Category Archives: Books

getting out of my own way


pizza at pagliai’s; hamm’s beer and cheeseburgers at george’s; the haunted bookshop; and street art

B & I had a great visit in northside Iowa City. In my estimation, he picked the perfect neighborhood to live in, and we spent our two days together enjoying it. The sun was shining and the weather was milder than Michigan; we ran down around the University of Iowa campus, ate cheeseburgers at George’s (dive bar extraordinaire) and browsed at the Haunted Bookshop where I finally spotted the other resident cat (I had to go both days).


We finally watched one of the Oscar-nominated films (I don’t think either of us had seen any of them yet) – Three Billboards. Although the casting was wonderful, the movie itself perplexed and annoyed both of us. Spoiler Alert –> Couldn’t they have just focused on the ensemble cast and the themes of grief and vengeance and foregone the Molotov cocktails and the throwing of people out of windows?

It was a short visit (made shorter by Daylight Savings) and all too soon I was back in my car for the six hour journey home. I picked an Audible unabridged version of Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me” (about her relationship with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy). Unfortunately, this book is leaving me perplexed and annoyed as well, and not just because Ted Bundy was an evil maniac. It’s making me feel as though maybe I’m just an overly critical consumer of entertainment. I’m not quite done with it yet, so I will refrain from sharing my feelings about it until I am.

Back home; I am plunged into preparations for Book Fair and fighting a sore throat and rampant ennui. I feel woefully inadequate for the tasks ahead of me in the next week and a half and I am trying to focus on a passage I read in the Crosswick Journals by Madeline L’Engle (a battered three-volume set that I picked up for a song at the aforementioned Haunted Bookshop, and which is filled with more wonderful quotes and musings than I can possibly begin to digest – and while I’m at it allow me to confess one additional thing that may prove my point about being overly critical – I am deeply suspicious of the new movie version of “A Wrinkle In Time” – deeply – and not just because it is packed with Oprah and “big names” – although that might be part of it):

“A winter ago I was asked by the Children’s Book Council to write a story, and agreed to do so. I was telling Tallis about it, and said, “I’m really very nervous about this.” He looked at me contemptuously: “You don’t think you’re going to have anything to do with it, do you?” “No,” I retorted, “but I could get in the way.”

Here’s to getting out of our own way. xo


2018 reading challenge update

Every year I set a reading challenge (number of books, book genres) – this year it’s 52 books with at least 10 being non-fiction / historical / biographical. Despite having a lot of mandated reading while I was taking my course, I also (somehow) found time to do a fair bit of reading in January and February. This list isn’t comprehensive; just a few picks that I’ve enjoyed so far in 2018.

Windigo Moon: A Novel of Native America, Robert Downes – I picked this up at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor over Christmas as they always have a table of suggested books (and they have a great assortment of Michigan history, local authors, etc). It caught my interest because it told the story of an Ojibwe clan and many of the locales were in northern Michigan – places that I know and love. If you like history, and stories of Native Americans, or are specifically a northern Michigan buff, this is a nice read.
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan – I heard a Slate Audio Book Club podcast about this and although they tended to like her prior work better, they had enough kind things to say about her writing in general that I reserved it at the library. I enjoyed it as an eccentric historical novel, about a young woman’s desire to be a diver in New York during World War II; her missing father, disabled sister, and a local gangster play large roles. Her writing is spectacular and  I loved the main character’s sense of independence and determination.
Dance Dance Dance, Haruki Murakami – I think I am destined to love everything by Murakami and want to read his entire catalogue. This is actually #4 in a series but as I haven’t read the previous 3 I think I can attest that it works just fine as a stand-alone. His writing is lyrical and simple and yet deep-diving and I find myself laughing out loud at some of his turns of phrase. The main character describes his work as freelance magazine writer as “shoveling snow” – “You do it because somebody’s got to, not because it’s fun.” “Shoveling snow, huh?” she mused. “Well, you know, cultural snow,” I said.” Since I read this passage, everything that I do that I have to do has become “shoveling snow” and in some cases this applies to actually shoveling real snow. 🙂
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser – This was my first non-fiction pick for the year. If you’re a fan of Little House, but you want the real story – and to view it in the context of the country as a whole at that particular time in history, this book is for you. Exhaustively researched, this sets forth the true chronology of Laura Ingalls’ childhood travels across the West and paints her family as real people, with human failings. Their travels were considerably more complicated than her famous books depict, more traumatic and at times desperate. The concept of Manifest Destiny loomed large over the Ingalls family, but even in that era where whites were free to take and take, they were unable to gain a foothold. At least one of their moves was so Pa could outrun a debt. Almanzo didn’t have good judgement with money either. Laura was set to work, young, to help provide for her family, working in hotels and as a seamstress in less than ideal conditions. Rose Wilder Lane likely suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and her relationship with her parents was fraught with codependence and control issues. I found this book entirely fascinating and satisfying.


