Books read in February

IMG_2778I had somewhat fallen out of the habit of reading books in recent years. OK, that is not entirely true. I have always read a lot, but I'd say that 90 percent of the books I was consuming were either those I was assigned to review, those by authors I was interviewing, or books by friends. Magazines filled the bulk of my recreational reading time. In 2017, I wanted to expand my recreational reading time and fill it with things that would stretch my horizons a bit.

I am happy to report that I've done just that! February was a doozy. As part of holding myself accountable, I will write up short notes on each book read each month, and post them here.

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Cather is one of the great American novelists of the early 20th century, and My Antonia is famous not just for its strong heroine, but for being about a place. The Nebraska prairie is as much a character in this book as the prairie woman herself. The prose is evocative, and from a writing perspective, it was interesting to see how Cather adopted the voice of a male narrator, I think convincingly. Since plenty of men have presumed to know how women think, it is interesting to see a woman writer turn the script around.

Worth It, by Amanda Steinberg

The founder of Daily Worth and Worth FM offers guidance for how to think about money. Know and own your money story, and know what motivates you, and you can achieve more financially, for yourself, your future, and those you care about. My favorite part of this book was Amanda's personal stories. She saw her mom get divorced and then reinvent herself as a breadwinner in her 40s. Amanda weathered a divorce and some steep financial losses too in the course of building a business. I am watching with great interest to see how the DailyWorth/WorthFM story plays out.

A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf

Despite being a Virginia Woolf junkie (I've actually read The Waves, and not because I was assigned it in a literature program!) I had never read her essay on what women need to write fiction. Her voice is so funny and light, which is especially poignant given the despair and lifelong mental illness that led her to end her own life. This short book gave me much to think about. I do have some passive income and a room of my own. I should get to work.

The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking

Of the books I read in February, this came closest to approximating my old magazine habit. You can see my write-up here. I am fascinated by hygge, and koselig, as concepts and I would like to read a deeper philosophical look at the Danish/Scandinavian mindset and how it relates to happiness.

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

Bookseller Jean Perdu prescribes literature to soothe people's woes. Alas, he is unable to soothe his own sadness over the loss of the love of his life two decades before. Then the chance discovery of a note from his long-deceased lover sends him on a journey through France to figure out what really happened to her. Lots of quirky characters populate Perdu's book barge and the stops along the way. Short chapters and sprightly dialogue make this novel highly readable, though some of the plot twists fall flat, and the occasional attempts at erotic writing just made me cringe. Maybe it loses something in translation (from German, if you can believe that).

Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

One reviewer noted that this is the sort of book that seems profound when you're assigned to read it in high school. I was indeed assigned to read it in high school, though I don't recall finding it quite so exciting as some other people did. In any case, Siddhartha searches for truth, in the process becoming an ascetic monk, trying to follow the Buddha, living a life of over-the-top hedonism, and trying to raise his son. None of it really works, though ultimately he reaches some semblance of peace as a simple ferry man bringing passengers over a river. We all have to reach enlightenment as we can. I think I read this one because Hesse was mentioned in George's book, and I thought I'd give him a try again. Still pondering if I want to go for Steppenwolf.

Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, by Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff

I read this on the suggestion of Leah Weiss (see my Heleo chat with her here). She thought it would be helpful for the chapter of Off the Clock I was writing on how to "linger" in the present. Psychologists have long noted that some resilient individuals seem capable of coping with bad events quite well. What's less well studied is how some individuals manage to stretch the pleasure of good events. Savoring looks at the mechanisms people use to do just that. This is very much an academic book (sample section title: "Optimal-Level Theory as a Heuristic for Understanding Ongoing Savoring Processes"). But I wound up taking a lot from Bryant and Veroff's research, and have begun to observe some of the techniques in action.

Drop the Ball, by Tiffany Dufu

Are you a woman who feels that the division of labor at home is unequal? You could get your husband to do more. Or you could try doing less. One of these is a lot easier to pull off. Dufu argues for professional women to let go of a lot of domestic perfection and use the freed up mental space to deepen relationships at work, and invest in self-care as well. You can read my longer write-up here.

The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan

I had read The Little Beach Street Bakery about a year ago. This is pretty much the exact same plot, only set in rural Scotland with a bookshop, instead of the Cornish coast with a bakery. In Colgan's universe, there are a shocking number of HOT LOCAL MEN in these middle-of-nowhere settings, and our plucky heroine turns out to be quite the entrepreneur, somehow dreaming up the exact business the locals (including all the HOT LOCAL MEN) need. I'm making fun of it, but these are charming books nonetheless. So much so that I ordered one of her other books for a palate cleanser in between some meatier stuff. There seems to be a sweet shop in some small town a ways outside London. It's just a hunch, but I bet this town has some hunks too.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay

I read this book at the suggestion of Modern Mrs. Darcy (a good source of book recommendations in general! She also touted A Clearing in the Distance, below). It was a fast read and really, really creepy. Set around the turn of the last century in an Australian boarding school for girls, located in the forbidding outback, this book centers around a mystery: a school picnic turns to disaster when 3 girls and a teacher go missing. One of the girls is found 8 days later, alive, but with no recollection of events. The circle of the mystery enlarges, and slowly starts to lead just about everyone involved to their doom.

Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes

After her divorce, Mayes and her new partner Ed decide to buy a run-down Tuscan farmhouse as a summer get-away. They plan to restore it to its original grandeur. The work is long, and hard, and Italian contractors are like American contractors cranked up to 11, but the gorgeous, historic scenery and the food make it all worthwhile. This is a pleasant read, though there's no real plot to speak of, other than their remodeling woes. Though as I went for a run this morning with a friend who just bought a house that needs a LOT of work, I started to realize why this was such a bestseller. We managed to talk for 40 minutes straight about remodeling woes. Maybe reading about them is cathartic?  In any case, reading Under the Tuscan Sun definitely makes one want to book a vacation in Italy (and possibly redo the kitchen too).

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, by Witold Rybczynski

I just squeaked under the wire on this one, finishing it before bed on the 28th. Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for designing Central Park, but he was a man of incredibly varied interests and achievements, at a time in American history when people dabbled in all sorts of things, and dreamed big while doing so. He wrote a journalistic account of the south before the Civil War, and led a private "Sanitary Commission" that brought modern management to the treatment of wounded soldiers. He tried farming. He was a founding editor of the Nation. He ran a gold mine for a while (after he'd designed Central Park!). Eventually he wound his way back to landscape architecture — though that turned out to be a maddening career, given that he was often working with city governments on parks. Municipal authorities share some characteristics with Italian contractors (see above). While this is a biography of Olmsted, it's also a great window into what American life was like at the time. People had grand ambitions, and yet the technology of the time was so limited. Imagine having a business in San Francisco and New York, and yet needing to communicate almost entirely by letters that took months to arrive. This book is hefty, but quite readable. You can read an article I wrote about Central Park (and other New York parks) here.
In other news: I welcome reading suggestions for March and beyond! One future entry: I'm looking forward to the release, later this month, of Bianca Bosker's Cork Dork, a behind-the-scenes look at the wine world. Bosker just had a fascinating piece at the Atlantic about the Barefoot Blonde and her Instagram empire. For fun, read the comments. A few dozen in, Amber Fillerup Clark herself actually leaped into the fray. Oh my.

Photo: Piles and piles of books...

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26 Responses to Books read in February


  1. Ashley says:

    Hi Laura!

    I love this post. You seem like a smart and inspiring woman, and I enjoy seeing what you are reading! Can you link the names of the books you read to the books Amazon or Goodreads page? Thanks!

  2. Your dad and I both read Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop when we traveled to New Mexico. I also really liked the lesser known (and short) Cather novel–The Lost Lady. Both are based on historical figures. I’m always looking for good books to read and will check out some of your suggestions.

    • @Mom- I might read some of Willa Cather’s other books. I did quite like her style and found it very evocative. No New Mexico trips planned though.

  3. Caitlin says:

    I loved Difficult Women by Roxane Gay (short stories) and her book of essays, Bad Feminist, is also excellent.

    Have you read Tracy Chevalier? She wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, along with many other excellent books of historical fiction. Someone also reminded me of Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, which is really lovely–she took one paragraph from Moby Dick which mentions the wife of Captain Ahab and created a beautiful novel.

    • @Caitlin- I haven’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I probably should. I’ll check out Ahab’s Wife too.

  4. Ana says:

    My Antonia sounds really interesting! I’ve picked up your trick of keeping an e-book on my phone and its doubled my reading! I’ve got one going on my phone, one on my Kindle, and I’m about to add an audiobook (bookclub book I need to finish in 2 weeks)

    • @Ana- the Kindle app really is a game-changer. It converts headline scrolling time/Instagram perusal time into reading time. Brilliant. The funny thing is I’m actually not really reading all that many books on it anymore – I just needed it to get me back in the reading habit. The last few books I’ve read have been paperbacks, but I just take them with me everywhere.

      • Lily says:

        I’m happy you got into the Kindle app because after reading ‘All the Money in the World’, one significant change I made was buying more kindle books! I’d had the mindset that books were outside my budget, and my reading material came from libraries or birthday requests or borrowing. Which was a good mindset when I was a broke college student, but at the time I was a reasonably well-paid consultant. Buying books to have on my phone helped create little bits of relaxing ‘me time’ when a meeting started late or a flight was delayed, keeping me sane in the midst of crazy long hours (with the timetracking to prove it!) Lately I’ve been back to paperbacks though – partly because I’m a broke student again but partly because it’s helping me break out of the social media/news media attention vortex

        • Becca says:

          @Lily – Many libraries have electronic versions of books that you can “check out” on your Kindle or other device for free. Our library has a system that can be accessed via the web so I can pull up my bookshelf on any of my devices. I prefer to read on my Kindle at home but if I’m out and about and find myself waiting, I can pull up whatever book I am reading on my phone.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, this is an impressive list for a short month! You mentioned a little while back that you anticipated having more reading time as your youngest got more independent. As the mom of a toddler and baby who misses leisure reading, I’d love to hear how you’re fitting it into your schedule. I do read before bed most nights but I miss weekend reading, etc. I have a dream that one day my family will be able to have some “separate but together” time on a weekend morning, each of us reading or engaged in some other quiet activity.

    • @Elizabeth – yes, definitely time opens up when the kids are older. It’s not so much time when the 2-year-old is in my care (though I can read some on my phone when he’s watching TV now). First, I make reading my default activity after the kids are down and before bed. That’s good for 60-90 minutes nightly. I read during sports practices. Wrestling gave me a LOT of time for that, but it’s over now. I was reading for 45-60 minutes 2 nights a week sitting at practice, and then up to 3 hours at meets. I read during nap time on weekend (good for another hour or so – maybe longer. I often run or nap myself during some of this time). And…well, self-employment has its perks. If I’m reading a really good book, I might take a break from work and read for a bit. Sometimes more than a little bit. I’m probably going to need to stop doing so much of that. I’ll write this month off as being excited to be reading again. I read on trains and planes. When I was in NYC with my 9-year-old (and didn’t have the younger kids) I read during our chill time in between activities.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Thanks for all of the great tips, Laura! I can see also that the first step is just to set the intention. I’ve gotten good about not wasting time reading social media, but I could definitely stand to read less news and more fiction.

  6. Kate says:

    I did research for that Olmstead book while I was in grad school! Fun to see it on your list.

    • @Kate – how cool! There was a LOT of research in there so I’m sure you had your hands full!

  7. Hayley says:

    Elizabeth
    when our children were younger we would have reading sessions on the weekend in the lounge and everyone would bring their duvets and be comfortable together but all doing their independent reading. When the youngest couldn’t yet read we would take turns for others to read with her or she would look at picture books. Now that our children are a lot older we have Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) each night from 8 to 8:30 where we gather together and read. A good ritual and one we all enjoy probably my favourite time of the day.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Haley, I love this idea!

    • atkrel says:

      Hayley, this is a fantastic idea! I really like it… I’m not so sure I can make the weekend idea work, but I think we can all get on board with the DEAR idea in our house. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. smh says:

    newer literary fiction: All the Light We Cannot See; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

    Man’s Search For Meaning (unforgettable, if you haven’t read it yet)

    • smh says:

      I meant for Man’s Search to be separated by white space from the newer literary fiction, obviously!

  9. Cate says:

    I live in a rural English village with lovely little shops. I can’t have been paying enough attention in the past, you have inspired me to keep an eye out for all the HOT LOCAL MEN! (they must be there somewhere…) 😉

    • @Cate – in a Colgan novel there will be several, although there will be two main ones. The first — who our heroine will fall for — will be doomed in some way (fishing accident, deported, etc.). Then the second hunky one who’s been lurking in the background will come to the fore, and turn out to have been the right one all along! I’m sure those two are there somewhere. Just keep looking 🙂

    • Karen says:

      I live in a village in England, too, and I’m sad to report that there are definitely NO HOT LOCAL MEN here. I hope they’re not all in Cornwall. .. that’s a really long drive.

      • @Karen and Cate- I’m sorry to report that all the HOT LOCAL MEN exist primarily in Jenny Colgan’s head. Shame.

  10. Phoebe Farag says:

    I have a few book recommendations on my latest blog post, mostly Lenten themed: http://beingincommunity.com/what-im-reading-this-lent-with-book-and-magazine-giveaways-for-adults-and-children/

  11. Karen says:

    I know you mentioned wanting to find something about hygge – can I recommend ‘My Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell? It was a big hit in the UK last year, as we’re also trying to embrace all things hygge (i.e. tealights, blankets, and the meatballs at Ikea). A very entertaining and informative read.

  12. Linda M says:

    I really enjoyed “The Lake House” by Kate Morton, not to be confused with a movie by the same name.

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