Category Archives: books

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I received Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up this month (not as a hint, but because Ben knew I was waiting for the library copy, which I’d put on hold after reading this New York Times article). Once I started reading, I couldn’t wait to begin tidying, but I made myself wait until I’d finished the book. Then, I jumped in, mostly following the “KonMari Method” but tempering it a bit with my own usual tidying habits. Fortunately, I had the time to do most of the apartment in a short amount of time, thanks to holidays and weekends.

Day One, I focused on clothes, more or less following the suggested order: tops, bottoms, things on hangers, socks, underwear, bags, accessories, clothes for specific events, shoes. Upon finishing each category – meaning I’d handled each item and decided whether to keep or discard it – I folded up the items and returned them to their drawers. (And yes, I did say “thank you for your service” to the clothes I was getting rid of. It feels nice.) I brought five or six bags of clothes to Goodwill, threw out a few odds and ends (worn-out socks, stained shirts), and have one bag still to bring to the consignment shop.

Obsolete technology, begone!

Obsolete technology, begone!

On Day Two, I diverted slightly from the KonMari Method, tidying by location instead of category; I started on books, but also tidied our bathroom cabinet and our technology stuff, which took up a large plastic box and an entire cord-filled drawer. Some of the tech stuff was Ben’s, and after we were done, we were down to half a drawer; everything else went to the electronics recycling center at Best Buy. (It felt delightful to go there only to get rid of things, not to acquire them.) I was also able to repurpose some of the original packaging from tech things to use in the bathroom cabinets for small items like nail polish.

Goodbye to all that.

Goodbye to all that.

Next, I turned my attention to the books. If you have too many, Kondo writes, you should divide them into four categories: general, practical, visual, and magazines. I got rid of only a few “practical” books (cookbooks), though they were replaced almost immediately when we received a late wedding gift of cookbooks; these slotted neatly into the space I’d cleared, and we hope to use them more than the ones I got rid of. But mostly, I got rid of novels, even a few signed copies that I didn’t think I’d read again. Enough space was available on the living room bookshelf then to move the Calvin & Hobbes books from their previous, rather inaccessible location under an end table to the bookshelf. The books I discarded went to a local used book shop, or to the Friends of the Library for the book sale.

Even though I sometimes concentrated on a location instead of a category, I did try to reorganize so that all items of one type were in the same location. Books and shoes are the exceptions, I suppose, because there are still bookshelves in most rooms of the house, and while most shoes are by the front door, some off-season shoes are in the bedroom closet.

Jumping out of order, I sorted three kitchen drawers. We got rid of a few things, and I used a shoebox lid and a clean piece of fabric left over from college to make a divider in the drawer. Now when we open that drawer, we’re treated to tie-dye and butterflies as well as a microplane zester and ice cream scoop. (What kind of fabric pattern did you expect? I went to Hampshire.) We came back to the kitchen later, getting rid of a few extra tins and pans, and reorganizing the cabinet where the more unwieldy baking equipment is kept.

Magazines are somewhere between books and papers, so I did those next. The only magazine I subscribe to is The New Yorker, and though I’d love to be the kind of person who reads it cover-to-cover each week, I’m not; books are always more tempting. I sorted through over a year of back issues, ripping out articles I’d read and liked or still wanted to read, and covers I particularly liked; the rest went into recycling. Rather than containing two stuffed baskets and a precarious pile of magazines, our bathroom now hosts a single basket with a few New Yorkers and a couple of books: The Onion’s Our Front Pages and Jon Stewart’s America the Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.

Jewelry was next up under the tidying microscope. (This probably should have come earlier in the process, as Kondo includes accessories as clothing, but the point is that it’s done now.) I tend to wear the same necklace and earrings every single day, but I do have some other things (though not as many now as I did a few days ago!). Instead of keeping earrings and necklaces in boxes, I stuck pushpins in the wall and hung two or three necklaces from each; the earrings I poked through a ribbon and pinned the ends of the ribbon to the wall above the necklaces.

