Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in.
— Shauna Niequist

In our frantic, overwhelming, too busy world, what does a heart-centered life look like?  For each of us it’s different, of course, because it’s dependent upon what’s in our hearts, whomever and whatever truly reside there.  But it’s very likely – perhaps a guaranteed certainty – that the things we give importance to in our lives are not the same things living in the softest part of our heart.  This is the journey inward that Shauna Niequist chronicles in her book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living.  A collection of thought-provoking essays, Present Over Perfect explores the discoveries we make when we slow down, simplify, and choose to live with more grace and intention.

Sink deeply into the world as it stands. Breathe in the smell of the rain and the scruff of the leaves as they brush across driveways on windy nights. This is where life is, not in some imaginary, photo-shopped dreamland. Here. Now. You, just as you are.
— Shauna Niequist

In that most tender area of the heart, Niequst discovers, there are not numbers – the ones we exert ourselves hoping to see on a bank slip or a scale – and there is no obsession with status, with organized homes or perfect, social-media-ready lives, enviable careers and grandiose square-footage.  In that space these things cannot survive because what’s there wasn’t meant to sustain them: love was not made to give power to consumption, financial gain, social success, and external pleasures.  What brings us most fully to life is the love evoked by grace, by family and friends, love born of soul-work and stillness.  To go into the quiet simplicity of that love in many ways goes against what modern society would have us do: it’s choosing minimalism over excess, frugality over frivolity; and yet, as Niequist discovers on the challenging journey toward intention, this is the truest, most compelling road to freedom and wholeheartedness.

In her luminous, lyrical voice, Niequist sheds the layers of life that our culture piles on, uncovering something raw and wonderful underneath.  She engages the reader in her own insightful ponderings as she reacquaints herself with her unique understanding of God, of work, marriage, motherhood, and self, all seen without the trappings of the many shoulds and oughts in which we so frequently indulge.  What she reveals, as much to herself as to the reader, is the greater depth of living, the powerful connectedness and emotionality to be found down the road so infrequently taken.  And the result is a gift of insight and inspiration to the reader, an invitation for us – at whichever point in our life we might find ourselves – to follow our hearts down the lesser worn path and into the quiet vulnerability of true fulfillment and authenticity.

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Sweet Lake by Christine Nolfi

Romance, family, and the art of being true to oneself are at the heart of Christine Nolfi’s latest novel, Sweet Lake.  Moving from the fictional town of her treasured Liberty series, Nolfi gives her readers a new piece of quaint Ohio country charm in the little hamlet of Sweet Lake, where devoted daughter Linnie Wayfair is struggling to manage the family inn after her wayward brother caused a financial calamity in the town years earlier.  Now, with Linnie finally feeling like her luck with restoring the inn is changing, a new wind finds her scandalous brother blown back into town from his lucrative Hollywood career. As if it's not enough to be protecting her inn from her brother’s heartbreaking reputation, Linnie also finds herself handling heated conversations with her parents, Florida retirees with old fashioned views of women and work. Add to the mix an untimely relationship with a handsome lawyer, and Linnie's life is at full overload.  Enter the Sirens, Sweet Lake’s own unforgettable hippy-dippy Golden Girls who delight in midnight beach romps and especially helping the good people of Sweet Lake find their way in life, and in love.  As Linnie’s story unfolds, Nolfi once again proves her unique skill for creating worlds that readers will quickly and comfortable slip into.

One of my favorite things about Christine Nolfi’s stories is the colorful way she paints her characters and how vividly they come to life for the reader.  This, combined with a knack for sentiment and chemistry between her characters, makes Sweet Lake an escapist pleasure while also reaching a tender place of heartwarming honesty.  From Linnie’s budding romance with the impossibly charming attorney Daniel Kettering to her friction-laden relationship with her brother, there’s no shortage of opportunities for Nolfi to explore the bonds of love and family, and the vulnerabilities we risk in order to see them truly thrive.

Perhaps most unforgettable are Sweet Lake’s sassy, spirited Sirens who practice “kindness given in secret,” a particularly warm and wonderful hallmark of the novel's greater message.  Whether by voodoo antics or intentional heart-to-hearts (over mojitos, no less), the Sirens are a wealth of wisdom that guide Linnie in the most delightful way.

True to her credit as a teller of inspiring stories, Nolfi vividly unravels a portrait of a small town with soul which readers will cherish the opportunity to revisit.