Angela Amman

Open Boxes – A review

spiritual essays

I’ve been looking around the playroom lately, mentally sizing up our storage shelves. My mind wanders to the familiar IKEA systems — should we add baskets? Magazine holders for their sheafs of papers? More plastic boxes for the scads of LEGO pieces that disperse around the house?

We don’t need additional storage options.

My head knows that, and I’ll stay away from IKEA for a little while longer. The end of the school year fills the calendar — and my head — with chaos, and when I feel out of control, I look for different ways to add order to our lives.

Storage boxes do that.

In the introduction to Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life, Christine Organ talks about the beautifully organized storage boxes in her home. Pieces of her life, her past, are houses within those boxes, and their neat arrangement gives her a sense of accomplishment. I related, immediately, and I knew I would relate to her words as I read through the rest of her book.

Open Boxes explores the ways Organ decides to metaphorically open the storage boxes of her life, to unpack her thoughts about spirituality and the connection to herself, to the people she loves, to her God. Maybe you don’t consider yourself religious — I personally struggle with my faith in countless ways — but her explanation of what she means by God makes Open Boxes accessible to people of various faiths and belief systems. The God explored in Open Boxes is about love and connection in life, the power of something larger than our individual selves.

Organ’s essays are organized into three categories: Grace, Wonder, and Everyday Miracles. Honestly, essays and short stories earn major points for me lately. With divided attention and a jam-packed schedule, I love having the option to snatch a bit of reading time when I can find it. Essays let me feel connected to what I’m reading without demanding too many consecutive minutes.

I expected to enjoy the Wonder essays the most; when I’m writing and disseminating my own thoughts, I tend to focus on those moments of wonder that show me there’s more to the individual moments I’m experiencing. However, I really fell in love with the stories in the Grace section of the book. Organ opens her heart and mind to people on the periphery of her life — fellow Old Navy shoppers — as well as the people she loves the most. She revisits the past as well as talking about the present, and my appreciation for the stories that build a person’s life was truly piqued with the Grace essays.

I read the Open Boxes essays out of order, picking and choosing according to my mood and the titles and if I had time to continue reading for a few more pages. Each essay is prefaced with a quote, which endears any book to me, just a little more than I might already like it. Readers who are feeling disconnected from their lives or themselves will find much to ponder within Open Boxes, as will anyone who finds joy in reading about small moments that shape a person’s life.

How do you strive to find order when your life gets busy?

Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life is currently available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Open Boxes for consideration for review, but all opinions are my own.

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The Girl On the Train – A review

book recommendationsWhen a book like Gone Girl tears through book clubs and movie theaters, there will invariably be comparisons to books that have a similar tone or other similarities. The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins has been, and will continue to be, compared to Gillian Flynn’s best seller. Similarities abound: infertility, unreliable narrators, a tense puzzle where pieces shift together and apart as more information is revealed throughout the story.

A crucial difference in The Girl On the Train unfolds in the way Hawkins reveals the unreliability of her main narrator, Rachel Watson. Very early in the story, Watson’s shaky grasp on her own reality reveals itself, but she’s candid about her shortcomings. She says, “I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.” The reader knows her accounting of events is suspect, and so does Rachel, and she is perfectly aware of the ways in which the people around her view her revelations about what she sees.

Rachel’s imagination — and desperate unhappiness with her own life — lead her to create a narrative for a couple she knows only from glimpses of them from her slow-moving commuter train. That the couple happens to live only a few houses from a house in which she used to live becomes integral to her story when the female half of the couple disappears.

Rachel’s actions, and her insistence on staying involved in the situation, is infuriating and understandable, given that she was dangerously close to the scene of the disappearance — and blindly, stupidly drunk, making her recollections of the night spotty and filled with frustrating black holes. While readers will wish her blackouts would include forgetting, deleting, or otherwise losing track of her ex-husband’s phone number, it’s fascinating to watch her stumble toward other connections — with tenuous sobriety, with a red-headed man from the train, with the husband of the missing woman.

The Girl On the Train isn’t a new release, and recommendations for it have been flying around for months now. I waited on the library wait list for some time, and I finished it in a breathless, page-turning session the same night I finally made it to the top of the waiting list. The book definitely keeps readers engaged and eager to see the story unfold. I can see why it’s been optioned for filming, because the tense moments and uncertain memories will make for an excellent film — hopefully.

One of the things I appreciate about the ending of Gone Girl is the way Flynn staunchly sees her characters and their motivations through to the end of the story. I know several — ok, a ton of — people who viscerally dislike the end of Flynn’s novel, but I believe she ended it in the only way that fit the characters she painted throughout her book.

