Monday, December 28, 2015

Favorite books of 2015

I've always been a big reader.  There are pictures of me from middle school in which I'd climbed a tree to sit there by myself, enjoying a good book.  I was the kid who would stay up until the wee hours of the morning because I just couldn't put my book down.  One more chapter!  Wait, did I say one more?  I can't put it down yet, I have to find out what happens!  There's only 100 pages left, how long could that take?
Years ago, one of my brothers asked me how many books I read in a year, and I couldn't give him an answer beyond, "Um, lots?"  So at the suggestion of a friend, I started keeping a reading log.  I had to make rules for myself, of course.  If I get 3/4 of the way through a book, does that still count?  Nope.  I have to finish the book.  At times it has deterred me from not finishing a terrible book, but at other times it's caused me to think, "Is this worth going on my reading list?  No," and putting down a terrible book.
Initially I was making spaces for months as well as the year.  But what if I read most of an 800-page book in one month, and finished the last 50 pages in another, which month do I count that in?  I later decided that doing it by month was a silly system and stopped.
For the longest time the list was on my computer, but after a sudden reformat during which HusbandX lost several files, including my entire reading list, I now keep it as a hard copy, an old journal which I never actually used as a journal.  It's fun to be able to look back on my lists, to see what I was interested at various points.  It's not always highbrow stuff--I can go from books on environment and literary theory to a series of trashy romances faster than you'd believe.  But it's still fun.
When I was younger, it was almost absurdly easy for me to read 100+ books in a year.  I was actually disappointed the first year my list was under 100.  Pesky college, getting in the way.  Soon enough I had to make a goal for myself, so that my favorite hobby wouldn't fall to the wayside as I added the demands of my romantic partner, a full-time job, various classes, my musical pursuits, friends, a baby, and all of the other things which can overwhelm a person.  Reading is my escape, my time for myself.  Really, it's one of the few things which I do completely selfishly, and I don't feel any guilt about it.  So my goal is always at least 52 books in a year.  One book a week is, I feel, not a bad goal.  A few times I've just barely scraped out those books, but most years I scream past it.  This year I've read well over 80 books.  Unemployment, it turns out, is good for my reading list.  But there will always be books I read and love, and others which are just sort of silly escapism, or ones that are worthwhile but not ones that I love.
Here's my list of favorite books from 2015, in no particular order.  Please note that not all of them are books written or published in 2015, just what I've read this past year.*

1. "Parenting Without Borders", Christine Gross-Loh - This book was fascinating because, as you can probably tell, it talks about parenting from around the world.  I really liked it because the author talked about a lot of things which people in other countries do well but also the things which American parents do really well.  So many parenting books are basically "you're constantly failing your children, all of you terrible American parents--everyone else can do better but you will always fail!"  This one didn't place a value judgment on a lot of ideas, but did list pros and cons for various attitudes and methods.  It was truly interesting, and I think I partly liked it because of the research validating much of the stuff HusbandX and I do with the Munchkin, like not picking her up every time she falls and encouraging her to do stuff for herself.  What parent doesn't like a little validation from time to time?  It did give us some new ideas and concepts, however, and helps me to relax when I feel like I'm asking too much of her.

2. "First Frost", Sarah Addison Allen - This is the second book in a series and if you haven't read anything by her, do.  Her entire canon is just brilliant.  She writes magical realism, so it's not wizardry or fantasy, but a sort of enhanced reality.  She managed to write, in just a few paragraphs, a beautiful love story about a character whose special gift is that she gives people objects.  She doesn't know why, but she gets an itch to give people things and the person always discovers later on that the object was useful.  I won't tell the romance here, but suffice it to say that three paragraphs had me crying like I did for the first few minutes of "Up".  Because it's beautiful, and three paragraphs was a better freaking love story than "Twilight" could ever dream of being.  (I might still be a little bitter that such trash became so popular, and that that's the love story a generation of girls will grow up idolizing.)  Even better, the part that moved me so much?  That's just for a secondary character.  Just think how good the rest of the book was too.  And all of hers are like that.

3. "The Big Fat Surprise", Nina Teicholz - Basically the premise is that everything you've been told about eating fat is WRONG.  I started researching fat a bit more when I was nursing the Munchkin, because why are we always told fat is so bad if breastmilk has so much of it, and if the brain is made of fat?  Oh, it's necessary for proper brain development in infants?  OK.  Wait, then why would it suddenly become bad when you hit age two?  Oh, you mean it was mostly politics and skewed research which tells us it's so terrible?  Um....

