Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Story of my Exams

Just a little light medieval poetry beach reading during my cruise!

I met with my advisor two days before my PhD exams were to take place, and he said to me, "I don't know how you're doing it. When I took my exams, I didn't have kids, I had a lightened teaching load, I had nothing to do but read and read and read."

That is what most PhD candidates get. They get six months of really focused time. No distractions. All in on preparing for this most momentous rite of passage. They read and read and study and read and take notes and review notes and memorize facts and read some more, until they can't tell night from day and their heads are swimming in the haze of academic scholarly jargon.

But me? Well, yeah, first there's the fact that I have three kids who must be fed and washed and coddled and put to bed every single day. But that's just par for the course in this whole experience of me getting a PhD.

No, the real kicker was when they pushed my exam date back. I was supposed to take my exams in November, before Thanksgiving, but then there was a scheduling snafu and everything had to be pushed back, and the next available date for my exams was January 24th, one week into the new semester. We had not planned on this setback. We had not planned on this when we invited my entire family to stay with us for Christmas. We had not planned on this when we booked our Disney cruise for early January. And I had certainly not planned on this when I agreed to teach a double prep semester so I could design an entirely new dream course from scratch.

So yes, the month before I took my exams, when other PhD students would be reading for hours a day, I was cleaning my house and preparing for guests and cooking massive holiday meals and baking three cakes for the three separate birthdays and organizing a baptism program for my oldest son. I was traveling for New Years, and getting sick.

Three weeks before my exams, I was driving down to Florida with my family for a five day four night cruise to the Bahamas. Two weeks before my exams, I was getting home from said cruise and doing all the laundry and unpacking and desperately trying to throw together the syllabi for my two courses. One week before my exams, I was reading Plato (not part of my exam reading lists) and lesson prepping like mad for the first week of class. Three days before my exams, my husband left on a business trip.

I about flipped out on him when I found out about that trip. I told him, no. You are not allowed to go on a business trip during the most stressful week of my academic career. You are supposed to take one for the team, take over the cooking and bedtime routine so I can hole up in the office and just study. But of course, there's not much he could do to change the situation (he's at the mercy of his boss, after all), so as a compromise he called up his parents and dropped off the two little kids on his way out of town. But I still had the oldest one to get to and from school and cook for and figure out what to do with when Friday the 24th ended up being a snow day for him with the schools shut down. I was panicked my university would shut down too, and we'd have to delay my exams again, but thankfully they just opened campus a few hours late. So I brought my boy into campus with me, and he sat in my office watching movies for three hours while I sat my exams. It did nothing for my stress levels, but it could've been worse.

So yes, that's where I was when my advisor said, "I don't know how you're doing it." I didn't know how I was doing it either, and honestly, I wasn't sure I was doing it. I was not at all sure I was going to pass my exams.

I mean, I'd done a lot of reading. I'd had my lists put together since last June, and I'd been reading ever since then. But that was part of the problem. I'd read some of the pieces so long ago that I couldn't actually remember them. I sat in my office the day before my exams looking over the hundred plus items on my list, and some of the titles looked completely foreign. Nothing but a blank. I couldn't remember a single thing about them. Looking through my notes, I saw that I had read them, but some times my notes weren't extremely thorough (it's so hard to know whats going to be important to know), and I wondered if there was any way I could re-read Shakespeare's entire canon in 24 hours, along with all the scholarship on him.

I was panicked. I simply had not had the time. I had not been able to focus for the past month, I had not been able to put in the work I needed to, and I'd forgotten everything. I had been pulled in too many directions, and I just knew that compared to every other grad student in my program, I was going to come up short. There was no way I could compete.

I did not sleep well that night. I lay in bed thinking over titles and scholarly articles and character names and couldn't shut my brain down. I was also stressed about the weather, and kept obsessively checking my weather app and email throughout the night to see just how much snow was falling and whether the schools were going to shut down.

Finally, about 5:00 AM, I gave up, and rolled out of bed, and fell to my knees. I prayed. I poured my soul out to God, and I said, "It has not been enough. I have not had enough time, I have not had enough energy, and I am not prepared the way I need to be. But I promise you that I have done absolutely everything I could. I have tried my hardest, I have worked my hardest. I have taken care of my family first, but I have also done everything I could to prepare for these exams. I did not want this. I did not want a PhD. I did not want to leave my children. I have done this because I felt it was a command from you, Lord, and it has not been easy. It has been the hardest thing I've ever done."

And at this point in the prayer I just broke down sobbing. Because it has been so hard. I break a little inside every day when I drop my daughter off at daycare and she has to be pried off me crying and screaming by her teacher (every. single. day). I break a little when I miss every volunteer opportunity at my son's school because I'm working. I break a little at the panic every time a child gets sick and I have to figure out how to be in two places at once. I break a little every time I snap at my children to get to bed already because I have hours of work ahead of me every night. I break every single day. It has been so hard. It has been a sacrifice, one that I would not have the strength to keep doing if I was not 100% sure that God wanted me to do this. Most of the time I focus on the positive. I focus on the privilege it is for me to be doing this, on the joy I get out of teaching and doing the research (and I really get a lot of joy out of this). But that morning, on my knees alone before my God, I sobbed for the hard parts. For the parts I did not ask to take on.

