12 Favorite Books I Read in 2016

Friday, December 30, 2016

In 2016 I read 87 books and reread around 15. It's the most I've finished in the seven years I've been keeping track, and I owe the high number to audiobooks. This was the first year I was really into audiobooks and they made it so easy to rack up more books.

The books on this list were the standouts that I read from January 1st until this week, and are definitely my favorites from 2016. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
While this book is technically middle-grade fiction, its themes struck me more poignantly than I think they would have when I was younger. It made me think about who Thomas Jefferson the person was, and who Sally Hemings was, and what it would have been like to be their child. I actually read it twice this year because of how much I loved it.

2. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
This book came as such a surprise. It's a classic written in the 1860s in England, and I was expecting something hard to get into like Wuthering Heights. Instead, it was an easy-to-read mystery with fascinating characters and more twists than I saw coming.

3. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
I've mentioned this book on here at least twice but I obviously loved it. It's a short read but the story and experiences ring so true. As I read I kept marveling on how well Strout understands human nature, especially aspects like longing and loneliness.

4. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
In general, I love long novels that delve deep into the characters and span decades of their lives. This unforgettable Australian saga tells the loves and losses of three generations of the same family. It almost feels like a soap opera in book form because how could so many bad/crazy things happen to one family?

5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I finished this book a month or two ago and sometimes as I fall asleep I'll still run over the various plot points and stories in my mind. The way that Atkinson told Ursula's story of living and dying over and over again, with so many variations and surprises, completely captivated me. It is a unique book that was an amazing read.

6. The Brothers K by David James Duncan
This novel is so brilliant and deep and its strength comes out in the character development. The Chance family captured my imagination and through them comes discussions of family ties, marriage, the war in Vietnam, baseball, religion, and more. It is long and intricate and right up my alley.

1. Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler
If I had to make a list of "Books Every Woman Should Read", this would be at the top. This book is the foremost authority not just on fertility, but on everything from female anatomy to menstrual cycles to menopause and anything in between. I felt so empowered and knowledgeable after finishing it. Don't let the size of it scare you off, it's easy to skip chapters that don't apply to you and focus on the ones that do.

2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
My cousin recommended this to me and it was a perfect, heartbreaking book. Stevenson works with people in the most dire legal circumstances, including those on death row and those wrongly condemned. The stories can be hard to read but teach important, eye-opening lessons.

3. Walkable City by Jeff Speck
Another book that I have talked about a lot (specifically right here), this one changed the way I look at cities around me. Their planning, execution, and how they fall short in terms of fostering pedestrians are now things I think about on a daily basis. It was a fascinating read.

4. Going Solo by Roald Dahl
I will never understand why I hadn't heard of this amazing book before I happened to see it on Overdrive. It is Dahl's story of working in East Africa before WWII and then his time as an RAF pilot in the war. He is a master storyteller and his experiences are one-of-a-kind. I didn't want it to end and am putting this on my reread list.

5. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Friendships are complicated things but Patchett manages to tell the story of her friendship with Lucy Grealy in a true, uncompromising light. She doesn't shy away from either of their negative sides and conveys a beautiful story of love and strength.

6. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Of the books on this list, I finished this one most recently. It resonated with me in a way I wasn't expecting. Aging and mortality are subjects that typically scare me, but Gawande deals with them in a humane way that gave me a lot to think about.

Linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I'm into

2016 Success: Developing an Exercise Routine

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Looking back on 2016, I am most surprised that I accomplished something I've meaning to for years: establish a regular exercise routine. During the past few years I've usually managed to get some exercise but have failed at doing it regularly or actually setting up a routine. But this year, in small, unexpected ways, I've been able to develop what I hope are long-lasting exercise habits.

It started in January with yoga. I've always loved yoga, and occasionally would go to a 6 a.m. class at my church, but somehow it felt impossible for me to do regularly. I decided to give Yoga with Adriene on YouTube a try and was hooked from the beginning. I didn't miss a day for over two months and have kept it up consistently for most of the year, doing yoga 4-5 times a week. It's been great for my mental health (you can reference this post about that), and I love the thinking and stretching time that yoga gives me. 

