A Year in Books: 2011

Here it is: the annual list and reading retrospective for the year. I have to admit at the fore that I’m slightly embarrassed about the lack of literary fiction devoured. I seem to hear Stephen King gruffing in my brain about how really serious writers need to read at least one novel per week.

Although if the spirit of Stephen King has actually taken up residence in my brain, I probably have more serious problems than the quality of my literary output…

I know.

It’s a predictable and fairly lame rimshot.

But I’ve spent the last two days recovering from a  nasty stomach flu, and it’s the best I can do right now. Also regular readers of this blog will know that while I do brush my hair on a daily basis, I don’t just whip out the blow drier and nonpajama apparel for any old occasion, and TODAY was supposed to be an occasion of enormous and uber-caloric crepe importance at this fantastic coffee shop in Plymouth over many cups of (decaf) coffee and open laptops in affectionate silence—

And then I came downstairs—in street clothes with glossy smooth hair, please note—AND CARL’S BOSS CALLED TO SAY THAT HIS COWORKER HAD PROMISED CARL WOULD DO AN EXTRA VIDEO FOR THE WEEKEND. A video that Carl was never told about but was still due in approximately 4 hours. While said coworker fled the state for the remainder of the holidays.

For real.

This is the kind of disorganized, irresponsible crap that will be eliminated from the universe when I become sole dictator.

Until then I’m falling back on very small acts of personal intellectual organization and possibly some reality TV. We’ll have to see.

Right.

I’m not sure how we got there, but here’s the book list anyway:

Books Read in 2011

Fiction:

  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells*
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave*
  • Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows*
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by by J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling*

Spiritual/Personal Interest:

  • The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd*
  • Love Wins by Rob Bell
  • Victory over the Darkness by Neil Anderson
  • Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay*
  • Roaring Lambs by Robert Briner
  • Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner*
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin*

Pregnancy/Parenting:

  • On Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo
  • Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg
  • What to Expect when You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff
  • Skimmed half a dozen others…

Writing & Related:

  • Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911 by Leonard Woolf
  • Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918 by Leonard Woolf
  • Watching the English by Kate Fox*
  • Wait for Me!: Memoirs by Deborah Mitford
  • The Best American Essays of 2010*
  • Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism by Deborah Lutz
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas*
  • Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell*
  • The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk*
  • An Autobiography by Agatha Christie*

I starred my favorites, though I always hesitate to do that because I may have enjoyed them for reasons you might not especially share. I think recommending books to strangers on the Internet probably qualifies as one of the least productive uses of time.

Much like reality TV, which reminds me of the afternoon’s other pressing engagement.

Cheers and happy holidays, friends. May your 2012 be full of books and the good conversations that come out of them!

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Some Winter Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

I like poetry, but I can’t even type that phrase without wanting to add several dozen caveat-laden clauses. I do not like poems that go on forever (seriously, Wordsworth). I do not like very old poems with wacky syntax and made up words (sorry, Shakespeare). And I do not like poems that intend to be profound (yeah, I’m going to have to call BS on most of you, literary magazine type people).

But I like poetry.

I like it when it means something to me.

One morning last week we woke up to snow sifting down, filling up the backyard with mini drifts and crusts and hiding all the bald spots in the grass. I don’t often have poems come to mind—my culture cred will take a dive, but the truth is I’m much more likely to have an ABBA lyric stuck on repeat than a Billy Collins gem.

But every time I looked out the window that morning I kept thinking:

Whose woods these are I think I know…

And it made me think of my Grandpa, who lived his last few years at the same nursing home where I worked as a teenager. I haven’t thought about the nursing home in a long time, but I kept notes when I worked there and eventually transcribed them onto a single Word document that I keep transferring to every computer and hard drive I end up using without having any particular plan for its future.

They were quite the cast of characters, really, especially on the full care unit where I worked. Like Richard, who once turned his full bowl of soup upside down so he could, as he innocently explained, read the manufacturing stamp on the bottom of the bowl. Richard was a hoarder too, and we would periodically raid the bureau in his room when we started running suspiciously low on juice glasses. I don’t know why he liked those, but he did.

