Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman


When Harper Lee's new novel Go Set a Watchman was released on July 14th, I looked at it longingly on the display at the grocery store.

I keep myself to a pretty strict book-buying policy: I don't buy any books unless I've already read them, know I love them, and know they are worth owning (and worth re-reading). Usually this policy works really well for me. My bank account appreciates it, my bookshelves appreciate it, and my library gets very faithful patronage from me. But every now and then, like when a popular new release comes out, I reconsider this policy. Nothing has tempted me so badly as Go Set a Watchman to break tradition and buy a book I hadn't read. I was #107 on the wait list at my library. I suspected I would like it. And I wanted to be cool like everybody else and read it NOW.

However, I exercised restraint, told myself to wait it out, and lo and behold, my library came through for me! I don't know if a bunch of people dropped their holds after hearing the spoilers, or if my library system decided to invest in a few more copies, but I got the email notifying me the book was in just a month after the release date. Then I devoured the book in two days.

So, am I glad I waited?

In all honesty, I would not have considered it a waste of money had I purchased this book. And while I don't *love* it enough to go out and buy it right now, should I ever happen across a copy I would be more than pleased to find a home for it on my shelves.

In other words, I completely recommend this book. Like I said, you don't need to buy it, but it is very, very well worth the reading experience.

I know there have been a ton of mixed reviews, and a lot of people saying they didn't like it, or don't want to read it at all because of the spoilers about Atticus' fall from grace. Look, I know plenty has already been written about this book elsewhere, but let me throw my two cents in the ring and see if I can convince you to pick up the book yourself (assuming you haven't already).

First off, the caveats. This is an unedited manuscript, and that shows through. It was not as polished as most published books, and certainly not as polished as To Kill A Mokingbird. There were awkward transitions and areas of excess where I'm sure a skilled editor would have encouraged cuts and revisions. It wasn't perfect.

That being said, it was still very powerful. The saddest part about reading this book was realizing that while some of the specific issues are no longer current (thankfully no one is spouting trash about the genetic inferiority of black people these days), most of the big ideas and problems these characters grappled with are still being fought out today. It almost felt like the Civil Rights movement happened, yet here we are sixty years later and these same problems are just as relevant. That was depressing to realize.

But I must say that I loved the way Harper Lee grappled with these issues of race, and other problems like losing your child-like faith in the goodness of other human beings (especially your father), in such a beautifully raw, powerful, and unique way. I would love to read this book again just to think through the way she presented certain ideas, and then turned them upside down.

For instance (*spoilers ahead* read at your own risk), Scout clearly seems to hold the moral high ground with her staunch position in favor of race equality, but in the very last scene her uncle calls her a bigot, because she is intolerant of the views her father holds. She doesn't want her father, or anyone, to hold those beliefs, so in a way, that does make her intolerant. Atticus is actually set up as the more tolerant figure because he allows all people to express their opinions without judgment, even opinions he may or may not personally agree with. I thought that was a super interesting turn, and really made me question and think about what tolerance is. Tolerance is always touted as a virtue, but is it truly a virtue to tolerate the immoral positions and speech of others? Harper Lee would seem to be saying so.

There were many more complex issues like this that Lee addressed, and that deserve closer consideration and unpacking. There were layers to all her arguments, and I actually liked how she tried to be sympathetic to all sides. I'd like to think that if I had lived in the South during this era, I would've been a Scout, with the strong conviction in the equality of all people, but after reading this book, I realized that so often we are steeped in a cultural tradition and history where we grasp at justifications, and can't see our own faults. I probably would've been one of the silly girls at the party, spouting the language of the men around me. Scout asks herself over and over again how she grew up in such a place and completely missed out on the message everyone else seemed so indoctrinated with, and that is a question I assume Lee asked herself. Through the uncle and the speech of Atticus, Lee outlined the history and position and of the Southern White Man, the tradition he came out of, and the convoluted justification for segregation. While Lee still firmly condemned this position, she also allowed room for compassion, and I was fascinated by that sympathy.

Let's get to the elephant in the room. Yes, Atticus turns out to be a racist segregationist. This is heart-breaking for both Scout and the reader. Some of his language is truly shocking and disappointing. I can see how this would ruin the reading experience for some, especially those who really love the TKAM Atticus. I know some people choose to read these as two completely separate novels, where one story doesn't have to touch the other story, and that's fine. There are enough differences that you can think of the two Atticuses as completely separate people and it would work.

However, I personally found that this turn made Atticus a more real and believable character. Yes, it knocked him off the pedestal, yes it was devastating, but it was also humanizing. It's hard to explain, but it made him harder to love and easier to love at the same time. It was complex, but I found it to be a net positive complex, not a net negative. It didn't ruin it for me.