A few of my favorite books from this year.
4. "Code Name Verity", Elizabeth Wein - My best friend gave this one to me for my birthday.  It's about two (female) best friends during WWII, one a spy and the other a pilot.  The first half is from the perspective of one and the second half from the other.  It was brilliant, but I warn you that it is NOT a happy book, so if that's what you're looking for, stay away.  However, it was worth every second I spent reading it.

5. "Shadow and Bone" series, Leigh Bardugo - The first one in this series was the other part of my birthday present, because it turns out that my best friend knows me pretty well now that we've spent well over half of our lives as friends.  Also, she's a middle school English teacher so she knows lots of fun literary people and all of the best YA books out there, so she's fantastic at picking books out.  Whenever I need something new to read, she's the one I turn to.
This one's a fun fantasy book, set in a world unlike most.  It's sort of Russian-feeling, and as L. pointed out to me, it's great because just when you think you know what's going to happen or what trope is being used, it changes on you.  I finished reading the first book and biked out the next morning to get the others, then was crushed when the third book was sold out in hardback and I had to wait one whole week for the paperback one to come out.  That was frustrating.  The author's got a new book which L. loaned to me, and it's my current read.

6. "The Birth House", Ami McKay - This is a book that ends well, but don't read it unless you want to be seriously pissed off about how women's health and knowledge has been treated over the years.  It's a novel, but it contains a lot of historical truths about women being pushed aside, particularly in matters of our own health.  It was really good, though.

7. "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks", E. Lockhart - Another YA, this book was fun from cover to cover, about a girl who's pushed aside by an all-male secret society at her private boarding school and how she ends up manipulating them all into doing pranks at her bidding as she slowly comes to realize that she's smarter and cleverer than any of the boys around her, but they don't notice because she's a girl.  I especially loved that, in the end, she doesn't end up with any boy, and realizes that it's OK until she finds a boy who's intelligent enough to match her.  I found this one in my neighborhood's "Little Free Library", and I'm amazed someone gave it away unless they're far more altruistic than I am and wanted to share it with the world.

8. "Why Not Me?", Mindy Kaling - I read both of her books recently and they were funny and witty but what I appreciated the most about them were the startling moments of insightful truths which came out, from how we treat women's bodies in the media to how to give a good compliment.  She ends this book with a chapter about self-confidence which is probably one of the best things I've read on the subject.  "...[T]he scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don't hate themselves.  ...I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won't be able to do it."  Damn.

9. "Farm City", Novella Carpenter - This was actually a hilarious account of someone becoming an urban farmer in Oakland on an abandoned lot next to her apartment building.  Unlike most books in this category (of which I've read a lot) it's not so much a guide as it is an adventure tale.  And instead of focusing on the delicious fruits and vegetables, talking about the amazing dishes she created, she talks about many of the downsides (halitosis when she decided to eat only from her garden for a month) and focuses on the animals she raised.  She doesn't make it sound appealing, talking about all of the dumpster diving she and her SO did to feed their pigs.  It was really fun to read about and, in many ways, gives a more realistic idea of urban farming than the blogs and books which rhapsodize about how beautiful and wonderful it all is.  She concludes that all of her efforts were worthwhile, but there are some things she would do over, and many which she started with too much optimism, such as the pigs.

10. "Furiously Happy", Jenny Lawson - Confession, as of writing this, I still haven't finished reading this book.  However, that's because her books are so laugh-out-loud funny that HusbandX and I read them aloud together.  Well, really it's me reading aloud, but the point is that we do it together.  This one is less funny than her first, "Let's Pretend This Never Happened", but that's OK because it's more about her struggles with mental illness.  Still, the fact that I can say I've been laughing out loud while reading a book about mental illness is pretty telling.  I love her wit and her style, and she makes me wish I was at least half as crazy as she is, because then I'd have way more random fun in my life.  Midnight cat rodeos involving taxidermy?  I could get behind that.

I just realized that all of the books I listed were by women.  I promise, I do read books read by men, and I love many of them!  It just so happens that this year, all of my favorites were by women.
Also, I'm always up for book recommendations, so if you have lovely books which you think I should read please feel free to tell me!  I'll add them to my ever-growing list of books to read.
Happy reading!

