Category Archives: Books

Roadmap for a Reader

I’m going to try to post at least occasionally about something that is not related to COVID-19.

One of the great joys of my life is that E. loves to read. I mean LOVES to read. Loves to read in a “take a book everywhere, even the bathroom, have stacks and stacks of them on your floor and several scattered around the living room at all times, disappear up to your room for hours as soon as a new book arrives” kind of way.

He reads the way I read, and it makes my heart happy (even though he’s a “leave the book upside down, who cares if the spine breaks” kind of person and I’m of the “CLOSE THE DAMN BOOK ALREADY, HERE’S A BOOKMARK, AAAAAHHHHH LOOK AT THE SPINE”  variety).

Along with our weekly trips to the library (pre-COVID, of course), and my inability to resist buying books when it’s for the kids, one of the most useful things I have ever done in terms of supporting E’s love of reading is join a group on F.book for parents of gifted children. E. may or may not fit the definition of gifted, I don’t really care. I’m on that group for one thing: book recommendations. It’s a group filled with parents of kids who love to read as much as E. does, and who often read above their grade level. Many of the books he’s loved best over the past couple of years were ones I discovered thanks to the group.

I thought I’d write a post about what he’s most loved as a reader ever since he made the jump to reading chapter books independently. It’s part memory-preservation (for me, because I don’t want to forget what he loved and when he loved it), part paying it forward (in case it proves useful to you, dear reader).

Age 5 (Senior Kindergarten)

This was the year that E. really turned into a reader. He spent most of the year working his way through the various leveled readers available at our library. At that stage he was probably more interested in non-fiction than fiction because he could find books about the specific things he was most interested in (the Titanic, space, etc.).

At the end of the school year he started reading the Ivy and Bean (Annie Barrows) books. There are ten of them and they are wonderful fun and a perfect transition from the bigger leveled readers to a ‘real’ chapter book.

Age 6 (Grade One)

Here’s where E. really got going.

  • Magic Treehouse/Merlin Missions  (Mary Pope Osborne): It feels like there are about a gazillion of these. E. was happy to read them out of order and would just take home whatever was available in the library. He also listened to a bunch on audiobook. I found reading these aloud to be deeply tedious (much less fun than Ivy and Bean). E. stopped reading these very soon after his comprehension jumped enough to let him tackle slightly harder books. They were a great stepping stone, but he didn’t love them.
  • Stick Cat/Stick Dog (Tom Watson): These have lots of (badly drawn, hence the name) illustrations, but they read like a book, not a graphic novel. E. really loved Stick Cat and owns all four of the books. He would often borrow these from the library to reread them even after they were ‘too easy’ for him.
  • The Scholastic Branches imprint, especially the Dragon Masters series (Tracey West): The Branches imprint is designed for kids who are just starting to tackle chapter books on their own. We read a bunch of them, including The Last Firehawk, the Notebook of Doom, Hilde Cracks the Case, Haggis and Tank Unleashed, but the Dragon Masters series was by far E’s favourite (and mine too!). He still reads the new ones when they are published (his Grannie buys them for him), and I will admit to reading them once he’s finished because I also want to see what happens next. I’ll make sure P. gets access to them as soon as she’s ready for chapter books, as I think they’re probably even more accessible than Ivy and Bean.
  • The complete set of books by Beverly Cleary (Ramona, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, etc.): We ended up buying these through E.’s school’s Scholastic book order as there were a couple of box sets available. I remember these fondly from my own childhood and they still hold up pretty well. E. liked the books about Henry Huggins and Ribsy the best.
  • Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey): E.’s best friend wasn’t allowed to read these, but I took the view that if he was reading, it was a good result. And they are sometimes very funny.
  • Dog Man (Dav Pilkey): E. mostly read these graphic novels in French.
  • Geronimo Stilton: These are fantastic for the voracious reader. They are lavishly illustrated and there’s a lot going on with the font too. I think they’d probably appeal to reluctant readers who didn’t want to read anything other than graphic novels. There are literally hundreds of these (and multiple spin offs: space mice, prehistoric mice, journeys through time, land of fantasy, etc.), so every time E. went to the library  he could find one he hadn’t read. These are extremely tedious to read aloud and horrible to listen to as an audiobook, so I recommend them as independent reading (if at all possible). E. read these all through second grade as well, in both English and French (often the French translation appeared before the English one).