I do not guarantee that everyone will love this book, but I do think the ideas and the issues are explored in a complex and nuanced way, and I think it is worth reading about them just to consider them. Besides the complexity, there are also many moments of fun and humor. There are flashbacks to different parts of Scout's childhood (she is called Jean Louise in the book, but I have a hard time thinking of her as anything but Scout), and those vignettes are hilarious and memorable (and very likely the reason Lee's editor suggested she rewrite the book from the point of view of that childhood Scout). Scout herself is still one of the best female protagonists in print today. She is fiery and fantastic. There is much to love in this book.

It may not be the best or most polished book I've ever read, but I think this one will stay with me for a while. I also think I will want to revisit it at some point and think through these ideas again. It is well worth the read. I recommend 100%.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

So Long, Summer!



Today (Tuesday, the 25th, for those of you who won't read this until later) was my first day back to school. (Technically, yesterday was the first day of school, but I don't have Monday classes, so today it was). This is also the first time in six years that I'm actually going back to school at the start of the August/September school year calendar (because of my admissions schedule, and then taking a leave last fall to have a baby, my first two semesters of grad school both started in January). It feels rather exciting, and so right, like this is the rhythm life is supposed to have, and I've been missing it these past few years. It feels nice to have this formal end to summer.

I'm learning this about myself as I grow older. I LOVE routine, but I also NEED change. I need routine change, like the seasons, coming and going every year, constant but ever changing. I love summer, but I love this formal end to summer, this mark that one season has ended and a new one is beginning. It's a time for me to look back and look forward.

On that note, I just want to take a minute to reflect on my pretty spectacular summer. It was the best summer I've had in a long time, because I wasn't pregnant and we didn't move across the country (it's been one or the other for the past five years), and I had time to work on projects, cross off goals, read a lot of books, do a little travel, and basically enjoy a nice, slow pace of life.

Favorite Summer Reading

This was a banner summer reading-wise for me. I read 18 books for pleasure since school ended in May, and most of them were SO GOOD! It's hard to narrow down, but here were my top five summer reads:

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John - I read this one too quickly, I really want to go back someday and read it again slowly and really savor it. Also, I want to do some more thinking about the use of the two Shakespeare plays in this book, and how they work in the setting. Good story-telling, good writing, good book.

2. The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber - I really want to read this one with a book club so I can discuss it with other people. I still think about it all the time.

3. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger - Just really beautiful.

4. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee - My library came through for me! This book came in just over a month after it's release date! I was pretty shocked and pleased. I think I'll write more about this later, because, complex feelings. But it still made the favorites list.

5. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - There were lots of contenders for this fifth spot, because on a purely entertainment/enjoyment level there was some good competition from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Ready Player One. But, if you can't tell, this summer was kind of all about the contemporary literary fiction for me. And I've got to be true to my main man, David Mitchell.

Summer Projects

I wrote out a huge to-do list at the beginning of the summer, most of them having to do with home decor and organization (remember this wreath? That was project Number 1). I'm happy to say that with the exception of one item, which due to stupid shipping problems won't be happening until this weekend, I was able to cross every project off my list. I've definitely got a post coming up about all these little projects because I know you're dying to see the Big Reveal. Except, it's more like the Little Reveal, because they really were just little things. But little things that, now they are done, make me so happy.

A Little Travel

The best beach trip ever!


A trip to Utah!


And that was it, because traveling with a baby is EXHAUSTING, and his sleep schedule still hasn't recovered from that last trip (5:45 AM every morning! For over three weeks now! Shoot me.)

Some Quality Down Time

There was lots of swimming, weekly trips to the library, summer pre-school, a few play dates here and there, but mostly there was just a lot of good ole quality hanging around the house (because it really is too hot and humid to leave the air conditioning). I can tell that at some point in the future (like, next summer) we are probably going to need more structured activities in our week to keep the cabin fever at bay (we got close a few days here at the end of driving each other to the point of insanity), but with a baby who still takes three (!) naps a day (they are short, frustrating, 45 minute things, but he's not a car sleeper so they must happen in a crib or they won't happen at all), it was lovely to just be home. (Can you tell I'm an introvert, in that I loved my summer because I got to stay home all day most days?)

Also, my experiment with Awesome Mom Time has turned out to be hugely successful. It really made my long summer days home with the kids flow better in every way. I haven't figured out yet how I'm going to incorporate it into our school year schedule, but I'll probably do a follow up post with thoughts about it at some point.

Guys, it was a great summer.

How was your summer, reading-wise or other-wise? Do you enjoy the change of seasons, especially with formal markers like back to school, or do you wish summer would never end?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review X2: Books on Time Managment



So, you know I've been thinking a lot about time management lately, what with my time diary experiment and all. Part of the reason I've become so interested in the topic is because I started following author Laura Vanderkam's blog earlier this year, and I find some of her ideas intriguing, so I thought I probably ought to read one or two of her books. Both I Know How She Does It and 168 Hours came in from my library holds within a week of each other, so I read them back to back, which was a bit of a time management overdose. But, SO. MANY. THOUGHTS.

