Saturday, June 10, 2017

May Book List

May started out kind of slow in the reading department, but it picked up speed at the end.


Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
This was the first book I've read by Held Evans, but I am sure I will read more.  Questioning her evangelical upbringing, Held Evans leaves the church of her childhood to find a place to belong.  Most of her questions are the same ones I have, the same many evangelicals have, in this current landscape.

Held Evans book is beautiful because she is able to appreciate parts of  the way she was raised while still finding a way to move beyond it.  She rises above the cynicism that plagues most of us at times and finds God in her seeking.

I've followed Held Evans on Twitter forever, and I'm an even bigger fan of her now.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li pretty much destroyed me with this one, yet I recommend it highly.  This is not a light read, not an easy book to get through, but it's valuable.

Li writes about her struggles with depression and the books that helped her as she tried to find her way through it, a journey that may never end for her in this life.  She loves author William Trevor as much as I do, so reading about her interactions with the author was a joy.  However, reading about suicide is difficult, especially if you've lost somebody to it.  Li's observations are precise and they will leave readers thinking long after the last page is turned.

If you struggle with occasional depression like I do, take this one slowly.  It can consume you.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This should be required reading for everyone.  In an elongated letter she wrote to a friend who wanted to know how to raise her daughter as a feminist, Ngozi Adichie gives 15 suggestions for how to raise girls who will embrace their roles as equals.  She inspired me to write this short piece about dads raising feminist sons.

The advice is practical and easily applied, and the style of the writing makes for a fast read.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul
I love reading books about books, and Paul's non-fiction account of her life with Bob is one.  In fact, Bob is Paul's book of books, a journal she started keeping in college that contains the name of every book she has read since then.

Paul expertly tells about the books she read as she unfolds the story of the life she was living during the readings.  I loved that someone else put into words how I feel about books, that they are portals to other places in life.  When I see William Trevor's Reading Turgenev on my shelf, I'm taken back to college and a difficult time in life when this book felt like an anchor.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminds me of nursing Sam all night after he survived pneumonia his first month of life.  It was a dark book, one I'm not sure I would have read if I hadn't been in such a weird, sleep-deprived place, unable to rest out of fear.  John Steinbeck's East of Eden is one that I have read so many times it feels like a string connecting certain points of my existence up to now.

For those who love books or who want to love books, My Life with Bob is a must.  As expected, Paul convinced me to add tons of books to my reading list, and I realized that my Erin Condren planner is sort of like my own Bob since I chronicle the books I've consumed there.


The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
I've always sought out Shreve's books.  The Last Time They Met and The Weight of Water are my favorites, and I recommend them both over The Stars Are Fire.

To be fair, the book was well written with interesting characters.  The backdrop was Maine during a fire that ravaged the coast during the 20th century, and Shreve did her homework when it came to the history.  Her characters, a lonely wife with two children whose husband goes missing during the fire, are vivid, and it is enjoyable to watch the protagonist explore her desires for her own life after tragedy.

This is a quick read, but for those who enjoy Shreve or want to start reading her work, this isn't where I would start.  It didn't have me waiting with baited breath like others she's written.

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
I read this one while on vacation in Austin, and I will always remember hiding in the tiny laundry room perched on the counter trying to get in a few more pages before the dryer went off.  Butler follows two boys who went to camp together and their divergent paths in life.  As they age, Nelson, the outcast as a child, comes back to run the camp he loved.  His friend's son and grandson eventually make their way to the camp.  Events unfold for these men and boys, everything from war to destroyed relationships to violence.  One of the highlights of this book is when we receive the view from a female character who ventures to this camp as an adult.

This book was rich and drew me in.  I devoured it in two days, quite a feat considering how thoroughly those kids wore me out when we were out of town.  

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Chevalier retells Shakespeare's Othello, except the setting is a school in the 1970s where preteens make the first day for the new, only black student difficult, to say the least.

