Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Books I Read in October

Guys, it makes zero sense to me. I don't know how I'm doing it. Honestly. Somehow, despite the fact that October was chock full of mad studying for exams, grading stress, the nastiest cold that knocked all of us out for two weeks, and all the Halloween shenanigans... I still managed to have a record breaking reading month.

18 books. And one of those books was the longest book I've read this year. I passed the hundred mark for the year this month. !!!!!!!

Like I said, I don't even know how I'm doing it (I mean, audio books at double speed on my commute is mostly how I'm doing it, but still...). Anyway, it's a ton of books to get through and I don't have a lot of time (I should be studying for those exams right now, not writing this post) so let's get going.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I spent the first part of the month finishing off my re-read of all my Austen favorites (my annual fall tradition). Guys, if you haven't read this short little epistolary novel by Austen, you are missing out! It has the most deliciously wicked title character, and is just a pure gossipy treat! Plus it's a super quick read. And they also managed to make a pretty good movie adaptation of it called Love and Friendship, which now that I'm thinking about it, I really need to see again.

Emma by Jane Austen

While this book is not my favorite Austen (Emma tends to drive me nuts a bit, and I struggle with the age difference of this romance, the line about him falling in love with her when she was thirteen always tends to make me gag), I'm struck by the brilliance of her narrative structure every time. I mean, the way she conceals major plot points but drops hints of them throughout it just the most sheer genius. Austen is beyond amazing.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I'm late to the bandwagon on this one. It was entertaining enough, the plot was very clever and structured in a very creative and interesting way, so that mystery element of it was quite good. But I never quite fell in love with it (the dad bothered me so much, I never liked him in the end). I can see why other people love it though. It was just a little too soap-opera-y at points for me to really enjoy.

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon

You may be thinking, do I really need to read another book about reading aloud to my children when I'm already reading aloud to my children? And I don't know about you, but apparently the answer for me is yes. Always yes. I just can't get enough of the topic. The Read Aloud Family was amazing in its own way, and this one is amazing in an entirely different way, and I emphatically recommend both books, even if you already read to your children every day. This one is so, so good.

Tales of Alvin Maker Books 1-6 by Orson Scott Card

(I'm reviewing all six books at once, no need for individual reviews of this series.) So I read the first two books in this series circa middle school, but my dad wouldn't let me read the third one. I saw something about this series recently, remembered how much I liked it initially, and figured I was probably old enough now to handle whatever my dad was trying to shield me from (turns out it was white master sexual abuse of his slaves, totally get why my dad censored that). This series is a fascinating, magical rewriting of the Joseph Smith story and American history. I think it is super creative and a very thought-provoking interpretation of both Smith and the American story. If you enjoy historical fantasy mythology, this is a total recommend. The first two books are the best, it tends to get long-winded after that. And the series isn't finished yet (there's supposed to be seven books, but it's been well over a decade now and we're all losing hope it's ever going to happen).

Enchantee by Gita Trelease

I have a thing for magical historical fiction, which is why I thought this book would be right up my alley (French revolution with magic? Yes please!). Except it was entirely forgettable. Nothing special here.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

I loved Peace Like a River so much, so I've been looking forward to this long anticipated next book by Enger, and well, it's not quite the same level as Peace. That being said, the writing is still amazing and beautiful and I loved every second of this book, just floating along with the beautiful language and the lovely characters, and I just wanted this book to go on and on and on. The plot was strange, I'm not sure if I understand the point, but I don't really care. I was just there for the lovely writing. Recommend.

 Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

This book was a lovely (and strange, and disgusting) mix of memoir and philosophical reflection on death. Doughty has always been a little obsessed with death, so fresh out of college she gets a job at a crematory. And boy, does she have some stories! Her writing is funny and entertaining (and only a few of her stories are gross), and she is on a mission to change death culture in America. If you've read Being Mortal, they basically have the same message, that one is just from the medical side of things, and Doughty is coming at this from the funeral industry side of things. I learned a ton, and have basically decided I'm all in for a natural decomposition burial (no embalming, please!). The subject is maybe a little dark (thus the October read), but it's an important topic that we don't talk about or think about enough as a culture. I definitely recommend.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

I gave this three stars on Goodreads, but it really might be a four star for me, I just wish it had more accessible writing. Wolf is an educational psychologist who studies exactly what goes on in the brain when a person is reading. It was fascinating to me on so many levels (she studies from a scientific point of view what I think about from a literary point of view). She offers a history of reading, a look inside what's going on in the brain, and especially a fascinating dive into dyslexia. The only problem is, while she claims this is for a general audience, her tone and style are still pretty heavily academic, which makes this a less entertaining read than I wanted it to be. Others might find it difficult to slog through, but I think it's well worth it (especially if you have a kid with dyslexia). Fascinating stuff.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Guys, this was a strange, quirky little story, with elements that I can only describe as fantastical (maybe magical realism? Not quite, but borderline). I'm not quite sure I loved it, but I definitely enjoyed it, especially all the descriptions of food (I just love good food writing). Also, there were some pretty interesting insights into the whole San Francisco tech company scene (they talk about a food replacement called Slurry I think, and I just found out yesterday that this is a real thing! Only it's called Soylent! Gross! Why would they call it that?!?!?). Anyway, this is a fun one.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

