Reading and Listening – November 2020

October was a busy month. My son got married in another state, which required planning, travelling, and quarantining afterward. Then, a few days ago, I was in charge of a virtual conference that has taken a lot of time and work this past month to plan and coordinate all the moving parts.

Added to those two big things, a third big event was the reopening of library access to the public, which requires a lot more time in the library branches. I’m so happy to see and help our community again in person, albeit masked and socially distanced.

However, I have still carved out to read and listen to various articles and podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:

Reading:

Feed the Better Hunger – I used to tell my boys that taking in too much “junk food of the mind” is as bad for your brain as eating too much junk food is for your body. Glenna Marshall writes about what we should be hungering for in this article. We need to intentionally learn to love what is good for us and this article points us in the right direction.

6 Tips to Help You Tackle the Classic Novel – Anne Bogel gives six great ideas on how to read that classic from high school that you skipped. I 100% agree about trying it on audio. I finally managed to read Moby Dick several years ago by listening to the audio, and Heart of Darkness was much more manageable when read by Kenneth Branagh.

Your Devotional is Not Your Bible – As usual, Jen Wilkin encourages the reading and study of God’s Word over everything else: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.”

The Hidden Discipline of John Stott – This is an inspiring, convicting article. If I was half as disciplined in my reading and writing as John Stott was, I’d be a first class scholar. Definitely something to aspire to!

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It? – A longish article on the need for fact checking nonfiction books and the lack of industry standards. This was interesting to me as I’m currently working on a nonfiction book and anyone who is also writing nonfiction might want to give it a read. Fact checking and copy editing are not the same thing, and I had been thinking about how to make sure my facts were correct (important when you work in research for a living!) when I saw this article.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped to finish Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell by the end of October and I did. I think this was my favorite fiction book in 2020. The combination of historical detail, rich characterization, an inventive plot, magical realism, and deep, deep emotions left me with a huge book hangover and food for thought for weeks. If you like Shakespeare or you like historical fiction, you will like this book.

Listening:

A podcast on the three stages of creative work: friction, flow, and finalization – At the beginning of episode 37, Cal Newport talks about how all creative work has these three stages, what each stage entails, and how to push through to complete your project. I’ve often said that writing is 25% thought, 25% drafting, and 50% editing/polishing. Even if my percentages are a bit off, it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the majority of the project is not the fun drafting part.

The last Help Me Teach the Bible podcast – After years of talking to Bible teachers all over the world, Nancy Guthrie is (mostly) wrapping up this podcast. She does reserve the right to do an occasional new one if she’s able to do a great interview in the future. Here’s a list of episodes by Scripture: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/help-me-teach-the-bible-episodes-by-scripture/

Now that I’m back to commuting on a regular basis, I should have more listening suggestions next month. What are you reading or listening to right now? Please share in the comments.

Reading in October

A misty October morning

Reading remains a central part of my life. As the days grow shorter and chillier, I plan more and more time to curl up in my reading chair and crack open a book. Sometimes I choose a new one to enjoy, but oftentimes, especially in autumn, I long to visit with old, familiar friends. I get up and wander to my bookshelves to decide where I want to go.

Do I want to travel to Bath with Anne Elliot in Persuasion by Jane Austen, as I often do in October? Or should I start the academic year once again with Miss Read in Village School, a favorite comfort read? Sometimes only poetry will do and in autumn, I prefer Christina Rossetti’s melancholy, reflective poetry over cheerier stuff.

For lighter reading, I peruse old issues of my all-time favorite magazine, Victoria. Not the new issues, mind, but the original articles and photographs from the 1990’s when the magazine was young and lyrical and full of beautiful things. I miss it still. Afterwards, wanting more, I’ll pick up a book of essays by the original editor of Victoria, Nancy Lindemeyer, and read one before bed each night for sweet dreams.

Murder mysteries are always my favorite, of course, and if I’m going to reread one in October, it is almost always Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Attending Oxford was always a dream of mine, but at this time of my life, my student days are over so I accompany Harriet as revisits her university days.

