The Book Blab Episode 18: Books for Book Club Plus Two Perfect Summer Reads

Jul 30, 2018

When Suzanne and I last chatted, we talked about everything you need to know to start a book club . . . except for the books you might actually want to read at said book club! That's what today's episode is for. Consider this a part two (in fact, you might want to watch part one first if you missed it). It's chock-full of book recommendations (although we did try to show some restraint), and it was fun to get to the heart of what makes a book a great choice for a book club discussion (spoiler: it's not always your favorite book). As always, we'd love to hear YOUR thoughts. What have been some of your favorite books to discuss with your book club?

0:24 - Summer update
1:35 - Today's topic: What makes a good book club book?
2:25 - Tips for choosing books for book club:
  • 2:47 - Favorite books don't always make for a good discussion
  • 3:55 - Choose a book that generates opposite opinions or strong feelings
  • 6:35 - Some ambiguity in the plot/ending encourages discussion
  • 8:15 - This is a simple indicator for knowing if a book will be good for book club
  • 9:58 - Take the length of the book into consideration
  • 12:45 - Be careful of choosing a bestseller 
  • 15:30 - Check if your library has book club sets
  • 16:12 - Identify the unique tastes and interests and commitment levels of your book club
  • 17:22 - Nonfiction is generally a safe choice
18:50 - A few of our favorite book club books
28:17 - Two recommendations for summer reading
  • 29:03 - Suzanne's recommendation 
  • 31:20 - Amy's recommendation
32:32 - Conclusion

Books and links talked about during the show:

The Book Blab Episode 17: Book Clubs (Part One)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Amy's review)
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (Suzanne's review)
Educated by Tara Westover (Suzanne's review)
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson (Amy's review)
 The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (Suzanne's review)
Bomb: the Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Suzanne's review)
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Amy's review)
Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Suzanne's review)
Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubraker Bradley (Amy's review)
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (Suzanne's review)
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (Amy's review)

Now it's your turn: Share your favorite book club reads, and tell us what we should talk about next time on The Book Blab!

Summer Goals for Kids: 2018 Edition

Jul 25, 2018

Although it pains me to say it, we are two-thirds of the way through our summer break. We had a big road trip and three family reunions over the past four weeks, but now things are quieting down for the rest of the summer, which means we're focusing on our summer goals with renewed determination.

This is our fifth year making summer goals (see past years here), and it is one of my very favorite parts of summer. Interestingly though (and this is probably because I recently read The Four Tendencies), I've been a little more aware of my kids' responses this year, and it definitely varies. While I don't have anyone who flat out refuses to participate, some of my kids definitely seem to enjoy the process of setting and achieving goals more than others.
For example, one of Bradley's goals was to complete a second grade math workbook. I thought it would keep him busy all summer, but he immediately attacked it with a vengeance and finished it before the end of the first week. Aaron is also very dedicated and looks over his list every day and chooses something to work on and check off. On the other hand, Maxwell and Clark require a little more reminding/encouraging. Goals may or may not be a part of their love language in the same way they are mine. 

I wanted to share our goals before any more of the summer slips away. As a reminder, we try to have a good variety of goals that are a mix between practical, educational, and fun. (I go into more detail about how and why in this first post about summer goals). Even though school starts on August 20, I usually give my kids until Labor Day to finish up their goals, and I think they're well on their way to having them completed before then.

