Books I Read in 2015

Open Head

The most books I’ve read in a year since electroshock!  It gets easier and easier.  Thank you, Suanne Wilmen, MHS Reading Teacher, for helping me get my brain back!

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•Ahlborn, Ania. Within These Walls.  The one good thing about this book is the ending—a twist worthy of a horror novel.  But getting to that ending is torture and not worth the effort.  I can’t count the times I threw this across the room because the characters were so incredibly dumb.  If there’s one thing I cannot stand, especially in a horror novel, is the stereotypical, obtuse dolt.  Gee, did someone break into my house and rearrange my furniture?  Why is a bloody specter grinning from my bathroom mirror?  Pfft!  Pull on a red shirt already and join the Enterprise, because, buddy, you’re toast.  Oops.  Did I spoil that ending?

•Binchy, Maeve.  Tara Road.  I found this on the “Free Books” table at the library, knew Binchy was Irish, and thought “what the heck.”  Once I got into it, I kept thinking of Ellen over at Notes from the U.K. and our discussions on how we, as American writers, anguish over making our U.K. characters sound authentic.  Binchy’s characters will never sound anything other than Irish—no matter what nationality she says they are—which I found delightful.  This soap opera with an Irish brogue was lots of fun.

Written In Red.indd•Bishop, Anne.  Written in Red.  In this alternate universe, The Others are the predominant intelligent species on Earth.  Basically, shape-shifters, they tolerate humanity—barely.  When a young woman seeks refuge with an Other community, the repercussions ripple across the globe.  The story is well written with a cool premise and interesting characters.  I got bit hard and needed more.

•Bishop, Anne.  Murder of Crows.  The sequel to Written in Red.  Meg and her friends, both Other and human, discover that blood prophets—young girls who see the future when their skin is cut—are the source of two terrifying drugs.  This time out, we get to see how the different regions interact, meet new Others, and watch the “friendship” between Meg and Simon Wolfgard grow.  Arroooo!

•Bishop, Anne.  Vision in Silver.  The third book in Bishop’s “The Others” series.  I’m completely hooked. Love the characters, love the world, love the intrigue.  You’d think if you lived by the leave of a race that could wipe you off the face of the earth, you’d play nice.  But we’re talking about humans, who are the worst at learning from history. Bishop makes me believe we could be that dumb.

•Bishop, Anne.  The Pillars of the World.  Since I loved Bishop’s The Others series, I thought I’d see what else she’d written.  This high-fantasy story involves witches, The Fae, and witch-hunts.  The Fae are a mash-up of pagan and Greco-Roman gods with the requisite arrogance, vanity and very short memories.  Their land is disappearing, and they stand around wringing their hands and pouting.  They are too similar to human beings in this respect to be very interesting.

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•Cashore, Kristin. Fire.  On this side of Cashore’s world (introduced in Graceling—see last year’s list), there be monsters—animals that look like regular critters except for their rainbow colors and appetite for human flesh.  Monsters cast a kind of glamour over non-monsters.  People have learned to guard their minds, but some are better at it than others (who mostly get eaten).  Fire is a human monster, beloved or hated wherever she goes, so she tries to live inconspicuously.  But the country is about to be torn apart by war, and her special talents are needed.  I love Cashore’s storytelling and characters that live burdened lives.  A thousand stars.

•Cashore, Bitterblue.  In this sequel to Graceling, the teen-aged queen of Monsea is overwhelmed by how to help her people, who were ravaged by her psychotic and sadistic father-king.  Again, Cashore weaves a thoroughly believable world of real people with spectacular ability and complexity.  Her characters are smart.  The intrigue air-tight.  Alas, this is the last of Cashore’s books so far.  She’s better be busy scribbling another.

light•Doerr, Anthony. About Grace.  David Winkler’s precognizant dreams start when he is a child living in Anchorage.  He’s an odd man anyway, fascinated by water and the crystalline beauty of snow, but this terrifying ability pushes him to desperate acts.  Doerr’s writing is lush and breath-taking, his characters almost too painful to watch.  I never knew where this story would go, which was a delight, but sometimes cryptic does not equal artistic.  I felt cheated in the end.

•Doerr, Anthony.  All the Light We Cannot See.  I have no words for this book, just that there’s a reason I had to wait a couple of months for it at the library.  Read it.  You won’t be sorry.

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter•Duncan, Rod. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter.  In this fascinating, steam-punk, alternate England Luddites and the supreme power of The International Patent Office keep global peace by banning technology.  Elizabeth Barnabas ekes out a living as a private detective disguised as her “twin brother.”  In exile, drawing on her skills as a circus brat and illusionist, she races to find a missing aristocrat and his arcane machine.  Each leg of her journey is more dangerous and convoluted than the last.  A very tasty read.

