I wish I could remember the specifics of all the books that follow. The details now blur in my mind, lucky for you. This could have been an extra long post. In short, I LOVED them all. In my perfect hypothetical library, these books would stand proud in my bookcases waiting for someone like you to flip their pages and escape to another time and place.
Top Favorite Books of My Life on Earth by Crystal Byers
The Help by Kathryn Stockett*
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini*
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry*
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant*
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden*
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls*
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt*
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou*
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Book of Bright Ideas by Sandra King
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain*
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton*
Me Before You (#1) by Jojo Moyes
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
I gravitate toward historical fiction and female perspective and memoir and young adult fiction. Anyway, I typed the list in random order, so #1 means nothing other than the beginning of my list. I can’t answer the “What’s your favorite book” question. I can only give you my top 24 and let you know I have trouble cutting my list short. On a second look, I asterisked the ones that truly star in my top ten or twelve, so if you’re looking for a MUST-READ, start there and Google to help you find your next favorite book. Oh, and I left off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series, which I LOVE, as well as some classics because I’m nerdy, but I have to shout out my all-time favorite character Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. You see, my list could’ve gone on and on, so I just stopped at #24.
Your turn. Summer approaches, and I'm a teacher. What's my next MUST READ?
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
—Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of Gatsby and master of human insight wrapped in poetry. His novel begins here, his narrator Nick Carraway, grappling with his father’s caution of criticism—
“All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In short, people judge, and Nick tries to refrain because his father said so. I think about Nick’s words and my life. I remember how often my mother would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” Then Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.”
I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How beautiful! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
F is also for Florida, where on the beach, I soak up the sun, snap a few photos, tap a few phrases into my phone, and attempt to be Fitzgerald:
It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a sparkle of sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically onto the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
49 is for my 49th year of life and my 49th blog post. Somehow I saw neither coming, but there is a peaceful simple luxury here, with words of reflection, promising more of the same.
“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.
A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s
Fun Fact Friday!”
Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday
during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun
toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a
little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their
voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”
Last Friday’s Fun Fact:
“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a
fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I
was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So
when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I
taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and
this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun
assemblies back in middle school?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down.
“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.
“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up
on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the
last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty
years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for
it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”
Their faces conveyed expectation.
“I landed on my face.”
“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.
“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in
front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head
up and down to verify the truth. “But
do you know what I did?”
“You quit your job?” One boy jested.
“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said with my index finger pointed upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”
Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.
“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”
In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.
My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.
I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.
After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.
If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.
I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:
Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
Conformity by Solomon Asch
Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
False memories by Elizabeth Loftus
Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.
And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.”
Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.
Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.
P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.
P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?
P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.
P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.
P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!
For a year and a half-ish, up until Thanksgiving of this past year, I would’ve called myself vegan. Not vegan as in, I will never wear or own or sit on leather again. Just vegan as in, I ate MOSTLY a plant-based diet and refrained from eating animals.
Prior to veganism and upon moving to Houston in the summer of 2016, I ate without restrictions. The restaurant competition here is fierce, and food choices endless. We moved into a fixer upper and gutted the 1960’s kitchen. Reconstruction took a while, and well, “Hello, Twenty Pounds.”
I joined the gym and worked hard, at least I thought. I tried to eat better, at least I thought. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to outwork my eating. Something had to change, so I said “farewell” to the meat in my life and later said “later” to dairy. Around that time, a hurricane flooded our house, and I said goodbye to many things, including my new kitchen, the gym, and ironically, the twenty pounds. I maintained the loss for over a year, but also plateaued.
Then Thanksgiving 2018. Someone gave us a turkey, which I ate, along with unrestricted sides plus dessert, and I immediately gained five pounds. I realize I could have chosen differently like I had the Thanksgiving before. Anyway, maybe not immediately, but between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I completely gained five pounds. My food choices completely derailed. Nom! Nom! Meat and more meat plus cheese plus all-things-holiday. I wasn’t sticking to any sort of plan, I was missing the map, and I felt completely lost on my journey.
At the same time, my hubs KB decided the vegan thing wasn’t working for him, which meant suddenly it wasn’t working for me. His new thing, actually a revisited strategy, is low-carb, and my vegan choices—totally carb-heavy. Plant-based pasta and quinoa and beans and rice were no longer on the menu at home where my husband is chef, so I jumped the vegan ship and joined Team Low-Carb. With the cognitive dissonance as an animal lover (have you noticed that cows have the most beautiful eyes?) and my bleeding heart for living souls aside, I admit, I love a good steak—medium.
And so—my food journey continues. Recently, KB grilled grass-fed filet mignon and made a cheese sauce with heavy cream, cheddar and parmesan, thyme, sage, and paprika. (You’re welcome.) I roasted the broccoli.
