Book Review - The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought I was going to love it (especially because I loved the gifts of imperfect parenting) but I just... Didn't. I made a lot of highlights in the first half (before the guideposts), but I feel like they were things which were not really the point of the book.

Now this is probably going to sound ... I don't know, uppity or something, but I felt like she wasn't really telling me anything I didn't already know or hadn't already figured out and begun to practice. I guess it was good acknowledgement that the way I've been striving to love is a good one, based on her research. I would definitely recommend the book to some people (and have done already), but for me, it just wasn't this all-insightful, life-altering, motivating experience I had expected it to be. It didn't really give me many new insights or tools for how to go about living this life. But again, I've done a ton of self-work in the past 3-4 years, so for someone just starting on the path to authenticity and wholeheartedness, this book may well be a good starting point.

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Book Review - Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are lots of questions about the credentials of the author of this book, but also, a lot of people have said that Reza Aslan really hasn't said anything new here - so why the controversy? If he hasn't said anything new, but has just brought common academic knowledge to light in a fashion accessible to the layperson, excellent! I listened to the audio version (read by Aslan himself, and it was quite pleasing to listen to), and I may yet pick up the paper or e-version in order to access the notes and bibliography mentioned in the intro.

As a former Christian, I am appalled that I was never taught any of the context of Jesus' life. I am ashamed that I never thought in any depth about the fact that Jesus was a Jew (though everyone knew it, it just never seemed that strange). I never wondered, much, how Jesus' Judaism got turned into Christianity as we know it today. This is not to say that this book would have weakened my faith, rather I imagine that if I'd read it as a faithful Christian, it might have deepened it, and caused me to reflect on my methods of worship and understanding of Jesus as man and christ. As it is, it gives me pause. Understanding (or beginning to understand) the context of Jesus' life and ministry, HIS religion (Judaism), is extremely gratifying.

As a Unitarian Universalist with a light interest in the classical world, I am fascinated by the history surrounding the time before, during, and after the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth. As someone who long ago put aside the idea of Jesus as God (or even of God as anthropomorphic and personal), it is extremely interesting to me to find out more about who the Man Jesus may really have been. The narrative of how the "New Testament" was put together (and the intention with which each bit was written and canonized), where the various gospels and epistles come from, and what they mean in context is quite compelling. The epilogue really sums it up well:

"Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman empire and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

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Book Review - The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

JK Rowling's first foray into fiction since the Harry Potter franchise was bound to bring with it much expectation, but I tried to leave off too much forethought. A good book by a solid author is all I was hoping for - not fantasy or fabulousness. But one of the things that made the Harry Potter series so compelling DID, in fact, factor into what made this a five-star book; I would argue the most important thing - the character development.

The book begins with a death, and we meet many characters touched by that death, and some not so touched, within the small town in which it takes place. The death leaves a "Casual Vacancy" on the city board, which stirs up the sleepy town of Pagford. These characters, their ties to the deceased, to the town, to the issues facing the board, are all plumbed deeply and delicately. You see the best of some of the more distasteful characters, and the worst of some of the pristine members of society. Rowling did an excellent job (as is expected from the woman who wrote not only Harry Potter, but James Potter, Draco Malfoy, and Severus Snape) of making the point through her characters that human beings are rich, complex, often sad and wounded, but also capable of love, compassion, and heartbreak. Despite the fact that few of the characters in the book are simply likeable, you care about them. I found myself often sympathising with a character I had been sighing with distaste at only moments before.

I've begun to watch some British television lately, and it makes me think The Casual Vacancy is an extremely British book. It is not whiz-bang, flash and pop action and constant movement, in the way consumptive Americans often expect and need in order for their interest to be held (and I say this as an American myself, mind). It is subtle and delicate and rich and beautiful. It is often slow, quiet, and gentle, though there is a ferocity beneath the surface as well.

This book is not Harry Potter. It is not for children, it is not fantastical, or adventurous. But it is deeply human, and very much worth your time.

I listened to the Audible version of The Casual Vacancy, and the narration, too, was fantastic. It was not over-the-top, with voices varying just enough to clue you in to the speaker, but not so much that you flinched at the male narrator's attempt at a feminine voice. His tone was soothing but not lulling, and the pacing and articulation were spot-on.

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Book Review - The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection

The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection
The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection by Brené Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you have children, go buy or borrow this book. Like, now.

This two-hour audiobook reads more like a workshop by author/narrator Brené Brown. Broken down into simple "guideposts" and with a very friendly, conversational tone, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting is refreshingly optimistic and realistic. As Dr. Brown says, it's never too late for wholehearted parenting.

My favorite thing about this book is that it's not just the advice of some parenting guru. It's not a lot of theory from a psychologist with no children. It's not new-agey, touchy-feely B.S. It's solid, research-based, practical advice for creating a culture in your home and family that will allow your children the safety and the space, and the safe space, to grow into well-adjusted adults.

As Dr. Brown reiterates at the end of the book, there are many ways to be an engaged parent, and we need to stop judging and shaming one another for our differing choices. But I think whether you consider yourself a Tiger Mom or an Attachment Parent, there is much to be gained from this, and it will be two hours of your life well-spent (especially since you can listen while doing chores, like I did!).

More of my favorite quotes here. But really, go listen for yourself.

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Book Review - Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True MemoirLet's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I requested to read this book for review, I didn't realize it was The Bloggess' book. I had heard of The Bloggess and that she had a funny book, and I'd even read one of her more popular posts (about Beyonce the metal chicken), but I didn't know what the book was called or that this was it. I just read the description of a funny, witty, gritty memoir and thought getting paid by BlogHer to read and review it would be cool.

