Reading Deeper in 2021

Like almost every book lover, my reading life looked different in 2020. I read more books than I ever have before, by a lot. I finished 88 books in 2020, a personal record by more than 25 books. That number felt great, but getting to it didn’t always feel so great. I was reading for the win – the goal was not to enjoy reading, but to finish books, and lots of them. Having the twofold stress of the pandemic and a pregnancy, short and light-hearted books were a lifeline, and always being just around the corner from finishing a book gave me something to look forward to.

I don’t regret reading this way, but I did miss depth in my reading life, and I especially missed a slower, calmer reading experience. Last year, I went for quantity over quality, but this year I’m focusing on quality. That means I’ll stop shying away from those long or challenging reads, but more than that, it means I will focus on enjoying the reading experience rather than bolstering my book tally.

I always set some categories to read in each year to keep my reading broad and varied – like a series, a mystery novel, a Jane Austen reread – but this year I’ve also set some general goals. These are big-picture principles that will guide my reading life this year. I hope these goals will help me select great books and build good reading habits in 2021.

  1. Read Less. Yep. You heard that right. I want to improve my reading life – and the rest of my life – by reading less. I got so stuck on completing books in 2020. I never took a walk in silence, because I could get through some audiobook; I zoomed through a book so I could mark it as finished, instead of slowing down to savor beautiful prose or ponder big ideas. I was enjoying books, but not enjoying the act of reading. This year, I want to read to read. I also want to make room in my life for quiet, without always adding the noise of new information. I want to take time to contemplate the books I read. I want to listen to an audiobook at normal speed. I want to take a walk in silence.
  2. Better Myself. I want to do more learning and growing this year. I want to learn something this year that will make my life better every day. In December, I read Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel (one of my favorite books of 2020), and it truly made my life better. Simple living is a passion of mine, and this book had me wondering what else I can learn from others to make my life simpler and better. I’m particularly interested in books on habit like Atomic Habits and One Small Step Can Change Your Life, personal growth books like The Chemistry of Calm, and contemplative nonfiction like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet.
  3. Learn Something. I don’t read enough history. This year I’m eager to learn more about history and the lives of interesting people through some great biographies. Reading biography is actually a huge stretch for me. I usually include a biography on my yearly reading challenge, and usually that category goes unmet all year (along with the book of poetry I always think I’ll read). My list currently includes Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Honestly, those will probably keep me busy quite a while, but I would love some great biography recommendations if you have them. My underlying goal here is to stop thinking of this genre as dry and boring, so I read it more naturally in the future.
  4. Explore children’s literature. I already have a collection of picture books I love. I wrote in the past about weeding out the twaddle and keeping only the very best books to read with my kids. Now that my oldest is four, I’m eager to build a library full of great books for older kids. This year, I want to read a lot of children’s chapter books so I can pick great read alouds and surround my kids with great books to choose from when they’re ready to read for themselves. To meet this goal, I’m doing buddy reads with my sister-in-law (an elementary school teacher and my favorite children’s book expert), reading beginner chapter books like My Father’s Dragon with Bub, and taking on whatever catches my fancy on my own, like the Little House series. I’m always looking for great recommendations, so please share your favorites!
  5. Go long. I was not that pandemic reader taking on War and Peace. I rarely even touched a book longer than 350 pages. That’s okay, except I almost always find great pleasure in a long book that has stood the test of time. If a book is long and still everyone loves it, there must be something great about it. Two of my very favorite books, Les Miserables and Middlemarch (which has a great free audiobook version on Librivox), are so long I’d once resolved never to read them, and boy am I glad I didn’t stick to that resolution. The thing is, you cannot enjoy a long book if you can’t enjoy the reading experience. In 2020, I stuck with very short reads, because I did not have the fortitude for intimidating page counts, but this year I want to stop looking at the numbers and just savor a great, long book. It almost always pays off. Unless it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Skip that one.

Year-End Reading Roundup

The end of the year is always a time I like to reflect on my year of reading, what really worked for me, and what books I loved. While the first half of the year my reading life suffered due to early pregnancy and lock-downs, about midsummer I found myself reading again – happily, naturally, and more than I ever have before…even after welcoming my third child (and first daughter!) to our family. I’ve loved books for a long time, but this year I realized they have become my sanity, and self-care has come to mean making time to read.

I already recapped January to June reading in my Midyear Reading Roundup. Here is a snapshot of my reading life July to December – the habits that have kept me reading lately, and the books I loved most.

