Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading challenge roundup and plans for 2017

I participated in two different reading challenges in 2016.

TBR Pile Challenge
I started doing this a few years ago when it was sponsored by Roof Beam Reader, and although he didn't sponsor one this year, I decided to do it on my own because it's such a great idea. I picked 10 books that I had been wanting to read for quite a while, and built in a couple of alternates, and committed to finally reading them this year. Here's my list, complete with links to my posts.

I completed the challenge by June, which is kind of crazypants, but also not because I read around 100 books every year. So 10 books by June shouldn't actually be that much of a challenge. However, it's not the quantity that is challenging, it's the focus on reading from that particular list.

Bardathon Challenge
I joined this challenge at the beginning of the year when it was being sponsored at a blog. But the blogger stopped posting about the challenge after a couple of months and hasn't even posted to her blog at all since June. But just as some people are unable to complete anything they start, I am unable to let anything go once I've committed to it, so I completed the challenge on my own. As promised in my original post, I completed my goals of reading two comedies, two tragedies, and attending a performance.

I read Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The performance I ended up going to was The Tempest so of course I read that one too before I went! It was performed by the Actors' Shakespeare Project and seeing it was SO MUCH BETTER than reading it. They are doing a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the spring and I definitely want to go see that one too.

So what's on my reading agenda for 2017?

TBR Pile Challenge
I've enjoyed this one so much that I'm going to do it again this year even though I'm the only one. It's harder to make a list this time since I no longer have an actual TBR list, but I'm sure I can come up with a list of books I want to commit to reading. I'll be finishing my list very soon and posting it here.

Classic Book-a-Month Club
This is hosted by Roof Beam Reader and I already posted about it here. I won't read every month's choice but I plan to read at least four.

Possibly another challenge?
I've been reading about a lot of different challenges and it makes me want to participate in all of them! But because of my aforementioned allergy to giving up on anything I've started, I don't want to be too impulsive. If I decide to participate in another challenge, you'll be the first to know!

I'm also considering bringing back my To Read list on Goodreads, but I need to think long and hard about how to place restrictions on it so it doesn't get out of hand and feel oppressive like it used to. As liberating as it is to not have this list weighing on me, it's also handy to remember books I've heard about that I might want to read. I'm very forgetty. This year I made a To Read list in my bullet journal, but it's very short. I deliberately didn't give myself much space. I also have a list saved in my library account that's called "Don't forget this book exists," which is made up of books I may or may not actually read but I don't want to forget they exist (as the name suggests).

Happy end of 2016, everyone! Seriously, this year has been truly awful in many ways. I don't honestly have a ton of hope for good things to come in 2017, but at least we can all commit to spending time with some good books. Here's to escapism! Happy reading!

In Your Dreams

In Your Dreams (Blue Heron #4) by Kristan Higgins (2014)

Not how I pictured anyone in the book,
except the puppy.
The hero of the fourth Blue Heron book is Jack Holland, brother of Faith and Honor, who starred in the first and second books in the series. He is a hero in many senses, because we're introduced to him through a situation dubbed the Midwinter Miracle, in which he saved the lives of three teenage boys who were in an accident. The fourth boy is in a coma, and Jack blames himself. Our heroine is Emmaline Neal, a police officer who still can't get over her ex-fiance, and now she has been invited to his wedding across the country in California. She wants to bring a date, and because Jack is such a nice guy (and really wants to get out of town and away from the spotlight) he agrees to go with her.

The aftermath of Jack's role in the accident meant that he was grappling with - or trying to ignore - some emotional pain that affected how he interacted with Emmaline. Plus, the parents of the kid in a coma totally blamed him, and someone was leaving him threats and nobody knew whether or not to take them seriously. Another consequence of the accident - and the CNN coverage by Anderson Cooper - is that Jack's ex-wife Hadley came back to town to try and win him back. We got the whole back-story of their marriage and the spectacular way that it ended. She was a horrible person who I really enjoyed hating.

Emmaline's back story regarding her own failed relationship was also very good. She met Kevin when they were in school together in Malibu, and neither of them fit in with all the rich beautiful people. Emmaline had a terrible stutter, for which she was mercilessly teased, and Kevin was fat. His weight and the way he dealt with it was a super compelling part of their story. As they grew up and their relationship got more serious, Kevin kept gaining weight until Emmaline became genuinely worried about his health. Her love for him and feelings of attraction for him never wavered and honestly, it was refreshing to have a character in a novel who is obese and also a love interest. I've read romances where the female characters weren't as skinny as is deemed culturally desirable, but this was the first one where a male character was in the same position.

By the time the novel starts, though, Kevin is a crazy fit gym person and is marrying his personal trainer. However, along with all the fat, he has apparently also shed his good qualities. When he sees Emmaline at the wedding he says to her, "Wait till you see Naomi in a bikini. That'll get you motivated to lose some weight." When she reminds him that physical appearance may not be as important as kindness, loyalty, and decency his reply is, "Yeah. I used to tell myself the same thing when I was fat." My other favorite thing about the horrifying couple are that his last name is Bates and her last name is Norman, and they decided to hyphenate. So their last name is now Norman-Bates.

Of course I already knew that Kristan Higgins has a sense of humor, and she definitely came through in this novel. Humor, as we know, is what helps us get through tough times, and here it also keeps a story with some serious bits from being too serious. It's a romance after all, and we want it to be light-hearted. For instance, in preparation for Kevin and Naomi's wedding, a friend gave Emmaline some sort of silicone inserts to put in her bra to make her boobs look better and they apparently looked like raw chicken. Of course there were malfunctions and hilarity ensued. (I'm just realizing that comedy relating to women's undergarments is a theme in this series. Women's undergarments, after all, are ridiculous.) Everything about the wedding is pretty funny too, from the lack of carbs or alcohol anywhere at the resort, to the crazy Russian relatives of the bride who brought their own homemade vodka.

Another bit I really appreciated - and wouldn't have before having a dog - is the way that Emmaline's puppy, Sarge, plays with his toy, Squeaky Chicken. Sometimes he shakes it from side to side, sometimes he bites it in a repetitive way described as "hiccuping," and sometimes he bites slowly and gradually so it makes a mewing sound. I recognized all of these from my dog's play habits with her toys (one of which is also a squeaky chicken.) There's also a scene in which Emmaline and Jack are yelling at each other, and Sarge starts barking because it's so terribly exciting. This, too, is a recognizable dog behavior.

The only thing that annoyed me (aside from Higgins's use of words like "rack" and "boobage") was that Emmaline's parents were convinced that she is gay, and they just wouldn't let it go. Emmaline has always been athletic and she's not very girly which is a tired stereotype and I am over it. However, this part of the plot actually turned out to have a purpose in the story so I can't hold a grudge.

