Autumn Reading

We are at the start of my favorite season. I love the golden light, the crisp evenings and mornings, the bright blue sky, the sounds of birds flying south, and the smells of bonfires and falling leaves.

My reading in the fall tends to be focused on reflective novels and books that warm my heart and soul. I’m always seeking new titles to read, but in autumn, I do a lot more rereading. Here are some of my favorite books to read this time of year.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – My favorite Austen novel, Persuasion is perfect for reading in the autumn as it talks about second chances later in life. I like to reread this one every few years and always in October.

September by Rosamund Pilcher – The title speaks for itself as it is set in September, but I love that most of the characters are in middle life, thinking about their lives, their choices, and where to go from here.

Possession by A.S. Byatt – An intellectual mystery, this novel follows a set of scholars as they seek the truth of the relationship between two Victorian poets – for those who enjoy an academic puzzle and unraveling historical mysteries

Anne of the Island or Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery – School stories always seem appropriate to read at the start of a school year and either of these work for that although Anne of Windy Poplars seems a bit more “fallish”.

Autumn Story by Jill Barklem – If you have not yet read any of Jill Barklem’s stories about the mice in the hedgerow over the various seasons, go immediately to your library and pick one up. The drawings are enchanting and the stories sweet without being cloying. The tale reads quickly but you will want to pour over the illustrations to look at all of the details of country English life.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson – This title by Stevenson is another book about second chances, this time for a woman in middle life with grown children.

Fresh From the Country by Miss Read – Another school story, this one describes the life of a brand new teacher. Miss Read’s Fairacre Series is also great for school-story lovers.

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge – Many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books are thoughtful and reflective, but this one is a favorite of mine with many descriptions of cozy home scenes.

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struthers – Always good for a reread but especially great in fall and winter, each essay covers a small portion of Mrs. Miniver’s life in a way that can lead you to think more closely about the ordinary things in yours.

Books I’ve read that would make perfect fall reads:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield – This gothic tale about an old woman who wants to tell the truth of her life after many years of hiding it away is perfect for fall reading.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – Austen pokes fun at gothic tales while telling one of her own. Delightful.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – The classic story of Ichabod Crane and his night ride is spooky without being horror.

Early Days by Miss Read – Miss Read recounts her early childhood in this lovely memoir.

Books that are on my to-read list that would fit into fall reading:

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope – I’m slowly reading through Trollope’s Barchestershire series, and anything by him has one thinking about the human condition and the choices we make.

September Moon by John Moore – I found a copy of this after reading about it at a bookish Instagram account I follow. It’s set in hops-picking time in England, a time I’ve always been intrigued by after reading about it other books. I’m looking forward to picking this up soon.

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell – Anything by Angela Thirkell is good cozy reading and being about a school is an added bonus.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeleine Martin – This book about a bookshop in World War II may not appear cozy at first glance, but I find any book set in London involving books takes me away to another world so it qualifies for me.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee – Memoirs about childhood memories are always good for fall, and this one has long been on my to-read list so I’m hoping to finally get to it this year.

The Cottage Kitchen: Cozy Cooking in the English Countryside by Marte Marie Forsberg – Cool nights and earlier evenings call out for spending time in the kitchen. I love to read cookbooks and this one just seems perfect for this time of year. I have certain things I always make in autumn and am hoping to find another favorite.

Autumn from the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch – I loved her memoir about her trip to England and hope to find an affordable copy of this book for the drawings and recipes.

Do you have a favorite book to read this time of year? Please share it in the comments. I love to add books to my autumn reading list.

Feeding Your Creativity

Writing Desk – Pen & Ink drawing by Victor L. Doyle

Earlier this month, I was gathering ideas to share with the writers group at the library. Our topic for August was Feeding Your Creativity, an idea I first read in Wild Words by Nicole Gulotta. During my research, I discovered this great article on creativity based on an old book from 1939. Artists and writers looking for creativity is apparently not a new concept!

The author of the book listed five steps to cultivating creativity:

  1. Gathering raw material
  2. Digesting the material
  3. Unconscious processing
  4. The A-Ha Moment
  5. Idea Meets Reality

As I thought about this five step process, I realized that I follow these steps almost unconsciously when I think about my writing, work on a Bible study, plan my goals for the next quarter, and a host of other creative and thinking work.

Then this morning, I came across this lovely video about Training Your Creative Flow by photographer Shaye Elliott.

