Monday, May 4, 2015

reading recap: april 2015.

April became one of the busiest months at The Bookshelf – so many events, so little time. I did manage to fit in eight books this month, six fiction (including one boasting over 700 pages!) and two non-fiction. A couple would make great book club picks, some you’ve probably heard about already, and at least one deserves to be picked up today. 
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Bookseller confession: I never read The Goldfinch. So many customers felt ambivalent about last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner; I decided to forgo it for another book by the same author (The Secret History, which I really enjoyed). The page count of The Goldfinch also made it daunting, which is why my first book selection for this month comes as a surprise, even to me. A Little Life is just over 700 pages long, but it kept coming across my social media wanderings – NPR reviews, blog posts, podcasts, etc. – so I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did. The book covers the friendships of four men, following them from their late college years into their mid-40s. And although the book is a testament to male friendship, it’s also about heartbreak and trauma and tragedy and abuse and neglect. A Little Life is heavy, but important, and if you’ve got the stomach for it, I can’t recommend it enough. Grab me in the store next time you see me, and I’ll tell you if it’s right for you. 

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I can’t believe I had never heard of The Austen Project, so allow me to enlighten you, as well. The new series of six novels pairs bestselling authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey were released last year, and now, bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith has thrown his hat into the ring with his modern-day version of Emma. I’m not exactly an Austen purist – I won’t touch anything that combines Austen with zombies, but I have watched (and loved) both The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved – so this rendition didn’t bother me in the least. I found it utterly enjoyable, and I would imagine most of you would, too. Emma has never been my favorite heroine, but Smith handles her with grace and does her justice. Pack it in your beach bag. 

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. Those of you who travel in evangelical circles or stay up-to-date on Christian writers and debates will probably have heard of Rachel Held Evans. I’ve been reading her blog for years, and I think Searching for Sunday is her best book thus far. The book offers a personal look at Evans’ struggles with church and faith, but her stories have universal appeal. (I found much of myself in the pages of Searching for Sunday.) I devoured the book one afternoon on my porch swing; it felt so good to hear someone give voice to my own concerns. The book is smartly divided into chapters based on the sacraments, and my favorite truths were found in the chapter reflecting on baptism. 

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. This was my advanced reader copy of the month, so you won’t find A Window Opens on our store shelves yet. However, if you’re like me, and keep a list of what to read next, go ahead and write this one down. The book is a debut novel by magazine writer Elizabeth Egan. The book is light in parts, but it's heartfelt and funny, too; rarely have I found a book that makes me laugh, cry, and cringe all within the same few pages. It's Big Little Lies meets Where’d You Go Bernadette, with a little of Dave Eggers' The Circle thrown in the mix. If any or all of those books appealed to you, this one will be worth reading. The book releases in August, and I’ll be recommending fellow readers and book clubs to close out their summers with this one. (I already mailed my copy out to a friend.) 

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. Do you ever discover a book you’ve been meaning to read for ages hiding on your shelf? The hardback of Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me has been on my nightstand for months – the book is now out in paperback – and for some reason, I just never could pull the trigger. I’d read Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, when it debuted, and I enjoyed it, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t have read Astonish Me by now. I think the book’s subject matter – ballet – deterred me, but what a mistake! Astonish Me is even better than Seating Arrangements, with a clever plot that propels forward at the perfect pace. It received rave reviews when it released last year, and now I know why. This was one of my favorite books of the month. 

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight. A few years ago, I read Kimberly McCreigh’s Reconstructing Amelia in the span of a few hours. I still recommend it to readers looking for a good suspense novel. Her latest doesn’t, in my opinion, pack quite the punch of her first, but I think I may be coming off a Girl on the Train-inspired high. Like Girl on the Train, Where They Found Her is narrated by a variety of different women; the narration just isn’t as effective or as chilling as Girl on the Train, but McCreigh’s novel is still one you’ll want to move through in just a few sittings. Snag a copy at the library, or buy a copy for a suspense-loving friend. 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. The cover on this one is fantastic, but Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is even more fascinating once you’ve begun to turn the pages. Ronson – who you’ll recognize from his previous book The Psychopath Test, plus dozens of NPR stories – covers shaming and public humiliation in the modern world; how we’ve moved from stakes and stocks to deriding and punishing people through social media. I recognized many of the subjects and was already familiar with several of their stories: Mike Daisey, Justine Sacco, Jonah Lehrer. These are semi-public figures whose missteps cost them their careers and livelihoods after the public called out their faults on Twitter and Facebook. Ronson brings to light what a strange, technology-driven world we’re living in, and although he isn’t always my favorite narrator, his book is utterly entertaining and interesting. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed would be great for book clubs, and I suspect you’ll start hearing more and more about it after a feature in the New York Times. Well worth a read. 

