Friday, December 26, 2014

Bees and Bushes

I realize that, as a former English major, no one expects me to be able to count, but I am very much aware that I skipped book number five on the list. I accidentally bought the large print version.  The combination of the overlarge type and the slim margins makes me feel like the book is yelling at me. I don’t like books that yell at me. So I had to skip it until the regular size version shows up at my door.  

#4 – A Book of Bees – Sue Hubbell
Recommended by: MC

This is a lovely, soothing book, best read in the heat of summer while the bees buzz past your glass of lemonade. Reading it is like soaking in a warm bath – it is calm and luxurious and comforting. The author details her experiences keeping bees throughout an entire season and while it doesn’t make me want to keep bees, it does certainly make me appreciate them far more. The author takes such a loving tone with them, and explains their behavior so carefully, that you can’t help but come to understand them. The tone of the book is quiet and respectful, with a gentle drop of humor and good spirits. The author isn’t trying to convince the reader to do anything more than just sit back and enjoy the process of beekeeping and that restful and respectful tone does much to make this book so pleasurable.

#6 – American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
Recommended by: MS

I read this book a few years ago with my book club. It is a thinly fictionalized look at Laura Bush and her life. The first time around, I was more sympathetic to Alice/Laura. She seemed like a quietly moral person who kept finding herself in situations that tested her moral fiber. The second time around, I was less inclined to like her because I felt that she didn’t fall so much as stop herself from falling. Time and time again, she could have made a choice, but seemed to prefer to let others make the choices for her. When she finally did find her voice, it was so far past the point of reason that I found it infuriating. Now you are going to speak out? Now? However, I did love her rendition of the Bush family, and Charlie/George is particularly well written. He leaps off the page, as does his entire family, and they totally make the book worth reading. Excluding the name changes, I think it would be very easy to forget that you are reading fiction and that this isn’t Laura’s own memoir, which is another reason this book is a worthwhile read. Any author who can create such solid characters, not caricatures, of such well-known people gets a solid stamp of approval (even if I did absolutely hate her first book, Prep.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Family Matters

My sister-in-law is always trying to better herself. She has two masters’ degrees, a plethora of initials after her hyphenated name, and is always taking new classes or learning new things. She once took opera singing lessons, just because. She is currently running marathons – for fun. So when she recommended what I consider to be a self-help book, I wasn’t surprised. My brother-in-law is the same way. (Good thing they are married, eh?) He also recommended a self-help book. This week, I read them both.

#2 – The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
Recommended by: CRR

The author spent a year trying to become happier even though the basics were already covers, i.e., she was already happily married, doing a job she loved, in a city she loved, with two kids who were both healthy. I believe starting from a general sense of happiness is more realistic. A new job, a baby, a romance – all are considered easy paths to happiness. But what does happen if you already have those things? Can you be happier? What makes you happy?

The book tells you to figure out what makes you happy, what makes you sad, or frustrated, where you want to grow as a person, and what do you want to change. From those answers, you can start to create a list of resolutions that will help make you happier. What I found to be the most useful is starting small – say one resolution in January, and gradually increasing to 12 resolutions in December and then breaking down those resolutions into pieces. (Resolutions, not goals, because resolutions are daily reminders and goals, once hit, are forgotten.) For example, come January, everyone wants to lose weight. But by breaking that goal down, it can be easier to manage. Maybe in January, only focus on exercising every other day. Identify ways that you can rearrange your life and schedule to get to the gym, or arrange your workouts to better suit your moods or your time constraints. Perhaps don’t go to the gym at all, find other activities, or different places. Then in February, start a food log. Maybe in March, eliminate certain foods and so on until December, when you have incorporated 12 different approaches to healthy diet and exercise that have changed your life and make you happier. Or focus on something different every month, as the author did. One month she focused on money. A different month, she focused on parenting. The point is not to do what others do, the point is to determine what you want to do and what you can do to make yourself happier.

I would go nuts trying to fill in a Resolution star chart every day, or spending so much time navel gazing, but I think the concept is sound. I do plan on making a short list of resolutions that will grow monthly to test out the theory. What do I have to lose from trying to make myself happy? I’ll let you know how it goes. If any of you are trying to change your life this upcoming year, even in a small way, this wouldn’t be a bad book to read before you start.

