When Hope is Too Much to Ask For

Lately with everything going on—the tanking economy, rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, a federal government that toggles between authoritarian overreach, lies, and violence and complete inaction, climate change continuing unabated, increasing racial and economic division, in case you’d forgotten—I have been having some trouble feeling hope. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I want to feel hope. I want to cling to it like a foam ring in stormy waters, like a teddy bear in the wake of a nightmare. I search for it, sifting through news and data and scenarios, but it eludes me and I’m left feeling even more alone and overwhelmed.

For some, I know, gratitude helps by bringing focus to the things that are going well in one’s life. I like gratitude, but it’s got some limitations. Sometimes, for example, things really are very, very bad and trying to find gratitude is as futile as trying to find hope. Seeking a sense of gratitude and not finding it can itself feel like a failure. For those of us inclined towards anxiety, depression, or ruminative thought, this easily turns into a cudgel: I have all of these good things in my life but I keep letting them be overshadowed by the bad, therefore there must be something wrong with me. I am ungrateful, my mind insists, irredeemably flawed, and it won’t take “shut the hell up” for an answer.

So, I’ve stopped asking myself to feel hope or gratitude. I gave myself permission to stop struggling for those things that feel so unattainable. Instead, I try to bring awareness to the whole situation: not try mentally to beat it into a shape resembling good news, not try to argue myself out of a grief that is completely warranted, but just observe all aspects of things as they are. When I’m wearing my mask while on a walk, I continue to notice the humid environment building up around my lower face and notice the irritation that arises when the unmasked people coming toward me on the sidewalk show no sign of allowing six feet of distance, but at the same time I also notice the breeze on my forehead, the ground supporting my feet, the waxing moon rising in the late afternoon, the smell of dinner cooking in one of the homes along my route. I avoid labeling any of these things as “good” or “bad;” I just give them my attention and move on.

This isn’t hope; it’s just a more complete picture.

For me, mindfulness meditation has been helpful, but I’m sure there are other paths that lead to a similar place. I schedule in three meditation breaks each day, the longest (15-20 minutes) before breakfast, the other two, usually 5-10 minutes long, roughly midday and after dinner. During these breaks, I note the sensations in my body without trying to analyze or change them. I observe the expansion and release of my rib cage as I breathe. When thoughts start to pull my mind away from this awareness, I take note of that and bring my attention back to my body or breath. When I have time, I follow these up with some stretches for my neck, jaw, and shoulders, which is where I hold most of my tension.

Then between meditation breaks, if thoughts and worries start getting out of control, if one aspect of reality starts hooking my attention more than another, I’m more easily able to pause and reset my awareness.

When I was a doula, I would sometimes tell laboring moms, “The only thing you have to do is breathe.” If you’re breathing, everything else will unfold. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or painless, just that breathing is the only thing you have to do throughout. The current situation reminds me of labor—events unfolding over which we have limited control, uncertain of how long it will take or how painful it will get, the only way out is through. Except that childbirth has a clear goal, an outcome to hope for. This situation doesn’t. But the importance of breathing still applies.

Awareness in itself solves nothing, but it provides the foundation from which we can take other action, whether that’s remembering our mask when we go to the grocery store, or realizing a way to eliminate an unnecessary trip away from home, or writing a letter to our elected officials, or calling up a relative or friend, or looking into our loved ones’ eyes because it’s so easy to forget to do that with everything else that’s going on.

And maybe hope follows, maybe gratitude makes an appearance, and if they do, we notice them along with everything else. But even if they don’t show up, we’re here, present in this world with all of its contradictions and limitations. And sometimes that’s the most we can hope for.

sunset over ocean and cliffs

Bookends: July 2020

Although July wasn’t really any better than June, and in some ways it was even worse, I find myself in a better frame of mind at the end of July than I was at the end of June.

For one thing, my cat died. This in itself is a very sad and super-sucky thing that kind of set the tone for the month and made everything much more difficult to handle for a while, but it also helped me put things in perspective a little. There’s this huge, chaotic, awfulness on a macro scale, but at the same time there are micro-moments with my little family that are both closer to my heart and closer to my sphere of influence. This month I’ve started to focus more on those little moments, which helps me avoid a lot of overwhelm.

