An Explanation

It will come as no surprise to all the wonderful people who followed this blog that I haven’t posted in a very long time. And yet alenaslife remains here in the cyberworld. No updates. Unhidden.  Open to discovery, but unchanging. Many of you have reached out to me via comments, or recently via Twitter, to inquire, to voice concern, to wonder.

I owe you an explanation.

It’s simple. My blog began to feel more of an obligation than a pleasure. It was one more thing in my day, my week, my life that I had to get done, that needed my attention, that took up my time. I grew resentful. It’s silly because none of you demanded anything of me, yet I felt beholden just the same.

So I simply stopped. I stopped posting, I stopped reading and commenting on my favorite bloggers.

I continue to read. I continue to write about what I read (on Goodreads). I continue to live my life. I continue to miss the relationships I built online with remarkable writers, interesting women & men and fellow book lovers.

I’m still not ready to come back to this supportive, engaging world of bloggers. But I’m also not ready to shut it down and say a final “goodbye.” Please bear with me as I float in limbo.

The Art of the Short Story

I never set out to make 2013 the Year of the Short Story, but my reading choices have gone that way. In the first two months of the year, I’ve read four story collections and have quite a few more on my To-Read list.

It’s not as if this is a new genre for me. I’ve always appreciated great short stories. I would, in fact, argue that a great short story writer possess all the skills of great novelists and then some. After all they have to pack all the character development, story arc, subtext and emotional subtext of a satisfying story into a much more confined space. In short stories there’s no room to let a character “grow on” a reader or to allow them to “warm up” to a situation.

Some writers do this through shock. Aimee Bender and Karen Russell take their characters and stories outside of normal reality, grabbing our attention with women who can spin silk through their fingertips or teenagers with piano-keys for fingers. Others, like Elizabeth Berg, write about characters so completely familiar they could be our neighbors, sisters, or even ourselves.

For me, the key to a successful short story collection is a sense of completeness. Whether it’s one paragraph (420 Characters) or a novella (A Good Man is Hard to Find), I want a beginning, middle and end. I want to feel invested and satisfied, but still wanting a little bit more.

So far this year, I’ve read some hits and misses in this genre.

Vampires in the Lemon GroveVampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

4 stars

Given my absolute love for Aimee Bender, it seems that Karen Russell should be a perfect read-alike. She too throws reality out the window if it gets in the way of her storytelling. She invests her characters with strange powers and physical deformities that defy natural laws. She writes strong women and young people and skewers traditions and politics effortlessly. But, I have to be honest, I came to this collection with a bad taste in my mouth from Swamplandia!, which was decidedly underwhelming for me.

Now I think I might be a convert. This collection started slow for me, with the title story leaving me cold, but it just kept getting better and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know how to classify her writing – is this magical realism? modern fantasy? satire? I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I know that I was entertained and turned inside out and forced to allow my brain to travel down new paths.

These stories span the globe, many different eras and a variety of socio-economic conditions, but at their heart, they all investigate lonely people in search of connections. I think I am now ready to go back and read her first story collection and keep an eye open for whatever she has in store for us next.

 

there once was a wifeThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
2.5 stars
Dozens of short stories about people (mostly women) whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. There is real honesty here. I had no trouble picturing the world in which these people live. And, in a few places, I was arrested by a moment of brilliance or a character I would have liked to continue reading about. But then the story would end. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling.

I will say that this book was brought more vividly to life by the wonderful discussion it inspired, both on Goodreads and on WordPress, captured perfectly by my book-loving friends Cassie at Books and Bowel Movements and Claire at Word by Word.

this is how you lose herThis is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
4 stars
I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself but I will say this collection is held together both my love and by the primary narrator, Yunior, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I didn’t like him, but I still really liked the writing.

 
The Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: Stories
By Elizabeth Berg
3.5 stars
Listening to these thirteen stories, read by author Elizabeth Berg, was like having a really clever friend along for car rides. I was often amused, seldom bored and mostly inspired to find someone who gets a certain type of woman so completely. As the subject of the title story suggests, many of these stories are about food and weight issues. Berg wisely intersperses other issues, but when I say she gets a certain type of woman, I mean that she gets those of us for whom food is a daily issue. Judging by her proficiency and popularity, there are a lot of us. I haven’t read all that much Elizabeth Berg, but she certainly seems a pleasant way to pass the time.

Happy Bloggiversary to Me!

It’s a good thing WordPress reminded me about my anniversary last week, or surely this momentous occasion would have gone unnoticed. I find it somewhat unfortunate my anniversary fell during a week in which I didn’t post a single thing, but oh well. I was quite busy living and working and cheering on my boys and rooting for the Blackhawks, and, of course, reading. That’s basically my life.

