Charmingly Modern

Book Review: The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

Oh boy, another book review! The Festival of Insignificance was courtesy of TLC Book Tours.

I jumped at the chance to review a Kundera novel. I hadn’t read any of his work since college – which, of course, was The Unbearable Lightness of Being – so I was looking forward to sitting down with some legit lit.

I was not disappointed. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that made me want to whip out my highlighters, and start taking down notes in the margin. This little novella was full of gems.

What did I like about this book?

Firstly, I liked the feel it gave me – of being back in college, of reading literature to learn something about myself or the author or the world (or all of the above), of walking away from a book with something new to think about.

All of that said, my something new to think about that I tok away from the book boils down to one word: existence. Existence and its relative insignificance, to be precise. Not in a negative way, though. Rather, it’s a fact – as life goes on, we fade out of notice and eventually we either are no longer a part of memory, or we are but the memories aren’t true to reality.

I love the absurdity of this idea – that we embrace our insignificant existences and in the process, the freedom we experience by acknowledging just how insignificant we are allows us to take joy in the little things in life. But it also allows us to look at events – both big and small – and see them for what they are… nothing, in the grand scheme of things. Absolutely nothing.

This reminds me of Beckett (whose works I actually could not stand when I read them in college…), Waiting for Godot – the absurdity of waiting and nothing happening, but continuing to wait for someone or something who is not coming, and in the process reducing your life to nothing. Yet you’re afraid to move on, afraid to miss what you’re waiting for. Kundera is telling us to do the opposite – live your life, knowing full well that your existence is small and will ultimately disappear. Is there freedom in saying that out loud – that your memory won’t amount to much, so live now while you can? It’s a sad thought.

It’s not all sadness in the book, though. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of moments where I literally laughed out loud. And, going back to the absurdity of this whole novella, I liked that there’s even humor in the fact that there’s basically no plot. There is really no point… there is no central story moving the characters along. They’re all average guys, just living their lives.

What did I not like about this book?

Sometimes the absurdity gets to you, but that’s just personal preference. You just have to take things like this the way they are, and that’s that.

Any favorite quotes?

I think this one pretty adequately sums it up –

But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it.

Do I recommend this book?

If you’d like a read that will challenge you a little, yes I do recommend it! Don’t walk into it expecting it to be lighthearted, though.

 

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Book Review: Move On by Vicki Courtney

Move On by Vicki Courtney

I’m on a roll – two reviews in one week! I received Move On: When Mercy Meets Your Mess by Vicki Courtney from BookLook Bloggers to review, and I’ve actually had this book for quite some time. I received it back in 2014, and it’s taken me this long to finally review it because of, well, life.

I read the first chapter or so right when I received the book, and finished the remaining nine chapters over two nights of broken up sleep due to a nursing newborn :) In other words, this is a fairly quick read, if you’ve got the time to set aside and dedicate to it.

The premise of this book really intrigued me – the idea of coming to terms with the messy parts of your life, admitting where you’ve messed up, allowing God’s forgiveness over your life and believing his truth, then simply moving on and walking forward. I don’t know why, but that entire process is something we overcomplicate on a regular basis – not just in our faith, but in our day-to-day relationships. We hold on to things, we won’t let go and we sometimes take it so far as to allow those feelings to permanently damage a relationship, or even ourselves. This book is about challenging you to change that approach.

Vicki set this book up in such a way that each chapter addresses an area in life where you might struggle with not letting go, whether that be letting go of something you’ve done, or just letting go of a mindset you’re trapped in. She usually shares a personal story, then delves deeper into the topic, backing up her assertions with scripture, and then finally closes with questions that challenge you to apply what you’ve read to your own circumstances. Just to give you an idea of the topics she covers – emotional baggage, shame, legalism, looking to others for approval, etc.

What did I like about this book?

I liked pretty much everything about this book. Vicki’s voice is very relatable; I liked her narrative style, the stories she told (some of which made me laugh out loud), and her transparency. As a result, this book moved quickly and I was eager to finish it.

I really enjoyed the questions at the end of each chapter. I didn’t really work through them deeply, because I was mostly reading this book in the middle of the night, in between nursing my little newborn girl, but what’s nice about them is you can marinate the questions in your mind, or you can take it a step further and approach the book like a bible study and really work through the questions.

I also feel like Vicki did a great job tackling subjects that are often very touchy in Christian circles – such as being trapped within a legalistic mindset, feeling shame over past (or current) choices, and the desire to be accepted.

What did I not like about this book?

