Saturday, December 30, 2023

Top Ten Books of 2023

 In recent years I've neglected posting my top 10 list here (I've been settling for the ease and brevity of just posting about my reading life on Instagram these days, and even then, not with any regularity, see my last post on how intensely busy my life is). But I have a minute today, so let's do this like old times! Here's my arbitrarily-picked-based-on-my-mood-today list of the top 10 books I read in 2023 (out of 103 books read so far... I have roughly 32 more hours to read another one...;)

Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer

I don't think I recommend this one as a general populace read. It's a bit more literary critic, a bit more academic (though still mostly written for a public audience). Anyway, I loved how deeply Dederer engaged with these issues around what it means to love art and literature, especially when the creators of that art are problematic. She delved into questions I've thought about deeply myself (especially when it comes to women/mothers producing art), and while she doesn't arrive at any easy answers, her ideas (especially the idea of "stain") have shaped the way I've come to think about some art. I plan to use excerpts of this book in my upcoming course on "Authors and Identities" where I'll be teaching an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

At about the quarter mark of this book, when I realized where the plot was headed, I thought I was not going to like this book. In fact, I thought I was going to put it down and not finish. But I did finish, and I ended up loving it. The conflict is a bit emotionally grueling, but the characters are so beautifully drawn and the writing just so lovely. It's loosely based on Little Women, and I just loved the way it borrowed from the original while still being its entirely own story. I had a hard time seeing how this was going to be a "happy" ending, and while it might be a stretch to call it happy, I found it satisfying. Anyway, just lovely. I highly recommend.

Lockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

I'm cheating a bit and including the whole five-book series in one spot here on the list. I'm still wondering if this should make the final cut, but really, this just hit at the right time and in such a satisfying way for me. Jonathan Stroud has the best type of dry British humor, and I love his world-building. I wanted to throttle all of the characters in this book (my goodness, but the Brits really can't talk about emotions, can they?), but I loved them all so much, and the stories were so fun. These would make fantastic October reads (all about ghosts and creepy things like that). It's a YA series, fantasy dystopian, and just so much fun. Highly recommend.

Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

This definitely wins as my favorite fantasy read from the year. It was so romantic and had lovely writing, and the world-building aspect was unique and intriguing for me. The plot is basically You've Got Mail (enemies to lovers through mystery letters) set in a WWI-era European-type world with some sort of Greek/Roman god mythology (the war is happening between the gods with humans fighting for them), and magic? And technology? It's a mash-up, but it totally works, and I was here for it. This is the first book in a duology, and the second book just came out (it is currently sitting on my phone, waiting for me to listen!!!! Squeee!!!!). Highly recommend!

An Immense World by Ed Yong

Oh man, this was a book I could not stop talking about. I talked about it so much that my husband then picked it up, and then he could not stop talking about it. This is a non-fiction book about animal senses, and how different animals have different ways of perceiving the world that we can barely begin to comprehend. It was fascinating for so many reasons, but one unique reason for me was because of ideas it gave me for intersections with my research (one of my dissertation chapters focused on the sense experiences of audiences). Anyway, it was fantastic (if a bit dense) and I highly recommend.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut

Oh man, this book! Okay, this is not a general recommend. I think you have to have a solid interest in sciences like quantum physics but also a high tolerance for fictional/fantastical re-imagining, so yeah, maybe not a book for the general public. But, this book spoke to me on so many levels. I found it fascinating and creative and I wanted more and more and more (okay, there were a handful of moments that went too far for me, got me a little grossed out, so there is that caution). I am here for this kind of history of science!

Babel by R.F. Kuang

I went back and forth on whether or not to include this one on the list. To be honest, I did not love the ending, and I'm still working through my emotions on the overall message of the story. One of the unofficial subtitles is "The Necessity of Violence" and the book makes a strong argument for that, which I just struggled with. Plus, I felt it was overly long. But! But the magic system in this book was just fascinating! Translation and the power of words, and wow! It was so cool. So in the end, that got me. If this book weren't so dang long I would recommend it for a book club, because there would be so much to discuss. Anyone else read it? I want to talk!

