Books read in April 2018

Another month, another round-up of books read! A lot of my non-fiction selections this month were advance copies or galleys, so they aren’t available for purchase yet. I’ll put in publication dates for people who’d like to keep an eye out for them.

Ulysses, by James Joyce

Joyce’s epic, modernist novel follows Leopold Bloom, a modern day Odysseus, as he travels around Dublin. I read Ulysses in college, and I remember thinking it was interesting, partly since I read most of it as I was traveling around Tasmania. My own wanderings, as it were. However, when you are reading something for class, you read differently than you do when reading for pleasure. I’m glad I gave this doorstopper of a book (almost 800 pages!) a second look at this juncture of my life when I have proven my ability to make it through other epics. Joyce does a lot of cool stuff with plot and language. He also does ambitious but nonsensical stuff that is only understandable by reading the commentary (I had the Wikipedia entry open much of the time). And then there is stuff that one gets away with when one is considered a genius (The Penelope section … Molly’s stream of consciousness … I don’t think Joyce has accurately portrayed much about a female mindset.) If you’re looking for a James Joyce novel to pick up, definitely start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses is great. It is a worthy challenge if you’re looking for one, but it is a lot less readable than, say, War and Peace. I’m pretty sure it’s still around because it gets assigned in college literature classes. There is a lot to unpack!

How to Be a Happier Parent, by KJ Dell’Antonia

Dell’Antonia, the former Motherlode columnist for the New York Times, understands that parenthood can be meaningful in the abstract, and often soul-crushing in daily experience. Her tips on forcing the kids to do more chores, and letting stuff go, are meant to improve life in the here and now. As a fellow mother of four, I enjoyed reading about her own trials and discoveries. This book will be out on August 21.

Sort and Succeed, by Darla DeMorrow

DeMorrow runs a professional organizing firm that operates in my neighborhood. I enjoyed her realism (nope, you can’t declutter once and hope to stay that way forever, as Marie Kondo promises) and her quirkiness (she does a money dance every time she finds cash in someone’s clutter, which happens a lot!)

Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf

This is technically a short story, but since my mother sent me a version that is an actual bound book — albeit with few pages, and many illustrations — I am going to count it as a title read in April. A handful of people (and critters) walk through Kew, the famed London public garden, in the dazzling July sun. The narrative follows each of them for a bit as they try to understand each other and life. I actually managed to read through this twice in the boarding area when my plane was delayed the other day.

Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey

Another advance copy, with a publication date of August 28. Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with Bailey, author of The Productivity Project. In his new book, he discusses how to carve out time and attention for focused work, and also how to purposefully let your mind wander (“scatterfocus”) in order to piece together concepts and create new ideas. Earnest and fun like his previous title, and a good motivator for taking a hard look at one’s schedule.

Ambition Redefined, by Kathryn Sollmann

This one won’t be out until October 9! Sollmann carefully avoids all mommy war cliches in this thought-provoking book. I did not agree with everything. I think “big jobs” are often more compatible with family life than people think, but I know that Sollmann is approaching this topic from a different angle through her work with caregivers returning to the workforce, and I appreciated what she is trying to do. She argues that the vast majority of women have no interest in becoming the CEO of a major corporation (probably not all that many men are interested either!) but — and this is the real radical notion — she also argues that women need to redefine service to their families as including some form of paid work. Failing to do some sort of paid work, even through caregiving years (children and parents!), puts the majority of families at great financial risk. It is ironic, Sollmann notes, that women risk becoming a burden to their adult children because of something they thought was helping them as little kids. She spends the latter half of the book outlining various ways to work flexibly and remotely in the modern economy, arguing that if people think it’s impossible to combine caregiving with earning, they’re not looking very hard.

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner

This is one of Stegner’s shorter books, at a mere 200 pages, and yet like Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, it shows what a good writer can pack in with years of practice at craft. An aging Joe Allston, living with his wife Ruth in California, receives a postcard from a woman they both met on the trip they took to Denmark years prior. This Danish countess lived a rough life — creatively rough as only Stegner could possibly dream up — and the action travels back and forth from Allston reading his diaries to his wife, to the scenes in the diaries, as the couple tries to understand the Countess’s secret. This was a particularly interesting book for me to read right now as the novel I’ve been sketching out also features an email from a woman in Scandinavia (Norway, in my case) that triggers memories of the main character’s trip there. In fact, some of the main action in mine occurs on the summer solstice too. I’d never head of the plot of The Spectator Bird before I picked it up, but there you go — maybe everyone drinks from the same well. If I could achieve anything close to Stegner, I’d be happy.

Goodbye Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

Also a quick, poignant read that packs a lot in. 30-year-old Ruth (another Ruth!), recovering from a broken engagement, moves back in with her parents to help care for her father, an involuntarily-retired professor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The family’s various dysfunctions and strengths quickly come back as she tries to deal with the absurdity of this caregiving year, recounted in diary form.