In her video, Shaye is talking about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which I started reading but quit partway through because I never conquered morning pages. I tried so many times on my own and did something similar last winter during a writing class. However, the pain in my hands when I write with a pen for more than a few minutes keeps me, mentally and physically, from maintaining that habit. Julia Cameron’s insistence that it must be pen and paper makes sense to me intellectually and the lovely piece of writing on the beauty in pain that came out of the exercise last winter both keep me thinking about this. But until I conquer the very real mental or emotional barrier of my fear of the pain, I know that I won’t do morning pages.

Consequently, I’ve decided to adapt these ways of capturing creativity to make it work for me where I am right now. Rather than just give up, which has been my tendency, I’ve come to the conclusion that if writing is important to me, and it is, then I have to do what works and stop trying to live someone else’s ideal process.

Here is how I plan to use these steps to feed my creativity:

  1. Raw material – This is not a problem. I read so much and so widely that I’m always gathering raw material. The challenge is to organize it for easier retrieval. I have a system that I’m working on but that is for another post.
  2. Digesting the material – I think this is where the morning pages will come in. Rather than fuss myself about doing it by hand, I’ve decided to just type my thoughts. Perhaps this is not optimal but it’s better than not doing anything at all, a sentiment echoed in this article by a leadership coach for lawyers.
  3. Unconscious processing – This requires silence and solitude, which are hard to find in the world today but not impossible. A combination of weaning myself off of social media, planning in slots of reflective time, and adding in more walks, some of which I will make thinking walks, should give me time for the processing that is crucial to idea generation.
  4. The A-Ha moment – I have a small notebook and/or my phone with me all of the time so that when the ideas hit, I’m ready for them. In the past, I’ve jotted down words and phrases on a slip of paper, dictated my thoughts to Siri as I drove, sent myself an email, added a note to my phone, and scribbled down thoughts for a new direction in my notebook. Writing down ideas as they strike is a discipline that is well worth cultivating for every creative. I wrote more about this in my post A Writer’s Notebook.
  5. Idea meets reality – Make time for regular writing! Two other ideas from Julia Cameron’s book are to have a creative date with yourself every week and to practice your art regularly. For me that looks like having a book on writing that I read for an hour a week, as a minimum, and sitting down every day to write—morning pages, a blog post draft, my journal, a book draft—whatever it is to get the words on paper and develop the discipline of showing up to my art.

Have I perfected this process? Not at all. However, the steps are in place and now I need to walk in them. If I can do it, so can you!

Do you think these five steps to creativity are helpful? Do you write morning pages either by hand or electronically? Please share your practices in the comments so we can all learn to live the creative life together.

How To Make Time for Reading

Books I’m currently reading with my reading journal

As part of my planning and organization, I purposely set up time for reading. Planning experts talk about the Eisenhower Grid, which divides things into four categories: urgent and important, urgent and non-important; non-urgent and important; and non-urgent and non-important. I will unpack those more in a future blog post, but for most of us, reading tends to falls into the category of non-urgent and important.

Why is this so? For one thing reading doesn’t have a deadline, unless you are a student or have to read something for work. Books just sit quietly on their shelves and while passing them by might make you feel guilty for a moment, they aren’t going to jump down and tackle you. If you’re not in school, no teacher is going to test you on that book you want to read. Even if you add it to your Goodreads “Currently Reading” list, it’s unlikely that anyone will say something if it lingers there for months, or you quietly move it back on the To Read shelf. I know this because I have done that more than once, and no one has ever asked me about it.

So, while reading is not usually urgent, it is important, because reading allows you to grow as a person by learning new things. Putting yourself in another place or another person’s shoes or another time helps you develop compassion and insight. Reading expands your mind and your heart.

Therefore, if reading is important but it doesn’t reach out and grab you, it’s up to you to make time for it. The easiest way to make sure I have regular time for books and article is to schedule it into my regular rhythms and routines.

Morning is set aside for devotional and intellectual study since that’s when my mind is most able to chew on meaty topics. By lunch time, I’m ready for some good nonfiction or serious fiction, which I read while I eat or listen to while walking. By the time evening rolls around, my mind is done for the day, and often I’m only able to read easier fiction, light essays, or a fun memoir.