For a bit of background: I Know How She Does It (stupid title, don't you think? I get what it's supposed to be doing, but I still think it's stupid) takes a look at the time management strategies of moms who work in high powered careers, and 168 Hours takes a more general look at time management, and how we all should be spending our time. There were things I loved, and things I hated, and I feel like I just need to write out my thoughts here to sort through them. So bear with me. Here we go.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE

After reading both of these books, I would describe Laura Vanderkam as the Marie Kondo of time management, in that she makes the argument that if what you do with your time doesn't bring you joy, then you shouldn't be doing it. As much as I think this approach works for ownership of stuff, I think it's a bit fuzzier when applied to how you spend your time. Her advice was much along the lines of: You hate doing laundry? Outsource it! You hate your job? Get a new one! Which is all fine and well and I'm sure works for some people of a certain socio-economic status. But most real people just don't have the luxury of paying a cleaning service, or hiring a personal chef, or simply building a dream career out of thin air. So that kind of bothered me.

It helped to realize who Vanderkam's target audience is: well-educated, ambitious people with busy, affluent careers, preferably in dual-income homes. This is explicitly stated in How She Does It. 168 Hours is supposed to have a broader appeal, but if you view this books as intended for general audiences, Vanderkam comes across as wildly out of touch with reality. If you realize she is writing for a privileged upper class (and doesn't really seem to acknowledge that other classes exist and have time management issues), then her suggestions make more sense.

I am not really a part of that target audience, which is why I think I had so many issues with her suggestions, but was also so partially intrigued by this foreign, privileged view of life and time. While I like to think of myself as a well-educated, busy person, my background and upbringing is solidly middle-class. Possibly even lower-middle class (my parent's incomes fluctuated widely at times). Both of my parents worked, but they never made use of the luxuries of a cleaning service, lawn service, or even child-care. The idea was sort of unthinkable. The message growing up was clearly never pay someone to do what you can do yourself, and also that there is something character building about taking care of your own home, and teaching your children to work through chores and that kind of thing. So I did NOT fully buy into the argument about outsourcing all the work you don't want to do. (That being said, how nice would it be to pay someone else to scrub my toilets? I'm not going to lie that it sorely tempts me. But then, I want my kids to have chores and do that kind of thing, and how will they learn if they just see Mommy paying someone else to do it? I have conflicted feelings.)

Also, in How She Does It I was a little bit... annoyed by her definition of "Having It All." For women, she defined this as having at least 1 child, and earning more than $100,000 annually (personal income, not husband's or combined income). I thought that $100,000 figure was a bit arbitrary, but that aside, she didn't include anything else in her definition like quality of life, quality of familial relationships, job satisfaction, or general happiness level. I'm sorry, but if you work in a grinding job you hate, have one kid, and are completely miserable, I do not think that qualifies as "Having It All." At the same time, my own personal career earning potential is well below that $100,000 mark. Does that mean that, should I ever develop a career, I can never "Have It All"? Once again, annoyed by that socio-economic status assumption underlying Vanderkam's ideas.

Moving on.

The big message of How She Does It is to show how women with these demanding careers actually balance work and family time, and one of the things she kept saying over and over was that when they actually recorded their time in time diaries, these women were surprised at how much time they were spending with their children each week, and that once they looked at the numbers, many of them felt like they were spending "enough" time. This is where I had questions.

I'm very glad these women felt like they were able to spend "enough" time with their children, but what I always wanted Vanderkam to address was whether the children or the spouses felt like it was enough time. Perhaps this is a harder variable to measure and quantify (how do you ask a toddler if he feels like he got enough time with his mom?), but it's the anecdotes in the culture around me that raise this question.

For instance, there is the story of the female partner at my husband's law firm whose kids put an "RIP Mom" tombstone in their yard every Halloween, the joke being that they never see their mom so she might as well be dead. Then there's the friend in my church congregation whose mother had a busy and flourishing career, but who purposely chose to become a stay-at-home-mom herself because she wanted her own children to know they were more important to her than any job (the implication being she did not get that message from her own mother). And then there's the couple we know who changed their wedding date to make sure the nanny who raised the bride could be at the ceremony, as her relationship with the nanny was more important than the relationship with her parents. Did these respective mothers feel like they spent "enough" time with their kids? Because the kids sure didn't.

Now, I only have anecdotal evidence, and I'm sure there are more people I know who had power working mothers and felt like they got plenty of quality time with these mothers (we only focus on the outlier bad stories). Also, I'm pretty sure Vanderkam would argue these specific mothers in the stories above weren't managing their time well or taking advantage of strategies like the split shift. Sure, whatever. This question of relationship health is still one I would like investigated and explored more thoroughly. A relationship is two sided, and just saying that the women themselves felt they were spending enough time with their families doesn't mean all the family members would concur (my love language is quality time, and since I have a husband in one of these demanding careers, this is an issue that is sensitive to me).

