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october reading

In October, I read twelve books. I probably should have read two more, since there are two unread books sitting on my coffee table waiting for me to read and review them by… oh… Friday… but alas, alack, it’s November now. Also, I’m a working mom of a toddler now, so there will just always be two unread, overdue books sitting on my coffee table. This is a way of life.

 

Yes, it is book review season yet again, so of the twelve books I read in October, eight of them were “assigned” reading. I don’t like to comment excessively online about books I’m professionally reviewing, especially before the reviews are published. But I’ll tell you that either I’m getting that much harder to please or this batch was just… not… good.

Of the bunch, the only one I’d recommend generally would be The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody. It’s a two teens with emotional baggage (har-har) meet-cute while trapped in an airport story (trapped-cute?), but with a solid voice. I also really liked Brody’s A Week of Mondays; she isn’t writing  isn’t hefty, hard-hitting YA, but instead solidly constructed light-reading that is actually funny and not just trying to be. Which I think could be the definition of a pleasure-read.

I listened to four audiobooks this month; three nonfiction “general listening” and one fiction – After Birth – that was my falling-asleep-in-bed book. I don’t listen to a lot of fiction audiobooks – I think because, increasingly, the kind of fiction I want to read is the kind I *really* want to pay attention to, which can be harder for audio. I often start a fiction audiobook, decide there’s something about the narrator or my particular state of mind or schedule that will keep me from fully paying attention, and then switch to nonfiction. But something did draw me in about this book, although it’s hard to say if I truly *liked* it. It had one of those narrators that inspires everyone on Goodreads to log in and write about how much they hate her. I don’t think I would choose to hang out with her (if she was an actual person WHICH SHE IS NOT), but I thought she was a kind of uncomfortable bizarre mix of being the singularly focused, attachment parent who annoys the hell out of everyone, but who also doesn’t like hanging out with her baby. And who writes about postpartum mothers in fiction? Nobody. It was pretty dark and sometimes off-putting, but I’m down.

Swinging wildly in the other direction, Erica Kosimar’s Being There was a nonfiction treatise on how wonderful and important early motherhood is. It’s generally attachment parenting theory stuff, but with a somewhat novel psychoanalytic rationale. Yes, it made me a little uncomfortable to be listening to a book that was insisting that mothers spend as much time as humanly possible at home with their under-three-year-olds while I was commuting to or working at my full-time job – or even while I was cooking food for my under-three-year-old in the other room. But I’m also not sure her arguments really stand up to much logical scrutiny. I was also struck by how little Kosimar has to say about toddlers and preschoolers. I was reading with a just over one-year-old at home, thinking I’d find advice for 2 of the 3 important years, but it was really 90% about under-ones. So I took from this what I found persuasive and left the rest. In particular, I’ve been trying to really focus on being present with my kiddo, or at least present-er: to keep my phone out of my hands, to stop trying to cram chores and errands and to-do’s into our time together, and to pay attention.

Then, two memoirs. Or rather, one “I did at a thing for a year!” blog-turned-book and one book by a memoir-ist about how to write memoir. In case you couldn’t tell, I liked the latter more than the former. I’ve never read Mary Karr’s memoirs (shame!) but I found The Art of Memoir to be very easy to listen to; I’d feel confident recommending it to both memoir-writers and memoir-readers… or at least literary memoir readers. Year of No Sugar was most certainly not a literary memoir. Not that I was assuming it was – I definitely checked it out looking for something light. A fluff memoir. I like these. But this one wasn’t even satisfying fluff. It was mostly a long reiteration of how freaky it is that Sugar is All Around Us, the quest to find the best sugar substitutes for baking, and just how hard it was to avoid sugar at this party or that potlock and how we just broke down cheated at this cookout. I was hoping for something more contemplative… and also something more about what they *actually* ate rather than what they didn’t. Also, there were a few weirdly judgmental passages about overweight people that were really hard to ignore.

As for the rest? I managed to squeeze in three non-required, in-the-flesh, pulp-and-ink books.

I talked a little bit about The Four Tendencies here. It was a quick, fun read, but I suspect it would only be fun if you are just weirdly into personality typing or are a tried and true Rubinette. And I am certainly both.

