Saturday, March 3, 2018

Books I Read in February

Hey guys! I'm still here and still kicking! February just sort of hit pretty hard. The kids got sick so there was a week of no sleep, and then my students handed in their first round of papers and I got lost in a grading vortex for two weeks (for those of you who have never taught, grading is the worst thing ever, ever, ever), and just when I thought I was coming up for some air, the homework level in my classes picked up (ten page paper due today, haven't finished it yet...). And the Olympics did nothing to help my productivity levels, but I'm not complaining about that one.

So I'm just sort of limping along until Spring Break later this month. But, thanks to those blessed audio books, the pleasure reading continues! I didn't have quite the standout month that January was, but six books in four weeks is still quite a good rate, all things considered. And most of them were just excellent, so let's dive in!

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

You guys! I don't think I'd ever heard of this book before, but I saw it recommended very highly in two places in the last few months, so when I saw my library had the audio book available, I put in on hold, and... wow. This is my new favorite autobiography/memoir ever. Not only is Beryl's life the most exciting, fascinating story ever (childhood in Africa getting attacked by lions and hunting wild boars with warriors, then growing up to be the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic... I mean!), but the woman can write! Her phrases were just completely breathtaking! It was kind of hard to believe this is the only book she's ever written (I think), because not only am I positive she has the life experience to fill five more volumes at least, she's just so good! If you enjoy interesting biographies and beautiful writing, this one is definitely for you. Highly recommend!

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but it was definitely still worth the read. This story, and this young woman, are both incredible. I knew she was the girl who got shot for going to school, and I knew she'd given a speech at the UN, but I didn't really know much else about her before reading this, and what an enlightening read! It was heartbreaking to think that all of this story, a story where people in general but women in particular live with so much oppression and violence, is happening today! In our modern world! A world where I live happily and comfortably in my lovely suburban home, working my way to earn a PhD, but where Malala gets shot just for trying to go to high school. Insanity. It's happy to know that Malala is currently attending Oxford and getting the education she so rightly deserves, but also sad to know that that very education may make it difficult for her to ever return, let alone be welcome, to her native Pakistan. And the role America plays in this whole mess! Malala is an inspiration, she is strong and funny and a complete joy to get to know. And this book taught me so much about Pakistan and the political and social situation over there, things I feel like I should have been aware of because of how much attention we've had on the Middle East for the past two decades, but ignorance is boundless. Anyway, this one is a high recommend.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

I read Daring Greatly a few years ago and loved it. I'm not sure why it's taken me this long to read any of Brown's other books, but I am glad I got around to it. I guess I was afraid that there would be a lot of repetition of the ideas and research she already wrote about, and maybe there was some of that, because all of the ideas in this book are very connected to the ideas of vulnerability she talks about in Daring Greatly, but she also definitely had new insights to offer in this one. I really, really enjoyed the way she talked about the role of "story" in wrestling with emotions and conflict. I've been thinking a lot about that idea ever since reading this book, and I may need to write a post that dives more deeply into my thoughts, because she had some profound stuff here. But, ironically, this book almost made me like Brown less. Well, not less, but she shares some very personal stories about her own weakest moments (a very vulnerable thing to do), and her weaknesses are very different than mine. So I found myself a little shocked at some of her immature responses to situations, but I guess what's inspiring is that she is actually learning from her research and working hard to change, and that is admirable. This one is also a high recommend.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

Okay, look, I'm super tired of WWII stories, because there are so. many. of. them. But I was intrigued by this one actually being based on a true story, and knowing that the story at least ends happy for some of them (thus the title, so hopefully not too much of a spoiler for you guys), I decided to give it a try. If you like WWII stories, YOU MUST READ THIS ONE! It is so, so good. I loved it so much, and there was so much crying in the end. Not sad crying, necessarily. But it was so much more real to me knowing that these things actually happened (this is a fictionalized account, but based on true events). The evil felt that much more evil, the good that much happier. It was an amazing story, and very well written. I highly recommend.

The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zerubavel

Okay, this is not for everyone. This was a homework assignment for my professionalization class, and it's all about how to write long pieces of work, like theses, dissertations, and books. Zerubavel is an academic, so most of his advice applies to academic type writing. However, it is a very readable book, very short, and packed with good and insightful advice about how to break long projects down into manageable chunks, how to think about scheduling time, and how to revise. If you've been thinking about writing a book or working on some kind of big project, but don't know how to get started, this might give some useful advice, even if you're not an academic.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Phil Knight knows how to tell a good story. If there's no ghost writer on this thing, he's really quite a fantastic writer. I was on the edge of my seat with suspense the whole time about whether or not this company was ever going to get off the ground! (Spoiler, yes, Nike gets off the ground and becomes one of the most successful sporting goods companies of all time). It was a thrilling story. However, I also came away from it not really liking Knight all that much. He's pretty honest about his flaws, which is nice, but I didn't necessarily care for the crass/alcoholic/border-line fraudulent business culture they created in the early days. Sure, all these people were geniuses, and there are lots of inspirational take-aways, but especially when reading about his relationship with his son, I just kept thinking "No success can compensate for failure in the home..." So yeah, still a recommend. It's a very good read, and maybe you'll feel entirely different about Knight and Nike than I did. It's just clearly not the kind of life I'm interested in leading.