After probably a good ten minutes of ugly crying, I finally pulled myself together enough to finish my prayer, "I consecrate my efforts to you, Lord. I know that what I have done is not enough, but it is all I have to offer. If my offering is acceptable, if you truly wish me to get a PhD, then I demand my right to the companionship of the Holy Ghost today. I demand your divine help to get through this." Perhaps my language was not the most respectful. Perhaps it is not advisable to make demands of a Supreme Being. But, I will say that I was immediately blessed with peace. My panic and anxiety simply melted away. This was, and has always been, the Lord's PhD, not mine. It was in his hands, whether I was going to pass or fail, and I let the burden of it go.

I got up, went through my morning routine, got my son packed up and ready to go, and drove through a beautiful snowy landscape to campus. I felt like even the snow was a blessing, a peace offering, the gift of a beautiful, calm, serene landscape designed singularly for my pleasure at this moment. God saying he loved me.

I got to campus, got my son settled with the ipad and his movies, and went upstairs to the conference room where my exams were being held. I sat down in the big chair at the head of the table, greeted the five faculty members of my committee, and the questions began.

The only way I can describe the next three hours is to say that they were delightful. Even fun. I actually wondered at one point if my committee was purposefully trying to make this easy, because it was just three hours of fascinating back and forth conversation about the most interesting aspects of my research with these incredibly intelligent people. At moments the conversation was so engaging that I even forgot it was an exam. It just felt like fun. At the end of three hours, I was even a little bit sad it was over, because we hadn't been able to talk about everything! There was so much more to discuss! But the end had come, and they sent me out of the room while they deliberated on my performance. A few minutes later, my advisor came out to call me back in the room, and was the first to congratulate me on passing my exam.

But it got even more amazing than that. As they went around the room congratulating me, the members of my committee repeatedly volunteered comments like:

"If we were allowed to give honors, you would've passed with honors."

"This was the best exam I've sat for at least ten years, maybe more!"

"You were impressive, so impressive! So calm and poised, and you just knew everything!"

(Even now, weeks later, I still get compliments whenever I see any of my committee, about how impressive my exam performance was.)

I smiled and took their compliments in stride. I didn't know how to tell them it wasn't me. Honor and praise to the Lord my God, who for some unexplained reason has chosen to work through me, magnify me, for some purpose I do not understand.

There was a whirlwind of activity after the exams finished: lots of congratulations from interested parties, gathering my son and his belongings, driving out to Missouri to pick up my younger two kids, meeting up with my husband who came home early from his work trip with the flu (we were supposed to go out to dinner to celebrate, instead we just went home and I made soup), putting everyone to bed, but finally the house was quiet again, and I had the opportunity to finally kneel again. To pour out a prayer of gratitude.

I still do not understand why I have been called to get a PhD. I do not comprehend the purpose. I don't see a path after graduation. All I know is that I have never received more clear revelation in my life, and it has been reaffirmed over and over and over again. This PhD is the Lord's work.

Have you ever felt the Lord working through you to achieve some greater end?

Usually, when you hear stories about it, the Lord's work is fairly obvious. The stories are about blessing lives, healing bodies or souls, growing the church, missionary work... something that makes sense in the context of the Lord's work.

I have no idea how a PhD in English is serving the Lord's work. It makes zero sense to me. It is entirely possible that it is a work of personal growth and fulfillment, simply meant for me. But even if that is all it is, I still feel the greatness of the work. I feel the guidance of his hand, the brilliant ideas when I need them, and the constant spiritual pressure of "Yes, yes, this is important!"

It is humbling. It is almost strange. But it is an absolute privilege to live a life consecrated to the Lord's work, to feel his hand guide my life, to feel Him carry me through such moments.

I am eternally grateful for the privilege of seeing such miracles in my life, even if I don't understand why. Even if it is hard.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Books I Read in February

Hi Guys! Clearly, I'm not getting as much time to write this semester as I wanted (having a two prep semester is killing me, well, that and the fact that my kids keep getting sick), but this week I'm on Spring Break!!! We're going on a mini road-trip later this week, but I'm hoping to sneak in some writing time before we leave. We'll see, I also need to catch up on laundry and housework and all the other things, so this may be the only post that actually gets posted. But still, happy Spring Break!

February was a fairly decent month for reading (especially for being a day or two shorter than the other months), and I'm excited to talk about some of these titles, so let's jump in!

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

I started this trilogy in January, and continued on with this second book in the series at the start of February. It did not disappoint.

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

I immediately continued on to the third book, and this one was long. Way too long in my opinion (757 pages, according to Goodreads). I think many parts of this should've been cut, but regardless, I stuck with it and found it a mostly satisfying conclusion. I still highly recommend the series to all fans of high fantasy (I'm going to make my husband read it once he finishes Wheel of Time, because I know he'll love it).

