Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My "Top Books of 2013" List

I started compiling an annual "Best of" list a few years ago for my Meridian column and the hardest part is always whittling down the list of books that had a profound influence on me over the course of a year to a manageable size. Torture!

Unlike other "Top of 2013" lists, the only limit on mine is that I read the books during 2013.  Most of them were not published this year. And I refuse to limit myself to 10 or 12 or any other random number.  And I can't possibly rank them.

The books on this list are the ones that stayed with me after I read them, that I still think about, that changed the way I view the world or challenged my preconceptions or shook me up a bit. And that's why I love them.

Best General Non-fiction
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger
The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
1491 by Charles C. Mann

Best LDS Non-fiction
Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide by Grant Hardy
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince
Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, Glen Leonard

Best Spiritual/Religious Non-fiction (not LDS)
Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Evans Held
Faitheist by Chris Stedman
Project Conversion by Andrew Bowen

Best Fiction
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Best Children's
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

Best Young Adult Fiction
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 46

Just a bit more Christmas music to finish off the season...

Aaaaand a gratuitous picture of my boys
in their new, matching Christmas (Avengers) pjs!


Honestly, the choreography in this video annoys me just a wee bit, but the music is beautiful.  This is one of those carols that makes me smile.  Here's "Ding Dong Merrily on High":


Sissel's voice is so pure and crystal clear, exactly right for "In the Bleak Midwinter", and how can you go wrong with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing backup?  I love the message of the last verse, one that President Monson has quoted several times.


I usually like my Mannheim Steamroller in small doses, but this version of "Still, Still, Still" is so peaceful and soothing, I can put it on an endless loop.


I'm partial to German carols, perhaps because 15 years ago I got to spend some time in Vienna, Austria, during the Christmas season. "Ihr Kinderlein, Kommet" is known as  "O Come, Little Children" in English, but I love the original German lyrics.  In this upbeat version, Placido Domingo sings with a children's choir:

Hope yours was a Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas to All!

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish,
but have everlasting life.

"For God sent not his Son into the world
 to condemn the world;
but that the world through him
might be saved."

(John 3:16-17)

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 45

It's Christmas time! I love Christmas music, so today I'm sharing some of my favorite pieces with you, with another four to follow next week (yes, it'll be after Christmas, but we can still enjoy beautiful music!).  
Gratuitous picture of our
eclectic Christmas tree.
I think it needs some garland...

First up, a Christmas country/gospel/Southern rock offering from Sawyer Brown: "Hallelujah, He Is Born!"  I just want to dance when I hear this song!


There are hundreds of wonderful arrangements and performances of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", but I love this instrumental version by The Piano Guys:


Boys' choirs just sound like Christmas to me.  Here's the King's College Choir with "Good Christian Men, Rejoice!"


Joan Baez's voice is perfect for this haunting Appalachian carol, "I Wonder As I Wonder"

Bonus Christmas song

Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie, one that must be watched (and sung along with) every year.  This happy song always makes me smile: "One More Sleep Til Christmas".

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

It's been almost two months since I finished the book.  I shouldn't have waited this long to write this review.  At first I put it off hoping I'd come up with something interesting to say about it if I just let it percolate for a bit.  And then I put it off because I'd already put it off for a while and I had other books I'd rather read and review.  But it's been sitting in my drafts folder long enough, so for what it's worth, here are my almost-two-month-old thoughts on The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.

First of all, it's incredibly unfair to saddle a debut novelist with a title like "the next J.K. Rowling." It puts her at a disadvantage right from the start and sets expectations so high that it is inevitable that she will not be able to live up to them in the eyes of many who will (unreasonably) expect the emotional engagement of the entire Harry Potter series, including the catharsis of a decade's worth of investment in the characters, to be crammed into a single book.

No pressure.

But The Bone Season suffers under more than outsized expectations.  It groans under the weight of the author's own broad ambitions.  There's something for everyone!  Fantasy and science fiction (which are not one and the same!), aliens and magic, dystopian future and social commentary, action, betrayal, intrigue, romance.  Did I leave anything out?

