Saturday, January 16, 2010

I'm looking for recommendations of good books. I decided the best way to do that is to make some recommendations of my own. It will help readers understand what constitutes a good book from my perspective, and maybe it will give someone else the pleasure of finding a new author he or she really enjoys.

I was a voracious reader as a kid and even young adult, but in the middle of my life I got distracted with the everyday busy-ness of life and stopped reading for pleasure for a decade or two. Now I've rediscovered this source of joy and am always on the prowl for new authors.

My personal "comfort food" genre of books is the mystery series. I love authors who write a series of mysteries where each is a free-standing story with a mystery to be solved, but over the course of the series the characters are well developed into living, breathing people with whole lives that I care about. Here are a few of my favorites in that genre, with a few words about each:

Elizabeth George - She writes the Inspector Lynley series. If you've seen the PBS Mystery film version of any of them, you don't know Elizabeth George. While I usually like the PBS adaptations, they didn't capture the backstories of the key characters in this one. The sergeant, Barbara Havers, is a wonderfully flawed, tragic, lovable character. In the PBS version she's just mildly quirky.

Deborah Crombie -- Hers are the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma Jones mysteries. In this one they begin as a boss/subordinate team and over many novels become lovers and colleagues who do NOT work directly together.

Ann Granger -- Yet another British series. In this one he's a small-town cop and she works for the foreign service.

Margaret Maron -- Possibly my favorite of them all, her series featuring Judge Deborah Knott gradually sucked me into her whole extended Southern family. I really care about the characters Maron has created!

Ann George -- Her Southern Sisters books are great if you like a little humor mixed with your mystery. The protagonists are sisters in their 60's and their interactions are a hoot!

Andrew Greeley -- He's a practicing Roman Catholic priest and his longtime protagonist is, too. (He has other series out now, too, but his Blackie Ryan series is my favorite.) His writing is good but not great, but he weaves in a lot of theology that happens to mesh very nicely with my personal beliefs (God as a passionate lover, not a punisher, for instance) so I always enjoy his digressions and mini-sermons. If you aren't Catholic, or if you are and really think the whole church hierarchy is doing a good job, then these probably wouldn't appeal to you.

I am less excited about the "thriller" genre, though I occasionally enjoy one. Tami Hoag has written a few that I think are called thrillers that still have great characters. Shoot the Messenger and Dark Horse are really marvels of character development! There's another thriller-type author named Randy Wayne White whom I inexplicably like -- his protagonist is a marine biologist/secret ops killing machine, but he is mostly "retired" from the special ops work and his best friend is a new age hippie, which makes for some great interaction and gives the author an opportunity to argue two sides of moral questions. These books are a little testosterone-intensive, but I still enjoyed them. The two best to sample would probably be Shark River or Mangrove Coast. And yeah, like everyone else, I did enjoy all Dan Brown's stuff. Wouldn't like a steady diet of it, but it was fun.

Another author I have really enjoyed who I don't know how to categorize is Alice Hoffman. She writes these novels set in contemporary time but there's always some touch of magic in them. But somehow, she makes it seem believable and I can accept it. They also have a lovely life-affirming feel to them, over all. They are probably the most mainstream-novel-like of any books I can think of that I have liked lately. I find many mainstream novels kind of depressing, or I just don't like the characters, or I feel at the end that I didn't gain anything from reading them.

I have dabbled in science fantasy/dragons and swords type stuff and have liked some of it. I just hate to try new ones without a recommendation because I feel there's a lot of bad writing in the genre. I would strongly recommend the works of Stephen R. Donaldson if this kind of thing holds any allure to you. He has several multi-book works out -- the Thomas Covenant trilogies and the Through The Glass series are both very good.

So, does anyone out there have any inspirations of books you think I'd like? I'm always on the prowl for good reading material!

Friday, January 15, 2010

This afternoon I am gripped with the whole TGIF vibe. I am looking forward to a largely uncommitted weekend and it feel so good! And we get a bonus day on Monday -- it feels like such a treat!

