Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My goal is to eventually say things that are so sassy and wise, that there is no possible response other than "Mm" or *Mmhm*.

Carla asked how my goals are going. (For a refresh on my goals, click here). Thanks for keeping me accountable!

Goal 1: Deal with stress better.
Part 1: Yoga
I'm doing really well at doing yoga at least three times a week. Last week I even got up to four times. It gives me a good space to breathe and stop thinking.

And to prove how well I'm doing, here's my yoga jar.
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Part 2: Read The Power of Now
I'm halfway through (naturally I'll post a full book review when I finish), but basic principles I've learned so far:
1. The mind will chatter away non-stop like it's in charge. But you need to assert yourself and control your mind.
2. Stop and just watch the mind chatter away. It takes you out of the thoughts that are stressing you out and you become an observer.
3. Take moments throughout the day to notice what is happening around you. Feel the sun on your face, taste the food, smell the crisp air, etc.
4. Your mind is creating problems. Wherever you are, there isn't really a problem right now, so stop allowing your mind to create the problem.

What I want to apply:
1. Taking time during the day to breathe and notice what is going on around me. I'm thinking about setting up an alarm on my phone, to ring maybe every two hours, and I take 5 deep breaths.

In addition to those goals I had set, I listened to a podcast that talked about the importance of breathing, so I'm working on that. There are also a couple of rituals that I can do when I feel stressed out. Last night, for example, I got very stressed out and after a couple of hours of freaking out, I remembered my rituals, so I did each of them, and now that I finished my yoga for today, I really do feel better.

Goal 2: Be more positive/have a positive outlook on life
Part 1: The Gratitude Jar
The original goal was to write one thing I am grateful for every day. I just fell into the pattern of writing three things. And that is working better.

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So much good in my life.

New Addition: Part 2: Making time for things I really love
Life is busy and it's only going to get busier as the semester progresses. But I am making space for doing things I love. Two weeks ago, I made hard lotion bars. I so enjoyed myself. This weekend I took myself to the movies and then spent the day cooking and singing at the top of my lungs. I read a book that made me cry it was so beautiful. And I'm crocheting myself a scarf because it is pretty. I don't care if it takes until April to finish it, I'm just enjoying the process.

Goal 3: Be kinder/Get rid of negative self-talk
I'm still not really sure how to do this. I think that dealing with stress better and being more positive help naturally. But I feel like there might be some more concrete way to incorporate this, but I don't know how.

All in all, I feel like my goals are going really well.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Your first book! Are you sure this is yours?

Book Reviews

Blameless (Parasol Protectorate, #3)

Blameless by Gail Carriger

The Story:
Number 3 of the Parasol Protectorate.

The Review:
So a werewolf has to drink formaldehyde to get drunk and the Knights' Templar showed up. I still laughed out loud at parts. I still recommend the series for that, but I'm stopping with this one. I don't feel any need to read further.

Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The Story:
Animals stage a rebellion against their human owners and proceed to run the farm themselves.

The Review:
First note, this is one of my "Books I should have read at some point, but never did" list. (For the rest of that list, click here).

Saying that I hated this book implies too much caring. And I just simply don't care. I know why this is an important book. I understand the stance it is taking and the message. But I think there are better ways to tell the story and share/spread the message. I didn't care, and in fact, couldn't remember any of the characters. The writing throughout was so flat that it was not engaging and as a whole left a lot to be desired.

The Lottery (Tale Blazers)

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Story:
A short story of a lottery drawing in a small town.

The Review:
(Another "Books I should have read at some point, but never did")
This is a great story and I enjoyed it. I can't say much without giving away the entire story. But Jackson did a masterful job of setting the scene.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

The Story:
A short story in which the narrator reflects on life.

The Review:
(Another "Books I should have read at some point, but never did")
I really liked this. Once again, because of the nature of a short story, I can't say much without giving away the whole story. But I found the narrator's voice really engaging and liked how introspective and reflective he was. It is a very clever story.

Blood Oath (Nathaniel Cade, #1)

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth

The Story:
The president has a special top secret agent named Cade who is a vampire. He is sent on special missions to protect the president and the United States aided by his new handler, Zach.

The Review:
As silly as the premise is, the book was actually pretty clever. It's a little James Bond as vampire, which makes it way better than vampire romance novels. Cade refers to himself as a monster and that's far more truthful than most of the other portrayals of vampires. It was entertaining and fun, but also a little gruesome.

Imprints (Autumn Rain, #1)

Imprints by Rachel Ann Nunes

The Story:
There is a girl with magic powers.

