4 Notable Reads from 2013

I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by the truckload. Classic literature, chic-lit, crime novels, spy thrillers, historical fiction, creative non-fiction, traditional non-fiction – it didn’t matter, I read it all.  But in recent years, my appetite has waned.

My problem is two-fold: 1) too much academic reading tends to diminish my desire to read for pleasure; and 2) as my own writing evolves, I find myself increasingly critical of the works I read, and incapable of suffering bad writing for the sake of a story.

That last part makes me feel like a pretentious jerk.

And perhaps I am.  But more likely, its just that over the years, my taste in reading material has become more discriminate.  I think it’s only natural.  I mean, twenty years ago, I drank fruit flavored wine coolers because they tasted like punch and provided a nice little buzz.  Today, I have learned to savor and appreciate the bouquet of a full-bodied Cabernet without devolving into a drunken train wreck – usually.

In 2013, I made a point to read more.  I participated in author Patricia Burroughs’ Embarrassment of Riches – TBR Challenge.  I did fairly well, though about halfway through, I began to turn away from the books I’d been meaning to read, and moved toward new titles.  But I read, and that’s all that really matters.

I completed about a two dozen books.  Not a huge amount, but it was a decent start.  I finished working my way through Daniel Silva’s complete body of work.  Some were good, some were not.  Against my better judgment, I was suckered into reading Dan Brown’s latest – hated it.   I also discovered that I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy’s written work, which was disappointing; and I found the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures to be a bit tedious – also a grave disappointment.

Despite this, there were a handful of titles that I did enjoy – very much, in fact.  Here are four that left an impression (in no particular order):

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J.K. Rowling):  At the risk of provoking the wrath of my limited readership, I have a confession: I am not a Potter fan.

I’ll give you a minute to digest that tidbit.  

Are we good?

Cuckoo was an impulse buy, picked up at the last-minute while standing in a ridiculous line at my local big box booksellers.  I brought it home and did with it what I usually do with such purchases – I put it on my nightstand and left it to collect dust. Two months later, after reading a couple of historical books on religion and ready for a change of pace, I plucked it off the nightstand, wiped away the dust bunnies, and prepared to be underwhelmed.

I confess.  I never read the jacket blurb.  If I had, I might have delved in sooner. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the main character was a down-on-his-luck gumshoe.  I’m a big fan of the whodunit – Edgar Allan Poe, Carolyn Keene, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee).  I spent my formative years devouring every such novel I could dig up at my local library.  While my friends were reading Sweet Valley High and Beverly Cleary, I was immersed in detective stories.

Needless to say, I was captivated by Galbraith’s (Rowling) Cormoran Strike.  There was an old-school feel to him that called to mind Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – smart, capable, a little fucked up.  The plot was compelling, the pace typically British – slow but persistent, the conclusion satisfying and not altogether obvious.  I was at times irked by Rowling’s general writing style, but it was nothing too traumatic, and easily overlooked by my need to discover the killer.

I am not often surprised by a book, so to that I say:  Bravo, J.K. Rowling.  Bravo.

I hear there will be a follow-up.  I look forward to it.

The English Girl – Daniel Silva:  I did not intend to read this novel when it was released last July.  As I said above, I’d just spent the better part of six months entrenched in Silva’s work, and was suffering from burnout.  I pre-ordered a signed first edition, of course.  How could I not?  It’s Daniel Silva.  Duh.  But I did not set out to read it immediately.

Then it was delivered.

I read it over the course of two days and loved it.  What struck me about this particular offering was Silva’s move away from the formulaic plot structure that seemed to dominate most of the Allon series.   He brought back a key character from early on, Christopher Keller, who first appeared in The English Assassin as a former SIS officer turned contract killer hired to eliminate Gabriel.  One of the great things about Silva is his knack for writing bad guys in a sympathetic light – he makes them human.  I was intrigued by Keller from the outset, and knew there was a certain depth of character in him begging to be explored.

In The English Girl, Silva brings Keller into the fray by forcing Gabriel to elicit the assassin’s help in finding a missing woman for a well-connected friend.  It’s a contentious arrangement, and one that rewards the reader with some witty and off the cuff banter.  Moreover, he brings to life a certain professional rivalry that highlights their individual strengths by forcing them to work in conjunction with one another in order reach a common goal.  It’s fascinating to watch, and really gives this thirteenth Allon novel some meat to go along with the usual potatoes.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan:  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  I am not an overtly religious individual.  Sure, I was raised in the Catholic church, received all of the necessary education to achieve a certain standing within the Church, but at my core, I lack the deep sense of spirituality required for unconditional faith.  That being said – I am drawn to religious history, particularly how it relates to the social, political, and economic development of civilizations.

I stumbled upon Zealot while listening to NPR during an afternoon commute.  I was intrigued by the author and found some merit in the premise he presented.  I picked up a copy during my next visit to my favorite booksellers – and if truth be told, I believe this to be the visit I also acquired The Cuckoo’s Calling.

There is a certain aura of controversy surrounding the book.  The author’s Islamic faith has caused some in the media to question the legitimacy of his claim that Zealot is an unbiased biography of Jesus – the man as he was in first century Palestine, not the revered figure we know from Christianity and the Bible (for a bit of context and a good laugh click here).  Given the author’s extensive education and employment history, I am apt to dismiss such questions as right-wing rhetoric.  Though, I did have a professor who lectured that there is no such thing as an unbiased retelling of history.  As humans our worldview is influenced by emotion, education, and experience, and thereby, naturally skewed.

It’s a valid view, and I think one that holds true with this book.  Nonsense aside, I did enjoy the book very much.  Vivid in its descriptions, it read like a novel, filled with all those things I love: murder, intrigue, and betrayal.  It was well-researched with a clear point of view.  If I were to have an issue at all, it would be with Aslan’s dismissal of the Apostle Paul’s importance to the evolution of early Christianity.  He tends to lay most of the credit at the feet of James, brother of Jesus.

