Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim
Published by Beyond Words Publishing
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Twenty-four authors share their perspectives on faith in this diverse collection of essays. Zackheim chooses essays about having faith in God, losing faith, having faith that there is no God, and everything in the middle. Most people interested in the subject of faith will find something to take from this collection.

The writing in this essay collection is great. Zackheim clearly pulled out all the stops to get some authors who would contribute truly thoughtful, interesting, and beautifully written pieces. Of course I was more drawn to some of the essays than others (as is typical with any essay or even short story collection) but overall I found something to think about in each one, which is a success in my book.

Oddly enough, the essays that appealed to me the most were those from atheists and agnostics. I guess I never thought of atheism or agnosticism as a faith-based position, to me before reading this collection both those things mean the absence of faith. But I was surprised to find myself nodding along with a lot of what was explained in those essays – many of the authors have faith in their beliefs, too. Just because their belief is that my God doesn’t exist doesn’t make it any less valid of a belief. I think this would be a valuable read for any Christian who finds him/herself having difficulty understanding and/or dealing with atheists and agnostics in their lives. I personally learned a lot and found myself coming to a deeper understanding of what it really means to be atheist or agnostic.

I was most disappointed by the fact that there was nothing in here from people who believe in non-Western religions. I wanted to read not only about Christianity and Judaism, but about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, anything other than my own religion. I didn’t find much of that, which was really disappointing in a book that was supposed to be about all kinds of faith (at least, that’s what I was expecting).

I liked this collection a lot but the absence of a lot of world religions made me ultimately not as excited about it as I wanted to be. It’s worth a read, though, and the essays really are very well thought-out and beautifully written.

Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling

Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her HomeSomewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling
Published by William Morrow

From the publisher:

On March 17, 2009, Laura Ling and her colleague Euna Lee were working on a documentary about North Korean defectors who were fleeing the desperate conditions in their homeland. While filming on the Chinese–North Korean border, they were chased down by North Korean soldiers who violently apprehended them. Laura and Euna were charged with trespassing and “hostile acts,” and imprisoned by Kim Jong Il’s notoriously secretive Communist state. Kept totally apart, they endured months of interrogations and eventually a trial before North Korea’s highest court. They were the first Americans ever to be sentenced to twelve years of hard labor in a prison camp in North Korea.

When news of the arrest reached Laura’s sister, journalist Lisa Ling, she immediately began a campaign to get her sister released, one that led her from the State Department to the higher echelons of the media world and eventually to the White House.

Somewhere Inside reveals for the first time Laura’s gripping account of what really happened on the river, her treatment at the hands of North Korean guards, and the deprivations and rounds of harrowing interrogations she endured. She speaks movingly about the emotional toll inflicted on her by her incarceration, including the measures she took to protect her sources and her fears that she might never see her family again.

Lisa writes about her unrelenting efforts to secure Laura and Euna’s release. Offering insights into the vast media campaign spearheaded on the women’s behalf, Lisa also takes us deep into the drama involving people at the highest levels of government, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Senator John Kerry, and Governor Bill Richardson—intense discussions that entailed strategically balancing the agendas and good intentions of the various players. She also describes her role in the back-and-forth between North Korea’s demands and the dramatic rescue by former President Bill Clinton.

Though they were thousands of miles apart while Laura was in captivity, the Ling sisters’ relationship became a way for the reclusive North Korean government to send messages to the United States government, which helped lead to Laura and Euna’s eventual release.

I’ve been on a bit of a North Korea kick lately – seriously guys, I am fascinated by this dark and terrifying place – and when a blogger reminded me about this book, I knew I had to read it. I am a huge fan of Lisa Ling – I think her journalism is smart and brave, and I truly admire her for the stories and truths she’s been able to bring to the public eye – and while I was less familiar with her sister Laura, I was still very interested in this harrowing story.

Somewhere Inside was everything I expected. What Laura Ling experienced was truly terrifying, and something that just shouldn’t happen in this world. She literally stepped a FOOT onto North Korean soil (which, she admits, was a huge mistake) and was immediately arrested and brought to a North Korean jail for months. What she experienced was atrocious and scary and almost unbelievable. But the most unbelievable part, to me, is that compared to actual prisoners in North Korea (non-famous ones), she was treated exceptionally well. She was fed regular meals, allowed to receive letters and a few packages from home, given an English translator so she could understand what was said to her, and guarded twenty-four hours a day by two women whose company she actually ended up enjoying. Her extraordinary ordeal was nothing close to paradise, but even she admits as she reflects upon her time there that it could have been much, much worse.