*Please also note that I have not included any of the baby books I've read to my daughter.  I'm not going to put "Goodnight Moon" on my reading list nearly every day, even though it's a classic for a reason.  And you don't really need to hear about "Olivia and the Fairy Princesses" or "Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon", even though they're awesome.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Saying goodbye, again

One of my brothers is going to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle.  This is not the first time he's done something like this.  Years ago, after a series of unfortunate life events, he decided to check out and go explore the world by bicycle, flying to Iceland, then to England and making his way almost exclusively by bicycle down to and through Africa.
This time, his plan is to fly to Lisbon, Portugal, then bike to Labrador, Canada.  Sounds crazy, right?  But if anyone can do it my brother can, and he might be the only one to do so (by bike, at least).  I am less worried about his safety than I would be if he hadn't done his previous trip.  I do still worry about freak accidents which might happen, but he is strong and fit and smart and kind, so I worry less about people or even about the weather he will encounter in the year and a half in which he's planning to be gone.  I trust that he will find amazing and helpful people along this journey, as he did on his last one.  People who want to help him, who feed and shelter him because they can and they want to help a total stranger.  We tend to hear only the bad stories, the ones of people who were thrown in jail in a foreign country or captured by pirates or terrorists.  I think of the man in Germany who gave my brother a place to stay, just because they were both cyclists and this guy wanted to hear more about his trip.  I think of the people who shared food with him, or gave him directions, or who just wished him well.  No matter what we hear, those people far outnumber the people who are dangerous, even in dangerous places.
I had to wonder, then, if I'm less worried about his safety this time, why is it hitting me harder to say goodbye?  Why does this seem more wrenching?  It wasn't until last night that I realized why: last time he left, I was not around myself.  I was living in Fairbanks, far away from him.  I knew that I wouldn't see him when I came home for Christmas that year, but other than that it didn't affect me much.  Sending an email he'd read in France isn't much different from sending one he'd read in Seattle.
This time, I'm used to having my brother around once more.  We go for bike rides with him, he comes over for dinner and football on Sundays.  We hang out, because we're not just siblings.  We are friends.  The realization that I've finally gotten my brother back in my life on a regular basis makes it that much harder to say goodbye.  Even knowing that I can text and email whenever I want doesn't help much with this parting.  I am going to miss my brother a crazy amount.
I get to go visit him at some point, probably October.  Either in Mongolia or Russia, he will need someone to bring him a fat tire bicycle and some warmer winter gear.  I volunteered to do so, and I'm looking forward to the adventure.  I am already planning the care package I will bring to him.  At the moment it is: butter, peanut butter, coconut oil, chocolate bars, and one Mountain Dew.  They're heavy items, but they will help him survive the cold and bring a little taste of home to him, making MREs in the wilderness a bit more pleasant.
Dravis, as he prefers to call himself online, is the sibling I'm closest to.  I feel the need to clarify that I don't love him more than the others, but Dravis and I do seem to just get each other, while my eldest and younger brothers understand each other better.  Perhaps being the middle children helped create a bond?  I don't know.  But we are all friends and thankfully, we're all together for the holiday right now.  We got a big family picture, and I'm sure we'll get another when Dravis comes home to show the changes (which will hopefully mostly be in the little ones).  We get to hang out and talk and laugh as siblings do, playing games and teasing each other, playing with the two daughters/nieces.
We had a going away ice cream social last night with many friends.  I was glad to see that so many people managed to come out, despite the holiday and family obligations.  I know a few people really, really wanted to be there but couldn't because they were out of town, but the crowd was still quite large.  It was a fun party, the kind of sendoff you want for someone special in your life going on to a new adventure.
Tonight is the last night of family togetherness for quite some time.  One brother goes home tomorrow, and Dravis leaves on Tuesday.  I know this won't be the last time we're together, but it is momentous and special.  This time together will end up being one of those memories I turn back to when I'm feeling down, when I'm missing my brother.  And then I will send him an email, and remind myself how small the world is.  He is never that far from me, even if it feels like he is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas magic on a budget