Early Morning Reading. After Pantsy was born, I started getting up earlier in the morning for some quiet time before the kids woke up. I try to read first thing in the morning for at least fifteen minutes before I do anything else – before breakfast, or talking to my husband, or checking my phone. When I do this, I have better, calmer days. I’m a better mom when I read.

Cleaning House. Pantsy’s birth also made me obsessed with having a clean house (which I promise is new to me). With three kids under four, keeping things clean is a way to maintain control of something and impose a little order in the chaos. What does this have to do with reading? First, more cleaning time is more audiobook time! Second, having a clean house means when I sit down with a book, my calm environment helps me focus. With fewer distractions, I can immerse myself more fully in a book for longer periods of time.

Reading Short. I have stuck with mostly short books all year. Finishing books with great frequency kept up my momentum and gave me a sense of accomplishment. I usually read several long books in a year, but this year I only exceeded 600 pages (my benchmark for “long”) once, and that was an audiobook. I’m hoping to take in more long books next year, but in 2020, didn’t we all need as many wins as we could get?

Varying Formats. These days I usually have one e-book, one audiobook, and one or two print books going at once. Different formats fit into different places in my life, so using them all at once gives me more reading time. As mentioned in my Midyear Reading Roundup, I’m new to e-books, and since then I stole my husband’s Kindle. It’s perfect for reading in the dark and reading one-handed – which are useful features when nursing a newborn! (Big thanks to Modern Mrs. Darcy daily e-book deals.)

Goodwill. Much as I love my new Kindle (“my” “new” Kindle), I’m still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way, and my new favorite source is my local Goodwill. I would honestly rather go there than to an actual bookstore. Goodwills are usually a crap shoot for books, but at this one, I always walk out with at least two books in great condition that I’m so excited about. And they cost $1.49 each. When I decide to treat myself these days, it means a Goodwill trip with a $10 budget.

Every one of these came from my Goodwill.

Libby. I’m not entirely sure how I went through 31 years of life without Libby, an awesome app by which you can borrow audibooks and e-books free through your local library. I’ve always adored LibriVox (and still do) because audiobooks are expensive, but I got a bit burned out on classics and Libby has made it possible to listen to contemporary books without the price tag.

Okay, now for the books! I read all over the genre map this year, and have quite an odd variety in my favorite picks.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Did this as a buddy read with my BBFF (Book BFF slash regular BFF) and we both adored it. It’s about a hostage crisis and opera and it is everything that is beautiful about being a human being.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. How great is this book? I read this for the second time, with the great LibriVox recording by Karen Savage. Anne is a character that should be annoying and unrealistic, but Maud brings her to life so perfectly that I believe her character every second, and I love her.

Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel. I wanted to get this for everyone for Christmas, but thought getting self-help books for people would probably seem rude. This is the best book I’ve ever read on stress management and I can’t recommend it enough if you struggle with any stress, not just overthinking. I particularly benefited from her chapter on decision fatigue.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I don’t believe there are many books everyone should read, but this is one. This book is full of both practical information and philosophical reflection on the subject of aging and dying. In the hands of any other writer, this would be morbid, but Gawande leaves you feeling like you’ve had a comforting conversation with a trusted friend. At less than 300 pages, it is well worth anyone’s time.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. I found this middle-grade mystery novel while searching Modern Mrs. Darcy for Christmas reads. I liked the cover and the e-book was on sale, so I bought it on a whim. I just loved it – the charming illustrations at the start of each chapter, the wintery atmosphere, the RPG references. Milo lives in an old house his parents run as an inn, and when an odd assortment of guests turn up right before Christmas, Milo makes a new friend and goes on a quest to learn what his mysterious guests are hiding.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I happened to pick up this World War II veteran’s story right before Veteran’s Day, and it really drove home the meaning of the day. I plan to pick up another veteran’s story next year. This is a truly incredible story of an airman’s survival following a plane crash in the Pacific. There was more than one moment where my jaw literally dropped in disbelief.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I put off reading this final Sherlock Holmes collection because it was published a decade after the previous work, and ominously described as “darker” than other collections and not all narrated by Watson. Posh! I was expecting a bunch of grisly murders written in the third person, but found these were in the same spirit as other Sherlock stories, and they were even better. Most were narrated by Watson, but two were amusingly narrated by Sherlock himself. The e-book is only 99 cents!

