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seven post-baby reads

My sweet baby boy is now one month old. In that one month, he’s put on an impressive four pounds of adorable baby chub. While he guzzled sipped politely all the way to twelve pounds, I finished seven books.

I suppose seven books in a month isn’t terribly impressive – unless I’m in a true reading slump, I usually polish off about ten. But the last few months of my pregnancy weren’t exactly ideal for reading. There was travel, there were after work appointments and weekend errands. I was making a series of very stressful decisions, packing, moving, spending a lot of money, and oh, not sleeping.

Did I mention that? Shortly after finishing this post, my sleep took a real dive. I wasn’t adhering to my usual granny-like bedtime (too keyed up+busy) and between incessantly sore hips, peeing, and heartburn (if I didn’t quit eating by 7:30 p.m.) or hunger (if I did quit eating by 7:30 p.m.), I was up half the damn night. The sun would come up around 5 a.m. and I’d just throw in the towel. It was really sad. Now, everyone is asking me how the baby is sleeping and how I am sleeping, and I have to say, just being tired, falling asleep, and staying asleep for the 2.5 hours between feedings is GREAT. Nearly luxurious.

Anyway, my usual reading times were pretty much all foiled. Early a.m. reading over coffee? I was usually too grumpy to want to open a book. Reading lunches? Too busy running errands or writing book reviews. Audiobooks while commuting? My brain just couldn’t sit for very long. My time and my brain weren’t in the right place; in fact, I was starting to feel like reading was a bit of a chore.

AND NOW, I’ve read seven books. Mostly while nursing. Congratulations to me.

From what I’ve heard from friends, this period of SUPER READING! only lasts about as long as your child is still immobile with a tiny stomach. Which isn’t actually all that long. I should MAXIMIZE and PRIORITIZE my reading to make sure I make the most of this brief window! Oh, or maybe I’ll just read a truly random smattering of who knows what. And then write a way too long blog post about them all. I’m on maternity leave; I do what I want.

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What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

I don’t even know if this counts as a book. It was so very short, and I’m just now noticing that the print version includes two other similarly brief pieces. I definitely just read the one. So what do successful people do before breakfast? Do they toss and turn for hours, heaving a giant pregnant belly around the bed and weeping in exhaustion? Do they nurse small children at 2 a.m. while checking Instagram and eating chocolate covered candy bars granola bars? No. They don’t. They do exactly what you think they do, if you’ve ever read a similar productivity article. Spoiler alert: they stay off the Internet, they attend to their personal projects and highest values, and they exercise. Still an interesting little read, if you are the kind of person who likes to unsurprising productivity articles (I definitely am). I do remain skeptical of anyone who does any of this stuff before breakfast. If I’m still in bed, there is definitely a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee standing between me and any of my higher values.

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Ninety Days by Bill Clegg

Hey, did I ever tell you that I got a new Kindle? I can’t remember and I don’t feel like looking through my archives. Well, I did. I decided I wanted a new, black and white Kindle to see if I could finally coerce myself into reading eBooks. I don’t know why this feels so important. I have so many paper books in my life that need to be read. I think it’s probably a Edelweiss/Netgalley related desire, even though the lousy formatting on egalleys still drives me bonkers. Anyway, I found the Vanderkam and this here run-of-the-mill drug addiction memoir while looking for “Available Now” titles on Overdrive: this book browsing tactic usually leads me to popular/mid-list titles published 1-4 years ago that I never got around to reading. I enjoyed Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, and I also enjoyed this follow-up. Because I like reading addiction memoirs, not because it was particularly spectacular.

(Apparently this has become my go-to critical analysis? “A good [fill in the blank] type of book if you are the kind of person who likes [fill in the blank] type books.” Oy vey. My brain cells may be atrophying.)

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Anne Enright’s Making Babies

Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother

Enter: the Mommy Books! This is a Mommy Blog now, right? The Waldman was another Overdrive “Available Now!” selection; the Enright was part of a stack of library books I’d checked out whilst quite pregnant to try to coerce myself into getting some reading done. I liked the Enright more than the Waldman; both are collections of personal essays, but Enright’s are quieter – more about the feeling and experience of motherhood, both personal and universal. Waldman’s are more about the public experience of motherhood – how society treats mothers and leads mothers to treat themselves/their children – but also about Waldman herself, but in a more autobiographical sense. Enright’s stories were about small moments in the daily endeavor of childbearing and childrearing; Waldman’s about how she met her husband and that time she wrote an incendiary article about motherhood and all of the associated outrage. I think I’m more into the Enright-type writing at this snuggly baby point in my mother-dom. Plenty of time for outrage later.

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Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart

You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

When I went into labor two weeks early, I left a truly staggering to-do list in my wake. Looking back, really far too much stuff to have actually been able to accomplish in two weeks… live and learn, I suppose. Anyway, Fantasy Dream Jessica was planning on finishing all of her outstanding professional reviews before giving birth. Actual Early Labor Jessica ended up with a handful of unfinished reviews, and two books that still needed to be read. You Were Here: a YA book with multiple POVs, illustrations, and a good cover that doesn’t quite transcend the “A Tragic Death Has Left Me Soul-Tortured! Please Help!” trope. Some Kind of Courage: a middle grade Western that adheres to the Dangerous Situation -> Just-in-time Save -> Another Dangerous Situation -> Another Save! school of adventure plots.

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All the Summer Girls by Meg Donohue

And here we have Mommy’s First Post-Baby Audiobook. This one I was worried about – the stress-related brain fog during pregnancy was significant. I was really struggling to stay interested in audiobooks or to pay enough attention to absorb anything. This was disconcerting – I rely on audiobooks for a significant portion of my annual reading. My Mom/Reader friends were telling me that once that Snuggly Hungry Baby Stage ended, audiobooks would be even more important. I decided to ease back in. Something light. Low pressure. How about a somewhat fluffy beach read? I’m always on the hunt for the next Summer Sisters. This one didn’t come close – I found it entirely too predictable. However, it’s a character-driven book; while I could see where each character was heading, the characters themselves were compelling enough to keep my interest. Fun girls to hang out with, if you will. I finished during yesterday’s afternoon nap, whilst deleting entire GB of unneeded photographs from my hard drive. I didn’t even need to check it out more than once! Go, Mama, Go! I might hit up Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl next, if I dare…

 

summer reading list 2016

My last post here was on May 10th. It took me multiple weeks to pull that one off, and that wasn’t even… like… a real post. I figured I had one or two more posts in me before the baby arrived – a summer reading list and something else. So I got to writing that something else – a lovely, timely little post about my “quarter 1 reading”… now that quarter 2 is over and done with – and started dithering over what books I might want to read over the summer. And this summer would certainly require extra dithering. I’m not known for actually completing my summer reading lists during the actual summer months – last year I read three (the Han, the Cline, and the Offill) and felt pretty accomplished – but who’s to say I’d be able to finish *any* books at all this summer?

Since I would be presumably a home-bound invalid, recovering from the wilds of childbirth with a newborn tethered to my breast, I decided to focus on reading some of the books from my growing To-Read Shelf – aka, books that wouldn’t require more than a few steps across my teeny tiny apartment to acquire.

Speaking of teeny-tiny apartment… of all of the myriad anxieties associated with my pregnancy, the WHERE THE HECK DO YOU LIVE IN BOSTON WITH A BABY question was definitely the most troublesome. I could really write a whole, boring, rage-filled post (novel?) about the situation. Just about a week prior, we’d decided, finally, that our best move was to stay in Chateau Teeny-Tiny – we’d ignore the lack of square footage, the lack of lead testing, and the somewhat discriminatory provision in our lease that required us to inform our landlords of a pregnancy in favor of stability, (relatively) teeny-tiny rent, and dealing with slight deception of the landlords we have rather than deceiving a brand new landlord. Or buying a condo we can’t afford.

Then along came something I’d heard of but never thought I would see in my lifetime – a true blue Boston Real Estate Miracle. An apartment – an unlisted, deleaded, in the city (a job requirement for me), barely-more-expensive-than-Chateau-Teeny-Tiny, HUGE-ASS apartment. And it was just down the street!