Also, Vanderkam seemed rather dismissive of the idea that different personalities might view time and values differently. Her advice to busy working moms on home-life, beyond outsourcing all domestic responsibilities, was to lower your expectations, live amidst the clutter, eat quick processed meals, etc. Maybe that works for Vanderkam, but those kind of lowered living standards would be EXACTLY what would make me feel like my life was crazy (No time to pick up the clutter! No time to make healthy meals!). So many of these suggestions and strategies will work only if you have a specific personality (Vanderkam's personality). Vanderkam might say that I am just buying into specific cultural narratives that tie women down, but actually, there are a lot of people (male and female) who work and live with more peace when the house is uncluttered, and I am one of those people. I need a certain level of control over these areas before I can even BEGIN to focus or enjoy any other type of work. Anyway, just another "strategy" that wasn't for me.

WHAT I LIKED

Okay, I know I just dropped a bunch of criticism on these books, but I actually found many of her big picture ideas to be fascinating and productive.

Her overall, big argument is that as long as you prioritize your activities, you have enough time for everything you really want to do. She talks about how time is more fluid than we think, and that if we were more aware of how we actually used our time, we could find the time to do everything we really want to do. I believe this absolutely and completely. Being a full-time mom and full-time grad student has taught me this. I may not have as much concentrated, uninterrupted time as I want, but I do have time for everything I want to do.

I felt like the biggest takeaway for me, especially from How She Does It, was just mentally being present in the time you are doing something, instead of always thinking about something else. It won't feel like you have as many hours with your kids if you spend those hours thinking about work. It won't feel like you ever sleep if you tell yourself you're not getting enough sleep. Time management is more a mental game than anything else. It's about telling yourself you have enough time, being present in the moment so you feel like you were engaged during that time, and allowing yourself to spend time on things you want and not feel guilty because YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF YOUR TIME.

She talks about how we are stewards of our time, and our lives will be so much the better if we take control (rather than feeling constantly like our time is at the mercy of other people, therefore out of our control). She talks about time as the only tool we have to do the things we want to do in this life, so we should use it mindfully and purposely. I agree completely with all of these ideas.

I really love the idea of the core competencies that she talked about in 168 Hours, how you figure out what you are good at, what you enjoy, pick your priorities and your core competencies, and focus on spending your time there, not mindlessly wasting it on TV or web surfing.

Also, I really do appreciate what she is trying to do for working moms. Like I said, I had a working mother (not one who made $100,000+, but a working one nonetheless), and at some point in my life I might be a working mother too (being a student mom doesn't seem to count as being a working mom, even though it is a very similar set-up), and I really appreciate the hard evidence Vanderkam offered that just because women work, it doesn't mean they don't have many, many hours to devote to both personal and family life. I found this narrative encouraging, even if I still have reservations.

So, do I recommend these books? Despite all my issues, yes, I recommend them. I don't think you need to read both books (there's a lot of material that overlaps), and since 168 Hours is for a more general audience that's probably the one I'd recommend. Unless you actually are a working mom in a high-power career (Adrienne, I'm thinking of you), and then I would probably recommend How She Does It. Vanderkam is upper-class privileged and her strategies will not apply to everyone, but her big picture ideas are still very compelling.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where I Get My Book Recommendations



There are a few people in my life (my mom, mostly), who always ask me, "How do you find all those books on your to-read list? Where do you hear about these books?"

My question is, how do you go through life and not hear about books? But I guess not everyone has a to-read list with 307 current entries on it.

In case anyone who actually reads this blog struggles with the problem of not knowing what to read next (doubtful, I work from the assumption that all my readers are intelligent, bookish people with their own lengthy to-read lists), below I've listed some of my favorite resources for where I glean my book recommendations.

Friends and Family

Let's start with the obvious. We all get book recommendations from our friends and family. No one knows you better than these people, and hopefully they are mostly a collection of people you love and admire, so why wouldn't you want to read the books they love? I love it the most when someone is excited enough about a book they're reading that they can't wait to tell me about it, but if you're in a reading slump, feel free to speak up and ask first. There's no better conversation starter than, "Have you read any good books lately?" Just don't forget to write those recommendations down, which brings me to the next resource, where I keep my online to-read list:

Goodreads.com

There is much to love (and a little to hate) about this online mishmash of books and social media. I get tons of my book recs from the people I've friended or follow on Goodreads. I've friended or follow a range of people I'm not necessarily close to in real life (a few old college professors, other book bloggers, women from old book clubs), but who review all their books religiously. I love perusing their reviews weekly and adding their favorites to my to-read list. This is less a chance for me to stay connected and more an opportunity to voyeuristically stalk their reading lives. There are a few bookish friends I have in real life who I wish would use Goodreads to track their books just so I could see what they read in between our conversations. If you are interested in building a solid to-read list, I recommend using Goodreads and curating a good selection of bookish friends or following heavy reviewers on there.

