A Year of Reading & Writing

IMG_0859As 2019 ended and 2020 begin, my Facebook feed begin to fill with lists of books. Friends wrote of books that had impacted their lives the previous year. They wrote of the number of pages they read, of the truths they’d learned.

I’ve been a lifelong reader. I’ve said a number of times that books are my love language – yet in recent years sometimes I feel like I talk more about the books I’m going to read than actually reading books. So I decided that this year would be a year I recommit to reading (not that I haven’t been reading – but that I would be more intentional in doing so). I also want 2020 to be year that I commit to writing – and I know reading good books is an important part of writing.

Perhaps I’m a little overzealous in my goal setting, but I tried to come up with a reasonable number of books that I’d read in 2020 and the number that came to my mind was 100! I might be crazy, but having discovered the joy of audiobooks in the past couple of years (which I am counting as reading even if some may disagree), I feel like this is feasible. I can easily listen to at least one audiobook a week (I tend to listen them at between 1.5 and 2 x speed) which leaves about another book to read a week. We’ll see how it goes!

But as I’m trying to journal as I read I’m going to write short reviews/commentaries on books as I go. So here it begins. My first 7 books of 2020:

(Note: all ratings are out of 5 stars)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (audiobook)

One sentence summary: JD Vance shares his story of growing up as part of a “hillbilly” family – and how he overcame in spite of many obstacles (and risk factors) in his way.

What was most compelling: I feel almost a complicated relationship with this book, but one thing I can say is that I’m still thinking about a book more than a week after finishing it in regardless of whether or not I agree with everything in it, it certainly has an impact. JD Vance is close to the same age as me – and I think that’s why in part it was so shocking, unnerving (I don’t even know what word to use to describe it) to hear how someone who in many ways outwardly would look the same as me could have such a vastly different background. Yes, people might disagree with Vance’s conclusions. They might feel like he didn’t present enough conclusions (which I would disagree with – because at 32 years old I would guess he doesn’t know what the solution is) or they may think he overgeneralized his experience on to too many people – but regardless of all these things – I think his story is an important one. For me, it’s important as I’ve had many conversations of what makes a difference in kids’ lives – and a constant, trustworthy adult is often at the top of the list.

What I found less compelling: As I said above, sometimes I felt like there were too many generalizations made. I have spoken to others who have similar stories – but I think it can be dangerous to make the assumption that one story is normative for a whole culture.

Rating/recommendation: 4.5. I would definitely recommend this book. I think it’s important for people to get a broader perspective – and to realize the vastly different backgrounds that exist in the US. (Audiobook note: JD narrates the book. I wouldn’t say he has the most compelling reading voice, but it does help show his emotions in various situations to hear it from his own voice.)

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda

One sentence summary: Caitlin (American) and Martin (Zimbabwean) become pen pals in 7th grade – and it leads to a friendship that changes both of their lives forever.

What was most compelling: This was a quick, inspirational read, written at the young adult level. I found the pacing good and it held my interest well. It’s a good reminder of how friendship can change the world – and to look beyond ourselves to the world around us.

What I found less compelling: There were times I struggled with the extreme naiveté of Caitlin – and how she didn’t work to change it. I also got tired of her stories of middle school/high school life – but I know it was in part to serve as a foil to Martin’s story – and it is written for a younger audience.  Also the book didn’t dive into deep solutions beyond the simplistic, but that is also expected for a book at this level. (Martin appears to do work addressing financial crisis at a much deeper level now.)

Rating/Recommendation: 3.5/4. I would recommend this book for someone looking for a quick, inspirational read. I’d also recommend it for middle/high school and perhaps even young adult to help them see a broader perspective of the world.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhhig (audiobook)

One sentence summary: Journalist Charles Duhhig examines the science of habits through various stories and research.

What I found compelling: I loved this book. I found stories super interesting and I actually kept on wanting to come back to it – something that I found unusual for this kind of book. Days later I’ve been contemplating how I personally form habits – as well as the habits of institutions around me. I really enjoyed the stories – and the way they were broken up made me keep reading.

