Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Can Happiness Be Taught?

Do we need to be taught to be happy?  Children, usually not — but adults... We need some help in that area, Gretchen Rubin decided one day.  She saw a harried woman with a child, and no one looked happy.  She wanted to change that in her own life.

And, with the help of a publisher and marketing department, she turned it into a movement: The Happiness Project.  It comes to you with daily quotes, a book, a daily blog (maintained by the author herself!) and a whole lot of discussion.  Making a mint off the idea that she should be nicer to her family may not have been her original intention, but I am sure it made her happy.

From this writing, you may think me a skeptic — and you would be wrong.  I fell for this idea: hook, line and sinker.  I didn't think I needed to be happier for any particular reason, but the idea intrigued me.  Walking by the stack of books in the bookstore, I wondered to myself exactly what one does to make herself sing in the morning and clean her closets.  So I checked it out from the library.  (Some skeptical habits are hard to shake.)

It started out strong, and was interesting.  Everyone needs to get out her/his own mindset from time to time, reassess and become the person s/he wants to be.  Happiness is a mindset, and I have consciously re-set my happiness dial from time to time.  It can be done.  But a lifestyle re-set?  Rubin sets out to do that very thing for an entire year, breaking up her evolution into month-size bites.  The book was as much a how-to as a memoir of a year in the life.

I was with her, lock, stock and barrel — until April.  

You see, she launched her blog in March — and she used content from it rather liberally beginning in April.  Until then, what she wrote was personal, interesting, self-revealing.  Afterward, however, she turned to the studio audience for their reaction — too often for my taste.  If I wanted to know what random, unnamed strangers thought, I'd have found my own resources.  

My interest started to wane around summer, when she spent a month reading sad memoirs and biographies.  She explained how it wasn't to laud her great, easy life over another's short, sad one, but that's exactly how it felt.

Her repetition was tedious. She established in January that she had fabulous, involved in-laws who live around the corner (and who, as Jews, alleviated the pressure of "which family gets Christmas this year"); a patient, loving husband with Hepatitis C; supportive parents; and young, brilliant, beautiful daughters.  I got it early on.  

She liberally quoted famous and obscure authors, which made her sound just this side of know-it-all, at least in the beginning.  By July, I wondered if she had an original thought in her head.

By September, I was scanning chapters, skipping the blog excerpts, looking for "interesting parts."  

That might have been me reading too much too soon, not pacing myself properly for that type of book.  Fast-moving fiction can be swallowed nearly whole; instructional memoirs, maybe not so quickly.

Add with that the fact that her life already was completely off the charts: as a Yale alumna and successful lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who happens to be the wife of a successful laywer-cum-private equity investor, with a home on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  

Let's leave out the influential parents on both sides and apparent wealth for at least a couple of generations, because we know those things do not guarantee happiness.  It's the ability to do what we want that makes us swoon with envy.  (I wonder if the publishing house took that into consideration before publishing the irony of a happiness book by someone with that bio.)

In the end, I took away a couple of great ideas, such as, "If you aren't going to do something about what you're complaining about, STFU" (which wasn't even her idea) and starting a children's literature reading group (which was). I might find my own Truths and Commandments, and hers (and her reading public) offer a good place to start.  I am continuing to make a conscious effort to be positive (which I started before reading Rubin's book).  I will try to get to sleep earlier.  I'll get rid of that which I don't need (which may be easy, what with all of my recent unpacking).  It's a worthwhile read.

If asked, I'd recommend reading the book, but read it critically.  Take what interests you with a liberal grain of salt and cheerfully discard that which doesn't apply to you.  It's what Gretchen would want you to do.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Books Without Borders

I have seen the future without Borders, and it is Target.

And it makes me wish to weep.

David and I stopped by Borders the other day to indulge yet again (and to say "hello" to our future shelves).  We had a stack of goods we literally could not carry without each others' help.  Between coffee table books on music and guitars, a Jackie Chan video, Game of Thrones, The Anubis Gates, another Flavia mystery novel and a few novels and DVDs that will be gifts, our arms were full.

While we were there, I could not find some of the more recently published books, but I suspect most of the newer items had been snatched up quickly.  There was a biography I had tried for the better part of a year to pick up at the bookstore, but was again unsuccessful.