So on May 24th or so, we started packing. On June 1st, I left for work from Teeny Tiny Apartment and came home to our new address. I was just about 37 weeks pregnant, so not exactly equipped for manual labor. But I channeled any nesting energy I could muster and for a week and a half, I packed, I unpacked, I arranged, and I scrubbed. I also went to work full time, had two doctor’s appointments, a baby shower at work, finally took a Labor and Delivery tour, broke my iPhone and replaced it, went to City Hall to get a parking pass, paid my electric bill, filled out my maternity leave time sheets, and ate about 2 million Tums.

On June 9th, my water broke. 28 hours later, this little boy made his entrance into the world. Two full weeks early.

Leo

 

This is all to say:

A) I have no idea what is going on in my life or the world and haven’t for a number of weeks (months? years??)

B) That shelf of unread books that was going to make my Summer Reading post so easy? Up until two days ago, it was somewhere in this mess:

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But never fear, my faithful readers! I am just three weeks into this whole motherhood gig, but I have found the time to score three bookshelves on Craigslist (for 25 bucks!), excavate that archeological dig of a library, AND throw together this arbitrary list of books that I may or may not actually read this summer.

All while keeping an infant alive! I am clearly superhuman.

So, without further ado, I present to you…

Summer Reading 2016

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross

Alright, let’s get the Mommy Blogging out of the way first. In terms of informative reading, I spent my first trimester in a protective shell of denial and read only horrifying medical information from Dr. Google and the excellent Great With Child. Second trimester, I dipped into a few childbirth-related books. Third trimester was all about breastfeeding (shout out to The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding! My original skepticism still stands, but I also felt fairly informed once it was time to get started.) But after just a few days of caring for this little guy outside of my body, it hit me that I have to like… parent him all the way from squishy, hungry, sleepy baby all the way to grown-man-dom. What the what.

So I did like, 2 seconds of Googling and Simplicity Parenting recommended on two or three different blogs that seemed aligned with my general life philosophy. And that was that. I’ll let you know how it is. Hopefully some time before grown-man-dom hits, but given my track record round these parts I make no promises.

 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

At the end of 2014, I threw together a booklist I called “2014 or GTFO.” The idea was that in any given year, there are a handful of YA and children’s books that are getting buzz, attention, conversation, and potentially awards. If one wants to stay current, then read these books or GTFO. I’m throwing this children’s title on my list this summer in order to feel smug and satisfied when I inevitably write my “2016 or GTFO” post this November.

And by “this November” I mean “November of 2045.”

Okay, I’ve got to cut this out.

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hey, here’s a book from that shelf of To-Read books that I yammered on about for a few thousand words up there! I’ve read Hemingway short stories but never a full-length work. This is a memoir about his writerly life in Paris that I bought *in* Paris, and I really ought to read the special books that I buy in special places instead of putting them on display.

 

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson

So, I just happened to notice that this is the second book that I juuuuust posted about. Not terribly surprising, given the nature of the previous list and also my mental capacity. Also, this is another sort-of-parenting book. Oops. Sorry.

With Malice by Eileen Cook

I went to ALA Midwinter in January with the same goal I’ve had at the last few conferences I’ve attended: acquire zero books. I failed, of course, but this credo seems to help me acquire only the juiciest of titles. Eileen Cook’s With Malice made the cut. The Italian setting appealed to me (love the cover) and the plot summary has a We Were Liars vibe. Also, a positive review from Janssen. I’m sold.

(Hmmmmmm… maybe I could just re-read We Were Liars instead? This is why I never finish summer reading lists, guys…)

Booked by Kwame Alexander

This follow-up to Alexander’s Newbery Award winning The Crossover fits not one but TWO categories – it’s surely a 2016 or GTFO title, AND it’s also another galley that’s been sitting on my To-Read shelf since January.

(Also, it’s a novel-in-verse for middle grade readers. So it’s short. I’ve got a newborn, guys, I’m not above stacking the deck.)

Semi-related fun fact: I wrote a professional review of Alexander’s debut YA novel and I thiiiiiink my review is quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition? I seem to recall discovering this while shopping at, of all places, Shakespeare & Co in Paris. It could have been a different book, though, so I might be lying.

 

A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin

Jessica, you are re-reading Game of Thrones AGAIN?!? What is wrong with you?

Oh no, dear imaginary, accusatory narrative voice that shows up from time to time to harangue me on my own blog. You are incorrect. You see, I’ve read and re-read the first three installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. But. I never actually got around to reading the last two.

Shame.

Shame.

After I read the first three, I thought that if my darling husband didn’t read the books, I might have to divorce him, so I launched a successful suggestive campaign. Now he’s read Book 4 and part of Book 5 and the tables have turned. I hereby commit myself to making it through A Feast for Crows this summer lest I destroy my marriage.

 

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

So after I moved in, birthed a baby, acquired a bookshelf, and assembled my To-Read bookshelf, I took a gander and decided the best place to start reading was the book that left me feeling the most embarrassed.

Aaaaand we had a winner.

(I’ve been busy! So very busy! Reading dozens, maybe even hundreds of other books! I really would have rather been reading LAST YEAR’S Sarah Dessen! But I wasn’t! Aghhhhhh I don’t want to talk about it any more.)

 

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Here’s a juicy galley that’s been sitting on my to-read stack long enough that it doesn’t feel quite as juicy anymore. It’s almost out for real! What good is a galley if you don’t read it WELL before the world can? Well, I have until August to enjoy the juice.

Gah, we are getting reaaaal close to the end of this post, if you couldn’t tell. I think I need a nap.

 

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST, the lowest of lowballs but also the best summer reading book of all time that I have read a bazillion times (but not since 2014…), the stunning, modern classic that will have you blasting Abba all summer long…

Summer Sisters.

Alright, my child’s time in this ergonomic baby carrier has drawn to a close. That is code for “my child has suddenly begun screaming at a disturbingly high pitch.” Good luck and good night, summer readers. See you on the other side of the millennium.

Summer Reading Lists Past

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all of the pregnancy things

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The First Trimester

From what I had gathered from the collective female wisdom of the world, the first trimester is all about feeling like crap. I’ve always been a bit of an emetophobe, so I’ve always felt nervous about the horrors of morning sickness, which, the Internet will readily remind you, should really be called all-day sickness¬ and maybe it won’t even stop and you’ll just have a nice case of HG on your hands and, and and…

Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, I was a lucky, vomit-free lady. Mostly nausea-free, too… but I still felt like crap. Evenings were the worst. My commute left me exhausted and even bland comfort foods left me wishing I’d eaten something else. I spent a lot of time with my DVR and Netflix.

Yes, it could have been much, much worse. I ate fairly normally – got to enjoy Thanksgiving, even – and felt well enough to work. But mentally, the fatigue was tough. My post-work gym trips weren’t happening. Neither were book reviews, homemade dinners, or post-work much of anything. It was upsetting and stressful not to be able to stick to a good habit or routine.

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The Anxiety

Add to that an immediate, heaping dose of anxiety. I think I had about 12 hours of excitement, followed by weeks and weeks (and weeks) of “oh shit” and “what the hell is going on??”

Hormones. My natural disposition. The proliferation of pregnancy forum users who have populated Google searches with stories of injury and loss for every symptom, for every lack of symptom, for every week+day. The secrecy. The maddening “just wait and see” (if your tiny ball of baby cells is still alive) nature of gestation.

It’s a normal process, pregnancy. Miscarriage, also normal. High strung control freaks, beware.

What helped? Attempting to stay busy. Bloggers who wrote candidly about pregnancy anxiety (Spacefem, Wisdom & Honey, Daily Garnish). Keeping a journal. My dear, darling understanding husband.

The morning of my 12-week ultrasound, I decided that would be it. If everything looked good, then it would be real. I would try to stop assuming that everything would come crashing down around me, start considering the likelihood that I would have a healthy, normal pregnancy.

Not only did everything look good, everything looked like an actual baby.

The anxiety didn’t stop entirely at that point – don’t worry, I’m still finding all sorts of things to freak out about – but it did let up a little.

