All posts in: books

15 Oct 2017

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.

24 Sep 2017

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!)

10 Sep 2017

printz authors in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marcus Sedgwick – Saint Death and Mister Memory

Jessie Ann Foley – Neighborhood Girls

Nick Lake – Satellite

Benjamin Alire Saenz – The Explicable Logic of My Life

Elizabeth Wein – The Pearl Thief

Maggie Stiefvater – All the Crooked Saints

Deborah Heiligman – Vincent and Theo

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

E. Lockhart – Genuine Fraud

John Green – Turtles All the Way Down

Mal Peet & Meg Rosoff – Beck

Helen Frost – When My Sister Started Kissing

Ellen Wittlinger – Saturdays with Hitchcock

 

03 Sep 2017

alice in august

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Jul 2017

room to breathe

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

14 Jun 2017

Summer Reading 2017

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

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

Ah, Summer Relaxation.

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

SUMMER BOOKS SHALT BE ENJOYABLE.

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

 

Young Adult Books

The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

 

Middle Grade Books

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by Leuyen Pham

 

Adult Fiction

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

Adult Nonfiction

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

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

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

 

Summer Reading Lists Past

2016 – 20152014201320122011

04 Feb 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Hey, look, it’s still January!

(Please let it still be January when I finish this post, please, please, please)

Oh, 2016. What a year. I read 106 books last year without much effort; yes, I met my annual “read 100 books” marker, but not by much. This is actually the fewest books I’ve read in a year since 2010, and a solid 50% were books read for review or other assorted Professional Book Person reasons.

Additionally, while I have always enjoyed the occasional parenting/baby related text, I never really let myself indulge in the genre… until, you know, I was actually pregnant. I really don’t recommend this tactic, by the way. There is WAY too much to read about for a 9-ish month span! At any rate, I chose to read a handful of pregnancy, birth, and baby books – and while informative, they were not necessarily groundbreaking pieces of literature.

And then, of course, there was the whole Miracle of Gestation thing hovering over my year. A baby in June means 6 months of preparation and becoming distractingly larger by the day and 6 months of new babydom. There goes your year. Add to that a heaping dose of political panic post November 8th (Which is actually still making me feel sick to be writing this. Like there is any tiny speck of importance to what books I read when our republic democracy is on its last legs.)

So, when I looked back over the books I’d read, I found myself not thinking about which books I liked more than other but which ones even remembered reading. Oof.

AT ANY RATE, I have gathered the top ten books of those that I can remember reading in 2016. An honorable list that I am happy to share with you at the dawn of this new year.

(Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February. Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February…)

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  1. The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

A teenage boy comes to live with his surly grandfather – then he discovers a strange book containing a purportedly true account of two WWII soldiers from opposite sides and their supernatural experience stranded on a remote Pacific island. This was a pick for my book club, which usually means a book that is slightly out of my wheelhouse – I don’t usually seek out supernatural war stories? – but also a book that is excellently crafted. The story-within-a-story was expertly woven, and together the two narratives led up to a quietly moving conclusion.

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  1. The Romantics by Leah Konen

Gael, a high-strung semi-geek, is going through his first big break-up. Gael is distraught but Love, our narrator, isn’t worried. There’s a better girl out there for him, if only Gael could ignore his rebound – Cara the outdoorsy, hot sauce-loving college girl – long enough to figure out who it is. The silliest premise? Oh yes. But the writing is crisp, the characters fun and well-drawn, and funny. Funny! Actually made me laugh funny. I’ve read a lot of YA books that think they are funny over the past few years, but very very few that actually were. Just hardly any. This was a delightful exception.

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  1. Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

An essay collection by a Man Booker winning Irish author about – you guessed it – babies. This is probably the only book on this list that I really, honestly, actually don’t-remember-much-at-all, because I read it entirely with a sleeping lump of newborn on my chest. But of all the books about babies and motherhood that I read this year, this was my favorite. I found it to be an honest, absorbing, and raw attempt to elucidate the barely comprehensible experience of creating and caring for new life. I hope I have time to re-read this, now that my reading comprehension has (maybe?) returned.

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  1. American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

I probably would have liked this book if it were just a collection of contemporary short stories about women, tbh. However, this was a collection of sharp, satirical, frequently twisted contemporary short stories about women. All the better. Whenever I think about my decidedly non-sinister book club, I think about Ellis’s “Hello! Welcome to the Book Club,” where a meeting of literary women transforms slowly into something somewhat horrifying.

