438 Days

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When the cover of the book 438 Days says, “an extraordinary true story of survival at sea,” it is not an overstatement. Salvador Alvarenga, a deep sea fisherman, survives fourteen months at sea in a small fishing boat. Although this story made me want to vomit at times, it might be one of the most inspirational books I have read in a long time.

438 Days by Jonathan Franklin
438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

Alvarenga and Cordoba were both deep sea fishermen. Alvarenga had decades of experience, and young Cordoba had only a couple of years of experience at sea, much preferring not to go too far out to fish. During a storm, Alvarenga looked for someone to go out to finish hauling in a catch, and ended up hiring Cordoba for the job.

However, during this storm (which was a common occurrence in the area of Mexico where they fished), they lost use of the engine. When they radioed for help, their GPS, which was not waterproof, was ruined, so they could only give a visual account of where they were, about twenty miles off shore, with no motor or sails. Right after their desperate plea for help, the radio died, and they were pushed further and further out to sea. Despite a three day search, they were not found.

Four months into their journey, Cordoba slowly died of starvation. After eating a bird that had a poisonous snake in its stomach, he was too frightened to eat any more birds, a necessary part of their survival diet. Despite Alvarenga’s pleas for him to eat, he refused. He begged Alvarenga not to eat his body, and then died. Alvarenga spends days speaking to his dead friend as if he was alive, despite his friend’s body turning purple, then black from exposure to the hot sun. After several days, he slipped his friend’s body into the ocean. As I read this, I was sad for the loss of Cordoba and relieved that Alvarenga did not consume his friend’s body.

“He considered scratching messages or a count of full moons on the inside of his home but both ideas felt like capitulations etched by a dying mariner. Alvarenga planned on telling his survival story in person.”

Jonathan Franklin

Alvarenga spent the next ten months in complete isolation. In order to survive, he had to do some disgusting things: drink turtle blood, eat raw birds and fish, put urine in his ears to treat an ear infection, and eat the organs of animals for essential nutrients.

Although the journey took an immense toll on his emotional health, the previously non-religious Alvarenga took the time to pray, impacted by the faith of the deceased Cordoba. He also vowed not to kill himself, desiring to be an encouragement to those contemplating suicide. He believed that if he could survive the time he spent at sea, he could encourage others not to kill themselves because of situations they might find themselves in.

More than anything, though, Alvarenga kept going because he wanted to be reunited with the daughter he had abandoned years earlier when she was only one year old. At the end of his journey, he thought about the thirteen years he had not been a part of his daughter’s life because of a gang feud that caused him to flee, as well as his desire to party and enjoy life. None of that was as important to him as a relationship with his daughter.

After thirteen months at sea, the biggest blow to his psychological health was being very close to a large boat and not being rescued. Three men on the boat even waved to him, seeing him clearly, yet did not attempt to rescue him at all. This event sent him into a deep depression. Had he not hit land less than a month later, his health likely would have deteriorated even further.

The best part of this story is that it has a happy ending. Alvarenga reached a very remote island, where a couple who did not speak his language extended great hospitality to him, despite their limited resources and their fear he might harm them (he is, after all, holding a knife when they find him). He was then transported to a more populated island, where he could receive medical treatment, and was asked questions to verify whether his story was true or false. The media picked up his story and he was overwhelmed by the media interest in him.

He was eventually taken home to his daughter and parents, where he was able to rebuild that relationship. He took a trip to the town in Mexico where he used to fish, so that he could talk to his previous employer about what happened. He also talked to Cordoba’s mother, letting her know about Cordoba’s last days. His health continues to improve, as does his relationship with his daughter.

I Said Yes

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While he would be hesitant to confess this, I am not as embarrassed to confess that my husband and I enjoyed watching The Bachelor and the Bachelorette this season. Bachelor in Paradise just ended, so the timing seemed right to read and write about the memoir of a former Bachelor and Bachelorette star (even if I didn’t actually watch all of Bachelor in Paradise).

I Said Yes by Emily Maynard Johnson with A.J. Gregory
I Said Yes by Emily Maynard Johnson with A.J. Gregory

Emily Maynard (later Johnson) tells her heartbreaking and inspiring story about how the events in her life did not leave her too far out of reach from God’s hands. She describes her relationship with God not as a sudden conversion, but as a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad. Emily gives readers a glimpse into each of her “lily pad” moments, allowing them to become immersed in her journey.

