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Friday
Jul032015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

The full stack of 38 books I read from start to finish in 2014. January 1, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Typically, I read voraciously. Though not the fastest reader, preferring to think through the writing, plot, and message as I go and for a bit upon closing the cover—I always have a book underway and usually manage to get through one or two a week. (Not having a television helps. Try it.)

In 2014, I didn’t read nearly as extensively as usual. Whether of the positive or negative kind, things kept getting in the way. I read a mere thirty-eight books.

Yet, though I didn’t keep my usual pace, I enjoyed the books I read in 2014 more than I enjoyed the texts I encountered in 2013. (And no, reading less did not mean that, therefore, I appreciated each read more.)

In addition to the books I mentioned in my post about my favorite reads from the first half of the year—all of which I’ll still stand by as worthwhile reads—I’ve listed below some of my other truly memorable books from 2014. These books all stuck with me in one way or another, well after I put them down, popping to mind while on a run, or grocery shopping, or in conversation with a friend—even long after I’d started and finished other texts:

  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: Maybe this coming-of-age and growing-up epic resonated with me because the ensemble cast shares my generation. Regardless, Wolitzer has done an amazing job of clearly defining each character, and the story arc feels beautiful and heartbreaking—just like life. 
  • The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman: A slim yet powerful volume about how cascades of actions and inactions take a couple down paths of no return. An exploration into the complexity of “right” and “wrong.”
  • Love All, by Callie Wright: This book meditates on marriage, family, and interpersonal intimacy and the truth that try as we might—and believe what we will—we each live in an individual box with sharp edges and opaque walls. We never stop growing up, and the attendant growing pains never cease.
  • Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson: I hated the movie “Groundhog Day.” (Yes, I know it has a cult following. I don’t do cults.) Only at the behest of a vehement neighbor did I read this book—which seems to endlessly restart, especially in the first third—about the many ways a life can play. The book contemplates the myriad small choices we make each day that influence our lives, the lives of others, and even the course of history.
  • The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan: The cover of this book prompted a friend’s incredulity about my reading “chick lit.” Yes, the book centers on the diamond industry—and the marketing of engagement rings in particular. Yet the setting (yep, pun intended) allows the author to muse on the culture of marriage through a suite of female characters, all of whom have made disparate choices that have equally disparate conclusions. The common thread? A single career ad woman named Frances Gerety who made the diamond “forever.”

As with the best of anything, each of these books has a flaw somewhere. (Oh hey. Another diamond pun.) Some of these novels had more than one problem—and some had issues bigger than others. Yet they all succeeded. We overrate perfection—which often sucks all the beauty and flavor from art and from life.

Did any make my all-time favorites list?

I won’t know until more time passes. For a book to rank as a favorite, I have to enjoy reading it while feeling mentally and psychologically challenged by its content. An all-time favorite has to give me a fun read while also provoking thought long after I’ve put it down—with bonus points for prompting me to close the back cover and hold it in my hands for a few moments, sad that I’ve finished the book.

What books did you love most in 2014?

Sunday
Jan182015

Race Relations: Better Today—or Worse?

A fight between black and white that had little to do with race relations. Sometimes, sports are our most diverse arenas. November 21, 2014. Houston, Texas.

As regular readers know, I have a group of friends—all of whom have blogs—that bands together for one post per month on a round-robin topic.

This month’s subject, posed by Will Pora, confounded more than a few of us:

Have we gotten closer to or further from racial equality?

Yowza.

The topic arrived at a pertinent time. Numerous recent world events have highlighted extreme tensions between nationalities, government systems, ethnicities, races, and religions.

Do I need to enumerate them?

Black deaths in the United States at the hands of law enforcement, none of which resulted in indictments. Murder of French journalists at the hands of Muslim extremists. North Korea accused of hacking Sony due to concerns about a film’s depiction of Kim Jong Un.

