Weekly Favorites: Volume 5

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WORDS

BLOG

  • I came across a book blog that I’ve fallen in love with. Check out the Literary Edit if you like books and beautiful web design.

MUSIC

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TELEVISION

  • Due to my fondness for Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, I started watching the Amazon series Forever. I’m four episodes in and am enjoying it so far. I like how it keeps subverting my expectations.

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INTERIOR DESIGN


What are your favorite things right now?

Top Five Friday: Books I’m Shocked I Liked

I’ve been a reader ever since I read Green Eggs and Ham by myself in kindergarten and thought, “This is pretty fun.” Over the years, I’ve figured out exactly what I like to read. I’ll admit I’m not the most adventurous reader, and most of the time that’s okay with me. Managing my time wisely is essential; I’m not going to spend time reading a book that’s not for me. But sometimes there’s a book that pulls me in that’s outside my literary comfort zone. Today I’m sharing five books that I picked up out of curiosity, assumed I wouldn’t like very much, but ended up enjoying immensely.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not into the outdoors. The idea of going outside fills me with disdain. Why would I go outside when the wifi and air conditioning are inside? Nevertheless, I kept hearing buzz about Wild, so I picked it up from the library to satisfy my curiosity, intending to read a few pages. Instead, I read the entire book in one sitting, amazed at Cheryl Strayed’s gift with words. She writes beautifully. The story she tells about her life and the loss of her mom in this book is tragic, yet she displays incredible resilience which fills her story with hope. This book is so much more than a story about a woman who embarks on a really long hike. It’s the story of coming alive again, and it’s fantastic.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

Last summer, I was sick with pneumonia for several weeks. During that time, I had zero energy and concentration, so I needed a fluffy book to join me on the couch. I chose Big Little Lies expecting fluff, but fluff I did not get. Instead, I got a novel about friendship, abuse, parenthood, deception, and how the past can haunt us no matter how beautiful things look on the outside. The pacing of this novel is pure perfection. This is another book I read in one sitting, wholly engaged by Moriarty’s well-developed characters. She’s since become one of my favorite authors.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Despite my passion for literature and that overpriced English degree I earned, I don’t consider myself terribly well-read when it comes to classics. Not only is Anna Karenina a classic, but it’s also a Russian classic that’s over 800 pages. I picked up a used copy of this for a great price and decided I’d give it a go, even though I was intimidated by it. As I cracked it open, I thought, “There’s no way I’m finishing this.” To my surprise, I not only finished it, but I loved it. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is excellent. I thought this book would be a real challenge, but that’s not the case at all. I’m not sure if that’s due to the translation or Tolstoy’s ability to tell a great story. I assume it’s a mix of both. If you’re intimidated by the book like I was, don’t be. Give it a chance, and I bet you’ll love it too.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers

Along with seemingly everyone else in the world, I read Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and liked it. Since I knew I enjoyed his writing, I picked up The Circle. There’s a science-fiction/dystopian feel to this novel, qualities that made me think I might not like this one. As with all the other books listed here, I’m so glad I gave this a chance. Eggers has fascinating things to say about technology and connection. Mae, the protagonist of this novel, was an engrossing character and I was invested in her story the whole way through. The Circle is nearly 500 pages long, but I finished it in just a couple of days. If you’re interested in the ways technology and social media are shaping our lives, don’t miss this one.

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Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

In college, I took a class about the philosophy of C. S. Lewis. I’d read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters in high school and had really liked them, so I was excited about the class. I was slightly less excited when I saw Till We Have Faces on the syllabus, though. This book retells the Cupid and Psyche myth, and I had never studied mythology. I also had zero interest in reading fantasy. To my surprise, I loved this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. What Lewis says about love and beauty in this book is profound. I’m grateful this text was assigned to me or I probably never would have read it.


What about you? What are the books you’re surprised you liked?

Reading Recap | October 2018

Here’s a look at the books I read in October. I’m stingy with my 5-star ratings, so it’s a literary miracle that two books earned them this month. Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

The novel goes back and forth between time periods and two primary characters. The first is Yale, a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980s. AIDS is slowly but surely killing his friends. One of those friends was Nico whose sister is Fiona, a stand-in mother to the group. Fiona’s great-aunt has some valuable art she’d like to donate, so Fiona connects her to Yale, a development director at an art gallery.

