What I Thought About All of the Books I Read for Book Club This Year

Dec 19, 2020

You all know how much I love my book club. I joined it back when Aaron was just a toddle, and I have only missed a handful of meetings since then (even a scheduled induction the very next day couldn't keep me away). 

Four years ago, our book club was struggling to stay afloat. Although many people were on the list and received the emails about the meetings, only four of us read and discussed the book with any regularity. In a bold move, we decided the book club could use a revamp. 

We curated a group of women who were avid and dedicated readers, came up with a yearly outline of genres, and even drew up a list of rules like the true nerds we were.

And thus, the "scary" book club was born.

It has been so good for my soul. I love these smart, classy women so much. I love that no matter what we choose, people will actually read it and come to the meeting with sticky notes, tabs, background insights, and underlined sections ready to dive deep and discuss. It is everything I could have asked for in a book club.

Like most things this year, our little book club suffered because of the pandemic. We did our first zoom meeting in March during the week that everything shut down. (I can still remember when my friend sent out the group text that said, "Should we zoom this week instead?" And I said, "What's zoom?" Oh, my poor little naive self.)

At the time, we thought a virtual meeting would be a one, possibly two, time exception. But month after month, the texts continued to say the same thing, "See you on zoom on Thursday!"

I'm not going to say that virtual meetings were an acceptable replacement to the real thing. Please. Half the fun is getting together and snacking on delicious treats. Without this element, it felt much more like work or an assignment than in the past. Besides that, the stress of daily life caused many members to lose their reading mojo, especially if the book involved a difficult subject. 

But we did it. As we had our final meeting of the year last week, I looked over the thirteen squares on my computer screen, and I felt this sense of extreme pride. My book club can survive a pandemic! 

I thought it might be fun to look back over everything we read this year and reminisce just a little. I'd love to know if you've read any of these, either with a book club or solo. 

January: Lovely War by Julie Berry (Fiction) 5/5

Out of everything I read this year, this one is my top pick for 2020. So either everything went downhill from there, or it just kicked off a really great year of reading. I choose to think the latter. The best part was that I really had no idea I would like it so much. I knew very little about it going into it, except that Greek gods were somehow involved. Having never really enjoyed Greek mythology that much, I can't say that was a very big selling point for me. But somehow, that ended up being one of my favorite parts and elevated the story from just another World War I/II story to something really special. I wrote a whole review of it here, but basically it gets all of the praise, gold stars, and highest recommendations from me. 

February: Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (Relationship) 4/5

In February, we like to choose a book that focuses on relationships. It's kind of our nod to Valentine's Day without being overly sappy. We've read quite the variety of books, from nonfiction to fiction, over the years, and I always like examining them through the lens of relationships, which puts a slightly different spin on things from a typical discussion. Cold Sassy Tree was rich in relationships--romantic, familial, and friendship. I had never read it before and knew pretty much nothing about the plot. I loved the voice of the 14-year-old narrator, which was accurate and uncomfortable at the same time. The story unfolded in the most surprising way, and there was so much to discuss when we all gathered together (our last "real" gathering of the year). Full review is linked here.

March: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Memoir) 3/5

Okay, let's get one thing straight from the beginning. This book is not a memoir (unless children who spontaneously go up in flames is part of someone's reality). But we read it for what was supposed to be a memoir month. The book that was originally slated for March was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (which is indeed a memoir). However, in the weeks leading up to it, no one could dredge up any enthusiasm for it (even though we had all voted for it). We decided to make a last minute change--because sometimes that just feels right, and it's our book club so we get to make the rules. I felt like we should go with one of the other memoir choices for the month (because even if we make our own rules, I am still a rule follower at heart, and this was our memoir month). However, the majority of the members wanted to read Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, which was a runner-up for July, our wild card month. And now, looking back, I find it eerily appropriate that we decided to read about a combustible set of twins during this month that set off our dumpster fire of a year.


April: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Classic) 5/5

This was the only book on this year's list that I had read before, but it was an absolute pleasure to return to it. I read it aloud to my kids, and we enjoyed every page. They loved Dickon (who doesn't?), and I loved Mrs. Sowerby (a worthy mentor if ever there was one). After we finished, we watched the 1993 movie, which was equally delightful. I was so grateful for the chance to reread this beloved classic and share it with my kids. Also, in my humble opinion, April is, and always will be, the best month in which to read this book. 

