September 19, 2018

Book Review: Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

Present Over Perfect:
Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living

by Shauna Niequist

Genres: Nonfiction, Self Help, Memoir
Publisher: Zondervan
Length: 240 pages
Published: August 9, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"A few years ago, I found myself exhausted and isolated, my soul and body sick. I was tired of being tired, burned out on busy. And, it seemed almost everyone I talked with was in the same boat: longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy.

I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, writer, and I know all too well that settling feeling. But over the course of the last few years, I’ve learned a way to live, marked by grace, love, rest, and play. And it’s changing everything.

Present Over Perfect is an invitation to this journey that changed my life. I’ll walk this path with you, a path away from frantic pushing and proving, and toward your essential self, the one you were created to be before you began proving and earning for your worth.

Written in Shauna’s warm and vulnerable style, this collection of essays focuses on the most important transformation in her life, and maybe yours too: leaving behind busyness and frantic living and rediscovering the person you were made to be. Present Over Perfect is a hand reaching out, pulling you free from the constant pressure to perform faster, push harder, and produce more, all while maintaining an exhausting image of perfection.

Shauna offers an honest account of what led her to begin this journey, and a compelling vision for an entirely new way to live: soaked in grace, rest, silence, simplicity, prayer, and connection with the people that matter most to us.

In these pages, you’ll be invited to consider the landscape of your own life, and what it might look like to leave behind the pressure to be perfect and begin the life-changing practice of simply being present, in the middle of the mess and the ordinariness of life."


"Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness."


"This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It's a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it's about the single most profound life change I've yet encountered.

One Saturday, three years ago, I stared at the ceiling of a hotel room in Dallas, exhausted. I said to myself, 'If anyone else wants to live this life I've created for myself, they're more than welcome to try. But I'm done. I need a new way to live.'"

My Book Review:

I love the intent behind this book, the message that we are worthy and good enough and that we need to enjoy each moment of our life now instead of focusing on perfection or some point of happiness down the line. If this book helps someone to feel that worth about themselves, I am genuinely happy for them, but for me, this tone was cheesy and the book overall was not nearly as helpful, well-written, or thoughtful as Brene Brown's books.

Shauna Niequist aims to help her audiences feel present in their lives--to truly engage in the moment--and hopes to help them see that happiness and fulfillment often get lost in the hustle and bustle of life and neverending to-do lists, goals, and plans for the future. In this way, it felt derivative of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now or similar to some of the messages within Brene Brown's books (Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly)--all of which I recommend.

Though the message is solid, Niequist's advice, however, is ethereal, impractical, and not helpful. She enjoys her life the most when she spends weeks at a time renting a cabin on a lake in a quaint, quiet town. I'm sure many people would also feel wonderful about their lives if they were able to afford such luxuries and time away to reflect, but most cannot. Some of her suggestions include throwing candy and picturing love as a red heart shape. The book would have improved if Niequist spent less time projecting onto her audience with use of "you" and "we" as if she can speak for everyone, and instead focused her writing on providing more thoughtful and plentiful first-person "I" experiences and stories to share. After finishing the book book, I felt that I didn't know much about the author personally aside from her life on vacation. In some places in the narrative, audiences learn more about what she is eating than how she was purportedly changed her life.

One of my friends reviewed this book and wrote that maybe her expectations as a reader were too high; the same might be said of my own experience reading this book. I only recently discovered Brene Brown and when I saw that she wrote the forward, I assumed this book would be as good as if not better than Brown's. Consequently, I was somewhat disappointed.

September 17, 2018

Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by Randall Munroe

Genres: Science, Nonfiction, Humor
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 307 pages
Published: September 2, 2014
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD 'a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language' which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. 'My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ' He liked these questions so much that he started up What If.

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?
How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?
If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?
What if everyone only had one soulmate?
When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire?
How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?
What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read."


"They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places."

Alternate cover


"Q. What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmostphere retained its velocity? - Andrew Brown

A. Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting." 

My Book Review:

What If? documents Randall Munroe's attempt to provide the best, most thorough and scientific answers to some really out-there questions. I really liked the overall concept of this book because I enjoy asking questions and learning new, nerdy things. I often wonder and ask "What if?" and "Why?" so seeing someone with a NASA background and scientific know-how able to answers questions ranging from sincere to bizarre was fun.

That being said, the chapters themselves are rather hit-and-miss as far as interest level depending upon the question being answered. The book covers a wide range of questions, such as the velocity issue excerpted above, the danger of swimming in a radioactive swimming pool, if everyone on earth actually has a soulmate how the math and logistics would work out, to pointing a powerful laser at the moon. I liked Munroe's sarcastic and dry sense of humor as well as the stickman cartoons he inserts throughout the book to help audiences visualize the science behind his explanations.

I did listen to the audiobook and have to admit my mind wandered in and out of focus depending upon the topic at hand. If I'd had a physical copy, I might have read through the questions and just read particular chapters of interest, but I still listened to them all and enjoyed Wil Wheatley's performance as narrator.

September 14, 2018

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (Hunger Games series #3)

by Suzanne Collins

Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Length: 501 pages
Published: August 24, 2010
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: Spoilers ahead.

My Goodreads Ratings: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss's family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans -- except Katniss.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss's willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels' Mockingjay -- no matter what the personal cost."


"It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart."

Excerpt (from Chapter 1):

"I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?

Almost nothing remains of District 12. A month ago, the Capitol's firebombs obliterated the poor coal miners' houses in the Seam, the shops in the town, even the Justice Building. The only are that escaped incineration was the Victor's Village. I don't know exactly why. Perhaps so anyone forced to come here on Capitol business would have somewhere decent to stay. The odd reported. A committee assessing the condition of the coal minds. A squad of Peacekeepers checking for returning refugees.

