Books I Read in October
In this blog post a couple weeks ago I thought through the reasons I read—most importantly for relaxation, development, and empathy (in a season of life when I might otherwise be inclined to stress, stagnation, and I can’t find that third word I’m looking for that means the opposite of empathy, jumping to superficial judgments about people and situations that I don’t really know, and above all that starts with st for this great alliterative sentence I’m writing).
Anyway, moving on. In October I read two nonfiction books that really stimulated my thinking. I also read four novels—one of which I liked, and the other three somewhat less so. Remember the main reason I read novels is that I’m looking for true-to-life stories that help me develop empathy and broaden my perspective, so I evaluate novels through that lens.
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
I’ve read two other books by Kristin Hannah, Home Front, which I felt gave a sensitive depiction of how deployment and PTSD affect a family, and Magic Hour, which gave an intriguing look at child psychology and foster care—I liked this one up until the happy ending, which I found slightly unrealistic maybe because of my own experience.
Firefly Lane I didn’t like as much. It tells the story of two women and their friendship over the decades. In a way it is almost a historical novel, describing how much American culture has changed from the 70s until now. Ultimately I felt this book could have been so much more, exploring the different regrets two women feel, one of whom pursues home and family, and the other a career.
But I felt instead that the plot was rather superficial and contrived. The friendship between the two women seemed troubled to me from the first, since one character had difficulty attaching, and the other seemed desperate to please. Kristin Hannah has somewhat of an emotive, descriptive style, which sometimes works really well, and other times feels unauthentic. I felt kind of “meh” at the end of this book—it has a sequel which I don’t plan on reading, and I’m not sure if I’ll read other books by this author.
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
I really like Marisa de los Santos’s style. She seems to have a real grasp of characterization, her descriptions are beautiful, and she winds tons of literary allusions into her books, maybe because she has a PhD in Literature and is also a poet. I’ve read a few novels by her, and just now got to this one, the first she wrote. It’s also, in my opinion, the worst. (Warning: a few spoilers in the next paragraph as I vent.)
It had so much going for it—a female protagonist somewhat at a loss with life, who finds herself and her purpose by helping a troubled child, realizing that her ideal man isn’t who she really wants, and falling in love with a good friend. Okay, so this could have been a delightful story, but instead it’s an improbable string of events. The book really lost me when it killed off one character whose existence suddenly became inconvenient. I felt like jumping into the pages and yelling, “You can’t just do that! People don’t just die when they become inconvenient for us; we need to deal with them!” So that was slightly annoying, as was the fact that the love interest turned out being her sister’s husband (I think this was so he would seem a complete non-option at the beginning, but in my opinion he should have stayed a non-option for that reason.) The author did all kinds of plot contortions to make their relationship seem acceptable, but it still didn’t fly for me. Thumbs down. I will keep reading this author, though, because I do love her style, and her other books were better.
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
So this was the novel I liked this month! I read Still Alice and felt that it was such a thoughtful look at what Alzheimer’s feels like from the inside, how it develops, and how it affects family relationships. This was another awesome book, this time exploring a brain condition called left neglect, which I had known nothing about before reading this story. It helped me empathize more with people who are handicapped and suddenly find that it’s completely impossible to do normal things, such as getting something out of the fridge.
I also loved this story because it explored how we as women sometimes try to do it all, be the best at everything, and just end up in a stressful, hurried existence where we are short-changing our relationships. This is really a hopeful story that explores what is really important in life, and how we sometimes only find that through loss.
A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny
I am liking the Inspector Gamache murder mystery series—this is the fourth book. For one thing, the main character is more than a detective—he’s a model of emotional health who could just as well serve as a counselor, and whose insights into motives and reactions to behavior are truly thought-provoking. This was not my favorite book in the series. It deals with some really troubling family relationships, and I found reading the mean-spirited dialogue to be slightly discouraging more than redemptive. But it was an interesting book, I did not figure out the mystery on my own, and I will be continuing this series.
Now for the nonfiction!
The Measure of Success by Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank
A friend lent me this book, and I loved it. Intelligent Christian women grappling with serious topics from a Biblical perspective—I ate it up. The style of this book speaks almost as loudly as its theme—it is well-written, not overly academic but well-researched, with a straightforward, logical, and unapologetic style. I would love to read more of Carolyn McCulley, as this is the first book I’ve read of hers.
I really appreciated her discussion of ambition, and how in the life of a Christian, ambition is not a bad thing but a good thing—a desire for growth and fruit. I appreciated her discussions of work and how a woman balances her work with her family and home and different seasons of life. This is not a sexist book saying that women who work and pursue their ambitions are selfish, and all you should ever want is to complete your husband and raise your children. It’s also not a radical feminist book saying you should ditch your family in pursuit of your dreams. It deals with real life in the middle of these two extremes, and was just really helpful for me to read. I highly recommend.
The Best Yes by Lysa Terkeurst
I read this book immediately afterward, and perhaps in contrast, its style felt a little weak and convoluted to me. She writes sentences like, “We need to put the faith back in our faith” when I think, “Say what? Just say what you really mean here.” So for me at least, it took some time getting through her paragraphs and examples to get to the meat of what she was really saying.
I would still highly recommend this book, though, because it deals well with an important topic that has been a challenge in my own life—when to say no, when to say yes, and why. My natural tendency is to be a “yes” person and then find myself so over-committed and stressed that I become resentful and lose my own sense of purpose trying to make everyone happy. This book speaks directly to what she calls the “disease to please,” and she explores how we need to learn to say no so that we can find our best yes—those things that we were created for, that we should be saying yes to.
My favorite analogy of this book describes how she visited a friend shortly after a freak snowstorm in the fall, when the trees sustained considerable damage because they were still covered with fall leaves and then had to bear the added weight of an early snow. Her takeaway was this—we cannot bear the burden of two seasons at once. We need to let one season go before we can take on another. If we try to do two seasons simultaneously, just like those trees were damaged, we break at our core.
This spoke powerfully to me, because sometimes I feel frustrated in my current season as a mother to young children. I am ambitious, and there is so much I want to be and do, and my tendency is to say “yes” to it all now, at the same time as I am trying to say “yes” to my young children. Which simply means I break at my core, trying to do everything and instead succumbing to anxiety and really doing nothing well. I need to find what is the “best yes” for this season of my life, knowing that some things are going to wait for another decade in my life, and that’s okay.
A lot of my reading I do while I’m breastfeeding, so I was looking down at Brennan and thinking, “You are my best yes right now.” Needing to breastfeed every three hours means that there sure is a lot I have to say no to. But this season of having an infant is so short, and right now it is my “best yes” and I want to treasure it.
As November begins, I’m hoping to read another Louise Penny mystery, a novel by JoJo Moyes, and Rising Strong by Brene Brown. Give me some more recommendations!