The Year in Books 2011

I read 93 books in 2011 from a pretty even mix of topics ranging from fiction to spiritual life to business to parenting to education to marriage to self improvement.  When I reviewed the list, I picked out the 10 I most enjoyed and would most highly recommend.  The links below are to my longer reviews.

The Meaning of Marriage – If you only have time to read one book on marriage in your entire life, you should make it this one.

Find Your Strongest Life – This approach to understanding your personality as a set of strengths and figuring out how to apply them to your work, your family, and your goals is really helpful and empowering.

Chasing Daylight – An end-of-life memoir by a CEO who determined to live well is not depressing as you might expect.  It’s inspiring and thought-provoking.

Knowing God – This is one of the best books I’ve read about the Christian life – deep and convicting and challenging.

Story Engineering – If you write at all, you won’t fail to get something out of this book.  If you write fiction, you REALLY need it.

168 Hours – I read a lot of time management books, and this is one of the best.  Transformative.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind – If you’ve ever thought about what it means to be a Christian and involved in intellectual life, you need to read this book.

Mindset – Understanding how mindset can impact your life, your relationships, your work, and your parenting will really help you to be more effective and compassionate.

The Latin-Centered Curriculum – This book about classical education is both an excellent apologetic for the method and a tremendously practical resource as you plan your children’s education, whether you homeschool or are just looking for supplemental enrichment.

Counterfeit Gods – This author has an amazing ability to pinpoint the blind spots of our culture and era.  I think most people would find this book illuminating and challenging.

If you’d like to read more book reviews check out what I read in 2011, or the year in books 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2007.

What were the best books you read in 2011?  Have you put together a list of books you’d like to read in 2012?

How Full Is Your Bucket?

How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life is a short book about building people up by “filling their buckets” with thoughtful and appropriate encouragement and praise. You could probably read the book in about 20 minutes, but it does have some good points.

First, I was challenged to think about what type of feedback I most often give my children.  With small kids, some days feel like a constant barrage of “No!  Don’t touch that!  Don’t hit your sister!  Don’t whine!  Don’t tattle!” The book mentions a study conducted in 1925 that measured the effect of praise and criticism on children.  I was sobered to think of how often I criticize my children versus how often I give them thoughtful encouragement.  It takes a lot of effort to stop in the middle of something and, first of all, notice when things are going right, and second, verbalize that to the child.  There are some things I praise consistently, but I was challenged to think of other areas to encourage the kids when they do the right thing.  The study found that the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 5:1.  That’s a lot of encouragement compared to negative statements, especially in a house full of the under 6 crowd!

The second point I found illuminating was the injunction to prevent bucket dipping – that is, to think about whether each of our interactions with others is positive or negative, and actively avoid being negative when that is possible.

Overall How Full Is Your Bucket? is a quick and somewhat helpful book, which I would recommend if you’re a fan of the self-help genre but would probably suggest as a library book rather than a purchase.


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As I said the first time I reviewed Daniel Gilbert’s book, Magi is “an entertaining story of how the Three Wise Men might have undertaken the journey to present gifts to Jesus. Informed by research into historical sources, Gilbert’s novel has an authentic feel to it, although much of the story is of course based on conjecture.”

My book club is reading this book this month, and so I blazed through it to refresh my memory.  And I do mean blazed – you can read this book easily and quickly, which does make it great for this time of year.  What I liked most about the book was the details.  Since it’s a version of the Christmas story but told from a different perspective, that gave the author a reason to mention details like how Jerusalem looked and how the Temple worked, about Herod, and about the way Joseph and Mary would have lived in Nazerath, without seeming like a data dump.  Although some of the plotting and pacing was problematic, over all I think this is a good book for the holiday season when things can get busy but you still might like to read something now and then.

Moreover, I think it would make a good Christmas gift.  However, since I didn’t get around to reviewing it until now, I don’t know that you could order it in time for Christmas this year (maybe you could, if you live close to where one of the sellers lives, since it’s backordered from Amazon itself).

