April & May 2016 Must-Reads

Sundog Books Seaside Florida

A good book, the beach, and June. Is there any better combination of time, place and object? For me, that’s about as close to heaven as you can get! The kids and I spent a week at Seacrest Beach on 30A in Florida and it was indeed heavenly. Here’s something magical you can’t imagine when your children are little: one day you will be able to sit at the beach or pool and read a book while they swim and play! So stay strong, momma with little ones in water wings and swim diapers – your time in the sun with something good to read will come.

I didn’t want June to completely slip away without sharing my favorite reads from the spring. There are some strong contenders for best reads of the year in this batch, so let’s not dally any longer!

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

March Must-Reads

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

I absolutely adored this book, from its charming cover to its endearing characters. Reclusive, fiercely private and cranky author M.M. “Mimi” Banning hasn’t been seen or heard from since she published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 30 years ago. After falling prey to a financial scam, she needs the money to keep from losing her home … so she must write the world’s most anticipated follow-up novel. In order to do so, she’ll need a little help with childcare for her 9-year-old son, Frank. He’s no ordinary child: precocious, well read and familiar with every old Hollywood film (along with a closet full of suits, spectacles and hats to help him dress the part), Frank is both charming and troubled. It will take someone special to care for Frank and live up to Mimi’s standards. Enter Alice, sent by her boss and Mimi’s publisher to do whatever it takes to give Mimi the time and privacy to finish her novel. Witty, funny and thoughtful, Johnson’s novel was one of my favorites of the year so far.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

This book kept showing up as a recommendation for me in all sorts of places, and it didn’t disappoint. Set the present day, Lee’s novel follows the lives of three very different American women living as expatriates in Hong Kong. As the story unfolds from each character’s point of view, the reader comes to understand each woman’s particular struggle with living the expat life, while also watching their stories unfold and connect. It was fascinating to delve into the expat bubble: living among your own fellow Americans while at the same time trying to find your place in a new and completely different culture. If you enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret,  Lee’s novel will satisfy as well.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Imagine Bridget Jones and Cameron Crowe melded into one teenage girl growing up in the gritty public housing of London. It’s a fun (but definitely not safe for work or small ears) listen. I cheered, pitied and laughed with Johanna Morrigan, as she navigates adolescence. She tries to build a version of a girl that will take her out of her current life: poor, awkward, humiliated and regrettably un-kissed. To everyone outside her family, she becomes Dolly Wild: rock critic, drinker of Mad Dog 20/20 and student of shagging. But did she build the right version of herself?

It was a slow go at first, but once I fell into the story I was enamored with Johanna. I highly recommend the audio version (just don’t listen to it out loud at work or with kids around – language and sex!). The narrator’s accent is exactly how I would imagine Johanna would sound, and her timing is fantastic.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I’ve never read anything like this Newbery Medal Winner by Kwame Alexander. Written in verse, it’s a genre that I would typically pass over. But it came highly recommended, and I thought the topic (basketball) would appeal to Eli. We both loved it. It made us laugh, think, cry and talk about some tricky issues regarding relationships. Alexander tells the story of twins Josh and Jordan. They both love basketball and they’re fantastically good at it, thanks to passion, genetics and the coaching of their father (a former professional player). Junior high brings big changes to the boys and their relationship: girls, competition, rivalry and worries about their father’s health. Their struggles and their story would be compelling on its own, but the writing style takes it to another level. I’d recommend this book to just about anybody (I bet the audio version would be fantastic!), but I’d enthusiastically put it in the hands of reluctant young male readers.

Untangled by Lisa Damour

If I could put this in the hands of every parent of a tween and teen girl I would. I can’t even begin to express what a gift this book is to parents wondering how to make it through the teen years. Damour, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development and research on girls, writes a handbook for parents that guides them through the seven transitions girls need to go through on their way to adulthood. These transitions (Parting with Childhood, Joining a New Tribe, Harnessing Emotions, Contending with Adult Authority, Planning for the Future, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Herself) are necessary but tricky, leaving even the most confident parents and girls wondering what on earth is going on. What I love about Damour’s book is that it talks about these issues in a calm, informative way – never condescending, never preachy, and (most importantly) never panic-inducing. Each chapter explains these developmental processes with the reasons why they need to happen and why they’re normal, and ends with specific examples of when a parent should worry. The teen years (unfairly) get a bad rap, especially teen girls. This book will help parents leave that notion behind and parent in a way that will ease the tension and drama, leaving them to enjoy this fantastic phase before their girls leave them in adulthood.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

