Reading Challenge 2019 + Happiness Project Update

It is the middle of December, people.

I’m not quite ready for Christmas, but I’ll tell you what I am ready for: wrapping up 2019.

What!? That’s crazy. It’s the end of a whole decade.

True…but I don’t like to get all dramatic about it. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized it was the end of a decade until I read it on someone else’s blog. (I like words, not numbers.)


I did a reading challenge this year! I challenged you to join me! And I happened to finish early, so I’m excited to share how it went. If you keep scrolling way down, I also quickly summarize the outcome of my Happiness Project, which (spoiler alert) was way too ambitious and multi-faceted…like most of the things I plan out for myself.

I hope you enjoyed reading this year and that you feel inspired to try new things in your life!

Reading Challenge 2019 Update

1. a “classic” novel

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Oh boy, remember how I usually tell you not to torture yourselves with books, to just stop reading anything that you really hate? I did not take my advice. This is the third year in a row I’ve promised myself to read Anna Karenina, and I was determined to follow through no matter what. I’m relieved to report that I finally finished it! (Only took me six months.) This book felt too long by at least half, and yes, it was full of beautiful prose, but very large chunks had nothing to do with the characters, or seemed completely superfluous. I started reading this in print, and eventually had to switch to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s audiobook version, so someone else could force me not to skip over the boring bits.

You guys. After Anna dies…there were still TWO MORE HOURS of audiobook left. Aaaaaaaaagh.

2. a book of poetry

The Wug Test by Jennifer Kronovet. This was sort of an atypical choice, I know…some lyrical prose and some poetry, all about linguistics. But the great big dork in me loved it! Next year I’ll read some Robert Frost or Pablo Neruda, I promise.

3. a historical fiction novel

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This book was so excellent; Amor Towles is a beautiful storyteller. This story spanned several decades in Moscow, 1920s-1950s, all from inside of a hotel, which is kind of an interesting take on historical fiction. I learned quite a bit about Russian history, about maintaining an internal compass, and about contentment.

I naturally enjoy historical fiction, so in this category I also read Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah—also Russian history, but not great…not nearly as wonderful as Hannah’s Nightingale; Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave—wonderful WW2 novel! Highly recommend; and What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon—fanciful and interesting look at Ireland after the Easter uprising.

4. a science fiction and/or dystopian novel

Artemis by Andy Weir. A novel set in an imaginary city on the moon. This was a great choice for the sci-fi category, because Andy Weir is a real-life geek and he takes a lot of time to explain the science I would not have otherwise known. This one was fast-paced and interesting!

5. a true story or a novel based on one

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Oh holy moly, I wish this were not based on a real story. It was beautifully written, but honestly, so hard to read. This story follows a fictional family of siblings who were kidnapped and abused by the real-life Tennessee Children’s Home Society. My heart breaks for all the kids who were taken from parents who loved them and essentially sold to other families. My heart aches for all the parents who were tricked or blindsided, whose families were destroyed in the name of one woman’s greed.

6. a memoir or autobiography

Educated by Tara Westover. I chose this one because it was all the rage, and I loved the idea of someone pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Honestly, it was excellent (except that I listened on Audible, and I don’t love it when writers have someone else narrate their memoirs) BUT toward the end, I was really uncomfortable when I realized that she told other people’s unflattering stories without their permission. It provoked this question for me: how much of my story is mine, and how much belongs to the people I’m connected to?

I love memoirs, so I also read Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) by Kate Bowler—EXCELLENT, go read this right away; This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett—also wonderful; as well as several other memoirs you will see in other categories for this challenge!

7-11. books that are set on different continents

For this challenge, I chose to read missionary stories (also memoirs!) set all over the world. It was a really interesting challenge, first to find memoirs set in diverse locations, which also turned out to yield a time span of more than a century, and second to discover how attitudes toward sharing the Gospel with native people have changed. I am really glad I read these books (I listed them in order of my favorites, although it was hard to decide). I learned so much from my picks for this challenge, both about God and about mission work!

