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getting things done (or not): new mom style

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For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to throw together a particular post. Something poignant about what it’s like to try to get things done while also keeping a small baby alive. Something useful. Something hopeful.

Then, my darling baby boy decided that while he would continue to enjoy long stretches of sleep at night, he would not drift off to a peaceful sleep without a fight. Like, an hours-long, everyone weeping fight. And napping? Maybe. If Mom can jiggle at the right speed and shush at the proper frequency and align the stars and maybe just hang out in bed with a boob at the ready, perhaps he may sleep. For exactly 41 minutes. And wake up cranky.

After a few days of that, I abandoned all hope of Getting Anything Done, including writing blog posts about my supposed ability to Get Anything Done. It was Family Survival Mode – if all three human members of this little family ingested enough food, had the bare minimum of required sleep, and went to bed before 10 p.m., then we’d call it a win.

Our day-to-day has been improving since then, but even when the baby is asleep/otherwise happily occupied, I’m finding it quite difficult to let go of that edgy, antsy “but what if he…” kind of feeling. I suspect this is part of parenting – that even once I’m done obsessively Googling variants of “cranky 3 month old baby fights sleep,” I’ll still keep myself up at night wondering what he needs from me and how to provide it. And I have probably given over a permanent portion of my consciousness to some sort of general vigilance, so I’ll be ready to spring to action just as soon as my baby needs me. Even if my baby is 25 years old.

So how do I operate now, with these new constants? These inconstant-constants? Times of great change, I’ve found, come with new skills. When I went to college, I learned how to study. When I graduated, I learned how to go after what I wanted. When I worked four jobs, I learned how to shut down procrastination. Now I’m not saying I’m still great at all of these skills (I’m looking at YOU, procrastination), but they are definitely part of my life’s toolkit now. And I’m feeling a few more coming down the line.

  • Better compartmentalization – the ability to think about work when I’m working and not-work when I’m not-working.
  • Being able to work in spurts and chunks, and to be able to quickly identify when those spurts and chunks arrive, prioritize instantly, and tackle them.
  • Harnessing the power of wanting to be a good role model when trying to improve my day-to-day habits: family dinners, exercise, staying off of my gd phone (please, oh, please I hope I can stay off of my phone).

So yeah, despite my non-napping baby, I’m hopeful. but I’m also trying not to get upset when my best intentions don’t pan out. My baby is still little, but he’s already gone through so many day-to-day schedule iterations; it’s all I can do to keep up with his cues and needs and he grows and changes so dang quickly. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a good job, sometimes I feel like I’m doing it all wrong. Sometimes I have time and mental energy to Do a Non-Baby Related Thing, sometimes I don’t.

I keep reminding myself that while some of these parenting changes are permanent, this little-baby-time is a drop in the bucket. A relentless drop in the bucket. A mostly enjoyable, entirely temporary, completely relentless drop in the bucket. And what have I learned from other relentless times in my life? From finals weeks and Hell Weeks and other times of temporary chaos? Keep it simple. Eat enough good food. Drink enough water. Try to get a little exercise. Read something and write something every day. Hang on tight – days are long, years are short, etc., etc., etc.

reading wishlist: fall 2016 YA releases

I am three months into my maternity leave. I’ve had plenty of time to get into the *conceptual* groove of parenting if not the *actual* groove. That’s to say, my brain is slightly more amenable to non-baby-related notions, but I’m still far from figuring out how and when to… well… do anything about those notions. Heck, I can barely figure out how and when to eat lunch. But all caloric deficits aside, I’m starting to think about Stuff I Used to Do and Things I Used to Be Interested in. Like reading new YA books.

Unfortunately… it just doesn’t seem like the new YA books are interesting me this year. It could be the luck of the publishing season. It could be that my tastes are changing and that I’m having trouble divining the kind of YA book that I would like to read. I think I’ve written about this before, and I could probably write more. But although YA is purportedly still booming, with tons and tons of books to choose from, I had trouble coming up with just a handful that caught my attention. I’m sure there will be more titles of interest once more reviews come out and Fall awards buzz starts percolating, but for now, here’s a few that I might read this Fall.

(Or I just might keep reading confessional memoirs, parenting manuals, and Game of Thrones. WE SHALL SEE!)

