Top Five Friday: Classics I Failed to Finish

I’ve been an avid reader since birth (well, almost.) I know I read more than the average person. I have an English degree that required me to study everything from Beowulf to Zadie Smith. If there was an Olympics for reading, I might not be Michael Phelps, but I’d like to think I’d at least get a bronze medal or two.

In spite of my self-bestowed status as an Olympian reader, there are many classics that I have tried and failed to read.  Today I want to share five of them and briefly explain why they weren’t for me. Keep reading and behold my literary failures.

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Ulysses by James Joyce

Bless my precious heart for thinking this book couldn’t possibly be as daunting as people said. (It is.) Goodreads says this book is “a major achievement in 20th-century literature.” Even so, it’s just not for me.  I admire Joyce’s creativity, risk-taking, and lasting contribution to literature, but I think I only made it ten pages before closing the book and putting it back on the shelf.

One of my college classmates did read Ulysses in its entirety. I still remember him and think in a Chris Traeger voice, “Way to go, buddy. Way to go.”

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ve always liked going to antique stores, even as a kid. When I was in middle school, I was in an antique store with my parents and found a beautiful copy of Pride and Prejudice. I decided to get it and read it. I did get it, but read it? Not so much. I tried, though. I’ve picked up this book at least five times and wanted to read it, but I just can’t make myself finish it. I can’t get into it at all. That didn’t stop me from buying another copy of it, though. I had to have the A in the Drops Caps collection. I tried reading that edition, thinking my brain might be tricked by the new cover, but no. I still can’t do it. Kathleen Kelly would be so disappointed in me.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If you weren’t upset enough that I don’t like Pride and Prejudice, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I don’t like Little Women, either. I made it about 100 pages into this book (which is way farther than I’ve ever made it in P & P) but I lost interest and couldn’t make myself finish it. I own a beautiful edition of this book, so I keep it around for its looks, but I’m just not into its personality. Sorry, Louisa.

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Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

To earn my English degree, I had to take and pass a comprehensive exam. The reading list was lengthy, including novels, poems, plays, and stories. I honestly don’t remember much that was on the list, but I remember this book. I am an avid rule-follower, so I did my assigned reading. I wasn’t the student who would just use SparkNotes and hope for the best. But as I read Joseph Andrews, I actually said out loud, “I hate you, book.” I briefly turned into a rebel and didn’t finish the book, but I passed the exam anyway. Joseph and I were never meant to be.

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Middlemarch by George Eliot

I hear Middlemarch come up all the time in people’s lists of favorite books, so it’s the only title on my list that I want to try again someday. I read quite a bit of this one and was really into it when I first started, but I lost interest around the halfway point. I’m not quite sure why, but I just didn’t care enough to go another 400 or so pages. Maybe the timing was wrong. I promise I’ll come back to you someday, George Eliot.


What are the classics that haunt you? What are the ones you just couldn’t force yourself to finish?

So You Want to Read More Diversely

I’m a white, middle-class woman. That comes with certain privileges not given to those who don’t look or live like me. As a way to learn from different viewpoints and broaden my view of the world, diversifying my reading has been one of my primary goals over the past few years.

One of the best things about reading is that it helps develop empathy, and empathy makes us better humans. If you too are hoping to read more diversely, the books below are a good start.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The title of Trevor Noah’s book comes from the fact that his entire early existence was indeed a crime. He has a black mother and a white father whose relationship was forbidden during apartheid. Noah tells the story of his struggle to find a place as a biracial kid growing up poor in South Africa. Though this book grapples with abuse, poverty, and systemic oppression, it’s also incredibly funny. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Noah talks about how humor in dark times isn’t just necessary, but that it helps tear down barriers between people on opposite sides of an argument. If you’re an audiobook fan, that’s definitely the best way to read this book. Noah narrates and does an excellent job telling his story.

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This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

The best word I can use to describe the essays in this collection is “fierce.” I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability in this book, the author’s first. Jerkins in only in her mid-twenties, so her insights are especially impressive. There were sections of her book that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be true that black women are often ignored in the discussion and practice of feminism. I don’t want it to be true that black women will not be forgiven for the same mistakes white women make all the time. That discomfort is exactly why reading diversely is important. This book expanded what I thought I already knew and reminded me how important it is to listen.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This collection of humorous essays discusses Koul’s unique experiences growing up in an Indian family living in Canada. She wrestles with feeling out of place in her family’s traditions. I loved reading about her life, and especially like the essay in which she travels to India for a family wedding. Koul’s discussion about introducing her white boyfriend to her parents was another highlight for me. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, funny book, this is a great choice.

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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels because it’s just not a format I like that much. I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic memoir, though, and suggest it even to those of you who might not think the format is for you. Persepolis is about Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. She has to navigate all the difficulties of growing up alongside great political unrest in a culture in which females aren’t fully valued. This was an engrossing, eye-opening story that I’m glad I took a chance on.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

While all the other books on this list are true stories, I wanted to recommend this piece of fiction too. Henriquez tells the story of the Rivera family. They move to the United States seeking better medical care for their daughter, Mirabel, who has just suffered a terrible accident. Eventually, a romance develops between Mirabel and a boy who also lives in her family’s apartment complex, but this story is really about the struggles immigrants face as they chase after the elusive American Dream.


