Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Book Blab Episode 18: Book Clubs Part 2

Hey guys! Amy and I found time in between summer trips to sit down and talk some more books together. If you didn't see our last episode (#17, Part 1 of our discussion on Book Clubs), you might want to check that out too. But this episode is where we get into the fun part of recommending actual books we think are great for book club discussion. As always, we'd love to hear your own recommendations in the comments. What are some of the best book club books you've ever read?

Enjoy the show!

Show Notes:

0:24 - Summer update
1:35 - Today's topic: What makes a good book club book?
2:25 - Tips for choosing books for book club:
  • 2:47 - Favorite books don't always make for a good discussion
  • 3:55 - Choose a book that generates opposite opinions or strong feelings
  • 6:35 - Some ambiguity in the plot/ending encourages discussion
  • 8:15 - This is a simple indicator for knowing if a book will be good for book club
  • 9:58 - Take the length of the book into consideration
  • 12:45 - Be careful of choosing a bestseller 
  • 15:30 - Check if your library has book club sets
  • 16:12 - Identify the unique tastes and interests and commitment levels of your book club
  • 17:22 - Nonfiction is generally a safe choice
18:50 - A few of our favorite book club books
28:17 - Two recommendations for summer reading
  • 29:03 - Suzanne's recommendation 
  • 31:20 - Amy's recommendation
32:32 - Conclusion

Books and links talked about during the show:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Amy's review)
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (Suzanne's review)
Educated by Tara Westover (Suzanne's review)
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson (Amy's review)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (Suzanne's review)
Bomb: the Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Suzanne's review)
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Amy's review
Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Suzanne's review
Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubraker Bradley (Amy's review)
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (Suzanne's review)
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (Amy's review)

Monday, July 23, 2018


"Mom, stop taking pictures of me! Can't you see I'm trying to read?"

I've just started the official Such Stuff #Bookstagram account!!!!!!!!!

If you follow me on my personal Instagram account (@suzannetan16) you probably already know this, but now you can follow me @suchstuffbooks as well! I mean, if you want to.

So, what's the difference between the two accounts? Well, on @suzannetan16 I usually (sporadically) post pics of my kids and our general activities (and you're totally welcome to follow along with me there, provided you're not some stalker/creeper type, I do vet all my followers). But ever since I discovered #Bookstagram a few years ago, I've been captivated by this beautiful corner of social media. However, I'm not that great of a photographer, especially when it comes to flatlay spreads, and so I just followed along without really participating. Also, 90% of what I read is in an electronic/audiobook version, which just isn't as fun to photograph as a paper copy book, you know?

But over the past few months, I've been thinking about how I have  a lot of small bookish questions or things I want to share with people, but they wouldn't fill a whole blog post by themselves. Also, I've really been wanting to get more serious about tracking and talking about the children's books and read-alouds I read with my kids. Right now, I don't do a great job of tracking them on Goodreads or talking about them here on the blog. But then I had the brilliant thought that, you know what? All the kid books we read are physical! Meaning they can be photographed! Meaning I could share and talk about them on Instagram! And wouldn't that be a fun place to track and discuss the books I read with my kids? And of course, talk about all the other little bookish things on my mind too? It could be like a mini-extension of this blog!

But I didn't want to foist these bookish discussions on the collection of random cousins and in-laws and friends from two cities ago that follow me for news of my family, but don't really care about what I read with them. So thus, the need for a separate account, the official Such Stuff Bookstagram Account.

What's kind of ironic about me starting this account right now is that at the beginning of the month, I actually went on a social media fast, and didn't check any social media for a week. And I loved it. In fact, I read three books that week (not that I spend that much time on social media, it was just that instead of settling down to my lunch with my phone, I was settling down with a book instead, which led to me getting sucked in and reading for the rest of the afternoon, which was delightful!). And I almost thought that maybe I'd just quit social media altogether (I don't post all that often as is). But after the week was over I went back on just to see what I'd missed, and saw two of my friends had had babies and one was expecting, and that's just the kind of news I don't want to miss out on! I really do like these people, and I like keeping up with what's going on in their lives. So I don't think I can ever really quit social media.

But that does mean that, whichever one of my accounts you follow, don't expect any sort of regular posting or overwhelming flood of stories or anything like that. I don't have time or energy to keep this up at any sort of professional level. Also, I'm NOT a professional photographer, so I can't guarantee the prettiest pictures or anything like that. But I can guarantee some interesting bookish topics and good book recommendations. It'll be fun! And if it ever stops being fun, I'll just quit.

