Quarterly Book Report: April 2015

I would like there to be an extra day of the week that's devoted solely to reading. In the winter, it would be all about snuggling under blankets with a mug of tea and a weighty piece of emotional literature. In the summer, I would lounge on the back deck with lemonade and a stack of chick lit.

As it is, I try to fit a little reading in when I can. Other things get in the way, of course. More writing = less reading. More cooking = less reading. But then less tv watching = more reading. It's a balance. 

Here are the books that have kept me company over the last three months:  

Yes Please*
Amy Poehler

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but now about how good people think you are or how good people think you look. I realize this is extremely difficult. I am not saying I am particularly good at it. I'm like you. Or maybe you're better at this than I am." 

Oh, Amy. You could slide Poehler's memoir onto the shelf in the category of "funny lady books," alongside Tina Fey's Bossypants and Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman (the latter of which I adored). And there are certainly many chapters of the book devoted to funny stories about her entry into the improv world, tales of pot-fueled improv shows and late night shenanigans at SNL. Those were fun, and I gobbled up the chapters about Parks & Rec and was fascinated by the differences in how various types of television shows are filmed. But I loved this book because of the deeper moments. Amidst the humor, there is a gravity to Poehler's words, a sense of taking stock and looking back on life to better understand the choices made. Make it past the first chapter on how hard it is to write a book, and there are real gems, especially for those of us in our mid-thirties who are still trying to figure out what the hell they're doing.  

Flight Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver

“This was a living flow, like a pulse through veins, with the cells bursting and renewing themselves as they went. The sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her, for fear of breaking into sobs as she had in front of her in-laws that day when the butterflies enveloped her. How was that even normal, to cry over insects?”

Kingsolver's prose was as beautiful as ever in this sorrowful novel about a rural community, a marriage in trouble, climate change, and a woman on the precipice of the beginning (or the end) of her own life. The descriptions of Appalachia - the people, the landscape, the churches, the views - were spot on. I quarreled with Kingsolver and with her main character Dellarobia throughout the book; I am a long-time lover of Kingsolver's work, but I do sometimes find her fiction preachy. I thought she had a prime opportunity to show the humanity and the sympathy in people we (her liberal readership) wouldn't typically connect to, and while she did a little of that, it didn't quite happen for me as much as I would have liked. When done well, it's one of my favorite things to find in a book. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and her exquisite melding of the personal and the cultural and the political drew me in and tapped into my own unsure places. I brought it up at least twice in therapy. So there's that.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography*
Neil Patrick Harris

"If you had known people would be calling you by your character name for the next twenty years, you might have asked for a different one. Thunderbolt Howswer, say, or Dr. Feelgood, or Baron von Sexy Ass."

I'm sad to say that I was a little underwhelmed by NPH's autobiography - sad because I'm a big NPH fan. (As in, I re-watched Doogie Howser a few years ago on Netflix.) I thought the alternative choose-your-own-adventure style was cute and was handled fairly well on the audiobook I listened to. But I was expecting NPH to be funnier. I guess that's not entirely fair since he's a comedic actor, not a comedic writer. There were some interesting parts about show business, and I loved learning about how his tv career began and what it's like for child actors and their parents. However, the chapters detailing every moment of hosting the Tony's (all 4 times) got a little boring. To be honest, I think NPH is suffering under the weight of hype and my own unrealistic expectations. It's totally not his fault. I still love you, Doogie.

The Rosie Project
Graeme Simsion

"I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it."

I was hooked from the very first page. Don Tilliman, Simsion's socially awkward and utterly delightful main character, pulled me in with his schedules and his timetables and his ridiculous notions about other people's motivations. I loved him instantly, and all that was left to do was spend the next 319 pages laughing at his gaffs, mourning with him in his confusion, and biting my nails until all is made right. I found myself imagining the book as a movie, and I've heard one is in the works. I'm sure it won't live up to my expectations, but I'll take it if it means I get to spend a couple more hours with these characters. (I will be reading The Rosie Effect soon.)

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Anne Lamott

"Praying 'Help' means that we ask that Something give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems....someplace else, anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle."

Though I read most books on my Kindle or listen to them on Audible, I bought a hard copy of Lamott's new book because I was sure I was going to want to underline a thousand sections and keep the words next to my bed at the ready for any emotional crisis. I thought the book was going to provide the comfort I was looking for this winter, and I was disappointed when it didn't. I'm a big Anne Lamott fan, but this one missed the mark for me. The stories rambled in a way that reduced their impact, and I found myself nodding off as I read. I'll admit that since finishing, I have noticed a willingness to offer up the simplest of prayers - most often Help - in times when I might otherwise go into a mental spiral. But the book didn't act as the balm for my soul that I anticipated. Perhaps my expectations were too high. 