All in all, I had a really good time reading this novel. I'm almost sad that there's only one more book in this series because I've really enjoyed visiting with all of these great people in the little town of Manningsport, NY. These stories make we want to live there and be friends with them, maybe get a job at the vineyard. (Or, surely they have an adorable local library?) I look forward to reading the final one, Anything For You, sometime in 2017.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

J.D. Vance comes from a family of working-class people in Appalachia, one rife with abuse and violence and lack of education. He overcame the odds though, and attended college and law school and is now in a happy, healthy marriage. In his memoir, he tells the story of where he came from, his family, and his upward mobility.

Vance didn't really know his biological father, and his mother had a lot of substance-abuse problems and a seemingly never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His family had a history of violence and abuse, but it also provided love and encouragement in his grandparents, especially his "Mamaw" who provided a home for him when he needed to get away from his mother. This was an informal arrangement, not a legal one, and he notes, "The enforcement mechanism was equally informal: Mamaw would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her." It was also Mamaw who encouraged Vance to stay in school and pursue his education. He joined the military first, which was exactly what he needed to grow up, and then went on to attend college and Yale Law School.

The book is primarily about his life and family, but he also provides some cultural commentary on working-class white people, and the politics and philosophy come to the fore more near the end. As much as I was interested in his experiences growing up, I had been wanting to get these perspectives from him the entire time I was reading the book.

Vance believes there are two types of working-class whites: "My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful."

He says that what he'd most like to change about the white working-class is "The feeling that our choices don't matter." He also observes: "What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the governments fault." This shifting the blame from one's own responsibility to an outside force only makes people feel more powerless, hence feeling like it doesn't matter what they do, they'll be stuck.

As for what to do to solve the problems of his people, Vance doesn't think there's a magic government program or brilliant idea that is going to fix everything. He says: "These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them...I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better."

This is currently the most-requested book in my library system with over 1000 holds right now. It's been fairly popular since it came out in June, but interest has really spiked since the election. I've heard it recommended to help people try and understand the election, but that's very simplistic thinking. This doesn't begin to explain the clusterfuck of the 2016 US Presidential election and all the factors that affected the outcome. What it does is offer some insight into the lives of rural, working-class white people, which for me is value enough.

Although I live in eastern Massachusetts and have a career and am fairly worldly at this point in my life, I was born in a rural area full of working-class white people, not terribly different from what Vance describes. So I forget that this culture is pretty alien to a lot of people, and the popularity of this book as a learning tool has therefore surprised me. I'm very glad it's so popular though, because I think that poor, rural, white people are very much overlooked in our culture. That's why I was so interested to read this book when I first learned about it earlier this year. It's one of several books related to this topic that have been published recently (see also: Hand To Mouth), a trend that I hope continues.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Secret Language of Dogs

The Secret Language of Dogs: Unlocking the Canine Mind For a Happier Pet by Victoria Stilwell (2016)

Recently I tried the new book Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz after reading an interesting interview with her. I was struck by her idea of taking her dog on "smell walks," as I had also been allowing Petri to do a little more of that on our walks. I knew it was a good idea to let dogs have a bit of control over their walks and smell all the smells, but I didn't know much about it. But reading a whole book about a dog's sense of smell was honestly just too boring for me and I didn't make it very far. I'm sure it's a very good book, it's just not for me.

Around the same time it was released this fall, another book came out: The Secret Language of Dogs. Written by Victoria Stilwell, a famous trainer with a show on Animal Planet, this book is much more general and, as it turns out, way easier to read. It's only about 130 pages and that includes lots of large, colorful photos. This is the kind of dog book I can handle.

The first, shorter, part of the book covers what's going on inside a dog's head. The way they sense the world, their emotions, their cognition. The second part, which is about two thirds of the book, is about reading and translating their body language. The short easy-to-read chapters cover everything from wanting to play to the confusion of old age, and the overall strength of the book is in its breadth, not its depth. This is great because it gives readers a basic overview and points them in the right direction without overwhelming them. For instance, the book mentions that if your dog is destructive while you're not home it's probably because of separation anxiety, so punishing the dog won't help and will likely be harmful. She doesn't say what you should do to help the problem, but readers would at least know that what they're dealing with is separation anxiety and they can seek out information about that. I was grateful the author didn't try to cover every problem in detail. As it was, I skimmed the parts in the early chapters that covered various neurotransmitters and whatnot.

Here's a list of takeaways and interesting things I learned. I apologize for the length, but I want to be able to refer to these notes later.

- The importance of games that make dogs think, smell, use their memories, and problem-solve. This prevents boredom (and compulsive behaviors) and may keep their mental acuity sharper as they age.

- Dogs may be able to feel jealous (like if their humans hug each other and don't include them), but they can't feel guilt. The "guilty" look is appeasement because they know we're upset with them.

- Dogs can have a paw preference, the way we are left- or right-handed. Right-pawed dogs are less easily aroused, better able to cope with new situations; left-pawed dogs show more stranger-directed aggression. In studies, those with no paw preference were more reactive to loud noises, and those with strong paw preferences more confident and playful and less anxious and impulsive.

- Rolling on their back and exposing their belly means they want to be left alone, which is the opposite of how we tend to interpret it. They don't actually want a belly rub.

- Licking, yawning, spinning, and shaking off are self-calming behaviors they may employ when stressed.

I'm feeling a little concerned right now.
- One example of the language of appeasement and deference is one they call "whale eye" and the illustration looks exactly like a photo I have of Petri, right down to the lowered ears and raised paw. So I guess she was saying that she felt uncomfortable and perhaps I should just leave her alone for a bit.

- Dogs can have emotional problems, but not as complex as ours because they lack ability to imagine scenarios or employ elaborate storytelling. For instance, we may imagine that everyone around us is making fun of us behind our backs, but dogs don't.

- When dogs get "the zoomies" (i.e. suddenly start running around crazily and out-of-control) it can be because they're excited or to release built-up tension from activities they don't like, and it's harmless.

- Dogs especially sensitive to sound are more prone to anxious behaviors.

- Humans are confusing and can be difficult to learn from because our behaviors are so inconsistent.

All in all I found this book pretty informative and useful without being a slog or including way too much scientific information that isn't practical. I borrowed it from the library, but it seems like a great general guide to have on hand.