Barely out of high school, Emily became engaged and moved in with her fiance. They began planning a future together when he was killed suddenly in a plane crash. Shortly after his funeral, she finds herself pregnant with his daughter. Emily finds some solace in the beliefs of his Christian family.

After raising her daughter alone for a few years, a friend nominated her to be on The Bachelor. She was surprised when she not only got a call, but made the cast. Despite her reluctance, she went on the show to give love a chance. After being the final contestant and finding herself engaged to the bachelor, her relationship with him ends because of personality differences.

Throughout her description of the process of being on The Bachelor, I was shocked at how much of it did not seem scripted. She was told very little about what was going on. With no access to the outside world, emotions ran high between the women (explaining a lot of what viewers see on camera). While it makes sense that the women cannot be sharing what is going on with all of their friends and family, it probably doesn’t lead to good decision-making.

Not long after that, she was asked to become The Bachelorette. She asked that she be able to have a suite with her daughter there, so that she did not have to be away from her daughter during the entire filming time. To her surprise (and mine) the network agreed. She also was adamant that she did not want to get engaged at the end of the show, but only wanted to have the chance at a serious relationship. With a fledgling relationship with God and a desire to find a man with the same beliefs, she went on the show. When she chose the last man to receive a rose, he proposed to her. With cameras and eyes on her, she said “yes.”

What surprised me most about her perspective from The Bachelorette was that things seemed a lot more scripted from the bachelorette’s side of things. When conversation was slow, her producers would give her talking points (based on personality and background assessments given to all of the men). When I watched The Bachelor this past season, I sort of wondered how much the bachelor was acting off of a script or talking points on some of the dates. This part of the book made me feel like this side of it is a lot more scripted, even if the person may genuinely be looking for love.

After her relationship with the “winner” of her season on The Bachelorette failed, she ended up falling in love with and marrying a man she met at church. They have two children and her relationship with God has continued to grow. Her story is one that inspires young people to remember that before they can focus on finding romantic love, they should find and be confident in God’s love.

Find Me Unafraid

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This book changed the way I think about charity work. It was not just another inspirational story about a person who did something great, but a story about two people from entirely different worlds who came together to change an African slum.

Find Me Unafraid by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner
Find Me Unafraid by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner

Kennedy was born in an African slum and Jessica was born into middle class America. Their lives couldn’t be any more different. While Jessica lived a life of relative comfort, Kennedy was beaten by his step-father. He found solace in learning from a neighbor who could afford school and a priest who would later use his trusted position to sexually abuse him. He ran away from home at the age of ten and joined a gang. He then worked hard labor and watched friends die on the streets and kill themselves from the despair they felt because of the hard lives they were living.

“There’s a theory that cycles of poverty perpetuate and self-replicate in part because of despair. People feel hopeless, and then engage in self-destructive behaviors that make that hopelessness self-fulfilling. The implication, and there’s a fair amount of evidence emerging for this, is that the way to break cycles of poverty is to give people hope–and in the largest sense, that’s what Kennedy and Jess are doing.”

Nicholas Kristof

At the age of sixteen, Kennedy used the extra twenty cents that he had to purchase a soccer ball so that the people in the community would have something positive to do. It started with a soccer ball and grew, but Kennedy’s vision of Shining Hope for Communities was born. He convinced friends and community members to “buy into” the idea that they could change their community in ways that did not cost much, if anything. They started by picking up trash and speaking out against abuse. It grew, until at the age of 23, it was a movement that provided dignified jobs for women. It was at this time that Jessica studied in Kenya for a semester and met Kennedy.

Jessica’s life changed. She fell in love with Kennedy and the slums of Kenya. She went back to America and helped Kennedy get a scholarship so he could get a college education. Together, they would eventually build a school for girls and a medical clinic. Kennedy’s knowledge of the community and Jessica’s ability to garner outside financial support made them a powerful team.

“Without mutual understanding and real community leadership, foreign-led interventions ultimately do not succeed, creating false hopes and taking advantage of the community’s vulnerability.”

Kennedy Odede

Buy-in from locals is necessary for the long-term success of works of charity.

This book broke my heart. I found myself weeping at the brokenness written in these pages, and the desire to do more about some of the things that are wrong around the world. I also became increasingly aware of how sometimes we as Americans forget that those around the world have the same intelligence and potential that we do. It is heartbreaking to think that perhaps the brightest scientists, doctors, or teachers might be dying of hunger in a slum in another part of the world because of the greed and ignorance of those in the wealthiest parts of the world.

“One of the cruelest aspects of this place is simply the wasted human potential, the brilliance and creativity that exists. It shouldn’t be impossible to break out of poverty–talent and hard work should matter–but here they don’t.”