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Second Trimester

I stopped feeling so impossibly gross around 11 or 12 weeks and decidedly less of a panicky basket case by 16 or 17. The first half of the second trimester seemed to be mostly all about telling everyone. Tell family (“WE KNEW IT!”). Tell Michigan friends (“OH MY GOD, FINALLY!”) Tell Boston friends (“OH MY GOD, WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO PUT YOUR BABY IN YOUR TEENY APARTMENT?”) Tell boss, tell work friends, tell friends that live across the country, tell the Internet, tell random cashiers, tell your dental hygienist, tell waiters who are trying to serve you cheese that is just too delicious, tell, tell, tell, tell… Make your gestational status known to the world, Jessica! Enter the realm of the Publicly Pregnant!

And then, in the second half of the second trimester, I started to get big enough that telling wasn’t quite so necessary anymore. I laughed at this poor, dear 16 weeks along Jessica who woke up on a Saturday and sincerely thought that she was “showing” a little:

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Other Getting Huge activities have included feeling super awkward at my gym full of weightlifting bros, jury-rigging a pair of jeans with a long tank top and yoga pants into something resembling maternity pants, waking up a zillion times a night with sore hips, and hiding little bags of Tums in every pocket, drawer, and purse in my possession.

Since I suppose I’m not the only one Getting Huge here, activities in my baby’s life seem to include punching, kicking, rolling, tumbling, and generally not sitting still. I felt the first little twitches early; by 16 weeks they were pretty regular and occasionally visible. It started off feeling super weird – like being inhabited by an alien – then for a while it felt mostly like gas. Now the dang child is so acrobatic I almost don’t notice.

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Third Trimester

And here I am, now well into the third trimester. 33 weeks… the home stretch. I suppose I’m still feeling *reasonably* good. As in, I’m still standing. I’ve graduated from Tums to Zantac. Still doing some leg weights at the gym once a week or so, but trying to get my 10k steps a day otherwise. I spent the first half of April on the go – five nights in Denver for PLA (which was super fun!) then four nights in Michigan for my baby shower. Aside from trying to get things out from under my airplane seat, the travel was fine… but as soon as I got back to Boston, everyday life became a little more, ah, challenging. My usual routines have me feeling more fatigued, irritated, and uncomfortable than usual.

Okay, maybe a lot more.

But! I’ve got seven-ish weeks left to go. Seven weeks of working, commuting, book reviews, cooking dinner (ugh), and… um, also actually getting ready to have a baby? I’m trying my best to stay generally chill about the process – it’s natural! Normal! Ordinary! But daaaaamn there’s a lot to do and think about and decide.

First you have to get the kid out – bring on the doctor’s appointments, the forms, the L&D tours, the hospital bags. I’m planning on delivering without pain medications or interventions. That decision was easy enough – it’s what my mom did (4 times), it’s what I’ve always imagined or myself, and the medical benefits seem clear. But now that I actually have to make it happen, it seems like less of a mystical, somewhat crunchy choice – a personal moral mission statement – and more of a confluence of chance (will baby and I stay healthy?) and a measure of personal determination. So I’m trying to psyche myself up by reading books, taking a weekend childbirth class, avoiding scary birth stories on the Internet.

Also, trying not to think too hard about how big a newborn baby actually is.

After that, though, you have a new baby! Which is also a new health situation unto itself. In the hospital, babies need shots and tests and other health stuff. They may need to be circumcised (or not?). They definitely need a pediatrician. And then there are all the… post baby-coming-out-of-your-body… issues. There’s no way to know how healthy either Mom or baby will be – either everyone will recover and thrive quickly or there will be hurdles.

Is that is? Anything else?

Baby care. Baby names. Breastfeeding. Sleeplessness. Marriage maintenance. Laundry. Visitors. Money. Childcare. A lifetime of providing care, assistance, and love to a new human I have not yet met. How do so many people accomplish this task? How does this stroller fold up again? What is this thing with pages and words that I remember from a time gone by? A book?

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I’m sure I’m not the first lady to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: pregnancy has definitely been one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a major life decision; one of those monumental decisions that – at least for the likes of me and my dearest husband – necessitates months (years?) of discussions, debates, scheduling, and taking care of one’s emotional… laundry. It’s a major lifestyle shift, not unlike… oh… deciding to move across the country. The teetering to-do lists, the money-spending, the planning-talking-planning-talking-planning; it’s all reminding me very much of when we moved to Boston. Like moving, it feels like a good choice, and an exciting one. A choice that will change our lives in many positive ways. But there’s also no way to know for sure what’s down the road now… and either way, we’ve officially signed up for a major, adult-style upheaval.

It’s been a complicated logistical task, yes. A relationship challenge, an emotional workout, a medical condition (sort of), and a giant leap of faith.

But it also feels like… a magic trick. A bit of mystery that my body has conjured up, that women have been conjuring up since the very start of it all. It makes me feel connected to those other ladies. To my mother, and the rest of the my family. To my husband.

To the world in general. We’re all in this crazy, perpetuate-the-species procreation game together.

It’s completely awesome.

It’s completely overwhelming.

It’s all about to be over, and it’s all about to begin.

 

A Brief Reading List

Now what kind of a book blogger would I be if I didn’t send you out with a little reading list? Here are some (relatively) useful pregnancy-related books I’ve read during the past year or so.

The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant by Jean M. Twenge –  Maybe it’s just the crowd I hang out with, but I feel like there are two options when it comes to trying to get pregnant – impatient or oops. There is no patient. This book was easy to read, mildly edifying, and comforting.

Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler – The kind of personal medical tome you don’t want your friends to see laying around your house. But it definitely demystifies the whole “getting knocked up” thing real quick.

Common Sense Pregnancy by Jeanne Faulkner – When I found out I was pregnant, this was my official Life Milestone, YouDeserveToSpendMoneyonaBook choice. It was a little light on the actual pregnancy information – mostly birth stuff – but, again, “common sense” says that pregnancies are pretty boring and not requiring much information.

Expecting Better by Emily Oster – I tried to read this book right away, but the first few chapters are all “what dangerous stuff *actually* causes miscarriage which, even though I hadn’t been dabbling in the dangerous, freaked me out. I came back to it later and found it pretty fascinating on audio.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin – I’ve dipped into other birth-related books, but this is the only one I’ve finished. The first half is a bunch of happy, hippie birth stories. The second half is medical info with a “just try to avoid anything medical” slant. I liked it, but… I’m into that kind of thing. Your personal mileage may vary.

reading wishlist: top of the request list

The first quarter of 2016 is coming to a close, and I have to say… I’ve been off my reading game.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory; I think my reading slows down once or twice a year. I’m starting to pick up on the signs. The piles of half-read books. The increased podcast to audiobook ratio. The maxed out holds list.

It happens. It’s predictable. A reading slump has yet to send me looking for a new hobby/career/passion, so I’m not frightened.

But it still leaves me feeling somewhat off. A little lazy, a little unfocused, a little adrift. I’ve got five books on the “burner” right now – another sign I’m feeling slumpy – and I’m just itching to finish them all, to clear the freaking deck for something new.

So here’s a list of books from my teetering library holds list that I wish I had the time or the wherewithal to read. If I could clear my schedule and my mind, I’d put these at the top of my reading stack.

 

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Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

I just hopped over to the Amazon page for this book and saw that it is currently a #1 New Release in the category of Teen and Young Adult Death & Dying Fiction. THAT is what I am in the mood for? Another YA book about Death & Dying? While I’m in a reading slump? Oy vey, what has my life become.

Anywaaaaay, I’m not sure I believe Amazon’s categorization here anyway. When I added this to my to-read pile, I saw it as middle grade, or at least that MG-YA hybrid gray area that I enjoy very much. The beginnings of a coming of age. In this book, our protagonist is twelve-years-old, she’s spending a summer with her family instead of her friends, and there is magical realism.

A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty

This has definitely been a slow burn series for me. The first installment felt a little too long, a little too whimsical-fantasy… but man, when the storylines started to converge, I was not only hooked but suddenly appreciative of everything that came before. (Apparently I wrote up a little review here, if you’d care to flash back to 2014 for a moment.) The second installment I listened to as an audiobook… and it took some muscle to make it through. BUT MAN, AT THE END, WHEN THE STORYLINES STARTED TO CONVERGE! You see the pattern here. I’m hoping that this final installment of Madeleine and Elliot’s adventures in and out of the Kingdom of Cello will be alllll convergence; either way, this is a series I certainly plan to seeing to an end.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Buzz, buzz, buzzity buzz. A holds list 100 miles long. I’m not sure I have room for squeezing in superfluous works of adult nonfiction right now, but if I did? It would be this one. It’s a memoir about life and death and family and medicine, guys. All of my buttons, right there. I’m also hearing comparison’s to Atul Gawande’s 2014 Being Mortal, which is another buzz buzzity buzz book by a favorite author of mine… that I shamefully have not yet read. Maybe I should just read that one instead – surely the holds list is shorter at this point.

