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A small portion of my collection from grad school

Reading is fun, but it’s also my favorite way to learn. It has been especially helpful when it comes to recognizing systemic inequities that don’t necessarily have a negative effect on me personally. Those were the classes and books I was drawn to in college, and I am still drawn to them to this day. I read about injustice, and I get mad.

Anger is useful but not always sustainable (Allegedly. I can hold on to some anger.). If I hear something that shocks or offends me, my first response is to ask why. My second response is to read more on the subject so that my actions are not limited to my emotional reaction. For someone for whom emotions – both positive and negative – are usually overwhelming, this is an important step. I inform my opinion, changing it if that’s what the facts and evidence require, and thus I am better equipped to move forward.

There’s also something wonderful about reading a book that tells a story similar to your own. The New Yorker ran an article written by Michael Waters earlier this month on a book club that gained popularity through the underground and by word of mouth. People who were told they didn’t have a place in society sought out books that told their stories, and it helped spark the Gay Rights Movement. Despite censorship and other factors working against them, people were able to connect through books, and it changed (and continues to change) the world.

My Christmas gift to myself this year may be a Literati subscription. I love that leaders are using their influence to recommend readings to inspire others to make the world a better place. It’s like taking a perpetual humanities class, only a little more renegade.

What is the most important book you’ve read? What did you learn? How did it change you?

I’m writing about a hundred or so of my favorite books this month.

My vacation officially started yesterday, so I’m looking forward to a lot of reading in the next week. I’ve already finished two books that I had begun earlier, so we’re off to a good start. When I plan vacation reading, I typically lean toward favorite series and authors. There are many authors who, when their new books come out, I will always read. Here are the first five who came to mind.

  1. ACF Bookens – One of my favorite cozy mystery authors. I am heavily invested in the lives of both the St. Marins and the Stitches in Crime characters, and I am super excited to read anything she comes up with in the future.
  2. N.K. Jemisin – If you haven’t read The Broken Earth Trilogy, stop reading this and go read that instead. It’s so good. Anyone who enjoys fantasy or sci-fi should check her out. The City We Became is very close to the top of my TBR list, and I may just have to push it ahead next week while I have some time.
  3. Louise Penny – I was delighted to remember that I already had purchased the audio of The Madness of Crowds when I was preparing a list of books to bring with me on the trip to the farm. I’m about 2.5 hours into it, and of course I’m already hooked. I love the Three Pines mysteries, and I still mourn the original audio reader for the series (RIP).
  4. Jasmine Guillory – Damn, she can write a sex scene. You don’t have to start with The Wedding Date, as each novel can stand on its own, but that’s where I would start.
  5. Helen Hoang – Also very hot sex scenes. I love the incorporation of neurodivergent characters in her romantic stories. The Kiss Quotient is my favorite, but they’re all fantastic.

There are so many others that come to mind, but I never hesitate to pre-order new books these authors put out the moment I’m able to do so.

What authors are on your “always read” list?

I’m writing about the books I love this month.

I am a pretty steady reader, but sometimes I go through phases where I can’t seem to finish anything because I don’t really feel like reading. It happens when I’m very busy in several areas of my life, so when I get home all I want to do is decompress in front of the television, preferably with a show or a movie I’ve already seen several times so that I don’t have to think about it at all. Or, less frequently, during a month when most of my book club selections are things I normally wouldn’t have chosen to read myself, so reading all of them one right after another seems more like homework than pleasure.

Whatever the reason for the rut, I don’t quite feel like myself again until I’m out of it. There are a few tactics I use to jostle my enthusiasm back to life.

Read Short Stories

We were just talking about this on Tuesday in book club. When I’m super tired at the end of a busy day, the idea of reading a novel seems overwhelming. But a short story doesn’t seem so bad. Depending on how short it is, I may be able to finish the whole thing in 10-15 minutes. If it’s good, I may even read the next story. The next night, I read for more than half an hour. Before I know it, I’m back to my regular reading habit.

Choose Comfort Books

I have several comfort genres. Foodie fiction or memoir. Cozy mysteries, the next book in a series I like, or books about books (or in the case of ACF Bookens’s St. Marin’s series, all three in one). I grab a warm beverage and tuck into one of these, and it’s like visiting with a good friend.

Take it on the Road

One of the things I love about audiobooks is that they give me something to listen to when I’m driving without being plagued by commercials or having to skip a song that I’m not in the mood for. They also help me get out of ruts. I go for a drive in the country (or what passes for country near me) every once in a while, and even if I only get 30 minutes into an audiobook, I’m usually hooked enough to want to finish it.

