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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group–which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalypse stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor-sharp ‘modesty vision’ that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.

Verily, verily I say unto the, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the End of the World. Selah.

girl at end of worldThis is how Elizabeth Esther describes her upbringing in her memoir Girl at the End of the World. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through Waterbrook Multnomah’s Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.) It’s a sardonic summary of her early life, and the truth is: it was much worse than that.

Girl at the End of the World is a raw and gritty account of the cult known as The Assembly that Elizabeth was raised in, and the painful path she took to freedom from a strict fundamentalist upbringing, which included daily spankings and confession of sins real and imagined. She asked Jesus into her heart thousands of times and lived in fear of being “left behind” when the Rapture occurred.

I have never been in a cult nor experienced the level of brainwashing and strict morality the author describes, but it wasn’t hard to identify with aspects of the book. To me, it was a warning against an atmosphere of control and conformity under the pretense of unity. And it’s an honest picture of brokenness, healing, forgiveness and grace. Elizabeth’s pain is real, and I found myself aching with her losses and cheering for her freedom.

I appreciate, too, that this is not an all’s-well-that-ends-well kind of story. She is honest about her recovery and the struggles she still has with the thoughts and experiences that shaped her upbringing. Still, there is hope. Girl at the End of the World might not make you feel good but it will remind you that God’s grace is extravagant and His love is big and some people misuse His name and the Bible but God is still leading people to walk in freedom with Him.

If you’re unsure about the book, you can read Chapter One here. There is mild use of language that some might find offensive, and I only tell you that so you aren’t surprised if you do read it. It does not take away from the overall value of the story.

To learn more about the author, you can visit her website, find her on Facebook or connect with her on Twitter.

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Brenda Spahn was so eager to share hope with women inmates she once broke into a prison.

Sound crazy?

It was. But it’s not even half the story of how a successful businesswoman in Alabama redirected her passion for making money to rehabilitating broken lives.

miss brendaMiss Brenda and the Loveladies is the story of how it all started. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers through the Blogging for Books program  in exchange for my review.)

Brenda Spahn has spunk, and she won’t take no for an answer, even when she has no idea what she’s getting herself into. When her tax preparation business came under scrutiny for some alleged improper practices, Brenda and her daughter, an employee of the company, faced possible jail time if found guilty. When they were spared serving even a brief sentence, Brenda realized she wanted to minister to women in prison because she could have been one.

The road was rocky at first, and she admits she was in over her head. She wanted to share a message of hope and thought she could just walk into a prison and do that. Eventually, seeing the need for a place for recently released women to turn their lives around, Brenda opened her lavish home to seven female ex-cons from the roughest women’s prison in the country.

Everyone expected her to fail: the state, her family, the women themselves. But Brenda didn’t give up, even at personal cost to herself and her family. She now runs the largest transitional center for women in the country.

Her story is eye-opening and sad. I cried reading about how prisoners are treated in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Their humanity and dignity are stripped from them, and they are often given no hope to ever change. Brenda challenged that idea and opened what she called a “whole-way” house, as opposed to a halfway house, to aid their restoration.

It’s also funny and inspiring. I laughed picturing some of the ridiculous situations Brenda and the women often found themselves in, and I cheered for victory over each obstacle Brenda faced.

This is a book that will challenge readers to reform their own way of thinking, especially when it comes to the idea of God changing hearts. The work Brenda is doing is proof that He can restore and redeem even the worst of life’s trials. It was a reminder to me of the very real horrors people face and that even those who have committed crimes are people with hurts and hopes.

Brenda describes her own change of attitude this way:

Hearing their stories changed me. Yes, most of them had done bad things. But, oh my, most of them never had a fighting chance. … Truth was, I believed that these women had deserved what they were getting. Now I knew their stories. What so many of them “got” was not anything anyone should ever get … They were survivors, and many were trying to live on, even though they barely had a chance. (32)

The stories told are gritty and raw at times, including “colorful” language. I appreciated that it was left in for the tone and topic of this book. Though that may bother some people, I think it’s appropriate for accuracy and reality.

I’m not sure I could do what Miss Brenda did, but man, am I challenged to live the Gospel in a radical way. Almost no one thought her idea was any good, and now the good she has done is immeasurable.

Click here to find out more about The Lovelady Center and the work they do. And you can read the authors’ bios here.

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After reading a book about simple living, my thoughts are anything but simple.

notes blue bikeIn her memoirish book Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World, Tsh Oxenreider lays out a blueprint for living a life with purpose. Because, honestly, aren’t most of us just drifting wherever the current takes us? (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Thomas Nelson through the BookLook Blogger Program in exchange for my review.)

Oxenreider and her family have lived overseas and in the States. They’ve homeschooled and public schooled. They’ve worked “regular” jobs and started their own business. They’ve traveled extensively. They’ve paid off debt. And though all of that is part of their journey to live a more simple and more intentional life, none of it was, or is, easy.

And that’s a major plus to this book. I’ve read other books on simple living that are more legalistic manifesto than guided invitation. Notes from a Blue Bike is the latter. Oxenreider doesn’t pretend that what has worked for their family will work for every family, but she encourages families to make a plan for intentional living. Because being intentional won’t just happen.

The book is divided into sections–food, work, education, travel, and entertainment–and in each one, the author draws from her family’s experiences and how they arrived at the current stage of their journey. After the food section, I was so inspired that I was ready to make sweeping changes to our family’s eating habits and food purchases. Now that I’m finished with the book, I’m taking seriously her encouragement to identify our family’s core values so we can make decisions based on those values.

I’ve dog-eared as many pages as not during my reading, and I’d encourage any who has dreamed of living a more intentional life but can’t figure out how to do it, to get a copy of this book. But be warned: it won’t be easy. Oxenreider confesses that living more slowly, more simply and more intentionally was easier when they lived overseas. American culture is not always conducive to this type of life and making changes will seem like swimming upstream at times.

That doesn’t scare me. It excites me.

Notes from a Blue Bike is in the top tier of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year and would make my list for most influential books I’ve ever read.

You can read more about the author at her Website here or at The Art of Simple, a blog she directs on this topic.

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In the summer of 2007, a quiet community in Lancaster County, PA was shocked by a triple murder: three family members brutally stabbed in their home. Their college-age daughter survived because she was home earlier than expected.

In the summer of 2007, I was on my honeymoon, starting married life in Illinois. If I heard anything about this tragedy, I don’t remember, nor did I ever think I’d live in the same county where it took place.

I learned about these events through a book, written by a man with connections to the crime. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the authors in exchange for my review.)

Refuse to Drown front onlyRefuse to Drown by Tim Kreider and Shawn Smucker is the story of a father who lost his son. Because his son committed the crime.

Kreider’s son Alec was 16 when the murders occurred. He was best friends with the teenage son who died. For a month the murders went unsolved, and the Kreider family worried about the effect on Alec’s emotional and mental health. Then one day, the unthinkable happened: Alec confessed to the crime while receiving psychological treatment at a nearby mental health center.

Refuse to Drown is Kreider’s account of the month before the confession and the year that followed. In it he recounts his inner turmoil of making the unimaginable decision to turn in his son to the police, knowing that it would change all of their lives forever.

While much attention and sympathy is directed toward the families of crime victims–and rightly so–much less is given to the families of those who commit the crimes. Refuse to Drown is a powerful reminder that suffering occurs on both sides of a tragedy.

Kreider is courageous to go public with his story, even after six years have passed, because he opens himself to criticism for sharing it all. I’ve already seen comments to that effect. I don’t know the man, but his words on the pages don’t sound like a man out to hurt or cause pain. He’s deeply troubled by his son’s actions and has wrestled with his own actions as a father, wondering if he could have somehow prevented the act.

He speaks, and writes, his story today in an effort to draw other troubled teens out of their darkness and into the light. Kreider founded a non-profit aimed at helping people discover that they are not alone in their trials and struggles.

Refuse to Drown isn’t an easy book to read. The first few chapters read like a crime drama, full of suspense as you realize the killer is living in the house with the Kreider family but isn’t showing any clues that he did it. Then, when Alec confesses, the agony of his father’s decision is heartbreakingly honest. He doesn’t deny the temptation to protect his child and cover up the truth. Nor does he sugarcoat the emotional, physical and spiritual toll the tragedy took on his family.

He makes some poignant observations. Here are a few that stick with me.

Before the confession, these words:

“I am your father,” I told Alec many times in those days. “I love you and will always be here for you, no matter what.”

No matter what.

Have you ever thought about those words, what they actually mean? Sometimes we say those words and have no idea what the “what” might someday be. (42)

Later, after his son’s sentencing, Kreider describes what it’s like to visit him in prison. And he says this:

Sometimes I think, When I’m an old man, coming here to visit Alec, this is going to be a long walk. … I wonder who will visit Alec when his mother and I are gone. (185)

And a closing thought:

We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we experience difficult moments, even if those moments turn into months or years. But what do we do with those moments? Do we give up and let them win, or do we refuse to drown and fight back to the surface?

Tim Kreider is a man who knows difficult moments and has come through them. His story is encouraging and full of hope for those in the midst of troubling times.

The book is available here and you can find updates on the story, as well as interviews with the author, on the Refuse to Drown Facebook page.

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Ad: I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because crime doesn’t pay (but Grammarly does!).

It’s one thing to know you’re an introvert. It’s another thing entirely to know why and how it affects your behavior.

QUIET_paperback_High-Res_JacketThis is what Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking has done for me. Part psychology study, part story, Quiet is a book I could not put down. And for non-fiction and me, that’s rare. Nearly every time I opened the book, I was hit with a new revelation about myself and my behavior. Meticulously researched, Cain writes in a way that is engaging and entertaining, not at all dry.

I don’t know at what age I started identifying myself as an introvert, but at least in my adult life, it’s something I’ve pretty much always accepted. And  it’s sometimes felt limiting. Like I couldn’t speak or lead or teach or make a real difference in the world because of my personality.

Cain’s book is an encouraging and empowering look at how introverts can make a difference because of, not in spite of, how they’re wired. We don’t have to be more like extroverts to be heard. For me, that is good news.

Quiet does not elevate introverts at the expense of extroverts, either. Cain emphasizes the need for both types to work together and not for one to become more like the other. Being an introvert is often seen as a weakness or defect in some professions, and Cain proposes that introverts can be an asset, even in those arenas that seem to favor extroverts. She also encourages introverts to find balance. If they have a job that requires more extroverted behavior, then they need to find balance by staying home at night more often or finding quiet time in the midst of the day. Even the floor plan and layout of desks in an office can affect an introvert’s mood and productivity.

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I found myself playing extrovert daily. Phone calls. Interviews. Four-desk pods instead of cubicles. I see now that I would have been more effective, confident and satisfied in my job if I’d found these areas of balance Cain suggested.

Quiet is an invaluable resource for introverts and extroverts. For introverts, it’s encouraging and empowering. For extroverts, it’s eye-opening. I’d recommend it for either group, especially if you’re an extrovert leading an organization or are in a marriage between an introvert and extrovert. I learned some new things about my husband, an extrovert, and how we can better navigate our relationship. Cain includes insights and tips for parenting, too, which I found helpful. I believe we’re raising one of each–an extroverted daughter and an introverted son–and how we parent them will be different based on how we, the parents, are wired, too.

Overall, I call it a must-read. Period.

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A note about Grammarly: I first encountered Grammarly because of its clever writing-, word- and grammar-related posts on Facebook. I was offered a free trial and compensation in exchange for the text ad at the top of this post. I used the service on this post to check for grammar and plagiarism issues. The first time, I chose the wrong style of writing for review. There are six types to choose from; I picked “business” first which gave me a horrible rating. The second time around, I chose “casual,” which much more suits the style of this post. Better. I haven’t yet used Grammarly extensively, but I like the idea of it, especially if you’re writing a lot of papers. Check it out. It certainly won’t substitute for a human set of proofreading eyes, but it seems like a good second set of eyes. I’ve got a degree in communication and Grammarly is something I’d seriously consider as part of my writing toolbox.

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“There are a million reasons why upstanding moral men don’t belong in strip clubs. A million. … We couldn’t get past the idea that maybe there was a noble reason for a good man to frequent a brothel, after all.” (The Exodus Road, p. 31)

Matt and Laura Parker didn’t make the decision lightly. Missionaries living in Malaysia at the time, they were increasingly aware of the horrors of trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, happening not only in the country but in their community. When confronted with the realities, they couldn’t sit by and do nothing. So, Matt started going in.

laura-book-quote

In The Exodus Road: A Wife’s Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue, Laura Parker writes about their experiences with the culture and the beginning stages of rescue from her perspective, as a wife and mom. It’s an honest and eye-opening look at the process the couple went through when deciding how to take action. What resulted is an organization, The Exodus Road, that works with local non-governmental organizations and undercover investigators to locate and document illegal activity in the sex industry. Their work began in Southeast Asia, and they now  have partners in India. exodus-road-book-274x300

I’ve been blogging for The Exodus Road for a year now. (Read my first post here.) And I love the work they do. What the Parkers discovered was a need for people to get in the fight. There were organizations focusing on prevention and aftercare but not a lot of people were going into brothels to gather evidence and initiate rescue.

