Trying to create balance…

21 books and 10 lbs (week 28): Overdue books July 13, 2014

I realize I’ve been sorely neglecting the book reviews I should have been posting as I’ve made my way slowly but surely through the year. In the past several months, I’ve made my way through four books – some of which were FAR better than the others. As far as my weight goes, I’ll be reporting on that in a separate post, since there is news to provide there and I’d like to have separate space to think it all through. I am still aiming to get through 21 books, though – as Goodreads was kind enough to point out – I’m moving too slowly. You can see farther down on this page just who owes me a month of my life back. Hopefully the next few books will go faster…

As far as the books go, you can see where I am on Goodreads at any point, or you can wait for me to post my reviews here. One note: typically, I link to the Amazon page for a given book (just out of habit), but the copies that are exclusive versions printed by Barnes and Noble are linked to those product pages. Regardless of the book or the product page I’m sending anyone to, I’d like to be clear that I am not part of an affiliate program, and I do not make any money off you clicking on a link. If you want to buy these books, feel free to use these links or not; I make nothing off them. I’m just trying to make sure I’m sending people to a rough approximation (or accurate representation) of the version of the book I read.

So, without further ado, catching everyone else up on my last few months of reading:


Book 3: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

The quintessential “pirate” book, “Treasure Island” breathes life into the character of Long John Silver, a character of broad reputation and dubious morals. A young innkeeper’s son, Jim Hawkins, gets recruited to go on a hunt for a sea-faring hunt for treasure, where he uncovers mutiny and danger. As one of those books that I felt I always should have read, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When you think back to the books you were required to read in school, “classics” typically stood in for “boring” or “why am I reading this” or “isn’t there something written within the last century?” This book was a fairly good read, the first time I’d ever read any fiction centered on pirates, and it was interesting reading about Silver and buried treasure. You saw Jim come into his own, learning probably more than he cared to about the dark side of human nature. For what’s typically considered something aimed at children (the “classics” version of YA?), I’m surprised at the amount of death and danger. Then again, I guess every century has its way of trying to shock parents.


Book 4: “The Magic Mistake (Oh My Godmother, #2) by Barbara Brauner and James Iver Mattson

From the presses at a Disney imprint comes the second book in a series about – you guessed it – Fairy Godmothers. Only, in this case, you have a young girl who’s been tapped to head off to Fairy Godmother school, leaving her family and friends behind. Lacey Unger-Ware (great name) is the young girl in question, and though she resists her call to join the corps, an accident places her squarely in the position of having to serve as a fairy godmother to her best friend’s mother…or have everyone hate her. A series of madcap mishaps ensue, and it’s up to Lacey to save the day – and herself – by saving others. I read this one with dd, who liked it a lot and asked to get more books from this series. I was sent a copy by the Disney folks so that I could see what she thought, and I was happy to see yet another example of smart YA writing. As much as dd liked the book, I found myself snorting along and enjoying it immensely. Definitely two thumbs up.


Book 5: “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon

Having loved “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, I figured that this one had to be worth a read. I saw Chabon appear on “The Colbert Report”, plugging the paperback release, and I went out right away to get a copy for myself. What then ensued was my “Midnight’s Children” moment for the year. I could not have been more disappointed with this book if I tried. I liked that Chabon tried to explore the lives of multi-cultured couples in Oakland, CA, centering around a failing record store in a failing neighborhood about to be gentrified and steamrolled into a whole new existence. Archie and Nat are co-owners of this anchor for a driftless neighborhood, and the relationship between the two men and their families is the central point on which the book should turn. Instead, you follow the shiftless Archie more often than not, finding him less an anti-hero and more just a poor excuse for a husband and father. Threads of stories don’t get pulled together too well, as everything suffers under the weight of Chabon’s apparently editor-free writing. The idea was just far better than the execution. Chabon’s rambling narrative – including one epic 8-page-long sentence that was a chapter unto itself – reduced the value of the book to bare minimum. It was as though someone took filet mignon and smothered it in a rancid sauce; you can’t even come close to eating it with any sort of pleasure. Unlike the bother books I read this year, this one was a terrible bore and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.


Book 6: “Perfect Ruin” by Lauren DiStefano

The first book in the Internment Chronicles series was just the breath of fresh air that I needed after slogging through “Telegraph Avenue”. Yet another delightful YA novel that I picked up for free at the local movie theater, “Perfect Ruin” centers around a young girl – Morgan Stockhour – living in a controlled, but generally happy, society established on a chunk of floating earth, suspended high above the planet. Strict measures determine the number of children, who will marry whom, and even the lifespan (population controls being important when you have finite space), but Morgan is fairly happy in her existence on this higher plane…until a murder is committed, and her illusion of a happy society is well and properly shattered. She begins to dig into what happened, her natural curiosity getting the better of her, and she uncovers far more than she bargained in the process. This was a delightful book (not just because of the contrast with the prior read); I’m definitely hooked and can’t wait for the second book in this series to come out. Further proof that the YA tag should never be used to weed out books…but perhaps to weed them in.


