Double Book Review: The Great Gatsby and No One Is Coming to Save Us

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My personal rating: 4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: In the 1920s, Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest city where his family has been prominent for three generations and sets out to make a life for himself selling bonds in New York City. Choosing to live in a commuting town outside of the city puts Nick at a curious intersection of upper and lower class society, of people who have always been on top and people who are trying to move up the ladder. It also gives Nick a supporting role in the drama that unfolds when his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, meets up with Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The first morsel of prose: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

Why I chose this book: This year I’m participating in the 2018 Reading Challenge posted on ModernMrsDarcy.com. I chose this novel for the category “A Classic You’ve Been Meaning to Read” for two reasons. First, because my husband read it in high school and didn’t like it, but then revisited it a few years ago and was impressed with it. Second, more than one review for No One is Coming to Save Us compared it to The Great Gatsby so I wanted to make sure I was familiar with the earlier novel so I could appreciate the literary allusions in the recent story.

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No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

My personal rating: 4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: JJ Ferguson grew up as a foster kid in Pinewood, North Carolina, and few people expected him to survive, let alone amount to anything. But when he returns, he has enough money to build a house on Brushy Mountain Road, the section of town where “the people are rich and their lives are so removed from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” This display of fresh wealth unsettles the declining factory town in general and has more direct consequences for three specific people: Ava, JJ’s high school sweetheart; Henry, Ava’s husband; and Sylvia, Ava’s mother.

The first morsel of prose: The house he’s building is done mostly. All that’s missing now is the prettying, stain on the sprawling deck, final finishing inside. At least that’s what they say. This house has been the talk around our small town. Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses. But this thing is strange. The boy we all saw grow up came back to us slim and hungry-gaunt like a coal miner. With money. JJ Ferguson made it. The poor child who lived with this grandmother, dead for years now, the ordinary boy we all fed when he wouldn’t leave at dinnertime, looking like he was waiting for somebody to ask him to play. We had no idea.

Why I chose this book: The title arrested my progress through the bookstore. Curious, I read the blurb and the reviews on the cover. When I suddenly found myself halfway through the first chapter, I decided I wanted to read it in the comfort of my living room.

Spoiler Warning: Normally, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but I wanted to do a compare and contrast essay on these two books with the freedom to discuss anything that struck my fancy. So this is your spoiler warning. If you have not read these books and want to experience the twists and turns of the stories for yourself, then know that I recommend both these books and stop here. If you have read the books or don’t care about spoilers, by all means, continue on to the next section.

My experience with these books: Both of these writers are excellent at their craft. In fact, that’s really what kept me going through the first half of The Great Gatsby. Every night after I finished reading a section, my husband would eagerly ask, “What to you think so far?” and the first few nights my response was the same, “Fitzgerald’s writing is impressive, but I’m not sure what to do with the story–especially with these characters.” There wasn’t really anyone in the story who managed to win my sympathies. Everyone was so miserable with varying degrees of shallowness and cruelty. Granted, that was part of Fitzgerald’s point and I think it’s brilliant that he didn’t let the story drag on until you were beyond caring when the Mrs. Wilson is killed and everything falls apart. Despite my lack of affinity for the characters, once they set out on the fateful car trip, I was riveted. Fitzgerald’s execution of the story and the way he set up the themes it contained are what I admire most about this novel.

Both of these books have the same premise: a poor nobody makes a fortune and builds a house in an ostentatious neighborhood to impress the love of his youth who is currently married to someone else. But whereas Fitzgerald wrote about white people in New York in the 1920s, No One Is Coming to Save Us is set in a black community in present day North Carolina. And while some of Watts’ characters have similar motivations as their counterparts in The Great Gatsby, they are different people who have had different life experiences so when all the dominoes in this game are finally lined up and the first one is pushed, they fall in different directions. And I loved that! Ava is a more independent person than Daisy, so I was thrilled that when she realized JJ and Henry were more interested in proving themselves to each other than building the life she wants, Ava rejected them both. Watts’ characters were far more sympathetic to me than Fitzgerald’s cast, so I didn’t mind reading three times as many pages in No One Is Coming to Save Us. I think I was rooting for every character at some point in the story.