Years later in 2015, Fiona travels to Paris to find her adult daughter who became part of a cult. She stays with an artist from the old Chicago scene while she searches for her child and is forced to face the tragedies of her life.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The Great Believers is a story about love, friendship, parenthood, art, and the AIDS epidemic, yet the novel never feels as if it’s trying to do too much. Makkai is a gifted storyteller who weaves together the dueling timelines so seamlessly that it looks as if it were easy.

Though Makkai focuses on Yale and Fiona, this novel is full of vibrant characters. Instead of being there to further the main stories, these characters are as interesting and well-developed as the two protagonists. Makkai’s writing is gorgeous and poetic. This book contained a lot of heartbreak, but also so much life.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Literary fiction diehards who don’t mind heavy subject matter will find a lot to love here.

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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Cassie Maddox is one of the detectives readers meet in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods. In The Likeness, Cassie is a little bored. She transferred out of murder into the domestic violence unit. Her work is routine, she now wears suits, and she has a sweet boyfriend. Her life is pretty safe and predictable. When a murdered woman is found who happens to look just like Cassie, she’s called to the scene. It turns out the dead woman not only looked like Cassie but was living as Lexie Madison, the identity Cassie used years before in an undercover case. Cassie is asked to go undercover yet again to try to find Lexie’s killer, and she can’t resist.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The thing that makes In the Woods great makes The Likeness great, too, and that’s French’s pacing. Some mystery and suspense novels have twists and turns every other page. Those books focus on plot, and the characters take a backseat. The Likeness has an exciting plot and does include twists and turns, but French takes her time in her storytelling. Several chapters can go by before there are any significant plot developments. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. French’s prose is consistently interesting, and her characters seem like real people. The tension she creates is palpable.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of In the Woods will love this continuation of Cassie’s story. Mystery lovers looking for depth and great writing will enjoy this, too.

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How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Anna Crawford is an English teacher who was suspended for an outburst at her public high school. When a shooting takes place there, Anna is one of the first suspects. She’s ruled out quickly when law enforcement realizes the shooter was someone else, but her life is turned upside down anyway. Her home was torn apart searching for evidence. Her face was on the news.  She lives in a small town, so she can’t escape people’s judgment. How to Be Safe examines a year in Anna’s life after the shooting and how it deeply affected her, even though she wasn’t there when it happened.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Tom McAllister uses effective, dark satire to explore a nation that profoundly loves its guns. He also shows just how damaging our quick judgment can be to innocent people.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

People who are okay with unlikable and unreliable narrators will be this book’s best audience.

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Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

This is another nonfiction title from Lamott in which she sets out to write everything she knows about hope. Lamott’s usual topics are here in abundance: God, politics, addiction, and friendship.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

What I most enjoy about Almost Everything is that Lamott genuinely wrestles with hope. It doesn’t come easily to her; she realizes joy is a choice. I appreciate that kind of honesty and found this book refreshing.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of Lamott’s previous work will like this one, as well.


What did you read this October? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

The Importance of Reading to Develop Empathy

Last week certainly had its share of anger and violence here in the U.S. Pipe bombs were mailed to political leaders, 2 black shoppers were gunned down in a Kentucky Kroger store, and 11 Jewish people were murdered in their place of worship. Such violence (and the hate that fueled it) is utterly heartbreaking.

As I always do when tragedy happens, I try to make sense of it. I want to understand what could drive a person to hate people based only on their political views or ethnicity. There are no easy answers, of course, but one thing does seem obvious to me, and that’s how desperately we all need more empathy.

Over the weekend, I finished reading Anne Lamott’s newest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. In it, she talks about a writing class she was teaching for little kids, and says this:

I tell the six-year-olds that if they want to have great lives, they need to read a lot or listen to the written word. If they rely only on their own thinking, they will not notice the power that is all around them, the force-be-with-you kind of power. Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say “Wow,” so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.

I’m not naive enough to believe that if people just read more books, they’ll never be violent or hateful. But I do think reading broadens our worldview and invites us into stories that are different from our own. It’s easy to fear what we don’t know, but it becomes increasingly difficult to be afraid of something we clearly understand. And isn’t much of our violence based on fear? We humans can turn on each other so quickly, making our neighbor into an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can’t love an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can eradicate or solve or ostracize, though. You can slowly keep adding labels to people that dehumanize them.