But beyond the social media aspect of getting recs from friends who use the site, Goodreads also offers a book recommendation application, where they use books you've read to recommend books their algorithm predicts you'll enjoy. It's far from a perfect service (they've recommended a bunch of books based on my "Did-Not-Finish" shelf, and I want to tell them, yeah, I didn't finish those books for a reason), but it's fun to peruse the recs occasionally. Apparently there are a few websites that provide this type of book-recommending-based-on-an-algorithm service, but word on the street is that Goodreads is the best. (Forever and always).

A further note on Goodreads, I always vet any book recommendation I get, regardless of the source, by checking the ratings and top listed reviews of that book on Goodreads. If it's a book I've never heard of before, but I see that 10,000 people on top of my mom have given it 4+ rating, I'm more likely to add it to my to-read list. That being said, sometimes really stupid books have high ratings, and sometimes really good books have low ratings. You shouldn't always trust the crowd mentality.

Book Blogs and Websites

Beyond Goodreads, there is a vast and endless bookish internet where you can glean tons of book recommendations. But I know from hours of personal experience how hard it can be to navigate the seemingly infinite number of book blogs out there. It can take some serious surfing time to find and filter book blogs that share similar tastes with you and will therefore lead to excellent recommendations. I once accidentally started following a book blog that was completely devoted to Janet Oke books, and while I have nothing against Janet Oke, I did not want to be following that blog. I've also discovered that I don't enjoy blogs that are completely devoted to reviewing arcs, or too devoted to one genre. To help others navigate and avoid the travesty of wasting any time on a Janet Oke book blog, below I've listed five of my own recent favorite bookish blogs where I glean the majority of my recommendations.

1. Modern Mrs. Darcy - I wouldn't say my tastes exactly overlap with Anne Bogel's, the woman behind Modern Mrs. Darcy, but my goodness this woman reads an astonishing number of books, has an uncanny knack for personal recommendations, and has the kind of reputation for taste that I would call Kathleen Kelly-esque (if she likes it, it sells, period). Also, the summer reading guide that she puts out every year is pretty phenomenal.

2. River City Reading - Shannon happens to be both a teacher and voracious reader, a combination I find highly trustworthy. Pretty much every book she reads ends up on my to-read list. She is on top of the contemporary adult fiction and non-fiction markets, actually follows publishing houses, and knows the latest and greatest in bookish news. She also introduced me to this fabulous phenomenon known as the Tournament of Books, a March Madness bracket-type competition for literary fiction releases of the previous year. I've found the archives of this Tournament to be a great resource for book recs in the contemporary and literary fiction genres (the judges' comments are fabulous for vetting books), and I'm very much looking forward to following the Tournament next spring.

3. Books Speak Volumes - Leah Mosher also has very similar reading tastes as me, and she has absolutely convinced me that I have to read Haruki Murakami as soon as possible. She does weekly as well as monthly reading updates, and is also pretty savvy in the contemporary literary fiction markets, but with a good mix of classics as well. I love her reviews.

4. Shaina Reads - Shaina's reading list is pretty similar to the previous two blogs, but I enjoy her fun writing style and take on bookish things. However, she only read her first Austen novel this month! I find that a bit hard to believe, but at least she liked it.

5. Sunlit Pages - Amy is the only person on this list that I actually know and definitely consider a friend (we met through our blogs, were virtual friends for a couple of years, and then finally met in real life just last month on my trip to Utah! And she's definitely just as lovely in real life as she is on her blog). Amy and I have very similar tastes (except for her unfortunate aversion to sci-fi/fantasy). I love her reviews for non-fiction, contemporary fiction, classics, and especially children's literature. She has four boys she reads to regularly, and when my boys are old enough I will probably just copy and paste her read-aloud list when deciding what books to read to them. She also recently posted her own list of book-blog recommendations (which I was honored to be a part of), and I can already tell some of those blogs are going to become new favorites of mine (check it out).

Now, this is not a comprehensive list of all the book blogs I follow, but these are the blogs where recently I've been getting most of my recommendations. If you'll notice, most of them tend to be heavy on the contemporary literary fiction, because this is a genre where I feel like I need advice. I follow many other blogs for children's literature, picture books, YA books, and other genres, but the ones above are where I get most of my recs for my personal to-read list.

I will also say that there are tons of other sources on the internet for finding book recommendations. There are magazine-type websites (Book Riot is a favorite), YouTube book review channels, book podcasts, Instagram accounts (called Bookstagrams), not to mention more traditional sources like the New York Times bestseller lists or other news source lists. However, I've only dabbled with most of these resources. I like to stick closer to home, people I know (or at least feel like I know through their blogs) and trust. In general, the places listed above are where I get my book recs.

Where do you get your book recommendations? Any blogs/websites/other sources I should know about?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Life Goal: Take Great Pictures


 I am a mediocre photographer at best. Amateur would be the word. Up until this summer, my photography training consisted of, like most people, taking tons of poor quality, boring pictures with your average cheap point and shoots.