My sister recommended this one to us when we visited her this summer, and my husband actually listened to it first, and then told me I should read it, so I did. I think if I'd read this a decade or so ago (before Hunger Games), I would've really loved it. It tries really hard to do some creative things with the YA dystopian genre (which is what sucked me in at first), but ends up falling into pretty much most of the cliches. It's rather dark and violent, but if you really like YA dystopia, then I definitely recommend this. The mash-up description I'd use is Hunger Games meets Roman mythology meets sci-fi terraforming Mars. It is something.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

Okay, let's talk about seasonal reading. I love doing seasonally appropriate reads in October, so at the beginning of the month I put a few old favorites on hold (Dracula, Rebecca) but apparently everyone else around here had the same idea, because I'm still waiting for them. So I needed something to fill my time with, and I've been meaning to re-read this classic for a while now (I read it back in high school I think), and decided now was as good a time as any. And guess what? Revenge, murder, drug trips, poison, carnival, executions, prisons, pirates... this is a totally appropriate October read! I finished it on Halloween, and boy, I have more thoughts than can fit here in this little mini-review, so I'll just save that for another day. But basically, it is long (longest book I've read this year), but totally worth your time.

Okay, and that's it for a pretty fantastic reading month. I've actually slowed things down here in November (which I'll maybe talk about another time), but I'm still pretty impressed with my reading rate here. Anyway, have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

Monday, October 14, 2019

Books I Read in September

Well, now, we're only about half-way through October, so not too late to post about my September reading, is it?

But first, hi! How are you all? It's been a minute. I'm still drowning over here in the work load to prep for my exams, but I discovered last week that, due to some administrative policy stuff and academic calendar conflicts, my exams won't take place until January sometime (we'd originally been planning for them to happen towards the end of November). So, while that means that my work and stress will continue over Christmas break (which frustrates me to no end, I really wanted to just get them over with to enjoy the holidays), right now it does mean the pressure has eased up some, and I feel like I can take a minute to pop on over here.

So, despite most of my listening time in September being dedicated to Shakespeare (I listened to/read 18 of his plays in the span of about six weeks, which is actually only just over half of his total credited output, so no, I still do not feel like I can call myself an expert on Shakespeare), I actually managed to listen to 7 books just for fun, which honestly is a fantastic number for any month, so I'm pretty pleased with that. Here's what I read:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

I'd read several rave reviews of this book, and since I genuinely enjoy business and management books, I decided to check it out. And yeah, the story is unbelievable and shocking and gripping and all the more so because it's true and not the stuff of fiction (it seriously feels like someone could not have made up a more sensational story). But mostly it just made me sad, because honestly, I really do want a successful female startup founder in Silicon Valley, and it's just so frustrating that Elizabeth Holmes was such a sociopath. Anyway, I wouldn't call this a must-read, but if you enjoy the business/management genre, or if you like sensational nonfiction, then this one is quite the ride.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

I saw this one pop up in a few places, and the premise sounded like something I would enjoy. And yes, I did find myself relating to Nina Hill quite a bit, in that I could see myself living a very similar quiet life of order and routine if I had found myself single at her age. It was both vastly appealing (imagine entire evenings devoted to quiet solitary reading!), and a bit depressing. I certainly don't struggle with anxiety the way she does, but even so, I came away quite grateful my life has always been brim-full of family. Anyway, the plot and romance are sweet, but nothing to write home about. It's not necessarily a book that will stay with me, but if you like fluffy bookish romances, you'll probably like this one.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Last year I decided to make it an official annual tradition to re-read Jane Austen's oeuvre every fall (except probably Northanger Abbey, which really never needs to be re-read). So anyway, as a birthday treat to myself (yes, my birthday is in September), I started the re-read with this one. This is probably my 5th time reading Pride and Prejudice, and honestly, when I was done I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start over again. What a lovely, lovely book. Can't wait till next year!

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Janssen over at Everyday Reading spent some time raving about this book last month, and I remembered that I had read it probably when I was in middle school, and I also remembered really liking it, but I remembered almost nothing else about it. So I pulled it up for a quick re-read and... it wasn't quite as good as I remembered it being. I mean, it was fine. It's still a really interesting re-imagining of the story, and Beauty is a great character, and some of it is very captivating. But there were other parts that felt underdeveloped, or even overdeveloped (my goodness, it takes half the book before we even get to the castle!), and parts dragged for me, and then the end was just all of a sudden and it was over! Anyway, I think I still recommend this in general, I just probably don't need to re-read it again any time soon.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Did you know that the French didn't like the way this book ended, so they rewrote the ending to have Marianne end up with Willoughby when this book was translated and published across the channel!?!?! Honestly, I think they missed the whole point. After re-reading this again, I just couldn't help agreeing that Austen got it perfectly right in the end (despite the rather disturbing age gap between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, but it was a different time...). Anyway, do you agree with Austen, or with the French?

