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Currently | A Reading Machine

currently january 24

Time and Place | Around 8:30 a.m., on my couch. I’m not really feeling the computer this morning, so I think this will be a quick post.

Reading | Since last Sunday, I finished Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham (a modern love story told through e-mails and text messages) and Presence by Amy Cuddy (nonfiction about the connection between body language and our emotions). I’m still (slowly) making my way through Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — just two weeks behind on the #HamAlong!

Watching | Last night the boyfriend and I watched Wild, the movie based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Coast Trail. I really liked it, and the boyfriend did too (unexpected!).

Cooking | Last week’s experiment with Crock Pot White Chicken Chili wasn’t my favorite — the flavors were great, but I like my soups heartier than that recipe. The quest goes on.

Blogging | This week I shared some thoughts on Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins and pondered what to do when your reading goals conflict.

Loving | We went to a new-to-us restaurant for dinner last night and I had an awesome bacon cheeseburger. I haven’t had one of those in awhile… so good.

Wanting | I really want a book that’s going to grab me. I’m not in a reading slump — I’ve finished six books already this month — but the books I’ve been picking up haven’t wowed me. The problem is I can’t quite pin down what I’m in the mood to read.

Anticipating | We don’t have anything planned today, so I’m excited to have a full day to re-energize before the work week sets in again.

Sympathies to those of you on the East Coast in the middle of that epic snowstorm — drive slowly and stay safe! To everyone, happy Sunday! What are you reading today?

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

What Happens When Your Reading Goals Conflict?

I set two primary reading goals this year: read more diversely (which, for me, means prioritizing books by authors of color), and read the books on my shelves. The problem, I’ve discovered, is that my shelves don’t reflect the kind of diversity I’m hoping to consume now. 

A good chunk of the books sitting on the unread shelves in my office were purchased at least a year or two ago, before reading diversely was something I thought consciously about or put an effort towards. I got a lot of them at used bookstores and used book sales, where I’d think more about the topic than the author. When I scan the authors on my bookshelves now they’re overwhelmingly white.

So what’s a goal-oriented reader to do? Is there a way to reconcile these two reading goals? I’ve been thinking about it off and on for the last couple of weeks, and I think I have a few strategies that may also apply more generally if you have a similar clash between your different reading goals:

  1. Acquire books that meet my goals. Let’s be real – I’m definitely not going to stop buying books this year. I’m too much of an addict to quit. What I can do is prioritize acquiring books by authors of color. If there are two books I’m curious about, my buying power should go to books that can help me further my diversity goals in some way.
  2. Use the library more. My library has a great collection and good connections to other libraries through interlibrary loan. I can get a lot of diverse books that way, as long as I plan ahead a little bit and do a decent job managing my hold list.
  3. Sort out my bookshelves better. At this point, my shelves are double stacked with books, meaning a lot of them are hidden from view. I need to take some time to get the books by diverse authors front and center so they’re top of mind when I’m selecting my next read.
  4. Lists, lists, lists. I love a good list. I’ve been working to put together lists of books I want to read and books I own by diverse authors so, like the bookshelf sorting, they stay top of mind.
  5. Set specific goals. The goals to “read more diversely” and “read my own books” are pretty general, which is a bad strategy, if you listen to goal-setting experts. I need to think of a way to make my goals more specific – maybe a percentage or number of each type of book – so that it’s easy to see how I’m doing and make adjustments on the fly.

While I’m writing specifically about my own reading goals, these strategies might also be applicable if you have other goals that seem to conflict. Acquire new books that meet your goals, and use free sources like the library (or cheap sources like a used bookstore) to make sure you have the books you need to meet other goals. Make your goals specific, and find ways to keep them in front of you as the year progresses. And make sure to track carefully so you can make sure you’re heading in the right direction.

What strategies do you have to help you meet your reading goals?


gold fame citrus by claire vaye watkinsMy final book of 2015 was Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. It was a book I really enjoyed, but also a book I didn’t feel like I really “got” until I closed the last page and started looking for some analysis online.

Be warned, this whole post is pretty full of spoilers for the book.

It’s not that the book is complicated. The plot actually follows pretty well-worn territory. Ray and Luz are living as squatters in a former starlets house in Los Angeles. The city has largely been abandoned – except for the destitute and those who choose not to leave – thanks to the approach of an expanding desert, the Amargosa Dune Sea. Their inert existence gets shaken up when they steal neglected two-year-old from a group of druggies. Of course they have no idea what to do – Ig’s first diapers are a maxipad held on with a Hermes scarf – but decide they need to make a life change anyway. The three of them set out into the desert, hoping to get to the East Coast where life is supposed to be better.