In October, I followed a whim and began to re-read Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir oeuvre, chronologically. I read French Milk and Relish, the two foodie-ist of her books. I’ve been following her pregnancy and baby-related Instagram feed pretty religiously, since our kiddos are just the same age; she’s created some mini-comics there about life before and after being a parent that made me think about the themes of family and self-discovery that run through her other works. How fascinating to look at a so many small memoirs that capture a woman’s youngest adulthood – the years not often memoir-ized – and then to follow them into the transition of parenting! I’m calling this a little “side project” (sorry, Alice) and try to pick these up when I forget my required reading book somewhere. I thought I might finish Age of License in November, but my toddler hid it from me in the coffee table drawer for a few weeks. Way to wise up, Jessica. Way to wise up

procrastinating upholders anonymous

Four years ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s habit-formation manifesto – Better Than Before. That was a book I  enjoyed reading, just for the nerdy pleasure of reading someone else’s obsessive thoughts on an abstract topic and also thought would be useful for my own habit-forming endeavors. But while I’ve checked it out of the library many times in the last four years – mostly at time when I’m feeling habit-stagnant – I feel like Rubin’s plethora of habit analysis hasn’t yet helped me cross that important line between intention and action. I can scheme and dream all day long, selecting strategies from Rubin’s impressive toolbox, but here I am – years later – still absent of some of life’s most important habits.
(See: Writing. Exercise. Meditation. Flossing)

While all of Rubin’s habit-forming techniques seemed generally useful, none jumped out at me as THE technique that I would and could use to magically become a grown-up and floss my damn teeth achieve my goals of everyday life. Maybe, I thought, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to my Tendency.

In Better Than Before, Rubin proposes a simple personality matrix that sorts people into useful categories based on how they respond to expectations; it’s useful quality to know about yourself when you are trying to form and keep habits, but it’s also a quick, handy, and usually apt way to sort out your personality and the personalities of those you love and work with.

(What I’m trying to say is that I’ve spent the last four year trying to apply this pop-psychology personality matrix to myself and everyone I’ve known. Trust me, it’s much easier than trying to Myers-Briggs a person!)
(Yes. I am probably an annoying person to hang out with.)

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who found Rubin’s framework fascinating: she just put out a follow-up book, all about The Four Tendencies. I was excited to read it so I could continue to annoy, analyze, and perhaps subtly manipulate people. (But only for the greater good, people! Consider me the Varys of any given organization, party, family, or other social group). But I really was hoping the advanced personality insights contained in this book would shed some light on my own personality/habit dilemma.

I’m an Upholder. Or at least, I think I’m an Upholder. Upholders respond readily to inner expectations AND outer expectations. They can set and meet New Year’s Resolutions. They meet deadlines, drive the speed limit, and show up on time. Upholders are rare and obnoxious (see above paragraph?). They respond readily to inner expectations AND outer expectations. They are generally annoyed by people who can’t get their shit together.

I read this personality description in Better Than Before and said, “Oh yes, that’s me,” and didn’t think much about it. Took the official quiz later and my score matched… but tbh, the official quiz is kind of leading and bogus if you already know the basics of all four types.
Then, a few months ago, I started to wonder why I couldn’t make myself write anymore. Or go to the gym. Or floss my gd teeth.

Am I a horrible, ineffectual Upholder? An Upholder who regularly bites off more than she can chew? A procrastinating Upholder?

Or maybe I’m an Obliger in Upholder’s clothing. Apparently it’s common. Obligers readily respond to outer expectations but even though they really, really want to respond to inner expectations, they can’t and will never be able to. Many of my significant life accomplishments have been born of outer expectations. I’ve made more New Year’s Resolutions than I’ve kept. A penchant for list-making and a well organized stationary collection does not an Upholder make. Am I an Obliger, obsessively draping myself in the trappings of The Upholder – the spreadsheets, the schedules, the lists, and index cards? Am I an Obliger in deep denial?

Unfortunately, Rubin’s Four Tendencies didn’t go quite deep enough to give me the answer to that question. Perhaps this a question better suited to, oh, some sort of professional therapist and not a random pop-nonfiction book. But one paragraph from the Upholder chapter did offer me one tidbit that stuck with me:

“Although Upholders can indeed reject outer expectations in order to meet inner expectations, they don’t always have a clear sense of what they expect from themselves. For an inner expectation to be met, it must be clearly articulated. Therefore Upholders must take care to define for themselves what they want and what the value – that clarity is essential.”

That’s more like it. I’m not having an identity crisis. I’m seeking clarity, which, as The Indigo Girls have assured me for years, is really just a normal human being crisis. I’m suspect to the typical foibles of Western living* – eating too much junk food, skipping exercise, giving into the lure of the Internet instead of pursuing my higher, more noble goals – while also probably having an Upholder tendency that tips toward Obliger (aka Oldest Child Syndrome?) I’m reading, writing, thinking, always seeking some bit of wisdom or idea that makes my path clearer.

