The 5 Books I Always Come Back To

The reality of what’s happening in our society (racism, hatred, violence, etc.) can cause anyone to be weary, exhausted, and tired. Charlottesville, among other things, evoked all sorts of things: anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief. As we figure out how to act, how to stand for (and seek) justice, it’s also important that we know how to take care of ourselves. We can’t be of any good until we’ve properly grounded ourselves with rest. It’s a tricky balance, but what I do know is that the world doesn’t need another person burned out on doing good.

We need energized, emboldened, committed mobilizers. We need to be healthy.

For me, one way I pursue health, wellness, and re-calibration is through books. Reading – whether books, articles, or any other medium, brings about new worlds, unique world views, and lives different than our own. Reading brings fresh stories. And my god, now, more than ever, we need fresh stories to come to light.

A couple of months ago, my reading life changed dramatically with the introduction of Goodreads. Goodreads is a digital application that is revolutionary for the book-lover’s world: you can track the books you read and keep lists of books you want to read in the future. It’s magic. You can also write reviews, give ratings, and see what friends are reading, too.

By rule, I’m the type of consumer that reads, watches, or does something once. I only repeat if I really love it (in TV we’re talking Parks & Recreation or Friends) and so, in the spirit of reading in these hard times, I wanted to compile a list of books that I would read again, and again, knowing that new knowledge, insights, and inspirations would be gleaned each time.

Here’s the five books I always come back to, whether on a plane, on a beach, or in the comfort of my own home. These are books I’ve read within the last year, so though they may not be “classics” they have had a meaningful, recent, and powerful impact.

Cheers – and happy reading.

 


 

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for the Journey Now

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By: Maya Angelou

Date Read: June 2016

Summary: Maya Angelou shares the wisdom of a remarkable life in this best-selling spiritual classic. This is Maya Angelou talking from the heart, down to earth and real, but also inspiring. This is a book to treasured, a book about being in all ways a woman, about living well, about the power of the word, and about the power to move and shape your life. Passionate, lively, and lyrical, Maya Angelou’s latest unforgettable work offers a gem of truth on every page [1].

Favorite Quote: 

“That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I’m a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.” 

My Reaction:  

If you know anything about me, you know that I love Maya Angelou. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, however, only have read a wider array of her works since entering my mid (and late) twenties. What I love about Maya’s work is that she uses words like art – to say something.

I found this book sitting a light blue Little Free Library box near the University of Denver. I was on my daily walk, listening to a podcast, when abruptly, I stopped and knew I should look for a piece of literature that would be a nice read for a rare, free summer evening I was having. I saw this book, noting the mere 130-ish pages and figured I could finish the book in a couple of days. I read the book in three hours.

Devouring the pages about what Angelou has learned in her life as an author, as an African American woman, and as a global citizen, over a glass of Merlot, I hung on every single word. I laughed, I cried, I gasped. She is a brutally frank author, still with a sense of softness that makes the heavy realities easier to absorb. This book functions like a striking list of learnings at the end of one’s life. Full of unaged wisdom, I gifted this book to all of my best friends that year for Christmas.

This was the book that gave me hope that if I came out (I did) that I would be okay. This book told me that I could be brave, be myself, and make it out of any struggle I have and would face. This book spoke to me, reminding me of an inherent strength I hold – just by being. I think it can speak to anyone and everyone – and so, yes, I would return to this book a million times before it would ever get old. It’s a classic, a gem, and y’all should absolutely read it in these uncertain times.

Love Warrior 

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By: Glennon Doyle Melton

Date Read: October 2016

Summary:  The highly anticipated new memoir by bestselling author Glennon Doyle Melton tells the story of her journey of self-discovery after the implosion of her marriage.

Love Warrior is the story of one marriage, but it is also the story of the healing that is possible for any of us when we refuse to settle for good enough and begin to face pain and love head-on. This astonishing memoir reveals how our ideals of masculinity and femininity can make it impossible for a man and a woman to truly know one another – and it captures the beauty that unfolds when one couple commits to unlearning everything they’ve been taught so that they can finally, after thirteen years of marriage, fall in love.

Love Warrior is a gorgeous and inspiring account of how we are born to be warriors: strong, powerful, and brave; able to confront the pain and claim the love that exists for us all. This chronicle of a beautiful, brutal journey speaks to anyone who yearns for deeper, truer relationships and a more abundant, authentic life [2].

Favorite Quote:

“So, what is it in a human life that creates bravery, kindness, wisdom, and resilience? What if it’s pain? What if it’s the struggle?… The bravest people I know are those who’ve walked through the fire and come out on the other side. They are those who’ve overcome, not those who’ve had nothing to overcome…people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.” 

My Reaction:  

I waited for this book on the circulation list for over two months. This book was in high-demand; I saw it listed on a summer “must-read” list and so, without knowing the contents, I signed up to be on the waiting list. When October of 2016 finally rolled around, voila! It was, finally, my turn.

Turns out, the wait was more than worth it. No big has ever made me cry this much. Scratch that – I sobbed my way through this book. It wasn’t that it was particularly sad, rather, the sentiment and truth that Melton writes about was exactly what I had been feeling – for years. This book challenges, persists, and celebrates vulnerability. Melton writes about the deep, real struggles she has had in her marriage and in intimate relationships. It was refreshing to access the typically hidden aspects of such an important relationship; Melton’s stories reminded me that everyone has a story, and certainly, everyone has their struggles. It’s these struggles, I saw in this book, that make us, form us, shape us – but they aren’t what define us.

I read this book before I began to date Chelsea, and right before I was going to “come out” to most of my family. I had joined a rugby team, had visited a gay club, but wasn’t still sure that I was ready to be public with the real, honest part of myself. Reading this book was cathartic; I wept after finishing, praying to God that I was grateful to read such honesty, such comfort. I needed it. And, since reading this, I’ve continued to follow Melton’s work, always admiring her imperfect yet still honest pursuit of authenticity, love, and community. Without question, this book changed my life.

Small Great Things

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By: Jodi Picoult

Date Read: December 2016

Summary: Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong. With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game [3].

Favorite Quote:

“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

My Reaction:  

Anyone who has ever read Jodi Picoult knows that she is unafraid to explore difficult, challenging issues. Certainly, a great deal of her works focusses on the centrality of love, however, as time passes, I have noticed that her works incorporate issues like corporal punishment, disabilities, and with this book, race. This book was recommended to me by my partner, and frankly, was not expecting for how much this book impacted my understanding of privilege.

Since I was young, I’ve consumed books and books on the Civil Rights movement, however, there have been few moments where I’ve stopped back and thought, “how have I contributed to this? How have I benefited from the racial structures and systems in place?” This book does this.

This book pushes us to consider all types of racism: overt, passive, and historical. This book is difficult and painful but completely necessary to read. This book presses and encourages to consider: what does it mean to be an ally? What is really, truly our place? Most importantly, Picoult reminds us of a necessary truth: it’s never too late to change someone’s mind. We have influence, one way or the other, and we can yield our own power within this.

Present Over Perfect 

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By: Shauna Niequist

Date Read: July 2017

Summary: 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 [4].

Favorite Quote:

“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management. And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace.” 

My Reaction:  

One of the unnamed diseases that I think women, in particular, suffer from is busy-ness. This isn’t a woman’s only kind of thing, but, I do think there is something more innate in how we exist: we try to be everything and worse, think we have to be. This book offers an intimate look at the consequences of such a life, one where we think we have to do it all to be it all.

Reading about Niequists’ break-down and subsequent learning is validating and mobilizing. Many times in this book I thought, “oh yeah, I know exactly what you are talking about.” Like many of the wonderful books I’ve read, I finished this book in two days. I could not put it down. Slowing down, living present – these things seems desirable but we don’t always know exactly how to live like this. Niequest presents not a “how-to” or self-help book, but instead, a memoir that guides us into the possibility for a more meaningful, present life that honors who we are, just as we are.

The Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give

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By: Ada Calhoun

Date Read: August 2017

Summary: Inspired by her wildly popular New York Times essay The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun provides a funny (but not flip), smart (but not smug) take on the institution of marriage. Weaving intimate moments from her own married life with frank insight from experts, clergy, and friends, she upends expectations of total marital bliss to present a realistic—but ultimately optimistic—portrait of what marriage is really like. There will be fights, there will be existential angst, there may even be affairs; sometimes you’ll look at the person you love and feel nothing but rage. Despite it all, Calhoun contends, staying married is easy: just don’t get divorced.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give offers bracing straight talk to the newly married and honors those who have weathered the storm. This exploration of modern marriage is at once wise and entertaining, a work of unexpected candor and literary grace [5].

Favorite Quote:

“By staying married, we give something to ourselves and to others: hope. Hope that in steadfastly loving someone, we ourselves, for all our faults, will be loved; that the broken world will be made whole. To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being — what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”  

My Reaction:

This is an excellent read for everything you could expect: open scrupulousness about the absolute lovely pieces of marriage and still, the completely demanding parts, too. In a series of short essays, Calhoun offers perspectives from her own experiences of marriage to give it a real, fair assessment. I appreciated this book because it did not deny the value of marriage, nor did it present the often “fluffy” versions of what marriage is built to be. She struck a beautiful balance; conveying new conceptions of what marriage can be, and what it is. The “toasts” present what we should be talking about when it comes to the institution, and how we can change the nature of these relationships to meet the reality of commitment.

I kept turning the pages because honestly, now, in my late-twenties, marriage is redeeming itself – slowly, but surely. For so many years, coming from a legacy of divorce, I didn’t believe that marriage was something I could honestly consider. I thought it would be the wrong choice for me, that I didn’t have anything to offer. Since coming out, everything has changed. There’s a place for it – an honest, real place. I want more of that. I don’t want the fairytale. That’s what Calhoun offers in her essays. They are bold, genuine, and sassy. That’s a combination I can really go for.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13210.Wouldn_t_Take_Nothing_for_My_Journey_Now

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31845516-love-warrior?from_search=true

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28587957-small-great-things?from_search=true

[4] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27840585-present-over-perfect?ac=1&from_search=true

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32051305-wedding-toasts-i-ll-never-give?ac=1&from_search=true

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