Or Nick, who had days full of anxiety where he worried over the logistics of trying to baptize everyone on the unit (conceding it wasn’t possible to fully immerse them, which led him into some theological difficulties)… he also had days where he shuffle-swaggered up to a female resident and—before any of us could stop him or even guess his intentions—planted a wet one right on her mouth. “Bet you haven’t had one like that in a while,” he said cheerfully as he shuffled away.

Incidentally, that’s the only time I’ve seen a bandit kiss in real life. From the movies, you’d think that sort of thing happens every day, but nope. It’s pretty much an 80+ year-old-dementia thing.

My Grandpa never exactly fit in at the nursing home. Principally because, while he was almost blind and therefore never recognized people, his brain stayed sharp. He had been a college professor for most of his career—smart, acerbic, well-read, tweedy and intellectual. He was tolerant and generous toward his grandchildren, but he wasn’t one of those people with a knack for relating to children. He would play his much-requested Train Song for us on the harmonica and stock his fridge with pudding cups (no matter how many he had, we always ate ALL OF THEM), but actually having a conversation with Grandpa required some familiarity with Clinton and Bush policy, the economy, literature, or other subjects slightly over the average 8yr old head.

So at 8, I settled for eating his pudding cups. At 18 I actually started to spend time with him.

He moved into the nursing home partially to be near his wife (and my mom, who was his only child still living in the state). My Grandma had advanced Alzheimer’s and by this time could not speak or even focus her eyes on a face. She passed away eventually, and by that time my Grandpa truly needed the care of the home, so he stayed. I worked for the activity department, so I visited all of the patients, but I stayed longer with my Grandpa.

He’d long since lost the ability to read, so I used to read to him. I don’t remember what all we read—whatever he wanted, I could usually find at the library—but I do remember we read Tarzan. He’d read it when he was a boy, and the images had stayed with him his whole life. When I finished, he thanked me and said gravely that the book did seem to be better suited to twelve-year-olds.

I think we both preferred the days we read poetry. My Grandpa loved poetry. I’ve known people in grad school who “loved” poetry, loved the techniques and subtleties of it and maybe memorized a few for good effect.

My Grandpa loved it like people in Victorian novels loved it.

He would choose the author, and I would read the poems, but dozens of times he would start quoting the poem softly to himself as I went along, the whole thing safely locked away in his memory, taken out and giving an airing in the quiet of his tiny room. Sometimes I would only read the first line and then drop out, listening to his age-husky voice taking us perfectly down the page of Frost or Byron or Keats.

He loved Robert Frost, and he loved “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Strange the way things come back to you. My Grandpa didn’t live long enough to meet Carl, and he almost certainly didn’t give a thought to where I might move or the children I might have someday. He died years ago, his head resting on a white pillowcase with a band of Christmas-red reindeer parading down the middle of the case—upside down, as it happens, treading lightly on their antlers.

I don’t know why I remember that when I can’t remember what year it was, but I’ve always preferred the facts you can’t look up to the ones you can.

In any case, he passed away, and I went back to school and changed jobs and met Carl. We got married and started a family and bought a house—a house with a backyard that made me think of my Grandpa when I watched it filling up with snow for the first time.

We bought a fifty-year-old house whose history I don’t know. But the ghosts are familiar.

When I flopped into bed one of the first nights, incredibly tired and sore from a full day of unpacking and painting, I looked up at the half-open bedroom door and suddenly knew exactly what it would be like when our daughter is old enough to be in a toddler bed and open her door and come down the hall to see what we’re up to and if she might possibly.

I’m not a particularly superstitious person, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ghosts and auras and things like that. My grandpa is dead and my unborn, 2 pound daughter is punching that same two inch spot on my abdomen she always punches, but I think while I’ve been busy unpacking boxes and starting a new life here, my unconscious has been unpacking a few boxes of its own.

Good boxes.

My Grandpa reciting poetry and our daughter growing up. All the good memories I brought with me and all the good memories we have yet to make.

It’s starting to feel—despite the endless items on our to-do list—more like home every day.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Getting it together…

 

Also known as “it’s beginning to look a lot like” and “I am awesome.”

Kidding.

