write meg!’s 2020 reading honors

It was quite the reading year for me, friends! Not like the old days, exactly, but closer than I’ve been in the five years since welcoming my first child. I read 40 books, surpassing my annual goal of 36. That’s double what I accomplished two years prior, and 15 more than the year before.

On face value, it would be easy to say the pandemic thrust me back into the arms of my beloved books — and that’s partially true. But personally, even more than the virus, my son and daughter are now old enough to entertain themselves for more than 30 seconds — and I was able to get caught up in something for myself every now and then.

As I shared last year, I can feel bits of myself returning as Oliver is now 5 and Hadley is 3. Also? I just made more time for myself, accepting that I cannot pour from an empty cup. Reading is self-care. There were times I shunned the vacuum in favor of my Kindle, and I don’t regret it.

At the end of last year, I made some reading predictions for 2020 — not knowing, of course, that the world would soon come to a stand-still and we’d all be spending more time at home than ever. I wrote, I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom.”

I think I accomplished that. In the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustice in 2020, I challenged myself to do more than just escape through books. While of course I read for enjoyment and entertainment, I also read to grow. I’m surprised by how many of my reads were non-fiction — and how much of an impression they had on me.

Maybe they’re ready to make one on you, too.

Katherine Center is an insanely talented writer and a sorceress who makes me lose all track of time. Things You Save in a Fire (2019) was a slow build that erupted into a major burn, leaving me with the malaise that follows a really great read after I closed the final pages. Cassie and the rookie — a love story for the ages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (2019) was an audio, and I can’t honestly imagine loving it as much in print. The performance was incredible. It was so well-acted and realistic that I was often overcome with the urge to google the band, convinced this was a real documentary rather than a fictional account of a band’s ascendence and betrayals. After finishing, I found myself still researching any scraps of truth behind the novel (i.e. Fleetwood Mac). Very well done.

Jennifer Weiner is a stranger to few of us, and Mrs. Everything (2019) was a sweeping novel that introduced two new characters I couldn’t help but love. Jo and Bethie are the stars of this multi-generational storyline. Novels that span decades can feel sprawling and disconnected, but Weiner — talented as ever — made it work beautifully. I shed a few tears, had a few laughs, and finished with much to ponder about family and sisterhood. A full experience as a reader, and one of my favorite Weiner works to date!

Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (2019) was an early audio that captured my imagination. I really felt for each sibling in different ways (OK, each sister — Joe was tougher to empathize with). Lillian felt the most “real” to me: real, human, flawed … as are we all. Alternating viewpoints are read by different narrators, and the sumptuous quality of the language was really on display.

Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order (2020) was my final read of the year. A fresh spin on the time-travel trope, Oona was thought-provoking and entertaining. Though I put the pieces together on several plot points early, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment in the slightest. The familiar moral of the story was a welcome reminder that the cup is already broken — and it is our goal to soak up every bit of happiness we can.

Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm (2018) was an instant favorite from last summer. I couldn’t put it down, first of all, and have often thought about storm chaser Tim Samaras since finishing. Compelling writing and a fascinating subject matter combined into one unforgettable story.

Running Away to Home (2011) called out to me from my bookshelves at the height of the pandemic. Jennifer Wilson’s story of moving her young family to her grandparents’ ancestral village in Croatia satisfied both my quarantine-induced wanderlust and the resonant ideas of being happy with the here and now. Jennifer and husband Jim realized the rat-race suburban life was leading to stuff, not satisfaction — and left in search of more. It was published a decade ago, but felt just as relevant today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) needs no introduction. Read by the author, the audio version is powerfully affecting as Coates — in a slim volume that packs an unforgettable wallop — breaks down the construct of race and, in so doing, shakes the Dreamers awake. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes to his son. As a parent, certain passages — “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered” — were breath-stealers. Required reading for all.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019) is another book so epic in scope, it’s hard to fathom it’s true. As I wrote then, I knew very little about Chernobyl except for its shorthand as a way to describe “an epic disaster,” and this stunning book is anything but. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and detailed to a degree that is truly stunning to behold. I can only stand back in total awe of Higginbotham’s creation: a true story that often reads like poetry, from “the throat of the reactor” to the cold beds of a Moscow hospital. I didn’t want it to end.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016) needs no accolades from the likes of me … but I’ll give them anyway: this book — unbelievable in scope — is, I feel, what all great journalism aspires to be. I have remembered poignant scenes and lessons many times, and find myself talking about it often. In Milwaukee, Desmond follows eight families as they “struggle to keep a roof over their heads,” the description reads. “Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.”