Chevalier's books have always been hit or miss for me.  Falling Angels was my favorite, and while New Boy is well written, I wasn't dying to pick it up every night.  Maybe all of those Shakespeare classes in college stripped away all the suspense for me.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Simplicity: Vacationing With Children, or How to Feel Very Old Quickly

I can sum this up for those of you who don't want to read further:  there is no simplicity when you vacation with children. We waited over eight years to take our four kids on vacation, then we just headed four hours down the road to Austin so we could enjoy gluten-free grub and nature, and it was still a hot mess.  Yes, there were fun moments, but vacationing with kids is just a lot of work in a location that is not your home.

Things I Now Know About Vacationing With Kids

If you want a great response, dress identical twins as minions and go everywhere.

The bathroom situation is never going to feel fair.  We have three girls and one guy.  D gets to take Sam to the bathroom for a quick spray in the urinals, while I'm stuck in the bathroom with the lady crew, and two of them still have a phobia of public bathrooms.  I have to tell Asher and Eowyn that every potty is a kid potty, and then they still sit so close to the edge out of fear of falling in that they usually pee on the floor, or on me.  It's not right.

I'm old.  For real.  I don't say that lightly because birthdays and stretch marks and all that jazz have never phased me.  I've always felt mentally young, so the number has never been a big deal.  But, damn, vacation made me feel old.  Everyone around us seemed so hip.  The kids went feral and I felt like the warden of a tiny insane asylum, shouting things like, "Don't lick the asphalt!", "Why is your hand in your pants?", "D, where's the other one?!?"  I ran into a spring fully clothed wearing my purse to retrieve a child who fell in, and pulling him out of the water then standing there in my mom clothes smelling like ass just about finished me off.   When I found myself in the hotel laundromat on the fourth day washing clothes and reading a book, I realized that was the most Zen I'd felt all week.  Then I was pretty much just sad for the rest of the day.

It's all fun and games when no one is sinking.

I'm not the fun parent.  I'm not ever going to be the fun parent.  I ask questions about the consistency of bowel movements and say things like, "that doesn't look safe".  That is who I am.  I need to embrace it.

Loose plans and children are good and bad.  We had tentative plans for each day, but we kept it very loose in case we needed to make last minute changes.  This kind of worked, but because our routine was not carved in stone, the questions never stopped.  They needed a concrete itinerary, and I just needed a nap.

Eating gluten-free in a city that caters to food allergies is beautiful.  Wild Wood Bakehouse, Sweet Rituals, TacoDeli , and Picnik made this trip for us.  Going to restaurants where explicit directions for everything didn't have to be given was freeing, and the food was delicious.  It was insanely expensive, but we were prepared for that.  We ate well.

We probably need to move to a place like Austin.  Despite vacation making me feel very old, Austin suited us for many reasons, and I loved the city.  Gluten-free food that was truly safe was everywhere, as were trees and bike paths, waterways and people on the slightly more liberal side of things.  It felt properly progressive, and none of us really wanted to leave.  It's not in the cards right now, but it was nice to see the kids enthusiastic about a change that D and I would really like as well. Plus, after the Austin mayor did this, it would just feel right to live in his city. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

April Book List

April was full.  Let's jump right in!
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz 

This book is a collection of stories that center around Yunior, a Dominican American male who wants to be loved but isn't so good at the rules of the game.  The faithfulness rule is particularly a problem for  him.  However, readers will still want to find out how Yunior came to be who he is, and Diaz offers glimpses of his life, never making excuses but somehow still garnering sympathy for Yunior at times.  This is the first book I've read by Diaz, but the writing was extraordinary, and I'm sure I'll be back for more.

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

When journalist Thomas Benton and soldier Arwood Hobbes meet near the Kuwait border during war in the early 1990s, an event occurs that will change both of their lives.  Twenty years later with another war raging, they will head back to the Middle East to try to rectify a horror that still haunts them both.

This book was so good I couldn't put it down.  Revealing truths most of us choose to ignore about engagement in wars overseas and the "victories" that are anything but for many people, Miller creates memorable characters trapped in impossible situations.  I count this one as a must read.