Aaron, age 9 (almost 10)
  • Practical
    • Learn to mow the lawn (He has been waiting his whole life for this)
    • Bake cookies (He can do it from scratch, completely by himself; my life will never be the same.)
    • Make salad
    • Sweep and mop the kitchen floor
  • Educational
    • Master five cards from Geo Safari History (yes, we're using an old vintage Geo Safari and Math Safari that I borrowed from my mom. They're so great for learning quick facts. Let's hear it for old school!)
    • Master Math Safari fractions, decimals, and percents 
    • Learn European capitols
    • Six units in piano books
    • Memorize The Living Christ (this is a carry over from last summer when we memorized the first half or so)
    • Listen to history/science podcasts (our two favorites for this are The Past and the Curious and Brains On)
  • Fun
    • Three science experiments with Dad (Mike hasn't done any yet, so I guess this could end up being more educational, but knowing him, I'm guessing it will be more fun) 
    • Play tennis with Dad
    • Write a story
    • Family book club (coming this weekend!)
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit (Just a little note about this one: I ordered an Insect Lore praying mantis kit. We have been so excited to see a hundred little praying mantises hatch, but even though the kit said it could take up to twelve weeks, I'm pretty sure ours has already failed. I'm pretty bummed about this since it was supposed to be one of the coolest parts of our summer, but I guess there's always next year to try again.)
Maxwell, age 8
  • Practical
    • Make macaroni from a box
    • Clean bathroom toilet and floor
  • Educational
    • Six units in piano books
    • Master five cards from Geo Safari Animals
    • Master Math Safari Division
    • 3rd grade geography workbook (He's been doing this one)
    • Write a story (You might notice that this same goal is in Aaron's fun category)
    • Memorize The Living Christ
    • Listen to history/science podcasts
  • Fun
    • Gut a fish with Dad
    • Run a mile and improve time
    • Three science experiments with Dad
    • Family book club
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit
Bradley, age 6.5
  • Practical
    • Wash breakfast dishes/utensils
    • Follow a recipe
  • Educational
    • 2nd grade math workbook (He did this one)
    • Six units in piano books
    • Read six nonfiction books (He has read a lot of these books)
    • Listen to history/science podcasts
    • Work in writing book (We're actually using the same book Max used last year; as in, the very same book; Max didn't end up doing much out of it.)
    • Memorize The Living Christ
  • Fun
    • Three science projects with Dad
    • Practice throwing and catching a frisbee
    • Family book club
    • Art Fraud Detective (Aaron and Max did this same book two summers ago and loved it)
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit
Clark, age 4
  • Practical
    • Make toast
    • Wipe the kitchen table
    • Memorize address
  • Educational
  • Fun
    • Pump a swing
    • Ride a two-wheel scooter
    • Put together 100-piece puzzle
    • Insect kit
As we've done in the past, if the boys are making good progress on their goals, then we have a little family reward each month. In June, Mike took the boys to an air show. For July, we're going to see Newsies at Hale Center Theater. And we haven't decided on a reward for August yet.

What do you do in the summer? Goals? A summer bucket list? Camps? Tell me in the comments!

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 17, 2018

June was idyllic summer: warm days, long evenings, structured mornings, lazy afternoons. I would take June over and over again.  We spent our time . . .

Going . . . to the zoo. Early in the month, we had a cool morning that was not great for the pool but was perfect for the zoo. Our zoo recently opened up a new red panda exhibit, which we were very excited to finally get to see.

Fasting . . . from social media for seven days. On June 3rd, the prophet of my church, President Russell M. Nelson, gave a devotional with his wife to all the youth. In his address, he issued five challenges: 1. Take a week-long break from social media, 2. Make a weekly sacrifice of time to the Lord for three weeks, 3. Do a thorough life assessment, 4. Pray daily for all of God's children to receive the blessings of the Gospel, 5. Be a light to the world. The first two challenges were more focused and tangible while the last three are more ongoing and constant. Even though I am long past being a teenager, I knew that accepting those five challenges would bless my life. I stayed off social media (Instagram, blogs, Youtube, Facebook, etc.) for seven days. The results were both expected and surprising. I found that I legitimately missed certain people. I also felt greatly unburdened. I realized that I'm not usually negatively influenced by what other people post, meaning I don't look at other people's perfect lives and feel sad or depressed that my life is not as perfect. However, I realized that my emotions are very tied up in the way other people react to my posts, and when a post or a picture or a caption doesn't get the kind of engagement I was hoping for, I feel disappointed and depressed. Interesting, huh? When I got back on social media, those old feelings started to flare up, and I realized I'd been blissfully free of them for the entire week. Sorry, I probably should have saved all of this for its own post, but needless to say, this is something I'm still trying to find a happy balance with.

