Monday, December 29, 2014


As I've done for the last few years, I'm presenting a list of all the books I read this year, arranged alphabetically by title, with brief synopses/reviews and ratings out of 5 stars.  (If you're interested in my previous lists, you can find them here at these links:  20132012, 2011, and 2010.)

The opinions expressed here are mine alone; no one has paid me to say something nice about his or her book (I wish!).  My apologies if I disliked books you liked and liked books you disliked. 

The prevalence of 4- and 5-star books on my list means it was a great reading year, and I mostly managed to steer clear of duds.  (I did start one dud and quit part-way through:  I couldn't make it past about p. 50 of Wally Lamb's We Are Water, although I love his other books.)

Last year I created separate categories for Nonfiction and Biography & Memoir, but I found that many of the books I read didn't fit neatly into one box or the other.  So I've gone back to just Fiction and Nonfiction groupings.   Somewhat surprisingly, I read more than twice as much nonfiction as fiction this year.


Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) - This was the first book I read in 2014, and one of the best.  While an opera singer is performing at a party hosted by the Vice President of a South American country, terrorists enter and take the guests hostage.  Friendships and love affairs develop among captives and captors in the most surprising and lovely ways.  (Just in case the subject matter concerns you, be assured that the book is not violent or graphic.)  * * * * *

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner) is about a friendship between two couples, lasting from the 1930's to the 1970's.  Stegner is wonderful at depicting the seemingly small events that shape the couples' relationship over the years.  There was one odd thing, though:  the couples would be going on some trip or outing and I'd think, "Uh, did the author forget that these people have small children? Or did the parents themselves forget?"  The kids were invisible!  But that inconsistency aside, this was a good book.  (Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, but I haven't read that one yet.)   * * *

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - Seventeen-year-old Cassandra writes in her journal about her eccentric and penniless family's life in a crumbling old castle.  When two wealthy brothers move onto a nearby farm, and one shows an interest in Cassandra's beautiful older sister, the family's fortunes seem about to change.  This book, which was published in the 1940's, is just delightful, mainly because of its endearing, wise-beyond-her-years narrator who learns some important lessons about love and maturity.  * * * *

Lila (Marilynne Robinson) - This novel follows Robinson's books Gilead (in which dying Rev. John Ames tells his life story to his little son) and Home (about Ames' friend Rev. Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his prodigal son Jack).  Lila is told from the point of view of Ames' young wife, an orphan who has lived a life of loneliness and destitution before wandering into Ames' church and hearing him preach.  She marries him, but learning to trust him -- and his God -- is a slow process.  This is a beautiful novel that reflects on themes of God's grace and the eternal destiny of those we love.  * * * * *

Road Ends (Mary Lawson) - This novel alternates between the perspectives of three members of the Cartwright family in small-town Ontario:  father Edward, trying to deal with both his past and his present; son Tom, grieving a friend's death; and daughter Megan, escaping the duties of home by moving to England.  This book was OK, but it didn't come close to Lawson's first book, Crow Lake.  I wish she had focused on one character rather than weaving three plots; the three weren't equally interesting and never came together as one.  And the timeline was confusing:  if you're going to have subplots that are less than a year apart, it might be better just to make them simultaneous.  (The Invention of Wings handled multiple narrators much more successfully.)  And I found the ending a flop.  * *

The Distant Hours (Kate Morton) - A young woman named Edie goes to Milderhurst Castle to meet the reclusive, elderly Blythe sisters and find out more about her mother's experience boarding there as a girl during World War II.  As Edie makes her discoveries, her relationship with her mother changes, and we see just how much more there is to the Blythes' story than even Edie realizes.  I absolutely loved this huge novel;  it was my companion through numerous sleepless nights and plane and train rides.  It has everything:  mystery, suspense, romance, and total "unputdownability."  * * * * * 

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) - Hazel, who has terminal lung cancer, and Augustus, who lost a leg to cancer, meet at a teens' cancer support group  and fall in love.  This is a touching and funny young-adult novel about love, death, and the kind of legacy we leave to the world.   (The movie version, which came out this summer, was very good as well.  This is the kind of book that has "movie" written all over it.)    * * *

