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best reads of 2018

Tomorrow is 2019! Happy New Year’s Eve! While I have the opposite of a wild night planned, I think back to how I rang in 2018 a year ago… and I remembered that I went to bed at 9pm in my parents’ house with my 18-month-old who wouldn’t stop climbing out of his crib. At some point I ended up on the floor. I think we also had to wake up for a stupidly early flight. So this year really can’t be worse than that… especially since I am finishing! And! Posting! The Best Books I Read in 2018! Even though I have no time or energy to read anything of enough literary quality to end up on a Best of the Year post, it’s still a wonderful time of year.

Longtime readers (do  I even have another kind of reader at this point? Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) know the drill: these are my favorite reads of the year, regardless of audience, publication date, or literary merit. They are listed in order. I really did love them all – while most of the 132 books I read this year were somewhat forgettable, I really do have a tough time narrowing down the top 25 or so. Please add them to your 2019 To-Read lists. Please forgive me for incomplete and unoriginal sentences below. I have a 5 week old baby and a 2.5 year old in my house and we have all been here together for 10 consecutive days and I guess we all have to live together forever now. Good thing everyone likes to read.

 

10. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Before that, she was a fairly normal young woman with one of those useless English degrees and a lifelong love of reading. As a fellow reader who considers charting and tracking her own reading life to be a worthwhile hobby, I was entranced by Paul’s essay about her Book of Books – a notebook where she documented her reading life starting when she was a teen. This memoir follows her fairly normal young adult and adulthood, with attention paid to the books and reading experiences that shaped her. Nothing too flashy here, but I found her life story to be so quietly engaging that I couldn’t put it down.

 

9. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Did you already read this book, when e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. was reading it, in 2017? Well, if you didn’t, I can tell you it was still a very good read in 2018, and will probably be a good read in 2019, too. And there’s good news! I bet your library’s holds list have finally died down! Set in an orderly Ohio suburb, this story is split between three very different families – the Richardsons, who have deep roots in the community but also four teenagers who are up to all sorts of behaviors their proper mother doesn’t want to know about; the Warrens, a single mother and teen daughter who rent a condo from the Richardson; a single, immigrant mother who must work full time to support herself and her infant daughter, and in the process has her daughter taken into state custody; and Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist with a murky past – and her teenaged daughter, who unintentionally weave between the stable suburban families. I like domestic literary fiction, and I like adult books starring teenagers, so I agree with the masses – a must read of whatever year it happens to be when you read this!

 

 

8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I heard about this book for years – so many rave reviews, plenty from people whose reading tastes I admire – but I never thought I’d want to read it. A book about people behaving badly on the Internet? I actually spend a decent amount of my time and energy trying to *avoid* people behaving badly on the Internet, so no thanks. Then I read Leila Sales’s If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say for a pro book review; it’s a realistic YA book about a girl who behaves badly on the Internet and the backlash that ensues, very clearly influenced by Ronson’s book , so I thought I might be a pro-pro reviewer and take a chance on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (read: Jessica wanted to procrastinate, so she found a somewhat acceptable avenue to avoid doing her work!) I was not any more interested in the subject than I ever have been, but DAMN Jon Ronson! I was not only sucked in, but entirely fascinated, and I give all the credit to Ronson’s writing: he’s a talented storyteller who also takes some unexpected narrative risks. So add my rave review to the mix, and I’ll add Ronson to my Definitely Check Out Their Next Book, No Matter What It’s About list.

 

7. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

In August, when I decided to play a little 2018 YA/MG catch up, The Poet X was my first choice. Why? Because it was short! And written in verse, so it reads even shorter! It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, so I would get (imaginary, meaningless) Literary Merit points. But external factors aside, I was so pleased with this book. Acevedo portrayed her main character, Xiomara, as a complex, sympathetic teen with a unique set of social challenges – she’s trying hard to balance her family’s staunch religiosity with her earnest desires for independence: to date, maybe have sex, write and perform slam poetry, to challenge some aspects of Catholicism. This felt like the best of old-school YA realism – a personal coming of age story driven by character and not melodrama – but with a modern perspective on race, class, and gender.

 

6. The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Another of my earnest Catch Up On The Best of 2018 YA/MG reads makes the list! Isn’t it great when you agree with the critics? I knew nothing about the plot or setting when I started reading, so it did take me a little time to get settled into the story, but the narrator’s voice drew me in right away. Little Charlie – the oversized twelve-year-old son of poor sharecroppers – starts the book extremely down on his luck: he witnesses his father dying of a freak accident, then finds out his father owes money to a nearby plantation owner; he and his mother are grieving and wondering how they will keep up with their work and make money when a goon arrives to collect on his father’s debt. The goon (“Cap’n”) convinces Charlie to join him on a journey to collect on someone else’s debt as a payment for his own, and a cross-country, international, consciousness-raising adventure ensues. I thought this was a perfectly middle-grade sized read – just meaty enough for a 4th-6th grader but without anything extra – and oh gosh, Little Charlie is just one of those endearingly naive but earnest narrators that you (aka, adult readers, probably; pregnant/hormonal readers, definitely) just want to hug.

 

5. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

A third 2018 YA/MG book – another (mostly) verse novel, interestingly enough. Also, another historical: this time, way more historical, going back to the 1600s in Italy, and based on actual people and actual events! The protagonist, Artemesia Gentileschi, is a seventeen-year-old living in Rome with her widower artist father. Out of financial necessity, her father trained her to paint, and at some point she became so talented he was better off handing his commissions to her – while signing his own name to them, of course. Artemesia is pissed off about this. She desperately wants to make her own name as an artist, and is passionate about painting women with the sensitivity and realism that the male artists of her time just can’t handle. Then, she comes across a successful artist who wants to tutor her – she’s elated… until her tutor’s untoward behavior threatens to destroy her and her family. Is this a work of relatively heavy-handed proto-feminist comeuppance? Yeah, probably. But Artemesia’s struggle to be honored for her own talents – and believed against the words of a more powerful man – reads like a story that could be making today’s headlines. This is a fairly devastating but extremely powerful read.