As an Upholder, finding that clarity would be especially useful to my pursuit of health, happy living and flossed teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find. And, apparently, that doesn’t mean that Gretchen Rubin is equipped to help me find it. Am I ready to move away from the “Self Help by Science and Good Living” section of the library and move onto the “Self Help Seeking Clarity by Woo-Woo Visualization and Spiritual Healing Crystals” section of the library? Not quite yet. I tried to listen to The Tools, thinking it was more about Science and Good Living, but I wasn’t ready for the Woo. For now, I’m still just a Rubinette. But check back in a few months; maybe I’ll have sought enough clarity to meditate myself to a higher plane and will have all sorts of Healing Crystal books to recommend.

she persisted / ran / lifted / existed

It’s the end of September, and I just inadvertently listened to three memoirs by young women, back to back. Inadvertent, but not surprising. Memoirs by young women are kind of my audiobook bread and butter; with a first-person narrator telling me a story grounded in a reality similar to my own, these stories just go down easy.

The first, Running: A Love Story by Jen A. Miller. I’m not much of a runner these days, but when I do simultaneously find the time, energy, desire, lack-of-childcare-duties required to break a sweat, running remains my preferred form of exercise.

Miller’s memoir is a story of a New Jersey girl growing up and making her way in the professional world while also accidentally becoming a casual marathoner-type-person. Oh, and having like, five or six really awful relationships with men. So, Running: A Love Story, emphasis on Love Story, except not really Love, necessarily. Also a side-dish of problematic drinking. I left the book thinking, “man, I am glad I have the same mostly boring-but-in-a-good-way boyfriend/spouse that I had when I was 19” and also thinking “man, I am glad that I drink a lot less than I did in my mid-twenties” and also thinking “maybe I should become a casual marathoner-type-person? Or at least sign up for that 5k that is held on my exact running route every year that is happening at the end of October.”

Sometimes on Sunday mornings, my boring-spouse and I take our toddler to the park and let him run around and try to climb to slide while I do a .68 mile loop and feel totally accomplished an awesome. Clearly ready for a 5k.

The next: Kelly Corrigan’s Lift. It’s a little essay/memoir-y type book with stories about being a mother, written as a letter to her children. I’d never read anything by Corrigan before and I liked her tone. It reminded me a little of Anne Lamott or Catherine Newman.

However, I went to Goodreads afterwards and was surprised to see so many 1 or 2 star reviews. Most of the reviews said, “Jeez louise, this book was so short! Like a pamphlet! Wtf!” Verbatim. Me? I said “A two-part audiobook??! Awwwwwww yeah. I’ll actually finish it!”

So that’s the difference between me and the rest of the world of readers right now.

Most recently, I listened to Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object. This is not a memoir for everyone, for sure. It’s frank. It’s a little graphic. But it’s also honest and unflinching; the most shocking part is just how average Valenti’s collection of vaguely horrifying experiences seem. From familial abuse to street harassment and assault to date rape and online attacks – as I read, I was thinking that most of the women I know could gather up their own similar experiences and write their own version of this book. And that’s the world we live in, I guess? What is wrong with humanity.

(But did I mention it’s short? Short books are the best books!)

printz authors in 2017

True confession: I almost missed the ALA awards announcements last year.

I was fresh from maternity leave, in the thick of juggling new daily routines, childcare, childcare related upper respiratory illnesses, returning to a job that I hadn’t done in 6+ months, and nursing a sweet baby boy at all hours of the night.

This is to say, I did not feel at all knowledgeable or prepared for the big announcements. I hadn’t read very many of the honored books (aka March: Book Three). I feel like I sort of skimmed over a year of children’s and teen lit.

Fast forward to September of 2017. I have a healthy, huge, active fifteen-month-old. While I have read Steve Light’s Planes Go about 45 times since Tuesday, I am still feeling less than connected with children’s books actually written this year (except maybe this one?)

So in an effort to at least quantify what I’ve missed out on in a year, I’ve decided to resurrect an old idea: gathering up the alums.

Does an award sticker beget more award stickers? I’m sure some intrepid blogger has gathered this data. But even if the stats are not on my side, I feel like the works of former winners and honorees – of, in this case, the Printz award – are a great place to start thinking about excellence in teen lit.

So without further ado, here is a hopefully somewhat definitive list of 2017 works by Printz award or honor winning authors. A reading list for the childless and otherwise ambitious unfettered; a reference point/pipe dream for the rest of us suckers.

