Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Reading Year in Review (Top Ten)

Well, it's New Year's Eve. I've just survived an intense week of hosting family, celebrating three birthdays along with Christmas, and organizing a baptism ceremony and after party for my oldest son. It was a busy week that involved long hours in the kitchen (so many people to cook for), lots of movie watching, and late nights playing games and chatting. It was so much fun. Too much fun, because now I'm suffering from a raging head cold. My company flew home yesterday, and this morning we drove up to my sister-in-law's house to celebrate New Years. I've retreated to the basement bedroom to try to sleep off said head cold and avoid spreading my germs around, but apparently I'm too congested to sleep, so I guess I'll do something semi-productive, or at least restfully fun, which is to reflect on my reading year here.

Guys, it was a banner year for reading for me. My goal was to read 75 books. The final count on Goodreads says I read a 116 books, but it seems to be counting A Christmas Carol twice for some reason, so I think it's actually 115. And that is not counting any of the read alouds I did with my son, nor any of the (many) books I've been reading for my exam prep at school. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I read a load of books, more than I've read in any year before, and I can't really explain the pace. I guess I just figured out how to fit audio books into more parts of my life, and all I can say is, thank heavens for audio books! I love them with all my heart.

Last year I made all sorts of fun charts breaking down my reading stats (how many books I read in each genre, how many were re-reads, how many were audio books vs. paper books, etc.), but I don't really have the brain power for that right now (remember that raging head cold thing?) so for now we'll just stick with my Top Ten list. Although I will say, glancing over all the books I've read, most of them were audio books (obviously), I did more re-reading this year than I've ever done in the past (and I don't regret that at all, although for my list I kept it to strictly new-to-me reads), and I read a ton of fiction/fantasy, but for some reason my Top Ten list seems to be leaning heavily towards the nonfiction. ???

Another note on this Top Ten list that I feel like I have to make every year. This is just the list that struck me today. If I had written this list yesterday, or if I were to write it tomorrow, it could contain an entirely different set of books. I read a lot of goods one this, and I could've and maybe should've included so many others on this list. But here's how the list looks right now:

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson - This was a December read, so I don't have a review of it up yet, but let's just say I really want to write a longer review of this, because it was a powerful book that gave me quite a bit to think about. I really, really recommend it.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett - What a classic! I loved this book, and can't believe it took me this long to read! I will definitely be re-reading this one.

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurden - If you loved Read Aloud Family, chances are you'll love this one. I just can't get enough of books about reading aloud.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller - I loved this memoir so much that I changed around my lesson plans to include this book in my course this semester. It's not perfect, but had so many quotes and ideas I just loved so much.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry - Everything I love about a slow character driven novel. It made me cry, made me want to write my own life story, and made me want to read everything Berry has ever written (if only my library had more of his audio books!)

Becoming by Michelle Obama - So good. Just really so good. I related to so many parts of her life story, and found her to be very inspirational.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery - Apparently when I like fiction, I can only like fiction by classic safe authors. This is probably not Montgomery's best, but I loved it so much, and was so grateful to discover this gem. I think about Valancy often, and just love her so much. Highly recommend.

Circe by Madeline Miller - Oh look, a new fiction book! I didn't love everything about this book, but I loved so much of it. I loved the poetry of it, the way Greek mythology was woven into this narrative, the themes... it was just so good and beautifully written.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novak - This one was a debated entry on this list, and maybe on a different day it wouldn't have made it. But in the end, I really do have a thing for interesting and meaty historical fiction Russian fairy-tale retellings, and I didn't want this one to end.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova - Another debated entry (and look at that, I guess fiction is equal to nonfiction on this list), but this is a book I still think about all the time, so here it is. I hope no one I love ever gets Alzheimers or dementia, but if they do, I'll be coming back to this one.

Alright, there it is. Some of the best I read this year (a true best-of list would've included all the Austen books I re-read, but that hardly seems fair). Here's hoping all of you had an excellent reading year as well (what's on your top ten list?). May you all have a Happy New Year, with no head colds for you!

Monday, December 16, 2019

There's Magic For You Too

I've started a little tradition of writing a Christmas essay every year. You can read my essay from 2018 here, from 2017 here, and from 2015 here (I had a baby in December of 2016, nothing traditional happened that year). This essay is a little different than the usual ones, but I hope it still resonates with someone out there.

Luke 10: 38-42

38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman name Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, does thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

As a child, I loved Christmas. It was beautiful and twinkly and magical!

But my mother hated it. I never understood this. How can you hate Christmas?

Now I am a mother, and I understand a little bit more. She hated Christmas because someone has to create the magic, and creating the magic is exhausting.

It is my job now to create the magic. The magic doesn’t make itself! Someone has to mail the Christmas cards! Someone has to make the neighbor gifts, and the teacher gifts! Someone has to find the perfect garland for the mantle, because it’s not going to find itself! Someone has to make the gingerbread cookies, and volunteer at the class parties, and find the baby sitter for the office party, and buy the tickets for the show, and plan all the activities! Someone has to buy the presents and wrap the presents and fill the stockings! And my goodness, someone has to make all that food! All the holiday food, for all the guests!

I am the host now, and I am cumbered about with much serving. I am careful and troubled about many things.