I’m not sure I feel the same way about the end of The Girl On the Train, regarding the characters staying true to their motivation — though I guess part of reality is the way people often exact in a way that directly challenges everything you thought you knew about them. The twists and turns and the way the story unfolds allow the readers to understand which keys fit into which holes to unlock the story, so the ending has a sense of satisfaction not everyone felt when finishing Gone Girl.

I think The Girl On the Train is definitely worth the read, and I’d love to know what you thought of it. 

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Kindness Wins – A review

Galit Breen book

Hit and run accidents have consequences. Post and run crashes aren’t so easily punishable, and sometimes the results of unkind internet words aren’t seen immediately.

Online comments can be typed out more quickly than “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and then left to fester in hurt feelings or to snowball into something uglier and crueler than the original comment.

Such is the nature of online living, and even adults are burned by the flippant — and not so flippant — comments about their bodies, their words, their lives. How can we expect our teens — or even our preteens — to wade through that world unscathed?

Galit Breen saw one of her online articles spur comments not about what she’d written, but about the way she looked in the accompanying wedding photograph. The unkind comments left her reeling, but they also planted the seeds of Kindness Wins, a practical guide for helping our kids practice online kindness as they come of age in a world where fingers fly over keyboards without the common courtesy filter most of us have the sense to use in face-to-face interactions.

Each Kindness Wins chapter shares a different “habit” kids can practice online, with the goal of thoughtful, kind interaction. Reading the sections doesn’t feel like a manual; it feels like you’re sitting down with a friend and figuring out how to help your kids make informed, careful decisions about what they post online.

Additional resources and bullet points for each chapter make the book reference-friendly — you can come back and revisit parts as they become more pertinent in your child’s life. Kindness Wins even includes contracts for internet use, for kids and their parents, which is crucial for families who are entering the world of Instagram accounts and other social media platforms.

More important that the outlined ways parents should emphasize kindness online is the idea that it does need to be taught and discussed with our kids — and that it’s not a single admonishment to “be kind.” Teaching our kids about how they share their lives online will include some trial and error. After all, we’re all learning, too. Talking about what we share, how it can be perceived and misconstrued, and how we comment on and interact with the content our friends — and our non-friends — share, is a continuing conversation, and Kindness Wins makes it a little simpler to figure out how to have that discussion.

Food for thought: Parents can read through Kindness Wins to check our behavior, too. After all, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same high standards for which we hope our children strive?

Purchase Kindness Wins and learn about spreading a little online kindness

Read more from Galit Breen on her blog, These Little Waves

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Liar’s Bench – A review

Liars Bench

Mudas Summers is on the brink of adulthood — seventeen years old, with a set of car keys in one hand and all sorts of confusion about the truth of her mother’s death in the other. Liar’s Bench by Kim Michele Richardson explores the power of truth, the strength of love, and the ability to move past bad choices to find peace.

Set in 1972, Richardson takes full advantage of the tumultuous history of the time. Civil rights and women’s rights are entwined in Liar’s Bench, and the juxtaposition of past and present are crucial to the storyline and the emotional fabric of the novel.

When Mudas’s mother is found hanging in her home, the authorities are on the verge of considering it a suicide, though Mudas is insistent her mother would never take her own life. Her family’s past haunts her as she grieves, and she lashes out at her father, reminding him of how his actions divided their small family and possibly set her mother’s death in motion. Armed with only her car and on the verge of taking a relationship from friendship to something more, she finds herself searching for the truth about her mother’s death — and her father’s role in it.

As she strides toward evidence that will explain her mother’s actions, she stumbles over another truth, one that has the potential to rewrite the history of the entire town.

Social issues are woven into the plot line, giving Richardson’s novel beautiful depth that extends well beyond the story of Mudas and her family. Mudas is barraged from all sides with issues like trying to navigate her athletic ability — she’s a superb runner — in a world unsure about female athletes while entering a relationship with a classmate of mixed racial background, which is fraught with tension in rural Kentucky.

The setting of Liar’s Bench, a small town straddling the line between the Midwest and the Deep South, is perfect for the story Richardson tells. Like Mudas herself, who’s straddling the line between youth and adulthood, there are many thin lines in Liar’s Bench, and Richardson strives to address each of those while keeping her narrative flowing.

The language of Liar’s Bench is lovely, which makes some of the horrors of the plot even more powerful. Richardson adeptly uses the sense of smell in visceral ways throughout the story to bring the reader more fully into the world she’s crafted. Her characters are authentic, and sometimes raw, in a way that kept me turning the pages well past when I thought I’d put down my book for the night.

I loved the glimpse she gives into the world of the early 1970s, especially because Liar’s Bench provides much opportunity for conversations about how things have changed for minorities since then — if they have at all, or if the prejudices and biases are just more carefully covered in the present day.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Liar’s Bench for consideration for review. I do not automatically review every book I receive for consideration, and all opinions are my own.

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