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This book wins the Miss Congeniality award for the most likable characters of the year. Locke and his band of thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards are utterly charming and whatever they were up to, I was there for it. That alliterative title is not just to be cute: Locke literally lies his way through an insane, chaotic, bloody mess of a plot. I don’t often read adventure or fantasy, and I’m so glad I took a chance on this. The audiobook narrator is excellent, and you can easily speed up to 1.4 or 1.5, so don’t fear the length.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. I have scandalous gaps when it comes to children’s literature since I wasn’t really a reader until adulthood. This year, I resolved to finally read the whole Chronicles of Narnia series, and I adored this volume. From the theology perspective, this is second only to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This one will seem a little out of place for those who know my usual taste, but I loved it. It’s like a juicy romance novel had a baby with a Jane Austen novel. It is funny, romantic, and full of drama, yet infused with wit and satire – breezy to read, but still intelligent. The best thing about this book, though, is that my one-year-old staggered over to me with it one day saying, very excitedly, “Penguin!”

Penguin!

Find more joy in reading to your kids

Before becoming a parent, I already knew I wanted books to be a big part of my children’s lives. I wanted them to grow up surrounded by great books, reading with us, and reading on their own. Knowing I’m a huge book lover, both sides of the family independently came up with the same baby shower idea – instead of a card, bring your favorite children’s book – and sent almost identical invitations that looked like cute, old-fashioned library checkout cards. I can’t think of a single book I received at these showers that I did not love.

I also was the happy recipient of whole collections of baby and toddler books from friends whose children had outgrown them. This also got me so many wonderful books. But it yielded some of the most awful books I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking poorly written books with computer graphic illustrations that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I saw my son toddling over with them; books I shoved under the couch when Bub wasn’t looking; books I threw across the room when I was done reading them just so he would have to spend at least a few seconds retrieving it before I was subjected to the torture of reading it again. (Yes, I seriously did that.)

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Jaybird reads about animals in a favorite hand-me-down book we received at a baby shower.

These terrible books made up at least half of the collections I’d received from friends. I felt sure the friends who gave these books did not like them either. These are the same friends who gave me wonderful books at my baby showers. They have great taste. So, why did they keep these awful books throughout their child’s early years? Why was I keeping them? I think my friends and I wanted our children to have access to lots of books, and believed that children’s books are just like that. I mean, won’t we hate anything we’ve had to read 27 times in one day?

But amid these little horrors I was reluctantly reading, there were also books I really enjoyed. Timeless, memorable, charming. Books I could read 27 times in one day without hating them. These weren’t just the classics–these were old and new books, well-known and obscure, longer and shorter…I even found some baby vocabulary books that were fun to read. I was slowly learning what C.S. Lewis already knew, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” One day, I looked through all our children’s books and did something I never expected myself to do: I got rid of most of them.

Looking at a donate stack as tall as the keep stack can make a book-loving parent nervous – isn’t it better to have more books for my kids? Not if those books are a huge drag for parents. Kids are very perceptive. They know if you’re not enjoying yourself, even if you’re trying your darnedest to cover it up. You child’s attitude toward reading will mimic yours–loving reading yourself is so valuable to your child’s reading life. If you hate reading a book, let it go. Even if your kid likes it (I mean, I wouldn’t take a book they carry around like Linus’ blanket or anything, but you get the idea). It’s okay. It will not hurt your child to have fewer books. I believe it will help them love reading when you are finding more joy in reading to them.

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Reading a family favorite, The Giving Tree, with Bub and a coffee machine.

I donated more than half our children’s books, and our collection is much better for it. Some of our books are timeless classics and Caldecott winners, but some are forgettable books that we just enjoy reading. Some I will give to my grandchildren someday. Some will leave us when my kids get older. I’m sure some I just haven’t seen enough of yet to hate. The important thing is, my kids love reading these books over and over, I love reading these books to them, and I have stopped shoving books under the couch in despair.

I was going to round out this post with some guidance on weeding your children’s books, but I realized it’s really a personal thing. There’s no magic formula for a collection your family will love. My advice is simply this: if you don’t like it, let it go. Your child’s reading life will be better if you find more joy in reading together.

PS – Starting next week, I will be sharing short, weekly posts featuring my family’s favorite children’s books. I would love to hear all about your family favorites as well!