Book 7: “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexander Dumas

Dumas’ book was a literal page-turner; I found myself devouring the book 50 pages at a time. The story focuses on a young man, Edmond Dantès, wronged by a rival suitor for his beloved Mercédés. Dantès is tossed into prison, where he befriends an abbé right as he is on the verge of desperate measures. As time passes, Dantès’ mind and body both strengthen, and when he manages to escape from prison, he reinvents himself as the eponymous Count so that he can take revenge on those who contributed to his imprisonment. I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to miss every theatrical version of this book, since the material is so rich you could mine it for ages. Dumas draws his characters in 3-D; they just seem to have such depth and emotion. Where Chabon was slow and plodding, Dumas races from household to household, weaving an incredible tale of love, betrayal, politicking, redemption, mystery, and finally – salvation.


Book Review: “A Dance With Dragons” March 19, 2014

(We will return to our regularly scheduled discussion of books and weight loss when there’s weight loss to report – D’oh!)

Funnily enough, for as few times as I’ve posted lately, I’ve been doing a lot. It’s mostly just that I haven’t been posting about it because time, energy levels, or other things have prevented me from it. And so, this is the first of three book reviews that I need to push out from this year’s “21 books and 10 lbs” challenge.


Book 2: “A Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin


A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin


I originally bought George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series for dh, as we were both fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series. Over time, as he realized that Martin’s vision of an otherworldly medieval world was perhaps too bloody and too filled with “adult themes”, he withdrew from it. In fact, he never even picked up the books. So, of course, I picked them up instead. {Warning: ahead there be spoilers! Not that I’m going to tell you who’s died, but by telling you who’s ALIVE, you find out who hasn’t yet been killed off. Maybe. Let’s just say, don’t read this review unless you’re okay with possibly knowing that someone’s lived long enough to be there at least for a part of this book.}


My brother-in-law refers to Martin as “the enemy of happiness”, and I would tend to agree with him. Much as the four preceding novels in the series, the closest you’ll find to a happy ending in “A Dance With Dragons” is of the prurient kind. This book focuses more closely on main characters that were set aside in the prior book – “A Feast for Crows” – so, there’s renewed focus on some of the children of House Stark, particularly Arya, Bran and Jon. You get more time with the golden haired Lannisters, as well, and Danaerys Targaryen gets more than her fair share of page time. The book opens with Arya still learning the arts of concealment and killing, Jon trying desperately to control a continuing escalation at The Wall between Stannis’ retinue and the wildlings, Cersei scheming to get her freedom, Danaerys endlessly lip-chewing in the desert, and Tyrion attempting to make his way East to plead his case to the white-blond would-be Queen.

As usual, Martin focuses on four main themes: people killing people, people having sex with people, people pondering the miserableness of their situation, and people wandering/dithering/nearly-but-not-quite-finding-each-other. I won’t say that it’s become boring after five books; I devoured this one fast enough for something that runs over 1,000 pages. I will say, though, that this is not a book for the faint of heart. Martin’s vision of a medieval world is never sugar-coated, and the hyper-realism and sheer grittiness of his descriptions can be off-putting to those of tender or delicate sensibilities.

There is also a sense of frustration to be had reading some of the rather lengthy tales of indecision and wrong turns; Martin is very clearly in love with Danaerys, else he wouldn’t mind watching her wander, ponder, and generally do not a lot of anything for quite a few pages. Or perhaps he loves her least, since she often is the literary equivalent of the video game character you keep bumping into a wall because you can’t manage to sort out the controller.

For those who are willing to hang onto the dragon, so to speak, and see where it leads – I suspect the ride will continue to be interesting. And, after all, he claims to have “The Winds of Winter” in progress and teed up to keep the (planned) seven-book franchise going. I’ll keep reading…even if I’m reading it all on my own.


21 books and 10 lbs (week 4): Restarting the clock January 27, 2014

Honestly, it’s hard for me to tell what week it is. I’m still in a bit of denial about it being 2014 already – much less nearly the end of the first month of 2014 – so you’ll have to forgive my inability to tell what week it is. Furthermore, I’ve been in the grips of some kind of malaise, most likely brought on by my immune system fighting off the double-volleyed attack of dd’s stomach bug from last week and ds’ continuing cold. Actually, both kids have pretty awful colds, with dd having the worse of the two right now. I think Proctor & Gamble is making a FORTUNE off us right now, for all the boxes of Puffs with Lotion we’ve gone through in the last few weeks.

And so, not feeling particularly well for the last several days – plus just still very discombobulated for the last several weeks – my weight loss hasn’t been where I want it to be. Since I ended up losing about 10lbs last year off my starting point, I’d like to see if I can take off the other 10 I wanted this year. Sure, that’s backing down from the whole “losing 20lbs in one year” thing…but, sincerely, I DON’T CARE. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’d rather do this in a fashion where I don’t stress myself out so much about the numbers that I miss the healthy forest for the weight loss trees.

I’m up a couple of pounds, thanks to improper levels of hibition over the first few weeks of the month so…ONWARD AND DOWNWARD, yes?

