2013 Reading Challenge Update

Cross-posted from my tumblr

At the beginning of the year, I got overly ambitious and challenged myself to read 60 books this year. Very quickly, GoodReads told me I was epically behind… so I updated it to a goal of 52, which had been my (successful) standard the last two years.

I am on track (actually one book ahead, thanks to my recent vacation) at 36 out of 52. (Now if I had read all the Book Club books I was supposed to, I would be at least 4 ahead of this… fail.)

I posted that on facebook, and was asked what my favorites from the year were. When I think generally about the year, I don’t have any that immediately jump out at me, but when I look through the list I enjoyed the following. In no particular order:

  • After the Quake – Haruki Murakami – Short Stories
    I am always searching for books that totally envelop me. After the Quake did so. Lovely magical realism, interesting portraits of Japan and great, quirky characters. Murakami never explains too much… instead he just let’s things end where they end.
  •  The Fault in Our Stars – John Green – Young Adult Novel
    Oh the feels!!, as they say. I read it in less than a day, stayed up late to finish it, and cried through most of the last 1/4.
  • Equivocation – Bill Cain – Play
    I saw this performed at MTC in 2010, loved it, and was happy to return to it. A deliciously complicated examination/thought experiment about Shakespeare’s writing of Macbeth, the Gunpowder Plot and a father’s relationship with his daughter.
  • Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel – Novel
    I really liked Mantel’s epic novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII’s court. (Super excited about the BBC/Mark Rylance adaptation). I spent a lot of time reading it, as I had to, and felt very immersed in her universe. I would like to do some follow-up and see what sources it came from. Combining this with another historical fiction piece I read this year (The Daughter of Time), I have a totally different perspective on Sir Thomas More.
  • The Story of a Marriage – Andrew Sean Greer – Novel
  • The Magician’s Book: a Skeptics Adventures in Narnia – Laura Miller – Nonfiction
  • Hawkeye, vol 1: My Life as a Weapon – Matt Fraction & David Aja – Graphic Novel
    When I was a kid and first got braces, there was a comic shop down the street from the orthodontist. My dad would take me to get comics after appointments, and at that time they had just re-booted the Avengers. Since then, I have always liked Hawkeye, and think this book was just wonderful – interesting, different, and beautifully created. Vol 2 was also great (Pizza Dog!)
  • Saga vol 1 – Brian K. Vaughn – Graphic Novel
    Another brilliant graphic novel that had been recommended all through 2012. So glad to have read this unique/weird love story. Still somewhat creeped out by the TV-head people.
  • Deathtrap – Ira Levin – Play
    I have been slowly working my way through all of Levin’s work, since moving back to California. I love his novels (especially A Kiss Before Dying) but his plays are just delightful in a very mischievous and somewhat disturbing way. Deathtrap is all about writing a play, within a play, with murder plots intertwined with love and fame.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan – Novel
    I was the only one in my book club that liked Egan’s novel. It was certainly off-putting at times, but I liked her universe and the weird connections and interesting storytelling.
  • **The Big Disconnect by Giles Slade & Drift by Rachel Maddow – Nonfiction
    I didn’t really like either of these books – covering the history of technology and the US military, respectively – but I learned a lot and I’m glad I read them.

I did not like:

  • The Magicians – Lev Grossman – Novel
  • City of Bones – Cassandra Claire – Young Adult Novel
  • Ex Machina – Brian K. Vaughan – Graphic Novel
  • Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie – Novel – (couldn’t finish)

I’m always looking for recommendations, so if you have thoughts on how I should finish out the next 20 or so, let me know!

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On a love of Book Clubs

This past weekend was really lovely. I celebrated my one year anniversary of being back in California by going all over the Bay Area – seeing my dad’s show in Orinda, visiting friends in San Rafael, spending time in Pacifica for the gym and at Syche & Drew’s – and by doing some serious yard work with my parents. (I should probably be doing more of the latter, as I have fully enjoyed a year of living rent-free. Thanks Mom & Dad!)

As you can see in the screen shot above, I also spent part of Sunday in a Google Hangout with Book Club, Both Coasts. I love the moment that Joe caught with this picture, as we are all laughing so hard! (Does anyone remember this part of the convo? Was in reference to traveling in our minds with a Mouse God?)

