Best Books of 2016

After a year full of reading and a total of 55 books finished, I am so excited to finally be able to talk about my favorite books of the year. To switch things up a bit, I made a video to properly talk about why I loved all of these books so much.

Books Mentioned:

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Use These 3 Tips and Become a Library Power User

I absolutely adore libraries, and in the past few years I’ve been a member of four awesome libraries. But it wasn’t until recently that I started to realize all of the amazing services they offered. From digital tools like free streaming and music downloads to actual power tools and musical instruments, libraries around the country are getting creative with what they have available for patrons. Now that I have the 411 on all of this cool stuff, I’m using my library more than ever. Not every library will have the same services, but it is worth taking a look, you may be surprised. Here are my tips on how to get the most from your local library:

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  1. Holds, holds, holds. One of the keenest pleasures of going to the library for a book is browsing, unbothered through the stacks and stacks of books. But if you are anything like me, that takes time that you don’t always have. Rather than forgoing your trip, put your book on hold and it will be right at the front of the library when you need it, waiting just for you.

If your library has multiple branches, holds can also help you utilize more of the books they have available (as well as DVD’s and even CD’s in many places). If you search for a book in the library catalogue you can choose books from other branches and have them delivered to your library to pick up. How convenient is that?

Sometimes you hear about a popular title, and have to wait forever on a holds list to get your hands on it. But, if you know in advance that an author you love is coming out with a new book, or have heard buzz about a hot new release, you can usually put it on hold ahead of the release date in the catalogue and beat the rush. To the top of the list you go!

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  1. Check the website. This is the place where you can find what digital resources your library has to offer. Chances are, if you want to check out e-books, they will be available through services like Overdrive and 3M Cloud Library. In fact, 95% of American libraries now have e-books. Free services like Hoopla also allow you to stream movies, TV shows, and audiobooks. With the rise in popularity of audiobooks, more and more services are popping up to allow you to listen to books for free, wherever you like. Spending a few minutes browsing your library’s website will show you the many new ways you can experience you favorite stories.

Digital services don’t stop there though. Online magazine subscriptions, free, legal music downloads, and even Android apps are all possibilities. Right now I’m crushing on Freegal, a free music service from my library. It lets me download six songs a week, and has a great selection of new music and old favorites. For years my iPod has been filled with music that wasn’t always above reproof. And the sketchiness of my methods made me hesitant to update with the latest songs. But now my music library is full and happy again :).

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  1. Don’t limit yourself to one library. You may be thinking that this all sounds great, but there’s no way your library has any of these cool services. While I would encourage you to give your hard-working librarians a chance, you’re right that not every town has the same resources. However, I have found that libraries are increasingly teaming up to bring you the best stuff. Several libraries I have joined are part of an e-book collective with other area libraries, allowing more cities to use the system. Plus, you can often join a neighboring town’s library by being a part of the same county.

Beyond all of these great options, there is always the interlibrary loan system. It lets you check out hard to find materials from other libraries in a network that can reach across entire states. If you are lost as to where to find a book, try looking it up in WorldCat, and maybe it’s closer than you think.

 

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There is no one right way to use the library. If you still read only print books, or if you have gone totally digital, there are plenty of options for you to make the most of what your library offers. And while I hope you feel like you have learned a library hack or two, the best way to get the most out of your local library is to talk to our librarian. They are more than happy to help, and will be a wealth of knowledge.

Now it’s time to go forth and show libraries some love!

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Decisive Review: Can Decision-Making Be Improved?

I love reading non-fiction. At least half of everything I read is non-fiction. Sometimes, I’ll 6259977find a book I like on a particular subject and end up doing a deep dive with several more books. A recent example was decision science. After being completely fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, I discovered that there is an entire academic field dedicated to studying decision-making. This lead me to pick up Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath.

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Like many other business and life help books, Decisive does not bury the lead. The framework the Heath brothers have developed is explained in the first chapter. However, the explanations and examples covered in the rest of the book were informative and helped me to understand how the framework could be applied.

Two of the principles from the book, I found myself applying in real life as I faced a decision about where to live. I had to look for housing online, so I was particularly concerned about making a good decision. One big idea was that you should avoid making yes/no decisions about a single idea. The best plan is to make a decision about the solution to a problem, with several options for what that solution might look like. So, in the case of finding a place to live, I focused on all of the possible types of housing I could look for, not approving one choice.

