Categories
Discussion Personal Reading Writing

My Reading & Writing Goals for 2021

What I Learned from COVID-19

illustration: 2021 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2021 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.


I keep reading things like “I can’t wait to be done with 2020 and move on to 2021.” Do most people truly believe that merely taking one calendar off the wall and hanging up another one is going to change their day-to-day existence? Such magical thinking. Reality doesn’t work that way. The truth is still out there.

As I write this post in the first full week of January, we are in our 44th week of lockdown. (The last social event we attended was a monthly lunch excursion to a restaurant on March 6, 2020.) Even with the good news of the arrival of vaccines, I expect we won’t see any substantive change in our daily lives until July 1, 2021, at the earliest. I’m preparing for another six months, at least, just like the previous nine months:

Reading reduces stress levels—there’s scientific evidence for that. But stress levels also reduce reading. Anxiety ruins your focus, wipes out your short-term memory, makes you thick-headed, makes you jittery. You can’t keep track of who’s who or what they said or what it means. Stress, maybe especially the kind of stress we’ve all been going through where everything seems like the end of the world, also wrecks your equanimity and sense of proportion: being unable to read, if you’d previously thought of yourself as a reader, makes you feel monstrously guilty for what seems, to your addled brain, like a towering failure. You can’t read, so you are ashamed, so you can’t read, so you are ashamed.

Jess Zimmerman

Looking back on how well I fulfilled my reading plan for 2020 made me realize that the year well illustrates the validity of the old proverb  “Man plans. God laughs.” And there are some lessons to be learned from this realization.

The biggest lesson is that, since we probably won’t see significant change in our current situation for at least half of this new year, the whole notion of a plan feels irrelevant. Last year I had my whole year’s reading planned out, month by month. But when COVID-19 hit and brought with it heightened anxiety along with reader’s and writer’s block, I was only able to get back to reading by ditching the plan. I allowed myself to stand in front of my TBR shelves and look for the book that called to me the loudest. I kept up that process, sometimes letting one book lead me to the next, at other times finding a new book to set me off on a different chain of association.

I have therefore decided not to use the label of plan at all for 2021. Instead, I’m going to focus on some goals that will still be possible no matter which particular books I may read. For example, one part of my plan for last year was to use the Blog Discussion Challenge to motivate me to write some substantive blog posts. Even though I didn’t meet my original quota, I was able to write about just about anything—including a look at why I was having trouble reading and writing—and call it a discussion post. So this year I’m going to talk about reading and writing goals instead of a reading and writing plan.

After looking at last year’s plan, I’m describing this year’s goals in relation to last year’s in two major areas:

  • I. Elements I’m keeping from last year
  • II. Elements I’m dropping from last year, replacing, or adding

I. Elements I’m Keeping from 2020

Most of these are general challenges and goals.

1. Goodreads Challenge

I did make last year’s goal of 55, but I had to rush and include a couple of particularly short works. I’m therefore going to dial my challenge goal back to 50 books, a number I think I can more easily achieve.

2. The Classics Club

Although I had good intentions last year, I didn’t come even close to my goal of crossing six books off my Classics Club list.

I’m going to cut back this year’s goal to four and hope for the best.

3. 2021 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

I signed up for the 2020 Discussion Challenge to motivate myself to write substantive posts on literary topics. Despite not writing as many discussion posts as I had wanted to (because, you know, COVID-19), I enjoyed working on the 12 that I did manage and was pleased with the results. I’m therefore signing up for the 2021 Discussion Challenge  with the goal of writing one discussion post per month.

II. Elements I’m Dropping, Replacing, or Adding

For 2021 I’m taking the focus off reading exclusively and incorporating the intention to write about more of the books I read. Not every book I read warrants a review on the blog, but many do, and I need to make more of an effort to discuss those. For me, writing seems to take some time; thoughts swirl around in the unconscious before percolating to the surface of awareness. It’s too easy for me to finish reading one book, then immediately pick up another one without going back to revisit the first one again.

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting.

—Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read a Book?

I will need to follow through and return to each previous book to finish the reading process. And this emphasis on writing may have a secondary effect of influencing me to choose more meaty books to read so that they’ll be ones I’ll want to review. 

Here, then, is a new goal I’m adding for 2021:

4. to review 50% of the books I read on this blog

I’m also adding another reading goal this year:

5. to read more of my TBR books

Here is my current TBR shelf of Book of the Month editions I haven’t gotten to yet:

The shelf contains 22 books, with two more to be added as soon as my January box arrives. And those are just my Book of the Month books. Several other shelves contain books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, including Where the Crawdads Sing, All the Light We Cannot See, The Hours, Crime and Punishment, A God in Ruins, and Trust Exercise.