 

Marcus Sedgwick – Saint Death and Mister Memory

Jessie Ann Foley – Neighborhood Girls

Nick Lake – Satellite

Benjamin Alire Saenz – The Explicable Logic of My Life

Elizabeth Wein – The Pearl Thief

Maggie Stiefvater – All the Crooked Saints

Deborah Heiligman – Vincent and Theo

M.T. Anderson – Yvain: The Knight of the Lion and Landscape with Invisible Hand

E. Lockhart – Genuine Fraud

John Green – Turtles All the Way Down

Mal Peet & Meg Rosoff – Beck

Helen Frost – When My Sister Started Kissing

Ellen Wittlinger – Saturdays with Hitchcock

 

alice in august

 

 

It’s the last day of August of my thirty-second year, and I have found myself re-reading Phyllis Reynold’s Naylor’s Alice series. I began about a month ago. I was looking for a Couch Book. You know, the kind of book that you are happy to open up and read, but is also easy to dip in and out of without losing too much momentum. And it’s not The Book you are reading, because The Book could possibly be in your purse or bag or who knows where because it’s The Book and you have to read it. A Couch Book stays by the couch.

(Aside: if you have a toddler in the home, “by the couch” may be interpreted as “under the couch,” “inexplicably in the coffee table drawer” or “in the very bottom of a toy box.”)

Anyway. I started reading The Agony of Alice and it turned out to be a great couch book. I’ve read it many since 1995, so it’s an exceptionally familiar re-read. Like reuniting with the old gang. There’s guileless, often filter-less Alice bumbling her way through middle school. Older brother Lester with the purportedly sexy mustache and cadre of girlfriends. Her archetypal best friends – beautiful but prudish Elizabeth and troubled, flagrant Pamela. The chapters are episodic, each one a little story unto itself, but I flipped from one chapter to the next without much effort.

What’s best? They are all about 120 pages of easy reading. I’d pick up one in the morning before work, read on the train and while walking through Boston Common. Such slim, lightweight paperbacks! Easy to transport, to hold in one hand while trying not to run straight into fellow distracted pedestrians who are looking at their cell phones. Read on the train ride home, maybe squeeze a chapter in on the couch and oh, look at that, the book is almost done, I might as well finish it off. And in the morning: the pleasure of a fresh new book for a fresh new day.

(An Aside of Ice and Fire: You may have noticed that Alice graduated from Couch Book to The Book. Couch Book is now, FINALLY, A Dance with Dragons. Also a great Couch Book because heck if I’m lugging 1000 pages around town with me. But I’m hoping to finish by the end of September, when book review season will be upon me. I’m only about 400 pages in, so wish me luck.)

Back to Alice. I’m 11 books in, and I’m noticing these later installments are not quite as sweet and speedy as the earlier titles. I’m reading Alice on the Outside right now. It’s 176 pages instead of 120, and I think this one mark’s Alice’s official entrance into The YA Novel. Alice final learns about the finer points of sex from a knowledgeable cousin – not quite the detailed mechanics, but important but adult-y messages about preferences, pleasure, and expectations. Of course she parrots this information back to her eager audience of Pamela and Elizabeth. Then, her school decides to embark on a “Consciousness Raising Week” where an imposed caste system based on hair color proves that even well-meaning white kids don’t understand the pervasiveness of “prejudice” (or, more accurately I think, systemic and subconscious racial discrimination?) Oh, and of course – her first gay friend. I don’t remember if this book’s teetering stack of Contemporary Problems is an anomaly to the series, but I do remember at some point the books started regularly featuring more Issues along with the more entertaining and engaging Plot.

Ah well. Maybe this will mark and end to this little re-read-a-thon. Book Review Season does rapidly approach, when most of my The Books become Review Books. I’m also reading quickly to the end of my personal Alice paperback collection – a break to recharge, and perhaps start scouring used bookstores for out of print Alice single paperbacks, because heck if you ever catch me reading three books published in one binding under a new title. Can you even imagine? Give me the original singles with awful, 2000’s covers or give me death.

room to breathe

A few weeks ago, I completed my first full-time working mom professional review cycle. Since the last days of March, I’ve read and written short reviews for 30 novels and nonfiction books for teens and middle grade readers, plus a handful of picturebooks.

I’ve had this gig for almost five years now. From roughly April to July and October to January, there are books coming in to read and review. How I accomplish this task changes from cycle to cycle; I’m always trying to find ways to work more efficiently, write better reviews, and stick more closely to deadlines… while also, you know, sleeping enough, eating well, and not living in squalor.

