One Day’s Results: Re-Wiring your Brain and a Book List

On the long treks across the ocean, there are few things that bring relief like the steaming hot washcloths that Korean Air hands out. It might be that they wait until about 11 hours into the flight and at that point you’ve forgotten your wonderful bibimbap meal with seaweed soup and complimentary wine. But when I see the flight attendants walking around, handing out the washcloths with their special tongs, I seriously want to cry. I carefully unfold the washcloth and press the warmth into my face.

I savor the clean smell, as I try to wipe away the exhaustion that comes from these trips. This is not a baby wipe. This is a legitimate white washcloth that makes you feel like you’re cleaning your face with Egyptian cotton (or maybe my extreme tiredness just makes it feel that way). Traveling with three young kids, it’s a sign that I’m still sane.

For me, reading has always been my version of the steaming hot washcloth. Books have been my retreat and comfort since I was young. When things are swirling around me, I can sit with a good book and be reminded that the world is much bigger than just my own story. And yes, I have been known to just take in the smell of old, familiar books.

In a time when we have instant access to so much information via Facebook, Instagram, news sites, and blogs, we can quickly become overwhelmed. When our only reading is done in short snippets with low word counts, our brains lose their ability to process deeper and larger chunks of information. We don’t let the information truly sink in, as we move on to the next thing in rapid succession.

Now, I love Facebook and Velvet Ashes is a great example of the wonderful content that can be found on the Internet. There are many other things, though, that act as baby wipes instead of washcloths. I like to read quick, entertaining news, but the more I fill myself with those things, the less room (and time) I have in my brain.

I had three children within three years and honestly, I didn’t have much capacity for anything extra. I also lived overseas, which took up even more brain power. I remember how it felt to try to talk to regular people and not be able to get any coherent words or thoughts out. I was an English major! I loved words but I couldn’t remember basic English vocabulary. It was extremely humbling and at times horrifying, to say the least.

Fast forward a few years and my youngest is now three years old. I have re-discovered the joy of reading and I can literally feel my brain cells re-wiring. A recent Discovery News segment showed that reading good literary fiction (versus most pop fiction available today), gives you grounded cognition, which results in lasting brain function. They proved that reading a novel for just one day increased every test subject’s language and motor skills for five days afterwards! We are wired for story. We remember stories much better than plain facts. Not to mention that reading fiction has been shown to help with the development of empathy. Reading is not a waste of your time!

I don’t believe it’s only fiction that is beneficial. As you will see in the list I’ve made below, there is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. These are books that I have read or re-read in the past year, so they are the ones most recent in my memory. So picture me with a tray full of these books, handing them out to you during a long journey. Breathe them in deeply and enjoy.

51ZnXzzGF2L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_1. Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and Overcoming Love

by Katherine and Jay Wolf

If I had to recommend just one book this summer, this would be it. Hope Heals is the story of a woman who suffered a massive brain stem stroke, but most importantly, it’s a story about “a hope that heals the most broken place, our souls.”


513V32QdsoL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_2. All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

This is one of the best fiction books I’ve read this year. It’s about “a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”



51MYJbjX2KL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_3. Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain

by Matt Bays

This is a brutally, honest reflection of one man’s journey through enormous childhood pain and the present reality of his sister’s cancer. At times the details are disturbing, but this book is a thought-provoking and moving response to the deep ruins of life.



51Iz53oKpFL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_4. The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins

I first came upon this book in a used bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had heard great things about it, but had never read it. “Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.” And it’s free on Kindle!


51ef-UI-b6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_5. Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte

Another freebie on Kindle, this is my favorite novel of all time. The first time I read it in eleventh grade, I was blown away by the plot and the magnificent writing. If you have not read this book yet, run, do not walk to get it.



51sNQrTF3GL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_6. Why God Calls Us to Dangerous Places

by Kate McCord

This is a must read for anyone who lives in dangerous places or sends anyone to these places. It is about “what is lost and what is gained when we follow God at any cost.” I recommended this book to so many people after I read it because it’s that powerful.



515p3OrN1KL7. The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

Yes, another World War II novel, but it’s also really good! “The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.”


51eTKAbHXgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_8.Right Ho, Jeeves!

by P.G. Wodehouse

I have to admit, that when Amy Young said this was going to be a part of book club, I was leery. But I was delightfully surprised. So, if you were like me, and didn’t snatch it up, do so now! It’s a laugh-out-loud kind of story, with a ton of great vocabulary.



5176remWE5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_9. Watership Down

by Richard Adams

When I lived in Mongolia, I was pretty much desperate to read anything on those long, winter nights. This was a book my teammate had on her bookshelf and I decided, “Why not?” Wow. Yes, it’s about rabbits, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a classic for a very good reason.



51qrFCx28OL10. Ender’s Game

by Orson Scott Card

This was another book on my teammate’s bookshelf that I wasn’t certain I’d enjoy, but she convinced me to give it a try. I loved it. If you’re judging it by the recent movie, please don’t. As always, the book is so much better!



