Summer is wrapping up and I hope yours has been full of all the vacations you wanted and lots of good books. If you’re looking for a few more to get through your summer goals, I have a few memoirs to share today. A memoir is a typically reflective work in which the author recounts significant personal life events and shares how they’ve grown. In the process of reading these particular memoirs, I’ve benefited and changed too. I hope you’ll let these authors’ life-changing stories change you too! :) 

The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer 
I just finished this one and was astounded. Edith was an Austrian Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust by marrying a respected Nazi. She worked as a slave on a farm and then a factory, but then defied and hid from the Gestapo by assuming a false identity with the help of a brave few. Her husband’s interest and eventual proposal completely surprised her and she resisted at first, but even after she told him of her Jewish heritage, he pressed his suit and swore to keep her secret. Overnight, Edith became part of the most protected group in Europe – German housewives who would carry on the “pure” German race. She lived in a web of constant lies and fear of discovery, and her survival is a true testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and the difference that small moments of risky kindness can make. 

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber 
This was my favorite read of 2016 and remains one of my all-time favorite books. Carolyn Weber was a cynical, hardened agnostic when she went to Oxford to study Romantic Literature. Once there, she encountered friends, professors, mentors, and books that would be used by God to bring her to faith in Him. Carolyn is an English professor, so her love of literature spoke to me on a personal level, and her account of her journey to faith moved me deeply. She paints beautiful word pictures in this book of how she wrestled with the Bible and difficult questions about God’s character. But God was relentless in His pursuit of her, as she makes clear, and I was encouraged and touched to be reminded that He does indeed pursue His children patiently. 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
Life, death, purpose, literature, medicine, and family are just a few of the topics that Paul Kalanithi faced in this memoir after he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was at the starting point of a successful career in neurosurgery when the diagnosis came, and he struggled with suddenly becoming a patient when he had so long been the doctor. In the space of a few days, he was facing his own mortality and this memoir is the result of how he processed it. He recounts his longtime fascination with human purpose, literature, and the brain. This unusual combination of interests merged into undergraduate studies in English, then medical school, and eventual focus on neurosurgery and a deep desire to guide others through trauma to this most vital organ, the brain. Kalanithi looked death in the face with poignant courage and dignity, as did his wife, who stood by him at every stage and finished the book with her own epilogue after his passing. I could not put this book down and had rivulets of tears pouring down my face by the end. 

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield 
A 2017 favorite, this book recounts another faith journey that riveted and humbled me. Rosaria shares that in the 1990s, she had it all according to appearances – a thriving career in academia, a gorgeous house, a loving community, and active philanthropic memberships. In 1999, she lost it all when Jesus Christ called her to Himself. She describes her conversion as a “train wreck” in which she lost “everything but the dog.” But every page shouts that it was worth it. Modern Christian culture often waters down the gravity of the gospel’s call and makes light of its demands. Rosaria dispels that with humble yet firm clarity. For her, following Jesus meant loss of community, respect, career, and much more. But the gains have more than outweighed the losses, as she joyfully declares in this memoir. I appreciated that wake-up call and am grateful for her story.

What memoirs have you read recently that really impacted you? I'd love to hear!
The Nazi Officer's Wife is not pictured as I read it on my Kindle. Have to have those multiple formats!
As often happens, I was late to the party on seeing a popular movie. In that vein, about two weeks ago I finally watched The Greatest Showman. The stunning visuals, colorful design and production, and vibrant music captivated me instantly. And let’s be real – Hugh Jackman is always a show-stealer.

But amid all the color and dancing of The Greatest Showman lie age-old questions about identity and purpose. P.T. Barnum lives with constant shame from his low-class ancestry and is determined to prove his worth to his wealthy socialite peers of late 19th century New York. The performers he recruits for his circus have each been deemed societal oddities and outcasts for various reasons. The songs, dialogue, conflicts, and almost everything else about the story continually pose the same questions: 

-What proves a person’s worth? 

-Is dignity earned or inherent? 

-Do you need to prove your own worth to others, and if so, what will have finally proved that? 
Photo Credit: Best HQ Wallpapers

Barnum works obsessively to create the most unique and exciting forms of entertainment for New York in hopes of becoming the wealthiest and most respected show master. He’s also hungry for his wife and daughters to earn the respect of their peers. But in the process, he slowly forgets to be the husband and father they need and doesn’t know how to stop chasing the next best thing in the entertainment business. 

On the other side are Barnum’s performers. Each of them has a unique quirk or socially unacceptable aspect, whether it be facial hair on a female face, an unusual skin color, an odd height, or something else. Barnum gives them an incredible gift in one another and in the outlet of performing to show their talents. But in his constant chase for more, he forgets to see them correctly too and treats them as means to an end. 