  • Europe: God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew.
  • Africa: Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis.
  • North America: The Very Worst Missionary—A Memoir or Whatever by Jamie Westover.
  • South America: Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot.
  • Asia: Hudson Taylor by Hudson Taylor.

12. a book with an alliterative title

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This book was interesting. I actually read both parts, which were originally published separately; I liked Part 1, which follows Christian, much better than Part 2, which follows his wife, Christiana. Part 2 felt more judgmental of people who struggle to adhere consistently to their faith, and it also repeated a lot of what happened in Part 1. Anyway. It was an interesting perspective on a faith walk!

I also read through two other alliterative titles: The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert—very silly, fluffy reading; and Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist—not great…basically felt like her saying “I’m not complaining” the entire time. (And don’t think I didn’t consider swapping Pilgrim into Anna Karenina’s place as a classic novel!)

13. a mystery

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. You know I went Agatha Christie. This was my first Miss Marple! Agatha Christie is truly the master of suspense, and at the same time, none of her books are creepy or terrifying (I never leave them afraid I’m about to be murdered, or worried what’s around the corner).

14. a fantasy novel

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This book was so great. It won the Hugo, along with the two other books in the trilogy (friends—that’s not common). This is the book I recommended to Debby as my favorite (although I originally wanted to recommend my animal cover book, but she had already read it). In the end, this book and the whole trilogy questions what makes us human, what makes us family, and whether power is a responsibility or a curse. When I was a kid, I thought fantasy (and sci-fi) books were ridiculous and possibly evil, that they could only be enjoyed by the awkwardly nerdy and heretics. But I have grown to love this genre so much in my adulthood, and I’m so glad for writers with attention to detail and unique voices. Such a fascinating world created by Jemisin!

15. a book with a one-word title

Cinder by Marissa Meyer. This is the book that Debby and I chose to start off the whole challenge, and it fit into so many categories on this challenge! It was a fantasy/sci-fi retelling of Cinderella. I loved this book, so much that I immediately read the rest of the Lunar Chronicles series (also one-word titles)! Such fun.

*This was also my YA novel! But…I read several of those this year. I’m having all the fun I can, friends.

16. an informational book about [something you’ve wanted to learn and know nothing about]

Gaelige: A Radical Revolution by Caoimhin de Barra. In case you didn’t know, that first name is pronounced “kwee-veen.” Yes. Because I want to learn Irish Gaelic. I originally planned to read a gigantic tome on Celtic languages that I bought in Scotland, but about 5 pages in, I realized I don’t have the bandwidth to read the longest dissertation ever. So I picked a new book about the Irish language and the Irish people, and I loved it! It really gave me a lot to think about, and hey, Caoimhin, if you ever read this, I hope you do start a revolution!

17. a love story

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan. I had never read a Jenny Colgan book, and she exclusively writes love stories, so I thought I should try one out! I’m always a little wary of romance authors, because I don’t think it’s healthy for me to read a lot of sex scenes (for the same reason I don’t read many home décor magazines anymore: I am content until I discover the possibility of something new), but Jenny Colgan keeps it PG-13. This book was…okay. Not my favorite love story by far. I felt like there was no emotional connection between the main character and her love interest, but she was so busy being intrigued by him and by changing her life that she didn’t really care.

A much better love story was Crosstalk by Connie Willis. Connie Willis is the best.

18. a western

Down the Long Hills by Louis L’Amour. This book was short and sweet. I never expected to enjoy a western, so I wanted to pick something canon-adjacent, meaning written by one of the major western authors, but not part of a long series. Honestly…I enjoyed it! It showed me a completely different way of life, and although the story wasn’t believable in the least, the descriptions were beautifully written, and I was happy to keep reading.