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The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs

An exception to my general unimpressed-ness? Candlewick’s fall YA lineup. Candlewick has like, three or four YA titles that look really great. I chose this one even though it’s about one of my least favorite YA contemporary topics – school shootings. Last year I read and enjoyed Combs’s debut, Breakfast Served Anytime – I found it to be a thoughtful character-driven coming of age story  – so I’m hoping that this novel might bring a quieter, resonant voice to the high-concept story-line.

Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

After Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, if A. S. King writes, I shall read.

Although I did miss her last (and purportedly weirdest) I Crawl Through It. I don’t think now would be a great time for me to pick up something narratively challenging (see: all the memoirs), so I’ll skip one. And come back to it. Someday.

I wonder how many of these “someday” books I’ll actually read before I die. I wonder how many books I will read before I die. Oh no. I can’t be pondering my mortality on book #2. I still have four to go! And nap-time is going to end any minute! Stay focused.

Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung

Oh look! A dual narrated book that’s not being pitched as the next Eleanor & Park! What a novelty. Maybe because this one has two female narrators – Lucy who’s off at fancy private school and best friend Linh who is left behind – who don’t seem to be romantically involved Well, I mean, I haven’t read it, so maybe there’s a romantic second act twist! Anyway, speaking of pitches, this one is billed as “Gilmore Girls meets Fresh Off the Boat,” which I can dig.

You in Five Acts by Una LaMarche

Speeeeeeaking of the next Eleanor & Park, remember 2014’s Like No Other? I liked it, but it didn’t blow me away. Certain authors write YA stories with premises that always pique my interest, but the execution doesn’t *quite* get there: I’m starting to think LaMarche is one of those. HOWEVER, I will challenge my own skepticism for multi-voiced books set in prestigious performing arts high schools. I will also gladly do a little FAME! dance for you the next time we meet.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

Here’s another kind of author: the author who doesn’t not write stories that have anything to do with MUSIC! DANCE! or ACTING! or even high school for that matter. But everything he writes is like nothing else I’ve ever read, and everything he writes is festooned with literary accolades and awards. So while Fun Fame books beckon, I should probably add Mr. Sedgwick to my Must Read list. Honestly, I have no idea how this is considered a YA book – it’s narrated by a fictional version of an actual British author and is billed as a “Soviet Thriller.” Now have you ever read anything like that? I thought not.

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Mr. Oppel is a favorite of some of my more fantasy-lovin’ friends, but he’s not an author whose work usually calls to me. I read Airborn in grad school – it was fun but too steampunk-y for my tastes. I read The Boundless for the William C. Morris seminar – it was fun, but a little too middle-grade-y and a bit too indulgent in the historical cultural stereotype. I read The Nest for my book club – it was fun, and suuuuper creepy. Anyway, the common denominator seems to be “fun.” And since I pretty much don’t like any of the YA that I usually like these days, maybe I’ll give a YA about dinosaur bones a try.

 

 

her life with (picture)books vol. 1

Reading for a book award committee was all sort of insane… but also just really really fun. Unlike a lot of folks, I’m a fan of the imposed read – of reading lists, personal goals, syllabi and required reads. Limits give me a mental freedom to really sink into the reading experience. Or I’m just really hopelessly Type A. Either way, I’m working with what I got over here.

Anyway, the most fun reading requirement of this particular committee was the Reading Stacks and Stacks of Picturebooks edict. Most weekends, I’d grab a tall stack, plunk it down beside the couch, and read until I hit the bottom. Not a bad way to live whatsoever.

You guys. I really really really love picturebooks. They are little lyrical short stories, concept lessons, mini-graphic novels, existential meditations, portable works of art. I haven’t kept up with what’s going on in picturebook-land (other than for work purposes) since I read hundreds and hundreds for grad school 5 years ago (FIVE YEARS AGO??), but I want desperately to mend my ways. Beautiful, funny, lovely, thoughtful, weird picturebooks: come to me.

An-y-wayyyyyyyy…

I read a lot a lot a lot of picturebooks, and so many I just loved. I mean my three favorites still stand, but if I could have awarded two dozen picturebooks I probably would have. So I’m going to share some of my favorites with you, my dear blog readers (hi, mom. hi, dad.) You might find these suggestion a bit… ah… dated, since they were all published between June 2014 to May 2015, BUT I still wanted to share them. I’m hoping that now that I have a little guy in the house, I’ll have incentive to share some newer books with you in the future.

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Sam and Dave and their Dog dig a hole and don’t find anything. Until they find something VERY WEIRD. I love a good picturebook with something VERY WEIRD at the end of it…

More graphic novel than picturebook, with fun, iconic art that feels like old comic strips. Also, ghost cats.

