Plan better parties

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

3 words: conversational, thought-provoking, intriguing

 

 

You know how sometimes you pick up a self-improvement book and you don’t even want to put it down? This is one of those.

Right from the start, I was drawn in by Parker’s conversational tone and then held rapt by her surprising statements about how to put together better gatherings.

I finished this book in a whirlwind right before hosting a party, and I went from my usual Mary Richards near-fiasco to a level of confidence I hadn’t had before. 

Here are my favorite takeaways from the book:

Have a purpose for your gathering

And if the purpose isn’t evident, sit down and figure it out ahead of time. This’ll give you a destination to aim for. It seriously helps make decisions about how to make the event meaningful.

Be a bossy host

Parker warns against the dangers of being a chill host — which is done to be kind, but ends up being unhelpful. Be a little bit bossy. The host should protect guests from boredom and uncertainty. Have a plan.

Equalize your guests

If people attending the gathering differ due to perceptions based on career or status, take steps to bring everyone to the same level for the duration of the gathering so they can connect as equals.

Make each gathering different from all other gatherings

Think about how this gathering will be unique and play up those aspects. 

 

While I’ll never be the hostess with the mostest, this book helped me up my game and made me feel more solid in my role as host.

Don’t you just love it when a book can do that for you?

Give this book a whirl if you like… learning how to plan parties that are more meaningful and meetings that are more effective, new ways of conceptualizing gatherings, why being a benevolently bossy host can be best

So, my friends… please tell me your favorite hosting tip. Or the best thing you ever experienced as a guest at a gathering. I love this stuff.

Robert A. Caro on biography writing

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro

3 words: first-person, inside glimpse, psychological

Just hearing the name “Robert Caro” makes me happy. I know because it happened just the other evening at the other end of the dinner table at a family gathering. I wasn’t even part of the conversation, but hearing his name gave me a little spark of joy.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve read two volumes of Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ, and I look forward to reading the others. His research and his writing make my heart sing.

So when Caro’s book Working was released this month, I dove at it.

In this delightful and fascinating book, Caro takes us behind the curtain and reveals his methods. And he’s wonderfully self-effacing about the way he’s compelled to research a topic for years.

Here he is, in the introduction:

“…in this book I’m trying to show how the material was gathered: the method, if you will. In doing this, I have also provided, I’m afraid, a few glimpses into me.” (p. xxii)

Caro describes the drive he feels to capture the essence of a topic, which sometimes requires extreme measures such as moving to the Texas Hill Country for three years in order to understand the people of the region that produced LBJ.

And I mean, talk about immersive… he slept outdoors in the Hill Country so he could describe the way it sounded. And in Washington, DC, he woke at dawn to walk young LBJ’s path to Capitol Hill so he could describe the exact way it appeared at the hour he would approach.

This part of the book made me shiver with complete delight, because he’s describing the way he researched and wrote one of my favorite passages of nonfiction ever written. (I write about it here.)

Caro also details the way he conducts interviews, and the way he asks again and again for people to describe how things looked and what they heard.

“Interviewing: if you talk to people long enough, if you talk to them enough times, you find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.” (p. 176)

He provides examples of the details he would coax out of people, and it makes me realize this is a large part of what makes his books such an enormous immersive pleasure to read.

And then there’s his writing style. Caro touches on this a little, when he writes about the way he would tell a story and the way he would structure a paragraph for maximum effect.

So here’s the thing. I want him to live forever and write forever. Amen.


Give this book a whirl if you like… “inside baseball,” the story behind the story, how extraordinary nonfiction is written, self-deprecating humor, biographical research, how books are researched and written, a psychological portrait of a biographer

Anyone else a Robert A. Caro fan? If so, please you must talk to me!

Favorite home organization books

It’s springtime, and that’s supposed to mean spring cleaning. But I’ve always been better at organizing than cleaning, so today we’re talking spring organizing.

Here are my favorite books about organizing the home.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

3 words: rigorous, inspiring, neat

Remember how I KonMari’d my librarian cardigans?

Here in the new house, they’re once again in that happy state,and I’m still on the KonMari bandwagon.


I loved Tidying Up when I first read it, and also when I second-read it. And it continues to spark joy.

