Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Reading for Lazy Parents

Summer reading is a big topic at schools and libraries across the US.  Educators warn parents about "the summer slide," not a fun water slide but the phenomenon in which kids' forget all the things they learned at school in the previous year because they don't crack a book open in the summer.  Book lists get sent home, reading plans are suggested, and our library even gives away junky little toys in exchange for proof of reading.  

the other kind of terrifying summer slide

Over the years I've done a number of things to encourage summer reading.  I've been crafty and created posters for tracking books, we've set goals and rewards for reading a certain number of books, and I've followed those library reading games religiously so my children could collect the maximum number of trinkets.  

"awesome" is relative

This year, my kids range in age from 14-7.  All of them can read independently.  

This is the year I've been waiting for.  

In March I wrote a note in my calendar to come up with a clever reading game (maybe Bingo-ish) by the end of May.  I didn't have time for that.  

In June we dutifully signed up for the library program and I was overwhelmed with the number of papers we would have to fill out.  After years of throwing away so many plastic toys that the kids barely looked at, I felt that the reward was not worth the effort.  


As school ended I gave up on my hope of wow-ing my Instagram followers with our summer reading adorableness.  I thought back to my childhood:  there were books, an occasional trip to the library, and lots and lots of downtime.  No treats or rewards or anything.  But every summer I read a ton.  

I threw away the papers from the library and let go of my guilt over not being creative.  My new plan for summer reading was simple.  I thought of it as having two easy parts:

1.  No screen time before 3pm.
2.  When the kids say they are bored I offer a job or reading.  Example: "I'm bored, there's nothing to do here."   "If you're looking for something to do you could sweep the kitchen.  Or, grab a book."  

The kids are reading more this summer and it didn't take a ton of effort from me.  

Instead of being overscheduled and super busy we've made an intentional choice to use our time the way we want to and not feel the pressure to sign up for too many things.  My kids have done a few camps but most days you'll find us loafing around the house or sitting by the community pool.  Lots of downtime gives us hours for being a little lazy and doing a lot of reading.  That was exactly what I wanted out of this summer.  

this was my alternate plan, you know, if the reading thing didn't pan out

The other day one of my kids had a free morning that she spent curled up with her library book.  The fact that she chose to do it independently and was not pushed and prodded makes my heart swell. 

Reading seems to yield more reading and when one kid gets a book and sits on the couch, another one will usually follow suit.  It is definitely a virtuous cycle. 

Before you get annoyed with me, keep in mind, my kids are older and that makes a huge difference.  This simple plan would have been ineffective with younger kids.  Also, it takes time.  It has been almost a month into this little experiment and the kids are just getting used to reading for long stretches and seeing it as an option to fill up their spare time.  

Some years you need treats and prizes and some years reading for the joy of reading is enough.  

Here are some books that we've been reading this summer:

What has your family been reading so far?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Not Your Typical Summer Read

Do you ever find yourself reading a book that you're just certain you won't like?

If you are part of a book club or reading group you might have this experience.  It usually happens because you feel required to read a book.  Why else would someone specifically choose to read a book they don't actually want to read?  (masochism, societal pressure, Oprah...)

Anyway, I recently found myself in this predicament.  Here's the situation:

My beloved book club that I've referenced like 1,000 times on this blog was meeting in July.  I knew I would need to attend this meeting because it would be a great reason to leave my kids for a couple of hours this summer where we seem to spend every minute together.  I felt compelled to read the book.  

In the history of my book club attendance (over a year), I have loved some of the books and liked many of the books.  There was one book that shall remain nameless that was just so terrible I couldn't finish it, but I did go to the meeting to make sure everyone else felt the same way--they did.  

For July, the book was Hum If You Don't Know The Words.  I had never heard of it but I bought it thinking the cover was cool--bright green and yellow with a stamped owl and parrot.  I didn't read the back but I was excited.  

And then it was June and I picked the book up and read this on the back cover:

"Told through Beauty's and Robin's alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa."  

Don't get me wrong--I love many books about Africa and apartheid is something I feel that all Americans need to learn more about.  But it's July and I was thinking "beach read" not "intense historical fiction with probably lots of death and sadness."  

But I started because at my core, I am a rule follower.  

