New Stuff to Read

Laura-3booksSiddhartha, Chip Gaines, and Hillary Clinton may seem like an unlikely trio. But together they’re the new reading material I received as recent Christmas and birthday presents. If you are looking for new stuff to read, feel free to try the trio. I can’t vouch for them at this point, since I haven’t started the books yet. However, here’s my list of books I read in 2017 — and I recommend them all.

  • The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath
  • Bad Little Children’s Books: Kid-Lit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, Offensively Tweaked Covers, by Arthur C. Gackley (ABRAMS Books)
  • Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why, by Sady Doyle
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Husband, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Hangover, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • Now Go Out There (and Get Curious), by Mary Karr (originally her Syracuse University commencement speech 2015)
  • Simply Styling: Fresh and Easy Ways to Personalize Your Home, by Kirsten Grove
  • Culture War: How the ’90s Made Us Who We Are Today (Whether We Like It or Not), by Telly Davidson
  • Judgmental Maps, by Trent Gillaspie
  • The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, by Courtney E. Martin
  • Better Homes and Gardens Easy Decorating Makeovers, edited by Vicki L Ingham
  • Lyn Peterson’s Real Life Decorating, by Lyn Peterson
  • But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A (The University of Chicago Press Staff – Chicago Manual of Style)
  • A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, by David P. Gushee
  • The Pocket Square: 22 Essential Folds, by A. C. Phillips
  • Canada, by Mike Myers
  • How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland
  • How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016, by P.J. O’Rourke
  • A Possession Obsession: What We Cherish and Why, by Monica Rich Kosann
  • Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
  • The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose, by Helen Sword
  • Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, A Visual Guide, by Josh Katz
  • Pantsuit Nation, edited by Libby Chamberlain (
  • Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, by Claire Hoffman (memoir, about growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, with the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation)
  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, by Fumio Sasaki
  • The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond, by Michael Scott Cain
  • Dolly on Dolly: Interviews with Dolly Parton, edited by Randy L. Schmidt
  • Flea Market Style: Decorating + Displaying + Collecting, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Johnny Cash Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, edited by Paul Muldoon
  • Words to Ride By: Thoughts on Bicycling, by Michael Carabetta
  • Make Trouble, by John Waters (his speech to the graduating class of Rhode Island School of Design)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
  • Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, by Michael Perry
  • Stephen Colbert’s Midnight Confessions, by the Staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
  • The Once and Future Liberal, by Mark Lilla
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs, by Beth Ann Fennelly
  • Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, by David Stillman and Jonah Stillman
  • Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, edited by Holly Gleason
  • Mistaken for a King: Sketches of a Small-Town Boyhood, by Dan Kellams
  • City Farmhouse Style: Designs for a Modern Country Life, by Kim Leggett
  • Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur

Laura Sternweis


Me and Friendship 7

me-and-friendship7 My space fever began in first grade, when I read about John Glenn’s historic space flight the year I was born. I was impressed by his orbit of the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, and by his spaceship, Friendship 7. What a great name! Evidently space exploration was all about making friends, not enemies. I liked that idea, as I learned about this Mercury mission from the easy-reading book in my classroom.

I watched Apollo take-offs and splash downs throughout the 1970s. I drank Tang and ate Space Food Sticks, just like the astronauts I read about in my parents’ LIFE magazines. I even wrote a report on the solar system for the fourth grade science fair. (I still have my second-place ribbon.)

I remember Skylab and the Space Shuttle Challenger, but as adult life intervened, I lost track of the space program. My space fever went dormant for many years.

But a 2015 trip to Washington, D.C., renewed my interest. That’s when my husband and I toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As we studied all the rockets and satellites and space suits and moon rocks, a particular spacecraft captured my attention. There was Friendship 7, right in front of me! I got as close to it as I could, and begged my husband to please take a picture of me and my spaceship. My space fever was coming back.

The symptoms returned gradually — an International Space Station update here, a SpaceX launch there. With recent news reports commemorating the 55th anniversary of John Glenn’s Mercury mission, my space fever is full blown — with no cure in sight.