If you’ve read Magi and plan to be in the Indianapolis area next Wednesday evening, email me and I’ll send you directions to book club!


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Do Projects Better

Unless you are in a technology field or know someone who is, I can’t think of a reason why you would pick up a copy of The Rational Unified Process Made Easy, but actually the framework is applicable to projects of all sorts, not just software development, and it can help you be more efficient and effective in lots of areas.  Read on for the details.

Another consultant on my team loaned me the book because of something I’m working on, and I expected to find it a little bit boring, but on the contrary the framework is quite interesting.  Basically, the RUP is  a way to plan and do projects that helps you clarify what you’re trying to do, stay in control of risk factors that could keep you from meeting your goal, do the project and test that your product is effective, and roll it out so it can be effective to others.  Although the book approaches this from the perspective of technology projects, the framework is definitely applicable to other sorts of projects or goals you might pursue.  Here are the main components of RUP, applied more generally:

Inception: take time to define the project. Whether you’re building a huge new system or writing a book or reorganizing your closets, it helps to start with a plan.  What do you want to achieve?  What need will the project address?  What is the scope of the project (that is, when will you stop?  What does finished look like?) Could you work with something you already have or do you need to start from scratch?  What are the risks (thinks that could keep you from meeting your goal or being successful) and what will you do to mitigate them?

Elaboration: flesh out your plan and think it through. Once you have a general definition of your plan, the RUP suggests you think up some scenarios of how your project could play out, how the product might be used, and so forth (these are called “use cases” in the framework) and use those to help you design your product.  So for example, if you’re reorganizing your closet you might think of the ways you use your closet, what sorts of accessories you wear with which clothes in which season, whether or not you are ever trying to get dressed at the same time your spouse is (at our house, we didn’t use RUP when organizing our closet, and that is why I’m always accidentally opening the door right into my husband when he’s trying to access his sock drawer!)  As you elaborate on your plan, you continue to refine your vision and monitor your risks.  Whenever you change your ideas, you might change the factors that could influence whether you will finish on time or within the budget and you’ll need to alter your mitigation plans accordingly.

Construction: do the project in an organized and logical fashion. As you launch into the project or task itself, it helps to be organized.  Refer to the use cases you thought of, and solve for the most critical ones first.  As you go, continuously test your product: ask yourself if it’s meeting your goal, if it’s working, if it’s solving the problem.  If you’re going to need some sort of reference at the end, keep good notes.  In software development, this means working on the manual and tutorials as you go, but in other projects it might mean keeping a log of what paint color you used, the dimensions of the closet, the font you liked, the password you chose for the website, or whatever.

Transition: put it into place and think about what you learned. My tendency is to set up a big project, get all the plates spinning, and then look around for someone to hand it off to.  I really don’t like day to day operations.  But when you’re doing a project or pursuing a goal, it’s important to actually follow through and put the thing into place.  You can design the best blog, but if you never post what was the point?  You can build all sorts of nifty closet organizers into your space, but if you just throw the clothes back in there haphazardly you won’t get the best use of out it.  A good follow-through is key.  Then, after you have the process in motion, take time to think about what you learned.  My mom is a fantastic seamstress, and even had her own smocked clothing boutique when I was little, but she still says she learns something new from every project she tries.  It’s a good practice to identify your lessons learned and use the results for the next thing you move on to do.

And there you have it folks, my attempt at a broadly applicable post about a very very technical book that I can guarantee 99.9% of you would never read.  If you know someone who is a techy person, or involved in IT in some way, you could give them The Rational Unified Process Made Easy for Christmas, but if not, you can rest assured that you now know enough to apply the RUP to your everyday life.  🙂


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Stand Out

StandOut is a more in-depth look at the “strength types” described in Find Your Strongest Life (link to my longer review of that book) and how to apply your understanding of your strengths in your work and in group situations.  The book does a great job of helping you understand the ways you work best, and is quite insightful in its suggestions for how to leverage your strengths in groups, in leadership, and in selling your products, services, or ideas.

