Obscure Presidents and Medical Malpractice

james-a-garfield-3Sometimes when I contemplate personal ambition, and what the point of it all is, I think about how many presidents there are who were big hot-shots in their day, but they are virtually unknown in modern times.

It just takes a few minutes scanning my child’s laminated “Presidents of the United States” placemat to realize this.  Millard Fillmore?  Zachary Taylor?  Maybe they would have had a better life if they had just tended a garden and hugged their grandkids more?  But that is a defeatist mindset and that is so unlike me, even though I have wondered about this.

Do you know much about James Garfield?  I knew he was a president in the 1800s some time, and that he was assassinated but, beyond that, I didn’t know much.

But then I read Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

This account is a wonderfully-painted portrait of the life and times of James Garfield, with cameos of other key players in that era of history.  I came away with a true sense of what people were reading about and thinking about (what the “buzz” was) in the late 19th Century.  This book also evoked a lot of emotion in me, particularly as it neared its end.  I was surprised by that, since I don’t typically react so emotionally to books.  How could this long-dead president’s life affect me so much?

Garfield had lowly origins, was a friend to African Americans in the fight for civil rights, and he actively opposed his own nomination for the presidency.  He loved his family, and his books, and he loved life.  He was always quick to forgive.  He was a most exemplary leader.

This book is also about contemporary political figures, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and his efforts to save Garfield’s life, Garfield’s deranged assassin Charles Guiteau, and the doctors, including one with a particularly big ego, who ultimately were responsible for Garfield’s death.  Doctors at the time ridiculed antisepsis, all the while poking their bacteria-laden fingers deep into Garfield’s wounds, as he lay on a dirty train depot floor.

Millard’s book about Garfield is wrenching and compelling and so very good.  I highly recommend it.


Illusions of January Calm, Skiing with Kids, and Goals

January is supposed to be a time for goal-setting and resolution.  I also thought it was supposed to be the calm after the storm.  The storm, albeit a happy and festive storm, culminates with Christmas, surges on into New Year a little bit, and then things should die down, right?  I love to have fun.  I also love to accomplish things.  I always look forward to celebration, but I also crave the January calm.

As I planned to take advantage of the January calm, making my lists, and setting my alarm a little bit earlier to try to accomplish some things before the kids wake up, my toddler decided that 5 a.m. is a good time to consistently greet the new day.  When a newborn cries their little kitty-cat cry, it’s one thing.  When a very robust toddler opens up his powerful lungs to yell, first “Mommy,” “Mommy,” “Mommy” and then “Daddy,” “Daddy,” “Daddy” and then the names of all three of his siblings, in rapid succession, over and over—as if to say, “Someone, anyone at all, please rescue me from my crib prison!”—it sends the heart into an accelerated pulsating action.  I find myself springing out of bed to keep him from waking up his older sisters.

Are moms not supposed to have goals, other than gripping the roller-coaster lap bar tighter and trying to survive?

I received a good reminder about goal-setting from another mom, when we took our kids snow skiing in Michigan over Christmas break.

Before I tell you about that, let me just detour for a minute.  Skiing with four kids, all under the age of 10, is so fun and there are so many wonderful memories to be made, but it is also So Much Work!  We are crazy!

IMG_6852The older two did somewhere between awesome and good.  Sophia (almost five) was too short to get on the lift by herself, so we had to grab her in a side-hug and lift her on the bench.  Then we had to wave frantically to the guy sitting in the booth at the top of the slope, hoping and praying he would see us, so that he could slow down the lift enough so Sophia could get off without having to jump, because her legs were too short.  After all that heroic effort, she did awesome.  She really was a natural.  She kept saying, “Stop instructing me,” when I would try to advise her, because she had already learned everything she needed to know from the cool, young ski instructor on her first morning’s lesson.  She is a typical, independent third-born child, for sure!  [I will include a picture of Sophia because there is nothing cuter than a small child skiing, I think.]

We also took Carson, age two, out for a little bit. Basically we are totally nuts!  No one in their right mind would take a kid skiing who is still in diapers, right?  Right.  (This will be Exhibit A if we ever have to undergo an insanity trial.)  When faced with the decision of staying back with Carson in the rental house, or taking him, we, in typical fashion, did it the hard way.  Life might be hard, but it must never be boring!  We did it, we survived, and I will never take a kid that young skiing, ever again.  Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl into the fetal position and take a nap.

But back to my main point …

We skied with two other families, whose youngest kids are a few years older than ours.  One evening, while we were putting dishes away, one of the moms was talking about her goals and plans, now that her kids are getting older.  She turned to me and asked what my goals are. I rattled off a few sentences.  She then asked the other mom.  The other mom said, “I don’t have any goals.”  After some prodding, she indicated that she wants to live intentionally as a mom, here and now.  Basically, what I took from it is, she wants to not obsess about future plans, but give her mothering and current pursuits 100-percent of her efforts and resources.  Kevin overheard this comment and said, “I respected her for saying that.”

I have thought about my friend’s comment since then.  Even before that, I have been mindful of the need for shifting gears.  For someone who is a planner, like me, it is important for me to remember that life is happening now, not at some distant, theoretical future point.  I need to live in the present more and devote my attention more fully to what is at hand.

This is hard for me sometimes.  It’s such a tug-of-war: building for the future, on the one hand and, on the other hand, choosing to relish and develop present moments, too.  There is a balance, somewhere in the tug-of-war.  But, for me, I really appreciated the reminder from my friend to live more in the present.  I’m proud of her, too, for being true to herself, and not just going with the flow.