But I've always felt an interest in photography and had the desire to be a little better than average, so last summer when we found a Nikon DSLR 3200 for a decent deal, I convinced my husband to get it for my birthday.

Hoo boy, was a DSLR out of my depth. So many buttons! So many settings! I dutifully tried reading the manual, but I can't imagine many worse ways for someone to pick up an artform, even one as technical as photography.

So, after nearly eight months of using our super fancy DSLR as basically a glorified point and shoot, I decided enough is enough. I was going to learn how to use that dang camera well or die trying. I bit the bullet, and bought an online photography course.

That was pretty much the best decision of my life.

I've spent this whole summer slowly (very slowly) working my way through the course, and practicing whenever I can.




My husband took this last set (we're learning together). Super fun to play around with light and shutter speed.

My goal is not to become a professional photographer or launch a photography business or anything like that. I just really want to be able to take nice pictures of my kids. I want my pictures of them to be as beautiful as the moments are in real life.

Playing with water buckets on the back deck.


Drool face.

Ragamuffin just-ate-a-cookie face. (Also, I love how both boys are making nearly the exact same face in these last two pictures. They are so brothers).

I'm not even close to where I want to be yet on this skill, but the fact that I can now look back on these pictures and say, "That's over exposed there" or "Should've framed this one better" shows just how far I've come this summer.

For me, photography was always one of those things I would have liked to do "if I just had the time." But the big thing I've learned this year is that, even with kids and grad school, I still have time. I have time for all the things I want to do and learn. It's been slow, and I think it will be a long time yet before I'm where I want to be here, but I've still been able to find the time because I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer. I just needed to do what it takes, buy the online course, watch the videos, and make time to practice.

It's a goal from my life bucket list that I'm actually working on, and it feels so satisfying. Next goal: learn how to use Photoshop (cue horror music, this goal actually scares me).

Have you found time for any similar life goals or projects? What gave you the motivation to finally tackle it? 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Does it Count as "Reading" if You're "Listening"?


My lovely sister-in-law Ashley posed this question on an earlier post, and since I have lots and lots of love for audio books, I thought today might be a good idea to discuss this question a bit more in depth.

Does it count as "reading" if you're "listening"?

Short answer: Absolutely positively.

Long answer: I suppose we could wax philosophical here about what exactly "reading" is. Is it an experience? A series of neurological transactions that take place according to certain stimuli? What role does the visual or aural senses have to play in this definition?

Okay, I'm not going to get too deep into the philosophical or even scientific question of what "reading" is. I'll keep it simple here. For me, reading is simply about comprehension of information. Granted, the vast about of information we "comprehend" comes in the form of visual cues, whether it be words on a page or emotions on a face, but comprehension can occur aurally too. So to answer the question of whether or not "listening" counts as "reading," I'd say it depends on comprehension level, and there are three big factors that can influence aural comprehension: your learning style, the book in question, and the context in which you are listening.

Learning Style
Do you have a visual learning style, or an auditory learning style? I think this is the crux at the heart of the question of whether "listening" to a book counts as "reading" it, because it defines how well a person processes information in these two mediums. I think I have a slight preference toward auditory learning (although I also consider myself a strong visual learner, luckily it's not an either/or thing), so to me, audio books feel like a completely natural way to consume the written word. I can follow and comprehend a story just as well as if I were reading it. To me, this means that even if I'm listening, I'm fully "reading" a story. Sometimes, I even get more out of a story when I listen to it or read it aloud to someone else, mostly because when I read silently I tend to skim and skip copiously and speed read. But even when I listen to a book at double speed, the narrator still has to say every word so I really get the details.

However, if you have a strong preference for visual learning, if your mind processes information better that you see in print, or if your mind tends to wander while listening, then you might want to stick to printed books. It's all about how your brain processes information. (I suspect Ashley might be more of a visual learner, and thus her conflicted feelings about audio books).

The Book in Question
Some books just don't work in the audio book format very well. Is this a non-fiction text that relies heavily on graphic information, or contains lists or quizzes? Might want to stick to the book format for that. I made the mistake of listening to Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as an audio book, and I do not recommend that. The book is full of lists and quizzes, and it was not only a fruitless way for me to consume this information (rather difficult to take a quiz when you are listening to it while driving), but it made for pretty tedious listening when the narrator read every. single. item. on the quizzes, even repetitious phrases like "Sometimes, always, or never" for each question. Ugh.

That being said, I also "read" The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by listening to the audio book, which is not the format I would recommend for that book either, but we all know how that managed to impact my life. So I guess that just proves that learning style matters more than medium.

