First Quarter Reading (and the All-Stars)

First Quarter Reading (and the All-Stars)

My goal for this quarter (that's January-March, not nine weeks if you're conditioned to think in terms of school like I am) was to read 30 books. I read over 100 books last year, mostly from the summer on, so I didn't think 30 books for these three months was a huge stretch considering all my free time. If anything put a damper on my reading, it was sleeping many hours a day and feeling too nauseated to concentrate on anything. Nevertheless, I persevered and came in at 37. A few of these were re-reads, but hey, that counts, right? (Of course it does.) 

I am too lazy considerate of your time to include every book, some because I just wouldn't recommend them and others because they were just kinda eh. But I will tell you about the best ones of the list so that you don't waste your time with anything less than awesome reading. (Fair warning- I was on a bit of a nonfiction kick this time around.)

In no particular order, here are my favorites:

-Don't Give Up, Don't Give In by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin. This memoir is the perfect follow-up to Unbroken and gives a personal look at Louie's life straight from the source. Reading it made me sad all over again that Louie passed away last summer (in fact, only about two weeks after this book went to the publisher.) It's full of stories- some funny, some inspirational- and is further proof that this was one extraordinary American hero. It's amazing to me how many obstacles the man faced and still ended up decades later with a positive attitude. And hearing about his conversion and desire to share his faith in his own words made it even more special. (Also, when he talks about meeting his tormentors from the POW camp and contacting the Bird, I cried.) It's a quick read and totally worth your time. 

-Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. This was the first book I read in January and it was the perfect start to my year of reading. Good grief, I loved this book. When it was over, I just kept saying, "That was SO good," over and over (to anyone who would listen.) Some people aren't wild about a diary format, but this is told in letters written from Samantha, an orphan whose grad school sponsorship hinges on her willingness to write letters to her anonymous benefactor. Since he knows of her borderline obsessive love for Jane Austen, he requests that she address the letters to (you guessed it!) Mr. Knightley. Her letters chronicle her difficulty in grad school (one professor is particularly hard on her), her attempts to reach out to another boy from her group home, her first taste of love and dating, and more. If you are an Austen fan, you'll appreciate all the references, but it's just stellar regardless. (Bonus: the Kindle edition is on sale for $2.99 right now!)

-Lizzie and Jane by Katherine Reay. This woman is so talented, for real! Her second book is about two sisters who have been estranged since they lost their mom to cancer, but now the older sister has cancer herself and the younger sister goes to visit and try to help out during chemo. At heart, it's a sister story, which of course I love, but it's also a love story and gives what seems like a really realistic look at dealing with cancer from the perspective of several different patients (not just Jane.) I love how Katherine Reay uses different aspects of her characters' lives to bring so much richness to the story; for example, Lizzie is a chef and uses food throughout the book not only to cope with her only issues but also to reach out and help others, mainly her sister's family. This one was a little sadder than Dear Mr. Knightley but just as great. 

-Belles on Their Toes by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Cheaper by the Dozen is one of my favorites (woe to those of you who have only seen the Steve Martin movie which has NOTHING in common with the classic other than the twelve kids) and I've been hunting down the sequel for years. When I saw this at the library I may have squealed for joy. =) Anyway, it picks up right after Mr. Gilbreth's death (tears!) and mostly tells about how the family worked hard to stay together and run things smoothly so that Mrs. Gilbreth could continue the business of motion study. Seriously, these books are hilarious. I love, love, love them and you should check them out. When I teach high school English again (someday) I think I'll read them aloud to my students. Also, Frank, Jr. wrote a third book called Time Out for Happiness that, in addition to small biographies on each of his parents, contains a great deal of detail about their work in motion study and the breakthroughs they made in that field. They really were remarkable people and the whole Gilbreth family is just the best. 

-Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly. I love reading about this era and what's most fascinating to me about the whole thing is, honestly, how Lincoln wasn't assassinated sooner. Considering the lack of security around the President during that time, it was relatively easy to get close enough to harm him. In fact, the Secret Service was brand new and wasn't even assigned to the President; it was a branch of the Treasury Department. Anyway, this is a super in-depth look at the conspiracy behind the assassination- more widespread than I realized- and really delves into John Wilkes Booth's obsession with Lincoln and hatred of the North. (Seriously, the guy was messed up.) What also stood out to me was how quickly (relatively speaking) the military and police were able to catch Booth, considering how little opportunity there was back then for instant communication. (It's not like the guy was leaving a paper trail with a credit card or something.) It's a must-read for any Civil War or history buff for sure.