My reading has slowed down a bit now that the library branches are open to the public again and I’ve added a commute back into my life. However, since I’m still limiting my social media to selected times, I have plenty of time to read if I choose to do so. Here is the list of books I read in October:

Three ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies):

  • The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth – I loved her book The Mother-in-Law and this one did not disappoint.
  • The Lost Village – a mystery set in a remote Scandanavian village, where a group of filmmakers investigates the disappearance of the entire population decades ago. Creepy, borderline horror, but I just had to know what happened to them.
  • The Windsor Knot – I loved this mystery about the Queen of England, her assistant secretary, and their investigation of a murder at Windsor Castle. I’m already anticipating the sequel even though the first isn’t yet released. Highly recommend for people who like intelligent cozy-type mysteries.

Rereads:

  • The Hollow by Agatha Christie – I didn’t think I had read this one until about three chapters in, I remembered who did it but not all the plot points to uncovering the culprit. Not her best, but still, a Hercules Poirot mystery is always fun.
  • Still Life by Louise Penny – the first in Penny’s Armand Gamache series, set in autumn.
  • Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – essays that Lindemeyer wrote for Victoria magazine while she was the editor. They are full of home, family, and old-fashioned joys.

New to me:

Beyond the Gates by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – I read about this on the Stuck in a Book blog, where I always find lovely older books and authors that I’ve only vaguely heard of. Beyond the Gates is about an orphan named Lydia, who is terrified to go out into the world from the orphanage where she’s always lived. She is hired by a family, who takes her into their home, and she learns how to live in a new place. It’s a quiet book without much action, but the characters were real to me. The book was very English in its tone and descriptions. Written in 1956, it is a book of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Newer books:

  • Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer – the first in a cozy series, set in 1920’s Egypt. A young American widow discovers the body of a young socialite in a posh Egyptian hotel. In order to clear her own name, she investigates with the help of a mysterious stranger.
  • The Last Flight by Julie Clark – two women, fleeing from their pasts, trade plane tickets and flights. When one of the planes crashes, killing everyone on board, the woman still alive is stuck between identities. This was a great thriller and kept me turning pages long past my bedtime.
  • Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay – a librarian, a murder, writers, and libraries are all part of this first in a cozy mystery series. It was a quick read, and I enjoyed all the bookish, library details.

Books that I am currently reading and will finish by October 31:

Village School by Miss Read – a village schoolteacher talks about her school, English village life, and the children in this charming book from an earlier era. (Re-read)
Hamnet by Maggie O’Ferrell – I can’t express how much I am loving this book about Shakespeare’s wife and children, the tragedy that occurred, and how it might have happened in real life. Full of rich historical detail, some magical realism, and characters you will love, most especially Agnes (aka Anne Hathaway).
Beholding and Becoming by Ruth Chou Simons – a book about how to live each day, worshipping God, with gorgeous drawings of the natural world and calligraphy on most pages. Full review to follow once I’m done reading.

I’m still working my way through Union with Christ by Randy Wilbourne. There are so many good points, but I need to think about it as I read so am going slowly to ponder the richness of what it means to live out of union with Christ.

I’m also still working my way through Life Path by Luci Shaw with a group of friends. This is my first time reading this wonderful book on spiritual journaling, but I know that I will return to it again and again as it’s filled with nuggets of truth and prompts for thinking and writing about life.

I’ve not finished as much nonfiction this month because so much of my reading is in the evening when I’m often too tired to comprehend meaty books, but I’m still satisfied with my October reading.

What have you read this month? Were there any particularly fabulous stories or edifying books you can tell us about in the comments?

A Satisfying Reading Life

Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

When you consider your reading life, it’s not the number of books that counts but the satisfaction you have in the books that you are reading. For instance, if you read 50 books in a year, but you didn’t like 90% of them, then your reading life isn’t going to make you happy even if you did read a book a week. On the other hand, if you read only 20 books, but they are books you’ve been longing to read, you delighted in each one, and you thought long and hard about them days after finishing, then you have a rich reading life.

