin, so to speak.  What keeps a person in a community?  The people of the community?  The rituals and/or traditions of the community?  The religious beliefs?  All of the above?  None of the above?  One of the above?  And when a person makes a choice to break from that community and the beliefs associated with it what does that look like?  Feel like?  Sound like?
Lynn Davidman broke from the Orthodox Jewish community about 40 years ago.  But she still is loosely tied to it, not necessarily because she wants to be or because she has purposed to be but because some of the characteristics of the Orthodox are so deeply ingrained in her that even after 40 years she still displays slight interests and ties to it.  This is her second book on Orthodox Judaism, clearly there is still an interest and a curiosity within her.  To form the basis of this book Davidman interviewed 41 men and women who had broken from the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox faith of Judaism.  She was looking for similarities as to why they "defected", for themes, for anything that might be a spotlight on the issue.  Interestingly enough all of them, including Davidman herself, started to disassociate from the Orthodox beliefs at a young age, elementary school for most of them.
Drawing from several interviews that stood out Davidman writes a book that uses the voices of men and women who have left their Orthodox life behind.  For most it took literal years to completely leave and create a new life.  In your mind it is always easier to do something than it is when your heart is involved and people you care about are involved.  And what begins as an internal rebellion can only stay internalized for so long, eventually it has to have an outlet.  Davidman identified the most common external outlet for these Hasidic Jews was to go against dress codes, dietary laws, and bodily care mandates.  These shows of independence led to other acts of rebellion against the 613 laws they were supposed to attempt to keep each day (no I am not exaggerating).
As I read the book the two things that came to mind the majority of the time was how courageous these people were and how community has a much bigger impact on our lives and decisions than we may understand or realize.
It is courageous to break from tradition, to follow your heart even when it is the unpopular choice, to leave the comfort that the culture you don't agree with provides in spite of not agreeing with it, to risk being disowned by every single person you know - family and friends - because you no longer believe or worship like they do.  It takes courage to be swimming upstream when everyone else is headed the other direction.
Our communities have a large influence in our lives.  They play a role in our values, our morals, our traditions, our choices, our beliefs, even our characters.  When we walk away from the community it is painful and isolating, even if walking away was our choice.  Making the choice to break from the only community you have ever known is not easy and even if you know it is the right decision it doesn't lessen the pain that comes with it.  This was very evident with the people Davidman spoke with in their words and in the length of time it took them to actually make a permanent break.
Lynn Davidman is an academic and so she writes as an academic.  It didn't bother me too much but there were some word choices she employed that were annoying and unnecessary.  Outside of that minor complaint I thought the book was well-written, well-researched, and thought out.  It was a fascinating read.




The God I Don't Understand by Christopher Wright
224 Pages

What I love about this book is the permission it grants to not understand God fully, to have doubts and questions about things he says or does.  Too many times those with doubts, questions, and hesitations are quieted with Christianese sayings and guilt.  But the most devoted believer of Christ will have their moments/seasons of doubt, of misunderstanding, of wondering if it all is for naught.  Frankly, when I run into a believer who hasn't been unsure, who hasn't questioned God, who hasn't doubted, who hasn't scratched their head in confusion over something God has done then I am suspect of them actually being a sincere believer in Christ.  The tried and true believer in God has walked the road of questions and confusion and remained steadfast.  Something in our human nature seems to say that if we don't understand something or we have a doubt about something then we cannot believe in it/them.  That is simply not true.  When it comes to God, in my own personal life, it isn't true even when my flesh nature would try to convince me otherwise. I have seen enough of God's work in my own life and the lives of others to trust him completely even when something happens that I don't understand.  I am getting to a place where I am okay not knowing all the answers and as Wright points out in part 1 of this book, we really don't want to know all the answers even if we think we do.  Some things are only for God to know, can you and I be okay with that?  I am, you?
There's a great section in the beginning of the book addressing the common statement, "How can a good God allow such horrible things to happen?" I loved how Wright tackled that uninformed statement head on.
The book is broken up into four parts.  I felt like parts 1-3 really did speak to the title of the book but part 4 was a little confusing and Wright himself acknowledges that it takes a departure from the premise of the book but he felt strongly it needed to be added. Part four was good, it just didn't flow, in my opinion, with the theme of the book.
Wright writes easily, easy to read and you get the sense that it kind of just flows from his brain to the paper. There isn't a sense of struggle in his writing, he gets his points across in ways that convey ease and his convictions.  His honesty that he doesn't have all the answers and still seeks to discover answers is refreshing.  Some teachers/Pastors make the same claim but you know as they make the claim that they are doing so under false humility.  I sense Wright to be sincerely humble about it all. Without knowing it would be, this title was a timely read for me since I have found myself struggling lately with the trend of believers saying they believe God's word but clearly don't. I've really found myself wrestling over the infallibility of God's word versus what other, respected teachers have been saying.  Wright addresses that very topic to start off his book, so as I said - it was a timely read.




