Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 10 Books of 2017

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

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

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

Okay, here we go:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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

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

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

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

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

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

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

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

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

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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

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

Anyway, how was your reading year?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Best Birth Story of All

Six years ago today I became a mother.

I suppose the birthday of your firstborn usually makes one feel reflective, but for me the feeling is amplified by the nature of the season. I know there's a lot of tinsel and trappings this time of year that can mask it, but for me, this holiday is all about a mother and her newborn baby. It's a birth story at it's core, one of the most remarkable birth stories ever told.

I have two of my own December birth stories (written about here and here), which means I've spent two Christmas seasons as pregnant as Mary herself. I've spent one Christmas Day in the hospital with a newborn, and another Christmas day five years later in pre-labor praying for the baby to come. And while I can't say I love being pregnant during the holidays (huge NO! to that), I will say that both those Decembers taught me a lot about Christmas.

I feel especially close to Mary this time of year. While many of us celebrate advent, carefully counting down the days and patiently (or rather, impatiently) waiting for Christmas to come, I think of those two advent seasons I spent counting down, not to presents under the tree, but to the babies about to come. That's what advent would've been for Mary. The long, painful, anticipatory wait for that most precious baby to come.

For many of us, waking up on Christmas morning is all about anticipation, excitement, and delight. That Christmas six years ago, I woke up in the hospital in complete and utter agony. I was recovering from the most intense physical experience of my life (an emergency C-section after 12 hours of intense hard labor, plus trying to figure out breastfeeding!). I remember thinking, "Mary seriously went through something like this? Did she feel this way after she gave birth to Jesus? Was she this sore and tired? Oh, she didn't have pain meds back then! Poor thing!" That Christmas morning, lying in that hospital bed where I hurt so bad I couldn't even roll over, my vision of that Holy Night in the stable 2,000 years ago changed forever. All the Nativities make it seem so precious and clean and sweet and quiet.


There would've been blood. There would've been pain. There would've been sweat and probably tears. Even if Mary had the easiest labor (and my goodness, I hope she was blessed with an easy labor), there still would've been blood, and exhaustion, and bewilderment at how to care for this tiny new little human. She was (likely) just a teenager, far from home, in a stable of all places! How could she not have felt overwhelmed?

And yet, despite the pain, despite the blood, despite the overwhelming uncertainty that comes with new motherhood, I also felt strength that Christmas morning. I felt peace. I felt a power beyond me, guiding me, watching over me. I felt angels with me.

Mary had angels too. If she didn't have a real midwife (which I hope she did), I'm certain she had some heavenly ones. Mary may have been tired, and in pain, and overwhelmed by new motherhood, but she also had the certainty that God was with her.

Christmas is a season to celebrate a lot of good and wonderful things, but for me it is also a season to reflect on motherhood, and birth, and birth stories, and the sacredness of life. Not every person gets to be a mother, but every person was born. Every person has a birth story, a birth date, and a mother who shared and sacrificed her body to bring that life into being. Every birth story is different, but every birth story has a few things in common: there is a mother, and there is a new baby. There will be blood, but there will be beauty too. Beauty of new life, beauty of the hope for what that life will bring.

Christmas is many things to many people, but for me, it is a birth story. The best birth story of all.

P.S. Read another essay I wrote about Christmas and motherhood here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hygge and a Home Library Update (Christmas Decor Version)

"Hygge" is so hot right now. If you read blogs or participate in social media, chances are good you've heard this term floating around the past year or two. I haven't read any of the currently popular books about this topic (like this one, or this one), but what I've gathered from social media is that hygge is basically that awesome warm cozy feeling you get when you're all snuggled up drinking hot chocolate next to a fireplace. Something like that.

Anyway, whatever it actually is, I am all here for it. I am here for feather down blankets and twinkle lights and cozy scarves and mittens and soup for dinner every night. I am here for slanting winter light and boots and chunky sweaters. I am here for slippers and fuzzy socks and snuggles.

I know some people (a lot of people) who long and wish and dream about living in warmer climates. I mean, there's a reason people flock to Florida and So Cal. But after nearly four years in Houston (which, admittedly, is a sweaty hot house of nasty humidity, and therefore no one's dream climate), I just have to say that nothing has made me happier than feeling cold again! And not just the-air-conditioning-is-too-high kind of cold (which is a perennial problem in Houston, the world's most air-conditioned city), but the actual, see-your-breath, tingly-toes kind of cold! It's exhilarating!

But only for a few moments, after which I love to run back inside to the comfort of that warm bowl of soup, cup of hot cocoa, cozy blanket, and seat by the fire. Yes please!

