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 (http://www.shiftjournal.com/2011/11/30/the-obsessive-joy-of-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!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Franklin & Lucy

FDR intrigues me.

In college, I stumbled across No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of FDR and Eleanor. I read the first half voraciously and then discarded it, a weakness that plagues me even with books in which I am captivated. Despite my callous abandonment, I found myself fascinated by the interpersonal sagas of the women within the magnetic force of the president.

So I was thrilled to discover Joseph E. Persico's book examining just that. Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life considers Roosevelt's life in the context of the women with whom he had relationships. Women shaped and influenced FDR in a way that is not often displayed in textbooks. His indomitable mother Sarah would occasionally and successfully rearrange the White House schedule to procure presidential meetings for her socialite companions. His longtime secretary Missy LeHand suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, arguably as a result of her emotional over-investment in the president. Franklin cavorted with witty, attractive women of stature such as Princess Martha of Sweden. However, the case is often made that his heart really belonged to Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, his one-time social secretary for whom he nearly divorced Eleanor, lost his vast inheritance, and ruined his chances for a political future.

It's funny how one's perceptions and allegiances change with time and experience. When I was younger, I was captivated by Lucy. She was pretty and charming, caught in between social convention and true love, embroiled in a star-crossed affair with this god of a man. In contrast, Eleanor seemed to me humorless, self-righteous and entirely unrelatable. Several years and many experiences later, I encountered this book with a different point of view. I sympathize for Eleanor with her tumultuous childhood and openly criticized looks. I admire her strength and ability to define herself through her social crusades as opposed to her philandering husband during a time in which beauty was highly prized and female community activism was not.

This book is a wonderful piece of narrative non-fiction. Persico is a compelling storyteller who presents historical evidence while allowing the reader to draw independent conclusions. FDR's myriad of female influences are vividly displayed as distinctive, admirable yet flawed. However, the culpability of Roosevelt's behavior is rarely mentioned; his responsibility for the way his actions affect others is treated lightly. Still, Persico addresses fascinating questions concerning the events and people within FDR's life. For example, what would the world look like today if Roosevelt had absconded all in order to be with Lucy Mercer?

Thankfully, we can only imagine.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I received Major Pettigrew's Last Stand as a gift from one of my oldest friends, a fellow bibliophile with exquisite taste in literary gift giving. She said she hoped it would give me "a break" from what I had currently been reading. It is true, my voyeuristic tendencies had led me on a memoir binge of people dealing with mental illness, death or dysfunctional childhoods. Compared to the gristly details and intense inner turmoil that I was devouring, her gift seemed almost quaint. It is the story of an aging man: a relic of a vanishing culture in which honor, family and properly brewed tea are of utmost importance. As Major Pettigrew deals with the loss of his brother and the inevitable subsequent fallout, he forges a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village.

If I had expected the Major to be a cranky, taciturn old man I was very much mistaken. Rather, he is funny and empathetic, beholden to the decorum of his youth in a world that often rewards singular self interest and economic growth. However, his mindfulness toward propriety does not prohibit him from reverently appreciating the companionship of Mrs. Ali, a kindred spirit in many ways. Their amity is strengthened through mutual loss and a love of literature.

Author Helen Simonson explores the effect of death and aging in a way that feels sensitive and true. I empathized with the villagers' struggles as progress rears its (ugly? neccessary? lucrative?) head in the form of overpriced residential development. Major Pettigrew's drily astute observations are funny and poignant. Rather than seeming an antiquated curmudgeon, he warrants respect and admiration. Mrs. Ali is both strong and sensitive. As the Major and Mrs. Ali navigate their way through a myriad of emotionally complex situations, I found myself wishing I could hug them, write an encouraging letter, or at least make them a cup of tea. While the book is at times light and humorous, I ached for our protagonists and each of us as we face the gradual, inevitable process of aging and loss. Simonson reminded me that sometimes, comprehensive human truths are most profoundly and humanely displayed in novels. As I finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I was reluctant to let them go.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I read Freedom at a ranch a few miles away from Bandera, Texas: Cowboy Capital of the World. It was a book I had almost read several times before, often picking it up at the bookstore with the intent to purchase and then setting it down before the moment of truth at the cash register. Despite the delusions of grandeur that infiltrate when I set foot anywhere near a purveyor of books, I had known that I would not finish this one. It looked interesting, but not interesting enough. I would enjoy it for a few evenings before putting it down for something more salacious, more instantly gratifying. It would be relegated to the nightstand, where I would look at it with vague guilt and a delusional resolve that I would try again. Several weeks later during an apartment cleaning binge, I would put it on a bookshelf near other good intentions and mostly forget about it.

For Christmas, I received an e-reader. I justified it as a practical, convenient way to keep up with the immense readings assigned in graduate school. It is, however, simply another medium in which to gratify my obsession. Before I left for my weeklong retreat to the Texas countryside, I uploaded several books I'd finally have the time and inclination to read. For an entire week, the everyday obligations and excuses would be as nonexistent as cell phone reception. I couldn't imagine anything better.