Give this book a whirl if you like… decluttering, minimalism, simplicity, structure

Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin

3 words: practical, positive, approachable

I’m an every-episode listener to the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, so many of the recommendations in this book (but not all — there were some surprises here) were familiar. And still, I found myself marking pages. Here are some of the ideas I captured:

  • Watch your language. “Instead of telling yourself, ‘I need to go through my photos and discard the bad ones,’ you could tell yourself, ‘I’m going to curate my photo collection.’” (p. 182)
  • Include a fragment of nature (p. 193)
  • Every room should hold a bit of surprise or whimsy (p. 197)

And the Dear Man installed my pretty hooks for clothes I’ve only barely worn. (Find a place for items that are neither dirty nor clean, p. 82)

Give this book a whirl if you like… quick, browseable books; decluttering; a wide range of tips; bite-size ideas

The Home Edit: A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals by Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin

3 words: cheerful, beautiful, concrete

Oh my goodness. This is the book that inspired me to purchase spice containers and cute labels. Because these ladies label everything and it looks fabulous. This book made me woozy with delight. We’re talking famous people’s closets and pantries and craft rooms, and real-life, actually do-able steps to achieve something beautiful in one’s own home.

Give this book a whirl if you like… organizing in a beautiful way, labeling absolutely everything, a conversational and encouraging tone, celebrity closets and pantries

Beautifully Organized: A Guide to Function and Style in Your Home by Nikki Boyd

3 words: enthusiastic, elegant, lovely

I’ll admit it: I binge-read this book one evening when I could’ve been cooking dinner. But I think this book will deliver long-term dividends, because it seriously inspired me to tend to some untidy areas of our home that are usually hidden from view… but we know they’re there. Not for long! I gathered some lovely ideas for our pantry and drawers.

Give this book a whirl if you like… beautiful books about home organization, adding a touch of style to orderliness, practical and inspiring tips for organizing your home

The Organized Home: Simple, Stylish Storage Ideas for All Over the House by Julie Carlson and Margot Guralnick

3 words: pictorial, scannable, simple

My takeaways from this book are clean lines, environmentally-friendly cleaning processes, and a really cute way to store a toilet plunger (in a clay pot: genius).

Give this book a whirl if you like… inspiration for household organizing, simple living, green products, pretty books

The Complete Book of Home Organization by Toni Hammersley

3 words: browseable, beautifully illustrated, clean

This book is on my bedside table for pre-sleep perusal at the moment, and it’s a treat to open its pages because it’s just plain pretty. Bright color photos of tidy, perfectly organized spaces… with a lovely plant to add another pop of color to the scene. Beautiful book. Also: a little bit challenging, because there are cleaning recommendations here that seem a little bit beyond what I’m ever gonna do. (Cleaning the kitchen sink daily? I don’t think so.) But I’ve marked several pages that offer solutions for organizing the pantry. And I’m finding pleasure in simply looking through this book for decorating ideas. It’s lovely.

Give this book a whirl if you like… a wide array of organizing ideas for all areas of the home, cleaning recommendations, easy storage solutions

Simple Organizing Wisdom: 500+ Quick & Easy Clutter Cures edited by Laurie Jennings

3 words: neat, pretty, practical

When this book showed up in my mailbox, I silently squealed with joy and immediately sought out someone who shares my organizing obsession so I could tell her about it. People, this book is pretty.

Give this book a whirl if you like… bite-sized, scannable, practical tips, pretty storage solutions

Cozy Minimalist Home: More Style, Less Stuff by Myquillyn Smith

3 words: chatty, encouraging, practical

I really liked Myquillyn Smith’s first book, The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful. My most important takeaway from that book: don’t apologize for your home’s flaws or shortcomings; instead, focus on making your guest comfortable. And if someone compliments your home, accept the compliment gracefully.

In Cozy Minimalist Home, she suggests using larger statement pieces as decor, and removing the extras. It’s an approach I really like. I also like her idea of “quieting” a room seasonally by removing all decor and then adding pieces only where needed.

Give this book a whirl if you like… creating a comfortable home, decluttering without losing coziness, not worrying about having a “style,” focusing on people and their comfort

I know I’m not the only one who reads this stuff for fun… What are your favorite home organization books?

Digital Minimalism | Drop Everything and Read

Today is Drop Everything and Read Day, which, of course, is a favorite holiday for many readers.