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This was my seasonal read. I was looking for something light and fun to get me in the mood for Valentine's Day, and this delivered. Sweet and cute, a little unique high school romance (the girl decides to go out for the football team), but I wasn't invested enough to keep going with the series.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

This book was so good, and so fascinating, but is by no means an easy read, as it is mostly about childhood trauma, and there are definitely a few really disturbing stories of incest and abuse. Van der Kolk is a therapist who started off working with veterans when PTSD was just beginning to be recognized as a thing, and then he moved to a civilian clinic and started noticing the same symptoms in his patients who had suffered abuse as children. While I could never be a therapist, I am super fascinated by how the brain works and how mental illness works, and the more and more I learn about trauma (and about how almost all of us suffer from trauma to varying degrees) the more convinced I am that this is one of the most important things we as a society can work on to fix many of our biggest social problems. Van der Kolk's work is very hopeful, and he discusses a range of therapies from Prozac to the more woo-woo (yoga, theater, and some other kind of out there stuff). This is not an easy book to read (hello, it discusses really awful child abuse), but it is definitely one I recommend.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

This was a serendipitously perfect book to follow The Body Keeps the Score, because it is a book about generational trauma, and it seemed fairly accurate to see how these characters responded to abuse and neglect. This makes it sound like a super depressing book, and yes, it is difficult, but I think it ends in a rather hopeful place. It was beautifully written, and is probably a general recommend.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

(Side note, look at the cover of these two very different books... strangely similar, no?) Oh man, I have such conflicted feelings about this one. On one hand, I found it tackled really complex race issues (and issues of inter-racial nanny/employee stuff that I've had to deal with myself), and I think it would make a fantastic book club book. On the other hand, it was also kind of fluffy, and had a lot of swearing, and I don't know that I loved it. It gave me stuff to think about, that's for sure.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This was my second Patchett novel (I read The Dutch House back in December), and my favorite so far, but the pattern seems to be that I'm incredibly in love with her writing at the sentence level, but don't "get" the point of her stories. Is there a point? All I know is that I need to read more of her words, because I just love being in the middle of her stories. The ends leave me a little empty and confused, though. This one had a really interesting story that jumped back and forth in time and it was like piecing together a giant puzzle, but in the end some of the pieces still seemed to be missing... but I still liked it? But what was the "point" of the story? I don't know... Still a general recommend!

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Okay, I'd read some super rave reviews of this one before I picked it up, so I went in with sky high expectations, and then felt like it didn't "quite" live up to what I was expecting. It was like just another (really good) war story romance (which I've already read a million of). But the more and more I think about it, and the more and more I consider the genius of the framing element (Greek gods in a New York hotel room, totally weird for some people, but trust me, it's genius), the more and more I like it. I think I'm going to want to re-read this one some day. It's YA, but it's fantastic. Highly, highly recommend (and pro-tip, listen to the audio book, music plays a big role in the story and the audio does a great job with that).

So there we go, eight books. A pretty good month, with some rather good books. Have you read any of these? What were your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language

In my English department, graduate students who have completed at least two years of coursework are allowed to apply to design and teach their own 200 level course on any sort of literary topic they desire. A little over a year ago, after reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I got this idea for a possible course topic that got me really excited. When I finished up my coursework last spring, I was eligible to apply, so I wrote up a course proposal, submitted it, and got accepted to teach my own English 203 course this semester.

With my exams being scheduled for the first week of the semester, the timing for designing a completely new course from scratch was a little crazy, but everything else about teaching this new class has been AMAZING! As in, this is seriously so far the best teaching experience I've ever had in my life. Every single class session has just been incredibly interesting discussion about really fascinating topics, with students who are interesting and enthusiastic and willing to engage (not my usual experience with freshman writing classes). And I suspect that many of my readers here would be just as interested by the ideas and discussions we're having in my class, so a few months ago I decided I would post the syllabus here and invite you all to join in on my reading assignments (if you wish). Even if you don't join with the reading, I want a place to sort of organize and record my lecture notes and ideas that come out of class discussion, so every week or so (really probably every other week if I'm lucky), I'll try to post some of the more exciting ideas and questions to come out of our class. I'm hoping you, my dear readers, will enjoy this peek into my college classroom.

My original plan was to get these posts going from the beginning of the semester, but here we are four weeks in (I blame exams, then catching the flu). So I'll be trying to play a little catch up. But for now, here is the course description and reading syllabus using my actual course dates (the class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays). I've provided links where I can to texts.

Course Title: English 203: Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language

Course Description: This course will explore the relationship between magic and language. Magic (the power to exert one's will upon humans and nature outside of natural laws) has always had a deeply interconnected relationship with language. Witches recite incantations and cast "spells." Runes written over ancient tombs both warn of and enact curses. Spirits and daemons can be called if one knows their "true names." Magic books, spell books, and grimoires become objects of power simply by virtue of having magic words written in them.