So, this January, I have a screaming toddler at 5 a.m.  In order to have “dreams,” I need to sleep.  Since I’m not sleeping much, and my goals have gone by the wayside, I will try to remind myself more often to live in the present.  After my toddler calms down, he really is the cutest little guy in the whole world.  The quiet moments I have with him, after I’ve had my coffee and I’m fully awake, really are rather precious.

Rather than living in some distant, abstract future where I can accomplish goals on a regular basis, I am going to try harder to embrace what I have now.  It’s a really wonderful life.  I want to be here, right now.

71 Books in 2014

AA-BOOKSIt looks like it’s 71 books for 2014, not counting chapter books I read out loud to the kids. I think 71 books is a personal record. I credit this amount of reading to a) not being pregnant or nursing a baby through the night in 2014 and b) the Overdrive app, the app libraries use to make their digital items available.  In my dream world I would have time every evening to sit with a favorite beverage and leisurely finger some heavenly fibrous pages.  But, alas, that is not my current reality.  So I will continue to take advantage of what this technological age provides and how many more books I can access because of it!  Probably two-thirds of these books were listened to, via audio books.

I have written mini-reviews for all the books (below), but here is a short list of my favorites:


Biographies / Memoir:

Bread and Wine (Niequist)

Gifted Hands (Carson)

Unbroken (Hillenbrand)

Traveling Mercies (Lamott)

A Year By the Sea (Anderson)

The Dirty Life (Kimball)

Cheaper by the Dozen (Gilbreth)

Vagabonding (Potts)

In a Sunburned Country (Bryson)


Favorite Fiction:

The Giver (Lowry)

The Book Thief (Muzak)

State of Wonder (Patchett)


Life Hacks:

Essentialism (McKeown)

Boundaries (Cloud and Townsend)

Boundaries with Kids (Cloud and Townsend)

How to Get a Date Worth Keeping (Cloud)

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (James and Thomas)

A Mother’s Heart (Fleming)

The Art of Life (Schaeffer)


Honorable Mention (because I talked about these books a lot and recommended them to a lot of people):

How to Be a High-School Super Star (Newport)

The $100 Start-Up (Guillebeau)

Lean In (Sandberg)

Dad is Fat (Gaffigan)


And here are my reviews …

A Mother’s Heart (Fleming) – Halfway through this book, I decided to buy it for my personal library because I knew I would need to re-read it and loan it to others.  This is a book on parenting that mainly focuses on parental attitudes and actions.  If the change starts with me, I know that it will positively affect my kids. This book is encouraging and convicting.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bradley) – This book’s perky and matter-of-fact heroine, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, made the story.  How could you not love her?  I felt this book started slowly and the plot didn’t really speed up until near the very end.  It wasn’t one of the best mysteries I’ve read, probably for that reason, but Flavia really is just too cute.

Bread and Wine (Niequist) – Shauna Niequist is one of my favorite authors because her writing is so vivid.  She is down to earth and writes on a wide variety of topics, each chapter having something a little different to say, but her zest for life always shines through.  This is her third book and centers on the theme of life around the table and the importance that hospitality and fellowship over food plays in all of our lives.  Plus, there are delicious recipes!

Holy is the Day (Weber) – The author’s first book Surprised by Oxford was a book that I hated to put down.  Weber wrote so candidly and thoughtfully, with a literary style, about her conversion to Christianity while pursing a master’s degree at Oxford University.  Holy is the Day is her second book and it’s about taking time to live in the gift of the present, something that resonates with me, and something that I think is often hard to do.

Lean In (Sandberg) – I read this book mainly because I have been hearing the phrase “lean in” as a cultural reference and also because I thought it would be interesting to hear more of Sandberg’s story, as the CFO of Facebook.com.  Lean In gave me a lot to think about and I couldn’t help but thinking of my own personal story and how I arrived where I am right now.  Everything Sandberg says in her book is thought-provoking and, whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing, I think this book is definitely worth reading.  I hope to read it and discuss it with my own daughters someday.  The word feminism has so many connotations, often negative, as Sandberg herself expresses in her book. I am a feminist, depending on the definition.  I disagree with Sandberg on many things but I also found myself agreeing with her.  On her point about women failing to “lean in” when opportunities come their way, I think this is often very true.  And I think it might often be done somewhat unintentionally.  Whatever you decide to do, you should be aware of the reasons why, make sure you really understand the long-term consequences, and make a choice intentionally, and not by default.  Having said that, for me personally my faith informs my values and, although it has not always been an easy road and sometimes I have questioned “giving up a career” to stay home with my kids when they are little, and sometimes I wonder if I will have an identity-crisis after the kids no longer need me, I don’t ultimately think I will regret spending as much time with my kids as I possibly can.  I am a walking contradiction.  I think it is extremely important for moms to be available for their kids, and I value that, but I am also tremendously proud of women’s accomplishments in society and throughout history, and I still have ambitions of my own. Mothering is just a season, even if it is a very long one for some people.  This book is worth reading.

A Wrinkle in Time (L’Engle) – This is a fun little book.  Children’s fantasy is not my favorite genre but I have a certain daughter who loves it and I read this book, thinking of her.  L’Engle is an engaging writer.

Phantom Tollbooth (Juster) – I think I put this book on my “to read” list after reading Gretchin Rubin’s blog and learning that it’s one of her very favorite books.  People who love words will probably get a kick out of this book.  The story line itself is just okay, but the word play is fun.

