Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

Spring Reading Update

The Spring semester proved to be a bad term for my reading life. Since the beginning of 2018, I have only read 9 books. This is the worst showing I have had since beginning this project to increase my personal reading. The only things that have been neglected more than my reading life this year are my blogs. This post is my attempt to do a little course correction here at Reading for Me.

It would be impractical to attempt to write meaningful posts about my responses to the books I have read since my previous post (my review of Kristen Hannah’s Nightingale in March). So I have opted to simply give a brief summary of the five books I have read in the months since that review and return to my normal routine with Book #10.

Without further apology, here are the books I have most recently read.

#5: A Ned Rorem Reader (Ned Rorem) – I have long been fascinated with the American composer Ned Rorem. While bringing back his Barcarolles for performance earlier in the Spring, I decided to dive into this collection of essays and recollections by the outspoken man. Some were fascinating. Others were merely an opportunity for the writer to put meaningless drivel on the page. I plan to read the Rorem diaries at some point, but I think I have had enough of this man’s ego and ramblings for the moment.

#6: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) – Working for a Christian university means I get a four-day weekend for Easter. The weeks leading into the holiday had been extremely busy, so I decided to scale back my literary selection and enjoy this simple tale of sacrifice and redemption. No matter how many times I read this book, I always find myself crying when I see Aslan on the table, willingly giving himself over to the White Witch. This is simply a masterful retelling of the Gospel.

 #7: Prince Caspian (C.S. Lewis) – Since the first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia was such a good experience, I decided to continue reading through the series. I know this is not the order that the books were published in…..and it’s not chonological either. Honestly, I am not sure why this order was recommended, but I’ve started it now. Plans are to return to Narnia later this summer.

#8: The Sacrifice (Joyce Carol Oates) – While on Easter break, I discovered Half-Price Books in Austin. This was one of my finds on my many trips to the various locations. The Sacrifice is the enthralling story of an African-American girl who is found by local police after she has allegedly been raped and left to die. Her abused body also contains racial slurs that were left by her attackers. The girl names her attackers as a group of white police officers based solely upon her recollection of what she thinks were badges. The case takes on a life of its own as it becomes the rallying cry of Civil Rights attorneys and religious leaders. In light of the multiple accusations made against police departments throughout the country in recent years, The Sacrifice felt as though its story had been pulled right from the headlines. Another contender for the best read of 2018!

#9: Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind and Soul (Andrew Schulman) – Andrew Schulman is a classical guitarist who found himself facing death in the ICU after complications during surgery. His wife saw that he was slipping away and did the only thing she could think of to reach him — she inserted his earbuds and began playing the music that was at the top of his iPad’s playlist: The St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. Schulman made an incredible recovery that his wife, his physicians, and the patient himself attributed to the healing power of music. Waking the Spirit follows Schulman’s return to the ICU after his discharge and recovery; he returned not as a patient, but as a medical musician. The book is filled with powerful stories of how music has aided some of the most seriously ill patients in their recovery — offering physical healing as well as pain relief for the body, mind, and spirit. Schulman’s combination of anecdotes with supporting evidence from the fields of medicine and music therapy are riveting and written in such a way that the layman can easily follow the argument. A great read for anyone interested in the field of music therapy.

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#4: The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

Although my reading has been much slower than I had hoped in the first 3 months of the year, I am THRILLED that I took the time to read this amazing novel. It has quickly become one of my most highly recommended books for anyone that is fascinated by stories of World War II and historical fiction in general.

The Nightingale traces the lives of two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, in occupied France at the height of the Great War. Isabelle is determined to do something to fight the atrocities that she sees around her, even if it means risking her own life. Vianne decides to remain neutral as she watches Nazis move into her small hometown because she must do whatever is necessary to protect her home and her young daughter. When Nazi officers billet in her home, Vianne finds herself facing a moral dilemma that will forever impact her friends, her community, her children, and herself. 

Kristin Hannah’s novel provides an insightful look into the plight of the Jews in France as well as the heroic and terrifying roles women played in the War. If you dare to read this novel, you are guaranteed an adventure as you accompany downed fighter pilots through the mountains and provide false papers to Jews attempting to escape. Readers will get a first-hand look at the horrors of work camps and will observe the fear and hopelessness found there. Quite simply, I don’t think it is possible to experience The Nightingale and not be significantly changed. It is one of my top 10 novels of all time. I highly recommend it to book lovers everywhere!

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#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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