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Tag Archives: Becca’s Summer Reading List

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Hello readers! As summer is drawing to a close, I wanted to share with you what may end up being my last completed book on my summer reading list – The Happiness Project. As many of you know, positive psychology has been a long-term interest of mine – I studied it in college, and wrote a master’s thesis on how to incorporate it into a classroom. That said, I don’t always use it in my own life as much as I would like to. And while the big thinkers (Seligman, Lyubomirsky, and the Dalai Lama) behind the happiness movement are brilliant… their prose often leaves a bit to be desired in a die-hard fiction fan such as myself.

Which is where The Happiness Project went so so right. The author, Gretchen Rubin, studied the scientific literature in depth, broke it down in an interesting, very read-able manner, and then shared her experiences applying the principles of happiness research to her own life. She focuses on three main questions: “What makes me feel good?” “What makes me feel bad?” and “What makes me feel right?” and uses them to make a list of concrete, attainable resolutions. Rubin then grouped the resolutions by months, and vowed to systematically make a nearly constant effort to reach them all – adding the previous months resolutions to the current one. She wrote about her journey and the thing I LOVED the most is, it was messy. She attests that she was happier in the end (and she wasn’t horrifically unhappy to begin with) but that happiness took real effort, and, as a result, wasn’t always fun. This was monumental for me, as self-improvement of any kind is rarely enjoyable, but usually (in my own experience) yields amazing results.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Reading The Happiness Project inspired me to start one of my own. I, like Gretchen Rubin, am not horrifically unhappy. However, I have struggled with depression and anxiety in the past and often feel so lucky to no longer be battling those diseases on a daily basis that I don’t work to make myself happier than my current state – I just work to make myself not sick again. Thus, there’s a lot I can do to be happier, and though Rubin’s book is more of a memoir than a game plan, her website ( provides an outline of the steps she took and makes it really easy for readers to design their own happiness project.

Though I’ll warn you – designing it is the easy part. It is also the fun part… because I love markers. But the implementation, like Rubin writes in her book, is not nearly as easy as you might think. Still, I am confident it is worth it. I wouldn’t recommend the book to you if I didn’t think so, and I definitely wouldn’t be incorporating Rubin’s methods into my own hectic life if I didn’t truly believe they had value.

Things that make me happy - a well-organized binder to keep track of my progress... and these adorable new throw pillows from Etsy!

Things that make me happy – a well-organized binder to keep track of my progress… and these adorable new throw pillows from Etsy!

Briefly, here are some of the goals my personal happiness project includes:

  • Letters of gratitude – I know how great I feel when people take the time to affirm and appreciate me. I’m excited to start telling the great people in my life how important they are (and hopefully giving them and me a happiness boost in the process)
  • Hosting more events at home – I just moved into my own place for the first time. I can’t wait to care for the people I love by cooking them an incredible meal as they grace me with their fantastic company and help me to see how amazing my life and relationships are.
  • Engaging in more cultural experiences – Santa Barbara has an events calendar that is crazy full. Time to take advantage of those experiences and play tourist in my own town.
  • Travel – As I mentioned, I’m in my own place for the first time in my life… so I can’t afford much travel. But when the opportunity arises, I want to be spontaneous enough to take it. After all, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
  • Remember self-care – I have a real problem during the school year of forgetting to take care of myself. Sometimes I even forget meals. So I’m making a point to pay attention to my needs and then make meeting them a priority in my life. If that means I have to spend more time getting pedicures and massages… that is a sacrifice I’m willing to take!
  • Read books I never would have considered for myself – Having a wider perspective from which I view the world can only bring good things, am I right?
  • Give faith and spirituality a chance – I’m a huge cynic. Cynics generally aren’t the happiest people. So I want to get back to a place in my life where spirituality is central to my every day movements. Research shows, the happiest people are also the most spiritual.
  • Volunteer – I know, I know. I have no time. That’s what everyone says. I’ve benefited so much from the generous, loving, giving people around me. I need to give back. Selfishly – there’s also a major dopamine surge with altruism!

If you were designing your own happiness project, what would you add? Is there anything I’ve missed?

Wishing you all a happy, healthy start to the new school year (while giving The Happiness Project 3 stars ★★★),



How to Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

I start my first day back at school (with students) tomorrow.  I’m excited to get back into the routine, but also lamenting the end of vacation in a pretty major way.  To get me back into the swing of teaching, it seemed fitting to review the book on my summer reading list that got me most excited to start teaching literature again!

