Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#3: Origin (Dan Brown)

Where did we come from? What is our purpose? Where are we going? These questions have filled human thought for centuries and now become the inspiration for Dan Brown’s latest novel, Origin. Robert Langdon returns as the hero of this fast-paced, intriguing page turner that you certainly do not want to miss.

A young scientist who is also a well-known Atheist claims to have discovered new information about the origin of life on Earth. As he prepares to make his announcement to the world, he is mysteriously assassinated in front of the luminaries gathered in the modernist museum as well as millions of people around the world. Was he killed by the Church in an effort to silence the news that would potentially shake the foundation of the world’s faith communities? Or was the murder ordered by the royal family of Spain? The story takes the reader through the beautiful, lush scenery of Spain while examining spectacular masterpieces from the visual arts and the world of science. With the addition of Winston, the scientist’s stunning AI assistant, Origin introduces a new type of character that is rarely encountered in popular literature — and results in a most satisfying reading experience. I found myself connecting with Winston’s computer-generated voice just as I did the human characters created by Brown. The novel really is one of the author’s best-crafted novels.

Don’t pick up a copy of Origin until you have some free time on your hands. You won’t be able to put it down until you reach the book’s final page!

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#2: Moscow Nights (Nigel Cliff)

I have been slothful in putting my thoughts about this wonderful book in writing although I finished it over a week ago. A finalist of the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story provides an insightful look at the man, the music, and the politics that surrounded the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958. Van Cliburn took the world by storm with his Romantic repertoire and Texas charm. He was an overnight sensation, causing an uproar among Russian youth similar to that of Elvis or the Beatles in our country. Moscow Nights follows Cliburn from his Texas roots to his studies at Juilliard and the monumental Tchaikovsky competition before exploring the aftermath of the pianist’s unexpected victory and the notoriety that followed.

Nigel Cliff does an exceptional job of blending biography with political history (of both the US and the USSR) and the music performed. Cliff’s descriptions of Van Cliburn’s performances are mesmerizing and allows the reader to feel as though he is hearing the music first hand. American-Soviet relations are presented in a clear, understandable manner as they influenced the events unfolding on the Russian Conservatory stage. 

Where many biographies tend to portray the individual as a hero, Cliff presents Van as an everyday man with exceptional talent, lots of self-doubt, and noticeable flaws. As I closed the book, I felt as though I knew more about Cliburn and the world in which he lived. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest compliments that can be paid any biography.

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#1: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)

Earlier this week, I completed my first book of 2018. What took me so long? I am trying to read multiple books at the same time, so my pace of reading is slower. (I’m not sure if I like this approach or not, but I’m continuing this way for a bit longer.) January has been an extremely busy month for me, so reading was not always a priority. Thankfully, what I DID manage to read was quite enjoyable and a great way to start the new year.

The Alice Network is actually two stories woven together. Eve was a British spy in World War I near the German front. As a member of a network for female spies — the Alice Network — she gathered information while waiting tables in a lavish restaurant….and in the bed of the establishment’s proprietor.  After the end of World War II, Charlie St. Clair returns to France in search of her beloved cousin, Rose. Through the course of this enthralling novel, Eve and Charlie learn that their stories share a common enemy and the unlikely pair join forces to overcome the evil that continues to permeate western Europe after the War, personified in the life of a single man.

Richly developed characters combine with the beautifully described scenery in a compelling story that makes The Alice Network a must-read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Eve and Charlie will quickly become literary friends whose tales will urge the reader to constantly return to their story in order to find out what happens next while enjoying the wit, sarcasm and banter between these two fierce ladies. I highly recommend Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network.
 

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#30: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck)

2017 ended with lots of illness for me, so I’m just getting around to writing my thoughts about the last book I read of the year. Fear not! I am slowly returning to a regular reading routine and will update you on my progress to reaching 2018’s goal of completing 32 books before the end of the year.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is a book that I recommend to all teachers, coaches, business leaders, and parents. Honestly, I think anyone who approaches Dweck’s book with an open mind will find themselves on its pages and see how a shift of personal mindset can potentially transform their life. I am certain that I will return to this work on a regular basis as I work with young adults and developing musicians.