But right now, I'm kind of excited. I'm excited to have one more place to talk bookish things with bookish people (because bookish people are just the best!). So anyway, if you're inclined, and if you'd like one more place to talk books with me, feel free to follow along! I'd love to see you over too!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mid-Year Goal Check-In

So you know how I set goals at the beginning of every year (like pretty much every other person on the planet?). Well, in the name of accountability I also generally like to do a mid-year check in, just to refresh and see how I'm doing.

So, here are my goals, and here is my progress:

1. Read 75 Books

This one was a stretch goal for me, as I've never read that many books in a single calendar year (usually I go for 52, a book a week), but as of the end of June (so, the mid-way point in the year), I've read 47 books!!! Which is crazy good! And also means that for the rest of the year, I only need to read 28 books, which I think is going to be a walk in the park. (Maybe, my commute audio book time might suffer a little bit due to the fact I'll be travelling with kids this semester, more on that later). Anyway, I'm doing awesome on this goal, and it makes me super happy.

2. Establish Early Morning Routine

Okay, so far, this goal is coming along great! I've had much more consistent success this year with waking up between 5:30 and 6 AM every week day (I let myself sleep in on the weekends), and usually get in some scripture study/meditation, a little exercise (usually yoga, but this summer I've started going out for a run a couple times a week, which if you know me, is one of the most shocking developments and my husband is even like, who are you anymore?!?!), and getting showered and dressed before the kids wake up. I've had a few setbacks (like every time I get sick, or that time in June when jet lag and a series of colds knocked me out for a few weeks), but the fact that I've been able to eventually get back to early mornings, even here in the summer, has been awesome! It makes me feel so great about life, like I am in control and killing it! This is a good thing, because the way my schedule is working out for this next semester, early mornings will no longer be a choice, but a necessity. Now, if only I could get that 10 PM bedtime down pat too, so I wasn't so tired all the time...

3. Attend a Conference/Submit a Paper for Publication

Checked this one off in March when I presented a paper at conference in Ann Arbor! And then, I had another paper accepted for a conference in November, so I'm double killing this goal! Woo-hoo!

4. More One-on-One Time With My Kids

This one is proving more difficult to work out than I planned. I was aiming for solo activities with each kid while the others entertained themselves, but my kids are at an age where if I sit down to do anything with one child, the others are drawn like moths to a flame, so it inevitably turns into a group activity. And the one-on-one date things aren't happening so much because, as I discovered early on, my kids are weird and home-bodies and never really want to leave the house unless I force them to (we have to get groceries if you want to eat food for lunch!). So when I suggested things like, "Hey, do you want to come with Mommy on a special trip to get a treat?" I actually got a flat refusal. My kids are quirky. Whatever. It's cool. I know exactly where they get their home-body tendencies from (hint: not my husband). Also, it's probably just a phase (right?).

Anyway, what I've decided to do is switch the focus of this goal. The original motivation was all about making sure my kids get the quality time and attention they need from me while my life is so hectic and busy with school. So instead of focusing on one-on-one activities with each of them, I'm just going to focus on making sure whatever time I do spend with them is high quality. I'm working on being calm (never yelling, etc.). I'm working on being a listener. I'm working on empathy. I'm working on being a safe place. I'm working on paying attention more to what they are trying to tell me. I'm working on making sure the time I do spend with them is not too rushed. For me, this looks like stopping in the middle of the dishes to sit down on the floor to read with my baby (she is always begging for me to read to her, and how can I refuse?). Or by stopping in the middle of trying to make my bed to cuddle with my middle child because he's clearly in need of cuddles. Or by stopping while in the middle of reading my book to listen to my oldest talk to me about his never-ending litany of Star Wars trivia that he feels so compelled to share at every hour of the day. I am calm. I am listening. I am present. So far, I think this summer has been going pretty well. We'll see how I do once the semester starts again and life feels rushed again.

5. Go to the Temple Every Other Month

I'm embarrassed to admit so far this has been a big fat fail. Ugh. Every other month should mean I've gone at least three times at this point, and I've been once this whole year. Childcare is still the biggest issue, although the one time I did go it was alone, leaving my husband home with the kids. But even that is difficult, as he's not always able to get home early enough for me to leave in time to make the last session on week days, and Saturdays always get so busy with other life things. But I know these are just excuses. I really need to just make it a priority.