It isn’t until Barnum loses everything in dramatic fashion that he comes to grips with his failings towards his fellow man. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s when he reorients his attitude towards the people he loves and works with that he does indeed produce the greatest show. The final note of this musical mostly answers each question – it says that dignity and worth is innate in each person simply because of personhood, and that trying to prove yourself will only exhaust and hurt both you and others. 

I was refreshed by these messages, but also grateful for the even clearer answers I have for these questions as a Christ-follower. My worth was decided and proved before time because Almighty God set His affection on me and stamped me with His image. And the Christian believes that each person is not only a person, but a fellow-image bearer of that God. That proves innate worth more than anything else could and utterly dwarfs any attempt to do so on our part. That kind of worth is immune to the opinions of others and gives lasting peace, something that no job, talent, or great show could ever offer.
I’m a devoted audiobook listener, but also fairly picky about what books I’ll listen to instead of reading visually. And I’m sure most audiobook fans would agree that perhaps the most important component of a good audiobook is the narrator. Even if it’s a great book, a bad narrator can ruin the experience. So, what’s needed in a narrator to make a good book become a really fabulous audiobook? Here are a few ideas I’ve settled on. What are yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments! 

Knowing and Enjoying the Text 
It’s easy to tell if a narrator isn’t enjoying or immersed in the story they’re reading. The voice will often be flat, monotone, or just feel detached from the story. The person reading to you is a large part of what will pull you in and help you really sink into a story, so if they’re not totally into it, there’s a good chance you won’t be either. Knowledge of the text is also important for an audiobook narrator. With a thorough understanding of the story and characters, a narrator will more accurately represent each character’s personality, the author’s intent, and any other subtleties that are important for a reader to notice. 

Not Distracting from the Story 
The best audiobook narrators know how to make the reader forget they’re present, because they make the story that engaging. Voice nuance is vital for a narrator, but some can really overdo it. Nothing’s worse than feeling like I’m being yelled at or not being able to decipher what the narrator’s actual voice sounds like because they sound too formal the whole time. 

Character Voices 
I’d imagine this has to be the trickiest and most demanding part of audio narration, as some books have so many characters to voice. But giving each character a distinct voice is a vitally important part of making the listening experience fun and memorable. The best audiobooks I’ve listened to have nailed this aspect perfectly. The voice variations for each character are usually different enough to give them all a personality and to make it easy to determine who is speaking, but they’re also slight enough so that the narrator doesn’t sound too artificial or forced. It has to be exhausting. And I just have to say that Jim Dale, narrator of all seven Harry Potter books, wins the all-time prize for this. He gave every single character in that series a unique voice and never slipped up once. There had to be 700 or more voices total. It’s incredible. 

Tone Matching the Story 
This is an important part of conveying the mood of the story and the direction of the drama. It may seem obvious, but if something scary happens, the narrator needs to let the listener hear fear in his voice. If a serious or disturbing situation arises, the narrator should adopt a grave tone. There’s a very fine line between this and becoming that distraction mentioned above, but tone is everything when it comes to showing where the story is going.

So what do you look for in audiobook narration? I'd love to hear your thoughts! To conclude, I'll leave a few of my favorite narrators for you:

  • As already mentioned, Jim Dale's narration of the Harry Potter series
  • Dan Stevens, particularly his narration of Murder on the Orient Express
  • Oliver J. Hembrough's narration of the Poldark series
What are your favorites?

“A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” 

So wrote Mr. March to his beloved wife and daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s timeless classic, Little Women. While I’ve loved this book since childhood, I’ve been reminded this week of just how much I love it through the latest screen adaptation of it. BBC produced it and aired it in the UK over Christmas, and PBS just showed it in two consecutive weekends this month here in the US. I’ve read quite a bit of criticism of it online, but I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t think I expected it, but here it is… 

This is the best version of Little Women I’ve seen. 

The production is beautiful in its sweet simplicity, the cast is endearing, and the tone of the writing strikes a lovely balance between serious yet hopeful, realistic yet heartwarming. It has all the charm and beauty that makes the novel so loved, yet also doesn’t shy away from the growing pains and losses that the March sisters endure as they go from girls to women. Both the 1949 version with June Allyson and the 1994 one with Winona Ryder were staples of my childhood, but I was ready for another take on this story when I heard BBC was adapting it. I really applaud the writer Heidi Thomas for a lovely screen translation of this story that adhered to Alcott's novel better than either of those previous versions. A three-hour runtime was a definite advantage at the outset and she made the most of it by including many plot points that had been left out of the other adaptations and by more fully developing the characters. Here are a few categories of aspects about this version that have made it my new favorite.