This moment was an important part of my anniversary weekend, because last September I worried A LOT about my friendships – how would I integrate back into the lives of folks on the West Coast? And how would I maintain friendships with people now living far, far away?

Surprisingly, for … 97% of people it has gone well. And really, book club has helped a lot. Nothing I’m saying here is new – but  I’m a big fan of book club, or any scheduled gathering of friends. It means you get to see people you care about at least once a month, in an organized fashion, and with book club, you get to have serious conversations while still open to tangents and gossip. I know, even when work is really crazy or friends are popping out babies, I will get to see these friends once a month at the bare minimum. So, go book club!

However, as I approach year 2 of my California life, I may be at a point of critical mass. How many book clubs is too many?

Continue reading

Tell the ones that need to know, we are headed north

Ok, so I am in hour three of waiting for a giant file upload. As soon as it finishes, I can leave for the weekend.

So, I shall use this time to blog briefly about things making me happy this week:

– Super excited to have the (atheist) best friend from DC up to hang out for this Easter weekend. I’m looking towards medieval castles, giant bonnets, eggs, a magic show and chocolate.

– book club makes me happy every time it happens! Especially when a trained chef makes super delicious steak to accompany discussion of steam punk, zombies, and class issues.

– playing  a”Finish throwing game” in Astoria Park on a sunny day may be the best thing ever.  Add a friend’s parents and it is just crazy awesome

– Being reminded how fucking funny Christopher Walken’s SNL sketch, The Census Taker, is.

– Jesus, I love my camera. And learning all sorts of new things to do with it is pretty amazing.

–  “Who is John Galt?” graffiti at the bottom of the steps at my subway stop, causing me to text Joe and Robert immediately, even though it was 1am on Thursday morning.

– Claire Hummel’s project to costume Disney Princesses in historically accurate dresses

– Summer plans in general, and booking my July trip to Milwaukee in particular

– working on my first (web) TV project

– tax returns

I and Love and You

Maybe I’ll see you after the last page

Today, I enjoyed:
Stop Podcasting Yourself

– book club, in general

– fitzgeralds, in particular

– watching Watson on Jeopardy

– laughing incredibly hard at Robert and Kristin’s bitchy banter

-apples and jack cheese, pan fried gnocchi, & an eskimo pie

– fast forwarding through the DVR’d Grammys to watch Mumford & Sons on J&J’s giant TV

—————

But, really, those fitzgeralds won the prize. (Fitzgeralds, aka gin rickeys, were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite drink). I have an impossibly hard time ordering drinks at bars, as I don’t really like most mixed drinks. If I’m at a restaurant, I order a white wine, but I feel stupid ordering that at bars. But now, I have the oh-so-delicious fitzgerald (gin, lime juice, seltzer) and am oh-so-happy.

Joe hosted Book Club today, and served the above fitzgeralds because they are a constant in Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer, which we read this month.

Very Short List describes the book better than I can (and in fact inspired the selection):

How many novels begin with a Milli Vanilli quote? In the case of the funny and sharp The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer , the lyric “Girl you know it’s true” is particularly apt, as this clever tale blurs fact and fiction to riotous effect.

Ian Minot is a disgruntled coffee barista who yearns to crack the literary world’s inner circle, but no one seems to want to publish his sensitive short fiction. Not helping matters is Blade Markham, author of a best-selling street memoir that may or may not be fabricated, who has just made off with Minot’s girlfriend… When Ian’s approached by a stranger with an idea … the best-made plans (as usual) go completely haywire. It’s hard to predict where this satiric send-up of the publishing world is going to go, but it’s such an entertaining read that you’ll be willing to follow through every twist and unbelievable turn.

That is a little more positive than I would be, but in the end, I enjoyed the book.  It took me a solid 100 pages to stop hating the main character, and be willing to care about what happens, but I enjoyed the ride of the latter half of the book. I recommend it if you:

– are a writer or work in publishing

– enjoy (or don’t mind) super meta fiction

– want to travel vicariously through my old neighborhood of Morningside Heights

– will let yourself be taken away by a “what if?” adventure

Next, book club will be reading The End of Mr Y, so expect updates on that . But before I can get to that, I really,  really need to finish Oliver Twist, which I have been slogging through since the middle of January.

an unexamined sandwich

STOP! Before you read this blog, go to this website.
And Do Nothing For Two Minutes.