You guys, I did it! I finally read Harry Potter! I don’t know why I waited so long, but you can bet it won’t take me as many years to read the rest of the series. I read the first book as my pick for “A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF” in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. Both Mike and the kids have been begging me to read the books for years. Since finishing the first book, I also got through The Chamber of Secrets by listening to the audio version on our way to the beach. The audio versions  narrated by Jim Dale are fantastic. Delving in the books makes me even more excited about the upcoming movie “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” as well as the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child  at the end of July.

Honorable Mention

Love the House You’re In by Paige Rien

As a timid and indecisive decorator of my own home, I really appreciated Page Rien’s guide to living in and decorating the home you’re in. Rien guides the reader through an overview of the home and her philosophy on decorating. I love how she emphasizes taking the time to think about what you love about your home and what bothers you, as well as taking stock of each room and its features before diving in to making any changes. She gives concrete, useful examples and ideas of how you can make your home better without having to spend loads of money or embark on a giant renovation. The underlying theme of her home improvement philosophy is to find ways to make each and every space unique to you and what you love, allowing readers to find their own decorating style that will reflect who they are and what’s important to them.

 

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

You may know Kaui Hart Hemmings by way of George Clooney. Her previous novel, The Descendants , was adapted into a movie starring Mr. Clooney. This is the first book I read by Hemmings, and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t a page-turner by any means, but it satisfied my love for good stories with interesting characters and connections. Sarah St. John was once the cheerful face that greeted Breckenridge guests on their hotel room televisions. But three months after her only son, 21-year-old Cully, was killed in an avalanche, she’s not sure she can do it anymore. She’s sad, angry, and searching for answers as surprises about Cully come to light. In a road trip with her hodgepodge of a support group, she begins to see the possibilities of moving on without Cully.

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims

I hit the non-fiction jackpot this month, reading several great titles that will stick with me for a long time. Lythcott-Haims reflects on the kids she helped usher through Stanford as the former freshman admissions dean and investigates why this generation in particular has had such a difficult time adjusting to adulthood. She tells stories of young adults whose parents intervene in college courses and post-graduate job interviews, and of kids who don’t know how to manage themselves on their own. Using these anecdotes as a guide, she formulates a plan for parents raising this next generation, helping us raise grounded, confident and independent kids who will be ready to tackle adulthood equipped with the tools they’ll need. I found it inspiring, eye-opening and extremely helpful. I’d especially recommend it for parents of tweens and teens who are on the cusp of the college admissions process.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

I’m fascinated by the topic of time: how we spend it, how we manage (or don’t) manage it, and why some people feel stressed and overwhelmed while others feel a balance between work, love and play. Schulte takes on this topic and does it well, including research, interviews and personal anecdotes that bring the issue to life. Are we really overworked and destined to never have enough time for fulfilling work, close relationships and personal leisure? Or is there a way out? I enjoyed this book so much that its inspired me to do my own personal time study and read more on the topic by picking up 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think  by Laura Vanderkam. This subject matter isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve ever had the nagging feeling that you could be spending your time in a different way, Overwhelmed will help you explore that in depth.

New & Noteworthy

Are you as Hamilton obsessed as I am? If so, get a copy of Hamilton: The Revolution in your home STAT. We have tickets to see it in Chicago in January, so I thought having it around on the coffee table would keep us satisfied while we wait for it. The only problem is, it never stays on the coffee table! We’ve all enjoyed looking through it, and Eli keeps squirreling it away to his room so he can practice all the lyrics to the songs.

The Rest

These are the books I got through without feeling anything particularly special about them, or that I started and just couldn’t finish:

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: A book club pick I struggled with. I skimmed over large portions.
  • Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins: A read aloud for Eli that would be better suited as book for kids to read themselves.
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer: YA by an author I really like. I prefer her other books more.
  • Hands Free Life by Rachel Macy Stafford: I had high hopes for inspiration here, but I just couldn’t get through it. A little too flowery and Jesus-y for my taste.
  • How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer: Parts of this story were great and other parts were just plain weird.

