Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Books I Read in April

What's that you say? It's May 21st? Why am I talking about April? Who really cares anyway? Look, I know I'm behind. It's just, that stretch at the end of April through the first two weeks of May is super killer in academia. It's just been busy. But! Nothing can stop me from recording here my little reflections about ALLLLLL the books I read. These posts give me life. I love tracking my reading and recording my reflections here (and on Goodreads, and now on IG too...), even if no one else cares.

Anyway, despite being incredibly busy, and also despite making another audio book app transition (I've abandoned Scribd, which I talked about on my IG stories, but if you missed that one, I'll maybe do a post all about it sometime, because I'm sure you all care very much), April was a pretty good reading month for me. A few classics, a few hot titles, and some stuff somewhere in between. Let's dive in, shall we?

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I've never had a goal to read Dickens' complete works, but I keep coming back to him, so I may manage it anyway. What to say about this one? It's not my favorite, but also, really, really good. I really loved Little Dorrit (even if I never fell in love with her love interest, especially considering the father/child relationship they start off with... ew). If I were ever to write a paper about this book (not likely), I would be most interested in focusing on the minor character of Tattiecoram, because that whole servant situation is just begging for some analysis. Also, found this one interesting to read so closely following The Way We Live Now (by Trollope) because they both involve financial scandal and suicides. I suspect something was going on in Late Victorian England to inspire this coincidence, but I confess I don't know my British financial history well enough to confirm. Anyway. If you like Dickens, you'll probably like this one.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

I read this one for my local book club. It's a sci-fi thriller, and it was good enough that as soon as I finished it I recommended it to my husband, and he loved it. It's not, like, life-changingly good, but it was enjoyable for what it was. I thought I had the plot figured out from pretty early on, but there was one twist that caught me by surprise. I still feel a bit conflicted about the ending. Also, I must confess, if there is such a thing as the multi-verse (which I'm pretty open to), this is NOT how I see it working. But what do I know? I will say, the thing I appreciated the most about this book was the emphasis on relationships and family as being far more important than any level of career success. That was nice. If you like sciency thrillers, this is probably a good pick for you.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I had to read this one just to see what all the fuss was about, and in general, I quite liked it (though not quite as much as the positively glowing reviews I've read). It was character driven (very nicely crafted characters, mostly), but also had a murder mystery thread through-out to give a little punch and suspense. There was plenty of beautiful writing, descriptions of nature, poetry, all things I tend to like. But the way it ended! I mean, don't get me wrong, the ending was foreshadowed all the way through so it didn't surprise me so much as... make me feel really conflicted. We're discussing this one with my book club on Thursday, and I'm so glad because I need to talk about this with someone. I just can't decide how I feel about it. Anyway, while I think it might be slightly over-hyped, in general I do recommend this one. It's quite good, and I will be very excited to read anything Owens writes in the future.

The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias

Oh, look at me, plugging along with my financial books. This one was very hit and miss with me. Parts of it were ridiculous (all his advice on budgeting... some of it was so stupid), and other parts of his advice got too specific to be helpful (everyone should invest in timber!!! Really?!?!?). It started being very overly basic, but then moved so quickly through big jargony words that I often got lost. All that complaining is to say that it's far from perfect, but I actually think there is a lot of great stuff in here, and I'll probably revisit this one some time (in paper, not audio) to let some of these terms and concepts soak in better.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

I've been interested in reading this one for a long time. It was tradition in our family to watch the movie every year around Easter, and whenever I love a movie inspired by a book, I always want to read the book. Plus, there's a scene in Anne of Green Gables where she gets in trouble for getting so caught up in this book that she doesn't do her school work. If Anne found it so wonderful, of course I'd want to read it! Alas... it did not live up to expectations. This one is emphatically joining the small but select group of stories where the movie is better than the book. Okay, the book actually had some interesting details that the movie missed out on. It really is quite a bit more focused on Christ's life than the movie is, and Ben-Hur actually spends most of Christ's ministry following him around like a disciple. So that was cool. But pretty much everything else was worse. Basically, this one takes an extremely patient reader to work through the dense and meandering prose. I consider myself a fairly patient reader (I've read War and Peace! I read Dickens for fun!), but this one pushed me over my limit. In general, feel free to skip this one, but if you've never seen the movie, you absolutely should watch it! It's a cinematic gem of epic proportions!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

I picked this one up partly because my virtual book club is discussing the whole Narnia series this month, and partly because I told myself last year that I was going to re-read the whole series myself. I'm just apparently doing it very slowly, and out of order. Anyway, this one is fantastic. I'd forgotten about so many of the adventures in here (the magic book! the sea people!), and in general it was just really, really good. Maybe I'll start doing these read alouds with my son. He's probably old enough.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

I've been itching to get my hands on this since it came out in January. This is the third installment to the The Winternight Trilogy, which is a historical fiction fairy-tale retelling series set in Russia. I read the first one a while back, and was a bit confused by it. It's not like any fairy-tale retelling I've ever read, but the series has really grown on me. This third one cemented it for me, though, and I really, really love it now. It's just so much more substantial than your usual fairy-tale retelling. The historical part of it is so interesting (she includes so many details, and this third book ends at a real historical battle), and the writing is just really good. I won't say the series is perfect, but I would say there is plenty of meat here for a good book-club discussion (lots of themes around feminism and faith that make it really good). And there is a romance, but it's not a very traditional romance. If you come to these things for a good satisfying romance, you might be disappointed. I'm still not sure how I feel about the way this romance played out, but I found everything else so good that I think it's totally worth your time. I highly recommend the whole series.

