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?

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Focus Word of 2018

20170510_140503903_iOSAt the beginning of 2017, a friend encouraged me to choose a word to focus on for the year rather than make a slew of resolutions that I would probably end up ignoring. After much thought, I chose the word Transition for 2017. I knew that it would be a year of many endings and beginnings which can be stressful even when those things are good and normal.

Every time I felt grieved at the loss of my work of 18 years or frantic at learning to cope with a new schedule and responsibilities, I would remember that it was a transition year and would give myself some grace. It helped a lot as I adjusted to new schedules, new routines, and new duties.

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with one of my sons, in which he commented that many people these days complain too much about their work, busyness, and life in general. I realized that I, too, had fallen into a habit of complaining more often than being thankful. Last night while watching the movie, Dunkirk, my husband commented that he was thankful he didn’t live in such a difficult time, which reminded me of how blessed we are to live in a comparatively safe country.

With those comments in mind, I decided to focus on the word Contentment in 2018. I have much for which I am thankful to the Lord. My life is full of blessings, small and large, not the least of which is my Savior, Jesus Christ, who leads, comforts, strengthens, and encourages me daily. Add to that, I have family and friends, a beautiful job, an enjoyable and challenging job, and more books than I can ever read. How can I ever feel sorry for myself!

Rather than focus on the difficulties and discouragements of daily life as is so easy to do, I want to look at the blessings instead and be content with where I am in my life and circumstances.

There are many ways to do this. One good way is to read books on thankfulness and contentment. Two I have read in the past and found helpful are The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs and One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Another way to cultivate contentment is to count my blessings each morning. After my alarm goes off, I hit snooze, but I don’t use the nine minutes to sleep. Instead I pray and think of the things I am thankful for. This morning I was thankful for a warm bed and a warm house on such a bitterly cold morning. I thank the Lord for a job, for my family and friends, for books and learning, for music and flowers and laughter. Whatever I can think of that is a blessing in my life, I thank Him. It sets my heart and mind in the right direction for the day when I start with a grateful heart.

Sometimes I focus on gratitude and contentment by singing. When my boys were small and complaining, I taught them the old chorus that my grandmother used to sing,

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.

Singing praise to the Lord is a good way to combat a peevish spirit. I often sing during my prayer and Bible time, sometimes aloud and sometimes under my breath if the house is asleep. Many times I sing along with the radio in the car as I am driving or sit down at the piano and play and sing hymns and praise choruses. There are many ways and times to sing, and the Scripture encourages us to do so as in Ephesians 5:19-20: speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ….

Writing down my blessings in my journal is another way I cultivate thankfulness. When I see the results of a bitter, complaining spirit, I want to guard my tongue and stop grumbling. Complaint and ingratitude start in my heart and mind. If I focus merely on not uttering complaints, I’ve fought only half the battle. I must start with what I believe, and my words will flow out of the abundance of my heart. Seeing my thoughts and beliefs in black and white on a page helps me to refocus on what is right and true rather than on my transitory feelings.

Will you join me in cultivating a spirit of contentment in 2018? And if you hear me complaining, please remind me of my word of the year. I want to succeed in replacing a spirit of complaint with one of thanksgiving this year.

Achieving My Goal

There is nothing as satisfying as achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself, especially if that goal is one that stretches you outside of your comfort zone. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I decided to spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo to develop the habit of daily writing.

If I had plenty of time at home to work on my goal, reaching it would have been easier, but between going to work daily, organizing a conference, and preparing for Thanksgiving, my time has not been free and easy this month. Instead, I had to do what many writers did over the centuries.  Anthony Trollope, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and many others had to fit their writing in around their day jobs and so did I. Each morning, I wrote until my timer went off, signaling that I had to quit writing for the day and prepare for work.

I wrote about books and reading, my faith, prayer, and listening to sermons, memories of my mother and favorite authors. Despite many responsibilities, I was able to carve out moments for reflection, creativity, and turning my thoughts into words and sentences and paragraphs.

