Monday, December 27, 2010

Juliet, Naked; Or Breaking Up with Nick Hornby

Oh Nick, I think it’s time we part ways. I really, really do. We’ve had some amazing times - High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch – and during those times, I never thought this day would come. But Nick, you’ve disappointed me too many times in a row now. And I’m puzzled. What happened? What happened to the great “maleness” you gave your characters – those funny, self-deprecating, quirky yet redeeming men that graced the pages of my favorites of yours? Sure, we all evolve and I understand you had to try something new, like speaking from a female voice (How to be Good) or the voice of a child (Slam), but when those things didn’t work for you (and honestly, they so didn’t work for you), why didn’t you go back to what did?

I talked you up, man. I would rave about you. I wrote papers in college analyzing your complex characters. Those first books are ones I keep on my shelves – they’ve moved with me from dorm room to first apartment to condo to townhouse. They've never been thought of as bait for Half-Priced Books. That’s how much they mean to me. Yet, with each following book you’ve written, part of my love for you dies. Your stories aren’t funny anymore. They’re actually either puzzling or quite boring, in fact. And why should I continue to love someone who bores me?

This last book, Juliet, Naked, was the nail in the coffin, I’m afraid. I did finish it, for the most part because it was quick and something to do on the bus, but I was never attached to any of the characters. Not the jerk/creepy music fanatic, not the lonely middle-aged woman, not the washed up, lazy rock star. Nothing stuck with me, and really I didn’t see the point in the story at all. And that lackluster ending? If I had liked the book, it would’ve been a complete disappointment. But then, its lackluster-ness might have just been on par with the rest of the story. If so, you get props for consistency, I suppose.

So, Nick, I’ve been disappointed one too many times. I’m going to have to say goodbye. I’m too busy to waste my time on you anymore. I would say: it’s not you, it’s me. But that would be a lie. It’s you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I Got a Kindle. Am I Sellout?

For the past month, the hubby has been talking to me about the Kindle. “Don’t you think you’d like one of those?” Books are cheaper, it’s easier to carry, yadda yadda yadda. I always said no. I like my books. I like seeing the covers. I like turning the pages. Mostly, I like the community of sharing books with friends like Willikat and CMS and my mom and mother-in-law. Plus, as a devoted reader (and a magazine editor), I want to support the publishing industry as much as I possibly can.

[Note: However, when my hubby, the music lover, couldn’t quite get on board with iTunes right away and kept purchasing CDs to show his support, I was on him about all the space they take up (!) and how much easier and cheaper iTunes was. Same argument, different genre. A tad hypocritical?]

Well, I got a Kindle for my birthday. It was a very generous gift from my MIL; she was super excited to buy it for me, and even though Jon told her I didn’t want one, when she asked a second time, he told her to go for it. I was very surprised by the gift. As we were on the way to our birthday dinner, Jon asked me if I really liked it. I told him I thought it was cool, it’s convenient, the books are cheaper…but it will take me awhile not to feel like a sellout. The publishing industry is my world; am I betraying it by reading books like this? Even my boss, who does everything via iPad, has yet to purchase a real electronic book.

However, it is very easy to read on. I don’t have books on there yet, but I’ve been reading the user’s manual and the e-paper is pretty cool. Plus, the books are like 50 percent cheaper, which in tough economic times, that means a lot. And, as a friend pointed out, I don’t have to read all books this way.

I’m going to keep it, because it was a lovely gift from someone who cares about me a lot. And I don’t remember the last time I received (or treated myself to) something this extravagant. (I use the free cell phone from our plan and a hand-me-down iPod; I don’t have my own computer.) And it’s not like I won’t use it. I’ll just use it while having an internal struggle and a bit of book-lover's guilt. All the while still reading physical books, too, and sharing those with my friends.

So, am I a sellout? I’ll keep you posted on my thoughts on the Kindle.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Best Books I Read in 2010

Well, 2010 was much slower in the reading department for me, which kind of sucks when you have a book blog that you like to keep up with. But, for three months out of the year I didn’t pick up one book, let alone a magazine. Newborns tend to have that affect on you. I had no idea what was going on in the world. Things still pop up in random conversations and I’m like, “What? When did that happen?” Oh, it happened in April, May or June… That’s why I don’t remember. And then, after you become a parent, things like reading on a snowstormy Saturday goes out the window too. I remember when I read Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn over 24-hour periods the weekends they came out. Yeah, never doing that again, until perhaps age 50. Anyway, when the only time I have to read is on the bus and the occasional lunch hour, it’s slow going. However, each December I’ve compiled a roundup of my favorite books of the year, so here it goes:

The Help. One of my first books of 2010 and I’m so glad I read it. This book was touching, educational, funny, sad, joyful, vengeful and moving all at once. I fell in love with Skeeter and Aibileen, and I grew more and more embarrassed of our past. I laughed, I cried. Two things that always guarantee I’ll like and remember a book. I’m very interested in the movie, too.

Millennium Trilogy. Yep, I was one of the millions who got sucked into Lisbeth Salander’s three-book adventure. While the books could be quite detail-driven and it was easy to get lost in side stories that were overwhelmed with information and Swedish-sounding surnames, there was enough action and female kick-ass-ery in these books to keep me flipping the pages. Plus, being a journalist, I very much enjoyed the evolution of Millennium magazine. They were tough, conscious-driven editors – we don’t have enough of those these days. But, in the end it was all about Lisbeth and she’s definitely a character for the ages.

Where Men Win Glory. Once again Krakauer taught me a bunch of things I didn’t know. He did it with Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air and once again with this book. I learned so much more about the wars we’re fighting, basic training, friendly fire, the (despicable) marketing of war, and a man who was truly unique. Pat Tillman was a thoughtful, generous, caring person whose life ended much too early. The book made me mad and sad and depressed about our current situation, but it also made me a bit hopeful that perhaps there are more men like Pat Tillman out there. God knows we need them.

So, what were your favorite books you read in 2010?

End of the Year, 2009
A Look Back 2008
Top Books 2007

Thursday, December 9, 2010

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

I just finished SuperFreakonomics. I really enjoyed Freakonomics, the first book, but since I read it so long ago, I couldn’t remember why (a curse of a mega-reader; don’t you hate that?). Superfreak (as I’ll call it for short) reminded me why. I’m not a data head, but these two guys – an author and an economist – present data in the most interesting, most digestible way. And about the most interesting topics. Who knew I could read a chapter on prostitution and leave it thinking, ‘Hmmm, I can see why that profession works for some people. Good hours. Good wages. You’re your own boss.’ Or, as a mother, these two actually got me thinking about the necessity of car seats. CAR SEATS. Yes, they claim (with data!) that after age 2, regular seatbelts work just as well, if not better. Also: An entire chapter on why this whole global warming thing is kind of bunk, or if it’s not bunk, then about how we’re handling it in the completely wrong way.

When a book shocks you, makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you shake your head in disbelief, and it’s about real stuff… Well, I loved it. I was dog-earring practically every other page because either what they said was smart, awesome or hilarious and I wanted to go back and read it again.