This would be the point where my own biases come into play.

Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State – Randolph Campbell:  When I moved to Texas as a teenager in the late ’80s, I went through a period of culture shock.  Texas was unlike anywhere I had ever lived.  I often equated it to moving to a foreign country – you might reside within the borders of the United States, but it’s a whole other world down here.

I always wondered why.  What gave Texas its tenacity, its iron will, its independent spirit, its unabashed balls of brass?

Last semester, I took a Texas history course, and Gone to Texas was the required reading. Unlike other course readings, this one didn’t have that textbook feel.  Campbell’s writing style is easy and fluid, a bit tongue in cheek in places, and at times, ironic.  He provided a fantastic survey of the state, spanning more than four and a half centuries – from the first ill-fated Spanish expeditions, to Coronado and La Salle, to the rise of Spanish occupation and the establishment of the first missions, to Mexican independence and Anglo infiltration, to Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana, to the battles of Gonzales, Goliad, the Alamo, and San Jacinto, to the rise of the Republic, Annexation, Secession, and the Civil War, to the age of cattle, the oil boom, and beyond.

Whew.  That’s a lot of history.

It was great book, and even though I paid an exorbitant amount of money for it (that’s a blog for another day), I’m glad I read it.

As for Texas, I think John Steinbeck captures the essence of the state best:

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America


The best-laid schemes…

I have spent the last few days ridding my house of nauseating Christmas cheer.  The holidays are all fun and games in the outset, but there comes a point where the scale is tipped, and all those decorations begin to call to mind a tinsel and glitter infused bordello – or at least, what I imagine such an establishment might resemble.  I’m not one to suffer clutter for long, so the purge was swift and exact.

Of course, now that the tree is gone, the nephews departed, and the NYE champagne hangover nursed, there is a question of what comes next.

I try to avoid New Year’s resolutions.   Rash promises made in the heat of a self-loathing pity party aren’t normally destined for fulfillment.  In my 41 years, I have only realized one true resolution – a weight loss of 50 lbs some seven years ago. I did keep it off, so maybe that should count double.  Hmm…I digress.  As I sit here on this cold January morning, sipping coffee and listening to Norah Jones shoot the moon, I have the itch to plot a path forward.

So, I asked myself this question:  What do I want to accomplish in 2014?

I had to make a list.

  • Write 2000 words per day, everyday.
  • Finish Retribution rewrite #7 (or is it #8 now?!?) by spring break.
  • Publish one kick ass blog entry per day.
  • Submit a scene per week to the writing group for feedback – or a good laugh.
  • Graduate.
  • Conquer fitness boot camp and run a 5 K.
  • Read two non-academic books per month.
  • Learn to kayak.
  • Take kick ass photographs from moving kayak without drowning.
  • Learn to speak Italian.
  • Attend the U.S. Open – it’ll be Federer’s come back season, I can feel it.
  • Complete an outline for Summer of ’87.
  • Complete a draft for Summer of ’87, and win NaNoWriMo doing it.
  • Survive the holidays without committing a felony.

Too ambitious?  Yeah.  Who am I kidding?  Federer isn’t going to stage a come back this season…or anything other season, for that matter.

As for the rest…well, as much as I’d like to say it’s doable, it’s obviously not.  I have a life – work, family, school, outside obligations, nagging phobias.  After a healthy dose of reality and little soul-searching, here is a more reasonable list:

  • Write four days per week.
  • Publish 3 blogs per week.
  • Post a daily “photo of the day” on the blog.
  • Complete a working draft of Retribution by summer.
  • Graduate.
  • Submit a scene per week to the writing group for feedback – or a good laugh.
  • Read one non-academic book per month.
  • Get within five feet of a kayak; take a kick ass photo of said kayak; post it on the blog.
  • Attend the U.S. Open; cheer for Djorkovic.
  • Consider validity of YA/coming of age concept novel Summer of ’87; participate in NaNoWriMo.
  • Survive the holidays without committing a felony.

A decent compromise, I think; and one that has potential.  It helps that for the first time since last spring, I am feeling creative and inspired – and open to interaction.  The latter is always difficult for me, especially in this particular forum.  I’m going to work on that.

Alright.  Let’s get ‘er done.

Write on.

Summer reading

I usually spend the first few weeks of summer wrapped in the warm familiarity of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.  It’s an annual tradition born out of my desire to escape the drudgery of months entrenched in academic reading, and in an effort to recharge my wilted brain with something frivolous.  What could be more frivolous than hanging out poolside, the scent of chlorinated water and sunscreen wafting through the air, a margarita in one hand and a tattered copy of Pride & Prejudice in the other?

Not much, right? 

The prospect of frolicking through Georgian England with the Bennett clan should make me feel all warm and gooey inside.  Yet, this year, it doesn’t appeal to me at all.  It seems my rebellious self is protesting our journey down that well-worn literary path and is intent on lobbying for something new.  I suppose it’s to be expected.  Eventually, even the staunchest chocolate lovers crave a little lemon meringue. 

Of course, this leads to a troubling dilemma: 

What am I going to read poolside this summer?

I toiled with the answer to this question for quite some time.  My reading list usually consists of a gentle mix of historical non-fiction, contemporary (and/or Cold War era) spy novels, and familiar classics.  Occasionally, I will throw in a current commercial bestseller or a traditional whodunit to keep things interesting.   

Of late, I have spent a great deal of time enveloped within worlds created by a few of my favorite authors:  Daniel Silva, John le Carre, and Agatha Christie.  And to be completely honest, I’m a little burned out.  Sure, Silva has a new Allon novel dropping next week, and I pre-ordered a signed copy months ago, but I doubt I will dive into this latest installment anytime soon.

After barely surviving Dan Brown’s Inferno, and given my disinterest in Pride & Prejudice, I was beginning to fear that summer would come and go, leaving me wanting.  Then on a recent lazy Saturday, the answer to my reading dilemma came to me in a burst of unfettered brilliance.  It was one of those scorching days, too hot to venture outdoors before sunset.  My daughter and I were doing what we usually do to beat the heat – watching a Netflix marathon, camped out on the couch, noshing junk food.  

