February Book Reviews

Another fabulous reading month in the books! All of my finished books were either 4 or 5 star reads! I quite Little Men by Louisa May Alcott about halfway through because I just wasn't feeling it right now. The last two books are going to stay with me for a very long time as I am hoping to incorporate life changes that are inspired by both books.

* Trigger warning: one of the below books includes a heartbreaking suicide. If this is something you want to avoid in your reading life, please comment or contact me and I can tell you which book to avoid. I want to avoid sharing spoilers but I also want to be conscientious of what readers want to avoid for their own emotional boundaries.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen 
Rebecca Winter used to have it all: a lucrative photography career, a fancy NYC lifestyle, a husband in all the right social circles. But that was years ago and now she’s a 60-something divorced has-been whose bank account is dwindling. Her once lucrative photography has stopped selling. She leaves the busy streets of Manhattan in exchange for a tiny, slightly dilapidated cabin in the woods a few hours away, welcoming a slower pace of living. With the secluded location comes a new perspective on her life, a budding romance, an appreciation for life’s insignificant moments, and reflection about her past and present. With her camera as her closest companion, she embarks on capturing still life in her new surroundings, rekindling passion for her work that had been absent for years. Literary fiction at its core, this novel is slow-paced and pays attention to details, which makes sense since the protagonist is a photographer. It wasn’t exciting or suspenseful but rather, it was contemplative and atmospheric. There was humor but there was also tragedy. It was good overall, but nothing that stood out as remarkable. 

How I found out about this book: Anne Bogel's What Should I Read Next podcast

Rating: PG-13 (language, sexual references)

This was book #3 of my  2020 Unread Bookshelf Project (reading books I've owned for years)

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (audiobook) 

When Stephanie Land was a new mom and escaped an abusive relationship in her late twenties, she was without a steady job and sadly ended up in a homeless shelter. She soon started working part-time as a maid as she also tried to juggle childcare costs, moving to low-quality subsidized housing (think LOTS of mold), and part-time college classes to fulfill her dream to become a writer. She struggled financially and lacked social support from friends and family, often relying on government support to barely scrape by. In this revealing memoir, she bares it all, from her dysfunctional and toxic family and romantic relationships to the gross aspects of housecleaning after strangers. She shares a lot about the weird things she finds in people’s homes which is entertaining, but I wish more of that space would have gone towards personal reflection rather than the results to her snooping. She didn’t seem too jaded or cynical but there was something missing in her narrative that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think I was hoping for a bit more larger-scale conversation about living at the poverty line that went beyond her experience, but this was a memoir, not a journalistic exploration or research book, so it makes sense she focused on only her own experience. It just brought up some questions that I felt were unanswered at the end. There were a few parts were I was annoyed with her (for example, her poor choice in men) but with her turbulent upbringing and absent parents in adulthood, it makes sense she was looking for love in the wrong places and often making unwise decisions since she lacked supportive influences who could help her making better life decisions. It must be incredibly hard to be so alone and desperate, so I tried not to judge her choices. It definitely gave me a lot of food for thought and a real-life look into one person’s financial struggle. It helped me see some of the unfair judgements placed on people who are on welfare and gave me a bit of understanding on how difficult and stressful it is to live paycheck to paycheck as a single mom. 

How I found out about this book: Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019 list

Rated: PG-13 (language)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (audiobook)

Aven was born without arms but her parents have raised her to be independent and positive despite her challenges. She has friends and loves playing on the soccer team — until her dad announces he’s accepted a manager position at a western theme park in Arizona. With a new school filled with kids who have never seen a girl without arms, quirky workers at the theme park that she now lives at, and a strong sense that there’s a mystery afoot, Aven’s got a lot on her plate. With new friends by her side, she tackles the new experiences and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever. A fun middle-grade novel with a spunky girl who refuses to let herself get down because of her disabilities, focusing on all her abilities instead. One of her friends deals with Tourette’s, so this was a great way to understand more about that experience, as well. A great story about courage, perseverance, and friendship, with some humor and mystery thrown in!

Rated: G

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (audiobook) 
A hilarious and endearing classic novella about a slightly grumpy governess-turned farmer who buys a traveling bookstore — comprised of a customized van, horse, dog, and the temporary training of the previous owner, a quirky little man who loves connecting people to good books — to give herself a  vacation from her famous  author brother, who she lives with and with whom she increasingly annoyed. Although her initial motive for the impulsively purchase was not the least bit due to a love for literature, she soon is transformed by the power of books, and her once mundane and self-proclaimed boring life is  never the same. This is a quick, fun, and easy read that will surely delight any bibliophile.

“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.” 