My poor son, on the other hand, has a very full weekend of studying. First semester finals are next week and he is taking an extremely full load. So he has a lot to get through. Unfortunately earlier in the term he had a flare-up of his depression and since it sort of immobilized him for several weeks, during which he didn't turn in any work, damage had been done to his grades. So this term we are not looking for his usual strong grade performance -- just getting through all the classes with a passing grade will be enough. The tide has definitely turned, though,and I believe he will be back to good grades for second semester. I am concerned about what this one semester of bombing will do to his GPA and therefore to his college options, but I am trying to let go of it and just live one day at a time. We can't change what we can't change, after all, and at least he is back on track now. It's like having a different kid in the house -- one whose company is a lot more enjoyable!

We don't even sing in the choir this Sunday. For reasons unclear to me the director scheduled this as a week off. Sam is the cantor (song leader, for those of you unfamiliar with Catholic customs) at 12:30 Mass, so I'll just wait and go to that one with him.

We have been a family divided for Masses for a couple years now. When Sam hit adolescence we went through the predictable fights about going to Mass. Except once he started singing in the then-offered teen choir at 12:30, I found out we had not actually been fighting about Mass at all. We had been arguing about getting up in time for Mom and Dad to sing at 9:00 Mass. Once I realized the time was the big issue, I capitulated and now he worships at 12:30 almost every week, while Bob and I go at 9:00. In a perfect world I'd like us all to worship together, but I'd rather have a son willingly worshipping at 12:30 than grudgingly at 9:00, and it is lovely to NOT have every Sunday morning filled with conflict. In my heart, I am just grateful that at 16 he still willingly worships.

Well, I have to run. I hear my flannel pajama pants calling my name, and who can resist a call like that?

One last thing -- if I have readers out there, I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Once again I am finding it difficult to stay with the discipline of blogging. Thus I am writing a short entry this morning before I leave for work just to keep it fresh.

One of the big realizations I had the day I decided to return to blogging was that for most of my life, I've had a certain chameleon-like quality. I mean, I think I was true to my core values, to those things that are truly most important to me. But on a more superficial level I was really good at blending into whatever group I was with.

I think this was actually learned as a coping mechanism when I was a kid. We moved a bunch of times in my childhood, so I became really good at quickly assessing each new classroom and how to fit in. In high school I used to take pride in the fact that I was welcome among several different "cliques", though not really quite a member of most of them. Even in adulthood, it has often served me well.

But at the same time, I think it holds me back sometimes. It has certainly been one of the challenges of blogging -- it's hard to know what to put out there where God only knows who might find it and read it. And sometimes it makes me feel -- not a lack of integrity, exactly, but maybe a lack of integratedness. Generally speaking, it has not been my way to say "Here I am, take me or leave me." It has been my way to always try to present the side of me that they were going to want to take.

So when I decided to revive my blog, I also decided to work on really finding my own voice -- unashamedly writing what's important to me, what I feel, without always weighing who might be reading it. That's a lot scarier than it sounds -- I'm a woman still in a career crisis, who might have prospective employers checking out my web presence. Even as I write this I am totally tempted to hedge my bets, soften my stance, choose my words cautiously.

But I am not going to. I'm trying to take my inspiration from Popeye, that noted philosopher: "I am what I am." So now I guess my challenge is to make sure I know who that is!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Today's Columbus Dispatch solicited readers to send in a letter of 200 words or less expressing what you wish you could tell your teenage self. (It's inspired by Brad Paisley's hit song Letter to Me.) This request spoke to me, so I sent in this letter:

Dear teenage self:

Here are three points that I think will make your life easier, richer, and a lot more fun:

1. Control is an illusion. Sure, it’s good to make plans for your life – but remember, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

2. It’s good to pay some attention to how you are going to pay the bills, but beyond that don’t get too caught up in it. Chances are if you pursue something you feel passionate about, money will follow. Even if it doesn’t, it’s better to be broke and fulfilled than broke and unfulfilled. (There’s no guarantee the “sensible” career path will work out, either, especially if your heart isn’t in it.)