May: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Middle Grade/Juvenile) 4/5

This happened to be the month that I was in charge of. The three books I originally recommended were The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. I think any of those would have made for a great discussion, but you just can't go wrong with Kate DiCamillo. Her tight prose and deep themes just never disappoint. I quite enjoyed jotting down potential questions while I was reading this book and considering different angles. But ask me how much I like leading a discussion over zoom. (Answer: not so much.) I have since read the second book in this trilogy, Louisiana's Way Home and enjoyed it just as much or even more. The third one, Beverly Right Here, has been checked out from the library twice, and I hope to make it a priority soon. 

June: Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder (Nonfiction) 3/5

As much as everyone at book club thought this story was fascinating, one of the things we couldn't seem to get past was the author's rather egotistical voice as well as some of his sexist comments. We spent a good ten minutes bashing him before moving onto the actual events that made this story so compelling. The funny thing is when I mentioned this indignation to Mike (who I had convinced to read the book), he was surprised by our reaction. He hadn't picked up on it at all, probably because he's a man. Regardless, this was a book that connected a lot of dots in the world news for me, and I've recommended it to my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and brother, so obviously I was able to overcome my personal grievances.

July: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (Wild Card) 4/5

"Wild Card" is not an actual genre but we always dedicate one month out of the year to catch any books that don't fit into another category or that are just about something a bit unusual. Although this book definitely could have fit into our "memoir" or "nonfiction" months, its format was out of the ordinary. It was a mix of the author's own experiences in therapy, insights and techniques from being a therapist, and the contrasting experiences of her clients. I really loved the narrative style and the way the stories intertwined with one another. And it was really helpful to get the perspective of both client and therapist from one voice. Book club consisted of people swapping their own therapist stories alongside comments about the actual book. I felt like I didn't have much to contribute since I've never been to a therapist. But this book convinced me that I probably should. 

August: When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin (Fiction) 2.5/5

This was a bit of an uncomfortable read for me. I found it over the top in so many ways: too saccharine, too predictable, too sentimental, too preachy, too lofty, too dramatic. But the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about the person who was leading the discussion in August; she had put in a major plug for this book when she said it was one of her favorites. Books are so personal, and I didn't know how I was going to be able to share my honest opinion without sounding offensive. But in the end, I didn't need to worry. This woman reread it in preparation for leading the discussion, and it didn't hold up for her on a second reading. She came to many of the same feelings as the rest of us, so we were able to just all briefly agree on that and then get down to discussing the intricacies of the plot. Sometimes the best discussions end up being for the books I didn't love.

September: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Nonfiction) 3.5/5

I always love Malcolm Gladwell, and this book was absolutely fascinating, as I expected. Unfortunately, it depressed me quite a bit. The basic premise was that we, as humans, are not the best judges of character. We give credibility to certain cues, attributes, and characteristics that often actually lead us astray. Most of the stories Gladwell chose to illustrate these scenarios were intense and graphic and really disturbing. I already have a skeptical personality, but this book made me distrust even my closest friends and family members. This was not Gladwell's intent, but that was the effect it had on me. Still, it made for a really good book club discussion, and I've mostly recovered from reading it, haha. 

October: Beloved by Toni Morrison (Mystery/Suspense) 4/5

I know this is on many high school reading lists, but I somehow missed it until now. I'm not going to lie--it was a slow start for me. And even once it got going and I really started loving it, there were still moments when a description was a bit cryptic or the setting changed abruptly or the writing style moved into free verse, and I felt a little like I was floundering again before I regained my footing. The story was intense and heartbreaking and vacillated between the real and imagined. During our discussion, there were many questions of, "Do you think this really happened?" and "Was this person real?" It was a bit mystical, which made the harder subject slightly easier to cope with, and I almost had a sense of floating through this story, which was quite lovely. 