 

4. The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life if Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in the Store by Cait Flanders

Finding this book felt like a bit of divine intervention: I chanced upon a personal finance blog that, upon investigation, didn’t really seem like a personal finance blog. Then I forgot the URL, remembering only that it was the author’s name dot com. I remembered it (caitflanders.com, RIP) and was like “wow, this is better than a personal finance blog…” and then a few weeks later I heard about this book and put all of these connections together. I’m a bit of a personal finance hobbyist, but I do find many blogs and books on the subject to be repetitive, polemic, and fixated on one-size-fits all advice. How we deal with money is… well.. personal; Flanders’s memoir is the first personal finance book I’ve read that fully embraces that intersection. The premise is a little stunt-memoir-y – Flanders writes about her “year of no spending,” – but since she’s writing about her efforts to not do something, what she ends up writing about is the life she lives instead – and what perspective that experience brings to the life she lived before. This was a quietly endearing – and inspiring – read for me this year.

 

3. Circe by Madeline Miller

Unsurprising confession: everything I know about mythology I learned from video games and the episodes of Wishbone that retold The Odyssey and the story of Hercules. But even though I could only barely keep track of which god was related to which demigod, I was somehow totally into Madeline Miller’s latest work of… mythological fiction? I missed growing up in the Percy Jackson crazy by a few years (*cough* more like ten years *cough*), so I’m a little out of the loop; also, I don’t know exactly what aspects of this story Miller gathered from mythology and what is her own making. But previous mythological knowledge proved unnecessary, for me: I was taken in by the strange, petty culture of gods and goddesses Miller crafted, and by Circe’s rich characterization. She’s a lesser goddess, an unfavored child of the sun god, Helios – who spends most of her adult living alone, banished somewhat unfairly to a remote island; she’s also a singular female who, without much support from family or friends, finds her own power and self-worth.

 

2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I haven’t written much this year, but when I did, I wrote about this book . It falls under the category of nonfiction that isn’t necessarily more artful, profound, or revolutionary than anything else I read all year; instead, Deep Work simply explained a concept that I needed to understand at this point in my life, and it did so with simple engaging urgency. This is the book I thought about the most all year. While I took Newport’s message – do everything you can to do the kind of work that takes all of your concentration – to heart, putting it to practice has been a little more challenging. It’s no surprise that this is yet another self-help-y/productivity book that doesn’t mention caring for toddlers, pregnancy nausea, or breastfeeding… or chronic pain, mental illness, the economic/personal necessity of working multiple jobs, or any other everyday life situations that myself and people I know might find to be significant barriers to ever achieving Deep Work. But for me, I’ve found his ideas to serve as a gentle beacon that reminds me of what’s important: reading, writing, and caring for myself and my family, aka doing the things that only I can do. Doing that work with intention and as much brain power as I can muster is never going to be a bad idea, and the more time I spend on it the better. I definitely want to re-read this in 2019, and am looking forward to his next book, which looks like a good, old fashioned anti-technology manifesto.

 

1. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

I have read a great many books about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood over the years. In my experience, they tend to run in two directions: the slightly crunchy, softly-lit, “isn’t motherhood just GRAND” kind of book, or the Hey, Parenting sure SUCKS so you should feel totally empowered to complain about it – and sure, have another glass of wine. I don’t necessarily have a *problem* with either of these narratives… but neither of them have really spoken to me, either before I had kids or after. While my own experience of motherhood hasn’t been quite the same as O’Connell’s (she is a little more on the PARENTING SUCKS side of the spectrum than I am) there was just so, so much that she got right about the broader experience of the culture of motherhood RIGHT NOW. Millennial Motherhood, maybe? If that wasn’t so annoying? Of being a young, creative, hustling woman who also might want to procreate, even though it’s probably not a good idea and you have no good role models and nobody even TALKS about it. Of the bizarre, sourceless pressure put upon mothers to do everything right, before, during, and after birth that just permeates even your most private moments. Combine that with a fantastically wry voice and I’m-actually-laughing-out-loud-and-not-just-using-it-as-a-textual-interjection humor, and I’m ready to pick this one up again. For the third time. There’s a lot more I’m forgetting to say here, but it’s 8:15 p.m. and my 2.5 year old is at least somewhat silent in his hopefully dark bedroom and my five week old is waking herself up and it’s New Year’s Eve so I should probably at least see if my husband wants to share a glass of wine before I put on my flannel pajamas, so I’m just going to go ahead and push publish, and I’ll see you in 2019!

postpartum

A few weeks ago, I had a baby.

I’m still a little sore, still a little wiped out, still bleeding. But I can feel my body healing. Knitting itself back together. It’s recovering from the Olympic-level event that is childbirth, and also returning to a state of equilibrium I forgot I could exist in. I have a body that can bend over and can put on socks and shoes without getting winded. A body that can wear jeans without thick, stretchy waistbands. A body that can properly digest food! The transformation from not-pregnant to pregnant to not-pregnant, this second time around, was familiar yet still entirely startling. Everything changes so slowly while you are gestating – symptoms shifting week by week, belly expanding steadily but gradually  – until bam! It’s all over! Baby ejected. Time to lactate, to heal, and to rebuild.

My mind and my emotions seem to be on a less linear path. With my first, the only thing I could predict was the newness of it all, so – somewhat paradoxically – the tasks at hand seemed more clear.  Pregnancy, childbirth, caring for a newborn, raising offspring in general: it was all new, scary, exciting, and mysterious. Everything I knew was likely to be altered in some unpredictable way. My job was to hang on and attempt to enjoy the ride if at all possible, and that’s what I did.

This time, I spent my pregnancy with this lingering – almost haunting – image of what my life and body were like before we decided to have a second child. My firstborn was twenty months – smart and entertaining, pretty well-behaved and sleeping through the night. With a toddler, two full time jobs, and a side hustle or two between us, my husband and I never felt like we had enough time for everything we wanted to do. But we had a little time for some things. I felt moderately in control of my life. It was a good place.