Through the first two chapters, I complained to anyone who was near me (my husband and children) that this was not what I had in mind for a summer read.  My husband said, "If you don't like it, don't read it."  But even in those early chapters I could tell Bianca Marais is a gifted writer and I wanted to see where it went.  

should I go on????

The first third was behind me and I still wasn't sold on reading this book in the summer when I wanted to read about beachy romances.  But I consistently found myself unwilling to put the book down.  "Just one more chapter...I need to know what is going on with Robin....just one more is Beauty going to react..."  

By the halfway point I gave in to absolutely falling in love with this book.  Marais' storytelling was beautiful and the way the characters were developed made me appreciate their dynamic realism.  Every side character had a story and I wanted to know these people in real life.  Well, not all of them, it's about a difficult time in South Africa and some of the people were not nice.  

I've even decided to rescind my previous views about summer reads.  It a good thing--any time of year--to learn about other cultures.  Summer is a great time to read a well written historical fiction novel because everyone wants to know what you're reading and you really get a chance to share an amazing story.  

The book deals with themes we face in the world today: race, family, motherhood, how we overcome prejudice, and what real love looks like--but it puts them in a historical context that adds weight to the novel.  These are not imagined circumstances, this was the reality for South Africans.  

Ok, so now that I'm done gushing about this book that was determined to dislike, let me tell you about the story.  

Robin is a 9-year-old girl in Johannesburg, South Africa, just trying to stay out of trouble with the neighborhood kids.  Beauty is a woman in her late 40's raising her children in a rural village.  They live in different worlds that collide because of the Soweto Uprising.  Their lives become entwined, whether they want them to or not.  They both have so much pain in their lives but it's not the thing that defines them.  There are a million quotes I could pick to spotlight, but I love this one that resonated with me on a deep level:

"I pulled volumes from the shelves, seeking out my favorite authors and my most beloved characters and tales, and piled them up one on top of the other until my arms ached from the strain.  I found an empty table and hefted the pile down, preparing to do what I must have been subconsciously wanting all along; I lost myself in those books.  I don't know how long I sat there for, but as I turned the pages, reading snippets and studying the illustrations, I forgot how sad and lonely I was." 

This is also how I cope.  

Even though the subject matter was heavy and a great deal of sadness, there was a thread of hope that glimmered throughout the book and good, quality comic relief that came in the form of side characters and the observations of a child.  

My book club also loved the book.  We talked about the surprises in the story and the trials faced by Robin and Beauty.  We all agreed we would definitely read a sequel because we had all fallen in love with Robin and Beauty, despite the fact that it's not the "traditional" summer read.  Maybe tradition is overrated.  
summer reading = reading any book in the sun

Is there a book that snuck up on you?  

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Little Things

When I was a child I looked forward to summer every single year.  A respite from school, hours of reading, beach days, and sleeping in. 

As a mom, I have a love-hate relationship with summer. 

I love it.  We have lazy days with nowhere to be and that is a glorious change from the breakneck pace of the school year.  The pressure of homework/projects/studying is lifted.  I see my kids play together and we have fun exploring the world together, whether it's a hike in the woods or a big vacation.  Going to the pool and beach are my favorite and there's nothing like getting ice cream on the boardwalk after a day in the sand and sea with your family surrounding you. 

But, I also hate it.  We are schedule people and without an enforced schedule, we all get grumpy.  Six grumpy people in one house can make it feel too close for comfort.  The kids don't always play nicely and I find myself refereeing fights and having to do the hard work of parenting.  4 kids talk a lot and while I often write down the little things they say, sometimes it feels like I will be talked at until the end of time.  I'm often interrupted and it feels like there is so much more cleaning. 

I heard a podcast at the beginning of summer that suggested adding a little thing you enjoy into each day.  I don't always remember this practice but when I do, I don't feel like running away by 6pm.  

One of my most required little things is quiet time.  Last year, at the age of 35, I discovered that I am an introvert.  This realization has helped me understand myself and avoid meltdowns.  Now, I try really hard to work at least 15 minutes a day of quiet into my schedule.  My brain needs the space and I function so much better when I get a break from people talking to me.

