Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neuroscience, the psychology of social conditioning, cultural paradigms, groupthink, the makings of successful businesspeople and leaders—all of these things come together in Susan Cain’s ultra-deep dive into introversion. Cain digs into studies, conducts her own on-the-ground research, and delves into her own experience as a consultant and, wait for it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.

As an introvert, I found this book both fascinating and confirming. Cain’s discussion of high-reactivity, elevated sensitivity, and sensory overload matched up with my own experience. A lot of the observations she shares in terms of balancing commitments with your available social energy are things I’ve learned on my own, particularly over the last few years.

Although the title may lead you to think this book is a constant slam on extroversion, it’s not. Cain points out the ways that modern Western society elevates extroversion and the blind spots that come with it (just because someone is the loudest person in the room—and thus, has everyone’s ear—doesn’t mean they have the best ideas), and she shows how making room for quiet people to contribute in a way that suits their temperament is beneficial for all. She also delves into how introverts can pass for extroverts and how sometimes that’s necessary, whether to get ideas into the world or accomplish a particular goal.

Quiet is a medium-length book as nonfiction goes and it’s rich with information, but it’s not dense and boring. Cain’s writing pairs a wealth of anecdotes with insightful information that frequently sparked my neural lightbulbs. And she writes to the everyday reader. Anyone who’s an introvert or extrovert or ambivert (i.e., everyone) and wants to better understand how they operate in the world—and how others of different temperaments operate—should pick up a copy.

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Book Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far FieldThe Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quietly devastating. That’s how I would sum up The Far Field. Vijay’s prose isn’t flowery or ornate. It tells the story simply, going back and forth in time as we follow the main character, as a child always close by her mother who doesn’t fit in the world she occupies and as a young woman after her mother’s suicide, trying and failing to find her own place in the world. She leaves home on a search for a man who used to tell stories to her and her mother, and the closer she gets to finding him, the more complex, ugly, she finds the world to be.

How do you know who you can trust? How do you know whose words you can believe? What is the actual truth and who has the power to decide whether the truth is declared as such or covered up with a stench of lies?

When you leave home and have a life-changing journey, can you ever fully share it with those you left behind? Why do people willfully leave everything they know?

The Far Field doesn’t blatantly ask these questions, but it pokes at them through the actions and observations of its characters. It’s not a fast-moving novel; it’s not plot-driven, but it flows steadily and just when you start to feel like nothing is happening, the story takes a jarring turn.

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Book Review: A Woman’s Place by Katelyn Beaty

A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the WorldA Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t want to feel like a burden. Try to imagine a man saying this—especially about his career—and it’s almost humorous. Try to imagine a woman saying it, and it seems like a mantra of femininity (page 215).

If you’re a working Christian woman, you’ve probably felt the tension. I know I have. There’s a sense in many Christian circles that for women, work is just a temporary thing you do until you get married and start having babies. Last fall, in a mostly good conversation with my older brother, he challenged my super-single self by telling me that being a wife was a calling, so if I had a strong sense of calling in another arena, that might be an obstacle to having a relationship. While I know his intentions were good in telling me that, the underlying assumption of his statement—that being a career-oriented woman is inherently incompatible with being in a marital relationship—is a symptom of a cultural paradigm that devalues the work of women out in the world and limits women to work within the home and family.

Enter Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place. This book has been on my list since it came out in 2016. I follow Beaty on Twitter and I found the book’s premise compelling. The premise: That God calls all women to work in some way and that work is a way of embodying the image of God.

A Woman’s Place tackles the cultural and historical factors that influence how we in the church see women and work in today’s western society. Key to her discussion are the Industrial Revolution, which separated work from the home (previously, men and women performed their trades out of their houses), and various philosophers and theologians who’ve reinforced the idea that women are somehow less than men. She also makes the point that the ability for a woman to not work for pay and instead just stay at home, keep house, and raise children is dependent on a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. If you’re poor, you do what you have to do to survive; poor women have always worked.

At the same time that she elevates and supports the work of women outside the home, Beaty also affirms the work of wives and mothers within the home. Work is not just what we do to make a living. “Work happens whenever we interact with the created world, laboring to make it fruitful and beneficial to ourselves and others,” Beaty writes on page 89.

I love to work. I always have. Since my first summer job as a teenager, I’ve enjoyed going to a workplace (or my computer) to accomplish specific tasks. I’m the rare person who doesn’t light up about the weekend and dread Mondays. I look forward to getting back to the office or wherever it is I’m working. Ambition could easily be my middle name, and it has nothing to do with the paycheck. It’s the sense of purpose and the ability to look back at a job well done and say, “I did that.”

Because I enjoy working, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, though not necessarily what it means as a woman—that question comes more into play within the context of the church (Beaty touches on this phenomenon). Beaty’s book wasn’t groundbreaking for me, but it put many of my thoughts into words while highlighting a lot of different people, groups, and initiatives that have done or are doing good work in the arena of faith and work for women Christians.

If you’re a working Christian woman, I highly recommend that you read this book. If you’re a Christian man who wants to better understand your own call in the workplace or the different obstacles that working Christian women face in the church, you should read this book. If you’re a church leader who wants to better serve women, you need to read this book.