Jessica Posner

The thing that changed me the most, though, was the idea that no matter where I go to do ministry, it is important to partner with someone who is local to the area. Ohio is not so different from the part of California where I grew up. However, there are differences. People can usually tell I did not grow up here, and there are shared histories of people who have lived here in small town Ohio for generations. Partnering with, learning from, and working alongside those who live and know the area better than I ever could will make my ministry richer than I could ever imagine.

While there might be an implied recommendation to a lot of my blog posts, I want to very explicitly recommend this book. While there is some mature content and it is heartbreaking to get through, this is one of those books that will change you. It is worth your time. Though it has not been long since I read it, I already want to read it again. Not many books make me feel like that.

Good Chinese Wife

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My words cannot fully summarize how brilliantly written this book is and all of the reasons you should read it. Susan Blumberg-Kason gives and honest and raw look into the ups and downs of an emotionally abusive relationship that crosses cultural divides.

Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason
Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

From the first few pages, the reader knows that this book will be about a woman who falls in love with a man who does not treat her the way that he should. At each turn of the page, her beautiful foreshadowing left me breathless, asking, “What is this guy going to do to her next?”

Like all abusive relationships, though, it was not always bad. She detailed her courtship to Cai and the ways that he made her feel special when they were dating. She shares the way he wooed her while they were both studying in Hong Kong. She was from America and he was from mainland China.

When things started cropping up in their relationship, she chalked it up to cultural differences or his own stress over his doctoral work. Instead of spending their wedding night with her, Cai ordered porn and told her to go to sleep. He regularly put his preferences and comfort before hers when decisions needed to be made. When his professors pushed her to drink alcohol and Susan expressed her discomfort with the situation, Cai exploded with anger. One night, she caught him flirting with a prostitute on the phone. Despite these things, she did what she could to maintain peace because she did not want to go home to her parents with a failed marriage.

Two things Kai did stood out as especially dreadful.

The first happened when they were still in China. Susan contracted an STD, despite having been married to Cai for a year and a half and having no other partners. When she started treatment and told him that the doctor insisted that he start it as well, he bristled at the suggestion. He denied having an affair, although she knew that was the only way it could have been contracted. He then looked it up in a Chinese disease dictionary, started laughing, and told her it was a “women’s disease.” Thus ended the conversation.

The second thing happened after they had moved to the United States and had their son. Cai frequently got frustrated with their son’s crying and would grab him and dangle him over the stairwell in their home, threatening to drop him. He would shut him in an empty room, leaving him on the floor. The things he did to his child were scary, and motivation for her to get out.

This book serves as a great warning about the red flags of abusive relationships.

It is important for young women to know what red flags are for an emotionally and physically abusive relationship so that they can avoid being in one themselves. If they are already in one, seeing those red flags develop into an even worse version of the situation they are in might be the motivation they need to get out before the situation escalates. Reading a book like this one can give a woman information on red flags in an emotional, but concrete way. Susan brings her story to life in such a personal way that you cannot help but cheer for her when she gets out of her marriage with Cai.

“I’d been in this dysfunctional relationship for five years and could no longer tell what about it was normal and what was unacceptable.”

Susan Blumberg-Kason

For the woman who may find herself in a relationship or marriage to someone like Cai, reading a book like this one may give her the inspiration to reach out for help to get out of that relationship. Though Susan’s situation is unique in many ways, especially in that it is a relationship across cultural boundaries, there is a lot to be learned about the way she escaped. She sought the help of a lawyer and her mother, then left while he was at work. For those wishing to escape who do not have someone they trust to help them, there are centers willing to help women and children fleeing abusive relationships.


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Confession: I didn’t read this book.

Methland by Nick Reding
Methland by Nick Reding

Now before you shun me for not being a good book reflection blogger, let me defend and clarify my confession a little. I read half of this book, and fully intend to finish it eventually. However, this ended up being a much heavier book than anticipated and I have had to read it in smaller chunks to be able to fully process the information.

Several months ago, I read a memoir written by a mother and daughter about the daughter’s heroin addiction, and how beating that addiction both strained and strengthened their relationship in different ways. While I knew the content of this book would be different because it was looking at the town of Oelwein, Iowa instead of the lives of one family, I did not anticipate how much more emotionally draining it would be to read the many snapshots painted by Reding in this book.

This book gives an up-close look at how meth pulls apart the lives of those who use it.