Don’t Worry About It

Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood to read, and that’s ok. There’s no need to force it. I used to actually feel bad when I got into a reading rut, but when I stopped to ask myself why, I didn’t have a good answer. I’m not sure there is one. As much as I love reading, sometimes I just need a break, and it’s ok to take one. The books are always there when I get back.

Do you get in reading ruts? What do you do (if anything) to pull yourself out of it?

I’m writing about books all month.

Day 20 – Foodie Fiction

I don’t re-read a lot of books. There are a few exceptions. I read The Little Prince every New Year’s Day. If I really love a book or a character, I’ll read it once or twice again. But mostly, I stick to new experiences with books I’ve never read before.

One genre is an exception. Foodie fiction.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Chocolat. I picked it up for the first time after the movie came out, and I love getting lost in that little village so much I read it again every few years, particularly when the seasons change or it is particularly windy outside.

I don’t often re-read the whole book at a time. Just sections I particularly enjoy. Or I open it to get a recipe inside (the red lentil soup from Pomegranate Soup? One of my favorites, particularly garnished with pan-crisped onions), and I find myself reading the pages around it. It is very easy for me to get distracted by a story that revolves around food.

I especially like it when food novels have a magical element to them. Because food itself has a bit of magic to it, and I feel like these books are a nod to that truth. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has lovely insights into empathy, and Like Water for Chocolate takes cooking with love (and other emotions) to a whole new level.

Some people turn to novels set in their favorite travel locations when they need a good escape. I enjoy those, but my great escape often leads to the kitchen and the delights I discover there. My favorite book escapes lean that direction, too.

I’m writing about some of my favorite books this month.

From Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick

I spent the evening with another one of my book clubs. A few women in our church started a book club a few years ago. Our attendees include retirees, some moms and grandmothers, potters, gardeners, adventurers, librarians and travelers. There are usually snacks; there is always wine.

This group is a good reminder of how easy it is to start a book club. Two people were talking about a book they both wanted to read after church one Sunday and said, “We should get together and talk about it afterwards.” Which easily became, “We should invite more people,” which turned into, “Let’s start a book club.” I got invited because I heard “book” and, like a dolphin to a chum bucket, I rushed over and made sure my availability to share in the bounty of the conversation was noted.

That’s really all it takes.

This month’s selection was a collection of Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories (compiled by a local English professor, Genevieve West), Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick. Last month, we read The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See. We’ve read mysteries, young adult novels, and an inordinate number of books set during WWII. We’ve definitely read a lot of things that I never would have picked up on my own but am glad I got a chance to read them.

I think one of the reasons I feel at home at my church is because there are a lot of readers there. In addition to our evening book club that meets every third Tuesday of the month, there is also a daytime book club. And the Sunday School class often reads and discusses a book chapter by chapter (right now, for example, we’re reading Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd, which, if you’re a Christian who sometimes finds it hard to like God very much, maybe this book will bring you some peace that you maybe haven’t felt for a long time, if you’re interested in that sort of thing).

This church is compassionate and justice-minded. It makes sense that a group of readers would respond to the world that way. When you regularly and enthusiastically chose to enter a story through another person’s perspective (even a fictional one), it becomes a lot easier to do the same in real life.

I am excited about the prospect of picking up the book bag project that our book club started a few years ago again this year. We weren’t able to collect books for a local nursery school’s graduates to take home over the summer the last two springs, but I bet they’ll allow us to do so again at the end of this school year. I hope so. I’ve been stockpiling. We love to encourage new readers. We can’t wait to see what this next generation does with the things they learn.

I love this group and the rich life experience that each of them brings to the table every time we meet.

I’m writing about books (and my friends who love books) this month.

Day 18 – Food Memoirs

No, I haven’t pilfered some of these from the library. They were bought legitimately through a library sale. But if I were ever going to steal a library book…it might be a food memoir.

In my main collection, fiction and nonfiction stay mostly separated (to the extent that they can – fantasy and reality often overlap in life, so I suppose it’s inevitable in books). On my foodie shelf, though, memoirs and novels about food and its influence on the world cohabitate with reckless abandon.

I enjoy all kinds of books, but when I am looking for something comforting and decadent, rich and nourishing, I go for books that talk about food. Whether its a food writer by trade telling tales of all the wonderful places where they’ve eaten delectable things, a cook sharing some of the wealth of their knowledge, or a favorite celebrity talking about what food means to them, I am riveted.