Here’s the thing I’ve always loved about going to an English literature class in college (and keep in mind, despite being an English teacher, I was not an English major): You’re assigned a book (probably of pretty high literary acclaim and caliber).  You read it and think, wow, that’s really good.  Then you go to class, and through the professor and your classmates’ insight, you see what’s going on below the surface level of the plot.  And, 99 times out of 100, it is SO MUCH BETTER than you thought.

Here’s the thing I loved about How To Read Literature Like A Professor: The same level of insight, at a significantly reduced price tag.  Also, through Foster’s numerous and well explained examples to illustrate each point he makes, my reading list has grown substantially.  While this confirms that I will unquestionably die before I have a chance to read every book that I really want to, I don’t think that is such a bad thing.

Foster’s book is amazing – if you’re looking to analyze your literature.  If you prefer surface level plot, don’t waste your time.  But, if you want to go deeper into what you’re reading, I highly recommend this book.  It’s engaging and easy to read, written in manageable chapter lengths if you want to go slowly, and gives numerous illustrative examples for each point – so you really understand what you’re reading and could easily apply it to any number of books you happen to have on hand.  A few of the things Foster covers: every trip is a quest (think Hero’s Journey), when in doubt as to an allusion, it’s likely from Shakespeare or the Bible, the deeper meaning of rain in most literature, commonly used literary symbols, and the importance of understanding context.  The great thing about this work is its major applicability – I picked it up to help me better analyze and explain the higher level literature that I read with my classes.  And this will help with that!  But it will also help me to better enjoy the books I read for pleasure, and will definitely come in handy during my informal book club discussions with friends.

Bottom line – sometimes it’s fun to read for plot alone, and that’s totally ok.  But when you’re ready to dig a little deeper (and you control how deep you want to go!), grab this book first.  You will be glad you did!  I give the work 4 stars and know I will be coming back to it again, and again, and again during my reading (and teaching) career. ★★★★


Mean Genes by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan

I stumbled upon this book in a rather embarrassing way. Unlike my grandmother (I am a child of the internet, after all) I never browse in the library. I decide what I want, look it up online, write down the call number and am in and out in a matter of moments. However, I also have a horrible sense of direction. So when I marched into the Santa Barbara Public Library, list of call numbers in hand, I marched to the totally wrong section (nonfiction… eek!) I didn’t want to immediately turn back so I pretended to browse for awhile. Low and behold, the bright colors of Mean Genes grabbed my attention and in turn, I grabbed Mean Genes!

I studied psychology in college, and towards the end of my degree, starting focusing pretty heavily on evolutionary psych. It’s fascinating. As such, I’m never sure if the information in Mean Genes is common knowledge to everyone, or just me. It covers information such as why we have so much trouble saving money for a rainy day, why we can never seem to eat just one potato chip, and why despite a cultural push for monogamy, so many individuals cheat. It’s because of evolution! Our ancestors didn’t save for a rainy day, because anything of value was likely food, and it went bad if you didn’t eat it right away. The same goes for our eating habits – when you’re starving, you need fat and you need a lot of it. The problem is, we’re not starving (anymore). And monogamy, while absolutely possible today, wasn’t exactly a high priority for our ancestors.

I already knew all that. Maybe you did too. So why bother reading the book? A) Because it’s really funny and I like reading funny things. B) Because it provides engaging summary and analysis of the really interesting experiments that taught us what we know about evolutionary psychology today. And C) Because the authors will provide strategies, self-help fashion, how to use your genes for good and not for evil!

As you all know, I generally steer clear of nonfiction. This is the exception. It’s engaging, funny, and helpful. It is written in such a way that it is easy to get into, and doesn’t feel like homework. I give this book 4 stars and recommend you give it a try! If you like it… Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by my brain-crush Robert Sapolsky should be your next selection. ★★★★

– Becca

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Do you ever have those books that you’ve been meaning to read for years and years, but when the time comes to start a new book, you look at it on your shelf and think, “maybe next time”?  That is The Book Thief for me.  It’s been recommended to me since the time it was published (2007, for those of you who are interested to know just how long my procrastination can extend) and I’ve always wanted to read it.  I guess I just always wanted to read something else more.  Then, I started my teachers-only summer book club and sure enough, most of us had been putting this book off.  We vowed that at last, we would read it!

So here’s a brief outline of what it was that “we” read:  A young girl, Liesel, and her brother are being sent to foster care.  She doesn’t realize it yet, but it’s the beginning of Hitler’s power in Germany, and her parents are what Hitler considered unsavory characters (not Jews – Communists).  En route, her brother dies and in the commotion, Liesel notices a book has been left behind in the snow.  She takes it, starting a long career as, you guessed it, a book thief.  One problem: she can’t read.

Her foster father discovers this and begins teaching her.  As Liesel’s hunger for books grows stronger, so does Hitler’s power.  The story changes as Hitler’s power grows – they harbor a young Jewish man who becomes part of Liesel’s reading and writing journey.  Ultimately, the book focuses less on Hitler’s atrocities and more on the effects not on his Jewish prisoners, but on every day Germans under his rule.

In case you were wondering, by the time my book club met, only one person had finished the book.  In my defense, I was only 12 pages to the end, and finished it later that night.

I may be acting a little unfairly here.  As a young adult novel, The Book Thief is good – though long.  I can imagine several of my students absolutely gobbling up, and that is exactly the attitude I want when selecting a new book.  It has a lot of creative elements that I feel worked really well – having Death as the narrator, for example.  The biggest challenge for The Book Thief in my opinion is that it’s a book about the Holocaust.  And while it’s a fascinating and worthy subject, there are a LOT of books in this genre, and the competition is fierce because a lot of them are done incredibly well.  While I didn’t dislike The Book Thief, I did feel, at times, that it was simply more of the same.

Here’s what I did like: Death as the narrator.  This was a really cool creative touch, and it was done in a sophisticated and new way.  It wasn’t morbid or dependent on cliché – Death was insightful, neutral, and surprisingly human.  I loved that.  Also interesting was the focus on German characters throughout.  So many books in this genre focus on the unbelievable cruelty in the concentration camps and while this aspect can’t be ignored in The Book Thief, I think it was a bold and wise decision to step away from it because it’s so prevalent in this type of literature that it can often become desensitizing to the reader – exactly what the author would likely want to avoid.  Instead, Zusak focuses on the German neighbors in Liesel’s village – and artfully exposes that not all Germans were evil, or even agreed with Hitler’s views.  Some did, for valid (though misguided) reasons.  And some were just plain evil.  I like literature as an exploration of the human condition and Zusak captured the complexity of the situation and the people involved extremely well.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 stars.  Because it’s intended for young adults, it didn’t have quite the sophistication or pull for me that I prefer, but it is an interesting read, and one that I predict most teenagers will really get a lot out of.  ★★★

Juliet by Anne Fortier

I was so excited to read Juliet when I saw that it was connected to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – I had just finished teaching it to my 9th graders, and I have to say, teaching vs. reading a work is such a different experience.  I read Romeo and Juliet in high school and thought “eh, it’s ok, but it’s no love story!”.  I read it again to teach it and thought, love story or not, I’m having a love affair with this writing!  While hating nearly everything about 9th grade, I’m very tempted to request to teach it again JUST so I can teach Romeo and Juliet… it’s that fun.  So, I grabbed this book.  While utterly and completely cheesy, I could not put it down.  It was so much fun!  To put it simply, Juliet is a hybrid of the Nicholas Cage movie, National Treasure, and Shakespeare’s most famous work.  I mean, seriously.  What’s not to love?!

The twists and turns in this book are frequent and artfully connected to each other.  As a reader, expect to predict one or two of them, but most, if not all, will completely surprise you!  The main character, Julie, is working at a Shakespeare summer camp when her aunt’s long-time butler comes to tell her that unfortunately, her aunt has died.  Raised from childhood with her twin sister by this aunt, Julie is taken by surprise.  Even more surprising is when the lawyer arrives to read the will.  Julie’s twin gets all the money, while Julie is left with a key to a safe deposit box in Italy, a very old cross necklace, and some documents of her mother’s.  With no money, job, or relationship with her twin, Julie has only one choice.  She books a flight to Italy, the place of her birth that she hardly remembers, but that her aunt will never speak of, and decides to get to the bottom of this family mystery.  Get to the bottom of it she does, but not before a true treasure hunt, involving the mafia, the TRUE story of Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare allegedly got a few parts wrong), getting caught up with a cult, some mistaken identities, and long-lost family members – some of whom will return from the grave!  While it may not be sophisticated literature, it is nothing but fun.  I give it 4.5 stars and highly recommend it! ★★★★1/2

– Becca

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

As I wrote previously in my post about my summer reading list, I obtained The Ocean at the End of the Lane knowing absolutely nothing about the novel and only that the author was highly recommended to me.  Upon finishing the novel, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s all about – only because it is so imaginatively written that it is extremely difficult to put cleanly into one genre or the other.  The best way I can describe it is like a Percy Jackson book for adults.  It is much darker than Riordan’s series, but follows the same vein of the mix between real world and what else might be out there – be it magic, mythology, or some other element.

The story begins when man returns to his hometown in England for a funeral.  He drives aimlessly, and arrives at a house he vaguely remembers having a playmate at as a child.  On impulse, he stops in, and finds who he believes to be the girls mother still living there.  He remembers the girl, Letty Hempstock, talking about an ocean on the property, which could have only been a pond.  The protagonist asks Mrs. Hempstock if he can walk to see the pond, and upon doing so, a flood of memories of his interactions with the family and their ties to things beyond our known world rush back to him.

When he was 7, his parents began renting out his room to boarders to make ends meet.  The first boarder stole his father’s car, drove it down the lane to near where the Hempstock farm was, and killed himself in it.  Shortly after, strange things begin happening, which according to 11 year old Letty Hempstock, the protganist/narrator’s friend, all has to do with some other worldly beings her grandmother refers to as “fleas”.  She takes our narrator with her to take care of said flea once and for all, but things don’t go exactly according to plan.  The next thing our narrator knows, the flea has taken human form as a nanny in his house and is controlling everything.  The protagonist knows she’s evil, but can’t get rid of her – no one will believe how awful she is, and she can read his thoughts and appear anywhere on the property in a moment’s notice when he tries to escape.  All seems hopeless, but it gets worse still.  There is a hierarchy of magic beings, and when “fleas” like Ursula the nanny get loose in the world they aren’t supposed to be in, they attract more powerful and terrifying things to come and feast on them – putting everyone in danger.

This was a fantasy book unlike any I’ve read before, and I did enjoy it.  I read the whole thing in a night, mostly because it was too frightening to put down before resolution had been attained.  If you enjoy fantasy, mythology, or a good scare, you’ll enjoy this book.  Also interesting and different, the pages are illustrated, which is something I don’t usually see in adult books but really enjoyed.  If you need something truly unique to break you out of a reading rut, I recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane... and I give it 3.5 stars! ★★★1/2

– Becca


Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

I’m a huge fan of the author J.K Rowling, so when I heard that she had written a mystery (a favorite genre) under a pseudonym, I was eager to get it.  When Rowling published her first non-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, a lot of people were disappointed for, I feel, unfair reasons.  It wasn’t set in the wizarding world, there was no magic, and absolutely no 11 year old witches and wizards with which to grow up with through attending midnight release parties at bookstores and then reading several hundred page books in a single sitting.  Like The Casual Vacancy, Cuckoo’s Calling has absolutely nothing to do with the world of Harry Potter.  But it’s an amazing book written by one of the most imaginative and talented writers around – so don’t let the lack of magic wants turn you away!

Cuckoo’s protaganist, Cormoran Strike, is the perfect anti-hero.  He’s an overweight, hairy, newly single private detective with a prosthetic leg and whole lot of debt.  At the beginning of his story, his relationship crumbles, and we later find out he’s the illegitimate child of a classic rocker and a rock-groupie mother.  And yet, within first few pages, you are rooting for him.  He takes on the case of the suspicious death of Lula Landry, a famous supermodel who falls (or is pushed?) from her high-end flat in London.  Lula’s rise to success meant being surrounded by paparazzi (a very real concern for many that Rowling artfully tackles in her writing – even making parallels to Princess Diana’s untimely death) and people she can’t entirely trust.  The police have ruled that it was a suicide – and she has a history of mental illness and a stint in rehab to support such a claim.  But her brother feels that something else must have happened, and so he hires, of all people, Cormoran Strike.

I love mysteries, but like most people, hate when they’re too predictable.  Often, you can guess who the guilty party is once you determine who the author is formulaic-ly trying to convince you, the reader, is the least likely suspect.  This was absolutely not the case with Cuckoo’s Calling, which is extra impressive considering it was the author’s first mystery.  Was it Lula’s drug-addicted boyfriend who she was seen fighting with hours before her death?  A fellow supermodel who was constantly overshadowed by Lula’s success?  Her downstairs neighbor, a successful film producer accustomed to getting what he wants and with a history of domestic violence?  Her friend from rehab, who was desperate for money?  Her uncle, who clearly seems to hate her?  Or any number of other suspects?  Rowling had me equally suspicious of many characters, and I have to say, as the true story of what happens became clear at the end, I was properly surprised.  For that alone, I LOVED this book.  The characters are well-written, the setting current, believable, and interesting, and the mystery was exactly that – a mystery to the very end!  I give this book 5 stars – I highly recommend you check it out while I eagerly await Rowling’s next sure-to-be-fabulous book!  ★★★★★

– Becca