Nothing, really.

Any favorite quotes?

Quite a few, actually! I’ll share just a couple –

The truth is that, for many of us, using our voices to express dissenting opinion is tantamount to going before a firing squad. Maybe it’s time we quit this people-pleasing charade and get our voices back… Wouldn’t you rather be accepted for the person you really are than escape into a silent shell of yourself? Because what happens when you lose your voice permanently? Now that’s a scary thought.  – Page 130

If we define ourselves primarily as sinners, that title can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Author Steve McVey says, “If you believe you are fundamentally a sinner, your default setting will be to act like a sinner. To behave in any other way would be to act inconsistently with the person you perceive yourself to be. After all, what do you expect a ‘sinner’ to do? Sin. Sinning is simply the normal behavior for a sinner.” … My turning point came when I was overwhelmed by a deep understanding of what Christ had done. Filled with goodness and mercy, He met me in my mess and reminded me of my true identity as a saint. As a result, I wanted to live up to my new identity–one I didn’t deserve but had been given with God’s gift of mercy and grace. – Pages 163, 165

Do I recommend this book?

I do! But be prepared to be challenged. Vicki doesn’t spare any words, because the goal of this book is to have the reader open her or his eyes to the messy parts of life, the parts you keep back from view, and to bring them to the light in order to move on. Closely examining preconceived notions, prejudices, shame over past behavior… it isn’t easy! But it’s worth it, and that is why I recommend the book.

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Book Review: Hotel Moscow by Talia Carner

hotel moscow by talia carner

So, I signed up to be a book reviewer through a few different places and this is my first official review. Do you remember back in 2012 when I attempted to read 52 books that year (spoiler alert – I didn’t reach my goal), and I used to post reviews? It was a lot of fun, and I thought this would be a cool way to get back into reading and posting reviews again. Hotel Moscow by Talia Carner was provided to me by TLC Book Tours in exchange for a review. Keep an eye out for more reviews in the future! Now, let’s get to it.

A little slow at first, I found this book difficult to really like though I wasn’t disappointed overall. In general, the book is enjoyable. There were things, historically, it opened my eyes to that I was not even aware of – specifically the state of Russia in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, when Boris Yeltsin assumed power and began trying to introduce capitalism and democracy to the country.

What did I like about this book?

I liked, as I mentioned above, the historical aspects. The setting is October 1993, following the fall of communism, and it focuses on the country trying to navigate this new frontier. That alone is a compelling framework for a story. There are also explorations into antisemitism, through the main character (Brooke Fielding) who is Jewish, which was interesting but was mostly surface (and a little stereotypical). I would have liked to have seen this play a more prominent role in the framework, other than the occasional mention of Brooke hiding (or sometimes not hiding) her Star of David necklace, and her internally rolling her eyes at ignorant, antisemitic comments with the hopes that people’s opinions change later.

Carner focused the broad setting of Russia-post-communism through the experiences of Russian businesswomen being helped by a group of American businesswomen. I really enjoyed this approach, because it did enable Carner to explore just how difficult it was for Russia, but women in particular, to thrive as their world essentially crumbled around them. Brooke, for all intents and purposes, spearheaded the American group and Carner did a good job of establishing Brooke’s authority in business. Overall, I did like Brooke’s character.

When I finished the book, there is a note where we learn that Carner had actually bene in Moscow sixteen months after the fall of Communism, when Yeltsin was squelching a rebellion. She actually joined a group of American businesswomen in a very similar way as Brooke. These are things I wish I had read before delving into the book, because I may have changed my tune about a few things that I ended up not liking as I read through. Speaking of which….

What did I not like about this book? 

I felt like while the general idea of the book was great, the conventions Carner used to pull the story together were, at times, a little overdone and stereotypical. The violence, the characters, the smaller plot lines all eventually read as a caricature to me. I finished the book feeling as though I had read a hyper-sensationalized story. And while this is obviously a work of fiction and some embellishment is completely expected, it felt like there was no reigning in of that embellishment and as the book progressed, the exaggerated feeling I had grew.

There were also a few scenes and elements of plot that felt completely out of place. Specifically, a scene involving a bathtub and one of the main Russian female characters (and I should note that what happened in the scene is fine, it was what had happened previously that made me question why the bathtub scene happened when it did – it made no sense, emotionally or psychologically), as well as a scene toward the end of the book where another main Russian female character is in her garden (I felt like this was completely unnecessary, though my guess is Carner was really trying to drive home the idea of how cruel Russia was during this time).

