Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Book Reviews | Memoirs

For a variety of reasons, I've read quite a few memoirs recently.

Our youngest nephew had to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah during the summer for his advanced 8th grade English class this year, so I picked up a copy to read and discuss with him. I hadn't heard of this book before and really knew nothing about Sierra Leone, West Africa, or the civil war that took place there. 

The author lost his family during the war when he was only 12-years-old. He spent a year running from the rebels, then two years as a soldier in the government's army before being taken out of the fighting by UNICEF. The title led me to expect stories of his time as a solider; however, he doesn't become a child soldier until halfway through the book. At that point, there are a few pages about his training (mostly brainwashing), a note about the first battle, then in the space of a few pages, two years pass and he is picked up by UNICEF. Because he was a good solider, he had no idea why his commanding officer allowed him to be taken away from the army. He and his friends were angry and rebellious, but finally rehabilitated. He eventually was sent to New York City, where the guys at his high school thought it was "cool" that he has seen people running around with guns shooting each other.

I have mixed emotions about this book. First, it was so sad to read about the war and how children were conscripted into the army. While I was saddened by his story, I was disappointed that there was not much guilt or remorse, or really any emotions, shown or discussed throughout this book that is told from the author's first person perspective. And, finally, while there are quite a few instances of foreshadowing, flashbacks, and symbolism, I felt the overall structure and readability of the book were lacking.

I'd heard very disparate reviews about Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover before my name finally got to the top of the book hold list at our local library. 

The author was raised by survivalist fanatic Mormon parents on a mountain in Idaho. She did not attend school, did not go to doctors, worked in the family junkyard "scrapping" metal, was physically abused by an older brother, and was brainwashed by her parents about how the government was out to get them.

When one of her brothers goes to college, Tara begins studying to take the ACT. Her score allows her to be accepted to Brigham Young University and she eventually goes on to earn several degrees, including a PhD from Cambridge.

Honestly, I did not like the author, who (despite earning those degrees) doesn't really seem very intelligent and is still rather emotionally fragile and unsure of herself (which is understandable). She questions her memories of events in footnotes and has (supposedly) comes to terms with being estranged from her parents. This was a depressing book without an uplifting ending.

I received a copy of I'm Possible: Jumping Into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose by Jeremy Cowart free from Booklook Bloggers (soon to be The Readers Lounge) in exchange for an honest review.

The author is an artist, photographer, and graphic designer. His unique creative style is evident from the book cover! He shares the story of his career and the circumstances that lead to various changes or direction. He is involved in lots of humanitarian projects (Help-Portrait, voices of Haiti, Gatlinburg fire, etc); however, when he describes these projects, it's hard to determine if he's volunteering his time and resources or if he's profiting from them as well and what his main motive for "helping" really is.

This is a good story about following ideas and "nudges" and trying scary new things, but I just couldn't really like the author. The writing was almost too contrived as he tried to sound humble with a little nod of thanks to the Lord here and there.

Night by Elie Wiesel was the other book on our nephew's summer reading list. This book was published in the late 1950s and tells the story of the author and his family during World War II. They were Jews and were taken to Auschwitz, then on to Buchenwald, concentration camps in Germany. Elie was with his father up until the last few months of his imprisonment (when his father died). 

The title of the book comes from the chapter where he shares about how he lost his faith the first night in camp. Sadly, he never says that his faith is restored. Many schools use this book when teaching about the atrocities of World War II; however, this was my first time to read it. It's a well-written first person account of the terrible hardships the author experienced.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer was chosen as this year's community read here in Allen, Texas.

As a young boy in Malawi, Africa, William was the only son of a poor farm family. They survived a drought, but he had to drop out of secondary school when his family couldn't pay the tuition fees. He was naturally talented at fixing things and re-purposing trash into usable objects. He discovered some used books at the library and learned how to make a windmill from junk and parts and pieces he found. This windmill brought electricity to his home. 

When others learned of his ingenuity, he was invited to do a Ted Talk! Eventually funds were donated for his education at the African Leadership Academy and later to Dartmouth University. He wrote his memoir in 2009, and a young reader's edition (which I read) was published in 2015. I was pretty impressed with this young man, who said (in the interview at the back of the book) that he would return to Malawi to help the country after completing his education. [While he has helped his native country and his family in many ways, a quick Internet search shows that he is still living in the US five years after graduation.]

Have you read any of these books? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Benefits of a Gratitude Practice

A gratitude practice is something we do repeatedly and regularly in order to improve our ability to see and recognize the gifts and blessings in our lives. It is a way of approaching life intentionally and having a sense of wonder, of thankfulness and of appreciation. The practice may be saying a prayer of thanksgiving each morning or taking a weekly walk in nature while meditating on the good things in life or writing down the things you are grateful for each day.

Individuals have practiced gratitude for centuries, but it's become even more prominent as study after study confirms the physical, emotional and relational benefits of gratitude.

