2016 Resolution Reckoning

I only managed one quarterly check-in this year. Let’s see how I did with the rest:

1. More letters. I’m aiming for a letter each week.

I finished the year averaging just over one/week. Many of those were thank you notes, but they were hand written and went out on nice stationery with a stamp, so there.

2. More books. 16 sounds like a nice round number.

Not so much. I finished 5.

3. More miles. Barring injury, I’m aiming for 750 running and 2000 biking. I also really want this to be my marathon year, but I’ve said that before…

I didn’t come close to my biking goal, but I blew my running goal out of the water: 1000 miles for the year and my first marathon.

4. More movies. We saw a grand total of 6 last year. 12 seems possible.

Hilarious. I finished 3, maybe 4 movies the entire year.

5. Less meat. I’m not ready (or interested, really) in going back to being vegetarian, but I am interested in expanding my repertoire of meat-free meals, particularly since Nicolas has been pescatarian for nearly a year.

This definitely happened. Nicolas still eats fish but generally avoids all other animal products these days, so our diet is dramatically different than it used to be. In November, I fell in love with the My New Roots cookbook, which has been a game changer. I’m looking forward to more vegan-mostly cooking adventures in the new year.

6. Less debt. We’re on track to pay off all of my debt by the end of the year. I really want to make that happen.

Oh ho ho. Instead of eliminating debt, we bought a new car! My student loans are gone, so that’s something.

7. Less complaining.

8. Less guilt and regret.

A work in progress. For the rest of my life.

Ernest Hemingway on Letter-Writing

I picked up the first volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway after reading a fascinating piece in Vanity Fair about the challenges and sneakiness involved in retrieving Hemingway’s correspondence from his estate in Cuba. Depending on who you ask, at the time of his suicide either the Hemingway estate was given to the Cuban government, or the Cuban government seized the estate – either way, the net effect was that for the last fifty years, most people, including scholars, have had no idea what all was still there. This volume of previously unpublished letters is the first in a series of 15 that will be published over the next 20 years. I haven’t yet made it past the introduction, and already I’m in love:

In a 1950 letter to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hemingway recalled Ford Madox Ford’s advice that “a man should always write a letter thinking of how it would read to posterity.” He remarked, “This made such a bad impression on met that I burned every letter in the flat includeing Ford’s.” He continued:

Should you save the hulls a .50 cal shucks out for posterity? Save them. o.k. But they should be written or fired not for posterity but for the day and the hour and posterity will always look after herself . . . . I write letters because it is fun to get letters back. But not for posterity. What the hell is posterity anyway? It sounds as though it meant you were on your ass.

Worth reading: The Hunt for Hemingway – Vanity Fair, October 2011

2/3 Book Challenge: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad was my book club’s pick for November. The book and its author, Jennifer Egan, have garnered a great deal of attention in the last year, and three months after finishing the book, I’m still on the fence as to whether or not it’s deserved.

I don’t know that I would have gotten through this book had I not had the Kindle with me when I was stuck in a very long line at a blood drive. I’m glad I was stuck in that line, however, as it gave me enough time to really get hooked on the story, if not on the characters themselves.

I can say definitively that Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves. The reader encounters characters at different points in their lives – Benny, the record producer, is seen as a middle-aged wash-up, an energetic rocker at the beginning of his music career, a husband cuckolded by his wife’s tennis game, a rock legend. His mentor is a dirty old man seducing teenaged girls, a middle-aged father taking his children and his young girlfriend on a safari, a dying man surrounded by the now-middle-aged girls of his youth. His protégé is a kleptomaniac 30-something, a college student losing her closeted best friend, a mother making art from her stolen treasures. Each of these stories – episodes – windows of time is deftly, though not always gracefully, presented, surrounded by music and an indelible scene, whether it is the Bay area in the 70s, New York in the early 90s, full of optimism, or New York in the near future, recovering but not recovered from 9/11.

I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten. Some of the female characters felt flat in comparison to the nuances of the male characters. Some of the scenes feel like they were lifted from a Palahniuk or Coupland novel – a compliment, but also a complaint (see my review of Then We Came to the End).

I finished the book on my friends’ couch in mid-November. We were watching their cats while they were out of town getting married, and I was combating a hangover from the previous night’s 90s dance party. I’m willing to allow that the latter may have unduly influenced my reaction to the ‘enhanced’ chapter, in which we encounter the adolescent son of the former kleptomaniac. Her son has become obsessed with the pauses in pop music, and in trying to explain their significance to his father, fails to say all the things he really means to say. Or rather, he says all the things he is feeling, but his dad only hears the (exasperating) parts about the rests. And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.

This is the third of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: Then We Came to the End

In September, my book club read Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, an enjoyable, engaging read.

On the one hand, I zipped through the book in a couple of days, so I obviously enjoyed it. On the other hand, I had a hard time determining whether Ferriss was intentionally beating on tired office cliches: the secret romance, the underdog(s) who go on to bigger/better things, the breakdowns, the enigmatic boss with inner demons, etc.

Aspects of Then We Came to the End were well done: the first person plural narration, the sense of futile frenetic energy in a workplace trying to justify its existence, the disconnect between real life and work life. I loved the bits and pieces of Chicago that emerged throughout the story. The interlude at the center of the book – a meditation on a woman’s cancer diagnosis – was moving and effective. The ending reminded me a bit of the “wake” towards the end of The Wire, when they’re “burying” various characters’ careers as Baltimore police: the simultaneous sadness and fun. But again, done more effectively elsewhere. At the same time, Ferris’s intended satire of workplace characters and tropes often falls flat, feeling more clichéd than clever.

Ultimately, Then We Came to the End reminded me a lot of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. This is actually somewhat problematic for me because Microserfs is among my favorite books, making me susceptible to over-appreciating the workplace novel and also unable to appropriately compare other workplace novels. The two share many of the same character types and scenarios, but I feel like Microserfs carries a different and more substantial emotional weight. It’s not that Ferris did something specifically wrong – it’s just that Coupland does it better.

This is the second of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

2/3 Reading Challenge

Coming briskly on the heels of the 12 Books wrap-up is another book club challenge from my friend Mark.  He, like many others, didn’t finish his 12, but did make an earnest effort and felt like the challenge encouraged him to commit to reading – though that hardly seems to be a problem for him!  He has set forward the Two-Thirds Book Challenge:

  • Make a list of books that you would like to read in the next year. It can be as long or as short as you like. Post it somewhere, if moved to.
  • Read 2/3rds of them between now and 30 September 2012.
  • If you like, write about them on your blog, in goodreads, in your journal, or wherever you like. If you so desire, let Mark know where you post your writing and he will compile a sort-of-monthly post here that aggregates them.

I, of course, signed up immediately.  I like challenges that build in a margin of error.  I like having extra motivation to read.  And I like signing up for things.

In the next 12 months, I would like to read 15 books.  I would like that list to include the following 10 titles, plus 5 wild cards to be determined by whatever looks good at the library or sounds appealing on The Diane Rehm Show.

Nonfiction:

  1. 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander – though it is a bit cruel to set out to read about bread while simultaneously restricting it from your diet.
  2. The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss
  3. Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola
  4. Fair Shares for All: A Memoir of Family and Food by John Haney
  5. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and The Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language by Arika Okrent

Fiction:

  1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  2. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  3. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
  4. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory – yeah, yeah. A little escapist historical fiction never hurt anyone.
  5. Runaway by Alice Munro

With those parameters and a 33% margin of error, I think I can do it. Who’s with me? Or, more accurately, who’s with Mark?