Playing Big

bigLike many self-help books for women, Playing Big covers topics like dealing with your inner critic, figuring out a way to break out of your self-protection to take big steps in your life and career, and so forth.  You’ve probably read a lot of similar stuff.  Mohr’s main difference is in her application of vaguely spiritual angles on familiar subjects.  If you’re the sort of person who likes vaguely spiritual stuff, that might work for you.  As someone who’s spiritual life is more defined by specific faith and beliefs, it seemed silly to me.

For example, it’s common for this type of book to suggest getting perspective by considering yourself 20 years from now.  Thinking in terms of your 20 years down the road self, what will seem most important?  What will you be glad you did, or sorry you missed?  It’s a helpful point of view.  Mohr takes this further by suggesting you do a guided meditation into the 20 years from now you and see what her/your hairstyle is, what you/she eats for breakfast, and what her name is.  Wait, what her name is?  Isn’t this me, 20 years from now?  Why would I have changed my name?  Maybe I read too many Frank E. Peretti novels as a kid, but that is veering a little weird.

However, that said, I did find some extremely helpful advice in the book about how I communicate.  Mohr points out that, as a woman, you will not be liked or trusted if you don’t seem warm.  Seem too clever or competent without balancing it with warmth and people will dislike you or brand you as abrasive or worse.  I have seen this over and over again in many contexts.  The key, Mohr says, is to watch your wording and walk a fine line between warmth and competence.  And in my experience this a really, really fine line–I need clients to think of me as a competent expert because I don’t work for cheap, but I also need them to really like me so they want to keep working with me over the long-term.  Mohr lists ways women dumb down or try to soften their competence in what they say.  Several that stuck out to me as things I often do, especially in work emails include:

  • Use qualifiers like “just” and “almost” as in, “I just wanted to ask if you think you might be able to get me those files by Thursday” or “I almost think we need a different graphic here.”  I thought about it, and decided that I use qualifiers to try not to offend someone I’m disagreeing with, especially when I’m actually telling him how to do his job.  But in collaborative, creative work like I do, that’s really part of the process. I should just own it.
  • Over apologize.  I can’t tell you how many emails I end with some version of “sorry” in another bid to make myself seem less intimidating.  I’ve been told about a million times that I’m intimidating, so somehow I think that saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “I’m sorry if I missed it, but…” or “I’m sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner” makes it more palatable that I’m asking for information I need or pointing out a missing piece or turning something in early.
  • Ask “does that make sense?” or “do you see what I mean?”  This sort of question is a bid for connected response when you know you’ve been giving a lot of information.  But that type of question does tend to diminish your authority on the subject.  So it’s better, Mohr says, to ask, “what do you think?” to get the other people involved.

After reading the book, I was inspired to get into different work email habits, adding in more warmth by softening openings and closings so that I don’t have to play down my main points.  For me, this is primarily an email problem, but if you also have these issues in person, the book contains ideas for that too.

Overall I’m not sorry that I read Playing Big because I did get such a helpful take-away for my work life.  Other aspects of the book may appeal more to others, and self-help books are such different products for different types of people that it’s hard to know whether to recommend something else.  Personally, I got a lot more out of Make it Happen for things like goal setting and callings and taking big next steps, and Lean In resonated more with me on the women-succeeding-in-spite-of-being-women front.  But again, these books are personal, so the tone and focus of this one might be just what you need to hear.

What do you think about the email language idea?  Do you find yourself using those words and phrases too much?


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All the Light We Cannot See

All-Light-We-Cannot-SeeWith intricate and beautiful structure, pacing, and prose, All the Light We Cannot See examines truth and beauty in the midst of the horror and senselessness of war.

The story follows two young people – a German orphan who happens to be a technological genius, and a motherless French girl who goes completely blind at a young age.  In the midst of hard circumstances, both children cling to beauty.  Werner, the German boy, escapes the deprivation of inter-War poverty by listening to French radio programs about the natural world and classical music on a home-made radio he cobbles together.  Marie-Laure, the French girl, reads avidly and spends hours learning about snail specimens at the museum where her father is a master locksmith.  The details of the natural world and the intricacies of radio technology and the tiny mechanical models Marie-Laure’s father builds her parallel both the children’s stories and also the story structure as a whole.

As World War II comes around, the book describes the reality of how life changed for average people in Germany, and how the war brought out people’s good and bad sides in occupied France.  The children become teenagers and are thrust into activities that both challenge and form their characters as they wrestle with what is true, what is right, and how beauty fits in (or doesn’t) with the war.  The book does not sugar coat–there are several difficult scenes, but they aren’t gratuitous.  Everything in this book is on purpose and part of an amazingly well woven story.

I was impressed by All the Light We Cannot See.  It’s a remarkable book and I highly recommend it.


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How about a historical thriller/mystery set in medieval Germany?