19. a comedy

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. I picked up this book because it won the Pulitzer, and it just so happened to be the only comedic novel to win that prize in decades. It was not exactly funny, more like a comedy of errors (okay, technically a satire), but I’m counting it. I always enjoy coming-of-age stories (and now that I’m approaching middle age myself, it was fun to read about an adult who finally figured out how to get it right).

20. a short story collection

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr. I picked this collection because of how much I loved All the Light We Cannot See. Although a few of the stories appealed to me and Anthony Doerr’s writing is always just the right amount of detailed and the right amount of questioning…I honestly don’t like short story collections very much. I get tired pretty quickly of investing in new characters every 20 pages; and the kinds of things that get written as short stories tend to leave me feeling a little less at ease than the stories that merit a longer novel. So…this was okay, but I’m not rushing out to read more short story collections.

21. a novel written in first person

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This book was absolutely brilliant, and the use of first person was stunning. Being completely inside the narrator’s head kept me guessing about what was going on, let me feel his wonder and his fear, let me completely trust or completely despise the other characters. First person is hard to write well, I think, but Neil Gaiman is a master.

22. a book published posthumously

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I liked and didn’t like this book. I think that might be common with posthumously published books…they aren’t necessarily what the author would have published themselves, they might be assembled from scraps and notes, they might be incomplete. I really enjoyed the first half of A Moveable Feast, when it seemed like a picture of life in Paris, learning to write and keep at it; but the essays (sketches?) in the second half were more about other people, and they felt more like a long list of who’s who. I didn’t connect emotionally with the second half at all. But! As a budding writer, it was interesting to skim through the notes at the end of my edition, where Hemingway had been trying out different introductions and had written and rewritten paragraphs many times. I enjoyed this look into his writing process.

23. a co-authored book

Triggers: Exchanging Parents’ Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses by Amber Lia and Wendy Speake. I picked this book up because I so needed encouragement about how to deal with my own parental anger, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the dual perspectives on the topic as the authors went through the laundry list of the kinds of things that make parents angry, both internal drives and external irritants. Excellent.

24. a book with an animal on the front cover

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Big black dog on the cover, in case you were wondering. I’m pretty sure a better novel was never written than this one. This was a story of magical realism (is the dog a dog?), and it. Was. Amazing. (I had originally planned to read Watership Down by Richard Adams, but my son kidnapped that book to read himself, and in the meantime, I found this…and holy moly, it was an upgrade.)

25. a second book by an author you discovered last year

Better Than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits… by Gretchen Rubin. To be honest, this book was not better than the one I read before. (Haha. See what I did there?) For a long time, I would only read one book by any given author, because John Irving and Paolo Coelho convinced me that modern authors write the exact same book over and over using different names. But when I finally broke that pattern (because, hello, it’s not true), I still found that unless I was reading a series, I often didn’t return to “new” authors. This challenge was intended to prod me further. I’m glad I read a second Gretchen Rubin book, partly because it cured me of shipping her (I loved The Happiness Project enough to try my own, but the habits book mostly didn’t inspire me).

26. a play

The Importance of Being Earnest and Four Other Plays by Oscar Wilde. I’ve had this on my shelf for ages, and I finally picked it up. The Importance of Being Earnest was hilarious. Oscar Wilde has a dry, silly wit that literally made me laugh out loud. I did also read the other four plays in the edition I had, and they were oookay, but nothing like the magic of The Importance.

27. your best friend’s favorite book of the year

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett. (This was Debby’s book with an animal on the cover!—Ironically, both of our animal books were about children grieving the loss of a parent figure, isn’t that a funny coincidence?) This book was imaginative and interesting and easy to want to read. It was so hard trying to watch a young girl pick up the pieces of her life after her mother died (hello, that hits close to home; hope my kids are never faced with this), especially with the very bizarre circumstances she had to deal with. This book was truly enjoyable, and I’m so glad Debby recommended it!

Debby also recommended The Birth House by Ami McKay, but my library doesn’t own a copy! What!? Hopefully I will read that one next year.