What books have you read that helps you understand your dog more?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Today Will Be Different

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (2016)

Eleanor Flood is determined to get it together today. She will shower, she will go to yoga, she will initiate sex with her husband Joe. She will, in short, be the person she wants to be. But her plans are foiled at the outset when her son Timby fakes sick to get out of school and spend the day with her. When she stops by her husband's office, she learns that he has told them he's on vacation this week. Now she is determined to find out what he is hiding from her. What was supposed to be an ordinary and well-managed day has turned into something quite different.

Along the way we meet a variety of colorful characters. There is Eleanor's poetry teacher Alonzo, an old artist friend named Spencer, the wealthy eccentric Bucky Fanning, and her own sister Ivy, whose existence she has kept secret from her son. That part of the story revolves around a graphic memoir called The Flood Girls, which is tucked into the pages in all its lovely full-color splendor.

So it takes place in one day, but obviously it's about a whole lot more than that, and the reader moves back and forth through Eleanor's life as she comes to grips with her marriage and her relationship with her sister. I wish I had read it all in one day, or at least in just a couple of days, because I think I would have felt the full effect of it all a bit more. As it was, I kept forgetting where Eleanor was in her day because when it veered into a back story it would be a couple of days until I was brought back to the present time. So, for instance, early in the book Eleanor ties up her dog Yo-Yo at a shopping cart rack outside of Costco while she goes inside, but she ends up so distracted that she leaves without him and, because it had been a few days for me, I didn't even realize it until they are reunited later. It's a pretty short book, actually, but I happened to be reading it during a busy work week so it was spread out much more than is usual for me.

Still, I found it fun and entertaining. The fast-moving novel is full of the zany humor familiar to those who have read Where'd You Go, Bernadette. There were lots of parts that made me laugh, such as one conversation late in the book when Eleanor says: "Do you want to know how fragmented my brain is? Last week, on the radio, it said a train in Ohio derailed because someone had left a backhoe on the tracks. And I actually thought, Was it me? Did I leave a backhoe on the tracks?" I also liked little touches such as when her son Timby tries to calm her down with a breathing exercise by urging her to "smell the soup and cool the soup." (Breathe in, breathe out.)

I know this book didn't get nearly as much attention as Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and the reviews seem a bit mixed. It's just not the same book and I think it's ok that it's not the same book. I suppose I didn't love as much either, but just as we should not compare apples to oranges or pick a favorite child, I liked Today Will Be Different a lot for what it is, not for what many of us were secretly hoping it would be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best Books of 2016

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. It's the end of the year so it's time to talk about our favorite books of 2016!

I compiled this list by looking at my books in Goodreads to which I assigned 5 stars, and then picking out the ones I read for the first time in 2016.

Here are those six books:

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Far and away my most anticipated and favorite book of the year.

2. My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbelestier
This probably is my second favorite. Psychologically creepy!

3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
I read it twice. Once in print and again in audio. I didn't blog about it the second time because it was so soon after the first, but Cassandra Campbell's narration was excellent.

4. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
I read this one twice this year too because my book group at work picked it. It was just as good the second time.

5. The Crown by Kiera Cass (The Selection #5)
I loved every book in this series. I listened to them all on audio and they were just perfect. I credit this series for my recent healthy running habit, which I fear will now suffer because no other audiobooks can keep me going. I just forgot what I was doing because I was so immersed and invested in this story.

6. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
One of my most anticipated books of 2016, it came out waaay back in January. I was pleasantly surprised that although it was a very different book from The Piano Teacher, it was probably just as good.

Since I was trying for 10, next I went through my 4-star books to see if any of those stood out. And there were 12. (But the first 3 on this list are my top picks from this group so I guess I do have a top 9.)

7. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

8. The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

9. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

10. One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

11. Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

12. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

13. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

14. Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

15. Hild by Nicola Griffith

16. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

17. A Tyranny of Petticoats, edited by Jessica Spotswood

18. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

So my Top Ten Tuesday started at 6 and then leapfrogged to 18. Which is what happens when you try to pick favorites in an honest way - you can't force it to a particular number.

What were you favorite books this year?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000), narrated by Jim Dale

(This post contains spoilers, so beware if you haven't read this book or watched the movie.)

In this fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, the Triwizard Tournament is taking place at Hogwarts. Two other wizarding schools have brought students to enter the competition along with students from Hogwarts. Those who wish to enter must be at least 17, and they enter by putting their name on a slip of paper and dropping it into the Goblet of Fire. The Goblet then chooses a Champion from each school to compete. The three contestants must all complete three difficult tasks to gain points and win the Triwizard Cup and a monetary prize. On the day the three Champions were chosen by the Goblet of Fire, it unexpected chose a fourth: Harry Potter. This was a surprise because not only was it unprecedented to have a fourth contestant, and not only was Harry to young to compete, but he didn't actually enter.

In addition to the Triwizarding events, the school year proceeds as usual. This year's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is Mad-Eye Moody. He's an auror- something new we learned about in this book- who are highly-trained officers for the Ministry of Magic who hunt dark witches and wizards. This book is also where we learn of the three unforgivable curses: The Cruciatus Curse, The Imperious Curse, and Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse. Another character we meet for the first time is Rita Skeeter, a reporter prone to exaggeration who starts all sorts of rumors that cause trouble for Harry this year. Also, we were introduced to nifflers, which I would have completely forgotten about had I not just watched Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (an entertaining enough movie that was pretty thin on plot.)

This is also the book in which Ron is an asshole to everyone. When Harry is chosen for the Tournament their friendship suffers. Ron won't believe that Harry didn't actually enter. He was also an insensitive jerk to Hermione when it came time to pick dates for a big ball and Ron assumed he'd be able to go with her as a last resort. He was very surprised to find out that she already had a date. (It's some comfort to know that his appreciation for her increases a lot later.) As much as I wanted to smack him, I'm enjoying the way their friendships all change and grow over the years.

The part I kept dreading was the very sad death of Cedric Diggory. But it was followed by a rousing speech by Dumbledore, which struck me so much I'm going to share the whole thing here:

"I say to you all, once again -- in the light of Lord Voldemort's return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort's gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.

It is my belief -- and never have I so hoped that I am mistaken -- that we are all facing dark and difficult times. Some of you in this Hall have already suffered directly at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Many of your families have been torn asunder. A week ago, a student was taken from our midst.

Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory."

Dumbledore's warnings about Voldemort and and pleas for everyone to come together have a very familiar ring to me right now, in 2016 in America. It's also an ominous warning of things to come, because it is here that these books begin to take a pretty dark turn. I'm very much looking forward to the last few books in the series.

