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(a few too many) New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

A few weeks ago, I left my required reading book on the wrong side of the baby gate. Knowing that if I hopped over and back I would distract my toddler from his contented, independent play and thus lose my chance to read ANYTHING, I took a taste of the forbidden fruit that is Every Book On The Planet That Is Not My Required Reading; I read the introduction to Zen Habits’s Leo Babauta’s 2009 book, The Power of Less.

To succeed and thrive, Babauta says, you must focus all of your attention on one goal at a time.

To Google, I said, “Does Leo Babauta have a stay-at-home wife?” Why yes, he does. It must be nice to have someone to take care of the rest of your life while you focus all of your attention on One Goal.

It’s New Year’s Resolution season, which I love. The entire Internet blooms with writing about goal-setting and time management and habit-change, which are some of my favorite things to read and write about! But when it comes to my own resolutions, I am still… mmm… making peace with the process. My angst is well documented.

Okay, so I do have a tendency to make too many Resolutions. Shut up, Babauta. There’s a time and a place for making a series of sweeping life changes, but with its proximity to the holidays, notoriously nasty weather in the parts of the US I tend to hang out in, and hangovers, I don’t think January 1 is really an ideal date for changing your entire life immediately.

But even if I did have a stay-at-home-wife of my own to help maintain my household while I tackled One Goal, is a New Year’s Resolution an appropriate place to apply such laser-sharp focus? A year is a long time to focus on one task without getting bored or distracted. A year is a long time to let other priorities slide; giving up on, say, exercise or healthful eating while you focus on other goals just seems dumb.

I hope my first New Year’s Resolution will help me tamp down my desire to make 100 changes all at once by helping me apply a little One-Goal-ish focus throughout the year. My first resolution for 2018 is to Live (and Plan) Seasonally. Instead of a plan for the year, I’ll plan for the season. The rhythms of the weather, temperature, and amount of daylight will help me determine which goals and habits to focus on and when.

(This resolution was inspired heavily by Austin Kleon, and somewhat by Laura Vanderkam’s Seasonal Bucket Lists.)

So yes, for my first resolution, I resolve to make more resolutions.

Ahem.

In considering my various NYR successes and failures, I think I’ve decided that for me, the best resolutions are fun resolutions. Resolutions that don’t involve your major life goals or core competencies, because if you start to fail those, then the guilt settles in for the rest of the year. Resolutions that aren’t punishing or restrictive (unless, of course, you find restricting yourself strangely fun? Any abstainers in the room?) Resolutions that don’t involve your weight. So my second resolution for 2018 is to Play Twelve New Board Games with my spouse. We have been Aspiring Boardgamers ever since my sister’s boyfriend entered our lives at the North Carolina Beach House in 2014. That summer, we played Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders, and more. Three years later, my sister’s boyfriend is my sister’s husband, and my husband and I ready to be Actual Boardgamers.

We are hoping this resolution will also help us acquire some Actual Boardgamer Friends, since most games are more fun with at least 3 people. This is not, however, stopping us from playing through an entire legacy campaign of Charterstone as a twosome. We are only on game 3, so we will have to play a little resolution catch up at some point. Oh darn.

My final resolution is really more of a project, but one that will last all year so I’m going ahead and calling it an NYR. My third resolution for 2018 is to Beautify My Home, One Room at a Time. I’ve been in this place for a year and a half now, and while we’ve made some purchases and improvements, I’m ready to go all in.

(Or at least as all in as you can go with a rental, a toddler, a minuscule budget, and a mediocre track record with resolution-keeping…)

It’s really killing me not to throw on ten more resolutions to this list. I want to read 100 books this year, but I *always* want to read 100 books *every* year! I always want to eat better, work out more, feel healthier, get more sleep, write more and write better, etc. My human hamster-wheel of desires will certain spin on, all year long. And I’ll probably tell you all about it.

 

Best Reads of 2017

Sound the alarms! Trumpet your trumpets! I am posting my favorite reads of 2017 on the second day of the first month of the year! A somewhat delayed but altogether reasonable time to post such a list! Ta-da! Wow! Amazing! Let’s get to it!

10. Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Writer Shapiro recalls – and then contemplates, ruminates, and poeticizes – her long marriage to her reporter-turned-screenwriter husband. It’s a slim book told in brief, clipped vignettes, which is a form I enjoy and believe perfectly suited to Shapiro’s style; the intense, undiluted intimacy she creates is easier to handle in small doses.

 

9. The Disturbed Girls’ Dictionary by Noneiqa Ramos

Here’s a story about a teen who suffers a dozen or so of what us caring, white adults will call “traumatic childhood experiences,” but comes out of her trauma swinging. Wielding an attitude as big as a house, Macy Cashmere can’t acquiesce to the demands of her teachers, but she’ll move mountains for her best friend Alma and her baby brother, Zane. As a caring, white adult, this was an EXCEPTIONALLY difficult read, but the voice was just so raw and honest and blazingly good I have to recommend it.

 

 

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’m sure you don’t need one more recommendation for this book, but oh, I do just love it when the YA-buzz books are actually pretty good. In this one, Starr Carter witnesses a close friend’s murder by a police officer, which leads her into the politics of her gang-influenced neighborhood and the mass protests that disrupt it. There was a moment toward the end that was so tense and nerve-wracking that I cried. While listening to the audiobook. This really does not happen with me and YA…

 

7. Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman

Whenever I look for non-instructional books about pregnancy and birth, I am shocked by how few have been published… but of the few, Waiting for Birdy seems to be the most universally recommended. I finally read this (and its companion, Catastrophic Happiness), on my Kindle; I was so enamored with Newman’s honest but loving depiction of her family life and her humorous, easy-going voice that I probably let my little guy sleep-nurse longer than necessary while I read yet another essay.

 

6. The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby

Two Canadian teens compete in a fashion competition. Sartorial obsessed, Diana Vreeland-wannabe Charlie Dean is hilariously passionate about her art. Sardonic, lazy John Thomas just wants in to the fancy private school, so he – hilariously – turns his fashion ignorance into a mysterious and alluring “who cares about the rules of fashion” persona. Very fun, very moving, and very surprising; Susan Juby is doing such great work in realistic YA.

 

5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A richly imagined, provocative historical novel that follows a young enslaved woman’s escape from her captors. Also, a pop of magical realism. But it’s not the magical realism I remember, now; it’s Cora’s tenacity, the relentless brutality of the white men literally invested in Cora’s body as a piece of property, and the unbearable tension that she may be caught at any moment.

 

4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Sociologist Desmond spent eight years living alongside low-income renters in Milwaukee, chronicling their lives with specific attention paid to housing. As an 8-year renter in a large city known for its housing crunch, I can certainly sympathize with those facing the unexpected Perils of Renting. My expenses and inconveniences are nothing compared to those who are trapped in jaws of low-income renting; it’s a broken system that seems to only funnel government assistance money into the hands of predatory landlords at the massive expense of their systemically oppressed tenants. Desmond sheds much needed light on this particularly devastating cog in the cycle of poverty.

 

3. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

This collection of personal essays and recipes is a cult-classic for a reason. Colwin’s writing is warm, guileless, and welcoming. Unlike a lot of foodie memoirs, her tone is not sentimental, utilitarian, or professional: she’s just writing about the pleasures – and pratfalls – of preparing real food in your own home, for yourself or people you love.

 

2. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

A diary-style story about a plucky fourteen-year-old girl who abandons her family farm to seek her fortune – and independence from her family – in early 20th century America. Lengthy, tween-y, historical fiction tomes aren’t usually in my wheelhouse, but its praise was so universal: every person I talked to who had read it was just effusive. And now I am one of them. Joan is one of the most endearing, delightful narrators I’ve met in years.

 

1. Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence

Librarian Spence writes light-hearted effervescent “letters” to the books in her life. Gimmicky book-person bait? Perhaps, but oh, Spence’s intimate voice just charmed my socks off. This is a bit of a genre blender: each piece is part personal essay, part reading recommendation, and part ode to the act of reading. And all parts compulsively readable to a fellow millennial bookworm

I also just wanted to take a self-centered moment to mention that Spence and I are fellow CMU creative writing alumni, public librarians, and writers-who-write-about-books. So she is basically living my life, except significantly more awesome since she dreamed up this delightful book.