Meth is so unlike any other drug. While other addictions may seem treatable and beatable, through the stories of the people of Oelwein an image appeared of a drug that has an addictive quality that is invincible. One woman built a drug empire and after years clean in prison, went back to those same drugs upon release. Another addict, though his skin and flesh melted off in a chemical fire while disposing of evidence of his meth lab, went back to meth after getting out of the hospital and jail. Though one addict in the book was nine months clean and living with parents desperate to help him stay that way, there was fear from everyone (including himself) that he would go back to using meth. No matter how long they were clean or what circumstances faced them, those held under the grip of meth addiction seemed powerless to fight the high that meth gave to them.

“His job was increasingly directed by the belief that in solving the town’s economic dilemma, the drug problem, too, would abate. That was the hope, anyway. On another level, meth seemed to operate completely outside the bounds of any rational, calculated variables.”

Nick Reding

The reason this was a difficult book to read was because I love a meth addict.

Despite the fact meth has taken a toll on his physical and mental health, someone I love continues to use the drug he has used for years. He is the main reason that I was interested in reading this book. I was searching for understanding, and on some level I found it. Although I still see meth as a nasty drug because of all of the side effects that come with it, meth gives the addict energy and euphoria that cannot be compared to anything else. At one point in our nation’s history, a form of it was legal because of the way it allowed people to work longer and harder. It was marketed as a weight loss drug. The fact it makes people feel good is undeniable. And for a while, at least, it allows them to work more (which is why it is so popular among the working class).

This book gave me the glimpse into meth addiction that I needed to both understand my loved one’s addiction and understand that there was very little that I could do to motivate him to quit the drug. While a non-addicted person or a person addicted to something less mind-altering may have responded to my pleas to get clean differently, it has been good for me to better understand the immensity of the burden of those fighting meth addiction. In reading about the addict who was nine months clean and living with his parents, one quote stuck out to me: “For Major, waiting to see what price his son would pay for his transgressions was a daily reminder of why he had to stay straight. But his anxiety and guilt were also an hourly motivation to get high.” A person recovering from addiction has to want to stay straight more than they want to drown out the anxiety and guilt.

While I like to believe that if I were faced with an addiction I would stop using whatever addictive substance if a loved one asked. After slightly better understanding exactly what addiction, especially addiction to meth does to a person, I’m not entirely sure what I would do. In the grips of addiction, I doubt I would be strong enough to get clean alone. I am increasingly convinced that only God can help someone break the bonds of addiction.

Into the Deep

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I came upon this absolutely heartbreaking, yet inspirational memoir while browsing through The Ohio Digital Library. I am drawn toward stories that have that “Investigation Discovery” feel. Even though it was a natural disaster that claimed the family of Robert Rogers and not human actions, I think it’s the same interest that drew me to this book.

Into the Deep by Robert Rogers with Stan Finger
Into the Deep by Robert Rogers with Stan Finger

While driving back home from a family member’s wedding, flash flooding caused the road to be covered in water. Robert’s wife, Melissa, was driving and was too deep into the water to turn back by the time they realized they were in it. The cars in front of them were passing through fine and they were boxed in with cars behind them, unable to stop. Meanwhile, it continued to rain and the water continued to flow across the road, getting deeper.

The water began to fill the car, waking up their four children, who became frightened. A man came to the window to try to offer them help, but was swept away by the water. When they seemed to have no other option because they were not moving through the water, Robert kicked out the passenger side window, and he and his oldest daughter were sucked out of the car and into the water. He and his wife had planned to swim to the surface and try to save their children, but he fought just to stay alive and ended up on the embankment bruised and scraped. He made it to the emergency response teams and pleaded for help for his family. They transported him to the hospital after seeing no sign of his family.

At the hospital, he was informed that his four children were dead and his wife could not be found. Three days and a press conference later, when the water had receded, they found her body as well. His family, the hospital staff, and the people of his city poured out an amazing amount of love and support for him during his grief. The rest of the book reflects on the years he had with his family and the process of grieving their loss and giving glory to God despite the pain.

Robert Rogers is a beautiful example of grieving with grace.

I really enjoyed this book. I have not cried so hard reading anything in such a long time. Nearly every few chapters made me burst out in tears, feeling so appreciative of what I have. Repeatedly throughout the pages, Rogers wrote that throughout his grieving and discussions with others, he wanted to make sure that people came to know God better and appreciate their loved ones more. He accomplished that in my reading of the book.

“I heard so many times from so many people, ‘God never gives you more than you can handle.’ I eventually came to believe that ‘God will always give you more than you can bear alone, because He doesn’t want you to bear it without Him.’ Alone, this cross was unbearable. But with God, it was possible.”