The-Hangmans-DaughterJust for a change of pace.

I read Oliver Potzsch’s novel The Hangman’s Daughter for a book club, and found it a well-paced read, if a bit less historical than I was hoping and a bit more thrillerish than I would normally choose.

The author researched his own heritage to write about a hangman in Bavaria in the 1600s.  Although I saw a lot of medieval torture instruments in castles and museums when we lived in Germany, I didn’t know much about the hangman’s trade or how it tied in with medicine or was so stigmatized.  I thought the author did a good job of weaving historical information in without derailing the plot or pacing.  That said, I’m used to historical fiction being a bit more robust on the historical aspects, and I kept feeling like in some ways the setting was not carried through as vividly or as robustly as I would have liked.

The story, which is somewhat tied in with the 30 Years War, witch hunts and superstitions, and trade conflicts, centers around several missing children and the race to discover the killer in time to rescue an innocent midwife from having to take the fall.  Also there is a hidden treasure and a love story.  A lot goes on.

I enjoyed the book and thought the storytelling was solid, although I did wonder at a few choices the translator made (or maybe Potzsch made them in German too) and thought the book might have benefitted from being trimmed by 100 pages or so.  I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading in the series (there are four or five sequels) but I might.  If you like mysteries and don’t mind thriller pacing (and some gory torture details) I’d recommend The Hangman’s Daughter.  Even with the caveats I’ve added to this review I did enjoy the book.  And since it’s only $2 on Kindle right now, I would say reading it is worth it.  


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Better Than Before


I love habits.  I love to read about habits and how to form them, I find relevant tidbits about habits in even seemingly unrelated books, and I always have a list of habits I’m working on for myself and others I’m trying to instill in my kids.  Habits sound dreary, but as Rubin points out and I have found to be true, we really do have limited willpower and decision making ability in a given day.  It’s so, so, so much easier to automate some things rather than having to waste our limited resources on things that can be put on automatic.

So I was excited to read Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.  In her characteristic style, this book combines Rubin’s personal experiences, extensive research, and original observations.

If you’re also into the idea of habits, or if you read Rubin’s blog, you’ll find the book contains a lot of things you’ve already read about.  But I also found that Rubin identified lots of useful distinctions–or expanded on contrasts she previously wrote about–so I still got a lot of takeaways from the book.  Sometimes I found affirmation of things I’ve noticed personally (like that most nutrition experts are moderators and their maxims don’t really apply the same way to me as an abstainer, or that my need for a personal why to justify doing anything is about my personality, not a universal requirement).

I do think that if you haven’t read much about habit formation, willpower, how to make effective life changes, etc, Better Than Before would be a great primer.  And even if, like me, you’ve read almost everything in Rubin’s suggested reading list, her unique insights will be worth the time investment for the book.

Which of your habits–good or bad–do you think has the most impact on your life?


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Complete in Christ

studyI recently completed Complete in Christ: Illuminating the Pure Truth of Jesus, Jenni Keller’s excellent Biblestudy on Colossians, and would highly recommend it for personal study or to work on in a group.

Unlike many studies, in which hopefully you connect with the author’s personal anecdotes and applications or you don’t, Keller structured this study as an in-depth look at what the Scripture says, inviting readers to dig deeply into the text and then make their own applications.  She provides just enough background and insight to enrich the study and give a framework without asking leading questions that let you get away without really studying.

The study is structured to take about 30 minutes per day, six days per week, for six weeks.  For each day in a given week, you read the same passage and look at it from a different angle.  I found that emphasis on slow, deep study very helpful and got a tremendous amount out of the study. Because I read the same passages again and again, I feel like the verses really sank into my heart in a different way than doing a chapter by chapter approach or even a passage-per-day structure.

The book itself is available on Kindle for $2.99, which is super affordable, especially for what a great study this is.  You can also purchase it as a direct download via the author’s website (where you can also look at sample pages).  I printed out my copy and filled in every available space and the backs of all the pages with my notes and responses.  In hindsight, I might suggest keeping your answers and what you learn in a separate notebook–it would be less messy!  Another thought I had was that the structure of the study would lend itself to memorization.  I started out to memorize Colossians months ago, but sort of petered out after the first chapter.  I think a study like this would be even deeper if, in addition to your daily reading of the passage, you worked on memorizing it throughout your week.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I would highly recommend this study.  I thought it was a great thing for my daily Biblestudy individually, but I think it would also be terrific as a group study.  I met Jenni at a local event (she lives in my area) and she said she had tested the study in a private Facebook group with a group of women from her church.  I thought that was a brilliant way to do a Biblestudy, especially for women who can’t necessarily commit to regular in-person studies due to work or family schedules.  In any case, if you’re looking for a great study, check out Complete in Christ.

