Tag Archives: New Year’s

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

 

 

 

may we all have our hopes, our will to try

“Sometimes I see how the brave new world arrives
And I see how it thrives in the ashes of our lives
Oh yes, man is a fool and he thinks he’ll be okay
Dragging on, feet of clay, never knowing he’s astray
Keeps on going anyway…”

“Happy New Year” – ABBA

You know how much I love ABBA and how they have a song for every possible situation and event in life. “Happy New Year” (recorded in 1980 for the “Super Trouper” album but not released as a single until 1999) feels apropos at the conclusion of this godforsaken year. And before you chastise me for being one of those miserable souls complaining how horrible 2016 was, I know it wasn’t entirely awful; some good things did occur. I’ll get to those in a minute.

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. I speak of the political, of course, since such events have been so dominant this year and will be into the next. As focused as I am on that (and will continue to be), this was an extremely difficult, stressful, overwhelmingly hard year for our immediate family on many levels. There have been a lot of losses — namely the financial and professional, but also changes with longtime friendships and some emotional and medical setbacks. I’ve gone into this in previous posts and most of it is better left off the blog, but suffice it to say this year has been a tough one.

Jing-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-ling
The silver lining of not being able to afford a summer vacation means that I had an abundance of “use them or lose them” vacation days from work. So, I’ve been using them to catch up on TV shows, read a book or two, and spend some time with friends and family.

I’ve been binge-watching “This Is Us” and all of you who were telling me how much I would love this show were absolutely right. I know it’s been compared to “Parenthood”, but for me, it feels more like “thirtysomething”, for those of us who are old enough to remember watching that show, which was set in Philadelphia and ran from 1987-1991. Ken Olin, who played Michael Steadman on “thirtysomething” and directed several episodes, happens to be the executive producer of “This Is Us.”  Regardless, this is my kind of show and I love everything about it — the writing, the actors, the music, and (of course) the Pittsburgh setting.

Over Christmas, we spent some time back in Philly. It was a trip heavy on the nostalgia factor, which can be both good as well as unsettling. I had long, heartfelt conversations with two special people who I don’t see nearly enough, drove streets I haven’t been on for more than a decade, attended the Christmas Eve service at my former UU congregation with people who sustained us during some tough days long ago.  The Girl and I visited the family at the cemetery and I told her stories of those long gone. She and I had a delicious mother-daughter Christmas Day dinner at my all-time favorite restaurants, an unassuming gourmet Chinese place tucked in a suburban Philadelphia strip mall, the scene of many a date night back in The Husband and my glory days.

Moments That Mattered
So much of this holiday season wasn’t perfect (what is?) but many moments were pretty good. 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.

Here’s some of what was good about this year:

I stepped up my writing game a bit this year with several book reviews published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and on Shelf Awareness.

Both kids made the honor roll this past semester.

I spent an inspiring and joyful day in my hometown connecting with my MRKH sisters.

I started running, at age 47, and discovered it’s not like high school gym class after all and, as such, I really like it.

Related to the running, I’ve lost 11 pounds.

A friend sent a generous gift.

I got to see Hillary Clinton the day before the election, and was close enough to wave and holler thank you.

Our cat made it through her dental surgery. (All of her teeth, sans two, needed to be removed.)

I went back to church.

And this. Oh my God, this … this absolute highlight of my year.

Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh 2016 cast, pre-show toast before our May 6, 2016 performance. Photo credit: Ashley Mikula Photography.

Being in Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh is one of my most significant and personally meaningful accomplishments — not only of 2016, but of my LIFE — and it will remain that way for me forever. I stepped way, way out of my comfort zone by auditioning for a chance to tell 500 strangers the most personal, intimate, defining story of my life in a performance shared via YouTube. (No pressure or anxiety there.) It was an experience that changed me. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of my year.

I hope that 2016 held some good moments for you, too. Without a doubt, it has been quite the year — and the one we’re headed into is, I’m afraid, going to be one where we will see some unprecedented moments that will change all of us. We will keep on going anyway, because, really, what other choice do we have?

Happy New Year, my friends. Here’s ABBA to take us out.

Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbor is a friend
Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don’t we might as well lay down and die
You and I

one word for 2016

Back in 2013, Hillary Chybinski (my longtime friend from way before blogging) introduced me to the concept of choosing one little word at the beginning of the year. The idea was that this special, personal word would serve as a touchstone during the next 12 months.

I loved this idea and chose FORWARD as my word for 2013.  It certainly was appropriate during a year that saw us trying to move forward in the aftermath of The Husband’s thyroid cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatments (he’s in the clear now, thankfully) and my long-term unemployment (which would last 15 months before I landed what turned out to be a great job).