•Duncan, Rod.  Unseemly Science.  This is the second volume of Duncan’s Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire where technology is strictly regulated.  England is divided (north and south), and a new law is about extradite Elizabeth Barnabas over the border and back to a life of indentured servitude under (literally) a lascivious lord.  As she flees from capture, she finds marginal safety in taking a case as an intelligence finder for an odd and influential charity worker.  Once again, Duncan leads the reader on a wild ride.  This alternate history is delightful and weird.  I’m looking forward to volume three.

•French, Tana. The Likeness.  I love this author.  She writes tight, detective/murder mysteries set in Ireland.  This time out, her detective, Cassie Maddox, goes undercover to find the killer of a woman who could have been her twin.  French gets us into the head of someone slipping into another’s life and liking it, plus the double tension of all the ways she could get her doppelgänger wrong.  Brilliant.

Faithful Place•French, Tana.  Faithful Place.  Leafing through this book, I worried a little that my favorite detective, Cassie Maddox, had been replaced by the hot-shot Undercover detective introduced in The Likeness.  Frank Mackey is a smart-ass, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to tag along with him through a whole book.  Boy-howdy, was I wrong!  Mackey spent twenty-two years building a life away from his dysfunctional family of origin (we get to see why he’s such a  smart-ass), but a discovery on his old street sucks him back in to relive a pivotal and painful event in his past.  French’s characters are so real, they fly off the page.  Another winner.

•Guterson, David.  Snow Falling on Cedars.  The story begins with a murder trial of a Japanese-American in a small island community off the coast of Washington state in the early 1950s.  Other stories join and interlace this one—the internment of all the Japanese on the island in Manzanar after Pearl Harbor, the young love of the town’s white newspaper man’s son and a Japanese strawberry farmer’s daughter, the destruction of war on a soul and a community.  The book bogs down in detail sometimes, but the beauty and humanity are worth it.

while_they_slept-215x327•Harris, Charlaine.  Dead Until Dark.  After gorging on all seven seasons of HBO’s True Blood, I thought the books might offer more tasty tidbits.  Nope.  Plodding, vapid, with plot holes bigger than a stake through the chest, this first book in the series begged for the True Death.  I won’t be digging up any more of them.

•Harrison, Kathryn. While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family.  This book is mesmerizing.  It tells the true story of eighteen-year-old Billy Gilley, who murdered his parents and little sister in 1984, but not his sixteen-year-old sister Jody.  Harrison, herself an incest survivor, traces the patterns of family violence and abuse in the Gilley family through interviews with both Billy and Jody as well as an enormous amount of research.  Harrison is fearless in opening to the resonance between her own story and the Gilleys’.  For all three of them, violent trauma divided their lives into Before and After.  How does a person reassemble oneself after that?

hounded•Herne, Kevin.  Hounded (Book One in The Iron Druid Chronicles).  I have good friends who read good fantasy and share that tasty knowledge with me.  Thank the gods.  Now I have a whole series to enjoy about a 2100-year old Druid living in southeastern Arizona who runs a New-Age bookstore, mind-links with his Irish wolfhound, and gets legal advice from his werewolf and vampire attorneys.  Here, all the religions, all the myths, all the legends are real.  Most of them either shop his store or try to kill him.  So very tasty.

•Herne, Kevin.  Hexed.  More misadventures of Atticus O’Sullivan, the hunky Druid with the magical sword.  This time out, he deals with Bacchants (minions of the party god, Bacchus), witches—both good and evil, and a variety of demons and fallen angels.  Because he’s now a god-slayer, he’s attracting unwelcome attention from all the pantheons.  Favorite line: Demons smell like ass.

Invention•Herne, Kevin.  Hammered.  Atticus the Druid promised his attorneys (an Icelandic vampire and the alpha of a werewolf pack) that he would get them to Asgard so they could kill Thor (who is an absolute “fuckpuddle” and takes bullying to divine heights).  Along the way, the Fellowship acquires a Slavic Thunder God, a Finnish shaman, and one of China’s Eight Immortals who all want the Asgardian blowhard dead.  Mayhem ensues.  Favorite line: In many ways, I’m disappointed that “Star Trek” never became a religion.

•Kidd, Sue Monk. The Invention of Wings.  I always get a little nervous when someone from one ethnic group creates a protagonist from another ethnic group, then places the story during a dynamic point in history.  But, Sue Monk Kidd is not an author I worry about.  She tells this story of pre-Civil War Charleston from two girls’ point of view—one is a slave, the other her master’s awkward daughter.  The story is full of pain and horror, and beauty and grace.  It’s a treasure and a wonder.

