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 and 20 lbs (week 27): Devouring Neil Gaiman

Once upon a time, there was a young boy who had something bad happen with one of the lodgers at his house. Now, depending upon whether you’re looking for real life or fiction, you can either interpret that as an opening statement on a story from author Neil Gaiman’s life or his latest novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”.

Book #7: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Wow. I loved this book. Let me preface this by saying that I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s ever since I was first introduced to his completely sick and twisted mind by “Sandman”. Add some “American Gods” (woah) into the mix, plus “Stardust” (aww…cute!) and “Neverwhere” (WTH just happened?!) to you get a picture of someone who’s clearly got his mind wrapped around many dimensions simultaneously. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s written two amazing episodes of “Doctor Who” and that my kids love “Chu’s Day” – his most recent publication strictly aimed at the younger set.

So, with all of that in mind, I cracked open my signed first edition almost immediately upon boarding the train for New York, on my way to a conference. I had a solid block of time to myself – about 3-1/2hrs on the Acela – and that seemed like a good time to start reading “Ocean”. Turns out, it was a good time to read it and FINISH it. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a book so fast in my life. It’s not that it was a quick read in the sense that it was breezy or whimsical. I couldn’t put it down because it was engrossing and utterly fantastic, leaving me breathless as I turned each page wondering what would befall the unnamed protagonist next.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” opens with the narrator wandering around after a funeral, taking a detour fueled by muscle memory that brings him back to a small rural town where he once lived. As he sits by the small pond in the backyard of a former neighbor, his memories come flooding back and you’re transported back to his childhood – where immortal beings and other realities freely mix with the reality most of us know. The narrator stumbles onto the evidence that a being from another world, something of immense power, has been tampering with the lives of the people in his village, and he enlists the help of an eccentric girl who is seemingly only a few years older than himself.

As it turns out, of course, she’s nothing of the sort – and she takes him into another part of the world, where faerie clearly reigns more than the laws of science. They encounter an evil presence that follows them back into our world and ingratiates itself into his family as the nanny from Hell. The rest of the story is an insane thrill-ride as the protagonist tries to rid himself – and the world – of this demonic force from beyond time. As with so many of Gaiman’s other works, to read too much into the possibility is either to scare yourself half to death or to shake it off as utterly unbelievable. I prefer to think of his stories as best read when the lights are firmly set in the ON position, and this book is no exception. I loved it and would highly recommend it. Clearly, it was a fast read (I was done with it within about 3hrs), but that’s a GOOD THING. Devouring a book is what it’s all about – when you find something that speaks to you, that you can’t imagine putting down, that’s my idea of a truly great read.

*   *   *   *   *

Book #8 is “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and I’m enjoying that immensely, as well. It’s causing me no shortage of insomnia, though, partially due to the content and partially due to the fact that I’m having trouble putting it down. Truly, having books be so good that you want to stay up all night to read them is what I’d consider “a good problem to have”.

As far as anything else goes, like weight loss, the trip to NYC was far better for reading than it was for managing my weight. I was in my conference, meetings, and schmoozy, heavy dinners from about 8am until 9pm every day, so I didn’t get nearly enough of that NYC walking that I really enjoy. I saw a few pounds added onto the scale (ugh), but I consider that a challenge and not a complete setback. A quick mid-week weigh-in showed a lower amount than I saw on weigh-in day, but since I only weigh myself ONCE a week (officially), I’m still sticking with the higher number I got on Sunday. Lesson learned: eating your way through a conference without walking or other forms of exercise is NOT smart. Got it.