I have, though, already finished off the first of the twenty-one books I’d like to get through this year. I set up a Goodreads account, so if you’d like to follow along, friend, peruse what I’ve rated, etc., you’re welcome to do so. My current read, partly because dh bought it for me as a present and partly because I like to see if I can challenge myself, is “Dance with Dragons” by George R.R. Martin. I’m not quite sure if I can manage to stick to the pace I need and yet get through that book; it’s 1,050 pages long. I’m giving it a serious try, though it may take me just over a month to get through it and then I’ll be running at a rabbit’s pace the rest of the year to catch up. I also have a lovely box from Barnes & Noble sitting in my living room with the next several books to follow. Ahh…reading…

Book 1: “Jim Henson: The Biography” by Brian Jay Jones


Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones

I grew up with “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street”, and Jim Henson has always had a somewhat god-like status in our house, because he managed to be so funny, clever, inventive and astonishing. Reading Jones’ incredibly detail-oriented biography of Henson, you see that he’s all that and more. Through the book, I heard about projects I never knew he’d done (such as the incredible amount of advertising the Muppets did, the shows he did in Washington, DC that preceded my appearance on the planet, and several other works for TV that I just don’t even recall, such as “The Storyteller”). I also read about things that were less joyful – sad things that happened to Jim and his family, sad things that Jim did (humanizing him by really showing that he was, in fact, a human), and the sad details of his final hours.

What you walk away with is a sense that Jim Henson – and the amazing cast around him, particularly long-time collaborator Frank Oz – had a burning need to continue to do things that hadn’t been done and, through the variety of endeavors that did well (like “Sesame Street”) and that didn’t do as well (such as “Labyrinth” or “Dark Crystal”), he managed to make incredible advances in puppetry, animation, animatronics, engineering, set design, and cinematography. Things he did out of necessity, such as putting monitors out of view, where puppeteers could see how things looked to the viewer, became staples of the industry because it just made sense and it made it all that much better.

Jim Henson’s creations have certainly touched my life and made it better; I don’t want to know what life would’ve been like without Kermit the Frog. I just don’t.

Jones puts meticulous detail into the book, almost down to the level of “…and Jim had toast with blackberry jam today, because the nearby store didn’t have his usual orange marmalade…” (NOT A REAL EXCERPT), but the book stays readable and comfortable. For someone like me, who had more than a passing acquaintance with Henson’s work, I perked up when someone I loved was coming up in the story, and I loved hearing the back stories on so many different projects he did. I’m even more in awe of Henson now than I was before I read Jones’ fascinating portrait of the artist, from before he was born up through the time just following his untimely passing.

Fans of Henson’s work should read this book, for sure, and those who don’t have familiarity with his work should study it and then go rent a messload of DVDs. Jones’ rich and vivid descriptions do Henson justice through what Henson himself always strove for: passionate, gripping, and uplifting storytelling.


20 books & 20 lbs (week 52): Goals met and missed December 31, 2013

So, at my last weigh-in, Sunday morning, I wasn’t anywhere near the 20lb weight loss goal I’d originally set at the start of the year. I’ve lost about 10lbs from the starting weight I had at the beginning of 2013, and while that’s not as good as I hoped for, it’s certainly better than it could’ve gone.

On the other hand, I managed to meet my book reading goal (see reviews for books #19 and #20, below). So, the 20 books – YES. The 20 lbs – NO. Do I feel like a failure? Not so much. Do I feel like a winner? Um…not that, either.

How was I able to meet one goal and not the other? Well, without putting apples and oranges in the same basket, I can say that I just went after the reading goal with more gusto. Sure, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses – there was that awful spell where I was slogging through Salman Rushdie because I felt compelled to finish “Midnight’s Children”, and I can say there were some late nights trying to make headway in any of a number of books…and probably far too many night’s for dh’s taste where I’d come to bed at some fairly late hour and then flip on my book light. So, it’s not like there weren’t sacrifices. However, staying up to read books isn’t as hard – for me – as finding awake time in the day to go to the gym or the willpower to turn down ice cream.

It’s not like I don’t know why I haven’t taken off more weight; I just need to find the strength to take off the weight the same way that I managed to get through the 20 books..but somehow doing this in a way that keeps me from feeling like I’m giving up things that compromise my quality of life. I haven’t figured out yet what my goals for 2014 will be – but I do know that if I set a weight goal, it’ll be aiming for more like a 10lb weight loss. Slow and steady wins the race. I’ve long associated myself with turtles, and they’ve brought me good luck in the past. Slow and steady wins the race.

And so, with that, I bring you books 19 and 20…and the winning part of my year’s challenge. Overall, I read some authors that I now want to read A LOT more of (like Warren Ellis) and I’m probably swearing off Salman Rushdie indefinitely. I’m now reaffirmed in my desire to get through some more classics, so perhaps next year’s challenge will be about going through some number of books on the banned book list. That ought to get a bunch of classics – and likely quite good ones – out of the way. Ah..the germ of an idea forms in my head…

Book #19: “The Best of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

{note: the version I link to above is a newer printing of the one I read; odds are, there are even newer, bigger compendiums worth chasing down}

I would suspect that there are likely any number of “Best of” compendiums of Sherlock Holmes stories, and it’s probably shocking to say – but it’s true! – that this was the first Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever read. After so many years of knowing about Holmes as a mythological figure, the penultimate detective, it seems amazing that I would now finally get around to reading any stories of his exploits. The book in question is a small paperback dh had lying around, with six stories: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, “Silver Blaze”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, “The Final Problem”, and “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

These being short stories, I found them all very clipped – almost vignettes of stories, and that tempered my enjoyment somewhat. I realize it’s probably some kind of heresy to say that they weren’t as good as I expected, but I rarely ever find short stories to be as satisfying as long-form stories, primarily because they don’t have the time for sufficient character development, dropping of necessary clues, etc. Out of necessity, speed and efficiency are of utmost importance, and so the things that Holmes may call out as OH WATSON HOW DID YOU NOT SEE THAT THIS WAS THUS AND SO makes less sense to me without having seen it with my own two eyes. In this way, the 44-minute detective TV show works a little better (clues are often displayed and meant to be easily overlooked or discovered).