I was fascinated by Watts’ ability to shift from present to past in a character’s reverie the way we often experience memory in real life. I enjoyed seeing characters grapple with who they are versus who they want to be and how different characters deal with feeling trapped in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t think Watts’ ending came anywhere close to being as masterful as Fitzgerald’s bombshell that paid off the building dread of last half of his book. Thus The Great Gatsby lost points based on my personal enjoyment of the book and No One Is Coming to Save Us lost points for a weak ending, so they both earned a 4-star rating from me.

If you’ve read one or both of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them!

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Re-imagine What’s Possible

For as long as I can remember, every autumn in our backyard the dogwood tree colors itself burgundy. With a red so deep mottled with a darker green and set with bright dogberries, the branches seem better suited for Christmas sprays than autumn banners. Our dogwood tree is ancient and each year another large limb dies. We remove it and the burgundy canopy gets smaller by degrees. We considered replacing the tree all together this year, but other home improvements seemed more urgent. So as the weather cooled, I once again expected to see the burgundy flags waving at me through the patio door.

Now you will understand my compete surprise in the last few weeks as the sun’s arc angled southward and it’s beams began illuminating a robe like Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. This year our dogwood tree wore a myriad of red shades, strokes of orange, flashes of yellow, and lingering stains of the light summer green. I’ve never seen the like from my patio door!

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A branch of colored dogwood leaves.

Our dogwood tree that is undeniably in the last stages of it’s life did something completely different, created a new kind of beauty for itself. Without giving advance notice or requesting permission, it broke expectations and established patterns. In doing so, it inspired this on-looker to re-imagine what is possible in and for myself. As Jen Hatmaker wrote in Of Mess and Moxie, “You don’t have to be who you first were.”

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The dogwood tree glowing red and yellow in the morning sun.

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Early Autumn

Early autumn in the garden
Hot, but no longer oppressive
Summer plants
Still alive, but haggard
Green, but no longer glorious
Autumn plants
Gaining their vestments
But not yet crowned
Transforming, and not yet radiant
The breeze stirs the leaves,
The clouds, and my awareness
I feel it and know the truth
Early autumn in my self.

–Jennifer K.

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Advice from a Solo Hike

Last Saturday I succeeded in accomplishing one of my 2018 goals: Do at least two out of town hikes, with one of those being at least eight miles long. It ended up being a solo hike and I thought I’d share some of my experiences from it in the form of a “Do and Don’t” article. This post is dedicated to Trish, who helped me remember how rejuvenating spending time in the wilderness is, and to Dan, who inspired me to hike farther.

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A trail through the glade heading back into the woods.

Don’t wait for the perfect day.

There are perfect days for hiking, but there’s no way you can guarantee when those days will be. I debated right up until 8:00 a.m. on the morning I’d scheduled for hiking whether to go or not. “Maybe next Saturday would be better,” I thought. This Saturday was the coolest temperatures we’ve had so far this autumn with overcast skies and a chance of rain in the morning. Next Saturday was supposed to have more sun and no rain. The friends I’d invited to go with me weren’t available this weekend; would someone be free next weekend?

But here’s the thing: You don’t need a perfect day to have a good hike. Yes, my hike would have been different in 70̊ F with sunshine. I might have gotten more pictures on a bright, sunny day, but I also may have gotten more fatigued (and sunburned) in the heat. Yes, Saturday’s rainy weather affected my hike–I hiked in wet shoes and socks most of the time and got more muddy–but I had a really good hike. The last mile might not have seemed so long if I’d had company, but the taste of victory was no less sweet by myself. Going on a good hike is better than waiting for a perfect day to hike.

Don’t under estimate hypothermia.

This is especially important if you’re hiking solo because later stages of hypothermia affect your cognitive skills and you start making bad decisions that get you in real trouble. Honestly, it was one of my biggest concerns as I considered hiking solo. Hypothermia doesn’t just happen in the winter with snow; it can happen with rain on a 60̊F day in autumn. With hypothermia, an ounce of prevention is totally worth a pound of cure, so avoid getting chilled in the first place. If you are getting chilled, a general rule of thumb is get as dry as you can, eat something, and get moving. This is why I always carry a little more food than I think I’ll need that day; if something unexpected happens, I want to make sure my body has plenty of energy to deal with it. (Click here for more info about hypothermia prevention and treatment.)

