Friday, January 30, 2015

Seven Books You Should Read

While I was reviewing my Goodreads stats for this year-in-review post, I had a fun time clicking back through some past years (2010-2013 to be exact) and reminiscing over my favorite reads from those years. And you know what? I've read some GOOD BOOKS. It kind of made me sad that I'd started this blog after reading all those books, and thus haven't had a chance to discuss them here. So then I thought, why not talk about them here? Why not share a few of my favorites from those pre-blog years? It took some hemming and hawing, and I finally whittled the list down to just seven (there could have been so many more), but here they are. Seven books I love and think you should read.

Tangent first. I kind of hate it when people ask me what my favorite book is. Every time someone asks me that, Drew Barrymore's line from Ever After comes floating through my head: "I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens." Really, I have so many favorites. And favorites in every different genre and category. Also, my love for a book fluctuates over time. Sometimes I really love a book right after I've read, but then I tend to forget about it. Other times, I don't so much care for a book when I first read it, but it stays with me in a way I couldn't predict. These books below are perhaps not my favorite books of all time, but they are books that have stayed with me in one way or another, and so I want to share them here.

1. A Severe Mercy  by Sheldon Vanaukin
    Oh, people! If you want to read a beautiful book about marriage and Christianity and the hard parts of life, THIS IS THE BOOK! Honestly, I've been trying to get my husband to read this book for years, because I want to discuss it with him so badly. It's beautiful and amazing. The fact that it's a true autobiographical story just makes it that much more powerful. Also, if you love C.S. Lewis, this is a must read (the Vanaukins meet Lewis and become friends with him, then correspond with him when they leave England, and he figures heavily in the development of their faith and relationship). I just really, really, really wish they had chosen to have children, because I would've loved to see how that would have affected their relationship, and it was super interesting for me to read what Lewis advised on that topic. Warning: the end will leave you crying with gut-wrenching ugly sobs. But it is still so, so, so good.

2. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
     I come from a family of runners. Every single one of my siblings ran track or cross-country in high school, every single one of them has run a marathon (more than once), and my husband fit right in with them when he joined the family with a marathon under his belt as well. I... do not run. In fact, I hate running with a passion. But this book! It almost quite nearly convinced me to start running. Whatever your feelings about running, if you enjoy fun, journalistic, creative non-fiction, this one is a fabulous read. Honestly, this is the book that got me interested in non-fiction as a genre. I'd really never read much non-fiction before (certainly not for pleasure), but after reading this I couldn't shut up about it and enthusiastically told everyone I knew about this book for a solid year (maybe longer). It's so much fun.

3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
     Okay, I will freely admit that this book is not for everyone, but I have to say that this book BLEW MY MIND when I read it. Maybe you've heard about or seen the movie? I read this book long before the movie came out, and I'd been pestering my husband to read it too, but it wasn't until he saw the trailer that he became super intrigued and picked up the book himself. And guess what? It BLEW HIS MIND, just like I told him it would. I haven't actually seen the movie, because I already know there is just no way possible that any film could ever do this book justice, so there's no point. No point at all. Just stick to the book. It is literary fiction, and it is weird and innovative, and I advise you to proceed with caution, but if you have even the slightest stomach for literary fiction, this is a MUST READ! This book was my gateway drug, and I've read all of David Mitchell's other books (he came out with a new one last fall that I'm dying to get my hands on). He is completely brilliant-- in my opinion the most brilliant author alive today. I don't recommend all his books (he can get graphic), but this one is just so incredibly fun and amazing and innovative, and there just aren't even enough adjectives to describe it.

4. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
     This book! Oh, this book! I've only read two of his books, but Wallace Stegner might possibly be my favorite author of the twentieth century, and this is definitely my favorite of the two. This story follows the friendship of two couples from when they meet as young newlyweds through old age and death. It is semi-autobiographical, and I don't know how much about the other central couple is true or fiction, but the relationships in this book are beautiful and complicated and deep and so REAL. This book is a fabulous look at both marriage and friendship and life, and I love it for being so relatable. Their relationships have highs and lows, but in general these are happily married, happy people, and I can't tell you how much I loved seeing that portrayed in literary fiction. I read this book a few years into my marriage when we were still at the point of trying to figure out how to make "couple friends" which is honestly so much harder than making just one-on-one friends, and the friendship between the two couples in this book made me jealous. There is so much good stuff here.