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson

This is another superfluous work of adult nonfiction… but, since I am having un bebé this year, I am making special dispensations for relevant instructional titles. I caught an interview with Wilson on Fresh Air, and not only did this book seem super fascinating, I also learned that there is critical period for food taste development – a “flavor window” – that occurs between 4 to 7 months; during this time, little babes are most receptive to trying out new foods. If you miss this window, you might end up with a kid that doesn’t eat anything other than grilled cheese sandwiches and goldfish crackers!

What if I missed this crucial piece of information and ended up with a cracker kid?? What other crucial child-rearing information might be hidden inside this book?? Am I heading down a spiraling road of panicked parent book-reading already? Probably??

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

After a year of reading way more middle grade than I ever have in my life, I have to say… it was pretty fun. YA is fun and flashy, and adult probably need to read at least a few adult books every year just to maintain an adult’s vigor and constitution, but MAN there really is a lot of good MG coming out all the time. I believe this is Kate DiCamillo’s first straight-up realistic children’s novel in quite some time, and since she is a multiple Newbery-honored author, I should probably take heed.
Also, I’ve flipped through a galley and the book is a slip of a thing with short chapters. Exactly the kind of book that makes for good slump reading…

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam

Here is a book about how to accomplish amazing things with your perpetually squeezed time on this earth. Or at least accomplish a normal amount of things without having to cry about it.

So it’s pretty embarrassing and way too on-the-nose to admit that I really just haven’t found the time to read this one yet. I’ve checked it out! More than once! I’ve started it! More than once! I just… I just…

Gah.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom ed. by Leonard Marcus

In my fantasy, time-stands-still-so-you-can-read world, I’d have plenty of time to do ALL sorts of reading. Required reads, fun reads, re-reads, informational books, classics I never got around to, classics I wasn’t really paying attention to, galleys, etc. Oh, wouldn’t that be a wonderful world. One category that I never-ever-ever seem to have the time for? Children’s lit theory and history. Three years earning a children’s lit MA was enlightening, sure, but it was also that kind of enlightening that made me realize just how little I know.

This is a collection of letters between legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom and the authors and others that she worked with during her career. Authors like E. B. White, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein. And since a majority of the correspondence required to put a book together way back in the day had to be conducted via snail mail? These letters have GOT to be good. (I’m sure this book is all kinds of fascinating… but it’s also the size of a large doorstop.)

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Last but not least… the inspirational creativity read written by one of Jessica’s favorite authors.

Oh, oh, oh.

Oh, but can you imagine me with this book, sitting by the pool under an umbrella with an frosty glass of iced tea? Swimsuits? Sunglasses? Not a care in the world?

Okay, so fine, it’s April and it snowed this morning. I’ve got about 20 weeks of prep to do for a baby who will be here in like… twelve. I accidentally overdrew my checking account by EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS last week. It’s possible that my fantasy-reading-life is… uh… a sign of some sort of deeper pathology. I’ll tell you more about it later, but for now I need to cook dinner, fold laundry, pack for Denver, wash my hair, and think warm, warm, waaaaarm thoughts.

 

Best Reads of 2015

Hello again, friends! It’s the end of 2015, and time to talk about the Best Books of the Year!

Or maybe just the verrrrry beginning of 2016? When 2015 is still pretty fresh on your mind?

Okay fine. It’s damn near April. But, by gum, I’m posting this freaking top ten list if it kills me.

As is traditional here in the Jessica’s-various-historical-blog-o-sphere, what follows is a list of books that I loved this year, ranked from ten to one. We have books of fiction and nonfiction. Books for kids, teens AND adults. Books that I read as galleys, hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks and audiobooks. Books I read in January and books I read in December. (This year, maybe some books I read in… ahem… 2014)

No picturebooks, though. How discriminatory of me! The poor picturebook. Maybe next year I’ll rectify this situation.

At any rate, this is, as per usual, a personal list that has 100% to do with my reading enjoyment and not with any standards of literary merit. My annotations are similarly… um… not objective or professional. Perhaps more-so than ever. Because it’s damn near April.

Would you like to see my favorite books of years past, so you can see how far such a fine tradition has fallen? Here are some links to click on:

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010

I am hoping that this post serves as a symbolic literary purging of the old year, leaving me feeling free to start writing about The Books of the New Year. I am also hoping that I never write a sentence that includes the phrase “symbolic literary purging” ever again.

Okay. Without further ado. Here. Read. Enjoy! See you soon!

 

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10. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola

A literary memoir that is also an addiction memoir. Classic Jessica-bait. What impressed me about Hepola’s particular narrative? It’s compact and easy to read, but also dense with emotional insight and sentences that made me grab for a pen and notebook. And while I’ve read a lot of addiction memoirs, I can’t say I’ve ever read one written by a woman – much less by a woman close to my own age. The older I get, the more I value reading personal narratives written by other women bungling through whatever period of their late twenties/early thirties I’m also inhabiting – there really aren’t that many out there, and even fewer that match Hepola’s insight, talent, and humility.

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9. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

I picked up this book on the recommendation/praise of many. I was fresh off months of imposed reading; months of making reading selections based on what book could be of higher quality than the last one I read without thinking much at all my personal reading preferences. I was even starting to wonder if I *had* any reading preferences anymore, or if maybe I’d read myself into a critical stupor. Thankfully, this delightful book was just a perfect slice of what I’ve always loved in YA – a good old-fashioned contemporary girl story, with a little romance. I loved Lara Jean, loved how her story was about romance but was really just about her, and I love-love-loved the world of the Song family. It was the kind of YA book that makes me want to give it a hug; treating myself to that experience felt really nice.

 

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8. Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

One weekend in November, I took a break from my normal reading schedule and worked through a hulking pile of graphic novels. I read a lot of really great ones, but Dan Brown’s Drowned City knocked me flat. It’s one thing to hear the news and to read the stories. We even visited New Orleans a year or so afterwards – it was easy to tell that something traumatic had happened, but harder to grasp exactly what. Brown’s spare, informative narrative and dark, evocative illustrations felt like a rare, frightening close-up of the emotional and physical trials the victims of this disaster incurred. It was painful

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7. Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

It feels a bit strange to say so, but in terms of consistent reading satisfaction, I think Raina Telgemeier might me one of my favorite authors. Smile was great. Loved Drama. Haven’t read the BSC series, but… uh… it’s BSC w/ Telgemeier’s art. I really can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be enjoyable. Sisters, however, impressed the hell out of me. This is a companion to Smile – another slice of Telgemeier’s middle grade years – but this time Telgemeier draws the focus out from her own experience just a touch to explore her family’s unique dynamic. The book is structured around Telgemeier’s fraught relationship with Amara – a younger sister who’s independent, surly, and refuses to play the role of quiet companion that Telgemeier imagined she would. The main storyline is a small one – a road trip to visit family in a jankety VW bus. But with these brilliantly composed full page panels throughout, Telgemeier slows the reader down and reveals what the story is really about – it’s about family struggles that are just a little bit too big for young kids to grasp, and how even if you don’t get along in the day to day, your siblings will be the ones who understand. Telgemeier isn’t just a graphic novelist – she’s a memoirist.

 

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6. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Creepy ghost books? Not really my thing. Juvenile detention books? Meh. Ballerina books? I always *want* to like them, but I think I might just like Center Stage and that’s it. Creepy ghost ballerina books set partially in a juvenile prison? Hands down Top Ten Read of 2015. Nice job, Suma. What did draw me in was the dueling narrators. Violet is the ballerina, an uptight rich girl on her way to Juilliard – her story has a familiar, contemporary YA feel but with tense, angry edges. Amber is the detainee; she tells her own story of life before and during her incarceration, but she also speaks in this downright creepy third person omniscient voice that seems to speak for all of the girls who live at Aurora Hills. Their stories pivot around the life of a third girl – Orianna, “The Bloody Ballerina” – and these spiraling, intertwining story lines just get creepier and more intense the longer the book goes on. This was a book I read for review – you can read it here! – and probably the review book I was happiest to see starred and get some critical love at the end of the year. It was even cited in an editorial as “the book that has me excited about YA publishing all over again.” Nothing but love for this creepy-ass gem of a book.