Past reading honors:
2019 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011
2010 | 2009 | 2008

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

Since becoming a mom, I’ve struggled to read and write the way I once did (see Exhibit A: this entire blog). But as my kids get older, I feel little pieces of myself — my “old” self — bubbling up to the surface.

And almost without warning this fall, I … started reading again.

I was nervous at first. Could I keep this up? Was it a fluke? But after I cracked open my Kindle day after day, night after night, I felt it: that intoxicating pull of a good story … a draw much stronger than playing the 418th level of Candy Crush on my phone. My reading mojo had returned. I’m back.

While I don’t make new year’s resolutions, per say, I’m definitely trying to be more intentional with my time and attention. And I’ve realized something that was missing through my exhausting days (months, years …) as a new mom: the ability to tune out, even for a little while.

For me, like many of you, that portal comes through reading. It centers me.

Though my official count for 2019 only comes to 25 books, I’m proud to have read so much just in the last few months. I’ve lost touch with what’s buzz-worthy here in the book blogosphere, so my recent favorites are not necessarily … recent.

Still, here’s what I loved most in 2019:

how to walk awayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center, who creates characters that are so relatable you look for them in Target. As usual, this novel was gripping and addictive — impossible to quit, with a well-built and believable love story set in a hospital during the main character’s rehabilitation after a plane crash.

Sounds … well, really over-the-top to write it out like that, but I swear Center is a magician! She is such a beautiful, heartfelt writer, and I’ll be coming for Things You Save in a Fire in 2020.

girl you leftThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, transitioning between time and place with a haunting refrain. Loved the angle of art and the providence of works, which dovetailed nicely with my newfound interest in the Gardner Museum heist (have you listened to the Last Seen podcast yet?!).

Moyes’ historical tale isn’t as beloved as the blockbuster Me Before You and its follow-ups, but I still think she’s hugely talented with some truly memorable passages here.

Overdue LifeThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms — like reading a transcript of my own life. It was almost too much sometimes … like Harms had peeked behind the curtain that is my overly-caffeinated exterior to share private pieces of my soul.

Single mom Amy, long saddled with the responsibilities of her household after her husband unceremoniously flees their family, is a character most (all?) of us can relate to. She’s tired. She’s trying. I loved the redemptive transformation here. Read it in a few sittings and couldn’t wait to return between breaks.

I'm FineI’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán, with its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The whole story was absolutely painful to read at points … so painful that, at 2 a.m., I had to force myself to put it down lest I read until morning and do nothing about the terrible ache in my best.

Still, it was life-affirming, too: powerful and relatable. As with Amy Byler above, there’s plenty of Penny in all of us. And pretending to be fine doesn’t mean we are fine. Accepting that is the first step to real change. I dig it, man.

Raising Your SpiritedRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, which has changed the way I parent our four-year-old son: totally a spirited child. Just having that moniker — “spirited” — changed how I think about and relate to my son. Not wild. Not difficult. Not stubborn. Just … different. Spirited.

Kurcinka’s compassion and practical advice have helped me to examine my own impatience as a parent so I can be my best self for my intense son. It also helped me see that I’m not, in fact, a bad or lazy mother … one who would rather give in to have peace than fight to be “right.” 

Basically, parenting is freakin’ hard. But the suggestions provided here have helped restore a measure of peace to my house. I definitely view my relationship with Oliver differently now, and have been able to take a step back and get myself together many times thanks to the practical examples in this book. If anyone out there thinks they might have a spirited child (you’ll know if you do…), highly recommend this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Mom!

So what’s up in 2020? I’m not sure, but I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom. And plenty of fun ones, too! (I’m reading American Royals now, for example — escapism to the max.)

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

My kids’ favorite books — and my favorite kids’ books

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When I daydreamed about becoming a mom, the vision of reading to my curly-haired children (who do, in fact, have curly hair!) often included a book in my hands. I did the whole “read to your belly” thing when pregnant, even though that felt awkward. And I started collecting children’s books long before I had the children themselves.

It’s taken a little while, but for the most part? I think we’re raising readers, which makes me so happy. My daughter, in particular, loves to share stories; she’s always schlepping into our “library” (now more of a giant toy box, let’s just be honest) to grab a book and plop into my lap. Oh, the joy. Alllllll the heart-eye emojis.

Hadley is now two and a half, and Oliver is four. Both have Fire tablets (I know, I know!), which tend to occupy their attention … but my husband and I have been pretty diligent about controlling their time spent in front of screens, even though it’s just so dang easy to let them zone out while I do … well, anything. Like cook dinner. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the group text that’s gotten out of hand.