A few weeks ago I started seeing blog posts about choosing one word for 2016. Several bloggers have embraced this concept. Earlier this week, I read my friend Bryan‘s post about how he is using the work of Susannah Conway in connection with his chosen word. I immediately signed up for Susannah’s free five-day email course (and Facebook group) to contemplate this further.

Throughout the past few weeks and even before working on Susannah’s “one word” exercises, I kept gravitating to one word.

Light

light  [lahyt]

noun

1.  something that makes things visible or affords illumination:
2. a similar form of radiant energy that does not affect the retina, asultraviolet or infrared rays.
3. the sensation produced by stimulation of the organs of sight.
4. an illuminating agent or source, as the sun, a lamp, or a beacon.
5. the radiance or illumination from a particular source
6. the illumination from the sun; daylight:
7. daybreak or dawn.

I spent some time looking for the perfect quote to capture the meaning I was striving for with this choice. Some quotes came close, but didn’t quite get at what I wanted.

Little did I know that the perfect quote was with me all along.

You see, I thought I had selected words for 2014 and 2015, but a search of this blog’s archives seems to suggest otherwise. What it did reveal was why I chose forward.

“For whatever reason, the words of my childhood pastor immediately came to mind. I’ve written before about what an influential person he was (and still is) in my life. Maybe it has to do with having just gone home for the holidays …. Whatever the reason, Dr. Ernst G. Schmidt‘s Opportunity Seeker’s Creed came right back. 

“Life is for living!
If it gets comfortable, I will not coast.
If it becomes empty or dark, I will strike a new match of opportunity
And with God’s help, move forward in its light ….” 

Life has not been comfortable of late. There has been a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. I think that’s true for many of us, isn’t it?”  

Just as in 2013, our family begins this year with much uncertainty. There are plenty of factors making the months ahead very scary and dark.  Let’s take the obvious and the most looming: as of this month, our income is much lighter than it has been for … well, since the very earliest days of our marriage. (We’ve been married for almost 23 years.)  I’m not kidding. I’m talking reduced to one-third of what it once was, very recently.

Not reduced by a third.

Reduced to one third.

33%.

We are your typical disappearing middle class family. No one has ever confused us with the Rockefellers but we were finally, finally getting to the point where things were … easier.  Lighter. To say that this new normal is scary as hell is somewhat of an understatement. Starting over sounds dreamy, but it can be the stuff of nightmares. Literally.

Which makes it very easy to embrace that fear and darkness, give into it, and let it consume us.

But I think the better choice — even when it is the harder one — is to focus on the light. Let it in. Move forward in its warmth and all that it represents, even when we’re uncertain about the path ahead.

I hope to try and do this in several ways this year …

… taking a simple, light approach to our possessions (what do we really need?)

… enlighten my approach to cooking, especially dinners (meal-planning and making more things ahead will make this task lighter)

… engaging in activities and with people that help to lighten my spirit

… being a light to others (how can I help to brighten someone’s day or lighten their struggle?)

… embracing the dawn of each day instead of dreading the night.

I’ll write about the journey here.

It’s a new year … imagine the possibilities that 2016 will hold.  What one word captures your hopes, dreams, ambitions, and perspective for 2016?  

let’s try this again: first book of the year, take two

First Book 2016

Apparently, I’m allergic to Virginia Woolf.

Or, at least my copy of A Room of One’s Own.

As I wrote in my previous post, my First Book of the Year selection was to be Woolf’s longform essay on women and writing. Perfect for the beginning of this year, for several reasons.

But as soon as I opened it, I started sneezing.

And sneezing.

And sneezing.

An hour of this. Remnants of the sinus/migraine nonsense from earlier?  Some reaction to the chamomile and mint tea?

“I wonder if this book was in someone’s attic,” I wondered between sneezes.  I’d purchased it a few weeks ago at Half Price Books.

“Get rid of it,” The Husband said. “It’s killing you.”

“But it’s my First Book of the Year.”

I sneezed again.

“You’re not going to make it to your second book of the year if you keep reading that book.”

I checked the library’s website to see if the e-book was available.  (It’s checked out; I put a hold on it.) I checked another library’s catalog.  They don’t own it.

I answered with a sneeze.

The Husband stared at me.

“Get. Rid. Of. It.”

“We’ll sell it — ACHOO! — back,” I said, taking it down to the garage.

In a matter of minutes, my sneezing stopped.

So, we change direction. Pick something else.  Go with Plan B, the book I was planning to read after Virginia Woolf.