I was worried about listening to the audio of this one because it's SO much longer than the others, and longer than any audiobook I've listened to before. It helps that it's not my first time with the story because it really did take me a few weeks. The 21 hours was long, but the next book is 27 so that's potentially an extra whole week. However, I think I'm up to it and the last two are a littler shorter again. I'm looking forward to finishing this series in early 2017!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill (2016)

Newly-published in November, this guide to Victorian day-to-day life for women focuses on the less-revealed details of sex, menstruation, bathroom habits, birth control, and marriage. Presented as a guided tour to someone traveling from the 21st century, the second-person narration uses information primarily from contemporary guides to instruct the reader in how to behave and take care of herself in the Victorian period.

Generously illustrated with photos and advertisements, it was a speedy whirlwind tour through life in the 1800s. In addition to the scandalous subjects above, Oneill also delves into diet, bathing, hysteria, and general social manners, so the more (scandalous) topics didn't get quite the in-depth treatment I was hoping for.

So what tips and advice can you hope to learn from this colorful guide? For one, you learn that women didn't wear underwear during this period because of the logistics involved in squatting over a chamber pot wearing a cage crinoline. In the chapter on bathing you learn about all the heavy floral perfumes everyone doused themselves in to hide their stink. (The author was clear that the Victorian period was quite aromatic.) The most common and effective method of birth control at the time was withdrawal, which was considered almost as dangerous as masturbation since it has the same result (i.e. "wasting seed") and could cause all manner of disastrous health conditions, such as sterility, vision problems, memory loss, and uterine disease. (Aren't you glad we have better birth control these days? Ha!)

Although I think there is some good information here, the style is so unrelentingly tongue-in-cheek I wasn't sure how much to believe and how much was exaggeration added for comic effect. The bibliography consists primarily of books of advice from the time, and though they're certainly a window into the mindset that prevailed in terms of what was published, that's like using Martha Stewart Living or Cosmopolitan to describe how women live in the 21st century.

It's fun to mock Victorian people and their silly ill-informed ways, and if you learn something along the way, that's great. But I'm not overly fond of ridiculing and dismissing people of the past just because they didn't know what we know now. I'd rather know why they thought the things they thought and lived the way they did but the author didn't examine the broader context. There were even a couple of parts where she asks questions for humor's sake that she should have been able to answer. ("What does a hall usher even do?" Well, you're the one researching the period for this book, so you tell me.)

However, it doesn't promise to be scholarly. In the introduction (titled "Hello, Slattern" - that was my first clue) the author says we'll be traveling between social classes, geographic area, and time, and may go a bit outside the bounds of the Victorian era "...the better to broaden your experience. Or just because it pleases me." And obviously any serious study isn't narrated by someone who continually addresses the reader as "lambkin." So I guess we shouldn't expect it to be anything but light-hearted humorous infotainment.

Despite its imperfections, I found this book rather fun and I recommend it if you're looking more for humor than education, but for a more thorough examination of the time I'd recommend the far superior How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Sun Is Also a Star

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (2016)

It's Natasha's last day in the United States. She's lived here since she was 8 and it's the only home she knows, but her family is here illegally and they're being deported tonight. Daniel is the son of immigrants who want the best life possible for him, so he's on his way to an interview for Yale even though he doesn't especially want to go there or become a doctor like his parents want him to. When Natasha and Daniel meet, spending time together becomes more important than anything else they are supposed to do, but the clock is ticking.

Told in alternating points of view by Natasha and Daniel, there are occasional chapters told by those around them including Natasha's father, Daniel's brother, a security guard at the immigration office, and an attorney. The way their lives intersect will make you think about destiny, fate, coincidence, and how everything in the universe leads up to a single moment.

Natasha is ruled by logic and reason. She loves science and math and believes that everything happens for a reason, but those reasons are cause-and-effect and coincidences, not magical. Daniel is a poet, and although his parents have already decided he'll go to Yale and become a doctor, he would rather follow his passions. He feels like he and Natasha were meant to meet today, and had they not met the way they did, surely they would have just crossed paths later. He believes in destiny. Despite their very different views they are inextricably drawn to each other, and watching how this plays out is pretty delightful.

Among the issues tackled are race and immigration. Daniel's Korean family own a store that sells black hair-care products, though his family members are fairly racist. His brother is simply horrible when he meets Natasha, and his father isn't much better. Natasha has bigger problems than these assholes though, since she's about to get kicked out of the country by a system she sees as unfair. She says "If people who were actually born here had to prove they were worthy enough to live in America, this would be a much less populated country." She also points out: "America's not really a melting pot. It's more like one of those divided metal plates with separate sections for starch, meat, and veggies." I felt so bad for Natasha, and of course it's worse to think about how real this situation is for so many people in America. I can't imagine being forced to leave the country I grew up in for a place that is considered dangerous and devoid of opportunities to have a fulfilling life.

The short chapters, short sentences, and snappy dialogue propel the reader through the story quickly, and because of the tension surrounding Natasha's impending deportation you'll just want to keep turning pages to find out what happens. This story asks a lot of big questions about the direction our lives take. It will give you a lot to think about, and I suspect you won't forget these characters or their stories anytime soon.

Friday, December 16, 2016

My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier (2016)

Che is from Australia, but his family has been moving around for years, and now they are going to New York. His parents start up socially responsible companies and sell them, and his ten-year-old little sister is a psychopath. Literally. Che has been trying to keep her in check for years, alone, because nobody else will believe him that she is dangerous. With her blond hair and dimples, she's a picture of innocence and knows how to charm everyone. But Che isn't fooled. He just hopes he can keep her under control before she really hurts someone.

Just released in November, I've had my eye on this book for a while. The premise is incredibly intriguing, and I'm happy to report that Larbalestier does an amazing job delivering on it. Rosa is creepy! Super creepy! And there's more going on in the family that makes it even more complicated than it seems at first. I loved everything about it.

This is supposed to be a book for teens, and it definitely has teen appeal. Che is seventeen, and in addition to his problems with his sister, he's going through some typical teenage boy issues. He's really into boxing, but his parents think it's too violent so they've made him promise not to spar. But he really wants to and knows it will improve his overall skill at the sport. He also desperately wants a girlfriend and has a huge crush on Sojourner, another boxer at his gym. But she's super religious and said up front that even though she likes him, she won't date someone who isn't also religious. So, typical teenage boy struggles on top of the atypical ones. But the writing is more dense than is typical in a teen book and it's not as quick to read. Still, I read the last 150 pages in one sitting because I couldn't put it down.

The way the story of Rosa progresses is incredibly well done. She manipulates everyone around her to her advantage and it was totally believable. Her conversations with Che, who she is pretty honest with about her peculiarities, were positively chilling. He tries to teach her to have empathy for other people, but all she is doing is trying to appear like a regular person and it's clear she's been honing her acting skills since she realized that she's different from most people. I was so worried for Che and the people he cared about, and wanted to smack his parents for being so disinterested, and so convinced that Rosa is just precocious.

I was very happy that, just like in Liar, Larbalestier included diversity elements, but even more so in this book. Sojourner is black and has two moms, another friend is gender fluid, and another is Korean-American and a lesbian. But none of this is a big deal, or even especially surprising to Che, though he is slightly confused about the gender fluid character. (Not confused in a bad way though, he totally likes Elon, he's just unsure what gender this person is and has to have it explained to him.) I hate to even mention these elements because it shouldn't be a big deal, but I think it's important to give a shoutout to books that normalize non-white-heterosexual-cisgender characters. In this book they are all just people who are well-rounded and have hobbies and interests and just happen to be a minority. There was a great conversation between Che's friend Leilani and her girlfriend about whether or not she is "really" Korean since she was born in America and doesn't look very Korean, and because her Korean dad was adopted by a white American couple. There are so many conversations like this in real life and it's so important to talk about this kind of thing.

In summary, you should read this right now! Just go immediately to a bookstore or library and get it as soon as possible.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward To For The First Half of 2017

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is books we're looking forward to for the first half of 2017. This usually means news books that are coming out during that time, but I honestly haven't been paying attention because I'm so wrapped up on what I want to read in the near future and the books I've been wanting to read and haven't gotten to. I mostly can't even think about the books that haven't been published yet that I might want to read.

However, I do have things I plan to read in the first half of 2017. I'm participating in the Classic Book a Month Challenge, and I'm also planning to do a TBR Pile Challenge again. There are also some other books I've been wanting to read and I don't see myself getting to them in the next few weeks. So let's see what I'm most interested in reading in the first half of 2017!

1. The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
This will be published in January and is the only book on this list that hasn't been published yet. I don't even know what it's about and it doesn't matter because I'll read anything that Chris Bohjalian writes.

2. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I've wanted to read this for years and it was on my TBR Pile Challenge at least once and I didn't get to it, but now it's on the Classic Book a Month Challenge and I'm determined to read it this April.

3. The Painter by Peter Heller
I loved his novel The Dog Stars but have been wary of reading another of his books out of fear that it won't compare. But a coworker read this one and loved it.

4. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Similarly, I loved The Snow Child but hadn't heard much about this one so I wondered if maybe it wasn't as good. Recently though I've a few reports that it is, in fact, excellent.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
Again I've avoided reading something that sounds really good because it is long. I'm going to try and tackle it this winter. Somehow I think I have more time in the winter.

6. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This nonfiction book was already a big deal before the election, but now even more people are reading it to try and understand the people who voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named. I've wanted to read it ever since I heard about it but since I have to pace myself with nonfiction I still haven't gotten to it.

7. Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson
Ok, I lied. This comes out in January also. So there's two on my list to be published in 2017. The Kind Worth Killing was so good!

8. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
A classic that I haven't read, this title keeps popping up recently. I've been reading a lot of articles about race and this sounds like a must-read for understanding racial issues in the U.S.

9. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
This is the May pick for the Classic Book a Month Challenge and is also about race in America. I don't know much about it though of course I've heard of it. I'm very interested to read a play that isn't by Shakespeare.

10. In Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
There are a number of romance authors I want to read more of - Sarah MacLean, Courtney Milan, Beverly Jenkins - but I'm not sure what I'll read next from each of them. I know the next Kristan Higgins book I want to read though, because it's next in the Blue Heron series that I've been enjoying.

Hopefully I'll use this list to guide me this winter and spring so I don't have to put any of these books on my list for the second half of 2017!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Highly Illogical Behavior

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley (2016)

Three years ago, Solomon Reed stripped out of his clothes and lay down in a fountain at his school in front of everyone. He hasn't left his house since. Lisa Praytor is determined to get out of her town, and her escape route is getting into the second-best psychology program in the country. To do so, she needs to submit an essay about a personal experience with mental illness. She remembers Solomon, and when she learns he's agoraphobic she decides he'll be her project and she sets out to befriend him, dragging her boyfriend Clark along with her. Lisa is surprised when she meets Solomon and genuinely likes him. He hasn't had a friend since he left school and is a bit suspicious but soon the three become good friends. But hanging over them all is the fact that Lisa befriended him deceitfully for a project because of her own ambitions.

Lisa connects with Solomon through his mother who is a dentist. The first day Lisa has an appointment with her, she goes home and tells Solomon that she met a former classmate of his who was asking about him. This immediately put me off because it's such a breach of privacy - haven't you heard of HIPPA, Solomon's mom? But apparently Lisa said to tell Solomon she said hi, so I guess I'll accept that. Anyhow, I got over it and that was really my only criticism of the book.

I really thought I was going to dislike Lisa because of her initial deceit. She was just using Solomon, but she genuinely liked him and wanted to be his friend once she got to know him a little. I also understand the desperate need to get out of your hometown. And she did actually help him quite a bit, mostly through her supportive friendship, but also through some more professional means. For instance, when he had a panic attack she sat with him and walked him through a breathing exercise that helped him quite a bit. I'm not sure where she picked it up, but it seems a pretty basic strategy (which, come to think of it, begs the question...why didn't Solomon already know to do that?) Lisa and Clark's relationship was troubled and without giving anything away I'll just say that the way it developed was not what I expected.

Solomon was a pretty good character, with a great sense of humor and a deep love of Star Trek: Next Generation. I liked his insights regarding his mental illness. "Most people would rather do nothing than risk doing the wrong thing - that's something Solomon learned a long time before shutting them all out." His family was very supportive, even to the point that his parents no longer made him see a therapist. He convinced them he did better without therapy, and they accepted that, though they continued to worry and hope he would go outside again someday. I especially liked his grandmother, who was a huge gossip.

This was a very short quick read which I read most of in one day, but it was also quite satisfying. It's probably not the sort of book that will stick with me, but I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it and I'd recommend it to those looking for representations of mental illness in teen books.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My True Love Gave To Me

My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins (2014)

This is a collection of short stories, mostly Christmas themed, and all with a bit of romance, written by some of the most popular authors who write for teens. Out of the twelve authors in the collection, I've read books by six and have heard great things about four others, leaving only two authors I hadn't heard of before. What a treat! These stories run the gamut from realistic fiction to fantasy, with many somewhere in between.