Later in her book, Lamott goes on to say, “Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude.” Empathy allows us to get rid of our imperfect and unjust labeling systems and see people for who they are: fragile, needy, and worthy of love and belonging, just like us. This is grace. When it applies to us, it’s the best thing imaginable. When it applies to people we’ve labeled and dehumanized, it can seem terrifying and unjust.

I’m certainly not immune to these feelings. I’m terribly uncomfortable with confrontation, so I try to stay out of political debates as much as possible. But I must admit that I have a hard time loving our current president. I’m offended by his words about immigrants, appalled by his treatment of women, sickened by his disregard for the truth, and shocked by the mess of his White House. His values are at odds with my faith and viewpoint. Last week I read a Facebook post from Lamott in which she’s talking about the battle inside to remember that grace always wins in the end. She says of Trump:

Twenty percent of me aches for the total barbaric ruins of his inner life. Twenty percent. That is a miracle. And on top of that, I’ve realized that God looks at Trump and sees His own suffering son, never leaves him and aches for him, too, pulls for him to be transformed by Love, loves him as a mother does her child.

That gutted me. Lamott’s words immediately gave me pause and helped turned my anger into empathy. While I’m still in strong disagreement with his policies, I’m doing my best to remember they’re coming from a broken man. Aren’t we all well-acquainted with brokenness?

In this time of violence and anger, I’m grateful for the power of words and books to change my own heart. I’m grateful for Born a Crime that showed me what it was like to live in Apartheid. I’m grateful for The Book of Unknown Americans that showed me how hard it is for immigrants to chase the American Dream. I’m grateful for The Ragamuffin Gospel that showed me how absolutely no one is beyond the reach of grace. My list could go on and on.

Reading widely isn’t going to save the world, but it might make us a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more empathetic. And that’s a good start.

Weekly Favorites: Volume 4

WORDS

MUSIC

I’m not typically a fan of country music, but I started listening to Kacey Musgraves earlier this year and am in love with her music, specifically her newest album. It’s been on constant rotation this week.

NPR shared this video of Musgraves singing Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know,” and it’s lovely.

FOOD

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  • The Magnolia Table cookbook has been one of my favorites lately. I made the sour cream chicken enchiladas for dinner one night this week, and they were delicious. Also, the chocolate chip cookie recipe in here resulted in the best cookies I’ve ever made.

What have you been loving lately?

Top Five Friday: Where I Buy Books

I have six bookcases, three of which are pretty big. All six are overflowing at the moment (a privilege for which I’m thankful). Despite my crammed and sagging bookshelves, I continue to buy books. Some books are just so pretty, and some books are super cheap, and other books call to me, and I must answer their call or the books will be sad forever. I trust you, dear reader, understand completely. Today I’m sharing my favorite places to buy books in case you too are a hopeless collector.

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BOOK OUTLET

I didn’t know about Book Outlet until about three years ago. When I found out about it, I felt as if I had just entered a new, higher plane of existence. THEY’RE SO CHEAP, YOU GUYS. I’ve found new releases in hardcover for under $5, a few special editions, and some popular paperbacks for less than $2. I appreciate Book Outlet because your money goes so far on their site, but do know they don’t have the selection you’ll find through an ordinary bookseller. Their inventory changes all the time, so this site is best for browsing instead of hunting for something specific.

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LIBRARY BOOK SALES

The greatest library book sale finds I’ve ever stumbled across has to be the Robert Caro LBJ biography set I discovered during a $3 a bag sale. Not only did I get the first three volumes of that set in pristine condition, but I also filled up the rest of my bag for $3 total. Three dollars! As in less than a latte for a bag full of books! Library book sales are your friends. They can be hit and miss, sure, but you can find some absolute gems if your timing is right. One time I cut off the circulation in my arm for a while because I was carrying so many heavy bags of books from the library to my car, but my temporary numbness was totally worth it.

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MY LOCAL INDIE

I love indie bookstores, and I’m lucky to live in a city with a great one. It’s big, has a wonderfully curated selection of new and used books, and is always full of so much beautiful light thanks to all its pretty windows. In addition to books, my indie has a good assortment of magazines, gift items, and beautiful stationery. The staff is friendly, and the displays are always impressive. I know I can find what I’m looking for and am happy to support a local business that brings so much literary goodness to the community.

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THRIFT STORES

When I enter a thrift store, I’m drawn to the book section first thing. I approach feeling like a hunter searching for its prey. There’s excitement in each step as I walk up to the first shelf. Sometimes I score a brand new hardcover for a dollar, and other times I wonder who donated the decade-old computer books and what employee thought someone would actually buy them. But the duds are worth looking through to find the gems. And if outdated technology books are your thing, a thrift store will be your bookish oasis.

