Winter Reflections, Assessing a Year of Reading and Writing

I’m not a big fan of winter. Living in Michigan, in a drafty old house, I’m perpetually cold from November through April. Yet, I appreciate the month of January. The days already seem noticeably longer and there is snow on the ground, helping to brighten the season’s gloom. I also enjoy the practice of reassessing my goals and reflecting on the road I’ve traveled in the prior year. In that light, I look back on my reflections from a year ago and set down some new objectives for 2022.

Paysage d'hiver
Paysage d’hiver, by Georges Daubner, 1921

Reading Challenge

SInce 2018, I’ve used the Reading Challenge in Goodreads to set and track my reading goals. I’d been averaging about 26 books a year but in 2021, I wanted to step it up. So, I set my reading goal to 30 books. I figured that with the pandemic underway, and an inability to go to the gym, I’d be walking a lot. I hoped to boost my literary diet by listening to audiobooks, via the library app Libby. This I did and at the end of 2021, I had absorbed 39 books.

I was quite pleased with myself until I sat down this week to look more closely at my statistics. Twenty-one of the 39 books were audiobooks. Eighteen were physical books that I actually read. So overall, I read far fewer pages in 2021 than I did in 2020! What’s more, only 7 of the books that I read last year were in French—another disappointment because I’d been averaging more pages in French as well.

So for 2022, I’ve again set a goal of 30 books. This time, however, I hope that at least 24 will be physical books and of those, I’d like 10 to be in French. In otherwords, this year “upping my game” translates to “resuming the pace that I was on.”

Reflections in the Water
Reflections in the Water, by Paul Cezanne, 1890

Best Books that Went Unblogged

Over the course of the year, I posted brief reviews of several of the books that I read. (There are links to those posts at the end of the page.) Most books went unreviewed because they had little to do with French culture. However, there are a few standout titles that I’d like to recommend.

I absolutely loved Beartown, by Fredrik Backman. So much so, that a few months after listening to it on my own, I relistened to it with my husband, Andy, on a long road trip. It was just as enjoyable the second time and I learned that it had held my attention so well the first time through, that almost nothing was new to me on the second pass.

This book, about a hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, is overflowing with many wonderful characters. Backman is a phenomenal storyteller with brilliant insight into human nature. The narration, by Marin Ireland, was also excellent.
HomegoingFictionHomegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is a series of stories (one per chapter), each providing a glimpse into a different individual’s life. All of the featured characters are descendants of half-sisters that were born in Africa in the mid 1700s. Gyasi took 7 years to write the book and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

A historical novel, the story unfolds among real events and settings. Gyasi illustrates how generation after generation of war, slavery, exploitation, and racism can devastate a people. Her writing is spectacular. Homegoing is thought-provoking, chilling, and inspirational—providing insight into the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.
The Bomber MafiaNonfiction
The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell, was originally developed as an audiobook and I recommend that you consume it this way. The book describes the development of precision bombing techniques during World War II. This may sound like a snooze fest but I assure you it’s not.

Gladwell peppers his narrative with sound effects, radio clips, and interviews that would be far less effective on the printed page. This is ultimately the story of two wartime philosophies and the high ranking generals that held them, Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. The former believed that precision bombing of military targets would avoid civilian casualties, cripple the enemy, and eventually win the war. The latter was convinced that blanket bombing, such as that used over Dresden or the napalm dropped on Japan, would ultimately save lives by shortening the war.

Gladwell masterfully explores the tensions between these competing strategies and the age-old enigma of whether it’s moral to engage in war.
Begin AgainNonfictionEarly in 2021, I stumbled upon Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. I was looking for a biography of Baldwin that would tell me more about his life and also illuminate his thinking by including plenty of excerpts from his writing. This book fit the bill. Begin Again is part biography and part Glaude’s personal reflections about the current state of a still divided black and white America.

Glaude turned to Baldwin in the wake of Trump’s election. He was feeling defeated and wondering how to find inspiration after such a massive setback to the progressive agenda. He knew that Baldwin fell into despair and attempted suicide after the assassinations of so many civil rights activists in the late 60s. Glaude hoped that by revisiting Baldwin’s life, he’d be able to piece together a vision of how to move forward in his own.

I waited for months until the audiobook, which is narrated by Glaude, became available on Libby. The writing, both Glaude’s and Baldwin’s, is dense. To fully savor them both, I ended up buying a printed copy that I could linger over and mark up.
I’m a big fan of Mathew McConaughey—not the McConaughey starring in rom-coms where he has to take his shirt off and run along the beach, but the one who starred in Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Wolf of Wallstreet, White Boy Rick, and True Detective. So, I was intrigued when I learned that he’d written a biography.

