Bleak House, house buying, Hawthorne, Melville, and Bryant…

Bleak House CoverIt took me a month to read Bleak House, mostly because moving from Guam, buying a house, and generally not feeling great has been monopolizing life lately. The book itself is classic Dickens–brilliant and impossible to review. Everything that can possibly be said about it has already been said by more well-spoken readers than me.

Somewhere around page 300, I laughed out loud at something (this happened a lot while reading this book). The hubster looked up from his computer. “Good book?” he asked.

“It’s brilliant.”

“What’s it about?”

And for the life of me, even though I was already a third of the way through the thing, I couldn’t really say what it was about or where it was going. The action really starts around page 700, which is probably why so many people find BH such a daunting read.

Nevertheless, it’s brilliant. You should go read it now.

The hopeless situation of that Chancery lawsuit was a nice break from househunting and moving stress. Dickens takes effort to read when all you’ve read lately are more modern, American-authored books, and I needed something to keep my mind occupied.

So there was that, and it took forever to read, and it made me feel like I needed to go read every single Dr. Seuss book ever written to catch back up with my 52-book goal on the 2015 reading list. Although BH would qualify for several different items on the List, I’m counting it toward “a book that I own but never read,” because it really has been collecting dust for a while.

I found Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose!

I found Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose!

 

Side note: Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was born in Springfield, Mass–the same town in which we’re buying a house. There’s even a memorial sculpture garden, and it’s kind of awesome.

This weekend I learned a little more profoundly just how much literary history is EVERYWHERE around here. The hubster and I went to hike Monument Mountain, just west of town, on Saturday. Google revealed that a picnic on that mountain once spawned a friendship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, that one of their conversations supposedly inspired Moby Dick. 

 

Poet William Cullen Bryant also waxed rather eloquent on the subject of that mountain’s rocky crags.

Let thy foot
Fail not with weariness, for on their tops
The beauty and the majesty of earth,
Spread wide beneath, shall make thee to forget
The steep and toilsome way.

Read the entire poem here, if you’re feeling dedicated.

Monument Mountain

The views up there were beautiful. But I’ve seen unquestionably more spellbinding mountains than that one. Did William Cullen Bryant ever visit the Rockies? That bears research, but I doubt he would have been as impressed by the Berkshires if he had.

I am a bad blogger. And a bad traveller.

They say the golden rule of blogging is to blog regularly.

Judging by that benchmark, I’d say I fail pretty profoundly, seeing as I’ve published all of two? three? posts since the first of this year.

I’m not without excuses. For the last month and a half, life has been one big international move. On March 2nd, the hubster and I flew out of Guam, travelled for something like 27 hours, then landed in Hartford, Connecticut. The only really consolatory part of that trip? Knowing that I wouldn’t have to travel it again anytime soon.

So, apparently the hubster has a sketchy travel history.

At four different airports, the conversation with the TSA began like this:

Excuse me, sir, I need to pull you aside for a moment and unpack every item of your carry on while you tell me everywhere you have travelled in the last five years. 

The hubster is in the Air Force. He has an extensive travel history. I don’t know that I could name every country I’ve visited or flown through in the last five years, and he’s traveled five times as much as me.

“I’ve been to Turkey, Quatar, Japan, the U.S. a few times, Hawaii, Russia, Uzbekibekibekistan…”

“And what was the purpose of your visit to Turkey?”

“I am in the military. I was deployed there.”

“But what were you doing there? And what dates were you in Turkey?”

….

Then, you know, you get to the domestic side of things after getting off a 14-hour-long transoceanic flight. And you overhear fellow travellers having the most edifying phone conversations:

Oh, you know, I just got off the longest flight everrr from Seattle to Detroit. …yeah, it was awful. The guy sitting beside me slept, like, half the time and I couldn’t even get up to walk around. I hate flying.

And then you watch the same passenger go up to the ticket counter and ask for an upgrade to first-class because of all the travel they’re having to endure that day.

Ma’am, you don’t understand. I have been in transit for FIVE HOURS now. 

One day it’ll be funny. Right?

In other news, we are here, we haven’t frozen yet, our poor Guam boonie dog, Frank, survived the trip (although he discovered a very entitled, needy disposition somewhere along the way), we found a house we love and are waiting to close on it, and in the meantime we’re living out of a hotel.

