Top Books from the Decade: All the Rest!

If you’ve stuck with me this far, congratulations! This final post rounds up some odds and ends: a memoir, books that have expanded my horizons, or taught me something I didn’t know I didn’t know. Most of these I read on my Kindle through Overdrive, so I only had one physical copy of all the books listed here. I’m trying to not buy ALL THE BOOKS, okay people? Help me out.

From food to murders to geography to wolves (YES we are going to talk about THOSE WOLVES again), these books took me by surprise in the most delightful way.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir” by Ruth Reichl

Another Anne Bogel recommendation—this is a charming memoir from the editor of Gourmet Magazine. You get a little bit of everything in this book: recipes, insight into the publishing history, New York life glimpses. The chapter that took my breath away was the one on what it was like to be in New York during 9/11 and the harrowing days and weeks that followed. Really one of the most delightful books that I read all year.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann

Geez. Oklahoma. This book is a historical narrative that reads like a suspense thriller. Set in the 1920s, “Flower Moon” examines the systematic deaths of Osage Indians over their mineral rights. Why are all these rich Indians dying? Why is nobody doing anything? How can it be stopped? Woven in with this investigation was also the birth of our nation’s investigative office: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking all at the same time. As soon as I finished reading it, I forced the book on Kurtis and made him speed-read it so we could talk about it. I originally read this on Kindle, but it’s definitely one I would consider purchasing a hard copy of and re-reading, especially since it has to do with state history.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World” by Tim Marshall

Traveling by region/country, author Tim Marshall takes a brief look at the history of the country and its unique geography and then how that affects current day issues. This would honestly make a great addition to a high school geography/civics/government class—I wish I had read this in high school! But I would at least recommend reading it this year in particular as we head into an election year. I am for sure planning to re-read it this year. Spoiler: don’t skip the Arctic chapter at the end. More drama than you can shake a penguin at.

“The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester

You know how you read a description of a book and you instantly know you’re going to love it? That’s how it was for me and this book. This book tells the history of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be under the direction of Professor James and Murray and the mentally-ill prisoner who was one of its largest contributors, Dr. W.C. Minor. And it was one of the most fascinating books I read all year.

It’s an amazing look at the capabilities of the human mind and heart even when marred by illness and tragedy. Bonus: The film adaptation with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn is incredible!

Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone” by Douglas W. Smith

If you were around me at all late this summer, you probably heard me mention this book. I know. I’m sorry. We’re going to talk about wolves again. In preparation for our family trip to Yellowstone, I read this book about the wolf reintroduction program in the mid-1990s. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I can tell you I didn’t plan to become #teamwolf at the end of this book. Written by a scientist, the book reads like anything but a scientific report but like once again, a moving family saga. Except the family is a pack of wolves.

Tracing the beginnings of the wolf reintroduction movement to the release of the wolves in Yellowstone, to the triumphs and fallout of the following years, you’ll follow a family dynasty with more drama than Dallas. I was blown away by the ripple effects that this one species has on the rest of the ecosystem. I was moved by how unique each pack was. And I very much hope to spot a wolf in the wild one day, though I may have to settle for re-reading Smith’s book.

Well, that’s all! Thanks for indulging me across THREE blog posts. Gah, that’s a bit excessive, but whatever. I hope you found a few titles for your TBR list this year. Happy Reading!

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My fiction picks

My non-fiction picks

Top Books from the Decade: Fiction

As a kid, it seemed like every novel I picked it up was a good one.

Adult fiction seems to be more hit or miss. I think that’s why I read so heavy in non-fiction for a few years because I couldn’t find solid writing that wasn’t full of sex or foul language. So I just re-read YA favorites, ventured out into historical fiction pick every once in a while, but mostly was disappointed with the fiction I came across.

However, my fiction luck has increased, mostly due to listening to Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next. So while there are some golden oldies on this list, I have discovered new favorites through her recs.

As a point of reference, I enjoy mystery series and historical fiction picks, along with longer novels with complex storylines. I owned some of these books, but most I checked out through the library!