It also helps that I remembered meditation existed this month and managed to silence the little voice that said meditation apps are stupid and I don’t need them because I already know how to meditate and just need to sit down and do it. I tried out Headspace and found that I quite like it. Their courses addressing specific concerns, issues, or techniques are well done and progress logically, and the ability to select the length of each meditation and listen from the desktop site as well as the app helps me work it into my schedule even when I’m busy. I’ve been meditating daily for most of the month, and it’s really helped me with that “appreciating micro-moments” thing I mentioned.

I also started doing some great neck and shoulder exercises, had some pleasant not-in-person interpersonal interactions, reconciled myself to boring suburban walks, read some excellent books, and shunned Amazon more comprehensively than I had before, and we’ve had some awesome unseasonably cool temperatures, all of which have really helped my outlook. I mean, I’m still disappointed at how my country is handling the pandemic and nothing has come to light to change my opinion that we’re pretty much screwed, but the day-to-day has improved, and that’s really all I have control over.

All I need now is some foster kittens…

Visual Interest: Gift from the Sea

Finished in July (13):

Krista Kim-Bap by Angela Ahn (R.A. with my son)

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (audio)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (R.A. with my son)

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

The Crucible by Arthur Miller (R.A. with my daughter and spouse)

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (audio)

A Kid’s Guide to Native American History by Yvonne Wakim Dennis (R.A. with my son)

Bossypants by Tina Fey (audiobook)

A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry (R.A. with my son)

Trickster ed by Matt Dembicki (R.A. with my son)

Currently Reading:

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone

Turtle Island by Eldon Yellowhorn and Kathy Lowinger (R.A. with my son)

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, and Jean Mendoza

What the Eagle Sees by Eldon Yellowhorn (R.A. with my son)

Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata

A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki

American Colonies by Alan Taylor

To-Read for August:

Still working hard on the Build Your Library U.S. History curricula we’re doing, and I have my Litsy #bookspin list (below).

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month.

What’s on your TBR stack for August?

Related Posts:

Bookends: June 2020

With rising rates of COVID-19 combined with the annual question mark of the flu season (and did you know you can get both at the same time? Fun!), the second half of 2020 and beyond looks a little hairy.

At this point it appears inadvisable to rely on the implementation of common-sense measures, particularly widespread testing, comprehensive contact tracing, financial support for employees to take off work while ill and after proven exposure, guaranteed medical coverage for those who are out of work or who don’t have access to health insurance through their employers, and back-to-school plans that include routine testing and basic safeguards that offices are putting in place, so our family is preparing to batten down the hatches for fall and winter. This includes attempting to get my daughter’s braces removed, making a plan to maintain an inventory of non-perishable foods to avoid exposure in stores and to prepare for shortages, arranging for meaningful remote social interaction (virtual scout troops ftw!), making a book-procurement plan, keeping an eye out for outdoor flu vaccine clinics, and trying to find a working relationship with my near-debilitating existentialism.

This is a time when looking forward realistically is the same thing as catastrophizing. Because this virus couldn’t care less about our power of positive thinking. It’s here to use our cells to reproduce and our behaviors to spread to new bodies and the United States is doing its damnedest to pave an easy road for it to do both of these things with deadly efficiency.

Winter is coming. And we are not remotely ready.

Visual Interest: Brand-new butterfly.

Finished in June (12):

Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac (R.A. with my son)

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Supernova by Marissa Meyer

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis (Tailored Book Recommendations selection)

The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons (Tailored Book Recommendations selection)

Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

Docile by K.M. Szpara (Quit this one 333 pages in. This was the only one of the three titles I got through Tailored Book Recommendations this quarter that was a total bust for me. My family loves it, though; they get a kick out of it when I rant about books they haven’t read.)

Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris (R.A. with my son)

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (I went back and forth between the audiobook and paperback for this. Strange thing: The audiobook has 55 chapters plus an epilogue and the paperback has 59 chapters and an epilogue but they seem to contain the same information. If anyone can help me figure out why this is, I would be grateful.)

Currently Reading:

Bossypants by Tina Fey (audiobook. The only thing my kids find more amusing than me ranting about books is me laughing until I cry.)

A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry (R.A. with my son)

Shelter by Jayne Anne Phillips

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, and Jean Mendoza

What the Eagle Sees by Eldon Yellowhorn (R.A. with my son)

Turtle Island by Eldon Yellowhorn and Kathy Lowinger (R.A. with my son)

Trickster ed by Matt Dembicki (R.A. with my son)

Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata

Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki

American Colonies by Alan Taylor

A Kid’s Guide to Native American History by Yvonne Wakim Dennis (R.A. with my son)

To-Read for July:

Still working hard on the Build Your Library U.S. History curricula we’re doing, and I have my Litsy #bookspin list (below). Numbers 18, 19, and 20 are reserved for my Tailored Book Recommendations, which haven’t arrived yet but should very soon.

As you might also have guessed, I got myself a fountain pen in the guise of helping the economy and stayed up late trying to write fancy.

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month.

What’s on your TBR stack for July?

Related Posts:

Bookends: May 2020

Late May involved a convergence of paradigm-challenging elements.

There’s COVID-19 and the ongoing stay-at-home order coupled with the gradual easing of restrictions, which brings both a sense of hope that we’re safe to move about more freely and anxiety that we’re no more ready than we were three months ago and the worst is yet to come.

There are the demonstrations in our city and throughout the country in support of addressing and moving towards ending endemic racism and the violence it perpetuates, which brings both hope that there’s the energy and will to bring lasting change and anxiety that the path there will reveal things about ourselves as individuals and as a society that are difficult to reconcile with the stories we’re used to telling ourselves.

And in the midst of all of this, our family has begun a new homeschool history and literature curriculum that brings a more balanced view of the founding and evolution of the United States than I received in school. So for us these real-world events are happening against the backdrop of increased awareness of our country’s history of settler colonialism, enslavement, and genocide alongside our stated ideals of democratic rule, civil liberties, and equal application of justice. On the one hand, it’s comforting to see our current situation in the context of an ongoing development of democratic ideals. On the other, I am more acutely aware of the precariousness of our institutions and the vulnerabilities of our species and I’m adjusting to a new foundation of understanding, which is welcome in the long-term but unsettling in the short-term. Hope and anxiety once again.

It’s unclear to me how my children are seeing the situation given that the narratives that underpin my worldview haven’t had as many years to cement into their consciousness. I’m hopeful that this unique education will free them to envision and realize futures that previous generations have been unable bring about. I hope that this exercise of doubt and reflection will help me better myself, but I also hope that I’m providing my children with the tools and background that will help them navigate the world they’ve inherited with passion, perseverance, and resilience.

As I read back over this, I realize it sounds a little like a prayer. So be it.

Visual Interest: Interdependent web

Finished in May (13):

Although I didn’t read all 20 books on my #bookspinbonanza list, the challenge went much better than I expected. I finished 10 books from the list with two more in the works, and I finished a couple off-list as well.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean (R.A. with my son)

Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth by Lee Welles

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Nightfall by Jake Halpern

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

A Whale in Paris by Claire Polders and Daniel Presley

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Currently Reading:

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, and Jean Mendoza

What the Eagle Sees by Eldon Yellowhorn

Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata

Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki

American Colonies by Alan Taylor

A Kid’s Guide to Native American History by Yvonne Wakim Dennis

To-Read for June:

A lot of my reading time will be devoted to books from the history/literature curriculum we’re doing, but I hope to get some titles from my Litsy #bookspin list finished, too.

At the very least, I want to read Docile, The Regrets, and Cantoras, which are the three titles I got for this round of Tailored Book Recommendations.

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month.

What’s on your TBR stack for June?

Bookends: April 2020

Over the course of this first full month of California’s stay-at-home order, I’ve grown accustomed to rolling with whatever emotions come up for me each day. Not that I’m adept at it, but at least I expect it. Some days it’s just the constant low-level anxiety about food supply chains and asymptomatic transmission and armed protesters, but most days there’s some Big Emotion that pops up, like “persistent-panic-attack” or “crying-because-the-coffee’s-so-good” or “dear-god-have-you-always-chewed-so-loudly?” Knowing this is coming helps, even if I’m not sure what it’s going to be.