Some interesting tidbits:

+ When families in India got cable TV, suddenly the women stood up for themselves and wouldn’t put up with as much crap from their husbands.

+ The feminist revolution has harshly impacted school children. As more and more women went to college and went into higher paying fields, they stopped becoming teachers. Teachers test scores went down, as did their salaries, which keep more women from becoming teachers. A vicious cycle.

+ Due to police resources being flooded into terrorism-fighting efforts after 9-11, perhaps less were watching Wall Street?

+ In most cases, chemotherapy is ineffective. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars per patient to extend life by as little as two months. Cancer patients make up 20 percent of Medicare cases but use up 40 percent of its drug budget.

+ Iran (I know, we don’t like Iran) pays people if they decide to donate a kidney; and they have no wait list for organs. Demand met. Here, we feel paying for organs (but not sperm or eggs) is immoral yet 50,000 people in the past 20 years have died while on the organ donation list. Does this show that money is a great motivator, more so than “the goodness of our hearts”? Um, yes.

+ Global warming scientists with the craziest, yet perhaps most workable, ideas, change their skew more toward what’s considered “acceptable.” If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get funding. That’s why we never hear about some of the crazy, yet cheap and workable, global warming fixes the authors list in this book. If these scientists said what they really wanted to try, they would never get the money to do it.

+ Solar panels, which are black, send 88 percent of their heat back into the atmosphere – contributing to global warming. Shut up.

+ Airplane contrails help prevent warming. When planes were grounded for just 3 days after 9-11, the ground temp increased by 2 degrees.

I don’t think the book is necessarily meant to change minds, but it does get you thinking. There’s no one answer. The popular answer is not always the right one. Things that are bad can sometimes turn out to be good for you. We should really listen to everyone’s ideas because you never know who’s got the next fix, for cheap. Real life scenarios spelled out simply and economically – it’s good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Holy Ghosts: Or How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer of Things that Go Bump in the Night

I've always kind of believed in ghosts. I'd hear stories of people's ghosts and they'd sound believable. My mom once brought home a picture that was taken in a friend's basement and you could clearly see the silver outlining of a man in a hat holding a shovel. Then, about a year ago, the hubby and I started watching Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. Three guys travel to some of the most haunted places in the world, get locked in overnight, walk around with night-vision cameras and high-powered digital recorders and catch shadows, lights, voices, noises, etc. If you get us going, we can talk about that show for a long time. The things these guys have experienced - intelligent conversations, scratches on their bodies, objects moving when no one is around - there's no way it could be fake. (If we're watching it before bed, we have to watch something funny afterward for a bit, or I will have ghost dreams.)

My husband found this book online, and because of our recent fandom of ghost stories, bought it and read it. He really enjoyed it, so I gave it a go, too. Author Gary Jansen is an editor at Doubleday Religion, a pretty devout Catholic (though he swears like a sailor) and is/was studying to be a deacon. So, here's a man who really believes in his Bible. And then he started feeling very weird in his own house. Electricity running over his body, cool breezes, dark shadows. His kid's toys would make noise by themselves. Weird, weird stuff.

As a natural researcher, he read as much as he could about ghosts. He wasn't convinced at first that he had ghosts (wouldn't he be a bad Catholic if he believed in ghosts?), but as he did his reading, he found there were actually more ghost stories in the Bible and religious texts than he realized. And, as more and more weird, creepy things started happening in his house, the more he couldn't deny that something "bigger" was going on than just creaks and groans of an old house and malfunctioning batteries.

He calls up the real Ghost Whisperer for some help. Now, while I think I believe in ghosts, I've never been very certain about psychics or ghost whisperers. But, this lady is the real deal. If everything Jansen writes is true, and I believe it is, this woman is amazing at what she does. She helps him, that's all I'll say.

I don't want to spoil the story by going into what/who is haunting his house, but it's pretty awesome, and the reasons why and the coincidences that appear - it seems insane, really. The book is quick. I skimmed some parts where he talks a lot about his research. While it's interesting, I just wanted to read about the present-day ghost story happening right in his own house, so I would try to hurry and get to those parts. If you like ghost stories, this is a real-life one that's pretty entertaining.

Do you believe in ghosts? Know any good ghost stories?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy)

I just finished this book of essays, edited by Dooce's Heather Armstrong. Books of essays can be hit or miss, but I loved nearly every essay in this book. I either laughed or cried (or both) at each one. Some authors reminisce about their fathers, some author-fathers talk about fatherhood, some author-wives talk about their husbands as fathers. It was very entertaining. (Is it more entertaining if you have a child? Perhaps.)

The most humorous essays were those by new fathers. "10 Conclusions from Four Years of Fatherhood" discussed everything from new parents' obsession with poo (so true!) to how your home will be a disaster area for the next several years (unfortunately, so true again, but maybe I should feel better about it knowing I'm not the only parent with a messy home?). I loved how "Sam I Am" compared pregnancy to Lord of the Rings. Wife = Frodo, who has to bear the burden the entire way. Husband = Sam, who is just their for moral support but can't really do anything. I loved "The Force is With Us. Always" in which the author described her husband's love for Star Wars and how it took just two years for him to introduce it to their now-obsessed son. Why I liked it? I believe it's my future, which is great because while the kid and dad play "light saber," I get to read a book or take a bath.

Of course, the essays that made me cry? The ones about the authors' own dads. I've always had a wonderful relationship with my dad. He was very present in my life. He's proud of me, he loves me and he's not afraid to tell me. So reading about how other people love their dads...well, it pulls at the heart strings a bit, you know?

This book is quick and fun. So if fatherhood from any level interests you, or if you just like good writing, I recommend it. A couple fun/true passages:

From "Peas and Domestic Tranquility"
A couple of years ago, we spent an afternoon at the park with some friends and their three girls. While the girls sat in the sand and shared toys and bonded in a way that was only missing a few glasses of wine or some chocolate ice cream, my sons ran in noisy circles around them, trying to punch each other in the face. "Wow," my friend said. "Is that what boys are like?"
"Man. They just...Wow."
"If it makes you feel any better for me, your kids are going to mutate into teenage girls at some point, and that will make this little melee look like tea with the Queen. The boys are just going to keep hitting each other. The only thing I have to worry about is fratricide. Your girls are going to run psy-ops campaigns that would make the CIA curl into a fetal ball and cry itself to sleep."
From "Not My Problem"
I had more questions than answers. Little did I know, that would never change.

There is something to be said for the phrase "day by day." Just take it one day at a time, they say. Each day was a new adventure and we were amazed at how excited we were about little changes. Sitting up was a big deal. Crawling gave us personal entertainment. Walking was a milestone and speaking drew us into rapt attention.

In time the manual wrote itself. What they never told you is that your child will write the manual, adding a few words every day. As a father, my job was to support the author, edit the work when I could, and hope that the book would be a best seller.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters

My friend CMS loaned (Chrissy, is that the correct term?!) me this book because she read it and enjoyed it. Hunt Sisters is told completely through letters from one sister, Olivia, to a bunch of different people in her life: parents, exes, best friend, sister, brother, work folks, etc. Olivia is a newbie producer in Hollywood, trying to get a movie made. Her little sister has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The story follows Olivia over the next year as she helps her sister through her illness and also tries to get her movie made.

