Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 In Review

Ah, 2014.

It was the best of years. It was the worst of years.

Really, I had some awesome experiences this year. I went back to grad school and started a master's program this year (oh, and aced my first semester with a 4.0!). I got pregnant and gave birth to the sweetest little boy imaginable, and had an awesome and redeeming birth experience. I got to spend a lot of time with family, I made some new friends, and overall had a very blessed and wonderful year.

Unfortunately, there were some terrible parts to this year as well (more of which I'll discuss in my next post), and in consequence this was not the best year reading-wise for me.

When I set my reading goals at the beginning of 2014, I anticipated some of the craziness and was thus pretty lenient with myself. I only set two goals: 1.) Finish John Adams and 2.) Read 12 books for pleasure. And while it was still a pretty pathetic reading year compared to 2013 (where I read close to a book a week), I did manage to blow goal #2 out of the water and read 25 books this year. (I failed on goal #1, but we don't need to discuss that right now).

One of my favorite things about using Goodreads (that I discovered last year) is that they track my reads and provide me with a nice little page of statistics and charts and bar graphs about all the books I read every year.

Looking at this just makes me super happy. And also motivates me to read more books just so I can see more titles on this bar graph.

I've mentioned most of these books in separate reviews or monthly round-ups, but I'd thought I'd give some highlights. Here are my Top Ten listed by category.

Favorite Favorites

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist. I mentioned this one in my November round-up, but I really need to do a full review. But I want to read it again first. This one inspired lots of thoughts. It was just lovely.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Another one that inspired lots of thoughts and that I plan to read again and mull over. This book deserves its own review post too, some day when I have time to process it all.

Favorite Non-fiction

It's a rare year when both of my favorite favorites are already non-fiction, but honorable mentions go to:

The Gift of Giving Life by various authors. This one is so good, and was especially soul-filling for my 2014, the Year of the Difficult Pregnancy.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior. Really interesting parenting book. Can't stop thinking about it.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Because obviously.

Favorite Fantasy/Fiction

It was a strange year for me in that I read way more good non-fiction than fiction, but there were still a few good ones for this category.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary. I debated between this one and Flavia de Luce (my most recent read), both about young girls who are too smart for their own good. In the end I chose this one, because I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. Not exactly happy, but good.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. I wasn't sure if this one would stay with me when I first read it, but with a new baby of my own I find myself thinking of it frequently. And it does have some beautiful writing.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. Delightful, fun, adorable little read.

Favorite YA

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Beautiful little middle-grade novel. I cried (but I was also pregnant).

Bomb! by Steve Sheinkin. This was a fascinating read. Sometimes I even forgot it was supposed to be YA.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Enjoy Every Moment" - Or Don't. Because Parenting is Hard

My husband went back to work full time last week, after eight weeks of paid paternity leave.

I've been reluctant to talk about just how awesome all that paternity leave was, because I know that this type of benefit is extremely rare (I only got six weeks of paid maternity leave when I was working with my first baby, and even that required a combination of using all my accrued sick and vacation allowances). I know a lot of other women who have recently had babies, and all of their jaws have dropped when they found out my husband was home with us for eight weeks. Most men only get a couple of days, maybe a week. So anyway, I know I've been lucky.

However, the point of this post is not to brag about my husband's awesome benefits (actually, most of the benefits at his company really suck, paternity leave is seriously the only good one). The point is to talk about all the thoughts and reflections I've had about parenthood in the past week, as I've soldiered through all the meltdowns and dirty diapers and "sleep training" alone.

Now, this may not be a revelation, but lately I've been thinking about how parenting is not very fun.

In her book All Joy and No Fun, which I read last June, Jennifer Senior writes about all the studies in recent years that have shown how parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The statistics on this are kind of mind numbing, because it's been shown in study after study after study that having kids tends to increase stress, decrease life-satisfaction, and damage marital relationships (for another interesting and shorter read on this topic, check out this New York article)

Senior goes on to discuss and analyze many of the reasons why parenting is such a miserable task, everything from the extreme pressure to produce perfect children (a societal shift in parenting in the last seventy years), to the simple drudgery of spending time with small irrational creatures who want to sing the same song over and over and over four hundred times a day.

The point that really resonated with me was when Senior talked about the concept of "flow." This concept was developed by some famous psychologist (I can't remember the name, and I don't have the book, so I'm just talking about what I remember from reading this six months ago), and essentially what he posits is that to truly find pleasure in work, you have to develop "flow." That is, you have to get to a point where you are completely absorbed in some process, and this usually takes hours and hours of uninterrupted time devoted to your work. Kids interrupt "flow" in their parent's lives. They have short attention spans, they have needs that must be met immediately, they are constantly interrupting and disrupting. These interruptions make it nearly impossible for parents to develop any sort of "flow" when they are around their kids.

This has been so true for me lately.

Take this morning for instance. My only goal this morning was to get the dishes done. We had a big dinner with family last night, and the dishwasher was full so many of the dishes got left on the counter over night. I found a moment of peace after breakfast and started working on unloading the dishwasher. But then the baby started crying to be put down for a nap, and then my older child had a poopy diaper, and then he wanted to play a game, and then there was some melt-downs over balancing a baseball hat on a fire truck (speaking of irrational creatures), and then the baby started crying again, and then the laundry needed to be switched out, and then it was lunch time, and just as I was getting back to the dishes, it was time to feed the baby again.

Somehow I can't seem to get even one load of dishes done in a given three-hour window. But what about when I want to read a book? Write a blog post? Take care of any one of the five million projects on my to-do list?

Forget about it.

And most days, I just don't even start because I know I won't finish. I lose all of my motivation to work on things when I know I'll be interrupted and won't be able to finish. This is the single most frustrating part of parenthood for me right now. I'm not very good at multi-tasking, and this is a serious flaw as a stay-at-home-mom, because heaven knows I'm never going to get two hours of quiet, focused work time. At least not consecutively.

What I'm trying to keep in mind is what Senior discusses at the end of her book with the ideas of memory and meaning. Basically, the studies prove that the moment-to-moment act of parenting is really miserable, but there is still hope, because other studies also show that people who reflect back on their past parenting experiences find a deeper sense of joy and meaning in their lives.

And this makes sense. Most things worth doing in life are hard. Most meaningful things aren't pleasurable in the moment. Getting a graduate degree? Hard and miserable. Running a marathon? Really hard and miserable (I do not know this from experience). But when you get to the end of your life, these are the things that fill it with meaning, and meaning brings joy.

Why should parenting be any different?

So the next time some older, seasoned grandmother tells the young mother battling her rambunctious children in the check-out line to "enjoy every moment," feel free to completely ignore this advice. You are not going to enjoy every moment of parenting. It's hard. At times it's downright miserable.

But it's also meaningful. It just takes hindsight to realize that, so grit it out for a few more years.

Someday I will have all the time in the world I want to do the dishes.

