Book Review -- The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

waldman When's the last time you read a romance novel written by a woman with a male main character?

For me, never -- until Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.*

Waldman explores what it's like to be Nate, a young man living and working in the literary world of New York City, as he navigates a dating world fraught with contradictions and comparisons. His pattern: he likes a woman, dates her for a bit, then slowly things unravel due to his behavior.

The unique twist here, is that, none is his behavior is outlandish or unusual. We witness him forgetting to call someone back after a first date, avoiding the "what are we" conversation with a new lover, or slowly fading out of a relationship a few months after it begins. Basically, things that happen all the time, for men and women, but things that are frequently poised as "what men do."

His interactions with one girlfriend serve as a shining example of the old maxim that people want what they can't have, and when they get it, they tired of it easily. With Nate, though, we're given a front row seat to the inner workings of his thoughts and emotions -- as he asks himself why he is losing feeling for someone, as he realizes he's being a bit of an asshole but can't quite make it right, and so on.

See this exchange between Nate and Hannah, the "smart and nice" girl he likes, but not enough. Instead of breaking up with her directly, he gives her the silent treatment, picks fights and eventually finds himself in this conversation:

Nate: "Sometimes I think I've lost something, some capacity to be with another person, something I used to have. I feel pretty fucked, to tell the truth."

Hannah: "I feel like you want to think what you're feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, most average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can't have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere."

What Waldman provides is a different sort of commentary on dating and relationship, on sex and love and attraction. Parts of the novel are, admittedly, kind of sad and the ending isn't a happy or clear one. Regardless of your gender as a reader, you'll recognize many of the situations that Nate finds himself in, and either feel as though you've been in his shoes before or you've been in the role of his romantic interest in question before. For example, this line about people "being the new person versions of themselves: attentive, polite, and good-humored." Who can't relate to that?

We know the games we play in relationships and dating; we know the falsehoods and trap doors; and yet, we aspire to be understood and loved more than we usually aspire to understand and love another person. Nate repeatedly views himself with derision and empathy, with kindness and frustration -- just as we see ourselves in our own lives, and just as we see him as a character in the novel.

Waldman isn't afraid to base dialogues or parts of the story on strong stereotypes, most of which are male-oriented in a us v. them (them being women) theme. Nate's friend, Jason, declares at one point, "As a rule, men want a reason to end a relationship, while women want a reason to keep it going." As a woman, I automatically want to call bullshit on that ... and I will ... but at the same time, I get what he's saying because I've seen that stereotype play out before.

Consider, too, this train of thought Nate has after talking with his only platonic girl friend, Aurit:

"They [Women] were as capable of rational thought; they just didn't appear to be as interested in it. They were happy to apply rational argument to defend what they already believed but unlikely to be swayed by it, not if it conflicted with inclination or, worse, intuition, not if it undercut a cherished opinion or nettled their self-esteem. So many times, when Nate had been arguing with a woman, a point was reached when it became clear that no argument would alter her thinking. Her position was one she 'felt' to be true; it was, as a result, impermeable. Even self-consciously intellectual women seemed to be primarily interested in advocacy, using intellect to serve a cause like feminism or the environment or the welfare of children, or in the interpretation of their own experience. . . . The fact that something made her [Aurit] feel bad was reason enough to reject it. She didn't even like it when Nate mentioned things outside her ken. If he got to talking about philosophers she hadn't read--which is to say, most of them--her face would grow taut, tight-lipped, with a pulsing around the temples, as if Nate, in talking about Nietzsche, were in actuality whipping out his cock and beating her with it."

It's hard to like Nate very much after that passage, and at the same time, you can feel his frustration trying to figure out how to talk to Aurit in the same way he talks to his male friends on certain levels. I think Waldman intends to apply pressure here from Nate's standardized point of view, so that her readers ask themselves, "Is this true? Who do I relate to in this scene, Nate or Aurit, and why?"

Waldman shines the brightest during these little exchanges, all of which serve to underscore her point(s): that relationships are murky and difficult, that man of our gender expectations are confusing or unfair or incorrect, that men have the same anxieties and hesitations as women about dating, that mixed signals continue to be the foundation of many romantic interactions, and that communication in general can be fruitless and challenging when it comes to love.

The best excerpt, which arrives as a cold, sarcastic zinger from Aurit:

"Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You're sizing people up to see if they're worth your time and attention, and they're doing the same to you. It's meritocracy applied to personal life, but there's no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact--to keep from becoming cold and callous--and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn't spent this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again. But who cares, right? It's just girl stuff."

Depressing? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Even though a female author writing for a male character is nothing new, the fact that Waldman specifically explores these topics -- often considered (wrongly) by too many to be the realm of "women's lit" or "chick lit" -- from an unlikable, male character is refreshing.

*If you've read other male-POV books by female authors, please share! I'm sure my experience is limited.

Book Review -- The Goldfinch

tartt The Goldfinch quickly became the must-read novel of 2014, with people adding it to their book lists and Kindles while lamenting the page length or raving about its worthiness of a Pulitzer. Some literary critics deemed it a new "Harry Potter" for adults -- and not in a good way -- that lacked beautiful prose, a sturdy message and well thought-out characters. You can read more about those criticisms here; it's certainly worth asking why a specific book becomes such a hit. (I know I asked it in light of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, for instance!)

Although I write short book reviews on here, I'm not a book critic -- and there's a significant difference between the two. I read things that challenge my normative ways of thinking, educate me, or flat-out interest me for one reason or another. Sometimes I read books that I don't like very much, but I don't usually blog about those unless there's a reason for my distaste that I want to explore. Sometimes you just don't care for a book, even if its popular, and that's okay. (Post to come on that topic!) But I'm not a critic in the sense that I'm reviewing books based on language, form, style, etc. Right now, I'd rather share what I've read, why it speaks to me, and why you might consider reading it, too.

So, The Goldfinch. I never heard of Donna Tartt before this book came out. There are a ton of recommendations about her first book, actually, called A Secret History, that I will likely read one day. Honestly, I'm most amazed at the fact that it took her 11 years to write Goldfinch11 years, people! That's incredible diligence to a concept and a writing project.

Goldfinch starts with Theo Decker, our first-person narrator and protagonist, and follows him throughout the core of his life. At age 13, he lives with his mother in New York City, and adores spending time with her. His mother is beautiful and smart, and his father walked out on them ages ago, so it makes sense he would lean so heavily on his one parental figure.

One day, they stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see his mother's favorite painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (note: this is a real painting). Theo notices two people in the gift shop, a little red-haired girl and an old man, and falls in love with the girl from a distance. Seconds later, a bomb goes off, destroying Theo's life as he knows it. He discovers the same old man in the shattered museum post-explosion, who hands him a ring and a confusing message. In a panic, Theo grabs The Goldfinch off the wall, thinking that's what the man wanted him to do. Once he leaves the museum with the painting, hiding it in his backpack, his life takes a series of twists and turns, and Tartt carries her readers along for the ride.

The focus of the novel isn't that Theo stole a priceless painting; it's more general, in the sense of, what do our small actions add up to over the course of a life? Can one decision made as a child influence and affect all decisions going forward? (Tartt says emphatically, yes.) How do we cope with gigantic loss? Are certain mistakes too big for redemption?

A few favorite quotes:

"What if maybe the opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions--? Where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes--the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right? I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between 'good' and 'bad' as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can't exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing the best I know how. But you--wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking 'what if,' 'what if.' 'Life is cruel.' 'I wish I had died instead of.' Well--think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no--hang on--this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can't get there any other way?"

"Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only--if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things--beautiful things--that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?"

"We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us. We can't escape who we are."

I felt enraptured by the story all the way until the very end, where Tartt turned quite subjective on themes of beauty and art. I don't think is a negative aspect of the novel, but it did make it hard to remain engaged in finishing it -- especially after hundreds and hundreds of pages. If you're interested in reading The Goldfinch, don't rush it. Take your time, enjoy the plot and characters for what they are, and consider the duality of your own choices within the context of your own life. The Goldfinch isn't the best book I've ever read, but it's a very good book, and one worth reading.

Book Review -- Tell the Wolves I'm Home

brunt Carol Rifka Brunt serves up a heart-wrenching, lyrical story in Tell the Wolves I'm Home: June is 14, and in love with her gay uncle, Finn, who happens to dying of AIDS.

June, of course, is horrified by her feelings and tries desperately to hide them. She thinks to herself, "You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not." And, "I know all about love that's too big to stay in a tiny bucket. Splashing out all over the place in the most embarrassing way possible."

Finn and June spend a great deal of time together, and before he passes away (not a spoiler, it happens really soon in the novel), he paints a portrait of June, and her sarcastic older sister, Greta. Upon his death, June is devastated, Greta seems like she could care less, and June's mother simultaneously seems to miss her brother and hold a serious grudge against him. Brunt writes that Finn's death "was like a cassette tape you could never rewind. But it was hard to remember you couldn't rewind it while you were listening to it. And so you'd forget and fall into the music and listen and then, without you even knowing it, the tape would suddenly end."

