Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way

Bittersweet by Shauna NiequistBittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist
Publisher: Zondervan
Number of pages:
252

My copy: Kindle edition

‘The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.

‘It’s the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy.

‘This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all long, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be.

‘I’ve learned the hard way that change is one of God’s greatest gifts, and most useful tools. Change can push us, pull us, rebuke and remake us. It can show us who we’ve become, in the worst ways, and also in the best ways. I’ve learned that it’s not something to run away from, as though we could, and that in many cases, change is a function of God’s graciousness, not life’s cruelty.

Niequist, a keen observer of life with a lyrical voice, writes with the characteristic warmth and honesty of a dear friend: always engaging, sometimes challenging, but always with a kind heart. You will find Bittersweet savory reading, indeed.

‘This is the work I’m doing now, and the work I invite you into: when life is sweet, say thank you, and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you, and grow.’

* * *

If it were any other time, any other season, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up from the Kindle store. I wouldn’t have looked at this twice, because I don’t think it’s for me, or I would be interested. When was the last time I read a non-fiction, self-help book like this? I can’t remember. But I know for sure that if it were any other time early this year, or if it were any other season in my life, I wouldn’t have decided to get Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist and read it immediately after it loaded on Hannah the Kindle.

Oh, I guess it helped that the ebook was on sale when I saw it, so I bought it. But still, I wouldn’t have gotten it and enjoyed it as much as I did if it were any other time of my life.

Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist is about so many things, but mostly, about how life is bittersweet. How life isn’t always happy or sweet but we shouldn’t let the bitterness of it get to us. There is such a thing as bittersweet, and it’s the kind of life that we should appreciate, especially because all the learning and the changes and (most importantly) grace is seen in the bittersweet parts of life. This is a collection of essays and realizations about her life, and what she learned from them — from her fights with her husband to moving to a new place, from meeting new friends, having parties and serving them food and these friends moving away. From her problems getting pregnant again to broken hearts, family members dying and babies being born. The book is an honest collection of stories that the reader will definitely relate to at some point, and drives the point that life is really bittersweet.

Like I said, if I read this at any other time, I don’t think it would have made as much of a big impact as it did now. Bittersweet kept me company during the hard days, and spoke to me over and over and over again about grace and God’s faithfulness. I couldn’t relate to some of the stories Niequist wrote because I don’t have a family, and I haven’t moved away yet, but the lessons she talked about were universal, and somehow I felt like she really knew what heartache is, and she can relate to me. Her words served like a balm to my soul, and some passages made me cry several times because it felt like they were exactly what I needed to read.

In a way, it seemed like a promise, too — that whatever you’re going through, whatever your situation is, God knows it, and He will take you through it. It’s not easy, but you have a choice to view your situation as bittersweet. And from her words, it seemed like she’s healed and moved on from the hard parts of her life and if she can do it, then you definitely can, too. I needed that, and as I read the book more, I realize that maybe it was meant for me to see this book on Amazon, and to see it on sale so I can buy it.

Granted, some of the stories were a little repetitive, like stories at the end had some similarities to the stories at the start, but by the time I got to that, I was far too in love with what I’ve read for me to really nitpick about it. Despite that repetitiveness, though, the stories in Bittersweet were honest and heartfelt and real, and it made me feel that I had a friend in Shauna Niequist, even if this is the first book of hers I’ve read.

I wonder now how I would’ve reacted to this if I read this on any other time, at any other season. I know I’m being repetitive on this review with that, but I can’t help but wonder. Would I even read this at all? If I did, though, I don’t think I would’ve loved it as much as I did now. But whatever — I’m just really, really glad that this book got to me at the right time. If you’re in a tough time, if you’re experiencing bitter moments, I definitely recommend this book. Bittersweet may not make your life better in a snap, but I hope it helps you heal, just like a good book ought to do. :)

Number of dog-eared pages: 114

Favorite dog-eared quote(s):

I believe that God is making all things new. I believe that Christ overcame death and that pattern is apparent all through life and history: life from death, water from stone, redemption from failure, connection from alienation. I believe suffering is part of the narrative, and that nothing really good gets built when everything’s easy. I believe that loss and emptiness and confusion often give way to new fullness and wisdom. (p. 17)