Nothing Like Looking
Chris Van Hakes

"She had curly brown hair that clustered around her forehead and then vanished on the sides, clipped short, only to reappear to rest on her shoulders - tragic hair, like mine. I nodded at her; we were all just a small haircut away from a mullet."

This nerdy, angst-filled story of teenage love is just what I was looking for in these last few weeks to take my mind off troublesome things and escape into an imaginary high school world. Van Hakes knows how to string me along with a smidge of mystery and a cast of quirky, flawed characters that frustrate me just enough to ensure I keep reading until they figure things out and fall in love. In one of my favorite literary styles, Van Hakes weaves J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit throughout the novel, with 16 year olds giving impassioned arguments about who is a dwarf and who is a hobbit in their drama-filled lives. A light read that gets bonus points for reminding me how steamy those chaste high school kisses could be. 

Love At the Speed of Email

Lisa McKay 

"I have often seen refugees in airports in Africa on their way to their new lives, holding nothing but sleeping children and sealed plastic bags full of official documents. I examine them covertly while we all wait to board, trying to imagine what it is like to leave behind the only home you have ever known, perhaps forever, on the strength of nothing but the uncertain hope that there must be something better across that wide, dark oceanic threshold." 

This memoir and transcontinental love story was a light, clever read that gave an interesting glimpse into the lives and hearts of humanitarian workers. The book wasn't mind-blowing, but McKay's honesty about her experiences and her own behavior was refreshing. Though I'm normally a huge sucker for romance, the most exciting part of the book for me turned out to be McKay's work as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. If you know and love someone who does humanitarian work (as my sister does), I'd recommend it as a way to gain another perspective on what their days might entail. 

*I listened to these on Audible

p.s. The best books I read in 2014.

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The Best Books I Read in 2014

During law school I thought maybe I'd never want to read for pleasure again - my brain was so tired of consuming words on a page. I'm so glad I was wrong. It took a little while to get back into the habit, but I'm deep in now. And 2014 was a good year for it. Here were my favorite reads last year: 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Adichie's epic tale had me captivated from the very beginning. She weaves together the personal and the political and cultural masterfully, making this book touching, funny, and thought-provoking. When I finished, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a new and delightful friend. Goes into my top 10 books ever.

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walters 

A beautiful set of interwoven stories about the power - and the limitations - of the human spirit. Walters has created a cast of touchingly real characters and sewn their lives together across time and space in such a moving way that finishing the book left me in tears at the gift of human connection.

The Signature of All Things*
Elizabeth Gilbert

A beautiful Jane Austen-esque journey through the life of brilliant and unconventional Alma Whitaker. The novel's scope could be described as epic - covering two generations, as well as topics ranging from women and sexuality to faith and science. Gilbert created likable characters and kept my interest. My single quibble with the book was in the ending, which I won't spoil. Even with my dissatisfaction in the final pages, I'd recommend the book to anyone looking for an engrossing, enjoyable read.

The Orphan Master's Son
Adam Johnson

A thought-provoking and captivating glimpse into a country that most of us know very little about. I rushed to read interviews with Adam Johnson after I finished so that I could understand how much of what I read was based in truth and how much in fiction. Simultaneously devastating and inspiring, Johnson created believable characters and kept me guessing to the end.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Cheryl Strayed 

There is much to cry over, laugh about, and connect with in the letters sent to Sugar through the years that she kept her column at The Rumpus. Strayed's compassion and insight into the human condition rival any self-help book out there. But she beats them all with her eloquence and wit. This is one to read over and over and over again.

I Know This Much is True
Wally Lamb 

I blame Mr. Lamb for many sink-fulls of dirty dishes, unswept floors, and dinners eaten directly from the pantry. I Know This Much Is True kept me firmly in its grip from the very beginning until the very end - and beyond. After turning that last page, Dominick and Ray and Lisa Sheffer and Ralph and all the others stayed in my head, acting as the lenses through which I viewed everything in my life for weeks afterward.

What were your favorite books in 2014? Please share - I always love adding good ones to the list!

p.s. Follow me on Goodreads!

*Listened to audiobook on Audible.

Amy Palanjian's So Pretty Crochet

I'm so excited to share with you a new crochet book from my friend Amy Palanjian.  If you've been in need of some yarn-y inspiration (or even if you haven't), you're going to want this book. 

As soon as I saw the cover, I knew I was going to love what was inside.  The gorgeous, feminine take on a traditional crocheted item, with its soft scalloping and the perfect addition of a simple lambskin bow is indicative of what's in store once you open the pages.  Each piece - by twelve different artists - is perfect in its intentionality.  And there's not a single afghan among them.  Though many of the creators were taught and inspired by mothers and grandmothers, the crochet projects featured are decidedly modern.