Even so, I enjoyed the stories; I just didn’t find that I’m a fan of the short-form as much as the longer-form that supposedly also exists. Perhaps as I get deeper into looking for really new things to read, I’ll aim for something that’s a deeper dive into the world of Holmes and Watson.

Book #20: “Odd and the Frost Giants” by Neil Gaiman

Having been a fan of Gaiman’s for years, and having read his latest novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” earlier this year, I was searching for something fun to read to polish off the year when dh handed me this from our library. I tend to do arm sweeps at our local bookstore, picking out stacks of books at a time and then sometimes forgetting that I have them in the library before I ever get around to reading them. This isn’t a knock on the writers; when you have the mother’s affliction of the attention span of a housefly, this is a standard issue problem.

This short novel is Gaiman’s imagining of the story of a young Norwegian boy, Odd, who was lamed by an injury to his leg when he was younger. His father died at sea, and his mother – a spoil of a raid by his Viking father – has remarried someone with little sense of humor where Odd is concerned. Odd decides to retreat to a cabin once owned by his father, and it’s there that he meets up with three animals – a fox, a bear, and an eagle – claiming to be (respectively) Loki, Thor and Odin. The trio of gods was enchanted by a frost giant who overtook Asgard and evicted them from their seat of power, and the gods enlist Odd to assist them in their quest to retake it.

I’ve read more Greek and Roman mythology than Norse, but Gaiman has spent quite a bit of time bringing in the Norse pantheon in prior novels (such as “American Gods”), and Disney’s outpouring of money to bring forward multiple movies involving Thor and Loki, in particular, has given me plenty of reason to want to read more about these gods’ backstories. Tipping the scales at a mere 117 pages, “Odd and the Frost Giants” reads more like a short novel than a long short story. It’s a whimsical tale that gets the northern lights dancing in your head and makes you want to read more of the adventures of Odd and the gods he – a mere, lamed mortal – helps to regain their power.

It was a sweet end to a year of reading probably more books than I’ve ever packed into a single year (bearing in mind that some of the books I read are so chewy and long that they make it next to impossible to get through 20 of them). We’ll see what next year brings…


20 books & 20 lbs (week 47): {insert snappy title here} November 29, 2013

Yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little punch-drunk from not having made much progress with my weight. I’ve maintained that 10lbs I took off since the start of the year – which is FANTASTIC – and I’m still struggling on how to get rid of the other 10lbs without doing something severe.

I’m not even sure what to say, at this point. I’ve written and erased three other things prior to getting this onto the screen, so clearly I have a lot of internal conflict I need to work out. My annual physical is scheduled for February, so if I haven’t lost MORE weight by the time I get to then, I’ll ask my doctor for her opinion on the best next steps. As it is, she’ll be over the moon if I took off 10lbs and kept it off for so long, but I know she’ll be even happier if I can take off more. So, I’ll continue to work on it and figure it out. Somehow. I may not make my goal, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to quit working on this.

I heard something interesting on NPR the other day about how gamers go against the paradigm that people set for themselves. Many people quit trying something that they can’t do, yet gamers fail more often than they succeed and they keep going until they eventually DO succeed. I’d like to see if I can somehow keep my feet moving until I do reach that point of success. After all…why give in when I still have the ability to try?

Speaking of trying, I have not one but TWO books under my belt as of yesterday…so that leaves me with only 2 more books. In 5 weeks. *crackles knuckles* Time to get this done.

Book #17: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams

Quite a long time ago, I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (which allows me to bond with my fellow geeks about how one should always carry a towel), but I’d never gotten around to “Dirk Gently”. I have to admit, the book was a bit odd (even for Adams?). I found myself wondering what kind of mobius strip of a novel I’d wandered into, where the storylines folded and wove through, under, into and around each other in such complicated ways that when the threads are pulled tightly it’s completely clear how easily you got lost along the way.

The book follows several characters – a programmer, his boss (a tech magnate), the boss’ sister, an addled Cantabridgian professor, a robot monk, an arrogant but ultimately useless scion who failed at being a publisher, and an incredibly eccentric yet not-quite-attentive detective, to name a few. Along the way, one character dies and spends the majority of the book as a ghost, one crosses through space, one reveals themselves to be a time traveler, and all of the main characters stumble into each other like water molecules in a pot set over an open flame.

I can’t say that I disliked the book, but I can’t say that I fell in love with it. It certainly had its funny moments – and more than a few puzzling ones – and I ultimately don’t know what I thought of it. So, there’s that. I can’t say that’s a rousing review in favor, but I wouldn’t say to avoid it, either. If you’re looking for a strange read, this is TOTALLY the book for you.


Book 18: “Where Angels Fear to Tread” by E.M. Forster

Now this book wasn’t odd in the least…which, frankly, was a disappointment. Forster could’ve used some odd. “Angels” gives a view through a cloudy window into the lives of Victorian busybodies, focusing more on what’s proper than what’s right.

The story opens with the departure to Italy of a maiden and her companion, the widow of a man whose family was clearly at least one rung higher on the ladder than that of his bride. The widow (Lilia) leaves behind her young daughter with the in-laws, who seek to reprogram the girl into being tolerable by their level of society. Meanwhile in Italy, Lilia falls in love with a the handsome son of a local dentist, and her sneering mother-in-law dispatches her other son to demand that she return before any wedding can take place.