However, there are some books that make better audio books than real books. If you get a good production and a stellar narrator, listening to the audio version can be an immersive experience. Here is where I will whole-heartedly plug anything performed by Jim Dale, who is without question the best narrator in the history of everything. I loved Harry Potter in print just fine (understatement), but I haven't actually re-read Harry Potter in print, because once I listened to Jim Dale's version of those stories, there was just no other way to "read" Harry Potter for me.

Audio tends to work really well for me for lighter fiction novels, books that are plot or narrative heavy, stories with really engaging immersive worlds, books where the characters speak in accent, or books with lots of hard-to-pronounce names or made-up language (#fantasyproblems).

Context

So, you can be listening to the best audio book in the world, but if you keep getting interrupted, it can really mess with your "reading" experience. This is true for my daily life with a talkative and demanding preschooler who expects me to actually listen and respond to him (the effrontery!) whenever he wishes to converse (which is pretty much every moment of all day long). While he's awake (most of the time now, since he doesn't nap), I prefer to have paper books on hand because they're easier for me to pick up and put down at a moment's notice. Audio books are less convenient for such interruptions. They require some focus, and if you get distracted, it's much more difficult to go back and re-listen to an audio book.

That being said, I still prefer audio books for certain activities, like whenever I work on a hands-on projects when the kids are sleeping. Nothing makes cleaning the bathroom more palatable than a good audio book. I also love audio books in the car, but generally only when I commute to school, not so much when I'm toting the kids around (that interruption thing).

In short, if you have a strong enough audio learning style, the book lends itself well to audio, and you have some good time with minimal distractions and interruptions (and even better, something to do with your hands), then I absolutely believe that listening to a book counts as reading it.

Which medium do you prefer? Are you an audio or visual learner? Do you consider "listening" to count as "reading"? What are your favorite audio books?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

More Random Thoughts on Getting Rid of My Stuff


Are you guys sick of hearing me blather on and on about this whole decluttering thing? I'm sorry, but I just can't help myself giving the blow by blow of every category here on the blog. In my real life, I try to keep my enthusiasm on this topic contained, you know, to maintain the illusion that I'm normal and sane and not weirdly obsessed with Japanese organization methods. This blog is my place to overshare with abundance (actually, I've converted a couple of my friends, and it's kind of pathetic how when we get together, all we talk about is what we've recently thrown out).

In no particular order, here are some random thoughts on this fourth, and most intimidating of categories.

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"Komono" is Marie Kondo's small word for a huge category. Basically, it's things. All the stuff that is not clothes, books, paper, or sentimental. Which is basically 90% of the stuff in my home. So this was a massive and overwhelming category to tackle.

I know Marie Kondo says not to go room by room, but I couldn't figure out another way to tackle this category other than room by room. I started with the kitchen, did the bathrooms, worked through the closets, the bedrooms, then cycled back again through each room because it just feels so good to throw things out, you know.

When I started, I felt like this category would never end. I mean, it's all my stuff! It was going to take ages to hold every item in my home and search for that spark of joy. And yes, I've spent several months on this category (but I only devote a few hours a week to it, so I suppose I could've been faster).

But lo and behold! I feel the end is near! Just like Marie Kondo promised (is there no end to that woman's mystical and prophetic powers?), when you are done, you will know that you are done. I still have one old stroller I need to list on Craigslist, and a few other items of a decorative nature that I'm working on sprucing up and rearranging, but by and large, I feel "done." Now, when I walk into every room in my house, I feel the peace of less clutter. I know where each item belongs, that each item has a home that does not involve being stuffed haphazardly into an overcrowded drawer.

It feels amazing.

~~~

Why, oh why did I let that broken blender sit on top of my fridge for over a year and half? Why? Did I think we were going to fix it? Did I think I was going to give to someone else who would fix it and use it? We had a new blender! Why did the old one still sit up there, visible from nearly every room in the house?

I had grown so accustomed to some of my clutter that I didn't even realize it was there. Even when I "cleaned" my kitchen, that broken blender still sat there, because I just didn't notice it. It wasn't until I was forced to confront and consider every object in my home that I realized it was clutter.

Why couldn't I see it before?

~~~

This whole process of "tidying" and cleaning out my life has created lots of moments for philosophical introspection. Maybe it's silly, but I really am learning a whole lot about myself.

Like what do I do with my old watercolor supplies? Once upon a time I fancied myself an amateur watercolorist. It was fun. It was a nice relaxing hobby. But I haven't pulled those watercolors out once since my first was born. So is it still a hobby? Do I keep them if I never use them? Who am I any more? Is this still part of my personhood? Or is it something I once did, but now it's time to let it go?

Also, I'm learning that I really like simplicity in some things, but in other things I like abundance. And it's a bit tricky to find that balancing point. When do you have too many empty baby food jars? Is six too many? Too few?

Existential crisis, I tell you.