I realized while putting this post together that not only are all of these books worth reading, but they’re worth staring at too. How great are these covers? What books would you suggest to someone who wants to expand their literary horizons?

How I Use My Public Library

As libraries have evolved over the years, they’ve become much more than quiet places filled with books. Libraries offer free programming and classes for just about any interest you can fathom. Some libraries have museum and symphony passes, telescopes or specialty baking pans that patrons can check out. Today I want to share all the ways I use my public library. They employ me, sure, but I’m also a patron.

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BOOKS

This one is obvious, I know, but the primary thing I use my library for is books. I have so many unread books on my shelves at home that I have tried over and over again to cut back on library checkouts, but somehow I end up with a towering stack of library books by my bed anyway. I tell myself that this is really a selfless act since I’m helping keep circulation numbers up. (You’re welcome, library.) I definitely place too many things on hold at a time and sometimes check out books just because they’re pretty, but at least library checkouts are free. Thank God for that.

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DVDs

I hardly ever see movies in theaters anymore because a) it’s expensive and b) I’d have to leave my house. Why would I go see a movie when I could check out a DVD from the library and watch it while curled up in my sweatpants and enjoying the pleasant scent of a Yankee Candle?  I also appreciate the fact that if I don’t like a movie, I didn’t waste any money on it or have to put on real pants to watch it. I love things that are free and also allow me to be lazy and comfortable.

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OVERDRIVE

OverDrive is my source for downloadable books. My library adds new releases on Friday afternoons. I refresh the site compulsively until I see the new stuff, overcome with a feeling of exhilaration when it loads. Being the first to check out a brand new ebook when the holds list for the physical book is staggeringly long is one of my favorite feelings in the whole world. I feel like I have actually accomplished something when all I have actually done is click a button.

I use OverDrive for audiobooks too. I check out books on CD from the library if the book I want can’t be downloaded, but having an entire book on my phone is preferable to trying to shove that large plastic case full of CDs into my already-cluttered car glove box.

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GALE COURSES

Not all libraries will have this subscription, but I’m thankful mine does. Gale Courses offers free 6-week courses on many different topics from writing to programming to gift basket design. (There’s part of me that wants to become a professional gift basket designer now, but I’ll save that post for another day.) I’ve only taken one class before (a poetry writing workshop), but it was a great experience, and I learned a lot. I know I’ve used the word “free” in this post several times already, but how great is it that you can take a class from a qualified instructor for free? That will always excite me.

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NOVELIST

I think NoveList is my BFF when it comes to book sites. I use it all the time, both professionally and personally. If you’re unfamiliar with it, NoveList is a database of books. Depending on the subscription your library has, you might have access to only fiction books, but I’m lucky enough to have access to nonfiction titles too. You can browse book lists, learn more about genres, get help with readers’ advisory, but my favorite feature is how specific you can search. NoveList lets you search for books by tone, setting, and much more. If you want a coming of age book written by a female author that was published in 2005 and got a starred review, you can find it. (I found 25 titles when I did that exact search.) Whether you’re looking for books for yourself or for a patron, NoveList is a fantastic resource.


What about you? How do you use your library? If you don’t, why?

Top Five Friday: Mysteries & Suspense

Until the past couple of years, I’d never been a reader of genre fiction. I was all about realistic literary fiction and, when I was feeling especially wild, maybe a bit of magical realism. I’d pick up the occasional mystery or suspense novel when something like Gone Girl came along that was impossible to ignore, but I never sought out mysteries or suspense stories until recently.

I’ve found that when I’m feeling tired or stressed there’s nothing I’d rather pick up than an engrossing page-turner. Sometimes I need a plot-driven novel to get me out of my head, yet good writing is still a must. I want the beautifully crafted sentences, character development, and the strong sense of place that make me love literary fiction so much.

Today I’m sharing five novels that had the engrossing plot I was looking for and great writing. Since I’ve already mentioned Gone Girl, let’s start there.

gonegirl.jpgGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The girl in the title is Amy who vanishes from her Missouri home. Her husband Nick claims his innocence in her disappearance, yet few believe him. From there, Flynn examines their personalities and marriage with gripping tension and precision.

This is a twisted tale that lets readers into the minds of two fascinating characters. I enjoy stories about the inner workings of marriages, and this one didn’t disappoint. When I got to the end of the novel, I thought, “Of course. This is exactly how it should end.” That’s always a great feeling when you finish a mystery.

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The Dry by Jane Harper

A friend and coworker of mine (hi, Irene!) read The Dry and raved about it. I’d also read many positive reviews and was worried Harper’s debut novel couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Needless to say, it did. I love books with a strong sense of place, and this book delivers.