Midyear Reading Roundup

When July comes around, I like to reflect on my reading year so far, and share some of my favorites. Overall, this year has turned out to be a good year for numbers–but not my best year for quality, with half my ratings being 3 stars or less. (Pro-tip: I’ll never know if you just skip ahead to the book list.)

Audiobooks buoyed my numbers while my print reading suffered a steep drop-off in February. My rut was punctuated with some disciplined reading of a book here and there, but I have not been that quarantined reader who is taking on War and Peace. Library closures hit my reading life pretty hard. I’ve come to rely heavily on the library to quickly acquire THAT book and get to it while I’m excited. It’s been hard to go back to shopping on my shelves. Marie Kondo says there’s a moment to read a book, and that moment is when you first encounter it. Readers often question Kondo on books (not me! ..but that’s another topic for another day), but she has such a point here and I’ve tried to pay attention to it in my reading life. As much as I can, I read books right away when I get them, and request or buy them right away when I hear about them. I do read and love books that have been sitting on my shelves, but I have a difficult time choosing one and I almost always read them slower.

I’ve been working my way out of the slump with some discipline (and luck). Here’s what’s been working for me lately in my reading life.

1. Short audiobooks (at 1.25 speed, baby!). I love audio as a way to consume massive classics, like Middlemarch and The Three Musketeers. Usually 12 hours is my minimum, but this year short has been my go-to. I listened to 14 audiobooks January through June and most were about 8 hours. With audio sped up I go through them very quickly, listening while on walks with the kids, cooking dinner, folding laundry, driving in the car, and the like. I’m knocking some long-time TBRs off the list, and regularly get the encouragement of actually finishing a book.

2. Re-reading. My memory is too good to do this very often – I don’t just remember the plot, but also the literal words on each page. It feels like I just finished it, even if over a year has passed. But I’m starting to find I’ve forgotten almost everything about some old favorites and I’ve enjoyed going back to them. I’ve done some of my re-reading by audio or read-aloud, which brings the books to life in a totally different way.

3. Snowball method reading. Think Dave Ramsey for books. You may be familiar with Ramsey’s snowball method for debt, where you start with focusing on your smallest debt and work your way up to the biggest. Small victories along the way help you stay motivated. I applied this to my absurd in-progress stack – tallied up the pages remaining in each and started with the lowest page count. I haven’t gotten to zero yet and I keep acquiring new book debt, but I turn to this strategy whenever I’m unsure what to read next and it has kept me reading when I might otherwise stall out in indecision.

4. Reading aloud. My husband and I have taken to reading together at bedtime and it’s awesome. My husband is a fantastic reader and since I’m an insomniac, being read to in bed really helps me wind down and sleep. 

5. Ebooks. Confession: before this year I had never finished an ebook. I even had a Kindle for a while and never finished a book on it. Lately, reading on my phone seemed like a good way to fit in more books and cut down on time-wasters like social media. It’s enabled me to take advantage of little moments where a paper book isn’t practical, like when I’m nursing a baby and have only one hand free. I’ve finished two books borrowed through Libby, and am working on my third.

Okay, now for the good stuff. Here are the books I’ve been loving this year.

1. A Place for Us by Fatima Fahreen Mirza. This is definitely my favorite book of the year so far, and one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. It is the story of an Indian Muslim family in America, particularly revolving around the rebellious son, Amar. The characters are real, the writing is lyrical, and the story is a beautiful combo of hopeful and devastating. I never cry over books, but this one got me in the end.

2. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. I can’t believe I wasted so much time assuming this book would be boring. This book has everything – mystery, ghosts, murder, kidnapping, graveyards, extortion, love triangles, opera singers, mysterious foreigners – you get the idea. It gets right to the action and doesn’t waste time. I had so much fun listening to the full cast recording on LibriVox.

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This books tells the story of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters. The cultural and language divides that exist between the characters beautifully highlight the barriers that always exist between mothers and daughters that make their understanding of each other imperfect.

4. The Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in audio. I’ve been listening through the Sherlock canon on LibriVox, read by David Clarke. This is something I’d have a hard time reading in print, but I just eat it up in audio. This format is perfect for these stories. Sherlock is a character for the ages, and Doyle’s storytelling is excellent.

5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Thirty-something Keiko is happy living alone and working the convenience store job she’s had for over a decade, but decides to make some changes when she gets sick of the pity, worry, and disapproval from her friends and family. This book is bizarre and insightful and charming in an Eleanor Oliphant sort of way, and can be read in one or two sittings.