At Finn's funeral, June notices a man lingering around, and quickly wonders who he is, especially after her mother and father warn her to stay away from him. But the strange man makes himself known to June soon after, and it turns out he is a close friend of Finn's. June has never heard of him, and despite her mother's caution toward him, hesitantly accepts his requests to spend time together. She thought she knew everything about her dear uncle, and it turns out she was wrong.

Meanwhile, the long-forgotten portrait that Finn painted of the two sisters is deemed valuable -- very valuable. This becomes another fact about Finn that June learns: he used to be an incredibly famous painter, who seemingly threw it all away for a life of obscurity many years ago. June's mother hides the painting in a bank vault, but gives both June and Greta keys to the safe.

Life goes on, and June continues to build a friendship with Toby. She remains extremely jealous that Toby knew Finn so well, but hungry to learn all she can, all the while lamenting things like:

"I mean, why did sex have to be so important? Why couldn't people live together, spend their whole lives together, just because they liked each other's company? Just because they liked each other more than than they liked anyone else in the whole world? If you found a person like that you wouldn't have to have sex. You could just hold them, couldn't you? You could sit close to them, nestle into them so you could hear the machine of them churning away. You could press your ear against that person's back, listening to the rhythm of them, knowing that you were both made of the same exact stuff. You could do things like that."

With this relationship, Brunt questions the traditional notions and depictions of connections and love -- she's really asking: why do these things have to constitute the legitimacy of a relationship? Can you ever fully know somebody, and if not, can you really love him or her? 

June's ability to communicate with her sister, Greta, starts to deteriorate once she learns her sister has picked up a destructive habit. June and Greta attempt to communicate their frustration about the past, their sadness over losing Finn, and their difficulty in understanding each other now through the painting -- a series of actions that loop back to their family later on. Toby serves an integral role in June's understanding of Finn as a whole person, and provides a critical helping hand toward the end of the novel, as June attempts to keep her family connected.

In one particularly beautiful scene, Toby and June discuss death and living a full life:

Toby says, "Don't you know? That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the same person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won't care if you die tomorrow."

June replies, "That doesn't make any sense. If you were so happy, then you'd want to stay alive, wouldn't you? You'd want to be alive forever, so you could keep being happy."

Toby responds, "No, no. It's the most unhappy people who want to stay alive, because they think they haven't done everything they wanted to do. They think they haven't had enough time. They feel like they've been shortchanged."

The style of Tell the Wolves I'm Home reminded me a lot of J.S. Foer's Everything Is Illuminated; it also shared some of the core themes: a young protagonist, a mystery to be solved, a significant death in the plot. Just as Foer does, Brunt captures the painful honesty, careless wit and intense affection present in adolescents. I enjoyed it so, so much -- for the unique storytelling and big visuals Brunt offers up, as well as the life lessons I garnered right alongside June. It's exciting that this is Brunt's first novel, because I can't wait to read her work in the future.

Book Review -- The Circle

Dave Eggers' The Circle is a dystopian novel published last fall that presents a world where connecting via social media is taken to new extremes. I noticed it popping up on many reading lists in various magazines and online pieces, so earlier this summer, I finally joined the wait list to borrow it online.* Many, many days later (so many days that I forgot all about it -- this is a popular book for good reason!), I got the notification that it was ready for reading, which timed perfectly with my family's vacation.

Okay, first watch this amazing and eloquent bit by Louis C.K., whose commentary is on par with Egger's theme in this novel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c

Back to The Circle.

Mae Holland is an idealistic, young college graduate who snags a job at The Circle, a prestigious technology company led by the "Three Wise Men." Everybody has heard of The Circle, and to work there means you're set for life, so Mae's family and friends are thrilled and impressed with her luck. Mae feels indebted to her best friend, Annie, who helped her get hired and works as part of the "40" -- the 40 most influential employees at the company.

Mae also works in customer service, but quickly moves up the ranks. The more she works, the more she feels content with her achievements -- except one day, she is called into a meeting and gets in trouble for not responding to a coworker's random online invitation for a get-together. Her boss kindly yet firmly tells Mae that at The Circle, there's an expectation to be active on social media, through the company's multiple platforms and in general. Employee activity is shown through public scoring, and since Mae's scores are quite low, she feels ashamed and is prompted to stay up late liking comments and posts, joining groups and clubs, commenting on boards or discussions -- until her score gains her favor back at work.

Meanwhile, she meets a strange man at an after-work party named Kalden. Mae is immediately attracted to Kalden, but can't find him on social media anywhere, and spends much of the novel trying to either stay away from him or learn more about him. One of the most surprising twists of the novel involves Kalden, so I won't spoil it for you.

When The Circle develops a new technology called SeeChange -- affordable, tiny cameras the size of lollipops that can be stuck anywhere, by anyone, and then viewed through public cameras -- Mae accidentally becomes a spokesperson, delving deeper into the mysteries of the company. Tension escalates at work and at home for Mae as Annie starts to back away from her noteworthy position at The Circle, Mae's parents begin to distance themselves from their daughter, and even Mae's ex-boyfriend, Mercer, refuses to have nothing to do with her. All because of their distaste for The Circle's power and influence. Mae remains quite defensive and thinks The Circle can do no wrong, and toward the end of the novel, must make a decision that will affect both the rest of her life and the company's longevity.

Honestly, I finished this book and felt a mix of fear, sadness and panic.

Eggers clearly uses our current media landscape (i.e., The Circle could easily be Apple or Google) and obsession with documenting personal lives as the basis for The Circle.

Take these quotes, for instance:

  • When Mae stumbles upon Mercer at her parent's house, she realizes she hasn't talked to him on the phone or seen him in months, so she doesn't know what's going on in his life. She immediately chides him for his lack of social media presence. Mercer replies, "You're always looking at me through a hundred other people's eyes."
  • Other Mercer phrases, this time about social media platforms in general (as Mae's antagonist, his voice speaks against everything The Circle represents): "Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication" and "There's this new neediness -- it pervades everything."
  • When Mae speaks onstage during a Circle presentation, and her social profile is presented without permission, she feels uncomfortable, and then struggles to explain why: "Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted."

I normally love to underline and highlight quotes in novels, but there were so many moments like the ones listed above, I almost couldn't. Almost on every page, I thought, Holy shit, this could actually happen. There's a specific scene where Mae goes out kayaking, and then casually mentions the experience to her boss, and basically gets yelled at and called selfish for not taking pictures of the water, not joining a kayaking club -- essentially, for not sharing it and simply enjoying it.

In today's world where everything can be instantaneously 'grammed, tweeted, Facebooked, Vine'd, blogged, etc., it's precious to realize that an experience doesn't have to be captured to be worthwhile.

Eggers writes, "You know how you finish a bag of chips and you hate yourself? You know you've done nothing good for yourself. That's the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished."

His entire novel is a loud warning: the way we're connecting online, the way we're ignoring the sanctity of personal privacy, is not sustainable and will destroy us. Think today's 1984. Read The Circle, consider the role of the Internet and social media in your life, and then back ever so slightly away from the glowing screens -- get outside, speak to someone you love in person, ignore your phone for a while.

ALSO Dave Eggers co-wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are, so, there's that.

*If you have a Kindle and aren't using some sort of online version of your library (in Iowa, it's WILBOR), do it now!

Book Review -- A Visit from the Goon Squad

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan goon squad

Jennifer Egan's writing chops dazzle in A Visit from the Goon Squad, but she's also incredibly interesting as an author and person -- click on the link to learn more about her. This is her fourth novel, supposedly completely different stylistically from the previous three (though I haven't read them), and it's one that has been on my to-read list for quite some time.

Goon Squad is loosely set in the music industry, with 13 chapters that fit together like a haphazard puzzle. Each chapter could easily function as its own short story, the kind without a clear, tidy ending but powerful all the same.

However, as you move through the text, you start to piece together the many characters. It almost reminds me of those choose your own ending books, except it's more like figure out who is who. For example, you might get a glimpse of a character in chapter 1, and then in chapter 7 you're like, Oh! Is that so-and-so from earlier? Pause. Go back. Reread section. Ok, so that was her husband/she's his assistant/they knew each other in high school.

Egan also plays with perspective and form. Each chapter shifts into the viewpoint of someone mentioned in the previous one -- sometimes the connection is immediately obvious, sometimes Egan is purposefully vague and makes you work for it and you're 2/3 through the chapter before you understand. Most of the chapters are straight up essays of varying lengths, but one is in magazine article form, another is like a PowerPoint presentation, and so on.

Back to the characters: there are a lot, which can be confusing, but I really enjoyed the challenge of keeping track.