But in reality, there is nothing inherently "magical" about language. Words, spoken or written, are truly nothing more than puffs of air or lines of ink on paper, and yet in our magic stories language consistently has the power not just to facilitate human social communication, but to command the very cosmos. Why do our stories give language the power to enact magic? This is the question we will seek to answer as we read various texts across time and genres. This class will be divided into three units, each focusing on a different aspect of this relationship. Unit 1 will explore the idea of magic names and spoken words. Unit 2 will look at the power of writing and symbols. And Unit 3 will explore magic books and grimoires.

Reading Assignment Schedule:

Unit 1: Magic Names and Spoken Words

T 1/21 - Course Introduction

Th 1/23 - Cratylus by Plato; A Course in General Linguistics "Part 1 General Principles: Chapter 1" by Ferdinand de Saussure

T 1/21 - How To Do Things With Words "Lecture 1" by J. L. Austin; Genesis Chapter 1 from the Bible

Th 1/30 - A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin Chapters 1-2

T 2/4 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapters 3-5

Th 2/6 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 6; Name Essay Assignment Sheet

T 2/11 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 7-9

Th 2/13 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 10

T 2/18 - Draft of Name Essay due; Peer Review

Th 2/20 - Final Drafts of Name Essay due; Unit 1 Reflection

Unit 2: Magic Writing and Symbols

T 2/25 - Gutenberg's Galaxy excerpt by Marshall McLuhan; Orality and Literacy excerpts by Walter Ong

Th 2/27 - "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft, first half; Short Paper Assignment Sheet

T 3/3 - "The Call of Cthulhu" second half

Th 3/5 - How to write a literary analysis

T 3/10 - Spring Break

Th 3/10 - Spring Break

T 3/17 - The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson, first half

Th 3/19 - The Emperor's Soul second half

T 3/24 - Draft of Short Paper due; Peer Review

Th 3/26 - Final Drafts of Short Paper due; Unit 2 Reflection

Unit 3; Magic Books

T 3/31 - Doctor Faustus Act 1 by Christopher Marlowe (A Text); Final Project Assignment Sheet

Th 4/2 - Doctor Faustus Act 2

T 4/7 - Doctor Faustus Act 3-4

Th 4/9 - Doctor Faustus Act 5

T 4/14 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 1-6 by J.K. Rowling

Th 4/16 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 7-8

T 4/21 - Conferences

Th 4/30 - Conferences

T 4/28 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapter 9-15

Th 4/30 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 16-18

T 5/5 - Presentations

Th 5/7 - Presentations

Okay, there it is! So, what do you think? Does this look like a fun class? I promise, even if you're not that into fantasy, if you like words and language, you will most likely be very interested in the discussions from this class. I'm really excited to share a bit more about this here!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Books I Read in January

Well, everyone complained and complained about how interminably long January was, but for me it slipped by way too quickly, without leaving any time for me to get around to any of the things I wanted to get around to. Like writing up a post all about my goals for the New Year, or reviews of all the fabulous books I've read but haven't had time to write about here like I really want to!

So, what have I been doing with all my time instead? Well, let me tell it this way:

Have you ever known anyone who has gotten a PhD? Did you witness them go through the process of preparing for and taking their exams? Comps? Orals? Whatever they're called (each program is different), exams are usually the pinnacle of stress and anxiety for the PhD student. Most PhD candidates, when preparing for their exams, completely clear their schedules, break off all social ties, and hibernate in dark caves reading like mad and taking furious notes trying to master everything that can possibly be known about anything. Many programs even offer reduced or cancelled teaching loads while preparing for exams. I, on the other hand, spent the month leading up to my exams: hosting most of my family for Christmas, celebrating three family birthdays, planning and hosting a baptism for my oldest, traveling for New Years, going on a week-long Disney cruise (oh yeah, I really want to post some pictures of that some time, maybe, if you care), and prepping for two courses (one of them brand new). Oh, and let's not forget the three children I had to feed, clothe (i.e. do their laundry), clean up after, and care for all day long, meaning I only had a few hours in the evening to actually work on my exam prep.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that going into my exams, I did not feel prepared. In fact, I felt downright panicky. My attention had been so consumed by family obligations throughout the holidays and time leading up the exams that I figured there was simply no way I could measure up to all those other students, the ones with no children or outside responsibilities, who could devote 100% of their energy to studying.

To make a long story short: I passed. But remind me to tell you the longer version of this story some time, because it is a story of spiritual blessings and tender mercies and the visible hand of the Lord guiding my life once again. It's a story that needs to be recorded.

I celebrated passing my exams by catching the flu, along with the rest of my family, and that brutal illness took us through the end of January and the first week of February. So here I am now, crawling my way back from survival mode and finally getting around to all those things I put off for the last six months while I devoted all my spare time to exam prep. Like writing for this blog. Oh, how I long to get back to writing in this space!