Do dress in layers.

I had started hiking with a thin, long sleeve, synthetic blend shirt under a tee shirt and a rain jacket. After climbing the first big hill, I was way too hot for that base layer, so for a while I hiked in the tee shirt and rain jacket. After an adrenaline rush and a faster pace on a later section of the trail, I got really sweaty in the jacket, and stripped down to the tee shirt. Somewhere in the last three miles, I noticed my arms were cold. (Hypothermia prevention time!) I put on the jacket again, but the still damp sleeves were cold and clammy against my skin. So I went back to the rayon base layer under the tee shirt and finished the hike in comfort (temperature-wise, that is–I wouldn’t describe my feet as “hiking in comfort” that last mile or so).

Don’t forget to enjoy the view.

If you’re just wanting to put miles on your shoes, any indoor track will do for that. In the midst of managing weather conditions, hydration, and calorie intake, remember to enjoy the view!

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A view from the top: Green wooded mountains in the distance with a few Black-eyed Susans in the glade near by.

Do follow the map (and not some random teenager).

At the last creek crossing, I took time to explore among the boulders that in a wetter season would have had water cascading over them. I emerged on the opposite bank close to a group of boys setting up camp for the night.

“Sorry about setting up my tarp right on the trail,” one of the teenagers said. “Don’t trip over the tie-down string when you come around it.”

“So this is the trail?” I asked him.

“Yeah, you’ll find it along here.”

So I picked my way along the edge of the camp and found the trail. Except that the trail was running parallel to the creek and on the map it looked like the trail turned away from the creek and headed back uphill somewhere near “The Falls”.

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“The Falls”?

To be fair, when the creek you’re crossing is dry, it’s not as obvious where “the” crossing is (and thus where the trail picks up on the other side). Likewise, when there’s no water running over the rocks, it’s not as obvious where “The Falls” are since there isn’t an unmistakable cliff the water pours over (this is a “shut-in” type of waterfall). Nevertheless, I knew pretty quickly that the trail I was on did not match what was shown on the map. The wise thing to do would have been to backtrack from as soon as I realized this, but I continued on because I assumed that this group must have hiked in to the campsite on the trail that I wanted to hike out on. My moment of truth came when the trail that was “supposed” to take me all the way back to the Trailhead ended at another creek crossing. I knew the Trailhead was on the south side of the creek, not the north side where this trail was going, which meant that I was undeniably on the wrong trail.

Do depend on the kindness of strangers.

Shortly before my “moment of truth” I had met a father and daughter on the trail. As we chatted, the dad mentioned how he had been bringing his son to hike here since he was six and now this was his daughter’s first hiking trip with dad. Backtracking to where they were, I asked if he knew where the trail turned back uphill because I’d missed it.

“Well this trail doesn’t. It isn’t an official trail, but if you follow it, it will still take you close to the Trailhead and you’ll recognize the area where you started,” he replied. Then he proceeded to describe the landmarks I would need to follow as the trail cut in and out along the creek.

“I’m not very good at bushwhacking,” I confessed.

“It will take longer, but you can hike back to The Falls and pick up that trail if you want. From what you described of where that group is camped, if you head uphill from there, you’ll hit the trail.”

“Thank you so much!” I said as we shook hands.

“Good luck!” he replied.

It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone, even though I was hiking solo.

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A cairn someone else had built by the creek.

Don’t panic.

So about that adrenaline rush that I mentioned earlier. It had started at my “moment of truth” and was in full force by this point. When the dad wished me good luck, my disjointed response was “I will. I mean I will take…luck…ah…I will take good luck with me. Thanks!” I had already turned and begun taking flying steps back upstream.

How much time had I lost? How far was I having to backtrack? I missed the trail the first time. What if I couldn’t find it this time? I knew this trail wasn’t going in the right direction. Why didn’t I turn back sooner? What if I wasn’t able to finish the hike before dark? After a few minutes filled with a few lifetimes of worst case scenarios, I was back at the boys camp.