Age 7 (Grade Two)

  • I Survived (various authors): I think E. started reading these in grade one, but grade two was when I remember him getting them out just because he liked the series and not because there was a book on a particular disaster which intrigued him. The subject matter can sometimes be a bit heavy, and E. definitely was selective about which books he read.
  • Dragonbreath (Ursula Vernon): These are really fun graphic novels and are a good option if you have a dragon-crazy child, like I did by this point.
  • Little House in the Big Woods (and others) (Laura Ingalls Wilder): E. started reading this series in grade two. We own the complete set and I think he’s read all of them by now. He didn’t love them. I mostly bought them because I had fond memories of reading them as a child. They’re pretty problematic at times (Little House on the Prairie especially), so whenever I saw E. reading one I’d make sure to unpack it a bit with him afterwards. These weren’t his favourites, but I’m glad he’s read them, and I was also glad that he was happy to read a series with a female protagonist.
  • Science Comics (various topics, various authors): This is one of those series I would have never discovered without the F.book group and it is BRILLIANT. Non-fiction graphic novels filled with real science, and a wide range of topics (volcanoes, plagues, wild weather, space, cars, cats, dinosaurs, sharks, etc.). I put every last one of these on hold at the library and I still put them on hold when a new one is published. E. did (and still does) really enjoy them.
  • The 13-Story Treehouse (Andy Griffiths): Another series that E. really enjoyed reading, but didn’t love enough for me to think that we had to own them. I haven’t read any of these myself.
  • Bad Kitty (Nick Bruel) and The Bad Guys (Aaron Blabey): E. has only read these two series in French (as Méchant Minou and Les Méchants) but he really likes them both. We own the complete set of Les Méchants.
  • Timmy Failure (Stephan Pastis): My mum bought E. the first two of these in the summer of 2018, so right after he’d finished grade one. At that stage he felt they were ever so slightly too hard for him (although he still got a big kick out of giggling over the illustrations). Closer to the end of grade two, these were exactly right and he burned through the entire seven-book series. I enjoyed reading these ones out loud.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (Cressida Cowell): If I had to choose just one book series to summarize E’s reading life in grade two, it would be this one. He LOVED these. LOVED LOVED LOVED these. We had every single one out of the library for weeks on end. I remember taking a picture with one of the Dragon Masters books sitting on top of How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury, which is the twelfth and final book in the series (and which was easily ten times thicker than the Dragon Masters book), because I was just stunned by how much E’s reading had improved over the course of the year. These are also incredible on audiobook (narrated by David Tennant), and are some of the only children’s books that Q. is willing to listen to in the car without complaint. If these had been published when I was a kid, I would have adored them too. (We also like the movies and E. has watched all the associated shows on Netflix, but they are very different from the books.)

Age 8 (Grade Three)