The book also had a lot of good information about how to find information. It went into a lot of detail in what kinds of questions to ask and examined why people often don’t get the answers they need. The authors offered evidence for why very specific questions are the most helpful. For example, ask, “how many times in the last two months could you not find a nearby place to park?” vs. “do you have problems with parking?”. I felt that this was extremely practical advice to takeaway from this book.

The writing in the book did a good job of breaking up passages on theory with interesting case studies and anecdotes. The Heath brothers infused a punchy sense of humor throughout the book as well that livened up the writing style. Clearly, the authors took pains to make sure that they informed the reader without being boring.

Recommending ‘helpful’ books can be tricky. It isn’t always obvious who will be open to advice. That’s why I can only say that I enjoyed this book as a reading experience, and I feel that I walked away having learned something I could apply to my own life. That’s my recommendation for you.

3450744What about you? Do you like non-fiction? Have you read any books about decision science? After Decisive and Blink, the next in my queue is Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. What’s next on your to-read pile?

What I Read in January

Winter break and the surge of productivity that comes with the start of a new year have left me feeling exhilarated. Specifically, I am super pumped about reading in 2016. My classes are scheduled to involve quite a bit of reading, but I powered through the first two novels assigned. Adding to my reading high are five (!) other books I finished this month. Usually, I am lucky to read two books a month. This may be a new personal best.

Before I dive back into the sea of school and job search, I wanted to take a minute to share my thoughts on these books. In the future I may write more about them, but I want to make sure I am getting real time thoughts out there about the books I am reading.

So, here are my January book reviews.

Hour of Mischief by Aimee Hyndman

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Starring an extremely feisty thief who goes on an end-of-the-world stopping adventure with the God of Mischief, this was a steampunk fantasy novel that I felt bridged the gap between young adult and “proper” adult really well. It was good, escapist fun. I liked that even amidst the fighting and shenanigans, there were some moments that did make me think. It’s the first in a series, so I look forward to the next release.

Funny story about the author: she and I actually went to high school together. Meaning I brag about her success to pretty much everyone. Totally unbiased though, I liked this book and if you are into fantasy you probably will too.

Alexander the Great by Peter Chrisp

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Yes, this was a picture book. But, I learned a lot that I didn’t know about Alexander the Great from it. Like that he named a city after his beloved horse Bucephalus. What I liked about the way this book was written was that it allowed the reader to make up their own mind about what kind of person Alexander the Great was. It gave the bad with the good and provided a variety of accounts and historical perspectives. Not bad for a picture book.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Another fantasy novel. This time with witches and fairies and magical kingdoms. I saw the movie a long time ago, and remembered really liking it. After reading the book, I honestly preferred the movie. The plot, especially the end, was more exciting, and the supporting characters were better developed. But, the book did give a bit more back-story to help me understand the world. And the writing style was lovely. Neil Gaiman is a legend for a reason, and his writing was what shone in this book.

Leave Your Mark by Aliza Licht

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Recommended to me by my friend Ashleigh over at ashleighreads.com, this was a memoir/ career advice mash up from the senior vice president of PR at DKNY, Aliza Licht. The casual, chatty tone helped make the reading experience less like a lecture and more like a pep talk. Plus, Licht included lots of actionable advice for every stage of a career, from finding your passion, to navigating office politics. I definitely felt that this was the right book to be reading with graduation fast approaching.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

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If Leave Your Mark gave me actual advice for the future, Hyperbole and a Half was there to sympathize with me where I am now. This book was hilarious. I was laughing out loud at pretty much every chapter. But deep down, this book speaks so many truths. It doesn’t shy away from hard life-stuff. Instead it deals with it using superb humor.

For school I read Erec by Hartmann von Aue translated by J.W. Thomas and Sundiata by D. T. Niane. Both were written around 1200. Plot heavy and rich, I enjoyed the stories. Sundiata is the story of a young king who unites the kingdom of Mali. The political intrigue and many folktales were really interesting. Erec, on the other hand, deals with a medieval German knight who wins, loses, and regains his honor. The scope of Erec was less broad, but the character studies of him and his wife Enite were more in depth. This semester I will have the chance to read several more medieval romances and stories from the African continent. As they are both new topics for me, I am excited to see what is next.