The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen
Kindle Edition - 352 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing - Ballantine Books for this advanced copy. In exchange for a pre-publish copy I am giving an honest review. 

When the intro for the book said it is a fit in the genre for fans of Sarah Addison Allen I knew I had to give this author a go.  I adore Sarah Addison Allen.  After finishing the book I see where the comparison's come in, although Addison Allen does it a bit better. That's not to say the book wasn't enjoyable and good, it was.
Olivia Pennywort is the owner and overseer of her family farms.  Her Mama died when she was young and her Dad took to the hills, literally, several years ago. She runs the farm with the help of a couple of people and women that arrive looking for answers to their life questions.  They come from all over to Olivia's farm because of the Garden.  A maze of lush, beautiful, almost unbelievable gardens draws people from all over. The gardens are said to hold the answers to your deepest wonderings.  People can wander around the maze and garden rooms for as long as they like and until they get an answer.  Olivia's farm also happens to produce some of the most flavorful fruit and vegetables around, it's a mystery to all how the soil on the Pennywort farm is that different, but it is.  But sometimes the biggest mystery is not the obvious.  Sure the gardens are mysterious and the food the land produces is amazing but why does Olivia Pennywort isolate herself?  Why does she have a "no touching" rule?  Why hasn't she been off the Pennywort land in 9 years? Nobody ever bothers to ask because she won't answer, they just chalk it up to Olivia being slightly odd. Nobody asks until Sam arrives back in town.  Sam Van Winkle is Olivia's childhood friend, her best friend. He left town years ago after she broke his heart but he's back now and is looking for some answers.  In the in-between years Sam has acquired some emotional baggage of his own and the older Olivia gets the more baggage she has as well.  Olivia is afraid of hurting people and nobody seems to understand why.  But Sam figures it out and from then he tries to help Olivia find a way to fully participate in life again.
Van Allen weaves a tale of magic and life together.  More life than magic but just enough that you wonder if it could actually happen.  Those, in my opinion, are great stories.  The ones where the author gets you to wonder if maybe the sprinkle of magic in the story could actually happen to someone.  The characters of Olivia and Sam were well developed and the majority of the secondary characters were as well.  I always like it when an author takes a topic and explores it deeper but you almost don't realize that is what the purpose of the story is.  In this title Van Allen explores the sense of touch and how vital it is to our well-being.  If a person is surrounded by people who love them but they can't be touched then loneliness is the main feeling.  Touch conveys much more than we realize and unless it is taken away we don't get it.  Van Allen uses the story to discuss the importance of touch in relationships; friendship, familial, and romantic. Even touch that happens out in public in every day life that we don't think about or doesn't register with us.
I enjoyed this book a lot. The author has another title out and I will for sure be picking it up to read it. She writes well and infuses her stories with that sprinkle of magic we all wish life actually did have for us.





Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia by Deborah Wearing
338 pages

In March 1985 Clive Wearing woke up from a night of sleep and knew nothing.  He didn't know people or places, he didn't know where the next room was, he knew nothing.  Deborah, his wife, chronicles in this memoir their story pre-amnesia and post.  He has never regained his memory but he has over the years made some improvements.  He is believed to be the worst case of amnesia in the world.  His memory lasts anywhere from 7 seconds to a maximum of 30 seconds.  He doesn't know anyone, except for his wife.  Somehow Clive retained some memory of her.  He doesn't know her name when he is with her but in his diary he writes her name over and over again.
Deborah lets the reader peek into their world.  A world of frustration, loneliness, hope, hurt, and acceptance of what is.  In the midst of the story about Clive's amnesia and Deborah's life learning to cope with it a beautiful love story is revealed.  They have a special connection between one another and he truly loves her and is delighted by her.  And she him.  She has never been able to separate herself from him.  In the years since he woke up with no memory Deborah has figured out how they can have a life together in spite of his memory loss.  It's quite remarkable really.  The last chapter of the book held a really unexpected but truly wonderful surprise, in my opinion.  I really enjoyed reading about this couple.





Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido
Kindle Edition - 256 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for this advanced copy. In exchange for a pre-publish copy I am giving an honest review. 

Originally published in 1982 and now being re-released in November 2014 is Trapido's book that has been named by several authors as the book that influenced their writing the most.  With reviews/recommendations like that I definitely wanted to read it!
It's a coming of age book featuring Katherine.  She's 18 and is introduced to her philosophy professor's large family, the Goldman's.  After taking up with one of the older sons and then getting her heart broken by him, Katherine moves to Rome to nurse her hurting heart.  While in Rome she grows up in the ways of the world and relationships and returns to England with a wounded heart but this time none of the Goldman's have anything to do with it.  In fact, this time one of the Goldman's helps Katherine heal from the beating her heart has taken and she settles into a life she realizes she was actually meant to live.
That's the brief summary of this title that seems to be so well loved and well received.  But I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm just not as sophisticated or something but I found the story to be tedious and dull.  It was not interesting in the least, in my opinion.  In fact, I kept falling asleep while reading it. It lacked an actual story, it was a rather boring telling of a girl named Katherine and about 14 years of her life.  Yes, there were certainly elements in the story that all young women can relate to; broken hearts, uncertainty about direction of life, loss, etc.  Trapido's telling of those common experiences, however, was no more special or different than anyone else who has told of those same things in their own coming of age story.  The story lacked...life.
I am a writer so I am trying to figure out what it is about this title that influenced so many to write themselves. It does nothing of the sort for me.  In fact, if anything it makes me question the literary taste of many.  All the glowing reviews and awards it won when first released have me confused. Perhaps this is a case of time marching on and as it does things, including novels and authors, improve.  This is Trapido's first book, I wonder if her other books are similar in style and telling or if she improved.  The love felt for this book makes me think it is a case of time and maturity. Something about the book spoke to so many back when it first hit the shelves but if they read it again today I have the feeling the majority of them may wonder why they have been claiming it as a favorite all these years.




The Way to Wholeness by Ray C. Stedman
288 pages

I love Ray Stedman's writings/teachings.  I find him to be very solid and very easy to understand and read.  I was introduced to him first when I was doing an in-depth study of Job.  And now I have read his thoughts on the book of Leviticus.  That's also what I love about him, he makes studying obscure books like Job and Leviticus enjoyable, delightful even!
My home church was studying the book of Leviticus and to aide me in my personal studies of it I found this book.  I'm SO glad I did.  I am of the opinion that some of the books of the Bible need some supplemental commentary in order for any kind of understanding to come out of them!  Leviticus is one of those books.  Most people dread Leviticus but I loved studying it with the help of Stedman's book.  He adds such beautiful insight and application.  He brings to life what God is asking us to do and why.  We started studying Leviticus in March (2014) and while we aren't done yet I decided to go ahead and finish the book and then continue to use it as we finished studying the book.  I can't stand the thought that I have been reading a book since March!  Of course I haven't been actively reading it, I have been reading it along with each chapter we are looking into in Leviticus and the summer saw us taking lots of breaks etc.
I love this book.  LOVE IT.  Just as Stedman did with Job, he has done with Leviticus.  He brought it to life and to relevancy in my life.  He has a gift for pulling out the lessons God has for us, the modern day believer, within the sometimes very confusing and vague passages of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is neglected by the modern day believer and that is a shame for it lays the foundation for the New Testament. The New Testament doesn't make sense without the Old.  Why and for what Jesus walked this earth for 34 years doesn't make sense without first the Old Testament. Being reminded that Jesus was an observant Jewish man is good for the modern day believer who has somehow decided Jesus was a rebel against his own culture and people. He fulfills not abolishes and the Old Testament shows us how.
I highlighted the majority of the book.  It is filled with such rich and applicable insights into this oft dreaded book.  It made me appreciate the book of Leviticus and the Old Testament even more than I already do.  It exposes how detailed God is, how thoughtful he is, how forward thinking and planning he is.
"The key to Leviticus is found in a single verse located near the center of the book.  All of the secrets of the book are unlocked by Leviticus 20:26, 'You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.'" (page 10-11)  "You'll see that these ceremonies, sacrifices, and restrictions form intricately articulated relationships that reveal the plan of God for our lives." (page 10)




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