Set in London about 50 years in the future, the story throws the reader into the deep end immediately. I'm all for world-building, but Ms. Shannon overwhelms the reader from the get-go with complex, inter-related societies, social and governmental hierarchies, various classes of clairvoyants with a dizzying array of mental powers, and tons of new terminology.  And then, just a few chapters in, our young protagonist, Paige Mahoney, is captured and tossed into a completely new setting - Oxford this time - with a whole different set of rules.  Simply put, it was confusing and I spent more time trying to sort these two worlds out than getting into the characters and the story. As a result, I just couldn't care as much about Paige or any of the others as I knew I was supposed to.

Perhaps it would be better on a second reading with a bit of familiarity and if I hear good reports of the second book (out of a planned seven), I may give it another shot.

The Bone Season
by Samantha Shannon
ISBN: 9781408836422
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn

A charming, if somewhat flawed, story, The Autobiography of Santa Claus delves into the history of Saint Nicholas as it overlaps world history, from the perspective of the jolly old "elf" himself.

Santa's voice is intriguing, and hearing his story from his own perspective was a fun gimmick, as he uses the difference between illusion (which can be explained) and magic (which can't) to describe how his personae has grown and the legends around him grew over hundreds of years.

One of the most entertaining aspects is how Nicholas collects "helpers" throughout the years.  He simply stumbles upon famous people who happen to have skills he needs in order to fulfill his mission of providing gifts to children all around the world.  For example, he recruits Leonardo da Vinci when he needs help inventing and building new toys for his expanding list of boys and girls.  Then when several writers embellish the stories and attribute Santa's speedy transportation to flying reindeer, Santa relies on da Vinci to figure out how to make his sleigh and reindeer airborne.

Mr. Guinn seems to have a "thing" for historical name-dropping.  So many other famous figures show up and are drafted as Santa's Helpers: King Arthur, St. Patrick, Charlemagne, Francis of Assisi, Marco Polo, Benjamin Franklin.  Sarah Kemble Knight familiarizes the group with the New World.  Amelia Earhart uses her talents to organize worldwide flight plans.  Theodore Roosevelt smooths the way with other world leaders to allow Santa access to other countries. Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and many others publicize the story of Santa, increasing the anticipation surrounding the visit of St. Nick.

It's entertaining to see how Mr. Guinn incorporates various Christmas legends with historical events.  Virginia's famous letter to The Sun is included, as is Franz Gruber's writing "Silent Night."  The events surrounding the writing of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and A Christmas Carol are explained, as are the reasons St. Nick visits different areas of the world on different days, and why Christmas wasn't always celebrated everywhere (for example, the Puritans banned it, and Santa loses his magic anytime he travels too close to wars or fighting).

The biggest disappointment is the lack of character development for anyone other than Nicholas, including the person I was most interested in: Mrs. Claus.  She started out a thousand years ago or more as a girl named Layla.  Inspired by the early stories of someone sneaking into the homes of poor families at night and leaving gifts and money for the children, she took up the task on her own until the night she and Nicholas happened to hit the same tent at the same time.  So much potential for rich character here!  But they decided to get married pretty much immediately and from then on she made fat jokes about her husband, needled him about his weight and little else.  The conversations Guinn wrote between characters were rushed, stilted and trite, and almost exclusively expository.

The Autobiography of Santa Claus is a fun, seasonal read, but it just didn't reach its full potential for me.

The Autobiography of Santa Claus
by Jeff Guinn
ISBN: 9781585422654
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Every once in a while, a person comes along who seems to exist on a different, more fearless plane than the rest of us.  Malala Yousafzai is one of those.

Malala is remarkably self-possessed at the age of 16, but that makes sense when you consider that she's been giving interviews since she was 11 and participating in public speaking competitions even before that.  Speaking up and speaking out came naturally to her at an early age and that shows in I Am Malala.

Her father, an educator, is obviously a huge influence in her life.  He dreamed of opening a school and his determination to provide an education for all children, both boys and girls, regardless of their ability to pay, is admirable.  He taught Malala that "there was nothing more important than knowledge" and "If you want to resolve a dispute or come out from conflict, the very first thing is to speak the truth...You must speak the truth.  The truth will abolish fear."