Here's a short overview:

  • Sasha, a producer's assistant who steals compulsively from every person who crosses her path, including an innocent blind date
  • Bennie, a divorced father desperately trying to reconnect with his son who constantly reminisces about his high school days
  • Rhea, a teenager maneuvering high school with her close knit group of friends, who follows her best friend down a scary path of exploited innocence
  • Rolph, a boy on safari vacation with his father, Lou, who accidentally shares a destructive secret in an attempt to win Lou's affection
  • Jocelyn, a middle-aged woman who visits an older, dying friend in the hospital and mourns the death of her former love
  • Scotty, a semi-crazy, washed up musician seeking redemption in the form of a comeback
  • Stephanie, a rich housewife trying to navigate the social perils of her new hometown while hanging onto her job and taking care of her brother who just got out of prison
  • Dolly, a once-famous editor who takes a morally questionable assignment in an effort to win back the respect of her snobby daughter
  • Jules, a writer who goes too far while interviewing a beautiful actress
  • Rob, a man with a secret and penchant for depression
  • Ted, an uncle who goes searching for his niece after she disappears
  • Alison, a little girl who uses presentations to help her parents reconnect with her autistic brother
  • Alex, a cash-strapped  husband and father who commits to a shaky business deal

It's neat how Egan basically takes vibrant characters and doles out them out in tiny pieces throughout the text. Just like in real life, you don't know everything about someone you meet up front, but as time goes on, you learn or are given more bits of their story.

The primary theme present in Goon Squad involves the twists and turns of a life in general, how people weave in and out of each other's with no real intention. Egan explores the power and fluidity of perception, how your relationship to a person influences what you know about him or her, and how it's human nature to make assumptions about the people we know and don't know, as they are right now and as we assume they will be in the future.

Goon Squad was an excellent read, and I look forward to catching up with Egan's other works.

Book Review -- The Husband's Secret

Book Review -- The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty husbands secret

 

A friend of mine recommended this book months ago, and then I saw it pop up on all kinds of reading lists. Confession: I have a love/hate relationship with fiction like this, what's often deemed "chick lit." I love that many of these books are generally quick, interesting reads with well-developed characters and plotlines; I hate that some of these books either suck completely or are what I call "fluffy books." Whipped cream for my brain, if you will.

Fluffy books are like dessert. An absolutely delicious indulgence and frequently unsubstantial. While I always select a few fluffy books for vacation or reading outside by the pool (because it's fun, and life without dessert is lame), I honestly prefer to spend my time reading things that make me think, feel or learn something.

So back to The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty -- I definitely judged the book by its title, deeming it fluff material, and then I rented it from the library and could. not. put. it. down. I read the whole thing in a day -- outside on the porch, on the couch with a sleeping Stanley on my lap, while making dinner, while eating dinner. We had plans to watch a movie that Sunday night, per the usual Sunday plan, and I obnoxiously kept sneaking glances at chapters just to find out what would happen next. Then I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it because, I mean, I was 67% done according to my kindle and knew I could polish it off.

Then I dreamed about the story that night and thought about the characters the whole next day. That's how you know a book is good, my friends.

The Husband's Secret begins with Cecelia Fitzpatrick, who is the epitome of a stereotypical woman who "has it all" three beautiful children, a popular husband who was the crush of all her friends back in high school, a successful Tupperware business, a huge home. She's actively involved in her children's lives and schooling as well as the school parish, and she serves as the always-put-together know-it-all of their small town in Sydney, Australia. One day, Cecelia discovers a letter written by John-Paul, her husband, directed to be opened by her upon his death. She asks him about it, and he responds with uncharacteristic anxiety, asking her never to open it. Of course (obvious spoiler alert), she does, and the contents rock her safe world as she knows it.

Rachel Crowley runs the parish school that the Fitzpatrick children attend. Years ago, Rachel's teenage daughter, Janie, was mysteriously murdered and the case was never solved, which haunts her to this day and causes everyone around her to treat her with kid gloves. Her remaining shining light is her grandson, whom she adores. When she learns that her son, whom she isn't close to, and his wife are moving to America, taking her grandson with them, she is crushed. Rachel embarks on a vendetta to solve Janie's murder, focusing on the man she always thought was to blame -- Connor, the high school gym teacher at the parish school who went to grade school with her daughter and was the last person to see her alive.

Tess O'Leary runs a creative advertising agency in Melbourne with her dear husband, Will, and best friend/cousin, Felicity. Tess loves working with her two favorite people during the day, and then coming home to peaceful domestic life with Will and their young son at night. That is, until she learns that Felicity and Will are having an affair. Horrified, Tess flees with her son to Sydney, her hometown, to cope and also care for her mother. She struggles to make sense of the affair, enrolls her son in the local parish school and runs into a former flame.

As you can see, these three plots eventually tie up together, which is one of my favorite narrative devices, but they focus on substantial issues and questions on their own. Cecelia ponders what it means to have a "good life," how to make sense of the reality that you can't know everything about your partner, why good people make bad decisions -- and how long they should be punished.

Rachel's palpable portrayal of grief emphasizes how people who experience tragedy want answers and someone to blame no matter what's true. That's shown in her distance toward her son and dislike of her daughter-in-law. Rachel can hardly bear her own pain, so she avoids her son, and she despises her daughter-in-law for merely existing since her real daughter no longer does. She is determined to be right at any cost about who killed Janie, but how far does one go for justice?

Tess tries to sort out how to cope with someone else's choices, ones that have created chaos out of nowhere in her life. She also explores issues of betrayal and revenge. If Will hurt her, should she hurt him back? Can she start over, and does she want to? How do you forgive infidelity, emotional or physical, by the people you love most?

All three characters figure out how to forgive in order to move forward in their lives -- and each choice is different, making a case for various perspectives. Should we always forgive the people we love? Is anything unforgivable? Does honesty always win out as the best option, or are some things left buried?

Moriarty serves up some huge questions in this tale of three women and the secrets involved in their lives. I especially appreciated her refusal to provide a happy-ever-after; the most interesting aspect of the book's conclusion is that fact that you're not quite sure who made the right decision. It's all fluid -- much like life.

Book Review -- The Lowland

Book Review -- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri the lowland

In The Lowland, we meet two brothers growing up in 1960s Calcutta: Udayan, the idealistic, younger brother who takes risks and gets himself into trouble, and Subhash, the quiet, responsible older brother constantly seeking parental approval. As the two boys grow up, they grow apart, as siblings often do. Udayan finds himself pulled into India's uprising Naxilite movement while he continues to make non-traditional choices to defy his parents. Subhash, who feels like his parents prefer his younger brother, throws himself into intellectual study and eventually pursues a degree in the States.

Though they are worlds away, Subhash learns of his brother's life through intermittent letters: Udayan has married a woman of his own choice, Gauri, and it remains unclear how involved he is in the continual political violence and drama dotting Calcutta. Subhash, in the meantime, navigates his new life in Rhode Island, his studies and a new romantic affair.

And then Jhumpa Lahiri drives a knife into her plot: Udayan has been killed.

Subhash returns home, seeking answers as to what happened and why. His parents, full of grief, remain withdrawn during his visit and refuse to explain the details. Yet, Gauri -- a new widow pregnant with Udayan's child -- tells him the whole story. In a shocking rush to honor his brother and protect his sister-in-law, he marries Gauri and they return to the U.S. in an attempt to live a patched together life.

This is where the story really begins, and Lahiri's writing shines. Her ability to portray multiple landscapes in fine detail, as well as the emotional richness of each character, pulls you in. Some aspects felt unfulfilling to me as a reader, like when Gauri makes a series of unexpectedly harsh choices that detach her from life with Subhash and her daughter, Bela; yet, such a character is a reminder that there are often people in our lives that feel unknowable, people who make decisions seemingly without regard for familial obligation or even love.

Lahiri offers gradual changes in perspective: the first half of the novel alternates between Subdash and Gauri, and then toward the end, we finally piece together some answers through the narratives of previous events by Subdash's mother and even Udayan. But what I appreciate best in The Lowland is Lahiri's insistence on the grittiness of belonging to one another. Subdash believes he is doing the right thing in raising Bela as his own, a choice that backfires in ways that he couldn't have foreseen. Gauri represents the trapped sensation of living a life she did not choose for herself, a life that happened due to events entirely outside of her control. Udayan explores the siren song of youth: how to change one's world despite not knowing how your efforts could spin out. All characters experience guilt, fear and the complexity of moving forward despite a charged past.

And to be sure, Lahiri provides a detailed look at a set of cultural values that are broken and mended against a backdrop of a period in India's history, which is complicated and difficult. Overall, she writes with emotion about the ways in which one event can spin and construct multiple lives for years to come, and how to cope with the resulting outcomes.

Book Review -- Quiet: The Power of Introverts

Book Review -- Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain Quiet

It's a long-standing joke in my family that when I was little, I never stopped talking. I talked to the mailman (even inviting him into our house), the neighbor, the check-out clerk, kids in my ballet class, etc. There are home videos wherein my mom keeps asking my little sister questions, and I respond rapidly. For her. In fact, my parents were a little worried for a while because said little sister didn't talk very much--that is, until the doctor met me, chuckled, and pretty much said that it was because I already did all the talking for the both of us.