I do not acquire books haphazardly; I chose every book on these shelves for particular reasons. They’re all good books that I want to read.

When I jettisoned the calendar part of last year’s reading plan at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing myself to choose whatever book I wanted to read next proved to be a tremendously freeing experience. Suddenly reading became an adventure again, not just some productivity goal to tick off on a to-do list.

This rediscovery of the joy of reading convinced me not to include a specific reading calendar in this year’s goals. I still have several reading projects I’m interested in pursuing, so I’m keeping the list of projects, but I’m treating them as possibilities rather than requirements tied to specific completion dates.

I’m beginning 2021 with an emphasis on my analysis of horror literature. As the year progresses I’ll move on to other projects such as these:

  • comparison: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf & The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • a deep dive into the life and works of Patricia Highsmith, the centenary of whose birth will be on January 19, 2021
  • a look at evil children in literature
  • a rereading of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout followed by a reading of the sequel, Olive, Again
  • a study of some novels featuring Older Adults in Literature
  • a rereading of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed by a reading of the sequel, The Testaments

But my overall goal for 2021 is to enjoy being a free-range reader and to share that reading joy on this blog.

How about you?

Do you make annual reading plans? If you do, what’s on your list for 2021?

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal

Happy New Year! Feed Your Soul

We’ve all been waiting for 2021, and finally it’s here!

And to get this new year started off right, The Guardian has put together The 31-Day Literary Diet for January:

“From a Shirley Jackson short story to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 30-minute Ted talk, nourish your mind with our one-a-day selection of literary treats.”

Categories
Book Recommendations List Personal

The Best Books I Read in 2020

Most of the annual best books of the year lists refer only to books published during the stated calendar year. But my annual list always refers to books I read this year, regardless of when they were published.

Here, then, are the 10 best books I read this year, listed alphabetically by author, plus 5 more honorable mentions.

The Best

Alam, Rumaan. Leave the World Behind

Clark, Julie. The Last Flight

du Maurier, Daphne. The House on the Strand

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Mandel, Emily St. John. The Glass Hotel

Moore, Liz. Long Bright River

Murakami,Haruki. 1Q84

Reid, Iain. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Shute, Nevil. On the Beach

Toews, Miriam. Women Talking

Honorable Mention

Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. Fleishman Is in Trouble

Connelly, Michael. The Law Of Innocence

Foley,Lucy. The Guest List

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road

Wrobel, Stephanie. Darling Rose Gold

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal Reading

Did I Fulfill My Reading Plan for 2020?

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Related Post:

I just went back and reread my reading plan for 2020. Then I had a good laugh.

I did relatively well with Part I: Specific Challenges and Goals. I didn’t meet most of the goals, but I’m being gentle with myself in evaluating how well I did under the COVID-19 circumstances.

Here’s a look at those original goals, with my current assessments presented in the white paragraphs.

Part I: Specific Challenges and Goals

1. Goodreads Challenge

Since I easily exceeded my 2019 goal of 50 books, I’m cautiously raising my 2020 goal to 55.

I did make this goal, even though I resorted to a couple of books from my “short-enough-to-be-read-in-one-day” TBR shelf.

Here are my stats, according to Goodreads:

  • books read: 58 pages read: 19,629
  • shortest book: How Should One Read a Book? by Virginia Woolf, 64 pages
  • longest book: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, 1,157 pages
  • average book length: 338 pages
  • my average rating: 3.9 

2. The Classics Club

Even though I just met my goal of 4 books read from this list last year, for 2020 I’m increasing my goal to 6. If I don’t increase my efforts, I might not get through my Classics Club list in my lifetime.

I failed miserably at this one. I only read 2 books from my list, and I didn’t write the follow-up reviews (although I have high hopes of catching up on this omission in 2021).


3. 2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

Although I’m staying away from most challenges that require me to read books in specific categories, I’ve signed up for this challenge to motivate myself to write more substantive blog posts in 2020. I’m aiming to write 2 discussion posts per month.

Two posts per month would total 24 such posts. My final count, including this post, will be 12. That’s not too bad, considering that my pandemic experience included the lack of ability to focus on one idea long enough to write about it.

You can find the list of my discussion posts here.