Rated: G

The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Looking at the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan (audiobook) 
A successful journalist challenged herself one New Years Eve to live the following year with intentional gratitude, focusing on a different area of her life each month. In January, she focused on thanking her husband more often, in February she focused on her children. Her gratitude was outward (thanking people) and inward (nightly journaling for what she was grateful). Even on difficult days, she challenged herself to find one good thing. Her journalistic exploration looks at the affect of a grateful attitude on our overall job satisfaction (particularly when thanked by employers), on our physical and emotional health, and on our overall outlook at life. Fascinating research was mentioned, including data on neural circuits that support connectedness, love, and appreciation getting strengthened like a muscle the more gratitude is practiced, making it easier to feel grateful the more it is practiced. She explores the power of mindfulness and reframing situations to seek a more positive outlook as well as the affect of unrealistic expectations have on preventing gratitude because we are never satisfied. I especially liked her anecdotes of people who chose to look at the bright side, whether with gratitude journals or verbally processing good things that were brightening their otherwise heart wrenching situations. She didn’t go into any spiritual implications of gratitude since she mentioned she wasn’t religious, but I felt like a lot of what she said and found in research lined up with what Scripture declares about thanksgiving. As a Christian, gratitude is something that I believe should be an outflow of our appreciation and thankfulness for all God has done for us, but it doesn’t always come readily, so reading books about gratitude is a way for me to think about it and put it into practice. Writing down what I’m thankful for has helped me in different seasons of anxiety and loneliness. There is something powerful about taking the focus off ourselves and our difficult circumstances and instead, choosing to see the blessings we too easily miss. 

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. —Marcel Proust”

“A central theme was recognizing what is in your control and what isn’t—and acting on the one and ignoring the other. It’s a philosophy that has resonated over the centuries.

I recommend it if you like: One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voscamp and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them by Dr. Randy Christensen (audiobook) 
This is our book club pick for February and March. I am so excited to discuss it with the ladies. It is an inspiring as well as heart-wrenching memoir depicting a pediatrician's fist ten years working in a mobile medical clinic serving homeless youth of Phoenix, Arizona. It is inspiring because Dr. Christensen and his nurse practitioner who worked with him are extremely dedicated to serving the homeless teens who appear at the mobile clinic with a plethora of serious issues, including mental illness, skin infections from sleeping in dilapidated shacks, and even a near-death experience of sepsis that was thankfully caught by the doctor and sent to and ER. There is no way to be trained during medical school for this type of environment, so they learned on the job, finding new ways to ask their medical history and inquiring about presenting symptoms that would invite the teens to open up rather than judging them for their circumstances. The way they had to think on their feet with limited resources in the mobile medical clinic and their compassionate care for these teens was admirable. It was heart-wrenching because the mere fact that there are teens out on the streets of every city in America battling physical, emotional, and mental illness, many of which are either preventable or easily treated, is a hard (reality) pill to swallow. Many of them escaped abusive home situations and are preyed on by human traffickers and other scum. As I read about the many different teens these health professionals encountered, it seemed overwhelming how large scale teen homelessness is and how difficult it can be to provide them with helpful resources and place them with trustworthy adults. These teens are desperate, some have lost all trust and hope after being hurt over and over by people who are supposed to protect them.  Thankfully, there were a few success stories that helped to balance the heavy tone, and I was cheering on those teens and in awe of the supportive, loving adults who took them under their wing. It was frustrating to hear how difficult it was for some of the teens to gain access to proper health care (especially since many did not carry identification or have health insurance) and safe shelter (many were abused in homeless shelters), so it made Dr. Christensen's mobile clinic even more praiseworthy and a beacon of light. Lastly, I enjoyed and deeply respected Dr. Christensen's honesty and vulnerability in sharing some of his blunders, both with saying the wrong thing to teens as well as with his family, where he struggled to have a healthy balance of work and home life. This is a difficult read at times but I believe it is worth the sadness because it opened my eyes to something I was not knowledgeable about. It made me thankful that there are people who give up the more lucrative hospital careers in exchange for the difficult confines of a mobile clinic and daily encounter the harsh realities of homeless youth.

“In many ways the children across our country who were not getting adequate medical care were living in conditions similar to those in an underdeveloped nation.”

