Thursday, January 4, 2018

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Another Challenge!

I've decided to participate in a second reading challenge this year: the 2018 Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, hosted by ... wait for it ... Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks. I mean, what do I have to lose? I'm already planning to read at least 12 books, and I regularly read at least 50 in a year. The only difference this year is that I'll keep track of what I read. And, if I start getting lazy, I'll have this challenge to motivate me.

I'll update this post regularly to keep track of all the books I read in 2018. So far, I only have one (though I'm almost finished with another one).

1. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
2. Late, Late at Night by Rick Springfield
3. The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading this as part of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Books and Chocolate. The Maltese Falcon was my choice for the classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction category. Crime novels are not my preferred genre, but I've always wanted to read The Maltese Falcon; published in 1930, it set the standard for the classic hard-boiled detective novel. This novel has also been mentioned in quite a few of my books on fiction-writing, usually as an example of classic genre fiction, but also in the chapters on point of view. More on that below.

The book's main character is Sam Spade, a detective in 1920s San Francisco. He runs a detective agency with his partner, Miles Archer. The novel begins with a Miss Wonderly asking for help shadowing a man named Thursby ... and what follows are several murders, a half-dozen or so new characters, and the search for a rare sculpture of a bird, the "Maltese falcon" of the title. The story is told using the dramatic point of view, where we can read the dialogue, see the characters faces and body language, and follow them from hotel to alley to home ... but we don't get their thoughts. We can only infer what they might be thinking based on the narrator's descriptions and the characters' dialogue. This is a challenge because Spade appears to be a master of hiding his true thoughts. Most of the other characters are liars as well.

No spoilers here, other than that the well-crafted book has a pretty suspenseful and satisfying ending. I recommend it to others who enjoy crime fiction and who like reading the classics in any field.

Here are a few things I did like about the book:
  • I stayed interested. When reading, I never had the desire to put the book down and read something else.
  • It was fun reading the original hard-boiled detective novel and seeing the cliches before they became cliches.
  • There were some great one-liners. Here are a few. They are copied and pasted from Rotten Tomatoes, so I don't know how accurate they are. I couldn't underline anything in my copy, as I borrowed it from the library.

Sam Spade (to Joel Cairo): Sam Spade: When I slap you, you'll take it and like it.

Gutman (to Wilmer, whom he's about to hand over to Spade as the "fall guy" in partial exchange for the priceless Maltese Falcon): I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.

Spade to O'Shaughnessy: We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Joel Cairo: You always have such a smooth explanation.
Sam Spade: What to you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Sam Spade (to his secretary, Effie Perine): You're a good man, sister.
My library copy. My daughter was very confused when, in the middle of the book, I claimed I was finished.

As I read over these quotes, I can't help but think that this book, with its dramatic POV, could very well been written as a play or a screenplay ... which it eventually was. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. (I'm as behind on my classic novels as I am my classic movies.)

Now, for a  few things I wasn't so crazy about:
  • I had a hard time following things. New characters seemed to walk in out of nowhere, and I felt a little lost trying to figure out who was who, and who was on who's side. I guess that's part of the appeal of a novel like this, but I found it frustrating.
  • Dramatic/third-person objective POV - I want to know what characters are thinking. We get lots of great descriptions of people's faces and body language, and there's plenty of dialogue, but the reader is in the dark as to exactly what is going on in the mind of Sam Spade, or Brigid O'Shaunnesey, or anyone else. All we get are facial expressions that may or may not offer insight.
  • I didn't particularly like the characters - This is probably due to the POV used. I want to connect to a character, and that just wasn't going to happen with his novel.
I'm glad I read the book because now I can say I've read it. And like I said, I'm looking forward to the movie ... and to reading a classic that pulls me in emotionally!

All My Resolutions

Last year I made one New Year's resolution: To get back in touch with my musical self.

After a year of guitar and voice lessons, I can definitely say that 2017 was the most musical year I've had in a while, though I didn't play much piano. But I can chalk that resolution up as a successful one.

