February 2020 Books in Review

This month had quite a few amazing reads that lifted my spirits, grew my mind, and/or strengthened me spiritually.

  • Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography
  • Radioactive!: How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
  • Many Waters*
  • An Acceptable Time*
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
  • Ordinary Grace
  • Competing Against Luck
  • Sprint: Solving Problems and Testing New Ideas in Just 5 Days*

*Audiobooks

Biographies

Lousia May Alcott: A Personal Biography

By: Susan Cheever

I was in need of a really in-depth book about this woman’s life who has so touched mine, and this one hit the mark. Louisa’s life is incredibly fascinating. I am always amazed at the concentration of talent that surrounded her and that she contributed to in her Massachusetts wanderings (Fuller, Howe, Douglass, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, among others).

Louisa May Alcott’s father was a philosopher who never could get a hold on how to provide for the family, which had a major influence on how Louisa made her life decisions and what she wrote. (This author even suggests that the problems her father created in the family are why Louisa essentially writes him out of her masterpiece: Little Women.) I thoroughly loved this biography even with its heartache and heartbreak and the exploration of the crushing world and weight of being a writer because of its beautiful look at Louisa’s process of discovery. And really I’m just glad that although she asked for all her journals to be destroyed after she died, someone ignored that request.

Radioactive!: How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World

By: Winifred Conkling

I was initially looking for a book on Marie Curie, but I found this book along the way about two amazing women: Marie’s daughter Irene Curie and a competitor-researcher Lise Meitner. This book explores the amazing discoveries of Irene Curie and her husband Frederic Joliot as they discovered artificial radioactivity, which would earn them a Nobel Prize.

It then builds on this discovery which led Lise Meitner to discover nuclear fission, which then led to understanding nuclear energy. This was also the discovery that led the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. In this overwhelmingly male-dominated field of science, these women excelled, even when excluded from science academies, denied admission into universities for certain degrees, and passed over for their contributions to science. This is engaging and very well done.

Memoir-ish

Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life

By: Anne Lamott

In a previous blog, I shared my feelings about how writing is an incredibly vulnerable part of me that I want to do but I get scared of doing. A friend recommended I read this book. Rarely have I felt so understood. Anne Lamott explores the incredible range of feelings that come from and through writing. She reminds writers that the goal is not really to be published but to just write because writing is LIFE. This is a moving AND hilarious book for any writer out there.

“…day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more…You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fiction

Many Waters

By: Madeleine L’Engle

Audiobook reader: Great

This is the fourth in the A Wrinkle in Time series that involves the twins, Sandy and Denys, who were previously only periphery characters. Through an accidental time warp, they travel through time and space to the age of Noah in the Old Testament. Obviously this wanders far from scripture, as it’s sci-fi fantasy, but there are beautiful lessons of life, love, and forgiveness. The poignant theme I gained from this book was that sometimes my own understandings of the world limit my concept of God. There was a particularly personal theme I resonated with that reminds me that God has so many more ways of making things work out than we often think.

An Acceptable Time

By: Madeleine L’Engle

Audiobook reader: Great

This is the fifth in the A Wrinkle in Time series and follows the experience of Meg Murry’s granddaughter, Polly. What happens? A transcendence of time and space to help bring peace. Yes, it is a common theme in her books, but they’re all done so beautifully.

This book particularly struck me spiritually. There is a certain character in the book that I didn’t particularly like. Well, it turns out that several other characters didn’t think he was particularly remarkable either; in their words, he is not that “endearing.” Yet this character was in trouble. As they discuss what it would take to save this character, they wonder whether he is worth the effort. Yet, the bishop in the book says, “But then I think of the people Jesus died for and they weren’t particularly endearing either.” Yet He saved them. This hit my soul and reminded me of all the times I am not endearing, and of all the people I don’t think are very endearing, yet that was never the question. We are all worth the sacrifice.

And this.

“My dear, I’m seldom sure of anything. Life at best is a precarious business, and we aren’t told that difficult or painful things won’t happen, just that it matters. It matters not just to us but to the entire universe.”

Science

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

By: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Oh, you know, just some light reading about understanding the basic elements of the universe. But really, this is a great and fun read! If you’re interested in a condensed, eas(ier) to understand book about astrophysics, this is a great one. And even if you’re not looking, this is still a great read.

“Now imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, hold an expanded view of our place in the cosmos. With that perspective, our problems would shrink–or never arise at all–and we would celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors who slaughtered one another because of them.”

“The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world…nations would be prone to act on their ‘low contracted prejudices.’ And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment–until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace, rather than fear, the cosmic perspective.”

I was particularly struck in this book by a sense of the grandeur of space and time and the beauty of it all. And I was struck by the laws that govern the universe. Just because I don’t understand all the laws–or even if I didn’t believe in them–they are still there, working away and keeping us in order. I like that.

Fiction

Ordinary Grace

By: William Kent Krueger

In a small town, a child is killed in a tragic accident. But then there’s another unexplained death. And the town begins to wonder. Follow the story of a coming-of-age young man, his kid brother, his beloved sister, his loving but struggling mother, and his minister father as they are in the middle of understanding death, grief, and prejudice. This was a very compelling read. And the minister’s words throughout the book are so poignant and beautiful.

“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day. “

Business

Competing Against Luck

By: Clayton Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan

Clayton Christensen was a genius and someone whose work I greatly admired. With his passing, I felt compelled to read yet another of his books that has come highly recommended. This is an amazing book explaining the Jobs to Be Done Theory. In essence, in any work we do, the question should be, “What is the job that someone is hiring this product or service to do?” If you can get to the root of why someone buys a product or uses a service, you can provide a better experience of how to use that product or service. Loved this book.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Testing New Ideas in Just 5 Days*

By: Jake Knapp

Audiobook Reader: Good

This book covers the principles and ideology behind a “sprint”–basically an effort to develop a prototype of a product or service and test it in just 5 days. This takes you from start to finish of getting the right stakeholders, setting up the experience, and understanding the problem that needs to be solved. It shows you how to narrow down ideas and then test them with real users. And all in a compressed time window so that you can move forward with your work. It’s a concept I’ve seen tried at work one or two times and it’s intriguing.

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