What I’m into (February 2015 edition)

What I'm into February 2015 edition

After a few glorious 60-degree days (Walks! Bike rides! Reading on the porch!), the cold blew in and just won’t leave. Early last week it snowed 8 inches, which is enough to shut down a city in the Upper South, and it still won’t melt. We’ve been playing Monopoly, drinking tea, and reading, all of which are lovely … but I’m yearning for spring.

What I’m watching

I’m watching Downton Abbey again, but the season’s almost over. I’m hoping (against hope, I fear) they can pull together a satisfying finish.

You know we’ve been watching Project Runway. Thanks to your suggestions, the kids and I have fallen in love with MasterChef Junior. They love the show, and I love how they’re creating their own “challenges” in our kitchen. I haven’t cooked dinner in a week: my 9-year-old is doing it.

What I’m reading

I’m well on my way to breezing through two authors’ whole catalogs.

My Oyster trial (get yours here) gave me the push I needed to finally read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. I finished that and promptly blew through Left Neglected and Love Anthony, and I’m getting ready to start Inside the O’Briens (coming April 7.)

I mentioned to a friend that I was reading The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos (coming March 15) and she gushed over Love Walked In. While I was reading Love Walked In, another friend emailed me about Falling Together. Now that I’ve finished Falling Together, I might just finish reading everything she’s ever written. I just borrowed Belong to Me from the library …

I’m also reading writing books. Lots and lots of writing books. My local writing buddy recommended Second Sight (useful despite its YA focus), and a big stack of books arrived yesterday.

In my ears

Will and I went to hear Ben Folds with our local orchestra (so great) at the beginning of the month and I’ve been listening to his stuff all month.

As for books, I finally finished Middlemarch (all 36 hours of it), and promptly started Tana French’s novel Faithful Place for a serious change of pace.

I feared Middlemarch might drag as an audiobook; it didn’t. (1.5x speed didn’t hurt.) I feared Faithful Place might be too overwhelming for my HSP self as an audio book, but 5 hours in (out of 16) I’m enjoying it so far—not that there isn’t some cringing involved. Like French’s other Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, there’s serious family dysfunction, violence, and f-bombs galore. But the narrator is terrific.

Alice in Wonderland Puffin in Bloom

Can’t wait for

Rifle Paper Co. announced they’re adding to the Puffin in Bloom collection with this dreamy version of Alice in Wonderland. Coming this November. I’m not much of a book collector, but I couldn’t resist the first four books in the series. I hope there are more to come …

daily

On the blog

Books that changed the way I live, love, and parent. Saying that a book has actually changed the way I engage with the world is a huge compliment. These 7 books are special because they have fundamentally altered the way I live, love, and parent—on a daily basis.

7 ways I’m minimizing decision fatigue in my daily life. A few obvious and not-so-obvious ways I’m streamlining daily decisions to boost creativity and productivity.

Every ten years you have to remake everything. “Sometimes, you break things on purpose so you can reassemble them, stronger this time. Sometimes, they are broken for you, and you have to put the pieces back together.”

The books I can’t stop recommending. 9 past and current favorites I find myself recommending all the time. (Plus, my thoughts on Oyster’s Netflix-for-books subscription service.)

What’s saving my life right now. Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life. This is my list of the life-giving things that are getting me through this hardest season. You all share yours, too, and I loved reading through your lists.

Best of the web

This giant poster plots all the many fiction genres. I could get lost in this … until it makes my head explode, which is a real possibility.

Ballet-dancers’ hardest moves in slow-motion. Incredible. Best line: “Not everyone can do this.”

40 tiny tasks for a richer reading life. #4. #15. #16. But not #18. At least not till the snow melts.

MasterChef Junior: the secret ingredients are moppets and empathy. “The funny thing about this show, though, is that they’re kids, and they’re all pretty nice people who have a legitimate skill (that would be cooking). That gives the audience a chance to enjoy some of the really fun things about competition shows (growth, personality, triumphs) without the bad things about competition shows (backbiting, unpleasantness, resentment).”

What Ira Glass explains in one minute will change your life forever. “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good.”

What were you into in February?

Linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I’ve been into lately. 