November: Star of the North by D.B. John (Historical Fiction) 4/5

I almost didn't read this book because I honestly didn't know if I could handle a book about North Korea right now. Plus, I had been really diligent about reading everything else this year, so I thought I could take a pass if I wanted to. But man, my upholder personality runs strong, and since I didn't have a good reason not to, I felt like I should at least give it a chance. I'm so glad I did. Although reading about North Korea did not exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, the premise of a young woman being kidnapped off the coast of South Korea and her twin sister then sacrificing everything to find her was so captivating. Even though much of the book is based on real information about North Korea (I was shocked to find out that the seed bearing program referenced in the book was a real thing), the tone of the book felt more like a thriller than something that could actually happen. Because of that, it was more escapist than I was anticipating, and that ended up being a good thing.  

December: Annual planning and book exchange

Our meeting in December is used to plan out the schedule of books for the following year. Everyone claims a genre and then comes to the meeting with three choices. A summary of each book is given, and then we all vote on which one we'd like to read for that month. It is like Christmas for book lovers because not only do we get the eleven books for the year but also the twenty-two runners-up. After each spot has been filled, we have a little book exchange where we each give and receive a new book. This year, I brought As Bright as Heaven (but if I hadn't read it for this book club, I probably would have brought Lovely War). It makes me happy looking over our list of picks for 2021. No matter what the year brings, I have a feeling it's going to be a good year of reading. 

A Little of This and That in November

Dec 6, 2020

My photo taking always seems to take a nosedive in November, and this year was no exception. With very few activities, and most of them indoors, I just didn't think to pull out the camera and record the mundane. Even though we're entering my least favorite season, the pull to cozy up for the winter feels good. My space heater and I have reconnected, my knitted slippers are my favorite thing to wear, and a mug of steaming wassail is the perfect ending to a day. This month found us . . . 

Falling . . . during a run. I was running early one morning when my toe caught the lip of the sidewalk, and I fell hard and fast . . . although it didn't feel fast at the time. You know how people always say they felt like they were falling in slow motion? That's exactly what it felt like for me. Time was suspended as I watched the ground get closer and closer even as I tried to force myself to stay upright. My knees bore the brunt of the fall, and they were torn up bad enough that walking, sitting, bending, straightening, or touching was quite painful for nearly two weeks. That was my first injury related to running, and I must admit, it kind of made me feel like a real runner. 

Going . . . to the zoo. Ian and I took advantage of gorgeous weather and half-price tickets and went to the zoo. We were going to go with some friends, but it ended up not working out, and I think I liked it better that way. I could devote all of my attention to Ian and go at his pace, and it was just a delightful, happy way to spend the morning. We got to the elephants while they were still eating their breakfast (my favorite), the otters were perky and swimming around, and there were monkey, gorilla, and leopard babies. Ian asked to go back the next day, but unfortunately by that point, the weather had turned and a zoo trip didn't sound nearly as appealing.  

Working . . . from home . . . again. With covid cases escalating quickly in November, Mike's company asked for all "non-essential" employees to work from home as much as possible. So Mike has been doing one or two days from home each week, and I don't mind one bit.

Learning . . . to color. Ian had a breakthrough this month and finally recognized the magic of coloring a picture to completion. Up to this point, his attention span was approximately fifteen seconds (not exaggerating) or the equivalent of four small scribbles on a page. But then one day, he found an extra chameleon coloring page of Clark's, and without anyone even realizing what he was doing, he took it up to the art table and meticulously labored over it for close to an hour. And when he was done, we were all amazed to see that he had traversed the whole page with several different colors and stayed in the lines. We sent it off to our favorite missionary, Steven, and coloring has continued to be Ian's new favorite hobby.  

Anticipating . . . each new episode of the Mandalorian. The new season of the Mandalorian helped fill the long, dark evenings this month. Mike always previews the latest episode on Friday, and then all of the boys watch together on Saturday. I've tried to do Star Wars, but I just find it so boring, so I tend to skip. One time Ian told me to "go relax in your room" so that they could start watching.