The House at Riverton (Kate Morton) - This is the first novel by the author of The Distant Hours, and I really enjoyed it.  Morton has such a talent for taking us into her characters' minds and allowing us to discover events along with them.  In this book, a girl named Grace goes to work as a housemaid for the Hartfords at Riverton estate (as her mother did before her) and becomes involved in the lives of the young Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline.  Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy this book because it is set in the same time period and has a strong upstairs-downstairs element.  * * * *

The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd) is based on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke, a wealthy girl in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800's (who later became an abolitionist), and her maid/slave Handful.  The story alternates between the two girls' perspectives; Kidd conveys their voices so convincingly that she makes us care about both of them even though their social situations and experiences are so different.  I love Kidd's writing, and here it's at its best.  * * * * *

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) - Oddball Don Tillman (who is probably on the autism spectrum) is looking for a life partner, so he develops a detailed questionnaire that he hopes will lead him to the perfect match.  But then free-spirited Rosie shows up and disrupts his orderly life.  A funny novel about an likeable guy who just wants to belong in a world that often makes no sense to him.   * * * *


A Beautiful Disaster:  Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Marlena Graves) - Graves, who grew up in an unstable home with poverty and alcoholism, discusses how God uses the desert times of our lives to shape us and draw us closer to Him.  She speaks with a combination of gentleness and authority that is very appealing.  * * * *

A Grace Disguised:  How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Jerry Sittser) - I found this powerful little book in our church library.  In 1991, a car accident caused the deaths of Sittser's wife, mother, and four-year-old daughter.  This is an honest, wise, cliché-free exploration of how suffering can be processed and ultimately lead to growth.    (I'm also interested in checking out Sittser's new book, A Grace Revealed:  How God Redeems the Story of Your Life.)  * * * * *

A Hidden Wholeness:  The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Parker Palmer) discusses how "circles of trust" -- intentional communities or relationships that focus on creating safe spaces for the soul -- can help us listen to our "inner teacher" and gain wisdom and wholeness.  The circle-of-trust model itself didn't resonate with me that much, but I found his broader reflections on  the divided self, community, silence, etc. helpful.  Palmer, author of the insightful book Let Your Life Speak, is always worth reading.   * * *

A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Rachel Held Evans) recounts Evans' one-year project to explore the concept of "biblical womanhood."  She tried a wide variety of experiments, from sleeping in a tent during her period, to calling her husband Master, to holding a vigil in honour of forgotten Biblical women, to staying silent in church, and many more.  She describes her project, and the lessons she learned from it, with hilarity and humility.  * * * *

Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth) - Memoir about Worth's time as a nurse-midwife working with Anglican nuns in East London in the 1950's.  She describes, in fascinating and often heartbreaking detail, the realities of childbirth, prostitution, poverty, and religious life in that period.  I've been enjoying the BBC TV series of the same name, and the book fills out the real-life backgrounds of many of the people and events depicted in the show.  Apparently Worth wrote three volumes of memoir; I look forward to reading the other two.  * * *

Carry On, Warrior (Glennon Melton) - Melton's blog/website, Momastery, is devoted to her desire to live life in an authentic and "unarmed" way and to encourage other women.  She has described her central message as "Rest: life is brutal.  Wake up: life is beautiful.  Be brave: you're a child of God.  Be kind: so is everyone else."  This book is a collection of essays and blog posts about her addictive (or as she puts it, "festive") past and her struggles with parenting, marriage, and faith.  Kind of manic, but funny and endearing, with a lot of wisdom beneath the craziness.  * * * *

Creative You (David B. Goldstein and Otto Kroeger) explores creativity in relation to the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator.  This (sometimes overly) detailed book encourages each of us to see ourselves as creative and discusses the many different ways creativity can be expressed depending on our MBTI type. * * *

Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) - Brown is a scholar who researches shame; in both of these books she discusses the things that keep us from living wholeheartedly, such as feelings of shame, fear, scarcity, and unworthiness.  Daring Greatly, the more recent book, focuses particularly on how practicing vulnerability can help us live more courageous, authentic lives.  Although Brown's books are not  from an overtly Christian perspective, they have a strong spiritual element.  Encouraging and practical.  * * * *

Evolving in Monkey Town:  How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Rachel Held Evans) - Memoir of Evans' upbringing in conservative Dayton, Tennessee.  When doubts threatened her airtight Christian worldview, she realized her faith had to change and grow.  (This book has been re-released under a new title, Faith Unraveled.)   
 * * * * 

Five Days at Memorial (Sheri Fink) This book details how a New Orleans hospital coped during Hurricane Katrina; it focuses particularly on the controversy surrounding patients who died under questionable circumstances.  Besides being a great narrative about the disaster, the book is also a very interesting discussion of important issues like disaster response, health care rationing, euthanasia, and societal values in general.  * * * *

Found:  A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer (Micha Boyett).  I've followed Boyett's blog for some time, so I was eager to read her book, which came out this year.  In it she reveals her struggles over whether she is doing/being enough for God as a mother, and how, through her exploration of Benedictine spirituality, she discovers joy -- hers and God's -- in her ordinary life.  The book is structured according to the divine hours, which helps emphasize that faith is not a once-and-for-all achievement but a daily practice.  Boyett's writing is so vulnerable and real.  This is a great book for anyone who's ever wondered if their small life matters.  * * * *

Home:  A Memoir of My Early Years (Julie Andrews) tells of the actress's challenging childhood, her introduction to music and theatre, and her first marriage.  I enjoyed this book, but I hope there will be another installment; it seemed strange to end so abruptly and so early in her life (before even getting to The Sound of Music!). * * *

If Only:  Letting Go of Regret (Michelle Van Loon) is a wise and helpful discussion of the regrets we all have in our lives.   She shows that regret, rather than being something either to ignore or to become trapped by, can be a sign of our need for God's healing and redemption -- and by His grace God provides far more than just a do-over.   Questions at the end of each chapter make this a great book for personal reflection or group study.  * * * *

Parting Gifts:  Notes on Life, Love, and Loss (Ann Hines) - Canadian writer/humorist Hines reflects on many of her life experiences -- divorce, depression, aging, having a transgender child -- and how these events, while characterized by loss, also have hidden gifts.  * * * *

Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (Nadia Bolz-Weber) - In her youth, Bolz-Weber rejected her fundamentalist faith, becoming an alcoholic and stand-up comedian; then God interrupted her life.  When a fellow AA member died, her status as the only religious person in the group made her the default choice to conduct the funeral -- and she soon felt called to be "a pastor to her people."  She now leads a church called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.  I was very moved by this memoir.  I expected it to be snarky and edgy (and it is somewhat, as well as having a fair amount of foul language, so be warned), but it's mostly just a down-to-earth account of a woman's faith journey, her humbling struggles in community, and the way God continues to surprise her with love and grace.   * * * * *

Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion (Fr. Gregory Boyle) - Boyle shares stories of the L.A. gang members he has worked and lived with for over 20 years, weaving those stories with reflections on the need to love and be loved, to receive God's compassion, and to realize that every life matters.  This is one of the best books about faith (about anything, in fact) that I've ever read.  "I laughed, I cried" may be a cliché, but it truly applies to the experience of reading this beautiful book.   
 * * * * * +

The Book of Forgiving:  The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu) explores what the Tutus call the Fourfold Path of Forgiveness:  telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship.  This small book is simply written yet profound, with examples from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and elsewhere.  Questions and exercises for personal work appear at the end of each chapter.  * * *

The Spark:  A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius (Kristine Barnett) - When Barnett's son Jake was diagnosed with autism, she was told to put away his letter flashcards because he would never read.  Barnett took Jake out of school and began her own program based on "muchness":  letting him pursue what he loved and ensuring he had a normal childhood.  Today Jake is a happy teenager who also happens to be a genius mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.  Amazing story of an amazing boy and mom.  (And don't worry:  Barnett is not a loon like Jenny McCarthy, just an energetic, passionate mother committed to helping her child reach his potential.) * * * *

