Trying Something New: Reading List 2018


I love to read, always have.

As a girl I plowed through all of Louisa May Alcott’s novels and anything by L.M. Montgomery.  I devoured biographies of Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. I read everything on my shelf, on my older brother’s shelf, and on the acres of white wooden shelves that lined a wall in our home.

pile of books in shallow focus photography
Thanks to borrowing limits, my childhood bedroom did NOT look like this.

I checked out stacks of books from the school, public, and church libraries, and from the university where my father taught. And I used any spare moment to read.

I read the daily comics in the paper after breakfast. I read as soon as my schoolwork was finished, at night with a nightlight, in the bath, and even at the dinner table when I could get away with it.

Sometime around second grade, I developed a taste for mysteries. My brothers’ Hardy Boys books led me to  Nancy Drew. Then I discovered Trixie Belden, moved to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, then Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, and so on. These were the books I turned to for relaxed reading during summertime. Outside of assigned school reading, I didn’t read in any other genre.

Then, Life Happened

In the decade after college, I had five kids and my reading took a back seat. I did read a lot of quality picture books — and reread them approximately 1,234 times. As my children grew older, I revisited classics from my childhood like Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Any spare reading time was given completely to my old favorite: mysteries.

After a few years of this literary diet, my brain began to feel a little flabby, so every now and then I varied the genres I chose, and threw in some meatier options. A friend mentioned Outliers on social media so I read it and several other books by Malcom Gladwell. I reread Anna Karenina. (It was even better the second time around.) I branched out — and enjoyed doing so — but I still wasn’t fully satisfied by my reading.

The diversity was nice, but the choices were haphazard. If a title caught my attention, I would add it to my bedside pile. Otherwise, I fell back on old, easy favorites.


“I knew that varied and frequent reading nourishes good writing, so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening.”


I always had a vague mental list of books I wanted to read: books that were well-reviewed in various publications; books that friends recommended; books mentioned during an interesting radio interview. I would read a few each year, but always suspected that I could find time for more. And I knew that varied, and frequent reading nourishes good writing so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening. My habits weren’t leading me to the kind of reading I desired.

Making a List

So, this year I decided to be more intentional about my reading choices. Instead of reading whatever title came to mind when I was ready to start a new book, I made a list of books I’d like to finish before the year ends. I divided the list into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books related to writing, and books related to my practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.

I chose some books because I’ve wanted to read them for a long time. Others I had never heard of before I sat down to compile my list. My selections are influenced by my personal taste, what my older children are reading for school, Pulitzer lists, and friends’ recommendations.

The fiction selections are a mix of classical (Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Macbeth by Shakespeare) and contemporary (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.) And, because I’m currently writing a middle grade novel and I read aloud with three grade-school-aged children, there are several middle-grade books on the fiction list as well, including The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and a biography of E.B. White.

A couple of my non-fiction selections are Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior. My poetry list includes collections by Gwendolyn Brooks, Malcom Guite, and Li-Young Lee. DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira and On Writing Well, by William Zissner are two of the books I chose to move me forward as a writer.

Finally, I’ve selected several books and chapters from the Bible for personal study and reflection. In all, I’ve assigned myself over thirty books to read.

Will I finish my list before January 1, 2019?

I’m not sure it matters. But I do know this: steady, deliberate effort accomplishes far more than the slapdash approach I’ve taken in the past.

Anyway, finishing a list isn’t my goal.

I want a new habit of intentional reading.

I want a reading habit that will stimulate my thinking and feed my writing. Consistently working my way through this list will get me there whether I actually read every book or not.

K. Asbhy
Do you have a personal reading list?  If it’s online, please leave a link in the comments. I’d love to take a look at it!

Want to see my full list?
2018 Reading List
Or you can use the 2018 Reading List menu tab at the top of my Home Page. (I’ll update the list as I finish each book.)

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Wasps and Leaves

All Quentin wants to do this morning is rake leaves.

“Will you get up really, really early in the morning with me so I can finish raking leaves in the pile and jump into it?”

