Books / Hospitality / Ordinary Life

Margie’s 2015 Christmas Gift List

Please Note: all books can be ordered through

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Non-fiction)
Author: Atul Gawande
Metropolitan Books, 2014

What happens as we age? What questions should we be asking about the end of life? When both our physical and mental spheres narrow, where and how do we live out our final years? What does the medical field want for us? Are there better options than the ones that seem inevitable or most popular? This book is written with expertise and compassion. Gawande is an excellent resource for thinking through an emotionally charged and complex issue. This year we’ve lost two people we loved dearly. Denis’ beloved aunt lived until she was 94. The last twelve years she suffered from Alzheimer’s. The other was our friend Ed Hague, who lived three and a half years past a diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer. Very different situations, completely different approaches to dying, but both caused us to ask how can we die well? What do we need to have in place to help ourselves and our loved ones navigate “somewhere near the end.” This book is filled with thoughtful illustrations, suggestions and compassionate observations about medicine and our institutions. Gawande doesn’t give final answers, but points us in a direction.

“…two kinds of courage are required in aging and sickness. The courage to confront the reality of mortality – the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped. More daunting is the second kind of courage – the courage to act on the truth we find.” (p.128)


Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (Personal essay)
Author: Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books, 2014

Lamott writes about faith and its intersect with real life in funny, brutally honest and unsparing self-examination. But amid what could be a justifiable lament about the darkness of life, she spawns a glorious hope. Her theology makes me a little twitchy, but she always points us to Jesus and for that I love her writing. This book is no exception. From the very first sentence I was exposed. Unmasked right where I was hoping to hide. I knew then I must read the book. She writes, “The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.” Far more than entertaining us, she leads us to turn toward love in the most hopeless situations. Not only then, but when we have surges of murderous intentions toward the bureaucrat in whose line we have stood for hours so he can serenely reject your papers for the fourth time. If forgiveness is not your strong suit and you like holding grudges and you need to say every several years, “I think I might need help,” then you will certainly appreciate this book.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (non-fiction)
Author: Bryan Stevenson
Spiegel & Grau, 2014

Walter McMillian was Bryan Stevenson’s first case, a man on death row for six years without supportable evidence because of collaboration between corrupt law enforcement and the court system. Time nearly ran out before he was exonerated and released. From that time Stevenson knew his calling was to represent people unfairly traumatized by our criminal justice system. He was a young lawyer when he began Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to helping the wrongly condemned, and defending the poorest of our society – prisoners without voice or power – among them women and children. A book well-written, minus bitterness, but filled with passion and factual evidence. I understand better what the following statistics represent:

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We represent 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but house around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. 2.3 million people are in prison. 6 million are on probation or parole. One in every three black male babies born this century can expect to be incarcerated. We’ve sent 250,000 children to adult prisons to serve long terms, many for life.
These are heartbreaking stories in a country that prides itself on equality and justice for all. Despite overwhelming odds, Stevenson has followed his calling to see justice and mercy achieved for the powerless. His organization has had successes along with many failures, but EJI’s purpose remains the same: to bring joy to places of sorrow and suffering. Stevenson writes that as a college student “… at a certain point in the service I would play the organ before the choir began to sing. The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.”


All the Light We Cannot See (Fiction)
Author: Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 2014

A reviewer summarizes the book this way:

Does the world need yet another novel about WWII? It does when the novel is as inventive and beautiful as this one by Anthony Doerr. In fact, All the Light We Cannot See – while set mostly in Germany and France before and during the war – is not really a ‘war novel’. Yes, there is fear and fighting and disappearance and death, but the author’s focus is on the interior lives of his two characters. Marie Laure is a blind 14-year-old French girl who flees to the countryside when her father disappears from Nazi-occupied Paris. Werner is a gadget-obsessed German orphan whose skills admit him to a brutal branch of Hitler Youth. Never mind that their paths don’t cross until late in the novel, this is not a book you read for plot (although there is a wonderful, mysterious subplot about a stolen gem)…. This is a book you read for the beauty of Doerr’s writing. -Sara Nelson

Against all the darkness layered over the world we find characters whose desire is to live in ways that bring goodness to those around, and yet often they must decide on what to sacrifice; morality or survival. It isn’t clear to us at first what or who will deliver the light we can not know or imagine in “the light we cannot see,” and yet it comes pouring out of the brokenness of humankind. I didn’t want this book to end.


Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage (Memoir)
Author: Molly Wizenberg
Simon & Schuster, 2014

My favorite fun memoir of the year! The story of a young couple learning to give in and let go in order to grow together. When Brandon decided his dream was to open a pizzeria, Molly was supportive. Together they renovated a space, experimented to find the best recipes, hired staff, and worked like dogs. All was fine until Molly realized the pressure of running a restaurant was killing her. Honesty in a marriage can require challenging changes. What I like best about the book (along with the recipes and details of what it takes to open a restaurant) is that she finally understood what her calling in life was to be: food writing. We may feel guilty comparing ourselves to one who tutors disabled kids while we are only plunking away on a lap top about crème fraiche. It doesn’t save lives. Should you be doing something you love (as in Eric Liddell “feeling God’s pleasure” when he ran) when the world needs a cure for Ebola? As she makes it past depression and doubts she rightly concludes: “But there is something about Delancy that … matters. We get to make people happy. We get to give people a good night. We get to spend our days doing work that we can be proud of, and when we’re done, there’s all the pizza you can eat.” That is plainly God’s common grace poured out for everyone.


