Introductions, Susan Glassmeyer

I’m visiting family this week, but I’m posting this in celebration of two friends of mine I met in a yoga class at my gym a few years ago. We’re decades apart in age, have wildly different careers and personal lives, and under most circumstances, never would have done anything but nod politely to each other. Fate had other plans for us though, and  even though we don’t all make it to class anymore, every few months, we get together for lunch and have the best conversations about art and books and traveling the world. It’s just glorious.

Introductions

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

Ash and Bramble, Sarah Prineas

 

Do you ever sit down to write and get sucked into creating the perfect playlist for said writing instead? I don’t typically have time for that kind of procrastination these days, but there was something about today…Maybe it’s because the internet and all its accompanying distractions went out an hour ago, or because it’s one of those epic sunny days with a light breeze that would have meant a day at the lake when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because my coffee isn’t strong enough to counteract how little sleep I’ve gotten recently, or because somehow the morning slipped away, along with the energy from that egg burrito I ate at 7. I’m not sure what happened, but I know I sat down to write this long enough ago that I need to stretch now. Pro tip: a stretch break after the first paragraph is written is not a great place to be, productivity-wise.

20652088It’s funny too, because fairy tale retellings are my kryptonite, and I didn’t expect to have any trouble writing about this book. I have the hardest time passing these stories up even if I’m meant to be reading something else, and this particular book kept me sane through a lot of long nights recently.

It’s the perfect blend of YA, fairy tale, dystopia, and SFP (strong female protagonist). Prineas and I probably are about the same age, and I could practically feel the bookish desires of my thirteen year old self oozing out of the pages – which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me now, but there was something so warmly familiar about it. It felt like a story I’d always wanted to read but never had, come to life on my kindle. And although it’s not a story I would ever tell myself, it felt like I could have imagined it after a summer spent riding my bike to the cool sanctuary of our old library, tearing through the shelves every week, frantic for new material. I could have fallen asleep and dreamed of Pin and Shoe.

Playlist for procrastination*

Dancing in Gold The Von Trapps
Dead Sea The Lumineers
Sunday New York Times Matt Nathanson
The Wrong Direction Passenger
Road to Ride On Joshua Radin
Headphones Matt Nathanson
Four Five Seconds Rihanna
Brand New Ben Rector

*Eventually I started procrastinating on the playlist, which is why it’s only eight songs long.

Night Shift, Charlaine Harris

Who could have guessed I’d finally manage to finish a book while traveling halfway across the country to a wedding in Memphis? Granted, Harris is ultimate summer reading material. This series, in particular, is so light that it’s not so much a popcorn read as it is…well, maybe it’s one of those lightly buttered microwavable single serving bags – definitely not greasy, grab a handful of napkins movie theatre popcorn though. What I’m trying to get at here is that A) Popcorn with extra butter sounds amazing right now, and B) I finished a book, and even though it was breezy, I feel like a champion.

51fbpkbfa9l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was stuck in a hotel room during nap time every day for nearly a week with nothing to do but read (not the worst thing in the world, although it did start to feel a little claustrophobic by the end). Also, I didn’t bother to bring my work computer with me because traveling with a toddler (and in this case, a groomsman husband) means I’m lucky I had room for clothes and a toothbrush. (All I can say is thank goodness for the invention of smartphones and their beautiful reading apps…) So, no work. No sightseeing or catching up on phone calls. Just plenty of air conditioned free time to go through my Kindle library.

I can’t say this is my favorite series by Harris, although I know my mother has really enjoyed it (only worth mentioning because she and I often are in line with a given book or series’ relative strengths and weaknesses). The plots aren’t quite as tight as some of her earlier work, but the characters are so likable that I had no problem finishing what I think is going to remain a trilogy about the fictional Midnight, Texas.

My biggest complaint about this particular series is I feel she gives up too much information too quickly. She may lack experience writing a three book arc compared to a six or more novel series where it’s necessary to draw out character histories and questions over considerably more pages, but I find it surprising since I’ve never noticed this problem in her writing before. It feels like she’s had these characters in her head for so long, and has so much she wants to do with them yet hasn’t allowed herself enough time to do it as naturally as they deserve.

That being said, Harris is still a compelling enough storyteller that I tore through this and wished I had another book by her to read when it was finished. I love her sense of humor and her light but accessible romances. She’s also one of a few mainstream authors in this genre who includes a spectrum of relationships in a respectful and loving way that I find refreshing (perfect for a wedding weekend, as it turns out).