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

I went back and forth on including this one as well, because it was so long, and I nearly lost steam in the middle and didn't finish. There were just a lot of threads that I struggled to see how they connected, and a lot of meandering side stories that didn't connect. But I powered through, and in the end, yes, I can confidently say this is a masterpiece. I mean, it is simply incredible, and will probably turn into some kind of classic. So I'm glad I read it. But do I recommend it? Only if you really like sprawling epic multi-generational literary tomes in the grand tradition of 19th-century Victorian writers (or you really want to learn more about 20th-century India? Or weird medical conditions?). It was very good, but it takes patience to appreciate it.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

This is another one that I went back and forth on including here. This is another long, sprawling, multi-generational (true!) story about 20th-century China that covers everything from the early war-lord years through Japanese occupation through civil war and then through a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at growing up in Mao's Communist regime. There was so much I did not know, so much that blew my mind, and so much that I found fascinating. Did I enjoy it while I was reading it? No! (Communist China is just about the most depressing subject). But am I glad I read this? Yes. Do I recommend this? Honestly, I feel like everyone should read this because we all need this context for why our relationship with China is what it is today. But yeah, I would not have picked this up if it had not been selected as a book club read, and it was a slog. But a really important, really fascinating slog.

The Whalebone Theater by Joanna Quinn

I also debated heavily on whether or not to include this one on the list. Through the first half of this book I was sure this was going to be a five-star favorite read of the year. But then it devolved into a rather unremarkable WWII story, which killed my enthusiasm for it (I'm tired of WWII stories). But based on the strength of the first half alone, I'm recommending this one here. I loved the characters, I was floored by the writing (it's a debut novel, and the writing was just so beautifully crafted!), and I (obviously) loved the theater bits. Can't help my bias any time Shakespeare shows up in a story. It really is very good.

Honorable Mentions

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This book blew my mind. It wasn't so much the murder mystery, but the way the murder mystery was explored/solved. I felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, so if you don't like really complicated convoluted plots that take all your mental energy to follow, you'll want to stay away from this one. It doesn't make the official list because I feel like the ending/outside world of the story wasn't super satisfying. But really, I have to give Turton props for coming up with the most interesting and unique murder mystery I've ever read. It was incredible, what he attempted (and achieved) with this plot. I heard rumors it was getting developed for a TV show and then canned, which is too bad, because in the right hands, this could make a phenomenal TV series.

Zorrie by Laird Hunt

This is a short and sweet little book that follows Zorrie, our main character, through her mostly lonely single life from her time as a girl in the 1920s, through her short marriage, then her long widowhood running a farm in rural Indiana. While reading this book, I thought it was lovely but ultimately not that special and probably something I would forget. But then, I didn't forget about it. In fact, I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about this book. I was amazed at how Zorrie's life was so sad but also not sad. It was so small, but also so meaningful. Anyway, I just keep thinking about it. I don't think this is a book most people would love, but if you like character-driven novels along the lines of Wendell Berry or Marilyn Robinson, then you might enjoy this one.

The Real Story of 2023

On my Christmas card this year, I gushed about what an amazing year it was for me. I graduated with my PhD, I went on a dream trip for two weeks with my husband around France, and then I received a dream job offer and became an English professor at a small local private Catholic university. It really was an amazing year, and so many good, amazing, wonderful things happened. Nothing I said on my Christmas card was a lie.

But as we all know, the snippets we see on social media or in that end-of-year Christmas card don’t tell the whole story. What the summary on my Christmas card left out was how 2023 was one of the most intense years of my life. Finishing up my dissertation consumed my life in the most mentally and physically draining way. I spent most of January, February, March, and April glued to my laptop. I nearly pulled all-nighters trying to meet revision deadlines. My fingers ached from the amount of typing I had to do. I missed my family’s spring break trip and instead spent twelve-plus hour days working. I doubted all my life choices and spent many, many days shaking from the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion of it all. It was a lot. Of course, I did finish, and successfully defended and graduated, which was incredible. But not exactly easy.

Then my autistic son had a very rough spring (I'm not sure I've written about this publicly? My second son was diagnosed with autism and ADHD last year, it's a whole journey that I want to write about sometime...). Some very difficult issues cropped up involving his sensitivities, and he required a lot of my mental and emotional time and energy. I struggled to find a therapist for him, then found one that didn’t seem to help much, and then spent a good majority of the summer and fall researching and reading and struggling to master what felt like the entire field of pediatric occupational therapy. I was learning everything I could about sensory dysregulation and trying to figure out how to help my son function and get through normal activities without constant panic attacks. I made some progress, but we are still very much in the process of finding him the right help, and it is a lot. It is a heavy burden.

Then in early July, I received an interview request and job offer in very short succession that threw my summer plans into chaos. Yes, it was a dream job opportunity I was very excited about, but I had very few weeks to familiarize myself with an entirely new university system and design two new courses from scratch. In between some fun (but not restful) trips, I planned and prepped and spent more late nights trying to pull things together. The semester started in mid-August, and I have been drowning ever since. At one point, right before midterms were due in October, I broke down sobbing on my husband’s shoulder before he had the audacity to leave on a business trip. While solo parenting, I had to grade 85 papers in a week, while pulling curriculum together for new units, while still managing to keep our house and family of six floating and fed. The discipline it took from me to wake up every morning at 5:30, get everyone to school and daycare, get myself to class, teach all day, pick everyone up, shuttle everyone around to activities, make dinner, get everyone to bed, then sit and grade papers until midnight or later… it was unsustainable. My body was breaking down. My mind was breaking down.