Okay, there you go. My April recap. It was a really good reading month, but my May is shaping up to be even better, so I'm excited to be back in a couple of weeks to talk about all the books I've read since then. But for now, have you read any of these? If so, what are your thoughts (especially about Crawdads)? I'd love to know!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Books I Read in March

Well, this post is coming a bit late, considering how far into April we are right now. But better late than never, I still read a few books I'm anxious to talk about. In March I finally gave up on my library audio book app and started using Scribd, which is a paid subscription service a little bit like Netflix. I just barely finished up the free trial month, but since they restrict access to some titles during the free trial, I've decided to give it another month (as a fully paying customer) before making my final decision about whether or not this is the right app for me. I've been documenting my experience with Scribd a little bit over on my Instagram stories, so if you follow me there you'll get to hear much more about this soon (or check my archived stories to see what I've already posted, in case you're interested).

Anyhoo, let's get on to the books I actually managed to listen to last month. It wasn't a great month, partly because of Spring Break (a whole week without my commute and constantly being with my kids really cut into listening time), and partly because I took on a couple chunksters that took some time to get through. But I'm determined that no pride in a numbers game should ever come between me and my love of good long books.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Ever since hearing a guest lecturer speak on Victorian marriage ideals last semester, I've been feeling a strong need to read some Anthony Trollope. I picked this one without doing too much research, and... I'm not sure it was the right place to begin. First off, I listened to it on LibriVox, amateur narrator at single speed (kill me now, this is what drove me over the edge to Scribd). Second, this think is beastly long, repetitive, and has some really, really dislikable characters. Almost 3/4ths of the way through I still wasn't sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, and what the best marriage options would be for the characters in the end. The major focus is actually a financial scandal, and the parts that discussed business and stocks and financial markets were just tedious. All that being said, I do not regret reading this one. It was fascinating for lots of different reasons, and probably something I'll never forget. I would recommend this one only to the committed reader of Victorian serial novels who has a true appreciation for lots of prose and is more interested in historical cultural commentary than a good story or romance.

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff

I read this for my local book club, and I liked it well enough. I can see how many, many other people could find this book extremely useful, especially those prone to negative self-talk or depressive tendencies. However, I took her little quiz online, and found I already score pretty high on her self-compassion index, meaning much of this book didn't feel all that useful or innovative to me. It still lead to some very interesting discussion at book club, and also, this woman's life story is really quite interesting, and it was really cool to see how her research (she's a professor) has helped her deal with some pretty serious life problems. I would very much recommend this book to anyone, especially anyone who struggles with a lot of negativity and self-criticism.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

For some random reason I'm unsure about, my husband checked the cd audio book version of this out from the library to listen to on his commute every day (he's never done this before, always listens to books on his phone, so I forget what inspired this). He began telling me all sorts of interesting facts and saying I really ought to read it, but since we couldn't both share the cds on our separate commutes, I found it on Scribd (and listened to it at double speed, thus finishing well before him). And guys! Sooooo interesting! If you like biographies, I highly recommend this one, it's fantastic. I really had no idea how Disney became such an institution, nor the history of animation, and it was just so fascinating. Now I really want to read a book about the rest of the Disney corporation, just to see how things went on after Disney's death (anyone know if that book exists?). The only downside is this one is also quite long, but it's still fantastic.

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

I decided to give Trollope another chance to impress me, and since I'd already seen the Julian Fellowes adaptation of this one, and knew I'd like the story, I picked this one. And it was delightful! Despite knowing how it was going to end, I still found it a very enjoyable read with a very satisfying romance. Still lots of interesting commentary on the economics of marriage here, but really, really fun. This one felt a lot more funny, too. If you like Victorian classics with a good romance, this is a great one! (Also, the Julian Fellowes adaptation is available on Amazon Prime, and you should totally watch it if you haven't already, because while slightly different, it is equally delightful, I had to watch it again after finishing this book).

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

This book is a little dated (it came out in 2014, I think, and it's crazy how much has changed at Google even since then), but I still found it so interesting. I don't know why I like reading corporate management books so much, considering I've never worked for a business, and probably never will. I was not the target audience for this book (it targets people who are starting up or managing their own companies), but I still found this inside look at Google to be so interesting. I really, really, really like this company. Every semester when I talk about research to my students, I always go off on this long tangent about how Google has changed the nature of research, how the search engine idea revolutionized the internet (do you remember back to the days when you actually had to know and type in the full address of the website you wanted to visit?), and how lucky we are that Google's mantra is to "do no evil," because that's what makes the internet as amazing as it is today. So, it's not much of a secret that I really love Google, and I loved getting a little behind the scenes look at how they work. It made me a little sad to realize I'm probably not cool enough or smart enough to ever work for Google, but also, working at Google would drive me crazy (open floor plans!!!). Anyway, I still recommend this one if you enjoy corporate management books as much as I do.

Okay, and that wraps up March! Have you read any of these? And what do you think of them?