Today I’m celebrating it also as Drop the Phone and Read Day, after having read Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

The idea of the book is this: reclaim high-quality leisure. Build something, join something, spend time with the people who matter most. And put down the darn smartphone.

In my case, I’ve carved out more time to read and to organize my home library. Super rewarding!

This is one of those books that prescribes a social media fast, and I’ll admit I did this only half-heartedly. And still: results!

What I did was to set these parameters for myself:

  • Instagram: only when planking, stretching, or doing strengthening exercises
  • Facebook: only twice a day, and for less than 5 minutes per day; moved app to 3rd screen on phone
  • Twitter: deleted from my phone

Even after the first week, my screen time went down. And I felt the wonderful liberation of extra free time. It was stunning.

And as Newport cautions, it can feel a bit empty at first, when one begins setting boundaries on these apps that benefit more from our attention than we benefit from granting them our precious time. A person feels a little bit at a loss.

But I soon began reveling in the extra reading time. And I felt more calm and rested. Time seemed to expand, and that’s well worth missing a post or two by people I barely know.

Anyone else done a social media fast? What were the results?

Deciphering the life of a codebreaker

Elizebeth Smith Friedman
(source: NSA)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

3 words: engaging, journalistic, myth-busting

Holy Toledo, people. This book.

I didn’t want to put it down. It just kept surprising me at every turn.

Here’s the situation: In 1916, a young woman visits Chicago, looking for a job. A librarian at the Newberry Library, after talking with Elizebeth Smith, calls an eccentric millionaire, who zooms up in a big car, grabs Elizebeth by the arm and whisks her away. (That part freaked me out.)

Dude was George Fabyan, whose grand estate, Riverbank, is only a couple of miles from our house. So that had my eyes bugging out. But then I read on, and the story of Elizebeth’s life became even more surprising.

Fabyan hired her to work on his highly questionable quest to prove that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. But then, thank goodness, she directed her sharp mind to the other work of Riverbank Laboratories: codebreaking.

And during her years at Riverbank, she began her work as one of the most influential pioneers of cryptography. Thing is, partly because of the highly confidential nature of the work, and largely because of her gender, history has tended to overlook the contributions of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The thing that had me spitting tacks was learning that J. Edgar Hoover claimed credit for much of the work Elizebeth Smith Friedman did. And she could do nothing about it, because she was sworn to secrecy. Infuriating!

So this book reveals many such truths and grants her the credit she deserves.

It’s also the story of the remarkable partnership she shared with her husband, William Friedman. They met at Riverbank (where they lived in a windmill after their marriage; I find this completely charming) and together wrote important textbooks about codebreaking. The early years of their marriage, when they truly worked in partnership as cryptographers, are a beautiful thing to read about.

Then: war. And another war. During the two world wars, the Friedmans both worked on codebreaking, but they no longer worked together. And the secret nature of the work meant that they no longer worked as partners. This made me sad, and it also seemed like it could have diminished the incredible synergy of their collaborative work. But still, they both continued to break codes that saved American lives during war. It’s pretty amazing that two self-taught people could develop such ability.

This book astonished me on many levels.

  • First: I learned the life story of a woman I wish I’d known about earlier. Why haven’t we heard of her? [rhetorical question, obviously]
  • Second: It tells the truth about the contributions she made, and it reveals the lies of those who claimed credit.
  • Third: It’s stunning to think about the unlikelihood of her being hired to do work that morphed into codebreaking — her natural talent.
  • Fourth: Living so near the place where she began her work makes the story even more exciting.

Give this book a whirl if you like… narrative nonfiction, the early days of codebreaking, really smart women, stories of marriages, WWII espionage, celebrating a woman who never got her due

What’s the biography that most astonished you recently?

Domestic goodness

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl

3 words: intimate, multifaceted, soothing

Twitter is not my natural home, but this book, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s delightful Gmorning, Gnight!, kinda made me wish it were. Both books are filled with some of the best tweets I can imagine. My Kitchen Year is one of those magnificent books that does all kinds of things at once, and it does them all well.

It’s a memoir of Reichl’s difficult first year after losing her job when Gourmet magazine abruptly folded. And that’s a scary thought: job loss. And Reichl doesn’t sugarcoat it, but she also gets on with life. And for her, recovery begins in the kitchen. It’s very soothing to spend time with her as she begins to rebuild after the loss. For a couple of weeks, this was my bedtime reading, and it was perfect — beautiful and creative and calming and bite-sized (each section consists of a short description of the day, followed by a recipe).