220px-Mrmercedes•King, Stephen.  Mr. Mercedes.  Reading anything by Steve is like coming home for me, but this one offered nothing new.  I was engaged throughout—loved the protagonist, a retired homicide detective who wasn’t handling retirement well, and the set-up of him being contacted by “the one that got away.”  But the bad guy felt phoned in.  If you want good Steve, go read 11/22/63 instead.

•King, Stephen.  Revival.  Ditto.  Okay, buddy, you’re overdue to hit one out of the park.

•King, Stephen.  Finders Keepers.  I think I’ve caught up with my favorite author now.  I love that he brings back the team from Mr. Mercedes—the retired cop, his young neighbor kid, and the young woman with severe anxiety issues they helped rescue.  This time the trio tries to help a teen who finds a buried trunk from a home robbery thirty years in the past.  Steve knows how to build character along with the suspense.  And the bad guy in Mr. Mercedes who felt phoned in is getting ready to make me eat those words.

wally•Lamb, Wally. The Hour I First Believed.  Lots of books are labeled “tapestries,” but that’s exactly what this non-fictional fiction presents.  The fictional main characters are staff at Columbine high school at the time of the student killing spree; the protagonist’s grandmother campaigns for reform in women’s correctional facilities; PTSD, incest, abandonment, mental illness, drug addiction, mythology—the colors and texture of this tapestry weave in a disturbing, enthralling matrix.  Wally Lamb is a wonder.

•Lamb, Wally.  Wishin’ and Hopin’—A Christmas Story.  Not Lamb’s usual psychological taste treat.  More a nostalgic bon-bon.  And Wally thinks he’s funnier that he really is, but the writing is still fine.  He should stick to trauma and dysfunction, though.  That’s hilarious!

9418326•McNeal, Tom. To Be Sung Underwater.  Judith, a middle-aged film editor in California, finds her perfect life unraveling as memories of her first love in Nebraska push her to hire a private detective. Fully-formed characters, a deep sense of place, and well crafted.  If you’ve ever had to leave a love behind, this story will touch a deep chord.

•Pilcher, Rosamunde. The Shell Seekers.  A sprawling novel written in the ’80s about an elderly English woman and her grown children.  The story jumps from present day, to life during WW2, to other events in the family’s history.  I loved the Englishness of it, but found most of the characters tiresome.  The adult children are petty, even the daughter that Penelope (the protagonist) loves is caught up in the career madness of the ’80s.  But, Penelope is lovely, and her father, a famous artist, is fun, and all the English garden/cottage/sea-shore ambience is delicious.  I almost gave it back to the library, but didn’t.  That’s a pretty high recommendation coming from me.

200px-Olive-kitteridge_l•Strout, Elizabeth.  Olive Kitteridge.  Thirteen vignettes that weave together and around the title character in a small New England coastal town.  The characters are complicated, their lives messy and real.  I saw the HBO mini-series first with Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins (both Oscar winners and stunning in this show).  I thought there might be more deliciousness in the book, and I was right.  Strout won a Pulitzer for it.

•Tyler, Anne. The Amateur Marriage.  I’ve always enjoyed Tyler’s weird characters, but this couple made my ass ache.  Michael and Pauline are the epitome of Socrates’  Unexamined Life—married during the rush of post-WW2, they never learn compassion or tolerance of each other, never question their own egotistical take on the world, never grow up.  They suffer, their kids suffer—it’s way too much like real life.  I have plenty of that already.

The Books I Couldn’t Finish

•Karr, Mary.  The Art of Memoir.  After reading excerpts on a friend’s blog, I got all excited.  I’m writing a memoir, and Karr teaches memoir writing—I was bound to find useful treasure.  Not so much.  And what is there, Karr buries in weird asides, like a whole gushing chapter about Nabokov who broke every “rule” in memoir writing, or endless details about her own process.  Ugh.

•Hoffman, Alice. The Dovekeepers.  This is one of those books heralded as “a major contribution to twenty-first-century literature.” The flap says it took Hoffman five years to research and write. According to ancient history, in 70 C.E., 900 Jews held out for months against Roman armies on a mountain in the Judea desert.  Two women and five children survived. Sixty pages in, I didn’t care. So, shoot me.