Friday, March 15, 2019

Kids Don't Come With Instructions (But Here Are Some Books I've Found Useful)

Some things I've done that parenting books have told me to do that have changed everything:

1. Validate my children's emotions and experiences as real and important. This one is tricky sometimes. Because they are little and unreasonable and know so much less than I do, it can be incredibly easy to dismiss their feelings. You don't want to eat your vegetables? You don't want to get buckled in your car seat? You don't want to get dressed/bathe/be a reasonably not-disgusting human being? Tough luck, baby, just deal with it! After all, I know exactly what they need to do to turn out to be decent, healthy, productive, contributing, and happy members of society, right? What do they know?

Well, turns out that's not the point. Turns out it doesn't matter if I know more than they do. Turns out that the better I get at  not dismissing their emotions, the easier it is to actually get them to do what I want. It takes some theory-of-mind work and empathy on my part to get there, and I'm not always the best at it in the heat of the moment, but I've had some pretty convincing experiences where as soon as I validated what they were feeling, everything changed. Sometimes it looks like me realizing that what they are asking for really isn't all that difficult to give in to. Most times, when giving in to their demands or feelings isn't an option, it looks like me just recognizing that they are unhappy, and that is a completely valid response. It's okay to be unhappy when I interrupt their play to go to the store, that wouldn't be fun for me either if I were in their shoes. It's okay they are unhappy that I'm forcing bedtime on them when it would be far more interesting to stay up late. Don't I still struggle with that one too? It's okay they are throwing a tantrum or refusing to oblige, I'm asking them to do hard things and they are young. It's not easy. Just a little dose of sympathy and understanding has gone a long way to change everything about my perspective on how I interact with my children. Instead of getting frustrated, I feel the pain with them as we move through these hard parts of the day. Just because they are little doesn't mean their feelings and experiences aren't valid.

2. I no longer believe in punishment. This one felt so counter-intuitive to me the first time I read about it (in this book here), but punishment didn't seem to be working much either, so I decided to give it a try for a bit and see how things went. This was several years ago, when my oldest was probably three. I used to have power struggles with him constantly, and I felt that any resistance and struggle on his part was punishable with time-out. Basically, he was in time-out a lot, several times a day. But all time-out led to was bigger tantrums and more tears and worse power struggles. It was a vicious cycle. So I just stopped using time-out. I stopped punishing him pretty much cold turkey, for anything.

And I'm not sure anything changed about his behavior, but my perspective changed drastically. I realized that most of the things I'd been punishing him for were age appropriate behaviors. He was simply being a three-year old, and I was telling him it was not okay for him to be a three-year old. I was telling him he needed to be older and more mature than he was capable of being. Punishment wasn't teaching him anything but fear and frustration, and as soon as I stopped punishing him, our relationship improved drastically. I began seeing for the first time just how scared of me he had been, and it broke my heart. He was scared of my disapproval, but he also wasn't doing anything "wrong," except trying to learn and grow and test his boundaries in ways that were entirely appropriate for him.

I have not done a formal time-out with my children since then. I can't say I've inflicted any sort of formal punishment for anything. In fact, it's been a long time since I've viewed any of my children's behaviors as deserving punishment at all. This is not to say that they are perfectly behaved angels. Far from it. It's just that I've learned to distinguish between age-appropriate behavior, and actual transgression. Age-appropriate behavior sometimes needs correction (my youngest is a hitter, she's a violent little thing), but punishment doesn't teach correction, it teaches fear. Instead, I try to find ways to talk and teach during calm moments, and when bad behaviors happen (like the hitting), I simply try to redirect and stay calm. But I don't punish. She's only two. Most two-year-olds hit. It's not inappropriate for her age or maturity level. She will grow up some day and she will become more self-aware and develop greater capacity to control her impulses. What I can control is whether or not she also grows up fearing and resenting me, or trusting me to be her safe place.

This rejection of punishment, or even "consequences," I believe has had a profound impact in our home. For the most part, my children are not scared of me. They behave in age-appropriate ways, and I stay calm (mostly, it's a work in progress) and talk to them calmly when those age-appropriate behaviors cross lines of safety and propriety. This whole rejection of punishment has given me all sorts of insight into how Heavenly Father punishes as well, but that's a post for another day (don't have time for a deep theological tangent here, but I have lots of thoughts here that I'm bursting to share, so hopefully soon!).

3. Parenting is less about my children, and far more about me. I can't "change" my children, I can only change me. 90% of our struggles are about my expectations, and most of the time, my expectations aren't fair. The reason church is so frustrating? Because I expect my two-year old to sit quietly for a solid hour. Is that a fair expectation? Maybe for some kids, but not for my girl. That doesn't mean that I'm not supposed to have any expectations for her behavior, but it does mean that when I'm feeling super frustrated with her, the frustration is stemming from my expectations not being met, not from her behavior actually being inappropriate for her age and maturity level. I can change my expectations, I can't necessarily change her.

4. Less stuff is best. Experiences are better than toys. Children need to get outside, explore, be messy. Routine is key. Routine is crucial. Routine is life. It's okay for kids to be bored. They need unstructured time just to play. They need to be allowed to fail, to make mistakes. Humor always helps. Silliness can go a long way. Connection is key. Food does not need to be a battle. Sleep should be protected at all costs. Sleep is life. Touching is important. Give hugs and kisses, tickles and caresses. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Be calm. Be calm. (This last one is kind of just a grab bag of some parenting philosophies I believe in and have worked for us.)