The False Prince, The Runaway King, and The Shadow Throne (Nielson) – The kids got a new piano teacher in January and this trilogy is among his favorite books.  They are about a prince in disguise who returns to rule over a fictitious kingdom.  The first one really held my interest and I finished it quickly.  The second two were less compelling but easy to read and I was interested enough, that I wanted to see where the author was going with the plot.

Loving the Little Years (Jankovic) – I can’t believe I waited so long to read this book.  The author is humorous and down-to-earth and makes so many good points about everyday life with little kids, and the importance of motherhood.  Also, the book is super-short, probably on purpose.  Many young moms don’t have time to read a tome, even if it’s a funny one.  I love how Jankovic encourages women to find themselves, in their role as a mom, and not in some fantasy.  She notes that we are who we are because of the precious people in our lives, and to embrace that.

State of Wonder (Patchett) – This is an enjoyable novel about a research scientist who goes to the Amazon in search of a missing scientist from her organization, who is presumed dead.  The sheer creativity it took to come up with this novel idea makes it worth the read.  I enjoyed Bel Canto several years ago, written by the same author.  This second novel did not disappoint.  I also felt like there was a little opening left at the end, for a sequel.  If anyone else caught this, I’d love to hear about it.  Maybe it’s just me.

Dad is Fat (Gaffigan) – Just thinking about this book makes me realize that I need to see if he’s written other books.  This guy is funny!  But of course, he is a professional comedian, so what do you expect?!  It wasn’t just his humor that kept me interested in this book, though. It was the fact that he has five kids and lives in a small four-story walk up apartment in New York City.  If you have five kids in NYC, you might as well have 1,000 as far as your neighbors are concerned.  Just thinking about the logistics of his life and what his day-to-day experiences must be in a bustling city, trying to navigate the subway, putting kids to bed in a two-bedroom apartment, etc.  This book is awesome.

 Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bryson) – I kept hearing about Bill Bryson from the same person who recommended Dad is Fat (above).  Since this one was immediately available on Overdrive, I loaded it on my phone.  It is a humorous memoir about growing up in 1950s post-war America.

Red Badge of Courage (Crane) – This novel is about the transformation of a young solder as he fights for the Union army in the American Civil War.  He initially shows cowardice after fleeing the scene of battle and seeks to overcome his shame.  I am still slowly working my way through Bauer’s list of classic novels.

Mother Theresa In Her Own Words (Mother Theresa) – This is a beautiful book.  It was humbling and inspiring to read of Mother Theresa’s love for Christ and love for humanity, serving the poorest of the poor as unto Christ.  A big mantra in this book, a collection of her sayings, is that the poor are “Christ in distressed disguise.”  I was impacted by her advice that we should not seek to do big things, but to do little things with big love.  And we should “start with one.”  That’s how Mother Theresa herself started.  She started with one, someone who was left to die in a ditch.  She took him home and loved him until he passed.  I also appreciated her comment that it’s harder to consistently love a child in front of you, day after day, than it is to give up everything and go to Africa with the Peace Corp.  Also, poverty is not just material. One of the greatest poverties is loneliness, which is very prevalent in wealthy western countries.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Bryson) – This book started as a series of articles for a British publication, about an ex-pat returning to America after living abroad for twenty years. It is very funny, and also rings true.  Bryson makes fun of Americans and Brits, but let’s be honest, mostly Americans.  I enjoyed reading this book.  Probably my favorite chapter is about how Americans are so sedentary, unlike Europeans who walk or bike everywhere.  Once, Bryson invited the next door neighbor for dinner.  They drove.

The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages (Feldhan) – I enjoyed this book, probably because I have a happy marriage and now I know why. Basically, I have rose-colored glasses! Ha!  Feldhan explores a lot of data from marriages where both spouses indicate that they are highly happy with their marriage, to find commonalities.  Those who have happy marriages give their spouses the benefit of doubt and, when they disagree, never stop thinking the best of their spouse and trying to understand their spouse, believing that their spouse has underlying good intentions. Interesting!

The Book Thief (Muzak) – I liked this novel from the start because of the opening hook.  In the opening pages, you realize that it is narrated by Death.  The novel is set in Germany during World War II.  I generally like reading about that time period because there is so much contrast—extreme horrific evil and extreme sacrificial love. This novel is chock full of turns, teasers, and twists.  The pages are littered with horror and hope.  The language and themes are rich.  It’s a book about words and lives.  Words and lives are both destroyed and saved.  It’s about words and friendship in the midst of unthinkable carnage.  This book is sad and beautiful.

Cleopatra (Schiff) – If you can avoid getting bogged down in the detail, this book is pretty fascinating.  I didn’t mind the detail because I think Cleopatra is such an intriguing historical figure.  She rose to power as a female in a man’s world, was involved with the most powerful men of Rome, and experienced an untimely and dramatic death.  Not to mention that she lived in the most fashionable and culturally advanced city of her day, Alexandria.  The descriptions of that time and place were vivid and engaging.  There is also so much legend and lore associated with Cleopatra.  Schiff did a good job of slicing through the myth to uncover the truth about this complicated woman.  I enjoyed this book.

I Was a Better Mother Before I Had Kids (Borgman) – Lori Borgman spoke at a moms group I attend and I think she is fabulous and also very funny. She wrote an article called the death of Common sense that went viral on the Internet a few years back. This book is a collection of her stories about motherhood, much of it tongue-in-cheek.