Good friendships are like breakfast. You think you’re too busy to eat breakfast, but then you find yourself exhausted and cranky halfway through the day, and discover that your attempt to save time totally backfired…because there really is nothing like good friends, like the sounds of their laughter and the tones of their voices and the things they teach us in the quietest, smallest moments. (p. 65)

That’s why travel is so important, among other reasons: to get far enough away from our everyday lives to see those lives with new clarity. When you’re literally on the other side of the world, when you’re under the silent sea, watching a bright, silent world of fish and coral, when you’re staring up at a sky so bright and dense with stars it makes you gasp, it’s in those moments that you begin to see the fullness of your life, the possibility that still prevails, that always prevails. (p. 79)

If arithmetic is numbers, and if algebra is numbers and letters, then grace is numbers, letters, sounds, and tears, feelings and dreams. Grace is smashing the calculator, and using all the broken buttons and pieces to make a mosaic. (p. 83)

Now is your time. Become, believe, try. Walk closely with the people you love, and with other people who believe that God is very good and life is a grand adventure. Don’t spend time with people who make you feel like less than you are. Don’t get stuck in the past, and don’t try to fast-forward yourself into a future you haven’t yet earned. Give today all the love and intensity and courage you can, and keep traveling honestly along life’s path. (p. 90)

I believe deeply that God does his best work in our lives during times of great heartbreak and loss, and I believe that much of that rich work is done by the hands of people who love us, who dive into the wreckage with us and show us who God is, over and over and over. (p.94)

Our hearts are more elastic than we think, and the work of forgiveness and transformation and growth can do things you can’t even imagine from where you’re standing now. (p. 223)

My life is a story about who God is and what he does in a human heart…if you have been transformed by the grace of God, then you have within you all you need to write your manifesto, your poem, your song, your battle cry, your love letter to a beautiful and broken world. Your story must be told. (p.241)

Rating:

Other reviews:
to&fro
From My Bookshelf to Yours

Books Kinokuniya – Singapore

I’m trying to make it a point to visit bookstores whenever I go on a trip outside the country, just because it’s fun. Plus for a bookish person like me, it’s always interesting to see various editions of books, especially the ones translated in the country’s local language. The first foreign bookstores I went to were during my trip to Europe. I was only able to check one bookstore in Jakarta (and I wasn’t able to blog about it, eep!). So I went to Singapore last week, and as I was planning my itinerary, I knew there was one place that I should go to: Books Kinokuniya.

I’ve read really great things about this place — and by great, it’s really more This is such a big bookstore and There are really so many books inside. On my third day at Singapore, I hopped on a train to Orchard to get to Takashimaya Mall and looked for this bookstore.

And…I was amazed.

I wasn’t able to take a lot of photos outside and inside that aren’t sneaky photos (I haven’t had that tourist-y talent down pat yet). I was alone when I went there, and I was really too amazed at the selection of books more than I wanted to take photos. Here are some photos I took, though:

kinokuniya02

Rows and rows of shelves!

Two versions of The Lover's Dictionary

Two versions of The Lover’s Dictionary

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Tiger Lily

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn AndersonTiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Number of pages: 292
My copy: ebook

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair. . . .

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell.

Peter is unlike anyone she’s ever known. Impetuous and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. Soon, she is risking everything—her family, her future—to be with him. When she is faced with marriage to a terrible man in her own tribe, she must choose between the life she’s always known and running away to an uncertain future with Peter.

With enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Peaches comes a magical and bewitching story of the romance between a fearless heroine and the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

* * *

When I was in elementary, we used to have these character books, where we write the names of all the characters of the cartoon shows we watch, and we match them with the people in our class. I almost never get the “lead roles” because there’s always someone else for them, even in my own notebook (but I don’t put myself in the lead roles there because as a rule, everyone can read that notebook, and I didn’t want to be thought of as conceited or something), so I usually I put myself in the secondary roles — the ones that still matter, but not really the star of the show. So for the pages based on the Peter Pan anime that we all grew up with, I am usually Tiger Lily.

I’ve seen Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson in other blogs for a long time now, but I’m not that much of a fan of Peter Pan and its retellings, so I didn’t really care for it. I’ve heard good things about it, though, but I didn’t think it would be my thing, you know? Then I ran into it again, while I was looking for other books to read in my Kindle, when the books I was currently reading weren’t doing just what I want for me. But I was kind of wary, too, especially since I knew this was a love story, and not a happy one at that. We all know that, right? I mean, Peter Pan is with Wendy, and even Tinkerbell knows that. But what happened before Wendy arrived in Neverland? Did Peter ever belong to someone else?

