Warning, I'm not sure what this has to do with books OR a readerly life, but just go with me for a moment.
Last year my son's 3rd grade class performed a shortened version of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Hamlet happens to be my favorite play and so I was quite chuffed to hear that he was excited to be participating as King Claudius. He nailed his role, all of his lines, and at 9, has a warm place in his brain surrounding Shakespeare. Thank goodness for good teachers, am I right?!
Let's fast forward to the present when I stumbled upon this gem of an Instagram account for SpakNotes. Yes, that SparkNotes that I used to run to in times of shame when I hadn't read the book for class and didn't know what I was going to write about for the essay and didn't have time to actually do the work I should've done when the essay was assigned! And they're funny (see above for proof).
This thought sped me to a spiral of remembering the books I had loved in High School and how that was like, half a life ago, and what would I think about them if I read them now, as a totally responsible and different person.
Here's the books/plays that I identified with and remember loving as a high schooler:
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I think I missed the day we read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson so I'll have to look that up sometime. I was highly annoyed by Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye, don't remember anything about The Great Gatsby, already revered TKAM, I didn't like Of Mice and Men AT ALL because I felt like it played with my emotions to no fortunate end and that's unfair.
I think it would be just as interesting a project to revisit the High School reading list for the ones I hated as it would be for the ones I really enjoyed. I smell a fun self-imposed book project coming up! If I count up all the ones I mentioned here, that's 14 books from my youth to revisit. Sounds fun, doesn't it?!
Did you have any favorites in high school? Have you re-read any of them since then? What about the ones you hated?
I took a creative writing class in college that I LOVED, but the poetry unit was harder for me than the story writing part. I found it really difficult to get into an emotionally open space to create poetry for a grade. It felt like a much Bigger Deal than I knew it was but also I knew that poetry meant something to me, so I didn't want to be casual or flippant with it. I'd had a teacher in high school who had everyone in the class take turns reading poetry and while I started thinking deeply about Invictus (still a beautiful beast of a poem, IMO), and Dave Matthews Band lyrics (I was 14 okay!), it got me looking and thinking and noticing that some words in a certain order made me feel things I couldn't previously describe.
Back to the college course, there was a day where we had to read our own work and have it critiqued (kill me), and one person's poem was literally filled with cliche's meant in earnest, almost two per line... I almost died from the agony and from the effort of feeling that had also gone into this poem that I almost self imploded from judgement. After that class I sat in my car writing a children's story that I thought was a totally brand new idea but was just a version of the ugly duckling where the duck turns out to be a good musician and that's pretty much what Happy Feet is too and I hate that movie...and I laugh cried for a minute because I realized then that we are all the same and there are no new ideas, but isn't this life singularly beautiful anyway because we feel things uniquely even if they're the same feeling?
I remember discovering Mary Oliver years later, and feeling like, whoa this is what I've been trying to say, this is the feeling I haven't been able to articulate and a consistent and repeated Yes! This is it. This is life. These words are true and beautiful and good.
When I found Oliver's poetry I was going through a difficult time in my journey of motherhood where I expected and assumed that my existence as a mother would provide my life's full serving of joy and, well, it didn't. It was, and continues to contribute a significant amount, but it's not a full life's serving. Realizing that felt like many flavors and levels of failure of the deepest and most personal kind and I wallowed. I wallowed hard.
I think I heard about her on a podcast or someone shared a poem from her on Facebook and I was intrigued. So, I checked out all the books I could find from her at the library and read them all and was demolished and put back together. The words she painted with are simple and ordinary and exquisitely exact. I didn't even realize the impact they had on me until looking over them again this morning after hearing Mary Oliver had died.
I will miss her talent and her precision. I am anxious now to get my hands on some of her work to carry around, re-read, underline, stare at, and cry about. Here's a taste of what she could do, I hope you'll look up some more. I'm so grateful for her voice that has been so much to me.
“Ten times a day something happens to me like this - some strengthening throb of amazement - some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
― Mary Oliver
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don't Hesitate)”
― Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
“Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.”
― Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
― Mary Oliver
I start another semester of Grad School this week, and have read 11 books during my break this month. I have several in progress as I failed my self-appointed task to cut down the number of currently reading titles. I'll give myself to the end of the month to really be done with that, but I think my goal in the future is to read 1 audiobook, 1 e-book, and 1 physical book, is a noble one.
Books with my kids don't count. We currently have two going. A road trip book (The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell, which is read by David Tennant on Audio which we're really enjoying), and a night time read before bed book (Inkspell, the sequel to Inheart by Cornelia Funke).