In April, I began going on morning walk/runs with James. I was working part-time, but on my off-days I felt at a loss for what to do with him in the mornings before his nap at 10 am. So I strapped him in his stroller and went out for long walks or runs, depending on my mood. Somehow, this turned into something I do most mornings. I don't care about how far I go or how much I run, I just want to be outside and moving. Sometimes we'll stay outside for two hours and sometimes it's closer to 30 minutes, but I love making that time in the morning a priority.

Long walk/runs and yoga have kept my anxiety at bay and helped me feel fit and active. I've also appreciated how easy they are to continue even when I'm not at home. When we spent two weeks visiting family in August and when we moved to California in September, I was able to seamlessly keep up my walks and my yoga. Neither of these things require special equipment or a specific place, which is one reason why I love them so much.

The interesting thing is that I had a friend (without kids) asked if it was harder for me to exercise after I had James. I thought about it and was surprised to realize that it was actually easier for me to exercise after having a baby. 

The reason why it was easier was because I stopped expecting crazy fitness goals of myself. I used to say that I was going to go to the gym 4 times a week and go to the 6 a.m. yoga class twice a week. But guess what? That NEVER happened, not a single week. Once I had James, I realized that to get some form of exercise I needed to scale down my expectations and figure out what would work for me in my current situation.

In doing so, I've found two forms of fitness that I love and actually want to do. Adjusting my expectations has, once again, made me so much happier.

What I Do for Self-Care

Monday, December 26, 2016

Self-care is something I take seriously. I'm prone to high levels of stress and often experience anxiety. While my stress levels are WAY lower now than they have been at other times in my life (specifically, all of college), I'm still prone to over-stressing. To combat those feelings, there are certain things I do every day that help keep me calm.

Here are my self-care activities:

-Read as much as possible
Reading has been my solace for as long as I can remember. It calms me down and helps me unwind like nothing else. I need to be reading good books to feel happy, so I'm vigilant about reading as often as I can, and I'm careful to stop books I don't like or that are making me sad.

-Go outside
Being outside and seeing the sun and sky always does wonders for my mood. I try to go outside fairly early in the morning, although this is something I need to work on. James wakes up around 6:45 and it pretty much feels like from the time we wake I'm up hustling to get us out the door. Yet finally when we're ready to go it's 9:15. How does this happen? I have no idea but I want to change it.

 Anyway, I am extra grateful that I live in Southern California because I get to enjoy being outside all year round. I use the mornings as time to exercise and rejuvenate. I'll stick James his stroller, where he loves pointing out all the trucks, and just listen to an audiobook or podcast as I go on long walks. Being in the fresh air (and out of our apartment, which never gets enough light) helps lift my spirits so much.

-Crochet or cross-stitch
I've read articles about how soothing it can be for people to work with their hands, and I have found it to be true for me. I'm crocheting a blanket right now and I love the time to sit and focus on the stitches and then have something productive to show for myself. It's also a great activity to do while listening to something or watching TV.

-Have long conversations with Brock
 This one is obviously more personal than the other ones, but I realized recently how much calmer and happier I feel when I'm sitting with Brock and we're talking endlessly. I've worked to make these times of connection more of a priority because of the difference that it makes in my stress levels.

-Keep areas around me tidy
During the day when James is around, I just don't care about what messes he makes because trying to make him stay tidy feels like such a losing battle. But as soon as he is down for his nap, I make sure the table is clear and all his toys are put away. I can't relax while I eat if it's messy, so I always put a little bit of time to straighten up (it usually takes around 10 minutes) because the payoff for me is huge. Brock and I do the same after we finish dinner- we always make sure the living and kitchen are spotless because it provides such a calming environment for us.

-Avoid certain time-wasters
I've realized that being on my phone never, in the long run, helps me relax. I feel empty and drained if I've spent a while scrolling aimlessly. I always make a constant effort to limit my time on it, but thinking about it in terms of "how can I achieve the calmest, most put-together version of myself?" has given me extra motivation to be careful with how I use my phone.

What things do you do for self-care? I always love hearing suggestions.

Two Revelations I Had Today

Saturday, December 17, 2016

This morning James slept in until 8:00 AM. He has never slept in this late before and it was wonderful. Brock and I both woke up around 7:00 and started our days without our almost two-year-old demanding attention. It was so peaceful with just the two of us moving quietly around the apartment and I couldn't stop reveling in the calm. No one bothered me while I was putting my moisturizer on and no one cried as we made the bed (James often gets sad to see the sheets put away). I was able to eat my breakfast without a kid hanging on to my leg screaming "Bike!" (his way of saying "bite").

