At the end of every month, I take a look back at my reading journal and share the books and my thoughts on them here....Read More
Reading Day: The Ultimate Staycation
Not the “I stayed up too late last night, so I’m a little droopy” kind of tired. I’m the “please don’t make me put on makeup and get dressed” kind of tired.
In the last six months, we moved from Austin, Texas to White River Junction, Vermont; restructured our business; Dave completed a semester of Cartoon School; I launched my Quarterly box; we produced a magazine version of Well Fed (more on that soon!); I joined a new gym and started training again; we traveled to Prague for a 10-day business+pleasure trip; we had multiple house guests and took the train to see my family a few times; and last week, we went to New York City for a few days, then returned and threw a Christmas Eve party for 14 people.
Yeah, I’m pooped.
I’ve written about the relationship between “fun” and “happy” before—and this is an excellent time of year to slow down the fun to focus on happy.
On our way home from New York last week, I said to Dave, “Can we have a day soon where we stay in our pajamas all day and read a really good book?” and that’s how Reading Day was born. We negotiated the guidelines, took notes, and set up our schedule. Here is the proof of our ultimate nerdiness:
Our first official Reading Day will be held on January 1. I know! We are party animals.
Here’s the deal: We’re going to prep in advance all of the annoying, daily maintenance things a human usually has to do to take care of itself—counting out supplements, measuring the loose tea into the tea infuser, prepping vegetables and protein for meals—then on Reading Day, we can loll around in our pajamas all day with nothing more taxing to do than reheat food and make the incredibly important decision about whether to lie in bed or sit on the couch. (Or recline on the couch!)
We’ve decided that phones, computers, and television are off limits, unless Dave wants to look something up on the internet or make digital notes; social media surfing and email are strictly forbidden.
I’m ridiculously excited about Reading Day, especially the staying in my pajamas part of the deal. I encourage you to try to find a day in your schedule over the next few weeks to fully relax and recharge, too. If reading isn’t your thing, you could declare Game Day at your house and play tabletop games with your near and dear — Dave has shared his recommendations for excellent family games below.
Here’s the schedule we put together so we can have the ultimate Reading Day, along with a list of some of my favorite books, just in case you want to curl up with a good read, too.
Reading Day -3
Buy groceries to make the food listed below
Reading Day -2
Prep food for Reading Day dinner:
Make Chocolate Chili
Make roasted sweet potatoes
Select reading material
Reading Day -1
Prep food for Reading Day breakfast:
Brown 2 pounds ground beef
Make steam-sautéed vegetables
Prep supplements for Reading Day
Prep tea cups for Reading Day
Clean up email; alert friends/family of 36-hour computer blackout
Charge Kindle (or Nook or whatever)
Wake up, no alarm
Reading, in bed
Reading, location TBD
Reading, location TBD
Reading, in bed
Reading Day +1
Ease back into email, phone calls, work, etc. No email, social media, etc. before 10:00 a.m.
Some of My Favorite Books
The books I love to read fall broadly into three categories: page-turning thrillers with badass, detective-type characters that don’t take any crap from anybody and have a dark view of humanity; nonfiction history books about daring and, potentially, doomed adventures; and sweeping fiction—perhaps historical— that introduces me to engaging characters and takes me somewhere far away, perhaps with a little sprinkle of fantasy thrown into the mix, but not too much. Other book catnip: World War II and characters talking about books or writing books or cherishing books. Also: secrets, preferably dramatically revealed with a flourish. And the ending needn’t necessarily be happy, but it can’t be hopeless. I will not stand for hopelessness.
For Reading Day this time around, I’ve settled on The Museum of Extraordinary Things because I want to be delighted. (I hope I’ve chosen wisely!) I just finished reading a very noir thriller, and I’ve been reading Jane Eyre on and off for a week or so (as I do every year), and I’m planning to start The Long Way Home next, a mystery starring Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Québec. It will surely be chilly in tone and setting; yummy!
But in between I want something sweet and magical. This is the description of The Museum of Extraordinary Things:
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman and the Butterfly Girl. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.
The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance. And he ignites the heart of Coralie.
Alice Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a tender and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is, “a lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people” (The New York Times Book Review).
One billion percent yes to that.
With all of the above in mind, here are some of my favorite books, just in case you want to have your own Reading Day. (As always, if you use the Amazon links below to buy something, I get a little kickback. The government really wants me to tell you that.)
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Ah, romance… plus magic, a long-running feud, a circus that seems to be equal parts sinister and sweet. I started this book on a flight from Europe to New York a few years ago, and I didn’t even mind being cramped in a seat for 7 hours. This book took me somewhere else entirely.
In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides
This was a sweeping, soaring, old-fashioned adventure story of a turn-of-the-century expedition to the North Pole. It’s got cads and romance and brotherhood and misadventure and just about everything you want in a nonfiction page-turner. I read it this year and loved it very much.
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn
This is a real-life mystery about family, the Holocaust, and the things that drive us. It can be a tough read at times, but it’s completely satisfying. One of the best books I’ve read; it’s on my “Re-read this year” list.
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
The movie paled in comparison to this wholly engrossing and moving book. It somehow manages to be heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. A beautifully written story that’s also wildly entertaining.
