Happy Thanksgiving!

I have to admit, even though it’s well documented on this very site that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday, I really appreciate that it falls on a Thursday every year. With my posting schedule, it means I get a bit of a break, and as much as I love writing reviews, it always feels good to have a little vacation from the ordinary. This year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m not at home for the holiday, so it’s especially busy. Nevertheless, with my reduced posting this fall, I didn’t want to leave you completely bereft, so I’m sharing this poem. The holiday season is often a time for seeing old friends, and this piece reminds me of the fragile, exquisite nature of friendships that last over time and distance.

A happy holiday to those of you celebrating today. Take a few minutes to yourself amid whatever chaos and food and drama might surround you. Allow yourself to be grateful for all the things that have gone right this year, and try to set down some of your burdens and grief. Think hard on those who have less, and remind yourself, whatever your traditions may be, to be thankful for the people who touch your heart, even if they exist only in the pages of a book or in a memory…

About Friends, Brian Jones

The good thing about friends
is not having to finish sentences.

I sat a whole summer afternoon with my friend once
on a river bank, bashing heels on the baked mud
and watching the small chunks slide into the water
and listening to them – plop plop plop.
He said, ‘I like the twigs when they…you know…
like that.’ I said, ‘There’s that branch…’
We both said, ‘Mmmm’. The river flowed and flowed
and there were lots of butterflies, that afternoon.

I first thought there was a sad thing about friends
when we met twenty years later.
We both talked hundreds of sentences,
taking care to finish all we said,
and explain it all very carefully,
as if we’d been discovered in places
we should not be, and were somehow ashamed.

I understood then what the river meant by flowing.

Why Not Me, Mindy Kaling

A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: “We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident.” Well, guess what, young girls. You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are. 

We just assume boys will be confident, like how your parents assume you will brush your teeth every morning without checking in on you in the bathroom. With girls, that assumption flies out the window. Suddenly, your parents are standing in the bathroom with you, watching you brush your teeth with encouraging, worried expressions on their faces. Sweetheart, you can do it! We know it’s hard to brush your teeth! We love you! Which must make girls think, Yikes. Is brushing your teeth a really hard and scary thing to do? I thought it was just putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. 

I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it. The good news is that, as a country, we are all about telling girls to be confident. It’s our new national pastime. Every day I see Twitter posts, Instagram campaigns, and hashtags that say things like “We Will!” or “Girls Can!” or “Me Must, I Too!” on them. I think widespread, online displays of female self-confidence are good for people, especially men, to see. I just sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that corporations are co-opting “girl confidence” language to rally girls into buying body wash. Be careful. (p. 223)

I’m sure not everyone loves Mindy Kaling as much as I do. Her comedy is aimed very much at my generation (the earliest years of the Millennials – those who occasionally try to sneak by on Gen X cred), and it’s especially appealing to women (or so I have gathered from talking to my husband and several of his friends). I’ve come to accept this as the way of comedy. It tends to be polarizing, alienating, or ignored by those outside the target audience. Of course, there are exceptions. (A notable “current” exception is Parks and Rec, a show enjoyed by myself, my parents, and the teenagers I work with – it doesn’t get much more all-encompassing.) 

By and large though, comedy is a personal genre. A comedian or a bit is either hilarious to you, or it’s not based on age, gender, background, and life experiences. For me, Mindy Kaling, both as a writer and an actress, is on point. Her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, was happily consumed on audiobook on long runs, and I often found myself laughing out loud as I panted up and down hills during race prep. 

Her second book, on the other hand, is much more serious. She has clearly grown in her understanding of both herself and the industry, and although people often pigeonhole her into the characters she’s played, this book is an in-depth look at how hard she works to be successful. (Spoiler alert: having a television show in which you star AND do a huge amount of writing means every day is eighteen to twenty hours long, and it leaves very little time for a social life. It sounded like Hollywood’s version of bootcamp, and I had no desire to switch places with her whatsoever!) She keeps her sense of humor though, and this time around, when I laughed, it was often out of sympathy and understanding. 

Sure, her job is a far cry from what I do, but there are moments that resonated deeply for me. Her relationship with her family, her joy in doing what she loves professionally, and a wonderful work community buoys her through day to day experiences that might otherwise be untenable. Kaling may be famous, but her celebrity comes with a heavy price, one that many of us non-famous folks understand. Pursuing a passionate life’s work doesn’t come with short cuts or lucky breaks – it’s exhausting in a way that’s rewarding not only for the end result, but for the love of doing it. If out of that struggle comes success, it’s a privilege, not a right. 

This is a difficult lesson to stomach. We all want to feel that our commitment and particular talents are enough to give us a step up on the path, but the truth is, our best work can go unrecognized. Even if we do catch a break, many projects will still fail. All we can hope for is that the experiences motivate us to keep chipping away and to have fun while we’re doing it. Kaling’s experiences were a breath of fresh air for me in this department. Perseverance is crucial – it’s not enough to be talented or to have great ideas – for true magic to happen, the work has to get done. 

I Took the Moon for a Walk, Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay

I promise this blog won’t become completely devoted to children’s books just because I spend seventy-five percent of my reading time looking at picture books now, but I Took the Moon for a Walk is absolutely worth talking about. My mother picked it up from the library when we visited back in September, and we loved it so much that she ended up mailing us our very own copy. Since then, we have read it every day, initially several times (by choice!), although now it has settled happily into the rotation of before-bed books.

Every night, I find myself thrilled to pick it up again. The story is pure poetry, and in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was written as a poem initially and then stunningly illustrated as a bonus. The musicality is exceptional. Each line flows gracefully across the page, and because we’ve read it so often, both my husband and I can recite it by heart, giving us ample opportunity to study the pictures.

I know we wouldn’t read it nearly so much if our son didn’t love it as much as we do, but when we pull it out, he leans forward and studies each page intently. He’s only ready for the next page when he turns away, usually studying the illustrations for a minute or two (a long time for a five month old’s attention span). While I certainly try to read him books that I enjoy as much as he does, this one delighted both of us so much from the very first reading that I can’t imagine a day when we don’t want to look at it (although inevitably, time will sneak up on us and that will happen).

When my husband read it for the first time, he said to me, “Why can’t all children’s books be like this? Look at the vocabulary he’s learning! The meter! The rhyme!” Incidentally, he had just been lamenting the fact that too many of the board books we owned seemed, in his words, “too basic and boring.” While I agree that some books written for children are so dull I would rather eat paste than read them repeatedly, I pointed out that for infants, even something “basic” was still, well, novel.

Books are windows into the world for young and old alike, and even though many trivial concepts (See Jane. See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!) seem obvious, for babies, it’s all brand new! That being said, I knew exactly what he really meant. A book like this is an elegant dessert rather than a poorly prepared side dish. It’s a treat, and I fully believe that our love for it encourages, even at such a young age, a special reverence for excellent books. And that is something I dearly want my child to understand.

Day Shift, Charlaine Harris

This is the second book in Charlaine Harris’ newest series about Midnight, Texas (existing in the same world as her popular Sookie Stackhouse books but sharing only a few overlapping characters, though each book has introduced someone “new” that her faithful readers will recognize), and while I wasn’t crazy about the style of the first one, I like her enough as an author that it was a no brainer to pick it up. I suppose it was especially interesting to me since I spent the last full week of September in Austin, Texas struggling to find free activities appropriate for a three month old and his extremely sweaty mama.

Previously, my experience with Texas had been limited to driving through it last year on our long road trip (and one very bad airport experience in Dallas). Before we’d started on that leg of the trip (it took about two and a half days to make it along the diagonal route we’d chosen), many people had warned us about how “big” Texas was – in this case, “big” implied, not very subtly, “awful,” and I steeled myself for what I expected to be an ugly and dull drive.

As it turned out, Texas, while exceptionally large, was also beautiful. It ended up being one of my favorite parts of the drive. We passed through a bizarre mix of western and southern landscape, blended in Texas unlike anywhere else I had ever seen. When we got to Austin, the feeling that we were in a unique state intensified. Many parts of the city felt reminiscent of a jungle in their lushness, although apparently the area was experiencing a years-long drought up until just a few months ago. At the same time, the skies were as huge and open and blue as any I’ve fallen in love with in the West, and the people I met were unfailingly friendly and generous to a struggling new mother.

It made Harris’ town of Midnight that much more intriguing to me. Her characters, while cautious around strangers, seemed so warm. Before visiting, I might not have believed that a whole group of people could exhibit such similar conflicting tendencies – a desire to share food and conversation with an intense need for privacy – but now I’ve seen it. There is a place where people have an edge of southern charm tempered by a frankness I associate with the middle of the country, and that place is Texas. Those are neither good nor bad on their own, but undoubtedly make for excellent character fodder.

I can also understand why Harris would be drawn to writing about such a place. In the US, so much land has been bought up and developed that it sometimes feels impossible to find stories that exist on the outskirts of civilization. In Texas though, huge swaths of it still exist where no one can live, or where very few choose to, and the opportunities such places afford a storyteller are as vast as the distance between two tiny towns on a deserted stretch of highway.

That being said, I still find this series a little more stilted than her earlier work. She hasn’t quite settled in with a male protagonist the way she has with the various women she’s written before, but I’m hopeful that as she gets to know him better, Manfred will come to life as joyfully as Sookie or Lily or Harper do. In the meantime, I’ll happily dive into her Texas from the cool comfort of our autumn weather at home!

The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore, Marla Paul

A few weeks ago, our family flew back east so that we might visit with relatives while I was a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since we were ten years old, and along with her other best friends (one she’s had since infancy and one from college), I was asked to give a joint toast – no small feat with just a few weeks notice and a brain that felt like it was composed of rice pudding.

It wasn’t until I was firmly ensconced at my parents’ house and they were able to take the baby for a few hours that I was able to even get started. I’d had a number of false starts back home in the evenings when my husband was available, but what I really needed was to hide away in my childhood bedroom and reflect. That sort of proposition required the kind of doting only accomplished by new grandparents. Once I’d managed to arrange that, I had only three or four more (very badly written) opening paragraphs before I pulled out a book that I read earlier this summer and began to look at sections I’d highlighted. This passage jumped out at me, and I was on a roll:
We all know women who are friend magnets. People are drawn to them like hummingbirds to nectar. They make new friends with a silky ease and hang on to old ones forever. We may envy their magic, but we can cast the same spell ourselves. It’s simple. Be an intentional friend, one that pays careful attention to a pal’s life and needs. Treat a friendship like the gift that it is. (loc 2415)
This section described my friend to a T, and after reflecting on it for a few minutes, I was able to write the toast I really wanted for her. When I got together with my co-bridesmaids and read their drafts, I realized this section really had been the perfect inspiration – if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought we’d all read it and based our speeches on the very same idea.
Unfortunately, not all of us are friend magnets. Most of us have to work incredibly hard at making and maintaining friendships as adults. It takes a lot of work, and when combined with family, professional obligations, and hobbies, it can be difficult to find the time. I found that after I quit my job and started working from home, it became a hundred percent more important to me to do this. The energy it took was completely worthwhile because without the friends I was making (and keeping) my life would have been very lonely indeed.
Now that I’ve entered the ranks of parenthood, it’s become even more crucial that I have friends both with children and without, and that I have time with those friends both with children present and without. I love my family very much, but it would be cruel to ask them to be everything for me. I crave the confidences of the women who have become my dear friends. I love the laughter of a rowdy dinner party. I get excited to go on a hike (even when accompanied by tiny-legged people who make for a long time walking a very short distance). Healthy friendships make me a more clear-headed person, and I say that as an introvert who also dearly values time alone.
The wonderful thing about Paul’s book is that she not only discusses the importance of such friendships, she also offers a roadmap to finding the kind of people her readers might want as friends. She provides resources for networking (whether professionally, personally, as a parent, via a hobby, etc) and techniques for approaching new people. She also discusses the challenges that may arise both in starting new friendships and maintaining older ones and is open about the potential for failure. Not every person is meant to be a best friend, and some may never be more than a casual acquaintance – or nothing at all – but she assures us that it’s okay. Sure, not everyone is right for us, but some people are, and those people are just waiting to connect if we’re willing to work at it.