While this series may not fall under my list of top recommendations, it was great for beating the heat mid July (I would have taken it poolside, but, you know, toddler). Also, did I mention I finished a book? In parenthood terms, there truly is no higher recommendation. Truly. You should see the stack of books I’ve read the first twenty pages of this year. It’s…substantial.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater

I hate when my busiest working season falls in the summer. It’s always interrupted by travel and bbqs and outings, and I end up half distracted while at my computer, and half worried while I’m out trying to enjoy myself. This year has been especially challenging with two major projects in high gear since the beginning of June, all of our family commitments long flights away, and a seemingly endless parade of distractions that keep me from focusing.

I suspect I could make good use of blinders right about now, but since single-mindedness eludes me, I’m doing  my best to multitask through the madness. That means, yes, I’m reading, but it’s slow. I get maybe a chapter a day if I’m lucky, and that doesn’t jive well with my reviewing schedule.

On the plus side, it does mean I get to share some of my favorite poems. This one has become almost a mantra for me in the last month. I read it once or twice a day and then spend maybe thirty seconds admiring the leaves rustling out the window. It doesn’t sound like much, but it serves to ground me, and to remind me of the fullness of life, even during one of its stressful seasons.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater
I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Happiest Day, Linda Pastan

The last two weeks have been so crazy, I didn’t even realize it was Thursday until about an hour ago. I was patting myself on the back for starting a book for next week’s post when I realized that next week was already here…

So this one goes out to everyone who walks around chin up when the balance of life is perfect, and has nightmares and dishes overflowing the sink and tiny legos stuck to the bottom of their feet when it’s not. Because we’re all just doing our best, right? We’re savoring the happy where we can while missing it more often than we want to admit.

The Happiest Day
It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day–
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere–
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)

 

This week, my better half is on the other side of the world for work, and my mother has come to keep us company. That hasn’t left much time for reading, but it did remind me of this poem. I’ve loved it for years, but I understand it now in a way I never imagined. It just burns at my heart.

To a daughter leaving home, Linda Pastan

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

 

(I’ll be back in two weeks with a proper review, but for now, time must be spent with a few of my favorite people.)

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley

My brother and I don’t, in general, have overlapping taste in novels. He’s five years older, and until the last year or so, I could only name a handful of books we’ve read as adults that have overlapped. By chance though, we share a common love for Flavia de Luce – that brilliant, morbid eleven year old Brit who solves suspicious deaths with her extensive knowledge of chemistry – and it was through him that I was tipped off about a new title being released. This particular novel, in which Flavia has been shipped off to a Canadian boarding school, ended up being a particularly timely read for me given that last week my own child started in part-time care. It’s his first time away from me for any lengthy period, and although the distance between us is three miles and not the three thousand that Flavia experiences, it tugged on my heart to read about this tough girl’s homesickness.

51byag2zqwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_In previous volumes, Flavia is shown with hardly a weakness (beyond the impetuousness of youth and a propensity to get into trouble, which unsurprisingly accompanies a healthy curiosity for things that shouldn’t concern her). In this book though, she seems much more vulnerable, much more the child she is, wishing often to be home and surrounded by familiar faces, even the sisters she claims to hate. Occasionally, when a writer plucks his protagonist out of her environs and drops her into a new place, such emotions are touched upon briefly but never revisited. Bradley, however, allows the reader to stew, coming back to Flavia’s struggle to adjust again and again.

I found myself getting distracted considering the differences between parent and child. Children, even brilliant ones like Flavia, are at the whim of parents and guardians. They are left in the dark for a variety of reasons and have to cope constantly. It’s terrifically difficult to be a kid for that very reason – the rug may be pulled out at any time, and it’s necessary to adjust. Even as an adult, before I became a parent, I associated very strongly with the many injustices of childhood that stem from ignorance (forced or otherwise).

It wasn’t until I had to care for my own son that I realized how painful it could be to make decisions for another person. I know he benefits greatly from spending twenty hours a week with a wonderful caregiver and other children, but I also know that at ten months, he may wonder at times where I am and feel abandoned because cognitively he hasn’t grasped all the necessary factors that have led to him being there and not here.

I also know that while it’s important for me to work, it’s painful to be separated from my child. I sometimes cry when I get to the car knowing that this small step back, this first taste of his independence is one of many I’ll take if I’m lucky. And it’s tough. As hard as it is to be a child, it’s equally difficult to be the parent and arbiter. Bradley’s perspective on Flavia’s situation reminded me of that. It made me wonder why her father made the choices he did, what information he had that she didn’t that would lead him to send his youngest across a vast ocean. And as I read about her struggle to hold it together in a strange new land, I wondered how many times a day his heart broke thinking of her there.

