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!