Anyway, here are some great books I've finished this month:
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt - I love Patrick DeWitt's style. His characters are hilariously pretentious and strange and at the same time, completely believable. His writing style is impeccable with words that bring you to another place and illuminate the story with function and glitter. His plots are unexpected and weird and ordinary in exactly the ways I prefer. This book is short but it may be my favorite of his. In the way great comedy is multi-layered and more enjoyable with each re-watch, I have a feeling this book falls into the same category. It's got such wit while describing rather mundane and slightly depressing rich people relationship problems. It follows the adventures of a woman and her son, who have lost their fortune, and must make something of the rest of their lives. Oh, and the dead husband/father has been reincarnated as a cat. I need my own copy so I can read it again. It's fantastic.
Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams - Initially I was drawn in by the cover, but then I heard the elevator pitch. A machine can tell you three things that will increase your happiness. Well, obviously I needed to read it and I'm very glad I did. This falls into the totally unexpected and wonderful category that DeWitt's novels also inhabit for me, and I was delighted, moved, and transported by this slim book. Dealing with those involved with the machine that decodes one's happiness, this book inhabits a few perspectives and shows us the motives, actions, progress, and mistakes of several characters. It's beautiful and thoughtful and a very quick read I think is worth your time. It won't be for everyone but I think it will give you something to think about even if you don't end up liking it as much as I did.
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pierce - Let me preface this with the admission I made on Instagram, that I don't really like WWII novels or much historical fiction. AT ALL. The Horror, I know. It's fine. It's just not my thing. I have read too many that played with my emotions just for funsies and that's not cool. So I'm picky about what I read in that genre. I read this as an audiobook, and picked it up because the premise sounded exciting. The narrator has a lovely voice that was very soothing, but the writing is equally lovely. The plot doesn't center on WWII terror as I expected it to, but merely holds that as a backdrop for the events. Our protagonist is a plucky young women eager to make a name for herself as a journalist, and I related to her daring dreams that didn't quite consider the reality of her situation. She finds herself having to approve letters to an advice columnist. When she feels for those who's letters are being turned away without a second glance and decides to do something about it, ample amounts of chaos ensue. If you like historical fiction this is probably smack-dab in the middle of your wheelhouse. If you aren't a fan, like me, this is one that's worth a try. It's not too long, just delightful and well written enough to earn the feelings you generate for it, and the characters are real enough to believe and root for. Glad I read it.
Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran - I heard about this one a few times on a podcast and finally checked it out from the library. It's not that long so I ended up giving it a try. It's short chapters and incredibly compelling main character made it an incredible detective mystery. I am eager to read the next book in the series and would follow Claire anywhere (sometimes from behind my fingers but I'd still go). She is as spunky and unexpected as Veronica Mars but her humor and tone is grittier and a bit more introspective. I also love the hints of the fantastic and magically symbolic that gave this book it's atmosphere. It does deal with some unpleasant situations but seeing as it's a murder mystery detective story that was expected. I found it absolutely transporting. I love finding a great series with an amazingly flawed but genuinely smart detective at the center. I am so glad I finally got around to reading this one. I think there are two more in the series waiting for me and I'm going to savor them.
Let me know if you decide to read any of these or what you thought if you already have read them! As always, I'm more than happy to give you a personalized recommendation if you want one :) Happy Reading!
In February my book group has decided to read a book that has been written by an African American author (you can read all about my book club in this post here if you're curious). I wanted to challenge myself to come up with a list of titles that would fulfill each task on our list for this year, so here is the first installment.
Let me preface this by saying, we shouldn't need a prompt to read African American authors, or authors that have a different religion, race, gender, or situation than our own, but there is a lack of adequate diversity in publishing and too often we all become stuck in what's comfortable, cling to our prejudices and don't feel like branching out into the unknown and likely uncomfortable or challenging. However! Growth happens outside of the comfort zone. Reading is an excellent way to gain empathy and understanding and allows you to see someone's perspective and gain understanding so you can move past just being angry and confused by something or someone's viewpoint.
Take a look at your reading, and, I triple dog dare you (now you have to do it!), in the coming year, challenge yourself. Are you reading books written mostly written by white men? Start reading books written by women, or men from a different background than your own, or written by someone who lives in another country, or written by an immigrant, or someone who practices a different religion than your own. It doesn't even have to be non-fiction, just read from a wider lens.
With that said, here's a list of books I've read, enjoyed, and learned from that were written by African American authors.
Everything's Trash, But It's Okay, by Phoebe Robinson
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown
When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
Books I haven't read yet but am considering for this task (and want to read anyway):
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
We're Going to Need More Wine, by Gabrielle Union
Hunger, by Roxanne Gay
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
Please let me know what I should add to my TBR pile! What do you do to broaden your reading life?
When I moved to California a little over three years ago I knew I wanted to find a way to send a bat signal to find my nerdy book lovers in my new town. The fastest way for me to do that is to offer a monthly book club and so I started one by spreading the word of it where I go to church. I didn't want to do a church or religion specific book club though, but my religion is a big part of the community I have because I'm rather a recluse and excel at being a homebody, so those are the people I see regularly.