It's impossible to know exactly where Malala's words end and her co-author Christina Lamb's begin.  They provide an outline of Pakistani history, and specifically of her home area, the Swat Valley.  She chronicles the devolution of their way of life as the Taliban took over.  "The Taliban became the enemy of fine arts, culture and our history...The Taliban destroyed everything old and brought nothing new...We felt like the Taliban saw us as little dolls to control, telling us what to do and how to dress.  I thought if God wanted us to be like that He wouldn't have made us all different."  They destroyed 400 schools, set a deadline for all girls' schools to close, attacked and murdered public figures they thought were "un-Islamic".  As the Taliban's influence expanded, "every day seemed like the worst day; every moment was the worst. The bad news was everywhere; this person's place bombed, this school blown up, public whippings. The stories were endless and overwhelming."

Despite threats and escalating violence from the Taliban, Malala was fearless.  "In my heart was the belief that God would protect me.  If I am speaking for my rights, for the rights of girls, I am not doing anything wrong.  It's my duty to do so.  God wants to see how we behave in such situations...If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it? I wondered."

She frequently points to the Quran for support of her views.  "In the Holy Quran it is not written that men should go outside and women should work all day in the home."  "The Quran says we should seek knowledge, study hard and learn the mysteries of our world."  "There is a saying in the Quran, 'The falsehood has to go and the truth will prevail.'"  She speaks of her love of God and her trust in Him, her confidence that she is following His plan for her.

For all that Malala is fearless, noble, and wise beyond her years, she also comes across as a pretty normal teenage girl.  She loves reading and mentions a wide range of reading material throughout the course of the book: Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, physics textbook, and Twilight.  Seriously, the vampires made it all the way to Pakistan.  She's also a pretty typical big sister, fighting with her little brother and smugly noting that even after she was shot and recovering in Britain, "my brother Khushal was as annoying as always...I quickly realized I could treat [my brothers] how I liked and I wouldn't get told off."

Malala mentioned something remarkable in her interview with Jon Stewart that she also said in her book.
Like my father I've always been a daydreamer, and sometimes in lessons my mind would drift and I'd imagine that on the way home a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps.  I wondered what I would do.  Maybe I'd take off my shoes and hit him, but then I'd think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist.  It would be better to plead, 'OK, shoot me, but first listen to me.  What you are doing is wrong, I'm not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school.'
She even wants to reason with her enemies, those who literally want to kill her.  No one is exempt from her drive to better the world.  "We human beings don't realize how great God is," she says, "I know God stopped me from going to the grave.  It feels like this life is a second life.  People prayed to God to spare me, and I was spared for a reason--to use my life for helping people." And she is.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
The Malala Fund
ISBN: 9780316322409
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 44


We're coming to the end of the Little House series.  We just wrapped up the eighth book, These Happy Golden Years, which ends with Laura and Almanzo's simple wedding in Reverend Brown's front parlor, and only have the very short The First Four Years left.

After supper the night before Laura and Almanzo got married, Laura brought Pa his fiddle and asked him to play.  He rosined his bow and started with Mary's song, "Highland Mary" (which I linked to in my Friday Four a couple of weeks ago, so you can go listen to it again here if you'd like) and then "he played all the old tunes that Laura had known ever since she could remember."
The fiddle sang on in the twilight.  It sang the songs that Laura knew in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and the tunes that Pa had played by the campfires all across the plains of Kanses.  It repeated the nightingale's song in the moonlight on the banks of the Verdigris River, then it remembered the days in the dugout on the banks of Plum Creek, and the winter evenings in the new house that Pa had built there.  It sang of the Christmas on Silver Lake, and of springtime after the long, Hard winter.
Reading this scene aloud to the boys I started to get all choked up and had to stop for a bit to collect myself before continuing on.  There are precious moments in your life when you know change is coming - big change - and even though you know it's a good kind of change, it still means leaving behind something you love.  Laura loved Almanzo and wanted to marry him, but it meant she would no longer live with her family, and quiet evenings listening to Pa play the fiddle would be a rare occurrence.  

Pa ended the evening with "Love's Old Sweet Song":


I saw this one on tumblr a while ago, but it's stuck with me so I thought I'd share.  Students at Cambridge University in England, both women and men, were asked why we still need feminism.  The answers were thought-provoking, pointed, and personal, including:

I need feminism because...
* there are still no famous female economists.
* 1/3 of 10 year old girls' biggest worry is their body.
* people still ask what the victim was wearing.
* I used to think calling my brother a girl was a legit insult.
* I considered not getting this photo taken because I'm not wearing makeup.