Now, of course, I have a baby at home, which adds a variety of unpredictable activities to my day. I used to scrap together time for reviews here and there – a lunch and early morning here, a concentrated evening or a few weekend hours at a coffeeshop there. With a baby still waking at night, starting my day at the crack of dawn just wasn’t an option, and neither was staying up late – some night even my grandmotherly 9 p.m. bedtime was a stretch. And those evening hours between baby bedtime and mommy bedtime? For some they are a precious refuge for one’s sanity. For me, they are a precious refuge for cleaning bottles and pump parts and sippy cups and making lunches for not one but TWO people (cause that’s definitely not happening in the morning) and then collapsing on the couch for what must be the first time all day and hey wait it’s time to go to bed? Well you don’t have to ask me twice…

This time around, I wrote reviews almost exclusively on my lunch break – forty-five minutes while I was still pumping, an hour when I stopped in June. This wasn’t exactly what I’d call a universally successful experiment – I had to lug my laptop around town every day which isn’t easy on my grandmotherly back, and it added a another element of monotony to my already pretty rigid schedule. Also, I blew pretty much every deadline. BUT at the end of it all, the books got read (on the train, on the occasional elliptical session, on the couch with a toddler trying to feed me plastic toys, on a strolls through Boston Common), and the books got reviewed.

That was my first full-time working mom review cycle, and now this is my first full-time working mom review cycle BREAK and it feels like I’m a ten-year-old on summer vacation. I can read exactly what I want exactly when I want to! Right now I am taking that to mean Pick up Every Single Book and Read it. Here’s a brief but not definitive list of books I am currently in the middle of:

 

 

There are probably more that I read one chapter of and left lying around somewhere. I am feeling pretty book slutty, but I am definitely liking it.

I’m also finally feeling that sense of urgency with my time that I was hoping would come. This is it, Jessica! Your time off! You have from now until October-ish to… do all the shit you want to do with your time and life. The writing. The arts and crafts. The home projects. The writing. The socializing. The running. The binge-watching of television while you have an HBO subscription. The writing. The writing. The writing. The time is now! I’m going for it.

I don’t know if this is a related endeavor or if just concurrent, but I’m also in the midst of an impromptu digital fast. No Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Minimal mindless Internet trawling. Restricted podcast intake (only when I’m cleaning, exercising, or performing truly tedious work tasks). Again, I don’t know if this is correlation or causation or just a well-timed jostling of my usual routine, but it feels really, really great. Like I actually have thoughts in my head instead of to-do lists and free-wheeling worry.

See also: my baby is sleeping through the night. Except for, you know, last night.

So here’s to the rest of the summer – to a few more weeks of work, a few weeks of vacation, a few more months of sunny weekend morning walks in the park with my baby. To iced coffee, white wines, and summer beers. To grilled everything. To the analog life. To actual thoughts, restorative breaks, and stacks of unashamedly half-read books.

 

 

Summer Reading 2017

I have been crafting Summer Reading lists for a number of years, and while my track record for SRL completion is not great, this year seems particularly hopeless. It has been years since I’ve experienced a true Summer Off at this point – oh, the pleasures of youth! Instead, I have Summers Living with a Schoolteacher: we must accomplish all of the Summer Fun and I must assist with the Summer Projects and do any major trips during our Summer Traveling. While I also work full time, with kind of a lot of madness going on at work. NBD.

Also, I have a freshly-toddling toddler who is probably going to learn how to climb the furniture and maybe the walls any day now. He’s going to need a new level of supervision soon. Also, he thinks snatching Mommy’s books out of her hands is a fun game.

Ah, Summer Relaxation.

So this year, I’m sticking more stringently to the following Summer Mantra:

SUMMER BOOKS SHALT BE ENJOYABLE.

I tried to divide my list evenly amongst the various audiences and forms I enjoy, and between backlist and new stuff, but I also asked myself repeatedly: “Would you be excited to pick this up? Would you be interested in reading it even with a toddler sticking a chubby, grimy finger in your ear? Would you want to read a few pages even if you are exhausted and sweaty after a long day and your shiny, mind-numbing phone was within arm’s reach? Here’s what I came up with. Wish me luck!

 

Young Adult Books

The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

 

Middle Grade Books

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by Leuyen Pham

 

Adult Fiction

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

Adult Nonfiction

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick

 

Summer Reading Lists Past

2016 – 20152014201320122011

everything that i am doing that is not writing

One. Dealing with my personal data situation. Aka, wading through the hundreds of GB of digital photography that are clogging up my various hard- drives. New personal mantra: “Never take 25 shots when 3 will do.”

