Thursday, April 9, 2020

Books I Read in March

Well, hello there! It's been a minute, and since the last time I wrote, the world has fallen apart.

So here's a bit of a brief update. I've been hesitant to post this kind of an update, because it seems incredibly insensitive to everyone out there who is experiencing any mental, emotional, economic, or physical health problems right now, but honestly? Quarantine is my dream life come true. I was built for quarantine. Never leave the house? Be in charge of my own schedule? Spend 24/7 with only my most favorite people ever? Yes! Yes! and Yes!

I definitely want to acknowledge that part of my joy in this situation is due to our definite privilege. My husband's job is very secure and he has no problems working from home (considering his boss lives in a different state, 90% of his job was already phone calls, emails, and virtual meetings). It's honestly been a harder adjustment for me to work from home (figuring out how to teach my courses online has been disheartening and disappointing), but my job is also very secure for the time being. Considering how much less we are spending on gas, childcare, and other things right now, we'll probably come out of this situation in a better financial place than otherwise, and that is something that makes me feel incredibly guilty.

But also, it's my favorite part of the day when I get the kids going on quiet time in the afternoons and amble down to the office and sit across from my husband and we get a few quiet hours together just working and occasionally chatting. He's my favorite office mate by far (he's just so nice to look at, even with the quarantine beard he's growing out of laziness...). It feels so perfect, like exactly the life I would design if I could design a life (except with a live-in Mary Poppins nanny, probably, and a cook, and a housekeeper, but that would feel too aristocracy, no?).

This is not to say that everything has been peaches and cream. I mean, I'm trying to work full time from home with three kids around who need constant attention (my 3-year-old in particular is in that difficult stage of, well, being 3, and she wants to be attached at my hip and wants me to do nothing but give her my undivided attention and is also trying to drop her nap and I'm just like, sweetheart, I love you, but you must nap until you are 22, because I need that break from your overwhelming strong little personality!). But we have a loose structured routine in place that means I'm getting between three and four hours of work in a day (which is not enough, but with Saturdays I'm barely keeping my head above water), and the kids are keeping relatively entertained with only a slight increase in screen time (2 hours a day, instead of the 1.5 they used to get, but I can swallow that, desperate times and all).

And while my oldest is bummed his second grade year ended so abruptly, one amazing upside of quarantine is that NOBODY IS SICK! Apparently quarantining and social distancing and not spending six hours a day in the germ swamp of daycare takes care of more than just the Corona virus! For the first time since October nobody has a cough or a runny nose or a random unexplainable fever, and I'm not dealing with the major curse of my life, which is that constant panic feeling of trying to figure out if I can afford to stay home with the sick kid, or if I need to find a babysitter, or if with a little baby Tylenol they can squeak through a school day (awful choices, all of them). I just have to say I am so relieved to get a reprieve from that constant stress cycle.

So yes, I am worried about vulnerable family who might get sick, and vulnerable friends who are struggling with job insecurity, and I'm really feeling for all the mental health issues this quarantine is causing (some of my students are particularly struggling, it's hard). But personally, I'm living my dream, and I don't know if it's going to make anyone else feel better to hear that, but I always like to look for the good, and right now there is so much good in my life.

The one major downside of this new routine (aside from feeling frantically behind in my work all the time) is that I've lost my commute! Which means I've lost my audio book listening time! And considering every spare moment not dedicated to childcare is dedicated to work, my reading life has really, really struggled. I'm hoping once this semester is over and summer break comes along I'll have more time for pleasure reading (and blogging a bit more here), but right now my numbers are really taking a hit. I finished only five books in March, and only one of those has been since the quarantine started, so that's discouraging. Still, they were all fantastic, so let's dive in already and talk about them!

 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This was a recommend from my little sister, and I must say, I'm surprised I'd never heard of her before. It was a National Book Award finalist, and it was beautiful. It was sweeping, epic, and completely fascinating. It follows a family of Koreans through about five generations, starting in Korea, then through a move to Japan before WWII, then through the war and into the 80s. There was so much I didn't know about Japanese-Korean relations (I had no idea the Japanese were that discriminatory!), and after the war these Koreans were in the very strange position of not being welcome in Japan, but not being able to return to their own country that was being ravaged by war. Anyway, there were a few "parts" I didn't love about this book (the casually sexist way women's bodies were talked about, a few scenes that I felt were tangential and unnecessary, etc.), but in general if you like literary fiction, this is a really strong recommend.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

This is a classic that had never been on my radar, but when my friend Amy gives a glowing review, I move things to the top of my "MUST READ NOW" list. And this was fantastic, such a fun and beautiful book to immerse myself in. The writing is just lovely, the voice of the narrator (a fourteen year old boy) in early 1900s Georgia was just pitch perfect. Being set in the south during this time, there are things that don't age well (they've only just started celebrating the 4th of July for the first time since the Civil War!!!), and I could see people taking offense. And honestly, I have my own issues with the main story line (a romance between the grandfather and his new wife, whom he scandalously married a mere three weeks after his first wife dies). But all in all, this is a strong recommend. Why is it that the greatest American writers of the early twentieth century came out of the south? I don't know, but this book is a classic for sure.

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

This is less a memoir (though there are biographical tidbits), and more a discussion of Melinda Gates philanthropic work with her and Bill Gate's foundation, and it is fantastic. I highly recommend it. The main message is that societies that oppress women tend to languish in poverty and have all sorts of problems, whereas societies that begin to educate, respect, and protect the rights of women begin to flourish. The pattern is remarkable, and the Gates' work has just been phenomenal. I've read some about this topic before (Half the Sky has a very similar message), but this book gave me some new stuff to think about (I've not spend a lot of time thinking about birth control before, but the research on the positive impact of birth control was super thought-provoking). I have to admit my favorite part was the glimpse into the Gates family life (Bill Gates drove his kids to school, and participated in dinner clean up by washing the dishes every night!!!). Anyway, this is a strong recommend!

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Last month I read Patchett's Commonwealth, and my friend Torrie commented that she thought Patchett would make a better essayist than novelist. So, here I stumbled into a collection of her essays (or articles published in various magazines)! And yes, she is a fantastic essayist! But reading them collected altogether like this felt like reading Commonwealth, like trying to piece together the coherent narrative of her biography, except all you get are these little snippets, and then it doesn't build to any sort of meaningful ending. So anyway, I still enjoyed it very much (some essays more than others), but I would not call this one a must read, especially if you aren't already a die hard Patchett fan.

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

I used to be a teacher (seventh grade English for one year), my mom has been a teacher for 30 years, both my sisters have teaching degrees, and I have a lot of contacts in the education world. I have opinions. I have strong opinions about education and the right way to do things. And I always felt like I had the inside knowledge to justify those opinions. But this book honestly managed to make me reconsider my opinions, and changed my mind on several things. Basically, I felt like it was mind-blowing. The American education system has a lot of problems, and this book offers some pretty concrete things we could do to fix them. I'm not saying we should be Korea (because no, that system is very broken in its own way), but we should definitely be more like Finland. Definitely. Highly, highly recommend this book to everyone.

Okay, that was it. Not a fantastic month numbers-wise, but a really strong month quality-wise. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear your thoughts! And I hope your quarantine reading is going better than mine! April will probably be another rough month for me (honestly, I shouldn't be taking the time to write this blog post, I'm so behind on grading and my dissertation proposal right now), but I hope I can make up for it in the summer!


  1. I hear you on the loss of reading time in the car! For me it was half podcasts and half books, so I'm attempting to learn to use headphones (earpods?) and listen while doing chores or something, and I am not loving it.

    But I'm with you in not being miserable -- I'm in the privileged position of having a secure income, and I'm loving having my boys home from college. They aren't enjoying distance learning as much as campus life, but at least they are still getting regular meals (apparently the school cafeterias have gone to sack lunches to keep up the distance). We all introverts and my house is big enough that there's room to hole up individually, so we don't get sick of each other.

    There's enough misery being caused by this pandemic that we don't need to add to it unnecessarily. It's not fair, but it is what it is. All we can do is try to help the people that aren't as lucky as we are!

  2. Hey! I'm famous!

    I've had The Smartest Kids in the World on my TBR list forever, but your review means that it is now sitting on my current reading stack, fresh-picked from the library's pick-up program (bless our library for doing this!). I've also had Cold Sassy Tree on the list forever (and own that one), so if I can actually find that amidst all our boxes of books (which have never been unpacked...), I might be picking that up soon, too!

    And don't feel guilty for enjoying this extra time with your family--just be grateful for the gift, and use it as an opportunity to serve others where you can. Serving my mission in a third-world nation taught me that if I thought too long and hard about all the injustices in the world, I would just drown myself in despair and misery. Rather, I've used my awareness of how good I have it to look for opportunities to consciously serve others and share the wealth I've been given. (And personally, I find it refreshing that you're openly loving this quarantine time! We get enough of everyone else freaking out about it that it's nice to have a different perspective!)