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5. Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother by Beth Ann Fennelly

Here is another personal lady narrative, this one told in letters. Fennelly is a writing professor with a toddler; when a former student is facing an unexpected pregnancy, Fennelly promises to write her often. To reveal what secrets of gestation and motherhood that she can; to generally provide her company, solace, and insight during a scary/exciting/tumultuous time. This is only Fennelly’s side of the correspondence, which is strange and intimate peek into her life, her history, and her values; and how all of that relates to her feelings on child-bearing, children, family, and art.

If you can find a better book on pregnancy out there, bring it to me and I will bake you a chocolate cake.

Edit: well, that cat’s certainly out of the bag. That is what I get for taking MONTHS to write a post. Anyway, the chocolate cake sentiment still stands.

 

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4. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

We are now entering a brief interlude of cheats. I didn’t read this book for the first time in 2015. Nope. In 2014, I went to BEA and came home with a galley, and then I read it on my beach vacation.

And it was good. It was just so, so good.

I feel like I do not need to tell you about this book because this book has just been all over the place. It took home a National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King, a Sibert Honor, probably some awards I’m forgetting or never heard of. It’s a memoir in verse. It’s about growing up black in North Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s lovely. It’s thought-provoking. It’s a must read.

(And, to be fair, I did read it in 2015. More than once. And I’d read it again in a heartbeat)

 

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3. The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Cheat #2: I first read this book in the fall of 2014. It took me a few weeks to work through; I’d read a chunk of short segments here and there, in between other fiction reading. But the longer I read, the longer the chunks – just like fiction, the longer I read, the deeper into the Romanov’s epic/bizarre/tragic story I fell. As this enigmatic, isolated family marched steadily toward their end, the faster the pages whipped by.

To be completely honest, this was really my first experience with the Romanovs. I knew very little about this notorious family. But wow, what an introduction. Fleming is an ideal guide for a first-timer; her narrative voice is warm, steady, informative. She weaves sparkling aesthetic details into her scenes – decadent bits of scenery, costume, and personality that drew me into the Romanov’s lives in that leery but indulgent, voyeuristic, reality show kind of way. But in the next chapter, Fleming turns the focus toward individuals in the peasant class; pulling from primary sources, Fleming reminds the reader that the Romanovs were one family in a country of millions, and that their power and choices led many, many of their citizens to impossible poverty or death… and eventually the dissolution of a steady government.

Alright, I feel like I am getting a little *too* passionate here about history. I am going to lose my fun-book street-cred. But nonetheless, this boring history book was one of the best and most engaging read I encountered.

In either 2014 or 2015. Take your pick. Or maybe both!

 

 

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2. Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories by Rebecca Barry

I read this  book over the summer. Just a few chapters in, I immediately imagined sitting on my bookshelf, part of my permanent collection. It was just one of those heart-clutching, “yes, yes,” books that just… struck a personal/sentimental/this-is-life/cliche-inspiring chord in me. Every few years, they come along.

A collection of short personal essays – stories, maybe, or sketches – this is the perfect book for dipping in and out of. Barry begins with a big move; after much deliberation, she and her husband decide to disrupt their writing and publishing careers – to leave New York City and move upstate, and oh, then maybe it’s a good idea to buy a gorgeous but dilapidated apartment building and then renovate? And then maybe have a couple of small children? Her stories are brief. Clipped, out of necessity. They barely leave the scope of her small town, her family and friends, or the walls of her apartment. The moments she captures are personal – naval-gazing, maybe – sometimes messy, sometimes fractured, sometimes self-pitying, but then there’s just a bit of joy, tucked away, too. It’s exactly the way I like to think about life and families and the way I strive to write.

And for the record, I did not make it through those two paragraphs without putting it on hold again. Oops.

 

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  1. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

I have to say, it’s a bit of a strange experience thinking about books that I’ve loved when so much time as passed since we first “met.” So much has happened, Challenger Deep, since I first cracked you open. I seem to recall it was a warm-ish evening, late April early May, and I was reading on my bed with the windows open. I picked it out from my overflowing bookshelves on the merit of a starred professional review, I believe. I had no idea what it was about. I started reading and had no idea what was going on, but not in a “you’ve lost me, Shusterman” kind of way.

It was more like a “Wow, this book is smarter than me.” So I started paddling hard to keep up, and while I’m not sure I did 100%, I was left feeling like I’d experienced something damn special.

This book came out last May. It got a zillion starred reviews, won some awards, and I’m sure you’ve heard all about it by now. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you that it’s about a teenage boy, and it’s about schizoaffective disorder. There are at least two separate story-lines, neither of which feels quite… real. It’s narratively impressive, narratively challenging, but if you can hang on long enough, it will also hit you in the guts at least once or twice.

Not an easy read. Not a pleasant read. Not a heart-clutching “yes, yes” book, but a “wow, wow, WOW” kind of book – maybe the only WOW book I read all year.

 

31

Hello there.

I do not believe that keepers of blogs should begin their writing by apologizing to the reader. I’m sorry I haven’t been writing is how I want to begin this post, but how I *want* to begin a piece of writing is only occasionally how I *ought* to begin a piece of writing. Snipping that apology seems like easy editing; tighten it up, get to the point, skip over the bits where you have to reckon with yourself as a writer and get writing.

What’s more, I don’t think the apology should be necessary. You are a keeper of a blog, yes, but you are also a human being living on the planet Earth. You used to be a teenager with entirely too much free time, a college student with a cushy part-time job with few job duties and unlimited Internet time, a twenty-something with more thoughts and dreams than your brain could safely contain.

Now, I am 31. I am a full-time librarian; a professional book reviewer; a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend.

A real, live grown-up…

who writes a blog post once a quarter.

I want to write more about blogging and writing. I want to write more on this blog in general. But right now, it’s my birthday, and I want to write about what is on my mind as I turn 31.

  • Thirty-one feels like a weird age. A decade-plus-one. Seems like a pointless differentiation from thirty. But then again, *twenty*-one was so exciting! Strange to think I have been a legal drinker for ten years, especially since I am in the midst of probably the longest drink-free spell I’ve had for a decade. I have a lot of good things to say about life without alcohol, but I also haven’t had to watch anyone crack their fresh Sam Summer of the season in front of me yet, so I’ll reserve any teetotaling wisdom for the time being.
  • 29 and 30 years old are kind of loaded ages. “Oh my god, I’m almost 30!” then “Oh my god! I’m in my thirties!” Thirty-one doesn’t hold any particular emotional for me… but its proximity to 32 does. You see… I discovered that adults have ages when my mother was 32. I would have been about 7. Since elementary-aged children are curious but perhaps not the most attentive to the personal lives of others, I kind of just thought my mom was 32 for like… 5 years. 32 is how old moms are. They just get to 32 and stop there. And yeah, now I’m a year away from that Forever Mom number. Yikes.
  • I am sorry I haven’t been writing here in this particular empty white box, but you know what? I have been writing in other white boxes. Book reviews. Emails. Journals. Morning pages. Other miscellany. I’m reminded regularly of something I wrote here way back when I was a little bitty 26-year-old. That stuff counts. Those words count.
  • Here’s a related thought: in addition to my piles of scribbled-in notebooks, it is highly likely that I will leave behind megabyte after megabyte of bizarre, half-formed Word Docs. Will my children read each and every document and discover… what? What is even the conclusion that anyone might draw from the contents of my Dropbox? Should I be afraid? Embarrassed? Should I try to clean that up at some point, see if there’s anything potentially legally damaging? Or worth salvaging? What exactly is my digital literary footprint going to contain?
  • Oh yeah, I said I didn’t want to write about writing today. Oops.
  • Today I am also – still – thinking about time management. About what I feel like I have time for and what I don’t, about how I feel like my life is just winding up and winding up and winding up even though I’m not really getting *that* much more done. I even brought home Laura Vanderkam’s book for the 2nd or 3rd time today, looking for some answers. One thing I thought about was travel. I was making a list (another Word Doc for the grandkids!) of all the trips I’ve taken since graduating college in 2007, and I noticed… a trend. Things started off slowly. A road trip in 2008. A week in DC in 2009. An ALA conference in 2010, a break for a few years, etc. Not counting periodic jaunts back to Michigan, we’re looking at a trip a year, if that. Then in 2013… two trips, back to back, one to Europe. 2014? Three. Last year – Kansas City, New York, three European countries AND North Carolina. This year we’ve already spent a week in Portland, OR, AND I’ve got two separate trips booked in April – to Denver for PLA and then home for a long weekend. I’m not saying I’m upset about it whatsoever, but traveling isn’t a cost-free endeavor, time and energy-wise. Is it possible that I could benefit from some good old-fashioned staying put? I should get some in the second half of the year, however, so maybe this experiment will come true.