And then it occurred to me that this time that we have now, with a crazy toddler who never stops moving and needing things from us, is fleeting. Someday in the not too distant future, we will wake up on weekend mornings to peace and quiet, and the baby sleeping in his room will be a teenager who won't roll out of bed until noon. We'll have that quiet time to ourselves again, the time that I have been longing for and wishing I had almost every morning. And realizing that made me grateful for the crazy times we have now, because they won't last forever.

While in the midst of me enjoying my quiet time, I realized something else important. Brock has to work today. He's lucky (and I'm lucky) that he can work from home, and it's flexible enough that he was still able to take James to the farmer's market across the street to ride the little train and eat fruit samples. But still, it's hard for me to deal with being the primary caretaker for six days in a row. Thinking on my day ahead made me worry about how it was all going to go.

But then I started remembering what it was like when Brock was in law school before we had James. Specifically his first year, when it felt like he worked every single Saturday. My job never required me to work on the weekends, so I spent most Saturdays alone. I had a few friends in my same situation (no kids, busy husband) who I could and did hang out with, but for the most part my weekends felt lonely. I cleaned the apartment, did laundry, went to the gym, and read lots of books. It was quiet, but solitary and not very happy.

So I asked myself today if I would rather have that life again. If I didn't have James and Brock worked on Saturdays, would I prefer that to my days now? And gratefully, I realized that I like my time much better now. It feels much fuller and more purposeful. It's filled with a lot more laughter and silliness. It is definitely harder and simultaneously more boring (in some ways), but I would choose it every time. Realizing this made me feel so much better about today and my life overall. Even though it's not always ideal, it's always the one I would pick.

Gift Guide: 9 Books for the Baby Book Lover

Monday, December 12, 2016

I'm going to be honest with you: Reading books to babies can get so boring. Obviously, I love reading and I want my son to love reading, but when I first read Pajama Time! to James when he was about 6 weeks old I felt like my brain was falling out. Now that he's older (21 months) reading is SO much fun with him. He gets excited when his favorite pages come up (I love that he has favorite pages) and will try to make the sound effects along with me.

That being said, I definitely have a preference for some books more than others. In general, I like books where the writing flows well (we have a few that James LOVES but I don't enjoy because of how clunky the writing is), and has interesting illustrations that hold his attention.

One additional note- I read about 15-20 board books to James a day and the library has been a lifesaver to keep me from reading our same books over and over again. I check out tons of books at a time (I think I have 17 checked out right now) and it really helps keep our reading time interesting. Just look for books that aren't stained or chewed on and you should be good!

Here are some books we love:

1. Alligator, Bear, Crab
My favorite alphabet book ever. Super simple with pretty colors, it also assigns each letter to an animal, and I loved that the animals are ones I don't usually see in board books, like iguanas and loons.

2. Chu's Day
Something I enjoyed about this book was that it told a story. So many easy board books aren't stories, but this one was fun and simple. James loves saying "AhhhCHOO" along with me.

3. Brown Bear, Brown Bear
Definitely a classic for a reason- it has fun illustrations, lots of animals, and simple writing. James always gets so excited when I pull this one out.

4. Hop on Pop
To specify, this is the easy reader board book edition, NOT the real Hop on Pop, which is about 15 pages longer. This one has cute rhymes and has taught James words like "cup" and "pat". It's short and fun.

5. Steam Train Dream Train Colors
James is just barely learning his colors and we've enjoyed this book that has a train, animals, and colors. All three are big deals with James right now so this one is a winner.

6. Row, Row, Row Your Boat 
I swear there is baby catnip in this book because James is obsessed with it. I enjoy it too- all the extra verses are fun and I often sing this one to James if he's fussy in the car.

7. Orange Triangle Fox
This book is so fun. It uses shapes, colors and animals for the pictures and we both love going through the pages. I've even seen James attempt to say "yellow star frog" on his own, which is adorable.

8. But Not the Hippopotamus
One huge caveat with this one- Brock does not like it, so it clearly is not for everyone. But I really enjoy the silly rhymes about the hog and the frog and the cat the rats. It is one of my top favorite Boynton books.