The House

House is Full of Life

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In a room without a window, there burnt a fire, guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain… In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell… — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Books I Read in 2014

  1. gracelingCashore, Kristin.  Graceling.  After doing well with The Hunger Games series (see below), I asked my friend, Joa, the kids’ librarian at our public library, for more of the same.  She recommended this fun story—a yummy mix of tyrannical lords, secret societies, and gracelings—odd-balls born with special gifts.  Gracelings might be clairvoyant, or master chefs, or good at math, but the heroine, Katsa, is a killing machine and started her life as an assassin at age 8.  Written well with interesting characters and a rolling plot, this was a good choice.  Thanks, Joa.
  2. Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  After watching the third movie, Mockingjay, Part One, I came out of the theater bewildered.  Obviously, I’d missed something.  Maybe the books told more of the story.  So, I started in on the series.  I understand why teens love these books.  jennifer-lawrenceDystopias are great for sticking it to the authority figures (grown ups), and Katniss is a great surly teen.  I liked her and Peeta.  I thought her obsession with food was understandable, since most of the time she and her family are starving, but the same attention to fashion seemed dopey.  Fun for teens?  Anyway, it was an easy read, which was reason enough for me to finish the books.
  3. Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Ditto.  I really liked the way Collins develops Katniss’ ambivalence about Peeta and Gale.  She loves them both.  How will that play out?  Now I want to know.  Whether or not the Capitol gets overthrown is secondary to me.  Of course it will, and people will die, but who will Katniss finally pick?  That’s the question on all teen-girls’ minds, I’m sure.
  4. Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.  Now I’m ready for the final movie without so much head-scratching.  I love Jennifer Lawrence, so I’d go no matter what.
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  5. Irving, John.  The Cider House Rules.  It’s weird that I’ve never read John Irving.  As a bookstore manager all through the ’80s, I midwifed three of his bestsellers during Christmas rushes and bagged his backlist regularly.  I always meant to read him.  So, when I watched the movie version of Cider House for the umpteenth time, crying over Michael Caine’s performance and loving Toby Maguire as Homer Wells, I became resolved to try.  I’m still daunted by “good” books because of my ECT-induced reading disability.  But, I think my brain is healing.  Cider House is the best story I’ve read in years, fried brain or no fried brain.  I ached for every character—they were all so clear and real—and fell completely under Wilber Larch’s spell.  I will be checking out more John Irving from the library this year.
  6. Kaàberbol, Lene.  The Shamer’s Daughter.  Dina’s mother is a Shamer—someone who can look a person in the eye and see all their shame.  It’s a cool trait for solving disputes and bringing the guilty to justice, but makes for a lonely life.  When the Shamer is called to convict a murderer, and she knows he’s innocent, things go bad for her and her daughter.  It’s a good, solid story with a spunky heroine.  I would have loved this Young Adult book when I was ten, and I liked it just fine as someone a bit older than that.
  7. King, Stephen.  Doctor Sleep.  The story catches us up with Danny Torrence, the little boy from The Shining.  A definite PTSD survivor and son of an alcoholic, the kid’s got a lot stacked against him.  Steve would know, being a recovered drug addict and alcoholic himself.  He’s told how he wrote most of The Shining stoned, and now writes of Dan’s struggles and many demons with authenticity.  In truth, Dan’s internal demons are much more interesting that the actual bad guys of the novel, but, as always, Steve provides a great yarn.Stephen-King-Dr-Sleep
  8. King, Stephen,  Joyland.  I found this paperback by accident.  I thought I needed a book to take on the plane to England with me, looked in the grocery store, and found my best friend waiting for me.  Clean liven’, baby!  Joyland is part of Titan Publishing’s Hard Case Crime series, which immediately tickled my fancy.  I thought this one might harken back to Steve’s Richard Bachman stories.  That and more.  Think Green Mile, think Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  Poignant, nostalgic, scary in a real way.  A Thousand Stars.
  9. flight behaviorKingsolver, Barbara.  Flight Behavior.  Once upon a time, Kingsolver was one of my favorite authors.  But after electroshock, it was her book Lacuna that made me realize something was very wrong.  So I wondered whether the hex was still on her works for me, if it was the syntax, or subject matter, or even the font size that made my brain foam at the mouth.  But, the brain is more resilient that medical science first believed.  I fell in love all over again with Kingsolver’s turn of phrase, her humor, her complicated and contradictory characters.  And there’s fascinating ecological information, too, about why the monarch butterflies that winter in Mexico chose to roost in Delarobia Turnbow’s Appalachian pine forest.  Score on so many levels.
  10. Lamb, Wally.  She’s Come Undone.  My friend Michelle at The Green Study and TGS Zen Garden recommended this one.  It’s a wonderful/horrible story about a girl’s life growing up traumatized and obese with a wicked tongue and killer sense of humor.  I loved the characters, cheered the protagonist, and had no idea where the story would take me.  I love being surprised by a new (to me) author.  I’ll go back for more of Wally Lamb.
  11. wallyLamb, Wally.  We Are Water.  My second dip into Wally-World, and the water’s fine.  He’s still exploring trauma and the way it warps and lingers in family dynamics, in communities, in history.  This story is told through the voices of the characters, principly Annie Oh, the angry assemblage artist; Orion, her psychologist husband;  and their grown children.  But there are others on the fringe that connect the Ohs to an outsider artist who died on their property.  Other voices fill in the gaps that the main characters can’t or won’t.  This is a real gift of a story.
  12. Lamb, Wally.  I Know This Much Is True.  The third book I’ve read from this author.  They just keep getting better and better.  This story takes identical twin brothers—one schizophrenic and one coping with the real world—and twines in generations of anger, abuse, lies, secrets and redemption.  An amazing blend of culture, history, psychology and pain.  Cripes, I love this guy.
  13. Pratchett, Terry.  Snuff.  I love Pratchett’s Disk World series—British humor with lots of poking fun at British stereotypes and tropes.  This is one of the Night Watch stories with Commander Sam Vimes, a crusty soldier married to a Lady and at a loss in refined society.  All he needs is a good murder or some thievery to make him feel at home.  Completely satisfying.
  14. florida quoteScott-Maxwell, Florida.  The Measure of My Days.  A gift from blog-buddy David Kanigan, this lovely, little book explores the author’s thoughts on life and death from an 80-something perspective.  It’s a call to mindfulness for anyone with any perceived loss of function or status in life.  It’s one of those books you have to look up from once in a while to ponder what you just read.  Beautiful.

