Tuesday Tidbits

After a restful long vacation, I’m back at work. As I had checked my e-mails a few times during my vacation (although I didn’t answer any) I didn’t have an overflowing inbox. There weren’t many e-mails between the December 24 and January 6 as that is a quiet time when lots of people are out-of-office and the other ones I had read and filed or deleted. There were only about five e-mails that contained things to follow up on. I’ve already done that and have caught up on upcoming deadlines. Now I have an overview what needs doing in the next few weeks. Nothing extraordinary, the same old tasks as last year.

During my vacation, I did a lot of reading, walking with Curious Dog and Partner, and playing Settlers of Catan in a two-person version that we had been given for Christmas. It was fun. We haven’t tried out all the possible variants of the game yet, but the ones we have tried were very good. It seems that the game works in such a way that it’s a very even competition between the two players right up until the end. That’s nice, because one player can’t end up totally under the other one’s thumb – that would be boring for the loser. On Sunday, for instance, Partner won, but I would have won if I’d had another turn.

Walking with Curious Dog has been interesting. We’ve had a lot of wet and muddy but not very cold weather so that CD was covered in dirt after each walk. We’ve also had a couple of walks in snow or in freezing cold with the mud all frozen (and therefore a clean CD at the end of the walks). Last weekend we took our usual walk through the woods, where we hadn’t been for a few weeks as a lot of logging was going on before and after Christmas. That was a nightmare, as it turned out that the downhill path was totally covered in ice (frozen slush). We had a dreadful time until we got back on even, ice-free streets in the town. I guess we should have turned back at the beginning, but we thought it would get better. That walk is now out-of-bounds until the ice has melted.

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The news from the US has been shocking. I hope the inauguration of President Biden will go ahead peacefully and that things will improve. News from the Corona front is also awful, what with the new, even more contagious forms of the virus. I’m wondering what the German governments on state and federal level will decide today about new restrictions. Just as there was new hope with the availability of the vaccines, we now have the new evil of the mutated virus to contend with.

My aunt, who is in hospital getting a replacement hip, is also experiencing nasty setbacks. After her hip replacement surgery was done, she tore a ligament in that leg (which is apparently a fairly common adverse effect) and had to be operated on twice more. She’s now waiting to move from the hospital back into rehabilitation, which will hopefully happen next week. But if everything had gone well, she would have been able to go home next week. All this time (about four weeks), nobody has been allowed to visit her, which has been very difficult for my uncle and my cousins. However, my cousin has just let us know that by appealing to the hospital authorities’ humanity she has managed to get them to agree to a visit by my uncle. That’s great news. I’m sure that will cheer up my aunt and uncle. Hope it won’t be just one visit (but even one visit is heartening) and that my aunt will do well in rehab.

On Thursday this week Mum and I will be returning to Bavaria for our week at our house, while Partner is leaving to check up on his. Our usual practice. We keep in isolation in our old family homes just like we do here in Baden-Württemberg (where I rent a place, for work reasons). No changed lifestyle, no new contacts, so no greater risk of getting infected with Corona. I hope we won’t have to cancel our stay in Bavaria because of new restrictions, but I don’t really believe such travel will be prohibited. In Bavaria, one has to wear FFP2 masks (without a valve) when using public transport (which I’m not doing) or going shopping. Partner has already organized some. They are quite a snug fit and my glasses don’t fog up much when I’m wearing one of those which is a useful side-effect. However, they can only be reused a few times, which is a pain. I hate creating extra garbage. But I guess in this case it is necessary and, as I only go shopping about twice a week, I won’t be needing many (and you can reuse them a few times if you let them dry out for a few days or bake them at 80°C in the oven).

I need to check up when I can get an appointment for Mum’s vaccination. As she is 82, she is eligible for a vaccination, but as seniors in nursing homes are being vaccinated first and the vaccine is still in short supply, I’m guessing it will be a few weeks until she can receive it. I’m worried that she may have an adverse reaction, as she is very prone to experiencing those whenever she has to take medication.

Earlier in January, I posted that the Corona restrictions weren’t that much of an issue for my Partner, Mum and I, as we are all quite introverted and deal well with the restrictions, but currently, the situation is really depressing as the numbers of infected people and the deaths keep rising. I hope the lockdown here and in other countries will start showing some decided effects soon.

Keep safe, world

A Mercy

by Toni Morrison. I read this novel in October last year and never got around to writing a review. It’s a slim novel, set during colonial times in America, at the end of the 17th century. Like all of Morrison’s novels, it is told in a non-linear way, with lots of flashes forward and backward in time.

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The story centers around Florens, a young black slave who is sold by her Spanish Catholic aristocratic owner from Maryland to Jacob Vaark, a Dutch Protestant who takes Florens in lieu of a trading debt to his farm in the North. He hopes that Florens, who is eight years old at the time, will be company for his wife Rebekkah, who has just lost her little daughter. Rebekkah, however, resents Florens, and she is claimed as a sort of daughter by Lina, a Native American servant of the Vaarks.

The novel is alternatively told by Florens (in the first person) and by the other characters of the novels (in the third person). The reader learns that Jacob is a self-made man, who makes his living by trading. He manages to get a farm and has a woman brought over from Holland to become his wife. Rebekkah is at first scared to be leaving her home, but she is reconciled when she finds that her life with Jacob on the farm is better that the life she led in Holland. On the farm there’s also Messalina (Lina), a servant. She is the last survivor of her Native American tribe, and she represses her memories to be able to survive. At first Rebekkah doesn’t get along with Lina but they soon become friends, as Jacob often leaves them alone to look after the farm while he is away on trading journeys. Rebekkah’s children all die as babies except for Patrician, a daughter, who survives until she is about 5 years old and is killed by a horse by accident. There’s also a young, mentally unstable woman called Sorrow at the farm, who was also brought along by Jacob. She survived a shipwreck and lived for a time with a Protestant religious sect but was given to Jacob after she was raped and became pregnant by one of the men of the community. Lina, although she doesn’t like her, helps her during childbirth, but the child is born dead or is killed by Lina, which is what Sorrow thinks. This may be true, but the reader can’t be sure, as Sorrow is an unreliable narrator (as are all the narrators).

Jakob, having seen how Florens’ master lived in Florida, in a great mansion, somehow becomes convinced that he also needs a kind of manor house. He spends a lot of money building it and hires a free African blacksmith to build elaborate iron gates for his new house. Florens falls in love with and has an affair with the blacksmith, who, however, rides off without any farewell to Florens. Sorrow had been healed of the pox by the blacksmith, but Jacob and Rebekkah also catch it. Jakob dies in his unfinished new house and Rebekkah, afraid of dying herself, sends Florens after the African to fetch him back. Florens does find him (after some encounters with people who had never seen a black person before and feared that she was a devil). The blacksmith leaves Florens at his house to look after an orphaned boy, Malaik, while he rides back to minister to Rebekkah. Florens, who has always resented her mother for sending her away and her baby brother for being allowed to stay, is jealous and mistreats the boy. Because of this, on his return, the blacksmith rejects Florens for being a slave in her mind. Florens has to return to the farm, where things are falling apart after Jacob’s death.

Rebekkah has joined a pious community and has become cruel to her friend Lina. She wants to sell Florens and send Sorrow away, but Sorrow, now calling herself “Complete” because she had another child, wants to flee with Florens. But Florens first needs time to write her story onto the walls of the unfinished new house, as a kind of justification to the blacksmith, who may one day see her writing (she had learnt to read and write in secret from a Catholic priest while still in Maryland).

The last few pages of the novel are told by Florens mother, who tells how she sent Florens away as “a mercy”, because Jacob Vaark saw her as a person, not a thing. She wants Florens to have a chance, however slim, of another life, free from becoming the sexual toy of her master. Florens never learns that her rejection by her mother was meant as a mercy. She doesn’t hear the wisdom her mother tried to teach her.

When the novel ends, the reader doesn’t know what will happen to Florens, Sorrow, and Lina.

The novel shows many different aspects of life in the American colonies during the late 17th century. There are people from different cultures of Europe, Africa and America itself. Slavery is shown in its cruelty. Even characters who are against slavery, like Jacob, still engage with it. He owns Florens and his wife threatens to sell her after his death. Lina and Sorrow are also unfree and so are the indentured servants Will and Scully, who never seems to gain their freedom, even though they are paid wages – but they at least can hope to someday gain their liberty. There’s the free African, who doesn’t show much respect for Florens. They are lovers, but he leaves her without a backward glance and later rejects her for having internalized slavery – though how could she have done else, with no other experience? Still, this experience seems to have gained her a certain understanding of herself:

I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving. No ruth, my love. None. Hear me? Slave. Free. I last.

Morrison, Toni: A Mercy. Vintage Books. New York, 2009. p. 161

This understanding shows that there is no mercy, no ruth, despite what her mother hoped for her. But she has become strong and will endure, whatever happens. The sadness remains that she can’t tell her mother and she still doesn’t know what her mother was trying to tell her when she left. And her mother will never know what happened to Florens.