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BARNES AND NOBLE

I feel like shopping at Barnes & Noble means that I prefer Fox Books to The Shop Around the Corner, but there’s room in my heart for both the big box store and the little indie. I like B&N because of the atmosphere. There’s a ton of seating, and it smells like a mixture of new books and coffee (a.k.a. the best smell ever). B&N also offers great deals to its members. My $25 annual membership pays for itself thanks to all the 20% off coupons I get throughout the year. A trip to this bookstore always relaxes me, whether I buy anything or not. (Let’s be honest here: I usually buy something.)


As a bonus item, check out Bookfinder when you’re shopping for books online. It’s not a site where I buy books, but a place that tells me where to buy them. When I want a used copy of an older title, I always use Bookfinder because it does all the searching for me by telling me what sites have the title I want and who’s offering the best price.

What are your favorite places to pick up books?

7 Ways to End a Reading Slump

If books are a significant part of your life, a reading slump is frustrating. I’ve been through two main types, and I want to briefly explain both.

READING SLUMP #1

This happens when you’re in a season of life in which you’re extremely busy. Perhaps you’re pursuing a new project or hobby. Maybe you just had a baby, started a new job, or are trying to get your degree. In this scenario, life sets automatic limits on how much free time you have.  You might want to read, but have to admit it’s just not feasible right now. Or perhaps you don’t want to pick up a book during this time because your interest lies elsewhere.

READING SLUMP #2

The second type of reading slump is when you’re desperate to pick up and finish a book, but you can’t. You’ve got the time, the books, and a space to read, but you just can’t finish anything. This happens to me when I’m feeling especially stressed or overwhelmed. Sometimes I have tasks hanging over my head, and I can’t focus on a book until I meet my obligations. Other times, no book I start holds my interest, even if it’s by an author I usually adore. This is the most frustrating type of reading slump because it can seem ludicrous to have trouble doing something you love.

Today I want to offer seven tips to help you out of a reading slump. Share your own ideas in the comments below.

1

A reading slump probably isn’t the best time to start that 800-page novel you’ve owned since 2003. Instead, choose a book you can read quickly. Finishing something will leave you with a feeling of accomplishment, and you’ll want to keep that momentum going. Look for something around 200 pages or less. If you want some ideas, check out this Goodreads list.

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If you aren’t into any of the books you’re trying, pick up a book you’ve already read. If you’re struggling to focus, it won’t matter as much since you already know the story. Plus, going back to a favorite is like seeing an old friend again. Sometimes it feels as if there’s pressure to read all the new and shiny books that have just come out, but there’s a place for your beloved classics.

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This is usually my first choice when I want out of a reading slump. There’s nothing better than an exciting, plot-driven novel to hold your attention. I’ll always reach for a suspense or mystery book when I need something that’s nearly guaranteed to keep my attention. If you like those genres, take a look at five of my favorites.

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If you mostly read print books, try an audiobook. If you stick to ebooks, try something in print. Mixing up how you read can breathe some new life into your reading. I’ve found that I can read multiple books at once if they’re in different formats. I prefer nonfiction on audio, something lighthearted or plot-driven on my Kindle, and fiction in physical form. Figure out a system that works for your tastes.

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If you’re devoted to grisly mysteries, give horror a chance. If you like historical fiction, pick up a biography. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, give one a try next time you’re at the library. There are so many different kinds of books out there (like this one), so stepping outside your literary comfort zone might help you get over your slump. And thanks to libraries, you can try a wide variety of genres without spending anything.

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Your reading slump might be worsened if you have no clue what to read next. If that’s the case, ask a librarian. (This might be shocking, but they like talking about books.) Listen to a podcast. Search for book lists online. Visit your local bookstore and see what’s new. I’m a subscriber to Book of the Month and  Page 1 Books, so if your budget allows, services like that are a fun way to discover new titles.

7

Sometimes I’m tempted not to read if I know I only have time to get through a few pages. It can feel silly to spend just five or ten minutes reading, but those minutes add up pretty quickly. If you only read for ten minutes a day on a break at work, you’d have read for almost an hour by Friday. That’s significant! Those spare minutes count.


Have you experienced reading slumps? What are your tips for overcoming them?