Now, does this mean I'm a perfect parent and we have no struggles and my children are all wonderful? No! (I already talked about my violent two-year-old, no perfect children here!) My kids watch far more TV than they should and do far fewer chores than they should. We still have lots of things we need to work on around here, there are still lots of ways I could be a better mother. The point is, I'm a better mother than I used to be because of parenting books. Below is a list of some of my favorite ones.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

Kind of the big one that has changed me the most. I don't know if it will offer everyone the same enlightenment it offered me, but I 100% credit this book for setting me on the path to be the parent I am today.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

Not quite as life-changing for me, but still brim full of all the things I believe work with kids: validating feelings, getting rid of punishment, using empathy, etc. Haven't read the original one, but plan to some day.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The book itself was a complete bore, not riveting at all. But the message completely resonated with me. It presented a view of childhood that I really want for my kids, about helping them connect with nature.

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

Again, maybe not the most well written, but a message that deeply resonated with me about the kind of simple childhood I want to create for my children.

Bonus! Including an Instagram account here: Ralphie from @SimplyOnPurpose . She is the single best reason to be on Instagram, in my personal opinion. I won't say that I agree with 100% of the things she says, but I probably agree with 99.9% of her parenting philosophy. She preaches positive parenting, and it is beautiful. If you aren't already following her, you probably should be. Peruse her archived stories, she has such gems of wisdom and advice about all sorts of things. Water the flowers, not the weeds! Stay safe! Ignore the junk!

What are your favorite parenting books/resources? I'm always looking for new ones!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Feminist Financial Literacy:

We passed a big financial milestone last month:

We finally paid off all of our student loan debt!!!!

And of course, I'm using the words "we" and "our" gratuitously here, because none of the student loan debt was actually mine (I take great pride in the fact that despite my 9+ years of post-high-school education, I've never taken out a dime in loans to pay for any of it), and of course, all of the money to pay it off came from my husband's salary. But, we live in that kind of "our money, our debt" household. Of course it took both of us to get to this point.

And considering it was six figures worth of debt (I'm fuzzy on the actual number, somewhere between $130,000.00 and $150,000.00, because law school is expensive, man!), I'm also fairly proud that we managed to pay it all off in just over five years.

We actually had the majority of it paid off before we left Houston. In fact, if my husband had stayed at his job in Houston just one month longer, we would've had the whole thing paid off then. But when we moved, we took about a 50% pay cut, and we bought a house, so we decided to put the last couple thousand of our student loan debt on hold (as in, just paying the minimum) while we settled into our new financial position and figured things out. But sitting down at the beginning of this year to figure out our finances, we decided that we had enough financial security now to just go ahead and pay off the rest of that loan, and start funneling that money into an extra retirement account in my name.

When I say it took both of us to get to this point, it's because my husband and I both play different roles in our financial life. He's the one with a business degree who took all sorts of finance courses in undergrad. He's the one who mapped out our loan repayment plan. He has our long-term retirement plan in place with an investment strategy to get us in a very comfortable position in the future. He's got the big picture figured out. My strong suit, in compliment, is the day-to-day budgeting and frugal living. I know how to walk into a store (any store) and walk out with only the things on my list, and sometimes, not even all the things on the list because while shopping I realize that the mental math isn't adding up and I need to cut the non-essentials to meet the budget. I'm the one tracking our spending and making decisions about where we need to tighten our belts and where we maybe have room to finally spend a little.

And for most of our marriage, I've been fairly happy with this arrangement. It works out well. I focus on pinching the pennies now, and he reassures me that when we're 70, we'll be set.

But recently, I've been feeling a need or a pressure or whatever to get a better handle on the bigger picture side of things. Partly, I think this has stemmed from conversations with my younger sister, Angela. Angela is single and lives in Palo Alto, California. As in Silicon Valley. She works as a school teacher, but she has friends at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the other various tech industries there. She knows people who make a lot of money. I mean, she lives in Silicon Valley, money (or the lack thereof) is everywhere in her world. After watching how her friends spent money, and stressing about her own financial position (it's an expensive place to live, and she's doing it on a teacher's salary), Angela started talking to people about their financial plans. When she was at a party, or hanging out with a group of people, she started asking anyone who was willing to talk what their financial plans were. And she noticed the most fascinating divide. Any guys she asked could talk for hours about their money. They had all sorts of plans and ideas and investment strategies. But whenever she asked women these questions, most of them would freeze up, or talk vaguely about "saving," or flat out admit they didn't really have a financial plan. And these are highly educated women working at big-name places in cutting edge fields! It struck my sister as problematic that women who were otherwise just as intelligent and qualified as men still seemed to lack the kind of financial literacy that these men have.

So last summer, Angela and one of her closest friends started a financial literacy book club for women. Every month, they choose a book on some financial topic to read, and then when they get together, they not only discuss the book, but also usually have a guest speaker talk to them about financial topics (recently the head of YouTube finances was one of their guest speakers... my sister has some pretty cool connections). Hearing her talk about this book club, and her own growing passion in helping single women get more educated about their finances, has really inspired me.