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily explored that. We meet fifteen year old Tiger Lily, a loner among her Sky Eaters tribe. She’s often quiet and usually fierce, and most people in her tribe are afraid of her, save for her adopted father, Tik Tok, a small guy named Pine Sap, another girl named Moon Eye and finally, the little fairy who started following her, Tinkerbell. We follow Tiger Lily’s story through Tinkerbell’s eyes, with how she saved a man, and how she was set for marriage, and how meets Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Soon, quiet Tiger Lily is entranced by the childish yet charismatic Peter, and she starts sneaking out just to be with him. But when she is called to do her duty for her family and her tribe, she must make a choice. With the pirates looming around the boys and someone trying to change the way her tribe works, Tiger Lily is dealing with a lot, but it’s Wendy Darling who ends up threatening her the most.

Oh, my heart. I knew this isn’t a happy story, I really did. But I didn’t expect how much this will make me sigh and kind of wreck havoc over my heart. :( Tiger Lily held me captive, and I couldn’t stop reading it when I started. A lot of what the readability had to do with the writing — there was simple yet beautiful prose in the story, and it perfectly fits the almost somber and whimsical mood of the story. The quotes I included below are a proof of that. It’s like the author chose her words very carefully, so it would really sound like how Tinkerbell would see it, and say it.

If you’re a purist for Peter Pan’s stories though, you might get a little disappointed with how there were some things lacking in Anderson’s depiction of Neverland. Save for the fairies, there’s no magic. Neverland is a place that is somewhere in the Atlantic, and not “Second star to the right and straight on till morning”. The boys don’t fly, and Tinkerbell doesn’t spread fairy dust so they can think happy thoughts. There were some seemingly magical elements, but they weren’t blatant, and they’re still sort of believable and I didn’t mind it. It made the story a little easier to get into (except that I kept on expecting the boys to fly. Heh).

The story isn’t fluff, though. Tiger Lily is also quite brutal in some scenes, and the complicated relationships add to this brutality. But can a book this brutal be beautiful, too? I think so, I really do. Because oh, my heart. My heart broke so much for Tiger Lily and Peter, and how their story has been doomed for the start. Knowing that it was doomed didn’t make me want to stop reading, because I wanted to know how it all played out. Maybe I was wishing it wouldn’t end the way I was already expecting it. Or maybe, I just want to see how it ends, because it couldn’t possibly have an absolutely ugly ending, right?

I’m pretty sure it was the latter, because when I got to the end, I sighed. My heart sighed, several times, and Tiger Lily left me with a little ache there — it hurt, but it was also beautiful, and I know that I couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’m glad I read Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson now. I think I read it at the right time, just as when I needed something like this. Oh, my heart.

Number of dog-eared pages: 40

Favorite dog-eared quote(s):

There was a beast in there. But there was also a girl who was afraid of being a beast, and who wondered if other people had beasts in their hearts too. There was strength, and there was also just the determination to look strong. She guarded herself like a secret. (p.18)

I liked the way they stood together. They both kept one ear on each other, and one on the forest around them. And yet, there was something almost peaceful about them standing there. Maybe the way he seemed to vibrate made her stillness seem less glaring, and Peter seemed calmer. (p.62)

A faerie heart is different from a human heart. Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime. (p.76)

She was fierce, to be sure, but she had a girl’s heart, after all. As she walked home that night, she was shaking from the largeness of it. I didn’t know why she seemed so sad and happy at the same time. To love someone was not what she had expected. It was like falling from somewhere high up and breaking in half, and only one person having the secret to the puzzle of putting her back together. (p.119)

Sometimes, I think that maybe we are just stories. Like we may be words on a page, because we’re only what we’ve done and what we are going to do. (p.193)

Every kind of love, it seems, is the only one. It doesn’t happen twice. And I never expected that you could have a broken heart and love with it too, so much that it doesn’t seem broken at all. (p.199)

Rating:

Other reviews:
Angieville
Book Harbinger
reading is the ultimate aphrodisiac

No One Belongs Here More Than You

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda JulyNo One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
Publisher: Scribner
Number of pages: 224
My copy: paperback, borrowed from Bennard

Award-winning filmmaker and performing artist Miranda July brings her extraordinary talents to the page in a startling, sexy, and tender collection. In these stories, July gives the most seemingly insignificant moments a sly potency. A benign encounter, a misunderstanding, a shy revelation can reconfigure the world. Her characters engage awkwardly — they are sometimes too remote, sometimes too intimate. With great compassion and generosity, July reveals their idiosyncrasies and the odd logic and longing that govern their lives. “No One Belongs Here More Than You” is a stunning debut, the work of a writer with a spectacularly original and compelling voice.

