Wednesday, January 08, 2014

2013 Books

Here’s my recap of books I read this past year.  I will list my Top Books at the end …

The Happiness Project (Rubin) – Several things that Rubin communicated in this book have stuck with me throughout the year.  What is it that makes people truly happy?  Is it different for each person, or are there general principles, or a little bit of both?  I was intrigued by the idea of this likable, intelligent woman setting out to find the route to happiness, writing about the subject in general, and focusing on a different area of life each month (relationships, money, etc.).  Even though she writes from a secular point of view, and I question true happiness apart from Christ, because He is hope and love and the Bread of Life, I think there are things that are generally applicable that anyone can take from it--and she does mention the correlation between spirituality and happiness.  As an aside, it seems like it is the vogue thing these days to take a concept, focus on a different aspect of it each month for 12 months, and wha-la, you can write a bestselling memoir about it.  Who started this trend? 

In the President’s Secret Service (Kessler) – If you want some insight into what the more recent presidents and their families were really like, behind closed doors, you will love this book.  It’s chock-full of so many interesting stories.  It also has lots of fascinating details about the workings of the Secret Service and its history.  The men telling the stories are people who were willing to take a bullet for the president. They didn’t always respect him as an individual, but they have always had utmost regard for his office.  This was a great book.

Be the Mom (Eyster) – This book had some good things to say about common attitude traps that moms can fall prey to, and how that affects our families.  I thought the book had good reminders but nothing that blew my socks off.  I am currently (it will make next year’s list) reading an absolutely wonderful book on mothering called A Mother’s Heart by Fleming.  It is one of those books that I feel will change my kids because it will first change me, and it’s making me a more intentional mom.  So, basically, I just hijacked the paragraph about this book to recommend ANOTHER book.  Nice. 

One L (Turow) – This memoir follows the author’s intense experiences as a first year student at Harvard Law School. The competition and stress is so thick, as you read you will feel that you are sitting in class with the author, praying the professor will not call on you today.  Turow writes well and also offers some critiques on how the next generation of lawyers is/should be educated.  Although the book was written in the 70s, I don’t think much has changed.   

Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish (Bender) – This book is about a modern artist in San Francisco who admires Amish quilts and decides to go stay with an Amish family to learn more about the people who make such stunning, yet simple, works of art.  I could never really completely relate with the author.  Her experiences were somewhat interesting but I found the book to move rather slowly.  But maybe that was the point?  Since so many people are enamored with the Amish and their simple lifestyle, I guess this book wasn’t earth shattering for me. 

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (McCollough) – This book is about the American artists and literary figures (and some cutting-edge medical students), who went to live in Paris—the happening place—during the 1800s. I thought this book was informative and charming.  Anything about Paris is charming, right?  And it was interesting to learn more about who knew who and how these famous people’s experiences in Paris shaped them. I recommend it. 

Dietrich Bonehoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Metaxes) – This book did not disappoint.  Bonehoeffer is a modern Christian hero, and for good reason.  In many ways, he was just an ordinary guy but he had the courage and insight to stand up to the face of evil, Adolf Hitler, when many church leaders in Germany were capitulating to him.  This book was excellent and I highly recommend it.  It was interesting how his mother’s faith was probably the biggest influence in his life and affected his decision to become a pastor and helped shape his worldview.  The power of moms!

The Return of the Native (Hardy) – Hardy is apparently one of the premier “landscape writers” in classical literature.  It’s been months since I’ve read it, but as I sit and think of the characters in this book, strong images come to mind.  I think Hardy did a great job of crafting memorable characters.  The book did, however, move really slowly with not a lot of interesting plot.  Let’s be honest: This is one of those Vitamin Books I read because I thought it would be good for me and it was on the list of classics I am trying to read in chronological order.  And this is an example of yet another book (joining three other classics I read in 2012, and another one later in 2013) about a woman in a discontented marriage, all written by men.   So. Tired. Of. This. Genre.  Divorce may be really awful, but I’m beginning to think that it’s not always the worst thing. 

Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe (Clarkson and Mae) – This book captured the essence of my life the last several years, 2013 definitely included. I loved the format of the book, a young woman with small children who is trying to do it “right” in the midst of the exhaustion, and an older mentor who speaks so graciously and kindly, with such insight and wisdom.  This was a helpful and encouraging book.  It would also be good for women to read who are out of this crazy phase of life, to get ideas for how they could encourage younger women who are still in the trenches.  I think the thing that I miss the most right now is my freedom.  Even though I love my kids beyond measure, I feel trapped some days because I don’t have the ability to just go run errands, or take a quick run around the neighborhood.  Hardly anything can be spontaneous.  I hope I never forget this, when this season passes, so I can be compassionate and helpful to others who are going through it. 