I was also a dreamer and a reader and a writer as a child, passions that have stuck with me over the years and sometimes cause me to seem much more "quiet" than I actually am. In college, I worked three part-time jobs and was the president of my sorority, but at the same time, absolutely loved staying home on a Friday night, by myself, in my room. I discovered a love for communications work, particularly the behind-the-scenes stuff--the writing, the editing, the designing--though I never minded presentations or speaking in front of colleagues. I adored the pace and energy of big cities, but simultaneously appreciated the calm peace of smaller towns. And even now, I love meeting new people and trying new things, but I also am a homebody who likes quiet routine and structure.

So when I picked up Quiet, I was intrigued by Susan Cain's arguments supporting introversion as a powerful tool in today's society. She claims that most people are a mix of introverted and extroverted qualities, not simply one or the other (which seems sort of obvious to me, because people in general don't fall in black and white categories like that...but ok, carry on). She basically says that introverts get the shaft much of the time in terms of preferred personalities. That in today's society, to be successful, one often has to self-promote with loudness and confidence at all times, maintaining all sorts of relationships, etc. Cain thinks that in all sorts of personal and professional situations, outgoing translates to positive characteristics (she's fun, he's friendly, she's successful, he's powerful) while being more quiet or introverted is linked with negative characteristics (she's shy, he's stuck up, she's indifferent, he's hesitant). Cain doesn't think that is fair, and spends much of Quiet explicating why introversion can be a great, powerful tool in one's arsenal.

Cain shines the most when describing what specifically makes someone act in an introverted way. For example, she writes, "Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions." (11)

Now, you could read that paragraph and have a few different reactions: 1) Sure, I know someone like that, 2) I feel that way once in a while! or 3) OMG she is describing ME. And I think that's what Cain is going for most of the time. She shares all sorts of personal anecdotes about the ways in which she overcame her own shyness and quietness to succeed in work or relationships or life, and I think for many readers, her words will prove inspiring. Really, anyone who has ever felt like they were weird or not good enough or lacking confidence due to having any mix of introversion as part of their personality will probably enjoy reading what Cain has to say. Quiet is a self-help tome in that it encourages people to look beyond personality labels, acknowledge their strengths and address their weaknesses in order to live a fulfilling, successful life.

For example, if you've commonly associated shyness with introversion, Cain breaks it down differently: "Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating." (11)

If you've associated good leadership with extroverted folks only, Cain disagrees: "We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run. . . . Extroverted leaders might enhance group performance when employees are passive, but introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. . . Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions." (55-57)

If you consider yourself more of an introvert, and feel pressured to act otherwise, Cain says: "Stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don't force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way." (173)

And so on.

I did like Quiet, and Cain makes observations that ring true to the introverted side of me. I love to be social and connected, but I can physically tell when I've maxed out in terms of social presence or interaction and need time to regroup, often alone. I've learned to prepare for an "out"--for example, I tend to avoid going to major social events with other people, because then I can leave as soon as I reach my "max-out" level, instead of feeling zapped and frustrated while waiting for my ride to finish their conversations. That's not an introvert being rude; that's simply knowing your social limits.

In addition, my parents have taught me how to prep for the constant stream of small talk required by, well, regular life. Both of them are social in their own ways. My mother's default mode is talking and she adores being around people, particularly those she loves; she thrives on interaction and connection. My father, conversely, is more quiet-natured, yet  25+ years of police and detective work have honed his conversation skills. My dad is the guy that everybody knows, and everybody wants to chat with for a few minutes. This combination means that I literally can't go to the grocery store with my parents without stopping to speak with at least five different people. When I was younger, I often felt like I was about to scream; it felt like these conversations took forever. Now that I'm older (and more mature), I recognize that this feeling of stress is my introverted side getting exhausted--I'm happy to say hi to someone I know when I run into them, but I usually don't have the emotional capacity to do that five times in a row when I'm trying to run an errand. I realize how rude that can come across, however, and of course I enjoy seeing people I know. So now, I take a moment to prep myself when I'm heading out the door to a place where I will likely have several run-ins of the small talk variety.

Quiet also encourages readers to ask themselves questions like, "How am I introverted, and how I am not? When do I fall back on my introverted tendencies, and when do I push through? Do I make assumptions about others based on how introverted or extraverted they seem?" These questions are worth considering, and Cain does an excellent job of sharing her personal journey and sets of facts regarding, as she puts it, the power of introverts.

Book Review -- Dark Places

Book Review – Dark Places by Gillian Flynn Dark Places

Have you noticed that all of Gillian Flynn's novels have two-word titles? Dark Places. Gone Girl. Sharp Objects. Gotta love a writer with that kind of attention to detail.

I devoured Gone Girl over the summer in a matter of days; I read it before bedtime (and sufficiently creeped myself out), by the pool, on the couch . . . I couldn't put it down. Apparently I didn't write a review about it, though. Just go read it. Or you can wait for the movie this October. Or do both.

So when I checked out Dark Places, I knew I was in for a thriller with all kinds of twists and turns, since Flynn is now becoming well-known for producing compelling mysteries with a touch of the grotesque and absurd.

Dark Places opens with a nursery rhyme about a little girl whose Satanic brother killed her sisters and her mother--yet the young seven-year-old child manages to escape alive. Fast-forward twenty-five years, and we meet that little girl: Libby Day, our unlikable protagonist. She is mean, sharp and hateful, and she likes being that way. Libby has also benefited from the sympathy of the general public over the years, but now, her funds have run out. She considers getting a job (and then basically considers suicide at the thought of a desk job), until she discovers an unusual group called the Kill Club, comprised of amateur investigators obsessed with various famous murders--such as the Day family. Libby meets with the group in order to pay her bills, a few hundred dollars for an old note from her dead sister. The group is convinced that Libby's brother is innocent,despite his life sentence in jail, and they believe that the murder remains to be solved.

Libby could care less what they all think; she knows her brother did it. Or does she? Her sense of certainty slowly unravels as the Kill Club points her in different directions, opening up all kinds of angles about the brother and mother she thought she knew, and that terrible night so long ago.

As readers, we dive back and forth between three points of view--Libby, Patty (her mother) and Ben (her brother)--spanning the present moment and the days surrounding the murders. I really love this type of narrative structure because it's hard to find a good stopping point; you know that the next chapter holds more crucial information and your eyes want to run across the pages just to discover the missing links in the story. Though I predicted certain parts of the ending, I appreciated Flynn's ability to surprise and insistence on the concept that it's impossible to fully know the people you love--even your family.

AND I just learned that Dark Places is also going to be a film with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult and Christina Hendricks. Awesome.

Now we all need to read Sharp Objects to round out Flynn's repertoire.

 

 

Book Review -- Lean In

Book Review -- Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg Lean In

Lean In has been on my to-read list for quite some time now, primarily because it received a ton of coverage and critical review in the press: see here, here, here, here and here. (And that's just a tiny sampling via one Google search.) I'd love to assume that most people know who Sheryl Sandberg is, but if not, the quick backstory is that she famously became the COO of Facebook in 2013. She previously worked as the VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, and before that, as the chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. In late 2010, she appeared as a TEDx speaker, and spoke about the lack of female leaders in the workplace. Over the next few years, Sandberg gave multiple keynote speeches at various universities, which eventually led to the publication of Lean In in March 2013. Okay, now you're all caught up.

If you clicked on any of the above articles, then you'll quickly glimpse the unbelievable amount of criticism regarding Lean In. This is a book that got EVERYONE talking, and the conversation typically fell in one of two camps: 1. Lean In is the best assessment of barriers currently faced by women in the workplace and gender roles as related to the work/home balance for women; it also offers advice to encourage women to pursue and accept vocal and visible leadership roles. Or, 2. Lean In is an elitist account of one privileged women's journey to power; it is neither helpful nor accurate to the average woman.

My opinion: it is both.

Sandberg utilized a great deal of fact-based research related to the issues of Camp #1, and I certainly appreciated reading all of it. I think much of the content in Lean In can be a resource for women in any career field, and while some critics say, "What about the stay-at-home or nonworking women?" -- Okay, she clearly has a targeted audience here, and it is women in the workplace. That is not all women by any means; it is a particular subset that she considers herself a part of, and chose to share her experience to that specific group. On a related note, Sandberg says repeatedly that she is speaking from her personal perspective and experiences and observations. Like, it's almost distracting to the reader how often she makes this disclaimer. She absolutely has the means to make some luxurious choices, and properly acknowledges that reality; i.e., she had and has the money to hire help at home and with her kids, so that she can "lean in" as much as possible, and those choices are not feasible for many women in different socio-economical brackets. Sandberg expressly notes that while her words are hopefully heard by all women, they may only resonate with a certain section of that population, but she hopes her experience, if not her research, sheds light on common issues for women in the workplace FOR men as well.