Part II: The Calendar

I’m setting myself specific monthly challenges. I hope that these projections will allow me sufficient time each month to read other works, such as my monthly book club selection and my monthly choice from Book of the Month, in addition to new releases.

January-February

The Jackson Brody novels by Kate Atkinson:

  • Case Histories
  • One Good Turn
  • When Will There Be Good News?
  • Started Early, Took My Dog
  • Big Sky

And here is where we end. I did finish Atkinson’s 5 Jackson Brody novels, but, once again, I didn’t blog about them. The rest of my carefully constructed dated assignments dissipated in the pandemic fog.

For 10 of the first 15 days of March I couldn’t read at all. When I thought I was once again ready to pick up a book, I told myself to just choose the book that interested me the most (which turned out to be Long Bright River by Liz Moore). For the rest of the year I followed the same procedure, standing in front of my TBR shelves and choosing whatever book seemed to call to me at that time. 

The experience of this past year will affect how I formulate a reading plan for 2021, but I’m still processing exactly how. Thanks for listening, and I hope that, if you evaluate your own 2020 year in reading, you’ll be gentle with yourself. Congratulate yourself on what you did accomplish and don’t worry about what you didn’t. Whatever, if you’re still around to read in 2021, you’re one of the lucky ones.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal

Merry Christmas!

If ever there was a time that required an extra helping of holiday cheer, 2020 is it.

tall Christmas tree decorated with gold balls, red ribbon, and a Victorian angel on top

Please allow me to send each of you an extra-big helping of cheer this winter. Thank you for sharing the book life with me during these crazy times.

several Christmas stockings hung on wall

And if you’re looking for some particular examples of holiday happiness, here are a few I’ve collected.

Fauci’s Christmas Eve: Turning 80 and fighting the pandemic

Start with this story of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who turned 80 yesterday.

Peep These Wondrous Holiday Light Displays Around the World

From Atlas Obscura, a reminder that “Evenin 2020, the world is aglow.”

Mariah! Dolly! Carrie! 2020 Can’t Quarantine This Cheer

The New York Times reports on streaming holiday specials by Carrie Underwood, Mariah Carey, and Dolly Parton.

Scenes from the holiday season

UPI offers a slideshow of 68 images featuring “people observing the holidays in the United States and around the world.”

A Christmas Story: 25 Things to Look for During the 24-Hour Marathon

If your Christmas traditions include at least one complete viewing of the film A Christmas Story, here’s how to raise your game this year, thanks to the folks at Mental Floss:

we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience.

Meet the People Who Can’t Bring You ‘Messiah’ This Year

If, like me, you include a performance of Handel’s Messiah as part of your holiday ritual, the New York Times offers this article, which includes videos, of nine performers guiding you “through the emotional arc of Handel’s classic, from comfort to grief to jubilation.”

Holiday Nostalgia Train

Another treat from Atlas Obscura:

WHILE WAITING ON THE F train platform on a Sunday in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you might think you’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone when eight vintage subway cars barrel up to your station. This is the holiday train, a once-a-year treat courtesy of the MTA’s New York Transit Museum, which whisks MTA patrons back in time. 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal

Where are the voices of indigenous peoples in the Thanksgiving story?

In my research and experience as a teacher educator, I have found social studies curricular materials (textbooks and state standards) routinely place indigenous peoples in a troubling narrative that promotes “Manifest Destiny” – the belief that the creation of the United States and the dominance of white American culture were destined and that the costs to others, especially to indigenous peoples, were justified.

Source: Where are the voices of indigenous peoples in the Thanksgiving story?

Categories
Personal

Daylight saving time ends this weekend: Don’t let ‘fall back’ lure you into depression | The Seattle Times

As we prepare to turn the clocks back an hour on Sunday morning, experts in winter depression say the loss of daylight — just as coronavirus infections start to spike again and election tension comes to a head — could make this an unusually difficult stretch.

Source: Daylight saving time ends this weekend: Don’t let ‘fall back’ lure you into depression | The Seattle Times

Categories
Book Recommendations Fiction Film List Personal

Happy Halloween!

Because I was having trouble cranking up much enthusiasm for Halloween this year, here’s a collection of items I’ve collected. I hope you’ll find something here to help you get into this weekend’s holiday spirit.

Read What You Need: 9 Gothic Novels for Every Mood

This is the one that first inspired me. Did you ever see a display in a bookstore—back in the days when we could actually go into a bookstore—of offerings for “a blind date with a book”? These are books wrapped in paper with a tag describing the contents from which you can choose. Here Isabelle Popp describes how, when she worked at a library, she did a similar thing with books from the collection and called it “Read What You Need.” 