How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life by Signe Johansen

Johansen shares more secrets behind the concept of hygge, moving from just the study of Danish culture to encompass all Nordic countries.  The book is a beautiful achievement with simple photography, and about half of the book is composed of recipes since food is a big part of hygge.

Johansen talks about the importance of nature, food, and relationships, and she shares personal stories from growing up in Oslo.  I recommend this one for anyone on their journey to find hygge.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I'm nothing if not thorough when interested, which is evidenced by the fact that I read two more books on the idea of hygge and Danish living this month.  This memoir written by journalist Helen Russell covers the year she spent in Denmark when her husband received a job with Lego.  Burnt out on the fast-paced London life, Russell and her husband decided to try something new, and Russell documented their time there to find out if she could be happier in the country that regularly ranks the highest in happiness surveys.

I laughed out loud while reading this book, and it was a perfect culmination of what I've learned so far about Denmark's ideas about hygge.  As an outsider, Russell was able to view Danish habits, as well as their traditions and love for rules, through clear eyes.  She doesn't just focus on all the good but lifts the veil on the lesser known facts, like how much Danes like to fight and drink and how the Danish divorce rate hovers near the 50 percent mark.  She searched to find out how despite all the downfalls, including the weather and darkness that lasts the majority of winter, Danes stayed so happy.  This was a great read, though I'm still not moving to Denmark.  The cold and darkness are my biggest road blocks.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake  by Sloane Crosley

I discovered Crosley's essays by accident, but I was hooked quickly.  From a story about being a bridesmaid for a bridezilla to a tale of her Jewish parents sending her to a Christian youth camp almost every summer of her childhood, Crosley's essays embrace the awkwardness and honesty of being a human.

These essays almost always went a direction I didn't expect, and Crosley is skilled at pulling her readers in and allowing them to look at bigger issues in hilarious, relatable ways.  I grabbed her next book as soon as I finished with this one. 

How Did You Get This Number? by Sloane Crosley 

In her slightly more serious follow up essays, Sloane is a tad older, though still young by my standards.  Though there were lessons and meanings to be taken from I Was Told There'd Be Cake, the hilarity that was intertwined made the essays somehow more poignant.   That humor can be found here, but it's not prominent.

Sloane covers traveling alone, failed relationships, and being a bridesmaid again, this time in Alaska.  The essays were definitely worth the read even if I preferred I Was Told There'd Be Cake.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

I read this one at Dennis' urging since he listened to it on audiobook and was very affected.  Star Wars has been a part of his life since he was a child, so I wondered if I would enjoy this book as much since I haven't even seen one full Star Wars movie all the way through.

Despite not being a typical Star Wars geek, this book was beautifully written and offered a glimpse into Fisher's strange upbringing with celebrity parents, her affair with married and much older co-star Harrison Ford, and what fame is like up close. Fisher is witty, funny, and relevant, and that makes her recent death feel like an even bigger loss.

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith 

I have been slowly  making my way through this one for months because it's a book about home design.  If you have seen my house ever you are laughing right now, and that's okay.  Smith encourages us to embrace our own style, and she gives tips about how to do that regardless of what she calls "lovely limitations."

I liked this book, not because I would ever want to emulate Smith's style.  What is great about it is how practical the tips are and how Smith turns designing a home into holy work meant to serve those around us, which is never a way I've looked at it before.  A great read, and it wouldn't look bad on a coffee table as decoration either.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Simplicity: The Work Edition

It's weird to put this in writing, but I work from home as a freelance writer.  It's been going on for a while now.  At some point I became officially, or as official as things get in the world of freelance, employed by a company out of Canada who now puts money in my account every two weeks.  I also have several creative gigs I receive payment for.

