20 books and 20 lbs (week 28): The weight of it all

Now that I’m past the horrible time suck that was Salman Rushdie, it seems like things are finally proceeding apace with my reading goal. I just finished book #8 and I’m already onto book #9: “Gun Machine” by Warren Ellis. At this rate, I’m still not at the point where I can say that I’m on track to get through all 20 books by the end of the year…but I’ll put in the hours, if that’s what it takes. My sister informed me just the other day that she’s challenged herself to read 25 books this year, and I just can’t even imagine that right now.

Book #8: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

How desperate are we when we say that children are the key to our future? In Card’s dystopian image of Earth’s future, desperation has grown to enormous proportions as children are recruited in their mid-single digits to get trained for military service. Years before, a savage race of aliens – known only as “buggers” – attempted to wipe humans off the face of the galaxy. Earth’s countries took this opportunity to stop aiming their weapons at each other and created a joint military service that was aimed solely at protecting the planet from the buggers. That’s where these genius children come in: plucked from obscurity after much testing and (invasive) monitoring, they’re taken away to an orbiting Battle School that prepares them for infantry, piloting or even command.

This is where we meet Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a small child of six who is destined to be so much more. Ender is not only a genius; he’s also a “third” (the third child to parents who, under strict population controls, should typically never have been born). His older brother (Peter) and sister (Valentine) are seemingly polar opposites; Peter is a psychopath who delights in tormenting others (especially Ender), and Valentine is his sweet sister who plays the salve to Peter’s acid burn. Ender is whisked away to Battle School by the manipulative Colonel Graff, where he’s tested day in, day out, by all manners of physical, psychological and emotional stresses. Graff believes Ender is the key to the humans’ survival against the next bugger invasion, and Ender – repeatedly displaced from what little familiarity he is allowed to foster at any time – is far from just any ordinary marionette.

Card’s story is another very fast read – incredibly engrossing and very hard to put down. At the same time, it’s terribly distressing. The idea that society would ever get to the point where we would willingly put small children through this kind of torture is really upsetting, and I’m glad that the movie version of the book (coming out in November 2013) shifts things by a few years so that Ender’s not quite so young when Graff gets at him. As a side note, I was further upset to find that Card spends his free time playing homophobe extraordinaire; I tend not to give financial or other support to people who clearly espouse viewpoints that make my blood boil. So, read it or not – it’s an excellent book that’s likely to make for an interesting movie. I’ll say that the only things of Card’s I’d be willing to read would be what I’ve purchased (the series that includes “Ender’s Game”). The rest of my money I think I’ll spend on authors who have a bit wider of a world view.

*    *    *    *    *

I was mostly back to normal with my eating habits last week, although the holiday and various commitments made it very difficult to get any real exercise in. I suppose *sweating* may count, and I certainly did my fair share of that. These are the days where I feel wise to have purchased a house with central air conditioning.

My weight loss is back on track, and I’m now 8lbs under my starting weight. So, I’m still behind where I should be…but it’s not worth fretting over lost time. Some of it is that I haven’t exercised more (partially my fault and partially out of my control); some of it is that I won’t stop having my ice cream a few nights a week. I know where these issues are, but since I’m looking for a lifelong solution and not just a quick way to get to my goal (which would be just as quickly lost), I need a solution that accommodates moderation over limitation. I’m sure I sound like a broken record about this, but I just have no desire to lose the weight quickly with a fad that gets undone the second I get back into “regular” eating habits. In other words, I’ll just keep my feet moving and see where I land as of 12/31.

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.

20 books and 20 lbs (week 26): Can I have progress, maybe?

After the complete exhaustion brought on by reading Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, getting through books 5 and 6 on my list was a complete breeze. In seemingly no time, I finished off both “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson (aka “The Bloggess”) and “Crash” by Lisa McMann.

Book #5: “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson

I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge reader of Jenny’s blog, mostly because I don’t find myself having the time to keep up with all of the blogs that I’d like to read. So, there were some things about Jenny’s life, like Beyonce-the-metal-chicken, where I was just completely out of it and didn’t get the joke. And then I read her book. And not only did I get the joke: I couldn’t stop laughing.

