Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What I Read In March

March turned out to be a great month for books!  I was getting a bit burned out on podcasts, so I decided to pick back up my Audible listens during my commute. 

(NOTE: The book descriptions and photos below are taken from Amazon.)

I began with the one that was on many 'Best Of 2016' lists and that I was quite interested in listening to:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

 A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

I want to be very clear in saying that though ALL of this family's story is NOT my family's story...there were things that hit very, very close to home for me as I listened.  I was absolutely transfixed from the moment that the author called his grandparents, Mammaw and Pappaw.  Though he thinks it is not said outside of Appalachian families -- that is what we called both sets of my grandparents until we started school and learned the slightly more proper Grandma and Grandpa.  The more I listened the more I wondered if perhaps I wasn't more like them than different.  While it's true that I was born and raised in Arkansas, we were from the Delta and timber lands of the southeast and did not consider ourselves hillbillies.  (Rednecks, yes.  but Jim's family came from the Arkansas hills -- not mine. ;-)  I shed more than a few tears as I listened to this over the course of a few days.  I recognized members of my family of origin and thought processes that I carry around still to this day.  I finally realized how some of my personality traits were born as coping mechanisms in childhood and the effect they have on my relationships still today. 

During last year's election this book was touted as one that you should read if you wanted to understand better why so many people from this demographic voted Republican.  I didn't find that answer, nor did I find any way that someone could come to that conclusion from this book...but I found it very thought provoking, sometimes hard to listen to, and very revealing of some of my own thought processes.  I did, however, see how listening to this story contradicts part of the 'white privilege' stereotype by revealing how poverty affects several generations no matter the hue of the skin. Maybe, just maybe I am too close to the subject matter to see it more objectively.

(7 hours)

My second Audible listen has been waiting for quite awhile.  I downloaded it so that I could listen before the HBO limited series aired, but then got caught up in other things -- totally forgetting about it until the episodes were stacking up on my DVR.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal... A murder…a tragic accident…or just parents behaving badly?  
What’s indisputable is that someone is dead. But who did what? Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

I loved, loved, loved listening to this one!  We know from the beginning that someone has died at a school fundraising event...we just don't know who is dead or who is responsible.  The story unfolds from the day of Kindergarten orientation to the time of the murder. Interspersed throughout the events leading up to the murder are snippets of the police interviews with the witnesses from that fateful fundraiser.  Seeing the varying viewpoints of eyewitnesses (whether arrived at innocently or because of resentments or prejudices) blew me away. 

The story begins when a child accuses another classmate of choking her while the teacher is not looking.  The accused child is quickly labeled a 'Bully' yet...several of the outraged parents (from both sides) could be guilty of bullying in their own grownup, finessed ways. Then their are the lies, who is telling them and why.  There are big ones and little ones and little ones that become huge ones. 

The friendships in this book are worth the time it took to listen.  Madeline has just turned 40 and her last child is starting school while her first born is entering her teenaged angst years.  Madeline is spunky and a mini-tornado of activity.  (I just loved when she said something about looking tired all of the time and then looking in the mirror one day to realize that this is just the way she looks now.)  If you have daughters you may recognize the shift that comes in your life when you realize that you are losing your youthful appearance just as your daughter is coming into her own.  It's tough!  Her best friend is Celeste, beautiful, rich, perfect, with the most romantic husband in the whole town.  Everyone stops and stares at Celeste -- men and women alike.  But Celeste is often distracted and dreamy, never recognizing how others perceive her.  Then we meet Jane, a much younger single mom, new to town, struggling to make ends meet and quite skittish.  Jane seems to always be haunted by something from her past that keeps her on edge and creates deep concern for her son, Ziggy.  When Madeline takes Jane under her wing, you just know that something is about to happen that will take poor Jane out of her comfort zone.

I spent most of the book wondering who was dead.  Was it Jane?  Was it Madeline?  Was it Celeste? Was it Renata, the overbearing mother with the super successful career?  Or was it one of their men?
It had me changing my mind with each passing hour and kept me guessing right up until the end.

I thought Caroline Lee, the narrator, did an impressive job on this one.  Okay, so I was a bit in awe of her Australian accent...but she made every character (and there are lots of them) come alive for me. This is one of those rare audiobooks that make you want to take the long way home and then sit in the driveway until the chapter is completed.