Of course, there are several other similar lists on tumblr: here, here, and here for starters.  (Better slap a language warning on here, some of the statements include profanity.)


Netflix is both a blessing and a curse.  It's great to have such a wide catalog of films and TV series to choose from, but it's sure easy to get sucked into a many-hundreds-of-hours commitment.  Over the past year, Gene and I have watched six seasons of Burn Notice and all five seasons of Alias, and the entire twelve seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Gene finished out Battlestar Galactica, and I'm now working my way through The West Wing.  Great shows, but man, I'm a little embarrassed when I think about just how much time it's taken up...


I printed out several of these Christmas coloring pages for the kids at my church to color at the ward party tonight.  Nice, simple activity to keep them busy.  I'm thinking I'll print some out for my own kids, too!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I'm Famous! Or, Mormons & Interfaith Involvement

Back in July, the official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Ensign, posted a request on their facebook page for pictures of Latter-day Saints involved in interfaith activities.  A friend gave me a heads-up and I sent in a picture of me, my mom, and my sister at the Faith Feast this past April.  I'd pretty much forgotten about it until my facebook page was bombarded last week by friends commenting that they'd seen my picture in The Ensign and so I clicked on over to read the article they'd wanted these interfaith pictures for.

"Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement" is a stand-out article by Betsy VanDenBerghe (here's a link to a pdf of the article if you'd like to see all the pictures).  It contains wonderful counsel and great examples of Latter-day Saints working with those of other faiths to improve their communities, strengthen friendships and relationships, and serve others.

We are unashamedly a proselytizing faith. However, I'm afraid that in our missionary zeal we forget that other approaches are sometimes necessary and far more effective when building relationships with others and working toward a common goal.  The final aim isn't always - and shouldn't always be - conversion.  Sr. VanDenBerghe says:
I gratefully follow up on anyone’s interest in learning about the Church, but I also know that we Latter-day Saints take Jesus’s charge seriously to love our neighbor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:34–36) without expecting the conversion of the recipient or those who serve with us. Sincere and respectful interfaith engagement never requires any group, including ours, to disavow its beliefs. Rather, it encourages participants to “contend against no church” (D&C 18:20) and “clothe [themselves] with the bond of charity” (D&C 88:125)...My experiences in community and educational causes have convinced me that the Spirit is strong when diverse people unite in a worthy mission. Brotherly love and pure motives propel service forward even more than the hard work involved.
Among other things, Sr. VanDenBerghe draws on some comments Elder Jeffrey R. Holland made when he spoke to a group of national Christian leaders in 2011, and adds her own experiences to his:
In his address to Christian leaders, Elder Holland acknowledged the “risk associated with learning something new about someone else. New insights always affect old perspectives, and thus some rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable.” In befriending people of other faiths, I often find myself analyzing our differences, trying to distinguish the cultural divides from the doctrinal ones, all the while trying to appreciate everything virtuous and lovely they have to offer. Indeed, the effort sometimes feels risky, but it is always worth it. In the process of restructuring my paradigm, I find myself shedding more of my superficial cultural tendencies and coming closer to the essence of the gospel.
I appreciate Elder Holland's acknowledgement of the "risk associated with learning something new" and that "rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable."  That's a good thing!  As scary and "risky" as it feels, "it is always worth it."  I whole-heartedly agree.  

As with Sr. VanDenBerghe, this has been one of the most valuable aspects of interfaith interactions for me, too.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a monopoly on the truth, and recognizing the good and beautiful, the virtuous and lovely, truths in every faith helps me feel closer to others and closer to my Heavenly Parents.  We, as Their children, have far more in common than we do in conflict:
Serving alongside others not only helps them to understand us, but it also motivates us to learn from them and become more aware that God is “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35). He assists good people in all faiths and cultures in their efforts to improve the lives of His children.
This recognition of the good in others helps us remain humble—as opposed to the Pharisees Jesus condemned for their spiritual pride (see Matthew 23) or the Zoramites, whom the Book of Alma portrays as exclusive and arrogant (see Alma 31). Openness to the good in others enables us to become better people.
That's what we're working for, isn't it?  We want to become better people.  So I'll learn all the good I can from Muslims, Sikhs, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Jews, atheists and every other person I come in contact with.  And hopefully, they'll be able to learn something good from me as well.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 43


Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday.  He was the most universally admired man I can think of and, as the Onion put it in their obituary: "Certainly people have felt a sense of sorrow at the deaths of politicians in the past, but Nelson Mandela’s death is the only one on record that people everywhere unanimously agree has left the world notably worse off."