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America (Schiff) – After reading Schiff’s book on Cleopatra I thought I’d give this one a try. It’s about Benjamin Franklin in his role as the first American Ambassador and his efforts overseas to garner French support for the American Revolution.  This book had such great potential, but fell short.  I really did get bogged down with too much detail in this book.  In Schiff’s defense, this was probably an organizational nightmare.  Franklin met with so many people and had so many conversations; it was probably really difficult to attempt to lay everything out in a concise manner.  There was so much back and forth, so many meetings, and so many conversations, with so many different people, that I found myself either really confused or bored by detail.

Traveling Mercies (Lamott) – Why have I not read Ann Lamott before now? I read two of her non-fiction books in 2014 and plan to read some of her fiction this year. Lamott’s writing has so much raw and honest human emotion and experience.  This book is about her rocky childhood and journey toward God. There are some scenes in her book that come to mind as I type this, months later … Like the scene where she is annoyed at her mom and wonders how she got so old so fast and observes lipstick smudged on her teeth and how that unsettles her. I felt like I was with Ann as she journeyed and lived those years wandering and wondering, grasping and growing. Ann is someone who lets you glimpse her soul, pretty or not. Her words are beautifully and poignantly orchestrated. I can’t wait to read more.

Heart of Darkness (Conrad) – This is another classic from Bauer’s list, a portrait of colonialism.  The main character, Marlow, works in the ivory trade, and commandeers a ship into the heart of the Congo. Along the way he observes the hardship of natives who are forced into servitude, the jungle surroundings, and interesting characters.  This novel held my interest but wasn’t a favorite.

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (Winner) – My good friend Heather and I decided to meet every month and discuss a book. Still was our first choice, as Lauren Winner’s other books have all been good. After reading Still, I felt conflicted and sad. I really appreciate Winner’s authenticity and humility in being so open about her divorce. At no time did she use her book to raise any awareness of anyone’s flaws but her own. Her divorce, along with the death of her mom, sent her into a dark valley.  Her faith informed her that it was a sin to divorce, as there were no biblical grounds, but she did it anyway because she needed out.  This resulted in despair and a feeling of separation from God.  Winner admits she didn’t contribute to her marriage much.  Also, her husband wanted to pray with her but she didn’t want to pray with him because “prayer threatened to connect us.” While she didn’t make effort to intentionally invest in her marriage, she did make much effort to intentionally attend church functions and be a part of her church community, even when she did not feel like it.  This paid off and she stayed in the faith.  I kept wondering if she had invested in her marriage, even when she didn’t feel like it, just like she kept going to church when she didn’t feel like it, if that would have transformed her attitude toward her marriage.  I obviously don’t have all the information, and have not been in her shoes … I’m just going off of what she portrays in her book.  In the end, Winner recognizes that “The Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail. … The saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.”

A Year By the Sea (Anderson) – This book ended up being a favorite even though it was about someone in a completely different phase of life.  It’s a true story about a woman who finds herself an empty nester and in a loveless marriage.  When her husband gets a job out of state, she decides to separate for a while to reorient herself and figure life out.  It was interesting to think about how women really do need to adapt, as seasons of life bring changes our way.  I appreciated Anderson’s honesty, her search for authenticity, her gusto, her willingness to try new things, her hard work, and her desire to be transparent and true to herself and her family.  I also loved all the beautiful descriptions of Cape Cod, in its various seasons, and what it is like to live in that place.  I think this book would be great for a book club discussion.  It definitely gave me some things to think about.

Gone Girl (Flynn) – After I read this book, I went to the hair salon and saw three other people reading this book.  I don’t know why this book was THE book of 2014.  It is a nicely crafted mystery, although if you’re like me you will end up hating all the shallow characters involved.  The thing I did like about it was that it messed with my mind a little and had some interesting plot twists.  Other than that, I have no idea why there was so much obsession with this book.  The publisher must have some really good P.R. people.

Come and Find Me (Ephron) – I was looking for some easy, fun reading and came across a few books by Ephron.  This is a mystery that has some convenient plot twists at the end, but the main character is nicely developed. It’s a great little book, if you’re looking for something fun.

Never Tell a Lie (Ephron) – This book opened with a suburban garage sale and then took some twists and turns to become a suburban nightmare.  There was a lot of suspense.  I enjoyed this book.

Blood, Bones and Butter (Hamilton) – This is a colorful, fun food memoir.  It’s full of amazing food descriptions and food philosophy, interwoven with the author’s experiences, which include: growing up cooking with her French mother, surviving her parent’s divorce, moving to the big city, forging her own way, starting an award winning restaurant and becoming a top chef in NYC, marrying a complicated Italian man and learning to love his country and his family.  This is a good story.

Little House on the Freeway (Kimmel) – This book articulated things I believe about keeping my home peaceful and protecting family time, but things that are also often easy to forget.  I appreciated the reminders and bits of wisdom in this book.  I really like Kimmel and his philosophy of parenting, having already read Grace-Based Parenting.

Cheaper by the Dozen (Gilbreth) – This book is true story about a remarkable, eccentric, loving father and his twelve children, written by two of the children.  Gilbreth was an efficiency expert and often applied his techniques in raising his children.  This book made me laugh out loud numerous times and was also very touching.  Those twelve kids loved their daddy, there were always zany antics happening in that household, and Gilbreth really was an exceptional man.  This book is great!