Lisa Ling’s story is almost as terrifying as her sister’s, just because there were so many unknowns in her situation. She is an incredibly famous person with a lot of political connections, but even she had extreme difficulty securing her sister’s safety – and came very close to not doing so at all. She had to walk on eggshells for this entire time in fear that she could do one wrong thing and they would execute her sister. She had to rally every single political figure she could think of (including President Barack Obama) on just the slightest chance that one of them would have enough pull with the North Korean government to get something accomplished. And she had to do all this while reassuring the rest of her family that somehow she would be able to get it done.

Like all of the other books I’ve read about North Korea, Somewhere Inside serves as a reminder of how horrific the regime in North Korea is. There are no words to describe how closed, strange, oppressive, terrifying this society truly is. If nothing else, this book will remind you of how lucky you are to live anywhere but there.

I would be remiss not to mention that, of course, this book is written exceptionally well. Two journalists coming together can obviously put together a coherent and well-written memoir, but these sisters really did an excellent job.

Highly recommended!

The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long

The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental IllnessThe Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long
Published by Hudson Street Press

From the publisher:

Liza Long is the mother of a child with an undiagnosed mental disorder. When she heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, her first thought was, What if my son does that someday? She wrote an emotional response to the tragedy, which the Boise State University online journal posted as I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. The post went viral, receiving 1.2 million Facebook likes, nearly 17,000 tweets, and 30,000 emails.

Now, in “The Price of Silence “she takes a devastating look at how we address mental illness, especially in children, who are funneled through a system of education, mental health care, and juvenile detention that leads far too often to prison. In the end she asks one central question: if there’s a poster child for cancer, why can’t there be one for mental illness? The answer: the stigma. Liza Long is speaking in a way that we cannot help but hear, and she won’t stop until something changes.”

I wanted to read this book because I, like most people in the country, am saddened and shocked by the school shootings that have happened over the last fifteen or so years, and my background in psychology has me absolutely convinced that mental illness is the culprit for most (if not all) of these horrific acts. I am not a mother, but I cannot imagine what it might be like to be a parent of a child that chooses a crime like this, and I was interested to hear from the point of view of a mother who believes – as Long does – that her child is capable of something like this, if not under proper medical care.

It’s clear from the very beginning of Long’s book that she is one hundred percent devoted to her children and would do absolutely anything to ensure that they get the love, attention, and proper medical care they need and deserve. In addition to her son who has mental illness (she calls him Michael in this book, though that’s not his real name), she has a son older than him and a younger daughter and son. In addition to being a full-time working mother, she is also divorced from the childrens’ father. To say that her life is overwhelming is an understatement. When she describes dealing with Michael’s terrifying rages and tantrums, threats and physical altercations, it’s almost too much to comprehend.

What was most enlightening to me about The Price of Silence, and I think a lot of readers will agree, is just how backwards and unhelpful the mental health system in the United States truly is. Long describes a world in which it’s better for a mentally ill child to go to jail than be subject to whatever psychological help her insurance will pay for (usually none). She describes a life in which she takes her son to doctor after doctor and is told time and time again that he’s just being a boy and that hitting, screaming, and terrorizing his younger sister are normal behaviors for a child his age. She describes a world in which being white and middle class puts you at a distinct advantage in the mental health care your family can receive, but even that care is paltry at best – so what about the rest of America, the ones who don’t fall into that space of privilege?

I think that Long is incredibly brave for writing this book and I definitely think it’s a necessary contribution to the body of work on this topic. Since I applaud her so sincerely for her courage in writing about her family and her son so candidly, I don’t want to say much that’s negative about the book but I also have to be honest. I found some of the book to be redundant and it seemed like (at times) she kept repeating the same message over and over again. I also wasn’t wowed by the style of writing – I kept reading it because the information itself was fascinating, not because I was particularly compelled by the way that information was presented.

That being said, however, I do recommend The Price of Silence to everyone. It’s important to at least hear the voice of someone else before you begin judging them. I know parents with unruly children are judged instantly – maybe people should stop and think that perhaps that child has something deeper going on than just bad parenting. If nothing else, this book reminded me that you never know what someone is going through until you hear it from them, until you walk in their shoes. And of course, having an untreated mental illness is in no way an excuse for committing unimaginable crimes, but it is important to understand that there’s usually more to those criminals than simply being horrible people. They are usually suffering immensely before making the devastating choice to retaliate with violence. Anyway, The Price of Silence is good! It’s a very important book and I think you should read it.

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
Published by Crown

From the publisher:

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society–from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.

Perhaps most inspiring, she introduces us to successful introverts–from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Finally, she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child to when it makes sense to be a “pretend extrovert.”

This extraordinary book has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.