It’s a cookbook filled with dreamy food writing. Sometimes I’d just savor the way she described the way to mix ingredients. Reichl knows what she’s doing with food, and she’s creative in the way she writes about it, and we benefit from all of it. (Although I said to the Dear Man: “Clearly I’m over-ambitious about my cooking abilities when I read recipes before bed.” When I looked through the recipes I’d marked, at least half of them seemed 20% more complicated than this lackadaisical cook can handle.)

It’s almost a book of poetry because the tweets that begin each section capture the essence of a day with just a few words. Each tweet reminded me of haiku in its ability to convey a mood and a scene with precious few syllables. It made me want to tweet like that. (As if that’s gonna happen. But a girl can dream.)

It’s a coffee table book that’s more than a coffee table book. The thing is bursting with luscious photos of food and nature. It made me almost want to buy a copy so I could flip through each season as it happens each year. In the Acknowledgments, Reichl writes some glowing words about the photographer who spent months capturing her cooking and some other quiet moments of her life. Lovely.

It’s a book I waited too long to read. This book’s been on my radar ever since Michael Kindness raved about it on the dearly departed Books on the Nightstand podcast a few years ago. And I wonder why I waited, and then I think, Maybe I read it when I was ready for it. Here I am, jubilantly over-reaching in the kitchen and making a happy new home. This book is a celebration of home and cooking and the simple comforts.

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cooking, memoir blended with recipes, beautiful books, reading about recovery from a job loss, rebirth, poetic tweets, gorgeous food and nature photography

So, my fellow bibliophiles… Anyone else a reader of cookbooks?

First Lady memoir

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Becoming by Michelle Obama

3 words: engaging, personal, positive

I love books by accomplished women, and I love memoirs of life in politics. So I was really excited when a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir showed up in my mailbox.

And while I knew I’d find the book fascinating, I was surprised by how quickly I was drawn in to the narrative — and how engaged I remained throughout the entire book.

The first thing that attracted me was that Obama’s narrative voice is very real; it’s like she’s telling you her story out loud. (I’ve heard the audiobook, which she reads herself, is pretty amazing.) Even on the page, her voice is natural and smart and funny and real.

And she begins the book with a scene from her life today — a scene so normal and insignificant that most of us have been there and thought nothing of it. She’s alone at home, and she’s making toast. And she’s reveling in the quiet and the freedom she feels in that small act — because for years, she’d been in a world where making toast while home alone was unimaginable. And her pleasure in that moment made me feel connected to her on a human level.

And I think that’s one of her key gifts — empathy (along with her brain and drive and desire to make a positive difference in the world).

So spending time with her on these pages was a pleasure.

The other aspect I found delightful is the way she describes her educational journey — from elementary through law school. And when she talks about not feeling good enough — again, that resonated. She’s honest about the struggles and the way she overcame the tough parts —  and the loving support she received from her family, friends, and mentors.

And I always love reading memoirs that give insight into the relationships within a First Family. On these pages, Barack Obama is very human but also super impressive (largely because he’s so human).

And there were moments that made me laugh, such as her commentary on an event that occurred when they were dating. She describes him driving a bright yellow Datsun that shuddered to life and had a rusted out hole in the floor. “Life with Barack would never be dull. I knew it even then. It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.” (p. 122)

That’s good, right?

And reading about the emphasis she placed on raising her daughters… it made me like their family all the more.

So if you like reading about the life experiences of strong, smart women who’ve made a difference — or if you like reading about First Families — this is a wonderfully engaging narrative about the unusual experience of ending up in the White House.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of iconic women, First Ladies, remarkable women in their own right, behind the scenes, memoirs of strong African American women, memoirs of life in the political sphere

Anyone else a fan of memoirs by the First Family?

Loving libraries

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

3 words: immersive, journalistic, investigative

You know how some books take you back to an earlier time in your life and they place you there so solidly, you can smell and taste and feel everything you experienced at the time?

This book did that for me. Because while this book ostensibly is about the terrible fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library, it’s really more of a deep dive into the life of a library, reported with affection and enthusiasm.