* * *

I spotted this book on another blog, really, and didn’t really think of it until my friend posted about it on his blog. I was curious, only because of the first post I saw, and when I had a chance to borrow it from my friend, I jumped on the chance. I like short story collections, and ever since I read my first Carver, I felt like it was the kind of book I can manage back then. I wasn’t in the mood for a lot of books, so maybe something like this would shock me out of the slump. Or at least, the bright yellow cover would, somehow.

No One Belongs Here More Than You is a collection of stories from Miranda July, who…I really have no idea who she is. I don’t even know what the stories were about, so I really, really just took a chance on this book. This book contains stories of women, mostly, stories of ordinary things. People who do things, who are in search for things, who lost things. These are stories of the seemingly ordinary things that become extraordinary with the way the words were woven and how these simple things came about in each story.

I liked this well enough. I liked the ordinariness of it all — the quiet and the commonplace things in the stories, and how they all translate into something that made me think and wonder if the story was real, or perhaps just the imagination of the character. I guess a little mistake I made when I first started to read this was to compare it to Carver. They’re very different — Carver’s stories (from the one collection I read, anyway) left my heart in a bit of disquiet, like there are questions you want to ask but are kind of afraid of asking. July’s stories, while some of them have the same effect as Carver, are different in the way she tackled things and left me thinking about how her stories just end, and there are no questions that I don’t want to ask.

Here’s the thing: everyone seemed to be so sad in this story. Not the heartbreaking sadness, but just a tinge of it, like these characters need a little hug or something. Sometimes, I feel like I need a hug after I read some of the stories, because I wished I could say something to the characters to ease them of things.

Did the title of the collection mean something? I guess so. It is what it is, I think: No one belongs here more than you. I may be over thinking it, but maybe these stories are really just about belonging, and how we long for that. I don’t think all the characters in the stories found a place to belong, but as a reader, I hoped that they would still somehow find it, or that it would somehow found them, in their own fictional worlds.

Okay, I’m rambling. There were several stories that I wasn’t fond of, but the interesting thing was the first and the last few were the ones I really liked. I started this on a high, then the excitement lulled, and just as when I was already resisting the urge to skim, I got to the last stories and found that I really, really liked them. My favorite, of all, is Birthmark, a story about a woman who had her port-wine stain removed from her face and her husband who didn’t know anything about it, and how this birthmark affected them. It left me with very fond thoughts with the book after.

Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You is a good read, especially for people who are fond of short story collections. It’s not exactly my favorite, but I would read another July book again, given the chance. Plus that yellow cover and simple text is just something I would want to have printed and framed to remind myself that yes, no one belongs here more than you.

Total number of dog-eared pages: None, because the copy isn’t mine. But I did keep a lot of notes on my Goodreads review page for the book. :D

Favorite “dog-eared” quotes: (Would have been dog-eared if the copy was mine :D)

Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it’s worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise. (p.11)

To fall for a million years like a flute falls, musically, played by the air it is passing through. And to land with no mind, but with a heart that was breaking. (p.112)

I was actually writhing in heartache, as if I were a single muscle whose purpose is to mourn. (p.128)

It was a delicate, new strangeness, and I held onto it like a candle, hoping it would lead me to an even newer, stranger strangeness. (p.151)

He was waiting for her on his knees. He was worried she would not let him love her with the [port-wine] stain. He had already decided long ago, twenty or thirty minutes ago, that the stain was fine. He had only seen it for a moment, but he was already used to it. It was good. It somehow allowed them to have more. (p.176)

Rating: 

Required Reading: August 2013

Cover (Story) Girl

Cover (Story) Girl by Chris Mariano Cover (Story) Girl by Chris Mariano
Publisher: Independent
Number of pages: 122
My copy: ebook from Smashwords

1) She has amnesia.
2) She’s on the run from her father’s creditors.
3) She’s enjoying her last days on earth.

