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.