(It took me all afternoon to write this post, and there were plenty of interruptions in the middle, along with some awkward one-handed typing while I nursed. But look! I actually got it written! Although those dishes are still sitting on the counter...)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Books I Read in November

I know November is a month devoted to gratitude, but mostly I'm grateful that November is over. That month just about killed me. November was the month of the never-ending recurring cold (the combination of newborn sleep deprivation and breast-feeding seems to have shot my immune system and destroyed any ability my body has to fight off infection) and the infamous six-week peak in fussiness. If my sweet little Baby #2 doesn't have colic, than I don't know what colic is, because the crying! The hours and hours of inconsolable crying! November was just about the perfect storm of physical and mental torture, and I barely survived with my sanity (and marriage) in tact. It was a rough month.

But there were still a few quiet hours of nursing where a little bit of reading got done, so I'm back here to report.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

I've developed an interest in food books recently, and this one? This one is a huge winner. This is my most recent favorite book of ever, and I want to own it. I've decided that if I ever write a book, this is the kind of book I want to write. It's a bit hard to describe, but this book is a collection of memoir-type essays focusing on the spiritual, communal, and nurturing aspects of food and meals in Niequist's life. I loved Niequist's perspective and voice (I'm pretty sure she's read Daring Greatly), and I found myself really inspired to throw some dinner parties and cook good food for my family. Bonus: there were recipes included at the end of almost every chapter, and I've already tried (and loved) about half of them. This was simply a lovely book, and I may have to give it a full review some time soon. (P.S. This would make a great gift for any foodie in your life, or anyone who just enjoys good, thoughtful writing).

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I know, I know, I'm way behind everyone else on getting around to this bestseller, but I knew it was going to be a depressing slog, and I just couldn't bring myself to put it on hold at the library until my virtual book club picked this one for November. And I was right, it was a completely depressing slog. Every time I thought my colicky baby was going to drive me insane this month, I would think, Well, at least I'm not in a Japanese POW camp. Way to put my small trials in perspective. And in the end, this story truly was inspiring and hopeful and really, really beautiful. I definitely see what all the fuss was about and I'm glad I read it (although I still can't decide if I want to see the movie).

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This was my second Kate Morton book this year, and while I still found her ability to craft such an intricate plot to be incredible, this was the exact same formula as The Secret Keeper, and I found myself less impressed. Also, I listened to The Secret Keeper as an audiobook, so I didn't realize until reading this one how many unnecessary sentence fragments Morton uses. It pretty much drove me insane. Honestly, who was the editor here, and why didn't they fix this? Also, there were a few characters in this one that I felt were underdeveloped and their motivations weren't explained well. That being said, I still enjoyed this, and recommend to anyone who enjoys a good story.

And now for one in the inauspicious category of Did Not Finish:

Outlander  by Diana Gabaldon

Okay, I know people who love this series, and on the outset it sounded like just my sort of book. After all, I have a weak spot for good historical fiction. But this book reconfirmed why I mostly stick to YA historical fiction. I've actually become a lot less prudish about "adult content" in recent years, but when the main romantic relationship became aggressively violent, and Gabaldon tried to pass this violence off as passionate romance, I just couldn't read anymore. The feminist inside me was too disgusted, because I'm sorry, I don't care  if it is historically accurate that wives were whipped in the 18th Century, portraying that kind of abuse as "deserved" and romantic is not acceptable. Never. No. And that wasn't even the worst of it. I just couldn't read any more. I do NOT recommend this one.

And with that, good riddance to November! Bring on December, with it's Christmas music and twinkle lights and holly and joy! Hopefully December will bring with it less sickness, more sleep, and happier times all around. I'm predicting nothing but good things this month. Here's to December!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

To All The Pregnant Ladies

So, you're pregnant, and you want a book to read about it?

Way back four years ago or so when I got pregnant for my first time, I was scared and excited and completely ignorant about everything that was going to happen, so off I went to my local library to search for whatever they had on "Pregnancy". I think the very first book I checked out was What to Expect When You're Expecting, and if you want to know physically what is happening to you at every stage, and freak yourself out reading about all the warning signs of things that could possibly go wrong, and want a very ADA approved list of foods to eat and avoid, this is a great book to start with. Go for it. Very safe and not controversial at all.

Also kind of completely useless when it comes to preparing yourself for labor (at least it was in my case).

This second time around, I wised up a bit and rather than ask my library, I asked my friends for recommendations for good pregnancy books, especially about labor and delivery. My good friend Sarah really came through for me, and let me borrow her entire pregnancy library. So here are my thoughts and recommendations on some good/interesting books to read while you are pregnant.

HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method by Marie F. Mongan

Check out my full review of this book here. So be prepared for some pretty crunchy-granola stuff, but I completely recommend this one with a grain of salt. She spends a lot of time talking about how labor can be painless and even enjoyable. Yeah, no. That was certainly not my experience. But all of the advice about mentally and emotionally preparing, the relaxation techniques, all of that is golden. If you can, take the class. I've only ever read the book, but this is by far the most helpful for practical ways to endure a natural labor.

Birthing From Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz

Okay, if you thought HypnoBirthing sounded fringe and crunchy-granola, this one is even beyond that. This book is more like therapy for the pregnant woman. There's all sorts of talk about exploring your emotions and creating pregnancy art. Yeah, I don't know much about therapy, and it sounded pretty weird to me at first. There's all sorts of art pictures from actual students that took her classes, pictures of baby bumps and female bodies and vaginas and stranger stuff. The art is all about helping women (and men) process their emotions about pregnancy. I couldn't bring myself to actually paint a picture, but I did try some journaling using the recommended questions because I really did suffer some trauma from my first pregnancy, and that was a nice therapeutic experience. This one is definitely interesting, but also very weird and not conventional at all, so just be prepared for that.

Active Birth by Janet Balaskas

This one is less touchy-feely, more medically mainstream. Sort of. The premise here is that women should be active during labor, moving into different positions, delivering in a squatting position, that kind of thing. It goes over all sorts of exercises to prepare for labor, all the positions to labor in, etc. At first I thought this one was great and very helpful. One of the major reasons I didn't want an epidural was so I could labor in different positions if I wanted to. Then I went through labor without an epidural and discovered changing positions was the last thing I wanted to do. In fact, what I wanted most desperately was to NOT MOVE at all. I remembered all the pictures and stories of women laboring in standing positions in this book, and I thought How? How? How? I barely had the strength to breathe, I don't know how any woman has the strength to labor in a standing position. So, this one ended up not being my thing, but I still recommend it. Warning though, there are some very graphic pictures of completely nude women in the process of laboring. It's not sexualized at all, but I still found myself skipping over the pages with photographs a lot. It's just a lot of naked woman.