And there is so much to write about! Because despite all the busy busy things, there was still plenty of time for listening to books (hello car-ride down to Florida!), and I actually managed to finish eight books last month. Let's get into them!

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

When I read The Night Circus almost seven years ago (fun fact, it was the first book I reviewed on this blog!), I fell forever in love with Morgenstern's writing style. This book, her second, completely confirmed that Morgenstern is my kindred spirit, but only in certain ways. In other ways, we are very, very different people (I'm not into video games). This whole book is a story that is a love letter to stories. I loved that so much. But other parts of this book almost broke down because of that, as in, it was so in love with stories that it forgot to be a good story itself. Or, it became some kind of messed up mishmash of Alice in Wonderland and Inception and didn't feel super coherent. But that also just made me feel like I was in some medieval allegory, and I just need to read it again to fully understand it. All this is to say that I can't decide how I feel about this book: some parts are deep love, and other parts are more like loathing. Not really in the middle. It's certainly not for everyone and not a general recommend, but I will be rereading it again, and probably writing a whole post with my favorite quotes (hopefully).

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity  by Julia Cameron

I picked this one up because some people I follow on Instagram talk about it a lot and religiously write their morning pages, and it sounded interesting. It's a little bit more of a program (ten weeks, or something like that), so it didn't make for a great audio book listen. I think this summer I'll try revisiting it and actually follow the program outline a little bit more, but the gist is that all people are creative, and you need to do certain things to nurture your creativity. One of her biggest pieces for doing that is called morning pages, or three pages of brain dumping you're supposed to write every morning. I love the idea of a daily writing practice, and I'm trying to figure out my schedule now to make that happen, so we'll see how I feel about this when/if I give the program an actual try.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

I've heard so much about Carol Dweck and her fixed mindset vs. growth mindset theory that I figured I didn't need to read the actual book, I had it figured out. But I'm so glad I read it (for book club) because it was totally worth it. I'd kind of assumed that growth mindset applied mostly to education and a love of learning (which is clearly something I already have), but I cam to realize that it's so much more than that. It's believing you can grow in any area of life, social, emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, etc. So I came to realize that I have a growth mindset in some areas, but a fixed mindset in others. And it definitely gave me some things to think about with raising kids. All very good stuff, and I highly recommend.

Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee

This is another one that really deserves it's own post, because I have lots to say about it. What a delightful book this was! I just felt happy every time I picked it up to keep reading. Here's how I would describe this book: If you're familiar with Carol Tuttle's energy profiling system, I would describe this as a Type 1's manifesto. The vast majority of the things Lee described as bringing joy and happiness (bright colors, light, round bubbles, rainbows, etc.) almost point for point fit with Tuttle's Type 1 profile. I am not a Type 1 myself, and therefore disagreed with the way Lee characterized these things as universal. For instance, Lee recommends that everyone should paint their houses bright beautiful colors because it will make us all happier that the neutrals whites and creams and grays we all seem to live in. However, from personal experience I can say that bright paint colors don't work for everyone. This one time in high school, my mom let my younger sister pick out the colors for our shared bedroom makeover, and she decided to paint over our lavender colored walls with a bright yellow, and buy a lime green bedspread. I had trouble falling asleep for weeks after that because the room was just so bright and high energy. Give me those gray walls, I'll sleep like a baby. I'm just not that energy type. So while I won't be following all of Lee's advice for bringing joy into my life, there were tons of other interesting and thought-provoking tidbits that I want to write some more about. It was an extremely happy book, and I highly recommend it.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I was looking for a nice meaty fantasy to sink my teeth into, and accidentally stumbled on this, but it sure fit the bill! Really fun world, really fun magic system, interesting politics, well written... I'm just surprised I had heard of it before. It's a trilogy, and I've already read the second and am in the middle of the third. I highly recommend!

Jackpot by Nic Stone

I was looking for escapist YA romance, saw this one get recommended somewhere, and immediately found it on my library app. And it actually ended up having quite a bit more meat to it than I expected: lots of thought-provoking questions about class and money, poverty and wealth. It was good for what it was, and I may even pick up Dear Martin some time (that one seems much more focused on race issues, which were much less center stage in this one). I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, but if you like contemporary YA with a dose of meaty issues, this one is pretty good.

Ayesha at Last by Usma Jalaluddin

So this was a contemporary Canadian Muslim Pride and Prejudice retelling that's been getting just a bit of buzz recently. Obviously, I had to read it. How is it that Jane Austen's story fits so universally into so many cultures? I guess because every culture puts so much pressure on young women to get married. Anyway, I'm not going to say that this book was amazing (I actually forgot I read it until pulling up my records to write this post), but it was very good for what it was, and I learned quite a few interesting details about Muslim communities and customs. I would still love to talk to an actual Muslim about this, because it was quite down on arranged marriage (obviously I am too, I just wondered if that was a fair portrayal of faithful Muslim beliefs). Anyway, I think it's a recommend, generally speaking.