I Knew What Was Coming

I bought my ticket in advance.  I put on lipstick.  But I knew what was coming.

Thorin BoFAThe Hobbit has been one of my favorite books since I was in junior high.  I wrote my Senior Thesis on Tolkien.  I’m in love with Richard Armitage.  But I knew what was coming.

Everyday for the last few weeks, I’ve whipped from depression to hysteria.  I wondered, since I knew what was coming, if going to the movie now was wise.

But, I went to the premiere last night and sat in a full house of other Tolkien geeks who cheered and wailed along with me. Because we knew what was coming.  And it was glorious.

And as an additional kick to the emotional gonads, Billy Boyd (Pippin from The Lord of the Rings) sings the theme song.  In this YouTube piece, his song overlays all six of the movies Peter Jackson crafted from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings along with behind the scenes moments.  Those are mostly of the cast and crew saying their own farewells.  Excuse me while I go get another box of Kleenex.

The Lance

handmade greeting card, collage art

In the past when sorrows, or problems, or ideas were too much for me, I learned to deal with them in a way of my own.  At night when I got to bed I lay on my back and gave to their solution what I knew would be many sleepless hours.  I would let the problem enter me like a lance piercing my solar plexus.  I must be open, utterly open, and as I could stand it the lance went deeper and deeper.

As I accepted each implication, opened to my hurt, my protest, resentment and bewilderment the lance went further in.  Then the same for others involved—that they did, said, felt, thus and so, then why, face why and endure the lance.

As my understanding deepened I could finally accept the truths that lay behind the first truths that had seemed unendurable.  At last, the pain of the lance was not there and I was free.  No, free is not the right word.  My barriers had been lowered and I knew what I had not known before.