What are you reading and loving lately? Please share!

The best books I read in April and May in fiction, non-fiction, YA and children's literature.

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The Short List: May

Pacific Park Ferris Wheel Santa Monica

Disclosure: This post contains a few affiliate links.

Summer break is here! Are the kids out of school where you live yet? While we’re all ready to be done with early mornings and homework, I kind of wish we’d go into June and not go back until after Labor Day. You just never know about Indiana weather in late May and early June. Just the other week we needed our winter coats and had a freeze warning!

Speaking of summer break, I’ve been doing some thinking. I’ve been blogging for nearly 10 years now, and I’ve never taken a true vacation. I may skip a week or two of posting when things get crazy, but I’ve generally tried to make sure I’ve had at least one or two posts up every week … for a decade! Summer is always tricky for me, as I’m not great at writing ahead and so I always feel pulled between blogging, real life, and parenting.

Unlike other years, I’ve noticed a new feeling when it comes to this blog, though. Instead of feeling like I want to write here, I’m feeling like I have an obligation to do so. I think, more than anything, I’m tired of the hustle. The hustle is everything but the writing. It’s the staging of photos to make everything pretty for Pinterest. It’s trying to come up with witty bylines for Facebook and Twitter, and the self-promotion. It’s worrying about page views and likes and shares. I don’t want to hustle anymore, and I’m not exactly sure what that means for me, for my writing, for this blog.

And so I’m going to do what my heart wants and what my head has been so scared to do in the past: I’m going to take my own summer break. I’m going to finish up my California trip write-up as well as a round-up of the books I read this spring, and then I’m going to step away for a bit. I really and truly don’t believe it will spell the end, but I’m hoping it will give me time to think about what’s important in my life right now and spark that creative flame again. I don’t have many summers left with my kids. To spend another one hustling while their childhoods march away just as rapidly doesn’t feel right this year.

I promise I won’t leave you hanging, though, wondering if and when I’ll ever return. In the meantime, you can always find me on Instagram. I’d love to connect with you there as well, if we aren’t connected already. And if you’re dreading your own hustle, whatever that might mean for you, I encourage you to take a step back as well. The things that mean the most to you will still be there when (or if) you decided to rejoin the race.

In lieu of the normal short list, I thought I’d share a few things that spoke to me as I thought about what I wanted this summer to look like and how I could be more intentional about enjoying this season.

This episode of Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, Happier, is part of what sparked me to really think about summer break. I’m always so hopeful it will be different from the other seasons, and then I’m disappointed when it’s over and it feels like I didn’t enjoy it to its fullest. Here’s to having some experiences that make summer feel truly different from the rest of the year.

This article about how making time for books made the author feel less busy really resonated with me. As technology creeps into every aspect of our lives, I find that taking the time to shut the “chatter” out and read a book is extremely calming and restful.

I just finished Julie Lythcott-Haims’ “How to Raise an Adult.” In this article she talks about skills every 18-year-old should master before leaving for college (something she also discusses in the book in more detail). We’ll be working on these skills this summer!

I was craving a gin and tonic a couple of weeks ago, and accidentally bought club soda instead of tonic water. I made a gin rickey, and inadvertently discovered my official drink of summer (although the dark and stormy will always be near and dear to my summer heart).

I hope you have a wonderful summer! In the words of one of my favorites, Garrison Keillor: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

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When a Marriage Grows Up

Anniversary flowers

Mike and I celebrated 19 years of marriage this week, the same age we were when we first met. It wasn’t love at first sight, and we didn’t marry our best friend, but dammit – we make a good team. If our marriage was a person, it would be an adult now. It could drive a car, vote, and go to war.

As we raise our own teenager, I can’t help but reflect on this second half of marriage. I’m realizing that as our marriage leaves its teen years behind and we begin our third decade together, our marriage has grown up. Just like raising a kid, the changes are subtle. I didn’t wake up and think, “Oh glorious day! We’ve been through so much, and our marriage is perfect now!”

No, the first time I really thought about it was after we’d had an argument. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about – we argue over a lot of stupid stuff, along with a handful of some big stuff. (I’m very suspicious of people who say they never argue with their spouse. These same couples also seem to have sex multiple times a week after years of marriage and have never had a conversation with their spouse while the other one is pooping.)

The argument was resolved without any slamming doors, whatevers, or a prolonged period of existing with each other while doing everything we could to pretend the other person wasn’t actually there. (If that doesn’t describe at least twenty arguments you’ve had with your spouse, you may want to move along. Nothing to see here.) Soon after, Mike commented that he was happy that we were at a place where we could argue and get through it without hating each other for the next three days. Here’s the crazy thing: I was thinking the exact same thing.

Somewhere along the way our marriage had grown up to the point that we were able to fight fair. Lord knows we’ve had lots of practice, but being able to hash out grievances without name-calling or dropping totally unrelated emotional bombshells on your partner is a game-changer. It doesn’t mean we just call each other out willy-nilly. Instead it means that there is room for all kinds of growth and hope for our future – and that’s a beautiful thing when you hope to spend another few decades together.

Part of not calling each other out for every little petty thing has been learning to let go of control. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we have a pretty good idea of what our individual strengths are. Knowing that the other person is better suited to handle certain things didn’t mean the other person didn’t feel compelled to micromanage or share their (unsolicited) opinion. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, though, that we’re both more comfortable with letting each other be responsible for handling certain things and being okay with keeping our hands off of those things.

At the same time, we’re getting better at not tuning out completely. Yes, Mike pays the bills and reconciles all the expenditures against our checking account. I used to let this be his completely, to the point where I’d let my receipts pile up and hiss at him if he tried to enter them into the budget for me. But once he showed me exactly what he does, and how difficult the job can be if you get too far behind, I understood where he was coming from. It’s still his domain, but I can be as helpful as possible to make the job easier and grateful that he does this task for me. I’m in charge of the kids’ schedules, from dentist appointments to rugby carpool and homework routines. But it’s not cool to have a clueless spouse, and so we worked together to figure out a calendar system that we both use and check routinely. He may not ever need to take a kid to the doctor, and he may not be responsible for getting home in time to get Elena from her choir rehearsal, but he knows when it happens and appreciates the time I spend getting everyone where they need to be any given day.

The other big thing I’ve noticed as our partnership has matured has been the most important thing of all. More often than not, we speak well of each other in front of others. In the infancy of our relationship, this didn’t seem like a big deal. Of course we would gush about each other! We chose each other for all these amazing reasons, and don’t you want to hear about each and every one of them? But then someone won’t un-ball their socks before putting them in the dirty laundry even though you’ve told them it makes you want to stab someone, and the other person keeps trying to sneak weird stuff in your food and changing perfectly good recipes, and GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE I MARRIED SUCH A HEARTLESS IDIOT?

We struggled with this for so long, often using each other’s “quirks” as fodder for conversation with other couples. It’s passive-aggressively amusing for the one doing the talking, humiliating for the other. And for what purpose? I’ve yet to change any of my annoying ways because Mike told that “hilarious” anecdote over dinner with friends. Once we stopped doing it (mostly), it made me realize how terribly awkward it must’ve been for everyone around us. Once you’ve been the couple on the receiving end of one of these exchanges, where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or tear the offending a spouse a new one, you think long and hard about calling your partner out.

That doesn’t mean if you invite Mike and I over for drinks that we’re going to fawn all over each other and tell you how wonderful the other person is. Nineteen years is a long time to come up with reasons we’re not so wonderful. And also, we’ve seen each other poop. But we will try our best to follow the sage advice of Thumper, and if we can’t say something nice about each other we’ll change the subject or suggest tequila shots. And because we aren’t each other’s best friend, we each have a small handful of trusted friends with whom we can vent when we absolutely need to.

If that sounds terribly difficult (and believe me, I know in some seasons of marriage it truly is), try to take a step back and see your partner as others see them. Up close we all have faults, and no one knows them better than the person we married. Step away, and suddenly you’re able to see them in a completely different light.

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Happy anniversary, Mike. Thanks for giving me a place to sit and a warm bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese when I got locked out of my apartment 22 years ago. You’ve been keeping me safe and cozy ever since, and I’m so very glad.

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