Monday, June 4, 2012

June: A Novel Month

May was an amazing month. Spring ripened in St. Louis and has slowly turned into summer. I finished my graduate coursework and was able to spend some much-needed time with friends and family. I started my thesis with renewed vigor and energy, working under a professor I greatly admire. And I read. A lot.

May was a month of memoirs. I read some truly amazing books- really, some of the best that I've read yet this year. Then I read some that did not agree with me so much. Here is the list, in full, of books I read in May:

Haren, B. Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West (4/5)

Finch, D. The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Many's Quest to Become a Better Husband (4/5)

Winterson, J. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (4/5)

Smith, P. Just Kids (2/5)

Larson, E. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (5/5)

Strayed, C. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (4/5)

Hillenbrand, L. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (5/5)

Wiesel, E. Night (5/5)

Mahon, E.K. Scandalous Women: The Life and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women (3/5)

Brewster, H. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First Class Passengers and Their World (4/5)

Reynolds, G. The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer (5/5)

Fisher, C. Wishful Drinking (2/5)

Beah, I. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (5/5)

Schiff, S. Cleopatra: A Life (3/5)

Armstrong, K. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (3/5)

Bolte Taylor, J. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey (4/5)

Swanson, J. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (5/5)

Siegel, E. Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for the Truth (5/5)

The venture to read memoirs in May was a lot of fun. The "memoir" section in my bookshelf now has a satisfying hole in it. Some of the books were sitting on my shelf for a few years, gently goading me and making me feel vaguely guilty (I'm looking at you, boy soldier).

So now I'm ready to do the same with June. I'm starting with Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, about which I've heard amazing things. I'm also excited to read Elegies for the Broken-Hearted, the second-to-latest Dexter book, and a few others that have been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, gently goading me and making me feel vaguely guilty (I'm looking at you, Cutting for Stone). As always, I am rapt for suggestions.

Currently Reading: Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for the Truth 

 Books read in 2012: 56

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

I was immediately drawn to the concept of Cheryl Strayed's memoir "Wild". I feel that many of us have woken up in our mid-twenties and realized that we want to run away from our post-adolescent malaise and the less than stellar choices we've made. We look around, see how we've treated ourselves and others and want to high-tail it out of there. However, Strayed is unique in that most of us do not choose to exorcise our demons by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

At twenty-six, still reeling from the sudden death of her mother four years earlier, in the aftershocks of a divorce to a man she still loves, and dealing with the consequences of years of poor decision-making, Cheryl Strayed decides on a whim to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, despite having no hiking experience whatsoever. The Pacific Crest Trail, which starts in Mexico, zigzags through California, Oregon, Washington, and into Canada, spanning 2,650 miles.

I was interested in this book, but I was also skeptical. It has all of the makings of an instant bestseller. So it could be amazing. It could also be amazingly over-hyped. Fortunately, Strayed is a gifted storyteller: weaving together her adventure on the trail and the experiences that led her there with humor and aching honesty.

May has been the Month of Memoirs (I am using an overly generous definition, including biographies as well). Most of the books I've read this month tell the story of someone who has achieved something despite staggering odds: whether it's escaping from a concentration or POW camp, getting a college education after years as a child soldier, living with parents with mental illness, or surviving the Titanic shipwreck. One of the things I loved about Strayed's book is that it is one of redemption. She is a self-sabotaging wreck. She is attempting, in her words, to change: "Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be- strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good".

And, like any fundamental and true change, this one takes time.

And, like every change that restores someone back to the person they were before tragedy knocked them profoundly off-balance, this one is worth it.

Currently reading: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
Books read in 2012: 54

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

I spent most of eighth grade learning about the Holocaust. We reverently devoured the words of Anne Frank, a girl to whom we could relate and admire for her tenacity and humor.  We watched Schindler's List. We learned new phrases such as "D-Day" and "Lend-Lease Act". As a culminating experience of the unit, we visited the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis. I remember seeing pictures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners for the first time. Never before had I understood "starving" as anything other than a hyperbolic term used hungrily after a day spent running around outside. Photograph after photograph displayed gaunt figures staring at the camera, grotesque piles of dead prisoners, crematoriums. As with millions of others in my generation, I have since wondered, "How did this happen?"

I don't mean how did it happen militarily or geopolitically. Those contexts, we learn in school. I suppose I mean viscerally: what did it mean to be in Germany in the moments when collective consciousness began to realize that Hitler was more than an overzealous man attempting to restore Germany to glory? What did Berlin look like, smell like, feel like as everything started to change? Who fought it from the beginning? Who supported Hitler at first and then tried to back out, swimming against the current in vain? How come Hitler's actions did not incite more outrage from his citizens? Was it indifference? A misjudgment of the situation? Or, as I have always suspected, abject terror?

Erik Larson attempts to answer these questions is his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. This work of narrative nonfiction follows the Dodd family. William Dodd is chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago. Larson describes Dodd as a Jeffersonian democrat who loves spending his leisure time at his small farm in Round Hill, Virginia and who is tirelessly working on a four-volume series of early southern history called The Rise and Fall of the Old South. He finds that his efforts to work on this tome are constantly thwarted by other menial, academic duties. Frustrated, he requests to become a diplomat. Apparently, it is that easy. Lickity-split, Dodd and his family are on their way to 1933 Berlin, where presumably Dodd will now have plenty of time to devote to antebellum history.

With Dodd are his wife Martha, and his two grown children, Bill and Martha. However, the story mainly focuses on William and daughter Martha, as well as the people they encounter. Young Martha uses her father's post as an opportunity to reinvent herself while relieving herself of an ill-planned and short-lived marriage. Soon, she is gallivanting with Nazi soldiers, Russian diplomats, and Jewish writers and artists. William Dodd dedicates himself to honorably representing the United States, although everyone pretty much ignores him; he is derided by officials both German and American.

Larson masterfully illustrates the subtle, incremental changes that occur in Germany in 1933 and 1934. He shows a wide spectrum of beliefs and behavior, from those who leave Germany as quickly as possible, to those who speak out against Hitler and demand their voices heard, to those who convince themselves until too late that the Nazis are a necessary inconvenience with a habit of roughhousing rather over-exuberantly. Most importantly, he shies away from hero or villain portrayals of the everyday people about whom he writes. He shows each person in all of their stark, messy humanity. Larson is a meticulous researcher and a divine storyteller.

The people in this story are fascinating and compelling. I have not yet encountered another book that approaches World War II in quite this way. I strongly recommend this book.

Currently Reading:
  • Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster
  • The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live  Longer by Gretchen Reynolds
  • Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
Books read in 2012: 49

Thursday, May 17, 2012

100 Days

It was freezing when I decided to refrain from buying books for 100 days.  I was suffering from some sort of literary cabin fever that required me to attempt to purchase any book whose title sounded vaguely familiar.  Bookstores around St. Louis put up pictures of me with a sign that said "Do not serve this woman".

It was with an earnest and fervent desire to become a better person that I attempted to undergo 100 days without purchasing books.  My bank account will be healthier, I reasoned.  I'll understand the value of a single book.

I did not. Instead, I spent 100 days cajoling friends and family members to purchase some book for me that I absolutely need right now.  Technically within the rules- if not the spirit- of this venture.  I obsessed over books, counted days in my planner, and attempted to read every single book I own so that I would have to buy a new book.  I did not once enter a library or borrow a book from someone else. I'm most ashamed to admit that any of the money I would have saved was spent... on dresses.  I have always hated shopping and I have no idea how this occurred. 

According to many addiction specialists, there's a difference between refraining from alcohol or drugs and "living sober".  Simply not drinking is not enough; one must create a whole and healthy lifestyle that does not have room for destructive behavior.  I was not adapting and creating a lifestyle that was pleasant and precluded purchasing books on my every whim.  I was simply not buying books.

Still, I was very technically within the guidelines I had created for myself until day 86.

I left class one night and decided to go to the delightful independent bookstore across the street. A friend of mine was kind enough to give me Blues playoff tickets so I decided to thank her with a copy of Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine", as she shares my fascination with neuropsychological books a la Oliver Sacks. 