But now that I’m aware that alenaslife is one, I thought I’d better mark the occasion with a post.

Reflection

First and foremost, I have a place to reflect – primarily on what I read, but also on motherhood, family, friends and the changes I’ve experienced over the past year. In sharing myself in these posts, I can process my thoughts and feelings. I also have a sort of “diary” on which to look back and see where I’ve been.
I relied on these writings and the feedback and discussions they elicited especially when I began my new career and after my father’s death. I will be forever grateful that I had this place to share those life-changing events.

 

New friends

My husband teases me for my liberal use of the word “friend,” but I truly feel that I have made friends in the world of blogging. I may have never met you in real life, but I follow your highs and lows, share jokes, depend on your guidance and miss you when I haven’t heard from you in a while. Aren’t those definitions of friendship?
If it weren’t for alenaslife, I wouldn’t know the marvelous book love of Cassie and Claire and Leah  and Didi. I wouldn’t laugh and cry with my fellow moms Joan and Tammy who inspire me to live life to its fullest.

There are countless others who have stopped by to comment or like or follow or share a post. (Actually, WordPress can count them, but I’m trying not to be number obsessed). Those small interactions brighten my day and motivate me to keep at it.

 

Book Love

Yes, I am a book addict.

Image my joy to find so many others who devour, discuss and demand books to the same degree. I not only have a great record of what I was reading this past year, I have feedback and suggestions about what to read next. The bloggers I follow have introduced me to new titles and authors. I have stretched the boundaries of my comfort zone and felt the love for a well-crafted review.

It’s simply marvelous to find so many enablers for my addiction. Thank you.

 

Confidence

I teach my sons not to look for validation in others, but let’s face it, it’s really great to hear that someone thinks you’ve done a good job. I get that often via alenaslife. In big and little ways, I am reassured that I can write, that my opinions are heard by others, that “you like me.” It shouldn’t matter, but it does.

 

Happy anniversary to me.

Thursday Flashback — World Book Night

Yesterday I received the official notice that I have been chosen to be a World Book Night Giver. With hundreds of thousands of other people, I will be part of an effort to give away a million books to light or non-readers. Once again I will work with my wonderful friends and I have been so heartened to hear from other readers on Goodreads that they too have signed on to be part of the fun this year.

I went in search of what I wrote about last year’s event as I look forward to making this year even better (perhaps without my youngest son in tow this time.)

Are any of you givers this year?

Originally published April 24, 2012

So I participated in the first-time-in-America World Book Night last night. As with many things in my life, it didn’t go according to plan.

Way back when (6 months ago), I stumbled across a Facebook post about World Book Night in the UK. When I followed the link, I saw it was coming to the US in 2012. I love books. I love promoting books. I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I signed up for the newsletter.

When it came time to actually register and request books, I faltered. Once again, the idea of this was more appealing than actually committing to the follow-through.

Choosing titles to give away was no problem, but writing about a place I’d go and why I wanted to do this was a little harder. I’m a curl up on the couch and share my book love with like-minded people kind of girl. The thought of seeking out a place where I could find light or reluctant readers scared me. But I did it.

First paperback edition book cover

First paperback edition book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I was chosen and I had to move beyond my comfort zone. I had a plan. I would go to the train station and just smile and offer my book, The Kite Runner, to strangers. Gulp.

As the date approached, I turned again and again to the virtual world for courage. I followed @wbnamerica on Twitter and “met” thousands of other people giving away books. I promoted World Book Night on Facebook and received loads of encouragement from friends and family. Ultimately, I connected with real-life friends and revised my work-alone plan.

Feeling better about a group of us working together with several titles, I wore my button, passed out stickers and packed my box. Then real life interfered with my best-laid plans. My husband could not get home in time for me to meet up with my friends. Sigh.

I could have used this as a reason to not interact with strangers, but I surprised myself by adapting quickly. I brought my youngest son along for the “fun.” He was none to pleased about being taken away from his backyard soccer game to “sell” books, but he had no choice. I explained how much this worldwide event meant to me and he agreed to help.

In the end, we had a blast walking up to strangers, talking up our titles and seeing people walk away with a new book. After a slow start, and quite a few skeptical looks, one train’s worth of commuters cleared out most of our books. My son was cute and charming and more than willing to run back to the box to refresh our armloads of books. I felt like part of a much broader community as I followed the experiences of givers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Now that it is over, I can forever claim being one of the first in America. And, so can my youngest son. I like that.