Okay. So there's my update. Some of these goals I'm killing, others I'm managing at least the intention, only one I'm completely failing at (but will do better!).

I also listed some honorable mention goals in that post, which I wasn't going to make official, but I did just want to mention here that we managed to plant a garden! And we had some amazing zucchini plants with tons of flowers and even harvested two beautiful zucchini! ... but then the rabbits came and ate the roots, and now all my zucchini plants are dead (I guess this explains why all our neighbors have nice big fences around their garden boxes...). And we planted some tomato plants but so far, only three are still alive and I'm not sure they're ever going to grow enough to produce fruit. But I did get a nice sunflower to bloom (I'll snap a picture some time!). So, that's how that's going. Clearly I need to do some work to develop my green thumb.

How are you doing on your goals so far?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Two Books on Gaslighting, Memory, and Claiming Your Experiences

I heard the term "gaslighting" a couple years ago, and was completely unfamiliar with it, so doing what I usually do when confronted with an unfamiliar term, I looked it up. But no matter how many definitions I read, I still didn't quite understand what the term meant. Here's the definition as offered by Wikipedia: "Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's belief."

Apparently I've lived a sheltered life surrounded only by loving and reasonable people, because I had a super hard time even conceptualizing what this would look like in practice. Psychological manipulation? Making someone doubt their own sanity? Who would do that, and how, and why?

Well, in the past few months I've read two books that have given nearly textbook examples of what gaslighting looks like--one fiction, the other nonfiction-- and these books have stuck with me and won't let me stop thinking about them, so I guess I need to write some thoughts out here to try to work through this.

The first book was Educated by Tara Westover (brief review here). If you've read this book, then you probably can immediately see how this is an example of gaslighting. I don't believe Tara ever uses the term exactly, but she definitely talks about specific memories that her family members have tried to convince her didn't happen the way she remembers them, and feelings of insanity because of their tactics to deligitimize her beliefs.

Now, the tricky thing about this example is that we only get one side of the story, and there really are all sorts of questions about how reliable she is as a narrator. Did these things really happen the way Tara remembers them, or the way her family tells her they happened? Everyone's memory is a little bit unreliable, and each member of the family remembers things differently. She even says that her memory is different than the way she recorded things in her diary, so does that mean she really is mis-remembering, or that she was in denial at the time of the incident?

These are really, really tricky questions to answer. They may even be impossible to answer.

The second book was fiction, The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (brief review here). I'm not sure if this book would've stayed with me as much if I hadn't read it so closely following Educated, and could see the same pattern of gaslighting abuse going on. Now, because this one is a fictional novel and not messy real-life, the gaslighting is a little bit more cut-and-dry, with the perpetrator eventually confessing that he'd been lying, and the affected character being able to reclaim her memories as legitimate (sorry, that might be a bit of a spoiler...).

So, the situations are different, but both these books left me thinking quite a bit about what it means to trust your memory, your feelings, and your sense of reality. Memory is a tricky, fluid thing. Some of my memories from life are stark and clear and burned into my psyche, but the vast majority of my life (especially my childhood), is simply fuzzy blur, indistinct impressions. Even some of my most potent memories have fuzzy outlines and edges. I can remember distinctly how I felt, but not necessarily where I was, or vice versa.

One of the biggest take-aways I've garnered from reading both these books so close together is the idea that perhaps accuracy of memory doesn't matter so much as validating someone's perceived experience. What I mean is, maybe Tara isn't exactly remembering situations the way they actually happened, but that doesn't mean that her memory, her feelings of hurt and anger, and her story aren't legitimate. She experienced something, she has felt very powerful things as a consequence, and she has the right to claim that experience as hers.

While I'm nearly 100% positive I've never been the victim of gaslighting, I've definitely had the experience of my memories of an event being different than someone else's memory of the same event. Most notably, my husband and I both have different memories of our first kiss story. He was dropping me off at my apartment one night, and I went in for a hug while he went in for a kiss, which resulted in a miss with the kiss landing somewhere around my chin. We disagree about exactly what happened after that awkwardness, what was said, and how the scene ended, and it's kind of been a long standing joke between us that we have these different memories of this rather pivotal event in our early relationship. And honestly, at this point I can't really say whose story is right. Maybe things happened the way my husband says, maybe they happened the way I say, but the important thing is that we both have a right to our story. Maybe the details are fuzzy, but I certainly remember my feelings of shock and excitement, and those memories are mine. They are mine, and I get to treasure them forever.