3. Life is a lot less about rules than you think. There are many different paths to happiness and fulfillment in life, and no one path is right for everybody. Allow yourself the freedom to pursue paths other than the one you know, and be really accepting of other people’s life choices. Some of the best people you will ever meet march to a very different drummer.

Susan at age 51

Friday, January 08, 2010

This morning I watched the Today Show and saw an interview with Gretchen Rubin, the woman who wrote the book The Happiness Project. I had not been familiar with her work before, but I found it very interesting and motivational. (If you want to check her out, her blog can be found at In fact, she's the reason I've picked up my blog after a five month hiatus. (More on that in a second.) The aha-moment I had as I listened to her was that I am wasting a lot of time in my life while I try to fix my career, or whatever else I'm focusing on. Every day is precious and I need to live in the moment. Not that I'm going to stop working on my career, it's just an attitude adjustment.

Today, I'm going to briefly catch up the blogosphere on what I was doing the five months I was silent. Then I'm going to commit to writing a lot more frequently as I try to focus on what I'm actually living each day.

Here's the missing five month scoop: The new sales position I wrote about with such satisfaction in August has turned South on me. In October, the company did away with the guaranteed draw program, so it is a 100% commission job now. In that same time frame, the rates on annuities started moving downward again. So I found myself in the position that I was generating a steady trickle of absolutely new business, but virtually no rollover business. And as I got to understand the industry more, I learned that rollover business is where one actually makes a living. Usually, that's fine, because every few years there are newer, better products that clients can actually benefit by moving to. In today's strange economy, that's not always as true.

In addition to that I had a sale where the client's spouse asked for a divorce between the purchase of the annuity and the end of the "free look" period. The client cancelled the purchase in spite of all my efforts to show that taking a loan against the annuity actually served him better, so that commission was reversed. That put me in the unenviable position of owing back more commission than I was now earning. And I had been warned that business would come to a near standstill between Thanksgiving and New Year's even in the best of years. By November things got to looking so dire that I went to a temp agency and sought a temporary office gig to provide us cash flow into the holidays. I ended up being assigned to the Girl Scouts, where I worked for six weeks. Though it was low paying office work, it felt good to be actually productive every day, and to see some kind of money flowing in each week. That ended just before Christmas, and I was able to enjoy some thoroughly satisfying time with my husband and son over the holidays.

Now the new year has started and I have to figure out what to do next. I haven't given up on the sales job, but I'll admit I'm deeply discouraged. I'm not sure I can build it to the point it generates a living within a timeframe that my family can afford. On the bright side, though, the temp agency called yesterday to say that the Girl Scouts have requested me back for 20 to 25 hours a week to work on a project for the next three months. I accepted, which means we at least have some sure cash flow to look forward to.

Thus I have the luxury of a little breathing room while I figure out my future. When I was younger I was very driven and very plan-oriented, but at this point in my life I feel more like I need to see where the universe leads me. My only "plan" is to concurrently work on the sales job and keep my eyes open for something else out there that seems like a good match for me. I know that I no longer want a volatile, executive level position. I like to work hard, produce well, and feel I've made an important contribution, but I'm no longer interested in 60+ hour weeks and sacrificing everything else in my life to the job. I know I'm an excellent communicator and planner, but I also know I need some administrative support if I'm to juggle a lot of detail-oriented projects. I can build rapport with a wide range of people and am almost always well-liked and well-respected in the workplace. I dislike office politics and game playing and am usually seen as a candid person with caring and integrity. And if I leave this sales position, I will never, ever take a commission sales job again.

I have always loved to write, so I am going to resume a regular blogging discipline. I have some other ideas about how I'm going to live this year, too, and I'll save those for future entries!