And honestly, I have a lot of sympathy for Martha. People need to be fed, or they get grumpy. Guests need to be taken care of. Children need to be put down for naps, and fed, and bathed, and put to bed. Dishes need to be washed. Houses need to be cleaned. Work needs to be done! There is so much work that always needs to be done, and so much more work at this time of year. It is good work too. Work in the service of other people. Work to make them happy, to give them magic. Sometimes I feel a little bit annoyed with Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. She was cumbered about serving him! She was feeding him! Making things clean for him!

And all the work I do at Christmas time, all the magic I create, is for Him too! I’m serving my family and loved ones, I’m spreading His love, and I’m helping my children to feel the magic not just of this season, but the magic of His love. It is a good work, a good service to be cumbered about with.

But I’m also exhausted.

And I feel the itching, the scratching at the back of my mind. “Mary hath chosen that good part.”

Christ did not say that Martha’s work was pointless. He did not say that feeding and caring for others was wrong, or sinful, or that Martha wasn’t doing good. He simply pointed out that while nurturing others was a wonderful thing, it was not wonderful to the point of neglecting her own soul. There is good, and there is better, and there is best.

Yes, someone needs to make the food and do the dishes. But no one will starve if Martha sits down for a minute to take care of herself first. The Lord was gently reminding Martha, and all the wonderful hostesses and nurturers and caregivers in the world that their own salvation matters too.

So this Christmas, I’m choosing the good part. Oh, sure, I’m still hosting my family and will spend hours in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. I’m still wrapping all the presents and delivering all the neighbor gifts and making as much magic happen as I can. But I will find as many moments as I can to sit and listen. To feel my Savior, and what He has to say to me this time of year. I deserve to be nurtured and spiritually fed too. I deserve to feel the magic.

And so do all my fellow mothers and homemakers and hostesses out there. Yes, we are careful and troubled about many things. But we deserve to be nurtured too, and our Lord will nurture us if we take the time to stop and listen. We can stop making the magic happen for others and, at least for a minute, bask in the magic the Lord is making for us. We can stop cooking and baking all the things for just a moment to sit and eat of the Bread of Life. Things will not fall apart. The world will go on spinning. The Lord gave Martha permission, and you have it too. Permission to take care of your soul.

What does it matter if we make Christmas so magical for everyone else that we forget to feel it ourselves?

And so, if you feel yourself hating the season just little bit, if you are feeling the stress, the anxiety, the pressure of doing all the things, if you are feeling careful and troubled about many things, and feel like lashing out “Lord, dost thou not care that my (insert husband, sister, mother, father, children, friends, world) hath left me to serve alone!” then maybe that’s a clue that you need to stop for a moment. Take a seat. Listen. Choose the good part.

There’s magic for you too.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Books I Read in November

Hi guys! I'm still here, still around, despite my once-a-month posting here and my almost complete non-existence on social media. I've been doing my best to keep my head down and keep focused on preparing for my exams which have now been scheduled officially for January 24, so just under two months of torture left. It will be an incredibly busy two months, with finishing up this semester (so much grading), preparing to host almost my whole family for Christmas, plus planning a baptism (for my oldest) and the usual melee of birthday celebrations (three this year, since my brother will be with us and his birthday is actually on Christmas day), and then traveling on a Disney cruise the first week of January (don't tell my kids, it's a surprise), then returning to the hustle of lesson planning for the new semester, not to mention still prepping for said exams on top of all of this. I'm just trying to say, I will probably still be a bit absent around here for a while yet, though I will try to sneak in my best-of year end reading list.

But! I have some really exciting plans for the blog coming next year. I'll give more details later, but I'm teaching a brand new, designed-by-me, 200-level Topics in English course next semester, and I want to let you guys in on the fun! I'm so excited for this course, and I suspect some of you might be interested in it too, so I'm planning to post lecture and discussion notes here! Like I said, I'll give more information later, including the syllabus in case any of you are actually interested in reading along with my students (might be helpful, because the discussion notes will probably contain spoilers, but I'll give warning). Anyway, just thought I'd let you know that interesting and exciting (at least to me) content will be returning to the blog shortly!

In other news, I hope all of you had a lovely Thanksgiving break. Mine was just about perfect, full of family and food, and just enough down-time to actually feel a bit rested. And, I was able to get the Christmas decorations up, although a good deep-clean of the house did not happen (alas, never ask to use the bathroom if you happen to visit us...). I purposefully tried to slow down my reading rate this month. I experimented with adding more "silence" to my day, and listened to more music instead of just audio books. Yes, it was Christmas music (I'll hold off on decorating till after Thanksgiving, but I can't help but blast the Christmas tunes Nov. 1st on). And... I still managed to read seven books. My light months are another person's heavy months, what can I say? Also, the jury's still out on whether the slower reading pace was necessary or not... I guess I discovered I'm just as comfortable with myself in silence as I am while listening to a really good book, so why not listen to a really good book? I feel like I could write a whole post about this, hopefully I'll get the chance some day. For now, let's dive in to the books I did read!

Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

I saw a lot of people read and recommend this one last month, so I decided to pick it up myself. And I liked it, though I can't say I loved it. I was a bit wary at first, because it seemed to have a bit of the flavor of Liane Moriarty's books (her older sister), which I don't love (contemporary dishy drama). But this one ended up being quite a bit more... philosophically whimsical? Bordering on magical realism (or not, she leaves it up to you)? Anyway, it was worth finishing.

Golden Son by Pierce Brown

This is book 2 in the Red Rising series (I read the first one last month), and I dove into book 3 right after this one, but then had to stop a few pages in because my goodness these books are so brutal. I still plan on finishing the 3rd one, I just need a bit of space first. It's a very interesting series, but gets pretty dark. Anyway, I don't necessarily recommend it to actual young adults, but if you like dark dystopia (plus sci-fi), this is still a recommend.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Needing a bit of a palate cleanser after the last book, I went in the complete opposite direction with this nineteenth century classic on middle class marriage. Guys, this book is brilliant. I mean it. An absolute masterpiece. I read it for the first time in high school (and loved it then), but re-reading it now after eleven years of marriage... Eliot's insights into marriage and expectations and women's purpose in life... just beyond genius. It is so good. This book examines two not very happy marriages under a microscope, and I wish she would've done the same for the happy marriages (because yes, there are happy marriages in this book too). Such interesting, complex, beautifully crafted characters! If you haven't read this one yet, you really should.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

This was another re-read for me (wanted it for October, but apparently so did everybody else, because this is when it came off the holds list). And while there is nothing quite like reading this book for the first time, the experience of re-reading it is still absolutely fantastic (especially since the beginning isn't quite so disorienting). Even knowing all the secrets and what happens in the end, it was still just a marvel to see how Du Maurier weaves this suspenseful tale. Another brilliant classic you must read if you have not already.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This book was fascinating. I devoured it in one day, and then gushed about it to my husband. The short version is that Shapiro and her husband both decided to take DNA tests for fun, but Shapiro's test surprisingly reveals that while her mother is her mother, her father is not her father. This, of course, was devastating news, and sends her on a journey to find all the answers she can (and this may be a spoiler, but no, her mother did not have an affair, which I know is what you're thinking). There were lots of chords it struck with me: the importance of cultural and biological inheritance, the influence of genealogy on identity, the incredible science of DNA, the whole Spirit of Elijah, etc. I think it struck me too because, like Shapiro, I have a pretty significant religious ancestry through my father (my maiden name is Smith, and yes, I am one of those Smiths), and I could just imagine the devastation of losing my connection to that heritage through a simple DNA test (I've not taken a DNA test, but considering that my second son is the spitting image of my father, I'm fairly confident I wouldn't be surprised if I took one). Anyway, this was a very interesting story, and I definitely recommend.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Holy cow I loved this book! And I'm also ashamed it took me this long to read it! I own two beautiful copies of it, and I've seen the movie at least a dozen times (I love the movie, it is wonderful), but I had always put off reading the book until now. And it is so freaking good. I mean, the movie has some changes that I like (including the Ramayana stories, the WWI subplot, her dad actually being alive), but they left out how much of a book worm Sara is! And also, the book just does such a better job of portraying how Sara hangs on to her "princess" identity, what it means to her. I loved it so much. I can't wait to read this one to my kids! So, so good!

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

This is another book I've seen getting fairly good reviews lately, and I always like a book about book people, so I threw it on the holds list. I did not like it at first. At first, I thought the author was making up some fantasy race (people with blue skin), which I found entirely tasteless. But when I realized this was a real medical condition, and this story was based on a real family in Kentucky, I became quite a bit more interested. I won't say the story was really well written or absolutely my favorite (I didn't like the way it ended, nor how the love story developed, and I didn't quite feel the crushing sadness I think I was supposed to feel), but I did find the historical bits to be interesting, and had no problems finishing it. I wouldn't call it a must read, but it's good enough.

There we go. Not as many books as usual, but some incredibly good ones this month. As always, have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts! I'm hoping to find some good seasonal reads for December (beyond A Christmas Carol, this seems like such an impossible task), so if you have any recommends please send them my way!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Books I Read in October

Guys, it makes zero sense to me. I don't know how I'm doing it. Honestly. Somehow, despite the fact that October was chock full of mad studying for exams, grading stress, the nastiest cold that knocked all of us out for two weeks, and all the Halloween shenanigans... I still managed to have a record breaking reading month.

18 books. And one of those books was the longest book I've read this year. I passed the hundred mark for the year this month. !!!!!!!

Like I said, I don't even know how I'm doing it (I mean, audio books at double speed on my commute is mostly how I'm doing it, but still...). Anyway, it's a ton of books to get through and I don't have a lot of time (I should be studying for those exams right now, not writing this post) so let's get going.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I spent the first part of the month finishing off my re-read of all my Austen favorites (my annual fall tradition). Guys, if you haven't read this short little epistolary novel by Austen, you are missing out! It has the most deliciously wicked title character, and is just a pure gossipy treat! Plus it's a super quick read. And they also managed to make a pretty good movie adaptation of it called Love and Friendship, which now that I'm thinking about it, I really need to see again.

Emma by Jane Austen

While this book is not my favorite Austen (Emma tends to drive me nuts a bit, and I struggle with the age difference of this romance, the line about him falling in love with her when she was thirteen always tends to make me gag), I'm struck by the brilliance of her narrative structure every time. I mean, the way she conceals major plot points but drops hints of them throughout it just the most sheer genius. Austen is beyond amazing.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I'm late to the bandwagon on this one. It was entertaining enough, the plot was very clever and structured in a very creative and interesting way, so that mystery element of it was quite good. But I never quite fell in love with it (the dad bothered me so much, I never liked him in the end). I can see why other people love it though. It was just a little too soap-opera-y at points for me to really enjoy.

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon

You may be thinking, do I really need to read another book about reading aloud to my children when I'm already reading aloud to my children? And I don't know about you, but apparently the answer for me is yes. Always yes. I just can't get enough of the topic. The Read Aloud Family was amazing in its own way, and this one is amazing in an entirely different way, and I emphatically recommend both books, even if you already read to your children every day. This one is so, so good.

Tales of Alvin Maker Books 1-6 by Orson Scott Card

(I'm reviewing all six books at once, no need for individual reviews of this series.) So I read the first two books in this series circa middle school, but my dad wouldn't let me read the third one. I saw something about this series recently, remembered how much I liked it initially, and figured I was probably old enough now to handle whatever my dad was trying to shield me from (turns out it was white master sexual abuse of his slaves, totally get why my dad censored that). This series is a fascinating, magical rewriting of the Joseph Smith story and American history. I think it is super creative and a very thought-provoking interpretation of both Smith and the American story. If you enjoy historical fantasy mythology, this is a total recommend. The first two books are the best, it tends to get long-winded after that. And the series isn't finished yet (there's supposed to be seven books, but it's been well over a decade now and we're all losing hope it's ever going to happen).

Enchantee by Gita Trelease

I have a thing for magical historical fiction, which is why I thought this book would be right up my alley (French revolution with magic? Yes please!). Except it was entirely forgettable. Nothing special here.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

I loved Peace Like a River so much, so I've been looking forward to this long anticipated next book by Enger, and well, it's not quite the same level as Peace. That being said, the writing is still amazing and beautiful and I loved every second of this book, just floating along with the beautiful language and the lovely characters, and I just wanted this book to go on and on and on. The plot was strange, I'm not sure if I understand the point, but I don't really care. I was just there for the lovely writing. Recommend.

 Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

This book was a lovely (and strange, and disgusting) mix of memoir and philosophical reflection on death. Doughty has always been a little obsessed with death, so fresh out of college she gets a job at a crematory. And boy, does she have some stories! Her writing is funny and entertaining (and only a few of her stories are gross), and she is on a mission to change death culture in America. If you've read Being Mortal, they basically have the same message, that one is just from the medical side of things, and Doughty is coming at this from the funeral industry side of things. I learned a ton, and have basically decided I'm all in for a natural decomposition burial (no embalming, please!). The subject is maybe a little dark (thus the October read), but it's an important topic that we don't talk about or think about enough as a culture. I definitely recommend.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

I gave this three stars on Goodreads, but it really might be a four star for me, I just wish it had more accessible writing. Wolf is an educational psychologist who studies exactly what goes on in the brain when a person is reading. It was fascinating to me on so many levels (she studies from a scientific point of view what I think about from a literary point of view). She offers a history of reading, a look inside what's going on in the brain, and especially a fascinating dive into dyslexia. The only problem is, while she claims this is for a general audience, her tone and style are still pretty heavily academic, which makes this a less entertaining read than I wanted it to be. Others might find it difficult to slog through, but I think it's well worth it (especially if you have a kid with dyslexia). Fascinating stuff.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Guys, this was a strange, quirky little story, with elements that I can only describe as fantastical (maybe magical realism? Not quite, but borderline). I'm not quite sure I loved it, but I definitely enjoyed it, especially all the descriptions of food (I just love good food writing). Also, there were some pretty interesting insights into the whole San Francisco tech company scene (they talk about a food replacement called Slurry I think, and I just found out yesterday that this is a real thing! Only it's called Soylent! Gross! Why would they call it that?!?!?). Anyway, this is a fun one.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

My sister recommended this one to us when we visited her this summer, and my husband actually listened to it first, and then told me I should read it, so I did. I think if I'd read this a decade or so ago (before Hunger Games), I would've really loved it. It tries really hard to do some creative things with the YA dystopian genre (which is what sucked me in at first), but ends up falling into pretty much most of the cliches. It's rather dark and violent, but if you really like YA dystopia, then I definitely recommend this. The mash-up description I'd use is Hunger Games meets Roman mythology meets sci-fi terraforming Mars. It is something.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

Okay, let's talk about seasonal reading. I love doing seasonally appropriate reads in October, so at the beginning of the month I put a few old favorites on hold (Dracula, Rebecca) but apparently everyone else around here had the same idea, because I'm still waiting for them. So I needed something to fill my time with, and I've been meaning to re-read this classic for a while now (I read it back in high school I think), and decided now was as good a time as any. And guess what? Revenge, murder, drug trips, poison, carnival, executions, prisons, pirates... this is a totally appropriate October read! I finished it on Halloween, and boy, I have more thoughts than can fit here in this little mini-review, so I'll just save that for another day. But basically, it is long (longest book I've read this year), but totally worth your time.

Okay, and that's it for a pretty fantastic reading month. I've actually slowed things down here in November (which I'll maybe talk about another time), but I'm still pretty impressed with my reading rate here. Anyway, have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

Monday, October 14, 2019

Books I Read in September

Well, now, we're only about half-way through October, so not too late to post about my September reading, is it?

But first, hi! How are you all? It's been a minute. I'm still drowning over here in the work load to prep for my exams, but I discovered last week that, due to some administrative policy stuff and academic calendar conflicts, my exams won't take place until January sometime (we'd originally been planning for them to happen towards the end of November). So, while that means that my work and stress will continue over Christmas break (which frustrates me to no end, I really wanted to just get them over with to enjoy the holidays), right now it does mean the pressure has eased up some, and I feel like I can take a minute to pop on over here.

So, despite most of my listening time in September being dedicated to Shakespeare (I listened to/read 18 of his plays in the span of about six weeks, which is actually only just over half of his total credited output, so no, I still do not feel like I can call myself an expert on Shakespeare), I actually managed to listen to 7 books just for fun, which honestly is a fantastic number for any month, so I'm pretty pleased with that. Here's what I read:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

I'd read several rave reviews of this book, and since I genuinely enjoy business and management books, I decided to check it out. And yeah, the story is unbelievable and shocking and gripping and all the more so because it's true and not the stuff of fiction (it seriously feels like someone could not have made up a more sensational story). But mostly it just made me sad, because honestly, I really do want a successful female startup founder in Silicon Valley, and it's just so frustrating that Elizabeth Holmes was such a sociopath. Anyway, I wouldn't call this a must-read, but if you enjoy the business/management genre, or if you like sensational nonfiction, then this one is quite the ride.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

I saw this one pop up in a few places, and the premise sounded like something I would enjoy. And yes, I did find myself relating to Nina Hill quite a bit, in that I could see myself living a very similar quiet life of order and routine if I had found myself single at her age. It was both vastly appealing (imagine entire evenings devoted to quiet solitary reading!), and a bit depressing. I certainly don't struggle with anxiety the way she does, but even so, I came away quite grateful my life has always been brim-full of family. Anyway, the plot and romance are sweet, but nothing to write home about. It's not necessarily a book that will stay with me, but if you like fluffy bookish romances, you'll probably like this one.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Last year I decided to make it an official annual tradition to re-read Jane Austen's oeuvre every fall (except probably Northanger Abbey, which really never needs to be re-read). So anyway, as a birthday treat to myself (yes, my birthday is in September), I started the re-read with this one. This is probably my 5th time reading Pride and Prejudice, and honestly, when I was done I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start over again. What a lovely, lovely book. Can't wait till next year!

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Janssen over at Everyday Reading spent some time raving about this book last month, and I remembered that I had read it probably when I was in middle school, and I also remembered really liking it, but I remembered almost nothing else about it. So I pulled it up for a quick re-read and... it wasn't quite as good as I remembered it being. I mean, it was fine. It's still a really interesting re-imagining of the story, and Beauty is a great character, and some of it is very captivating. But there were other parts that felt underdeveloped, or even overdeveloped (my goodness, it takes half the book before we even get to the castle!), and parts dragged for me, and then the end was just all of a sudden and it was over! Anyway, I think I still recommend this in general, I just probably don't need to re-read it again any time soon.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Did you know that the French didn't like the way this book ended, so they rewrote the ending to have Marianne end up with Willoughby when this book was translated and published across the channel!?!?! Honestly, I think they missed the whole point. After re-reading this again, I just couldn't help agreeing that Austen got it perfectly right in the end (despite the rather disturbing age gap between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, but it was a different time...). Anyway, do you agree with Austen, or with the French?

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Okay, this is definitely one of Austen's hidden gems. Lady Susan is such a villainous, deceptive title character, it's delicious! And the epistolary structure of the book is just genius (until the end, which is sorely underdeveloped). If you haven't read this one yet, you really should. Also, the movie adaptation (Love and Friendship) was really well done and absolutely worth the watch if you haven't seen it yet (I really wanted to re-watch it after reading this one again).

Persuasion by Jane Austen

This one used to be my absolute favorite Austen book. I'm not sure it still holds that title (not that any other book has overtaken it, more that I just find all of them to be so fantastic for different reasons), but it is still perfection. Just utter perfection.

Well, there it is. I also want to throw in here that my reading goal for the year was to read 75 books for pleasure. I passed that number up in August; Goodreads informs me that at this point (the end of September) I'd read 87 books for the year. Even I'm a little staggered by that pace. Clearly I've become a bit of a reading fiend (well, let's be honest here, a listening fiend, it's mostly audio books)! Maybe I shouldn't count re-reads? But I already mostly don't count my school reading. Anyway, I'm sure I'll have all sorts of thoughts about this in my end-of-year recap post. Have you read any of these? Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Books I Read in August

Well, according to Goodreads, I only read 10 books in August. Which is still a lot of books, just down quite a bit from my record high of 17 books in July. I would like to say that my on-fire reading pace hasn't actually slowed down, I'm just choosing not to include in this list the 10 or 11 early modern plays I read this month, as I feel weird counting plays as books (that's a whole discussion), and because I'm technically reading them in preparation for my exams, so they don't really count as pleasure reading. Although, I must say it's been fascinating to read all of Shakespeare's best plays at once (I'm not through them all yet, but should be by mid-September) and feel like I'm sort of just standing in a fire-hose, drenching myself in the beauty of the Bard's words. Maybe I'll write about it some time, but probably not until after my exams are over.

For now, let's jump into my August reading recap.

Dawn at Emberwilde by Sarah E. Ladd

I feel like someone somewhere recommended this to me as being similar to Edenbrooke, which is a really fantastic (if entirely fluffy) historical romance. This book is not fantastic. Not even close. It was a historical romance, it was clean, it was fine, but I've absolutely forgotten almost everything about it. Don't bother.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Five stars. Just, so, so much good writing here. Okay, this is one of those slow character-driven books with not much plot, definitely more literary. But here's what I love so much about Berry's writing: he takes the ordinary life of a farmer's wife, a woman who lives a mostly happy life with only the small regular tragedies of anybody, a woman who lives a small, insignificant life by the world's standards, and he makes that life epic and important and incredibly beautiful. I just loved it so much, and I found myself sobbing at one point, and I just love when beautiful writing makes me feel like that. This book made me want to write my own life story, if only I could find the words like this to make it feel this beautiful. Strong recommend.

The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

This was so much fun. Historical fiction with a magic/fantasy rewrite, and a gender-flip plot. Here's the premise: it's World War I in a world where women have developed remarkable "philosophical" abilities to manipulate energy and matter using "sigils" that allow them to fly, summon smoke, heal the human body, and any number of other interesting super-powers. Men can do this "philosophy" too, but generally not nearly as well as women. Enter Robert Weeks, raised by a mother and sisters who have taught him everything they know about philosophical flight. His only dream is to be accepted to the elite all female Rescue and Evacuation Service Corps serving in the war, but his he good enough to hang with the girls? I enjoyed this world immensely, and look forward to reading the next in the series. Also, I immediately recommended this to my husband, as I suspect he'll enjoy it quite a bit as well.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss

Okay, this one was completely fascinating and a definite high recommend, but I have some quibbles with it. Voss is a former FBI hostage and crisis negotiator, and he is clearly good at his job. He now works as a consultant for businesses, so most of his advice works really, really well in a business negotiation situation (I immediately recommended this book to my husband as well, because he's a contract attorney in the middle of business negotiations all the time, I feel like this will be super helpful for him). Voss's stories, both from his time in the FBI and from his time in the corporate world were fascinating, and his insight into how negotiating works made me feel like even I could be a good negotiator (this from a girl who avoids conflict at all costs). However, Voss makes big claims about how his communication strategies can work in every negotiation situation in life, including with personal relationships. I can see where some of that makes sense, but he doesn't really delve into that much, and I really wish he would have, because I don't know that I actually agree. I don't think you can apply some of these negotiating principles in a marriage (like, you really should never compromise with your spouse, really? And faking empathy with a terrorist is one thing, but in a marriage, shouldn't it be real empathy, and doesn't that change things?) or with young kids. Those are the people I negotiate with daily, and that's the book I would like to read. Anyway, lots to think about with this one, I certainly don't want to forget what I've learned.

The Girl He Used To Know by Tracy Garvis Graves

I can't remember who recommended this to me, but I was intrigued by the premise. Romance stories with people on the autism spectrum seem to be a thing right now, and I was interested to see how this relationship worked, and what life was like for Annika. However, where this book lost me was when it used 9/11 as a plot device to show us all just what this character is made of. I don't know why that irked me so much, but it felt like too much. Anyway, not a strong recommend from me.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

A re-read for me, to gear up for another stressful and busy school year. Just as good as the first time. Look, if you haven't read this one yet, then you really just need to go get it right now and fix that. It is such good stuff here about actually living an intentional life.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

You guys! What a revelation this book was to me! How have I not heard of it before!? My friend Sarah sent me a link to a podcast she thought I would appreciate, all about this book. As soon as I finished listening to the podcast, I put this book on hold at my library, read it in one day, then altered all my lesson plans to include this book in my first unit for English 101. Here's the basic premise: Donald Miller wrote a memoir called Blue Like Jazz that apparently did fairly well (I've never heard of it, not read it), so two filmmakers contact him and ask him if they can turn that book into a movie. They sit down to write the screen play together, and Miller discovers that despite being able to write a very reflective memoir, his life doesn't actually make a good story. They basically have to make things up to turn his life into a movie. This prompts Miller to learn everything he can about what makes a good story, and then he goes on a journey to live a better story, to make his life a better story. I mean, you can probably see why I loved that. Live a better story! So powerful! Also, I've sat in classes before where people have argued that literature is "post-story" and we no longer have need for narratives or meaning. This book articulates every reason why that is absolute rubbish.

The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima

Continuing on with my reread of this series. This is Book 3, and probably my least favorite. But it's still very good.

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

And moved right on to book 4, which is such a stellar ending to a stellar series. Also, while reading this, I realized that while the writing may not actually be that fantastic (I mean, it's fine as far as YA fantasy goes), what I love most about this series is how well it does world-building and politics. I've never seen another more politically intricate YA plot ever, and it's all sorts of fun.

Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis

I wasn't super in-love with Hollis' first book (Girl, Wash Your Face) which I read in July, but I kind of got interested in her life again after reading somewhere that her husband left his high-level job at Disney to run her company. She's a bit of an over-sharer, so you learn a lot about her life in these books (like her chapter on sex in her first book, or her chapter on her boob-job in this one). Anyway, my opinion still stands: some of the advice she gives worked for her but should not be taken as a universal truth (oh man, she needs to stop with the diet advice!), but I can see how she's quite motivational. I actually think I appreciated this one a tiny bit more since I found some of her goal-setting advice to be useful (I'm not sure I found anything in the first book useful). Anyway, not a must a read, but it was a good pump-me-up for starting the semester off strong.

Okay guys, there you go. All in all, a pretty good month of reading. Now that I'm back in school, things will probably slow down a bit on the pleasure reading front, but I'll still have my commute to squeeze some good stuff in (though, I'm also listening to all my Shakespeare plays, so my school work is cutting into that time). Anyway, I shouldn't be back here until next month with another round of mini-reviews. But I'll be missing you guys in the meantime!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Summer Recap

I always have such high hopes for summer. For a few months, I get to be a real stay-at-home mom. I get to focus on my projects, my pleasure reading, my agenda. There's time to get the house back in order after a school year of neglect. And there's time for fun. Road trips! Reunions! Swimming and park playing and staying up late to watch movies!

And then, of course, you get a few weeks in and despite having finally scrubbed all the bathrooms for the first time in months every surface is dirtier than ever because we are all home all day long making messes, and those trips to the park actually turn out to be kind of miserable because it is so dang sweaty hot, and staying up late for fun activities does not translate to my kids sleeping in later the next morning (why can everyone else's kids sleep in?!?!?) so they are all super grumpy, and there are several attempts at potty training that make me want to lose my mind, and I realize all over again that being a stay-at-home mom is actually just as difficult as being a working mom because of that incredibly draining part where your children never seem to let you even go to the bathroom alone, or so much as finish a thought. Living in a state of constant distraction is exhausting.

So here we are, dragging ourselves to the finish line of summer. My oldest has been in school for a week-and-half now, but the Littles and I start on Monday. I'm both salivating over that quiet little dungeon office where I'll get to spend up to six uninterrupted hours a day not wiping poop off of anyone's bum, and feeling incredibly apprehensive and sad that our beautiful season of freedom and fun is over. In an effort to help remind myself that this summer actually was fun (and not just an unending series of tantrums and bug bites), I'm journaling some of our highlights here. It's all about perspective, so let's focus on the positive!

Smith Family Reunion

My family is pretty spread apart, and we hadn't all been together since my brother's wedding in 2016. Two babies joined the family in the meantime, and it was well past time for us to get together again, so we finally made an official reunion happen this past June in Island Park, Idaho (my aunt and uncle own a cabin there which was able to house the whole crew, and it was just perfect!).

We had the longest trek to make to get there, and we broke it up into a two-day road trip which was actually fairly pleasant.

My favorite part of the road trip was pulling over to a rest stop in the mountains above Jackson Hole to build a snowman! In June! It was a little piece of whimsy that the kids talked about for days, and was so worth the fifteen minute delay and muddy shoes.

We rafted down streams, spent a day hiking in Yellowstone, saw waterfalls, ate a ton of really good food, played games, sang songs and roasted marshmallows by the campfire, and generally had an amazing time just hanging out together.

We hired a photographer to get some real family pictures together, and while it was a bit of a miserable experience (the sun sets so late we couldn't start till 8 PM, and with the time zone change my kids were exhausted and going crazy and had to be bribed with a constant stream of jelly beans, also it was really cold, because, Idaho), but it was worth every penny. Beautiful family, beautiful location, beautiful memories. I love these people so much, and I'm so happy we got to spend time with them all again, even if it was just a few days.

4th of July

You guys, I didn't take a single picture worth mentioning over the 4th of July. I blame this on the fact that my husband was out of town for five days over that holiday. He went to a board game convention in Florida and spent his Independence Day playing game after game after game in a hotel ballroom with a bunch of other sweaty guys (actually there were some women too, and even children!) (and, also, it wasn't all that sweaty, because my husband complained about how fierce the AC was the whole time). I, on the other hand, corralled the three kids over to my in-laws for a weekend of barbecues and paddleboarding on the lake (although we got rained out on that adventure), and staying up late to watch fireworks (and then being very grumpy the next day, because like I said, my kids are physically incapable of sleeping in). It was all much fun, but solo parenting (even with in-laws involved) over a holiday weekend with sugared up kids is anything but relaxing. Also, we got some of the worst chigger bites of the season this weekend. Summer highs and lows right there.

San Francisco Trip

My sister has been living in the Bay Area for the past three years, and I always figured we'd get out there to visit her and get a good tour of her stomping grounds at some point. But then this spring she up and applied to MBA school and got accepted and suddenly we had a deadline to get out there this summer before she moved back to Utah. So we squeezed a weekend trip in between conventions and reunions. We bought our plane tickets back in May when this seemed like the best weekend available, but then her really good friend went and got engaged and scheduled her wedding for this very same weekend. So it ended up being a bit of a crazy schedule, with her trying to balance being tour guide and maid of honor, and we ended up crashing the wedding reception (which I didn't mind one bit, considering the bride's family owns a chocolate company and that dessert table was one of the most exquisite things I've ever seen, and you better believe I left that party stuffing handfuls of decadent chocolates in my pockets and purse).

We actually ended up missing our flight out of Kansas City (it was a super early morning flight, and we naturally got out the door a little later than planned (guys, 3:45 AM is hard on a body), and din't take into account the fact that security would be bonkers that time of day, but surprisingly United was amazing and rebooked us on a new flight out just forty minutes later (and even refunded us $10 per flight? Because it was cheaper?), but because of the stress of it all by the time we landed I had a major headache and was super nauseous. It took me half a sandwich, a couple of ibuprofen, and nearly throwing up on the side of the road before I picked up enough energy to dive into our touristing schedule. Our first stop was the Golden Gate Bridge (naturally), and I feel like I still look a bit peaky in this photo, but all that brisk Bay breeze up on the bridge really helped pick me back up. I'll spare you the onslaught of photos, but we spent the rest of this day roaming around San Fran, and what a charming little city that is! Never want to live there, but it was so fun to visit!

Day 2 included some hiking in the redwoods, hitting up the beach at Half Moon Bay, and then an evening strolling about Stanford campus and the Palo Alto area (not pictured, but really beautiful campus).

Saturday was wedding day. We did a session in the newly renovated Oakland temple during the ceremony, and made it out in time to catch some photos of the wedding party. You can see my sister there in her maid-of-honor glory (she's not really that much taller than me, she just had on some fancy high heels and I was in flats). The reception was down in Carmel, which was about 2.5 hours south of Oakland, so we headed down there. Nathan and I wandered about that cute little touristy town and had a little picnic dinner on the beach before crashing the latter end of the reception. We flew out super early Sunday morning, so it was a quick trip, but I'm so glad we made it! It was a ton of fun and I would not mind a more extensive trip back to the Bay Area again some day (and next time, I'll be prepared with warmer jackets, those are chilly beaches!).

Tanner Family Reunion

Toward the end of July, we had a small Tanner family reunion on my husband's side. This one was close to home for us, because it revolved around his little sister's mission farewell, so it all happened at my in-law's home and we just had to travel across the border to Missouri. Festivities were dampened quite a bit, however, when my father-in-law suffered a minor stroke the week before the reunion, and then in the hospital they discovered even more serious and concerning issues with his heart that required quite a few procedures. So he was in the hospital for the whole weekend, and several of the planned activities were canceled and he missed the farewell talk.

We had quite a time cramming this crew into his hospital room for visits a couple times.

But we did manage to make it out to the lake for a fun swim day with the cousins! So it was still a great time.

The week after that was rather stressful for my in-laws, as Evy continued to prepare for her mission while my father-in-law prepared for what we thought at the time was going to be open-heart triple-bypass surgery. We went out to dinner with the family the night before Evy left, and then we headed over to the hospital where she was set apart. She flew to Utah the next day while my father-in-law went in for surgery. They ended up not doing the bypass surgery, opting instead for stents (which, while being a less invasive surgery, was actually a choice they made to keep him viable for a heart transplant at some point in the future). Anyway, while everything is fine and he's home from the hospital now and recovering well, we were all a little tense and stressed for a while there. Like I said, this summer has been all about highs and lows.

Little Things

We had a lot of other smaller activities, of course. I tried to plan some fun outings on a weekly basis. We usually made it to the library once a week, and had the occasional swimming or splash pad outing, or trip to the local nature preserve. Some of these little outings were fun, most were a struggle. If it wasn't the two-year-old throwing one of her epic tantrums, it was the four-year-old having an anxiety melt-down, or the seven-year-old exhibiting some early signs of attitude (everything was dumb and boring, which made me want to scream at him so much). Kids are so unappreciative of how awesome their lives are.

Surprisingly, while taking my kids on outings was usually a flop, staying home and in our usual routine was shockingly successful this summer. All three of my kids play really well together, and they had a great summer making circuses in the backyard, and building block cities around the basement, and all around just keeping each other entertained together. I mean, we had occasional spats (usually between the younger two), but I've got to say, this is the cutest group of little sibling friends, and it melts my heart every day to see how much they enjoy each other. I hope this dynamic lasts forever (fingers crossed!).

And speaking of staying home and sticking to routine, we actually had a surprising amount of success with chore charts this summer too, which I might write about at some point. And also, it meant I got a ton of reading in. So maybe that sounds super boring, but hey, I'm calling it a win!

But, it's over now, and we all head back to school/preschool/daycare on Monday. This semester will be very different for me, as I no longer have any coursework of my own. I will still be teaching and holding office hours, but I will be spending the rest of my time reading like mad to prepare for my exams (orals, comps, whatever they are called) which I'm tentatively scheduled to take around the end of November. I have so much work to do (I am feeling so much overwhelm and anxiety about preparing for these exams), but the scary thing is, this starts the part of my PhD journey that is all self-directed. I'm in charge of my schedule, and while there is a ton of work to do, I'm the one who has to set the pacing. So, if you notice me posting here or on Instagram a little too frequently, feel free to remind me to stop procrastinating (writing here will definitely be one of my pleasant procrastination tactics!) and get back to reading all the early modern drama! I really need to be disciplined, which means I probably need to be a little MIA around here.

So farewell sweet summer! Good-bye dear readers! I'll drop by occasionally (got to keep up with my monthly round-up posts at least), but you really shouldn't hear much from me until exams are over. Wish me luck!