One of the new-to-me authors I was excited about was Kelly Link and her story "The Lady and the Fox" did not disappoint. Miranda's mother is in prison in Thailand so Miranda spends every Christmas with her godparents, the Honeywells. Every time it snows on Christmas a mysterious man appears outside the house and Miranda is determined to find out who he is. Matt de la Peña, another author I'd heard of but never read, wrote one called "Angels in the Snow," which I think was one of my favorites in the collection. A young guy is housesitting over his college Christmas break because he can't afford to go home, but he also can't afford to eat. He befriends a young woman in the building but tries to hide his hunger from her. "The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer" by Laini Taylor was a fantasy, fairy-tale like and totally beautiful and kind of weirdish in a really good way. She's the author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which has just jumped up a few notches on my imaginary TBR list.

Those were all on the more serious side of the collection, comparatively. "Welcome to Christmas, CA" by Kiersten White (who I hadn't heard of before) takes place in a diner when a new, magical, and definitely good-looking cook is hired. The food bits were super fun, although there was a fairly serious subplot, and a pretty touching story about Maria's family. Another great one was "Star of Bethlehem" by Ally Carter in which a teenage girl impulsively trades plane tickets with a similar-looking girl from Sweden who wants to fly to New York instead of going to Oklahoma to visit her long-distance boyfriend. For reasons we learn later, our protagonist is trying to escape her life and although she knows her scheme is not going to work she's willing to try. So she goes to Oklahoma and meets the Swedish girl's boyfriend and his family.

So far, all these great stories I've mentioned were by authors I hadn't even read before. But there are also authors in this collection that I already knew I liked! "Polaris is Where You'll Find Me" by Jenny Han is about a human living among elves at the North Pole and doesn't quite fit in. It sounds like the movie Elf, but it's totally not. (Although I also love Elf.) It was fun and light and festive. "It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown" by editor Stephanie Perkins is about a somewhat-accidental acquisition of a Christmas tree by a teenage girl, and the boy who helps her bring it to her apartment that doesn't actually have room for it. Rainbow Rowell's "Midnights" began the collection with a romance that takes place on several New Year's Eves and, like her books, it's hard to describe why it is so wonderful.

This is the problem with short story collections. I just end up summarizing what the stories are about as briefly as possible and take up a ton of space just with that, without even going into everything I like about them. And that's not even all of them. (I didn't even tell you about "Krampuslauf" by Holly Black or "Your Temporary Santa" by David Levithan even though I liked both of them a lot.) I liked that there was a variety of styles and genres included, and that the stories covered Christmas, New Year's Eve, Advent, and Hanukkah, and some of the characters were Jewish and the romances were between a girl and boy or a boy and another boy or a girl and someone who is maybe not quite human. And although they're mostly festive and fun and light they also touch on serious issues, and one asks a question that I keep thinking about and can't answer. ("Would you rather be great at something you like, or just ok at something you love?" Man, I don't know!)

If you just like fantasy or just like realistic fiction you'd have to pick and choose from this collection, which I recommend if you recognize the authors from your most-loved genres. But if - like me - you read in various genres you'll probably enjoy the whole thing as much as I did.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top New-To-Me Authors I Read in 2016

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is the top ten authors I read for the first time in 2016. It's always fun to look back at my Goodreads list for the year, because I'm often surprise by what I find. It turns out I read a lot of authors for the first time this year, so it was just a matter of narrowing it down to the ones I liked the most and who I'm most likely to read again.

As it turns out, there were eight that really stood out. I spent some time waffling around trying to pick another two - and there were definitely other books by authors I read for the first time and really liked - but they didn't stand out nearly as much as my original list, so I'm sticking to eight.

1. Kate Morton: I read The Forgotten Garden
Historical family saga and mystery set mostly in the English countryside. Immersive and atmostpheric.

2. Taylor Jenkins Reid: I listened to One True Loves
A young woman finds love for the second time, only to learn that her presumably-dead husband is still alive. Angsty contemporary that I couldn't put down.

3. Jennifer Crusie: I listened to Bet Me
Older contemporary romance/chick lit with wonderfully amazing main character and a ton of humor.

4. Peter Swanson: I read The Kind Worth Killing
A guy decides to murder his wife and a woman he meets in an airport offers to help him, but his wife has her own agenda they don't know about. Excellent psychological novel that's full of surprises.

5. Courtney Milan: I read The Suffragette Scandal
Historical romance full of feminism and hilarity. Courtney Milan is also excellent to follow on Twitter.

6. Beverly Jenkins: I listened to Forbidden
Another historical, this one about a black woman making her way in post-Civil War America. Really interesting issues addressed, but also great main characters and a sweet romance.

7. Nicola Griffith: I read Hild
Difficult but excellent historical about a strong young woman. Dripping with detail of life in seventh-century Britain. Not quick or easy to read, but definitely worth it.

8. Elizabeth Gilbert: I read Big Magic
Inspiring part-memoir, part-self-help book about creativity. Recommended for all creative types or creative wannabes.

I'm hoping to read more by all of these authors, each of whom impressed me in a different way.

Did you discover any new favorite authors this year?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Tempest

The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610)

Although I'm technically finished reading plays for my Bardathon Challenge, I'll be seeing a performance of The Tempest in December so I decided to read it ahead of time. In this play, the magician Prospero has been living in exile on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. He conjures a storm which brings to the island several people who had conspired together to oust Prospero. His complicated manipulations result in the marriage of Miranda to the son of the King of Naples, and Prospero's own restoration as the Duke of Milan.

My experience reading this was pretty meh. I enjoyed some of the wordplay and humor, such as when a ship was described as being "as leaky as an unstanched wench." When Trinculo notices the monster caliban he remarks: "What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish - a very ancient and fishlike smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish." Later, that same character says, again to Caliban, "Monster, I do smell all horse piss, at which my nose is in great indignation." So that was all amusing.

Again I read the Folger edition, as I've been reading with the other plays. This time I noticed that some unfamiliar words and phrases weren't explained, though "maze" was defined, which seemed a bit odd. I also had a hard time keeping track of the characters since so many of them seemed interchangeable. And I had a tough time understanding what was happening near the middle, but when all was said and done I think I get the idea.

At this point I sort of think if you've read one Shakespeare play, you've read them all so I probably won't be making a point to read any more. I'm looking forward to this play though - the island setting, storm, shipwreck, monster, and various spirits should lend themselves to a more visual experience.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Big Magic

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

I don't read much self-help and was a bit put off by the sub-title, but I'm intrigued by ideas about creativity. After hearing this book mentioned on a few different blogs, I impulsively picked it up at the library even though I had several books at home already. I'm glad I did! This was an easy, pleasant book to read and turned out to be an inspiring missive encouraging everyone with even a spark of creative interest to pursue our interests.

