September Recap

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

LOVED. The Invention of Wings was a really beautiful story that is based on the true story of the Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters who were activists for Civil rights and women’s rights in the 1820s and 30s. The book also tells the fictional story of Handful, a slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. This story is beautiful and heartbreaking, telling the stories of two girls who have hopes and dreams of rising above the lives they are born into.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Fiction)

I was sadly not very impressed by this one. I saw it in the library and grabbed it because I love Steve Martin (yes, the actor), but it was not my favorite. An Object of Beauty follows Lacey, a young up-and-comer in the art world in New York. There are many, many descriptions of famous paintings and artists (which I don’t have a lot of knowledge about), and also, Lacey was a terrible person. I don’t always have to love characters I’m reading about, but there was not enough in the book for me to like to get past a very unlikable main character. I read to the end of the book, but it was definitely not one I would ever pick up again.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Fiction)

This was my book club choice this month, and it was SO fun. A quirky, socially incompetent genetics professor comes up with “The Wife Project”, a survey that will find him a suitable partner. Around the same time, he meets Rosie, a wild, unpredictable girl enters his life. The both find that there are things to learn from the other and (SPOILER ALERT) find love in very unexpected ways!

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (audio-celebrity memoir)

I have always had a really warm spot in my heart for Steve Martin, but I have realized that that is actually more about George Banks and less about the actual person of Steve. I still did enjoy this audio book, but it was not quite as good as I had built it up in my mind. I do not really know much about the world of stand-up comedy, so it was interesting to hear about Steve Martin’s journey from Disney World to magic shows to stand up to acting.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Nonfiction)

One of my friends called this “an uncomfortably great read” and I think that is the perfect description. I never would have picked up a book about cadavers, but my good friend told me that it was super interesting and worth reading. For a book about dead bodies, it is surprisingly upbeat. Mary Roach does a great job of presenting facts and stories in an accurate, but not overly gruesome way. She explores the history of cadaver use in medical study as well as other fields. It was FASCINATING. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or for the squeamish, but I learned so much! If you are into biology or science history, I think this could be a good book for you.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Classic)

I am putting this book into the unfortunate “Overrated Classics” category. I’m sorry if you love this book, but I thought it was SO BORING. I think I could have enjoyed an abridged version of this book because each chapter seemed like about 15% plot and 85% descriptions of sea creatures. I suppose that may be interesting to someone interested in ocean life, but for me it was soooo hard to get through.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (YA-dystopian fiction)

This is my favorite fun (if you can call a book about training teenagers the tactics of war “fun”) I’ve read in a while. I love a good dystopian story, and this one did not disappoint. It has a Hunger Games-y feel, but it may be a little bit darker. It has been a long time since I’ve read HG, but from what I remember, this one seems to have a lot more killing and violence. BUT. I loved. it. I will probably do a full review once I finish the last book of the trilogy. Red Rising is about a society that has a strict color caste system; each color has a specific place and role in their world, some more glamorous than others. A rebel group rises up from the lowColors and tries to infiltrate the system from the inside. It is dramatic and gripping and interesting and just so good!

Books I Can’t Stop Recommending

Since I’ve started posting more on social media about my reading life, I’ve had a lot of people ask me for book recommendations. Although I have read a lot of books this year, I find myself recommending the same few books over and over, so I thought I would share them with you now.

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Category: Quirky/Unusual/Different from other things you’ve read

  1. Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I have written briefly about WYGB before because I reread it in June (for my third or fourth time), but I wanted to give a little more details here.

Semple is a super interesting writer. She wrote for Arrested Development, which is a show well-known for witty one-liners, hilarious banter, and tons of inside jokes. WYGB delivers on all of these accounts.Bernadette herself is a quirky, misunderstood, slightly-crazy mom who goes missing, and her daughter Bee is putting together pieces to find out where she went. The style of this novel is unique: the story is told through a compilation of emails, memos, newspaper clippings, and flyers. I have heard that the style is off-putting to some readers, but I loved it. When I chose this book for my book club in July, the discussion turned into a read-aloud of all of our favorite parts of the book. It was my dream come true.

Memorable quote: “This is why you must love life: one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb.”

2. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The ridiculous title was the first thing that appealed to me. I read the author interview at the back and learned that his inspiration for this novel was a conversation with  friend where they started thinking back on all that a person would have seen if he had lived through the past 100 years. The story follows Allan, a man who climbs out of the window in his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday and embarks on an accidental adventure. The story switches between his current flight and his past escapades. Jonassan cleverly crafts Allan’s life story to include interactions with most major political figures and world events that show up between 1905-2005, from building the first atom bomb to engaging  in a drinking battle with Harry Truman on the night that Roosevelt was shot. The story is obviously far-fetched, but it is very clever and fun and full of dry wit. The book is translated from Swedish, but I think it keeps its humor really well.