The basic premise is rather simple. All of us choose one of two mindsets in every area of our life every day. We either buy into the fixed mindset — that tells us our abilities and intelligence are at their maximum level, unable to be changed — or we hold a growth mindset — that says that failures and mistakes are opportunities for improvement and learning. Sounds simple, huh? At its core, it really is just that simple. However, when we begin to examine how our mindset can be shaped by our environment and our perception of what is expected of us — as well as words spoken to us by parents, teachers, coaches, and employers — we realize that changing our mindset can be an enormous battle of the mind that has enormous implications.

When things didn’t go quite as planned — a test score is lower than you hoped, a friend misunderstood your words, or a performance was less than stellar — how do you respond? Was the outcome inevitable? Do things just happen sometimes? Do you buy into the mantra that “I gave it my best, so no one can ask for more”? These are the responses of the fixed mindset. A more-productive response found in the growth mindset would ask what lessons can be learned from these failures. What adjustments need to be made to my test preparation? Was a text the best method of communicating in this situation or would face-to-face conversation have reduced the possibility of a misunderstanding? Was my poor performance due to anxiety? How can I improve future performances? 

After reading Mindset by Carol Dweck, one question is at the forefront of my mind. Why is this work not being used as a required textbook in freshman experience courses in colleges and universities around the country? If our students can learn the power of recognizing the fixed mindset and how to adjust their thoughts to a growth mindset, their potential for success will increase exponentially!

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#29: Unwrapping Christmas (Lori Copeland)

First, a word about what appears to be an error in my numbering system.  Somehow the numbers on this blog and my Goodreads challenge list for 2017 have managed to get off from each other. I still haven’t really figured out what is going on, but after repeatedly counting the books that I have read this year, I am able to confidently say that this is actually the 29th book of the year.  One more book before January arrives and I will have achieved this year’s goal of 30 books!  I’ll be more careful about the numbering in 2018, but for now….

As has become my tradition for the past few years in the week leading up to Christmas, I found some piece of fluff holiday writing to pull me back to a simpler pace and focus my thoughts on the important things of the season — family, love, and the Savior. This year’s Christmas novella was Unwrapping Christmas by Lori Copeland. The story centered around a busy mother who has become so enthralled with taking care of everything on her agenda that she has forgotten to care for the people she encounters, including her small family. When a fall on the ice threatens to foil her plans for the family’s Christmas Eve celebration, she learns how important it is to pause during the Christmas season — and throughout the year, as well — to make sure that what is most important is receiving the most attention.

This piece will not win any major literary awards. Its plot is easy to predict. Its message, however, hit me clearly between the eyes in the midst of a busy season. While I don’t recommend it be read for its literary value, it was a story that I encountered at just the right time. 

Now back to our regular programming here on Reading for Me…..

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#27: My Glory Was I Had Such Friends: A Memoir (Amy Silverstein)

My personal reading slowed down during the month of December as I faced the end of a busy semester. The book I selected from my TBR list (that stands for “To Be Read” in case you aren’t familiar with the acronym) was Amy Silverstein’s My Glory Was I Had Such Friends. I had first heard of the memoir late in the summer and I thought it would be a celebration of friendship — something to read as I was going into the holidays. I did not expect that I would respond so emotionally to the book and experience moments where I didn’t know if I would be able to finish or not.

Amy Silverstein is a heart-transplant survivor. She first faced life as a transplant patient as a 25-year-old woman. Given a life expectancy of 10 years, Amy has defied the odds as she has made a successful life for herself. Now at the age of 50, Amy and her husband Scott face the reality that her time with her heart is running out and Amy needs a second transplant. The couple leaves their NYC home and head for Los Angeles to be treated at Cedars Hospital. 

Amy’s girlfriends cannot bear the thought that Amy and Scott will have to face this challenge alone. So they create a spreadsheet calendar and begin signing up for when they will join the couple in California and offer moral support and encouragement. These visits are the heart of My Glory Was That I Had Such Friends.