Bossypants (Fey) – Hey, a gal’s gotta laugh sometimes.  (See the review immediately above.)  This comedienne’s memoir did the trick.  The book is irreverent at times, but what else would you expect from someone who makes her living making people laugh?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Sawyer) – What is not to love about Huck Finn?  I listened to the audio book on my iPod while doing chores and my kids would stop to ask me why I was chuckling. 

Cold Tangerines (Niequist) – I love this woman.  She is so real and I can relate to her so much.  Can I move next door to her, please?  Her writing is evocative, like a rich dessert, and spot-on.  After finishing this book, I immediately ordered the next one and am actually reading the third, her last one, right now (January 2014) which is also great.  Her blog is wonderful as well.  Cold Tangerines is basically a bunch of randomness, with each chapter speaking to something different.  But there is a recurring theme of spark and zest for life, and living largely.  She also writes from a Christian point of view. 

Holy Land (Waldie) – This book is a memoir about the history of the suburb I grew up in, in Long Beach, California.  After World War II, there was a boom in the aerospace industry in Southern California and massive amounts of homes were needed to accommodate the rising workforce.  It was the second largest development ever attempted in the United States and the first time that model homes were used to sell new construction.  There were lines and lines of customers every day and the builders could hardly meet up with the demand.  The book also details the first shopping center that went up in that area that set new standards for all modern-day shopping malls.  All of the places mentioned in this book are places I know well and can easily recall in my mind.  I really enjoyed reading this history of where I grew up.  You might not enjoy it like I did but if you are interested in housing development or random history, you might.  

The Portrait of a Lady (James) – Isabel Archer is a confident, intelligent, and kind woman who makes mistakes (one big one: she marries the wrong guy—yes, I know, this theme in classical literature is getting very old) but in the end she resurrects herself and reestablishes herself.  I really liked Isabel.  She had a zest for life that I admired.  I cringed when she unwittingly allowed herself to be manipulated into a loveless marriage.  But the ending wasn’t as desperate and bad as I thought it would be—although it does have an element of ambiguity—especially after all the other classic books I have read lately.  I enjoyed this one.   

A Path Through Suffering (Elliot) – Elisabeth Elliot has such a beautiful way of putting skin and bones on concepts and making them relevant and meaningful.  She has endured personal suffering and been refined because of it.  I picked up this book after talking with a friend at our neighborhood swimming pool.  She had suffered a health crisis and was asking me the meaning of suffering. I thought this book might be helpful to her.  I feel that Elliot’s book would be more helpful to someone who has been a Christian for many years and is already acquainted with the scriptures.  I think this book assumes that the reader already knows the bible well. I wasn’t sure this was the right book for my friend, but I did find some helpful articles online for her.  And I was glad I read the book in the end, but it just wasn’t right for my friend.  

A Year in Biblical Womanhood (Held-Evans) – This book is hot in Christian circles.  After reading about it on different occasions, and getting a recommendation from my sister-in-law, I thought I should pick it up.  I felt conflicted about this book.  But it did make me think.  I believe that if a book gets under your skin and makes you think, that’s a really good thing whether or not you end up agreeing with it in the end.  Held-Evans basically takes a year to ask what living out “Biblical Womanhood” really looks like.  She takes a new theme every month, for 12 months (see my comment above, after The Happiness Project).  She takes the bible literally at every turn.  Starting right there, I have a problem with what she did.  I realize that there is great debate over what should be interpreted literally in scripture and what should not.  But I think that most Christians agree that not everything should be taken literally—like we should not sleep out in a tent in our front yard during menstruation—and many Old Testament rituals are fulfilled in Christ.  Because she took everything completely literally, I felt like her book smacked of sacrilege and made a mockery of the bible.  I think that if a non-Christian read this book, they would ask why on earth anyone would believe any of this biblical mumbo-jumbo.  I think the biggest problem I had with it was that Held-Evans deemed herself the ultimate authority on the bible and did not attempt to treat the scriptures carefully and respectfully.  I think Held-Evans was trying to make the point that women should stop bickering and majoring on the “minors” in the bible, when there is a lot of disagreement on things like “egalitarianism vs. complementarianism” (something that I can see both sides of, and believe that either viewpoint can be taken to a wrongful extreme—you can read lots about this online), and focus on the central point of the gospel and our love for Christ and others.  We should be less harsh with each other and love each other more, as Christ loved.  That’s a good thing.  But I also think that the book is a bad testimony and makes the bible seem outdated, irrelevant, and even worse, just plain silly.  The scriptures are deep and rich and have stood the test of time, and numerous thoughtful, theological debates.  I would not have gotten that impression reading this book as a non-Christian with no background and experience with the bible or church history.  I think this book could ultimately do a lot more harm than good. 