During my vegan phase, my body started rejecting cheese. On occasion, I would eat pizza or chips and queso, and my stomach would shame me for my poor decisions. One day near Thanksgiving while having the lactose intolerance conversation with my mother-in-law Dana and her best friend Michelle, Michelle said, “Cheese from grain fed cows is the problem. When you go to the store, look at the European cheeses from grass-fed cows or even goats. Try Manchego. It is really good.”
And wow! Thanks, Michelle, you’re right. We’ve discovered a lovely goat cheddar, my dairy problem has leveled out, and Kody rocked my roasted broccoli with his cheese.
If I haven’t already, I have to admit how easily I’m swayed. Before choosing to “Go Vegan,” I watched a documentary called What the Health. Then, before fully committing to low-carb, I saw one called Fat Head. Funny how we have the tendency to conform and how you can find anyone to corroborate your beliefs and how you will find conflicting research and how truth is malleable. You just have to decide what works for you, and in my experience, that takes experimentation and a map.
Let’s face it. Motivation doesn’t come naturally for most of us. I reached this conclusion while lounging in my bed this past, overcast, 40 ̊ Saturday morning. With the weekend luxury of sleeping later than usual, I awoke to the pale gray light of day, thanked God for my cozy room, and reached for my phone on the nightstand while maintaining my horizontal position. Scrolling and reading, I stumbled onto an Instagram post from @SilverDisobedience aka @DianGriesel, an ageless supermodel and behavior journalist. Look her up, (or click the link above), and be inspired. Anyway, she wrote about focusing on the positives—in people, including ourselves, and our situations. She said, “If you’re not the ruler of your thoughts, who is?”
As a collector of deep thoughts, I tapped Dian’s words into a note on my phone, and then I tapped in my own: “If you’re not behind your own actions, who is?”
I considered my own thoughts and promises to myself and actions taken in 2019. Four weeks ago, I joined a boxing gym, which is completely ironic since I had quietly turned my back on all-things-cardio for almost a year and a half. Anyway, I promised myself a workout there three times a week for three months, and Saturday morning would make my third time for the week. I wasn’t exactly trying to backout on myself, but I can’t say I bounced out of bed with glee. I dressed with a little reluctance for the 11 AM kickboxing class. But—I did it. I went to a class for the 12th time in four weeks.
The Saturday morning instructor Salatu is a beast. I mean, if I had a six pack of anything other than beer in the fridge, I would show it off, too. During February, he is challenging us to do 500 crunches every day, and his classes meet the intensity of that challenge with lots of spinning jumps and jumping kicks and jumping squats, with approximately thirteen minutes of reverse crunches to finish us off. Salatu sets the bar high, and on cue when I want to quit, he yells, “Bring the energy. Bring the Chi. Bring the energy. Bring the Chi.” And so I do my best. The best I can do is show up and try and head to the water fountain when I’m feeling asthmatic. And you know what? Each time, I’m a little stronger than before. And I have to admit, I feel quite amazing.
I even had a head start. Starting December 27th, no more.
And so far, so good.
Even now I hate to admit my habit, but here goes.
Goodbye, cigarettes. You comforted me for a time. Thank you for showing me that it’s time for me to work on me.
I remember listening to one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobooks about ten years ago. He practiced saying goodbye and thanking whatever is bothering him. His daughter had some bumps, I don’t remember the details, but the bumps were a problem, a problem that went away when she spoke to them with kindness and a farewell. Together they wrote a children’s book about it. Recently, Marie Kondo reminded me of the technique in her tv show on tidying up, thanking the items you use and love as you put them away, keeping only the things that spark joy, thanking items for the joy they brought you at one time before bidding them adieu. I try to use these lessons in my life. It’s a work in progress. I believe 2019 will be a year of personal growth.
A second commitment evolved throughout the month. I like to start school each new year on a positive note. A new year. A fresh start. I know for a fact that some kids don’t get much positivity at home, and we can all use an extra dose of positive. Anyway, on January 4th, I read a blog post titled “You need to believe it’s possible.” Click the link to read. Embedded in that post was a sixteen-minute video titled “The Power of Belief.”
I decided to show the video to my students on their first day back, January 7th, and have them journal about what they believe. I watched the video seven times total, once to preview and again with each class. After the third viewing, I noticed an ad at the end for Evan Carmichael’s book Your One Word with a #believe at the bottom of the front cover. I tweaked the writing assignment for my classes to reflect on their one word for 2018 and their one word for 2019 in addition to what they believe.
I didn’t journal at the time, but I thought about my two words and what I believe.