As always, like with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, novels written only in letter form are a bit jarring to begin with, but I always get used to them and things tend to flow. Olivia is a great writer and her letters are full of humorous language. You'd think it would be hard to tell a complete story just from the letters of one person, too, but the author, Elisabeth Robinson, makes it work. Sure, Olivia has to recreate every scene for us within letters, but it doesn't seem weird. I like her honesty (in letters to her family) and her spunk (in letters telling off her movie counterparts).

At the end, in an author's note, we learn Robinson was a movie producer in Hollywood for 10 years. And her sister was sick with leukemia. When she finally decided to fulfill her dream of writing a book, she contemplated writing a memoir vs. a novel. But when she realized with a novel she could say and be all those things she couldn't say or be in real life, that pushed her toward novel writing. So, how much is true is left up to our imagination, but I think the book comes across so truthful feeling because so much of it is in fact based in truth.

It's nothing groundbreaking, nothing fabulous, but it's a sweet, entertaining story. I found one passage on relapsing cancer that I thought was beautifully written (and could only be written by someone who knows), and I wanted to share it here, just to remember it:
Maddie relapsed. I hate to put it that way; it suggests responsibility that she did it, she relapsed, when it's the cancer that did it. There is a continual balancing act between acceptance and defiance, between being the victim and being the attacker. As a fighter, she just lost, which implies weakness, ineptitude, a lack of some crucial smarter strategy, greater strength, and this defeat would have been, should have been, a victory. You can't say, well, this enemy is just too strong for any fighter, because she is the enemy, too; the cancer is a part of her, as much as her will to conquer it is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Books to Movies: The Help (yay!) and What to Expect When You're Expecting... (um what?)

This week's issue of EW had a first look at The Help movie. (The article's not online, otherwise I'd link to it.) The lovely and sweet Emma Stone as Skeeter? Awesome. Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly? So awesome. Viola Davis as Aibileen? Perfection. I cannot wait for it. I think it'll be fabulous! I loved, loved the book.

Then I saw this on my Twitter stream this morning: Someone is making What to Expect into a movie? Huh? The post says it'll be sort of like Love Actually (one good thing about Christmas coming soon - my annual viewing of Love Actually...sigh) following five pregnant couples around. Well, OK, maybe that could work, but obviously it's very loosely based on the book then.

Any other books-to-movies you're excited for?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Top 100 Children's Novels

I was at home with a brand-new baby when the School Library Journal's Top 100 Children's Novels list came out in mid-April, so I'm definitely behind the curve on this one. However, I love me some lists, so it was fun to look this one over (filled with the help of multiple entries from J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl and Judy Blume) and count how many I've read. I also loved this second-grade teacher's breakdown - with charts and graphs! - of the list. Book-nerdy fun. It's interesting that series books accounted for 61 of the 100 books and that a good percentage were written in the past 20 years or so.

Anyway, I've read 30 out of 100 of the children's novels. Which is just OK, I think, but also considering several were written after I was of age to read these types of books (Harry Potter notwithstanding). And several bring back fond memories: anything Ramona; The BFG (which I can't help but think about every time I write my initials ABFG); The Witch of Blackbird Pond (I forgot about that book!); and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (reading aloud in sixth grade.)

What about you? How many have you read?

For more fun, see last year's list of Top 100 Picture Books. I've also read about 30 of these, and we have a few on the shelf as we speak.

[Quick pet peeve note: Why does Blogger insist that "children's" is misspelled? Drives me crazy!]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Every Last One

I just finished Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One. As promised, my next book was by an author I’d never read before. Even though Quindlen’s written plenty of well-known novels, I’ve never picked one up. Somehow I must’ve put Every Last One on my Amazon wish list, so I had it on my shelf to read.

I can’t really summarize the book too much without giving everything away. But, the story focuses on Mary Beth and her family of five: her, her husband and three teenage children. The first half of the book builds the family. We learn about Alex’s athleticism, Ruby’s individualism and Max’s loner-ism. From the beginning of the book, Mary Beth looks at her life from afar. She knows she should be thankful for all she has, yet it can also feel like something is missing. Every day is the same – get up, take care of the kids, worry about the kids, kiss the husband, work, make dinner… lather, rinse repeat. Then halfway through the book, tragedy strikes and everything unravels.

I think the book was good. The writing was good and Quindlen can paint a picture and create a cast of characters with the best of them. However, because of the subject matter, the book also haunted me and made me very sad at some points. Now, one could say this obviously means the book was good, since it made me feel so strongly. Which is probably true. But it also made it very hard to read, too.

There’s been conversations on the blogosphere and Twitter (I know both Jennie and Jen have mentioned this recently) that one of the things that changes when you become a parent is that it’s nearly impossible and completely heart-wrenching to watch or read anything that has to do with a child struggling, being hurt, dying, etc. It can be as minor as a baby hitting his head to a story about a cancer patient giving her Make a Wish to someone else…as a parent you just die a little inside. (There’s a trailer for Paranormal Activity 2 out right now that shows a baby in a crib…I have to close my eyes.) Maybe that’s why the struggles of this family in the book affected me so much? I guess I won’t ever know since I can’t go back in time and read it 15 months ago, childless. But, it does show me that I’ll have to be a bit more careful picking my books. Again, while I thought the book was good, I’m just not sure the heartbreak I felt is really worth it, you know?

What do you think? Do you read books that you know will make you sad? Are there different kinds of sadness that are easier to deal with than others? What books have haunted you?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Procrastination Rules My Nation

"Later: What does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves?" is an interesting, thorough look at why people procrastinate. Author James Surowiecki provides several examples, several means of thought and several different discussions on the case. As someone who procrastinates with the best of them (or perhaps better than most), I was most definitely interested in the article. As with many New Yorker pieces, the prose was slightly overblown and a little long, but many of the examples Surowiecki offers ring true. For example:

A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

Hence, the reason why (besides having a baby) The Hurt Locker has been sitting next to our TV since March, and movies such as Couples Retreat have been watched and returned.

Another example:

We often procrastinate not by doing fun tasks but by doing jobs whose only allure is that they aren’t what we should be doing. My apartment, for instance, has rarely looked tidier than it does at the moment.

So true. It’s only the home tasks, like laundry, grocery shopping and dishes, that get done when they need to – because we have to eat and wear clothes to live day to day, but we don’t have to have dusted tables or clean bathrooms - and even then, I only do these at the absolute last moment. Or, why when I have a pending freelance assignment, I can surf the Internet for longer than I believe one should surf the Internet.

Surowiecki wonders if procrastination is a sign of weakness. While in some cases it could be, I also think it’s just the way some people’s minds work, especially if we don’t have deadlines to work with. The author provides an example of college students, who are given the choice to turn three papers in at staggered deadlines or all at once at the end of the semester. Smartly, the students pick the staggered deadlines, knowing enough about themselves that if they didn’t, they would all be writing three papers during the last week of the semester.