This book was all over the blogosphere in the past couple of years, which should surprise exactly no one, since many bloggers consider themselves introverts. I have always known that I’m more introverted than extroverted, but was interested to see what this book could teach me about myself and was wondering if I’d even be surprised by some of Cain’s findings and conclusions. And I was fascinated by this book – it was everything I was expecting and hoping for, and I came away from it with a better understanding of the introvert/extrovert spectrum and how I fit into that mix.

I truly believe that all introverts, and anyone who is married to, dating, friends with, or close family members with an introvert (so probably everyone) should read this book. I recognized myself in so much of what Cain talked about and it was interesting how much I recognized other close friends and family members in my life – even people I would have sworn were extroverts!

I found the sections on successful introverts very interesting and I saw myself in a lot of the people Cain spotlighted. I too am a “pretend extrovert”, especially at work, where I have to talk to strangers all day long. Small talk has never been fun for me, but I am able to fake it when I have to and I know that even though I may feel awkward inside, people have no idea that I am any less than completely comfortable with meeting new people in the workplace. I also loved what she had to say about introverts in leadership positions, because I’m in that exact situation and I found myself recognizing a lot of the strengths she mentioned in myself. Reading about how successful introverts can be in leadership positions boosted my confidence and made me even more ready to embrace my introverted self, even while in my management position at work.

There’s a lot that I could talk about in regards to Quiet but honestly, I’d rather you just read it for yourself. There’s so much to think about and discuss in this book and I so highly recommend it. This was the one book I was really hoping to get to this year, and I’m so glad I gave myself the opportunity to read it right at the start of the year. Please read this!

Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 4

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing Company
Review copy provided by Netgalley

I loved The Rosie Project so I was super excited to see that Simsion wrote a sequel. In this book, Rosie and Don have been married just under a year when Rosie becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, this sends their relationship into a tailspin – the two of them aren’t communicating, Don has moved a friend into their apartment, and Rosie continues to insist that everything is fine even when it so obviously is not.

I have to be honest and say that I was so disappointed in this book. What was endearing and cute about Don in the first book became redundant and quite annoying in this one. Further, it bothered me how Don and Rosie both acted exactly in character, yet for some reason neither one was able to figure out how to deal with the others’ issues – even though they figured out how to communicate and get along perfectly fine in book one! Wouldn’t you think that Rosie would understand how Don sees the world and acts in the face of adversity and know how to handle it when things out of the ordinary happen (as she did in the first book)? And vice versa? I was, quite frankly, bored with most of the book and if I hadn’t gotten it from a review copy source I would have abandoned it. I like Simsion’s writing but I’m ready for him to create some new characters.

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
Published by It Books

I have been a fan of Amy Poehler since she was on Saturday Night Live. I love Parks and Recreation (and really, really don’t want this to be the last season – SO SAD!) and I knew I’d read this book as soon as I could. Yes Please was everything I wanted and more. Funny, honest, authentic, true, Amy Poehler is everything and I just love her. Everyone says that the audio is better than print, so I may have to reread it this year in audio format. But either way, it’s fantastic and if you are at all a fan of Poehler’s, this is a must-read.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged HospitalFive Days at Memorial: Life and Death at a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sherri Fink
Published by Crown

If you haven’t heard of this book, chronicling the five days nurses, doctors, patients and their families spent at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, you must have been living under a rock. I am here to tell you that the praise this book has received is absolutely worth it, Five Days at Memorial is an incredibly fascinating, if terrifying, read. There’s so much here to think about and discuss it boggles the mind but the biggest lesson I took from this book is that disaster planning is so necessary, especially for big companies. There are individuals who Fink kind of points the finger at here, but at the end of the day, the structures that are supposed to be in place to protect people from having to make life or death decisions in the face of very little food, sleep, and water were just not in place here. I cannot recommend this book enough. I didn’t put it on my end of year survey because I hadn’t quite finished it when I wrote that, but Five Days at Memorial is one of the best books I read all year, hands down. And the audio production is fabulous. Please pick up this book in audio or print – either way you will not regret it.

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 3

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the WestEscape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Adult

I read this book because a customer at my job recommended it to me during a discussion of the book (and now movie) Unbroken. And also, I had just finished Without You, There is No Us and wanted to read more about North Korea (I still do. Recommendations, please.). Let me just say that anytime I read anything about North Korea, I am never not shocked and heartbroken. That was the case with Escape from Camp 14, without a doubt. I learned more about this atrocious dictator and how he keeps his people enslaved and malnourished and completely ignorant about the rest of the world. In this book, the man who escaped lived in what was basically a death camp, only they don’t outright kill people there, just overwork and underfeed them and get them to have no relationships with one another so they end up either dying of starvation or disease or another prisoner or guard kills them for something horrifyingly insignificant. It’s awful and sad and I don’t even know what to say.