Gilbert works through typical fears that prevent one from doing creative work, and dismantles several myths about what it means to live a creative life. If I had to sum up her basic premise, it would be: Do whatever you want, however you want to do it and regardless of how good at it you are. These basic ideas are expressed through various beliefs about creativity, and I ended up making a ton of notes in the course of my reading.

Some of her beliefs are a little out-there, but in a way that is productive and helpful. Like, she talks about ideas having lives of their own in a magical way, and finding people to bring them forth. If an idea picks you, it will try to get your attention and if you don't latch onto it, it will find someone else. To any rational thinker that's ridiculous, but given how little control one has over things like inspiration, it seems like a pretty useful way to think about it, and has definitely served Elizabeth Gilbert well. Like the time she spent a couple of years working on a book and then neglected it, and Ann Patchett ended up writing basically the exact book. She could been upset and angry and allowed it to ruin their friendship, but instead she just took it for granted that it was out of her control and she moved on to the next project.

A related idea comes from the ancient Greeks and Romans, which is that genius is something external. A person isn't inherently genius, but they may have genius for a time. Having a brilliant idea doesn't mean that a person is always brilliant, and failing to come up with a brilliant idea isn't necessarily one's own fault. This keeps the ego in check and lets people off the hook a bit. Which is all to say that you can't control inspiration.

Gilbert also believes that authenticity is more important than originality, that your work doesn't need to be important, and that the idea of tortured artist is hogwash. Those who were great creators and were alcoholics or drug addicts were great creators despite their addictions not because of them. Interestingly, she doesn't seem to value education in the arts very much. While it's obvious that you don't need a degree to be good at your art, she seems to think that the only thing gained from getting an MFA is debt. I'm not qualified to argue about this because, like Gilbert, I don't have an MFA and was, in fact, (also like her) a political science major. But I imagine there is value in getting the degree because if nothing else it's forcing you to focus on and practice your craft.

She cares less about success than about fully engaging in your creativity for its own sake, saying that if she weren't creating she'd be destroying. She says "I firmly believe that we all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch." And there's value in trying different kinds of creative work, too. If you really want to write but you feel blocked, go spend some time drawing or take the dog for a walk or just switch gears and do something different, and when you return to your writing you might be in a better spot to keep going. I've heard this advice before, but it's worth a reminder.

A couple of her ideas especially stood out to me. The first one came from her mother: "Done is better than good." Which Gilbert later paraphased as: "A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never." Her point being that most people don't actually finish things, and finishing a thing is a pretty big deal even if it's not perfect. "You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go."

The second thing I was very happy to hear her say is that she doesn't believe in telling people that all they need to do is follow their passion. She finds this unhelpful and sometimes cruel, explaining that chances are that if someone has a clear passion, they are probably already following it. The reality is that many people don't know what their passion is, or has multiple passions, and had one but now it has changed. Her version of this advice is to follow your curiosity. Not everyone has a great passion, but most of us are curious about things, and investigating those can lead you on a path to a satisfying project.

I think what I liked most about the ideas in this book is just how democratic her views on creativity are. What she seems to emphasize over and over is that you don't have to be good, you don't have to make a living just from your creative projects, and that it doesn't matter if a million people are better at it than you. What matters is that you're pursuing something that you love for its own sake, and you shouldn't let other people's ideas or your own fears of failing stop you from doing that.

I've never read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before. Years ago I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and read about a page before deciding it wasn't for me. Reading this book, however, kind of makes me want to try that one again just because I really like the way she thinks about things. Personally, my creativity tends to involve dabbling in various things rather than pursuing a great passion whole-heartedly so I found much here to be validating. But I think there's also a lot that would be helpful for someone who does have a great, driving passion for art or writing or music or origami or some other creative work. It's a very quick, easy book to read but it's packed with a whole lot of food for thought.

Have you read any books about creativity that you loved? Please share your suggestions in the comments!

Friday, November 25, 2016

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (The Rules of Scoundrels #3) by Sarah MacLean (2013)

I've been reading this series completely out of order. I began with #4, Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, then progressed to #1, A Rogue by Any Other Name. Now I've just finished #3, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished and I can confidently say that this series should win some sort of prize for Best Titles Ever. The one I haven't read, #2, is called One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. I rest my case.

But about the story. It begins with the Duke of Lamont waking up and expecting to find a woman next to him in bed, but finding only blood. He has no memory of the night. He does remember the woman though, because she was engaged to marry his father. Now she's apparently dead and for the next twelve years he's known as the Killer Duke.

Then one day she appears - Mara Lowe. She's been in hiding this whole time, but now feels a lot of guilt about setting up this innocent guy. She offers to finally clear his name and they enter into an agreement in which he will pay her to spend time with him in public and then she will be revealed as who she truly is, exonerating him. The money will go towards saving the orphanage she runs. She's desperate for money because her reckless, irresponsible brother has lost everything. Of course, even though Temple (as the Duke is called these days) and Mara should be sworn enemies because of their history, they are drawn to each other despite how much they each try to resist.

Mara has all the best qualities of a romance heroine. She is strong, witty, doesn't take crap from anyone, and despite living in the 19th century she can take care of herself perfectly well, thank you very much. I loved some of the things she said and, in fact, would love to start using the words "scallawaginous" and "scoundrelly." Also, she has a pet pig named Lavender who sleeps on a cushion. As pet pigs should. This novel also has one of my very favorite tropes: Temple becomes gravely injured and Mara helps nurse him back to health. Well, she doesn't help a whole lot since she isn't allowed near him for a while, but it still works for me.

The only issue I really had is that the characters seemed determined to make things more difficult for themselves than they needed to be, which is an all-too-common problem I encounter in romance novels. There was a point where it seemed like they were pretty much all set, but Mara still insisted they couldn't be together. Oh, and the word "worrying" was really overused. Not as in an anxious feeling, but as in fiddling with something (like a lip or a nipple.) It was used about 5 times in the course of just a few pages, which seems excessive. But these are very minor issues with a book that I found overall pretty enjoyable.

You may recall that I struggled a bit with the last book I read because I wasn't really in the mood to read about Soviet oppression around the time of the US election, but do you know what I did want to read? This. This is exactly what I needed. I actually began it before finishing the last book because I really, really needed some comfort and pleasure. Sarah MacLean came through for me, as I knew she would. I have only one more book in this series to read, and I was surprised to learn that on Goodreads it has the highest rating in the series. I've enjoyed them all so far, but I absolutely loved Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, and now I'm looking forward to reading the one that, apparently, many people loved even more.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ten Things I'm Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a Thanksgiving freebie - things you're thankful for or books you're thankful for. I can't pick out specific books that I'm thankful for so I'm going more general with this one.