It's very popular currently to say, "I'm a mom and I drink a ton of wine."  And, while I do enjoy wine, I find one of my favorite treats is a cup of tea.  I love the ritual of afternoon tea and I love feeling British because I am a complete nerd.  I don't drink my tea in my industrial size coffee cups.  No, I prefer to pull out a beautiful mug or delicate china to have my tea.  Iced tea is so refreshing, but a nice cup of hot tea, even on the hottest days is still a treat.  You should probably know that I hated tea for the first two-thirds of my life, but I forced myself to drink unsweet tea and now I'm all in.  This is my favorite of all, FYI.

Part of what bums me out about summer is the constant mess and the way I feel pressure to be the only one to clean it up.  I've started putting on loud music for half an hour at the end of the day and rallying my kids to do a quick clean up of the day's messes.  It's never thorough, but the teamwork, smiles, and marginally cleaner kitchen improve my mood while I'm making dinner.

I had been in the habit of not watching TV with my kids.  I needed that time to be productive and send emails/clean/fold laundry/etc.  Last week we watched one of the movies we had seen a million times when the kids were small and it was so fun.  I let go of feeling like I should be doing something else and just sat with them, laughing at all our favorite parts.  As a young mom, people always told me to leave the laundry because it would always be there but kids grow fast.  It took me 14 years to understand that.  #betterlatethannever

I'm watering my garden every day.  I'm sitting with my feet in the kiddie pool.  I'm putting on goggles and going underwater at the community pool.  I'm eating ice cream sandwiches.  I'm reading the books I want to and not the ones I feel like I have to.  

I won't stop until I eat all of these #dedication

This is summer and it's wonderful.  I think this year I will be genuinely sad when we have to go back to school and routine...well, maybe not like crying sad, but I will miss these special days.  

Light up the comments with your little things.  Let's enjoy this summer together. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Last Time I Lied

There is something truly wonderful about reading a seasonal book in the correct season.  It just feels right.  It's even better when that seasonal book could only happen in the season you are currently experiencing, say, a book about trick or treating or New Year's day, or summer camp.

but it's still better when the weather outside the window matches the weather in your book

Well, if that appeals to you too, grab a copy of The Last Time I Lied and read it now.  Like literally right now, in the month of July.  

I read it at the end of June and my part of the US was experiencing a bit of a heat wave.  All day I would commiserate with people from my town about the humidity and the sun, but then, I would go home and curl up with my book.  The heat made me feel even more a part of the story.  I sat on the patio reading with a large glass of iced tea, turning the pages faster and faster and enjoying every minute. 

Suspense is my jam.  I've read tons of novels where I'm guessing and wondering about the outcome.  With this one I kept thinking, there is no way the author will be able to tie up all these loose ends.  I imagined the plot like a friendship bracelet and anticipated being let down when all the strands of yarn weren't knotted and pulled tight.  I was certain Riley Sager wouldn't be able to bring a good sense of an ending to this book.  But I was wrong. 

Not only did Sager manage to bring proper closure to all the threads, he also did it in ways that were surprising and thorough.  Each part of the story was well conceived and I didn't feel like I needed more information or that he let any of the characters slip through the cracks. 

The Last Tim I Lied is about Emma, a girl who goes to an elite summer camp as a young girl.  At the end of camp, her three bunkmates disappear and are never seen or heard from again (I promise this is not a spoiler).  Emma gets invited back to the camp as an adult.  She is offered a job to teach art and after a short debate, she agrees, hoping to give herself a little closure.  Then things get wild. 

almost as wild as meeting your twin for the first time

The initial agreement of Emma to return to the camp was a little unbelievable, but once you get past how she gets to camp, then the real suspense and drama begin.  

A good suspense novel can be hard to come by and this one was the perfect blend of stress and mystery without being too gory or graphic.  I never felt really grossed out and didn't have to hide the book under my bed.  It was smart:  instead of using cheap gore to get a response Sager made me take a hard look at how girls relate to other girls (some of the insights made me double check that Sager is a man because they were just so spot on) and the ways we lie to each other and ourselves.  These themes are truly scary.  

Emma was a likable, flawed protagonist.  Another suspense trope that is super common is the unreliable narrator and while Emma is far from perfect she's not drunk or high throughout the book and again, I appreciated that Sager did not take the easy way out.  The other characters in the novel were well conceived and realistic.  Some were more likable than others.  *wink, wink*

I really don't want to give anything away so I'll end my review here.  But, I really do hope you'll read it.  And, if you did read it, what did you think?  Summer scares are the best.  


