Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Reviews - 2011

Well, here's another year's "check-in" thread for book reviews. 2011 is well underway, so I'll start this post now, and continue adding to it as I read throughout the year.

  1. 50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School: Real World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education by Charles J. Sykes - finished 1/19/2011 - As he did in Dumbing Down Our Kids, in this book, Sykes takes a decidedly dismal view of American public education. However, unlike his other books, "50 Rules..." is not a lengthy treatise on education, or a critique with helpful suggestions; rather, this is more of a cultural commentary with corresponding common sense guidelines for life. Though I don't have teens yet, I could definitely see one day reading this together with our 15- or 16- year olds and then using it as a jumping off point for discussions over coffee. Covering a wide range of topics including job skills, sex, looking people in the eye when you talk with them, not being a video game zombie, realistic expectations of life, and more, this is above all a lighthearted and straightforward critique of our culture, and particularly the youth of our culture.
  2. A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks - finished 3/12/2011 - Dull and predictable.
  3. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares - finished 3/27/2011 - cutesy and predictable. I wanted some light reading, and boy did I get it! This was only a tad bit higher than Sweet Valley High.
  4. The Scarlet Cord: The Dramatic Life of Rahab by Mary Ellen Keith & Deborah Elder Champagne - finished 3/30/2011 - I picked up this book in a thrift store... again, looking for some light reading, but wanting some substance as well. This book is not one I'd recommend for younger, unmarried readers, as I felt there was a large quantity of sexual detailing of the pagan culture of Jericho. Those details did seem to be the right amount, in order to understand the background of Rahab, and the story of Jericho, but again, it would not be something I'd recommend without warning. At the same time, I felt that the writers did a good job bringing that culture, and those times, to life, and weaving those cultural details together with the biblical account. I found this to be an interesting book, but not one I'll revisit and read again. Once was good, but once was enough.
  5. The Gentle Art of Domesticity: Stitching, Baking, Nature, Art, and the Comforts of Home by Jane Brocket - finished 4/5/2011 - What a beautiful book! I found it very inspiring, like fuel for my creative side. I haven't actually done anything with that inspiration yet, as it's difficult to do domestic things when one's home life is in constant transition as mine currently is. This will likely be a book I revisit regularly for visual delight and as a springboard for my own domestic efforts. On a side note, I agree with an commenter who wrote something to the effect that, "this book should called The Domestic Art of Jane Brocket". Indeed, the book is wholly centered on her own creative domestic ideas... but I did not find this off-putting. On the contrary, it is filled with beautiful, joyful examples of what a woman can do to evoke delight in her own home.
  6. Once-A-Month Cooking: (Revised and Expanded) A proven system for spending less time in the kitchen and enjoying delicious, homemade meals every day by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg - finished 4/7/2011 - Though this is not a time-intensive book (in fact, the written portion before the recipe section is only a few dozen pages long), I am so glad to have read it. Though I may not ever follow this religiously, or exactly as written, I absolutely hope to incorporate the principals into our kitchen. With the last 2 babies, I've filled up our freezer in the last month or two of pregnancy and found it very helpful. This seems like a great way to have fall-back meals so that we won't eat out so often, and a great way to eat healthily without having to be in the kitchen cooking every single night. I look forward to using these ideas!
  7. The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts by Tom Farley and Tanner Colby - finished 4/13/2011 - I can't tell you how many times my brother and I watched "Tommy Boy" while in high school. I generally wasn't allowed to watch SNL, unless a favorite band was performing. But because of my brother's love for Tommy Boy, my appreciation for Farley's physically hilarious antics, and my husband's opportunity as a high school journalist to meet him, when I saw Doug reading it, I wanted to read the book.
    "The notion of love is something that would be a wonderful thing. I don't think I've ever experienced it, other than the love of my family. At this point it's something beyond my grasp. But I can imagine it, and longing for it makes me sad." ~Chris Farley
    The sadness he expressed in that quote sums up the book, and sums up his life. This book tells, through the recollections of close friends, co-workers, and family members, how Chris Farley went from class clown to directionless young adult to famous comedian, all the while being a vibrantly hilarious and full-of-life man with dark tendencies and a personality that tended towards addiction in virtually all forms. His death was truly a tragic end to a man who had such capacity for joy and creative expression.
  8. A Merry Heart (Brides of Lancaster County, Book 1) by Wanda Brunstetter - finished 4/19/2011 - A typical, but slightly sub-part, Christian romantic fiction novel in an Amish setting, this book was pretty much what I expected. This is not a well-written novel, nor is it realistic in its story elements. Several times throughout the book, I had to groan and set it down because the dialogue was so predictable, and I grew weary of the inserted German words, with the definitions woven into the dialogue, as if we aren't bright enough to figure out that "wunderbaar" means wonderful, in context. Nonetheless, I got what a paid 49 cents for-- a simple story set in Amish culture. It made for a quick read and is now back in the "giveaway" pile.
  9. Stop Dating the Church!: Fall in Love With the Family of God by Joshua Harris - finished 4/20/2011 - What an excellent little book! This is the message modern Christians in my generation need to hear-- that a commitment to God without a commitment to the church is a weak and ultimately double-minded thing. To honor God, we need to love what He loves: the Body of Christ. This book gives powerful encouragement and relevant insight as to why we may not have committed to the church, but how Christians can find, biblically evaluate, and commit to God's church. I loved it, and will keep it on hand to read from time to time. It was an easy but heart-penetrating book, and I'm thankful to have come across it.
  10. Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good by Wendy Shalit - finished 5/20/2011 - Based on over 100 interviews with young American women of all stripes (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, feminists, etc.), this excellent book was written as a response to the mixed messages our culture sends to young women. Shalit's eye-opening examination of our culture should be a must-read for every parent of girls, and would be an encouraging read for any young woman (because of the sexually explicit information she references -- as examples of what's becoming normalized in our culture), I would not recommend this book for 16 and under. She details how the aggressive female that is now normative-- the bully on the playground, sexual prowess in her teen years, unaffected disinterest in the dating scene-- is a model being intentionally rejected by thoughtful women in upcoming generations. Shalit is a thought-provoking analyst of cultural issues affecting young women, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
  11. One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children by David Elliot Cohen - finished 5/29/2011 - What a great travel memoir! Many people feel the urge to "leave it all behind" and "see the world" and that is exactly what the Cohen family did in 1996-1997. With three kids in tow (roughly ages 2, 7, and 9), David & his wife sold everything, took a year off, and set out to see the world. Starting in South America, they made their way through Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and even a few spots in North America. His journals are humor-laced, and as a woman who has travelled through some of the same parts of the world with our own five children, so much of what Cohen wrote resonated with my own experiences. Many times I laughed out loud at his observations of cultural differences and similarities, and nodded my way through passages detailing how family togetherness actually bonded the family together, rather than ending in squabbles and misery. Read with caution, for it is very likely that if you open these pages, you'll soon want to be off on your own great family adventure!
  12. Valide: A Novel of the Harem by Barbara Chase-Riboud - finished 6/5/2011 - I was pleased to find this book at the library, having previously seen this book recommended as an excellent source for learning about Ottoman culture. Our family has lived in Turkey for 4 years now, and we've toured the Topkapi Palace (and its harem) in Istanbul multiple times, so this book definitely piqued my interest. Chase-Riboud offers an incredibly detailed historical account of the French-American slave girl who became the concubine, then wife, of an Ottoman Sultan, and eventually the mother of a Sultan in Ottoman-era Istanbul (late 1700's). She also strays into a few scenes of power involving Napolean & Catherine the Great; while these storylines were helpful to me to give historical clues about what was going on world-wide at the time of the story, some readers might find them distracting to the overall plot. This book did include (perhaps predictably) some quite explicit sexual detail, about 3-4 individual scenes in the 400+ page book. Because of my interest, having lived in Turkey, and because of the book's thorough and beautiful handling of Ottoman culture, I enjoyed the book immensely, but because of the sexual matter, I would not recommend this book to others without that clear warning.
  13. Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen - finished 6/17/2011 - This classic story of sisterly affection between two opposite young women, one self-possessed and sensible, the other passionate and transparent to the point of emotional exhibitionism, was thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, though I've seen the movie ever so many times, I hadn't ever read the book, and found myself delighted at the deeper character development of beloved favorites from the movies.