Is there any bush left to beat around? Alright, well, here goes. My birthday hasn’t really been on my mind this year, but somebody else’s has. Somebody new who I haven’t met quite yet.

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Somebody who is currently rehearsing for an inter-uterine underwater aerobics competition. Somebody who is getting consistently and disturbingly larger as the weeks pass. Somebody who will emerge to share an abode with me, my darling husband, and our ornery orange cat in just over 100 days if you can possibly believe that shit.

I *really* don’t want to write about being pregnant right now – not because I’m opposed but because I fear I will ramble on into an eternity. It’s been a trip and a half. The pertinent info? I’m due at the end of June. We’re not finding out the sex. That’s a really misleading picture; I’m quite a bit more gigantic when I am vertical, but alas, my apartment has zero selfie-facilitating mirrors. Also, I am a lazy pregnant lady and the couch is my castle.

I’m sorry I’m not writing here. I’ll try to write more about books, about gestation, about reading and everything else. I’ll try to write about it later, when I’m not busy traveling or writing other shit or eating Cheez-its. I’ll try on a day that’s not my birthday.

Today I’m 31.

I’m busy.

I’m excited.

I’m terrified.

I’m waiting for the bus taking pictures of myself because my apartment has zero selfie-facilitating mirrors.

Alright, new year of life, let’s do this.

 

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30 | 29 | 28 | 27 | 26 | 25 | 24

 

 

 

 

 

 

a family holiday letter

Dear subset of Friends and Family who know how to read blogs,

Greetings to you and yours at the end of a long and winding 2015.

Do people still write holiday letters? You know, the photocopied missives tucked into their annual greeting cards updating interested parties in the comings and goings of one family over the course of the year? It seems a little unnecessary in The Age of Facebook – anything significant is bound to show up on a feed at some point – and maybe even more unnecessary to post upon a blog. What is a blog other than a perpetual Christmas letter – look at me! Look at what I am doing, and let me tell you all about it!

As of last year, there were a few stalwart Christmas Letter Writers remaining in my family. Whether or not they have taken to the task in 2015 has yet to be determined since one recent event that has occurred in my immediate family is that we have lost our mailbox key. I’m hoping that we will gain access to this box soon and that it will burst open with cards and gifts and Christmas checks and that piece of paper proving that I did show up at jury duty so my HR department can finally be sated.

But I’ve skipped ahead. Let’s roll on back to earlier in this fine year.

The first third of 2015 can be divided as thus:

  1. Snow

Boston had a record-breaking Winter. The first storm arrived just before my Darling Husband’s 30th birthday. The second, just after. The third and the fourth, I just can’t remember. Was there a fifth? A sixth? I’ve blocked it all out. Darling Husband had 10 snow days off from school; I had some as well, but I also had the good fortune of enduring the total breakdown of Boston’s reliable 1000 year old public transportation system! What joy. This paragraph is officially depressing me. Right now we’re looking at a High of 66 for Christmas Eve, so shall we refrain from uttering the S word until 2016 forever and ever amen.

  1. Books

As you may well know, I had the good fortune of serving on a children’s book award committee this past year. The first half of 2015 was spent reading. And reading some more. Scheming ways to convince myself to read even more. Also thinking about books. And making lists of books. Opening boxes and making piles of books and moving the piles from one place to another. My Darling Husband assumed a supportive role, cheering me on and pre-emptively declining social events on my behalf, and also cooking dinner twice a week.

Also, at one point our apartment looked like this:

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After four months of housebound snow days and couchbound book reading, we transitioned into the middle third of the year, wherein we decided to GTFO of the house… and the state… and the country.

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In April, Darling Husband and I paid a visit to Favorite Roommate (and Favorite Roomate’s Favorite Roommate and their sweet pups) in scenic Kansas City, Montana – the City of Fountains. We saw the sights. We drank the local beers. We examined libraries and children’s book stores. We even took a jaunt over to the famed Manhattan, Kansas – home of the Wildcats, and also my baby brother-in-law. TBH, we also did A LOT of pajama-wearing, Pandemic playing, and donut eating. But is there really a better way to vacation? I think not.

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In May, I took the fancy bus on down to New York, New York for Book Expo. If you exclude jaunts to visit family, this was my first solo overnight trip ever. I made all of my own travel arrangements, met up with my little cousin for a long walk around Central Park, fed myself (almost entirely on free food), and got myself where I needed to be when I needed to be there. I even had a glass of wine on my bus ride home. WHAT A GROWN UP. Then, in June, I took my SECOND solo trip, this time to visit with my two dearest high school chums in good old hot-and-sticky San Antonio, Texas.

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Six days after my return to MA, My Darling Husband and I departed for our second grand European adventure.

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Three nights in Paris, during which we…

  • gazed upon Notre Dame, the Musée D’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, and the Moulin Rouge
  • bought a copy of A Movable Feast at Shakespeare & Co
  • suffered through record heats with the help of a supplementary air conditioning unit that appeared in our hotel room. (it was a giant bag of ice in a Styrofoam cooler)
  • ate a meal consisting entirely of wine, bread, and fresh cheese

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Then, three nights in Amsterdam, where we…

  • accidentally wandered into the red light district whilst trying to find an Indian restaurant
  • made friends with our charming Airbnb-mates
  • observed a naked bike rally in the Vondelpark
  • cried at Anne Frank’s house, admired the expansive public library, and ate some street frites

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Last but not least, Berlin. Highlights included…

  • a newly constructed, shiny, modern hotel room with a swanky roof bar and REALLY GREAT AC
  • zipping all over the city on big trains and little trains and buses like pros, I’m sure
  • the impossibly delicious creation that is the döner kebab
  • spending time with our dear friend Maren, who zipped on over from Dortmund to show us around town

PHEW. After that, we flew home, exhausted, and took it nice and easy for the rest of the summer.

And by “rest of the summer,” I mean “a few days.” In July, Darling Husband spent four nights on Cape Cod, camping out with his bandmates and ostensibly working on new music. He also bussed down to New York for the night to visit with a high school buddy who was in from Shanghai (and also to liberate his expensive trumpet from the borough of Brooklyn where it had spent a few unexpected weeks. Long, stupid story.) In August, we road tripped down to Sunset Beach, North Carolina to spend a week on the beach with my family. It was, once again, lovely, although we did reach some sort of testosterone tipping point. In where my usual family vacations are spent reading, beaching (tanning?), outlet shopping, and snacking, this time there was fishing and golfing and more golfing and spontaneous outbreaks of Magic the Gathering. Very curious.

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At the end of the summer, we said goodbye to about a million of our Boston friends – everyone who was kinda trying to leave Boston for the past three years made an exodus in 2015. There were last drinks and last suppers and the desperate hawking of couches on Craigslist. There were emotions. To Colorado, Portland, Royal Oak, and New Zealand – what amazing, lovely people you now have among you. Treat them well!

The rest of the year has been (relatively) more bucolic. I prepped for a symposium in October and wrote a lot of book reviews. Darling Husband began his seventh (!!!) teaching year. I thought I couldn’t eat dairy for a while but decided I just can’t eat yogurt. We entertained my in-laws for another gracious visit. We switched Peach to diet food and subsequently cleaned up a lot of cat puke. After almost three years of living car-free, we bought a used Prius… and we kind of love it a lot. We attended a Friendsgiving. We went to seven zillion holiday parties. In five days, we will jet out of state yet again to ring our second consecutive new year in Michigan.

