Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Books of the Year 2011

My goal for 2011 was to read 7 books per month, and to read more non-fiction books than fiction. I achieved my goal, with a total of 86 books read, or an average of 7.2 books per month. Of those 86 books, 49 were non-fiction and 37 were fiction.

While reading this much has been tremendous for speeding through my reading list, ultimately I found it to be a bit too much like "work." I often found myself rushing through books or pressuring myself to read books that I didn't really want to finish, just so I could achieve my goal.

So, for 2012, I am scaling back considerably. I want to regain my love for reading. I am hoping to read only 4 books per month. I don't care how many are fiction or non-fiction. If I read more than that, great.

That having been said, here are my top 5 books for 2011:

5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

If you're a book lover and you've never heard of this book, then apparently you've been living under a rock. It's about black servants and the white people they work for in the segregated South of the 1950s. Perhaps it's cliche to have this book on my list, but I really, really loved it. It's an excellent read.

4. American Lightning by Howard Blum

A non-fiction book about the 1910 bombing of the LA Times building. This book is fantastic! I think it particularly struck me because of how many parallels there are between what was happening in America in the early 20th century and what is happening now, exactly 100 years later. I cannot stress enough how great this book is.

3. Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Holy cow, a second fiction book makes it into my top 5! This is a YA novel about a young man who is a ghost hunter, which isn't even remotely as lame as it sounds. This book is genuinely scary in parts (and I don't scare easily). It is also violent and beautiful and full of twists that I wasn't necessarily expecting. The author is female but the main character is male and I think she does an excellent job of portraying him. When the sequel (ohpleaseohplease) comes out, I will be on it like a ghost trying to rip the warm flesh from human bones! :)

2. The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell by John Cameron

One man's memoir of his time serving in Iraq. This book is raw and angry and visceral and real. And, oh god, is it good.

1. Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

It feels almost wrong to put a book about soccer as my top book of the year, mostly because I know that 99.9% of people who ever read this blog won't give a crap about soccer. But it's the first book I read this year and it remains my favorite as well. Part history of soccer, part history of South America, and part unashamed worship of the sport, it's as beautiful as the beautiful game itself. Mr. Galeano is truly a talented author.

A Resolution By Any Other Name . . .

It's a beautiful final day of 2011 in Austin, Texas, so I hope you'll indulge me a few ruminations before I get on to the business of listing what I hope to achieve in 2012. With my husband suffering what appears to be a rather nasty cold and fears that I will be soon to follow, I decided to take my best advantage of a lovely day such as this. After running a few errands and getting some breakfast, I grabbed a coffee and headed down to the river for a walk.

A lot of things went through my mind as I was out and about. In many ways, 2011 was a very difficult year. In many other ways, however, it was fantastic. It ended on a bit of a downer. December has been a hard month. My first Christmas without my mother, coupled with the return to yet another meaningless, pointless cubicle job, and capped with food poisoning for Christmas Day, left me in a bit of a funk.

As I spent some quality time with myself today, all I could think was: "So? What are you going to do about it?"

Recently I was reading Riane Eisler's The Power of Partnership. Frankly, I didn't get very far. Part of me liked it. Part of me found her a bit histrionic (her rant about video games making people violent had me rolling my eyes). When the return date came up and I wasn't done, I returned it without renewing it. However, I did really enjoy the first chapter of the book, about how important one's partnership with one's self is. I'd never really thought of it that way before. It made me realize how much work I still have left to do.

All that having been said, I came up with four goals for 2012. I don't really like to call them resolutions. Goal seems to be a better word. I don't necessarily expect to achieve all of these goals - after all, I didn't achieve all the ones I had for 2011 - but I think that it will be fun to try. What can be better than trying to live up to one's full potential?

So here they are, my Goals for 2012:

1. Keep up with my writing. Specifically, I'd like to start working a lot harder so I can finish my current story more quickly. I've got a lot of ideas kicking around in my head. It's time to start putting them to paper. Also, I have an idea for my blog that should have me writing on it once a week - consider this the promise of a nice surprise starting next week!

