We survived another January, which always seems like something of a feat when you live in a place like Minnesota. It helps that the temperatures have ben mild and the morning sunrises have been beautiful, and I always like this first bit of the new year — when everything feels fresh and new and possible.
Our trip to Mexico probably also helped make the month go faster, but it also made it feel sort of strange and disjointed. (Weird to go from Christmas vacation to a week of reality and then back on vacation.) Even though we’ve been home for nearly two weeks, I still feel like I’m trying to get back to business as usual, which accounts (sort of) for my piecey Internet presence this month.
What I’ve Been Reading:
My reading list was heavy on the work-process books this month. In the last few months of 2015, I started to feel like I was losing my grip on my routines, needing better ways to stay organized and on-point with all I had to do. (It’s also a little heavy on the chick lit. Whatever. I was in Mexico. I couldn’t help myself.)
Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life, Steve Wiens: I enjoyed Steve Wiens’ debut book, which used the Genesis creation poem to explore the ways that God works through our beginnings. It was a perfect book to read in January. (I wrote about it in a bit more depth here.)
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen: This was the most helpful book I’ve ever read on task management. Allen’s system is about getting all the things you need to do out of your head and into various lists of projects, reference and next-actions. He is also fundamentally against the daily to-do list, and after listening to this audiobook, I agree. I’ve done most of January without one, and I’ve felt more productive and less stressed about tasks than ever before. Not high literature, obviously, but an extremely helpful book for anyone who feels like things keep getting lost in their brain.
The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Daniel Coyle: This short, easy read was fine, but I think it has more to offer for those looking to improve athletically or musically. As a writer, I found some of Coyle’s tips were helpful (it was interesting to learn that it’s better for your brain to practice your craft for small intervals each day (5 minutes a day) than longer intervals (an hour) a week), but there were many that didn’t really apply to my particular situation. For a short, inspirational book for writers and other creatives, I much prefer Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.
Manage Your Day-to-Day, Jocelyn E. Glei: This book, authored by a variety of writers and experts, has more to do with managing the creative process than managing tasks. Most of what I read here was not new to me, but it was filled with good reminders: Write every single day. Create blocks of time (preferably in the morning) to do focused, creative work. Spend those lost moments waiting in lines or for appointments disconnected from your phone and attentive to the world around you.
The Rumor, Elin Hilderbrand, This was my first Hilderbrand, and it was a good beachy read. The plot was fairly predictable and the characters spend most of their time in the shallows of life, but Hilderbrand knows how to write and how to keep an audience engaged. She’ll probably end up being one of my go to authors for beach books.
Victim of Grace, Robin Jones Gunn: Last year, I wrote a blog post about my issues with the new Christy Miller Christian romance novels and then ended up talking to their author (and the literary idol of my 12-year-old self), Robin Jones Gunn, on the radio. After the call, we exchanged memoirs. I sent her When We Were on Fire, and she sent this one.
I finally read it in Mexico, and it caused me no small amount of existential angst. In the book, RJG walks through the story of her life and shows the way that God’s grace was at work, interjecting her own stories with insights from “Kindred Spirits” in the Bible. What was troubling to me about this book is that, much like in the Christy Miller books, God always works things out in the best case scenario. The cancer scare is negative. The seemingly dead book contract turns into a huge new deal with a travel budget for places like Australia, Finland and Kenya. Packing up and moving out of the house with no clear plan of where you might end up is rewarded with a beautiful home in Maui at a fraction of the cost.
In RJG’s life, God always seems to speak in really obvious ways at the exact moment she needs to hear him. This has not been the case in my life, and it’s hard to read a book like this and feel like I’m okay, like my messy, imperfect faith is okay, and that I, too, am loved by God — even though it looks nothing like this.
I don’t doubt that RJG is telling the truth of her story here, and there are a lot of things I loved about the book. (I might steal her tradition of reading through her last year’s journals every year on January 2nd and noticing the ways that God was at work.) But I also know too many people who trust God just as wholly, just as beautifully, and have been given impossible suffering and trials instead of super-inexpensive beach houses in Maui. There seems to be little-to-no recognition of that in the book, and that made it, for me, a tough read.