For the 39.5 weeks, while I was nauseous and tired and excited and nervous, I also knew I would get back there, to that good place. My body would be returned to me, and so would my life. My first pregnancy felt like getting ready to jump into an abyss; my second, like taking a break from regularly scheduled life. My life, like my body, would be returned to me, eventually.

Eventually, but not yet. Yes, I’m an optimistic second timer who is used to living in Mom Mode and hoping to enjoy the benefits of my parenting experience this time around; more joy, less obsessive Googling, maybe? But I’m also a wizened second timer who does remember what happened in between my first delivery and that more comfortable time: sleeplessness, worrying illnesses, days and evenings lost to your child’s varying moods or ability to nap when he needs to. Just because I remember my okay-enough parenting life more clearly doesn’t mean I’ll get back there sooner.

And I’m also learning, trial-by-fire style, that there is an Abyss-Jumping element to any major family change. I expected night wakings, but I did not expect a newborn who refused to sleep in her designated safe horizontal sleeping space (this has improved greatly in the last three weeks, but heck if I’m going to get over-confident about anything now…) I expected regressions and behavioral issues with my smart, entertaining firstborn… but I did not expect a complete dissolution of his sleep schedule. I also didn’t anticipate how my own delicate hormonal and somewhat sleep-deprived state might influence my ability to parent a sleepless toddler. I’ve forgotten a lot about the early newborn days in the past two and a half years: one thing that’s coming back to me now with persistence is how you are forced to take each day as it comes. No matter how much you want to schedule, plan, and predict, you can’t know what a day (or night) will bring you until you get there.

But three weeks ago – back when I was still scheduling, planning, and predicting – I set some intentions for this postpartum time. I hoped that I could take adequate, deliberate rest during this first month, even with an active toddler at home. Despite a few busy days and rocky nights, I think I’ve been able to succeed here. I hoped that I might be able to deliberately enjoy getting to know my new baby. Again, sometimes this has been harder than I thought it would be (“just be happy! what is so hard about that?” said the world keeps saying to me, for 33 years and counting…) but I am definitely feeling more chill about a lot of things that stressed me out the first time around. I hoped that I could do what I need to nurture my oldest through this change – this has been the hardest part of this transition, so far, and no, I don’t no if I’m succeeding.

Looking forward, I had hoped to “bounce back” to feeling like myself more quickly. I don’t know if the baby brain fog is dissipating faster this time around because I’m already in Mom Mode, or maybe I’m just giving myself the grace to not do a whole lot right now. I also hoped to prioritize health and fitness as I recover and settle into our new family routines. I’m still feeling a few weeks away from feeling physically ready to exercise – and logistically ready? Who knows… – but I don’t want to squander the powerful clean slate that has been offered to me. I’m working these hopes into my 2019 NYRs, so stay tuned.

And that’s really it. I’m three weeks deep into this new way of life, but still… in between. Transitional. Liminal. I’ll be here for forty days? Six weeks? Three months? I’m not sure yet, but I know I’ll be here for awhile, mostly on the couch, trying to be nice to myself and taking it one day at a time.

how to read more: hold literary auditions

Last month I went on a bit of a reading spree. I knew I had a few weeks ahead of me to read what I wanted. I didn’t want to fritter it away feeling indecisive about what to read – I just wanted to get it done!

I pulled it off. In September, I read 15 books, 12 of them in print. I read a mix of adult, children’s and teen books, but I decided to focus on the critically acclaimed/generally buzzed-about 2018 KidLit titles I’d missed; otherwise, experience tells me, it will be 2019 and I will forget about them altogether. (Sorry 2017… and 2016… and 2015……)

My method for selecting what books to read ended up being a pretty fun part of my month – and effective, too.

First step, place way too many books on hold at once. My primary sources this time around were my Goodreads To-Read List, Heavy Medal’s discussion titles, and the multi-starred books from Jen J.’s hallowed spreadsheets.

Second step, choose 3-4 books as my “contenders.”

Third step, hold an audition for which book will get the honor of Being Read! Otherwise known as: read a little of each book.

Since I work in a Library Full of Books, I usually do this on my lunch break – it is really similar to my former Reading Lunch habit. Lunching in/near a library is probably not in everyone’s daily routine, but I do think there’s a benefit to putting a time limit on your task. If you have a luxurious child-free lifestyle and find yourself with an hour alone in a library or book story, you could hold an audition on the spot. If not, you could sit down at home with a few members of your latest library haul or your Unread Library and maybe set a timer: during naptime, over breakfast, before bed.

Fourth step, Read!

Why did this work for me? I can posit a few guesses. I tend to respond well to a finite set of tasks, even if they are arbitrary. My two-year-old and I have that in common. “First we find the letter E. Then we push our pants down. Then we pee on the potty. Then we eat some yogurt!” See what I did there? This is really the same concept. “First I pick some books, then I read a bit of each, then I choose my favorite, then I read it, then I pick some more books!” The reading becomes part of the process – a step on the path, not the end goal.

Additionally, I find the sense of competition to be a motivator, however manufactured; maybe the next book I read isn’t THE BEST BOOK EVER, but I can safely say it is the Best Book of a Small Sample Set!

Yes, I am one of those people who is not above fooling herself into any number of dubious beliefs or behaviors. I can, indeed, hide cookies from myself in my own kitchen. On a less self-deluded level, when presented with a few relatively similar options, I found myself better able to assess what kind of book I was going to feel most motivated to finish. I liked these two books of the four, but this one was shorter so it’s the winner. I just read two historical fiction books in a row, so this time I’ll choose a fantasy. All four of these books seem pretty good, but *this* one is due back to the library at the end of the week, so I’ll give it extra points.