Example quote: “Never try to out-drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.” or “Allan thought it sounded unnecessary for the people in the seventeenth century to kill each other. If they had only been a little patient they would all have died in the end anyway.”

Category: Suspense/Thriller

3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Lindsey had talked about Rebecca for years, and after I read it, I totally understood why. It is an awesome thriller that is gripping to the end, but it doesn’t have the graphic or scary details that often come with the genre. Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who marries a widower and goes back with him to the home he used to share with his late wife, Rebecca. The new wife (you never learn her name, although she is the narrator of the whole novel) tries to adjust to life in Rebecca’s shadow, but the longer she spends in the house, the more she realizes that things are not what they seem. Who exactly was Rebecca, and what happened to her all those years ago?

4. The Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny (Book one is called Still Life)

I have gushed about Louise Penny before, and I’m sure this won’t be my last time. There is something about this series that I can’t get enough of! Penny has created a wonderful cast of characters who play in each of these murder mysteries. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is thoughtful, kind, perceptive, and wise, and he is very good at his job as head of homicide. His character is what makes the series so wonderful. These books are murder mysteries, but they are so much more about the characters and their lives and about human nature and relationships than they are about graphic details of murders. Some of the books have a little bit of weird mysticism thrown in, and they all have some language (one of two of the characters in particular), but overall they are really great if you enjoy a good mystery!

Category: Funny

5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I love a good celebrity memoir, and this one is my favorite. Mindy is hilarious and down to earth and surprisingly insightful. I remember thinking, “YES! Why does no one else talk about how weird/dumb/ridiculous _______ is?!” In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Mindy discusses the awkwardness of growing up, making friends, chasing dreams, and feeling left out, but she does it all in a way that shows that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Also, she gives some great behind-the-scenes details from The Office, which is always very fun to read. There is some language and adult content, but this book is way less shocking and gritty than a few other celebrity memoirs I’ve read. I liked this first book better than her second, Why Not Me?, but that one is fun if you want more Mindy. This is my go-to book when someone says they need an easy book to get back into reading. It is a quick, easy, fun read!

Example quote: “All women love Colin Firth: Mr. Darcy, Mark Darcy, George VI—at this point he could play the Craigslist Killer and people would be like, ‘Oh my God, the Craigslist Killer has the most boyish smile!”

A Mini Review & Book Pairing: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Leslie has already named this book her “Life-Changingest Book of 2016.” And…it’s hard to top that recommendation. But now that I’ve finished it (and made a loaf of bread, to boot!), I thought I’d add my thoughts.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking SchoolIn case you missed Leslie’s review, here’s the short recap: a professionally trained chef gives basic cooking lessons to a group of unconfident home cooks. And almost without exception, the lessons are life-changing for these women– they go from Hamburger-Helper-Level cooking to baking artisan bread, chopping aromatics in seconds, and butterflying whole chickens. It IS inspiring, and I find myself thinking back to parts of the book often as I work in my own kitchen.

Although reading this book was a really helpful start, I’ve found myself wishing that Kathleen Flinn would actually come to my house and invite me to her cooking school. I’ve struggled with my own mediocrity in the kitchen, and I feel like just a few helpful lessons would catapult me into new realms of ability– to learn, once and for all, the proper way to hold a knife, dice an onion, cook fish, and make a sauce, just to name a few things.

It got me thinking about all of the other ways that I’m finding my own way as a parent and homemaker. What about a “Kitchen Counter Cooking School” but for basic household budgeting? For cleaning and maintaining a home and belongings? For how to do laundry the right way, for goodness’ sake?

It occurred to me that the kind of class that would have imparted information like this to eager young women was Home Ec. But by the time I was taking classes in high school, home ec was out of vogue, and girls like me were encouraged to more practical electives such as typing and a “business” class where I learned how to make spreadsheets and play Tetris. What a tragedy!

If a personal tutoring opportunity were to come up in any of these subjects, I’d totally take it. But meanwhile, I’m reminded that I do have resources ALREADY ON MY BOOKSHELF that can give me some of the knowledge that I crave.

Introducing……..book pairings for the ultimate text-based homemaking education:

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith: refreshingly unfussy and accessible advice on making a house Your Home. Her style doesn’t have to be yours; her practical tips and can-do attitude is easy to transfer to whatever look brings you joy and peace.

