20 books & 20 lbs (week 52): Goals met and missed

So, at my last weigh-in, Sunday morning, I wasn’t anywhere near the 20lb weight loss goal I’d originally set at the start of the year. I’ve lost about 10lbs from the starting weight I had at the beginning of 2013, and while that’s not as good as I hoped for, it’s certainly better than it could’ve gone.

On the other hand, I managed to meet my book reading goal (see reviews for books #19 and #20, below). So, the 20 books – YES. The 20 lbs – NO. Do I feel like a failure? Not so much. Do I feel like a winner? Um…not that, either.

How was I able to meet one goal and not the other? Well, without putting apples and oranges in the same basket, I can say that I just went after the reading goal with more gusto. Sure, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses – there was that awful spell where I was slogging through Salman Rushdie because I felt compelled to finish “Midnight’s Children”, and I can say there were some late nights trying to make headway in any of a number of books…and probably far too many night’s for dh’s taste where I’d come to bed at some fairly late hour and then flip on my book light. So, it’s not like there weren’t sacrifices. However, staying up to read books isn’t as hard – for me – as finding awake time in the day to go to the gym or the willpower to turn down ice cream.

It’s not like I don’t know why I haven’t taken off more weight; I just need to find the strength to take off the weight the same way that I managed to get through the 20 books..but somehow doing this in a way that keeps me from feeling like I’m giving up things that compromise my quality of life. I haven’t figured out yet what my goals for 2014 will be – but I do know that if I set a weight goal, it’ll be aiming for more like a 10lb weight loss. Slow and steady wins the race. I’ve long associated myself with turtles, and they’ve brought me good luck in the past. Slow and steady wins the race.

And so, with that, I bring you books 19 and 20…and the winning part of my year’s challenge. Overall, I read some authors that I now want to read A LOT more of (like Warren Ellis) and I’m probably swearing off Salman Rushdie indefinitely. I’m now reaffirmed in my desire to get through some more classics, so perhaps next year’s challenge will be about going through some number of books on the banned book list. That ought to get a bunch of classics – and likely quite good ones – out of the way. Ah..the germ of an idea forms in my head…

Book #19: “The Best of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

{note: the version I link to above is a newer printing of the one I read; odds are, there are even newer, bigger compendiums worth chasing down}

I would suspect that there are likely any number of “Best of” compendiums of Sherlock Holmes stories, and it’s probably shocking to say – but it’s true! – that this was the first Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever read. After so many years of knowing about Holmes as a mythological figure, the penultimate detective, it seems amazing that I would now finally get around to reading any stories of his exploits. The book in question is a small paperback dh had lying around, with six stories: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, “Silver Blaze”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, “The Final Problem”, and “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

These being short stories, I found them all very clipped – almost vignettes of stories, and that tempered my enjoyment somewhat. I realize it’s probably some kind of heresy to say that they weren’t as good as I expected, but I rarely ever find short stories to be as satisfying as long-form stories, primarily because they don’t have the time for sufficient character development, dropping of necessary clues, etc. Out of necessity, speed and efficiency are of utmost importance, and so the things that Holmes may call out as OH WATSON HOW DID YOU NOT SEE THAT THIS WAS THUS AND SO makes less sense to me without having seen it with my own two eyes. In this way, the 44-minute detective TV show works a little better (clues are often displayed and meant to be easily overlooked or discovered).

Even so, I enjoyed the stories; I just didn’t find that I’m a fan of the short-form as much as the longer-form that supposedly also exists. Perhaps as I get deeper into looking for really new things to read, I’ll aim for something that’s a deeper dive into the world of Holmes and Watson.

Book #20: “Odd and the Frost Giants” by Neil Gaiman

Having been a fan of Gaiman’s for years, and having read his latest novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” earlier this year, I was searching for something fun to read to polish off the year when dh handed me this from our library. I tend to do arm sweeps at our local bookstore, picking out stacks of books at a time and then sometimes forgetting that I have them in the library before I ever get around to reading them. This isn’t a knock on the writers; when you have the mother’s affliction of the attention span of a housefly, this is a standard issue problem.

This short novel is Gaiman’s imagining of the story of a young Norwegian boy, Odd, who was lamed by an injury to his leg when he was younger. His father died at sea, and his mother – a spoil of a raid by his Viking father – has remarried someone with little sense of humor where Odd is concerned. Odd decides to retreat to a cabin once owned by his father, and it’s there that he meets up with three animals – a fox, a bear, and an eagle – claiming to be (respectively) Loki, Thor and Odin. The trio of gods was enchanted by a frost giant who overtook Asgard and evicted them from their seat of power, and the gods enlist Odd to assist them in their quest to retake it.