Kathryn Newton as Amy, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Annes Elwy as Beth, and Maya Hawke as Jo in BBC's Little Women
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Development and Timeline Aspects

First, I appreciate that in this version, all four sisters are treated with equal worth in the beginning and then the story gradually becomes more about Jo. This mirrors the trajectory of the book very well. Previous adaptations brought Jo to the forefront at the beginning, as that was likely an easy way to deal with time constraints. But the story belongs to all four of them at the beginning, and then Jo becomes the clear protagonist by the end. I appreciated the screen time that the other sisters were given in this adaptation. 

Next, the order of events is much more accurately captured here, and a few seemingly smaller, yet significant, plot items that were omitted from previous versions were kept in. The Christmas dinner that Mr. Laurence sends over after he hears that they gave their breakfast to the Hummels, Beth's early shyness to go visit Mr. Laurence to play his piano, the snow maiden that Jo and Amy and Laurie build for Beth after her initial illness, and Laurie's conversation with his grandfather after Jo's rejection are some sweet, beautiful bits included this version that made me very happy. I also appreciated that the long separation in the middle of Meg and John Brooke's engagement while John fought in the war for a period was properly acknowledged. And during the sequence that notes this, there’s a positively exquisite rendition of "Land O' the Leal" sung in voiceover that brings ALL the feels. 

I also really enjoyed how much more character development was given to Mr. March than I would have expected since he had very little in the 1949 and the 1994 versions. We see snippets of his time away at war, and he has many conversations with Jo in the latter half of the runtime. I especially loved a scene they have together after Beth's death in which Jo feels paralyzed by grief, and her father tells her she needs to write again. And on that note, the scenes surrounding Beth's death were by far the most poignant interpretation of that storyline I've seen. Jo's seaside trip with Beth was included this time and I was so glad – the scene on the beach where Beth confides that she's slipping away is as raw and emotional as it's believable. Annes Elwy's portrayal of Beth's quiet strength and gentle dignity is beautiful.

Dylan Baker and Maya Hawke as Mr. March and Jo
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Laurie and Amy and Jo

You knew this was coming because it always does. But, significantly, I honestly thought this version captured Laurie's relationships with both Jo and Amy in total respect of the book. Two detailed points:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, I have always agreed with Louisa May Alcott's decision to marry Laurie to Amy. However, the creators of the 1994 movie seemed to agree with many fans and perhaps tried to make their feelings known by giving Jo and Laurie a romantic connection for as long as they could before they just had to follow the book. Winona Ryder and Christian Bale did indeed have sizzling chemistry at times, so Jo's rejection could have understandably appeared off-kilter and confusing for some viewers. What's more, the order of events was changed by placing his proposal before her time in New York. Not so in this new version. Maya Hawke and Jonah Hauer-King have a heartfelt but clearly platonic connection from the get-go, and like the novel, it's obvious that Jo has a maturity beyond her years much earlier than Laurie does. From her perspective, he's always been her brother and when he tries to turn their relationship into something else (which he does multiple times before he actually proposes), she finds it incredibly awkward and unhelpful. And also like the novel, Jo's motive for going to New York is to put space between herself and Laurie in hopes that he’ll realize they're not suited before he does something rash like proposing, rather than trying to get away from him after he proposes.
  • All of that said, I honestly believe that Alcott intended for Laurie and Amy to be together from the beginning. The seeds are planted when he visits her every day during her extended stay with Aunt March while Beth fights her first illness. This version gives more screen time to those interactions. There's an absolutely wonderful scene that's also in the novel in which Amy writes out her "will" and asks Laurie to approve it. In this moment, they begin to share confidences and fears. Their time together in Europe is also well-handled in this adaptation. After the initial catch-up, Laurie is obviously struck by how sophisticated, thoughtful, and intelligent Amy has become, and later, when they've received news of Beth's death, they have a moving scene together where Laurie makes clear to Amy that he won't leave her to grieve alone. It's understood that they spend a lot of time together after this, so their subsequent marriage is the natural progression.
Jonah Hauer-King and Kathryn Newton as Laurie and Amy
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Brilliant Casting Choice 

