Reading for the ToB

My favorite book event of the year is just around the corner, The Tournament of Books begins on March 6. There are 18 books in the literary bracket challenge this year and I’ve read four of them to date. It’ll be a push, but my goal is to finish 9 of them before the Rooster is awarded on March 29.

I’ve just finished reading three books in a row that might be lumped together in a sub-genre called “immigrant stories,” but my reaction to each of the books couldn’t be more different.

Call Me Zebra

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Viet Oloomi is the story of Zebra, the last in a family line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts in Iran. Throughout history, her family has taken refuge in books and literature. When Zebra is a child, war forces Zebra and her parents to flee their home. Now in her 20’s, after the death of both her parents, Zebra undertakes a journey to retrace the path of their exile, intending to create a grand manifesto on literature and life.

Honestly, Zebra was just too much for me. I’m not sure I would have finished this one had it not been in the tournament. The writing was good, but I felt like I was either woefully uneducated in classical literature (which is true, but still…) or just not in on the joke. There was nothing about the heroine that wasn’t extreme, or extremely passionate, or extremely crazy. I couldn’t connect with Zebra or with any of the other characters, who were all defined by how they reacted to/with Zebra.

America Is Not the Heart

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is, per the goodreads description, “a sprawling telenovela of a debut novel.” It’s a multi-generational family saga about immigrants from the Philippines living in the Bay Area in California. The book is centered around members of the de Vera family: Pol, a former medical doctor from a powerful and prominent family in the Philippines. Paz, his wife, a nurse who relentlessly works to help out her extended family in the states and provide a good, American life for their daughter, Roni. Hero, Pol’s niece, who was disowned by her parents after she left medical school to join the resistance movement against Marcos and is trying to build a new life for herself after being captured, tortured and finally released.

I liked this book, but there was a lot going on.  Castillo was trying to tell more than just a family story. There was almost too much emphasis on Filipino culture, language, and food; it left me unable to fully connect with the characters. My lack of knowledge of Philippines history, especially under the Marcos regime kept me at an arm’s length from understanding Hero’s past. The storyline that navigated thru lesbian and bisexual relationships distracted me from the immigrant story. Whatever story or character I wanted to take center stage at any given point was often quickly shunted to the side. Telenovela, indeed.

The House of Broken Angels

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea is also an immigrant family saga, this time about the de la Cruz family, originally from Tijuana and now living in the San Diego area. Big Angel is dying from cancer and wants to celebrate one last birthday with the whole extended family gathered. The week before the scheduled party, his mother dies, so it becomes a double celebration and remembrance of life – the funeral one day and the birthday party the next.

Urrea brings a whole family to life, expertly filling in back story and history as needed. A huge, whole, messy, wonderful, imperfect, funny, fabulous family. Big Angels’s youngest brother, actually half-brother, Little Angel, makes a rare appearance from his home in Seattle. Little Angel always feels like he doesn’t quite belong (it isn’t his mother who just died), or rather he feels like the others always remind him that he doesn’t belong. And yet, he has a bond with Big Angel that is more than just sharing a name. The novel is in no small part about Big Angel coming to terms with his own mortality and his legacy. One of my favorite bits is the notebook of things he’ll miss when he’s dead; it’s both touching and revealing. Little Angel, as an insider-yet-outsider to this family gathering, inserts a lot of humor and understanding to the chaos.

In the author’s note, Urrea writes that The Godfather was his Mexican father’s favorite book not because it was about Italian gangsters, but because it was about family. Urrea wanted to create his own family epic, a Mexican-American family epic. He closes his note by saying, “I hope this family reminds you of your own.” My ancestry doesn’t match the characters in any of these books or the authors, but the de la Cruz family created by Urrea is the only one that indeed finds a way to remind me of my own and that is why this is the book that I loved.



On the pages of Census that have roman numerals (so I guess it is an author introduction, but it’s really important to the book), author Jesse Ball explains that he had an older brother who was born with Down syndrome. Abram Ball died at the age of 24 in 1998, but while they were still children, Jesse understood that he would grow up and take care of Abram. Because of Abram’s death at a young age, this anticipated aspect of Jesse’s life never came to pass.

Census is the story of a father, who is dying, and his son, who has Down syndrome, and a final trip that they take together to places they haven’t been. The father takes a job as a census taker and they travel from A to Z.

And that plot summary, although accurate, is the most inadequate description that could possibly be written about this book. The census isn’t a counting of people, it’s more a collection of stories from people that might somehow explain society. And the book itself isn’t about the father or the census, it’s really about the boy. In the introduction, Ball explains how he undertook to write a book “about” his brother:

I didn’t see exactly how it could be done, until I realized that I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.