  • Roald Dahl: I bought a complete box set of Roald Dahl’s books in June last year because a) I knew E. was ready for them, since he’d read quite a few that he’d borrowed from the library the previous year, and b) I’m of the view that all book-loving households should have a complete set of Dahl. Since they’re technically *my*  books, E. is much more respectful of them, so I have hopes that they’ll survive long enough for P. to get to them. What’s there to say about these? If you’re still reading this post, you probably also love books, and who doesn’t love Dahl? There are some amazing audiobook versions (Kate Winslet reads Matilda, Derek Jacobi reads George’s Marvellous Medicine, etc.), which Q. and I also love listening to, but they’re not so appropriate for the really littles (P. liked Matilda but complained that she didn’t like the ‘ABCDBFG’ (the BFG)).
  • Warriors (Erin Hunter): Like the Geronimo Stilton series, there are a gazillion of these (or, at least, that’s what it feels like). Erin Hunter is a pen name for a team of writers who produce these tales of feral cats living in clans. E. LOVES these. Q. can’t stand listening to them on audiobook (they are pretty tedious and definitely not appropriate for little ears given all the bloodshed) and they’re not my favourites to read aloud, but E. adores them. He originally owned only one box set (which I bought last summer to take on the plane), but a few more have appeared on our shelves since the pandemic (he read a bunch from the library in between). His favourite series is still the first (The Prophecies Begin) and he’s reread them heaps of times. There are also series about dogs and bears by ‘Erin Hunter’ as well, but E.’s only keen on the ones about cats. And he’s really keen on them.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney): E. read all of these this year. I guess some parents don’t like them because their kids mimic the negative behaviour, but that wasn’t an issue for us. E. enjoyed them, but he didn’t love them so much he was begging me to buy them (they showed up in his flyers from Scholastic regularly). I haven’t read them myself.
  • Wings of Fire (Tui T. Sutherland): I first got these out from the library for E. in grade two when he was so keen on How to Train Your Dragon, but he found them to be just a little bit too hard. Early in grade three he read the first six or so, and then he got the box set of six-ten for his birthday and he devoured them. I’m not sure if they were still a bit too hard before or if he just was reluctant to read them because I kept suggesting them (he really doesn’t do well with suggestions). They’re now firm favourites. Again, Q. is bored senseless listening to them in the car (it’s not a great narrator), but I enjoy reading them (and E. even very nicely let me borrow books nine and ten from his birthday box set before he’d read them!).
  • Horrible Histories (Terry Deary): These are history books with the nasty/gross stuff left in. I had a few kicking around that I bought as an undergraduate because they were relevant to my field, and Q. and I purchased one on impulse last year when we discovered there was one about the city where we met. E. discovered them this year and he got hooked. We ended up getting a bunch out of the library, and we bought him a ten-book set for his birthday (if you’re seeing a trend here, you’d be right: E. got a LOT of books for his birthday). Depending on how sensitive your kid is, these might not be a good fit (I was a bit on the fence about the two about the world wars, to be honest), but E. is very sensitive to visual things and he’s been fine with the books. Given Q. and I are both historians, it’s nice to have him reading some non-fiction (even if it is highly selective and somewhat exaggerated at times).
  • The Land of Stories (Chris Colfer): E.’s best friend really loved these, and that was enough of a recommendation for E. to be willing to try them out. Once he started reading them (we got them all out from the library pre-pandemic, so I think we still have most of them in our house), he was hooked. I haven’t read them and can’t say much about them, but they often appear as recommendations on the F.book group.
  • David Walliams: We discovered this British author (who is often described as the heir to Roald Dahl) while we were down under last summer. I think more of his books are published there, or they have a wider audience, or something. They seemed to be everywhere (yes, one of the first things we did was borrow E’s Granny’s library card and head off to stock up) and I’d never heard of him before. E. has grown into his books over the course of the year and now really enjoys them. They’re all (I think) stand-alone adventures, and I think E. tends to prefer a series, which might explain why he was a bit slow to get excited about him. I think E’s favourite is The Beast of Buckingham Palace.
  • Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling): Obviously E. would love these. We own all seven books (of course) but we never offered them to E. We were wary of starting the series and then having him want to continue past the point where we felt he was ready. My sisters (at my suggestion) bought him the new illustrated hardcovers of the first three books as a Christmas present last December. I had this idea we could read them together but there was no way he was willing to wait. He read them again and again and again and again, and then in March we bought him the illustrated hardcover of The Goblet of Fire. He was earning it by doing his work at school (long story) and then the pandemic happened, so we ended up buying it for him when he still had a few “good work days” left to achieve (but he’s done well with the homeschooling since, and he needed something to cheer him up when school shut down). He read that one over and over and over again as well. We’ve watched the four movies and he was ok with them all (although he did find the movie version of The Goblet of Fire much harder to cope with than the book). I’m kind of hoping we can use the staggered publication dates of the illustrated hardcovers to control how quickly he reads to the end of the series, but I also don’t want him to hit the point where kids in his class start spoiling it for him. So we’ll see. I have managed to read all of The Philosopher’s Stone to him and we’re working our way through The Chamber of Secrets now. The illustrated hardcovers are so beautiful.
  • Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan): This was the series that was most recommended on the F.book group as the ‘next step’ for kids who were reading Warriors, and Wings of Fire, etc. I tried a couple of times to get E. interested in borrowing the first book from the library, but he wouldn’t bite, not even after I checked them all out and read them myself. There are problems with the books (especially the first series) and I was very aware of the undercurrents of white supremacy that are such a problem for Classics as a field in general (great article about this here), but overall I really liked them (I usually like a clever retelling of the myths). I bought the first series as an incentive for E. during the pandemic (along with a bunch of other books, including some stand-alone David Walliams’ titles): if he did all his work for ten days, he could pick a new book (my child is only externally motivated. I’m rolling with it.). E. picked every other book first and then, at last, when he had no other choices, opted for the first book in the series (The Lightning Thief). And, surprise surprise (me: not surprised), he LOVED it. He’s earned the first three now and he’ll get the fourth on Friday. I also bought him this book because, in my view, you don’t appreciate a retelling of a myth as much as you could if you know the original. (That series is also visually stunning. He now has the books on Norse and Egyptian mythology too. He also has this one on mythology from around the world which is much more diverse (although I wouldn’t recommend getting the paperback edition through Scholastic like we did because the binding has fallen apart)).
  • Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer): Another series that gets recommended all the time on the F.book group. E. got the first three books for his birthday and he’s liked them (I think) but I haven’t seen him glued to them for days on end like happens with the Warriors and Wings of Fire books. I haven’t read them (but I’m planning to!).

