Monthly Archives: December 2012

A year in reading: 2012 Review

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Oh, books. Oh, yearly reviews. What fun things to bring together! Here’s a quick summary of my 2012 reading.

Who: me. Mother to a toddler, employee, helped facilitate a renovation and a move.

When: whenever a few minutes were available. I read while eating, while baby napped, while walking to and from my car at work, and occasionally over the lunch hour (dangerous: an hour can fly by before I realize it!). Evenings and weekends were also prime time, with many a big chunk of a book started or finished over a few hour period.

What: about 62 books, give or take (some reference books I didn’t read in full; and I’m sure there are a couple that didn’t make it onto my list. Yes, I keep a reading list. And there are two I’ve started but won’t finish before the end of the year).

What continued: I read a lot of novels. Many of them are easy-reading chick lit, and I am okay with that. I love the simple escapism (i.e., not dramatic or bloody), and after running around with work and baby, easy reading suits me right now. Top in the genre for me is Jill Mansell. I also loved Writing Jane Austen (by Jane Astor).

I read a number of family & parenting books as well. Top picks include Unconditional Parenting (Alfie Kohn); Survival Mom (Lisa Bedford); and Beyond the Sling (Mayim Bialik). I now own the first two!

Highlights:
Rediscovering Elinor Lipman’s novels. I read Then She Found Me a few years ago and LOVED it – engaging, page-turning, sweet and satisfying. I read several more this year and they were utterly wonderful, particularly The Family Man and The Inn at Lake Devine.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida. Possibly because I’ve traveled to some of the Finnish destinations she described, this evocative novel completely captured me. I also loved The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball of her transition from newspaper writer to farmer. The descriptions of preparing meaty meals was surprisingly palatable for this vegetarian. Sean Wilsey’s autobio Oh the Glory of it All was an amazing sweep across his young life, bizarre family and heart-wrenching experiences. I was also moved by Carole Radziwill’s memoir What Remains, about her life and marriage to Anthony Radziwill, a relative of the Kennedys’.

Finally, for future light escapism, I was turned onto Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series through the book Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch.

For next year, the following lists may provide some inspiration:
Best Books on Writing

NYT Top 100

NYT Top 10

Happy reading in 2013!

Christmas fantasy vs. reality

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Ahh, Christmas. Though I don’t celebrate it, I do love it, and I think this is why: Christmas brings magic into my life. Christmas is soft snow falling, cocooning at home. Gorgeous seasonal decorations and light. Delicious food, snacks, drinks. Time! Time off, time with family, time with friends, time to reflect. Lovely music, feel-good movies, coziness, love and security.

Christmas reality: this year, the reality was pretty far from the fantasy. My husband doesn’t celebrate Christmas and is quite an un-fan of the music, movies, etc. I’ve been feeling busy, even though on vacation, so my minimalist decorations (one piece of driftwood with some ornaments hanging from it) didn’t get hung until Boxing Day. No time for movies (though, okay, I did sneak in Sleepless in Seattle, though it’s not really Christmas but it does have some Christmas scenes). No good meal planning, so no good food. And the biggest problem? I was grumpy all day on the 25th. And Husband was tired. In other words, our home was kind of a magic-free zone.

Fortunately, we woke up on the 26th and decided to have a good day. We were happy and cheerful; things got done around the house; we got a family walk; and, as mentioned, ornaments were hung. Mainly, though, I reflected on why I was feeling grumpy and sad, and realized that I crave the opportunity to bring that escapist magic into my life. I let myself get too busy to do it, and let my spouse’s concept of how to do this season override my own needs. Now I can see that I don’t have to “do” Christmas to get that magic. I need to re-do my attitude (cheer up!); slow down; and prioritize time for the few things that really matter to me. And by being more in the moment and treasuring the moments I do have with my family, I’ll be making that magic day after day for us to enjoy. It’s not about Christmas, as I don’t need an external holiday that I don’t celebrate to make myself enjoy my life. I can make my days what I want them to be, and have a magical home life … if not all the time, at least more often.