Here's an example in the opening pages of Lean In that shows how Sandberg utilizes research and then delves into her own frustrations: "A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past achievements. . . . We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives--the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for our partners and children who may not even exist yet." (8-9)

Chapter one highlights the gap between leadership and ambitious, as Sandberg asks women to consider what they would do, career-wise, if they weren't afraid. She says, "Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter." (23-24) Her advice in the face of that fear is for women to be aspire to become leaders in their respective fields, which will enable them to be ambitious in pursuing their dreams as well. In chapter two, Sandberg notes how frequently women act like observers rather than participants at work, due to the fears mentioned above as well as imposter syndrome. That catchphrase is getting a lot of attention right now, but it basically occurs when capable people, usually women, are plagued by self-doubt and feel like a fraud--that they aren't good enough and sooner or later, everyone else will realize it too. These sentiments are powerfully defeating to many women, and to push back, Sandberg says that she feels a responsibility as a female leader to ask other women directly what they think, in order to remind them that they have the right to speak up, and they should. She says, "It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do." (35) Think about all the meetings you attend in your own career: do you participate or observe? Do you speak up? And if you are observing more often than participating, what are you afraid of? Another memorable example that Sandberg shares in this chapter goes like this: she hears a great speaker, and raises her hand to ask a question after the speech. The speaker says, "No more questions," and she puts her hand down. However, the men in the audience keep their hands up--and the speaker calls on them to answer their questions. Sandberg's takeaway? Keep your hand up.

Next, Sandberg tackles the ever-present issue of success and likeability for women versus men: "If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she's highly competent, if she focuses on results rather than pleasing others, she's acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her. . . . If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women." (41, 43) She proposes that women combine niceness with insistence, and approach negotiation as solving a problem rather than taking a critical stance. She also notes that Mark Zuckerberg told her that if she was pleasing everyone, she wasn't making enough progress.

Let me pause for a moment and ask: do men worry about this at ALL?

The next few chapters cover more "How To" sort of topics, such as: how to keep a career alive and evolving (Sandberg: maintain a long-term and 18-month dream, so you can be focused and flexible); how to find a mentor (Sandberg: don't force it, find mutual interests and develop relationships based upon that, be gracious with your mentor's time, opposite-sex mentor relationships can indeed exist, etc.); how to speak your truth in a way that builds constructive relationships at work (Sandberg: use simple, authentic language to directly address issues with compassion; acknowledge the feelings of others even if you don't agree; remember that actions are perceived in so many different ways; speak openly about weaknesses and utilize humor to share emotions)

And then Sandberg delves into perhaps the most engaging part of Lean In, for me. She tells women, don't leave before you leave. I thought, Huh? Upon reading that, but it's actually a critical point. Sandberg writes, "By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals. When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates." (92) Twice as likely! In college, which is sometimes WAY before female students are even having those marriages and families! This is a post for another day, but think about: don't leave before you leave. Don't sell yourself short on career opportunities for relationship dreams or goals that have not yet materialized. (For a later post: I find this fascinating, because obviously once one has a family, it's important to find a balance between prioritizing what is best for that family, and one's career (and your partner's career, if that's part of the situation, too). And on the opposite side of the coin,  some women actively and happily decline a traditional career in favor of family life, and that is amazing in its own right. So much to unpack there.) Sandberg does view partnerships as critical to workplace success, and encourages women balancing career and parenting to treat their partner (again, she assumes a two-parent situation here, because that's what she has experienced) as equally capable. She notes that it's really easy to fall into gender bias at home, because most people don't discuss how to divvy out chores, but there are always opportunities to adjust the balance of who does what, so that it's not men handling the finances and women taking care of the kids. (Unless that's what you want. Geez, I'm now experiencing the tiniest sliver of how Sandberg must have felt writing this. Disclaimers nonstop!)

My favorite part of this chapter: "When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is to date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects to or, even better, wants, to do his share in the home. These men exist and, trust me, over time, nothing is sexier." (115) Heck yeah.

Sandberg also discusses the challenges she's faced as being labeled a "female" CEO instead of just a "CEO," why she started thinking about writing this book in general and how talking about women in the workplace started to become "her thing." She also calls herself a feminist, and laments the negative connotation surrounding that word nowadays. One of her statistics in this section states that only 24% of women in the U.S. would call themselves a feminist, but if feminist is defined as "believing in social, political and economic equality of the sexes," that number then jumps to 65%. (158) So, three times as many women would call themselves a feminist upon being presented with an actual definition of the word. (Another post for a later day: there are endless definitions of "feminism," so I think that's part of general female reluctance to label oneself as such.)

Finally, Sandberg confronts the age-old myth of "doing it all." She concludes, "If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them." (139)

If you haven't yet read Lean In, check it out. You're bound to learn something new, and whether you agree or disagree with Sandberg's perspective, many of the questions she raises as well as the research she shares serves as important reading for any career-oriented person.

 

Book Review -- Daring Greatly: Part 2

Book Review, Part 2 – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown Have you ever read or experienced something, and then it seems linked to everything you encounter? And you are fascinated by it so much that you completely geek out, annoying everyone around you because you're talking about it nonstop? I LOVE when this happens, and the last few times were as follows:

  • my undergraduate honors project on how travel has the ability to foster deeper spirituality for young adults
  • living in Chicago (I don't live there anymore, and I still read Chicago bloggers, local publications, and the Sun-Times)
  • my master's degree in religion and literature, focusing on religious themes in 20th century texts (everyone: huh? what does that mean, and what do you do with it?)
  • yoga in general, how it can benefit one's body, mind and soul
  • certain authors, such as Tolstoy, Cheryl Strayed, George Saunders, Elizabeth Gilbert, J.S. Foer, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf & more, because their words resonate

And now, Brené Brown, with whom I have a small obsession.

Brene Brown

I read her stuff and think UGHHHH YES/WHOA/WHAT in a delightful way; I want to share it with everyone around me because I think it's so powerful. It's taken me almost two months to complete Daring Greatly, which is basically unheard of in my reading world. As I said in part 1 of this review, it's a book that I wanted to read slowly because so much insightful material is packed into each page. I can't tell you how many times I'm reading/watching/having a conversation and think, "Well, Brené would say..." as if she is a real, live person in my life.

Picking up where we left off, chapter 5 discusses how we might close the disengagement divide in order to cultivate change. Brown says we need to "mind the gap," meaning, we need to "pay attention to the space between where we're standing and where we want to go." (173). People become disengaged when they see social contracts being violated left and right--at home, at work, at school, at church and in politics--by people who are essentially not living by the same values they're promoting, or people who are pushing for change in an area or way that doesn't or won't affect them. The result? We disengage as parents, partners, employees, leaders, teachers, students, congregants, voters; we disengage at all ages and at all levels.

Brown's solution is that we mind the gap between aspirational and practiced values. It's really easy to miss that step: you tell your kids to be honest, but then they hear you tell a lie. You ask your spouse to be more affectionate, and then bat him or her away at the first effort. You lament the lack of respect from your coworkers, but never take the time to have a conversation with any of them. It happens over and over, and we often don't realize we are doing it, or we don't know how to bridge this gap. Brown says, quite simply, that we just need to acknowledge where we're lacking and actually have a conversation about the fact that these gaps exist. It's a matter of saying, "I did tell a lie, and I won't do that again" or "It's hard for me to accept your affection since it's been lacking for so long" or "It might seem like I don't care to get to know you, and that's not true--want to go to lunch?" And so on.

Continuing in a similar vein, Brown offers a few other alternatives for how to rehumanize education and work environments. She calls upon leaders--defined as anyone who holds her or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes--to focus on two areas: where shame permeats a culture and how feedback is encouraged, delivered and accepted.

Brown notes that most people don't think shame exists in their offices, schools or homes. They're wrong. Shaming behavior is everywhere, and when it's allowed to persist, people stop showing up, contributing and caring. Try to think of a time you felt belitted by another person's comment or action--you weren't invited to the lunch party with coworkers, your boss cut you off in the meeting, your client said that your work sucked, your teacher told you that you weren't smart/creative/funny, your partner made fun of something you said . . . there are a million ways shaming tactics can and are used with one another, and it destroys both relationships and companies. I view this as a classic case of "Not A Big Deal" syndrome: small, minor events or issues that "aren't a big deal," but still promote negativity or hurt or miscommunication, and because of that fact, slowly erode trust and connection. All those little examples above, on their own, once in a while, are "Not A Big Deal." But over time, those small things add up to something much bigger, and much more profoundly detrimental.

To combat this, Brown does suggest that we invite open discussions by starting with feedback. Is it delivered with empathy and respect? Is it lengthy and behind one's back, or short and directly to one's face? Does it even happen, or is it avoided? How do you feel when you give, and receive, feedback?

Well, most of us don't want feedback in the first place. We want to look good, and we want to feel good, and criticism (no matter how "constructive" it seems) doesn't often create either of those results. Obviously without feedback, it's hard to grow, so Brown presents a multitude of ways to improve the feedback process: sit at the same side of the table, listen rather than jumping to respond, breathe deeply, identify three observable strengths and then one opportunity for growth, etc.

Finally, Brown addresses what it means to be a wholehearted parent. She asks, "Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?" I'm not a parent yet, but I see frequently (and in the media) how critical parents are of one another's choices (I'd venture to say it's more heightened for women as well). Brown says, "Certainty often breeds absolutes, intolerance and judgment. that's why parents are so critical--we latch onto a method or approach and very quickly our way becomes the way." (215)

She continues: "What we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that either will require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth or will give us hope, courage, and resilience for our journey." (217)

Really, one of the most important things a parent can do in Brown's opinion is to be engaged with their children. She references Maya Angelou's line about "having your face light up when you see the people you love." To Brown, "Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories. . . . Most of us have so many competing demands on our time that it's easy to think, I can't sacrifice three hours to sit down and review my son's Facebook page or sit with my daughter while she explains every detail of the fourth grade science fair scandal. . . . [but] when we are fully engaged in parenting, regardless of how imperfect, vulnerable and messy it is, we are creating something sacred." (237)

Brown also asks parents to let kids struggle, so that they may learn from challenge and adversity as well as strengthen their ability to hope. She writes, "Hope happens when we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go)we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I'm persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again), and we believe in ourselves (I can do this!). Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. Hope is Plan B. (239)

To conclude, Brown states, powerfully: "Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It's about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It's even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life . . . I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen." (249)

Don't stand on the outside of your life and wonder what it could be like. Brown asks that we dare greatly to show up and live that very life to the fullest. I couldn't agree more.

Blogtember: Book Review -- The Cuckoo's Calling

Tuesday, September 24: Review a book, place, or product. How convenient! I just finished The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling.

CuckoosCallingCover

First, I find it so interesting that Rowling pursued a pseudonym in this day and age; I know that occurred much more frequently in the past for female writers, but I can't think of a single other female writer that wouldn't use her now-famous name. Not to mention that the tone of the author was decidedly male even as third person perspective shifted between key characters . I would not have known that Rowling wrote it, and that was probably one of her goals for her readers since her name is so tied to the Harry Potter series and world.

The tale begins with a cliffhanger: Lula "Cuckoo" Landry, a beautiful celebrity and model, has been found crumpled on the ground dead outside of her luxurious apartment balcony. The police, media and everyone else all presume that she committed suicide by jumping; a classic story of youth and wealth and depression and drugs. Yet, her older brother, Bristow, claims it was murder, so he decides to hire Comoran Strike, a war veteran and lapsed private detective, to find Lula's real killer. Strike quickly enlists the help of his temporary secretary, the bright, young Robin, as they work to unravel what truly happened the night of Lula's death--and who in Lula's exclusive social circle or tattered family tree may have wanted her dead.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is great with tons of twists and turns to keep the reader interested. Rowling is also a master of character development, so she easily brings to life each individual in the story. I wouldn't say I loved it, but it certainly kept me entertained as an excellent crime/mystery fictional book.

Blogtember

Book Review -- Daring Greatly: Part 1

Book Review, Part 1 -- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown Daring Greatly

Brené Brown is an American author, scholar and public speaker who focuses on the topics of vulnerability, courage, authenticity, empathy and shame, and works as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability has more than 10 million views, and her work has been featured on NPR, PBS, CNN as well as published in a number of books. Daring Greatly comes in at 250+ pages, so I decided to break my review into two sections. It's definitely one of those reads that you can do a little at a time, since there is just so much to digest. I don't say this next part lightly: I'll likely recommend this book to every single person I know. Brown's theories of shame and vulnerability are rich with insight from a personal and professional perspective; she provides a ton of research in an approachable way as well as compelling anecdotes from her own studies and personal life.

She begins with an explanation of what it means to "dare greatly" and provides detailed background regarding how she stumbled onto vulnerability and shame research. The next four chapters of Daring Greatly focus on scarcity and the culture of "never enough," debunking vulnerability myths, understanding and combating shame and types of vulnerability armor. Brown writes, "When we spend our lives waiting until we're perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, and we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make." (2) This is page two, folks; Brown is serious about the fact that a life worth living must include risk and vulnerability, no matter how scary or difficult that can be. She says that people spend "inordinate amounts of times calculating how much we have, want and don't have" in comparison to everyone else, from money to love. The engine of today's culture runs on principles of scarcity, for good or bad, but everything productive and lasting that we all want to do--build relationships, raise families, run organizations, nurture communities--is "fundamentally opposite" to such norms and consequently requires daily "awareness, commitment and work." (26, 29)

According to Brown, there are several myths about vulnerability. First, we think it is a weakness and/or something we can ignore or get out of entirely. Second, we think that vulnerability means "letting it all hang out" for anyone to see and criticize. Finally, we think vulnerability is something we can do alone. Brown's response: uh, no. She doesn't think any of those ideas are true, and bluntly explains why. She writes, "Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we're taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there's no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness." (32) Think about the last part for a second--when I consider the people I know who do those things (take risks, brave uncertainty, open up emotionally), I view them with respect. I wonder how they do it, and I ask to hear their story. Brown basically asks us to rewrite the script on the values associated with vulnerability, and positions it as a trait of strength, saying that it "sounds like truth and feels like courage." (36) Is vulnerability comfortable? No. But the sooner we accept that, the quicker we reap the benefits of being vulnerable with ourselves and others.

Those benefits include "love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, creativity, hope, accountability, authenticity . . .  greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives." (33) Brown argues that no matter what, human beings want all of the above for a fulfilling life, so that's why we can't opt out of vulnerability no matter how hard we try. And Brown thinks that we reject vulnerability because we associate it with  "dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment--emotions that we don't want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead." (33) We will always face uncertainty and risk, which tend to bring up such emotions, but we can't make them disappear--we can only choose how we're going to respond.

One of my favorite passages in this section discusses what Brown calls her "kitchen-sink self," the one without "bells and whistles, editing and impressing." (41) We're afraid to show this self to most people in our lives, even though we love seeing that side of other people. I agree with this; it seems to me that most of my deep connections with others have sprung from a moment in which one person let the other see his or her "kitchen-sink," non-perfect self. That's vulnerability. Brown continues with a beautiful passage:

"Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can't ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment's notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow--that's vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It's incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it's scary and yes, we're open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved? To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation--that's also vulnerability. To let ourselves sink into the joyful moments of our lives even though we know that they are fleeting, even though the world tells us not to be too happy lest we invite disaster--that's an intense form of vulnerability." (34)

Brown then totally destroys the myth that vulnerability is about "letting it all hang out." In an age of oversharing, it's pretty easy to start thinking that vulnerability equals a Facebook comment or a tweet or a blog post; additionally, we all know people who share their scars and secrets at the drop of a hat, and that actually tends to make us uncomfortable. Here's what Brown says: "Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them." (45) That's not our Facebook friends or Twitter community or new coworkers or acquaintances, at least not at the beginning, nor should we expect that. And I think Brown is careful to use the word "earned." She doesn't mean that we owe anyone intimacy after a certain time period, but that sharing our stories should be viewed as a gift we give to and receive from others, and we need to be thoughtful about that.

Chapter three delves into the intricacies of shame, as based on what Brown has discovered through her research: how shame affects our creative output, sense of self-worth, innovation in the workplace; why shame is so hard to talk about it; how shame relates to guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, and what we can do about it; how men and women experience shame differently and how it relates to sex and body image, and more. Brown says that when we attach self-worth to what we create, we become prisoners of "pleasing, performing and perfecting." Instead, she recommends remembering that while it may be disappointing or difficult if our creative endeavors don't go well, these efforts are about what we do, not who we are. (63) Brown references a conversation with well-known behavioral change author Peter Sheahan; he says, "Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part." Both Brown and Sheahan note that shame leads to fear, which leads to risk aversion, which then kills innovation on both a personal and professional level. (65)

Brown states that we all have internal "shame tapes" that naysay our every move. She calls hers the "gremlins," and when she is working on a project, she'll often ask herself, "What are the gremlins saying?" instead of immediately accepting any critical thoughts for truth. Brown believes that disappointment, hurt feelings and heartbreaks of all sorts are inevitable in life, and part of coping requires that we show up in the fact of all that repeatedly. She says that a deep fear that we are unworthy of connection serves as the foundation of shame, and we have to believe otherwise. Getting there is its own battle. Brown writes, "In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending really mean emails)." (77) And most people partake in all three, depending on one's circumstances, but the key here is that none of these are healthy or sustainable. This relates back to Brown's argument that we can't escape the web of shame and vulnerability; we think we are "dealing with it" because we're moving in one of the above ways, but we're not actually finding our way through. Brown also found, unsurprisingly, that men and women face different challenges during this process:

"But the real struggle for women--what amplifies shame regardless of the category--is that we've expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we're not allowed to look as if we're working for it. We want it to just materialize somehow. Everything should be effortless. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders, and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families." (86)

"Here's the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they're afraid, but the truth is that most women can't stomach it. In those moments, when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we're thinking, C'mon! Pull it together. Man up."  (95-96)

Basically, we contradict ourselves. We want vulnerability from the people in our lives, but only the amount we can handle; we want to be our "kitchen-sink" selves, but at no cost. Brown says that we can't have it both ways.