Until this point in my endeavor, I had not actually set foot in a bookstore.  The book section in Target was difficult enough.  I had spent 45 minutes in a book alcove in the San Antonio airport over Easter weekend and nearly missed my plane, salivating over the latest Alice Hoffman book. I made the grave mistake of walking into Webster's Pudd'nhead books alone, hungry and tired.  As soon as I walked into the new releases section, I knew I would leave a fallen woman.

So I put the energy that I had into making my fall worth it. I'm still proud of my purchases: Jeanette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and the recently reviewed Escape from Camp 14. I was finished with each by the end of the week. I spent one entire afternoon reading at the fountains below Art Hill in Forest Park and was contented as a cat napping in a sunny patch in the kitchen.

86 days. A season passed between when I embarked on this challenge and when I ultimately failed. I successfully completed one term of classes and I was nearly finished with another. I read nearly 30 books in that time. I only needed to wait 14 measly days; 2 puny weeks.

I've given a lot of thought to the merits of this challenge, as well as the reasons it didn't work. I think I need to first learn on a smaller scale how to curb my book impulses. I definitely need to go to the library and have my card renewed. It's one of those mundane chores that has become mythic and daunting in my mind.

I've decided that I'm going to adhere to a 5:1 ratio for the forseeable future. I must read five books that I own for every one book that I purchase. I will muster my courage and renew my library card. I've always been someone who is motivated by self-initiated challenges. Two summers ago, I biked 450 miles over the course of a couple months just to see if I could. Last week, I completed my graduate coursework in under a year; a first for my program and a feat that my adviser repeatedly assured me last fall was "impossible". So it was humbling to be felled by a relatively minor challenge.

On Day 101, I carefully selected three books to reward myself for a job relatively well done. While waiting an extra day doesn't technically make up for day 86, I think it helps. I was selective when I chose my books, hopeful that they will help me. I chose:

Night by Elie Wiesel
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

and, of course:
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

Currently reading: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Books read in 2012: 46

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escape From Camp 14

I'm embarrassed to admit that until about a month ago, I didn't even know North Korea had concentration camps.  Perhaps I had been vaguely aware of them as "work" or "labor" camps, but they hadn't yet registered in my consciousness until a student in my Intercultural Communication class gave a presentation about North Korea.  In her presentation, she mentioned the memoir of a man who had recently escaped the most dangerous of North Korea's several concentration camps.

"Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born into North Korea's formidable Camp 14.  Established in 1959, Camp 14 holds an estimated 15,000 prisoners.  It is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide and contains farms, mines, and factories.

Shin's parents were sent to the camp for different reasons, and then assigned to marry one another as a reward for good behavior.  They were allowed to "be together" only five nights a year, but still managed to procreate twice.   As a child, Shin's family showed one another no affection; they were raised in an environment that punished family loyalty and rewarded snitching.  They viewed one another as competitors for perpetually scarce food.

Blaine Harden, the author of the book, is a report for PBS Frontline, contributes to The Economist, and has served as The Washington Post's bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa.  He is a thorough and nuanced writer, taking care to be honest and informative.

Shin's story is fascinating and heartbreaking.  It was a shock to me, as I'm sure it will be to many others, that such conditions exist relatively unprotested by the rest of the world.  Harden briefly explains the North Korean government's cast system and fanatical control over what is presented to the outside world.  Still, an empathetic reader can't help but hope this book falls into the hands of  people in positions to make a difference.

Something in particular that I appreciated about this book is Harden's honesty in regards to Shin's adjustment to life outside of North Korea.  I was somewhat fearful that the book would follow the lines of "Shin escaped from the evil North Koreans and found salvation in America with the good guys".  In this case, propaganda isn't helpful or honest.  Instead, Harden is open about Shin's difficult emotional adjustment.  Over the last couple years I have done research about the impact of trauma on early development and the ability to form stable attachments.  Basically, early trauma changes the brain on a fundamental level.  Sometimes it's not possible for people's brains to be "rewired" to function as someone who was not exposed to trauma.  When it is possible, it occurs only after an intense recovery process with access to a lot of medical and psychological resources. Also, the people with whom we interact when we are young serve as templates for our understanding of all subsequent human interactions.  Since Shin's exposure to humans excluded warmth and rewarded disloyalty, it will be extremely difficult for him to ever learn to trust or feel empathy.

However, Shin has already proven to be extraordinary by virtue of the internal fortitude required of him to face what seemed to be certain death in order to leave the only place he had ever known. I would not be entirely surprised if, after a few more years of adjustment, he showed an emotional resiliency that has seldom been documented.

Overall, this is a quick read and I strongly recommend it.

Currently reading:
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Books read in 2012: 45

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Journal of Best Practices

I have a special place in my heart for people who make earnest attempts toward self-improvement.  Many of us resolve to lose weight or drink less or stop getting pissed off at other drivers (that's me), but few of us ever stick to these resolutions; ideas that are, let's face it, usually acts of contrition.

David Finch is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as his marriage is falling apart.  Deciding Asperger syndrome must be the cause of the failing marriage, David chooses to keep a journal containing a list of reminders of things he should do better.

His wife is open but hesitant.  She reminds him that the failings in their five-year marriage are deep and personal; they can't just blame Asperger syndrome and move on.

The chapter titles themselves caused me to laugh out loud.  They are based off of Best Practices that David learns and include such reminders as "Laundry: Better to Fold and Put Away than to Take Only What You Need From the Dryer", "Give Kristen Time to Shower Without Crowding Her", and "Parties are Supposed to be Fun".  I remind myself of that last one constantly.  He is wryly funny and newly self-aware of his self-involved ways.

What made me fall in love with this book was the evolving dynamic between David and his wife, Kristen.  David helps us to see the resentment that can build up after years of one person exhibiting self-obsessed behavior.  However, he is empathetic with Kristen, despite his concerns as to whether people with Asperger syndrome are capable of empathy.  He uses his diagnosis to work within his neurological differences to become the best husband possible.  I think that all of us, whether or not we have a diagnosis, would be wise to engage in such a practice. 

Kristen practices profound patience.  However, she is no saint.  She gets frustrated and sad and they occasionally shout at each other.  Still, she often makes it clear that she loves him very much.  She also lets him know when his Best Practices are encroaching on her sacred and scarce alone time, such as when he presents her with a "Husband Performance Review" form while she is taking a hot bath.  The form, a Best Practice that David devised after receiving a performance review at work, is something with which David often chases Kristen around the house, asking her to fill out until she finally comes up with the last Best Practice: "Don't Make Everything A Best Practice"

Asperger syndrome is a hot topic today.  I have read books, watched movies and T.V. shows, and learned about Asperger syndrome in special education classes.  However, David showed a family effected by Asperger syndrome in such a complex way as to evoke empathy, laughter, sadness, frustration, and joy.  I struggle with people who put people with developmental disabilities in the "Them" category, as though there is something distinct that separates any of us from anyone else.  This book reminds us that, in certain profound ways, we are all fundamentally the same.

Currently reading:
"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson
"Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand

Books read: 44

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Memoir May/ Biblio Update

I have decided to devote the month of May to all of the memoirs/biographies I own that are languishing on the shelf.  There are several about which I am super excited (Jeanette Winterson, Patti Smith, the guy who escaped from the North Korean concentration camp...).  I think this is going to be an amazing month with a lot of really fun book reviews.  I intend to be more prolific in May than I have been of late!  Thankfully, school will be somewhat less stressful. 

So far in 2012, I have read 40 books.  Here is the list along with my unscientific ratings:

1) Simonson, Helen.  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand   (5/5)

2) Patchett, Ann.        State of Wonder  (5/5)

3) Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom  (5/5)

4) Chua, Amy.            Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  (5/5)

5) Kingsolver, B.        The Lacuna  (2/5)

6) Brower, Sam.         Prophet's Prey: My 7 year investigation into Warren Jeffs  (3/5)

7) Persico, Joseph.     Franklin and Lucy   (5/5)

8) Rubin, Gretchen.   The Happiness Project  (3/5)

9) Borman, Tracy. Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped The Virgin Queen. (5/5)

10) Wiggins, Grant.   Understanding by Design (3/5)

11) Drew, Clifford.    Designing and Conducting Research in Education  (4/5)

12) Rehm, Diane.      Finding My Voice (4/5)
13) Morgenstern, E.   The Night Circus  (4/5)

14) Wolizter, Hilma.  An Available Man  (5/5)

15) Pratchett, Terry.   Good Omens  (3/5)

16) Cain, Susan.  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking  (5/5)

17) Yuknavitch, L.    The Chronology of Water  (1/5)

18) Isay, Dave.         All There Is: Love Stories From StoryCorps   (5/5)

19) Barrows, A.       The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society   (5/5)

20) Ronson, J.         The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry  (4/5)

21) Binchy, M.        Minding Frankie   (5/5)

22) Lukeman, N.     The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Your Fiction to Life (2/5)

23) King, Stephen.  On Writing.  (5/5)

24) Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer  (5/5)

25) Giordano, Paulo. The Solitude of Prime Numbers  (1/5)

26) Harris, Bob.        Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!  (5/5)

27) Seligman, M.       Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness & Well-Being  (3/5)

28) Gottman, J.          The Science of Trust  (5/5)

29) Seung, S.             Connectome: How the Brian's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are   (3/5)

30) Shaffer, D.           Social and Personality Development  (4/5)

31) Rosnay, T.            Sarah's Key  (1/5)

32) Block, L.              A Drop of the Hard Stuff   (4/5)

33) Lehrer, J.              Imagine: How Creativity Works  (5/5)

34) Marcus, B.           The Flame Alphabet   (4/5)

35) Evans, H.             Love Always  (3/5)

36) Hampton, K.        Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected  (4/5)

37) Robbins, A.         The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids  (3/5)

38) Chow, Cara.        Bitter Melon  (3/5)

39) Gottschall, J.       The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human   (4/5)

40) Hoffman, Alice. The Dovekeepers   (5/5)

Textbooks/Writing books:6
Psychology/Neuroscience: 8

Currently reading: Finch, D.  The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works

The shivery feeling I get when I realize I am reading something truly special must qualify as a crush.  I'll open the book, read a few pages, and experience the vicarious thrill that accompanies the presence of true greatness.  All of the sudden, I'm hanging onto every word.  I laugh more, I talk about it nonstop with my friends.  The cover of the book even begins to look more attractive.  That's how I feel about Johan Lehrer's "Imagine: How Creativity Works".  It's smart, funny and playful.  It's about to become successful but doesn't really know it yet.  In short, it's everything a girl could ask for.

The book outlines different ways in which creativity can occur.  It carefully uncovers how solitude is important to creativity, and how collaboration is equally important.  There is a particularly fascinating chapter about why big cities tend to cultivate creativity.  Lehrer concludes with a clever chapter about why certain time and places (Elizabethan England, Ancient Greece) tend to produce more creative people than others.

Reading this book encouraged me to think creatively.  I read this book in tandem with a couple others.  As I turned over in my mind the premises and ideas of each of the books I had read, I came up with an idea.

I've created a website that explores the concepts of kindness, play and creativity.  I've outlined the basic concepts of it in the article on the website titled Playful Kindness: An Idea.  Already, I have received an exciting outpouring of ideas and creative plans!  I want to create a collaborative environment in which people can devise ways to make their bit of space a little bit more beautiful and then share it with the rest of us.  I want to encourage a way of thinking that notices the kindness and beauty that people bestow upon us and finds ways to encourage kindness in return.

Stop by, take a look around, and mull it over for a little bit.  Then come out and play!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bloom by Kelle Hampton

I wasn't going to read Bloom- Kelle Hampton's chronicle of discovering her daughter has Down Syndrome.  The book records Kelle's feelings and experience throughout baby Nella's first year of life.  I came across a glowing review of it a couple weeks ago and decided to pass.  I was happy that it was published, happy that it's getting good reviews, thrilled that it is receiving main stream exposure.  I am strongly in favor of any kind of experience that illustrates the similarities between people with developmental disabilities and people who develop typically.  But I just wasn't sure that this particular book was for me.  I'm embarrassed to admit that, for whatever reason, the tone seemed a little saccharine, a little too "Hallmark channel".  I think it's important to honor the grit, courage, and perseverance that parents who have a child with a disability often display.  I didn't want to waste my time reading a polished Pollyanna version of what is inevitably a difficult process.

However, I changed my mind when a mother of a son with Down Syndrome strongly encouraged me to read the book.  She said that Kelle's depiction of her experiences rang true to many families who have children with Down Syndrome.  She advised me to read it, particularly as I am currently doing research about families' experiences understanding their child's disability. 

So the next day, I picked up a copy (more specifically, I coaxed my mom to come with me to pick up a copy so as not to break my 100 day rule).

I immediately liked Kelle.  She is honest.  She didn't know that Nella had Down Syndrome until after Nella was born.  She courageously tells of the evolution of her feelings, letting us be privy to the ugly thoughts, the lonely moments, the times of bottomless fear.

But she also expresses unspeakable love.  She is never a victim, a saint, or a martyr.  She shows her gratitude toward a truly remarkable support system.  As she experiences Nella, she learns how to become an advocate for her daughter.

It's true that Kelle's generally optimistic attitude has attained its share of detractors.  But I loved it.  It reminded me of a truth that is so obvious that we often forget it: that reality is subjective.  Our experiences are what we determine.  And since that's true, why not look at everything and see the opportunities and potential?  Why not look around and search for beauty?

Through her experiences as a mother with a child with Down Syndrome, Kelle has accomplished some amazing things.  Through her blog and book, she helps people understand that there are more similarities between people with developmental disabilities and people who develop typically than there are differences.  She has helped raise over $100,000 for the National Down Syndrome Society.  And she reminded me, at least, to relax and look for moments of beauty.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I was recently asked, if I could be any superhero, who I would be.  Here's what I decided:

My sister and I grew up playing imagination games together.  We played everything: we constructed elaborate forts in the backyard and we were the Boxcar Children; we traipsed around the house dressed in old bed sheets and we were princesses; we carved out space in our bedroom closet, flipped the laundry basket bottom up and we were restaurateurs.
We also played superheroes.  My sister favored the classics (Batman, Superman), while I preferred those currently en vogue (She-Ra, Moon Dreamers).   One of my child development professors recently wrote a paper about the developmental importance of superhero play: a topic about which she loves to speak.  To a certain extent, my sister and I didn’t grow out of our superhero phase for a while.
My sister is a graphic designer and I have always loved to write.  When we were in high school, we created our own superhero Grammatica: a strong, spunky girl with a sidekick bee named Spelling and a keen eye for grammar.   We decided that the inaugural issue would find Grammatica and Spelling saving a town plagued by internet acronyms. 

I graduated with my B.A. in Communications.  I strongly feel that one of the best tools we can give someone is the power to communicate effectively.  I believe this is true for people of every age.  I have taken child development courses devoted to language and I have taken marriage and family counseling classes.  Language is immeasurably powerful.  
So if I could be any superhero, I would be Grammatica.   I would choose her not just for the loyal sidekick or the trusty red ink permanent marker.  I love the idea of a superhero as someone who does more than save people, someone who educates and empowers people as well.  Our concept of Grammatica is so much more than that of a grammar snob slashing through a jungle of errant commas and misplaced apostrophes: she would teach people the skills necessary to be communicatively successful.
Of course, the trust red ink permanent marker would be pretty cool, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Flourish & Understanding, or: Why Brains Work & How to Make Them Better

I love brains.  In that regard, at least, I have always thought I would make a rather excellent zombie.  Both of my parents went back to school when I was younger.  My dad got a minor in Psychology and my mom loves to tell of how I would read his neuroanatomy textbook for fun.  I was ten.

Now, I'm pursuing my M.A. in Psychology and I still love reading books about the brain: the functions, the wiring, mental illness, developmental disorders, neurological disorders, memory, fear, love, trust- bring it all on.

I have been on a brain binge lately.  Two of the books I have read recently take a look at the brain in two very different ways.  The first is called Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman.  The second is Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastain Seung.

A couple years ago, I took a developmental psychology class called Play: The Importance of Happiness Throughout the Lifespan.  In it, I became familiar with some of the giants in the fields of both play and happiness research.  That's when I learned of Martin Seligman, who is widely considered the father of positive psychology.  As Seligman tells it, psychology has historically been concerned with getting rid of neuroses.  Psychology focuses on the negative: depression, anxiety and the like.  Seligman envisioned a psychology that, rather than solely focusing on the eradication of negative affect, pursues the enhancement of positive affect.  His first theory was outlined in the book Authentic Happiness which has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for the last two years.  Flourish more fully develops the theory articulated in Authentic Happiness.

Seligman's theory is as follows: Instead of being concerned with a concept like "happiness", which is so closely related to mood that one's perception of happiness can be rather capricious, it makes more sense to focus on well-being.  He believes that there are five elements of well-being theory, which are: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships.  He thinks our goal should be to work toward maximizing each of these five elements in our life, thus improving our overall well-being.

Seligman then gives a few positive psychology exercises.  One that I thought was particularly interesting is called the What-Went-Well Exercise, or the 3 Blessings.  Each night, you write down three things that went well that day.  I've kept a gratitude journal before and I think it's a lovely idea.  However, Seligman takes it a step further and encourages you to then take a look at each thing you've written down and ask yourself, "why did this happen?"  and then write that down as well.  I think this is a great idea because it helps us look for patterns, see ways in which people have been particularly wonderful, and encourages us to see ways in which we can have repeat "what went well" experiences.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book goes into the development of many of the Applied Positive Psychology programs without giving us more depth to the well-being theory and the practices we can do to enhance it.  There is a Master's of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.  However, one must be hand-selected to go and the cost is $40,000 a year for tuition alone.  Seligman doesn't delve into his theory too deeply for the rest of us.  While the beginning of the book felt full of promise and the excitement of exploring a new, potentially helpful psychological lens, the rest of the book is only moderately interesting.  We learn that Seligman has used his theories in the military, in education, with leaders of multiple domains, and to create a framework for understanding politics and economics.  However, I finished the book feeling that I was treated to only the sketchiest outline of what those theories actually were.

Connectome, on the other hand, covers its theories rather exhaustively.  Seung's theory is that our synaptic connections comprise much of who we are.  He believes that how our brains wire themselves determines a lot about us: our memories, our personalities, possibly even whether or not we develop autism or schizophrenia.  He proposes mapping the brain's synaptic connections, much as the Human Genome Project has mapped genes.  He believes this will answer a lot of questions about the brain that cannot currently be answered.

And he is the first to admit that much of what he explains is purely theoretical.  Technological capabilities must advance before his connectome theory can be tested.  Seung explains how neurons connect to one another; his idea of how memories are made; and the current understanding of the way genetics, synaptic connections, and environment work together to shape our personality.  He then painstakingly articulates the history of biotechnology and the evolution of neuroscientific theory.

This book snaked back and forth between entertaining and tedious several times.  One of my favorite parts is when Seung compares neurons to an army of paparazzi.  In a truly sublime moment, the professor of Neuroscience and Physics at MIT somehow managed to combine my love of neuroscientific research with my much more embarrassing love of trashy magazines.  Heaven. 

However, I was disappointed that more time wasn't spent covering the connectome theory's potential implications for autism and schizophrenia research.  I understand that this is so new and untested that there's probably relatively little to say.  Still, it was a let down.  Also, the last two chapters were, to use a strictly scientific term, bananas.  Chapter 14: To Freeze or to Pickle? examined the merits and potential downfalls of cryonics (freezing dead bodies to attempt future immortality) and plastination (preserving brains by chemical means, also in a bid for immortality).  Chapter 15: Save As... discussed a future in which connectome mapping could be used to create a digital replica of a person's connectome, thus ensuring that person's ability to live indefinitely in cyber space.  The whole concept gets a little Summer of Love-ish as Seung mentions the idea of people's collective consciousnesses intermingling in cyber space.  It's unfortunate that such a well-researched book was reduced to absurd ponderings in the last two chapters- a neuroscientific version of jumping the shark.

While both of the books had their merits, I would suggest reading synopses and passing on the actual books.  Seligman has a great website that offers many of his psychological surveys for free.  Seung's subsequent book will most likely be fascinating, once technology has caught up with his ambitious theory.

Day: 65
Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Love Always: Harriet Evans

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Liebster Blog Award

A couple months ago, I won a sword at a banquet dinner.  That's right, a sword.  And this week, the lovely Krista has bestowed upon me the Liebster Blog Award! 2012 has been ridiculously exciting so far.

Liebster is a German word for beloved. The award is given to beloved blogs with under 200 followers. These blogs are meant to be "the best kept secrets" out there.

I think that this award is super cool :) many thanks to Krista for nominating me! Her blog is wonderful and you should check it out.

Here are the other blogs I would love to give the Liebster Blog Award to:

I Read a Book Once...
Pocketful of Books
A Novel Place
A Book A Week
My Life in Books

These are creative, fascinating websites.  I strongly encourage everyone to check each of them out.


Winners can nominate up to five other blogs.
Let them know you have nominated them by leaving a comment on their blog.
Post the award on your blog.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Prose and King: Writers on Writing

Blank pages can be intimidating.

Often, I have an idea formed about what I want to write. Everything flows in my mind: I strike the right balance between humor and profundity. I create entertaining stories that evoke surprising yet insightful conclusions. Until I actually sit down to write. And then my compelling intuition devolves into a mental stutter that makes Homer Simpson sound like William Shakespeare. And I just hope that something articulate lands on the page when I am finished.

I have learned, however, that pages with words on them can be as intimidating as those without. I learned this with Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them. I know. What? This isn't Dostoevsky or Sartre. This book is about doing what we already do: this is a book about reading. So how come I put it down so many times the first four years I owned it? Prose's book, for whatever reason, terrified me.

This is my favorite part of the 2012 reading challenge: that I must finish each book I start. As a result, I am proud of the quality of books I have read lately. I kept this in mind as I picked Prose's book off the shelf. This time, I had to finish it. Or else.

And I did. I read it over the course of a week. Doggedly at times, when I was tired. And I loved it.

First of all, I find the way that Prose creates her chapters makes a lot of sense: She begins by reminding us the value of close reading. Chapter two focuses on words, chapter three on sentences. After that, she focuses on: paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, etc. Also, Prose provides examples from novels and short stories that are helpful and fascinating to read. Prose deftly guides our attention to the elements of the story that are well-executed. I found myself fascinated by stories to which I may not have paid much attention to without the benefit of Prose's expertise.

Prose has provided me with an altered reading style that has depth and even greater curiosity. I have read several books since I've read Reading Like A Writer and the impact has lasted. Also, as an avid highlighter and margin-writer of books, I have established sections that are helpful to me as I edit my own writing. The book has helpful advice and is written in a simple yet beautiful way.

I took a circuitous route from Prose to King, reading several books in between Reading Like A Writer and On Writing: King's memoir and guidebook to writers. The style of the two are quite different; whereas Prose breaks the chapters into elements of writing, King begins with the narrative of how he grew up in love with reading and writing. His series of humble jobs prior to getting his first novel published should be comforting to any beginning writer whose paycheck mocks the concept of a living wage. He then delves into his "writer's toolbox", which looks more like Prose's structure: the do's and don'ts of sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue. Afterward, he describes in great detail the van wreck that nearly killed him.

Here's what I discovered: Stephen King is funny. Self-effacing and hilarious. I read many sections of this book aloud to whomever would listen. I may have texted some of it to friends. As lovely as I found Prose's book, that's how entertaining I found King's. Both are invaluable tools that should have a home on every writer's shelf.

They disagree on certain things: Prose finds the one word (or even one sentence) paragraph to be melodramatic and believes it should be used sparingly if at all. King thinks it can help build suspense. Prose quotes Tolstoy. King quotes himself. However, the books are often similar: each quote Flannery O'Connor. Both authors have an aversion to adverbs bordering on disgust. Each writer feels word choice deserves the utmost attention. And most importantly: they each advise us to read as much as we possibly can.

Days Since Last Book Purchase: 57

Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Not Buying Books: 50 Days In

I can't do things in moderation.

I possess a particular enthusiasm that, in certain circumstances, renders temperance an afterthought. I read a book the other day that quoted St. Augustine as saying "Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation" and I highlighted the quote. Twice. Then I dog-eared the page.

Most of the time, the results of my temperament are relatively benign. Like when my boyfriend asked me if maybe we shouldn't find a planner to coordinate our schedules. Three days later, I posted on my fridge a 16-month Shutterfly calendar comprised of pictures of the two of us on our adventures, carefully coded with eight different colors. And in the dregs of winter, I succumbed to the heady mania of purchasing books and my bank account was suffering.

Of course I hit rock bottom. It was a Friday. I purchased three copies of the same book in one day. Granted, one was the audio version and one was for my mom. But those are not the actions of a sane purchaser of books. Not to mention that, in the process, I also bought six other books. From three bookstores. In one day. And uploaded two others onto my tablet. And this was the third time I'd bought books that week.

Since I knew with intrinsic certainty that telling myself I'd stop buying so many books was mere placation, I resolved to stop buying books for 100 days. People in stunt-memoirs always seem to do things for one year: My Year of Happiness or My Year or Living Biblically or My Year of Knitting Dangerously (that one's real). I can't even conceive of refraining from purchasing books for a year- especially without a book deal at the end of in which I chronicle my Odyssean journey. It wasn't until after I'd told all of my friends about my commitment that I realized 100 days ended in May. It was barely February.

I've gone through the typical Kubler-Ross stages of grief:

Denial: I can handle this. I have plenty to keep me satiated. No big deal.

Anger: This involved lots of rage-crying.

Bargaining: This stage reared its ugly head at the Lincoln Museum gift shop where I cajoled my boyfriend into buying me a biography portraying the Lincolns' marriage. But hey, he got a really nice map out of the deal. And I technically didn't break any rules. Right? I mean, right?

Depression: If I temper this one down, I've definitely felt frustrated that I can't buy Jeanette Winterson's new memoir. I am, however, excepting gifts. Have I mentioned that? Okay, maybe I'm still in bargaining.

Acceptance: This is how I feel most of the time. In psychology classes, professors teach you that people fluctuate through stages. That's true even for lesser life changes like not buying books for a couple months.

I think the best thing I've gotten from this experience is the knowledge that most of the books I buy on impulse are the ones that languish on my shelves. My "Books I Can Buy After 100 Days" shelf on Goodreads has been an interesting creation and editing process. Some of the books that I feel sure I will purchase on That Day look confusing and unappealing three days later. Even the ones with staying power lose their sense of urgency. Not overnight. But eventually.

I'm thinking about establishing a "cooling off" period, in which I refrain from buying books for 48 hours to see if I still want them. Like a literary handgun.

Currently reading:
On Writing- Stephen King
Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are- Sebastian Seung
Sarah's Key- Tatiana de Rosnay

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Available Man

As with many of my favorite books, I found this through a review on the NPR Books website. I purchased it during the book buying frenzy that ultimately resulted in my resolve to go 100 days without buying books (of which I am on day 46. And while I have not spent money on any books in 46 days, I have coerced other people into buying me books enough to feel only modestly pleased with my accomplishments thus far).

I was immediately captivated with this book, which follows Edward Schuyler, a 62 year-old who is recently widowed. As he mourns and tries to assemble a life after the death of his wife, he must also contend with people who try to set him up with other "available" women before he is ready. This includes his well-meaning children, who put an advertisement in the dating section of the New York Review of Books on his behalf that reads: Science Guy. Erudite and kind, balding but handsome. Our widowed dad is the real thing for the right woman. Jersey/Metropolitan New York.

Author Hilma Wolitzer invents a world in which we, too, grieve for Edward and his beloved Bee. Within the landscape of Edward's memories, Wolitzer creates a relationship with which anyone who has been in love can identify: the idiosyncrasies, the inside jokes, the complicit understandings between two like-minded people. Edward often observes situations and imagines what Bee would say. This is particularly funny when he receives a post-funeral casserole with an accidental, suspicious-looking hair at the bottom. Ah! The surprise, he imagines Bee saying. Wolitzer's characters are original and fresh.

We mourn with Edward; but we also cheer for him when he begins to move forward. I have noticed recently that my favorite books tend to be those in which the characters are gentle, introspective people who are kind and funny (intentionally funny or otherwise). Edward Schuyler espouses each of these qualities. I loved to read about him. This is one of the loveliest novels I've read this year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Biblio Update

I'm looking out my window and blossoms have bloomed on a tree whose name I should know but don't. It's spring break and an ethereal magic has begun to weave its way through St. Louis. It reminds me of the Bob Ross painting show on PBS, as though the apparition of Ross scrutinizes our trees each night and says "now we're going to add just a little green to the edges of these trees. You make your trees how you want them, this is your special place".

Spring break also means that I get to catch up on a few things: reading, writing, my breath. My Goodreads 2012 reading challenge balefully reminds me that I am 9 books behind pace to meet my goal. However, simply because I have not been reading or writing does not mean life hasn't been interesting. In fact, rather the opposite. So here's an update.

As of right now, I am successfully on day 37 of 100 days of not purchasing books. So far, it's actually lovely. As opposed to being bound by my impulses, I have instituted my own "cooling off" period. I started a list on Goodreads of books to buy after 100 days and I find myself editing it: books without which I once thought I would not make it through the night now look slightly puzzling on the to-read list at all. I think I may institute a consistent "cooling off" period after 100 days are over.

I have currently read 20 books in 2012. Here they are:

1) Binchy, Maeve: "Minding Frankie"
2) Borman, Tracy: "Elizabeth's Women"
3) Browler, Sam: "Profit's Prey"
4) Cain, Susan: "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"
5) Chua, Amy: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"
6) Drew, Clifford: "Designing and Conducting Research in Education"
7) Franzen, Jonathon: "Freedom"
8) Giordono, Paolo: "The Solitude of Prime Numbers"
9) Isay, Dave: "All There Is: Love Stories From StoryCorps"
10)Kingsolver, Barbara: "The Lacuna"
11)Morgenstern, Erin: "The Night Circus"
12)Persico, Joseph: "Franklin & Lucy"
13)Pratchett, Terry & Gaimon, Neil: "Good Omens"
14)Prose, Francine: "Reading Like a Writer"
15)Rehm, Diane: "Finding My Voice
16)Rubin, Gretchen: "The Happiness Project"
17)Simonson, Helen: "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand"
18)Wiggins, Grant: "Understanding By Design"
19)Wolitzer, Hilma: "An Available Man"
20)Yuknavitch, Lidia: "The Chronology of Water"

I am currently reading:
1) Harris, Bob: "Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!"
2) Patchett, Ann: "State of Wonder"
3) Seligman, Martin: "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being"

I have also been involved in other lovely things. For example:

1) I wrote my first official lit review: 27 pages of pure mental exhaustion and torture. A couple of days after I turned it in, I received an e-mail from my professor that said "Just wanted to let you know I just got done grading your lit review. It is BEAUTIFUL!!!! Needless to say, you got a very well-deserved A. Wonderful work!" It was probably the single most gratifying moment of my life.

2) I started karate lessons! I can honestly say that karate is something I never anticipated to be a part of my life. However, the opportunity was offered to me and I have a hard time resisting adventure (which is how I ended up at a fundraiser the other night involving bowling and square dancing and was hilariously misrepresented by calling itself "Swing Both Ways"). I have found that I love karate. It is the perfect antidote to the amount of time I spend sitting in an uncomfortable chair, pondering introspectively or pouring through academic articles. The opportunity to take a break from that to kick and hit things is an enormous catharsis.

3) A couple of friends and I have decided to organize a "Cola Crawl": A twist on the traditional pub crawl. We're raising money for St. Louis Arc, a local organization that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It takes place March 30th and we have the loveliest fliers and t-shirts.

4) I participated in a flash mob! It was with the same organization: St. Louis Arc. We gathered in multiple places (my group met in front of the St. Louis History museum) and danced to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" in order to raise awareness about appropriate language to use regarding people with disabilities. It was an amazing experience! I went by myself and experienced the immediate feeling of bonding with a group of people. As I am inherently not someone who joins organizations or other groups of people, this was a rare and unexpected delight. Also, we were on the news which was really fun. Post Script: has anyone watched the St. Louis local news lately? It appears to be primarily comprised of footage from people's cell phones.

5) I entered a first-time novelist competition. This was a really cool exercise, because I had to submit 50 pages of a novel. However, my apartment was broken into twice in January and someone had stolen my laptop (among many other things), which had all of my graduate work on it, as well as everything I've written creatively in the last 3 years. No, of course I hadn't backed anything up. So, in the thick of my graduate coursework, I decided to embark on a new writing experience. It was difficult and amazing and I'm thrilled that I decided to do it.

6) I had a real, live crime scene unit in my apartment dusting for finger prints after break-in #2. They aren't nearly as terse and harried as they appear on T.V. However, no one was murdered in my apartment, there were no blood spatter patterns of any kind, and they appear to have sent the high school intern over to check things out. No matter, I was enthralled.

Tonight, I'm going to see Temple Grandin speak and I cannot wait.

So everything right now is an adventure. I intend to read like a mad woman this week while simultaneously immersing myself in the annual miraculous seasonal developments. Maybe I'll even figure out the name of that tree.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Every once in a while, a book comes along that changes the way we look at things: our relationships, the roles we play, the ways in which we interact with one another, even how we view ourselves.

For most of my life, I have equated happiness with gregariousness, eloquence with intelligence, and having lots of friends with having good people skills. Only recently did I realize that subtle shifts have occurred in my understanding of happiness, temperament, intellect, and socializing. I have realized that, while I dearly love spending time with my friends, I also need pockets of solitude in which to "recharge": nights where I shut off the phone and curl up on the couch with a Diet Coke and a lovely book. Also, I love to be around people but often prefer to socialize in small groups rather than in crowded bars or at large parties. Sometimes, when I am happy, I am filled with energy and feel talkative and charming. However, sometimes I'm at my happiest when I experience something in a quiet way.

Cain's definition of introversion immediately interested me. Whereas I have thought of introversion as a synonym for shyness; Cain argues that it is not. Rather, she defines it as "temperamental inner-­directedness" and describes introverts as those who are "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned."

Cain contends that no one is purely an introvert or an extrovert. An interesting way to understand where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum is by taking the informal quiz that Cain supplies in her book. Answer each question as "true" or "false", choosing the answer that applies to you more often than not:

1. ___ I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities
2. ___ I often prefer to express myself in writing.
3. ___ I enjoy solitude.
4. ___ I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status.
5. ___ I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter
to me.
6. ___ People tell me that I'm a good listener.
7. ___ I'm not a big risk-taker.
8. ___ I enjoy work that allows me to "dive in" with few interruptions.
9. ___ I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close
friends or family members.
10.___ People describe me as "soft-spoken" or "mellow".
11.___ I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.
12.___ I dislike conflict.
13.___ I do my best work on my own.
14.___ I tend to think before I speak.
15.___ I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.
16.___ I often let calls go through to voice mail.

Regardless of where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, it's interesting to think about different facets of temperament and what is beneficial about each of them. We tend to value certain qualities over others, but it is time to challenge some of the foregone conclusions about leadership, group work, and socializing?

Whether or not you agree with Susan Cain's assertions about the importance of introversion, I believe this is a discussion worth having. I put forth Susan Cain's Manifesto, as found on her website and invite your thoughts and opinions.


1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding My Voice

There are people in our lives who loom so large that we lose sight of the fact that they are still mere mortals. They may be trainwreck celebrities or historical figures or parents. We admire them, loathe them, or simply find ourselves with our jaws open as they shave their own heads in front of the paparazzi.

Diane Rehm is one such person for me. Diane hosts a two-hour live call-in show on National Public Radio each weekday. Her shows are consistently topical and in-depth, with guests who are leaders in their field. The Diane Rehm Show has won a multitude of prestigious awards, including a 2010 George Foster Peabody Award. Over the ten years that I have been listening to the show, I am constantly impressed by the quality of guests, topic selection, and questions. I have discovered several of my favorite books as a result of listening to Diane's show.

I started listening to the Diane Rehm Show when I was an undergraduate student and I immediately responded to her direct interview style, the respect with which she treats her guests and callers, and the way she handles people who become too loquacious. As someone who is constantly striving to learn new things and explore that which is unfamiliar, Diane is a bit of a personal hero to me.

So imagine my intense enthusiasm when I stumbled across her book on iTunes. I immediately uploaded it and started reading (this was obviously before the advent of my 100 Days of Not Purchasing Books- of which I am on Day 11).

One of the things that draws me to biographies and memoirs is the revelation of raw humanity. Everyone wants to feel connected and I love nothing more than realizing, startled, that I can empathize with how Mary Todd Lincoln felt in that situation or that David Sedaris and I have both pretended to do a crossword puzzle while secretly seething at a stranger in a public area.

What I learned of Diane Rehm was nothing short of amazing to me. First of all, Diane started her career in radio in her thirties as a volunteer. I loved to learn this because I also discovered a volunteer position that altered the trajectory of my life. 2 years after college graduation I was frustrated and unchallenged, working at a bookstore and feeling discouraged about my professional opportunities. My mom strongly encouraged me to volunteer in order to explore potential areas of interest. A few months later, I started working with a book club for St. Louis ARC, an organization for people with developmental disabilities. I fell in love with the world that opened up to me. Now I am finishing my master's in Educational Psychology and hoping to write and work with young children with developmental disabilities. I feel a particular kinship for anyone who wanders for a little while and then discovers her life purpose.

Another element of Diane's story that makes me feel an affinity toward her is the honesty with which she addresses her struggles with anxiety. It never would have occurred to me that someone who is so poised, respected and impactful would have undergone the intense and sometimes devastating journey of managing anxiety and depression. Her ability to pursue that which she ultimately loves to do despite emotional and physiological roadblocks has a profound effect on me.

Diane Rehm is someone I have looked up to for so long that I took it for granted that she has always been confident and assertive and professionally successful. I was grateful to learn about her humanity as well.

Monday, February 13, 2012

All There Is: A StoryCorps Book of Love

One of my favorite things is to talk to people who look relatively ordinary and discover that they have a fascinating personal narrative: they have performed in the circus or survived cancer or lived in one of those Eastern European blocs with amorphous names and allegiances. Old people are especially good for this. Upon first glance, they pretty much just look old. However, once you start asking the right questions, you usually get some truly awesome stories.

My sister and I used to visit the nursing home in which my great-grandma lived when we were younger. I would play on the piano the few songs that I had mastered and the religiously inclined would shout "hallelujah!", despite the fact that the only songs I knew were standards filled with dubious double entendres like "In the Mood". A few of the residents thought we were their grandchildren. One woman mistook my sister and I with our summer haircuts as her grandsons, Patrick and Danny.

But once I got over the cringe-worthy humiliation of being an adolescent girl confused as a boy at an age where gender roles are particularly defined, once I stopped noticing the suspect smells and the occasional unfortunate open pajama backflap on an ambulatory patient, I started to listen to stories.

The one I remember vividly was told to me by a woman named Marie. Marie had been a young bride and, without options or education, spent the majority of her life trapped in an unhappy marriage. At some point she embarked on an affair with her mailman, believing herself to be madly in love with him. By the time I met Marie she was widowed and beset by Alzheimer's, a wizened woman in her nineties. She spent every afternoon at the window, waiting for the mailman who had promised to come back for her and take her away.

Now, before you get all teary-eyed and start evoking the trite emotional manipulation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, let me mention that this scenario was actually really depressing. This woman could have been so much happier had she felt that she had more options when she was younger. And there wasn't anyone reading to her the epic story of their romance: the mailman never showed.

The point is this: I would never have known this woman's tragic, fascinating story simply by looking at her. I never would have known it at all had I not been hiding from people mistaking me for their estranged grandsons.

And that's the raw beauty of StoryCorps. StoryCorps is an organization that helps people share and record the stories of their lives. According to the website, "We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters" ( The stories recorded on this website are in turns funny, sweet, heartbreaking, empowering, and hopeful. "All There Is" is a compilation of StoryCorps recordings illustrating the nature of love. A single story will undoubtedly evoke an entire spectrum of emotion.

I am constantly enthralled by that which makes us human. I want to understand how we form connections, how we intertwine our lives and how we impact one another. I want to know everyone's story. I want to be a better listener. I want to learn how to ask meaningful questions.

So read the book. And start talking to old people. They know more than you might think.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Elizabeth's Women

One of my favorite aspects of reading a multitude of biographies about the same person is the familiarity with which I begin to greet each of the main players. Another element I love is how every author portrays the people and the situation somewhat differently. Discerning authors may treat the biography as a narrated lit review: providing judicious and balanced perspectives. Other authors seem to fill in the blanks with their own opinions. While the former is doubtlessly more esteemed, both types play an important role in the realm of historical biographies.

I absolutely love delving into a new biography about someone with whom I have a familiar literary acquaintance. I have developed particular fascinations with anything involving Mary Todd Lincoln, FDR, the Tudors, Zelda Fitzgerald, and the witty elite at the Algonquin Round Table. Historical biographies are astoundingly varied in how they handle their subjects. Some things remain true regardless of the author: Zelda meets her untimely demise during a fire at a mental institution and Anne Boleyn is decapitated no matter who tells the story. Other things, however, are treated differently depending on who is speaking.

"Hello, Robert Dudley," I think warmly as I read, "Who are you this time? A manipulative social climber or Queen Elizabeth's star-crossed lover?"

My cousin, knowing my fascination with Queen Elizabeth I, bequeathed Elizabeth's Women to me as a birthday present. I had just completed a 14 hour car ride from Missouri to San Antonio and there lay Elizabeth's women- draped seductively across the bed. I was thrilled.

The biography tells the story of Queen Elizabeth within the context of the women with whom she surrounded herself. It is a captivating lens through which to tell the story. Author Tracy Borman finds the exquisite balance of reliable historian and compelling narrative.

When I was sixteen, I read the autobiography "Forever Leisl" by Charmain Carr, which tells of the author's experience playing the oldest daughter in "The Sound of Music". I read it during a family road trip to Michigan. The car ride consisted of about sixteen hours of me sitting quietly in the back seat, occasionally stumbling across a particularly juicy behind-the-scenes fact and saying, "D'you remember- in "The Sound of Music", when...". That phrase is now family code for "You're obsessing".

I knew that I loved "Elizabeth's Women" when I found myself performing mental gymnastics in order to "casually" insert a fascinating fact I had read into social small talk.

D'you remember, in the Elizabethan era...?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bibliomania: One Month In

It has been exactly a month since I stood in the middle of my living room, surrounded by unread books and filled with the resolve that something needed to change.

I didn't have an exact picture of what I was trying to achieve when I embarked on this literary adventure a month ago. I considered creating a concrete goal: to read a finite amount of books or exhaust a particular subject matter. Instead, I am guided by nothing more than whimsy and vague gut feelings.

However, to my surprise, certain rules have started to take form:

3) I must finish any book I begin. My regular failure to do so until now has always gnawed at me. Time to do something about it.

2) I refuse to create a goal number of books to read per month. I am certain that will keep me away from books in which I have genuine interest but may be too long to complete within a particular time frame. Despite the fact that I do not have a purpose, I am convinced this defeats it. However, I will keep an eye on the number of books I read each month and try to create flexible challenges for myself.

Now here's the big one. The Mother of all Rules. The Big Kahuna (or, as my little sister used to say, "The Big a-HOO-ga!"). This rule is so terrifying and potentially insurmountable that I hesitate to write it down. Deep breath. Courage of my convictions and all that. And here goes:

1) I will not buy any books for one hundred days.

There it is. It looks even scarier in print than I had anticipated. I'm reasonably sure that I have not gone longer than one month without buying a book since finishing my first chapter book (Ramona the Brave, c. 1989). But something has got to change.

For some reason, I believed that forcing myself to read every book I own would somehow stop me from buying books- or at least slow down the process. Instead, I spend my free time scouring reviews and salivating. I have tried going to bookstores or websites purely for information gathering, without purchasing anything. "Make it fun! Start a to-read list!" My pretend-jolly inner voice pathetically tries to convince me. "You'll forget about it in an hour anyway." The voice wheedles.

But that's the weird part: I don't forget about it in an hour. The unpurchased book takes hold of my consciousness, making me feel irritable and a little hungover. It possesses my thought process as I drive, sit in class, eat, and otherwise go about my day. It mocks me as I attempt to socialize naturally. This has got to stop.

So, in the time-honored tradition of nonviolent change, I am staging a protest against my pathologically compulsive book purchasing. It will be a quiet protest, mostly consisting of sitting around and reading without spending money. Diet Coke will be involved.

When I told my boyfriend that I was planning to do this, he said I looked like I was going to cry.

"What's the big deal?" He asked. "100 days isn't that long."

"It's over three months." I reminded him. He looked startled.

"That's a really long time." He said. "What are you thinking?"

I'm thinking that I'm not entirely sure I can do this. I'm thinking that it's probably unnatural how worried I am that every single one of my favorite authors (even the dead ones) will magically release a book next Tuesday. But most of all, I'm thinking that I need to stop deluding myself that spending this much money is not a problem.

So, hesitantly and with a deep breath, I begin the next stage of my yearlong literary adventure. Wish me luck.

P.S. I am currently accepting book donations.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Night Circus

I was obsessed with playing imagination games as a child. My parents joke of the oft-repeated household phrase "Ok, let's pretend Mom and Dad are dead". My sister and I love our parents effusively. But when you think about it, many of the great children's tales begin with dead or otherwise unavailable parents: The Boxcar Children, The Little Princess, about half of The Babysitter's Club, nearly every Disney movie, A Wrinkle In Time, almost anything written by Roald Dahl... And on and on. In my opinion, the callous disregard afforded to parents by children's authors allows the child protagonists to grow in fundamental and heroics ways, unhampered by such mundane duties as homework and bedtime.

Much of my childhood was happily spent dressed in bedsheets- whether I was a beautiful, extravagantly adorned princess or Amy March, on my way to help Marmie feed the Hummels (a particular benefit of imagination games being the ability to rewrite tragic plot points). To this day, the most acrimonious fight my best friend and I have encountered centered on an imagination game. We were in fourth grade, and after having seen "The Miracle Worker" I was experiencing an obsessive period now referred to as my "Helen Keller stage". I had strong-armed Anna into playing "Blind Girls" (which, as disrespectful as that sounds, was a young child's homage to the amazing feats of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan). Being the sort of child who didn't want to spend an entire afternoon walking around the basement with her eyes closed, Anna decided to "magically" get her sight back. I bitterly rebelled. You can't just "magically" get your sight back. That's not how it works. We didn't speak for days.

Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" evokes the intense fantastical feelings I experienced while playing imagination games as a child- and not just because nearly everyone's mom and dad are dead or otherwise unavailable. The protagonists are creative and intelligent. The circus is an atmosphere in which any child or childlike kindred spirit would be enthralled. As with my favorite inspired reveries, potentially doomed love is an important plot point. Don't be mistaken: elements of the tale are deliciously dark and insidious. The story has breathtaking depth as well as whimsy.

My last thought is this: after reading "The Night Circus", do not refrain from constructing elaborate circus tents using pillows and blankets in your living room. We all need a little magic now and then.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Prophet's Prey

It took me a long time to openly confess my fascination with memoirs and biographies about people living in polygamous cults. While other readers may guiltily hide their tawdry romance novels, Star Wars fan fiction or Dan Brown thrillers, I was reticent to crack open my "polygamy books" in the presence of others. I was embarrassed to read something so lurid and trashy. Still, whenever I saw a mass market paperback with a girl wearing the tell-tale prairie dress and FLDS bouffant hairstyle, I felt an inexorable pull to purchase the book. I would furtively hide it in my purse until I got home. Then I would devour it in the privacy of my bedroom. Shades drawn.

In time, though, the facade began to crack. I became careless and started leaving books out. I complained that "Big Love" wasn't "accurate" enough. People noticed. At first I was apologetic, rolling my eyes and laughing in a self-deprecating way. Then I became defensive. Why shouldn't I read my polygamy books? More people ought to know what's going on in this country!

To be completely honest, I'm not reading these books out of a sense of civic duty. As someone who is studying psychology, I find the mental conditioning within these fundamentalist cults to be simultaneously terrifying and intriguing. At first I wondered, "How could anyone live like that?". I've read countless stories about generations raised without exposure to the outside world. Members are psychologically conditioned to follow illogical demands: from "stop wearing the color red" to "leave your son on the side of the road and forget he existed". Anyone who leaves the cult is said to relinquish everlasting salvation. Now I wonder, "How does anyone find the courage to leave?".

I've reached the point in my torrid affair with polygamy books where I'm no longer ashamed of my love. I geniunely admire the people who find the courage to leave everything they have believed and embark on a life in the undoubtedly overstimulating secular world. I am sickened by the behavior of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and appalled by the government's reticence to take strong action against chronic child abuse. I don't understand why the public isn't asking more questions and demanding changes.

I recently read "Prophet's Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints" by Sam Brower. I was impressed with its comprehensive nature. Private Investigator Sam Brower exhaustively researches the FLDS cult and impressively supplies insider information into the notoriously secretive society. This is a great introduction for the curious FLDS novice. However, I would also recommend "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer and "Secrets and Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy" by Sanjiv Bhattacharya as well.

It's a landmark revelation in the journey of bibliomania: a book does not have to be critically acclaimed or deemed worthy by some arbitrary cultural standard in order to alter the way we think or see the world. Whether the cover art employs shock tactics or the subject matter lends itself to mockery, it is my belief that any book that invites us to think critically and cultivate empathy is one worth reading.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I can think of few books in the last couple years that have elicited as much anger and controversy as "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". At the beginning of last year, heated reactions to Amy Chua's parenting memoir pervaded media and bookstores. And yet I wasn't interested in reading it. I was aware that Chua apparently supported rigorous parenting, arguing that an A- is unacceptable, hours of daily instrument practice is necessary, and children are to be subjugated instead of cultivated.

Perhaps my disinterest stemmed from the fact that I was enrolled in an early childhood program that promoted a philosophy that was ideologically opposed to Chua's supposed concept. More likely, I was disinclined to read the book because I have been exposed to parents who believe their toddlers should be drilled in math and pre-literacy concepts. Two summers ago I interviewed for a job working with one-year-old twins. I had assumed it was a babysitting job but was soon informed that the infants had a full-time nanny and I would be their tutor. "I've been looking for toddler flashcards but I can't find them anywhere!" The woman said in frustration. "Maybe that's because one-year-olds can't read," I said helpfully. I didn't get the job.

I passed on Tiger Mother until a friend whose opinion I respect mentioned it as an interesting read. This time, my curiosity was piqued. I am not currently working with high pressure parents or studying early childhood philosophy. Also, I have been on an absolute memoir binge lately.

So, armed with Pirate's Booty and a Diet Coke, I read it in one sitting. And I absolutely loved it. I thought for a while about the intense and wide-ranging emotions elicited by this memoir and here's what I ultimately concluded:

People who say this is a terrible book because of Chua's parenting style are missing the point. Chua admits toward the beginning of the book that she had intended to write this as a defense of "Chinese parenting". However, as she is writing the book the unimaginable happens: Chua's youngest daughter hits puberty and goes rogue. This sets the tone for some truly epic showdowns between a strong, determined woman and her daughter, the opposition who inherited mom's tenacity and stubbornness. From my perspective, Chua writes with self-deprecating humor and a self-awareness that allows for reflection and, eventually, evolution.

I'm intrigued by her explanations and the rationale behind her strict parenting style. While it is not a philosophy to which I subscribe, I find myself agreeing with her more than I anticipated (DISCLAIMER: It is quite easy for me to debate the various parenting styles in my current childless state, as I sit in my pajamas drinking Diet Coke and writing at 10:30 on a Monday morning). Of course I have many questions about the socio-emotional impact of parenting with such high expectations. I also worry about the potential social stigma placed on children with developmental disabilities in environments with that much pressure to succeed. However, Chua's story is not a psychological study or sociological expose. It is the experience of one family. I felt that she is not necessarily defending or critiquing a particular way of life. Rather, she is telling a story of her experience as a parent: The exquisite, the sublime, and the very down & dirty. Chua is unflinchingly honest. I found myself empathizing with her even if I didn't agree with her decisions.

I recommend this book but with a caveat. Read this for what it is: one woman's harrowing journey through parenthood.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Happiness Project

Is anyone else particularly fascinated by the idiosyncratic pleasures in which people delight? Almost two years ago I quit drinking and smoking. During that time I discovered I love fruit snacks to the point of distraction. Apparently my grandpa's childhood indulgence was orange soda with sardines. In Shift Journal of Alternatives: Neurodiversity and Social Change, Julia Bascom describes "the obsessive joy of autism": positive emotions she attributes to personal characteristics related to autism ( I knew my boyfriend and I were kindred spirits a couple weeks into our relationship. I had recently moved and as soon as the cable guy hooked up my DVR, Tommy set Jeopardy to record: something I had intended to secretly do as soon as he left. Together we shout out answers, comment on the ridiculous names of personal injury lawyers (Brad Bradshaw, anyone?) and fast forward through the inane bios.

That's why I picked up Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. I wasn't anticipating that I would learn anything new. Rather, I was pursuing the voyeuristic enthrall of discovering other people's unique methods of happiness. My expectations were satisfied. It wasn't the most enlightening of the stunt memoir genre (A.J. Jacobs is the master of the "My Year ________" musings) but it was interesting. One of Gretchen's philosophies is to "Be Gretchen". Things that make other people happy may not translate into her personal happiness. I thought this was one of the best messages of the book. Reflection and introspection are critical when determining what will make a person individually happy. I know people whose ideal Friday nights are spent at the casino or getting bottle service at clubs. The mere thought of that makes me want to turn off my phone, put on pajamas and order a pizza. Also, Gretchen clearly researched the topics of happiness, positive psychology and mindfulness. Her book is a helpful reference for anyone interested in doing the same.

As for Gretchen's idiosyncrasies, there are none that particularly stand out. She engages in a multitude of impressively varied hobbies, miniprojects and goals. However, there isn't the voyeur's ideal dramatic reveal: no hidden obsession with decorating taxidermied animals or creating duct tape art or participating in civil war reenactments. Which is, you know, okay... To each her own.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Lacuna

The day I chose to embark on my reading adventure, I wasn't entirely sure what structure I would follow or what I wanted this project to be. It seems that year-long endeavors tend to be more successful when they are well defined and have quantifiable goals. I thought about attaching a number to my reading goal-if I read 50 or 100 books, I will definitively succeed. However, I have confidence that this project will evolve into something creatively unique and personally fulfilling if I let the purpose and meaning emerge as I go along.

This was an important philosophy as I read "The Lacuna". The book was given to me by someone who has been particularly influential in my relationship to books: placing in my hand for the first time novels that evoke wonder, such as "The Giver" and "The Never-Ending Story". She has a nearly mystical ability to select books that are timely and relevant to my life. And this time was no different. The story, written by Barbara Kingsolver, follows Harrison Shepherd as he comes of age in Mexico and the United States during the 1930's, World War II, and the insidiously pervasive post-war anti-Communist era. He forms relationships with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera and writes novels that influence millions. I was excited to read this as I, too, am at a point in which I have to choose one of many paths for my life as I finish grad school and struggle to come up with a plan.

The story is interesting and insanely well written. As I read, I kept a highlighter nearby and used it liberally. However, I never found myself emotionally invested in the characters. I liked Harrison, but I didn't feel for him. As the narrator he attempts to remain a neutral, objective observer. This is interesting in the sense that we as readers become voyeurs of the lives of famously tempestuous artists. However, I found it diminished my emotional investment in the protagonist. The second half of the story, which contains many of Shepherd's letters, made me feel slightly more familiar and intimate with him.

As I was reading I started to get nervous about what I was going to write when I finished. The book is written exquisitely and deserves the positive attention it has received. However, there is undeniably a stark difference between the quality of the novel (high) and my interest in the novel (relatively low).

That's when I realized my project concept is beginning to take shape. I don't want this project to be an exercise in creating reviews that attempt neutrality. In education, we learn that reading is an active relationship between the words and the reader's interpretation of the words. I want to explore my relationship with and response to each of the books. Given the likely nature of 2012 (graduate school graduation and a potentially big move, among the other inevitable and unanticipated events) I want to understand and interpret the evolution that occurs as I read and move through this year. I want to extend the opportunity for readers to connect with me in the familiar, interpersonal way I did not receive from Harrison Shepherd.

Many of the ways I think and feel are most likely fairly universal. I hope my words resonate and create the beautiful "aha!" moment that occurs when you realize you're not the only person who has felt that way.

I'm excited about the adventure!