Eating . . . doughnuts. We have made it a tradition to celebrate National Doughnut Day on the first Friday in June. Mike was in charge of buying doughnuts from our very favorite doughnut place, Banbury Cross. He came home with two dozen, which I thought was excessive for six people, and he thought was totally justified.

Scorching . . . microwave popcorn. I accidentally put it in for a minute too long, which doesn't sound like it should be that destructive, but it was. The inside of the microwave was completely discolored and every time we used it, it smelled like burnt popcorn. After trying all the Googled tricks to restore it to its original condition, we called it a loss and bought a new microwave, which Mike was only too happy to do. We'd had that microwave since we got married, and we had long outgrown its teeny tiny size. So overall, we're calling it a win.

Teaching . . . my sister how to knit. This might just be my favorite thing from all of June. With my sister's recent graduation, she suddenly has more free time than she's had in the last seven years. So one weekend, she came over, and I taught her the basic knit and purl stitches; then we went out and bought yarn for her first project--a hat. Once she was in a good rhythm with that, we watched Sense and Sensibility while knitting. It was so much fun that we repeated the knitting day three weeks later, right down to watching another adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I can see this becoming a tradition (although we're going to run out of Sense and Sensibilities . . . ).

Finishing . . . off another soccer season. And for Aaron, this will probably be his last. He has played with the same coaches and group of boys for three years, but at the end of this year, they decided to move to a competitive league. Neither Mike or me or Aaron was willing to take on that kind of commitment, and Aaron wasn't really interested in switching to a team of strangers, so we're going to move onto something else.

Baking . . . chocolate chip cookies. That is to say, Aaron baked chocolate chip cookies. All by himself. From start to finish. Completely from scratch and without any help from me. We're all pretty pleased with this development.

Agonizing . . . over paint colors. Since the day we moved into our home more than four years ago, we have known that we wanted to paint the exterior. We thought the time had finally come last fall, but the cold weather came on fast and thwarted our plans. So this spring, we started over and went about getting estimates and comparing paint colors. But guys, it is hard, soooooo hard, to settle on a paint color when 1) you're not sure what you want, 2) you doubt your own taste, 3) even little decisions tend to cripple you, and 4) you can't afford to second guess your decision (like, you literally can't afford it). So thank you to all of our family and friends and neighbors who weighed in with their opinions because in the end, all that agony led to . . .

Admiring . . . our "new" house. Because really, there's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to breathe new life into an old, ugly house. (And if anyone needs a painter, we can highly recommend ours.)

Before (I cheated a little because I found a photo from two years ago when we still had the old roof)


Vowing . . . not to take our kids to the movies ever again. We took the three older boys to see Incredibles 2, and Maxwell and Bradley couldn't handle it. It was just too scary for them, and they begged Mike and me to take them home. We didn't because the rest of us were loving it, but this is at least the third time they have pleaded for us to take them home in the middle of a movie (the other times were with Moana and Coco). I think we've finally learned our lesson. The big screen is just too big. (Side story: see that big tub of popcorn? It was upside down and all over the floor two minutes after this photo was taken.)

Bringing . . . basil back to life. I have a black thumb. I really do. All my plants seem to come to a swift and fast end. Such was the case with a basil plant I purchased recently. I needed basil for a recipe, but then hoped I could keep it alive and enjoy basil all summer. In just a few days, it was drooping and looking stressed, but I went ahead and re-potted it, which only seemed to make matters worse. But I persevered, even when it looked like the most pathetic spindly little thing. And guess what? It survived! And it is getting nice and bushy, and I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Learning . . . new skills. Aaron has wanted to mow the lawn for several years, and Mike decided he was finally tall enough to try it this summer. I hope Aaron enjoys mowing as much when he's sixteen as he does when he's (almost) ten.

Overflowing . . . the toilet. Not our best moment in June, for sure, and maybe a little too much information for all of you. One morning, Clark found me, and said, "Mom, something very bad happened in the bathroom." I was worried he had broken the soap dispenser again and made a big soap mess (which has happened before). If only. I was horrified with what I found. I'll spare you the details, but it was bad. Clark sat on the edge of the bathtub and kept saying, "It's all my fault. It's all my fault." I think he was pretty traumatized, but it will all be worth it if he remembers not to use exorbitant amounts of toilet paper ever again.