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Reading makes me happy, so I am pleased as punch with January. All of these books were pretty good too. February is the shortest month, but I hope to keep my streak going. And please let me know what you have been reading lately. I would love recommendations.

January Reads

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Review

I’m not sure at which age group Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson is targeted. The very old, falling apart version of the book I checked out from the library was full of cute illustrations, but the story itself was not without several references to drugs and sex. However, the story overall was delightful. If you have seen the movie with Amy Adams, the book is very similar. Within one 24-hour period, the reader is introduced to Miss Pettigrew, an out of work governess whose whole life has been lived by the book. Then, entirely by accident, she finds herself in the middle of the whirlwind life of Miss LaFosse, a nightclub singer. Over the course of the day, everything Miss Pettigrew thought she knew is turned upside down. An adorable tale of self-discovery unfolds, set against the backdrop of the 1930’s. The characters are all vividly alive. Miss Pettigrew is timid, but funny, and grows into a truly lovable protagonist. Delysia LaFosse is as charming as the sparkling world around her, and the colorful cast of characters that parade themselves through Miss LaFosse’s apartment make for a lively, fairytale esc story that just happens to be all grown up. Anyone looking to escape a drab or dreary life should dive right into Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

 

My Life in France by Julia Child Review

My Life in France

I have known this book existed for a long time, but it was a very spur of the moment decision to read it. As I have been gradually getting better at cooking, I have wanted to learn more about famous chefs. The memoir of one of America’s most famous cooking personalities seemed like a good place to start.

My Life in France tells the story of how Julia Child fell in love with French cooking while her husband was stationed in Paris after World War II. She goes on to study at the Cordon Bleu, and meets Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and the three of them start a cooking school for Americans in Paris. Through this she discovers her passion for cookbook research and writing, and goes on to become the first ever television chef. It is a story where extreme dedication and zeal meet with enormous amounts of good luck to form the tale of an extraordinary woman. The book read quickly, despite its length. What really amazed me was her work ethic. I can’t imagine sitting down to research, edit, and write a cookbook where every ingredient had to be so carefully measured. Not only that, but each French ingredient, even simple flour, had to be compared with its American counterpart, all while typing on a typewriter and exchanging letters and collaborating with her co-author, Simone Beck. My Millennial brain can hardly fathom how difficult that must have been. The difficulties of a working relationship with a close friend, and the demands of the publishing business were not glossed over either. Throughout the whole story, Julia Child maintains a truly inspiring amount of optimism in the face of hardships, and humility in the light of triumphs. Needless to say, Julia Child has been added to my list of heroes after finishing this book, and I highly recommend it.

Let’s Read About: Cancer

Almost entirely by coincidence, I ended up reading two fictional stories about cancer in the past few weeks: Wit, a play by Margret Edson and The Fault in Our Stars, a novel by John Green. Both were pretty sad, not surprising given the subject matter.

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Wit is a play about Vivian Bearing, an older professor who has dedicated her whole life to researching and analyzing the 17th century poet, John Donne. Now she has been diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Most of the action of the play is dedicated to her time in the hospital, receiving chemotherapy and various other treatments, despite her limited chances at survival. In the end the message of the play had very little to do with cancer, and was mainly focused on empathy and the American healthcare system. Set up as a heartless, strict, demanding professor who is at most respected by, and at the least loathed by her students, Professor Bearing is aware of the irony that she, who never offered any empathy, now receives no empathy from her emotionally detached oncologist or his all- science doctorial fellow. I read this play because I was presenting a scene from it in my theater class. At only about 80 pages it was a pretty quick, although far from light, read. It definitely made me think. Although I would not have chosen to read this play myself, I am glad I took the time to read it.

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Partially inspired by Wit and partially inspired by the urging of several friends who had read it, I finally decided to read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s New York Times bestseller. I had read several of his previous books, so I was familiar with his writing style. I thought I was prepared. I was not. I devoured this book, reading all of the over 300 pages in three and a half days. Featuring main characters Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, The Fault in Our Stars is, at its core, a love story: an excellent, beautiful, heart wrenching, love story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m not going to summarize the plot. There is no need to know the plot before deciding if you want to read this book. Be warned: you will probably cry. If you’re not in the mood to cry, then this is not the book for you. And it leaves you thinking about some capital b for Big things, like death and purpose and hope. In the end I loved it, because it evoked real emotion, and what more can you ask from a story than that?