Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Was Worth Reading the Last Half of 2015 (& What Wasn't)


Thanks to the habit I started in November of reading about 40 pages on most days (by reading ten pages of four different books a day), I got a decent number of books finished before the year petered out.

I thought I'd pass along a few of my thoughts since I know that many of you are always on the lookout for good reads, too.

Books that Changed My Life

I don't use the term "changed my life" lightly, here--it takes a LOT for a book to be considered life-changing for me, and I was lucky enough to read two different books the last half of 2015 that definitely qualified for this category:


7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker

I loved this book so much that I forced myself to only read a little bit of it each day so as to make it last longer. This real-life experiment about a woman (and her family) who tried an extreme challenge each month to counteract all the "excess" they felt was in their life totally and completely (and sometimes uncomfortably) challenged me to look deeply into where many of my daily life choices (especially as a consumer) were leading me.

Basically, for each month, her and her family focused on a different area that they wanted to try and pare down drastically in order to focus on what was truly most important. The seven categories were food, clothes, possessions (in general), trash, wasting time, shopping, and stress. Each month, she participated in an extreme challenge to rid herself of the excess in each category and then wrote (often humorously) about the results.

I thought this book was the perfect blend of inspiration and humor, and Hatmaker was successfully able to pull off basically preaching a sermon without getting too, well, preachy. While her and her family have accomplished many things and served in incredible ways, I never felt like her journey was too "out there" to be attainable for me, too.

When I finished this, I started to dive back into my minimalism quest, this time armed with a whole lot of new insight (both spiritual and worldly) that I didn't have before.

SOOO worth your time if you feel your life could do with a lot less "excess."

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

I have long been a Rubin fan. In fact, before her bestselling book The Happiness Project came out (which I actually base a whole unit around in my 7th grade Language Arts classes), I was clipping out and saving the articles she was writing for Good Housekeeping magazine because I found them so inspiring.

In this most recent book of hers, she explores all the research on habits--how to make and break them, how to know which habits will work best with your nature, and little strategies on making desirable actions and tendencies more habitual (without too much effort). In fact, as I taught that unit in December that is inspired by her first book, I found myself often having the students do exercises out of this latest book, with fantastic results.

The biggest mindset-change this book had on me were the four different tendencies she described when it comes to forming and maintaining habits: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. This way of looking at habit formation has greatly influenced how I approach students when I have them do their own happiness projects, and it's also changed the way I approach habits with people in my family (especially my husband). If you're interested in taking the quiz to see which type you are, click here.

Books I Enjoyed & Recommend (some with caveats)

While not necessarily "life-changing," I also read several books the last half of 2015 that nevertheless I would heartily recommend to you readers in search of something new.


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

The last couple months of 2015, I picked up several parenting memoirs (many of which I'm close to finishing now), but this was the first I picked up, largely because of all the hype and backlash surrounding it when it first came out a few years back.

Basically, Amy Chua set out to write a parenting book about how Chinese parenting is so much better than the "Western" parenting she sees in America (using her own parenting experiences with her two daughters as the main subject matter), but the book ends with her being not quite as sure of that hypothesis as she'd once thought. Interestingly, I found that I resonated pretty strongly with many of her "tiger mother" ideals, although I never plan on taking it to the extreme that she did. An interesting look at differing parenting styles, and the different outcomes they might produce.


For the Love by Jen Hatmaker

Because of my becoming immediately smitten with her previous book 7, I was excited when I heard through the blog grapevine that Hatmaker had recently come out with a new book.

First, you must understand that Hatmaker is a Christian writer (her and her husband actually started their own church shortly before she wrote 7), so both 7 and For the Love have religious undertones and Biblical examples and all that good stuff. However, whether you're religious or not, I think her books are valuable to pick up anyway on the merit of their ideas alone.

While For the Love lacked the cohesiveness of 7 (the ideas often seemed random to me, the organization a little bit all over the place), there were a couple sections that really stood out, especially the sections on building a sense of community with the people in your life and the section on how to effectively serve others (especially those we've dubbed the "less fortunate").

