Books, motherhood, and time

From “Boyhood on a Shelf” by Barbara Mahany:

That’s what reading together in childhood does: It forever binds us. My two boys, born eight years apart, played with their toys alone. Reading was where we nestled, where we sank in deep, side by side. Books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together. And they were my guideposts as a mother; they whispered the lessons I prayed my children would learn: Ferdinand, the gentle bull? Be not afraid to march to your own music. Harry Potter? Believe in magic. The tales of Narnia? Defend what is good. Tom Sawyer? Roam and roam widely. And never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.


I remember my mother reading to me. For some reason, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and A Castle in the Attic stick out the most in my mind. But I know she started our nighttime reading years before either of those, with classics like Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss. My memories are hazy flickers of a candle’s flame. It’s not the sound of her voice that lingers decades later, but the feeling of being read to, and cared for. The feeling of shared discovery, as the stories unfolded before both of us at the same time.

It is interesting, and wonderful, to be on the other side of that now.

We started reading to IB almost as soon as she was born. Ridiculous, maybe, but oh well. First, it was simple board books with black and white illustrations. Then, little stories with cute rhymes. Now, we can tackle more complex picture books, with layers of meaning for all ages to appreciate.

I imagine we will do the same with RB, when he gets here. (Oh, by the way, I am pregnant again.) I very much look forward to reading to him too, and to her and him together.

I wonder which stories they will remember the most when they’re adults. I wonder what shape their memories will take.


From “How I Rebuilt My Childhood Library, Book by Book” by J. Courtney Sullivan:

When you’re dealing with used books that once belonged to children, even those listed as “like new” are worn. A stray crayon mark or a torn page is not a sign of neglect, but of love.

With the arrival of every volume, I’d get a thrill, remembering. Not just the book itself, but what it meant to read it under the covers with a flashlight, or on the back porch of our house…


In the publishing industry, there’s a lot of talk about how books are not in competition with other books — at least not truly or solely. They are in competition with movies, TV shows, apps, social media, etc.

Now that I’m a mother, and my time and energy feel much more limited, I understand this more than ever. At the end of the day, after I’ve put IB to bed, and daytime’s obligations have either been finished or saved for tomorrow, I have about an hour or two to myself. I typically spend the first thirty minutes “resetting” the house — cleaning dishes, putting away toys, etc. Then it’s my time to “relax.”

Relaxing should be easy, right? And what could be easier than surfing the internet or watching TV? Or scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds? So those are the places I turn to first. The places where my mind can go a bit blank, usually.

But I don’t find fulfillment there. I don’t gain much if any nourishment from those things. Mostly when I close my laptop or put down my phone, I feel as if I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

I don’t like that feeling.

Maybe “easy” isn’t always worth the tradeoff.

I want to read more. I want to write more.

And what’s stopping me?

Nothing at all.

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Recently viewed: Buffy, Angel, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, and Black Panther

Well that’s a mouthful. And I even truncated two of the titles!

This past December through February, besieged by the chaos of holidays and recurring illness, I indulged in a lot of screen time. I wouldn’t say it was the best use of so many hours… but I always try to make my “creative consumption” productive — i.e., learn what I can about good storytelling, character development, dialogue, etc. Plus there’s something to be said for keeping one’s finger on the pulse of our culture, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I remember watching Buffy as a teen when it first came out. I only made it to Season 3 or 4 before junior year of high school started kicking my butt and I made the radical decision to cut out TV, go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 5 AM, go for a run, and then finish whatever homework I had left before school.

(That was a remarkably healthy period of my life that I have never again been able/willing to replicate.)

So I did get to witness Buffy’s “golden years” in real-time, but what I learned from completing the series now is that while Seasons 1-3 were the best overall, Seasons 4-7 actually had the best individual episodes. (The worst too, though. The highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows.)

Also, without getting into potential spoilers, I’ll just say that I loved how the show addressed the theme of the Chosen One being a lonely, thankless position (throughout the series, but especially in the end) as well as how Buffy empowered girls and women, both in the audience and in the actual story.

Takeaways:

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar is immensely watchable.
  • Even when you’re writing about imminent doom and recurring gloom, you can be funny. In fact, that’s probably the best way to tackle tough stuff.
  • Swing for the fences. Sometimes you’ll miss, but when you hit a home run, boy will it be worth it. Infamous episodes like “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling” were big risks, because they were so different from the show’s normal style, but they are brilliant and beloved.

You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends.

Love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.

Spike in “Lover’s Walk” (S3E8)

Angel

As a teen, I loved Angel’s character in Buffy — to the point that I sporadically watched Bones out of lingering loyalty to David Boreanaz — but when Angel left for his spinoff show, I let him go. Fast forward to now, when friends heard I was finally going to finish watching all of Buffy, most of them urged me to binge Angel as well.

I can’t say I loved it, but I can see why it has faithful fans. Maybe even more so than in Buffy, the character arcs in Angel are astounding, for how significantly and yet organically many of the main characters change. Wesley in particular.

Season 4 was a disaster, though. Gina Torres just barely saved it. The soft reset in Season 5 was clever and enjoyable. And although Fred was my hands-down favorite, Illyria was pretty cool too.

Takeaways:

  • Amy Acker is great in everything.
  • Don’t force the hero into an ill-suited love story just because you’re worried the audience will lose interest without some sort of hook-up. Give people more credit than that.
  • Related: Sometimes romantic tension is better than romance.
  • You can pull off some wacky ideas if you do it with conviction. For example, puppets.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Honestly I went into this movie expecting a meaningless but sweet romantic drama that I could just pay half attention to while I did other things. Instead I found myself sucked into the heartfelt — and heart-wrenching — story of these islanders and the bonds they forged during the most difficult of times.