Let me tell you, if the only post of Jenny/The Bloggess that you've ever read is the one about Beyonce (or, I'm guessing, any one post independent of any context), you're missing out, because that shit makes SO much more sense now that I've read Let's Pretend This Never Happened. And if you're offended by my use of the word shit, you can leave now, because this book is NOT for you.

I'm going to admit, I don't tend to follow the über popular bloggers (or even most of my friends who blog, because I suck at remembering to read blogs), and when I started reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened, I kind of expected it to be over-hyped. The dedication page seemed to have some depth to it, but then as I began to read, I thought, "great, the most meaningful part of this book is going to be the dedication page, and the rest is going to be contrived vulgar humor that isn't even that funny." And that was true for maybe five pages.

Reading about Jenny's childhood was a little traumatizing. I can't imagine how, having lived through it, she manages to be sane enough to blog, parent, and go on a book tour. SHE WALKED INSIDE A GUTTED DEER, Y'ALL.

Trauma aside, I can't even count how many times I laughed out loud reading this memoir. Jenny's humor is often crass, her language often vulgar, and her text often SHOUTY, but all of that just adds to her charm. Most importantly, you can hear the real person inside it all, the one who has lived through pain and love and grief and loss and friendship, and whom you suspect may have been saved only by that laughter.

At the very end of this memoir is a "reader's guide." When I got to that page, it turned out to be one that made me laugh out loud, because here was this very serious, academic set of "book club" questions about this book that was full of dead animals and hard drugs and the word fuck. Jenny doesn't seem to take herself too seriously, but by god, the book clubs will! Take themselves seriously, I mean. I think it's impossible to read this book and then take Jenny Lawson too seriously.

It's also impossible to read it and not love and adore her and wish that she were your BFF. Now excuse me while I go stalk her blog.

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Book Review - A Good American by Alex George

A Good AmericanA Good American by Alex George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Good American is a fictional memoir of the Meisenheimer family, from the 1880s through the present day. That sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a 400-page novel, and indeed, it is. But what starts as a slow dance through the early years of Frederick and Jette's life together builds an uneven tempo, and we quick-step through some generations while gliding sashaying gently through others.

Music is a key element to the story, and it's fun to follow its through generations, beginning with Frederick's display of adoration through opera and aria, moving through the seduction of jazz and ragtime, and culminating in family barbershop quartets. Strangely (or not so strangely), as the story moves to the present, we stop hearing much about modern music. *grin*

Keeping with this musical theme, I must say that author Alex George has a penchant for the use of a literary secondary dominant. Dale McGowan describes this musical device (here, ctrl+F "not a coincidence" or just read the whole thing) as "a kind of momentary harmonic trapdoor into another key," and explains that "the result is an unfulfilled yearning." That all is to say that almost every chapter break and transition break within a chapter ends in a cliffhangery statement that encourages you to keep reading. It's a good and relevant device (yearning for home is also a theme of this tale), if a bit overused here.

Frederick and Jette start their affair in their home country of Germany, much to the chagrin of Jette's parents. To escape their disapproval, the couple decides, as so many did in their day, to cross an ocean and try to build a life in the land of shining hope and supposed opportunity - America. While they originally plan for New York, they find themselves instead heading to New Orleans ("Well, they're both new," muses Jette.) and setting in motion a multigenerational smalltown life for their family, with all the quintessential angst and adoration that brings.

Though most of the book's cover blurbs describe the book as alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, I found it to be more often the latter than the former. A Good American begins as a hopeful tale of romance, escape, and new life, and while those themes continue, as the book goes on, it seems the characters are buried in tragedy after tragedy, in an endless march of death. I know - you expect death in a story that encompasses four (or was it five?) generations, but I'm not talking about your typical old-age death (though, of course, there are many of those). There are an inordinate number of characters we readers are drawn to and made to adore, who, as soon as we begin to love them, are ripped from the story in a gruesome death. Consider yourself forewarned.

But like life, this book is worth the heartache. Though it's a fictional memoir, I found myself constantly imagining the narrator sitting in a room piled with history, his grandmother's diary beside him, love letters between she and his grandfather in a pile on the desk, photos strewn across a bulletin board pinned above. The narration is clear and true, and I'd love to read it again as an audiobook.

In all, I thorougly enjoyed A Good American, and while there were a lulls, I frequently found myself picking up my book instead of my laptop, eager to return to the hopeful history of the Meisenheimers, their joy at this country with which I have become disenchanted, and the tangled web of love and sorrow weaved through their lives.

This is a compensated review by the BlogHer Book Club, but all opinions expressed are my own.

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Book Review - Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

Being Henry DavidBeing Henry David by Cal Armistead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick and interesting read, and a great, accessible introduction for young adults to one of the great authors and thinkers of the "modern" age - Thoreau.

Being Henry David is a different kind of coming of age novel - one in which the hero has to learn who his is literally, as well as figuratively. "Henry David" aka Hank, is a teenaged boy who has awoken in Penn Station with amnesia. As he tries to scrape together some of his memories, or at least some semblance of a new life, we the readers learn along with him - about the streets of New York, the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and the quiet town of Concord, Maine.

Though the book is peppered with interesting supporting characters (as usual, the librarian is my favorite, but there's a twist this time), and a couple of minor subplots, the real character development is all centered around Hank as he learns to come to terms with the realities of the present, and the past so shocking he had to forget.

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