Two. Night weaning my eleven-month-old. I wasn’t ready at six months, or nine months, but I decided I’d rather do it now than deal with a surly nursing two-year-old in my bed. We’ve moved him to his own room, are allowing more time for him to “settle” in the middle of the night (aka, letting him moan for 10-15 minutes at a time), and are gradually reducing middle of the night nursing sessions… when I can stay awake long enough to do so, that is.

Three. Sewing. My mother bought me a sewing machine for Christmas, and I’ve been trying to actually use it! I am almost done with one crooked baby-sized quilt – just need to finish tying it up – and I have sewed some uber-practical reusable mesh produce bags. Next, I want to do another quilt (I discovered Wise Craft and am obsessed), some baby bibs, some more produce bags, and maybe a dress?

Four. Celebrating my Nursing Mom Metabolism with baked goodsYes, I am still nursing, and yes, I am usually hungry. So much so that my usual 2 snacks-and-a-lunch at work were not cutting it. I started buying a pastry pretty much every day. This is not a bad way to live, but I started to go broke. My instincts said “cut back” but my metabolism said “Hey, Jessica, you why don’t you just bake some of those zillions of tasty recipes you keep on Pinterest but are always feeling too dietarily austere to create, and then take those to work!” I’m loving it. So far I’ve made Blueberry Lemon Cake, (Not) Derby Pie Bars, Date Spice Loaf, and some chocolate chip blondies.

Five. Listening to Reproductive Podcasts. Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting have always been pet interests of mine, but interests I’ve tried not indulge too much because of some weird, pointless combination of superstition and shame. So now that I have entered my Official Reproductive Years, I am allowing myself to go to town. Favorites include The Birth Hour, The Longest Shortest Time, Matt and Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, Pregnant Pause, One Bad Mother, and Common Sense Pregnancy and Parenting. Are there even any more good Reproductive Podcasts out there? If I’m missing any, let me know!

Six. Getting Things Done, David Allen-style. Full-time, out of the house, working mom life has got me feeling… dizzyingly swamped. So I started carrying around a little notebook devoted to writing down every undone task I think of, as I think of it. Then I started a formal “Next Actions” list in my main notebook/bullet journal. Then I started making project sheets. So I’m about 30% GTD, and I’m digging it.

Seven. Actively looking for things to let go. I have a natural tendency to take on responsibilities, projects, and moral imperatives fairly without discrimination, so I’m keeping an eye out for ways to make my life easier that I can actually stomach. Can I bring myself to shop more at Amazon or Marshalls, to save my weekends from errands? That would be nice, but no, I can’t do that.  Can I pack squeezy-food for my baby’s daycare lunches, even though I read somewhere online that feeding your baby squeezy-food is simply a terribly idea? Yes. I can save some time and stress and shovel some yogurt into a squeezy-food pack.

Eight. Thinking about writing. And how to do more of it. And trying to actually do some. Stressing, fretting, etc. But mostly thinking. Scheming. And trying to get more sleep so I can get up earlier, drink a cup of coffee, and do it.

32

Hello, and welcome to my blog where I write about books but also lament, worry, and try to staunch the unrelenting passage of time. I show up every few months and proclaim “oh, what a year!” before retreating back to my non-Internet life, where I go to work, write book reviews, care for my family, and go to bed at 9pm.

Now, I am thirty-two years old. Mom age. Like I worried about a year ago. A year ago! How could a year have gone by already! This has definitely been the quickest year of my life. An actual blink of an eye. Oh, what a year! So much has happened since March of 2016. I went to Denver. I went to Michigan. I moved apartments again. I pushed a baby out of my body. My baby was a little baby with lots of hair and then a chunky little baby with less hair and then a bigger bald baby and now he is a scooching all over my apartment, pulling himself up to stand, almost toddler baby. With hair. And seven teeth.

For seven of the last months, I was a stay at home baby-mom. For two, I was a full-time working-baby-mom. Before that I was a blithe, dewey-eyed, Zantac-popping pregnant lady who probably had her hardships but had also never fished a half-melted baby bottle from the bottom of her dishwasher four minutes before she needed to leave for work or been peed upon during a 4 a.m. nursing session.

We went to North Carolina. We went to Michigan and Illinois. And then Michigan again. Then Mexico. And although I was technically already 32, we did just get back from a whirlwind 48 hours in Michigan. Again.