I spent most of my non-blogging time over the past several weeks not making much progress on the 2015 reading list, because I was reading Bleak HouseMore on that later.

Swimming with Sharks, and The Worst Hard Time

It’s hard–really, really hard–to put yourself in the perspective of a homesteader in the Texas panhandle when you’re surrounded by views like this.

Swimming with Sharks at Spanish Steps, GuamThere are sharks in that water. Black-tipped reef sharks. And I got pretty close and personal with a few of them this afternoon.

Swimming with sharks is one of those things that divers and snorkelers around here shrug off: “Oh, sharks? Psssh. I punched one in the face last week. No biggie.”

Though I’ve done a pretty good chunk of diving and snorkeling in my two years here, I’d never seen one up close until today. And even though most Guammies don’t think it’s a big deal to see them in the water (and even though I must admit that the sharks I swam with today were pretty small by most standards), I’m unreasonably happy.

Anyway.

Soaking up the tropics–and having cool bragging rights like swimming with baby reef sharks in the wild (cough)–makes it hard to imagine a different time and place where clouds of dust rose more than 20,000 feet into the sky and smothered little homesteads and towns in the Great Plains. But that’s what I’ve been reading about.

The Worst Hard Time tells the story of the American Dust Bowl–a period of intense drought and dust storms that hit a vulnerable area at the very worst time possible.

The Worst Hard Time CoverI think it’s interesting that many Goodreads reviewers make comments like, “I didn’t finish this book. It was too depressing.” Um, the title didn’t tip you off?

You can’t read an honest book about the Great Depression in general, and the dust bowl in particular, and expect it to be anything but depressing. You just can’t.

The Worst Hard Time reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, though the two are dramatically different. Hiroshima compresses the pain of the most devastating manmade disaster in history into 152 dense pages (pages that, if you’re me, make you want to throw up at times).
The Worst Hard Time also covers a devastating manmade disaster, but in this one, you become far more invested in the lives of the homesteaders and in their dreams for the future, which makes it even harder to watch them struggle.
I can’t help but sympathize with the homesteaders’ plight. But. Their attitudes are overwhelmingly irritating. Why didn’t they just leave? I wish I could ask them if their stubbornness to stay on the land was worth the lives of the children they lost to “dust pneumonia.” All those babies sleeping with wet sheets over their cribs and Vaseline in their nostrils to filter out the dust, only to die slowly because their lungs filled with dirt.
The homesteaders couldn’t afford to leave, but they couldn’t afford to stay, either–not with banks foreclosing on their properties and the ground unwilling to grow even a carrot during the worst of the drought years. Why not go someplace where there may not be jobs, but at least the very air isn’t trying to kill them? Even though I’m baffled by the stubbornness to stay in a place that was killing them, the stories of these sturdy homesteaders did break my heart.
Though I’m miles away from West Texas now, the story of the Dust Bowl hit particularly close to home for me since I grew up near the southern end of the dust bowl at the bottom corner of the Texas panhandle. I saw the desert that was once fertile grassland, and have heard Grandma talk a little about her family who took on the (derogatory) title “Okies” with pride and made a home for themselves.
Much of The Worst Hard Time follows the folks of Dalhart, TX. I’ve been there. Really makes the history come alive when you realize that those little wide-spot-in-the-road towns have such deep (and, in this case, painful) histories.
 Dust-storm-Texas-1935
I love the way Timothy Egan weaves together the story of this time from the lives of people—German, Irish, and other settlers, including the Comanche Indians who called the land home, the old cowboys of the XIT ranch, African Americans who had the misfortune of passing through those racist communities, and those of mixed ancestry who loved the land.
Egan also covers the media’s reports of the phenomenon to the rest of the States and their not-so-sympathetic response to those living in the dust bowl during the Depression. Lots of new perspectives from newspapers, personal diaries, and interviews that we never hear about from the history books.

I kept finding myself putting the book down so I could research. A Google image search yields some mind-boggling photos of dust storms burying homes under layers of silt.

Books like this make me love non-fiction and wish there were more books like this.

Stockpiling Sunshine

A couple of days ago, I decided that the cold I had been nursing wasn’t going to kill me. With that in mind, the husband and I went on one and a half hikes: one to Taguan Point and half of one to the Anao overlook.

