Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Six Books A-Reading

I love books and I love to read. I'm just not a linear reader.

What, you ask, does that mean? Well, I can't seem to read one book at a time. At any given moment in my life, I have up to six books scattered between my nightstand and side table next to my reading chair.

Why is that? Well, I've asked myself the same question. And this December I think I've come up with a reply.

My mood.

Have you ever started a book and it didn't click with you? Or have you read all the way through and not truly found much satisfaction? Have you perhaps re-read or re-started that same book at another time only to discover a completely different experience? Well, I have. I've started and/or read books that have been "okay" or "bleaky" only to re-read them and discover a great enjoyment ... a completely different story even.

But it's the same material. I'm the same person. Why did it gel this time and not the time before?

I've come to the conclusion that reading, being such a mind and imagination driven event, is influenced by our mental state. The "place" you are in emotionally influences how you experience the words and story you read.

So ... my "December Six" included Girl on a Train, These Shallow Graves, The Paris Wife, Jessamy, Quiet and Written in my Own Heart's Blood.  It was an eclectic mix and -- in this year's over-scheduled, dreary month of December -- not necessarily the right recipe for my slightly stressed out mental state.

Girl on a Train bugged me -- for about 2/3 of the read -- and it was one of the few books that I seriously contemplated not finishing. But it was rated Best Fiction Book of 2015 and I am not one to toss in the towel. Didn't help that the story was told by a whiny, unlikable primary narrator with a bunch of equally yucky secondary ones. However, it did take the promised Hitchcock-esque turn. I anticipated the ending but overall did find that last 1/3 of the book more satisfying.

But, that's not the only reason I believe I was resistant to the read. It was the dark tone and the depressed narrator and her inability to take control over her life that got to me. Amidst all the pre-Christmas stress as well as an over-scheduled calendar and perpetual rushing about, I couldn't enjoy the book because I couldn't relax into the story. It set me on edge and stressed me out ... not a good bedtime read. Not a good choice for this month,

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly was picked up by mistake. I'd misread the last name of the author. But when I started, I was drawn in completely by the protagonist and her struggle between the life she had and the life she longed for. The mystery was compelling, the characters fully-drawn and the setting eerie. It had everything I wanted in a book this month.

The Paris Wife is a beautiful dramatization of the story of Hemingway's first wife Hadley and their relationship/life in Paris. Author Paula McClain has a strong sense of these characters and makes them real. But in this tale I am faced with a woman with a lot of drama. She can't seem to determine what she wants, deal with the larger-than-life nature/personality of her husband or do anything about ... well ... anything. I sympathize with her challenges as a post-WWI woman limited by societal norms and I am truly interested in her story. She just has too much angst for me to enjoy the book fully right now. So I read a little and then take a break.

Quiet by Susan Cain is my non-fiction focus.  I really like it. I just read it slowly and absorb what I learn. It address the challenges of life as an introvert amidst this overly-talky world. I'd share more but the Introvert in me won't allow it.

Written in my Own Heart's Blood is the latest Diana Gabaldon. In 2015, I read and re-read her entire Outlander Series and this is the latest ... book 8. And, like the others, it's about 825 pages. I'm stalling not because of related drama -- though it has it in spades in various different and intriguing storylines. I'm stalling because I don't want to read it too fast as the next book isn't out yet and I don't want to lose track of what's happened and be forced to re-read 825 pages to figure it out!

Jessamy is the piece de resistance this December. It offered exactly what I needed, captivating my imagination and giving me moments to escape and find joy in another time and place. The book is out of print now but was a favorite of mine as a young girl. I found a hardcover copy on-line by ... fate, I read it quickly with immense pleasure, tearing up at the end. What a delightful story!

So, that's the moral of this tale. What we enjoy from the written word is intensely personal. It has everything to do with who we are and where we are emotionally and physically at the time we pick up that book. What we dislike at one time may fascinate us at another ... or not.

So if you have a lot of stress, don't pick up something that adds more. Unless that's what you are looking for. Me, I like to escape, discover new places, new ideas and a story that creates a movie in my mind that I could jump into ... perhaps even become one of the characters myself.