I found the strength leveraging idea particularly helpful.  For example, my main strength type is Advisor, and one facet of that is that I really enjoy breaking complex situations down into components and communicating that to other people.  So the book points out that I’m good at start-up or turnaround type work situations (when you have to assess a huge amount of information and use it to make critical, intense, strategic decisions) but that I should TOTALLY avoid being the person who has to implement the the changes or run existing operations (because I get incredibly bored).  I have found this to be true by painful experience, but haven’t ever really articulated it that way.  I am certainly filing this information away for considering future projects.

I also think it’s helpful to read books like this so I can better understand other people.  Do you ever find yourself on a committee or in a working group and you just don’t get why someone behaves like they do?  It’s so helpful to be able to get inside other people’s heads a little bit to understand how they make decisions and where they feel most comfortable and can best perform.  That kind of insight can make you a better leader, but also just smooths the path a little and gives you better ability to be kind and understanding.

If you’re interested in the strengths idea from Find Your Strongest Life, you might find this book helpful in its more detailed descriptions of the common strength types.  Whether you’re working at a regular job or just happen to work with others in your volunteering or church or family life, you might find the insights in StandOut helpful.


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The Meaning of Marriage (a book you really need to read)

If you’re married, or considering ever being married in your lifetime, you need to read this book.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Compexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God is one of the best, if not THE best, book on marriage I’ve ever read.  And yes, I know I’m given to superlatives in book reviews, but I really think that this book grasps the problems our culture has with marriage in a more cogent and readable way than other books in the genre.

First, Tim Keller is really gifted with understanding the blindspots and temptations of our particular time and place.  He has an insight that just nails the lenses, blinders, and idols we have.  It’s worth mentioning that Christians often (if not always) succumb to the prevailing mindsets of the culture around us, and Keller should be commended for diagnosing that and always bringing us back to what God’s word says about the issue.

In the context of marriage, Keller identifies the pitfalls singles and married people fall into when it comes to thinking about marriage, love, and commitment, and contrasts those with what the Bible says.  He unpacks the ways we are disposed to think, the knee jerk reactionary thinking that also tempts us, and counters with the Gospel.  I just don’t know how you could read this book and not be convicted and challenged on many fronts.

I took a ton of notes, but I know that what stood out to me may not be what stands out to you, so I will just reiterate that The Meaning of Marriage is a superb book and you really, really need to read it.  If you do, or if you have, be sure to let me know what you think!


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Perhaps Thanksgiving is not the ideal day for a post about cookbooks, but then again, perhaps it is. This year Thanksgiving is a bit of a challenge for us since Sarah has to eat gluten-free.  We figured out that she is gluten intolerant (I’m not sure if she really has celiac disease, since she tolerates oatmeal well, but she breaks out and has stomach trouble when she eats so much as a bite of wheat/flour containing products, even playdoh!  And yes, she has eaten playdoh) this summer, and really I don’t find it that big of a deal on normal days.  She can eat rice and potatoes, and the only thing that really changed in our diet was that I stopped making muffins and other baked goods for breakfasts, and I stopped making pizza for dinners and serving sandwiches for lunches.  We all eat a lot more vegetables and fruits now, which is a good win for the family. In any case, Thanksgiving poses an extra challenge, and I was hoping to figure out some new meal ideas in general, so I checked out Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking: More than 250 Great-Tasting, From-Scratch Recipes from Around the World. I believe I found this book via The Cooks Next Door (which, should you be in need of gluten-free recipes, often features them).  It’s an exceptional cookbook.  Even if you don’t need to eat gluten-free, I think you’d enjoy the recipes.  To be honest, I find gluten-free baking daunting in the extreme and I don’t have time for it, so I probably won’t be making gluten-free naan, but we did try and enjoy the red curry recipe and I made the pumpkin cheesecake for my mother-in-law’s birthday.  I have quite a few other recipes marked for future use.