Procrastination also depends on what type of task we’re working on. Writes the author,

That’s why David Allen, the author of the best-selling time-management book “Getting Things Done,” lays great emphasis on classification and definition: the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it.
This can go right along with the idea of having too many choices in life, which we do. He writes,

Another way of making procrastination less likely is to reduce the amount of choice we have: often when people are afraid of making the wrong choice they end up doing nothing. So companies might be better off offering their employees fewer investment choices in their 401(k) plans, and making signing up for the plan the default option.
How many times have you let an opportunity go by because you just couldn’t decide what action to take? It happens all. the. time.

In the end, I’d say I’m a middle-of-the-road procrastinator. When something’s due far out, I’ll put it off and put it off, even if I could get it done in 30 minutes and cross it off the list today. But, I also think I need those deadlines - and produce some pretty good work, when I have the pressure of looming deadlines. I also have the strong mentality that things will just work out, which is why, even though I was panicking a bit when I was still searching for daycare after our baby was born, I wasn't too panicked. Everything, for 30 years, has just always worked out, or gotten done, and that did, too.

Why do you think people procrastinate? Is it just human nature?

[Edited to add: Willikat brought to my attention the term incubator, which may be a better word to describe some of us who consider ourselves procrastinators.]

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman

Since I love most everything by John Krakauer, I knew I wanted to read Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. It’s been on my Amazon wish list awhile, and when I finally got it, it was already out in paperback. Turns out this was great because a few things happened since the book was first published in early 2009 and Krakauer was able to add some snippets in and fill out the story even more.

After just the first five pages I was already sad and depressed. War really sucks. However, I tend to live in my own little world and go about my day, so I felt a bit out of the loop when it came to some of the aspects of the war(s). Krakauer alternates telling us about Pat Tillman with telling us about Afghan history and the war. It would’ve been easy to just think of Tillman as your typical football jock, a rough-and-tough meathead. But Tillman was the opposite. Sure, he was strong and fast and could tackle like any other NFL defensive player, but he also read the classics, wrote in a journal, cried when he was overwhelmed and hiked alone so he could think. For him, football wasn’t about the money (i.e. he turned down a $9 million deal from the Rams and continued to play for Arizona for $500,000), it was about the challenge. He didn’t enlist after 9-11 just to go “shoot ‘em up.” He believed it was his duty. And then when he got to boot camp and was surrounded by a bunch of immature babies, he questioned his decision. When he felt the war in Iraq was illegal (he enlisted to fight in Afghanistan, not Iraq), he thought about quitting. And if he wasn’t so strong willed and committed, maybe he would’ve quit. But he made a deal, and he wasn’t going to break it. He was honorable. His journal entries were amazing and really let you see inside the man he was. He was a true hero, and it’s insulting and criminal the way the Army and the government disgraced him and his family.

I know politics is all about the spin. And I fully learned through Where Men Win Glory just how much spin there is. I work in the media, so I understand, too, what it means to market something. And, sure, it makes sense that a government may have to market a war. I just didn’t realize to what extent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were marketed. They actually have their own marketing departments; people paid to spin the bad news into good, or if there is no good, do their best to cover up the bad. To use the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch as a means to cover up the fact that the first dozen or so deaths of the war were actually deaths by friendly fire? That takes some serious spin. To burn the uniform of Pat Tillman and force his comrades to lie to the Tillman family (and so many other bad, bad things) as a means to cover up his death by friendly fire? To make his mom fight the government for three years just to get the truth? I have no words; it’s just so sad.

And this whole friendly fire thing? I had no idea how common it was. I knew it happened, but I had this weird notion that it only happened in some confusing ground battle, where amongst all the ruckus, it’s hard to see who’s the enemy and who isn’t. Well, we don't really fight wars like that anymore, do we? It seems friendly fire really happens because these kids are inexperienced, have never shot weapons before, aren’t trained to use radios properly and everything just becomes a big hot mess. All the kids get on the radio at the same time, jam the frequencies and the necessary messages aren’t relayed, so our jets never learn that those tanks they’re dropping bombs on are actually American soldiers. Are you kidding me? Or, the mixed messages from the top commanders - who aren't on the ground themselves - are forced upon lieutenants who, while they disagree, must follow orders and people end up getting hurt. I understand there will be casualties of war, and I understand mistakes will happen and people will die, but after reading this book, I wonder if we’re even learning from our mistakes? Things don’t seem to be getting better.

The book was eye opening and informative. I learned a lot about the war that I think I either glazed over previously or just didn’t know about. Or, I heard the first spinned account of some story (Jessica Lynch) and then when the truth came out, I never heard the less-publicized follow up. And while the war part of the book was most definitely interesting to read, I truly loved learning about Pat Tillman and his strong and charming family. His strength, his truth, his beliefs were heart warming and inspirational and I’m glad I got to know more about him.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Freakonomics: The movie

I loved Freakonomics, the book. Even though the authors were sometimes talking about complicated functions and pieces of cultural life, the everyday language and great humor made the book come off really well. It's one of those books you read where you just want to tell everyone you see about what you just read. Things that people think are related are not. It's pretty cool. I have the sequel on my shelf ready to read.

When I heard they were making a movie out of the book, I wasn't sure how it would come across. But the movie has some pretty important and talented people behind it. Looks good!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

October, here we come.

As I've done last year and the year before, I'd like to take a moment to celebrate the Twins. While it may not be as edge-of-my-seat crazy as last year's game 163 or 2008's tie breaker loss to the White Sox (though I think we forgive Jim Thome by now), I'm actually happy to skip the drama this year and have our team wrap it up a whole three series before the end of the season. The fact that we did this after a pretty depressing first half and without our favorite Canadian and stellar closer, well, once again our scrappy team proves they ain't so scrappy after all.

Now, as always the playoffs will prove to be ridiculous. Yankees or Rays? Really? Like Aaron Gleeman says, Pick Your Poison. I cautiously choose the Rays, because man, do I hate those Yankees. Even if we're close to being the better team, we just lose our mojo around those guys. And while it'd be better to just have to play a five-game ALDS series against them instead of seven games in the second round, I'd rather give another team (ahem, Texas) a chance to beat them first. But the Rays are awesome, too, so I repeat: Ridiculous.

Yet, exciting. Go Twins!