Greenlights proves that the man is more than a pretty face. He’s also a great storyteller, whose antics in real life are every bit as entertaining as the movies that he’s starred in. After listening to him recount his life’s story, I’m not sure I gained a deeper respect for his values but his intelligence, ambition, and joie de vivre are worthy of admiration.
The HistorianFictionThe Historian, by Elizabeth Kostava, is a book that I probably never would have picked up had I not been planning to travel to Eastern Europe. My son spent last semester in Budapest and I had hoped to visit him at the end of 2021. Unfortunately, Omicron and U.S. State Department warnings convinced me to cancel my trip.

The Historian was recommended by an acquaintance who claimed to have read a lot of books centered on that part of the world. He was careful not to give me too many details, only saying that the novel offers up a breathtaking piece of historical fiction. He was right and in keeping with his strategy of not saying too much about it, I’ll just add that Kostava really did her homework. The story jumps all over Eastern and Western Europe, as well as forward and backward in time. It’s mind-boggling to consider how someone could weave so many real events and locations into a single, gripping narrative, but Kostava pulls it off. I learned a lot, added many destinations to my bucket list, and enjoyed the suspenseful ride.
A Very Punchable FaceNonfiction
I have twin daughters who, due to the COVID pandemic, never stepped inside their high school for their entire senior year. 2021, while better than 2020, was pretty devastating for my kids and by the time spring rolled around, I was looking for a book to take my mind off the losses we were all feeling. Colin Jost’s, A Very Punchable Face, came through with flying colors.

You may know Jost as the host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s an extremely entertaining writer. In this memoir, Jost shares many uproarious (and a handful of poignant) stories from his life. The comedian erases all doubt that the people who wind up in the SNL cast deserve to be there. After listening to A Very Punchable Face, I can’t think of an entrepreneur, celebrity, politician, or artist who has had to work harder than Jost to achieve their goals.
The Secrets Between UsFiction
The Secrets Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar, is actually a sequel to The Space Between Us, which I’ve never read, but this book was fabulous. Set in modern-day India, the novel features a former servant, named Bhima who is fired after decades of faithful service and must find a way to make a new life for herself and her granddaughter. Surrounded by poverty, classism, rivalry, and misfortune, Bhima struggles to survive in the overcrowded streets of Mumbai.

This is less a story of hardship than it is of resilience, comradery, second chances, and human dignity. A true classic that sheds light on the complexities of life in India and the universal disadvantage of being born female. The Secrets Between Us is the best work of fiction that I read all year—beautifully performed by Sneha Mathan who narrated the audiobook.
Winter Sunshine
Winter Sunshine, by László Mednyánszky, between 1900 and 1910

Writing Challenge

One of my goals for 2021 was to pick up my writing pace. Over the course of the year, I published 55 posts, averaging 1700 words/post. In March, April and May, I tried producing 2 posts/week instead of 1. However, by summer, I was burned out. I only wrote, 2 posts in July, 0 in August, and skipped the first week of September. I suppose that I’ve gotten a tad faster than when I first started blogging regularly in 2020. However, I tend to increase the amount of research I do, or the number of illustrations, or length of the post, to fit the time that I have available.

I also undertook a writing program laid out in The Artist’s Way. This entailed, among other things, writing 3 pages in a journal every day for 12 weeks. It was a good exercise but I spent far more time composing those 3 pages than the 20-30 minutes/day promised by the author. The initial writing prompts, sparked some good passages that I’m glad to have recorded. Once the program was over, however, the journal became dull and plodding as I uninventively scrawled out my day-to-day activities. My entries slowed to a few times per week, then once per week, now even fewer.

Throughout 2021, I followed some lessons from a Great Courses class on writing nonfiction and read a few dozen chapters/articles on the craft of writing. I often picked up a tip or two that I would apply to my current week’s post but so far, I’m not really retaining these techniques such that they become innate features of my writing style. In 2022, I’ll continue to study the art of writing and I plan to take a writing class or two where I can receive feedback from an instructor.

