Author Archives: Melissa

2018 TBR Pile Challenge

This appears to be the year that — following a few years’ hiatus — I jump back into the crazy world of reading challenges. Like many avid readers, my TBR (to be read) pile of books is out of control. Goodreads shows that I currently own 641 books, but I know it’s more than that because a) I’m not very diligent about adding my ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) or Kindle books and b) I’ve never done a complete inventory of all my books.

Clearly, a TBR challenge is in order. Fortunately, Roof Beam Reader has brought back The Official TBR Pile Challenge after a two year hiatus. There are several other TBR-related challenges but what most appeals to me about this one is that you’re not limited to reading only your own books for a certain period of time. That’s not feasible for me. I like that this is spread out over the course of a year.

Today’s the last day to sign up with a list of 12 books (plus two alternates) from your TBR that you intend to read in 2018. Each of these books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2017 or later.

In addition to the challenge’s criteria, I tried to select books that I’ve been “saving to read for a rainy day” because given the state of the world, it would probably behoove me to get to them sooner rather than later. I also wanted mostly women writers. Finally, I wanted some overlap with The Classics Challenge.

Without further ado, here are my dozen (plus two) for the Official 2018 Challenge:

  1. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)
  2. The Answer to Your Question by Paulette Bates Alden (2013)
  3. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
  4. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins (2009)
  5. A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin (1993)
  6. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)
  7. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr (1995)
  8. Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter by Beth Kephart (2000)
  9. Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings and the Unearthing of Self by Beth Kephart (2005)
  10. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
  11. Above Us Only Sky: Essays by Marion Winik (2005)
  12. Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

Alternates:
In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution by Susan Brownmiller
Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories by Ursula Hegi

There are also mini-challenges and periodic Checkpoints. The first one is today and asks which of these books have been on our TBR shelves the longest. I’m honestly not sure but I do know that four of these were purchased at a book sale in 2011 (as documented here) that boasted having 50,000 books available for sale.

I’ll update this post as I (hopefully) read and review all of these. In the meantime, check out what others are reading for the Official 2018 TBR Challenge here.

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Sunday Salon/Currently: Climbing My Family Tree

Maybe it was President Shithole’s hateful, racist remarks this week about people from other countries. Maybe it was a desire to spend less time on Facebook and more time with other interests.  Maybe I was seeking a distraction from a new development in a situation that’s been weighing heavily on my mind for awhile. Whatever the reason (probably some combination of all the above, plus a snowed-in day), I spent the majority of Saturday hunkered down in a genealogical rabbit hole.

Pittsburgh’s library system has a robust collection of free genealogy databases and subscriptions (including to Ancestry.com!), all accessible with one’s library card. I’ve known this for years but never explored any of these resources — all free, mind you, and the ones that are only accessible in the library happen to be located a mere two floors above my office. We had a major ice and snow storm Friday night into Saturday morning, making the beginning of this three-day weekend a lazy one of cancelled appointments and events. (I really feel bad for The Girl; she was really looking forward to a church youth group sleepover last night. I just wasn’t comfortable driving in this weather. She understood that and made the best of it by staying up late anyway and watching a Bowie documentary on HBO.)

I went on a genealogy binge a few months before the kids were born but never really did too much with it. Wait, that’s not true; I was able to reconnect The Husband’s grandmother with some of her long-lost cousins. That was nice. But wrangling newborn twins didn’t leave much free time for pursuits like climbing the family tree (most days I was just trying not to climb the walls!).

So yesterday I spent some time with my paternal great-grandparents Anton Middleman and Frederika Krause Middleman (also known as Freda and/or Frieda). All I really know about them was that they owned a cigar and candy store on Tioga Street in Philadelphia and that they were immigrants from Germany. It looks like they came to America together in 1889 and got married in 1892. They had six kids, the youngest being my grandfather, Edward.

I also looked into my maternal great-grandparents. According to the 1940 Census, my great-grandmother Mary Schiffler is listed as being the head of her household, which included seven children ranging from age 8 to age 21. This I knew. The Boy reminded me that today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday. I miss them.

Currently …
Woke up with a wicked tension headache today which ends my headache-free streak for 2018. It has been two weeks since my last headache. I think that’s close to a record. Right now I have all my go-to remedies underway: hot shower; ginger and turmeric tea with honey; essential oils; Excedrin Tension.