And maybe it's because I'm utterly exhausted today from a night of only 1.5 hours of straight sleep, but this Sports Illustrated article on new fan-favorite Jim Thome made me cry. He's a class act, that man, and I'm so glad he's coming with us to the playoffs. Hopefully his awesome attitude and mega muscles will get us past at least the first round. I'm also glad we get SI at home. That cover is going on the fridge.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gender Bias and the Written Word

Meghan O'Rourke of Slate asks a very intriguing question: why are women so infrequently heralded as great novelists? I never really thought about it (stupid, I know) until I read this column and began nodding my head over and over. So often women's fiction is considered "rom com," "click lit" or "beach read." Nothing more. But there are plenty of fabulous female authors out there - current ones, even, not just your Brontes, Austens, etc. - so why aren't they considered more frequently on the best-of-all-time lists? Is it because most of our reviewers are men? Is it merely an unconscious movement? Is it because female authors tend to write about female characters? If those "great American novels" had been written by women, would they never have been called great? Should women authors start sending in manuscripts with male pseudonyms? Something to think about at least. A few quotes from the article that I enjoyed:

"In many circumstances, we also simply assume men are more talented: Before the advent of blind auditions, fewer than 5 percent of the players in major American symphonies were women. But after blind auditions began to be held, the percentage of female players soared almost tenfold. Is there any reason to believe our evaluations of literary talent (which almost always happen with full knowledge of a writer's gender) are uninfluenced by that kind of unconscious bias?"

"Studies have shown, for instance, that in the face of subtle discouragement (facial expressions and so forth) candidates perform less well. It's really, really hard to write a book. It takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude. (I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.)"

"There's the provocative female writer who was asked if she had an eating disorder because she is naturally skinny, and whom reporters badgered for information about the number of men she'd slept with... There's the author who sent out a proposal about John Lennon and learned that editors worried readers might not believe a woman could write with authority about a musician."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Talking to Girls about Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut

Ed Note: I can now see that once I started reading again after having a baby, I chose to stick to those authors I know. The last five books? Sequels or books by authors I've read before. I guess I find comfort and ease with the familiar. I'm doing it again currently with Where Men Win Glory by John Krakauer. After that one, I'm determined to read someone new.

I read Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield and loved, loved it. It was a sweet, heartbreaking sonnet to his late wife who died suddenly and much too young. Even if I didn’t know the music he was referring to as he memorialized their relationship through songs, I didn’t have to because the writing and the message took over.

I was hoping Talking to Girls about Duran Duran would give me the same feeling. This book is another memoir and it takes a peek insides Rob’s life during the ‘80s. Each chapter relates his experiences to a song/artist – Pat Benatar, Flock of Seagulls, Prince, etc - during a year of the decade. While his writing is still great and his self-deprecating humor still funny, I just couldn’t relate to this book very much. I found myself skimming chapters that meant little to me.

Now, this is not Sheffield’s fault. Once again, the writing is great, I was just born too late to appreciate his musings. Sheffield loved all kinds of music and most of it I’ve never heard of, or had no way of picking out the tune in my head. But, a few of the themes he focused on did resonate with me. I loved his relationship with his younger sisters. You can tell Sheffield learned a lot from these women while growing up, and I can guarantee that’s why he turned out sensitive, respectful and thoughtful. I also understand the way certain songs can stick with you and remind you of certain moments in time – though, I think a memoir about growing up in the ‘90s might hit closer to home with me. The chapter on his relationship with his grandfather was also super sweet. Plus, many of these years coincided with his teenage angst - sitting in his room alone listening to the radio and thinking about life and love - which we've all been through no matter what decade.

Funnily enough, the chapter about the New Kids on the Block (my Duran Duran – the band that all the girls loved and the boys hated and that, while no longer popular, I will defend to the grave my past love for) song Hangin’ Tough was actually the one I could relate to most. Sheffield talks about being 23 and his sister being 13 and the two of them creating mixed tapes for each other. He’d give her tapes with Depeche Mode and she give back something she was most interested it. Make my brother Sheffield and me his sister, same age difference, same music (my brother actually sent me a mix tape with Depeche Mode and I returned with Garth Brooks; I think we both didn't "get" the other's love, but we still shared and created the memory). I was nodding my head and remembering back fondly.

So, if you were a music-loving teenager or early-20-something during the ‘80s, you’ll probably love this book. Or, if you’re just a huge music fan, you could too. I’m just not quite the right demographic to love this book, though I definitely appreciate its sentiment.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Faithful Place

I read Tana French’s first two books and really enjoyed them. Each book can be read separately from each other, but characters do overlap. Here’s the B&N synopsis of Faithful Place:

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was nineteen, growing up poor in Dublin's inner city, and living crammed into a small flat with his family on Faithful Place. But he had his sights set on a lot more. He and Rosie Daly were all ready to run away to London together, get married, get good jobs, break away from factory work and poverty and their old lives. But on the winter night when they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn't show. Frank took it for granted that she'd dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again. Neither did Rosie. Everyone thought she had gone to England on her own and was over there living a shiny new life. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank is going home whether he likes it or not. Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he's a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he's willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

I really liked Mackey as a character, and stories of people “going home again” can always be intriguing, especially when they don’t fit in all those years later. Mackey’s childhood has a real Angela’s Ashes feel to it, and as a reader you’re thankful he got out while he could. The mystery isn’t so mysterious; I pretty much had the outcome pegged early on. But, that doesn’t mean the story still isn’t interesting and entertaining. French can really create deep, flawed characters, and I like that about her. I also like the Dublin setting of all her books. While this one probably falls third, behind The Likeness and then In the Woods, it’s a close race among all three of her books. Classic mysteries with action, great detail, a little gore and main characters you can really root for.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My Life as an Experiment

Because I’m a fan of his, I wanted to read A.J. Jacob’s latest go round. I don’t know if other essay fans agree, but once you start reading someone frequently – like Sedaris, Orlean, etc. in places like The New Yorker, Esquire, etc. - and then they release their latest book of essays, you’ve already read a few. Same thing happened here. Because we used to get Esquire at home, I’d read a few of these essays previously. I did reread them here, but you do lose a bit of the excitement for the new book.

I’m jealous of Jacobs. He gets to work from home and think up crazy experiments to live for a week, a month, a year. Sure, it drives his wife (and soon his children) crazy, but the guy gets paid to be curious and screw around. Tough life.

My two favorite essays were when he outsourced his life to India, and when he spent a month being the perfect husband. In the first, he hired two sweethearts of assistants from India to do everything for him – shop, send his e-mails, organize his life, make his decisions. One even apologized to his wife for him and also sent his boss a disagreeing e-mail. Thing is? Both recipients were perfectly happy with their e-mails from A.J.’s assistants. She obviously handled things much better than he ever could. A truly funny essay.

To be the perfect husband, Jacobs decided to be less disagreeable to his wife’s requests, and also to be all-around more respectful to her. He also said he would do anything she asked and try to do all the chores. In her words, it was the best month of their marriage, and Jacobs actually agreed that they got along much better. He wasn’t snippy at her, he didn’t ask “why” or provide a snarky response to everything she said (in fact, he realized on like day two how often he did that and how that really was a jackass way to be). When she listed off the chores she does around the house, he fully admitted he had no idea how much she does. And, that he had no idea some of those things even qualified as chores – filling the soap dispensers, buying birthday cards, buying gifts, DVRing shows, paying bills, scheduling doctor appointments… Again, when he realized how much she did, and how little he contributed, he grew to respect her and their relationship a lot more. Grand experiment; I loved this chapter. I always thought in his other books that he gave his wife kind of a bad time.