Laura Sternweis

Book Junkie

“The Bitch Is Back” was the last book I finished reading in 2016. “The Millennial Mindset”* was the first one I finished in 2017. The latter was a research account from two professors of communications and public relations on just what those Millennials are thinking. The former featured eloquent commentary from women in midlife, sharing, as the editor states, “the wisdom of enlightened middle age and about happiness.”

millennial-bitch-booksAs you may have gathered from the two book titles, I’m a nonfiction reader for the most part. I read about culture and politics, humor and home decorating, among other things. I read for my amusement and education, sometimes at the same time.

Full disclosure: I’m a book junkie. At any given time I’m working my way through about a dozen books or so, picking up whichever one sparks my interest.

I’m also cheap. I support my habit by frequenting two libraries — my local public library and the research library at the university where I work. I visit their “new books” shelves nearly every week, checking out whatever grabs my attention.

Occasionally I buy books. Sometime I even pay retail. But I am more likely to acquire them used, via library book sales.

I read online as well, but it just ain’t the same. I want to hold the book in my hands, feel the paper, smell the ink, and keep my place with an odd bookmark.

Midway through 2006 I started keeping track of the books I read. I’m a list maker and a goal setter. My goal is to read at least 24 books a year. For a book to make the list, I have to have read it cover to cover. No skimming.

In case you’re interested, here’s my 2016 book list. If you need something to read, I recommend them all!

  • We’re Just Like You Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle, by Celia Rivenbark
  • Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  • Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, by Carol Bodensteiner
  • You’re Going to be Dead One Day: A Love Story, by David Horowitz
  • Country Living American Style: Decorate, Create, Celebrate, by Hearst Communications Inc.
  • The Jesus Cow: A Novel, by Michael Perry (fiction)
  • The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness, by Frances Schultz
  • Absolutely Beautiful Things: Decorating Inspiration for a Bright and Colourful Life, by Anna Spiro
  • 300 Cottage Style Decorating Ideas, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict
  • Hurts Like a Mother: A Cautionary Alphabet, by Jennifer Weiss and Lauren Franklin (fiction)
  • Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation, by Martha Moore Davis
  • Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression – by Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), (A Posthumous Manifesto by the Editor in Chief of Charlie Hebdo)
  • The Atheist’s Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, conceived and edited by Joan Konner
  • Lovable, Livable Home: How to Add Beauty, Get Organized, and Make Your House Work for You, by Sherry and John Petersik
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo
  • The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, by Kaya Oakes
  • Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home, from Wreck to Ravishing, by Robert and Cortney Novogratz with Elizabeth Novogratz
  • Campus Sketches of Iowa State University, by Velma Wallace-Rayness (1962 edition)
  • After You, by Jojo Moyes (fiction)
  • The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All over the Place (parody), by Jennifer McCartney
  • The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, by Gil Troy
  • Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, by Michael Kinsley
  • Difficult Conversations: Craft a Clear Message, Manage Emotions, Focus on a Solution – by Harvard Business Review Press, 20 Minute Manager series
  • Who Is Hillary Clinton? Two Decades of Answers from the Left, edited by Richard Kreitner
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes
  • My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
  • Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
  • Leading through Language: Choosing Words That Influence and Inspire, by Bart Egnal
  • Blue in a Red State: A Survival Guide to Life in the Real America, by Justin Krebs
  • 101 Reasons to Love the Packers, by David Green
  • The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer

Laura Sternweis

*The complete title is “The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction,” by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath.

Past Christmas Present: 6 Volumes!

6-volumes-croppedIn 1968 I received over 10,000 words for Christmas. They were packaged as “The Golden Book Illustrated Dictionary.” As a first grader who had only recently learned to read, I was awestruck. There were six volumes! And they featured “many hundreds of space-age words,” according to the authors. (This was the 1960s, after all.) I eagerly took in all of those words, as well as the “3,000 pictures in full color.”

When I was a kid, I always could count on getting three presents from Santa — clothes, a toy, and a book. Under the guise of Mr. Claus, my parents made sure that each of us seven kids received these three gifts every year. Although the clothes and toys I received would be outgrown– sometimes quickly, given a physical or developmental growth spurt– the books never really were. Because through those books I developed my love of reading. That is the gift for which I am most thankful.

