The Art Of Reading

Not everyone is a natural born reader. You know something? That’s ok.

But I know people struggle to read for a variety of reasons and want to offer some tips from my own experience.

It seems that I was born with a book in my hand. Reading is an escape, it’s entertaining, and it’s an amazing way to learn about anything under the sun. However, reading is something that I sometimes struggle with too.

It’s usually because I can’t quiet my mind or sometimes because I’m too tired to focus. I literally have lived years of my life traveling too much and unable to focus on a book. Any book.

Sometimes it’s because what I’m attempting to read doesn’t interest me or because I hate a character.

Back in January, I set out to read more books in 2020. Little did I know that the lofty goal of reading 100 books this year would become a vital part of staying sane during months of pandemic and seclusion.

Anyway, earlier this year, I listened to a podcast on reading and reviewed a few articles to develop strategies that would help me read more and better. Here are a some that helped.

Know That It Takes Effort. We live in a busy world that is brimming with distractions. You have to make an effort to turn off the tv, set aside your work, stop worrying about the bills, and focus on the words in front of you. This is super hard when there are so many distractions competing for your mental energy.

Respect Limitations. Reading is not the easiest thing to do for most people but it’s a thousand times harder if you have vision problems, trouble concentrating, dyslexia or some other learning disability. I’m not a doctor but would recommend seeking help with these issues regardless of your age.

Make Books Accessible. Some experts recommend reading multiple books at one time. The theory usually is that you should have a book at your fingertips wherever you go. The podcast that I listened to recommended having a book in the car, one in the living room, one on your nightstand, one at work for lunch time…. you get the gist. I have done this and have found it counterproductive because it takes forever to finish anything and it’s hard to stay engaged with a book when you’re reading just a few pages a day. I tend to read one book at a time and carry it everywhere I go. It’s much easier to become immersed in the action, remember characters and to feel some ownership of what you’re reading.

Play Mind Games. If you’re just getting started and feel intimidated, there are some things to remember. One is that you don’t have to read a 200 page book today. The other is that you can set mini goals for yourself. When you start a chapter, look at its length. If it’s ten pages tell yourself you are just going to read a chapter. If it’s fifty pages, say you’re just going to read the first ten.

If you’re struggling to focus, it is mentally healthy to have some goals. You can look at why your phone dinged after you reach your goal. You may find that you forget your phone even dinged and keep going.

Read What Interests You. I have a friend who only reads mysteries. I know others who focus on bestsellers like John Grisham. Some people like the classics or biographies or books about cars. Reading a book will do you no good if it doesn’t engage you in some meaningful way. I’m fortunate to enjoy many different genres. My reading list includes almost everything under the sun but it’s ok to focus on one thing.

Just remember, you don’t have to read Moby Dock to call yourself a reader. You just have to read.

Take A Break. If I read a book that’s challenging or that’s emotionally trying, I tend to follow up with something light. It’s like a palate cleanser for the mind!

Make It Part Of Your Routine. Personally, I like to go to bed early with a book. It’s a nice way to wind down after a long day and this is just part of my daily ritual. I read at other times as well but bedtime reading is my favorite. Maybe you would prefer starting your day with coffee and a book. Maybe you sneak in a chapter in your car at lunchtime. Just find a time each day that is reserved for reading, even if for just a little while.

Slow Down. Reading is not a competitive sport. Slow down and enjoy the story. Sometimes if I’m struggling to focus, I read aloud to my cat. Yes. You read that correctly. I read to Scout and he seems to enjoy it. Your eye can’t skip around if you’re saying the words out loud.

I know readers who shame people for what they read. Please don’t let others be a jerk about your book choices and in return, don’t do that to someone else. It’s not cool.

Sometimes I’m hesitant to give you my monthly book reviews because I hate people who brag about their reading. I have been giving my short reviews hoping to inspire others to read and to support authors and bookstores through buying or libraries through borrowing.

Hopefully you’ll find something in my mixed up reading list that sounds interesting and will encourage you to try reading for entertainment and learning!

Do you have tips for reading more or questions on this topic? I would love to hear from you!

May Reading Round Up

My May reading list erred on the side of “things you shouldn’t read during a pandemic or other depressing time in your life.” One selection was so troubling that I didn’t even want to read anymore but I’m glad I trudged through and finished it.

Here’s the rundown:

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purcell was time consuming. I was excited to start it but lost my zeal to read about halfway through. This is nonfiction about an American socialite turned spy during World War II. She was a hero of the French Resistance who spent years evading and sabotaging the Nazis.