Bittersweet (Niequist) – This was another great Niequist book.  The themes in this book centered more on taking what life hands you and how the good also, almost always, comes with the bad.  Life is bittersweet, for sure.  One thing I have been thinking about a lot since this book is the question of “Who is on my home team?”  Everyone has a home team.  Some have larger teams than others, but everyone has one.  The people who are on your home team are the people you would drop everything for to help them in time of need.  This helps prioritize your life and helps you decide when you should go to extremes to help people.  After reading this chapter, an acquaintance asked me to watch her daughter for a few hours so she could attend a political luncheon.  I was on Day #3 of a bad head cold and all I really wanted to do was take a nap. So, I told her no.  If this lady was on my home team (or if it was an emergency, of course), I would have probably said yes anyway.   

The Paris Wife (MacDuffie) –This was a great historical novel, about the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, who lived with him in Paris while he wrote The Sun Also Rises.  It was so well-written and evocative, with so many good word pictures.  I really enjoyed it and learned a lot about Hemingway.  It was also about the death of a marriage, which sounds depressing, but there were so many uplifting, fun, and good things in this book, that it balanced out the death-of-marriage part.  After reading this book, I spent hours online reading about Hemingway and all four, yes FOUR, of his wives. 

The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion) – Joan Didion was married to her best friend for four decades when he suddenly passed away, after coming home from the hospital to visit their daughter (only child) who was in critical condition at a local hospital and not expected to live.  Didion writes so well.  She kept repeating the phrase that “you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” to refer to her husband’s sudden passing.  I guess I wanted to read this book to learn more about her experience in grief.  It was sad but also “true” as death is a part of life.  They had a beautiful marriage, with so many wonderful memories.  Grief is not something that you do, and then you’re done.  Although some moments of grief are more intensely felt than others, you never get over losing your best friend of 40 years.  This was a good book.

The Necklace (Jarvis) – If reading The Return of the Native is akin to taking a vitamin, this book is like eating a Jolly Rancher.  My local library keeps a journal of books that patrons have enjoyed and recommend and I saw this one mentioned in there.  I was flipping through this journal because I was trying to find a fun and easy book to read on the plane, should my nine-month-old lap child allow me a few moments to read! (I am crazy, right?!)  My interest was certainly piqued after reading the first chapter of this true story.  In a nutshell, one woman admires a luxury diamond necklace at a jewelry store, something that very few people could afford to buy.  She decides to ask 12 friends to split the cost with her and rotate taking turns with the necklace, relinquishing the necklace to the next woman in line at monthly meetings.  The women made exceptions, loaning the necklace freely amongst themselves for special occasions, daughters’ weddings, or whimsical fancies (have you ever entertained the idea of skydiving, let alone doing it while wearing a $30,000 necklace?).  The necklace goes on to be shared with unlikely people in unlikely places (a Starbucks barista, for instance) and also is used to raise funds for charity events, touching many lives.  The necklace comes to mean different things to each woman in the group.  It transcends materialism and brings together these diversified women who may not have naturally had any other common bond.  I think it’s important for a woman to have girlfriends and I really enjoyed reading about how these women loved each other and supported each other, despite their differences.  (Warning: one woman talks about her marital sex life transformation in explicit detail and, while I’m thrilled for her, I wonder what her teenage daughter thought when she read the sordid details of her mom’s sex life. If that bothers you, then you can skip the chapter that has a picture of a woman holding a whisk!)  The motion picture rights to this book have recently been sold and I look forward to seeing what Hollywood does with this sweet and fun book.

Ender’s Game (Card) – The movie came out this year and some friends hurriedly joined the throng to watch it at the theater, claiming that it was their favorite book.  So, I got the audio book and listened to it.  I think sci-fi can be appealing, and highlight truth so wonderfully, and I enjoyed this book a lot, although it’s not my favorite genre.  Ender and his sister Valentine had such a sweet relationship and I really did like them.  The book swallowed me up in the details of Ender’s world, especially during the combat training scenes, and I really enjoyed the awesome plot twist at the end.  I recommend it, even if you don’t generally like sci-fi. 

The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Emerson) – Wow.  I knew Mary Lincoln was a really difficult woman and I knew people thought she was crazy, but I never knew that she actually was subjected to an insanity trial and was declared legally insane.  This book details the account of Mary Lincoln’s tragic life, and particularly focuses on the insanity trial and its aftermath.  Truth is definitely stranger than fiction at times.  This book was mesmerizing, from Mary Lincoln’s frivolous, privileged, high-society youth, to her sad, bitter, frenzied end.  She was a volatile, troubled woman to begin with and so you can imagine the affects of losing three sons at a young age and watching your husband be brutally murdered at a public event.  That would be traumatic for anyone.  For Mary, something snapped.  The book chronicles letters written by Mary Lincoln and her friends, and paints a defensive portrait of her son Robert Lincoln, who has been heavily criticized by historians for having his mother tried and committed.  The book also delves into the topic of insanity trials in the 19th century and how they were often used for political reasons against helpless, innocent women who were no more insane than the judges who had them committed.  Interesting!

Blue Like Jazz (Miller) – My thoughtful friend Beth recommended this book.  She said to me, “If Jesus were here on earth today, he probably wouldn’t be hanging around our churches.  He would be out on the streets hanging out with people we don’t usually give much thought to.”  This book gave her a lot to think about and, after reading it, I agree!  One of Miller’s refrains is that Jesus wasn’t political, but so many churches are so adamant about party politics, insinuating that being a good Republican is inseparable with the True Faith.  Christianity transcends politics.  Miller was a youth pastor at a big church and kept repeating platitudes that felt so fake and just plain wrong, but he kept saying them because he thought that was what he was supposed to do (“the Lord bless you” for example) and this bothered him greatly.  He spent a lot of time at Reed College, which is a hotbed for all kinds of alternate lifestyles and behavior and “coming out” as a Christian subjected Miller to a heated crossfire of vitriol.   But he learned to love people at Reed because there was something true and transparent about them.  This was an interesting book, full of the author’s experiences and thoughts, sometimes rambling, but always provocative.   

What About Going Out? (Peel) – A friend asked me to help her teach a Sunday School class for the high school gals at church, using this book.  The subject is dating relationships, and I think it’s very interesting because my friend who is leading the class and I have such different experiences in this area.  She was raised in a lenient, non-Christian home and went out with various guys and had several serious, secular dating experiences.  I was raised in a conservative home where “courtship” was emphasized and I was discouraged from dating until I was ready for marriage.  I went on my first date when I was 22 and got married eight months later.  My friend is very sincere about her desire to encourage young women to avoid the mistakes she made.  I also see some flaws and downsides to courtship principles.  So, I think we balance each other out pretty nicely!  I was a little skeptical when my friend handed me this book because I think a lot of people who write these kinds of books have a tendency to capitalize upon their extra-biblical opinions in this area.  But, I was pleasantly surprised.  I think the authors of this book do a really great job of challenging young people to really look at what the bible says about honoring God in the area of dating and marriage preparation.  I feel like they really articulated the spirit of scripture without being legalistic.  This short book would give any young person (or parent of a young person) some important things to think about in this area and I recommend it! 

The Silver Star (Walls) – I really enjoyed Walls’ other books, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, her memoir and a semi-true book about her grandmother, respectively.  This one was pure fiction.  Walls writes a quickly-paced narrative with sympathetic characters, including children with a troubled mom.  I enjoyed this one, too, though I liked the first two better.  Walls is a great storyteller. 

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding / The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (Christie) – After years of reading Christmas books to my children, why have I never thought to read a Christmas book that’s just for me?  I am slow to learn, sometimes.  My friend Heather mentioned The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding on her blog.  When I ordered it from the library I saw that it came paired with The Mystery of the Spanish Chest.  I have fond memories reading Hercule Poirot novels during those lazy teenage summers.  The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding was such a fun story, about Poirot joining a family in their English country manor, during the Christmas season, to solve a mystery.  As I read this book, snow was falling softly outside my window and I was completely mesmerized by the scenes Christie created in her book.  It was perfect.  So very festive!  I also enjoyed The Mystery of the Spanish Chest and Poirot’s witticisms.  I love that guy.  I need to read more of Christie in 2014. 