5. Quiet by Susan Cain
     Introverts, unite! (or stay safely home and away from each other in solitary happiness). I am an introvert, but for most of my life I've felt guilty about that, like it was a flaw that needed fixing. I felt like I was failing at being a good human being because I struggled to talk to strangers, was uncomfortable in large social settings, and always preferred to stay home rather than go out on the weekends. Bless Susan Cain for this incredible book, because it literally changed my self view-point. This book allowed me to stop feeling guilty about my introverted tendencies, accept them, set boundaries, and appreciate my strengths. It was also a good read to help my husband understand me better, since he is far more extroverted and one of our most frustrating ongoing arguments involves the amount of social activity in our lives (never enough for him, a little too much for me). This is a seriously good read for anyone who likes to understand human nature better. If you want the condensed version, see her amazing TED talk here.

6. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
    I'd never heard about this book before stumbling across a free copy of the audio version, but after I'd listened to it I wondered why I'd never heard about it before. This is one of those books that left a really strong emotional impact on me, but in an uplifting positive kind of way. Really, this is quite a breathtaking story, and I learned so much about South Africa (fascinating, turbulent, troubled little country) and boxing (far more than I ever wanted to know), and boys at boarding schools (terrifying). This is a great story and inspiring read.

7. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
    Okay, this one is more textbook and less pleasure read, but it is so incredibly brilliant and fascinating that I can't help recommend it to anyone who has the patience for it. This book outlines the most fascinating theory for the development of modern civilizations, and gives the best explanation for WHY some countries and societies developed to send men to the moon, while others still hunt for food with spears. It's fascinating, totally world-view changing, and really intellectually stimulating while still being enjoyable to read (no, really, it is enjoyable). Highly recommend.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reasons to Reread

I still remember sitting in my honors geography class in 9th grade, and my teacher Mr. Melessa being floored that so many of us, his bright smart honor students, reread books. "There are so many new books to read," he said. "Why would you waste time reading something you've already read?"

It's a good thing he was a geography teacher and not an English teacher.

Still, I've put a lot of thought into this question over the years. Because it's true, right now my to-read list on Goodreads has more books on it than my "read" list, which means if I focused singularly on getting through my to-read list it would take me at least five years (is that really how long I've been using Goodreads?) And of course it would actually take longer, because I add books to that to-read list almost daily, so there will never be a day when I get through them all. There will always be new ones to add.

So why would I waste my time reading something I've already read?

I'm sure everyone has a different reason for rereading a favorite book, but there are plenty of reasons. My most reread books tend to be religious or other non-fiction that I want to apply to my life. Application requires constant reminding, and so I revisit those books every now and then to inspire and rededicate myself to better living.

Sometimes I revisit books for sheer pleasure. It doesn't matter how many times I've read it before, Harry Potter never seems to get old.

And sometimes I revisit a book because I'm fascinated how every reread seems to reveal a completely new story, while still feeling like a comfortable old friend. For me, this is the case with Jane Austen.

For my virtual book club this past month, we decided to reread Pride and Prejudice. The first time I read this book (when I was in 6th grade) I was surprised at how funny it was, and I laughed my way through the whole book. When I reread it in high school I of course fawned all over Mr. Darcy and lamented how none of the boys I knew could ever possibly live up to him. When I reread it in college, I found myself super annoyed at Lizzie. What a stupid girl she was! How could she be so blind and prejudiced?

And with this most recent reread, I found myself really focusing on the various marriage relationships, especially the Bennetts and the Collinses. For a woman who was never married Austen sure understood relationships, especially the imperfect ones. This is the first time I've reread P&P  since being married myself, and so I realized all the nuances in these relationships that I'd never really picked up on before. It was a great experience to reflect on what actually makes a marriage work and, even though Lizzie and Darcy are touted as being the perfect couple, Austen makes a great case in this book for finding contentment even when your partner is less than perfect. It's really quite deep stuff.

I'm getting excited already thinking about the next Austen book I want to reread (but it probably won't happen for a while, what with school starting up again this week).

So, are you a rereader? What are your reasons for rereading? What are your favorite books to reread?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Podcasts and the Advent of Narrative Arc

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Podcast is such a weird word, isn't it?

I've listened to podcasts for years. My husband and I love NPR podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab (oh, and a new one they've just launched called Invisibilia; I've only listened to the first episode so far but it was fantastic).