I liked this novel a lot. It is the only novel of Morrison’s that deals with life in the American colonies before independence. It is many-facetted as usual, and my review only touches on some of the main themes. I heartily recommend it.

My ranking of Morrison’s novels. The novels are hard to rank because they are all so good:

  1. Beloved
  2. Paradise
  3. Jazz
  4. Song of Solomon
  5. Sula
  6. A Mercy
  7. Love
  8. The Bluest Eye
  9. Tar Baby

December Reading

In December I had to work up to and including the 23rd (very busy I was, too. It was dreadful). Afterwards I had lots of time for reading, but I also got some books read before Christmas.

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Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
    I got almost to the half-way mark in this amazingly good anthology. It’s a big hardcover and I didn’t feel like lugging it to Bavaria, so I read some other poems while I was there (from December 10 to 31).
  • Janet E. Gardner et al. (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition
    This anthology contains 200 poems and I didn’t quite manage to finish all of them while I was in Bavaria. They were a good selection and I posted a couple of poems during December that especially struck me. I’ll finish these poems next time I’m in Bavaria. A lot of them were more modern than most of the other poems I read this year. I think I would like to read an anthology of modern poetry sometime this year.

Non-Fiction:

  • James Boswell, The Life of Johnson (1791)
    I started this on Christmas and almost finished it by the end of the year (had 150 pages left and finished it in the first days of 2012). It’s huge, around 1000 pages with quite small print in my Penguin Classic edition. Between Christmas Eve and the New Year, I did almost nothing except read this book, eat cookies and take Curious Dog for his walks. I loved it. It’s very lively and makes both the writer (Boswell) and subject, Samuel Johnson, come alive. I will write a review.
  • Bella DePaulo, Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone
    This was a disappointment. A publication of a lot of blog posts, very repetitive and seemed superficial. This was the worst book I read all year. I won’t be writing a review. Luckily it was a very cheap Kindle version.

Novels:

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities
    My November and December final Dickens novels. Both were good but I preferred AToTC and I still plan to write reviews, although I’m rather behind with them.
  • Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child
    My final two Morrison novels. Good, as always, and also still waiting for their reviews. They were both short novels.
  • Ernest Cline, Ready Player One and Ready Player Two
    The first was a re-read, the second had just been published. I liked them both.
  • Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
    A very well-written Young Adult spy novel set in WWII. I had to read it for my book club and quite enjoyed it but found it too constructed. Everything fell into place like a completed puzzle, no open ends, no missing pieces. Everything was explained, there was no ambiguity (well, there was ambiguity, but it was too obvious). Too pat for me. Although, I probably would have liked it a lot as a teenager. I think it succeeds very well at what it set out to do but it didn’t do much for me, except that I learned that there were women pilots in WWII (not in the British Air Force itself, but in supporting positions). That was fascinating and new to me.

I managed to read more than half of the books I had planned to read by the end of 2020, as posted here. All the ones that I didn’t get to are still on my TBR-pile for 2021. One I have already read in January, but that will be part of my January Reading post.

I hope to get all the reviews from December done by the end of January. I should probably have made a goal that I shouldn’t start a new book before I’ve written a review of the one just finished (if I want to write a review).

Keep safe, world.

2021 Bookish Goals

I had fun coming up with this year’s reading goals:

  1. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
    This year’s buddy read with a friend. We’ll be reading it from January to October, 112 pages per month. It’s a Japanese classic from the 11th century, one of the oldest novels of the world. I’ve got a gorgeous Penguin Classic Deluxe edition, translated by Royall Tyler, with illustrations and footnotes. I’m really looking forward to starting it.
  2. Louise Erdrich as my focus author for this year.
    Last year I focused on Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens and read a novel by each author each month as a kind of challenge. I managed to keep to it, but it was a near thing. So, this year I’m only focusing on one author and won’t attempt to read all her novels. I commit to reading the Love Medicine series:

    1. Love Medicine (1984)
    2. The Beet Queen (1986)
    3. Tracks (1988)
    4. The Bingo Palace (1994)
    5. Tales of Burning Love (1997)
    6. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
    7. Four Souls (2004)
    8. The Painted Drum (2005)
  3. Read a poem a day.
    I started this last year and loved it, so I’m continuing. It’s an easy goal, I read my daily poem each morning in bed.
  4. Read a short story a day.
    Also started this last year and loved it, so here I go again. It’s also fairly easy, I usually read the short story at night in bed.
  5. Read six unread books from my shelves or my Kindle.
    Self-explanatory. I failed at this goal last year, so hopefully it’ll go better this time round.
  6. Read six books in translation or from countries other than the US or the UK.
    Most of the books I read last year were written by American or British authors (at least that’s my impression, I didn’t count them). I’m also interested in reading works from other cultures.
  7. Read six non-fiction books.
    I read a lot more than six non-fiction books in 2020, but I’m keeping the goals low, so as not to turn reading into a chore.

