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?

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:

 

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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

Invulnerability;

But he can never bring about

The enemy’s

Vulnerability.

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

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Playtime is Over: The Odyssey, Emily Wilson translation

My children are studying ancient history this year, and as part of that—and as part of my Cavalcade of Classics—we read The Odyssey aloud together.

Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is awesome. Odysseus is such an arrogant jerk. He caused so many of his own problems yet Homer seems to love him all the more for it. My daughter said at one point, “This is a really Odysseus-centered book, isn’t it?” which is kind of an obvious statement given the title, but I get what she means. It’s not just a book about Odysseus, it’s a book that’s devoted to portraying him as a hero even when he makes really stupid mistakes or lies for no reason, although I suppose that those things just make him more god-like, at least from a Greek Mythology standpoint.

One of our favorite sections:

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My children and I laughed at so many parts of this book, but naked Odysseus jumping on the threshold to announce his killing spree really cracked us up. Playtime is over, indeed.

Bookends: November 2019

Our November was filled with mad science, unexpected reunions with family, and more rain than we usually see around these parts. With all of that going on, December snuck up on me, but there’s still time for a November Bookends post!

Visual interest: Stop chasing the birds!

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Finished in November (11):

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (audiobook)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson (audiobook)

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (DNF)

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (DNF)

Recursion by Blake Crouch

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (audiobook)

Currently Reading:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (I was reading this aloud with my son but he finished it on his own one afternoon. Now I need to finish it and give him some language arts assignments about it.)

To-Read for December:

All of my library holds came in at the same time, so here’s what I’ve got to read this month, not counting the ebook and audiobook holds but including a grapefruit:

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And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on. And my spouse is getting me a stack of library books for birthday/Christmas. I appear to have my work cut out for me this month.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

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

Bookends: October 2019

Ah, October! Santa Ana winds, a three-day jaunt to the desert (the “real” desert, not the coastal Southern California desert), taking my kids to the thrift store to buy costume components…and reading a few books, including a decent stab at the October Dewey’s Readathon. I posted on Litsy during the Readathon. That’s where you can find most of my updates between Bookends posts these days, if you’d like more of that kind of thing.

A little visual interest before the book lists. This is The World Famous Crochet Museum in a converted drive-thru photo developing place in Joshua Tree, California:

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Finished in October (12):

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Weekby Tiffany Shlain

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (audio)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (audio)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation, read-aloud with my children)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (audio)

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (audio)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (audio)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

 

Currently Reading:

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (read-aloud with my son, who will still snuggle with me on the couch if I read to him)

To-Read for November:

Subject to change, as always, but here are some I particularly want to hit:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Bookends: September 2019

This month’s book totals are a little inflated due to the picture books and early readers I read for the Birth and Beyond Reading Challenge (#BBRC) on Litsy.

Still, even counting only the “grown-up” books, this month was pretty solid. I credit staying up past midnight, adding caffeine back into my diet, and ignoring the housework.

Kids’ Books (12):

Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins

Chase’s Space Case by Nickelodeon Publishing

The Case of the Scaredy Cats by Crosby Bonsall

Jump by David McPhail

Golden Retriever by Charlie George

Saturday Belongs to Sara by Cathy Warren

Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo

You Silly Goose by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco by Laurie Berkner

Up and Down (The Boy, #4) by Oliver Jeffers

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Grown-up Books (10):

Inland by Téa Obreht

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds

Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy by Julie Holland

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova (audio)

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (audio)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Currently Reading:

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Schlain

And I’m still working on Emily Wilson’s Translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

To-Read for October:

October is a bit up in the air. I have a couple of books out from the library that I’ll probably start on:

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (on audio)

I’m due for another Libro.fm credit, so I plan to get another audiobook after 2pm on October 5.

I hope to be seasonal and pick up some scary reads. I prefer literary, psychological, bizarre/unsettling and/or gothic horror/suspense to blood-and-guts, straight-up genre stuff. Authors like Daphne duMaurier (The Birds), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters), Kelly Link (Get in Trouble), Gin Phillips (Fierce Kingdom), Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger).

Any suggestions?

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Plot summary, gleaned from the book jacket flap:

“A recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America—‘Wainscotia, Wisconsin’—that existed eighty years before. Cast adrift in time in this idyllic midwestern town, she is set upon a course of ‘rehabilitation’—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constraints of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.”

I don’t quite get what Oates is trying to do with this novel. Every time she provides something, some question or scene that leaves the narrator confused but that has significance to me as a reader, she has another character provide the analysis. She doesn’t let me fill in the blanks, and that’s profoundly frustrating to me. For example, our narrator, Adriane/Mary Ellen, recalls something she’d witnessed on a television monitor as proof for the way she understands the world. “Hadn’t I witnessed?” she asks. “Hadn’t I seen?” I read this on a day rife with news about deepfake videos, and I thought, “Aha! This is what Oates means! In the world of her novel, people can’t trust their senses, just like in our reality!” I was just getting excited about this when another character fills in that blank: “There is absolutely no way for an ordinary citizen to distinguish a ‘virtual’ staging from an ‘actual’ event.” (219-220)

Interesting point, but it would have been even more interesting if I’d had the chance to get there on my own.

Oates is saying something very important about conditioning and learned helplessness and how we willingly keep ourselves contained in imaginary cages, how difficult it is even to determine whether the cage is real or imaginary, but she doesn’t let this just happen. She gives our narrator a psychology class and an interest in reading about B.F. Skinner beyond the curriculum, thereby spoon-feeding the reader the significant points. She also has the turning point in the development of the dystopian future/present be 09/11/2001 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and while the quick acceptance by the voting public and elected officials on both sides of the aisle of the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of those terrorist attacks was alarming and probably symptomatic of an inclination of the public to accept a consolidation of power contrary to The Constitution if it’s framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” us, drawing a direct line between that event and Oates’s future feels too simplistic.

One thing that intrigues me in the novel, however, is what Oates thinks of protests. She’s set up the place of exile as a mundane location, a place that celebrates mediocrity, a place where people with ambition spin their wheels without any hope of accomplishing anything of importance. The people who are content here include mediocre poets, professors who are uninterested in exploring beyond their own ideas, artists who accept limitations on their art because they want/need to receive commissions, and activists who engage in protests on the campus of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Lumping all of these things together suggests that each is equally futile. As someone who attempted to engage in activism on the campus of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, this seems an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of such activism.

What isn’t futile in Oates’s world? Is there an actual cage, or is it only imagined?

Good, interesting questions, but the novel fell short of being interesting in itself.

I’ve been attempting to read novels with an eye for how they might help me build my own character. This one’s a tough one, but I think the lessons are fairly basic: When I feel constrained, are the barriers real or am I imagining them? When I feel content and free, is this freedom real or am I imagining it? And the more dangerous question, the one that easily leads to an existential abyss: Are the things I’m doing of lasting significance? It’s a good question, but one that I’ll approach with caution.