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A year in books: my 52 book challenge

station eleven
In 2013 I gave myself a 50 book challenge, which I completed. It was hard. I found myself finishing up pretty close to the end of last December, stressed that I wouldn’t make the December 31st cutoff. I did, and in a moment of cockiness and euphoria after crushing my goal, decided to push myself further this year by committing to two more books in 2014. Two books: that’s nothing in the scheme of things, right?

Wrong. Fifty-two books is a book a week. That leaves no buffer. No room for accidentally choosing a boring, long book. No room for getting addicted to a podcast or a game on my phone to take up precious commuting time. No room for laziness. No room for slacking.

I’m happy to say that despite this daunting goal, I made it. In fact, I finished my books earlier this year than last year, even with two additional titles. And if all goes according to plan I’ll actually make it to 53.

How did I do it? Kind of like this:

  • I read 100% of the 52 books on my Kobo Aura
  • I borrowed probably 80% of the books from the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive program; the rest I purchased from Kobo
  • Because I borrowed so many books from the library, the order I read everything was fairly random and relied upon the availability of titles
  • While many of the books were released in 2014, lots of them were older, so these aren’t my favourite books of the year – they’re just books I read this year
  • Forty-nine books were fiction; two were autobiographies; one was a collection of short stories
  • Fifteen books were written by men (16 if you count Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.K. Rowling)
  • My favourite books were the first and the 50th read
  • Much of my reading took place on Toronto’s subway
  • Many titles were recommended by friends (Kara – I’m looking at you!); others were recommended by critics; some were chosen just because I really liked the title or the cover

So, with that, here are the best and the worst that I read this year.

My Favourite Books (in no particular order…except for the first two)

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was the first book I read of 2014, and the best by a long shot. It seems cliched to say it Goldfinchwas my favourite book this year as it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it’s just so damned good. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. You won’t regret it.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This was the 50th book I finished, and it truly blew me away. The writing is fantastic, the post-apocalyptic story is compelling and the characters are rich. Entertainment Weekly named it the best book of the year, and I understand why. A brilliant book.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Another Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years back, this one follows the crazy life story of a man in North Korea. It’s a book that’s stayed with me since reading it early this year and one that seems even more relevant now in the wake of all of the controversy surrounding The Interview. It’s heavy and often hard to stomach, but worth the work.

4. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This one scared the bejeezus out of me. In a post-apocalyptic world people can’t look outside, because if they do and see an unknown *something* they go insane and kill themselves. This is the world in which a woman tries to survive with two small children. It’s creepy, disturbing and keeps the foot on the gas the whole way through.

5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. A mystery set in an old hotel hosting a high school music festival. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of a mystery and a bit of a soap opera. Loved it.

6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. God, I love Amy Poehler. She’s funny, smart, honest and utterly relatable. I’m not sure this is a work of genius, but I read it at exactly the right time and I love her for it.

7. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The story of the rise and fall of Harry Houdini. I found this fascinating. And I love the-confabulisthistorical fiction. And I love magic.

8. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I just finished this a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t left my brain. It’s a tough one – a woman desperately wants to convince her suicidal sister to want to live. It’s raw, real, unvarnished and sometimes really, really sad, but as with all of her writing it just resonates. Don’t read this if life sucks – tackle it when things are good.

9. One More Thing by B.J. Novak. Yes, that B.J. Novak. It’s a book of pretty great short stories. Not every one’s a home run, but there were enough to have me snickering to myself on the subway to make me add it to this list.

10. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A fantastical novel about two otherworldly characters – a golem made of clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalist magic, and a jinni (or genie) set free from an old copper flask. The two are set loose in 1899 New York and turn out to be some of my favourite characters that I encountered this year.

The Worst of the Lot (in no particular order)

1. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Ugh. This was supposed to be *the* beach read of the summer. It was not. The story is self-indulgent, transparent and just kind of lame. Definitely worth skipping.

2. The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Holy crap I hated this book. Told entirely through correspondence, a lifeboatlawyer….actually who cares? It’s just bad. it makes Bridget Jones seem deep and eloquent. Blah.

3. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. A ship sinks in 2014 and a handful of survivors are stuck together on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. Should be good, right? Nope. Hated the characters, thought the writing was dull and couldn’t have cared less if the protagonist was thrown to the sharks. Awful.

4. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer. Come for the discussions on astrophysics, stay for the sham psychics. Hated this.

5. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I love the ballet. In fact, I went to The Nutcracker just this week. So, a book set in the world of the ballet circa the 1970s should be right  up my alley. Unfortunately this just wasn’t. Boring, badly plotted and written, this just kind of sucked. I did like the book’s cover, though. And I don’t blame the ballet.

6. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve. Oh, man. This one’s bad. A woman loses her memory in WWI and slowly tries to rebuild her past. The writing is so clunky and almost embarrassing. Bad.

7. All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Agent Orange, bear fighting, the carnival circuit in early 1980s Ontario. Should be okay. Nah. Not so much.

8. N-W by Zadie Smith. It feels wrong to put Zadie Smith on a list of my least favourite books of the year, but I just didn’t dig this one. Skip it and read White Teeth.vanishers

9. Goodnight June by Sarah Jio. Predictable fluff. It felt like it was written for Meg Ryan circa 1992 to star in the movie adaptation.

10. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I hesitate putting this on my least favourite books, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Not terrible, but not something I’d want to read again.

The Rest (Lots of these are very good. Check them out.)

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on this year. I’m looking forward to another year of reading and debating and good storytelling.

So, what do you think: go back to 50 books next year, keep it at 52 or bump it up? I’ll decide before January 1st.

kp

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A fairy tale for grown ups

Chad and I rarely read the same books, but when we do we tend to agree. Last year I think the only book we both read was Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, which we enjoyed. This year, we’ve kicked things off both reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.ocean

This short, fantastical novel deals with memory and childhood and the way that age distorts and reframes the past. Chad classified it as a mild horror novel; I’d call it an adult fairy tale. Nonetheless, we both liked it.

It’s smart, sometimes scary, often heartbreaking, and simply told. Easy reading.

A winner.

Next up: The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes.

kp

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To the moms who matter

It’s Mother’s Day, and a day I tend reflect on the moms in my life, including my own beautiful, stellar mom.

Today, I send love and respect to all of the moms I know.

To the moms who work far too much and spend their days feeling guilty and their nights cobbling together school projects, squeezing in haircuts and organizing everyone’s lives.

To the moms who stay home with their kids and worry about coddling them and feel guilty for wanting adult conversation.

To the moms with kids who challenge them in ways they never imagined.

To the moms with perfect kids who are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

To the moms whose babies were conceived during one night stands or on wedding nights or after a bottle of Shiraz or following months of injections or in a petrie dish.

To moms who battle the baby blues.

To moms who breast feed and to those who don’t, and especially to those who don’t judge the moms that do the opposite of what works for them.

To moms who literally cross the earth for their children — to China or Haiti or South Africa or Ethiopia.

To moms who aren’t afraid to admit that sometimes it’s really freaking hard.

To moms who fall in love all over again every time they see their child.

To moms who have amazing partners and to those who don’t.

To women who dread Mother’s Day because it’s another reminder of how they aren’t moms.

And finally, to my own mom, who lost her own mom on Mother’s Day, and who has given me immeasurable love and the world’s best example of how to do this amazing, incredible and terrifying job. I love you.

And now, some sage words from a great mom, Tina Fey from her book Bossypants — a prayer for her daughter. If you haven’t read this, go get it!

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

 May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Bea……uty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her

When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, For childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day – And adulthood is long and dry-humping in cars will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

“My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

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10 Things

Yeah, I’m back. I admit it: I’m a fairweather blogger. Actually, I’m more of a crapweather blogger, but what of it?

When life gets stressful, I make lists. As such, here are 10 things that I’m really looking forward to (in no particular order):

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Even though it’s in 3D (which I hate, thank you very much), I can’t wait for the final installment of the film franchise. Harry, Hermione, Ron, the final battle, Bellatrix getting taken down by Mrs. Weasley–it’s got to be amazing.

2. The Mother’s Day Tea at the kiddo’s school. Here’s her performance from last year:

3. The Royal Wedding. When Charles and Diana got married, I woke up in the middle of the night and sat glued to the TV in my dad’s La-Z-Boy chair. I obsessively collected Royal Wedding paraphenalia including Charles & Di paper dolls and every hardcover book on the couple to ever hit the bargain table at Coles. I am so watching this wedding.