So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village (Memoir)
Author: Jill Kandel
Autumn House, 2015

This book aroused complex reactions, but it is so compelling and unusual I must recommend it. It is beautiful in its description of rivers, wildlife and people, but disturbing in what life was like for Kandel as a young American bride living in a Zambian village. She shatters any romantic notions of what it’s like to live in an isolated village and to love it for all its wild beauty, to love its people and their histories of suffering, to survive in a harsh climate, and yet be devastated by the lack of infrastructure, the disease, and constant nearness of death and war. Surely, she thought, life would be challenging and risky, but not that hard. She didn’t speak the language or know the culture. Her husband was away much of the time immersed in his work for agricultural research. From the bat guano that seeped brown liquid through the ceiling, bathing the shelves and floor during the rainy season to the loneliness and longing for the familiar, nothing was easy. (Life there would reduce me to a quivering puddle.) After six years and two children she couldn’t do it any longer. Now, after years of living with memories of the grief and failure that Africa was to her, in this book, she recounts the story, ponders its meaning and reflects on the glory Zambia was and still is to her.

This book maybe ordered directly from Kandel at: or from Hearts and Minds Books


Adventures with Waffles (juvenile fiction)
Author: Maria Parr
Candlewick, 2015

Parr’s book, Vaffelhjerte (Waffleheart) that has been translated from Norwegian to English is a humorous, heart-warming chapter book for young readers. The setting is a small settlement on a beautiful Norwegian Fiord – foreign to most of us – but filled with familiar human stories we know from the heart. Lena is Trille’s best friend, even though she’s a girl – a spunky girl whose risk-taking adventures lead them into all sorts of trouble. So while this book is filled with hair-raising schemes and hilarious episodes – who would think of coaxing your uncle’s cow onto a little fishing boat in an effort to recreate Noah’s ark? – there is also a universal language present that touches all peoples – the desire for friends who never give us up, for beloved grandparents who we wish would live forever, and for fathers who never leave. Throughout the story waffles, a mouth-watering Norwegian treat, bring that a bit of sweetness that lightens life and helps us face the dark days. I urge you to remember the children in your life! Purchase it for yourself or for the children who visit.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (cookbook)
Author: Deb Perelman
Knopf, 2012

With the logic of a robot, I was done with cookbooks. When we moved to House Between a year and a half ago, I got rid of half my cookbooks. It was time to pitch the 1968 Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Two and a myriad of other useless books I never pulled off the shelf. I didn’t think I’d ever be tempted to add to my collection again. Ya, well, logic has never really been my specialty. In our first months of unpacking and settling in, my niece brought over several dishes all of them from The Smitten Kitchen. I was smitten from the moment I tasted her Mini-meat Loaves with Brown-Butter Mashed Potatoes. I am picky about meatloaf and I don’t even like Swedish meatballs, but these! This tender, little individual loaf was exquisite! And when you make the recipe, if you don’t eat them all at once, the unbaked loaves can be frozen and pulled out for a quick, delicious supper. These days nearly everything I make is pulled off the internet or out of my old recipe box. But this book had me intrigued enough to lay down money. I love that the recipes are a little different, a bit vegetarian, all scratch with beautiful photos (what’s a cookbook without them anymore?) This week I am going to make Spaghetti Squash & Black Bean Tacos with Queso Fresco. Sounds awful, right? But, ah, you’ll be wrong. They’re going to be amazing.


The Cuckoo’s Calling (crime novel)
Author: Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling
Mulholland Books, 2013

If you’ve run out of good detective novels then you will be very happy to begin this highly acclaimed series with Cormoran Strike, Private Eye. It is gratifying to find a mystery crime story you can appreciate – one that’s not so dark and cynical you want to join the protagonist in a downward spiral of suicidal depression or turn to whiskey for solace. Or one that isn’t so formulaic and cliché you are bored. As a war veteran, Strike may be wounded both physically and psychologically, but beneath his rough exterior he has such resolve for living despite his difficult circumstances and such an endearing sense of what is right that you can’t help but root for him. The story is immediately compelling as a client pulls Strike’s detecting into the superficial world of the very rich and famous when a supermodel falls to her death from a balcony and it is assumed to be suicide. Galbraith’s carefully constructed backstories have enough depth and details to make us want to know more about Strike and Robin Ellacott, his newly hired side-kick, the young woman who has taken the position despite its lack of pay and prestige. You end up caring not just about the case getting solved, but wanting to know more about the main characters.

Please Note: all books can be ordered through