So, fast, quick, funny read. However a touch repetitive, since I’d read a few already. But, I’m anxious to see what’s next from Jacobs. Again, what a life.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eclipse: The movie

Since Mason was born, I've seen three movies in the theater. The hubby and I went to Iron Man II (not as good as the first, but a good, fun movie nonetheless) for our first date post-baby; the girls and I saw SATC II (also not as good as the first, but I'm sorry, I just love the girlfriend power of those four ladies. The movie could completely suck and I'd still love them all). And then, because grandma is always willing to babysit, I was able to make it to Eclipse as well. It took me about a month, and it was killing me that I couldn't get there sooner (thus is parenthood, though, and we're OK with it. Toy Story III looks like it'll have to be a rental). Wow - summer of sequels I guess!

I was extra excited for Eclipse because this was my most favorite of the four books in the series. There was ACTION in this one. Fighting! Vampires being ripped to shreds! Blood suckers and smelly dogs uniting together to fight! Unlike the other books, there wasn't any 'let's talk this out... OK, we'll let you live...'... there was violence and killing, and I liked it.

The movie didn't disappoint. The werewolves looked better than in New Moon. The actors weren't so teenage-angsty, though Taylor Lautner could still use some help in the acting area. I loved Charlie even more in this movie. The newborns were totally frightening. So like the third book, the third movie was definitely my favorite. I'm unsure how the two-part fourth installment will turn out, though, and the fact that we have to way TWO YEARS until it's over? Stupid.

(Next up, Harry Potter. I get goosebumps in anticipation.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

I so enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, so I was excited to read the second tale of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. In this book, little Flavia once again comes across a murder, which somehow connects to a murder several years prior. Through her own cunning and swift questioning of the townspeople Bishop’s Lacy, Flavia once again trumps the local investigator and solves the case.

From a mystery standpoint, this story didn’t grab me quite as much as the one in Sweetness. Also, the villain wasn’t really a villain at all, unlike the dangerous murder from the previous book. Flavia was in real danger in Sweetness. In Hangman, she seemed more like a curious kid rather than a sleuth. But, the book was still cute (Flavia’s a superb character), fun and a quick and easy read. I would read more about Flavia if more books should come out. I just think author Alan Bradley should move her up to the next level in investigating, rather than pull her back.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

My first book read after maternity leave was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest of the Millennium Trilogy. I very much enjoyed the first two in the series. Hornet’s Nest works as an ending to the trilogy, too. I would have to say that of the three, Played with Fire is probably my favorite because it was the most action packed. Hornet’s Nest takes place more in the hospital and the courtroom, however while there’s not tons of action, Larsson does still make the story interesting. It was a bummer that Lisbeth and Blomkvist had zero scenes together, but you can appreciate the reason why. I liked the wrap up of the mystery, too, though one part (Lisbeth’s twin sister) was left wide open. Was this an error? Was Larsson planning something for this part of the story before he died? I don’t know, but it left a big question mark in my mind.

This review is pretty vague because I would hate to ruin any surprises for people still reading the series. I have the Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo set to stream from Netflix, too, though I’ve heard it’s pretty graphic, like the book but unlike what I would expect an American version to be, so I’m not sure I want to watch it. I will see the American version when it comes out, especially since Daniel Craig will play Blomkvist and not Brad Pitt. It’ll be interesting how Hollywood condenses the book into a movie.

I know there are some detractors out there about these books. I’ve read pretty convincing arguments about Larsson’s use of sexual violence against women, and how even though he made Lisbeth out to be an ass-kicking women, does the violence still paint a masochistic picture of Larsson? I don’t personally know, and I just chose to breeze over the gory details onto more of the mystery and interpersonal relationships between the characters. I’ve also read reviews that claim so much of the action takes place on the Web – hacking, money transfers, texting, chatrooms, etc. – and particularly in the last book and how that’s boring. I actually thought it foreshadows where crime-fighting and crime-prevention are going these days.

All in all, I’d give the trilogy 4 out of 5 stars as a whole. The books are detail enriched, sometimes slow, but overall very entertaining. And I think Lisbeth is a great character.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Meet our little one, born April 7. And the reason this blog will be going on a short hiatus; not much time or will to read at the moment. :)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

I have to say, as much as I enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the second book in the trilogy is even better. There were some slow parts in Tattoo, primarily the first 30 pages and the last 45-50 pages or so. This one has kept me hooked from page one. The story is action-packed, the characters are interesting and Lisbeth Salander, our heroine (if you can call her that), kicks butt.

When Lisbeth finds herself in a heap of trouble that has to do with three murders, she's forced to go into hiding and try to solve the murders, and clear her name. Turns out she's the link, and her shadowed past, which we learned so little about in the first book, takes center stage. The journalist Blomkvist believes her innocence and starts his own journalistic investigation, parallel to the police investigation, to find out the truth. The truth isn't pretty - it involves sex trafficking, sexual abuse and considerable brutality - but it definitely grabs you and draws you in anyway.

We get a whole new cast of characters in this book. With series I'm always wary of new characters. Will the author make me care about them as much as I do the main characters? Will these new guys be fully formed and worth my time? Will I hate one so much it'll ruin the story for me? But, I've enjoyed the new characters in this book - both the good guys and the bad guys. And when the bad guys get their comeuppance, I give a little cheer.

When the book trades off between the investigation from both the police's and Blomkvist's perspective to Lisbeth's, there can be a little repetition. The author takes us through some of the same information, just through Lisbeth's eyes as she finds out. Part of me thinks this is unnecessary; and I tended to skim those few parts. But, they were so few, they didn't take away from the story.

I can't wait for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest to come out in May. I'm anxious to learn the rest of Lisbeth's story. (Warning: Do not read the synopsis to the third book if you have yet, and want, to read the first two. There are some spoilers.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

OK, Twilight fans, we're in for another treat. Stephenie Meyer announced that she's releasing a short story called The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. Bree was a newborn vampire in Eclipse, so this 200-page story tells about things from her perspective. Meyer says that the short story came in handy for the writers, director and actors in Eclipse, the movie, when they were trying to really get a feel for what newborn life was like.

The physical book will be available for purchase June 5, but Meyer is also offering an electronic copy for free to fans during the month of June. It comes out before Eclipse does, so fans can really learn about Bree before seeing the movie.

Two years ago when I was devouring the Twilight books, I would have about dropped dead from excitement about this news. I'm still excited, but I can tell my fervor over the books has definitely decreased a bit since then. But this book and the movie both coming out in June - makes for a fun month!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Harry Potter Theme Park

If there was ever a reason to have a kid, it's so I can finally get to Disney World (she says, being sarcastic and exaggerating, yet somewhat serious). The idea is even better now that the new Harry Potter Theme Park at Universal Studios will be open. This place looks awesome. Sure, it'll be several years before we get there; the boy has to be old enough to appreciate Disney and Harry. But I'm no less excited. Seriously, look at this place. You can walk by Hogwarts? Have a butter beer in Hogsmeade? Are you kidding? Truly magical.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The book started out a touch slow. The language was a bit cumbersome at first, and the story didn’t hook me instantly. Instead it had to fill the reader in on some background information, and the author decided to do that first, even though it was a bit boring and confusing as to where it was leading. But, once I got about 20 pages in to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was hooked. The story weaves together a wronged journalist, a disturbed 20-something private investigator/researcher and a powerful Swedish family. Together they try to solve a 40-year-old mystery of a missing girl. You wouldn’t think a cold case like this would be that interesting to read about, especially when things take place in the frozen tundra of northern Sweden, but it was, in fact, very engaging.