Instead, they run out of gas somewhere out in the barren wasteland. Ray sets out, ostensibly to look for help, leaving Luz and Ig behind. They’re miraculously rescued by a group of nomads living on the Amargosa Dune Sea as it slowly rolls it way toward the California coast. But of course not is all it appears – the nomads have formed a sort of environmental cult leader who seduces Luz and wants to use Ig in service of a plan that clearly will not work. Chaos ensues.


Turns out, Ray is not dead. After spending some time in a prison/compound, he finds his way to the encampment and tries to get Luz and Ig back. The plan goes awry when it becomes even more clear that Ray and Luz are entirely unprepared to be caretakers for a baby. Members of the group – several who are clearly better people and better parents despite the cult behavior – take Ig and force Ray and Luz to leave the colony. There’s no redemption in this story… people are who they are and can’t be changed by even the most disruptive and extreme experiences.

I didn’t get to that conclusion about redemption when I first closed the pages. I had one of those “Huh?” moments… I think I liked this, but I don’t really get what happened? I turned, as I usually do, to Google, and came across this review from the New York Times by Emily St. John Mandel (such a good choice for a reviewer, given her stellar post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven). She also articulated what I struggled with in the book, much better than I even can now:

The work suffers occasionally from a condition fairly common to apocalyptic novels, which might be described as the “now what?” problem. That is, it’s relatively easy to end the world in fiction, to shock and awe with the final disaster and establish the rules and parameters of the radically altered post-­apocalypse, but well, then what? The plot that Watkins comes up with — a love triangle, a seemingly idyllic community with a creepy secret — does not always match the originality of her prose.

But if this book is sometimes frustrating, it’s also fascinating. A great pleasure of the book is Watkins’s fearlessness, particularly in giving her characters free rein to be themselves. People who were shiftless and irresponsible before the disaster are shiftless and irresponsible afterward. This particular apocalypse is not an opportunity for redemption, and no one is ennobled by it.

Gah, that’s just so smart! Gold Fame Citrus isn’t a stellar book, but it is one of those books made more interesting when you have a chance to dig into it with other people.

One of the reasons I started blogging after college is I wanted to make sure I had an outlet to talk about books with other readers. But I’ve found that writing reviews of books isn’t necessarily the same as digging into them, as reading them closely to try and understand what a talented author is trying to do when they try something different or novel in a story. I miss those specific types of group conversation around books, and reading Gold Fame Citrus made me feel like those specific and analytical parts of my reading brain were starting to atrophy just a little bit.

But I can’t really think of a way to replicate classroom discussions online – reviews don’t really cut it, and a live chat or discussion group still misses that sense of people in a room. An in real life book club has potential, but it can be so, so hard to get the right group of personalities together for a good discussion (and to make sure everyone actually finished the reading – I’m as guilty of this as anyone!).

I’m not quite sure what the concluding thoughts on this post are, other than I liked Gold Fame Citrus – even if it wasn’t a totally successful novel – and I wish I had a way to parse through those strange moments so I understood it, and all the other lovely and complex literary novels I love, just a little bit better.

I’m curious what you think – what do you think are the pros and cons of online book discussions? Do you have an “in real life” friend or group where you discuss books regularly? What makes a successful book discussion in the digital age?

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

Currently | 80 Hours Below Zero


Briefly | Minnesota, and most of the upper Midwest, is in the middle of a cold snap. It sunk below zero Friday night, and isn’t expected to get back above zero until Tuesday morning. We’ve got the heat turned up, blankets unpacked, and are wallowing as best we can to avoid truly horrific wind chills.

Reading | January reading has been slow, but I usually expect that because it’s a busy month. I’ve finished three books so far: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau and Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson (young ballerinas in late-1970s New York, Jan. 26 from Harper). I’m still slowly working through Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and just started Negroland by Margo Jefferson.

Watching | I discovered that all three seasons of Happy Endings are now on Hulu. I watched that show intermittently when it was on and always meant to get through it. It’s super weird, but I love the way every member of the cast just commits to whatever the gag is for each show.

Listening | Yesterday while walking at the gym I started The Year of Yes by Shonda Rimes. It’s pretty good so far, although it’s been a little slow to start.

Cooking | I’ve got another crock pot recipe to try today, White Chicken Chili from Iowa Girl Eats. Her recipe for Crock Pot Chicken and Wild Rice Soup is pretty amazing, so I’ve got high hopes.