from The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell

Books I Read in 2013

  1. Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh GrantAusten, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Shameful.  I started out an English major in college and never read any Jane Austen.  But I got on a kick, watching Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, then Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane.  I thought it was time I went to the source.  And had a marvelous time.  It’s amazing how so much story can be written about so little.
  2. Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  I was still on my “redeeming my old English major” kick.  I love the contortions these folks put themselves through to be polite and proper.  The torment!  I liked this one almost as much as Pride and Prejudice.
  3. Brach, Tara.  Radical Acceptance—Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.  Wonderful guide to using meditation and lovingkindness in dealing with our feelings of unworthiness.  I recommend it to anyone struggling with fear, cravings and desire, or depression.  So, basically, everyone.
  4. Forney, Ellen.  Marbles—Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me.  A funny, clever, and true bipolar memoir in graphic novel form.  Very entertaining.
  5. Tana FrenchFrench, Tana.  In the Woods.  A little girl is found murdered in a small Irish town.  The lead detective grew up in that town.  In fact, he and his two best friends went missing in the woods when they were twelve.  Only he was found, with someone else’s blood in his shoes and no memory of anything that happened.  This is a wonderful thriller, as we never know if protagonist Rob Ryan is at all trustworthy as a narrator.
  6. Gabaldon, Diana.  Outlander.  There are so many things wrong with this book, I hardly know where to start.  Inconsistent characters, gratuitous sadism and torture, unbelievable action, disregard of basic human nature, floundering plot, and a heroine with the moral fortitude of a postage stamp.  Mind you, this series (Ugh.  Yes.  This is the first in a series) has an enormous fan following.  I’ve read gushing reviews, seen whole boards devoted to each character on Pinterest, and know my local library can’t keep the books in stock.  I suspect it’s because Gabaldon uses the Hurt/Comfort trope—creating a romantic situation by making one of the couple sick or injured while the other offers aid and nurturing.  But, I can’t abide writers who trot out a trope to make up for bad storytelling.  The only good thing I can say about Outlander is that I got all the way through it.  Score one for the Fried Brain!
  7. Richard Armitage, North and SouthGaskill, Elizabeth.  North and South.  At the time and place this novel was published (1830’s Britain), it was considered radical, controversial and was banned in some parts of England.  At that time, labor unions were in place, but no interaction happened between labor and “the masters.”  By the end of the story, the heroine’s influence opens new lines of communication and respect between these two classes.  I loved the language of the time and the Jane Austin-like twisty relationship between Margaret, who came from the South, and the Northern mill owner, John Thornton.  And I must admit, I came to this book through my love of the movie The Hobbit.  Actor Richard Armitage played both Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit and John Thornton in the BBC production of North & South.  What started out as fan-stalking brought me to this gem of a book.
  8. King, Stephen.  The Wind Through the Keyhole.  A late addition to The Gunslinger series.  And even though I’d throw myself in front of a car for Steve, this one didn’t do much for me.  It’s been years since I read any of the Dark Tower books, so it took a minute to reacquaint myself with the characters.  And just when I felt comfortable with them all again, the book turns out to be a story within a story within a story.  And unfortunately, none of them were very engaging.
  9. Mankell, Henning.  Faceless Killers.  After watching the BBC series Wallander, I had to see what the books had to offer.  Mankell is a Swedish national treasure, his mysteries translated into every known language on the globe, and I can see the appeal.  Wallander is a poor schlub tackling all the normal drudgery of daily life while trying to do his job, which happens to be homicide investigation.  But the detail sometimes gets to be too much, like when Kurt’s on the toilet and notices he needs to change his underwear.  TMI.  Maybe the text looses a little by being translated from the Swedish (there’s a similar stiltedness as with the Stieg Larsson books), but the story held my interest all the way to the end.  That, in itself, labels it a winner.
  10. Siegel, Daniel J.  Mindsight—The New Science of Personal Transformation.  Very interesting presentation of leading-edge neuroscience showing how mindfulness, empathy and personal relationships can heal the brain.  Lots of interesting case studies with therapeutic techniques used.  The way the author wrote like he invented mindfulness made me laugh.  He did find new ways to use it, though.
  11. Morning Glory, Christopher ReeveSpencer, LaVyrle.  Morning Glory.  This is one of my favorite movies in the public library’s DVD section.  It’s a sweet romance, but the best part is Christopher Reeve’s subtle, underplayed performance.  After watching it again this summer, I borrowed the book from my friend to see if the movie missed anything good.  Not really.  The book is still a sweet romance, though.
  12. Stewart, Mary.  A Walk in Wolf Wood.  This is a sweet Young Adult novel by an author I’ve loved since grade school.  Two kids on a picnic see a man weeping and follow him into the forest.  They’re suddenly transported back in time to become embroiled in the man’s sorrow, which includes magic, shape-shifting, villainy, and acts of courage.  A simple, lovely story.
  13. Ueland, Brenda.  If You Want to Write—A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.  I first read this book decades ago, and the author’s incredible wisdom was lost on me then.  She tells writers and artists to stop trying to sell their work and simply create from their truth and joy.  A how-to guide for the soul, written in 1938.

The Books I Couldn’t Finish

  1. Myss, Caroline.  Archetypes.  I love mythology and the use of archetypal images and have studied archetypes from a spiritual perspective.  I dig Tarot.  I also liked Myss’ books on medical intuition.  So, I looked forward to her look at “new” archetypes in the modern world.    What a disappointment!  The book is mostly a self-help guide with little depth and less research.  Don’t waste your time.
  2. Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Okay, maybe I ODed on Austen.  This was my third book in a row.  But I just got tired of everyone treating the heroine, Fanny, like a piece of crap.   Good God, the girl is brow-beaten at every turn.  And, like the proper English maiden of the time, she takes it—even thinks she deserves it because she is “low-born.”  Pffttt.  Maybe after a break reading other stuff, I can come back to appreciate this one better.

Our Bodies—A Foreign Language

handmade greeting cards, collage artTara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, has offered me a treasure trove of learning and tools.  There’s so much, and the lessons run so deep, that I’m digesting it slowly.