And race relations in the United States seem to have received heightened attention—or perhaps I’ve only grown more attuned to the discussion due to musing on Will’s prompt. In recent weeks, the following items hit my radar:

We may feel race relations have grown worse due to the increasing attention to tensions in the news today.

Yet I’ll stand with President Obama in feeling that the coverage of these events—and the resulting broad outcry of indignation and outrage—shows willingness to bear witness to the ugly aspects of our society that we’d rather not face.

When we bring awful facts to light, rather than sweep them away in horror and embarrassment, we encourage dialogue. And dialogue means progress. When we stay silent, we perpetuate ignorance. Bringing issues into a public forum incites change—even if it means conflagration in the short term.

I’ve written about interpersonal tension on this site before, specifically in my posts about misunderstandings and my post about radio’s evidence of inequality.

And I hope the strife of today proves an inflection point into a better future.

None of us grow without struggle and discomfort. People do not like change. Groups grow more dysfunctional during change before they emerge improved.

Yet real change happens incrementally. Today’s troubles won’t make tomorrow perfect. We have very, very far to go. As Pew Research Center found in the summer of 2013, race equality will prove a work in progress for a long time.

Further, cascading disparities in racial socioeconomics, education, demographics, health care, and more have grown endemic—so much so that they’ve become culture and subculture. These divisions won’t erase quickly or easily.

Keep striving, my friends. We have work to do.

And on the broader question, about tension in the world increasing or decreasing, I’ve written most pointedly on the topic in my post about human nature and intolerance. I still stand by that article’s points.

Significant progress on race relations won’t make for a world without tension. Peace on earth has never existed—and likely never will. (As much as I love the notion.)

What do you think?

Have we grown closer to or further from racial equality?

P.S.—Want to see how my blog friends answered Will’s question?

Thursday
Jan012015

Shrugging off 2014 and Staring Down 2015

New Year's Day should always include the bright, optimistic green of matcha. January 1, 2015.

Like some sharks, humans must keep moving to survive.

A date marking the start to a new year—an arbitrary designation—has only the significance we give it. Though I recognize that one day looks much like any other and agree that no one should wait for any given date to start or stop anything, we all need prompts.

Since I started truly setting and tracking my goals a few years back, the end of the year has served as my prompt.

Reviewing 2014

I didn’t come anywhere close to achieving my goals in 2014.

However, a year-end review showed more progress than I’d noticed, even if it did highlight a few spectacular failures and starting-point mistaken notions.

Though I slaved away professionally in 2014, I didn’t make my professional goals. (Far from it.) And because I worked ridiculously hard all year, I failed at hitting my spiritual targets. (I define “spiritual” as mental wellbeing and happiness.) As I’d weighted my professional and spiritual life facets most highly for the year, much of my frustration with 2014 came from my failures to make the progress I’d wanted my most critical areas.

Silver linings:

I hit my health goals out of the park, doing better than I’d have expected on all targets, even the hardest ones. (In a recent yoga class, I mused that I may have hit better health in 2014 than I managed throughout the last two decades.)

Further, I met most of my financial, family, and educational targets—although I can’t give myself much of a back-slap there, as I hadn’t cast any of those facets as stretch areas.

And I met my social goals, yet I see in hindsight that I didn’t set my targets well in this area. With my professional life running rampant over every other aspect of my existence in 2014, even meeting my meagre social goals left me feeling that I didn’t spend nearly the time I would have liked with the people who matter to me most.

I See You, 2015

My professional goals still get top billing in 2015, as a few epiphanies over the past year have begun to blossom. I feel solid enthusiasm about what I have underway, though I’ve stayed realistic about the challenges and possible obstacles.

No false confidence here.

The dissolution of toxic professional stress will make achieving the goals I’ve set in other facets easier as well. (How could it not?) I’ll reenter the world of the living. I’ll have more flexible and free time. I’ll see a little more of the world—and even my own little corner of it. (Yes, beyond the office.)

I’ll read more. I’ll actually get some of these nagging writing goals tackled, goshdarnit.