What I found less compelling: My husband didn’t love this book as much as me and felt that the author could have overstated conclusions or stories. I would say I did question him a little on his Rosa Parks story – because for those who have studied the event, it’s fairly known that the event was somewhat planned – which wasn’t how he framed it.

Rating/Recommendation: 4.5/5. As I said, I really enjoyed the book and think many people could learn from it and apply the principles in their personal and professional lives. (Audiobook note: I really enjoyed the reading Mike Chamberlain. I actually liked him so much, I searched for other books he read).

Death by Chocolate by Sally Berneathy

*note I chose this book as a book by a local author as part of the Modern Mrs Darcy Challenge.

One sentence summary: Mystery surrounds a woman who eats copious amounts of chocolate and owns a chocolate shop.

What I found compelling: In the midst of reading two books about sexual assault, this book was a light, fluffy escape. Although it featured divorce, adultery and domestic abuse – I would still classify it as chick-lit mystery. It was a quick read and fairly enjoyable – it reminded me of a Hallmark Channel Mystery (aka a cozy mystery). The local aspect was kind of fun – as I knew when certain areas were referenced where she was talking about.

What I found less compelling: There wasn’t much character development in the book and it was quite predictable. I hardly even knew what the characters looked like. I was confused by the lack of technology (cell phones, etc.) when the book appears to have been published in more recent years – but perhaps it was written much earlier.

Rating/recommendation: 3. If you are looking for a light, quick read (and I think also free on Amazon), then I would recommend it. It’s not great literature – but it was sort of fun – because I do also really like chocolate. I would consider reading more books in the series – especially when decompressing from a serious read, like the next one on the list.

What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachel Denhollander

One sentence summary: Rachel Denhollander shares her life story interwoven with the story of her abuse by Larry Nassar and ultimately her leading the way in his conviction.

What I found compelling: I enjoyed Rachel’s writing. I felt like the book moved at a good pace – while including good details about her life. I felt like Rachel came across as a very real person – who struggled with grief, forgiveness, etc. I appreciated her insights about abuse in the church as well.

What I found less compelling: I would have loved for Rachel to have dug more deeply into the harmful theology that can lead to church’s cover up of sexual abuse.

Rating Recommendation: 4.5/5. I would definitely recommend this book to men & women, especially those within the church. Her story is very important as we think about how we respond to sex abuse both inside and outside of the church.

Gay Girl, Good Good: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been by Jackie Hill Perry (audiobook)

One sentence summary: Jackie Hill Perry shares about her life, struggles with sexuality and journey of faith.

What I found compelling: Jackie has a very powerful voice – and shines through this book. It’s clear she has deep faith and I appreciated her emphasis on both grace and holiness.  It made me think a lot about how I pray for those around me – and how I expect to see God at work.

What I found less compelling: I appreciated that Jackie did not make her story normative for all believers –but I found her final section on resources to be lacking and not all that helpful.

Rating/Recommendation: 3.5. This was a quick listen and somewhat worthwhile, although I felt like it could have been better developed than it was, still I would recommend it, especially for youth workers and parents of teens.

A Week in Brighton by Jennifer Moore, Annette Lyon & Donna Hatch

One sentence summary: This is an anthology of 3 regency novellas set in Brighton.

What I found compelling: I have a fondness for these regency novellas. They may not be grand literature –but I find them amusing & lighthearted.

What I found less compelling: This probably wasn’t my favorite novella collection – judging by the fact that I’m currently struggling to remember them at all!

Rating/Recommendation: 3/3.5. I’ll recommend these collections if you enjoy some lighthearted, regency romance in the vein of Georgette Heyer (although there are some better options in the collections!)

Coming soon (currently reading these and a few more!):

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley (audiobook)

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

The Little Prince (shockingly I’m reading this for the first time)

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

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