4. The movie version of The Help. I really loved this book and can’t wait to see the movie. Emma Stone is a gem and I think she’ll make a great Skeeter.

5. Mommy/Daughter Week. Every summer, Scarlett and Chad spend a week hitting every theme park in the province. This year, I’m countering Daddy/Daughter Week with Mommy/Daughter Week. It won’t involve roller coasters, but it may involve manicures and fancy picnics. I can’t wait.

6. A visit from my mom. It’s been over six months since she was diagnosed with MAC, but she’s still not able to fly. We were hoping she’d be able to come for Easter, but we’re now keeping our fingers crossed for a May visit.

7. Berry season. I can’t wait for all of my favourite berries to be in season. I’m tired of paying premium for the only fruit that doesn’t make me projectile vomit or erupt into hives.

8. Tom’s weather. I bought two pair of Tom’s shoes last summer, and wore the hell out of them. Once I can feel convinced that it won’t snow again, I’m picking up two more.

9. Mad Men Season 4. We watch TV on Blu-ray or DVD, so we’re always way behind. I don’t have to wait long for this one, though–we’re starting it tomorrow.

10. The weekly meeting I attend every Friday at 2:00. It’s hands down the best workday hour of the week.

I feel better already. What are you looking forward to?

kp

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Lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

Mom in July

Mom in July

She’s home! 

After several weeks in the hospital, in no fewer than six rooms with seven different phone numbers, my mom has been released and is back home! I’m so happy for her. And for the rest of us. 

Honestly, even though we got the great news about her not having cancer, I couldn’t help but feel like the other shoe was going to drop the entire time she was there. What if there was a sample they hadn’t tested? What if she got sick with something else? Having her home has let me breathe a true sigh of relief. Not only does she not have cancer, she’s now considered healthy enough to not be under the watchful eye of nurses around the clock. 

Let’s just say I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. 

Now, to completely change the subject, can I tell you how much I love the fall? 

Not because of the crisp air or the crunchy leaves or the back-to-schoolness of it. I love fall because it means that all of the TV shows I’ve been waiting for all summer have been released on DVD. 

We’ve been watching a lot of television in a pattern that I don’t normally approve of–I prefer to watch comedy followed by drama, but we’ve been watching back to back comedies, given my rather grim real life situation. It’s a dangerous pattern, especially if you’re following a great season of comedy with another comedy. Some funny is funnier than others. 

The good news is that it hasn’t backfired on us. Over the past few weeks we’ve watched Season Six of The Office, followed by Season Five of How I Met Your Mother, and now we’re watching Season One of Modern Family

I know I’m late to the game on Modern Family, but it’s amazing. LOVE it. The characters are fantastic, the casting is perfect and the writing is hilarious. 

I’m actually going to watch an episode now, but I’ll leave you with my favourite quote of the season: 

“I’m sort of like Costco. I’m big, I’m not fancy and I dare you to not like me.” 

The best. 

kp

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The Truth Comes Out or Why I Love Oscar Wilde

I’ve been a bit vague in my last few posts because so much has been up in the air. I felt it was safer to make my blog more about how I was feeling than about what was really going on. Today, I can finally give the big reveal.

The last few weeks have been a bit like an episode of House. I know I’ve referenced the show before, but I’m seriously considering sending this crazy plot to FOX. It has had all of the drama, the twists, the heartbreak, the humour and the elation of a great episode. Here’s how it unfolded.

As you know, my mom had a routine checkup, which led to a chest x-ray, which led to a CT Scan and a lot of doctors with long faces. A few weeks later, she was admitted to hospital for a lung biopsy, which was attempted with a needle and collapsed her lung. I flew home to be with her. Here’s where it got a bit vague.

Last Friday, the doctor looking after her came in to talk to us. He was one of several who has been overseeing her care, but by far was the most candid and also the most compassionate. He sat down with us and told us that there was little hope for my mom. Her lungs were so riddled with nodules, that not only did they expect that she had far advanced lung cancer, but that it likely had traveled around her body. He also told us that they would not pursue treatment post-biopsy–they would make her comfortable for the months of her life that she would have remaining. No chemo. No radiation.

