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it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.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.

View all my reviews.

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews.

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nonlinear narrative composed of straightforward, at times lyrical, writing, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave girl whose escape of the plantation leads to conflict and loss and love and meditations on what it means to be free. Whitehead’s writing is solid, but it took me a while to get into The Underground Railroad due to the conflict evoked in my brain by his portrayal of the railroad as an actual railroad running underground. Other than that detail, the story is richly textured with historical accuracies, many of which stirred up anger in myself toward the brutal history of this country and the so-called peculiar institution. I haven’t read much historical fiction since upper elementary and middle school, when I was basically obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s work, so it was interesting to jump back into the genre as an adult reading historical fiction written for adults. This work was eye-opening in a way that makes me want to go back and relearn history, which isn’t a bad idea considering the times we’re living in. Told in third person with sections devoted to different characters, but the core of the story being Cora’s journey out of slavery and into freedom, The Underground Railroad takes you along for the journey. I recommend climbing aboard.

View all my reviews

You may have noticed almost all of my reviews have 4 or 5 stars. That’s because I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life’s too short to read bad books. I only review the good ones.

Book Review: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

View all my reviews

Book review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A private plane crashes in the middle of a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Before the Fall tells the stories of the characters involved: the painter who survived, swimming the four-year-old child to safety; the flight attendant and the copilot; the media magnate and his political friend; the wife and mother, now survived by one child and a sister married to a struggling writer. This is a story told in scenes and glimpses. Hawley cuts back and forth through time and space, from character to character, weaving the complexity that, though fiction, is convincing enough that it could be reality. Why do accidents happen? Or do they? Is there truly such a thing as an accident? Was this plane crash intentional on some earthly or cosmic level?

I highly recommend this book. Hawley’s prose is textured with detail that paints vivid portraits of people and events without weighing down the story. Chapters vary in length, but all of them move quickly, and you’re left wondering, “What if …?” This was a book I had to discipline myself with late at night, forcing myself to stop and go to bed even though I could have kept reading and reading. I’m about to track down more books by Noah Hawley because one was definitely not enough.

View all my reviews

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories by Michael Brick

This past spring, I ordered a copy of Everyone Leaves Behind a Name after hearing about the book and its author, Michael Brick, on Gangrey: The Podcast. I frequently listen to podcasts like Gangrey, which interviews working narrative journalists, but this episode was different because instead of interviewing the headlining writer, all 51 minutes were a conversation about Brick between three other journalists.

Brick died of colon cancer in February. The Gangrey episode was done in his memory. Everyone Leaves Behind a Name is a collection of his work from places like The Dallas Morning NewsThe New York Times, and Harper’s. Proceeds from selling the book benefit Brick’s family.

A collection of true stories

brickAnthology became my favorite word when I learned it in grade school. The idea of a bunch of stories mashed together into one book so you could easily carry a bunch of quick reads got me excited the way some kids get about candy. Anthologies are now some of my favorite things.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name stands apart from many anthologies because . . .

– it’s a collection of true stories
– many of which were written for daily newspapers and
– could have been super dry, boring news writing, but
– actually breathe life into their subjects and
– make the mundane and everyday somehow profound.

Brick’s heart aspiration was to write music and his sentences often feel more like lyrics than prose. I had to read slowly to make sure I actually comprehended his work, because the words would pick me up and go and I’d finish a piece dazzled but unaware what the story was actually about (the irony: wordlover comprehension problems).

The pieces vary in length, setting, and subject matter, but all of them reach past the surface-level events and personalities into bigger questions about life and what it means to be human on this crazy spinning ball. The writing is dense with meaning, so a coherent brain is necessary for full comprehension. If your brain is like that right before bed, go ahead and curl up with it. I quickly learned I needed to read it during daylight with as little distractions as possible. Otherwise, my attempts to read were just disrespectful Brick’s work.

Brick’s writing is distinct from anything else I’ve ever read. A lot of narrative nonfiction goes in and out of narration for short bits of reflection, but Brick’s wove reflection into everything. His keen observation, not only of sensory action but of profound contradictions and character complexity, was present in every paragraph and sentence. It made me wonder if I’m as observant as I think I am. Would I pick up on those things or would I be too busy with my head down taking notes?

If you’re a writer trying to find your way in the written world, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name should be added to your reading list. Here is a man who stepped into reporting completely green, learned the trade, and put his own beautiful spin on writing for a beat. As an anthology, the book doesn’t require a commitment. You can pick it up for a few minutes, put it down for a few weeks or months, come back to it and not have to catch yourself up. It’s not an easy read — like I said, dense with meaning — but it’s rich and interesting.

(My favorite piece is “The Big Race”, one of the longer works which starts on page 123.)