The Thorny Grace of It (Brian Doyle) - I've read many of Doyle's short pieces in journals like The Sun and Ruminate.  The essays in this book touch on his Catholic upbringing, fellow parishioners and family members, and other subjects.  Doyle is great at infusing ordinary people, moments, and events with significance and doing so in a warm and funny way.  Loved this book.  
 * * * * *

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) - This book consists of essays about Patchett's upbringing as a child of divorce; her Catholic schooling; her life as a writer; and her relationships with her grandmother, husband, dog, etc.  Patchett has led a fascinating and unusual life, yet she comes across as a very ordinary person.   * * * *

To Know as We Are Known:  A Spirituality of Education (Parker Palmer) focuses on how education has become impersonal and objectified and on the need for the classroom to be a safe place to explore truth in community.  Too abstract and (ironically) impersonal for my taste at times, but thought-provoking; a good book for discussion. * *

What Matters in Jane Austen?  Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (John Mullan) - The title's a little misleading; these aren't really puzzles but short essays on interesting themes in Jane Austen's books, such as "Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?"   This book can be read for sheer enjoyment or for a deeper exploration of Austen's writing techniques.   
 * * * *

Why We Write (Meredith Maran, ed.) - Interviews with 20 successful writers (including Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, and Mary Karr) about their writing techniques, habits, failures, and triumphs.  Informative and inspiring.  * * *

I'd love to hear if you've read any of these books and what you thought of them -- or if you've read other good ones in 2014 that you'd recommend!

(I'm also linking up this post with Modern Mrs. Darcy's "My Favourite Books of 2014" post.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Our 2014 Christmas letter

(photo taken in June 2014 at the 80th birthday party for Richard's mom, Audrey)

Best wishes for a blessed Christmas and New Year
from the Prinsen family

Our annual Christmas letter comes to you in virtual form this year.  Because of a combination of life circumstances and ever-rising postage costs, I sent out only a handful of Christmas cards -- yet still wanted to send greetings to everyone and give a brief update on what has been happening with our family in 2014.

It has been a difficult year for us in many ways.  The year began with Richard's brother Doug having major surgery for colon cancer, followed by six months of chemotherapy.  He has made a good recovery, and we're all very thankful.

On Easter weekend our family went to PEI to spend a week with my parents.  We don't normally travel there in the spring, but we had a sense that it was important to see my mom and dad more frequently than just once a year.  That inner prompting seems so significant now, because when we went again to PEI in August for our usual summer vacation, my mom was feeling very unwell and had to be admitted to the hospital.  After extensive testing she was found to have stage 4 liver cancer.  She spent four weeks in hospital and came home to her and Dad's new apartment for a couple of weeks before her death on September 28.  (I've written in more depth about all this in several other blog posts -- see Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Oct. 30, and Nov. 24 -- so I won't repeat all of those details here.)

As you can imagine, I've been reflecting a lot on how quickly our lives can change and how important it is to prioritize family and other significant relationships.  It's also important to make and cherish good memories when we can.  And sometimes those memories will be of things we didn't consider especially significant at the time.  My best, last memory of my mom when she was well comes from our April trip:  she and Allison and I went to see the musical "Happy Days" performed at my former high school, and all three of us laughed from start to finish.  It was a great evening, and a special moment preserved in time.

As Christmas comes closer, I feel the absence of my mom more strongly.  Although we usually didn't see each other at Christmas, we would chat on the phone about gifts and plans.  Last Sunday Richard and Allison and I went to the Barra MacNeils' Christmas show here in Kingston, and I thought how much my mom would have loved such a concert.  I said to a friend, "She'd have been in heaven!" and my friend said wryly, "Well ... she is."  And we talked about how maybe those who are in the presence of God don't have the space/time limitations we have here on earth -- that maybe Mom was there enjoying the music right along with us.  How the tears would have filled her eyes (as they did mine) when the group sang 

"For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, 
we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne."