Sewing . . . a dress. Remember that big pile of fabric from last month? I used one of the cuts of fabric to make myself a dress. In the past, sewing has been a volatile hobby for me, bringing great satisfaction and great frustration. But this time, it was pretty much 100% enjoyable, and I loved every step of the process. I think a number of things contributed to this outlier. First, neither my sewing machine or my serger had any mechanical or tension problems during the project. This is usually the number one cause of my frustration because it is the thing I have the least control over. Second, this is the first big project I've done in my new little sewing room, and it was a game changer. It was so nice to be able to leave my project as it was and come back to it the next day. It meant that I could literally just work for twenty minutes, complete one step, and then stop. I think I sew better in short increments than long stretches. And third, it was just a really enjoyable pattern with very clear and easy-to-follow instructions. The result? A dress that I love. It fits me perfectly and is so comfortable. Also, it is very versatile and can be worn with so many of my hand knits! I love it.

Doing . . . all of his one year tests. Because of covid, Aaron's one year post-transplant tests were a bit delayed, but he finally got scheduled for his pulmonary function test, echocardiogram, and a million labs. Everything looks so good, and it's hard to believe that he's on the other side of all of this.

Taking . . . away the binky. Out of my five kids, Ian is the only one who has liked a binky. And he doesn't just like it. One afternoon I asked him why his binky was in his mouth and he said, "Oh, just because I love it." I kept hoping he would just kind of lose interest in it, but at three-and-a-half and still going strong, it didn't look like the end was in sight. Eventually all but one of the binkies had been lost or broken, and I didn't want to go completely cold turkey when that last one finally bit the dust. So I finally had the motivation to only let Ian have it when he was taking a nap or going to bed (I had been attempting to do this for several months but always caved). So the next morning, I took it from him as soon as he woke up and put it in a place that was out of reach. And man, that day was rough. It was obvious that he was addicted and experiencing some type of withdrawal. He raged and tantrumed all morning, but I held firm, and that was the worst of it. 

Auctioning . . . off a couple of knitted items. Last month, my cousin and her husband lost their two-week-old baby boy, who had been born very prematurely. Her sister organized an auction to help alleviate some of the financial stress and support them in their grief. I knitted two things (a toy cat and a set of Christmas tree ornaments) and donated them for the auction. It was kind of exciting to watch people bid on them and then mail them off to the winners. 

Watching . . . The Chosen. If you know me in real life, I've probably been very bossy and told you that you must watch this drama about Jesus. The first season (8 episodes) is currently out, and the second season is in production. This isn't just a show that you should watch because it's about Jesus. It's a show that will pull you in like any other drama and make you want to binge all eight episodes in one weekend. The acting, screenplay, and filming are all phenomenal. It has made Jesus real to me in a way I've never quite felt before. 

Building . . . a snowman. We had a pretty snowy week early in the month with snow falling on and off for several days. There wasn't much accumulation, but it was enough to build a snowman.

Wishing . . . I could be at my brother's wedding. Yep, my little brother, Steve, got married, and I wasn't at his wedding. In fact, no one from my family was able to go, and it just felt strange and so wrong. He was supposed to get married in Philadelphia on December 12th. I had held off buying a plane ticket because of all of the uncertainty with Covid. And it's a good thing I did because, with rumors of Philadelphia going under lockdown, Steve and his fiancé suddenly moved up the date to November 24th. Again, I was making plans to go when they found out that the Philadelphia temple would be closing on November 20th. At this point, Steve was still in Utah, but they decided to see if he could make it out in time for them to get married on November 19th. Luckily, he made it, but sadly, no one else did. All day, I did all of my little daily, menial tasks and kept remembering with a start that my brother was getting married. It still feels a little unreal to me.

Sewing . . . a sweatshirt, cardigan, and table runner. Maybe the dress wasn't such an anomaly after all. After having so much success with it, I couldn't seem to stay out of the sewing room, and I completed three more things before the end of the month. I'm especially proud of the cardigan. I spent a lot of time practicing certain steps and adjusting the fit so it would be just right, and I'm so pleased with the finished product. 

Mailing . . . Christmas cards. I was determined to get my Christmas cards in the mail before Thanksgiving. Since we moved this year, I wanted to make sure people knew our new address before they sent out their Christmas cards. I would be so sad if I missed out on anyone's Christmas cards because it's one of my favorite parts of the holidays. In past years, creating our Christmas card has been a time-consuming ordeal, and Mike tends to dread it. But this year was super slick and quick. We chose the photo, formatted it, and wrote a little update in under an hour. We were kind of impressed with ourselves. The cards arrived in plenty of time for me to meet my goal, but we ran into a slight problem when we realized that we had only been sent 84 cards per pack instead of 100. That seemed so random and strange to me, but Mike called Costco, and they had another pack of 50 at our house by the very next day.