I'm in the lucky position that I'm not single, and I don't necessarily have to bear all the financial responsibility for my future alone. But I'm not sure that matters. My husband is very smart and knowledgeable, and I have every reason to trust him and the decisions he makes about our money. But that doesn't mean I'm not smart and knowledgeable too, and that we both might benefit if I were to learn some of this big picture stuff and contribute to the decision making process. I mean, there is always the terrible "what-if" scenario where I could end up single far earlier than I plan to, and that alone should be enough motivation to get me to figure this stuff out. But provided my husband out-lives me, I still believe our financial life is only all the stronger for having two heads thinking about it together.

Over the past few months, I've been starting to read more financial books about investing and other big picture stuff. This is an entirely foreign field for me, and I'm quite naive. The more I read, the more I realize I have to learn. Also, the more I realize how much knowledge my husband actually has. I've been peppering him with questions recently about our retirement accounts, and while I still get confused about the difference between 401ks and traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs (something about when the taxes are taken out...?), I'm slowly getting there. I'm picking up terms like index funds and targeted accounts and slowly, ever so slowly, trying to make sense of it all.

But while I realize I am still far, far behind my husband in grasping all this stuff, I've also still seen glimmers of how me learning about this could help both of us. Right now, the plan my husband has in place for us has us retiring comfortably at around age 67 (so, 65 for me?), provided our income remains fairly stable. But I've been reading up on trends like FIRE and value investing  and other such things, and I've been talking to him about how we could work to push that number lower, or at least, get us to a place where he could scale back at work earlier and branch out into some of his other interests. My husband makes a great lawyer, but it's a stressful job, and he has all sorts of other interests he would love to explore if he didn't feel such pressure to provide for a family (he's talked about teaching and graphic design, for instance). So I can be a voice to advocate for different investing strategies that open up possibilities for us. I like that! But it won't happen at all if I don't take the initiative to learn some of this stuff myself and really be a partner in making these decisions.

All of this is to say that I still don't quite know what I'm talking about when it comes to big picture financial strategies. I'm still very much a newbie at all this stuff. But I also believe that I am smart and capable, and this is important stuff for me to know about, even though I have a husband who is way ahead of me here. It's important in case I don't always have that husband, and it's important because my insights and knowledge can potentially benefit both us in the long term. I don't want to be dependent on someone else for financial security, not a financial planner, not even my husband. I want to know these things myself so that I can make the best decisions for myself.

And my sister Angela? Well, she's actually going to business school this fall. I imagine she's going to be taking this new-found passion of hers for educating women about financial literacy into the future in a big way. I'm cheering her on and supporting her by taking the message to heart and becoming financially literate myself. If you've read any good books on any financial topics, please let me know! I'm here for it!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Books I Read in February

Okay folks, February was a short (cold, miserable) month, and I had some frustrating experiences with my audio book app (more on that later, it deserves it's own post), but I still managed to finish seven books, which is not too shabby. Let's cut the preamble here and just dive in.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

This was a re-read for my virtual book club. I haven't read this book since high school? college? I forget, but oh my goodness, it is still a top favorite of all time. This is a seriously depressing book that makes you hate all men, but it's so beautifully written I love it despite that. This is by far my favorite Hardy, and if you've never read it, you should. You really should. You may cry buckets of tears, but you'll still love it. I promise.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

This was also a re-read, for my other book club, and this book is so much fun and so delightful and if you haven't read it yet this is another one you should go out and read right now because it's just delightful. For our book club we actually watched the movie (because, duh!), and this is one of those rare times where the movie really is better than the book. Except the book is still wonderful! I love the book, and I will totally re-read it again some day. There are things about the book that are really fun. But the movie is better (the Jane Seymour version, there are others but that one is THE one). If you haven't seen the movie, find it, watch it, love it. You'll thank me.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

As part of my January self-help kick, I decided I wanted to read a good parenting book, but this was all my library had available through the audio book app that looked remotely interesting (see my note above about frustrations). I think I would've preferred to read the original one, but this one was still surprisingly good. I found myself agreeing with everything the authors said, patting myself on the back for already doing most of the things they suggested, and coming away with a few new tricks that have come in really handy in dealing with my oldest's emotional moments. I think I've got a post brewing in my head about parenting books, we'll see if I ever find the time to write it.

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella

This was my attempt at "seasonal reading" for February (you know, Valentine's Day...). Ugh. I think this is my third Sophie Kinsella, and I think I've finally decided I need to give up on her. I mean, I liked it well enough to finish it. She can be quite funny, and there were some ridiculous shenanigans in this one that were amusing (really ridiculous, but funny), but mostly, it's too much cotton candy and swearing and stuff.

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

If this book had been about a thin sized girl losing her aunt and fighting with her mom and overcoming obstacles to finally go out with the cute boy at work, it would've been fairly cliche, unremarkable chick lit YA. But the fact that the main character is plus sized really does make this book remarkable. I'm not sure I've ever been in the head of a plus sized high school girl like this before, and it was equal parts inspiring and heart-breaking. It was one of those reading experiences for me where I realized that some voices don't get their fair share of representation in certain genres, and it was refreshing to be able to hear this voice and vicariously experience her triumphs and pain. It's not a must read, but it is a good one. I very much enjoyed it. (Anyone seen the movie? Haven't gotten around to it yet, but I'm planning to watch it!)