Arriving in the lovely town that he himself had recommended, Philip finds that Lilia has already married the local boy – Gino – and he returns home in defeat. Life turns out not to be all wine and roses for Lilia once Philip departs, since the dream of marriage to a weak-willed young man doesn’t match the reality she experiences in this foreign culture. Without going into too many spoilers, Philip makes another trip to Italy – this time not to save Lilia but to affect a rescue of another kind – to a highly unsatisfactory end.

This incredibly short book just didn’t sit well with me at all. It’s slow-paced and brooding; Forster’s Victorians are so stuck-up they couldn’t see past their own up-turned noses. Worse still, it seems that no one manages to have a happy ending. I don’t always need a happy ending, but the coldness of it all just makes even the pursuit of love such an impersonal need for improvement of status or financial situation…and even what little joy you see through Philip’s or Lilia’s eyes is tempered heavily by the oppression of the society in which they live – its repression and limitations.

I’m sure that Forster has better work; they’ve made plenty of movies out of his later pieces (“Howards End” and “A Room With a View”). Focus on those and definitely give this one a pass. Its brevity is really its primary redeeming quality.


20 books & 20 lbs (week 43): It’s all ups and downs, isn’t it? October 29, 2013

You win some, you lose some…that’s how the saying goes. I think, in that context, it’s supposed to refer to the idea that you can’t win all of your battles. Of course, with weight loss, winning is losing and vice versa, and so while I was happy to report that I’d lost a pound last week, I get to report that I gained it back this week. What the…?

Weight loss is so genuinely frustrating. If you don’t have the time, energy, or sheer mass of willpower to devote all of your time and energy to it, you just can’t seem to make the progress you want. I’m not as bad off as I was nine months ago, but I still feel like only drastic action will get me the other 10lbs down…and drastic is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Drastic is where “things that I can’t do repeatedly and forever” comes in. Drastic is “you can’t have, even when you want to” and that’s also a problem.

Now, sure, I’ve had to take drastic action before: for example, I don’t drink (highly) caffeinated drinks anymore. About 10 years ago, I stopped drinking caffeinated sodas and switched to decaf coffee & tea because my gastrointerologist suggested that might help me with my (ever-increasing) stomach troubles. Turns out he was right: dehydration is a trigger, and caffeine is definitely a trigger. And yes, there is some amount of caffeine in decaf coffee, but it doesn’t set me off, so I still drink THAT.

That was a big switch for me, and it’s also a lot of why I primarily drink water if I’m not having coffee or tea; at least that I know I can get without caffeine hidden in it (I’m looking at YOU, Orange Sodas and Root Beers!).

But that was taken for a specific symptom abatement: please make me stop being so violently ill that I’m incapacitated for several days every week. And it worked. Frankly, it’s also in the category of “drastic but totally manageable” since it didn’t require me to change how I spent my time, just what I picked to drink. It didn’t necessitate spending at least an hour in caffeine-detox every day, the way committing myself to a serious workout plan might.

So, the struggle continues. And yes, I know some of it is a matter of willpower. I could have not had that second margarita last night. COULD HAVE. But since I have about 1 alcoholic drink per month, these days, I figure that having two in one night probably holds me well enough until we get to Christmas.

Book #16: “Let the Sky Fall” by Shannon Messenger

It’s a funny thing, when you go to a movie theater and walk out with a book. That’s happened to me only a couple of times, where the movie theater had promo copies of books (recently released, is my guess, not advances) and they put them out for patrons to take on their way into whichever show they happen to be seeing. The first time that happened, we were going to see “The Three Musketeers” and I picked up some GOD-AWFUL HARRY POTTER KNOCKOFF that I just couldn’t even bother with after about 30 pages of me saying, “THIS IS A GOD-AWFUL HARRY POTTER KNOCKOFF” and exiling it to a shelf in the library to go into some nebulous “giveaway” pile that doesn’t yet exist.

So this was a bit different.

We were headed in to see “RED 2” and there was a book. On the counter. Just waiting to be picked up.

Putting aside my PTSD from having gotten such an awful book last time, I picked up “Let The Sky Fall”, a Young Adult fiction piece that seemed supernatural and potentially quite girly. The good news is that it IS supernatural but it ISN’T girly. In fact, Messenger – alternating chapters from the points of view of the two main characters – works very hard to make it NOT girly.

The book centers on Vane Weston, a teenager who managed to survive an EF-5 tornado that killed his parents and knocked out all of his childhood memories. He’s haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl that he later discovers is Audra, a “windwalker” – a sylph who can control wind, a girl who has been with him since just before that fateful day that robbed him of his parents. She explains to him that there’s a battle among the windwalkers and that she’s his guardian, sworn to protect him even if it means sacrificing her own life, and that there is another band of windwalkers that want to control him because he holds the secret to commanding the fourth wind – the westerly winds.

Of course, Vane being the average teen boy, thinks this is all fairly insane…but he manages to listen to her long enough to understand the truth in her message, and he devotes himself to learning what he can so that he can save both of them. He also tries to unlock the mystery of his past, which is tied up in secrets Audra holds clamped down as tightly as the regulation guardian braid she uses to corral her hair.