I started watching the series just before I finished the book but I'm a little 'meh' with the changes.  I know that some things have to be shortened or rearranged.  I am three episodes in and I'm missing Pirriwee Public.  The change from a beach town in Australia to Monterrey, CA just loses some of the flavor of it for me.  The acting is superb!  And though I envisioned some of the characters a bit differently (like I just knew that Nicole Kidman would be Madeline, not Reese Witherspoon), the actresses do an especially good job of conveying the personalities of their characters.  We will see if I make it all the way through the series or not.

(16 hours -- I listened to the majority of the book on 1.5 speed so that I could finish it in a week.)

I picked up this next title because I had heard through several podcasts that it reads a little like short stories but with the common thread of a certain character.  One reason that drew me is that I am eleven weeks into a thirteen week Bible study and I don't have a lot of time for reading at night.  I wanted something to help me relax, but that was not so involved that if I were away from it for a few days that I might lose some of the story.  This really hit the spot.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation. It was selected as a best book of the year by Amazon, BookPage, LibraryReads, and NPR.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.


I finished this one sitting on the deck at the creek. The chapters were told from different points of view of people whose lives had intersected with Eva.  Some were life changing for her, some were life changing for them. Some were relationships that lasted for years and some were chance encounters that seemed totally unmemorable until the end.  It appeared that the author was going to tie up the story in a neat little bow...but, thankfully, he didn't.  It left us wondering about some of the characters we met through Eva...and about Eva herself.  Which is a much more realistic conclusion to the middle of a story about someone's life.

(320 pages)

I finished up March by listening to:
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it's been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now 18 and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what's been missing in her life, and when she's forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it's worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

This one has been on my radar for awhile...but when a friend told me over dinner that she was reading it for one of her book clubs and that it really had her thinking, I downloaded it as soon as I possibly could possibly get to it!

It's still stewing in my head.  We have two nieces who came into our family through the foster care system.  With them in mind, it hurt my heart to read parts of Victoria's story and for the most part I just wanted to sweep her up into my arms and tell her that everything was going to be alright.  But I have to admit that at the end I wanted to crawl through the Bluetooth system on my vehicle and strangle her.  I texted with my friend about the things happening near the end of the book and, though she agreed with me and had similar feelings to mine, she shared that her book club kept insisting to her that Victoria really didn't know any better.  I'm not sure I agree with that...and so, it keeps on stewing around in my head.

I enjoyed the listen.  Learned a lot about the language of flowers and about the compassion needed to help someone who has been so deeply hurt by abandonment.  I pray that our nieces never suffer the severe insecurity and distrust of even those that love them so dearly that Victoria did.  Though I was frustrated most of the last hour and a half of the book, I felt the ending was much like the ending of Kitchens of the Great Midwest -- realistic and not tied up in TOO neat of a bow, though, nevertheless, there is a bow.

(11 hours)

I finally finished the Dietrich Bonhoffer book Life Together and started this one in preparation for the next New Members Orientation at church:
Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus by Jonathan Leeman

Why should you join a church?

Becoming a member of a church is an important, and often neglected, part of the Christian life. Yet the trend these days is one of shunning the practice of organized religion and showing a distaste or fear of commitment, especially of institutions.

Jonathan Leeman addresses these issues with a straightforward explanation of what church membership is and why it’s important. Giving the local church its proper due, Leeman has built a compelling case for committing to the local body.

Still reading!

Do you have any good books to recommend for April?  After all, there are ONLY 50 books in my 'What Should I Read Next' recommendation board on Pinterest to choose from!  LOL!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What I Read In February

Not as much as I read in January to be sure!

February was a slow reading month for me for several reasons:
  1. We are halfway through our current Bible study, Experiencing God.  That takes some evening reading time away from me to complete the daily homework and prepare for class.  But y'all, I am loving it!  Though it wasn't planned this way, I am leading three beautiful ladies through the weekly discussion and it has been so RICH!  Last time I went through this material I sensed the Lord calling me into Women's ministry so I am eager to see where He is leading now.
  2. Meagan and Derrick are still staying with us.  Their house should be finished today and they plan to move this weekend.  In the meantime, we spend much more time gathered around the dinner table talking in the evenings and giving 'goodnight' hugs and kisses.  It has been a sweet time for Jim and I...and it has given us the opportunity to really get to know our little people on another level.  We will miss them when they are gone.
So, what have I read this month besides my Experiencing God: Units 1-7?

I finished Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on February 2.  I updated January's page with my final thoughts on that one.  Lillian was not a woman to easily fit in anyone's mold, not even her own.

It took me a few days but I finally picked my next book from my TBR shelf.


A Gentleman In Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles

Imagine living in a luxury hotel.  Makes you smile, right?  I can just imagine living in the Warwick on 54th and 6th in New York City in the 1920's.  The Warwick is my all-time favorite hotel because of it's history and the architecture is timeless.

Now imagine being told that you will can never leave said luxury hotel or you will face a firing squad.  All of the sudden the beauty and grandeur can seem small and insignificant as compared with the rest of the world.  This is the world where we meet Count Alexander Rostov, just as he is receiving his sentence and finding that he is further being moved from his grand suites at the hotel to the abandoned servants quarters of long ago.

From Amazon:
Chosen as a best book of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The same gorgeous, layered richness that marked Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility, shapes [A Gentleman in Moscow]” –Entertainment Weekly

“’The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘Eloise’ meets all the Bond villains.” –TheSkimm

“Irresistible. . .[an] elegant period piece. . .as lavishly filigreed as a Faberge egg.”
 –O, the Oprah Magazine

He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

“And the intrigue! … [A Gentleman in Moscow] is laced with sparkling threads (they will tie up) and tokens (they will matter): special keys, secret compartments, gold coins, vials of coveted liquid, old-fashioned pistols, duels and scars, hidden assignations (discreet and smoky), stolen passports, a ruby necklace, mysterious letters on elegant hotel stationery… a luscious stage set, backdrop for a downright Casablanca-like drama.” –The San Francisco Chronicle


I had to put this one to the side about halfway through in order to read our next Book Club pick:


Romantic Times Book Reviews - “Another stellar novel from Martin. His fabulous gift for characterization is evident on each page. Layers of the story are peeled back to show the spiritual truth underneath the gripping plot. This is a reimagining of the prodigal son story from the Bible, and the reader's faith can't help but be enriched and encouraged after completing the book. Cooper is an intricate character with an amazing story to tell, and the supporting cast is just as important to provide additional depth and understanding. This novel should be on everyone's must-purchase list.”

“No matter where you go, no matter whether you succeed or fail, stand or fall, no gone is too far gone. You can always come home.”

At the age of eighteen, musician and songwriter Cooper O’Connor took everything his father held dear and drove 1,200 miles from home to Nashville, his life riding on a six-string guitar and the bold wager that he had talent. But his wager soon proved foolish.

Five years after losing everything, he falls in love with Daley Cross, an angelic voice in need of a song. But just as he realizes his love for Daley, Cooper faces a tragedy that threatens his life as well as his career. With nowhere else to go, he returns home to the remote Colorado mountains, searching for answers about his father and his faith.

When Daley shows up on his street corner twenty years later, he wonders if it’s too late to tell her the truth about his past—and if he is ready to face it himself.

A radical retelling of the prodigal son story, Long Way Gone takes us from tent revivals to the Ryman Auditorium to the tender relationship between a broken man and the father who never stopped calling him home.

Charles Martin wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Chasing Fireflies.  When I saw that he had a new novel coming out, I suggested it for our February Book Club.  It is a modern retelling of the prodigal son with a twist.  It is beautifully told by starting with 'the present', flashing back to the history and how Cooper and Daley ended up here, then picks up their stories again.  Very well done.  Beautiful prose that transports you vividly right into the story.  This one had so many layers that I felt I could relate to all of the characters in some way or another. 

My two favorite quotes from this one:

I used to think the same thing. Thought that by keeping it to myself, I was protecting you.  Truth is –“ He shook his head and spat again.  “The truth is the only thing that doesn’t hurt.  The truth is a giant hand.  It both cuts us free and holds us tight.

Said more simply: I wanted what I wanted, when I wanted it, the way I wanted it, because I wanted it.  Period.

That last one really resonated with me because I know that I have thought that many, many times in my life.
We had a great discussion and even better visit. 
I think this weekend I'll get back to my Gentleman in Moscow.  I'll update here when I finish!
What have you been reading lately?  Anything I just NEED to add to my TBR?


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Totally Random Musings

It's been over a week since I logged on to share.  We've been fighting illnesses again.  I was down last week, finally feeling a little better by Sunday evening.  But then Jim started feeling bad on Sunday afternoon.  He's still home with a low grade fever and just overall tired feeling.  If you think of him in the next few days, please say a little prayer for his healing.  He has been running on fumes for months and I think it has all just caught up with him.

I was wondering what to post today, even whether to post today, and then I remembered a 'note' I started on my phone last week of just random quotes and things that piqued my interest.  I thought I would share some of those here in this space.

We were talking around the dinner table last weekend about shopping at Big Box Stores and which were our favorites.  We were specifically talking about our preferences for Lowe's or Home Depot.  Jim and I both prefer Lowe's.  Derrick and Josh both looked at us baffled and said they preferred Home Depot.  On Monday I saw an online article titled "When Do You Outgrow IKEA?"  On a whim, I clicked over to read it.  One reason is that Jim and I just replaced our Ikea bedroom (purchased in 2007) with a 'real bed' from Rooms To Go.  In that article they reported the peak customer age for several Big Box Stores including Home Depot (age 48) and Lowe's (age 54).  Now we know why they prefer the one we stay out of if at all possible!    It was an interesting read, and I found that Jim and I should have bought our bedroom suit from Ashley Furniture (age 54) instead of Rooms to Go (age 47).  Wait, I'm not 54 yet so we are still good!  [By the way, we were way past the IKEA age of 24 when we purchased our last bedroom set -- but I attribute it to the fact that we were also buying three other beds for the kids rooms.]

Kelli, Matt, Bri, Josh and their families came over last Friday to celebrate the February birthdays.  This birthday boy turned 8 the next day.
Maddux enjoying the last bite of his mostly melted by then ice cream cake! Silly boy!
Kelli brought Meagan a delicious 'no added sugar' strawberry cheesecake.  Yum. 

I heard an interesting little 'blurb' on the Happier podcast (#103) last week that perked up my ears and made me think.  Mostly because I am highly susceptible to this in my own life.  They were answering a question from a listener who wanted to know how to avoid the pang she feels when she is around babies or pregnant women while she is battling fertility issues.  One of them referred to the 'compare and despair cycle.'  This struck a chord with me as I realized that so often my comparing myself to others really does lead me to despair.  Yes, I sometimes compare to feel better about myself (not proud of that admission, just keeping it real) but 85% of the time it is a comparison that I am going to lose.  There are always people who are better at things than I am.  I especially struggle with women who are thinner than I am, who are better educated, who are better at keeping a home/decorating/making meals than I am, or who never seem to struggle with keeping balance in their lives like I do.  Compare & despair are certainly a cycle with me.  Now that it's been named, I need the Lord to do some healing in this area. 

I was catching up on podcasts last week and came across this quote from Revive Our Hearts dated January 25.  Karen Loritts shared this while talking about forgiveness among girlfriends.  "Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two."  I often have people ask me how they can forgive and let others back into their lives after some real hurts.  This was such a succinct way of remembering that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  We are commanded to forgive.  Believe me, I've struggled with this often in my life but the truth is that Jesus commands it (Luke 17, Mark 11 and others).  And yes, 'as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.' (Romans 12:18)  But sometimes it doesn't just depend on us.  We can forgive, but the reconciliation doesn't always come.

In light of a New Members Class that I'm involved in, I saw a short poem on Pinterest that led me to investigate whether or not it is true that a group of alligators is called a congregation.  It was!  I find it kind of funny in light of that class which we will repeat once a quarter.  I may use this for our opening session in April as an icebreaker.  "A congregation of alligators - a congregation refers to a group of alligators, where the smaller alligators are compliant to the biggest, most dominant alligator."  That just makes me smile a little bit.

And finally, just a sweet reminder from another Revive Our Hearts podcast:
We, as women, need heart connections. 
I need you.  I enjoy hearing from you.  I am thankful for your friendships.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings today!