-What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. If the mark of a great author is that I want to read everything he's written, then Malcolm Gladwell falls into that category. I've read all his books in the last few months (except his newest, David and Goliath, which I just checked out this weekend. Yay!) and this one was my favorite. It's a series of essays he wrote for the New Yorker and the topics range from birth control to hair dye to dog training to ketchup (yes, ketchup!) and they are all fascinating. He just has this knack (actually enormous talent- knack is an understatement) for sharing what seems like a random story or collection of facts and bring it all around to make a really interesting point or tie everything together with a perspective I would never have considered. This is one of those books that I enjoy because it makes me feel smarter =) and it gives you a pretty good knowledge of a wide range of subjects which is always an enjoyable feeling, especially if the history of hair dye comes up, which it very well may. =)

-Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson. The subtitle is "A Proper Romance" and that could not be more accurate. It's not a very long book- I read it in an afternoon- but it was just a delight. Marianne is a young girl on the brink of adulthood who is more interested in riding and books than in securing a wealthy husband (her twin sister's obsession.) But since her mother has died and her father has taken off in his grief, she's been stuck in "town" with her grandmother (who isn't very comforting) and jumps at the chance to visit some old family friends in the country. On her way there, some conflict arises (of course!) and a dashing gentleman appears (naturally!) and the romance ensues from there. There isn't a lot of other "fluff" to get in the way of the love story. There's definitely a place for that in a lot of books, but sometimes you just want to read a good, "proper romance." 

-Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West. Janssen recommended this one a while back and when I checked the library's online catalog, it was actually there (always a pleasant surprise!) AND available so woohoo! This was one of my favorites of the bunch, since it combines my love of history with my love of "behind the scenes" type stories. The author worked in the White House for 28 years and for 12 of those years he was the Chief Usher (who basically runs the entire place.) He worked closely with all the First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Pat Nixon. (My favorite chapter was on Jackie Kennedy.) Mr. West was amazing- extremely organized, incredibly patient, endlessly respectful to each First Lady, and always prepared to deal with the variety of crises- major and minor- that arose throughout his tenure. (Apparently changing Lyndon Johnson's shower heads to suit his need for just the right water pressure was a process that lasted his entire administration.) Also, as Janssen pointed out, "behind the scenes" doesn't really mean "dirt" on anyone (ahem, JFK.) He really is respectful of each administration regardless of their political stance. As he states several times, White House staff is loyal to the White House, not necessarily the President. The Presidents change; the House doesn't. Anyway, I loved this one. Ten stars!

-As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales of the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. Um, bonus features in book form of one of my favorite movies? Yes, please! And my love for Cary Elwes was only reinforced when he guest starred on Psych, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on this. He tells about getting the part, filming, etc. from his own perspective, of course, but each chapter also has little inserts from the Rob Reiner (the director), Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, and the rest of the cast. Some stuff I knew from watching the 25th Anniversary DVD edition (nerd alert, perhaps) but a lot of it was brand new information and fascinating. For example, I knew that Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin had done all their own stunts for "the greatest sword fight in modern times," but I didn't know that Cary Elwes had been riding around on Andre the Giant's four-wheeler (he was too big for a car on set) and broke his toe a few weeks before they shot the sword fight. So, all that fancy footwork he's doing is with a painfully broken toe. (Also that explains why he limps his way through the Fire Swamp... the guy could barely walk!) I just love this movie and and the book made me love it even more. ("This is true love. You think this happens every day?") I mean, it's written by Wesley. Come on!

-Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Wow. This one took me a while to get through (nonfiction is always slower for me than fiction) but it was totally worth it. I had planned on reading this for a while and in fact read a shorter biography of Bonhoeffer in January to familiarize myself with his life in preparation for this one. (Again, maybe that's nerdy.) Also, the first biography I read was from the Heroes of the Faith series which I highly recommend for kids and teenagers (and adults, obviously, but they're geared toward younger readers- not too hard for a 4th or 5th grader- without dumbing anything down.) ANYWAY, I started this one on the Kindle but it was just too much for me to read on my phone (somehow knowing there are a million pages left is too daunting in that format) so when I could get the physical copy I jumped at the chance. I can't recommend this enough. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian hero, plain and simple. The work that he did for the Resistance on behalf of the Jews in Germany during the Holocaust was amazing enough (and ultimately cost him his life) but his writings and work on theology, discipleship, and just Christian faith in general is monumental even to this day. What struck me throughout the book was that so much of what he said about being willing to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel and to speak out against evil is SO relevant to our culture today. (Our churches may not be being silenced like they were in Nazi Germany, but the days of speaking freely in our country are numbered for sure.) Bonhoeffer was incredibly devout but also fun-loving, very close to his family, and loved the arts and music. He was a brilliant scholar, talented musician, and loyal friend. But most of all, he was willing to put his own plans, talents, and safety aside for the good of his fellow Germans and Christians. This book will challenge your faith in a huge way. (Also, given the length of this description it may have warranted its own post. Oops.)

There you go! (And I said it wouldn't be too long... imagine if I'd included the whole list!) I really loved these books... if you read any of them let me know and we'll have a virtual book club! I'll bring the cookies. =)

Happy reading!


Baby, Etc. (11 Weeks)

Baby, Etc. (11 Weeks)

So, one reason for the radio silence around here (you know, besides my constant fatigue and nausea- yay!) is that it seemed hard/impossible to describe anything going on in my life without putting it in the context of, "And, oh yeah, I'm pregnant!" The whole traveling/packing/moving across the country process was slightly altered by that little fact.

BUT finding out about it was a great time so let's start with that.

So, I've really wanted to have a baby for a while now but it's been a kind of stressful year(ish) so I figured it wasn't going to happen under the circumstances (the circumstances being figuring out where to move, moving to Goldsboro, new jobs, deputation: aka "life changes difficult for Ashley") and I figured once we moved, got settled, and life slowed down a little bit maybe it would be the right time.

And naturally, since my life responds to my plans with a raucous laugh (that's for you, Amanda!) it didn't happen that way at all.

We had been on the road for about ten days and ended our little Tour de Southeast in Georgia at my parents' church, then Jonathan headed home on Monday but I stayed for a few extra days. By Thursday, I was getting a liiiittle suspicious that I might be pregnant but I really didn't want to get my hopes up or see another negative test or be sad. In fact, I told my mom NOT to let me buy a pregnancy test because I was probably NOT pregnant and I didn't want it to be depressing. But I bought a test (actually two) and took them home.

After the first one was positive I said, "What??", grabbed the box to be sure (yep, two lines) and then because Gigi was lurking waiting in the next room I went to show her. (She says she wishes she had a picture of my face because shocked doesn't even begin to describe it!) I was saying, "It's probably wrong; it's probably wrong!" and she was like, "Um, probably not," and told me to take the other one. (What can I say? I'm thorough.) And I did and of course it was positive. (Gigi cried. I, in my shock and hard-heartedness, did not.)

And of COURSE Jonathan was 400+ miles away! Ah! Of all the big moments to be apart, this one was not ideal. And he didn't get off work for another 45 minutes which felt like an eteeeeerrrrnity. (I was saying eternity like this. You're welcome.) In the meantime, Amy came home from school and I had to pretend that all was well (and that my whole body wasn't shaking) while waiting for Jonathan to call so I could tell him first.

Amy wanted to go get free coffee (bless you, Chick-fil-A and your generosity) but I had to hold her off with a pack of lies until Jonathan fiiiinally called and I told him the happy news. I think he was a little excited:

Ignore my stupid face. 

Then we stopped at the church so my mom could be there when I told Amy (who thought the pregnancy tests in my hand were candy... baha) and a little while later went to April's house and told her (she screamed) and then FaceTimed Amanda (who also screamed and then cried.) I laughed at them both because I was still in shock/semi-denial (not that I wanted it to not be true, I just couldn't believe it was.) 

My dad's super-sappy reaction was that he couldn't believe I was having a baby in Texas. Good one, Dad. 

Jonathan told his parents and when I got home that weekend we told Ryan and Rebecca and then Mamaw and then Aunt Peggy and Uncle Walter and slowly but surely, the rest of the family. We also told a few friends but I wanted to wait for the "big announcement" until after our first appointment. (Holding off on that was a lot harder after I found that Disney announcement! Wasn't it the cutest??) 

The next few weeks were spent either being completely paranoid that something would go wrong or being completely exhausted and thus unable to pack or do anything productive, which was inconvenient given all that there was to be done. I wasn't sick at the time (glory, hallelujah) but I was just so.very.tired. All the time. When I did get teeny little bursts of energy I would pack as much as I could before the fatigue slapped me down again. (It goes without saying that Jonathan was a huge help during this time. And also my mother-in-law packed way more than I did, and so did Mamaw for that matter. I'm a lucky girl.)

By the time Moving Week rolled around, I was tired and sick (yay!) but with lots of help I made it. THEN when we got here, Jamie and Mrs. Karen were a HUGE help since I couldn't lift anything (more limiting than it sounded at first, trust me). They arranged the furniture, hung the pictures, put things away, and did everything possible to make us "at home" as quickly as possible. I would probably still be wandering around in boxes if it weren't for them. 

SO other than lots of nausea, the past few weeks have not been terrible in the pregnancy department. And finally last week it was time for our first appointment. I was more than a little nervous (stupid worst-case-scenario mind of mine!) but everything went, according to the doctor, "just right." Sounds great to me! (I was also nervous about my doctor but I loved her and sensed that she would never make me feel stupid for asking something, well, stupid.) 

On the way to the appointment! (My fear was actually more about driving than the exam.)

Little alien baby!

McNeese family of three!

Other than keeping up with the size of the baby and his basic development every week, I have read pretty much nothing so far. Most of my friends/family have said that there's no reason to read about all the things that COULD go wrong. (Again, I do just fine at conjuring up worst-case-scenarios on my own.) I'm aware of what I shouldn't be eating, etc. but other than that why torture myself with horror stories? No thanks. 

Overall, I'm still a little in shock (even 11 weeks in) that this is finally happening. For what felt like forever I was really sad every time I saw yet another pregnancy announcement and felt like it would never happen for me (even though I knew why it wasn't, if that makes sense.) But, as many friends who knew of my desire for all those months have reminded me, God's timing is perfect! I was able to tell my family and most of my friends about the pregnancy in person before we moved, I didn't have to switch doctors, I wasn't terribly sick during our move, etc. One of my favorite comments was from my friend Ellen, who simply said, "God knew!" He definitely did! 

So, these days I'm just trying to maintain some semblance of productivity (and by productivity I mean going to the pool "for exercise" and reading a lot.) There have been a few emotional days (pregnancy hormones  + a cross-country move. To quote a favorite movie, "Draw your own conclusions." =) But overall I'm just very, very thankful to be growing this little person (boy, fingers crossed! Jonathan wants a girl, so who knows?) and even more thankful that, once again, God has proven that He is infinitely better at His job than I am. 

Expect updates along the way (you're lucky I haven't chronicled a play-by-play of my sickness but no one deserves that. Maybe I'll write about the way pregnancy has you eating theee most random foods because they're all you can handle. Meanwhile, I haven't wanted coffee pretty much since the day I found all this out, so that's a shame.) 

Thanks again for all the congratulations, sweet comments, etc. Yall are the bomb! I like to think that you're genuinely rooting for me, as opposed to my older sisters who are gleefully waiting with evil grins to watch me experience pain and discomfort along with a crippling lack of sleep. That's my support system, folks. Be jealous! =)


P.S. I would post a "bump" picture but there's really nothing but "oh look she's eaten a lot lately" type stuff to see so maybe soon? Working on it. =) 

Missions Monday: We're Alive (and in Texas!)

Missions Monday: We're Alive (and in Texas!)

My friends! I am still here... albeit writing to you from a VERY different location than ever before. We've lived in Texas now for ten days. It actually feels like longer than that, but maybe that's because my hair, apparently angry with me for leaving North Carolina, went on strike and just now is starting to feel normal again. A week and a half of bad hair days feels like an eternity, am I right? (I am.) But other than my rebellious hair, the moving/settling in process has been a good one. 

I'm SO woefully behind on sharing updates with you guys (bad missionary!) but as of the last time I posted we were still traveling and raising support. About a month ago, we took a trip out to Houston to look for a place to live and for Jonathan to have a job interview. The next weekend we finished up our deputation and began really getting down to business with plans to move in March.

WELL, things had seemed to move fairly slowly and then the pace really picked up when Jonathan got the job (yay!) and found out he'd be starting less than two weeks later. We were thrilled he would be working but that meant everything had to come together really quickly, which it did thanks to lots of help and Jonathan's organizational skills (my worrying and "how will we get it all done?" skills were not much help.) 

That last weekend in Goldsboro was a flurry of packing, goodbye dinners and lunches with friends, digging through old pictures at Mamaw's (because I'm easily distracted) and packing for our road trip (oh, and determing literally three days before we left where we would actually be living. Not nerve-wracking at all!) On our last Sunday at Faith, we had a special commissioning prayer at the end of the service (thanks for making me cry, CP!) and said goodbye to all the wonderful people who have made our transition so great the past few months.

That following Monday (February 23) was loading day, and with the help of family and friends we got the truck loaded. (I say we... a bunch of guys loaded it and I provided them with Chick-fil-A. Sounds like a deal, right?) That day was a what some would call  "a series of unfortunate events." First, the truck place didn't have our truck ready and we had to wait two and a half hours for it to be driven from another location. Then the truck (AFTER being packed with all our stuff) decided to scare us half to death with a warning light that turned out (after hours of waiting on the mechanic and getting home at 2 AM) to be related to the extremely cold temperatures. (In short, the truck was fine... but the very idea of unloading everything was enough to make me sick all night.) 

Finicky little truck.

After that lemon of a day, we pulled out (after a tearful goodbye to Mamaw, and by tearful I really do mean ugly crying!) with a light snow beginning to fall. That "light" snow turned into a blizzard within just a few miles and pounded us all the way out of the state. (North Carolina was apparently angry with us for leaving too.) What is usually a seven-hour trip to my parents' house ended up, with the weather and the truck, being an eleven-hour trip (!!!) but we made it in one piece, which seemed a little like a miracle.

We spent about a day and a half with my family (mostly terrified that the totally premature "state of emergency" in Atlanta meant that we'd be snowed/iced in again) but everything turned out fine... it snowed (very pretty!) but melted before Thursday, when we left around lunchtime. (More tears... I can't see my dad cry. I just can't. My mom is probably offended that I won't say the same about her but she's wasted so many tears on commercials and animated movies over the years that they don't have the same emotional draw. Sorry, Gigi.)

The next two days of travel were the hardest, mostly because we had to move so slowly in our big lumbering moving truck (pulling our car!) but also because the roads were so freakishly bumpy that we were both about to go crazy. It was like constant mini-speed bumps. (So, as fun as you can imagine.) And while Jonathan did a great job with the truck, you can imagine how difficult it was to get that thing in and out of any kind of tight space. (If you want to test the strength of your marriage, drive for nine hours and then spend thirty minutes maneuvering a moving truck and trailer in a hotel parking lot. It will reveal a lot!) 

Last driving day... these smiles really mean, "Get me out of this truck NOW!"

Friday was the last leg (and it may have needed crutches by the end) but we finally (finally!) pulled into Magnolia (our actual town) around 6 PM that night. The Fergusons and some awesome people from church helped unload the truck (up three flights of stairs! THREE!) and then after eating, Jonathan and I collapsed into OUR bed for the first time since last July. (Our bed was in storage... we haven't slept on the floor. Mamaw's got extra beds. =) 

I have to thank my in-laws for helping us with all the moving stuff in Goldsboro- they could be professional movers, I'm convinced- and the Fergusons, who have been a huge help since we've been here. Also, people at church have given us groceries and gift cards and just been super nice. Thanks to everyone who helped us get here, whether through financial support or prayers or encouraging words over the past several months. We definitely didn't do it alone. God has gone before us and we're overwhelmed by His provision. As I watched Jonathan lead children's church yesterday, I was once again reminded of Psalm 37:4, "Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he will give thee the desires of thine heart." Jonathan's dream of helping in a church plant began over a decade ago and has come full circle... I think that's pretty awesome. 

It's the real deal!

SO... so far I really like Texas (especially now that it's made friends with my hair.) It's been crazy, and the past ten days have been filled with getting unpacked, meeting new people, starting a job (for Jonathan), settling in, and learning the area. By learning the area, I mean finding Target and since it's literally across the street, that didn't take long. Yes, I, Ashley McNeese, live across the street- walking distance- from Target. It makes me want to sing, with Maria von Trapp, "Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good."