It’s Christmas Eve now as I finish up this lengthy missive. I had a nice day working in a completely empty office while Darling Husband did some last minute shopping. We have acquired some festive take out, I am cooking up a pineapple upside down cake, and we are settling in for a long winter’s 60+ degree night of enjoying some classic, cheerful television programming.

I’m thinking a few episodes of Game of Thrones.

I’m also thinking that I am a very lucky lady. Thank you to all of my dear ones who made 2015 the year it was for me… and my Darling Husband and my chubby orange cat. I’m wishing you the very happiest of holidays and a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous new year.

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thoughts on the end of the year

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1

It’s December 1st today. I am taking that last calendar flip of 2015 as permission to do a little end-of-year contemplation. This year, man. This freaking year. Do I say this every year? I can’t find textual evidence at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised. When we moved to Boston in 2009, my life took off at a gallop. Thankfully, we’ve had a preternatural amount of good fortune during these last six years – much of what keeps my schedule packed is the Really Good Stuff – exciting career and professional activities, travel, time with friends and family, and good old-fashioned book readin’.

But busy is still busy. I’m still reasonably confident that I have enough hours in my weeks to accomplish some stuff while I’m kicking around on this good green earth… but I’m beginning to suspect that I might also spend those weeks (months, years) waiting for some mythical period of rest.

Is this just adulthood? A generational condition? Is it Boston? My genes? My life choices? An inability to say no? That pesky proclivity toward overachieving? Probably all of the above. Sometimes, my busy-bodiness irks me, especially when I find myself putting off tasks because I’m waiting to wrap up XXX or have a few spare moments to YYY; am I running myself ragged just so I have a good excuse to stay away from some of those bigger, scarier life goals? But I’m also the kind of person who enjoys a certain level of leisure in my daily life – I get up early so I can (re)-read chapters of Game of Thrones with my coffee, rarely do anything productive past 8:00 p.m., and am all too ready to trade my required reading for a fun book (orrrrr another episode of Master of None) when I’ve had a long day.

So, am I so prone to manic over-scheduling that my life needs a sea-change? Or am I better off manipulating my daily hours and habits so I can better utilize work and leisure time?

Well isn’t THAT a question?

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Way back in early October, I sat down in front of an empty page of a notebook to think about what would come next. I was just finishing up my Year of Reading Madly responsibilities, with three months left to spare. What should I accomplish now?

My mind started churning through that never-ending laundry list of Things to Do Later; the habits and hobbies and tasks to attempt in the event of that Mythical Time of Rest. I’d even made a list on some restless Saturday past. But there, in that moment with my notebook, there was a little voice in my head that said “Why not do nothing?”

And I listened to it.

So no arbitrary goal setting, no trying to squeeze in “Just One More…” before the end of the year, no new habit building or NaNoWriMo or anything else remotely aspirational. Not necessarily three months of wild indulgence or sloth or apathy. Just three months of getting the stuff I need to get done and then doing whatever. Three months of regular old living.

It felt like a good choice. I imagined that in between my normal activities (working, cooking, cleaning, exercising, book reviews, etc) I’d find some downtime during which I might flex my autonomy. Follow my interests. Read the books I felt like reading. Write whatever I felt like writing. Spend some quality time with my husband. Maybe watch a little more television than usual, and do some holiday baking. Regroup in January.

That was the plan, and… so far, on December 15th (God, these posts come slow…) I give myself a B-.

Points off for continuing to set the occasional goal and schedule.

And even more points off for… being too damn busy.

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So here’s what I’ve been up to.

I review books for a biannual review journal, so I’m smack dab in the middle of what I like to call Guide Season. The books are usually reasonably quick reads, the reviews brief, and I have a few years of practice now; the process isn’t overwhelming. But every four weeks – a deadline. Every four weeks – another stack of books to plow through.

I’m also preparing to participate in ALSC’s Bill Morris Book Evaluation Seminar in early January. I am really 100%, unequivocally geeked about this particular professional opportunity! We’ve got a reading list to work through before the day of discussion; thankfully, there are a lot of 2014 heavy-hitters that I’ve already read once or twice, but I’m still planning on giving each book another go around. Plus, there are articles to read, a professional book to revisit, and awards criteria to consider. Geeked, but… work.

This Fall I’ve also been doing some work for another ALSC joint – the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture Award Committee. This year, my committee selected the speaker for the 2017 Arbuthnot Lecture – which can be given by a children’s author, illustrator, editor, scholar, or anyone else equipped to write and deliver a lecture that would mark a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. It’s a virtual committee, so there has been plenty of research, discussion, and fighting with technology to be had. The speaker will be announced in January at Midwinter, so look out for that! Then, we will move on to taking and selecting a bid for the speech’s location.

And last but certainly not least, I’m waiting patiently for January 1st, upon which it will be time for yet another year with the Cybils YA Nonfiction Award. I have read only a scant few of this year’s nominees, so I am guaranteed at least a few books to add to my docket quite soon, along with the associated discussions.

Add in a cookie competition at work, more holiday parties than I can actually physically attend, and five nights in Michigan for New Year’s… what a great time to take a step back flex one’s autonomy!

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It’s also the time of year where I typically buckle down and blog heavy for my annual end-of-year Best Reads Extravaganza.

This year, though, I am feeling conflicted. Yeah, I read a *ton* this year. 172 books completed and counting. Also, since I started my awards reading late in 2014 and wanted to avoid too much chatter about eligible titles, I set my fiscal cut-off date a little earlier than I usually do – even more books!

But it’s really been just such a strange reading year. I read so much and so fast that they are blurring together in my memory. I read some really good ones, yes, but many many many more that didn’t stand out, or that I liked but weren’t really my kind of book – books that I could gladly recommend, but few that stirred up the kind of passion that make me excited to sink time into blogging about.

The second half of the year has been even stranger. In June, I read entirely books for review. In July, more review books, plus a random assortment of other unremarkable titles – mostly adult. August was pretty good, but I only read 6 books. But in September, I only read 1! October was back to reviews; November reviews + graphic novels; December, reviews.

My busy life took over my reading life in 2015. There haven’t been too many hours in the day where I could read freely, and when those hours come, and episode of Great British Bake Off or going to bed an hour early is often more appealing. My attention span is too shot to handle dense audiobooks – podcasts and light adult nonfiction and memoirs are all I can handle.

But a year of reading critically has had an impact on what kinds of books I want to make time to read and what I think about those that I do. I feel significantly harder to please  – even if I had a magical reading holiday to tackle 10 books of my choosing, I can’t imagine that I’d feel passionate about a majority of them. Even if they were the most well-recepted, critically-amazing, just-up-my-alley kind of books. It’s harder for me to get amped up about any one particular book, but it’s even harder to decide what books to try out – to audition. I find myself wanting to wait for more and more critical input to arrive before I read something, lest I find myself wasting time.

This is something I’m hoping to work through in 2016. For now, I think I might swing back to the blog later in the month to do a Top Ten or a few fun lists. Something lower key than usual, but I can’t give up the tradition entirely after… ah… nine years? (NINE YEARS??!?)

And then… a crazy-short vacation.

And then… a crazy-crazy ALA Midwinter.

And then…

2015 National Book Awards

Well, it seems I have somehow missed the window for blogging about the National Book Awards longlist… and judging by how long it takes me to churn out a fully-formed post these days, I’m criss-crossing my fingers that by the time you darling readers see this post, I won’t have missed the window for talking about the freaking shortlist. Gah!!

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The ten finalists in the category of Young People’s Literature struck me as quite the… surprising bunch. Individually, I wasn’t surprised to see any particular title on the list, but together they just seemed a bit of motley crew. Two middle grade titles, one fiction and one memoir. Two nonfiction titles for older readers. A spread of YA – one realistic, one historical, and three on the spectrum of fantasy. Oh, and a non-realistic graphic novel to round out the bunch. That’s quite the spread.