Honestly, I still couldn’t explain to you what this means, “to make a book that is hollow'” but damned if this isn’t exactly what Ball has accomplished.

This is a simple book to read and a powerful book to think about.

The simple part is that it is a charming tale of love and loss and acceptance. The powerful part is that, more than any novel that I’ve read recently, Census works with the reader’s own life experiences, somehow allows the reader space to insert themself into the story, and forces the reader to confront their own reactions to and judgements of individuals and societies that are different. This makes Census difficult to recommend universally because it seems impossible to anticipate how anyone else would respond to reading this book.

I loved all the short passages that I marked to jot down in my journal such as:

There is a dream that the place you await does in fact like in wait for you. This is the dream of the traveler.


This is a sort of proof of something I have long believed: that reason and sensical behavior are not always necessary if there exists some small flood of kindness.

I loved the character established only by our narrator’s (the father’s), remembrances – his late wife, the boy’s mother. She was a successful performer before marrying the father and having the son. Whereas the father, a doctor by profession, was a healer and an observer of people, the mother, a clown, was able to exist and even synchronize with people. Ball admits to casting himself as the father in this novel, the role he imagined that he would be playing in his adulthood. I believe, as an author, he is also describing a side of himself in this description of the mother:

Also, she thought the person she was in her letters was someone she herself did not know until the letter was written and then it was like she was meeting herself.

I loved the section about the photographs. How the parents had provided the boy with photographs of people and places that he knew and that he could arrange and rearrange on a wall of his room. An activity, an exercise, perhaps to allow the boy to see his world in a different way and to give his parents an understanding of how the boy saw his world.

I loved how the book was physically laid out. I loved Ball’s writing. My husband has a (HORRIBLE AND UNACCEPTABLE) habit of opening a book to the middle and reading a few pages as a way of judging if the book is worthy of his time. I probably would not think much of Ball’s writing style if I did that; odd spacing/formatting and stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentences. All of which are completely appropriate and totally work within the context of the narrator observing and describing his world.

Forget what I wrote earlier about Census being difficult to recommend universally. You, few but loyal followers, should read this book. And then we should talk about it. This is my first book to read for the 2019 Tournament of Books. This one will be hard to top.


Looking both ways

Last December I wrote two posts, one looking back at 2017 and one looking ahead towards 2018. This December, however, doesn’t feel like an ending to anything and January 1st doesn’t feel like it will bring any fresh starts. I wonder if anyone has studied the average age at which a white women in America turns into a full-blown curmudgeon? I submit my data point at age 59. Have at it, oh younger generations. I apologize for being part of the problems, but I have confidence that you can find the solutions. Feel free to let me know if I can do anything to help.

Still, another year is another year. As good a time as any to reflect on the status of some bits of my life.

There were no natural disasters in our neighborhood this year, there’s a plus. Hurricane Harvey’s impact is still dramatic, quite a few empty lots and houses stripped to the studs awaiting rebuilding. After almost a year and a half, there are no sections or streets that still feel uninhabited, but there is also no end in sight to all the construction activity.

Not caused by, but pointed out by Harvey, our rotting front door was replaced this year. This “necessitated” a new hallway rug and outdoor lights, which is a much smaller escalation of project scope than often happens (though a new front hall light fixture is still on the list.) The backyard tree house was recycled to a neighbor and a four-man crew spruced up our landscaping causing a lightening of our wallet but leaving us with our backs and muscles intact. I’m anxious for spring, ready to do my own, less-backbreaking sprucing up this year.

The husband and I at the midpoint along the Norwegian coast.

We thought a lot about camping in 2018, but I think we only made it out one time.We did take a bucket-list trip to Iceland and Norway to see the Northern Lights, among other things. Being the poor planners that we are, we absolutely made the perfect choice to go with a tour from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I learned so much astronomy and history… if  only I could remember half of it. We went to northern Arkansas for Thanksgiving week, a bit of road-tripping and a bit of house sharing with the husband’s family. Next year we ARE going to go camping, dare I hope for twice? We have no major travel plans, a long weekend with the daughters+ in Tuscon in February and I imagine many trips to Ft Worth in the second half of the year as D#1 and the SIL are expecting twins at the end of May.

For possibly the first time, I hit my reading goal in 2018, reading 34 books. I expanded my reading habits by seeking out more graphic novels, a genre I had shied away from but have come to really appreciate. I’ll be setting a lofty goal of 35 books for 2019, following my usual pattern of setting the bar at one more book that I read the previous year. Despite my disdain for all things Amazon, I still use Goodreads to keep track of what and when and if I liked what I’ve read. I haven’t figured out the best way to post a link to the books I’ve read, but if you’re also a Goodreads user and want to befriend me so we can follow each other’s reads, feel free to seek me out or leave a comment below.