The Review:
Ugh!!! Full disclosure: I stopped after 100 pages.
It was awful! Why do they always have to make the girl so horribly awkward and annoying?

The Time Keeper

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom

The Story:
This is Father Time's life story. A man started counting time and then was cursed to hear the cries of those who count time forever.

The Review:
This was so seriously condescending. It was very pedantic and preachy. It was not engaging and interesting. It was not a lovely story. It was just annoying.

The Maid's Version

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

The Story:
This part is true -- an explosion at a dance hall in Missouri in the late 1920s kills 28 people and remains an unsolved mystery. The novel uses that event and creates a story about a maid who suspects the truth of what happened. Her grandson visits her for the summer, and she tells him the story.

The Review:
I really liked the way this story was told. The maid, now a very old woman, tells her story to her grandson. He is actually the narrator of the novel and tells us about his grandmother and the way she shares this story. It is very pieced together and jumpy, just as a reminiscence would be. The story is obviously tragic, but very interesting and engaging. The novel also does a great job of showing what life was like in a small town in Missouri for the variety of classes that lived there. The writing is great and this is a quick read.

I highly recommend it.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The Story:
This is a non-fiction account of life in the slums of Annawadi by the airport in Mumbai, India.

The Review:
Wow. This is seriously so conflicting because the life that is lived by the people in the slum is horrible. Beyond horrible. And it's just amazing what they have to go through to squeak by. And it's also not that they don't know how bad life is. They are aware of the disease and have dreams about other opportunities and a better life.

On the other side, I want to say that this book is gorgeous. Boo's way of telling the story captured so much and was able to convey it in absolutely stunning language. But I still can't say that I loved it because the subject matter is so difficult.

Boo says that her interest is not only showing life, but in understanding and showing what the opportunities are for breaking out of poverty and what forces hold people in poverty. I thought she did a masterful job of showing the nuance of the situation and the opportunities and opposition.

I very much recommend this book.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

The Story:
A multi-threaded narrative about lives that intersect in war-torn Chechnya. It moves in time through the first and second wars in Chechnya and follows the lives that intersect with the life of a girl named Havaa.

The Review:
I feel like I read this with a lot of stops and starts. Not because it was bad, but just because it was heavy. Despite that disjointed feeling reading experience, I actually wound up really liking the book. It was beautifully written. Really very beautiful. I liked how Marra worked the timeline with the flashes back and forth and to different characters. And I was very connected to the characters, and felt along with them as the story unfolded.

I feel like I know absolutely nothing about the history of Chechnya, but Marra did a great job of working in information about the wars and government and history without being too heavy handed about it. It is a fine line to walk, but I felt like he did it very well.

Again, this is not a happy book, but it is a beautiful book. I recommend it.

The Story and Its Writer Compact: An Introduction to Short Fiction

The Story and Its Writer by Ann Charters

The Story:
An anthology of short stories.

The Review:
So this is the new textbook that I am using in my Introduction to Fiction class. I generally don't count short stories (except those that are featured on my list of books I haven't read), but I've read this entire book now (in the past two weeks) and I want credit for that!

To the actual review part, this is a great anthology. There is an amazingly wide variety of stories pulled together here and great choices were made about which to include. My one disappointment is that Charters has focused so much on recent short stories that some of the older classics were just ignored. But sometimes that is how it has to be.

In addition to the stories themselves, the information about the authors, additional critical essays, and other information is all really well done and well chosen.

This isn't the type of book that you take on a trip when you want to read short stories on a plane, but it's a good anthology and wouldn't be a bad choice to have around the house to pick up at random free moments.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Two people with a common goal can accomplish many things. Two people with a common enemy... can accomplish even more.

My life runs on semesters, and I find that at the close of every semester I shift into evaluating mode. Of course the mountain of grading piles ever higher, and that forces me to evaluate. But I also think through the semester, what went well in my classes, what didn't, what do I want to change next semester (which isn't always the same as what didn't go well). The force of the evaluation and reflection often overflows into my own personal life as well and I find myself setting new goals as I think about things I'd like to change.

I've set some broad goals for 2014.

Goal 1: Deal with stress better.
I'm trying to be practical here. It's absolutely not realistic for me to say "stress less," but I can manage it better than I currently do.

I'm breaking this goal down a bit, because it is so broad.
Part 1: Do yoga. I love yoga and it always makes me feel better. But when I get stressed, I think I don't have enough time, and yoga is the first thing to go. So the goal is to do yoga three times a week.