“Don’t panic, Jen,” I told myself. “Breathe. You know that the trail is here. You know what direction you need to go to look for it. You are not alone. You can ask for help if you get stuck. It’s still daylight now, and you’ve hiked in the dark before. You can do this.”

And I did. I hiked a little farther upstream from the boys and found a (rather inconspicuous) trail marker that indicated “the” creek crossing. I hiked uphill from there and found another campsite. Following the path led off from there, I found myself directly above the boys camp at a signpost announcing the start of the trail that would take me home.

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The uphill trail leading home.

Do remember to bring bug spray.

You would think this goes without saying, but this is the second hike this year that I’ve found myself in the woods without bug spray, so apparently some people (like myself) need to be reminded. If you want to avoid spending the ten days after your hike trying not to scratch your ankles raw (like I am doing now), bring bug spray!!

Do pack enough water to stay hydrated.

When I decided that I wanted to hike more this year, one of the reasons that I challenged myself to do at least one eight-mile hike is that was the distance one of my 70-year old friends hiked last year and I’d like to be able to keep up with my elders. The other reason was the personal bragging right to say I’m in better shape now than I was my twenties. That was the last time I hiked more than two or three miles, and it was brutal. By my own admission at the time, I was not in great shape (and I had lobbied for a four-mile hike, but was overruled). It was a six-mile hike and the last half of the trip was putting one foot in front of the other through mental force of will until I reached the next mile marker. There I would let myself rest long enough for my feet to stop feeling like leaden weights (for at least the first few steps of the next mile), while I talked myself out collapsing in the grass and sleeping in the park that night.

So I worked out and went two other hikes to get in shape for my trek this weekend. And while I literally began singing the iconic refrain from “The Hallelujah Chorus” when I sighted the Trailhead, there was never a time in the hike when I doubted whether I could/would make it. I never experienced the crushing exhaustion or the every-muscle-aches-with-each-step that I remember from that exhausting hike in my twenties. And with hindsight, I’m beginning to suspect the particular brutality of that six-mile hike was due to dehydration. While it’s true that I am in better shape now than I was in my twenties, it was also ludicrous to hike six miles in 90̊ F heat and 80% humidity with only 16 ounces of water! No matter how good of shape you’re in, you won’t get far without enough water.

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A spring-fed pool farther downstream from The Falls.

Do hike your hike.

I chose to do this hike because I wanted to prove something to myself and because I wanted to spend time enjoying the wilderness. The first reason dictated the route I chose. The second reason dictated the pace. Although I had hoped to complete the hike in about six hours (it took eight hours), once I checked in with my husband via text at the Trailhead, I put my phone in my pack and never looked at it again until I sent him my victory text at the end of the trek. If completing the hike in six hours was the goal, then keeping tabs on the time would have been important. But that wasn’t my goal for this hike. So I paused to watch the creek run and listen to the water chattering over the stones. I stopped and ate whenever I was hungry (and could find a good “sit stone”). I took photography interludes when something caught my eye (and it was dry enough to get the camera out). It was a longer day than I expected, but I have no regrets.

When you set out for a hike, know why you want to go and what you want to get out of it. Make choices based on what’s important to you for that expedition. Then hike your hike.

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A trio of Black-eyed Susans.

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Captain’s Honors for 2017

I was reviewing the list of books that I’ve read so far this year and getting excited about some of the possibilities for Captain’s Honors for 2018, when I suddenly realized–I hadn’t made awards for 2017! So this post is the remedy for that.

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Five of the nineteen the books I read in 2017. (The rest were either loaned to me or listened to via Audible.)

 

It’s fascinating to see the how the scope of my literary voyages varies from year to year. Since I read almost as many books in 2017 as 2016 (19 books and 21 books respectively), I expected to 2017’s line up of categories to be fairly similar to 2016 and the differences surprised me! There were three completely new categories and the perennial category of Favorite Fiction Book has the largest number of contenders of any Captain’s Honors list so far!