Laura Sternweis

7 Books for Christmas

Nobody needs Partridge Family books, but when I was 11-going-on-12, I sure did want them. The Partridge Family mysteries were all the rage among grade school girls in 1973. Each “super swinging saga of suspense”* was based on The Partridge Family television series.


The “groovy novels”* were available one by one through the Scholastic Book Club, and many of my friends were acquiring them that way. However, when our Christmas catalogs arrived (We received the Big 3: Sears, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney.), I discovered that 14 books in the series, packaged as two sets of seven, could be mail-ordered and delivered just in time for Christmas.

In my family, each of us seven kids received three Christmas presents from Mom and Dad, under the guise of Santa Claus: a clothes present, a toy present, and a book present. There may have been discrepancies in the total cost of each kid’s gifts, but that didn’t matter to us. We each had three packages to open. It was fair.

I knew exactly what I wanted for my Christmas book present in 1973. The catalog descriptions of those Partridge Family books enticed me; the photos of Keith Partridge (also known as David Cassidy**) beckoned to me from most of the book covers. But still, how could I even hope to receive 14 books for Christmas? Such literary gluttony! I figured that all 14 would be far too expensive for Mom’s Christmas budget. But oh, perhaps she’d spring for seven! A girl could dream! So I showed her all 14 books in the catalog, but said that getting a set of seven would be plenty.

On Christmas morning when I opened my presents, behold! There in my Christmas book box, were Partridge Family books 8 through 14. Two weeks later, Mom and Dad gave me the other seven books for my birthday.

I read all 14 Partridge Family books, several times each, I’m sure. They were displayed on my childhood bookshelf for the duration of my youth. Eventually I boxed them up and they spent time stored in closets and attics of the various places I’ve lived. Now they’re on a shelf in an extra bedroom of my house. I know I won’t read them; great literature they are not. I doubt that I’ll sell them; Partridge Family books are available online, but I’m not sure they’re selling. I probably won’t give them away or throw them out, either. I’ll probably just keep them, like I’ve kept them all these years, because they’re my Partridge Family memories of a Sternweis Family Christmas.

Laura Sternweis

*From the back cover of one of the books

**1970s grade school girls with discriminating tastes understood that David Cassidy was way hotter than Donnie Osmond.

Dear Kathy

Laura-Kathy-1968“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I know this as much from Pete Seeger and the Byrds as I do from Ecclesiastes 3. But from either source I find it meaningful. Both the song and the biblical chapter note that there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance. I mourned a year ago.

On May 25, 2014, I was able to spend one last afternoon with my oldest sister, Kathy, before she died, to share memories and stories and take notes as she told me what to include in her obituary. She had asked me to write it, and I was honored to oblige. She always had liked when I would write to her. So I guess it was appropriate that as her life was ending I would write for her.

Kathy left home for college just as I was beginning second grade. I was 7 and she was 17. I knew how to read and write, so it wasn’t long before I got out my #2 pencil and my writing tablet and began my first letter. I opened with “Dear Kathy,” and closed “With Love and Prayers,” as the nuns had taught me at Catholic school. In between I filled both sides of my wide-ruled paper with a “How are you?” and simple statements about home and school. And she wrote back to me.

Getting mail is a big deal to a little kid, so I continued to write to my big sister and she continued to write back. 1969 to 2014 is a long time, and there were gaps in our letter writing over the years. But we stuck with it, picking up the pace over the last decade or so.

We wrote about our husbands and our kids, her life back in Wisconsin and mine here in Iowa. We wrote about books we’d read and movies we’d seen. We wrote our way through the deaths of our parents and her six-year struggle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And on our last day together, we laughed and cried and remembered our years as big and little sister.

Kathy died on June 5 and was buried on June 10, 2014. She was laid to rest in a secluded corner of a small town cemetery.

There are no more letters, of course. Instead I write in this blog and I imagine her reply. So in that regard, I’m still sharing stories with my dear Kathy.

