A new year of reading

Usually I have an ambitious list of reading plans built up for the new year. I plan out elaborate lists, goals, and challenges for which books I’ll read and how many. This year, I’m feeling resistant to such plans, and thinking about this new year of reading more organically. So this won’t be a tidy list, but a stream of consciousness musing on what I want from my reading life in the coming months.

This year I want to read books that matter, whatever form mattering takes. This could mean personal growth or parenting books that teach me important things and improve my life. It could mean reading about important events in history I should know more about. It could mean reading a book that was really important to a friend. In short, I want more than just entertainment from my reading life.

In the past few years, I’ve come to crave the comfort of rereading my favorites, especially Jane Austen. I’ve read every Austen novel at least once and my current project is to reread all in the fancy cloth-bound editions my mother-in-law gifted me a few years ago. It would be a real shame for any these beautiful copies to go unread! Along those lines, I have a beautiful, new, cloth-bound copy of my beloved Middlemarch and it deserves to be read as well.

That leads nicely into my next point: I want to read the books on my shelves. I have so many books I purchased with great excitement and left to languish on my shelves ever since, some for over a decade (I’m looking at you, Hero With a Thousand Faces). I made a point of this in the last few months and it’s so satisfying. It’s a win-win because I can cross something off my TBR, and if I don’t like it, I can get it off my shelf and out of my life.

I want to pick up classics again. Many of my favorite books are pretty freaking old – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, North and South. The problem is, the classics have all been on my TBR so long at this point, they’ve gone stale and it’s hard to get excited about them. Please, if you have a favorite classic (or old book that has flown under the radar of classic-dom), share!

I made a goal last year of reading more children’s literature, more as a duty to my children than anything else, and, wow, did I love it. I was surprised to find that my five star reads of the year were disproportionately middle grade. A great children’s book is a great everyone book, and I’m hungry to find more gems in this category and continue some of the series I started last year (The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Vanderbeekers, Little House).

In 2022, I don’t want my reading life to revolve around goals and checklists. I simply want it to be rich and joyful. May we all be so lucky!

Year-end Reading Roundup: reading for fun and disproportionate amounts of middle grade

At the beginning of 2021, my biggest hope for my reading year was to start enjoying the act of reading again. I’d gotten into a habit of reading to finish books, rather than just reading to read. My focus was on the numbers – how many books, how many pages, how many can I check off this or that list. While it’s in my nature to get caught up in the numbers, I kept this goal in the front of my mind all year and tried my best to correct my course when I got off track. And a weird thing happened – I read just as many books when “how many books” wasn’t the goal. I just got a lot more enjoyment out of the process. Turns out, when you’re having a great time reading, you just do it. Naturally. Without self-imposed goals and deadlines.

Normally this is where I’d share the reading habits that have worked for me lately, but I haven’t really had reading habits lately. I might get up early and read, use my Kindle while nursing at night, turn on an audiobook while cooking, or get a paragraph in between my kids’ fights. I do all these things sometimes, but none of them with any consistency. Some weeks I read a lot, and some I don’t manage much at all. Usually, I’ll find at least a few minutes every day. I read when I can and that’s about that.

So, without further ado, favorite books of the season (plus a review of all my favorites from 2021).

That brings me to favorite books!

Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan. I’m a huge fan of the Revolutions podcast, so I’ve been waiting for this one for years. Like a proper podcast fan, I had to listen to Duncan read the book himself. This is biography at it’s best. Duncan perfectly combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling, which never feels like just a collection of facts in chronological order (my general experience of biographies). What was most fascinating was the woman behind the Marquis, Adrienne – certainly one of the many incredible unsung women of history, and I’m grateful for Duncan’s determination to tell her story as well as her husband’s.

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus. I adored this middle grade historical fiction about three siblings trying to find a home. William, Edmund, and Anna are evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, but unlike the other children, they don’t have a home to return to when it’s over. They’re hoping to find a family to take them in not just for wartime, but forever. I was so charmed by the characters and Albus’ gentle prose that barely anyone got out of getting this book from me for Christmas.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Sometimes I finish a book and think, “How can this be that good?” Kate DiCamillo never fails to be original and stunning. I started out reading this aloud, but found it was not age appropriate (torture and other things unsuitable for the youngest readers) – but by the time I decided it wasn’t for Bub, I was hooked and had to finish for myself. This is so much more than a story about a mouse – it is a story about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. Allie Brosh’s unique brand of relatable weirdness makes me feel like she is an utterly original, singular human being while at the same time being all of us. This lived up to and exceeded my expectations set by Hyperbole and a Half.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. This memoir of childhood and young adulthood by C.S. Lewis demands to be read from page one. It is obvious right away why Lewis’ fiction is so beloved by children – he remembers what it’s like to be a child like few adults do. I enjoyed listening to the audio, which was included with my Audible membership (along with almost all of Lewis’ most beloved nonfiction).