Right now, the most "hygge" room in our house is the "library." If you remember, the last time I introduced you to this room, it looked like this:

Basically book shelves and a whole lot of nothing else. We've still got a ways to go to get this room "finished," but we have done a few things: painted the walls grey (hallelujah!) and acquired a couple of pieces of furniture so there is at least a place to sit. But then we decorated for Christmas in here, and man, I just can't get enough of this room!

I mean, just look at that!

The tree, in all her fuzzy, over-back-lit glory. As hard as they are to photograph, I sure do love those windows. The light! The light, the light, the light! Also, our tree looks pretty awesome from outside through those windows.

Why yes, we do have TWO Christmas trees in this room. The one in the alcove is our small fake one from the apartment-dwelling days. I alternate between loving and hating that weird little alcove. We haven't found the right piece of art for it yet (maybe for Christmas?), so we keep just putting trees up there. It looks pretty there, at least.

Oh, how I love decorating a mantle! This is the first time I've ever lived in a house with a real fire place (okay, maybe the house we lived in when I was born had one, but if it did, I don't remember it), and mantle decorating is just too much fun. Someday I'm hoping to get a really big, nice nativity for the mantle, but for now I'm making do with my collection of smaller (weirdly international) nativities. I got these two in Germany over a decade ago, and they are still my two favorite.

Guys, I think my chalk art is getting better! Also, my sister gave us this one piece nativity after her trip to Jerusalem a few years ago. I believe it's carved from olive tree wood. It's so lovely (and you can just see a bit of the donkey from our African nativity on the left side there).

And last but not least, this is the little white nativity we picked up in Bolivia two years ago. And that wooden family picture? A Christmas gift from our nanny! She made it herself! Mad skills! (That's not just up for Christmas, it will stay up all year).

These stockings are the best. Have I talked about our stockings before? My mother-in-law hand makes a stocking for every member of the family (can you guess which one is mine?). She hasn't quite finished Baby Lily's yet, so we have the little red stocking as a placeholder right now (with an H on it, because it was originally Baby Henry's stocking until he got his Christmas tree boot stalking for being the first Texas baby in the family).

So yes, I'm just loving this room so much this Christmas. My husband and I spend most of our evenings here on this couch, fire burning, twinkle lights glowing, Christmas music playing, reading our books (or in my case, frantically finishing up my grading so I can wrap up this semester and get on with enjoying the holiday break). Hygge indeed!

(Also, I know I'll be so very tired of the cold a few months from now, when all the charm has worn off and the snow is dirty and I have to scrape ice off my car to get home from school and spring feels like it will never come. But for now, nothing but happy!)

P.S. It's a little late in the season now, but don't forget about the fresh bough wreath tutorial I put up last year! It's the best piece of decor ever! Also, I used my extra boughs on the mantle this year, because you can never have enough fresh bough greenery this time of year (plus, the smell!).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Books I Read in November

Well, hi there! The semester has ended (kind of, I still have some grading to finish up this week), and life has finally opened up some space, and all I can say is yay for winter break! I understand we're nearly halfway through December, but indulge me a moment and let me regale you with all the books I read in November. Seriously, considering what a busy month it was, I'm shocked at how these numbers keep adding up. My commute time is just golden, sanity-saver, most wonderful me-time ever! Audio books are the best!

So, you'll notice a theme in my November reading. I got on a classics kick. Specifically, a Jane Austen kick, and I went ahead and reread almost her entire oeuvre (except for Northanger Abbey, which, weirdly enough, was the only one I had to put on hold and wait for, I'm listening to it now). I started with Sense and Sensibility in October, so check that month's round-up for my thoughts there.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Every time I re-read this, I seem to alternate between loving it or being super annoyed by it. This was a loving it re-read. I mean, Lizzy really is just super delightful. I've also decided that I need to rewatch all the versions of this movie that I own this break. Who's up for joining me?

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh, I have such a special place in my heart for this one. I loved Anne Elliot so much the first time I read this (in high school, I think) because I related to her so much. I just knew I was going to be the 27 year-old single old maid like her (seriously surprised everyone, myself included, when I ended up getting married at 21). Also, I just love this story of faithful love, even through time and distance and hurt and disappointment. It's just so sweet. Although admittedly, the rest of the characters in this book can be downright annoying.

