Embarrassment of Riches TBR: May check-in

Better late than never.

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 have been intending to read, but never got around to picking up.

Given the size of the pile I have amassed, I am aiming to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

So what did I read in May?

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre:  I’m a sucker for a good spy novel, and le Carre’s George Smiley just might be my favorite fictional spy of all time.  Tinker is set in the early seventies and weaves the reader through a spine-tingling maze of betrayal and treason as Smiley seeks to discover the mole within the “Circus” – a mole channeling operational intelligence to the KGB.  The plot twists and turn as Smiley works to corner his prey, and in the process, exposes each of a wide cast of characters’ deepest, darkest secrets.  I loved this book, though perhaps not quite as much as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was a work of pure genius, but Tinker is definitely true to the brilliance of le Carre’s mastery of the genre.

Albright

  • Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War:  1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright:  It took me a while to get through this work of non-fiction – three months, perhaps.  That’s not to say it wasn’t a good read.  It was.  I just found it tedious.  Albright is a thorough writer with a quick wit and offers up an unexpected barb or two to lighten up the heaviness of the period, but she tends to bury the reader in too much prologue and back history.  The personal stories about her family experiences, memories of the war, and unrealized Jewish heritage were fascinating, though.  I’m glad I took the time to finally finish it.
  • I also finished Gospel of Freedom by Jonathan Rieder.  Gospel is an interesting work that puts King’s iconic Birmingham jail letter into historical context.  This was a new approach to this letter to me.  I have read it before, but always from a literary perspective – audience, prose, etc.   It’s not my favorite book on King, but I think any criticism I have stems from the writer’s tendency to ramble.  Of course, this a new publication and not from my TBR list, but…

Currently reading:

  • The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva:  I believe this is Silva’s first novel, and not at all what I was expecting.  It’s set during World War II – didn’t see that coming; probably should have read the cover blurb.  It’s also told from so many points of view, I have trouble keeping track of who’s who.  Unlike his Allon novels, the hero is lukewarm and somewhat uninteresting.  I find myself drawn to the female antagonist even though I know she is the enemy.  She’s so much more engaging.  Perhaps this is Silva’s intent.  He has done this before – painted the bad guy in a sympathetic light, though not to this extent.  We shall see how it ends.  I will report back.
  • Mark of the Assassin by Daniel Silva:  Six chapters in and I haven’t met the hero yet.  I don’t hold out much hope.  It is obvious that Silva hasn’t hit his stride yet.

Progress toward goal:  9 of 24 read.

I need to step up my game.

So, what are you reading?

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.

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.

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Things I learned this week

“A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it.” 

John le Carre

I’m on a bit of an early Cold War era spy kick right now.  Two reason for this:  I am writing a paper for my African-American history class that explores the Cold War’s influence on the civil rights movement; and I recently picked up a couple of John le Carre novels at my local second-hand bookseller.

I don’t have the luxury of a lot of free time this semester.  I spend most of my days immersed in a bubbling vat filled with school, work, and family obligations.  However, I have been able to sneak in a few minutes here and there – mostly in the carpool line – to delve into the 1963 classic The Spy who Came in from the Cold and the dark world of aging British spy, Alex Leamus.  It’s not a book packed with action.  Indeed, most of the story plays out within Leamus’ head as he struggles to find moral justification for his life’s work.  I find his introspection fascinating.  John le Carre is a master of his craft, and I am more than a little jealous of the intricate and thrilling story he weaves – without blowing anything up.  Amazing.

Alright, so now that I’ve bored you to tears with my spontaneous book review, let’s get down to business.  I’ve learned a lot this week.  Some good; some not so much; all of it meaningful to my journey of self-discovery.

I learned this week:

that I missed having the BFF around.   This week she and I were able to meet in the middle of the day, on a whim, for a little coffee and girl talk.  It’s been years since we’ve lived close enough to do that.  It was a fabulous way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

(rant of the week)

…that sometimes I expect too much from of my higher education experience – and my professors expect too little from their students.   As I’ve said before, I am in the midst of the group project hell.  In general, I struggle with these sort of things because a) I am a control freak; b) anything less than perfection is failure; and c) I am an introvert who finds prolonged interaction with people I don’t know (or necessarily like) exhausting.  It is no different with this project, though I do generally like the members of the group.

This assignment is two part:  written paper and oral presentation.  Everyone has an individual part to play, but success is contingent upon cohesion.  Bearing this in mind, I took my portion of the paper to my professor for help with an unusual citation.  I would hate to get it wrong and the group grade suffer for my incompetence.

He took it from me, read the first line, looked up at me over his reading glasses and said:  “Are these your own words?”

I said:  “What?  Of  course, they are my own words.  Why on earth would you ask me that?”

I glanced down at my paper because, by this time I couldn’t remember what I had written to illicit such a reaction.  It was a simple opening statement, short and to the point.  No fuss, no muss.  No ten dollar words.  Nothing complicated or provocative.  As you might imagine, I went through a medley of emotions:  shock, indignation, anger.  He backtracked then, but the damage was done.  I walked away from the conversation feeling irritated, more than a little offended, and wondering why I was voluntarily subjecting myself to such nonsense.

Over the next few days, the group began to email me their portions of the paper for editing.  My professor’s cynical attitude solidified before my eyes.  It turns out that decent writing in these sort of survey courses is not necessarily the norm.  Needless to say, I was flabbergasted by the lack of quality, and dare I say, effort, I found in their work.  While I understand everyone has different writing skills and styles, I had expected by this stage in the game, they would have gained the ability to produce a passably intelligent product – with complete coherent sentences.  You know, with a noun, a verb, and the occasional adverb or two thrown in for good measure.

I was wrong.  Lesson learned.