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  This book is so different from A Gentleman in Moscow, but Towles’ distinct style shines in both. The prose, the characters, the setting (Towles does sense of place like no one else), the plot twists. Everything was just perfect. I’m DYING to read this again knowing everything I know now. 

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. When five siblings face losing their beloved brownstone apartment in Harlem, they set out on a mission to convince their landlord to let them stay. This is everything a middle grade book should be. Lovable characters, fun and heartfelt story, excellent writing. I loved how this book took place in four days, and divided the chapters up by days. A great book for adults and children alike, and (for future reference) a feel-good holiday read (that could be read any time of year, IMHO).

Here are the rest of my favorite books of 2021. You can find my descriptions in my past Reading Roundups here and here.

I’d love to hear all about your favorite books of 2021! Happy New Reading Year!

A Very Tardy Winter Reading Roundup

The first few months of 2021 were the best reading season I’ve had in a long time. My biggest goal for the year was to enjoy the reading experience and stop worrying about how many books or pages I’ve racked up. That has made such a difference in my reading life, and on top of that I’ve found some incredible books. The reading habit that has been working for me this season? Simply reading whatever the heck I feel like reading at any given time. That has meant I have 7+ books in progress most of the time, and my willingness to pick up what strikes my fancy has lead to some unusual choices for me, which my list below reflects. You’ll find significantly more non-fiction than I usually imbibe as well as some children’s books that I’d happily recommend to kids and adults alike.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This is my new go-to recommendation for anyone who asks (and many who don’t). It is pure delight from cover to cover – so funny, insightful, and fresh that I was shocked to learn it was first published in 1956. It follows the author’s adventures as an animal-loving child in Corfu, Greece where he lived with his eccentric British family. (If you’ve read any Lawrence Durrell, you’ll be intrigued to see him as a bratty twenty-something mouthing off to his mother) I’ve since enjoyed the follow-ups Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. (Looks like this one is free to read on Kindle with Amazon Prime!)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. This was such a surprise. I added this to my TBR after hearing about it on an episode of What Should I Read Next? podcast. By the time my hold came through on Libby, I had lost interest, but I had somewhere to drive and nothing else to listen to, so I turned it on. A novel in verse about twelve-year-old Josh Bell, his relationships with twin brother JB and their father, and their shared love of basketball. What I thought would be a Disney Channel original movie -esque sports story turned out to be a unique and stunning look at brotherhood, fathers and sons, and grief. This Newbury Medal winner is one of the finest coming-of-age stories I’ve read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I could not put down this middle grade adventure that reminded me so much of the early Harry Potter books. It had the same combination of quality writing, lovable characters, and absorbing plot that made me want to read and read. Reynie Muldoon is an orphan seeking a better life when a mysterious ad in the paper leads him to join a secret society of brilliant children assembled by the eccentric Mr. Benedict. Reynie and new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance Contraire are sent on an undercover mission where they’ll rely on their unique talents and each other to, you know, save the world. I fell in love with these characters instantly, and enjoyed the fun and unexpected twists throughout the book. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This is fairly well known as a selection for Reese’s Book Club. It was on the lucky day shelf on Libby, so I picked up the audio and it was just wonderful. This book combines the fascinating story of the 1986 library fire in L.A. with a history of libraries and a peek into the lives of librarians. The audio, read by the author, felt a lot like listening to a great, in-depth NPR story.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. This book is all charm and atmosphere. A collection of letters from a plucky American author and a British bookseller starting in 1949 and continuing for 20 years. Book lovers will relate to Helene’s bookish dilemmas, history lovers will love the window into post-war London, Anglophiles will love all the Britishness. You can read this in one afternoon, or savor it a bit at a time.

The Read Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie. I got so much out of this book by Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival podcast. It covers the why and the how of reading aloud with children of all ages. It is chock full of ideas for incorporating books into your family culture, encouraging a love of reading, talking about books with your kids, and finding new books to enjoy with your family. MacKenzie will not only inspire you to read aloud more, but also blow up your TBR with tons of amazing book recommendations. I’d recommend this to any parent, teacher, nanny, grandparent – anyone who spends time with kids. (This is currently very cheap on Kindle!)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’ve read this several times, but this was my first time in audio. Listening really brought out Austen’s humor. I love this free Librivox recording from my favorite reader, Elizabeth Klett. There are few books as perfectly crafted as Pride and Prejudice and it is a delight every time.

Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk. A friend recommended this book for learning better housekeeping skills. It was such a help in the midst of spring cleaning. Rapinchuk (of Clean Mama) offers a manageable, comprehensive plan for getting your house in order and maintaining it in just a few minutes a day – simple challenges and checklists make her plan unintimidating and easy to stick with. I got my house cleaner than it’s ever been and I’ve been able to maintain it, just as she promises, in just ten minutes a day. She inspired me to switch from a daunting weekly laundry day to a small daily load and, wow, that has been life-changing.