But I don’t want glassy-eyed zombie kids sprawled out in the living room. The tablets have their time and place — but we read to the kids nightly, and try not to reserve stories simply for bedtime. I say this not to be smug, but to really say that we’re making an effort! I think that’s my mom motto: making an effort. Trying. Striving.

So here’s what they’re loving lately . . . and what I’m loving, too. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing fun about re-reading PAW Patrol: To the Lookout for the 97th time!

Just try telling that to my son.

 

Hadley’s Faves

I Love You Just Like This by Sesame Workshop: The “Sesame Street” love is still going strong at our house, and this sweet story about how much Elmo’s mom loves him has great illustrations and all those beloved characters. I will totally own that I tear up at the end, too.

Five Little PumpkinsFive Little Pumpkins by Tiger Tales and Ben Mantle: OK, how adorable is this? I have such fond memories of this story told in song form when my sister and I were in elementary school. I bought this book for Ollie as a baby and can’t resist its charms. Neither can Haddie.

Pop-Up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy: Cute rhymes, captivating (and spooky!) pop-up characters — Hadley can’t get enough of this one. Our record is fives times in a row.

 

Oliver’s Faves

The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler and Bob Kolar: Driver Bob picks up students en route to school, and I love how inclusive and sweet this story is. (Also, Bob drinks coffee faithfully — I feel you, Bob.) Ollie just loves all the vehicles and enjoys finding kids who “look like Uncle Eric.” The whole series is really fun!

Oliver book.jpegOliver Who Would Not Sleep by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland: Ohhh, the irony. Not terribly surprising that my son loves a book spearheaded by a little boy named Oliver who refuses to go to bed, preferring his adventures in outer space. We read this nightly, and the cadence of the story is soothing.

Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East: This book is a total snoozefest — and I mean that in the best way. It’s like a drug. I barely get to the halfway point when my rambunctious guy will pass out cold. It’s melodic, fun to read (and listen to), and definitely perfect for tractor lovers.

 

My Faves

truffula treesI’ve been trying valiantly to get the kids into Dr. Seuss, pulling out all my childhood favorites in the process. I had some success with The Lorax after they watched the recent version of the film with its candy-colored Truffula trees. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is next on my list! Man, that book captured my imagination as a kid.

I’m guessing this will be surprising to exactly no one, but I can still barely through through On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman without breaking down into tears born of love, fear, and everything in between. Reading it to Ollie takes me back to the night he was born, finally coming into the world at almost 10 p.m. Phew — read at your own risk.

/ / /

What books are you sharing with the little ones in your life? 

Do you have a favorite Seuss classic?

Are you weirdly surprised to see me posting on a random day in September?

I swear I’m still chugging along, though I do find myself spending less time on social media and being more thoughtful about what and how I’m sharing online. Not out of fear, per say … but an awareness that I’ve been putting my life out there for a long time, and sometimes it feels right to reserve a little something for my family … and myself.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still tired and drinking way too much coffee. But I’m home with a stomach-sick Hadley boo today, so it felt like the right time to check in. I’m still here, and you can also catch me on Instagram. Hi!

Bookish speed dating: getting lost, finding yourself and more

So I’ve, um, gotten a little behind on book reviews.

Which is to say . . . I am ridiculously behind on book reviews.

Even when I was actively getting lost in a story (or four), I lacked the brain power to discuss anything intelligently. So I cataloged my finished reads on a spreadsheet, made a note to review them later and . . . promptly had a baby.

So.

Here I am: desperately wanting to play catch up. These unreviewed books, friends, they’re weighing on me. Weighing down my soul. Making me feel like a failure. Taunting me from their color-coded Google Doc.

Let’s speed date, shall we? I’ll give you a rundown so you can decide whether to pursue a relationship further. I won’t pressure you or follow up with sassy text messages or Facebook notes asking if you and Happiness For Beginners hit it off; your choice to connect in the future is yours alone.

I’m considerate like that.


Happiness for BeginnersHappiness For Beginners
by Katherine Center
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
4.5 stars

Though tough to avoid comparisons to Cheryl Strayed’s classic Wild, Center’s novel of a recently-divorced woman who sets off on a wilderness journey of self-discovery and independence — with her kid brother’s best friend, incidentally — is entertaining, sweet and memorable.

I love Katherine’s writing, which flows like a fast-moving current; it’s impossible not to get swept up in her warm characters, compelling setting and relatable plot. At 32, Helen abruptly finds herself starting over — and regardless of where we are in life, readers will find a bit of themselves in Helen’s cautious optimism. Totally loved it.