Part 2: As an initial step, I'm reading the book The Power of Now. This was recommended to me as something to think about for managing my stress about 6 months ago. I'm implementing it now.
Product Details

Goal 2: Be more positive/have a positive outlook on life.
Being really vague, I'll just say that I've noticed that although I'm generally a very happy and positive person, some things are happening that are causing a more negative shift. I want to actively combat that, rather than just hoping for things to improve.

Part 1: Gratitude Jar

I bought a pretty jar that I think I will keep on my dining table so I can fill it with slips of paper each day about things I am grateful for. The goal is to put one slip of paper in each day.

Goal 3: Be kinder.
As my family was discussing goals, Carla said she thought of a way to measure this, but forgot what it was. And my dad said, "I didn't know you weren't kind."

So to explain, this goal is really that I would like to be kinder to myself. Tying in with the stress and negativity is some rather vicious self-talk. And I know that I talk to myself, inside my head and even out loud sometimes, in ways that I would never speak to anyone else. And I don't deserve that. So I want to work on eliminating the negative self-talk and showing kindness and love.

I'm really not sure how to break this one down yet. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Okay, we can't keep explaining everything. Read that book we got you.

If you thought that last post meant that I'm shifting in a new direction and will be writing fewer book reviews.... um.... "Get used to disappointment." (10 nerd points for you if you can name the source of the quote).

These are the books that I read to finish out December. (In case you are keeping track, they will be counted with 2014's reading list and best-of-the-year list).

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Story:
The story follows the lives of Japanese mail-order brides spanning the time from their voyage to America to their marriages, children, and culminating in the entrance of the United States into World War II and the removal of the Japanese to internment camps.

The Review:
Otsuka begins this novella with an immediately noticeable and fascinating approach to the narrative voice -- she actually uses "we" as the narrator. So rather than a story that focuses on an individual Japanese woman who goes through these experiences, our narrator(s) is a group of women. For example, the opening paragraph begins, "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves." I found the use of "we" to be really fascinating because it had all kinds of effects on how the story was told and on me as the reader. In addition, as I got to the chapter that catalogs the differences between the Japanese and the Americans, I realized that the use of "we" highlights another important cultural difference without it being part of the list. The Japanese value the collective while Americans value the individual. Because the entire story is told from the collective perspective, it really highlights how they view themselves as the same as each other and as part of the group.

This is technically a novella, so it is short enough that there doesn't feel like there is a lot of depth to the story, but it did a lot in very few pages. It had lasting images, it created emotion, it made me care about what was happening, even though I didn't have one specific person to care about.

Absolutely recommend it.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

The Story:
This is a complicated multi-threaded, multi-time (and not chronological) narrative about love and justice. It follows, predominantly, Peter Lake's adventures against bad guys (a band of thieves called Short Tails), with love, and with a white horse in a New York City that is lost in winter.

The Review:
This novel is beautifully poetic and philosophical. It's a story about the power of love (sort of) but it is also just a love song to New York City. The many threads of different characters' stories combine beautifully. It drags a bit -- because it is 800 pages -- but it is a good fantasy-type adventure, it is thoughtful, and just beautifully written.

That review seems woefully inadequate, but I'm having a really hard time summing up the story. The difficulty notwithstanding, I highly recommend it.

Product Details

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The Story:
In a dystopian America, the fireman's job is to burn books. Montag, a long-time fireman, begins to question what he is doing.

The Review:
This is from my "books I should have read at some point" list. And what I learned in reading this book is that the typical descriptions, that this is a book about censorship or book burning, are incredibly dismissive. It is really a book about the beauty and power of books and a plea to allow them to impact us. And it is beautiful. The language is stunning and entrancing. As Montag begins to question and to think, you feel his conflict and angst as he is torn between what he knows and what he begins to see might be true in the world.

Highly recommend it.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Story:
A boy Daniel goes with his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he adopts a book to protect for the rest of his life. He becomes fascinated by the book he has chosen which is also titled The Shadow of the Wind, and begins to search for the author. As he goes farther in his search he discovers a huge mystery and begins to unravel it.

The Review:
I loved this book. It had me within the first three pages and the mention of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I was so caught by that idea that I want to be the caretaker of the Cemetery! Books shouldn't be forgotten! They should be protected and loved! .... Sorry, I'm supposed to be writing a review, not leaping on a soapbox....

It is a winding story that pulls in all kinds of characters, telling not only the mystery, but also the growth and life of Daniel. I fell in love with all the characters. Well, except the bad guy, and as is appropriate, I hate him. I also was very entranced by the beauty of the words. The way the story was told was very beautiful and vivid.

