Saturday, September 26, 2015

And you know what the worst part is? I never learned to read!

Non-fiction! Because it's awesome to learn stuff.

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Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

The Story: This is the newest non-fiction by Rubin who wrote The Happiness Project. In this book she tackles habits and the idea is really how habits can make us happier. So her premise is that if we will create habits, we streamline our lives and have fewer daily decisions we have to make, which frees us up for the other things that we want to do.

The Review: I was totally fascinated. And can I just say, Gretchen Rubin is my spirit animal. So she spends a lot of the book talking about the types of people and dividing people into categories based first on how they react to expectations (because habits start with expectations) and then continues with categories to help us see how to better implement habits. As she writes, she uses all kinds of people as examples, her friends, her family, readers of her books and blog, and herself. In every different category that she set up she says what she is. And I'm reading along, "Me too! Me too, Gretchen. We're the same!"

I'm a habit and routine person. I love habits. So this really connected for me, but a lot of the things that she explains and recommends are things that I do naturally without even thinking about them. That said, she lays out 7 areas where people generally want to make goals and set up habits. One area is "engage more deeply in relationships." And I started realizing that I do better at having relationships with people when they are consistent. So it might sound yucky or forced to say it's a habit, but if I go to the gym at the same time every single day, there are people that I start talking to. If I go to this meetup every single month, I get to know those people and we become friends. So that is the habit I am pondering on.

Her categories also made me think a lot about the people that I am around. And I had my students take her short quiz to see what their tendency is. It will be interesting to see how it plays out for the rest of the semester.

I highly recommend it!

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The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Story: Building the Atomic Bomb took a lot of people. A lot of regular people beyond the scientists who were in charge. The men were drafted as soldiers, so a lot of those regular people were women. This book tells the story of the women who worked at the hastily constructed base in Tennessee where they refined materials for the bomb.

The Review: This is one of the really interesting, little known stories. It is interesting how the base/town was constructed and then expanded so quickly. The pervasive mud was an image I can't forget. It was also interested how many people were involved, but no one knew anything. They didn't even know what they were working on until after the bomb had been dropped.

But in reading this book, I felt like it really dragged. It was difficult for me to stay really engaged with it. I kept getting the specific women that Kiernan followed confused. There were long passages explaining the science (which is interesting, but over my head [especially when I was reading this]) and using the codes that were used, which was confusing to keep track of. Although it is a really interesting history, it wasn't the best presentation of it.

If you are super interested in WWII history, the bomb, or women's history, then I recommend it. Otherwise, go read the Navajo Codetalkers or Unbroken for your WWII fix.

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The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Story: This little book has been at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list for a while and it seems like everyone is talking about it. Kondo shares her method for decluttering and taking control of our stuff. And along with her simple method, she makes some really big promises.

The Review: Part 1 -- I like Kondo's advice. I am a minimalist, and I want my home and office to be clutter-free. I like her Japanese approach to everything. One thing that her American audience seems particularly weirded out by is that she greets her home, that she thanks her possessions for their service, that she believes getting rid of stuff opens your life up to new things. Essentially she believes everything has an energy and we need to work with it, not against it. I love that. So I am totally down with the advice.

Part 2 -- Reading this book came at a bad time for me. Reading it was really upsetting (to the point of tears). One of Kondo's promises is that by taking control of your stuff, you will get control of your life. I was left confronting all kinds of issues about my life and the things that are happening in my life and how I am reacting to them. The intention of the book is probably not to cause a therapy session, but it was where I was at.

So because of the difficulty of my reading, it's a little hard for me to recommend the book. But hey, it's only a hundred pages, so if it puts you in a dark place, it's either over quickly or you can quit reading. But since I do believe in the energy of things, I recommend it. And I already tidied my papers this morning.

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In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Story: Once upon a time, there was a whaleship named Essex. It set out from Nantucket on a whaling journey that would take at least two years. The voyage was doomed almost from the start. One thing after another went wrong, and then, as they were trying to hunt a whale, another whale came and attacked the ship. A giant, abnormally aggressive whale who managed to do enough damage to sink the ship, and this is the story of the men's struggle for survival. This is a true story that inspired the novel Moby Dick.