This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order by John Schwartz

So, I've been on a weird kick of reading books about money recently (this is another post entirely), but this is definitely one you can skip. I mean, unless you are as clueless and this guy, and max out your credit cards, and make poor real estate decisions that lead to near bankruptcy, and luck out by belonging to a generation that still gets pensions so it doesn't matter that you borrowed from your retirement to pay off your kids' student loan debts... then go ahead and take financial advice from this guy. Schwartz is a New York Times reporter, so the guy can write. Much of this was fairly entertaining and highly readable. But seriously, you don't need to read this one.

Circe by Madeline Miller

The one time my library's app came through for me with a winner! This book has been getting some buzz for a while now. Last year I picked it up in an airport bookstore and read a few pages and knew I needed to read the whole thing, and... I loved it! This may not be a great book for everyone. The pacing feels a bit episodic. It felt like the structure of the Iliad or Odyssey, epic and grand but not a modern plot structure. The writing is beautiful. Oh my goodness, the writing just swept me up and left me swimming in this world of petty jealous gods and witchcraft magic and sailors lost at sea... it's beautiful. I highly recommend the audio version, it's very well done. Long story short, if you enjoy Greek mythology and have even a passing familiarity with the Odyssey, or just enjoy beautiful well-written books, this is one for you! We'll see how long it stays with me, but it already feels like one I'd love to re-read in a few years (and that's high praise from me!).

Okay, that's a wrap on February. I've got Spring Break next week, so I'm hoping that translates into some writing time here on the old blog, because I've got so many things I want to talk about! But for now, have any of you read any of these? What did you think of them? I'd love to hear!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pregnant Bodies and Pregnant Souls: Plato on Love and Creation

plato, philosophy, love, symposium, valentine's day, book love, create, creation, children, creativity

My husband and I recently watched a Netflix movie called IO that I didn't care for overly much (the premise was cool, the execution was a little too art/independent-filmish for it's own good, basically you can skip it), but there was one scene that was really beautifully executed and has stayed with me. The main character has a boyfriend who she has not seen in years (he left on a spaceship), and while they are able to communicate through some form of email, they will likely only see each other again if she's able to catch the next flight off planet earth, which is both logistically and emotionally difficult for her to do. Enter another character, who was once a philosophy professor, and in this really beautiful scene he describes to her how, in an essay on love, Plato wrote that men used to have four arms, four legs, and two hearts, until one day a jealous god divided man into two, and ever since then, man has spent his whole life looking for his other half so that he may be complete and whole again. It's a very compelling scene.

But this description of love really bothered me. I do not subscribe to the belief that single humans are incomplete, or that being in a relationship is what makes us whole and complete. So I decided that I needed to come here and write about how much I disagreed with Plato. But before taking on one of Western civilization's greatest philosophers of all time, I figured I better check out the original source, rather than just arguing with a movie version of him (here's my advanced degree education kicking in, always best to check your sources!). So, imagine my surprise and delight when I stumbled across the Symposium, a Plato work I was completely unfamiliar with (I've had to read some Plato before, but apparently never this one).

Here's the summary for you: Basically, this is a fictional story, a dialogue (or even dramatic scene) between a group of men at a banquet. The host of the banquet challenges the men to each give a speech about Eros (or Love). The speech about humans once having four arms and four legs was given by a character named Aristophanes, who is a comic playwright, and, it should be noted, his story doesn't seem to be taken very seriously as truth. I think it would be a stretch to argue that Plato in any way is actually promoting this view on love. So, here's why it's important to always check original sources! Plato may have written the story, but in the mouth of a character he probably didn't agree with. Good to know!

Traditionally, it is agreed that Plato probably put his own opinions about love in the mouth of Socrates, who is the final member of this dinner party to make a speech. And you guys, this Socrates speech on love is good. I mean, it is really, really good. While I was reading through it, I just kept thinking, hm, wow, how have I never heard this before!? So, in case you are not familiar with this particular essay of ancient Greek philosophy, and in honor of the holiday today, I'm just going to drop some quotes here for you to be thinking about this week.

In his speech, Socrates relates a conversation he had with a woman named Diotima, who teaches him all about Love. Here's a snippet of that conversation:

"[Love] is a great spirit, and like all spirits he is intermediate between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal. He interprets between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him is all bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love."

I mean, how beautiful is that image? The only thing between God and man is Love, all the communication and intercourse between the mortal and the divine is through Love.

Okay, later on they keep talking about about how Love is about this pursuit of beauty, and then there's this snippet (this is Diotima speaking again):

"Then if this be the nature of love, can you tell me further ... what is the manner of the pursuit? what are they doing who show all this eagerness and heat which is called love? and what is the object they have in view? ... I will teach you:- The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul. ... I mean to say, that all men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls. There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation-procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature, and in the inharmonious they can never be. ... For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only, [but] the love of generation and of birth in beauty. ... Because to the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality."

Okay, there's so much in there, and I'm not expert on Greek philosophy, so I may be getting all this wrong, but from what I understand Diotima is saying here that real love brings about a pursuit of beauty through generation and procreation. The first level of this is literal procreation between a man and a woman. This is romantic love, and Diotima/Socrates/Plato is arguing here that that the goal or pursuit of this type of romantic love is procreation, for that is a way to immortality (you live on through your children, or something like that).