This year, I have been fortunate to have a satisfying reading life. Since I’ve mostly been working from home and so have no commute, I achieved my 2020 Goodreads goal of 75 books with three months to spare. Of the 16 books I read since my last check-in, six were nonfiction and ten were fiction. Thus, over a third of books I’ve read this year has been nonfiction, which is a great improvement over last year. The memoirs I read this past month were memorable—Maya Angelou, Ruth Reichl, and Anthony Doerr all had interesting tales to tell in very different ways. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made me simultaneously sad and angry for the child Maya was. Living in Rome for a year with Anthony Doerr was a delight to the senses. My mother and I always loved reading Gourmet magazines, and my mother introduced me to the joys of reading about food. I still love to cook and to read about cooking so Reichl’s memoir of her years at Gourmet was a treat to lose myself in, especially since Reichl included a recipe for a chocolate cake that I must make one of these days.

If I can finish two theology books and fit in a book of poetry before the end of December, I will be pleased with this year’s reading , even if I finish nothing else. Add in a book by one of the Puritan theologians though, and my pleasure will turn to delight.

Currently, I am still reading Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne and have Gospel & Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy, a Biblical Theology book recommended by Nancy Guthrie, to start next. I’m two thirds through a reread of September by Rosamund Pilcher. I’ve always loved her long novels and have never reread this one. Since she has a long novel that seems to fit each season—September for fall, Winter Solstice for winter, Coming Home for spring, and The Shell Seekers for summer—I’m toying with the idea of reading one each season over the next year. Even if I don’t, I am still enjoying the foray into Scotland this month. October is a month for rereading Persuasion, which I will probably bring with me when travel to my son’s wedding. There’s something autumn-like and reflective about Austen’s novel of second chances.

A hold from the library just came in for me this week: The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma. I’m an early riser myself so am looking forward to any new tips she may have on how to make the best use of my mornings. I’m I’m about halfway through Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on audio for my October book group. It has been good to view my country and culture through the eyes of someone so different from me in every way.

Overall, my reading life is just grand. How satisfied are you with your reading life?

Finding God in the Ordinary – Book Review

Blue-centered Daisy

I first heard about Finding God in the Ordinary by Pierce Taylor Hibbs while listening to the podcast Mortification of Spin. As the author spoke about his book, I knew that this was something I would love to read since looking for God in the small things is an activity I have long practiced.

My copy is a beautiful hard-bound book with a lovely cover and easily readable fonts. However, the treasure is in the words. Pierce Taylor Hibbs takes ordinary events like drinking coffee, shadows, dust, birds on a telephone wire, snow falling, wind, and light and shows the reader how to find God in these every day, ordinary events.

It’s not just that his prose is delightful, but his choice of words approaches poetry in many places within these essays. And his references to the Trinity, creation, language, God’s majesty and providence, and other theological subjects within his musings about “ordinary” events so enrich those events that I will never look at dust floating in the air or shadows on the grass the same again.

Let me share just a few quotes:

In the greatness of God, the smallest of things is given tremendous weight. p. 6

The beating heart of the Trinity is thumping underneath every human word, no matter how trivial or commonplace. p. 16

While darkness is an arena for the light of faith, it is the Lord of light himself that brings our feeble faith to fruition. pp. 26-27

Mistakes are not just markers of our depravity. They are more than that. They are the triune God’s spadework in the soil of the soul. They are opportunities for the great gardener to tend our lives and help us grow. p. 32

I highly recommend this book and plan to re-read these essays over and over again.

Book Review: Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy

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I finished reading Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons this afternoon and want to run out and shove this book into the hands of all of my friends. Instead, I will tell you all about this wonderful book and know that if you love it even half as much as I did, you will have a new favorite.

As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been looking at her book suggestions on her blog, listening to some of her podcasts, and thinking, “Here is a kindred spirit.” She writes about many of the books I’ve loved and the thoughts I’ve thought and the truths I believe.  Plus, she celebrates and loves Advent and Christmas even more than I do.

Let me tell you a bit about the book. Christie Purifoy, her husband, and three children (plus one on the way) move into an old farmhouse called Maplehurst in late summer. The narrative follows their first year in the house as they are dreaming dreams, planting gardens, mending broken things, inviting neighbors, and welcoming a new baby.

The memoir is full of truth, beauty, and goodness wrapped up in every day living. Christie meditates on faith and God’s promises, eternity and tomorrow, dirt and tomatoes. Other books I’ve read about homes and gardens were enjoyable, but I think that Roots and Sky hit something deep inside of me because of Christie’s constant reminder of the Lord and His work in her life and in ours. Her metaphors are lovely and get at truths that are often hard to encapsulate.