Conveniently enough, I was often inspired to read the “runners-up,” as well. I chose to take a few notes during my auditions so I would remember what each book was about; when I was about to finish a book but didn’t have the time/inclination to hold another audition, I returned to my notes to choose my next read. A nice side effect: even if I never got around to reading all the books I auditioned, I at least learned a little about them during my brief reading and note-taking. There’s no way to read every great book that will ever be written – one of life’s greatest tragedies, in my perpetually self-motivated opinion – but staying well-informed about what’s being published for children and teens is part of my job and avocation. I’m always wondering how to engage with books I won’t have time to read in a way that feels productive and authentic rather than a consumer-y waste of time. This wasn’t too bad an option.

And last but not least, I found myself feeling more decisive about squeezing other “off-auditioned” books in between my more prescribed reads. Even though I was choosing to read all of these books, having a little process to follow made my auditioned books feel slightly more required. After every one or two “required” reads, I found myself feeling especially inspired to throw in an older YA title, an adult book, or something else to mix it up.

All of this added up to a fun month of reading that also felt productive, which beats starting and not finishing 10 random books around my house, having to return them unread, and generally rolling around in book ennui. I’m not sure how sustainable reading at this rate is, but it was at least a fun experiment with a beneficial side effect: I just happened to read 3 of the 10 titles longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Way more impressive than my usual zero.

I will leave you with this, my list of books in September after they “passed” an audition. They were all pretty good, and I’m pretty sure I would have read none if I hadn’t intentionally given them a chance to lure me in.

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge

 

winter, spring, summer, and fall

 Winter

Now that three-quarters of 2018 has passed, I have learned something about seasonal planning: while it seems more intuitive than, say, Random Ass Planning, it is not magical. There is probably no magical system that will eliminate all of my stress while multiplying my productivity. No list of goals can conquer all of my innate tendencies in one fell swoop; no amount of concentrated, applied ambition can easily and immediately override certain ingrained patterns in my life, my body, my family’s lifestyle, and – in general – the condition of being human on this planet.

This Winter I started a quilt. I spruced up the office. I bought a lighter so I could light some candles and then my husband hid it from me.

In March – the earliest days of my Spring – I started sketching out a new plan.

Then I got pregnant.

Spring

Two weeks later I got exhausted and nauseous and stayed that way until some time in June.

I suppose I can look at it this way: I took one of those lofty Winter goals – to think about Kid #2 – and really gave it my all! Totally knocked it out of the park. I gave lying in bed and trying not to feel like garbage my complete and absolute focus. It was my One Goal, actually. Leo Babauta would be so proud.

Once the first trimester fog lifted, it was definitely Summer. Time for a fresh start. Time to relax. To get outside. Eat a lot of tomatoes. Start planning all that priceless warm-weather fun.

Summer

Or, perhaps, host a steady stream of out-of-own guests while your husband is on Planet Grad School!

In our spare moments, we squeezed in all of our annual travel desires and obligations (Michigan! North Carolina! Niagara Falls!), I attended my many mandatory doctor’s appointments, wrote book reviews, and parented my shiny new two-year-old. And by “shiny,” I mean high-energy, verbally demanding, and LOUD. Also, it was 90+ degrees with 90% humidity for the entire season, I swear.

For extra credit, I weaned my two-year-old from breastfeeding and, over Labor Day weekend, we started potty training.

Fall

So now I’m staring down Fall. September, October, November. Back to School season. My third trimester. What can I realistically hope to accomplish? What needs to change, even for this short while, to maintain household sanity? What is just going to happen: the inevitable that I need to prepare for? Or even just recline into?

There are plenty of women who can’t or don’t allow pregnancy to slow them down in any way: women who can continue their fabulous or ambitious lives while also gestating children. I’m pretty sure they all have Instagram accounts.But for me? Right now? It’s a real challenge. For many days, just showing up at work and at home with family feels like more than enough to expend all the energy I have. Plenty of hunker down and SURVIVE days. Is everyone alive and fed? Has Mom had more than 6 hours of sleep? Everything else is ignorable – water under the bridge of everyday life. Good job, Working Mom. Good night.

The good news? This month, I’m riding a modest wave of fresh energy. I’ve taken that good Back to School September mojo combined with Third Trimester Nesting/Manic Preparedness Urges and taken that to the power of a new planner. I’m getting up early again. I’m making – and tackling – to-do lists again.

I’m feeling like I have the slightest grip on my life, again. Even with a pants-peeing toddler under my watch. And the third trimester aches and pains and HEARTBURN oh, dear God, the heartburn.

The other good news: I’m still reading. Kind of a lot. I’m pushing myself to Just Read some of the 2018 kid’s and teen titles that will surely fall to the bottom of my TBR come 2019; I’m about to finish my 6th since August 27th. I also muscled through the end of All the Light We Cannot See (yessss) and snuck in Jenny Han’s 2015 P.S. I Still Love You, just for fun. Lara Jean ended up being my 100th read of the year.

Winter, again

I know it won’t last long – both the energy boost and this Fall in Boston. Fittingly enough, I’m due December 1st: I’ll say goodbye to the season and hello to a new life. In the meantime the aches and pains will soon get worse. The heartburn, too. Soon I’ll have to figure out what to do with my loud, crazy, awesome, barely-potty trained toddler while I check into the hospital and give birth to his new brother or sister… then, I’ll have to figure out how to live under the same roof with two children.

I’m so much less anxious than I was with my last pregnancy; I’m honestly excited to meet this little person and see how he or she fits into our family. But I’m still petrified of how painful the process will be; how long it will be before we can even start to feel normal again. Because these waves of energy will surely give way to fatigue, confusion, and frustration. That blurry, scrabbling feeling like my life is close to capsizing will return.

Then it will go away… before it comes back.

No magic plan or planner is going to save me from all that – the ebb and the flow, the hormones, this inconvenient human condition made all the more complicated when you create and live among your own offspring. I can’t transform these messy, less-than-planned seasons of my life, but I can always try to make incremental progress, to find ways to feel steady for just a few moments, and to fill my days, months, and seasons with good memories, big ideas, and great books whenever possible.

Sincerely yours,

Acid-Reflux-y-but-Optimistic Jessica, (who.is.possibly.in.deep.denial.about.what.is.coming.for.her.around.the.gestational.bend….)

summer reading 2018

So it’s July and 90 degrees out, but I’m still not sure it feels like Summer.