It put me right back in the heady days when I first worked in a public library — as an unpaid, 35-hour-per-week intern at a large-ish urban public library. That summer was magical — it felt like such a privilege to see how things worked behind the scenes and to be in the building before it opened and to spend time in each department. (It reminded me of that children’s book by P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? Each department seemed like a serious possibility, and then I reached Reference, and done. I was home.)

I am grateful to this day for that experience, and to the library director who accepted a cold call from a college junior interested in a career in librarianship and seeking work experience in a public library. Her willingness to accept me into the fold after one phone call and one meeting — it’s one of those aspects of librarianship that makes me really love this field. The generosity of spirit is a grand and beautiful thing among library people.

And that’s what this book is all about.

I kept reading aloud to the Dear Man (often after recovering from verklemptitude), because Orlean captured the library so perfectly.

“They formed a human chain, passing the books hand over hand from one person to the next, through the smoky building and out the door. It was as if, in this urgent moment, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created, for that short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.” (p. 37)

(This one gets me each time I read it.)

Orlean spends time with the current library staff, learning how the library operates today. And she also delves into its past, when simply being a woman was grounds for being fired so a man could take one’s job.

And she investigates the 1986 library fire, particularly the suspected arsonist, a down-on-his-luck, would-be actor who lied compulsively. And in the end… I won’t ruin the conclusion, but truly, the fire provides a framework for the story, but the real story is about the library and its people. And it’s beautiful.

“I looked around the room at the few people scattered here and there. Some were leaning into books, and a few were just resting, having a private moment in a public place, and I felt buoyed by being here. This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional.”  (p. 310)

Give this book a whirl if you like… a deep dive into the life of an organization, learning about a major event that’s virtually unknown, celebrating libraries and the work of librarians, unsolved crimes

My fellow readers… Have you ever read a book that put you into a happy past moment? Or an adoring book about a library? If so, I so wanna hear about it.

Nonfiction November: New to My TBR

In Week 5 of Nonfiction November, our host is Katie at Doing Dewey, who asks:

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

This year’s Nonfiction November has been my richest TBR haul to date. Thank you, good bloggers!

In fact, the recommendations were flying in so fast that I developed a new way to track my TBR. Instead of simply adding the books to Goodreads as “Want to Read,” I started adding books to the Google Sheet that I use to track my reading — at the bottom of the list, where I place upcoming reads. The advantage is that it allowed me to group all the Nonfiction November suggestions and add my own notes in an easy way. I’m kinda excited about this system.

So what’s on the list? Here goes…

 

In response to my “Become the Expert” request for books about becoming a better human:

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter — recommended by Kazen at Always Doing

Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi — recommended by Kelly at Stacked

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal — recommended by Kelly at Stacked

What If This Were Enough? Essays by Heather Havrilevsky — recommended by Michael at Inexhaustible Invitations

How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life by Heather Havrilevsky — recommended by Michael at Inexhaustible Invitations

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman — recommended by Michael at Inexhaustible Invitations

 

The other books that grabbed my eye…

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi — recommended by Kelly at Stacked

Kitchen Yarns by Ann Hood — recommended by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein — recommended by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness and Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves and Tina at Tina Says

knitting books by Elizabeth Zimmermann — recommended by Lory at Emerald City Book Review

 

I’ve already begun reading one of the Heather Havrilevsky books (loving it) and can’t wait to find all these others on the shelves.

Thank you to all the wonderful book bloggers who make Nonfiction November such a fulfilling experience each year!

 

Nonfiction November: Reads Like Fiction

This week’s Nonfiction November topic — Reads Like Fiction — is hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

 

I love nearly all the nonfiction — even handbooks and manuals, if they have a sprightly tone. (Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes is one of my all-time favorite books, and I have a serious love of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.)

And most of the self-improvement books I read (and there are lots of ’em) don’t follow a storyline, but I love them all the same. If there’s an engaging tone, I’m there.

So I don’t need a narrative drive to delight my nonfiction-loving heart.

That having been said… When you offer me something along the lines of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff or anything by Robert Kurson (I’m currently still in the afterglow of Rocket Men), I’m about as happy as I can be as a reader. Narrative nonfiction might well be the highest peak on my readerly mountain range.

In the past year, here are the narrative nonfiction books that most delighted me:

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

 

I can’t wait to see everyone else’s lists.

What’re the best narrative nonfiction books you’ve read this year?