My husband also really enjoys Planet Money and Stuff You Should Know, which I'm always willing to listen to with him. Podcasts are our preferred audio media on shorter car trips or doing Saturday morning chores together (we save audio books for the longer car rides).

I also follow a few bookish podcasts, like Books on the Nightstand, and a new-to-me one called Read-Aloud-Revival (it's fantastic, all about creating a really strong family culture of reading).

I tend to be only an occasional listener to all of these podcasts. When I have time to listen, I usually skim through recent titles and pick out the most interesting sounding one. I have never felt the need to listen to every episode of every podcast I follow.

Until recently.

In the past few months, I've started following a few new podcasts that I feel represent a subtle yet significant and exciting shift in the podcasting world. I noticed the shift first when I discovered StartUp, and felt it again when I binged listened to the entire season of Serial in two days.

If you haven't heard of either of those podcasts (and really, if you haven't heard of Serial, do you even use the internet?), here's the background. Both of those podcasts are produced by folks associated with This American Life, both premeired their first episodes on This American Life, and both contain highly produced content that follows a narrative arc.

And therein lies the shift that I've found so exciting. Most podcasts have a general theme (books, politics, economics, etc.) but each episode is separate and self-contained. You can pick any episode you want and jump in, listen out of order, skip the boring ones, it doesn't really matter. But both StartUp and Serial follow a narrative arc. You really need to start with episode one and listen to them in order to  "get" the flow of the story they're telling.

This is exciting for me because, as a literature nerd, I love narrative. I love story. And I love that these podcasts are telling a wider, bigger story that flows through each episode. Now, they don't necessarily have a strict traditional plot curve, with a rising tension and a climatic high point and a neat and tidy resolution (especially not Serial), but they are talking about these podcasts in terms of "Seasons," where one story carries through to an end point, and they will begin again with a new story for a new season.

This is bold new ground, and I love the innovation (although I don't always love the language; unfortunately podcasts don't have the same regulations as public radio, so there tends to be a bit more swearing).

Beyond the narrative arc, both these new podcasts are thought provoking on an ethical basis too, and for very different reasons. I don't want to reveal any spoilers for those of you who haven't tried them out yet, but both of these podcasts do some very different kind of reporting on real people, real life situations, and the response they have gotten from early podcasts actually influenced and changed content in later podcasts. It's such an interesting phenomenon, and I'm fascinated by it.

So, do you listen to podcasts? Have you listened to any of these, and what do you think of them? Any recommendations of your favorites for me? I'm always interested in finding new listening material for my hour-long commute to school.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Student Mom: Childcare

Yes, I'm a mom, and I'm going to grad school. I write on ongoing series of posts chronicling my experience as a student mom. If it interests you, find the rest of the posts here.

If you had told me ten years ago that someday I would hire a nanny to watch my kids, I would've laughed in your face.

Even if you had told me that five years ago, I still would've been skeptical.

First off, nannies were only for those super rich people, the ones who had summer houses in Europe and sent their kids to private boarding schools and that kind of thing. Sure, my husband makes a decent salary, but we are by no means wealthy (especially not with the depressing weight of student loans still hanging over our heads).

Second, I would've told you that I would never entrust the care and raising of my children to someone else. Weren't nannies for those bad moms who were too busy and too selfish to stay home with their kids?

Without doubt, childcare has been the most stressful, most gut-wrenching, and most guilt-ridden part of this whole experience of going back to grad school. There were so many days during my first semester, when my kid was sick or when the planned babysitter fell through last minute, when I thought to myself, "Oh yeah, this is why young mothers don't do grad school."

For my first semester last year, we used a network of friends and family for babysitting. I have a good friend who lives in our same apartment complex that took my kid two afternoons a week, and then I would drop him off at my sister-in-law's house for my evening class another day. It was stressful to manage the pick-up and drop-off, but I was happy knowing these were friends and family my son was comfortable with and who would care for him like their own children (plus, we couldn't beat the price of the friends and family discount :).

But my sister-in-law moved out of state over the summer, and then we had a baby, and we didn't want to drop two kids on our friends for the 15+ hours of childcare needed each week (easy way to destroy a friendship). So we started looking at other options, the most appealing of which was hiring a nanny.

