Tag Archives: Year in Review

This Is How We Read (#AMonthOfFaves)

December tends to be a reflective month for many people, myself included. This year, I’m going to try and keep my blogging momentum going (thank you, #NaBloPoMo and Nonfiction November!)  by participating in the 4th annual #AMonthofFaves hosted by GirlxoxoTraveling with T and Estella’s Revenge. It’s a fun way to recap the year that was. Yes, a significant chunk of 2017 deserves to be drop-kicked to the curb, but despite such, there was some good stuff worth remembering. We’ll be posting about them each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of December — or, you know, anytime.

Today’s #AMonthofFaves is about our year in reading, a topic I usually wait until the first week in January to talk about for various reasons. I’m of the belief that it’s entirely possible for one to read one’s favorite book of the year on December 31. Consider this, then, a prologue of sorts to my annual year-end reading recap.

To date I’ve read 45 books, exceeding my 2016 total by two, a nice accomplishment. My goal is at least 50 — definitely doable. December is usually a plentiful reading month for me, given that I often have an abundance of vacation days to use up (which, thankfully, is the case this year).  More than half (27) were review books. Fiction consisted of 20 books; 21 were nonfiction. Only 9 were memoirs (would have thought that would have been higher); 3 were poetry collections and (in what might be a first) I read only one short story collection. The majority of my reading was print books, with 11 on audio.

Hints about my favorite book: it’s fiction, it was a book I reviewed for Shelf Awareness, I’ve never read the author before and I’ve written about it in previous posts. Oh — and this will give it away, for sure — it has the worst cover. I hate it. Seriously, the cover is awful, which is a goddamn shame because I haven’t seen this book discussed too much and I can’t help but think that’s one of the reasons why. It should be at the top of everyone’s best books list.

One thing that stands out to me is how much the current political and cultural climate has affected my reading this year — Ta-Nahisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions as well as Hope in the Dark are just a few titles that helped me keep some semblance of perspective and calm during what has been a tumultuous, emotional and unprecedented year. And assuming the slim possibility that the POSOTUS doesn’t get us all killed with his apparent lust for war and his obvious lovefest with Russia, “resistance reading” is likely to be a predominant theme of mine for as long as this regime is in power — so much so that I’m even contemplating hosting a “Reading the Resistance” challenge for 2018.

Here’s my first potential member, my cat Douglas, reading You’re More Powerful Than You Think by Eric Liu and writing to her elected representatives from the comfort of one of my typical reading spots, an old (broken in places) chair that used to belong to my grandparents.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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

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Weekend Cooking: A Year of Food

 

I’m working on several Year In Review type posts and thought it would be fun to recap my Weekend Cooking posts and other highlights of 2016 in food.  If anything, it’s a way to remind me that there were some good things about this year (but not much).

Early in the year came the news that my favorite childhood bakery, Geiger’s in Northeast Philadelphia, was closing its doors. If there was ever a year that needed Geigers’ creme filled powdered doughnuts, 2016 was it. (Not that I could eat them anymore, but still.)

Both kids took a required cooking class in school (can I say how delighted I am that our school district requires this?) which led to them making some simple dinners on their own when they were unhappy with what I prepared. As a bonus, this class also gave me two nights off from making dinner, thanks to them having to plan and prepare a meal as a homework assignment.

Summer was all about the bounty of the farmer’s market (until the season ended in October), discovering the ease of overnight oats, and creating a gluten free bread salad. I gave quinoa a second chance and now, I can’t get enough of it (especially cold).  This Quinoa Salad with Corn, Tomatoes, Black Beans and Feta was perfect as a work lunch during the summer.

A friend from afar sent an incredibly generous food gift which we’re still enjoying and our next door neighbor shared his tomatoes with us.  Our backyard blueberry bushes produced enough berries for a Watermelon-Feta-Berry salad perfect for the Fourth of July and a Berry Banana Smoothie.  I tried to trim our food budget by identifying some possible homemade pantry items, like the Slow-Cooker Vegetable Broth I make occasionally — especially in fall for soups and sauteing vegetables.