Amy’s love for her friends is apparent as each pair remembers the happy times they have spent together — raising children, falling in love with their husbands, and simply living life. As Amy’s health declines and the chances for a second transplant diminish, each friend finds herself at a difficult crossroads:  Does she allow her personal desire to keep Amy alive as long as possible outweigh her friend’s right to determine for herself when “enough is enough”? It is a moral and ethical dilemma that each woman must confront and figure out how to deal with the ultimate choice between life and death.

Silverstein’s descriptions of her illness are jarring throughout the memoir. With each biopsy, burning injection, and firing of her newly inserted pacemaker, the reader experiences the pain firsthand. Living in a family where heart complications have been par for the course recently, I found these passages especially difficult to read. I wept in sympathy with Amy’s friends as she finally reached the decision that she would give up the fight of her life when her 30 days on the highest-need transplant list came to an end. I rejoiced around Amy’s bed as she and her friends received the news that a matching heart had been found and was en route from Nevada. I wrung my hands with them as they waited for updates of the procedure’s progress.

My Glory Was I Had Such Friends will not be a great read for everyone. At times difficult to think about, at times heartwarming, and at times heartbreaking, the memoir is one that reminds us of the importance of surrounding ourselves with friends that can weather good times and bad. For those who choose to read Silverstein’s words, they will be a reminder of the importance to always be thankful for the friends that fill your life and treasure each moment with them.

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#26: A Time to Stand (Robert Whitlow)

I’ve been trying to write this review all week, but things have been so busy that I simply haven’t been able to get around to it until now. I finished reading A Time to Stand late Sunday night on my return trip from a visit home for the Thanksgiving holiday. While I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction these days, Robert Whitlow’s novels continue to be some of my favorites in the genre because they are always engaging and thought-provoking.

A Time to Stand is set in a small Georgia town that has found itself in the spotlight after a robbery of a local convenience store. When the injured worker names an African-American teen as one of his assailants, police begin searching for him. The young man is found on a white officer’s beat. The officer instructs the teen to move into the light so he can be seen clearly. Instead, the youth begins running towards the officer, hands in pocket, when a gun shot is heard. The white officer shoots — critically injuring the black teenager — and setting off a racial firestorm in the rural town.

Adisa Johnson, an African-American attorney, finds herself in the small town as she cares for her aunt. Adisa also finds herself without work after she was fired from her high-profile Atlanta law firm. When she is offered a job with a local law office, Adisa is elated until she examines the string attached to the job offer — she must assist with the legal defense of the white officer.

Whitlow’s examination of police violence and its impact on community relations is nicely presented. With impressive clarity, the author shares the anger of both races as well as their fears and doubts about the situation. To further the dialogue, the inclusion of Adisa’s aunt and a local pastor as spiritual giants allows the reader to examine both arguments from a Scriptural perspective. After reading the book, I came away with a renewed understanding of the importance to fervently pray for the peace of communities large and small throughout our Nation while hearing the call that it is “Time to Stand” for Truth at any cost — even when Truth may challenge society’s consensus on the subject. 

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#25: The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)

This classic novel has been on my TBR list for years. I would always find a reason not to pick it up. Now I’ve finally gotten through it and my response is an indifferent “eh.” I’m not sure if my opinion was influenced by the fact that life was extremely busy with NATS and opera production week while I was working my way through the short book or not. I could not get excited about the turmoils of Ponyboy, Soda Pop, and Johnny. I found myself thinking that this was a novel attempting to ride the success of West Side Story and failed. I read the book because I started it and felt that “I needed to.” My apologies to the many people who told me that The Outsiders would become one of my favorite novels….it’s not.

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#24: 15th Affair (James Patterson)

I’m almost finished with this series….I’m almost finished with this series……That seemed to be my mantra as I read 15th Affair. This time, Lindsey and her friends find themselves facing a Chinese spy ring, an exploding aircraft, and missing corpses. Just another typical day in the lives of the Women’s Murder Club. To make matters worse, Lindsey’s husband, Joe, has left without a trace. Is Joe dead? Or has he run away with another woman?

