2014 Reading in Review

Going to call 2014 The Year I Fell Back in Love with Reading. I read so many more books when I was in school, for business and for pleasure. It took a little de-rust-ification (and some really, really great book discoveries) to get me back into it this year.

I never stopped loving books, you see, or at least the idea of them, but I did finish fewer books in 2012 & 2013. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, 2012 was the year I finally caved and got an iPhone. I didn’t even keep a blog log of books I read in 2013. Don’t worry; there were…some.

But here we are. I read 14 books in ’14. How poetic. (I should say FINISHED 14 books. If one were inclined to juke the stats, as our friends on The Wire say, and count all the books that started or dipped in and out of, the number would be much higher.)

To celebrate a year well read, and give you an easy-to-digest rundown of the results, I’m picking up an old whatsarahisreading tradish, with the annual list of Tweet-length Book Reviews. (A couple of these are longer than 140-characters. I MAKE THE RULES!) Enjoy.

Beautiful Ruins

  1. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
    LOLs and more insightful moments than you might expect from comically bad MS paint drawings. Origin of ubiquitous “ALL THE THINGS!” things.
  2. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
    Everything you loved from her TED Talk in 160-pages. Practical advice + empathy + sense of humor. A true life saver for me last winter. 
  3. Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman
    Worth it for the included mp3 guided meditations alone. Written by real brain doctors, so it’s light on the foofoo and heavy on the helpful.
  4. Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser
    The improv B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me! It feels (almost) like taking an improv class in the privacy of your own home. Game on. 
  5. The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley
    Screenwriting class was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while. (Howard’s ‘How to Build a Great Screenplay’ is more narrative, also great.)
  6. 10% Happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works by Dan Harris
    A meditation skeptic-turned-believer, this irreverent journalist tries mindfulness to ease anxiety. ‘Make the present moment your friend.’
  7. The Little Book of Sitcom by John Vorhaus
    Just a little amazon ebook, but helpful. Not a lot of books on the subject. “You often have to pass through the bad idea to get to the good one.”
  8. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
    Didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, but imagining Jason Bateman, Ben Schwartz, Adam Driver & Tina Fey was enough to keep me going. 
  9. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield (Second time)
    Stand-alone meditations (I’m into it!) on writing/creating in spite of all the tempting, persuasive, habitual reasons not to. “Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” 
  10. We Learn Nothing: Essays by Tim Krieder
    This book fills me with grateful reverence, like having discovered a new dear friend. A more-relatable David Sedaris. First love: this essay about his cat. (Yes, really. It’ll win you over.)
  11. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
    Speaking of winning-over: Lena Dunham. Saw her book tour in Iowa City (love!) this fall, the week after getting my heart broken (for the best!). She was just what the doctor ordered.
  12. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
    1960s Italy + present-day Hollywood. Romance, mystery + movies. One of the best first chapters ever? My go-to “What should I read next?” recommendation.
  13. Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
    Handy, well-designed little creativity field guide full of illustrations and quotes. Plus, no small thing, its unusual square shape is fun to hold.
  14. Tenth of December by George Saunders
    Unusual, think-about-them-tomorrow short stories. Each their own little futuristic/sci-fi/dystopian-ish world. Difficult and enjoyable at the same time.

Notable: I no longer finish books that I don’t like, life is too damn short, so these are all fond memories. If you’re really into it, you can check out my lists from 2009, 2010, & 2011.

Meditating on Perfection

“[Mindfulness training] it seemed, wasn’t just a way to get better; it was a way to keep from getting worse.” So says the New Yorker blog in An Antidote for Mindlessness, a quick little read on the benefits of meditation—a theme that’s been popping up all around me lately, from my Facebook wall to my therapist’s office.

Three weeks ago, I finally acted on my “that’s a good idea!” intentions and bought a book called Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. I’m really digging it. It’s not as foo-foo as you might expect. (Not that there’s anything wrong with foo-foo…) At $10.11 on amazon, it’s an easy investment in your own wellbeing, if you have also flirted with the idea of feeling more mentally stable but have never taken the plunge.

(Evidence that it’s not a quick-fix miracle: these have been three of the rougher mental-health weeks I’ve in a while. Evidence that it still might be a miracle, just the same: I stuck with it anyway.)