6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is my second read through this book, and my husband read it to me this time around. I enjoyed it so much more than when I read on my own – it’s like it’s meant to be read aloud. Tolkien is just delightful, and brilliant.

7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is what I call “bibliophile lit”, or fiction where the plot revolves around books and readers in a way that is probably not realistic but is delightful for book lovers to imagine. It’s also a something-for-everyone book that felt part literary fiction, part YA, part mystery/suspense, part historical fiction.

8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. This was one of my ebook reads, and I really just tried it because I was curious and it was immediately available on Libby. I expected to find a mildly amusing, annoyingly quirky 3-star read, but I just loved this. It was funny and clever and different than anything I’ve read before. It had some really fun twists and left me really rooting for the characters.

If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading this year, check out my 2020 Reading Challenge on Goodreads. I’d love to hear how your reading year is going, what you’re reading, and your thoughts if you’ve read any of the favorites from my list!

Frugal Reading: Free Audiobooks!

A long while back, I kicked off my Frugal Reading Series with some tips on becoming a frugal reader. And then I moved, got pregnant (and very sick), had a baby, and moved again. Now that I’m back, I’m excited to continue this series combining two of my favorite things – reading and frugality!

For so long I had serious Audible envy. No matter what new member promotions, Black Friday deals, or other money-saving contrivances I came upon, the simple fact remained that Audible costs money. That’s not to say the cost isn’t justified for the product; it just isn’t practical for my budget. I’d sometimes troll the library for books on CD and listen in the car, but audiobooks were largely inaccessible to me.

Then I discovered LibriVox and it is possibly the best thing to potentially ever happen to anyone, anywhere in the history of the universe.

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If you know me, you’ve probably heard a manic, gushing recommendation for LibriVox, not unlike Leslie Knope gushing about Lil’ Sebastian. Hey, it earns the praise. LibriVox is an awesome organization dedicated to “mak[ing] all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format…” Volunteer readers from all over the world contribute to this massive library of free audiobooks. FREE AUDIOBOOKS.

I was quite skeptical at first. I mean, free audiobooks? Volunteer readers? Sounds a bit sketchy, no matter how noble the mission. I expected to find a small selection of mediocre to somewhat okay-ish audiobooks.

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I soon repented of my skepticism. There are so many fantastic readers volunteering for LibriVox, including many professionals who generously bring their talents to this free platform (I can vouch for Elizabeth Klett and Mark F. Smith!). But many of the amateur readers are amazing as well; Margaret Espaillat and Becky Miller got me through George Eliot’s monstrous works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda each about 32 hours of wonderful audio I could not stop listening to. There are even dramatic readings, with a full cast bringing a book to life like a radio drama. My favorite of these was the hilarious Lady Susan by Jane Austen (a laugh-out-loud gem, and much more enjoyable than the recent movie based on it, Love and Friendship.).

The selection is also incredible. There are so many excellent audiobooks on LibriVox that I’ve stopped thinking about Audible altogether. The catch is, the books on LibriVox are all in the public domain, so it does not include works published after 1924 (but you can purchase more recent works through the app). However, there are so many freaking amazing books written before 1924, and audio is a great format if you’ve struggled to get into classics.

Logistics first: There is a free app for Android and iOS – they have some ads, but honestly I don’t remember ever noticing them much. I opted for the $1.99 version, just because I wanted to support an awesome organization. You can also listen and download books on their website, LibriVox.org.

How to find great books on LibriVox

All gushing aside, there are a lot of not very good books, and I struggled to find the good ones when I was new to LibriVox. Even now, I often decide on a book only to find there isn’t a good recording. There is no vetting for volunteers, so anyone can read – no matter how monotonous their voice or how much background noise their microphones pick up. And many books have different readers for different chapters, which is just not my cup of tea. Here is how I consistently find great books on LibriVox. (You can skip to the end for my book recommendations!)

1. Read Reviews

LibriVox is kind of like AirBNB: there is no shortage of excellent options, but if you ignore the the reviews, you’re going to have a bad time.

I generally only consider recordings with an average rating of at least four stars. Reviewers usually comment on the narrator, especially if they are particularly excellent or particularly terrible. I recently listened to Oliver Twist when I’d had no intention of doing so, because the reviews were crazy about the reader, Tadhg. It did not disappoint.