And that’s where we’re at! I’m looking forward to seeing what E. will read next. He’s flat-out refused to ever try the 39 Clues series (which is one that gets recommended in the group a lot) and he did borrow The Mysterious Benedict Society (another near-constant recommendation) from the library but he didn’t like it (I’m not sure whether it was content or difficulty that turned him off- it is very thick with smaller print and he’s been thrown by how much harder a book looks visually before.). It’s still on his shelf, so I might take a look at it myself.

Any book suggestions for E.?

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Here there be dragons

This post is sort of about How To Train Your Dragon 3 (The Hidden World). I’m not going to discuss in detail any major spoilers, but if you’re planning on seeing it, maybe dodge this post until you do.

I have wanted a dragon my entire life.

The dragons in the novels I read wound their way into my inner self and never left.

Melanie Rawn’s dragons, who communicated through colour and spoke with Sunrunners.

The crystal dragon in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar.

And, of course, the dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern.

How I longed for a dragon (or, failing that, even a fire lizard) of my own.

I grew up, as all children do.

I stopped looking for the door into the faerie realm, the wizard on my doorstep, the quest to come calling.

I grew a grown-up life, with a husband and a house and children and a cat and grown-up problems and grown-up worries that squeezed out the stars and made it harder to see the gaps between the worlds.

Deep down, though, I’m still the little girl I used to be, the one who escaped to other worlds when she didn’t want to inhabit her own.

The one who would have given anything to ride on a dragon. To be one of the Riders of Rohan. To wield the Elfstones.

To know real magic.

And so, when I watched How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World in theatres with E., I suppose I should not have been surprised when I full-on ugly cried towards the end. We’re talking openly sobbing, to an intensity that makes it still difficult to talk about the ending of the film, several weeks later (I’m crying as I write this).

E. didn’t feel the same way. He found it sad, but felt that the actual ending of the film made things better. We’ve had some interesting conversations about it.

He felt the strongest association with the main character. If all was right in his world, then all was right in E’s.

I couldn’t stop thinking about everyone else.

This wasn’t about watching the end of a beloved trilogy. I haven’t seen either of the two previous movies. The books are very different, but even so, I’ve only read the first two with E. (he’s read them all and says the twelfth and final book is his favourite). I didn’t grow up with them, in the same way that I grew up with The Dark is Rising or Narnia.

This was about watching someone who had been given the very thing that you had wanted all your life have to give it up.

It broke my heart.

In the theatre, E. and I were sitting directly in front of a birthday party. One little girl sobbed her way through the ending.

I knew that she was a kindred spirit.

She will want a dragon for her entire life too.

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Filed under Books, E.- the eighth year

Read With Your Ears (For Kids)

I wrote recently about how I discovered audiobooks in 2018.

I discovered them for E. as well.

It started with our long car drives to go see my father. P. has pretty much stopped napping in the car, which means she and E. spend much of their time winding each other up and getting sillier (and noisier) by the minute. It got so bad we ended up putting a blanket ban on driving home from my mother’s house after dinner- the hilarity mania that ensued when bedtime was missed and dessert had been eaten was, quite frankly, distracting to the point of becoming dangerous.

If E. is otherwise occupied, P. can’t rile him up. And, if he’s not responding to her silliness, she pretty soon gives up and starts playing with toys or looking out the window. E. can read in the car without getting sick, so our problems were always when we had to drive somewhere at night.

Enter the audiobook.

I’m not exaggerating when I say audiobooks changed our lives. On our most recent trip we listened to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the way there, and The BFG on the way home, and the only complaints we had were from P., who announced after one too many descriptions of the nasty giants that she ‘didn’t yike the ABCDBFG’ (which was a good reminder that her level of verbal comprehension is sufficiently high that we should be choosing audiobooks that are appropriate for her if we’re going to play them over the car’s stereo and not just have E. listen to them on his own). She was a huge fan of Matilda, however, especially the part where Matilda glued her father’s hat to his head.