But romantic love and procreation is only love and birth of the body. There is also love and procreation of the soul, and this is where they move on to next:

"But souls which are pregnant-for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? -wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor."

So, if I'm following this right, to Plato love is about creation- procreation of children from physical love, and creation of virtue, wisdom, art, poetry, etc. from soul love.

As I understand it, this essay is where we get the concept of Platonic love, but how we use the term "Platonic love" today is not very faithful to the idea of love Plato is actually talking about here. We talk about Platonic love as simply meaning friendship without sexual desire, but actual Platonic love here is referring to a love which leads to creativity of the soul.

While Plato (and the Greeks in general) were obsessed with the idea of immortality, and the way these two expressions of love could bring immortality (either from having children to pass on your memory, or having famous works of art that people would study forever), what I'm far more struck by is simply the idea that true love leads to creation, and creation is beautiful.

I love this conception of love. To me, it speaks perfectly about how love works in a relationship. The love I share with my husband has led to physical creation, we've produced three beautiful children. But our relationship has also led to soul love as well. We've built a family, we've created a home, and, most importantly, we've spent everyday learning virtue and wisdom through the art of getting along, serving, forgiving, playing, celebrating, and just being together. We've created a life together. We've created a marriage, and while that may not exactly be the type of art or poetry Plato is thinking of, believe me when I say that marriage is an art.

But also what I love about this conception of love is that it is not dependent on being in a relationship (okay, the physical procreation part is, that does take two), but anyone can fill their soul with love and have it generate virtue, wisdom, art and poetry. Anyone can access God through love. Anyone can pursue beauty and good. Love is simply about creating good in the world.

There's lots more to this essay than I've discussed here (and I just want to reiterate that I am no ancient philosophy scholar, and I'm positive there are two centuries worth of criticism written on this particular essay which probably all say it means something entirely different than what I've said here, so just take everything with a grain of salt).

But the two things that really struck me as being profound and significant are these: Love is the only thing between man and God, and Love is all about creation.

So if you find yourself depressed today because you are not in a relationship with that other half who formed your four arms and four legs at the beginning of creation, maybe it's time to let that soul mate vision go anyway and realize that all that matters to really celebrate Love is using it to create.

Create good.

Create beauty.

Love man and love God.

Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers. I truly love you, and thank you for your support in this small space I use as my own little outlet for creativity. I hope you find goodness and beauty here.

May your day be filled with love.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Books I Read in December and January

So, I totally forgot to do an end of month review for December (it happens, what with all the craziness of the holidays and all the necessary year-in-review/goal-setting posts at the beginning of the year), but I don't want to not document those books, so I decided to do a double month post for December and January. But I read 17 books in the past two months (yay for holiday reading time!) which is a heck of a lot of books to get through, so I'm kind of intimidated. But the only way on is through, so let's just plunge in, shall we?

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

How I love Dickens! This one (apparently one of his earliest, maybe even his first?) is much more episodic than his other novels. In fact, I was uncertain for a long time if there was going to be any sort of over-arching plot at all, or if it was just going to be a loose collection of adventures (spoiler, there is a plot, of sorts). But mostly, this was a just a delightful ride with these crazy characters. I came to love Mr. Pickwick with all my heart. This ended up being a serendipitous December read, as there's a couple of wonderful Christmas stories/scenes (hints at his future Christmas Carol). I've been wanting to read this one ever since I re-read Little Women last year, and it did not disappoint. It was charming and delightful!

My True Love Gave To Me by a bunch of big-name authors

So guys, I love me some seasonal reading, but does it feel like finding good non-picture book Christmas fiction is really hard? Or is that just me? Anyway, I found this short story collection while browsing my library's Christmas suggestions, and recognized most of these author names (some big YA names here), so I decided to give it a whirl. And here's the thing. I genuinely enjoyed some of these stories, and I think if you are a hard-core fan of these authors, you'd probably enjoy them too. But it was not what I was looking for in a good Christmas read. It was all rather fluffy, all romance with Christmas just being incidental. But it was kind of mostly clean and still rather fun, so I did finish it.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Guys, this ended up being a surprise favorite for me. This is classic fantasy, but it's not for everyone, not even fans of fantasy. My husband read it after me, and he's a huge fantasy fan (LOTR, Brandon Sanderson, etc.), but he didn't really like this one. It's prose is a bit more sparse and poetic. It has the feel of an ancient myth to me. I loved it, especially the magic system. I have grand plans of designing a 200-level English course and teaching this novel in it (I'll tell you more about it if that idea comes to pass).

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

You guys! I found it! Everything I've been looking for in a great seasonal Christmas read! I mean, duh, right? There's a reason this is the classic it is. I cannot believe this is the first time I've actually read it! It's going to have to become a yearly tradition, it was just so perfect. Considering how many times I've seen all the movie versions and how familiar I am with the story, I was surprised at just how much better the book really was. I cried (that Dickens, he's so manipulative). I loved it.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My sister gifted me this trilogy for my birthday, but since it was a physical book instead of an audio book I had to wait patiently all semester for Christmas break before I could finally jump in. I've seen it getting some buzz lately, and I have to say, the first one is quite enjoyable. If you enjoy urban fantasy, this is a pretty fun story, and the first one works fairly well as a stand alone, which I kind of recommend leaving it at.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

This one was still pretty good. I still breezed through it and found it mostly enjoyable, though it didn't necessarily lead in the direction I expected things to go...