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Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to describe in a nutshell. Beautifully written, but not fast-paced, it’s one you sink your teeth into and relish. Only nine chapters, but they’re long and told from different perspectives as you travel from Afghanistan to Paris to Greece to California and elsewhere. Hosseini doesn’t just tell a story — he truly weaves it, pulling at different threads until they come together in a tapestry meditating on the human condition and how we hurt the very ones we love the most. If you start this book, stay with it until the end. The last pages made my heart well with a sad kind of joy that only a master storyteller can achieve.
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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

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If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Book Review: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in FranceA Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was young, romantic, and naive when she set out to retrace her grandparents’ story, one she imagined to be like a fairy tale, full of love but with stars crossed that tore the two apart. What she found was much more complicated.

Mouillot’s grandparents were Jews in France during Nazi occupation in World War II. They successfully escaped to Switzerland where they stayed in refugee camps. Her grandmother was a doctor; after the war, her grandfather worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials.

Mouillot grew up in the United States, and as a child did not associate her grandparents with each other. They were never in the same place at the same time, and whenever her grandmother was spoken of around her grandfather, he scoffed and said something hurtful. When her grandfather decided to sell a ruined house in France — bought by her grandmother; the deed was in her name — a spark ignited in Mouillot to find out exactly what had happened between her grandparents. That’s what this book is about.

Written in smooth, vivid prose, A Fifty-Year Silence, tells the story of Mouillot’s efforts to solve her grandparents’ mystery while also finding and living a life of her own. It’s a beautiful book that makes the time period real to the reader. This isn’t just another book about World War II. It’s the story of real people with real lives who lived through a real, horrifying time in France and Switzerland.

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Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refreshing read for the discouraged creative soul, Big Magic is essentially a long, written pep talk encouraging you to stop quivering in fear about your creative projects and go out and make stuff already, for no reason other than:

a. It’s fun.
b. That’s what humans have always done.

I copied down quote after quote from Big Magic’s pages, on everything from trusting and surrendering to the process, to pushing past fear and perfectionism and refusing to accept that creative living is an inherently miserable way of life.

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Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachManhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New York City during World War II. A father who disappeared after getting tangled up with the mob. A daughter with secrets of her own trying to become a diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Manhattan Beach is about a father and daughter and the secrets that divide them — from each other and from everyone else around them. Richly textured with details that make you feel as if Jennifer Egan lived the story herself, this piece of historical fiction is expertly woven with complexity, strands from three core characters coming together to form a single narrative. No one is all good or all bad. Each character is given a depth that enables you to see them as three-dimensional human beings.

“It’s a pity we’re forced to make the choices that govern the whole of our lives when we’re so goddamn young,” a supporting character says late in the narrative, and that quote is essentially the theme of the book. However, even with the characters’ mistakes that can’t be undone, there is a presence of hope and redemption.

Manhattan Beach is not a quick read by any means, but it is a smooth read, one that keeps you engaged as soon as you crack it open. It’s one of those novels that makes you feel smarter after reading it, and not just because it’s so well-researched — Egan’s observations of humanity are worth paying attention to.

I recommend Manhattan Beach to the mature reader who is not bewildered by sexual content (the sexual content pertains to the story, but it is more detailed than some might be comfortable with).

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Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My expectations for this book were pretty high: I’ve followed Jason Fagone’s magazine work for a while and know him as a strong writer and evocative storyteller. I bought The Woman Who Smashed Codes for myself as a birthday gift and was excited to crack it open.

Let me tell you: It delivered above and beyond my expectations.

First, let’s just look at the physical hardback. Published by Dey St., an imprint of HarperCollins, the book is 444 pages thick (don’t let that scare you — notes and the index occupy a sizable chunk) and is beautifully designed. Many of the chapters have an accompanying photo on the first page and a quote to set the tone for the oncoming narrative. The typeface is welcoming to the eyes, and the paper is soft and thick.

Now, the writing. Fagone’s nonfiction narrative draws you into the story and introduces you to scenes and characters in a way that makes you want to keep reading and reading. The book is divided into three sections, each of which encompasses a specific period of time in Elizebeth Smith’s (later, Friedman’s) journey in codebreaking and in life with William Friedman. Each chapter ends with questions that drive the narrative forward, propelling the reader into the next chapter and then the next.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is truly narrative nonfiction. Thoroughly researched (with pages of notes to prove it) and grounded in history, it doesn’t at all read like a textbook. It reads like a story. One with surprises, mystery, intrigue, and even romance in various corners. The narrative about Nazi spy operations in South America was especially interesting to me, as I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, and the drama around U.S. government agencies, particularly the FBI versus everyone else, was fascinating.

This book followed through on the promise to educate and inform regarding World War II history and a particular woman codebreaker, while also entertaining and delighting on a storytelling level — from overarching narrative all the way down to the sentence level. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they know everything about World War II, has an interest in women’s history, or simply enjoys a good book.

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Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime: StoriesMusic for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book after attending a reading by Rebecca Makkai and connecting with her writing. This collection of short stories marries creativity and originality with compelling characters in sometimes absurd situations. Stories vary in length and subject matter, but all connect somehow to the theme described in the title, “Music for Wartime.” I’ve read collections before where every story is melancholy and depressing; this is no such collection. Some end sadly or on bittersweet notes, but all of them challenge the reader’s narrow vision of herself and others. And several of the stories wrestle with the question of forgiveness and when it can, cannot, should, or should not be extended to: Nazis, false lovers, relatives who carried out unquestionable wrongs. Highly recommend.

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