#3 – Verbal Judo – George Thompson
Recommended by: MR

I can see how this book appealed to my beloved brother-in-law. (I’m lucky, I have three BILs and I adore all of them. In this case, I’m referring to the Eldest.) This book explains how to be a better communicator in easy to understand ways, using a plethora of examples, mostly from the authors’ years in law enforcement. It’s like it was written for Eldest! I found it to be a bit of information overload, but a few simple things stood out – always treat others with respect, always come from a place of empathy, always use first names, and always personalize your encounter with someone. Obviously, there is a lot more to the book, including mnemonic reminders, lists, and lots and lots of ways in which to put those concepts into practice. I was surprised, however, by how many of these concepts Eldest already practiced. When my daughter was born, she was put into NICU very suddenly. (She was fine, we panicked.) All I heard for 24 hours was “How’s the baby?” Eldest was the only person who asked, “How is Insert Name Here?” I have never forgotten that. It made her real. It made me less scared. She wasn’t just a general baby, she was my little girl, his niece, and by God she was going to be all right. I was really struck by how such a simple switch from baby to name made such a huge different and this book is filled to the brim with examples of how to make other, just as simple changes to your communication habits.

So, if you know someone who communicates only through yelling, or intimidation, or doesn’t listen to a word you say, slip this book into his or her stocking this Christmas. Or better yet, buy yourself a copy and teach them through example. Just like trying to make yourself happier, you can’t go wrong by trying to become a better speaker and a better listener.

Programming Note: I will be reading all books in the order in which they were given to me. If you are reading along at home, the list is on the blog. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

And We’re Off!

A few years ago, I treated myself to a designer purse. Not a knock-off, not a “as made for Target by”, not off a folding table at a craft fair or a street corner – a real purse by a real designer. (Though not, sadly, Burberry. I’ll never be that good to myself.) I was on the annual Sister-in-Law Shopathon and just fell in love with a Kate Spade purse that had all the embellishments of Paddington Bear coat. It was glorious. It was on sale. It was all mine and as an added bonus, free, because my mom paid for it as a belated birthday present. That purse has sat on a shelf, in its protective bag, for years. YEARS. Why? Because it was so nice that I didn’t want to “waste it.” However, when I started this project, I realized that the only way to finish in 12 months (and shoehorn in a variety of my own reading choices), would be to carry a book with me at all times. The second book on the list (review to come next week because I am not finished it yet) talked about not saving the good china for a special occasion. Who knows if or when that occasion will ever occur and why should the good dishes go to waste? So, out came the purse. For the next few months (or until the season changes and wool is too warm to carry), I will proudly be carrying my actual, honest-to-God, designer purse with me, with a book neatly tucked away inside. I’m now well-read and well-accessorized!

So, I started the project by reading a book not on the list. There are just too many good books in the world for me to ignore. I spent a lot of time in front of my fireplace instead of in front of my television and I am pretty sure I didn’t miss anything significant. I do feel the clock ticking as I’m sure I’ll blow through some books and plod through others, but at least I’ve started.

#1 - The Boy Who Said No – Patti Sheehy
Recommended by: KR

The book tells the tale of Frank Menderos, a young man who tries to escape from Cuba in 1967.  
I liked it, but I didn’t love it. As a rip-roaring yarn told over drinks, this story would be fantastic. You wouldn’t notice the glossing over of details and how whole sections of his life are reduced to an “and then this happened” storytelling device. This book is classified as historical fiction, but if that is the case then I want a lot more history. If this is a true-life story of Frank, as told in the prologue, then it needed a lot less fiction. I can pinpoint the moment the entire book flew off the rails for me, and it was with this sentence: “I can only surmise what transpired.” I wish he hadn’t. His story would have had legs as a memoir and I really wish I was able to read that book instead of this one. All it did was leave me wanting more: more details, more history, and more culture. There were lots and lots of sections about his relationship with his girlfriend, and while that was necessary to inform the choices he made, they tended to drag. I wanted less kissing and more Communism. (That is a sentence that has probably never been said before.)  Overall, I think the fault is mine. Like with the Wicked series by Gregory Maguire, where the story he told about Oz was not the story I wanted to read, this story about Cuba was not, unfortunately, the one I wanted to read.   

As a side note, I also wish they had given this book a different title.  Ugh.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

You magnificent bastards.