…that my dog’s most prized possession is his raw hide chewy thing, and it is imperative that it be kept stashed in a secret spot until it is time to finish it off.   As a novice dog mom, I am perplexed by canine behavior.  Cats are easy and predictable.  They expect to be fed, acknowledged upon demand, and left alone to nap wherever they choose.  Dogs are different.  Mine reminds me of a mischievous toddler – left to his own devices, mayhem ensues.

While in the backyard this week, I  watched Rocco dig feverishly in a remote corner.  I went to investigate.  He was burying his chewy thing.  I’m not sure why he thinks such a drastic thing is necessary, but there was an air of desperation in his actions.  I suppose he could be worried about a cat uprising.  He is, after all, the only dog in a houseful of felines.  He would be stupid not to feel a little paranoia.  I’m sure even as I type this they are plotting something diabolical.  Hmmm…it seems I understand Rocco a little better than I thought.

…that Skyfall is the best damn Bond movie I’ve ever seen.  And I’ve seen them all.  Multiple times.  In the beginning, I wasn’t thrilled with the choice of Daniel Craig for the part.  When they announced it, I was peeved.  He didn’t fit.  He wasn’t right.  I swore I wouldn’t see Casino Royale.  I was convinced it would be complete shit.  Then  I saw it.  I was speechless.  Bond had evolved.  He was grittier, rougher around the edges.  There was a vulnerability emulating from him, giving him a new level of humanity and mortality.  Despite all of my efforts to the contrary, I liked the film- I liked Daniel Craig as Bond.  I went into Skyfall with high expectations.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with another review.  If you like this sort of thing, go see it for yourself.  Tell me what you think.

…that my daughter has suddenly decided that jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets is not so repulsive after all.  I’m not real sure what to make of this sudden shift, but rest assured there is a boy involved.

that last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by a ladybug I stumbled across in the garden.  He was an uncooperative subject who dodged my best efforts to shoot him from his more photogenic side.  It was almost as if he was mooning me.  Surely not.

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Things I learned this week…um…last month

“Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.”  – John le Carre

I’ve fallen off of the WordPress wagon again.

My tumble was (and still is) completely unavoidable and entirely of my own doing. You see, in my single-minded desire to realize my academic endgame, I constructed a semester devoid of that frivolous little thing called free-time. I don’t even have time to do the things I need to do.   I guess it’s true what they say about hindsight.  I’m sure I will find the humor in my predicament – eventually.  Perhaps when I have more time.

I learned this week (last month)…

…that the best part of fall has passed me by with nary a whisper.  Sure, I went to the state fair with my family and friends.  Sure, I ate a fried Samoa – it was yummy.  Sure, I hated the crowd and swore I would never go again.  But, that’s all I did to pay homage to my favorite of all seasons.  I didn’t schlep down to the local pumpkin patch with a horde of children in tow.  I didn’t spend hours meandering through rows of fat gourds looking for just the right one to guard my door against the ghouls and goblins of Halloween.  I haven’t taken the time to find where I stashed my fall decorations.  I haven’t bothered to darken the door of my favorite coffee shop in search of a full-fat, sugar-laced pumpkin spice latte.  There simply hasn’t been any time to do all of these things I love, and now the holiday season stands looming on the horizon, bearing down on me with an intensity that takes my breath away.   Perhaps this year would be a good time to make good on my threat to spend the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the New Year on a remote Caribbean beach sipping frozen margaritas and listening to Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits.

…that dogs are weird.  I am a cat person, and have been for as long as I can remember.  My husband is a dog person.  He’s an accommodating man who loves me, and therefore has suffered a houseful of cats for some 17 years.  This week, we adopted a cute little dog from a local animal shelter.   We are still in the learning stages, trying to figure out how to be dog people.  I must say, our new addition to the family is a strange fellow who loves to roll around in the grass, steal acorns from under the oak tree in the backyard, and bury his gross chewy things between the couch cushions.   I do think I may love our sweet Rocco, though I do find my preoccupation with his bodily functions rather disturbing…and disgusting.

…that it is possible to earn an A on a Geology exam.  Could I actually pull an A for the semester in this class?  The hopeless dreamer in me says: Yes!  You can accomplish anything you set your sights on.  The nagging realist says:  Don’t be stupid (as he cuffs the hopeless dreamer in the head and slinks off to outline yet another mind numbing textbook chapter).

…that Ben Affleck’s Argo was everything it was supposed to be and much more.  I was born in the early seventies and the Iran Hostage Crisis was my first exposure to the ugliness that lived just beyond my safe haven.  Of course, at the tender age of 8, I was incapable of appreciating the magnitude of the situation; that this deplorable action was a calculated reaction to a foreign policy put in place decades prior.  Argo lays out the politics of the time, the road that led the Iranians down the path of revolution, and the role the American government played in the rise of the decidedly anti-Western sentiment that had enveloped the region.  There is an element of humor to this film that I was initially put off by given the seriousness of the subject matter, but as the story unfolded, and the tension began to build, it seemed to bring a much needed balance.   My only complaints:  the unnecessary cleaning up and “happy ending” of main character Tony Mendez’s personal life – completely irrelevant to the story at large, and Affleck’s homage to President Jimmy Carter that followed the closing credits.  While I understand old Ben’s undeniable biases, I felt that it was a little like a rewriting of history and an attempt to polish Carter’s tarnished presidency.  Of course, this opinion is largely brought about by my own biases, so my suggestion:  see it for yourself and drawn your own conclusions.  Next on my list of must see movies – Bond.  James Bond.

(Cue theme music now)

…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by Rocco, the newest member of the Isaacs’ family.  He is as sweet as he is adorable.  We are very lucky to have found him.

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