My 34th “book” was the 2018 Short Story Advent Calendar, displayed here on the mantle after providing the perfect excuse to carve out a little reading time every day in December.

I had grand intentions of being a more regular writer in 2018, the results were less than grand.  I was happy with my travelogue on the Northern Lights Trip, I’m much better at stringing together words than I am at taking pictures to remember things by.

full, partial, and empty notebook piles

I had a good run on the blog thru summer and fall, posting both a “simple pleasure” and a longer, more thoughtful piece every week until derailed by the November/December holiday season. I had hoped to do a lot more paper and pencil writing /jotting/note taking than actually happened. I now evidently have a supply of Field Notes notebooks that will last a decade at this rate. No expansion of plans in 2019, but I hope to get back to the twice weekly blog schedule and to put more of those notebooks to use.

IMG_2937Knitting was a steady creative outlet throughout the year, though I didn’t make good on my resolution to learn and practice a new knitting technique. My slow but steady “throw” style supplied the annual knitting tree an ample number of ornaments wound from projects completed in 2018. I don’t expect a drop off next year – what could possibly be more motivating than being able to knit stuff for our first grandkids? Not motivating enough to tackle sweaters tho, even little ones.

Microresolutions didn’t do the trick, but hopefully those future grandkids will provide necessary motivation for taking care of myself, too. I need to get in better shape if I’m going to be able to keep up with them, even as infants. Eat better, exercise more…does anyone ever feel like these don’t have to be part of their goals for the future?

Reviewing this post, I see that I have basically written the letter that I should have written and put in the Christmas cards that I should have sent this year. If you know of a cure for curmudgeon-ness, please pass it along to the younger generations, it’s too late for me. Still, I do wish everyone the best for 2019.



Update from the needles

I feel like I’ve been knitting a lot lately and it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted any sort of a knitting update. I’m pleased to report that the year-in-knitting christmas tree will have plenty of ornaments this year. Earlier in the year I finished up a couple of long-lingering afghan projects and then I moved on to some quicker, smaller projects for myself and others.

2018 yarn ball ornaments for the mini tree

I love knitting; I love the act of creating something and the calm that comes with the methodical movement of yarn and needles. Unless of course I am frustrated that I am making mistakes or having trouble following a complicated pattern or have chosen the wrong yarn to use. Even then, you can choose to remain frustrated or dissatisfied or you can unravel, rewind, and start again…or not. At least you have complete control over the situation, how many things in life can you say that about?

I love knitting things for myself, but I hate drawers full of not-very-useful things. Since I live in Houston, there is a small upper limit on useful things to knit. Sure I always plan to venture into potentially useful things like cotton market bags, but my eyes and fingers are always drawn to those lovely wool hand-dyed skeins. Sure I could probably use one more scarf or pair of gloves, but I really like the ones that I have and use when it is actually cold enough. So I look to foist my hobby onto others.

I love knitting things for other people. Well, let me clarify that. I try not to take requests. When someone asks me to knit something for them, I try to change the subject. If the request is repeated, I probably just say no. If it is someone special who catches me in a weak or between-projects moment, then I might just say that I make no promises. When someone requests something, it is rare that what I knit for them will align with what they thought I was knitting for them. It is most common that they say, “Oh, I forgot I asked you for that.” (I know, this might also be due to the speed or lack thereof with which I knit and complete projects, but still…) That being said, I love knitting things for other people. I like choosing a pattern and yarn with someone else in mind. I like giving people something that I made myself. I won’t knit for just anyone, though. I have some expectations of the recipients. I don’t demand that you love what I knit for you, I don’t demand that you wear it or even keep it, but I do expect that you appreciate me for making it for you – that you appreciate the time and cost of materials and love that went into this knitting project.

So lately I’ve been knitting things for people who have not requested a thing. I finished a wonder woman shawl for D#2 because she IS a wonder woman. And now I kind of think that most all women should have a wonder woman shawl (but see minimum expectations of recipients above.) I finished the 2018 crackerjack astros baseball afghan panel. I’m working on a multi-cowl project for dear friends who are approaching the same round number birthday as myself. Here’s a picture of the current state(s) of the cowl project:

And there are two more that are still in the undecided or only-in-my-dreams stage.

Today is election day. I voted this morning and went about the rest of my day. Tonight, I will follow the election results with my knitting at hand. My current pattern is simple without being boring. Mistakes are rare, but easily correctable. I’m knitting it for someone I love and the yarn is scrumptious both to look at and touch. The voters have spoken, tonight we shall see what they said. I will be knitting. I will be in control of something tonight.