Before moving on to the last big task before “mementos” and photos – that is, papers – I got rid of a bunch of plastic CD cases and a few DVDs. With a little wrangling, this allowed us to remove a small shelf from the living room, and we moved the printer from the living room into the guest room. We don’t use the printer much, so it didn’t need to be in such a prime location; plus, we’ve regained the use of that end table.

Stalling just a bit more before moving on to papers, I took advantage of the unseasonably nice weather to clean out my car. There were an absurd number of printed-out directions and maps, all of which went straight into the recycling. I did keep a AAA map of New England, in case the GPS fails, but that’s about it for paper in the car. I sorted through my CDs there too and only kept mixes; it’ll be interesting to hear my high school and college tastes again. I punched holes through the soft plastic sleeves and put them all on a metal ring, so they won’t get scattered.

Stuffed animal menagerie

Stuffed animal menagerie

At last, papers. I took Kondo’s advice and shredded old credit card statements and pay stubs, and my box of files has a lot more breathing room now. I kept most theater programs, concert tickets, and museum brochures, and I tied bunches of letters with ribbon, because that’s what people do in novels. (If you’ve ever sent me a letter, chances are I still have it.) While I was surrounded in a sea of papers, Ben did some of his own tidying and rearranging in our bedroom, including an adorable surprise on a high shelf of our closet. Between the two of us, we recycled about six or seven bags of paper, not counting the two bags of magazines.

Even though the house doesn’t look hugely different to visitors, it feels different to us. For one thing, each type of thing has its own single location now, so we know where to look for it. For another, things aren’t lurking in closets or under the bed anymore. Maybe the monsters that prey on grown-ups aren’t made up of fangs and claws, but of old bank statements and ethernet cables, books we intended to read but didn’t and clothes we’re never going to wear again. Less stuff, it turns out, sparks more joy.



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A to Z Bookish Survey


Who can resist a survey? Well, we’ve all gotten better at it over the years, or maybe it has just become more distributed, spread out across various social media platforms, so that your Goodreads friends know what you’re reading and your Twitter followers know who you thought should have won Best Picture and your Facebook friends know you “like” the new Matt Damon movie (not to mention all the old Matt Damon movies).

Anyway, my friend Linda (ThreeGoodRats) found this survey at Roof Beam Reader, created by Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner, and I’ve been suckered in.

Author you’ve read the most books from:

Ann Patchett comes to mind first – I’m fairly certain I’ve read every book she’s written. But there there were all those series books I read as a kid, so it could be one of those authors, like Joanna Campbell or Joan Lowery Nixon or Lois Duncan or Caroline B. Cooney.

Best Sequel Ever:

I did love The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it had a cliffhanger-y ending. I also liked Gayle Forman’s Where She Went,sequel/companion to If I Stay.

Currently Reading:

The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King (audiobook).

Drink of Choice While Reading:

Depends on the season.

E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical, mostly. I get a lot of digital galleys on the e-reader, and it’s a nice way to read the really long books (Bleak House, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch) and not have to carry around a four-pound block of paper.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

“Would have actually” is pretty far from “would have wanted to.” I quite like Sean Kendrick from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races.

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell; these were book club picks and I needed the nudge, but I’m so glad I read them and got to discuss them. Another book club book I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise: Anna Karenina.

Hidden Gem Book:

Overture by Yael Goldstein was really lovely.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

Er…learning to read? My parents read to me every night until I was about eight and decided it would be faster if I read by myself.

Just Finished:

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The Secret Place by Tana French, The Cove by Ron Rash, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

Self-help/inspirational, diet books, celebrity memoirs, Nicholas Sparks.

Longest Book You’ve Read:

Anna Karenina, I think. Unless you count the whole Harry Potter series as one book. Updated to add: is Gone With the Wind longer than Anna Karenina? If so, GWTW. But Anna Karenina felt longer.

