Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Patterns fascinate me. This odd obsession was beneficial in college and grad school, where literary criticism depends on spotting the repetition of ideas and themes. It became my nerdy version of I Spy. (“How many imperialistic conversations can you find? Don’t forget the recurring red objects; symbolism is not far behind.”)

There are patterns in life, too. Certain phrases keep floating upward on the page: rejoice, pray, thank. Pause, wait, be still. And now, open, honest, vulnerable.

Brené Brown, a writer and research professor, also loves patterns. Her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are doesn’t emphasize imperfection so much as it does wholehearted living.

Brown shares how she studied the patterns of people who were living fully, and she discovered three key commonalities: courage, compassion, and connectivity. When we are vulnerable, we are courageous; when we care for and forgive ourselves, we can more readily show compassion; and when we’re connected with safe people, we are better able to love and serve others.

So much of what Brown discusses aligns with biblical truth. When we are weak, then we are strong. When we recognize our value as children of God, made in His image, we start seeing everyone else that way, too.

This isn’t a self-help book, but rather, a guide to identifying our patterns of behavior and learning to experience life. Brown says we can’t pick and choose which emotions we feel; shuttering our hearts to pain also inhibits our ability to feel joy. To live wholeheartedly, we need to allow the pain and the joy. And we’ll be stronger for it.

Don’t bother putting this slim book on your to-read list—read it now.

Postscript: In her book Reclaiming Your Heart, Denise Hildreth Jones also writes about living wholeheartedly, and she identifies the different “hearts” each of us develop. This book is another life-changing read.

Best Books of 2014

January. The month when Target sells granola bars in bulk, we lie that the cold never bothered us anyway, and I announce the Best Books I read the previous year. 2014 involved a great deal of research as I wrote my Master’s Essay—I can tell you more than you want to know about middle-class domesticity in 1850s England—but not much pleasure reading. Thus, this year’s list of favorite reads is rather sparse, but these titles are the ones that most engaged, impressed, and inspired me.

Best Non-Fiction: Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control by Elisabeth Elliot

Oh, Elisabeth Elliot. If spiritual wisdom were measurable, she’d be a giant, and I’d be a hobbit. Elliot didn’t gain her wisdom from living an easy life, though; written years after Elliot’s husband Jim was killed on the mission field, this book testifies to the perfection of God’s timing and love. A must-read for any adult, whether single or married.

Best Memoir: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A. J. Jacobs

This innovative memoir—which reports, as actual encyclopedia entries, how Jacobs read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year—made me combust from envy that I didn’t write something this clever and insightful.

Best Young Adult: Divergent by Veronica Roth

As much as I disliked Allegient (not for the plot twist, but for the indistinguishable dual narrative), I loved Divergent and Insurgent. Roth adheres to the Dystopian genre conventions while also emphasizing the importance of hope—a contrast to some of the nihilistic YA series. Plus, she gave us Four.

Best Classic: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I admit, I did write my Master’s Essay on this Victorian serial, so I may be biased. However, anyone who delights in small-town foibles, vivid characters, and clever dialogue will enjoy the humor and poignancy of Cranford, a town where all the men mysteriously disappear and the women reign supreme. It’s a perfect work for people who are intimidated by the Classics; you’ll laugh out loud and find the themes to be surprisingly relevant.

Best Historical Fiction: Wings of the Nightingale Series (With Every Letter, On Distant Shores, In Perfect Time) by Sarah Sundin

I mentioned this series on Veteran’s Day, but it’s worth sharing again. Sundin’s series about three WWII flight nurses appeals to all of the senses and emotions, and after finishing it, I missed the characters. A lot.

Best Book of 2014: Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson Meet Me in St. Louis has always been one of my favorite musicals. Judy Garland, sweeping score, familial dysfunction—what could be better? The book.

The film is actually based on a series of short stories written by Benson for The New Yorker in 1941. Drawing from her own life, Benson (“Tootie” in the stories and musical) shares the outrageous exploits of herself and her siblings as they anticipated the coming 1904 World’s Fair. Benson’s descriptions of her home and family, combined with her humorous turn-of-phrase, make this a memorable read.

New Year’s Resolution

2014 was one of the most challenging and heartbreaking years; it was also one of the most exciting and reassuring.

It’s December 31st, so I review the year, flipping through my blotchy calendar and journal, and prepare for the upcoming one. I used to make detailed Resolution Lists, which I’d pin to my bulletin board. While combing my wet hair or brushing my teeth every morning, I’d remind myself to exercise so many times, write however many words, achieve such-and-such GPA.

There’s always a goal, and I always speed walk there. (I count that as exercise.) But I can’t outpace the challenges and heartbreaks, and with my eyes focused on my five-step plan, I don’t see the rest stops beside the road.

In 2014, I was reminded 365 times to rest. “For thus said the LORD God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength,’” (Isaiah 30:15, ESV).In returning and in rest you shall be saved—protected, renewed. In quietness and in trust—not perpetual motion and self-sufficiency—shall be your strength.

The 2015 calendar is fairly empty; only the January squares are lined with places and times. Beside the calendar, on the magnetic board, there’s no Resolution List, just an index card: “And he said, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,’” (Exodus 33:14, ESV).

An Authors’ Christmas Party

Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell host a Christmas party at their Bloomsbury home.

Emily Dickinson RSVPs “no—” but sends a loaf of her famous gingerbread and a poem so cleverly hyphenated that they forgive her.

e.e. cummings regrets that Dickinson does not attend; he wanted to discuss the relativistic nature of grammar rules. He plays Scrabble with Shakespeare instead.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald crank the gramophone and Charleston near the eggnog bowl.

Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen commandeer the settee near the Christmas tree and exchange witty banter about social mores and marital prospects. Wilde does not remove his fur coat.

Walt Whitman arrives fashionably late. People smile and nod politely, then gossip amongst themselves. Whitman is delighted; he started the latest rumor himself.

Wordsworth sips his eggnog and reminisces about Christmases from his childhood. Tennyson strokes his beard and nods affirmingly, responding with symbolic remarks about friendship and mythic figures. They toast to the queen.

Shakespeare asks Woolf where her dictionary is; he needs to settle a spelling disagreement with e.e. cummings.

Charles Dickens dramatically performs his latest short story, complete with facial expressions so realistic and garish that Charlotte Brontë swoons.

Elizabeth Gaskell revives Brontë, and the friends sit in the corner while Gaskell vents in a passionate but ladylike whisper about how insufferable and controlling Dickens is.

Robert Browning pauses with wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning beneath the mistletoe.

Everyone gathers their wraps, hats, and umbrellas and thank Woolf and Hogarth for a scintillating evening. Bounding down the front steps, Dickens can’t resist quoting himself.

God bless us, everyone.”

Come to Literary Inn

The other night, I re-watched Holiday Inn, one of my favorite Christmas movies. I cheat with the colorized version, but I like how the sweet tinting—sea foam green, powder pink, and winter blue—adds to the nostalgia of the Irving Berlin musical.

If I had the money and the business sense (plus the modern day equivalents of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire), I’d love to open a venue like that. Who wouldn’t want to visit a renovated historic home on special occasions for food and entertainment? Rather than holidays, though, I think a literary theme might be novel. (Pun!)

At this combination bookstore/restaurant, all events and foods would be inspired by favorite worlds and characters:

July 31st—Harry Potter’s Birthday. At midnight, we’ll clink foamy mugs of Butterbeer in celebration. After sorting into our respective Houses, we can trade Chocolate Frog cards and complete Quibbler quizzes and play Wizard’s Chess. (No deaths, I promise.) Weasley-style fireworks cap off the evening.

November 1st—Scorpio Races Day. We’ll eat honeyed November Cakes and exchange capaill uisce escapades, placing racing bets and painting tea pots and swooning over Sean Kendrick. (Again, no one will have to die. YA literature is surprisingly violent.)

December 24th—Christmas in Narnia. We’ll consume Turkish Delight and hot chocolate in honor of Aslan and Christmas’ arrival. (This is especially meaningful in Minnesota, where winter is 100 years long). Sardines and toast will be offered as well. Perhaps we’ll even learn the dance of the fauns and the dryads, which I imagine is akin to a jig.

Literary Inn (working title) will also host Alice in Wonderland-inspired Unbirthday Parties, complete with mismatched tea cups and plenty of cupcakes. Dress: extravagant hat, over-sized cravat.

Of course sandwiches made from Peeta’s bread, chocolate cake from Dauntless, and Raspberry Cordial bottled in Avonlea will always be available.

Postscript: If such an establishment were to exist, what other events/characters/details should be included? :)

Literary Black Friday Shopping

Ahh, Black Friday. The infamous day that overshadows dear, old-fashioned Thanksgiving, whose simple refrain of “Give thanks” is drowned out by a chorus of honking horns and screaming couponers.

However, I have some literary friends who might benefit from all the sales. Let me know if you see any of them at these locations:

Alfred Prufrock (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) at Joseph A. Banks, so he can get six pairs of white flannel trousers for the price of one. But then he’ll have to decide which pair he dares to wear, and that’s just too daunting of a task, so he’ll probably remain in his ever-reliable Chinos.

Jay Gastby (The Great Gatsby) at Party City, so he can stock up on plastic champagne flutes and multicolored Mardi Gras beads. Though given the enormity and frequency of his parties, the supplies will probably dwindle before New Year’s Eve.

Matthew Cuthbert (Anne of Green Gables) at Costco, so he can get 20lbs of brown sugar at a much better price. Passive-aggressively bribing Marilla gets expensive, but anything for his Anne.

Rubeus Hagrid (Harry Potter series) at PetCo, so he can buy out their stock of ferrets. Not as pets, mind you; Buckbeak has quite an appetite.

The Cullen Family (Twilight series) at Best Buy, so they can purchase the Samsung UN85S9 85-Inch 4K Ultra HD 120Hz 3D Smart LED TV and watch Animal Planet (their version of Food Network) for all eternity.

Thanksgiving

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” For years I’ve read this and repeated the words like a mantra, a chant, a call to arms. But only recently did I see the equal weight of these three commands. Rejoice, pray, thank. Always, continually, all the time. They’re parallel terms, synonyms.

I can rejoice—rejoice in God’s thick brushstrokes on the ombré evening sky, rejoice in the soft words He speaks through a friend, rejoice in His down-to-the-penny provision. But I can’t rejoice without thanking Him, and I can’t thank Him without praying to Him. Each action depends on the other.

Dear Lord, thank you.

I’m glad we have a day set aside for giving thanks. It’s a standing reminder that we need to reflect and to appreciate. To snuggle on the couch with little ones who smile at the Macy’s parade; to taste the textures of pecan pies and the bite of cider; to hear the range of voices around the table, nobody saying anything profound but everybody wonderfully present.

And during all of the surrounding days, I must rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstance, because this is the will of God. He desires us to be amazed, honest, and open, and in this unending cycle of praise, we can’t help but see how He saturates every day with color and light. He is with us always, and I’m so, so thankful.