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

I discovered Jane Austen through my Granny Sherry at the beginning of this decade, so it’s been ten years of loving Austen and her work. What I love most about her work, as I know it is for most people, is the ability to completely lose yourself in the grand country houses and wide English fields in a time when longing glances across the room meant you were practically engaged. I first read them at a time when I could identify with the heartfelt but often tongue-tied heroines and their struggles to express how they really felt to their crushes (Anne Elliot anyone?) Now as I read them many years later, I appreciate Austen’s journey to become a female writer in a male-dominated arena, and the quiet rhythms of her life that supported her work. Wherever you turn, there is something to adore about her work.

“Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery

I tried reading the first book a few times growing up but was bogged down by the slow pace and constant whining from the odd redhead. I finally decided to try again about four years ago, and immediately gobbled up four or five Anne books in a row. (Still have more to read!) I completely fell in love with Anne’s outlook on life and could eat Montgomery’s nature descriptions with a spoon. Anne matures through the books and seeing that character arc made me overlook her very whiny beginnings. I was reading them during a particularly difficult time and her words made me remember there are still good and beautiful things to hold onto

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

When was the last time you stayed up until 2:00 in the morning finishing a book? “The Hunger Games” was that series for me. This was one of Kurtis’ Christmas gifts to me for our first holiday together, and I got to indulge in reading through the series over Christmas break. It re-awakened my love for reading for pleasure and became a series that Kurtis could enjoy together. Looking forward to the prequel which comes out in May of this year!

“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned more about history by reading historical fiction than by studying maps and lists of names and dates. There are many, many excellent books that take place during World War II, but this one stands out for me in that you see the effects of the war through German citizens. Liesel Memminger’s love affair with books and words pierced me, and some of my favorite literary quotes came from this book.

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

This was one of the books that awakened Kurtis and I to the magic of audiobooks. We listened to this on our road trip to Chicago about four years ago and remained riveted to the peril of the lone botanist on Mars. A thrilling adventure, cheering for the underdog, and a palatable amount of science make this a delightful read. Just know there is pervasive language throughout the book and the audio version would not be a good choice for little ears.

“The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” by Laurie R. King

A solid mystery series is my go-to when I just want to relax. Sherlock Holmes is 100% my favorite literary private eye, and I’m happy to read anything inspired by the reclusive, dysfunctional detective at 221B Baker Street. The Mary Russell series by Laurie King is no exception. I don’t even remember how I came across this book; I think it was in a random comment on Facebook, but I went on to chomp through seven of the fifteen in the series (and I’ve partially read three other). While the series does get repetitive (hence why I stopped reading), I absolutely loved the revival of the character with his taking on of a partner: the young Mary Russell. Their adventures are reminiscent of Doyle’s settings, but with a slightly edgier twist. Woven through their joint adventures is Mary’s complex, compelling back story, which comes to a head in Book 8, “Locked Rooms.” (My favorite after “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.”)

“The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah

I don’t know what it is, but I love a good Alaska story. There’s something about the weather and geography proving to be a sinister unnamed character that draws me in. And “The Great Alone” did not disappoint. It’s a moving look at the impact that PTSD* has on families and the will to survive. And like Hannah’s other novels, the characters draw you in from page one and don’t let up until the end.

*There are episodes of violence and abuse periodically throughout the book (not gratuitous but very present) so sensitive readers beware.

“The Gown” by Jennifer Robson

This was one of the most delightful books I read in 2019. Weaving two storylines into the making of Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress, this novel crisscrosses between England and Canada. You get a serving of the royal family, deep dive on dress-making, compelling storylines, and a dollop of wistful family history. It just hits a lot of right notes!

“Sensible Shoes” by Shannon Garlough Brown

Can you weave fiction and non-fiction together? Shannon Brown does so successfully. Following the storylines of four women and their various traumatic experiences, the “Sensible Shoes” series weaves together the spiritual practices of meditation, prayer, and solitude by seeing it applied in the lives of these women. When I first read them, I was immediately swept up in their stories and enjoyed trying out some of their reflection exercises. But after going through a spiritual discipline book in Sunday School, I realized that’s what’s at the heart of this series. Such a unique way to communicate the power and importance of time-honored spiritual disciplines. Four total books in the series!

Honorable Mentions:

“The River” by Peter Heller

“Celine” by Peter Heller

The Flavia DeLuce series by Alan Bradley

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My non-fiction picks

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What Should I Read Next Podcast

Top Books from the Decade: Non-Fiction

It’s the end of the year and not only is a new year just a couple of weeks away, but a whole new decade also awaits us. In my end-of-the-year writing, my thoughts naturally turned to books. I decided to undertake the monumental task (lol) of sifting through the 300+ books I’ve read over the past ten years and distill it down to the books that have had the most influence or impact on my life.

One of the most helpful things for my reading life has been simply tracking my books. Throughout school, I would track new books that I had read either in my English notebook or my journal.

Reading for pleasure dropped off quite a bit in college (understandably) with all the reading and writing required of a communications major. The decade started with me as a sophomore in college, so my list from the first couple of years of the decade are very slim. I started getting my post-student reading legs in 2013, when I started using Goodreads, but the pace of my reading life definitely started to ramp up in 2015 when we first embraced audiobooks.

And I’ve never looked back since.

I read about 80 books this year, plus editing 20 manuscripts, so technically, this is my first year to read 100 books though I’m not officially counting it. That’s the big goal for 2020: to read 100 books (not including manuscripts).

I sincerely enjoy reading and read for the sheer pleasure of it. I am a fast reader and get to read for work (and also still don’t have kids yet) so my schedule accommodates ample reading time. I read a mixture of physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks. For this round-up, I’m breaking it up into three posts: one post for non-fiction, one post for fiction, and one post for miscellaneous categories. Let’s get started!

Spiritual/Personal Growth

“Streams in the Desert” by L.B. Cowman

“Streams” is hands-down my favorite devotional book. It’s also the book I’ve most gifted to others, often a copy I’ve used myself with personal notes. I first read through it 2010-2011 and it was a big source of encouragement to me that year, as evidenced by the number of times I quoted it in my journals. Since then, I can’t tell you the number of times it has spoken to me when I’ve picked it up randomly throughout the year. Reading from the saints across the decades changed the way I process trials and uplifted me time and again. I have a paper copy and an ebook version. It’s often what I use for quiet times on vacation!

“The Meaning of Marriage” by Tim Keller

There are a lot of quality marriage books out there, but this one by Tim Keller is a powerful look at what we mean when we say “I Do.” It’s simple and yet so complex which we discover with each passing year. I especially enjoyed digging into the covenant aspect of Christian marriage. But by far my favorite chapter was the one on friendship—how fostering a deep friendship with your spouse radically transforms your marriage. This quote still convicts me:

“Romance, sex, laughter, and plain fun are the by-products of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification. Those things are important, but they can’t keep the marriage going thorugh years and years of ordinary life. What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.”

From Chapter Four, The Mission of Marriage

The book also includes a chapter written by his wife Kathy, along with a chapter that’s dedicated to singleness. Keller’s ministry included a congregation comprised mostly of singles and his unpacking of this chapter is thoughtful, not something I usually see included in a marriage book, but important nonetheless.

Whether you are newly married or have been around the block a few times, this book is great for a deep dive into your commitment to Christ and one another. It is not a quick read. Plan for time to digest the chapters and discuss them with each other.

“God Has a Name” by John Mark Comer

This book from John Mark Comer focuses on Exodus 34:6-7. Often called the touchstone passage or the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament, these verses are the most quoted passages by the Bible in the Bible. Crazy, right? This book blew my mind and forever changed the way I viewed God and His heart toward us.

“None Like Him” by Jen Wilkin

“None Like Him” unpacks ten qualities of God that He does not share with mankind. I’ve grown up in the church, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I ever saw these qualities discussed at length. The book contains 10 chapters with discussion questions at the end, which lends itself to great group study. The chapter on sovereignty hit me particularly hard! This is one you could return to every year and learn something new each time.

“Soul Keeping” by John Ortberg

What our culture loves to call “self-care” might be more appropriately named “soul care,” as my friend Katie Mac likes to say. Ortberg’s book deals with just that. Heavily influenced by Dallas Willard’s teaching, the book breaks down in layman’s terms what a soul is and what our souls need, based on the Bible. This book helped me understand and appreciate how God created our “inmost beings” and learned ways to guard and keep it.

“If your soul is unhealthy, no external circumstance can destroy your life. If your soul is unhealthy, no external circumstance can redeem your life.”

From the chapter “What is the Soul?”

“Still Waiting” by Ann Swindell

“Still Waiting” is a retelling of the woman with the issue of blood combined with the author’s own struggle with trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling). In our own six-year infertility journey, I’ve read several books geared toward waiting, but this is one of the few that I actually recommend because of how it deals with the deeper heart struggles with waiting. No matter what delay you find yourself moored in, you can probably find yourself in this compelling story.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain

This book demystifies the introvert mystique and frees up introverts to be who they are. It can also help all those extroverts to understand us a little better and JUST LEAVE US ALONE every once in a while. Just kidding! Kind of…

Cain’s research dives into how introverts can be effective leaders and creative producers in ways that extroverts aren’t. This book was the start of my learning more about how I’m wired and started to give me more confidence to be who I was.

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

Minimalism was for sure a buzzword this past decade, with methods and teachings galore. But for most, a Marie Kondo approach is an extreme level that we can’t or won’t go to. Enter “Essentialism.” The happy and albeit healthier medium between “Tidying Up” and a more-is-more philosophy. Author Greg McKeown focuses on more than just paring down books and sweaters, but also how you approach your work and schedule with intentionality.

If you’re wanting to make a form of minimalism work for you, start with this book.

“Atomic Habits” by James Clear

If you’re wanting to unpack why you struggle with making or breaking habits, this book is for you! After suffering a career-ending injury, James Clear became a student of the small steps to success, realizing that conquering the “atomic” steps was part of the victory itself. I’ve read a lot of productivity/self-improvement books, and this one stands out from the crowd. If you’ve read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, this book completes the picture of building good habits.

Don’t want to commit to the book just yet? Check out his interview with Craig Groeschel here:

Honorable mentions:

  • “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” by Donald S. Whitney
  • “The Path through Suffering” by Elisabeth Elliot
  • “The Praying Life” by Paul E. Miller
  • “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

Enhance your reading life!

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A Very Fussy Planner Roundup

I don’t know how to say this, but I have a problem. I’m obsessive about my planners. (In 2018 as you’ll see, I dallied in three different planners). I am very fussy about my planners and approach my decision of the yearly planner much like a GM approaches the NBA Draft. This planner is going to carry me through the year and keep me organized, so it needs to be dependable.

Since starting college in 2008, I’ve used a physical planner. Even when I’ve worked in offices with Outlook and even with Google or Apple calendars, a physical planner is my main tool. My husband and I do share a calendar just for events that affect both of us. (Pro marriage tip right there).

My humble requirements:
• Monthly + Weekly layout
• Ample writing room
• Inspiring colors or design
• Customization!
• Price (Sweet spot is less than $35)
• Size (Sweet spot is the classic A5 size and less than half an inch thick)

Because I am a saver, I realized I still have several old planners I’ve used from the past eight years, so I thought it would be fun to review what I’ve used as you might be looking for a planner for the new year, but it really just revealed how neurotic I was about this area of my life.

Buckle up for my very fussy review of personal planners.

The Basic Betty: (various styles at Target)
$11-$15

My planner from 2011

For about seven years, I would just pick a new planner up at Target and go. Usually the Mead brand, maybe Blue Sky as well? Especially as a college student, the basic planner was plenty for a regular schedule of school and work. Also, my budget would only allow for basic. I also used a separate monthly calendar that was color-coded for my class assignments and tests, which wasn’t entirely necessary BUT IT WAS MY SYSTEM. Don’t at me.

The Basic Betty carried me through four years of college, and three years post-college as I worked an office job, and continued working as a dance teacher as well. She never let me down with her simply monthly and weekly layouts and cheerful, but simple designs.

The Passion Planner (2015-2016)
$30-$35

In 2015, I left my office job and started building a freelance career in writing. My husband first discovered The Passion Planner and thought it would help me get organized as I laid out new goals for work. And he was “write.” This planner was super helpful when I started freelance work because it got me thinking about where my time went (v important for those who are self-employed) and it gave me great tools for visual representation of small milestones to meet my goals. It also had monthly reflection questions which I absolutely loved.

More expensive than my Target planners, but not crazy expensive. I used this planner for a year, but ultimately the grayscale pages just weren’t inspiring and it offered cramped writing room on the monthly and weekly layouts.

Erin Condren (2016-2017)
Starts at $55

Sometimes you just want the expensive lipstick. You know there is a Maybelline dupe for that Charlotte Tilbury shade, but sometimes, you just want Charlotte. Or Erin in this case.

Oddly, my Erin Condren planner purchase was an impulse purchase, but I was essentially done with my first Passion Planner, so it was time to pick out a new one anyway. I was having a bad week and you know what? I totally felt better after I plunked my name on a floral $60 planner. Again, don’t at me.

The color, the stickers, the thoughtful layout, and design made this a dream to use. This planner carried me through a job change and house renovations and it made me smile each time I got to open it.

But again, the price is a major downside. As was size. I realized I didn’t ultimately love lugging such a large planner around. I’m also not a huge fan of spiral bound anything.

But she treated me well, folks.

Bullet Journal – 1st attempt (2017)

Perhaps in response to the luxury of EC or the fact that we were going through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace, I briefly tried a BuJo for a month toward the end of the EC planner. But I never could get the bugs worked out in a way that pleased me. Per usual, I was late to the party on this trend, but I was captivated with the idea of BuJos for the customization aspect. I just hadn’t hit on the right formula.

May Designs (2018-never used)
Starts at $26

Around the time I started using my EC planner, I received a May Designs journal with a book I purchased. I immediately fell in love again with the designs (read: sucker) but I loved the sleek size of the journal. Sooner than necessary, I began scoping out May Design planners. When the new designs came out for 2018, I snagged one but had immediate concerns about the size and layout. I could tell early on it wouldn’t give me the space I needed, and decided to go back to the Passion Planner. I still used the planner for menu planning for a bit which was actually helpful.

The Passion Planner (2018)
$30-$35

Hello Passion my old friend…I used this for the rest of time I was working another office job and I loved and hated it for all the same reasons. I purchased a slipcover for it (my first one had a plain black leather cover) but with the stiff paper cover sliding around in the cover, it developed a permanent crease that made it hard to work with. I only used this for about eight months in 2018.

The Basic Barbara (From Amazon- 2018)
Less than $20

When I left the marketing firm and moved to my teaching job, I purchased yet another planner (if you’re keeping track, this is my THIRD planner for 2018). I loved the price tag and the space for affirmations at the front, but didn’t like the daily layout of bullet points on each line.

But I did use it for the rest of 2018, because three planners in one year is JUST EXCESSIVE.

The Business Boutique Goal Planner (2019)
$49.99

In looking toward 2019 with the goal of finishing my fourth book and continuing freelance work, I started understanding my needs more- I realized I liked the guided reflection aspect that the Passion Planner afforded, but needed a little more flash and panache. I opted for the Business Boutique by Christy Wright. It was more than double the price of the Amazon one, but still slightly less than EC, this carried me through most of 2019.

I loved the monthly reviews and themed lessons. It gave me a little more pep and organization in my step each week, but ultimately, I tired of the size. It’s even bulkier than the EC one and has an even more unwieldy spiral spine.

But in a weird turn of events, I started craving simplicity once again…

Bullet Journal – 2nd attempt

Oddly enough, I find myself back at the BuJo, but enjoying it much more. I’ve identified the important criteria of adequate space to write and guided reflections, but the size has to be portable.

During 2019 I had developed some brush calligraphy skills and I knew the BuJo would be a great outlet for that (BUT TOTALLY NOT NECESSARY. YOU DO YOU.)

This decision came on the heels of settling on Moleskin journals for my main journal. Much like my planner decisions, I typically labor over journal designs, but after 14 years of colorful designs and numerous sizes, I’m settling on the same one for the foreseeable future. (However, the thinness of the pages in Moleskins is irritating me so to Leuchtturm notebooks I will go for the new year)

So right now, I’m currently using a dotted, soft-cover Moleskin for my bullet journal and I love it. One of the things that gave me anxiety was needing to write down future appointments, but not having that month “drawn” yet. I now leave 1-2 pages after the current month’s monthly layout so I can quickly capture future events, and then transfer them when I’m ready to draw the month layout.

I also borrowed questions from the Business Boutique and leave a few pages blank after the end of the weekly layouts for the month and I do my own guided reflections. I also bought a giant book of stickers to satisfy my need to personalize. Because I realized stickers made me very happy.

I am so happy with the simplicity but the ability to customize which finally marries two big needs in my planner quest. Around $20, it satisfies my price threshold and the size is perfect. I’ve used it for about two months, so I’m still refining how it works for me. I’ll share layout pictures in the new year!

It’s fine. I’m not crazy. Everything is fine. Everyone go plan your weeks now, and let me know what works for you!