Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

When my husband and I first started cooking together, I was amazed at his ability to take common, seemingly unrelated pantry ingredients and turn them into a meal. It’s a method he learned growing up in a house where he cooked a few dinners a week. Food Network’s spin on that method is the show Chopped, where contestants open a basket of mystery ingredients and are tasked with making an edible appetizer, main dish or dessert out of them. It’s addicting.

choppedWhich is why when I found out Food Network was offering a Chopped cookbook, I pretty much freaked out. Because there are nights when I look in the pantry and I’m sure I don’t have enough stuff to make something tasty. Now, I have no excuse.

(And even though I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review, I believe this cookbook is worth every penny you might pay for it. But keep reading because I have a surprise for you!)

The Chopped Cookbook is everything I’ve ever wanted in a cookbook: Tantalizing pictures, creative ideas and doable recipes. And did I mention flexibility? Most cookbooks want you to follow their instructions to a T. This cookbook emphasizes flexibility based on a basic knowledge of how foods work together. It gives you the building blocks and says, “Go, create.”

As of writing this post, I’ve paged through the entire book and tried two recipes from it. The first was Marinated Tilapia Tacos. I lacked some of the ingredients but improvised a bit and still turned out a tasty meal. Even the kids ate it! The second was Quick Skillet Kielbasa Pork and Beans, which again, I lacked some of the ingredients but was able to improvise. And it was good! (Seriously, my husband rarely raves when I experiment and both of these dishes gained his approval.)

The instructions are easy to follow and some recipes look more complicated than others, but there are 188 recipes in this book and I want to try them all.

A few of my favorite features:

  • The pantry list at the beginning. It gives you a foundation on which to build. Many of the recipes assume that you have some basics on hand. But again, the emphasis is on flexibility. No points lost if you don’t buy everything on the list.
  • The theme. “Use what you’ve got to cook something great.” It’s a confidence builder and ought to be a theme for life in general.
  • The variety. Scattered throughout the book are “go-to guides” for pan sauces, salad dressings and grains. This is where the creativity and versatility come in.

It’s been a long time since I was this excited about cooking.

And I’m even more excited because due to a processing error, I received an extra copy of this cookbook and I want to share it with you!

To enter to win, leave a comment answering ONE of these questions (and leave your e-mail address, if you don’t mind so I know how to notify you if you win):

What’s your one must-have in-stock pantry item?

What one ingredient would you hate to see in your Chopped basket?

What one ingredient would you love to see in your Chopped basket?

I’m going to leave the contest open till Sunday, July 27, when I’ll pick a winner. (Because of shipping costs, I have to limit winners to continental U.S. only.)

Happy cooking!.

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Last week I wrote about my experience reading the book Restless by Jennie Allen. In the same amount of time it took me to read it, the DVD study kit has been sitting on my desk (or has been passing back and forth between me and a friend, who is leading our book club discussion). Finally, I had a chance to sit down and watch a few sessions and look over the material. (Disclaimer: I received a free DVD kit from the publisher through Shelton Interactive in exchange for my review.)

Since it’s designed for group use, it’s hard for me to give a fully accurate review, but I have some overall impressions, the first of which is: Uh-mazing.

If I thought Jennie’s passion transferred from the page to the reader, then I hadn’t seen the half of it. In front of a group of women, Jennie comes alive and, girlfriends, she can preach. She nearly had me in tears just by hearing her talk.

The kit includes an 8-session DVD, a leader guide, an individual study guide and a box of question cards (which I personally found to be an intriguing aspect of the kit).

restless DVD

The study is similar in structure to Beth Moore’s DVD studies, if you’re familiar with those. The workbook is designed for personal use throughout the week and the DVD sessions and question cards are meant to be used in a group setting.

And can I just say that this whole journey of discovery found in Restless–whether the book or the video teaching–is ridiculously scary because it’s so personal and important. And I believe that Jennie Allen believes what she’s teaching–that we’re all meant for more in this life, that God will use our experiences (even the hard ones) for His greater purposes and that we just might find ourselves in the middle of a big adventure if we allow God to show us what He’s up to. It’s one of those times that I’m almost afraid to go too deep because I might drown in the importance of it all.

I want to soak in this teaching, dig into my own experiences and uncover the connection between who God made me and what I can do in this world for Him.

If you’re looking for a group study for your church, I’d give this one an enthusiastic recommendation. And if you’ve been through it with a group or decide to do it, I’d love to hear what you think! Just be warned: there’s no skimming the surface here, unless that’s all you want to get out of it. Be prepared to do some honest digging into your life. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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restlessIt’s the rare book that takes me two months to read, especially if I like it, but such was the case with Restless by Jennie Allen. Honestly, I’d gladly take six months or a year to read this book, so full is it of reflective questions and topics for deep thinking. Two months has felt like too fast for this book. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the BookLook Bloggers program.)

And because it’s been hanging around for a while, and because summer is coming and we all want good books to read, and because it’s hitting me right where I live, I’m calling it a bonus book review on the blog this week. It won’t be light summer reading, but it might be life-changing summer reading.