Like the true digital native I am not, I am floored by this.  I write for a living, what I've always wanted to do.  Understand the money I make is not major by most people's standards, and I am only afforded the life of stay-at-home mom/writer because D has a job as an accountant.  But I was doing this for free and now people pay me, and I don't know any of them.  We've only met on the Internet.  It's awesome and weird and I keep waiting for it to all fall apart.

Every time my paycheck comes, this is how I look:

Courtesy of

That's why when I started on my simplicity journey I really didn't think work was an area of my life that needed a makeover.  I'm doing what I love while still home, and I take pleasure in my job even on the days when everything else falls apart.

What I didn't understand is that in itself can be a trap.  So can not having an office or a place to retreat to work, not setting work hours, and feeling like working everyday is a good idea because I can.  I mean, I'm just a freelance writer who works part-time.  There's no way this could get out of control.

But sound rules and guidelines can create simplicity, and I needed some.  As the months wore on, I realized I wasn't taking any days off, I was working in bits and pieces all day and night, and I felt constantly frazzled even though I still enjoyed what I was doing.

I'd like to say these realizations inspired me to make a change, but they didn't.  What did was watching another woman, one of my editors, make a change.  She disappeared one weekend, not returning emails or approving submitted drafts.  Of course, I assumed she was only ignoring me and that I was being very quietly fired, my dream finally dying like I always suspected it would. 

Turns out, she messaged all of her writers the next Monday saying she had decided to take some time for herself, for her kids, uninterrupted time, time where the threat of work intruding just wasn't a factor.  She was refreshed and relaxed and has been taking weekends off ever since, I believe.

I suddenly thought, "Yeah, you know, that makes a lot of sense."  And I started doing the same thing.  Empowered women empower other women.

It's required a ton of planning and being intentional with every minute of my time on the days I do work.  I set aside big blocks of time when others in the house are the least likely to be affected, and then I have to push to meet deadlines.  The payoff has been worth it.  I'm producing more work than ever, and I have a consecutive 48 hours every week where work is not a factor.

It wasn't until I did this that I realized the importance of checking to make sure I am emotionally and mentally available as opposed to just physically.  When you're with your people all day like I am as a homeschooling mom, it's easy to think that grabbing a few minutes here and there to work is no big deal.  However, without hours set aside for when I would work and complete tasks, my deadlines hung over me all day long.   I thought about them, logged onto the computer to work on bits and pieces, and stayed physically present while not being very mentally in tune with those around me.

Setting up my simple dos and and don'ts for work has worked wonders. It's allowed me to be productive, to rest, and to offer myself fully to others in a way I wasn't before.

God rested, not because He needed to but because He was setting an example.  There is simplicity in Sabbath, no matter when we do it. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

March Book List

March was a long, lovely month for reading.


Behind Her Eyes: by Sarah Pinborough
This suspense thriller takes the man-cheating-on-wife story and gives it an extremely unexpected twist that will leave readers shocked when the last page is turned.  When Louise kisses David at a bar, she doesn't know he is her new boss or that he is married.  His wife, Adele, suddenly pops into Louise's life, and as much as she knows it's not a good idea, Louise continues her relationship with David and her friendship with Adele, not letting either one know about her connection to the other.

However, there is more to the story than Louise knows as she attempts to dissect the marriage she inserted herself into.  Be warned with this one, willingly suspending disbelief is necessary, but Pinborough does a good enough job of keeping readers intrigued that it feels natural to just go with it.  The ending is trippy and twisted, and readers will love it or hate it depending on their preferences when reading. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Marilyn Lee just wants her favorite child, Lydia, to be anything but ordinary.  James, her father, wants her to blend in in a way he, a Chinese-American, feels he never could.  But when Lydia goes missing, those dreams disappear as the entire Lee family is left to sort out the truths in their family.

I can't praise this one enough.  Ng writes about family indescribably well, and the way she covers the dynamics between Marilyn and James and the sibling dynamic between all three Lee children is flawless.  I rushed to the end of this one since there was an element of suspense, but I was devastated when it was over because I didn't want to put it down.  