Today I started the chapter on Desire and Wanting—what I’ve considered my biggest nemesis and Fatal Flaw.  Wanting turns me into someone else—ravenous, obsessive, and ultimately unworthy.  I’ve tried sitting quietly with it, holding it with curious compassion, but usually end up drowning it in whatever will make it shut up.  Of course, nothing does that for long.

Tara tells about a time when she was at the beginning of a new relationship.  She went off to a meditation retreat, looking forward to peace and rejuvenation, but all she could do was fantasize about her new boyfriend.  Here’s what she says about it:

After several days, I had a pivotal interview with my teacher.  When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?”  I was startled into understanding.   For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle.  Her questions pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice:  It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience.  She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind.  I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural.  The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment.  It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive.  Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness.  The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening.  Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena.  While this is not easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force and remain free in its midst.

Feeling my emotions in my body is something I’ve been practicing for only a short time.  I’m more used to sitting in meditation and simply noting my physical state, not pausing in the midst of emotional pain to find it in my body.  Frankly, it’s frightening.  But the more I do it, the more I can accept whatever my body feels.  It’s hard not to jump ahead and wonder if this might be another piece in the puzzle of how to deal with my compulsive symptoms (There’s Wanting, again).  So, I just note that—feel the jittery, acid-burn of Wanting in my belly; the buzzy energy lighting up my arms and back—and breathe into the experience.

This is new, and exciting, and scary.  I want more.  But not today.  Today I’ll just stick to paying attention to what this experience feels like in my body.  That’s enough foreign language to digest for one day.

Radical Acceptance

handmade greeting cards, collage artI knew I’d come to the right place when my new therapist went to her stuffed bookshelf and pulled down When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

“That’s one of my favorite books,” I told her, craning my neck to see what other jewels she had.

Unphased, she rifled through a few more.  “Then, you’ll like this one, I think,” she said.

I stuffed it in my bag and forgot about it in the wake of bronchitis and $500 spend on medicines that didn’t help much.  Yesterday, I decided I was done being sick—not physically, I’m a long way from well, but mentally.  I threw my book bag over my shoulder, took a slow stroll over the railroad yard to the Starbucks at HyVee, and settled into a cafe booth to journal.  And I found the book Megan loaned me.  Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

By the end of Chapter 2, I had to close my eyes and sit quietly while all the doors inside opened.

I could see how my fear of repeating last year (bronchitis—depression—hospitalization) pushed me into going to the doctor and obscured what I knew to be true.  Medicine has never helped me recover from my chronic respiratory infections and only drains my resources.  But Fear drowned out that quiet voice, the one that understands it just takes time, patience and healthy practices to get well.

radicalRadical Acceptance talks about waking up from the trance of unworthiness and accepting all our immediate experience offers.  From that perspective, I could see how I might work with my fear differently next time.  There’s nothing new in this approach—it’s as old as Buddhism—but coming face-to-face with the perfect example always slams home the Teaching.

To simply see that fear is in play is the first and hardest hurdle.  It acts as an underground driver, pushing, directing, demanding action.  So to be able to wake up in that agitation and See what stirs it takes practice.  Then, the task is to observe the fear, hold it gently, watch the stories it generates, feel the push and pull, and listen carefully to the quiet voice on the other side of it.  That quiet voice is my own Wisdom, something I don’t trust anymore, something that got lost in the sea of delusion my bipolar disorder created.  But, in accepting my fear I begin to Remember.  I remember that I do have a wiser self that isn’t delusional or lying.  I’ve ignored it a long time.  I’m out of practice finding it.

I sat in my booth and listened.  This wise part of me is so quiet, so gentle.  It offers suggestions that are kind and sensible, not the wild plans of my delusions.

I smiled, grateful for the doors opening, grateful for a new way to Practice, grateful for finding my new therapist and her glorious bookshelf.

I have enough.

I am enough.

All will be well.

My Cyber Life

handmade greeting card, collage artThese days, what with my Zero Money Initiative in place, I spend most of my time at home on my computer.  And I’m finding a whole new life there.  It’s Pinterest, really, that’s sucked me into this Ether World.  I’ve found dozens of Pinners who share my interests.  And since my taste wanders all over the place, there’s a lot to keep me enthralled.

There are the nerdy fan-folk—the Tolkein aficionados, the Trekkers, the Joss Whedonites.  I’m in Nerd Heaven, wandering through all the rare photos, video clips, jokes and articles about my TV shows and movies.  There are the science puns, and inside jokes, and cross-over weirdness that combines Star trek with Firefly and Sherlock Holmes.  My geekiness runs rampant.