2. Start thinking more seriously about a non-profit I'd like to start. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time. I'm just still not exactly sure what I want to focus on. Have to have an idea before I can start working on it!

3. Be more mindful in my relationship with my husband. I want to have more intent in my interactions with him, to be more conscious of what I'm thinking and feeling when we're talking with one another. I don't think I'm explaining this one very well, but I know what I mean. I want to be more present in our relationship.

4. Be a better partner to myself. Specifically, I want to alter my eating habits (something I've already started), get more exercise/spend more time outside, and remember that liking myself is more important than anyone else liking me.

I think that I'm finally starting to become the person I've always wanted to be. It's been a long road, but I realized today that most of it has been incredibly fun. I enjoy being alive, even in the bad times. Life is too short to be unhappy.

I'm really looking forward to 2012. Let's see what kind of wild ride we get this time, shall we?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blue Eyes

I think that most, if not all, of the small handful of people who visit my blog are friends, and so they’re already aware of where this story comes from. But just in case a non-friend stumbles onto my blog, I wanted to give a little background to this post about my mother.

My brother took our mother to the hospital this past May 17 with what we thought was a severe kidney infection & perhaps a stroke (she had suffered a minor stroke a number of years ago and was exhibiting similar symptoms). After about a week in the hospital, they diagnosed her with terminal cancer; that they were certain of, it was already in her brain, lungs, liver, lower back, and uterus (she was also in renal failure due to the high levels of calcium in her system, which is apparently a symptom of cancer). She was given six months to a year to live. She lasted less than one month.

I live several states away, so I went to see her for what we all knew would be the final time about a week after she landed in the hospital.

One other important tidbit: I’m not sure what my mom’s job title was, but she worked at a hospital, delivering items from the supply area to different departments. The hospital she was admitted to was the same hospital that she worked in.

So that’s the important background info. I’m writing this because I’ve had a particular memory on a loop in my head now for the last week or two, and it seems to want to be written down. I’m indulging the impulse.


On the last day of my visit, I went with my mom to her radiation appointment. Due to dialysis treatments, she was fairly lucid for the most of the time that I was visiting. Although the rest of her cancer could not be treated, she chose to try radiation for her brain tumor.

Anyway, on our way down to her treatment, we ran into a man that she knew. This happened a lot when we were out and about in the hospital.

“Is this your daughter?” The man asked her. My mom said that I was. “I thought so,” he replied. “You have the same pretty blue eyes.”

My mother and I exchanged a confused glance. When the man was finally out of earshot, I said to her, kind of laughing,

“Since when have you had blue eyes?”

The thing is, my mother didn’t have blue eyes. Her eyes were hazel. I get my eye color from my father’s side of the family. I’ve always taken after his side looks-wise, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve started to look like my mom – a fact of life to which most ladies out there can relate, I think. But the moment struck me as really funny, that this man could make such a huge blunder. Unless you’re color blind, you couldn’t mistake my mom’s eyes as being blue.

At any rate, Mom just kind of laughed and shook her head in answer to my question.

The moment passed. We spent a few more hours together after that. My uncle (mom’s brother) came. So did my sister-in-law with two of the grandkids. And then I had to leave.

I never spoke to my mother again.

Later that day, they moved Mom to a nursing home for the duration of her radiation treatments. After that, the plan was to move her home to live out her last days in hospice care. But she didn’t last that long; she died a little less than two weeks after entering the nursing home. Her room there didn’t have a phone and while my brother bought her a cell phone, she wouldn’t turn it on (she was frugal to a fault). So the last time I spoke to and saw my mother was really the last time.

I’m not entirely sure why the above memory keeps playing over and over in my mind. It could simply be because it was the most memorable thing that happened that last day, but I think that it’s more than that.