The author did a good job drawing the reader into this confusing and terrifying world.

The Nazis were notoriously cruel but especially ruthless toward women so capture was unthinkable. Sadly, the story became almost too much to absorb. However, she was an incredible woman and I’m glad I know about her. I’m equally glad to be done with it.

Tony’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani was another good story in a long line of books by an author that I adore. This one is set during the Big Band era and World War II. There are a few flaws to the story including the mention of transistor radios years before they existed but the plot is fun and I enjoyed the break after the horrors of the French Resistance.

No Dream Is Too High by Buzz Aldrin tells an important tale from American and space history. He seems like a likable guy but I didn’t especially enjoy the book. Don’t ask because I don’t know why. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for it but it seemed to me like there were too many technical details to speak to a general audience but probably not enough for the space fans in the audience. However, it is inspiring to think about all he accomplished and I’m glad this American hero chose to record his own account of his life.

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens is a page turning thriller and an all around good ride. It’s a timely reminder that where humans are concerned there often is more. than meets the eye. This novel tells the story of a college student who investigates a decades old murder, uncovering the truth about a man wrongly convicted of that murder. I know how it ends but would read it again.

Infamy by Richard Reeves is the one that really made me hate reading, if only for just a little while. However, I’m glad I read the book despite the mental anguish inflicted by this meticulously researched and presented book.

This is the most emotionally exhausting book I’ve read in a while. It details how over 120,000 Japanese Americans and aliens were legally and forcefully removed from their homes and relocated to American government run internment camps.

It also talks about the honorable service to the American military given by young Japanese Americans. Many died in the war, others came home with a chest full of medals only to be refused services, threatened, and run out of their own homes.

It’s a timely, disturbing reminder of what happens when we allow mass hysteria and racism to be disguised as patriotism.

Dimestore by Lee Smith was the best thing I read all month. You may be familiar with southerner Lee Smith’s fiction writing but this is a collection of essays that tell the story of her upbringing in rural Virginia. Her dad owned the dimestore in town and her perspective as a child in this hamlet reminds me a lot of the character Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

She also gives some insight into the world of writing, making me want to sit down and start writing a book.

However, I fear whatever I might write will appear in a callous blogger’s round up of books someday so I may just stick to the reading side of things!

What books are you reading?

February Reading

The last couple of months have been an extremely productive reading time for me. Adventure season will be underway soon and reading time will be more scarce but for now I’m focusing on a few simple rules – always carry a book, turn off the tv, and choose reading over mindless activities.

It’s worked well so far although many were quite easy this month as my brain has been on overload. Here’s the February pile.

You don’t want to read a review of them all but I will point out a few even though I loved every single one.

Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones

This is a delightful book based around a simple concept. Hold up a photo from the past in the place where it was originally taken. Then write a sentence about what that photo means to you. It’s an easy read but thought provoking at times. It’s also fun to pull off the shelf when you just need something a little different.

Hannah’s Suitcase by Karen Levine

This title was written for a young audience so it was an easy read but one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time. It tells the story of how the director of a Holocaust museum in Japan tracked down the fate of a little girl who was sent to Auschwitz. The museum had received the girl’s suitcase which had her name printed on the side. That’s all the director had to work with – the girl’s name – to unravel the story of what happened to her and her family.

This is difficult subject matter but the story is told respectfully and I am grateful that I stumbled into this book.

Survivor’s Club by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

CBS This Morning featured a moving segment about the Holocaust last month. It talked about how this horrific event is being forgotten by younger generations and about the increase in people who believe that it didn’t happen at all.

They interviewed MichaeL Bornstein whose photograph was taken in 1945 when he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother’s arms. He was just four that day and had known only loss and misery in his short life. The fact he survived the camp is nothing short of a miracle as the Nazis killed most children on the day they arrived.

The reason he told his story is that he saw his likeness – the picture he uses on the book cover – on a website that denies the Holocaust. He knew then that it was time to educate people and to combat the deniers.

This is a family memoir and incredibly personal but it is exceptionally told. It is heartbreaking and uplifting. Read it.

The Melody Lingers On by Mary Higgins Clark

This author recently died after a prolific decades long career which resulted in dozens of books I’ve never read. When a suspense addicted friend learned of this oversight I was strongly encouraged to put my nose in one of her books immediately, if not sooner. This book is fast paced with a great story line and a twist. I enjoyed it and would certainly read more of her work.

A Fools’s Errand by Lonnie Bunch III

Lonnie Bunch is the Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I read this memoir after seeing some interviews with him when the museum opened. He is a fascinating man and an engaging conversationalist (at least in interviews) and I would love to have a museum tour with him. The book tells a fascinating story but it was written by an academic and can be dry at times. Hang in there though.

There are some beautiful stories within these chapters – humorous, sad and enraging at times. He began this museum with nothing. No staff, no money, not even a desk to call his own or a phone extension to reach him. He persevered, engaging celebrities, politicians and common people to find the money, artifacts and willpower to keep going.

The museum isn’t meant to attract just African Americans. It tells the story of America and the important place of African Americans within that story. One of my favorite stories was of the shoe shine man who refused payment because he wanted Lonnie to put the $8 toward the museum. When Lonnie insisted on paying, the elderly African American man said “Don’t be rude. I am not sure what is in a museum, but it may be the only place where my grandchildren will learn what life did to me, and what I did with my life.”

I’m officially dying to go explore.

* * *

I started reading David McCullough’s “The Pioneers” but set it aside for a while. I will be captivated by this book someday but my head wasn’t in the game and needed something a little easier!

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Eight Out Of Nine Ain’t Bad

This is the year of the book in my world. At least, reading was a priority in January and I’m hoping to keep the momentum going.

January allowed me time to read a few books, some of them short and all in different topics. I found them all enjoyable save for one so that seems like a good record.

First, let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way. The one I hated:

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

The story is told around one day in the life of a Maryland couple. We travel with them, meet friends and family, and learn their back history as they reminisce.

It’s tedious and feels too long. The characters all are annoying and not at all sympathetic. The main character views the world through her own special lens and her expectations are both unrealistic and cringe inducing.

The chapters are too long as well. I kept reading, thinking conditions would improve, only to find myself in so far I hated to cut bait at the three quarter mark. Learn from me. Save your time.

The Winter People by Jenifer McMahon

This work of fiction is intriguing. There’s history, relationships, a present day story, mystery and even a supernatural presence.

I like the way the story jumps around from long ago to the present day. There’s nothing predictable about this story and I enjoyed every minute of it. It takes place in January so winter is a great time to read it!

The Race For Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

You can’t go wrong with a book by this author. To be clear, this isn’t my favorite of hers but it was a great read and inspiring to boot. Strong female characters are a trademark of hers and this title was no exception.

A major theme here is how women journalists were slighted during World War II and how much harder they had to work than the men, only to still not earn respect from anyone in charge.

Sad but thought provoking and it makes you feel some gratitude for how far we’ve progressed.

Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator by Doris L. Rich

There have been just a handful of books written about Bessie Coleman, most with dubious reviews. However, this one sounded good and it’s published by Smithsonian Books, a trustworthy source.

I already wrote about Bessie so I don’t want to dwell here but would highly recommend the book. It’s hard to piece together a true biography about someone like Bessie Coleman. She lived in a spotlight but there are some inconsistencies in what was published about her during her lifetime. She left behind few letters, journals, etc. that might help to build a clear picture of this woman’s life. So this book is slender and much of it is about context – what was happening around her in terms of society and race.

I loved this book, am intrigued by the woman and would recommend it to anyone.

The Blood Of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

This is another one that gives a lot of societal context. This is a huge help for those of us who didn’t live in this time period. This book is graphic, poignant and carefully crafted to tell a story that’s been told many times. This is done in a way that is fresh and relevant.

It’s tough to read and hard to put down – a sure sign that the author has done a good job telling a story that no one wants to think about but that desperately needs to be known. We aren’t that far removed from what happened to Emmett Till and there are lessons here for us all.

Big Cherry Holler by Adriana Trigiani

This is the second book in her Big Stone Gap series. The series takes place in a very rural Virginia coal mining community called Big Stone Gap. The heroine was the self proclaimed town spinster until an exciting series of events occurred in the first book.

Bottom line- I adore these books but you have to start with Big Stone Gap. And really, you can’t go wrong with any book by this author. I have yet to find one I didn’t like.

Cat Stories by James Herriot

James Herriot had a successful veterinary career before putting pen to paper to write some classics about the animals and their owners he encountered in his small town practice in England. James Herriot died 25 years ago this month but his wisdom, humor and charm love in his short stories and books. Being partial to cats and beautifully illustrated books, this was a nice break from the racist south after reading about Emmett Till.

The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive

This is a glorified picture book for adults to lift your spirits when you are down. All of the pictures are of animals! I pull it off the shelf occasionally and am pretty sure that many of us need something like it to brighten our day occasionally.

A Nation of Immigrants by John F. Kennedy

Another slender volume, it gives a short history of immigration to this country beginning with Colonial times through the early twentieth century.

It provides a good snapshot of where we all come from and a timely reminder that most of us aren’t really from here. Our people all came from someplace else and many of them were treated badly when they arrived. In other words, it’s still timely today even though it was published in 1964.

I don’t normally share about the books I read but there were so many good ones last month I thought you might enjoy a rundown.

Which leads to my next question. What are YOU reading? I’m always looking for recommendations!

No Spend January Is Here!

January is a No Spend Month for me. It’s a fun little game I’ve played for the last few years where I pay for what is needed but there’s no frivolous spending (unless pre-planned), no impulse buying and no shopping for entertainment. Goodbye, antique malls!

So bills are paid and groceries are purchased but I work on using some things from the freezer and pantry. Yesterday, I stopped at the store for about $10 worth of produce needed to create meals for the week using things I already have. If I stop for gas, my reusable water bottle had better be full because I’m not running inside for a drink. Not even for just a dollar.

There’s a gift to buy this month and a planned dinner and movie with a friend that was postponed from the holidays. That’s all the extracurricular spending that should happen.

This month, I will spend a lot of time at home, using what I own, looking for creative ways to entertain myself for free and simply appreciating the life that I have built and all that I already have. The Depression era mantra “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” comes to mind.

After all the excess and gluttony of the holidays, a spending fast is a welcome relief to the bank account but it’s also a welcome break from commercialism.

We spend a lot of time making money to survive and on spending money on stuff to fill our homes but we don’t always go home and just enjoy the life we have.

It’s is an exercise in gratitude as much as anything else.

I wrote a Winter Survival Guide last fall and it’s here in January that these techniques are truly put to work.

Here’s what’s happening in my world right now:

Books are a priority this year and I’m finding that the more I read, the more I want to read. The problem is that there’s a new one that I’m dying to tear into. I usually have three or four going at once but want to focus on one at a time this year. It can be next.

Cooking is more fun. I always enjoy playing in the kitchen but winter is a great time to experiment with new recipes. This year is especially fun as I’m looking for plant based recipes for my new lifestyle. This week I made a potato corn chowder that was divine and the lunch leftovers were a welcome treat! I also made a pumpkin cookie that was disgusting but we’ll just call that an experiment gone awry and move on.

Organization and purging are another priority. I have a list of areas to hit – from the pantry to the sock drawer to the nightstand and all points in between. It’s shocking how much stuff accumulates over time even when you try to be tidy. The goal is to do one thing from the list every day. The purging extends into intangible areas too. One evening was spent purging emails while watching the Closer on TV. Brenda Lee Johnson caught the bad guys and I unsubscribed and deleted thousands of old marketing emails. The above picture represents a new set of Christmas dishes that need to be put away after some rearranging in the china cabinet.

Movie time! I can’t go to the movies but that doesn’t matter because there’s a stack of movies waiting for my viewing pleasure. One day I’ll make some homemade potato chips and hit the couch for a little movie marathon.

Self care is a priority. Outdoor activity is less common because it’s dark at quitting time but I am trying to prioritize some kind of exercise every day. Rest is also important. My philosophy for most of the year is that you can sleep when you’re dead. During winter, these cold, dark nights call for a warm blanket and an earlier bedtime.

Being happy with the Now is a common theme and resisting the urge to adventure plan involves daily internal negotiations. It’s much harder than it should be. However, the theme of this stage of the year is being satisfied with the abundance of everyday life. Adventure planning can wait a bit. I have started a list of day trip ideas based on suggestions from friends but that’s more about being forgetful than about planning. Being present in this moment rather than dream of the next adventure is a real challenge.

For me, a No Spend Month is an opportunity to get myself together for another year, to set new goals and intentions, to stop buying stuff I don’t need, to nourish my mind and body, and to practice gratitude for what I have.

It gets easier every year and, this will sound sound nuts, but I’ve been looking forward to January for weeks.

Want to do your own no spend challenge? You can set your own rules and make it what you want it to be! You might be surprised at how much money and time you save!

Happiness Is….

Happiness is a stack of books that you’re excited to read and a weekend plan to make reading a priority. My reading list is a mile long but I’m determined to make a dent in it this winter.

What’s on your reading list?