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
There were a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong about this book.  On the positive side, Tom Barren should be a character who is easy to hate, but Mastai writes him generously and makes readers root for him.  Also, the premise of this book is fascinating.  Tom lives, or lived, in a 2016 where we had flying cars, technology to fix everything, and world peace.  That is, until he hopped in his dad's time machine and destroyed it all, landing him back in what is our real world. 

The parts I wasn't crazy about were the technobabble(if I'm reading a book about time travel, I'm okay just trusting that it's happening.  I'm not going to understand if you try to explain it to me anyway) and the parts closest to the end where it felt like the book wasn't staying tight and was trying to accomplish too much. 

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Engel doesn't play around.  She drops a truth bomb about her characters' lives in the first 30 pages of the book and never looks back.  She can do that because the rest of the book is so naturally suspenseful and well written that she doesn't have to drag the reader along.  Despite the disturbing things going on in the lives of her characters, readers will want to find out more about the Roanoke girls.

Lane becomes friends with her cousin, Allegra, when she stays with her grandparents one summer after her mother's death.  Years later, when Allegra is missing, Lane goes back to Kansas to try to find out what happened to Allegra in the midst of the twisted home she was raised in.

Dark, disturbing, and well written, The Roanoke Girls is a good read for those who like suspense and psychological thrillers.  

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Jay needs to find the mother who abandoned him when he was two years-old.  He has recently lost his father and is struggling with the changes in his own marriage and his lack of feeling for the child he and his wife just had.  His story is told along with that of Yuki, his mother. 

We follow Yuki, an aspiring artist in New York who decides not to go back to Japan with her family, from the time she is sixteen until she makes the fateful decision to leave her only son.  Even though we know the decision she ultimately makes, it's interesting to follow her to that choice, feeling sympathy for her as she endures a violent relationship and tries to find a place in the world with so much fighting against her. 


The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking
I've been fairly obsessed with hygge since it perfectly encompasses my loves of simplicity, minimalism, and conscious living.  Hygge, pronounced hoo-ga, is a Danish concept that basically means that feeling of comfort, warmth, and contentment we've all experienced but might not know to name. 

The reason hygge is getting so much attention lately is that Denmark consistently ranks in the top three for happiest countries in the world.  Many researchers want to know why, and they pretty much agree that the Danes' obsessive focus on having hygge in their lives is it. 

Wiking's book is fun, illustrated, and a super fast read.  He lists things that are considered hygge, like candles, hot chocolate, and blankets, while also discussing things that aren't considered hygge by Danes, like social media.  He dives into trying to explain how a country with extremely high taxes and freezing, dark weather for a good portion of the year manages to stay so happy.  I loved this book and finished it in a day!

The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection by Louisa Thomsen Brits

While readers may nod their heads and giggle through Wiking's fast hygge read, Brits' is more like sinking in with a cup of tea and slowly devouring each chapter, taking time to meditate on what was read before moving to the next page. 

Brits says many of the same things Wiking does, like that hygge is about relationships, a feeling of security, and conscious living, but her approach is to dig deeper into what makes hygge, such as using all five senses and creating boundaries between our worlds and experiences. 

I will read this one again.  The first time I read it, I spent most of my reading time in a recliner next to the screen door listening to the kids play while drinking coffee.  I was also wrapped up in a blanket.  It was a very hygge experience. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Simplicity: The Parenting Edition

When you have a large family and one person falls ill, you just wait for everyone to crash like dominoes until the germs run through the entirety of the house.  That occurred, but it took nine days.

It sounds crazy, but cancelling every play date and avoiding public places so we wouldn't share our germs actually turned into a great time to focus on simplicity in parenting.  It led to realizing that being around my kids near constantly ensures everything in quantity but nothing in quality if I don't work at it. 

Here are some simple lessons I learned during our stomach virus time:

Big kids always need to be rocked.  They will reveal everything in the world to you in a recliner with your arms around them.