I could tell I was on a one-way path to burnout. Something had to give. I wondered which of my children’s various activities we should drop, I schemed about finding room in our budget to hire a housekeeper (ah, the pipedreams of working moms who make a pittance), and I considered quitting. After all, we don’t need my salary to live. My income is not a financial necessity, and if this job is going to ruin my mental and physical health, it isn’t worth it, right?

Here’s where I need to explain how I make decisions. I have two channels, two streams of intuition, if you will, that I tap into when I’m faced with life choices. The first channel is one I’m confident we all have some version of. Some might call it a gut instinct or whatever, but I recognize it as a collection of various messages I’ve received from the world around me and (consciously or unconsciously) adopted. These are messages that speak to me, resonate with me, and “feel” right. Some of these messages come from various philosophies I’ve studied, media I’ve consumed, or ideologies I’ve found appealing. Mostly, they come from the church: scripture, conference talks, sacrament meeting talks, Sunday School discussions-- basically a lifetime of soaking in the dogma of my religion. We all consume messages from various places: our family, our peers, and society as a whole. Messages are swirling around us all day every day, and our brains latch onto some of these messages, mix them all together, and use them as a guiding inner compass to help us define who we are, how we want to be seen, and how we make decisions (for good or for ill).

Look, generally I consider myself a fairly discerning person. I feel like I’m pretty competent at weeding out the crap messages the world sends my way and only attracting/attaching/absorbing the good. So, listening to this stream of intuition, I was absolutely sure in October that I needed to make drastic changes in my life. I believe in rest! I believe in sanity! I believe in self-care! Phrases from conference talks over the years kept popping into my head, about “Good, Better, Best!” or “Simplify!” Our very own prophet gave a message last year about rest, and I was all ready to believe that was a personal message meant just for me. And those are just the messages coming from inside the church! There are all sorts of segments of society touting minimalism, rest, essentialism, and simplifying. Gen Z seems to be perfecting the art of defying burnout, and I was willing to listen to all of this. I was willing to make the drastic changes, cut back, and do what needed to be done so that I could not feel on the verge of a breakdown at any minute. It seemed like the “right” decision. 

But here’s where I need to take a step back and explain about that second stream of intuition, if I can call it that. What I actually call it is the Spirit. 

You see, for me, the Spirit as a source of revelation and influence in my life is very separate from my gut level intuition. I know that everyone feels the Spirit differently and receives revelation in their own personal ways, but I’ve always wondered about people who describe feeling the Spirit in the same way I described my gut intuition earlier, because my experience is so different. For me, my gut level intuition (composed of all those messages I’ve consumed) is something that I always have access to, is always there, and while sometimes not exactly clear (there are lots of conflicting messages out there!) is always very much “me.” The Spirit, on the other hand, is more like a mental radio station that I tune in and out of. I have to consciously tap into it (through prayer and meditation), and the signal is not always broadcasting. Sometimes all I get is static, radio silence. Sometimes I get muffled signals or emotions, like I just need to adjust the antenna because nothing is coming in super clear. Other times, the most important times, I get a voice. Not like a voice I hear with my ears, but thoughts in my mind that come intensely loud and clear, full complete sentences. I get words, and those words are coming from outside me. They are not me, they are God.

I use both these streams of intuition to make decisions about my life. For most decisions (should I sign my kid up for soccer? Should I force my kid to eat veggies he doesn’t want to? Should I buy that pair of pants?) I listen to my gut. It’s more accessible, and by and large, I’ve done good work to consume the right type of messages so that I trust my gut. I trust the voices I listen to. I’m pretty good at making decisions. This is one of my personality strengths.

But for the really big decisions (should I marry this guy? Should I have kids? Should I get a PhD?) I invariably check in with the Spirit. Sometimes I get very clear answers that already align with my gut instinct (yes, you should marry that guy), so they are easy to follow. Sometimes I don’t get any answers from the Spirit (like, absolutely zero guidance on having children) which leaves me confused (does God not care if I have children?) but ultimately, I follow my gut instinct and just roll with it (I want children, so now I have four). And other times, the messages from the Spirit come way out of left field and shake up my entire life and worldview (like getting that PhD when I didn’t even want a PhD, and it meant I had to do all sorts of things that went against my gut instincts, like putting my precious children in day care).

Here’s the thing. Every time I have listened to the Spirit over my own gut instinct, I have never regretted it. The way my life has played out has taught me in the most profound way that even when the voice of the Spirit seems to be commanding me to do things that go against world views and philosophies and opinions that I think in general are “right,” I am never wrong to follow the Spirit. Never once has it led me astray. And so I’ve come to trust the Spirit, and made a promise to myself that I will always, always listen when I get a clear message.

Okay, so back to October. I’m a hot mess. I am not getting enough sleep. I’m worried my neck and shoulders are going to be permanently damaged from the perpetual state of clench I find myself in. I am on the verge of tears all the time. And my gut is telling me something has to change. This is unsustainable. I cannot keep up this pace of life, and I need to make some big changes. And I’m just sure the Lord has to agree with this, right? There’s no way this is the life He wants for me.

So of course I pray about it. After all, quitting a job is a pretty big life decision. I lay out all the cards, all the things on my plate (my job, my calling, my heavy responsibilities as a wife and mother), and explain how the thing that seems the least important in the grand scheme of things is this job. I explain how I feel like I am standing too close to the sun and I’m being burned alive, that is the intensity of my life. I explain that I am breaking, and something has to give.

And I get a voice, loud and clear, that says, “Everything you are carrying is necessary to me. Every responsibility on your plate is a ‘BEST,’ not a good or a better, and you are not to put down anything. This is the job I prepared for you. These are the children you are meant to have. This is the life you are supposed to live, at this level of busy and intensity.”

Guys, I cried. I was already weepy, but this was too much. Have you ever had the experience of kneeling down in prayer seeking solutions, seeking rest and relief, and instead feel that weight is being added?

I tried explaining again that I was going to break under the demands of my life, and I got another clear voice that said, “Stop asking what you can put down. Instead, ask how you can get stronger. I have already carried you through completing your dissertation, I will carry you through this job. I will not let you break if you rely on me.” 

It was a humbling moment for me. And a moment of surprising reflection. I thought back to the semester of finishing my dissertation. Last January, my dissertation was in really bad shape. In fact, it was in such bad shape that my advisor recommended I delay graduation for a semester or even another year, because there was so much work to do on it. But I prayed about it (of course), and felt very distinctly that I needed to stick to my original plan and graduate in May. I didn’t know why this felt so urgent, but I understand now it was because the Lord had this job prepared for me (though again, I’m still grappling with why this job is so important to the Lord…? I don’t know!). So I worked and I worked and I worked. It was brutal, and I thought it was all me, but looking back, I can see how much the Lord carried me, guided my mind in my revisions, gave me the ideas I needed. At my defense, every member of my committee commented on how they had never seen a student make such drastic improvement in such a short amount of time. I see now I would not have finished in time if the Lord had not been carrying me.

And so I’m here now, at the end of my first semester as a college professor. I submitted grades and have had a few weeks to catch up on sleep and reflect on all of this (and just to illustrate, yes, a week where I hosted grandparents for Christmas and celebrated two children’s birthdays was more restful for me than a regular week during the semester). There is still so much I don’t understand about the path my life is on. As much as I love this job, I still don’t understand why I’m here, and why this seems so important to the Lord. I’m looking forward to next semester still with a lot of fear and trepidation (I’ll be teaching three preps instead of two, once again designing an entirely new course while tweaking the two I just finished). There will be spring sports for my kids and therapy for my son. There will be a conference paper to write, other trips to plan, relationships to maintain, and a calling to keep up with. And all of it is necessary. All of it is important.

I don’t for one minute believe that the revelation I received for me is a universal truth. I still trust my gut instinct that for most people, simplifying is crucial. Most people desperately need to listen to the message to say no, to let go of the things and activities cluttering their life with stress and leading to burnout. It’s not healthy. And I also still firmly believe that at some point in my future, I am meant to have ease and rest as well (I still believe what I wrote at the end of this post).

But for right now, for this season, I have been called to a life of busyness and intensity. And so, I will brace myself to face the glaring heat of the sun without burning out. And I will have faith that I will not fail, for I will be carried. I pray not to ask what I can put down, but to ask for strength to carry all that has been given me. I’m still probably going to be more exhausted than I want to be, and less able to indulge in my hobbies and rest activities (like bookstagram, blogging, puzzling, and other things I dream about longingly when I sit down to grade papers), but I trust the Lord. Perhaps the intense burning of my busy life will strengthen me like coal being turned into diamond. The Lord will not let me break. 

I also share this story because I am intensely curious, does the Spirit work like this for anyone else? Does anyone else feel this very clear divide between gut instinct intuition and the Spirit? And if not, how does the Spirit work for you?