Rated: PG-13 (trigger warning: rape, homicide) 

Heidi by Johanna Spyri  (audiobook and physical book) 
An absolutely delightful classic about a young orphaned girl who falls in love with the majestic and rugged Swiss Alps when she’s abruptly dropped off to live with a grandfather she never met, who happens to live in a secluded cabin higher up in the mountains than any other villager. She warms the heart of the previously curmudgeonly old man, befriends a young goat-herder named Peter, and treats Peter’s blind grandmother  as if she was her own, bringing joy to the lonely blind woman. And then she is suddenly whisked off to be a companion to a wealthy, young wheelchair-bound girl in Frankfurt where Heidi's homesickness nearly saps her of all strength and joy until she’s reunited with her beloved home again. There are a few Christian themes and lessons that add depth and encouragement to the story without being preachy and offer food for thought that I didn't expect from a children's novel. The picturesque atmosphere of the snow-capped mountains, steep flower-carpeted hills, and lush evergreens of the village in the Swiss Alps is described so beautifully. This is a wonderful story to read aloud with grade-school kids and discuss Heidi’s character traits that made her such a sweet, kind, friendly girl. I grew up watching the 1993 Disney film adaptation and pictured scenes in my head while reading it, which made me want to watch it again (which I did because it was free on Amazon Prime). A charming book with an admirable young protagonist with a cheery disposition, a generous heart, and an adventurous spirit. In my opinion, just the kind of girl we need to see more of in literature for young readers. If you love Anne of Green Gables, I am pretty confident you’ll love the charming Heidi as well. I read it via my gorgeous Rifle Paper Co. 'Puffin in Bloom' copy (pictured) as well as the audiobook, which was narrated by my favorite, John McDonough, who narrates Jan Karon's Mitford books. His voice was perfect for the story. 

“God certainly knows of some happiness for us which He is going to bring out of the trouble, only we must have patience and not run away. And then all at once something happens and we see clearly ourselves that God has had some good thought in His mind all along; but because we cannot see things beforehand, and only know how dreadfully miserable we are, we think it is always going to be so.”

“God is a good father to us all, and knows better than we do what is good for us. If we ask Him for something that is not good for us, He does not give it, but something better still, if only we will continue to pray earnestly and do not run away and lose our trust in Him. God did not think what you have been praying for was good for you just now; but be sure He heard you, for He can hear and see every one at the same time, because He is a God and not a human being like you and me. And because He thought it was better for you not to have at once what you wanted, He said to Himself: Yes, Heidi shall have what she asks for, but not until the right time comes, so that she may be quite happy.”

“If God had let me come at once, as I prayed, then everything would have been different, I should only have had a little bread to bring to grandmother, and I should not have been able to read, which is such a comfort to her; but God has arranged it all so much better than I knew how to; everything has happened just as the other grandmother said it would. Oh, how glad I am that God did not let me have at once all I prayed and wept for! And now I shall always pray to God as she told me, and always thank Him, and when He does not do anything I ask for I shall think to myself, It's just like it was in Frankfurt: God, I am sure, is going to do something better still. So we will pray every day, won't we, grandfather, and never forget Him again, or else He may forget us.”

“The fire in the evening was the best of all. Peter said is wasn't fire, but he couldn't tell me what it really was. You can thought, Grandfather, can't you?''It's the sun's way of saying goodnight to the mountains' he explained. 'He spreads that beautiful light over them so that they won't forget him till he comes back in the morning.”

Rated: G
This was book #4 of my  2020 Unread Bookshelf Project (reading books I've owned for years)

Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life by Joanna Weaver (audiobook and physical copy)
I have owned this book for years and have wanted to read it, but kept putting it off. To be honest, I thought it might be outdated or hard to get into. I could not be farther from the truth! Joanna has such a humorous, friendly tone with witty cultural references, that are twenty years old, but are still relevant and help get her points across. But she doesn't allow her lighthearted way of writing to impede on the task of digging into the well-known Biblical text about the two seemingly opposing sisters, Mary and Martha. Rather than pinning them against each other and championing one while demonizing the other (I always felt other studies made Martha sound too stuffy and Mary too irresponsible), Joanna found great lessons from both sisters. Martha loved Jesus with her service, diligently working in the kitchen, but almost missed out on intimacy with Jesus in the process. Mary chose to sit at the feet of Jesus in worship, choosing "the better part". And yet, later Scripture show Martha transformed and proclaiming the divinity of Jesus when her brother has died, even before Mary does. Joanna calls Martha's hard work, Kitchen Service and Mary's worshipful attitude, Living Room Intimacy, as she dives into how modern women can see the importance and balance both of the two aspects. She has solid Scriptural explanations, helpful supporting anecdotes, and a ton of practical ideas to incorporate these truths into our lives however we feel the Holy Spirit leading. Every chapter was excellent and applicable to my life. There is also a twelve-week Bible study at the back of the book that helped cement the main themes of each chapter. Chapter 3 (The Diagnosis) is probably the best chapter I have ever read on worry.  I will reference back to this book a lot in the future. It gave me many things to pray through and process, especially since it fit well with my 2020 Word of the Year, Presence (see more about this (HERE). This book helped me see ways that I can set aside more time for the "Living Room Intimacy" that made Mary's love for Jesus extravagant. It also helped me see that my daily responsibilities of caring for our son, preparing meals for my husband, cleaning our house, and the various other examples of ways I serve have purpose and can be a way to worship God as well. If you want to be challenged and encouraged from a very readable, enjoyable author, I highly recommend this book! 