I don’t feel particularly awesome when I look at the general messiness of the abode, the stack of unwashed dishes, or the clock. BUT I have to say it’s all sort of coming together.

Christmas, you know.

And the house.

The baby.

My emotional stability.

It’s coming. I wrapped a bunch of presents last night. Our Fed Ex and UPS delivery peeps are quite familiar with our address now. We painted a final coat of trim in the hall, and Carl peeled off the tape last night sometime around 11. I redrafted the Christmas newsletter for work. And half a dozen women from my birth board have already had their babies—preemies, yes, but healthy and doing well.

Crazy.

Tonight we’re having friends for dinner and going to an old theater in Redford that’s showing It’s a Wonderful Life for the weekend… complete with organ prelude. Fortunately, my friend is also pregnant so if either of us falls asleep or has to sneak out to the bathroom there will be no judgy eyes.

And I even knocked out my last big Christmas project this morning: a story book for my nephew, featuring heartwarming concepts like:

Now to shower, clean the house, and throw together some baked ziti.

And if I hurry maybe perchance to nap.

For Real

 

Hypothetically, I affirm the possibility that this day could become even more annoying. Realistically, however, I think I’m about due for an upswing.

Or so I thought. Actually what happened after coming to said conclusion was that a sketchy man popped up on my doorstep to say it seems like my roof is old and do I have any home improvement projects he could possibly—

No, I said. I didn’t, and he couldn’t possibly. Sorry.

I do feel badly about people being out of work, but you know I still can’t quite shake the feeling that our home was just scouted. 20 something yr old Creeper McCreeperson in your blue jacket (caucasian, short light brown hair, middling height, 175-190 pounds—and YES, I’ve seen an awful lot of murder mysteries lately).

Should I or any of our electronics go missing, however, I do think the day would have to be refiled under the Extremely Awful tag rather than just the Annoying category I seem to be stuck in today.

I guess it could be worse.

SIGH.

Happy Wednesday, everybody. May all your grocery bags avoid spontaneous breakage and your doorsteps be creeper-free. I think my best plan to salvage this day is to take a very long nap. Cheers.

Dingo Fever

I did well for myself, though I can take very little credit for it… Unless credit can be taken for being kind of fussy and reserved and whatever the opposite of proactive might be.

But however it happened, I married a kind of fantastic guy.

My issue is that he’s also kind of conscientious and hardworking. Don’t get me wrong, these are great qualities. We did, after all, buy ourselves a fixer upper, and I do, after all, have a job that pays very little.

However, it’s almost Christmas. And it’s snowy out. And I’m pregnant and sleepy all the time. And I cannot for the life of me convince Carl to call in sick.

Oh no, I say lazily as we wake up. You have pink eye. You have dingo fever. I think I’m going into labor.

So far he just laughs at me.

So I wheedle with lavish promises of Skyrim and movies in bed and comfort food… and while I can see the conflict within, I still come up short.

Logic doesn’t seem to work either, because he put in a ton of extra hours leading up to our church’s Christmas outreach, and he has a 2 week backlog of sick days at work, and our weekends have been crazy full of house projects so he really does deserve a break.

Although today I may have finally crumbled his defenses enough for a little grubby toehold.

Maybe next Tuesday

I am possibly a bad influence, but I’m pretty sure most hardworking humans deserve at least one extra day off in December to bask in the pre-Christmas glow, to lie around eating things and being cosy whilst recharging the batteries.

And yes, I DO realize I should be grateful/shouldn’t make it harder/not everyone gets to…

But if the first rule of blessings is to not try to take credit for them, the second is to enjoy the crap out of them.

Right?

When I lived with my parents and worked at the psych hospital, I used to get ready for work while my cat snoozed on the bed. (Actually, whatever I did my cat was usually snoozing on the bed, but that’s a different life lesson). And the first time I thought about it, it kind of annoyed me that I had to go to work while he slept, but over time I apparently went a little batty myself, because I actually started to feel sort of generous and fond about it all. I had to go to work, but it was nice to see Dave lolling around in the sunshine. At least one of us got to.

Some days you’re the human and some days you’re the cat.