2. Compare Versions

Don’t default to version one. Many of the most popular classics have two, three, or more versions by different readers. The reviews will tell a lot, but if there is no stand-out I like to sample a minute or so of each to pick my favorite reader. Usually you can tell in the first ten seconds if you’ll get along with a reader or not, and it’s worth the extra effort when you’re going to be spending 10-20 hours with them.

3. Be Wary of “LibriVox Volunteers” (but not too wary)

“LibriVox Volunteers” listed as the reader means that there are multiple readers for that books. I avoid these (for the most part). Multiple readers make it much harder for me to stay interested. It is such a wonderful experience to travel through a whole book with one amazing reader.

The exception to this rule is full-cast recordings. These are generally indicated as “(dramatic reading)” in the title – but not always, so read the book description and reviews for clues. I nearly passed up fabulous book The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but saw a review clarifying that it is a full-cast recording. The book has multiple first-person narrators, each with their own reader – so it didn’t quite qualify as a dramatic reading, but also didn’t just randomly switch between readers. Thank you again, reviews! (The chapter summaries can also give you a hint, as they will list the reader for each chapter.)

4. Follow the Reader

If you love a reader, look them up to see what else they’ve recorded. Most have multiple books available, and some have recorded a veritable library of their own. I fell in love with Elizabeth Klett’s reading of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. She has recorded tons of excellent women’s literature like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and more Edith Wharton. I’d be occupied for years just with the excellent novels she’s recorded.

5. Be Ready to Bail

Sometimes you just won’t connect with a reading for whatever reason. I always go into chapter one ready to cut and run if I don’t like it. This may sound fickle, but most of my choices are 15-30 hours long. And even one hour is a long time to listen to obnoxious background noise, a dull voice, or a flat-out boring book.

Bonus Tip: Make a Favorites List

I always forget whatever book I was so excited to listen to next. Inevitably, I remember it when about halfway through my contingent, and finish that one only to discover that the book I was so excited about is not available or has a two and half star rating and a pile of scathing reviews. Always a disappointment. But I recently discovered you can create lists, so I’ve been looking up books as I think of them and adding them to a list if I find a version that meets my criteria. Now I have a short, curated list of books to choose from, and no longer wonder with furrowed brow what book I’ve forgotten.

Books I Love

Here are my recommendations if you’re wondering where to start:

I’ll have a follow-up post soon with children’s book recommendations for LibriVox!

So, What Happened to Us?

I suppose it’s rather ominous that my last post was over a year ago and detailed how me and my family were jumping into a brand new life and starting a business with just a few month’s savings. It’s been a busy year and I’m to jump back into blogging, but should probably provide some update on where we’re at first. Bear with me because we’re going to cover a lot of ground very quickly!

Well.

Our estimate of savings needed was correct! Exactly, terrifyingly correct. Just as we were reaching the bottom of our savings, the business hit critical mass thanks to the amazing efforts of my brilliant, hard-working husband. In the past year he’s turned a fledgling solo practice into a sustainable, stable business. And as I always suspected, he’s so much happier working for himself that every sacrifice to get his business rolling was 100% worth it.

Small space, big view

We spent the last year living in a small basement apartment. Despite its flaws the price made our financial goals for the year possible, and it was in an absolutely beautiful location. We were very lucky to enjoy this beautiful view every day for a year, and it made the inconveniences of a tiny apartment much more manageable!

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Bub enjoying our back yard last fall. We were so lucky to live in such a beautiful location!

Did I mention we had a baby?

Meet Jonathan (AKA Kid or Baby J), born in March 2019. He’s been happy, healthy, and HUGE (compared to our first-percentile Bub, at least!). He even started sleeping through the night at two months! (that’s about 18 months faster than our first!) The Bub loves him and has been a wonderful big brother. This, more than anything else, is the reason I’ve been absent from blogging. Moving, starting over in a new town, starting a business, and caring for a toddler was a piece of cake – but add in morning sickness, and it became a bit much.

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Photo credit goes to my amazing doula, Kara Jo Prestrud of Birth Made Beautiful

Where are we now?

We moved to a house in May (renting), and are pretty settled in after a few hiccups (turns out a new baby and a move are a bit hard for a toddler). We’ve been enjoying having a home office for The Husband, a proper kitchen for me, and lots more space for kiddos to roam inside and out!

What’s with the new name?

I’m back and hoping to continue blogging more regularly. I’ll be making a few changes to the blog – still writing a lot about frugality and simple living, but broadening my subject matter to include more on motherhood, books, and other interests. I’ve named it Very Good Mom Blog because I wanted to convey the quality of my work without seeming flashy (also because I love Parks and Rec).

