Here are quick reviews of three great books I’ve read recently…
Magi by Daniel L. Gilbert
Here it is, that book I referenced here that is the first fiction book I’ve been able to get into in years: Magi by Daniel L. Gilbert. I discovered it when our priest mentioned it in a homily — one those sermons that couldn’t have spoken more directly to me if the priest had mentioned me by name — and I went immediately to the bookstore after Mass to look for it.
One of the reasons it appealed to me is because it’s a historical fiction about the “wise men from the east” who brought the child Jesus gifts as described briefly in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. I’ve always wondered about the logistics of that: I mean, in the days before you could hop a flight and take a cab from the airport, how did people travel long distances? What sign was it that drew them to Christ? Obviously we can’t know for sure, but I enjoyed Gilbert’s imaginings of the arduous journey these men undertook. If nothing else, I found the insights into the logistics of ancient middle eastern caravan travel fascinating. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the story is based on more than 10 years of historical research, considering how vividly Gilbert paints the picture of the journey.
The main reason I loved this book, however, is because it’s the story of something all believers can relate to. The back cover describes it as a “Christmas book, ” but I think that that’s a much too confining description: it’s the story of following a call. I loved how the author portrays these people as real people with the all-too-human struggles that we all face, even when (perhaps especially when) we’re trying to do something we think God wants us to do.
For example, the main character, a Parthian priest named Ramates, is excited to undertake this mission because he truly wants to pay homage to the Messiah…yet he also can’t help but have his motives influenced by the fact that, if he actually were to find the Messiah, it would undoubtedly mean great fame and status for him back in his homeland. He also has moments of doubt where he wonders if this entire journey was a mistake, that he misinterpreted God’s message about what he’s supposed to do. And he goes in expecting that God’s plan for him is rather glamorous, imagining presenting his gifts to the Messiah amidst the applause of royalty and Jerusalem’s highest priests, only to find out that those were just projections based on his own selfish wishes, and that God’s plan was something much more humble. Needless to say, I could really relate this character.
If you have any interest in historical fiction or stories about following God’s call, you’ll love this book. And it’s short — I got through it in just four days! I highly recommend it, and think that even non-Christians would find it to be an interesting, enjoyable read.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
HOW did I not know about this book? I can’t believe I’ve been writing for so many years and just now discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (thanks to blog readers telling me about it).
I knew I was going to love this book when, only twenty-something pages in, she explained the importance of giving yourself permission to write a bad first draft…and then admitted that when she does she’s often consumed with fear that she’ll die before she has a chance to edit it and people will think that this was the best she could do. You mean I’m not the only one who’s had that thought?!
The book is full of other heart-felt, practical wisdom like this:
If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.
Another thing that made this book great is that, unlike so many of the “writing advice” books out there, Lamott is a bestselling author herself. She’s able to shed some insight into what it’s like to actually achieve the classic writer’s dream of having an acclaimed, bestselling book — and her insights on that are helpful and surprising. She writes of publishing her first book:
I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.
But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is…That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
I’ve read a lot of books about the craft of writing, and this is definitely at the top of the list. It’s humble, hilarious and full of wisdom. If you have any interest in writing at all (and can stomach a little profanity), go buy this book right now.
Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder by Susan C. Pinsky
I read this book a few months ago, and it’s had a big impact on the way I approach organizing my home. Even though I’ve never been diagnosed with ADD (despite a trip to a fancy psychologist at the adamant insistence of my elementary school teachers), I have enough ADD tendencies that these tips were really helpful.
Susan Pinsky wrote the book after years working as a professional organizer who specializes in helping people with ADD (in addition to being the parent of a child with ADD). The fact that she has so much hands-on experience really shines through in the book — you can tell that she’s learned the hard way what really works for the long-term (and what doesn’t) for people who are easily distracted.
The overall idea of the book is that, in order to get organized, people with ADD need to drastically reduce clutter and create extremely simple systems that cut out every possible step. At first I thought her emphasis on cutting out even the smallest steps seemed extreme (e.g. not having lids on daily-use storage boxes)…and then I caught myself going to put some old toys in a box, feeling a little overwhelmed about getting to it since it had a tight lid and was covered by another box, and in the split second of hesitation that ensued I somehow ended up thinking about a new way to get stains out of the laundry and absent-mindedly placed the toys on the couch as I wandered off to grab the laundry basket, only realizing later that I never put them away. So, yeah…eliminating even the simplest steps is really helpful.
Though I found that many of the specific tips either weren’t necessary for me or wouldn’t work in my household, I found the concepts to be extremely helpful, and even the tips that didn’t work for me offered great food for thought.
Even if you don’t technically have ADD, if you tend to have a “Ferrari brain with Chevy brakes” (as the author puts it so well), if you constantly find yourself overwhelmed and distracted while trying to tackle even the simplest household tasks, you’ll find this to be a really helpful book.
Those are my recent reads. Anyone else read anything good lately? Any thoughts on these books?
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