I had a break in my classwork for a few days and it seemed so strange not to be sneaking textbooks to work and scheduling tests and essays…but I got used to it!! I spent the time finishing my Christmas shopping (thank God for Amazon Prime), and doing a bit of knitting, and some reading for fun.

11.2017_house slipper
I finished these simple house slippers (Raveled here) – originally for me, but I made them a bit too small, so they ended up going to my daughter. She was happy with the gift (“elf slippers” she called them) but she probably won’t get much use out of them – her socks are one of the first things she sheds when she gets home and even in the dead of winter she runs around inside the house barefoot. I can’t imagine this as I’m always freezing.

This pattern was quirky as it started flat but then finished in the round, and got stitched up the back. This seems to make the heel a little prone to slip down the back of the foot, at least on L’s pair. I think I’m going to try them again for myself so I can really get a feel for whether that’s a problem.

I’m doing a bit of Christmas knitting for a girlfriend, and am planning to cast on for a pair of socks soon. I really liked the Jaywalker pattern that I did an eon ago in Australia and still wear them quite a bit. And now that I know how to properly Kitchener stitch the toes, I don’t feel so inclined to search out a toe-up pattern.

As far as reading goes, I’m halfway through “The Bear and the Nightingale”, by Katherine Arden, which I didn’t expect to catch my interest as much as it has. It’s a medieval Russian fairytale and although the main character struck me as being a bit of a “plucky girl” stereotype (you know the kind – tomboyish, can’t be tamed, the despair of her family as they try to make her fit into the male-dominated world they live in) she’s also very likeable and endearing. This is the first book in what Arden is calling the “Winternight Trilogy” and the sequel is due in December.

I’m also plodding through “Wolf by Wolf” by Ryan Graudin. In reverse of “Bear”, I expected to love this one instantly and yet so far, it hasn’t caught my interest in much more than a dutiful manner. It’s an alternate historical fiction with the premise that the Axis powers won WWII, and used their experimentation on war prisoners to create people capable of shapeshifting, taking on the physical attributes of another human. There’s a brief interview with the author here. I love historical fiction and yet this one just isn’t doing it for me.

I listened to an audio book club review of “Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan and put it on my library hold list. I understand that she is quite a brilliant writer and that some of her prior works have been innovative. This one was described as less revolutionary and more like a “comfortable Thanksgiving dinner” of a historical novel which is definitely more my speed.

And to round off this mishmash of nonsense, if you’re looking for a good recipe for leftovers, try this. I was scrolling through Instagram on the day after Thanksgiving when a picture of this pot pie came up and both B & I thought it looked good for our leftover turkey. It really was! I’m a big fan of the pot pie genre and I’m an even bigger fan of being able to use leftovers in a tasty and appealing way. I liked it so much, in fact, that it went into my rotation this week at home (using leftover chicken).
Hope you are all enjoying your week as much as I am. xo

2016: My Year in Books

I set a reading challenge of 50 books in 2016 (I include graphic novels but NOT audiobooks) and squeaked in by the skin of my teeth during the last week of the year!

Books I enjoyed the most:

The Robert Galbraith series – The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil. I love a good mystery and extra points if it is British and has a totally engaging, complex, interesting pair of leads.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter – I liked the series but the book is SO.MUCH.BETTER. Mainly because they are so damn funny. I followed this book up by listening to a couple of the others on audio and they were addictive, especially with the author’s quirky, quietly menacing voice narrating. Gory, though, so not for the faint of heart.

Americas’ First Daughter – about Martha Jefferson Randolph, extra points for history lessons.

The Miniaturist – I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did, it’s a bit of an odd tale about 17th century Amsterdam and hinges on a mysterious family, a fortune in sugar, a reluctant marriage, and a lot of commentary on gender and race mixed in.

City of Mirrors – Love Justin Cronin’s “Passage” trilogy of vampire pandemic and I can never resist a good post-apocalyptic yarn.

Books I enjoyed the least:

I like to focus on the positive so I won’t dwell on this – I’ll merely say that Julian Barnes’
“The Sense of an Ending” didn’t do much for me and neither did Kate Morton’s “The Forgotten Garden”.