The Gift of Giving Life by a collection of LDS women

By far my favorite of any of the books I read this pregnancy, this one is not so much a How-To, but more a series of essays and birth stories reflecting on the spiritual side of pregnancy and birth. Yes, all the authors are LDS and they write for an LDS audience familiar with the doctrine, but I think this one could translate well to any Christian faith. Just a note of caution to even the LDS readers, the first section was a bit rough for me, and I almost didn't continue reading (the first few essays talk about Heavenly Mother, and they delve into some very questionable grey area that is NOT mainstream doctrine), but I'm glad I pushed on because nearly everything else about this book was completely beautiful. With my first pregnancy, I thought a lot about the physical preparation of bringing a new baby into the world, but I never thought about spiritually preparing for this experience. I loved the way they compared labor and delivery to the atonement, and using the power of the atonement to help you through your hardest moments in labor. Also, I really appreciated the section on meditation. The birth stories are fantastic too. I love birth stories, and there are hundreds of birth stories in this book. Honestly, I think reading all these birth stories was more helpful during my own labor than any other book I read, because the thought that kept me going was if all those other women survived, I will survive too. I do want to reiterate that this book does not come from church leadership and should not be considered church doctrine (with 90% of the stories being about natural labor, someone could walk away from this book feeling like they are sinning if they get an epidural), but there is some beautiful stuff in here for every pregnant woman (I do NOT recommend this book for those suffering from infertility). I want to reread this book with each pregnancy, which is why I now own it. And I plan on giving it to all the pregnant women in my life.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Books I Read in October

October was actually a pretty good reading month for me (yay for all those hours and hours of nursing!), but I only finished two books, so it looks like it was a bad month. My problem was that I kept getting distracted, starting new books without finishing the books I was already in the middle of. I was just so excited about reading again (after the brainfog that was my pregnancy), and a bunch of books came in from my holds at the library, and I couldn't bring myself to be disciplined about finishing. So I'm in the middle of about 10 books right now, and only managed to finish two that whole month.

Oh well, here's the update.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morely

This book was published in 1917, but if you haven't heard of it, that's okay. I wouldn't exactly call this a classic, it's not nearly substantial enough to be required reading in a high school English class. But it is a completely delightful little read. It's full of whimsy and funny characters and comical situations. But most importantly, this little novel is love letter for book lovers. It is about a little man named Roger Mifflin who is on a mission to bring great literature to the rural farmers of America, and thus he travels about the countryside with a book-shop wagon (essentially a book mobile, except pulled by a horse named Pegassus). And when he meets Helen McGill, a thirty-nine year old farm housekeeper who up and leaves the only life she knows to buy the Parnassus and have an adventure of her own, the story takes off. It's completely adorable, and I thoroughly recommend this to any book-lover looking for a fun, old-timey classic read.

A book about home decor. Hmm. You wouldn't think a book about something as fluffy as paint colors and arranging $10 tchotchkes would be all that thought provoking. But! This one caused lots of thoughts. Lots of thoughts on the philosophical level. Be prepared, a longer post is coming with all my deep thoughts about home decor, but for now just know that I whole-heartedly recommend this one, especially to any woman out there with house-shame (do you know what I mean by that?). Smith has a fun voice and is a good story-teller, and this is a lovely little read.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Bookish Halloween (Or, I Love Coordinating Costumes)

Okay, so confession. Halloween is not my favorite holiday. However, I can't deny that I love dressing up. Especially when we have a stroke of brilliance for an absolutely adorable coordinating family theme and pull off four homemade DIY costumes for under $5.

Coordinating costumes are just the best, aren't they? They just tickle me to death. And ours turned out so cute this year I can't help but sharing.

So I'm really hoping the readership of this blog is savvy enough to discern not just the theme, but also the identity of each costume from the picture alone. But just for the sake of spelling it out, here we go: I am dressed as Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Our 2 year-old is dressed as the coconut tree from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the wee babe is dressed as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and my husband is channeling Harold and the Purple Crayon (his costume really needed a light blue footie onesie to complete the look, but my husband has his limits, and I settled for just the blue shirt).

I'm sure no one really cares, but here's the story behind these costumes. Back at the beginning of October, we tried to take our 2-year-old to the zoo dressed as a cowboy for an early Halloween trick-or-treating experience, but he was having none of that costume. He wouldn't wear the hat or the bandanna, and we didn't have boots anyway, so the costume was a total flop. So we sat around asking ourselves what kind of costume he actually would wear. Most kids want to wear costumes based on what they are currently interested in; trains or cars or princesses or whatever Disney movie is hot at the moment. My kid is a bit weird. His current obsession is the alphabet (this is a post for another day), and so I said something like, "If only we could figure out a way to dress him up as letters, he would totally love that." My brilliant sister, who was visiting at the time, made the suggestion that we dress him up as the coconut tree, because he is OBSESSED with that book. As in, he has it memorized and recites it over and over again all day long. As soon as she suggested it, I knew we'd struck gold.

So the idea was hatched and we devised a costume made entirely out of construction paper and foam sticker letters. It was brilliant, but I really wanted the family to have coordinating costumes, because like I said, coordinating costumes are the best. So the question became, what to do for the babe? My lovely sister came to rescue again, as her little boy had been the Hungry Caterpillar the year before, so she generously sent me the hat, we had the green onesie on hand, and the theme of Classic Children's Literature was set. I chose Miss Frizzle because somehow I thought sewing paper cutouts of stars and planets on a dress would be easier than any other costume and our only expense there was a three dollar wig of red hair. My husband's costume was by far the easiest, once we figured out what he was going to be. He spent an hour crafting his crayon out of construction paper, threw on the shirt, and off we headed to the ward trunk-or-treat.

So here are my take-aways from our costume experience this year:

  • It's a bit tricky to breastfeed in a dress, especially one that has construction paper bits sewed all over it.
  • It's totally exciting to have a child old enough to "get" Halloween, and to be super excited about his costume. Seriously, he loved being that coconut tree so much he wanted to sleep with his costume (there was a total meltdown when we told him no).
  • About 70% of people have never read Harold and the Purple Crayon. Seriously people? Why are so many people clueless about this classic? Maybe we just really needed that adult footie pajama.
  • Classic Children's Literature is just about the most adorable costume theme ever. And the possibilities for costuming are endless. I have a feeling I'll be using this theme again in future years.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (I don't know how to get the accent over the last e in her name, and I'm too lazy to figure it out. Apologies.)

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Researcher and thought leader Dr. Brené Brown offers a powerful new vision that encourages us to dare greatly: to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives. Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable, or to dare greatly. Whether the arena is a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation, we must find the courage to walk into vulnerability and engage with our whole hearts. In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

This book came highly recommended to me by several very trusted sources but it took me a while to get around to it. And when I finally did pick it up, I wasn't sure I would personally get a lot out of this book. After all, Brown's big revelation that "vulnerability" is necessary to experience true connection and joy wasn't all that big of a revelation to me. Honestly, that was something I figured out the first time I fell in love (because I was the first one to say "I love you," and I experienced all sorts of vulnerable emotions that long week before he plucked up the courage to say it back to me).

And as far as the "shame" issues she discusses, I felt like I was beyond that too. Brown talks a lot about shame, and how when people feel shame (over body image, money, lifestyle, whatever it is) they will use coping techniques to hide their shame in an attempt to control how people perceive and connect with them. Of course, back in high school I experienced all sorts of insecurities and shame (who doesn't), and I definitely used to be a perfectionist (one of the unhealthy coping strategies she talks about). But somehow I managed to get over it. By and large, I feel like I more firmly belong in the category of "whole-hearted" peopled she described as coping well with shame, and I didn't think this book would offer me much.

But the more I read, the more I realized what a prideful assumption that was on my part. I may not feel the same types of shame as most other people in our society today, but I still feel shame about a lot of things, and I still have coping techniques that are not healthy. In some types of relationships, I am great at being open and honest and connected. But in other relationships, I feel nothing but disconnect. I feel vulnerable or uncertain, so I close up and shut down. Most of the time I attribute this to my introverted nature, but Brown helped me see how a lot of my relationship problems come from shame, and a lack of willingness to be vulnerable.