While I'm happily planning on keeping and re-reading my copy of 7 forever, I would recommend just checking this one out from your local library.


Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris

This book kind of blew my mind in many places, but because it was often very slow and sometimes dull in places, I decided against placing it in the "life-changing" category. However, I am very tempted to buy my own copy of this book just so I can mark up those sections where I really felt like Norris was speaking directly to my life.

This nonfiction exploration of the idea of "acedia" (the spiritual or mental state of being apathetic or slothful) as it applies to daily life is deep and insightful, with several pearls of wisdom scattered throughout that made the longer, duller passages worth the work. Although this is not a book for the reader looking for something "light," it is a book that will make you take a deep and meaningful look at your own state of mind.


A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

This food memoir intersperses memories the author had of her experiences with her father dying of cancer and memories of her meeting her husband with recipes she was cooking through at the time, and the mingling of food and family moments turned what could have been depressing subject matter into something a lot more hopeful.

A lovely tribute, with some truly scrumptious-sounding recipes scattered throughout.

Books I Was On the Fence About
While it's been awhile since I read a book I truly hated, I was conflicted about several of the books I read near the end of the year (three of which I happened to read right in a row, which almost killed my desire to read). Here are my thoughts--


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I actually bought this book way before it ever became popular (and especially before it became a Broadway play), but I will admit, the increased popularity made me finally pick this one up and actually read it. The basic story is that a teenage boy with mental challenges is trying to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbor's dog. The book takes some surprising turns near the end, and the whole novel fiercely reminded me of the film Dear Frankie (which is a good thing, in my view).

Was the book pretty good? Sure. But worthy of being made into a Broadway play? Ehhhhh....I wouldn't have seen it as having that potential, anyway. (But the play's won all sorts of awards, so who am I to judge?)

Note: the book had quite a bit of strong language in it, which might have been part of the reason I didn't love it as much.


A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

I wanted to love this memoir all about a woman who traveled back to her home country of Singapore to finally tackle her fear of cooking and learn all the traditional recipes she grew up eating, but I didn't, so much. While the book had a couple fun sections, I found that neither the writing nor the storyline was too compelling, and by the end, I was just having to force myself to finish it.

However, the book does contain some traditional Singaporean recipes, so if you're interested in branching out your cooking skills, you might consider checking the book out for that.


Saturday by Ian McEwan

My feelings about McEwan are mixed--while on the one hand, I can appreciate the theories behind his books (and especially behind the unusual organization/pacing strategies), the reader in me who appreciates the actual plotline just thinks, "Get on with the story already!" Granted, I've only read two of his books now (Atonement being the other one), but I found that both books had some very slooooow sections, especially this particular book. The whole book is written about a single Saturday in the protagonist's life, and the novel basically includes every detail of the character's day, which made for several rather dull sections. Eventually, all those events (even the boring ones) all converge for the ending (a strategy McEwan also did in Atonement with masterful effect, but those same strategies were not pulled off so masterfully here), and you at least appreciate the reasoning behind the organizational structure.

However, I complained to Matt about this book almost the whole time I was reading it, so . . . yeah.


Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I don't even know where to start with this book, and so much has been said about it already that I fear everyone's Watchman-ed out. To be honest, I've only ever read To Kill a Mockingbird once, and it was over ten years ago, so I'm not nearly as attached to it as most people are. But just looking at Watchman as a novel by itself, if I'm being honest, I found it disjointed, frustrating, and pretty uncomfortable to read. The "takeaway message" I got out of it is that for you to be truly master over your own ideals, you have to let go of the idea that your "heroes" have all the answers, even if those heroes happen to be your own parents.

For people who love (or for people who have simply read) Mockingbird, this book will prove the most interesting. If you haven't read Mockingbird, I wouldn't bother.

And that wraps up my 2015 reading list! What did you read last year? Anything life-changing?

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