Penny Plain by O. Douglas

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I had another blog post planned for today, but I just finished Penny Plain by O. Douglas and had to share about this new to me author.

I had heard of O. Douglas, a pseudonym for Anna Buchan, because my boys and I have long loved John Buchan’s books. I still enjoy reading about Richard Hannay and his adventures, especially Mr. Standfast. Did you know that John Buchan is the father of spy novels? His first, The 39 Steps, was written in 1915 but set just before World War I. The first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so full of hair-raising adventures and last minutes escapes that you find that you must read one more chapter to see if Hannay escapes the current tight corner.

Anyhow, because of my enjoyment of Richard Hannay, I had read about Buchan’s sister, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and had seen her books reviewed by other middlebrow novel enthusiasts. However, until this weekend, I had never read one for myself.

I downloaded Penny Plain for free onto my kindle. (As an aside, while I still adore real books, being able to read out of print, unaccessible books is one of the definite upsides of the digital book revolution). I’ve spent the last two days in Scotland with Jean Jardine and her three brothers, whom she is bringing up by herself after the death of her parents and her aunt.

It’s a charming little story with wonderful characters and a happy ending, the best kind of book. Jean is making do with little money but lots of books and love when Pamela Reston comes to the village of Priorsford to escape the social whirl for a while. The book is set just after World War I and the sorrows of the loss of so many young men come across from time to time. In a way, it is more poignant than a modern novel about the losses because the author knew those aching gaps in a way we modern readers never will.

However, the book itself is upbeat and tells about the kind heart of Jean, her genius for helping others, and the way her life takes an unexpected turn as a result of her kindnesses. Also, there are numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and poetry, which I will have to track down to their sources one of these days for the sheer fun of it. I love books that are full of quotations.

Just a few bits to give you the flavor of the book:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances.

She was glad she lived among people who had the decency to go on caring for each other in spite of lines and wrinkles—comfortable couples whose affection for each other was a shelter in the time of storm, a shelter built of common joys, of “fireside talks and counsels in the dawn,” cemented by tears shed over common sorrows.

It wasn’t sad to be old, Jean told herself, for as the physical sight dims, the soul sees more clearly, and the light from the world to come illumines the last dark bit of the way….

The other rooms are lovely, but they are meant for crowds of people. This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

If you love books with kindness and laughter and true values and happy ever afters, even in the midst of life’s sorrows, then you will enjoy Penny Plain.

 

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Favorite Books of 2017

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I barely achieved my goal of reading eighty books in 2017. It was a year of transition and I have a lot less dedicated time for reading than I used to have. However, I did read some very good books this past year and thought I’d share my favorites.

Top Five Fiction:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – An older man and a girl make a journey together in post Civil War Texas. The story was great and the details made me feel as if I was making the journey with them.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – Christina’s World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, has long been a favorite of mine so how could I resist this historical fiction novel about the Christina in the picture, her life, and how the picture was painted?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Beautiful prose and structure and a fascinating story about a Russian aristocrat who lives in a hotel under house arrest in Moscow. While he cannot go out into the world, he soon discovers that the world comes to him. My favorite novel of the year.

The Dry by Jane Harper – A debut mystery set in Australia. The story was so compelling that I read it in less than two days. I’m looking forward to the next in the proposed series.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon – I can’t resist novels based on true crimes and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. In the 1930’s, a New York City judge stepped into a cab one summer evening and was never seen again. This is one person’s idea of what happened to him and the women in his life.

Other than The Dry, which is a mystery set in modern Australia, this was the year of historical fiction. Each of the four books gave me a window into another time and place—Texas in the 1800’s, Maine in the early 1900’s, Russia in the 20th century, and New York City in the 1930’s. Historical fiction has always been a favorite genre, and this year I read a lot of it.

 

Top Five Nonfiction:

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I was fortunate to discover the very first edition of Victoria Magazine in a grocery store in the 1980’s and read it for many years. My favorite columns were written by “Jenny Walton”, who was later revealed to be the editor, Nancy Lindemeyer. For years, I had wanted to read this book which is all of the columns from Victoria plus other essays and this year I finally found a copy of it. It was beautiful in every way, a book I will read again and again.

The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Mason by Laurie Bestvater – The only thing I was sorry about while reading this book was that it hadn’t been written while my boys were still in my homeschool. However, it’s not too late for me to become more of a journaler or keeper as Mrs. Bestvater calls herself. This book not only inspires one to keep notebooks and journals but also goes into excellent detail on how to be successful at it.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – The amazing story of four women who contributed to the space race due to their brilliance in math and science. I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Shetterly speak after I read the book and look forward to reading future volumes of women who have done great things in history and are only waiting to be revealed.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – any of you who have read my blog know how much I liked this book: Deep Work – Final Thoughts

Reading People by Anne Bogel – I love personality tests and take them whenever possible. Anne Bogel took all the various ways of evaluating oneself and brought them together in this book along with explanations of each. It was a fun book to read and helped me to think through more about what makes me tick. If you are a personality test lover, you will adore this book.

Other than Hidden Figures, this was the year of reading books that aided me in thinking about my life and how I’d like it to be within my power to change it. Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies was yet another book in that self-improvement trend this past year. I suspect that with the transition from one type of lifestyle to another, I’m looking to see what will work best for me as I go forward.

 

Series of 2017 – Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie (First book is A Share in Death) – Set in modern England, especially London, but drawing from the history of the various places she uses in her books, Deborah Crombie has written a great series of mysteries. While each one has its own mystery, which is solved within that book, there are overarching mysteries and growth in the characters which deepens this series to something more than typical whodunits. They remind me of Louise Penny’s books.

Audiobooks – Audiobooks are a genre of their own, in my opinion. I think of them very differently from print books. I usually read better by sight so for an audiobook to hold my attention, it either needs to have a compelling story and/or a great narrator. These books had both:

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes – Juliet Stevenson narrates this story of two families and how they become intertwined due to an incident 25 years in the past. It’s basically an English Victoria soap opera but, oh so fun!

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – My son and I listened to this together in the car last spring. The events in the book occur 1000’s of years after Ender’s Game and Card incorporates many thought-provoking themes into this excellent story. We had some great discussions as a result of listening to this book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – As I wrote in my initial review of this: “I laughed, I cried, and I laughed again” at this story of an old curmudgeon and the family who moves in next story who just won’t leave him alone with his grumpiness.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A beautifully told story about a girl’s growing up, told in a series of poems. Sad at times, but still hope-filled.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – The true story of one of the contributors to the great Oxford English Dictionary and the man who pushed the project through towards completion. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this tale certainly proves that.

 

Favorite Devotional/Theology Book of 2017

Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp – a lovely set of devotions about Christmas and its true meaning. Reading it really made the month of December much more meditative and meaningful than it would have been otherwise.

That is a snapshot of my reading year in 2017. I look forward to another great year in 2018. What was your favorite book last year?

Deep Work – Final Thoughts

I finished Deep Work by Cal Newport over the weekend. His last chapter is entitled Drain the Shallows, in which he discusses ways to minimize shallow work and maximize deep work.

He suggests:

A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.

Now, he doesn’t mean to account for every minute, but rather, he says to block out your entire day and have a goal for each block. For instance, if I have planning time at work, for the first hour I would plan to write a new blog post, the second hour would be spent working on conference prep, and the third hour, I could start with my 15 minutes of daily learning and then use the rest of the time for shallow miscellaneous stuff. Perhaps you would have a block of time for internet research so that you aren’t using your other blocks for quick look ups which end up wasting your deep work time.  Remember, in a past chapter, he suggested scheduling your online time so that should be blocked out on your schedule as well.

His point here is to be intentional about your work and not be spontaneous. It’s too easy to squander your valuable deep work time if you don’t plan it up front. I know that much of my writing time is wasted, researching and editing.  I need to learn to separate those and spend dedicated time just writing and have separate blocks for research and editing.

He also advises to quantify the depth of each of your activities to determine what is truly deep work, ask your boss for a shallow work budget (how much time, percentage-wise, to spend each week on shallow work), finish your work day by 5:30 (don’t bring work home with you), and become hard to reach.

Final thoughts:  This was an extremely helpful book for showing me how I spend my time, how I waste my time, and how to go about redeeming my time. If you want to rethink how to carve out time for deep thinking and working, I highly recommend this book. It’s thoughtful and full of practical advice.

Past articles on this title:

Finding My Focus Again

Deep Work – Part II

Deep Work – Rule #2

Working toward focus and thought

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

Deep Work – Rule #2

When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds.  On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand.  Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.

All of those times tended to have moments, even hours,  of boredom.  There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts.   I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.

Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom.  These days, escape from boredom is only a click away.  We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat.  We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly.  When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited?  Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.  He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction.  In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation.  While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem.  Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it.  If you do this  two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.

In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. 

When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way.  The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom.  Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too?  If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.

 

Deep Work – Part II

In the first part of Deep Work, Cal Newport defines what deep work is and makes a case for why the world needs it. I read this part but since I already had a fairly good idea about the definition and didn’t need convincing, I didn’t linger over Part I.

The second part of the book was where the meat was and I have spent a lot more time there. He has four rules of deep work. Rule #1 is… wait for it… Work Deeply.

Newport says:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” P. 100

He then goes into some ideas on creating those types of routines and rituals. Some of his ideas were new to me and were helpful to think through. For instance, I get up early because I am a morning person and do my best work in the mornings. However, I have been squandering a lot of that good time in frivolous things. So I’m rethinking my morning routines, reading articles such as How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day, Bookend Your Days: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines (morning routines are for women, too!),  Establish a Consistent Morning Routine: Maximize Your Mornings, and 6 Elements of a Powerful Morning Routine

Another point Cal Newport makes in this section is that being “lazy” at times actually helps your deep work and creativity. By leaving work behind for a few hours a day, you give your brain a chance to work on things in the background and come up with new ideas for problems you are seeking to solve.

I think also that time spent reading and thinking about non-work things gives you a chance to refuel your mind so that you have a constant flow of new thoughts and ideas to chew on.

Do you have any morning routines that help you work more effectively and/or use your time more wisely? I’d love to hear about them.

Finding My Focus Again

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’m not reading as much, not thinking as much, and definitely not writing as much. I could blame it on all of my responsibilities at home, work, and, until last June, home school, but the reality is that I’ve lost my focus and find it all too easy to distract myself with frivolous things.

I know that I’m not alone. Everywhere I look, I see articles and TED Talks and books discussing this problem. While they have talked about the problem, the most common solutions (take an internet break, throw your phone away, go off to the woods to a cabin with no wifi) are out of my price range or impractical or not concrete enough to help.
However, a couple of months ago I picked up a book which is helpful–Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’m about two thirds through it and am taking copious notes (alas, it’s a library book so I can’t mark it up).
I know I’m not the only person out there to struggle with focus and the ability to read, write, and think as deeply as I used to so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as I work my way through the book. Stay tuned for future thoughts as I blog my way through the book. And, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library and check out this book. It’s one of the most helpful productivity books I’ve read.

Book Review – The Splendour Falls

Chinon, France – with Château de Chinon on the hill

 

Emily Braden has been convinced to go on vacation with Harry, her charming but unreliable cousin.  Harry is going to the town of Chinon in France to look for the lost treasure of Isabelle, one of the Plantagenet queens, and he arranges to meet Emily in Chinon.  Unsurprisingly to Emily, Harry fails to show up on the agreed upon date.   So begins another of Suzanna Kearsley’s wonderful romantic historical mysteries.  

At first Emily thinks nothing of Harry’s absence, but as the days go by without hearing anything from him, Emily grows concerned that perhaps Harry’s failure to appear is more than just his usual forgetfulness.  As she gets to know the other guests in the hotel in which she is staying, she becomes entangled in not only the mystery of Queen Isabelle’s lost treasure, but also the more recent mystery of another Isabelle, who supposedly hid a treasure before taking her own life in World War II.

The cast of characters include a charming Frenchman and his delightful child, two Canadian brothers, an American couple, and an old retainer with secrets of his own, all of whom draw Emily further into the mysteries of Chinon.  Ms. Kearsley’s delightful descriptions of Chinon gave me the sense of being there, and I admit to spending an evening looking at photographs of the French town and reading more about this historical little gem of a city in the Loire Valley in France.  

I was alternatively entranced and dismayed by the unfolding events and kept reading “just one more chapter” until the wee hours of the morning.  The ending was eminently satisfying–the mystery of both of the Isabelles is resolved as is Harry’s disappearance.  My only disappointment is that I would have liked a bit more detail about the two Isabelles and their times.  However, all in all, it was a satisfying read for anyone who likes historical thrillers set in an exotic locale with a bit of romance thrown in, too.