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what i read this month – january 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, the adult books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

how to read more: ask yourself one question

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

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

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

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

My Potential Reads live in a few places:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris

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

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

The Creative Family Manifesto by Amanda Soule

List: A Novel by Matthew Roberson

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

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin

Braving the Wildnerness by Brene Brown

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

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

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

winter plan | 2018

Winter Plan

December 2017 – January 2018 – February 2018

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

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

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

Habits

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

Strength train at home.

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

Upgrade my skincare routine.

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

Read with a pen in hand whenever possible.

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

Projects

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

Uber frugal month.

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

Blogging.

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

Decorate two rooms.

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

Sew a baby quilt.

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

Thinking and Planning

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

Prepare for the transition to a toddler bed.

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

Prepare for a potential child-free vacation. 

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

Baby #2 Discussion/Preparation/Creation?

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

Plan for Spring travel

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

Activities

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

Bake sourdough bread.

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

Personal Read-a-thon!

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

Light candles whenever possible.

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

best picturebooks of 2017. and also podcasts.

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

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

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

My Top Ten Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

My Top Ten Favorite Podcasts of 2017

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

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

 

(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!)