Audiobooks have also been hugely useful as an alternative to quiet reading after dinner, when I’m putting P. to bed, and we need E. to start calming his mind and his body. Without the focus of a good book, he’s likely to end up bouncing off the walls (literally). On the nights he feels too tired to read, he’s happy to put on his headphones and borrow my iPad (although I do have to set Guided Access to make sure I don’t find any surprises on my camera later).

At the moment E. is really enjoying the Upside Down Magic series, but he also loves any Roald Dahl book when the hold (finally- our library doesn’t have enough copies of Dahl’s books) comes in. He’s listened to a heap of Beverly Cleary, quite a few Geronimo Stiltons (which Q. and I find deeply painful to listen to, but E. loves them), most of the Timmy Failure series, all the available Stick Dog books and a couple of Captain Underpants. I asked him if he wanted to put holds on the How to Train Your Dragon series, which is his current passion in ‘real’ books, but he said he prefers to listen to books he hasn’t already read (even though he’s also read all the Timmy Failure and Stick Dog books).

His list of holds is growing thin, so please do recommend anything great we haven’t yet discovered! I’ll take suggestions for podcasts (especially science-related) too, as I’m sure that’s going to be the next step.

 

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Filed under Books, E.- the eighth year, P.- the third year, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

Read With Your Ears

I have a confession to make.

Prior to last year, I had never listened to an audiobook.

“That’s not for me,” I’d told myself. “I like the physical feel of a book too much. I won’t pay attention. It won’t work for me.”

Then I started following Modern Mrs. Darcy, who is a huge fan of audiobooks. She kept posting about great audiobooks. She enthused about the listening experience. Listening to audiobooks, she wrote, not only allowed her to finish more books, but it allowed her to read when she hadn’t been able to do so before (because she was driving, or folding laundry, etc.).

I decided it was dumb not to at least try them. I am not great at trying new things, but this is also something I am attempting to get better at (part of fostering a growth mindset instead of my deeply, deeply ingrained fixed one).

So I figured out how to download the Overdrive app onto my phone and how to link my public library account to the app, and off I went.

And, reader, audiobooks hooked me.

When I went back through my reading journal and tallied my numbers for 2018, of the 118 books I read, 17 of them were audiobooks. I’m sure that number will be higher this year.

I learned a few things as I experimented:

  1. I don’t like listening to books faster than 1.2x the normal speed. Anything faster makes me feel anxious and makes the voices sound funny.
  2. I don’t, for the most part, like listening to novels. I have trouble holding the story in my head, especially if I have to stop in the middle of a chapter. My favourite genre is memoir, especially when read by the author.
  3. I will absolutely stop listening if the reader’s voice bothers me or just sounds ‘wrong’ for the book.
  4. I have trouble turning the story off if I’m in the middle of a chapter, or near the end of the book, or at a very exciting part. Sometimes I have to be strategic about listening to a book when on my way to work.
  5. I can’t listen to audiobooks if I go out for a walk. I can pay attention to the walk or to the audiobook, but not to both. If I walk to the main university library downtown (which takes an hour) I tend to walk with my thoughts on the way there and walk home listening to the audiobook when I’m tired and ready to stop thinking.

It was one of the nicest surprises of the past year to realize how much I enjoy them.

Since my Terrible Tuesdays this semester involve a lot of time in the car (and a lot of walking to and from parking lots), I’ve had even more opportunities to listen. I was incredibly pleased with myself when I had the idea of checking to see if my library carried the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley on audiobook. It does and I gleefully downloaded the next one in the series immediately (no wait list even!). Although these are novels, I correctly guessed that I would love them on audiobook because I don’t actually care very much about the details of each volume’s plot. In general, I’m not a reader of mysteries and when I do pick one up I never try to solve the crimes before the narrator explains them for me. I liked the previous Flavia books I’d read, but only moderately so (as evidenced by the fact that the last one I read was in 2015 and it took me an embarrassing long time reading the descriptions to realize that I had already read #4 and needed to start with #5).

I could care less about the details of each case that Flavia cracks- what interested me was the arc of her character development. If I miss the finer details of the mystery on audiobook, it doesn’t matter. What happens to her and her family is what sticks with me.

I’ve already listened to #5 and #6 this month and am well over halfway through #7. Jane Entwhistle does the narration, and she is brilliant. I love how she captures Flavia’s self-satisfied glee whenever she’s been particularly clever. I still have three more to go in the series, so I’ll be well into February before I’ll need to start thinking about what to download next (although I have holds out on books by (and read by) Eric Idle and Michael Palin, as well as the first Harry Potter, as I’ve heard repeatedly that the audiobook versions are incredible).

Do you listen to audiobooks? Is there a book you’ve loved because of the person who reads it rather than the story itself?

 

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Filed under Books, Choose Happiness

2018 recap (the books edition)

In 2018, I set myself a goal of reading 75 books. In the end, that turned out to be an easy target. I hit 75 by the end of July and finished the year with a total count of 118 books read (108 new books).

I only started tracking my books read in 2015 (in a dedicated journal after I discovered in 2014 there wasn’t enough room in my five-year journal entries to include books), so it’s hard for me to contextualize that figure, but I’d say it’s likely I’ve been a 100+ books/year reader for most of my life. Reading has always been my escape, my self-care, my anxiety management. Even during my busiest periods I would make time to read for fun (my book totals only count books for fun- books I read for my research don’t count). My best friend from my Master’s degree said she knew we were going to get along as soon as she realized I also had a library card for the public library system.

What I read changes depending on the mental bandwidth I have available; I’ve had to return books to the library unread when I realized I just wasn’t in the right headspace to be able to tackle them. When I was in high school I mostly read science fiction and fantasy, but I’m not as grounded in those genres these days. I tend to read a mix of novels, memoirs and biographies, historical non-fiction, and texts devoted to parenting, feminism, behavioural psychology, and time management/organization. I get inspiration on what to read next from blogs (especially Modern Mrs. Darcy), the New Yorker, and other spots online, but I also like to wander the shelves of my local branch of our fantastic library system when I get the chance (admittedly, this is a very infrequent occurrence at the moment).

As I’ve written on here before, I effectively stopped buying books several years ago when I realized they were my latte factor. Our public library system is so good, I can’t rationalize spending the money, or having the new book take up coveted shelf space (especially as E’s collection of novels grows). I’m highly resistant to reading a book that someone else has bought for me (for reasons which I can’t clearly articulate- the best I can think of is that I always have a pile of books to read that I’ve chosen for myself, and I never prioritize the books that someone else selected).

I do buy books for the kids, but I’m selective about what comes into our house to stay and what comes in temporarily from the library. When it’s a book that E. is reading, I try to gauge whether it’s a book (or a series) that I think I would want P. to have easy access to as well in due course. Classics (like the Little House and Ramona books) are a given, but newer stuff too (Aaron Blabey’s Les Méchants  and Tracey West’s Dragon Masters come to mind). E. reads so voraciously that we go to the library nearly every week. I keep his total number of books checked out to around 15 (anything more I’ve learned from experience becomes unmanageable) and he decides which books he’s ready to return in order to take out new ones.

There are weeks where all my holds come in at once (usually because I’ve enthusiastically placed a bunch of new ones and forgot to make some of them inactive) and I do end up waiting a long time for certain items, but it’s a system that works well for me. It’s certainly facilitated my reading.

In 2015, I read 131 books (93 of which were new). I didn’t have paid work that year and I was floundering after finishing the PhD. I took refuge in books.

In 2016, my reading total crashed to 44 (all of them new). If you knew me in real life, you could probably judge just how horrific a year 2016 was by that total alone. I didn’t finish a single book in November of 2016; I think because P. was sleeping so badly I was just too tired to read.

2017 was better at 63 (again all of them new), but still below what I would consider to be my ‘normal’ reading rate. I had thought my monthly totals would have increased in the second half of the year as P. got older and slept more consistently through the night, but looking back I see there was no such pattern.

I know I prioritized reading over other things (most obviously my photography) in 2018, but it still felt like last year marked a return to ‘normal’ reading habits, and I’ll be surprised if I don’t crack 100 again this year. After three years with very few books reread, I suspect I’ll be making time for some of my old favourites, as I have a small(ish) collection of books I tend to reread over and over again. They are my warm fuzzies, my ultimate comforts.

Since I really enjoyed reading Ana’s list of her favourite books from the past year, I wanted to make a quick note of the books I’ve loved the most since I started tracking my reading (these are the ones I’ve marked with a star in my journal). These are the books that captured my heart or spoke to my soul, the books that stayed with me long after I’d closed the cover, and (in some cases) the books that have changed how I think about and live my life. They weren’t necessarily published in the year when I read them.

2015:
A Buzz in the Meadow (Dave Goulson)
Some Luck (the Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Book One- and the others) (Jane Smiley)
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)
The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison)
They Left Us Everything (Plum Johnson)
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (Laura Markham)
H is for Hawk (Helen MacDonald)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)
The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)
Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can Do to Help (Allison Edwards)

2016:
American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Nancy Jo Sales)
Midnight Riot (and the rest in the series) (Ben Aaronovitch)
The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)

2017:
Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family (Anne-Marie Slaughter)
Option B (Sheryl Sandberg)
Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Amy Cuddy)
The Best of Us (Joyce Maynard)
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
Future Home of the Living God (Louise Erdrich)
The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose (Helen Sword)

2018:
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond)
Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Chris Cleave)
The Course of Love (Alain de Botton)
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport)
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child (Ross Greene)
Stylish Academic Writing (Helen Sword)
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think (Hans Rosling)
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (Steven Johnson)

If I had to pull out my all-time favourites from that list, the books I think everyone should read, I’d go for They Left Us Everything; Station Eleven; Everyone Brave is Forgiven; and The Course of Love.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

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Filed under Books, E.- the eighth year

Blank Space

I am not quite sure what to do with this blog.

Regular readers (if there are still any) will have noticed that I haven’t posted regularly since very early in the year and haven’t posted at all since April.

It’s a result of a combination of several different factors:

1. I’ve been working really hard on my book revisions which ate up all my mental bandwidth to the point that any more time in front of a screen was exhausting, even if I was going to be writing for fun. I did get Q. to read it when I had planned, after which I finished most of the revisions, then got mired for a while until I gave up and spent two days rereading favourite books, at which point my brain was clear enough to resume work. I’m now at the ‘so few things left to do it’s like pulling teeth and soooo painful’ stage and I am going to get it sent back to the press by the end of September. There. I put it in writing. It will be so.

2. I’m not sure what this blog is for any longer. The older E. gets the less I feel I can write about him (he starts SECOND GRADE next week- HOW did that happen??!!). I wish I hadn’t been as lazy with recording P.’s second year, as this is a lovely memory box for E’s toddlerhood. But I feel like my training wheels are off as a parent. I know my strengths and my weaknesses and I’m better at taking the long view and I don’t need to hash as much out on here as I used to. At the same time, it would feel weird to end it- I’ve been in this space for over ten years now.

3. I want to write more under my own name and I don’t think this blog is the place for me to do it.

4. I have so much less free time and I’ve continued to prioritize reading over anything else. I’ve read lots of good books this year (and a few great ones) and reread some favourites (I haven’t reread a book since 2015).

But since writing, like everything, is easier when it’s a habit, I’ve been aware that I’ve been neglecting writing (or writing that isn’t book-related). I’m hoping now that the revisions really are close to being finished I’ll be able to carve out a bit more time and space to sit with my words here while I think about next steps.

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Life after the PhD, Writing

Accountability: January and February 2018

Since it’s now March (and how did that happen?), I thought I’d take a minute to assess how I’m doing with my various goals for 2018.

1. Conquer my lizard brain.

Hard to tell. E. has been on a pretty even keel these last two months, which has meant I haven’t been as challenged in my parenting. So I’m not sure whether I’ve made much progress. I am definitely working hard at keeping my cool during the hour between when I get home to relieve the nanny and when we eat dinner, which is total chaos every time, even with Q. prepping most dinners ahead of time. Both kids want all of my attention and it starts the second I walk in the door. It can get very overwhelming, but I’m trying to embrace it.

I think I’m doing ok, but I need a rough patch from E. to know that I’m actually making progress on breaking my cycle of responding.

2. Start getting ready for bed at 9:30 p.m.

Mixed results here. The good: Q. and I are getting ready for bed earlier and we usually manage to be in bed with the lights off by shortly after 10 p.m., which is a noticeable improvement over what was happening in December, and I always plug in my devices. I’ve also stopped hanging out on my phone right up until I go to bed, which has made it easier to fall asleep. The bad: I have failed to start making E.’s lunch (or snacks if he has a hot lunch at school) or my lunch ahead of time, and my desk is still in a constant state of chaos. The mixed: I am sometimes flossing, but not always (I was doing better in January), and I’m not 100% there with the litter box yet.

Definite progress, but still room for improvement.

3. Stop taking the phone to the bathroom.

Total fail. Still reading blogs in the bathroom.

4. Make the switch to manual and RAW on my camera.

Mixed success. Still not shooting in RAW and still not practicing enough. I have been making an effort to shoot more on Manual, but I get easily frustrated if I’m trying to shoot pictures of my kids and the light keeps changing. The course is interesting (although I’ve failed to share my homework with anyone). I think I need to start carrying my big camera with me when I go to work and take some time at lunch to take pictures (preferably things that don’t move so I can fiddle with the dials to my heart’s content.)

I did take a good photo of my cat, which wouldn’t have been possible on any mode but Manual because of the lighting (she was sitting in a sunbeam in my room). It’s not perfect- it needed a slightly smaller aperture to make sure both eyes were in focus- but then I would have had to change my shutter speed yet again and the cat had only so much patience. So there’s that (this is SOOC):

5. Read 75 books.

Exceeding expectations. I read 21 books in the first two months of this year, so I’m well up on where I would need to be to meet my goal. The reading frenzy was partly sparked by some interesting holds coming in, partly due to a conscious decision to read at night more often, and partly resulting from a ‘ready to read’ mind-set. I sometimes have periods where I don’t feel as much like reading, but during these past two months it was easy to make reading a priority.

I read some wonderful books and am hoping to write blog posts about a couple of them soon(ish).

6. Go on two dates a month with Q.

I forgot this was one of my goals. TERRIBLE!

We did get out for our monthly date lunch for both January and February, and we did go out for dinner in January, but I don’t think we managed a second date in February. I did go up to the main campus yesterday to surprise Q. (he was giving a brief presentation) and we had hot drinks and brownies afterwards, but I’m hoping I can still do better for March.

I did organize for Q. and I to have a night away in the summer as a wedding anniversary surprise (I’m taking him to one of the nearby theatre festivals). I booked the tickets and the accommodation and coordinated with my mother (who has very kindly agreed to look after the small fry), so I feel like I did make some forward progress with this.

Q. and I have also really enjoyed watching detectorists (gentle English village comedy- one of our favourite things) on Netflix this past month, and we’re currently watching Broadchurch (which feels like a Doctor Who reunion and is well done, if containing very upsetting subject matter). I think we’ve agreed that House of Cards was too stressful (we’re mired in the second season).

7. Work Stuff

At the time I wrote my goals post I didn’t yet know what I wanted to say about work, but later in January I figured out that I needed to edit 15 pages of the book manuscript a week in order to finish the editing process by the middle of June (which is when I’ve booked Q. to read it). I’ve been storming along with that goal- I almost immediately pushed it up to 20 pages to buy myself some more time at the end for more substantial reading/thinking/writing revisions, and some weeks I’ve managed to do even more than that. I’ve finished this round of edits on the first four chapters now, and I’ve been pretty consistently trimming the manuscript down by just over 20 percent (with the exception of the fourth chapter, which is a strong one and didn’t have as much fat to trim).

I’ve taken the view that any substantial changes (i.e., ones that require me to go and do a significant amount of further research) can be left at this stage to a later date (hence my shift to 20 pages per week). What I most needed was to get up a head of steam with the book and break the paralyzing voice of my inner critic. I feel I’m making real progress with this- I no longer feel like I’m going to throw up when I start work on it each week. I have a new file where I list the changes that still need to be done to the manuscript and I’ll start tackling those once I’ve finished this first round. I still tend towards panic, but I’m getting much better at repeating to myself ‘You don’t need to edit the entire book today, you only need to edit these seven pages’ until I calm down and can focus.

The deep work of editing usually takes me until lunch, if lunch starts late (I often don’t eat until 1:30 as I don’t like to break my concentration). I haven’t yet found a good way of using the couple of hours I have left in the afternoon once I’ve had lunch if I don’t have pressing work for my other big project (the edited volume I’m working on with Q.). I need to come prepared with something manageable to read (journal articles, maybe), as I don’t have the mental bandwidth left at that point to do more deep work. Another option would be to do teaching prep and/or marking to try to free up some of Tuesday morning to allow for some deep work on that day. So my work goal for March/April, along with finishing the first round of editing on the book, is to figure out how best to use the rest of my day.

My other goal for March/April is to go buy new running shoes as I’ve started the Couch25K program twice now and both times have had to stop when I hit the continuous running weeks. I have a dodgy ankle, a leftover from an injury when I was in elementary school, and it niggles at me. I’m hoping new shoes will solve the problem.

How are your 2018 goals coming along?

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Filed under A (Good) Day's Work, Books, Choose Happiness, Life after the PhD