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
I’ve read The Historian four times, and this time, I found this cool web site (called Vampire Travels!) that has photos of many of the sites mentioned in the novel. For those of you that haven’t read it three times, it tells the story of academic researchers who begin to suspect that Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a., Dracula, is real, and maybe still alive. It’s told through letters and diaries, and includes romance, adventure, travel, food, and plenty of spine-tingling surprises. Here’s what I’ve said about this book before: This book instantly engages my imagination. It’s just spooky enough to make me think twice about walking into the darkened backyard without a flashlight, and the travel descriptions are so evocative, it makes me want to write lengthy letters home from a train somewhere with foreign accents.
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
This is some moody, atmospheric storytelling. The Woman in White is widely recognized as the first mystery novel, and it’s spooky, beautifully written, and — to keep things interesting — is told through the voices of many narrators. Each chapter moves the story forward by having a different character share their tale. There’s a little bit of a lag in the very last section, but it picks up full steam just before the end.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
This has all my favorite things: references to Jane Eyre, gothic elements, a heroine who loves books, a mysterious author, and long-held secrets. LOVE!
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The most important thing to know about this novel is that it features a magical place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Plus, there’s romance and the threat of war and defy-all-odds friendship. I also really enjoyed The Prisoner of Heaven, which revisits the characters from The Shadow of the Wind.
The Way Men Act, Isabel’s Bed, and The Inn At Lake Devine, Elinor Lipman
These are the literary equivalent of a really good rom-com, more like When Harry Met Sally,.. and less like New Year’s Eve. The Way Men Act is about friendship and love and finding yourself in a small town. Isabel’s Bed is about a writer finding her voice and having many misadventures along the way. The Inn at Lake Devine is about loyalty, romance, and racism; it might be my favorite of the three, but I love them all. Her other books are good, too, but I think these are best.
Berlin Noir Trilogy: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem, Philip Kerr
The Philip Kerr books are like a magic transport to another time: more dangerous, more romantic, more desperate, more stylish, more nuanced. He brings World War II to life in a way that no pure history book can do, and his all-too-human characters, struggling to do the right thing under terrible circumstances, have taught me plenty about politics, history, and the human spirit. His hero Bernie Gunther really got under my skin and stuck in my imagination for a long time.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
My love for Jane Eyre is well-documented. I re-read it every January (and sometimes mid-year, just ’cause). It’s entertaining, moving, enlightening, and satisfying every time.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde shows us the vast differences between who we are, who we think we are, and how the world sees us.
A Room With A View, E. M. Forster
A sweet, funny, romantic story that pokes fun at the over-the-top stuffiness of Victorian manners, describes both Italy and England with details you can taste, and celebrates love and struggle in equal parts. I always finish reading it with a contented sigh.
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
I LOVED this story of a Jinni and Golem that, for odd and unique reasons, find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York. It’s enchanting, fun, and sometimes quite sad and frustrating. I will definitely be reading it again, which is the highest praise I can give a story.
Slovakia: Fall in the Heart of Europe, Marek Bennett
This is a ridiculously delightful graphic travelogue of Marek’s trip to visit family and teach English in Slovakia. He addresses cultural differences, family, and racism with a light tone, thanks to all of the characters appearing as animals.
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larsen
Totally engrossing. It’s the story of America’s first serial killer, overlapping with the trials and triumphs of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. The audacity of both the heroes and the villain will take your breath away.
Any and all of the Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood
I read all 20 of them this year (!), and they are super fun. I fell madly in love with the TV show and the heroine: a socialite in 1920s Melbourne, Australia. She’s a veteran (ambulance driver) of WWI, and decided to use her wealth and social influence to become a lady detective. Her outfits are outrageously beautiful, and she has thoroughly modern ideas about sex, equal rights, and justice. If you don’t want to read the books, watch the DVDs (also on Netflix!)… or do both!
Any and all of the mysteries by Dick Francis
He created characters with so much heart, and all of his stories are centered in subcultures — horse racing, the world of wine, photography, film making — so you learn cool tidbits about other peoples’ live while sorting out the latest murder. My favorites are The Edge, set on a train crossing the Canadian Rockies, and the series of books featuring the character Sid Halley.
Any and all of the Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny
The stories are set in a village outside Montreal, and the weather is often as much of a character in the story as the people. At first these feel like traditional cozy mysteries, but then an underlying darkness emerges that makes them very compelling. I also love the sweet relationship between Gamache and his family; a little lightness to balance the murders. These are best read in order because there are plot lines that carry through the series.
Any and all of the Elizabeth George mysteries
Set in England, they follow a set of characters through decades of friendship, murders, and mayhem. The more recent ones aren’t as good as the older ones, but I still enjoy catching up with the characters. Definitely read them in order. If you like British mysteries, the contrast between cold-blooded murder and hot tea, and people with deeply-hidden motives, you’ll probably love these books.
Tabletop Game Recommendations
My husband Dave is the grand champion of picking out tabletop games that are fun to play and a little bit unexpected. Hope you have as much fun with these as we have.
Mice and Mystics
This is a collaborative fantasy adventure game featuring a tale of a castle that’s been taken over by an evil sorceress. All the players choose the characters they’ll represent as they play their way through the story. Two words: Magician Mouse. (We got this for Christmas ourselves!) Watch a review here.