(Sorry. That was long. Apparently I had a lot to say about all that.)
The Matchmaker, Elin Hilderbrand: Another fluffy romance novel, but his one had me ugly crying in the middle of the night in our 80’s style resort room in Mexico. Just to warn you.
Humans of New York: Stories: I read most of this when I first got it in December (it made my Book Ideas for Everyone on Your List post around Christmastime), but I read it again, slowly, in my pajamas this month because reading other people’s stories expands something in my heart, and because Brandon Stanton does such an amazing job of capturing (both in words and in direct quotes) what it is that makes us all human. This is a worthwhile book to have; I’m sure I’ll go back to it again.
What I’m Listening To
Photo from cloudcult.com
I’ve listened casually to Cloud Cult before, but this month I started listening in earnest to their albums. Cloud Cult is a local band — from Duluth, Minnesota, one of my favorite places in the world — but they’ve gotten a lot of national recognition, and it’s easy to see why.
I’ve got their live collection Unplug playing on a loop right now in my minivan. For this album, they chose “songs with kind of philosophical messages,” and the lyrics of their searching are so profoundly beautiful. Their song “Purpose” is one of my favorites. It begins, “There must be purpose here cause most of us keep waking up.” Highly recommended for the searchers, mystics and poets among us.
What I’m Watching
It’s January in Minnesota, so I’m watching a lot of TV. Don’t judge. My current favorite is the show Younger, which started its second season this month. The premise is a little kooky — a 40-year-old woman pretends to be 26 in order to get a job in the publishing industry, and her lie spirals out of control. Sutton Foster is fantastic (I fell for her back in Bunheads), and Hilary Duff is surprisingly adorable as well.
I accidentally-on-purpose started watching The Bachelor again, and I’m still into Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (I loved this article in the New York Times about its creator/lead actress Rachel Bloom.) I’m waiting eagerly for my Shonda shows to start up again in February. In the meantime, I’m rematching Parenthood on Netflix while I cook/run/do laundry/pack lunches.
Other Things I’ve Been Into:
Cozumel, Mexico: I wrote about our rainy winter vacation here, but for all of its imperfections, the whole thing was a gift. Though there were a few moments with the kids I would have just as soon skipped, it was so cool to have this extended time with my family. We’ve never done a trip like this together before and I did love that we were able to share this adventure with the boys.
Reading with my son: It was about this time seven years ago that I was decorating Dane’s nursery with children’s book illustrations. A Where the Wild Things poster above the crib; a trio of illustrations from Corduroy by the changing table.
This month, something about reading clicked for Dane, and it has been so much fun o watch. Last night, he read me Corduroy himself as we sat together in the hallway. The night before, he finished his first chapter book: Frog and Toad Together. So much fun.
Home: This month, some family friends moved in with us. They’ll be staying with us during the weekdays for the next few months while they build a house, and the transition from four to eight people in our house has been interesting for this introvert. The big dinners together are my favorite part, and the pockets of time with just my own family on the weekends have become precious to me in a new way. I’m thinking a lot about home, about hospitality, and about what it means when we talk about welcome.
Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark comes out in less than two months (on March 15th). My publisher is working on getting advanced copies out this week, which means that people are going to actually be reading this thing soon. Not sure I’m ready for that, but here we go.
The big news with all of that is that Oasis Audio bought the rights to both of my books. The audio version of Night Driving will be released alongside the print edition in March; When We Were on Fire should release, I believe, sometime in April. Exciting!!
This month, I was a little absent from the blog. I wrote a defense of New Year’s resolutions, a reflection on gratitude and our time in Mexico, and, my favorite — a response over at Off the Page to the question, “What do you do when you want to believe…but can’t?”
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Linking up as usual with the illustrious Leigh Kramer.
What have you been into this January?