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


Things I learned this week…and more

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

– William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

I learned this week…

…that finding a link between Truman’s Cold War policies and the civil rights movement is easy.  Writing a paper arguing the connection is not.  I can’t remember the last time I wanted to bang my head against my desk….oh wait…yes, I do.   Last semester when I wrote that paper about Thomas Hobbes and absolute power.

…that waiting for my professor to grade the above-mentioned paper is excruciating.  Generally speaking, I am a pretty patient person.  I don’t get too worked up about things, and I’m far from someone who requires instant gratification.  Except when it comes to my writing.  I think, in part, this speaks to the level of insecurities I have about my own ability as a writer.  I worked hard to construct a meaningful work, and when I submitted it to my professor, I was confident I hit the mark.  Now, more than a week and a half later, I’m having doubts.  Did I take the topic in the right direction?  Is it in-depth enough?  Is it too detailed?  Have I made a persuasive argument? Should I have picked this particular subject matter knowing my professor is a Cold War enthusiast?

As you can see, the wait is killing me.  I have gnawed my fingernails to the quick and am currently resisting the overwhelming urge to drop by his office unannounced or send him a string of stalker emails with the following:

“Have you graded my paper yet?  Have you?  Have you? Have you?”

“Did you like it?  You liked it, right?  Say you liked it.  You didn’t like it, did you?  Damn it.”

“Please, please, please Dr. P, grade my paper.  I need to know.  Like, now.  Before I die from not knowing.”

“Ugh!  Tell me!”

…that despite my best efforts, I’m still prone to bouts of resentment.  I like to think that I have evolved enough to rise above the pettiness and spite that comes with disdain, but in truth, I have not.   I’ve complained ad nauseam about my group project.  It’s been the bane of my existence for weeks now.  Last Friday, we did our final presentation.  Two of us earned an A.  The rest of the group…well…frankly, got a free A to boost their lagging course grade.  And yes, that boasts of bitterness.   And no, I don’t care.  I’m not feeling overly charitable at the moment.   I have marked them all off my Christmas cookie list.

…that I’m going to have to take some sort of statistics class.  That really pisses me off.    So much so, that I can’t bring myself to find any humor in it.  Give me a week or two.

…that my spare bedroom furniture will soon be gone and I will be the proud new occupant of my very own home office space.  I’m over the moon about it.  My family is pretty stoked, too.  They will finally be able to venture into the kitchen without being leveled by my stink eye for disturbing my creative vibe.

…that I’ve lost ten pounds since the beginning of the semester.  Stress is a hell of a diet plan.  I don’t recommend it.  I’m a firm believer in healthy weight loss – i.e. eating rabbit food and sweating like a pig.  However, I’ve got to say, it’s kinda nice knowing I’m going into the holiday baking season with a little wiggle room.   Bring on the snicker doodles!  And the chocolate peanut butter fudge, and the peppermint almond bark, and the cocoa ginger crisps…

…that I think I am looking forward to the holidays.

I’ll give you a minute to absorb that.

Okay.  Are you good?  No one needs medical attention?

I’m not a big fan of this time of year.  I dislike the clutter, the crowds, and the commerciality of it all.  Yes, this makes me a jerk.  I’m alright with that.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because it bears repeating) – my ideal holiday involves sun, white sandy beaches, and a margarita – or ten.  I make no apologies for myself.

I feel a little different this year.  I find myself wanting to drag out that damn tree and all its messy trimmings.  I’ve bought a half a dozen Christmas gifts, scoped out a few more, and ordered my Christmas cards.  I even R.S.V.P.’d to an annual Christmas party I have successfully avoided…well…always.  Of course, I’m not sure this last one counts.  It’s being held in the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and I’ll admit to an ulterior motive in accepting the invite.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with me.  I fear someone might have forgotten to wash their hands and has now infected me with the Christmas spirit.  Not cool, people.  Not. Cool.

…that Princess Kate is going to have a baby, and is suffering from a bad bout of morning sickness.  Okay, I love the romantic notion of the Royals as much as the next gal, but is this really front page, above-the-fold, news?  Call me a killjoy (it’s okay, I’ve been called worse), but I think the looming fiscal cliff, the UN recognition of a Palestinian state (and the Israeli reaction), the absence of good faith negotiations and compromise in government policy making,  the implication that the Syrian government may be contemplating the use of chemical weapons, the moving of Patriot missiles to Turkey, and…oh yes…the new Egyptian’s president’s move toward a totalitarian government just a tad more important than a Royal bun-in-the-oven.

But what do I know.

…that I do love a story without a happy ending.  Why?  Because life is messy, and happy endings are the stuff of legends and fairy tales.  Cynical?  No.  Realist.

I just finished John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  It’s an early Cold War spy thriller set in 1963 when the Wall was new, Germany was divided, and Khrushchev ruled over the Soviet Union.  The thing I love about this story is that there is no clearly defined good guy or bad guy.  Certainly there is the fundamental clash of ideologies – individualism and democracy vs. totalitarian socialism, but what you see in this novel is a questioning of morality on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and the lengths each will go in order to advance their political belief systems.  I found it a fascinating study of human nature.

“A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers.  In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility that most of us can acquire.” – John le Carre

“People who play this game take risks.  Fielder lost, Mundt won. London won – that’s the point.  It was a foul, foul operation.  But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule.”  – Alec Leamas

And as always, I am amazed by le Carre’s ability to weave such an intricate story with arcing tension without the use gratuitous action.

…that this blog entry seems to be nothing more than one big negative rant-fest.  My inner rebellious self seems to be in a bad mood this week.  I shall have to work on that.

…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by my silly dog, Rocco.  I went a little snap-happy with the camera this week and he let me know it was not cool.  It’s the same look my daughter gives me.

IMG_0471

Frisco Heritage Museum

This past spring, I discovered the Frisco Heritage Museum in Frisco, Texas.   Initially, I went to fulfill an extra credit assignment given by my Western Civilization professor.  I was to view the Quanah Parker photo exhibit and answer a series of questions.  I did.  It was a fascinating lesson in the struggle between the native tribal population in Texas and Oklahoma, and the pioneers who settled the land in the mid-nineteenth century.  The photos told of the bloody toll the clash of cultures took on both sides, and chronicled the rise of the last Comanche chief from local tribesman to national statesman.

The museum is also host to a number of other permanent exhibits that highlight the city’s one hundred year history.  Who knew that this bustling economic and retail hub was once just a dusty stop on the Shawnee Trail?

To give the visitor a first hand reminder of Frisco’s rich history, the grounds are home to a handful of historical buildings that date back to it’s inception.  There’s a train depot – complete with train, the Lebanon Baptist Church, an old windmill, the Crozier-Sickles house, and the Smith-Muse house.  They are all wonderfully preserved and give an insightful glimpse into the past.

I’ve been back several times now, camera in hand.  This weekend, I stumbled across some photos I took on my last trip.   Hope you enjoy.

IMG_4510

IMG_3275

IMG_4493

IMG_4487

IMG_4521

Things I learned on vacation…

…and beyond.

You might have noticed that, with the exception of a few photographs, I’ve been largely absent from the blog in recent weeks.

Or then again, maybe you haven’t. 

That’s okay.  Sometimes, I don’t even notice when I’m missing. 

June turned out to be busier than I anticipated.  I had an impromptu week-long visit from two of my nephews, participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, turned forty, traveled to our nation’s capital on vacation with the family, and had an unexpected sharp increase in caseload at the office.  This inability to adequately judge my level of anticipated activity seems to be a recurring theme in my life.  You would think by now I’d have worked out the kinks.

As you can imagine, all of this activity came with a laundry list of new things learned.  Over the last month, I learned…

…that no matter how you try to spin it, turning forty sucks.  And, please, spare me the “forty is the new thirty” bullshit.  Turning thirty sent me into a depression so deep it took four years to recover.

…that my nephews think that I may not be completely human.  Here’s how that conversation went:

Nephew #1:  Aunt Peggy, don’t you ever get tired of typing (I was working on my NaNoWriMo word count).

Me:   No.

Nephew #2 (in a hushed voice):   Aunt Peggy is a cyborg.

This revelation was followed by a fit of giggles.   Of course, in response, I gave them my best stink eye.  I have a reputation to uphold, after all.  This earned me a fresh round of giggles.  It seems my stink eye needs an upgrade.  I’ll have to work on that.

…that as humans, we have been conditioned to stand in line, to patiently wait our turn. It is ingrained in our psyche even as we whine and cry and complain about it.  If you have ever had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. or any tourist hot spot, for that matter, you know that a great deal of time is spent standing in line.  There are lines for transportation, lines for security, lines for admittance, lines for viewing.  It is the way the world works, and something that we’ve come to accept as the natural order of our day-to-day lives.  It brings us comfort, gives us a sense of organization, and takes the thought process out of our hands.

At the National Archives, they like to mix it up a bit.    Sure, they shuffle you in like herds of cattle.  Force you through a line for the metal detector, another to search your bag, then corral you into a long snake-like line at the base of the steps into “the vault.”   However, once you cross the threshold into the room that holds our nation’s most revered documents, the rules of the game suddenly shift.   You will be instructed to go against your intrinsic nature.  Lines are not permitted.  You must move freely about the room and view the displays at your leisure.  Such a radical departure from the norm will cause you to cast a panicked look at the person standing behind you.  They will appear as shell-shocked as you feel.  No lines?  Crazy talk.  That’s simply not the way these things are supposed to work.  Of course, in reality such instructions are futile.  Humans behave invariably in the manner in which they are most accustom.  On my visit to the National Archives, that’s exactly what the masses did – they filed into the room, walked directly to the exhibit at the far left, and worked steadily to the right, in a nice neat single file line.  Myself included.

No line?

That’s the most barbaric thing I’ve ever heard.

…that in large metropolitan areas where public transportation is consistently utilized, there are rules of etiquette that must be followed when riding the escalators that lead to and from the underground metro system.  Stand to the right, or get your ass run over.  Lesson learned.

…that my family doesn’t understand or share my love for history.  This week I learned that some of the Dead Sea scroll fragments, along with other artifacts from the time period, are on exhibit just up the road in Ft. Worth.   So thrilling!  After a little digging, I discovered that in addition to the exhibit, there will be a series of lectures offered on varying subjects related to the scrolls and their impact on the history of Judaism and beyond.   I enthusiastically shared this news with my husband, my mother, my best friend, and my daughter.  All of them metaphorically patted me on the head and said “you have fun with that.”  I guess that means I shouldn’t buy them a ticket.

…that taking 5 days off in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo is detrimental to the success of the project.  I did manage to rack up 30,000 words in the first 20 days.  That’s pretty darn good for me so I’m going to take a page out of the Book of Sheen and declare myself a winner.

…that the path that hugs the Tidal Basin and offers up a view of the Jefferson Memorial across the water, looks better in my head than it does in person. I will now have to adapt a scene I’ve already written to accommodate the lack of suitable spots for a clandestine meeting.  Bummer.

…that my daughter thinks my detailed character profiles complete with photographs are “cute.”   I’m not really sure, but I think she is mocking me.

…that last, but not least, this week’s (month’s) awww moment is brought to you by a duck I encountered while visiting the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.  I had the distinct impression that he was a waterfowl on a mission.  His waddle was very determined.

IMG_3693