Our poison of choice – Sherlock Holmes. 

We started with the BBC’s Sherlock, meandered through CBS’s alternative take, and ended with Guy Ritchie’s quirky blockbusters.  As I watched, I was struck by the complexity of these two characters (Holmes and Watson) portrayed in vastly different settings and time periods, yet seemingly interchangeable.  I wondered what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have thought of our modern take on his iconic hero and sidekick; how would they stack up to their literary counterparts;  would I even like Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson after growing accustomed to the contemporary screen – big and small – versions?

I decided to find out.

Summer reading dilemma solved.

“Excellent!”…

“Elementary.”

Things I learned this week

“Proof brevity does not protect against dullness.” 

– Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in regard to Twitter.

I learned this week…

…that I don’t have to worry about those pesky little logarithms, after all.  My Historical Geology professor announced this gem during our last lab session.  It seems he’s not a big fan of the evil math, either.  He just might take over the top spot on my favorite professor list.

…that there is a new spy thriller on FX called The Americans, and I’m not too sure I care for it.  Don’t get me wrong, the concept intrigues me: Soviet KGB operatives posing as Americans during the early days of the Reagan administration, stealing intelligence.  Sounds right up my alley, right?  It is – for the most part.

So what’s the problem, you ask?

Keri Russell.

Yes, I know.  I should let my aversion to Felicity go; after all, it was the show that launched Jennifer Garner into Alias stardom.  Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But still, I don’t like Keri Russell (as an actress – I’m sure she’s a lovely person), and her character, Elizabeth Jennings, seems even less appealing.  She is cold and detached with a glint of something homicidal in her eye.  Perhaps this is the writers’ intention.  Maybe I’m not supposed to relate to her, to sympathize with her, to like her.  If that is the case then they are doing a superb job.

Bravo.

…that for the first time in a long time, I found the Grammys enjoyable.  Usually, it’s a tortured affair, one that leaves me feeling old and out of touch, yet strangely fixated.  It’s like witnessing a horrible train wreck – the pitchy performances, the excessive bleeping of lyrics too inappropriate for primetime, the painful acceptance speeches by artists scarcely worthy of the name.  I want to look away, but I just can’t.  Most years, I am doomed to disappointment and will spend a solid week bemoaning the sad state of music and vowing to do something more productive with that three and a half hour block of time.

This year was different.  This year there were (by and large) real musicians on stage, playing real instruments, and producing real music.  I enjoyed most of the performances and tributes – Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, fun., Jack White, Dr. John, Carrie Underwood and her hypnotic dress, Ed Sheeran, Sting, Sting, and Sting.

What?  He wasn’t alone on stage?

Funny.  I didn’t notice.

In all seriousness, I felt renewed hope.  Maybe music has turned a corner; maybe the manufactured, auto-tuned sludge we’ve been subjected to for two decades will finally give way to the return of the vocally and musically talented singer/songwriter.

Maybe?  Please?

The only dark spot on the night – besides Elton John and Taylor Swift – was the Florence Welch snub.  I may hold that against Kelly Clarkson for a very long time.  I’m a grudge holder, you know.

On a side note:  Ratings for the 2013 Grammy Awards were down, and critics panned it for its somber feel.  Mature…somber.  Whatever.  Click here to read one of the more scathing reviews.

…that listening to an audio book in the carpool line will cause me to do something I rarely do – nap.  It’s problematic for a few of reasons:  1) I’ve never gotten around to tinting my windows; 2) the telltale head bob that accompanies vertical napping is embarrassing; 3) inevitably I will have to rewind (can you rewind an MP3?) the audio book because I end up missing vital chunks of the story.   Yesterday, I missed the whole part about Chiara being kidnapped from the villa in Italy.  I woke up in the middle of a shit storm and had no idea what the hell was going on.

I panicked a little.

…that ginger tea is the elixir of the gods.  For the last year or two, I’ve suffered from a stomach quirk and steadily over the months, my tolerance for many of foods has waned.  I am a notorious self-diagnoser, so I tossed around the idea of a gluten allergy, a fructose intolerance, a faulty gall bladder.  I cut a lot out of my diet.  Sometimes it helps; sometimes it doesn’t.  After a recent upswing in symptoms, I took to the internet for advice – because if it’s on the internet, it has to be true – and discovered ginger tea.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but I have to say it has helped a lot.

<covers ears to block out BFF’s (licensed RN) screams that I need to stop with the internet diagnosing and see a professional>

I did finally make an appointment for next week with a specialist.  But I already know what he’s going to tell me.  I looked it up on the internet.

…that I am not irrational.  Okay, yes I am, but not when it comes to cruises.  My friends go on cruises – they love them.  They tell me I should go, too.  I would love it, they say.  “You forget you’re even on a boat.  It’s so much fun.  Go.  Try something new.”  I have no desire for the obvious reasons:  big ship; inflatable “life” boats; tiny windowless cells staterooms; crushes of people breathing my air; lack of wide open sandy beaches; and the Norwalk virus.

Here are few more reasons:  no power; no ventilation; no working toilets; Soviet era bread lines for a daily hot dog rationing.  Read more here.

No, thank you.  I’d rather risk getting my head loped off by the drug cartels in Mexico.

…and last, but not least, this week’s photo is a macro I took in November, at the Dallas Arboretum.  It’s always a nice surprise stumbling across these shots and I am a sucker for water droplets.

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Distractions

I am writing an action scene today.

Leo Baxter is tracking an Albanian through the dark alleyways of east London.  Little does he know, in about ten minutes he will become the hunted and end up in a dank cell somewhere in…well, I don’t know where they will take him, but rest assured it will be somewhere hellish.

I’ve been quite productive in my writing today, but every now and then I find myself distracted by the sparkle of a new addition to my office decor.  I’m not sure if it is the cucumber lime scent – I am very sensitive to smells – or the way the reflected light looks like little birds flying across my wall.