Were you able to do it?

I found it very hard, and often have problems relaxing and quieting my brain.

For example, I just got home from yoga, and I feel great.
My good friend Kaitlin recommended Astoria’s Yoga Agora to me a long, long time ago, and I finally started going this week. First to a beginner’s class on Saturday, and tonight to a regular class.

And I loved it.
Let me be clear – I am not good.
I have little flexibility, and all sorts of fun folds of fat (breasts, thighs, stomach) that seem to get in the way of seemingly simple moves. And after Saturday, I was certainly in a lot of pain.

But I still loved it.
The people (instructors and fellow students) are nice, the studio is beautiful, and I feel like I am really learning something. Not just about yoga… but a sense of how my body works and what I can do to make it work better.
I am resolved to go at least two times a week from here on out, and am excited about the prospect.

However, my biggest road block came near the end of the class, when the class engaged in the Corpse pose (lying on your back with your eyes closed) and accompanying meditation. For the first few seconds, I was incredibly relieved to no longer be moving or contorting my body. For the next few, I enjoyed the calm. And then… well I couldn’t get my brain to shut up.

I started thinking about: … the next yoga class I could get to… who wants to go to see the Oscar-nominated shorts this weekend … the warmth of the room… then I would focus on breathing for 1-2-3…wow, its hard to concentrate… I wonder how long it will take to be able to get my hip flexer in shape…ok, let’s focus…apparently the brain can concentrate on 7 things at once, why can’t I focus on my breathing…1-2-3… when I get home I’m going to write a blog about how I couldn’t focus…. And so on…

I know this is not unusual at all.
In fact, it made me think of that the incredibly popular memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
It took me a long time to get around to reading Eat, and really only did it because Robert picked it for our book club this past August. (Robert writes about his take on reading it here)

I had huge reservations about this book.  Mostly because I really, really, really didn’t want to be seen reading Eat on the subway. Why?

I’m not entirely sure – first, I knew it was about spirituality in a touchy-feely way that I have a hard time with.  And second, and probably more so, I think the book was just way too popular by the time I read it.  I didn’t want to be seen as one of *those* women – the one’s who believe in the deep wisdom behind Oprah’s bookclub or somebody who only reads books that are becoming movies. (This is not to bash those who follow those trends, but that is how I felt.)

Indeed, I felt super awkward buying it. I walked into the the independent book shop near my work, and it wasn’t on the shelves, so I had to ask for it. And I got the look I was expecting from the hipster clerk behind the counter, so to counteract this, I bought two other books (one by the hysterical A.J. Jacobs and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor – both excellent).

After that harrowing adventure to purchase, I finally began to read Eat:
I’m on the 1-train riding downtown from Morningside Heights. As it is 9:30am, the train is pretty crowded, and I am jostled left and right, but somehow keep my eyes glued on the text as I stumble around the car.
Gilbert found a way to compel me, yet be irritating at the same time.

Often I would ask myself, who is this woman? And why am I wasting my time reading what she has to say?
“One woman’s search for everything” – Everything, really? do you get to say that? isn’t that crazy?

But when I get off at 66th, I’m still engrossed (and still irritated).

I resume reading at the bus stop (now with an iced coffee and granola parfait), and am suddenly ok with the book.
Why?
This line: “Because God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies…” (p22)

At no point did I become a Gilbert devotee, but I decided that if this woman can have this much sarcastic humor, then I will be ok with her. And I was for the majority of the book. (A few times I may have thrown it across the room, but I tried to practice restraint).

To get back to the original point, Gilbert resonated with me most when she discussed her troubles with meditation.  I just tried to find the exact quote and failed but when Gilbert is in India, struggling with meditation, she exclaims:

“I’m not asking for an unexamined life, but how about an unexamined sandwich.”

That is what I want – for my brain and my worries to shut up long enough to enjoy a meal, or to meditate, or just focus on the present.

How do I get there?

I’m not sure, but I do know that one of my goals for this year will be to work very hard on meditation. And if anyone has any tips, please let me know!