Taking the Joy Dare with Jane Austen

I adore Jane Austen. I mean, I am so there. The countryside, all hedgerows and lanes; the homes—Northanger Abbey, Norland Park–gracious with their breakfast dishes and card rooms. And those Georgian manners, “high spirits and good humor” all around at a carriage ride after breakfast; or, letters hastily set aside with colourless faces.  Where new ribbons can make any bonnet both stylish and flattering. Oh, to spend my leisure time with the piano forte or my petit point and drawing (well, maybe not so much).

joy dareSo I was thrilled when I visited my local independent bookstore to choose a new journal and found this little gem: Jane Austen Novel Journal by Chronicle Books. Oh my goodness. (If you can’t find it locally, the journal is available at Gone Reading, a site with bookish gifts to die for—but more on that in another post!) The pages are sprinkled with quotes from her books; the layouts varied–some ruled, some pin-wheeled, some divided.

Now–me, a journal? Quite uncharacteristic. But I’m using Ann Voss’s Joy Dare this year to count up to one thousand gifts and graces. (You can print your own list of dares from her blog A Holy Experience.)  Because I’m stuck. I’ve had countless experiences of grace recently, worked through some incredibly difficult situations last year, and still I find myself restless. Heart-weary. How can that be in the face of so much that is good in my life? I’ve managed to successfully avoid that whole gratitude journal idea—too often (at least in the posts I read) I find it a kind of maudlin here’s-my-life-I’m-pretty-holy exhibition. Harsh, I know, but that’s how I read ’em. But I know I have to do something to rock myself out of this rut.

Enter the Joy Dare which I found via A Holy Experience via Mundane Faithfulness, evangelical Christian bloggers both. Now that’s not my spiritual bent, but I can sure appreciate that the list offers some guidelines without being proscriptive. It’s fresh. So Sunday I wrote down three “yellow gifts of fresh mercy”. Yesterday was “something above, below, beside” and today, “three startling graces of God”. Now this is something I can do (joyfully, I might add!), right along with Jane, because I think she just might understand: “It is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible” (Northanger Abbey).

Which I intend to do.

A favorite at Christmas: Christmas from the Heart of the Home (review)

The stockings are hung (although sadly, there’s no chimney), the candles lit, and creche arranged–it’s the most wonderful time of the year! And every year for the past twenty-something, I’ve added Susan Branch’s Christmas From the Heart of the Home to the stack of holiday books on my coffee table. Branch inks and watercolors every inch of every page so that reading her Heart of the Home books is like reading her journal.

The book is everything I want at Christmas: a little whimsy, a lotta charm, family and friends, and homey goodness. And it’s my favorite book  Christmas book for the home. This little gem has some great recipes, from appetizers (chicken pate and Christmas oysters, anyone?) to a traditionalfavorite Christmas book Christmas turkey (or goose if you’re brave enough!), along with delicious sweet goodies and holiday beverages (spiked and not).

One of my family Christmas cookie favorites is something we call butter nut balls. Branch’s Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs are similar–except that the dough is wrapped around a Hershey’s kiss. My daughter insisted we include these little treasures in our cookie baking next week. Eaten still slightly warm they are to die for. Seriously.

But Christmas From the Heart of the Home is much more than a recipe book. I find myself turning the pages of this favorite for ideas to Deck the Halls—lots of candles, garlands of pine, and Christmas trees everywhere (even the kitchen!). Or how about taping Christmas cards around a doorway (I do!). The pages dedicated to the Magic of Snow are probably best understood by those of us who live in northern climes (Branch on Martha’s Vineyard, me in the Great Lakes)—the greatest love-hate story of them all. And throughout, those family memories and traditions, all delightfully illustrated and painted to size.

Need a Christmas treat for yourself? Check out Susan Branch’s blog, store, and news about anything from the Heart of the Home. I, of course, especially love her books. I usually get myself a little somethin’ somethin’ after the holidays, and I think this year it will be Autumn From the Heart of the Home, because, let’s face it–after Christmas, northern Falls are the best. (Sadly, Christmas From the Heart of the Home is out-of-print, but I found plenty of copies on ebay)

So whether my Christmas is lean or lush (and it’s been both over the years, believe me) I can depend on Christmas From the Heart of the Home to reassure me that heart and home are truly what matter most.

A sweet lil’ reading challenge

When I browse online reading challenges, I’m usually underwhelmed by what I find at the linky parties: 30 posts in 30 days and I’m to write about my “favorite side character” (really?!); a mix-it-up challenge and I’m reading “medical thriller fiction” (what the-what the?!); or 52 books in 52 weeks? (I’ve got a life, here, folks!)  I have participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the past two years because it’s flexible—I set my own goal, as few or as many books as I want—and that sliding bar on my Goodreads homepage is a nice nudge in the right reading challengedirection. But it’s all me. And kind of boring.

But Popsugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge (link) caught my eye, for some reason when it popped up on Pinterest. Odd because I’m not Popsugar’s demographic (18-40-year-old-women … ah, I don’t think so!), nor am I particularly interested in the hottest trends or any place “women’s passion points connect”, Popsugar’s tag line. And I have no idea what a “lifestyle brand” is. But there it was, “the ultimate reading challenge”–50 categories, all but winking at me on the screen.