The other challenge I face is getting meals on the table quickly.  I am at work two and a half days a week, and when I get home I do not want to spend another hour and a half getting dinner ready.  I read Quick Fix Meals in hopes of further streamlining the dinner making process so I can have more time to do things I enjoy like read to the kids.

I tried several of the recipes and some were not as good as they sounded (like “Artichoke-Steak Melts with Smoked Provolone and Basil Mayo”) but most were quite good (like “Coconut-Lime Chicken with Chiles”).  They really are fast meals, largely owing to some creative uses of batch-cooked meats.  I’m looking forward to using Thanksgiving leftovers to make “Turkey with Apples, Melted Blue Cheese, and Pecans.”  Except our grocery store was celebrating Thanksgiving by charging a whopping TEN DOLLARS A CUP for pecans, so we will be omitting the pecans!

A friend whose family has a variety of different dietary restrictions recommended Bette Hagman’s books to me, so I checked a few out.  To be honest, I found The Gluten-Free Gourmet Cooks Fast and Healthy to be extremely daunting.  Gluten-free baking is so complex and the results are so unpredictable (at least it seems to me).  I used to bake quite frequently, but since we started Sarah on the gluten-free diet, I have stopped almost completely.  I’ve made gluten-free pancakes a few times, but they are thin and weird and the other kids won’t eat them at all.  I’ve also made gluten-free brownies (grainy, weird) and yesterday I made gluten-free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins that were tasty, but fell apart in a weird way.  I’m sure it’s just a matter of figuring it all out, but I don’t feel like I have the time or mental energy to do that right now, so I feel daunted.  Many of the recipes in this book were not our usual style of eating, so I didn’t wind up trying any of them.  Perhaps if I picked up the book again when I was in a different frame of mind, I would feel more apt to try it out.  Still, I did learn a lot about varying forms of gluten-free eating and what works for different people, which was helpful.  Since I enjoy reading cookbooks like books, I don’t begrudge the time.

Because the whole gluten-free baking thing scares me, I really appreciated the sections in Hagman’s The Gluten-free Gourmet Makes Dessert that dealt specifically with baking jitters.  She wrote a chapter called “Help!  What did I do wrong!” that was instructive, and I also appreciated the chapter on “No Special Ingredients” since the mixing of things like guar gum and xanthan gum are part of my phobia.  I was, however, extremely sad to see that in over 200 recipes this book did not contain a gluten-free red velvet cake.  Red velvet cake is a very big tradition for our birthdays and Sarah is already talking about the one she is expecting in December.  I guess I could substitute a gluten free baking mix for the flour, but the texture of red velvet cake (the actual kind, not the box mix which is just red food coloring and chocolate cake) is so specific that I fear it’s a lost cause.  If anyone knows of a gluten-free red velvet cake recipe, will you please send it to me?


If you’re partial to cookbooks, perhaps these will be of interest to you.  If you’ve read any interesting cookbooks or food memoirs recently, let us know in the comments!

Happy Thanksgiving!


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The Dukan Diet

Due to lack of exercise and too many self-declared “vacations” from proper eating, I gained some weight over the summer.  So when my aunt told me about The Dukan Diet, which is apparently what Kate Middleton used to drop two dress sizes before her wedding and which my aunt had used successfully to lose 20 pounds, I decided to try it.

The diet is basically a modified low carb diet.  It’s very similar to the South Beach Diet, in that it calls for low fat protein and allows low fat dairy items.  The differentiating factors between the Dukan Diet and other low-carb programs are:

  • The Dukan diet has a re-entry program that keeps you from gaining weight back when you reach your ideal.
  • The diet doesn’t require any counting of calories or carb grams or anything like that.  You eat what’s allowed for a given phase or day and that’s that.
  • The diet allows fat free plain Greek yogurt and fat free cottage cheese even in the first phase.
  • The diet requires you to eat a tiny amount of oat bran each day for fiber.