Today I encountered a book trailer that made me want to race out and purchase said book (thanks to Harper Collins Canada).  I knew I wasn't going to risk another encounter at Borders so soon — it's too exhausting to see such a loved bookstore in such disarray and disrepair.  I was going to Target, anyway, so figured I'd try my luck there.

"No luck" doesn't quite describe it.

There was room for for 12 books in the young adult "section."  Three slots were taken up by the first Harry Potter novel.  The top row was all Rick Riordian novels.  The rest of the collection was composed of whatever teen vampire romances are hot to teens.

I wanted to cry.

I knew I'd miss Borders, but I didn't realize the vast wasteland that awaited me.

It is in part my own fault.  I have a thing about Barnes & Noble: I don't like paying for a "club" discount.  I'm not a member of those big box warehouse stores for that very reason (well, that, and  refusing to buy a vat of mayonnaise I'l never finish, if only because I can't reach the bottom of the 10-gallon barrel to finish it off).  Paying what is a comparatively paltry sum to receive reasonable discounts shouldn't rub me the wrong way, but it does.

I'll be a member of a free discount club to the end of time, and they are free to mine my purchasing history for their marketing programs; it's only fair to help them sell me what I may (or may not) need.  For that information alone I deserve a discount, and I'm glad to take it at what seems like no additional cost to me.  (I am not foolish enough to think anything is truly free.)  However, to pay for that same "privilege" offends me.  Both I and the company in question will benefit, them more so because they can use my data to further their sales, market to their customers and determine their inventory.  I just want to buy at the "member" discount without having to pay for it up front.

However, if Target makes me weep over books again, I might give up bookstores altogether.  Amazon serves me well, gives me recommendations, sells to me at a reasonable price and delivers it at lightning-quick speed — and I can shop in my underpants.  (Sorry for the visual — and no, pouring bleach in your eyes will not help.)  I love my library and have been voraciously consuming those books at an alarming rate.  I just want to hand a book I love to a friend, who then can love it, too — and the library frowns on that.

I cannot go cold turkey, so I'll still hit up my thrift stores and used bookstores, which are my true passion.  However, as it stands, sparkling new bookstores may be a thing of the past.

Hopefully Barnes & Noble will come around to my way of thinking, especially since the competition is shrinking (for the time being).  If not, I'll have to totally change my book buying habits which, while a benefit to my wallet, will take its toll on my bookish soul. 

Tell me: what are you doing for your books these days, now that the Age of Borders is waning?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: At Home

I would follow Bill Bryson anywhere. I already have.  I have been with him on the Appalachian Trail, into the universe, across America, through England and all the way Down Under. He does not fail to delight readers — even when he stays home.

In At Home, the furthest he goes is to the roof.

Bryson literally strolls through his home in a quiet English hamlet, pondering who has come before (and literally how many there are still there, in body if not in spirit) and how they created the space around them.

Many students of history know the kitchen was often separate from the rest of the house, but how it evolved from a sure-fire death trap to today's modern amenities is worth the trip alone. In the kitchen, Bryson considers food and ponders why we eat what we eat — and who in their right mind would think [fill in the blank here] was a good idea for the plate? From wheat to corn, from meat to dairy, from spices to grain, Bryson ponders what we eat, and how it came to be on our plate, rather than in a bog, blowing in the breeze, or hoofing it in a wild pasture.

Another fascinating room is the, ahem, boudoir. It's not nearly as tantilizing as one would expect. It's more so. Honestly, from women's rights to privacy, from where people to slept to how they did (or didn't) sleep, and with whom — if you didn't think about it before, you can't help but ponder it now.

Nothing is too small: from salt to bedbugs, from lighting (inside and out) to laundry, from wheat to bread. In Bryson's hands, nothing can be small: why are salt and pepper the most popular condiments? Where and how did modern archaeology begin? Where did servants sleep? How could people navigate roads, or even the inside of their house, with a single tallow candle?

In contrast, nothing is too big: take the Crystal Palace Exposition, where glass is king and the toilets were nearly as popular as the rest of the expo. Even the entire English vicar situation is easily understood, and we walk away grateful for the Church of England, landowners and country parishes.