At this point in Daring Greatly, I started to think, Okay. We all kind of suck at being vulnerable. Now what? Here's where Brown details the types of shields we use against vulnerability, and what we can do to "dare greatly instead. First, she recommends a major dose of empathy as a form of initial connection; when someone chooses to be vulnerable with us, the best thing we can do is listen, hold space, withhold judgment and basically find a way to communicate that he or she is not alone. Brown describes these vulnerability shields at length, as well as what we can do instead. The short version of a few: instead of foreboding joy, practice gratitude. Instead of being a perfectionist, appreciate the beauty of cracks. Instead of numbing ourselves, stay mindful. Don't use vulnerability as a manipulation tool or an attempt to fast-forward connection in relationships. Stop buying into the idea that "if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won't catch up with us." (125) Seek joy in ordinary moments, and celebrate what you have. Ask yourself if your choices comfort and nourish your spirit, or offer diminished reprieve. For Brown, "Living a connected life ultimately is about setting boundaries, spending less time and energy hustling and winning over people who don't matter, and seeing the value of working on cultivating connection with family and close friends." (145)

In the second half of Daring Greatly, Brown discusses how shame resilience and honest conversations about vulnerability can cultivate change in ourselves, our families, and our communities. Stay tuned for part two.

Book Review: Tenth of December

Book Review -- Tenth of December by George Saunders Tenth of December

George Saunders is one of those writers so absolutely excellent at his craft, and so unique in his angle(s), it makes you want to read anything and everything he ever wrote, all day long. You may have heard of him recently due a popular commencement speech 'rounding conversations and media these days, and that certainly serves as a quick look at Saunders' tone in general.

Tenth of December is a collection of short stories, all of which easily stand on their own as pieces worth reading repeatedly. Saunders asks big questions in the frame of small lives: how do we help our neighbors? What are our obligations to family? Is love real or created? What's the cost of technology and progress? Is the so-called "American Dream" worth reaching nowadays? Why do we need a sense of belonging? How do we decide what matters most, and then hang onto it? As humans, we collectively feel an absurd number of emotions, and we too often feel as if we should be exempt from the harder ones, like pain, fear and disappointment. We aim to control as much as possible, and Saunders explores where that path leads different characters.

In "Victory Lap," young, privileged Allison dances around her living room imagining her charmed life. When she is confronted by the ugliness of a stranger's lust at her front door, she finds herself at the mercy of the nerdy neighbor boy, Kyle. Two women with wildly different lives judge each other's choices in "Puppy," not knowing that they both are simply trying to hold fast to the best of what they've got. In "Escape from Spiderhead," readers find themselves in the future, where criminals are test subjects for experiments wherein love and lust can be controlled with the push of a button. (In my opinion, "Escape" is the best of the bunch; I've read it a few times in different anthologies, and it is continually an amazing "What the hell?" story that stays in your brain for days to come.)

"The Semplica Girl Diaries" illustrates a father's perspective on his problems with debt, a lackluster marriage and raising children. When they win the lottery, he writes, "Have been sleepwalking through life, future reader. Can see that now. Scratch-Off win was like wake-up call. In rush to graduate college, win Pam, get job, make babies, move ahead in joy, forgot former feeling of special destiny I used to have when tiny, sitting in cedar-smelling bedroom closet, looking up at blowing trees through high windows, feeling I would someday do something great." (14) Saunders perfectly captures the age-old feeling of, If I just had . . . I would be happy sentiment that proves so false in reality. Finally, "Tenth of December" follows Don, an old man with cancer who rescues a young boy from death during his own attempt to commit suicide.

The best thing about Tenth of December is that you don't have to read it all at once; you can savor each story at your own pace. It is by far the best book I've read all year.

Book Review -- Eleanor & Park

Book Review -- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell Eleanor & Park

If you're seeking a quick story that will make your heart smile, then Eleanor & Park is an excellent choice. Eleanor and Park, two teenagers who slowly fall in love while sharing a seat on the bus to high school, couldn't be more different. Eleanor is the new girl, with blazing red curls, an odd style of dressing with an emphasis on men's ties and a cool sarcastic tone, all of which serve to mask her terrible home life and deep sense of not being or having enough. Park aims to lay low as much as possible; he's got enough social cred to remain under the radar in terms of bullying, but with his Asian eyes, affinity for comic books and stereotypical karate skills (his dad makes him take lessons), he too knows what it's like to be an outcast.

That's why he lets her sit by him on the bus that first day, when nobody else will. He cringes, wishing she would make herself a little less visible, and worries that his proximity to her will invite unwanted attention from his "cool" friends. As days go by, he notices that she is silently reading his comics over his shoulder, and he finds himself waiting until each morning bus ride to read on, so that she's not left behind. He thinks of ways to talk to her, and notices names of bands doodled on her book cover. "So, you like the Smiths?" He asks one day. "I don't know, I've never heard them," she responds. " (45) The exchange continues until Eleanor confesses, embarrassed, that she doesn't have anything in order to listen to the bands she's heard of. So Park lends her his Walkman, and makes her a mix tape. (A mix tape! Ah, the good ole days.) When Park asks what she thinks of a particular song later that week, she responds, "I just want to break that song into pieces . . . and love them all to death." (59)

Eleanor & Park fully encapsulates what it means to be young and in love: how carefully it happens, what boys versus girls notice about one another, the tyranny of high school upon one's search for identity, family expectations, lust and loss. These two kids fall for each other, hard, and that experience will stay with them regardless of the outcome of their relationship. Eleanor says, "I don't think I even breathe when we're not together . . . Which means, when I see you . . . it's been like sixty hours since I've taken a breath. . . All I do when we're apart is think about you, and all I do when we're together is panic. Because every second feels so important. And because I'm so out of control, I can't help myself. I'm not even mine anymore, I'm yours, and what if you decide that you don't want me? How could you want me like I want you?" (111) She's being dramatic because first loves are dramatic; that's why they feel so powerful, complex and long-lasting. Rowell completely understands that concept, and articulates it in a funny, honest, sweet way with realistic subplots along the way.

Book Review -- The Interestings

Book Review -- The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  

The Interestings

 

The Interestings was... kind of interesting.

The story begins in in 1974, when Jules Jacobsen finds herself at summer camp, awkward, insecure and desperate to belong (much like most teenages). She unexpectedly finds herself alongside a cast of characters that become her lifelong pals. There's Ethan, the brilliant yet unattractive pal who is madly in love with Jules from day one; Ash and Goodman, the beautiful, wealthy brother-sister duo who exude confidence and sophistication; Cathy, the robust (physically and emotionally) dancer; and Jonah, the mild-tempered musician with a famous mother. We follow Jules, and her relationships with each of these individuals, over the course of one lifetime. Certain plot twists offer dramatic commentary about how one event or choice can shape someone's personality or fate, how one person's life journey intersects with another's, as well as the reality that the people you know best often surprise you.

I really wanted to like this book, but 100 pages in, I felt the urge to stop reading. (And my personal philosophy is that if I don't like a book after 50-100 pages in, I stop. Life is too short, and there are too many books available, to read things that don't resonate with you!) I kept going, because there's no doubt that The Interestings is extremely well-written, and I commend any author that follows one or more characters throughout the span of a lifetime. Plus the novel has gotten a ton of good press and great reviews. But for me, I realized I didn't care what Jules thought or did. I thought she was kind of annoying and dull, and fit the mold of a person who thinks high school is the climax of all life and happiness (... maybe that was the criticism and Wolitzer's point). I also didn't really care what happened to anyone else in her clan. This is sort of odd, because again, these characters are well-developed and seemingly relatable.

As much as I tried, I couldn't get "into" the story like I anticipated I would, so I think it is just one of those books that may or may not strike a chord with you. If it does, you'll probably enjoy it, and if not, don't be afraid to put down the book and turn to something else. If you did read it and love it, tell me why! I would love to hear.

Book Review -- Carry On, Warrior

Book Review -- Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton Carry On Warrior

Glennon Doyle Menton is a truth-teller who writes passionately about her theory that life is both beautiful and brutal. It's brutiful. I first stumbled across her blog, Momastery.com, a few years ago, and while I am not a mother, many of her stories resonated with me on multiple levels, just as they've done with her many readers.