He asked me this last night, his words tripping over each other. His little hand tightened on my forearm as he waited for my answer. It’s been deliciously cool lately–a presentiment of fall in the early days of July–and the mornings are especially fine.  I said yes.

So this morning we slip outside while the house still sleeps. First, I go to the backyard and kill a wasp that lies on our deck, stunned by the unseasonably cool temperature. Last night six–six!–wasps invaded our home, darting about the kitchen, ricocheting off cabinets and thumping against light fixtures. My husband and I followed their droning, armed with shoes and brooms. The younger children fled to an upstairs bedroom.

In the kitchen, my husband was relentless. He smashed two at a time above the sink. He climbed on a bar stool and crushed one on top of the cabinet. One he swatted out through through the open door. The last two died between a shoe and the wall.

My husband shook out the broom and returned it to the laundry room. Our  daughter put away the shoes. The two youngest flung open the door to their shelfter, and stuck their heads out, looking about with more caution than they use to cross the street.

Later, my  husband discovered the front door ajar. The eight year-old was careless when she went out the door to the playground earlier. That’s how the wasps got in–less than one inch of unnoticed space between the door and the doorjamb.

I was relieved. There was no nest in the house, no torn screen, no need to worry about wasps buzzing into my children’s rooms at night. Just shut the door.

My husband didn’t share my relief. An open door while we went about our business in the illusion of safety worried him. A wasp is a pest. An open door could destroy his world.

This morning, when I stand in the kitchen looking out over the deck, I see the fat wasp lying on the wood planks just on the other side of the sliding door. I know he’s just sluggish from the cold; the rising sun will revive the little menace. After a bash from the same broom that killed his brothers the night before, his crushed body slips between the slats. One less threat to my children’s tender skin.

My son is happy the wasp is destroyed. He flourishes the rake, a bacchanalian flavor to his excitement. I settle in a chair and watch.  This morning the energy seems to tangle and punch beneath his skin. He bounces around the yard, up on on his toes–I should  tell him to stop, put your feet down and walk properly–but I can’t bear to interrupt. His joy delights me.

He has a vision: a pile of crisp leaves and a flying leap into a soft, crackling landing. He springs around the yard, stroking, pulling the rake across the grass over and over.

He doesn’t stop to ask why only this tree is dropping leaves in the middle of summer, or to wonder why the leaves are so riddled with tiny holes they look like rounds of delicate lace when held up to the soft morning light. He doesn’t notice the strips of bark dangling from the trunk, exposing tender tree flesh.

He just sees providence: shower of leaves; crisp pile; soft landing.  

K. Ashby

A Still Small Voice

I.  A Still Small Voice

If ravenous winds didn’t claw your house apart
Turn it upside down
And shake everything loose–
Every dark crevice and dust-filmed corner robbed of their secrets–
Would you still, even now
Just be sitting there on the porch, cool evening,
Begging for a revelation
While a quiet breath brushed your hair,
Stroked your delicate neck–
Oh, LORD, please, LORD,
just one small sign.

K. Ashby

Life With Five Kids

It’s like herding cats into the shower, then feeding them caviar from gold-plated bowls monogrammed with diamonds. (Okay, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s sometimes crazy and expensive.) Thankfully, there’s a lot of joy and laughter as well. And most of the time, it’s just plain fun. Way more fun than anything to do with cats, who, let’s face it, are best viewed from a distance.

It’s also an experience that garners a lot of unsolicited comments and questions from strangers, observations like:

Boy, do you have your hands full! I heard this a lot six years ago when I shopped with all five kids–an infant, toddler, and preschooler in the basket, the two eldest trailing behind. As observations go, it’s not brilliant, but it’s accurate. This declaration often contains a hint of incredulity, not unlike:

Are they all yours? This is usually asked with some hesitancy and a bit of awe, as if the speaker can’t quite fathom the idea of one person having so many children. It’s often blurted out, the first thing that comes to mind, apparently, when they see our little circus-in-a-shopping-cart make its way through the aisles of the bargain department store. The best response is a perky smile and an equally perky, “Yes, they are!” before bolting. Because the next question is likely to be:

Have you and your husband figured out what causes this yet? So funny. No, it’s not, actually. It’s staler than the snack-bar popcorn we leave in our wake when we flee in our bright red shopping cart. It’s so bad, it’s not even a contender for Worst Dad Joke of the Year. (Not a real contest; I googled it.)

In my fantasies, I respond with wide eyes, and an eager tone, “No, we haven’t, actually. Would you take this pen and paper and draw some diagrams or something? We’re not real smart people. Pictures help.”

In reality, I grit my teeth behind something resembling a smile and remind myself that we all need a little grace sometimes, bless our hearts. Speaking of grace, here’s another favorite:

I could never do that! This exclamation comes from one of two very different perspectives. The first is typically a fellow mom with one or two young children. One neighbor, the mother of a two year old girl and an infant boy, was nearly speechless when she saw the kids and me leaving for  doctor appointments one morning. We were perfectly groomed and appropriately attired, a glowing testimony to calm, competent motherhood.

“How do you do that?” she  asked. “I can’t believe how hard it is with two kids. How do you manage five?”

While I longed to modestly accept the implied compliment and pretend for a moment that our outer appearance told the full story, I had to fess up: the hour or two before we made it out the door were not the prettiest moments in our family’s history, and we would  return home to rooms in a condition usually seen on The Weather Channel’s post-tornado coverage.

“Besides,” I told her, “I don’t care if you have one child or five, it’s always one more than you had before, and that takes some getting used to. Give yourself a break.”

The second sort of person who says, “I could never do that!” when they see me with my five kids, usually has a tone altogether different from the first. This is the person who sits near us in a restaurant and sees my toddler cover the floor with food, watches me knock a glass of ice water off the table and all over my infant’s carrier seat, and listens to my baby shriek his need for a nap while we wait for our check. The only thing this person doesn’t see is the forty percent tip I scribble onto the receipt before I hustle everyone out of the restaurant.

I’m one of five kids! Strangers don’t typically volunteer information about their family and childhood, but when they’re from a family of seven and see us out in public, they go out of their way to talk to us and even swap a few stories with my kids about growing up in a large family. This remark is related to:

We have five kids! This always comes from empty-nesters, and is always said with joyful nostalgia. We’ve encountered them at a performance of The Pirates of Penzance in Tennessee, in a Manhattan restaurant, and in our Virginia neighborhood. These people are a tonic. In the midst of wrangling five young children, I see on their  faces, and hear in their words the sum of their parenting years: challenging, yes; also sweet, and gone in a flash.

Going out in public with five children, especially when they’re young, is challenging. Everything takes three times as long; it’s often exhausting. Strangers are sometimes exasperating, and frequently delightful. Kind of like my herd of five cats.

K. Ashby

Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”


K. Ashby

Book List 2018: April Update

As April ends, I thought I would offer a few comments on what I’ve read so far.*  The entire Reading List 2018  is available through the menu at the top of this page.

Want to know why I’ve assigned myself a list of books to read this year? This post explains all.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson — Highly Recommend
If you read only one book from this list, please let it be this memoir. Read it to learn about the problems in the American judicial system, problems that exploit and traumatize our most defenseless populations as well as their families, communities, and participants in that system. Read it for the inspiring memoir of one man’s service to the most vulnerable members of our society. Read it to recognize, as does the author, that we all need some measure of mercy in our lives.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics), Emily Bronte — Recommend
It’s a classic novel. It’s dark and intense. The characters will rouse your emotions and try your patience. If you like quality historical fiction with a dark side, give it a try. If, like me, you read it in high school and hated it, give it one more chance. I’m glad I did. (Read more about that experience here.)

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr — Highly Recommend
“Meticulous craftsmanship” is my first thought when this book comes to mind. It’s a theme throughout the book and it’s a perfect way to describe Doerr’s WWII tale of a blind French girl and an unusually gifted German boy who eventually meet in occupied France. Each chapter is finely wrought. Characters are slowly, exquisitely developed. The story is relentlessly fascinating. If you’re skeptical of the accolades heaped upon this book, let me assure you: they’re well-deserved.

The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo –Highly Recommend
I enjoyed reading aloud this middle-grade novel with my eight year-old and six year-old. It has a varied cast of distinctive, evolving characters, including an orphan boy and an unexpected elephant, both yearning for home. It’s a story of longings: for relationships and community; for forgiveness and redemption. It’s also a story of perseverance, compassion, and a little bit of magic.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White (Ala Notable Children’s Books. All Ages), Melissa Sweet — Recommend
This middle-grade biography was a surprise addition to my reading list, a gift for my kids that I decided to “just thumb through” then kept reading. It’s a fully illustrated biography incorporating White’s childhood journals, letters, photos, and manuscripts as well as the author’s original collage art. White’s journey from a curious boy who loved words to beloved author of children’s stories is a pleasure to follow, especially when artistically embellished with such rich and varied primary source material.


Currently Reading: Macbeth, William Shakespeare; Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman;   The Green Ember (The Green Ember Series: Book 1), S.D. Smith;  Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More ?Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, Karen Swallow-Prior; Acts (of the Apostles)

*This post contains affiliate links. 

How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

I recently read a Pulitzer Prize winner that took the writer about a decade to complete. What a coincidence!  My first novel took me nearly ten years to finish. Now, I doubt Anthony Doerr followed my process when he knocked together All the Light We Cannot See, but if you’re looking to write a novel and want to take as long as possible, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend a year or two (or more!) dreaming about writing a novel. It’s very important that you not actually write at this point, unless you write about how much you want to write a novel. Other important activities include fantasizing about any of the following: scoring the highest advance ever paid out to a debut novelist; holding a hardbound copy of your novel in your hand; winning a Nobel Prize; your hometown awarding you the key to the city; adoring fans trampling booksellers to acquire your latest release, etc. It may also help to spend time with other people who “have always wanted to write a book!”
  2. Procrastination by Preparation. There’s so much to do, it’s amazing that anyone ever actually writes a book. First, you should read about writing. Books on craft, genre-specific writing advice, industry magazines, and memoirs can keep you busy for years. Reading blogs about writing is also useful. Write short stories and blog posts to help you “develop your voice.” If you run out of ideas feel free to revisit the first step. Don’t start until you feel ready.
  3. Wait for Validation. Should you really try to write a novel? Isn’t that for real writers? If you hang in there long enough, a spouse, friend, coworker, or your mom may give you permission to call yourself a writer. Then you can start. If you feel ready. (Note: this never actually worked for me.)
  4. Begin without actually writing. Spend as much time as possible researching, world-building, creating character sketches, and plotting. Tell yourself that you’re a planner. Then spend at least a year planning to write.
  5. Allow life events to interfere as much as possible. Have five kids and decide to homeschool them. Obviously, your priorities will shift. Spare time to write will dwindle. Move three times in three years. (I’m having traumatic flashbacks, so I’ll just leave that there.)
  6. Look at the time! Realize that you have been “working” on your first novel for nearly eight years. Mid-life is not as far away as it used to be and you don’t want it to arrive before your novel does.
  7. It’s time to write. Recognize that you have planned, plotted, and sketched this thing to death. There’s nothing left to do but actually write. (Don’t panic. Keep reading.)
  8. Share your dream. Choose someone who doesn’t care if you’re really a writer or not. Choose someone who will cheer you on if you want to be a writer or a world-famous butter sculptor. They’re so supportive, they hold you accountable to your writing plan.
  9. Sit down and write. Oh. It’s hard. Wish you had started this eight years ago. Stop and write a detailed outline for the entire novel because your insecure, rickety train needs rails. This might take a month or two.
  10. Sit down again and write. It’s still hard. Do it anyway. Let your friend hold you accountable. Write some more. Repeat until you finish your first draft less than a year later. It’s pretty awful, but you read Bird by Bird when you were procrastinating six years ago, so you know this is okay.

I can’t guarantee a Pulitzer Prize, but if you follow my plan, you will certainly take many years to complete a novel. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn a few things along the way. Writing your second novel may just be a different story altogether.

K. Ashby


*Books mentioned in this post:
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr

*Affiliate links