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I read Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy a few years ago and rather enjoyed it, and I was intrigued enough by the synopsis of this one to want to jump in. There were lots of things to love about this: the library/book love, the role of dreams (literal and figurative), the fantastic world. I'm not sure it's quite as good as the Daughter series, but I still really, really liked it. But, it ended on quite the cliffhanger, which means of course I have to read the next book (just as soon as my library gets the audio, which I hope it does soon).

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Seasonal reading in January feels like self-help to me, and this was my first self-help of the year. And I liked it, but can't say I loved it. Rhimes sounds like a gem of a person who would be really fun to know in real life, and her story of the changes she made in her life and the happiness she found were very inspiring... just not for me so much. Her life is just different than mine, and I didn't find her experience very applicable to my experience. But I did enjoy it and generally recommend it, especially if you follow her work at all (I, for one, have never seen a single episode of Grey's Anatomy, so I guess I'm not the target audience really anyway).

Invested by Danielle Town

Oh man, this one might deserve a post all it's own. I'm not even sure what inspired me to pick this book up, considering how it seems like exactly something that would not interest me in a million years. When it comes to money, I stick to things like budgeting, frugal living, and saving money as my areas of specialty. Investing? Stocks? Not really my thing (understatement). But reading this book somehow got me all fired up and inspired to go out and turn into some kind of investor wizard. They just managed to make it seem really doable. Or at least, really doable since I happen to be married to a corporate lawyer with a business degree who actually understands this stuff and could be really good at it. So I pressed the book into his hands and he got cautiously persuaded by it, and so we're going to maybe follow this program and see how it turns out. I have no clue what I'm doing, but I have all the faith in the world in my husband, so I'll let you know what happens (if anything happens, we're still very much in the just paper planning stage of things). Either way, we've decided this will be an interesting joint project, something to spend time doing together. Nothing says romance like investing in stocks together, am I right?

Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life... and Maybe the World by Admiral William H. McRaven

Continuing on with my January self-help theme, I picked up this little quick read and rather thoroughly enjoyed it. McRaven has a fascinating life story, and his little nuggets of wisdom really are fabulous. But the one thing this book really convinced me of is that... I could never be a Navy Seal. I just don't have that in me. And I kind of came away from this book feeling insecure about that. Like, Navy Seals are awesome, and I can never be that awesome. Is that okay? Anyway, I still highly recommend this book.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Guys, this one was fantastic. This one straddles the line between self-help and business-y pop psychology. He spends Part 1 talking about the science of personal habits and how to change bad habits (some really good stuff), and then he spends Part II talking about how businesses and companies try to exploit our habits (he talks about Febreeze, Target, other stuff that's really interesting). Then in Part III he just brings up some interesting ethical questions about habits (super interesting stories here). Anyway, I just really enjoyed this one. I would say if you're interested in starting new good habits, Gretchin Rubin's Better Than Before is probably a more helpful book, but if you're interested in breaking bad habits (and just learning some interesting trivia) then this is a better choice. Good stuff.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

And here we go, I finally finished the third book in that series I started way back over Christmas break. Yeah, this third one really lost me (can you tell by the fact that I finished like five other books before finishing this one?). Major plot holes, a lot of missed potential for the magic system and world-building, and just far too long. The first one is good, just stick with that one.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

A complete treat to listen to this. And then, of course, as soon as I finished I immediately had to go listen to the entire soundtrack of the musical and just bask in the brilliance of that adaptation. I don't know if I would've been team Hamilton had I been alive back then (and I love how Chernow doesn't sugar coat any of his mistakes or failures), but I can't help but be grateful for his life and his brilliant contributions to founding our country.

The Warren Buffet Way by Robert G. Hagstrom

Oh boy, look at me, reading investment books like I know something. Who am I even anymore? Okay, this is NOT the one to start with. It totally feels like the target audience of this book is other experienced investors (which I most definitely am not), but I certainly learned quite a bit about Warren Buffet that I found fascinating, and, thanks to my crash course from Invested, even felt like I was hanging with all the jargon being thrown around. I sure hope I get to put this knowledge to good use.

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Guys! I really liked this one! It's about the tragic explosion of the Hindenburg, and while lots of the story is historically accurate (like all the character names were real people on board), this is a fictionalized and super thrilling dramatic account of what possibly could've caused this tragedy. I was blown away by Lawhon's ability to craft such an exciting story (spies! intrigue! romance!) on the bones of actual historical detail. It was a lot of fun (even if the ending is tragic, but you already know that from the beginning) and I definitely recommend.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Guys, you just have to read this. I mean, you have to read Beartown first (this is the follow up story), but Backman is just incredible for his ability to dissect human behavior. I just can't believe how good he is hat making such superbly flawed but lovable characters. Also, just know, Backman is manipulative. You will feel all the feels. I cried buckets. Ugh.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I've been wanting to re-read this one ever since watching the Netflix movie version (which, P.S., is really, really well done, even if the book is better). Ay, me! What a lovely book! Even better as a re-read! I didn't want it to end. I do so love this one!

Well, look it that, we made it through all seventeen books! What a fabulous couple of months it's been, reading-wise. As per usual, have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts about them!