These books have been warm washcloth for my brain (and soul). Which have you read? How did they feed you? Which can be your next washcloth?

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports Velvet Ashes. 


  1. Sarah Hilkemann June 27, 2016

    Book recommendations are my favorite! Thanks for sharing these. All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale have been on my to-read list but I haven’t gotten to them yet. I always like when more than one person says they enjoy a book I want to read! 🙂 I read Ender’s Game last year for the first time and really enjoyed it.

    Books and reading have definitely been a comfort for me too throughout different seasons. After I finished graduate school I was on reading overload and kind of took a break. I hadn’t done as much reading for fun through college and grad school, but when I got to Cambodia I discovered my brain very much needed a break to get through cultural adjustment and learning a new language. I’ve really discovered again the last few years how much I love reading! Last year I made my own little challenge with different categories to force myself to read things I wouldn’t normally read, and it was probably one of the highlights of my year.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Danielle Krouch June 27, 2016

      There is joy in rediscovering reading, isn’t there? I take breaks still, although not as long now. I think you’ll love All the Light We Cannot See. Such a great book!

    2. Michele Womble June 30, 2016

      Sarah, I love the idea of your “own little challenge” with different categories in order to read things you wouldn’t normally have read – would you, could you please, share your challenge?  What were the categories, what did you read that you wouldn’t have otherwise, how did it end up being a highlight, etc?  (Maybe in the grove this week?) I’m interested in starting my own “challenge” – not this year – but I’ll be finishing up homeschooling within the next year – yes, ok, I do read a lot of things that I wouldn’t have read otherwise because of homeschooling, so the last ten years or so have been a “challenge” of sorts – but want to tailor my own reading plan – anyway, I’m rambling, but I would love to see what your plan looked like, with your categories, and what you read.


      1. Sarah Hilkemann June 30, 2016

        Michele, I added the two blog posts where I listed my categories and the book that fulfilled them to the Grove for this week. Hopefully it provides some inspiration! 🙂 I got some of the ideas by looking at reading challenge lists on Pinterest.

        1. Michele Womble July 1, 2016

          Thank you Sarah!  I read your lists and am making some notes on them for my own challenge next year.  I think Amy is doing a challenge this summer on Life in the Messy Middle, that i can also get some ideas from.  It’s so nice to be able to build on what ya’ll have already done.  🙂

  2. T June 27, 2016


    People here at VA often mention reading during the long winters!!  Where we live, it is more the long summer that needs to be endured!  At times, my kids won’t be able to be outside most of the day because of the heat (we do have an intex easy set pool that helps a lot!).  Anyway, we are beginning real summer this week, and that will be the start of our family Summer Reading Program, modeled on the one at the public library we most love in Kansas.  After reading this, I decided to be a participant for the first time (I always read, but my kids will love it if I keep track of my minutes and get the prizes too!).  I’d encourage anyone else who is going into a long season with their kids to do a reading incentives program.  I’m using this clip art as a poster for us to move along, starting at the farthest out planet and going towards the Sun for the biggest prize (we get little prizes all along the way).

    1. Danielle Krouch June 27, 2016

      Great idea to have a reading program! I lived in Cambodia for five years, so I definitely understand about the intense heat!!

  3. Elizabeth June 27, 2016

    Totally agree that we aren’t able to think in longer segments anymore! Author Elizabeth Esther once said that social media was ruining her writing — she was thinking in little tweets and writing 600 word chapters, the length of a typical blog post. She had to take a break from social media to regain her writing ability.

    I’ve actually been trying to read more books (and fewer blogs) this year, both by myself and with my kids. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I’m thankful for the bigger ideas I’m encountering and am enjoying thinking on a deeper level than before.

    Also there’s that other thing — social media is all about outrage and anger and controversy, and I just don’t need that in my life. I don’t need to waste my precious emotional energy, the energy I need for my family and my own ministry, on that stuff. And I crave talking about big ideas anyway. But sometimes I get too many ideas in my head and have no one to talk to them about!

    1. Danielle Krouch June 27, 2016

      Agreed!  I remember you writing once about taking a break from social media, and I think of that often.  It is so easy to get caught up and feel like we have to take on all of the of world’s problems.

      1. Elizabeth June 30, 2016

        Agreed right back at you! I do not need to take on any more problems than I already have!

    2. Michele Womble June 30, 2016

      And snarky.  Social media can be subtly snarky.  And while the snarkyness can be funny and entertaining, it doesn’t nourish my soul – in addition to wasting precious emotional energy (like you said) – it doesn’t give anything back – or rather, what it gives isn’t helpful for me – I don’t need to be taught to be more snarky, to go through my day snarky, but rather how to overcome the snarkiness.