Why I recommend books that use the f-word.

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I get emails and blog comments all the time that ask: Is that book clean? (Occasional variants on this email: Why did you recommended that dirty book? or Is this book appropriate for my x-year-old?)

I can’t answer this question with an easy “yes” or “no,” because even readers who care deeply about reading “clean” books don’t agree on what that looks like.

How do you define “clean?”

It might mean not too many f-bombs, or none at all, or no profanity of any kind. It might mean that no sex is hinted at, or no sex is described in detail, or no infidelity takes place. To some it means no violence, or no alcohol abuse, or no alcohol; no bullying, or kids who don’t obey their parents.

(When I asked this question on facebook and twitter, some readers defined “clean” negatively, saying a clean book is one that isn’t challenging, that’s been artificially sanitized.)

By any of these standards, I read many books that wouldn’t be considered “clean.”

Profanity in fiction

Despite this, I’m choosy about what I read. I don’t usually rule out books because of the language, although I’m unlikely to read a book that has heaps of it. (There are exceptions: Eleanor & Park, The Likeness.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, profanity is a shortcut—an easy way to provoke a reaction from the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout picks up a few curse words at school, she busts out with “Pass the damn ham, please” at the dinner table. That’s shock value profanity, not a strategic use of language, and that’s exactly what too many authors do. (Scout’s uncle Jack sets her straight, saying words like “damn” and “hell” are only for instances of extreme provocation.)

When an author drops an f-bomb, I don’t shut the book. Instead, I want to know why the author chose that language.What’s the emotional content of the passage? Is she using profanity strategically or for shock value? (The former, I’ll keep reading. The latter, I might not.)

I remember the first time a teacher swore in the classroom. It was 9th grade English. Our teacher—a sweet and gentle woman about my grandmother’s age—was reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud. It’s Halloween night, Scout and Jem were just attacked, Sheriff Tate is telling Atticus that “Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” Atticus doesn’t understand; he thinks Tate is trying to protect Jem—it never occurs to him Boo Radley could have done it—and he’s not having it. My fellow students, seeing the curse words coming up in the text, shoot nervous glances at each other, wondering will-she-or-won’t-she? 

She kept reading (which surprised us, even in public school) and it made a deep impression on us all—not just about our teacher, but about an author’s work. Harper Lee wasn’t messing around when she chose her words: she told a hard story, but she told it respectfully, and realistically. She chose her words carefully, and her story supported their weight.

Sex and violence in fiction

I don’t necessarily rule out books because of sexual content or violence (like Outlander), though I can handle more of the former than the latter. If I don’t shut the book forever, I often skim—sometimes at lightning speed—through disturbing content. (Massive disclaimer here: I’m an HSP, and very sensitive about graphic content.)

If given a second chance, I would skip some books entirely, like In the Woods. (More on that here.) There are books that I loved but had a single short scene I wish I could scrub from my mind, and wasn’t truly necessary to the plot. (The Thirteenth Tale). There are books that profoundly disturbed me but whose messages have lingered, in a good way, maybe even a life-changing one. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

There are books I enjoyed but skipped giant chunks of—like, ten pages at a time—because I couldn’t handle the violence or didn’t want to read the racy stuff. (Outlander.) There was one short but awful scene in Americanah (which I loved) that made me sick to my stomach, but the plot turned on that scene. The author didn’t include it for shock value; she included it because it was essential to the story.

(I’ve also read books that would be considered “clean” by many readers’ standards, but that were nearly unreadable for me because of the gritty, emotional content. I just abandoned Bloodroot for this reason.)

Conflict drives the plot forward

In fiction, conflict moves the plot forward: characters are plunged into messy situations of (to borrow Uncle Jack’s term) extreme provocation and forced to find a way out (or sometimes not).

Books with lots of profanity, (or sex, or violence) are outside my comfort zone. This includes Tana French and Outlander, and also Crime and Punishment and Tom Sawyer. (To see some seriously disturbing fiction, try the original Snow White or Cinderella, which I had to read in college. In German.)

Good fiction challenges you; it pushes your boundaries. A great book pushes you outside your comfort zone and forces you to re-think your assumptions.