I couldn’t help myself.  I had to take a picture of it.

Now back to Leo and the Albanian.

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Finding lost treasures

Do you know what I love?

Finding things I thought were lost forever.

Yesterday, tucked away in a dark dusty place, I found a set of books I could have sworn perished in a house fire six years ago.

I almost cried.

Set of Louisa May Alcott novels gifted to me in 1974
Set of Louisa May Alcott novels gifted to me by my Nana in 1974
My favorite
My favorite
A few other books I found.  Grimm's Fairy Tales was also a gift from my Nana.  The bottom book, Carmen of the Golden Coast, was passed down from my Nana to my mother to me.
I found a couple of other books as well. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was also a gift from my Nana. The bottom book, Carmen of the Golden Coast, was passed down from my Nana to my mother to me.
Inscription in Carmen of the Golden Coast
Inscription in Carmen of the Golden Coast

Things I learned this week

“The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.”

            – Dante Alighieri

This week I learned:

…that there were a few notable anniversaries:

pride_and_prejudice12

  • My favorite novel Pride & Prejudice was first published 200 years ago (January 27, 1813).  I usually wait until the lazy days of summer to pull it out and give it another read, but this year I think I might delve into it a little earlier.
  • We are the World turned 28 this week.  The recording of this song and the release of the video was a profound moment in my teenage years.  In all honesty, I’m not real sure I completely understood their cause at the time, but the collaboration of all of my favorite musical talents on one record nearly blew my mind.
  • This week, 27 years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during lift off.  I watched the launch live on television, alongside millions of other school children.  I remember the level of excitement surrounding this launch.  We all understood that we were watching history in the making.  Then, it all went horribly wrong.  I will never forget that day, what I saw, what I felt.   Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston with my daughter’s middle school Robotics class.   One of the films we watched highlighted NASA’s missions throughout the years – the triumphant and the tragedy.  I probably should have been expecting it, but when the video of Challenger’s last seconds filled the screen it took my breath away.

…that the girl who sits next to me in Historical Geology has adult ADHD.  I suspect she is unmedicated because surely if she were, I wouldn’t spend the first half of class trying to figure out a way to make her shut up and sit still without getting arrested for a felony.

…that I don’t have the personality for Twitter.  I find the task of coming up with witty pieces of brilliance in under 140 characters on a daily basis undoable.   I also don’t have the patience or the attention span to sit and scroll through all of those endless posts and reposts, and reposts of reposts.  I don’t even find it an efficient source of news.  There is one thing, though, that I do get a kick out of – followers.  One of my favorite games is the “what if” game.  I do it in the grocery store, at the gym, in traffic – everywhere.  I find I can do it with Twitter followers, as well.   And so, with every new follower notice, I take a minute to try to come up with their story.  After that, I make a bet with myself to see how long it takes them to realize I’m not any fun and unfollow me.  It never takes too long.

…that – in keeping with the Twitter thread – people actually have apps to keep track of who unfollows their twitter account.  Really?  If I took the time to worry about all the people who decided they didn’t like me over the years, I’d never get a damn thing done.

…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by two sweet girls who make my heart smile.

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Embarrassment of Riches Challenge – January check-in

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by Author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I’ve intended to read, but never found the time.

This month I read:

The Cold War – A New History by John Lewis Gaddis – This is non-fiction and as the title suggests, a historical overview of the Cold War from its postwar inception until its end in the early 1990s.  It was a fascinating read and I enjoyed Gaddis’ easy writing style and occasional sarcastic barb aimed at those leaders he felt lacking.  *cough cough Kennedy cough cough*

Slightly Dangerous – Mary Balogh –  No one have a heart attack.  This is indeed a romance novel.  I do enjoy a good romance every now and then.  This one I particularly enjoyed, probably because it is a take on Pride & Prejudice.  I like it so much I might put in the “will read again” stack.

Moscow Rules – Daniel Silva –  This is the 8th or 9th installment in the Gabriel Allon series I’ve been working my way through for a while now.  I must say, it was not my favorite – I would even go so far as to say I didn’t like it.  Yikes.  I hope I’m not coming down with a case of Silva fatigue.  I have to get through book 12 or 13 (I’ve lost count) before the next one comes out this summer.

My goal is silver so I’ve read 3 out of 24.

I’ll take that considering I can be a painfully slow reader.

So, what are you reading?  What’s in your TBR stack?

Things I learned this week

I learned this week:

…that Historical Geology is not going to be a cake walk.

From the course material:

“The study of sedimentary rocks can involve many scientific disciplines.  Considerable knowledge of mathematics, biology, and physics is required to fully understand the mechanics and processes associated with weathering, transportation, lithification, the preservation of life forms, and the postdepositional alteration and changes that may occur.”

My horror at seeing the words “mathematics, biology, physics, and required” strung together in a cohesive sentence was only compounded by my professor’s declaration that Historical Geology is not for the “faint of heart.”  And, just when I thought for sure it couldn’t get any worse, I spied logarithms in lab assignment number two.

Excuse me while I vomit.

It seems college algebra has risen from its darkened mire to torment me once again.

Of course, maybe it won’t be so bad.  The first thing I thought after I typed the word “mire”:  low energy environment; muddy sediment with fine clay particles; decaying animal and plant matter; peat; bituminous coal.

…that I have been paying out-of-state tuition for the last several semesters even though I live in the state, and haven’t moved since my house burned down in 2006 – which was prior to my enrollment.   It took two full hours to convince them I haven’t been commuting in from some faraway place every semester – you know, to take advantage of their renowned education opportunities.

I’m not sure this is the spirit of efficiency Max Weber had in mind when he penned the six characteristics of bureaucracies.

…that Roger Federer has made it into the semi-finals of the Australian Open.  This is usually the point where he lets me down and has his ass handed to him by Rafe Nadal.  But maybe there is a ray of hope this year.  Federer’s chief rival is out with a knee injury.  Could this ensure victory for my favorite aging Swiss tennis pro?