But no one is returning except me."

My Book Review:

Another 3-star rating for Mockingjay, the last installment in the series though the second-half of this book was my least favorite part of the series.

Unlike most readers, I actually preferred the first half of this book, the part where Katniss is basically catatonic, depressed, suffering PTSD, and hiding in broom closets. I hope people don't read too much into that because generally speaking that sounds like a terrible plot for a book, but it appealed to me because it was more honest about the trauma of Katniss's experiences. If she'd just jumped into battle or war with the Capitol and not been a bit messed up, I probably would have set the book down. I kept reading, however, because she was damaged and that made sense. She seemed genuinely conflicted and I thought that made sense.

By the book's second half, I was a bit exhausted from reading about all of the violence and I had mixed feelings about the ending (there seems to be some general consensus about this). If Katniss had to choose someone (could the series have ended another way?) I guess choosing Peeta makes more sense because there's no way anyone can sanely decide to have a romance with the dude purposely responsible for killing your sister--that's just messed up.

Overall, the series is really successful because Collins did so well creating this other world. I felt I could visualize Panem in my mind, there were interesting characters, conflict, and compelling reasons to keep reading. I can understand some readers' objections to the series--it is extremely violent--but if you consider Greek and Roman myths as a background or jumping off point, the modern-day dystopia was an intriguing idea.

It's been so long since her last novel was published--eight years--that I'm wondering where her writing career will go from here. In 2013 she published a picture book, Year of the Jungle, about a girl whose father is serving in the Vietnam War, but since then it's been silent. What do you hope Collins writes next?

September 12, 2018

Book Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (Hunger Games series #2)

by Suzanne Collins

Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Length: 497 pages
Published: September 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: Spoilers ahead.

My Goodreads Ratings: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games with fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark. But it was a victory won by defiance of the Capitol and their harsh rules. Katniss and Peeta should be happy. After all, they have just won for themselves and their families a life of safety and plenty. But there are rumors of rebellion among the subjects, and Katniss and Peeta, to their horror, are the faces of that rebellion. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge."


"I always channel my emotions into my work. That way, I don't hurt anyone but myself."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"By noon they will all be at my new house in the Victor's Village. The reporters, the camera crews, even Effie Trinket, my old escort, will have made their way to District 12 from the Capitol. I wonder if Effie will still be wearing that silly pink wig, or if she'll be sporting some other unnatural color especially for the Victory Tour. There will be others waiting, too. A staff to cater to my every need on the long train trip. A prep team to beautify me for public appearances. My stylist and friend, Cinna, who designed the gorgeous outfits that first made the audience take notice of me in the Hunger Games.

If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol's way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate." 

My Book Review:

3 stars for the second installment in the series.

After reading The Hunger Games, I was curious to see where Collins would take the story. I imagined a massive rebellion against the Capitol was forthcoming, but I did not anticipate Katniss and Peeta having to go back in the ring and that, for me, really made Catching Fire quite engrossing.

I appreciated that Katniss was angry and confused and broken after surviving the games--any other reaction would have been insincere. When President Coin announced that the players would be reaped from the existing victors, I was definitely hooked.

Again, some of the dialogue was cheesy but I liked the action and forward movement. The cliffhanger at the end of book two was a smart move by the author: even if I was bothered by elements of the writing quality, I knew I'd fork over more money to buy the last installment because at this point I had to know what would happen. I've stopped reading many YA series halfway through, so if an author can drive me forward and keep me wanting to read the next installment, that says a lot.

September 10, 2018

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games series #1)

by Suzanne Collins

Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Length: 374 pages
Published: September 14, 2008
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: Spoilers ahead.

My Goodreads Ratings: 3.5 stars for the writing, 4 stars for the concept

Official Book Summary:

"Winning will make you famous.
Losing means certain death.

The nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America, is a country that consists of a wealthy Capitol region surrounded by 12 poorer districts. Early in its history, a rebellion led by a 13th district against the Capitol resulted in its destruction and the creation of an annual televised event known as the Hunger Games. In punishment, and as a reminder of the power and grace of the Capitol, each district must yield one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 through a lottery system to participate in the games. The 'tributes' are chosen during the annual Reaping and are forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory.

When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart Peeta, are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature."


"You don't forget the face of the person who was your last hope."

Excerpt (from Chapter 1):

"I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat cheese wrapped in basil leaves. Prim's give to me on reaping day. I put the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip outside.

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn't until two. May as well sleep in. If you can."

My Book Review:

I believe I've now read the entire series three times. I give The Hunger Games 3.5 stars for its writing, but 4 out of 5 stars for its concept.

Collins's dystopian, Juvenalian, satirical design for this novel is pretty fantastic. The way she pulled from classical mythology to create a post-apocalyptic, North American society where citizens are divided, classified, and controlled by a dictatorship is brilliant and horrifying. She does well immediately pulling in her audiences by the end of Chapter One as Katniss volunteers as tribute, thus saving her younger sister's life but possibly sacrificing her own.

The dialogue in this book--and the entire series--is admittedly pretty terrible and cheesy. All of the kissing scenes and Katniss somehow being able to miraculously divine long, meaningful messages from Haymitch's sponsor gifts during the games is ridiculous, but the more forgiving you are of the writing the more you can enjoy the story.

Flaws aside, The Hunger Games is a compelling read and one I've enjoyed rereading for pleasure. This may be one of those rare instances where the movie might be better than the book, but the movie wouldn't be here were it not for the book's success.

One last note: Read the book instead of listening to the audiobook for this series. The audiobook narrator isn't a good match for Katniss's voice and tone. She's a fine reader, but she comes across as a bit too mature for the role of a teenager.