Stuff really defines who you are, and it took some soul searching to figure out what to let go, and what to keep.

~~~

A year ago, I was scratching my eyes out to move from our tiny little city apartment. We needed more space! We needed bigger rooms! We were a family of three with another on the way, for crying out loud! We needed a house to fit all our stuff in.

Now we are a family of four, and I feel like we fit here perfectly. I feel like we have room to spare (why not have a third baby here?!). I feel completely content.

Who am I any more?

~~~

This process has entirely changed my self-image. I used to think of myself as lazy and unmotivated, frustrated by the clutter around me but unable to change due to intrinsic personality flaws.

But! I no longer view myself as an untidy person! I no longer view my home as a cluttered space! I realize that my personality has always craved for organization and order, I simply lacked the skills to achieve it. Now I have them, and it feels so good.

On a day to day basis, there is still surface clutter, toys around the living room and such, but underneath there is order and calm and a place for everything. It only takes a few minutes at the end of the day to get back to tidy, and that is amazing.

Such a stupid title, that "Life-Changing Magic" bit. But darn it, if she didn't deliver, at least for me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Books I Read in July


You guys, I rocked the pleasure reading in July. Seven books (obviously, not all pictured above, because I had to return half of them to the library before I remembered to grab a pic)! Not a personal record, but it might be a record since becoming a mom. If judged only by my reading list, this summer is turning out to be pretty spectacular. I read some really fun ones this month too.

In order, here goes:

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

I love Gretchen Rubin's books, I've followed her blog for years now, and I love her new-ish podcast. Because she talks about so many of her ideas on her blog and in the podcast, I wasn't sure that her new book would offer any new material that I hadn't heard before, but my friend Amy's effusive praise of the book convinced me that I couldn't pass it up. And yes, it was actually super helpful to read all of these ideas about habits and personality all in one place. Actually, this book helped me analyze my husband and help him make some habit changes more than myself (but I'm an upholder, and he's an obliger, so that makes sense). Also, this book confirmed that while I love Gretchen's writing, she would probably be a super intense and intimidating person to know in real life.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Okay, let me begin by just saying that I liked this book. I really did. It's beautifully written. I have no argument with that. However, I don't quite get the hype. I don't think it's that much better than every other powerful and gut-punching World War Two novel written before. My sister and I were discussing why she like this one so much better than The Book Thief, and she said she appreciated how it was much less sentimental and manipulative. Maybe I'm an overly sentimental fool, but I had a hard time caring about these characters, whereas I sobbed my eyes out in The Book Thief. To each their own.



Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Ahh! More apocalyptic fiction that left me wondering how I'd ever survive without the internet! Also, this book really made me want to move to a farm and live a completely self-sufficient life, learn how to hunt, and stock up on solar panels. I would describe this book as a more humanistic The Road. The concept of a travelling orchestra and theater troupe, whose motto is "Because Survival is Insufficient," really added a layer of hope and beauty to a genre that is otherwise bleak and depressing. I also enjoyed the layered way this story was told with flashbacks, and how the characters' lives intersected.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

You guys, British humor is just the best. Period. I really should've read this one in high school, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to this, but I'm glad I did. I immediately purchased this for my dad as soon as I finished reading it because, the man loves Monty Python and all things science fiction. I don't know if there is a more perfect book for him.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

I'll admit it took me a few months to get through this one, and I did a lot of skimming. In my opinion, this book could've been edited by half and still communicated it's message. That being said, I still found Louv's message about the importance of nature and natural experiences during childhood to be fascinating and critical. I completely agree with his argument that many childhood problems (behavior issues, ADHD, etc.) could be solved or at least helped by more experience with nature. I especially appreciated his delicate discussion on the paradox of protecting the environment while still allowing children to interact with it (build forts, go fishing, etc.). This book gave me a lot to think about how I want my own children to grow up with nature, something we have to be a little more intentional about in our city apartment.

Tiger's Curse by Colleen Houck

I don't think I ever would've picked this one up if my book club hadn't chosen it for our next read. The book itself was fine, this just really isn't my genre. It's definitely got a Twilight feel (love triangle in a supernatural setting, only it's Indian were-tigers instead of vampires and werewolves), which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but it kind of makes me feel like my brain is atrophying. The Indian mythology was interesting, but there was way too much drama. Not for me.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Technically I finished this one on August 1st, but I read the bulk of it in July, so I'm counting it. I started by reading this one out loud to my husband as we drove around Utah on our recent family reunion tour, but we both got really into the story and spent all of our non-driving hours trying to steal the book away from one another to finish it (he finished first, only because I got that rough 1:30 to 6:30 AM shift with the grumpy baby and spent the next morning napping while he read). So, I will say that while reading aloud I had to do a fair amount of slang editing and bleeping for the more sensitive ears in the car, but in general this was a super fun story. I needed my husband to explain most of the video game and 80's pop culture references (yes, he is the bigger nerd between the two of us), but I could still follow the story even in my ignorance. If you enjoy nerd culture (especially nerd culture of the 80s), or enjoy a good action-adventure puzzle story, I highly recommend this one.