I can’t set your boundaries for you, but I can try to give you the information you need to decide which books are the right books for you.

This is a conversation starter, not the final word. I’d love to hear your thoughts, your personal guidelines for choosing books, and the best books you’ve read that have pushed your boundaries.

The furniture you live on, and the furniture you live around.

sofa 1

Spend the the money on the furniture you live ON, not the furniture you live around. “Don’t spend the money on the furniture you only live around.”

At the end of the year, I shared a list of things that worked for me in 2014, the things that made my life run more smoothly, or the things that just made life a lot more fun. like Lucky’s Market, audiobooks, my glitter flats.

I very nearly included our living room sectional on that list. I decided not to because 1. It’s just a sofa and 2. It felt materialistic. (Maybe that shouldn’t have stopped me, because I did include gold glitter flats on the list.)

sofa 4

My sister-in-law handpicked that sofa for us. When we moved into our new house in May, the living room baffled me. I just didn’t know what to do with it. Sarah is a talented designer with a great eye (not my daughter Sarah, although I find myself saying that about her more and more), and she made a plan the whole family loves.

Most of the budget went towards a single piece of new furniture: the sectional.

We’d been planning on this purchase for a while; it wasn’t just a we-got-bored-with-the-old-look purchase. Our old sofa was broken beyond repair: when we moved, we opted to trash it instead of loading it on the moving van. We expected this expense, but it still felt like a big chunk of change.

sofa 3

But it’s the perfect piece to anchor the room. We all love it, and our whole family piles on it to study history, watch Jimmy Fallon, and just hang out. It’s the kids’ favorite place to read. It’s where Will and I bring our coffee to chat. It’s where I burrow under blankets (in the corner seat, please) with a good book on frigid winter afternoons. (Bonus: the warranty is killer, so I’m relaxed about all this family togetherness on the sofa.)

We were at a family dinner when I told my sister-in-law how much I loved our sectional. My brother—who knows way more about furniture than I do—said I’d accidentally followed one of his favorite rules of thumb: Spend your money on the furniture you live ON. Save your money on the furniture you live AROUND.

I understood immediately. So did my dad, who said it’s just like handkerchiefs: some are for blowing, and some are for showing. (Ha!)

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Our sectional is for blowing. We live all over that thing. It’s the favorite seat that everyone wants, because it’s comfy and it doesn’t budge when you flop on it. It’s cozy and inviting. It was money well-spent.

In contrast, we went the cheap route for the furniture we live around, the stuff that’s for showing. We want it to be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be comfortable, or stand up to heavy use.

We still have a lot to do in the new place. As we move forward with the finishing touches, we’ll be intentional about following that rule of thumb—spending our money on the furniture we live on, and going the budget route on the stuff we live around.

Is this a principle you’ve put to use in your home? I’d love to hear any other rules of thumb you have for YOUR home. 

A trick to save big on audiobooks.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

I love audiobooks, and Audible is my favorite way to listen to them.

I’ve finally figured out how to use a great service that makes it even easier—and cheaper—to listen to audiobooks with Audible. I’m kicking myself for not figuring it out sooner (it’s been around for a couple of years), so I wanted to make amends by filling you in as soon as possible. It’s called Whispersync for Voice, and it allows you to switch back and forth between reading the Kindle book and listening to the audio version without losing your place.

Last fall when I raced through the Outlander books, I switched back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so I could get through the books faster. But I didn’t use Whispersync—I didn’t know it existed—and I spent a lot of time trying to find my place. (For most of the books, it wasn’t too hard to stop at a chapter break. But some of the later books stopped at seemingly random one-hour intervals, and it drove me crazy.)

(Giant disclaimer here: read the reviews before you start the Outlander books.)

I wish I’d known how to use the service then. I could have spent more time reading, instead of searching for my place. I also would have saved a ton of money.

The finances of Whispersync

It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true: even if you have no intention of reading the ebook, sometimes buying the Kindle book plus the audio saves you serious money.

Let’s go back to Outlander. Right now, Outlander #1 is on sale for $1.99 for Kindle. If you buy the ebook, you can add the Audible audiobook for $3.99. That makes your total purchase $5.98.