Major book hangover because of:

This happened more when I was younger. Last year when I read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes I couldn’t face reading anything else right away so I just read it over again. Sometimes a magical place or particular writing style/voice will linger with me. Updated to add: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Number of Bookcases You Own:

Six, plus a basket of New Yorkers in the bathroom.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

Hahaha, ONE? I’ve probably read The Time Traveler’s Wife more than any other book, but I love re-reading.

Preferred Place To Read:

Anywhere, everywhere.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

“It occurs to her that there is one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are.”-Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
“No one can do a thing about feelings, they exist and there’s no way to censor them.” –Identity by Milan Kundera

Reading Regret:

I regret spending time on books I disliked from the start when I should have abandoned them; I regret not having read certain books yet, but I plan to remedy that eventually.

Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series):

Not sure there is one. There are series I haven’t finished but it’s a conscious choice.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books:

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, His Dark Materials (trilogy) by Philip Pullman.

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

“Fangirl” certainly brings Rainbow Rowell to mind…I’m also vocal on behalf of Ann Patchett, Neil Gaiman, Simon Van Booy, John Green (though he has enough fans now), Chris Cleave, David Levithan, Julia Glass…

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

I’m always wildly excited for new Tana French or Maggie Stiefvater books. Right now I’m looking forward to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

Worst Bookish Habit:

I often have more library books checked out than I can read in any given three-week span. Then I give the library books priority (because they have due dates) and take forever to get around to reading the books I actually own.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

The Likeness by Tana French. (Fiction is shelved alphabetically by author.)

Your latest book purchase:

Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid from Porter Square Books.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

The Secret Place by Tana French.


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Vacation reading

“Focus on the journey, not the destination,” some say, but I say that airports are a drag. Not just airports, but whatever version(s) of public transit one takes to get to the airport (in our case, a bus to one subway line to another “subway” line that is actually a bus) and from the airport (another bus), not to mention the hours in the air. On one hand, I recognize that modern travel is a miracle; on the other, the atmosphere of stress, hurry-up-and-wait, and recycled air…the “journey” is never the best part of travel for me. (Being afflicted with motion sickness doesn’t help.)

However: all that sitting and waiting translates to hours and hours of reading time. I don’t usually pack for a trip until the night before, but I start thinking about what books to bring at least a week in advance. (Here’s what I read on honeymoon last year.)

Despite a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses on vacation, I don’t usually bring monster classics with me when I travel, especially legendarily difficult ones. (Except Anna Karenina, that one time, and I’d already read half of it.) I try to choose books I think will be absorbing, but also easy to pick up and put down frequently; travel involves a lot of waiting and a lot of transitions. This time, I included a mix of fiction and nonfiction, galleys and published books.

south_colmtoibin The South by Colm Toibin: This popped up on a list of books set in Barcelona. Toibin is one of those authors I knew I ought to read, and I wanted to, but hadn’t gotten around to it till now. The first thing I noticed about the book was its wide, heavy font, and it took a few pages to get used to that. Then I began noticing the sentences, which were short, reminiscent of – yes, I’m going to say it – Hemingway. However, Toibin has a female protagonist, Katherine, who leaves a husband and son in Ireland to come to Barcelona, where she falls in love with Spanish Civil War vet Miguel and makes friends with another Irishman, Michael Graves. I’m not entirely sure what to make of The South and would like to discuss it with someone else who’s read it.

remedy_goetz The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz: I won this as a galley from LibraryThing. I was hoping it would be similar to Steven Johnson’s excellent The Ghost Map (about a cholera outbreak in London), and I was not disappointed. Koch’s and Conan Doyle’s stories don’t so much entwine as they do intersect, but the author pulls off the combination pretty gracefully. Koch discovers the cause for TB but announces a cure prematurely; Conan Doyle reports on Koch’s findings. Sherlock Holmes stands as an example of the detective-as-scientist; indeed, he helped popularize the scientific method at a time when society was beginning to look to science for answers, instead of with skepticism.