I am a firm believer in the magic of Christmas.  It has always been my favorite time of year, with some of my favorite music, foods, movies, and traditions.  And this year is set to be one of the best years in a long, long time.  You know why?  My daughter is now two.  That means that she's finally old enough to appreciate the holidays.  Last year she thought things were interesting, but confusing.  The year before, she was a six-week-old lump of baby human who cried when someone other than me held her, or if I put her down for any reason whatsoever.  (Or so it seemed in my sleep-deprived haze.)  This year, though, she realizes that things are different.  She loved Thanksgiving--watching the meal prep all afternoon and taking in the excitement of all of the adults.  She recognized the fancy silverware and platters, the tablecloth and just the specialness of the day.  She does not, of course, understand why we do all these things, but she's enjoying them nonetheless.
I want Christmas to be as magical for her as it always was for me, but at the same time I want to do it in a healthy way.  Because she's so young we don't let her watch too much TV or movies (and she'd be totally bored by some of our favorites anyway--White Christmas? that's a bit much for a toddler), we usually don't give her a lot of sugar so making cookies all the time is out, and I've always felt that Christmas presents, in some ways, get in the way of the Christmas fun.  After all, how many people stress out over gifts, finding just the perfect thing and paying for it all?  That's not fun!  That's not magical!  That's turning Christmas into one giant to-do list and chore.  (We'll give gifts, I'm just not stressing out about it.)
I found an idea online a few years ago, before we even had a kid, that I really liked, so I wanted to implement it this year.  It's a very simple idea to create a magical season without overloading a kid.  It is this: come up with one fun holiday activity each day.  Just one.  Now, some days we'll have more, because some things aren't up to me.  I don't know when we'll get a tree, and putting up the decorations is at my parents' discretion since it is, after all, their house.  But I came up with some simple things for us to do as a family (both including and excluding the extended family) to help celebrate the season.  Things we don't normally do, or let the Munchkin do.  I drew up a plan on my calendar, which can change as things do, but it gives me an idea every day for something fun to do, something just a little bit extraordinary.

1. Lights
My kiddo loves lights.  I mean LOVES them.  We go to the store and she's getting my attention to point up at the boring, industrial lights.  We regularly find her asleep in her bed, clutching her nightlight because she's been exploring it before falling asleep.  So we knew that the Christmas lights would be a big hit, and they are.  The day after Thanksgiving we put up the first string of lights in the dining room, blinking ones.  When darkness fell my dad and I brought her in there and I plugged them in.  The look on her face was priceless.  On Sunday, we put up more lights while she was napping and, this time with the whole extended family gathered to see her reaction, we turned them on.  She laughed with joy and spent an afternoon pointing at the bulbs to have us tell her what colors they are.  (Pro tip: it's an excellent way to teach kids their colors, and I didn't even think of that until she started showing interest in that aspect of it.  We've been quizzing her, "Can you point to a green one?  What about a red light?")
Aside from our own decorations, however, there are also the lights in the neighborhood.  Twice a week I have it scheduled to go for a walk in the neighborhood to go look at the lights.  This combines two of her favorite things: walking (or any kind of being active) and lights, so it's a huge win.  We bundle up and head out after dark, which is a treat in and of itself, and go wandering to see what we can see.  Already there are quite a few houses completely done up for the holidays, and there will be more as Christmas draws nearer.

2. Special drinks
We've never let the Munchkin have hot chocolate before yesterday.  Crazy, right?  But it's never been necessary or advisable for her to have that much sugar, and she's had a dairy allergy which has made stuff like that a bit complicated.  Well, she's growing out of the allergy so we can relax a bit now.  Once or twice a week I have on the calendar a fun drink: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and eggnog.  And we go all out on these.  We have cider from the apples we pressed sitting in the freezer, waiting until the whole family is together for Christmas.  Until then, we're making do with cider from the store and mulling it ourselves.
For the hot cocoa, HusbandX has an excellent recipe for Mexican hot chocolate that's rich and warming and delicious, without actually being overwhelmingly sugary.  As he told me earlier today while making it, if we're going to have hot cocoa on the list as a special treat, we might as well make sure it really is special.