There are other memories and experiences, however, that I tend to question more aggressively. If I have ever been the victim of gaslighting, it's only gaslighting I've inflicted on myself. Most of these memories have to deal with experiences of a spiritual nature. I've definitely had powerful spiritual experiences in my life that felt so incredibly potent at the time, but even now I'll look back on them and think, "Did it really happen that way? Were those feelings real? Maybe they weren't real. Maybe I'm misremembering, or maybe I'm just making it all up." I think doubting is the term one would usually use to describe this, but after reading these stories with examples of gaslighting, I can see interesting similarities. Someone else may not be manipulating me, but I can sure be good at manipulating myself, making myself doubt and question and dismiss my experience as not real.

And maybe I am misremembering or making things up. Maybe some of those experiences can be explained in a different way. But what I've been reflecting on, and what I'm taking away from these two books, is that whatever is "real," I still have a right to claim my experience. I have a right to remember things the way I remember them, and to count my feelings as legitimate and valid. This is a powerful and freeing way to view my memories. I have a right to claim my experience, to trust my memory of events, and to believe in the way I feel about things.

And so too does everyone. Everyone has the right to their experience. We should never dismiss someone out-of-hand because we don't view their story or their feelings as valid. That is how we begin to dehumanize people, by dismissing their experience. Maybe we disagree, maybe we experienced things differently, but people can perceive the same experience in vastly different ways and both experiences can still be valid. We should not assume that we understand how other people experience the world. This is true for people on the other side of the world, for people in our neighborhoods, and even for own own children. Especially for my own children. I always need to remind myself that what they are experiencing and what they are feeling is valid, even if it's frustrating or overblown or not the way I want them to be feeling. When I stop and remind myself that they are allowed to have their own feelings and perceptions, which may be vastly different from mine, I'm far more likely to feel sympathy rather than frustration.

I'm skirting the edges of some deeper questions here. What, then, is reality? What is delusion? What happens when people disagree on the "truth" of an experience, especially with dire consequences for one's reputation or life (for one example, think of the "me too" movement here, when what one party views as consensual the other party views as rape). How can everyone's experiences be valid when they disagree? Especially when one person's version feels more "right" or "reasonable" or "sane"? How can we know what we know? What is truth, then? These are super deep questions I can't even begin to approach here, and probably don't even have answers for.

All I know is that I have experiences and memories and feelings that are mine and that define me and define how I perceive my life and my reality. And I'm claiming those experiences as legitimate and valid and mine.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Books I Read in June

Well, June was a good month for reading around here. There was some summer fluff, some more serious but still summery goodness, and a bit of travel related non-fiction. Let's go ahead and just dive right in, shall we?

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

This is book #4 in the Armand Gamache murder-mystery series, and normally I would prefer to read them in the fall or winter because they take place in Canada and the weather descriptions are always so cold and atmospheric. But this one actually takes place in the summer! I downloaded this one and started listening the day before we left on our trip to England (see here, here, and here), but then stopped one chapter in because I realized it would make the perfect road trip audio book for us to listen to together (I'd recommended the series earlier this year to my husband, and he'd just finished the third one so was caught up to me). It was so fun listening to this together as we drove about the English countryside, taking turns making bets on who the killer was (my husband guessed right, I guessed wrong), and not worrying about children in the backseat listening in. The only thing that would have made it more perfect is if it would been set in England itself, but you can't have everything (and Quebec is pretty charming a setting too). Anyway, another good one. I really am enjoying this series, and rather recommend them generally if you're in to murder mysteries.

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I began reading this before our trip and finished it while on our last day there. Here's what I'll say: if I hadn't been preparing for and traveling through England while reading this, I don't think I would've found it nearly as charming. The book is long, repetitive, and therefore tedious in parts. This book is essentially a travelogue of Bryson's farewell tour of the country of England (after living there for a few decades, he and his family are moving to the states), and he spends a lot of time doing not very interesting things and complaining a whole lot about the weather and the architecture and nearly everything else. But he's also really funny, and I found myself laughing and re-reading large sections of it out loud to my husband because we could totally relate to his experiences. He also had just a few pithy quotes that really summarized my own feelings about being in that beautiful country, and I loved those moments. So in general, I think this is the perfect book for someone planning a trip to England (though not as a travel guide, heavens no!), but otherwise I wouldn't classify this as essential reading.

Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella

I needed a last minute book to get me home on our flights, and wanted something that would let me linger in London a little longer. Unfortunately, this is what I landed on that was immediately available for download. I've read a Sophie Kinsella before, so I knew it would be fluffy, but this premise was particularly ridiculous, and the romance was not my favorite at all (spoiler, she's married, but the romance is an affair). It was fun to get brief snippets of London mentioned and be able to picture them in my mind. But otherwise, I don't think I ever need to read Sophie Kinsella again.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Last month I put a few books on hold from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide, and this was one that sounded like it had potential for me. It's about fairy tales coming true, but these are not the happily-ever-after fairy tales, but the dark and violent ones. Anyway, for the first half of the book, I was kind of sure I hated it. There's quite a bit of swearing and violence. Then, when I started to figure out where the second half was going, I got intrigued enough to finish it out. And in the end, I really liked the premise. I think it had a lot of potential, but I didn't necessarily care for the execution of it. It's a premise that in different hands I maybe really would've liked, but here was just a little too dark and unhappy (though maybe more real for that) for my tastes.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

This is a middle grade fantasy series, and I'd read a few glowing reviews of it in various places so I decided to check it out. And... it started off pretty slow for me. I felt like it took the plot a loooong time to get going, with some false starts and unclear direction for about the first half of the book. But then things finally started moving along, and I got hooked, and my predictions ended up being right, and it was a lot of fun in the end (enough fun that I bought it for my niece for her belated birthday gift). I think the fantasy world here is nicely developed, I liked Peterson's style of humor with his funny footnotes and quirky characters, and I'm very interested in checking out the next in the series to see where it goes. Fun little read.

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

This was by far my favorite book of the month. I've been intending to branch out of the Anne series and read more L. M. Montgomery for a long time now, and I'm so glad I finally did. Emily is a gem! I loved her so much, and, confidentially speaking, think I might be more of an Emily than an Anne, really (both are writers, but Emily feels more like my kind of writer). However, I will say that the rest of the characters and anecdotal situations aren't quite as charming as they are with Anne, and I'm not entirely sure I like the way things are shaping up for potential romance triangles (or worse) in Emily's future, but I'm sure not going to let that stop me from reading the rest of this trilogy. I'm so happy I found it, it was such wonderful, pleasant, delightful read! Thank you, L.M. Montgomery, for writing such fierce and lovely characters!

Robin Hood, The One Who Looked Good in Green by Wendy Mass

Okay, here's the story here. I don't think I normally would've picked up a book like this, but ever since I took my Robin Hood adaptations class a few years ago, I've found myself drawn to the story anywhere I see it. This book was sitting on a promotional shelf at our library, so in passing I picked it up to peruse. After discovering that the premise was Robin Hood in some futuristic space dystopia, I figured it needed to come home with me. As far as an adaptation, I was pretty impressed with some of the details Mass chose to incorporate (like the staff fight with Little John!), and it was a light, fun, breezy story with a squeaky clean little romance. Despite the flaws (some plot holes, underdeveloped world-building, etc.) I found it entertaining enough. It's middle grade level, so if you know a middle grade reader who like fairy-tale retellings, Mass's series might be a good one for them (this was #4 in the Twice Upon a Time series, but I think they're all separate stand-alones).

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

This was another selection from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide. And while it's exactly the kind of contemporary literary fiction I don't really care for (trying so hard to reflect major current social issues and say something deep and profound about it without actually saying anything about it), there were parts of this book I really loved. I really related to a lot of the main character's feelings and experiences with motherhood, and it felt nice to have those types of feelings and experiences be central in a literary fiction book. There were quotable passages that I found beautiful. But, as with most literary fiction, there were parts I felt were puffed up with their own self-importance and significance. I'm not saying that the current social issues this book comments on aren't valid or important (most of them are race-related, and are very important), I'm just saying this book didn't seem to be as profound as it wanted to be, in my humble opinion. Anyway, if you like literary fiction, I think this one is still a general recommend, and I'd to chat with someone about it.

So, some of my fluffiest reads happened this month. And also, I read quite a bit of middle grade/YA. But those are great reads for summer, so I feel like I'm doing great so far on my summer reading. How's your summer reading going? Have you read any of these? If so, I'd love to chat about them!