I enjoyed all the characters. The powerful family, the Vanger’s, have a weave of interesting members and the reader, along with the journalist Blomkvist, get to learn all about their dark little secrets. The mystery is a good one, and while I did suspect the true ending right away, there were still plenty of surprises in store. There are also a few other minor mysteries that weave throughout the main story, and though they’re not quite as interesting, they don’t take away from the enjoyment of the story by any means.

The detailed writing and family mystery reminds me of other authors I enjoy, like Tana French and Stephen Carter. And while the book was pretty graphic in violence, especially violence against women, it wasn’t too harsh that it made me want to put the book down. I have the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the third comes out in May. Both continue to follow Lisbeth, the researcher, and Blomkvist, so I’m very excited to read those, too.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Happy National Reading Day!

In honor of National Reading Day, which is celebrated on or near March 2, the birthday of the popular Dr. Seuss, I ask the following question (a hard one for many, I'm sure): What's your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

Mine would have to be And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. I loved this book when I was little, and I still love the craziness of it. The things he sees! I also love The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, which I remember seeing a play of at the Children's Theatre when I was small. With a baby on the way, I fully expect the classics like Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to take up permanent residence at bedtime.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Three Dog Life

Abigail Thomas (who grew up in Minnesota, by the way) was married to her husband for 12 years when he was hit by a car and suffered from a serious brain injury. He was never the same man again. He lost his short-term memory and was impossible for her to care for on her own. A Three Dog Life is a short memoir made up of quick vignettes about Thomas' life after her husband's accident.

This book was very moving, touching and incredibly sad. While it's not the same situation (Thomas' husband didn't die instantly), it's very reminiscent of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Here are two older women (strong, independent women, I might add) trying to come to terms with their new lives without their husbands and the emotions they feel: sadness, guilt, confusion, numbness...

One of Thomas' ways of coping is to have dogs. She eventually winds up with three and they end up being her lifeblood. When she goes on vacation, she misses them. She sleeps with them. They can read her mind. Anyone who loves dogs knows the kind of connection you can have with those animals, and I'm happy that Thomas had her three dogs to help her through the difficult years of living without and visiting a husband who had a limited memory of their times together.

One chapter in particular was amazing. It focused on Thomas' husband, Rich's, premonition-like ability, even with such a massive brain injury. She describes a time when she was in Mexico and called him at his care facility to see how he is. As she's talking to him, she's staring at the Aztec tiles on the wall. She asks what he did that day and he says, "We painted tiles." Later she asks his caregivers who tell her never in the history of the place have they ever painted tiles. Another time, Thomas is struggling with the thought of selling their apartment in NYC. She hasn't told Rich about this - does he even remember the apartment? And if he did, he wouldn't remember she sold it anyway - but when she arrives to visit him, he tells her he can't go with her because he has to get their apartment ready to sell. In her mind, this was his way of saying, even if he didn't know what he was saying, that it was OK to sell it. The brain (not to mention the mental connection between a couple) is so amazing.

For a quick, albeit sad, read, this memoir is a good one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I can't wait! ( set the DVR and try to find time to watch the rest of the fabulous Glee season while taking care of a newborn...)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Baby Books!

My girlfriends all gathered together this weekend for my baby shower. Part of the theme was books - go figure! Each guest brought along her favorite childhood book to give me (us, the baby). What a selection, and so many I was unfamiliar with, which just shows how many books there are out there and how different everyone's childhood is from everyone else's. Here's what I got:

The Monster at the End of This Book, Sesame Street (thanks Willikat!)

The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton

Pajama Time!, by Sandra Boynton (thanks CMS!)

Clifford the Big Red Dog
, by Norman Bridwell

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown (a complete classic)

Me Too! and I Was So Mad, by Mercer Mayer (I read ALL of these books when I was little.)

Mouse Paint, by Ellen Stoll Walsh (the illustrations are beautiful)

The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams (thanks maega!)

Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever and What People Do All Day (Willikat again)

The Mitten, by Jan Brett

They all make me so happy!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Taking place in 1950s England, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie tells the story of Flavia, a smart, chemistry-loving 11-year-old with no mother and two sisters who ignore her. When Flavia discovers a murder in her garden (which just thrills her, by the way), and her father is taken away, she goes to great lengths to solve the case.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It's a quick, easy read. Flavia is a darling character. She's witty and smart and brave. At times I thought she was a little too witty and too smart - no 11-year-old could really be like that, could she? - but when I just stopped thinking of her as a typical preteen, I could enjoy her character even more. Her inner monologue was hilarious, her chemistry experiments were clever and her intelligence threw for a loop even the smartest men in town. (Her relationship with the Inspector on the case is tons of fun.)

With there being a murder, there is obviously a mystery she's trying to solve. Right in the middle of the book, she gets a great help from her imprisoned father, who has stories from his past he tells her. While I was reading this part of the book, I thought the author was giving too much away, and I thought he was kind of taking the easy way out. Show us, don't just tell us, what happened. But as the story went on, I realized Flavia had much more of the mystery to solve and not too much was given away too soon. This is definitely a cute and fun read, with a sweet ending to boot.

(And thanks to Bending Bookshelf, now I know there's a sequel in the works!)

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Happiness Project, Finale: September-December

For parts I & II.

In September, Rubin decided to pursue a passion: Books. What a perfect topic for me! She took time to try and write a novel - taking a page (ha) from NaNoWriMo. She also vowed to make more time for reading, which made her rethink how much TV she watches. As fellow reader AND TV watcher, I liked that she understood that watching TV with your spouse can be a companion activity, even more so than just reading in the same room. This was shorter chapter because, as one would think, if you already enjoy doing something - here, reading - then it'll probably be pretty easy to do. I can't decide, but maybe she should've picked a different (more complex, challenging?) passion?

In October, she talks about mindfulness. This can be looked at any many ways, whether spiritually or just by paying more attention. But, it did make her look at those "rules" we all create for ourselves (Exercise! Eat right! My children come first!) and reevaluate and maybe rephrase them so they don't seem so overwhelming and impossible to meet every day. This month also made her try new things, such a hypnosis, dancing around the house and portrait drawing. While certain things made her feel more aware, others didn't. As with any passion or new thing we learn, Rubin did become a bit obsessed with happiness - and she realized she could sometimes bully people into taking on their own happiness. Here again she showed some true colors that she could've very easily kept to herself.