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz

Not sure I ever would've picked this one up on my own, but my book club picked it as our February read (seasonal). I kind of had to disassociate it from the actual historical reality of Hamilton and Eliza (and the musical), and think of it as just a cheesy fictional historical love story, and then it wasn't so bad. A little ridiculous at times, but nice fun fluff. However, now I'm itching to pick up My Dear Hamilton to learn about the real couple's love story, as I understand that one is based quite a bit more on actual historical sources.

And there you go. That was my January reading month. Not too shabby for such a busy month, but I am going to have to pick up my pace a bit to hit my goal of 100 books this year. I'm not worried. Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Reading Year in Review (Top Ten)

Well, it's New Year's Eve. I've just survived an intense week of hosting family, celebrating three birthdays along with Christmas, and organizing a baptism ceremony and after party for my oldest son. It was a busy week that involved long hours in the kitchen (so many people to cook for), lots of movie watching, and late nights playing games and chatting. It was so much fun. Too much fun, because now I'm suffering from a raging head cold. My company flew home yesterday, and this morning we drove up to my sister-in-law's house to celebrate New Years. I've retreated to the basement bedroom to try to sleep off said head cold and avoid spreading my germs around, but apparently I'm too congested to sleep, so I guess I'll do something semi-productive, or at least restfully fun, which is to reflect on my reading year here.

Guys, it was a banner year for reading for me. My goal was to read 75 books. The final count on Goodreads says I read a 116 books, but it seems to be counting A Christmas Carol twice for some reason, so I think it's actually 115. And that is not counting any of the read alouds I did with my son, nor any of the (many) books I've been reading for my exam prep at school. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I read a load of books, more than I've read in any year before, and I can't really explain the pace. I guess I just figured out how to fit audio books into more parts of my life, and all I can say is, thank heavens for audio books! I love them with all my heart.

Last year I made all sorts of fun charts breaking down my reading stats (how many books I read in each genre, how many were re-reads, how many were audio books vs. paper books, etc.), but I don't really have the brain power for that right now (remember that raging head cold thing?) so for now we'll just stick with my Top Ten list. Although I will say, glancing over all the books I've read, most of them were audio books (obviously), I did more re-reading this year than I've ever done in the past (and I don't regret that at all, although for my list I kept it to strictly new-to-me reads), and I read a ton of fiction/fantasy, but for some reason my Top Ten list seems to be leaning heavily towards the nonfiction. ???

Another note on this Top Ten list that I feel like I have to make every year. This is just the list that struck me today. If I had written this list yesterday, or if I were to write it tomorrow, it could contain an entirely different set of books. I read a lot of goods one this, and I could've and maybe should've included so many others on this list. But here's how the list looks right now:

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson - This was a December read, so I don't have a review of it up yet, but let's just say I really want to write a longer review of this, because it was a powerful book that gave me quite a bit to think about. I really, really recommend it.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett - What a classic! I loved this book, and can't believe it took me this long to read! I will definitely be re-reading this one.

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurden - If you loved Read Aloud Family, chances are you'll love this one. I just can't get enough of books about reading aloud.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller - I loved this memoir so much that I changed around my lesson plans to include this book in my course this semester. It's not perfect, but had so many quotes and ideas I just loved so much.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry - Everything I love about a slow character driven novel. It made me cry, made me want to write my own life story, and made me want to read everything Berry has ever written (if only my library had more of his audio books!)

Becoming by Michelle Obama - So good. Just really so good. I related to so many parts of her life story, and found her to be very inspirational.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery - Apparently when I like fiction, I can only like fiction by classic safe authors. This is probably not Montgomery's best, but I loved it so much, and was so grateful to discover this gem. I think about Valancy often, and just love her so much. Highly recommend.

Circe by Madeline Miller - Oh look, a new fiction book! I didn't love everything about this book, but I loved so much of it. I loved the poetry of it, the way Greek mythology was woven into this narrative, the themes... it was just so good and beautifully written.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novak - This one was a debated entry on this list, and maybe on a different day it wouldn't have made it. But in the end, I really do have a thing for interesting and meaty historical fiction Russian fairy-tale retellings, and I didn't want this one to end.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova - Another debated entry (and look at that, I guess fiction is equal to nonfiction on this list), but this is a book I still think about all the time, so here it is. I hope no one I love ever gets Alzheimers or dementia, but if they do, I'll be coming back to this one.

Alright, there it is. Some of the best I read this year (a true best-of list would've included all the Austen books I re-read, but that hardly seems fair). Here's hoping all of you had an excellent reading year as well (what's on your top ten list?). May you all have a Happy New Year, with no head colds for you!

Monday, December 16, 2019

There's Magic For You Too

I've started a little tradition of writing a Christmas essay every year. You can read my essay from 2018 here, from 2017 here, and from 2015 here (I had a baby in December of 2016, nothing traditional happened that year). This essay is a little different than the usual ones, but I hope it still resonates with someone out there.

Luke 10: 38-42

38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman name Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, does thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

As a child, I loved Christmas. It was beautiful and twinkly and magical!