Now I’m working on Stegner’s Angle of Repose which, at more than 600 pages, is going to take a bit to get through. Though probably not quite as long as Ulysses!

What are you reading these days?

In other news: Do you enjoy reading book reviews here? Have you ever picked up a title — or not picked up a title and saved yourself some time! — based on a review? Please consider supporting this ad-free, no-affiliate-links blog by pre-ordering my next book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (May 29). In it, I explore why some people with a lot going on seem rushed, while others act like they have all the time in the world. You’ll discover strategies for doing more of what matters, and feeling better about it too. Thanks for reading!

Photo: Modernist writings, thick and thin

13 thoughts on “Books read in April 2018

  1. Angle of Repose is GOOD. I love Stegner – literary folks know him, of course, but I wish he was more popular. Crossing to Safety is good, but it’s one of those that you may read differently ten years later than the first time you read it. I read it when I was 23 and I feel like it would be a whole different book now at 33.

  2. I love reading your book reviews. I’m especially interested in Sort and Succeed by Darla DeMorrow. Ambition Redefined sounds really interesting. I still (so often) hear a negative narrative about women working with young children at home.

    1. @Anne- I know that narrative is what Kathryn is trying to counter – and she’s speaking to women who might be particularly susceptible to it. She’s not really speaking to those who do want to rocket up the ladder. So her point is that you don’t need to do something big you just need to do something. Because the something keeps your earning potential there, and whatever you put away gets compounded over time (plus getting your social security credits, etc.)

  3. Thanks for introducing me to these titles – a few of them are definitely headed to my to-read list. Right now, of course, I just can’t wait to dive into Off The Clock!

    Question: You read so many books. Do you buy them? As you mention advance reader books above, I imagine you receive a number of them for free. Do you keep them all when you’re done reading with them? Do you have a library in your home, stacked full of books? Just curious 🙂

    1. @Harmony- so I do get sent a lot of books – one of the upsides of writing about them, and writing for various places over the years! So the advance copies were all sent to me. I owned Ulysses from back in the day. I purchased The Spectator Bird in paperback. I read Goodbye Vitamin on Kindle. I was weighing if I wanted to read it, but when I clicked over from Modern Mrs. Darcy, there was a Kindle deal and it was only $2.99! So for that, it’s an impulse purchase. And I did enjoy it. I do have a huge stack of books in my house. I need to start getting rid of some of them. Maybe I’ll do some giveaways…

  4. I definitely enjoy your book reviews and think the number of them is just right–once a month. IfAnd, yes, thank you for your suggestions. I’ve taken a few suggestions off your list and have come to the conclusion that I may have different tastes, but enjoy these reviews nonetheless. I’ve read Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson (enjoyed those), Age of Innocence (enjoyed for the historical commentary aspect, but otherwise wanted to throw it against the wall), Hourglass (nope), and Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (which while well-written, I found slow which pains me to say as I know everyone loves him). I think I’m simply interested in more “poppy” books that are faster paced reads where I can’t put the book down. Fredrik Backman may be my most favorite author to read right now–loved A Man Called Ove and Beartown. I’d put any book by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling’s pen name) and Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train and Into the Water) in this pop-fiction, suspenseful, can’t-put-the-book down category. Also really liked Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which is a more thoughtful, longer read.

    1. @EB – I find Stegner slow too. At least at the beginning. Then there is this tipping point where I get into the books and the pages just fall away. I’m kind of still working on that with Angle of Repose, but I’m only 125 pages in.

  5. Love reading the book reviews – you and I have very different taste in books but I am always interested to hear the opinion of another reader.
    I am a recent follower (shout out to the podcast!).

    1. @ErinH – thanks! Glad you’re enjoying the podcast. And yes, readers can have very different tastes. One of the reasons I always like Modern Mrs Darcy’s reviews is that I can tell whether I’m going to like the book or not from her descriptions. Sometimes I read the description and think “definitely not for me.” And that’s good to know!

  6. I also really enjoy your book reviews, and have added books to my ever-growing TBR list after reading them. I loved Goodbye Vitamin (the only book on this list that I’ve read), and also Crossing to Safety, much of which I read while waiting for jury duty a few years back!

    My son is an adult now, and I struggled with what I now see as an artificial work vs. home situation, but as a freelancer I was able to keep working from home and bring in a little money while my son was younger. I wish I’d had Ambition Redefined to read back then, as it sounds like a book that would have helped clarify things for me.

  7. I am currently reading, A Time to Creep, a Time to Soar. Lessons Learned for work and life from Climbing Kilimanjaro, by Nina Spencer.
    So good. Quick read and love that the author is also from Ontario, Canada 🙂
    Love your blog Laura!

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