Now ... wouldn't that be the ultimate adventure ... Of course, that tale has been written by Jasper Fforde with his Tuesday Next series which began with The Eyre Affair... 

What are you reading? Or not reading ... Think about it.
                                                                                                       -- Jenni

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Lights In The Darkness

There are certain Christmas Traditions that have depth ... they carry on years after they were first introduced. I'm one who embraces tradition. See, I'm Sentimental that way.

As a young girl, I remember fondly my father driving us around Valparaiso during the holidays to look at the lights and decorations. We'd take several outings throughout the season -- the longest one would take place Christmas Eve after church. All the houses were different. Unique. I liked it best when there was snow too. But the twinkling lights held a certain magic nonetheless.

There's a house near me. It's lit with blue lights and blue light icicles dangle from the roof top. It glows. My daughter asks me to drive by it whenever we are out at night. For some reason, that blue-lit house holds a special fascination for her. She remembers it every Christmas. She calls it "The Blue House."

There are many beautifully decorated homes and businesses near me. Not as many as some years, I'm sorry to say. But enough to enjoy a drive around town with your family to see them. It's low-cost entertainment.

Some people enjoy traveling to up I-75 to Rochester's Main Street to see the streams of colored lights. Others enjoy the elegance of Royal Oak's tree lined downtown decorated with ice blue lights and green balls. It's glorious to see when you're out in the evening.

But there is one house that I make it a point to never miss. My son and I discovered it for the first time a few years ago quite by accident. We were avoiding some construction and opted to drive down Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe on our way home from a rehearsal. At the corner of Moross and Lakeshore is a very festively decorated home ... aglow with a quantity of lights in varying colors that come with an electric bill I certainly wouldn't want to pay. You can read a map sitting beside it!

It's not that house.

It's the next house. There's an expansive lot with a huge lawn. And this lawn is empty -- stark even -- but for one Tree. This tree in the front lawn reaches to the sky with long slender branches. And every single one of those branches is covered glowing white bulbs. Every single branch is lit as if painted with lights. I've never seen anything else like it. And then, to make it glow even brighter, a spotlight shines in it. It's stunning. It stops me in my path. I drove by it last night, turned around and drove past again.

My son and I might just have to take a trip over to try and photograph it. It's breathtaking.

It's amazing to think that a tree devoid of leaves during this particularly dark, dreary December can affect me so. It just goes to show that beauty and wonder can be found all around us when we take the time to open our hearts to it and clear our calendar to experience it. Even in the bleakest, busiest, craziest, most challenging moments there exists a source of Light mightier than the darkness. (Ties in quite nicely with the True Message of this Season, doesn't it?)  Yes, this tree is truly awe-inspiring. Out of the darkness, there is beauty. If only you take the time to see it.

So that's my Christmas Week message to you. Look at the lights. Take a drive by. Stop racing about and checking off your list and choose to find a few moments of wonder. Take time to gaze outside your window and away from your cell phone to encounter beauty in the darkness. No matter what is under your tree or going on in your life -- or the world around us -- there is Light mightier than the darkest night. It's worth your time. And it's magnificent.

My parents are visiting this Christmas. Think I'll take them out for a drive ...

              Merry Christmas to All ... God Bless Us Every One ... 
                                                              and to All A Good Night ... Jenni

Friday, December 18, 2015

Finding The Wonder

I awoke early Wednesday morning, as is my nature, with a little help from my cat. My daughter was asleep beside me -- she'd had a tummy ache and fell asleep with me. I glanced over to her with a smile. Now, you may think that cats have a singular nature and care little for human contact. But cats are just like us ... some like to be alone while others prefer company and the human touch ...

My cat meows to inform me it's "our time." She wants me to turn on the Christmas tree, fix my coffee and settle into my chair so she can climb on my lap and snuggle. There's no distraction. There's no one but us.