This year, I have several resolutions:
I have a few lesser goals, one of them being to read more books and write at least five mornings a week (which feels weird, considering that, for most of my adult life, I've written multiple times a day, every day, for years).

Another is to decrease stress in my life. I'm still working on a plan for that.

So far:
  • I've completed Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. One down, eleven to go. I suppose I should watch the movie now that I've read the book. I'll post a review of the book here later.
  • I went to the chiropractor today for an assessment, and I'll go back tomorrow for my first adjustment. We'll learn soon enough if the leg pain is due to a pinched nerve or a torn labrum. Hopefully it's pinched nerve, or I may be looking at hip surgery.
  • I've worked my way through about 28 lessons on one of JamPlay's beginner guitar series. I'm taking a break from private guitar lessons for a couple of months and taking JamPlay's lessons in the meantime. Sadly, and a little surprisingly, I feel like I'm getting more out of the JamPlay program.
As with last year, I'll post periodically on my progress with these resolutions. Until then, a very happy 2018 to my three readers!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Looking Back on 2017

It's 2018! And now, for my sometime tradition of answering questions about the year, with my 2016 answers for comparison. So let's take a look back ...

1. What was the single best thing that happened this past year?
2017: Several really good things have happened this year; the move to Georgia comes to mind, but I think the single best was selling our Maggie Valley home. We bought it in 2003 and first put it up for sale in 2008, but the real estate market crashed and we had no takers. After nine (count 'em) years of the house being on and off the market, and of renting it out to people (some good and some bad), we finally sold it. We took it as a good omen that we got a buyer on the very day that Dan was offered a new job in Georgia

2016: I'm still at the job, we're still in the house I love, and I have managed to stay off meds for two years now. (The meds in question were Prozac, Depakote (for bipolar disorder, which turned out to be a false diagnosis), and Ritalin (to treat the ADD that was a side effect of the Depakote).

As far as the single best thing that happened in 2016 ... I think it has to be that Dan and I are still married. Seriously. Without going into details, I'll just say that we've had a difficult few years. 2016 was a year of arguments and compromises and decisions and tears and frustrations. Some of the frustrations are still there, but we're in a much better place than we were even three months ago. We both took steps toward trying to make things better, and those steps worked, for the most part. I think it's because we both wanted this to work, for Anne's sake if nothing else. And it's starting to work again.

2. What was the single most challenging thing that happened?
2017: Rifts, some temporary and some permanent, with several people that I considered friends. Very long stories all, but in each case people were seeing me for something I wasn't, and making negative judgments based on that ... and then interpreting my subsequent actions based on their perceptions. I was confused by the whole thing, and for a while I wondered if I was crazy, giving off some kind of negative vibe when I thought I was being my usual kind-if-not-perfect self. A sincere apology from one friend, and a half-apology from another (where she apologized but never warmed back up to me), told me that I wasn't crazy. That was some consolation, but these experiences, happening in such close proximity, changed me. And not necessarily in a good way.

2016: Marriage problems.
3. What was an unexpected joy this past year?
2017: Two things. First, I really didn't think I would like living in Georgia. I love my Western NC mountains and NC's mild summers, and Georgia is (mostly) flat and hot. But guess what. I love living here. So that was an unexpected joy. The second was seeing my daughter discover taekwondo. She wanted to learn "Ninja skills," for I took her to the closest martial-arts place I could find. She's now an "Orange Decided" belt and in a program to become a black belt in the next two or three years. I love seeing her be passionate about something.

Oh, and I got to meet Rick Springfield!

2016: Girl Scouts. I decided this past summer to be a Girl Scout leader, specifically for the Daisies (Kindergarten and first grade). I did it for two main reasons: (1) I wanted my daughter to stay in Girl Scouts, and she was losing interest after just one year; and (2) I was grabbing at straws to have something in common with my husband, and he was already involved in Anne's troop. I didn't think I would like being a leader; I'm extremely introverted, and I've never considered myself a "kid person." So I was probably more surprised than anyone when I took to Girl Scouts like a fish to water. I love being a Daisy leader; I love my Daisies, I love planning things for them, and I love playing a positive role in their lives. The experience has also made me less wary of social situations, at least with the troop and their parents. I look forward to every meeting I have with them.
4. What was an unexpected obstacle?
2017: More pain! I've continued to have the leg pain, but starting in June I began having a rash of dental problems. I've had three crowns and two root canals in the past seven months, and I have another crown and an extraction to go. I've had some serious toothaches, and it hasn't been fun. The bills have been even less fun, particularly since I maxed out my dental insurance before the end of July. I had to miss several days of work because of pain, and it the combined leg/tooth pain (and resulting financial stress) has made me irritable and bitchy a lot of the time. So I'm still learning to deal with those obstacles.

2016: Physical injury/pain. I've always been able to run, or jump, or do just about any kind of exercise or activity that I wanted. This year, thanks to a knee injury that turns into a hip/groin injury, I've hardly gone a day without pain. (And the pain-free days are only because I've gobbled up a lot of ibuprofen.) It has been very frustrating not to be able to exercise. I particularly miss running. I've been to an orthopedist, a chiropractor, and physical therapy. While they've been able to help with the pain (particularly the PT), no one's been able to diagnose the source of the pain. So it keeps coming back, and I keep having to treat it.

5. Pick three words to describe this past year (or to describe yourself this past year).
2017: Novice (at learning voice and guitar), comfortable (living in a nice house with a neighborhood pool), painful (see above).

2016: Confident. Loving. Happy. (Despite the lows of this year, I've been very happy with who I've become, with my role as a mom, and with my professional life. Having suffered from depression and insecurity for so much of my life, I'm really enjoying the feeling of confidence that comes with getting older and more sure of who I am.)

6. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe your year—don’t ask them; guess based on how you think your spouse sees you.
2017: Unsettled, musical, tired.

2016: Confident. Angry (at times). Devoted (to my daughter).

7. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe their past year—again, without asking.
2017: Satisfying, challenging, stressful. 

2016: Stressful. Busy. Focused (on work).

8. What was the best book you read this year?
2017: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson

2016: I read a book called Story Physics that offered quite a bit of insight about writing--which is saying something, because I've read a lot of books on writing in my lifetime. Another good one was J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. It wasn't a big year of reading for me, and I read very little fiction--unusual for me, I know.

9. With whom were your most valuable relationships?
2017: My daughter and my husband.

2016: My daughter and my husband, although Girl Scouts has brought me a few new friendships that I value highly.

10. What was your biggest personal change from January to December of this past year?
2017: I'm more guarded and protective of my feelings, thanks to the experiences I wrote about in item 2 above. I'm not as open or friendly, though I'm open and friendly enough, I suppose. I'm also learning to live with chronic pain, which has not been fun. On a good note (pun intended), 10 months of voice lessons have rendered me much more confident in my singing abilities, and I'm able to truly enjoy singing for the first time since childhood.

2016: Good news! My hair is long and wavy and pretty now! As far as my biggest personal change ... hmm. I am a lot flabbier, thanks to my knee/hip injury. :( I'm also dedicated to staying married, which is a change from a year ago.)

11. In what way(s) did you grow emotionally?
2017: See above. I guess the upside to being more guarded and protective of my emotions is that I am not going to get hurt the way I did last year. The downside is that I have trouble trusting people. I made a number of new friends (or at least acquaintances) in Georgia, and part of me keeps wondering when they're going to turn against me, and what the reason is going to be this time.

2016: I had some wonderful therapy sessions this year with a therapist who has since moved on. With his help, I learned to let myself be vulnerable in my marriage again. I have also become much more comfortable with people--I am still an introvert, but I've learned to enjoy social situations.

12. In what way(s) did you grow spiritually?
2017: Not sure if this is spiritual, but with guitar I've found a new way of communing with music. It's been wonderful to develop a whole new mode of creative expression. It'll be a long way before I've reached any level of proficiency, but I'm excited about the journey.

2016: I've adopted what I could call "Closer to Fine" spirituality, from the Indigo Girls song, circa 1990. I no longer torture myself with struggle, and I think that's good.

13. In what way(s) did you grow physically?
2017: This year was a struggle physically, a(nother) year of starts and stops. Motivation is not the problem; I'm plenty motivated to exercise. But the pain keeps coming back, and a few days of exercise lead to a few days (or weeks) of hobbling around, wincing with every step. I did manage to run a 5K on Thanksgiving (and haven't been able to run since).

2016: I sure don't need to gain five pounds anymore! I don't weigh a whole lot more (though I've probably gained two or three pounds), but I'm not muscular anymore. I don't like that. I'm seeing a doctor on Wednesday for a lingering sinus infection, and I may talk to him about what exercises I can do that won't put me out of commission for the next week and a half.

14. In what way(s) did you grow in your relationships with others?
2017: I've made some potential new friends since moving to Georgia, but there isn't a lot of growing going on yet. Dan and I are much happier together than we were a year ago, but there's still work to do. Anne and I read the Harry Potter series together, and I think our relationship grew as a result of our mutual love for the books. Our relationship is changing as she grows older. It's good in that we have deeper conversations. It's not so good in other ways, but it's mostly good.

2016: Mending things with Dan. Even closer to Anne--we have "deep conversations" all the time, and I love it. Also, as I mentioned above, I've made some new friendships through Girl Scouts and hope to see those grow in the year to come.

15. What was the most enjoyable part of your work (both professionally and at home)?
2017: Working from home! I also started doing a lot of QA for new builds, which I enjoyed as a nice change of pace from technical writing. I also seem to be pretty good at it. At home, it's been nice to have a comfortable home that we own. Reading Harry Potter with Anne was also a high point of mom-life this year.

2016: My co-workers! I work with a great group of smart, funny people who make me laugh every single day. I also love the work I do; I feel like I'm helping to make a difference in the world, and that goes a long way. At home, I wrote eleven chapters of a novel and had a great time doing it. All of that came to a halt in the fall when Girl Scouts started.

16. What was the most challenging part of your work (both professionally and at home)?
2017: I felt burnt-out at times this year. Work wasn't the fun place that it had been, possibly because our little team of three grew to four, and then five, and then person #5 was replaced by someone else.  We're not as close-knit as we were before. Also, I seem to have a lot more responsibility, which is fine except that I never feel like I can get it all done to my satisfaction ... and that bring stress. Working from home, as much as I love it, has also been challenging in some ways.

2016: Professionally ... hmm. I guess it's that our team grew from three to five, and for a while we had four people crammed into a relatively small office. While I love my co-workers, I don't love feeling like a sardine and felt almost claustrophobic each day. That was a challenge. My responsibilities also changed a bit, and that adjustment has had its challenges (though I'm happy with it overall). Personally? Having to lay my novel-in-progress aside. It's a decision I made, but it wasn't an easy decision.

17. What was your single biggest time waster in your life this past year?
2017: Facebook. I had to be on it for Girl Scouts, so I ended up being on it a lot more than I would otherwise. I've removed it from my phone as an effort toward wasting less time in 2018.

2016: Facebook. I hate to say it, but definitely Facebook.

18. What was the best way you used your time this past year?
2017: Practicing guitar every morning.

2016: A combination of camping with my family and being a Girl Scout leader. Definitely both great uses of my time.

19. What was biggest thing you learned this past year?
2017: As I get older, I'm going to have to deal with physical limitations that I didn't have when I was younger. It's been humbling.

2016: I'm good with kids.

20. Create a phrase or statement that describes this past year for you.
2017: Pretending to be a suburban mom. I have all of the trappings here in Georgia, but the shoes don't quite fit as comfortably as they should. Still, life is pretty comfortable.

2016: Landed. I feel like I've landed. I feel at peace and hopeful for the new year.

Blogging Elsewhere

Hi, Strangers! I've been blogging with my friend Anh over at Then a Gentle Whisper . Check it out!