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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