Mom and I had a strained but polite relationship, for a variety of reasons that I don’t care to blast out into the blogosphere. I loved my mom & I cared about her, but I’m not sure that she ever really got that. Watching her face her sudden death at the age of 63 was heart breaking, to say the least. She was scared, she was depressed, and she didn’t want to die. It’s terrible. I hate it that more people don’t get to go when they’re good & ready.

I felt like she deserved to enjoy herself as much as she could before she died. I get that dying is never fun, but I think we should all have the opportunity to laugh in the face of death. So I tried to keep the mood light while I was there, to keep her laughing, to help her forget for a moment or two that it was all going to be over soon. Now I’m not so sure if that was the right thing to do. Maybe it’s not what she wanted. I did it because I felt like it was what she needed.

Anyway, I think maybe the reason I like the memory of her co-worker’s gaffe so much is because it was completely unexpected. It wasn’t a laugh that I sought out. It just happened. I really kind of appreciate that. The last day I saw my mom alive, we got to share a chuckle. I’m glad for it.

As I sat down to write this blog, I realized that today is the two-month anniversary of her death. I like the accidental symmetry of that. The other day, I was out walking the dog & I saw a hummingbird, the only one I’ve seen in the nearly 9 months we’ve lived in Texas. Mom loved hummingbirds. I’m not saying it was a sign or anything, but it’s nice to know that the reminders are there, all around us, all the time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Books Not Read 2.0

Here are a couple of more books that I couldn't slog my way through recently.

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
A fantasy novel about two teenaged orphans on an adventure. Sounds fun, right? This book was anything but fun. In fact, at a whopping 592 pages, I'm not sure how I ever imagined I'd find the time to get through it in the first place. My general problem with a lot of fantasy novels is that they're over descriptive to the point of tedium. I had the opposite problem with this book - the author introduced many new concepts and creatures without any explanation at all of what they were, exactly, as though I was already supposed to know.

I think I made it maybe 150-200 pages in before I just got irrationally angry. Seriously, it really pissed me off that I never seemed to know what was going on ever. I'd find myself thinking, "Wait, who the hell is this character? What the F is going on?" Now, to be fair to Mr. Hunt, I was trying to read this book while my mother was dying of cancer, so I may have been funneling some unresolved feelings about that into an easy target. But who wants to read a book that makes no sense?

I see that this book has only 3.5 stars on Amazon, which doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is how many 5-star reviews it got. Were those courtesy of the author's friends?

Prisoner of the State by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius
One day, maybe a year or so ago, I was passing some time at the library by reading magazines - copies of Newsweek, I believe. I happened to stumble across an article about modern-day influential books that everyone should read. This book was on the list. It is a translation of the secret journal kept by Zhao Ziyang, the former premier of China who was placed under house arrest following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I really wanted to like this book for a lot of reasons. I love to read about China. I think it would be fascinating to see into the mind of a man who was neck deep in the leadership of the Communist Party. And this book is supposed to be very good. But I just couldn't get into it. For a secret journal, it is shockingly dry, the language painfully formal. I love non-fiction, but the language absolutely has to be readable or I can't do it.

I set it aside with regret. Maybe I could try it at a different time, but I don't really feel like it.

As an aside, so far I've read three other books from that magazine list. I absolutely loved two of them and liked the other pretty well. So I still consider it a good list!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Movie Project: 1936

The Great Ziegfeld

My movie project was stalled yet again by reluctance to watch the film in question. Again, I'm not sure where the reluctance came from; perhaps I was just daunted by the 3 hour, 5 minute running time. Or maybe I had a psychic premonition.

However, with a 2-week trip imminent, I had by husband upload the movie onto my iPad. Airplanes and airports are always boring enough to drive one to watch things one might not have otherwise gotten around to watching. ;)

When the movie started with a 5-minute long musical overture, during which there was nothing more than a card with the word "Overture" on the screen, I have to admit that my heart sank. It didn't seem to bode well. Sadly, it never got much better from there. I had a really hard time watching this movie. I almost gave up, but settled for watching it in tolerable half-hour segments every few days (although I finally made it through the last hour of the movie in one shot).