I think.  Maybe.  Yes.

Wait?  What’s that?

Novak Djokovic defeated David Ferrer today to move into the finals at the Open?

Damn it.

Update:  Federer lost his semi-finals round to Andy Murray. 

<facepalm> 

Update 2:  Djokovic defeated Murray for the title.  I’m okay with that. 

…that Beyonce Knowles – aka Mrs. Jay Z – likely lip-synced the national anthem during President Barak Obama’s inauguration.  Big freaking whoop.  I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but do I need to remind the media that there are more important things happening in the country and around the world?  Don’t make me list them again.  I’ll do it, you know.

…that I have been nominated for a couple more blogging awards.  I am getting behind in my acknowledgements.  Let’s see if I can fix that.

From jazzytower over at thoughtsandentanglements, I received a nomination for the Beautiful Blogger Award.

versatile-blogger-300x300From Kevin at nittygrittydirtman, I received a nomination for the Liebster Award.

From Kitty over at kittyb78, I received a nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award and the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

If you guys keep this up, I’m going to get a very big ego and begin to channel my inner Sally Field again.  You know how messy that got last time.

(please, don’t stop)

Thanks to Jazzy, Kevin, and Kitty.  Go check out their blogs.  I’m sure you will enjoy them as much as I do.

Okay, as always these things come with rules and regulations.  I’m going to try to combine them to save space and time.  First, here are some interesting – or not – facts about me:

  1. I am a hardcore grudge holder.  I’m still mad at the snot-nosed brat who broke the personalized license plate my dad gave me for my bike when I was ten.  Her name is Melissa, and she is the devil.
  2. Last summer, I taught myself how to swim.  I’m not going to be competing in the next Olympics, but I can get myself from one end of the pool to the other without drowning.
  3. I still prefer traditional print material to digital, though not because I think physical books are somehow superior.  I just can’t seem to remember to charge my eReader.
  4. As an introvert, I find a lot of social interaction exhausting and awkward.   I’m learning to adapt, though there are times when I wish I had a t-shirt that read:  “Do this introvert a favor and shut the hell up.”  Too much?  I’ll have to work on that.
  5. I am addicted to the History Channel – H2, not the one that plays hours of Pawn Stars and Top Gear, the other one that plays marathons of Ancient Aliens.  A girl has to have standards, right?
  6. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a Marine Biologist – until my dad told me I would have to board a boat, sail out onto the ocean, and dive into the water.  You know, with all those scary things that live underwater.  Yikes.
  7. I love picture frames.  The only issue – I tend to forget to have photos printed to put in them.  So, all around my house you will find frames displaying generic photos of people I don’t know.  I’m looking at one right now on a shelf in my office.  I should fix that.
  8. I like to cook, but I hate cooking dinner.

Okay.  That’s all I’ve got.  I’m not all that interesting.

Now some questions from Kevin:

  1. What is your favorite time of day and why?  My favorite time of day is first thing in the morning, just as the sun in coming up over the horizon.  I love the stillness that comes with dawn.  For me, there is nothing more peaceful. 
  2. How and when did you first discover your passion, whatever that passion is?  I first discovered my love for writing in the third grade when I penned a short story based on the Aesop’s Fairytale the Tortoise and the Hare.  I wrote it as a class assignment, and it wasn’t received well, but the process really did foment my passion for the written word.
  3. Hopefully, you’re familiar with The Breakfast Club for this question.  When you were in high school, in which social group did you best fit?  I suppose I was a social misfit, though likely not in the true sense portrayed in the movie.  I was always introverted, unpopular, and walked to the beat of my own drum. 
  4. Where do you write your posts and why did you choose that place?  I write anywhere I can find a quiet corner: at school in the common areas between classes, gymnastics practice, the bagel shop, the coffee shop, the library, the carpool lane.  Just about anywhere and everywhere.
  5. What always makes you laugh and why?  This is going to sound cliché, but my daughter makes me laugh.  She is probably the funniest person I know.  Sarcastic, witty, insightful, cynical, silly – she’s the whole package.  I look at her sometimes and wonder how I got so lucky.
  6. If you could appear on a televised talent show, what would your talent be?  Oh, geez.  I can wiggle my ears.  What kind of show do you go on to highlight that talent? 
  7. Which flower reminds you of happiness?  Big fat yellow sunflowers, bluebonnets, and poppies.
  8. What is your favorite book and why?  Pride & Prejudice.  What’s not to love? 
  9. It is important to eat your vegetables, but which vegetable to you always resist/avoid eating?  I honestly cannot think of a veggie I will not eat.  Fruit on the other hand – I hate apricots and mangos.
  10. What’s your favorite thing to do on a rainy day? I love to curl up in my favorite chair, with a cup of tea, and read something frivolous.
  11. Who is one celebrity, past or present, you would like to meet – what would you ask that person?  Jennifer Garner.   I’d love to ask her why she keeps making all of those pathetic Rom-Coms.  Put us all out of our misery and bring back Sydney Bristow. 

Passing these along is tough.  Not because I don’t know anyone deserving, but because I know a lot of people who are.  I’m going to stew on this for a while.

…this week’s awww moment of the week is brought to you by a girl and her dog.

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Things I learned during the holidays – and an award

“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.”

– George Carlin

I learned during the holidays…

…that snow on Christmas is nice.

Lingering snow the day after, is not.

I’m not a winter person.  If given a choice, I’d pick 105 degree summer heat over frozen precipitation any day of the week.  Unfortunately, the weather Gods don’t always take my preference into account when doling out snow days.   Such was the case on Christmas day.  It hit early in the afternoon, just as we were sitting down to lunch.  The flakes were big and fluffy, and set a pretty scene.  A bit of Christmas magic.  That’s never a bad thing.  However, I’m a big believer in the power of moderation.  A quick burst of snow, followed by a rapid melt is ideal.  That way by the time I have to get out – because it’s all about me – the white stuff is gone.  It’s not that I’m incapable of driving on it – I lived in Iowa one winter in the early 90s.  You learn to adapt or you don’t leave the house for 6 months.  No, I’m more concerned with the other guy’s driving ability.  Unfortunately, mother nature was not in a giving mood and the temperature the next day did not rise above freezing.  I left my house prepared to be overwhelmed by stupidity.  I was not disappointed.  Ten minutes into my commute some jackass in a super sized SUV swerved in front of me and slammed on his brakes just as we were about to pass over an ice-covered bridge.

These are the moments in life when I wish I had a real Bond car.

…that after whipping up nearly 25 dozen cookies, 50 mini pumpkin pies, and 6 batches of fudge I am so over baking.  Totally.  I may never bake again.  Ever.

On a bright note, I only gained back 3 of the 10 lbs I lost during the semester sampling all those baked goodies.

that Kim Kardashian has a little Kanye West cooking in the oven.  O.M.G.  Like, that is, like, so cool, you guys.

Oy.

I am always struck by the level of relevancy given to the K clan by mainstream media.  Call me a killjoy, but I think there are more important things going on in the world than what’s going on their collective uteri.

…that my daughter does not share my taste in Christmas music.  Most of my favorite songs were recorded during the early days of rock & roll, and it only makes sense that the holiday tunes I gravitate toward come from that era.  Number one on my list is Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby, please come home).  I like to crank it up and sing it proud – from the gut, as loud as I can.

My daughter is not impressed.

Me:  The snows comin’ doowwwnnn/Christmaaasss/I’m watchin’ it faaallll/Christmaaasss/Lots of people aroooooounndd…

Megan:  Ew, Mom.  What are you singing?

Me:  Darlene Love.  Don’t you just love it?

Megan:  Um, no.

Me:  How can you not like Darlene Love.  She’s the queen of Christmas.

Megan:  No, she’s not.  Rock & roll Christmas music is so lame.  The classics are so much better.

Me:  This is the classics, baby.

Megan: <shrug>  Whatever.

Brat.

…that I’m getting too old to stay up drinking until midnight on New Year’s Eve – and that’s okay.  I was in bed by 10:30 pm, up at 4:30 am on New Year’s Day, and at the gym by 7:30.  A fabulous way to begin the year, I think.  Much better than sporting a hangover all day.

…that I’ve been nominated for a blogger awards – well three actually, but I’m only going to address one today.

I love blogger awards.  They make me smile.  It’s an ego thing.

This one comes from jmmcdowell, an archaeologist turned novelist – I think that may be the coolest thing ever.  She was gracious enough to pass along the Booker Award to me as a new follower of her blog.   Thank you, jmmcdowell!   Go check out  some of her excerpts from Buried Deeds.

The Booker Award dictates that I list five of my favorite books.  I was nominated for this award once before, but never came back to it.  I must say, there are so many books I love it is really hard to pick just five.

Here goes:

1. Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen.  I first read this novel in the ninth grade.  It was required, and I hated it.  I thought it was as tedious as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (which I also hated – and still do). When I was in my twenties, I picked it up again, and fell head over heels in love.  Since then, I’ve read it at least once a year.  My paperback copy is worn and faded, the pages dog-eared and water-logged from too many lazy summer days by the pool lost in Regency England.  Pride & Prejudice is a truly timeless love story whose colorful characters are as familiar to me as my own family.  And it is one of the few stories I love with a happy ending because there can be no other conclusion for Lizzy and Darcy.  I feel all warm and gooey just thinking about it.

2. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – John le Carre.  This is a new addition to my favorites list.  I only finished it a few weeks ago.  There are so many things that appeal to me in this book.  1. It’s a spy thriller; 2. It’s set during the early years of the Cold War when the wall was new and Khrushchev ruled the Soviets with an iron fist of oppression. 3. It is a tale of conflicting ideologies, and a race to outsmart a perceived enemy; 4. It has a complex main character – Alec Leamus – who struggles with his own morality and humanity while doing what he thinks is best for Queen and country; and 5.  There is no happy ending – because a man like Leamus can know no peace.  Brilliant.

3. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank – This classic was also required reading in the ninth grade.  But unlike Pride & Prejudice, I was sucked in by the story and the characters from the opening scene to the telling last lines:

“We won it. We really clobbered ’em!” Hart’s eyes lowered and his arms drooped.

He said, “Not that it really matters.”

The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.”

– Alas, Babylon

I’ve always been fascinated by the Cold War and what life might have been like had that conflict turned hot.  Alas, Babylon is a fascinating study of the human condition and explores the what ifs of life after a nuclear apocalypse.  The raw devastation of this story scared the hell out of me when I was 14.  I love that.

4.  Little Women – Louisa May Alcott.  In 1974, my Nana gave me the entire Alcott series.  Of course, I was only two and didn’t appreciate the gift – and wouldn’t until around the sixth grade.  I’ve read them all, but Little Women is my favorite.  I loved Meg’s quiet resiliency, Jo’s wild spirit, Beth’s gentle heart, and Amy – well…I’m not sure I ever really liked Amy, spoiled brat that she was.  I cried when Beth died; fumed when Jo chose the Professor over Laurie even though it was for her own good; and rejoiced at the lives the March sisters carved out for themselves during such trying times.  I lost most of that series of books, including Little Women, in the house fire six years ago.  My heart still aches.

5. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck.  I love this novel.  I really do.  This was another required reading from early high school – sophomore year.  How do you describe Of Mice and Men?  Heartbreaking, disturbing, eye-opening.  Ultimately, it is a story of friendship and the deep love that comes with it.  No, there is no happy ending in this one either.  Yes, I like it that way.

Now to pay it forward.  I’m going to choose to pass this award onto a few writerly blogs I enjoy.  Of course, there is no obligation for any of my chosen recipients to participate.