Genji

As you can see, I kept some of the goals from last year, and modified others. Reading all the novels of Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens (except one) in one year started feeling like a straitjacket sometime around July. The Morrison novels not so much, but Dicken’s novels are mostly huge and took up a lot of reading time. Basically each month I considered dropping the goal. Except then I started the novel of the month and liked it, so I made the goal after all. But I felt constrained in my free selection of reading material and I don’t want to do that again. That’s why this year I’m only focusing on one author and I’m not aiming to read all her novels. I liked the experience of reading all of an author’s work, because it made me see patterns and recurring themes in their work which was interesting.

I also want to try to get an overview of all my unread books. I had quite a lot of years after I started working when I stopped reading a lot, but still bought books. There’s also a lot of books on my Kindle that I haven’t read yet. I hope to make a list of all my unread books this year and read some of them. I was a bookworm as a teenager, with limited pocket-money that I mostly spent on books and couldn’t imagine owning books that I hadn’t read. I bought books and read them. I borrowed books from the library and read them. Once I started work, I had more money to spend but less time or inclination to read, so books started accumulating (sometimes after work one is just knackered and can only manage to hang out in front of the TV). There are also a lot of series that I started and still want to finish. A few sci-fi and fantasy ones, but also some crime series. I used to read a lot of crime novels, but last year I only read two. This year, with less ambitious goals, I hope to have time for catching up.

I also got rid of reading graphic novels as a goal. I liked the graphic novels I read last year, but quite often I just don’t feel like graphic novels. I’m only going to read graphic novels this year if I’m so inclined. We’ll see how that goes.

I’m planning on choosing some of my books for goal 6 from the ones selected by the Goodreads group “Read Around the World Book Club” and I’m thinking of choosing some of my non-fiction from the “Booknaturalists” on Instagram. But I’m not committing to reading all these selections. That would start seeming like homework again.

I’m looking forward to the reading year.

Keep safe, world.

2020 Bookish Goals: How I Did

These were my reading goals in 2020:

  1. Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace
    This was a buddy-read with a friend. We spaced it out over the year, from January until December. It was a success and we enjoyed both the reading and our discussions.
  2. Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancholy
    A fail. I did not finish the book (but I did quite like what I read, which was the Introduction, the first 125 pages). I will try this one again at some point in future. Somehow, I convinced myself that this wasn’t a real goal – I should have checked my goals throughout the year to avoid misinterpreting my goals. I didn’t set this down as an “unreal” goal. But I don’t know if I would have done better if I’d remembered the goal correctly. It wasn’t the right time for this book at this point of my life.
  3. Participate in the Toni Morrison challenge on Book Tube, which is basically reading all of Morrison’s novel in order of publication plus some additional works.
    I read all of Morrison’s novels, but no additional work. But let’s not quibble, I count this goal as met.
  4. Read one Charles Dickens novel per month.
    Done – I’ve now read all of Dicken’s completed novels (one I’d already read in December 2019).
  5. Read one short story per day.
    Not sure if I completely met this goal, but I’m counting it as a success. I read 15 and a half books of short stories, 5137 pages. That’s a lot (especially considering that it’s the first year I’ve consistently read short stories).
  6. Read one poem per day.
    I definitively read more than one poem per day. I read 2 and a half collections of poetry, 2278 pages. This goal is a great success, I’ve enjoyed reading poetry so much and will keep it up.
  7. Read six works of non-fiction.
    I read 23 books of non-fiction (including autobiography, memoirs, history, travel and books I just classified as “non-fiction” without an additional qualifier), 8300 pages. Definitively a success.
  8. Read one graphic novel per month.
    I only read six graphic novels, 1816 pages. So, that’s half the goal met. I did enjoy the graphic novels, but somehow didn’t feel like reading any after June.
  9. Read unread books from my shelves and my Kindle.
    I forgot to track this goal and can’t say. I don’t think I read a lot of my unread books, either physical ones or ebooks. This is a fail.
  10. Read whatever else touches my fancy.
    This is a weird goal, too unspecific (what was I thinking?), but I think it is fulfilled.