Our financial situation this year prevented us from enjoying Pittsburgh’s dining scene as much as I would have liked, but I did have the chance to try two new (to me) establishments. After a Listen to Your Mother rehearsal this spring, our cast had a delicious dinner at Church Brew Works.  In the summer, a former coworker and I enjoyed drinks and appetizers at Sienna Mercato.

Given all the dreadful news that 2016 held, you’d think my wine consumption would have been off the charts this year. It wasn’t, but when I did imbibe, my electric wine opener proved essential — like when we returned from visiting family in Philly for several days only to find a broken refrigerator leaking all over the kitchen with hundreds of dollars of rotten food inside.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with family in Philly, complete with second helpings of gratitude and enough pie to make up for our scary Thanksgiving of 2015.  

Among the many piles of food-related books and cookbooks I checked out from the library, I reviewed these:

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Whiskey, Etc., short (short) stories, by Sherrie Flick

Sugar Crush: How to Reduce Inflammation, Stop Pain, and Reverse the Path to Diabetes, by Richard P. Jacoby, DPM and Racquel Baldelomar

Carb Conscious Vegetarian
by Robin Robertson

In regard to the last two, I made some lifestyle changes related to my doctor giving me six months to lower my cholesterol and triglycerides, and this year I became one of those people who track every calorie and carb with My Fitness Pal.  I need to get back on track with MFP but at this point, maybe that’s something best saved for 2017.

Weekend Cooking - NewWeekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads (who, as a coincidence, has a similar retrospective post up today) and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page.

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently: Reflecting on a Year of Reading

Books Transform in Hourglass

Books Transform in Hourglass – courtesy of Getty Images

Here we are … the first Sunday Salon/Currently post of 2016!  As I’ve mentioned before, I am all too happy to welcome a new year and a fresh start, even if not much has actually changed.

I thought I would use this post to reflect on and recap my 2015 reading year.  I would categorize this as a pretty good year, quality-wise.  In terms of quantity, though, not so much. I read a total of 52 books, compared to 75 in 2014. (This is still rather respectable, especially when you consider that this averages to be one book per week).  I try not to fall into the book blogger trap of comparing my totals to others; the reality is that I always am most critical of myself.

I attribute the decrease to two factors: 1) more time spent listening to podcasts in the car  (I listened to 22 audiobooks last year, compared to only 10 this year) and 2) being ruthless in abandoning books that weren’t working for me. At the same time, I have quite a few books in progress. Finishing books was a bit of an issue this year, probably because of reading multiple books at once.

(What can I say? I work for an organization that has five million items available free for the borrowing — and most of them are books. It is hard not to be tempted by the shiny and new. Or the old and classic.  Or, whatever.)

So, we’re not really going to focus much on the amounts. It’s all about the experience, right? And there were some great literary experiences in 2015.

Before we get to the Best Of selections, some stats for my fellow book geeks who love this sort of thing.  (You know who you are.)

2015

Number of Books Read = 52
Number of Pages Read = 10,001
Longest Book:  The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (564 pages)
Shortest Book: Remnants of Passion by Sarah Einstein (37 pages)
Number of Audiobooks Listened To = 10
Number of Hours Spent Listening to Audiobooks = 87.31
How Many Days of Listening That Equals = 3.6
Average Number of Days It Took Me to Finish a Book = 7
My Average Rating of a Book = 3.9
Authors Who Were New to Me = 36
Authors Who I’d Read Previously = 16
Female Authors Read = 33
Male Authors Read = 19
Oldest Book Read = The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (published in 1890)
Second Oldest Book Read = The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (published in 1892)

And now, without further ado, here are my favorite books in Fiction, Short Stories, Memoir, and Nonfiction.  Links take you to my reviews, if I’ve written one. (Writing reviews was also a bit of a challenge this year.) As you’ll note by the years in parenthesis, these include my favorite books I read in 2015, regardless of the publication date.

Best Fiction

Thirteen Ways of Looking

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (2015)

None of the Above

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

“But once you understood what you were … how could someone not want to be fixed? I couldn’t conceive of a world in which I wasn’t broken.” (pg. 146)  Debut novelist I.W. Gregorio has given her readers a story that explores identity and acceptance through the perspective of a main character who just learned she was born intersex. This is one of those books that I appreciated on a highly personal level and for the sensitive way the author handles a subject matter that’s considered by some to be taboo. Because of books like None of the Above and authors like I.W. Gregorio, there exists the hope for a more caring, sensitive, and accepting world. ~ from my review, 6/22/2015.

Tampa - 2

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Honorable Mentions for Fiction:

The Edible WomanThe MiniaturistZLike FamilyOur Souls at NightEverything I Never Told YouWest of SunsetMy Sunshine Away

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (1969)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler (2013)

Like Family by Paolo Giordano (2015)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

Our Souls at Night is a quiet, understated novel about love and grief, family and community.  It challenges the reader to view older people as still having desires and needs rather than individuals who should renounce all vestiges of intimacy the minute their AARP card arrives in the mail.  It is a gorgeous finale for author Kent Haruf.  (From my review 9/22/2015)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014)

Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, the Lee family is one full of secrets, of regrets, of unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. Of letters never sent nor received, of tchkotches stolen, of misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts. And sometimes – yes, oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better. (Reviewed 5/4/2015)

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (2015)

Stewart O’Nan, a Pittsburgh author, more than succeeds in capturing legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald during the legendary author’s final 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, Scott is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

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.”)  Reviewed 2/5/2015.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (2015)

Best Short Stories

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Best Memoirs

Dear Mr. You

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)

Whatever ...Love Is Love

Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves by Maria Bello (2015)

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (2015)

M Train

M Train by Patti Smith (2015)

Best Nonfiction

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This book’s moment in the spotlight comes at precisely the right time, given the current racial climate and rhetoric in our country. Between the World and Me is an important book, a classic of our era that deserves to be widely-read and taught in schools long after the accolades and the “best of” lists fade into the New Year and the ether of the Internet. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that he “would have [his son] be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”  Reading this book and talking with others about it is one small way we can do the same.  Reviewed 12/29/2015.

Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

You may be thinking that Big Magic is just another gimmicky book about creativity and following your passion, the likes of which you’ve probably read before. And you also may be judging this based on perhaps a negative impression of Eat Pray Love or any other of Gilbert’s work. And you would be wrong on both counts.  (I can say that because I did both of those things.)

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t advocating that we creative types go into the office tomorrow and quit our jobs or commit to waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to write The Best Novel Ever or build a wing onto our house for the studio of our dreams. If you are able to do those things, more power to you. That’s not reality for most of us, however. And if we’re looking to our creativity to solve the bigger questions of our lives, we might be missing the point altogether.

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir — something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.” (pg. 172)

I really enjoyed this book and Elizabeth Gilbert’s direct and down-to-earth approach to creativity was exactly what I needed at the time.  Reviewed 11/3/2015.

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke (1929)

As I said, this was a wonderful year. Thanks so much for reading my reviews and bookish banter. Looking forward to another fun year here together in 2016!

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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.

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The Sunday Salon: Reflecting on a Year of Reading

The Sunday Salon

Here we are, at the first Sunday Salon of 2015. As trite as it sounds, it really is hard to believe another year has passed.

Reading-wise, this was a pretty good year for me. I finished 2014 having met my Goodreads challenge goal of 75 books read – although to do so I was literally reading right up until the clock struck midnight. I was in the midst of Blue Horses by Mary Oliver when I heard the chants of “Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven ….” on TV. (I may have gone a little into 2015 with this one. No big deal, right? I mean, we’re only talking books here, not a matter of life and death.)

Before telling you about Favorite Books Read in 2014, some statistics.

Number of Books Read = 75
Number of Pages Read = 9,620
Number of Magazines/Literary Journals Read = 15
Number of Audiobooks Listened To = 22 (I am pretty sure this is a personal record)
How Many Days of Listening That Equals = 9.6
Average Number of Days It Took Me to Finish a Book = 4.6
Number of Books I Started but Could Not Finish and Abandoned = 11
My Average Rating of a Book = 3.5
Authors Who Were New to Me = 39
Authors Who I’d Read Previously = 36
Female Authors Read = 48
Male Authors Read = 27

I very rarely choose a Best Book of the Year.  (Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done so in my six years of blogging). However, I decided to do so this year because the book was so incredibly well-written and so moving. My choice is at the conclusion of this post. Now, without further ado, here are my favorites in Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Stories, Essays, and Historical Fiction.