Bryson's deft touch makes every single chapter of this non-fiction tome delightful, educational, thoughtful, shocking, mournful, interesting, respectful, bawdy and just plain fun. Please, please read it — and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All Hallow's Read: Are You In?

I really like Neil Gaiman.  Not only is he a great author (American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust, to mention a few),  he comes up with other good ideas, too — like All Hallow's Read.

Instead of giving out candy on Halloween, Gaiman suggested giving out scary books, and encouraging people to read.

How quickly can I say, "I'm in!"?

Now, to be fair, it's not going to be easy.  There are plenty of people who don't like Halloween, or who associate the wrong spirit with it.  Plus — perish the thought — some people don't like scary books or stories.  (I know, crazy, but they're out there.)

So, how will I encourage it in my new neighborhood?

First of all, I won't go cold turkey on the candy.  I'd hate to be known as "that house that doesn't give out candy."  I certainly don't want to get mixed up with the house that gives out toothbrushes, or political pamphlets.  (Darn the American election system for putting elections so close to Halloween — though, to be honest, it really is a similar activity: getting dressed up and pretending to be someone else...)

Maybe I'll just start with a poem, a single sheet of paper.  Maybe a limerick, or a sonnet?  There are plenty of good ones out there, or I could write my own.  Start a series of poems, collect the entire set... I could have some fun with this!

Halloween will bring out David's inner spook-tacular decorating, so the porch will be scary.  I'll hand out a poem with candy, which also can be scary.  Then we'll see if anyone else joins us next year.  (And if you don't like my ideas, check out Darla Moore's ideas in the Columbus Public Schools Examiner, to see if one of them tickles your fancy.)

So, who else is in?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Books and Movies, and What's 'Beloved'

I decided to read  Tatiana de Rosnay's haunting novel, Sarah's Key, when I saw a trailer for the movie at my favorite movie theater.  I love Kristin Scott Thomas, and the story sounded compelling.  It also sounded more like an adventure story, full of near-misses and redemption, so I thought this Holocaust story would be an uplifting story.

What in the world was I thinking?

My first clue should have been the stern, beleaguered look on Thomas' face. There was a misleading clue about the fate of some of the characters in the story, which fed into my Little Mary Sunshine optimism.  Trust me, I have learned my lesson.

Had I watched the "movie trailer" on the publisher's website, I might have been warned away properly.  I offer this public service announcement: marketers need to stop referring to books of this ilk, including The Kite Runner and other beautiful, poignant and disturbing books as "beloved" — or they should be fired on the spot.  Winnie-the-Pooh is beloved.  The Eyre Affair is beloved.  This novel is many things, but certainly not "beloved."  Readers will resent being played like that and will stop reading books plied in such a stunningly deceitful way.

Thank you.  We now return to our regular programming.

The unique, clever and very readable story is, in fact, two intertwined stories.  

In the summer of 1942, the Vichy government cooperated with the Germans to deal with the "Jewish problem."  French police and French soldiers rounded up many of the Jews of Paris and corralled them in the Vélodrome d'Hiver.  Not all Jews were taken: a few were left behind, mostly teens, so it didn't appear to be a roundup.

Days later, those who survived the heat without shelter, food, water, medical attention and sanitation in Vel' d'Hiv were taken to a camp outside Orléans.  There the men were separated from the women and children, never to be seen again.  Days later, mothers were torn from their children by any means possible (buckets of water dousing the child, if the parties were lucky) and loaded into a train.  The children were left in the camp, alone, with only the police to keep an eye that they don't escape.  Those who survived those long, miserable days met the same fate as their parents: a train ride to Auschwitz and immediate execution.

In the novel, Sarah was one of those children rounded up that late summer night.  Before the police could find her 4-year-old brother, she hid him in the cupboard in their apartment, locking it soundly with a key so he would be safe until they returned later that evening, when this mess was over.  As Sarah was about to learn, this was a much bigger situation than she realized, and she clung to the key with her life.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv, Julia Jarmond is writing an article for her English-language newspaper in Paris.  Her family has begun renovation on an apartment that once belonged to her husband's grandmother, who was recently placed in a nearby convalescent home.  She was sickened by what she read about Vel' d'Hiv, and she struggled to learn what she could.  It was as real as the man whose entire family was taken — except him, because the French left behind some teens.  It was as real as the fact that her husband's family moved into their apartment within weeks of the roundup.  It was as real as the tales told by the witnesses who couldn't believe their government would do the work of the Germans for them.