9. Olivia Counts
This is a fun counting book, and the illustrations in this one are so great to me- I love the black and white with pops of red. James is barely (aka not really) learning his numbers and loves to say "five!" along with me.

Gift Guide for the Book Lover

Sunday, December 11, 2016

I love giving books as gifts. I know many gift guides for book lovers (like Modern Mrs. Darcy's and Everyday Reading's) are for non-book gifts, but the only non-book bookish gift I've found is this tote bag I gave my mom last Christmas. It was a hit, in case you're looking for something similar.

But I want to suggest books for the readers in your life, because books offer a great way to connect with people you care about and can provide new levels of conversation and inside jokes. Without further ado, the guide:

For the Memoir Lover:
1. Rewrites by Neil Simon
 I had never heard of Neil Simon before this book was recommended to me, and I was instantly swept up in his life as playwright and screenwriter. His descriptions of his failures and successes, his wife, and his inner turmoil were beautiful and touching.

2. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Patchett's writing, which is always wonderful, shines in this book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. It's heart-rending and sweet and I finished it in a day.

3. The Red Circle by Brandon Webb
Webb was a Navy SEAL sniper who served multiple times in the Middle East and ended up as a sniper trainer. His story feels unique and insightful about this group of people I had known so little about.

For the History Lover:
1. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott
It's so wonderful to read an account from a fresh angle on the Civil War, and this nonfiction gem about the experiences of these four women spies and patriots was enthralling.

2. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
For some reason, I love reading and learning what I can about North Korea. Demick's book is probably my favorite of those I've read. She interviews escapees from North Korea and their individual stories are telling and terrifying.

3. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
This book is a great description of the Chicago World's Fair. It alternates between all the calamities that went on as the fair was being built and a murderer who used the World's Fair to seduce and kill women. It is kind of an obscure topic in history and makes for an interesting read.

For the Long Novel Lover:
1. The Brothers K by David James Duncan
 Intricate and deep, this book delves into the psychology of the Chance family, parents and six children. The characters are unforgettable and the story is memorable.

2. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
 Stegner's novels are all amazing, but I loved this one about marriage. The narrator reflects on his own marriage and the state of marriage in the turbulent times he's writing in (1970s) as he attempts to unravel the secrets behind his grandparents' marriage.

3. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
At times this novel is painful, at times joyous, and overall the reading experience is one you'll never forget. The story of a nun and doctor and their twin sons, set in Ethiopia and the United States is so original that you will wish you could read it for the first time again and again.

For the Design Lover:
1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home by Deborah Needleman
With years of experience as the founding editor in chief of Domino magazine, Needleman walks you through each aspect of designing a room, from the smallest lamps to decorating walls and choosing sofas. Its timelessness and great advice make for a wonderful read.

2. The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith
 I love the tagline for this book, "It doesn't have to be perfect to be beautiful." The author is a big believer in making your home yours right now, which is a message I loved hearing. There is a perfect blend of personal experience and how-tos.

3. Design Mom by Gabrielle Stanley Blair
 I love love love Gabrielle's site, Design Mom, and her book did not disappoint. It was full of practical tips for living with kids and lots of beautiful pictures.

For the Short Story Lover:
1. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
 These stories are eclectic and haunting, with a unique writing style that does an excellent job of inserting you right into the story. I loved how varied the locations of his stories are (Sierra Leone, Haiti, etc.) and the way they made me think after reading them.

2. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
 Lahiri has a gift of being able to make the characters in her story relatable, and this short story collection is an excellent example of what I think is great about her writing.

3. Skin and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
 In classic Dahl form, each of these stories have a weird flavor and unexpected twist. I first read this when I was a teenager, and when I picked it back up years later I was surprised to discover that I could still remember many of the stories because of how memorable they are.

For the Classics Lover:
1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
An easy to read classic, this book is full of good guys and bad guys with many twists and turns along the way. You'll find yourself rooting for Marion Holcombe and marveling at Count Fosco's evilness.

2. My Antonia  by Willa Cather
 The American West is practically its own character in this book about a young boy, Jim, and an immigrant girl, Antonia. Their experiences in Nebraska as children profoundly influence them and this book is a beautiful telling of their lives.

3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
 The New York society told of by Wharton is this beautiful classic was made up partly by her own memories, which makes it feel real. The story is about love and sacrifice, and certain passages haunted me long after I finished it.