Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022: The Year in Books

This year I broke my yearly reading review into two posts: you can see the first half of the year here.

One big change I've made in the past 6 months is that I no longer rate every book with stars. I started to fixate on the rating as I read, and for many books I was having extended internal debates over the rating. So I decided to remove that unnecessary stress from my life, and to just make note of my absolute favorites. Here's what I read during the second half of the year (for a total of 95 books for  2022!)

Favorite Fiction

  • The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
    • Super cozy story that spanned generations
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
    • Memorable characters and a reminder to do what makes you happy
  • The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
    • Gorgeous writing and pacing, historical fiction about a lesser-known but fascinating person
  • The Bullet that Missed by Richard Osman
    • Hilarious mystery and characters that are starting to feel like old friends
  • Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
    • Engaging story in a setting that's not often written about
  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
    • Amazing construction, beautiful writing by a new to me but soon to be favorite author

Favorite Nonfiction

  • In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
    • Heartbreaking but moving memoir of losing a loved one
  • The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
    • Creative illustrations and glimpse into the mind of the artist
  • I'll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood by Jessi Klein
    • Funny vignettes of a middle-aged mom that I could totally relate to
  • Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention - and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari
    • Great reporting on the impact of technology on our ability to focus
  • Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris (audio)
    • David Sedaris never fails to be hilarious and irreverent
  • I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
    • Shocking memoir of a child actor

Other Fiction Read

  • Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
  • The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton (audio)
  • Nightblind by Ragnar Jonasson
  • The Maid by Nita Prose
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (audio)
  • Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley
  • Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (audio)
  • The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk
  • The Bat by Jo Nesbo
  • Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (audio)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl
  • A Career in Books by Kate Gavino (graphic novel)
  • The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell (audio)
  • Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid
  • Thornyhold by Mary Stewart
  • Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan (audio)
  • The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz
  • Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
  • We Spread by Ian Reid
  • The One by John Marrs
  • The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Other Nonfiction Read

  • Diary of a Tokyo Teen by Christine Mari Inzer (graphic novel)
  • To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins (audio)
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
  • Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton (audio)
  • Painting Happiness: Creativity with Watercolors by Terry Runyan
  • Menopause: A Comic Treatment by M.K. Czerwiec (graphic novel)
  • Good Talk by Mira Jacob (graphic novel)
  • Anya's Ghost by Vera Brogsol (graphic novel)
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
  • How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz
  • The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (audio)
  • When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (graphic novel)
  • All of This by Rebecca Woolf (audio)
  • The American Dream? by Shing Yin Khor (graphic novel)
  • Passport by Sophia Glock (graphic novel)
  • Everything, Beautiful by Ella Frances Sanders
  • Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung (graphic novel)
  • Book Love by Debbie Tung (graphic novel)
  • Keep it Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life by Twyla Tharp
  • Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton
  • Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle (graphic novel)
I'm pretty happy with how this last year of reading went. I didn't finish books I wasn't into, and I decreased my habit of picking up random books from the New shelf at the library, and then reading them without knowing anything about them, leading to disappointment. Now I read almost entirely on recommendation, or authors I have read before. 

I didn't set out to read a certain number of books, but I still ended up reading only 6 less than last year (101) when I really worked toward my 100 goals. That being said, I'm a little burnt out! In the past few days I've slowed way down on reading novels, and have picked up some art/design and gardening books to browse through. I also dipped into my huge stack of magazines that have been piling up for months now. 

I have grand plans for reading in 2023, which I will share soon. I've never made a list of specific books to read before; I'm having fun putting one together and dreaming, but like a lot of things, we'll see if actually happens!

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

December Wrap Up

How are there only 18 more days left in 2022? I read an article about how your perception of time really does speed up as you age. This is mostly to do with days being predictable and similar, so you don't notice time passing; the key is to have more novel experiences that slow you down and make you notice new things. That can be hard to do (work amirite?) but I did have two out-of-the-norm events in November.

I took the girls to the Maryland Alpaca Festival. There were surprisingly few actual alpacas, and many yarn/alpaca fur item vendors. If I had been alone, I could have spent hours browsing the booths. But children don't care about yarn and were more interested in the animals and trying to convince me to buy them toys. Alpacas make the best sound, annoyed, and you'd imagine they would roll their eyes too if they could. Both kids agree they would like an alpaca to live in our backyard.