A couple of years ago, I read Playing with the Enemy, later renamed Invictus to match the movie made based on it and starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.  If you have some time and would like to learn more about this amazing man, I highly recommend it.  Read my goodreads review to get a taste of it.


I enjoyed this heart-warming story of people paying it forward in small-town Idaho restaurant.  Emmett is actually pretty close to where my in-laws live, so maybe I'll have to go check it out some day.


Rosalee Ramer is the newest person on my list of people to watch.  Rosalee is 16 years old, a professional monster truck driver - yes, you read that right - and got a 2160 on her SATs, including a near-perfect 780 on the math portion. You can watch a video of Rosalee driving her monster truck here.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu worked alongside Nelson Mandela in South Africa, fighting apartheid and speaking out for equality.  (You can read Archbishop Tutu's beautiful eulogy of Mandela here.) I loved his recent book God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations (read my goodreads review, which consists mostly of amazing quotes from the book, here).  Recently, I ran across another quote by him that struck me with its optimism and infinite possibilities:

"Do your little bit of good where you are;
it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

Little bits of good are manageable.  I can do little bits of good.  You can do little bits of good.  And maybe that's enough to affect some change for good in this world.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

While there were humorous moments, I admit to being a bit disappointed in Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns.  I chuckled occasionally, but I never felt the need to roll on the floor laughing or even read a bit out loud to my husband, which I usually do when I find a passage amusing.

The waitlist for the print edition was long, so I checked the audiobook version out of the library - read by the author herself, of course - and listening in bits and pieces while driving my kids to tae kwon do or cub scouts or preschool may have made the book seem more disjointed than it really was.  (There is one chapter that is comprised of pictures from Ms. Kaling's phone, though, so when my place in the queue came up I checked out the book as well just to get the full impact of Ms. Kaling's effort, and to make sure I quoted her accurately below.)

Ms. Kaling does get in some poignant social commentary, particularly about body image and bullying.  Describing her childhood struggles with weight and the meanness of some of her classmates, she shares some brief scenes of bullying she endured both before and after some radical weight loss and notes, "Bullies have no code of conduct."  True dat.

She offers hope to the "quiet, observant kids" in high school who were never the lead in the school play, the star of the football team, or the class clown and points out the "wasteful frivolity" of a high school life modeled after Beverly Hills 90210 or John Cougar Mellancamp singing "Jack and Diane".  "Are you kidding me?  The thrill of living was high school? Come on, Mr. Cougar Mellancamp.  Get a life."

Her description of romantic comedies gave me a new lens through which to view the genre and may just increase my appreciation for these films.  She considers romcoms to be "a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world."  Her listing of the romcom stock characters - or "many specimens of women who I do not think exist in real life" - is spot-on and highlights the ridiculous caricatures found repeatedly in the genre.

I'm not a huge fan of The Office, but I enjoyed reading (hearing) about her exploits as both an actress and a writer for the hit NBC show.  I also appreciated the humility she showed in including some stories that don't show her in the best light, such as the fight she had with her agreeable and mild-mannered boss, Greg Daniels, which ended with him inviting her to leave if she couldn't get on board.  After stomping out with her wounded pride, she eventually returned when she realized how foolish she'd been to walk out on her dream job.

I loved her description of her parents' marriage - they're "pals" - and her plea to all those who are married. "Married people, it's up to you.  It's entirely on your shoulders to keep this sinking institution afloat  It's a stately old ship, and a lot of people, like me, want to get on board.  Please be psyched and convey that psychedness to us.  And always remember: so many many people are envious of what you have."

With that, I've pretty much exhausted the highlights of this book for me.  (Except for the brief shout-out to Mormons on page 158.)  And that's not many highlights for a 200+ page book written by a funny woman whom I admire. Maybe you'll find it funnier than I did.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
by Mindy Kaling
ISBN: 9780307939807
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).