I like to read articles from magazines and blogs but don’t have time for those during the work week. Several years ago, I discovered Instapaper, which allows me to gather articles together and then send them in batches to my kindle. Once a week, usually on the weekend, I sit down with a batch or two of articles and read through them. Some I skim quickly while others are worth thinking more deeply about. The beauty of having them converted to kindle documents is that I can highlight or make notes on points I want to study further or use in my future writing.

Other things I consider are my energy, emotions, and the season of the year. After considering the time of day, I also consider whether it’s the beginning of the week and/or the weekend when I have more energy. If things in my life are difficult, I will sometimes read for escape. For instance, I went on a murder mystery binge during the pandemic. Mysteries are my favorite genre and rereading old favorites was especially helpful when I didn’t want to think about the outside world for a couple of hours. My reading also tends to follow the seasons of the year—reflective reading and rereading in winter, more challenging reading in spring and fall, and mostly fun reading in the summer.

A key part of making time for books is knowing what I’m going to read next. I like to have several books lined up, some light and some heavier reading, so that when I finish a book, I don’t have to hunt around for another. That hunting tends to lead me down rabbit trails on the internet, and I lose all of my reading time to deciding what I’m in the mood for. If I have several good titles of varying difficulty and genre already chosen, I can almost always just pick one up and jump right in.

I get my ideas for titles to read next from what’s new at the library, book blogs and podcasts, and suggestions from friends and fellow librarians. Since part of my job is to read about books, I often have more books in mind than I can possibly read. An endless to-be-read list is one way to ensure I always have my next book waiting for me to pick it up.

Planning ahead and arranging my time and energy allows me to establish rhythms of reading into my days and weeks. How do you fit reading into your life? Please share in the comments.

Reading in 2021

February Choices. Not pictured: Wintering by Katherine May, an ebook.

One of my goals for 2021 is to be more intentional in my reading. Last year, along with many others, I did a lot of comfort reading. That was fine, and I don’t regret it, but there are areas in which I’d like to grow in my reading life. Growth will only occur if I’m deliberate since I’d much rather just pick up one more murder mystery.

One thing that helped a lot in my planning was listening to Episode 265 of the What Should I Read Next podcast. Anne’s guest Laura Tremaine had ten questions to ask about your reading life. I journaled through these questions and came up with some ideas on how I wanted to approach my reading in 2021.

Also, I downloaded the Literary Life podcast 19 in 2021 reading challenge and the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. Since the MMD challenge was more of a worksheet on how you want your reading life to look, I was able to combine the two challenges to give me a good list of areas in which to read this year.

Here are the categories I hope to tackle in 2021. These include both challenges plus some work reading:

  • Poetry – They suggested an anthology, of which I own several. Normally I don’t read one straight through but dip in and out.
  • Letters – These would be real-life letters, which I love to read. I may combine this category with the next one and read the last book of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s letters that I’ve owned for several years but not yet read.
  • A book from my To-Be-Read stack – Lots to choose from here!
  • Old Books – My cut off is anything pre-1950
  • A Shakespeare play – I’ve read about three fourths of his plays and plan to read one new to me.
  • A book that requires jumping a hurdle. Either because it’s difficult to read or long or I’m avoiding it for some reason.
  • A book I started but never finished – There are several possibilities for this category.
  • Something Russian – Perhaps I should combine the previous category with this one and finally finish Anna Karenina!
  • Biography and Memoir – This is one of my favorite categories so I’ll have fun choosing a book for this one.
  • Something Local – I can read a book set in my area or by a local author. Since I work with the local authors at my library, I have many possibilities.
  • Reading Outside My Comfort Zone – This is a work category and part of the challenge.
  • Travel Books – I have a couple on my shelves that I’ve been meaning to read.
  • A Re-Read – I re-read regularly so this will be easy.
  • A Favorite Topic – I could choose several areas here–writing, genealogy, cooking, needlework, English history, or theology.
  • Focusing on an author – The idea is to read three or more books by the same author. I hope to choose a non-mystery author to stretch me.
  • Multicultural/#OwnVoices novel or memoir – This is for work and part of the challenge – I completed this one by reading The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper.
  • Theology and Christian Living – At least two of each this year.
  • A Winter Reading Challenge badge – Our library has a winter reading challenge each year, and you can earn badges by reading books in different categories. I earned the Surviving Winter Challenge by reading Snow by John Banville, A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow, and Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac.

My January reading was very satisfying in comfort although not so much in the challenge. I read three nonfiction, one of which was poetry, fifteen fiction books, and one children’s book. Of the fiction, only three weren’t mysteries. As much as I love mysteries, I need to be more adventurous in my reading.