Boys in the Trees

Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon.

Now if only I could get the lyrics of “Coming Around Again” out of my head.

Baby sneezes
Mommy pleases
Daddy breezes in
So good on paper 
So romantic 
But so bewildering …. 

welcoming 2016 with the first book of the year

Happy New Year! I hope that your New Year’s celebrations were enjoyable ones and that this first day of 2016 is going well.

We had a quiet New Year’s Eve at home; I made gluten-free lasagna for dinner, read some poetry and essay collections (Spot the Terrorist by Lori Jakiela; Looking for The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco, and Remains of Passion by Sarah Einstein) to reach my goal of reading 52 books in 2015. We watched the now-insufferable Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, made it to midnight, and tumbled into bed shortly thereafter.

My head was pounding when I woke up this morning; this would be understandable if I’d had wine with dinner, but I didn’t because all we have in the house is red wine. Ironically, that’s usually a surefire migraine trigger for me.  I wound up going back to bed for a few hours and now, with the assistance of my friend Maxalt and some chamomile tea, am feeling much more like myself.

Which is good, because I had big plans for today.

First Book 2016

I’m thrilled that Sheila from Book Journey is hosting her annual First Book of the Year event. I love this event because I’ve always given a considerable amount of thought to which book will be the first that I read in any given year. I place a great deal of importance on selecting the book that I do, because I feel that the first book can set the tone for a year, whether it is to inspire change or growth or … whatever.

A Room of One's Own

For 2016, I chose A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf as my First Book of the Year. It’s one that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time now, it is my selection for The Classics Club’s current spin as well as The Classic Club’s Women’s Classic Literature Event, and since I own this one, it allows me to Read at Least One of My Own Damn Books. (I say it every year, but reading my own damn books is going to be a focus area for me this year. Really.)

I’m excited about this one.  I’ll let you know if it lives up to my expectations.

(The year and the book.)

Best of the Blog, 2015 Edition

IMG_20150610_193739_192

before we knew how much was about to change ~ sunset beach, cape may, new jersey ~ june 2015

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with all things New Year’s related. The degree to which the scale of life balances in either direction can vary from year to year. Generally, I love this time of reflection, remembering, and resolving — but all of that can dredge up some crap that I’d rather not reflect back on or remember. New Year’s has not always been a happy occasion for me and recently, the ghosts of years gone by have been making their presence known.

Anyway, I’m spending this final day of one of the worst years ever by looking back on the year in blogging — something that is made easier with WordPress’ nifty “annual report” for those of us who use this platform. Here are some interesting stats:

I wrote 120 blog posts this year, which is much lower than average compared to previous years. (Well, there were two or three additional ones, but when your legal counsel suggests it might be best to take them down, you tend to abide by that.  At least I do. On the other hand, as someone said in the midst of that particular malestrom, you know you’ve hit the big time when your blog has gotten the attention of a lawyer. So, um … yay?)

I participated in the inaugural Best of the Burghosphere event, which resulted in becoming more connected with my Pittsburgh blogging peers and resulting in my being named Most Literally Literary Blog.

The busiest day of the year was August 9th with 254 views.

This blog was viewed 21,269 times in 2015. It attracted 13,437 visitors. You know who you are. More importantly, thank you so much. This is astounding to me.

The above is a huge increase from last year when there were 12,788 views and 7,926 visitors.

I reached a blog milestone of 2,000 posts, bringing the total for this blog to 2,034 posts.

The most popular post OF ALL TIME is still, unbelievably, Hits and Misses with ALDI’s LiveGFree Products, which was written in May 2014. I cannot for the freakin’ life of me comprehend how — or why — nearly 4,000 people have read that. It gets hits every damn day. It’s crazy.

And finally, my Top 10 Blog Posts Written in 2015 (in order of most blog views). What’s interesting about these ten is that, if I had to list my best blog posts I wrote this year, most of these would be on that list, too.

1) A Moment of Choice is a Moment of Truth: An Open Letter to the East Norriton Township Zoning Hearing Board Regarding Laurel House (8/8/2015)
An appeal to the East Norriton Township Zoning Hearing Board and the community on why they should vote to relocate Laurel House, a domestic violence shelter. A version of this post was published in the Times Herald newspaper. (Update: the Board did, indeed, vote in favor of this move.) 258 views.

2) When the Bully is the Teacher (3/19/2015)
My response to The Girl’s chorus teacher’s bullying tactics in the classroom, including the teacher’s comments that if they didn’t memorize a song, there would be “bloodshed” in the classroom. (Update: the teacher in question has retired. Despite that, my daughter is still reticent to return to chorus.) This post was written for the 1000 Voices for Compassion project, where bloggers write about kindness, compassion, support, and caring for others.  224 views.

3) My Apology to Ron Howard, Jason Katims, and Everyone on Parenthood (1/28/2015)
On the ending of NBC’s show “Parenthood” and how I was glad to be proven wrong about the Asperger’s aspect of the show.  This post was published on BlogHer. 202 views.

4) The Sum of My Parts (5/13/2015)
The post where hitting “publish” scared the crap out of me, and which is one of my bravest pieces of writing here or anywhere, and perhaps the one I am most proud of. 167 views.

5) You’re Missing (6/19/2015)
This spring, my friend Ryan Mooney disappeared. During the weeks of the unknowing, until his body was found, I reflected on what this meant. 141 views.

6) sunday salon: winter of our book blogging discontent (2/22/2015)
Every so often, the book blogosphere seems to go through the blogging blues.  After two bloggers closed up shop and others wrote about why we tend to take ourselves too seriously — and the remedies for such — I offered some thoughts. 101 views.

7) The Answer’s at the (Almost) End (11/29/2015)
We’re still living in the aftermath of Thanksgiving 2015, which saw The Husband hospitalized after collapsing on our bathroom floor and my giving him chest compressions until the paramedics arrived. This is from The Husband’s blog about that incident. 98 views.

8) write the hell out of this life (6/26/2015)
My friend Ryan Mooney was a hell of a writer. One of the best I’ve ever known, especially because he was so thoughtful in his feedback and encouragement of his friends’ work, including mine. “He wrote the hell out of life by writing hard. He put in the time and did the work. He was committed. And with his passing, I think he would expect – no, demand – that his writer friends do the same. To re-commit to our work. To be as good as we possibly can be. And most importantly, to be that friend that others may not always know they need.” 90 views. 

9) finish line (12/2/2015)
On the sudden loss of a college friend. “My memories of that time can sometimes seem like that.  An image, a moment, a visage of what we were and hoped to be. A random capture, like the photo I snapped today of the changing clouds that greeted me upon leaving work at the end of this heavy day. A burst of yellow light, a streak of pink. A feathery wisp. More and more often, that’s what this life seems to be like sometimes.  Fleeting. A flash and a blur. Our finish line around the corner, always just out of sight.” 89 views. 

10) Hidden Behind the Headline (7/14/2015)
An opinion piece where I criticize the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s headline about new housing options for people with autism. 81 views.

In the “You’re Missing” post, I wrote these words which, upon re-reading, could be considered a resolution of sorts for this New Year:

“I vow to pay better attention, to notice who has gone silent, who has dropped off the grid. To step in before it is too late and to hold you and you and you and, yes, even you – all of you who I love, all at once, both collectively and singly, because this is what I know of this crazy world: it is a fragile one which has the power to make all of us disappear, poof. And then, sometimes it takes too much time to realize it and then, we are just as lost because they are gone. And we don’t know what this emptiness is like until it makes its presence known, stamping its feet in a tantrum, screaming maybe if I was more cognizant of the missing more often, maybe then I could have said something, maybe a comment would have made the difference, maybe I could have caught us at just the one right, perfect moment.”

Here’s to a year of new moments — the perfect and imperfect — in 2016.  Happy New Year, everyone.

First Book of the Year 2015

First Book of the Year 2015

For the second consecutive year, Sheila from BookJourney is hosting the First Book of the Year 2015. I’ve always placed a great deal of meaning and importance on selecting the first book to start off a new year, so this event is perfect for me.

I want to focus on my writing this year. I’ve had that as a goal previously, but in a vague and undefined sense. Focus on the writing and Write more don’t quite cut it as goals.

So, this year I am planning to write more. I’m also planning to submit my work to more places and have set a goal of 20 submissions. That’s a huge stretch for me because I rarely submit; I intend to, but … I don’t.  This means establishing a system for myself, being diligent about checking Duotrope and other sites I subscribe to, and generally, being more proactive than I have been. If this is something I want – and I do –  I need to make this a priority.

How does all this relate to my First Book of the Year?

Well, I always like the first book to be something that connects to my New Year’s goals and this year’s is perfect.

It is one that has been on my TBR shelf for a long, long time. (So, it counts for Roof Beam Reader’s Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, which I plan on signing up for.)

It’s always recommended to writers by other writers.

It’s quoted all the time.

I admire and respect the author.

And frankly, I really should have read this a long time ago.

Without further ado … my First Book of the Year!

Bird by Bird

I cannot wait to finally read this!