She's been a little more adamant this month about Snuggle Time. And, even after I fix her breakfast, she comes back for more. Settling into my lap and wrapping her tail around my arm. And when I brought my computer to my lap to begin this blog, she informed me that was just not acceptable. She sat beside me until I put it down then took her place, afterward climbing onto my footstool for additional caressing.

It's funny how she helps me settle down ... slow down ...

In this Festive time of the year ... that's what Charles Dickens called it in A Christmas Carol ... our focus is scattered. We have lists of things to do and concerts to attend and work to fit in and cookies to bake and projects to complete and wishes to grant. Distracted by the many things on our to do lists and to buy lists, there is a crazy element to driving ... frenetic even. It's scary out there.

As a kid, I don't remember "holiday stress." When did it happen? When did we lose the Joy and the Wonder?

I'm guilty of it. December hit me and brought a sense of Dread ... All these things to do, decorating to accomplish and shopping aka finding the perfect gift for everyone ... no pressure really. Amidst that, there were work events to plan and kids to schlep to their choir practices, piano lessons, swim practices and extra ballet sessions -- and don't get me started on the holiday concerts. I felt more stress and anxiety than Holiday Spirit.

At Christmas, I struggle with the lists. See I like to select that perfect gift for the people important to me. It's not a financial thing ... it's finding something that expresses a feeling or captures a shared passion or reminds me why we are close. And, once in a while I find it ... something I select because I know the person I'm buying for. And the look in their eyes as they unwrap that brightly colored package and see something that means something ... It's one of those moments MasterCard defines correctly as Priceless.

It's a crazy time of year, no matter what Dickens said. And the selfless reason and faith-based aspect of the season gets lost in holiday traffic more times than I care to admit. So Here's my Holiday Wish for you: Do something to find the Wonder ...

I found it recently. How? Well I decided in one of my more stressed-out moments that I needed to find One Moment of Joy & Wonder every single day. Just One. So, I've intentionally taken more time recently to spend with special friends and my parents -- on the phone or face to face as our locations allow. I found Joy laughing at The Muppet Christmas Carol and watching a family friend meet the challenge of a sour Margarita. I found Wonder spending time out on the town eating Mexican food and catching up. I saw Sparkle in the orange glistening on a glass of Blue Moon. I supported my inner child by signing up for a coloring class with another friend after the holidays.

There's a theme here. It's not in what I did but the Moments spent Connecting with people I care for.

I found Holiday Spirit listening to my daughter sing Winter Wonderland while she held my hand in the car. I found Joy & Wonder when my son and I struggled to make bracelets for his Secret Santa and then settled in to watch a Leverage Christmas episode. I found a Smile as my husband coached his Diving Team and cheered on our son's swimming -- and when he decorated the front of the house ... All the lights and evergreen roping. I found a Smile as I spoke with my friend in Chicago as selected an Angel Card for this time. And, I experience true Magic in the traditional trip to see Santa -- a few simple moments with my children while we enjoyed our Starbucks breakfast.

I find Joy catching up with my Family and Friends. I find Wonder presenting a specially selected gift and watching eyes light up in discovery. I find Magic in the look in my cat's eyes as she cuddles with me.

One of my dearest moments each year is crafting my Christmas Email with the photo from the Santa Trip. I just can't get cards done anymore ... but my Christmas Message is full of heart and love and appreciation ... And I think people get that ...

See the Magic of this time of year is not found rushing around. It's found in the simple and special times with People -- and Cats -- who give our life meaning, Joy ... and Wonder.

Merry Christmas to All ... God Bless Us Every One ...
                                                                                              -- Jenni 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Off The List: Goin' Rogue with Jessamy

Sorry Ron. I'm going rogue. I know this month the assigned Classic's Challenge reading was a Nobel Prize winner, and I truly was all geared up to read an O'Neill play. I started three, in fact. They just didn't grab me; yet I did intend to press on. But, then I thought and realized that I had read a Nobel winner a few months back (before the assignment was modified to Pulitzer Prize Winner.) And I did both finish that read and post a review. (Click here!) So I decided to choose my own classic this month ... a Jenni Winner. One I would give a prize to, if I could.

As a girl growing in Valparaiso, Indiana, I spent a lot of time at the local library. It was originally a two story yellow-brick building, which expanded as years went on. The upstairs was for adults and the downstairs for children of all ages. I loved the cha-ching sound of the Library Card Machine as it was inserted with a paper card to log the books you took out, leaving that stamp with the due date on the card when was placed in a pocket in the front of the book ... Remember those?

I fondly recall the children's floor. I visited it often and read every single Oz book. I can see them on the stacks even now. I found and checked out every Nancy Drew book available in the 1970s too.

But there was a book I discovered quite by accident when I was 10 years old. It was called Jessamy and written by Barbara Sleigh. And as it was published in 1966, I lovingly bestow is with a "Classic Rating." It may not have earned a Nobel Prize, but since it influenced me and my passion for reading so heavily, I'd give it a nod!

Jessamy is the story of a young orphaned girl shuttled between aunts. But, the summer-time aunt has two children with whooping cough, so she is sequestered away with a friend of the aunt's who is the caretaker of an old house called Posset Place. Jessamy, being a curious but solitary girl, explores the house -- discovering a schoolroom with marks in the cupboard (aka closet). These marks denote the height of all the children in the family who once resided there in 1914. The names and the marks include her own!

This discovery ends up being a time-traveling mechanism, a journey opening the door to family, friendship and mystery.

I read this book many times as a kid. I remember taking it out from the library over and over. I even remember deciding that one day I would name my daughter Jessamy. Well, over time, I forgot all about it ... til my daughter (not named Jessamy by the way) turned 10 and my thoughts turned to this book.

That said, I decided she should read it too! I followed my own footsteps and went to the Royal Oak Public Library. The card catalogs may have changed, but I figured I could find it.

No luck.

Okay, so I would just go to the bookstore and get a copy for her. Couldn't find it at Barnes & Noble. Then, I went on-line to The discovery was shocking. Oh, I could order it from there ... but at a cost of between $775 - $1000. See, Jessamy had gone out of print.

I was devastated. This book that captured my imagination, shaped my reading direction and led me to the idea of time travel -- an idea Diana Gabaldon continues to foster with her Outlander series -- was not available to my daughter or me any more.

I went to Google and typed frantically, seeking that perfect Christmas present for my daughter. It had to be somewhere! It was then I discovered a heart-warming thing. Jessamy wasn't just a special book to me. It was special to many young girls ... now moms and grown-ups with daughters of their own. The number of comments on Goodreads from women who had read this book and then sought this book on eBay, only to lose it in bidding wars for hundreds of dollars, was fascinating. It was genuinely beautiful to see how a book can touch so many imaginations and hearts ... to see all these people who were drawn to a book that I loved so much.

Angels must have been on my side, though. At one point, I typed in Jessamy and there, amongst the images, was a lovely pink dress. Distracted for a moment.I clicked on the image and somehow -- I can't honestly say exactly how -- it took me to an Etsy Shop where a woman clothing designer from Hawaii had posted a hardcover copy of Jessamy at the "affordable" (well affordable when you consider the current going rate at of $50. It was a discarded book from the local elementary school. And, after one week in transit, this hardcover copy is now sitting safely on my reading table.

A Classic Book holds up over time. And as I turned the final page this morning to complete this re-read, I had tears in my eyes. It's a beautiful story ... and it's about more than time travel. It's about a journey to self-acceptance, friendship, family, and choosing to live and find joy around every corner.

So, Ron, I hope you will give me credit for O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra -- which I read and wrote a Term Paper on my senior year at Albion College, Hemingway's To Have and Have Not  --which I read this spring, and Sartre's Les Jeux Sont Fait which I read in the original French in college.

I'm sorry more young girls won't have a chance to read Jessamy. But my daughter will. It may not be a Nobel Prize winner, but it's a Prize to me. A prize winner that will be part of my family Forever, sparking imaginations on and on ... for generations to come ...
                                                                                                                   -- Jenni