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. Man at the Helm was the loveliest book I've read in quite some time. The book is quintessentially British, reminiscent of I Capture the Castle and The Railway Children; cleverly narrated by nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, it tells the tale of Lizzie and her sister and brother as they cope with their parents' divorce. Left without a "man at the helm," Lizzie and her older sister try to find their mother a suitable replacement. Funny and sweet, Man at the Helm was just the book I needed to end out a stressful month. Highly, highly recommend. (For fans, I think, of The Rosie Project or Mary Poppins.)

Monday, April 27, 2015

13/52 :: same kind of different.

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other -- that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister."

- Mother Teresa


A few years ago, I told Jordan my idea for a book. "Wouldn't it be interesting," I said, "to spend a year going to different church denominations, highlighting what makes us all different, sure, but also -- and maybe more importantly -- discovering all of our similarities?" 

We were driving down a southern highway, and we had passed at least a dozen churches of varying types and denominations. And sure, a part of me found that -- still finds it, I guess -- disheartening. One church, one body, etc. But the other, bigger part of me wondered if it was okay, if it was just different believers, worshiping the Father, Son, and Spirit in the best ways they knew how.

Fast forward a couple of years. Since moving to Thomasville (and even including the months leading up to the move), Jordan and I have visited dozens of churches. Methodist, Presbyterian, church of Christ, Baptist, non-denominational, Catholic, and yes, Anglican. 

Now, whenever I worship and wherever I worship, I think of all the people we've met in our season of church hopping. I think of the elderly gentleman who served me communion one morning alongside his granddaughter. I think of my favorite priest at St. Peter's, the one who closes his eyes when he sings. I think of the African-American couple who sat behind us at the church of Christ where I grew up, the people who knew me by my grandmother's name better than my own. I think of the women who wore head-coverings and long skirts, the ones who took us out for barbecue. I think of the Methodist church where the praise team was in cowboy boots and jeans, playing the fiddle for "bluegrass Sunday."
There have been kind, friendly faces and quiet, stoic ones. Scripture read from half a dozen translations, prayers recited while kneeling. We've had stale crackers and grape juice, discs of bread and cheap wine. 

And here is what I believe: I've met hundreds of brothers and sisters this way. These are people who believe in the same Jesus I do. The Methodists and the Presbyterians and the Baptists and the churches of Christ (even the ones who wouldn't want to be on this list) are eerily similar; more similar, in fact, than not. Disregard the instruments and the choirs and the robes and the kneeling benches and you're left, more or less, with Christ crucified and raised. He's the point of it all.

Last Sunday, thanks to a birthday party at The Bookshelf and a canoe trip in Tallahassee, my brother and I both found ourselves back at our parents' church, the church we grew up in. (Chet said it was like sitting next to Liz Lemon in church, which is perhaps the best compliment anyone has paid me, ever.) Jordan, too, attended his parents' church of Christ in Birmingham. And you know, it wasn't too hard to go back. The people are lovely; the singing is beautiful. It was a little bit like going home, albeit knowing the whole while you don't really fit anymore. 

But the sermon -- which seemed to highlight and outline this church's beliefs and differences in doctrine -- felt odd to me, unnecessary. How silly, in a world full of complications, abuses, persecutions, and hurts, to separate ourselves from fellow Christians, from those who believe in the same radical resurrection we do. 

Aren't we supposed to stick together? Don't parents tell their children to watch out for each other at school? Don't they send brothers and sisters to stand by each other and honor each other and help each other navigate the chaos? 