There are some serious categories—book more than 100 years old, a banned book. Some light reading—a book you can finish in a day, a funny book. And some that will probably stretch my comfort level a bit—a book with nonhuman characters (Have I told you how much I hate talking rabbits?), a book that scares you. Popsugar reassures that even though they included 50 categories (or 52 with the trilogy), readers should pick and choose according to their reading tastes—which I will definitely do.

And if the categories aren’t that different from the million and one other reading challenges on the interwebs? Well, there’s something about a handy printable graphic to download (link) that caught my over-40 year-old, decidedly untrendy eye.

So there it is–printed, tucked in my Kindle cover, all 50 little checkboxes just waiting for me to add my tick marks.

Books for bitty babes

A little over a week ago I welcomed my first grandchild—little J gave his momma a run for her money, but he is (like any good Grammy would say!) the most perfect baby ever.

And just like I did with his IMG_1144 (1)momma and his uncles, I’ll be reading to him from the start. This English language of ours is beautiful and rhythmic, largely written and spoken in iambs, a rhythm that pulses through so much of what we hear—the da DUM of our heartbeat, the bah bo LINK of a backyard bird, the scritch HOP of a skip. Babies, listening to that rhythm in their water world for nine months, are finely tuned, I believe, to respond to iambs. And what better way to introduce them to our wide and wonderful world, but to cuddle them on our laps, snuggle them close, and read?

Which books are must-haves will change by age, but these are mine favorites for bitty babes. You’ll notice that there’s not a Disney book in the mix (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but if you want to choose books whose poetry and prose will sing to those little ears, these few will become a welcome chorus.  (And all are available as board books for tiny hands to touch) You can be sure at least a couple of these titles will show up under little J’s Christmas tree this year!

Goodnight Moon (by Margaret Wise Brown)

Pat the Bunny (by Dorothy Kunhardt)

Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see? (by Eric Carle)

Each Peach Pear Plum (by Janet and Allan Ahlberg)

Let’s Play, Sleepy Time, and Babies—or any board book written and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa

How I choose my next read

I’ve already established in another post (link) that I’m a picky reader. Best Seller Lists (even the revered New York Times BSL)

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don’t help me much, nor do the Staff Recommends shelf talkers in bookstores.  In my book selling days, I relied on my managers and publisher’s sales reps to pass on good titles, usually as an Advanced Readers Copy.  So what’s a book junkie to do? Here are my top choices (in no particular order) for finding my next read.

  1. Friends. Okay, not just any friends, but inquisitive, sometimes-daring readers whose tastes run close to mine, but who aren’t necessarily my reading clone. Someone who will encourage me try something a little out of my comfort zone. For me right now, that’s friend Denice, my book store compadre and a school librarian in her previous lives. You can read her blog here (link). And friend Mary, who reads anything nonfiction, especially historical.
  1. NPR. Hands down my go-to place for reviews. I’m a big fan of their lists: Summer Books, Best Books Of …, etc. They often feature the recommendations of independent booksellers (yay!) and this blog is rich with titles I’ve found on NPR, like this, and this, and even this. I’m such a fan I was once tempted to bid on the Nancy Pearl action figure on eBay. I find the book reviews that run on All Things Considered and Fresh Air to be a bit uneven—let’s face it, it’s NPR and some of the titles run a little on the sophisticated side for my tastes. But the lists? Hands down winners.
  1. Amazon. Whatever algorithm they use to get the recommendations for the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list of books is usually spot on. Enter a title you’ve loved in the search bar and scroll down until you reach Customers Who … I have taken a few risks and haven’t been disappointed. Like this one and this.
  1. Twitter. I’ve recently started following Huff Post books on Twitter. Great source for reviews, but also a treasure trove of all things bookish—author features, memes, video interviews. I have just begun following some of my favorite writers and bloggers, but I can already tell Twitter will lead me to more than a few good reads.
  1. Goodreads. I know, I know. More of a Facebook-for-readers, so go ahead and snub your nose at this suggestion if you must. But I like Facebook, so why not? Finding the right readers to follow takes a bit of time. I troll over bookshelves and look for titles I love and can usually find a title or two to add to my to-read shelf.  Goodreads has also given me a few opportunities to comment back and forth with authors, something that gets me quite twitterpated (which also reminds me that I also follow Goodreads on Twitter!).
  1. DRCs (Digital Reader’s Copies). NetGalley and Above the Treeline’s Edelweiss. This particular source may not work for everyone. Both websites offer booksellers, librarians, educators, and bloggers the opportunity to request and read titles before publication, just like those ARCs I used to enjoy as a book seller. It’s helpful to have a good feel for publishers and authors. But I have taken a risk on some titles and not been disappointed.

 And since it’s the season for gift giving, this list might also give you some ideas for gifting the best. present. ever. Or, when the weather and shopping or yet another holiday celebration seem just a little too much, a present to wrap yourself around for a few hours of bliss.