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Classics Club #2

It's that time again...

Time to break out your fine china and make some tea and scones. 

Classics Club #2 is here:

This time around I read Persuasion by Jane Austen.

It's no secret that I'm a major Jane Austen fan.  I've read all of her primary works and many of the spin-offs and retellings (spoiler alert: they're never as good as the originals). 

This is my second go-round with Persuasion and I liked it better this time.  I think it's probably best appreciated as the reader gains a little maturity.  It was one of Austen's last novels and the protagonist, Anne, is more mature. 

Having read her other novels I felt like I kept noticing similarities between characters and tropes.  Miss Smith is Emma Woodhouse's helpless friend from Emma and in Persuasion, Anne has a close friend with few prospects who is also named Smith.  Anne's father and sisters are horrible, representing the self-obsessed and delusional.  Throughout many other Austen novels, there are characters that embody these traits, though maybe not to this extent. 


Austen is known for building tension and drama from miscommunication and missed opportunities.  In Persuasion, she flexes all of her skill and makes the reader wonder how they (and Anne) could have perceived so many situations incorrectly.  I kept feeling disbelief that on my second read I would still be guessing and hoping so much. 

Anne was a highly likable character.  One of her major flaws was being too demure now and then, especially with her closest friends.  She is described as having "'A strong mind, with sweetness of manner.'"  However, she isn't a pushover.  For the greater part of a chapter she debates a Captain, the reader is privy to her inner struggle as she wonders about the course of her life and her choices, and the way she manages her father and sisters is subtle manipulation at it's finest. 

One of my favorite parts about classics is the finding the ways they speak to me today, in 2018, though the author had no intention of writing for a future audience.  In Persuasion, I was struck by the way that our feelings, anxieties, joys, and sorrows are much the same.  We worry that we are unlovable and wonder if we've missed our chance and the best years are gone.  We try to distract ourselves with small things and going away from home is always a big deal.  We certainly don't take a carriage anymore and there is a lot less walking for most of us, but Anne's inner workings are so familiar that I'm confident this novel will never go out of style.  Her love story is timeless.  

But, before you get the wrong idea, Austen is not all emotion and relationship drama.  To really know Austen, you have to get her sense of humor.  She does not just want you to feel big feelings, she also wants you to laugh. 

There was this one part where a lady was at a party wailing about her dead son.  Austen hits us with this:
"The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved..."

I found myself literally laughing out loud and slightly scandalized by the one-two punch of her blunt truth and humor.  And, also wishing I could be best friends with Jane, though I would be afraid of seeing myself in the pages of her work. 

Persuasion was a delight and if you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend making it a fall read. 

Insider tip:  my two favorite "other Austens" are By the Book and Austenland.  Both are super fun and well written.  Plus, the Austenland movie is a delight. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Reading Recap: June Edition

I know I whined a lot about May, but June was packed tight.  We had a lot going on and there were so many concerts.  Sidenote: I thought by encouraging some of my kids to make music their main hobby we would avoid having to go to a million games and practices.  Instead, we spend hours driving to auditions and sitting in concerts.  Moral of the story: kids = time and a lot of it. 

I actually enjoyed all of the concerts we went to and we did some super fun and important stuff.  Overall, June was good and I got to do some good reading.  I enjoyed all of the books I read (big win) and read a wide variety of genres. 

"I have loved none but you."

One of the downsides of June being so full of activities is that I didn't get to blog as much as I, I will be doing Classics Club #2 for Persuasion shortly, so stay tuned. 

This was a reread for me and I loved it.  I definitely think it would lend itself better to a crisp fall evening or an early winter read under a blanket, but early summer was pretty good too.  

The novel tells the story of Anne, a woman who was once in love but listened to the advice of her friend and decided not to marry her beau.  It was one of Austen's last novels and I get the strong impression she had fine-tuned some of her character archetypes for this work. 

There is tension, irony, humor, truth and beauty.  It is definitely worth the read.  And, I always love reading classics like this and noting the contrasts in our ways of living but the similarities between our feelings.  The world changes, but what drives people does not. 