And finally, I think one of the most noteworthy casting and characterization decisions for this adaptation was in Emily Watson as Marmee and the writing for her. The screen time devoted to her and Emily Watson's performance made me realize how much material related to Marmee has been skipped over in previous adaptations, and it was honestly their loss. This version gives her amazing depth and allows us to see her in a more human and relatable light. She has many more scenes that are directly from the book and that reveal who she is as a person – a deeply kind and generous woman who also sometimes feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. And it’s only natural that she would because at first, she's holding down the home front while her husband is away at war, and later, she experiences many normal pains of motherhood in seeing her children grow up and become independent. Here are a few of the "Marmee scenes" in this version that I loved: 
  • After Amy breaks through the ice, Jo pours out her fears of never being able to govern her tongue or temper to Marmee. Marmee assures Jo that she too has an awful temper and has been working for 40 years to control it.
  • Marmee comes into the bedroom where the girls are getting ready for Meg's wedding, and the four of them strike a pose as they giggle excitedly. Marmee is clearly overcome for a moment at how beautiful and grown-up her girls have become.
  • As Jo becomes concerned over Laurie’s attempts to turn their friendship into romance, she confides to Marmee that she must get away for a while because she knows Laurie will only ever be a brother to her. Marmee assures Jo that her instincts are correct in this area and says that she too has always felt that Jo and Laurie are too much alike to get on as a married couple.
  • When Beth tells Marmee that she's sick and won't recover, Marmee makes a quick exit to cry. Jo follows, and Marmee breaks down in Jo's arms. Cue my own waterworks opening up. 
Emily Watson as Marmee with her girls
Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Are you convinced yet? I certainly hope so. This adaptation was good for my heart and made me feel all the nostalgia for girlhood. And to its credit, it has made me want to pick up the book again before too long. Thank you to all who made this story come alive again so beautifully for me. And thank you again to Little Women itself for reminding me of the beauty of womanhood in all its joys, pains, progressions, and turns. 

Books transport readers into different contexts on many levels, but new places are perhaps one of the most common of these transportations. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been reading a book and thought, “I need to see this place being described.” And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced the thrill of finally getting to see the setting of a favorite book. But when you’re not able to physically visit the place of your current imaginings, the next best thing is surely a bit of armchair travel that a good book can provide. Here’s a rundown of unlikely travel destinations that you’ll be booking a ticket to in no time once you’ve read these books that bring them to life so beautifully. 

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK 
I hadn’t even heard of Guernsey before I picked up this gem of a book. It’s a tiny British territory island in the English Channel that’s closer to the French coast than the English. This post-WWII novel centers on Juliet Ashton, a London writer struggling to find a new book topic. By happenstance, she begins a correspondence with a group of Guernsey inhabitants who formed a book club during the war. Intrigued, Juliet eventually travels to Guernsey to meet them, unprepared for how the eccentric book club members will work their way into her heart. Rolling green, quaint English farms, crashing waves, and the nearby French coast seem almost within touching distance while reading this delightful story. 

Poldark Series by Winston Graham: Cornwall, England 
Ross Poldark and his family and friends are the focus of this 12-book series, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Cornwall is just as significant of a character as Ross himself. Winston Graham narrates spectacularly vivid images of this beautiful, rugged setting and often uses it to foreshadow coming events, reflect his characters’ emotions, or give more color to a character’s rich inner dialogue. I knew little of Cornwall before discovering the Poldark series, but now it’s near the top of my destination bucket list. I now dream at least twice a week of brooding on a cliff in Cornwall with the old tin and copper mines in the background. 

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley: the highlands of Scotland 
Talk about atmospheric. The drama of this book unfolds in the shadow of a great castle on the northern coast of Scotland. The heroine rents a cottage near the castle ruin as she writes a novel about the Jacobite rebellion and I felt like I was sitting in her window seat. Seriously considering getting my own cottage in Scotland now. And maybe finding a handsome Scottish soldier with a knee-weakening brogue to marry. There are all kinds of possibilities. 

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: Alaska 
This book is a heartbreaker, as I’ve previously discussed at length. But wow, does the Alaskan setting paint a picture. And not just any Alaska. Remote, moody, rough, majestic Alaska. Ernt and Cora Allbright and their daughter Leni move to this untamed wilderness in search of a new start, totally unprepared for how Alaska will change them. Leni arrives uncertain, but soon feels belonging and connection to the rugged beauty and close-knit community. But her father has wrestled with dark moods and violent behavior since the Vietnam War, and the merciless winters do him no favors. This story is difficult and sometimes upsetting, but it crescendos on an ultimately redemptive note, which is reflective of its backdrop. Alaska can be harsh and unforgiving towards the most lovable characters, but it also represents their home, a place of refuge, and a special part of their identity. 

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr: Rome, Italy 
Okay yes, Rome is probably already on many travel lists, but this book makes you feel smack dab in the middle of the city, so if you’re not able to go there yet, here’s a nice placeholder! Anthony Doerr is well-known for his fiction (notably, All The Light We Cannot See), but this memoir of his year of living in Rome shows his versatility. In the early 2000s, he won a writing fellowship that would put him up in Rome for a year with his family, provided he would write. So he and his wife Shauna and their six-month-old twin boys moved from Idaho to Rome, and what a year it was! Doerr shares the struggles of new parenthood, writer’s block, and insomnia, all while also trying to find footing in a new country. His vivid descriptions of each season, the cobblestone streets, the famous landmarks like the Sistine Chapel, and Pope John Paul II’s funeral will captivate your imagination and even your tactile senses. 

What are your favorite armchair travel books? I’d love to hear!