Listening is hard but amazing.  I now know more about the video games Sam enjoys than I ever wanted to, but being receptive to hearing about his obsessive interest made him talk about deeper questions he had, something that isn't always easy for him.

A few kind words are everything, even if it's just telling one of the three year olds, "Thanks for at least aiming for the toilet that time. I'm proud of you."

We love our play dates, our friendships, our familiar routine, but slow is not a bad pace for us, even when everyone is well.  I have to remind myself constantly that that's okay, it's actually what D and I work for.  We want meaningful, not just a full schedule.  We want intentional, not busy.  Sickness is always the reset button that helps me assess whether we are living out our values or just going through the motions, trudging through the day.  The latter is not my definition of simplicity.

We make time for what's important, and important to me always equals deeper intimacy and communication, even though I am a lover of checking items off the to-do list.  It's about balance, but I'm going to swing in favor of less with more depth than more but shallow every time.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February Book List

I read some very rich books this month.  The memoirs I devoured were two of my favorite memoirs ever, and reading my first book by Maggie O'Farrell was an indescribable pleasure. 


This Must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell:  Adrift from his children in the states, Daniel has a new family in Ireland but is called back to America for an emergency.  When it's time for making his way back to Ireland and back to his ex-movie star wife who fled her celebrity life years before, the journey proves difficult as Daniel grapples with memories and mistakes from his past that have the potential to sink his future.

There aren't words to describe how affected I was by this book.  I still think about it daily, and O'Farrell caused me to care about each of these character's fates to a point where I feel like they are actually real people walking around somewhere in the world.  Not overly sentimental but still heartbreaking at times, this book still manages to be funny.  I plan on reading more of O'Farrell's books because This Must be the Place made me a forever fan.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge:  The Freemans move to the Toneybee Institute to teach Charlie, a chimp, how to use sign language.  They are immersed in this experiment, a black family in the early 1990s, and are supposed to treat Charlie like a member of the family.  However, the Toneybee Institute has a questionable past, and when that is brought to light through flashbacks and discovery, the entire situation starts coming apart at the seams.

Greenidge does a wonderful job of creating a story that encompasses large themes, mainly race, while also making the core of the book about family, betrayal, and what happens when we don't know how to use the languages we know to properly communicate the truth to each other. 

We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Riley:  I wasn't overly crazy about the writing in this one, probably because I read it during a month when I was drowning in elegant, precise words.  However, I enjoyed the story of a couple who move from their lives in New York to live more organically in Vermont.  Their plans go awry when a super storm is predicted to change the landscape of the planet for good.

Riley did a good job of showing how people break into factions and fear is just as dangerous as anything Mother Nature can unleash.  She also presents a scary view of the possibilities if the climate continues to change and all the predicted destruction occurs.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi:  Paul Kalanithi planned his career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist meticulously before being interrupted by cancer at the age of 36.  Suddenly unaware of how long he had left to live, Kalanithi had a chance to further analyze a question that had haunted him all of his life:  what do we live for, and what makes it worthwhile?

This book is beautiful, almost poetic, but it isn't overly sentimental.  Kalanithi shares his experience of going from a doctor to a patient and from having his whole life planned out to not knowing if he would be alive months down the road.  The wisdom he gleaned from the experience is valuable to us and will be part of Kalanithi's legacy now that he's gone.

I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman:  Spiegelman is the daughter of Art  Spiegelman, the award-winning author of Maus, a graphic novel about his parents time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  His daughter, Nadja, is talented in her own right, and her debut book broke my heart and made me reflect on the complicated relationships we often have with the women in our families.

Spiegelman interviewed her mother Francoise Mouly, a famous editor and publisher who has worked for The New Yorker, about her life, and what she found helped shape their relationship and also led her back to her grandmother, who told sometimes contradictory stories to those that Francoise shared.

This entire narrative unfolds beautifully under the careful hands of the author, and it makes the reader wonder about memories, perceptions, and the lies we tell ourselves to continue to connect with others.