changingmymind Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith: I’ve read Zadie Smith’s fiction (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and appreciated it, but I really love her nonfiction for the clarity of thought and expression, as well as the topics she chooses. Changing My Mind is heavy on literary criticism (George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace), but Smith’s writing is worth reading even if you aren’t familiar with the authors or books she writes about. Changing My Mind also includes a season’s worth of film reviews, an essay about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, thoughts on reading and writing, even an essay about the Oscars. Throughout, Smith’s intellect is fierce and focused, sharp and incisive, and not without humor (though she’s no stand-up comedian).

senseofanending The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and it was available as an e-book from the library before I left for my trip. I read it in one sitting on the plane flight home from Madrid to Boston, and wow. Tony Webster, our narrator, is a man in late middle age, peaceably divorced with one grown child. In order to tell his story, he starts with background on his school days with his two close friends and a fourth friend, Adrian, who joins their clique. The friends go their separate ways after school, and Adrian writes Tony to let him know that he is dating Tony’s first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Tony’s response is extreme, and it comes back to haunt him, despite the mild life he’s lived since.

graduatesinwonderland Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale: This was another LT advance copy. I’m a sucker for anything epistolary, and Graduates in Wonderland surpassed my expectations. It fits perfectly between the post-high-school, pre-college novel Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr, and Rachel Bertsche’s friend-making memoir SWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. Certainly, as graduates of Brown, Pan and Kapelke-Dale have a certain level of privilege, and I’m not sure how well this book will sit with those who don’t come from the same or similar backgrounds; however, setting that aside, I think this has the potential to be hugely popular with the twenty-to-thirty-year-old set. Pan and Kapelke-Dale are both great writers; they’re funny and honest, and they write about work, social life, managing depression, romance, living in foreign cities and struggling with the language, and deciding what to do with their lives. The subject matter and casual style make for addicting reading.

Five books in seven days, and all of them enjoyable: not a bad vacation! Oh, and we also saw some things.



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The only things that matter

From Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess): “I used to think that that it was a small sin to waste time rereading silly books you’ve already read, or watching shows about robots with hearts, and time travel, and impossible things, but then I grew up and realized that those things were the only things that mattered.”


Sudo agrees. Especially because reading and watching shows about robots with hearts are things you can do from the couch. And if any dog ever had a favorite place, hers is the couch. One day I hope to enjoy my retirement as much as she enjoys hers.


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On Letter-Writing

ToTheLetterRecently, I read Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. It was more of a history than a “celebration” (though the author was definitely in favor of letter writing), but it was an enjoyable history, and, like many good books, led me to discover all kinds of other things. One of those was Lewis Carroll’s (yes, that Lewis Carroll, of Alice fame) “Eight or Nine Wise Words On Letter-Writing,” published in 1890 and therefore available through Gutenberg

Between To the Letter and “Eight or Nine Wise Words,” I decided that one of my resolutions this year would be to write pen-and-paper letters to people. Because we had a lot of snow days recently, and therefore a lot of free time indoors, I went a step further: I downloaded Carroll’s pamphlet, re-formatted it, printed it out, and bound it, with some blank pages in the back for a modified version of his “Letter-Register.” (I know, I know: normal people, stuck inside for days, would just watch TV. I did some of that too.)

My version is a lot bigger that the original, with fewer pages; his little pamphlet accompanied a stamp case for carrying around all the different denominations of stamps (this was long before “Forever stamps” were invented). Some pages are sewn in, and some are tipped in with polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a kind of plastic glue).

front cover

front cover

The Guternberg file included some of the original images. Use of the images and text is completely legal (“This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at”).

Inside, first page

Inside, first page

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, back cover

Inside, back cover

Back cover

Back cover

It’s really amazing how much of Carroll’s advice holds up for modern letter-writers. Among these bits of wisdom (for those not inclined to read the whole thing): if you’re replying to a letter, have that letter in front of you; start by addressing and stamping the envelope; always date your letters “in full” with the month, day, and year; carry letters in your hand when going to mail them (or you’ll forget); write legibly; if you are enclosing something, put it in the envelope when you mention it (because you won’t remember by the end of the letter); and use a sign-off at least as friendly – if not friendlier – than your correspondent’s.

There’s a lot of other good advice too, and it’s all full of Carroll’s cleverness and sense of humor. Garfield’s book has a sense of humor too (he makes fun of stamp collectors – although, as someone who’s writing a book about letters, and who has previously written about typefaces and maps, I feel he’s on rather thin ice here). So yes, it’s 2014, and we have e-mail and text messaging and Twitter and Tumblr – but we also still have real letters. Write one, and give someone else the pleasure of receiving mail that isn’t a bill or a catalog.


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Honeymoon reading

Which of the thirteen (13) books I brought along with me did I wind up reading, you’re wondering? In chronological order:

guernseyThe Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society: I actually forgot to mention this one originally, but I was near the end of the audiobook when we left, and I finished it on the first plane flight. This epistolary novel is a delight in print and on audio.

Next was Rose Under Firethe new novel from Elizabeth Wein (author of Code Name Verity), which will be published this fall. I enjoyed it, but Code Name Verity is still my favorite of the two. Either one should satisfy teens looking for WWII historical fiction.

sweetlifeBy that time we were in Iceland with France as the next stop, so I read The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz and – once we’d arrived in Antibes, and on the train from Antibes to Paris  – Bloom’s Literary Guide to Paris by Mike Gerrard. Both of these had useful tidbits of information, such as the fact that Paris zip codes contain their arrondissement number (e.g. an address in the twelfth arrondissement would be 75012), and that you should greet store clerks, salespeople, and basically anyone else with bonjour or bonsoir without fail unless you want to appear colossally rude.

bloomsparisWhile we were in Paris I read Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman (author of one of my all-time favorite books, All My Friends Are Superheroes). Born Weird is about a family of five siblings whose grandmother gives them each a different blessing – or maybe a curse? – at birth. In order to have these “blursings” taken back, they must all gather together at her deathbed. It is quirky and whimsical in the best possible sense of those words.


turnaroundbrighteyesIt’s also a quick read. The next book I tackled was Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I found it thoroughly absorbing, though I must say that woman does not write about happy families. (I highly recommend her new novel, Life After Life.) Finally, on our last plane flight, I started Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes, which, like his previous two books, is about love, karaoke, music, memory, and life in New York and in general. If you liked his previous two novels, you’ll like this as well; it comes out August 6.

shininggirlsTechnically, I did not read The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes while on vacation; I read it the Monday after, when I stayed home sick with a horrible sore throat/cough/cold/fever bug that I’m still trying to kick. The Shining Girls is a good read-it-all-in-one-sitting book anyway, though; it’s a fast-paced, well-written story about a time traveling serial killer and the one girl who survives – and starts hunting him. I really enjoyed it (how do you find a criminal who can time-travel, after all? Who thinks to suspect that?), though don’t expect the time-travel element to be explained.

That’s it! I’d say summer reading started off pretty well – not a dud in the bunch.


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“International bestseller” claims check out

Turns out the publicists of J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and John Green weren’t kidding – these books are international bestsellers.

A copy of The Casual Vacancy in Icelandic at the Reykjavik City Library:



Also from the Reykjavik City Library, a copy of Mockingay (presumably. Could also be The Hunger Games or Catching Fire, but it was with the other “recent bestsellers” (again, presumably), so my best guess is Mockingjay):



Finally, from a bookstore in Paris, The Fault in Our Stars. Or in French, Our Contrary Stars, which doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I’m sure Hazel and Augustus are just as heartbreakingly wonderful in French as they are in English. (Side note: in French, bookstore is librarie, and library is bibliotheque.) The cover design remained the same, though:





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