Word of 2018. Hope. When I began this self-imposed writing gig while living in a La Quinta and rebuilding our house that had been flooded by Harvey, I named my blog Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope. My dad gave me a silver bracelet engraved with HOPE for my birthday last year, and I wear it almost every day as a reminder that Hope, with a capital H, is a choice. I can choose my attitude, another gift of a lesson from dear old Dad. I’m fairly certain Dad is also a Wayne Dyer fan. Amid crisis, I have a choice. Hope or Despair? I choose hope along with the opportunity to grow.
Word of 2019. Believe. I realize Hope and Believe are practically synonyms. In my mind Belief removes all doubt and fuels the Hope. Belief reminds me to trust God in the process. I’m in a different place now. Literally. Back home and on a new couch. So what do I believe? I believe in a better, healthier future for everyone in my family. I believe in the progress of medicine and stem cells and cures for diseases like paranoid schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and addiction. I believe that together we are stronger, and our relationships are important. I believe my writing is evolving and helping others evolve. I believe one day I will publish a book. All through the grace of God. Some of these beliefs I shared with my students, and after one class a student came up to me and said, “Mrs. Byers, my grandfather has Parkinson’s, and my mom is like you. She researched and found a place right here in Bellaire that does stem cell treatments and took him.”
“So your grandfather is better now?” I asked.
She nodded, holding our eye contact with a serioussincerity, “I will find out where and let you know.”
And like that, I had a new avenue to explore. I believe it’s only a matter of time. I believe all of it with faith in God, gratitude in advance, and peace in my heart.
January 11th was our daughter Lauren’s 27th birthday, and Kody and I gave her a three-month membership to a local boxing gym, which included a three-month membership for me. We would go together. Now mind you, I had not worked out in any way for approximately a year and a half, but I believe in a healthier future. Right? So on January 13th, Lauren and I found our workout clothes, drove to the gym with over fifty suspended heavy bags, wrapped our wrists and knuckles, and started our first class—kickboxing. The fifteen minute warm-up included jumping jacks and pushups, lunges and squats. My calves started screaming after about one minute. Somehow I pushed forward. Then we pulled on our gloves and punched and kicked our way through eight, three-minute rounds with the bag before the abdominal-focused cool-down using weighted medicine balls. If that sounds hard, it is. On January 14th Kody joined us, this time for boxing, and he signed on the line for the membership. By January 15th, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but two weeks and five classes later, I’m feeling pretty fantastic, and Lauren has made it to at least three classes without me. And the bonus…this gym is motivational, the instructors are motivational, I am motivated, and it’s quality family time.
Last weekend I traveled the three-hour road to Austin to hang out with my like-minded childhood besties overnight. I am so very thankful for Denise and Pamela and our forty-ish year friendships, speaking of sparking joy. For the trip I downloaded Rachel Hollis’s audio of Girl Wash Your Face. I like this girl Rachel, and I can’t stop thinking of something she said, and I want you to read it:
“A few months ago after I was out to dinner with my closest girlfriend which was an impromptu happy hour that turned into an impromptu dinner and ended up going later than any of us anticipated, I went downstairs to the basement where our old treadmill is hidden and ran a few miles. I put the evidence of that workout on Snapchat, and later my girlfriend saw it and sent me a text. “You worked out after dinner? What in the world?”
I wrote back, “Yes, because I planned on doing it and didn’t want to cancel.”
“Couldn’t you just postpone until tomorrow?” She was genuinely perplexed.
“No, because I made a promise to myself and I don’t break those, not ever.”
“Ugh,” she typed back. “I’m the FIRST person I break a promise to.”
She’s not the only one. I used to do that all the time until I realized how hard I was fighting to keep my word to other people while quickly canceling on myself. I’ll work out tomorrow became I’m not working out anytime soon—because honestly, if you really cared about that commitment, you’d do it when you said you would. What if you had a friend who constantly flaked on you? What if every other time you made plans she decided not to show up? Or what if a friend from work was constantly starting something new? Every three Mondays she announced a new diet or goal and then two weeks later it just ended? Y’all, would you respect her? This woman who starts and stops over and over again? Would you count on the friend who keeps blowing you off for stupid reasons? Would you trust them when they committed to something?
No. No way. And that level of distrust and apprehension applies to you too. Your subconscious knows that you, yourself, cannot be trusted after breaking so many plans and giving up on so many goals.
When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse. I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”
Wow, Rachel, why haven’t I realized this before? You, my young friend, are right. Okay girl, three times per week, at least. That’s my boxing commitment for the next three months.
Thursday I came home to a package in the mail—inside, a silver bangle bracelet with BELIEVE in capital letters and a note from my Denise–Believe is a powerful thing!!