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson (yes, THAT Cheryl Mendelson): At almost 9oo pages, this is a pretty exhaustive manual on everything that happens within your four walls. Chapter titles illustrate how Mendelson’s approach to home keeping is both practical (“The Chemistry of Household Cleaning,” “Common Laundry Mishaps and Problems,” “Cleaning Man-made Solid Surfaces and Other Plastics,”) and poetic (“The Air in Your Castle,” Th Cave of Nakedness,” “Kindly Light”).

Caves of Nakedness aside, you might think this sounds like the most boring tome ever to prop a door open, but somehow Mendelson speaks on every topic with a pleasant, efficient manner, much like Mary Poppins come to help you clean up the nursery once and for all.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book is as polarizing to the world of clutter-management as the election of 2016 has turned out to be to the general population. But I’ll cast a vote for the KonMari method any day– it’s simple and effective, and if you can get past all the woo-woo stuff about thanking your shoes for their service, your reward will be a more peaceful, manageable home environment.

(Of course, a zillion-point-five blogs and websites exist to teach on all of these topics as well, and some of them do so quite effectively. But there’s nothing like having a nice reference book to hold in your hand, don’t you think?)

What practical guides have been helpful to you?

Commonplace: The Quotidian Mysteries

The subtitle to this tiny but thoughtful volume is “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.'” How is that for provocative?

This book, about a worshipful posture toward everyday living, was a timely read for me as I gear back up for a new school year and a plate full of quotidian opportunities!


Here were some of my favorite nuggets:

On being too busy for daily worship:

“Workaholism is the opposite of humility…when evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greedy, and too foolish, to surrender it to God…

“I have come to believe that ween we despair of praise, when the owner of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it’s often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures–we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sigh too God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.”

On the connection between liturgy and housework:

“Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically called ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.”

On holiness in everyday life:

“I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…

“If they are wise, [the busy saint] will treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.”

In summary:

“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down…

“Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means ‘to get through with,’ and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry, and what has traditionally been conceived as ‘women’s work’ can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany of the motions of vacuuming a floor. What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

My Life-Changingest Book of 2016

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it is true. This has been a book that I have thought about, underlined, re-read, quoted, and refused to put away because I keep needing to reference something. Technically, this book didn’t even belong to me; Lindsey got it as a birthday present on our family vacation and I picked it up first. She agreed to let me borrow it for the drive home since we were going to be seeing each other again a few days later, but after reading a few chapters I texted her that I was sorry, but there was no way I was returning it. I just had to buy her a new copy. The book: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn.

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The premise of the book is simple: a professionally trained chef takes 10 self-described “bad home cooks” and teaches them basic cooking lessons. These women (the one man in the class dropped out before the first lesson) range in age, race, life-stage, and income, but the all feel equally incompetent in the kitchen.

Flinn starts her project by doing a “What Not to Wear” style pantry and fridge evaluation of each volunteer and notices some common issues like food waste, fear of under-cooking meat, reliance on hyper-processed boxed foods, and general self-consciousness about cooking. All of these women want to provide healthy, cheap, delicious meals for their families, but they are overwhelmed and don’t where to start. Flinn hosts lessons that cover basic cooking techniques like roasting a whole chicken, adding a “flavor kiss” to veggies to keep them exciting, baking homemade bread, mixing salad dressings, salvaging leftovers, and so much more. Each lesson is simple, but revolutionary to these women. Flinn also takes some of the pressure out of home cooking. She constantly encourages them to take risks–even if they fail, it’s just one meal, not the end of the world! They feel empowered and equipped to tackle the should-be-simple task of home cooking.

Now I would not consider myself a bad cook. I make meals for myself and Reggie most nights of the week, and I feel pretty comfortable trying new recipes. But this book has given my cooking new life. I regularly fight falling into a slump  cooking-wise, and this book was a right-book, right-time kind of thing. After reading it, I was re-energized to try some basic but really fun things in my kitchen. In the past few weeks I have made several whole chickens (plus chicken stock from the leftover bones), fresh bread, and mayo. I visited the farmers market and found some really great, local fruits and veggies that have added a little excitement and variety to our days. So far everything as turned out pretty good, which makes me more confident and excited to keep trying new things.

Reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School made the necessary task of daily food preparation seem like a fun, and not overwhelming task, and if you are anything like me, that is always a good thing!

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My first batch of homemade bread!

Vacation Reading: Yours, Mine, and Ours

We went on an extended-family vacation a few weeks ago, which gave Les and I a rare but wonderful opportunity: reading together!