Going . . . on a little family hike. We didn't realize how little when we started out, but it ended up being less than half a mile to get to a waterfall after which the only way to go forward was with ropes straight up the cliff face. No thanks. But it was short enough that none of my kids complained, so I think it was perfect for us.

Celebrating . . . Father's Day. The boys made some things for Mike, and we gave him treats and a new game. In the evening, my family came over and we celebrated with my dad. I'm very blessed to have these two good men in my life.

Rekindling . . . our love of The Great British Baking Show. A new season is up on PBS. Have you watched any of it yet?

Hanging . . . out at the pool. We spent a lot of time at the pool in June. Clark and Bradley took swimming lessons; Max and Aaron did swim team. Clark cracked the swimming code and became an independent swimmer. Bradley learned how to do a back flip off the diving board. We were even joined by a few family members on a few occasions.

Knitting . . . a shawl for my Aunt Sheri, which I gifted to her a couple of weeks later, but not before I took some photos in it. I loved planning it; I loved knitting it; I loved finishing it; I loved wearing it; I loved giving it away. The whole process brought me joy.

Spending . . . time together at a family reunion. It's the season of family reunions over here (we have three this summer), and the first one took place with my family at the end of June at Lava Hot Springs. I sometimes complain about going to so many reunions, but the truth is, I really do love it. I only got to go to one family reunion during my entire childhood, so I'm so glad my kids are having a very different experience. This is the stuff of memories.

And that's it for June! How is your summer going so far?

What I Read in June

Jul 2, 2018

It kind of felt like all of my reading was dictated to me for the month of June. Three of the books were for book clubs (not kidding), and the fourth was our readaloud, which, even though I chose it, began to feel like more and more of an obligation as it dragged on for the entire month. Here are a few of my thoughts on each book:

1. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I was in the mood for a sweet, lighthearted read for summer, and this definitely fit the bill.

It's about Don Tillman, a middle-aged genetics professor who decides it's time for him to get married. But he's tired of going on the usual dates and making the usual small talk. It's so inefficient. So he comes up with a comprehensive questionnaire to screen potential candidates, asking everything from what flavor of ice cream she likes to what she does in her free time. He calls this, "The Wife Project." With the questionnaire, he can immediately see if they'd be a compatible match or not.

But then, he meets Rosie, and she basically fails the entire questionnaire, and yet, upon reflection, he realizes that he would place his time with her among his happiest moments (right after his three visits to the Natural History Museum). Luckily, Rosie is searching for her biological father and so Don agrees to help her with "The Father Project" and doesn't have to worry about their incompatible interests.

The thing that is never explicitly mentioned but is obvious from the beginning is that Don has Asperger's Syndrome, and this makes this search for the perfect wife even more hilarious and endearing because Don tries to go about it all in just the right way, but everything is just a little more awkward than it needs to be.

I honestly could have loved this book if not for two things: the excessive swearing (including the f-word) and the behavior of Don's best friend, Gene, who is married but sleeps around in the name of research and science. I almost put down the book several times because of this content, and, in spite of how much I loved Don, I wouldn't be able to recommend it.

2. The Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson
This story could have been so good, so good, in the hands of another author. It is the true story of Virginia Hall who worked as a spy for the SOE and OSS during World War II. Right from the beginning, when she accidentally shoots herself in the leg during a hunting expedition and has to have it amputated, you know that she is an extraordinary lady. But the writing was so dull and dry that it was a struggle for that spunk and fearlessness to come through.

For example, at one point Virginia has to escape from France by way of the Pyrenees into Spain. This would have been an arduous journey under any circumstances, but with an artificial leg to contend with, it was absolutely torturous. And yet, I felt virtually no emotion when I was reading it because the writing was so bland.

This was my book club book for June, and our discussion was as much about how bad the writing was and lamenting about what the story could have been as it was about Virginia and her noble heroics.

Look her up on Wikipedia, but skip this book.

3. Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through Honey for a Child's Heart, looking for something that sounded interesting for our next readaloud. I wasn't looking because I didn't have any ideas (I always have ideas) but because one of the goals I made at the beginning of the year was to read three books recommended in that resource. The problem was that many of the books that caught my attention did so because I'd already heard of them, and the point of the goal was to discover new-to-me books.

So when I happened upon Tom's Midnight Garden, I jumped on it because it was a completely never-before-heard-of title and it was described as "timeless" and the type of story that "will probably be reaching out to children in 2102 on both sides of the Atlantic." Perfect. I put it on hold that very moment.

Tom has the whole summer to look forward to when his younger brother, Peter, unfortunately contracts a bad case of the measles. Tom is immediately whisked off to his aunt and uncle's flat to avoid any exposure to the disease, and he can't think of any place that would be more boring. But then, on one of his first nights there, the clock wakes him up, and he opens the back door and steps into a beautiful garden that was nothing more than a few trash bins and an old car in the daylight. Night after night, Tom returns to this garden, and slowly he realizes that he isn't just stepping into another place, but another time entirely.

When we were two or three chapters into the story, I enthusiastically posted about it on Instagram. We loved it! It was so fun to discover an old classic. Etc., etc. But with each chapter, my enthusiasm seemed to wane just a bit more. The story unfolded slowly, so slooooowly, and some nights I couldn't even muster up the interest to read a chapter. Consequently, it took us more than a month to read, and maybe we should have abandoned it.

The problem was, it did have its enjoyable moments and we all had a bunch of unanswered questions. So we plowed on. And by the last five chapters or so, it had picked back up again, and we didn't have any trouble finishing. So, was it worth it to keep reading for ten good chapters out of twenty-seven? In this particular case, I'm going to say yes. (But I'm really glad we get to read something else now.)

4. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
My whole family read this book for our family reunion book club (which was this past weekend). Even though the official discussion took place during the family reunion, we've been informally talking about it for weeks. We couldn't help ourselves.

Gretchen Rubin first introduced the Four Tendencies in her book, Better than Before. She came up with the framework to better understand why some people are able to form good habits so easily and others really struggle. This book honed in on the four tendencies specifically (Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, Rebel), exploring each one thoroughly (strengths and weaknesses, how it interacts with the other tendencies, what it looks like in different situations, different leanings, etc.).

You can imagine what happens when a family reads this book. Everyone starts identifying everyone else, and no one can say anything without everyone else jumping in and saying, "Questioner, right there!" or "Definitely an Obliger." For example, at the reunion, all the girls went out for pedicures on the last morning. We had an appointment scheduled for 9:30, so we said we would leave at 9:00. But then, as the time approached, we thought if people were ready earlier, we could leave earlier, and then maybe the salon could get us in sooner (we were a little worried about checking out of our VRBO on time). Anyway, we failed to tell my sister the new plan, and at 8:50, we were all in the car waiting for Anna. She finally came and was quite put out because we had said 9:00, and it was not 9:00 yet, and if we were going to change the plans, then she needed to be informed. We all laughed and said, "Typical Upholder" (and I felt some empathy because I'm also an Upholder, so if the situation had been reversed, I would have reacted the same way).

My brother took it a little too far and would label any activity with a tendency: "She's eating peanut M&M's. Isn't that just like an Upholder?" Or, "He fell asleep on the couch. What a Rebel." Or, "She's reading a book. Typical Obliger behavior." He was just saying it to be funny, but Gretchen Rubin was quick to point out that "the Tendency describes only how a person responds to an expectation, not what the person's talents, personality, intelligence, or interests are." I think this is an important distinction to keep in mind. This framework analyzes just one small part of a person's personality, and it's up to you to figure out how it fits with everything as a whole.

I will say that just as a general reading experience, I enjoyed Better Than Before quite a bit more. The Four Tendencies is fairly repetitive, and, while it's interesting and I liked all of the examples, I feel like you could get the gist of the system by reading just the first chapter or listening to Gretchen Rubin's podcast episodes on each Tendency.

In fact, one family member didn't read the entire book but stopped after he thought he had it figured out. Questioner, no doubt.

What did you read last month? Anything I should put on my TBR?
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