The Captain’s Honors for 2017

Category

Favorite Memoir

Nominees

Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and Overcoming Love by Katherine and Jay Wolfe
Take Your Mat and Go Home: A Story of God’s Faithfulness by Maggie Allen

The Honor goes to Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and Overcoming Love by Katherine and Jay Wolfe.

Both of the memoirs that I read last year were accounts of families whose lives were disrupted and irrevocably altered by medical crisis and I recommend them both. From Take Your Mat and Go Home, I gained a better understanding of the challenges of rebuilding life after someone is well enough to go home. After following someone’s medical crisis on Facebook or even being more involved in supporting them through it, I confess at times I’ve have paid less attention once the person is well enough to go home, assuming that “going home” was the real life equivalent of “they lived happily ever after”, but that’s not the whole story. Hope Heals wins the Honor because it’s the book I wish I’d had in 2014 (it was published in 2016). It is a fount of wisdom for any journey through the desert of hardship regardless of the specific, unique challenges of each individual journey. Not only is there much to learn from their experience in the “Young Suffering Club”, but both Katherine and Jay also tell their stories in captivating prose. I think everyone should read this book because everyone will have to travel through a dark valley at some point and it’s helpful to have someone else shine a light on the path.

Category

Favorite Graphic Novel

Nominees

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
Mouse Guard, Volume One: Fall 1152 by David Petersen

The Honor goes to The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman.

I feel sorry for Mouse Guard in this category. It’s like “The Fugitive” going up against “Schindler’s List” at the 66th Academy Awards; there’s really no contest. And that seems unfair to Mouse Guard, because it is a beautiful fantasy story in it’s own right. Nevertheless, Maus is a masterpiece. This is the second time I’ve read it and I consider it an essential piece of Holocaust literature. Maus gives me the sense of this tragedy’s scope in a way that nothing else does.

Category

Favorite Youth Fiction Book

Nominees

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Dogsong by Gary Paulsen
The Hawkweed Prophecy by Irena Brignull
The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

The Honor goes to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I confess that when The Book Thief out a decade ago and began generating all kinds of buzz and critical acclaim, I was skeptical. I mean, a book about the Holocaust narrated by Death itself–what kind of gimmick is that? And were there not enough stories of real people and their experiences in World War II? Did we really need a fictional novel set in that period of history? The answer to that question is yes, we did need this fictional novel set in World War II because you can paint pictures, raise questions, and offer commentary or insights in ways that are difficult to do in non-fiction. (Side note: One of the reasons that the high school English teacher who recommended The Book Thief to me teaches this book out of the myriad of Holocaust books is that in their small, homogenous school, it is difficult for students to imagine themselves as Hitler’s Youth or Jewish kids in a ghetto, but they all identify with Liesel trying to grow up and survive not just the normal pitfalls of adolescence but also forces in her community and country that she finds herself in conflict with.)

Category

Favorite Science Fiction Book

Nominees

The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette

The Honor goes to The Dispatcher by John Scalzi.

I enjoyed both of these books, but The Dispatcher probably wins because I like police procedurals. What’s more, Scalzi knows how to effectively add science fiction elements to a well-plotted mystery–namely, that you are clear about what the rules or parameters of the sci-fi schemes are and you let the characters and plot interact with them accordingly. Scalzi’s characters felt like real people living real lives in the midst a fantastical paradigm. While some readers might find The Dispatcher long on conversation and short on action, I enjoyed the discussion of practical and philosophical questions raised by the sci-fi paradigm. (Besides, if you’re investigating a missing persons case, you’re going to have to talk to a lot of people!)

Category

Favorite Mystery Novel

Nominees

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

The Honor goes to At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie.

All three of these novels are set in England and could be considered historical fiction since Maisie Dobbs takes place between 1910 and 1929, Her Royal Spyness is set in the 1930s, and At Bertram’s Hotel provides a view of London in the 1960s. Dobbs is an intriguing heroine with an interesting back story and I enjoyed watching her solve mysteries largely through her study and gentle manipulation of human nature. Georgiana is the most humorous of the three sleuths and I recommend Her Royal Spyness if you like a bit of romantic comedy with your mystery. At Bertram’s Hotel is the favorite, not just because it features Miss Marple solving a mystery, but because Miss Marple’s dealing with memories–What do you do with them? Can you relive them? How do you move forward with them?–made the novel that much richer for me.

Category

Favorite Fiction Book

Nominees

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Dogsong by Gary Paulson
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

The Honor goes to The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson.

These diverse books ended up competing for the Honor of Favorite Fiction Book in 2017 because they all received my personal 5-star rating. (I read a lot of great books last year!) The Emperor’s Soul wins the Honor because I loved this book! It made me do something I haven’t done since high school–the day after I finish the book I went back and re-read my favorite parts. This winner of the 2013 Hugo for Best Novella reads like a great heist movie with the first two thirds of the book full of making plans, moving pieces into place, and building tension among the players before the fuse ignites the explosive action in the rest of the book. I enjoyed seeing the potential for different outcomes as various pieces were introduced so when the wheels were finally put into motion, I wasn’t entirely certain what would or would not happen beyond the main objective. I highly recommend this fantasy story for it’s in depth world building, it’s fascinating heroine, and it’s exploration of ideas about art, authenticity, and value.

Category

Favorite Audiobook

Nominees

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie, narrated by Stephanie Cole
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Angela Lin
The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette, narrated by Steve Carlson

The Honor goes to At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie.

I cannot say enough good things about Stephanie Cole’s narration of this book. Cole’s performance has become my favorite portrayal of Miss Marple!

Category

Recommended from the Rest

Nominees

Lessons from a Sheep Dog by Phillip Keller
Louisiana Longshot by Jana DeLeon
A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas

The Honor goes to A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas.

The only reason A Quilt for Christmas wasn’t a contender for Favorite Fiction Book was that the category was already packed by books with 5-star ratings, and I had rated this as a 4-star read. Sandra Dallas is one of my favorite authors and in this book I especially appreciated how her dialogue for a story set in the 1800s sounded neither modern nor stilted. I highly recommend this historical novel about a Civil War widow in Kansas.

Barnacles for 2018

There were a couple of books that I read in 2017 that were not favorites, nor would I recommend them. These are the Barnacles that I picked up in my literary voyages last year.

Category

Worst Mix of Manure and Ice Cream

The Barnacle goes to Shadow Fires by Dean Koontz.

To be fair, this isn’t a book that I would have picked up at a bookstore based on the blurb on the book jacket. A friend loaned me this book and since I have enjoyed at least one other novel by Koontz, I agreed to try it. This was such a mixed bag! There were characters that I really liked, some plot lines that I was very interested in, and some scenes that were highly effective (Koontz knows how to build tension!) But there were also villains who were over the top–one of whom became so outlandish that I found him boring for the last half of the book. There were also scenes that were over-wrought and melodramatic along with narration that sounded like the author’s soapbox. It was not worth wading through the manure to get the bits of ice cream in this book.

Category

Worst Disappointment

The Barnacle goes to A Season of Angels by Debbie Macomber.

When I say this book was disappointing, please understood that I did not go into this story expecting high literature. It was just after Thanksgiving and I thought A Season of Angels would be a fun Christmas story “beach read” if you know what I mean. It ended up being a silly story, loaded with stock character and featuring a ridiculous plot twist in one of the storylines. I swear, sometimes what I read in fantasy stories is way more believable than what I read romance novels!

With this blog entry I am completely caught up on awarding my Captain’s Honors. I can’t wait to see what the categories look like for the 2018 Awards!

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The Church of Watching the River Flow By

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Warm peppermint tea,

Cool breeze, expanding sunbeams

Expel dream’s stupor.

Haiku by Jennifer Kay

We went on vacation a few weeks ago. By the end of the week, we had quite the tally of fun activities: visiting with friends we hadn’t seen in a while; dancing Irish Set Dances at a pub; shopping at various bookstores; eating at delicious restaurants; and sampling drafts at a local brewery. But I have to say that the highlight for me was getting up every morning whenever I felt like it (not at the insistence of an alarm clock or a hungry dog), claiming a chair in front of the huge picture window in the living room, and listening to the choir of birds in The Church of Watching the River Flow By. My morning liturgy included eating breakfast and drinking hot tea, followed by some combination of praying, reading, journalling, or drawing. Time ceased, or rather ceased to be relevant, in that space. I never looked at the clock until the service came to a close of it’s own accord and I went to get dressed for whatever excursions lay ahead that day. I began every day of vacation by just being, experiencing nature, and participating in rituals that nourish my body and soul.

I cried on the drive home, not because I had parted from loved ones, but because I had fallen in love with the freedom to simply be for a period of time each day when I was not expected to be doing something or exhausted after doing something. It was quite the surprising revelation that this was so desperately needed and completely lacking from my everyday life.

Of course the week after vacation was crammed with catching up on work, on laundry, on social engagements. The following Saturday morning, my hungry dog pulled me out of a dream to demand breakfast. In a daze, I gave him his kibble and followed him to the back door when he was finished eating. As I opened the door to let him out, a cool breeze greeted me and a choir of birds beckoned me to step into a chapel that I rarely noticed. There is no river running through my back yard, so the chapel’s esthetic is less grand than The Church of Watching the River Flow By. Nevertheless, the peppermint tea was tantalizing on my tongue, the breeze was refreshing on my face, and the sunbeams that crept under the roof of my patio were warm on my feet. I heard the birds sing and watched the trees sway and felt my dog curl up next to me. My mind cleared and I recognized that the freedom I love can also be found at home.

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Annuals and Perennials

My flower bed (if you can call the weedy strip of earth along the sidewalk by that name) is planted with over two dozen daffodil bulbs. These have never failed to bloom for me. Even after being tricked into sprouting during a January thaw this year and consequently shocked by the freezing rain in February, these heralds valiantly unfurled some wrinkled, yellow flags at Spring’s eventual arrival. I look forward to these familiar blooms every spring.

The flower pot on my front step features a rotating cast of annuals. Previous players include begonias, dianthus, and calibrachoa. This year I was feeling sentimental after visiting my grandparents’ grave on Memorial Day weekend, so I filled my pot with petunias. I remember Grandmothers’s flower beds planted with petunias and dusty miller. While I never saw the appeal of those ghost-like dusty millers that haunted the spaces between the flowers, the bright velvet trumpets of the petunias always commanded my attention.

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I recently withdrew from a networking group that I’d been active in for the last four years. I started going to counseling sessions earlier this year, and I discovered that the time and energy I was dedicating to the networking group urgently needed to be redirected to my pursuit of better mental and emotional wellness. But it wasn’t an easy decision to leave the group because I valued the relationships I’d invested in. It was sad to think that some of these friendships might wither away without that weekly connection point. If I lost touch with those people, did it mean that my investment in the relationships was wasted? Like Taylor Joy Murray, I wasn’t sure what to do with short-term relationships.

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A green pot of fuchsia petunias with thin white stripes bursting out from their centers.

Somehow it all clicked into place for me as I watered the petunias this week. Some relationships are perennials and some are annuals. I truly cherish my perennial bed of daffodils, in part because they are such gorgeously cheerful flowers, but also because of the comfort in getting to enjoy them year after year. But the fact that these petunias will only bloom for me this one summer doesn’t make me any less thrilled to see them when I come home from work. I certainly don’t think the gallons of water I pour over them are a waste since it makes them bloom so beautifully. And when I pull their withered stems out of the pot at the end of the winter, I won’t obsess over what I could have done differently to make them bloom through another season. (Something that I confess I have done at the end of certain friendships.) Yes, it’s a sad truth that I won’t have these striped petunias on my porch next year. But I may have solid red ones. Or I may try orange zinnias. Maybe I’ll go back to pink dianthus.

I understand that people are not as easily interchanged as flowers. A friend’s absence is more keenly felt than an empty flower pot. But the burden of saying good-bye feels lighter when I accept them for the annuals that they are. And with that comes the awareness of the opportunity to plant new companions that are just as enriching to my life, even if they are different. And who knows? Someone that I thought was an annual may turn out to be a perennial after all.

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