Having . . . a low-key Thanksgiving. A large family gathering was not really practical or safe this year with Covid still running rampant, so we only celebrated with Mike's sister and her family. They seemed like a good choice since we live in the same general area, associate with the same circles, and our kids go to the same schools. Also, we ate at separate tables and wore masks at all other times, so we tried our best to be responsible. We were so glad to be with family. Clark was bouncing around on the driveway for a solid half hour before they arrived because he was just so excited. We decided to eat in courses so that we weren't at all rushed and could fully enjoy all of the food. I loved doing it this way. Sonja and I took a little walk between a couple of the courses, and the kids used all breaks to play games. It just felt like we got to savor the day a little bit more than usual. Also, incidentally, this was our first big dinner in our new house, and Mike commented that all of the challenge of cooking and baking was gone: he had a double oven, two fridges, plenty of workspace, a dishwasher, and room to seat everyone. It felt like such a blessing. We ended the day with pie and a video call from our nephew, Steven, on his mission. It was just perfect in every way. Between last year with just our own family and this year with just one other family, I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to the big gatherings. I like these smaller ones so much. 

Building . . . a desk. Our latest home project has been the office/music room. We knew we wanted a desk that could be used by the boys for their homework. After looking at many, many options online, we couldn't find what we wanted. We realized it was because we actually wanted a built-in desk--something that would be a focal point of the room and fit the space perfectly. So Mike did what he always does and decided to build it instead. We based the design off of a few inspiration photos I found online and then customized those to fit our needs. Mike found an old bathroom vanity on the classifieds that was the perfect height. He used this as a structural base and then built everything else himself: desktop, drawers, shelves, cupboards, etc. It came together beautifully, and now that it's almost done, I'm just so pleased. We went with a dark navy blue for the color because I wanted the space to feel cozy and studious, and I think it works really well. The room isn't finished yet, but here's a peek at the progress so far. 

Participating . . . in a gratitude challenge. A week before Thanksgiving, President Nelson gave a brief worldwide message. It was simple and beautiful and full of truth. At the end of it, he offered a prayer that was unlike anything I've ever heard. It lifted me up and helped me feel God's love. He also extended an invitation to express gratitude often through prayer and share daily messages of gratitude through social media. I must admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the second half of this challenge. I really don't like feeling social pressure to do something, and being swept along in a movement often feels fake or disingenuous to me. But I decided since the prophet asked me to do it, I would. And something kind of miraculous happened. As I sincerely thought about my own blessings, they seemed to become more and more abundant. They flooded into my mind, and I had a hard time narrowing it down to one thing each day. (I found myself still trying to push back against the trend though and warned Mike that I would not be doing the Day 2 "I'm grateful for my husband" post, haha.) For months, social media has seemed like a rather toxic place to hang out, and I have tried to be very selective with who I follow. But for the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Instagram and Facebook because a source of joy and inspiration. It was an uplifting place to be. I saw posts from people who hadn't shown their faces in years, and I loved it. I was grateful I had put aside my personal prejudices and feelings and opened my heart to the goodness all around me.

Putting . . . up Christmas lights. Mike threw out his back the day after Thanksgiving while moving the air compressor he was using for the desk build. He had been planning on putting up the Christmas lights over the weekend, but he was no longer able to move. Luckily, Aaron stepped up to the task. He knows I like the lights nice and straight, and he did a careful, meticulous job. Getting to spend an hour on the roof was also not a downside for him. (And thankfully, Mike's back seems to be making a full recovery.)

Spending . . . a little bit of time with cousins. We went to the cemetery with Mike's family to decorate his sister's grave. It was cold, but there was hot chocolate and hot dogs to warm us up. Clark was overjoyed to see his cousins since he hadn't been around them in months. Ian, on the other hand, was overcome with shyness and spent most of the time hiding behind Mike's legs.

And that wraps up another month. I can't believe 2020 is almost over. It's nothing like I expected it to be, but some parts of it are better than I imagined, and I'm grateful for that!

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