What Biblestudies have you found helpful lately?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon, but my link to Jenni Keller’s site is not an affiliate.  I received a review copy of the study from the author, but the opinions in this post are my own, and are based on my personal experience going through the study.

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The Bookmarked Life #11

2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


I went to a great concert this week with a couple of friends.  If you get a chance to hear All Sons and Daughters and Sandra McCracken, you should go.  Their sound was more what I would describe as hipsterish (in a good way) than their YouTube videos suggest.  At any rate, during Sandra McCracken’s set, she told about how she loves to write new music for old hymns and Psalms, to help her think about the words in a new light.  She described how during a recent difficult time in her life, she would stand at her kitchen counter with her Bible open, singing Psalms out loud to whatever tune came to mind.  I thought, that’s bookmarked life!  Sometimes I think when we get too used to a particular tune or style of music, we get into a rut of certain harmonies and melodies and it’s easy to overlook the depth and richness of the words we’re singing.  I want to be changed by all of what I read–whether it’s a novel that raises new ethical questions, a book of history that helps me to set the present in perspective, or a Psalm that lets me know it’s ok to be angry at injustice and ask God hard questions.  I appreciated the insight into how changing a setting can give even familiar words a higher impact.

…Furnishing my mind

IMG_4128Instead of candy in their Easter egg hunt, the kids found “fortune eggs.”  Each contained a rolled up message like a fortune cookie, and their good fortune is that they will get a new sibling in November!  Everyone is pretty excited about this development.  In between the first trimester exhaustion and sickness, my mind is swirling with possible carseat configurations.  The kids have begun the “what should we name the baby” discussions already.  So far Agamemmnon and Roberta have been vetoed.  Firmly.

…Learning about

I’m reading a biography of Queen Victoria and another on her son Edward VII, which ties in nicely to our school studies of the latter half of the 1800s this semester.  The books are full of interesting anecdotes, like the time an old woman pelted Prime Minister Gladstone with a piece of gingerbread, rendering him nearly blind in one eye.  It’s one of those moments where you aren’t sure whether to cluck in sympathy or laugh at being blinded by a bit of cookie.

…Living the Good Life

IMG_4099Although yet another round of stomach bug went through the family during Easter week, we did do some egg decorating. I bought some interesting gilding kits on 90% off clearance after last Easter, so we gave those a whirl.IMG_4100

Eliza was not allowed to paint the eggs, but she didn’t seem to mind.IMG_4116After our church’s egg hunt, I took the big kids to the living history museum near our house to see how Easter was celebrated in the 1800s. We saw a lady trimming bonnets and learned how you can dye eggs with onion skins, beets, and things like that. Also, the kids tried out a yoke for carrying water buckets and pronounced it heavy.IMG_4122Since I was singing in church on Easter, I had to be out of the house early and didn’t get to witness all of the Easter morning joy. Instead of full baskets, I put out an activity book, a new book to read, a small toy, and a mechanical pencil for each kid. I’m not sure why, but the mechanical pencil was HUGE for them. I also made hot cross buns from my friend Heather’s excellent recipe as is now our tradition, and left some brightly colored eggs.


We’re at that point in the year where it seems a real slog.  Some people burn out in February; I burn out in April.  It’s not hard for me to keep up with our history and literature and science, because we love to read and discuss those things.  And I am pretty good about requiring everyone to keep trucking with math and handwriting and spelling.  It’s the side stuff that begins to edge out–grammar and languages are harder to motivate for.  But I’m gearing up to tackle all of it more diligently next week, and fortunately we’ve gotten ahead earlier in the year so a bit of a breather was not an enormous setback.

…Seeking balance

I’m trying to bear in mind the lessons I learned during my last pregnancy about slowing down and giving myself grace.  I’d rather not have to learn them on bed rest again this time around!  Because I don’t have much energy and it’s hard to concentrate when you feel ill all the time, I’m focusing in on the things that are really priorities–getting school done, keeping my business going, and getting enough sleep.  Other stuff is taking a back burner, and that’s mostly ok.  Some of it is necessity–it’s very hard to cook dinner when the smell of cooking food is anathema!  We are experimenting with eating a lot of cold foods that don’t have a scent!  And yes, that does narrow the field a bit!  But certainly balance is about shifting to fit the circumstances, and we will get back to normal (or whatever the new normal will be!) eventually.

…Listening to

This week I enjoyed a podcast in which Michael Hyatt and Michele Cushatt interview Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism.  McKeown expanded on the themes in his book and offered some insight he’s gained since finishing the book (which I highly recommend you read, by the way, if you haven’t already!)

What are you bookmarking this week?


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Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

fridayIf you’re a fan of mysteries, you should check out Friday the Rabbi Slept Late.  The book is the first in a series, and, having enjoyed this first iteration thoroughly, I plan to check out the rest.

The book reads quickly, but the mystery is solid and interestingly solved.  The rabbi aspect was also fascinating, and I found I learned quite a bit about Jewish philosophy and New England culture as I read.  I thought the pacing was great, and I didn’t see the solution coming, which is a definite plus for a mystery!

There’s not a lot else I can say without starting to get into spoilers, but suffice it to say I liked this book even though I’m not normally one to go overboard on murder mysteries.  Whether mystery is your thing or not, you might check out Kemelman’s series for a fun read.


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homesteadHomestead, Rosina Lippi’s lovely collection of interrelated stories about a small village in the Austrian Alps, captures the depth of human nature and richness of relationships in seemingly small settings and quiet lives.

Each of Lippi’s vingettes centers around a woman from the village–a snapshot of life in the village over a span of about 70 years, including the World Wars.  In Rosenau, families are interrelated, and people are known by their connection to the land and to the people they come from.  Their lives are circumscribed by their valley, nestled like a bowl surrounded by towering peaks, and everyone seems to know everything about their neighbors, yet Lippi grants each of the women extraordinary depth, insight, and dignity.  The author spent years researching German dialect in the area where the book is set, and she clearly communicates her love for the culture and communities of isolated Alpine pockets.

Aside from the book’s narrative beauty and it’s fascinating cultural insight, I most enjoyed the way Lippi imbued her characters with worth and dignity.  I think our prevailing modern view is that small town people are dull or close-minded or less worthwhile than big city movers and shakers.  Authors who write about small towns seem to either poke fun at the people there, or go too far the other direction and are condescending.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed that enough to articulate it before, but as I read Homestead I was struck by the contrast.

This book gave me a lot to think about in terms of how people are formed by where (and who) they come from and how rarely we truly understand what’s going on in someone else’s heart.  Life gives us so much room to extend grace (it’s funny that grace was my word for last year, but that thought keeps coming to mind as I read and interact with people this year–obviously grace is not a one year concept!) to other people rather than judging their motives or assuming you can accurately assess their depth.

I really enjoyed Homestead and would highly recommend it.  It’s a quiet book, but beautiful and thoughtful.

{An aside: My 9 year old wanted to read this book and I think she would have enjoyed parts of it, but there are several references that are not appropriate for younger readers.  It’s tastefully handled from an adult perspective, but not the sort of thing to pass on to a kid, even if they are interested in the setting or time period.}


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A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I That (gasp!) I Did Not Love

marriage gameI can’t even believe I’m writing this, but I read Alison Weir’s latest novel about Queen Elizabeth I and I did not love it.

I know, I’m shocked too.

I think I found The Marriage Game a bit tiresome because of it’s focus on Elizabeth’s vanity and endless rounds of dancing around marriage possibilities (hence the title).  It got repetitive and I was often annoyed, although not so much that I stopped reading.  I’m a huge fan of historical fiction set in this time period, and Weir’s in particular, so there was plenty to recommend the book in spite of the topic.

Weir focuses the novel on Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Dudley–a courtier whom she dallied with for decades and strung along about possibly marrying even when she really had no intention of so doing.  I think this aspect is what really rankled.  In the novel at least, Elizabeth callously forbids Dudley from marrying and having children, which he wanted (and needed to provide for his estate) even as she rubs his face in her marriage games, humiliates him publicly, and jerks him around for his entire adult life.  Of course everyone is selfish to some degree, but most people are not so horrible as to think it within their rights to wreck other people’s lives to this extent.  I hope that the true story is not so abhorrent.

While reading the book, I had an interesting conversation with my 9-year-old daughter.  She’s read about Queen Elizabeth I, and although this book is not suitable for children, we were able to talk about how Elizabeth’s habits of vanity and inability to say no to herself or think of others’ feelings and needs hindered her.  Since Hannah and I have talked lately about how important (and difficult!) it is to get into good habits of character, it was great to have an example of how things can go badly if you don’t build good habits when you’re young.

If you love the Tudor time period, you’ll probably still like The Marriage Game, but be forewarned that it’s not as awesome as others in Weir’s catalog.


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One Quarter Down…

This year I’ve organized my goals into quarterly steps, because I think it’s helpful to keep a variety of ranges in mind when you’re looking at big projects.

Similarly, I like to look back at what I’ve read quarter by quarter rather than just once a year.  It’s sometimes interesting to see how themes develop in reading or how my interest in one book sparked another rabbit trail of inquiry.  However, unlike previous years, this time around I’ll spare you the recap of reviews you’ve already seen, and instead will give some stats and highlight the superlatives.

Total (mine and read-alouds over 100 pages) books read January – March 2015: 47

Total fiction (not including read-alouds): 12

Total non-fiction (not including read-alouds): 20

Total chapter books (100+ pages) read aloud to the kids: 15

Best Fiction: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Best History: Destiny of the Republic

Best Life Management: Make It Happen

Best Theology: Prayer

What was the best book you read this quarter?

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