I also took a day off of work to go to Glenstone, a local art museum, with some friends. To be honest, the artwork here is not that accessible. It's like, 3 tables in an empty room. Or a tractor tire. The building is gorgeous though, and the grounds are beautiful if you go on a day nicer than when we were there in the pouring rain. It's very quiet and they don't allow kids under 12, so it's a peaceful experience. It is in a random suburban location and is privately run, and the tickets are free - but you have to stalk the website at the exact moment they are released for the next month. They also don't have labels about the art, you have to TALK to the guides to get information. I feel like I'm not really selling it, but it's actually a great place to visit if you're in the DC area.

Around the yard I completed my last two big farming chores for the season: digging the dahlias and planting tulips. This was my first year attempting to save tubers, so we'll see how it goes. I don't think I'm very skilled at dividing them yet, so I may have lost some. I'm also storing some in the clump, which should make it easier to see the eyes (where the plant grows from) in the spring. 

I planted almost double the amount of tulips I did last year - nearly 800! It only took a few hours since I plant them close together in a trench. In the spring I pull up the whole plant, bulb and all, which helps them last longer in storage. Flowers from second year bulbs can be smaller or non-existent, so it's not really worth giving space to plants that may produce nothing. 

I also expanded my garden! I added 2 more rows. The picture is illusion. It doesn't look that big, right? But when you're standing it, you're likely to question your ability to manage this many plants. I was so happy to get this done in the fall so that my spring will be less stressful. It's always muddy, rainy, and miserable in March and this year I will NOT be moving a dump-truck full of dirt shovelful by shovelful!

Mary's birthday is the kick-off to the holiday season for me - she turned 9! 

We decorated the house on the day after Thanksgiving. I'm not a big Christmas person (as you probably have figured out by now), but it's always a good activity to do with the kids during the long weekend. Cora still has no concept of time or how things work, so she's been full of statement like, "Christmas is tomorrow!" and "It's going to snow on December first!"

Above: Actual card photo. Below: The photo I wanted to use.

So I finished some socks. They may be the ugliest thing I have ever knit. I took some leftover yarn and wound it randomly into a ball, joining as I went. The idea was to have color surprises with a scrappy result - well, the color runs were too long, and the yarns clashed. The experiment failed, but my socks aren't visible when I wear them anyway, so they'll go into the rotation. It seems that I have to continually teach myself the lesson that taking the easy way out never pays off.

I only have 9 more pages left in this art journal! Maybe I can finish it before the end of the year. I am always trying to reduce the number of projects I have ongoing (and I have many sketchbooks and journals in progress) because having an unfinished project weighs on my mind. I hope to complete a few sketchbooks in the next year so that I only have one art journal going at a time.

I read several graphic novels in the past month which makes my 9-book total look a little crazy! I don't think I can review this many books in one post, so here are the highlights:

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: True story of two boys living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Wonderful art and a heartbreaking story but ultimately uplifting book. This is a middle-grade graphic novel so it's a quick read.

Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan: Julia Whelan is one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and also an author. This book is romance/women's lit and is quite funny. The story is predictable but my favorite part was the behind-the-scenes mentions of how audiobooks are made. Of course I listened to this on audio, read by the author!

All of This by Rebecca Wolf: Recommendation from Nicole! The author's husband is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after they decide to separate. I don't think I've ever read such insightful writing about how you can both love and revile someone for how they've treated you. (To be fair, the author also was unfaithful in her marriage). 

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver: I still haven't been able to make a decision about how I feel about this book. In general, it was a good story. It's supposed to be a modern retelling of David Copperfield (which I haven't read), and is narrated by Demon, who is born to a teen mother into poverty. And then, more bad things happen. All of the bad things, constantly! It's wonderfully written and has a lot of action, so I think in the end I do recommend it. It's just not amazing, you know?

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz: This is the fourth book in the Hawthorne/Horowitz series, and I continue to be amused. Horowitz himself is a character in the books, and in this one he is accused of murdering a critic who wrote a bad review of a play he'd written. There is a Sherlock Holmes vibe to how these books are structured, with clues left in plain sight and a detective who manages to put them all together. 

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Recommendation from Alicia! I was expecting a standard police procedural, but this book turned out to be quite character based. I loved the main investigator, Manon, and her descriptions of online dating. If you're someone who likes family drama and wants to read about how a crime can affect those involved, this is the book for you. There is not a ton of actual investigating though and in the end the crime sort of solved itself. There are two more books in this series but sadly the author died earlier this year from brain cancer.