I’m excited to be back!

(I know I covered a lot of BIG things very quickly here! So, if you’re interested in more details on anything or curious about some things I didn’t touch on, please feel free to send me a message or leave a comment!)

Phase 2: ?

Phase 1 of the Master Plan was all about plotting and saving. The Husband and I thought and talked, talked and thought for months about one question: What do we want out of life? As the answer became clearer, we worked on plotting our course to that life, and financing that course.

So what was that answer? Simplicity. A life where I can spend every day with my children. A life where The Husband can do the work he loves on his own terms. A life filled with cats and books and nature. A life where our home is a refuge that calms our spirits, rather than a receptacle that holds our possessions. A life that does not revolve around money and things and busyness. A simple life.

At the outset, I was discouraged and felt it would be completely impossible to finance our way to this life. But a dream is a powerful thing, especially once you start to believe it’s attainable. We met and exceeded our financial goal, and we did so ahead of schedule. This has been a journey that has changed everything I ever thought about money.

We are about to set off for Phase 2 of our adventure. We will move to our new home in one week. The Husband will be launching his firm, Wright Law, the next day. We are so grateful for all the ways our friends and family have supported us throughout Phase 1. We look forward to sharing more as Phase 2 unfolds in the next few months.

The Fitbit of Finance

Whenever I’m wearing my Fitbit one of two things happens. I either feel very motivated to be more active, or I just start believing my day-to-day life counts as exercise. In the first instance, I’ll start taking the stairs, taking far-off parking spots, and going on long walks with Little Guy; the Fitbit pushes me to do more and be more conscious of my fitness. However, there is a basic amount of walking required for existing and for me it’s around 3500 steps; so in the second instance, I get to the end of a lazy day and instead of feeling like the lump I was, I look at the Fitbit and think, “Wow, I got 3500 steps today without even trying! I’m basically Usain Bolt.” Getting credit for my existence tricks me into thinking I’ve exercised when I haven’t.

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Hiking with Little Guy! (not pictured: Fitbit on left wrist)

Budgeting is the Fitbit of finance. A budget can be insanely motivating. I know once we started budgeting with YNAB, my spending habits changed dramatically. It was like playing a video game and everything I didn’t spend in was like bonus points. I make a veritable sport out of spending as little as possible on groceries. I strategically plan meals based on cost of ingredients and make a detailed grocery list, then shop at the cheapest grocery store around with Todoist and a calculator. (Yes, I’m the geek who uses a calculator in the grocery store.) I often send The Husband a text to brag if I’ve had a particularly good week. “ALL OUR GROCERIES FOR $27 THIS WEEK! GO WIFE!”calculater

But just like the Fitbit, budgeting has its own dark side. Setting a budget can feel like a license to spend up to that amount. Where we really fell prey to this was when we were still eating restaurant meals regularly–we would impulsively go out to eat on the pretense that there was plenty of room in the restaurant budget. We’ve greatly improved since then, but this mentality still plagues me at times. For example, maybe I have a lot of “room” left in the grocery budget after picking up all the necessities, so why not splurge a bit in the Aldi Finds aisle? Just like patting myself on the back for 3500 steps, this defeats the purpose of the budget.

Here are a few things I recommend for avoiding this pitfall:

 

  1. Think of your budget as your 3500 steps. Meeting the budget is just existing–it’s when you come in under budget that you’re getting financially fit. Make a budget that is challenging but realistic. I could say I’ll spend $10 a month on groceries, but it’s not going to happen and my budget will be shot once I go over. But $250 a month is just the right balance of reality and challenge–I usually beat this number, but I can definitely stay in bounds. Think of those leftover dollars at the end of the month as your bonus points.
  2. Find your motivation. Budgeting was a challenge for a long time because we didn’t have a meaningful goal driving us. Sit down (with your spouse if you’ve got one) and figure out your Master Plan. For us, it was our move and The Husband’s solo practice. For you it might be buying a cabin on a lake, traveling more, or getting out of debt. Whatever it is, you’re going to need it to sustain a budget and build savings. Start thinking of every dollar you spend as a dollar you’re stealing from that goal. Take those bonus points and put them in a savings account for your goal. Watching your dream get closer as the numbers grow will be addicting.
  3. Keep up. There are lots of awesome tools out there to track your spending–Lifehacker has list of reader favorites. Find one that works for you, link up your accounts, and keep it up-to-date so you never think you have money available that you don’t.