The chapter I found most insightful was how to be open to vulnerability as a parent in order to really connect with our children, and most importantly, never to use shame with our children. I've found myself thinking and reflecting about this constantly. Brown talks about how some parents use shame in an effort to control a child's choices, but that is never healthy or productive because it often leads to a child who feels fundamentally unworthy of love. Suddenly I wondered if my attempts to potty-train my toddler by pointing out all his friends who are potty-trained and telling him only babies wear diapers are communicating a sense of shame instead of motivation. I really want my children to feel comfortable with me, to feel like they can be open with me and tell me things without fear of shame or judgment from me, and that's one of the main reasons I will keep coming back to this book over and over again.

This book had some other great insights too, about feeling like we have "enough" in our lives instead of "never enough," and allowing ourselves to truly feel joy without any sort of caveat (this one was big for me, I am almost always suspicious of happy moments in life because I'm sure it means something terrible is going to happen soon). And even though I feel like I intuitively understood many of the lessons it took Brown twelve years of research to figure out, this book was still incredibly helpful for me in understanding the motivations and behaviors of others. It's heartbreaking to realize how many annoying or confusing or abrasive behaviors are motivated from a place of shame. If anything, this book has helped me have more compassion for other people, and greater courage in how I navigate relationships with other people.

In the end, I determined this book was one I needed to revisit and reread. This is a book for marking up and taking notes. It is one I needed to own (so my sister got it for me for my birthday), and like I said in my last post, that is the highest praise I can give a book.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Owning vs. Checking-Out: Where Do You Get Your Books?

Usually, I have a policy against buying books. This may seem strange, seeing as how I love all things bookish, but I have two reasons for this policy.

1.) I have no room for more books. Our bookshelves are currently stuffed to capacity (over-capacity, with books piled on top), and since we don't have space in our little apartment for more bookshelves, any new books get shoved in the boxes in the closet, under the bed, or if they're lucky, added to the pile on my nightstand. It pains me that so many of my books don't have a permanent home, and I don't want to buy more books until I have adequate space and housing for them (someday I will have my dream home library...).

2.) The public library. Why on earth would I spend money on a book that I could get for free at my library?

Generally, the only time I break this policy about buying books is when I've read a book that is so good, I know that I will want to reread it, mark it up, take notes, and generally have the book on hand for future reference and referral. The two most recent books that broke this policy were The Gift of Giving Life and Daring Greatly.  I haven't talked in depth about either of these books yet, but they were both so good I asked for them for my birthday. Honestly, the highest praise I can give any book is to actually spend money on it (remember how I hate spending money).

Here's where we get to the story for today. At my local branch library, they have a little shelf set up near the front entrance with books that are available for sale. I used to always ignore this shelf because a.) my general policy, and b.) I assumed the shelf was full of trashy romance novels and dirty retired library books that had seen better days. It wasn't until one day over the summer, when we had arrived a little too early for story-time and I had a few minutes to kill, that I actually stopped to look this shelf over.

And guys, I was totally wrong about this shelf. I mean, yes, there were plenty of trashy romance novels to go around, but there were actually some quality books there as well. Books that were on my to-read list. And they weren't old used library books either, most of them were brand-new. Then I saw the price list: 25 Cents for paperbacks.

Say what?

I don't care how little shelf-room I have at home, how can I pass up a perfectly good like-new book from my to-read list for only a mere quarter?

I can't, is the answer. Since making the discovery of this shelf, I've purchased six books (pictured above, sans The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton which was hiding under a pile of burp cloths on my nursing chair).

Now, every time we go to the library (at least once a week), I find myself perusing this shelf with great attention. They don't always have good stuff, but often enough I find these little gems that I can't help bringing home. This shelf is proving to be a serious detriment to my commitment against unnecessary consumerism.

But if I have one weakness, it is the temptation of a good book.

What's your book-buying policy?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Money and Spending Philosophies.

I know. Money is such a controversial topic. Everyone has such strong opinions about money. So why am I bringing it up? This month marks the one year anniversary of my husband starting his real job. Which means we've had one full year of living on a real salary.

Before this year, when we were students living off grants and student loans and part-time jobs, my philosophy on money and spending was very simple: we can't afford anything. We never bought anything unless it fell into that Absolutely-Desperately-Necessary category. In the first two years of our marriage, our grocery budget was $30 a week, which I generously expanded to $35 a week when we moved to Chicago (higher cost of living). My husband likes to tell how I encouraged him to use the restroom while he was on campus to save on our toilet paper purchases (but seriously, he uses way more toilet paper than is necessary). And when it came to things like new clothes, those were special birthday or Christmas presents. I'm all about presents serving a practical purpose.

You would think having a real salary would feel liberating, after all those years of scrimping every penny. But actually, no. I find it kind of disorienting. Now when we're at the store, and my husband asks if he can buy a pair of sunglasses, my old response of "We can't afford it" doesn't work anymore. Because we can afford it. So now the question becomes is it a necessity, or just a want? But this is actually a fairly complicated question to answer because usually there's an argument to be made about necessity on some level (because yes, sunglasses are "necessary" for eye protection). So the next question becomes should we buy the cheapest pair, or is it okay to spring for the fancier nicer pair with polarized lenses? Because there is that argument to be made about investing in quality products because they will last you longer and potentially save you money in the end. And suddenly what was once not even a question now becomes a really complicated question with lots of hemming and hawing over options and values and priorities and how do we want to spend our money? And believe me, these questions and options tend to leave me way more stressed now than I ever was in our student days.

In honor of this one year mark of employment, we've been working on some spreadsheets to analyze our spending habits and create a budget going forward. Of course, we had a budget in place for this year, but it's amazing how many expenses popped up that we didn't plan for. And it's been fascinating (and a bit discouraging) to see where our money has actually gone this past year. Needless to say, this spreadsheet project has inspired a lot of discussion between me and my husband about our spending philosophy.

So I found it a bit serendipitous when I stumbled across an article recently about how to spend in a way to increase your happiness. I think most sensible people understand that "money can't buy you happiness." I grew up believing money wasn't for happiness, it was for security, and the only way for money to bring you security was to be as frugal as possible and save, save, save. So I find the idea that spending in certain ways could actually make you happier to be intriguing, and I've been thinking about this a lot. The article was actually a book review of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by two behavioral science professors, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.

Now, I'm freely admitting that I haven't read this book yet, and therefore I'm not recommending it (however, I have added it to my to-read list), but the article I read summed up five of the major points this book makes about spending, and I found them very interesting.

1. Choose Fun Over Stuff

Sometimes this one feels a bit counter-intuitive to me, because obviously "stuff" is going to last longer than "fun," and is usually the more practical option. But my husband is all about spending money on "fun", or on experiences that are super memorable. And it's true, when I look back on our student days, my favorite memories are the trips we made even when I thought we couldn't afford them, and the fun we had exploring Chicago and the surrounding area. I don't regret spending money on those experiences one bit.

2. Make it a Treat

The idea behind this one is that you take something you enjoy regularly (eating out, for example) and voluntarily restrict how often you do this thing, because your enjoyment of it actually increases the more rare an experience it becomes. I'm a big believer in this one. Growing up, my parents let us pick where we wanted to eat out on our birthdays. Because we NEVER ate out, not even at fast food places, I remember this being the greatest treat ever. My younger siblings even chose to eat at McDonald's for their birthdays. It's hard to imagine now thinking of McDonald's as a treat, but when you never go there otherwise, it becomes special. My problem now is deciding how frequently we deserve "treats". Just birthdays and special occasions? Once a month? Once a week?

3. Buy Time

This one also feels a bit counter-intuitive to me too. At my core I believe that saving money should always be the priority, even if it means investing a lot of time. But Dunn and Norton argue that we could be happier if we spend on things that will maximize how we spend our time. For instance, they contend that buying a smaller house (or in our case, renting an apartment) closer into the city will make you happier than moving out to the cheap suburbs where you can get a huge house, but pay for it with a long commute. This one is a big question for us, because we will probably be moving within the next year, and we are trying to make the cheap suburb vs. expensive city decision. Right now my husband's commute to work is about twenty minutes during rush hour, but if we move to the (much cheaper) suburbs, that commute time will triple, if not quadruple. When he already spends so much time at work, neither of us want him spending more time on the commute.

Another quick example is using a house-cleaning service. My mother's philosophy of course is to never pay anyone to do something you can do yourself (she comes from good, honest, hard-working farmer stock), and this includes housework and yard work. But honestly, I hate cleaning. We live in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment, and I struggle to keep it even decently clean (let's be honest, when I was pregnant, I didn't even try at all). So I was delighted when my husband gave me a voucher for a two hour cleaning service for my birthday this year. Not only was it a treat (see above), but it's time well maximized. A cleaning service will accomplish in two hours what it would take me a miserable week to do. (I haven't used the voucher yet, I'm waiting until all my help with the new baby leaves and I'm left on my own with two kids again).

4. Pay Now, Consume Later

This one seems mostly to be talking about the happiness that comes from anticipation, like buying your plane tickets now and then having months to anticipate that trip to Europe. The anticipation is almost as satisfying as the trip itself. For me, this one works because the worst part about any experience, in my opinion, is paying for it (I am not one of those "retail therapy" types, shopping is almost always a stressful and painful experience for me because it involves paying money). But once money is spent, once the tickets are purchased or the hotels booked, it's a sunk cost. The money's gone, so I am free to enjoy the experience when it comes. So yes, I appreciate the idea of pre-paying for experiences or goods. The pain happens up front, and then I get over it and enjoy what I paid for. I think this is a much better experience than waiting for the bills to come after you've had a good time (way to end a vacation on a sour note).

5. Spend on Others

This is one that has been the topic of lots of our money discussions lately, because it turns out that many of our unforeseen expenses this past year were gifts (we didn't anticipate how many baby showers and toddler birthday parties we'd be invited to) or donations to close friends and family (there's been a lot of tragedy recently). This one is a puzzle for me, because while it's nice to feel like we are in a financial position to be generous, how do you budget for it? My gut instinct is to nix all expenditures that aren't in the budget (after all, this money has to come from somewhere), but at the end of the day these are also the kind of expenditures that make us feel the best. It feels good to buy all my nieces and nephews birthday presents, even if that expense grows exponentially every year. It feels good to donate to a cancer fund, or some other charity. It feels good to give back when we have been blessed with so much. It's just a puzzle how to decide who and when and how much, especially when most of these opportunities are unanticipated.

Now these tips above don't address a lot of my money questions. We're still sorting through much bigger problems of how quickly to pay off our student loans (oh, the burden of debt!), where our savings should go (rainy-day fund? retirement? house down payment?), and how to allocate our budget. But with the discretionary money we do have, it's interesting to think about how we can use it to increase our happiness. And it might make me feel less anxiety about spending to think of it this way.

I'm curious to know, what's your money philosophy? Are you all about frugality, or do you see spending as a way to increase happiness?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Books I Read in September

You guys, I'm not pregnant anymore. You have no idea how much this fact fills me with glee. In the hospital, right after I pushed that baby out, they handed me the room service menu because I hadn't eaten anything since the day before (hate how they do that to pregnant women, cruel and unusual making you labor on an empty stomach). I ordered a cheeseburger with fries and the chocolate cake. And it tasted SO GOOD! For the first time in nine months, food tasted normal! I wanted to cry from happiness. I feel like myself again, hallelujah! Just had to share that.

On to the books I read in September. Yeah, yeah, I know October is 2/3rds of the way over, but I still need to report this. September was my best reading month in a long time. Apparently being on semi-bed rest gives you lots of time to read (cleaning, not so much).

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

I have several food-themed books on my to-read list, and I must have gotten this one confused with another one because for some reason, I thought this book was a non-fiction memoir until about half-way through, when I realized there was no way this scenario could actually be real life. I felt a little silly after that (I mean, it says it's a "novel" on the cover, how did I miss that?) but it didn't change my enjoyment level much. As far as stories go, this one was nice and well-plotted, but also pretty predictable and not very substantive. However, this one is worth reading for the food descriptions alone. My main impression coming away from this novel was how much I wish I worked in the cheese shop she describes. Cheese is the number one reason I will never commit to a paleo/vegan diet, it is my kryptonite. It sounded so good.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This book, published in April, made a bit of splash early in the summer and was recommended to me by a few trusted sources as a "book-lover's book." Obviously I love my books, so I was intrigued and put it on hold at my library, finally getting around to it last month. And my opinion is: meh. Yes, it is a sweet little story. Yes, the main character owns a bookstore and makes lots of interesting short story recommendations. But I doubt I will remember this book in a year. It just didn't stick to me.

The Gift of Giving Life by various authors

This one! Thoughts, lots of thoughts about this one! I will write more about this one later (I may even give it it's own book review, I have that many thoughts), but just know that I highly recommend this book to any woman who is pregnant or in the middle of child-bearing years (it is directed to the LDS community, but has great insights for any mother). Five stars for sure.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

If you haven't heard of this book, perhaps you've seen the TED talk. I've been hearing about Brown and her books for years now, but only finally got around to reading this one last month. And now I own this book. Lots of thoughts on this one too, but I think I need to read it again (and maybe again) to really let these ideas sink in. Highly recommend.

And now, in the unusual category of Did Not Finish:

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I loved The Secret Life of Bees when I read it a few years ago, so I was excited when I read some positive reviews of Kidd's latest book. It took forever to get it on the holds list at my library, but then, I didn't love it at all. I mean, the concept of it was good, and I was very interested in the historical details. But her characters were so unbelievable, I couldn't stand their contrived voices. It just didn't feel like quality writing to me, to the point that I just didn't care about finishing it. If you can look past the poor writing, the story itself is an interesting one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Baby #2 Birth Story

Yeah, this is a book blog or whatever, but who doesn't love a good birth story? And in my personal opinion, this is a good birth story. At least, it has a very happy ending.

For those of you who read my private family blog, this may be a bit redundant, but there are a few juicier details here.

So, for a little background. My first pregnancy's labor and delivery was a bit traumatic for me. After 15 hours of active (induced) labor, a horrible epidural, 3 1/2 hours of pushing, an emergency C-section, and a terrible recovery, the experience was anything but ideal. Due to issues with the epidural not working very well during the C-section, they ended up knocking me out completely after the baby was out. I didn't get to really see, let alone hold my baby for another ten hours. Breastfeeding was a nightmare, both because my son's first meals had been formula and he got used to a full belly, and also because of the C-section scar. I had a very difficult time holding him in position to get a good latch. I know it was mostly due to the strong waves of hormones coursing through me after birth, but I couldn't help feeling like a failure. My body had failed to push this baby out (granted, he was 9 lbs 5 oz. with a ginormous head, and the doctor said he never was going to fit through my petite frame), and I was failing at taking care of my child. That first week of his life was incredibly stressful and emotional for me.

Needless to say, I was bound and determined to have a different experience with this second pregnancy. I found a doctor that was very experienced with VBACs. I did all the research and read all the books and pretty much got very convinced that in order to have a successful VBAC I needed to have as natural and intervention-free of a labor as I possibly could.

Due to some thyroid issues in my first trimester, some anemia issues in my second trimester, and what I can only assume were some general hormone issues throughout the whole pregnancy, I always felt sick and exhausted and generally miserable. Which is why I kept putting off preparing for this baby. I always felt too tired, plus I had plenty of time. I wasn't due until October, so when September hit I remember thinking, No worries, I've still got a whole month to get things ready.

So imagine my surprise when on September 9th, at only 36 weeks along and on a grocery shopping trip with my toddler, I started feeling some major cramping. I booked it home, threw my kid in his crib for quiet time, and tried to sleep it off myself. But when the cramping and contractions kept getting stronger through the afternoon, I finally called my husband and begged him to come home from work early. I didn't think I was in labor, but I was in enough pain that I couldn't face dinner and bedtime routine alone. Needless to say, my husband found this episode really concerning, and even though the contractions ended up subsiding later in the evening, he was worried enough that he took work off the next morning to come to my doctor's appointment with me.

At the appointment, my doctor confirmed that indeed, I had experienced some real pre-labor contractions. I was dilated to a three and nearly completely effaced. My husband asked what that meant in terms of when this baby would come, and my doctor said, "Well, she could have this baby tonight, or it could come in another three weeks." Based on my experience with my first baby, I thought we probably had some time, but I was certainly praying it wouldn't be three weeks.

We went home, and I put myself on a self-imposed bed-rest for the next few days. We put friends and family on notice, my husband desperately tried to finish up some projects at work so he could leave at a moment's notice, and we spent the weekend sorting baby clothes and pulling all our baby gear out of storage. Finally we settled in to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

The two weeks that followed were perhaps the most miserable of my life. Contractions became the constant background of my daily existence. Any sort of movement or activity (like getting off the couch to go to the bathroom) could trigger a bout of contractions or cramps. They were much stronger and more painful than the Braxton-Hicks I'd been experiencing for several months, and they would often stick around for several hours at a time before fading away. There were episodes when the contractions would become very strong and painful, and I would think This is it! I'm finally in labor!, but they never became consistent or regular, and in the end they would always fade to a dull ache. These contractions left me incredibly sore. I tried going to church the first Sunday, and even took my own pillows to sit on, but it was terrible. I hobbled out of the meeting two hours later like an old woman, I could barely walk. I didn't leave the house much after that, because I was nearly physically incapable of it. I never slept well. I couldn't sit or stand or even lie in one position for too long. I could barely take care of myself, let alone my toddler. Things were pretty desperate.

At my 38 week doctor's appointment, I had an ultrasound to measure the size of the baby. These estimates are never very accurate, but the measurements came back at 8 lb. 4 oz. My doctor was concerned that if it took much longer for me to go into labor, this baby would grow too big and we'd have a repeat situation of my first pregnancy. As I was already dilated to a 4, she offered to induce me at 39 weeks. I was surprised by the offer, because she'd told me repeatedly from the beginning that she never induced VBACs, and I didn't want to be induced again anyway, but as soon as she made the offer for an induction I felt very peaceful that this was a good direction to go. After all, I still had over a week to wait to go into real labor on my own, and I could decline the induction at any time.

And so I endured another week of physical and mental torture. By the end, I was going a little bit crazy. My body was completely exhausted from being in perpetual labor, and I was ready to be done. There's a part of me that really wants to believe that if I had just waited long enough, eventually my body would have had to go into real labor. But there's another part of me that isn't so sure. There's a strange little family pattern between my mom, my older sister, and me. Among our combined nine pregnancies, not a single baby has been delivered without the help of pitocin. In fact, I'm the only one that has actually experienced any form of natural contractions. Perhaps all these inductions speak more to the medical profession's tendency to intervene, but after a lot of prayer and consideration on my part, I couldn't help but feel that waiting to have this baby naturally would only increase my chances of needing a C-section, and this baby was ready to come sooner rather than later.

And so, on September 26th, 17 days after my first contractions started, we dropped our son off with some friends and finally made our way to the hospital. I was dilated to a 5, and fully effaced. Despite the fact that I had agreed to be induced, I still wanted to avoid an epidural at all costs. This was actually one of the things I was most nervous about, because I knew that contractions on pitocin are supposed to be way more intense than natural contractions, and I worried that I wouldn't be able to handle the pain. Here is where I need to give a shout-out to my e-friend Amy. She was the first person I'd ever heard of that had actually delivered not just one, but four babies on pitocin without an epidural. She generously sent me all of her beautiful birth stories, and I was completely inspired. I knew it was at least possible, and so I convinced myself that I could do it too.

My attending nurse tried very hard to convince me otherwise. I did not like my nurse very much at the beginning (she grew on me by the end). She gave us all these statistics about how low my chances were at having a successful VBAC and about how incredibly risky it was that I was being induced (I didn't realize it when my doctor made the offer, but pitocin increases the risk of uterine scar rupture, which is why doctors usually never induce a VBAC), and she assured us she had the operating room all prepped because it was very likely I would end up with another C-section. She told me if I didn't have the epidural, they would have to knock me out again in the case of an emergency. I was pretty upset by all of this, but bless my doctor! I had talked to her about my desire to avoid an epidural, so when she came into the room and saw me filling out the anesthesiology consent forms, she said in a surprised voice, "Oh! Are you getting an epidural?" And when I told her I wanted to hold off on making that decision, she totally backed me up and said, "Yes, well, I would like you to be feeling contractions before you decide." So, the nurse backed off and I got to put off the epidural question.

They started the pitocin drip at 1 PM, and my doctor broke my water soon after that. My nurse said she would check me again at 3 PM. I was relatively comfortable for the first hour. I enjoyed being able to move around, I got up to go to the bathroom, and I played a game with my husband on his phone. But during the second hour, things got pretty intense rather quickly. I had my husband turn on some music, rolled onto my side, and had him massage my back through each contraction. The pain quickly escalated to a level I had never experienced before, and I found myself clinging to the side of the bed, making these pathetic whimpering noises, feeling like I was going to pass out, and trying desperately NOT TO MOVE. It seems ironic now that one of the reasons I didn't want an epidural is because I wanted to be able to move around and labor in different positions, but when I was actually in the middle of it, my only goal became to move as little as possible. For some reason I felt like moving at all would kill me.

I tried really hard to remember all of the breathing and relaxation techniques I had read about and practiced, but honestly, I had a hard time focusing on anything. At the height of each contraction, the promise that the epidural could take all this pain away was honestly the most tempting thing in my life. Luckily, during the lull between contractions I was able to relax enough to tell myself that I could endure one or two more contractions without an epidural. I just had to survive through the next one.

At 3 PM, my nurse came back in to check me. She announced that I was dilated to an 8, and then she said if I wanted the epidural, it was now or never. I remember thinking Don't tempt me! I'm going to last through two more contractions, and then I'll give in and get the epidural. But at this point, I wasn't really capable of talking so I didn't actually respond to the nurse. She got really busy at this point, calling my doctor, wheeling in the delivery table, and running around like things were about to happen. I wasn't sure why she was in such a hurry, because I had convinced myself that I still had hours and hours ahead of me, so imagine my surprise when a mere fifteen minutes later I felt that uncontrollable urge to push, and finally found my voice to announce that to the room.

My doctor came in at this point with a few other support nurses, and they set about rolling me onto my back. I was NOT happy about this because it HURT SO BAD TO MOVE. I kept telling the nurse that I did not want to move to my back, and she kept telling me that I HAD to if I wanted to deliver this baby, and I remember thinking, No, I do NOT have to be on my back! I've seen Call the Midwife! But of course, I was in no condition to actually make that astoundingly logical argument, so onto my back I went.

They started coaching me through the pushing, and this is the point when I became extremely grateful that I'd held out and not gotten the epidural, because what a night and day difference between my first pregnancy! I could actually feel the baby! I could feel where I needed to push! I could feel the progress as he moved down the birth canal. I could feel myself stretching, and I could feel when I needed to push harder. The contractions became so much easier to bear because I was focused on the sensation, and it felt so productive. I was still mentally prepared for this part of the experience to take several hours (remember I pushed for 3 1/2 hours with my first before the C-section), so I tried not to get too excited when they talked about seeing the head, or told me I was doing well (I'd heard all that before, it didn't mean anything to me). But when my husband finally asked if it looked like it was going to work, or if the baby was stuck, the nurse said, "Oh, this baby is coming out vaginally, no question," I finally let myself believe this was really happening.

It took 45 minutes. Forty-five blessedly short minutes before I felt the release as the head emerged, and then the rest of the body wriggle through with that last contraction. They held up that wriggling, squirmy baby, my husband cut the umbilical cord, and they handed him up to my chest. And there he was. My perfect little baby that I had pushed into this world, snuggled in my arms.

It was absolutely one of the best moments of my life.

I had done it. I beat the odds. I labored on pitocin without an epidural. I pushed an 8 lb. 10 oz. hunk of a baby out of my body. I welcomed that baby into this world and held him to my chest and snuggled him and told him I loved him just minutes after he was born. It was a beautiful experience for me, a moment I will never forget.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

So I Had a Baby Last Week...

Just in case anyone was wondering what I've been up to recently, and why blogging basically didn't happen in September...

I had a baby.

And yes, this is the most terribly unflattering picture of both of us, but it's the only one I have on my computer right now so here it is.

The birth story is long and convoluted (actually, just the pre-birth story is, the actual labor itself was rather quick) but I'm going to regale you all with it someday soon, because who doesn't love a good a birth story, especially one with a very happy ending?

In the meantime, I'm just soaking up my snuggly newborn.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Books I Read in August

September already. According to most people, this means summer is over. Everyone's talking about back-to-school and fall wardrobes and stuff like that.

Well, in my Texas neck of the woods, where it's still 90+ sweltering degrees on the daily and no one in this house is changing routines or going back to school or anything (oh yeah, did I mention that I'm taking a leave of absence this semester? You know, with the baby coming in a month, I thought I'd give myself a break from school), it still feels like summer to me. Thus is the life of a stay-at-home-mom in Houston. Eternal summer. That may sound glorious, but when all outside activities involve gallons of sweat and man-eating mosquitoes, it's really quite miserable. Worst season ever, actually. I miss fall in Chicago like no other this time of year.

All of that intro was just to say I feel very justified in pursuing my summer reading wishlist right on in to September. I'm quite proud of the fact that even though I've only finished half of them (and the list was six books long, so maybe I shouldn't be proud at all), I've at least started all of them. That's something, right? So I will keep on reading those books no matter what the calender says about it (I mean really, there was nothing seasonally specific about my summer wishlist anyway, so it matters not at all when I actually read them).

Anyway, on to a recap of the books I read in August (where I actually did finish one of the books on that list)! I thought August was going to be a bust of a month because I started out pathetically slow on the book front (I got sick, I'm pregnant, I started potty training my two-year-old, and whatever other lame excuses I have for just being totally exhausted and unfocused all the time), but I got a little mid-month energy boost and ended up matching my June record of...

3 books!

Ugh. How on earth do I call myself a respectable book blogger? I'm still blaming everything on the pregnancy, and I hope that some time next month, when the baby is out and the hormones have settled, I'll feel somewhat normal again about my life's two greatest pleasures (that would be food first, then reading) which have both been savagely sabotaged by this pregnancy.


Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I've been hearing about Rainbow Rowell all over the place for forever now, so I finally picked this one up just to see what all the fuss was about. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good romance and a nice light YA read. But this? Not my thing so much. So yes, I will credit Rowell for quality writing, really great characters, and attention to detail. But otherwise, this book contained too much of the "realistic" stuff I don't care for in contemporary YA lit. I think there is a way to write about the real issues facing teens today without straying into trashy territory, but unfortunately, this one crossed into trash a little too much for my taste. This is not to say I won't ever read Rowell again, but it's not going to be high on my priority list.

On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep by Gary Ezzo

Yay for controversial parenting books! I did not read this one with my first baby, but heard plenty about it on various mommy-blogs, so when I saw it on the SALE shelf at my local library (more on that little gem later) for a mere 25 cents, I couldn't resist picking it up. I'm thinking about doing a whole post about the various parenting/sleep/baby books I've read and what my (humble and personal) opinion is about all this stuff, so I'll spare you my opinions now.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Several of my favorite book bloggers have written about Kate Morton before, so she's been on my to-read list for a while, and I finally got around to this one. In general, I loved it. I thought the writing was smooth and the characters were lovely, but by and far Morton's strongest point was how she structured the plot. It was fascinating, watching the mystery slowly unravel while jumping back and forth between present and past story lines. I was sure I had the whole thing figured out at one point, but then she threw in one final twist that I was not anticipating but that really satisfied everything that previously bothered me about the story. This is not necessarily a deep or profound story, a novel that will stay with me, or even one I highly recommend, but I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely seek out more Kate Morton in the future.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Awesome Title

I've been thinking about titles recently. Book titles, blog post titles, that sort of thing. Titles can be very important. Titles can make a book sound unbelievably boring, or incredibly interesting. Titles can reveal everything, or conceal everything.

I'm not very good at coming up with titles, if you couldn't tell by the very title of this post.

I've always struggled with titles because, well, they are supposed to be short and creative and encapsulate the entire essence of what you've written. But the conundrum for me has always been, if I just spent so much time writing so many words to express the essence of what I want to say, whether it be a blog post or an academic paper or a novel, how do I boil that down to a mere few words in a title? So I end up with a title that is generic, obvious, or more often incoherent (the number one comment I got back from classmates who edited my last paper was that the title didn't seem to describe the paper I had written).

The ladies over at Brilliant Business Moms recently wrote a post about how to craft a killer blog post (from which I gleaned that I write very un-killer blog posts), and here's what they had to say about titles:
Research shows that many readers do not make it past the title of your post.  Was your title too long or confusing?  Did you hook your reader by making them curious or evoking emotion?
The research says that the first 3 words and last 3 words of your title are all that your readers will see. Did you pack the most important words towards the beginning and end of your title? The beginning of your title is also more weighted for SEO, so fit your key words into the title quickly.
I realized that probably over 50% of my post titles begin with "Book Review:" Hmm, now isn't that just a thrillingly evocative hook.

However, I do think I'm a bit better at coming up with titles than novelists of the 18th Century. I recently saw this list floating around facebook of actual novel titles from the 1700s, and I must say it gave me a chuckle. My particular favorite is The Adventures Of An Ostrich Feather Of Quality, followed closely by The Adventures Of An Irish Smock, Interspersed With Whimsical Anecdotes Of A Nankeen Pair Of Breeches.

I mean, are those fantastic titles, or are they fantastic titles?

And yet, somehow, I'm not inspired to read one of the books listed.

So, maybe I'm slightly better than most 18th Century authors, but still. I think I could work on coming up with better titles, in every genre I write. It's an artform, crafting titles, and one I haven't put a lot of thought into. But this is my new writing goal (manageable because it is small). I'm going to pay more attention to titles, the ones other people write and the ones I come up with on my own. I'm going to reflect more on how titles influence the way I feel about a piece of writing. I'm going to be more purposeful in how I create titles. Hopefully this will be one small way I can improve my writing overall.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast--rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve. Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time, and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.

So I don't exactly remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember it popped up in several places all at once the same day I was filling up my holds request list at my library, so this one was on the brain and I decided to add it to the list.

I didn't necessarily think I was going to love it. Actually, I was pretty sure I was going to hate it.

You see, this book is touted as a sort of Great Gatsby wannabe, and call me crazy, but I really dislike F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know, I know, as a former English teacher that's practically blasphemous for me to admit, but it's true. I just find his portrayal of the American dream so sad and empty and depressing. I find his characters shallow and vapid and morally reprehensible. I don't relate to those people at all.

But I do recognize that Fitzgerald was a pretty incredible writer, and I do understand why The Great Gatsby is considered a classic, so I was willing to give this one a try to see if it had any redeeming value.

And the answer is... yes and no.

I'm actually quite torn over whether I really loved this book, or hated it as much as Gatsby. It's set a decade after the roaring twenties, but even after the Great Depression there is still plenty of shallow, vapid, morally reprehensible behavior exhibited in this story of climbing the social ranks of New York. And just like the Great Gatsby, I really hated most of the characters.

But the main character? Katey, or Katherine, or Kate, or whatever people happened to call her, was someone I really related to. She was smart and level-headed, and a wonderful little introvert, and she loved Dickens! How can you not love a character who reads Dickens?

The only thing I couldn't understand about Katey was why in the world she wanted to hang out with the people she did. By and large every other character in this book (excepting maybe one or two) was completely horrible. And Tinker Grey? I mean, I kind of see why she liked him at first, but I got over him real quick, and I couldn't figure out for the life me why Katey still loved him for so long. Especially in the end, when Tinker turned out to be a bigger scumbag than even I'd anticipated, the book is still so sympathetic to him and I was just like, Why? Why does anybody like him?

So there was lots of social climbing and shallow parties and people sleeping around and all that stuff I hate about The Great Gatsby (tangent: I have such a hard time comprehending how the characters in these books can drink all the alcohol described, and not walk around completely inebriated all the time. Granted, I have zero experience with alcohol consumption, but just reading about all the drinks these people consume is enough to make me feel nauseated).

But! Then there were gems like this one (I know it's an awful long quote, feel free to skip):
One night near the end, as I was sitting at [my father's] bedside trying to entertain him with an anecdote about some nincompoop with whom I worked, out of the blue he shared a reflection which seemed such a non sequitur that I attributed it to delirium. Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup coffee. Only decades later would I realize that he had been giving me a piece of advice.
            Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded: but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane—in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath—she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. What my father was trying to tell me, as he neared the conclusion of his course, was that this risk should not be treated lightly: One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasure and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.
            In retrospect, my cup of coffee has been the works of Charles Dickens. Admittedly, there’s something a little annoying about all those plucky under privileged kids and the aptly named agents of villainy. But I’ve come to realize that however blue my circumstances, if after finishing a chapter of a Dickens novel I feel a miss-my-stop-on-the-train sort of compulsion to read on, then everything is probably going to be just fine.
There were several passages like this that just made me stop and think, Wow, that was actually profound. And I loved this book for those nuggets of profound wisdom.

I think the real test of this book for me will be time. If I'm still thinking about those little nuggets months from now, if next year this book still stands out among all the others I've read, then I think I'll be able to truly recommend it and say it's one to read. But for now, I think it's still mostly a no. If you love Gatsby, go ahead and give this one a try. You'll probably enjoy it. But otherwise, don't go rushing this to the top of your to-read list.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Books I Read in July

When I started this blog, my goal was to write a review for every book I read. I mean, honestly, I rarely read more than a book a week, so how hard can that be?

But, with all my blogging, um, laziness recently, I keep falling behind on reviews. And the further and further I get away from reading some books, the more and more I realize that I don't actually care about writing a long, in-depth review for every book I've read. Of course, for the really good books, or the reads that I have a lot to say about, I still intend to do full reviews. But for the others (for now, until my blogging steam picks up again), I think I'll stick to these simpler end-of-month round-ups.

Also, I love how we're almost half-way through August and I'm only now writing about July books. I am just coming to accept the fact that this pregnancy is going to continue kicking my trash until the bitter end, and I will never be on top of my game.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor

I've enjoyed this series since the beginning. Despite a few risque moments that mean I would never actually recommend this series to a teenager, I actually think it was quite well-written. If you enjoy solid fantasy/dystopian-ish YA trilogies, this is a good one. However, I don't think this is one that will particularly stay with me. It was just nice escapist fiction to lose myself in for a while.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I read this one for my virtual book-club, and can I just say how much I LOVED it? This is quite sincerely the best middle-grade novel I think I've ever read. Yes, at times is was perhaps a bit sappy or overly sentimental, but what great middle-grade novel isn't a little heavy on sap sometimes? This one was just well written, the characters were amazingly crafted, and of course I cried through the end of it (though I AM pregnant, so I cry at everything). If you care about middle-grade fiction at all, this one is a must read.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

Okay, technically I only finished this one in July (I started it in February, or something ridiculous like that). But, I actually wrote a full review here. It was that good.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Ah, I had such a love/hate relationship with this one. So many thoughts. In fact, I think I will do a full review on this one, because my feelings are too complicated to explain in a blurb. But you'll have to wait till next week, because how could I possibly write two posts in one week?

So, four books! Yay for July being a fairly successful reading month (better than June at least). August is not looking like it will not be quite as successful, but there are still over two weeks left, so I'm not writing this month off yet.