The Atomic City Girls

"You would never see this money, these resources being spent in peacetime.  No government would go to this trouble to research cures for diseases or simply advance human knowledge.  No, we exert ourselves to this extent only in times of war, to invent killing machine . And this, my dear, will be a killing machine worse than any that man has ever dreamed up before."

This was my local bookstore's June book club pick.  I had seen this around when it first came up and it was jumbled in my mind with other books with "girls" in the title (ie: The Lilac Girls).  

Historical fiction is always edifying to read.  Learning about the past while digging into a good story is like killing two birds with one stone.  And, I learned a lot.  I had no idea that part of the atomic bomb was being worked on in Tennessee in this town set up completely by the government.  

However, this book fell prey to my usual complaint about historical fiction.  The story just wasn't there for me.  It was ok, but that was all.  The plot, about a young girl who moves into the atomic city, was thin.  I wanted to know more.  Instead, the author widened her scope and made this a multi perspective novel.  The other points of view were interesting but I didn't feel like any of them were fully developed.

What was really interesting was my book club.  Most of the women in my book club are older and were familiar with this part of history.  One woman brought the memoirs of one of her friends who actually worked in the atomic city.  Reading in community almost always makes the experience better.  

"Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason." 

I have five quotes written in my reading journal from this novel and even more highlighted in my book.  This was amazing.  

I bought it a while ago but am a big believer that a book can find you at the right time.  I put it on my shelf and didn't think too much about it.  

The author wrote a sequel that came out late spring and so I noticed a ton of buzz.  One podcaster said to read them in order so I pulled it off the shelf and decided to read this book about a very cold town while my city was blazing with heat and humidity.  

This is book is a meditation on hockey but it could be any team sport in any small town.  Think Friday Night Lights in book form.  Hockey is the subject, but the real story is about how the characters engage with or reject hockey and how this changes them, who they love, and what they believe.  

The way the book moved mirrored a hockey game--short sentences that jabbed, quick movement between characters, and a conclusion that gave me all the feelings.  The pacing was perfect.  There were lots of page breaks and short chapters that propelled me through the novel quickly.  

The author explores themes that are timely and themes that are always poignant.  In this town we see how groupthink changes the way we see events and how our families can save us.  There are deeply moving scenes and moments where I laughed out loud.  Go buy this book.

"Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won't wake up."  

In the summer I try to do a mother-daughter book club to keep my older daughters reading.  One of my girls picked this YA novel for our first read.  

Caraval takes place in a different world.  A pair of sisters get a coveted invitation to participate in Caraval--like survivor with a healthy dose of magic and mystery.  They go to an island to play the game and everything changes.  

It was a super fun read.  

Like most books that are classified YA, the descriptions can be a little over wrought and there is that kind of drama that appeals to most teens.  But, it was still fun for a 36 year old mother of four.  

I spent some time in the hospital in June with one of my kids.  Everyone is ok, but it was a stressful two days.  I brought this book with me and it was just the distraction I needed during the off times where I had to wait.  There is something to be said for having a fantasy that pulls you out of this world and forces your imagination to work overtime picturing a new creation with different rules that the author has spelled out for you.  I'm going to carry this lesson forward: during the most stressful times, read fantasy.

The Last Time I Lied
"'Whatever,' I say, following it up with an indignant huff.  'I'll go, even though I don't want to.'  It was a lie.  My first in a summer filled with them."

This was another fun read for summer.  I'll be writing a longer review of this book because I got it as an arc (advanced reader copy) from netgalley, but until then, you should know that this is a fun summer suspense novel that you should definitely read.  

The main character, Emma, attends a camp as a young girl.  At the end of camp her three bunk mates go missing and are never seen again (this is not a spoiler, I promise).  Emma is living as an adult with the psychological scars that an event like that would leave when she is invited back to the camp to teach art.  Then it gets stressful.  

It does require a bit of suspension of disbelief for the initial premise, but her time at the camp is cleverly constructed and I was hooked.  

At one point I thought there were too many strands for the author to tie up by the end of the book but then he did, and he did so while surprising me.  All of my best guesses were wrong and I love when that happens. 

If you like suspense and summer camps, you gotta give The Last Time I Lied a chance.  

And that's it, my June list.  I will try get July's book list posted at the beginning of August and I really, really hope to get a couple more posts up over the next two weeks, but you guys, having four kids home all day everyday is HARD.  

What did you read in June?