My poor house, which needs some love and attention, will get it. I’ll keep at the health and financial improvements. And I’ll serve as a much, much better friend and family member.

And I’ll get back to this blog, from which I took a much needed break at the end of the year. I had to cry uncle somewhere.

Will I write as many posts? Maybe at times. Will the nature of the content evolve? Probably.

Yet everything moves, evolves. As it should. People and things that stop evolving stop growing. And when they stop growing, they stop fully realizing the possibilities of their existence.

Goal setting pushes growth.

What do you see on your 2015 horizon?

Sunday
Dec142014

Does Travel Change You?

A stretch of private beach at sunset. Florblanca, Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. December 9 2014.

I have bad news: You’re not Aeneas or Odysseus.

In fact, muse on the entire genre of the epic novel or poem. Do any of the tales you can recall parallel any travel experiences you’ve had?

Right.

Journeys can change us, but journeys can take place anywhere, even at home, and require internal work more than external experiences. A journey can happen while on the couch, chewing through a book. (Perhaps even while reading The Aeneid or The Odyssey).

The vast majority of travelers take vacations. We want easy ways to escape the daily norm for a long weekend, a week, or maybe even a couple weeks.

Unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, we don’t quest. We don’t go places to change the world or even ourselves.

Instead, we go to theme parks, which curate our fun. We stay at resorts, which cater to our every desire, or we stay in hotels and hostels, which may serve only basic needs but which most certainly do not provide deep experiences of lives lived in different places. We go on guided tours, which show us historic sites and take us on adventurous treks that don’t mirror the daily life of the locals and remove all the guesswork and risk of traveling in unknown areas. We participate in sports that can only happen in certain places at certain times, like surfing, golfing, or skiing.

We have fun, take breaks, recharge.

And I see nothing wrong with that.

After all, we can’t expect travel without any goals beyond rejuvenation to change us. We can’t truly live like the locals if we only stay away from home for a week or two. We don’t accomplish something monumental within ourselves or within a new environment when we ride in taxis and tour buses and eat at restaurants.

And as for life-changing incidents that do happen while on vacation—whether negative or positive—many could have happened at home. Chance alone caused them to happen while on travel.

I have incredible moments from trips caught in the aspic of memory. I caved with a friend to see a Mayan ritual-sacrifice site in Belize. In a bakery in Madrid, I found a fantastic chocolate-dipped pastry that I munched in tiny bites as I meandered the winter streets alone. I tried every tiramisu I encountered in Florence to find the best version. I met one of my closest friends on the way to spending a summer in Russia; she and I later traveled Route 66 in a rented moving truck and even later visited Glacier National Park.

Yet I haven’t grown into someone different through traveling. (Living abroad was another matter.) Travel hasn’t significantly altered my worldview or the fundamentals of how I live my life in the ways that formal and informal education and everyday experiences accumulated over time have changed me. (Discovering a love for strained yogurt drizzled with honey while on vacation in the Greek Isles doesn’t count.)

Journeys—intellectual more than physical—have changed me. Travel has not.

Do you believe travel changes you?

P.S.—This is the second post in a monthly series for which a set group of bloggers post on the same topic on the same day. For other takes on whether travel changes you, check the following writers:

Sunday
Nov162014

Are Pets Worth It?

Ramona in her bed in the living room, waiting for me to stop working for the night. April 26, 2014.

This morning before dawn, I pulled my lighted alarm clock to my chest, rested my hand on Ramona’s sleeping body, and counted her respirations.

Over the course of sixty seconds, fully at rest, Ramona took seventeen breaths.

After we got up and ate breakfast, I wrote her respiratory rate in the log I keep magnetized to the bulletin board in my home-office cubbyhole. I looked at the list and felt a huge relief: At seventeen breaths per minute, Ramona’s breathing rate has stabilized since it improved significantly in September, shortly after she started taking medications and her respirations improved from rapid and gasping.

In late August, Ramona collapsed.