Since some of these books fell under my 2014-2015 Read All the Books jurisdiction, I have read an impressive five titles this year! Most recently – Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Nimona. Both of these I found kind of… left field-ish? I don’t know. While you see YA realism on the NBA lists occasionally, light romantic/comedic YA realism? Not so much. As I mentioned last month, I thought Simon was enjoyable, but perhaps a bit thin; not surprised to see it fall off the long-list. I read Nimona earlier this week as part of a Graphic Novel Extravaganza – loved the medieval/superhero mash-up setting, loved Lord Ballister Blackheart as a character and loved Goldenloin as the best character name ever. Very fun and very comic-y, which again, you don’t see very often on awards lists… and maybe I’m used to considering meatier GNs, then, because I left Nimona feeling like she was a bit light on theme, maybe? Also, am I just the oldest person around or were that the world’s TINIEST dialogue text? Alright. Curmudgeon out.

Two I read in early 2015: Bone Gap and X: A Novel. Bone Gap: a genre-bending YA story that reads like a fairytale with a really endearingly misunderstood protagonist and a creepy-as-hell rural setting. X: a novelization of Malcolm X’s late teen years in Boston and NYC that focuses on how his experiences (and morally questionable teen-aged behaviors) led him on a path to self-discovery and activism. Both satisfying reads, but for my tastes, kind of middle of the road? Since X has already dropped off, we’ll see if Bone Gap can go the distance.

Of the titles I haven’t yet read, two are already out of the running: Gary Paulsen’s This Side of Wild and Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger. I almost ordered This Side of Wild for the library as fiction rather than biography a few weeks back, which is… embarrassing. Walk on Earth a Stranger sounds like a fantasy book that I could dig, but I’m heard such conflicting reviews from respectable sources: some dug it hard, some found it completely culturally insensitive/offensive. Argh. Either way, neither are in the running, so the stakes for reading are lower.

And speaking of books that are no longer in the running, can we pause and shed a tear for M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead? I haven’t yet read it (despite my better intentions), but I’ve heard that it’s good-good-good-good and I just really can’t imagine that this awards committee came to that decision easily. I HOPE YOU ARE ALL LOSING SLEEP, COMMITTEE.

Juuuust kidding. That was pretty hoe-stile. And I haven’t even read two of the final contenders, so even if I had read Symphony, I would still have a useless opinion. First, we have Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War; Mr. Sheinkin’s name is never a surprise to an awards list. He’s simply doing some of the coolest stuff with narrative nonfic right now. Also, I’ve heard him speak before and he seems like… the absolute nicest, nerdiest dude you will ever meet. Next, our MG offering, Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish. And it’s a debut! How exciting! I had heard zero about this book before seeing it on this list (we even missed it for ordering at the old librario), but it does look like the kind of tween-y MG that I would like.

And last, but not least………

Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Guys. This book. It certainly has a sentimental corner of my heart, but my own sappy personal BS aside… THIS BOOK. I read it in May. I was reading a book a day at that point – it was the 110th full-length book I’d read in 2015 alone. And just a few chapters in, I was perplexed, I was riveted, my jaw just dropped to the dang floor.

So yeah, this one is my favorite.

(And I’m hitting publish in five, four, three, two, ONE WEEK BEFORE THE WINNER IS ACTUALLY ANNOUNCED somebody please give me a delayed blogger gold star)

seven half-read books

Three months left in 2015, and I have already read 140 books.

So I decided to take it easy last month. And read one book.

One single, solitary book. A statistical anomaly in my years of recorded reading life. Probably hasn’t happened since college, if then. High school? Never? I don’t know.

The book I read was Suzy Becker’s One Good Egg; a lovely memoir about trying to get knocked up (by way of science!) at 39-years-old. It was brief and illustrated and felt a little bit more like reading a magazine than a book, which I mean in a very good way. It was, indeed, the only book I’ve read in awhile that tugged at me from the coffee table whenever I passed it by. I know that all reading can’t and shouldn’t have that effect on me, but isn’t it just delightful when it does?

But yeah, that was it. The lonely only. But as much as I love writing the same books over and over and over again, one single book does not a blog make. So let me tell you about the other books I’ve been reading. The ones that I picked up for a train ride home and never opened again. The ones I’ve been chipping away at over the months. The ones I’m still on the fence about.

Seven Unread

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A last gasp of Summer Reading List pick, and one I was quite excited to read. Am quite excited to read! I’ve been trying to read a little before bed to tire out my brain, and picked this one up. I’m about 75 pages in, and I have to say that YES this is book is just Up. My. Alley. 100%. I could read about packs of 20-somethings traipsing around their lives for days. And Yanagihara’s prose is just that delightfully smooth narration that makes you forget that nothing is actually happening and then, bam, how have 75 pages gone by already? Love it.

But you know what? The book is really heavy. I have a galley, and even that is about 100 lbs. Trying to hold it up in bed is tiresome. And also, I look at all 736 pages of it and think to myself “are you really going to spend XXX hours reading a superfluous grown-up book when you could be reading XXX pages of kid lit?” and then I start to rethink my entire life and my choices and that is just not something one wants to do before bed. So I might let this one go.

Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti

Do you like reading alarmist or anti-alarmist articles about American domestic decisions? Well I certainly do! I’m sure that is where I heard about this book. I was in the mood for some easy-reading nonfiction one fine afternoon and this one was on shelf, and I read about half of the essays before my attention was dragged elsewhere. I liked them okay, but like a similar read – All Joy and No Fun – I think the book could have been more accurately titled 100 Reasons Why Kids Are Terrible But I’m Trying Really Hard For This Book Not to Be a Downer. So, interesting, but somewhat depressing.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Nothing says “FREE READING” like picking out a nice galley from your drawer of shame to read on the train home. I spent a few commutes falling down the rabbit hole behind Alice… and Ada… and then every other character? I don’t know, I didn’t finish it yet, but when I left there were a lot of folks down there in Wonderland. And also, above ground, Alice’s older teenage sister is gallivanting around. And also Charles Darwin.

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

I read To All the Boys I Loved Before back in August, when I was still finishing books. I freaking loved it. So what better to bust a reading slump than picking up the sequel, which was sitting *conveniently* on my very own bookshelf?

Well, it worked for a few days, but it wasn’t a slump-buster. Perhaps because I read the first installment so recently? For me, this book was all about the warm tone and the enjoyment of spending time with the Song family; maybe some absence would have made my heart grow fonder?

I have no idea. This is turning into a strange concept for a blog post. “Why wasn’t this book the exact right book for me at this moment? Why couldn’t this book overcome my busy schedule and mercurial moods?” I have no idea. I’ll be back for you, Song girls, I will indeed.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Ooooookay. So this one is filed under Epic Library Fine Fiascos. You know that thing where you are trying-trying-trying to actually read the books you’ve checked out, but somehow 5 renewals are just not quite enough to finish a highly illustrated book with plenty of white space on each page? And then you have so many overdues that your Overdrive account gets shut off?

No? I’m the only one?

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese

So I’m not blogging or reading… so what have I been doing lately? Going medieval on my family budget, with an emphasis on not spending so dang much on groceries. Since I haven’t had much time for experimental cooking this past year, I was excited to get back into the kitchen. The intersection of these two desires is Reese’s book, which breaks down which homemade goods are worth the sweat and which ones are just too laborious – and, interestingly, which foods are a pain in the butt to make AND cost more money.

I was expecting a useful text, but I wasn’t expecting to read this straight through. However, Reese weaves little narratives in between recipes; kitchen fails and successes, stories about favorite restaurants and shops, misadventures in chicken-rearing. Very readable.

But it’s also a cookbook, so I’m sure I got to a really interesting looking recipe for ricotta, decided I would become a home cheesemaker, and put the book down and forgot to pick it up again.

Also, forgot to make cheese. But that’s just the kind of life I’m living right now.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Toward the end of the month, I was starting to feel a little unhinged. So many unfinished books! None close enough to being finished! Why did I do this to myself? Whatever happened to my four book rule?

So I decided that what I needed was… to start another book entirely.

Yes, this made sense at the time.

But, here’s a SURPRISING TWIST ENDING TO THIS OVERLY LONG, NOT THAT INTERESTING POST! –

I finished it this weekend!

So yes. The title of this post is a lie. But that is what happens when it takes you more than seven calendar days to post a blog. I’m not giving up just because I just *happened* to undermine my central premise, folks.

Anyway, what did I think? I thought it was cute. It read smoothly, the plot was fairly compelling, and the romance was the good kind of YA romance. And by that I mean the of romance kind I like. Also, a two-boys romance.

Also, also, I officially need to finish more books so I get back to writing normal-person blog posts.