This is a fairly new preference of mine. The first food writer I remember reading was Ruth Reichl. I can’t remember if I started with Tender at the Bone or Comfort Me With Apples (I mean, those titles alone. Come on.), but I greedily started the second right after I finished the first. I couldn’t get enough. She talked about learning to cook and her years as a young food writer, including many of the people she met along the way. Danny Kaye’s lemon pasta is still one of my comfort food favorites.

I understand the way food weaves into a story on a fundamental level. Most of my own stories and strongest memories are tied to a taste or a smell. The scent of melting chocolate reminds me of Thanksgiving (both happy and tumultuous) with my family. I once broke down sobbing at the farmer’s market upon discovering cream crowder peas, much to the chagrin of the kind farmer who pointed them out to me and innocently asked, “Have you ever tried them?” I explained (between gasps) that I hadn’t had them since my grandma – who used to grow them in her garden and had died recently – made them. He listened to me ramble, a little misty-eyed himself, and I’m pretty sure he snuck an extra quarter pound into my bag.

My most recent acquisition is Stanley Tucci’s Taste. I planned to save it for November, when I’m tackling The Joy of Cooking as my joy selection, but I’m not sure I can wait that long. Never mind that I will watch or read anything Stanley Tucci ever does (have you seen him make a Negroni, because you should), or that I’ve daydreamed more than once what it might be like if Stanley Tucci were my boyfriend. The way he comes to life when he talks about food is irresistible. I am really excited to tuck into this book.

No matter what kind of memoir you like – adventure, romance, quiet reflection – I bet there is a food memoir you’d like. Here are a few lists with great selections if you’d like to try:

Have you had the joy of a food memoir yet? Which one is your favorite?

I’m writing about books this month.

I love both food and reading, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find myself reading Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking like a novel the first time I picked it up. I meant to just reference it to get some ideas about how to turn my ho-hum spaghetti sauce into something more delicious (simple, fresh, and slow is how you do it, btw), but I found myself captivated by this culinary icon’s love letter to food. Since then, it’s become a habit.

You can tell a lot about a cookbook by the way it’s written.

If you find basic instructions being repeated from recipe to recipe, this would be a good gift for a beginning cook. The author is building in repetition throughout to teach techniques that might be unfamiliar to those just starting.

If every ingredient (even spices) have specific measurements, the author likely learned to bake first. Baking is a precise science. Cooking? Not so much. Those who learned how to make meatloaf by peering past MeMaw’s elbow will say things like “to taste” and “you measure garlic with your heart.”

If the author wants you to think of good food as more than just what ends up on the plate, they’ll give commentary or tell stories.

These are my favorite kinds of cookbooks.

[Aside: Yes, I also love food blogs. I do want to hear all about your Aunt Gladys before you graciously share her split pea soup recipe with me. Ignore those jerks who complain about having to scroll through the story to get to the recipe, and shame on them for scrolling. They don’t deserve Aunt Gladys’s soup, and I hope they burn their tongues. Next time maybe they’ll just go to a recipe site and stop harassing you with their impatience and poor judgment. Being annoyed that a blogger is telling a story (i.e., blogging) is like going to an Italian restaurant and being mad that they serve pasta. It doesn’t make any sense. /endrant]

One of my favorite food storytellers is Nigella Lawson. In addition to the recipes in her cookbooks being super easy to follow, she regularly drops such gems as these in there:

  • “The trashy cook should not be stoveside too long without a drink in hand.” (Nigella Bites)
  • “This is the sort of cake you’d want to eat the whole of when you’ve been dumped.” (Nigella Bites)
  • “While you will never find me making zoodles or allowing any other vegetable to masquerade as pasta…” (in the recipe entitled “Subverting the Spiralizer” in At My Table)
  • “If the person-in-a-hurry is miniature in stature, and not progressed to caffeine intake…” (Nigella Express)
  • “I know that cookies sound like the sort of cooking someone else does…” (Forever Summer – or, if you have a more recent edition – Nigella Summer)

Just thumbing through these beloved cookbooks makes me want to make a shopping list and cook all the things. Rice pudding or happiness soup at an upcoming cookbook club? I think so.

Also, if you love food and cookbooks? Get or start a cookbook club. You can call it a supper club if you want. Potluck and share recipes/bring cookbooks to geek out over together. Good times.

I’m writing about as many of the ways that I love books that can fit into a mere 31 days.