She does the same thing here with suggestions of various forms of gothic literature to read for Halloween. An added bonus is a section labeled “gothic sidebar” in which she explains several ways in which the term gothic can be applied to literature. Read her descriptions, then choose a book from the type of gothic literature that most appeals to you.

Despite the deep history and heavy themes, gothic literature is expansive. The best writers can deftly expose monsters both literal and metaphorical while delivering a thrilling reading experience that can suit a variety of moods. Here are nine varied Gothic novels so you can read what you need.

8 Books About Hexing the Patriarchy

First, a few key terms. Patriarchy is not, at the end of the day, defined by the gender of one’s leaders. It’s a societal model based on the rigid binaries and hierarchies necessary to divide, conquer, and control—e.g., men over women, men over nature, straight and cis over queer and trans, rich over poor, and, often, white over Black and Brown. Magic is energy moved with the intention of transforming reality. Therefore, for our purposes, #HexingThePatriarchy is channeling energy to dismantle this hierarchical world order and then cast a new, freer world.

Ruth Franklin on the novels of Shirley Jackson: “She never did the same thing twice”

Ruth Franklin: A decade of Shirley Jackson

Discussion of Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, among many other works, always comes up at this time of year because of the haunting, spooky nature of her work. In these two essays from Library of America, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, discusses the author and her iconic works.

Read Shirley Jackson’s Eerily Contemporary Letter About Fear

“Author Shirley Jackson often responded to readers’ letters; this one, written in 1962 after republication of her historical fiction for juveniles, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, seems uncannily prescient for our times.”

Meh! Halloween! A Bookish Guide to a Low-Key Halloween

Sarah Hannah Gómez, who thinks “horror movies are fun all year long anyway,” has trouble getting charged up for Halloween. “If you find that you are one of those in-betweenies who wants to participate in holiday fun without losing your cred as an iconoclast, here are some ironic, trope-destroying, or meta selections that might allow you to find common ground with your Halloween enthusiast friends.”

Which Scary Books Should You Pair with Scary Movies This Halloween Weekend?

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to stay home this Halloween, “that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our haunted holiday,” writes Rachel Harrison. Here she shares her list of some of the best new horror books of 2020 paired “with horror movies that I feel compliment them in tone.” 

The 40 Most Terrifying TV Episodes to Watch This Halloween

Brian Tallerico’s got you covered if you’d prefer watch TV all weekend. His includes episodes from shows such as Black Mirror, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Fringe, and Lost

Monster Mythology

Here’s Atlas Obscura’s gateway to 10 articles about various monster myths. 

They Scream! We Scream!

Even the venerable New York Times gets into the Halloween spirit.

“What’s more fundamental to scary movies than the bone-chilling shriek? But delivering a terrifying wail isn’t easy. It’s an entire art with a history and a world of its own.

NASA offers ‘creepy’ playlist of space sounds for Halloween

“The sounds you’re hearing have been translated into something humans can hear and appreciate. They are not actually sounds that the universe emits, but a different way of appreciating the data NASA collects,” said Kimberly Arcand, visualization and emerging technology lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory space telescope.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Memoir Personal

Jesmyn Ward on Her Husband’s Death and Grief During COVID-19 | Vanity Fair

Please read this piece by award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward.

Source: Jesmyn Ward on Her Husband’s Death and Grief During COVID-19 | Vanity Fair

Categories
Personal

Birthday at the Zoo

My husband and daughter took me to the zoo yesterday for my birthday. It was the first time we had seen our daughter in 6 months. I felt especially celebrated because Mount Rainier came out splendidly.

The zoo is now offering timed entrance tickets and has done a good job of adapting to necessary COVID-19 restrictions.

We had a beautiful day for our visit: sunny and clear but not too hot. We got a good look at two of the zoo’s tigers, one lolling in the shade and the other enjoying a catnap in the sun.

One of the zoo’s biggest attractions right now is Trebek, the muskox calf born last spring. He’s named after Alex Trebek, host of the TV game show Jeopardy, whose favorite animal is the muskox.

You can read more about Trebek and his mother, Charlotte, here.

This was my first visit to the new Pacific Seas Aquarium, which showcases sea animals from the Pacific Ocean area. This building opened late last summer.

I was happy to see lots of families with children enjoying the zoo along with us. Everyone wore their masks and did a good job of maintaining appropriate distancing.

masked walrus statue at zoo entrance
masked walrus statue at zoo entrance

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown