40 For 40 Update: Some Progress Is Made, And A Poll!

So a while back I wrote about turning 40 this year, and how I’d made a list of 40 small “challenges” I wanted to complete before the year is out.  Well, since my birthday’s come and gone, I thought it was time to share an update on my progress and give you a look at the whole list.  (It wasn’t complete the last time I wrote about it.)

IMG_1628Here are the challenges I’ve completed:

  1. Memorize a poem (The Summer Day by Mary Oliver)
  2. Eat a salad for lunch every day for a week
  3. Meditate at least 5 minutes every day for a week
  4. Plant something new in the garden (watermelon and pumpkin)
  5. Read one book of the Bible (Mark)
  6. Don’t get on Twitter or Facebook after 6 pm for one week
  7. Do a three-star sudoku puzzle
  8. Thoroughly de-clutter my chest of drawers
  9. Drink 8 glasses of water a day for a week
  10. Work out in the 30 Minute Fitness area of my gym

Here are some challenges that I’m currently working on:

  1. Learn some ASL signs/phrases
  2. Watch all the Iranian films in my library system’s movie collection (we have a lot!)
  3. Get rid of 40 possessions (I’ve gotten rid of ten so far)

Challenges still remaining:

  1. Read a classic book that has intimidated me (I’ve not yet chosen which book!)
  2. Go see a play
  3. Bike from my house to a local landmark (I still haven’t gotten a bike yet!)
  4. Cook something that intimidates me
  5. Bake something complicated
  6. Take a dance class
  7. Start learning how to knit
  8. Get my passport renewed
  9. Go to Toronto to visit my cousin and sight-see
  10. Visit a church
  11. Go on a hike with my Dad
  12. Play with my son right after dinner every night for a week instead of immediately washing the dishes
  13. Camp overnight with my husband and son (I’ve never camped)
  14. Take a yoga class
  15. Read a book that my husband picks for me
  16. Volunteer with an organization for an afternoon/a day
  17. Write a paper letter to a faraway friend
  18. Do one random act of kindness every day for a week
  19. Call an old friend who is faraway
  20. Go to a museum
  21. Visit Parnassus Books in Nashville
  22. Take a class – art, cooking, gardening, etc.
  23. Begin learning Farsi
  24. Spend 15 minutes reading poetry daily for one week
  25. Bake bread (I’ve never tried)
  26. Swim with my son at the neighborhood pool this summer (I’m notorious for avoiding a bathing suit)
  27. Attempt to make tadig or tahdig (a Persian crusty-rice dish that’s very popular – and delicious!  My mom used to make it when I was a kid.)

Lately my attention to the list has been poor.  The first few months of the year I was gung-ho about the project, but I’ve slacked off the last couple of months. I still want to accomplish as many of the goals as possible before the end of the year, though, so I’m renewing my focus!

Here’s where you come in:  You get to help decide which classic book I read! Take a look at my choices, all books I want to read sometime in my life.  Vote in the poll!

If you have any tips on making any of my challenges easier, I’m all ears.  I’ll be sure to post an update later in the year, and I’ll let you know the results of the book poll shortly!

 

No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Sometimes you read a book that quietly sneaks up on you, becoming more engrossing and more moving as you turn the pages.  I wasn’t initially sure about Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming To Save Us, but I came to really enjoy being in the company of these flawed, authentic characters.  This is a novel filled with people who are stuck and people who are yearning, and I became totally invested in their lives.  The book jacket and pre-publication buzz may have led you to believe that this is a contemporary African American version of The Great Gatsby, but I took this novel for what it was:  a compelling family saga set in an economically depressed North Carolina town.

51u0JxuMEWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Pinewood has seen better days – the furniture factories are almost all shuttered and even the town’s beloved greasy diner that’s been there since the 1950’s is about to close for good.  JJ (now Jay) Ferguson, former foster child,  has come back to Pinewood with money, and has built a showcase home on the hill high above town.  It’s obvious to anyone who knows him that he’s returned to win the heart of his high-school love, Ava.  Ava, meanwhile, has a good job at the bank but a sham of a marriage, and has been desperately trying to conceive a child unsuccessfully for years.  Her mother, Sylvia, is the heart of the novel.  She’s contemplating aging, secretly conversing regularly with a young convict named Marcus, and has never moved through the grief of losing her son, Devon, years ago in an accident.

stephanie-powell-watts-1
Stephanie Powell Watts

Watts knows how to write realistic dialogue and knows how to portray flawed characters sympathetically.  She’s a beautiful writer, mixing contemporary feeling conversations with astute observations about life.

Some passages I liked:

“These days when she got a glimpse of a beautiful man, she sized him up like a jeweler. Good cut, good sparkle, nice setting, but not something she herself could afford.”

“She wanted to tell Lana that for years she’d heard whispers that sounded like her son.  She almost confessed that when she found herself alone she spoke into the air until it vibrated with her voice and waited for her son’s voice to echo back.  She wanted to say that in waiting for her son she had almost surely failed her daughter who clearly need her, who probably knew better than to ask for her attention.  She wanted to tell Lana everything that would identify her as total-lost like a wrecked car and the county people could certify her gone in the ways that they do and finally, finally she could experience the peace, the calm of the diagnosis.  Everybody has a disease.”

“But soon and in clearer moments she knew she had made her own choice not to lose him or at least not to lose all of her memories of him.  She wanted the past where they lived and struggled and loved each other.  A past that couldn’t and shouldn’t be erased.  The possibility of the past, if it is a good one, or even if it has good moments, is that it can be alive, if you let it.  All of it alive, not just the terror, but the beauty too.  And the young encompassing and smothering love she’d felt for her lovely man – all that alive too. Otherwise all those years, her years, her life had not meant a thing.” 

There are no easy answers for the inhabitants of Pinewood, no outside saviors, no miracle solutions.  There is only going through, straight through the hard stuff of life – aging, infertility, depression, regrets.  And yet I wasn’t weighed down by this book. I continued to reach for it and looked forward to visiting these characters.  Perhaps the only salvation to be found is in the determined survival of Sylvia, Ava, and the rest of the characters.  Stephanie Powell Watts has written a moving story with a glimmer of hope, and I most definitely recommend it for fans of family sagas.

 

Anne of Green Gables Readalong!

Jackie at Death By Tsundoku posted today about the Anne of Green Gables Readalong.  She is co-hosting with Jane at Greenish Bookshelves.  I read the first book in the series some years ago, as an adult.  I don’t know how I managed to get through childhood without reading them!  But I never continued with the rest of the series.  I feel like I’ve missed something! Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a post somewhere referencing those books. I’m tired of feeling left out of the loop.  So I’m joining up now, even though May is over halfway finished.

Here are the details (per Jackie) in case you’re interested in joining:

  1. Each month, starting in May, we will read and review one book in the series. Not sure if you can read all 8? No worries! Just join in for what you can, even if you are posting “late”.
  2. Post your review on your blog, website, YouTube channel, etc. and link in our monthly posts! 
  3. Read, comment, and participate on other Anne lovers’ posts, and on Twitter with #AnneReadAlong2017.

May – Anne of Green Gables

June – Anne of Avonlea

July – Anne of the Island

August – Anne of Windy Poplars

September – Anne’s House of Dreams

October – Anne of Ingleside

November – Rainbow Valley

December – Rilla of Ingleside

 

anne-of-green-gables-paperbacksAnyone interested in joining us?  Have you read this series – once or more than once?

Mini Reviews: Barbara Pym, Jess Walter, Cristina Henriquez

My reading has been far outpacing my blog writing lately.  I feel like maybe I’m in a blogging funk.  The past couple of weeks I either want to spend my evenings (after the kiddo goes to bed) reading, zoning out with television, or sleeping.  I hope to find my blogging vigor again soon!  I’m pretty sure it’s a phase.

But before I get too far behind, I thought I’d play catch-up with a few mini-reviews.

18899436I adore Barbara Pym.  I’m slowly making my way through all of her books.  A Few Green Leaves is my eighth Pym novel, leaving five more works to go.  Published in 1980, it was her last completed novel.  Not quite as sharp in focus as some of her earlier works, it still contains many elements of Pym-ish goodness:  British small village life, clueless but well-meaning and unfailingly polite characters, romantic misunderstandings.  Our heroine is Emma, an unmarried anthropologist in her 30’s, coming to the village to get some peace and quiet to work on her notes.  We also meet the rector Tom, who lives in the too-large rectory with his sister Daphne.  Daphne swooped in to help Tom after his wife died some years ago, and is now chafing at her life in the village, dreaming of moving to Greece, where she vacations annually.  Pym portrays traditional gender roles in a changing time with subtle skill –  men are usually oblivious and self-centered and women are ambivalent about their unappreciated efforts.  Country doctors, elderly spinsters, people behaving incredibly politely to one another while thinking something else entirely… the rambling cast of characters circle around one another throughout the novel, and nothing much happens but the stuff of life  – conversations, garden walks, “hunger lunches,” a few halfhearted romantic assignations.

A Few Green Leaves was delightful.  It’s not my favorite Pym ever, but it’s a worthwhile, most enjoyable read.  If you’ve never read Pym before, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one; I’d pick Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence.  Still, if you’ve read a Pym or two and you’d like to continue, feel safe that this one will provide you hours of intelligent, amusing, entertainment.

51crAY8ox2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t even know how to begin to describe The Zero by Jess Walter.  The jacket blurbs mention satire many times, and Kafka and Heller are referenced twice.  Jess Walter is another of my very favorite authors, and he has a terrific gift not only for scathingly funny black humor, but he also portrays his characters with a genuine compassion and humanity – even when they’re not “nice”  people.  This is a book about 9/11, published in 2006, with a reverent eye on the tragedy and an irreverent one on America’s response.  Brian Remy is a New York City cop who was among the first on the scene of the Twin Towers falling.  He now is experiencing alarming gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of scenes and acts that he has no idea how he got into.  No one seems to want to hear about his problem, or they think he’s being funny when he tries to tell them about it.  So the reader is pulled along into this bizarre mystery/political satire, trying to piece together just what the heck Brian’s gotten himself into.  A shady secret government organization chasing paper scraps that flew out of the towers?  Infiltrating a terrorist cell?  His own son is pretending Brian died in the towers, and Brian’s just desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the other person living his life.  It was trippy, weird, dark, funny, sad, smart, and a page-turner.  Jess Walter does it again!  Seriously, this guy can do anything.

51pATEiEJnL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Last, but not least, my book group book for April was The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  It made for an excellent discussion last weekend.  Told from multiple points of view, this book highlights Latin American immigrants from various countries all living in one apartment complex in Delaware.  The main characters are the Riveras, a husband and wife and their teenager daughter,  Maribel.  Maribel sustained a traumatic brain injury in an accident in Mexico, and the Riveras are told that special education in America is the best hope of recovery for their daughter.  So Arturo gets a work visa for a mushroom farm, and the Riveras pack up everything they own.  The realities of living in a country where you don’t know the language, have no transportation, and face bigoted individuals is humanely portrayed by Henriquez.  She puts a human face on Latinx immigration in America. Others in the apartment complex have their own stories, from a Panamanian-American teenage boy named Mayor who falls in love with Maribel, to a Guatemalan man named Gustavo who’s working two jobs to send money to Mexico for his children’s education.  These strangers become like family to one another.  I empathized with them, and greatly appreciated Henriquez’s message.  These are voices we need to hear more of in America, now more then ever.  However,  there was something about the novel that didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked.  I felt like it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and Mayor’s actions towards a mentally compromised Maribel were problematic for me.  I cried, so obviously I was emotionally invested, but I couldn’t give it more than three stars.  Still, I would recommend it for book groups because it offers a lot to discuss, and I think it’s a book that deserves to be widely read on the strength of its message alone.  Plus, it’s a quick read.

Have you read, or do you plan to read, any of these books or authors?  Have you ever been in a blogging funk?  Have you ever read a book that you felt almost guilty for not liking better?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Fiddling With With My Reading System

So a few posts ago I mentioned this Book Riot essay about whittling down the TBR pile and said that I would tweak it a bit to fit my TBR problem, which is prioritizing library books over the books I’ve bought.  Working in a library makes it nearly impossible to avoid putting the newest books on hold as soon as they’re in the system. It’s a perk, because I’m almost always near the top of the holds lists.  But as those hold copies come in, if I’m not on top of them all the time, I can quickly be buried in new books that can’t be renewed (because others are waiting.)

Since reading that essay, I have indeed experimented with a new reading system:  two of my own purchased books for every one library book.  And it’s been working beautifully! I’ve read FOUR of my own books in about a month, which is practically unheard of for me.  (In case you were wondering, they’re John Crow’s Devil, How It All Began, A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym, and The Zero by Jess Walter.)51u0JxuMEWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

HOWEVER.  (You sensed that was coming, right?) A few new library books sneaked up on me and arrived before I wanted them to.  And they’re much-buzzed about ones that I’m excited to read: No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts and Borne by Jeff Vandermeer.  So I am thinking that my little system is going to be coming to an end very soon. 31451186

But I do like this alternating library books with my own books thing, so I’m going to make a conscious effort to do that more, especially when I don’t have a lot of new holds coming in.  I try to make use of my library’s “Vacation Stop” system and push back holds if I’m nearing the top of the waiting list, but sometimes I forget to manage it.  All in all, for a mood reader and heavy library user like me, the “Two For One” system is too restrictive to use long-term.

So what about you?  That Vacation Stop thing is a helpful feature – do you make use of yours to manage your own library holds?  Have you ever tried a new reading system? How do you choose your next book?

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Thus has reading wound in with living, each a compliment to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Penelope Lively’s How It All Began was just lovely.  That’s absolutely the word for it:  lovely.  It came along when I was craving something relatively straightforward and contemporary, something with human relationships at its center.  I fell into its pages and finished it in two days.  I also fell in love with some of the characters along the way.  It examines the role of a chance encounter in one’s life and how it can have a domino effect outward, changing the lives of relatives and acquaintances in unimaginable ways.61fyG1hzI2L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

Charlotte has been mugged, and as a result has broken a hip.  Retired and independent, she now has to temporarily live with her adult daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband, Gerry.  (Rose describes Gerry like this: “Gerry is fine.  Who’d want a husband who would run you ragged?”)  Because she has to get her mother settled into her home, Rose misses work for a few days.  She’s the assistant to an elderly historian who is forever writing his memoirs; he enlists his niece, interior designer Marion, to help him out temporarily. Marion isn’t able to meet her lover, the already married Jeremy, because she’s helping her uncle.  She leaves him a text, which his wife accidentally discovers.  Meanwhile, during her recovery, Charlotte tutors an Eastern European immigrant named Anton in reading English, and he and Rose strike up a beautiful friendship.  Everyone in the book (a large cast of characters) ends up feeling the ripple effect of the mugging, with chance encounters and disruptions leading to new relationships and opportunities.

This reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, without the somewhat overbearing narrator.  Charlotte is really the center of the book, and she’s a wonderful character.  She’s a voracious lifelong reader, and her musings on the reading life felt authentic.  She also ponders the indignities of aging and being dependent on others, and reflects on her very happy marriage to Rose’s late father, Tom.  She can’t help but compare her marriage to what she observes of Rose’s union with Gerry.

Here are two people who live equably together, and maybe that us as much as anyone can ask.  Charlotte is embarrassed to be a witness to this, to be thinking about it.  She has never actually lived with Rose and Gerry before, close as she has been to them.  And she is aware that these thoughts are prompted because she knows that this marriage is not like her own; it is colorless, by comparison, it lacks the zest, the give and take, the hours of discussion and debate, the hand on the knee, the arm round the shoulder, the silent codes of amusement and of horror.  The laughter.

11797374I’ve read three books previously by the prolific Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger and Passing On, both years ago, and more recently, The Road to Lichfield (you can read my review here.)  She’s an underappreciated author, I think, at least here in the United States.  With the last book of hers I read, and with this one, I came away thinking, “Why don’t I read her more often?”  She’s a refreshingly intelligent, observant writer, portraying ordinary people with great skill and compassion.  She is less somber than Anita Brookner and less consciously witty than Barbara Pym, but I think if you like either of those authors you would like Lively.  I classified this as “Comfort Reading” on my Goodreads shelves, but I’m not altogether sure it’s the right term, now that I think about it.  Charlotte’s nuggets of truth about the human condition and the poignancy of a romance (I won’t spoil the plot further) make it feel too real to be totally comforting.  Perhaps it would be better placed on my “Life Affirming” shelf – so much of what we experience is due to random chance, but the relationships we hold dear are what carry us above life’s slings and arrows. Lively’s book is a warm and generous reminder of this.