The book tells the before story. The website tells the continuing story. And while I wanted more of everything from the book–more stories, more details, more chapters–it serves as a good introduction for someone new to the anti-trafficking movement. And it really is just the beginning of the story. Rescues are happening. Investigations are continuing. They are in the fight, and they are doing good work.

And while the Parkers write and speak from a Christian perspective because they are Christians, they don’t limit the work of The Exodus Road to only Christians. They cross cultural, religious and national boundaries to work together for the sake of rescue. It’s a beautiful thing.

I appreciated this book from a wife’s perspective. It would have been easy for Matt to write about his side of it, or for them to write a book together about what they’ve seen happen with The Exodus Road. But I think it’s good to have Laura’s words about her struggles and her journey to accept this part of their calling.

You can learn more about their work at http://theexodusroad.com. In their short life as a non-profit, they’ve supported nearly 200 rescues and have dozens of ongoing investigations.

“Justice is in the hands of the ordinary,” they like to say.  Their story may never make the big screen, but they are doing the work of heroes. Every. Single. Day.

Justice-in-the-hands-of-the-ordinaryI encourage you to consider how you can join the fight.

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I didn’t plan it this way, but I’m glad it worked out. It’s the first week of Advent, the time we focus on hope, and Pete Wilson’s book Let Hope In, is an encouraging resource for those of us who find it hard to hope. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Thomas Nelson through the Booksneeze program in exchange for my review.)

let hope inIn it Wilson presents four choices he calls life-changing. I was afraid he was going to oversimplify or oversell it, but it’s clear from the beginning that Wilson is not preaching self-help. In fact, he says it’s impossible. The harder we try to change ourselves, overcome our past or rid our life of sin, the less change we actually experience. His encouragement is to seek transformation instead of transferring blame, to accept that we’re not okay, to trust God rather than aim for people pleasing, and to offer freedom instead of hurt to others.

I didn’t know much about Wilson before I picked up his book, but I find his writing style approachable. He shares stories of his family and friends, of his personal struggles with sin and temptation. He doesn’t speak as a preacher from a high pulpit but as a guide on level ground with fellow travelers.

Hope is a tricky thing, hard to grasp sometimes and even harder to maintain a hold on, but Wilson has given it flesh.

Practical. Realistic. Attainable.

Our choices can be the door that lets hope into our lives.

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Two verses. One powerful message.

In her new book, God Is Able, Priscilla Shirer breaks down Ephesians 3:20-21, familiar words from the apostle Paul, in a fresh and encouraging way. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

Here are the words on which she bases the book:

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

god is ableI will confess: this book made me nervous at first. I wondered if she was going to promise that God would answer every prayer if we just had enough faith to believe, or something along those lines. And I wondered if she had any hard places from which to draw her experience. It’s easy to place a Bible teacher, speaker or author on a pedestal of ease, thinking they’ve never had to deal with hardship.

I’m glad to say I was wrong on both accounts.

Shirer makes it clear from the beginning that she has experience with seemingly impossible situations. She lists some of them. And that she’s not promising results. She writes:

Just because God can doesn’t mean He will.

But just because He hasn’t doesn’t mean He won’t.

The bottom line is that He is able. (p. 13)

And it’s that theme, the title of the book, that carries through the book. Each chapter focuses on a word or a phrase from the verse in Ephesians, and I appreciated the chance to dig in to a set of verses that I sometimes gloss over.

Shirer is realistic and encouraging. She exudes hope, which is hard to handle sometimes when you’re in the midst of hopelessness, but doesn’t deny that life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to.

Whether or not God CHOOSES to do something is a question of His sovereignty, not His ability. Whether or not He WILL do it is His business. But believing that He CAN–that’s our business. (p. 62)

A tough assignment, especially for those of us with a tendency to want to fix and do something about our problems.

Shirer writes with boldness, humor and honesty. I appreciate her authenticity, and the book was so encouraging I wish I’d had a copy a year ago when life seemed impossible.

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Are you in the same boat? Because I’ve got a copy to give away. Leave a comment on this blog post. You can share about your impossible situation or simply tell me that you need this book. I’ll pick a winner on Sunday night, November 24.

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For years, I’ve been eager for the next stage of life. The next move. The next … whatever. And I realized that in the process, I was missing out on the right now.

Jeff Goins’ new book The In-Between meets me where I’m at and propels me not toward the next thing but toward the now. The-In-Between_KD-570x868

He writes: “Maybe the ‘good stuff’ isn’t ahead of or behind us. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. Right in the midst of this moment, here and now.”

The In-Between is a book about waiting, and while that might not sound interesting (I’ll admit, I was skeptical), in truth, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (And I received a free digital copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Goins has an approachable style of writing where he hits on some big spiritual truths but not in an in-your-face way. It’s like meeting a friend for coffee and listening to him tell stories. That’s what he does here, tell of his in-between experiences, when he was waiting for the next big thing, the next stage of life, the next step in God’s plan for his life, and what he learned.

Throughout the book, Goins offers us the opportunity to embrace the waiting times and let them shape us. One of the most powerful statements of the whole book is this: “Maybe, I thought, God is less concerned with exactly what I’m doing and more concerned with who I’m becoming.”

Challenging and freeing at the same time.

I connected with it in so many ways. (And while it’s subtitled “a spiritual memoir” I didn’t really think of it that way. But that’s not a drawback.)

It’s a short read, full of encouragement and honest looks at the times when Goins got it wrong. His honesty and openness about his life is one of the charms of his writing.

If you find yourself in a period of waiting, you’ll find The In-Between a helpful resource to endure it, and maybe even enjoy it.

Watch this book trailer for more of a taste of the message.

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I started using vinegar (and baking soda) as a cleaner a few years ago when money was tight and we didn’t have extra funds to spend on cleaning products. Until then, I’d heard that there were natural, non-toxic, non-chemical alternatives, but I didn’t give them much thought.

Then I started using them. And learning more. And the more I learn, the more I find there is to learn.

Enter the Green Grandma, aka Hana Haatainen Caye, blogger, writer, and overall inspiring woman. Her blog is a wealth of information about green alternatives, lessening our harmful environmental impact, and healthy living. I met Hana at a one-day writers’ conference a few years ago when I was still a bit skeptical and uninformed about all this green living stuff. Over time, her words, the information she’s shared, have contributed to some gradual changes in my family’s life.

vinegarOne of the past features on Hana’s blog was Vinegar Fridays. She’d share a tip about how to use vinegar for cleaning, health or beauty. It was here I learned that I could use it as a fabric softener instead of the liquid stuff, especially when hanging my clothes out on the clothesline. She compiled these tips into a book, Vinegar Fridays, and holy cow! If I wasn’t already impressed with vinegar, I would be after reading this book. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Vinegar Fridays from the author in exchange for my review.)

Did you know that vinegar can help relieve sunburn? Or work as a fabric refresher to dispel odors? Or can repel bugs?

Maybe you did know that. And I don’t want to reveal all of Hana’s amazing tips, so let me just say this:

Reading Vinegar Fridays made me want to clean my whole house.

Want to. I almost never want to clean my house. But Hana makes it sound fun and safe and effective. And if all you need is a jug of vinegar, and occasionally some baking soda, then there’s no lugging around a bucket of cleaners that leave you woozy from the smell.

Vinegar Fridays offers tips for more than just cleaning. Facial masks. No-pooing (in place of shampooing). Salad dressings (of course!) And other health-related remedies.

Seriously. I feel like I’ve been missing a valuable resource for my home. I can’t wait to stock up on spray bottles and start trying out some of these tips all over the house.

And guess what? I’ve got an extra copy of the book to give away! Hana graciously gave  me a second copy for one of you. To enter to win it, just leave a comment here, on this blog, telling me something you’ve learned about vinegar over the years, or why you’d like to give vinegar a try. I’ll keep the contest open till Monday, November 4, when I’ll choose a winner and send you the book.

In the meantime, check out Hana’s blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Lots of fun, informative and challenging information.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win! You can check out the book here.

 

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