Starry Night Over the Rhône
Starry Night Over the Rhône, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Your Suggestions

As always, I’m up for hearing about your experiences, techniques, and recommendations. One piece of advice that I run into frequently is “start your day by [fill in the blank]”, where [fill in the blank] is the goal you place ahead of all others: be it exercise, or reading, or writing, or practicing a second language… Since I want to do all of those things, plus spend time networking with other readers and writers, this counsel has never been particularly helpful.

Perhaps you feel similarly or maybe you’ve discovered an effective scheme for better managing your time. I’m open to any comments, words of wisdom, or successes that you care to share. Thanks for reading!

Reflection, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1877

Posts from 2021 containing book reviews

Reflected Willow
Reflected Willow, by Henri Martin, 1915

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Congratulations on your writing practice!
    I also enjoyed a lot The Historian, many years ago.
    And if you need a partner to do a readalong in French, let me know

  2. I think every blogger has to find the pace that works for them; it won’t be the same for every person or for every kind of writing. I do three or four posts a week, but almost half of them are lists or videos or collections of images, which are not as demanding as writing text. Some people’s posts come weeks or even months apart. I know of a couple bloggers who put up half-a-dozen posts every day, but their posts are almost entirely driven by current events and usually consist of a quote from a news story and some commentary about it. Yours are pretty meaty and often include translations you do yourself — it’s a much more demanding kind of writing than most.

    Did Gladwell come to any conclusions about which of the two bombing strategies would, in fact, be more effective? It might be hard to tell since only LeMay’s strategy was really implemented (and I think real precision bombing was beyond the capacity of the technology of that time, anyway). Blanket bombing does seem to work, but only if it can be done on such a scale as to physically destroy the enemy’s whole industrial sector and infrastructure. It doesn’t demoralize populations by itself — the German people didn’t really lose hope until they were clearly losing the war, in the form of the Red Army pushing closer and closer to Germany’s own border. People in wartime can struggle through a lot of privation as long as they think there’s still hope of winning.

    Eighteen books in a year, with some of them in a foreign language, is pretty impressive. I’ve read that almost half of Americans read fewer than one book per year on average. I don’t know about audiobooks — maybe they work better for some people, but I could never absorb a whole book in that format.

    Most of my ways of doing things wouldn’t be extendable to other people, except that I’m always careful to allow down time to rest between tasks. Even if you only woke up two or three hours ago, if you spent most of that time writing, it’s natural to need a break, even a fairly long one. Of all the organs, the brain is the biggest energy-guzzler. Writing takes a lot out of you even if you enjoy it.

    • Regarding the “right space”, I think mine is once per week. I’m sometimes tortured by the fact that I have more ideas for posts than I can actually produce. The upside is that so far, my problem isn’t writer’s block, it’s just fatigue. My monthly potpourri is inspired by your weekly link round-up—a way for me to do a core dump of interesting topics and then move on. You’ve obviously found a good rythym that works well for you.

      Thanks for weighing in so frequently here. Your ability to consume and comment intelligently on so many sites, week after week, is astounding and basically untrackable. Your words read and written, must be extremely high.

      Regarding Gladwell, no, he didn’t weigh in. That’s one of the things I really appreciated about the book. I felt his reporting was highly objective. He presented the arguments held by both sides. All appeared rational and all were flawed. He didn’t have to say that, it’s just what I concluded. If you want to learn a bit more and have access to the Hardcore History podcast, I noticed that they have an episode where they interview Gladwell about this book.

      I agree that down time is essential. I grew up with plenty of it as a kid and I can’t function without it. When my kids used to complain that they were bored, I’d say, “boredom is good for your brain. Keep it up!” Not what they wanted to hear. 🙂 I didn’t know, however, how much of an “energy-guzzler” your brain is until recently. I’m often quite tired on Fridays after I’ve published my post.

  3. Part of reading a physical book is the location and surroundings. Every year I would spend a couple of days at a hotel on Mackinac Island and while there I would sit on the porch of the old hotel, watch the stars sun set on the Straits of Mackinac, and read one chapter of The History of the Ojibwe People. In just 12 years, 12 scotch and waters, and 12 memorable weekends I finished the book.. Good read.

    Try cussing at Fox News in French, and don’t hold anything back. It will make the language travel straight from your mind to your lips, bypassing the “translation center” in your brain. This will make it more natural and fluent. The key is strong emotions.

    • Thanks for your comment. I also love to bring a physical book with me when I travel. For the last two summers, while traveling out west, I worked my way through about 2/3rds of a book on Crazy Horse. Driving across the very lands where his life and struggles unfolded brought the story alive. Whereas, reading it at home was a rather dry experience. So, like you, I’ll only be reading this book when I’m in the proper setting.