I mean, the signs are all there. The AC is cranking. The fridge is stocked with iced coffee. My dress+sandals wardrobe is in rotation. My 2-year-old is all “why are you trying to put me to bed when it’s still light out, you fools??” at 7:45 every night. School is finally out for Teacher Husband. Everyone on the Internet posted their Summer Reading lists weeks and weeks ago.

I’m not entirely convinced. We had a long, chilly, dreary Spring in Boston this year, which I haven’t quite forgotten about. We also started the Crazy Busy Summer Season a bit early, this year. Our daycare provider is on a long, deserved vacation. The good news? We’ve had a cavalcade of family in and out of our house to babysit – this is great for us, since time off of work is precious, and for the kid, who got to spend time with two faraway aunties and two faraway grandmas this month. The bad news? I feel like everyone has been on vacation, except I keep having to show up at work everyday… and also work harder at keeping my house somewhat inhabitable. Also I’m going to Michigan in two days to visit my sister’s baby, and some extremely beloved out of town (country?) friends are swinging through later in July. Phew.

See also: book reviews. I started off my Guide season so on top of my reading! Like, freakishly on top of both reading AND reviewing. Oh, past Jessica. So much can change in but a few short months. The season’s deadlines have all officially passed, now, and I still have a stack of questionable YA books waiting to be read and reviewed. My Summer Reading cannot truly begin until I conquer this task, which puts me in a strange position: I must read more books I don’t want to read so I can then read more books I do want to read.

This reading life thing takes some serious stamina, people.

Anyway, once summer finally starts, maybe I will be lucky enough to read some of these great books that have caught my eye! Here’s what I hope to be reading sometime before the leaves start falling off the trees.

Young Adult Books

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevado

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Save the Date by Morgan Matson

Middle Grade Books

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

 

Adult Fiction

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

Still Life by Louise Penny

 

Adult Nonfiction

The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grown Ups by Erika Christakis

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy by Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As an Adult by Bruce Handy

 

Summer Reading Lists Past

2017 – 2016 – 20152014201320122011

33

A few days before my birthday, I started writing a little something about what’s going on in my life. I mean, there’s nothing really remarkable going on – just work, commuting, family life, reading, and reviewing – so really it was more about how I *feel* about what’s going on in my life. The short and entirely unsurprising answer: I’m feeling a lot of complicated, conflicting things about what is, ultimately, a really good life.

The slightly longer answer is that I’m really struggling with managing time and energy. I know, I know. I have a full time job and an almost two-year-old. These are super hands-on months: the months of constant supervision and constant transitions and inconstant sleep. Building even a single good habit seems an insurmountable challenge, while bad habits seem to slip in without my permission or even notice. When I do occasionally have the wherewithal to make a plan or decision that doesn’t involve my family or my job, I find myself forgetting all about my conviction within days; or worse, I can’t remember why I ever wanted to accomplish that task in the first place.

I was writing about all of those feelings, and more, when I was about to turn 33. And then I reported for jury duty, and after being empaneled on a trial, stayed there for almost two weeks.

This was an unexpected life-shake-up. Like I said, I’ve been struggling. Amidst the struggle, I thought that I could really use a vacation. Not a trip, where I’d wind up exhausted and playing catch up at the end of my “time off” – but just a week away from my normal routine. I thought it, and it appeared – a pseudo-vacation! I mean, I still had to show up every day, but I also found myself with this strange thing called “down time.” Jury duty involves plenty of waiting, ideal for working on book reviews or reading, while the more relaxed schedule and 20-minute commute left me with a few hours a day by myself. In my own home. With nothing to do.

I used some of that down time to read Cal Newport’s Deep Work, a book that I might describe as… profoundly moving. His central message: arrange your schedule and train your brain toward the singular goal of doing the kind of work you have to concentrate on – and the kind of work you find exceptionally important or meaningful. It’s nothing entirely revolutionary, especially if you, like me, are a productivity book junkie, but there was something about the way Newport put it that really made a lot of sense to me. One reason I find concentrating on my work to be hard is because I don’t feel strongly about it: maybe I’m trying to work on things that I think I should find meaningful, but I don’t. Another reason: I’m of the Internet addicted era. My neurons are not necessarily wired to do deep work.

A perk of jury duty: ample time where I needed concentrate very hard on what lawyers and witnesses were saying, even though what they were saying might not be terribly interesting. I found it surprisingly difficult, especially at first, to avoid tuning out what everyone was saying in favor of running over my own quotidian concerns in my mind. Also, trials include all sorts of 1-5 minute breaks where lawyers speak in heated whispers and the jury just gets to… sit there. Without our phones. Torturous, but good practice for my neurons.

I enjoyed a cushy schedule for two weeks and happened to read a brain-changing book during the week I turned 33. All of that was nice. But after two weeks of hanging out with 15 other strangers in a very small room and thinking about the serious, unfortunate, and complicated case we were considering… and then the thoughtful, liberal introverted empath’s nightmare that is a Jury Deliberation? I was just so, so grateful, for basically every single thing in my life.

I’m grateful to live in a country with a justice system that operates so professionally.

I’m grateful to live in a community where a random selection of jurors can include doctors, teachers, PhD holders, psychologists, and other well-educated, considerate, and fair-minded adults.

I’m grateful to have a job that covers my pay while I’m doing my civic duty.

I’m grateful that nobody in my family has been a victim of a violent crime.

I’m grateful that my husband and I do not have jobs where we work unpredictable, dangerous hours or are confronted with violent crimes every day.

I’m grateful that other people do have those jobs.

I’m grateful for my family, for my husband, for my crazy-smart, delightful child, and for a life where I’m allowed the privilege of struggling over, of all things, my time, my energy, and my feelings.