November was all about attitude. She wanted to "cultivate a light-hearted, loving and kind spirit." When I read this, I said to myself, 'Maybe this should've come earlier in the year?' It felt like the entire project really boils down to attitude. Maybe in January she should've focused on her attitude and worked on that all year long? Or, does it make more sense to wait until the end? Maybe our attitudes are so hard to change that she needed to warm up with all the other things? In any regard, I find attitude so important. I've found that the days I can "let it go," or just laugh at the annoying and feel happier just because - those are the good days, those are the days I can fall asleep much better at night.

The last month of the year was to practice everything. Rubin also reviewed the year and looked at how things had changed. Was she happier? If so, did her happiness rub off on the rest of the household? While her conclusions were fairly obvious, or just restated from portions of the previous chapters, I still found them rather enlightening.

I've had some discussion with friends about the purpose of this book. I know people who went into reading it expecting more of a "self-help" type of book: Tell me how to find happiness. It's not that. This is one woman telling you her story of a year trying to make herself happier. But the thing is, you don't have to look too deeply to find the lessons. You can very easily take what she learns and apply them to your own life (pay attention, clear clutter, pursue a passion...). Those that work, work. Those that don't, skip. So, in the end, I think Rubin, through memoir, does offer up some self-help - you just have to look for it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Happiness Project, Part II: April-August

For Part I.

In April, Rubin decides to Lighten Up in regards to parenthood. She takes more time for projects with her girls, instead of sighing about the waste of time they may seem to be. She decides to sing more, which not only brightens the household but also helps her keep her cool. She makes an effort to remember that the years really go fast and she needs to cherish each moment with her family. In this chapter, Rubin also showed her less favorable side, but as a parent-to-be it's always nice to know others get frustrated and angry at their children. She also writes about memory, "People remember events better when they fit with their present mood, happy people remember happy events better, and depressed people remember sad events better. Depressed people have as many nice experiences as other people - they just don't recall them as well."

In May, Rubin wanted to Be Serious About Play: have more fun, be silly, stray off the path. One of the best lessons in this chapter was about discovering what she thought was fun. There are plenty of ideas of what sounds fun. Sure, I can imagine that rock climbing or scuba diving could be a blast, but for me, it would be more an entire experience of stress and nervousness. She gives you the permission to realize if reading and watching TV is what's fun for you, that's OK. Don't underrate what you think is fun.

In June, it's all about Friendship. She yearned to remember birthdays, not to gossip and make new friends. Being there for friends can be a very fulfilling lifestyle. Helping them, supporting them, anything can turn around and make you very happy. She writes, "I certainly get more satisfaction out of thinking about good deeds I've done for other people than I do thinking about good deeds others have done for me." I somewhat agree with this, but I also get very warm-hearted when I think of the lovely things my girlfriends do for me. I think it's kind of equal both ways.

July was about money. Can money buy happiness? Rubin finds her answer, but also finds many disagree about this topic. It's another interesting chapter. I like when she gets into "overbuying" and "underbuying." I'm definitely an underbuyer. I don't buy toothpaste until right when we need it. We can be down to one roll of toilet paper before I buy more. We've thought about a membership to Costco, but that would really go against my underbuying personality! However, she points out that sometimes overbuying can be OK because it could mean less trips to the store, less stress about being out of things...

In August, Rubin Contemplated the Heavens. While part of the chapter was about spirituality, it didn't completely focus on that, but also on gratitude and, again, being thankful for what you have. One point she makes that I really responded to was about being excited when people are excited for you. She says she's not easily thrilled. Neither am I. But there are plenty of people around me who get thrilled for me about certain things (ex: baby inside me). Me? I'm always thinking ahead - where will this lead, what will this bring? Perhaps my less-than-thrilled nature makes me seem ungrateful for their excitement. I discovered that's something I could work on.

So, what do you think? Can money buy happiness? Do you get more from doing for others or what others do for you? Are you an overbuyer or an underbuyer? Do you remember happier moments better than sad ones or vice versa? What do you consider fun?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Happiness Project, Part I: January-March

One of my bffs turned me on to Gretchen Rubin's blog The Happiness Project, a blog she started while she was working on her book The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Rubin's blog is interesting; she posts six days a week relevant interviews, thoughts, quotes, etc. that have to do with happiness. I've learned some good lessons from her blog, while other posts aren't quite as helpful. I've gotten off reading it daily recently because I've found she's started to repeat herself a bit, and now that I've read her book, it feels even more redundant. But, for a new reader, it's quite inspirational.

One day as she was sitting on the bus, Rubin asked herself about her happiness. Now, many people could think (including another of my favorites, and probably an opposite of Rubin, Penelope Trunk), "Hey lady, you work from home, have two beautiful girls, a successful husband...what don't you have to be happy about?" And it's kind of true, but then plenty of us have it pretty darn good, but the daily grind and stress of it all can weigh on our true happiness. So, if you can get past that and just hope to learn from her year-long pursuit of happiness, you'll find the book is very good.

As she worked on her happiness, she came up with Twelve Commandments (i.e. "Let it go" or "Identify the problem") and Secrets of Adulthood ("People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think," and "By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished"). She came back to these throughout her year, and I found these were some of the points I loved most and latched onto the most. I also loved that she wasn't a memoirist who had to travel great distances to find happiness. She writes, "I didn't want to reject my life. I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen."

The book is very honest. She doesn't fly over the times she gets frustrated. She doesn't hide that she gets crabby or feels resented. A huge beef for her is doing things for her family and not getting a "gold star." She wants that gold star, but that's not how life is. Reading about her practicing this (to do things and not keep score with her husband) was very interesting and relevant to anyone who is married. We all feel resentful or taken advantage of sometimes, but is it really worth the fight? No. I appreciate the fact that Rubin lets it all hang out.

Each month Rubin worked on a specific goal for her happiness, adding to each month and by the end of the year hopefully doing it all at once. January - Boost energy. This involved sleeping more, exercising more, getting organized. Very obvious New Year's resolution stuff, but as we all know, very practical and stuff that works at making us feel better if we just stick to it. Her tactics for organization and her idea to just act energetic were very inspiring.

February - Remember Love, which hit on nagging, expecting praise, fighting right and showing your love for others. If you're in a serious relationship, this chapter is great, especially if you live together. Rubin was very honest about her relationship with her husband - and it's always interesting to read about other people's relationship. She writes, "It wasn't perversity that kept Jamie from being a sympathetic listener; not only was he constitutionally less oriented to having long heart-to-heart conversations, he also tried to avoid any topic that got me upset, because he found it so painful to see me feeling blue." This I can understand.

March - Aim Higher. This month focuses on her work. She started her blog in March; I find it humorous that this woman who loves reading, writing and taking notes wasn't sure about blogging - she was made to blog! She also tried to learn from failure and ask for help. More important lessons. One goal: Enjoy Now. A paragraph I loved, "It's rare to achieve something that brings unadulterated pleasure without added concerns. Having a baby. Getting a promotion. Buying a house. You look forward to reaching these destinations, but once you've reached them, they bring emotions other than sheer happiness. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals another, yet more challenging goal... The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the atmosphere of growth, in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present."

This post is already pretty long, so I'll write more about the book in another post.