Shaking it Up: Evolving to make life work for me

Since I started this one hundred day project, I’ve been sort of winging it. I began on a whim, and since then, writing every day means I don’t have much time to plan ahead. But it’s June now. The month of No. Yesterday I identified several things which make me grumbly. I know because I was grumbly. Since then I’ve journaled and meditated, read a book and had a run. These are all things which make life work for me rather than against me. In my journal this morning I wrote:

Evolution is the natural process of staying with something. Sustainability depends on change; nothing growing is static. Essentially, you have to shake it up or let it die.

Even in just three days of margin, I see things which don’t fit the life I’m working towards. These things are simple choices which change the tone of my day drastically, but which are hard to identify as lode bearing choices when life is busy. Eventually, these choice will serve me when I say yes again as well. Hopefully, by then they will be habit.

I actually started thinking about change last night in relation to reading. In my effort to read one hundred stories this summer, I’ve opened myself up to a wider range of book types than I normally choose. Doing this has not only helped me realize how many different types of literature I enjoy, it also has given me a better understanding of techniques and tropes which work (or not) for different genres. Changing my reading has changed how reading works for me.

Granted, I could possibly have gone another twenty years reading exactly the way I always have, reading the types I always choose and been perfectly happy. But allowing an evolution, of sorts, in my reading life has created something I enjoy more than I was already. Who doesn’t want to enjoy something they love even more than they already were?

Of course this got me thinking about any number of choices I could intentionally change, and how those changes might also make life work for me even better than it already is. How can I write better, plan better, relate to others better? Not more quantity (that’s the rat race) but more quality. I don’t necessarily want to produce more, I want to better perform and enjoy what I already know I love. And then for fun do some completely new things as well on occasion.

Because I find comfort in routine, I can hang on to something far too long. Because my perfectionist freaks out that I might not do a new thing perfectly, I can be reluctant to change. But what I shared from my journal is a sign that I am breaking free from those worn out patterns of behavior which don’t serve me well anymore. Those three little sentences are new pattern of thought an internal revolution which could lead to me enjoying life even more than I currently do.

Inevitably these changes start out a bit awkward and uncomfortable. They will change and shift, seeming to stutter before they hit a familiar groove. But the more I shake things up, the more I find routine is good, but it’s better when it’s balanced with a few edgy things to keep me on my toes.

I’d love to hear what or if you are doing anything to shake your life up. What things have changed to make life work for  you even better than before?

 

Looking for a quiet space to read: 100 story summer

This weekend is the culmination of a month of planning and pushing through. As in all busy weeks, reading didn’t make it to the priority list. I read in the gaps, in the moments before succumbing to sleep, or while waiting in the car. But I can see the June, the month of no, shining on the horizon. Today we celebrate our wonderful middle girl Bailey for working hard and completing high school as well as her first year of college. Next week can be about reading again. This week the story is all about our girl.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I am a firm believer that sometimes, we have to try a book on more than one occasion to determine if it’s really not a good fit. Sometimes the book is fine, it’s us who isn’t ready or open or a good fit yet. Beautiful Ruins is a book which proves this point, at least for me. It’s been about five years since I tried to read this.  I was lured in the first time by the gorgeous cover. Although, I don’t remember why specifically I finally put it down; I was a good way into the book when I did. I do remember feeling unable to connect with the characters and that the story was disjointed.

Fortunately, this book came around again thanks to my postal book club. Because I was accountable to read it, I was determined to try it again. And whoa nelly! am I ever glad I did. I absolutely LOVED this story the second time around. The setting is lush and isolated, the characters quirky, broken, searching, flawed and beautiful (well, mostly beautiful, some characters are simple distasteful no matter what.). Making brilliant use of shifting time lines and POVs, a mystery, of sorts, unfolds. All along the way, each narrator searches for love and belonging in their own way.

I am delighted to have the chance to change my opinion on this amazing book. I highly recommend it to all.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked this book up only to return it to the library unread, through no fault of the book itself. The hype surrounding the story kept bringing me back, and finally, I picked it up and finished it all in one sitting. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I got was a quiet rumination on family, relationships and ghosts from our past. The story is different than I imagined, very understated and vague. It hints and peeks around corners rather than blatantly revealing harsh details. It quietly forgives even when we aren’t sure what is being forgiven.

This book is a perfect quiet afternoon read. It doesn’t hurry or make you turn pages quickly to see what’s next. It is thoughtful and complex and deserves undivided attention so no layers get missed. I’m looking forward to the companion book, Anything is Possible which releases this summer (and may already be available).

 

One Hundred Story Summer: When you have an off-week

I knew it would be difficult to top last week’s reading experience. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to stall out for a bit after a series of really good books. This week, I held true to form. I couldn’t settle on a book, and when I did I was unhappy with my choice. It was enough that I considered not even writing a story post this week. But, I finished on a high note. And since I’m practicing the art of finishing what I start, even in an off-week, I’m sharing with you. Here we go.

Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston

I debated whether or not this book fit into the “story” category. I often read for information, but I won’t count those as stories for the 100 story summer. However, this book fits both categories of informative and memoir, as the framework is a personal memoir of recovery from alcohol addiction.  While alcohol is not my struggle in recovery, there was much from her personal experience that I related to. The specifics of recovery may be different for each person, but there are also components which seem universal, this book only proved that hypothesis to me. I very much enjoyed the personal element of the story.

Unfortunately, I often got bogged down in the torrent of information between the personal interludes.  I enjoy information so for me to find this overwhelming means a lot. I occasionally found myself skimming just to get past it and back to the personal story. This may be because I’m not entirely on-board with her message, or it may be because she is so passionate to drive her point home. Whichever the case, it took me a while to finish as it wasn’t one I could read in large chunks without tuning out. This is one I recommend, but with caution. Be sure you are ready for all the facts before you enter.

Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner

This book has been on my radar since it came out strictly because of its title. It seems I, too, am always chasing slow. When it showed up as an Amazon deal (still on sale today), I grabbed it. Alas, now I suffer from buyer’s remorse. I wish that I had done a bit more research on the author and content before I’d purchased it. It isn’t that the writing or story are bad. They aren’t, in fact her style is lovely. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. The author is a lifestyle and fashion blogger, very much not my niche. I also didn’t feel like the story went anywhere. We began with a certain issue, and circled it and circled it…and circled it…and circled it without ever landing the plane.

What I’m leaving with is this: it wasn’t for me because of my personality and taste. You might like it, but maybe find out more about it before you commit.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

First of all I found this book un-put-down-able. I read it in two sittings, the second one consuming the last three-fourths of the book. Secondly, never have I been so conflicted in my emotions. Thirdly, the more I think about it having finished it, the more deeply I love it. Opening with the most haunting line I’ve ever read:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

This book is complex, exquisite, agonizing and beautiful. The characters are hard to love, and yet wonderfully relate-able. I wanted to give up on them so often, but instead I found myself rooting for them over and over again. Exploring issues of race, gender, generations, expectations, sibling relationships, sexuality, and grief and loss, this book balances the line between beauty and destruction and never once loses its way. Maybe it’s because I love people in recovery, but I couldn’t walk away from these deeply damaged, vulnerably beautiful, destructive people.

I don’t believe this is a book everyone will find appealing (there may be triggers if you have experienced trauma so check the content), but if you are the type who believes in redemption for flawed humanity, this one is right up your alley.

Although I stuttered out of the gate this week, I’m glad to have ended with a remarkable story.  Next week is crazy busy for all the best and most celebratory ways, but hopefully, I can still squeeze a few books in.

The week I Read Everything: 100 Story Summer

This week I joined in the Bout of Books readathon. It was also my birthday week, although I had plenty to accomplish, I allowed myself a great deal of leeway for reading. It was my gift to myself. As you can see, I read a rather ridiculous amount, and I’ll likely finish another book today. This week I read incredible books that range across the spectrum of style, content and story-line. It’s been a truly great adventure and only whetted my appetite for reading. However, by the end of the week, I missed my non-fiction reading too. So my reading will be a bit more balanced in the weeks to come, and a bit less as I tend to read non-fiction more slowly.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Years ago I read Hosseini’s Kite Runner, which was beautiful and horrible all at the same time. I want to say I loved the story, except I didn’t always love the story. I was often repulsed by the events and yet the story unfolds with such tenderness and unexpected beauty that I loved it all the same. A Thousand Splendid Suns reproduces the same magic a second time.

Miriam and Laila are born a generation apart, but their lives become cruelly intertwined in the war torn streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Spanning decades of history, from the cruel regime of the 60’s and 70’s to the despot warlords of the 80’s and early 90’s, these two unlikely heroines embody what it means to love, lose, survive, and even hope in an oppressive and militaristic society. By the end of the novel, I was barely breathing. I had to remind myself to slow down and read all the words in an effort to discover what happened next. Harrowing and haunting, this is a story of feminism and friendship where such things should not be. It’s beautiful and wonderful, and I am the better for having experienced this book.

You can expect to see a review of Hosseini’s third book, And the Mountains Echoed very soon.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

After reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, I needed to step away and read something completely different, something with a guaranteed happy ending. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic, Taming of the Shrew.  It’s not typical of Tyler’s style or story-lines, but it is exactly what I needed after being emotionally ruined by my previous book.

Including a fake marriage to extend green card status, PETA saving laboratory mice, a sharply, brilliant preschool teacher, this story ultimately realizes family should be a launching pad, not a lifelong behavior template.

I might not have enjoyed this story as much if I were looking for more nuanced Tyler, but when I needed a light-hearted, familiar love story, this book delivered.

Lincoln in the Bardo – by George Saunders

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I put this book on hold based on a podcast recommendation. Whatever I expected, this book wasn’t it. In fact, I can’t think of another book I’ve read constructed quite like this one. Snippets of news, press releases, diaries, memoirs, internal dialogue, ghosts, vice, heaven and hell, death, grief, and redemption all rolled up together in an extraordinary way.

Based on the death of Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, of typhoid fever during the early days of the Civil War, the study of Lincoln’s grief is deeply moving. But it’s not the only story being told here. The residents of the Bardo, a Buddhist concept of the space between death and rebirth into a new life, also have stories to tell and truths to reveal. Understanding the things which hold us to this earth, regret, unfinished work, inability to let go, greed, avarice, lust and making peace with our identity are also important themes in this story.

As much as I loved this book  (the more I reflect, the more I realize how complex and wonderful it is), it is one I will recommend only occasionally. It’s not easily accessible nor meant for reading quickly without attention to constantly changing details. But, for the reader who is willing to invest time and attention, it’s an exquisitely wrought exploration of humanity and eternity.

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

Many, many years ago, I read and loved Jeanette’s memoir, The Glass Castle. Even though it was harsh and terrible at times. It was also beautiful and hopeful. It’s a story of accepting where we’ve come from and our inability to change the people we love.

Half Broke Horses is not a memoir but a “true-life novel” of Jeanette’s grandmother, Lily. When Lily was fifteen years old, during WW1, she rode her horse 500 miles from Texas to Arizona to accept her first teaching position.

Alone.

Lily is harsh, wild, crazy, intelligent, beautiful and a stark realist. From teaching hard-scrabble western children to selling bootleg liquor out her backdoor during prohibition, her determination and intelligence inspire me.  Her audacity makes me want to stand in a chair and cheer. I love the Wild West anyway, and reading the story of this true pioneer woman is the most fun I’ve had this month.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Last year I read the book, One in a Million Boy. Since then, I recommend it to everyone who will listen and people who aren’t so interested too. Its understated beauty and simplicity are perfect. A Man Called Ove is the first I’ve read since to capture that feeling of simple, beautiful goodness.

Ove’s story is one of loss and grief, how when we’re broken, love mends us. It’s about community, and family, and being angry at the world, about losing and finding home again without ever leaving the living room.  I laughed, aloud, which I don’t do frequently with books. I cried aloud, too.  Even when it’s predictable, it’s OK because the predictability is so right, setting things exactly as they should be. I’ll read this again and again for how it’s beauty touches my soul as a very good book should do.

Falling in love with the Middle East: 100 Story Summer

I discovered a new passion this week. Don’t you love when that happens? I discovered I am completely enamored with authors from the Middle East. Honestly, other than news stories and prejudicial diatribe, the Middle East isn’t an area where I have much knowledge or experience. While it isn’t likely I will travel there anytime soon, I can certainly broaden my horizons by learning from those who have lived there and feel a deep love for their country.

This week I plowed through two books by Middle Eastern authors. I also reread a classic from high school. Although I remember the overall theme, very few specifics, not even the ending, stayed with me. Reading it was practically a brand new experience.

I’m also working my through two non-fiction books, one quickly and one much more slowly as it is a huge tome.  Though these won’t count as part of the 100 story summer, I’ll still share them as I finish them in case they interest someone else as well.

What I Read this Week

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This novel is a both a dreamy love story and a timely commentary on the experience of being a refugee in an unwelcoming world. While some would call it sci-fi, to me it seems more along the realm of magical realism. The opening sentence reads,

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace or at least not openly at war a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”  

We never learn the location of the first setting by name, but it’s obviously a Middle Eastern city. When war moves too close, people relocate by moving through a series of magical doors which open to new cities in new and distant countries.  

This story is an exploration of survival, isolation. Exploring the idea dislocation even in a crowd, this book is a beautiful way depiction of a harsh reality for thousands of people every day.

Girl of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsenea 

I really enjoyed this book which seems to evoke mixed emotions from reviewers. It was widely banned in Arab nations for its commentary on upper class Arab women. In America it’s been described as shallow and un-inventive.  However, I don’t think its shallow by accident. Instead shallow materialism serves as a foil for women who are complex, repressed and intelligent. Told as a series of subscription group emails and narrated by an omniscient and provocative narrator, the story follows four women through love, marriage, school, growing up and finding themselves. Fortunately I didn’t read the sharper reviews before reading this one, and I do recommend it.

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Obviously a departure from my Middle East theme, I’ve been wanting to reread this book for awhile. This week I read it as a catharsis and escape from political events. This dystopian story is set in post-was America. Theocratic authoritarianism replaces the democracy in a merciless way. Fertility is a premium and women who are able to conceive become property of the rich and infertile. Following the story of one woman through her nightmare reality, we receive a glimpse of the darker side of power, religion and misogyny.

One Hundred Story Summer: Adventure in Empathy, Week 1

Last week, I shared my plan to read one hundred stories this summer.  While I allowing a wide open field, any fiction counts, I also have some intentions for my grand adventure.

  • Read authors from many backgrounds, not just white folk.
  • Gain understanding and empathy for lifestyles and cultures unlike my own.
  • Learn about culture.
  • Focus without being “busy”
  • Re-visit well-loved favorites.
  • Have conversations about fun, interesting, difficult or controversial issues.
  • Gain a better understanding of myself.
  • Have fun.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to lose myself in a book.  I’ve used books as escape, comfort, adventure, and for companionship.  My reading ranges across most genres. I generally go where ever my reading muse takes me, a pattern I will follow this summer too. However, I also plan to be more intentional and self-aware in my reading.  I want to get outside my own experience and as Atticus Finch prescribed, “climb into [someone’s] skin and walk around in it.”

I can’t be another ethnicity, or change my cultural upbringing, but I don’t have to accept it as the superior or majority experience. Essentially, I hope to increase my ability to empathize with someone I may never actually meet. Expanding my experience, even my reading experience, with the human condition will help me connect with humanity instead of ignoring it, or worse, judging it.  My summer reading adventure is active resistance against the callous indifference generated by a constantly overwhelming news cycle.

This week started off wonderfully.

What I read this week

Underground Airlines

I shared a bit about this book last week, having just started it that morning. This served as the third book in an excellent book grouping covering the themes of slavery, racial ethics, and race relations.

Underground Airlines approaches these issues from an alternate reality. Abraham Lincoln does not become President and thus, never implements emancipation. The ramifications of this change reach farther than I could have imagined. The ideas of power, freedom and survival are deftly woven as a fast-paced thriller filled with double-cross and deception.  I loved every minute of it.

This is How It Always Is

I heard about this book on the What Should I read Next podcast. After hearing Anne Bogel of WSIRN call it a favorite of the year, I grabbed it off the New release shelf at the library without looking inside the cover. Here is what met me when I finally did.

This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.

When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.

What follows is an exquisite exploration of the things which determine who we are (hint: it’s not what’s under our pants), and how those things may constantly change.  It’s a beautiful exploration of family, relationships, acceptance and humanity. The subject matter is incredibly important and is handled with equal parts of humor and heartache. Full of hope and secrets, fairy tales and sibling rivalry, this story has impressed itself on my soul. Rich and detailed writing make a great story into a beautiful journey.

The Grownup 

 This book keeps showing up on my recommended reads list on Amazon. I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but I haven’t read anything by her since. When I saw it sitting on the end of the library shelf last week, I snagged it. This book is only sixty pages having been originally published in a collection of paranormal stories by George R R Martin. Honestly, I’m glad to have finished it in less than a hour. Because it was so short, it felt rushed. There was no time for character or atmosphere development.  The ending felt jumbled by too many possible twists, too conveniently assembled. It seemed as though it wanted to be haunting and mysterious in the vein of James’ turn of the screw, but that’s a feat which cannot be managed in so short a time. I’ll read more Flynn for sure, but I won’t recommend this one to anyone.

One hundred story summer: The beginning of a grand adventure

I’ve been thinking about summer–the long, hot, humid, stuck indoors summer–and how to make it more enjoyable.  Lately, adding reading to my weekly goal list has increased my reading time while cutting out the “you’re being lazy” guilt soundtrack. I thought about the books I read/ am reading this week, how even a fictional story makes a person more empathetic and increases awareness on very non-fiction subjects. These thinkerly thoughts birthed an idea, a sort of crazy, wonderful idea. Remember the other day when I said I love a numbered challenge?  I created a challenge, a goal and an indulgence all wrapped up in one shiny package: the 100 story summer.


Starting today, and going through Labor Day, I’m going to read 100 stories. True, it’s not quite summer but my A/C is already running, so close enough! Then, every Saturday, I’ll share about them here on the blog. After all, I have one hundred days of writing -81 now!- to fill. Usually, I drift through summer time, binge watching Netflix and finding ways to avoid being outside in daylight. This adventure keeps me out of the sun and focused on a destination. It’s the best of all worlds. Not to mention making a dent in the amazing hoard of unread books sitting on my kindle.


I’m going on a story adventure! You’re invited, too.


This week I read/am reading an amazing trifecta of racially related books. I didn’t plan to read them all together like this, but I’m so glad the due dates aligned on them to make it so. What an amazing journey.


The Underground Railroad – If you are one of the few people who haven’t heard the premise here it is very briefly. Set in pre-Civil War America, this story follows the escape of slave woman from the South to the North. The twist: the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad people ride from one stop to the next. The story is harrowing and dreadful in so many ways. While the railroad is an imaginary device, the rest of the story only seems surreal in its cruelty, hatred and violence. Sadly, those elements are all very real.  Yet somehow despite the brutality, the overwhelming theme is one of fierce hope, inspiring perseverance and the depth of courage within people who refuse to participate in racial dehumanization.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – This book has been on my reading list for a long time. I tend to believe that most books fall in my lap at exactly the perfect time, and so it has been with this one. This story seems as though it should be imaginary, a bizarre, dystopic, sci-fi depiction of medical science. Only it isn’t. It’s a true story about what happens (and is still happening) when when the ends justify the means, any means at all.


The misuse of Henrietta Lacks, both cells and person, alongside the echoes of racial injustice and poverty that echo through the generations of this story are heartbreaking. The author puts a human face on a biological nightmare by telling the story of the Lacks family, as well as the HELA cells. It’s absolutely riveting. I’ll be unpacking how I feel about this one for a very long  time.


Underground Airlines – I only started this one this morning, but after 78 pages, I am ALL IN. This novel is set in present day with a twist, the Civil War never happened. In four states, The Hard Four, slave labor, plantation style is alive and well.  I didn’t expect the author’s recreation of global economics and scientific and technological advancement as a result. Without the Civil War, it really is a whole new world. The social commentary is scathing and altogether too close to present day reality.  It’s a thriller, but so much more than that.


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