The Great Ziegfeld is the mostly true (from what I gather from wikipedia) biography of Florenz Ziegfeld, one of America's most famous Broadway producers - best remembered today for his long-running Ziegfeld Follies.

I spent most of the movie a little confused as to what made Ziegfeld so great. If the movie is to be believed, while Ziegfeld was great at making money off of popular shows, he was just as great at losing it. He seems to have relied on the kindness of friends and his connections to continue producing shows, which didn't seem particularly impressive to me. Additionally, I found the portrayal of his first wife, the French singer Anna Held, both shrill and irritating. I can only hope that she and their relationship were not like that in real life ("I hate you, leave me alone, no come back, I love you," ad nauseum. Ugh. Man, the way they portrayed romantic relationships on the big screen in the 1930s grates on my modern-day sensibilities).

Honestly, I found the first hour and a half of this movie completely insufferable. It wasn't until they finally got the Ziegfeld Follies on-screen that I understood why this movie was so popular back in its day. Basically, if you never got to see the Follies in its 24-year run on-stage, you got to see it in this movie. The production costs must have been astronomical! Personally, I was so irritated by this point that I wasn't transported, but I could see why someone would be.

There's some extra drama thrown in at the end that, best as I can tell, wasn't necessarily true to life. I won't spoil it in case you want to watch this movie. But I recommend that you find something better to do with 3 hours of your life.

Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Louise Rainer

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Books Not Read

Well, with my access to free books cut off, it seems like I don't have a lot to say about books anymore. I have an account on Goodreads, where I post ratings and reviews for the books I've read. Since most of the handful of people who actually read this blog are also my friends on Goodreads, I would feel like I was repeating myself to also put my book reviews on here.

I realized the other day, however, that I never put books that I don't finish on Goodreads. So I thought this might be a good place to do that. Following is a list of books that were on my "to read" list, but which I never ended up finishing & am unlikely to ever pick up again.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (non-fiction)
I'm pretty sure everyone's heard of this book, so it needs no explanation. I read the first chapter & really wanted to like it. I hear it's interesting. But I just couldn't get into it. I might give this one another shot at some point; it could have just been my mood at the time.

A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand (fiction)
Why, oh why, did I ever put a book about a woman having an affair on my "to-read" list? People having affairs annoys me. And so did everything about this book, especially the main character. I got maybe 50 pages into it before giving up.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill (non-fiction)
A memoir by a woman in her 90s. Another book that I desperately wanted to like but couldn't get into. I could never put my finger on why. I think I wasn't particularly enamored of her writing style. I think I made it maybe 20 or 30 pages in?

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen (fiction)
Another book that I desperately wanted to like. It's an adventure tale about a boy traveling across the country to accept a prestigious award. It was just too much. Too many diagrams and drawings and things in the margins. Too many attempts at cleverness. Too "twee." I think I read a few chapters.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz (fiction)
A book about an admissions counselor at Princeton. I read maybe 3 pages. Zzzzzzz. If a book bores me in 3 pages, you know it's got to be bad.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (fiction)
This was something about a PhD candidate and witches and a magic book or something. I read a few chapters. Sadly, it was very slow and boring. How can a book about witches be boring? You tell me.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (fiction)
I really gave this book - about a young man at a boarding school in Scotland - the old college try. I got to about page 160, at which time I flipped to the back to see how much more I had to read and saw that this book is 650 pages long! 650 pages! I'm sorry, but this isn't an epic like Lord of the Rings, so that's pretty ridiculous.

I actually did like a lot about this book. But it suffered from what a lot of modern books suffer from (in my opinion): too long, too much detail, too many plot lines, too many characters. It got to the point where I couldn't keep any character straight, except for Skippy. It's like editors don't even edit anymore. When I realized I still had 500 pages to go and it was due back at the library in 3 days, I had to call it quits. I doubt I'll ever pick it up again.

Citizen Girl by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus (fiction)
I put this book on my to-read list and then realized that it was written by the same women who wrote The Nanny Diaries, one of my most hated books of all time. So I took it back off.