Even the last few minutes alone had been shocking. I had broken at least three of the Ten Commandments— the “Thou shalt nots” of British girlhood: I had cried, I had allowed alcohol to pass my lips, and I had fainted.

I examined my blurry image in the hanging glass. The face that stared dimly— but defiantly— back at me was a hodgepodge of de Luce: a grab bag of Father’s features, Aunt Felicity’s, Feely’s, Daffy’s— but above all, Harriet’s. In the harsh glare of the flickering overhead lightbulb, it reminded me— but only for a moment— of one of those topsy-turvy paintings by Picasso we had cocked our heads at in the Tate Gallery: all pale skin and a kaleidoscope mug. The recollection of it made me grin, and the moment passed.

I thought of the faded, flyblown wartime posters that still hung in Miss Cool’s confectionery in the high street of Bishop’s Lacey: “Get a Grip,” “Chin Up,” and “Best Foot Forward.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and gave myself a smart regulation salute in the mirror.

How proud Father would be of me at this moment, I thought. “Soldier on, Flavia,” I told myself in his absence. “Soldier on, de Luce, F. S.” (p 82-83)

 

Geared for the Grave, Duffy Brown

The most important thing I’m learning as a new parent is flexibility. Flexibility is the key to sanity, to happiness, to dealing with a sick kid three thousand miles from home. If not for flexibility, finding out that a doctor recommends a week’s delay on a flight home for the sake of your baby might be an overwhelming change in plans. Especially when the library emails to let you know there are overdue books you definitely thought you returned before leaving a week before…and the HOA needs your fire extinguisher for testing…and at least two people need responses on the materials they sent in for your next book…and the Stitchfix delivery you thought you cancelled has arrived and requires your next door neighbor to shoot a fashion show of herself then text it because everything in the box has to be returned within seventy-two hours.

514zc2bmcjnl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Flexibility is what’s required when what was supposed to be a relaxing family visit turns into a blur of antibiotics and, because life is not always fair, two new painful teeth. It’s mostly sleepless nights and groggy days, persistent fevers, snowstorms, barking beagles who choose nap time every day for their enthusiastic denial of the postal service’s legitimate right to deliver mail at the front door. It’s gratitude for extra hands and stolen coffee breaks with old friends. Flexibility is tired, hopeful, fragile adjustments to a previously taken for granted equilibrium.

And in the midst of the excrement hitting the fan, I had a desperate desire to read this cozy mystery I bought for ninety-nine cents on BookBub months ago. It wasn’t the sharpest novel, but it was fun and fresh. It was a summer breeze during a decidedly icy week in spring and something to look forward to when I could feel rigidity creeping down my spine.

A murder mystery on a quirky island in the middle of a lake in Michigan? A protagonist who can’t keep herself out of trouble (or poison ivy)? A town overrun by fudge shops and rental bicycles? It was an antidote the hospital couldn’t provide for a run-down mama in need of rejuvenation (and cake. I was desperately in need of more cake than I got, which was none). And sure, I had some quibbles with the story, but at the end of it, I was happy to order the next one for a buck if it meant I had something to curl up with for half an hour at the end of a long day of pretzel twisting parental gymnastics…

Marriage, Michael Blumenthal

A brief post, as this week, our family is traveling to celebrate an important birthday with my wonderful mother. She does so much for our entire family, and it’s a blessing to be with her right now.

This poem, which I’ve loved for years, speaks to me not just about my own marriage, but also that of my parents, who have spent so many years teaching me about the importance of shared burdens and teamwork. I’m lucky they’ve always been honest about both the joy and hard work required in a relationship, and that they have not only discussed it, but also led by example.

Marriage
You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you. Your arms
are tired, terribly tired,
and, as the day goes on, it feels
as if either your arms or the ceiling
will soon collapse.

But then,
unexpectedly,
something wonderful happens:
Someone,
a man or a woman,
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.

So you finally get
to take down your arms.
You feel the relief of respite,
the blood flowing back
to your fingers and arms.
And when your partner’s arms tire,
you hold up your own
to relieve him again.

And it can go on like this
for many years
without the house falling.

Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

Is there anything better than seeing an email pop up saying a book you pre-ordered (and then forgot existed) is now available on your kindle this very second?! To me, it’s almost better than Christmas – a complete and wonderful surprise from a beloved author – it’s a happy enough occasion that it redeems even a week trapped inside watching the rain while a nine month old climbs the walls.

25776210Briggs, of course, was the author who got me through the last six weeks of my pregnancy and much of the summer caring for a newborn. Her Mercy Thompson series brings me so much joy with its lighthearted spin on werewolves, fae, vampires, and of course, coyote shape-shifters. It was painful that I could only read this newest volume in fits and starts, pages stolen during nap time (after chores and real work were finished – thanks a lot adult responsibilities!) and for a few minutes before I passed out at night. I told myself that I was just savoring it, but really, it was torture.

Now that I’ve finished, all I can think is, how long until the next book comes out? Do I really have to wait a year or two for more? This is a problem I often find when I’ve binged on a series and then caught up to real time production. My brain believes I’m entitled to infinite pages, but the reality is that I have to wait and hope that another email will pop up in the next few weeks telling me about a sequel in another beloved series I hadn’t remembered was forthcoming. The idea of such a treat will get me through the first long difficult hours after finishing, but the reality is, I don’t pre-order often, so I’ll eventually have to let go and turn to my shelf of perfectly good to-read books.

I’m not ready yet though. I’m still happy to daydream about characters I love, to swish this last novel around in my brain for awhile, sifting through it for bright shards of story I might have missed during my fractured read. It’s that bittersweet clingy stage all bookworms know, defiantly wrapped up in a favorite world even after the book has come to its satisfying end…

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

Since having a baby, I’ve found it less difficult than expected to write a post here every two weeks. I haven’t even found it all that tough to have a book read, which is almost more of a surprise. This week though, I almost had to throw in the towel. I have so much work piling up (do other writers find that this time of year is their busiest? I almost always have more work than I can handle in the winter/spring season) that even though I read The Rosie Project two weeks ago over several very long nights when my kiddo was sick and needed to be held in order to get any sleep, I’ve had zero brain power to think about reviewing it.

16181775It’s especially odd since I picked this up for the first meeting of a book club a friend invited me to join, and because I’ve never been part of such a group before, I was particularly meticulous reading it. This might not seem impressive until you consider that the book was consumed entirely between the hours of midnight and 5am four days in a row. By the end, I was so sleep deprived that Simsion’s characters were the only thing holding my night reality together. (And yes, when I finished it, I immediately ordered the sequel because I couldn’t function without this fictional world.)

Of course, when I went to the meeting last week, it was mostly an excuse to eat and drink wine sans children – not that I’m complaining – but the discussion about the book was more limited than I’d expected. (I was impressed that out of seven of us, six had completed the novel, which apparently is pretty rare.) It felt good to join a group of women who were excited enough about reading (anything without pictures) that they were willing to do the work even if, in the end, it wasn’t exactly the point of the evening.

I only knew one person that night, and I found it exciting to talk to doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and salsa dancers about this sweet little love story. It’s so easy to get lost in my own perspective as a writer; I was fascinated by other interpretations of the characters and their motivations. As it is, I rarely read the same books as my friends, and writing about what I read here is the closest I come to having a community of like-minded readers to tap into. We bookworms tend to be a comfortable with solitude, but many of us would also agree that there is real pleasure associated with sharing a good read.

I’m not sure I ever would have come across this book without the suggestion of the group. The Rosie Project is about a socially awkward professor of genetics (he almost certainly falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum) who is looking for a wife using his own scientific method (a sixteen page questionnaire) to weed out “time-wasting, incompatible” candidates. I was a little put off by the idea at first (I was afraid the book would be insensitive to such a protagonist), but after two chapters, I was hooked. Don Tillman is an unusual hero, and I couldn’t help but root for him. He isn’t limited by his idiosyncrasies; instead, they define a starting point for his growth. Simsion clearly understood his protagonist inside and out, and he treats him with gentle affection.

It made for a wonderful escape from a stressful week. I slipped easily back into Don’s challenges every evening. His very relatable problems made for a good jumping off point in book club as well. We ended up talking about bad dates (one memorable story ended up in traction, another, vomiting non-stop from food poisoning), compatibility, and deal-breaking quirks in a partner. I know more about some of those women after two hours than I do acquaintances I’ve known for years! Plus, I got to drink an entire glass of wine while sitting with my feet up, and at this point in my life, there is very little that can beat such luxury when combined with a good book…

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.

 

Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.