Reading her autobiography, you get the sense of someone who has an incredibly eccentric sense of humor and universal appeal. I know this sounds like a complete contradiction in terms, but Lawson’s ability to make you get why the jokes are funny, to follow along (even when rolling your eyes, like her long “suffering” husband, Victor), to feel like you want to be as cool and quirky as she is. Of course, the complete irony is that Lawson is typically and rather famously paralyzed by attention in social circumstances; as much as she wants people to laugh with her, she’s thrown completely by being surrounded by so many people who worship every word that drips from her fingertips.

Lawson’s story begins with her youth in the uber-rural town of Wall, Texas, and it continues as she meets Victor and they settle into their version of married, suburban life. You see her struggle to find her voice, sometimes reveling in her quirkiness and other times being heavily concerned that others will shun her for it. Of course, these days she need have no fears: the ones who don’t get the jokes can pound sand as they get trampled by the hordes of her adoring fans. And based on how completely enjoyable her book was, and how much I really think I fell in love with her through reading it, you can count me in, too.

Book #6: “Crash” by Lisa McMann

Just a few months after this book was released, it happened to be offered up free at our movie theater the night my girlfriend up the street and I went for a “Moms Night Out”. Always open to trying a new book, especially one that’s free, I picked up a copy and headed for my seat. Thanks to Rushdie, it would be a few months before I’d pick this up. Once I picked it up, though, I tore through it at a remarkable pace – something like 20-30+ pages per night. It’s an incredibly fast read, and that was a really nice change of pace after the slog Rushdie had been.

“Crash” is the first of four books in the “Visions” quartet McMann plans to publish. It centers on a teenager named Jules who is plagued by continuing visions of a crash that will kill her onetime love, along with eight others. Jules questions her own sanity as she tries to unravel the mystery that’s racking her brain and taking over billboards, TV screens, and any other display within range of her eyeballs. At the same time, she struggles to understand her father’s mental illness – his hoarding, the crippling depression, and his frequent inability to deal with anyone else – all while Jules, her mother, and her siblings slave away keeping the family pizza shop afloat.

This is definitely a book squarely aimed at the Young Adult (YA) crowd, and I think this is a good example of how YA doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality in the telling of a story. McMann’s writing is definitely targeted to a less mature audience in terms of how Jules’ voice comes across to the reader, yet the book is still appealing to adults who are interested in mysteries, things outside the normal framework of reality, and psychology.

The only area where I thought the book went slightly off the deep end was at the ending of the book. Unfortunately, there’s no way to explain what I mean without giving it all away…so I’ll just say this: it’s not that she sped things up too much at the end, it’s that the ending seemed too much like what you’d hope for, which means that it’s less realistic. Or perhaps I’m just jaded? Perhaps I’ve been reading too much George R. R. Martin recently, but when things turn out how you wanted, I get suspicious.

I would recommend both books – both of them are refreshing reads, in their own way, and both have appeal well beyond a narrow band of readers.

Book #7 is Neil Gaiman’s latest: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”. I can’t explain how excited I am to have gotten a signed copy. Sure, it seems like Gaiman’s been accommodating enough to sign any book of his that’s set in front of him (which may make him a bit of a rarity in the literary world), but I cherish paper books and the notion that I have a signed first edition of a book that’s surely going to top the bestseller lists just makes my heart swell up (in a good way). I’ll post a review of this book shortly.

*    *    *    *

And apropos of nothing, at least related to books, I continue to work on my weight and hope to continue my progress before I punch the ticket on the end of the first half of the year. I probably shouldn’t get greedy – as of Sunday’s weigh-in, I’m down 9lbs from where I was at the start of the year! I don’t know that I’ll get to the halfway point by my final weigh-in of June, but I still consider 9lbs to be quite the victory.

Thanks to the bat-related shenanigans, exercising lately has been nearly impossible; it’s been hard enough just sitting in meetings at work without being sent to the hospital with a suspected case of tuberculosis. Between that and other stuff going on, there just hasn’t been the time. Or the motivation. Or the energy. So, I have to work on all that too – the weight won’t come off on its own and I fully get that. Back to the drawing board again, I suppose…