Surprised by Oxford (Weber) – This just might be one of the best books I have ever read.  Where to start?  First, it was set in Oxford, a place that I have been able to visit twice and loved every minute of it.  This book moved me so much.  Some people have a crisis of faith, Weber had a crisis of doubt.  She left her loving, secular family to go to Oxford and pursue a graduate degree.  She was a confident, independent feminist/agnostic, engaged to a really “good man” who was an atheist.  After arriving at Oxford, she met some thoughtful, intelligent Christians who started influencing her.  She started wondering if there was something bigger out there that should have more direct meaning for her (God?).  God pursued her. She wasn’t interested in conversion but couldn’t get away from it.  She thought her life was pretty perfect and secure until she started having doubts about her disbelief and she couldn’t escape it.  She was surprised by Oxford and ended up being surprised by joy.  This memoir is thoughtful, intelligent, funny, beautiful, fun to read, and is brimming full of enchanting and provocative poems and literary references, as Weber was a literature major who enjoys words.  God works in mysterious ways.  Weber made the decision to live the mystery.  This book would challenge anyone who reads it, Christian or secular.  I hated to see this book end and look forward to reading Weber’s second book soon, even though it’s not set in Oxford


The following books are my favorites (books that stuck with me, coupled with the “enjoyable” factor) in order, although there are definitely others I read this year that I would recommend!

Surprised by Oxford (Weber) – Overall best book.

Bittersweet (Niequist) / Cold Tangerines (Niequist) – So enjoyable and so relatable!

Dietrich Bonehoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Metaxes) – Convicting and inspiring.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding / The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (Christie) – Best Pure Fun

The Paris Wife (MacDuffie) – Best Novel

The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Emerson) – Best History

The Happiness Project (Rubin) – Interesting food for thought.

Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe (Clarkson and Mae) – A shot in the arm for young moms. 

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Saturday, January 04, 2014

Chinese-American New Year

I recently posted about our international Thanksgiving.  Our dear neighbors, who joined us for Thanksgiving, invited us to come celebrate New Year's Eve with them, and enjoy their Chinese tradition of making homemade dumplings (which they usually would make for Chinese New Year, but no one in the United States is off work then).  Everyone rolls their sleeves up and helps make the dumplings.  I would imagine that it's much like the Mexican tradition of making tamales for New Year's. 

I wasn't sure what to expect when I showed up.  Our friend David brought out three large balls of dough, divided them, and then expertly began to roll out these perfect little circles, like he had been born doing it.  You can buy pre-made crusts at the international grocery store, but this family makes it from scratch.  It was fun to watch him.  He worked so quickly and proficiently.

Here are David and Winnie, their friend from Singapore, making and filling crusts.  The beef filling is pictured and they also made a shrimp and vegetable filling.  

We started filling all the trays, so the dumplings could be boiled at the last minute.  Later my friend Julia told me she was nervous about me and and one other non-Chinese lady being able to properly crimp and seal the dumplings.  But we did good! 

While we made dumplings, Julia worked feverishly in the kitchen and started filling the table with numerous other goodies.  Look at all these amazing homemade Chinese dishes!

Here is my plate, with homemade dumplings and other delectable items.  I went back for seconds and thirds. After dinner Winnie's husband, who is a bassist for the Indianapolis Symphony orchestra, gave us a mini concert. He has been playing with them for 33 years. It was amazing to watch him play his massive instrument so expertly.  If I didn't think I was going to embarrass the socks off of Kevin I would've taken a picture. :)  This was a fantastic way to end the year, let me tell you. 

On New Year's morning, I made these cute little individual baked eggs.  Aren't they adorable?  And they were very easy and Kevin appreciated that they were pretty much pure protein. :)

We had a pretty lazy day, which is a great way to start the year.

And the new year started with tons of snow, and the promise of more to come.  The high on Monday is -12.  Yikes!  The kids have been playing in it while they can!

Local Tourists

After being "good," and reorganizing our house after Christmas, we decided to play the tourist and take a trek to Columbus, Indiana, just about an hour south of us, to visit the cute and quaint Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, which is decked out for Christmas every year. The kids ordered their homemade "green river" soda pop. We also refer to it as alien blood. 

Zaharakos has several antique player organs which were belting out joyous Christmas music while we ate. 

Visiting their soda fountain is like taking a step back in time.

Sundaes were a treat and very messy.

I loved this "Don't Care" flavor.  Nowadays we have Starbucks; at the turn of the century they had soda fountains.  It was fun to think about this part of long-ago culture.

Across from Zaharakos is an indoor playground (city park).  I think it's brilliant for a city with freezing temps every winter to offer such an amazing and expansive indoor park.  More cities here in the midwest should do this!

We decided to swing by the visitor's center and buy a map to take the architectural tour in Columbus.  Apparently this little town (less than 45,000 population) is number six in the nation for famous architecture.

The first stop was the Irwin-Miller mansion. 

Apparently, according to local legend, this is where corn flakes were invented.  Kevin thinks I'm crazy for buying into all this stuff hook, line, and sinker. :)

After our little jaunt to Columbus, we meet Kevin's parents for Christmas at the Zoo.  It was decent weather so half the city was there.  But we love it.  The lights are amazing. 

We enjoyed being tourists for a day!
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