I re-read several Hercule Poirot novels, which could count in the rereading category as well as the focus on a single author category, but they aren’t really stretching my reading life so I won’t count them toward the challenge.
Waiting on the Word was poetry and devotional, but since I started it in December, I don’t plan to count it on this list. Also, I finally finished Union with Christ, which I started last year, too, so I’m not counting it either.
Business as Usual by Jane Oliver was a delightful novel in letters. It doesn’t count for the challenge since that’s supposed to be real life letters, but it was so wonderful that I don’t care. I loved every second of it and will most likely read it again in the near future.

February is off to a better start as I intentionally chose books to read and am setting aside time daily to make progress in them—theology, nonfiction, and a book on literature. I’d like to add a book on writing and some poetry. I’ve almost decided which poetry anthology to read. In the meantime, I’m listening to a podcast on poetry and one on writing.

Do you plan to read intentionally in 2021? What’s the best book you read in January?

January Reading and Listening

According to the weather report, we may be getting our first snow since Christmas Day. I love watching the snow fall and feeling cozy with a cup of tea. I always feel a bit more relaxed and ready to take time for reading and reflection.

Here are some interesting things I read and listened to this month:

Reading

3 Contemporary Temptations Old Books Will Help You Face – Alan Jacob’s new book was already on my to-read list this year so I appreciated this article.

Why We Should Pray Like the Puritans (Even if We Don’t Sound Like Them) – ...they took God at his Word, and they valued the truth of Scripture. They counted the cost, and they prayed about everything in their lives with a fiery passion.

8 Tips for Reading Poetry – Working with local poets at the library has inspired me to read more poetry. This article has good ideas on how to do it.

Join Us to Read for 21 Minutes Every Day in 2021 – Gretchen Rubin has been a favorite author of mine since I first read The Happiness Project. She’s got some great ideas on adding more reading time to your life.

Reformation Women: Giulia Gonzaga – I had never heard of Giulia before reading this article. I love reading about how women in history loved and served God well.

Knowing God’s Word from the Inside and Out
We know that God’s Word has saturated our lives when it has overflown into our actions.

Why Is It So Hard to Think?
The reason deep thinking requires time and space is because deep thinking is work. It takes energy to sift through thoughts and put them in some kind of order, spring cleaning the attic at the top of my body, forcing my way through cobwebs and unexpected memorabilia to stay on task.

Spiritual Disciplines for Dark Days – Five things we can do when we face difficulties, large and small.

How to Go Deep Into Bible Study without Getting Lost – Helpful article on studying Scripture without losing the thread of the main story of His grace.

Cancelling Chaucer – Apparently he’s no longer relevant for today’s students although this poet disagrees. Let’s hope that wiser heads will prevail and old books will be added back into the learning of our young people.

Winter Trees – I have a fondness for trees in the winter time, stark against the sky, and my favorite movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is Winter, but there’s no doubt that winter can be hard. Here’s a bit of help to make it through until spring.

Listening

Literary Life podcast – Why Read Old Books? – Can you tell this is a favorite theme of mine?

The Stories Between Us podcast – This new-to-me podcast is delightful. A husband and wife, both writers, talk together on the writing life with wisdom and compassion and fun. I’m currently working through the back episodes and have enjoyed every one.

The Well Read Poem podcast – This new podcast is perfect for those of us wanting to add more poetry to our lives. Thomas Banks not only loves poetry, he understands it and can explain the mystery behind the words. Also, he reads beautifully! I highly recommend this one.

Great Hacks, Tips, Tools, and Suggestions About How to #Read21in21 – The podcast to accompany the article above. There’s a list of bookish podcasts to listen to, including two of my favorites: The Literary Life and What Should I Read Next?

Although his podcasts are LONG, I still listen to Cal Newport’s The Deep Life regularly. Recently, he has started doing a deep dive on a specific topic at the beginning of each episode. His first topic, The Deep Reset, was very helpful for those of us wanting to add in more depth to our work and life. At some point, I believe he will string these all together into a single video. In the meantime, if you listen to the first several minutes of each of these podcast episodes, you can hear the whole thing: Episodes 49, 51, 53, 55, and 57.