Fiction
I read 19 books in this category and as usual, this was my most popular genre of choice. If I had to choose my Best Fiction Book Read in 2014, it would be History of the Rain by Niall Williams, which was nominated for The Man Booker Prize.

History of the Rain

As very, very close runners up (and in alphabetical order), I also loved:

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian
Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Perfect

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Transatlantic

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Poetry
This was the year I re-discovered poetry, having read 16 volumes of it.  It was perfect for reading at lunch or right before falling asleep. I’m grateful to the co-worker who introduced me to the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing) and I enjoyed reading Pittsburgh poet Rachel Mennies (The Glad Hand of God Points Backward) and I believe Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses is one of her best volumes in recent years.  However, one book stands out for me and that’s Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch, which is why it is my Best Poetry Book Read in 2014.

Gabriel

Memoirs
Very close behind poetry was the memoir genre, always one of my favorites. I read 15 memoirs this year, so this was another difficult category to choose just one selection.  All of these listed here were outstanding in their own right and I loved them all for very different reasons. My choice for Best Memoir Read in 2014 was Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan.

Glitter and Glue

 

Others well worth mentioning:

Hope for a Sea Change

 Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino

In the Body of the World

 In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler

Nest. Flight. Sky.

Nest. Flight. Sky. On love and loss, one wing at a time, by Beth Kephart

Nonfiction
I read 12 nonfiction books and enjoyed the majority of what I read, but the one that stands out to me as being the Best Nonfiction Book Read in 2014 is Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart.

Handling the Truth

Runners-up included Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, which I listened to on audio …

Five Days at Memorial

… and Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, by David Perlmutter, MD.

Grain Brain

Short Story Collections
I’m surprised that I only read 3 short story collections last year. (Must remedy that in 2015!) I loved Jess Walter’s novels The Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins, and his short story collection We Live in Water is equally brilliant. It gets my vote for Best Short Story Collection Read in 2014. 

We Live in Water

Runner-up is Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

I also want to make mention of two new-to-me short story writers who I discovered from reading “One Story.” Two of the best short stories I read last year were “Cool City” by Chuck Augello (8/25/2014, Issue #195) and “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle (5/20/2014, Issue #192). I love this publication and writers like Chuck and Katie are two of the reasons why.

Historical Fiction 
With only 3 historical fiction books read last year, I’m hoping to increase that number in 2015 because I’m finding that I really enjoy this genre.  My pick for Best Historical Fiction Read in 2014 was Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen.

Mrs. Poe

I also really liked Drood by Dan Simmons, which I listened to on audio. (It was one of my favorite audio books of the year.)

Drood

Essays
I really liked each of the 3 essay collections I read this year, which included Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott; and Once I Was Cool, by Megan Stielstra. However, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett gets my vote for Best Essay Collection Read in 2014.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

One of the highlights of my 2014 was having the chance to meet several wonderful authors, including Colum McCann, David McCullough, and Ann Patchett. When I met Ann, I told her that I was interested in reading The Magician’s Assistant because I was writing a novel set in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

“Oh, no, no, no. Forget The Magician’s Assistant,” she said, dismissing her own book with a wave of her hand and reaching for a Post-It note. “You need to read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette.”

And so, over the Fourth of July weekend, I did. And I could not put it down. I knew, the moment I finished it, that it would either be the best book I read all year or a strong contender. As I wrote in my review of Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, there isn’t a single page where Paul Monette doesn’t leave a piece of his heart while taking part of his reader’s.

For that and many other reasons, I give you Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette as my Best Book Read in 2014. 

Borrowed Time

This year-end wrap up gives me a chance to say thank you to all who read this blog. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you. As is the case for most bloggers, doing what we do (in my case, sharing my thoughts on the books I’m reading) is something we do for fun, not to get rich. That’s certainly the case here. I’m not planning any changes here for 2015 and I’m not going anywhere.

Here’s to more great books and more great conversations in the New Year!

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