The first phase of the diet is just protein.  None of that Atkins diet “just eat 20 grams of carbs” stuff.  You do that for a few days (2-5 depending on how much you have to lose) and then you move to the second phase, which alternates “pure protein” days with “protein and vegetable” days.  On the protein days, you only eat protein like in the first phase, and on the protein and vegetable days you eat protein plus vegetables (not starchy ones, naturally).  Then when you’ve reached your ideal weight, you go into two different maintenance phases that gradually add in more foods so you don’t have any regaining.  I like that concept.

I did lose some weight on the diet, but I find myself still about 5 pounds from my goal weight, which is not a pie-in-the-sky “gee, I wish I could weigh what I did when I was nine years old” sort of goal weight, but rather the weight I was until this summer.  Truly, I need to add vigorous exercise back in.  I’ve been bad about that for various reasons, including but not limited to having a horrid head cold for going on three weeks now.

On that note, even if you’re not really interested in The Dukan Diet, have you heard that Jillian Michaels has a new workout DVD coming out soon?  I’m so psyched!!!  You can preorder it now on Amazon, which is what I am doing so that my husband can give it to me for my birthday (thanks Honey!).

If you’ve tried the Dukan diet, did it work for you?


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A Soft Place to Land

A Soft Place to Land is a good read – light, but somewhat thoughtful, with a well written motif and sympathetic characters.  I thought the author did a particularly good job with settings, describing two different parts of Atlanta, San Francisco, and Berkeley with evocative detail without being overwhelming.  I’m always interested in books with southern settings, because my family is from the south but I don’t consider myself a southerner, so I read details to see if other people see things the same way I do, or if I’m just an outsider.

Some of the choices the author made for the characters seemed a bit forced, but overall I thought the characterization was good.  The author did a good job of building who the main character became and making that make sense, and the main character and her sister had strong interactions throughout the book.

I was also intrigued by the way the author wove actual historical events into the narrative and made it make sense and even contribute to a strong ending.

If  you’re looking for a book that is good but not too demanding, I’d recommend A Soft Place to Land. It would be a great book for a vacation, or to read over the holidays when you might not have a ton of focused time. That’s not to say it’s a lame book, just that it’s the sort of thing you can read to relax.  At any rate, I enjoyed it!


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Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum

Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, written by the woman who edited The Harp and Laurel Wreath: Poetry and Dictation for the Classical Curriculum, is not an apologetics manual for homeschooling or classical education, but rather a practical suggestion for what to cover in each grade and how.  I find it helpful to read about what other families have done and found successful, so I can tweak what might work for us.

Although the book is classical in focus, the author does draw heavily from Charlotte Mason, emphasizing short lessons, memory work, living books, nature study, narration, artist and composer study, and habit training.  Beginning in the 4th grade section this book includes lists of living books by topic that would be tremendously helpful if you have a child reading at that level.

I found that I somewhat disagreed with the authors approach to history study, and since this is a book about Catholic home education, the religion sections were obviously Catholic in focus.  Of course you could substitute your own religious studies materials, and I think it was good that the author emphasized making that an everyday study.

Another strength of the book that you might expect if you’ve read The Harp and Laurel Wreath is the author’s helpful suggestions of poems and Shakespeare passages to memorize in each grade.  Since my own education was woefully deficient in this area I am always looking for ways to make sure my kids memorize beautiful things that are helpful to them and will make them more educated (I often wonder what things “an educated person” should know by heart – it seems that in the past people knew lots of things they could quote at opportune moments).

If you are homeschooling, or are looking for helpful reading suggestions for elementary kids and older, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum may be helpful to you and I’d recommend it.


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