Laura Sternweis

Coloring Washington, D.C.

capital-color-bookI received “Our Nation’s Capital Coloring Book” when I was 6 years old, a gift from my oldest sister, who took a high school trip to Washington, D.C. From the moment I received it, I cherished it. My mother thought it was too nice a book to color in, so it was designated “for looking at only” until I was older. Each two-page spread featured a historic or scenic monument and a paragraph or two of description.

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society published the color-by-number book in 1965 for boys and girls “to stimulate an interest in the History of the United States of America.” Even though I wasn’t allowed to color in the book, my interest was stimulated and I was determined that someday I would go to Washington, D.C., and see those historic and scenic monuments myself. This spring when my college-age daughter moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship, it seemed that someday finally had arrived.

As I began planning for my D.C. trip, I decided to go back to the beginning, and I retrieved my coloring book from my keepsake trunk to take another look. At some point in my youth, my mother must have given the OK to color in the book, because tucked in the back I found a handwritten list of color names that matched a set of colored pencils to the book’s color key. Only one picture had been colored, the Statue of Freedom. I must have colored the page, because I can’t imagine that I would have let my younger brothers or sister color in my book. I stayed neatly within the lines with my meadow green, Pacific blue, and brown. Likely by the time I was allowed to color in it, I considered myself too old for coloring, and quit after completing the picture. But I took to heart the historical society’s hope that I would yearn to know more about “the great American traditions and ideals.”

In April 2015 I answered that yearning and traveled to Washington, D.C. My daughter, husband, and I saw the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials. We visited the memorials for World War II, the Korean War Veterans, and the Vietnam Veterans, as well as Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Navy Memorial. We also squeezed in trips to the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Archives. And through it all, the cherry blossoms were lovely.

“Our Nation’s Capital Coloring Book” is still too nice to color in. But now I don’t need to. I have all the Washington, D.C., colors in my memory.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. And yes, I did see the Statue of Freedom. She was still visible above the scaffolding surrounding the capitol dome.

Hooked on Half-Pint

I am obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. My obsession started in second grade “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” That was the first of the Little House books that I read. The first time through I did not read the Little House books in the order they were written. Instead, I read them in the order I could get them from the Our Lady of Peace Catholic School library. The books were popular and the school probably had only one or two sets, so a chronological reading was not an option.

laura-pepinWhen I was in high school I read them again, this time, in order. My younger sister had received the books as a Christmas gift, so I took advantage of their availability. I finally got my own set for my 27th birthday — a gift from my mother, who took the bait that year when I whined that she’d bought a set for my sister but not for me. So I read the books again. Later I acquired “A Little House Sampler” and “Little House in the Ozarks,” featuring Laura’s newspaper and magazine writing from the early 1900s.

In the mid-1990s I started reading the Little House books to my son and daughter, indoctrinating the next generation with the stories of a Wisconsin farm girl nicknamed Half-Pint. We shared the stories before bedtime and during our own travels to Wisconsin to visit my family on the farm. The kids must not have minded the indoctrination, because for Christmas 2014 they gave me “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.” It’s a well researched examination of Laura’s original and previously unpublished life story.

The pilgrimages started in 1998, when we all went to Mansfield, Missouri, to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum on her own Rocky Ridge Farm. In 2004 we found our way to Pepin, Wisconsin, and the reconstructed cabin at the site of the original Little House in the Big Woods. (Here I am in the Pepin Little House doorway.) In 2006 we made it to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota, additional Little House sites. We even attended the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant in De Smet, a re-enactment of the book “These Happy Golden Years.” (Lon, you’ve been a good sport through it all.)

I’m not sure why I am so enamored with Laura Ingalls Wilder, both the fictional young heroine and the real-life elderly author. I simply enjoy reading the Little House stories and learning more about the woman who created them. After all, we share a name, a farming background, and a pioneer spirit. I, too, left the farm in Wisconsin, crossed a big river, and headed west. Life is good in my own little house in a little town on the Iowa prairie.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born Feb. 7, 1867, in Pepin, Wisconsin, and died Feb. 10, 1957, in Mansfield, Missouri. Learn more about her at