Blogging | Since I last did a currently post I shared my 2016 bookish goals, some books on my radar for January and February, my One Little Word for 2016, and a review of The Happiness of Pursuit. It’s been a good year for blogging so far, even if my reading is at a snail’s pace.

Promoting | Bryan (Still Unfinished) collected a bunch of one word resolution posts from other bloggers, which is really fun — especially since there are so many great, different words.

Hating/Loving | We had a really fun time last night with friends that included football (what was that Packers-Chiefs game?) and games. But it was also sad because it was a going away party for one of my good friends here in town. She’s taking a great job in Wyoming and I’m so excited for her, but definitely also sad. I will miss our walking talks and having another girl to nerd out about football with.

Avoiding | The blog is telling me I need to do a WordPress update and an update to my theme. Neither one is hard, but they’re putzy and can sometimes turn into a project if the update messes with another setting.

Experimenting | Earlier this month I signed up to be part of Amazon Associates, Amazon’s affiliate program. You’ll see a new disclosure about affiliate links at the bottom of posts and in my sidebar. I don’t expect to make much money, but I thought I’d try it out and see what happens.

Anticipating | We were out well, well past my bedtime last night. I anticipate a nap sometime this afternoon!

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

happiness of pursuitThe Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau first got on my radar last last year when he was interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts. Guillebeau talked about the benefits of a creative pursuit and the satisfaction you can get from a quest of some kind. At the time I was well in the middle of planning my trip to Europe, so I filed the book and idea away for a later date.

As I was trying to decide on my One Little Word for the year, the idea of a pursuit or a quest kept coming back to me. I ultimately decided on a different word, but I still felt like starting my year with a book on the benefits and logistics of taking on quest would help get me off on the right foot. Happily, The Happiness of Pursuit was just perfect for that purpose.

First, I think it’s important to share how Guillebeau defines a quest. This definition is pretty broad and a little long, but it does give a sense of what kinds of challenges or projects Guillebeau had in mind as he was doing interviews for the book:

  • A quest has a clear goal and a specific end point. You can clearly explain a quest in a sentence or two. Every quest has a beginning, and sooner or later, every quest will come to an end.
  • A quest presents a clear challenge. By design, a quest requires that something be overcome. Not every quest needs to be dangerous or next to impossible to achieve, but it shouldn’t be easy either.
  • A quest requires sacrifice of some kind. There is no “having it all” when it comes to a quest – to pursue a big dream, you must give something up along the way.
  • A quest is often driven by a calling or sense of mission. A calling need not be some form of divine inspiration. It is often expressed simply as a deep sense of internal purpose.
  • A quest requires a series of small steps and incremental progress toward the goal. As we’ll see, many quests are composed of a long, slow-and-steady march toward something, with moments of glory and elation few and far between.

I really like that list, and it makes sense even when you think of quests across a variety of scales. Although the main thread of the book is Guillebeau’s on quest to visit every country in the world, he also profiles many, many other people who have undertaken quests of some time, giving the book a breadth of examples to learn from.

As I got into the first few chapters of the book, I was worried that the book was going to be entirely filled with people taking on incredible physical tasks or elaborate travel quests – running multiple marathons, walking across the United States, sailing around the world. While those are cool projects, they are well beyond the kind of quest I feel like I am interested or capable of taking on. If that were the case, the book would have been interesting but not very helpful.

Luckily, Guillebeau devotes some time midway through the book to “everyday adventures” closer to home. One woman decided to cook an elaborate, multi-course meal from every country in the world. Another couple made it a goal to see all of the basilicas in the United States. Another man set out to finish an elaborate computer science course in a single year. These aren’t as epic as visiting every country in the world, but they have the same characteristics of a quest Guillebeau laid out. I appreciated having some examples of quests on a smaller scale.  

The book is also excellent when it comes to thinking through the steps of a quest or other big project. Guillebeau explores how to find a quest, how to work with friends and family along the way, logistical issues and the importance of documenting your efforts. It’s comprehensive, helpful and practical and makes the idea of an epic project seem possible.

Even if you’re not considering an epic quest, I think the book offers some great inspiration for taking on any big goals or life changes. Set a challenge that is important and meaningful. Make sure you have a clear goal and can outline a set of specific steps to move towards your goal. And be ready to make sacrifices in service of your goal – as the saying goes, nothing worth having comes easily. This was a great book to begin a year where I hope to find a more clear sense of purpose, quest-related or not.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.