Reading/Listening … 
I finished listening to It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell this week. At 20 years old, Mitchell weighed nearly 300 pounds and knew she had to begin addressing her life-long struggles with food, its connection to her relationship with her parents and her sense of self. It Was Me All Along is the story of that journey. I thought this memoir was heartfelt and honest, especially in recounting the emotional, difficult aspects of her childhood. Mitchell does an excellent job of narrating the audio version.

Celebrating …
Our Eagles won! The Steelers on the other hand … well, that’s a disappointment. (My football loyalties are complicated. I’m first and foremost an Eagles fan, but I can’t help but root for the Steelers too.)

Sweating … 
I finally went back to yoga for the first time in 2018 (and the first time since October). Thursday was a stressful day and I just needed some way to release some tension and work some shit out. This was my 3rd yoga class ever — and a hot yoga class at that.  (Hot yoga is IN.FREAKIN.TENSE.) It was hard. Really hard. I spent nearly half the class just laying on my mat. What I really love about this studio is its emphasis on being a non-judgmental, accepting place, especially for newbies like me.

Hope you have a great week!

 

 

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently … Stable Genius with a Big Button

 

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you didn’t
And all this science, I don’t understand
It’s just my job, five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man …” 
~ “Rocket Man” performed by Elton John, written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

A mere seven days into a brand new year and — in what will undoubtedly be a common refrain for many of the 358 to come (should we be so lucky to see them) — this has been quite the week. We’ve had the Stable Genius boasting about the size and potency of his, um, nuclear button. There was a bombshell of a book release with a title that could be most Americans’ motto for this administration. (You know I got myself on the Fire and Fury holds list at the library — #180 out of #542, baby! I like my chances for the audio, for which I’m #37.)

Not to mention the weather has been downright frigid this week, with temperatures more suitable to Mars. All right, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration for the sake of pithy blog fodder, but I think we can come together and agree that it’s goddamned fucking cold. Last night we got down to -14 and that’s the actual temperature, not the RealFeel (of which it was -20 on Friday.)

But here’s a little something that made me feel all warm and toasty. I woke up to find this from The Girl (who had a snow day) as I sat down to have my coffee at 5:30 am.

She’s a keeper, that one. She’s 16, so this is a proud teenage parenting moment for the win. (And yes, for the love of God and keeping the peace, please let it be known that she did spell out AWESOME. My phone camera cut it off and I’m too lazy to retake the photo.)

Reading
I had all good intentions of reading Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan as my First Book of the Year, but decided I needed to get crackin’ on a review book, considering the review itself was due January 6. I’ll tell you more when it’s released in March. This week I’ll be reading another review book, so I don’t have much to talk about right now reading-wise.  Sorry.  I am reading a back issue of The New Yorker (10/23/2017) which includes this profile of our creepy-and-dangerous-as-fuck Vice President.

Blogging/Writing … 
Still hoping to finish my Best Books of 2017 post and a few other recaps of the year. Hopefully that will happen before, say, the Fourth of July.

I wrote a review for the aforementioned review book and submitted it within 29 minutes of the deadline. A great start to 2018. I’m working on another author piece, due tomorrow, so I need to spend some time with that today.

Oh, I almost forgot the biggest Blogging/Writing news. In what might be a regular occurrence or one time thing, The Husband made a return to blogging with this post (“Heaven and Hell Prepare For Massive Influx of Billions“)  It’s hilarious, but I may be biased. Anyway, consider giving it a look and showing him some blogger love.

Listening …

My current audiobook is It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell, a compelling memoir about Mitchell’s tumultuous childhood and how that affected her relationship to food. Mitchell writes candidly about her father’s alcoholism and destructive behavior, her mother working four jobs and preparing elaborate feasts for family gatherings (Mitchell’s descriptions of the food are mouth-watering), and how her traumatic formative years led to her weighing 300 pounds at age 20.

Many of the Goodreads reviews seem to be more complimentary to the first part of the book, but for now I’m finding this to be engaging yet heartbreaking. It seems odd to draw comparisons to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls but I think this would appeal to those who connected with that book.

Podcasts of the Week …
Being back to work after a long (12 days!) break means I’m back to podcast listening during my commute. (I alternate between audiobooks and podcasts, depending on my mood.)  For 2018, I want to get back to doing my Podcasts of the Week feature, either as part of these Salon posts or in a separate discussion, because I listen to so much great stuff that I want to a) remember and have a reference point of sorts and b) share it with you.

One that stood out this week was Ezra Klein’s discussion with Jon Favreau of Pod Save America. Both The Ezra Klein Show and Pod Save America are two of my favorites so this was a must-listen.  Others I enjoyed this week:

Getting Things Done: Tips for a Year-End Review (1/1/2018)
The Bob Cesca Show: Fire and Fury (1/4/2018)
The Readers: Farewell 2017 … Here’s to 2018 (12/30/2017)

Watching … 
To my delight, The Girl is on a quest to watch all the great ’80s movies. I am more than happy to oblige. This week her selection was “The Breakfast Club” and now she’s obsessed with all things Ally Sheedy, circa 1985.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, hope you’re keeping warm this Sunday.

 

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Book Riot’s 2018 Read Harder Challenge

Those of us in book blogging land know that this is The Most Wonderful Time of the Year for reading challenges. What could be better than the prospect of an entire year of literary possibilities? There is a reading challenge out there for every possible interest and genre. (Check out A Novel Challenge to see what I’m talking about.)

At one point early in my blogging life, I was a certified reading challenge junkie, participating in 18 such events. I had a spreadsheet to keep track of what I was reading and the criteria. It was kind of elaborate. And fun. And, yes, a little crazy. The Husband called it “the Fantasy Football of the literary world.” (He may not have used the term literary world. Maybe book nerd or book geek was more likely.)

Participating in 18 challenges left me a little burnt out. But this year, I found myself kind of missing the camaraderie around them. Reading challenges help bring you closer to other bloggers and literary enthusiasts. They help you discover new books and authors. It builds community, and God knows we need as much of that as possible these days. Books are the perfect bridge builder.

For 2018, I decided to test the waters and try a challenge or two. I’m intrigued by Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, now in its 4th year. It has the right amount of “challenge” to it without seeming impossible. I’m going to do my best to attempt this. We’ll see how it goes and I’ll keep track of my progress here. If this post is incomplete by December 31, 2018, so be it. It’s all in the name of fun and discovering great books.

If you want to play along, here’s the criteria. We’re to read a book fitting each of these descriptions. More information about Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge can be found here.

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2018

A book published posthumously
A book of true crime
A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
A comic written and illustrated by the same person
A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
A book about nature
A western
A comic written or illustrated by a person of color
A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
A romance novel by or about a person of color
A children’s classic published before 1980
A celebrity memoir
An Oprah Book Club selection
A book of social science
A one-sitting book
The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
A book of genre fiction in translation
A book with a cover you hate
A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
An essay anthology
A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

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First Book of the Year 2018

Every New Year’s Day, Sheila from Book Journey hosts First Book of the Year where bloggers share … well, the first book they plan to read in the new year. I love this event because for as long as I can remember, I’ve always put considerable thought (perhaps too much) into the perfect book to launch another trip around the sun. Just like the invitation for a special event,  I think the first book can set the tone for the year.

Sometimes I’ve chosen something that aligns with my goals for the year, sometimes it has been a classic I’ve been wanting to read, and other times my choice is simply a book that seems to be right for the moment. I like my first book to be upbeat, perhaps somewhat inspirational, preferably by an author I’ve previously enjoyed.

For 2018, I’ve chosen a book by one of my favorite authors: Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. I loved each of her previous books (The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue, Lift) and can’t wait to read this new one which is scheduled to be published next week (release date January 9).

(Truth be told, I’m probably going to be reading this and a review book since my first freelancing assignment is due January 6 — so this may very well wind up not being my actual first book — but we’ll just stick with this one in case the latter doesn’t work out.)

One of the fun things Sheila does for First Book of the Year is to create a photo collage of participants with our books. I can’t imagine how much work this is, but I love seeing what everyone else is reading.  You can check out our photos and book selections here.

Happy 2018 and happy reading!

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently … Wrapping Up 2017

“And that’s what I think I need to focus on more in 2017 — the moments themselves. Otherwise, the weighty expectations, anxiety, and emotional quagmires become too overwhelming. This isn’t a new realization or epiphany—just one that’s become more clear to me lately. Because yes, even in this craptastic and depressing year, there were some good moments. There’s always some good. Sometimes it’s hidden and hard to find, which means we need to look closer, go deeper. Make no mistake, though: count me among those glad to be drop-kicking 2016 into the ether of time while remaining vigilant of the dark days awaiting this brave new world arriving in 2017.”

~ written by me ( “may we all have our hopes, our will to try“) 12/31/2016

And here we are, at the end of another year … and my God, what a year it was, right? What can I say that hasn’t already been said about 2017? I’m certainly glad it’s over, but at the same time, I’m apprehensive about what the new year will bring. I mean, there’s always some uncertainty but living in these times makes it even moreso. Still, we survived the first year of this godawful regime, which is no small feat.

For this last post of 2017, though, I don’t want to focus on the political.  There’s been plenty of that and next year promises more of the same. I’m planning to resist just as hard — if not more–in 2018. Nor do I want to dwell too much on what was difficult about this year. There have been more than a few disappointments and challenges, ones that won’t vanish at the stroke of midnight. They will still be with us in the days to come. But instead, as I wrote last year, I want to spend the last remaining hours remembering the good moments of the past 365 days while looking ahead to 2018.

Best Moments: Reading 
Reaching my goal of reading 50 books. For those of you who care about such things, I have a separate post in the works with my favorite books of the year and other fun bookish stats.

Best Moments: Writing
Writing for Shelf Awareness where I had 29 book reviews published. In addition to those, I had the privilege of interviewing Douglas Abrams (The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World), John Boyne (The Heart’s Invisible Furies), Heather Harpham (Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Happily Ever After), Natasha Pulley (The Bedlam Stacks), and Beatriz Williams (Cocoa Beach).  I only had one review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of a book (Lucky Boy) I didn’t like. I say this every year, but I’m hoping to write more in 2018, both on the blog and elsewhere. I need to develop a plan to make this happen.

Best Moments: In the Kitchen 
Getting an Instant Pot!  It has changed my life.

Best Moments: With the Family
Although the weather didn’t cooperate, we enjoyed a relaxing vacation at the shore. It was a nice break in the midst of an intense time. The Boy went to a four week day camp this summer, which also didn’t work out as well as we had hoped. It just wasn’t the best fit. He’s made at least one close friend this year at school and has actually joined an after-school club. He’s been doing a lot of writing. He helped another friend who was considering suicide.

The Girl volunteered at the library this summer, learned how to play the drums (and wants to learn the guitar) as part of Girls Rock Pittsburgh, and participated in two summer writing camp programs. She’s also become quite the artist and is in the Art Club at school. She’s helped several friends in crisis situations, too. Both kids made the High Honor Roll this semester. They’re not perfect — none of us are — and while I wish they would get along better, I’m incredibly proud of both of them.

Best Moments: In Music
Seeing Bon Jovi in concert with The Girl. A great show, even though it was a bit abbreviated because of Jon not feeling well.

Best Moments: At Church
I joined a women’s group at church. We meet monthly and discuss various topics. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these women. The Girl became more active in the youth group.

Best Moments: Healthwise
I had some routine bloodwork done last week and was surprised to learn my cholesterol and triglyceride levels have actually gone DOWN! I’ve also maintained the 10 pound weight loss from when I was running. I haven’t kept up with running but in September, I decided to try yoga — and I really liked it. That’s among my goals for 2018. Oh, and I’ve also gotten into essential oils.

So, here we are. Another New Year’s Eve. Tonight is no different than any other night. We’re hanging out at home, just the four of us, no big plans. I’m finishing up my 50th book of the year. The Husband’s watching something on his iPad — basketball, I think. The kids are in their rooms, doing whatever. Maybe we’ll stay up till midnight and watch everyone freezing their asses off in Times Square. Maybe not.

Wishing you and yours a happy 2018. See you on the other side.

 

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until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

There was an unsettled feeling to this Christmas, a kind of betwixt and between sense of things. Or, perhaps more accurately, the feeling of being on the precipice of a new, still unsettling normal in our lives. I mean, sometimes one’s new normal descends quickly; it’s here, deal with it, like it or not. Then there are times when the change is more gradual yet still palpable — you see it and you feel it and you know in your heart that everything from here on out will be different.