Taguan Point  Guam The Taguan Point hike is also known as One Thousand Steps (Ten Thousand Steps? or something). It’s actually more like 257 according to The Best Tracks on Guam, but I didn’t count to verify. My postpartum body thought it was closer to ten thousand; every step on the way back up, those steep stairs taunted me.

Remember every day you skipped that prenatal pilates? In favor of white chocolate? Aren’t you regretting it now? Tee hee hee. 

About two-thirds of the way up, I was gasping for air and responding in angry grunts to everything the husband said. “Are you going to die?”

Ungh.

“Look at this cool lizard!”

Urghmph.

“The roots of that tree are all twisty!”

Mblurgah.

I am dying, and the tree is all you care about?

I think if he had told me that we won a million dollars, that the sun was falling from the sky, or that a bloodthirsty wild boar was barreling up the steps after me, I would have responded in much the same way.

You gain a lot of perspective once you catch your breath, thankfully. It was a beautiful short hike. There were some pretty cool twisty tree roots. And lizards. And clear blue waters beating against the sharp limestone coast.

Taguan Point Coastline

The Anao hike became just half a hike because we realized the sun would set long before we’d be able to make it down the cliff and back up again. We parked in a sketchy-looking neighborhood next to a nice-looking house bordered by a yard with a couple dozen beautiful, feisty-looking roosters that were obviously being raised for less-than-admirable purposes (I’ll save my Guam-cock-fighting-post for another time). Then we trekked about twenty minutes over a beer-can-studded trail to a beautiful overlook of the eastern side of the island.

This trail was blissfully flat (at least the half we traversed was), and it involved no gutteral sounds or feelings of hopelessness and despair. This was refreshing. Also, the view. This is a bad iPhone picture, but there’s just so. much. blue.

IMG_2783

Over the past week, I’ve been trying to make up for all that prenatal pilates I missed. Those who have experienced stillbirth or late miscarriage know–and I’m learning–that one of the most haunting aftereffects is having a postpartum body and no baby to legitimize it. It’s also a reminder that my apathy toward any kind of legit exercise while I was pregnant was not a good choice.

A friend recommended Blogilates, so I decided to give it a try. So far, the POP Pilates guru, Cassey Ho, is perky enough to keep me interested without being terribly irritating. This sets her a mile apart from many other workout instructors whose classes I’ve attended or watched. And she’s such a prolific You Tube-r that you could probably do a different POP Pilates video each day for a year without repeating any.

I can deal with that for now–pilates, rest, and stockpiling as much Guam sunshine as I can for future cold New England days.

Tuesdays With Morrie, and coping with a common cold

This week has been full of Kleenex, honeyed hot tea, and whining. Every time I come down with a common cold, I go through a faulty coping process.

#1: reasoning. odds are this will only last a week. I can do this for a week.

#2: acceptance. I am destined to be sick for an unknown period of time, and I will resign myself to being miserable.

#3: denial. if I act like I feel wonderful, then I will, because I’m just feeling sorry for myself and it’s all in my head 

#4: anger. what did I do to deserve this? I am being robbed of perfectly good days I could be using to do things

#5: fighting. This must be some horrific new strain of rhinovirus. If hot apple cider vinegar diluted with water and honey helps, then straight vinegar shots straight from the bottle must work ten times better. 

All of that nonsense inevitably leads to a form of depression, during which I come to terms with the fact that I have a bad attitude and could be doing profitable things with my time. I then turn into an unreasonable, sneezing, hacking, witchlike creature who expects everyone to proffer chicken soup and foot rubs. More than once, I went nose-to-oozy-nose with my longsuffering husband and proclaimed that I was dying and that my head would soon explode.

Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverMaybe it’s appropriate, then, that the 2015 reading list book I knocked out has everything to do with dying.

To check off the “Book a Friend Recommended” category, I read Tuesdays With Morrie. Because I generally avoid this type of sentimental live-each-day-as-though-it’s-your-last genre, this one was definitely out of the box and entirely based on a good friend’s recommendation.

It’s a quick read, barely more than a long essay, and… well, though I admit Mitch Album has a magical touch with short, sentimental books, it was far from my favorite. I read it in a couple of sittings. It’s not boring.

But I found the whole concept rather cliché. Live like you’re dying. Hug your mom. Carpe diem. All 192 pages say essentially the same thing in different ways. One Goodreads reviewer says it reads like a hundred greeting cards strung together, and I can relate.