I’ve set a goal of 52 books for 2017 – same rules apply, graphic novels count but audiobooks don’t. I’d love to hear any recommendations, comments, or links to your own reading lists.

Happy Reading!

2016: My Year in Books

book review: The Likeness, Tana French

I’ve been a big Tana French fan for a few years now, and when I had some credits available on Audible, I spent one on an audiobook of “The Likeness”, which is #2 in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I’d enjoyed the first Dublin Murder Squad novel, “In the Woods”, and had jumped around to read #3 and #4, “Faithful Place” and “Broken Harbor” – both of which I also really liked. French is an engaging author, and writes complex, flawed characters in an easy to read, conversational tone. Her works are set in Ireland, as the series name would imply, and are as much glimpses into a country and a culture as they are tense, suspenseful thrillers. I can’t remember how many of her novels are written in first-person, but “The Likeness” is, for sure. Cassie Maddox, the main character, is a female detective whom we first met in “In the Woods”.  Currently somewhat dissatisfied with her work in domestic violence, she is recruited to return to her roots as an undercover officer – investigating the murder of a young woman who also happens to be her doppelganger. Physically identical, the victim has also adopted the name that Cassie herself used as an undercover officer – Lexie Madison – an identity that is long gone.

How is it possible someone could be her dead ringer and also adopt Cassie’s previous identity? At the coaxing of Frank Massey, a cop who is also a recurring character in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie is quickly immersed in Lexie Madison, and leaves behind her lover, also a cop, to drop undercover into Lexie’s life and former home, a history-laden mansion occupied by a quartet of eccentric university students. However, the case soon proves very difficult for Cassie, who finds it almost impossible to detach herself emotionally from Lexie and her new roommates. Intrigued and enchanted by their quirks, their isolation and their bonds to one another, as well as by the history of the gothic mansion, Cassie’s grasp on her identity begins to waver, as does her commitment to her job.

French is skilled at creating characters that resonate and speak with a genuine voice – but she is equally capable of creating characters that are irritating and unlikeable because of their flaws. With the housemates, I felt as though she was trying for a group reminiscent of the Greek scholars of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” – intellectuals, old souls, perhaps supernaturally so, hearkening back to a deep, rich, meaningful history. Excluded and bonded tightly to each other for mysterious and fascinating reasons. But unfortunately they just didn’t interest me. Their eccentricity was forced. Embroidery and arch intellectual wit and adoration of antiques – but I couldn’t tell the difference between any of the male housemates, except that Daniel was written almost as a pale echo of Henry in “The Secret History”. They seemed pretentious and pedantic and one-dimensional.

French sketches out an explanation that Cassie’s attraction to the house and the housemates is balm to a soul that has been wary and detached, without family, finding pain in most interpersonal relationships. She wants us to recognize why and how Cassie falls for them. Readers see her hypnotism with them unfold slowly, almost agonizingly, and here is where the book fell far short for me. The story bogs down with this and the pace lags; I COULDN’T understand why she was so absorbed in them, because I simply didn’t find them interesting or unique. When Cassie begins to turn off her undercover microphone at crucial times, and to empathize, to feel that she is one of these odd and essentially unlikeable housemates, I just rolled my eyes. It became incredibly frustrating to witness her flaws and failures. It felt false, as though she is all too willing to turn her back on her boyfriend, her career, the life she has built for herself, for a flimsy fantasy.

I love that French makes me think – always wondering and never quite discounting the most unbelievable or unexpected explanation. I always get to a point in her books where I begin to think that the only possible solution is the unexplainable, the supernatural, the internal world. Or the most unexpected – you can’t ever rule out that the main character themselves are somehow to blame. They are tricky and unexpected and untrustworthy, which I generally like about French. I will read “The Trespasser”, her most recent. But my final recommendation on “The Likeness” – pick up another of her books if you want the full Tana French experience – and if you want the gothic assimilation experience, go for Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” instead.

entertainment round up + nanowrimo update


Currently reading: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.
I’m not a huge BRUUUCCCCE fan but I heard him on Fresh Air and he was pretty articulate and thoughtful, so when I saw his autobiography in my library’s Lucky Day section, I picked it up. Goodreads tells me that based on my page count, I’m about 20% through it, and so far, I’m fairly ambivalent about the subject matter. It’s not making me feel much different about the music, but his writing is undeniably beautiful and lyrical. In fact, he’s an excellent writer – his chapters are well-organized, his thoughts are expressed clearly, and his descriptions are vivid and tinged with emotional awareness and a sense of passing time. I’m enjoying it  but am casting some longing glances at the next book in my “To Be Read” pile, Six of Crows.

Currently listening to: Podcasts.
I don’t know how I missed the podcast bandwagon for so long, but I have become aware of two that I’m currently devouring voraciously – My Favorite Murder and Thinking Sideways. Truth be told, I like Thinking Sideways better. I was the kid who read all about serial murders at an inappropriately young age – I still remember the look the lady at the bookstore gave me when I bought a biography of Ed Gein with my allowance – but the giggly, jokey tone of the My Favorite Murder hosts can get a little cringeworthy. I like the Thinking Sideways hosts better and am more interested in the wide range of topics they discuss – from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart to a mysterious website that went up in 2011 to ‘min min’ lights in Australia. It’s made my commutes and workouts fly by.

Currently watching: An Idiot Abroad. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a show that makes me laugh out loud as much as this one does. Karl Pilkington is the perfect foil for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and his escapades going on twisted world adventures that they dream up for him – priceless. One of my favorites was his experience on a desert island, and his consternation over being asked to wear a grass skirt that’s customary garb for the local tribe.

Currently eating: The original, world famous Tokyo Banana Cake – special giraffe edition. I have a long history of being tricked by Japanese desserts. They are the most beautiful little works of art, all immaculately packaged in artistic wrappings, they look delectable, you take a bite and find out it’s filled with bean curd, or cold potato. However, on a recent trip to the US, the head of our global legal team brought us a box of Banana Cakes and I was pleasantly surprised. They tasted like light, banana-flavored Twinkies filled with caramel custard. I may have finally found a Japanese dessert that I can eat! (I really only ate one although if I hadn’t been forced to share the box, I could have gladly had more.)


Currently thinking about: NaNoWriMo.
I’m solidly out of the gate during this first week, writing every day. I’m not meeting the recommended daily word count of 1,600-something, but I’m over 1,000 words each day and averaging about 1,200. Respectable, I think. I have a full outline with all of my chapters laid out and am ready for the hard work.

loose ends

The house has been empty and quiet this week with Miss L spending time with her dad & his fam, so I’ve been a bit at loose ends. Weeks like this can be tough for me as it’s easy to fall into a morass of missing her / hoping I’m a good mum / feeling guilty for having alone time / feeling guilty about spending time with Jax & his kids without her / hoping she’s having a good time with people she really loves and who really love her but also hoping with a small selfish part of me that she misses ME too = a lot of conflicting feelings that I’m sure single mums will relate to. Suffice it to say, although I really couldn’t be luckier / happier / more blessed about our blended family situation – in which all adults are incredibly mature and genuinely kind and loving – I still have a LOT of personal issues of my own to work through. No surprise, as I know I am still a work in progress, but I am committed to trying to put my own feelings to one side to do the best I can for Miss L in every stage of her life. Roots and wings, as my own mom told me, roots and wings.

So, as I mentioned, I spent some time at Jax’s house, made dinner for his crew and got some major loving from Izzy.

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8.2016_Izzy kiss 1

I did some running and have some more to do this weekend. I’m at the point in my training where I am seeing and feeling results – both good and bad. My times and endurance are better, but my legs feel crummy – “sprung”, as I call it. My calves, ankles, and shins are full of tight, red-hot wires that pull and twitch. Everything south of my knees aches. 8 miles tomorrow.

I finished “Wolf Lake”, a gloomy wintery mystery by John Verdon, and just started “Ink and Bone” by Lisa Unger. I have so many books going that I don’t know where I am at any given moment. “Ink and Bone” is my actual physical library book – for bedtime and “serious” reading. I’m listing to “Her Fearful Symmetry” on an audio disc borrowed from our paralegal, and “The Likeness” by Tana French on Audible while I run. In between – for cross training on the elliptical or sitting around unexpectedly waiting for someone – I have “The Forgotten Garden” by Kate Morton on my old Kindle.

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At work, there is a kerfuffle over whether the town hall doors (where we keep the office supplies, refrigerators, microwaves, trash, etc) should remain open or closed. I actually heard a heated meeting about this in a conference room on the other side of my office wall. “We’ve been doing it this way for FOURTEEN YEARS!!!” “It’s a black and white issue to me.” “WHAT IF SOMEONE IS CARRYING HOT SOUP AND CAN’T OPEN THE DOOR?!”

I’m starting to get heirloom tomatoes and I’m watching “I Am Not Your Guru” about Tony Robbins. Tomorrow I get to pick up Miss L and we head directly to my brother’s house for our annual trip to the carnival. I love the creepy small town carnival. I always think I might see a ghost.