Erin Elizabeth Long

Hot Pink Underwear

Be Not Afraid

4amWriter

that I have no awww moment of the week.  It’s been cold, maybe next week.

Self-shaming Novel Update

Last week’s goal:  Continue with the outline – map through to the rising action, at least.  Write Leo Baxter’s inciting incident scene. 

I’ve made some progress with the outline.  For me, it’s a slow tedious process.  I have waffled a bit on one particular element – to kill a character, or not.  Usually, I don’t have a problem with this, but I like the guy.  I’m having difficulty letting him go.  I’ll get over it.

The first blow took Leo Baxter by surprise, the second drove him to his knees.  – Retribution

I’ve been staring at this sentence for a week.  All in all, it’s not a bad first sentence for Leo’s introduction scene, even if it’s a little cliché.  I think it’s a good pushing off point for the event that spurs Anna to reenter a life she fear and loathes.  I just wish I could come up with the sentence that comes next…and the one after that…and the one after that…and so on.  Even now, as I stare at it, I am perplexed.

This is a pivotal scene, and I’m well aware of what I need to accomplish.  It’s just a matter of getting the words to flow.  I’m sure they will eventually come to me.  Probably when I’m in the shower with shampoo in my hair and no writing materials within close proximity.  Or better yet, at the gym on the elliptical with 30 minutes left on a 45 minute workout.  I’ve tried keeping a note pad and pen with me at the gym, but I’m not known for my grace, and well, I’ve almost fallen off trying to jot down an idea.

Anyway, what else have I done with regard to Retribution since I last saw you?

Very little.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

I feel I was able to accomplish part of last week’s goal.  The outline is coming together. Leo’s scene is not.  Therefore, I did not advance my word count this week.  Not a big deal. It’s not always about the word count.

Next week’s goal:  Continue plugging away at the outline.  Make a firm decision on the elimination of a certain character.  Finish Leo’s scene.

Until next time.

Self-shaming Novel Update

“Panicky despair is an underrated element of writing.”

– Dave Barry

This time last week, I was elbow deep in introduction scenes for both Anna and her brother, Aaron, and my goal was to have two completed scenes by week’s end.

Well, I accomplished half of my goal.

(golf claps all around)

Anna’s scene is rough, and bare bones, but it’s out of my head and down on paper.  Most of it works, some of it needs improvement, but that can come later.

That brings me to Aaron.

<sigh>

How do you solve a problem like Aaron?

(Yes, it’s alright to sing that the way the nuns at Nonnberg Abbey did in The Sound of Music.  I won’t tell.)

I’ve said it so many times – Aaron is a pain in my ass.  However, I think he and I have come to a degree of understanding.  He will play a less significant back up role in this story.  His only real involvement – to briefly aid Anna’s quest by using his unique skill set.  In doing so, I promised not to kill him off before the mid-point.   I thought that was an excellent compromise.

Oh, and I’ve also changed his name.  Aaron and Anna.  Oy.  What was I thinking?  He will now be known as Lenk Schuyler.  Don’t judge.  This new name fits his role and serves a purpose.

In addition to the above scenes, I also worked on reconstructing my outline.  For those of you keeping count, this is version #5.  I’ve made a lot of progress with that.  Most of it is handwritten and as I type up my chicken scratch, I have expanded upon scenes and themes, and will continue to do so.

So what’s the low down skinny?

Last week’s goal:  Two workable scenes

Actual accomplishment:  One workable scene, a character redesignation, and a partial outline.

Word count:  1688

Next week’s goal:  Continue with the outline – map through to the rising action, at least.  Write Leo Baxter’s inciting incident scene. 

Until next time.

Self-shaming Sunday Update

I have dipped my toe back into the writing pool.  It’s been a long time since I embraced my WIP and allowed it flourish.   Of course, I still have 3 finals to get through before I can completely commit myself to Anna and her plight.

In the interim, I’ve started to assess where I left off, what needs my immediate attention, and where do I want the journey to take me (and Anna, of course).  When last I left you, I had decided Anna needed a brother – a dysfunctional brother with penchant for trouble.  He’s a thief with problems.  Most of which become Anna’s.  In September, I was having trouble writing his introduction scene, and by the end of it I wanted to just kill him.  Purely a selfish urge on my part.  I didn’t like him, I still don’t like him.  I resent what he is  doing to my story.  Irrational?  Maybe a little.

I am starting fresh with the outline.  Yes, for those of you keeping track – this is outline number 5.   My favorite number.  A good omen?  I’m going to go for optimism here and say, yes.

So, today I am working on two scenes:

Aaron – an introduction to a thief (in action).  He will nearly die.  I will enjoy writing that part, I think.  Of course, he will not die because this incident will spur Anna to reenter a life she left behind a long time ago.

Anna – an introduction.  Her life after the thing that happened years ago that sent her into seclusion.  I do have a great opening written for her in my previous draft.  I am going to recycle it as a flashback scene.  It was too good to give up.  (I am going to choose to ignore Bill Chance’s voice as he tells me: “If you love it, delete it.”)

So there you have it.

Word Count:  0

Next weeks goal:  Drafted introduction scenes for Anna and Aaron.

To read or not to read?

As I wrote in my last blog entry, I’ve just finished reading John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  Prior to that I read a few –  okay, eight – Daniel Silva novels in a row.  As much as it pains me to say, I think I am a little spied out at the moment.

So, this bears the question:  What do I read next?  What am I in the mood for?

I have no idea.

I’ve been engulfed in academic reading for so long I’ve scarcely paid attention to what’s trending on the bestseller list.  I suppose I could pursue my nightstand for something.  On second thought, it seems my choices are limited:  Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Lawrence Schiffman’s Qumran and Jerusalem:  Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism, Elaine Pagels’ Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, and Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books 9-11.

Doesn’t excite you either?