There were some highlights to our year, too, however.  Even in the midst of my mom's illness in August, I was able to attend a reunion weekend for the New Christian Singers, a musical group I was part of when I was in my teens.  We had a social and sharing evening, and it was so uplifting -- especially given what our family was going through -- to hear people talk about God's faithfulness in their lives over the past 30-40 years.  We also performed three concerts (I sang in two), and the tears and laughter flowed as we sang old familiar songs together and met past friends and acquaintances.

Still on the musical theme -- but in sharp contrast -- Allison and I went to the Rogers Centre in Toronto this summer to see the British singing group One Direction.  We went with Allison's friend Alex and her mom Juliann, who obtained the tickets for us.  It was quite an experience to hear 50,000 girls screaming when the boys took the stage.  What a blast!

As for what's going on with each of us individually:

Richard continues to work at Kingston General as a nurse and at Queen's University as a clinical nursing instructor.  He still runs regularly, plays soccer, softball, and squash, and volunteers with the Run & Read program and at Circle of Friends at our former church.  He was such an amazing support during my mom's illness, taking over with the kids while we were in PEI in August and also making it possible for me to go down for a week on my own just before Mom died.  I appreciate him so much.

I'm still working as an online writing instructor at Queen's, doing some blogging and creative writing (although that's taken a bit of a back seat this summer and fall), and participating in two women's studies at church, a writing group, and a book study group.

Richard and I also both celebrated our 50th birthdays this year, which I wrote about here and here.

Allison is in grade 11 and having a good year.  She is in concert band, and we love hearing her play her clarinet and seeing how much she's progressed in the last couple of years.  (Last week was the school's Evening of the Arts and Allison performed with her band as well as being one of the MC's for the evening.)  She continues to do a lot of reading and writing, attends a social club and church youth group, and volunteers weekly with Richard at the Run & Read program.

Jonathan is in grade 7 and enjoying school with the support of his awesome E.A., Joe O'Connor ("Mr. O").  Although Jonathan still enjoys many of the same pursuits he always has, such as jigsaw puzzles, DVD's, and "yellow-blue-red" (see photo), he is becoming more independent and showing more pre-teen tendencies.  He can be a challenge at times but he is also very loving, and his enjoyment of simple pleasures reminds us to take time to enjoy life too.

May your Christmas or other holiday celebrations be full of joy and wonder, 
and may 2015 be your best year yet.  
Love and best wishes,
Jeannie, Richard, Allison and Jonathan

Monday, December 15, 2014

December "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's "Quick Lit" (formerly "Twitterature") post, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith
of a Sinner and Saint
  Nadia Bolz-Weber
 I really enjoyed this moving and funny memoir.  In her youth, Bolz-Weber rejected her fundamentalist faith, becoming an alcoholic and stand-up comedian.  After God interrupted her life, she entered recovery; when a fellow AA member died, her status as the only religious person in the group made her the default person to conduct the funeral -- and she soon felt called to be "a pastor to her people."  She now leads a church in Denver called The Church of All Saints and Sinners.  In this book Bolz-Weber describes the stages in her journey and the way God meets her and continues to change her through her ministry experiences.   (Warning:  language.)


Road Ends 
 Mary Lawson
I loved Lawson's first book, Crow Lake, and liked her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, but found this one only OK.  The book alternates between the perspectives of three members of the Cartwright family in small-town Ontario:  father Edward, who is haunted by his past and overwhelmed by his present; son Tom, who is stuck in grief over a friend's death; and daughter Megan, who escapes the responsibilities of home by fleeing to England.  Their individual subplots are sort of interesting, but for me they never really come together to create one strong story line.

Currently reading:  Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth.  I've been enjoying the BBC series by the same name, about midwives in the London dockyards in the 1950's, so I thought I'd read the memoir on which it is based.

On Dec. 31 I'll post my complete reading list from 2014.  (If you're interested, check out my previous lists from 20132012, 2011, and 2010.)