And although it may not seem that there would be any days left in between all of this, we also had eleventy-million out of town visitors and houseguests.

Oh, what a year!

It’s March now. We’ll probably have a few more houseguests, but now that I’m a Working Mom who needs to earn back her vacation hours after taking a long(er than 12 wk) leave and everyone who needs to get married is married we will be sticking close to home until August. Five whole months to… be whoever I am at thirty-two. I’m feeling grateful that the unnerving post-baby dissociation has indeed lifted and that I’m feeling pretty settled into a work+baby routine, but I also feel like I’m still feeling out the edges of my personal life, to be honest. What time should be mine and what time should be for my family? Is getting up early even worth attempting when your baby is still an unpredictable night-nurser? Is going to the gym once a week adequate, or should I force myself to do push-ups in my living room after bedtime? Should I even be trying to do any single thing other than writing letters to Senators and watching the news and throwing money at people who can do more to help than I can because by the time I’m 33 every cultural and political institution that I esteem and rely on might evaporate if I don’t?

I’m thirty-two. I generally eat good food and read good books and get enough sleep. I have this little family I can’t get enough of. I don’t have time to do my hair or Photoshop my pimples away.

I feel afraid every day, but so lucky. So, so lucky.

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Best Reads of 2016

Hey, look, it’s still January!

(Please let it still be January when I finish this post, please, please, please)

Oh, 2016. What a year. I read 106 books last year without much effort; yes, I met my annual “read 100 books” marker, but not by much. This is actually the fewest books I’ve read in a year since 2010, and a solid 50% were books read for review or other assorted Professional Book Person reasons.

Additionally, while I have always enjoyed the occasional parenting/baby related text, I never really let myself indulge in the genre… until, you know, I was actually pregnant. I really don’t recommend this tactic, by the way. There is WAY too much to read about for a 9-ish month span! At any rate, I chose to read a handful of pregnancy, birth, and baby books – and while informative, they were not necessarily groundbreaking pieces of literature.

And then, of course, there was the whole Miracle of Gestation thing hovering over my year. A baby in June means 6 months of preparation and becoming distractingly larger by the day and 6 months of new babydom. There goes your year. Add to that a heaping dose of political panic post November 8th (Which is actually still making me feel sick to be writing this. Like there is any tiny speck of importance to what books I read when our republic democracy is on its last legs.)

So, when I looked back over the books I’d read, I found myself not thinking about which books I liked more than other but which ones even remembered reading. Oof.

AT ANY RATE, I have gathered the top ten books of those that I can remember reading in 2016. An honorable list that I am happy to share with you at the dawn of this new year.

(Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February. Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February…)

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  1. The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

A teenage boy comes to live with his surly grandfather – then he discovers a strange book containing a purportedly true account of two WWII soldiers from opposite sides and their supernatural experience stranded on a remote Pacific island. This was a pick for my book club, which usually means a book that is slightly out of my wheelhouse – I don’t usually seek out supernatural war stories? – but also a book that is excellently crafted. The story-within-a-story was expertly woven, and together the two narratives led up to a quietly moving conclusion.

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  1. The Romantics by Leah Konen

Gael, a high-strung semi-geek, is going through his first big break-up. Gael is distraught but Love, our narrator, isn’t worried. There’s a better girl out there for him, if only Gael could ignore his rebound – Cara the outdoorsy, hot sauce-loving college girl – long enough to figure out who it is. The silliest premise? Oh yes. But the writing is crisp, the characters fun and well-drawn, and funny. Funny! Actually made me laugh funny. I’ve read a lot of YA books that think they are funny over the past few years, but very very few that actually were. Just hardly any. This was a delightful exception.

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  1. Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

An essay collection by a Man Booker winning Irish author about – you guessed it – babies. This is probably the only book on this list that I really, honestly, actually don’t-remember-much-at-all, because I read it entirely with a sleeping lump of newborn on my chest. But of all the books about babies and motherhood that I read this year, this was my favorite. I found it to be an honest, absorbing, and raw attempt to elucidate the barely comprehensible experience of creating and caring for new life. I hope I have time to re-read this, now that my reading comprehension has (maybe?) returned.

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  1. American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

I probably would have liked this book if it were just a collection of contemporary short stories about women, tbh. However, this was a collection of sharp, satirical, frequently twisted contemporary short stories about women. All the better. Whenever I think about my decidedly non-sinister book club, I think about Ellis’s “Hello! Welcome to the Book Club,” where a meeting of literary women transforms slowly into something somewhat horrifying.