The innovation in this one category of craft speaks to our growing need to balance our modern, busy lives with physical handiwork.  More and more of us feel a deep need to make things with our hands in order to feel grounded in the rest of our lives.  It helps us to feel a sense of accomplishment - to calm our minds with deliberate (and often repetitive and soothing) work.  Considered this way, the act of sitting down to crochet a new necklace or a table runner is almost an act of self-preservation.  And increasingly, it's a way to show the world who we are and what we're capable of - on our own creative terms. 

Amy begins the book with a brief introduction to crochet, definitions of some of the basic terminology, and a quick run-down of the various options in yarn weight. And then she gets straight to the really good part.  From necklaces and wrist cuffs to nesting bowls and rag rugs, the pages are filled with stunning photographs and patterns that will make you want to pull out your crochet hook right. now. and start creating an accessory that will turn heads. 

But the book isn't all pretty pictures.  Amy shares a bit of the story behind each artist.  When you've picked a project and you're ready to sit down with a ball of yarn, you'll know who created that pattern, where she lives, and why she crochets.  In the blog world, we have always felt a connection to the creator of the patterns we love, but that has remained somewhat absent from traditional how-to books.  Thankfully So Pretty Crochet crosses the divide by providing insight into the artists' lives alongside instruction.  

One word of caution for the beginner crocheters out there - the book is not geared toward novices.  While Amy points readers to several websites and youtube videos that offer instruction, the patterns themselves require at least a basic familiarity with crocheting and handling a hook.  There are no step-by-step diagrams or mid-process photographs.  As someone who taught myself to crochet with a book, I always think it's good to start off the learning process by working through a bunch of the basic stitches so that you're not completely learning a new stitch each time you try to pick up a new pattern. 

So Pretty Crochet concludes with a section on where to source yarns, particularly if you're interested in organic or specialty yarns, which will be helpful for those who are looking for something more special than what their local Michaels carries. 

I'm guessing that once you finish the book, you'll be itching to go buy yourself some pretty skeins and start planning out a project. I know I've set my sights on one of the necklaces.  Or maybe that awesome braided bracelet. Or the flower headband. 

There are so many options, it's hard to choose. 

Amy has certainly put together a book that will make you excited to grab your crochet hook and make something so, so pretty.


*I was not paid for this review, but I did receive a complimentary copy of the book. 

The Books That Shaped Me

A couple years ago, Navah and I started a little nightly routine of reading to each other in bed. We probably only read for 15-20 minutes, but it's a nice segue into the quietness of sleep. And we enjoy reading something together so we can talk about it.

Our previous books have all been joint decisions, but I came across an old copy of Christy a while back at a used book sale and brought it home with the announcement that it would be our next nighttime book. Navah was less convinced. The cover’s cheesy. The little blurb on the back is cheesy. But I pushed and pushed and promised to read it in my best Southern accent (she’s a sucker for Southerners). I knew that once we got into it, she’d be hooked.

And I was right. Those Appalachian Mountain folks pull you in.

We’re about a third of the way through, and I keep remembering my high school self – reading intently and imagining that it was me in the shirtwaist and long skirt scrapping my way through a year of teaching those bright and unruly mountain children, falling in love with the rugged mountain folk along the way. Romantic was my favorite way to be.

And the trip down memory lane has me thinking about the books I read as a child and young adult that shaped who I am today. There are three books – and really two of them are series – that jump right out at me.

Christy, the Anne of Green Gables series, and the Little House on thePrairie series.

I was a voracious reader, and I consumed those books – not just with my eyes, but with my heart and my young little soul. In their feisty heroines, I saw the kind of person that I wanted to be. Curious and kind. Adventurous and noble. Grateful for the simplest of gifts. Fallible, for sure, but with a heart of gold.

A teacher. A writer.

And I saw some of what I already was. A romantic. A lover of family, community, and nature.

I connected instantly with the stories of communities pulling together, of mistakes forgiven, of negative perceptions proven wrong. The books planted in me the belief that there is good in everyone and that a passionate young woman is the exact person to seek it out.

And they planted in me desires that I’ve never shed – to walk barefoot in fields of tall grass, to make things with my hands, to dig in the earth, to eat for dinner the fruits of your own labor, to look around me and see my own sweat in anything I can touch.

At thirty-one, I’ve become a bit more cynical and jaded. And there’s value in that – the books are fiction, after all (even Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her life was super romanticized). But I’m enjoying stepping back into that world – the world where good prevails, where gumption is all you need, where faith is pure and sustaining, where the beauty of wildflowers is worthy of a whole page.

I’m reconnecting with a part of myself that I treasure and that I don’t ever want to forget.

So, what books shaped you?