 

32 | 31 |30 | 29 | 28 | 27 | 26 | 25 | 24

what i read this month – january 2018

First up for January… finishing up a few dangling review books. One of these was left in Michigan. While I was bed-sharing with a wakeful crib-climbing toddler at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, my spouse was left in charge of packing for our early morning flight… and somehow, my I-Must-Read-This-By-The-End-of-Next-Week book was left behind. Thankfully, my place of business had a copy for checkout, but here’s something – I had to text my Mom and ask her what the title of the stupid book was. Welcome to the end of Guide Season, where I cannot remember the name of the book you are currently reading. Also, welcome to 2017-2018, where contemporary YA titles are equally vague and entirely interchangeable. Here’s a brief sampling I’ve come across in my reading lately:

  • These Things I’ve Done
  • Things I’m Seeing Without You
  • This is Not the End
  • Now is Everything
  • Where I Live
  • You Don’t Know Me But I Know You
  • If There’s No Tomorrow
  • The Beautiful Lost

Mind you, I did not troll lists of YA books looking for the most meaningless titles. I actually read all of these books. And no, for the most part I can’t really remember what they were about.

So I finished two of these meaningless titles in January – These Things I’ve Done and Things I’m Seeing Without You. Book about “Things” A was about a dead best friend and survivor’s guilt. Book about “Things” B was about a dead Internet boyfriend and the alternative funeral industry. I read. I wrote reviews. I moved on with my life.

And what did I move on to?? The exciting world of Books for Adults!

I mean, after I finished three books for Younger than Adults: two about criminals and one about cats. I’ve been wanting to read E. Lockhart’s latest, Genuine Fraud. It’s a rather action-y thriller with a really emotionally distant protagonist, which feels like a departure for Lockhart and did put me off somewhat. But it’s also about class and rich folks that live on the Vineyard, which is familiar territory. About half-way in, the tension really got me, and I sped through the second half feeling entirely uneasy.

I finished reading the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal on my Kindle – The Cat Who Went to Heaven with Elizabeth Coatsworth, which is the world’s shortest book. It’s about a Japanese artist and his helpful genius cat who really knows what the Buddha was about and – spoiler alert – dies at the end. That’s really all I can say about that one.

And then, my book club’s choice for our February meeting. We are officially reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, but Frank Cottrell Boyce’s debut – Millions – is an optional choice. And of course, when you offer me two books, I will read them chronologically. Millions was quite charming – loved the single-dad-to-boys family dynamic and the just preposterous enough premise.

Next, the adult books:

I listened to two memoirs on audio – Unraveled, a story of how the author went from happy SAHM to divorced and living with her lover in California while her ex-husband maintained physical custody of their three children – and The Year of Less – a story of a twenty-something’s choice to give up shopping for a year. Both were good audio fodder, but The Year of Less was definitely my favorite of the two – strangely enough, it felt much more intimate and revelatory than Unraveled, even though the subject matter was more quotidian.

I also read two memoirs… in print. As in, books that don’t read themselves to you! My first choice was driven by the sad realization that while I have access to plenty of pre-pub books at work, I never… actually… read any of them. So I grabbed Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, and I really enjoyed it. Excellent prose, short chapters, and very… I don’t know… womanly. Stories about pregnancy and childbirth, about relationships with men in her life, about caring for children and her parents and growing up. It definitely had a woman’s sentiment.

The second was driven by my not-so-brief list of Books I Really Do Want To Read Someday. I picked up Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob on a Saturday when I had cramps and was also coming down with a cold. A perfect couch-bound weekend read. Also, I’m deeply envious of Paul’s… um… life. As a whole.

And then two works of adult fiction, both about suburbia, but from entirely different angles. The first was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which I snatched off the Lucky Day shelf at work, which meant I had to hustle to bring it back. So hustle I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not going to tell you about it because you surely have heard about it. Statistically, you are probably one of the 500 patrons of my library who have it on hold! I will say that it had plenty of the domestic commentary and teen POV characters that I find so appealing. The second was List: A Novel, by my beloved undergraduate advisor Matthew Roberson. It’s an incredibly up-close look at a marriage – so up-close that it’s occasionally hard to tell if you’re still in the same character’s head or if you’ve slipped into the home of another vaguely despairing husband or wife. Compelling, but also somewhat horrifying. I finished it and found myself asking my husband over dinner, “So, what can we do right now so we won’t accidentally start hating each other and get divorced?” We came up with a few ideas…

Aaaand…. theeeenn…  two straight nonfiction books. I did conquer Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less. I was… Less than Impressed. It was fine, really, but not great. I might write more about it later. And speaking of (pint-sized, rambunctious) productivity-challenges, I also read Your One-Year-Old by Louise Bates Ames, which is a parenting manual written the 80s. I read the first half when My One-Year-Old was just about to be One; I read the second half when he was almost 19 months. Some of the advice feels dated (child leashes anyone?), but it’s a bit more holistic than modern baby-raising-manuals, which tend toward the clinical in my experience. It was nice to read about how nutty young toddlers are – in great behavioral and developmental detail – and then have the authors say, repeatedly, “Oh, one-year-olds. Can’t teach them anything! Just wait a few months” and feel better about myself.

I’m officially out of thematic and format-ic connections. Also: damn. I read a lot this month. I listened to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredibly brief We Should All Be Feminists while I cleaned my house one weekend, because was Available Now on Overdrive and I was sucked in by an audiobook that was shorter than an episode of the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Goys. I remember very little except thinking, “Oh yes, I agree with that,” quite often.

You may have noticed that I have skipped from November to January in these (potentially)-faithful reading round-ups. Did I read nothing? No books for 31 days? Au contraire, mon frère. I read about fourteen books in December of 2017. Most of them meaninglessly-titled review books; two adult non-fic re-reads (see: stress); and an adult fic book that topped many Best Of lists when it came out years ago that I just now got around to reading and, of course, loving. See you next month, when I will surely have received the gift of brevity that so blesses most folks who write monthly reading round-ups.

 

how to read more: ask yourself one question

It’s the book review off-season for me. This is intoxicating – I can read w.h.a.t.e.v.e.r. I want, and on my own timeline. However, I know from experience that this reader’s high can wear off quickly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there’s an inevitable ebb and flow to any reading life – but personally, I find it more difficult to pick up and finish new books if I’ve taken too long of a break.