    [Unfortunately, the $2 copy I picked up at Half Price Books was the "Insight Edition", which was filled with trivial tidbits, and occasionally, plot spoilers a page or two before anticipated action actually took place. Additionally, the Insight editors tried to twist and turn various sentences to be religiously-oriented, instead of just letting Austen's work stand on its own. I found the side notes distracting and frequently frustrating.]

    But the story itself was, of course, lovely. Willoughby was far more the scoundrel than portrayed in the movies, selfish and greedy... Edward, far more passive and wimpy (borderline dislikable!)... Colonel Brandon, far more heroic. The transformation of Marianne from passionate and open in every feeling or opinion to a more womanly, thoughtful, selfless, loving person was delightful (I couldn't help but picture Kate Winslet in my mind), while Elinor was such a self-controlled person that she at times seems hardly human. Austen superbly detailed the transitions of human character, through both through the young Marianne & Willoughby, as well as the older Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs. Dashwood. I share the opinion of millions the world over-- this is a delightfully-crafted story, well worth the reading.
  14. Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan - finished 6/28/2011 - This is an excellent challenge, written by a humble but insightful teacher to the lukewarm American church. Chan questions the phrase "lukewarm Christian" and challenges us to ask ourselves if "following Christ" has really changed the way we live. In other words, has Christ really changed your life? Does your life give evidence that you love and are devoted to Jesus? Do you live in obedience to him that sometimes makes other people scratch their heads? Chan notes that if our lives "make sense" to unbelievers, then we're not living the Christian life. This book has come at just the right time for me, challenging me in new ways to consider Christ's claim on my life, and helping me to soberly judge my own life.
  15. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition by David C. Pollock - had to return to library 7/17/2011 - (finished about half) - What an excellent book for expat parents! This book really seeks to understand and explain the experiences of kids who grow up overseas, and gives such insight into what their priorities and perspective will be, and how these things differ from peers in their passport country, as well as in what ways they will likely be different from their parents. I wish I could've read more before I had to return to the library, but my reading of the first half was very insightful as a parent raising kids in different cultures from our "passport"/home country.
  16. A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison - finished August 2011 - This small, easy-to-read book is an excellent resource for homeschool moms, particularly for those in the elementary years.  An educator from the 19th century, Ms. Mason's ideas are widely appreciated in homeschool circles.  Even though though we're beginning our 6th year homeschooling, this book was not only a great refresher on Charlotte Mason's principles, but also gave me a great amount of encouragement to be more hands-on and intentional about the ways that we approach subjects like science and literature review.   I eagerly recommend this book.
  17. 6 Secrets to a Lasting Love (DVD study) by Drs. Gary & Barbara Rosberg - Doug & I used this DVD series & study guides during our anniversary "2nd honeymoon" getaway.  The series is actually meant to be spread over 7 weeks, but we did it in the 7 days of our vacation.  We thought that the material itself was helpful for encouraging conversation & communication about each specific area of our marriage.  The presentation came across as cheesy and slightly off-putting to us, but because the material was helpful, we were willing to press on.  We were thankful to have time to talk through these things together, even if the material or presentation was a bit weak.  
  18. The Confession by John Grisham - finished October 2011 - Having always loved Grisham's page-turning novels, I purchased this book the first time I saw it.  Like his other books, I found myself drawn in from the first reading and one night even stayed up until 3:10 in the morning just to finish!  :)  Unlike his other books, though, this one moved me to very strong emotion (not just suspense or a heightened heartbeat).  So perhaps this should be a warning rather than a recommendation.  Nonetheless, I am happy to recommend the book as an insightful fictional account of a death row inmate in Texas.  Having grown up in Texas, I have always accepted it as part and parcel of justice.  This book certainly caused me to re-think the issue and consider more deeply the issues surrounding the death penalty.  As a work of fiction, as a Grisham novel, and as a commentary on an important social issue of our time, I recommend this book.


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