By alternating her storytelling between Audra and Vane, you get a much better sense of each character’s motivation and sensation. Naturally, there’s some measure of girliness involved – anything relating to how Audra and Vane feel about each other triggers my inner 14-year-old’s hormones – but not enough that you feel that it takes over the book. Within the first 100 pages (my threshold for pain), the book had me hooked. By the time I made it over the crest towards the end of the 400 page tome, I was staying up late to finish it. And any girliness about Vane/Audra is counteracted by both of them being tough as nails; Audra is no fading flower and her inner (and outer) strength make it clear this girl has some serious power.

Messenger ended the book by setting up for the next (“Let the Storm Break”, due out in March), and I’m curious to see what she puts into it. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for it, since this seems very much to be a series worth picking up, not just for me but also for my kids when they get old enough to handle YA. Her writing style and focus draws characters more in the vein of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson than Bella Swan, without necessarily alienating the young female set, so I think Messenger does a very good job of walking a very fine line. I’m glad I read “Let the Sky Fall”, and now I’m looking forward to March to see where she takes Vane and Audra next…


20 books & 20 lbs (week 42): Winning and losing, continued October 22, 2013

Just when I expected to deal with the consequences of an “eat all the things” week (or two), I end up losing weight two weeks in a row. I’m teetering on the edge…just a half-pound north of finally passing the 10lb weight loss mark. My pants have been looser, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice feeling plenty of wiggle room, but it’s also driving me to wear belts – which I loathe.

I also found it extremely strange that the pants I tried on at Kohls (and then bought!) ended up being wicked loose when I took them off the hanger and wore them to work. I’m starting to think that my “one size down” purchase was based on a vanity size. It seems unthinkable that I would’ve dropped a whole two sizes already.

In other words, a goal not yet met is already meeting with some measure of success in the pants/waistline area, where I’m finding the need to tighten my belt…literally!

I’ll keep at it for the remainder of the year and see what happens. Since I’ve been doing very little (or, shall we say, nothing?) lately in the way of real exercise, that’s probably the best place to start. Of course, it’s also one of the hardest, since it requires sacrificing time with the family or with my head on my pillow. Sigh. Work to do, work to do.

Book 15: “The Ginseng Hunter: A Novel” by Jeff Talarigo

I can’t quite recall how I stumbled across this book. It might’ve been one of the free books left out at the end of summer camp, where boxes upon boxes of remainders and discards were tantalizingly close to the parking space, tempting me just to toss an entire box into my car’s trunk.

This book is a view into a world I can’t even imagine seeing otherwise, the simultaneously simple and complex life of a Chinese ginseng “hunter” who lives on the border between China and North Korea. The unnamed protagonist and his North Korean paramour, an escapee who’s trapped in a life of prostitution, alternate telling the stories of their existence.

His life is about the delicate responsibility of finding and harvesting the precious ginseng roots that provide him his primary source of income, while living in an uneasy alliance with the soldiers who man the border. Her life is one of incredible misfortune – the intense deprivation of life in North Korea, combined with the horrific frustration at her inability to protect her young daughter from the harshness of their reality.

The two stories blend together so seamlessly that you catch your breath at times, realizing that it’s very likely that what he sees is intersecting with the story she is telling…and ultimately there’s no joy in the gray, pragmatic, exploitative world Talarigo describes. There’s clearly beauty, such as in the perfection of a ginseng root carefully extracted so as to garner maximum sale value. But the majority of Talarigo’s tale is about the sadness of the inescapability of it all. No one seems to enjoy their life, and what we might consider the simple pleasures are as exquisite as the greatest extravagance in the West.

“The Ginseng Hunter” is a beautifully drawn tale of sadness and things that never could have been, and I’m terrifically glad it was short. Like the bitterness or bite of a root, sometimes having only the briefest taste is the best possible way to enjoy it.


20 books & 20 lbs (week 40): Disappointment in the homestretch? October 12, 2013

My weight loss has stalled out a bit, so that’s a bit annoying. I’m trying not to get too upset, but my appetite has been completely up and down lately. It also doesn’t help that some salty foods have made me feel like I’m retaining Lake Erie; sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which foods contain the salt that causes the problem…so it’s still something I’m working on.

At this point, without further extra effort, I’m on track to have met about half of my weight goal and about 80% of my reading goal. In other words, I need to step it up. BIG TIME. And I really need to stop reading books that are slogs. What on earth is wrong with me picking these chewy novels?! Then again, if all I did was pick up Dr. Seuss books, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

I’m still mentally motivated to continue towards my goals, but I have a general unwillingness to make radical changes to my life that would provide the drastic impacts. Part of that is my stubbornness about needing to have whatever changes I make be things that I can (and want) to continue. I just have to figure out how to get past this without feeling like changes are somehow reducing my quality of life to a point that I find disagreeable. In other words: there’s still plenty of work to do. And speaking of work…


Book 14: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

I’ve been meaning to read “The Jungle” for YEARS. As a Political Science student (undergrad), I’d heard of this legendary book that described horrifying working conditions at the turn of the 20th century. Sinclair was a journalist at the time, and apparently he’d done some time working undercover in the meat-packing factories of Chicago for an expose he penned for a Socialist newspaper.

The story focuses on the life and great trials of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to came to the USA with his intended bride and her family, in search of opportunity. What they found instead was nigh unto institutionalized slavery, where horrifying working conditions for living and working were a hamster wheel that was completely impossible to escape. Poor immigrants, especially those with limited English skills, were brought into the factories – if they were lucky – and given jobs that worked them relentlessly, from sunrise until well past sunset, with the constant threat of injury and “losing one’s place”.