This article shares the following benefits of gratitude for the individual:

  • increased happiness and positive mood
  • more satisfaction with life
  • less materialistic
  • less likely to experience burnout
  • better physical health
  • better sleep
  • less fatigue
  • lower levels of cellular inflammation
  • greater resiliency
  • encourages the development of patience, humility, and wisdom

That's a list of benefits that sounds pretty good to me!

I'll be using this FUN free-standing gratitude album as I practice gratitude throughout the upcoming month of November.

This album has pocket page protectors, and I've used the kit materials to create cards for each day of November. 

My plan is to record something I'm grateful for each day by simply pulling out the card and writing in one or two items.

I'm looking forward to practicing gratitude with this FUN album!

Do you have a gratitude practice? Will you be recording the things you're thankful for this November?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book Reviews | Anne, Marilla & the Landscapes of PEI

As is my custom, before we headed out on our summer vacation, I researched the areas we'd be visiting, thumbed through travel guides, and read a few books. 


Because our primary destination this year was Prince Edward Island, Canada, I absolutely had to re-read L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. It's been three years since I last read this wonderful classic that has so much scope for imagination! It's definitely a book that's perfect for re-reading and enjoying, especially before heading off to see the sites that inspired the beautiful setting of the book.

Robbie gave me The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables by Catherine Reid as a pre-birthday gift before our trip. It was the perfect book to build on the anticipation of visiting Prince Edward Island. This book shares the similarities between the real-life author L.M. Montgomery and her fictional character Anne Shirley (raised by older couples, loved being in nature, high achievers, attended one-room schools, taught school, etc) as it tells about the beauty of Prince Edward Island, the changes that have come to the island now that tourism (due to the Anne of Green Gables books) is the second largest industry, and how this island was an integral part of L.M. Montgomery and Anne Shirley's lives.

The book is filled with beautiful photographs! There are contemporary photos of Prince Edward Island as well as photographs taken by L.M. Montgomery in the 1890s (many of which she colorized in the 1920s). While some of these older photos included people, L.M. Montgomery also took photos of her surroundings - gardens and nature and even her room. I found this interesting because during the times of early photography (and even modern film photography) people were more conscientious about taking fewer photos and rarely used extra shots for things like capturing a tree in bloom or the details of a bedroom.

Because I have read the Anne of Green Gables books and several of L.M. Montgomery's published journals, I honestly didn't learn any new information about the story or L.M. Montgomery. The author quoted extensively from Volume 1 of the journals, the first Anne book, and The Alpine Path (L.M. Montogomery's autobiography, which I haven't read ... yet). However, I enjoyed the review of all this information in such a lovely book and thoughtful gift as we were preparing to visit many of the exact locations mentioned.

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy was another gift from Robbie. This novel develops the backstory for Marilla, years before she and her brother Matthew adopted Anne Shirley. It's a good story that follows Marilla as she grows up at Green Gables, develops and loses a relationship with John Blythe, joins the Ladies Aid Society, and has her first encounter with the orphanage in Nova Scotia. Her Aunt Lizzy is introduced in this book, which also deals with runaway slaves and the controversy over the abolition of slavery.

The story ends right before where Anne of Green Gables begins, with Marilla and Matthew discussing adopting a boy to help around the farm. I enjoyed this book; however, I do not think it developed Marilla's personality in a way that it flows smoothly from this story to the original stories by L.M. Montgomery.

Have you read the Anne of Green Gables books or visited Prince Edward Island? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cards | Candy Cane Cottage

A few months ago, I signed up for a card class at Personal Scrapbook. Due to some scheduling changes, I didn't actually make it to the class, but I picked up the kit and created my own version of the cards that use the Heartfelt Creations Candy Cane Cottage collection.

There were only three cards advertised for the class; however, I was able to create four cards by changing things up a little and adding one card base from my stash. It's hard to see in the photo, but these cards include glitter and Wink of Stella highlights, so they are very glittery.

Do you follow class/kit directions exactly or veer off to make your own creations?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Musings | If My People

If My people
who are called by My name
will humble themselves,
and pray and seek My face,
and turn from their wicked ways,
then I will hear from heaven,
and will forgive their sin
and heal their land.

This scripture, found in 2 Chronicles 7:14, is a beautiful reminder of the forgiveness and power of our Heavenly Father. 

My friend, Pasty Boyd McSpadden, wrote an entire book, If My People, on this passage. The book is divided into chapters that dive deep into the meaning of each phrase and ponder the question of whether this promise, given to the Israelites, is for America (and us) today.

Patsy shares her personal stories and scriptural teachings in this interactive workbook designed to show us that humility and prayer are most needed as we turn back to God, for us individually and for our country. It's also a great reminder that the Word of God speaks to us and directs us still today!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

WWW dot ABCs

When I open a new tab on my browser, I can easily click my most frequented websites.

Susanne recently posted a peek into her virtual workspace via her Browser. She said, "I was noticing, not for the first time, that I only need to get one letter past www dot in my browser to pull up my most used websites. Are you curious about what they are? How many of these are the same for you?"