None of this probably makes much sense, does it? I’m not sure it makes sense to me, despite rewriting that paragraph dozens of times, over several days. I should probably state that the kids are fine. The Husband and I are fine. We’re muddling through some issues (obviously), some of which I’ve discussed here (my father-in-law’s dementia) and some which I haven’t. It was just a reminder of how much has changed, the absence of certain people, and the uncertainty that the future brings.

We spent a few days in Philly for Christmas. It was mostly fine, but there were a lot of reminders and memories of what once was and what is missing. My father-in-law racing around collecting all the wrapping paper as soon as the gifts were opened. My mother-in-law baking cookies. Getting together with several of our longtime friends. For various reasons, none of those things happened this year and I missed all of it. I tried really hard to “get out of my head” and focus on the here and now, to enjoy the holidays. I was semi-successful.

Here are some photo highlights:

Winter solstice sunrise. I happened to catch this in the parking lot of the hospital where I had to get some routine bloodwork done and I was glad I did.

On Christmas Eve, my mom was looking for some things in a closet when some papers fell out. Among them was this Christmas list of gifts for me and The Husband, written in my Mom-Mom’s handwriting. We never saw this list before. Christmas was a big deal for my Mom-Mom.  Her house was always beautifully decorated and she always went overboard with the presents (she shopped for Christmas year round). She has been gone almost 14 years now, and I chose to look at this as her way of wishing us a Merry Christmas.

(Also? The fact that this is written on an investment advisor’s notepad is laughable because my grandmother spent every dime she had (and the dimes she didn’t) on her grandchildren. We were the bonds she chose to invest in. At 48, I can tell you it paid off bigtime.)

I like going back to our former Unitarian Universalist church for Christmas Eve services. The service is generally the same and many of the congregants are familiar faces from when we first attended 17 years ago. It’s a time for me to slow down and reflect on the season. During trips like these that have so much change, it’s a place and a routine that remains constant for me and I love that.

Philly didn’t get a white Christmas this year (completely fine by me) but rather a sunny and extremely windy one. This was a quiet moment at my mom and stepfather’s house on Christmas morning.

We kept the gifts for The Boy and The Girl to a minimum this year — only three per kid, including a bag of small stocking stuffer items.   Some popular gifts, from left to right: For The Boy, Wii Survivor (he’s an expert on all things Survivor — he absolutely loves anything and everything having to do with the show and can talk strategy and eliminations for days); for The Girl, an issue of Teen Vogue guest-edited by Hillary Rodham Clinton; also for The Girl, a Litograph of Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, her absolute favorite author.

My mother-in-law’s traditional Christmas morning breakfast of French toast casserole (on left) and an egg casserole. We all look forward to this every year. As we did for Thanksgiving, we arranged to bring the meal to my father-in-law at the long-term care facility where he is living (The Place) and we were able to eat together. We also had fruit, coffee (which we picked up at Dunkin Donuts beforehand), and juice. For Christmas dinner we did Chinese.

The Girl and I attempted a Scrabble game. It didn’t go well. As soon as I started winning, she wanted nothing to do with the game. (I don’t believe in letting kids win, especially when they’re 16.) So much for trying to start a new tradition.

 

I’ve been off from work since last Wednesday, thanks to having a bunch of vacation days to burn. This week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favorite time of the year. As usual, I had grand plans to accomplish ALL THE THINGS — decluttering the house, collecting certain receipts for tax purposes, organizing my overflowing bookshelves, cleaning out my closet, reading my January review books (and writing the reviews), prepping some blog posts, revamping the blog, going to yoga ….

I wound up doing some of those things. A corner of the kitchen is in the process of being decluttered. I have the majority of the receipts in one place. I prepped some blog posts. I also watched a movie (“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”) and did a “Glee” marathon with The Girl. I cooked some homemade freezer dinners (minestrone soup, chicken breasts with mashed sweet potatoes and vegetables) to take to my mother-in-law and, once in Philly, we took her grocery shopping. I got my required bloodwork done (thyroid level monitoring). I finished one book (H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald) and am almost finished with a second (Autism Adulthood by Susan Senator), putting me within one book of my 2017 Goodreads goal of 50 books. I’ll have some bookish wrap up posts throughout the next few days.

“And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday–the longer, the better–from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!”  ~ Charles Dickens

“After so long an absence
At last we meet agin:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the prophets two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year;
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.”
“The Meeting” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

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