I won't bore you with the details of our search, the prayers and the fretting and the late-night anxiety I went through thinking about bringing a perfect stranger into my home to take care of the two most precious people in the world to me, especially when we can't afford to pay a lot. I will only tell you the happy ending, because last week I interviewed and hired the perfect nanny. Except for the part where we don't speak the same language (why or why did I minor in French instead of Spanish?), this is the most perfect situation I ever could have dared hope for, and I feel so grateful and blessed that things were able to work out this way.

So next week, I will return to school full time (three days a week, five hours a day), and my boys will be looked after by a nanny.

Now that the stress of finding a nanny has subsided, I've had time to fully reflect about the position I find myself in. I have a nanny. I am voluntarily leaving my children every week. I am paying someone else money we can barely afford so that I can go to school and study literature.

Some days, I really feel like this is all a terrible idea. We are throwing so much money at this thing, this dream of mine to get a master's degree. Money that should be going to get us out of debt or saving for a house. And then I am leaving my children. Leaving them with someone else who will get the afternoon snacks ready and change the diapers and put the baby down for naps and make decisions about how many TV shows to watch. I'm giving up control over those decisions for fifteen hours every week. Why? Why? Why?

The only answer I can give is because for me, for us, this is the right thing to do at the right time. I can't give any more logical explanation, but trust me, I pray about it over and over and every time, I just know it is right. It is okay. I don't know why yet, but some day I will look back and understand.

After meeting with my nanny, I even wondered if I was going to school now just so we could give her a job. She has been out of work for a while, and even though we aren't paying her much, something is more than nothing. While we had been praying to find a good nanny, she had been praying to find work, and here we are answering each other's prayers.

This whole experience is helping to dislodge some perceptions I used to hold about motherhood and childcare -- perceptions that I think would have held me back if I hadn't been pushed so hard to do this. Here's what I'm learning:

  • It takes a village to raise a child. One mother can't do it alone, and it's not shameful to ask others to step in and help with childcare.
  • My children will still turn out just fine if I am not around for every second of their lives. I haven't given up my responsibilities for their well-fare, education, and development just because I leave them for a few hours every week.
  • I like my children more when I get a regular break from them. I have more patience, I am more kind, and I am a better mother when I get back from school.
  • I can still be a good mom and be a good grad student.

Sometimes I feel like there is a lot of judgment, especially in the Mormon community, for mothers who work or go to school, especially when they don't have to. And somehow I sort of absorbed the perception that moms who worked weren't as focused or devoted to their families. It's certainly never been spoken or said to me, but I always feel like I have to defend myself when I tell people I'm going to grad school, and prove that I'm not selfish or not dedicated to motherhood.

Because what I've learned the most from this experience is that first and foremost, I'm still a mom. I still do everything I did before as a mother, only now I squeeze homework in at night and on the weekends. And I let a nanny watch them for the few hours I have to be away. Honestly, sometimes I wondered why my classmates would complain about being stressed and busy when school was all they did. Motherhood was what I did, and school was what I did on the side.

Anyway, this has been a long and rambly post, of interest to possibly no one but myself. All I'm trying to say is that if there is any other mother out there considering school, don't let guilt stop you from outsourcing childcare (money may stop you, but it shouldn't be guilt). You don't stop being a mom just because someone else is keeping your kids alive for a few hours.

And, holy cow! I have a nanny!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goals for 2015

I hinted at it in my last post, but 2014 was a bit of a rough year for me.

I don't want to overstate my challenges, because by and large we were very blessed last year, but I spent most of the year feeling sick, exhausted, and depressed. I had a very difficult pregnancy that not only wiped me out physically, but seriously messed with my hormones and emotions, extinguishing any joy or passion I felt for life.

Thankfully postpartum brought a return to balanced emotions (yay! I want to live again!), but it also brought a new array of physical challenges. Between the nursing and the typical sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn, my immune system was pretty much shot to pieces. Not only have I been on three separate courses of antibiotics since October for various infections, I've had a perpetual cold for the past three months that I CANNOT seem to kick.

Like I said, these challenges are minimal compared to others, and I don't mean to complain, but the fact that the last time I felt 100% healthy and energetic was January a year ago, I've been thinking a lot lately about 2015 and how I'm ready for a change.

I'm ready for a return to health, happiness, and good humor, and I'm hoping my goals this year will facilitate that. This year I'm sharing more than just my book goals here, because when I post something on the blog I feel more accountable to it than if I just write it in my journal.