I’ve read the Agatha Christie a dozen times.  I know who killed poor Mrs. Leidner and Miss Johnson, and how Hercules Poirot brilliantly deduces the crimes.  After the semester I’ve had the last thing I want to read is scholarly works – Schiffman and Pagels are out.  And as I said above, I’m a little sick of the spy game right now.  I want something a bit more frivolous.  Something that doesn’t require too much thought.

So, what are the hip kids reading these days?

Fifty Shade of Grey.  Paranormal…everything.  Vampires and zombies and werewolves.

Oh my.

I’m going to take a pass on those for right now, because just the thought makes me want to put an ice pick in my brain.

I think it would be best to consult the experts over at Goodreads.

Here are a few on my recommendation page:

1.  Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn:  A psychological thriller with a missing wife and a suspicious husband.  Hmmm…this might have potential, though I am not sure I am in the mood for something so heavy.

2.  The Seventh Scroll – Wilbur Smith:  An archaeological adventure story set in Egypt – sort of an Indiana Jones meets Romancing the Stone.  Definitely different from my usual fare these days.

3.  Crocodile on the Sandbank (An Amelia Peabody adventure) – Elizabeth Peters:  I was skeptical about this Goodreads choice, but the consensus labels it a fun read.  Brain candy.  I could use a little brain candy.

4.  Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff:  Hmmm…I see a pattern evolving.  Goodreads thinks I need to go to Egypt.

5.  Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith:  I’ve seen the movie.  Loved it.  I count it as one of my favorite Cold War murder mysteries.  But, it is a little on the dark side.

Not recommended by Goodreads, but a book I downloaded to my Kindle a couple of weeks ago:

6.  Bound:  J. Elizabeth Hill:  I am actually in the process of reading this novel.  It comes from my WP friend over at Word Flows.  It’s her first publication and has received some great reviews.  I’ll be the first to admit magic and fantasy aren’t something I gravitate to when choosing reading material, but so far it’s a captivating and intriguing story.  Go check this one out for yourself.

So, what are you reading?  I’m open to suggestions.

A book signing

I went to a book signing yesterday.

A bit out of the norm for me.  There are very few things that can entice me enough to schlep down into the city, fight crowds of rude strangers,and waste hours standing in line doing nothing but waiting.  I won’t do it for a Black Friday deal.  I won’t do it for a movie premiere.  I wouldn’t do it to meet Sting.

I will do it for Daniel Silva and his master Israeli spy/assassin/art restorer, Gabriel Allon.

I went early in the morning with the intention of getting some writing done.  I did, though not as much as I would have liked.  You see, I have a problem.  I am an addicted people-watcher, so writing in public often proves distracting.  Yesterday was no different.

While I sat in the café, sipping a venti unsweetened iced green tea, my writing flow was continuously interrupted.  First, there was the two women who wanted to know if my name was Kristin.  No, not me.   Then there was the older woman in a burnt orange blouse, lime green Crocs, holding a moderately sized postal box.  Her fidgeting was what initially caught my eye.  She didn’t order a drink, couldn’t sit still, and at times, paced.  At first, I thought maybe I should be worried about the contents of her box.  I mean, if I were writing this scene, there would be something like wires, a brick of C4, and a cell phone detonator in that box.  After ten minutes or so, I realized she must be waiting for someone.  I imagined it was a date with a man she’d met on a matchmaking website.  I wondered if she shouldn’t have maybe picked a different shirt to go with those shoes.  She definitely was not dressed for husband nabbing.  Turns out she did not have a bomb, and she wasn’t on a blind date.  She was a calligrapher.  Inside the box were beautifully addressed wedding invitations.  The bride-to-be was late, paid by check, and didn’t seem to notice the older woman’s lack of fashion sense.   I was disappointed.

Around eleven, a flash of movement in my peripheral drew my attention away from Anna and her troubles.  It took a second or two for my brain to register what my eyes were seeing.  Jerry Garcia, wearing a brightly hued Hawaiian-style bowler shirt over faded blue jeans and Birkenstocks, was unwrapping a straw for his blended frappuccino – caramel macchiato with no whip, if I were a betting gal.  As he walked away slurping, I texted my husband.  His reply: “You know he’s dead, right?”  Killjoy.

At noon, I moved my party upstairs.  I wanted to get my choice of seats.  I did.  Row one, seat 4.  Right in front of the podium and signing table.  A half an hour later, an older gentleman sat down one seat over from me.  He quietly read his book – not a Silva novel. Tsk tsk.  A few minutes later, a bulldog of a man with a shiny bald head sat between us.  They were friends, but their meeting here was by chance.  They chatted like catty women.  First, bemoaning the pros and cons of employment.  The bald man has a job in the surgical department of a local trauma center, the other was an IT technician who failed to keep up with changing technology.  He blames his troubles on his age – 68.  As happens, they soon began to compare their various health issues.  These conversations always make me smile.  It’s like a competition.  Who has had the most surgeries?  The most chronic diseases?  As it turns out, both men have had prostate cancer – with troubling complications.  I could describe for you in grave detail the extent of their complications, but it would likely scar you for life.  I know I will never be the same.

Thirty minutes out from the main event, the venti iced green tea I drank earlier came back to haunt me.  I needed to use the restroom, but I didn’t want to give up my prime seat.  I asked the elderly woman to my right if she would hold my spot while I ran downstairs. She smiled, patted my arm, and pulled a menacing cane from underneath her seat.  She said: “Go right ahead, honey.  I got my cane. I’ll whack ‘em if they get too close.”  Yikes.

silvaAt 2, Daniel Silva arrived with little fanfare.  He was much as I expected.  Handsome in that scholarly way, with an unassuming air and an intelligent wit.  He spoke of his characters with the love of a proud father.  I found it endearing.  I also thought he exhibited a great deal of patience with the group gathered, especially during the question and answer segment.  Some asked interesting questions; some did not.  A few even bordered on offensively stupid.  He handled it smoothly, though there were two occasions when I swear I saw his right eye twitch.

Or maybe not.

I had two books signed, took several photos for the little old lady with the cane and her friend, and left before the SRO crowd swooped in for the kill.

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