Anyway, there you go. A pretty stellar reading month, in my opinion. Let me know if you've read any of these and what you think about them, I'd love to hear!

Monday, February 5, 2018

On Priorities, Time, and My Best Work: A Motivational/Business Psychology Reading Spree

One of my classes earlier this semester hosted a panel of professors that were invited to come talk to us (all graduate students) about what it was like to pursue tenure track as a career. During the Q&A, another student asked the panel about their work/life balance, and all of them laughed as if such an idea were hilariously ludicrous. Then one of the female professors proceeded to share how she had never attended a single one of her children's soccer games (presumably because she's too busy on Saturday mornings?), and shared what she evidently thought was a hilarious anecdote about when her five-year-old daughter asked if they could occasionally, like maybe once a month or so, eat a home-cooked meal. She shared this story with evident pride, as if to say "Yes, I have put my career above my family, but this is what success in this career looks like!"

I was suuuuuuper annoyed with this professor's response. I wanted to raise my hand and refute the message she was sending, that her career is so demanding and her life so busy that she had to sacrifice things like family dinner and attending her children's games. I wanted to say, to her but especially to the other student who had asked the question in the first place, that work/life balance is all about priorities and choices.

I know this from personal experience (more about that in a minute), but I'm also backed up by all the reading I've been doing recently on topics like work, motivation, and success. In the past month or so, I've read five books that have all talked about some aspect of "success," what it looks like, how to define it, and how to achieve it. There are plenty more out there on this topic, but the books I've read recently were Deep Work by Cal Newport, Originals by Adam Grant, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (for short summaries, see my last two monthly round-up posts here and here). While all of these books have there own (sometimes widely different) focus and message, there were a few common themes and takeaways that I found repeated throughout them.

The biggest takeaway for me is that work, and especially good, deep, interesting, and successful work, does not have to consume life. In fact, much of the reading talked about studies that confirm people are usually "busy" doing things that don't actually matter, and if we could strip away all the unnecessary stuff, and learn how to do just the essential, deep work in an efficient manner, then we could accomplish twice as much in less time, opening up the rest of our lives for relationships and rest and things that make life worth living. In one way or another, all of these books talked about figuring out what is most essentially important in life, what our core goals are, and then letting everything else go so we can just focus on those goals and use the time we have in the best way possible.

I've been fascinated and encouraged by these ideas, because I think by anyone's standards, my life is "busy," but that doesn't mean I don't have time for the things that mater most. For better or for worse, this is the path my life is on for the next five years or so (and potentially beyond, who knows what the future brings). I am a working mother, this is my reality. And because this is my life right now, because I am teaching two courses a semester and taking classes and working toward a PhD while raising three rather young children on less sleep than I'd like, I need to figure out how to make this work. I need to figure out how to live a life that is busy but is not frantic and survival mode all the time. I need to figure out how to thrive.

So I've been thinking about what my core, essential priorities are, and what else I can strip away. And here's what I've decided. My family is first, always and forever. What this looks like for me is family time. Family dinner that I've cooked every day is a priority (and unlike that professor, I've managed to cook dinner for my family nearly every day since starting school last August). Play time with my children is a priority. FHE is a priority. Date night (mostly at-home date night, but whatever) is a priority. Story time at bedtime is a priority. Violin practice is a priority. Family movie night is a priority. These things happen, and 95% of the time I am there for it.

But school is also a priority. I'm a bit afraid to call it a career, because I still have no idea if this PhD thing is going to lead anywhere, but at least for now, I'm allowing myself to lean in as if my end goal is a career (why go to all this trouble if not to treat it like it's leading somewhere?). One of the things most of these people wrote about is the importance of finding meaning and passion in your work for it to be worthwhile, and that gave me a little pause. I've admitted before that I don't find much greater purpose in academia. I mean, what good does it do the world to study reader marginalia notes in early printed play texts? These feelings are why I never would have pursued academia as a career if left to my own devices, but do you know what does give me purpose? The unshakable faith that this path is my calling in life. For whatever reason, God wants me to get a PhD, and I know this almost more certainly than I've ever known anything. So school gets to be a priority. What does that look like? It means that when I have childcare time to do schoolwork, I dive deep. I get my homework and lesson planning done, but then spend extra time doing research for the sake of research. I write conference abstracts and apply for funding. I try to get something published. I'm committed, 100%.

But other things are a priority too. This is my life, and so sleep is a priority. I go to bed at 10, and get up at 5:30, and sleep in on the weekends. Health and exercise are a priority. I do yoga in the mornings, I eat vegetables for every meal. Friendship is a priority, so I go to book club. My spiritual life is a priority, so I read my scriptures, and meditate, and write in my journal, and prepare my lessons for Sunday, and go to the temple. Pleasure reading is a priority, so I listen to audio books when I can. Pleasure writing is a priority, so I write here when I can.

But do you know what is not a priority? What is not taking up my time these days? Television. A clean house (although this one makes me sad). Social media. Play dates with other moms (although this one also makes me sad, maybe this summer?). Attending all the interesting guest lectures on campus. Serving on the PTO at my son's school. Grocery shopping (my husband now does 100% of the grocery shopping, although I make the lists). And probably a million other things that would be so fun, or fulfilling, or good uses of time. They just aren't essential right now.

I still have my issues, my pinch points, and my things that are out of balance. I need to find time to get my hair cut, go to the dentist, fold the laundry, and a thousand other small things that I still consider "necessary" but that I haven't made the time for. But I firmly, firmly believe that my life is better for having had to make these decisions about my priorities.

And I also firmly believe that if that professor at my school had different priorities, she could have made it to every single one of her children's soccer games, and still been at this same point in her career. I am learning this about the work I have to do, as I compare myself to the grad students and professors around me. Work expands to take up the time you allot for it. My childless peers spend eight hours a day in their offices, work nights and weekends too, and tell me how frantic and busy they feel. I spend two hours a day in my office two days a week, and work after my children go to bed at night, and yet I get the same homework load done, teach the same number of lessons, write the same number of papers. In fact, I think my work is better for being condensed. I must work more efficiently, but I have learned to work better because of it.

All of these thoughts and experiences I've had with my work and defining my priorities over these past few months have made me view my husband's work differently. He spends eight hours at work every day, regardless of whether he actually has work to fill up those eight hours. His job is a little bit famine or feast: some times he has more work than he can handle, other times the projects are a little more scarce. But regardless of how busy he is, he's expected to be in his office eight hours a day for the sake of "face time" and looking busy. Regardless of how hard he's worked during those eight hours, he's expected to be on call all night long (and all weekend too), checking his email incessantly just in case something comes in. And even though in his line of work absolutely no one will die if those contracts aren't reviewed until Monday, he's expected to work all weekend just to keep everyone happy. In his culture of billable hours, efficient work is not rewarded. In fact, the longer it takes you to do a task, the more busy and "productive" you look. It's a ridiculous culture that I have many frustrations with (as does he).

But like I said, January is a notoriously slow month for him. As I've compared our work loads recently, it's been especially frustrating. He still goes to work for eight hours every day, but spends much of his time working on personal things. He finished our 2018 budget, worked on our taxes, and researched some home renovation projects. He took two afternoons off to go to the dentist (cavity). These things are all fine and good, but he also spends a lot of time checking pointless email, scrolling the internet, just filling his time up.

There have been days when I won't deny that I've been jealous of his time. Why does he get the luxury of eight child-free hours to essentially scroll Facebook? Why must I be the one trying to cram eight hours worth of work into two? Why am I the one feeling pressure to hurry through my homework and lesson planning so I can rush home to be with the kids, while he feels no such pressure to be home despite having far less work than me right now?

But after reflecting on what I've been reading, I've come to the conclusion that I do not so much wish I had my husband's time, as I wish he had mine. I do not wish for eight child-free hours, I'd miss my kids too much! I do not wish to spend eight hours on my work when I've been able to get it done in two. Why would I want to spend a single minute longer than is necessary on my work? And would I be working at the depth and level I'm working at if my time crunch didn't demand such complete and utter focus? I would rather be forced to get my work done as efficiently as possible, so that I can spend the rest of my time building Legos on the floor with my boys (while trying to keep them out of the mouth of my baby girl). I wish it were acceptable for my husband to spend his time like mine, to work efficiently when he has work, and to spend the rest of his time at home on his other priorities not worrying about "face time" or whatnot. But that is not the culture of his work place, or our society at large. For most, the longer hours you spend at work, the busier you look, the more successful you must be.

I do not believe this to be true at all.

Other take-aways I've had from this motivational/self-help reading spree:

-Business books are repetitive. Not just in themselves (though some of them are that), but between them. The same studies kept getting mentioned over and over and over. Honestly, I don't ever need to read Carol Dweck's Mindset because I've already read so much about her theories of growth mindsets vs. fixed mindsets. The other studies that kept coming up? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow was mentioned in almost every single book (although, I've got to give a plug here for Grit, because Duckworth's discussion of how "flow" works with the concepts challenging practice in learning a new skill was the most interesting and insightful discussion on the topic). There was also some study about dogs getting shocked that got mentioned a couple times (something related to the concept of fixed mindsets, and how we lose hope when we don't think we can change our circumstances). I found the repetition to be more interesting than annoying, actually, because it felt like seeing a larger pattern and identifying what ideas are resonating right now.

-I came away from all this reading feeling really positive about corporate America. This is very different than the feeling I get from my reading in the Humanities department, where everyone is a liberal or socialist, and capitalism is the greatest evil of all time (I once mentioned to a class mate that my husband was a corporate lawyer, and he visibly shuddered and said, "Wow, so, basically he's the devil incarnate," ...). Anyway, all of these books made me feel like it could actually be extremely personally rewarding to have an executive corporate job. All the motivational jargon just made it seem like you can find your best selves in these jobs and really become a dynamic and innovative leader who can change the world. Go team corporate capitalism!

-Mormons rule in business. So, I didn't realize that the last two books I read were written by Mormons (Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown) until after I'd read them and looked up the author bios, but I think Mormons were quoted or mentioned in every book I read but one (Mitt Romney, Steve Young, Clayton Christensen, and others all got shout outs). So go Mormons!

Okay, so now I'm kind of burned out on this genre, but I still feel all sorts of motivated to conquer the world and live my best life and do my best, most creative, deepest and most efficient work. I honestly recommend all of these books, for different reasons, but if you don't want to read all of them then I think Deep Work and Essentialism would be my two top picks for general readers (followed by Originals, if you like pop psychology Malcolm Gladwell stuff). I have lots more thoughts about all of these books (especially Deep Work), so I may write more about this stuff in the future. But enough for now. Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Books I Read in January

Well, hello there! School started almost three weeks ago, therefore the sudden silence around these parts. I've been trying to write a post for the past week, but I've only had 5 -10 minutes per day to work on it, thus it's still languishing in my drafts folder (hopefully I'll get it finished this weekend, I think I'll have some time). But I decided to spend my free time today pounding out this post, because while my writing time has been severely limited by homework and lesson planning and whatnot, January was a fabulous month on the reading front. Audio books are just really working for me right now.

I finished ten (!) books this month, which might be a new record for me (I'd have to check). If I keep this rate up all year (not likely), I'll read well over 100 books! Which means this is way, way above my usual pace, but fine with me. My goal is to read 75 books this year (still a stretch, given that I've not read that many books in a year since I started tracking), and while I don't necessarily ever want to be consumed by meeting some arbitrary numbers goal, or place quantity over the length and quality of the books I read, I'll admit that I love the way tracking my numbers inspires me to stay on top of my reading game. I've been able to find all sorts of pockets of time to listen to and read books that used to go to mindlessly scrolling social media or whatnot, and I much prefer this use of my time. I'm still kind of shocked that since starting my PhD program, my pleasure reading numbers have only gone up. A huge part of that is the audio books on my daily commute, but I'm finding other pockets to listen/read too, and that is making me feel a little bit more like I'm living a normal life, not a crazy busy insane one where I don't have time for my favorite things.

Anyway, as you'll see, I went on a bit of a kick this month. I seem to do that occasionally (remember my Austen kick last fall?), but this kick was of the motivational/social science/business-y variety, and I have lots of thoughts about it. The post I've been working on is actually about this collection of books, so I'll save some of my deeper thoughts and conclusions for that post, and just stick with brief summaries here. Let's dive in!

Originals by Adam Grant

The first (this year) of my social science kick. This one is pretty similar to Malcolm Gladwell's stuff, which I love. Very well written and a lot of interesting tid-bits, but I came away not quite convinced I actually want to be an "original." There's a statement or quote by somebody towards the end of the book that talks about how you have to wake up every day and choose between being content with the world, or wanting to change it. He spends a lot of time talking about how "originals" are not content with the world, they see a way to make things better and are relentless at trying to change it. And I think this is a valuable thing to be and to feel, but most of the time I think I'd prefer to feel "content" rather than always feeling angry and upset and motivated to change the world. So I guess I'm not an original. Oh well.

I've been wanting to read The Once and Future King by White for a while, but it's proved a bit tricky to get my hands on an audio version of that. When I discovered my library had an audio version of The Sword and the Stone, I decided I might as well check it out. For reference, White, wrote a bunch of King Arthur books, starting with The Sword and the Stone, but then he edited them down and compiled them all into one novel, The Once and Future King. Reading this earlier, not-edited version was enjoyable, but my thought the whole time was "Yeah, this could use a good edit." I still really want to read The Once and Future King because I'm hoping it's just the good parts, not all the rest. I will say that I loved the Britishness of this book. The writing had a very dry humor and nostalgia about it, and it was just lovely. It was also nice timing, as I'm taking a Medieval class this semester and we're reading a lot of the original King Arthur stuff. It's fun to compare to this more modern retelling.

Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin

I loved Bomb by Sheinkin, which I read a few years ago, and I've been meaning to read more by him ever since. I finally got around to it. I can't say I've ever been super interested in the Vietnam War or Cold War politics, but Sheinkin knows how to make any historical story edge-of-your-seat good. This was no exception. I found this book fascinating. It was really kind of a downer, in that the U.S. government and American politics do NOT come out of this one looking shiny clean. In fact, after reading this I pretty much loathe President Johnson and President Nixon (not that I had any love for them before, but man, they were just awful people and really terrible leaders). Also, my conclusion is that the Vietnam War only happened because of this screwed up pride about these men refusing to be the first president to lose an American war (and yes, we definitely lost Vietnam). It was also so depressing to see how history seems to have repeated itself with Afghanistan and the Iraq war. Anyway, this is not the book to read if you want to come away from it feeling all warm and patriotic, but it was still a very, very good read, and made me ask all sorts of questions about what it actually means to be a good and loyal citizen.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

This is Book 2 in a trilogy (the first one is The Bear and the Nightingale, which I read a few months ago), and I've got to say this is one of the rare, rare times that I've liked a second book more than the first. The first book was a little weird for me, because I couldn't quite pin it down. It doesn't fit neatly in the genres I was expecting it to fit in. It's a historical fiction fairy-tale retelling, but it's not YA, and it's unlike any other fairy-tale retelling I've read. For one, it's way heavier on the historical detail. I mean, Arden did her research, and it shows. This is actually the part I liked the most, because medieval Russia just comes to life in these books, and it feels so real (in a bitterly cold, dirty, depressing kind of way). And there's Christianity, and monks and priests, but then there's also the old gods and spirits. And there's kind of a romance, but the book is way less concerned with the romance and way more concerned with exploring how a head-strong, fiery, independent girl deals with the oppressive patriarchy of the time, and I just really, really liked it. It's very well written, relatively clean, and I highly recommend it if good, detailed historical fiction is your thing, or if you just like a good story with compelling characters. You will learn a lot.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

The second book on my kick. I started this one wondering what could possibly be so interesting about "grit" that someone could write a whole book on it. I thought I had the main message down after the first chapter, and was considering skipping out on the rest. But! I'm glad I stuck it out and finished it, because she had some super interesting things to say about a lot of different facets of grit. "Grit" is not one of those characteristics I spend a whole lot of time thinking about, or why it's important, but Duckworth is clearly very passionate about this concept, and she had me convinced by the end. I especially appreciated her parenting advice, and her family's policy that every day everyone must do one hard thing. There was some very thought-provoking stuff here I'll write more about in my next post.

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

The third book in my kick. Once again, I started this one thinking it wasn't for me and maybe I should skip it. Wiseman's audience, after all, is business leaders and executives (which I am not), and again, I kind of thought I probably had the gist of her argument down after the first chapter. However, once again I was glad that I stuck it out and finished it, because there really was a lot of interesting information here (although this book had the unfortunate tendency these types of books often have of repeating a lot of their information in chapter summaries, and the like). The argument here is that some leaders act as diminishers, intentionally or unintentionally dampening the people under them so they are less motivated to work or contribute meaningfully. Conversely, there are multipliers who not only manage to inspire people to work at their full capacity, but actually seem to grow people's intelligence and abilities. While Wiseman focuses specifically on executive leaders, I spent much of the book thinking about how I could apply these principles as a parent and a teacher. Very interesting stuff.

Essentialism by Greg MeKeown

The fourth book in my kick, and probably my favorite. At this point, I was getting pretty tired of this genre. There'd been a lot of repetition of ideas, and this book had some of that too, but I really liked the angle he approached his advice from. I would call this book secular spiritualism, and while it is once again aimed at a more business/executive type audience, this one was far more universally applicable. Definitely recommend this one.

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

So, I've mentioned this before, but I always think twice before including a book I read for homework here, mostly because I end up reading a lot of obscure 16th century plays and poetry that I don't think you guys would be interested in hearing about. But like I said earlier, I'm in a Medieval class this semester, and we read this translation of Beowulf the first week, and I really, really liked it, so I thought I'd mention it here and let it "count." On the off chance that any of you are interested in reading this Old English epic poem, I'm going to throw a plug in for this particular translation, because Heaney did a fabulous job at making it both accessible and poetically faithful to the original. If you love The Lord of the Rings or any of Tolkien's other works, I highly recommend reading Beowulf if you haven't already, because it's very clear this was an influential text on Tolkien, and I really enjoyed seeing what he drew from this poem to create his Middle Earth world. It's very interesting.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

This is my book club's pick for next month, but I read it early. I read The Red Tent by Diamant a few years ago, and remember liking it pretty well, but this one is very different in time period, tone, and style. That's not a bad thing, this one is lovely and sweet in it's own way, but I don't think it's quite as good as The Red Tent. That being said, if you're interested in a sweet second-generation immigrant coming-of-age story in the early 20th Century, this is a good pick. It's got a few hard topics and situations in it, but handles them in a way that doesn't feel super depressing or gritty. This is a general recommend.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

This one's gotten a lot of buzz in YA circles for a few years now (they just made it into a movie, I think), and since it's been a while since I've read contemporary YA I thought I'd try it out. Ugh. Don't bother is the short answer. I nearly didn't finish this one. The writing is actually pretty good, but the plot is so stupid. I mean, just ridiculously stupid. I'm so done with this book I don't even want to write anything else about it.

So anyway, it was a bit of a bum ending to an otherwise fabulous reading month. Have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts about them!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Book Blab Episode 16: Reading Classics

Hi guys! Time for another Book Blab, this time on another topic suggested by a viewer (thanks, Julia)! This was a super fun topic (thus, we run a little long). In fact, after we filmed this episode, I spent the rest of the day thinking about all the other classics I wish I would've mentioned, or things I could've talked about. Apparently, I have lots of thoughts on reading classics. Maybe I'll have to another post on this sometime. Anyway, enjoy the show! Show notes below.

(We mention a lot of authors by name, but sometimes not specific works, so those didn't get included in the list of books mentioned.)

1:35 - Today's topic: the whats, whys, and hows of reading a classic
3:12 - What is a classic?
5:15 - How long does it take for something to become a classic?
7:55 - What are some of the sub-genres of classic literature?
10:10 - Suzanne's favorite classic genres
13:10 - A few ideas for making classics more accessible
  • 13:35 - Discuss it with a friend/group
  • 14:18 - Read outside material
  • 16:00 - Watch adaptations
  • 18:00 - Audiobooks
21:12 - Many classics are surprisingly readable
23:15 - A few possible reading goals involving classics
28:00 - Some of our favorite classics
31:15 - Two of our favorite books in 2017
  • 32:05 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 33:40 - Amy's recommendation
37:00 - Conclusion

Tell us about your experiences with reading classics, and please share some of your favorites!

Books and Links mentioned during the show:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (Amy's review)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
What Should I Read Next podcast, Episode 112
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Suzanne's review)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Amy's review)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Suzanne's review)  
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)

As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts about reading classics too! What are your favorites? Any tips or tricks for tackling them? Also, more topic suggestions please! We love those!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Books I Read in December

Some years I forget to do this post. What with all the end-of-year wrapping up and New Year's resolutioning (or, you know, having a baby), I know I've forgotten to do my monthly round-ups of what I've read in December.

But I remembered this year! Because I know you're all dying to know my thoughts on the four books I read this month. Considering classes ended for me on December 6th, I spent most of the month without my glorious commute listening time. So really, I think it's quite amazing I managed to finish four books. Especially since those last two weeks consisted of me hosting my family for Christmas, throwing a six-year-old birthday party for 22 people (all the family in town), cooking all the things for Christmas Eve, cooking all the things for Christmas day, throwing a one-year-old cake smash party, then packing everyone up to go to Iowa for the New Year. All I'm saying is, it was busy. But I squeezed in some reading time. So here goes:

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I finally managed to finish all of Jane Austen's novels (except for Lady Susan, which doesn't really count anyway because she didn't submit it for publication in her lifetime, although I have read it before and found it delightful). I think it so funny that this is the only one of her books I had to put on hold and wait to read, because it's by far my least favorite (yes, even less favorite than Mansfield Park and Emma). That's not to say I don't like it. Austen at her worst is still far better than 99 percent of other authors at their best. I really find her over-the-top satire of the gothic novel genre to be hilarious. I love the way she snidely pokes fun at other popular authors and books of her time. But the romance in this one lacks even an ounce of chemistry (even the friendship between Catherine and Eleanor was pretty lack-luster in my opinion). The narrator/Austen herself admits that Catherine doesn't have much to recommend her (which the events of the book confirm), and I just can't figure out what Henry Tilney sees in her. I like Henry quite a bit. Of course, there's hardly an Austen hero I don't like. Her heroine's can be hit or miss for me, but Austen sure knows how to create a fictional hero!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (abridged)

Guys, this whole thing is so stupid. First, it's stupid that for being such a huge fan of Charles Dickens, I've never actually read his most famous work. I determined that this was the year I was going to change that, but since you can't read A Christmas Carol at any other time than December, I waited until this month. I checked out the audio book from my library and started listening to it. But the whole time I was listening, I kept thinking, "This sentence structure is so weird, it doesn't feel like Dickens!" and "Wow, I knew this was one of his shorter works, but this pace is really clipping along!" and then when it was over, it just didn't feel right. So I looked into the audio file, but it didn't say anything unusual in the text description or title, but after zooming in on the cover picture (not the same as the picture here, I was too lazy to find the actual one) I finally discovered it was an abridged version. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I generally make it a policy to never read abridged versions, and it is especially unnecessary for a piece that is so short already. But alas, my library didn't have any other versions of this book available on audio, so I guess I'm going to have to wait till next year to actually read the whole thing. Stupid.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Okay, this one. I have weird conflicted feelings about this one. I started off really disliking this book (I think 98% of that had to do with the narrator's voice) and almost gave up on it, but then I got into the story and more invested in the characters and the writing really is quite lovely, so I finished it and... I'm still not sure what I think about this book. It had some scenarios and thematic situations that made me think about stuff I've discussed in theoretical classes before (like questioning social norms and the nature of desire and who it's okay to love and not love, etc.), and so while I understand this book was trying to explore and open up some of these questions, I still found myself on the side of social norms. Like (potential spoiler), if I had a 13-year-old-daughter, I honestly would not want her sneaking around with a 30-year-old man, even if he is gay and misunderstood and grieving. But the book really made this relationship seem innocent and beautiful, which did make me question why I was so against a friendship between these two categories of people. Why does it seem so weird? So, thought-provoking and interesting. Worth the read, but not sure I recommend it very heartily.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I listened to this one in the week leading up to New Year's, with the intention of getting some inspiration for goal-setting and all of that. I've read some really raving reviews of this one, so I was excited to get some really good information out of it. And yes, it was good. Good enough that I included it on my top 10 books of the year list, although I'm still pretty convinced that was only due to having just finished it when I made that list, so it was new and shiny and fresh in my mind (we'll see if it actually sticks with me). I have lots of thoughts about this book and will probably (hopefully) write a whole post about it soon, but in general just know that this is a recommend.

What did you read last month?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Year's Resolutions: 2018

You guys, 2017 was a whopper of a year for us. In case you need a refresher here are the major points of our year:

-We started the year off with a 3-day old Baby #3 (and, P.S., the transition from 2 to 3 kids rocked my world harder than the transition from 1 to 2; as darling as she is and as much as I love her, this sweet little girl was not the easiest baby I've had).
-I got accepted to grad school in February and we made the momentous decision to move forward with it, meaning that...
-My husband began a frantic job search, and after a few tense months finally got one, so we were able to move forward with...
-Buying a house! That I didn't actually get to see in person until the final walk-through. And then we...
-Moved states. Moving is the worst. And then we...
-Spent a few tense months trying to figure out a childcare situation, which is also the worst. Thankfully, it worked out just in time for me to...
-Start a freaking PhD program! Still kind of surreal, and I have a lot of moments where I'm like, "How did this happen? How did I get here? What am I doing with my life?" But yes, the answer is that I'm a mother of three very young children, and I'm getting a PhD. At the same time. It's crazy.
-My oldest started kindergarten! (And loves it so much, he tells me he wants to live at school, and sleep at school, and not come home even on the weekends. I've decided not to tell him that boarding school is a thing.)

So yes, these were all very wonderful and happy and good things. But also, I've never experienced a year with such a high level of anxiety (like, completely unable to sleep kind of anxiety). I'm very much looking forward to a year that, while still busy, will contain far fewer major life-altering events.

Anyway, that background leads me to the topic of New Year's Resolutions. I made some goals last January, well-knowing that my life was potentially going to be crazy. Unsurprisingly, I didn't meet half those goals. Let's review 2017's goals for just a moment.

2017 Review:

1. Read 52 Books Check and double check! I managed to surpass this, finishing strong with 67 books!

2. Finish Draft of Book Ha! Hahaha! I barely managed to keep this little blog afloat. Needless to say, I did not find the writing time to draft that book I've been thinking about for a while. Nope. Did not happen.

3. Re-establish Self-Care Routines Basically, this goal was about reclaiming my early-morning routine. I feel so good about myself when I wake up early and have a little solo time for scripture study, meditation, yoga, and maybe a little writing or work. Pre-kids, I used to be so good at this. But it only works for me when I can control my sleep, which means my morning and self-care routines take a hit every time I'm pregnant or have a baby who is not sleeping through the night. When I made this goal back in January, I had high hopes that my extra-sleepy newborn was going to be like her older brothers and start sleeping through the night between 4 and 6 months. Nope! No matter what method I used (and I tried everything), my opinionated little sweetheart point-blank refused to sleep through the night until well over 9 months old (and only then on the condition that she not be sick or teething, which meant more often then not she still wanted my company in the night). You guys, that first month of my PhD program, when she was still regularly waking up once or twice a night, I thought I was going to die. Or go insane. Or something. I was in a pretty desperate place sleep-wise, and a good morning routine seemed way out of reach. I was squeezing in my self-care at other points in the day, but nothing about my life was "routine."

But things did get better. I actually had some good stretches through October and November where I was getting up at 5 AM fairly regularly (but then I kept getting sick myself, leading to setbacks), so there's hope that in 2018, my regular early-morning routine might become habit again, and I will feel in control of my life!

4. Blogging Routine Look, this little blog of mine is my favorite hobby. It's so fun to write here. I have every intention of keeping it up as much as possible. But see above where I talk about nothing in my life being "routine". Honestly, the fact that I was able to post here as often as I did during the semester was amazing. The fact that this blog is still alive makes is a win in my book.

5. Memory Keeper Routine This one is half a check! In that, during the first half of the year, I was really on top of the journals and such. But then school started and... I'm behind again. Always behind.

6. Instagram Once A Week You guys, I love so much that I had a goal to post to social media MORE, and I love even more that I completely FAILED at this goal. I'm awful at social media. Which is actually fine with me, because social media is mostly just a time-suck anyway. And the point of this goal was not about participating in social media more, it was actually about forcing myself to take more pictures and improve my photography skills and document our family life more. In which case, I still failed at this goal. I did manage to have a monthly photo shoot to document Baby Girl's milestones, but some months that was all I managed to post. I would still love to work on my photography, it just wasn't a high enough priority this year.

So, super interesting to me that the one goal I managed to succeed at (and actually crush) was my reading goal. Everything else was more or less a fail. I think that says something, but I'm not exactly sure what that says yet. I'm probably going to write up a whole post about this soon, because writing is how I figure things out, and I want to figure out why that goal stuck while my other ones fizzled.

Anyway, let's move on to my goals for 2018, shall we? Because I know you're all dying to know!

2018 Goals:

1. Read 75 Books This one is kind of a huge stretch for me. I've never read that many books in a year. But I'm feeling the itch to push myself, and I'm fairly confident in the glorious power of my commute + audio books equation, so we shall see!

2. Establish Early Morning Routine! Carry-over from last year, but I'm feeling real hopeful that, barring any major sleep regression on the side of my baby, this will actually be feasible this year. My goal is a strict 10 PM bedtime with a 5:30 AM wake-up time, and I want my morning routine to include: scripture study, yoga/meditation, shower/dressed, and whatever school work I can manage before the kids get up. We shall see.

3. Attend a Conference/Submit a Paper for Publication Well, well, well, look at that. I have professional goals! I just want to do one thing this year to add to my C.V. Sounds reasonable to me.

4. More One-on-one Time With My Kids The one thing I worry about a lot with being a Student/Working Mom is that my kids don't get enough of my attention. I want to focus more on giving daily pockets (10-15 minutes) of attention/activity/fun to each kid, but also do bigger one-on-one things, like dates and such. I'm aiming for an individual date at least once a month.

5. Go to the Temple at Least Every Other Month I'm so grateful we live in a city that has a temple, but it's still about an hour away from us (which has been the case with every city we've lived in since leaving Utah). Factoring in the time, and the fact that I try to avoid finding/paying babysitters at all costs, getting to the temple is one of those "should-dos" that feels rather momentous to pull off. But I've been missing it lately, and really feel like I need to get there more often, with or without my husband (maybe separate temple trips is the solution to the babysitter problem).

Okay, there are a lot of other things I could set resolutions about, but right now, these are the ones that feel the biggest/most important to me. There are plenty more goals I would like to add to this list, and if I had an honorable mention list it would probably include things like plant a garden, finish off my children's baby books, set up a summer reading challenge for myself (and my kids...), get finances in a place to invest/give more to charity, and plenty more areas I want to improve in, but let's just start here. No need to overwhelm myself or shoot for the unrealistic stars (like I apparently did last year). This list feels very doable, and I can always add some of these other goals as I feel able to accomplish them (I've added goals mid-year before, no rules against that!). I'll check in in June and let you know how I'm coming!

What are your goals for the New Year?

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 10 Books of 2017

This was a banner reading year for me. My goal was to read 52 books (a book a week), and in the end Goodreads tells me I've read 67 books. That is the most in my recorded history, and I'm exceptionally proud of that number considering we had some extremely stressful and crazy times this year (including the month we moved, where I managed to read one measly book, so clearly I made up my numbers elsewhere, which makes that number even more impressive).

Anyway, we've now come to the end of 2017, and it's time for one of my favorite posts of the year! Actually, this is also one of the hardest posts of the year. Like I said last year, choosing my top 10 reads feels so arbitrary. Some are super obvious and fully deserve to be on this list, but others got on here just by whim. If I wrote this list last week or next week, it would look different. There were sooo many favorites, so many good reads this year, and it's super hard to whittle down just the top 10. Other books I read may actually stick with me longer or deserve to be one here, but at this moment, this is what my top 10 list looks like.

Just a note, I'm not including any of my re-reads from the year. Otherwise, this list would be entirely dominated by Jane Austen (as I re-read her entire oeuvre in the last quarter) and L.M. Montgomery (as I finished up my re-read of the Anne series earlier this year).

Okay, here we go:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Oh, how I loved this one! The writing was just amazingly beautiful, the characters so pointedly drawn, the humor just so exactly my type. I want to re-read this again some day to savor it slowly. Just beautiful.

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

The surprise hit of the year! I had zero expectations for this book, and spent the first half very unsure if I could handle this sort of historical playfulness, but in the end, it won me over completely! It was so funny, so ridiculous, so sweet and romantic, so imaginative, and just so, so much fun. Can't wait to read the next one they write.

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

New favorite author of the year (and new favorite author name as well). This book is perhaps not quite as memorable as The Snow Child (see below), but I related to the main female character in this one quite a bit, and it has some spectacular writing and really beautiful moments, and if I were to re-read any of Ivey's books, this is the one I'd want to re-read first.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This. This is what I want my magical realism to be. This book was beautiful and magical and wonderful in every way. Read it in the winter.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I don't have enough words to express how deeply happy this book made me, but also how deeply sad. I defy anyone who reads this book not to fall in love with Amy, and then not to cry bitter tears with the knowledge that she died too young.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I have such a hard time recommending this one, because the language is really hard to handle. But it's been a long time since I've read a YA book that's stuck with me the way this one has. There was so much to think about here, so many ways this book changed my perspective or made me think about questions of race in ways I hadn't before. I used to live in South Side Chicago, and the descriptions of Garden Heights felt very similar to the areas around where we lived (although my specific neighborhood was rather more white). It was just interesting to hear this kind of voice, which does not get represented in literature enough.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I have to admit that I'd kind of forgotten about this book until I was going back through my Goodreads archives to make this list. But once I started thinking about it, and thinking about the incredible writing, and the intricate descriptions of poverty, and friendship, and relationships, I couldn't not put this one on the list.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Again, the language and content make me hesitant to recommend this one, but again, the writing and the impact this one made on me make it too important to not include on the list. It was just so, so, so good. Backman is an incredible writer.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Probably the best non-fiction I read this year. It was a fabulous story, and I was amazed at Brown's ability to make me feel the drama and suspense of these races (that I knew the outcome to!) so much that I was sitting on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails through the whole read.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I went back and forth on whether to include this one or one of the many other ones that deserve a spot on this list. I'm not actually sure if this one will stick with me the way the other books on this list have. I only just finished it two days ago (I'll talk more about it on my December reading-wrap-up), and maybe I'm only inclined to include it because it's fresh and on my mind. But whatever. It was fascinating and I really liked a lot of what he talked about, and there's not enough non-fiction on this list anyway, so it gets a spot.

Some reflections on this reading year in general: I read some amazing books this year. It was one of my best reading years ever, and I'm very happy about that. I read the most books I've ever read in a year (something I'm still thinking about and will probably write a post about soon). There was more literary reading and classic reading and re-reading of favorites, and that was fun for me. That being said, I feel like there were some holes. I didn't read nearly as much YA or middle grade fiction as I usually like to, or even as much nonfiction as I usually like to. I'm kicking around the idea of making some more intentional reading goals for next year, but I've yet to decide if I'm in a place to make that work. I'll let you know what I decide when I post about my resolutions.

Anyway, how was your reading year?