But my mother hated it. I never understood this. How can you hate Christmas?

Now I am a mother, and I understand a little bit more. She hated Christmas because someone has to create the magic, and creating the magic is exhausting.

It is my job now to create the magic. The magic doesn’t make itself! Someone has to mail the Christmas cards! Someone has to make the neighbor gifts, and the teacher gifts! Someone has to find the perfect garland for the mantle, because it’s not going to find itself! Someone has to make the gingerbread cookies, and volunteer at the class parties, and find the baby sitter for the office party, and buy the tickets for the show, and plan all the activities! Someone has to buy the presents and wrap the presents and fill the stockings! And my goodness, someone has to make all that food! All the holiday food, for all the guests!

I am the host now, and I am cumbered about with much serving. I am careful and troubled about many things.

And honestly, I have a lot of sympathy for Martha. People need to be fed, or they get grumpy. Guests need to be taken care of. Children need to be put down for naps, and fed, and bathed, and put to bed. Dishes need to be washed. Houses need to be cleaned. Work needs to be done! There is so much work that always needs to be done, and so much more work at this time of year. It is good work too. Work in the service of other people. Work to make them happy, to give them magic. Sometimes I feel a little bit annoyed with Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. She was cumbered about serving him! She was feeding him! Making things clean for him!

And all the work I do at Christmas time, all the magic I create, is for Him too! I’m serving my family and loved ones, I’m spreading His love, and I’m helping my children to feel the magic not just of this season, but the magic of His love. It is a good work, a good service to be cumbered about with.

But I’m also exhausted.

And I feel the itching, the scratching at the back of my mind. “Mary hath chosen that good part.”

Christ did not say that Martha’s work was pointless. He did not say that feeding and caring for others was wrong, or sinful, or that Martha wasn’t doing good. He simply pointed out that while nurturing others was a wonderful thing, it was not wonderful to the point of neglecting her own soul. There is good, and there is better, and there is best.

Yes, someone needs to make the food and do the dishes. But no one will starve if Martha sits down for a minute to take care of herself first. The Lord was gently reminding Martha, and all the wonderful hostesses and nurturers and caregivers in the world that their own salvation matters too.

So this Christmas, I’m choosing the good part. Oh, sure, I’m still hosting my family and will spend hours in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. I’m still wrapping all the presents and delivering all the neighbor gifts and making as much magic happen as I can. But I will find as many moments as I can to sit and listen. To feel my Savior, and what He has to say to me this time of year. I deserve to be nurtured and spiritually fed too. I deserve to feel the magic.

And so do all my fellow mothers and homemakers and hostesses out there. Yes, we are careful and troubled about many things. But we deserve to be nurtured too, and our Lord will nurture us if we take the time to stop and listen. We can stop making the magic happen for others and, at least for a minute, bask in the magic the Lord is making for us. We can stop cooking and baking all the things for just a moment to sit and eat of the Bread of Life. Things will not fall apart. The world will go on spinning. The Lord gave Martha permission, and you have it too. Permission to take care of your soul.

What does it matter if we make Christmas so magical for everyone else that we forget to feel it ourselves?

And so, if you feel yourself hating the season just little bit, if you are feeling the stress, the anxiety, the pressure of doing all the things, if you are feeling careful and troubled about many things, and feel like lashing out “Lord, dost thou not care that my (insert husband, sister, mother, father, children, friends, world) hath left me to serve alone!” then maybe that’s a clue that you need to stop for a moment. Take a seat. Listen. Choose the good part.

There’s magic for you too.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Books I Read in November

Hi guys! I'm still here, still around, despite my once-a-month posting here and my almost complete non-existence on social media. I've been doing my best to keep my head down and keep focused on preparing for my exams which have now been scheduled officially for January 24, so just under two months of torture left. It will be an incredibly busy two months, with finishing up this semester (so much grading), preparing to host almost my whole family for Christmas, plus planning a baptism (for my oldest) and the usual melee of birthday celebrations (three this year, since my brother will be with us and his birthday is actually on Christmas day), and then traveling on a Disney cruise the first week of January (don't tell my kids, it's a surprise), then returning to the hustle of lesson planning for the new semester, not to mention still prepping for said exams on top of all of this. I'm just trying to say, I will probably still be a bit absent around here for a while yet, though I will try to sneak in my best-of year end reading list.

But! I have some really exciting plans for the blog coming next year. I'll give more details later, but I'm teaching a brand new, designed-by-me, 200-level Topics in English course next semester, and I want to let you guys in on the fun! I'm so excited for this course, and I suspect some of you might be interested in it too, so I'm planning to post lecture and discussion notes here! Like I said, I'll give more information later, including the syllabus in case any of you are actually interested in reading along with my students (might be helpful, because the discussion notes will probably contain spoilers, but I'll give warning). Anyway, just thought I'd let you know that interesting and exciting (at least to me) content will be returning to the blog shortly!