Oh no, I see a trend. I don't like fiction very much, do I?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Out and About: Zilker Park

Zilker Metropolitan Park
2100 Barton Springs Road

Zilker Park is often billed as Austin's most popular park and I can see why. It's totally awesome! We've been there twice now and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves each time. At 351 acres, there is quite a lot of park to explore.

The first time we went, the first weekend after our first full week here, we visited the Botanical Garden, which boasts a host of smaller gardens such as: the prehistoric garden, the rose garden, the Oriental garden, and much more! The Oriental garden in particular was gorgeous. Here's a picture:

We happened to be there on a gorgeous day and there was just something very magical about the botanical gardens. I'm sure we'll definitely be back. Hopefully we get to see the roses in bloom next time!

More recently, we went to the off-leash dog area near Rock Island to let our dog run around for a bit. Later, we put him back on the leash and took a stroll down part of the walking path that runs along Barton Springs and Lady Bird Lake. It was another gorgeous day. Here's a picture of downtown Austin as viewed from across Lady Bird Lake:

The one and only bad thing I have to say about this particular day is that the trail was VERY crowded. But I suppose that's to be expected at Austin's most popular park!

There's still a lot of Zilker Park that we haven't seen: the Austin Science & Nature Center, the Dino Pit, and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, just to name a few. Nor have we completed the walk along the springs/river. And then there's the canoe rentals!

Needless to say, we'll be returning to Zilker Park again and again.

Out and About: Blanton Art Museum

Blanton Art Museum at the University of Texas
200 E MLK Blvd, Austin

Much to my delight, Blanton Museum of Art is FREE every Thursday. Come on, how awesome is that? In my experience, most museums have a free day once a month or so, but once a week? Very cool. Additionally, if you park in the garage across Brazos street and take your ticket inside to get validated, you pay only $3 for parking.

A lovely afternoon spent at the art museum for only $3? Sign me up! (As an aside, on the third Thurs. of every month, they extend their hours, so if you are a regular 9-5 working stiff, you still have the opportunity to take advantage of their free day.)

When the husband and I went last Thursday, the whole second floor was open for our enjoyment. The museum has a contemporary/modern wing and a classical wing. I must admit that neither of us are big fans of modern art. We're both of the opinion that if it looks like a 3-year-old did it, it's not really art.

However, I was very pleasantly surprised by their modern art section. While there was some of the type of art mentioned above, there was far more modern stuff that was actually very interesting. I particularly enjoyed a large, mixed-media piece that represented a small portion of the galaxy. There was also a phenomenal piece from an African artist made up of small strips of flattened beer cans. It was like a gigantic metal wave on the wall. Cool stuff.

I was sadly a touch disappointed by the classical wing. This was probably largely due to personal preference, though. Much of the art in the classical wing was portraiture from the 18th & 19th centuries, in particular with Christian religious themes. There's only so much of that I can look at without getting a trifle bored. I prefer landscapes and still-lifes.

This wing did also include several rooms of wonderful ink drawings, however. I was also delighted by a small section of Greek pottery. And I think my favorite display may have been the one of Greek coins that depicted each of their famous leaders.

Overall, we had a fantastic time. I could definitely see myself going back several times a year. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Out and About: Spider House

In a new city. I thought it might be fun to post some reflections on all the cool new places I'm checking out.

Last night I went out to a YA event hosted at my local UU church. After the event, a few of us went out for a drink at:

Spider House Patio Bar & Cafe
2908 Fruth Street

I really liked Spider House a lot. You can get a stiff drink there, in addition to coffee. They also have food (I noticed some vegan options). There is both indoor and outdoor seating. I enjoyed the overhead music - good beat, and not so loud that you couldn't talk to your table mates. The staff was very friendly and attentive.

I had their Coco Mocha, which was seriously delicious. I didn't ask if my table mates enjoyed their drinks, but I didn't see any full cups or glasses at the end of the night. The crowd was low key; most looked to be in their 20s or 30s. We stayed for 2 hours, had a fun conversation. All in all, it was a good night.