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  1. Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

As far as this fairly search-savvy librarian can tell, there’s not much out there in the way of “childbirth fiction.” Probably because the subset of people who love fiction and are also totally down with reading about childbirth is likely rather small. Or, perhaps because it’s a narratively tricky topic to tell stories about? Well, good news for childbirth/reader-types: Erens figured it out. This is the story of one woman’s childbirth experience (she’s a NYC schoolteacher, she wants a natural birth, she’s alone) and the pregnant nurse who stays by her side during her labor and delivery. A caveat: I checked this out when I was about 7 months along, but then I saw a Goodreads review that warned against reading this while pregnant with your first. I heeded the warning, and I’m glad I did.

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  1. Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

This is a novel-in-verse about the aftermath of a high school student’s decision to have an abortion. It’s a bold, sophisticated “issue book” that muddles around in the gray areas of religion, morality, sexual activity, sexual preference, and more. But even better: it’s a damn solid girl-narrated realistic fiction novel. I finished it with the same kind of feeling I get at the end of a Sarah Dessen book – like I was glad to get to know the characters and am kind of wishing I could see where they end up.

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  1. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson

In World War II, Nazi Germany took siege of Stalingrad and held it for five long months. While Stalingrad’s civilian inhabitants were lucky to survive the lack of food, supplies, and deplorable, dangerous conditions, composer Shostakovich survived AND wrote a symphony. How does that make you feel about how you spend your free time, hmmm? Although the first quarter or so is a bit dense, this is a historical piece that feels like a special story Anderson uncovered and scooped out himself, just for you. It’s also a disturbing account of one artist’s relationship with his own authoritarian government that feels unfortunately relevant for us pretty, privileged Americans these days.

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  1. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

The first of a trio of memoirs about Nurse Jenny and her adventures in mid-century British midwifery. In case you are one of the twelve people who haven’t seen the BBC television show (I was one of them until after reading this), Jenny was a nurse-midwife, working for a convent that provided healthcare for a working-class, high-poverty neighborhood of London in the 1950s; specifically providing in-home childbirth assistance. This memoir covers the details of her unique job, the intimate stories of individual patients and other idiosyncratic community members, and historical context. A great read for childbirth junkies (or is that just me?), but also a fascinating and warm painting of a singular time and place in history – and specifically, women’s lives and jobs within it.

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  1. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Faith, the daughter of a respected Reverend/natural scientist, wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, to uncover the mysteries of the world through science. Unfortunately, it’s 1860; Faith is valued for minding her younger brother, and perhaps as a future wife to someone with money and esteem, but not much else. Then her father dies, under questionable circumstances. And oh, Faith also discovers a bizarre, powerful, potentially mystical specimen that her father had been hiding in a creepy dark cave only accessible by rowboat. I loved Hardinge’s storytelling – the chapters were brief, but each one seemed to tumble on into the next – the genuine suspense, and the underlying commentary about a woman’s value and power in Victorian society. But most of all, I loved how I couldn’t figure out what the heck kind of book I was reading – historical fiction? Science fiction? A ghost story? A murder mystery? Hardinge dipped into all of these genres and their conventions, and what results is something entirely unique.

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  1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

This is an older title that has been on the edges of my reading radar for quite some time. It caught my attention most recently when I was working at my college’s writing center – it seemed the many, many first-year nursing students who came in seeking my essay help had all read the book for assignment. After reading a variety of short reflections on the book over the course of a few months, I could glean enough about it to tell it would be something I like. A family story. A medical story. Nonfiction where the author doesn’t distance herself from herself from the narrative (think Jon Krakauer). Jessica-bait.

It was all of those things, yes, but even better, it was the kind of adult nonfiction I love the most: a small but powerful personal story, elevated to a grander, more universal scale by an author’s careful research and accessible presentation of the social and political context. While the narrative follows a unique family who struggle with finding help for their sick child, it’s also a story about the Hmong people – both their strong cultural identity and traumatic history. It’s a story about that family’s heritage and what it means to be Hmong in America. It’s a story about the limits and blind spots of Western medicine. And it’s also a story about finding common ground and avenues of trust between those who are different from you – and what a difficult but crucially divine part of human being that task is.

I read this mostly with a sleeping baby on my chest, thinking about what a vast, complex, and fuzzy-gray world we live in – him, my little baby, whose health was so newly mine to watch over, to safeguard. Me, feeling suddenly connected to the mothers of the world, of all cultures and languages, who only want the same. This was a fascinating, deep, and moving read that I won’t soon forget.

 

aaaaaaaand it’s February. Crap.