Church wasn't designed to be a denominational pep rally. Sundays weren't created for us to celebrate our differences or to join forces against the church down the road. "The battle isn't against flesh and blood." So Scripture says, and thus I believe.

Do you know why, in this season, I love the Anglican church? Yes, there is kneeling and liturgy and a church calendar and short sermons and beautiful communion. But really? It's a relief each Sunday to go somewhere content with its own beliefs without negating another's, a church that teaches Jesus and proclaims Him while also praying for brothers and sisters -- Baptists, Catholics, and everything in between -- all over the world. A church that unabashedly praises His name and acknowledges itself as set apart, all while taking part in the community around it, the community that needs Him most. 

Amen to that.

Friday, April 24, 2015

what's making me happy this week, 4.

Every so often, in addition to those 52 essays I'm supposed to be cranking out, I'm going to publish a small list of what's making me happy, a la one of my favorite podcasts, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Nothing major, just a new series to remind me to count my blessings. 

Here's what's making me happy this week (which has been, overall, rough): 

- Texting long-distance friends. As I type this, my friend and I are debating, via text, whether or not the death of McDreamy last night was justified or necessary. Neither of us watches Grey's anymore, but no matter: This is important stuff. Also texting this week about Kimmy Schmidt, the feasibility of a long-distance book club, and whether my dad looks like Walter White.

- The Innocence Project. This is actually left over from last week, but no matter: I've been an advocate for the Innocence Project since discovering it during my time at The Florida Bar. There's undoubtedly an innocence project in your area, and I'd recommend supporting their work in some way. Jordan and I had the opportunity to attend the Innocence Project of Florida's annual banquet last week, where we met at least a half a dozen men who spent decades in prisons for crimes they didn't commit. We consider it an important part of our marriage and finances to give back to organizations and people we care about, and I wanted this year for us to start thinking outside our typical, regular donations. Not to get on a soapbox, but I'd encourage you to do the same, if you're so inclined. (Need recommendations of organizations to support? Try the new book The Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof.) Making a difference, even small, really does make you happier.

- Entrepreneurial support. So our book signing with Carrie Rollwagen didn't have the best attendance. (I am learning lessons all the time, and this one was: Never plan a store event the week of Thomasville's Rose Festival.) But that didn't stop me from asking Carrie questions about entrepreneurship and local business partnership and bookstore ownership and more. It was fun, and a reminder that this ship I'm sailing isn't as lonely as it often feels. 

- Staffing solutions. I'm treating the store like a puzzle I have to solve, and slowly, some pieces are falling into place. There have been setbacks and hardships, but each day I'm identifying more and more the type of store I want to run and how. This morning, I met with our manager, and we got some things settled, and I already am feeling hopeful for fall. 

And that's what's making me happy this week. Here's hoping for a less eventful start to May?

Friday, April 17, 2015

12/52 :: june.

I feel like I'm in recovery mode, which is hysterical, since most nights this week I've been out until 11, and the bookstore has about six more events to endure/enjoy before we're done for the month. Hardly rest and recuperation, but such is small business, I think. 

Last weekend, our little store supplied all of the books for Word of South, Tallahassee's newest -- and only -- music and literature festival. I met Ann Patchett; Jordan engaged in long, theological discussions with Tony Hale; my staff survived; and we sold well over 600 books. Amazing. 

Of course, there were hard things, too. It rained all weekend. The entire festival was outdoors, so the inclement weather meant smaller crowds and a lot of humidity, which, naturally, books loathe. I had to leave my staff to fend for themselves all day on Sunday; and although I'm learning to delegate, it's hard. I feel guilty and unsure, not in my staff's capabilities, but in what is fair for my employees as I run my business. When can I take vacation? How long is too long of a day for one person? What tasks are meant for two people instead of one? What do I expect from a sales clerk versus a manager? 

These are hard questions for me, and I'm still unsure of the answers. But last Sunday, I chose a friend's wedding over the last day of Word of South, and while complicated, overall, that decision alone feels like a victory. 

Much of small business ownership is figuring out what I can handle, and for how long. At the wedding last week, another friend asked if I intended to run the bookstore forever. (I believe her words were: "Is this, like, what you want to do? Long-term?") And I know most people assume my answer would undoubtedly be a resounding YES. But the truth is, the store and I have a complicated relationship, and I don't know what the future holds. (It's a bookstore, for crying out loud.) Things are going well, and I'm happy, but I'm tired. A lot. And I'm really just taking things one day at a time. 