It’s set in a small Australian town during a drought. The heat and thirsty land are palpable as we read about Aaron Falk,  a federal agent who travels from his home in Melbourne back to the town in which he grew up. His former friend Luke is dead, along with Luke’s wife and son. Folks are saying it was murder/suicide, but Aaron’s not so sure. The novel explores the mystery of these deaths, but also Aaron’s past and connection to the victims. The next book in the series, Force of Nature, is also great.

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Like The Dry, this novel has a vivid setting. It’s set in a rural town in East Texas where racism runs deep. Darren Matthews is a black Texas Ranger who begins investigating the death of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman who was married to a white supremacist. Though they died days apart, Darren is convinced there’s a connection between the two victims. Darren’s marriage is in trouble, and he drinks a bit too much, but he pursues the truth with a passionate focus. He’s a well-developed character who I was rooting for the whole time. I’m excited about the next book in this series since Bluebird, Bluebird ends with an exciting twist.

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The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window is named Anna. She struggles with agoraphobia and drinks a little too much these days. She loves wine and spying on the neighbors who share her block in New York City. One day she sees a crime she shouldn’t have, and that causes her to unravel even more than she already was. Anna is a wonderfully complex character, and the story of how her phobia developed is as satisfying as watching her try to overcome it.

In some mysteries and suspense novels, it’s easy to predict where the story is headed. I thought I knew exactly what was going on in this book, but I was wrong. There were several twists I didn’t see coming, which made this such a fun read. So far, this is one of my favorite books of 2018.

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In the Woods by Tana French

This story is told from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a Dublin detective who’s still carrying baggage from a strange childhood event. When he was twelve, he woke up in the woods alone and bloodied, not knowing what happened to the two friends who were with him. Years later, Rob and his partner Cassie start investigating the murder of a young girl found in the woods in which Rob’s friends disappeared. He has a hunch the crimes are connected, but his identity as the kid who got left behind is a secret only his partner knows.

The mystery in this book is intense, but just as intense is the deep dive readers get into Rob’s head. We not only get to see him grappling with the murder investigation, but we learn more about his past and see how what he thought he’d overcome still haunts him.


What are your favorite mysteries and thrillers? Based on these books, what would you recommend I pick up next?

Books for Anxious People

Anxiety is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. If you haven’t been through it, know that it’s a grating mixture of fear, uncertainty, and unsettledness that combine to create a deep sense that something is terribly wrong, even when it isn’t. I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for many years, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Sometimes when I’m anxious, I can’t read because my mind just won’t slow down enough for me to process anything. Other times, though, I’m able to find comfort in books. Today I’m sharing a few that have encouraged me. If you’re struggling with anxiety or know someone who is, I’d recommend checking out these titles.

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Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

When Matt Haig was twenty-four, his anxiety and depression pushed him to consider ending his life. He didn’t, and he explains some of the reasons why in this brief but powerful book. Haig engagingly discusses his struggles, able to reflect on his past with vulnerability and insight only gained in hindsight. Despite such dark subject matter, Haig’s writing is witty and joyful. This book is an excellent reminder that things get better.

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I adore Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, so when I saw this book on the discard shelf at my library for only 50 cents I grabbed it immediately. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of essays by Strayed from the time she was Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for The Rumpus. The advice she gives in this book isn’t full of warm and fuzzy self-help tricks; Strayed tells the truth with a combination of fierceness, generosity, and kindness that makes this book extremely comforting for me.

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The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
by Henri J. M. Nouwen

This little green book is one of the most beloved books I own. It’s a small collection of writings that Nouwen, a priest who dedicated the last decade of his life to helping those with special needs,  wrote to himself during periods of great loneliness and depression. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, scared, or discouraged, I always reach for this book. It’s divided up into short sections, some only a page long, so it’s perfect for flipping through until you find the words you need. No matter what my situation, I always see hope and wisdom in Nouwen’s words.

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

Remember a few years ago when Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability went viral? I watched it one night when I was feeling discouraged and scared about the future, and it was indeed a game-changer for me, a person who struggles with vulnerability. I quickly sought out Brown’s other work and started with The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, Brown talks about her research on shame, courage, compassion, and connection. This is one of those books that has my underlining all through it. Brown’s words helped ground me during a time when I felt so much anxiety about my future and gave me helpful strategies to take control of it.  I heartily recommend all of Brown’s other books, as well.

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The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne

In addition to struggling with anxiety, I’ve also been burdened with phobias throughout my life. The worst one has been a fear of bees and wasps that got so bad I barely wanted to leave my house in the summertime.  Thankfully, a gifted therapist helped me work through that phobia, but she did tell me I might need a “tune-up” every now and then.

That’s where this book comes in. It serves as a good reminder of how to face and conquer phobias, steps to take to minimize anxiety, and even lists and explains some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, so you know you’re not dying when panic hits. If you too deal with phobias and anxiety, I can’t recommend this workbook enough.


Are there any books you turn to in tough times? I’d love to hear about them.