As much as I love book clubs, you’d probably think I would have joined one of the ones at our local library years ago. But as much as I love traditional book clubs (where you pick and read the same book together), I already have those in my life. So while I was still tempted, I knew that picking one more group with quasi-assigned reading wasn’t really what I wanted.

Enter the Rise and Shine Book Club.

Once a month, this group meets to talk about books. The difference is that there is no one book that we’re reading. We discuss a different genre every month (this month was horror, of course), and the library staff member who leads it gives recommendations in that genre. The rest of us are welcome to recommend books as well, and we all go home with a new list of things to add to the TBR list.

As an added bonus, when we attend in person, we get to take some of the advance reader copies that the library receives to review with us. The stack above is my haul from just two months of in-person meetings. I do love free books.

This book club is how I discovered Hollow Kingdom and the reason I picked up You this month. We’re discussing magical realism next month, and I can’t wait to discover more new treasures.

If you want to start a book club but don’t want the pressure of choosing one book that everyone will read or don’t think your bookish friends will want to add one more responsibility to their monthly schedule, this may be a good structure to try. You still get to get together and talk about books you love, and you can do it without expectation.

I love talking and writing about books – in any structure.

I am finishing You tonight because a) it’s spooky season and this book definitely qualifies and b) it was recommended by the librarian who runs the public library book club which is tomorrow. I am enjoying it a lot, not only because this narrator is well-developed but also because he works in a bookstore. I am a sucker for books about books. Or even if they’re not really about books, feature books to a significant extent.

I have more of these books on my TBR list than on my finished list, but here are five that I have read and recommend:

  1. Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence – I would like to write a book like this someday. It’s a fun premise – writing letters and breakup notes to books that have influenced her life. I love any book that makes me feel like I’m having a conversation with the author, and this one did.
  2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – This book/series is one of my favorites. I may mention it a lot this month. It’s set in a fantastical world where people can actually enter books and alter them. The writing is so clever.
  3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer – A mysterious book society? Sign me up!
  4. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George – I think most book lovers have dreamed of walking into an unusual bookshop with a seller who can make the perfect recommendation. Full of literary adventure, this books takes the idea to another level.
  5. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan – The title of this book is confusing – I suppose that a bookshop in a van could be on the corner but it could also be around the corner or out in the middle of a field. Anyway, the curious nature of the title doesn’t detract from my delight in the story at all.

One day, I’m going to have a shelf that’s all books about books.

These days, I’m writing about books.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader. When I think about my favorite children’s books, though, I don’t necessarily think of ones that I read when I was an actual child. My favorites in this category are often divided between then and now.

My parents and grandparents read me a lot of Little Golden Books. The Tawny, Scrawny Lion is the one I remember reading over and over again once I could read on my own. I would “teach” my granddad how to read using the well-worn copy at their house. Once I graduated to chapter books, I tore through several series – Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children. I loved Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, but honestly? I identified more with the big sister, who is obviously not the hero of the story and a person merely tolerated rather than celebrated. I preferred her Ralph S. Mouse series. I tried The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit, but I was a more serious child and didn’t have a lot of patience with fantasy elements.

Until Alice.

I was enthralled with Alice in Wonderland, and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. To this day, I will read anything remotely related to Alice. My favorite episode from the first season of Once Upon a Time is the one that features the Mad Hatter. I played the Dormouse in our high school one-act play production (I, of course, was brilliant and adorable). This story fed my young imagination in so many ways and instilled in me a lifelong sense of curiosity about possibilities and wonder.

Looking back on stories I read and was told, I feel nostalgic fondness for things like Winnie the Pooh and fairy tales, but I am pretty sure these memories have more to do with television and Disney movies than the actual books. I’m still drawn to the stories, though (and Christopher Robin still made me cry).

I have especially grown to love fairy tales. I will read any fairy tale retelling. I guess most of them are presumed more appropriate for adults (as are the original fairy tales), but as a child, I might have liked them better than the saccharine, musical versions presented to me. Don’t get me wrong – I like a lot of Disney movies. But I would have found the comeuppance Cinderella’s stepsisters received in the original much more satisfying, even as a young child.

Working daycare during undergrad introduced me to other children’s books, but so many have come out since then I’m not sure I can narrow it down. One of the authors that always reminds me of my daycare kids (who are grown folk who can rent a car and probably have kids of their own by now) is Sarah Boynton. But Not the Hippopotamus is my favorite, and there are a slew of other board books that are perfect for toddlers and two-year-olds.

There are so many great children’s books out there. Which ones are your favorites?

I’m writing about books all month!

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