I’ve read more Greek and Roman mythology than Norse, but Gaiman has spent quite a bit of time bringing in the Norse pantheon in prior novels (such as “American Gods”), and Disney’s outpouring of money to bring forward multiple movies involving Thor and Loki, in particular, has given me plenty of reason to want to read more about these gods’ backstories. Tipping the scales at a mere 117 pages, “Odd and the Frost Giants” reads more like a short novel than a long short story. It’s a whimsical tale that gets the northern lights dancing in your head and makes you want to read more of the adventures of Odd and the gods he – a mere, lamed mortal – helps to regain their power.

It was a sweet end to a year of reading probably more books than I’ve ever packed into a single year (bearing in mind that some of the books I read are so chewy and long that they make it next to impossible to get through 20 of them). We’ll see what next year brings…

20 books & 20 lbs (week 47): {insert snappy title here}

Yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little punch-drunk from not having made much progress with my weight. I’ve maintained that 10lbs I took off since the start of the year – which is FANTASTIC – and I’m still struggling on how to get rid of the other 10lbs without doing something severe.

I’m not even sure what to say, at this point. I’ve written and erased three other things prior to getting this onto the screen, so clearly I have a lot of internal conflict I need to work out. My annual physical is scheduled for February, so if I haven’t lost MORE weight by the time I get to then, I’ll ask my doctor for her opinion on the best next steps. As it is, she’ll be over the moon if I took off 10lbs and kept it off for so long, but I know she’ll be even happier if I can take off more. So, I’ll continue to work on it and figure it out. Somehow. I may not make my goal, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to quit working on this.

I heard something interesting on NPR the other day about how gamers go against the paradigm that people set for themselves. Many people quit trying something that they can’t do, yet gamers fail more often than they succeed and they keep going until they eventually DO succeed. I’d like to see if I can somehow keep my feet moving until I do reach that point of success. After all…why give in when I still have the ability to try?

Speaking of trying, I have not one but TWO books under my belt as of yesterday…so that leaves me with only 2 more books. In 5 weeks. *crackles knuckles* Time to get this done.

Book #17: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams

Quite a long time ago, I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (which allows me to bond with my fellow geeks about how one should always carry a towel), but I’d never gotten around to “Dirk Gently”. I have to admit, the book was a bit odd (even for Adams?). I found myself wondering what kind of mobius strip of a novel I’d wandered into, where the storylines folded and wove through, under, into and around each other in such complicated ways that when the threads are pulled tightly it’s completely clear how easily you got lost along the way.

The book follows several characters – a programmer, his boss (a tech magnate), the boss’ sister, an addled Cantabridgian professor, a robot monk, an arrogant but ultimately useless scion who failed at being a publisher, and an incredibly eccentric yet not-quite-attentive detective, to name a few. Along the way, one character dies and spends the majority of the book as a ghost, one crosses through space, one reveals themselves to be a time traveler, and all of the main characters stumble into each other like water molecules in a pot set over an open flame.

I can’t say that I disliked the book, but I can’t say that I fell in love with it. It certainly had its funny moments – and more than a few puzzling ones – and I ultimately don’t know what I thought of it. So, there’s that. I can’t say that’s a rousing review in favor, but I wouldn’t say to avoid it, either. If you’re looking for a strange read, this is TOTALLY the book for you.


Book 18: “Where Angels Fear to Tread” by E. M. Forster

Now this book wasn’t odd in the least…which, frankly, was a disappointment. Forster could’ve used some odd. “Angels” gives a view through a cloudy window into the lives of Victorian busybodies, focusing more on what’s proper than what’s right.

The story opens with the departure to Italy of a maiden and her companion, the widow of a man whose family was clearly at least one rung higher on the ladder than that of his bride. The widow (Lilia) leaves behind her young daughter with the in-laws, who seek to reprogram the girl into being tolerable by their level of society. Meanwhile in Italy, Lilia falls in love with a the handsome son of a local dentist, and her sneering mother-in-law dispatches her other son to demand that she return before any wedding can take place.

Arriving in the lovely town that he himself had recommended, Philip finds that Lilia has already married the local boy – Gino – and he returns home in defeat. Life turns out not to be all wine and roses for Lilia once Philip departs, since the dream of marriage to a weak-willed young man doesn’t match the reality she experiences in this foreign culture. Without going into too many spoilers, Philip makes another trip to Italy – this time not to save Lilia but to affect a rescue of another kind – to a highly unsatisfactory end.

This incredibly short book just didn’t sit well with me at all. It’s slow-paced and brooding; Forster’s Victorians are so stuck-up they couldn’t see past their own up-turned noses. Worse still, it seems that no one manages to have a happy ending. I don’t always need a happy ending, but the coldness of it all just makes even the pursuit of love such an impersonal need for improvement of status or financial situation…and even what little joy you see through Philip’s or Lilia’s eyes is tempered heavily by the oppression of the society in which they live – its repression and limitations.

I’m sure that Forster has better work; they’ve made plenty of movies out of his later pieces (“Howards End” and “A Room with a View”). Focus on those and definitely give this one a pass. Its brevity is really its primary redeeming quality.

20 books & 20 lbs (week 43): It’s all ups and downs, isn’t it?