I started recommending this book to everyone before I even finished it. And now that I have finished it, I still highly recommend it. (Shout out to Tim, thanks for the recommendation!)

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

The Story:
This is non-fiction. Brene Brown is a shame researcher who began seeing that there are people that have something different about them. She calls them "Wholehearted" and they live "Wholeheartedly." She discovered that the Wholehearted live their lives with courage and can because they are vulnerable. She has presented her research and findings in two TED talks, "The Power of Vulnerability" and "Listening to Shame."   (Um, plug for TED too, so love it!) In Daring Greatly, she continues the discussion of shame and vulnerability by sharing her research, stories, and explains how we can incorporate the principles in our own lives.

The Review:
This is a fascinating look at the way we live both as a society and as individuals and the changes we need to make in order to get what we really want from life. Her research is very interesting and she does a great job of writing it in a very accessible way with her own experiences and specific stories from the research participants. She also throws in pop culture references that make reading this feel like talking to a friend, rather than reading research findings.

You can get a good idea of the things Brown discusses by watching/listening to the TED talks, but of course they are only 18 minutes long. The book allows her to go much deeper and explain where the shame comes from, what effects it has, and how vulnerability allows us to overcome it. She also describes how to practice vulnerability so the ideas become something we can actually implement.

The book gave me a lot to think about. Honestly the topic is a difficult one to examine yourself about, and Brown is honest about that too. So my thoughts are hard and difficult to deal with thoughts, but making the shift to be more vulnerable and live Wholeheartedly would be a good reward for the work of dealing with those thoughts.

I highly recommend it. And when you read it, let me know because I would love to discuss it!

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Story:
A collection of short stories (mostly) about Indian immigrants adjusting to life in America.

The Review:
I loved this collection. It's probably obvious, but it's a very quick read. Lahiri works extremely well with the short story format and is able to create characters that you are connected to and interested in very quickly. Some of the stories are poignant, touching stories, like the couple struggling with grief over a stillborn baby, or the father's reflection on his life. Others are funny, like Twinkle collecting Christian artifacts. All the stories are well-written and thought-provoking. And it is interesting to see so many aspects and perspectives on how people deal with changing their lives and coming to America.

Highly recommend it. (Shout out to Kim, thanks for the recommendation!)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

These are supplies for the crafts table. I finally figured out what we're gonna be making.

It has been forever since I've done a post about something that isn't books! And actually, every once in a while, I do manage to do something other than read. (Please read that as the light-hearted sarcasm that I intended).

To prove this, I'm going to show off my craftiness.

In August, my sister had a baby boy. To celebrate the arrival of my new nephew, I made him a hat. Carla loves gnomes, so I made her a gnome hat for baby Tucker to wear.

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Cutest gnome ever, right?

Then, big sister Zoey got jealous. She wanted to wear the gnome hat. So she did.

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But her head is a little larger. Or a lot larger.

So I made her her very own gnome hat. I gave it to her at the airport, and she immediately put it on and pronounced it, "So cute!"

New picture. Zoey doesn't hold still for very long, so catching a cute shot is a little hard. I possibly could have kept the hat a little larger. Maybe next time.

And then, because those were such successes I decided to make my youngest sister Kim a hat for Christmas as well. Initially, I thought this wound up too big, but it looks fabulous on her. Or as Zoey would say, "So cute!"

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I'm an open book, everybody always seems to know my secrets before I know them myself.

Catching up.

For my big end-of-the-year book post, I included a few books on the lists of books that I have read that I have not yet written individual reviews of. I could let it go, but I have some good ones that do deserve their own reviews. 

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

The Story:
A librarian in the small town of Hannibal, Missouri aids and abets a young runaway who is her favorite patron at the library.

The Review:
I really liked the way this story was told. Lucy is a children's librarian and she gets caught up in the life of Ian, a young patron who decides to run away from home. As the narrator, Lucy begins by wondering if she is the hero of the story or the villain, and she puts herself with all our other beloved characters -- deliberately appropriating famous lines.For example, in talking about our beloved heroes she says, "They tell me to light out for the territory, reckon I'm headed for Hell just like them. They say I'm the most terrific liar they ever saw in their lives." (For those of you who don't teach those two novels and thus reread them on a yearly basis -- "lighting out for the territory" is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and "the most terrific liar" is Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye). The allusions and references and appropriations continue throughout the story and Lucy tells parts of their adventure as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, The Very Hungry Catepillar, and a choose-your-own-adventure book. I loved that and thought it was really clever. I also don't think that you have to be me (or a relatively prolific reader like me) in order to get the references and appreciate what Makkai is doing there, so don't let it deter you.