How to Be a High School Superstar (Newport) – This book is full of food for thought.  Newport challenges traditional thinking about how high school students can stand out and get into their reach colleges.  Essentially, instead of participating in numerous extra-curricular clubs and activities, and trying to “do-it-all,” students should create a lot of time and space in their schedules to focus on doing one thing really well.  He calls this the “relaxed superstar.”  He advises that, unless you are the top athlete or top musician, to stay away from those over-saturated areas and become an expert in something unique.  He reiterated that it is important to become a person with deeply-held interest.  If a student is overcommitted, this will not happen.  After reading this book, I thought it was good advice for a lifetime of enrichment.  Even if following this advice fails to lead to the Ivy Leagues, it would create a highly-developed, interesting person, who is self-motivated and has a love for learning and life.  It’s a win-win.  I have recommended this book to a lot of students.

How to Get a Date Worth Keeping (Cloud) –I was planning to read another book by this author and while doing a web search this book caught my eye.  I read it during the time of our 12-year-wedding anniversary.  My husband saw me reading this and said, “Should I be worried?  Are you planning on dating again?”  Ha!  Actually, I know some people who would like to find a life partner but, it hasn’t happened, and I thought this book would at least be interesting fodder for thought.  I was not disappointed!  This book is so great.  Cloud identifies two problems in dating: 1) there are no prospects at all or 2) a person consistently dates the wrong kind of people.  He then engages in problem-solving to try to understand why either of these things are recurring.  The book covers being a healthy person so you can attract a healthy person.  There are also several chapters that are generally applicable, about getting out of your comfort zone to meet new people and try new things.  I learned things from this and am glad I read this book.  Cloud is a very common-sense, wise, Christian psychologist.  This book is fantastic.  I have recommended it to a lot of people, including my happily married mother-in-law, who loved it.

House of Mirth (Wharton) – Lily Bart is a haunting heroine. This novel is about her ill-fated attempts to climb the societal ladder, facing disappointment and misunderstandings at every turn.  With no one to take her side, rapid descent into poverty, and all the tragedy and heartache of unrequited love, this novel is memorable and compelling.  It’s another reminder that the 21st Century is a great one in which to be a woman.

The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers (Meeker) – This book highlights habits a woman can form to be a contented mom, starting with reminders of the importance of her role.  At first I wondered how the author decided on her “10 habits” and the book seemed overly anecdotal.  It took me a few chapters to really like the book.  The author has some good insights. Some examples of healthy habits are: to maintain key friendships, say no to competition, develop a healthy relationship with money, etc.  The author concludes each chapter with practical information called “ways to make the habit stick.”

The Dirty Life (Kimball) – This is a memoir about a woman in her thirties who was a writer in New York City.  She drove out to rural Pennsylvania to do a story about a Community Supported Agriculture venture and ended up falling in love with the quiet, hardworking farmer. She decided to take a leap of faith and marry this good man.  She left her fast-paced city life that she loved, to go start a unique model of farm with him in upstate New York.  Life as a farmer was full of back-breaking work and lots and lots of dirt and grime.  All of this, of course, was quite taxing on the couple’s embryonic relationship.  Their personalities and reactions often conflicted, in the midst of this trying experience, as they worked from dawn until dark to get their farm started.  Their dream was to grow everything a family would need for food, including pork, chicken, beef, dairy items, grains, nuts, hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, etc.  Families would pay per person, on a sliding scale, according to what they could afford.  On the weekly pick-up day, their “members” could take whatever food they could eat, including extra food to can for the winter.  The couple avoided modern farm machines for the most part, and their draft horses did much of the work along with them.  This book is full of so many stories and so many vivid descriptions of farm life and also some mouth-watering food descriptions.  Their philosophy of food is interesting to read about, and the rolling, rural setting described sounds just beautiful. The couple’s relationship had both rocky moments and tender moments.  Near the end of the book, the author’s transformation is complete when she truly commits to her husband and their life together.  I was impressed by the author’s rich writing and have been following Kimball’s blog, too.

If I Stay (Forman) – This short novel is about a young musician whose life takes a tragic turn after an accident.  Her boyfriend sticks by her side during her ensuing coma.  The plot alternates between describing her life before the accident, as a promising violinist, and what happens after the accident.  The author takes the whole will-to-live scenario and develops it.  Will the beautiful, young musician choose to stay in this life or to let go?  That’s for you to find out at the end of the book.

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life (Cloud and Townsend) – I’ve been hearing about this book for years.  I’m glad I finally read it! I thought it could have been a little better organized and more clearly outlined in the beginning but it’s such a crucial topic and the book is really helpful and informative.  If people have healthy boundaries in place—a boundary is basically when your responsibility ends and another person’s responsibility begins—then there will be significantly less problems in families and other relationships.  Problems arise when a person’s boundaries are overextended and when a person says “yes” too often.  Taking on someone else’s responsibility robs them of the opportunity to learn and grow.  I also appreciated how the authors pointed out that a person’s boundaries can also be marked too close, meaning that a person is not loving and giving enough.  It’s important, however, to love and give in a healthy way.  This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Essentialism (McKeown) – This is the best life hack book I read all year.  I reviewed it more fully in this post here. I have thought about this book many, many times since reading it.  It truly has had a transformative affect on my life.  Basically, if you don’t determine your priorities, someone else will.  What is essential in your life?  This question is crucial because it determines what you do every day and the ultimate trajectory of your whole life.  Once you know what is essential for you, then everything else will flow better.  There will be more clarity.  It will be easier to know what you need to do and to make good decisions and keep from over-committing.  I highly recommend this book.  There is some overlap, for sure, between Essentialism and Boundaries (reviewed immediately above).

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival (Hillenbrand) – This memoir is absolutely riveting.  It’s about the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and World War II veteran.  There were moments in this book where I simply could not put it down.  Warning: unless you have some time to kill, you probably shouldn’t start reading this book!  Zamperini’s plane went down in the Pacific and he was stranded on a life boat for weeks, ultimately ending up in a Japanese prison camp.  He faced death numerous times, to ultimately prevail.  This story is also about overcoming bitterness and learning to forgive. It culminates in the best kind of redemption.  This is a must-read.

Where She Went (Forman) – This is the sequel to If I Stay, reviewed above.  I thought it was interesting because, instead of being narrated by the injured female musician, it was narrated by her jettisoned boyfriend.  Basically, it’s full of teenage drama and has some really implausible love scenes that literally made me roll my eyes.  I’m not sure the sequel is worth reading.

The Signature of All Things (Gilbert) – I have read Gilbert’s two non-fiction books, so I thought I’d give her novel a try.  I feel like it flowed really well and the main character, an unloved, awkward woman with a keen mind for science, was believable and relatable.  There was a whole component to this book that could have been left out and found myself skimming those parts.  This book was also too long and I found my attention span waning.  I was not a huge fan of this book.

Mrs. Dalloway (Woolfe) – This book takes place all in one day, as the heroine Clarissa Dalloway, prepares for a party, exploring thoughts about her past and regrets.  While reading this book I kept vacillating between thinking it was so interesting, with the ramblings and stream-of-consciousness techniques, and also finding it getting under my skin a little.

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (James and Thomas) – Sometimes I roll my eyes when people focus so much on stereotypes.  I know that stereotypes exist for a reason but, life is complex, and every person is unique, and there are a lot of things that are generally applicable.  So, I wasn’t sure what I would think about a book specifically on boys.  In the end, I really appreciated this book.  While my girls definitely display many things indicated in this book, too, I do think that boys have some unique struggles and needs and the authors did a great job honing in on those things.  Now that my son is two-years-old, I am definitely seeing more of the stereotypical boy-attributes in him. For instance, my girls never used me as a human launching pad, but Carson does this on a routine basis. [Grin.]  Back to the book, the authors took the various stages and seasons of boyhood and broke them down, with things that parents should focus on in those particular seasons. I thought this was really insightful.  I can already see my oldest daughter, age nine, moving into a different season where her needs are a little different, and my parental responses need to be adjusted.  The book also had many practical suggestions.  I was moved as I read through the different seasons, through the struggles of adolescence, and was reminded that parents need to have a sense of humor and tough skin, but also to be very empathetic.  Growing up can be so hard!  The last half of the book targets various topics that are relevant to raising boys and includes a section on having conversations with your boy, mothers and sons, fathers and sons, and celebrating rites of passage.  This book is fantastic and I will definitely re-read it as Carson gets older, probably when he is 7- or 8-years-old.

Brave New World (Huxley) – A friend told me he read this book because he found himself saying, “It’s a brave new world,” but realized he had never read the book. Ha!  I hadn’t either, so I picked it up at the library.  I can see why this is a classic.  The beginning grabbed my attention and I was quickly swept away into Huxley’s futuristic world of frightening government control and manipulation.  My attention was held until the very bitter, tragic, appropriate end.

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Fairy-Tale Endings (McRobbie) – Many moms have been wary of their girls being fed a steady diet of Disney princess stories, as most Disney princesses are rather inert and pathetic, and not the role models we want for our girls.  McRobbie uncovers numerous stories of true-life princesses who were brave, proactive and determined leaders.  Some lived long and glorious lives, and some met an untimely end, but they all lived fully.  The stories were alternately fascinating, grim, and inspiring, but they were never dull.  The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that, because of much of the subject matter, it’s meant for a very mature audience. I wish there was a version of this book that I could read out loud to my young daughters, or give to my nine-year-old to read on her own.  I think they would find it fascinating, too, and definitely food for thought.

Forever Music (Schaeffer) – I read this to discuss with a friend and had a hard time getting into it at first.  Schaeffer’s husband had just passed away and shortly after she was given a Steinway grand piano that she discovered was made the year she and her husband were married.  This led her on a path of reminiscing and making connections between the life of her marriage and the life of the piano.  She reflected on the joy and beauty of music in our lives (and art in general), and took a tour of the factory where Steinways are made, and also gave an account of Franz Mohr’s (master piano technician’s) life in Nazi Germany and his conversion to Christianity.  At first it seemed as the book was basically Schaeffer writing as an antidote to her grief and it seemed a little rambling.  The book is a little eclectic, but did generally center on the theme of the piano, her life, and a love of music.  I ended up enjoying the book.  I love Schaeffer’s writing and she is definitely inspiring when it comes to the topic of intersecting art and faith.

Boundaries with Kids (Cloud and Townsend) – This, along with Give them Grace, is the best parenting book I have ever read.  I listened to the audio book and it was pretty quick and easy to listen to, and it was so good, I listened to it twice! If you need a book to encourage you to be consistent and enforce the natural consequences of your kids’ behavior, this book will be all the motivation you need.  I will never forget the well-intentioned mom who was picking up her son’s room.  The author happened upon her and asked her, “Why are you doing that?”  The mom said she was just helping her son.  The author replied, “Well, I feel sorry for his future wife!”  The mom had never thought about how, her taking over her son’s responsibilities, and doing his work for him, would impact his future relationships.  Our kids need to learn real life lessons when they are young and we need to not step in and rescue them from the consequences of their actions. This book has other troubleshooting tips and solutions, as well.  I highly recommend it.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Kerman) – I saw that this book was made into a popular Netflix series and so I ordered it for my Overdrive app.  I thought this book was really interesting.  Talking about consequences (see immediately above), the author made a stupid choice as a young woman, to carry illegal narcotics for a friend, and more than a decade later paid a high price for it: incarceration in a federal women’s prison for a year.  This book would be great for a book club discussion.  It will no doubt spark questions about our policies on drug crimes and what life in prison is like.

The Art of Non-Conformity (Guillebeau) – I picked up this book because I’d heard about this guy who was attempting to visit every country before turning 30 and I was intrigued.  This book is full of Guillebeau’s own stories and experiences and outlines his philosophy about the importance of determining your own values and questioning the status quo and societal expectations, to live fully, the way you want to live.  He believes in self-education and is the epitome of an entrepreneur.  The author is an interesting character and his book gave me a lot to think about.  Reading this book led me to read a few other books in this genre, including the author’s second book (see below).

Bird by Bird (Lamott) – This is Lamott’s book about being a writer, full of advice for aspiring writers of fiction.  I really enjoyed this book.  Lamott speaks truthfully about wrestling with characters and plots, and a writer’s angst when in the throes of creating a literary work of art.  It is humorous and colorful and a wonderful little treasure of a book.  I loved it.

Gilead (Robinson) – This book is a novel about an older pastor who is reflecting on his life and his choices and his faith.  He is full of concern for his younger wife and young child, as he faces the end of his life.  The plot moves slowly but has really good, believable character development and I found myself empathizing with and liking the hero of the story.  In Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird (see above), she states that character development is so much more important than plot development.  If you have a good character, people will love the book.  I thought about that as I read Gilead, because there’s really not much plot to speak of, but the book works!

The $100 Startup : Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future (Guillebeau) – Guillebeau’s first book, The Art of Non-Conformity, was about his philosophy of bucking societal expectations and living the life of your own dreams.  This book is a natural follow-up because it gives more of the nuts and bolts to explain how that kind of life could be possible, as someone who is self-employed and not tied to a nine-to-five job corporate job.  Guillebeau interviewed many entrepreneurs who started successful businesses with little or no start-up costs.  In the age of the internet, this is very doable.  I enjoyed reading about the various kinds of businesses and the people who run them.  The stories were interesting, but the book had a lot of practical suggestions, too. Part of me has always been interested in starting a business.  At some point soon here, maybe I will give it a try!

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Time World Travel (Potts) – This book is also in the same vein as Chris Guillebeau’s books, where the author questions standard thinking about life choices (i.e., you “should” go to college, get married, get a mortgage, have kids, save your money, and travel when you retire because, by then, you have earned it, and you should do it all in that order).  Potts quotes a movie line where the main character dreams of making a pile of money so he can retire and ride his motorcycle across China.  Potts points out that you could probably scrub toilets for three months and earn enough money go to China and ride your motorcycle across the country.  If you don’t own a motorcycle already, you can clean toilets for three more months and have enough money to buy a motorcycle when you get there!  He challenges people who want to travel to think big, take risks, and just do it.  He makes the distinction between traveling and being a “tourist” and encourages people to take their time when they travel, to really absorb the surroundings and the culture.  The book is also full of a lot of practical suggestions and references to other resources.  I really enjoyed this book.

When I Was a Child I Read Books (Robinson) – This book is full of the author’s philosophies on an assortment of topics including religion and politics. I thought it was somewhat rambling and found myself questioning and disagreeing from time to time.  She is an academic and I felt she came across as a defensive Christian, who needs to justify her faith in academia.

Sharp Objects (Flynn) – This book is another mystery by the author of Gone Girl.  It moved along at a decent pace but it was really dark.  The main character is an insecure, damaged person with a complicated relationship with her mom, and is a cutter.  The virtues of the book didn’t overcome the darkness of it, and I don’t particularly recommend it.

The Shining (King) – I had been hearing several cultural references to Stephen King and I realized I had never read any of his books. Wow!  Talk about suspense. King’s writing is very effective and his word pictures are amazing.  The characters are definitely complex and nuanced.  His descriptions are powerful and compelling.  I can certainly see why he is a legend and so many of his books have been turned into blockbuster movies.  I still have not watched The Shining movie but, when I do, I will plan to watch it with all the lights on.  For sure.

Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (Carson) – This fascinating book moved and inspired me so much.  Carson overcame the odds and, despite being raised in poverty by a single mom, he rose to be one of the premier pediatric neurosurgeons in the world. His mother only had a third-grade education and worked many physically-taxing jobs to provide for her two sons.  She instilled the idea of personal responsibility in them and encouraged them to dream big.  As a successful surgeon, Carson agreed to do surgeries that many other doctors refused to do, because they were so risky.  Carson successfully reinstituted the controversial hemispherectomy, where literally half the brain is removed, as a last-ditch attempt to save a life.  He also successfully separated twins conjoined at the head.  His strong faith led and inspired him along the way.  He believes God is the one who gifted his hands, to do this important work.  I have heard there is a juvenile version of this book and plan to have my kids read it.

I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban (Yousafzai) – Malala Yousafzai won the 2014 Nobel Peace prize for her endeavors to combat the suppression of education for girls in her home country of Pakistan, and make education available for all children.  Her book tells her story, culminating in her being shot by the Taliban.  She is a remarkable, brave young woman.  I was equally inspired by her father’s efforts and how he always loved his daughter and wholeheartedly encouraged her leadership potential.  This book spawned some dinnertime conversation with our own children about not taking their education for granted.  Not all children have the opportunity to receive an education.  It was heartening to read about someone who is trying to change that.

In a Sunburned Country (Bryson) – This is the best Bryson book I have read so far. I loved reading about his travels in Australia, and stories and trivia about that country in general.  I laughed out loud numerous times and found myself smiling often.  I felt like I was along for the ride, too.  Since going to Australia is likely not on my immediate horizon, this was a good second-best.  I enjoyed this book.

Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut) – Vonnegut is a native of Indiana, where I live, and it was about time that I read this semi-autobiographical novel.  This book frequently jumped back and forth from the hero’s present to his past and describes the World War II Dresden bombing, which the author witnessed first-hand.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Gladwell) – I have gleaned a lot from all of Gladwell’s books and David and Goliath is no exception. This book is full of stories about people who have faced difficulties and challenges and have been successful, not in spite of them, but because of them.  He points out that a disproportionate amount of millionaire businessmen have wrestled with dyslexia.  He details the story of a doctor named Freireich who had a difficult childhood and is credited with saving countless lives through his clinical trials to help cure childhood leukemia. His dire childhood gave him the stamina to press on, in his difficult work.  Gladwell has some thought-provoking ideas when it comes to kids pursuing an Ivy League education, or not.  He indicates that Ivy League schools often demoralize really bright students, especially kids going into the hard sciences, and Harvard itself admits to this.  Gladwell suggests that the door to success just might materialize by being a big fish in a little pond, rather than a little fish in a big pond.  Interesting thoughts and stories!

A Call to Spiritual Reformation (D. A. Carson) – This is a book about the Apostle Paul and his biblical prayers, as a model for our own prayers.   I think a lot of D.A. Carson but think the language in this book is too flowery and erudite to be potent and influential to a wide audience.  I’m not saying that books should be dumbed down, but I think this book lost its effectiveness in the midst of all the fancy terminology.

The Art of Life (Schaeffer) – This book is a great survey of the thoughts of Edith Schaeffer, as it takes excerpts from all of her books, and is presented as a 31-day devotional.  I discussed this book with a friend and enjoyed Schaeffer’s thoughts and her expressions of faith, and encouraging words.

A Miracle Under the Christmas Tree (Sander) – Each chapter of this book had a Christmas-themed story and it was a fun little book to read during the holidays.  Some of the stories were really good and some were just okay, but it was easy to skim through the not-so-interesting stories to find the gems.

Walden (Thoreau) – “Living simply” isn’t just a new fad.  Henry David Thoreau tried it 150 years ago and wrote Walden, detailing his experiences.  Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, with very few possessions and lots of time to reflect and absorb nature.  The sum of his philosophy: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”  This book was a natural choice, since I have read quite a few books along this motif (books about non-conformity, living intentionally, essentialism, etc.). The author of Vagabonding quoted quite a bit from Walden. 

The Giver (Lowry) – This creative book is about the unforgettable, 12-year-old Jonas who grows up in a futuristic society where there is no free-choice and conformity and unconditional allegiance to the government is expected at all times.  All things are pre-determined, including what job and role each person will have in society, and who will be in your family.  There is no color.  Everything that exists is utilitarian. There is no freedom to express emotions and feelings, except within a pre-approved framework.  But everyone is happy because they don’t know anything else, there is heavy propaganda, and everything makes “sense.”   Then, something rare and unexpected happens.  Jonas is selected to become the next Receiver.  He doesn’t know what this means until he starts his apprenticeship with the old Receiver, who is now The Giver.  Basically, all memory of everything beautiful and non-utilitarian has been erased from society, because it is not functional. But one person, The Receiver, has been appointed to receive the memories and advise the ruling council.  As Jonas receives the memories of beautiful things, like hills and snow and family togetherness, and Christmas, he starts to break free and question all of the conformity.  Then he discovers a dark secret that threatens someone he loves, and involves the betrayal of one of his family members, and he knows he must take action. The book highlights the importance of truth and beauty and authenticity, even if there is pain involved.  The book is powerful and I loved the culmination at the end of the book.  I highly recommend this book.

Everything that Rises Must Converge (O’Connor) – Flannery O’Connor is another of those authors that I hadn’t read until 2014.  Now that I have read her, I will never forget her!  This book is a compilation of O’Connor’s short stories.  Her writing is so clear and provocative and true.  All of her short stories were complex, with highly nuanced characters.  Many of the stories involved family tensions that kept culminating steadily until the climax.  Right now I am still experiencing after-shocks, just thinking about her stories.  Like the one about the little girl fighting with her wealthy grandfather over the sale of property that will destroy her play yard.  Or a father misunderstanding and under appreciating his son, only to realize it when it’s too late.  Or a well-educated son who recoils at his old-fashioned mother’s subtle racism.  I keep coming back to the word “tension” because I don’t know how to describe it more fittingly.  Honestly, as much as I appreciated her writing, I got to the point where I almost couldn’t handle the tension any more.  But, goodness, what great writing.

A Christmas Blizzard (Keillor) – The protagonist in this story is a modern day Scrooge, who doesn’t understand the value or meaning of Christmas.  I kept plodding through this book but never felt like it flowed well and it wasn’t as funny as I was expecting it to be, considering the author.

The Christmas Train (Baldacci) – This book is about a jaded writer who ends up unable to fly during the holidays and decides to take a train across the country to meet up with his girlfriend.  Along the way, he encounters numerous colorful characters, tries to solve a mysterious theft, and discovers that his old flame, the woman he regrets breaking up with, is also on the train.  There were several parts of this book that I thought were too hokey or too contrived, but in the end I thought the book redeemed itself, and I enjoyed the little plot twists along the way, and I liked the ending.  It was fun to read a “light” book, which is just what I wanted during the holidays.