This meant Leslie reading out loud to me while I drove one of the vans on the way to Missouri. She timed it perfectly so that we read the final paragraphs of These Happy Golden Years as we literally pulled into the parking lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield.

Once we arrived at our final destination (NOT Laura’s house, sadly), we settled in to reading our own books in close proximity and then trading them back and forth as we finished.

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One of the first nights we were all together we celebrated all of our summer birthdays. Leslie and I were showered with books and book-themed gifts. (Does our family love us, or what?)

birthday books

Finally, it meant Leslie stealing one of the books that I had gotten for my birthday to read on her drive home. Just yesterday she told me that she was just going to ship me another copy from Amazon because she wasn’t going to give my original one back!

I was going to post a a detailed Vacation Reads summary, but Leslie covered almost all of my titles with her June recap! (See aforementioned book swapping.) SO…I’ll keep it simple.

Still Life by Louise Penny

I’ve never claimed to be into murder mysteries, but I’m making a happy exception for this series. These plots are interesting without being icky; much more about human nature and relationships than about the grisly details of a character’s untimely demise. Still Life is book 1 and I’ve heard the series just gets better from here!

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Plazza

A total change of pace, this novel set in the rapidly changing world of fashion publishing is delightfully larger-than-life. Editor Imogen has paid her dues and risen to the top of her field until she is usurped by her 26-year old former assistant who returns to Glossy magazine with an MBA. Manic catfighting ensues.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I read this a long time ago and liked it okay, but after years of Leslie’s fangirling I decided to give it another try. She was right! I totally loved the snarky tone and the creative narrative structure.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull

I was excited to discover that the author of my all-time favorite memoir, Almost French, had written a follow-up companion. It’s always fun to catch up with beloved characters. But honestly, if I hadn’t already had a connection to the characters, I don’t know if this book would have captured my interest. The tone is much more melancholy (the main theme is Turnbull’s struggle with infertility and her longing for a child), and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, a description of a deep-sea dive might go on for pages, but (SPOILER!) the long-awaited baby turns one just a few pages after his birth. The strongest points of this memoir are Sarah’s struggles and successes as a foreign member of a new culture– this time in Tahiti.

 

But enough about me…what have you been reading on your summer vacation?

Happiness and Habits according to Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been binging on Gretchen Rubin lately: I just finished Happier at Home, and Better than Before, and I’m also listening to her podcast, Happier.

Rubin describes her primary themes as “happiness, habits, and human nature.” Rubin’s “happiness” is all about satisfaction and joy with the life you have– related more to contentment, gratitude, and purpose than irresponsibility and cheap thrills. She strives for happiness by way of improved habits– intentionally cultivating practices that will help her live more consistently with her values and priorities, instead of self-sabatoging by taking the path of least resistance.

Preach, sista!

Gretchen Rubin

What makes Rubin’s approach unique and interesting is a commitment to both authenticity and self-improvement.

On one hand, she constantly encourages self-reflection and recognition of your natural tendencies, strengths, and limitations. Her fundamental rule is Be Gretchen; she speculates that one of the main obstacles to happiness and habit-forming is when we try to become something other than we are.

But this is not the self-awareness that leads to “Oh, well, that’s just how I am.” Rubin is tireless in her quest to Be [the best] Gretchen by way of a hundred small habits that will make her happier and more satisfied in her daily life.

I love her practical, can-do approach to a happier life. So often we see ourselves as victims of the life we’ve created, and think we’d surely be happy if only…my husband was more helpful…my kids were older…my boss was more flexible…my house was bigger…etc. In contrast, Rubin is purposeful about developing happiness-improving habits squarely in the context of her real life, now.

Her happy habits never depend on someone else’s participation. They don’t require drastic changes of lifestyle. Rubin frequently cites one of her Eight Splendid Truths, “The only person I can change is myself.” Then she sets about improving her habits as they pertain to her self, family, home, and work.

Happier at Home chronicles a nine-month experiment of improved habits centering around home and family. Each chapter presents three or four specific practices in the following areas: possessions, marriage, parenthood, inner life, time, body, family, and neighborhood.

Better than Before is not a personal experiment, but an interesting how-to on habit-forming. She presents nineteen strategies for forming or maintaining habits, and examines them all in light of four basic natural “tendencies.” I had heard Rubin describe her Four Tendencies on a podcast and found the idea so interesting that I bought this book for the full explanation.

Rubin is (by her own admission) a fanatic about habit-forming. I identify with her a lot, but I do not come close to her level of intensity and personal discipline. However, these were perfect reads for the start of a new season. I am walking away with some really helpful practical tips and great enthusiasm and optimism about my own personal routines.