Emma by Jane Austen

Confession: I've never really liked Emma. I know a lot of people who consider this one their favorite Austen novel, but seriously? Emma is a spoiled, silly, self-centered, classist heiress who screws up Harriet's life in nearly unforgivable ways. Admittedly, she grows up and learns her lessons and is no doubt far from the worst human being ever, but I just don't love her much. I do love Mr. Knightly. Quite a bit. But I also must confess that this time around, their age difference bothered me a whole lot more than it has in the past. My husband has this formula (I'm sure someone else made it up first) about age difference in relationships that goes like this: Half the age of the guy plus seven. That's as young as he can go without being creepy. So, the formula for a twenty-four year old guy is 24/2 = 12 + 7 = 19. A 24 year-old guy can date a 19 year-old girl, but no younger. Mr. Knightly is 37. His formula is 37/2 = 18.5 + 7 =  25.5. Emma is 21. That's just not close enough to be kosher, in my opinion. And yeah, yeah, I know times have changed and whatever, but it's that line at the end, when he talks about how he's loved her since she was 13 (and he was 29) that just totally creeps me out. Ew. Anyway, I need to go watch the movie again as a palate cleanser, because at least the actors don't look that different in age, which makes me feel better about the whole thing.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

This is no one's favorite Austen, and it's easy to see why. Fanny is a bit sickly, a bit (actually, a lot) timid, a bit goody-two-shoes, and just nowhere near as lovable as Lizzy. Also, the romance in this book is just so... unsatisfying. First off, he's her first cousin (once again, times have changed, but still just a little creepy for modern tastes). Second, (*spoiler alert*) he spends 98% of the book seriously in love with someone else, and only comes to admire our heroine in the last 2 to 3 pages. Like I said, unsatisfying. At one point, I found myself wishing that they'd just both end up with the other two love interests because both those romances were at least interesting and full of charming moments (even if they both had undeserving, immoral characters). However, knowing all that and going in with low expectations, I was actually able to enjoy this one quite a bit more as a re-read. I especially found the chapters on the play quite fascinating, as I've spent so much of this semester thinking/researching/writing about audience reception and cultural acceptance of drama in my Shakespeare class.

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

After being disappointed with A Fatal Grace in October, I decided to plunge on this third book in the series just to give it one more chance. And this book really redeemed things for me! It was a much better mystery for me, I was kept guessing right up until the end, and was very surprised by who ended up being the killer. I also appreciated how some of the larger narrative arc resolved itself here. While this book redeemed the series for me, and I am interested in going on, I do need to take a break from murder mysteries for a while (I can only handle so much "cozy murder"). But as a note, this would be a fantastic October read. It takes place over Easter, but it contains all sorts of good Halloweeny things: haunted houses, seances and ghosts, the victim being scared to death, etc.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

I used to be a huge Dickens fan back in middle/high school. I read quite a fair number of his books, but I never got around to Oliver Twist. I think this was mostly based on the fact that it sounded depressing (orphans, ugh), and also because I felt like I just knew the story already (I think I'd seen the musical). Anyway, after my Austen kick, I was in the mood to continue in the classic lit vein (I've just really been in the mood for good, beautiful writing, which you just can't guarantee with more modern stuff), and I decided it's been too long since I've indulged in the convoluted sentence structure of the Victorian master, so I decided to find a good Dickens novel to sink into. This was the one available from my library at the time, so I decided to give it a go. And I was quite bored for the first few chapters because, yes, it was terribly depressing, and yes, I knew most of the story. But then! Then plot twists! And new characters I'd not heard of before! Turns out there's a lot more to this story that gets left out of all the retellings (makes sense, you've got to cut something), and I found myself suitably intrigued and rather enjoying the story. I still don't think it's Dickens best (I'm still baffled about why this one seems to be so popular compared to some of his others), but I did like it.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

My one foray into contemporary lit! This one is so hot right now. I read Ng's Everything I Never Told You a while back, and liked it well enough, so I decided this one was probably worth a look into. And I liked it, but I can't say I loved it. There were some really fun characters (and some really, really unlikable characters), and there were some really interesting/thought-provoking/heart-wrenching situations around the theme of motherhood. And it was decently well-written. But the themes felt a little too-heavy handed, and the plot was just a little too contrived. Or maybe it was just the fact that I don't buy that every person who lives the "American suburban dream" is all miserable and unhappy and repressing their true heart's desires. Anyway, still good, and still a general recommend if you like contemporary literary fiction that leans to the depressing.

Wow, seven books! What a fabulous month of reading for me. If only I could type blog posts on my commute too...

P.S. Did you enjoy my husband's guest post? Isn't he just a fabulous writer? I really ought to have him on here more often. Although I don't quite share his enthusiasm for board games, I'm learning to love them more (for the sake of our marriage), and I love that he has something he is so passionate about. Nerdy people are the most interesting people, in my opinion. And seriously, some of those games he mentioned are so fun (Camel Up is my personal favorite), so check them out!