Ever since Jang Min Hee walked into Gio’s small museum, she’s given him one excuse after another about why she’s vacationing at scenic Boracay Island. Rarely has Gio’s neat and organized world been shaken like this. Soon he finds himself scrambling over rocks, hiding in dressing rooms, and dragging her out of bars. But how can Gio tell what’s true from what isn’t? Their worlds are getting unraveled — one story at a time.

* * *

The first time I went to the island of Boracay in the Philippines ended in some sort of disaster, and I haven’t really “recorded over” that memory yet. To the uninformed, my month-old phone took a dip in the saltwater on our last day at the beach, so the last few hours on the island was kind of stressful. Not to mention that moment where I thought I was going to drown at Ariel’s Point while I was snorkeling, and that it was rainy half the time. It was a good vacation in some ways (Hello, Boracay PubCrawl!), but you know, not exactly the most relaxing one.

I haven’t had the chance to go there again, but I got a taste of the island when I read Chris Mariano’s Cover (Story) Girl. Chris is a fellow book blogger and a classmate in #romanceclass, so it was no question that I will buy her book the moment it was released. Cover (Story) Girl is about Gio, who works in a museum in the island of Boracay, keeping it neat and organized and ready for visitors. In the middle of preparing for an exhibit, Jang Min Hee walks into his life, and starts messing with it — literally and figuratively. Thing is, Gio wasn’t sure what’s keeping her in the island and why she’s sticking with him. She tells him all these stories and he goes along with her, sometimes even saving her from some trouble. Gio is mystified…but how will he know which among Min Hee’s stories are the truth?

Okay here’s the thing: I was just a teensy bit hesitant about this because of the Korean angle. I’m not a fan of K-pop, or K-drama or anything Korean, really, except maybe for the food. And maybe Daniel Henney. Every time some friends squee over Korean stuff, I just look blank, like how I look blank over anime. I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t get or like the story, because of the Korean things…but I’m glad to say that it didn’t. I liked Min Hee a lot. I liked what I learned about her from Gio’s eyes, and how she seemed so flighty at first and then had more depth later on. She provided a fun contrast against Gio, who likes his routines and his organized life. Okay, maybe he can be a little boring, but it worked well for the story, and I liked how he lost this as he spent more time with Min Hee. Gio reminds me a little of Macy from Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, all organized and perfect until people came and threw her out of the loop. Gio is the kind of good guy I like reading in fiction, and it was fun being in his mind in this story. I liked reading his POV, and I think Chris did really well with it.

The story can feel a little slow and quiet, but I think that adds to the charm. You won’t really get too many exciting things at the start, except for Gio and Min Hee’s banter. The quiet flow of the story fits into its setting, which was my favorite part. I really liked that this was set in Boracay. I’ve only been there once, but reading this made me miss it. I liked how Chris focused on the quiet part of it and not much on the partying that happens there. I was never really a party girl, so I appreciate how there was more of the lesser known side of Boracay (and Aklan) in the story than the usual. And of course, the calamansi muffins. Oh my Lord, this book will have you craving for Real Coffee’s calamansi muffins, if you’ve had them before. If you haven’t, then  you might want to bake some on your own, instead. (I really should do that.) Because calamansi muffins are yummy.

I really liked Cover (Story) Girl, if it’s not too obvious yet. By default this can be considered as a summer romance read because of the beach elements…but if it’s rainy and cold where you are now (which is also how it is on my side of the world now), Cover (Story) Girl is also a really good rainy day companion. Come to think of it, it’s a perfect companion anytime you want some swoon. :D And again, don’t forget your calamansi muffins!

Number of dog-eared pages: 9

Favorite dog-eared quote(s):

He wondered what it would be like to be blind as the proverbial bat, flying in the darkness boldly, content with what his other senses told him instead of the distractions that sight might offer. Maybe he’d just follow the scent of vanilla home.

They were both looking elsewhere, as if trying not to care about contact and intimacy and things that trembled.

But her soft vanilla scent still clung to the air, stubborn and unyielding. He thought it smelled like regret.

Rating:

Other reviews:
Rachel Neumeier

Other features:
* Chris talks about how her cover came about
* Interview with Chris by Mina V. Esguerra at Publishing in Pajamas