Tempting FateTempting Fate
by Jane Green
Published: 2014
Source: Audio from library
3.5 stars

Despite having the perfect marriage on paper, Gabby and Elliott struggle with the mundane details of the long-married: not enough time for themselves, each other and their two daughters, who are growing up — but still in need of their parents’ attention.

When a girls’ night out leads to a chance meeting with a younger, handsome stranger, Gabby can’t resist the allure of feeling wanted again. Those feelings — and, later, actions — have far-reaching consequences, however . . . ones even Gabby can’t anticipate.

So I know I sort of swore off Jane Green after the disastrous Another Piece of my Heart, but I was seeking something lighthearted back in March — and I found it here. Though Gabby’s decision-making skills are sketchy at best, I got lost in the endlessly-complicated drama. Good, crazy fun.


Margaret From MaineMargaret From Maine
by Joseph Monninger
Published: 2012
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 stars

After her husband is gravely injured during a deployment, Margaret is left to care for her young son and father-in-law as they work to maintain the family farm. When another serviceman arrives to accompany her to a ceremony in Washington, she is swept up in their powerful chemistry . . . and the idea of feeling free again. But her loyalty is to her husband, even if he’s in a place he’ll never be reached.

I felt for Margaret and Charlie, who seemed star-crossed from the start. I thought their relationship advanced beyond propriety a little too quickly to be realistic (and some of the dialogue was super silly), but still enjoyed this short, heart-wrenching novel.


Coming CleanComing Clean
by Kimberly Rae Miller
Published: 2013
Source: Purchased
3 stars

In this story of growing up in a hoarding household, Miller manages to draw us into her paper- and garbage-strewn world without really opening up to us. It’s a strange thing, indeed, to write a memoir about such a personal topic that still manages to come across as detached — but I finished this short story of Miller’s childhood and college years with a bit of a shoulder shrug. I did finish, though — and that says something. Especially given my sleep-deprived attention span.


The One That Got AwayThe One That Got Away
by Bethany Chase
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.5 stars

Sarina is a talented architect with great friends, a successful business and a loving relationship with a man she believes will be getting down on one knee in short order. But when an old one-night-stand resurfaces, asking for her design expertise on a new home, Sarina begins to question the past — and her future.

This was the story I was reading the day before my son was born, and for the most part? I succeeded. Chase has created a realistic, could-be-your-bestie narrator in Sarina, and her sexy, playful dynamic with athlete Eamon Roy — a man who once ended them before they could begin — is one with which many will likely relate.

Though it wasn’t a truly stand-out read, it is a layered story that also deals with grief, friendship and pursuing what we truly want. And heck, it managed to (mostly) distract me from impending childbirth, so that counts for something?


Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘Longbourn,’ ‘Dressmaker’

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 5 (of 11?)

Dull. There’s just no other way for me to describe my experience with this one. I went into it with high hopes, expecting a cross between Pride & Prejudice and “Downton Abbey,” and I suppose that’s what I got . . . but I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for Longbourn.

I didn’t need a damp-shirted Darcy skipping between the pages or anything, but the lack of page time for the Bennets was disappointing. Putting that aside, I just wasn’t interested in housemaid Sarah, the mysterious James or the formidable Mrs. Hill. If I’d stuck it out a little longer, I may have been rewarded with a wee bit of romance . . . but when I found my mind drifting repeatedly while listening to the audio book, I knew it was time to cave.

Sorry, Longbourn; I barely knew ye, but I didn’t like what I knew.

Other thoughts:
AustenBlog
Dear Author
Austenprose


Dressmaker Khair The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 3 (of 7?)

Another doomed audio! Non-fiction centering on a brave, entrepreneurial woman in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Afghanistan, I thought this one would be an interesting and inspiring read (listen?) last fall.

Unfortunately, I never emotionally connected with the principle players — and the audio book’s narrator had a distracting, WASP-ish accent that didn’t mesh at all with the strong-willed women she described. I might have enjoyed this one better in print, but I doubt I’ll take that chance.

Other thoughts:
BookNAround
Booking Mama
Reading on a Rainy Day


Mini book reviews: ‘We’re Just Like You…’ and ‘Black Heels To Tractor Wheels’

Two memoirs. And my thoughts on them, which aren’t quite as professional and fleshed-out as they might be in one of my “normal” reviews, so . . . it’s Tuesday, friends, and here you go: Rivenbark and Drummond. Drummond and Rivenbark.