Everything, Beautiful by Ella Frances Sanders was a serendipitous find on the library new book shelf. It's full of gorgeous illustrations and hand lettering on the subject of finding beauty in the everyday. This is one of my favorite topics so this will likely be a re-read for me in the future.

This will be my last post of the year, so very best wishes to you all! Thank you for reading and keeping blogs alive. I appreciate everyone who takes the time to document their every day lives and form connections across the world.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Christmas Spreadsheet

{First, a note: If you subscribe to this blog through Feedly or other feed reader, please click over to the actual blog website because I've noticed all of the photos don't come through the feed.}

I mentioned my Christmas spreadsheet in a comment on Elisabeth's blog, and Suzanne asked me to share more about it. Prepare to be blown away, folks...

As usual, other people can articulate my thoughts better than I can. Anne Helen Petersen's newsletter about sprawling holidays made me feel SEEN. Particularly this: "... commodification and consumption becomes the primary way that Christmas is expressed, is experienced. The primary affect is one of near-constant purchasing, unboxing, arranging — a vigilant doing — as opposed to periods of observation, contemplation, devotion, being." For the most part, as a family we've avoided a lot of the pressure to do more. I've seen several posts about making advent calendars for your kids (handmade of course), and the gift every day is an activity: make cookies, read Christmas-themed books, decorate, look at lights, sing songs, etc. Why anyone would bring this stress upon themselves is beyond me.

I know a lot of people like doing these things, and I don't judge them for it - go forth and have fun! But as a parent (and if you are one you KNOW) there is a lot of pressure to do things a certain way. To create a magical holiday experience. I decided several years ago that I would only do the holiday activities that I liked, and for me, that's decorating and baking. I don't really like shopping and gift-giving but I haven't figured out how to get of that one.

In an effort to lessen the constant nagging to-do list in my brain, several years ago I created a spreadsheet that outlines all of the Christmas tasks. I copy the previous year's sheet, which has the added benefit of telling me what I bought last year, because there is no way I would remember otherwise. The first section is everyone I need to buy gifts for. When the gift is purchased, it gets a "done". I also added a column for delivery method, so I can remember what I need to mail; when that's done it gets changed from red to green (isn't that festive?)

The second portion is the most valuable, because these are the things I always forget. I have several work events I need to plan for, as well as teachers and other non-family members I need to buy gifts for. During the pandemic years these thankfully were not relevant, but now we're back at it.

And that's it! It's not super fancy, but it works for me. 

Now for some pictures because this seems too much like work if I'm just posting screenshots of spreadsheets. Halloween happened, and there was pumpkin carving (mostly done by me) and seed roasting (me) and seed eating (me) and seed throwing away because they didn't get eaten and then they molded (me). Most kid activities are actually parent activities that kids watch you do. My mom asked me if she should get my kids a tie-dye kit, and I said, "Are you asking if I want a tie-dye kit, because let's be real here."

Jason and I continued our tradition of visiting a garden in the fall. This year we went to Ladew Topiary Gardens, 3 days before it closed for the season. If you are a rich person and you don't have a yard full of bushes carved into swans, you're doing it wrong.

There were some nice gardens, which probably looked better a few months ago in full bloom, but this wasn't my favorite garden (Longwood has that honor). The gardens are arranged in somewhat of a straight line, and are located right next to a busy road. It's hard to get that tranquil surrounded-by-nature feeling when subjected to constant traffic noise.

However, lunch. I would go back here just to eat. Museum/Garden cafes, at least in this metro area, are known for being overpriced and mediocre. You have to eat there because where else would you eat, so why should they make an effort? However, I ordered a salad with fruit, goat cheese, and candied walnuts, and a scone, and it was AMAZING. It also cost something like $14 total. The scone was one of the best I've ever had, and was so big it was enough for two people. It reminded me of my student days in Ireland where I would eat a scone and have tea for lunch, which is not really a thing you can easily do in the US.*

The picture below is for posterity, because it was a Saturday, I was watching a relaxing YouTube video, and knitting, and no one was bothering me.

One book because I can't have a post without a book. I read Thornyhold by Mary Stewart on the recommendation of Katie, who reads it every year (!!). After reading The Shell Seekers I was introduced to a whole world of cozy books that I hadn't known existed. I was on the waiting list for awhile because my library only had one copy**, and it turns out it's a first edition from 1988! Gilly Ramsey inherits her cousin's house in the English countryside, and with no other prospects, moves in. There are rumors that her cousin was a witch, the house filled with herbs and other natural remedies. There is a slight mystery, and a flat romance, but the cozy descriptions of the house and gardens are what made this a comfort read. 

I wasn't old enough to start reading adult literature until the mid-nineties, so I missed out on the popular books of the 80s. It's been pretty fun exploring these (if not cringey at times) and I'm contemplating doing a back-list reading challenge next year. I found this list of bestsellers that should be a good source to choose from.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

It's Fall Y'all

[Well, I didn't get this published before October ended. Let's just time travel real quick.] October is the best month if you live in the mid-Atlantic. There are still leaves on the trees, which gradually change color, peaking toward the end of the month. The temperatures are pleasant enough that everyone goes outside. And I mean EVERYONE. People who usually spend their lives in climate-controlled comfort emerge and take up all the parking spots everywhere. Nothing ruins a beautiful fall day by people trying to enjoy a beautiful fall day. Something in my nature rails against anything we are "supposed" to do at certain times of the year, so I find myself exaggeratedly rolling my eyes at pumpkin patches, apple cider donuts, fall festivals, boots and plaid, and pumpkin spice anything. It's not that I don't like those things. It's just that I wish I could do them in private, during the off season. So if anyone opens up a mid-January pumpkin patch, I'll be there! (We went to the beach in February this year and drove home in a snowstorm. It was great.)

Don't even get me started on Christmas. It's a whole month (at least) of spending money and obligation. Why can't we go see light displays in February when there is nothing happening and we're all tired of winter? I know Christmas is a favorite time of year for a lot of people so I'll just go grinch over in the corner.

October also meant the end of the flower season. I could have gone on longer, but I did not do a good job staking my dahlias. They are still blooming, but they all flopped over so the stems are growing in random directions. Next year I'll know better! I was pretty happy to stop, though, and take a rest. All my free time has been consumed with flowers for the past six months, and I'm ready to sit on the couch or work on other projects.

At the beginning of the month I had my annual trip with some friends. We treat this as a creative retreat, and everyone brings their own projects. My two friends are writers so they tapped away on their projects. I did some painting, cross-stitch, knitting, and reading. The house we booked was right on the water (an inlet off the Potomac River), and had kayaks and all sorts of fun things. Unfortunately this was also the weekend that a hurricane worked its way up the coast and rained for 5 solid days. We didn't get to do any hiking or outdoor stuff, but we did visit a giant antique store twice.

That's the river above - looks like an ocean, right? It was rainy and windy as I walked on the beach, collecting rocks. All was not lost since we had the chance to get cozy with blankets and a fake fire and a show about botched plastic surgery. Best of all, I was with two other grown women who clean up after themselves and don't whine constantly! We ate salad and drank tea. Who could ask for more?

I spent many hours this month rebuilding my raised bed garden. I originally built it in 2016, and I used non-pressure treated wood because I was growing vegetables and didn't want them exposed to harmful chemicals (it's difficult to find actual research on if this is a valid concern or not). Over the years the wood completely rotted out and the garden started falling apart. I took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it from scratch using pressure treated boards now that I've switched to growing flowers. Hopefully it lasts a long time because this process was exhausting. I could barely walk the next day.

Recent Books

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata was all I had hoped The Maid would be, but wasn't. Keiko is in her 30s and has worked in a convenience store for her whole adult life. She loves her job, but is pressured by friends and family to get a "real" job and find a husband. It's a short and charming book and can be read in a few hours. Highly recommend.

The Marriage Portrait was my first fiction read by Maggie O'Farrell, and it blew me away. It may be my favorite fiction book of the year. I can see how the writing style would be annoying for some people: it's quite wordy and descriptive. But it works! O'Farrell's sense of pacing is phenomenal. The first two chapters left me breathless. The book takes place in the 1500s and focuses on the first year of marriage between Lucrezia de Medici and Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. I knew very little about this time period which turned out to be super scandalous and murderey. If you're a historical fiction fan, I also highly recommend this one.

I'm on a roll with good books! I knew that The Bullet That Missed would be good since I've read the previous two books in this series. I wasn't super engaged in the mystery in this one, but that didn't matter to me because the writing is so funny. For those who have read the series, Bogdan is my favorite character. I'm trying to think of who would be the best actor to play him if they make a show of these books. (Just looked it up - Steven Spielberg bought the rights!)

Thank you to everyone who reads and comments. (Thank you even if you don't comment! I'm happy to have you.) I love keeping up with all of your blogs too, so know I am there even if I don't have the time to leave comments. Long live blogging!

Monday, September 26, 2022

September Light

The leaves are still on the trees, but the light has changed. The sun stays lower on the horizon in the mornings, and the afternoons are bathed in a golden glow. Not surprisingly, the flowers have slowed down as the plants slowly fade. I am happy for the relief from constant gardening - having a few more weekday nights and weekend hours free has been wonderful. Instead of taking on more projects, like home renovation or sewing, I've spent a lot of that time watching book reviews on YouTube and knitting socks. I typically have many projects in the works, but frankly, I just need some rest!

With my second job slowing down (just in time, because my regular job has sped up), I want to use my non-phone camera more. In years past I have taken thousands of pictures; that number has since dwindled to a few hundred per year. Sure, I could wait until the new year and make this a resolution. There is no reason to not start now, though.

I didn't have plans for this post other than to share some of the recent photos I'd taken, so perhaps here is a good spot for a social media tangent. Nothing I have to say is new, because we've all read the articles and have experienced ourselves what social media can do. I recently read Stolen Focus, which is the book I had hoped Digital Minimalism would be. This book explains how our focus has been collectively eroded by several factors, including social media and the constant stream of content. I feel this myself. I used to be able to spend hours reading, but now I am interrupted by my own drive to check a notification or Google something I must know the answer to right then (most recently: ooh I wonder if Teecino has any new flavors out). I find myself racing through books in order to move on to the next one instead of taking time and savoring the words. While Digital Minimalism took the more common line that we should, and can, take personal responsibility for our use of digital devices, Stolen Focus outlines all of the external forces that make this nearly impossible.

It has been interesting seeing these social media issues play out in the artist community. Artist Ohn Mar Win recently posted about a sabbatical she is taking. Another photographer I followed left Instagram at the end of last year and has since decided to give up her content-creating business entirely. Anne from My Giant Strawberry has written several posts about this issue; in the linked post, she links to even more stories of artists who have left or are taking a break from Instagram.

The constant demands on time and attention are some reasons for these reactions, and more recently Instagram's shift to video over images. The algorithm rewards frequent posting of a certain type, and that has led to less engagement for many creators. For people running creative small businesses, the constant stress to hussle more and produce more has increased stress, taken time away from actually being creative, and for many, led them to close their small business.

I want to focus on doing things that I love, just for the sake of doing them. I will never be a professional artist, but I like painting. I have no desire to start an art business or attempt to be paid for my work. In fact, I once had an art Instagram account that I have since deleted. We are so conditioned to feel like we should share anything that we create, and every photogenic moment, that it seems radical to fight against this.

Yes, I understand the irony here - I am posting this on a public blog. However, no one is ever going to find this by scrolling or being recommended it by a machine. I'll stay in my semi-hidden corner and enjoy it. I'm not writing for likes or attention, but for the ease of putting photos and words together. I suppose I could go back to the scrapbooking days and write this all out by hand and print out all my photos... but that would take so much time.

I'll write more in praise of day jobs later, but for now, I do wonder what will happen to the majority of those who use content creating as their sole source of income. Peak content will happen, if it hasn't already.

And now, for books! Last year I read The Authenticity Project, and when I heard that Clare Pooley was coming out with a new book I immediately put it on hold. This is the story of a group of unlikely friends, who all meet in the same train car while commuting. It's a little bit similar to the premise of Pooley's first novel. It ended up being a cute, light story that was not a romance (although it contains a bit of romance) which is somewhat rare. I had fun reading it and it made me think about all the subway riders I used to see pre-pandemic. I wonder what happened to them?

Sometimes you stumble upon a book that highlights the exact phase if life you are in, and I'll Show Myself Out was that for me. My kids are (thankfully) out of the baby years, but it wasn't too long ago that I was there. Klein tells it like it is and doesn't write nonsense like "enjoy it while you can" (because it's not possible to enjoy being sleep deprived). I thought she was very funny, which is good because she's a comedian, although there is just a touch of rich lady showing through. 

Oh, The Shell Seekers. This is the fiction book I have been waiting for. At its core, it's a multi-generational family saga. So much happens! It flips back and forth between the present and the past, mainly during WWII in England. The story of the Keeling family is complicated and full of plot, but the best part of this book is its inherent coziness. There are endless cups of tea, cottages, and gardens. This is a book to sink into and be immersed in another world. I am not finished yet (it's 630 pages), but I already can't wait to read more by Rosamunde Pilcher. (Side note, the 1989 movie version starring Angela Lansbury is on YouTube, but it is so painfully 80s I don't think I'll be able to watch it.)