Robert Rogers

Timing is always crazy. Mount Vernon had flash flood warnings the week I was reading this book, so I felt especially emotional. Before the flash flood warnings, though, my husband and I were driving to and from Columbus for a date in very heavy rain, and I kept thinking about what I had been reading. I soaked in every moment of that date night and have been intentional in taking every moment I can to tell him that I love him. Though no one wants to think about it, you never know when something as unexpected as a rain storm could take away those you love.

A Girl Named Faithful Plum

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I picked up this charming and inspirational biography at the last minute when I realized that the book I had planned for this week’s post wasn’t going to work because it had too much graphic content for me. Though this book was an impulsive read, it was also an enjoyable one, especially compared to what I had been reading.

A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein
A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein

This book covers the journey of young Zhongmei Li from a rural part of China all the way to an open audition in the Beijing Dance Academy, and into her first year as a dance student there. Although the reader knows that she will make it through each trial she faces and become a famous and talented dancer, everything that young Zhongmei faces is so unbelievable that it seems that she won’t make it through.

One of the most amazing parts of this book was that Zhongmei’s journey started at the age of eleven. At such a young age, she traveled across the country, away from her family, to pursue her dream. She then worked harder than many adults (myself included) do to achieve her dream.

Zhongmei Li’s tale is one that inspires hope and hard work.

I found Zhongmei’s spirit and determination absolutely inspirational. Even though there were times where she felt like she was going to be kicked out of school for being one of the worst dancers, she did not let that stop her. Instead, she woke up early and practiced harder. She worked harder than her peers and ended up being one of the most famous dancers in China, eventually traveling to the United States where she met her husband, the author of this book.

My only complaint about this book is that it ended. I would have loved to have had such an in-depth look at the other years of her education, as well as her career and how she met and fell in love with her husband, Richard Bernstein. From the “About the Author” section, I know they also have a child together. Though her first year ended up having a happy ending, I would have loved to hear about the rest of her life.

This book was a nice light read, especially after something as heavy as The Girl Behind the Door from last week. Even though it had its tense moments, it had a happy ending and those tense moments often ended up working out in Zhongmei’s favor. It was hopeful, inspirational, and a feel-good read.

The Girl Behind the Door

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I was browsing the biography section of The Ohio Digital Library when I came upon this book. It looked interesting, so I put it on hold and thought nothing else of it for a couple more months, until it showed up in my email account as available.

The Girl Behind the Door by John Brooks
The Girl Behind the Door by John Brooks

John Brooks wrote the heart-wrenching story of traveling overseas to bring home a baby girl who was unhealthy from not receiving the care and attention she needed to raising a troubled teenager who would eventually end her life by stepping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. Brooks shared in painful detail the signs he only saw after the fact of her struggle to find her place in the world, and a diagnosis the he would only find after her death to be attachment disorder.

This book broke my heart because of my desire to foster children.

In his writing about attachment disorder and how it impacted his daughter’s ability to love and feel loved, Brooks explained that many children who are adopted are impacted by this disorder. Even children who are adopted very young, like his daughter Casey, have this overwhelming feeling that they are undesirable and that no one could ever love or want them. They struggle to build deep or lasting attachments, and often act out in burst of anger or emotion. It is an absolutely haunting condition to imagine anyone going through, especially one you have chosen to bring into your home to love and care for.

I will not even pretend to know what that feels like because I have never been adopted and I have do not have many friends who were. However, my husband have known for several years that we wanted to at the very least foster children with the possibility of adopting them. Casey was not just one case of the grief caused by attachment disorder. So many children are suffering and need to be loved and cared for by people who are not going to hurt them. While there is a part of me that feels overwhelmed and not good enough for such a task, I know that some day my husband and I may come to love one such child. Maybe even more.

The number of people who jump of of bridges is heartbreaking.

It surprised and saddened me that so many people use bridges like the Golden Gate to commit suicide. At the time the book was written, about thirty people a year jumped off that bridge to die. There is a project underway, due to be completed in 2019, to build a barrier to try to prevent these kind of acts. That may prevent people from jumping from bridges, but it does not deal with the pain that makes them jump.

I am not entirely sure what to make of this book after reading it. I feel more aware. I feel more heartbroken. But I do not know what to do about it except to love those around me better than I did before. One of them could be hurting and I wouldn’t even know it. I do not want to have to come aware of a loved one’s suffering only when it is too late.