Here are just a few of the dozens of quotes I underlined:

Our lives are stories built of small moments. Ordinary experiences. It is too easy to forget that our days are adding up to something astonishing. We do not often stop to notice the signs and wonders. The writing on the wall. But some days we do.

Homecoming is a single word, and we use it to describe a single event. But true homecoming requires more time. It seems to be a process rather than a moment. Perhaps we come home the way the earth comes home to the sun. It could be that homecoming is always a return and our understanding of home deepens with each encounter.

I see how each season lies tucked up inside another. How fall’s warm yellow is hidden within summer’s cool green. How even the scented explosion of spring lies sleeping within winter branches that seem brittle with death.

What if gratitude is more about seeing the face of God? Of locking our eyes on his and remembering where our help comes from? Perhaps gratitude is not only a discipline but also a gift, one we are given in special measure just before we pass through the door to suffering.

It reminded me of three books I love all wrapped up in one: The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill, The Crosswick Journals by Madeleine L’Engle, and The Country Diary of an English Lady. Christie Purifoy has a new book coming out next month. I can hardly wait to read it.

What books have you read that touch your soul and fill your heart with singing?

My Reading Life in 2018

best journal ever

My Reading Journal

Goodreads and my reading journal have been a good way for me to track my reading for the past couple of years. I tried to catch up in each place once or twice a month so that I didn’t lose track. My goal for 2018 was 80 books. However, unlike last year where I barely squeaked by with short books at the end of the year, this year I hit the goal in October. At the end of 2018, I had read 128 books, 60% more than I had aimed for.

The reason is simple. After struggling to get in 80 books read last year, I decided to make reading more of a priority in 2018. I purposely created routines in my daily life that gave me time to read. I added books, print and digital, to every room and device in the house and at work so that I was never at a loss for material. When you have plenty to read, have books available, and set aside time to do it, reading is more likely to happen.
Here is a snapshot of my reading from the last year:

Books read – 128
Nonfiction – 18
Fiction – 110
Audiobooks – 12

I think I would have had a higher percentage of audiobooks if I didn’t also listen to podcasts. However, as that is unlikely to change because I like podcasts in the car, an audiobook a month is probably my goal again this year. My nonfiction percentage is too low. It would have been about right if I had read 80 books as I originally planned. I’d like to see if I can bump it up to 25% of my total reading this year.

I might have read even more if I had had more focus on what to read next. Often, I would be torn between several choices and be paralyzed by which one to read so that most of my reading time was gone by the time I decided what to choose. I’m hoping to forestall that problem this year by having a couple of guided reading challenges, already filled out and several of the books at hand. I should then be able to work my way through the lists and not have as much decision paralysis. More on that next week.

My favorite books of 2018:

Fiction 

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – I would never have picked this up and perhaps I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been following the Close Reads podcast as they discussed it. As I read along with them, I was overcome by the beauty of Stegner’s prose, I grew to love the characters, and I began to appreciate what he was doing in the book. This is one I will reread in the future. The library copy had a hold list so I bought a copy and I’m glad. I kept underlining beautiful phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien – a delightful book of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children every year at Christmas, telling of Father Christmas’s adventures along with his great friend, North Polar Bear. The book contains drawings Tolkien did as well. I loved every second of it. The audio was well done, but I found a copy afterward so I could see the pictures Tolkien drew to go with the letters.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – I’ve been enjoying Atkinson’s work since Life After Life and this one did not disappoint. The story of a young woman, who is asked to spy for her country during World War II. After the war she goes on with her life, but leftovers from her war years haunt her. Full of twists and turns, Atkinson kept me guessing until the very last page.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – this was my first Pym novel, but it won’t be my last. A quiet story about people but so full of truth and wit that I enjoyed every moment. The audio was excellent.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson – this was an ARC* that I picked up out of curiosity and I loved it. It’s a novel of letters between a middle-aged farm wife and a museum curator. On the surface that may sound dull, but their conversations and how those conversations affect each of their lives is so well done. This is probably a sleeper novel because it’s in the form of letters, but I have been telling everyone I think may like it to try it. It’s a beautifully written story. I look forward to more from this author in the future.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton- a debut novel that was like Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie. Full of twists and turns and unexpected events, this mystery novel/fantasy is absorbing. I couldn’t put it down until I reached the very last page.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – a delightful tribute to English country house mysteries with a twist. The audio is superb with dual narrators, one who narrates the real-life protagonist and the other who narrates the book she is reading. If you love English detective fiction, do read this up-to-date version of the classic English detective novel.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson – the story of a girl who is left a bookstore by her uncle along with a mystery about her family to solve. I enjoyed this story about family and secrets and, of course, books.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – This is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which I adored and which won the Man Booker Prize. This volume also won the Man Booker Prize, but I couldn’t believe that it could be as good as Wolf Hall. However, when I finished it, I thought, “She did it again!”. Mantel not only gets you inside Thomas Cromwell’s head so that you find yourself not just rooting for him but admiring him, but she also portrays the court of Henry VIII and all of the political machinations so that you will find yourself, like I did, being very, very thankful that you did not live and work for that man. If you like history at all, English history in particular, or even are interested in the Reformation in England, you have to read this book. It’s excellent!

A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake – set in Charlestown, which charmed me from the start, this book tells two stories—the modern-day story of a young woman and her search for the truth of her family and the story of a slave revolt in the early 19th century. I couldn’t put it down and really loved it.

Nonfiction

Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson – I borrowed this from the library but as soon as I finished it, I bought myself my own copy because this book got who I am as a person. Sarah Clarkson is definitely a kindred spirit and I have since started reading her blog and following her Instagram, loving everything she writes and shares. Full of bookish talk and lots of lovely book lists, I reveled in every word. I can see myself rereading this and going back to this book again and again until I have read every last suggestion in it.

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin – A great book about God’s attributes, how they set Him apart, and who we are in comparison. I listened to this but plan to go back with a paper copy and a pencil to underline and take copious notes. Lots to think about and appreciate about the God who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam – I’ve appreciated Vanderkam’s work since I first read 168 Hours and started reading her blog. She has helped me to think about my time differently, which has enriched my life. A small book but well worth reading if only for the idea of your past, present, and future selves when it comes to events. Several times now I have gone to things I had planned to attend even when I didn’t feel like it because of her advice. Every time I have been so thankful to have made the effort.

A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Books 1 and 2 of the Crosswicks Journals) by Madeleine L’Engle – both of these rated five stars for me and I’m stingy with my stars. If you love L’Engle or you love family or you love the idea of place and home or you are a writer wannabe, all of which I am, these books are for you.

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser – If you always wondered about the reality behind the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder then you will enjoy this book. Fraser delves into the geography, politics, and history behind those famous books. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to hearing Caroline Fraser speak about her book this winter when she comes to town.

New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp – I read this devotional throughout 2018. It was encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it if you want to grow in your understanding and growth in the gospel of Christ.

Rereads

I believe in rereading books regularly—some require rereading in order to understand them and some are so lovely that I want to experience them again and some are so comfortable that I want to sink into their embrace. So I will reread books despite my ever-growing To Be Read tower of books because a good book is always worth reading more than once.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – a reread for the 10th or 11th time, but oh how I adore this book of redemption and second chances.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – I listened to this on audio and loved it just as much as the first time. Of course, any epistolary novel wins my heart but one set in England during World War II and about books…I loved every second.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – I listened to the audio and fell in love with this book all over again. Reams have been written about it so I won’t go into detail, but this is worth reading and rereading, not only for its structure, but for the main character and his ability to adapt to his circumstances, his intelligence and humor, and his wonderful sense of honor and dignity.

Overall 2018 was a great reading year. I look forward to 2019 and all of the lovely books I will read and think about and write about and share with all of my friends. I hope your reading year is a good one, too.

Penny Plain by O. Douglas

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I had another blog post planned for today, but I just finished Penny Plain by O. Douglas and had to share about this new to me author.

I had heard of O. Douglas, a pseudonym for Anna Buchan, because my boys and I have long loved John Buchan’s books. I still enjoy reading about Richard Hannay and his adventures, especially Mr. Standfast. Did you know that John Buchan is the father of spy novels? His first, The 39 Steps, was written in 1915 but set just before World War I. The first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so full of hair-raising adventures and last minutes escapes that you find that you must read one more chapter to see if Hannay escapes the current tight corner.

Anyhow, because of my enjoyment of Richard Hannay, I had read about Buchan’s sister, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and had seen her books reviewed by other middlebrow novel enthusiasts. However, until this weekend, I had never read one for myself.

I downloaded Penny Plain for free onto my kindle. (As an aside, while I still adore real books, being able to read out of print, unaccessible books is one of the definite upsides of the digital book revolution). I’ve spent the last two days in Scotland with Jean Jardine and her three brothers, whom she is bringing up by herself after the death of her parents and her aunt.

It’s a charming little story with wonderful characters and a happy ending, the best kind of book. Jean is making do with little money but lots of books and love when Pamela Reston comes to the village of Priorsford to escape the social whirl for a while. The book is set just after World War I and the sorrows of the loss of so many young men come across from time to time. In a way, it is more poignant than a modern novel about the losses because the author knew those aching gaps in a way we modern readers never will.

However, the book itself is upbeat and tells about the kind heart of Jean, her genius for helping others, and the way her life takes an unexpected turn as a result of her kindnesses. Also, there are numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and poetry, which I will have to track down to their sources one of these days for the sheer fun of it. I love books that are full of quotations.

Just a few bits to give you the flavor of the book:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances.

She was glad she lived among people who had the decency to go on caring for each other in spite of lines and wrinkles—comfortable couples whose affection for each other was a shelter in the time of storm, a shelter built of common joys, of “fireside talks and counsels in the dawn,” cemented by tears shed over common sorrows.

It wasn’t sad to be old, Jean told herself, for as the physical sight dims, the soul sees more clearly, and the light from the world to come illumines the last dark bit of the way….

The other rooms are lovely, but they are meant for crowds of people. This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

If you love books with kindness and laughter and true values and happy ever afters, even in the midst of life’s sorrows, then you will enjoy Penny Plain.

 

Favorite Books of 2017

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I barely achieved my goal of reading eighty books in 2017. It was a year of transition and I have a lot less dedicated time for reading than I used to have. However, I did read some very good books this past year and thought I’d share my favorites.

Top Five Fiction:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – An older man and a girl make a journey together in post Civil War Texas. The story was great and the details made me feel as if I was making the journey with them.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – Christina’s World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, has long been a favorite of mine so how could I resist this historical fiction novel about the Christina in the picture, her life, and how the picture was painted?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Beautiful prose and structure and a fascinating story about a Russian aristocrat who lives in a hotel under house arrest in Moscow. While he cannot go out into the world, he soon discovers that the world comes to him. My favorite novel of the year.

The Dry by Jane Harper – A debut mystery set in Australia. The story was so compelling that I read it in less than two days. I’m looking forward to the next in the proposed series.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon – I can’t resist novels based on true crimes and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. In the 1930’s, a New York City judge stepped into a cab one summer evening and was never seen again. This is one person’s idea of what happened to him and the women in his life.

Other than The Dry, which is a mystery set in modern Australia, this was the year of historical fiction. Each of the four books gave me a window into another time and place—Texas in the 1800’s, Maine in the early 1900’s, Russia in the 20th century, and New York City in the 1930’s. Historical fiction has always been a favorite genre, and this year I read a lot of it.

 

Top Five Nonfiction:

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I was fortunate to discover the very first edition of Victoria Magazine in a grocery store in the 1980’s and read it for many years. My favorite columns were written by “Jenny Walton”, who was later revealed to be the editor, Nancy Lindemeyer. For years, I had wanted to read this book which is all of the columns from Victoria plus other essays and this year I finally found a copy of it. It was beautiful in every way, a book I will read again and again.

The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Mason by Laurie Bestvater – The only thing I was sorry about while reading this book was that it hadn’t been written while my boys were still in my homeschool. However, it’s not too late for me to become more of a journaler or keeper as Mrs. Bestvater calls herself. This book not only inspires one to keep notebooks and journals but also goes into excellent detail on how to be successful at it.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – The amazing story of four women who contributed to the space race due to their brilliance in math and science. I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Shetterly speak after I read the book and look forward to reading future volumes of women who have done great things in history and are only waiting to be revealed.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – any of you who have read my blog know how much I liked this book: Deep Work – Final Thoughts

Reading People by Anne Bogel – I love personality tests and take them whenever possible. Anne Bogel took all the various ways of evaluating oneself and brought them together in this book along with explanations of each. It was a fun book to read and helped me to think through more about what makes me tick. If you are a personality test lover, you will adore this book.

Other than Hidden Figures, this was the year of reading books that aided me in thinking about my life and how I’d like it to be within my power to change it. Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies was yet another book in that self-improvement trend this past year. I suspect that with the transition from one type of lifestyle to another, I’m looking to see what will work best for me as I go forward.

 

Series of 2017 – Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie (First book is A Share in Death) – Set in modern England, especially London, but drawing from the history of the various places she uses in her books, Deborah Crombie has written a great series of mysteries. While each one has its own mystery, which is solved within that book, there are overarching mysteries and growth in the characters which deepens this series to something more than typical whodunits. They remind me of Louise Penny’s books.

Audiobooks – Audiobooks are a genre of their own, in my opinion. I think of them very differently from print books. I usually read better by sight so for an audiobook to hold my attention, it either needs to have a compelling story and/or a great narrator. These books had both:

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes – Juliet Stevenson narrates this story of two families and how they become intertwined due to an incident 25 years in the past. It’s basically an English Victoria soap opera but, oh so fun!

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – My son and I listened to this together in the car last spring. The events in the book occur 1000’s of years after Ender’s Game and Card incorporates many thought-provoking themes into this excellent story. We had some great discussions as a result of listening to this book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – As I wrote in my initial review of this: “I laughed, I cried, and I laughed again” at this story of an old curmudgeon and the family who moves in next story who just won’t leave him alone with his grumpiness.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A beautifully told story about a girl’s growing up, told in a series of poems. Sad at times, but still hope-filled.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – The true story of one of the contributors to the great Oxford English Dictionary and the man who pushed the project through towards completion. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this tale certainly proves that.

 

Favorite Devotional/Theology Book of 2017

Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp – a lovely set of devotions about Christmas and its true meaning. Reading it really made the month of December much more meditative and meaningful than it would have been otherwise.

That is a snapshot of my reading year in 2017. I look forward to another great year in 2018. What was your favorite book last year?

Deep Work – Final Thoughts

I finished Deep Work by Cal Newport over the weekend. His last chapter is entitled Drain the Shallows, in which he discusses ways to minimize shallow work and maximize deep work.

He suggests:

A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.

Now, he doesn’t mean to account for every minute, but rather, he says to block out your entire day and have a goal for each block. For instance, if I have planning time at work, for the first hour I would plan to write a new blog post, the second hour would be spent working on conference prep, and the third hour, I could start with my 15 minutes of daily learning and then use the rest of the time for shallow miscellaneous stuff. Perhaps you would have a block of time for internet research so that you aren’t using your other blocks for quick look ups which end up wasting your deep work time.  Remember, in a past chapter, he suggested scheduling your online time so that should be blocked out on your schedule as well.

His point here is to be intentional about your work and not be spontaneous. It’s too easy to squander your valuable deep work time if you don’t plan it up front. I know that much of my writing time is wasted, researching and editing.  I need to learn to separate those and spend dedicated time just writing and have separate blocks for research and editing.

He also advises to quantify the depth of each of your activities to determine what is truly deep work, ask your boss for a shallow work budget (how much time, percentage-wise, to spend each week on shallow work), finish your work day by 5:30 (don’t bring work home with you), and become hard to reach.

Final thoughts:  This was an extremely helpful book for showing me how I spend my time, how I waste my time, and how to go about redeeming my time. If you want to rethink how to carve out time for deep thinking and working, I highly recommend this book. It’s thoughtful and full of practical advice.

Past articles on this title:

Finding My Focus Again

Deep Work – Part II

Deep Work – Rule #2

Working toward focus and thought

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

Deep Work – Rule #2

When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds.  On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand.  Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.

All of those times tended to have moments, even hours,  of boredom.  There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts.   I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.

Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom.  These days, escape from boredom is only a click away.  We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat.  We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly.  When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited?  Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.  He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction.  In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation.  While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem.  Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it.  If you do this  two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.

In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. 

When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way.  The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom.  Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too?  If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.