Of these ten goals, I consider 7.5 met or exceeded. Two goals weren’t met, but I don’t care.

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All in all, I read 89 entire books in 2020, and 5 that I hadn’t finished by the end of the year. 37763 pages, that’s about 424 pages per book on average (some of the books I read were very long) and an average of almost 7.5 books per month. 18 of the 89 books were re-reads, which is good – I enjoy re-reading (and what’s the point of having a book collection, if one doesn’t re-read?). Three of the unfinished books are poetry and short story collections which I will finish this year (one is already done). Two other nonfiction books I also plan to finish. One book, the Anatomy of Melancholy, I dnf’ed. I’ll try this one sometime in the future (I’m feeling stubborn about it, as I did kind of like the beginning).

I’m happy about the number of books I read. Also, I loved most of the books and think that I’ve had a great reading year (at least one bright spot during this otherwise catastrophic time).

Keep safe, world.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2021

After a quiet and relaxing Christmas and New Year, and in the middle of my long vacation, it’s time for a look at last year’s goals and for setting new ones.

My goals in 2020 and how I did:

  1. Keep up journaling and blogging. Do at least one post per month, starting in February (since I procrastinated on setting my goals in January).
    Spectacular: I did a lot more than one post per month. The least I did were 6 in October and I did one every day in November (a kind of modified NaNoWriMo challenge). In total I wrote 166 blog posts in 202. I think that setting a low bar helped me to over-achieve (reverse psychology or something).
  2. Deepen meditation practice: meditate for 45 minutes per day with the timer and do a course of weekly guided meditations as well.
    Not great. Everything went well for about 6 months and then I gave up on the course. Later, around November, I gave up on meditation altogether. Mainly due to not organizing my time well. My blog-writing time gobbled up the time I’d previously spent meditating. I need to find a better way to organize things, and maybe not hang the bar too high. So, I’d say I got about 50% of the goal done. Not totally hopeless, but not great, either. I’m going to do the same course again, because I do like it. Also, I did get better and I’m still doing better when I meditate (my breathing technique has improved, it’s calmer and more even).
  3. Set reading goals (these will follow in a separate post).
    These goals I did quite well on. I’ll talk about them in a separate post.
  4. Learn 12 poems off by heart this year, one for each month.
    Big fail. I only learnt one poem off by heart. “On His Blindness”, a sonnet by Milton.
  5. Stop procrastinating.
    No discernable progress on this goal. Maybe I’m just an inveterate procrastinator. Maybe the goal is too vague. Or both.

Considering these goals, I did well on the blogging and reading goals, middling on the meditation goal, and failed at the other two goals.

I can’t blame the fails on the Corona year. I’m an introvert, I like doing home office (could go on with it forever) and my job is safe (so far). I’m a home body and don’t go out much anyway, so I’m OK with not socializing much. Same goes for my mum and Partner, so we did all right. I’m grateful for my blessings. I hope that things will start looking up for us all this year and that we can return to a more normal life because I emphasize a lot with everyone who’s lost loved ones to Corona, who’s lost their livelihood, who’s had other hardships of whatever kind. Even I would like to meet friends and relatives again in person.

I must say, though I slacked off on my meditation during the latter half of the year, it did help me keep calm, especially at the beginning, when the panic was greatest. It also helps with climate change anxiety and any other kind of fear (at least, it helps me).

Anyway, these are my resolutions for 2021:

  1. Keep up journaling and blogging. Do at least one post per month, starting in January.
  2. Deepen meditation practice: meditate once a day or do Yoga. Restart the course and try to stick it out to the end.
  3. Set reading goals (these will follow in a separate post).
  4. Learn 2 poems off by heart this year.
  5. Stop procrastinating about financial things: that is, pay bills when they come in and don’t wait until the last minute.

Pretty similar goals to last year’s. I kept goal number 1 but didn’t make it any more challenging, as the low challenge worked so well for me last year. I also kept number 4 but made it less challenging – even learning 2 poems off by heart in 2021 would be an improvement over 2020. To my meditation goal I added Yoga, because I want to start it up again and I removed the time goal (45 minutes per day). Better to just meditate 5 minutes a day than not at all. I made the procrastination goals more specific, addressing one of my biggest pain points. I tend to lie in bed at night thinking that I need to pay a bill and then wait until the last minute, all the while getting more and more anxious about it. It’s a ridiculous habit. If I can break that, it’ll be great.

Keep safe, world.