I've broken my ten goals down into three categories.

Physical Goals

1. Eat Healthier and Cut Sugar Overall, I feel like my diet is fairly healthy, but I have noticed over the past few months that I might just have an addiction to sugar. Because I'm still nursing, I don't want to make any super drastic changes to my diet, and I certainly don't have any weight-loss goals, but cutting back on my sugar intake will probably hurt no one. Also, I want to focus on eating more immune boosting foods (I need to do some research into that).

2. Get Enough Sleep My goal is a strict bedtime of 10:30 this year. Right now my three-month old is giving me a very regular nine hours at night from 10:30 to 7:30, so as long as he doesn't regress I should be able to stick to this one. I'm always tempted to use late evening hours when both babies are asleep to catch up on personal projects, but I am also always a happier person when I get enough sleep. So for now I just need to accept that my baby's bedtime is my bedtime, even if that means giving up any personal time in the evenings (and hopefully someday my baby will go to bed earlier than 10:30).

3. Research and Invest in Essential Oils I don't really like using a lot of over-the-counter medication, but with how many times I've been sick these past few months I've found myself wandering the pharmaceutical aisles with disturbing frequency looking for anything to bring me relief. I've heard lots of people rave about the benefits of essential oils, but I've always balked at the prices. However, now might be the time to embrace my crunchier side and dive in.

Passion Goals

4. Read 25 Books For Pleasure  Yep, my pleasure reading goal is simply to match what I read in 2014. I consider this a low bar, but I will be in school again this year full time, so it still might be a stretch for me. I plan to meet this goal by listening to audio books during my commute to and from school.

5. Schedule a Regular Time to Write for Pleasure One of the things I didn't do much of this year was recreational writing (and for me that includes writing here). This is sad because I really enjoy writing. I want to carve out a regular block of time each week to write for pleasure, whether it be blog posts here, or work on other writing projects I have kicking around in my brain right now. I haven't decided when this set time will be since Baby doesn't have a set nap schedule yet, but I'll find time if I make it a priority.

6. Redecorate My House This one deserves it's own post, because there's lots of backstory and philosophical musings and far too many thoughts about trivial things going on behind this goal. But to make a long story short, due to some recent developments it appears we might be staying in our little apartment a year longer than we thought (we had anticipated moving this summer, but life happens), and I need our space to be more beautiful. I don't have much time to dedicate to this goal, but I'm in the middle of two unfinished DIY projects, and I have lots of other projects in mind, so I want to make things happen now.

Spiritual Goals

7. Early Morning Scripture Study I used to have a very regular morning scripture study routine, but motherhood disrupted my life in every way and I've spent the last three years trying to find the person I was before. It's time for this routine to make it's way back into my life. This one is truly going to be a wrench for me because sleep is precious, but if I can actually make it to bed by 10:30 every night, then I should be able to wake up at 6:30 and get a good half hour of study in before everybody else wakes up.

8. Declutter Maybe this doesn't sound like a spiritual goal, but for me, it certainly is. I'm not happy when things are messy. Like I mentioned above, we have a small apartment and it often feels cramped and cluttered. I think it's time to get rid of stuff, reorganize, and reinstate the old cleaning schedule I used to follow.

9. Develop and Stick to a Budget Does this one not sound like a spiritual goal either? To me, being able to wisely manage money is absolutely a spiritual endeavor, one that requires self-discipline and a careful consideration of values. I've been analyzing our spending for the past year, and I really want to sit down and develop a stronger budget for this new year that will help us get to a healthier place with our spending and saving.

10. Solidify Family Routine  What I mean by this is I want to focus this year on having really consistent family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, family traditions (game night, chore chart, etc.) and date-night. Since my husband works long hours, I am the driving force in making sure all of these activities happen, and I hate to admit that we've been less than consistent this past year. So my goal is to buckle down and get our family into a really good spiritual routine.

And those are my 10 goals for the year 2015. I know I need to make more specific plans for fulfilling most of these goals, but right now I feel like this is a good list that will stretch me but also be very manageable if I'm disciplined. Also, I feel like most of these goals are pretty necessary to get my life back to a happy place. I intend to report back here at least once mid-year (if not more frequently) to report on how my efforts are coming.

Have you made any resolutions for the New Year (I'd love to hear about them!)? Do you think my list of goals is too ambitious? Any tips or advice?