Rudkus and his family crowd into a house they are barely able to afford and destined to lose, even with all members of the family above the age of infancy trying to find some way to make nickels or more – often at the mercy of the brutal and inhumane packers. Tragedy heaps upon tragedy, leading Rudkus to run away from Packingtown, but even life as a hobo gives only a brief respite. As he bounces between Chicago proper and the meat-packing district, it seems that Rudkus experiences such impossible-to-survive conditions that you want to reach back into the early 1900’s and give the man a warm coat and a hot meal.

Extremely late in his story, Sinclair finds some redemption for his Job – through the auspices of Socialism. Unfortunately, this is where the book finally and utterly falls off the rails. It took me a while to get into “The Jungle”, as it was a bit of a slog for the first 100-150 pages, trying to figure out who Rudkus was and whether I could make it through his experiences in Packingtown without throwing up. (Seriously, this book gets you to wonder if it’s worth it eating ANYTHING you didn’t grow/raise yourself – ugh.) When Rudkus discovers Socialism and finds his soul freed from the oppression heaped upon it by the exploitative capitalist system, you get the sense that life will finally turn his way. Unfortunately, this is where Sinclair decides to put in a pages-long screed against capitalism that sets up Socialism as the only form of civilized humanity.

Now, as someone who’s studied Socialism and Communism (not to mention free-market Capitalism), I’m not going to say that Socialism is a complete train wreck. It certainly has its advantages, as well as its disadvantages. What bothers me is that the book doesn’t give any satisfactory sense of how Rudkus’ story continues or concludes; once it devolves into the political tract, Rudkus becomes merely the ears through which you hear the Socialist sermon. You never know whether he finds any kind of stability in his new life, and that suggests that the entire book is nothing more than a very large wrapper for a political testimony. I found that incredibly disappointing, not just because I was rooting for Rudkus to catch a break but also because Sinclair effectively discards ALL of his characters at the very end, perhaps proving that his view of Socialism is more about the idea itself than the people who support it.

To the extent that it’s a reminder of how far we have come in terms of working conditions (for many, but clearly not all), “The Jungle” is an incredible view into a truly horrifying world. It’s even worse when you think about how the conditions Sinclair described were based on his real observations of the meat-packing plants and how people lived in Chicago at that time. It’s depressing to think that version of the United States ever existed. It also makes you curious, knowing about migrant labor and poverty (not necessarily tied to such labor) still being issues today…how do we solve these problems without coming together? Frankly, these issues are less about the political umbrellas of Socialism or Capitalism and far more about the moral inclination of human beings to treat all other people as though the right to food and shelter are rights and not privileges.


20 books & 20 lbs (week 37): Rediscovering bodice rippers September 15, 2013

I did a weigh-in on Sunday morning, at 4am, just prior to taking off for the marathon. My weight was a few pounds north of where I’d been the week prior. However, since I hadn’t finished sleeping, I figured that I could retake it on Monday at a more reasonable hour and see where I came in. Thanks to the marathon (and having slept more), I came in where I needed to be: still 11lbs down from my starting point.

I realize that it’s hard to lose weight, since it requires so many changes from the routine that got you to the point where you were. What’s actually comforting, though, is that I can see and feel results. Plus, when I put it into perspective, I’ve already lost 5% of my weight from when I started, and that’s typically a “gold star” kind of moment.

So, now: how to maintain? My downfall is really threefold.

Firstly, I still have desserts most nights. It’s become part of how I manage my blood sugar, making sure that I’m not waking up with such a deficit that I can’t function at all. I should probably choose something healthier (like cereal), but there is something remarkably wonderful (and quieter) about eating ice cream instead.

Second, I’m not always snacking healthily at work. I’m not dipping into the candy bag as much as I could, but I’m probably going to it more often than I should. And yes, I could dump the entire bag EXCEPT that I keep it there for others – and in my office, candy is like cigarettes in a prison. You can’t imagine what kind of goodwill it gets you when you have candy. (Or maybe YOU can.)

Third, I need to integrate exercise into my routine more than I already do. I recently signed up for a series of Monday night yoga classes at the studio near my house, so I’m hoping that will help. Of course, I’m immediately challenged on attending – the first night, I was recovering from the marathon the day prior, and the second night (tomorrow), we have an open house at dd’s school. But, and here’s where I hope I’m turning a corner, I STILL WENT to yoga, despite being creaky and sore, and we’ve already agreed that we’ll miss the open house because it’s important that I get to go to yoga.

I’ll work on it piece-by-piece. My goal of losing 20 lbs this year may not be attainable, but I haven’t given up trying.

Book #13: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

My very first paying job -ever- was as a page in a public library about 20 minutes from my house. I had exactly two responsibilities: 1) shelve the books/magazines in such a fashion as to make it easy for patrons to find what they needed, and 2) refer any patrons with questions to the librarians. It was a sometimes quiet job, since I’d work efficiently and quickly, which left me with time to explore the books in other sections of the library than I usually inhabited at the tender age of 13 yrs and 9 mos old. That’s where I discovered Bertrice Small, who I realized was only one of a number of writers in the genre of the lengthy bodice-ripper, where women were perfectly happy being dominated by strong men and where women were CONSTANTLY in some sort of peril that the aforementioned strong men would rescue them from. Oh, and there was sex. Lots of it. Vividly described. And every woman had a mind-blowing experience *each and every time*. (Note to all teenagers: literature sometimes lies like a cheap rug.)