The two stories are told, for the most part, in alternating chapters that take a reader's breath away.  One wants to know what happened to Sarah as Julia investigates not only the story for the newspaper, but her own story, and the story of her husband's family — and asks if anyone can be held blameless in that chaotic time.  When the story resolves itself, one can only answer the question in her/his own heart of hearts.

This is a fabulously written story: a deft tale with plausible, sympathetic (but not cloyingly so) characters facing unfathomable obstacles with everything they are.  I read deep into the night and thought about the story even when the book was not in my hand.  It haunts me now, and I cradle Sarah's hope and pain in my own heart, living every excruciating moment with her in my mind, over and over.  My mouth was agape time and again as the story continued, unrelenting, through waves of horror and hope, sadness and redemption.

The language of Sarah's Key is smooth and lovely, not always the case for a book originally published in a different language than English.  This is not a translation, which gladdened my heart; translations often take the readers a step away from the story when the words become a story of their own.

I recommend this book only for the brave reader, or the foolish one — this book will not leave readers unchanged, and only those who wish to continue to live with Julia and Sarah in their minds and hearts should pick up the book.  If you are brave enough to do so, you will not regret it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Stranger Things Happen

I am all about weird. I seek out the weird. However, I think I hit my weird quota with the short story collection Stranger Things Happen.

Kelly Link's collection of short stories goes to New York and beyond. What she does well is spin the yarn: I wasn't sure where the story was going, but I was game to follow Link's lead.

At first.

Then things got weird.

When a story concluded, I honestly had no idea what it meant. I was lost. It had to mean more than just the words on the page, or it would have been a colossal waste of time.

I was transfixed by the first story, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," where a man with major memory issues is writing a letter to his wife. As the story unfolded, I was transfixed. Many other storytellers tried to imagine this lost-feeling destination with limited success — but Link had a handle on it. Well, until the end approached, and while I saw where it was going, I didn't like it.

She retold a couple of fairy tales in "Travels With the Snow Queen" and "Shoe and Marriage," and she threw in some folklore with "Flying Lessons." All interesting tales, all successful beginnings, all faltered near the end for me.

The two most successful stories — "The Specialist's Hat" and "Survivor's Ball, or The Donner Party" — were more direct, more specific, told the tale to the end instead of letting go and making the reader try to follow the balloon into the atmosphere.

Why did I finish it? Well, it's not a good reason, but it is an explanation: I read it to the end because NPR recommended it. However, they also publish Nancy Pearl's recommendations, and I have yet to find a gem for me among her suggestions.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book as a whole. One or two stories may strike you, but don't feel obligated to read them all. Let me know what you think, and which stories you liked.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What I Didn't Read

Lately, I've been picking up books, just to put them back down. I blame part of that on The Discovery of Witches, which I enjoyed greatly (and will review in the near future).

The rest I blame on bad books.

To be fair, not all of them have been "bad" in the traditional "wish to rip out your eyeballs to save your soul" kind of way, but perhaps unsuitable for the time being:
  • I knew Game of Thrones was too heavy for my brain right now, and I will pick it up after the library is settled.
  • I already read Geek Love at a different time in my life, when I could handle the story of a family of people purposely bred to be born with bizarre, extreme birth defects.
  • I couldn't wait to read about the Unseen University in Unseen Academicals, but I put it away after a few pages. I blame that on a sinus headache.

Others, however, were. I must be the last person to read The Hunger Games — well, almost read it. After about 20 pages, I had to stop. The lead character was totally non-dynamic and simple. Plus, the "dystopian" story wasn't totally unique: when civilization ends, so does civility. This novel just throws young adults into the gory part of the story because it's young adult fiction — and apparently, that's the only way this author thinks youth will read her story. (As a former Nickelodeon staff writer, she might know of such things, so perhaps I am talking out of my hat.)

The Hunger Games might get better, but I didn't want to invest the time. There are too many good stories out there to waste time on something that doesn't intrigue me.

What should I pick up next? Let me know!