It’s deceptively simple, this meditation business. But, seriously, I can clear my head, gain more focus, feel more content and at peace in-the-now, all from just sitting still a few minutes a day? Cool! Sure! Bring it on! 

Thing is, I think it is that simple, but it’s not that easy. Or else we’d all be doing it by now, right?

via @jaredchapman / instagram

via @jaredchapman / instagram

A lovely lesson I’m learning already is that meditation is about showing up to the present moment, and paying attention to what’s there, without judgment.  (A quick sidebar about “attention.” I read somewhere recently that the word attention comes from the Latin attendere, meaning “to reach toward.” Isn’t that interesting? End sidebar.) When your sole objective is to observe your breath and thoughts, there’s no right or wrong answer, which is music to this exhausted perfectionist’s mind-ears.

(The thing about me and perfectionism is… I question whether I really am one. Because, I think, if I truly were a perfectionist, wouldn’t I be better at more of the things I attempt? …This is an actual belief / cry-for-help of mine.)

I read this listicle online a few weeks ago (thanks to @mara_dawn tweeting it), and it was like these people read my diary: 14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out Of Control.

Meditation is teaching me to let go of that. My first few attempts, I noticed myself trying too hard to breathe. (That sounds bonkers, right?!) But I was! Something about thinking about breathing, and I noticed myself “trying” to breathe. Breathing is one of those do-or-do-not situations, and that’s why it works so well as a centering-point in meditation. It’s something we all do. Every day. Every second.

I may always be a perfectionist. I may always be a little too hard on myself. But I may also have found a way to get better, and to keep from getting worse.

One breath at a time.

A Running List

Tonight I went on my first long run in a long time. It’s one of the best things I do for myself. Here are just a few reasons why:

→ I get to feel like I’m in my own movie montage, the kind where the main character is Getting Her Shit Together. You know, high energy girl-power tunes blare as she burns photos, gets a haircut, and takes up fitness anew.

→ It’s how I meditate. Heard a Buddhist nun speak on campus a few weeks ago, and she said one of the main benefits of meditation is getting the mind and the body on the same page. So often our mind is anywhere else except where we are at that moment, but we find peace when mind & body can exist at the same place and time. (It sounds super fu-fu, but think about it. How many times does your mind wander during the day? Wouldn’t it be nice to have it learn to sit still?) Meditation is syncing your mind & body in stillness, and running is meditation in motion for me. My legs are moving my body forward, and so my mind moves forward as well.

→ I stumble upon questions like: “gee, I wonder where that Corona bottle / discarded Plan B pack / stuffed animal ended up on Kearney Street?” Life is just full of fun little mysteries.

→ I sweat to lyrics like these, and in doing so, shed some toxic emotions:

I’ve got the world in my hands, a master plan, but I don’t know why I keep callin’ why I keep callin’ yoooou… (Kanye)

Give me something to believe in, ’cause I don’t believe in you anymore, anymo-o-ore… (Maroon 5)

You triflin’ goodfornuthintypeofbrotha, silly me whyhaventIfoundanotha?… (The Warblers, Beyoncé)

It seems that good “oh, uh-uh, no you did NOT!” songs like to repeat, drag out and/or truncate words (a practice which Wikipedia tells me is called “G-dropping” or, more accurately, G-droppin’. How gangsta is that!). And even if you aren’t feeling the exact sentiment of these lyrics toward any person in particular, there’s still something highly satisfying about them.
Society allows you a little self-indulgent vengefulness when your heart is broken. It’s one of those unwritten social loopholes, like pregnant ladies farting in public or elderly racists.

No matter where we fall on the relationship status scale, (from [I’m so Happy & in Love!] to [Please, point me towards the nearest bridge, so that I may jump or set it afire.]), I think we all secretly hope to someday have the chance to Beyonce someone (to the left, to the left), and we hope in that moment to find the most perfect and absurdly hurtful thing to say.
And then we get to walk away in slow motion, with bouncy hair and Michael-Bay-approved gritty lighting (and, if appropriate, explosions in the background).

That's right, go ahead and get gone.

Life’s not like that, of course. And I don’t really want it to be. But it can be for a little while, in my imagination at least, when I run.