      Do they even let you sit on the porch of the Grand Hotel anymore without paying a fee? Perhaps your scotch covered the charges. I’ve been to Mackinaw several times in my life but have never been inside the GH. I’m too cheap to cough up the cover charge to get in.

  4. I’ve been looking at places in Michigan as potentials…:-)

    • Thanks for the link to your post. I have no idea how MI compares to NM for many of the services you’d love to see universally available. On such matters, by the way, I’m completely in agreement with you. Just know that winter in this state is LOOOONG. Also, we don’t have that many sunny days. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, “no matter where you live in Michigan, you’re only likely to see between 65 and 75 clear days each year.” That said, the Great Lakes are spectacular. Happy hunting!

  5. I’ve fallen off the writing wagon a lot lately, but I did pretty good for a while, there–knocking out a short story a day. What worked was using little transition tricks…organizing my writing desk, making it a ritual…putting on the right music, candles/incense, free brainstorming by spider outlining ideas for the theme of the short story call, and even changing locations…it’s TMI, but sometimes even writing in a hot bath. Sometimes I will look at the short story call and then think about it the day before, while I’m at the day job, or doing other things–going “off page” so to say. And I always write on paper first, and then type it into the computer and edit it later on in the day, or the next day.

    • Interesting. Do you come up with all of your story ideas? I’m not very imaginative—writing mostly about real-world events or experiences that I’ve had. I can’t imagine writing even one short story per week, let alone per day.

      I appreciate the ritual aspect to writing though. I’ve been pretty good at keep a relatively organized and inspiring workspace. Since my kids have all gone off to college, that space is also pretty much my own which is a plus.

      I have been writing on a computer for at least 3 decades and for me, writing stuff out longhand is harder than composing on a keyboard. I like the aesthetics of a handwritten journal, but I don’t feel like I can produce my best work there. As you say, though, it’s possibly a good place to begin. I may try to do more of that this year. So far, my blog posts are almost entirely composed online–partially because I often use a lot of source material and it’s so much easier to switch back and forth online than in a journal.

      Thanks for weighing in. You’ve given me food for thought.

  6. That is a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. The bombing book sounds fascinating…

    • You should listen to it. It’s not very long and if you have the Libby app, you can listen for free.

      I went through a phase of reading only non-fiction but friends have caused me to read more fiction in recent years. I’ve come to the conclusion that a mediocre book of fiction stinks and a mediocre book of non-fiction is usually ok. In 2022, I hope to read far more non-fiction. Any titles you care to recommend?

  7. Compliments Carol. I like the way Americans look back, assess their “performance” and set new goals. 30 books a year is a good target. About a book a fortnight.
    Now, TBH, with age I get lazy. No goals. Just read what I can. At the end of the day, there are too many books out there, I will never be able to read them.
    Have you read Houellebecque?

    • I have not but I own one of his books that I picked up at some point. La Carte et le territoire. Do you know it? I’m currently reading Madame Pylinska et le secret de Chopin by Schmitt, partly because my library had it. Maybe I should read Houellebecq next. Is there a particular title of his that you enjoyed?

      You’re right there are far more books that I’d like to read than I’ll ever get close to getting through.

      • Enjoy? Houellebecque is gross. He has a gross approach to women and sex. Amongst other things. And he will never get the Nobel prize. But for me, Modiano is a Paris Street directory with captions, and Le Clézio has wasted wonderful material.
        But, Houellebecque… he is the only living French writer to clearly write about today’s France and its many issues. And the only one to have predicted two possible futures for France. One in La carte et le territoire. The othe in Soumission. I’ve read both and a few others but those are the ones I would recommend. With the above warning: he can be gross. And his characters are losers. Maybe he is now too? But his books are worth it.

      • And your library, I assume public library, has French books? How nice.

        • Yes. Our library is fantastic. There isn’t a huge French collection but far more than I’ll ever get through. They even have French audiobooks. I started studying French when my kids entered elementary school. Thanks to the library, I was able to read many of my kids’ favorite titles in French. As their reading sophistication grew, so did my comprehension of written French. From the Magic Treehouse, to Harry Potter, to Ender’s Game…

          At one point, all 3 were infatuated with the 9 volume graphic novel series, Bone. The library owned the first volume but bought the remaining 8 after I requested them. Whenever I walk into the place, I feel intense gratitude and joy. Like a kid in a candy shop.

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