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a few mini book reviews (95/99)

One of my purposes for doing this crazy 99 Days of Summer Blogging project was to try and clear out my extensive backlog of posts still in drafts.  I have — no lie — more than 200 such posts that need further development or a place in the trash bin.

There are quite a few sparse book reviews in those posts , some dating back as long as five years. I give those to you here, as mini reviews.

The Little SparkThe Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity, by Carrie Bloomston
C&T Publishing
128 pages
2014

Take some inspiration, a lot of pretty photographs, a few real-life stories, and a handful of reflective writing exercises and you have both a workbook and motivational guide to jump-start your creativity. Whether your creative urges involve crafty pursuits, writing, painting, cooking or something completely, uniquely your own, The Little Spark offers 30 suggestions of how to get started and sustain your passion.

The MaytreesThe Maytrees (audio), by Annie Dillard
Narrated by David Rasche
HarperAudio, 5 CDs
2007

“Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death. That is the joy of them.”

Love is the theme of this novel, which takes the reader to the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts and into the lives of poet Toby Maytree (referred to as simply Maytree throughout this story) and Lou Bigelow. The story spans several decades of the Maytrees’ marriage and how, over time, they change with it. The narrative felt disjointed at times, making for a confusing-at-times listen, but I liked the writing and David Rasche’s narration kept my attention.

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton 
Ecco Press
2014
400 pages

I was sold on this by cover, which so perfectly captures the very essence of Jessie Burton’s debut novel, set in 1686 Amsterdam. Petronella (who goes by Nella) is 18 when she marries a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt.

After moving into his mansion, Nella quickly learns that this is a house of secrets. Johannes spends a lot of time either at work or in his study and isn’t very affectionate to Nella. Her stern and unwelcoming sister-in-law Marin is clearly the head of the household, which also consists of Cornelia and Otto, two odd servants. With its themes of feeling trapped and discovering one’s power – and what we do with that power — The Miniaturist is an engrossing read.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #95 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

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Sunday Salon/Currently: The Big Game’s On, January Recap

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What a week. Without going into too many details, this week kicked my ass.  I’m glad it’s over. I’m utterly exhausted. I was ready for bed by 6:20 p.m. on Friday night.

To be honest, it has been a tough start to the year.  Whether it’s The Husband’s job situation (we’re in Month #7 of unemployed hell), having to spend $4,000 on a furnace, or any number of other issues that I’m not at liberty to write about here, all I can say is this: If the month of January and the beginning of February are any indications of how the rest of 2016 is going to go, then this relationship is not going to work out.

Super Bowl Plans
Today’s the Super Bowl, and as per usual, we don’t have any grandiose plans nor any dogs in this fight. I’m very glad the Cheaters Patriots didn’t make it, and for once I’m looking forward to the halftime act. (I like Coldplay.) Before that, though, I’m planning to get my hair cut (we are getting professional headshots done tomorrow for a work project) and I still need to go to the grocery store. Hopefully all the crazies have already been there. I’m not making anything fancy. The Boy has requested french onion dip, which is easy enough.

The Big Game’s On Read-a-thon

2016BigGamesOn

I’m participating in The Big Game’s On Read-a-thon, which Jennsbookshelves has brought back this year. Hence, I’m considering this as my kickoff post.  Not sure what I’ll be reading. I had intended to start Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin, but I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind for that one.

Reading
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying UpThis week, I finally got around to finishing The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I started this back in the fall and abandoned it early on — probably when she was advocating thanking our clothes for doing such a good job during the day. Decided to pick it up again because too many of my friends reported good success with KonMari. I’m intrigued by the concept of decluttering by category — and I’m going to give it a try — but this business of worrying about my socks’ feelings and unpacking my handbag every damn day isn’t going to work.  Also, I’ll give my books a once-over, as I tend to do every so often when I feel the need to reduce the number of volumes on my shelves, but I’m not going to do a mass purge of them.

January Reading
I read three books in January:

The Heart Goes LastBoys in the TreesMy Name is Lucy Barton

It’s always somewhat unsettling to me when I don’t enjoy a book by a favorite author.  Such was the case with The Heart Goes Last (which I reviewed earlier this week) and My Name is Lucy Barton. I know that it’s unrealistic to love everything one person writes, but I was especially surprised that I didn’t like Elizabeth Strout’s new novel more than I did. From the other reviews I’ve read, I’m very much in the minority with this opinion. It felt like there was too much packed into what is a short novel. I don’t know; I need to think about this one a little more. It could be that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this particular book.

On the other hand, I am a huge Carly Simon fan and I was very much looking forward to her memoir, The Boys in the Trees. It did not disappoint. I loved this.  The majority of this felt more autobiographical than memoir; however, that seemed to change a bit in the last … oh, I don’t know, third of the book. So much I didn’t know about her life. Many of her songs take on a whole different meaning now.

Blogging
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All three books that I read in January are ones I own, which wasn’t planned, but it means #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks is off to a good start for me. I really want and need to make a serious dent in my book piles this year. I’m not sure if I read three of my own books during all of 2015.

Things I Liked This Week

I’d never heard of Margaret Chase Smith before reading Ellen Fitzpatrick’s New Yorker article, “The Unfavored Daughter:  When Margaret Chase Smith Ran in the New Hampshire Primary.”

When I shared this article (“Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason“) on Facebook, most people grasped onto the sentiments of what not to say when someone is going through a tough time.  What resonated with me, though, was this: “Because we aren’t going to be able to avoid people going through something, we have to practice getting more comfortable with other people’s discomfort–something that does not come easily. Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown notices that we so strongly need people to “rise strong” that we “reflexively look away” when we witness someone’s “still-incomplete healing.”  

This idea of getting more comfortable with other people’s discomfort makes a lot of sense to me, in light of some of the situations we’ve been — and are currently — going through. As the saying goes, you really do find out who your friends are at such times.

What about you … are you watching the Super Bowl?  Participating in The Big Game’s On Read-a-thon?  Hope your weekend has been a good one and that you have a great week. (I’m hoping for a much better one than last week!) 

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Ready … Set … READ-A-THON!

Readathon - Day and Night

Friends, it has been A. DAY.

I mean, for real.

If there is any possible way that a Friday could feel like a Monday, today was IT.

This, in a week when yesterday included getting two crowns at the dentist.

And snow.

On April 23.

When the crowns are among the highlight of your week, you know it is time for serious measures.

Hence, an executive decision.

My participation in the spring Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon begins ….

RIGHT FREAKIN’ NOW.

(Hey, it’s the start of Readathon somewhere, isn’t it?)

In reality, all I’m going to do tonight is read the book I’m currently reading, and that doesn’t really a Readathon make. But it will make me feel better, and that’s all that matters.

I also have to work tomorrow morning, so I’m thinking the time will somehow even itself out.

Here are the books I’ve rounded up for this year’s Readathon.

Readathon - Spring 2015

Acorn, by Yoko Ono
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (in progress)
We Are All Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Tampa, by Alissa Nutting
Deep Lane, Poems by Mark Doty (in progress)
Happy are the Happy, by Yasmina Reza
Looking for the Gulf Motel, Poems by Richard Blanco
Letters to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, by Ander Monson
My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh (in progress)

Others not pictured: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng; My Mistake, by Daniel Menaker, and a pile of cookbooks.

A few Read-a-thons ago, Florinda had a great idea: use these 24 hours to finish books already started. I love that, so I’ve started incorporating some unfinished books into my Read-a-thons. I also like to use this time to make a dent in the books that I already own.  This year is a combination of both of these as well as a few library books.  (I really need to start restraining myself from checking a book or two out every single day. I wish I was exaggerating; I’m not. Such are the occupational hazards of my job.)

Of course, I’m not going to read all of these … but it will be fun trying.

Happy Read-a-thoning, everybody!

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Readin’at: West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of SunsetWest of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
Viking
2015
289 pages

“He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?”

Luck was in short supply during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years. Instead, the famous writer best known for The Great Gatsby had an abundance of misfortune and difficulties that are brilliantly rendered in West of Sunset by Pittsburgh author Stewart O’Nan.

“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West,” writes O’Nan in his essay “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset” and posted on his website. “I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.”

Indeed you do.

And with his writing, O’Nan more than succeeds in capturing this aspect of Scott during these last troubled three years.  At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, he is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Nonetheless, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be rising but where his is uncertain. He’d answered California’s call before. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”)  Those early Hollywood years and what, exactly, transpired that made Scott so full of self-doubt remain a bit fuzzy to the reader, but that’s all right; West of Sunset stays in 1937-1940.

As the novel progresses, Scott’s own health and emotional well-being becomes more precarious as his battle with alcoholism becomes more prominent. He’s in the midst of an on-again, off-again affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who has her own demons to conquer. And when his passive-aggressive egocentric co-worker isn’t being an editorial pain in the ass, his writing career is beholden to the whimsy of the studio powers-that-be who kill any scintilla of hope and motivation (and the possibility of a credit and continued paycheck) with each cancelled movie.  Money is a constant source of uncertainty, and every writer will be able to empathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustration on his stories being rejected by the popular magazines of the day – most of which adored him once upon a time.

To be sure, West of Sunset has some bright moments. The reader gets to hang out by the pool and at the studio commissary with the likes of Fitzgerald BFF’s Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart – not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, George Oppenheimer and more than a few others making cameo appearances.  Quite a cast of characters, this novel has. If you’re a literary and/or film bub, this one’s for you.

Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out.  (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)

This is a 5 out of 5 stars novel. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that West of Sunset – the first Stewart O’Nan book I’ve read – is likely going to be one of my favorite novels of this year.

(Are you local to the Pittsburgh area? Come hear Stewart O’Nan tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) when East End Book Exchange hosts the author for his final stop of his West of Sunset book tour. Event begins at 7 p.m.)

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town and I wanted a way to emphasize this.  As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” an occasional feature here focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works, events, and the writers who call this awesome city home. 

 

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november

Burning Bush - 2014

 

nearing the end

holding on together

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for the fair daffodils, and for those who have hastened away so soon

Daffodils - 4-14-2014

It’s hard to get the full effect from such a small picture, but trust me … my daffodils were absolutely stunning on Monday after a glorious weekend of 70 and near 80 degree temperatures.

And this morning, not even 48 hours later?

Daffodils in snow 3

Daffodils in snow 2 Daffodils in snow 4 Daffodils in snow 5

 TO DAFFADILS

Fair Daffadils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you;
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or any thing.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) 

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The Sunday Salon: Unplanned Reading

The Sunday Salon

As a reading year, 2014 is off to a different than anticipated start. Like many book bloggers, I tend to give much thought to the beginning and end of year insofar as books are concerned. I like the idea of my first book of the year being a significant one – a book that propels you toward a goal or one that provides inspiration to break a habit or start a new one.

I mulled and contemplated what my first book of 2014 was going to be. Maybe a writing book. Maybe a memoir. Maybe, as has been my tradition for the last few years, some poetry.

And then … I was stuck. Maybe it was the result of too many choices. I told myself to stop overthinking and just read a book already. Any book. Seriously, several days – almost a week into 2014 and there I was – still bookless because I was holding out for the perfect book when I had piles on my nightstand, more than 1,100 on my Kindle, and hundreds in my house. How ridiculous. And what if the first book wasn’t the perfect book to begin 2014 or one I had been planning to read? Who cares?  

I needed a new audiobook for my work commute, and as it turned out, that became the first book I read in 2014.

Next to LoveNext to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the women behind, all of their lives are changed. It sounds predictable, like any other wartime novel, but this is very well done. I enjoyed Ms. Feldman’s writing – she laser-focuses her words on the women and the societal and cultural changes of the times. As an audiobook, Abby Craden’s narration is excellent.

(I previously read and loved Ellen Feldman’s 2004 historical novel Lucy, about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer, which is why Next to Love was of interest.)

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

This week I listened to Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds That Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. When “MTM” premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. Rather, I watched it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I could appreciate it much better.

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading this book, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why that was so groundbreaking and how that shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as those on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises. (Some reviews suggest that this should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan.”)

This was entertaining, and the audio proved to be a good choice. I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers.

I’ve also been catching up on some back issues of The New Yorker and Creative Nonfiction, both of which we get at the library. This week I read the November 4 issue of The New Yorker, and the Winter 2013 issue of CNF.

Hope your Sunday – and your 2014 – are going well!

 

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