Today I get to be the cat. If this seems unfair to you, bear in mind that in roughly three months I will have a newborn that wakes up crying every 2-3 hours. You see? Life is fair.

Enjoy your cat days while you have them, people, and exert whatever pressure you can to bring those you love down to your level. 🙂

I’m pretty sure happiness comes from recognizing and accepting whatever stage you happen to be in. The funny thing is that it can be almost as hard to accept the restful periods as it can be the rougher ones.

The Eternal Almost

ivy under snow in our garden

I got an email this morning from the executive editor of a Christian publishing house. That’s the thing about sending out dozens of query letters: you never actually hear back from everyone, so there are always a couple of stray queries loose in the stratosphere that might—or even more likely might not—boomerang back to you at the oddest time.

I think I sent my manuscript to her sometime last winter.

I remember it was cold.

I was at one of Carl’s hockey games. My friend’s husband’s older brother happens to work at a publishing house and happened to be visiting his family and happened to be at the hockey game. My friend had told her brother-in-law about me, and he  agreed to pass the manuscript on to somebody in the fiction department. The power of connection! I thought jubilantly… before never hearing anything more about it for, well, basically forever.

I could string this out longer, but you’re clever people. You read the title of this post.

The good news… I love your writing. The sad news is that our fiction list is very full.  We rarely take novels set outside of America. This may have already found a home, but I wanted to ask if you have other novels you’re working on that might have an American setting.

“You’re getting closer,” Carl said encouragingly, pulling his coat on for work.

Kind of, I thought, making myself a cup of coffee.

But I don’t have any novels with an American setting. I mean, I could write one. It wouldn’t be that hard. I could write an American novel for this editor or I could write a romance novel for that agent or I could…

And BANG, just like that I’ve hit my head once again against the eternal almost.

Almost right, almost good enough, almost what they’re looking for. But not quite. Never quite. The list is too full; they don’t handle those themes; the plot is good but the characters are flat.

In college, I kept taking psychology electives because I never got tired of learning theories of human behavior (I did, however, have an irrational fear of statistics, which means that while I have more than enough classes for a minor, I don’t actually have a psych minor). I still remember sitting in the classroom while Dr. Ehnis told us that the strongest form of reinforcement is positive reinforcement with variable ratios and intervals.

Or, in other words, gambling.

Pretty sure writing and trying to publish novels is my form of gambling. I guess we all have one, and if I wanted to be nice to myself I could at least point out that mine is slightly healthier than those who gamble by staying in lousy relationships and slightly more productive than those who gamble by buying new lipstick colors. But in the end it’s just gambling.

The eternal almost.

I’m not going to lie. It’s incredibly affirming to get nice emails like that. The rejection-with-a-hook is a siren call to the unpublished. After reading that, I’m going to sit down at my desk today and scheme merrily for a couple of hours about what plots I have on hand that could be made “American” or what agents and publishing houses I haven’t tried yet. Twain said he could live for two months on a good compliment. Maybe I can write for two on the same principle.

At the same time, it’s discouraging too. A few good almosts means you’re going in the right direction/maybe with a little work/keep trying. It’s the eternal number of almosts that gets you kind of downhearted. At some point, it ceases to be something you feel you have any control over. I can revise the book a million times, but I can’t make it perfect. I can write a solid genre book, but I can’t make it all genres at once…

I guess the good news is that—should I ever be successful—it’ll be incredibly easy to be humble about it. I’ve been working this gig for ten years. I get nice rejection letters now, but that’s about it. Somewhere down the line, it eventually comes down to opportunity. Or luck. Or good fortune. Or divine intervention.

I do hope you’ll keep pursuing other publishers.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know that most of success is getting to the right inbox at the right time.

And that’s the secret, straight from the executive editor of a successful Christian publishing house.

Keep trying.

Well, I can do that. To be honest, most of us are currently doing exactly that. In the trying stage, shouldering into whatever huge and semi-impossible task we’ve identified for ourselves, whether it’s writing books or starting businesses or raising children. It’s hard, and it’s not terribly flattering to the old ego, but in the end I guess it’s just that time of life.

Maybe the eternal almost is not quite eternal.

Maybe it just feels like it some days.

I can live with that.