June Book Reviews

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor (audiobook) ★★
At the young age of 37, Jill was a well-respected Harvard-educated brain scientist. Life took a horrific turn when she woke up experiencing symptoms she soon realized where characteristic of a stroke. In this memoir, she recalls step-by-step deterioration of the left hemisphere of her brain. Her ability to walk, talk, read, or think clearly were dangerously jeopardized and rehabilitation was an excruciatingly difficult journey that took many years, and yet she overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges and has written about it with clarity and insight that is powerful and impressive. She also includes helpful information about the brain, specifically the left and right hemispheres, and specific symptoms to alert you that someone is having a stroke, because immediate medical intervention is pivotal in survival and rehab rates. I'll include the pneumatic below.

Think S.T.R.O.K.E.
Speech: Problems with language
Tingling or numbness
Remember: problems wth memory
Off-balance and coordination problems
Killer headache
Eyes or any problems with vision

My overall thoughts of the book was that it was intriguing to see her deterioration from the stroke and then her recovery. The science-y descriptions of the brain were pretty heady (pun intended) but I think they can still be grasped by the average reader without medical training. The only gripe I had with the book was the emphasis on being "one with the universe" and other New Age type of mantras that she believes in post-stroke and attributes it mainly to being predominantly right-brained now rather than the linear thinking, logical nature of the left brain that was affected by her stroke. In any case, I wasn't a fan with those statements but it was still really interesting to hear how her personality and outlook on life changed so dramatically after her stroke.

I recommend it if: You like learning about how the brain works; you like play-by-play recall of the body shutting down, similar to Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (which was phenomenal)

P.S. Here's a great  TED Talk by the author about her experience

Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler ★★★ (audiobook)
Wow. This is definitely one of my favorite reads this year! Honest, raw, vulnerable, powerful, and surprisingly also humorous, Bowler explores end-of-life questions from a Christian worldview and why many of the Christian positive-thinking platitudes just did not work in the hardest time of her life. A Duke University divinity professor with an emphasis (and previous book) on the prosperity gospel, she had been surrounded for years by people who believed having enough faith will get you what you want. But with a late stage colon cancer diagnosis and a husband and toddler she desperately did not want to leave behind, the answers people offered did not bring any comfort. In this gripping memoir, she shares the wrestling with the fears, the whys, the uncertainties, and the overall emotions of a cancer diagnosis. She didn't tie up her story neatly in a bow with theological doctrine on suffering or explanations of why she went through this experience. There isn't anything tidy about her story because there isn't anything tidy about the hellishness of cancer. The sections that were particularly thought-provoking and when I wish there was at least a little resolution in what her beliefs are, was when she discussed how she didn't like Christians coming up to her and saying that this must have happened for a reason. Part of me agreed with her. My mind cannot comprehend why horrendous things in life like cancer diagnosis, abuse, violence, and death happen and how they could ever happen for a reason or turn out for good. But while discussing this book with my husband, he asked, how she corresponded this with Romans 8:28 ("And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose") and I cannot say I remember her touching on this verse, so I do not know what her theological beliefs are since she was vague at times. This is something I want to continue to wrestle with because I believe God's Word is true but I also want to study what the original meaning and context around this verse implies rather than translating it to some pat answer, positive-thinking, prosperity mantra that it can easily be morphed into.

Her writing is captivating; she somehow switches from heavy and heart-wrenching to comedic one-liners quicker than I thought possible; one moment I am ugly-crying, the next I am laughing out loud. That's just how she rolls. I also deeply appreciated her useful tips on what not to say to those who are suffering any kind of diagnosis or grief ("Well, at least ..." should be erased from the English vernacular).

I recommend it if: You are ok with ugly-crying and reading about cancer; if you enjoyed When Breath Becomes Water by Paul Kalanithi

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride ★★★ (audiobook)
A powerful, eloquently penned love letter from a grateful son to his remarkable mama who surpassed every sort of tribulation in raising her twelve children and sending them off to college while living in poverty. With chapters that alternate between James' difficult mixed-race upbringing in the projects of Brooklyn with chapters narrated by his mom recalling her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish household and later leaving home (being shunned) and marrying a Black man, it is obvious that Ruth McBride Jordan was a protective, courageous, strong, and loving woman. Race, identity, and the idea of family and home are explored in this vivid narrative of a son's tribute to his mama.

“But at the end of the day, there are some questions that have no answers, and then one answer that has no question: love rules the game. Every time. All the time. That’s what counts.” 

“As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from---where she was born, who her parents were. When I asked she'd say, "God made me." When I asked if she was white, she'd say, "I'm light-skinned," and change the subject. She raised twelve black children and sent us all to college and in most cases graduate school. Her children became doctors, professors, chemists, teachers---yet none of us even knew her maiden name until we were grown. It took me fourteen years to unearth her remarkable story---the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, she married a black man in 1942---and she revealed it more as a favor to me than out of any desire to revisit her past. Here is her life as she told it to me, and betwixt and between the pages of her life you will find mine as well.” 

“The plain truth is that you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.” 

I recommend it if: you want to hear a son give a long, beautiful shout out to his amazing mama

Redwall by Brian Jacques ★★ (audiobook)
I first heard about this audiobook from Anne Bogel on THIS episode of her podcast, What Should I Read Next, in which she is giving audiobook recommendations to a audiobook-loving middle-grader. Published thirty-two years ago, his novel was written while Jacques was working as a truck driver in Liverpool, delivering milk to a school for blind children. He wrote it for the blind children and put as much description as possible so they could see the story unfold in their minds. Later on, the audiobook was produced with multiple voice actors, music, and other theatrics to make it a full-cast production that is a feast for the ears. The plot itself is remarkably entertaining and engrossing, but the audiobook format made it even better because of how well it was done. In Narnia-like fashion, this is a story of heroic animals who defeat villainous animals. In a faraway medieval countryside, Redwall Abbey is a safe home to mice, including the accident-prone young Matthias. When evil rat, Cluny the Scourge, rounds up a gang to tear down the castle walls and claim the abbey as his own home, Matthias and the other heroes of Redwall (including a feisty hare and a kick@$$ female badger) fight tooth-and-paw to the end.

I recommend it if: You love Narnia and other books with animal characters and lots of action! Listen to the audiobook!

A Voice in the Wind (Mark of the Lion #1) by Francine Rivers ★★
A re-read because it was our book club pick, I enjoyed getting immersed back into the ancient Roman background of Rivers' epic series. The research that must have gone into this series is impressive as references to the building of the Colosseum, the government system, the persecution of Christians, and small details (about the fashion, foods, architecture, and entertainment) brings depth to this historical Christian novel. It focuses on four main characters: 1) Hadassah is a Jewish captive, servant to the illustrious Valerian household. She witnesses the decadent and immoral lifestyles of the Roman culture while struggling to stand firm on her Christian convictions. 2) Marcus Valerian is the wealthy son of Hadassah's owners. In his early twenties, he is the epitome of epicurean hedonist, spending all his time indulging in pleasures of women, food, entertainment, and the arts with little thought to  morals or responsibilities until he meets Hadassah. 3) Julia is Marcus' equally pleasure-seeking sibling, eager to escape the covering of her conservative parents and enjoy all the enticements of Rome. Hadassah is her personal servant and she forms an attachment to her while still making incredibly foolish decisions as she follows her selfish, vain desires to her heart's content, not matter the cost. 4) Atretes is a Germanic warrior who was taken prisoner and made a gladiator. Fierce and filled with rage, he kills for the entertainment of the Romans he loathes.

I recommend if: You enjoy Christian historical fiction filled with details, suspense, and a bit of romance

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel ★★★ (audiobook)
I typically do not read dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels, but this one has received so much buzz that I finally downloaded onto Overdrive. Wow! Jam-packed with action, witty dialogue, and intriguing details of the collapse of civilization as we know it, Station Eleven does not disappoint. I'll be intentionally sparse on details because the less you know, the more fun it is to uncover everything for yourself. The gist of it is that a catastrophic event occurs that leads to our modern society dissolving. The narration jumps around from several different characters, including an actress involved a traveling symphony, the best friend of a notorious actor who mysteriously dies within the first pages of the novel, the wife of said actor, and a paramedic-in-training who tries to save that actor's life. Skipping from present to past events, the reader is taken on a ride that is suspenseful -- sometimes tense with mystery and danger -- that was, in Anne Bogel's words, "un-put-down-able".

I recommend if: You want to jump into the post-apocolytpic genre but not ready for a completely different universe of the usual dystopian genre; you need a reminder of the importance of modern conveniences like running water, electricity,  airplanes, and an iPhone.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson ★★☆ (audiobook and paperback)
Ruth and her younger sister Lucille are haphazardly raised by a variety of relatives. First their mother, then grandmother, great aunts, and finally their eccentric aunt Sylvie. They each struggle to understand their identity in the transient nature of home. This is a coming-of-age-story but it also touches on conformity vs nonconformity, coping mechanisms after loss or trauma,  as well as the tough, multi-faceted topic of mental illness.

After reading Gilead and Lila, I thought Robinson could do no wrong. And then I read Housekeeping.  The writing was descriptive and character-driven, filled with slow-moving plot that was generally interesting, but it just did not grip me like the aforementioned novels had.  Maybe because of the somber, melancholy tone and content. Maybe because I didn't clearly sense the emotions of the main character, Ruth, and therefore couldn't begin to understand her (which I have found is important for me in novels). And maybe because I read it during camping with teenagers and I kept getting distracted so I had to re-read parts and would have preferred something more upbeat and funny in that context than this more serious novel. What I did enjoy was the recurring symbolism and focus on trains and the lake in the small, sleepy town of Fingerbone, both of which are almost their own characters since they have so much to do with Ruth and her family. I also found it interesting that it was predominantly female-driven without any male characters other than a quick recap of the grandfather's death in a horrible train wreck on the first few pages of the book.  I also enjoyed her style of lyrically rich prose that was simultaneously concise. I'd re-listen to a sentence over and over because it was short but jam-packed with goodness.

I recommend if:  if you want to admire good writing,  think and wrestle with some of the mentioned topics, and don't mind the somber tone (read: not a feel-good kinda book)

Fervent: A Woman's Battle Plan for Serious, Specific, and Strategic Prayer by Priscilla Shirer ★★☆ (audiobook and paperback)
Following the success of the Christian movie, War Room, in which she played a starring role, Priscilla Shirer wrote this "battle plan" for women to pray specifically and battle against the enemy's ploys to destroy what we hold dear. Though she tries to be careful not to blame everything on the enemy (Satan) and his schemes, she also does focus this book on waging war against him specifically, so it was less of a doctrinal treatise on prayer and more of what it says it is, a battle plan. Priscilla targets ten strategies the enemy uses: extinguishing our passion for prayer and God, distracting our focus, confusing our identity, putting up walls against our families, shaming us with our past, silencing us with our fears, compromising our desire for purity, burdening us with outside pressures, locking us in bitterness rather than forgiveness, and causing disunity in the church community. She explains how to fight against these strategies with specific prayer and includes helpful Bible verses at the end of each chapter so readers can develop their own battle plan for their specific circumstances. Priscilla is passionate about prayer and fighting back against the forces that threaten to weaken our relationship with God and with others. Her writing is casual, easy-to-follow, and grounded in Biblical truth.

“We pray because our own solutions don’t work and because prayer deploys, activates, and fortifies us against the attacks of the enemy. We pray because we’re serious about taking back the ground he has sought to take from us ... Because this is war. The fight of your life. A very real enemy has been strategizing and scheming against you, assaulting you, coming after your emotions, your mind, your man, your child, your future. In fact, he’s doing it right this second. Right where you’re sitting. Right where you are.” 

I recommend if: You are wanting more direction and inspiration in your prayer life and ready to tackle things that have been keeping you from a more vibrant prayer life.

Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff ★★★ (audiobook)

In his characteristically inspiring and entertaining writing style (filled with humor and his high-speed, larger-than-life personality), Bob Goff follows up his bestseller, Love Does, with essays on why Christians should live life loving people without limits. He tells stories about lessons he learned while deciding to love difficult people, whether the slow rental car guy or a witch doctor who did unspeakable crimes against children. His stories are sometimes hard to believe. I mean, he has to be rich, for one thing. But he is so generous and eager to find opportunities to serve others with love, that it is inspiring. He also has such amazing experiences he uses to love others, whether being the first lawyer to convict a witch doctor in a Uganda, secretly taking solo skydiving lessons to surprise his son on his own skydiving trips and later teaching the son to land a plane on a lake, toilet-papering a house with a cancer-ridden elderly woman to cross off her bucket list, taking a Ugandan political figure to Disneyland, chauffeuring a soon-to-retire limo driver around town so he could experience what it feels like to be in the back seat, and starting thriving ministries grounded on love does philosophy, which is simply putting love into action. Loving without limits is hard but it is what we are called to do as image-bearers of Jesus, who chose to love the unlovable, including us.

I recommend if: You want to put love into action with even the hard-to-love people in your life

“God doesn’t give us a recipe for living as a community, but He gives us great ingredients: He gives us everybody, always. If we’re going to get it right, it’s going to take everybody to pull it off. It won’t get done in a day or two either. It’s going to take always.”

“When joy is a habit, love is a reflex.”

“We’re all rough drafts of the people we’re still becoming.”

“Jesus talked to His friends a lot about how we should identify ourselves. He said it wouldn’t be what we said we believed or all the good we hoped to do someday. Nope, He said we would identify ourselves simply by how we loved people. It’s tempting to think there is more to it, but there’s not. Love isn’t something we fall into; love is someone we become.

"These people haven’t tried to save up love like they’re going to need it later; they know we’re rivers, not reservoirs.” 

“Burning down others’ opinions doesn’t make us right. It makes us arsonists.” 

“Extravagant love often means coloring outside the lines and going beyond the norms.” 

“If I’m only willing to love the people who are nice to me, the ones who see things the way I do, and avoid all the rest, it’s like reading every other page of the Bible and thinking I know what it says.”


What have you been reading recently? Have you read any of these books, and if so, what are you thoughts?