The story itself is a little dramatic and angsty. Lucy constantly questions what she is doing and how wrong it is, so part of me was thinking "Yeah, you are an idiot. Stop making bad choices!"

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the book because of the clever way Makkai told it. So I recommend it.

Changeless by Gail Carriger

The Story:
This is the second novel in the Parasol Protectorate series that started with Timeless. Alexia is the heroine who is now married to the alpha werewolf. As the story opens, there is a new threat to the supernaturals in London and Alexia and her husband investigate and try to stop it.

The Review:
I liked this story. It is fun, quick, and light. There were some good new characters introduced that made me laugh and that I enjoyed. But as I got to the end of the novel, I thought, yeah, I'm done with these. Not in a frustrated, you-ruined-my-series kind of way, just in a ok, that was entertaining, but I'm satisfied and I don't need more. But then I finished it and there was enough of a twist at the end that I want to read the next one.

The series is good and clever, so I recommend it, but of course start with the first one.

Only in New York by Sam Roberts

The Story:
This is a series of non-fiction articles about quirky or interesting or unusual things about New York City.

The Review:
I picked up this book because it was for sale on the 50 cent rack at the new used bookstore ... by which of course I mean the used bookstore that recently opened. I really enjoyed reading the articles. All the articles were very short, only 2 or 3 pages, so you can fly through them very easily. The topics are interesting and range from popular baby names to the city maintenance to screens on the windows. The articles are less intentionally humorous than I thought they would be and more fascinating trivia.

If you are interested in New York, I recommend it.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

The Story:
There is a murder of a 14 year old boy in a small town. The assistant district attorney begins to investigate the crime. After few leads, his son, Jacob, is indicted and put on trial for the murder of his classmate.

The Review:
This is a novel that moves really fast, so it is easy to read because of that. As I got halfway through the story, it felt like a Jodi Picoult novel. What I mean by that is that the novel is not about the story itself, but instead it is actually a thought-exercise. What would you do if this happened? And the author's intention is that you will put yourself in the ADA father's shoes. In Picoult's most famous book, My Sister's Keeper, you are meant to examine whether you think it is ethical that the parents had a baby just to keep their terminally ill daughter alive, and whether you think it is that baby's responsibility to keep her alive no matter what. Defending Jacob had the same feel. What would you do as the parents of this boy who is accused of murder? How would you approach his defense? Would you defend him no matter what?

I'm not necessarily saying that these types of thought exercises are bad, because they can be very intriguing. But I don't feel Landay executed it well. It felt forced and preachy.

There is a major twist at the end of the story that for me made the frame of the story unbelievable. I don't want to spoil the twist or the ending, but as soon as I read it I thought no way! That would never happen. The law does not permit/force spouses to testify against each other. Then I realized that I'm basing my knowledge of the law on Breaking Bad. So perhaps that won't be a problem for you.

To bring this to a final recommendation, I didn't like it. I just wanted the book over with.

Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander

The Story:
This is a non-fiction story written by Eben Alexander who is a neurosurgeon. In it, he tells of his experience when he was in a seven day coma. He contracted bacterial meningitis and woke up one morning with a headache that within 30 minutes became excruciating and within a few hours he was in a complete coma as the bacteria destroyed his spinal column and brain. While he mixes in a lot of information about his illness, most of the book focuses on the near death experience that he had while in the coma.

The Review:
This was fascinating. As I mentioned, because he is a doctor, Alexander gives a lot of clinical details about what was happening to his body. He is able to concisely and clearly relate how his body was being attacked and how it was dying in a way that is really understandable, even for a completely non-medical person like me. The contrast between that ability to express himself about the medical realm is a stark contrast to his struggle to find words to express his experiences with the Divine/in the Higher Realms (using his terms). It was really interesting to see that difference. In addition to explaining what was happening to his body, Alexander's primary focus was describing the lessons that he learned while he was in heaven and why he wanted to write the book. I was really fascinated with the story and his experience. It was a well-written book and very engaging. I also found it to be a really fast read.

So that's my review from a writing perspective.

On the other side of that review is my reaction as a reader, and that is a bit more complicated. As a person reacting to this, I totally believe that he had this experience. Disbelief isn't what made it complicated for me (although from what he says in the book, it was what made it complicated for many people). The lessons are where it got complicated for me. I'm still kind of struggling to put that all together for myself. But it gave me a lot to think about.

Final word: I recommend it. And when you read it, please let me know because I would love to discuss it.