I highly recommend Spider House!

Bookstore Books: A Reflection

Now that I no longer live on Maui, it seems doubtful that I will continue to have access to a free supply of books. (There is a friends of the library here, of course, and they actually run a used bookstore. I am contemplating signing up to volunteer, but would like to go and check out the place first. Even if I do volunteer, however, there are no guarantees that free books will be a perk of the job.)

At any rate, with the free supply of books at least temporarily cut off (and most of my books returned to the bookstore), I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the free books I brought home in September & October of 2010. How many did I read? And did I like them?

Life in a Medieval Village - I read the first two chapters but never finished it. I took it back to the bookstore and didn't add it to my "to read" list.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg - Didn't read it. Returned it to the bookstore. Didn't add it to the list.

Knockdown - Read it. Didn't really like it.

Collapse - Didn't read it. Returned it to the bookstore. Didn't add it to the list.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake - Read a little bit. Didn't like it. Returned it to the bookstore.

Eccentrics - Never got around to reading it. Ultimately decided not to include it on my "to read" list because said list is so long already. Took it back to the bookstore, where it was immediately snatched up.

The Last Lecture - Didn't read it. Returned it to the bookstore. Didn't add it to the list.

House Rules - Didn't read it. Returned it to the bookstore. Didn't add it to the list.

Three Weeks with My Brother - Read it. Loved it.

The Secret Life of Bees - Read it. Loved it.

On Fortune's Wheel - Read it. Liked it.

The Serpent & the Moon - Didn't read it, but still want to. Put it on my "to read" list.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - Read it. Loved it.

Coroner's Journal - Haven't read it yet; brought it with me from Maui.

The Victorian Internet - Read it. Liked it.

Furies of Calderon - Read it. Loved it.

So, of the 16 books I brought home, I read 7 and still intend to read 2. So about half? Hmmm...not sure if that's good or bad.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Top Books of the Year 2010

My goal for 2010 was to read an average of 6 books per month, with a majority in the "non-fiction" category. Despite a not-entirely-anticipated end-of-the-year major move that disrupted my reading time, I still managed to achieve my goal: I read 77 books in 2010, for an average of 6.4 books per month. Of those, 43 were non-fiction and 34 were fiction.

I plan to up my goal to an average of 7 per month in 2011 and continue to try to read more non-fiction than fiction. I think this goal will be more difficult to attain now that I've returned to living in a city, where I have a larger variety of things to do.

So without further ado, here are my Top 5 Books of 2010:

5. Going Up the River by Joseph Hallinen

An investigation (and, I feel, an indictment) of the U.S. penal system. A little outdated and one-sided, but fascinating and riveting nonetheless.

4. Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn

The only fiction book in my Top 5, but, hey, a fiction book makes it into my Top 5! I'm hard-pressed to tell you what this book is *really* about because there's not a strong plot per se. Suffice it to say that it's about people learning to be happy. And it's delightful.

3. The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw

About a company of Army men who held a key hill in the Battle of the Bulge long enough allow the Allies to win the day. The men were all either killed or captured and those captured spent long months as POWs. Will make you feel like a lazy cry-baby in comparison.

2. Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton

The life and death of militant abolitionist John Brown. This book was eye-opening. Fascinating to read about a man whose religious fervor led him to help his fellow man rather than oppress him.

1. The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov by Peter Pringle

This is one of those books that I will recommend until I'm blue in the face. Vavilov was a famous Russian botanist in his day, a man who held dreams of ending famine not only in his home country, but around the world. Sadly, as Communism put a stranglehold on Russia, Vavilov ran afoul of Stalin. This book makes you fall in love with this man, only to be left haunted by his fate. A truly phenomenal read!

Blog Change

Well, "Dispatches from Hawaii" no longer calls Hawaii its home, so we're starting off the new year in a new place and with a new name. Buffy reference FTW!