The Review: This was fascinating. It is totally an edge-of-your-seat adventure story and it is hard to believe it is not fictional. Philbrick does a great job of telling the true story so that you get caught up in the characters and action. But it's also a fascinating work of non-fiction, taking the meandering form that many of them now do, and wandering off to explain issues like sea navigation, what happens to the body when it is dehydrated, how sperm whales were hunted, caught, killed, and their blubber and oil were rendered (truly disgusting).

I highly recommend the book. The movie will come out sometime, and while that will capture the adventure (I hope it captures it well), it will not to any justice to the variety of information in this book.

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Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hahn

The Story: In this book, Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk, is drawing parallels between the Buddha and his teachings and Christ and his teachings.

The Review: I love Thich Nhat Hahn's writings. They are simple and easily accessible. Here he is trying to show how close Christianity and Buddhism are so that there will be more understanding and acceptance in the world. He begins with his own story of encountering Christianity. Then he moves to the initial lessons that Christ taught and how they are paralleled with the life of the Buddha or the life of Christ. He ends the book by explaining the basic principles of Buddhism. So it's a way to ease a Christian into Buddhism and to show the parallels, and vice versa.

If you are interested in comparing religions, I recommend it.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

So join now, ’cause at the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, we teach you that there’s more to life than just being really, really, really good looking. Right kids?

Fiction! Let's start with just a few.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Story: Rosemary starts her stories in the middle. In this one, we learn immediately that she has a mother and a father, and that at one time she also had a brother and a sister. But now both her brother and sister are gone. She tells us the middle of her story, and then flashes back to the beginning.

The Review: This was such an interesting and gripping story. Rosemary is a charming narrator. She has quirky little asides. For example, after describing a character in a way that makes you really like him, she tells us, "Don't get attached. He's not part of this story." And she refuses to tell us her father's jokes, because then we'll judge him and that's her job.

Because the story is told out of chronological order, Rosemary is able to build how she feels about her family before creating them as real characters/real people. It's a very effective move, because our feelings as the readers reflect hers. And this is a family drama, so it is the craziness of family, the power of love, and the connection that never goes away.

I highly recommend it.

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Disclaimer: The picture on the cover is a terrible illustration for the book. It makes it look like a cheap romance, which it is not.

The Story: Set in Naples, Italy, this novel starts with the childhood of Elena and Lila. It follows their friendship as they grow from young girls to 16/17 years old. (Their story resumes and continues in 3 more novels). Their friendship grows and changes as they both deal with the challenges of growing up, of their families, and the violent society of Napoli.

The Review: One of the things that we discussed at book club was how this book portrays female friendship. The friendship between Elena and Lila is the entire focus, and as Elena narrates she explains her feelings for Lila and tries to understand their world together. Part of our discussion is how rare books of female friends are. Always at some point the focus of the book shifts to something else (usually romance). So the premise of the book is really interesting and needed.

This book is translated from Italian and it feels Italian. I mean that first in the descriptions of Napoli. It's very easy to get transported. But I also mean in the pace. This is a slow, leisurely book. There is no rush or hurry to get to the next thing, it is not a book that drives you forward. It is like sitting down to dinner with an Italian family and you spend an hour on each course, because that's what it deserves.

If you are comfortable being immersed in a slow novel, I recommend it. And if you are comfortable starting a series that will suck you in with twists at the end of each novel so you have to keep reading, I recommend it. 

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Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

The Story: Bernadette lives in Seattle, hates Seattle people, is agoraphobic and a little less than stable. She gets herself and her family (husband and daughter Bee) into a tangled mess and then disappears. Bee works to discover the truth of what happened to her mother.

The Review: This was so charming. It is cute and funny and quirky. I really enjoyed the characters and how this was told. I love the ideas behind the things that Bernadette created. And I was totally caught up in the unfolding mystery of what happened to Bernadette.

I recommend it.