“The world clamors, "Do more! Be all that you can be!" But our Father whispers, "Be still and know that I am God.”

"I need to know," we tell ourselves. "No," God answers softly, "You need to trust.” ... We only trust people we know,' says Martha Tennison...'If you're struggling to trust God, it may be because you don't really know God.”

“Service without spirituality is exhausting and hopeless. But . . . spirituality without service is barren and selfish.”

“Though we all applaud the thought of transformation, most of us don’t appreciate the process that gets us there. To be transformed means we have to change, and change too often hurts.”

Rating: G
This was book #5 of my  2020 Unread Bookshelf Project (reading books I've owned for years) and it is a book that pertains to my 2020 Word of the Year (Presence)  and goals.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (audiobook and physical copy) 

This book kicked my butt. It is the final kick that helped me decide to declare March my Digital Declutter month, where I will abstain from all "unnecessary" iPhone use, including social media, YouTube, and any other time-wasters I decide on. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start with what the book is about: Newport defines 'digital minimalism' as applying the idea of minimalism ("the art of knowing how much is just enough) to our personal technology use, which is "the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world". I pick up my phone to check for texts or browse my Facebook and Instagram feed far too often. With a 2020 goal to be more present in the lives of my husband and son, I wanted to take quarterly breaks of a week away from social media, as I have in other years. But Newport strongly advocates that a month-long "digital declutter" (absolute break from certain parts of technology) is the best way to evaluate what is actually necessary to incorporate in a more intentional manner after the month-long declutter. In the first part of this persuasive and thoroughly researched book, he argues why digital minimalism is essential in such a technologically noisy world. He uncovers the psychological mind games that social media moguls such as Facebook employs, such as the Like clicks and Instagram's Stories functions, to get people coming back to them over and over, spending hours of valuable time frittering away. He does not demonize technology; he is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and understands the value of today's technological advances, but he asks his readers to see that our time equals their money. Billions of dollars are made off of our distracted, and often tech-obsessed minds. Not only that, but being constantly wired is actually not how we are wired,  in his savvy wording. Studies have recently linked anxiety to increased technology use because we are constantly bombarded with what seems emergent and we never have time to rest and recuperate as well as the unending availability of news that is overwhelming to our minds. His solution is a purposeful reclaiming of our technology that starts with a mind shift in what technology should be doing for us. This is not about changing habits or making new ones, though that is definitely part of it, nor is it about mere behavior modification or self-deprivation from what we deem fun and possibly necessary. It is more about creating a personal philosophy about your own personal technology use and then creating a plan with practices to make it a reality. The result, he claims, is a quieter, more enriching life with extra time to find new hobbies, reclaim conversations in real life rather than using technology (which he argues is exponentially better for our relationships), joining social clubs or groups, using your hands to create new things, and having digital Sabbaths throughout the day or week to have more mental space for solitude and meditation. The second half of the book is all about how you can do this, providing real examples of people who have undergone this radical digital declutter and came out of it with new rules to help them manage the tech world more intentionally. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a plethora of ideas for each reader to consider adding to their plan. These include: deleting social media apps off your phone so it is harder to access them repeatedly throughout the day and using them only on a laptop, using Do Not Disturb to avoid constantly being notified of non-urgent texts (this may require notifying close family to call rather than text for emergent situations), unfollowing friends who you still want to keep on your social media accounts but who you don't necessarily want to see all their updates, allocating one or two days for social media use, and many more. I have had a social media "curfew" from 9pm until noon the next day so that I can use bedtime and morning hours efficiently for quiet time and have tried to keep Sundays as social media-free, but have failed in busy or stressful seasons, returning to social media for mindless scrolling. This seems like a more sustainable approach, so I am eager to see how my technology use will be transformed and what my life will look like with the extra time and mental space I will reclaim. I highly recommend this book for anyone considering a break from technology or at least a chance to change your perception and consider changing some aspects of your use. 

“Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else... Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.”

“You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.”


Currently reading: 

Uncovering the Love of Jesus: A Lent Devotional  by Asheritah Ciuciu(read more about this book HERE)

Risen Motherhood: Gospel Hope for Everyday Moments by Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler

Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War by Brian Curtis

Gulliver's Travels by Johnathon Swift 

What are you reading? Any books you recommend I pick up, based on what I have been reading?


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