Lastly, while I did like Brooke as a character, her big secret, and the final few pages where that secret is revealed, felt rushed and like a bit of a letdown. Particularly because the book description implies the secret compromises all of her work while she is in Russia, but that is just not the case. She does experience some mild blackmail, but it is almost immediately nipped in the bud (by a man, I should add) and what she is able to accomplish isn’t remotely held back by her secret.

What was my overall impression?

Overall, I would say that if you are looking for a quick read that you won’t take too seriously, filled with a mixture of violence, a little bit of history, stereotypical Russian and American characters, and a few poignant observations then this book will not disappoint you. The story is a little predictable, but there are some very nice points along the way. And, if anything, you’ll close the book thanking your lucky stars you did not live in a post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s.

Any favorite quotes? 

“Had the Russians, and then the Ukrainians, followed by the Nazis, not destroyed her mother’s family, her mother would still be here, living like this . . . and Brooke would have been born in the Soviet Union . . . Instead, by several twists of fate and a parade of unbearable miseries, Brooke had become the recipient of the rarest commodity – luck. She had been lucky to be born in the United States of America.” – my guess is, based on the knowledge that Carner was loosely basing the events of the book on her own experience in Russia after the fall, that this is the author’s personal feeling and her motivation for writing the book. I can certainly appreciate that, and this quote really stuck with me.

Do I recommend this book? 

Sure. It is not a bad book. Like with any book, there are things that aren’t great, but overall this book is an interesting and somewhat enlightening read. It certainly inspired me to learn more about Russia’s struggle in the 1990s, and it also sheds light on Russia as it is today. My only suggestion is not go into the book expecting a more serious look; it’s meant to be a fast-paced, quick read.

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A wish for our home

I don’t think it’s a secret, among those who know me, that I love a clean house.

And by “love,” what I mean is not only do I like seeing my house all tidied up and clean, but I really enjoy cleaning in general. Even as a child, I loved Saturday morning chores done with my mom. I realize I’m probably in the minority of people who actually enjoy cleaning, and I’m cool with that.

What may not be known, though, is my even greater love for a well lived in home. A well loved home.

As much as I enjoy the wiping down, the picking up, the putting away… seeing how our home works for our family brings me even more happiness. I clean up the mess so we can make the same mess again the next day.

What I share with you is the cleaned up side. I snap photos when my baby is napping and my husband isn’t home, when things are straightened up and the piles are put away. But it occurred to me today that while I like looking at a photo of my living room so pristine, I love the not so perfect pictures of life being lived in our home, too.

dinosaurs on rug

puzzle on floor

These are just close-up shots and you can’t see the bigger mess, the whirlwind that happens between the hours of 8am and 2pm when my little guy is up and running. I clean it all up during his nap, and once he’s awake after his nap around 5pm we get to repeat the cycle. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes when I leave Ezra’s room after laying him down for his nap, and I stand on the stairwell where I can see both the upstairs play room and the downstairs living room, in that quiet moment I think how it can’t be possible to love a tiny person this much (especially one whose sole mission, while awake, is to wreak havoc). And yet.

Sticky spots on the floor, an orange stain on the rug, crumbs in the couch, fingerprints (heck, full on handprints) on the television… these are hallmarks, to me, of a well loved and lived in home. These are the things I wipe up and sweep away, but they are also the things I’m trying to remember. And not just remember, but dearly remember. I think every mom has been told, countless times, to hang on to these precious days and while it may be trite, it’s also true.

Dinosaurs and puzzles will be traded for video games and sports gear, one day. The messes will be there, but they’ll be different. And I’ll miss these days.

veggies on floor

messy dinner prep

A lived in home, though, is more than just the sentiment behind what’s piled in the corner. And while I love my lived in home, there are those messes that never seem to go away. The ones that are frustrating, repetitive, and seem to serve no purpose other than to cause annoyance. These are the ones I’m learning to be a little more graceful about. A little more kind. A little less grumbly.

When I’m scrambling to prepare dinner, only to cut the bag of frozen vegetables open at a weird angle and have half of it dump on the floor. When I clean all that up with a toddler under foot, finish loading up the crock pot, and look around at the counters only to realize the mess wasn’t just contained to the floor. When I’ve used up all my energy cleaning up the last spill, the last smear, the last random sock on the floor. When I’m tired. When I wonder, why can’t I get any help around here?

Those are the moments of personal imperfection – of just plain daily life – that I’m trying to equally let go of but hang onto as well. They’re a part of this dreamy haze of being the mama to a toddler and the wife to a husband who works long hours for our benefit, where I’m learning to balance realistic expectations with an idealistic hope. Where I’m cutting myself some slack because I couldn’t finish putting all the laundry away, but the good news is we at least have clean clothes. There’s still beauty here, in the monotony of day to day. These moments still tell of a well loved home.

So, what is the wish for my home? I’ll tell you.

A little more grace. A little less (self-imposed) pressure for perfection.

A little more uninhibited enjoyment. A little less guilt over unfinished chores.

More of puzzle time on the rug. Of trains hidden in cabinets that are not really cabinets, but are actually caves. Of stories made up on the spot about wild animals. Of imagination. Of love notes left in surprising places. Of moments on the couch, catching up on a favorite show.

I wish for my home to be a refuge, to be a gathering place for family, to be quiet when we need it and loud otherwise. I wish for friends and family to know they’re welcome, and for laughter and stories to be captured among these walls. I wish for this home to be a tool we use to build a lovely life, together.

And right now, looking around at my perfectly imperfect living room, I think I can see those wishes very plainly. How lucky we are, so lucky.

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Second Baby Bump Progress – 33 Weeks

In case you missed the update about this pregnancy being considered high risk, you can read it here – What I haven’t said about my pregnancy. I’m going back to where I left off and doing bump progress shots, with more information about what we’ve learned along the way about our baby girl and her medical issue. All of these updates are written in the past tense because I ended up not catching up in time for our baby’s arrival! I want a record for myself, for my little girl and to help anyone else who may find themselves in a similar situation.

33 weeks pregnant

March 27th – April 2nd

How big is baby?

Baby is the size of a durian, and I remember this designation from Ezra’s pregnancy…because I had never even heard of a durian before. I don’t even know where I would buy a durian, except maybe at this local international market that has all kinds of crazy foods. Anyway, the size estimates for this week are – 17.2-18.7″ long and 4.2-5.8 pounds.

How I’m feeling?

After what had happened the previous week, when I was sent home with the increased dosage of procardia, I was also placed on modified bedrest. This meant that for every hour I was up doing something, I had to spend an hour relaxing. And it also meant I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds, and I couldn’t do things like vacuum, vigorous cleaning, pull clothes out of the washer/dryer, etc. This was really frustrating to me, because I’m a bit of a clean freak. My mother-in-law ended up coming up several times over the rest of the pregnancy to clean the house, which I so appreciated.

I had more non-stress tests this week and my fluid continued to increase. I was starting to get really uncomfortable, especially at night and couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time. One plus side? My belly became a very good shelf –

nonstress test 33 weeks pregnant This was at the hospital for an NST and amniotic fluid measurement. By the end of this pregnancy, I had almost been conditioned to crave ice water every time I laid down for one of these tests! Not pictured? The bands I got to keep for the contraction and doppler monitors. They give you your own bands to bring back to each appointment to cut down on waste, and I just kept them even after I gave birth because they were such a part of our life for the last 8 weeks of pregnancy.

One thing that’s kind of funny about the bands is that I was given three, because the baby had quite a reputation for being wild on the monitors and impossible to track down – because I had so much fluid, she just kind of swam around as she pleased! She got the nickname of “Wildcat” by the nurses and I wish I had taken a video in order to get the audio of her movement on the monitor. It was so loud and crazy sounding, like the sound of someone scratching the needle across a record. And even though I know it was sometimes frustrating for the nurses because the baby was always slipping off the monitor (and thus “failing” quite a few of her NSTs because they couldn’t get a consistent reading…which then meant we had to do a biophysical profile – aka, an ultrasound where they look for specific movements/markers), I secretly loved it because it meant she was a fighter and she would need a lot of spirit for what was to come.

Any cravings or weird dreams?

That would be a no and a no.

Any other details?

Speaking of the biophysical profiles, by the end of the pregnancy, we had so many ultrasound images – because not only did we have a BP from time to time, but every amniotic fluid measurement (AFI) was an ultrasound. For an AFI, they measure pockets of fluid in four different quadrants of your belly, so you get a centimeter measurement. I don’t know how this converts to any kind of liquid measurement, but I do know that 19-21cm is normal and anything above 21cm is considered excessive. By this week, my measurement was in the 40s, and it seemed like each week I was increasing by 6cm. Most nights when I would change into my pajamas, I would look at my belly and wonder just how much bigger it could grow and how much more my skin could stretch. It really made me appreciate mamas who carry multiples, that’s for sure.

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