Happiness Project Update

Oh gosh, friends. I have to admit that my goals were just…too big. Including the one where I would update you on Facebook regularly. You know me. I’m not very diligent on social media. (Maybe that should be a stated goal for next year??)

Here’s why this thing was too big: I was trying to work under three different systems at the same time! Word of the year (supernatural); month-by-month goals; and a bucket list.

What worked best for me was actually the bucket list. I basically abandoned paying any attention to the word of the year in about…March. And the month-by-month goals were nice, but I skipped a few of them entirely (learn something new? Oops…) which felt like a huge failure, since I was meant to dedicate an entire month to them. The month-by-month goals were also supposed to help me establish new habits…but they did not. Which means I’m still struggling to accomplish regular quiet times, to prioritize self-care, to speak with only love…

It was a great idea. I just truly resist habit formation. I’m a humongous procrastinator. I know habits can offer the mental freedom of not having to decide whether to follow through on a goal, but for some reason I prefer the mental freedom of doing it differently or at a different time every day. Le sigh.

But the bucket list. The bucket list worked out really well! So I’m going to share how that went as briefly as possible.

  1. Finish updating the stair gallery wall — I worked on it, but my photo printer died, so I still haven’t added new family photos. I’m calling this a partial success.
  2. Draw and hang art in our home office — Six of eight are complete!
  3. Find an exercise I enjoy — walking. Now if only I could make time for it sans kiddos…
  4. Get current on sorting photos — oh no. Punted on this one.
  5. Reformat (and monetize?) my blog — Yep! But the monetizing bit needs attention.
  6. Take a watercolor course — Ack, didn’t do this, but still have it in the queue.
  7. Help my mom sort through her house — Yes!
  8. Read 52 books (including those from the Reading Challenge 2019) — Yep! I’ve read 64 books so far this year, and I hope to cram another few in before 2020 begins.
  9. Potty train Caitlin — Thank you, Jesus, yes.
  10. Plan a 10-year anniversary mini getaway — Yes! We couldn’t go far because of baby Violet, so we decided to do 10 dates in honor of 10 years, one of which involved a night away and sailing lessons.
  11. Finish crocheting my Christmas blanket — Oh gosh. I worked on it, I did, but I’ve learned that I HATE sewing together granny squares. So many yarn ends. Still working on it
  12. Finish the 1000-piece puzzle we’ve been ignoring for a year — Yep!
  13. Write a children’s book for my kids — No. BUT I did start writing! It’s just that what came out was essays, not a children’s book.
  14. Record a song with my brother — Yep! We did “Slow Motion” by Phox.
  15. Celebrate the Holy Week before Easter — Obviously yes, and I wrote about it on the blog
  16. Refinish the cedar chest and wooden folding chairs — Um…work in progress.
  17. Make new throw pillow covers for the office couch — Decided this was unnecessary
  18. Write to Compassion kids 6 times — Yes!
  19. Fix up the dollhouse for Caitlin — Discovered that the dollhouse was missing an important piece (this was a replica of my mother’s childhood home, hand-made by my grandfather), and ultimately decided to give it back to my parents instead of keep it.
  20. Clean the garage out to park in it — YES. HALLELUJAH.
  21. Plant a vegetable garden — Yep, but that dang garden didn’t produce anything. *grumpy face* I am a terrible gardener
  22. Go hiking with the kids — Yes! So fun. We went hiking near Virginia Tech, and also on a small hike at Westmoreland State Park.
  23. Start a semi-regular ladies card game — Yes, although scheduling got complicated about halfway through the year, so I need to start this up again!

There you have it, friends. A year in my life. I fully completed 14 of the 23 bucket list items, and made significant progress on 4, deliberately abandoned 2, and failed to accomplish the other 3. Not bad, all things considered!

Stay tuned for the 2020 reading challenge, which will go live soon!

And if you’re curious, you can find my other reading challenges here.

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