Word of South was a success. All of the time, money, and effort was worth the exposure we received and the money we made. Plus, I firmly believe in the bookstore as a community gathering place, and that includes extending our hospitality beyond our city in as many ways as possible. Sometimes that means a podcast, sometimes it might mean traveling to Tallahassee for a festival. We're the only independent bookstore in our region, and I'm proud of that. Again, I never know what the future might hold, but for now, I'm happy to lay claim to that territory, and to extend our hand to faraway friends and customers, too. 

It's funny; in my old life, I would have attended Word of South in awe. I would have gone to hear Ann Patchett, and maybe gotten a book signed by Tony Hale. We would have left for my friend's out-of-town wedding in a much more reasonable amount of time, and I would have spent the weekend relaxing with friends in sunny Sarasota. In my new life, the one I have chosen and the one I refuse to regret, Jordan and I worked for 12 hours in the rain. I hugged Ann Patchett, but I never did get to hear her speak. We arrived home exhausted and smelling overwhelmingly of cigarette smoke (one of the indoor festival venues was a nightclub), and we got up the next morning for a five hour trip down south. I held my friend's baby and smiled in wedding pictures and breathed the salt air, but I admittedly felt a bit like a zombie.

This new life occasionally resembles a pinball machine in which I am the ball, bouncing from corner to corner, edge to edge, trying to make it to the empty space that is this summer. A wise local friend and entrepreneur reminded me this week: Everything slows down in the summer. If I can make it to June, I'll be okay. 

When I look back on this spring, when I reminiscence -- because one day I will -- about the bookstore and life without children and living in a small town and running a small business, I think I'll be so proud. Grateful, too, that we got to live this adventure, even for a little bit. And it's exhausting and some days exhilarating, it's a darn grand story to tell.

I am grateful, make no mistake. But also? With Word of South behind me and Independent Bookstore Day in front of me, I am anxiously, impatiently hoping for June.

Friday, April 10, 2015

what's making me happy this week, 3.

Every so often, in addition to those 52 essays I'm supposed to be cranking out, I'm going to publish a small list of what's making me happy, a la one of my favorite podcasts, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Nothing major, just a new series to remind me to count my blessings. 

Here's what's making me happy this week: 

- New habits. I'm walking every morning at about 7:00, which means I get to see the sun come up. I listen to my favorite podcasts and track my steps (10,000 or more every day, thus far!). I'm doing better with some Scripture/devotional reading. I'm being a little more wise about what I eat and how much water I drink. Nothing perfect, but still. Baby steps.

- A pretty front porch. If yesterday's post didn't paint you an accurate picture, let me reiterate: I've been a little stressed. Monday, in between two trips to Tallahassee and multiple meetings about festival planning, I made it into Target, then Lowe's. I spent less than $100 (maybe even less than $75, I can't remember) buying plants and pretty things to spruce up my porch. The result is a much happier space, a place Jordan and I intend to retreat to with glasses of lemonade often this summer.

- An organized inbox. I was drowning in email. I had reached my maximum storage amount through Gmail, and I had deleted and archived until I was sick. (Thirty thousand emails down to 16,000 = winning.) Then I realized, thanks to Elise (of course), I could organize my inbox; promotions and business updates could arrive in different inboxes. I'm the kind of person who hates seeing email in my inbox, and although I know that's pretty inevitable, I think having everything categorized based on important and legitimacy. It's a simple, quick fix, and it's my new goal to reach inbox zero every day when I leave work, and -- here's the important part -- to ignore my email on my phone until I'm at work the next day. Fingers crossed.

- Date nights. During this season of life especially, I'm grateful for time spent with Jordan, and I love our spontaneous mid-week date nights. I love going out to dinner, taking long walks, and seeing movies. It's vital, at this point, for my well-being, and I'm thrilled he's as on board as I am. (We're also currently binge-watching Breaking Bad, which -- you guys -- is way more depressing than anyone ever insinuated it would be. Thanks a lot.)

And that's what's making me happy this week.