      (Not all social media is like that, of course, but there seems to be this trend…)

      1. Elizabeth June 30, 2016

        Yes the communication on social media is something altogether different. It’s not nourishing for the soul like Scripture and other good books. Unfortunately I don’t have as many people to talk to about the big ideas in books as I have online (like here), so I’m trying to figure out how to add that into my life without making it any crazier, because I really like conversation in person. My first attempt will be to join a home school coop next school year 🙂 I’ve also been listening to lectures online (as opposed to podcasts, which can sometimes just be conversation), because sometimes they provide more food for thought. I’ll also add some of these book recommendations in the post and the comments to my Amazon list!

          1. Elizabeth July 2, 2016

            Michele, there IS! It’s pretty new, this will be the second year I think. I didn’t do it before because it’s an all day, once a week commitment, and that seemed too much. But I received permission from the director to join only half a day, and see how it goes. It will be good for my kids’ social lives and hopefully good for me to receive more support — being with homeschool moms really is different than other moms. I wish it weren’t that way, I wish we could all support each other the same, no matter what we do, yet the fact remains that being with other homeschool moms who understand what I do and why I do it, and can give me advice, is very helpful to me. Plus I might be able to brush off my math and science obsessions and teach a bit of those subjects, which is good, because I MISS them, and I miss who I am when I’m not thinking, teaching, and studying them.

          2. Michele Womble July 2, 2016

            I’m excited for you!  Will be praying – and especially that you’ll get to use your science and math bents – but in a way that brings balance and life to you and your family.  (not stress! 😉  )  The co op might actually relieve stress, too, if it enables you to be who you are, if you find support and like-mindedness, and other input into your kids….

  4. Amy Young June 27, 2016

    Danielle, book lists are my love language. This makes me happy on so many levels. :). Thank you for letting us peek at your bookshelf!

  5. Jessica Hoover June 27, 2016

    All the Light We Cannot See is at the top of my must-read list this summer. If I can only get to the top of the library waiting list!

  6. Monica F June 29, 2016

    Thank you for this book list— can’t wait to dig into some of these this summer!

  7. Michele Womble June 30, 2016

    Danielle, I LOVE the comparison with the hot washcloths!  Isn’t it funny how the moment when they pass out the steaming washcloths on the plane can be such an emotional experience?  Yes,  reading a good book is like that for me, too, like a moment of retreat and comfort.  When we finally figured out some balance in our early years in Russia, for me it included time to read. I didn’t read at all the first year unless it was “work related” – otherwise I felt guilty – so first of all we declared a day off once a week, and on our day off, I would have a LONG time in the word in prayer (as long as I wanted – this was pre-kids) and then the rest of the time I would read – or play the piano – or both.  It was (and still is) an important part of resting and recuperating.  I found the Barsetshire chronicles by Trollope in English on a shelf in a Russian bookstore (not an English bookstore – but there they were) – and they are still favorites to this day, I have re-read them several times.  (If you go to read them, it starts with the Warden, which is my least favorite of the series, but really helpful for understanding the rest)

    Watership Down is one of my favorites, too – read it first on a transatlantic flight (prekids? or were they asleep?)  and have read it several times since – a keeper on my bookshelf.  I don’t know why I bought it, because someone did tell me that it was “a book about stupid rabbits” and that stuck in my head a long time – BUT having read it, I agree with Danielle, it is way more than a book about rabbits!  Excellent, excellent, book.  Recommend it to anyone, just don’t get hung up on the rabbit part if that bothers you, try to think of it as a “people group”.

    I started the Woman in White a few years ago and didn’t get very far – I can’t remember why.  But on your recommendation, Danielle, I’m putting it on my list and will try it again soon.  It may just be that I had too much I was trying to read then  and it wasn’t a high enough priority.

    1. Elizabeth June 30, 2016

      Going to have to look into Watership Down now! Interesting that it’s about rabbits, as the books now all the rage in the home school community are S.D. Smith’s Green Ember books, which are adventure books whose main characters are rabbits. I haven’t read that yet, either, though. I tried starting it with my kids, but they weren’t interested because we still had one more Narnia book to go, and they wouldn’t hear of a new series until finishing Last Battle!

      1. Michele Womble July 1, 2016

        You will LOVE Watership Down.  I’ve seen the Green Ember books and downloaded them, but haven’t read them yet.  Let me know when you start reading them. 🙂  Watership Down isn’t really a children’s book – well, maybe it can be, but I read it first time as an adult and it did not at all strike me as something I should have read when I was younger.

  8. Michele Womble June 30, 2016

    That’s so interesting that reading helps with the development of empathy!  It makes sense, though, that it would.

    I agree that reading is not a waste of time. I’ve always loved reading, but it was still something that I had to get over the first year abroad, that although it CAN be a waste of time depending on WHAT I’m reading, reading good stuff is an investment, not a waste.  It’s also really, really good to PLAN for it, plan it in, and plan what I’m reading, because I’m  more likely to read good stuff that way.  Less likely to zone out on something…snarky. 🙂 (I was going to say empty).

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