New Year, First Books

I haven’t usually paid attention to what book I’d start the new year with, although I can see why some readers might like to carefully select that first book, a symbol of the direction, spirit or overall tone they’d like to see take shape or set in their lives over the coming months.

So it’s serendipitous that the first two books I was reading in the new year were Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I bought Wild exactly one year before and had tried to pick it up then. It felt dense, though, and I put it back down without having gone far. I had so looked forward to reading it ever since I heard Cheryl Strayed’s interview on NPR in 2012 and I was worried about this initial failure to click with her book.

I really believe, though, that books will speak to us when the time is right.

I picked up Wild again last week, not because it was January but because the events in my life over the last couple of months made me gravitate toward those who have grappled with pain and/or loss. Cheryl Strayed, and Wild, spoke to me loudly and this time I flew through the book.

Wild is the memoir of Cheryl Strayed who, at 26, decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), from southern California to Oregon. She embarked on the hike a few years after losing her mother, who had been her life. After her mother’s death the whole family fell apart; her stepfather distanced himself from the children and Cheryl’s brother and sister more or less disappeared due to their own grief. Cheryl spiraled out of control, turning to sex and heroin to escape her pain. She also ended her marriage to a good man in the process. Her solo three-month hike was an attempt to find home and to find herself again.

In the beginning of the book we learn about her relationship with her mother and her turbulent early life. Once the hike begins, the story concentrates on her daily journey through the trail – sometimes glorious, sometimes dangerous, often blistering. She intersperses these stories with occasional flashbacks to or reflections on her life.

I enjoyed her story as well as her writing and voice, which I found to be honest, intimate, and humble. I found myself rooting for her, and even reacting physically (my pulse would race) when she ran out of water on a particularly sweltering day or when she encountered a couple of potentially threatening men. Although I have no plans of doing any kind of hike on this scale, her story – both her coping with loss and her physical experience on the trail – made me think about the extent to which we can push our limits and the occasions in which we rise higher than we ever believe we could.

The other book that I was reading (though have not yet finished) is a translated work from Japan, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by famed professional organizer Marie Kondo. She helps clients to organize their homes and to stay that way using her special philosophy and method. Apparently, she has no repeat customers due to the success of her technique and she has a waitlist for her waitlist. Marie had been obsessed with organizing since the age of 5 and she writes with an intimate and tough-love kind of voice.

A dear friend of mine gifted this book to me, and I picked it up one day while trying to capitalize on a rare urge to purge and clean. I flipped through the book looking for tips I could implement right that instant and found these bits of advice:

1. Ask yourself, ‘Does it spark joy?’

2. Choose what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.

3. Discard first, organize later.

4. Work by category, not room.

(I read but intentionally ignored the advice on getting rid of books.)

They’re certainly practical instructions that can be extended to the rest of one’s life. My biggest take-aways are #1: Does it spark joy? and #2: Choose what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of. (Apparently one of Marie’s clients even decided to get rid of his/her spouse (though somehow I suspect it was a ‘she’) after purging her home.)

So I started with all my clothes and began filling a donation bag with those that I no longer enjoy wearing or that I never enjoyed wearing at all (but had purchased because I needed it and it was on sale). And then I moved to other areas in my life – my bedroom, my bathroom, my daily routine, my behaviors, my ways of thinking – Do they bring me joy? What ideal bedroom, bathroom, lifestyle and mindset can I envision and how can I achieve that? These are questions I plan to keep asking and responding to in 2015.

Happy New Year! What were/are your first books of the year? Do you choose them deliberately to start your year with? What sparks joy for you?

27 thoughts on “New Year, First Books

    • Aw, thanks, Alexandra. Happy new year to you too! Thanks so much for your recommendations. I had a chance to get an advanced copy of The Unknown Americans but I didn’t have time to read and review it at the time. I will have to put that on my TR list. Will look into You’re Not You as well.

  1. I read “Wild” in the fall and because of my own difficult relationship with my mother, it spoke to me in a way that made me pine for something I could never have. And Cecilia, I bawled. I cried so hard that My Guy had to hold me for a long, long time. Needless to say, I loved the book. It was so raw, so tender, so hopeless and hopeful at the same time. Strayed’s voice stayed with me long after I closed the book so I chose to read “Tiny, Beautiful Things” next and again, I was blown away. Have you read that? It’s now one of my all-time favorite books.

    I’m currently reading, Mary Karr’s “Lit” after taking a break with one of my daughter’s books, “Flora & Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo. Prior to that I was reading Kelly Corrigan’s “Glitter and Glue”, another memoir, and all of the above (except for “Tiny, Beautiful Things” and the obvious children lit book) I realized has the same theme – a memoir that focuses on the mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure how this happened; it was quite by accident that these books found their way to me. I wasn’t aware of the content until I started reading them, and now that I’m on my fourth book on this same theme, I am startled by the coincidence. Strange isn’t it? Or is the universe trying to tell me something?

    • Wow, I wish we could do a book club together, Justine. I’m moved by your reaction to Wild and I would love to hear more. I did read Tiny, Beautiful Things and LOVED it. I’m actually thinking about re-reading that this year. The nice thing about that book is that you can flip through it and read bits and pieces of it.

      I’ve also read Lit and I’ll be curious to know what you think about it. She’s well known for her first memoir too (The Liar’s Club?) which I have but haven’t gotten to yet. Another devastating book (at least it was to me) about the mother-daughter/mother-child relationship is Please Look After Mom (fiction), translated from Korean. Have you read or heard of it?

      That book left me bawling, mainly because I saw so much of my emotions in there, and my own relationship with my mother.

      These books may indeed be coming to you for a reason…I like that you are listening to that voice! And reading the right books at the right time is so incredibly comforting.

  2. I love the idea of only holding onto the things that spark joy in your life! I do find that it’s easier said than done, though. The more people who live in your house, the more stuff you have to keep because it sparks someone else’s joy, even if it doesn’t spark your own. I still love it, though. It’s amazing how few things we really care about. For me, it would be my photo albums and my books. I also have some dishes that I love.
    I loved Wild. I thought it was brave of her to tell her story, and I admire the kind of courage it would take to hike the PCT on your own. I don’t think I could do it by myself, although the book did make me want to go for a big hike. The next book I read was A Walk in the Woods, about Bill Bryson’s experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.
    I don’t choose my first book of the year carefully. I just read the next book I would have read anyway. Often it’s still a carry-over from December. I don’t like the pressure of picking the perfect book.
    It’s so good to have you back, Cecilia!

    • Thanks so much, Naomi! It feels really good to be reading and blogging again. 🙂

      “The more people who live in your house, the more stuff you have to keep because it sparks someone else’s joy, even if it doesn’t spark your own.” — Oh yes!! I have been taking a big trash bag into my son’s room for the last couple of days while he’s in school. What brings him joy brings me utter misery, ha ha ha. (I’m not throwing away anything important – he’s just a hoarder and his room has exceeded human limits…) I like what you said about how few things we really care about. You are so right. And I am with you – my books and photo albums are all that I care about as well!! I will let those pile up but I don’t need much of other things like clothes.

      I’m interested in A Walk in the Woods now too – thanks for the recommendation (or, I took it as a recommendation ;-))!

      I hope you’re enjoying your 2015 reads so far!

      • Ha ha! I have gotten rid of things from my kids’ rooms, too, in the past, but they are getting more observant and it gets harder and harder to do it.
        A Walk in the Woods is also coming out as a movie this year, so it would be a good time to read it!

        • Yes, it does get harder! I actually got caught last night – left the trash bag out in the hallway and my son went through it!!

          I didn’t realize A Walk in the Woods is coming out as a movie! I will need to read the book. (We can also access the Appalachian Mountains without too much difficulty from where we are – I will need to plan a trip someday as well!)

  3. I want to read that book about organizing. It sounds great. That is something I’ve always been interested in, but I find that my house doesn’t stay the way I want it to. I feel like decluttering and organizing is a never-ending process!

    • It’s a thin volume and you’ll be able to read it in one sitting. I haven’t finished it yet so I can’t say too much about it except that Marie Kondo really takes her organizing seriously and to her it is more than just tidying. I should just finish it and write a review 😉 Anyway, I totally relate. I struggle so much with decluttering and maintaining.

  4. Welcome back!! (I owe you an email!) I have been dying to read that organization book (love organizing, sigh), and I just read Wild too! I also read Tiny Beautiful Things, which I bet you’d love. I swear I’ll get around to reviewing them . . .

    I actually managed to see the movie version of Wild, and it was good; very close to the spirit of the book.

    • Thanks, Carolyn! Would love to hear from you anytime!

      I read Tiny Beautiful Things before I got to Wild and yes, I absolutely loved it! My husband and I want to go see Wild this weekend…I’m so glad to hear that they did a good job with it.

      Marie Kondo (the author of the organization book) is a bit of a hoot…it’s a tiny book and I’m sure you’ll be done with it in a flash 🙂

  5. I’m glad that you’re back! Both the books sound really interesting (I’ve recently been on a major cleaning drive 🙂 ). I really love and agree with this sentence: “I really believe, though, that books will speak to us when the time is right.”

  6. C,

    Welcome back! Wild is on my bookshelf to read – I frequently revisit Tiny, Beautiful Things, but haven’t made my way over to her more popular read. Your review and Justine’s comments are the nudge I need to start reading her words.

    The organization book sounds delightful too. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Looking forward to hearing your musings on life and books this year. xo

  7. Happy New Year, Cecilia! I really enjoyed your review of Wild. I’ve been thinking about watching the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, and I think I’ll do so before reading the book (a rare inversion!). I also really like Kondo’s second piece of advice: “2. Choose what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.” In fact, that’s how I had to finalize my packing list for New Zealand. There were WAY too many things I wanted to bring, and finally I had to say, “Ok, what can I absolutely not live *without*?” and filled up my suitcase with those things until nothing else could fit.

    • I hope you’ll enjoy Wild! I bet you’ll be able to relate on some level given your travel experiences. I’ll be curious to know what you think of it. I’m hoping to catch the movie this week!!

      Happy new year to you too!

  8. The book about tidying up and decluttering definitely sounds like one that I would like to read. I end up with so much clutter in my bedroom: binders, piles of class notes, an increasingly precarious stack of clothes to be ironed….. I’d prefer to live tidily all the time, but it’s easier said than done!

  9. I might need this second book for my husband. He’s a bit of a hoarder. Let me know what you think about Wild. The movie is great, but I’ve heard mixed things about the book. I was looking at it the other day, considering whether to buy it.

    • Breaking my own rule about reading reviews before I finish a book, I read a lot of the negative reviews for Wild while I was starting out. Interestingly, I found that they did not hold true for my reading experience. The most negative ones trashed Cheryl Strayed for not really talking about the hike at all and for being vain (about the men she was meeting, etc.) but I found that completely off the mark. As soon as she was on the trail that was mainly what she talked about, though of course it was a personal journey so she did reflect on her own life as well. And the majority of men were not hitting on her. Anyway, don’t know if those were the same reviews you’d read. I hope Carolyn writes one too, as she’d finished the book around the same time I did. I’ll be curious to know what she thought.

  10. I have been taking a break from blogging gor a few months but thought I would check on you, Cecilia. I’m so glad you have returned to this space. I enjoyed your review of Marie Kindo’s book. One of the things I have been working on this year is reorganizing and reconfiguring our home. I was greatly influenced by Marie Kondo’s writing. So much of it resonated with me immediately. And like her I have been fascinated by organization all my life. I’ve always rolled my socks and folded my shirts to stand in my drawer. But our home had become back logged with things that no longer served us. I was able to clear an entire room which I transformed into a family room which is now used daily. My books remain much as they were before but I reduced my wardrobe to 35 items (down from several hundred) which I have been wearing happily since October. I offer my hearty recommendation for her book. I also bought Please Look After Mom on your advice but haven’t gotten to it yet.

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