They have nothing to do with one another, but I’m squeezing these ladies into one post.


We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier
by Celia Rivenbark
3.5 of 5 stars
Source: library

When it comes to the South, Celia Rivenbark has seen and heard it all. The humor columnist from North Carolina shares her “confessions of a tarnished belle” in a book that was laugh-out-loud funny one moment and snooze-inducing the next.

I borrowed this one on audio and listened to it in less than a week, so it was quick — but not very memorable. The vignettes have little to do with one another, and many of them have little to even do with Southern culture; the writer just happens to be Southern. Still, no matter; it was funny and light, albeit no competition for my beloved Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro.


The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels
to Tractor Wheels

by Ree Drummond
2 of 5 stars
Source: publisher

Marlboro Man is gorgeous. Marlboro Man looks great in his jeans. I act like a fool around MM, but MM makes my insides turn into jelly — which is just as important to note as my parents’ impending divorce and the death of my dog and the effects of an Oklahoma prairie fire.

Look, Ree — I love you. I love your adorable cooking show. I waited in line for four and a half hours to meet you in 2010, which almost led to the demise of my nascent relationship with Spencer. (But also proved a barometer for how patient and awesome my boyfriend is, so actually — thank you?)

But this book? It was pretty dreadful. Boring and repetitive and eye-roll-inducing and all the things I never thought I would ever say about my beloved PW. It read like an overly dramatic romance novel, and honestly? I wondered how such a sassy, spunky woman could come across as such a whiny lemming in her take on the early years of her romance with Ladd, her hunky husband, and their quick-as-lightning courtship. (And marriage. And first child.) The endless references to Marlboro Man’s physique and their obvious attraction to one another made me sip my Diet Coke with disdain, and I only finished the book out of a sense of loyalty to all PW has meant to me over the years. If it had been penned by anyone else, it would have been out. the. door.

Ree’s trademark self-deprecating humor is buried beneath a thick layer of insecurity and inexperience in Black Heels — and not in a charming way. It also came across as . . . very anti-feminist? I don’t know. I didn’t like it. I’m going to end here but still know that I love you, PW, though I will stick to reading your blog and admiring your adorable kids and dogs.


Okay, so I was wrong about not having that much to say about Pioneer Woman. But I feel sort of bad panning the book, so I’m going to hide my thoughts within this “mini” review post because somehow it assuages that odd nagging guilt. Though I’m just being honest. Okay? Okay.


Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘The Rock Star in Seat 3A,’ ‘Girls In White Dresses’

The Rock Star in Seat 3A by Jill Kargman
Source: Publisher
Where I stopped: Page 82-ish

The Rock Star in Seat 3A was one of my recent vacation reads, but I quickly regretted bringing so few books. This one was most definitely lacking for me.

The premise: the morning after her thirtieth birthday, narrator Hazel happens to be on a flight seated next to her rock god crush-to-end-all-crushes. Never believing she’d see this guy in the flesh, she’s dumbfounded — but the two have an instant connection, talking the whole time and sharing hopes and dreams, blah blah and so forth. On the surface, this totally works for me; I mean, should I find myself seated next to John Mayer en route to L.A., I’d be fixing my makeup and practicing my most alluring small talk. The opportunities to live vicariously through Rock Star are very appealing.

But what I found in Kargman’s novel was an awkward, unpolished manuscript desperately in need of an editor to whip it into shape and tone down the language. Look, I’m not a prude — but Hazel couldn’t seem to have one conversation without cursing to beat the band. It wasn’t clever, and it wasn’t cute. Plus, the writing was all tell, no show — and therefore boring.

It’s a slim book and a quick read, though. I could have finished it on my own plane ride . . . but I fell asleep.

Other thoughts:
Toothy Books
Leeswammes’ Blog
Chick Lit Central


Girls In White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Source: Audio borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Disc four

Even with its awkward and interchangeable characters, I was willing to stick it out with Girls In White Dresses — especially since it had been heralded as representing the quintessential 20-something struggle to launch and create a fulfilling life, especially in our turbulent times.

But what I found were irritating characters in whom I saw little and expected nothing. Yes, “everyone” our age seems to be getting married and having kids; yes, it’s easy to feel left out and frightened we’re failing. Failing at life. Had these issues been explored through less obnoxious and superficial characters, Girls In White Dresses may have resonated with me. Goodness knows I’ve felt that way myself. But as it stood, this audio version was returned to the library unfinished . . . and without a trace of guilt. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Other thoughts:
Cover To Cover
S. Krishna’s Books
Book Addiction