1. Books - all of them!
There are so many out there that there really is something for everyone, and I appreciate that here in the US we have the freedom to read whatever we want. Not everyone in the world has the freedom to do so, or the access to the books they want.

2. Meditation and my meditation room
I started meditating back in May and it really has made a difference in my life. For one thing, I sleep much better these days, but I also think it's just made me more calm in general. We have a room that's small enough to be kind of useless and I made it into my meditation room (also called "room of solitude" or "room of requirement.") It feels absolutely luxurious to have a space set aside for mindfulness and contemplation.

3. The US government's system of checks and balances
I always take it for granted but I think we'll be getting more use out of it soon.

4. Organizations like ACLU, SPLC, and fact-checking websites like Politifact
Protecting our rights and helping us figure out what's true and what isn't. I've been lax about donating, but soon I'll be setting up some monthly donations so I don't fall behind again.

5. Financial stability
I'm all too aware of the growing economic inequality in this country and I'm incredibly lucky to be in the position I'm in.

6. The city I live in
There are many reasons why I live in Somerville, and specifically East Somerville. My neighborhood has a huge immigrant population, which gives it a diversity and vibrancy different from many other places. Not to mention delicious tasty foods. We are one of the sanctuary cities that have been mentioned in political discourse recently, and our mayor has strongly reaffirmed that status. This makes me very happy.

7. My job, especially my department
This was on my list last year too, and it has not changed. My job is still amazing. Even though it's been a bit rough lately because of being so incredibly busy and some post-election safety-pin-related drama, I still wouldn't trade it for any other job I can think of. I'm especially lucky that the people in my department make being a department head much easier than it could be. Every person in my department is passionate about their job and that makes all the difference in the world.

8. That guy I live with
He doesn't get much airtime here, but I need to give a shoutout to Eric. I've been reading a lot of posts on Pantsuit Nation (the secret FB group Clinton referred to in her concession speech) and the MA offshoot of Pantsuit Nation, and a lot of women have expressed that their husbands voted for Trump and/or don't understand why many women don't want a president who has bragged about sexually assaulting women. I'm very grateful to live with someone whose masculinity isn't threatened by feminism or anything else, and whose basic beliefs are very similar to mine. He also does all the cooking, so.

Someone doesn't like her new winter coat.
9. Petri's greatly improved behavior over last year
Getting a dog has been incredibly disruptive to daily life and making plans, not to mention a whole new skill set I've had to learn. Last year at this time we were both tearing our hair out and really honestly didn't know if we'd be able to keep this dog. She was horrible! Biting, grabbing at our clothing, running around like a maniac, pulling hard when we tried to walk her, freaking out at other dogs, not to mention her ongoing intestinal issues. But as soon as her health issues cleared up we were able to send her here for an intense board-and-train program for 5 weeks. Then again in the spring for another 6 weeks. At this point she's pretty much a regular dog which feels like a miracle.

10. My health
It's true that I've been having problems with my wrist preventing me from doing yoga or knitting as frequently as I'd like, and I've also had to start wearing reading glasses this year. Aging means falling apart and I'm quite grateful that I seem to be doing it slowly. I realize I'm only in my early 40s, but there was a time that was the extent of our lifespans. I just started running this year and although I won't be winning any marathons (who am I kidding? I won't be entering any marathons) I'm glad I've been able to stick to a regular exercise routine.

I think we can all agree that 2016 has sucked in a lot of ways. We lost amazing people like Prince and David Bowie and then elected a hot-headed reality tv star as president. Now more than ever it's important to think about all the important little things that make our lives fulfilling.

What are you thankful for this year?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (2015)

It's been over a week since I've posted about a book, and it's no coincidence that my last book post was the day before the US presidential election fiasco. I actually started this book a couple of days before but had too much anxiety to read, and that only increased after the results came in. It took everything I had to force myself to read this because Soviet oppression is exactly the opposite of what I actually felt like reading at the time. But it was for my book group at work and I'm glad I made myself read it because it was actually very good and we had a great discussion!

The Siege of Leningrad was a significant but often-overlooked part of World War II, and I imagine most people know little about the composer Shostakovich and the role of his music during that time. Anderson expertly weaves together two different threads; the political aspects of the war, and Shostakovich's life and music. The result is a rich, vibrant story filled with unforgettable imagery.

A lot is covered, so I will just mention a few things that stood out to me. One was the resilience of the Russian people. Last night at my book group someone mentioned that Russia is declining, and another person said "Yes, but it has always been declining." This speaks to something essential about the country, which is the determination and strength of Russia and its people to keep going even when everything is fighting against them. The Siege lasted for something like two and half years, Hitler's troops surrounding the city so nobody could leave and food couldn't be shipped in. Even while literally starving to death, the members of the orchestra came together to rehearse and perform Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. It's what kept them going. People who just huddled in their beds to conserve energy were the ones who died; those who kept active lived. When the Symphony was being performed, starving people gave up their daily rations to afford tickets. And in the end, Hitler lost.

Another part that stood out to me came earlier in the time leading up to the siege. Stalin and Hitler had communicated a bit and come to an agreement about how far each could send their troops, essentially divvying up eastern Europe. As Hitler's troops came closer and closer, many different people alerted Stalin, who refused to believe it was happening. He would contact Hitler, who would tell him that the reports was lies to throw him off and he should ignore them. Stalin believed him, much to his own detriment. This would be mind-boggling with any leader in a time of war, but even more so because Stalin didn't trust anyone. But he chose to trust Hitler.

Life for the Russian people in this time was filled with fear and paranoia. If you wanted to survive it was essential to toe the party line and make sure you didn't say anything that the government didn't approve of. This was incredibly difficult because it kept changing. This extended to artistic expression, so Shostakovich had to keep politics in mind with his music. We don't think of music without lyrics as expressing specific opinions, but it can be interpreted and not always in the way the composer intended. Shostakovich wasn't put in a good position at all. Of course we'll never know what he actually thought about anything since he couldn't speak freely, which is also addressed in the book.

Despite the fact that I was completely not in the mood to read this, I ended up liking it a lot and I'd highly recommend it. This work is pretty dense for a teen book, but not as dense as most adult non-fiction books, so it was just perfect for me. As you can probably tell from my stream-of-consciousness thoughts above, Anderson tackles a lot here. But it's necessary because so much is tangled up together that can't really be separated. There's no doubt that Shostakovich's music played a role during the Siege and exploring that requires looking at the larger context. It was fascinating!