Fast forward nearly 27 years (wow – am I THAT old?) and I’m out for dinner with my friend, Jen, who’s been lucky enough to receive free copies of “Outlander” to distribute to some friends/other bloggers. I’d never heard of the fantasy/romance novel series, so I came into it fresh. The premise is rather interesting: a young nurse is on a second honeymoon with her husband, after a long separation due to World War II. In 1945 Scotland, Claire and Frank Randall are tentative lovers trying to re-learn what it’s like to be a couple again. While exploring some of the nearby pagan scenery, Claire is suddenly transported in time. She doesn’t realize it immediately, but she eventually comes to terms with the fact that she’s been moved back some 200 years in time – to a Scotland far removed from the one she left.

This is the portion of the story that then brings her to the endless cycle of “things that happen to Claire because that’s what happened back then.” Threats (or attempts) of rape. Battles. Torture. Being accused of and tried for witchcraft. On and on, the stream of events continues, sweeping her up in a never-ending tide of misery. She even escapes one form of misery through (seemingly) another: the forced marriage to one of the clansmen she met when she was captured just following her passage back in time.  And so, we now come to the bodice-ripping section of the book, where Claire and her paramour, Jamie Fraser, have enough sex that you start to wonder how she can manage to ride a horse for any length of time.

Of course, I make jokes…but it was an interesting read. It’s entertaining, it’s an incredibly fast read – which is no small feat for a book that tips the scales at more than 800 pages – and the characters are well drawn. Where I take issue with the book is the fact that “Outlander” spends so much time putting Claire into harm’s way that you get the sense that people of that time either spent their lives in quiet misery or were constantly in fear of just about everything. It’s a bit of a caricature, and I got tired of Claire and Jamie getting into horrible situation after horrible situation. At several points, I just wanted it to stop, if only so that I could stop tensing up about the possibility that the next flower she would step on would create an international incident.

Clearly, the books sell well: Gabaldon has put out book after book in the series, and there’s recent news that STARZ is working on a series based on the books. And so, it’s possible that I may just continue reading the “Outlander” series, once I get through the remainder of the books needed to finish off the twenty I planned for this year. I will say, though, it’s highly likely that I’ll be doing just what all those Bertrice Small fans did back in the day…and check them out of the library.


20 books & 20 lbs (week 35): Musings on being lucky August 27, 2013

It would be an understatement to say that the last week has been pretty hard on everybody. We lost a friend, and I wanted to just leave up my memorial post for him so that I could focus on just getting through the week’s events.

Amazingly, after eating seemingly everything in sight – and at some of the oddest times of day for me, I managed to keep my weight relatively stable. I’m still 10lbs down from my starting point, so I’m hovering at that halfway mark towards my goal, but I didn’t gain…and I consider that a big success. Or maybe it’s luck. It’s hard for me to guess.

I’m sure that I need to do something more drastic to lose the remainder of the weight, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m up for that’s actually maintainable over a long span of time. I can say that going down the 10lbs has already paid me back nicely in pants that fit a bit looser (which is both a blessing and a curse, since I hate wearing belts and then end up endlessly fussing with wayward capris).

Trying on outfit after outfit to wear to the wake and memorial service left me thinking that I have an odd dearth of black dresses appropriate for such events; even worse, some of the dresses I have that COULD be perfectly appropriate are a skosh too small for me right now. If I lost that other 10lbs…maybe. So, there’s always THAT for additional motivation.

Book #12: “Lucky Man” by Michael J. Fox

This has been on my list for a donkey’s age. DH added it to our library, since we’re both fans of Fox going back to “Family Ties” days. I knew about Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) at a very high-level; I knew that he got it very early, and I knew that he worked as long as he could before disclosing his condition and dropping out of the acting world for a while. Reading his autobiography gave me an even better sense of what it was like for him, both before and after his diagnosis. He describes himself ultimately as a lucky man for having realized just how precious his time is and how he can use what status he has to help others. Just as he says that (post-diagnosis) he suddenly started to notice when someone young had tremors or other signs that were similar to his, I started to notice that about people I come in contact with. It makes me wonder if I’m looking at early-onset PD or something else.

This cleverly-written, engaging self-portrait talks of his meteoric rise to stardom and the life of a normal guy who could’ve fallen off the fame cliff with a bottle in his hand had he not found just the right partner in his wife, fellow actor Tracey Pollan. He describes how he spent nights (and some mornings) completely blotto, because that’s how someone at the top of his game found escape from his own nagging self-doubts. It makes me wonder if any normal person sucked into that unreal reality would react; there are just too many stories coming out about stars taking comfort in bottles, needles, pills or other unhealthy distractions. In many ways, he IS lucky for having survived just that, although the PD diagnosis seems like a cruel reminder that even rich and famous people are just that – people. Humans.

Towards the end of the book, he talks briefly about setting up the Michael J. Fox Foundation – an organization to which I have donated money (and will certainly do so again in the future). There’s something very noble, very touching, and very human about someone realizing that they have the ability to help others and then exploiting that opportunity in the best possible way. And, as someone who’s enjoyed his work on the small and big screen, I can say that his writing only makes me love him more. You can’t help but root for him and hope that his luck only keeps improving.



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