 

what i read this month – november 2017

Another month in the thick of Book Review Season. I found my assignments a little easier to get through this month than last, but I am finding myself growing so, so weary of the following in YA lit:

  • Therapeutic Road trips (2/8)
  • Car crashes (3/8)
  • Dead siblings/parents/best friends (4/8)
  • Bucket lists, especially tackling someone else’s bucket lists (just 1 this month, but they really annoy me)

I feel like I am getting pickier with my YA reading, but really! Authors! Write anything that isn’t a spin-off of the same dozen stories, and I’m totally with you.

My recommends for the month are as follows: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares was certainly my favorite; great voice, jokes that are actually funny, and a weird “is this supernatural or realism?” vibe that I liked. The Art of Feeling was a somewhat distant second, but recommended, especially if you are, like me, have just been waiting for a YA book about MBTI personality types. Such a Good Girl if you are in for a good mind fuck. You Don’t Know Me But I Know You if you want to read a relatively drama free unplanned pregnancy tale with a biracial heroine.

In my listening-life, podcasts and audiobooks are always battling it out. Sometimes I get caught up getting caught up on my multitude of podcast subscriptions and can’t be bothered to finish an audiobook; sometimes I enjoy a long string of audiobooks and ignore my podcasts altogether. But I will admit this: when I’m in an audiobook mood, I’m often listening to books that are pretty similar to podcasts: works of nonfiction covering “hot topics” that pique some sort of pet interest of mine with a strong narrative voice – and actual narrator.

All of my November audiobooks fit this bill. Dear Fahrenheit 451 was an absolute gem, and The Happiness Project still holds its sway over me, even after many re-reads. was occasionally thought-provoking, but a little too Jesus-y for my tastes.

I did enjoy listening to All the Money in the World by Laura Vanderkam; I feel like there are woefully few books out there about personal finance that aren’t just *really* basic primers for banking, savings, etc. I’m not interested in investment strategies; I’m interested in how normal, middle class folks manage their budgets on a day-to-day basis. This fit the bill, but I wish Vanderkam had spent more time on the nitty-gritty of spending and savings and less time profiling the lives of chicken farmers, foragers, and other folks whose financial decisions she then went on to discourage. I also had enough beef with her section on teaching kids about money to fill up another blog post. Which I should probably restrain myself from doing since my kid is still at an age where if I handed him some money, he would eat it. But yes, I did enjoy the book; perhaps even enjoyed disagreeing with it, which is a somewhat familiar feeling regarding Vanderkam’s books.

I had no time to finish any non-audio, non-required books in November. I flipped through some new cookbooks and put in a little time with whatever books happened to be at my bedside. My library copy of An Age of License got lost in my toddler’s board book bin until it went massively overdue. And now it is December! I’m on my last stack of review books for the season (fingers crossed, anyway.) Shouldn’t be too hard to muscle through a huge pile of reading – and reviewing – while also shopping, decorating, traveling with a toddler, and preparing for the world’s most competitive work holiday party on Friday. Now I really should be going… it’s already Wednesday and I’ve only made 4 dozen cookies…

october reading

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

procrastinating upholders anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she persisted / ran / lifted / existed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

printz authors in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marcus Sedgwick – Saint Death and Mister Memory

Jessie Ann Foley – Neighborhood Girls

Nick Lake – Satellite

Benjamin Alire Saenz – The Explicable Logic of My Life

Elizabeth Wein – The Pearl Thief

Maggie Stiefvater – All the Crooked Saints

Deborah Heiligman – Vincent and Theo

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

E. Lockhart – Genuine Fraud

John Green – Turtles All the Way Down

Mal Peet & Meg Rosoff – Beck

Helen Frost – When My Sister Started Kissing

Ellen Wittlinger – Saturdays with Hitchcock

 

alice in august

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

room to breathe

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Summer Reading 2017

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

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

Ah, Summer Relaxation.

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

SUMMER BOOKS SHALT BE ENJOYABLE.

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

 

Young Adult Books

The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

 

Middle Grade Books

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by Leuyen Pham

 

Adult Fiction

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

Adult Nonfiction

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

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

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

 

Summer Reading Lists Past

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