Moon Called, Patricia Briggs

I said I’d be back on September 17th, and here it is…already September. When did that happen?! I could have sworn it was May a moment ago, and yet here we are rushing headlong into autumn with hardly a pause for the summer season. Last week, we we were sweating to 90+ degree temps, and now we shut the windows at night because it gets too cold for the baby if we don’t. I love this season, I really do, but I didn’t expect to blink and have all of my opportunities to go to the beach and bbq with friends disappear out from under us! Nevertheless, it’s happened, and I have no choice but to accept it.

Of course, it doesn’t help that trying to get back into the swing of working from home with a three month old in tow is not as easy as I thought it would be. Back in April, when I was setting up projects, I was blissfully unaware of how much more difficult it would be to get things done without childcare. I thought my years of teaching the 0-5 set would prepare me, but I failed to factor in the lack of sleep and the emotional bond that would make it nigh on impossible to focus for any significant stretch of time. On top of that, I’ve only managed to open my computer maybe four times since June, so I’ve had to get very good at typing on my phone one handed. (If you see typos here, it’s because I’m typing this entire post using only my right thumb. True fact.) Nevertheless, although my hands have been mostly tied, my brain has bounced back from its pregnancy haze just in time to start working on a few new projects. I’m not sure how or when I’m going to get it all done, but I figure if countless women have done it before me, I’ll eventually figure it out too.

A brief word on becoming a parent before I dive into more detail about what I did on my summer “vacation”: it’s wonderful. We are fortunate to be blessed with…

(I’m not exaggerating when I say our son woke up at exactly that moment and six hours have now passed since I started this post – new parenthood in a nutshell.)

…a sweet and curious child. He keeps us busy in the best possible way, and since he’s arrived, I’ve discovered that I can be wrong about at least one thing on a daily basis. I expect that will continue for a while (maybe forever) but it’s worth it. That being said, it seems like my hands will be full for a while longer and I’ll only be able to post here every other week for a few more months. I hope you’ll bear with me as I tinker with my schedule after this major life change!

Now, onto Patricia Briggs. Her books have been my near constant companions from the last two weeks of my pregnancy through the many long nights of the first three months of our son’s life. Mercy Thompson, one of Briggs’ powerhouse lady protagonists, became my best friend during hours of blearily cuddling a newborn. She’d actually stolen my heart while I was waiting for him to arrive though. I’d found her, and this is no joke, by googling for werewolf books that
would make me laugh. Briggs (and Thompson) didn’t disappoint.

Briggs’ style is sweet, light, and compelling. Her characters value friendship and family as much as they do romantic relationships, and the action is smart and well paced. It would be tough not to love Mercy most of all – she’s a Volkswagon mechanic who also shape shifts into a coyote in a world dominated by werewolves, vampires, fairies, and the ordinary folk just learning about the existence of such supernatural beings. Any parent will understand that it takes a really great book to stay awake after a (beloved but energy-sucking) infant falls asleep…let me tell you that it’s even more dangerous when that book is a series. The only thing that saved me was that there are only eight volumes in this series so far.

Of course, then I found Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series…but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, there’s a basket of board books calling my name.

For more about Patricia Briggs, head over here.

Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here