Some of my favorite #wbnamerica tweets:

Stacey Mason ‏ @StaceyLMason

“Sometimes we need books. And sometimes books need us.” Perhaps half a million free books started a new conversation last night @wbnamerica

Martha Kiley ‏ @MarthaKiley

Gave Bel Canto to a bartender, barista, counter girl, pizza guy, new moms, dog walkers and a butcher. Great night! #wbnamerica

The Book Shepherd ‏ @mybookshepherd

Yesterday was World Book Night-continue it and donate books to those who will open them and fall lin for the love of the word.#wbnamerica

Gabe Eggerling @saysgabe: I have always been told it’s a Gift to receive a book, but thanks to @wbnamerica I can say it’s also a Gift to give a book!!

20120424-091233.jpg

My box of WBN books

20120424-091256.jpg

Proud book-nerds ready to talk to commuters.

20120424-091305.jpg

My youngest son with an armful of The Hunger Games. Ready and willing.

W…W…W…Wednesday

After the long weekend, Wednesday has come earlier than usual. But here I am ready to talk books.

www_wednesdays44

I welcome you to play along. Just answer the following questions:

  • What are you reading?
  • What did you just finish?
  • What do you plan to read next?

What are you reading? I am just about finished with Vampires in the Lemon Grove  by Karen Russell. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like these stories. I thought I should, but they didn’t really click for me until about a third of the way through. Then they just kept getting better. I like her odd sense of the world and the strength of her female characters. On audio, I’m listening to The Secret Keeper, my first Kate Morton. I’m a little intimidated by its length, but it’s off to a great start.

What did you just finish? Finished The Family Fang for the second time. I could rhapsodize about how much I love this quirky look at modern family and the true meaning of art, but I like to keep this Wednesday post rolling along. (You can check out more of my Fang fandom on Goodreads.) On audio, I finished The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg. Listening to her was like having a good friend in the car telling me entertaining stories. I wasn’t blown away, but it was a very pleasant way to pass the commute.

What will you read next? I’m not sure, but I would really like to be blown away by a book. It hasn’t happened to me yet in 2013. The top two books on my To-Read list are Mudbound and Me Before You, which have both received stellar reviews and high recommendations from readers I trust.

How about you?

Far From Normal – Living My Dream

Many of us think of our lives as boringly normal, while others live the high life. Take a step back, and take a look at your life as an outsider might.

Basically, today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What is normal?” I am a happily married, mother of three. I work full-time, read voraciously and write a blog on the side. I struggle with my weight, love to watch sports, consider my husband and my mom my best friends and spend countless hours each week loading and unloading the dishwasher, washing machine and dryer. I feel pretty normal.

We’ll just throw the idea of the “high life” right out the window. I haven’t been on an airplane in almost 10 years. I’ve driven the same car for 8. Watching celebrities and the super-rich is a source of entertainment for me, mostly in the way it’s hard not to look a car crash as you drive by.

But I’ll try, in the interest of the prompt, to look at my life as an outsider. Here’s what an outside might not see. I am living my dream life. Let me be clear. I draw a difference between the life I’ve always dreamed of and the occasional fantasy life I created. In that one, my Broadway career turns into an Academy Award acceptance speech and Hugh Jackman falls in love with me. (See? Even my fantasies are perfectly normal.)

So how can my ordinary reality be a dream life? It’s quite simple. I grew up wanting to build a solid, happy family. That’s really all. picture in your mind

Maybe it was the books I read. Trixie Belden’s family was just so good! Maybe it was growing up surrounded by parents, aunts & uncles and grandparent who all divorced. Or maybe I’m just a romantic girl who wants forever to be my reality.

So, luckily, I found a man who wanted the same thing. I don’t think our marriage is hard work or full of sacrifices. We are partners who sometimes need to compromise and sometimes get on each other’s nerves, but my husband makes me happy. I don’t want to be anywhere else. Our marriage has officially outlasted my parent’s marriage, which seems a little unbelievable to me.

marry a manWe have three sons, who do require hard work and sacrifices. This is my normal. Yes, I live in a male-dominated household. You know what that means? I am the undisputed queen.

I read (by modern standards) an abnormally high number of books. Again, living my dream. My mom would assure you that devouring books is a lifelong habit. It’s a quiet habit to be sure, but reading has opened my life to an incredible array of voices and new friendships. I wouldn’t trade my hobby for anyone else’s.

All of this boils down to what I think outsiders might find abnormal. I’m content. I see women of my generation looking around the corner for the next opportunity, for the life they’re “supposed to be” living, for the perfect balance, for more. I have what I want.

I am living my dream.want

W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? In paperback I am rereading one of my favorite books, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It topped my 2011 books and I’m happy to report that it’s just as good the second time around. On audio I’m listening to Elizabeth Berg‘s The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted — a short story collection. It started off really strong, but 5 of 7 discs in, I’m getting a little tired of her voice.

What did you recently finish reading? Finally got around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I didn’t love. Also finished Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her, which I liked despite not liking the primary narrator.

What do you think you’ll read next? I have no idea what I’ll read next, which is sort of refreshing. I’ll hit the library later today and see what strikes my fancy. It’s not like I don’t have options with 300+ titles on my Goodreads To-Read shelf.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Questioning a classic – The Catcher in the Rye

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are the words of Holden Caulfield, perhaps one of the best known protagonists in American literature. They are also words that pretty well describe how I feel about this novel, which I read for the first time as a 41 year-old woman. My reactions to this book are a little bit confused and hard to explain; and, while the story grew on me in the second half, I never fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye.

So who am I to question the presupposed genius of this classic? Who am I to doubt its place in high school English classes across the country? Who am I to dare criticize an author as wrapped in mystique and reputation as J.D. Salinger?

I am a reader. I am humble enough to acknowledge that I probably don’t have much new information to add to a 60 year-old discourse, but I’m confident enough to declare that I don’t have to like a book just because it’s deemed a “classic.” So here I go.

Holden Caulfield is a deeply depressed, conceited young man on a 24-hour drinking, smoking and spending bender, unsupervised in New York City. His voice is “lousy” with criticisms of the “phonies” who surround him in boarding school and nightclubs, dismissive of anyone whose life doesn’t measure up to the unrealistic ideals he’s created and immature about relationships. These qualities may have been revolutionary in 1951 (and they may indeed still describe most 16 year-olds), but characters like Holden are now found everywhere, and in far more likable guises, in literature.

So, basically, I didn’t like him for most of the novel. I spend most of the book wondering why someone would want to write this particular character. That’s a problem.

But here’s where my confusion comes in. There were moments (too few and far between) that Salinger really touched my heart, when Holden seemed three-dimensional and painfully honest.

“That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never knew where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”

And then, the middle-of-the-night scene in his sister Phoebe’s room is really genius. I found this book so much more engaging when we got out of Holden’s mind and into some dialogue and interaction. With Phoebe, we see Holden’s sensitive side. I finally started to like him, but the book was 75% done. It just took too long to get there.

I find it very difficult to grasp that in a few years my son will likely have to read this novel as the definitive “coming-of-age” novel of modern literature. It doesn’t feel in any way modern. I don’t think my sons will identify with Holden’s life. So if they come back to me with, “this book is so boring,” at least I’ll be able to relate.

I’m glad I read it, because I do think this book has influenced so many writers. I am willing to concede that I may just not get the point. Are the very things that bothered me the reasons it has stood the test of time? Maybe, but, in the words of my husband, “meh.”

Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

Girlchild

Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.

This is How You Lose Her – a new review

I have had difficulty approaching a review of this book. I’m not even sure how to classify it – short stories or a novel? The bottom line is that I liked listening to it. this is how you lose her(The audio is version is narrated by the author.) The language and immediacy of Yunior’s emotions really moved me. I felt I was reading a viewpoint of the world that I don’t get to hear often, so in that way it felt very fresh.

But, I don’t like Yunior. He’s a cheat – the lowest of the low. He’s also the center of all but one of these stories – intelligent, but dishonest; lonely, but cold; searching, but blind.

In fact, I wanted to despise him, but Diaz writes him well enough that I stopped short of hatred. In fact, I felt a little heartbroken for him even as I cringed at his language and behavior. Yunior says about himself:

““In another universe I probably came out OK, ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”

and

“I’m so alone that every day is like eating my own heart.”

Compelling, right? Then, in the next moment, he’s describing Alma this way, “An ass that could pull the moon out of orbit.” I just never knew how to feel about him and the broken world he inhabits.

And, I have to admit, the foul language and vulgarity were hard to listen too. I think when I read the printed word I must skim profanity to some degree because I often found myself cringing at the crudeness of the men in these stories. Even when Diaz throws in Spanish words and phrases (which he does quite often without any translation other than context) I had the feeling he was swearing.

So I’d start to dislike the book a little bit and then Diaz would reel me back in with such beauty that I felt my breath catch. I especially liked the one story told from a woman’s perspective and the honest beauty of Miss Laura.

“There were a lot of middle-aged types living alone, shipwrecked by all kinds of catastrophes.”

Miss Laura is a sort of continuation of the earlier story of how Yunior deals (or doesn’t) with his brother Rafa’s death. It deals with Yunior’s inability to face the real world and his love affair with a much older neighbor woman. To me, this is the strongest story in the collection.

I haven’t read Diaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, honestly, I’m not in a hurry to pick it up after finishing this book. But I do admire his in-your-face style and bits of beauty.

“The half-life of love is forever. Sometimes a start is all we get.”

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