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Okay, this is definitely one of Austen's hidden gems. Lady Susan is such a villainous, deceptive title character, it's delicious! And the epistolary structure of the book is just genius (until the end, which is sorely underdeveloped). If you haven't read this one yet, you really should. Also, the movie adaptation (Love and Friendship) was really well done and absolutely worth the watch if you haven't seen it yet (I really wanted to re-watch it after reading this one again).

Persuasion by Jane Austen

This one used to be my absolute favorite Austen book. I'm not sure it still holds that title (not that any other book has overtaken it, more that I just find all of them to be so fantastic for different reasons), but it is still perfection. Just utter perfection.

Well, there it is. I also want to throw in here that my reading goal for the year was to read 75 books for pleasure. I passed that number up in August; Goodreads informs me that at this point (the end of September) I'd read 87 books for the year. Even I'm a little staggered by that pace. Clearly I've become a bit of a reading fiend (well, let's be honest here, a listening fiend, it's mostly audio books)! Maybe I shouldn't count re-reads? But I already mostly don't count my school reading. Anyway, I'm sure I'll have all sorts of thoughts about this in my end-of-year recap post. Have you read any of these? Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Books I Read in August

Well, according to Goodreads, I only read 10 books in August. Which is still a lot of books, just down quite a bit from my record high of 17 books in July. I would like to say that my on-fire reading pace hasn't actually slowed down, I'm just choosing not to include in this list the 10 or 11 early modern plays I read this month, as I feel weird counting plays as books (that's a whole discussion), and because I'm technically reading them in preparation for my exams, so they don't really count as pleasure reading. Although, I must say it's been fascinating to read all of Shakespeare's best plays at once (I'm not through them all yet, but should be by mid-September) and feel like I'm sort of just standing in a fire-hose, drenching myself in the beauty of the Bard's words. Maybe I'll write about it some time, but probably not until after my exams are over.

For now, let's jump into my August reading recap.

Dawn at Emberwilde by Sarah E. Ladd

I feel like someone somewhere recommended this to me as being similar to Edenbrooke, which is a really fantastic (if entirely fluffy) historical romance. This book is not fantastic. Not even close. It was a historical romance, it was clean, it was fine, but I've absolutely forgotten almost everything about it. Don't bother.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Five stars. Just, so, so much good writing here. Okay, this is one of those slow character-driven books with not much plot, definitely more literary. But here's what I love so much about Berry's writing: he takes the ordinary life of a farmer's wife, a woman who lives a mostly happy life with only the small regular tragedies of anybody, a woman who lives a small, insignificant life by the world's standards, and he makes that life epic and important and incredibly beautiful. I just loved it so much, and I found myself sobbing at one point, and I just love when beautiful writing makes me feel like that. This book made me want to write my own life story, if only I could find the words like this to make it feel this beautiful. Strong recommend.

The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

This was so much fun. Historical fiction with a magic/fantasy rewrite, and a gender-flip plot. Here's the premise: it's World War I in a world where women have developed remarkable "philosophical" abilities to manipulate energy and matter using "sigils" that allow them to fly, summon smoke, heal the human body, and any number of other interesting super-powers. Men can do this "philosophy" too, but generally not nearly as well as women. Enter Robert Weeks, raised by a mother and sisters who have taught him everything they know about philosophical flight. His only dream is to be accepted to the elite all female Rescue and Evacuation Service Corps serving in the war, but his he good enough to hang with the girls? I enjoyed this world immensely, and look forward to reading the next in the series. Also, I immediately recommended this to my husband, as I suspect he'll enjoy it quite a bit as well.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss

Okay, this one was completely fascinating and a definite high recommend, but I have some quibbles with it. Voss is a former FBI hostage and crisis negotiator, and he is clearly good at his job. He now works as a consultant for businesses, so most of his advice works really, really well in a business negotiation situation (I immediately recommended this book to my husband as well, because he's a contract attorney in the middle of business negotiations all the time, I feel like this will be super helpful for him). Voss's stories, both from his time in the FBI and from his time in the corporate world were fascinating, and his insight into how negotiating works made me feel like even I could be a good negotiator (this from a girl who avoids conflict at all costs). However, Voss makes big claims about how his communication strategies can work in every negotiation situation in life, including with personal relationships. I can see where some of that makes sense, but he doesn't really delve into that much, and I really wish he would have, because I don't know that I actually agree. I don't think you can apply some of these negotiating principles in a marriage (like, you really should never compromise with your spouse, really? And faking empathy with a terrorist is one thing, but in a marriage, shouldn't it be real empathy, and doesn't that change things?) or with young kids. Those are the people I negotiate with daily, and that's the book I would like to read. Anyway, lots to think about with this one, I certainly don't want to forget what I've learned.