Last year, my husband and I consolidated our music app subscriptions to one: Apple Music. However, I wasn’t thrilled at how hard it was to find good classical music with full pieces all together, not jumbled up in classical-lite playlists. Enter Concertino, a free app that I now have on my phone and my computer. I logged in with my Apple account and can choose any composer, genre, or time period. I can listen to a specific piece of music or set up a radio station. I am loving it and now I’m loving Apple music, too.

I hope you find these articles, podcasts, and app useful. If one of them is especially helpful to you right now, please share in the comments.

Reflecting on My 2020 Reading

My reading journal

Now that 2020 is behind us and I’ve caught my reading journal up, I’m ready to reflect on what my reading life looked like last year. As with most other people, I have been at home a lot more than normal. While I continued to work from home for most of my regular hours, my commute shrunk to nothing for half the year and is still only a couple of times a week vs. every weekday.

Back in August, I did a reading goals check in on how my reading was going. At that point, I was reading almost 78% fiction and hoping to get to about 30%-70% nonfiction books to fiction books. I ended up reading 106 fiction and 30 nonfiction by the end of 2020. That’s 72% fiction and 28% nonfiction, which isn’t quite 30% but still the highest percentage I’ve read in recent years.

I did manage to squeeze another poetry book in, but because it was one that followed the Christmas calendar and didn’t end until Epiphany, I can’t count it for 2020. I’d like to bump the number of poetry books up to at least one a quarter or, even better, one every other month in 2021.

Audiobooks were so low–only five for the year. Losing my commute did a lot for my exercising and cooking, but killed my listening time. I ended up listening mostly to sermons and podcasts during my walks each day and dropped audiobooks altogether from March on. However, I have hopes for a better listening year in 2021. I’ve already downloaded Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell book. I loved listening to Bring Up the Bodies on audio so I have high hopes for finishing The Mirror and the Light, too.

The biggest jump was in rereads: 64 of the 139 books I read were ones I had read before. That’s almost 50%! I put that down completely to compulsive comfort reading during the lockdown, pandemic, and political shenanigans throughout the year. I reread several mystery series, including Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid-James series and much of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series. At the end of the year, I gulped down many of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Here are the books I appreciated or enjoyed this most. Many of them were nonfiction.

Voices from the Past, Volume 2: Puritan Devotional Readings, edited by Richard Rushing – The deep devotion and theology of the Puritan theologians kept me grounded during this difficult year.

Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth Through Journal Writing by Luci Shaw and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton – I read both of these with a group of women and the discussions made the reading so much richer.

Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship by Ruth Chou Simons – The combination of the gorgeous artwork and theological truth made this a great book to read this autumn.

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Both of these books on living a productive life were helpful although from completely different places theologically.

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I had forgotten how much I loved this book. This is one of two rereads that made my best of 2020 list. It’s filled with beauty–both in writing and subject matter–and I enjoyed every essay.

My fiction reading wasn’t nearly as rich, probably because I did so much rereading for comfort. However there were a few that rose to the top:

Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede – For sheer fun, this was a winner. It’s an epistolary novel (my favorite kind!) and clever, witty, and full of the best kind of magic.

The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett – This mystery set in Windsor Castle and involving Queen Elizabeth II and her secretary won’t be out until March 2021, but when it comes out, read it if you love mysteries and/or the royal family. It was a fun, fun book. I sped through it in two days and wasn’t sorry at all. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – I read the first two of The Broken Earth Trilogy last winter. They are filled with amazing world-building and an intricate plot. Now that things are settling down again, I’m ready to pick up the final book in the trilogy to see how Jemisin ties it all up. She’s inventive and clever, and I recommend these to anyone who likes science fiction/fantasy.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge – A reread but a very special one. This story about mental illness and new beginnings is healing and beautiful.

Last, but definitely not least was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I don’t know if I have the words, with which to praise this book. The plot was simple–a story about a wife of a famous man and their relationship before and after the loss of a child. It was how O’Farrell wrote it–the descriptions were lush, the characters were so well-drawn that you felt that you knew them personally, the plot of tight and held together, and the emotional punch was gut-wrenching and tear-inducing but yet I couldn’t put it down. There is a bit of magical realism and the Black Death, and Shakespeare. If you love any of those things or if you just want a “Thumping Good Read”, pick this one up.

As I reflect on my reading year in 2020, I can see gaps, but overall I’m happy with what I read last year, even if a lot of it was rereading. What was your favorite book from 2020 and what do you hope to read next?

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?

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.