I love recommendations.
I love when people give me recommendations, because it shows how much they know me and it gives me the opportunity to come across something brilliant I might have missed. When someone recommends something to me, I will forever be connected to that person through that one thing. For instance, whenever I listen to Rilo Kiley I think of my pal Benji, if I indulge in carrots and peanut butter I think about Layne, and whenever I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I think about Adrian Martinez (…whom I haven’t talked to in years.)
I also love giving recommendations to people. When I discover something that excites me, I can’t wait to share it with someone else who will hopefully enjoy it as much as I do. Books, movies, music, food, places, pastimes…I’m always up for a good recommendation, and I’m always ready to recommend.
Today my recommendation is writer Shauna Niequist. I first heard of her around a month ago, when Donald Miller posted an excerpt of her writing on his blog. The excerpt was about how women shouldn’t play dumb or wait around to be rescued if they want to be taken seriously, so naturally I loved it. Immediately I looked Shauna up in the Columbus library system, and her first book, Cold Tangerines, was available, so I reserved it.
When I picked it up I was more than a little skeptical, because the subtitle was “Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life.” Great, I thought as I rolled my eyes, another book telling me how to live a perfect life. I’ve read these books before, and they’re all the same. And honestly, they annoy me. Especially the Christian ones…
I saw this one at Barnes&Noble the other day and I nearly threw up in my mouth:
….and yet I decided to give Cold Tangerines a halfhearted attempt (I guess I had hope because Shauna’s face wasn’t on the cover.) And to my surprise, it wasn’t that bad at first. My only complaint was how Shauna wrote with run-on sentences that were so packed with detail and meaning they left me feeling overwhelmed.
The more I read, however, the more I fell in love with her book. The thing is, I don’t even really think Shauna is that brilliant of a writer. I fell in love with her writing because with each page I read we became more and more like friends. I am going through an odd season of life right now, and she writes about seasons of change and smoking in college and crying on the bathroom floor, and I felt like she got me. Not that I’m crying on the bathroom floor, but it comforts me that she does, for some reason.
I finished Cold Tangerines and gave it to my older sister, Grace. She wasn’t thrilled. “Why would I want to read about someone who is only a few years older than me and hasn’t lived that interesting of a life?”
I told Grace that’s exactly the reason I like Shauna’s writing – she is a normal person and she writes about her life with beautiful, raw detail that is filled with everyday things that regular people experience.
When I finished her first book I couldn’t wait for her newer book, Bittersweet, to come into the library. My mom picked it up for me when it became available, and when I walked into my room I saw it lying on my desk. I picked it up like it was a Christmas present, and curled up on my bed to read the prologue. It made me want to cry:
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 sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.
Bittersweet is 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, earthy. Nearly ten years ago, my friend Doug told me that the central image of the Christian faith is death and rebirth, that the core of it all, over and over again, is death and rebirth. I’m sure I’d heard that before, but when he told me, for whatever reason, I really thought about it for the first time. And at the time, I didn’t agree.
What I didn’t understand until recently is that he wasn’t speaking to me as a theologian or a pastor or an expert, but rather as a person whose heart had been broken and who had been brought back to life by the story God tells in all our lives. When you haven’t yet had your heart really broken, the gospel isn’t about death and rebirth. It’s about life and more life. It’s about hope and possibility and a brighter future. And it is, certainly, about those things. But when you’ve faced some kind of death — the loss of someone you loved dearly, the failure of a dream, the fracture of a relationship — that’s when you start understanding that central metaphor. When your life is easy, a lot of the really crucial parts of Christian doctrine and life are nice theories, but you don’t really need them. When, however, death of any kind is staring you in the face, all of a sudden rebirth and new life are very, very important to you. Now, ten years later, I know Doug was right.
This collection is an ode to all things bittersweet, to life at the edges, a love letter to what change can do in us. 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 along, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be. So 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.
Whenever I pick up Shauna’s book I feel like I could cry. I think it’s because I feel the weight of this contradiction, of the bitter and the sweet, and I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve reached this point in my life where I am alone – I’ve always been surrounded by friends, friends and more friends – but now all my friends are married and have real jobs and live across the country and I’m left living in my parent’s house, trying to learn how to forgive the hurts from my childhood days as well as move on from all of beauty that is currently fading into the past.
It’s a strange phase of life that is full of change and stability, reflection and preparation, healing and heartbreak, and when it seems like no one could possibly understand the way I feel, I open Shauna’s book and bask in the relief that someone out there gets me.
I found Shauna on facebook, and like a dweeb I sent her a message telling her how much I loved her books. Also, I found out we have a mutual friend, so that’s pretty cool. Maybe we can be real life bffs after all.
As for my recommendation of her books, this is what I have to say: she is a Donald Miller, for females. If you are a guy you may like her – but her writing weighs heavily on things that are stereotypically more feminine. She writes about crying and cooking and body insecurities and best friends and weddings and whatnot. If you’re a guy and you’re into those kind of things, more power to you. And girls, if you’re anything like me, then you will probably like her.