Recently, I’ve told you about my restless feelings and about my journey as a writer. Both of those reflections were informed by reading Restless.

So, what is Restless? In short, it’s permission to dream. Whatever stage of life we find ourselves in, Jennie Allen encourages us to consider what we were made for. She takes readers through her own journey of discovering and rediscovering her calling in the midst of motherhood and gives us the opportunity to identify painful and meaningful experiences from our past. It was on those pages that I personally realized I’d always been a writer and that writing will be a constant in my life, no matter the other passions and pursuits I find myself exploring.

Restless is a uniquely personal journey for every reader. Our church’s book club has been reading through it, and the few times I’ve been part of those discussions, I can see that it has different meaning for everyone. (And not just for women in their 20s and 30s. Women of ALL ages can benefit from finding their purpose and passion.)

I love the way the author writes. It’s like chatting with a friend across a cafe table with coffee mugs in hand. I half expected her to reach through the pages and offer a hug like she said she wanted to do. Her words are authentic, real and challenging.

Toward the end of the book, she offers a letter from her husband to husbands about helping the women in their lives find their purpose and follow it. It was touching, and while I might hand it over to my husband to have him read it, I’m grateful that he is already on board with my passions.

So, if you pick this one up, don’t rush through it. Get a notebook and fill it with words and scribbles. Grab a friend and read it together and look over your threads, as Allen calls them, and dream together.

I think that’s what I love best about the book: its emphatic message that it’s okay to dream. Too often I think we, women, give up our dreams for our families or our families become our dreams. Sometimes that’s okay or it’s okay for a season, but for me, I know that discovering my passions and following them is a source of great fulfillment that carries over into my family. When I am doing what God made me to do, I’m a better wife and mom.

Restless confirms and encourages that, for any stage, any calling. It doesn’t discount the call to motherhood or serving families. It releases us to be whatever God made us to be.

And that, friends, is freeing.

Note: There’s also a video series available for Restless, and I have a copy to review that I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. Stay tuned for a separate review of that!

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modern pioneeringModern Pioneering by Georgia Pellegrini promises recipes, survival skills and gardening tips, and it delivers on those promises. However, I had certain expectations for this book and I’m not sure they were met. This collection of recipes, projects and tips is like holding Pinterest in your hands, which is not a bad thing but can be a bit overwhelming. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher through the  Blogging for Books program.)

The book is full of beautiful pictures and scrumptious-sounding recipes. But I felt like the author has an advantage over most of us in that she was raised to think this way so eating edible flowers or cooking with dandelion greens is nothing to her. For me, it would take some getting used to. Also, while learning how to eat from your backyard sounds frugal, some of the recipes include ingredients that are anything but frugal. Somewhat mixed messages.

However, I found a lot of useful tips for container gardening and what to grow for different spaces and ease of growing. For a beginner, which I totally am,  it’s a good resource, especially for gardening. Some of the other projects, however, sound fun and interesting but would require time and energy that some of us don’t have. (Make your own paper, anyone? It’ll only take days and require the use of a blender and your bathtub and dedicated space in your house.)

Overall, I’m glad for this book as a guide, and I will refer to it as I develop my homesteading skills, but I wouldn’t consider it a necessity for everyone at every stage of life.

For more about the book, click here.

To learn about the author, click here.

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In 1928, a 16-year-old girl was assaulted in the woods by a stranger while attending a picnic. Months later she learned she was pregnant. Sent away to live, first, with relatives and then at a Lutheran home for unwed mothers, the girl became a mother faced with a choice: give her daughter up for adoption to a family or keep her and live with the stigma of being a single mother.

She’d carry the decision to give up her daughter, whom she named Betty Jane, mostly in secret for almost 80 years. And then a miracle answer to prayer: a phone call would reunite the two women and renew a relationship that even eight decades couldn’t destroy.

the waitingThis is the story of The Waiting, a debut book by Cathy LaGrow, whose grandmother is the woman, Minka, who gave up the child and on her daughter’s 77th birthday prayed for a chance to see her baby girl one more time. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Tyndale House Publishers through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

So much more than a family history, The Waiting is a stunning narrative that reads like a novel. (It could be a movie and we’d all be ugly crying. It’s that good.) LaGrow, and contributor Cindy Coloma, have pieced together a story that spans almost a century, thousands of miles and two families connected by blood but with no idea either existed.

I was impressed with the details and meticulous research, the emotions that practically jumped off the page. I could see the story unfold, and I’m so grateful for this family sharing their lives and the incredible way God brought together all things for good.

I was moved to tears and had to set the book down a few times for fear that if I engaged fully, I’d be unable to go on with my day. Steadfast love, forgiveness, sacrifice and so.much.joy make up the overall themes of this story.

By the end, I wanted to meet Minka, a remarkable woman of 100 years whose vigor, patience and dedication are inspiring. A story like hers could have easily died with her and reminded me of the importance of sharing stories across generations.

You can read the first chapter here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’ll want to keep reading.

It’s hard to imagine a woman living such a full life in spite of the crushing loss. And it’s harder to imagine that God could bring such beauty out of the brokenness. But she did and He did and The Waiting tells it beautifully.


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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.


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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