I was both interested in and skeptical of Freedom. The novel follows the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect "Whole Foods generation" family living in Minnesota. A series of puzzling actions by members of the Berglund family cause neighborhood curiousity and consternation. Why has Walter, passionate conservationist, taken a job with a coal company? How come the Berglunds' son has moved in with the Republican neighbors? As Patty Berglund, Walter's wife, has a meltdown visible to everyone in the neighborhood, we begin to see the story unfold.

Author Jonathan Franzen grew up in a town neighboring my own hometown. Local reading enthusiasts speculated that the Berglunds' neighborhood was based on Webster, a St. Louis suburb and Franzen's hometown. I am initially cautious of this slice of society: upper middle class families that tout their trendy reusable shopping bags and decry the rapid disappearance of some small animal of which no one had previously heard. I actually staged my first protest at the age of ten, speaking out at Kirkwood City Hall against developers who wanted to cut down the trees behind my elementary school. I agree with a lot of the reusable bag/disappearing animal ideals. However, I feel I often encounter an onslaught of Smug when embarking on conversations of that nature. I do not believe that Smugness is universal within environmental mindfulness, only prevalent enough to warrant the aforementioned caution.

Regardless, I soon found myself wholly immersed in the Berglund family. Each character is so flawed, so funny, and undeniably human. I felt as though I came to know the Berglunds. I instantly recall my mental image of each of them as I write this. My concern that this book was a preachy environmentalist platform melted away as I became engrossed in the multifaceted, fascinating family. As the chapters follow different characters at different time periods, we begin to know the Berglunds as a whole: from their minute irritations to their grand context. As opposed to a moral lecture, Walter's environmental obsession becomes both his savior and his greatest flaw. Rather than a lesson, this is who he is.

The title of the book is relevant on a multitude of levels, examining the nature of freedom in the emotional, interpersonal, familial, and environmental realms. It took on another level for me, as I read it tucked within a large expanse of the Texas Hill Country, sharing my skyline with some of the last remaining cowboys.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I'll admit it: I have a problem.

On the surface, an obsession with reading doesn't seem particularly perilous. Friends and acquaintances tend to view my relationship with books as benignly amusing or odd. Bibliophilia is not in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. A book addiction does not have the dark allure or potentially tragic outcomes of, say, heroin. To my knowledge, no one has died from literary withdrawal.

I think my parents were the first to realize the potential danger of my biblio-fixation. I was grounded for reading while riding my bike during a Boxcar Children binge in elementary school. It is safe to say I did not learn my lesson. As politicians and Oprah harangue against texting while driving, no one seems to notice as I pull out my book at stoplights.

My apartment is an unabashed shrine dedicated to my love of books. Bookshelves line the walls of each of the rooms. The dining room has been re-purposed as a study; a large, wooden desk proudly placed where the dining room table would otherwise sit. My walls feature posters of Dorothy Parker and "Where the Wild Things Are" and a sign that simply says "READ". Even my shower curtain and bath towels display typewriter font letters.

I love my quiet, relatively bookish lifestyle. Coming home to a cozy place overflowing with print evokes a feeling of calm and the thrilling surge that there is so much more to learn, to experience, to read. After the holidays or following a particularly difficult semester, it is not uncommon for me to feel replenished after reorganizing my books into a seemingly whimsical (but to me perfectly logical) categorization. And it was just such an occasion that prompted me to realize the nature of my problem. A few days ago, while embarking on the nearly spiritual task of shelving my literary holiday gifts, I felt the sudden impulse to place every book I currently own but had not yet read on my living room couch. The result was astonishing. As I looked at my haphazard heap of unfulfilled goals and lofty plans, many things ran through my mind. The first was the familiar buzzing excitement of books yet to be experienced. Then came the vaguely guilty reminder that I had an additional fifteen books loaded on the tablet that I've had for less than a week. Finally, my recent frustration with my inability to complete any creative endeavor on which I embark.

The result of these musings is this: I aim to dedicate the next year to reading as many books as I possibly can, chronicling here my experience and thoughts of the books. It is my hope that I stick to the books currently acquired and resting in their newly designated bookshelves (unread fiction and unread nonfiction, not alphabetically placed). However, while running errands this morning, I heard on NPR that Paul Feig has written two memoirs and I'm feeling the irresistible pull to purchase them. The addict's burning sense that only by acquiring "the goods" will equilibrium be restored.

I cannot promise allegiance to a particular genre or even quality of book. I am enthralled by most anything and I am bound by no desire to torture myself with great tomes designated as classically or culturally important. Rather, I delight in junk food as well as literature that helps broaden and shape my idea of what is possible. I love recommendations. I cannot seem to stop reading and will resort to the ingredients on a soap bottle if I find myself in the bathroom sans book. Basically, I have no shame.

I hope to find kindred spirits: literary adventurers and hopeless acquirers of books and magazines. I'd love to share ideas and experiences and books. I'm excited to embark on this quest and see where it takes me.

Happy reading!