You win some, you lose some…that’s how the saying goes. I think, in that context, it’s supposed to refer to the idea that you can’t win all of your battles. Of course, with weight loss, winning is losing and vice versa, and so while I was happy to report that I’d lost a pound last week, I get to report that I gained it back this week. What the…?

Weight loss is so genuinely frustrating. If you don’t have the time, energy, or sheer mass of willpower to devote all of your time and energy to it, you just can’t seem to make the progress you want. I’m not as bad off as I was nine months ago, but I still feel like only drastic action will get me the other 10lbs down…and drastic is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Drastic is where “things that I can’t do repeatedly and forever” comes in. Drastic is “you can’t have, even when you want to” and that’s also a problem.

Now, sure, I’ve had to take drastic action before: for example, I don’t drink (highly) caffeinated drinks anymore. About 10 years ago, I stopped drinking caffeinated sodas and switched to decaf coffee & tea because my gastrointerologist suggested that might help me with my (ever-increasing) stomach troubles. Turns out he was right: dehydration is a trigger, and caffeine is definitely a trigger. And yes, there is some amount of caffeine in decaf coffee, but it doesn’t set me off, so I still drink THAT.

That was a big switch for me, and it’s also a lot of why I primarily drink water if I’m not having coffee or tea; at least that I know I can get without caffeine hidden in it (I’m looking at YOU, Orange Sodas and Root Beers!).

But that was taken for a specific symptom abatement: please make me stop being so violently ill that I’m incapacitated for several days every week. And it worked. Frankly, it’s also in the category of “drastic but totally manageable” since it didn’t require me to change how I spent my time, just what I picked to drink. It didn’t necessitate spending at least an hour in caffeine-detox every day, the way committing myself to a serious workout plan might.

So, the struggle continues. And yes, I know some of it is a matter of willpower. I could have not had that second margarita last night. COULD HAVE. But since I have about 1 alcoholic drink per month, these days, I figure that having two in one night probably holds me well enough until we get to Christmas.

Book #16: “Let the Sky Fall” by Shannon Messenger

It’s a funny thing, when you go to a movie theater and walk out with a book. That’s happened to me only a couple of times, where the movie theater had promo copies of books (recently released, is my guess, not advances) and they put them out for patrons to take on their way into whichever show they happen to be seeing. The first time that happened, we were going to see “The Three Musketeers” and I picked up some GOD-AWFUL HARRY POTTER KNOCKOFF that I just couldn’t even bother with after about 30 pages of me saying, “THIS IS A GOD-AWFUL HARRY POTTER KNOCKOFF” and exiling it to a shelf in the library to go into some nebulous “giveaway” pile that doesn’t yet exist.

So this was a bit different.

We were headed in to see “RED 2” and there was a book. On the counter. Just waiting to be picked up.

Putting aside my PTSD from having gotten such an awful book last time, I picked up “Let The Sky Fall”, a Young Adult fiction piece that seemed supernatural and potentially quite girly. The good news is that it IS supernatural but it ISN’T girly. In fact, Messenger – alternating chapters from the points of view of the two main characters – works very hard to make it NOT girly.

The book centers on Vane Weston, a teenager who managed to survive an EF-5 tornado that killed his parents and knocked out all of his childhood memories. He’s haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl that he later discovers is Audra, a “windwalker” – a sylph who can control wind, a girl who has been with him since just before that fateful day that robbed him of his parents. She explains to him that there’s a battle among the windwalkers and that she’s his guardian, sworn to protect him even if it means sacrificing her own life, and that there is another band of windwalkers that want to control him because he holds the secret to commanding the fourth wind – the westerly winds.

Of course, Vane being the average teen boy, thinks this is all fairly insane…but he manages to listen to her long enough to understand the truth in her message, and he devotes himself to learning what he can so that he can save both of them. He also tries to unlock the mystery of his past, which is tied up in secrets Audra holds clamped down as tightly as the regulation guardian braid she uses to corral her hair.

By alternating her storytelling between Audra and Vane, you get a much better sense of each character’s motivation and sensation. Naturally, there’s some measure of girliness involved – anything relating to how Audra and Vane feel about each other triggers my inner 14-year-old’s hormones – but not enough that you feel that it takes over the book. Within the first 100 pages (my threshold for pain), the book had me hooked. By the time I made it over the crest towards the end of the 400 page tome, I was staying up late to finish it. And any girliness about Vane/Audra is counteracted by both of them being tough as nails; Audra is no fading flower and her inner (and outer) strength make it clear this girl has some serious power.

Messenger ended the book by setting up for the next (“Let the Storm Break”, due out in March), and I’m curious to see what she puts into it. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for it, since this seems very much to be a series worth picking up, not just for me but also for my kids when they get old enough to handle YA. Her writing style and focus draws characters more in the vein of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson than Bella Swan, without necessarily alienating the young female set, so I think Messenger does a very good job of walking a very fine line. I’m glad I read “Let the Sky Fall”, and now I’m looking forward to March to see where she takes Vane and Audra next…