Here’s the thing about this book, thought, that I didn’t like so much. It’s not written by the guy who actually escaped, Shin Donghyuk. Instead, journalist Blaine Harden tells his story for him. For whatever reason, this format just bothered me. I know that Harden spent tons of time with Shin and really got to know him, and I’m sure he knows his story inside and out, but there’s just no way that he can possibly fully understand what Shin has been through. It seemed to me that this format kept the book at arm’s length for me and I would have been much happier reading a book that Shin wrote about his own experiences.

All that being said, Escape from Camp 14 is incredibly fascinating and I would still recommend it. This stuff is happening in our world, RIGHT NOW, and we need to be aware.

YouYou by Caroline Kepnes
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

So. This is a book about a stalker, from the stalker’s point of view. The “you” in the title is the girl he’s stalking. He’s basically writing this book to her, so it reads kind of like this: “I watch you as you get ready for work and you are so beautiful it almost kills me” (I made that line up, but that’s the general idea).

This book is so freaking creepy but it was really good, too. It’s almost weird for me to say a book THIS creepy can be good, but truly I couldn’t put the thing down. The crazy part is that the girl he’s stalking actually becomes friends with him and they kind of start dating … well, read it to find out more. But it got me thinking about all kinds of things like how well do we really know the people we surround ourselves with? You is really good and if you can handle the creep factor, definitely pick it up.

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

This one is hard for me because I had very, very high expectations. Several people who have very similar reading tastes to mine named it their favorite book of the entire year. I went in expecting to be blown away, and while it is an excellent book and I did really like it, it isn’t my favorite ever.

There’s a lot going on in All the Light We Cannot See, but basically it is set during World War Two, and it’s about two people: Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in Paris with her father, and Werner, a young German boy who joins the Hitler Youth and ends up being an asset to the Nazis as he has a special talent with radios. I liked the alternating focus between the two – the quick pace kept my interest throughout, and I got to the point towards the end when I was just frantically turning pages to get to how this book would end. I liked how the book explores what this war did to ordinary people, and it was particularly compelling reading about how the Nazis groomed the Hitler Youth to become killers, basically.

I really liked this book, a lot. But it wasn’t my favorite ever and definitely wouldn’t make a top ten list for the year, either. I’ll just take this as yet another reminder that not all books have to be the best, and I shouldn’t have such high expectations.

Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 2

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family TableDinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table by Jenny Rosenstrach
Published by Ecco

Blogger Jenny Rosenstrach has finally decided to put together the story of how she came to be the incredible cook she is, why she values family dinner time so much, and how the average person with a million things to do and a job and a life and kids can make it happen, too.

I feel like it’s not even fair for me to review this book because I haven’t actually cooked anything from it (yet) but I LOVED it so much that I have to share it with all of you! There’s a lot more to this book than family recipes – although there are a ton of those, of course. It’s full of advice and helpful hints and tips and tricks and ways to simplify cooking and dinner so that it’s doable for any family of any size and any level of busyness. Also, the author tells her own story, allowing the reader to get to know Rosenstrach herself – and she seems like a pretty awesome person, I must tell you. I unfortunately got this from the library and had to return it before I could cook something from it, but I plan to check it out again very soon and make something. All of her recipes are in the easy-to-medium range and I feel confident that I can make just about anything in this book. I’m very excited to try something!

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
Published by Crown
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Journalist Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary/teacher at one of North Korea’s most exclusive and elite universities, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, for six months. Her memoir of her time there is fascinating and incredibly sad. I am honestly shocked and baffled that there is a country in the world, that RIGHT NOW, is this way. These people are so repressed, so completely in servitude to their Dear Leader, so unknowledgable about the world around them, it truly baffles the mind. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that it should be required reading for anyone who cares at all about the world, and please read it for yourself to understand what I mean. Craziness, folks, is what this is.

A Share in Death (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James, #1)A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
Published by Avon

This book is the first in a long series about Scottish detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Everyone raves about this series so I thought I’d finally give it a try. A Share in Death takes place at a vacation cottage where Kincaid is trying to relax and take his mind off work, when a gentleman who works there is killed, and of course Kincaid can’t help but get involved in trying to solve the murder.

I liked this book well enough but wasn’t wowed by it. I think because so many people LOVE this series I was expecting a little more. It was your average mystery to me, nothing too special. I liked the characters, though, and I can see how there will be chemistry between Kincaid and James going forward, so I may continue with the series at some point. It’s just disappointing when you go into a book expecting to be blown away and it doesn’t happen.