Battle Cry, The Hobbit, Thorin OakenshieldThen there are the serious armies of movie star fans.  Any male actor, living or dead, generates a plethora of appreciation (Female stars get plenty of attention, too, just not so many shirtless photos or comments about fainting).  Here, I have found my obsessive/compulsive, delusional tribe—women all over the globe tipping the scale from fan to stalker.  I breathe a little easier knowing I’m far from the craziest end of the spectrum here.  I’m actually rather refined and discriminating in my male appreciation.  Tasteful, even.  Ahem.

sheep, IrelandI can explore my love of Ireland and dream about going there by connecting with Pinners who are either from Ireland or who have shared their vacation photos.  I can listen to the music, meet infamous sons and daughters of the Eire, and learn the country’s history.  All the beautiful sites, the people, the festivals—they let me taste of the Emerald Isle while I scheme about how to get there.

endangered species, animalsThen, there are all the boards devoted to nature—weird and gorgeous wild animals; amazing forests, rock formations, fauna and flora.  There are Pinners gathering information on preservation, animal abuse, conservation, and every aspect of green living.  I’m constantly amazed, shocked, inspired and delighted by all these lovers of the world.  I can indulge in my love of elephants and skunks.  And there’s no end to the folks who love cats—great and small.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, TV, Joss WhedonMy cyber and material worlds are starting to mix, now.  I’m spending more time at the library searching for things I saw on Pinterest—books on visiting Ireland and England, movies like “War Horse” that I thought I’d never watch (but found out Tom Hiddleston/Loki  and  Benedict Cumberbatch/Sherlock Holmes are in it).  I picked up the first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to watch some early Joss Whedon, and checked out a great mystery novel by Tana French on a Pinner’s recommendation.

I’ve heard Pinterest described as a horder’s dream come true.  A person can collect all their favorite stuff without taking up any space (or creating those scary towers of books, papers and clutter every proper psycho-killer’s home requires).  But, for me it’s gone beyond that.  Yes, I like to create my boards with a certain amount of flair and artistry, but I look forward to learning something new, digging deeper into a topic, sharing a funny video that I hope will make others cry and lose urine like I did.  It’s a new way of interacting, a new kind of community-making.

And it makes me happy.  That’s something to stick a pin in and hang on the wall.

Thoughtless

handmade greeting cards, collage artAs part of the “vacation from my life,” I’ve put a moratorium on thinking.  No ponderings, no plannings, no endless rehashing of what my moods mean.  I refuse to follow my thoughts into the future or back into the past.  And when I catch myself drifting along with my brain, I gently bring myself—empty-headed—back to right now.

It’s what we do in meditation, and what I teach as the beginning point of self-monitoring.  But as long as this respite lasts, I’m not shaking loose of my thoughts to monitor anything.  I’m just clearing space.

And what a lovely day I had today.  Without a routine or a plan, I got up this morning wondering what I needed.  Gentle exercise and warmth (I’ve been feeling the cold lately).  So I went to the later water aerobics classes in the heated, shallow pool.  After that, I drove to the city for a movie (Broken City.  Excellent.), then went to Half Price Books to look for poetry.  I spent a good hour leafing through anthologies and slim books of poems, something I never do.  I took my time, reading and browsing.  I picked House of Light by Mary Oliver, then found a cheap copy of Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing by Anne Lamott.  Those thin volumes made me happy.

Across the street is one of my new favorite places in the world—Whole Foods.  What’s that smell when you walk in?  The flowers?  The produce?  Something super-saturates the air with life.  I love wandering the store with those tiny carts, touching the pretty greens and finding everything a vegan could ever want.  Fellow vegan blogger Jeff, linked to a recipe for Roasted Apple, Butternut Squash, and Carmalized Onion Pizza this morning.  On impulse, I decided to get the few ingredients I needed to make it this weekend.

Then, I went next door to Best Buy and found a Magic Bullet at a very reasonable price.  I’ve wanted a food processor for a while now, but since I wasn’t cooking much I didn’t think it was worth the cost.  But, today, when I saw the Big Yellow Box, I went in.  Compulsive?  Maybe.  I don’t care.  I’m not thinking about it.

What I sensed today was my brain relaxing.  Little bursts of inspiration, like when I first woke up and I had the solution to a problem in my manuscript.  I didn’t ponder it or agonize over it.  It just came.  A gift.  I also felt more kindly toward people—touched by the cashier who found a coupon for my pizza crust, touched by the young dad who carried his tiny daughter on his shoulders.  I felt my aversion to the human race softening.  I engaged the people I encountered today, something I’ve not wanted to do in a while.

Whatever this relaxing brain brings me is fine.  I’m not going to stew about it, second-guess it or write pages on it.  In fact, I left my book bag (with my ever-present journal) home today.  No thinking allowed.  Just experiencing my life as it is.

I may get to know me yet.

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