I missed one day of writing and found myself writing in my head instead. I once read that the more you express love the more it grows, and creativity is similar. The more I wrote, the itchier my fingers grew, waiting for the time to put my words on paper.

I never stop thinking, but my thought life can become stagnant when I don’t feed it or let it flow freely. Like damming a stream, you can stop up your mind until the algae forms on top and nothing can grow because the water of your mind is stagnant. On the other hand, when you let your stream of thoughts run freely, the flow brings many kinds of thoughts and ideas and words and mental images tumbling out, eager to be shared. Writing daily gave my thoughts a place to go which, in turn, allowed more thoughts to form.

Before I started, I didn’t know whether I could make the time or have the discipline to write every day this past month. Some days I didn’t want to write. If I did my writing at the start of my day, I was more likely to succeed than if I waited until later in the day when distractions abounded and my brain was overflowing with too much input.

Like regular exercise, I became used to working on a new idea each morning and began to look forward to my daily creative time. I had listed topics for possible blog posts in October, but I ended up using only half of them because the more I wrote, the more new ideas would pop up during the day that I wrote about as soon as I could find time.

November was a good month, and I plan to continue to write or at least edit every day. I hope to share the fruits of my work with you over the next several months.

Do you write every day? If so, when is your best time for writing and how do you carve out time for your creativity each day?

Daily writing and NaNoWriMo

For the past four years I have been leading and facilitating local writers groups at the library where I work. Each November I encourage the writers to take part in NaNoWriMo, but I have never participated myself. I had multiple excuses: I write nonfiction, not novels. I am homeschooling and working so when would I find time to write?  I could never write that many words in a month. That’s for real writers not my wannabe self.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Each year hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words in November. If they succeed, they “win”. What do they win? Nothing monetary, but they will have a completed rough draft of a novel and a banner to download to their website/social media.

So why participate? There are several reasons: it’s more fun to write with others cheering you on which happens a lot during the month. It’s more likely you will sit down and write when you have made it public you are writing 50,000 words. There is nothing quite like the pressure of making a public pledge to keep you accountable. Even if you don’t achieve 50,000 words, you will still develop the discipline of writing every day.

Writing is only successful when you sit down every day and put words on the paper. Neil Gaiman said, “To be a good writer… read a lot and write every day.” A writer once commented that it takes a million words before you are a competent writer. That means if you write 1,000 words a day, it will take three years of daily writing to get the bad writing out of your system. Only then will you start to write the good stuff. But if you never start, you will never reach competency.

I cheered others on but never took part myself until I  decided to join in the fun this year. Why did I change my mind?

First, I discovered the “rebels” group. There are various group forums on the NaNoWriMo site. Groups for research, various genres, resources and support, fans, and the rebel group. The rebel group includes poets, playwrights, bloggers, nonfiction writers, and others. They set their own goals. Some want to write 50,000 words on a nonfiction project. Others want to write a poem a day for 30 days or work on their thesis or set research goals for a new book. There are as many goals as rebels, which is okay.

Since there was a group in which I would fit, I thought about joining. But what would I write? I still have far too much research to do on my book and I didn’t want to set research goals this first time out. I did, however, want to develop the discipline of writing every day, and I decided to write 30 blog post drafts in 30 days.

I won’t be posting all thirty immediately since the point of this exercise is getting a rough draft down.  However, I hope to post at least once a week, and by the end of the month, if I succeed, I will have two things: thirty blog post drafts for the future and the discipline of writing every day.

As I have been writing regularly over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that it easier to get my thoughts on paper and I have been increasingly creative. Also, it is autumn and I spend more time thinking and pondering and meditating this time of year.

To reach my goal, I’ve been rearranging my morning time customs: I am getting up earlier each morning to make time for more contemplation and prayer, more reading, and regular writing. I am spending less time on social media and the internet. I am picking up pen and journals more often. I’m attempting to spend more time with real books rather than electronic books.