I decided to try this experiment as well. Here's what I discovered by typing www dot and each letter of the alphabet into the address line of my browser.

a = Amazon
b = BibleGateway
c = Chase
d = Delta
e = Edward Jones
f = Facebook
g = Google maps
h = Hilton Honors
i = Instagram
j = nothing
k = Kroger Feedback
l = Lowes
m = MelissaGross.com
n = NOAA.gov
o = nothing
p = Pinterest
q = nothing
r = nothing
s = StacyJulian.com
t = TicketMaster
u = USPS
v = nothing
w = Walmart
x = nothing
y = YouTube
z = nothing

What a FUN look at the places I've frequented online lately! I noticed a few simliarities to Susanne's list - Amazon, Instagram, USPS, and YouTube.

Have you tried this? What letters do we have in common?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book Reviews | Advance Reader Editions

This summer at our local library's Book Buzz event, I picked up several Advanced Reader Editions of books that are brand new this year. These special copies are released before the actual publication date of the book (as uncorrected proofs with covers that may differ from the final version), so they are like a sneak peek into what's coming up (or has recently come out).

Since my twin nieces were here visiting and attended the event with me, I came home with a pile of new books! Here's a look at the ones I've read so far.

Last Day: A Novel by Domenica Ruta was released on May 28. One of my nieces picked this one up, and I thought it would be an apocalyptic novel. However, it turns out that "Last Day" is a "holiday" that happens every year. The story follows several characters, none of who are very likable; most of them have some type of mental illness or emotional issue (one character tends to eat random things like pencil erasers or bugs). Honestly, I don't recommend this book as I really wasn't interested in what happened next and was glad to get to the unsatisfying conclusion.

However, it was somewhat interesting to read about the three astronauts (well, one was a wealthy tourist) on board the International Space Station since I'd previously read An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. Although the fiction characters did not necessarily portray the astronauts in a good light (drinking, swearing, goofing off, not taking care of the ISS), there were aspects of life in space that were "familiar."

Lost Roses is Martha Hall Kelly's second book and is set right before and during World War I. The story alternates between three characters: (1) Eliza Ferriday (based on the real-life woman), a well-to-do American in Southhampton, New York, who is married to Henry and has one daughter, Caroline; (2) Eliza's friend Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat (who is kin to the tsar) in St. Petersburg, Russia; and (3) Varinka, a peasant girl who is employed to help take care of Sofya's son when her family flees to their country estate in Malinov, Russia. All three characters eventually end up in Paris, France, but not before they each go through trying times and heartache as the war rages.

This is a great historical novel with a page-turner plot line as it alternates between the various points of view, beginning and ending with a fourth character, Luba, Sofya's younger sister. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and immediately checked out the author's first book from the library.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, although the first book written, actually takes place after Lost Roses. This book is set during World War II and, once again, follows three women's lives: (1) Caroline Ferriday (Eliza's daughter and also based on a real person) lives in New York and is working for the French consulate as well as running a venture that sends aid to French orphans; (2) Kasia Kuzmerick (a composite character based on the real life Polish "rabbits"), a Polish teenager from Lublin, who gets arrested for working with the underground in occupied Poland and is sent Ravensbruck; and (3) Herta Oberheuser (also based on a real-life person), the German female doctor who performed operations as part of the sulfonamide experiments in Ravensbruck.

This is another very well-written historical novel, using a strong juxtaposition of the wealthy elite in New York and the desperate prisoners in the concentration camp and the pro-German desensitized doctor! 

Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society was written by Judy Christie (journalist and author) and Lisa Wingate (author of Before We Were Yours, which I reviewed HERE). This non-fiction book (which releases next Tuesday, October 22) tells the stories of children who were adopted during the reign of Georgia Tann at the Tennessee Children's Home Society. I first heard of the terrible illegal deeds of Tann when I read the historical novel Before We Were Yours, so I was eager to read some of the real-life stories. Many individuals who were adopted from TCHS began contacting the author after reading her well-researched novel, and they shared their stories of finding or searching for the truth about their adoptions.

One adoptee shared how his mother ... and all (!) the mothers in the maternity ward that day ... were told that their babies had died in the night, when in fact Georgia Tann had stolen them to sell to couples wanting to adopt a baby. Another adoptee remembered her mother leaving her and her two brothers on the courthouse steps because the man she was with didn't want them. When Georgia Tann picked them up, she assured the three children that she would keep them together. However, when they arrived at one of the children's home, she had the little girl get out of the car first...and then the driver took off with her brothers and she never saw them again. Although it was heartbreaking, I am so glad I read this book and learned more about the atrocities that were allowed to take place for almost 30 years!

However, the author/journalist interspersed her thoughts and story in between the chapters about the adoptees (and their families). I thought this was extremely distracting - honestly, I'm not interested in the details of what she went through to get to an interview on time or whether her husband had to drive cross country to meet up with her before an event. These diversions really didn't add to the topic of the book.

Have you read any of these books? Please share your thoughts in the comments.