Takeaways:

  • Matthew Goode is painfully handsome and charming.
  • It’s okay to be sentimental and/or predictable as long as you do it well.

Black Panther

I think this is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in ages. Maybe ever? It’s big and fun and yet full of depth. It fits into the genre, but it’s different enough to stand out too.

(Disclaimer: I am not a big superhero movie buff. In fact, I find myself fairly fatigued by how many have come out in the past few years. I cannot keep up and at this point, don’t particularly care to.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Wonder Woman — especially the first part with just the Amazonian women, and by the way, Gal Gadot might be human perfection — but Black Panther is several cuts above. The writing, the cast, the visuals… Everything was phenomenal.

I especially appreciated how elements repeated, tied in. Nothing was wasted. Each scene was important in the moment, then even more important later. And the themes of the story were both timeless (a son trying to live up to his father’s legacy, yet also do better) and timely (do we wall ourselves off to protect our treasures, or share our resources to enrich everyone?).

If I’m nitpicking, there are a couple moments that felt a bit Lion King-y to me… but that’s truly trivial.

In one scene, as the camera pans around several different Wakandan tribes, I found myself in tears, overcome with emotion just like when I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Because I know that Black Panther meant to so many black people what CRA meant to so many Asian people. Representation. A movie about people like us that wasn’t only meant for people like us. It was meant for everybody. And it kicked ass.

Takeaways:

  • Wakanda forever.
  • Use specificity to get at universality. It’s the details that people connect to.
  • A story can both fit the mold and break out of it at the same time.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

T’Challa in the post-credits scene
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Oregon in photos

My good friend and critique partner Stephanie Mooney has been on a creative kick lately, which includes a beautiful revival of her Instagram account. I adore her aesthetic, and I am inspired by her renewed energy.

“Suddenly I saw what photography could be: a tremendously potent pure art form, an austere and blazing poetry of the real.”

Ansel Adams

This past weekend I visited a long-time friend who now lives in Eugene, Oregon. We checked out the building where she works (on campus at the University of Oregon) and then took in their art museum. It was a low-key and refreshing trip* — and so lovely to reconnect in person.

*Until the last day, when I was supposed to return home, and instead woke to over 8 inches of snow, which the city of Eugene was wholly unprepared for. Long story short, after half a day of flight delays, cancellations, and reroutings, I managed to hitch a ride with a stranger to the Portland airport and then catch a red eye through Atlanta. Not ideal, but I did eventually make it home.

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My favorite books of 2018 (and Andy’s too)

I managed to read a few more books this year than last, so I’m happy about that. I mean, quality over quantity, yes. But as I’ve said before, my reading affects my writing. It’s important to me that I fill my creative well.

Because a lot of my favorite reads this year fall under the Young Adult category, I talked about them over in our annual roundup at WeHeartYA.com.

And I have so many highlighted quotes from EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME that I plan to do a Reading Reflections post on it soon.

So the only other thing I want to say here is that it was a great joy to read and truly adore so many books written by friends. (Jasmine Warga, Ingrid Palmer, Natalia Sylvester.) A joy, and an inspiration. And a trend that I hope continues for the rest of my life.

You can see my favorite books from previous years here.


A few years ago, I challenged Andy to read at least two works of fiction a year, as a way of supporting my industry. (The same way that our household supports his, by buying the products his company makes.) Warily, he agreed.

Somehow, over the years, this little challenge has morphed into a personal habit, and he now reads an average of two books per month. It’s amazing!

This year, he asked if he could be included in my annual roundup, and I thought that would be super fun. So here are Andy’s favorite books from 2018…

And his full reading list:

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann
Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
Artemis – Andy Weir
We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah
Exit West – Mohsin Hamed
Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
Awayland – Ramona Ausubel
The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin
Circe – Madeline Miller
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
The Map of Salt and Stars – Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
There There – Tommy Orange
The Good Son- You-jeong Jeong
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings – Ellen Oh
My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
The Third Hotel – Laura van den Berg
Severance – Ling Ma
She Would Be King- Wayetu Moore
The Wildlands – Abby Geni
The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton
The Witch Elm – Tana French
All You Can Ever Know – Nicole Chung
Those Who Knew – Idra Novey
Once Upon River – Diane Setterfield
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs – Steve Brusatte

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This is 33

Last month, this little turkey turned two. Yesterday, I turned thirty-three. And of course, today is Thanksgiving. Lots of occasions for reflection. It’s easy to say that what I’m most thankful for is her — because it’s true. Like any toddler, she does cry and whine on occasion, but on the whole, she’s such a joyful little creature. And now she can talk, she can sing, she can draw, she can imagine. She fills us with awe every day.

This is 33: Holding my daughter in my arms at the end of each night, telling her “just one more minute,” and then counting to 100 instead of 60, because sometimes I just want to savor the moment a little bit longer.

She’s in full-time daycare now, and while I miss her terribly when she’s away, I also revel in having my whole day back. I love the quiet of the house while the sun is shining through the windows. I appreciate the ease of running errands, scheduling appointments, and doing all the other tedious things adults have to do, without worrying about how to bring her along. Even though I am honored by my role as a mother, I enjoy feeling like my own person for a few hours. I live for sitting at the table with my journal and my pen and actually writing again.

This is 33: Returning to my roots, just a girl with some time and some blank pages, and stories simmering inside her. 

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