The Girl He Used To Know by Tracy Garvis Graves

I can't remember who recommended this to me, but I was intrigued by the premise. Romance stories with people on the autism spectrum seem to be a thing right now, and I was interested to see how this relationship worked, and what life was like for Annika. However, where this book lost me was when it used 9/11 as a plot device to show us all just what this character is made of. I don't know why that irked me so much, but it felt like too much. Anyway, not a strong recommend from me.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

A re-read for me, to gear up for another stressful and busy school year. Just as good as the first time. Look, if you haven't read this one yet, then you really just need to go get it right now and fix that. It is such good stuff here about actually living an intentional life.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

You guys! What a revelation this book was to me! How have I not heard of it before!? My friend Sarah sent me a link to a podcast she thought I would appreciate, all about this book. As soon as I finished listening to the podcast, I put this book on hold at my library, read it in one day, then altered all my lesson plans to include this book in my first unit for English 101. Here's the basic premise: Donald Miller wrote a memoir called Blue Like Jazz that apparently did fairly well (I've never heard of it, not read it), so two filmmakers contact him and ask him if they can turn that book into a movie. They sit down to write the screen play together, and Miller discovers that despite being able to write a very reflective memoir, his life doesn't actually make a good story. They basically have to make things up to turn his life into a movie. This prompts Miller to learn everything he can about what makes a good story, and then he goes on a journey to live a better story, to make his life a better story. I mean, you can probably see why I loved that. Live a better story! So powerful! Also, I've sat in classes before where people have argued that literature is "post-story" and we no longer have need for narratives or meaning. This book articulates every reason why that is absolute rubbish.

The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima

Continuing on with my reread of this series. This is Book 3, and probably my least favorite. But it's still very good.

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

And moved right on to book 4, which is such a stellar ending to a stellar series. Also, while reading this, I realized that while the writing may not actually be that fantastic (I mean, it's fine as far as YA fantasy goes), what I love most about this series is how well it does world-building and politics. I've never seen another more politically intricate YA plot ever, and it's all sorts of fun.

Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis

I wasn't super in-love with Hollis' first book (Girl, Wash Your Face) which I read in July, but I kind of got interested in her life again after reading somewhere that her husband left his high-level job at Disney to run her company. She's a bit of an over-sharer, so you learn a lot about her life in these books (like her chapter on sex in her first book, or her chapter on her boob-job in this one). Anyway, my opinion still stands: some of the advice she gives worked for her but should not be taken as a universal truth (oh man, she needs to stop with the diet advice!), but I can see how she's quite motivational. I actually think I appreciated this one a tiny bit more since I found some of her goal-setting advice to be useful (I'm not sure I found anything in the first book useful). Anyway, not a must a read, but it was a good pump-me-up for starting the semester off strong.

Okay guys, there you go. All in all, a pretty good month of reading. Now that I'm back in school, things will probably slow down a bit on the pleasure reading front, but I'll still have my commute to squeeze some good stuff in (though, I'm also listening to all my Shakespeare plays, so my school work is cutting into that time). Anyway, I shouldn't be back here until next month with another round of mini-reviews. But I'll be missing you guys in the meantime!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Summer Recap

I always have such high hopes for summer. For a few months, I get to be a real stay-at-home mom. I get to focus on my projects, my pleasure reading, my agenda. There's time to get the house back in order after a school year of neglect. And there's time for fun. Road trips! Reunions! Swimming and park playing and staying up late to watch movies!

And then, of course, you get a few weeks in and despite having finally scrubbed all the bathrooms for the first time in months every surface is dirtier than ever because we are all home all day long making messes, and those trips to the park actually turn out to be kind of miserable because it is so dang sweaty hot, and staying up late for fun activities does not translate to my kids sleeping in later the next morning (why can everyone else's kids sleep in?!?!?) so they are all super grumpy, and there are several attempts at potty training that make me want to lose my mind, and I realize all over again that being a stay-at-home mom is actually just as difficult as being a working mom because of that incredibly draining part where your children never seem to let you even go to the bathroom alone, or so much as finish a thought. Living in a state of constant distraction is exhausting.

So here we are, dragging ourselves to the finish line of summer. My oldest has been in school for a week-and-half now, but the Littles and I start on Monday. I'm both salivating over that quiet little dungeon office where I'll get to spend up to six uninterrupted hours a day not wiping poop off of anyone's bum, and feeling incredibly apprehensive and sad that our beautiful season of freedom and fun is over. In an effort to help remind myself that this summer actually was fun (and not just an unending series of tantrums and bug bites), I'm journaling some of our highlights here. It's all about perspective, so let's focus on the positive!

Smith Family Reunion

My family is pretty spread apart, and we hadn't all been together since my brother's wedding in 2016. Two babies joined the family in the meantime, and it was well past time for us to get together again, so we finally made an official reunion happen this past June in Island Park, Idaho (my aunt and uncle own a cabin there which was able to house the whole crew, and it was just perfect!).

We had the longest trek to make to get there, and we broke it up into a two-day road trip which was actually fairly pleasant.

My favorite part of the road trip was pulling over to a rest stop in the mountains above Jackson Hole to build a snowman! In June! It was a little piece of whimsy that the kids talked about for days, and was so worth the fifteen minute delay and muddy shoes.

We rafted down streams, spent a day hiking in Yellowstone, saw waterfalls, ate a ton of really good food, played games, sang songs and roasted marshmallows by the campfire, and generally had an amazing time just hanging out together.

We hired a photographer to get some real family pictures together, and while it was a bit of a miserable experience (the sun sets so late we couldn't start till 8 PM, and with the time zone change my kids were exhausted and going crazy and had to be bribed with a constant stream of jelly beans, also it was really cold, because, Idaho), but it was worth every penny. Beautiful family, beautiful location, beautiful memories. I love these people so much, and I'm so happy we got to spend time with them all again, even if it was just a few days.

4th of July

You guys, I didn't take a single picture worth mentioning over the 4th of July. I blame this on the fact that my husband was out of town for five days over that holiday. He went to a board game convention in Florida and spent his Independence Day playing game after game after game in a hotel ballroom with a bunch of other sweaty guys (actually there were some women too, and even children!) (and, also, it wasn't all that sweaty, because my husband complained about how fierce the AC was the whole time). I, on the other hand, corralled the three kids over to my in-laws for a weekend of barbecues and paddleboarding on the lake (although we got rained out on that adventure), and staying up late to watch fireworks (and then being very grumpy the next day, because like I said, my kids are physically incapable of sleeping in). It was all much fun, but solo parenting (even with in-laws involved) over a holiday weekend with sugared up kids is anything but relaxing. Also, we got some of the worst chigger bites of the season this weekend. Summer highs and lows right there.

San Francisco Trip

My sister has been living in the Bay Area for the past three years, and I always figured we'd get out there to visit her and get a good tour of her stomping grounds at some point. But then this spring she up and applied to MBA school and got accepted and suddenly we had a deadline to get out there this summer before she moved back to Utah. So we squeezed a weekend trip in between conventions and reunions. We bought our plane tickets back in May when this seemed like the best weekend available, but then her really good friend went and got engaged and scheduled her wedding for this very same weekend. So it ended up being a bit of a crazy schedule, with her trying to balance being tour guide and maid of honor, and we ended up crashing the wedding reception (which I didn't mind one bit, considering the bride's family owns a chocolate company and that dessert table was one of the most exquisite things I've ever seen, and you better believe I left that party stuffing handfuls of decadent chocolates in my pockets and purse).

We actually ended up missing our flight out of Kansas City (it was a super early morning flight, and we naturally got out the door a little later than planned (guys, 3:45 AM is hard on a body), and din't take into account the fact that security would be bonkers that time of day, but surprisingly United was amazing and rebooked us on a new flight out just forty minutes later (and even refunded us $10 per flight? Because it was cheaper?), but because of the stress of it all by the time we landed I had a major headache and was super nauseous. It took me half a sandwich, a couple of ibuprofen, and nearly throwing up on the side of the road before I picked up enough energy to dive into our touristing schedule. Our first stop was the Golden Gate Bridge (naturally), and I feel like I still look a bit peaky in this photo, but all that brisk Bay breeze up on the bridge really helped pick me back up. I'll spare you the onslaught of photos, but we spent the rest of this day roaming around San Fran, and what a charming little city that is! Never want to live there, but it was so fun to visit!

Day 2 included some hiking in the redwoods, hitting up the beach at Half Moon Bay, and then an evening strolling about Stanford campus and the Palo Alto area (not pictured, but really beautiful campus).

Saturday was wedding day. We did a session in the newly renovated Oakland temple during the ceremony, and made it out in time to catch some photos of the wedding party. You can see my sister there in her maid-of-honor glory (she's not really that much taller than me, she just had on some fancy high heels and I was in flats). The reception was down in Carmel, which was about 2.5 hours south of Oakland, so we headed down there. Nathan and I wandered about that cute little touristy town and had a little picnic dinner on the beach before crashing the latter end of the reception. We flew out super early Sunday morning, so it was a quick trip, but I'm so glad we made it! It was a ton of fun and I would not mind a more extensive trip back to the Bay Area again some day (and next time, I'll be prepared with warmer jackets, those are chilly beaches!).

Tanner Family Reunion

Toward the end of July, we had a small Tanner family reunion on my husband's side. This one was close to home for us, because it revolved around his little sister's mission farewell, so it all happened at my in-law's home and we just had to travel across the border to Missouri. Festivities were dampened quite a bit, however, when my father-in-law suffered a minor stroke the week before the reunion, and then in the hospital they discovered even more serious and concerning issues with his heart that required quite a few procedures. So he was in the hospital for the whole weekend, and several of the planned activities were canceled and he missed the farewell talk.

We had quite a time cramming this crew into his hospital room for visits a couple times.

But we did manage to make it out to the lake for a fun swim day with the cousins! So it was still a great time.

The week after that was rather stressful for my in-laws, as Evy continued to prepare for her mission while my father-in-law prepared for what we thought at the time was going to be open-heart triple-bypass surgery. We went out to dinner with the family the night before Evy left, and then we headed over to the hospital where she was set apart. She flew to Utah the next day while my father-in-law went in for surgery. They ended up not doing the bypass surgery, opting instead for stents (which, while being a less invasive surgery, was actually a choice they made to keep him viable for a heart transplant at some point in the future). Anyway, while everything is fine and he's home from the hospital now and recovering well, we were all a little tense and stressed for a while there. Like I said, this summer has been all about highs and lows.

Little Things

We had a lot of other smaller activities, of course. I tried to plan some fun outings on a weekly basis. We usually made it to the library once a week, and had the occasional swimming or splash pad outing, or trip to the local nature preserve. Some of these little outings were fun, most were a struggle. If it wasn't the two-year-old throwing one of her epic tantrums, it was the four-year-old having an anxiety melt-down, or the seven-year-old exhibiting some early signs of attitude (everything was dumb and boring, which made me want to scream at him so much). Kids are so unappreciative of how awesome their lives are.

Surprisingly, while taking my kids on outings was usually a flop, staying home and in our usual routine was shockingly successful this summer. All three of my kids play really well together, and they had a great summer making circuses in the backyard, and building block cities around the basement, and all around just keeping each other entertained together. I mean, we had occasional spats (usually between the younger two), but I've got to say, this is the cutest group of little sibling friends, and it melts my heart every day to see how much they enjoy each other. I hope this dynamic lasts forever (fingers crossed!).

And speaking of staying home and sticking to routine, we actually had a surprising amount of success with chore charts this summer too, which I might write about at some point. And also, it meant I got a ton of reading in. So maybe that sounds super boring, but hey, I'm calling it a win!

But, it's over now, and we all head back to school/preschool/daycare on Monday. This semester will be very different for me, as I no longer have any coursework of my own. I will still be teaching and holding office hours, but I will be spending the rest of my time reading like mad to prepare for my exams (orals, comps, whatever they are called) which I'm tentatively scheduled to take around the end of November. I have so much work to do (I am feeling so much overwhelm and anxiety about preparing for these exams), but the scary thing is, this starts the part of my PhD journey that is all self-directed. I'm in charge of my schedule, and while there is a ton of work to do, I'm the one who has to set the pacing. So, if you notice me posting here or on Instagram a little too frequently, feel free to remind me to stop procrastinating (writing here will definitely be one of my pleasant procrastination tactics!) and get back to reading all the early modern drama! I really need to be disciplined, which means I probably need to be a little MIA around here.

So farewell sweet summer! Good-bye dear readers! I'll drop by occasionally (got to keep up with my monthly round-up posts at least), but you really shouldn't hear much from me until exams are over. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

If I Were the FLOTUS...

Okay, I read Michelle Obama's hugely popular memoir/autobiography back in June (not pictured here, I'll get to that book in a second), and while there were tons of things in there that I loved and could go on endlessly talking about, one of the things I've thought about a lot since reading that book was the initiatives she was able to champion as First Lady. I know generally that every First Lady gets to pick a focus or initiative, a cause to champion if you will, for their time in "office," but it was interesting to read the backstory of how Michelle Obama got the idea for her focus on healthy eating and physical fitness during the campaign (it started with a wellness check-up for one of her daughters, where the pediatrician warned her that the daughter was borderline for obesity, which led to Michelle hiring a chef to help them eat more healthy, and it grew from there). Obviously, I was aware of Michelle's "Let's Move" initiative during the time, but hearing the backstory of how she came across the idea, the people she got involved, and the incredible things she was able to accomplish using the influence of her position led me to wonder, if I were the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), what initiative would I choose to promote?

I mean, can you imagine? You're just this average person living a mostly ordinary life when your husband manages to get super popular and decides to run for the Presidency, and then he wins, and suddenly you find yourself with this massive platform, everyone listening to and watching you, all of this influence over popular opinion and policy... what would you do with that kind of power? What good things would you try to accomplish?

As I was pondering this question myself (not that I'm in any danger of ever being either FLOTUS or POTUS for that matter), my very first thought was, obviously, a literacy initiative. I'd do tons of promoting for reading aloud, get famous actors and voice-actors to do public readings all over the place, get all the free books (and audio books) and give them out all over the place, host read-a-thons, and just have all sorts of fun promoting books and reading and reading aloud. It would be awesome.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is another issue near and dear to my heart that I would work to promote, and it almost caught me by surprise, because this is not an issue I've ever really talked about before nor promoted. That issue is mental health.

Part of the reason this is an issue near and dear to me is because there is a history of mental illness in my family. I grew up with untreated mental illness affecting my family life every single day. This is not something I generally talk about because it is so sensitive an issue, and because I wish to protect the privacy of my family members. Growing up, the mental illness was a huge family secret. We didn't talk about it with anyone, we worked as a family to hide it and present as normal a face to the public as possible. I do not advocate for secrecy, I think the secrecy was a major part of the problem. But I understood then, and I understand still now, there is so much stigma and shame associated with mental illness. People suffering from mental illness are judged, unfairly so, and part of our family culture of secrecy was to protect our loved one from that shame and stigma. I still (mostly) keep these secrets to this day in order to keep providing that protection.