I asked for 40 books and you gave me 60 (and counting!)  True, many of you gave me multiple books, but each pick counted. Some of you sent me private messages, warning me about content, or sharing why you want me to read a particular book. Others wrote me lovely letters. One of you even got me a copy of the book, personally inscribed by both the author and the person about whom the book was written. That person gets a double gold star.

Out of the 60 books on the list, I already own 22. Out of those 22, I have only read 16. One book showed up via Amazon (thanks beloved BIL). One showed up mysteriously in the back of my car and three need to be returned to their owner when I’m done. Thanks to a wicked pre-Christmas sale, another 17 are on their way via Better World Books, an online used book store that donates one book for every book bought. (I haven’t told my husband about that box yet. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t notice it among all the other deliveries this time of year. In my defense, each book was only $2.50.) I’ll pick up the rest as the months roll along.   

Many of you worried that I was too well read to have missed your favorite tome, but I assure you that the breadth and depth of my reading have been greatly exaggerated. I don’t read half as much as I’d like to nor half as much as you would expect me to. All of that is about to change.

I have to applaud you all on your choices. I will be reading Russian lit for the first time, after successfully avoiding it my entire life. I will be enjoying the history of the flu epidemic, after which I will need a chemical bath and a treatise on bee keeping, after which I’ll need some tea with honey.  I will get to learn about, in depth and in great detail, the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Ozzy Osborne, and Anthony Kiedis, an odd mix of individuals I wouldn’t think to invite to a dinner party. I’ll delve into fiction, non-fiction, history and self-help, children’s books and comic books, sci-fi and fantasy, and go both into thin air and into the wild. I’m almost dizzy with the thought of all the places I’ll go and all the people I’ll meet.

I am, however, a bit concerned about all the Cormac McCarthy I’m going to read. I’m also concerned that life growing up in the Pine Barrens was a whole lot darker than I ever imagined based on the book choices of those who grew up there.  

Anyway, join me on this journey through the reading lives of my friends and family. I’ll post a new blog every Friday with an update on what I have read, what I have thought, and what I plan to read next. Maybe you’ll read along, returning to lost loves or finding new ones along the way. Maybe you’ll ignore me entirely, going on about your own life, reading your own books. That’s fine too.

Either way, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf. 

Here is a copy of the list as it currently stands.

  1. The Boy Who Said No - Patti Sheehy
  2. The Happiness Project - Gretchen Rubin
  3. Verbal Judo by George Thompson
  4. A Book of Bees - Sue Hubbell
  5. The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout.
  6. American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
  7. The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  9. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendek
  10. Leaving Time – Jodi Picoult
  11. The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
  12. House of Sand and Fog – Andre Dubos
  13. The Little Prince – Autoine de Saint-Exupery
  14. The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
  15. The Family – Mario Puzo
  16. I am Ozzy – Ozzy Osbourne
  17. Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen-
  18. Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa
  19. Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
  20. Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  21. A Question of Attraction  - David Nichols
  22. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  23. The Book Thief  - Marcus Zusak
  24. A Prayer for Owen Meaney
  25. A Dirty Job – Christopher Moore
  26. Lamb – Christopher Moore
  27. Running Man – Richard Bachman          
  28. The Walking Dead – R Kirkman
  29. Dragon’s of Autumn’s Twilight – Weis/Hickman
  30. American Pastoral – Phillip Roth
  31. The Charm School – Nelson DeMille
  32. A Widow for One Year – John Irving
  33. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
  34. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  35. Dune – Frank Herbert
  36. Angels of Repose – Wallace Stagner
  37. Into Thin Air – Jon Krakaour
  38. The Stand – Stephen King
  39. The Big Influenza – John M. Barry
  40. Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin
  41. The Most Beautiful Woman in Town – Charles Bukowski
  42. My Dark Places
  43. After Camelot – J. Randy Taraborrelli
  44. What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty
  45. Wifey – Judy Blume
  46. Scar Tissue – Anthony Kiedis
  47. High Fidelity – Nick Hornsby
  48. Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling
  49. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
  50. The Post-Birthday World
  51. Despair – Vladimir Nobokov
  52. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
  53. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes
  54. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  55. No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy
  56. The Plot Against America – Phillip Roth
  57. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
  58. Founding Brothers – Joseph Ellis
  59. What is the What – Dave Eggers
  60. The Boys of Winter – Wayne Coffey
  61. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  62. Guardians of the West – David Eddings 
  63. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
  64. Wizard's First Rule - Terry Goodkind
  65. Blindside - Robin Cook