Having a routine also helps, which is nearly a cliche, but it’s totally true at our house. Every weekday at 7am, my kids and I take turns cajoling each other into our makeshift exercise room to do a Fitness Blender video together. It’s rare that we’re all excited about working out, but so far there’s always been at least one of us enthusiastic enough to pull the other two in.

Then there’s the morning block: feed the sourdough starter, wipe the front of the fridge, coffee on the patio, breakfast, fight about homeschool. Lunch is at noon, then more homeschool and/or music lessons, maybe a jog around the neighborhood, and dinner prep. Dinner’s around 5:30 or 6, followed by Mad Libs, kitten videos, or an episode of “The Office.” Bedtime routine starts around 7:30 with read-aloud during toothbrushing, then we gather for “grateful, sorry, and intend.” Lights out at 8:30 for the kids and around 9:30 or 10:00 for the grownups, although I’m contrary and fudge my bedtime a bit to get more alone time.

Weekends are for housecleaning and watching movies and social visits via videoconference and scrapping the routine for two days so we’re grateful for it come Monday morning.

My spouse and I asked the children at dinner last night how they felt about not doing all of the things outside the house that we used to. Both said they don’t really miss their outside activities. They still have their music lessons (virtual now) and online classes and virtual get-togethers with friends and family, only now they have more time to play or write or put together scavenger hunts or make LEGO stop-motion videos. They miss going to play basketball at the park and seeing their friends at P.E. class, but overall they seem happy. They’re creatures of habit, though, and I’m a little concerned about how we’ll all adjust in June when online classes and orchestra wrap up and we still (probably) can’t or don’t feel comfortable traveling.

But like we do with the emotions that shift day to day, we’ll take that as it comes.

Visual Interest: The cat’s getting photographed a lot more these days.

Finished in April (9):

April brought a little more concentration and a little more reading, thankfully. Things don’t feel right at all if I can’t read.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (R.A. with my son)

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (audio)

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (R.A. with both children)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (audio)

Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO by David Halperin

The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero

Currently Reading:

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean (R.A. with my son)

To-Read for May:

For May, I’m doing something that’s probably silly. On Litsy, there’s a #bookspinbonanza challenge, which involves making a list of twenty books on your TBR and then attempting to read them all, in the order drawn by the host of the challenge, before June 1. Given the weird time-compression thing that seems to be happening for me during stay-at-home, I know already that this has a very small likelihood of happening for me, but I really like the idea of trying.

You can see my Litsy profile for the whole list.

What’s on your TBR stack for May?

Bookends: March 2020

My spouse likes to tell the story of the day he, our toddler, and I were driving home from an errand and we saw a van hit a pedestrian. My emergency training clicked immediately. I grabbed my phone, checked for traffic, and hopped out of the car, dialing 911 as I called over my shoulder to my spouse to pull our car over. At the scene of the accident, I calmed the woman who was hit, checked on the driver, and gave what information I could to the dispatcher on the phone.

I am good in a crisis. Or rather, I am good in an acute crisis. Something happens; I deal with it.

I am not so good at this prolonged, amorphous kind of crisis. I was good at planning for it, and I am glad to have something to do to protect both my family and my community (i.e., stay home), but the daily, incessant anxiety around simple activities that now carry an unknowably greater amount of risk, like procuring food, walking around the neighborhood, and getting the mail, wears on me. It leaves me very tired.

The piece that works for me, though, is the government-mandated separation from humans outside of my household. I know a lot of people, including my spouse, are feeling stir-crazy, and I do miss the ocean and hanging out at the library, but overall, I kind of welcome the excuse to avoid everyone. I can do things slowly these days. I can keep a regular schedule. I can think before being expected to speak. I can avoid small talk. We’re only two and a half weeks in so far, and I might feel differently by May, but for now, I’m enjoying the freedom to be quiet.

Here’s some visual interest (my morning ritual: locally roasted coffee on the patio) followed by what I read this month.

Finished in March (4):

I thought with shelter-in-place, I’d get a lot of reading done, but I’ve found concentrating a little challenging this month. Maybe April will yield more reading time. But if it doesn’t, that’s cool, too.

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (audio)

The Overstory by Richard Powers

In Such Good Company by Carol Burnett (audio)

Currently Reading:

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (R.A. with my son)

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (audio)

To-Read for April:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Thirteen Doors, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

and whatever comes up for the #bookspin on Litsy.

What’s on your TBR stack for April?

Shelter-in-Place Recipe: Egg-Free Sourdough Discard Chocolate Cupcakes

A couple of weeks before the COVID-19 stuff became disruptive locally, a friend gave me some sourdough starter. I read up and bought flour (just in the nick of time) and messed around with it and managed to keep it alive, but I had no idea when I’d have enough time to babysit dough long enough to bake bread.

Then came shelter-in-place, and suddenly there was that time I was looking for. (Silver lining?)

I used the Beginner’s Sourdough Bread recipe from The Perfect Loaf but because I can’t not mess with things, I made it 75% whole grain (whole wheat and spelt). The crust was a little darker and more assertive than was optimal, but my family loved the flavor of the bread and ate it happily.

All was going along swimmingly until I realized that I was very quickly using up flour and that I had a major sourdough discard problem. My family loved the pancake recipe from The Perfect Loaf, but it calls for 1 1/2 cups additional flour and two eggs per batch, and flour and eggs have become very dear in these pandemic times. Plus, the sourdough discard was adding up faster than my family wanted to eat pancakes, so I needed another solution.

First, I decreased the size of my starter (named Jameson by my ten-year-old). Instead of 20g starter/100g flour/100g water each feeding, I’m doing 15g starter/20g flour/20g water, which gives me enough for a new levain when I want to bake bread and enough left over to replenish my starter.

Next, I created an offshoot test starter (Jameson, Jr.) to keep in the fridge. I’m new enough at this that I’m not entirely certain about my ability to remember to feed it once a week, so I didn’t want to commit my whole starter to fridge fermenting. Jameson, Jr., is the same size as its parent.

Now instead of using 100g of flour and producing 200g of discard per feeding, I’m only using 20g flour and producing 40g of discard, and one only needs fed once a week. This rate of increase is more easily managed, but I still had a quart container of discard in the fridge.

(This photo was taken after I made the cupcakes.)

There are lots of ideas online for using sourdough discard, but none used enough and all wanted additional flour and/or eggs. With the empty grocery shelves in mind, I wanted a recipe that used only the discard (just flour and water, after all) and that didn’t use any eggs.

So I made up my own.

Using “Your Basic Chocolate Cupcake” from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero) as my starting point, I devised a recipe that uses 2 cups of discard, no additional flour, no eggs, and any type of milk, so it’s easily vegan. And I make my starter with whole wheat flour, so they’re whole grain, too.

My three family members tested the results and gave the cupcakes six enthusiastic thumbs up. (I can’t eat gluten or dairy, so I rely on my family for reviews of my glutenous recipes. They don’t mind criticizing me, so I trust their opinions.)

The cupcakes didn’t crown as much as I’d have hoped, but it’s pretty typical, for vegan cupcakes in my experience. My spouse and both children agreed that the sweetness was just right, the texture was good (my daughter said it was a little firmer than a standard cupcake, but that wasn’t a negative), and the sourdough taste was subtle. My son said, “It tastes like a chocolate cupcake with just a hint of sourdough fruitiness.” Kid needs to start a food blog.

Having declared the experiment a success and noting the dearth of online recipes calling for a whole bunch of discard and no eggs, I decided to share the recipe here.

The amount of liquid you will need to add will vary based on the consistency of your discard. I needed about 1/4 cup of added liquid to get to the right cake-batter consistency. I used cow’s milk, but you could use any milk.

If you try it in your kitchen, let me know how it goes and any modifications that work better for you!

Egg-Free (Vegan-Optional) Sourdough Discard Chocolate Cupcakes

makes 12


3/4 c granulated sugar

1/3 c oil (olive, canola, etc.)

1 t vanilla extract

1/3 c cocoa powder

3/4 t baking soda

3/4 t baking powder

1/4 t salt

2 c sourdough starter discard (mine was 50/50 flour/water)

up to 1/2 c milk of your choice

-Preheat oven to 350°F.

-Line muffin tin.

-Combine all ingredients except discard and milk and stir well.

-Add discard and stir well.

-If mixture is too thick, add milk of your choice a little at a time, stirring well after each addition, until the batter is the consistency of thick cake batter.

-Fill muffin cups about 3/4 full or more (whatever it takes to distribute the batter evenly among all 12 wells).

-Bake for 18-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

-Transfer to cooling rack and cool completely.

-Top with frosting, whipped cream, jelly/jam, or just eat straight-up.

Bookends: December 2019 – February 2020

Mid-December through mid-January were weeks spent coming down with, fighting, or recovering from various colds and flus (or maybe just one month-long ebbing-and-flowing virus). I did a lot more reading in bed than I usually do, and because I’ve built up some impressive whining skills in my 43 years, my family gave me more space than they usually do. Not all bad, but I’d prefer to be well.

These past few months saw a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about violence (war, murder, sexual assault), suicide, mental illness, and adoption. I tend to gravitate towards darker books, so part of this is my doing, but several came to me from the list of National Book Award finalists, which was a pretty bleak collection, subject-wise, this year. Made for some interesting reviews for my Christmas reading challenges.

But now spring is almost upon us and there’s nothing but puppies and picnics in the park and sunshine and rainbows on the horizon (provided I don’t look at the news).

Visual interest:



Finished in December (8):

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (audio)

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (audio)

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (audio)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Finished in January (8):

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (audio)

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour

Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

Differentiating Instruction with Menus: Literature (Grades 6-8) by Laurie E. Westphal (ARC)

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Cavalcade of Classics)

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Finished in February (7):

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery (audio, re-read)

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (twice, once on my own and once aloud to my kids)

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (audio)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (audio)

DNFs (4):

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Currently Reading:

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (audio)

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (R.A. with my son)

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

To-Read for March:

In addition to the books I’m currently reading, I also have out from the library:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

And two titles from my physical TBR to read for #bookspin and #doublespin on Litsy:

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Are you on Litsy? So am I! Come visit! @ImperfectCJ

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

wp-1579981352326.jpgHelen Moran is in her shared studio apartment in Manhattan accepting delivery of her roommate’s new IKEA sofa when she gets the call telling her that her brother is dead. She packs a few things and flies home to Milwaukee to try to make sense of his suicide. “It’s just the three of us now,” her parents say, as they each try to interpret the shifting constellation of their relationship.

Helen is difficult to be around, trapped inside her own mind, alternately highly empathetic and completely clueless about other people’s perspectives, but I like her. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with her, but I admire that she’s found a way to (mostly) get by in her world.

Being inside Helen’s head is similar to being inside Eleanor Oliphant’s head. Each has her own logic and mechanisms to cope with reality, and each is challenged to realign and reevaluate when reality no longer lines up with her understanding of it. But I like Helen more than I like Eleanor. There’s no miraculous recovery for Helen, no key to unlock her difficulties with life and free her from herself. She doesn’t find sanity and equanimity after three visits to a therapist. Helen’s adjustment to her world is more nuanced, more flawed, and more realistic than Eleanor’s. Her demons are still there, she just finds a new perspective from which to confront them.

This novel feels like a truthful portrayal of the experience of living with mental illness, including psychosis, which continues to be something of a third rail in discussions around mental illness even as it’s becoming more acceptable (bordering on trendy) to be open about depression and anxiety. Even aside from issues of mental illness, this novel illustrates well the ways in which we each live within our own heads and according to our own logical framework and how difficult it is to reach across the divide between our reality and someone else’s.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel, albeit one that doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, is this one about Helen’s experience living in New York City:

“Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.”

Side note: Somehow, I’m reading three books at the same time that deal with adoption and mental illness: a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson), a middle-grade novel (Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford), and this novel. It’s an odd coincidence, but one that I’m enjoying.


The Art of War by Sun-Tzu

The Art of War is the first of the titles on my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2 list that I’ve finished this year. Making progress!

Filled with guidance about war strategy that is surprisingly detailed, this book is more practical and less philosophical than I expected it to be. It provides interesting insights into warfare in China during the Warring States period, but I would hesitate to use it as a business or personal guidebook as some have suggested in recent years.

Some quotes/passages that were particularly interesting to me…

This one reminds me of the adage about putting one’s own house in order instead of worrying about someone else’s:

The Skillful Warrior

Can achieve

His own


But he can never bring about

The enemy’s


And this one sounded to me like a list of New Year’s Resolutions for an aspiring bad-ass: