On Bookstores: A Love Story

We recently packed up all our earthly belongings and moved from Alaska to North Carolina. While the Army did a lot of the moving for us, we drove from Fairbanks to North Carolina, which was no small feat.

Driving across the country (with the assistance of a ferry for four days from Alaska to Washington) was as difficult, wonderful, and beautiful as it sounds. I’m a person who likes having roots, so it was hard to slowly peel my Alaska roots out of the ground and hold them, preparing to slowly settle somewhere else.

One of the many things Alaska taught me was how to become grounded, and I found  reading to be one of the most helpful tools to do so. I’ve always loved books, but Alaska helped me re-love them in a new way.

As we traveled across the US, mile by mile going farther and farther from our first home that we loved so much (how does one say goodbye to a place as magnificent and difficult as the Forty-Ninth state? Ask me in a few years, and maybe I’ll start to have an answer) I found myself wanting to be as grounded as possible on our trip. And so, with every possible stop, we made it our goal to go to bookstores we found along the drive. Derek’s enthusiasm and wholeheartedness for my idea was a reminder that I am indeed married to the most wonderful human I know.

In Haines, Alaska, where the ferry departed from, I found The Babbling Book, a charming bookstore that had a dog. As rain pelted from every angle we sprinted in to the bookstore to find calm, quiet, and a few dog pets. Haines, like the bookstore, was charming and delightful, and as we prepared to move on in this massive adventure and undertaking, running my fingers over the spines of some books and shopping local made me feel calm. I bought a book by a local author, If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende, and devoured it on the ferry. (Heartily recommend, by the way.) We also visited the Haines Library, which was absolutely delightful.

A week later we found ourselves in Seattle, and I felt like a newborn baby thrust suddenly into a urban world. The crowds, noise, and bustle were overwhelming. After spending fifteen minutes at Pike’s Market, I looked at Derek and said, “let’s go to the bookstore.” He nodded, and we found ourselves at Elliott Bay Book Company. The loudness of urbanity was stilled as we wandered and perused the huge, beautiful bookstore. I bought a book on poets and a card game about Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Washington

In Rapid City, South Dakota, we took a slight deviation from books and instead headed to a used record store, which held similar delight. As I fingered through old records and tried to find an Eric Clapton record, (I did) Derek was hastily thumbing in the nineties section trying to find Ten by Pearl Jam (he didn’t.) Right as we were leaving I saw the soundtrack to The Sound of Music for $1 lying forgotten in a corner, snatched it up, and imagined how good it would feel to listen to the sounds of my childhood in wherever our new home was.

I suppose this is to say: life will always be moving along, and will always feel a bit unsettled. But I also think that it’s good to find the things that make you feel at home no matter where you are, and hold on to them. For me that’s a good bookstore (or record store) with stories I’ve read or heard and also stories and songs I haven’t known yet, reminding me that possibility and lessons are always right around the corner.

Top Books of 2018

Thomas Jefferson famously once said, “I cannot live without books,” and while the phrase is obviously somewhat hyperbolic, I have to agree. Books are like an anchor to me, bringing me back to my favorite places and teaching me new things. Military life is transient and unpredictable, and books help center me when our lifestyle becomes hectic and unknown.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
A sampling of the books I read in 2018!

This year I was able to read significantly more than years prior, in part because I went down to part-time work this fall. I also tried to make it more of a habit. Reading is something that I love, but I have to carve out time to read and be habitual about it. So I try to bring a book everywhere I go, and when I have a few minutes here and there I am reading a book instead of reading tweets or emails. I also try to read at the same time every day, even if it is only a page.

Another thing to note: read anything. Be discerning, of course, but if you want to read a teen novel, read it. Some seasons of life I read a lot of heavy Christian nonfiction and some I read none at all, and simply feel like reading Harry Potter. It really depends. I hear a lot of people get discouraged because they can’t seem to finish a long, heavy book. That’s okay. Just read.

Since I read a lot more this year it was hard to pick a top list. But without further ado and a little help from Goodreads, here goes:

  1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This is a charming and delightful novel that was also really moving. The main character, Eleanor, is one of the more quirky protagonists I’ve read in a while, and I loved her.
  2. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Set in Alaska, which I’m partial to, and the writing was just brilliant. I loved The Nightingale also by Hannah, and her epic writing style did not disappoint. This one is difficult to put down — I read it in one flight to Seattle.
  3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I’ll be honest — I picked this because I loved the cover. The book was incredible. It was a popular novel that read like classic literature to me and examined the complicated nuances of family beautifully.
  4. Becoming by Michelle Obama. Obama’s writing style is fantastic and detailed. She writes about her life in Chicago and her life with Barack Obama in an engaging and informative way. I hadn’t realized until I read this how much she advocated for military spouses during President Obama’s presidency, and I was so moved to see how much she cared and fought for the military spouse community.
  5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Late to the party with this one. I’ve not read many sports nonfiction books, but this was more than a historical retelling. Anyone who has ever competed in a sport would enjoy this story of justice and hard work.
  6. Educated by Tara Westover. I read this one very quickly — I couldn’t put it down. Westover’s writing style is incredible and it flows flawlessly. Her story of growing up in an extremist household completely separate from the world was very powerful. She also writes about the power of education, which as a teacher I really  enjoyed.
  7. Remember God by Annie F. Downs. This book was a powerful reminder to recall God’s faithfulness and kindness to us in all seasons.
  8. The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller. I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out, and it was so good. Keller writes in a pragmatic but not unfeeling way, and this book was a great encouragement.
  9. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. Yes YA lit. Yes the Netflix movie was incredible. Yes to a bright, funny female protagonist who is also just lovable.
  10. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. This was my favorite of 2018. I’d been meaning to read this for a long time. Peterson’s writing is simple but profound. He walks his readers through the Psalms of Ascent, and it felt like a balm on a windy day. Highly, highly recommend.

Honorable mentions: When Trouble Comes by Phil Ryken, In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.

There were also a few I didn’t like or that were underwhelming. There are so many more books I wish I could tell you about, but I don’t want to make this a small book in itself. So now, let me know what you read and recommend! I want to know.

Alaska Travels: Seward

Good evening, readers. I have a lot of lesson planning/grading/general schoolwork to do, but instead I am here, typing this post. When writing inspiration strikes, you must obey. Kids can teach themselves To Kill a Mockingbird, right? If you are a devoted follower of Riding Westward (lol), you may recall in this blog post that I promised a recap of our summer travels. Well, it is now the first week of September and I am delivering you said promise.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetDid you hear that sound? No? Well that was the sound of school starting. Aka me frantically scrambling to assemble my life together in time for the school year to start, only to realize that there were a million more things I needed to do/prep/plan/photocopy/re-photocopy because I found a typo after making 100 copies of said document. You know the deal.

Anyways, Seward. We decided to spend 4 days in Seward celebrating our first wedding anniversary, July 4th, and summer in Alaska. It did not disappoint. We had already been to Seward once before, for a day trip during Labor Day weekend of 2016. While in Seward for the first time we went on a day cruise with Kenai Fjords cruises to do some whale watching, see nature, and also otters. The first time we went we fell in love with this cute little seaside town, and were very excited to go back.

The first thing that’s amazing about Seward is not even Seward itself: it is the drive. The drive from Anchorage is insanely gorgeous. You feel like you’re in another world of magical fjords, glaciers, greenery, and beauty. It is highly recommended (by me) that you play Sigur Ros while driving to Seward.

While in Seward we went sea kayaking, which was cold but also very fun. Seward is on Resurrection Bay, and there’s a lot of fishing that happens in the area. There is also a ton of wildlife: think seals, otters, puffins, whales, etc. etc. etc. We sea kayaking and also went on a small hike as part of our tour. It was really beautiful and a neat way to sea the bay from a different perspective.

Another thing we did was go to the Alaska Sea Life Center. It’s an aquarium of local marine life and it is incredible. There are two dream jobs that exist here: 1) sea otter fluffer and 2) baby walrus massager. Neither of these are a joke, readers.

The highlight of being in Seward was the July 4th Celebration and consequent Mount Marathon Race. If you remotely know Derek and I you know that we love running, and we were geeking out the entire race checking splits and talking strategy. It was inspiring and beautiful to watch these people finish a grueling and gutsy race. I wrote in detail about Mount Marathon in this post, but watching it was an incredible experience. There was so much excitement and town spirit surrounding the race and a lot of Alaskan pride. Interestingly enough, Mark Zuckerberg was in attendance along with his wife. We saw them several times. Apparently he was touring Alaska.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
Awkward placement, but best photo I could get of Mount Marathon.
Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
Mount Marathon Race start.

Aside from the touring, we did a lot of relaxing, went on a nice long run, and also ate excellent food. If you are ever in Seward, check out the following:

From the deck of our BnB!

In short, Seward is an awesome nautical town. It feels very Alaskan and very different than Fairbanks, and it was a refreshing getaway for us. Derek and I kept looking at each other and saying, “we love being here!” because we did. If you are in Alaska for a short time (or a long time!) be sure to go to Seward. It is incredibly worth it!