In other news, I hope all of you had a lovely Thanksgiving break. Mine was just about perfect, full of family and food, and just enough down-time to actually feel a bit rested. And, I was able to get the Christmas decorations up, although a good deep-clean of the house did not happen (alas, never ask to use the bathroom if you happen to visit us...). I purposefully tried to slow down my reading rate this month. I experimented with adding more "silence" to my day, and listened to more music instead of just audio books. Yes, it was Christmas music (I'll hold off on decorating till after Thanksgiving, but I can't help but blast the Christmas tunes Nov. 1st on). And... I still managed to read seven books. My light months are another person's heavy months, what can I say? Also, the jury's still out on whether the slower reading pace was necessary or not... I guess I discovered I'm just as comfortable with myself in silence as I am while listening to a really good book, so why not listen to a really good book? I feel like I could write a whole post about this, hopefully I'll get the chance some day. For now, let's dive in to the books I did read!

Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

I saw a lot of people read and recommend this one last month, so I decided to pick it up myself. And I liked it, though I can't say I loved it. I was a bit wary at first, because it seemed to have a bit of the flavor of Liane Moriarty's books (her older sister), which I don't love (contemporary dishy drama). But this one ended up being quite a bit more... philosophically whimsical? Bordering on magical realism (or not, she leaves it up to you)? Anyway, it was worth finishing.

Golden Son by Pierce Brown

This is book 2 in the Red Rising series (I read the first one last month), and I dove into book 3 right after this one, but then had to stop a few pages in because my goodness these books are so brutal. I still plan on finishing the 3rd one, I just need a bit of space first. It's a very interesting series, but gets pretty dark. Anyway, I don't necessarily recommend it to actual young adults, but if you like dark dystopia (plus sci-fi), this is still a recommend.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Needing a bit of a palate cleanser after the last book, I went in the complete opposite direction with this nineteenth century classic on middle class marriage. Guys, this book is brilliant. I mean it. An absolute masterpiece. I read it for the first time in high school (and loved it then), but re-reading it now after eleven years of marriage... Eliot's insights into marriage and expectations and women's purpose in life... just beyond genius. It is so good. This book examines two not very happy marriages under a microscope, and I wish she would've done the same for the happy marriages (because yes, there are happy marriages in this book too). Such interesting, complex, beautifully crafted characters! If you haven't read this one yet, you really should.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

This was another re-read for me (wanted it for October, but apparently so did everybody else, because this is when it came off the holds list). And while there is nothing quite like reading this book for the first time, the experience of re-reading it is still absolutely fantastic (especially since the beginning isn't quite so disorienting). Even knowing all the secrets and what happens in the end, it was still just a marvel to see how Du Maurier weaves this suspenseful tale. Another brilliant classic you must read if you have not already.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This book was fascinating. I devoured it in one day, and then gushed about it to my husband. The short version is that Shapiro and her husband both decided to take DNA tests for fun, but Shapiro's test surprisingly reveals that while her mother is her mother, her father is not her father. This, of course, was devastating news, and sends her on a journey to find all the answers she can (and this may be a spoiler, but no, her mother did not have an affair, which I know is what you're thinking). There were lots of chords it struck with me: the importance of cultural and biological inheritance, the influence of genealogy on identity, the incredible science of DNA, the whole Spirit of Elijah, etc. I think it struck me too because, like Shapiro, I have a pretty significant religious ancestry through my father (my maiden name is Smith, and yes, I am one of those Smiths), and I could just imagine the devastation of losing my connection to that heritage through a simple DNA test (I've not taken a DNA test, but considering that my second son is the spitting image of my father, I'm fairly confident I wouldn't be surprised if I took one). Anyway, this was a very interesting story, and I definitely recommend.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Holy cow I loved this book! And I'm also ashamed it took me this long to read it! I own two beautiful copies of it, and I've seen the movie at least a dozen times (I love the movie, it is wonderful), but I had always put off reading the book until now. And it is so freaking good. I mean, the movie has some changes that I like (including the Ramayana stories, the WWI subplot, her dad actually being alive), but they left out how much of a book worm Sara is! And also, the book just does such a better job of portraying how Sara hangs on to her "princess" identity, what it means to her. I loved it so much. I can't wait to read this one to my kids! So, so good!

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

This is another book I've seen getting fairly good reviews lately, and I always like a book about book people, so I threw it on the holds list. I did not like it at first. At first, I thought the author was making up some fantasy race (people with blue skin), which I found entirely tasteless. But when I realized this was a real medical condition, and this story was based on a real family in Kentucky, I became quite a bit more interested. I won't say the story was really well written or absolutely my favorite (I didn't like the way it ended, nor how the love story developed, and I didn't quite feel the crushing sadness I think I was supposed to feel), but I did find the historical bits to be interesting, and had no problems finishing it. I wouldn't call it a must read, but it's good enough.

There we go. Not as many books as usual, but some incredibly good ones this month. As always, have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts! I'm hoping to find some good seasonal reads for December (beyond A Christmas Carol, this seems like such an impossible task), so if you have any recommends please send them my way!