First, Glennon offers refreshing honesty no matter the subject: her children, her marriage, her past struggles as an alcoholic and bulimic. She's tried it all, and her I've-been-there-so-let-me-tell-you attitude resonates with anyone who has experienced similar difficulties. Glennon advises, "Since brokenness is the way of folks, the only way to live peacefully is to forgive everyone constantly, including yourself. . . . Sharing life's brutiful is what makes us less alone and afraid. The truth can't be stuffed down with food or booze or exercise or work or cutting or shopping for long. Hiding from the truth causes its own unique pain, and it's lonely pain. Life is hard--not because we're doing it wrong, just because it's hard. It's okay to talk, write, paint, or cry about that. It helps." (Carry On, page 7)

Her writing style is warm, thoughtful and emphatic. Her uncanny ability to poke fun at herself, her tendencies and mistakes and perspectives, shows her strength. This is a woman who has hit rock bottom, climbed back up and discovered she still had a lot of work left to do. She wants to be the best mother, spouse, friend, writer and woman that she can be, and she's clear about how hard those efforts can be. She notes one common female attitude: "I'm a people pleaser, a dancing monkey, always concerned with how everyone is feeling about me." (17) She discusses her elusive search for happiness, and how it never quite goes away:  "I start feeling empty and restless, and instead of remembering that sometimes life is uncomfortable and empty everywhere, I decide that bliss is just a new house or town or state away. It isn't. Wherever you go, there you are. Your emptiness goes with you. Maddening." (22)

Carry On is chock full of these little anecdotes, and Glennon is quick to share what she's learned with humor, wit and candor. One particularly enjoyable story involves her efforts to practice yoga for "quiet and peace and stillness," but every time she arrives at the studio, a loud, smelly, fellow yogi places his mat right down next to her. She concludes that maybe yoga instead teaches her "how not to be bothered by things that are out of my control." (55) Glennon, an open Christian with no denominational ties but a strong passion for social justice (as shown by her community of Monkees), also includes mini-letters to her young son: how to treat the shy outsider in his class, what would happen if he decided to be gay, why certain things are important in life. While she references religion and God multiple times, I never got the sense that she was trying to convert her reader; she's merely sharing her worldview with lines like, "Much of the Bible is confusing, but the important parts aren't. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don't have to get started doing the simple parts." (140).

And throughout the book, Glennon consistently explicates the value of optimism and contentedness based on the present moment, as well as her view that life is a ride with all sorts of surprises. She writes, "When your miracle doesn't happen the way you planned, it becomes important to look for peripheral miracles. Peripheral miracles are those that aren't directly in front of you. They're not the one on which you've been so damned focused. You have to turn your head to see peripheral miracles." (261)

I advise potential readers to first check out Glennon's blog, and if her style and content appeal to you, then read the book. I pretty much love everything she writes, but I can see how she may not be for everyone, and she isn't trying to be a "serious" writer in the traditional literature sense (I mean that in the best way possible). But in Carry On, Warrior, Glennon offers up her life stories with a lot of heart and humor. I felt like I was talking to a friend, and I so enjoyed the conversation.

Book Review -- Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Book Review -- Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler Z A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the famous F. Scott, captured my interest back in junior high when we read Gatsby for the first time. I remember my teacher mentioning the fact that some of Daisy's behavior is thought to be inspired by Zelda--the impetuous flirting, the thirst for adventure and fairy-tale excitement, the inability to fully commit. However, while most Fitzgerald scholars will agree that Scott and Zelda's hard-partying ways certainly influenced the characters of Nick and Daisy, as well as part of the settings and framework of the novel, they also note that Daisy was actually inspired by Scott's first love, Ginerva King. (What a name, right?)

As for Zelda, here's the short version: she was a young, beautiful Southern belle who met Scott at a dance, where he immediately fell in love with her. Her family insisted she avoid him, due to his lack of financial stability, and Zelda agreed. The two exchanged letters for months (Scott still madly in love; Zelda enjoying the attention but dating others), and when Scott wrote that This Side of Paradise would be published, Zelda came to New York City and agreed to marry him on the spot. They lived, worked and played for the next several years in Europe, where Scott continued to write; however, Zelda too began to write and publish under Scott's name. They developed friendships with famous writers such as Pound and Stein, but Scott particularly relied on Hemingway for a drinking and writing buddy. Much research exists that suggests Hemingway and Zelda disliked each other to varying degrees. They had a daughter, Scottie. Zelda began to aggressively pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer, which some say led to her eventual admittance to an insane asylum, where she was diagnosed as bipolar. Zelda continued to write while confined, even publishing a work, but Scott supposedly stole much of her material and repurposed it for himself. For the majority of their marriage, and the remaining years of their lives, the two fought bitterly as Scott disappeared into his alcoholism and Zelda became sicker and sicker.

Therese Anne Fowler's Z provides the long version of their story, told from Zelda's perspective. It's well-researched with a hint of creative freedom, and Fowler includes a note at the end explaining what sorts of choices she made, and why, in terms of Zelda. Again, scholars live in one of two camps when it comes to Zelda: either they think she was a manipulative shrew who distracted Scott from writing and ruined his life, or she was a harmless party girl with multiple interests in a day and age that wasn't quite ready for her. Fowler proposes that perhaps Zelda is both sides of the coin, and it's incredibly interesting to consider what a life alongside Scott, the famed author, might have been like for her.

runs a bit long, but it's the type of novel you can easily pick up and put down for a quick escape to another time and place. I found myself constantly Googling different pieces of trivia to figure out the real versus the invented, which was half the fun. It also provides helpful commentary on the reality of a woman like Zelda's choices during the 20s and 30s from a political and social standpoint. I definitely recommend it for an easy, intriguing read about one half of one of literature's most famous couples.

Book Review -- This Is How You Lose Her

Book Review -- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz  This Is How You Lose HerA good friend and fellow book lover recommended this novel to me with one phrase: "Read it." I can't echo his recommendation enough.

First warning: Díaz's language is harsh, full of cursing and sex and in-your-face statements. He relies heavily upon his background and experience as a Dominican-American, and there were definitely parts of the book that I simply didn't get on a cultural level (not to mention all the Spanish lingo I had to look up). I'm not criticizing these facts; truly,  it was a good reminder that I need to read more literature outside of my cultural sphere.

This collection of stories about love--how we find it, keep it and lose it--stays with you long after the book is done. Yunior, the narrator, tells tales of the women in his life. There's Magdelena, his great love, who thinks he is an utter asshole and cheater (turns out he is, which is no spoiler); Nilda, the young conquest of his brother, Rafa; Alma, the student completely opposite of him; Flaca, a single mother itching for stability; and Miss Lora, the teacher who breaks his heart. Díaz notes, in a line, the reality for most couples: “Our relationship wasn’t the sun, the moon, and the stars, but it wasn’t bullshit either.” (19)

A few chapters delve into Yunior's life outside of romantic relationships. We learn about his continuous, competitive battle with his brother for who is the strongest man, the most obedient son, the better person. We learn about Yunior's parents and what it's like to grow up in a world where you're consistently the outsider. Particularly in the final chapter, Díaz captures the fact that in all our relationships, patterns exist. For Yunior, it goes like this: dizzy lust, some level of love, disconnect and then regret, loneliness and sorrow. Díaz writes, “That’s about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace—and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.” (213) Will Yunior continue to destroy his relationships? We don't know. Will he climb of the hole he dug himself? We don't know, because that's how life goes. You can't reverse bad behavior; you can only try to avoid repeating it, which is one of the most difficult things to do.

This Is How You Lose Her will force readers to reflect upon romantic choices, patterns of mistake, issues of lost identity, sibling relationships and much more. Well done.

Book Review -- June Recap

What I Read, June 2013: Spirit Junkie by Gabrielle Berstein

Spirit Junkie

I really wanted to like this book, since I like Gabrielle and follow her on social media, and I have a soft spot for self-improvement books. I only ended up reading half, though, because it was right over the edge of too New Age-y for my taste. Most of her advice was very "free your heart, and lift it to the moon, and meditate on the wonder of it all." Which, if you're into that, cool. I did enjoy reading about her journey to a place of peace, but I lost interest quickly.

 

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man

Again, I was hoping this book would be a quick, fun read. It kind of was, but mostly it was filled with trite advice about how to think like your man. I try to think like myself, so I guess I just wasn't interested. There were a couple of laughs due to Harvey's comedic style, but overall I only read about half before realizing that I didn't want or need to know how to react when my man comes home late. If I want to know what my man thinks/needs/feels, I'll probably just ask him.

 

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit

Very interesting read. Duhigg's style reminded me of Gladwell's Blink and The Tipping Point, both of which I liked. He provided many stories and anecdotes about how people in various situations have changed their habits, from alcoholics to marketers to overweight individuals. Definitely a good read, but I stopped at 3/4 because it was due back at the library and I felt like I got the gist of his thesis.

Conclusion for June: I didn't pick the best books (hence the lack of full reviews) and my schedule was slammed. But at least I reached my goal of two (almost)!