Your Fitbit and your budget are excellent tools for physical and financial fitness, but they can encourage a false sense of security and accomplishment. What are your tricks for avoiding the trap?

A Peaceful December

Saving for our move has made this December a bit different for us. The Husband wrote last weekend about spending less during the holidays and how it’s reduced stress, and I whole-heartedly agree (also in his post, you’ll see an adorable pic of Little Guy with our Christmas tree). Besides the reduced stress, living frugally this holiday season has made Christmas shopping more thoughtful–and thus more enjoyable.

Our gifting budget is smaller than usual, especially for each other (I’m normally ready to spend our entire savings showering The Husband with gifts). Knowing this, we started thinking about gifts really early. We wrote down everyone we would get gifts for and started brainstorming ideas. I followed items on Amazon to await a good deal and checked out used options like Facebook resale groups and Abe Books.

I love giving gifts so I generally just get everything I think someone might enjoy and end up with a heaping heap of disposable novelties. Fun stuff, but with little lasting value. Do you know what it’s like to buy someone a million gifts and still feel it’s not enough? This year, the limited budget and advanced planning forced me to put careful thought into each gift and make sure it was just right. As a result, I feel great about every gift and am so excited to give them. 

I shopped the local baby resale for Little Guy’s gift, an activity cube which is about $60+ new. I lost out to someone quicker several times, but with patience and some haggling I snagged one for $30. It is in like new condition, and Little Guy will never know the difference! I’m bad at hiding so he’s found it several times, but at least I know he likes it! 

With all this forethought, I am actually nearly done with Christmas shopping. I know, I hate me too. Unlike past years, I got there not only early, but also without anxiety and stress. I only went out shopping  twice, and got most everything online. I do not miss my usual last minute shopping frenzy.

The frugalized Christmas shopping experience made the whole process about doing something kind for the people we love, not about consuming. Our focus has been on the people we’re giving to–what they want, what they need, what would put smiles on their faces–not on spending X-amount of dollars, and it has reignited the joy of the season.

(Oh, and another auxiliary benefit of a frugal holiday season? I’m baking ridiculous amounts of homemade cookies! They’re cheaper than holiday-themed Oreos, and baking is a fun Christmas-y activity that doesn’t require going out. Plus firing up the oven warms up the house, which is great since I now keep our thermostat at approximately Siberia° most of the time. WIN-WIN-WIN!)

The Master Plan

I’ve mentioned some “major life goals” that inspired our newfound financial outlook. One of these goals I covered in my first post–my staying home with Little Guy. Now we’re finally in a place to share our Master Plan more broadly, so here you go!

Since becoming a stay-at-home mom, I have really wanted to be closer to my family and friends in Minnesota. I’ve missed them over the years, obviously, but when I finished working I felt their absence more than ever. We didn’t want Little Guy to grow up without these people and their support, company, and general awesomeness in his everyday life.

At the same time, The Husband has always been ready to practice law on his own. He worked for himself by necessity in the past and did amazing, despite having no experience and being unsure what practice area to focus on. Since starting at his current firm, he has really discovered a great fit in elder law and estate planning. He even writes an awesome Medicaid blog that you should check out!

One day we were talking about our life, and we realized we weren’t quite satisfied with it. Where both of us wanted to be long-term was not where our current life was taking us. We wanted to live our life more deliberately, and really thought about what we wanted out of our future. We devised our Master Plan–move to the Twin Cities area (Wisconsin-side) by July of 2018. There, The Husband will start a solo practice as an estate planning and Medicaid attorney.

What The Husband wants, and what I want for him, is a solo practice of his own. We love the personal and professional freedom this will give him, and the opportunity is ripe right now. Little Guy is a very little guy, so we’re not taking him away from friends or switching schools; our expenses and space needs aren’t much right now, and will only grow as time goes on. The risks are smaller now than they will be at any time in the future, and the payoff for those risks is the life we want.

Because we’ll be plunging into the unknown (and unsalaried), we set a major savings goal: three months’ expenses, moving expenses, and Minnesota bar exam fees in the bank in one year or less. Through constant efforts at frugalizing our lifestyle and getting less stupid about money, we are well on our way to that goal after just three months.

We’re very excited about this (somewhat crazy) dream of ours. And I’m excited to share with all of you the strange and sundry ways we’re making it happen.