Compare this to the $14.95 I paid per credit for the audiobook alone with my Audible membership.

Here’s what Audible’s memberships look like right now:

Gold: 1 credit/month — $14.95 per credit (my old plan)
Gold Annual: 12 credits at once — $12.46 per credit (my current plan)
Platinum: 2 credits/month —$11.48/credit
Platinum Annual: 24 credits at once — $9.56 per credit

If I can beat $12.46/credit, it’s worth buying the ebook and audiobook together, even if I’m not planning on ever reading the ebook.

Once I figured out how this Whispersync thing worked, I went searching for great deals. Not every book is Whispersync-enabled, and not all of those are good deals. Many audio companions cost $12.99; many ebooks cost in the double digits. But there are lots of good deals to be found.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

How to get started

The first audio companion I bought at a big discount was Pride and Prejudice. I was getting ready to spend an Audible credit for this because my kids are ready to give it a try. (!!!) I downloaded the public domain ebook for free, and added the unabridged audio companion for $.99. On Amazon’s website that looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

The “Whispersync for Voice-ready” in search results means an audio companion is available. On the book’s sales page, click “add Audible narration” to purchase the audiobook companion.

To listen to a sample of the audiobook companion before you buy, click on the book’s title under “add Audible narration.” That will open a page that looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Click “play sample” to hear an excerpt from the recording.

For further instructions that are specific to your device, head here.

How to find out which of your ebooks have audio companions

If you own any Kindle books—even free ones—it’s easy to see which have audio companions available.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Go to Amazon’s Whispersync home page, click on “view audio companions for your Kindle books.” (See the orange arrow above.) Enter your account information. Amazon will generate a list of available audio companions for your Kindle books. It looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Great Whispersync deals available now

Prices on Kindle books change all the time. Prices on audio companions are more stable. I scoured Amazon to give you an idea of what’s available, and for how much, to give you a feel of what kind of deals you can get with this service.

These are a few books on my reading list:

• The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. The ebook is $11.19; add the Audible narration for $3.99. I think $11 is a lot for an ebook, but if you catch this on sale (like it was recently) this will be a great deal.

• Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Buy the ebook for $1.99 (sale price); add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls., The ebook is $9.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl is $4.65; add the Audible narration (by Selma Blair) for $3.95

Books I’ve enjoyed and recommend:

• Cinder by Marissa Mayer. The ebook is $2.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95. I love this YA series.

• The Martian by Andy Weir. The ebook is $7.99; add the Audible narration for $2.99. That’s not a great ebook price (although it was recently on sale for $3), but combined with the audio it’s still a great deal. (I really enjoyed this. So did my husband, which is saying something. There’s some language.)

• Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The ebook is $4.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95. This is intense but such a good read.

• Holes by Louis Sachar. The ebook is on sale for $3.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty. The ebook is $3.99 right now; add the Audible narration for $12.99. $12.99 isn’t a great deal, but it’s a good example of how you can still get Audible membership prices if you buy both. Sensitive subject matter; I think Moriarty handled it well.

Books that have been highly recommended:

• Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. The Kindle book is $9.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. The ebook is $6.99; add the narration for $3.95.

(Did you notice $3.95 is a popular price for audiobook companions? View the current list of $3.95 audiobooks here.)

There are abundant fabulous deals available for the classics. This is a tiny sampling:

• Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for FREE.

• Little Women by Louise May Alcott. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $9.49.

• The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $.99.

• Persuasion by Jane Austen. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $2.99.

View Amazon’s list of bargain classics that are Whispersync-enabled here.

A note about Kindle sales

I share great Kindle deals daily, updating the page every morning. Some sales last for weeks; some last for hours. If you snag a book on a great sale, that can make for some killer audiobook deals. Starting today with the new sales, I’ll state on the deals page if a book has an audio companion available. (Note: you don’t have to buy the Kindle book and the audio companion at the same time in order to get the reduced rate.)

Have you tried Whispersync, and if so, what do you think? Any tips for us? What else do you want to know?

P.S. The MMD Great Big Guide to Audiobooks, 40 favorite audiobooks, and 40 favorite audiobooks for kids.