The emergency room didn’t have good news. “See a cardiologist as soon as possible,” the doctor said. The cardiologist diagnosed congestive heart failure. “We can put her on medications to control the symptoms. I don’t know how long they will work, if they work at all.”

Tears had come suddenly and uncontrollably since Ramona’s first collapse. I’d sobbed the entire way to the cardiologist’s office. I sobbed before Ramona’s diagnosis. I sobbed when they took her into the back to do tests. I sobbed when they told me the news, only relieved that they didn’t advise me to let her go that day.

I couldn’t have done it, if they had so advised. She would have had to continue to suffer. How long? I don’t know.

Hold on. The tears have come again.

Fortunately, Ramona has responded relatively well to treatment. We’ve made it a few months and the medications still work, according to my morning monitoring. (We’ll see what the vet has to say next weekend.) Her energy has improved. Her spunk has come back. She still knows how to make me laugh—and she does.

For now? And for how long? I can’t bear to think on it. I had hoped the medications would buy me enough time to come to terms with the reality of her—of our—impermanence. Instead, I’ve only reached the point at which I can talk and write about her condition without crying.

Sometimes.

Instead, I don’t believe that we—any of us—can ever come to terms with losing each other. I don’t think we can ever prepare for it—at least, not so that it doesn’t make us rage with sorrow when it comes.

Since the diagnosis—and perhaps even during the limbo period between Ramona’s collapse and the cardiologist’s news—I’ve talked to a few close friends, some of whom have gotten sudden calls at odd hours when I couldn’t talk between the tears yet needed to hear a loving voice. In these conversations, I’ve said that I don’t believe people—especially single people who live aloneshould have pets.

I have no one in my daily existence to fill the void of Ramona’s eventual loss. She’s the only creature who waits for me to come home at the end of the day, the only one to greet me, the first one I talk to in the morning and the last one I talk to at night. I’ve structured my days around our joint schedule; in her needs I have a purpose and a framework. I kiss her good morning and rub her back as we awaken. We eat our meals together. We start and end our days with a companionable stroll around the neighborhood. I talk to her, dance with her in the kitchen, and feel she knows me better than almost anyone—humans included.

The bond between a single adult with few other equally intense emotional attachments and a companion animal grows so strong over a dozen or so years that the loss feels unbearable.

I can’t go through losing her. And so I can’t see how to justify this pain—nor can I see my way to voluntarily go through it again. A large part of me feels that having a pet isn’t worth the anguish of its departure.

And yet—

For what do we live if not to love? And how can anyone love without loss? We can all lose the ones we love—and unless we go first, we will.

If I wall my heart against the suffering and contraction of loss, I buttress it against the joys and expansion of love. One cannot exist without the other. We may think love and hate pose polar opposites, but I disagree. We do better to oppose love and loss. Love and hate at least share passion and fire.

Ramona introduced me to my current and former neighbors, some of whom I count among my dearest friends. She surprises me. She amuses (and frustrates) me. She gives me love and affection—and has done so through some of my most difficult moments. She’s taught me how to interact with others in a way I can’t describe in this post, though I’ve sat here and tried. And now she’s showing me anew the challenges and rewards of helping a creature leave this world.

Yet I won’t rush out to get another pet anytime soon. Not before she leaves me and not after. Not for a long time after.

I won’t feel ready. If I’ll ever feel ready.

Do you believe pets are worth it?

P.S.—I suggested the topic for this post—whether pets are worth it—to a few sharp blogging friends. I felt a need to write it, yet I hadn’t felt ready to write it. I didn’t know how to write it. I couldn’t face putting the news into the world, for fear of making it real. Clearly, I still haven’t gotten ready. Yet other perspectives on the subject as I struggle through a new world order with Ramona help. If you want to read some brilliant takes on the same question I’ve tried to answer above, all posted on the same day, read the following blogs:

P.P.S.—The bloggers listed above and I have decided to choose a topic each month to post on at the same time, with the intention of getting multiple perspectives on the same subject. Stay tuned for next month’s post from this same group, on a topic suggested by Joan Johnson.