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  1. Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

As far as this fairly search-savvy librarian can tell, there’s not much out there in the way of “childbirth fiction.” Probably because the subset of people who love fiction and are also totally down with reading about childbirth is likely rather small. Or, perhaps because it’s a narratively tricky topic to tell stories about? Well, good news for childbirth/reader-types: Erens figured it out. This is the story of one woman’s childbirth experience (she’s a NYC schoolteacher, she wants a natural birth, she’s alone) and the pregnant nurse who stays by her side during her labor and delivery. A caveat: I checked this out when I was about 7 months along, but then I saw a Goodreads review that warned against reading this while pregnant with your first. I heeded the warning, and I’m glad I did.

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  1. Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

This is a novel-in-verse about the aftermath of a high school student’s decision to have an abortion. It’s a bold, sophisticated “issue book” that muddles around in the gray areas of religion, morality, sexual activity, sexual preference, and more. But even better: it’s a damn solid girl-narrated realistic fiction novel. I finished it with the same kind of feeling I get at the end of a Sarah Dessen book – like I was glad to get to know the characters and am kind of wishing I could see where they end up.

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  1. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson

In World War II, Nazi Germany took siege of Stalingrad and held it for five long months. While Stalingrad’s civilian inhabitants were lucky to survive the lack of food, supplies, and deplorable, dangerous conditions, composer Shostakovich survived AND wrote a symphony. How does that make you feel about how you spend your free time, hmmm? Although the first quarter or so is a bit dense, this is a historical piece that feels like a special story Anderson uncovered and scooped out himself, just for you. It’s also a disturbing account of one artist’s relationship with his own authoritarian government that feels unfortunately relevant for us pretty, privileged Americans these days.

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  1. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

The first of a trio of memoirs about Nurse Jenny and her adventures in mid-century British midwifery. In case you are one of the twelve people who haven’t seen the BBC television show (I was one of them until after reading this), Jenny was a nurse-midwife, working for a convent that provided healthcare for a working-class, high-poverty neighborhood of London in the 1950s; specifically providing in-home childbirth assistance. This memoir covers the details of her unique job, the intimate stories of individual patients and other idiosyncratic community members, and historical context. A great read for childbirth junkies (or is that just me?), but also a fascinating and warm painting of a singular time and place in history – and specifically, women’s lives and jobs within it.

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  1. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Faith, the daughter of a respected Reverend/natural scientist, wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, to uncover the mysteries of the world through science. Unfortunately, it’s 1860; Faith is valued for minding her younger brother, and perhaps as a future wife to someone with money and esteem, but not much else. Then her father dies, under questionable circumstances. And oh, Faith also discovers a bizarre, powerful, potentially mystical specimen that her father had been hiding in a creepy dark cave only accessible by rowboat. I loved Hardinge’s storytelling – the chapters were brief, but each one seemed to tumble on into the next – the genuine suspense, and the underlying commentary about a woman’s value and power in Victorian society. But most of all, I loved how I couldn’t figure out what the heck kind of book I was reading – historical fiction? Science fiction? A ghost story? A murder mystery? Hardinge dipped into all of these genres and their conventions, and what results is something entirely unique.

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  1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

This is an older title that has been on the edges of my reading radar for quite some time. It caught my attention most recently when I was working at my college’s writing center – it seemed the many, many first-year nursing students who came in seeking my essay help had all read the book for assignment. After reading a variety of short reflections on the book over the course of a few months, I could glean enough about it to tell it would be something I like. A family story. A medical story. Nonfiction where the author doesn’t distance herself from herself from the narrative (think Jon Krakauer). Jessica-bait.

It was all of those things, yes, but even better, it was the kind of adult nonfiction I love the most: a small but powerful personal story, elevated to a grander, more universal scale by an author’s careful research and accessible presentation of the social and political context. While the narrative follows a unique family who struggle with finding help for their sick child, it’s also a story about the Hmong people – both their strong cultural identity and traumatic history. It’s a story about that family’s heritage and what it means to be Hmong in America. It’s a story about the limits and blind spots of Western medicine. And it’s also a story about finding common ground and avenues of trust between those who are different from you – and what a difficult but crucially divine part of human being that task is.

I read this mostly with a sleeping baby on my chest, thinking about what a vast, complex, and fuzzy-gray world we live in – him, my little baby, whose health was so newly mine to watch over, to safeguard. Me, feeling suddenly connected to the mothers of the world, of all cultures and languages, who only want the same. This was a fascinating, deep, and moving read that I won’t soon forget.

 

aaaaaaaand it’s February. Crap.

22 Aug 2016

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.

20 Aug 2016

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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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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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.

13 Jul 2016

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…