This was a blow. A prognosis of months without an option of extending her life was a very harsh reality. He also told us that they would not likely investigate the other locations of the cancer due to the advanced stage of the cancer in her lungs unless it caused her issues. I questioned this for my sister and I, saying that if she had cancer in her ovaries or breasts, it’s important for our own genetic histories to know that information. He agreed and said we’d discuss this after her biopsy.

We steeled ourselves after hearing this news, but kept our chins and our spirits high and basically began drafting our family bucket list. Mom wants to go to New York? Let’s do it. Autumn in Ontario? Let’s fly her out as soon as she can get on a plane. It was incredibly hard, but knowing was better than not knowing. That said, the confidence in this diagnosis was so great that we considered cancelling the biopsy. Mom was so weak already after the lung collapse, that we questioned the value in putting her through more pain. Our thought was that a prognosis was important–we were told it was likely Stage Four cancer, but how aggressive was it? A biopsy would help us plan out the next few months.

The biopsy was scheduled for Monday afternoon, and after a few rounds of Scrabble she was wheeled down. We all had a little cry, and sat and waited.

Following the two hour surgery, the surgeon came out and spoke with us. He was…puzzled.

He had made three cuts and was able to grab a few nodules for pathology. But he also discovered other things lurking in the lungs. Like pus. And fluid in her chest cavity. He took samples of everything, but was clearly a bit confused. We were told results would be back within a week.

The next day my mom rode a wave of morphine, spouting some awesome drugged-up quotes like: “Great. Now I’m going to end up in rehab with Lindsay Lohan.”

She had a chest tube the size of a garden hose sticking out of her, an IV drip, a morphine drip, leg compression things that ensured she didn’t get blood clots, a catheter, and oxygen. Her spirits were good, but she was pretty weak.

At about 5:00 on Tuesday, a nurse came running into the room, grabbed the woman in the next bed, tossed her into a wheelchair and ran out with her. She returned in a minute throwing masks at my sister and I saying, “If you want to be in here, you have to wear these. She might have TB.”

Yep, TB. Tuberculosis.

Oddly, none of us were very shocked.

Rewind 50 years, to when my mom worked at the Saskatoon Sanatorium. She wore a cotton mask and wiped up blood coughed up by dying babies and old people. We knew she’d probably test positive for TB exposure, but was it realistic that it could be activated 50 years later? Apparently it was.

Her room went into lock down. The nurses posted a big stop sign on the door and instructions on how to enter the room. A cart with a variety of mask sizes was parked outside her door. Nurses were buzzing around the ward with concerned looks on their faces, clearly freaking out.

An hour later, my mom was masked up and wheeled to an isolation room, known as a negative pressure room. Everyone entering or exiting had to go through a little ante chamber to put on a mask, wash hands and wait 30 seconds. The room itself had glass walls, a loud fan, which sucked all of the air to…somewhere…and was a place where hospital staff did not want to be. Nurses would come in if they were buzzed, and that’s about it. That’s not entirely true–some were great, but some treated my mom like she was a leper. Not cool.

The other not cool part of this was my own personal freak out. I realized that if my mom had TB there was no way that I would be able to fly home to my family. I know that’s selfish, but it had me seriously worried. And, as a side note, my hive issues have had me on Prednisone for over a month, which has done a fab job of squashing my own immunity down to nothing. Scary stuff.

For me, this was the lowest point. TB is obviously better than cancer, but TB plus cancer? That just sucks.

Wednesday morning a doctor specializing in TB came in to talk to my mom. He looked at her scans, heard her history, listened to her chest and told us that it could be TB, but that it could also be something called MAC, which is not contagious and could be cleared up with medication. He also gave me the green light to fly home. I took it, albeit with a ton of guilt.

Since then, we’ve waited. We knew what was behind each curtain, we just didn’t know which one fate had chosen.

Today we found out.

She does not have TB and is coming out of isolation.

There are ZERO cancer cells in her body.

What she has is a quaint-sounding infection called Lady Windermere Syndrome, named after the character in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Lady Windermere Syndrome is a non-infectious disease of the lungs, which is treatable with drugs. She started medication today, and will be on a five-pill cocktail for a year under the supervision of a doctor who specializes in infectious disease. The drugs are hard on the system, but nothing compared with what she was up against.

Now, she needs to focus on getting her chest tube removed and on breathing without her oxygen tube. She needs the green light from a physiotherapist, has to gain a little more weight and then she’ll be good to go home.

I talked to the doctor who had the initial “courageous conversation” with us about cancer and her prospects, and he told me he called the week a roller coaster. He wasn’t kidding. In a week she has gone from a death sentence to a new lease on life. It’s….amazing.

It’s also been a giant wake up call about the importance of time. There is nothing greater than time when you see it slipping between your fingers. Now that we’ve got it back there’s no way we’re going to waste it.

So are we going to go to New York? Hells yeah. And as soon as her lung heals we’re flying her out for autumn in Ontario.

My mom is a woman of faith, and she pointed out to me today how many people had been praying for her. I actually don’t think she has any idea how many people were thinking about her, praying for her, sending her good energy, good vibes and good feelings. While I’m not sure any of it helped the chemistry in her body, I do know it helped me. Your comments, your thoughts, your encouragement and your support have pulled me through this scary time.

Back when Chad had his surgery, I was struck with the kindness of people. People are inherently good, no matter how annoying they are on the subway, how frustrating they are in lineups and how badly they drive. My mom’s saga has reinforced this belief for me.

I’ll continue to blog and will update you on how my mom’s doing, but I’ll hopefully be able to lighten things up a bit. I really didn’t intend to be a medical blogger. That said, I do see the allergist on Thursday….

Thanks again for everything.

So, what do you think? House?

kp

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Working on the chain gang

When Scarlett was born, she was jaundiced, which meant we had to stay at Mount Sinai for far too many days while she screamed under the lights.

While my name was on the list for a private room (and I did eventually get one the last night we were there), I spent my entire stay with a series of moms and babies, each of whom was dumber than the last. I’m talking about the moms, but I do wonder how those kids are faring in SK. Seriously.

The worst was a mom who had a giant entourage that spent her entire stay eating Burger King and sounding like extras from Jersey Shore. While Chad and I tried to get some sleep, we were forced to listen to some of the most inane conversations I’ve ever been privy to. To wit:

“Did you hear Tony was arrested?”

“No way. Where’d you hear that?”

“From Marie. She heard it from Pauly, who heard it from Angela, who heard it from Donnie who heard it from Ronnie.”

“For real? You really heard that through the grapevine.”

“I know. It’s kind of like the song: ‘That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang.’”

It took everything within me not to suffocate myself with a pillow.

Today, I was transported back in time to Toronto, circa May 2005 when my mom’s ‘quad’ room, which was sitting at ‘duo’ capacity (remember Olga? She asked me to change her bedpan today) got a third.

Warning bell number one: the nursing staff had to remove the fourth bed to accommodate her guests.

Warning bell number two: her guests consisted of no fewer than 20 men, women and children, each of whom had either a hacking cough, runny nose, PigPen-style cigarette haze, silkscreened shirt with a wolf on it or any combination of the above.

Warning bell number three: this snippet of conversation—“The model had a gun instead of a leg, and she lifted it and shot at the audience.”

Despite pulling the paper thin curtain around my mom’s bed to hide our eyerolls and rage, it didn’t really help. I think my mom was serious when she said she didn’t need the biopsy and would be fine to go home.

The minute I saw the nurse, I grabbed her, pointed at the par-tay in the next bed and said: “This sucks.”

How was my mom, who is going to get her deflated lung cut into tomorrow supposed to get a wink of sleep tonight with Annie Oakely and her gun-limbed fan club?

The nurse said she was on it. She knows, without a doubt, that any patient stuck sharing a room with this crew would request euthanasia, so she was sussing out a private room for them. Not fair (i.e. my mom should get a private room as she’s a model patient), but I understand.

Less than an hour later, all that was left was a film of Cheeto dust and an Eau Du Craven A.

Since then, no fewer than 10 ADDITIONAL guests have stopped by looking for Granny.

The good news is that our grumbling about this freakish family was able to replace our worry about tomorrow’s surgery. Thanks, morons!

The biopsy is scheduled for tomorrow at 2:00 Saskatoon time. I’ll update when I can.

And now, for your listening pleasure…

kp

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