As a Christian, the Tuesdays With Morrie philosophy offers some truths I can agree with. Primarily, the necessity of coming to terms with the fact that we’re not immortal and that we shouldn’t act like it. Also the overwhelming importance of love (even for those we’ve never met).

But Morrie’s solution to the problem of death is  an exhaustingly diluted philosophy that doesn’t offer much meaning or purpose at all. Morrie becomes a professor by default because he can’t stand the thought of taking advantage of someone by being a businessman or a lawyer. He borrows from all religions to frame his world in the way he wants–and to give himself hope.

Toward the end of his battle with ALS, he admits (as though this is a weakness?) to praying to God in order to deal with his suffering. Hints of typical Eastern thought: we’re all waves in the ocean. True, one day we’ll crash into the shore and lose our identity, but we’ll still be part of the sea, so it’s OK after all.

So. Lots quotable quotes. Makes you deal with the reality of death and want to legitly carpe diem all over the place. But it’s built on a patchwork philosophy of self-comfort, which leads to not really knowing what you believe about life or death at all.

The book did make me feel like I should be handling my cold with a little more aplomb. As did an unexpected gift from my husband when he came home from work today: an incredibly fuzzy, fluffy owlet with a crooked beak that makes everything better. I shall call him Quill.

IMG_2743 - Version 2

2015 Reading Goals

I’m slowly coming out of my post-college book slump. You know what’s kind of pathetic? Eating an entire container of hummus in one sitting. Also, having a degree in English literature and not knowing how to answer the question “What’s your favorite genre?” or “Who’s your favorite author?”.

When I was a middle-schooler, it was fantasy, re: every Cinderella rewrite ever published. In high school, it was classic English novels (I met Dickens when I was in tenth grade, fell in love, and read most of his novels that year). In college, it became whatever I had to read for classes, with little time for anything else, so it was Homer, Camus, Roethke, Brontë, Euripides, Shakespeare…

Now I have no idea what I prefer. Not sci-fi. NOT chick lit. Not Game of Thrones, despite my husband’s best efforts. Everything conservative in me balks at most of the stuff on the “most popular” lists.

I’ve found some YA stuff I love, but it hurts my (misguided?) sense of literary pride to spend the majority of my reading time on it. Creative nonfiction is good; if well-written (think Unbroken), it’s as riveting as a novel, and it leaves me feeling like I haven’t wasted my time on fluff.

Not wasting my time on fluff seems very important recently.

But I’m feeling stuck. This is the year to read out of my comfort zones and try to figure out a more decent-sounding response to the question I’ve started to dread: What do you like to read?*  

Something has to change.

Because an English grad who casts down her eyes and mutters the words “wide variety” and “whatever is well written” in response is an English grad who feels like she’s sacrificed her credibility on the altar of indecision.

She then resorts to sitting with her phone scouring Oyster and Goodreads for the perfect-sounding book to read, while unwittingly eating eight servings of hummus at once.

Pathetic.

Personal goal: Read 52 books this year. Make half of them non-fiction. Figure out my favorites.

Maybe something like this is a good place to start:

From A Girl Who Reads, on Popsugar.

*Maybe the very question is flawed. Or maybe there’s never going to be a simple answer for someone who reads widely. Maybe I’m not as messed-up as I feel? :D

A Million Oceans

Philippine Sea They say you can never step into the same river twice. You can’t look at the same ocean twice, either. Every moment is a million different oceans with different blues, different facets, and different waves, like violent lace crowning the shore.

I was floating in one of those liquid moments the other day, thinking about plans for leaving Guam and all the headache-inducing minutia that goes along with the process, when a sobering thought hit me: the thing I’ll miss the most isn’t necessarily the beach or that moment-by-moment ocean that I can see from my backyard.

I’ll miss the pictures, drawn with both cameras and words, that I wish I could step back into. But I’ll never really remember how beautiful and alive moments are–how floating in these Pacific waters feels like swimming in a diamond, or how the blue of the deep water is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes. Too perfect a color. I bet that’s a taste of what heaven will look like.

The sad part is that as soon as I step out of that ocean and walk away from that moment, I can’t remember how nearly perfect it was. I suppose Massachusetts will have to replace those moments with a few of its own.