Why I wish I were a visual artist

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I’ve wanted to be a writer for a long, long time. At first, I thought the only “real” books were fiction, so that’s what I wanted to write. Then I realized that I really wasn’t good at fiction writing, and I really loved facts and narratives, so I thought something social or instructional or travel-oriented would be good. Then I thought about the universal dream of writing a book for money, so adult fiction popped up again. Then I thought that I really don’t want to write sex scenes, so that was gone. Maybe young adult novels!

Now, as a mother of a 2 year old who loves to read, I’m really psyched about the idea of children’s books. And also a bit sad. Because, you, see, I’m not a visual artist.

I know there is tremendous work that goes into writing the words of children’s books. I imagine that it is something like poetry: they may be short, but require all the more careful writing for that. So yes, I have great respect for the authors of children’s books. But I’ve concluded that I have a lot more for the illustrators.

However hard the writing is, the pictures have to be at least as hard. An average young child’s book might have a few words per page, or as many as 1 or 2 sentences. At the same time, each page will have a full colour illustration. Beautifully done. Requiring, I would imagine, hours and hours of work as you sketch out different options for positioning the scene. And maybe you create the images digitally so you can just do a few manipulations with each change. Likely not – it’s starting all over again with each new draft. And after ALL that work – you get listed second, sometimes barely warranting a mention while the writer gets top billing.

Admittedly, that is not why I want to be a visual artist (Note to self: stick with the theme set up in the title). I mention it to show my level of respect for illustrators of children’s books. What I really do want to do, however, is create some kids’ books. Ideas keep coming to me, and I want to do something with them. I could write a kid’s book – but without pictures, what’s the point?

Options: find collaborators. I could ask. I’m hesitant to impose my weak prose on a professional artist, but it could be done. Or, take an xkcd-style approach to the illustrations. However, that’s not really what I’d want in a book. For your reference, three children’s books whose pictures are making me smile lately, see When I was Small by Sara O’Leary/ illustrations by Julie Morstad (renamed “When I was Tiny” by baby); One Naked Baby, author/illustrator Maggie Smith; and And You Can Come Too, by Ruth Ohi, author/illustrator. Those books suggest a third option: become a visual artist. Sigh … I’ve read Talent is Overrated; I would expect it to take thousands of hours of hard work to begin to get to a level where I could illustrate a book. But that doesn’t mean (as Piggy said in Elephants Cannot Dance) that I cannot try! So I may, some day, get some art supplies and do something with them.

Do what you can with what you have. My winter break philosophy as applied to writing ambitions.

Vacation Day 1

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I’ve been working hard. So has Husband. Our house was messy. We were tired. Home-made meals were thrown together at 7:00 at night once we were both home from work. It wasn’t that pretty.

Yesterday was Day 1 of my winter break. And oh – what a difference! I woke up … happy! And late – 8 a.m. Baby snuggled into me, cuddled up, was happy and laughing. We hung around the house. We grocery shopped. We cooked dinner. I cleaned and it felt like I got the house cleaner than it’s been in weeks with only a small amount of effort. And we laughed and had fun.

It’s definitely a choice to enjoy this break. I have 2.5 weeks off, which is lots of time to enjoy or stress over. Work has been overwhelming and it’s tempting to take lots home over the break, or, at least, bring home the stress of it. On reflection, I don’t think that’s the best idea. I need to recuperate and recharge so that I can sail through the next few months of tremendous demands and change. Letting go is going to help with that. I do know that I need to check email a couple of times next week for some lingering demands, and want to spend just a TINY BIT of time reflecting on some big questions I need to address when I return. These, however, will happen early in the break and then be done. I’ll enjoy the rest all the more for knowing that I’ve got some brainstorming done and waiting to be reviewed on my return.

As for day 2, so far so good. Baby’s napping now; we went to the market this morning; and importantly, husband is off for the whole weekend! It’s snowing beautifully outside, and I’m happy. I choose to be happy. And it’s good.

Bittersweet

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Today I had a surprise phone call from some friends I haven’t seen in a while … maybe 1.5 years. I used to work with the man, and he and his partner have a baby just a few weeks younger than our girl. We’ve been meaning to catch up, so they called, and we did.