Helping Daddy make hot chocolate

The last on the list is eggnog.  We found a brand which actually makes really good 'nog.  I can taste actual nutmeg, not whatever chemical crap they have in the other stuff which sort of tastes like nutmeg.  And at some point we will pull out my grandfather's recipe for eggnog and make the real stuff.  NOM.
All of these things are also tied into physical activities.  After all, hot cocoa and hot apple cider are best consumed after coming in all rosy-cheeked from the chilly outdoors, and the eggnog necessitates a (bike) trip to the store.  So it's not just the drinks themselves, but the fun time spent playing outdoors which makes these days special.

3. The mall
You know what else my kid has never done?  She's never been to the mall.  Not only do I tend to avoid them, but it turns out that there's really nothing truly mall-like in Fairbanks.  I mean, there is a mall, but it's more like a strip mall.  Nothing special, and I couldn't even name what stores are in it because I think I only went there once, and didn't buy anything.
We have precisely one trip planned to the mall.  We will try to get a picture with Santa (I love the ones where kids are crying--it's cruel and hilarious), look around for gifts, and probably play on the big kids' toy they have.  (If they still have it?)  Since my kid loves activity and people watching, this will be fun and exciting, and way stimulating which is why it's only on the list once.
My family also has a tradition we call the Truffle Run.  According to family lore, there was a shopping trip with my older brothers when they were very young during which they were very good even as they got super, super tired.  As a treat, my parents bought everyone a fancy chocolate.  After that it became a yearly treat.  As a kid, I'd always pester my parents about when we'd go on the Truffle Run, and we'll carry on this tradition with the Munchkin.  Maybe not the pestering, hopefully, but the buying of chocolates.

4. Cookies!
OK, I'm not the Grinch.  Just because we don't let her have that much sugar doesn't mean I'm going to Scrooge her out of eating any Christmas cookies.  And, she loves helping in the kitchen.  So on the list once each week I have a cookie date.  Chocolate thumbprints (the recipe for which my grandmother typed up), sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, spritz cookies!  Yum.

5. Movies
Just like with the cookies, I think this is perfectly fine in moderation.  Twice a week I've got Christmas movies.  Not that she'll probably watch the entire movie--her average is about half an hour at a time.  So while the movie is on the list twice each week they'll probably get parceled out when she's got the afternoon lull for a few days, meaning she'll be ready to start the new movie the day it's listed.  I'm looking forward to introducing her to The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Grinch, and The Nutcracker.  (The ballet version with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov which my grandparents taped for me when I was a toddler.  I think she'll enjoy dancing along with that one, just as I did.)

6. Candles
I don't know what it is about candles, but they make things so very special.  My parents have always had an advent wreath on the table for the season, with candles (three purple and one pink) and this year the Munchkin got to light the candle the first night (with lots of help from me).  She was fascinated with the candle, waving her hands around and excitedly grabbing my attention to show me that when she did so, the flame wavered.  Every time!  My little scientist.  She was so enthralled.

7. Music
This always has to be a big part of Christmas.  It just sets the tone for the whole season.  Which sucks if you hate it, but I love it.  The Munchkin does too.  This isn't an activity I have on the calendar, but playing Christmas music and dancing with her is something fun we can do, which might not be special in and of itself but, again, adds to the magic of the season.  It's completely free if we make the music ourselves, too, and I sure could use a bit of practice on my violin.

In addition to all of these things, I've been planning a few other tricks.  We might do one special trip to either somewhere in Seattle or out to Leavenworth for an afternoon, just to mix things up.  And since my busy little girl loves to get into things I'm hoping to make a felt Christmas tree so that she can play with the ornaments on it all she wants and, cross your fingers, leave the real tree alone.  (Ha!)  We're busily coming up with ideas for what we'll get her for Christmas, and it won't be a toy.  I think that the experience of Christmas, as a whole, is far more important and memorable than what we receive, so whatever we do get her will last far beyond Christmas day.
These are just a few ideas for cheap or free ways to enjoy the holidays with a small human, but they're also fun and special for the adults.  We're not stressing out about making this the perfect Christmas, or about making every second of every day magical.  That would be ridiculous, and completely counter-productive.  The point is to have fun, not to make ourselves and everyone else crazy, or to out-do anyone else.
The walk we went on as a family on Sunday was great, with the grandparents and uncles joining us.  With HusbandX's family due to arrive in town (yay!!!) a bit nearer to Christmas, I'm looking forward to including them in all of these activities too, making even grander and more fun memories.  Who needs to spend mountains of money to have a fantastic holiday?