Having had some less than stellar book club experiences in the past, I wanted to establish the rule that this was mostly a club for book lovers, rather than a book club where we'd have questions and had to stay on topic and there was pressure to finish the book every month. That just stresses me out and makes me angsty. Our club has been going for over two years now and it's mostly a social group with a book emphasis to get the conversation going. Our regulars are in different stages of life but we all have a common interest in books and, as many book lovers will agree, we like learning things and exploring parts of the world and ideas without having to go anywhere. It's become a lot of fun, and I look forward to our monthly outing for the conversation and social time as much as for the book chat that starts us off.
In the past we've always chosen specific titles for each month and it's worked out ok, but we decided on doing something different this year that I'm excited about. We're adopting the idea of book challenge prompts or themes for each month instead of a particular title we all have to read. This is cool to me because it will allow us each to choose what we want to read within that month's theme, we'll learn about more books when we meet and other people have read different things, and we'll have more to talk about and broaden each others reading horizons. I think it's going to work out pretty well.
I always love a book task, whether or not anyone's asked me to do one, so I gave myself a challenge to post some suggestions each month here for the prompt/monthly theme that we picked to share with the group and with you. It'd be an easy challenge to join in on and I'd love to have a discussion of topics here as well. I'll be sure to report back each month too about what we each read, thought, learned, and discovered, but I really think this is an awesome way to have a welcoming and inclusive, low-pressure book group!
Here's our list:
February - read a book written by an African American author
March - read a classic you have not gotten to yet
April - read a collection of poetry
May - read a book written by a female author with a positive maternal figure or about a mother
June - read a children's book
July - re-read a favorite book
August - read a book by an Indigenous author
September - read a book by a Hispanic author
October - read a thriller/mystery/ghost story
November - read a historical fiction novel
December - read a biography or memoir
Have you been a part of an in-person book club before? I'd love to hear what you do or what you're looking for if that's something you'd like to add to your reading life. I'd encourage you to start one if you're interested too! It's a lot of fun. Book people are the best people!
I'm working on a post about a couple of my favorite online book clubs, so stay tuned for that!
The beginning of the year always signals a lovely tumbling rollout of new yearly reading challenges. While I really enjoy the inspiring intention of these challenges I've never actually participated in completing one!! Shocked, I know. It's ok.
I do love looking at the prompts, and using them to expand my own yearly reading as I find it helpful to read with intention and at least some hopes of broadening my horizons during the year. I love reading for entertainment and escape but I find it is ultimately, for me, about learning more about the world around me and the people in it. If we only read books about or written by people who look like ourselves, we're really doing a disservice to the world and to ourselves. So, with that in mind, if you are a reader or like to set reading goals, or just want to think about expanding your reading life, here are the 2019 reading challenges that I think are worth a look:
From Book Riot: The 2019 Read Harder challenge! Intentionally set up to encourage more diverse reading, with 24 interesting prompts like, read a book of nonviolent true crime, read a book written in prison, and read a comic by an LGBTQIA creator.
From PopSugar: The 2019 PopSugar Reading Challenge! This is a very popular reading challenge that I've seen hashtags for frequently. The challenge is longer with 40 tasks including such prompts as, a book that takes place in a single day, a book by two female authors, and a book written by a musician (non-fiction or fiction). A pretty fun list, and the article in the link above actually has book suggestions for each prompt listed which is incredibly helpful if you want to peruse that.
From Modern Mrs. Darcy: The 2019 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge is a pretty unique offering and her challenges have evolved and changed shape over the past few years. This year's challenge includes steps for improving your reading life, not just ticking boxes on a task list, which is a nice addition for readers to think about. There are only 10 items on the actual challenge so it is not very intimidating. Prompts include: a book in translation, three books by the same author, and a book published before you were born.
From the Reading Glasses podcast: The Reading Glasses 2019 Challenge! I'm particularly excited about this because I really enjoy the podcast and the friendship of the hosts. This challenge is also unique because it includes activities like, get a library card! It's a great combination of things to do and things to read and isn't too long.
Finally, from The Professional Book Nerds Podcast: The 2019 Reading Challenge is only 12 tasks so you could accomplish one per month. Includes things like, read a book with a cover you hate, listen to an audiobook of a memoir that is read by the author, and book set on a continent other than you own.
There are also a ton of fun ones on Instagram if you search for them. Perhaps a separate post for Instagram centered reading challenges would be fun to do. The book people on Instagram are incredibly fun and lovely. I recommend looking around that corner of social media if you want some immediate book reading friends.
Do you participate in reading challenges? Have any favorite prompts or challenges that aren't in this list? Let me know, I'd love to hear about them!
Here are a few of the books I enjoyed most of my year of reading in 2018. Presented in no particular order and with many more left out that were just as good, but I had to narrow it down a little bit.
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