I am super into Lauren Castillo’s art right now, probably because I am 100% obsessed with her instagram account. Anyway, this one she writes and illustrates – there’s a naughty boy and a naught raccoon and just all the thick black outlining a girl could want. And I usually want a lot.

This is most certainly a picturebook, but it’s got chapters. And it’s about some heavy family shit. Can you say the word “shit” when describing picturebooks? Well, I’m just going to let someone else worry about that question and move on with my day. Anywayyyy, one might call this a Picturebook for Older Readers, which I usually interpret as books for 2nd grade and up. I feel like most of the PicBooksforOldReaders I come across are about Important Times in History and are usually illustrated with a heavy, painterly style, so I really liked seeing Emily’s realistic story coupled with Brown’s lovely, straightforward art.

 

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A little boy finds a little whale and hides it in his bathtub. Davies is really great at setting a scene – both his exteriors and interiors are evocative and delightfully detailed. I suspect his animation background has something to do with it. Also, the cutest teeny little whale ever.

  • Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Love, love, love this one. The story – puppies switched at birth – is simple, fun, and fits perfectly into 32 pages. And Robinson’s art is just lovely. Great interiors (I really am a sucker for interiors…), expressive little pups, and some great page turns.

An unconventional tale about a family of hipster bunnies who adopt a small wolf. The story leads to a fun twist at the end and OHora’s art is – again – all thick black lines and blocks of color. I’m a girl who knows what I like.

Four little hunters trying to catch a little bird. The blue on blue on even more blue art is unique and sets the stealthy, sneaky mood – reviewers called the style “nocturnal,” which I think is apt. It also reminded me of Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers, which is a high compliment.

read – reading – to read

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Grown up, grown up, grown up books, as far as the eye can see. My Shiny New Library has a Shiny New “Lucky Day” collection. Does your library have such a shelf? These collections have different names, but they are all designed to provide browsing patrons access to high-demand titles. Instead of waiting in interminable hold lists, patrons who come in to the library will find a collection of new books that do not fill hold requests, but also cannot be checked out for a full 3 weeks or renewed. So it’s the luck of the draw. After hearing some persuasive pitches for Ann Leary’s The Children at PLA in April, I found it on the Lucky Day shelf and decided to check it out. It was quite fun. I like a good book about rich people who live in rich vacation homes. This one reminded me of a grown up We Were Liars but replace Lockhart’s gravitas with dark humor. Also,  notable – the single 20-something protag runs a fake mommy blog.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest felt like a similar read in terms of audience, but not in tone. Both books sit in that enjoyable middle ground that lies between “literary” and “commercial” adult fic, but where The Children is acerbic and little mysterious, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is more earnest. There’s a new narrator for every chapter, all of whom are players in the life of one Eva Thorvald, who grows from an orphaned, awkward child into a successful chef. All in all – pretty light, pretty fun.

I also continued my recent string of memoirs with Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. This has been on my to-read list since I read Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. Truth and Beauty is Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with Grealy – they met in college, and Patchett watched Grealy struggle with mental illness, addiction, and traumatic reconstructive facial surgeries. Autobiography of a Face is Grealy’s own memoir, focusing on a childhood spent in and out of hospitals, first battling cancer and then attempting to repair the radiation damage to her face. As a reading experience, I enjoyed Patchett’s story more, but I do have to say that Grealy says some startling truths about growing up with pain, illness, and difference. Given that I read a lot of children’s and teen books that feature characters who suffer in this way, it was really fascinating – and heartbreaking – to read a firsthand experience.

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reading

As promised, it seems that my postpartum Super Reading Days are drawing to a close. The baby is a speedier eater and a fussier napper; when I do have a spare moment, it’s hard to keep my mind centered on a book. I’m trying to maintain a bit of momentum, though – trying to sit down and just read at least once a day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. But instead of barreling through books, I’m dipping in and out of whatever is handy, to mixed results. Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow and Beverly Cleary’s memoir, A Girl from Yamhill, for example, are strangely similar in tone – I find the details of the two stories confusing in my mind. And with less time to plug into my headphones, I’ve had to renew Rainbow Rowell’s Landline twice now – maybe I need to temporarily give up Overdrive’s 14 day check out in favor of Hoopla’s 21? Given how much I loathe Hoopla’s interface, this is a significant departure.

What’s the same? My slow plod through A Song of Ice and Fire. For a long time, I read one chapter each morning with my coffee. I could do that now, but usually that morning coffee is gulped down quickly as my baby begins to stir. So my pace has slowed from chapter by chapter to page by page. Maybe I’ll finish reading it before my child heads off to college. Or not.

 

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to read

Aside from a few upcoming review books, I’ve got nothing in particular guiding my reading these days. I’m also not reading at a particular fast rate, so it seems strange to think about books I’m not yet reading when I’m still far from finishing four. Who knows what kind of mood I’ll be in, what holds will be in, or what else the future holds?

So I’ll just throw out three guesses. For my next audiobook, perhaps Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You? I’m next in line on the holds queue, everyone on the planet has read it, and it’s a contemporary romance, which is a genre my brain can handle on audio right now. For my next eBook, perhaps Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which I’ve wanted to read for years but isn’t available on audio and I always have a more important print book to read. And speaking of print books, how about a Summer Reading List title that is short and sitting on my shelf, ready to read at any moment? Kwame Alexander’s Booked it is.

beach reads: 2016 edition

Once upon a time, I prepared for my family’s annual sojourn to the Atlantic Ocean by shoving as many books into my luggage as I could manage. Or at least spent a few fun hours thinking strategically about which handful books I might like to read while plane flying, porch rocking, or beach bumming.

This year, I thought I’d set the bar low. Flying and beaching with a baby wouldn’t leave as much reading time as usual, and we were flying Spirit – no carry-ons, and limited poundage in the single checked bag I’d now be sharing with two other humans. It would be silly to pack 5 or 6 books for a 5 day vacation. Damn. Parenthood does lead to a certain level of boring pragmatism, doesn’t it.

I decided on two physical books. First, A Feast for Crows. I told my sister I’d mail her my copy to borrow when I send her a birthday gift in September – one more incentive to actually make some progress in this series I claim to love and have invested so much time in. I’m about halfway through! There’s hope!

Second, Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. I’ve been feeling a little disconnected from what’s going on in kid/YA lit lately, and this middle grade debut has been getting some steady buzz since it came out in May. Also, this is my book club’s next pick, so if I can figure out how to juggle a baby with social outings, then I shall be prepared to discuss!

Any supplemental reading would be relegated to my Kindle. I’ve been doing most of my reading on my Kindle lately – it’s possible to nurse while reading a physical book, yes, but only if you can comfortably one-hand it. Library books are tough. Big Fat George R. R. Martin books don’t really work out. A Kindle, however, is a breastfeeding bookworm’s best friend. I hustled to finish Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face before leaving and queued up another memoir – Beverly Cleary’s A Girl from Yamhill.

Once upon a time, I’d pack 10 books for a 10 day trip. Once upon last week, I whittled my expectations down to three. I even started writing a nice little blog post about my beach vacation reading!

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Once upon two days ago, I had to ditch A Feast for Crows because our checked bag weighed 42 lbs.

And left my Kindle sitting at home on the charger.

Ah, parenthood.

seven post-baby reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

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

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Ninety Days by Bill Clegg

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

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

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Anne Enright’s Making Babies

Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother

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

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Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart

You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

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

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All the Summer Girls by Meg Donohue

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

 

summer reading list 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is all to say:

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

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

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

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

So, without further ado, I present to you…

Summer Reading 2016

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross

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

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

 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

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

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

Okay, I’ve got to cut this out.

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

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

 

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson

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

With Malice by Eileen Cook

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

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

Booked by Kwame Alexander

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

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

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

 

A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin

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

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

Shame.

Shame.

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

 

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

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

Aaaaand we had a winner.

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

 

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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

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

 

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

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

Summer Sisters.

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

Summer Reading Lists Past

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all of the pregnancy things

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The First Trimester

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

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

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

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The Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Second Trimester

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

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

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

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

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Third Trimester

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

Okay, maybe a lot more.

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

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

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

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

Is that is? Anything else?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s completely awesome.

It’s completely overwhelming.

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

 

A Brief Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

reading wishlist: top of the request list

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

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

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

A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty

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

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson

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

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

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

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

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

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

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

Gah.

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

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

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

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

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

Oh, oh, oh.

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

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

 

Best Reads of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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7. Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

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

 

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6. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

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

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

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

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

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

 

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4. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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

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

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

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

 

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3. The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

ChallengerDeep-final-cover-hi-rez

  1. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

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

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

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

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