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)

love books

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.

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite “significant financial and time commitment from

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers.” It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked “significant, sustainable outside funding.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by “Book Givers” on April 23 all over the country–over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature … and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it’s incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin’ road for over twenty years and we’ll be walkin’ it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you’re me a couple thousand books of my own, but that’s another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and–most important of all–write one’s own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn’t. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I’m guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): “There’s no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, “there’s no real ending.”

Dreams do come true

Pocket Full of Dreams
David B. Burch

Writer David Burch and his young family were  God-sent neighbors for me when I was a struggling single mom twenty years ago. David tied my boys’ ties and played catch with them; Joan and I spent many summer hours heart-to-heart while the kids ate picnic lunches in the driveway and played the afternoon away; we ate countless Little Caesars pizza specials while playing cards late into the night. And at a time when my own faith was rocky, I’d watch Dave, Joan, and all three of their little ones drive off to mass each Saturday evening or Sunday morning.

People who struggle through life’s hardships may turn one direction or another. They can harden their hearts and clench tight to whatever blessings they’ve received, or they can open their hearts and share freely and generously. The Burchs are givers. And now David’s memoir Pocket Full of Dreams is his gift to a wider audience. In it he shares with us the abuse he suffered, the poverty he endured, and the wrong turns he took. He remembers with gratitude the men and women who were so instrumental in shaping him. And perhaps best of all, David speaks poignantly about the love of his life, Joan, and the faith they share. Dave and Joan have seen tough times and abundance, but in whatever circumstance they found themselves, they knew their greatest treasure was love.

This self-published book can be ordered online  or purchased at Schulers Book Stores. David also has booked speaking engagements at northern Michigan Rotaries, libraries, craft shows, and bookstores,  Pocket Full of Dreams is competently written–although its real beauty is the story of a life gone right.

iHad iPad


Reading is always difficult for me during the school year–hours of grading and planning leave little time for recreation, and my exhaustion at 9 each evening doesn’t lend itself to reading more than a page or two. But I recently noticed a disturbing habit that has crept into my reading life. Because I have the New Yorker and some novels on my iPad Kindle app, I’m only a button push away from Facebook and Pinterest and blogs and Etsy and eBay and Amazon and email and … I’m guessing you get the idea. So the reading that I do do, takes considerably longer and I’m horribly distracted. Who knew this could happen to me, a lifelong reader and book hoarder?

So for a period of time (I don’t know how long) I’ve decided to go back to reading print only; my iPad will be in another room, not resting alongside me as it usually is. I’ve gone back to Elizabeth I (again!) and have a couple books arriving from Amazon tomorrow. For a while I’ll be turning pages, not swiping a screen. 

My own full catastrophe

Full Catastrophe Living
Jon Kabat-Zinn

[Note to my readers: this post is a bit more personal than most of my book reviews.]

Nearly twenty years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition; almost ten years ago I sought treatment. For the most part I’ve dealt with it by alternately ignoring it, plowing through, or spitting in its face–whatever my response I would not give in and put a label on myself. I browsed some books on living with pain holistically over the years and did take a peek at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s primer Full Catastrophe Living. Almost just as quickly, I crammed it back into the store’s bookshelf: “My life is not a catastrophe, damn-it.” How much better had I known the back story, that Nikos Kanzantazaks’s character Zorba the Greek was the book’s inspiration. At one point in the novel, Zorba was asked whether or not he was married, to which he replied (roughly) “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything … the full catastrophe!” Life as full and joyous catastrophe.

And as I practiced yoga over the years, I also read my fair share of books on mindfulness and meditation. More that one teacher would begin the class with “meditation”, at which point I’d sit quietly and … what? Sit with my eyes closed. Sit still. I had read that meditation was supposed to help chronic pain, but this sitting business did nothing for me. Fast forward to a Facebook post by a local mindfulness center offering a meditation class that was also taught by my very first yoga teacher. And in the still, small center of my heart I knew it was time.

Kabat-Zinn is the founder and former director of the University of Massechuset’s Stress Reduction Clinic. Centered on breath work and disciplined practice, MBSR (as it is known) is now the gold standard for meditation programs. Full Catastrophe Living Part I explains the course in detail; Part II introduces the idea of mindfulness and describes the paradigm shift needed to deal with stress, pain, and dis-ease.  Throughout, the book is rich with testimonials from individuals for whom meditation was transformative. (There are two chapters on pain, both of which I’ve read twice–so far!)

I read the book in tandem with taking a course based on Kabat-Zinn’s program, taught by MBSR teachers, and while the concepts in the book are easy-to-understand, they are not as easy to practice. Guided mindfulness meditation CDs must be purchased separately–but it’s the “guided” part that is so critical to success, I think. While Kabat-Zinn explains the beginning practice of the body scan, there is no substitution for actually experiencing the sometimes grueling practice and being held accountable to your homework: 45 minutes of MBSR practice each and every day for 8 weeks.

Read the book. Maybe start with Part II to understand the philosophy behind the practice better. If you’re moved to begin mindfulness meditation, seek out a MBSR program to begin your journey with guidance and support.

As I read Full Catastrophe and began to practice sitting, I felt as though I was stepping into a flowing stream–the energy of mindfulness meditation swirled and eddied around and against every aspect of my own full catastrophe. And the pain? Suddenly, it’s not the point at all–the meditation seeps into your very center.

And it changed my life.