For me, best way to maintain reading momentum is picking the right books. It’s so much easier to find time to read when you can’t put the book down; it’s like the book itself does the heavy motivational lifting for you. For me, the books don’t have to be universally GREAT, five-star reads. They just have to be good enough and well paced enough and otherwise interesting enough to keep me moving through and on to the next; identifying and gathering those enough books is key.

So how do you keep the virtuous cycle churning and find these enough books? The right book for the right time? The specifics of what and how you read are personal, but I’ll tell you what I did a few weeks ago to gather up some potential good enough books.

First, I thought about where the various pools of potential books that I want to read “live.” Like literary tastes, reading methods and preferences vary between individuals, but the places you find new books to read are likely somewhat discrete. Some people like to keep a towering stack of books next to their bedside, others a TBR list in a notebook, others a few MBs of purchased Kindle books they haven’t yet virtually cracked. Some people like to spend time reading reviews or blogs to find reccs on the fly, others prefer to visit their books in person – at a store or the library – and see where their whims take them.

My Potential Reads live in a few places:

  • On my physical bookshelves at home, where I put them after I bought them or someone bought them for me, or when I brought them home from the library.
  • On my library holds list.
  • In the small hoard of galleys I keep at work.
  • On my embarrassingly large To-Read shelf on Goodreads.

For some, enviously more decisive people than I am, this might be enough to arm you with a battalion of good books. If you thought it was interesting enough to buy, check out, or list then it’s probably good enough to read! But for me, it’s not quite enough. Reading through every book I own just because it happens to live in my house or on my eReader seems like a grand idea, but to me, it ends up feeling depressingly like required reading. Which is not a feeling that usually inspires me to read.

So I took another step. I reviewed each “pool” of books briefly and asked myself this question of each:

“Do I definitely want to read this book, eventually?”

And this was enough to help me separate the wheat from the chaff in my too-long to-read lists, to pinpoint those good enough books that actually compel me to read them.

Lastly, I wrote down the first five or six titles that yes, I did want to read someday, eventually, and then took a second to check my list for balance. My list was a little adult nonfiction heavy. I reviewed my to-read lists again with an eye for fiction, especially children’s and YA, and wrote down the first few I found that, yes, I did want to read. Someday.

And since I made the list, just a few weeks ago, I have finally read three books that I definitely wanted to read some day. Three down, three hundred thousand to go!

Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

Homeward Bound: Why Woman Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar

The Creative Family Manifesto by Amanda Soule

List: A Novel by Matthew Roberson

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin

Braving the Wildnerness by Brene Brown

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider

winter plan | 2018

Winter Plan

December 2017 – January 2018 – February 2018

Welcome to my first seasonal plan! I am conveniently skipping over December, you see, since it is the past. Thinking back, I don’t know how I could have worked out any sort of goals last month except Feed Family, Acquire Gifts, and Survive Travel. Anyway, I am in the present now, as are you, I assume. It’s the end of January, actually, and I’m looking toward the near future.

When I started to narrow down my goals and plans for the quarter, I wasn’t quite sure if it was better to think about my goals in terms of topic or in terms of strategy. I ended up doing both. Dividing my list by topic – family, home, creativity, and (gag) self-care – helped my list feel balanced. Dividing by strategy ensured I wasn’t trying to change one million habits at once (you win, Babatua) or taking on too many big projects. I divided my plan into four strategic categories: habitsprojects, thinking and planning, and activities. 

As I write, I’m already three weeks into month – just into the second half of the season. So far, I am finding this plan to be a pleasant reference point as I make my various to-do lists, make plans for my free time, and find books to read at the library.

Habits

lifestyle and behavior modifications that take persistence. (this is silly. you know what a habit is…)

Strength train at home.

I wasn’t getting out to exercise much before the Cold and the Snow arrived (see: toddler + full time job), so it would be entirely foolish to assume I would start getting to the gym with any regularity now. I really hate working out at home, but if I want to exercise at all, I should probably make peace with it. I am hoping to find some sort of strength routine that doesn’t require much equipment – I liked following the New Rules of Lifting program a few years back, so something like that I could do in my living room would be perfect.

Upgrade my skincare routine.

In the exhausted hubbub of the holidays, I had a moment with the bathroom mirror where I realized that yes, my face is aging. And no, I’m not really doing anything to remedy it. I’m not yet 33, so I’m hoping I have a little time to turn things around. Oh, and perhaps deal with the acne. Acne and wrinkles, guys. This is 32/33.

Read with a pen in hand whenever possible.

I struggle with finding a balance between reading for pleasure and reading for more professional purposes, but I feel like there’s a simple compromise. Reading anything with a pen in hand encourages writing about what I am reading which encourages thinking about what I am reading. This may prove challenging given my current reading habits – see: standing up on the train, walking in the park, on the couch while a toddler climbs all over me – but I’ll try whenever I can.

Projects

 longer than a task + but shorter than a habit = a project!

Uber frugal month.

I have signed up for the Frugalwood’s Uber-frugal month challenge. This involves receiving daily emails about frugality and completing small assignments. I’m halfway through the month, and luckily, most of the assignments are things I already do. “Read an email every day” is a pretty easy project to accomplish! There’s also a “don’t spend money component, but while this is more difficult, it’s not at all time consuming to *not* do something, so that’s convenient.

Blogging.

In case you didn’t notice, I am trying to blog slightly more often than… oh… four times a year. Writing, posting, thinking about posts, figuring out when to do all this stuff… well, that’s a project.

Decorate two rooms.

As I mentioned in my NYR post, I am beautifying my home in 2018. Living room is up first, in January. I’m thinking of doing the office next, since I’d like to… oh… use this room for its intended purpose. Or even just see the top of my desk. Either of those things would be great.

Sew a baby quilt.