Bitter: They’re not here. We didn’t become as close as I wanted while we were in the same town. Now we’re in different cities, and I don’t know how or when that might come to be. I haven’t made enough friends in this town with whom I can connect like that.

Sweet: They are awesome individuals, their values align so well with ours, and they’re very real about their lives. We can talk about spirituality, social change, materialism, kids, family, community, and connect and learn from each other. Knowing they’re out there energizes me. And I remember that there are other amazing people right here, some of whom I know, all of whom I could make more time for.

You know you’re a reader when …

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I’ve always been a reader. My dad talks about how he’d come home from work exhausted when I was a toddler and I’d run up to him with piles of books. And demand that he read them, over and over and over …. And of course there were the many reading anecdotes from childhood and youth, such as reading while walking; my attempt to read while riding a bicycle (waste no time!); my mom’s teasing me about my hand being in “lock mode” since I held a book in it so constantly; staying up nights when I was in high school and reading 1 – 2 books before falling asleep (mom, did you know that I did this? I really shouldn’t have, but I just couldn’t put them down. I recall re-reading Little House books this way!); reading The Hobbit at age 8 during a hurricane on Reunion Island; and setting a goal of reading 100 hours during a 7th grade reading challenge. I believe the next highest target was 50 hours, and the others were significantly lower. (Total side note: I don’t think I read as many hours as I claimed to have read during that period. I believe that, though I read a massive amount, I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn’t made my goal, and the pressure was such that achieving the goal was given the highest praise, not getting close. An example of early poor moral character, and/or the damaging effects of praise & reward in the educational system).

All these years later, I’m still a reader – I’ve never stopped. And the flashes of “oh, I’m really a reader” keep coming. Here’s a few.

1) My 3 greatest fears are choking to death (I believe my epiglottis to be defective – I frequently have bad choking episodes); being cold (despise being cold! With a passion! I plan ahead in almost every circumstance to ensure I will have the clothing I need to stay warm); and not having sufficient reading material. The thought of being stuck somewhere without something to read induces near-panic. Possible wait in the doctor’s office? Definitely bring my current novel, plus maybe something for work, and he usually has a couple magazines I like so I should be good. Etc.

2) I read a lovely, romantic story online about a guy who arranged a surprise visit to NYC for his girlfriend’s birthday, complete with helicopter ride, gorgeous hotel, tickets to the theatre, etc. My two reactions were a) How lovely; no one’s ever done anything like that for me! and moving swiftly on to b) Did he pack the book she was reading at the time? Because what if it was left at home on the nightstand and suddenly she’s whisked away for a few days and has to wait to finish her book? Oh, that would be awful! She couldn’t (I couldn’t??) relax and enjoy the experience. Yes, if it were me, I’d spend the whole tripĀ  wondering what happens next in my book, waiting eagerly to return to pick up where I left off.

3) In recent conversations, I’ve noticed that I reference things I’ve been reading up to 3 times per conversation. Somehow, whatever you’re talking about, I’ve read something that I think relates. And I’ll tell you about it. It might be a novel, or a recent NY Times review, or an editorial, or some new information from a non-fiction book I’ve been exploring, but whatever it is, I will share it. You’re welcome, and I won’t be too offended if I don’t hear from you again for a while.

With all this reading, I wonder if I’m developing anything like expertise (reference back to … yes … the book Talent is Overrated, reviewed here a while back). Am I an “expert” reader? I would say no, since developing true expertise (aka the 10,000 hours type of exceptional knowledge and ability in an area) also requires working at the edge of your ability. I would need to be critically analyzing while I read; stretching my limits in terms of genres and complexity; and doing something with the knowledge (reflecting on possible rewrites? applying what I observe in a particular book to my own writing? simply writing about what I learn?). I wonder if some percentage of my reading time might contribute towards the hours I need to put in to be an expert writer … but I think the same problems apply.

Oh well. I don’t read to become an expert. I read because when faced with the printed work, my am wired to engage with it. It brings me enlightenment, distraction, escape, amusement and professional growth. Long live reading!