The best thing I can say about this novel is that there are only 16 of these novels currently in print, so I have finally caught up. It has been a fun series, but I am definitely ready to get away from these plot lines for a while. I had picked up a novel from another series to read as my next novel, but I just can’t seem to get involved with the story. I think it’s time to read something with a little more substance that will grab my attention for a little while.

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#23: Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon (Scott M. Gibson)

While flying home yesterday, I decided to take a departure from my normal novels and investigate a topic that I personally find extremely important and that has arisen in several conversations this week. Scott M. Gibson’s Should We Use Some Else’s Sermon?: Preaching in a Cut-and-Paste World examines the history of plagiarism in the Church’s pulpits and focuses specifically on the responsible use of easily available sermon websites such as sermoncentral.com. 

I am not a preacher or a pastor. I do not know the pressure of attempting to prepare a weekly sermon. However, I have been a faithful church attender. I have sat under the pastorate of men who had never spent a day in seminary and did the best they could to faithfully preach the Word of God under powerful anointing. I have also had the privilege of hearing wonderfully intelligent men present a finely-crafted and carefully researched sermon that was relevant and impactful to their specific congregation for that moment in time. Both scenarios have significantly contributed to my spiritual growth. Unfortunately, I have also found myself listening to a pastor present sermons found online. While the sermons were well written, they did not seem to have the power of personal conviction. Instead, I felt as though I was listening to a book report. How did I learn that the sermon was coming from a web service? Like most young adults in our society, I turned to Google. A quick search for a specific statement turned up the entire sermon — I followed along on my browser as the speaker read the material word for word. I found myself wondering if such presentations were ethical. If such excessive use of one person’s material was used in a presentation or document in any other field, it would be severely frowned upon — even if credit was given to the original author.  Why was it now an acceptable practice that should not be questioned just because a “good man” was delivering it from a church pulpit? Are the ethics of the Church diminished in comparison to that of other professional fields?

While Gibson’s book focuses on ministers who present significant portions of their sermons — or even preach the entire sermon — without giving credit to the author they are “borrowing” from, he does address the current trend of using sermon internet services. Gibson quotes Eugene Lowry, Emeritus Professor of Preaching at the St. Paul School of Theology, who states that “While not plagiarism, using these sermons [from internet services] is thievery of another kind….When we substitute purchased sermons for that personal reflection, we betray people’s time and trust and our own integrity. It would be more honest to have the real writer tape [on audio recording] the text, and to play that tape for the congregation. For the pastor to present someone else’s sermon as if it were the result of his or her own discipleship, training, and theological commitment is to bear false witness.” (Gibson, 71-72). 

Gibson follows this discussion with a observation from Ken Garfield, a reporter with the Charlotte Observer. In his 2002 article entitled “Internet Inspiration for Preachers,” Mr. Garfield concludes that “If all this leaves you nervous, you’re not alone. Preachers surfing for inspiration worries me too. There’s a risk of outright plagiarism, of course. But a subtler danger is at work — pastors choosing to take a shortcut to a sermon rather than putting in the effort that a congregation has a right to expect of its spiritual guide.” (Gibson, 72). Gibson finally summarizes his feelings about the use of internet sermon services with this statement. “What is the bottom line when it comes to these and other resources? A responsible preacher does the majority of his or her own work, possibly stimulated by various preaching resources [emphasis added], and prays to God for wisdom, guidance, and discernment.” (Gibson, 72) Personally, I fully agree with Gibson’s summary. Using resources is not the problem; actually, it should be applauded. The problem is when a minister fails to use the resources responsibly and puts all of their confidence in one man’s interpretation rather than faithfully doing the research on his own and then applying it to the Word as he understands it. I would much rather hear a less eloquent sermon that has come from a pastor’s wrestling with the text than reading what someone else has written. You see, I would rather know that you had spent more time reading the Word and listening to the direction of the Holy Spirit, Mr. Minister, than reading the thoughts of another man. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16)……not all sermons crafted by fallible men.

Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? is certainly not the final authority on this topic. However, it does begin to raise an important question for the modern Church that must be addressed by ministers, lay leadership, and congregants alike and no longer swept under the carpet.

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