I’m not against electronic books but it is too easy to get distracted when the internet is on the same device as the book. With a paper book in my hand and the internet devices in another room, I am more likely to lose myself in the story than go look up a rabbit trail topic. With a paper journal and pen, I am more likely to keep writing rather than go find the perfect word or do research on my current topic or find the exact wording of a quote I want to use.

Expect to see more regular posts from now on and also ask me how it’s going. If my friends and family know about this, hopefully they will encourage me, keep me accountable, and check in on my progress throughout the month.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? I’d love to hear about your goals and cheer you on in your writing.

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Autumn has come

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The other morning I stepped outside to go to work and discovered that autumn had arrived. The sky was that perfect blue that you only see in September. Geese were flying overhead, calling to one another as they flew toward warmer climes. A slight mist was floating over the trees, bushes, and the flowers in my garden. The air had the faintest crispness, hinting at the cooler weather soon to come. Just like that, in the space of a day, summer had turned to autumn.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. It’s a time of new beginnings, of starting over, of turning the page of my life. As I was growing up, January never seemed as strong a new year as September, when the season began to change, new classes were starting, new books were bought and begun, and new unknowns were yet to be explored. New notebooks were full of white, clean pages, waiting to be filled with thoughts and ideas, facts and questions, many of which would influence my soul and my mind from then until the present.

Even now, when I no longer go to school myself nor teach others, I still view September as the beginning of my year. I turn over the calendar page to September and breathe a sigh of relief—the heat of August is waning and cool weather is right around the corner. Sweaters, my favorite garments, will soon be required in the mornings and evenings. Lap blankets and hot tea will accompany me to our back deck, as I read, write, and ponder the world while my nose grows rosy in the chill and my fingers and cheeks get cool.

Autumn is also a time for reflection. As the world around us readies itself for winter, I watch all the non-essential things be cast off. Plants stop blooming, trees drop their leaves, birds fly off and leave their old nests behind, animals prepare to sleep, and insects die after taking care to leave eggs for the next year. Everything prepares for cold days, in which only the truly necessary things will be kept.

So it’s a time for me to get back to basics, too. What is truly necessary in my life? What activities and relationships and duties are sapping my strength and dividing my attention unnecessarily? What is not in line with my most important goals, the things I believe I’m called by God to accomplish? Which thoughts are entangling me and keeping me from walking this particular path in a God-honoring way?

It’s a time to regroup, to choose again from all of the good opportunities for growth and service, to decide on the best things that fit in to the calling on my life at this time. With prayer and pondering, I consider each activity. I measure, not just my time but also my energy and margins, to determine how many extra things I can fit in to my schedule. I weigh the benefits (to others as well as to myself) of every opportunity before me to decide whether or not it fits in with my life goals, my family’s needs, and the gifts with which I have been blessed.

Autumn is a time for new beginnings, for shedding expectations and unnecessary encumbrances, and for looking to future blessings and work with a joyful heart. How glad I was, the other morning, to see that autumn had arrived!

Working toward focus and thought

As you know, I’ve been slowly reading through Deep Work by Cal Newport.  It’s funny how many things pop out at you when you are thinking about a particular subject or person or place.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve read or heard several things to help with learning to think and focus more deeply.

My friend, Kelly, wrote a great post on mindfulness and meditation while walking here.

This past week, a local author spoke to the writers groups, which I facilitate.  He mentioned how Henry David Thoreau walked in order to write.  Emerson wrote, “The length of [Thoreau’s] walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”  In fact, walking was so important to Thoreau that he wrote an entire essay on it:  Walking

Another article I read talked about taking two hours a week to think without anything other than a pen and paper.   Now that would be helpful if I could be disciplined enough to get away from phones and tablets and computers long enough!

So, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to carve out deep thinking time, but I have yet to work it into a regular routine.  My goal is to create a schedule that allows for deeper thinking and writing over the next few months.  Now that the weather is cooler, walking is more likely to occur and slowly I am developing an early morning routine without distractions in order to think and write.  Progress is being made albeit at a snail’s pace.