I have three friends/family members who are procreating this year, and guess what! I am trying to become an accomplished quiltress. Baby quilts are perfect to practice on, so I am going to sew some. I want to finish the first by April, so now is the time to start planning and working so I’m not trying to scramble at the last minute.

Thinking and Planning

areas of research, discussion, and contemplation to prepare for near-future events, activities and changes

Prepare for the transition to a toddler bed.

While we were visiting family for Christmas, my eighteen-month-old learned how to climb out of cribs. At first it was just a dinky travel Pack ‘n’ Play – then it was a full-size crib identical to his own. Since we’ve been home, the humble Sleep Sack (thank you, thank you, thank you Halo) has subdued our little monkey, but the experience was enough to put the fear of God into me. It’s only a matter of time before he figures out how to climb in it or, heaven preserve me, unzip the zipper. Game plans, contingencies, and strategies must be made NOW.

Prepare for a potential child-free vacation. 

My darling toddler is a decent sleeper. Unfortunately, he’s not the most *reliable* sleeper – while he’s been sleeping better and better since turning a year old, he’s still prone to periodic sleep setbacks, regressions, etc. Right now, he’s sleeping through the night, with a middle of the night wake-up maybe once a week or so, and it’s that random wake-up I’m concerned about. Because, you see,  my darling, decent sleeping toddler accepts no middle-of-the-night comfort except his beloved Mama Milk. And Mama and her Milk would like to take a child-free vacation this Spring.  I don’t know if the solution is Official, Once-and-for-all Night Weaning or All the Way Weaning or some intensive Dad’s Nighttime Toddler Soothing Boot Camp or what, but I’d like not to leave my kid overnight with someone knowing he is going to be a middle-of-the-night terror – and that he will be middle-of-the-night terrorized by my absence.

Baby #2 Discussion/Preparation/Creation?

I feel like this is uncharacteristically personal for this psuedo-book blog… but I have an 19-month-old, so I feel like having another is not really the world’s most surprising turn of events. I’m almost 33. We are in the desirable window for a 2-3 year sibling age gap. So it’s time to at least think and plan. Oh, and also frantically squirrel away money just in case.

Plan for Spring travel

As much as I might be fantasizing about another February trip to Mexico, we are not planning any Winter travel this year. Spring, however, is looking more promising. Now is the time to check schedules, request time off, and start looking for flight deals.

Activities

one-off tasks that either don’t take much effort or can be crossed off in an afternoon. preferably fun!

Bake sourdough bread.

Using and maintaining a sourdough starter was something I pulled off my List of 100 Dreams last Spring… and I’ve kept it alive since then! I wish my track record with house plants was so impressive. Anyway, while I feed my starter lovingly and faithfully, I’ve only baked with it a few times. I’d like to rectify that while it’s still sub-arctic outside and turning on my oven isn’t an offense to my soul.

Personal Read-a-thon!

I am officially done with my Book Reviewing Season! I can now read whatever my heart desires… except that sometimes when this happens, I end up reading nothing. However, I’ve found that girding myself from a reading slump can often prevent one, so I’m going to focus on tricking and cajoling myself into keeping the reading momentum going. So far, I’ve indulged in a few Grown Up Books – Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng,  I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, List: A Novel by Matthew Roberson – and it really does feel quite indulgent.

Light candles whenever possible.

It’s Winter. It’s cold, I don’t leave the house if I can avoid it, I have stacks of books to read, and I’m trying to improve the ambiance of my home. Prime candle time! Also, a low-ball achievement to check off my list… assuming I can find somewhere to put a candle that my rambunctious toddler can’t access.

best picturebooks of 2017. and also podcasts.

It is already the second fourth week of January. While New Year’s Resolution musings are fair game for at least another week, we are certainly coming up on the far reaches of the acceptable time to be writing about favorite media of the previous year.

Oh, how tiny and fleeting this window is! Does anyone still think about the best books and movies and such from 2007? I feel like one’s choices for comparative media analysis (and by that I mean: “Best of” Lists) are limited to The Previous Calendar Year or ALL TIME. How limiting.

Since the clock has already run out for 2017, I am going to sneak in just three final, semi-incongruous lists for you.

My Top Ten Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

Unlike my annual Best Reads lists, this list refers only to books *actually* published in 2017! They are also listed in no particular order, since, as I have mentioned, my window of relevance is narrowing oh so quickly. I have no time to think that critically!

The above list represents my own particular, adult tastes. You can tell because of all the browns and blues. Muted, adult-y books. What books do KIDS actually like? The timeworn question of children’s literature people. I cannot speak for all children, of course, but I did create one specific child recently. Here is what he loved this year:

My 6-18-month-old’s Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

 

I have to say… I’m a little surprised by his  tastes. Some of these books seemed, to me, a little “old,” a little wordy, a little… uh… philosophical for an under-two. I mean, except for What Does Baby Want. That’s just a book about boobs. But he seriously loved all of these books. I limited this list to those books I read so, so, so many times that I accidentally had to put them on the top bookshelf where he couldn’t reach or maybe lost them behind the couch for awhile. Maybe.

Two lists for the price of one! What a great post! Why not make it better by throwing in a third, completely unrelated list? Good idea, Jessica. Just run with it. Don’t look back.

My passion for podcasts has really only grown since I ran out of This American Life so many years ago. I consume more podcasts than I do television, movies, or music. (I might consume more podcasts than I read books?? Egad… let’s not dwell on that thought for too long) The podcast scene is really booming lately, almost in the way that blogging was years and years ago – and finding a podcast with great hosts on a topic that I am interested gives me the same buzz as finding a similar blog.

So here’s what I’ve been loving this year; the podcasts that I feel excited to see posted and queue up immediately, again, in no particular order:

My Top Ten Favorite Podcasts of 2017

This is the list that certainly had the most runner-ups. I listen to just… entirely too many podcasts. I used to be such a completeist too, wanting to start at the beginning of every show and listen to each episode in order and never miss once I caught up. Ha. Now it’s all I can do to keep vaguely up to date with even these ten.

Okay. I’m done. You may all safely enter 2018 now.