So yes, I think if I were given a platform large and powerful enough, I would want to start using my voice to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness in our culture. This is not something people should be judged for, or shamed for. Much like most physical illnesses, most mental illnesses are not a choice, not something that people can control or fix on their own. Nobody gets embarrassed or ashamed for getting pneumonia or breaking an arm or having an appendix burst, they just get the treatment they need from the support people who help them. It should be no different for depression or anxiety or any other type of mental illness. No shame, no stigma, just recognition that something is off and help is needed to get back to normal.

A big part of breaking down stigma for mental illness, and I think what would be a big part of this dream fictional initiative of mine, would be focusing not just on mental illness, but on MENTAL HEALTH in general. What I mean by that is that most people seem to think that mental health "treatment" or "therapy" or whatever are just for those with serious mental illness, but the truth is, everyone who has a mental state (that is, everyone who is alive and has a thinking/feeling/processing brain) should be concerned about maintaining and improving their mental health. Just like everyone needs to work on taking care of their physical bodies and promoting physical health through exercise, healthy eating, etc., all people need to take care of their mental and emotional health as well. We all need to work on mindfulness, coping with anxiety, communication, healthy relationships, managing emotions like stress and anger, and all the myriad other things that fall under the broad category of mental health.

We do not put enough emphasis on mental health as a society. We do not teach what mental health is or how to maintain it, and we do not provide nearly enough access to mental health professional help. Part of this, again, is stigma (therapy is only for really sick people, or really rich white women), part of this is availability (not enough therapists, not enough insurance coverage for therapy). I feel like a bit of a hypocrite saying this, as I've never gone to therapy a day in my life (money, access, etc.) but I believe that just like most people have a primary care doctor and are encouraged to have yearly physicals, most people should also have a primary care therapist and regular mental health checks.

Can you imagine how much better people's lives could be if we were all more educated about what mental health looks like and had better access to mental health care? How many people could manage the stress and anxiety of life better? How many relationships could function better? How many social problems could be solved just by teaching people how to process the emotions in their lives in healthy ways? If I were the FLOTUS, this would be my work: to get better mental health education into our school curriculum, to get better support for mental health professionals (talk about an under-appreciated profession), and to increase awareness and access (through insurance, through whatever means) to get more people the mental and emotional help they need.

But Suzanne, you might be thinking, therapy is a nice idea and all, but doesn't it all feel just a bit privileged? Like, how nice that our first world country can get worried about people's emotions, but there are real problems out there! People are dying from disease and warfare and actual serious things! Isn't that where our money/focus ought to go? Solving these real life or death problems?

To which I'd say, let's look at some statistics:

-Suicide is one of the top 10 killers of Americans every year, and the second-leading "preventable" cause of death.
-In the 10-24 age range, suicide accounts for 17% of deaths every year.
-Outside of suicide, mental health contributes to death in the forms of addiction (especially the epidemic opioid crisis), eating disorder casualties (eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness), and other accidental or preventable forms of death (the exact role of mental health is sometimes hard to determine, but it often plays a role).

So let's not pretend mental health doesn't have life or death consequences. Let's not pretend this isn't a serious issue. Let's not pretend that this isn't affecting all of us at some level.

I mean, let's just take a look at the chart below:

Notice how the teen suicide rate was actually declining right up until the time social media shows up, and then look how it sky rockets. Coincidence? This social media world we are living in these days is brutal for our mental health on so many levels. Absolutely brutal. And our kids are growing up in this world with so few tools to help protect their mental health. Social media is probably not going anywhere, so maybe increasing education and teaching kids (and adults) how to take care of their mental and emotional health, and providing them access to mental health professionals without stigma or judgment, we might just be able to save a few more lives.

Mental health is an issue for all of us. Breaking down the stigma around mental illness benefits all of us. Increasing education and access to mental health care benefits all of us.

Where the Watermelons Grow, that book in the picture up there, is a book that illustrates my point. Maybe you read my quick review of it here, but if not, here's the summary. This book is about a 12-year-old girl who's mother suffers from schizophrenia. Her mother has been hospitalized before and has been on medication to manage her disease, but things are getting bad again. The book explores the complicated emotions this young girl experiences dealing with a mentally ill mother, but what stood out to me through the whole book is that the mother was not the only one who needed help. Everyone in the family needed help. The father, the daughter, and obviously the mother, were all under enormous strain, all experiencing stress and guilt and shame and other really big emotions. All of them had a mental health state that was under pressure. The mother needed hospitalization and medication, but the daughter needed support too. She needed safe people to talk to, she needed a support system to help her cope and process and deal with her emotions. She was able to find an informal one, but so many aren't that lucky.

Whew, this is quite the soap box I've been on here. Clearly, this is something I feel passionate about, but I didn't even realize it till last month, reading both these books in such close proximity and thinking about all the feelings they brought up. I'm not going to be FLOTUS any time soon (uh, ever), but I guess I can use my small bit of influence where it is now to promote the things I care about. I'm already using this blog to promote literacy and books and reading. Maybe I'll start using it a little more to promote this other issue I (apparently) care so deeply about.

End the stigma. End the shame. Educate yourselves. Take care of your mental health, and support everyone else out there in their mental health journeys. This is literally a life or death issue.

What would your issue/platform be if you were FLOTUS? What are the causes you would champion?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Digital Minimalism (What Am I Even Doing On Here?)

Okay, so at the end of June I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (he also wrote Deep Work, which I read a while back and really loved). Long story short on this one is that I loved it. I'm a Cal Newport fangirl, I love the way he thinks and works, and he's the kind of person that if I ever met him in real life, I'd want him to like and respect me and the way I work.


This book also kind of led me to an existential crisis about what I'm doing here and whether I should quit blogging entirely.

Okay, so the premise of the book is that we are all way too addicted to our phones, and social media in particular (though technology in general) is specifically designed to keep us addicted because they make money off our attention. Now, I've never considered myself to be super addicted to my phone. I mean, I have an iPhone and I find it useful for lots of things and I definitely enjoy being on Instagram, but I'm nowhere close to the addiction levels Newport describes in his book (or that I see regularly in my freshman on campus). I don't have Facebook on my phone (and while I still have an account, I probably only check Facebook a couple times a year), I mostly try to keep my phone out of sight during the day (hiding it from my children), and the number one thing I use it for is listening to audio books (which, okay, is something I do a lot of, but I don't necessarily consider that a bad use of my phone).

But after reading Newport's report of how social media is specifically designed to create addiction, and how much money they make off of our attention, it just made me feel icky. For phone addicts, Newport recommends an extreme 30 day digital fast, cutting out any electronic interaction that isn't strictly necessary for your livelihood. I didn't feel like I had an addiction problem that needed fixing by such intentional means, but I inadvertently found myself feeling so conflicted about social media after reading this book that I just didn't even want to open up my Instagram app, or check the news, or read any blogs, or do anything (even email). I didn't want to give my attention to anything there.

So, for most of July, I accidentally took a social media fast. I just lost all enthusiasm, and generally stayed away. I wrote two posts here on the blog (one a belated reading recap post, and one a book review I felt obligated to put up after signing up to be on the launch team), and posted once on Instagram on each of my accounts (again, related to that book review I had signed up to promote), but otherwise, I just stayed away from these platforms. I doubt many people noticed what I considered to be my "absence." After all, when I'm really busy during the school year, that's about my regular posting rate anyway. The difference for me was that I actually had a ton of posts planned. It was the summertime, I had time and space to devote here, this was my hobby, and I was going to write a bunch of things.

But after reading that book (here's the existential crisis part), I felt aware like never before how my creation of content asks for attention from you, my audience. I'm asking you to give up precious moments of your valuable time to read my posts, like my pictures, listen to my stories, and engage with my content. Should I be doing that? Should I be asking for you attention? Should I be encouraging you to spend time on these platforms by creating my content, or should I be encouraging you to get off by not creating anything? I thought about that quite a bit through the month of July.

But here's the other thing I realized through my month off. Newport tells us in his book that if you are going to embark on his digital fast, then you need to have activities in place to fill that time (otherwise you will be bored out of your mind and revert back to all your old social media habits). He recommends specifically creative outlets, hobbies that require you to interact with real people and/or produce tangible things the way the digital world doesn't allow you to. And this is where I had a bit of a crisis.

You see, my creative outlet is creating content here. My hobby is this blog, and accompanying Instagram account. So what did I fill my time with in July? Well, I read a ton of books (surprise surprise), but then I just wanted to talk about them here. I played lots of board games (a Newport approved hobby), but being married to the man I am I do plenty of that anyway. I practiced the piano a little (now that we have one), which was positive. I even found an evening to sneak away for a long solo hike through our local nature preserve, and it was a wonderful, magical experience (well, except for the chigger bites, because I forgot bug spray, rookie mistake).

But I missed writing. I missed writing here. I missed posting to Instagram. I missed having these outlets to talk about books. These are my hobbies because they fill me up, they provide me with joy, they make me happy, and feeling like I needed to quit them actually made me depressed. I really was kind of depressed through much of July. I discovered that this blog and related social media provide a deep value to my life.

So that means I'm staying. I'm sticking around here. I'm creating content here because I need this outlet in my life.

But I'm going to do it with as much respect as possible for the time and attention of my audience.

I've never been one to seek out rapid growth or a huge following either here on the blog or on social media. I'm not much of a self-promoter. I've always only ever done this for fun, and this book convinced me that I need to keep it that way. I am not going to put my time into growing my audience or producing more regular content or asking people to pay attention to me. If people happen to find me, if they happen to appreciate my content, if they happen to like or comment or engage with me, I will be forever grateful for the gift of their precious attention. I will try to provide them with something interesting, something worthwhile, and a wonderful new book recommendation to take away with them. But that is all.

So I guess, after all that, what I've decided is that things aren't going to change much around here. I'm not abandoning my digital hobbies, but I'll also not be taking them any more seriously than I already do. I'll post what I can when I can, and I'll try to make it as useful and interesting as possible. But I think that's what I mostly already do.

And for everyone who follows along, thank you so much for thinking what I do here is worth your time and attention. I just love talking books and ideas and life so much, and it is so much more fun with an audience. Thanks for being here with me!